​ Today I met Owen, from Wisconsin.  I was in Chicago for work – just for the day.  I flew out at 6:30AM that morning and was flying home at 6PM Chicago time.  As you can imagine, I was quite tired. I boarded the plane and began looking ahead, as most people do, to try to see where my seat was and who I might be sitting next to. This was a baby plane, so it had two seats on each side, which was sure to be close quarters. I fly a lot, so sitting next to a stranger is something I’m used to. Typically I sit down, put my stuff away, and go to sleep.

I was trying to count the rows to see where I might land, and there was a bright-eyed young man sitting in the window seat, sort of looking back at me. He had glasses and red hair and big blue eyes. I thought he was kinda cute but in a I-could-be-your-babysitter kind of way.  I figured that was not my seat. I never get that lucky. I usually end up next to the businessman who snores or the nice Indian woman who smells like whatever it was she was cooking before she got on the plane. 

I took a few steps closer and realized that I was seated right next to the bright-eyed young man with glasses. I said “hi” as I sat down. And then I made a comment about it being a baby plane. He was playing a Nintendo Switch, and I guess he thought I heard me say, “What are you playing?” to which he responded, “Pokémon.”   

As I was trying to put my bag under the seat in front of me, he introduced himself. “My name is Owen,” he said. “I’m Betty,” I replied. And then I asked the required question that you must ask the person that you’re sitting next to on the plane: “Are you from Detroit?  Going home?” (as if it was any of my business).

He began telling me about how he was from Wisconsin and he worked for a manufacturing company.  He was going on a business trip to meet with a chemical supplier in the Detroit area that blah blah blah….   Anyways, he told me about the work that he does, and he spoke with so much excitement and passion.  His eyes lit up as he said industry terms that I normally wouldn’t know what he was talking about, but, because he was in an auto parts manufacturing business and I work for a company who partners with automotive dealers, I actually kind of understood most of the words he was saying.

He enthusiastically told me about where he went to school, about his girlfriend, how they were buying a house and the bank is dragging their feet with the mortgage and lots of other things like that. I enjoyed listening to him talk, but he was kind of a loud talker and it was quiet on the plane, and I suddenly became very aware that everybody was likely listening to our conversation (even if they really weren’t).

I noticed he had a small red pillow with what look like a white outline of a large intestine or colon on it. So, as any nosey redhead would, I inquired about it.  He said, “well, this is kind of embarrassing”, and then he proceeded to tell me about how he had his entire colon removed. He had a cancer scare because he had Crohn’s disease for so many years.  As he was telling me the story, he patted his belly, which I can only imagine was his way of telling me that he has some sort of colostomy bag. I didn’t press that or ask about it, but I could see the bulge under his shirt so I’m pretty sure that’s what it was.

I learned that Owen was just 30 years old (well he will be in September) and that he liked Pokémon, but was really playing it to catch up to his girlfriend who was at level 100. And I learned other random things about Owen and his life.

We also had a great conversation about the work that I do.   We talked about characters and fandom and VR and immersive experiences in manufacturing and the conversation bounced from one topic to the next, to the next, to the next…

I was delighted at how the conversation highlighted one of the concepts that I am writing a conference session about – the idea of characters, fandom and how they create community.  Also how we meet people and experience things that we otherwise wouldn’t, if we weren’t a part of that fandom. 

So the reason I’m telling you about how I met Owen is not because I just wanted to tell you a story (I mean I do think it’s a good story). What I met on the plane was passion, youth and exuberance for life.   A person who had been through so many hardships physically and been close to death and was just so excited about life and living it to the fullest.  Owen’s experience with Crohn’s disease and losing his colon and I’m sure many other unnamed things had changed his whole perspective on life. I believe that that’s why he was able to talk to me uninhibited and enthusiastically on that plane.  He lived without regrets. Without regretting having had that conversation with a stranger.  Without regretting learning something new and hearing someone else’s perspective.  Without regretting  the opportunity to understand someone else’s industry in a very small way.

When we got off the plane I got a better look at Owen.  He was a tall thin dude (at least 6 foot something), wearing baggy gray sweatpants, a fitted black waffle henley and red high top converse All-Stars – that he had tucked his sweatpants into.  He didn’t care what he looked like – he just wanted to be comfortable for his flight. 

Owen from Wisconsin inspired me. He inspired me to keep going, to keep working on being who I want to be.  He inspired me to talk to the stranger on the plane, to share my life and experiences with others, and to know that even if I never see the impact, that impact was still made. I left that seat changed.

Thanks Owen.