Considering the Inscrutable

Anyone who has ever been a high school senior will know the feeling of having his imminent future be the constant topic of discussion amongst family and friends even though paradoxically he will have very little to say about it since his future has yet to arrive. In fact all his friends and family, if such have made it past high school themselves, probably know more about what to expect than our bewildered victim does, but he will nevertheless constantly be invited to weigh in and provide fruitless speculations about the dark hole of mystery into which he is about to enter.

And so it is with anyone who, apropos of seemingly nothing, decides to up and move to some foreign country. And which is also why if you must do something of the sort it is really best to announce it at the last possible moment.

What may also be equally as pointless but which has occupied my thoughts, is whether such a sudden deviation from the normal course of events can be used to better calibrate one’s expectation machine. Throughout life I have been perenially surprised at how far reality deviates from my mental projections of the future, usually in the sense that reality turns out far worse than expected. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to better predict oncoming calamity, if only to more fully savor the dread and apprehension until it arrives?

Being the clever ape that I am I have attempted to compensate for this discrepancy by expecting the worst about events yet to transpire. This is an approach to life that will make you right so often as to madden the optimistic types which seem to abound everywhere. But even here I have found that reality is not to be outsmarted. It is true, your grandest plans will most definitely end in rubble as you intelligently knew to expect, but the timing, direction and velocity of the death blow will always come as a surprise no matter how creatively you tried to imagine the cloudburst that would herald your undoing.

In two weeks I am leaving the pastoral calm of the Great Plains of America to move to Europe. I have tried to muster my full powers of prediction to shed some light into the murky void ahead, like Pippin peering into his Palantir hoping to find some vision of what is to come, but I find myself unable even to imagine the worst since I really don’t know enough to imagine much of anything.

Sadly therefore it seems unlikely any expectations, suppositions or assumptions are going to get very much calibrated, inasmuch as I won’t have a clear baseline belief that I can point back to and laugh about latter.

Could it be that being so hopelessly clueless about one’s own immediate future that one can’t even imagine how it could go awry, is itself possibly the secret key to it going well?

I don’t know, but like I said – optimistic types abound everywhere.

Off to a Seemingly Decent Start

The trip had begun. On December 3rd I left the States to arrive in France hopefully the next day, with a few stops along the way.

The first flight as always was some teeny-bopper airplane and as I was walking on the lady said “your carry-on is not going to fit in the overhead, you’ll have to check it. Do you have any batteries in there?”

Why yes I did have batteries in there, the dangerous lithium kind in fact, and to be honest the whole bag was full of them. I had been especially careful to pack all the batteries in my carryon since the airline website explicitly says “No lithium batteries in checked luggage.”

Upon hearing this news the lady informed me I couldn’t check the bag, but that I also couldn’t bring it on board. “You just won’t be able to make this flight if you don’t do something about it.”

By doing something about it she meant unpack the carryon, take out all the batteries and hold them in each of my ten hands for the duration of the flight, presumably. Which there wasn’t time left to do in any event.

We went back and forth for several moments while she placed a dangerous red sticker on the handle of my carryon, me suggesting that my luggage was the proper size according to the specifications on their website and she suggesting that I would blow everybody up and me wanting to suggest that that was a “you” problem.

Finally I said “I’ll just try to see if it fits” and started walking down the boarding bridge. No one came after me and I hid the red sticker with my hand while I walked onboard. But the lady had not lied, this bag was indeed too big for their overhead. But I hoisted it up anyway, and pushed and grunted and began to panic and thought “this is it! I haven’t even left my hometown yet, and I’m already stymied!” But in one last superhuman effort I planted my feet on the side of the chair behind me and stretched my body out horizontally across the aisle and pushed as hard as I could and miraculously the bag squeezed in and I somehow managed to get the door closed. But not without many sighs, eye-rolls and outright comments of a negative nature from the passengers waiting behind me.

We made it to Chicago and I spent the entire brief layover time there re-arranging the carryon and my (grossly oversized) “personal item” bag to get all the batteries into the latter. Which I successfully did but then no one else ever brought it up again.

Across the Atlantic

No sooner had I sat down on the plane from Chicago to Dublin than the lady directly across the aisle to the right of me began to make some unfortunate throat sounds. I turned to see her leap into the air with a hand cupped over her mouth and her head shaking ominously.

“Just great!” groaned everybody. “She’s gonna blow!”

Fortunately for her and everyone else, the mid-plane bathroom was just two rows back. When I saw that her retching hole was safely pointed away from my direction I returned to my peaceful existence and figured she’d be ok. But a few moments later I was still hearing the disturbing choking plus something like the sound of cat claws on a chalkboard. I turned to see her breaking nails in an attempt to open the complicated door latch, a futile attempt anyway since somebody had already occupied the bathroom. Now she began a second dash to the other side of the plane, all the while like Medusa endangering everyone that fell in her line of sight/oral projection.

“Oh no!” screamed everyone.

But miraculously she managed to keep her stomach contents balanced midway up her esophagus long enough to make it into the second bathroom and everyone was spared a tragedy or worse. She came out momentarily looking sheepish and apologized to one and all nearby, proclaiming “I’m not ill, really! I just sucked some apple juice down the wrong whatever.”

The Irish lady seated next to her sounded like she’d been pulled off central casting with her stereotypical word choices:

“Now, now dearie, you’re all well again. Here love, just take a small sip of water to clear your throat.”

“No,” the almost-barfer replied, “I don’t think I will take another sip. Thanks.”

Next to me on the left were two more ladies, a mother and daughter, heading to Ireland for a week’s vacation. They were from Springfield, Missouri and I told them I’d been there before, and seen the big Bass Pro store with the waterfall and the bears. The daughter seemed like your typical mid-30s single American female with thick glasses, a lip ring, arms tattooed to who-knows-where, and probably purple hair only I couldn’t tell because she was wearing a knitted cap. In fact both she and her mom were knitting away furiously and I guess it goes to show you can bring sharpened steel spikes a foot long onto the plane and brandish them about at high speed, but God forbid you try to bring a bottle of hand lotion.

The daughter was one of those types who have a genuine but somewhat illogical fear of certain aspects of flying, which I have never quite understood but have observed that for the victim it seems to be a very real phenomena.

The daughter asked me, “Have you ever flown on one of these really big planes before?”

“It’s been a while but yeah.”

“I’m just wondering how they are compared to the smaller planes, especially the ‘going up.’” (Those were her exact words.)

“The ‘going up’ seems to me about the same thing in a big plane or a small one,” I told her.

“Well I hope so,” she said, “I don’t mind the coming down but I really have a problem with the going up.”

From my point of view the going down is the part where you crash so that kind of seems the worser of the two, but that’s just me. I also made the mistake of saying this out loud, but she didn’t seem to think it was a joke.

“What about night,” she asked, “have you flown at night before?”

“Sure.”

“Is it different?”

“It’s darker is about the only difference I noticed.”

She renewed her knitting at double pace while considering these highly important pieces of new information that I’m sure she couldn’t have obtained from any other wise person than myself.

However, contrary to her predictions she did pretty well on the takeoff, which is over in a few seconds anyway. Sadly we had turbulence all across the Atlantic which did not please her, or me for that matter because it prevented anyone from standing up and stretching their legs. I did stand up anyway but immediately had a stewardess ask me kindly to please sit back down.

After 7 hours of sitting on what felt like a marble slab and without one minute of sleep possible, we finally began to descend and now the daughter was really beginning to panic. I offered her my sound-canceling headphones and she gladly accepted them even though she had never heard of such things before. (No, these were not the Apple Airpods but a set of Sony over-the-ear headphones which are even better.)

At each new creak and groan and thump of the landing gear and squeal of the flaps her Mom offered helpful comments in a loud voice, “Good thing you’re wearing those, you sure wouldn’t want to hear that!”

But the daughter just smiled in her artificially generated silence and we all landed and managed to remain calm.

While standing in the aisle waiting to exit I started talking to a young kid behind us, who turned out to be from Midland, Texas. He was on his way to Scotland for a month before he started a new job and his life of youthful freedom would come to an end. I thought that was pretty adventurous but then he also added that he had a girlfriend in Scotland who was meeting him and who would move back to the States with him at the end of the month.

Well that sounds exciting but this made me rethink his adventurous nature as that didn’t seem to involve quite enough pain and suffering to qualify.

He asked what I was doing and I told him I’d be living in France for a few months and then maybe elsewhere afterwards, just working remotely. He seemed impressed and was very interested to know how long I’d been living such an exhilarating lifestyle.

“Buddy,” I said, “this is day one.”

So in the end he was probably equally as dubious of my adventuresome qualities as I was of his.

It was pitch black in Dublin so I didn’t see one shred of Ireland. I did see that the next flight after ours was headed to the North Pole though.

Next flight for somebody – the North Pole