Sunday, November 19, 2006

Flying in First Class.

Yesterday, I found myself confronted with an attractive woman in my seat as I boarded a connecting flight in Cincinnati. She’d just met an old friend, seated next to my assigned seat, and proposed a trade. Would I mind sitting in first class?

Turns out, I didn’t mind at all.

First class travel is an entirely different experience. The seats are comfortable, and you don’t have to worry about the obese woman sweating through her corduroy pants at the point of juncture with your leg (one leg of my trip out). You can see the in-flight movie.

The passengers are noticeably different. My seat-mate chose to watch the movie (the latest Pirates of the Caribbean – I was working), and I was a little startled and amused to see her emotional reactions (holding her hands to her face, little gasps etc.) to the special-effects enhanced drama it seems most have become inured to. A bunch of business types were in the front two rows, bantering about the day’s college football games, and joking about getting cell-phone updates in-flight. (I don’t know if they did, but I wouldn’t be surprised.) One of them presented the stewardess with an origami flower (made from an airline napkin) shortly before we landed. She beamed at his cleverness. He beamed back at her.

This is the stewardess we shared among the twelve or so of us. She offers pre-flight drinks, makes the rounds with the snack basket (which offers an actual variety), the coffee cup they provide you with holds more coffee, she apologizes for not having your preferred sweetener, and bemoans the lack of an actual sandwich to offer when she realizes you haven’t had time to eat all day.

Looking at the entitled passengers, and how they took their experience in first-class for granted, got me thinking about class differentiation.

I remember research reviewed in a physiological psychology class on rats raised in enriched environments – about how their cortexes are much larger, they learn new tasks faster, they are more socially interactive, less aggressive, and have a proliferation of cholinergic receptor sites (associated with intelligence) compared to their deprived counterparts. I thought about rats raised in deprived conditions – how they’re prone to attack each other, and tend to be (anthropomorphizing admitted) brutish, stupid, discontented and short-lived.

And I thought about children I’ve worked with – raised in front of televisions, social interaction limited primarily to school, tending to be less intelligent, more aggressive, and unhappy.

My father was raised in a blue-collar home through the depression. Yet the three surviving boys all earned advanced degrees (their sister married instead – a successful dentist. She ran his office until he retired). Though the difference between Coach and First Class may appear to be economic, that distinction is conveniently artificial – the discriminating factor is environmental. They were raised in a family where there was a concerted effort to provide the children with options and stimulation. The lack of money, while hard, also necessitated cooperative efforts to achieve super-ordinate goals. This is the stuff of bonding, and an avenue to self-efficacy.

The ability to make choices – to exercise options, or assert yourself, or modify your environment to suit your transient desires; this is a critical difference between first class, and coach. This is also a critical difference between the children of many first-class passengers, and the children of those riding Coach. Or Greyhound. The first-class passengers assume the world will conform to their desires. The Coach passengers make no such assumption, and will have such corrected by the harried airline staff if they do.

The experience of underprivileged children in this country, as egregious as conditions can sometimes get, pales in comparison to the rest of the world. I had an interesting conversation with my neighbor the other day. He was raised in Ramallah, and still has many friends and family members in Lebanon. He talked about the continuing shelling of the refugee camps, and how an extended family of 18 was killed the other day. He talked about the ridiculous assertion that a warning precedes the shelling; the camp residents have no place to escape to.

And I thought about the impact of all the violence, and the drastic limitation of options, that characterizes the lives of the children living in such places. My neighbor talked about the ridiculous idea that actions such as those make anyone safer, and of course we talked about the war. What we didn’t talk about was the manner in which such an environment sets the stage for problems down the road, as the traumatized children raised under such pathogenic conditions become traumatized adults.

And it makes me angry, because we know better. We’re astute enough to study the impact the war in Sierra Leone has had on the chimp population in the area (devastating – perhaps unrecoverably so), yet we acknowledge too infrequently the impact such an environment exerts on the people who live there – it’s too overwhelming to think about. We continue to justify engaging in widespread destruction (which is so easy, really), and then pretend bafflement when those same tactics are used against our efforts to rebuild some of what’s been lost – as though that isn’t a predictable consequence of our own actions. We refuse to adequately fund public education in our own country, or to provide inadequately supervised youth with attractive alternatives to television, videogames, Myspace, drug use or delinquency.

My first-class seat-mate had a powerful, observable reaction to Hollywood special effects in a relatively tame movie; proof enough of a background free of personal involvement in violence and despair. We should all live in such a world, but we can't provide it for ourselves; we have to provide it for each other.


bite said...


that answers the question I was just considering:

"What the fuck is wrong with me?"


TenaciousK said...

Uhm, there's something the fuck wrong with you? Where we grew up, the idea that there was something wrong turned out to be exactly what was wrong, too often.

I'm hoping you were smiling when you typed that, Bite. Rum holding out ok?

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.