Privileging Life

[20 July 2007]

By tjmHolden

I’ve been traveling Korean Air for two decades on a regular basis and, for all that fealty I was made a member of their Morning Calm club years ago. My bags get marked “Elite” – bold black lettering on a glossy sky blue, bullet-shaped tag— which means they generally come out first and occasionally, if I look forlorn enough to just the right mothering type behind the check-in counter, I can luck into being bumped up into Business.

I know it’s straying into that grey area of human action, but as one grows into their lives, they learn to push their advantages, since those are so few and come so seldom (not to mention that everyone else is doing the same). Thus, if I don’t ask for that spare seat (with my forlorn, little-boy-lost-drooping-eyelid-look) you can be damned certain that someone else will.

A pause in the program while we salute the fine, lost art of rationalization (and get thqt disappointed expression off your face—certainly you didn’t think you would locate any artistic insights here!)

In any case, all these years, all this fealty, and I was unaware of an actual advantage I had earned which did not require the combination of extraordinary machinations and luck to deliver felicity. All these flights with Korean, all these spent dollars and accrued miles and I was entitled to avail myself of relaxation in between flights in the Korean Air Prestige Lounge. Dolt that I am, I’ve been walking past it for years with that forlorn, little-boy-lost-drooping-eyelid-look (for real in those cases!) wondering how I could ever be lucky enough to get in with all those high roller, top-of-the-world types . . . not ever realizing I was actually already in!

As I said (does it bear repeating?): dolt that I am.

As for the lounge (and no big surprise even as fortune comes to my life), this was not First Class; only “Prestige”. But still, it was not a play space to turn one’s nose away from. It was a privileged space; a place in the pampered order. (And one takes such places in such orders when one finds them).

In the case of this earned privilege, I learned about it when thumbing through the “Morning Calm” magazine as we were taxiing on the tarmac in Narita, on the first leg of my (long) trip to Paris. This trip would go through Incheon, a 3 hour hop, before boarding the eleven hour monster haul to the Continent. It was a good thing that I did happen to thumb those pages. For that eleven hour trek quickly converted into 14 when China unexpectedly amended its policy regarding the number of commercial liners it was allowing over its airspace. From 4 to 2 we were whittled down – which meant sitting in the plane for an extra 90 minutes awaiting clearance to fly.

Now that was some fun. But despite all these good times, I couldn’t seem to concentrate on the free drinks they were offering us as a means of getting our minds off our temporary misfortune; I just kept trying to understand why they made us board the plane to announce the extended stay on the tarmac over the pilot’s intercom. Why couldn’t they simply have amended the big board out in the airport, then delayed our boarding for, say 45 minutes? Yeah, I know . . . too logical. Never make an organization think on short notice.

The bottom line point here is that those 2 hours I spent in the Sky Lounge getting rested in its plush leather seats turned out to be a welcome development – little did I know at the time, since I am not a soothsayer.

Unfortunately (he says, picking up the pieces of his Fire-and-Rain life).

The Lounge, itself, carries a stench, of sorts. It is that odor that you have always heard about when you enter an exclusive club: the air of privilege.

There is a propriety in walking up to the bar area and selecting from Bombay Gin, Jack Daniels, Johnny Walker Red,  a French Cabernet, Perrier. There is a reproduction of one’s identity as power broker in perusing The Financial Times. There is an ability to stave off the dislocation that travel inevitably brings, by immediately plugging your computer in at the Business Center, hopping on-line, retrieving your email, and responding to the latest crisis back home (which you only left 3 hours before).

So, a lot of what happens in these lounges is not getting away; not losing oneself. It is re-finding, relocating, re-connecting – or, perhaps, maintaining connection with that self left behind.

As verification, perhaps, I spy the guy (with my little eye) who is obviously a Brit. We know this because of his accent, which we know because even though he is seated 7 meters away he s verily shouting. He has a loud voice like he never outgrew the concern that people weren’t hearing him, or else that he was always lower in the decision-making chain such that volume was a compensation for deaf ears not picking up on his grand plans. He screams at the guy seating 1 meter away, he shouts into his cell. His voice has that edge that comes with smoking, a likelihood confirmed when he excuses himself to “go have one” (in his bullhorn bass) and heads off to the “Smoker’s Corner” tucked in between the restrooms and the business center. The guy has shaggy, shoulder-length hair, sports an earring, and drinks water from a plastic bottle. He’s thinnish for his age,  pushing 50 easy, wearing a tie-dyed shift over his blue jeans. I suppose all this places him in the commercial arts world. He announces to this corner of the room (since the Sky Lounge, in fact, is cavernous) that “I won’t be there for another 15 hours, man, which means that I will ‘ave been travelin’ for over 24, so . . . when we meet, I may not be totally on top o’ it . . . but it’s ‘is meet, so I ‘ave to accommodate ’im, now don’t I? Right? So, talk to you when I land.”

For the most part, then, the people in the Sky Lounge are just people busy being themselves. The svelte Japanese woman with the crepe skirt knotted around her runway-thin waist and an orange scarf flowing behind her as she sashays in exaggerated motions through the lounge, stops at the mirror in the vestibule and spends twelve minutes carefully applying make-up to her perfectly sculpted face. Making sure to take note of every gent who pauses long enough to study her lines. The Korean businessmen spend much of their lounge time in the smoking room. Kids lose themselves in their portable video games, while their parents nod off. South Americans sit – with a slightly derisive expression on their lips—in the TV room, watching a match from two weak sisters competing in the Asian Cup.

If this is so – if people are only busy being themselves – then that is a shame. For one thing that travel is – or can be – is liberating. It is not only about getting to the end of the road as the person who began the journey. It is also about leaving one’s self behind. More, it is about enabling (or is that risking?) jettisoning the self left behind; stripping it away as if it was so much unnecessary skin. Like a snake shedding what was once of value, now no longer needed. To travel means to also chance returning as someone else; as coming home in a new skin. Or perhaps that is the extent of that particular metaphor; its serviceable limit. Because if travel is done well, then it means returning home with one’s inner constitution changed. Like being exposed to a benign virus that carries the capability of rewriting the code in ways that may be of service to the hardware it remains inscribed within.

And if that metaphor sucks, as well, then (imagine this!) I’m not done. Travel is a privilege. But it is also a way to privilege the self. A way of keeping oneself intact, while also exposing oneself to powerful forces of change. Travel is a privilege because, with the right perspective, the appropriate approach, it enables one’s self to transmogrify, to grow, to evolve, to improve.

Well. If it is done well.


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