If you ever sit near the cockpit on a commercial airliner during takeoff, you might just be able to overhear the non-flying pilot calling out reference speeds to the flying pilot as the plane rolls down the runway. What you'll hear will sound something like this: "Vee-one ... [pause] Vee-r ... Vee-two." This is a chant of what pilots call "V speeds" (the V is short for "velocity"), which signal the moments when the plane can, for instance, lift from the runway or fly safely with one engine failing. V speeds are one of those sly concessions that the magic of flight makes to physics; an attempt to bless with scientific words an experience that transcends the rational. It's like pointing toward a New Mexico sunset and saying "pink" and "orange." In that simple naming you'll have measured something, just not what counts.
A few years ago a friend and I were sitting over tea in Tokyo and talking about our increasingly accelerated lives. My friend lives outside of Tokyo in Chiba, but the fact that we were meeting in Japan was coincidental. In the following year we would meet again in Switzerland, London, Aspen, Madrid and Beijing. Nor was this unusual. Among our friends, it is not uncommon for us to meet on four different continents in as many months. He and I were trying to make some sense of this life when we came up with the idea of calculating our average speeds. We took the number of miles we had flown in the year, divided it by the number of hours in a year and produced an average annual velocity.
I can't recall our numbers that day, but I can at least report mine from last year: 350,000 miles flown, 50,000 miles driven, for an annual average velocity of 45.8 miles an hour. Of course there were times when I was going zero (fireside in Santa Fe reading Henry James) and times (Hong Kong to New York with a mid-winter jet stream on the tail) when I was making nearly 800 miles an hour. I began thinking of my velocity in cockpit terms, as a new V speed of sorts: Vpr--Personal Velocity. But like those other V speeds, or like that sunset reduced to Crayola names, the simple number misses the magic.
Lived properly--and I will come shortly to the dangers of not living the life properly--what happens with a high-velocity life is that some of the strictures of reality begin to fade away. It is not that the hassles and problems of ordinary travel disappear. What is really disappearing is the sense of connectedness to anything other than what you can take with you when you travel. And those things are your ideas, your dreams, your hopes and your senses. It is as if the sheer aerodynamic demands of a high-velocity life strip off anything that creates too much surface friction. I have been in bars in Kyoto at 4 a.m. drinking Cabernet and eating French cheese and, 24 hours later, in the Russian countryside with diplomats drinking vodka and debating arms control, and absorbed it all as easily as if I were moving from one room of a museum to another. You find at a certain speed that you can slip without ripples into each of these new pools of experience and come out feeling more refreshed than when you went in.
Every day you are confronted with new smells and tastes. Did you know what it tastes like to drink hot green tea in milk in February in Nara? Had you smelled the Namibian desert after a rainstorm? The high-velocity life not only rewards optimism, it demands it. If you get on each new flight thinking wherever you are going is worse than where you're coming from, then this life will empty you. And this is where a secret emerges: that the essential demand for a high-speed life is a kind of portable stillness. It's like that Taipei 101 skyscraper, which balances out too-frequent Asian earthquakes not by means of a deep foundation but through an internal damper that transmutes big shocks into small tremors. Stability comes from the inside.
This probably sounds like an emotionally barren life. After all, another lesson of that miracle of Taipei engineering could be that attachments only bring you down. And, in all honesty, I noticed a few years ago that I had stopped suffering from jet lag except on those occasions where I remained emotionally attached to somewhere I was not (or, more usually, someone who was not with me). At a certain personal velocity (near, perhaps 30 miles an hour) you begin racking up experiences faster than you can tally them, and human faces often drift out of sight. Experiences slip behind you in the air like paper tossed out a car window.
A few weeks ago in Beijing a ticket for a concert I had been to three nights before in Paris slipped out of a book I was reading. I had completely forgotten I had attended. Frictionless life really means that: nothing sticks. Of course, there's a certain peace in holding onto your life with a kind of relaxed, disengaged grip. But the fact is that the constant movement strips away the best kinds of emotional connections. You can find moments of shocking intimacy as you move at this speed, but shock and intimacy aren't supposed to belong together. The first few times the sensation might be refreshing but after a while you worry that one of those words is slowly eating away the other, and it's not the word you would want to be winning.
This is largely why the high-speed life is not for everyone and it is not, even for me, forever. But there is, at least this: we live in a world where the most fundamental fact is constant change, an early arriving newness that greets us each day with surprises we couldn't have imagined. The great unpredictability of the last 20 years is both the most magnificent charm of modernity and its greatest terror. A high-velocity life harmonizes the constant movement of your life with the unstoppable change of our world. It is a kind of personal relativity, which means that even as everything around you shifts, you will retain the liberating ability to think, instead of only reacting. There is another gift too. Those late nights in the snow in St. Petersburg, the early sunsets in Paris? That panorama of esthetic pleasure you encounter in the fast life seems to me now the best insulation against that horrible, final jolt when we will, all of us, be slowed down to the speed we will endure for the rest of time.