Midway through the 2013 Ben Stiller remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Kristen Wiig walks across a Newfoundland dock singing the David Bowie classic, “Space Oddity,” while strumming a guitar. Stiller, as the milquetoast Walter Mitty, is showing uncharacteristic dash by jumping aboard a helicopter captained by a drunk, depressed karaoke singer. Wiig is a part of his daydream, and it’s his vision of her that is spurring him on. The moment is meant to be gently comic.
And yet when I watched the scene last month – a plot twist I knew was coming because I had seen the movie in a theater last December – I felt a very definite wet salty discharge emanating from my eyes. Good Lord, it was worse than watching Tom Hanks lose Wilson, his beloved volleyball, in “Castaway.” Why did I have this reaction to Stiller and Wiig and a guitar? Because I was watching the scene on an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.
I’ve known for most of my adult life that I am particularly susceptible to mawkish sentimentality when I’m hurtling 35,000 feet above the earth. But it was only in 2011 that I learned I was not alone in this regard. In one of the best “This American Life” stories of all time, Brett Martin confessed how even a terrible movie such as “Sweet Home Alabama” could leave him an emotional basket case if he was watching it on an airplane. With great honesty and deadpan humor, Martin shared the connection between weeping and flying.
And, trust me, that connection is real.
I certainly loved my parents, but I didn’t cry when I eulogized my mother years and years ago, and I didn’t shed a tear at the hospital when my father died in 2011. I am one of those seriously uptight males who gets very uncomfortable when I see a man crying. (I’m not proud of that.) The two times I can recall crying in the last seven years when I had my feet on the ground were when my wife and I returned home after dropping our then 14-year-old daughter off at boarding school – here it was, the empty nest – and when I was in Armenia and saw the summit of Mount Ararat for the first time. But I have been precariously close to needing a handkerchief on airplanes as I have read novels that should never have been published and watched movies that should never have been made.
I’ve read articles about why we are emotionally fragile on airplanes, including a particularly brilliant one by Elijah Wolfson in “The Atlantic.” Wolfson examines, among things, the science of crying in terms of moments of stress and subsequent moments of calm. Other stories cite a lack of control. A subconscious (or, in my wife’s case, very conscious) fear of flying. Loneliness. The reality that flights are often about beginnings and endings.
But when I try to understand this phenomenon, I always go back to the day my father died – and the day after. My father died mid-afternoon in a Ft. Lauderdale hospital. I was there, as was his girlfriend and his best friend. He’d had a cerebral aneurysm the night before and had been, more or less, brain-dead, for twelve hours. When he was gone, I went to the P.F. Chang’s just off Ft. Lauderdale beach with a book I was reading. It was about (not kidding) a sexually voracious werewolf. I ate dinner alone at the bar and downed a couple of Tsingtao beers.
At one point the bartender asked, “What brings you to town?”
“Visiting my dad,” I said.
“Nice. Good trip?”
“I’ve had better ones,” I said.
He nodded. “Yup. It’s hard to watch our parents age.”
I raised my Tsingtao in agreement.
Then the next day I flew home. About fifteen minutes after takeoff, I pulled my werewolf novel from my bag and started to read. When (spoiler alert) the werewolf was killed, I put the book down and found myself. . .unmoored. Considerably more unmoored than I had been at any point in the preceding 36 hours.
Wow, I recall thinking, you kept it together when your dad died, but now you’re losing it over a fictional dead werewolf? Seriously? I considered whether I was emotionally stunted – which, for a variety of reasons, I might be. But the truth is also that David Bowie and Major Tom were on to something: When we’re floating round our tin cans, far above the world, we’re all a little blue.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on September 7, 2014. Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published in July.)