when I watched The Flight on the flight
July 28, 2013
… was a quality tee, superior leggings, airplane lipstick and two of the watches I inherited from my mother — one set to London time, the other, New York. The attire of a seasoned traveller.
So you’d think.
The Flight is a movie about an alcoholic pilot who learns to face up to his responsibilities. There’s a flawed-but-good woman who joins him on the road to redemption and a touching reunion with a young son. Denzel Washington is the alcoholic pilot and he’s very generous about keeping his bare torso on show.
Salvation, reconciliation and skin: uplifting stuff, but if you’re viewing it from a faux leather seat 36,000 feet above the earth, hurtling through the air at 580 miles an hour, none of that matters, because at that height and that speed The Flight is about one thing and one thing only:
It’s about crashing.
It’s about a plane dropping out of the sky, somersaulting while it plummets, passengers screaming, bags popping out of overhead bins, oxygen masks dangling wildly. Impact. Explosion. Death.
It’s fear of flying as cinema.
I don’t fly as much as some people — politicians and business types, celebrities – but I’m up there often enough: ten flights in the last seven months is typical for me.
I don’t like it.
It makes me nervous.
Given that, it would have made sense to watch something soothing, a comedy or a nice romance. Even Argo would have been more restful; the flight at the end of that movie is very cheering, with all those Americans clinking champagne glasses because they managed to get out of Iran.
Instead, I chose The Flight. This is because I’ve embarked on a new crusade, a personal one-woman anti-fear campaign. It sounds grandiose, but it’s quite logical. What happened is it finally dawned on me that my life is too ruled, too limited by anxiety and dread. I have to stop being afraid. Sitting on an airplane and watching another airplane spin around and crash land is part of my (self-devised) training program. It’s aversion therapy or, more aptly, conversion therapy.
Here are some of the fears that keep creeping into my life, stopping me in my tracks: fear of cancer, SARS, killer flu, fear my loved ones will get hurt or, even worse, that they’ll stop loving me, fear of Iran – or maybe I mean Iraq – fear of spiders, terrorists, failure, change, fear of the new, fear of the old, fear of being technologically illiterate, fear that the pug will go totally blind, fear of black holes and the edge of space, fear of fear and, of course, fear of flying.
With fear of flying, you get a full menu of dread options in addition to the big C (as in crashing): turbulence, claustrophobia, blood clots (one flight I was on, a woman had a stroke ten minutes after we did some stretching exercises together at the back of the plane. We had to make an emergency landing at Logan so the EMS guys could carry her off to a waiting ambulance), fear of takeoff and the veracity of the Bernoulli principle (how can that work?) and, finally, fear of contracting Legionnaires disease from the jet’s air conditioning system. The only thing that doesn’t worry me is landing, which is ridiculous because it’s the most dangerous part of flying. Pilots call it controlled crashing and they love it because it’s interesting. I like it because I figure the closer we are to the ground, the easier it’ll be to jump if anything goes wrong.
Obviously I can’t address all of those fears, but given the amount of time I spend flying it’s sensible to start there. And if you think about it, fear of flying is a useful allegory for a range of anxieties. There’s a dollop of validity to it — planes do crash – but it’s highly improbable and giving in to it, allowing it to stop you in some way just narrows your world, literally and figuratively.
Not to mention it makes you seem like a wuss.
I could try to pin this particular dread on my loving, complicated mother. She was terrified on planes and didn’t try to hide it. She would clutch the armrest during takeoff and close her eyes and moan when the plane encountered a patch of rough air. If a bell pinged or a tray clattered in the galley she swiveled her head round to check whether the stews were dashing up the aisles in their lifejackets.
I told myself I would never be like that.
Years later, on a routine hop between New York and Boston, the plane I was on flew into a thunderstorm. The turbulence was so bad the nuns across the aisle started ticking off the beads on their rosaries. The plane kept heaving and bouncing — it was like being inside a cocktail shaker — and then we dropped 2,000 feet, just plunged straight down.
It was unbelievable except it was happening.
Grown men were screaming. Complete strangers threw their arms around each other. The pilot told us later, in his best Chuck Yeager voice, Well folks, just a little maneuver to regain air pressure, but for me it was the worse kind of revelation, the kind you file under things I wish I didn’t know. I sat there clutching my drink – they came round with free booze after we’d leveled off – and I said to myself, Omygod. You can die on one of these.
So I can’t in all honesty blame my mother, having arrived at this fear on my own, but I still wonder if apprehension might be a gene I inherited along with the wristwatches– a genetic marker built into my Ashkenazi DNA. In his book of essays, Writing in Restaurants, David Mamet talks about fear as a cultural trait among Jews. He calls it the jolly burden, passed down from his grandparents to his parents and then to him, a genomic memory of Cossacks and persecution in Eastern Europe and the alienation of immigrant life in America. I think of it as the something-terrible-is-going-to-happen gene. My friend Sonia says this is a recognized syndrome. It’s called pre-traumatic stress disorder, which sounds to me much the same as life itself.
While I’m waiting for my anti-fear campaign to take hold, I fake it. Fake it until you make it, says friend Sonia, ever quotable. This is necessary because I have a daughter. I may be a neurotic wuss, but I’m trying not to pass that on to her. For example, unless she reads this post – which she won’t, given I wrote it – she’ll never know how I really feel about flying. When we travel together, I’m Lady Aviation. I’m the first to say, Cool! Just like sailing, when we’re jouncing through turbulence and I’m on hand to explain the origin of every ominous noise at every stage of the trip (That grinding sound? O, that’s the landing gear). It drives her mad, the way I ask the stews about their jewelry and their flying schedules, which is what I do when I’m feeling particularly scared. Do you have to talk to everyone? my daughter asks, hiding behind the flight magazine. It’s so annoying. And I’m elated to know she sees me as an irritant, rather than a coward.