I just spent 21 hours getting from Berlin to Ottawa via Frankfurt and Toronto, incorporating a snow storm, several hours of delays, and doubtless more than a week’s worth of salt intake. I’ve crossed the Atlantic at least 50 times since 2005, and I took 29 flights in 2012 alone, so I’m well past the excitement factor, through acute boredom, and settled into a benumbing routine of an alcohol-soaked bad-movie haze. Parts of trips like this are actually pleasant, in the same way that an overcast Wednesday afternoon can sometimes feel comfortingly melancholic – a warm blanket of depression, the indulgence of which involves endless pots of tea and chocolate and ends up being a kind of happy-sad sugary caffeine kick. No one can contact me on travel days. I do not feel guilty for watching 7 straight hours of movies that I wouldn’t otherwise pay to see. I set my watch back at the start of the flight, drink scotch as a pre-lunch aperitif, wine with my slop, and cognac with my coffee, without worrying that I’m half-cut at, technically, breakfast. The sun is over the yard arm somewhere, right? And when you’re in the air it’s easy to imagine that you could indeed be anywhere. There’s an alchemical mystery about flying. Aside from take-off and landing, there’s no notion of movement or speed, no landmarks to mark the passing of geography. One embarks a giant metal tube, sits for half a day, and disembarks. And in the meantime, the airline has seen fit radically to alter the outside scenery. Sometimes in my Truman-Show anxiety moments I wonder if flight is really real.
If there were doubt, jet lag would dispel it. The hours lost on short days, the hours gained on long days, not to mention the entire days lost in transit, all seem to count. Awake with jet lag is closer to an hallucinogenic experience than to tiredness; asleep with jet lag is closer to coma than to rest. I’ve had fits of hysterical laughter, strange impulses of aggression, bouts of talking gibberish, and the odd feeling that gravity is no longer at full strength. In a Subway sandwich shop in Auckland in 2005, in desperation after 25 hours in the air, I experienced all these sensations in quick succession. Hunger laughter melted into an I-don’t-know-what-kind-of-bread-I-want rage, followed by some impossible suggestions for sandwich fillings and the distinct impression that my feet weren’t really touching the ground. I blamed the Singapore Slings.
I have tried almost everything to shake the desynchronosis funk. Drinking less or not at all doesn’t help, merely depriving me of an explanatory factor and inducing paranoia; drinking more doesn’t help either. I once got stranded in Montreal for five hours and accidentally got drunk before take off. The hangover started an hour into the flight and lasted two days. I’ve tried staying awake, becoming delirious. I’ve tried going straight to bed, inducing insomnia for days. I’ve tried exercise, pushing my body to wake up in the short term that it might sleep better come the night, but find that the runner’s high induces a crash that only exacerbates the problem. Over the years I’ve basically come to expect this temporary madness. It’s part of a life’s experience – an opening of a perceptual door or the closing down of one’s humanity. If you can live with yourself with jet lag, stripped down and deprived of higher functions, then you’re probably a thoroughly decent sort under regular conditions.
Ultimately, the only thing with which I cannot reconcile myself is the loss of time. The travel time, as I say, I can live with as a sort of self-piteous luxury. It’s the days afterwards, operating at half speed, that really gall. The one thing I haven’t tried is writing. Perhaps it might fire the synapses such that the mind is stimulated, reset, re-engaged. Time lost is a physical problem, but what of mind over matter? You have just read the experiment.