Mandatory companionship is a dicey proposition under the best circumstances. We like to pick our friends, particularly if the personal space is limited and hygiene is variable.
Which makes plane travel an unknown, every time, although some people are more open to instant and temporary friendship. My wife usually returns from trips with fun stories of fascinating seatmates. I, on the other hand, tend to burrow down into books or headphones, sparing myself the frustration of hearing bits and pieces of another person’s story, knowing I’ll never see them again. It feels incomplete to me, ships passing in the night, strangers at 35,000 feet who become temporary pals. It’s awkward for someone whose social skills have been honed by decades of working from home. I’m comfortable signing for packages and waving at meter readers, but actual conversation? I smile and mumble words I hope are appropriate, then return to my book.
And then there are the ergonomics of modern air travel. Smaller seats and bigger people make whipping across the country in a pressurized tube an adventure in elbows. Regular travelers are used to this; for someone like me, who can go a year or so without leaving my yard, the crowding and cramped spaces feels strange and uncomfortable, something to be avoided or endured, not enjoyed.
On the other hand, not being a frequent flyer ups the amazement quotient, something I still enjoy. The other day I arrived at Sea-Tac to drizzle and 48 degrees; a few hours and a dozen tiny pretzels later, I walked outside in Austin, Texas to mid-70s and not a raindrop to be found. I could get used to this weather upgrade, I thought, and the chances are good that I will.
This was a different sort of trip, though. I had a secret, one I was perfectly willing to share with bored TSA workers or distracted airline personnel, and the nice man in the seat next to me never saw it coming. He was just being polite, asking the routine questions while we wrestled with seatbelts, and this time I was a social butterfly.
“My daughter just had a baby,” I told him, “and this is my first visit.” He nodded the way courteous people on planes will do, and asked the obvious question. “Do you have pictures?” he said, not understanding that I resist stereotypes, particularly ones that involve being an overenthusiastic grandparent who believes that somehow the birth of a baby, a miraculous but pretty routine event in this world, is Big News to everyone else. I tend to have too much pride to become two-dimensional and predictable in this way. I like to play it cool and mysterious.
“I have 600,” I said, handing him my phone.
If you’re wondering what’s going on, I’ll save you the trouble: It’s called unconditional surrender, and my hands have been up for three weeks. Resistance to grandparent goofiness wasn’t just futile; it was unnatural, and also unnecessary. It turned out that nobody expected me to stay cool and mysterious. Everyone assumed I was going to go baby crazy, and they were right.
None of this is surprising. There are plenty of people not particularly interested in children of any ages; I know many. I don’t relate but I completely understand. People can be different.
But babies are just plain fun, and I’m usually surprised when not everyone shares my fascination. They’re small and immobile, loud and occasionally messy, but mostly just fun. Fun to hold, fun to watch, fun to smell (not always, but you know. Mostly).
I can still faintly remember the feeling of taking my daughter home from the hospital, the standard new-parent sense of getting away with something. They’re actually letting us keep her?
And now, in one of the few times that life gives us an actual do-over, I’m allowed – and expected – to engage with this small human on an intimate level, which for me so far consists of sticking my nose in this little boy’s face and promising him everything. Cupcakes, Disneyland, repeated trips to the Hundred-Acre Wood, money, sugar in any form. I pledge excess to this tiny person, because that’s what grandparents are supposed to do, and there’s a good reason for that. It’s a cliché but true: We get the pure pleasure of babiness without waking up in the middle of the night and considering that this child might one day, you know, want to go to college. Not my concern.
I’ve embraced my stereotype, in other words, and glad to do it. I’m also glad to share pictures with complete strangers on a plane, or anyone who happens to be in my vicinity and isn’t walking too fast.
I’m embarrassed by none of this, surprising myself. I became a parent at 26, as prepared as possible, having talked to experts and read books and articles, and having established a philosophy that I actually managed to incorporate. I had a short time to take of another person, I used to think, time that would go quickly, and it was my responsibility to feed, clothe, and protect this child, all the time knowing it would be temporary. At some point, she would leave. Knowing didn’t make it easier, but it did make it feel natural and right.
But this time? I can wallow in the feeling that it some way, he belongs to me, and forever. You want pictures? I got pictures.