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At Every Airport in the World

Ask anyone about air travel and you'll hear a horror story. Bags get lost, flights get delayed, and plans get changed. The system isn't perfect, and never will be. So, during your next unplanned respite in an airport, take a look around.

Last Sunday, I was delayed in Chicago. Here's what I saw:

  • Across from me in the waiting area near K3 is the guy who wants to upgrade. He thinks that his accumulation of thousands of miles and his platinum status will get him a comfier seat for the next leg of his journey.
  • A quick jaunt down the concourse reveals more corporate logos that Main Street, and with each step deeper into the terminal, you quickly realize you can buy everything from sunglasses to liquor to bestsellers to apparel. Who needs malls? Just buy a plane ticket.
  • In some airports, if you take off your trendy white headphones and listen to humanity for a second, you’ll hear languages as diverse as our ideas and reasons for traveling.

But, everyone in an airport is separated from something, hoping for a reunion once they've stopped moving. In an airport, no one is at home. Even folks who travel more than they don't still don't think of an airport as home, no matter how much their frequent flyer account begs to differ.

Everyone in an airport is watching something or someone. What if we could watch ourselves watching?

Sure, traveling often gives me enough deep examinations in our human nature that I can stack up trite clichés like jets stack up on the O'Hare tarmac in January. But that's not the point.

If you look around at any airport long enough, you'll notice one thing: no one wants to be here.

It's the same way with the DMV and hospitals. If there were another way to accomplish the mission, we'd do it. But, given that this is the best option (to get to San Diego in under 4 hours, to get rid of the tumor, to renew the license), it's all I've got.

I bet it's hard to work in the airport. Not because it's the hospitality industry (I used to work at a hotel), but because no one wants to be there. Even if someone is traveling for pleasure an is embarking on the vacation of a lifetime, they're thinking about where they're going, and not where they are.

That's why I stopped and watched for a few hours a week ago. There was something about being present – about understanding where I was. As much as our modern conveniences (and yes, air travel is a convenience) afford us the notion of being somewhere else, it's important every once in a while to take stock of where you are and think about simply being present, noticing the moment and observing the possibility that lies therein.

Airports aren't reality, no matter how wonderfully curious JFK and LAX may feel. Even if we can get anything and go anywhere easier than ever before, airports are only as real as reality TV. They're full of ordinary people doing things we wonder about, but their identity is limited only to where they hope to be (and not where they currently are) once the cameras stop rolling and the aircraft has come to a complete stop and the fasten seatbelt light has been turned off by the captain.

Because in the end, no one really likes to think about airports. We just think about the destination.

Get off the nonstop to dreamland and breathe in the deep air of reality that is Where-I-Am-Now.

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