Saturday, June 21, 2008

I Know I'm Scary To Some Of You. . .

But would you like to know what's scary to me?

Maybe if you guys can see that I'm scared of something also, you wouldn't be so scared of me! What do you think?

Yeah? Okay then, light a candle and join me in my parlour on this dark, stormy night and I'll tell you a frightful fear that'll bring out the goosebumps in your hair and send a chill down your teeth. . .

I'm afraid of flying!


Not all of flying. I really enjoy it when we reach cruising altitude and there's no turbulence. I also enjoy initial descent, glide pattern, final approach, and landing.

But here's what I don't like: Boarding, takeoff, ascent, flying through zero visibility, and, of course, turbulence.

So when I say that I have a fear of flying, I only mean that I have a fear of boarding, takeoff, ascent, flying through zero visibility and, of course, t-t-tT-T TuRBuLenCE.!!!..>!!..!>!!!

Goddamn turbulence, I hate that shit!

For a boy who was born in the middle of Missouri, I've flown a good deal in my life. And I have to admit that I've improved quite a lot over the years when it comes to this particular fear. For example, up until initial descent, I used to remain terrified throughout the entire flight--regardless of whether there was any turbulence at cruising altitude or not.

Even cruising without any bumps, I couldn't stop thinking about how death never sends an invitation. Or how I would only have a good ten minutes as we dropped from the sky to regret every bad thing I've ever done. Or how when people say that airplanes are safer than automobiles they never acknowledge the much greater likelihood of actually SURVIVING an automobile crash. And about how much more romantic it would be to limp across a desert road from the wreckage of a 1970 Nova with your best gal by your side, blotting your bleeding forehead with love and tenderness than it would be to freefall from the sky in an overpriced steel tube with total strangers, many of them obese and foreign.

One morning, about seven or eight years ago, I had to fly out of JFK airport. I was going back to Missouri for Christmas. We had to wait forever before leaving the gate in order for the plane to be sufficiently de-iced. It had been heavily snowing earlier. There wasn't a blue patch in the sky. I knew it wasn't going to be a good flight. I didn't need a navigator to see that we were going to be flying through zero visibility all the way up.

OH NO! Z-z-z-zero ViSiBILitY!!!!

My mind goes really corkscrewy when I fly through zero visibility. This is why I always insist on having a window seat. I go really insane on a flight, especially during turbulence, when I'm sitting in an aisle seat. It comforts me to be able to consistently look down at the earth's surface and know that I am spiritually--if not physically--tethered to the sphere below. And when I can't see that sphere, either by seating arrangement or because of zero visibility, I go a little cUKoO!


Don't get me wrong, I don't mind clouds--as long as I'm above them and I can see the sun; or the moon and the stars. Or if there's a sufficient gap between them for me to spot a few scattered patches of the earth below. But when I'm right in the thick of them and it's all white or grey or even pitch black, deep and troubling questions of faith begin to emerge. . .

Like they did right before takeoff that cold December morning on the runway at JFK.

"i hope the air traffic controllers are being paid well. how historically reliable has radar been? i wonder if everybody turned off their cell phones just like the captain said. how little of a warning would we get if another plane should happen to smash into this one? very little. very little. there'd probably be a big "whoosh!" of no more than five seconds and then-BANG! i'm dead. and what have i done? what have i done? what have i done? nothing. nothing. nothingnothingnothingnothing. nihil-nothing-nihil-nihil-nothingnothingnothing. . .!>! .$!Nnothngnihilnnnnn-nnn-n-n-n-nothing-nihil-nihil-no-no-no-non-nononono"

I started to hyperventilate profusely the moment the plane left the ground. In a matter of seconds, a stewardess brought out an oxygen tank and slipped a mask over my face.

Later, after we had reached cruising altitude and I had settled down sufficiently enough for the stewardess to remove the mask and tend to the other passengers, I found myself embarrassed--for there had been many pretty girls sitting near me in the back of the plane. I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans and smiled nervously at all the beautiful and calm faces who had tried politely not to stare. "I'm just eccentric," I had wanted my awkward image to radiate, "NOT afraid of flying."

Yes, there was zero visibility and a lot of turbulence all the way out to Kansas City. Although, unquestionably, I did manage to survive that flight. For I would not be here today to tell you all of this, my little droogs.

But then there was the time that your humble narrator had to fly to Dallas from New York--and then back--in ONE DAY!

This was about four months after my "oxygen ascent" flight. I was scheduled to fly out to Dallas for a one-hour meeting with an ad agency over a company mascot I had been hired to play. The character's name was The Question Marquis, an 18th-Century French aristocrat with a question-mark for a goatee. He was the spokescharacter for a website called questia that was supposed to help college students write better research papers. . .faster!!!!

My character answered questions, but he did so as an 18th-Century French aristocrat. That's why they called him The Question Marquis. Pretty stupid, huh? Still, they paid me $30,000 and I didn't have to write any of the godawful ad copy. I was only required to speak in a hammy French accent and wear a $16,000 costume and a $4,000 wig/goatee combination. We did TV spots, radio spots--hell, they even put my picture on coffee sleeves!

Then they flew me all around the country to colleges like Northwestern, UCLA, even Texas Christian, just so I could stand outside in the quad at noon, wearing the full costume, passing out brochures featuring my picture and little innuendo-laced slogans like "I think you'll like what's in my pamphlets!"

They had wanted the character to be cultured, yet debauched; the style of "Dangerous Liaisons" with the voice of Inspector Clousseau delivered in the tempo of the lazy dotcom era.

Here's a taste of me in action as this guy.

I don't think the company or the ad agency would really want it to be known that I had been working for them. We sort of had an ugly falling out. The character was eventually thrown onto the very large scrap heap of very expensive stillborn advertising ideas. (I started to write in more detail about it just now, but I think that chapter in my life is better suited for another entry entirely.)

At any rate, the flight from New York to Dallas that morning was terrifying. Turbulence, turbulence, and more turbulence. And the worst part of it was--there was perfect visibility throughout the entire flight! I know I said earlier that I hate zero visibility, but perfect visibility in conjunction with turbulence can be a bit confusing to me. When turbulence happens with zero visibility conditions, I can explain away the turbulence--at least to myself--as having something to do with the clouds outside the window. However, when there is PERFECT visibility and turbulence, like it was on the way to Dallas that morning, I start to wonder if something might actually be wrong with the plane.

Every fresh bump in the air that morning seemed to confirm this. The turbulence never let up. Clear blue skies, but the fucking plane wouldn't stop sh-sh-sh-shaking. Even more terrifying, every five minutes, the aircraft kept dipping a little bit lower. By now, I knew that leveling off at a lower altitude was common procedure for pilots trying to avoid heavy turbulence, but it still freaked me out considerably on that fateful day.

At one point, the captain's voice came over the intercom. It was very crackly. All I remember hearing at the time was: "Folks. . .little lower. . .apologize. . .electrical. . ."

I rang for the stewardess.

"Yes?" she asked.

"Wh-wh-what did he say?"


"The captain," I swallowed, "He said. . .it was something about electrical. Did you hear it? Did you hear what he said?"

"I'm not sure," she mused, looking slightly concerned, "The captain said something about 'electrical'?"

"I heard. . ." I began, rubbing my sweaty palms together, glancing out the window and then back to her, "I h-h-heard him say something about. . .ele-ele-electrical."

"So you want to know if the captain said something about 'electrical'?" she asked.

"I just--I just didn't get the wh-whole announcement. It was something, something, something, 'electrical'. Like maybe h-h-he--he was going lower because of something electrical? Do you know--do you have any idea what that means? About electrical?"

She gave me a pathetic, quasi-motherly smile, "Let me see if I can find out." From my position near the front of the plane, I saw her open the door to the cockpit and step inside. (Obviously, this was before 9-11) A few moments later, she and a clean-looking, slightly-rotund, middle-aged white guy in a pilot's uniform stepped into the aisle. He approached me.

The flight hadn't been a full one, so I had a lot of room to stretch out and panic, just in case things got REALLY bad. I was sitting alone at the window with two empty seats at my side. The middle-aged guy in the necktie, who I could only assume at that time was either a pilot, copilot, or navigator, sat down in the aisle seat and smiled across at me.

"What's the matter, big guy?" he asked.

"Did you say something about 'electrical'?"

He chuckled, "Did I say something about 'electrical'? Noooo, I don't think so."

He was lying to me, I knew it. Something had been said from that goddamned cabin about 'electrical' and now they were trying to make me look crazy. It must get boring flying to Dallas all the time, I thought, which is why the crew decided to fuck with the one guy on the flight who actually cares enough to listen to the captain's announcements! It was all one big conspiracy, I was sure of it.

I ran my sweaty hands through my hair and tried again, "I sure, it was sure--I'm saw, sure--I'm sure I saw you heard, I saw--heard you say--I'm sure I heard you say s-s-s-something about 'electrical'."

"No, I didn't say anything about 'electrical'."

"S-s-s-so there's nothing wrong with this plane electrically? You really didn't s-s-say 'electrical'?"

He grinned again and reached into his pants pocket to pull out a wallet. "Let me show you something, big guy." From his wallet, he produced a picture of two sleeping, newborn babies lying together in a hospital crib. He handed it to me. I studied the photo carefully for some connection to a shaking plane and the word 'electrical', but found none. Presently, the man offered one, "My wife just had twins this week!" he exclaimed, "There ain't NOTHING gonna happen to THIS plane, I'll make sure of that!"

I found his statement utterly ludicrous. "But. . .people with kids die all the time."

He dropped his smile, took his picture back, stood up and, with a slight grimace, tersely said, "I think you're going to be all right." And then he went back to the cockpit and shut the door and that was the last I saw of him until the flight was over.

I hadn't wanted to be rude. Or make it appear as if I was trivializing him and his wife's remarkable achievement. But I really didn't see how him having twins was any guarantee of my survival.

So despite the heavy turbulance and the captain saying something about 'electrical' and then lying about it in a cover-up story about newborn babies and their power to thwart plane crashes--I actually survived THAT flight as well.

But more than that. More than mere physical survival. A miracle of spiritual survival also happened once the plane had landed in Dallas. I had been worried all morning about having to take TWO flights in one day. My logic had been that if the first plane didn't kill me, the second one would. Yet once we hit the tarmac in Dallas, sometime around noon, my mood lightened considerably. All my fears about the second flight, which I would have to take in less than three hours, suddenly disappeared. At that point, I felt that the odds of having an equally bad flight on the very same day would have to be astronomical.

But astronomical is the story of my life.

As it turned out, the second flight was even worse. In three short hours, the skies over Dallas had darkened to a sludgy indigo. I flew back this time not only with turbulence, but zero visibility as well. And oh, what t-t-t-turbulence it was! Overhead compartment doors springing open, once-calm passengers nervously crunching ice and squeezing in-flight magazines with a death grip, stewardesses being told by the captain to put away their drink carts and buckle up. I swear I saw one of them with tears in her eyes!

Misery may love company, but I don't think the same holds true for fear. On the flight TO Dallas, I had been the only one afraid. On the flight FROM Dallas, everyone had been afraid. And that was REALLY FrIGHTEnING!!!!!

BUT u KNOW WhAT? I suRvIVED THat FLIGHT too!! !!!!! Ha! HA! HAHAHAHA!! Hhahahahahhaha!

Around midnight, by the time I finally got back to my apartment in Harlem, I was emotionally numb. I fell down on my bed and, slowly, a deep sense of gratitude at having survived both flights began to infliltrate my lucid consciousness.

I fell asleep, thinking about how advanced we as a people have become when you can literally wake up in your bed in New York in the morning, go to Texas in the afternoon, and get back in the very same bed in New York that night.

Though I was impressed at this major accomplishment of mankind, I was also poetically confused. "Was Texas just a dream?" I muttered to myself softly, before drifting off to dream of other things. . .

Since the terrible "oxygen ascent" flight and the "devil-twin" flights to and from Dallas, I've improved a lot in regards to my fear of flying. Sometimes, like I say, I even enjoy being up in the air. Although, as I hope I have demonstrated here today, I used to be pretty bad.

One time, on a flight from Houston to Los Angeles, I had a stewardess upon landing confide to me that she "used to do a lot of cocaine, too", but that she had "gotten help through a 12-step program."

"I'm not a cokehead," I told her, "I'm just a nervous flier."

"I'm just saying," she huffed, "addiction is a disease and there's help for it."

Those days of continuous terror are long gone. Now, instead of being terrified throughout the entire duration of the flight until initial descent, I am only afraid of boarding, takeoff, ascent, flying through zero visibility and, as always, T-Ttt_TTURBULLLENCE!!

I hope all of you who might have been scared of me can now see that I'm just like you!

I'm afraid of things also!

Let's be friends!