Friday, May 21, 2010

London 2003 - Getting There, part 2

Since the plane was a larger one the takeoff was fairly quick and very smooth, even by my phobic standards. However, when other normal flight activities followed, such as the plane angling steeply for its ascent and then encountering minor turbulence, the Ambien effect didn’t feel sufficient for my ongoing panic and I ordered a Bud Light (the only light beer they had). I’m a Miller Lite woman and consider Bud Light metallic-tasting, if not low-brow (they don’t even have the trademark “lite” spelling), but it was delicious right now and gratifyingly potent on top of the Ambien.

I was on the left aisle seat of the center row, and to my right sat a family of 5 – I actually wasn’t sure how many were in the family because the kids kept changing seats, one or another getting on the mother’s lap, I thought there were 3 kids but then it seemed like maybe the 3rd one belonged to a family on the far right row – was that one getting on the mom’s lap too or did I lose track of the brats... The father was next to me and conversationally volunteered that it was a shame American no longer provided complimentary cocktails. I pretended to agree while privately thinking I would pay any price asked of me for online booze, in fact I would have bought more Ambien onboard if that was possible.

I was kind of hoping the man would talk more as a distraction for me (in general I’m not big on conversation with strangers but it becomes more appealing when I’m drunk and/or flying) but he was busy monitoring his kids’ activities – seat-hopping, roams down the aisle ostensibly to the bathroom, and watching kiddie shows on the inflight TV. I thought they were watching kid shows – whatever they were watching seemed to have kid colors like a lot of pink and yellow – but maybe that was a distortion from the seat-back screens.

I started reading again and almost without my noticing it, the whole family zonked into sleep. I had wanted the multiplicity of kids to settle down but I hadn’t necessarily wanted things to get so quiet so fast – the silence was isolating. In my best attempt at Ambien-fueled laissez-faire spirit, I told myself this was fine, each to his own – anyway, regardless of the innocence of intent, the guy would have been unlikely to direct much more conversation toward me with his wife just down the row.

The flight continued to be fairly smooth and after gulping down my beer I felt fairly calm and mostly able to meditate on the pages of my book, but anxiety signs were still there – such as my inability to follow any of the TV channel choices and my compulsion to stare at the flight path graphic, a visual of a little white plane traveling across the U.S. map. The graphic map was so small that the plane didn’t constantly move but would jerkily update position every few minutes. Alternating screens showed current time and temperature at various locations – DFW, London and the area we were flying over. Other screens showed our changing altitude, which I ridiculously tried to keep track of (wondering, should we be this low?, this high?, why did they change altitude again?). (As if I am any kind of aeronautics expert, or scientist, or engineer, or anthing other than an anxious person...)

The book I started out with, Ann Rule’s Every Breath You Take, immediately got my interest – I don’t take that for granted, you never know if a new book will really work out, and it was a relief that my first trip book seemed promising. I’d like to call it nonfiction but it was more accurately a true crime book: Allen Blackthorne was convicted of hiring someone to kill his ex-wife Sheila Bellush in this “true story of obsession, revenge and murder.”

I always enjoy “#1 NY Times Bestselling Author” (to quote the cover blurb) Ann Rule, who’s known for the sensitivity (I say this without irony) and attention to detail she brings to her tales of true crime. I wasn’t overjoyed by the trashy-looking cover art (breathily parted red-lipsticked lips) but the book was small enough to fit into my purse. Our petsitter Claudia doesn’t just cover vacations but also comes every weekday since we’re at work too many hours for the dogs to be inside without a break, especially our puppy Billie, who is crated for everyone’s good – Claudia spends a lot of time in our house, had seen the book sitting on top of my proud pile of “trip reading” and left a note asking if she could borrow it. I now kind of felt pressure to finish the book so I could loan it to Claudia, but in another way it was pleasant to have a “mission” (defined as finishing it promptly for Claudia) in reading something that wasn’t otherwise edifying or educational material, unless you would call it educational to learn how “not” to have your ex-spouse killed.

Still struggling to get across the ocean, I couldn’t yet face the thought of whether I would create a journal for this trip, but it was hard to avoid early comparisons with one of my inspirations in previous attempts at travel-diary writing, the novelist/travel writer Paul Theroux. Paul often includes his impressions of the books he reads while on his solo tours of various off-beaten-track locations. He doesn’t just read historical and cultural/sociological books about the countries he’s visiting, he also reads semi-classic literature related to nothing specific that he never quite got around to reading at home. My impression is that most of his reading choices are fairly high-brow, certainly when compared to my lipstick paperback. However, I would consider as an exception a book he read during his 1980s trip through China (Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China) – I was a bit shocked by how much he had to say about an ancient erotic novel that had apparently been banned in China since the Ming Dynasty. Paul tends to take a lot of train trips, which understandably require a lot of reading material (I remember him saying in another travel book that he kept putting off finishing the last book he had with him, for fear he would be left with no pages to read), and 2,000-page “The Golden Lotus” struck him as a good choice, lengthwise and I guess, interest-wise. He introduced this book to the reader as quasi-cultural research but I was taken aback at some of his enthusiastic quotes from it – one scene involved an intimate act with ripe plums. Paul marveled at Golden Lotus' “blend of manners, delicacy and smut,” and I decided that if a writer of his reputation could admit to reading smut on a trip through a Communist country (which China unquestionably was in the 1980s), I could certainly mention my London exposure to a true crime book.

When the flight was smooth I almost enjoyed the inflight experience – I had reached a pleasant kind of awake but zonked state where I alternated between reading (yes, sometimes having to reread sections of my book for full comprehension, but what the heck) and semi-obsessively monitoring our activity on the flight graphic. A couple of times the TV flight image went dark and of course I became concerned until it reloaded. I got more and more into my book and was disappointed to realize when the main lights were dimmed that there was no reading light above my seat – I asked the flight attendant what was going on, and after pretending to stare upwards (as if she had never been asked this before) she reluctantly admitted, “I think the light cutoff must be this row.” My section of seats had armrest light controls like all the others in the plane, but they were dummy-style only – apparently, due to the curved shape of the ceiling and overhead compartments here, no lights had been installed above me. I continued to try to read in the dark – I wasn’t having full comprehension anyway, so squinting and missing a few words here and here were maybe not so much worse.

At exactly halfway through my flight, I allowed myself to take a second Ambien but I had no more beers – I considered this fine self-control (as if I would have turned down a beer had one been offered to me, Ha!). I was actually able to doze a little, although the cabin was cold. I kept trying different positions for my airline blanket and finally had it over the back of my head for a while, so that it would cover my chilled ears.

I always feel a pull back to my childhood with things like this over my head, bringing memories of my mother going through a phase of sewing me matching fabric scarves (a 60s thing) for clothes she made me. I try to avoid the memory of my preteen self wearing a blue bedsheet head wrap to play Mary in the church Christmas pageant – I didn’t feel right in the part because I knew Mary didn’t wear glasses, although back then I did at least have the requisite long hair, but there were very few girls in my Sunday school class and the others were not reliable church attendees or had taken their turns the year before…yep, I can see why they made me Mary...slim competition.

I wondered if the coldness had to do with our high flying altitude – that seemed more travel-romantic than the fact that American Airlines wasn’t aware of the discomfort of its passengers. The cabin was very quiet and many people seemed asleep – in fact, my family-man neighbor accidentally leaned on my shoulder for a while. I assumed the etiquette for this situation was to leave him alone until he moved away on his own. (Yikes!!!)

The success of my Ambien-beer combination was confirmed by the fact that my inflight toilet experiences were less traumatic than usual. In addition to the knowingly-irrational fear that the plane will develop a mechanical problem and rapidly hurl to earth before I can get out of the bathroom stall (leading to thoughts that the inside of the stall looks like a coffin), I have some kind of neurological maladjustment that makes it hard for me to go when I don’t get the sound feedback of my water hitting the water in the bowl, so that going in an empty bowl requires a lot of calm and concentration. But, with my travel friends Ambien and Bud Light, I was able to handle things satisfyingly while in the toilet coffin.

I was still nervous about managing my logistical arrangements when I got to London, but more of my positive excitement was breaking through my negative (guilt and superstition) barriers – it was gratifying, actually exciting, to be on a plane going over the Atlantic and not screaming in terror as I had always imagined I would be. In fact, it was almost a surreal feeling to be somewhere I had always had trouble thinking I could manage to be.

Fear of flying was probably the biggest reason I had not seriously pursued a European trip before, and now it felt like I was had really broken down a barrier. I realized I had created a bad phobic image by not paying attention when people told me that many Atlantic flights take a route over land for most of the trip – my imagining thousands of miles of roiling (I like that word roiling, so much better than rolling) ocean being crossed by a plane was not completely on target. It was relatively reassuring to be on a smooth flight over the North American continent, but I was not a calm camper when we left Newfoundland and flew over open ocean for the last few hours of the trip.


The descent was a little bumpy due to cloud cover but this didn’t get in the way of my gladness that we were landing. I knew I was a baby to feel so tired of sitting on a plane, since even I realize that 9 hours is a short international flight.

I continued my mental rehearsal to make sure that when I walked off the plane (hopefully not stumbling) I would retrieve both checked bags, purchase my ticket for the Gatwick Express train to London, then take a cab from Victoria Station to K.’s hotel. I might also need to manage the situation of K. checking in later than me and I needed to find some kind of Internet hookup so I could send Craig an “I’m here!” email (my 10 am arrival time didn’t work too well phone-wise with the 6-hour time difference in Dallas).

Also, I needed to eat something since I had had only pretzels, Ambien and Bud Light on the plane. I had watched, heard and smelled the other passengers sawing with their plastic cutlery at the pizza squares and steak?/chicken? (hard to tell which from the color and smell) that had been served to them, but I didn’t partake – this wasn’t just from a snobbery about airline food, but more a desire not to dilute the Ambien effect by putting protein mush in my stomach.

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