Sunday, January 24, 2010

Thoughts from a Cruising Altitude of 39,000 Feet

1. I wish I could sleep on planes. Even for a minute, or twenty, or three hundred. It’s stupid, but I’m convinced that if I close my eyes, if I’m not absolutely vigilant, there’s no way the plane can stay up. In fact, the second I start to relax and close my eyelids, I immediately snap back awake, worried. Who’s flying this thing?

2. I wish I could read on planes. I read everywhere else – waiting in line at the grocery store, lying in bed, sitting with a bowl of cereal in the morning. I’ve been tempted to read while stuck in traffic. But on planes I can’t seem to focus on plot and character. Instead, I alternate between Hidenko and Sudoku. On this trip, one round of “Fiendish Sudoku” lasts me all the way across Utah.

3. I love the individual mini-screen. Thumbs up, Delta! I keep flashing to the “My Flight” screen to see what I’ve missed. We’ve passed Grand Junction and are flying just south of De Beque. Somewhere in the last ten minutes while I was worrying about whether or not our plane had properly functioning landing gear, our cruising altitude had increased from 39,003 to 39,010 feet. Pretty cool.

4. The man in the seat beside me, Leo, is traveling with nothing other than a jacket. Hello? No book or magazine? No sudoku? No crossword puzzle? I once drove cross country with someone who intended to talk the entire way, so naturally I was worried. But Leo isn’t in a talking mood, either. Instead, we play a dozen silent games of in-flight trivia. I feel bad that I keep winning and briefly consider throwing a game, because everyone should be happy. Everyone should know they are doing well at something, right? But in the end, I just can’t do it.

5. Nothing is free on Delta Airlines. Not the charge for an extra bag ($50), the headphones ($2), or the snack packs ($3 to $5, depending). “Delta Airlines has gone cashless,” a flight attendant chirps into the PA system. “All purchases must be made with a credit card for your convenience.” My convenience? Really, nothing about air travel is geared for my convenience, much less a $1 Visa charge for a $2 purchase.

6. In the first half-hour of the flight, we are fed two packs of peanuts and our choice of beverages. Three hours pass before it occurs to the flight staff to come through with another round. By this time I’ve chewed fifteen consecutive pieces of gum, trying to suck out any possible nutrition or moisture. A flight attendant passes and I say, “Excuse me? Do you think I could get something to drink?” She is clearly annoyed. “We’re coming right through.” It takes her twenty-five minutes to reach me, though, and by this time my lips are one cracked blister. Leo doesn’t look too happy either. “I guess I’ll buy the snack pack, too,” I say, surrendering my credit card.

7. Once the plane lands, I can finally relax. It’s hard work, mentally keeping the plane aloft, and not for weaklings. Everyone stands at once, snapping open overhead compartments and jostling for space in the aisle. I stretch, curling my toes inside my boots. What’s the hurry, people? We’re all getting off this thing sooner or later.

Friday, January 1, 2010

On a scale of one to ten, how do I rate my driving?

“Your brakes are soft,” Will says. We’re pulling out of a parking lot; it’s his first time behind the wheel of my car for a while.

“Oh, they are?”

“And they’re squeaking, too. How long has this been going on?”

“I don’t know. A couple of weeks.” Maybe longer. Somewhere around Thanksgiving I remember idling in stop-and-go traffic, wondering whose car had such squeaky brakes. And then we had a few drops of rain in December, so it was easy for me to attribute the squeaks to… well, maybe not wetness, but definite moist-ness. Denial is a powerful force.

“Babe…” Will says. I wait for the lecture, but get a sigh instead.

“I’ll get it looked at,” I promise.

And so on December 31 at nine o’clock sharp I’m at the Midas counter, being addressed as if I’m a child by a man with too much facial hair who writes “SATTURN” for the make of my car. Elsewhere in life I’m confident and competent; when it comes to all things mechanical I’m your basic stooge. Don’t let him talk you into new rotors or anything, Will had warned me. I parrot his words: “My brakes are feeling a little soft, so I just need the pads replaced. That’s all I’m here for today.”

The mechanic looks skeptical, but I initial for the free brake check and hand over my key. I glance at the magazines littering the table in the waiting area – nothing interesting. Even the weekly gossip magazines are months old, their rumors long since confirmed or shot down by publicists. I’m not even remotely interested in Tiger’s thirteenth mistress.

“I’m going to head out for some coffee,” I say. “Would you call me on my cell to let me know what you find?”

I take a last glance at my car in the parking lot, my beautiful, half paid-for, rain-cleansed car, which will soon be dangling in the air with its wheels off. This beautiful car replaced my last beautiful car, which I totaled in a wreck on I-580 in 2006.

And there it is – the lump. I try to swallow it down, that guilt from an accident three years ago which wasn’t entirely my fault. The truth is, I had a hard time getting behind the wheel again afterwards. I was remorseful, tense, bitter and far too alert, like I’d mainlined caffeine in lieu of breakfast. I regarded other drivers suspiciously, trying to determine the specific point at which they would suddenly weave through traffic to cut me off. I glared at drivers on their cell phones. I honked with little provocation. And over time, I eased up. I’m happy to report that I can now drive through town without needing a good massage by the end of the trip. But the worst part, the self-doubt, is still there.

Last week, playing a game called Split Second with some members of my family, it came up again. The basic premise of the game is that you roll a dice, ask a question that can be answered with numbers or initials, and everyone else has to answer as quickly as possible. The first right answer (or first closest answer) wins. My question was: On a scale of one to ten, how do I rate my driving?

“I need another card,” I said. “This is a stupid question.”

My family members are always supportive of each other’s psychological health and well-being. “No way,” they protested. “Get over it. Ask the question.”

“Fine,” I sighed. “On a scale of one to ten, how do I rate my own driving?”

I had the answer in my mind: Six. Optimistic but realistic.

My sisters were kind – they guessed a seven. Will, in the passenger seat the day I spun through three lanes of traffic, avoiding the concrete median but not the oncoming SUV, gave me a four. After we'd packed up the game, Will drove home, the issue sitting between us like another passenger. I turned up the radio so we couldn’t hear the brakes squeaking.

Back at Midas, the mechanic tells me I have a quarter-inch of brake pad left. “You could probably drive on it another month, maybe two,” he says.

“No,” I say. “Let’s do it today.”

“What we’re going to do is put on these really durable brake pads. You’ll be able to drive forever on these things, and they can withstand a lot of wear and tear.”

“Sounds good.”

He grins at me, the first sign of humanity he’s shown. “You’ll be able to drive the hell out of this thing. You can brake as hard as you want, no problem.”

I narrow my eyes. How much does he know?