An Essay on Flight Patterns by Sherman Alexie

So, I definitely wish that I had been an English major in college. I always thought that majoring in English meant that you were throwing away your career prospects and failing to gain employable skills. Well, I did that anyway by majoring in “International Studies” but I didn’t even learn anything useful from my “interdisciplinary” degree. At least if I’d majored in English, I would’ve done a ton of my favorite things: reading and writing.

 

Well, rather than waste any more time on regrets, I’m doing it now. I’ve decided that I’m going to read The Norton Introduction to Literature and The Norton Reader in their entireties. That will give me a thorough survey of the four main genres: fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction. These collections are filled with short stories, poems and excerpts and essay prompts for each one. After reading each piece I will write an essay for it. It will be like crafting my own English major. When I’m done, I won’t have official credits or a degree to show for my trouble, but I will have a feeling of deep personal satisfaction.

 

This blog seems like the perfect place to share my essays, so without further ado, here is the first one:

 

Prompt: William tells himself a variety of stories to cope with his feelings. How do these stories relate to his dialogue with the taxi driver and the stories the driver tells?

 

 

William is a person who spends a lot of time thinking about the world around him and his own inner world. He is thoughtful, but sometimes that thoughtfulness tips over into anxiety. Organizing his thoughts and feelings into stories about himself and about the world help William to cope. Throughout the story, many of William’s thoughts are punctuated by exclamation points to show how deeply he is thinking and feeling inside his mind. Twice, the story refers to William as exaggerating (par. 2 and par. 36). Twice, the story refers to him as romanticizing something (par. 36 and par. 105). Twice, the story calls him obsessive (par. 2 and par. 6).

 

Immediately upon waking, the song that comes on William’s clock radio makes him think of a story about the singer Donna Fargo and how her “birth name was the infinitely more interesting Yvonne Vaughn” (par. 1). William does not seem to intentionally tell himself this story. It just pops into his head before he is even fully awake. His mind immediately ties this story in his mind about a decades old song, to all of the “formerly famous rock- and country-music stars” who played the “Indian casino circuit” (par. 1). We find out that William is a Spokane Indian, so seeing these oldie acts perform was part of the story of his childhood.

 

William is a businessman who is leaving his beloved wife and daughter behind at home to go on a business trip. William travels, “so often, the Seattle-based flight attendants [know] him by first name” (par. 39). He is picked up by a taxi driver who is a man of color and whose accent is ambiguous (par. 41). William and the taxi driver begin talking, and the taxi driver tells William he is Ethiopian (par. 75). They discuss William’s own ethnic ambiguity (par. 86). The driver tells William that his name is Fekadu, that he was a fighter pilot in Ethiopia who “dropped bombs on [his] own people” (par. 155). He tells the story of how he defected, abandoning his family, because he “could not do it anymore” (par. 157).

 

Fekadu’s story resonates deeply with William. Fekadu found himself torn between staying in his country with his family and continuing to kill as part of the military or running from both the killing and his family. Before getting into the taxi, William was deeply conflicted about leaving his own family, something he does constantly for business trips. As he kissed his wife, Marie, goodbye he wondered if she dreamt about “a man who never left her, about some unemployed agoraphobic Indian warrior who liked to cook and wash dishes” (par. 19). When he says goodbye to his daughter, Grace, she cries. He already feels like “only an adequate husband”. His daughter’s tears make him wonder “if he [is] a bad father” (par. 29). Whenever William leaves his family he knows that it is only a business trip and not a permanent separation. Still, while he is away from his wife and daughter he has “nightmares about strangers breaking into the house and killing and raping Marie and Grace. During longer business trips, William’s nightmares became more violent as the days and nights passed” (par. 43). These are all stories that William tells himself, about what kind of husband and father he is, about whether or not his wife and daughter are safe when he leaves them.

 

William loves his wife and daughter intensely. He tells Fekadu, “I miss them so much I go crazy…Sometimes I worry their love is the only thing that makes me human” (par. 72). William struggles to leave his family for constant, short-term business trips. As he is embarking on one of these trips, he struggles to bid his family farewell and then his taxi driver turns out to be a man who chose to escape war by completely abandoning his family without even saying goodbye. As he talks to Fekadu, William imagines the pain and horror of never being able to see his family again. When Fekadu first mentions that he fears he will never see his family again, William doesn’t want “to be having [the] conversation” (par. 80). Fekadu’s reality is so terrible to William that his mind wants to reject it completely. Fekadu’s heartbreaking story is like the worst case scenario of William’s personal fears and anxieties about his own family.

 

Fekadu’s story is not just about abandoning his family. It’s also about the nightmarish job he was given to do as a jet-fighter pilot. Fekadu tells William that he was born into a family that had connections to the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who was a “great and good and kind and terrible man [who]…loved his country and killed many of his people” (par. 142). Selassie recognized that Fekadu was an extremely intelligent student and sent him to study physics at Oxford in England. He learned to fly and returned to Ethiopia to fly jets in “Selassie’s army” (par. 147). Fekadu confesses to William, “I dropped bombs on my own people…For three years, I killed my own people…and then, on the third of June in 1974, I could not do it anymore” (par. 155, 157).

 

William is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by Fekadu’s stories. When he first gets into the cab and Fekadu starts making small talk with him, “he didn’t really want to talk…he needed to meditate in silence…to put his fear of flying in an imaginary safe deposit box and lock it away” (par. 60). When Fekadu tells William that he can fly planes, William feels “very doubtful of this man but fascinated as well” (par. 104). Before Fekadu tells William about his past as a fighter pilot and his abandonment of his family he asks William, “do you want to hear my story?” (par. 140). Out loud, William says, “Yes, I do, sure, yes, please,” but “he was lying” (par. 141). When Fekadu comes to the point in his story where he’s about to reveal whether he killed or not, “William wanted to know the terrible answer without asking the terrible question” (par. 152). By the time they make it to the airport, William finds that “he didn’t want this journey to end so soon…[he] wanted to hear more of this man’s stories and learn from them, whether they were true or not” (par. 160).

 

As Fekadu and William talk and Fekadu shares his stories, William’s opinions of Fekadu change. At first, he sees Fekadu as a blue-collar taxi driver who is probably from a poor background. Fekadu’s deference to him by calling him “sir” makes William, who is conflicted about his middle-class-American status, uncomfortable (par. 42). William sees that his taxi driver is a black man but can tell by his accent, “a colonial cocktail of American English, formal British, and French sibilants added to a base of what must have been North African,” that he is not African-American (par. 41). William tries to erase the class difference between them by also calling Fekadu sir and helping Fekadu load his luggage into the taxi, which makes Fekadu uncomfortable (par. 52). It is notable that at this point in the story, for one short paragraph, the third person POV switches from William’s perspective to Fekadu’s.

 

As William sits in the back of the taxi heading to the airport he wonders about his work. When Fekadu asks him, “What do you do, sir?” (par. 61), William laughs and replies, “You know, I’m not sure” (par. 62). He works for a “think tank” and thinks of his job as “[selling] ideas about how to improve other ideas” (par. 62). William’s work is profitable and has allowed him to create a comfortable and respectable life for his family. His work is also cerebral. William recalls a product his company designed and sold that was never actually manufactured and would probably be a prototype forever. It was a financial success, because William’s company made “a few hundred thousand dollars” from the idea alone (par. 62).

 

Despite his professional and personal success the intangibility of Williams work makes him worry “that his job-his selling of the purely theoretical-wasn’t a real job at all” (par. 105). As Fekadu drives them down the highway they pass various industrial yards where “blue-collared men and women drove trucks and forklifts, unloaded trains, trucks, and ships, built computers, televisions, and airplanes” (par. 105). William compares himself to “so many men and women working so hard” (par. 105). He compares his work to the kind of work that leaves “calluses on the palms of hands” (par. 105), and he feels torn. He has everything that anyone could want: a loving family, a comfortable home, financial security, a prestigious job. However, he still yearns for and romanticizes what he doesnt have. He wants his “comfortable and safe life to contain more wilderness” (par. 105).

 

Then Fekadu tells his story. Fekadu’s story doesn’t exactly contain wilderness but it does contain wildness. As they drive past a field of planes Fekadu says, “I can fly any of those planes…I am the best pilot in the world” (par. 103). Being a pilot is tangible and physical in a way that William’s work is not. The life of a fighter pilot who defects from a tyrannical regime is wild in a way that William’s life is not. Listening to the wildness of Fekadu’s life is fascinating for William. However, Fekadu’s story is also an extremely painful one. Fekadu’s story seems to confront William with the fact that adventure in life can come at a high price. William spends so much time in his head, worrying about the ways that his life could be different, for better or for worse. This time spent worrying is time taken away from appreciating the reality of what his life actually is, which is pretty good.

 

When Fekadu drops William off at the airport he feels “unsure [and] afraid” (par. 180). Fekadu makes a joke about he is a much better jet pilot than taxi driver and then laughs “loudly and joyously” at his own joke (par. 177). William cannot believe that a man who has endured such pain “could be capable of such happiness, however temporary it was” (par. 178). Fekadu, if his stories are true, has suffered great loss and been faced with terrible choices in life. Yet, he is able to laugh and smile and joke. William, the one with the enviable life, is the one feeling fraught.

 

Standing at the curb of the airport, William seems to have an anxiety attack. He “[can’t] breathe well” and wonders if he might “fall over from a heart attack or stroke right there on the sidewalk” (par. 182). He doesn’t fall over. He leaves his bags right on the curb and runs inside the terminal. He runs and he searches until he finds a pay phone and calls home. As the phone “rang and rang and rang and rang…William worried that his wife and daughter were harmed, were lying dead on the floor, but then Marie answered” (par. 182).

 

Hearing Fekadu’s story transported William out of his own life for a while. It transported him into a world of unimaginable destruction and loss. In his own life, William is constantly beset by anxieties that are unfounded based on the extremely low levels of danger facing him and his family. They are secure and fortunate. Confronted with the story of a man who has lived through real danger and chaos, William sprints back towards the safety and comfort of his life. His wife’s voice comes through the phone, and it anchors him. It reminds him that even though all is not well with the world, all is well with his life right now.

 

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