I’m sitting in the Atlanta airport as I write this.  To be more accurate, I’m sitting on the floor of the Atlanta airport, waiting for my flight to San Antonio, during a four hour layover.  I’m heading to see my friend Mike get married, which will occur on St. Patrick’s Day.   But at the moment what is on m mind is the airport.

Airports, so far as I can tell, do not rate highly on the list of places people want to go, and they are the butt of many a joke.  For example, my dad is fond of telling this one:  A man is trying to make up with his girlfriend, and after several rounds of pleadings, she acquiesces to go out to dinner with him, so long as he takes her to the most expensive restaurant he knows. So, he takes to eat at the airport.

Not the best joke ever, but considering I just paid $20 for what looked like a microwavable sandwich and beer, it is not too far from the truth either.  But that is only a small part of it.  For if you stop to consider what an airport it, you come quickly come to realize that they are nothing more than a modern-day way station: a temporary shelter for the voluntarily displaced.

A not so modern way station.

Now, over the years I’ve been in lots of airports from tiny towns in America to Frankfurt, to the International Airport in Bangkok.  And without exception there are a few constants.  First, no matter where you go, you are always guaranteed to find someone sleeping across a row of seats.  This weary travel is usually the one that the airlines are screwing over or they simply have an inordinately long layover. This latter situation usually having been forced upon them when required to take an early flight out of their departure city, only to doze in a terminal, while waiting for the one flight they need, which always seems to leave at six at night.

The second thing you notice is that most people don’t smile as they walk around.  They are focused on getting from point A to point B, and it has also been my experience that, generally speaking, the faster the mode the transport, the more frowns you see.  In recent years this has been exaggerated by the proliferation of electronic communications.  People are fixated on where they are going and what they are missing, and it has becoming increasingly difficult for people to simply enjoy the journey.

This is a shame, and here is why.  Right now there is an absolutely adorable little girl just playing with her mother (well to be fair she’s using her mom like a climbing wall, and doing assisted wall-flips off of her).  She has straw-coloured hair, blue chalk on her face, a flower dress, pink shoes, and a devil-may-care smile.  Occasionally she runs up next to the window that I’m sitting at to investigate the planes, and in general she provides more entertainment than any phone or TV.  Yet for all her energy and antics, she is largely ignored.

Then look, just as I’m typing this out, she is gone.  Poof! Boarded a plane at the last minute.  Who knows who will sit next to her, but they should be grateful that her mother let her vent so much of the youthful energy by using her body as jungle gym.  There are hundreds of these moments in your average airport everyday,  of that I’m positive. Yet they are largely ignored.  Of course people have places to go and people to see, but if everyone is wearing frowns or that detached, board look that clearly says “don’t-bother-me-as-im-functioning-on-autopilot-and-you-are-invading-my-space-by-trying-to-be-social,” and they can’t smile at such a simple display of exuberance for life, what does that say about the average adult human?

The whole of humanity is on display at the airport.  There are men with Churchill shoes and thousand dollar suits who seem to be vaguely uneasy about being forced to travel with the rabble.  College logos are on display from all over the country, as chartering mobs of late teen, early twenty-somethings swarm though the corridors.  There was a very sweet couple sitting quietly watching the plane that had been delayed for over an hour, as they mused that their two boys (ages 14 and 10) who were on board wouldn’t taking kindly to sitting idly on the tarmac.  There are other couples snuggled up to one another as they try and get comfortable, and, finally, there are folks like me…solitary individuals who are working on their laptops. So I guess that even I’m not immune.  And maybe that is the answer.  Airports are the place that people hone the skills they need to successfully kill time, and maybe the reason so many people look board is they don’t know how to just sit and enjoy the world going by…they have to “fill time.”

Well…it’s a thought.

So I had another post 90% done, and was well on my way to posting it, but then fate intervened. For those of you who do not know, I graduated from Seattle Pacific University (SPU) in 2002, which is only important because of a tragic shooting that unfolded yesterday. I meet Jennifer Paulson on probably my first or second day in the dorm, and when my friends called me yesterday and said Jennifer had been shot, it didn’t register in my head who they meant, as I always called her Jenny. Jenny was the kind of girl that a mother dreams about their son meeting. She was hard working, she was charming, and she had both academic and street smarts. But most importantly, she never had an ill word for anyone. She was one of those few people that finds the good in everyone, all the time.

When I think of her in my mind’s eye, I usually see her in a food-spattered apron as she worked in the kitchens of the school. Having worked in a restaurant and knowing how much a grind such labor can be, I was always pleased to see her working in the cafeteria, which by their very nature seem to be morose. But Jenny would wear a smile that you’d swear could part the perpetually gray clouds that hung almost oppressively over the city, and it never seemed to matter how bad things where going in her life or in yours, she could find that kind world or joke that would make everything seem alright.

Two of my best friends at SPU have cerebral palsy, and one of them, I’ll call him Mr. Boarder, had a crush on Jenny. He also lived for a time with the shooter, Jed Waits. Jed was one of those guys I would never have met if not for the fact that he lived with Mr. Boarder. In thinking on it, I only have a few hazy memories of him, and if pressed I don’t think I would have said he was unbalanced, but I would have given you tightly wound. His shoulders were always scrunched and he always seemed to be reacting to something rather then acting out a plan.

When I first heard this story and subsequently discovered the details my heart broke. One reason is that in my soul I’m kind of a cynical person, but I nevertheless try every day to see the good in the world and to laugh at something. Jenny wasn’t the only person who taught me to do this, but she was one of the best I’ve ever meet at actually projecting that sense that somehow everything was going to come out fine in the end. I think it is this fact that makes how her life ended so bitter. Because really, this is one of those stories that makes you shake your fist at the sky and bellow into the void that eternal and infernally succinct question of “WHY?”

But then the part of me that is in love with movies pops into my head, and it is Agent Starling speaking to Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs that echoes in my synapses:

Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?

Clarice Starling: He kills women…

Hannibal Lecter: No. That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing?

Clarice Starling: Anger, um, social acceptance, and, huh, sexual frustrations, sir…

Hannibal Lecter: No! He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer now.

Clarice Starling: No. We just…

Hannibal Lecter: No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?

The answer is both chilling prophetic in this case, and makes me wish that sometimes my mind did not jump to cinema when my own lambs begin bleating in terror at the night.

But at the same time, it is funny the circles this habit of mine weaves. Jed drew graphic novels apparently, and in response to Dr. Lecter I see a girl in a different movie, which was adapted from a graphic novel. She even could even have been Jenny’s doppelganger at a younger age, I’d wager. Her name is Sara, and in the movie , The Crow, she says: “If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever.” This was followed up a lyric from a song written by the protagonist, Eric Draven, who has come back from the dead to avenge the brutal abuse and murder of his girlfriend as well as his own death. In fact, this quote was also one of the taglines for the movie, and it is simply “It can’t rain all the time.”

It is true that it can’t rain all the time, even in the Pacific Northwest. I lost contact with Jenny after college, which I regret. There are many things I would have loved to found out about her life, like had she traveled outside the country, which one of my current friends seems to think includes Texas. This got me thinking of another one of my classmates who passed under equally infuriating circumstances. But she did make the trek to Texas once, and in her company I took a picture, which I think Jenny would love. It was taken in San Antonio and was on the side of a large hospital. Jenny was not a doctor, but she did heal people on a daily basis. She made everyone feel good about themselves. She touched the lives of the students she worked with, and for kids with disabilities that kind of person is beyond my keen to describe. So for Jenny, I give the one gift I have to give, and I am sorry it is so little so late.

It is often the case that when hanging out with my friend Mike that we have, as he puts it, “wacky adventures.”  This may be due the fact that we are both rather easy going, so when things go askew, we are more apt to adjust to the new circumstances then become bent out shape.  Of course it could also be that we are rarely out do anything of major importance to anyone but ourselves.  Such was the case this past weekend when I flew in to visit my friend after a three year hiatus, and we went in search of a working and entertaining pinball machine.

We undertook our quest in a 1987 BMW that no longer has a functioning odometer, sports a broken passenger-side door latch and faded paint job, and what is thought to be over 200,000 miles on it.  The car also handles, accelerates, and sounds like a racecar, and it has, in fact, been used as such.  Thus, we were perfectly equipped to search out a form of entertainment that is just as exciting as any race, but which the general public’s eye would slide off just as readily as most people would discount this marvel of German engineering and durability.

In the age of the iPhone, movies on demand, the PS3, and a marked decline in the prevalence of arcades, pinball machine have all but disappeared.  The bumpers, lights, ramps, all became either too costly to repair or simply no longer generated profit enough for most companies to justify the expense of making new ones.  Mike and I were both aware of this, but it did not stop the quest.

So we searched.  Not in any planed way, but by driving to the local Dave and Busters to see if they had a machine. Predictably they didn’t, and while they did give us a lead on a place that might have a machine they were not really sure anyone still had them.  This particular arcade had dispensed with their last pinball machine over a year ago, and both the employees that we spoke to felt that most other establishments would have done the same.

With no other real plan, we wandered the midway.  There were games aplenty, but for the most part they were video games (one that caught both our eyes was a “Rambo” game…we decided it must not have been any good, as they only showed clips from the various movies and not the actual game).  But lo! There was something hidden in the bowls of that room that was worth the trip, a coin drop machine.  Shaped like a pentagon, it has two levels both loaded with coins.  The object is just to drop a coin on the top level which slides back and forth, so that the drop-coin, when compressed into the mass of other coins, forces one or a group of coins to move and forces those perched on the ledge of the first tier over the lip and down below where the process in repeated.  The more that fall, the more tickets you get.

While enticing, it would probably not have sold us, if it were not for the CD kiosk hooked up to the iTunes store.  But once that gleaming display of near obsolete technology showed itself to us, we were both hooked, and dutifully began the process of acquiring enough tickets to make a rocking burn-CD.

It took both of us playing the coin machine for fifteen minutes and more than 20 bucks to get enough tickets to claim our prize.  However, in the end, both of us stood in front of this kiosk, iPods in our pockets loaded with music, and made a CD.  We took it in turns to pick a song, which were mainly old hip-hop and rap (think OPP and James Brown).  We never did find a pinball machine, but we did wind up finding a technological relic (the CD) nevertheless.

On the way to meet Mike’s fiancée for diner we rocked that mix-CD harder than Motley Crew hit the bottle.  We zoomed down the road with huge grins on our face.  Our mission not even remotely accomplished, and yet, it was an awesome outing.  The kind of trip that results in a story that will be probably be told, exaggerated, warped, and recounted more than once.  In short, the kind of story that we all have with our good friends.  So if you have a story like that with a friend that you’ve not seen in a while, call them up.  Share a laugh. And go find a pinball machine (Particularly in the Washington DC or San Antonio areas) so I will know where to go get my fix!