Saturday, March 2, 2019

Fear of Flying

I have a confession: I hate flying.

This hasn’t always been the case. I used to love to fly. I flew alone for the first time when I was seventeen, on my way to study abroad in Australia. I’ll never forget the moment Sydney came into view—after eighteen hours of lonely darkness, a shape-shifting landscape with a million moving dots of light appearing through the clouds—and how mesmerized I was, how unwilling I was to look away. I decided right then and there, flying was exciting. It was freedom. Life viewed from a distance. Large chunks of earth squeezed through a tiny slice of window.

Then, 9-11 happened. Now, I hate flying more than anything. I guess many Americans feel this way. I wouldn’t know.

“Why wouldn’t you know?” Merc once asked me. “You don’t talk about it with other Americans?”

“We don’t really talk about it with each other,” I corrected her. Because we don’t, do we? Not as much as we should—or perhaps, not as much as we need to, and certainly never at airports, where the horror began.

But it’s always with us, isn’t it? The weight of it. Sliding into the bar stool beside us or standing behind us in the restroom line; matching our brisk pace on moving walkways to our next connection or slipping between the glass and the frame of movie posters depicting grinning celebrities with unnaturally white teeth.

Escape for a while, the movie star suggests.

There is no escape, argues the space in between.

For whatever reason, the jumpers weigh on my mind more than the other lives taken that day. Some nights in months not even close to September, I stay suspended between awake and asleep and envision men and women falling from towers one-hundred-and-ten floors tall, and think, my god what a horrific dilemma, death by earth or fire or smoke, and how awful, how terrifying, the choice they had to make. It’s a thought I can never unthink; a sight I can never unsee.

And isn’t it cruel the way time strips us of the best moments of being alive—our children’s milestones, our personal achievements, a stranger’s random act of kindness—but leaves forever ingrained in our brains the dark and the deranged, like that of two towers on a clear summer day, eclipsed by the shadow of an oncoming plane?

Every anniversary, we are asked never to forget, and every anniversary I think, as if that were possible.

My kids weren’t alive in 2001. My daughter was born in 2004; my son in 2006. They didn’t know me before 9-11, and therefore, from their perspective, mommy has always been a chickenshit when it came to flying. “Who is going to hold mommy’s hand when the plane takes off?” they ask each other. My son usually does the honors—my 12-year-old, who’s often apathetic behavior has led me to google “signs your child is a psychopath” more than once. But when we’re flying, this stoic child with the compassion of a boll weevil sits beside me, holds my hand, watches me with eyes the same blue as mine and whispers, “It’s okay, Mom, I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” repeatedly until the plane reaches its cruising altitude.

I think 9-11 is the reason why we Americans (who, as a whole—let’s be honest—have never been known for our tolerance) put up with so much crap from airport security. Can you imagine having the security protocol that we have today without a historic, tragic event having triggered it? I can’t. The outrage would be palpable. We’d have protests in the street. Hell, I can pick members from my family tree who would be added to the No Fly List straight off the bat. “No way in Sam Hill am I taking off my snake skin boots! Y’all are just gonna have to frisk me!” “Honey, I forked out twelve bucks at the CVS for this L’Oreal face cream. I’ll throw you away before I throw it away.” “God damnit, this is America. Our founding fathers did not write the Bill of Rights just so some pissant like yourself can keep me from bringing a full-size bottle of Jack Daniels on the plane.” (My family is from the South, in case you can’t tell.)

I just wish the regulations were enforced in a less adversarial way; that TSA agents didn’t make us feel like we were hardened criminals getting processed to serve a life term at the local penitentiary, instead of on our way to Las Vegas to gamble away all our savings or traveling to Boston to sleep through our kid’s college graduation. I mean, is a TSA agent’s rigidity really necessary? Are they told to be that way? Is antisocial personality disorder a requirement for the job, or has the stress of working long hours with bad pay and dealing with complaining travelers every day turned them into the sour-faced enforcers of arbitrary TSA regulations that we’ve all come to know and love today?

Probably the latter, I guess. It must be a demanding life, getting paid twelve bucks an hour to ensure our flights are safe from the hazards of homemade bombs and a regular-sized shampoo bottles. They probably have to enjoy the perks where they can find them, which is why I wonder if their stringent adherence to TSA policy is less about safety and more about getting a kick out of ordering humans to perform the most humiliating tasks in front of other humans. It must be a power trip, having the authority to ask us to remove half their garments and walk barefoot on a dirty floor through a box that scans our gross insides. (And is there any place sadder than the benches placed directly outside security? It looks like the post-surgical wing of an illegal organ operation—all those travelers scrambling to redress, fumbling with the clasps of watches, hunched over retying shoes or stretching out their arms to re-add their sweaters and coats and thread their bags back onto their shoulders—all of that picking and prodding of their self, and now they’re expected to walk away and reemerge back into their day pretending everything is fine, as if their life’s most intimate contents hadn’t just been rifled through and examined by group of sourpuss strangers.)

Security checkpoints would be simpler if all airports had the same standards, but alas, it’s different everywhere you go. This leads to an excess of confusion for travelers, as well insurmountable frustration for TSA agents, I imagine. “Sir, I said, put your carry-ons in the tray.” “Ma’am, read the sign. Carry-ons go directly on the conveyor belt.” “Carry-ons go in the tray with your keys. Shoes go in the tray with your belts and coat.” “Put your phone and keys in your coat and put your coat in the tray with your spare change.” “Put your coats and shoes in separate trays, then hand your spare change to Floyd. Say hi, Floyd.” “Listen up, people! Walk through the X-ray machine with your hands down!” “Walk through with your hands at your side.” “Walk through with your right hand in, then put your right hand out, then do the hokey pokey and turn yourself around.”

Some airports, like JFK, want you to take it all off. Your shoes, your belt, the whole shebang. “Sir, is that an artificial heart? Please put it on the conveyor belt.” Whereas other places (I won’t say where) are more relaxed about TSA policy, or perhaps, have a looser interpretation. “Leave your phones in your bag, unless they are expensive and uninsured.” “If you’re wearing heels or Cole Haan moccasins, please take them off.” “You can leave your laptops in your bags unless you are using Windows Vista.” “Those traveling to Omaha, Nebraska, please bypass security and get professional help immediately.” “Sir, your AK-47 must go in your carry-on, otherwise you can’t take it on the plane.”

More disconcerting than strict airport security is, of course, the fear that airport security wasn’t strict enough. Any time I fly, I play a game called, “Who could be a terrorist?” And because I pride myself on being a good Democrat, I try to assert my unsubstantiated paranoia evenly among my fellow passengers. The Melissa McCarthy-lookalike in the cat sweater was just as likely to be carrying an exploding device as, say, the almond-skinned guy in a business suit. Was the zoned-out college kid in the Weezer shirt looking too zoned-out, perhaps? As if he was acting? Maybe the kid with the finger up his nose was digging for something more insidious than boogers. Then, there’s always the chance that the plane won’t be hijacked, but simply crash due to good ole mechanical failure. Sure, statically we’re more likely to die in a car accident (According to the National Safety Council, Americans had a 1 in 114 chance of dying in a car crash, whereas they had a 1 in 9,821 chance of dying midair—and that includes not only planes, but hot air balloons, sky diving, bungee jumping, zeppelins, and space shuttles). But those statistics don’t really calm me much. It’s not death I’m worried about (I’m a realist, I am quite aware that I’ll have to buy the farm sooner or later); it’s how I die that terrifies the piss out of me. And dying in a car crash sounds more pleasant then plummeting 1000 feet in the air and crashing into the Atlantic Ocean, only to die on impact, or drown, or be devoured by a shark, or spend years on a remote island growing a beard and talking to a volleyball.
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