The Middle Seat

These are my thoughts after meeting a mother who used to be close friends with Marvin Gaye, watching Guardians of the Galaxy, and landing in Los Angeles with renewed struggles with technology. This is not a movie review, but there are two movies reviewed. And this is not a promotional piece, but there is promotion.

Of the two women on either side of me on the plane from Detroit was Susan Pierce.

She just finished showing me backstage footage from her Steely Dan show last night somewhere in Michigan. This was right before she stepped towards the baggage conveyer and hauled into her arms a suitcase bursting from its taupe and tan zebra print seams, stuffed full with 25 vinyl albums.

Susan says her daughter’s adventuresome spirit echoes hers from bygone years. She used to have a great life, she says. That now she tries to move fast so time doesn't catch up with her. That she feels she is getting younger by the day. And I couldn’t feel more in line with her at this moment.

She moved to the Bahamas when she was 20, and she celebrated her 21st birthday on the islands. She backpacked through Europe: 10 countries in her 25th year. Immediately I cringe at my Europe-less bank of experiences. But there is time.

Earlier, on the plane, Susan was my ally in the fight against remaining seated with my seat belt fastened while the seat-belt light was on. Prompted by the sweet grandmother sitting in the window seat asking permission to use the bathroom, Susan encouraged the whole team to take the opportunity to do so as well. So thoughtful. After all, you are only as strong as your weakest link; as good as the company you keep. 

We find out Susan remained a close friend to Marvin Gaye many years back, to Odell Brown. She was very lucky, she said, for she had really wonderful friends. Never explaining how or why, she just appeared to feel humbled and reflective on her journey thus far.

And so as I returned to my in-flight entertainment, Guardians of the Galaxy, I thought about why I instantaneously enjoyed my flight experience so much. I was surrounded by nice people. Conversational people. A good movie at my fingertips. I was learning from the people and media around me - who would have thought?

In Guardians, I am drawn to the subtle and beautiful lessons it shares with the viewer. It’s not a Star Wars with prolific ingenuity of vision, being ahead of its time. It’s not special for the world it created that we may now see for the first time. It’s because this film excels in its portrayal of the gentle soul; of humanity.

I learn about the grandmother-to-my-left’s upbringing in rural Alabama, outside of Montgomery. She moved to Altadena in the late 60s for college, and soon married, raised children, and established herself at the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains.

It blew my mind, but she tells me that not until 1970 was the elementary school where her eldest son attended, became integrated with Black Americans. I think at this moment I was speechless.

She continues on about how she was almost barred from buying in the neighborhood she has lived her whole life. Getting a bank loan was nearly impossible. Finally it was Bank of America that helped her mortgage her first and only home in which she would ever live.

We shared stories about Eaton Canyon and the culture of hikers using her driveway and street to park before ascending the mountain. I shared stories of my family and experiences, the recent move to Maine, and life in New York.

It felt liberating to chat honestly and openly with a stranger, not having an end goal of networking or acquiring something from them. Because there are people who undeniably embark every airplane with headphones on, or eyes glued to their telephones. And why? You remove yourself from the social fabric of the life in front of us. You miss out on an opportunity to learn something new, or about someone’s life that might change the way you view yours, or more generally, the world.

I have made sure to always say hello to the person directly next to me on airplanes. If you sit less than 10 inches away from another human being, it is likely you make eye contact. And if you make eye contact with a person in your immediate vicinity, it baffles me how a pleasant greeting is not the next step you make.

And I am reminded of my strong feelings against social media and networking sites (read: anti-social media and anti-social networking) when after Guardians, I watched Men, Women, and Children by Jason Reitman. It is a contemporary narrative about the intrusion and effects of technology on relationships. Human relationships. It is mildly discouraging to watch the film, but it is superb.

As the content and ubiquity of text or internet communication are made available by the filmmaker as bubbles alongside each character, I fear for our future generations and despise the millennial one I am - without question - included. I fear that the technology startup culture will dominate our minds and ambition, only to drive to succeed at creating newer ways to dilute our own human experiences by re-characterizing them as “innovative” or “efficient.”

Guardians of the Galaxy is poignant in the way that it highlights our look to the past. In it, the filmmakers accomplish this subtle feat by making a detail so idiosyncratic that it’s joyful; it’s also novel. We see cassette tapes spinning in old walkman and tape decks. The music is pleasantly complements that of a futuristic setting.

There is a moment in the film when Chris Pratt’s character covers Zoe Saldana’s ears with headphones. It is because the music he chooses to share actually means something to him. This emotion is layered with memories of his mother. And in this moment, I am stirred. I dive into and relish it for its striking parallels to my own experience in youth.

I felt like I was a king when I was making mixtapes, sharing them with friends in someone’s car. I placed favorite songs that coincided with lucky numbers on a disc. I expressed at which exact moment to drive down sunset-drenched highways with our windows all the way down. And I felt notorious for DJ’ing in and out of songs, only by the spin of the volume dial. 

With so much time invested in our virtual social networks and apps to “connect” each other, I fear we will lose the ability to navigate social situations as they did with ease in Gatsby-era. 

John C. Reilly takes Guardians with the best scene since Dr. Steve Brule visited wine country. While standing opposite Glenn Close, making incredibly timed conversation, Reilly’s character should have held the beat even a moment longer so that mainstream entertainment audience knows and feels awkward. So our kids know awkward, and build resilience and fuel from it - not hide behind message manipulation and text communication. Because timing means nothing like it does in person.

We can learn a lot from the movies above. But more importantly, we can learn a lot from the people around us merely by talking to one another on airplanes. So go ahead and walk onto that next flight without your headphones on. Maybe you'll be like our earlier hero, Susan, and land backstage at your next stadium concert. Or on a tropical island for your next birthday. Or on another continent, backpacking with a couple folks you met on a plane somewhere high up in the sky - happier than you ever thought you could be.