On the flight to Indiana, the woman sitting next to me asked me to watch a video about a company she works for because she felt like it could change my life. She was young, friendly, dressed to the nines, and I liked her watch, so I agreed. The product itself was intriguing—it was some sort of natural compound that has been scientifically proven (and even talked about on a network investigative news show) to improve health and longevity—but the point of the video was not to sell me the product so much as to sell me the company. Just as my brain was thinking, This is a pyramid scheme, the video said yes, this could be called a pyramid scheme, but then insisted that all business is a pyramid scheme with a CEO at the top raking in the big money and the peons at the ground floor doing the grunt work, and it was said so enthusiastically that I was momentarily forced to believe it was true and that I should get in on the ground floor. Everything is a pyramid scheme. Pyramids are awesome! Fortunately, my better sense prevailed (around the time Donny Osmond appeared on screen, though he was looking remarkably well-preserved) and I was able to muster up the courage to tell her I wasn’t interested. Pyramid schemes only work if you get in on the ground floor, and it was pretty clear to me that this pyramid was already 3/4 built.
She turned her attention to the guy sitting next to her. I spent the remainder of the flight bouncing between pity for a woman gullible enough to believe she’s going to become independently wealthy shilling snake oil, and pity for myself because I never can wholeheartedly buy in to a cause or a product or a belief system. I might attend services, but I never drink the Kool-Aid, and while some might say this is smart, what it really means is that I’m riddled with doubt on a lot of levels.
On the return flight to Seattle, I was relieved not to be sitting next to someone trying to sell me something. My seatmate looked like a high school senior and was expressing annoyance that the fleece she’d ordered hadn’t arrived in time for her trip. She told me she would be spending the next two weekends with friends, hiking around the Pacific Northwest, and during the week she’d be at a conference. She looked like maybe she was a dolphin trainer or something, so I was surprised when she told me she had an MBA from Carnegie-Mellon, lived in D.C., and did something that sounded vaguely important and international. I’d love to tell you what her job was, but I didn’t understand what she was talking about. She was speaking clearly and wasn’t using polysyllabic jargon, but the words that she strung together made no sense to me, and what’s more, I couldn’t get my brain to shut off while she was talking. Instead, inside my head was a roar, This is just a girl and she knows more about the world than you do. This girl is going places. This girl has a plan for her life.
She told me about this artist community in Mexico where she’d done an internship and where a lot of Americans emigrate, and my brain roared, This girl knows about a place you should know about but don’t. I asked where she’d done her undergraduate work, and it was a college that I’d considered for about 15 minutes when I was 15 before I knew about things like “out of state tuition”. I asked how she liked it, why she chose it, and she explained that she’d picked it solely because of its excellent intern program in D.C. because she knew she was interested in international business and the nation’s capitol would be a good place to do that. My brain roared, When you were thinking about that college, it was only because you liked the way the campus looked in the brochure photos. What’s wrong with you?
She wasn’t intimidating. She didn’t seem particularly wise. She asked me if I thought it was crazy that she’d come to Seattle without a raincoat or an umbrella. (Answer: duh, yes.) She was just a person, young enough to be my daughter probably, but full of information about the world that I don’t have. I was relieved when she plugged in her earphones and started watching the in-flight movie, which was Spiderman, if for no other reason than so my brain would quit roaring at me.
It was a weird way to bookend my trip home. I went in feeling smarter than the posh, pyramid sales person, and I left feeling old and dumb (and pessimistic about a stranger’s choice of outerwear for nine days in the Pacific Northwest). As I walk around Seattle, where the average age is something like 30, I’m feeling past my prime and not nearly clever enough. I’m going to have to spend this first week back in the city Googling things like “Gen X” and “generational beliefs” and “multiple intelligences” and figuring out all the ways I’ve still got it going on.
Hopefully, after the research is in, I won’t come to the conclusion that I made an error in not signing up for a new career with Donnie Osmond and the anti-aging pyramid sales woman.