Sunday, July 24, 2011

Come Fly with Me

or How I Learned to Roller Skate, Sing Karaoke, Survive a Hangover and 
Oh Yeah, Fly an Airplane

Will’s voice crackled through my headset: “alright, you ready to take the controls?”  My stomach clenched as I looked at the plane’s gearstick between my knees.  Here we were at about 5,000 feet in the air, cruising over the Delaware Bay in a plane whose inside was smaller than my closet.  I had spent the flight over to Cape May blissfully snapping pictures from the back seat, windows literally adjacent to each of my elbows.  Will was directly in front of me, pointing out sites and listening to the radio communications.  He had mentioned earlier that if I did indeed fly with him, I would at some point have to take over so I could share in the experience.  I had thought he was kidding.  Until that moment.
            “Not really!” I said.
            “C’mon, it’ll be fine! It’s pretty smooth here.”
            I had in fact told him I would try, but that promise had been made with solid ground beneath my feet, not the thin floor of a Citabria and a long drop into the water. 

I think my hands couldn’t have clenched onto the gearstick any tighter.  I followed Will’s instructions and ever so gently started to push it to the left.  The plane responded just as gently and my heart jumped.  Why were we going this way? I kept thinking.  Oh God, did I tip it forward too? Are we going to nosedive?  I felt like I should pray, but only muttered “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” and pulled the stick back to center.  The plane did not stop banking left.  Now, I don’t know if you know this about planes, but in order to get one back to a straight flight, you have to pull the control in the opposite direction until the plane starts to straighten.  It’s a lot like paddling a kayak, though I wish I had realized that sooner.  I got it back to center and Will motioned for me to bank the other way.  I did, but got a bit freaked out with the rush of freedom and responsibility and the thought that I was holding our lives nearly in the palm of my hand.  I could imagine myself slipping and sending the plane into a downward spiral and even though I had complete confidence in Will as a pilot, I worried that I would throw him something he wouldn’t be able to figure out and then bam, there we’d go into the Delaware.  And I have a fear of drowning. 

That weekend and several weekends leading up to it all made me wonder just how much control I had in my own life.  About seven weeks ago (wow, where has the summer gone?), my friend Chelsea came home to Maryland for a short visit.  She came into Baltimore and met up with Jessica and me for a night on the town.  Chelsea wanted to try out a karaoke bar after dinner, and as it was on my list, I was game to try.  That night I learned a very important fact about myself – the amount of alcohol required for me to sing karaoke is the same amount required to make me quite sick that same night and hungover the next day.  (Side note: do not do shots of Jack Daniel’s.  You are not bad-ass if you puke outside of the bar you just patronized.)  But before I learned such a valuable lesson, the three of us did a number of shots and then rocked the whole bar while we sang “Carry on My Wayward Son.”  I think some air guitar was involved and some embarrassing photos on Facebook. And we had a blast.  Not only did I let my inhibitions go long enough to poorly belt out a rock song to a room full of strangers, but I realized how lucky I was to be sharing this with two of my best friends.  I felt a lot closer to these girls after that experience, especially since it was Jessica who held her liquor the best and got us safely back to her house.  She even ran to the store to get me Gatorade, pretzels and a McDonald's breakfast sandwich the next morning (which is how I survived the hangover). I’d do the same for her a thousand times over, though I hope I never have to do so. 

A week after my drunken singing debut, I flew out to Ohio to visit my friend Meghan.  I already wrote a bit about this in my concert post – the timing of the trip was based on my desire to go see Glen Campbell in concert.  While there, we decided to go roller skating at an old fashioned roller rink near Loveland.  Now, I hadn’t been skating since I was about nine years old or so, and let’s just say my center of gravity has shifted.  Considerably.  My hips are also slightly uneven (one’s higher than the other) and it’s something I am extremely self conscious about.  I stumbled out onto the rink and after only a quarter of a lap, I fell.  My leg curled under me and the whole skate hit me right on that area between my buttocks and hip.  An inch or two to the right and I would have had a fractured coccyx.  (I blamed my paranoia on those damned medical books at my office.)  I limped away and sat icing myself and watching my friends spin by and I couldn’t help but lose it.  The trip had been a very stressful one and, looking back now, it had not been the easy, stress-free vacation I had so desperately needed.  Recently my life had been (and still is) dizzy and out of control.  I was so deep in backlogged jobs at work that I felt like I was drowning every day.  My love life was promising but still haunted by those demons of self-doubt and low self-esteem.  I seemed to be careening towards a break-down and lost the cocky confidence that my 25th year would matter or that I'd even come out of it alright.       

What the hell, I then thought as the ice pack started to melt, I don’t know anyone in Loveland.  I can fall on my ass as much as I want and no one will care.  I waddled back onto the rink and rejoined my friends.  I kept skating and eventually worked up my balance and courage to make it all the way around the rink without holding onto the wall.  My movements were still stiff and uneasy, but I managed to do it.  Tears dried and the bruise faded after several days.  But that glimpse into a breakdown had left an impression. 

And then I found myself both terrified and thrilled to be flying a plane with Will a few weeks later.  For about two minutes, I held onto that control stick and guided us through the sky.  After banking to the right, Will wanted me to try another kind of turn where we’d drop a little, but my nerves gave out and I turned back the controls.  Maybe it hadn’t been enough to really impress him, but I had impressed myself and that was what mattered.  The old me would have completely chickened out; heck, the old Amanda wouldn't have even gotten into a biplane.  But this new version couldn’t say no.  That freedom felt amazing - I was Amelia Earhart tearing through the sky.  Who knew when I’d have such an opportunity again?  Will had mentioned that he also had his motorcycle license, and if I could find a bike to borrow, he'd take me for a ride.  Knowing another plane ride would be a long while coming due to expenses, I grew excited for this new promise of adventure.  After we had landed and Will fueled the plane, I thanked him again and drove away from the airport, still reeling a bit from the whole experience.  I looked up in the rear-view mirror and had to wonder just who was this beaming, confident woman driving my car?  

After giving Will the controls back - look at those clouds!
I couldn’t stop smiling the rest of the way home, or even for the next few days.  Unfortunately the smile left after a day or two at work.  The unrelenting stress at the office started to build up and when it combined with some other personal stressors and disappointments, I felt myself starting to break.  I got into a very bad habit of working late, coming home, eating crappy food while watching even crappier television and going to bed an hour later.  I started to break down at work, usually in the aptly named break room or even at my desk.  For awhile I thought I might even be developing an ulcer from the twisting pain in my stomach.  I didn't understand until very recently just how dangerous burnout can be.  I asked myself when I had last been truly and completely happy.  And I realized it had been when I was on that plane over the Delaware Bay. 

Knowing when you can handle the controls and when you have to hand them over to someone more experienced is what life is really about.  Once I saw that, I started taking the steps required for me to get out of this depression.  I’ve talked to my bosses about workload and burnout and I’ve gotten a lot of support.  I started confiding in my friends and finding other ways to manage and minimize the stress in my life.  I still have a long road ahead before I’m back on course entirely, but I'm getting there.  Today I slowed down to check out a motorcycle for sale in my neighborhood.  I hope someday soon I'll even look up and see that woman in my rear-view mirror smiling again.      

Friday, July 1, 2011

In which I clean my room (and other prom dress-related surprises).

Near the beginning of April, I met my mother for lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant. As we finished our shared chips and guacamole, she leaned over the table toward me.

"Your brother," she said, "is moving back in with us at the beginning of May."

I paused, considering that. I had two brothers: one in college and another living in a house he rented with a group of friends about thirty minutes away from me. I had no idea which one she meant.

"Well," I said, venturing a guess, "that's what happens when school lets out for the summer. The students all go home."

She looked at me oddly and I knew I'd guessed poorly. "No," she said, confirming it. "The other one."

"Oh. Why?"

"The man who owns his house is selling it once their lease ends, so your brother is moving back in until he finds another place." She scraped up the last of the guacamole and looked up at me. "And he's bringing a friend with him."

This brother had a lot of friends. I frowned at the empty dish of guacamole and instead covered my chip with salsa. "Is it anyone I know?"

"I don't know. I don't think so." She paused, perhaps weighing her next words. "We were thinking of putting him in your old room."

I smiled, which I don't think she expected. "Does he know the carpet is pink?" A hideous shade of pink, at that. I'd picked it out when I was seven, grew to hate it in my teens, and finally learned in my early twenties that seven-year-old me had made a number of bad decisions and I would just need to learn to laugh at them. In fact, I'd eventually just found myself grateful that the walls weren't pink, too. At least, not anymore.

My mother shrugged. "I don't know. Your brother may have mentioned it to him."

"Maybe his friend is colour blind."

She didn't answer that, instead going straight to why she'd brought this up in the first place: "I was hoping you could come by and clean out the closets and such so he'll have a place to put his things."

This wasn't shocking, or even unexpected. My mother had been nagging me to get whatever junk I'd left at their house out of their house for months now. I'd put it off just as long, not at all looking forward to it. I had never been good about throwing things out, much to my mother's dismay, and had developed some relatively impressive pack rat tendencies over the years. However, I had to admit that a strange boy living amongst the scattered remnants of my childhood made for some pretty good incentive.

I sighed. "When are they moving in?"

"First of May. Maybe a little earlier."

I went through my mental calendar and cringed. "I don't know if I have any free weekends this month, and I can't really do evenings..."

"You could always take a day off work."

"To clean my room? That's ridiculous." I took another chip. "I'm not going to do that."

But that was exactly what I did, and within just a few weeks I found myself driving to my mother's house so I could clean my old bedroom.

She wasn't home when I arrived, further rubbing it in that she has a more impressive social life than I do, so after I made myself at home and raided her refrigerator, I decided to get a head start.

"She'll be so surprised," I chortled to myself on my way up the stairs. "I bet I can get this done before she even gets back."

It was a nice thought. If I could get this chore out of the way within the span of a few hours, I'd prove once and for all that I was and always had been neat, clean, and orderly. Considering how often she'd nagged me to clean my room growing up, it would be a huge achievement on my part.

The bedroom itself was pretty well put together, heinous pink carpet and all. There was no clutter on the floor or on the surfaces, and everything was in place. My bookshelves were a little over-crowded, but even that wasn't so bad, and would definitely be better once I took out some of my favorites and brought them home with me. This was going to be a piece of cake.

Then I opened the closet door.

I've seen cartoons and sitcoms where people pile as much as they possibly can into a small space and then shut the door before it can spill out. It always ends horribly, though, with either the door breaking open or the person they were trying to impress opening it on their own, only to be met with an eruption of odds and ends.

It was a little like that.

Luckily for me, nothing actually toppled out of the closet, although it seemed like a few things teetered. Probably everything was packed too full for anything to really budge; somehow my childhood closet had turned into a sick game of Tetris where I'd filled up the board waiting for that one crucial piece that would clear it all away. Considering how much Tetris I'd played, I had to wonder if maybe I'd done that on purpose.

"How did I let it get this bad?" I asked aloud. I half-expected something in the closet to answer me, but thankfully nothing did.

My quick-and-easy chore had just turned into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, but the only way to get through it was just to start. Gritting my teeth, I carefully took things out of my closet and set them in piles so I could look through them later. Old writing notes went on the desk. Old toys and books went on the bed. Shoes went into a pile by the door. Other knick knacks found their way to other piles, and when it was finally at least kind of sorted, I eyed them all.

"Which of you is the smallest?" I addressed the piles. I was met yet again with silence, but luckily it was an easy answer: the clothes. I hadn't left much behind when I'd moved out, so it was pretty easy to go through them. Most everything was relegated to the "donate" pile, and I found myself both horrified and amused by my once-horrible taste in clothes.

"Really, teenage-me?" I asked the fish-net--sleeved black shirt with "LOVE" stamped across it in mesh. "Why did you ever think this was a good idea?"

Since teenage-me was not around to answer, I tossed the shirt into the "donate" pile, thought better of it, and threw it in the trash, considering it a favor to teenagers with bad taste everywhere.

I managed to get through the clothes relatively quickly until, at the very bottom of the pile, I found it: my senior prom dress.

I considered it thoughtfully. I could donate it, but would anyone actually want it? I'd only worn it the once and except for a small tear near the hem -- easily repairable, I knew -- it was in good shape. So yes, probably. But I'd loved that prom dress. I'd searched for it for hours (a hardship back in high school, when I'd hated clothes shopping) and had been thrilled when I finally found it. It was one of the first things I bought with my own credit card. Even without the prom, that dress and I had history.

But what would I do with it? Not wear it, that was for sure. I'd look pretty strange walking around the city streets in a beaded prom dress, and there were enough crazy people in Baltimore without my further enticing them. There wasn't much room to modify it or make it into something new, either. But then again, who was to say I wouldn't need a fancy prom dress sometime in the near future? Things happen all the time, after all, and even though I'd never had occasion for a fancy prom dress in the past (excepting prom, of course) there was no reason to think it would never happen.

It was a non-issue, I decided, already moving the prom dress to the donate pile. I was seventeen when I went to my high school prom, and eight years meant the stupid thing probably wouldn't even fit anymore. On a whim, though, I checked the size tag... and then I did a double-take. If all my latest shopping ventures were any indication, I still wore that dress size.

Before I could talk myself out of it, I put on my prom dress, stared at myself in the mirror, and found my cell phone.

'I still fit in my high school prom dress,' I texted Amanda

My phone buzzed a few seconds later. 'I hate you,' it read. Then, a moment later, 'Picture?'

The camera built into my phone was notoriously blurry and low quality, but I had to give the public what she wanted: I took a picture and sent it along. After doing a quick twirl in the dress, I started rooting through the pile of shoes still sitting in the floor of my closet. When my phone buzzed again, I nearly fell over trying to reach it over the pile of old riding boots and strappy high-heeled sandals.

'I want to see in person,' the message read.

I frowned at the message, glanced down at the dress, and then looked back to the "donate" pile a few feet away. Some similarly-sized teenage girl might really love to find a dress like this sitting in a consignment shop or something, but Amanda wanted to see it. And, anyway, it wasn't like I couldn't donate it some other time, after I'd shown Amanda. I still had to go through my closets at home, after all, so I could just add this to that Goodwill-bound collection. No problem.

'Okay,' I replied. 'I'll go put it in my car.'

So I did, along with a handful of other things I decided were worth moving from my parents' house to mine. My mother eventually returned to the house, marveled at my progress, and then for some reason kept trying to distract me for the rest of the afternoon. I did eventually finish cleaning the room and returned home, only to find that I didn't really have a place for any of the stuff I'd brought back with me.

"Well," I said to my cats, "I guess this is as good a time as any to do that closet purge."

They looked at me for a moment before the two of them stalked off to inevitably destroy something in my kitchen. I smiled after them.

"At least here I know I won't find any surprise prom dresses."