Another Hobby Blog

Saturday, August 13, 2005

On Flying

I hate to travel.

Actually, that statement is a bit misleading. Traveling can be enjoyable enough—a chance to meet new people, see new places, try new food and entertainment. I find driving quite pleasant if the weather isn’t miserable, the traffic isn’t miserable, and the companionship isn’t miserable. Pleasant enough, that is, right up until about the sixth consecutive driving hour. After the sixth hour my muscles tighten and start to cramp. It diminishes the enjoyment factor measurably.

Traveling by rail is quite fun. It takes a while, but it leaves me with plenty of time to relax, think about where I’ve been and where I’m going, and to knit. I enjoy knitting, and I enjoy traveling by train.

I should clarify, then. I hate flying.

Well, no, that’s not true either. The flying part is just fine. I love looking out the window at the cloud formations and down at the patterns of river and road and property demarcations far below. Flying is fine until about the sixth hour when my muscles begin to tighten and cramp, or when the child in the next seat is crying boisterously because his ears hurt or the person in the seat behind mine is pushing or kicking against the back of my seat. Those things all diminish my enjoyment somewhat. As does the fact that I can’t cross my knees without knocking over my complimentary soda. Overall, though, flying is a pretty decent way to travel. How else can one get so far in such a short time?

What I really hate are the take-offs and the landings.

I didn’t always feel that way. I’ve been flying for vacations since I was a babe in arms. By age 7, I had my very own Travel Kit: a bunch of fantastic stuff all packaged neatly into a plastic tackle-box. I had paper, crayons, a pair of scissors, ball of string, a crochet hook, glue, pens, pencils, eraser, a granola bar, a package of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, and a very small deck of cards. I could keep myself entertained for hours. Longer if I got my brother to play with me.

The best part of traveling back then was the take-offs and the landings. We’d watch, fascinated, as the cars faded to the size of ants, and then the buildings were the size of ants, and then the city blocks were the size of ants, and then the entire city was lost in smog. Well, more often than not the city was lost in smog before the buildings were the size of ants. (We did a lot of flying out of Los Angeles International Airport in the Seventies. Does anyone remember Stage Four Smog Alerts?) And we’d watch, enraptured, as the destination city emerged from beneath the clouds, started to form, getting larger and larger until the houses looked like doll houses and the trucks looked like Hot Wheels and then the airplane would touch down on the runway and we’d squeal with delight because we’d finally be able to go run around the airport lobby and get the stiffness out of our legs.

I don’t know what happened. I can still appreciate that there’s joy to be found in the changes of scale and the tricks of perspective that occur during take-off or landing, but now I’m too busy hoping that the runway is clear and we’re not going to hit anything. That no one has left a sharp and dangerous object that might puncture the tire as we land. That the air traffic controllers had a good night’s sleep and are paying attention to which airplane is on which stretch of runway. That the pilot is having a good day and hasn’t had too much to drink.

Actually, maybe I do know what happened. I think it’s that I learned to drive.

I learned to drive just before I turned sixteen. The anxiety about takeoffs and landings may not have set in right away, but I wasn’t flying a lot at the time, so I can’t be certain. For a dozen years or more most of my travel was done by driving or by taking the train. I had the freedom to arrange my schedule for leisurely travel, so I did. I didn’t knit at the time, but I did crochet and draw and write and read books and think about life a lot, so the train was my first choice. I also liked to pack for any contingency, so I liked the roominess of traveling by auto. Flying cost more, particularly if trying to fly during the holiday breaks from school, so I didn’t fly.

But recently I’ve been flying a lot. Okay, maybe not a LOT, since I’m not flying for business or anything, but I’ve been flying at least once or twice a year, and for a while I was flying as often as once a month. And I started realizing that I just don’t deal well with take-offs and landings. You see, I’ve had my share of parallel parking. I’ve backed my car into my garage*. I’ve taken a right turn onto a one-way street that I didn’t realize was going in the opposite direction. I’ve tried to stay in my own lane in fog so thick that I couldn’t count five dashed lines on the freeway. I know how quickly one tiny little thing can go wrong and how little reaction time there is when it does. It’s frightening.

(*As I read this I realize it could be construed as if I've actually damaged the car or garage by doing so. I haven't. But I've always worried about it.)

As for flying, I hate most of all that moment when the wheels touch the tarmac. The jolt and shudder as friction takes hold and the whine as the jet slows in a limited span of runway. Maybe I’d like it better if I could watch out the cockpit window just once, see what the pilot sees. Maybe not.

Instead, I do word puzzles. It’s a ritual. It began as a way to focus my thoughts on something (anything) other than impending doom and the thousand and one ways in which an airplane might not successfully take off or land. By now, it has become a tradition with rules and quirks all its own.

The puzzle book must be new for the first leg of the flight. I purchase it at the airport news stand. I leave the remainder of the book in the airport lobby after my last leg of the journey so that someone else can enjoy the rest of it. I didn’t used to. I used to take them home with me, thinking that I would do the rest of the puzzles in them. I never did. Apparently I only do word puzzles on airplanes. Only during take-offs and landings. I counted the leftover puzzlebooks that I’d collected over the past five years of travel and I was astounded. It took up about three feet of shelf space. I took them to a local hospital’s waiting room and abandoned them there, hoping that no one had noticed me. I can just imagine someone seeing me later at the grocery store and telling the person they’re with, “That’s the lady I was telling you about. The one that brought in the bags full of puzzle books with only three pages finished in any given one.”

I start with the Crypto-lists, if there are any. Otherwise, or if I’ve run out, I’ll do logic puzzles or crossword puzzles. Wordsearches are no good. Wordsearches leave too much of my brain free to wander. Plus, with a wordsearch I find scary words like “crash” or “fiery death” that aren’t even listed in the puzzle clues.

I work in pen. Sometimes I make mistakes. That’s okay. Many people have commented that I must be really smart or really confident because I work crossword puzzles and cryptography in pen. I’m not. Well, maybe I am, but I’m not trying to prove it. I just strongly dislike the feeling of graphite pencil lead on newsprint. Yuck! So I use pen. Doesn’t matter what kind, really, but it’s better if the ink doesn’t soak right through to the other side of the page (and the other pages behind) so I prefer ballpoint. Plus, ballpoint isn’t as prone to leakage after the compression changes of flying. Uniballs hate to fly.

I get help from my traveling companions whenever I can. My husband enjoys helping (or at the least manages to seem tolerant of it. He also manages not to yelp while pulling my fingernails back out of his flesh after a particularly heart-stopping jolt as the wheels touch.) Random strangers in the seat next to me often do not (on both counts.)

I like to joke that working the puzzles is part of what keeps the plane in the air. I work with a fervor and concentration that could well lend an air of credibility to the claim. But really, it’s what keeps me in the air. The plane would probably be fine on its own.


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