Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Return To Your Seat

I wrote most of the following piece a couple years ago at the urging of an editor for Travel + Leisure magazine; perhaps not surprisingly, it was a bit too abject for their tastes. Luckily I had a chance to revisit this material for my new mini Object Lesson up the Atlantic, "Consider the Lavatory."

Have you ever found yourself in the airplane lavatory, inspecting your visage in the hazy mirror, staged in the dim light, wondering how long you’ve been standing there, how much longer you can get away with it before another passenger or a flight attendant knocks on the door? It’s a little pentagon of privacy in the otherwise public oval of the airplane. But you can't stay for long.

From the Middle English lavatorie and the Medieval Latin lavatorium, both from the Latin lavare (to wash)—how do our modern airplane bathrooms cling to this ancient appellation? There is something weirdly timeless about this space: once you go in and shut the stiff yet flimsy plastic door, everything else in the airplane vanishes, muffled in some near distance. It is a place full of mystery and suspense.

There's the small sink with faucet of uncertain water pressure—is it going to shoot out with surprising force, or just dribble onto your fingers? There are the myriad signs, minimalist icons implying warnings and instructing things like DO NOT OPEN and DEPOSIT WASTE HERE. Red stripes of caution slash through simple humanoid forms. It is a tight space, over-brimming with communications. In the lavatory when the captain makes an announcement, for once it may sound like the captain is speaking to you alone. Occasionally you'll be in there when the plane starts shaking and a calm icon illuminates with a ding, a placid command: return to your seat.

Then there is the small molded toilet with its sketchy seat, the hinged and bouncing metal flap at the bottom of the bowl (sometimes laden with soggy toilet paper or worse), and the vortex of “blue juice” sucking into the void. Do you sit or try to stay propped up, awkwardly hovering over the bowl? How clean is this place, anyway? In fact, airlines are usually pretty good at cleaning lavatories regularly and thoroughly (I know—I used to have this job). As germ-filled and claustrophobic as the lavatory may feel when you are in it, it’s also likely that it is one of the cleanest public bathrooms you’ll ever use.

Once I entered a lavatory and was surprised to see the tiny sink filled with what at first looked like trash. When I looked closer, it was actually a rather careful arrangement of sanitizing napkins—the sink was inoperable, so a clever flight attendant had placed a bouquet of packaged hand wipes in the sink, and taped a note to the mirror instructing the passengers to use these instead of washing their hands. The lavatory became a place for creative problem solving. Such initiative, such industry!

Down the aisle, passengers sit and stare at the red cartoon that denotes OCCUPIED. Who is in there, and why are they taking so long? But these two experiences of time are so different, inside and outside the lav. Outside, in a cramped seat, time drags on and it can be hard to focus on things. But in the lavatory time stands still, and everything is in focus. It’s a small, usually windowless room where everything pops into distinction, and yet where everything becomes strange, too. Where exactly are you, here? “Lavatory”—the very name bespeaks some sort of untimely place, some space out of joint.  What rhymes with lavatory? A priori

So why do we retain this odd sounding word? Does it supply a bit more decorum on that most abject space visited during the already uncomfortable experience of flight? Perhaps the name makes the place sound more regal than its austere reality. If so, the lavatory may function as a metonymy for the whole experience of commercial flight: it’s made to sound better, or at least different, than it really is.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Writing: sometimes it works

Writing: sometimes it works, especially when others are involved

Part of my job is to write. It's a weird part of the job because it's rather incalculable and very unpredictable—when it will happen, how it will turn out, whether it will end up in the dustbin of oblivion or be published somewhere (and then read or not, appreciated or spurned).

One of my students asked me the other day how I get from 'idea' to 'thing' when it comes to writing. Part of my answer involved collaboration: I would never get things done (much less started) without nudges, feedback, pushes, and pulls from the friends I've made and colleagues I've been lucky to have over the years. That's how the Brad Pitt book got written, and that's how Object Lessons was launched.

More recently, my great friend and colleague Mark Yakich and I co-wrote a short piece called "How Should a Professor Be?" This started off as a kind of tongue-in-cheek thought experiment, but as we wrote we gradually realized we had something to say that might actually be useful—for our own self-clarification, if nothing else. We were happy when an editor at Inside Higher Ed liked it and offered to publish it. (Lest we forget the key collaborations that happen between editors and writers....) Mark and I are also in the finishing stages of our edited collection of airplane reading nonfiction, which will be published sometime this coming spring.

Also recently, I wrote an essay about liberal arts education for Public Books that was prompted by conversations I've been having with my dean and a few colleagues about the mission of our college—I wouldn't have written it without having had multiple discussions over lunch about what we're doing here at Loyola, and why. And I wouldn't have sent it to Public Books without the encouragement from my editor there to send him another piece, after my essay about "critical thinking" garnered some interest over the summer.

Meanwhile, I'm currently working on a new piece of writing, with pokes and prods from my mate Ian Bogost, as savvy a line-editor as they come.

A somewhat tepid review of my new book The End of Airports was published by Publishers Weekly, but I am fortunate enough to have a supremely kind and astute editor at Bloomsbury, Haaris Naqvi, who talked me through what this meant and why not to worry. Then a few hours later the actual books arrived in the mail, and I'm staring at them, and they're beautiful, and I'm feeling like it works, thanks to lots of other people, sometimes, it all works, this wild thing called writing.