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Fear of Flying, No Not Me
March 2005

I remember a time way back in childhood when I thought airports and airline travel was exciting and exotic. Of course, Lil’ Dwanollah never really traveled anywhere, nor did people travel to visit her family. So there was a mystique about a trip to the airport, even if it was just to pick someone up. We’d go early, eat in the restaurant there, watch planes land and take off (I was particularly enamored of the smiley-faced PSAs), bursting with excitement, until our visitor arrived. And the few times we actually flew someplace? Wow! Everyone dressed nicely (and girlie me would pick out a special “travel outfit” just for the flight). Heck, a week alone could be spent planning what to pack in the carry-on luggage! Mom would always pick out special little treats for the occasion, too: a travel-sized checkers game, a new book for both Sugarbear and I, gum so our ears would pop with the cabin pressure… all for a 45-minute flight to Las Vegas. By the time I was in my early 20s, I’d flown oh, maybe a handful of times. Certainly not more than a half-dozen, if that.

So when, as adults, me and The Husband-Type Man found ourselves traveling increasingly, it sounded really glamorous at first. He’d have to go to the Princeton office, or Chicago “on business” and I’d tag along. And then I got into a Master’s program on the other side of the freakin’ COUNTRY, and suddenly, lots of air travel became a fact of life.

And I quickly realized that there’s nothing glamorous or exciting about it. A plane is just a bus, except in the air.

In the last five years, on average, I fly someplace once a month… often more. THTM is in and out of the Milwaukee and Princeton offices. I’m in school, first in Philly, then summers in Virginia, and now back in LA, and have conferences all over tarnation. We’re often in different parts of the country, traveling to meet up or spend a week together at home. With the frequent-flyer miles (or, as Gram, Goddess of Malapropism, once said, “frickin’ flyer miles”) we rack up, we visit friends or family. Within five years’ time, I’ve been in all the major airports in America (and a few not in America), and quite a few of the minor ones, too. And believe me, there’s nothing glamorous or exciting about it.

I’m so burnt out on airline travel.

And it’s not like the Flying Greyhound makes it any more comfortable… things’ve declined steadily in the last half-decade to the point that I really wonder what the fuck we’re paying for in the first place. A flimsy, germ-infested seat the size of one normal human butt-cheek? Grimy plastic drop-down tables that can’t be realistically used for reading a book, much less consuming a meal? And the meals…. Never did I think that it could get skimpier than the half-assed TV dinners they used to serve, but now, due to expenses, most airlines have moved to something they laughably call “bistro service”… which means you get that crappy “snack” sandwich box with the one meager slice of turkey on a disgusting roll, with squeeze-packs of mustard and mayo, and a little package of cheap-ass cookies… but now you have to pay $10 for the privilege! And I’m not sure why I keep hearing complaints that the airline industry is suffering so much, because it seems like every flight I’m on is crammed to the brim with people, and I end up jackknifed in my child-size seat, trying to turn the pages of a magazine without elbowing the people next to me. Yeah, blah blah blah, “we’re flying less, so planes are more full” and all that bullshit, but for pity’s sake, I’m sick of having to try to use my hands like I’m imitating a Tyranosaurs Rex’s stunted “useless appendages,” and I’m sure everyone else on the plane feels much the same. Even first class, while a marked improvement over coach, isn’t always all that. There’re still the horrific bathrooms, the people watching loud movies sans headsets on laptop computers (or cackling and woohooing loudly to the ones they’re watching on the crappy airplane tellys), the screaming children, the toe- and elbow-ramming assaults of the beverage service cart, and awkward naps disturbed every half-hour by unintelligible announcements from the cockpit. Not to mention the turbulence. I swear, if I hear one more “mumblemumble we’re gonna be experiencing some chop mumblemumble” I’m going to cram a used barf bag up the co-pilot’s ass.

To make matters worse, I’ve always been scared of flying, and the more I’ve had to do it, the worse it got. Being hermetically sealed in a jet-powered tin-can miles above the earth’s surface just freaks me out. Suffice to say, between not liking heights and not liking crowded enclosed spaces, I’m miserable on an airplane, but I also started feeling like every time I stepped onto a place, I was challenging death. It’s not NATURAL for this big multi-ton metal thing to be in the air, is it?! Takeoffs and landings scared me. Every bump or jar or weird noise scared me. And if I’ve flown two dozen times without incident this year, AREN’T I DUE FOR A BIG AIRLINE TRAGEDY?!

Not healthy.

It’s almost funny to me now, but a few years ago, I was actually getting a little… OCD about flying. I had this increasingly rigid routine upon finding my seat: Take Dramamine and half a Valium. Pray. Sip on the Coke I’d brought with me (in case something happened with the beverage service). Pray again. Pray apologizing for praying. Breathe deeply. Take other half of Valium. It got almost ritualistic, to the point that I really felt that if I didn’t show proper respect for the fact that I was challenging the death-like condition of The Multi-Ton Jet-Powered Tin Can in the Sky by doing these appropriate things and taking correct measures, the plane would crash. This went on for about a year until, one flight, I got pissed at myself and thought “C’mon, you aren’t that important!” and stopped. It also helped that, around the same time, I was working with two former pilots (one for a major airline, the other Air Force), who carefully and painstakingly explained to me all of the backup systems a plane has in place, how much training the pilots and crew go through, how many test “emergency landings” a month they practice, and stuff like that. So now I’m still a little nervous at takeoff, but not, like near-catatonia like before. And I haven’t had to take Valium to fly in years either! I rule! *eye roll*

So yeah, I’ve finely honed my travel skills. I’ve had no choice. I’ve got the kamikaze airline carry-on, with a compact yet effective case of Everything I Might Need (and Have Needed) on an Airplane: Dramamine (drowsy and non-drowsy, depending on the length of the flight and if I feel like attempting to snooze), Immodium (trust me), heartburn stuff, Tylenol, spare contact lenses, travel toilet-seat covers, antibacterial gel and assorted wetnaps, anti-anxiety meds, Ambien…. Usually somewhere over Nebraska, I’ll break out my little water face-spritzer, followed by a liberal dose of moisturizer, eyedrops, lip balm, and under-eye unpuffing cream. It makes me feel almost human again for a few moments, ‘cos damned if that dry air aloft doesn’t make me feel like my head is stuffed with ten extra pounds of old newspaper.

And, trust me, spend the money on the blow-up headrest pillows they sell at the travel stores in the malls. They’re more comfortable and compact than the non-inflatable ones. And certainly preferable to the who-knows-WHERE-the-hell-it’s-been-before ones on the plane.

Did you know the best cures for motion sickness? Just in case that dreaded “chop” announcement crackles over the airplane PA, be prepared! Order a Coke (not Pepsi!); the original Coca-Cola syrup was actually first manufactured and marketed, in part, as a cure for nausea, and it works. (Drugstores still sometimes stock cola syrup for nausea as well, but it doesn’t travel well. Der. I found this out the hard way.) Can’t drink caffeine? Okay, ginger ale also does the same thing. In fact, ginger is so good for an upset stomach that I often bring a baggie of ginger snaps (the good, old-fashioned crunchy ones Gram used to keep on hand to dunk in milk) in my carry-on. You can also get ginger pills at health food stores.

If you aren’t queasy, you’ll prolly be up to eating on the plane, and, unless you’re on a transatlantic flight in the first class section, your food choices are pretty much going to suck wanger. So bring your own. Don’t overdo it, though… there are plenty of things that fit into your carry-on and won’t make you feel as gross as bolting a last-minute Big Mac or Cinnabon will, and will be far more satisfying (and cheaper) than the $10 giant Snickers they sell at the airline newsstands. My current favorite thing is instant oatmeal: it comes in neat packages that fit in my carry-on, and all I have to do is ask the flight attendants for a spoon, some hot water and a Styrofoam cup. Plus the cinnamony smell, like fresh-baked oatmeal cookies, is comforting. Those tiny bags of carrots, cheese cubes, beef jerky, drinkable yogurt, individual puddings or Jell-o are filling and compact enough to fit into a plastic bag in your carry-on. Don’t waste money on crap like Lunchables (they suck, they’re gross, they have WAY too much salt in ‘em which isn’t what you want when you’re on a plane, and the packages are too big for what you’re getting), and don’t eat too much overly-salty stuff like chips and crap… you’ll either drink too much water on the plane as a result and have to use the disgusting airplane bathrooms, or you won’t drink enough water and all that sodium will make you feel more dehydrated and gross. Don’t bring noisy, crunchy food: celery sticks are compact, but the people six rows behind you don’t want to listen to you chomp them. And trust me, don’t bring a hard-boiled egg. First of all, it will stink up the plane. Second, you will regret it the second there’s some of that aforementioned “chop.” *urp* Ditto those cute little tuna-and-crackers things

Best airplane reading? My favorite things to read on planes are the British tabloids and the dishiest celebrity rags I can find. Anything to take my mind offa the fact that I’m crammed next to a smelly, snoring old coot for the next four hours. Obviously, I do a shit-load of studying on planes, too, but I need my Bad Magazine fix first. I don’t recommend any reading that makes you feel anxious or unhappy. Don’t read disaster novels on planes!

And I know it’s awkward and all that, but don’t forget to move and stretch. Rotate your shoulders, your ankles, your neck. Stretch your arms up. Stand up if you can at least once and get the kinks out. Bend forward from the waist, as best as you can. But don’t do like the annoying old lady in the pink sweat suit on the way to NYC did, and stand constantly in the aisle, swinging your legs back and forth and doing knee-bends and twists and grunting and groaning. I mean, if you need to do a complete aerobic workout to prevent blood vessel clots or something, go to the back of the plane where you won’t keep whacking my seat while I’m trying to sleep, dammitol!

Some major don’ts? Don’t bring your gigantic luggage and duffle bags on with you. Yeah, I know checking baggage sucks, but really, me and the two-dozen other people behind you are sick of waiting while you try again to valiantly make it fit into the two feet of overhead space until you have to give up and push past all of us to take it back to the flight attendant to check. If you’re going to travel more than twice in a year, invest in a small-size narrow rolly-bag and/or a compact carry-on that will hold your laptop if you need to travel with it. Don’t chat on your cell phone on the plane. No one needs to hear you yelling “It’s ME! I’m on THE PLANE! CAN YOU HEAR ME?” Don’t bring stuff that’ll get confiscated, either. Yes, that means nail scissors, the pocketknife manicure set keychain, the decorative hatpin stabbed through your straw hat, the travel sewing kit with a needle, Yes, I realize that these rules are stupid; I could strangle three people with the cords to my laptop before I could kill them with my cuticle clippers, but it sure as hell makes the security checkpoint lines go a lot faster.

Speaking of security…. *sigh* What a pain in the ass. I know. It’s awful. But really, if people would use a teeny bit of common sense, it’d go that much quicker. Keep your ID out at all times. If you put it away, someone’ll need it. Yeah, they MIGHT not check it at the gate, but keep it out anyway. You MUST take your computer out of a bag when it goes through the scanner, so don’t keep it zipped in ten billion protective cases at the bottom of your carryon; get a compact carry-on that has an easy-access slot for it, so you can take it out quickly. Take your jacket off before you get up to the checkpoint. Don’t carry four tons of loose change and keys in your pockets when you travel. Yes, you grumpy businessman digging three handfuls of cell phones, wallets, cardholders, gum, quarters, toothpicks and keyrings out of your pockets, I’m talking about you! Take care of that crap at home, and, if you have to bring it, put it in a baggie in your carry-on, not jangling around in your pockets.

Proper packing can ensure that you only need a small rolly-bag anyway: Before you pack, lay out all the clothes and things you think you’ll need. Great, now put half of them away again. You don’t need three extra shirts “just in case” (MOM!) You don’t need to bring big bottles of shampoo and conditioner. In fact, most hotels will have hair dryers which, while not your super-ionizing turbo-charged diffuser one you got at the beauty-supply store, will work anyway. Call the hotel and check, and leave the bulky appliance at home. Don’t fold your clothes; roll them up so they take up less room. Stack shirts or skirts together and roll ‘em. Cram your socks, stockings and undies in your shoes. Don’t waste money on cutsey travel make-up bags (even though I’m just as enamored of those professional-looking metal model cases at Sephora as anyone, they’re too big and heavy for plane travel), but instead, use several Ziploc baggies; if your eye shadow breaks or your travel-size shampoo leaks, you won’t ruin either a nice makeup bag OR your clothes. And a word on those travel-size things (MOM!)…. Some are groovy for packing, like the mini toothpastes and deodorants, when you don’t want to bring a separate suitcase full of toiletries. I’m fond of the mini bars of Dove soap, because hotel soap always sucks. But there’s no need (MOM!) to go overboard with the selection of shampoos and pills and body oils. .

My last bit of advice? Please, I beg you, do NOT do the SNL flight attendant “Buh-bye!” when exiting the plane. You would be the ten billionth person to do so. It hasn’t been funny since 1993. Anyone who’s been on a plane more than once in the last year is already sick of hearing some stupidhead moron say it and laugh like they’re so clever and witty. No. Don’t.

But do enjoy your stay here… or wherever your final destination might take you.

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