United is like choosing vanilla; you go with United because cookie dough and chocolate (Southwest or Air New Zealand) were out, and you’ve walked all the way to the ice cream store so you might as well get something. With United, you know what you’re going to get—okay but not great service, a flight that will be more or less on time, and flight attendants who will give you a free cup of soda but not the whole can.  

For my twelve-hour flight from Sydney to San Francisco, I was put on a fairly new United aircraft. I could tell because—like most companies when they don’t know what else to do (ahem Apple) but need to sell something—Boeing or whoever designed it added a whole load of unnecessary features to qualify it as “cutting edge” when it’s essentially the same bucket of bolts from the 90s.

You would think that with the millions of dollars they shove into a new flying fortress, they would have added some extra butt cushioning, made the armrests something other than cut-rate junk, or enlarged the gap between seats, which—at the moment—has your knees furrowing up the butt of the person in front of you like an overeager prairie dog. But it seems this design feature has been overlooked in pursuit of shove-‘em-in-until-they-start-squeezing-out-the-windows approach. Thanks a lot capitalism.

Seatbelt technology is still the same and so archaic that they have to teach you how to use it in every safety briefing. It makes you question what exactly they’re supposed to do if they’re from the era when we still had to manually crank our cars and women’s hair looked like an extravagant, curly bird’s nest. Why not do away with the belts? Just rip them all out and come clean with the facts: if anything goes wrong on this flight, we are all completely screwed.

The only possible reason I could see for a seatbelt is to protect you from concussing yourself on the seat in front of you. But airline designers shirk this by doing away with a chest restraint, making sure the belt is useless. The belt is secured over your lap, which protects you only if the whole goddamn machine flips over. If this is the case, you have far more things to worry about like: Is the captain drunk? Is it a fun drunk or an angry drunk? Can we coax the keys off of him?

It’s just like telling people to turn off their cell phones, which obviously aren’t hurting anyone. You know why I know? Because if phones caused planes to crash, every single plane in the world would have crashed by now. In every plane, some paragon of society is going to leave his phone in the overhead bin or his pocket or, hell, he might even be playing Angry Birds but is just too lazy to switch it to airplane mode. And boom that man wearing Wal-Mart sweatpants would have killed us all. Good thing it’s all a bunch of hooey.

When I finally stumbled off my trans-Pacific United flight after sleeping for about an hour, I was thoroughly done with any sort of travel. It was seven in the morning in San Francisco and the middle of the night in Sydney, and the transition to American life was tougher than I would have thought.

Even though Australia is America’s cousin with the strange accent and funny pets, arriving in the States can be a bit of a shock. It’s a pretty browbeaten fact that most Americans are slightly to severely overweight, but you really notice it after time in another country. We are not the slim poster child we used to be. Customs even made me throw away my banana upon entering the country, which seems unfair considering the Australians had already taken my chickpeas.

It’s odd. In contrast to our national fast food cuisine, which is really our only successful export, the US is the country most devoted to appearances, fitness, and diet, and for some reason it can’t get any of them right. Health should be simple, but from the Atkin’s diet, fat gram scare, and gluten-free shenanigans, we seem to hatch more harebrained schemes than a B-movie bank heist crew and come up with less payoff than the poor freelance writers who wrote the screenplay.

Unlike most pundits, I don’t necessarily think a little bit of extra weight is a bad thing, considering that most human generations were and are more worried about starving or being shot by overeager rebels with AK-47s than whether or not they have a six pack. Of course, the extent to which some Americans take eating is bad, but the fact that we have to worry about having too much food seems like more of a good bad thing (eating too much food) than a bad bad thing (starving because some overeager warlord killed our pigs)—if that makes sense.

And most Americans are thoroughly pleased with their excess. As the self-appointed guardians of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we take pride in our country, despite its many flaws. Nowhere else (except for some rednecks in Australia) do you find people wearing shirts with the flag of their country on it; in the US, you can’t throw the Constitution without hitting five people with the red, white, and blue emblazoned on their chest. In some sense, I respect those who have such unabashed pride in their country; but on the other hand, it is a bit embarrassing when pride evolves into a narcissistic, see-no-evil view of America, the classic guns n’ trucks, anti any other country view.

Of course, it’s unfair to judge a culture based on experiences in airport terminals. They’re a kind of purgatory where you’re out of hell but not quite in heaven yet. An airport isn’t really in any particular country or state; it’s more of a sad compromise of all western civilization where the fast food franchises compete to see how badly they can screw you over. They aren’t very coy about it either. I asked three different retailers to break a five dollar bill and every single one said I had to buy something to get change.

Travelers put up with it, too, because unless you want to charge out into a strange city and potentially miss your flight, you have to. And yet, with all of the people arriving and departing from and into different time zones, there’s a fair amount of leniency. It’s one of the only places where people are allowed to pass out on the ground like a homeless person and not be looked at strangely, and where all decent meal times are out the window. I saw a person walking by with an ice cream cone at 6 a.m. and thought, That’s a really great idea.

And yet, for all the trauma, I arrived at my destination within two days. A journey to and from Australia used to take months on a boat, and hopefully the natives didn’t kill you when you arrived, but now all I have to worry about is some stale pretzels, fastening my seat belt correctly, and how many Star Wars movies I want to watch. Thank God for that.

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