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COLUMN: Making up stories for strangers fun way to pass the time while traveling

Friday, December 17, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

I can't remember the "Gilligan's Island" theme song. I can't remember one bit of the "Gilligan's Island" theme song, and that actually should matter in this situation, but because I admitted it up front, let's ignore it for the rest of this story. Instead, I'll share the genesis of this fact: Once when I was a little girl embarked on my first flight, from San Antonio to Orlando to go to Disney World, my mom noticed my beginner's nerves and, in some misguided attempt to distract me through random trivia, told me she once shared a plane row with one of the co-writers of the "Gilligan's Island" theme song.

She sat on the window seat. He sat in the aisle. No one sat in the middle. This is all she remembers.

I chose to believe her, but I chose to do so skeptically. Who would make up a fact that inane? The second time I heard my mom tell the story, I realized that was the key. I believed the story because the fact that it might not be true doesn't even really matter. This is when I realized: I could make up wacky-but-boring facts. I'm wacky. I've got boring stories. If this ever gets me into some sort of legal trouble, that's how I'll explain it — the birth of a serial liar.

But in order to be a good one, you've got to have a venue, and the perfect one is an airplane 32,000 feet above the air from anyone you know or who knows you. At the end of the day, all these plane people will know is that you are wacky but mildly boring. And if you have a conscience, you will also need a good reason. The best one I've found in my short career is the holiday travel season, the bane of my November-December existence and a period so awkward and unwelcome that I'd rather avoid my issues than confront them. We all know the feeling: Come the holidays, millions of Americans must travel anywhere between one and 20 hours in order to visit family who will greet them, gift them and eventually express minor disdain at all of the decisions they have made in the past six to 12 months. Instead of thinking about this on the way, I lie.

The options are endless, and they begin with the mild. "Hi, my name is Kelsey. I'm so sorry, but could I switch seats with you? My doctor said it's better for my vertigo." Soon, though, this will not suffice. Depending on the length of your layover, the annoying habits of the people awaiting you at home and whether you are seated near a child younger than two, you will soon need to raise the stakes. On the other end of the mild category are options including suddenly remembering your allergy to peanuts (after eating some), asking the person next to you what blood type they are (and then saying nothing), describing the surgery you just had (but didn't) in great detail or asking them what tattoo you should get next. If you are wearing long sleeves and pants, tell them what percent of your body is (not) already tattooed — unless you look like a wimp, I'd suggest at least 70.

I however, am from a city that cannot be reached without a connecting flight. This calls for more drastic measures, which I have become only too happy to take. In this category of highly specific but false personal insight, I have learned that vague works best. If someone asks you what you do, respond, "Nothing much recently. I'm recovering." This leaves this person in the strange but interesting situation of wondering exactly what that means for the next one to seven hours. You could be recovering from: a shark attack, a face transplant (a la "Face/Off," in which case you could previously have been Nicolas Cage or John Travolta, for all they know), killing Bill, a werewolf transformation, ebola, an Oregon Trail accident, time travel, a freak basket-weaving incident, the last episode of "The Bachelor," an alien abduction and/or vagina dentata. If this person hasn't seen very many movies, chances are he or she will think you're recovering from heroin. Just remember the only truth: It doesn't matter.

The most important thing is to be smart. If you are discovered, you risk nothing more than an incredibly uncomfortable in-flight experience, but that does, after all, defeat the point. Trying to escape your holiday misery through untruth does no good if the person next to you has violently requested a seat change. Pay attention to what you are saying: "I work for Google," is always an easy option, but never, "I work for the Google." The same thing goes with adopting an accent. Misinformation is a bloody handprint when it comes to clues that you aren't who you say you are.

Although I won't go into a lot of detail on this side of the clouds, I have some considerable beginner experience in this area of expertise. Let's just say I've seen a lot of "Alias." For reasons mentioned above as well as the fact that my best friend lives in another country, I have, in the past, worked at a rodeo, raised ferrets, sung a hybrid of rap-opera and performed many other feats — all at different times, of course. And all never. Whether you're on the ground or lifting off of it, there's something powerful about your identity. But it's even more powerful not to have one. Believe me.

Kelsey Whipple is the editor of Vox. This Christmas, she's driving to Texas in her well-used, well-loved hybrid and avoiding airport parking, handsy TSA officers and awkward fellow passengers. Now, if only she could avoid Oklahoma.


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