The Lack of Planes

It’s a beautiful day despite the wind robbing me of any heat, so I’m still wearing a hat. The sun is nice though.

blue-sky-1160827It’s day #(idontremember) of the Shelter In Place order mandated by city officials, but I am still determined to enjoy the fresh air as much as possible. I spend a lot of time on the deck I am fortunate enough to have. I’m surrounded by inert plant-pots, waiting to be filled with flowers and herbs and vegetables. Thankfully we’re experiencing a slight up-tick in overall temperatures so it’s getting more and pleasant to be outside without copious layers.

The other day, I couldn’t help but notice that the freeway in the sky above my apartment, populated by the airplanes emanating from O’Hare, was completely absent. No planes, no trails. No stretched out engine roars. And strangely? I missed it.

I would never be caught dead even thinking about this under normal circumstances. Any day of the week I’d ask without question to be transplanted into the nearest forest, devoid of humans and any evidence of them. It’s not any day of the week though, or any normal year, and strange times create strange thoughts.

It’s what the planes represented, a symbolism that I never contemplated when they were present: the movement of a populace, bustling to and fro on endless errands of business and pleasure, an economy proceeding in fair order. Things being as they should be: messy, but functioning.

If the entire city lost power, then the stars would be revealed, but after a little while (social chaos notwithstanding) we’d miss the stars of the city itself, the evidence that we retain some semblance of dominance on this weird rock. Although no-one would gleefully endorse any benefits of the current situation, such a sentiment also conceals a deep desire for the things to remain the same.

Planes seem to symbolize the functioning impossible, the inconceivable reality. Unless you’re an engineer, the fact that planes stay up is something you just accept, whether you understand it or not (when you’re on one, the dissonance becomes acute). They stay up in the air because that’s what planes do, and sure, I could study as to how they do this, but even if I did, it would be my faith in systems unseen that would allow me to actually get into one of them.

Much of the time, society seems impossible. I find it hard to wrap my head around the functioning of the average airport or hospital, let alone contemplate the infinitely dense mesh of interconnected processes that make up a large metropolis. As E.B. White writes in ‘Here is New York‘:

“Long ago the city should have experienced an insoluble traffic snarl at some impossible bottleneck. It should have perished of hunger when food lines failed for a few days. It should have been wiped out by a plague starting in its slums or carried in by ships’ rats. It should have been overwhelmed by the sea that licks at it on every side.”

Yet society persists.

The loss of contrails and the planes that excrete them, reminds me that human systems are so very fragile. They depend on blind growth, the momentum of a drunk person who hasn’t fallen over simply because their legs keep kicking out ahead of them. They depend on growth especially when they are as integrated and immense as they are now, like a Great White that would drown if it ceased swimming, or an airplane that would plummet without the propulsion of the enthusiastic engine.


In the last week, I’ve witnessed calls to move people back into the workplace and whilst I fundamentally disagree with this from a health perspective, I understand where it comes from. Stagnation should be avoided at all costs, they say. It embodies a rooted fear that standing still means we might never get moving again. I theorize nobody fully understands what it takes to shift a structure of this complexity into motion if it is forced to stop. I’m reminded of Terry Pratchet’s ‘Reaper Man’  where becoming a zombie means learning for the first time to run all of your own organs manually, which inevitably fails, whether via apathy or complexity, and means some parts are ignored and nothing quite works the way its supposed to. Subsequently decay follows.

I miss normality. It feels like a confessional, a failure of values. I miss being worried about less ‘important’ things, like presidential candidates, and the climate crisis (yes, that’s still a thing), and concerns slightly less terrifying than close friends becoming sick because they went to a grocery store.

I can face crisis. I can worry about where rent will come from. But not society as a whole, not this fractured, cobbled-together mass of wires and emotions and vitality and rot. It’s so loose-weave a concept that I’m afraid that another gust and the whole thing will come crashing down.

And just like that, I see a single airplane passing above me.

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