A couple of weeks ago, on our flight from Sydney to San Francisco, my partner in fighting crime turned to me as we flew over the Opera House and said, “It’s unbelievable that we’ll be home in 13 hours. And that something this big flies.”
For me, it’s unbelievable that my simmering, paralyzingly fear of flying has somehow given way to a job involving 75% travel, frequent flyer perks on multiple airlines, and a two-year long distance relationship with a person from another hemisphere.
Stoked by my parents’ long-running refusal to board the same flight and my own general propensity for the neurotic, my fear of flying grew suffocating during college. Like any phobia, it festered the more I avoided the trigger. Those tickets to Miami for Ultra my Junior year? Cancelled, had to study an extra weekend for Orgo (… riiight.) Jamaica for Senior Year Spring Break? Remember how my passport just didn’t seem to come in time?
When I moved from New York to California three years ago, leaving my family and friends more than a train ride behind, I stopped making excuses and started making a plan. That’s actually giving myself way too much credit, I really just forced myself to start getting on planes. Pathetically, it’s probably one of the harder things I’ve ever done.
Every time I flew I found myself confronting death, and my lack of power over the situation, and my complete and utter blindness as to what could be going on in the cockpit, or the engines, or the cargo hold, or the fuselage, or the instrument panel, or the air traffic control tower, or, oh lord, the list goes on and on. I’ll never forget standing in the Denver airport after a ski weekend last year, waiting to board my flight, holding Greg’s hands and shaking, crying, trying to explain “rationally” how I knew I was about to die…. Side note, this one’s obviously a keeper.
It’s difficult to sustain that level of anxiety when you spend up to 3 days a week on a plane. Like the pain of letting go of a past love, one day I woke up and it was just gone, and sometimes I kind of miss it. I guess I have Palantir and Greg to thank for the “exposure therapy.” I think I sought these two out in particular because I knew they’d terrify me into becoming stronger.
Today, I think about all the things flying has given me. The miracle of flight. I’ll never forget when I was little, sitting in the cockpit next to my Dad, positively beaming because he thought I was smart enough, “engineer enough,” to get a pilot’s license just like him. I’ll never forget the smell of smoke at the Mumbai airport, meeting Greg’s parents at O.R. Tambo, when my Mom showed me Paris for the first time, or when Greg and I couldn’t find a single damn beer at the Frankfurt airport. I’ll never forget my best friend Mac’s model planes on his dresser, or how my Dad’s hair looks grayer every time he picks me up at Dulles on Thanksgiving.
I will never forget the sheer blankness I felt when I first saw South Africa. Processing error. White noise. Does not compute. This place- so “other” in maps, books, and photos- suddenly became dirt and air and trees and roads just like mine back home. Matt and Kim have this great line, “show me the sidestreets in your life…” How could your sidestreets exist, upside down and backwards, just like mine, all these years, and I had no idea? Almost never knew you? This sudden rush at how impossible this all was, like two marbles rolling towards each other, one from Africa one from America, then passing each other inches apart in Philadelphia, then rolling apart again toward California and New York, then back again, almost touching on the same floor in the same building in Palo Alto, until they finally struck each other with a satisfying glassy little *click* next to the drinking fountain.
Today, as I dutifully fasten my seatbelt and look around for my nearest exit, I weigh my odds as I do on every flight since 9/11… Old habits die hard. It’s a Wednesday, not a Tuesday, but it is the first flight out so opportunities for media coverage throughout the day are still high. It’s a short flight though, so we’re not carrying much fuel. And let’s face it, there aren’t many sentimental landmarks around here even if we were.
I’m not one to share my weaknesses or fears with people I hardly know. But today, 12 years later, I believe sharing our weaknesses and fears with perfect strangers is the only way to grow stronger. I believe what unites us is our mortality and our human resolve to fight, to invent, and to win.
I will never forget that we are the intended casualty. I will never forget I’m lucky to fly.
I will never forget.