Small talk and FEMA camps
It's getting harder and harder to talk to strangers on planes, now that advancing technology has rudely stripped a primary conversation starter away from all of us who are shy travelers.
It used to be that on my way to a long-term care convention or Burning Man, I could glance slyly at the stranger sitting next to me, catch the title of the book he or she had stuffed in the seat pouch and think of something well-timed and clever to say about it.
No longer. I still try, but the conversations don't seem to go anywhere. “I couldn't help noticing you're reading … a Kindle,” I begin, thus flying into a conversational box canyon. Because it's not like I can then continue, “I've heard that's good. Don't tell me how it ends.”
So instead I'm stuck with sure-fire non-starters like, “Should be sunny at 38,000 feet,” or “It sure seems like there's less leg room all the time. Of course, this is nothing compared to how cramped we'll all be in those FEMA prison camps.”
For centuries, ever since Guttenberg first flew to New York to pitch his newfangled printing device to venture capitalists, books have been an essential social lubricant of airport chatter. Legend has it that as he pulled his still-damp 70-pound Bible on an oxcart carry-on through Terminal B at LaGuardia, a medical supply rep walking alongside volunteered that he'd just seen the movie and also said it was better.
In the decades since, books have continued to serve as an essential springboard for small talk. A former co-worker of mine once brought one on board with the naughty title, well, I actually can't repeat the title in a family-friendly long-term care publication. Let's just say it was a common and colorful pejorative synonym for “jerk.”
Charles, whose real name has not been changed, was traveling with and seated next to a perfectly polite and likable rehab colleague. After taking their beverage requests, the flight attendant made the mistake of seeing the book and asking, “Oh, what are you reading?”
“A biography of my friend here,” he replied, showing her the cover. Much mirth ensued (which you won't understand unless you clicked on the link above) — and this was exactly the sort of memorable moment now rendered unlikely by the faceless anonymity of the Kindle.
But here's one good thing about the Kindle and all its e-reader siblings. You can purchase and read “Being Mortal” on it. Also, “When Breath Becomes Air.” Follow that by “Second Wind,” “Travels with Epicurus” and “The Four Things that Matter Most.” Then you could read them during the flight, all of them, thus forgetting the pressure you used to feel to talk to that frightening stranger virtually sitting in your lap for the past four hours.
When the plane lands and you're forced to shut down your electronic device and finally speak, say something like, “Our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one's story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone's lives.”
He or she will look at you with puzzlement and annoyance, and you should simply respond, “That's a passage from Atul Gawande's ‘Being Mortal.' I just read it on my Kindle, and I strongly suggest you do the same. But make sure you download it right away, because there won't be Wi-Fi in the FEMA camps.”
Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold Medal winner in the 2014 Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He has amused, informed and sometimes befuddled long-term care readers worldwide since his debut with the former SNALF.com at the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.