I took my seat on the aisle as usual and tried to look smelly and mean. There were a zillion pixels needing to be pushed around on my computer screen, twice as many e-mails awaiting replies and I work better alone. Alone as in no one sitting next to me elbowing me throughout the two hour flight, no one with a crying or squirming child, no one trying to start conversations despite my laptop being open: the international sign for "don't bother me, I'm busy."
I stared at the ground, my legs spread as wide as comfortably possible as if to say "sit by me and you'll lack personal space." Passenger after passenger passed, not even entertaining the idea of filling the empty seat next to the scruffy faced leggy hippie.
Until Bob. Undaunted, he took the seat beside me, smiling as if excited about it. I had a feeling my work was about to be interrupted.
"My name's Bob," he said holding out his wrinkled puffy hand. "Do you mind putting my coat up top for me?"
"No problem," and I stood to open the baggage compartment across from us.
"Is that your guitar? Are you a musician?"
"Yea," I said, giving only the information requested and not a subject or predicate more.
"What kind of music do you play?"
I usually don't answer this way but I confessed, "Christian pop rock stuff. When I travel alone it sounds a lot more like folk music. You know, singer songwriter stuff." I wondered if I'd gushed too much information, and kind of hoped I did. Maybe I'll make some progress on this flight after all.
Minutes later our metal bird rose from the earth and up through a thin misty layer of clouds. I closed my eyes and prayed. For peace. For my kids. For my wife. For more time. And then inexplicably the prayer cross-faded in my mind with a frantic inner voice recounting everything I had to accomplish in the next two hours. The list eventually drowned out the prayer altogether and I eagerly anticipated the sweet ding of 10,000 feet.
"You may now use all approved electronic devices. Cell phones and two way pagers must remain in the off position for the duration of this flight..."
I unhinged my tray table, unpacked my computer and went to work. Bob turned the pages of a thick book slowly, mmm-hmmming occasionally.
"Have you heard of this book? Fascinating really," Bob interrupted.
And the conversation began. We started on how Bob heard about the book: Son-in-law, a microbiologist, suggested it. Moved on to where Bob got the book: A used book store back home in Burbank he'd passed on his daily routine a hundred times without noticing. Wound eventually to what the book is about: The origins of the universe from "a decidedly scientifically agnostic perspective."
Bob was seventy-two, with two daughters, both married to scientists, both with PHDs of their own. Bob has a PHD in Zoology and taught high school Biology for nine years before entering the medical field as a researcher - in the early days of AIDS discovery. His wife passed away around that time as well, of cancer, and he met his second wife, a nurse, at the hospital where they both worked one floor apart for years without bumping into each other. She was a neonatal nurse. They're both retired now and travel the country seeing their remaining friends and family and "appreciate the beauty of this great country of ours."
Bob on why he stopped teaching school: "I cared more about the subject than the students. And I knew I could never force them to be as fascinated with the subject matter as I was. And that had been my reason for teaching all along."
Bob on figuring out what to be when he grew up: "How'd I decide which field to enter next? I was thirty six and at that age I didn't know who I was. I got lucky. I chose a job that allowed me to learn and obsess about something which I love and it turned out to fit precisely who I would become when I grew up and knew who I was. I've been fortunate."
Bob on scientific agnosticism: "The universe as we know it operates by one set of standards and rules at the macro level. Planets, stars, galaxies and time all abide by them. Yet at the subatomic level the rules change. Somehow the macro, with it's rules and standards, is made up of the subatomic, with it's contradicting rules and standards, and there are all sorts of theories about how this can be. A wise scientist says, 'I don't know.'"
Bob on raising children: "It's true that time passes quickly. In a flash your daughters will be married and your son will be awake in need of a shave. Money and career and accomplishment, however, are still possibilities in your fifties and sixties. Your best work is your family and it can only be done today."
Bob on Christianity: "I'm drawn to Eastern religion because its appropriately agnostic. There are gaps in logic, contradictions and seeming inaccuracies and this seems very much like the sort of thing which one would expect from the human translation of an infinite deity. I don't claim a religion. But at my age I understand better why that is. I regret that my Western mind and the scientific method did not allow God to be God. He had to be a scientist like me. And if God speaks to us it's surely not in the scientific language. And it's certainly not in the language of the American or Christian. Those languages are similar you know? Systematic. Formulaic. I wonder if you can tell me what Christianity was like before the institution we know today in the West, before religion adopted the methods and mindset of science?"
Bob on the early church: "That sounds like mysticism to me. I like the writings on Zen, though I don't practice much of anything. There's something in common there don't you think?"
Bob on me: "I wonder if you find your Christian audience as fascinated with these mystical counter-intuitive aspects of your faith as you? Are you a teacher finding more in love with the subject than your students? I'd like to be a teacher again. This time I'd love my students and the subject. I wonder then if some of my students would love me and come to love the subject as I do. I don't know. I guess you could say I'm appropriately agnostic about our ability to relive the past better in the present."
And I've been pondering this ever since, with my laptop closed (sometimes), praying, asking for more Bobs to interrupt my busyness with kindness and conversation. The seat next to me is open.