By the Time I Get to Phoenix

I remember when flying involved going to a travel agent, explaining where and when you wanted to go, and how much you could afford. The agent would contact airlines, get you your best price, and you left knowing that you’d just have to show up at the airport maybe half an hour before your flight so you got there before they closed the door. For our vacation trip, my wife used priceline.com. I’ve used it for business travel myself, but when I am going for work, certain strictures apply. For this trip, expense was a major factor. We flew, outbound, to Spokane, Washington via Seattle, on Alaska Airlines. Since our final destination was Spokane (at least for the air portion of the trip), that involved a bit of back-tracking, but, being Alaska Airlines, who could really complain?

In order to make the trip affordable, we flew back on a different airline (I’m still not sure if it was American or U. S. Air; both reference the same entity, apparently) via an alternate route. Whichever airline it was had a hub in Phoenix, so we flew from Spokane to Phoenix before heading back to Newark. I’d visited Phoenix on Routledge business, but I didn’t spend much time in the airport. It became clear from this trip, however, that the Day of the Dead is a big deal for tourists. Given the popularity of Halloween, I suppose that’s not so surprising. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of Day of the Dead merchandise was stunning, considering that these were, for the most part, impulse, carry-on items. Figurines of various sorts comprised the most popular arrays. Skeletons, fully dressed, engaged in many quotidian activities, although deceased.

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Amid the many daily scenes, I spied a last supper tchotchke. Skeleton Jesus and twelve skeleton disciples gathered around a table for a final meal. Maybe just a little too late. While not a theologian, I couldn’t help but wonder about the implications of this. I know little about the Day of the Dead beyond its association with All Souls Day. The last supper is set up in the Gospels as the grounding, in some way, for a divine plan or redemption. In other words, it doesn’t work if the principals are dead. Already jet-lagged and fuzzy-headed, I couldn’t think to take out my wallet. I really can’t afford baubles in any case, yet there was something profound to think about here. For some reason the market will bear much more in an airport than it will in no-fly zones. Still, as I struggled to stay awake all the long way to Newark, I couldn’t help but think that this was an appropriate image to signal the end of a much needed vacation.

Musical Magic

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In-flight magazines aren’t a place I turn for inspiration. Having been raised in poverty, I’ve never found the jet-set interests to be at all engaging. I can’t turn my brain off, however, even when on vacation. Still, I hate to miss anything and I know I’ve got plenty of time in the air ahead of me. I was flying Alaska Air, so the in-flight magazine possessed a native exoticism. This particular issue focused on music. Music reveals a tremendous amount about the interior life, it seems to me. Some people live their lives to a constant soundtrack, while others listen to music seldom. Music, like religion, has the capacity to stir profound pleasure centers in the brain and, if I might be so bold, where your music is, there your heart is also.

One of the music festivals highlighted in the magazine was Voodoo Music and Art Experience in New Orleans. Right across the page was Sasquatch! Music Festival in Washington state. This unusual juxtaposition caught my eye. New Orleans, in the popular imagination, at least, has an association with the “exotic,” hybrid religions of the Caribbean. Voodoo is particularly feared by those who believe that somehow the supernatural can break into this mundane realm. Magic, although difficult to define, persists even in Richard Dawkins’ neatly ordered world. What better way to celebrate it other than music? There’s a homespun charm to it. Magic, despite the best efforts of many, won’t go away.

Since I was flying to the Pacific Northwest, the Sasquatch! Festival demanded my attention. Sasquatch, while disputed, has become the gentle giant frequently connected with magic. The stigma associated with believing in a New World ape has been eroding slowly, although it’s still on the list of “woo” factors for many. Like Voodoo, Bigfoot is an American concept that keeps a belief in magic alive. Well, we were in the air by now, and many had their earbuds in, passing the time with their own soundtracks. For me, music is often looking out the window while making no demands on that probable harmony the rational know as magic.

Best Prayer in the Air

With my current job I travel quite a bit. With all the attendant time hanging around airports, I have time to think back to pre-deregulation days when flying meant some kind of care in the air. It has been in the news the last few days that Alaska Airlines is removing the prayer cards from its trays during meals. When I saw that, the real surprise to me was—airlines serving meals? When did they start doing that? A couple years back I flew coast to coast on Alaska Airlines with nothing more than a sack of peanuts. I would have been happy to have had a prayer card to eat. I agree with those who pointed out to the airline, when it served these alleged meals, that paying customers shouldn’t be proselytized. You can get enough of that by watching GOP debates. And I certainly hope the message wasn’t that the plane only flew on a miracle.

I’m sure that some people will say there’s no harm in a little non-invasive sermonizing. Therefore I must make my own confession; I was a teenage evangelical. Although I never actually did tracts myself, I hung out with kids who did. Once, on the way home from a youth meeting, a carload of us stopped to get a bite to eat in a diner. Now, we were high school kids, not flush with money, but even I knew it was right to tip—waitresses have to put up with a lot for little pay. One of my friends told us that if we really wanted to help the young lady out, we should leave a tract as a tip. What reward could be better than salvation? Surely that would help to feed her family or buy her kids a new pair of shoes. Indoctrinated as I was (and I hadn’t even been to college yet, Mr. Santorum), it seemed like a good idea. Still, I felt bad when we left.

These two situations are not dissimilar. In both cases someone would rather print cheap words on cheap paper with free sentiments rather than giving a person sustenance. It’s been a few years since I’ve darkened a pulpit, but I do seem to recall Jesus insisting that the hungry be fed. I don’t recall what he said about tracts and prayer cards.

Religions have a way of focusing on the forgettable minutiae while overlooking the real need right in front of them. In November I flew from New York to San Francisco, subsisting on a tiny bag of peanuts and some airline orange juice. If old Deutero-Isaiah were sitting next to me he might have said, “why spend money on what is not bread?” But I was thinking that maybe the karma of that tipless waitress was simply coming back full circle.