The painted, tightly-wrapped stick figures in stiletto heels contend for passing space in the corridor with enormous, rotund traffic in tent-like sequined t-shirts declaring “Don’t Mess With Texas.” They drag day-glo pink luggage in their wake with one hand, and the leash of a neurotic yap dog that would fit in my hat with the other. Overhead, a passive-aggressively-happy Muzak rendition of “We’ve Only Just Begun” does battle with talking heads breathlessly punditizing something about Clinton’s shoes on the omnipresent surfboard-sized TVs. Every wall and vertical surface that isn’t a TV is plastered with something bright, bright, intruding and insistent that you Buy and Be Beautiful and Rich. It would be overwhelming even if I hadn’t spent most of the past 24 hours blasting across the sky in a pressurized metal tube.
Re-entry is always hard. A month at sea brings a certain clarity with it. You are stripped free from the entrenched consumerism, the almost pathological attention-suck that engulfs us back in “civilization.” There are no questions of what to do today, what to buy, no questions of what to eat or wear. You get up, you put in 12 hours doing your job, and you go to bed tired. And tomorrow, you’re going to do the same thing. You can walk the confines of your steel and diesel world in less than a minute, and beyond is an elsewhere as magnificent as it is unreachable.
The ship dulls some of your senses, but the isolation leaves others deeper and more nuanced. And this…this assault of light and sound always pushes me to the edge of a little catatonic shutdown.
At least I’ve got my guitar. There’s an empty corner with seats at the base of the Terminal C escalator up to the airport’s automated people mover. I tuck myself in, tune up and start plinking away at some Jason Isbell. New South Wales feels right: simple chords, lovely sparse imagery, and Isbell’s ever-impeccable and strangely-appropriate alliteration. “God bless the busted boat that brings us back…”
I bought the guitar for $180 on Craigslist, and have come to depend on it so much when I travel that I’m thinking maybe I should see if I can get one of those little red harnesses for it, the kind you see on service dogs. But I’m guessing that “service guitar” might be just too far a bridge for the TSA to stretch their heads around, and would end me up on some sort of list somewhere.
Still, I’ve found that I mostly get to carry it onboard with me when I go. About half the time, a flight attendant will warn me that I’ll be called on to play for them. Alas, they back off way too quickly when I explain that I’m more than happy to take them up on their request. Damned bluffers. But a quiet corner in the airport us usually enough.
The challenges of re-entry don’t end with the travel. Devon-of-infinite-generosity and I seem to have developed this sort of gentle schedule for reintegrating me into life around the house. I’m allowed to be quirky and reclusive as I get used to living in that skin that I left behind when I headed south, the one who’s a husband and a father and understands that it’s okay to have homework scattered across the floor of three rooms, and that “dinner” in a house with two teenagers is necessarily a concept open to sliding interpretations.
Devon tells me that from time to time she’ll mention to a new acquaintance that I’m off on a ship or at the South Pole or somewhere, and they’ll look shocked and say something like “I can’t imagine letting my husband go away like that!” And she shows me that look she gives them, the “Uh…why not?” one that you’d expect if they’d said something about not allowing their husband to choose his own breakfast cereal. The look that reminds me why I am so grateful that she’s the woman I’m married to.
Maybe in a couple of years, once the house is reliably kid-free, we’ll do some of this crazy work-travel together. Maybe not, though. As much as we value our time together, we both cherish the space that time alone gives us to explore who we are in this crazy world of infinite possibilities. It helps, of course, knowing that we both have a soft place to land when we’re ready to return to earth.
[Home now, by the way. Whew.]
You could probably get away with Emotional Support Guitar. For reasons the flight crew will understand, the joke is better.
And is there a version of We’ve Only Just Begun that isn’t Muzak? I mean, I really like and admire The Carpenters, but I don’t think they translate to thrash metal.