The way I fly has changed, over the years. It used to be that I would always talk to my seatmates (if they seemed willing); I would be interested in hearing their stories, and I would enjoy telling them mine. I'm not sure when that changed -- two or three years ago. Maybe it was that I starting flying very often, at least once or twice a month; while I still enjoyed the moment of liftoff, the view from way up high, it had become impossible to experience flight as a novelty, as excitement in and of itself. Or maybe it was that I became aware that none of those conversations ever came to anything; it became frustrating, having half-conversations with people I would never meet again. I wanted to be Emily Pollifax, Dorothy Gilman's outgoing heroine who struck up honest and open conversations with strangers (who then usually ended up being of invaluable help when she went after the bad guys). But my conversations were instead generally awkward, especially since the conversation so often went to relationships, and I just couldn't bring up the energy to explain Kevin, and Jed (or David, or Karina, in earlier days) to a probably bewildered and possibly hostile someone I was trapped next to for at least another hour.
A combination of factors, leading me to now travel with a protective array of entertainment options -- books to amuse, a computer for work or games or movies, headphones and music (most recently an iPod, making it possible to fly all the way across the Atlantic listening to one playlist the entire way, never having to change a CD). The headphones are especially good for shutting off all potential conversation; no one bothers you when you have headphones on. And the travel time certainly goes faster, and there are no awkward conversations; the flight has been remarkably painless, considering. But sometimes it does feel like I'm missing something. Not any particular conversation, but the possibility inherent in those conversations. The chance that I might have one of those open, honest talks with a stranger; that they might end up helping me some day, or I might help them.
Which reminds me -- there was one flight, about two years ago, when I was flying from Salt Lake to Chicago, and I was sitting next to a man in his fifties. He had the window; I had the aisle. And I hadn't planned on speaking to him, but I glanced over at some point, and noticed that he was crying. Silently, and not much. But still. And there was a moment of not knowing what to do, whether to say anything or just turn back to my book and offer him privacy. But I ended up touching his shoulder, asking if he was all right. He wanted to talk; he wanted to be distracted. He was going all the way to Florida, to where his mother was dying. So I tried my best to distract him; I told him about my life, about school, and about Kevin, who I was going to see that weekend. He gave me relationship advice, based on his own marriage and his children's relationships. It wasn't even bad advice, and we ended up talking until the flight was landing. He thanked me as we disembarked, mostly just for keeping him company. We exchanged a few e-mails after that; he wrote and told me that his mother had died, and then wrote a year or so later and asked if I'd ever sorted things out with 'that boy.' So. While I still plan to take my paraphernalia with me when I travel, plan to be prepared to whip out the headphones as soon as the pilot says it's okay, maybe I'll at least glance at my seatmates first. Sometimes, it's good, not to be too insulated.