More than eight hours remain on this flight to Japan, a fact which seems improbable given that the five of us plus, oh, about five hundred other people, many of them wisely, if eerily, with their faces bedecked in surgical masks, have been trapped in this loudly humming metal tube for what already feels like forever. “I want to be in first class!” chants my five-year old after asking me why the people in front of us have beds. “I want to be in first class!” the distinction striking him as unfair, and of course it is unfair in a way. But really what, in a capitalist society, is fair, and perhaps these very thoughts of class consciousness are already seeping into his mind because he suddenly stands up, backs into my tray table and spills my glass of complimentary generic white wine — the very glass which only a few minutes ago he greedily grabbed and nearly gulped, mistaking it for apple juice — all down my pants, just narrowly missing my computer. When I tell him, albeit a bit sternly, that unlike him I do not have an extra outfit for the plane, he laughs, “Take mine,” and throws up his hands like some puerile billionaire making a show of giving away assets he never intended to use anyway.
Yes it’s time for the children to rotate seats – “Hello, Daddy!” – and yet even this diversion doesn’t count for much because in spite of the fact that I’ve had four short naps and the kids have watched about seven movies between them, eight hours remain of this flight, this decidedly not fancy fancy. Eight hours. It’s the length of one whole school day plus afterschool thrown in for good measure, the amount of time which more, or less, I each day dedicate to my own needs and work. In eight hours I eat my breakfast, write, eat my lunch and write, and yet, as I have just found out on another one of my desperate let’s- try-and-pass-the-time-by-strolling-to-the-back-of-our-not-at-all-remotely-jumbo-jumbo-jet, just one little meal is remaining. One. Meal. How is this possible? I’m not even a big eater and yet this fact is killing me, forcing me to raid the free snacks in the back of the plane, snacks which consist of the smallest bags of M&Ms you’ll ever see and biscotti which are actually not in fact biscotti but ginger bread cookies masquerading as such. Does United have the gall to send these “biscotti” on flights to Italy? I hope not. Talk about nerve, talk about offending cultural mores. Was it September 11th that killed the plenitude of American plane cuisine, or was it the economy and the rising costs of fuel? Unions? What? I’ve got eight hours to spare, talk to me, tell me, I’m more than willing to learn, I’ve an open mind.
An open mind. At least I like to think I have one, though to be fair, we are not headed to Japan on account of it. Nice as it would be, I do not currently have some pressing desire to show my children the world or introduce them to Japanese culture. And we are not, as you might suspect, going there on account of business so that at least one of our airline tickets and one of the two rooms we’ve booked at the oh, six hotels that we’ll (I’ll) be packing and unpacking our way through will be free (though, yes, this would be nicest of all). No, we are going to Japan because my husband lived there for a couple of years right after college, teaching English in Kyoto in the ‘80s. Do you remember that a Japanese company bought Rockefeller Center back then and that this was supposed to be a symptom, a sign of Japan’s inexorable rise and the U.S.’s concomitant inexorable fall? Well that’s why my husband went, that and because he was an anthropology major, and though of course this widely believed in Japan-U.S. prophecy never did come true and if anything it was the opposite, my husband has always dreamed of going back there, showing it to us and perhaps, I suspect, capturing, or trying to recapture, a bit of his carefree youth.
Back in the ‘80s my husband had a Winnie the Pooh earring (Are you wondering do I shudder? I shudder), spent ten days in a meditation retreat where he did not speak once (yes, now you see how we can be married, don’t you, opposites indeed attracting) and spent summers working as a groom at a bokujo, a thoroughbred farm up in Hokaido. Now my husband’s a boss in midtown, a portfolio manager who gets to meditate but five minutes a day if he’s lucky. He’s our family’s breadwinner, a fact of which I should perhaps be ashamed, given that I’m a feminist, but what can I say, it’s true. He’s got all these roles, roles which suit him well until those moments or days when they don’t suit him at all and they just turn into him a stress case. He turned fifty this year, and to him that seemed a good catalyst for the trip and so here we are, sitting all in a row, eating Pringles and innumerable, impossibly small bags of M&Ms in the unspoken hope that the energy we spend eating might some way, some how, make our trip go faster.
Just last week, in effort to give my children (and who am I kidding, myself) context for our trip I bought a whole slew of books about Japanese baseball players, the California internment camps, imperial life in Kyoto, Shintoism and intergenerational strife. Out of all these there was one book, a picture book, mind you, that I didn’t understand, not even a little. The book was Wabi Sabi, a story about a cat told vertically and in haiku, and just last night, while I finished packing, my youngest reread the book with my husband. “Now I get it,” said my son, happily running out of his room. “Simple beauty. It’s a way people think and live. Daddy read it to me. It’s in the front of the book.” Ah, yes, and then I remembered, a prologue I had skipped because it was long and we were reading the book past bedtime, so many other things weighing on me that night, so much else to do.
We have just finished flying over Alaska now and are crossing the Berring Sea. There’s just five hours and forty seven minutes remaining till we reach our destination. But forget all the temples and the mountains, the shopping and the anime, and whatever else awaits. I am looking forward to a hot shower, a clean bed and maybe even some sushi. Simple. Beauty. And then we will begin.