Monday, September 23, 2013

O'Hare Again

I'm on another layover in O'Hare again, that great hub of air travel in the backlands of Chicago. Named for Butch O'Hare, the first Navy ace in World War II.  I've learned to curse it less these days, when once upon a time I always feared and loathed my stop-overs here.  But now that I am stopping here so often, I'm coming to find it comfortable, familiar, reliable in its jam-packed halls of madness, and the corridor of international flags that leads you through the main American Airlines terminal.

This is my 14th connection through O'Hare this year, and I expect to be making 9 more of them before the year is finished (maybe more, but I hope not).  That's... that's actually a lot more than I'd realized, before a grep for "ORD" through my travel records found such surprising numbers.  Apparently, even before leaving Boston for Iowa, a surprisingly large number of my trips went through O'Hare, and once you get Iowa in the mix, well, that's two stops in O'Hare for pretty much every trip.

The one truly damning thing about O'Hare for the traveling scientist, at least in the American terminals, is its lack of power and wireless.  I think there is a similar principle operating here as I have noticed in the case of hotels.  With hotels, the pricier per night, the more likely that the internet access will not be free, and the more likely that the connections will be terrible.  Cheap hotels often have excellent, excellent internet.  For airports, the bigger and more business-traveller-filled, the more likely they are to have no easily accessible power plugs and no free wireless.  Little regional airports pretty much always have nice seats with good and free connections.

And so I pay.  But not directly for the wireless.  I pay for a membership in the lounge, which means I get free decent wireless, and a quiet and calm place to sit and work or read or think.  It's worth it, but I feel ashamed.  Which is senseless, really.  If I'm traveling often, it makes sense, economically, to make those hours on a layover good and productive and not draining.  And yet, somehow I feel like I'm betraying my class.  Becoming one of Them, whoever that might be.

As I look back on where I came from, I know that Jake the child would barely recognize some parts of me in the man that I have become.  Would find it strange and alien, distasteful, impure.  I have a really devilish pride, you know, that makes me walk away from sensible things for a long time sometimes.  For years, as a grad student, I resisted any thought of getting an air conditioner.  I had never lived with air conditioning growing up (in the countryside, on the coast of Maine, where the air was so much cooler anyway), and I decided, in my stupid head somehow, that air conditioning was a sign of weakness, of over-consumption, of All That Was Wrong With America.  I even turned down a free air conditioner that my parents gave me as a gift, made them take it back to the store in my pride and self-righteous choice of bodily mortification.  We lived on the top floor of a 3-story apartment at the time, and there was a flat piece of black tar roof right outside the bedroom window, so on a really hot day the room just baked like a pizza oven.  I would lie there and sweat, my head aching, trying to focus on whatever I was trying to do.  But I was winning... winning against everyone else in the world, because I could judge them weaker and less than me, since I could live without an air conditioner.

You know, dear reader, I really hope you're laughing at me right now.  I hope you're finding that pride as stupid and shameful as I do now, looking back at it.  Trying to understand, where does it come from?  Where do I get this impulse, this need to go and do things as purely as possible?  I don't even realize I'm doing it sometimes, only in retrospect, as I'm analyzing the shame that comes when I finally come and let myself succumb to pragmatism.  Like having an airline lounge membership.  Like taking a taxi to the airport, when I used to take the T.  I can scoff at my resistance to air conditioning at the same time as I feel queasy about my airline lounge membership, and really, what's the difference?

Where is the boundary between pride and pride, dear reader?  If I bought myself a membership before I started stopping in O'Hare... an apparently startling number of times... then it would be a pride of aspiration, of conspicuous consumption, of indulgence in status and luxury.  If I avoided buying a membership now that I'm stopping here so often, then it would be a pride of avoidance, setting myself above the people who do have one through self-denial and asceticism.  I think that my wife, ever one for pragmatism, would find my dilemma odd and disheartening.  Honestly, I don't know where it comes from, myself, except that it is always with me, this improper degree of social consciousness that so frequently leaves me on the horns of a dilemma, where either path it problematic.

Perhaps, as I continue to learn and grow and mature, I'll finally just manage to let go a little.
I just wish I had a better measuring stick, so I could always compute where the boundaries are...

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