I know this sounds stupid, but at first glance there’s something vaguely romantic in the thought of flying 20 hours with your wife and three little ones to start a new life in new country. I mean think about it: it’s just the five of you, on a big plane, being serviced and pampered by the good people of Continental Airlines. Yes, it’s a long time, but your kids are good sleepers and it’ll be nice to cuddle up with them under one of those flimsy little airline blankets. And geeze, you know, these days with those seat-back entertainment centers, you can catch up on all the movies you haven’t seen while the little ones go glassy-eyed watching The Incredibles 72 times.
Well, exactly 6671 miles into the trip, with exactly 1114 more miles to go, I can tell you all of that is a load of hooey.
I’m not even going to blame the usual suspects: tiny seats that force your knees up around your ears, lousy meals that offer you a choice between salmon a la goat hide or steak served in nasal sauce. Nor will I mention flight attendants that obviously dropped out of charm school before joining the SS. No, instead, I’m simply going to point out that, frankly, sitting for 20 hours is a pain in the butt.
Let me make sure that I’m being clear here: right now, as I’m sitting on this flight, with 6717 miles behind me and 1070 miles to go, my butt cheeks really really really hurt.
I think I was doing okay until last night around 9 o’clock when Ellen gave up on getting our littlest one to sleep. The peculiar thing about my wife and me and our kids is that my only real parenting talent is escorting the little runts into la-la land. This is peculiar, because in general my presence is about as calming as a hurricane in wind-chime factory. Whatever: it’s my super power and I use it for good.
Anyhow, after Jamie’s head as bobbed up over the seatback in front of me for the 47th time, Ellen finally gave up and handed him off. This is just fine with me, because I have a plan: instead of giving Jamie his own seat, I’ll lie diagonally over his seat and mine with him on top of me. That way, we’ll both get a great night’s sleep: me, because I’ve got more room to stretch my legs and can lean my head against the window; and him because he’s got my big fat futon of a body to stretch out on.
And indeed, this is a great plan: almost instantly, I’ve got a two-and-a-half year old unconscious in my lap. What could be better?
A lot, actually. Within twenty minutes, I’m beginning to suspect my plan may have a few flaws. For one thing, Jamie is big for a thirty-month-old toddler: imagine an eight-year-old who pumps iron, and you’re pretty much there. Sure, it’s cute having him asleep on my torso, but dang, it’d be nice to breathe, too.
Second is the fact that whatever genius designed the Boeing 777 neglected to include those little air-blasters that mess up your hair. I know this for a fact, because for the longest time I was under the impression that the overhead lights were actually the vents. That is to say, when it got a little hot 30 minutes after leaving Newark, I reached up and twisted the fixture, round and round and round. When no air came, I kept twisting. And twisting. And twisting. Until eventually the thing came off in my hand.
Just then, Attila, our flight attendant, showed up.
“That’s not the air vent,” she said.
“I work for NASA,” I told her. “I’m just checking the filaments.”
“There are no vents on this plane,” she said.
“NASA,” I repeated “Your tax money at work.”
So now, 6,800 miles later, when Jamie’s asleep on my lap and our two bodies start to heat up, there’s nothing I can do but swear quietly and sweat. I do both profusely.
All of this though—the sweat, the swearing, the sheer mass of a boy made of bricks crushing down on my innards—pales in comparison to what’s happening the lower half of my body.
Actually, that’s not true: it doesn’t pale in comparison because the fact of the matter is I have no idea what’s happening to the lower half of my body, because frankly, I have no sense of anything below my waist. My legs and butt have been stuck in the same position for so long that I’m numb.
But I feel pain. How can that be? How can I simultaneously be without feeling, and yet know for a fact that a miniature version of the violin section of the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra has set up camp under my butt and is now warming up for Beethoven’s 9th? Logically, it makes no sense, I know, but there you have it. I can even feel the little bastards rosining up their bows.
But never mind, I’m a survivor. If I can sit through 5 mediocre Harry Potter movies, I can handle this. So what I do is very very very gently lift my son two inches into the air, just enough to shift my lower body slightly to the right, stretching my legs and easing my weight slightly more to my left buttock. Then, very very very gently, I lower my still-sleeping concrete garden boy back onto my lap, lean my head back, and go to sleep.
For another twenty minutes. At which time I wake up with the PSO in full flight, Ode to Joying my rear end like there’s no tomorrow when the cows come home to an empty cupboard. (I have no idea what that means, but at this point I’ve been awake now for the better part of 24 hours, so suck it up).
I do the lift and shift again: very very gently, lead boy going up up up, very very gently, the legs going slightly further to the right, becoming slightly more bent, buttocks shifting, lead boy sinking very very slowly.
This time I don’t so much sleep as doze. The pain has subsided, but it isn’t entirely gone, and I’m already anticipating an encore from the cellos. And indeed, within 10 minutes I’m so sore I can’t think straight. My legs throb so much I actually feel ill. Fortunately, I’ve stashed a two-pound bag of Twizzlers in my backpack, within easy reach. In my sleep-deprived state, I somehow convince myself licorice will help me. I eat the whole bag.
Now my butt really hurts. I mean, the orchestra, the indigestion, the knowledge that all of this might well go on for another five or six hours. There’s no twenty-minute stretch at this point in the trip: it’s five minutes in one position, lift, shift, five minutes in another, lift, shift, and so on.
Inevitably, of course, the inevitable happens (hence the name): my son wakes up. And not just wakes up, but howls. Howls. Keep in mind, this is a boy who’s cries can be heard through two closed oak doors. This is a boy who can yell so loud it makes your stomach hurt. This is a boy with lungs so big, even at two he could lie on his back in the water and float without moving a muscle. And now he’s howling. In the middle of a night, on a jumbo jet full of sleeping people.
I, of course, do everything I can within a two-foot by three-foot space. I hug him. I kiss him. I rock him. I even sing to him, thinking that even if it doesn’t help with the crying, at least it’ll win me points with the irate passengers around me (“See, he’s not such a bad man; he’s singing Tom Waits to his two-year-old.”). No such luck. I’m getting glares all around, even from the sleeping beauty next to me, a twenty-four-year-old English teacher who climbed into his seat at the start of the flight, introduced himself, and promptly went to sleep—and stayed that way. Until now. Now, he’s looking at me like I’m the biggest butt-wipe this side of Butt-Wipe Indiana (a real town, by the way). Meanwhile, nothing I can do with my so seems to help (I’ve shifted now from “All I Want” to an improvised version of Brahms’ Lullaby that includes the phrase “Shut the hell up or I’ll strangle your puny little neck.”)
Eventually, he wears himself out and falls back asleep. Only this time, he’s on his back, legs splayed, arms akimbo, head thrown back in a dramatic fashion. I swear for all the world that we look like Michelangelo’s Pieta, arguably one of the most beautiful sculptures ever, and one that, from now on whenever I look at it, I’ll probably think, “Man, I’ll bet Mary’s ass hurts.”
Please note: this is a personal blog, so don't go writing them Fulbright folks complaining I use the word "Butt."