Monday, January 18, 2010


I flew to Portland today, my first encounter with the airline industry since the Christmas day unpleasantness.

The Milwaukee airport seemed as relaxed as ever, though a couple of the bored guards who usually stand around scowling seemed to be squinting with a touch more focus. This must be the “behavioral analysis” aspect we’ve heard about.

I guess I didn’t look suspicious enough for further inquiry, though I did have my bag re-scanned and searched. The agent removed my little blue Kinko’s stapler from the bottom of my backpack, raised it in the air and exclaimed “here’s the culprit!” Culprit? I’ve been travelling with it for eleven years and it’s passed through checkpoints a hundred times. As I packed up, the agent winked and chirped “thanks for participating!” This seemed to be a complicit joke of some kind, but on whom I’m not sure.

There was a three hour layover in Minneapolis and I remembered that I had a day pass for the Delta Sky Lounge in my wallet, proffered in consolation for a flight cancellation last year that cost me one whole day of appointments. I’ve always walked right by the elegant swishing glass doors, sometimes getting a quick glance at the desk, which looks like the reception lounge of a slick spa. Who are these people, and what goes on in there? I’d wonder.

The secret’s out, it’s not all that. There’s a very large seating room with comfortable chairs and bright windows. The aesthetic model seems to be “patient waiting area at an upscale clinic.” I was famished, and part of my strategy was to skip the airport fare that the peons out on Concourses A through G were offered in exchange for the roman feast in here.

Alas, there were three items on the menu: the little plastic-wrapped cookies you are given on the planes; boring pretzels; and a somewhat disturbing party mix that looked a lot like the one my aunt Georgia used to whip up, which involved dumping every dry ingredient from her cupboard into a bowl and then adding chocolate chips when company came by unexpectedly.

On the plus side, there was free Wi-Fi with plenty of desks and outlets. A swank desk staffed by beautiful people made travel arrangements for these special customers. Everybody involved was smiling, something I haven’t seen on a ticket line in years.

Strangest of all, there was a huge open bar- bottles of rack liquor, beers, and wines- self-serve, all you can drink. Good grief, why don’t we have more mad drunks on planes than we already do if this has been going on?

I tried to hang out and enjoy the experience, since I won’t be back until the next time I get screwed over by some cancelled flight. But from one end of the room came the threatening, testosterone-fueled roars of a roomful of (probably drunk) men watching a big football game. At the other end, a crowd of Chicagoans had commandeered a television and re-arranged furniture to watch a hockey game.

I was determined to finish my fifties British spinster novel (The Tortoise & the Hare, Elizabeth Jenkins), but I jumped out of my skin at every outburst. It reminds me too much of the Sundays when the men of my family gathered in the living room to honor this same male ritual while I was in the kitchen with the women relishing gossip.

On the plane, I was relieved to see that the group of three small kids and a mom seated in the row ahead of me were not screamers- yet anyway. It actually seemed like one of those model travelling families. Nobody ever shut up, it’s true, and mom was constantly responding and fussing, but she was in control and everything was running smoothly.

Just before take-off, we were told to stow all our electronic devices and mom tried to take away the four year old’s game.

“Why,” he asked.

“Because the captain said so,” mom explained.

“But why?” he pressed. Good for you, I thought, that’s not an explanation.

“Because it would be bad for the plane,” mom offered.

He immediately sensed that she was on shaky ground here, and pushed his advantage: “But WHY is it bad for the plane?”

Mom said “I don’t know exactly but there must be a good reason or they wouldn’t tell us to do it.”

Normally, I love hearing adults say the words “I don’t know” to kids instead of making it up. And this did have the practical effect of shutting down an inquiry that might have gone on until Portland, and by then even the boys’ fans among neighboring passengers would have turned on him.

But mom’s final gambit really depressed me. I want that kid to keep asking why. On some absurdly cosmic level it seems like it might be our only hope. Are we training a generation of naturally curious children to accept whatever they’re told over loudspeakers whether it makes sense or not? I wanted to lean over and whisper to him “Hey, don’t believe it, A lot of times people DON’T have good reasons for what they’re telling you to do.” But I would probably have been taken off the plane for being a terrorist predator.

This incident did get me thinking about whether we (the big we, publishing we, not just my presses) are doing enough books that encourage questioning. I'm happy that Yale still publishes Thoreau’s Walden, a book that changed my life in high school. This season I’m selling Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful meditation defending introspection, Absence of Mind, which celebrates non-conformity in its own way. A quirky new book on the Harvard spring list, Galileo in Pittsburgh, passionately defends the scientific method, and, in a more sophisticated way, doggedly asks “why” the same way the kid on the plane did. And on the MIT list, nearly every book published by semiotext(e) is a call for revolt against conformist thinking.

So there are plenty of big thinking books on our lists, but I hope for more. And I hope for generations of questioning kids who haven’t had the curiosity drilled out of them to read and write these books.

There were plenty of these kids on display at the sad/happy memorial meeting for my friend Mark Gates in Madison Saturday. These sons and daughters of book industry people- they are lucky to be growing up in families where reading and questioning is a virtue. More than anything else at the service and party, these kids, challengers all, gave me hope.

And I will add “keep questioning” to the "how to live like Mark" self-improvement tip sheet I left Madison with. The other items are: be kind, especially to shy people and wall-flowers; be generous, especially to the “invisible” people we interact with every day; keep a sense of humor; do it now.

I'll never attain Mark Gates level mastery but it's something to strive for.

As I drove home with my friends and former colleagues Daniel Goldin and Elly Gore, we talked blogs. Daniel has one of the most interesting in the book business ( and though he feeds it daily, it never seems like filler and always seems fresh.

“Is my blog really interesting or is it just a longer version of those status posts that say “I’m painting my toenails now,” I whined.

“But that’s the trick!” Daniel said. “You have to say “I’m painting my toenails now with the new book, Paint Your Toenails Now! From ScoobyDoo publishers. Keep it about the books.”

Will do. Along with the questions.


  1. As someone with a healthy list of RSS feeds subscibed in my Reader, I will make this point. It's pretty easy to discern the blog as marketing tool from the blog that is being used to extend insight and share experience. Yours is certainly of the latter variety.
    Nice to see you despite the sad circumstances.

  2. Or, maybe, we should take solace in the fact that a four year old is asking why. That even if he grows up accepting everything over the loudspeaker, passively, eventually he will have a child who turns four and starts asking "why" about everything, possibly making that adult who once asked why, start to revisit those same questions again.

  3. Nice post John -

    I was at Mark's memorial with one of those kids you mention, and yes, he already does question everything. We will always encourage his spirt and hope he can hold onto it. "Be kind" and "keep questioning" are two worthy traits we can all try to remember.