A few mornings back, a friend e-mailed me one of his poems-in-progress, one in which he, the writer, is “condemned to earth” while crows and even tiny sparrows have the power of flight. One does not argue with a poem. A poem is not an argument. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that I would not trade places with the highest-soaring of birds. It is they who are “condemned,” in my eyes, year-round, to a constant and often uncertain search for food. But do they feel condemned? Jealous of other beings? Surely not. Surely they are incapable of such feeling, of comparing the lives they have with lives they cannot have, and in that incapacity must lie their true freedom.
Then came into my hands a most unusual little book, only 16cm tall and 12cm from spine to fore-edges. Its unusual nature is extended by the fact that it is two books in one: Hold it one way, and you have one title and author’s name; flip it over, and read words announcing a different title and author. Read from either cover, and midway you must stop, flip the book over, and read from the other cover back to the middle. The book is Checking In/Checking Out (New Orleans, NO Books, 2011), and the authors are Christopher Schaberg (Checking In) and Mark Yakich (Checking Out). The subject is human flight – airplanes, flying, airports – fear, security, danger, and the everyday work involved for support personnel, poetry, reading, ecology, and evolution.
Schaberg loves flying and will fly stand-by, via any circuitous route, anywhere in the world, it seems. Yakich approaches unavoidable air travel with clammy hands and imaginings that all his attempts at meditation cannot subdue. But there is so much more than elation and fear in these first-person essays. Yakich brings musings on poetry and books and reading to thoughts and memories of air travel, while Schaberg, equally unrestrained by gravity and location, suggests that airports have their own ecology and that air travel is part of evolution.
For instance, Schaberg recounts an anecdote about a gopher snake hitching a ride on a big 747:
It occurred to me that this sort of counted as an evolved form of migration: the snake had found a rather quick way to a new bioregion. And then it dawned on me that, strictly speaking, evolution encompasses everything that happens; there’s no getting outside it. Airports are a human phenotype, and other creatures interpenetrate these techno-cultural spaces, showing them to be actual ecosystems, through and through.
Yakich observes the importance reading on planes, for himself and for other travelers:
Like flying itself, reading connects me to others through space and time. Particularly on take-off, reading helps because it’s the one thing about the flight that feels in my control.
He also says that while he often sleeps with a book, he cannot imagine sleeping with an e-reader, because “once you’ve had one Kindle you’ve had them all.”
Checking In/Checking Out is, physically, one of the littlest books I have ever read. Its font is miniscule. And yet, in the course of its 100 small pages I took multiple wild flights, imaginary and speculative.
My own very infrequent flier history stands in marked contrast to the number of flights the authors have experienced. I am able to count mine on my fingers:
RT Traverse City-Chicago
RT Kalamazoo-New York
RT Chicago-Paris (3x, 1st time by way of Iceland)
RT Paris-London (1)
RT Traverse City-Paris (via Detroit)
RT Traverse City-Aspen (via Chicago)
Because it’s the way my family always did things, the way I grew up, I buy newspapers, read books on paper, and write letters to mail at the post office, preferably with beautiful or at least interesting stamps. Because my father (civil engineer), grandfather (train engineer), and two great-uncles (one a train engineer, the other a conductor) worked for railroads, our family took trains wherever we went, from South Dakota to Illinois, to Ohio, and to Florida, at a time in American history when other vacationing families were driving the new, wide postwar highways and staying at Howard Johnson motels.
I took my first train trip before the age of three, when my parents moved from South Dakota to Illinois. If there were still trains between Traverse City and Chicago, I would be taking them to visit my mother and sisters. The little demitasse cup and saucer you see here were given to me by the dining crew as a memento of that first trip. (What three-year-old girl isn’t precious?)
For me, the best part of flying -- which is otherwise, let’s face it, a lot of hassle and inconvenience, not to mention discomfort – is the view from the window, the view above the clouds, above mountains, fields, rivers and cities. But then, despite the charms of dining car, cone-shaped paper cups to fill at the drinking fountain, cunning little sleeping bunks, and miniature sinks, my favorite part of riding the train, too, was the always-changing view out the window. Yet earthbound, my imagination was unrestrained and subject to wild flights.
If you don’t believe me, ask my younger sisters, captive audience to my long-ago railroad story-telling.
But more important is the news that Mark Yakich will be at Dog Ears Books on Friday, June 28, from 2-4 p.m. Writer of fiction and poetry, as well as nonfiction, he's coming to us straight from New Orleans, so plan to be on hand for fascinating conversation and riveting poetry. More about this in the weeks ahead.