Monday, June 23, 2008

doctor-pusher-flyer man

So I'm coming out of Georgia, on a plane that hit turbulence on its last leg, throwing the flight attendant sitting in front of me into the side of the plane, sending one person to the hospital when they landed.

My previous flight from Roanoke landed thirteen minutes before this one was scheduled to take off. I barreled through the airport as much as I could run, passing the gate attendant and throwing myself into the emergency exit door trying to bust it open upon seeing the jetway door closed. The gate attendant yelled at me that I couldn't just throw myself against an emergency exit door, to which I replied "Well I just did and it didn't open, so now I want you to get me onto that plane." (Come to think of it, aren't emergency exits supposed to open?) She called security on me.

While we were waiting for security I calmly explained how no one from the previous flight – which was delayed for mechanical reasons – had called to ask them to hold the flight, despite my requests. I listed all the things their airline had done wrong, as she spoke on the phone to someone about me as if I wasn't there. Before security arrived, however, another delayed passenger did. Then another. Soon there were five of us waiting, all delayed for mechanical reasons.

While she talked to someone I assumed was in the office, I calculated my list of needs (a 4 star hotel, $60 meal voucher, and free flight – for all of us there). Then she said, "ok y'all, come with me." I thought she was taking us around the corner to negotiate a deal, but instead she punched in the security code and let us onto the jetway. "I have NEVER seen that happen before," said the woman I sat beside.

So now I'm in the first seat I saw – right in front next to the exit, facing the steward in his fold down seat. I ask him how his night has been. "Not so good," he replies, and proceeds to tell me about people hitting the ceiling literally on the flight in from Seattle.

After a bit he asks me and my neighbor if we're going to watch any movies. "I didn't think we had any tvs," I say, having scanned the walls and ceiling for something like the screens the other passengers have in the seatback in front of them. "Oh yeah," he says, "they're right down there," showing me rotating arms like a dentists lamp hiding next to my legs.

"Yeah they have nice touch screens and all kinds of movies and games you can buy."

"Oh I left my credit card in the overhead," says my neighbor.

"That's ok," he says in confidence. "You don't need one, not when you know me. I know how to turn them on for you."

It's what he says next that grabs my attention: "Yeah they have lots of options to entertain you , and that's what we want. That's the future. We want you to be entertained. Anything to make it a little less painful. It's a long five hour flight and we don't want it to be painful. We want you to be entertained so you don't feel it."

Suddenly I feel like I'm talking to a drug pusher. Even though I know he doesn't mean any harm, I feel like he's speaking the mantra of electronic corporations everywhere, whose CEOs maybe don't mean harm either, or maybe they do. But I think, isn't that just what its all about. Life is long and it can be painful, and they want us to be entertained so we won't feel it.

It's funny because a doctor said almost the same thing to my mom when he gave her up for dead: "We just want to make sure you're as comfortable as you can be from here on out. We're interested in your quality of life." That was when I killed him.

I mean, as far as I was concerned. I walked out of the room and started searching for other doctors. We never saw his fleshy face again.

But I wonder why the word choices of the doctor and airline steward are so similar. Both of them represent a cultural response to life that has gotten just too hard. Apple is just another drug company. Screw trying to fix things; we're going to take this little pill and wait for it to be over. Imagine if drugs were administered by looking at them. If we could stare at an IV bag of morphine and feel better, it would look a lot like TV.

Which means that basically we're turning America into one giant hospital. And the illness is life. Our cultural doctors don't really know how to make life better, so they've prescribed a heavy dose of Comcast. Think I'm exaggerating? Name the biggest companies you can think of. How many of them are in the business of electronic distractions?

My mom is home from the hospital now. She's slowly worked her way back to eating, walking on her own, and being able to take care of herself better. It is an incredibly long, patient process for a woman who two months ago was still robust and working, despite having cancer. Dehydration brought her within a virus of dying, and one month in bed on life support has made her very weak. We take it as a good sign that she can make it into the family room to sit with us evenings and watch tv.

Our economy right now is built on electronics and legal drugs. The bulk of it is subsidized by credit and insurance, since what will satisfy us is far disconnected from what we are able to provide for ourselves. All this is fine, for now. Just as nurses can rest reasonably when a patient is on life support with stable vital signs. But what about when they pull the plug? What will all our children do when they pull the plug? Every generation born after me has had internet from the age of ten.

The blackout in Florida last week went unexplained. Not even the people who run the power grid could explain why it happened. The tornados in Florida tonight and freak winter storm over the middle two thirds of the country don't need explanations any more. We seem to know that you don't need specific explanations when the overall system is so strained. Our overall energy usage in the US is growing by 20% each year. Because of laptops, ipods, LCDtvs, etc. And we're not using any of it to solve our problems. We're using that power to be entertained.

My time in Virginia has been spent working on a system to get kids involved in learning about climate change and reducing energy usage, organizing a program for the Girl Scouts to educate their communities about the importance of changing habits and of efficient devices like Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs, which they will also be selling. I'm trying to change it all, but I'm just one person. I could die on this plane ride because of crazy weather caused by global warming. And everyone around me is just watching tv.

Lots of people go to the hospital. Some people die there. Some people come home. I went to the hospital once, and I didn't die. But it took me a lot of years getting better, to learn how to use my energy better, to work on what matters, to not get by in life just being entertained. My mom is home from the hospital now, and her path to getting better is long and slow, and not even assured. The sickness is still inside her.

The world needs a lot of us working on what matters now. We all are a lot closer to dying than we might imagine. Maybe it would help to realize that we are already in the hospital.

Andrew Varyu
Founder, ITSCOOL
Innovative Tactics for Sea Level and Climate Change Outreach and Opportunity Leaders
"Getting kids psyched to be America's leaders against Global Warming"


_other projects:_
Harvard Masters of Divinity Candidate
Postulant to Priesthood, Episcopal Church of Western Washington.
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