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  • There are two types of people who fly: travelers who make conversation, travelers who are terrified of conversation, and babies.

    It takes half a day to fly from San Francisco, across the Pacific Ocean, to Bangkok. Our plane was sectioned up into little facing pods, holding four people each, almost like little lifeboats. Across from me was a sleeping man who I actually never saw awake; he was either on a lot of sedatives, or else coming off a pretty difficult period in his life. To my right was a nice, shy middle-aged woman, so shy that she tended to speak in unfinished half-sentences. Diagonally across the space was a portly man, in a cream shirt with a broad collar. His head was enormous and lumpy. It looked as though somebody had put a lot of smaller heads in a big sack. I remember him also wearing a heavy watch, of the sort that still do their logos in cursive.

    When I looked up from my book, he made eye contact.

    "Hello, young man. I was wondering if you'd look up from that thing!" he said, disapprovingly. "What is it, anyway?"

    "It's called The Idiot."

    "Well, not a great title, but that's obvious. It's about...what?"

    "It's by a Russian historian. He's arguing that Jesus had severe epilepsy."

    "Fantastic. So, you're a student."

    "Yeah, English."

    "What d'you wanna do with that?"

    I made air quotes. "What do you mean, 'do'?"

    He laughed a bourbon laugh. "You've got a sense of humor about it. That's a good start. This is what I want my sons to do, figure out something and devote themselves to it, make their way. I told them that on Christmas. They're going to have to start from scratch. Their mother and I are always here to listen to them, and they have the condos as a gift from us, but that's it. The rest is completely up to them."

    During dinner, the conversation picked up again.

    "So you're going to backpack around? Well, that's good. I can understand it, pretty much. You're young. Seeing temples, everything like that?"

    I nodded, and he went on, "But, look, here's what I'll ask you. Clearly you like the novelty and, I get that. Brand new country. Going adventuring. But for two whole months? How? Really, how. Because, my wife, you know, has us zooming all over the place. Japan, I don't even know. But Japan, you have to go during the cherry blossom season, is what everybody says. And we did! But the thing, Joe, is that I can't recommend it. I really can't. Do you know what a cherry tree looks like when it blooms? It looks like a small tree covered in little flowers. Is it nice? All right, sure it's nice. But flying out for that? Then we went into these Shinto temples, which are supposed to be just so amazing. The pinnacle of Japanese beauty, is what I'm reading. Joe, they're completely empty. These huge, empty buildings. Am I going to coo over them, ooooh, look at all the emptiness? No. Forget it. I told her Japan was the final straw, I was never traveling again."

    Yes, he'd done it. He'd hooked me, the bastard. "So, wait. Now you're flying out again, and here we are."

    He raised his hands, palms up, imploring the heavens. "Here we are, you're right about that. Do you have a girlfriend?"

    "Yes." I told him she was in Dublin, working on plays, which in fact was true.

    "So you get it. Come enjoy the tropical sun with me, honey!...and she's over in Ireland. My wife, you know, is going to meet me. She's already over there. She's been backpacking, by herself, for five weeks already. After we had the fight about Japan, she said we were getting older -- exactly, I said -- anyway, said that we were getting older and pretty soon it would be too late to go anywhere, see anything. 'See anything.' Her words. I'm going with or without you, she said. So now I have to go meet her in Bangkok. One week, on a tour. And, may I add, staying in hotels like civilized people."

    The plane crawled across the Pacific, high above featureless clouds. The hours began to smear together. I watched Cheaper By The Dozen, which temporarily seemed very profound.

    "Alright, so, you can help me out here, Joe. I want to get her something, you know, for the buses and all that. A book. She's a reader, so you don't have to softpedal me. Even if I'd fall asleep, which I promise you, I would. Is this good, then, The Idiot? Seems specific, though."

    He rummaged, coming up with a nice pen and a hotel notepad. I gave him my recommendation. "C-H-O-P-I-N. Just like the composer, then, yes? Great, well, that's easy. Kate Chopin. Perfect. Thank you for that."

    "You're very welcome," I replied.
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