I can recall a time not so long ago when passengers in jet planes stared out of their windows, transfixed by the shifting landscape below. Now it’s a rare flight when anyone leaves their shades open, or looks out of the window at all.
When did flying become a dull chore we all must power down for, must endure, so unimpressed with the mazes of cites, the Matchbox cars and, as the plane reaches its cruising altitude, the tops of clouds, the clear horizon, the distant rivers small as snakes?
I’d understand the prevalence of drawn shades on this Boeing 757 if the flight were a red-eye, but it’s nine in the morning and we’re crossing only one time zone, gaining back the hour we lost on our way from Arizona to the Yucatan. In the entire cabin only two shades are open—my own and an old man’s a few seats behind me. The two of us look out of our windows, watch the changing scene—clouds and the shadows of clouds moving over the turquoise shallows of the Caribbean.
A woman in the row in front of me squints to better see the screen she holds in her hand. She glares at me through the gap in the seats and whispers to her husband loud enough for me to hear. “She isn’t closing her window. I can’t see a thing!” and she does her best to stuff the little airline pillows between the gaps in the seats to darken her space. Yes. I am that person, that insensitive passenger. If asked to close my screen I plead claustrophobia, which is not an invented malady. I require windows, a fact I’m not ashamed to admit.
But why am I more or less alone in this? When did our tiny, individual screens become so interesting? Apparently they never cease to fascinate—but do they truly amaze? When did we lose our need to wonder, to feel small, in awe of the earth and the sky, of the sea, the sun, the clouds shining like the whipped whites of eggs. Watching to see what visions these clouds suggest, we are children again. A whale breaches out of a roiling sea, a dinosaur steps into the blue.
Hours later, I look back at the old man, my partner in amazement. His shade is still open and he’s gazing down. I look out of my window, too. We are over the Grand Canyon, its depth made small with distance. And in a hazy, transparent cloud above it, a glory shimmers. It’s a circular rainbow, rare and ephemeral, and only visible from far above.