Friday, January 12, 2007

These People Do Not Build Toyotas (And It Doesn't Matter)

Narita Airport, Tokyo

Maybe it is me.

Maybe it is that I started today at 4 a.m.

Or, maybe it is that I don’t what day it is anymore.

All I know for sure is that it is not today. It is either yesterday or tomorrow.

Which is not the point.

Rather, the point is I expected something different when I arrived in Japan. Specifically, I expected efficiency. After all, these are the people who build Toyotas, Hondas, Nissans, and every other car that anyone wants to drive who is spending their own money. This is the land where high-def television is passé, where everyone packs multiple mobile devices in bandoleer belts, where everyone is supposed to be the mirror of efficiency.

That’s what they say.

But, I don’t believe it. Not anymore.

After a short, refreshing 14-hour flight from Houston, I unglued myself from my seat and entered not the land of Sony, but the land of Laurel and Hardy. Everyone is smiling but no one in the Narita airport, including the intelligent high-tech flat panel flight displays knows either where I am or where I should be. The people are not the same ones who build Toyotas, but whoever built this passenger warehouse should be put into prison for a long, long time. (Here’s a random thought on airport design: If you’re going to have two terminals, say, 6 miles apart, connect them in some way.) Standing in a forever-line waiting for a bus in the rain is not efficient and it is not safe, especially when you put 371 people in that line with nothing in common except being locked up for the better part of day in a 70,000 pound extruded aluminum tube and each of you feels somehow abused.

And, I can testify that no one here is in the mood for anymore helpful messaging, from anyone, including those ominous messages about our safety. “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” That’s my philosophy of air travel. If you want to be safe, stay at home and lock the doors and keep your Pit Bull on a gunpowder diet.

But, if you want to go somewhere far, far away, here’s reality: You may not make it. Pretzels may be your last meal. A flight attendant with fried hair the tensile strength of piano wire and disappointed in her career decision to be a waitress may be the last person who tells you to sit down and shut up. Or, you might be minding your own business in the lavatory and be sucked down that long blue tube in a moment of irrational exuberance. Or, your fate may be in the hands of someone who is unhappy with the air experience or your religion and wants to make a lasting statement. If so, you’re going to make one of those “water landings” they ramble on about in the safety briefing card, which I like to refer to as a “crash,” if only because that is what it is.

Adios, amigo. Vaya con Dios.

I know that sounds harsh even as I reread it but it is not meant that way. There is actually freedom that comes with risk because in the end, you realize there is no risk at all. The outcome has been pre-determined. You’re going to die. I am, too. The only relevant inquiry is "when?" Because we can’t know the answer, we can either fret about it and hope minimum-wage airport security workers are going to save us from high-tech guerrillas or we can get on the plane and stop whimpering. We can hope that Genentech comes up with a pill that lets us live with whatever it is we’ve got until the insurance money runs out, or we can understand and accept that death is not a risk. It is a guarantee, and I don’t mean like the one that came with your laptop computer. This guarantee you can count on. We can do anything to prolong our lives even if it means fear and misery, or we can understand we get no points for a long life, but only for a good one.

In the end, this experience isn't defined by inconveniences just like it is not defined by conveniences. Standing in the rain waiting for a bus in the middle of the night at Narita is, well, standing in the rain waiting for a bus in the middle of the night at Narita. It isn’t good. It isn't bad. It just is. If I need to fret over something, I need to make it something important, like love, for example. I need to spend less time angry that my head is getting wet and spend more time exhibiting care, compassion and concern for those who pass through my life.

Well, it is time to go. I’ve gone from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1, from Gate 28 to 59 and then back to 34 just in time to make the final leg, which means I won’t be sleeping on blue plastic chairs in the Narita airport tonight under a pile of newspapers, and for that I am grateful. My guess it will be two days ago when I arrive in Singapore eight hours from now but I’ll wait to be surprised when I wake up tomorrow, or yesterday, as the case may be.



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