It’s eight o’clock in the morning when the woman sitting next to me orders a Sauvignon Blanc. The flight attendant blinks. American Airlines doesn’t offer Sauvignon Blanc. Would she care for a white wine mix instead? Two white wine mixes later, we’re 36,000 feet in the air. The pilot comes on over the PA system and informs us that we’ve reached our cruising altitude. We might hit some minor turbulence over the Rocky Mountains. Let’s keep those masks on and those seatbelts fastened. It’s his privilege to fly us across America on this fine morning.
I’m wearing an N-95 respirator and lab goggles from high school. To pass time, I skim the digital front pages of various national newspapers. Everything in the world has gone awry. My breath keeps fogging up the goggles. Americans have increased their ice cream consumption three-fold since the start of the pandemic. Far-right extremists in Germany hold Zoom watch parties of the Capitol siege. Netflix promises to release an original movie every week for the entire year. Young adult novelists have banded together to get “The Odyssey” taken off middle school curricula. Their objections? Homer doesn’t foreground female protagonists and his gaze is utterly Eurocentric. Gavin Newsom keeps making motivational videos. He shows off his veneers and tells us that we are strong enough to get through anything. A boy in Massachusetts wakes up at 5 a.m. to play video games with strangers on the Internet. Research suggests that we’re all getting stupider. Tweens have started describing themselves as “alienated.”
The woman next to me presses the call button. She wants black coffee and another white wine mix. We’re somewhere over Illinois. I take my goggles off and rub the lenses on my shirt. She looks over. Where did I get the smart idea to wear goggles on the plane? Online, I reply. She nods and smiles. She’s also been reading a lot online. Too much, really. She spends all day reading about this and that. Rising case numbers. New strains. More lockdowns. Do I want to know what she thinks about everything? What she actually thinks, not whatever is PC or mainstream? I shrug. She thinks there’s good evidence that the Chinese government engineered all of this. We’re puppets on their string. (The flight attendant arrives with wine and coffee.) Have I seen Bill Gates’ TED Talk? Am I aware of the vested interests at work here? There are incentives and mechanisms that we can’t even begin to imagine. There are things that appear accidental but have actually been choreographed in smoke-filled boardrooms. She takes a sip of coffee and turns to the window.
Meanwhile, I wonder about the state of her bowels. White wine and black coffee consumed in quick succession seems like an explosive combination. There’s a non-trivial possibility that in 20 minutes the flight crew and I will have to escort her to the lavatory. Could rapid-onset diarrhea inhibit locomotor skills? The newspapers offer no answers. Everyone is breathing a collective sigh of relief now that 2020 has ended. Everyone is ready to turn a new page and get back to normal. No one has anything to say about rapid-onset diarrhea. In no one’s defense, there’s a lot going on. Several nursing home residents claim to have had paranormal experiences since receiving their COVID vaccines. Two op-eds debate whether Joe Biden should be allowed to receive Communion. A columnist suggests that the pandemic has permanently altered courtship. Eye contact and handholding are démodé. Videocall dates will stick around.
The woman taps my elbow. She needs to get up and go to the bathroom. I watch her stride down the aisle and disappear behind the door. She is clearly in possession of her locomotor skills. In an alternate universe, I would have become friends with the flight attendant while escorting this woman to the bathroom. We would have bonded over the weirdness of our situation. Three strangers wearing masks and walking arm-in-arm to an airplane lavatory. Maybe our good deed would have made headlines. “Silver linings in the midst of chaos.” “Uplifting story from cross-country flight.” “Diarrheal passenger helped to bathroom by local heroes.”
Alas, daydreams. The woman returns to her seat and winks at me. She turns back to the window and I turn back to the newspapers. Teenagers steal their parents’ credit cards to contribute to viral GoFundMe campaigns. They dream of inciting revolutions via Instagram Stories. Big tech companies collect our data and use it to sell us things we don’t need. Lady Gaga has become the first openly bisexual woman to sing at the Inauguration. Climate change threatens to wreak havoc on entire swathes of the Global South. Kate Middleton and Prince William are besotted with their new puppy. Hundreds of golf courses across the world will go bankrupt. Thousands of children won’t pass their benchmark assessments.
I shut my tablet and take a deep breath. Someone must have written an article about the danger of reading too many articles. WebMD must have something to say about the consequences of information saturation. We’re spewing words into the void at light speed. Haven’t we had our fill of facts and opinions? Must we continue to glut ourselves on the news? Aren’t we all on the verge of losing our minds?
The flight attendant materializes beside me with another cup of white wine mix in hand. The woman must have called her again. I check the time. 10:30 a.m. We aren’t even halfway there.
Contact Sanjana Friedman at sfriedm ‘at’ stanford.edu.