June 26, 2002
Red Eyes

I kissed my wife and children goodbye, shook hands with the dog, and drove to a spot on the shores of San Francisco Bay. Then there followed a nightmarish seven hours: I heard the rush of the wind at 600 mph; I heard the roar of hydrocarbon bonds being broken and fire kindled at temperatures that would have scorched, melted, or consumed all the materials people knew how to make even as recently as sixty years; I saw cloud castles; I saw a full moon that seemed mysteriously near; I saw the stars shine with an unnatural clearness and beauty never seen at the bottom of earth's thick, hazy, and turbulent atmosphere; I was borne aloft by wings that had ten times the span of the mightiest flying creatures of the age of reptiles; and when the night was over the world I saw was transformed--the climate was (unfortunately) different from that of greater San Francisco, the trees were different, the accents were different, in short, I was 3000 miles away.

In other words, I took the non-stop red-eye across the country: United Airlines flight 236 departing Oakland Airport 11:45 PM PDT, arriving Washington Dulles Airport 7:40 AM EDT. In some sense it should have been a fantastic and romantic experience: high technology, great speed, immense natural beauty, and transformations of my surroundings that would have struck the people of 500 or more years ago as the purest magic.

But that's not how the non-stop red-eye feels. Instead, one feels desperate for sleep as airplane seats make it impossible to find any comfortable position, and when sleep finally comes, it's, "I'm sorry sir, you cannot sleep on the floor anymore. The captain has turned on the fasten seatbelt sign because we are about to encounter turbulence." I had been rather proud of myself: in United economy-plus there are enormous amounts of legroom, and because nobody wants the fixed-armrest bulkhead seats the bulkhead row was empty, and so I found I could sneak up there and lie down on the floor half under the seats, hidden (I thought) from the flight attendants who might think that passengers sleeping on the floor was a violation of the moral order. It turned out I wasn't hidden from the flight attendants, and they didn't think sleeping on the floor was a violation of the moral order--but failing to obey the lighted "fasten seatbelt" sign was.

And I left the plane, bleary-eyed and wondering how many Starbucks lattes it would take to get my brain chemistry into an awake-and-alert thinking state, and whether that many lattes would cause my hands to shake uncontrollably (no, it turned out).

I wonder. Is there something wrong with me--in that I don't think of the cross-country red-eye as a wonderful, magical experience? Is there something wrong with us as a society to treat such a wonderful thing as run-of-the-mill? Or is it simply that there is no human experience, however magical, that can make up for lack of sleep?

Posted by DeLong at June 26, 2002 09:15 AM

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Never, ever take the redeye. Instead, fly to Chicago at night, sleep in the airport hotel, and then take the early morning flight to DC. You can make it here by 8AM and actually function.

Posted by: arnold kling on June 28, 2002 02:23 PM
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