Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The illusion of control

Oh, tired. Very very tired.

The guy I sat next to on the first flight, who was startlingly intelligent and, more importantly in this context, a radio frequency engineer, told us the following. That these safety measures, like the three ounces of liquid bullshit or the no cell phones at take off and landing, are designed to make us feel better, to give us the illusion of control. Because honestly, if something happens, we're totally fucked and there's nothing we can do.

But I think it's so true that we either need to feel like we have a modicum of control over our outcomes, or feel somehow responsible for anything going awry.

Last night we chose to switch flights, but could do nothing about our luggage. So we got to BWI at 9:40 and our luggage, which we had to wait for or risk losing forever, arrived past midnight.

As you know, I fully anticipate death when I get on a plane. I don't sit down intending to die, but if the slightest little thing goes wrong, or there's turbulence, or even funny noises, I immediately go into "this is it" mode.

I've been assured by an aerospace engineer that planes are so over-engineered that turbulence will not take you down. And there's plenty of time for pilots to figure out what to do on the way down if an engine stops working or something. That said, I still have to sit there and remind myself of that. While my eyes are clamped tightly shut and my hands clenched in some form of supplication.

It turns out it's take-off and landing where you're most likely to die. Because there's not much time, and there are so many other planes around. You clip one, you fall to earth, and that's that.

Last night the plane that we switched to shim-shim-shimmied down the runway trying to take off. Truly, the plane was doing a model walk down the runway. Side to side.

We're in this big metal thing that is supposed to be gaining enough momentum to get off the ground by going forward. None of this side-to-sidiness. Either our pilot is not on top of his game or the runway is too slick or some combination and we will surely collide with another plane.

And in my mind it is my fault. Sorry, sorry, sorry Jen. I'm the reason we're going to die in this stupid plane from Philly to Baltimore - a distance we could've walked in less time than all the waiting took. I'm the one who wanted to switch planes. I should never have wanted to switch planes. And now we're going to skitter straight into another plane. And that will be that.

Quick pre-death review: I should totally have kissed the cute guy on that earlier flight. And finished my book - now I'll never know how it ends. And had french fries instead of broccoli with my turkey burger. Who the fuck has broccoli before flying? At least we had the 22 oz. beers. And where is my goddamn Snickers? Oops, sorry God.

I think it's fairly tawdry to bargain with God in moments like those, although I am not above begging desperately when someone else's life hangs in the balance.

And so I don't. I just remind myself of all that is good and kind in the world. And try to remember to breathe. Which helps with the not losing of the shit.

And then you live through it, even the landing, where once again you are pretty certain of death, because the plane is doing a scary bumpy-bump swishy-swish while you are in the air, close to landing, and then rumbles and brakes down the white, mist-enveloped runway before coming to a sloshy stop. When you land, and you might even realize that you are on the verge of tears.

But then you have the next three hours for all of this to dissipate, for thank goodness to turn to pure exhaustion and annoyance, as around 10:30 you stop checking the board obsessively and simply begin to alternate limply between the big wooden bench and the floor near the baggage revolvey thingies.

And you realize full well that you have not one drop of control over any of it.


  1. Oh my goodness, so glad you made it home in one piece! And hope your luggage did, too.

    Never, ever, if you're paranoid, fly from the Belize City regional airport--stick with the international one for the regional flights. At the regional airport, the runway is built out over the water, and is *exactly* as long as it needs to be, which means just about the time the wheels finally leave the ground, there's suddenly water underneath you! And same for when you come in to land, and touch down *just* as the runway begins, then stop *just* before it ends. I'm an okay flier, but that was a bit more excitement than I bargained for!

  2. Oops, just saw that you did indeed get your bags and eventually got home--congratulations!

  3. I've been flying since I was a baby. I have no fear of flying and probably have spent well over 1000 hours inside a plane. It helps that my dad is a pilot, so I'm sure part of my lack of fear stems from that. I used to hang out in the cockpit of Brazilian Air Force planes as a kid, for god's sake! I also believe that my life is not nearly enough dramatic to end up abruptly on a plane crash (car crash, on the other hand, much more common...).

    Anyway, about 90% of accidents happen on take off or landing, not because there are other planes around -- you rarely hear of a collision of 2 planes in an airport, so controlled and all. It's more because if some shit is broken it'll probably show up right when you attempt to take off, or right after. And landing has to do a lot with the pilot skills, his tiredness has an impact on that, the runway's condition (like that crash in Brazil a few months ago because of a slippery wet runway).

    Ah, and do you know why they ask you to put your seat back up and your tray back in position during take off and landing? Not to scare you or anything :) But it's that if there's an accident, you're not blocking your way our or other passengers way out of their seats. (Which is why my dad always gets fed up if he's sitting on the very last seat of the plane and he is asked to put his seat in the upright position, he's not blocking anyone there!)

  4. /resists urge to make overly broad analogy, even to herself.


    I'm glad you made it safely, and applaud your ability to relinquish control. :o)

  5. This is precisely the reason that I've appointed Valium my co-pilot...for now and forever.

  6. Leave it to Lisa to document and "Quick Pre-Death Review" and then make it funny.

    Glad you're safe and sound. And with luggage. As I get older, I fear more. Mostly bridges but am making progress on air travel.

  7. Sarah - Holy cow does that sound like a little piece of hell. And thanks for the good wishes!

    Beach Bum - Thanks for the good explanation of so many aspects of flying! I appreciate it. I'd like to have the same approach as you.

    Dag - Ha ha! Thanks! You probably burned a lot of calories resisting that hard. I think you deserve a spoon of Nutella.

    FK - Valium is a nice product. I might want to start going that route, even when I don't need to sleep.

    HKW - Thanks! :) There's a lot to be scared of in the world if you let yourself stop and think about it. I think the airplane thing might be the worst for me.

  8. There's definitely something comforting about not having any control at all, because at least with that knowledge you can relax and just let whatever happens happen. Not to say that I don't also need help with "the not losing of the shit" during every take off and landing.

  9. You truly are a riot. I HATE taking off. 2x4 rubs my hand and gives me that 'it's really going to be ok" look every time. And turbulence? I generally look around to see if anyone is freaking out because internally, I freak out EVERY time and I'm depending on the rational people to let me know when it's serious.

    The time the flight attendant RAN to the back of the plane after the pilot announced that all flight attendetants should be seated and buckle...pretty much soiled my pants.

  10. I used to be really afraid to fly. Then The Honey pointed out that it was because I have control issues. He mentioned that if I got to be in the cockpit flying the plane, I'd be fine.

    I showed him - I'm over it. I fly without fear now. But there's always chocolate just in case.

  11. I get scared shitless on flights, too. But so does my oldest. The last time we flew and hit turbulence, he got really scared and I had to ACT ABSOLUTELY COMPLETELY CALM, so as to not worry him further.

    It was an unexpected bonus of fatherhood, that. Instead of being like, OH FUCK IM DEAD, I got to be like, well, I gotta pretend all is well right into the fucking GROUND.

    It actually helped.

  12. File under What You Don't Know...

    I was on a plane a bunch of years ago, and we hit a pretty serious patch of turbulence. Like the plane moved a good foot or so vertically at a time, more than once. I wasn't too bothered by it, except for having to keep a close eye (or hand) on my drink (one reason I always bring a bottle on board these days). Anyway, I was looking around the cabin, avid people-watcher that I am, and saw this:

    Woman, 40s, white-knuckle grip on the armrest, eyes clamped shut, jaw clenched, barely holding it together.

    Next to her sat a little girl, maybe 6-8 years old, who was having the time of her life: huge grin, arms in the air, as if she were on the best roller coaster ever.

    I got a good laugh out of the contrast.


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