Airports, Surfing, and Flow: Looking Around

by Ben Carter

An airport is a miracle. At airports, humans—fat, fleshy, be-thumbed bipeds—fly. And not just a few chosen humans,[1] millions of humans. Airports are the pinnacle of human achievement.

Airports should enjoy the same sort of hushed awe that the North Rim of the Grand Canyon enjoys, that overfalls the crowds standing before Michaelangelo’s La Pieta. They deserve the kind of “Ooooooooooh…” that the Northern Lights receive or the silence that swept through the arena in 1988 as Michael Jordan lifted off from the foul line.

Why, then, should airports also lay us so low? Instead of inspiring, instead of uplifting figuratively instead of merely literally, airports degrade us. Some of the reasons are obvious: backscatter x-rays, lines, being coughed on by strangers, being confronted with the very existence of barf bags, the confiscation of your wife’s expensive hair product. I am not interested in obvious answers.

How can something like “the miracle of human flight” be lost on me so consistently? This is an important question. If I’m missing it at the airport, where else am I missing “it”—whatever “it” might be?


We are all haunted, at least occasionally, by the sense that we are missing it. I have met three people—a camp director, a writer, and a judge—in 33 years who knew they weren’t missing a damned thing, who knew that what was around them and within them was all they needed. These people are forces of nature. I would like to tell you that their examples are inspiring. They’re not. Being in their presence is deeply unsettling.

I am not one of them. I fear I am always missing it, so I am left to wonder, “How do I so consistently miss it?” In the context of airports, I think part of the problem is the aggregate of all the obvious inconveniences, but that can’t be the final, only answer. It is not possible, is it, for a hard transcendent jewel to be fatally dulled by minor irritants? If this were the case, the search for some sort of connection to God, or a Large Thing, or Human Potential, or Meaning, is certainly doomed.

What scares me more about my consistent failure to appreciate airports is how similar airports are to most of the rest of my life. Airports are mundane and airports are not the destination. I think these facts about the airport are deeply connected to the larger reasons for my life-wide miss.

At one time, I understand, people were wowed by flight. It was new and palpably mind-blowing. No longer. Now, every jackass in America can get on a plane. Even this jackass. No problem. And, we fly all the time. We do it so often, the airport is just everyone’s communal living room: we’re in our pajamas, eating nachos, watching the news. We are no longer children of flight. There is no wonder, except to wonder who farted. We are grown-up. We have responsibilities. Responsibilities that do not include awe, gratitude, bliss.

Flight is mundane and mundane is hard to pay attention to.[2] That’s sort of definitional. Something mundane is something we have permission to ignore. The problem is: most of my life is mundane. My mind was blown in childhood and then blown again in my 20s. I suspect and fear that it might not be blown again and that’s not okay with me.

As I type, I am miles above some midwestern state. A lake below reflects the haze above which I am seated. Fingers of forests and veins of creekbeds encroach on the order of the winter-brown fields. Above, the sky is always blue.

This is not why I’m here. The glowing clouds outside my window are not why I took two weeks off of work. The orange light below me on the fish-scale clouds and the green-brown haze on the horizon are not the point. I’m here to get to Palau. This flight is just an implementation detail.

Hawaii is for refueling...

This is the second fundamental problem with airports and airplanes: they are never the destination. I am literally hours from Palau—where I learned to surf, where I learned to dive, where I learned to defend people accused of crimes, where I learned how to be married. For months, Erin and I have been planning and anticipating our return. We’ve been looking forward to it. The phrase “looking forward” pretty well encapsulates how I feel about the problem of destinations: when I’m “looking forward” to something, I’m not looking around.

How much have I missed on the way?

To be honest, I don’t really know what to do about the twin problems of overlooking the mundane and looking forward to the destination. But, I am almost certain that if I’m going to be prepared for awe, if bliss is ever going to overwash me again, I will need to crack both.

I have a few ideas for this project.

There’s a great book about surfing called West of Jesus. The author’s hypothesis is that surfing grips its participants so deeply, inspiring in them an almost (and often actual) spiritual devotion to the practice of surfing, in part because as an activity it forces the surfer to a) focus on mundane things like wave patterns, wind direction, tides and b) focus only on the moment. In other words, there is no destination, there is only now and what you must do right now to catch this wave.

Palau Surf Legend Bill Ridpath on Overhead Flow

The same biochemicals that flood a practicing, meditating Buddhist monk’s mind when he or she is in a deeply meditative state flood the surfer’s brain. Like surfing, meditation encourages a practitioner to focus on mundane things, often inhaling and exhaling, and focus only on the moment, not worrying about achieving enlightenment, or a certain sitting position, or whatever. Just the breath. Innnnnnnnnnnnnn. Ouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut. Innnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Ouuuuuuuuuuuuuut.

I have felt that deep gratitude, connectedness, and joy while surfing and, more rarely, while meditating. I have also experienced it running. In that context, of course, it’s called “Runner’s High” and is awesome.

But, I have also felt it while writing. Even legal writing. The conditions are the same in each situation: an intense focus on the details (mundane) to the exclusion of everything else (no hunger, no football game, no pets). Maybe the same chemicals aren’t involved in writing, but I wouldn’t doubt if they were.

What I am really talking about is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” in his book, Flow: The Pschology of Optimal Experience. Flow (Wikipedia explanation) is basically that state of being in which a person is fully engaged in their activity, being challenged but also up to the challenge. You lose track of time. You lose track of yourself. You are only what you do.

Primarily, I’m not concerned with how to achieve those rare, hyper-aware states brought about by surfing and intense meditation. Rather, I’m more interested in how to let those moments infuse life each day in ways that allow me to appreciate the jaw-dropping miracles of daily life.[3] I am terrified I am missing them, that my life has become an airport. On this point, I have to say I have only the faith that pursuing spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, writing, and surfing will help me look around and appreciate the sacred mundane.

Outside my window, there is snow on the fields and mountains. The city lights look like pools of fire on dark frost. To my left, across the aisle, the sun has set and a fellow traveller reads by the fading light of another day.

  1. Sure, sending humans to the moon, keeping them in a SPACELAB for months at a time might literally be a higher achievement, but I’m going to maintain that relatively safely sending millions of humans a few miles into the air each year is a greater cumulative achievement.

  2. I have spent years and multiple rolls of film and endured the derision of family and friends capturing images of mundane things. I go to Hawaii and take pictures of ferns near blowholes, not the blowholes. I will shoot the gravel in the parking lot of the Appalachian Trail, a rusty nail in the side of corrugated aluminum, a dandelion between railroad ties. These photos are not interesting. What is interesting is the practice of focusing, literally, on the mundane.

  3. Yes, I am aware that this essay is essentially just a longwinded refrain of Joni Mitchell’s exhortation to “talk in present tenses”, John Lennon’s observation that “life is what happens when you’re making other plans”, Blake’s desire to “see the world in a grain of sand”, and Anonymous’s hackneyed observation that it’s the journey not the destination. I know. I suck.


Foreign Workers, Domestic Help

by Ben Carter

At night in Palau, Japanese businessmen sing karaoke. They go to bars where Filipina and Chinese women and girls serve them drinks. The businessmen laugh; they are rich. The girls laugh; they are paid to laugh. A skirted girl sits on a man’s lap, he rubs his hand on her thigh. Later, he will pay the owner of the bar and take the girl back to his hotel room.

Nancy learned English by listening to a “English for Businessmen” cassette. I never asked Nancy whether this is true, but it has to be.

“Nancy, can you hem these pants? The cuff is dragging.”

“It is really no problem!” This is Nancy’s enthusiastic mantra. Nancy has rehearsed it in front of mirrors. Nancy’s smile is simultaneously practiced and genuine.

I met Nancy near the end of our year in Palau. We had heard that the tailors from the Philippines on the island did amazing work and were incredibly affordable.

“Go see Nancy,” we kept hearing.

So, one day after work Erin and I drove over to Dress X-Press after getting another recommendation for Nancy from one of the Supreme Court justices Erin worked for. Two things were immediately obvious when we entered the shop:

1) Nancy was a man.

2) Nancy really, really loved his job.

He set about showing us rolls of fabric, examining the shirts and dresses we had brought as templates for future shirts and dresses.

“Do you think you can copy this pattern?”

“It’s really no problem!”

The shop was not Nancy’s. By law, nothing in Palau is ever owned by anyone other than a Palauan. That includes businesses and land. So, Nancy worked for a Palauan who actually owned the shop. I never asked how much Nancy got paid, whether he got a commission. I never asked him how long he had been in Palau, whether his employer had ever exploited the enormous power advantage she enjoyed in the relationship: Nancy depended on the Palauan employer to renew his work visa and his ability to stay in Palau. How incurious.

A lot of work gets done in Palau by foreign workers. The men working on the gym’s roof as I drove home from work–the ones that were there on my way to work ten hours earlier–are Filipino. The women doing the laundry by hand are Filipina. The guys on the roadside digging drainage canals, pouring the concrete that would line those canals are Bangladeshi, Chinese, and Filipino. Of the 20,000 people in Palau, about 6,000 are foreign workers. While we lived there, we were two among that number, though admittedly practicing law is not the typical work of foreign workers in Palau. Cutting hair, fixing cars, construction, food service, housekeeping–these are what foreign workers are for.

We paid Lori, a Filipina who used to be a nurse in South Africa, $20 bucks to come over once a week and do laundry and clean the house. She spent the entire day there. Palauans chastised us: this was an exorbitant amount of money to pay a DH, “domestic help”. We paid Nur similarly to occasionally “sweep” the yard. Sweeping the yard meant mowing the grass by hand with a machete. Our yard was not small.

Palauans are smart. They have figured out that the amount of money that people in Palau are willing to pay for a service is greater than the amount they would need to pay a foreign worker to do the work. The difference is theirs.

This is not to say that Palauans themselves are not hard workers, but rather to say that you won’t see a Palauan doing work they can pay someone less to do for them. That’s not laziness, that’s economics. Rich people don’t mow their own lawns, hang their Christmas lights–they hire that job out. And the fact is that Palauans are relatively rich[1] compared with their Filipino and Bangladeshi neighbors.

That the market supports this labor arrangement doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with it; like many Palauans, I have mixed feelings about the country’s easy reliance on foreign workers. Yes, foreign workers have an opportunity to earn more money than they would in their home country. The opportunity to work for a few bucks is better than the opportunity to work for almost nothing. (And, who knows, you might find a side job with a young American couple who will pay you in a day more money that you could have made in a month in Bangladesh or the Philippines.)

Yet, there is something deeply unseemly about a system in which Palauans are allowed to prosper on the labor of others simply by being Palauan. Palauans have the exclusive right to own businesses and secure work visas for employees. Often, it doesn’t seem like Palauans have done enough work to justify the cut they take.

It’s not just their tightfisted grip on the means of production. I understand and laud Palauans’ prevailing impulse to retain tight, local control over the economy. Doing otherwise would undoubtedly rearrange the existing power structures in Palau. This rearrangement would be swift and likely irreversible, so I appreciate the caution with which Palauans proceed.

So, while a hyper-nationalistic position creates the potential for Palauans to profit beyond their contribution, that alone does not trouble me. Rather, like the treatment of undocumented workers in America, the problem is one of humans failing to treat people like they were human beings. The system of foreign workers in Palau looks a lot like indentured servitude and is tinged with racism. The foreign worker’s dependence on the employer for renewing the worker’s visa distorts the normal employer/employee relationship by giving the employer a shocking amount of power over the destiny of the employee’s life.

As one of two Public Defenders in Palau, I got a chance to see the institutionalized racism of police officers up close. I was in charge of the misdemeanor charges. Lots of citations for driving with a brakelight out or failing to use a turn signal came across my desk. Very few were for Palauan drivers. Driving While Filipino is a real thing in Palau. After practicing for almost a year, I was confronted with a citation I’d never seen before: riding a bicycle without a headlight. The time of the citation was a 5:35 p.m. It wasn’t even dark. My client was Bangladeshi.

I looked at the statute and, sure enough, each bicycle is required by law to be outfitted with a lamp for nighttime illumination. I took the citation and my client downstairs for the Wednesday afternoon traffic docket and summoned my deepest indignation: “You Honor,” I told Justice Lourdes Materne, “I don’t have a light on my bike. I’ve been on island for almost a year and I don’t know anyone who has a light on their bike. This ticket is absurd.” She agreed. Judge Materne saw right through the technical violation and recognized the ugly truth behind the ticket. She apologized to my client for having to miss an afternoon of work.

It’s just pure harassment. Officers cite foreign workers because they can, because they need to. You’ve got to remind them who’s boss.

One afternoon, Nur visited me at the office. Nur has skin the color of coffee beans, a strong, square jaw, perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth. He has a luminous presence. He belongs in magazines–he is the most handsome landscaper I’ll ever employ. He knocked on my open door and bowed slightly while smiling deferentially. He did not want to disturb me.

“I have a problem,” he said.

He had ben arrested the day before while riding a bicycle down Main Road that he had recently purchased from some neighborhood kids for $25. The bike was stolen and he was charged with the felony of receiving stolen property worth more than $300.

I saw the bike. It was a piece of shit worth $25, not $300. So, there was that fact issue. Then, under the statute, the state would have to prove that Nur knew the bike was stolen. The prosecutor was adamant–she would not dismiss the charge. We could either 1) accept an offer to amend the charge to a misdemeanor spend two weekends in jail or 2) go to trial on the felony. This case was made for a trial. We had two great issues to tell the judge about. (When I was in Palau, there were no jury trials. This part of the Constitution has since been amended.)

Instead, we accepted the offer and Nur spent two days in jail. Here’s why: if we had gone to trial and lost–a remote yet possible outcome–Nur’s punishment would have included a longer jail sentence, but also deportation following his time in jail. This was an unacceptable risk. Nur had a hard life in Palau, but no life in Bangladesh. So, Nur took the deal and served his bullshit time. Nur was not the only foreign worker who took deals that my Palauan clients would never have accepted; deportation was not part of the potential punishments for my Palauan clients and the prosecutors knew it.

The economic freeloading does not disturb me.[2] The racism, the paranoia, the exploitation, the meanness–the detritus of lopsided economic power–does. Differences in economic power are inevitable. But, the ugly side of the power differential is not. That it so often exists is deeply saddening. Differences in economic power do not automatically instill in a person or populace a sense of moral superiority to those less powerful, yet the transference occurs more often than not. The human psyche, apparently, cannot acknowledge disparate economic power and accept that this power is derived from a strictly-enforced system of laws that seeks to preserve the powerfuls’ power.

Rather, humans–especially the powerful–must also tell ourselves stories about us and about them that justify the status quo for reasons beyond (or instead) of the simple and obvious fact that the powerful are powerful because the powerful wrote the laws from which they derive their power. Perhaps this truth is too bareknuckled. Perhaps part of the job of the stories about Filipinos‘ deceitfulness or Mexicans’ laziness is to wrap the bareknuckled truth in something softer. Something on which we can lay our heads at night, something in which to swaddle our babies, something with which to line our coffins.

These stories are not true. These stories insulate the rich and divide the poor by ethnicities, geographies, nations. They prevent us from seeing each other for what we are: delicate, vulnerable, full of love and fear, here only now.

I’m on a plane. I’m going back to Palau. I hope desperately that I see Nur riding a bicycle down Main Road. I hope to see my friend, Nancy, while I’m there. I hope he is still there. These people are people. I so often forget that. I tell myself stories to help myself forget that. I’ve heard them my whole life.

Growing up has meant learning different stories, real stories, about real people. Learning new stories is hard, but not impossible. My hope for us rests in our ability to learn and tell new stories. We can learn new stories, stitch together new patterns.

It’s really no problem.


  1. Palau enjoys a longstanding relationship with the United States that makes Palau relatively prosperous. The first Compact of Free Association involved an agreement to provide $300,000,000 in U.S. foreign aid to the Palauan government in exchange for an agreement that the U.S. could park its nuclear submarines in Palau’s waters, if necessary. It’s more involved than that, but for purposes of this essay, it’s enough to know that this country of 15,000 has received $300,000,000 over the last 15 years.

  2. This is an overstatement. It does disturb me, but it is not the most disturbing aspect of what foreign worker’s confront in Palau. If it disturbs you, that’s cool. I get it.