Thursday, December 21, 2006

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Is Flying really Necessary?

After five years of bickering, stalling, making themselves look ridiculous, and frustrating the rest of us, the powers that be have finally started doing something about rebuilding at Ground Zero. There's been another ground breaking, but this one looks like it's going to take. Columns going up, Bloomberg and Pataki making speeches, things are happening. I am sincerely happy for the families who have been waiting all this time to memorialize those they loved and lost. All of us downtown, and those families espescially, for whom bringing life back to that site will offer some sense of resolution, a reminder of inevitable renewal,in the face of unimaginable destruction. I hope those who were able to inscribe the various columns that will become the new building's strong skeleton felt they had honored themselves, the lost, and the endlsess unknown future in so doing. I look forward to walking by that site and seeing activity, forward motion, anything but the bleak, empty space I go out of my way to avoid whenever I find myself in that part of town. I think it's important, in ways both real and symbolic, that this happen, and cannot fathom why it's taken so long to get it started. Part of me can't help wishing though, that having waited this long, they could have given it just another week or two. Part of me can't help wishing, that this wasn't all happening in the few days before I have to get on an airplane.

I'm told some people enjoy airplanes. That, once upon a time, air travel was an exciting and even glamorous thing. One friend explained to me how she loved dressing up and going to the airport, hearing the high heels she almost never wore clicking their way across the tiles.I thought that was sweet. I thought it was adorable, in some Grace Kelly kind of way. But I wasn't sold. I've never liked the whole thing much. Even before 9/11, I just didn't trust the plane to hold together. At any moment, it seemed to me, it could just dissolve into thin air, spin apart into its separate pieces, and leave me to drift down to a destiny uncertain, at best. I could do it though. I knew I wasn't being reasonable. I could get past that, get myself onto the airplane, and go wherever it was I had to go. But I didn't like it. Not one bit.

That, among many other things, all changed on 9/11. A new, much clearer vision replaced my vague worries about airplane dissolution.I couldn’t then, and still cannot, imagine anything worse than being on one of those planes. Those moments of knowing what's about to happen, not just to you, but to everyone you can see, and to lots of people you can't, never have and never will, but you know they're there. Watching the city's beautiful skyline get closer and closer, and entirely too close. Seeing that wall of glass you're about to glide into, and realizing a fast disintegration's become bet. Moments of knowing, of waiting, of powerlessness. So much terror in those moments. Terror for yourself, terror for the people behind that sleek and opaque glass, who have no idea what's coming their way. The terror of your impossible, and simultaneous desires to warn them, and to be one of them in their terribly lucky ignorance. To pound a warning to them on the glass and steel that's just about to pull you under. To smash through from your side onto theirs. To shatter it all before it shatters you.

I didn't fly at all for four years. I took trains. I discovered I love long train rides. They're very peaceful, a kind of time outside of time. Pretty things pass by your windows, people quiet down after the first few hours, and you get to experience the distance you are travelling in a whole new way. You have no obligations, no real control over any of it. Your only responsibility is to stay put on your train, and to let it pull you on through.

There's weird food, that you'd never normally eat. But while you're on the train it becomes a kind of guilty pleasure. Microwaved pizzas with that soft, sweet kind of crust, shiny bagels with packets of cream cheese or butter on the side, crumbly and enormous cookies. The walks up and down the train to get another soda, check out the people in the other cars, be glad you aren't in the one with all those babies, or the other with the pack of 15 year old girls on their way to cheerleading camp. Or maybe it's Jesus camp, who can say?

There's something amazing about spending the time it takes to get from point a to point b, in this world so completely transient and temporary it barely exists. It allows me to appreciate both sides of my trip for their own solid specificity, and to summon more of the fluidity I need in navigating each.

The thing I love about trains, though, the requirement of all that lovely empty time, is, of course, the problem with them as well. You can't go much of anywhere for a long weekend on a train. Unless you maybe stay on the train the entire time, which might not be so bad, all things considered. But realistically, sooner or later, something will make you get back on an airplane.

My first post 9/11 plane trip was to a wedding in Chicago, with my boyfriend at the time. It was a weekend trip. Both of our schedules made flying the only option. And so I did. That one wasn't so bad. His presence kept my panic level down, and gave me some incentive to at least pretend I wasn't about to die. It was kind of ok.

The second was a disaster. The flight to Florida was fine. Plans had been made in too much of a hurry, for reasons too important, to give me much opportunity to terrorize myself. Packing to do, arrangements to make, all in about a day. No time to visualize my doom. On my way back to Manhattan, however, I was a mess. I'd already stayed one day longer than I'd planned, largely to avoid the flight. Between the time I got to the airport, and onto the plane, my anxiety spiralled beyond the reach of the ativan I nonetheless kept taking. I somehow missed one plane, despite being in the airport well before it's departure time. There was one nearly incoherent conversation with a client, an unnecessarily nasty email to a colleague I barely remembered having written, until I saw it in her admirably restrained response. When I got home, I was sick for two days, maybe from all that ativan, maybe all that fear had just done me in. Suffice to say, a really bad time was had by all.

Now, the holidays are here . I haven't been to see my parents in two years, haven't seen my grandparents in longer still. I really have no choice, but to fly down there. Since the last time, I've been therapized, medidated, switched the ativan for klonopin, and felt almost ok about doing it again. As ok as is possible for me. Telling myself it would be efficient and easy, travelling on a sleek, modern airplane. Progress is good, regression is bad. Then, these last few days before I have to leave, they've broken ground, again, at Ground Zero. So it's been all over the news, the papers, the radio, and my mind. That worst of worst case scenarios. But it's too late now. The plans are made, the tickets bought and nonrefundable. Too many parents and grandparents to be disappointed by my anxious self indulgence if I cancel. My fate is sealed.

Walking through Washington Square yesterday, I ran into an eminently reasonable friend. As I was telling her about my trip, and my certain doom, she said, as reasonable people will, "There've been how many thousands of flights since 9/11? And they've all been fine. Why would yours, out of all of those, be the one to have a problem?" Without thinking I answered, "Because I am just that special." We both laughed, and went on about our days. But I'm not sure I was entirely kidding, in that thoughtless slip. Narcissists Anonymous, anyone?

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