A small moment of skill and grace, every day

The dispatch this week is from Lora; friend, traveler, and Uncommon founding member.

I've been flying standby my entire life, and to say that the airline industry has played a significant role in my development would not be much of a hyperbolic stretch. For one thing, my mother started working for a global carrier long before I was born, which means I have, quite literally, been flying around the world since I was an embryo, and for the most part unaccompanied since I was 12.

Flying with airline employee benefits is often naively envisioned as "getting to fly anywhere for free!", but what isn't paid in dollars is instead paid—sometimes in abundance—in convenience and certainty. Over the years, however, I've discovered that these hidden costs of flying standby have gotten me more than just a seat on a plane; they've also rewarded me with valuable life lessons.

Flight loads can turn on a dime due to a whole host of possibilities, and as a standby passenger, I have learned to take nothing for granted and to always anticipate change; I've seen a flight go, in mere minutes, from ten empty seats with two non-revenue standbys listed, to oversold by seven with 23 full-fares on standby. Yet I've also learned persistence; in spite of the dismal odds, I resolutely stayed at the gate for that now-oversold flight, and right before they closed the jet bridge, I found myself issued a boarding pass. Another lesson: unpredictability works in all directions.

Spending multiple 16-hour days at the same airport to stand by for any possible flight that might get me home (or at least closer to it) has taught me to always have copious amounts of reading material on hand and to derive satisfaction—even joy—out of seemingly fruitless situations. The conflation of checked luggage and changing up flight bookings at the very last second taught me to minimize even further a relationship with "stuff" and identify actual "needs". And leaving the fate of my travel plans, and thus days or even weeks of my life, up to circumstances over which I have zero control teaches me to this day to acknowledge the serendipitous heart of everything.

Like any gamble, flying standby can often be a disaster, a complete and total nightmare. So why keep choosing it? Because disasters are merely unexpected preludes to unanticipated adventures, and because when things do go according to plan? Oh, it's marvelous. I've nearly filled my passport to capacity in just six years, I've discovered (and fallen in love with) cities (abroad and stateside) I never even knew existed, and I've met an abundance of people whose graciousness color in my map of the world with warm and humbling tones.

I couldn't recommend it to anyone, this unreliable, jumping-through-hoops circus that is standby travel. But it's all I really know, and whether it suits me or I suit it, in the end, we go together charmingly well. — Lora

Prompted

Last week's dispatch asked, Is there a tool you can’t do without?

Paulo wrote:

I’m not really sure if there’s a tool I couldn’t live without. I’d be easily inclined to say my iPhone, which is a digital companion for so many things, both essential and futile; or any browser, the tool that made me want to do what I do today, the one that satisfies my insatiable curiosity to know things; or even Twitter, which made me closer to so many wonderful, like-minded people, some of which became good friends.

But I think that the tool that has been with me forever is not one, but any combination of tools that lets me listen to music. Be it headphones, desktop speakers, or a crappy phone speaker; my old sony disc man, mp3 players, or streaming services; the tools that let me constantly discover and listen to music are the ones that have been with me the longest, and the ones I couldn’t live without.

Beth wrote:

I can't do without my medium sized chef's knife. Cooking is one of my healing arts, my artful expressions, and the joy of using that knife is complete. I've wrapped it in a old kitchen towel (and sometimes a new one) and taken it on picnics, to friend's potlucks, and on the inevitable college cross-country motor-cycle trips. Hard to explain why an old friend, sharp as can be, matters so much to those with dull, shiny, cheap knives cluttering their silverware drawer. It's a small moment of skill and grace, every day.

Keith wrote:

My Tinker Swiss Army knife. There may be better knives but while everyone else is reaching to find a screw driver or a prying utensil I've already got the job started. The Boy Scout in me continues to believe in the mantra of "Be Prepared."

Lisa wrote:

The tool I can't live without is my moleskine notebook. I use it to take notes, plan, and organize my thoughts. But lately, I've noticed that I also just like to carry it around. It's become a sort of talisman, as if to say, "I've got my notebook, so, you know, I got this."

Peter wrote:

Gaffing Tape. One can use it for nearly everything duct tape gets used for, but gaffing tape doesn't leave that awful residue everywhere.

Radhika wrote:

This one's easy. It's an extension of me. It is ... me. It's my confidante, my companion, my listener, my shoulder to rest upon. It takes me places I never thought of going. It makes me speak my mind. It draws the words from me, makes me feel them rumbling in my chest before they emerge - clean, pure, and honest. Seductively serenading me all day long, connecting me to what is whole. It's my guitar.

Ben wrote:

My piano comes to mind as a tool I couldn't do without. My computer. My microphone. Strangely enough, paper does too. It's so good for getting ideas out of my mind so I can examine them.

I like the question because it also makes me consider what is not essential but still something I use, and would I be better off without that something?

Yinka wrote:

I suppose I can't do without my pen. It's useful when I need to get my doodle on and for quick writing/planning/listmaking. Increasingly, for better or worse it has been my MacBook.

Sara wrote:

Buster Benson's 750words has been important to me recently. I dabbled with it first in 2011, used it to emerge out of a writing funk, and left it for a while. I returned to it after three separate people reminded me of its existence in the span of about a week, so I took the universe's hint and dove back in. The entirety of my masters thesis was written in these 750 chunks. Now, sometimes I write with an audience in mind, but more often I work out the things that I'm thinking about or that are blocking me from writing what I want to be writing. Right now I'm building on a streak of 94 days of writing 750 words a day. 750 words has been a tool building up a habit of writing, and more importantly, for thinking through writing.

Brad wrote:

Strictly speaking I could so without pretty much any tool, unless I was on a desert island, in which case a flint and a good knife would be invaluable.

In our modern world, though, the tool I'd rather not do without is Ruby. In my line of work it's necessary to work with computers, to instruct them in the way of creating excellent products. There are many programming languages used to create things, and they can all accomplish similar things in a strict sense—moving bits and bytes—but some languages are more friendly for humans, and I find Ruby to be among the best.

Your turn

What is the most memorable flight you've experienced?