Thursday, March 31, 2005

Plane Honest*

Baby, I'm back. Safely ensconced in non-suburban Boston, and not quite but almost my old self. I still have to recover from jet lag, a week of eating burgers, and the red-eye flight home. Nothing to complain about though--the trip back was spectacularly uneventful, just me in my leather seat with my 36 DirecTV channels trying to figure out if the ladies in my row were a mother/daugher combo or May-December lesbians. The serenity of this return experience was a welcome relief after my flight to California last week, a trip that ran the gamut from mild moments of unease to painful drops in sanity and consciousness.

I am not afraid of flying. My attitude has always been, if my time's up: it's up, and why worry about it in the meantime? Also, my own death in general has never scared me, only the death of other people. And flying is safer than driving, yada yada. But due to an abnormally violent storm in Los Angeles the night I arrived (thanks for that, California) and bad weather throughout much of the Western United States, the second half of my JetBlue from Boston was just one bumpy drop after another. You try concentrating on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" (Bravo DirecTV channel 11) when you are being tossed around like Carson Kressley's blonde locks. Some mild nausea, a few fleeting thoughts about mortality, then my logical side switching on for a quick reminder that no plane has ever been brought down by turbulence, and I'm okay.

Until we try to land in rainy, angry Los Angeles. It's dark outside, water is streaming by the windows in Agatha Christie fashion, and my hazy glimpses of the vast, lit metropolis that is LA have never made it look so inviting. Five feet above the runway and the blessed end to this unpleasantness, a blast of wind hits, the plane goes careening sideways, the engines roar, and we're headed up again.

The ten minutes it took for the plane to circle over the pitch black Pacific in order to attempt another landing were long ones. Our DirecTVs shut off due to "Normal Aircraft Movement," depriving me of my five perky companions, and the nerdy Boston College kid next to me (after being silent all flight) started babbling semi-coherently. That's the thing about flying, tell yourself what you might. Whenever you're in an airplane, you're just a very short ways away from nervous. And then a short ways from nervous to panicked. Yes, flying is safe, but you feel vulnerable as hell up there, and it makes you think about dying in a way that you wouldn't while planted firmly on the ground. It made me think, it would not be too cool to be stuck with this geek for my last moments on earth.

Commercial flying is one of the safest ways to travel. The pilots are extensively trained and teamed-up, the crew is knowledgeable, and the planes are checked compulsively--none of which can be said about driving, or biking, or swimming, or walking. But flying nonetheless leads to all sorts of interesting fears and thoughts of the worst-case scenario. But I actually think this is good: you make sure to tell people you love them before you leave, you mull over your life and think about how people would evaluate it if it ended now, and you pray a little bit more up there than you do down here. In short, it cuts through the fat and keeps you honest.

Last night I dug deep in the tv cabinet to find a scratchy video of "Almost Famous" since we are sans cable and, a la jetlag, I was wide awake at 4:00 in the morning. There's a funny scene in the movie where the band's plane is caught in an electrical storm and everyone spills their guts thinking they're about to die. Everyone hates everyone else, or has slept with each other's girlfriends, or is gay. Of course the storm passes. It's the climax of the movie, and I don't think that's because of the special shaky plane effects. It's because everyone is being honest for the first time in the film, and some great stuff comes out.

Even if you're all by yourself on a shaky ride, great stuff can come out. The kind of honesty you can only get on planes can make you realize how good your life is, how many wonderful things you have waiting for you on solid ground, how much you would be missed if something happened to you. Morbid maybe, but also nice. It's like you can really see how good your life is when you're up above it, not caught ant-like in the everyday muck.

Obviously I made it to LA just fine, after a harrowing but successful second landing, had the chance to relate the whole tale to my appreciative family, got to spend a lovely week dyeing Easter eggs with my little brothers, playing the chalk game on our sidewalk in the warm California sun, and hanging out with people I care about a lot. Did I appreciate those things a little bit more because I'd had a quick little chance to think about missing out on all of it? Yeah, maybe I did.

*(a pun for the title in honor of spending a week with Dwight Sullivan, pun-lover extraordinaire.)


At 3:00 PM, Blogger charles.bukowski.costanza said...

i like that plane scene in almost famous a lot. people confessing gayness in crisis is one of those things, like kenny getting killed in every episode: it always makes me laugh. rather, it makes the morbid, repressed homo in me laugh. i am glad you had a good trip; am glad you are back; look forward to your rambles.


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