Early morning mulling at an airport.
|It’s half past three on a Wednesday morning in October. I’m sitting in a nearly vacant terminal at O’Hare International Airport wondering how I got there--not physically, mind you. A friend dropped me off. Of course, had my anxieties not been otherwise occupied, I’m sure I’d have mulled over how that happened a few dozen times, too.
At this moment in particular, the needle was drifting toward philosophical musings on the thought meter, which is probably the only place it can go when I’ve had little sleep and the logic centers of my brain are futilely screaming for caffeine...or at least a breakfast burrito, maybe some hash browns. Did I mention there was a McDonald’s just across the terminal?
Anyway, three hours from this point in time I would be on an airplane, the first of which I will have been aboard after it leaves the ground. Two hours after that--three if you include the jump across time zones--I would be in New York City for the first time. It isn’t a vacation. I’m being paid to go. This will also be my first business trip--a trip, mind you, I had only been informed about a few days prior.
That’s a lot of personal milestones to speed past in less time than it usually takes me to decide what to watch on Netflix. It’s also incredibly stressful for a person who, on more than one occasion, hasn’t been able to enter a restaurant alone because he’s never been there before. Fortunately, my anxiety about letting people down outweighed any general fear of the unknown.
Plus, I was excited to go to New York. That probably helped more than anything.
So, there I was in Terminal 2 of the American Airlines wing of an airport I had previously only seen from the outside doing the only thing I could do until the rest of my associates arrived: thinking. Actually, it was too early for that. Proper thinking requires more than five intermittent hours of sleep and can only occur between 11AM and 6:45PM on weekdays. Contemplation can happen whenever, but usually requires the soundtrack to Les Misérables, all the fries, and a blood alcohol level above .02 to be of any real use. Pondering, as everyone knows, is fueled by mystery. Given the time and lacking any of those things, I'd say I was closer to a mull.
So, there I was in Terminal 2 of the American Airlines wing, mulling over the seemingly disconnected sequence of events that led me to that molded fiberglass chair with enough clothes for three days packed tightly in a bag at my feet and a boarding pass folded in my shirt pocket. It didn’t seem real. It still doesn’t. I don’t know if it’s the rapidity with which everything happened or the shock that it happened at all, but I still find myself incapable of fully grasping any of it as reality.
I mulled, not for the first time obviously, on the concept of fiction. (It is my favorite subject upon which to mull, ponder, or--given a beer or two--contemplate.) Most of the time, I’m devising concepts for my sci-fi novels--parallel universes, philosophical theories on perceptual reality, Lovecraftian horrors--you know, stuff that comes up in conversation around the water cooler.
That’s my guess anyway. I’ve never worked anywhere with a water cooler. No one ever hung around the water fountain at Target. It wasn’t cool enough.
Anyhow, sitting in O’Hare at an ungodly hour, I was entranced by the concept that something I knew was real was actually fiction from my frame of reference because I had never experienced it first hand. Specifically, my consideration at this moment was on the concept of flight. I know planes fly. Everybody knows planes can fly, but there’s a difference between knowing something as a fact and knowing it as a truth.
Does anyone still wonder why I write science fiction?
Factually, airplanes can fly. We've established this. They roar by overhead. There are demonstrations on how wings create lift on YouTube if you can make it through the in-video Skillshare ad. I learned about the Wright brothers and their motorized box kite in history class.
Until the morning in question, these were merely facts to me-- bits of trivia, nothing more. My only experiences being on a plane mid-flight were found in movies, and we all know how factual those are. So, the concept of flight remained just that, a concept no more real to me than suntanning on Mars is to anyone who isn’t a robotic rover.
The same could be said of New York City. I know it exists. It’s on every map and globe. I know people who’ve been there--who’ve lived there. Televised travelers go on and on about the green statue and pizza you consume after a bit of origami. Judging by how many film heroes have to save it from being destroyed, it’s the most important place in the world.
Until my flight landed, it may have well been Gotham City. I mean, its nickname is Gotham but that doesn’t mean Batman lives there. Or does he?
Fast forward to now. I've taken a plane to New York City and back. I discovered airline passenger cabins are more compact than I was led to believe and learned what it feels like to have your brain compressed by air pressure alone. (Chewing gum doesn't help as much as I was led to believe.) I was jarred by turbulence that we were assured was mild. I glimpsed the distant Statue of Liberty through the porthole as we descended toward LaGuardia Airport. I’ve been at the mercy of a New York taxi driver, plunged into the chaotic depths of its subway at rush hour, and waded through the flood of humanity surrounding Times Square at night.
I took about 400 photographs. And it still doesn’t feel real. In a way, it isn’t real. Not anymore. Now, it’s all a memory.
They say we never really remember anything exactly as it happened. Our brains are incapable of storing information as accurately as a computer. We recall certain sensory information--how it felt to experience the event--and emotional information--how it felt experiencing it. The visuals, the smaller details, though, start to slip away the moment the memory forms. Your brain stitches things together as best it can into something coherent between managing your vital functions and trying to get that damn song out of your head.
You know the one.
We never even have the same memory twice. Our brains use the last time we recalled the memory as a shortcut to build the current instance. Your current emotional state can affect how you recall details, forever altering your perception of the event henceforth. Our memories are nothing more than our brains telling themselves stories over and over again by way of a game of Telephone. Slowly, over time, details change until much of what we remember never really happened the way we remember it at all.
They’re as much fiction as the novels we read or the latest episode of [enter currently popular TV show title that will date this piece in 10 years here]. They’re also just as true. The emotions are real. You never truly forget how an event made you feel. It just gets put in a slightly new wrapper--the story of your life adapted into a movie streaming for an audience of one.
I guess what my early morning mulling wrung from the decaffeinated folds of my sleep-deprived brain is the realization that the only thing we can consider real is what is happening right now. It’s not exactly an Earth-shattering revelation, I know. I’m not claiming some philosophical precedent here, but I think it’s something worth rediscovering every now and again.
Memories are the forebears of fiction. Now is all we really have. It's all we'll ever have. You can either sit there and let life pass you by like passengers disembarking an overnight flight from San Diego, or you can savor every moment of that breakfast burrito like the cosmic glint you are.
But, whatever you do, don't forget the hash browns.