Comfortably numb

Indignity Vol. 4, No. 104

Comfortably numb


Zoning Out on the Plane Is the Only Way to Fly

I CAME BACK to the internet from being laid out sick in bed, and then from doing a long, boring Sunday drive, and I saw people were arguing about whether it's OK to sit still and do nothing on an airplane flight. This complaint about other people's behavior, or non-behavior, goes all the way back to Seinfeld, and the current argument already happened seven months ago, but it's happening again, because people are chronically understimulated and don't know how to deal with it when they're flying. 

Doing nothing on a flight—or on a train ride, or in a car, or in a waiting room—is natural, normal behavior. It is a healthy response to the situation of having nothing to do. The unhealthy response is to try to make yourself do something, in the absence of having anything to do. The even unhealthier response is to sit around complaining that other people are sitting there doing nothing. You know why you're bothered that other people are sitting there doing nothing? Because you can't sit still and mind your own business. 

The top of a jet engine in the foreground, the left part of it painted blue, and beyond and below an inlet snaking through green land to a coastline full of other inlets, and the sea and haze and sky beyond.

There is genuinely nothing that is less your own business than what someone else does with their brain and body in the privacy, if unfortunately not true seclusion, of their own airplane seat. Don't gawp at them! Don't start some busybody discussion about them! This is the outermost, deranged frontier of surveillance culture, the idea that anything you see anybody doing is material for public consumption, even if they're quietly doing nothing at all. 

Or rather that used to be the outermost frontier of surveillance. Now some of the people who sit quietly doing nothing on a plane have tried to make that into content, self-surveilling their own inactivity to feed into the discourse machinery for attention and engagement. They're making up stupid names for it, to promote the process of sitting still by yourself and not watching TV. 

Personally, I hate being trapped on an airplane. But the famous fact about being caught in a trap is that struggling makes it worse. I used to fly from New York to Beijing multiple times a year, 13 1/2 hours up and over the Arctic. I read books, I listened to music, I watched movies—none of that took a meaningful bite out of the flight time. Watch three movies back-to-back-to-back: congratulations, you still have about a full workday's worth of flying to go. 

You can try to doze through it. Let the roar of the engines spread that heavy airliner sleepiness over you, pulling you down into—whoops, there's that harsh airliner wakefulness kicking in, the blasts of cold dry air, the smell of jet fumes and a couple dozen tons of breathing strangers, the scantiness of the blanket. Every sensory nerve is bringing you bad news.

Feathery white clouds against a blue sky, with sheets of more clouds below.

So shut it down. There's nothing for you in the cabin outside your skull. Sit very, very still, loosen your mind, and let nothingness take hold. The flight-tracking screen is there to tell you a long, simple story, the story of you going from here to there, from this to that, from before to after. One minute to the next. Eight miles to the minute. Time passes. The ground passes. 

If you have a window seat and the ever-changing rules of the flying penitentiary allow you to raise the shade, and the clouds are cooperating, you can watch that ground go by—the bodies of water struck by the sun, the fields carved out and planted their oddly varied colors, the ineradicable traces of ridgelines and depressions on human works. Long before the New York–China flights I used to take the train from Maryland to Boston, through the junk and squalor of New Jersey and the pure pointlessness of Connecticut, the marshes cut with flat and narrow waterways. America! The train would fly us through the little towns at tree-top height and I would watch the towns go by with the brain of a passing bird, pure sensation and pattern. If you relax your eyes the right way at 70 mph you really can see the forest for the trees, looking right through the trunks to follow the contour of the underlying land. 

Part of an airplane wing stretches in a shallow U across the bottom of the frame, with puffy white clouds in the U and a blurry gray veil of cloud reaching up from the U to dark gray clouds above, with shadowy terrain showing in the gap between.

There's a power to merely taking what the world gives you, especially when the world isn't giving you much. In my sickbed the other week, there came a time when the fever broke and I wasn't really asleep, but I was still exhausted and incapable of activity. So I lay there—or there-but-not-there—unmoving but adrift, uncertain where my bed might be relative to the window and doors, or which way I might be sprawled on the bed, or whether it was morning or evening. The hours slid along until finally some better hours came. 

The more you do it, the easier it gets. After I'd been doing the China flights for a while, I flew from New York to Los Angeles and it was a cinch. A particularly long elevator ride. I'd barely settled in and it was time for the landing approach. Imagine, you could have a whole coast-to-coast flight barely register. 

Or you can sit and stare and twitch and judge! I wouldn't know. I'm not paying any attention to you at all. 

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Lots of clouds on clouds

New York City to Lenox, Massachusetts, to New York City, June 23, 2024

★★★ The first thing to do was to get some water to the plants out on the balcony, drooping with thirst. The morning air was heavy but clouds held the majority of the sky, keeping the solar heat off. Little gusts stirred in the streets. The sun burned through and made the battered floor paint at the congested opening of the rental-car garage gleam. The embankment by the Henry Hudson Parkway was engulfed in burgeoning growth. Up along the Taconic Parkway the trees were brushstroke studies and the tan grass heads burned against the green on the median. Haze and glare muddled the picture of what was blue and what was white overhead. Little yellow flowers crept over the edge of the roadway. The air was still damp in Massachusetts. Lichen coated the trees like verdigris. Shelf fungus had grown the size of dinner plates. Clover and buttercups spread over the lawns, in mostly separate patches. Outside the hardware store the seed-fluff from some unseen plants swirled in vortexes and formed soft drifts around the feet of a hammock stand. Thunder growled behind the welcoming remarks in the open bandshell as two-decker gray clouds drifted onto the scene. A short white segment of lightning appeared off beyond the trees. A burst of rain, but only a burst, chased the retreating campers up to the terrace and the chow line. On the roads out and away were freshly shorn-off leafy branches, and then flashing lights beside an entire fallen tree, leaving just enough room to get by. A red-winged blackbird scuffled with another bird by the state line. At the gas station beside the Taconic, goldfinches chased each other. The showers finally caught up with the rental car on the parkway—near-blinding downpours off and on, with standing water lingering between them for the Malibu to slosh and fountain its way through. Then the car passed below the wet zone, and every stain and joint of the pavement was sharp and vivid. A beam of red sun came through the rear window. A brilliant piece of rainbow stood up to the east, then bloomed into a full double span, end to end, aglow over Yonkers. 

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CLICK ON THIS box to find the Indignity Morning Podcast:

Tom Scocca reads you the newspaper.
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WE PRESENT INSTRUCTIONS in aid of the assembly of a sandwich—serve before the soup—selected from Mrs. Ericsson Hammond's Salad Appetizer Cook Book, by Maria Matilda Ericsson Hammond. Published in 1924, and now in the Public Domain and available at for the delectation of all.

Sardines in Egg a la Martel

Sardines en Oeufs a la Martel
For Six Persons

Hard-boil three eggs, time twelve minutes, and when they are cooked cut in halves across; scoop out the yolks carefully so as not to break the whites and put them in cold water until ready to use. Chop the yolks very fine, add it to one spoon of stirred butter and season it with some pepper and salt and flavor it with lemon juice. Cut six round pieces of bread with a large biscuit cutter and spread it heavily with the yolks and decorate it all around with narrow half-moons of truffles, one joining the other. With a small cutter cut the center out of the sandwiches, (space for the egg to rest in) and scallop the half white of eggs all around. Stand one egg on each sandwich and fill with the sardines. Stir two spoons of butter to a cream and color half of it with finely chopped parsley and the other half with some butter coloring. With a fancy tube make a rose on each, three green and three yellow. Arrange the eggs on a platter in the form of a ring with parsley in the center. Serve as an appetizer before the soup.

Sardine Filling. Four sardines, one teaspoon of anchovy paste, two tablespoons of whipped cream, cayenne pepper and salt. Skin and bone the sardines; stir them to a mousse, adding the anchovy paste, pepper and salt, and last add the cream lightly.

If you decide to prepare and attempt to enjoy a sandwich inspired by this offering, be sure to send a picture to 

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Supplies are really and truly running low of the second printing of 19 FOLK TALES, still available for gift-giving and personal perusal! Sit in the gathering heat with a breezy collection of stories, each of which is concise enough to read before the thunderstorms start.

HMM WEEKLY MINI-ZINE, Subject: GAME SHOW, Joe MacLeod’s account of his Total Experience of a Journey Into Television, expanded from the original published account found here at Hmm DailyThe special MINI ZINE features other viewpoints related to an appearance on, at, and inside the teevee game show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, available for purchase at SHOPULA.

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