Monday, November 20, 2006

First Class

Yesterday, I found myself confronted with an attractive woman in my seat as I boarded a connecting flight in Cincinnati. She’d just met an old friend, seated next to my assigned seat, and proposed a trade. Would I mind sitting in first class?

Turns out, I didn't mind at all.

First class travel is an entirely different experience. The seats are comfortable, and you don’t have to worry about the obese woman sweating through her corduroy pants at the point of juncture with your leg (one leg of my trip out). You can see the in-flight movie.

The passengers are noticeably different. My seat-mate chose to watch the movie (the latest Pirates of the Caribbean – I was working), and I was a little startled and amused to see her emotional reactions (holding her hands to her face, little gasps etc.) to the special-effects enhanced drama it seems most have become inured to. A bunch of business types were in the front two rows, bantering about the day’s college football games, and joking about getting cell-phone updates in-flight. (I don’t know if they did, but I wouldn’t be surprised.) One of them presented the stewardess with an origami flower (made from an airline napkin) shortly before we landed. She beamed at his cleverness. He beamed back at her.

This is the stewardess we shared among the twelve or so of us. She offers pre-flight drinks, makes the rounds with the snack basket (which offers an actual variety), the coffee cup they provide you with holds more coffee, she apologizes for not having your preferred sweetener, and bemoans the lack of an actual sandwich to offer when she realizes you haven’t had time to eat all day.

Looking at the entitled passengers, and how they took their experience in first-class for granted, got me thinking about class differentiation.

I remember research reviewed in a physiological psychology class on rats raised in enriched environments – about how their cortexes are much larger, they learn new tasks faster, they are more socially interactive, less aggressive, and have a proliferation of cholinergic receptor sites (associated with intelligence) compared to their deprived counterparts. I thought about rats raised in deprived conditions – how they’re prone to attack each other, and tend to be (anthropomorphizing admitted) brutish, stupid, discontented and short-lived.

And I thought about children I’ve worked with – raised in front of televisions, social interaction limited primarily to school, tending to be less intelligent, more aggressive, and unhappy.

My father was raised in a blue-collar home through the depression. Yet the three surviving boys all earned advanced degrees (their sister married instead – a successful dentist. She ran his office until he retired). Though the difference between Coach and First Class may appear to be economic, that distinction is conveniently artificial – the discriminating factor is environmental. They were raised in a family where there was a concerted effort to provide the children with options and stimulation. The lack of money, while hard, also necessitated cooperative efforts to achieve super-ordinate goals. This is the stuff of bonding, and an avenue to self-efficacy.

The ability to make choices – to exercise options, or assert yourself, or modify your environment to suit your transient desires; this is a critical difference between first class, and coach. This is also a critical difference between the children of many first-class passengers, and the children of those riding Coach. Or Greyhound. The first-class passengers assume the world will conform to their desires. The Coach passengers make no such assumption, and will have such corrected by the harried airline staff if they do.

The experience of underprivileged children in this country, as egregious as conditions can sometimes get, pales in comparison to the rest of the world. I had an interesting conversation with my neighbor the other day. He was raised in Ramallah, and still has many friends and family members in Lebanon. He talked about the continuing shelling of the refugee camps, and how an extended family of 18 was killed the other day. He talked about the ridiculous assertion that a warning precedes the shelling; the camp residents have no place to escape to.

And I thought about the impact of all the violence, and the drastic limitation of options, that characterizes the lives of the children living in such places. My neighbor talked about the ridiculous idea that actions such as those make anyone safer, and of course we talked about the war. What we didn’t talk about was the manner in which such an environment sets the stage for problems down the road, as the traumatized children raised under such pathogenic conditions become traumatized adults.

And it makes me angry, because we know better. We’re astute enough to study the impact the war in Sierra Leone has had on the chimp population in the area (devastating – perhaps unrecoverably so), yet we acknowledge too infrequently the impact such an environment exerts on the people who live there – it’s too overwhelming to think about. We continue to justify engaging in widespread destruction (which is so easy, really), and then pretend bafflement when those same tactics are used against our efforts to rebuild some of what’s been lost – as though that isn’t a predictable consequence of our own actions. We refuse to adequately fund public education in our own country, or to provide inadequately supervised youth with attractive alternatives to television, videogames, Myspace, drug use or delinquency.

My first-class seat-mate had a powerful, observable reaction to Hollywood special effects in a relatively tame movie; proof enough of a background free of personal involvement in violence and despair. We should all live in such a world, but we can't provide it for ourselves; we have to provide it for each other.


topazz said...

Reminds me of a line in one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes; Jerry gets seated next to a gorgeous model in first class while Elaine is in a middle seat back in coach, wedged in next to a fat and slobbering sleeping guy.

"More, more of everything!"

JohnMcG said...

I wonder if the Internet is actually an improvement -- a person at a computer screen has much more control over his environment than someone sitting in front of a TV screen or even holding a book.

Dawn Coyote said...

When I was 24, I briefly had a job bartending in the men's lounge of a golf course. The oak-panelled room was rarely populated by more than five patrons at a time. They'd come in, retrieve their bottle from their personal locker behind the panels, and take a seat at the bar or by the windows, where I'd bring them glasses, ice, mix and peanuts.

Most of the time there were two or three old men ensconced near the windows. They had an air of frail entitlement that I found novel and interesting. These old men, clearly wealthy, were some of the most terrified individuals I've ever come across. One would have thought they were living in dreadful conditions, but I suspect what was happening was that they'd come to the end of what their money could buy.

I didn't know about studies with rats in enriched environments. That's interesting.

Also: I cover my eyes during horror movies. I'm skittish, but I love the damn things. I wasn't raised wealthy, but rather overindulged.

TenaciousK said...

Thanks for the responses!

Topazz: most of the time, the stories are too banal to even relate. Air travel is a little like a minor circle of hell, I think. Well, unless you can afford to buy yourself a little comfot. Sort of like indulgences?

My prediction: next, the airlines will figure out how to courier their luggage immediately to the gate, and have valets take it to waiting vehicles [value-added, as opposed to price-reduced]. No more waiting at baggage claim.

john: I don't know whether the internet has helped, or hurt. It does provide an alternative for kids/teens that keeps them occupied and out of immediate danger (well, usually - ask the Dateline jailbait story folks). It also provides an alternative to other unpleasant things, however, like homework, employment, IRL social interaction and, well, life.

Speaking of which, I need to go get some work done.

DC: I think you're correct in pointing out the nature of entitlement - it's more an aspect of dominance than a form of confidence. The most entitled people do feel threatened all the time: the entitled attitude is a facade. What I was really talking about was confidence - the perception that the world is a welcoming space that affords many options.

Horror movies are one thing, but freakin' Pirates? If you're getting a visceral reaction to that, you're either a person who doesn't get out to movies much, or you have unusually delicate sensibilities. Bonus point - she was watching it on a drop-down, airline size LCD screen about four feet away.

TenaciousK said...

Oh John, I disagree about books and environmental control, BTW - depends on how you want to define environment.

With a book, there's a tremendous amount of energy going into creating an interior reality resulting from the stimulus. If you want your kids to score better on standardized tests, encouraging them to read (and when their young, reading to them) is one of the most potent things you can do.

Learning to follow the thread of a story - delaying gratification over time, maintaining a multitude of details and recognizing them when themes recur - very related to the types of IRL qualities we associate with intelligence, and generalizes so well to IRL performance on a broad range of activities, many of which have an performance-evaluation component (big self-efficacy issue here).

I'd be amazed if the same proves true of the internet.

Archaeopteryx said...

Hiya, TK

Your conversation with your neighbor made me think of a verse from a Steve Earle song.

Ali was the second son of a second son
Grew up in Gaza throwing bottles and rocks when the tanks would come
Ain’t nothin’ else to do around here just a game children play
Somethin’ ‘bout livin’ in fear all your life makes you hard that way

He answered when he got the call
Wrapped himself in death and praised Allah
A fat man in a new Mercedes drove him to the door
Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war

TenaciousK said...

Hi Arch! Nice to see you around.

My neighbor was also providing me with a quick educational overview of traditional hostilities between arabs and persians. He talked about Sadr's nationalist tendencies (who knew? not me!) and the distrust for Sistani.

He also told me about how Iranian children were given a key to "heaven" and sent out to walk the mine fields. They had been using donkeys, but the damn things refused, after they say one or two of their companions get vaporized.

Which supports, I think, something Vonnegut said in Galapagos about the undesirably quality of our big brains, and something I've said about our unfortunate capacity for self-deception (or deception of others).

I'm trying to talk him into writing something for us, but he seems a little hesitant. Perhaps he's afraid of drawing some sort of unwanted attention. I'm not a particularly paranoid type, but I'd probably be concerned if I were him.

Thanks for the lyrics.

I remember the Ulster project, and other attempts to break down the tensions in Ireland. Seems similar things were going in with Israeli/Palestinian children, but it sounds as thought they've all but ceased.

Somehow, the world doesn't seem any safer to me at all, these days. More the reverse.