Saturday, January 7, 2012

On Turbulence

I used to love flying. I grew up with a father rife with airline miles (he had earned a lifetime membership to the Ambassadors Club… until American Airlines came along and spat on a lifetime of loyalty to TWA), who generously put them toward his wife and child flying (first-class, of course) all over the world on holiday. So of course I loved flying. I grew up thinking that all planes had spiral stairs up to an open bar where everyone gathered to play charades or that plane food was always special-order and involved delicious hamburgers. I don't remember being scared of flying or turbulence. In fact, I vaguely remember being emboldened by turbulence, of it making me feel more confident or powerful because it did NOT scare me.

But this all changed. Gradually, of course. By the time I was a young adult, the first class flights were a thing of the past. But my confidence in the skies was still there. I was so old-hat at flying by then that I was begging turbulence to bring it on. Whatever, I wasn't scared. Then I started flying more… and on more international flights… and in business class. And the thrill of fancy-flying returned: the warm cloths, the warm nuts, the chilled champagne. The entertainment options, the flat seats, the complimentary toiletries. (I could go on.) I was back where I belonged. And let's face it, things are pretty smooth on those big jets. (Especially after the champagne.)

I can't really put my finger on when fear crept into my flying, but I'm pretty sure it was in my early 30s, when I was living in Columbus or Philly and had to take those baby-sized commuter jets home. There is an inherent lack of confidence in a plane that doesn't have status enough to afford a jetway connected directly to the gate. A plane on which you can spread your arms and almost touch both walls. A plane that has but one attendant, who doesn't even have to recite the safety regulations but merely pushes a button to inform. A plane whose props are started by an industry nube, a guy who dreams of someday piloting one of those 747s to Europe or Asia or somewhere other than Cincinnati. A plane that only has one class--economy, and that's an over-statement.

It was the shakes, the bumps, and the jumps of these little planes that ruined air travel for me. I am well aware that this fear may also have something to do with my increasing age and with my growing up and coming to terms with reality and my own sense of mortality. (Yeah, I said mortality.  This is about to get deep.)

And so it started happening: the racing pulse, the gripping of the armrest, the jittery legs, the need for wine just to deal. But those are just the physical manifestations. What goes on in my head is much worse. If there's a movie playing, it is suddenly both the most and least important thing happening. Most important because it is the only thing happening that is not turbulence. I am depending on every word coming out of Brad Pitt's mouth, needing them to continue to keep my mind somewhere else… but I am not really hearing any of it.

Turbulence makes you take stock of your life. It all starts making sense… why you were so sad to leave your friends in Madrid, why the highway was closed on the way to the airport, why the plane was delayed, why your dad just wrote you a thoughtful email about things other than saving money or church. You were warned, you should have known that it would all end here, just like this.

I won't tell you that I am dealing better with turbulence the more it happens (because you should have seen my legs shaking on my last flight when they had to put off the dinner service for an hour because it was so bumpy), but I have come to terms with it.

I mean this in two ways. First, because I have experienced so many crappy flights… and I am here in my hotel room telling you about them, I am living proof that--though frightening--turbulence is really more irksome than fatal. (You can do some fact-checking on the interwebs to see how rare it is for a plane to go down because of turbulence. It claims something like one a decade.)

I have also become better at putting my thoughts in a more peaceful place and have stopped playing this morbid "bargaining" game, wherein I make promises to whoever is listening (God, is that you?) to do things like say "I love you" more, to tell everyone I know how amazing they are (ohmygod, what if they don't know how much I value them in my life???), to not be as judgmental or cranky about the little things (oh, what I wouldn't give to be put in a situation that would make me cranky… so long as it 's on the ground!), even to go to church (gasp!). And then I think of all of the places I would rather be than on a jumping plane--at the dentist getting a filling… no a root canal! Having surgery! Breaking a bone! Getting yelled at by my boss! Having a terrible stomach flu! Because all of these things take place on the surface of the earth, you see. And though they might not be entirely within my control, they are moreso than being stuck on bumpy ride in the air.

Essentially, why turbulence is so scary is because of the sense of entrapment it brings. There is simply nowhere to go. There is no driving the other direction to avoid the bus, there is no ducking down to avoid the swinging bat, there is no going to the basement to avoid the thunderstorm. There is no leaving your seat. It's just you and a bunch of other strangers trusting that those folks in the cockpit are going to get you through it. There's something awful about feeling stuck like that, like there is nothing you could possibly do but ride out your fate.

But wait, I was telling you how I had come to terms with turbulence.

It's true. Though my knees were wobbling when they reined in the dinner carts and Brad Pitt's performance in Moneyball took on a new level of brilliance, I couldn't help thinking that life is… pretty awesome. That I've got good parents, and amazing friends, and a super-duper boyfriend. I've eaten well and lived well and travelled well. If it were to end, hey at least I wouldn't have had to get old and (more) wrinkly and (more) curmudgeonly. If this is what is meant to be, well surprise, it's going to be and there's nothing I can do about it. And that's when I noticed they were wheeling the dinner carts back out and that champagne could be had and maybe I'll watch The Artist next and I hope they put me in a good room in Shanghai and geez could you quit with your seatback, sir...

It's important to appreciate what we have and who we have and where we've been. And it all counts the same on the ground.