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North by Southwest

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Thursday, Aug 28, 2008


Source: Motion Picture and Television Photo Archive

Sometimes travel is a metaphor and sometimes it isn’t, and often separating which is what, when, can be a perplexing exercise in peripatacity.


Today I am traveling across the United States – from the West to the East coast – on a diagonal, due north, as one half of a tandem. My traveling companion is a beautiful woman in waxing flower: my daughter – fresh off a high school graduation and a summer as restaurant hostess. Neither of which have sufficiently prepared her for this particular journey. Why? Because this is the first leg of the next journey of her life. A trek that is not only physical, but intellectual, as well . . . for she is embarking on her collegiate career. This, a new stage in her life, represents both an ending and a beginning: the culmination of one thing, the debut of another. Cast that way, it is hard to avoid reckoning this moment – these paces she is now undertaking—as a representation. As a something standing for another thing.


See what I mean? Where does travel stop and metaphor start? The physical and the mystical getting twinned so facilely. Which is what I like about peripatacity. It has a knack for keeping one guessing.



  



Of course, you can take the metaphor analogy too far. And it is best if you know when to say when. When to recognize that all you have in front of you is a roadtrip, rather than a philosophical meditation on the human condition.


Today what I think we have on our hands is more of the former, and much less of the latter. Something more akin to what Cary Grant had to endure in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, referenced above.


 



We undertake this journey on Southwest, one of America’s “no frills” airlines – the kind where they don’t offer pre-assigned seating, rather place you in blocks of first-come, first-served – then let all the cattle herded into groups A, B, and C fend for themselves. The self-congratulatory announcement over the PA declares: “On Southwest you are free to choose your own seat”, but those unfortunate enough to be pre-assigned at the tail end of the B group will be hard-pressed to find two seats together, thereby sinking a dagger into the heart of the fallacy of choice; those boarded ahead of them having used up all the meaningful choices: the decisions that will determine the later-arriver’s seat-selection. As for anyone unfortunate enough to be consigned to the C group –well, they are almost certain to end up sitting in between the A and C or the D and F seats, jockeying for elbow space on the armrests to both the left and right.


Freedom to choose? Fellow Southwest travelers: welcome to the world of spin.


 



In our case my daughter and I ended up free to choose seating in grandly staggered rows across the fuselage from one another. So much for companionable conversation during the 5 hour flight. 5 precious hours leeched from our limited store prior to a separation that will last for months. Life not always stopping to be kind, let alone fair.


On Southwest, no frills means that drinks are served, but nothing else (well, unless you count pretzels, wheat thins and peanuts as something). Alcohol costs money –as do energy drinks and sandwiches. No frills also turns out to mean 2 airplanes and 3 stops prior to reaching our ultimate destination. Thus, the plane first points toward Phoenix, where it will stop for about 20 minutes – enough to jettison terminal bodies and replace them with fresher ones. After that, it is on to Chicago, where, after a 4 hour wait, we transfer to the final leg of this day-long journey, ending up at a point somewhere in New England. Fortunately (if you are one who counts the blessings that accrue to the accursed), after the first leg, two-thirds of the passengers deplane, so my girl and I are able to reunite. Is this a good thing? Not if, like me, you are cursed. Which also falls under the heading of “I hope you find geography fascinating.” For, my seatmate proceeds to spend the next 3 hours obsessing over the In-flight magazine’s route map, incessantly quizzing me on the names of America’s 50 states and their capitals. As if I hadn’t learned them about 39 years ago. Or: as if, after the second hour (and the 35th quiz) I wouldn’t have learned them the third time this go-round.


Well, chalk the exercise up to my contribution to this immigrant’s collegiate education. In case this dance/theatre/biochemistry triple major ever takes a U.S. poli-sci class.


 



What Southwest lacks in creature comforts it makes up for in personality – at least if you fancy stewards and stewardesses who crack wise over the P.A. That along with the $300 fare to the Northeast may be enough to sway you to do without preferential seating and a warm meal. In their stead what one gets is a steady stream of folksy patter and companionable banter. Things like, as you’re landing: “let’s see if my ex-husband can set this baby down on the runway better than he handled our divorce” or “ladies and gentlemen, let’s give the crew chief a hand. He may not be much in the brain department, but he sure is cute – which is just the way I like ‘em.” As for me, I liked the line that came as we made our final airport’s final approach. The one where the stew said: “now ladies and gentlemen, if you just look out the right side of your windows . . . just about . . . now . . . you can see the hotel where I’ll be staying tonight.” We even had a steward serenade us with a yodeling extravaganza the final two minutes of taxiing into the deplaning dock. Which is just what every traveler needs after 11 hours in trans-continental transit.


As for me, I try to distance “no-frills” from metaphor as much as possible. I don’t want the “less” that occupies its base to even remotely signify my existence.


At the same time, if peripatacity means embracing the unexpected, then traveling North via Southwest is precisely what it is: peripatacity incarnate.


 



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