A few days ago I flew in a hot air balloon. The best part of the trip – a flight over Napa Valley – was the inflation of the balloon. From inert, saggy things draped on the ground to 100’ seven-story magnificent, multicolored flying envelopes in a matter of minutes. Of all the photographs taken by our party on that day, most of them were of the inflation and ascension of the balloons. .
The expression “He’s full of hot air” now has real meaning. Limp, damp, empty rubber suits fill up, fill out, and puff up. They tell implausible stories, make up things, invent themselves many times over, and most of all keep talking. Every so often they open the gas valve and fire up the propane, their thin envelope swells and rises, and they are filled with more hot air. .
Their cousins, windbags, are thick bladders of air like the ones Aeolus gave to Greek sailors.
They are tightly inflated, and are bursting with compressed air. Like the mythical Aeolian winds, they are inexhaustible, and once air escapes it rushes in a gale, it is impossible to stop. The windbag’s words are propelled by the pressure built up in the leather pouch. He talks on and on, seemingly unable to force the winds back in, tie up the sack, and stow them away.
In the Chinese fable The Five Brothers, one brother can hold his breath forever. He inhales all the air around him and fills his lungs.
Each of the Chinese brothers survives a dismal fate because of their supernatural abilities, and the brother who can hold his breath forever escapes being smothered.
In many ways I am awed by modern-day windbags, men and women who simply cannot keep their vents closed and pour out rushes of air. Some are so self-centered they have no idea how their wind affects others. Some windbags lack self-confidence and fire thousands of cubic feet of gas to give themselves volume, substance and depth. Others simply ‘like to hear themselves talk’, and get pleasure from inflating, expressing, and re-inflating their balloon. They like the roar of the gas burner and the feeling of ascendant power as the heat and intensity of their arguments sends them higher and higher above the rest.
I am often reminded of Thanksgiving Day Macy’s parade. Huge, multi-story balloon figures filled with hot air, bobbing above the crowd. They have no meaning, no importance other than their size and grotesque caricature. The same goes for windbags. They are so full of themselves and hot air, that they have no idea what they are to others.
Perhaps too much emphasis is placed on substance. We are supposed to be solid, made of firm stuff, have our feet on the ground, walk tall and with purpose. There is nothing pejorative about a ‘weighty’ person or one with ‘gravitas’.
Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being wrote about the importance of lightness, and Tomas avoids political and personal commitment. The world itself is insubstantial if not meaningless, and the only way to live peaceably and well is to live above it all, with no moral grounding.
Kundera in his later books explored this idea in more academic terms, referring to Greek and Roman philosophers to construct his world of dark and light, weightlessness and heaviness.
Earth, air, water, and fire were the primal elements of antiquity, defining the world, personality and character. Airy people were like Tomas, moral sprites who added little of substance to the world but gave it humor and lightness. Spores that float on the breeze.
Everyone falls on a lightness spectrum with Tomas on the one end and windbags on the other. Tomas is sublime, unencumbered, a free spirit who is rebelling against nothing, but at home and happy with things as they are. He is confident, centered, and happy. Windbags are grotesque caricatures. They are pressurized envelopes of hot air, balloons over a parade.
Everyone else falls somewhere in between. We are moderate, modest, tolerant, and attentive to others. We sense when others are losing interest. We never want to bore or annoy. We keep the social ship on an even keel.
Politicians are a unique breed of animal. Half-windbag, half-person of intelligence and substance, they are mutants. They cannot stop talking, love the attention and adulation of crowds, and have been gifted with a silver tongue. They are always inflated with hot air but are agile and sensitive enough to feel the currents around them and change course when required. If we ever catch them in a quiet, reflective mood, we assume something is wrong. The propane burner is broken. There is too much fog rolling in from the ocean to fly.
Talk show guests are bombastic windbags who blow at each other. They yell, rant, interrupt, and challenge. It is not what they say but how much propulsion they can generate from their hot air. It is quite a show. Liberals get upset over Fox News, but it is the best nonsensical performance on the air. Not to be missed.
Intellectuals and academics have a fear of hot air. They choose their words carefully, parse sentences, and construct hyper-logical arguments that can withstand scrutiny and attack. The worst libel they could suffer would be to be called a windbag, filled with hot air and no substance.
The balloon flight over Napa Valley was pleasant. It was a beautiful day and we could see the precise contours of the vineyard on the hills sloping up from the valley and the diverse plantings of Cabernet, Pinot, Merlot, and Chardonnay. But without a doubt the high point of the trip was the balloons themselves. Archaic throwbacks to the first ones built and flown in 1783, they have changed little, and they are still primitive. Hot gases superheating air, air rising, and balloons sailing over the countryside. They are spectacular, loud, and perfectly silent.
Perhaps these criticisms of windbags are uncalled for. After all God made us all and we should be tolerant of what we perceive to be the excesses of others. Still, a hot air windbag, like the magnificent hot air balloons over Napa, are something to behold.