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.      

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