A Love Letter to a Neck Pillow; or, This Stuff Really Works!

As a regular and habitual coach-flyer, I’ve accustomed myself to the increasingly onerous indignities of the experience: Legroom too tight for even an Oompa Loompa, indifferent if not aggressively rude cabin crews, food as flavorful as leftovers from a middle-schooler’s home-ec project. And, indeed, much like many hostages, I’ve begun to see the first glimmers of Stockholm syndrome before most of the planes I’m sardined into even begin pulling away from the gate: The justifications for why this is all perfectly fine begin before I even begin contemplating that first swallow of $7 Jack Daniels, even on trans-Atlantic flights (thanks for the generosity, USAir!). I tell myself that I have plenty of space in my little cocoon of a seat because I’m only five-seven. I tell myself that the obsessively chatty day-tripper next to me could have a profound impact on my life, offering up the kind of sage guidance that can only ever really come from a coffee-breath-smelling seat-mate whose strategy for attenuating the mile-high jitters is yammering away ceaselessly for the entire duration of the flight. I tell myself that the magic 10mg of Ambien in my jacket pocket will render all of this superfluous soon enough.

But all of that only really works when I’m flying alone, as, of course, I usually do. This past June, however, I found myself on a one-aisle redeye from Philadelphia to Lisbon with my wife and kids. We were on the first of several legs toward a blissful month in Italy’s Puglia region, a trip we’d been looking forward to for months. But in order to get there, we first had to survive winging ourselves over the Atlantic with a three-year-old and a seven-month-old in tow.

And people say the first “Saw” movie is scary.

Parental responsibilities, then, precluded my usual overnight-flight food-and-beverage pairing of Ambien and whiskey: If I were to get any shuteye at all, it would have to be the sort from which I could awaken easily, and not into the chemically induced fog of a sedative-aided nap.

What, I asked myself, the hell would I do?

This is all a long way of saying that I am and will forever be grateful to the mad geniuses at Cabeau, who, somewhere along the way, were stricken with the crazy idea that, yes, they could in fact make a better proverbial mousetrap. Or, in this case, neck pillow and eye mask.

For years, I’d been using some version of the same bean-bag model of neck pillow and plush-fabric eye mask that you find in airport shops all over the world. And, much like too many run-of-the-mill marriages, the charm had worn off long ago, but ennui and inertia kept me from looking around and finding one that actually worked. (Okay, that sounds depressing, and I suppose it is; so for the record, I’m not referring to my own marriage: My wife Steff is a saint, tolerant of me and preternaturally understanding when I have to leave for some far-flung destination for work and she remains home in the ever-exciting ‘burbs with the kids and the bills and neighbor down the street in the darkened house who may or may not but really-truly-hopefully isn’t actually a serial killer. I love her deeply, and desperately hope she remembers to lock the doors at night.)

But back to neck pillows and eye masks.

I had received samples of these wonders of modern ergonomic design in the mail, and decided that this would be the trip to test-drive them. If they could make a difference in a context like this, I thought, then they must be the real deal.

Turns out they are.

Now, I’m not one to wax rhapsodic about neck pillows and eye masks, but these Cabeau ones? They’re really, really good. Like, enough to make me want to—here we go!—wax rhapsodic about them. The pillow is composed of memory foam that actually conforms to your neck and jaw line, meaning that you can catch a few hours of sleep and not wake up needing a large Finnish man in a sauna to flog your neck with birch branches to work out the kinks that too often herald final approach and landing after a restless night’s sleep in coach. And the design of the eye mask evidences the sort of future-gazing genius that Bobby Oppenheimer and his buddies at Los Alamos possessed while working on their little Manhattan Project.

Okay, maybe not quite. But still, it’s a great eye mask, with padding around the entire edge so that your eyelashes don’t get crushed and you have a full seal from the light. It also has a customizable nose-bridge, which means that, combined with the edge-padding and the overall high quality of the plush fabric, provides as near a blackout experience as you’ll ever possibly get.

All of this meant one thing: I was able to get far more sleep than I expected on that flight to Lisbon, and was able the next day to more adequately educate my wife and older daughter about the intricacies of gorging oneself on the surprisingly tasty pasteis de nata at Lisbon Portela Airport. (The baby doesn’t yet have teeth, so no eggy pastries for her.)

So while no neck pillow and eye mask can ever compensate for the indignities of coach travel, they can certainly take some of the sting out of it and help give you a few extra hours of sleep. Which these did. And for the record, I spent those few blissful hours of unconsciousness dreaming that we were flying up front, ensconced in the cushy, old-school Turkish-sultan comforts of first class, replete with grapes and brandy-macerated dates and beautiful women singing me to sleep.

A guy can always dream.