August 5th, 2005

operesque

Beauty Week 2: Newspapers on planes

One of the most beautiful things I see on a regular basis is how the world looks from 30,000 feet. I always take a window seat on the plane, and gaze down at cloudscapes, the shapes of the land, even the plain sea, for hours, daydreaming. Even if I take one of the newspapers offered, I seldom read it. The last thing I want to be, at 30,000 feet, is in "a newspaper frame of mind". I'm sure to be "in a beauty frame of mind". Unfortunately, looking so intensely at landscapes and cloudscapes (and of course I'm projecting a million thoughts into them, daydreaming) is increasingly difficult on planes. Once they've finished reading newspapers, my fellow passengers tend to want to sleep or watch films or TV, so there's strong peer pressure to lower the window shades. Sometimes you'll be told by the hostess to pull the blind down. Welcome to wherever you aren't.

The other day I was reading some Cockpit Voice Recorder transcripts of flights that ended in disaster. There's something utterly fascinating about knowing what people say in what turn out to be their final conversations. Normally, of course, you don't want a jet pilot to be paying too much attention to lovely lighting effects, sparkles, cloudscapes, sunsets, moonrises, landscapes. You want him to be concentrating on the job. You forgive him his "managerial mindset" because, well, you're paying him to manage the flight. Occasionally, though, it's nice to know that jet captains are capable of being moved as well as of moving people from A to B. One of the most beautiful things I ever saw in my life was pointed out to me by a plane captain on a nocturnal flight from Tokyo to New York. "If you look out of the right hand side," he said, "you'll see the lights of the Japanese fishing fleet, the biggest fishing fleet in the world." His caption had a newspapery tone, but the sight that greeted us as we looked out was one of vivid beauty: a vast network of lights stretching across the sea to the horizon.

Nevertheless, the final conversations of jet captains tend to be somewhat banal and pragmatic. When they're still sitting on the ground, waiting for everyone to board, they tend to talk about union regulations, real estate values, or power struggles at the airline. The new guy who's got management's ear, so watch what you say in front of him. Office politics kind of stuff. This is totally understandable — what is a plane for a captain but a sort of flying office? — but at the same time a bit sad, considering they're about to die. Jet captains also swear a lot. One can't help longing for the occasional remark about the beauty of the world and the splendidness of being alive, given the circumstances. Perhaps there could be a legal requirement for pilots to make one beauty-related remark per hour, just in case something goes horribly wrong on the flight.

Last night I was reading an old page from Joi Ito's blog. Ito was wondering why Japanese people were so rarely political activists. "There are many intelligent people who don't feel like making a big deal about stuff," he mused. Someone called Masat Izu responded: "support of democracy in Japan does not have deep-rooted commitment to free society, independent individual, and equal rights, which are the basis for the democratic society. Welfare is the most important value in Japan. Majority of Japanese establishment believes stable society is important to their welfare and, therefore, activism becomes their second order priority or undesirable activity." I wonder if you couldn't add to "welfare" values like play, aesthetics, gourmet food and sex? It seems to me that it's precisely Japan's political apathy, its lack of activism and its disapproval of contention and conflict, which makes it such a paradise for the sensual and the aesthetic. "Where the housewife is lazy, the cat is industrious," goes the old Yiddish proverb. Into a political vacuum rush other concerns, not the least of them beauty.

One of my favourite Japanese blogs belongs to my friend Reika. Reika is a refined woman in her late 20s who lives alone in Nishi-Ogikubo with a cat and a greyhound. She has the austere yet sensual, poetic soul of many Japanese people. Nothing approaching "politics" or "the managerial mindset" ever appears on her diary. Entries are titled "The shooting star was seen" or "Meiji Jingu Outer Gardens Fireworks" or "Aroma Treatment" or "The sea was looked at". Each day's entry contains thoughts like "The place where I am is too fantastic" or "A variety of young and old man and woman began to shout with pleasure to flowers of the Hitomicagaya skein night sky." They're exactly the kind of sentences and sentiments I'd like to be discovered on my personal black box recorder, moments before the fatal impact.