Sunday, June 19, 2011

In Which I Fly

I'm going to just come right out and say it: I flew an airplane. I did. This is something that wouldn't even have made it on my bucket list simply because I couldn't imagine it would ever happen. It wouldn't occur to me. I used to fly on commercial jets a lot more than I do now. But even then, it's not like the pilot gives the passengers turns at taking the wheel up there in the cockpit. Or maybe they do that in first class, but not back where I sit eating tiny bags of stale pretzels with my tiny plastic cup of orange juice.

I love flying a whole lot--the powerful thrust of take-off .... the rush of landing and feeling the wheels touch the ground again at speeds that I can't really wrap my head around. I could do it every day and still maintain my wonder at the act of lifting off the ground and soaring way above the earth and even the clouds. It's one of those unbelievable privileges of being human, the use of such a machine.

As I said though, much as I love flying, I never imagined I would ever take the wheel of an airplane myself. I was excited enough when one Saturday the Pilot (you might remember him from a bike ride I described below) said we finally had clear weather and would I like to go fly that night. We'd been waiting for months for a time to go up, so I didn't even hesitate. I cut short my time at an all-day women's retreat and begged off a dinner party in the evening. Nothing was going to keep my feet on the ground that night.

I picked him up and we drove to the small county airport where his plane is housed. A little voice in my head went "squeeeee" every 30 seconds as we checked to make sure all the lights were operational, pulled the plane out of the hanger--seriously!--took a final pee break (I admit I was kind of afraid I'd have to do that up there; it's not like you can pull into a rest stop, is it?), and then climbed up over the wing into the plane and put on our radio headsets. The Pilot, who tends to be a pretty funny guy most of the time (he often tells me to "have a groovilicious day" in his emails), ran through his checklist, saying each item aloud as he checked controls and gauges and gadgets that had no meaning to me. It was a side of him I hadn't seen yet: serious, focused, in control of a machine that can fly thousands of feet in the sky with nothing but air under the wings. (OK, I'm familiar with Bernoulli and I know it's all about the air flowing over the wings, but I'm taking poetic license here. I'm a poet, not a pilot.) Soon we were wheeling to the runway and then we were picking up speed and then we lost touch with the ground. I felt like I left everything else in my life behind me on terra firma, and for over two hours, I thought of nothing except the experience of being the sky. In the sky!

It doesn't really matter where we went. What mattered was being up there, not held to the earth by the force of gravity. Odd as it may sound, when I fly I feel two things that I never feel on earth. The first is that I feel like I can't fall. No, it doesn't make sense to be 3000 feet above the earth and believe I can't fall. But flying is about the suspension of a lot of things we believe about the weight of objects and gravity and where our little human bodies should be in relation to the earth.

That I love to fly at all is a mystery to me. I shouldn't love it. I should be terrified to leave the ground--terrified that I'll fall. After all, that night I was 3000+ feet above the earth in a little metal shell, propelled by an engine I could only hear roar, but not see. It's a leap of faith to think that the simple act of air flowing over those short wings would lift us two humans off the ground and take us high enough that rivers look like ribbons and houses like tiny boxes and people just disappear. Even the thought of it should stop my heart, because I am terrified of falling. For years I had various recurrent nightmares about falling, and in them I sometimes even hit the ground and died. I've heard that people who experience their own deaths in dreams will actually die in their sleep, but I didn't. I just woke up and felt like my heart had stopped... and then reluctantly started up again.

The dreams finally ended after I really did fall one Sunday afternoon just before Christmas--face-first into a brick hearth. I should have died that day, but I hit just right and only broke up the bones in my face and lost 6 teeth. It took a while to recover, but I didn't die from it. My fear of falling was locked into my very muscles and bones though. Anything that makes me feel like I'm falling sends me into a panic, often accompanied by flashbacks, whether I really fall or not. Actually tripping and falling can give me flashback panic symptoms for hours after. Doing something on purpose that feels like falling--riding a roller coaster, for example--makes me almost catatonic with fear. Why I get a feeling of utter safety and peace when I'm thousands of feet in the air going over a hundred miles an hour is a psychological puzzle I'll never unravel. I could guess that it's because the ground is too far away to fall into, but that doesn't make sense. It's one of those things that just is.

The second thing I feel when I'm up there is the absence of this little bit of constant claustrophobia that I associate with being on the earth. I can never see the whole picture when my feet are on the ground. Up there in the sky, I get the overview. I can see the context of the earth, how the skin of it all fits together. The only time I've ever felt the same feeling was years ago when I was sitting on the side of a mountain in Montana by myself with nothing around me but tall clear sky and the slope of the mountain below. Otherwise, I'm always conscious of something on the horizon, whether near or far; something is always blocking other things from view, always touching the edges of my vision. Up in the sky nothing but the curve of the earth blocks the view. And on the night we flew, even that was soft and fuzzy from far away clouds. I felt like I had a perspective of living on this precious planet that I can never get from the ground. It's almost godlike to be up there and look down on the chunk of rock that gives us life.

The Pilot pointed out landmarks as we flew south, and asked if I wanted to go anywhere in particular. I didn't. Just up, and we were already up. I'm not sure if he asked if I wanted to take the controls or if I asked if I could. Either way, he said I could and I put my hands on the controls in front of me--there are two sets-- and he said, "The plane is yours." My response, I learned, was, "I have the plane." And then I was in control of the plane.

I flew us back west and north, following an interstate highway, one I've driven on. Flying a plane is not like driving a car. The wings have to be level, the nose level, and the altitude has to be steady. I tried doing it by reading a gauge, but I think I did better by just looking at the wings and the nose of the plane and trying to keep them in line. A couple of times I had to give the controls over because I didn't calculate turns right and I lost the highway. (It was still down there, of course.) The plane doesn't respond as quickly as a car. Once we were too close to a cloud and he said, "I'm taking the plane." I said, "The plane is yours," and he made a sharp bank and took us away from it. The telling of it doesn't begin to compare to the experience itself. I'm not that good with words.

Eventually the sun went down and we were flying above the city in the dark. Even better. That feeling of being safe and held by an invisible hand is even stronger at night. It's like being in love and untouchable at the same time. We made two landings at another small airport so the Pilot could stay current for taking passengers up at night. He'd done it weeks before so we could fly, but he has to do it every 90 days. We reset the clock and did my favorite part of flying, taking off, two extra times. Bonus. And I got to turn the airport lights on and off by clicking a button on the steering wheel.

When we finally landed for good and pushed the plane back into its hanger, I couldn't believe we'd been up there over two hours. Time just flew by.*

The other day I was talking to my mom on the phone. "Mom," I said, "you won't believe what I did. I flew an airplane."
"What? You flew an airplane? Did you wreck it?"
"No, Mom, I'm pretty sure that would have made the news."
"Did you land it?"
"No, I just flew it around in the air. The Pilot landed it."
"Is this man safe?"
"Probably not."
"What? Then why did you go up with him?"
"Oh. I think he's a good pilot."
"Hmmm. That still sounds pretty scary."
"Nope, it really wasn't."
"Well, I would have been scared."

So would I have been...except that I wasn't. Never have been, even the night they closed the Atlanta airport right after the plane I was on took off, because of severe thunderstorms. That plane bucked and tossed and rose and fell sharply a few times before the pilot finally got it above the storm. Some people were crying, and the ones I could see were white-knuckling their chair arms. Even that night I wasn't afraid. For some reason I can more easily believe that plane will stay aloft than that it will drop from the sky. How is it my mind can make up stuff like that?

The Pilot also does Angel Flights from time to time, ferrying people who can't afford to go to doctor appointments to the place they need to go. Just like the night landings, he has to fly a certain number of hours to qualify, so our flight will add to those hours. He doesn't get paid for it and just the fuel for the plane costs a lot. But he says it's a privilege to own the airplane and it's a privilege to be able to help people that way. I guess it's a way to level out the karma. I would want to do that too....if I were the kind of person who would ever fly a plane. Which I'm not. I'm really not....but I did. I flew an airplane! Squeee!

*What? You've never made a bad pun in your life? Suck it!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Losing Cruise Control

The other night I was zipping down the freeway on my home, the left lane clear ahead of me. I'd just exited one interstate and slid onto another, picked up speed again and hit the cruise control button on my steering wheel. When I took my foot off the accelerator, the van slowed down. I sped up and hit the cruise again. Same result....four more times. Mice learn faster than I do sometimes. "Damn it," I said aloud. "My fucking cruise control won't work. It just figures."

I was distracted and thinking about a conversation I'd just had: a difficult, uncomfortable conversation. The night was so much fun in the beginning: drinking in a pub and listening to a three-kid combo cover old rock standards. Walking around a ritzy outdoor mall barefoot in the summer heat afterwards, holding hands, talking. Sitting on a park bench watching people walk by.....a perfect evening. And then I had to go and change the mood by talking about some things that were bothering me. I really hate these kinds of conversations, especially when I'm bringing the shit up and the other person doesn't seem to know what's going on or doesn't have a problem. Actually, I'd intended to talk about those things a couple of other times the week before, but I was having such a good time I didn't want to ruin it. As I drove home, I wasn't sure I was happy with my decision to do it that night either. I wondered if I should have just swallowed my feelings and focused on what was working.

I finally stopped pushing the cruise control button and looked at the dashboard to see if I could determine what was wrong. And that's when I noticed I was going 77 a 55 zone. Whoops. When I turned off the other interstate I'd just resumed the same speed--pretty stupid given the number of times I've traveled these highways. I let up on the gas and as the van started to slow, I noticed a car with no headlights pulling across the median and onto the left shoulder. I touched my brakes as the highway patrolman picked up speed and merged in front of me. Just my luck, I thought. I'm busted. Good thing my cruise control didn't work or I'd have been going faster though.

It's kind of funny how losing my cruise control paralleled the decision I'd made that night about having that hard conversation. I'd been cruising along, picking up speed, trying to ignore some things that had happened even as my intuition told me something was wrong. Something would happen and I'd try to hit the cruise control and keep going, living in the moment, going along for the ride. When I finally started paying attention, something bigger that I couldn't ignore pulled in front of me, and I had to do what I thought was the right thing: stop and confront some of the issues. It wasn't comfortable and, just like I didn't want that cop in front of me, I didn't want to be the one spoiling the good times. I could have chosen not to, but that would have hurt me--was hurting me. Sometimes the situation leaves no choice but to slow down, pay attention, and take the consequences.

Fortunately for me, my cruise control saved my ass that night. I have no idea why it didn't work; I'd been using it earlier on the other freeway and it kept me at a steady 75 mph. But if it had worked, I would have been....hell, I don't even know what happens if you get busted for 22 over. They probably take all your money and whip you naked in the public stocks. As it turns out though, the cop took off after somebody else, probably somebody  who wasn't paying attention....and the next day my cruise control worked just fine and has since. Pretty strange.

I'm not sure yet how things will turn out with the other issues, but I hope like the cruise control my intuition was right--even though I was reluctant to slow down and focus on how I was feeling. And maybe that metaphorical cop who's been causing me problems will hit her lights and speed off after somebody else so I can get back to driving fast and having fun.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Introducing Laura

I worked on the poetry service I wrote about below with Laura, a gifted poet, writer, therapist, teacher, friend. This young woman makes me cringe at how immature I was at her age, and I'd been married for seven years by then. She's a little younger than my son, so I'm old enough to be her mother big sister, and yet she possesses wisdom and courage that must come from being an awfully old soul. She's so talented, I was a little intimidated sharing a poetry pulpit with her. And she was homeschooled so that just makes her that much more special to me. She's moving away very soon, and she will leave a hole the size of the moon in many lives.

 I want you to read her "I am what I am..." poem. It's amazing and insightful and it will make you want to know her too. You can find it and a bunch of her other writing at her blog, Autodidactic poet. Leave comments so she'll keep writing. She doesn't believe how superfantastic she is.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In which I ride...

I bought a new bike last Thursday after months of shopping and agonizing. It’s a Trek Lexa S compact, a WSD, and I love it so much I’ve been obnoxious with giddiness. It really doesn’t look remarkable, except if you look closely in the sun and notice the sparkly, blue metal flake in the black paint. But I’ve never ridden a bike with so much giddy-up in my life. I feel fast on this bike. Granted, I’ve only had her up to just over 21 mph, but we’re going to hit higher speeds, I just know it.

I went out for a couple short rides just to get acclimated—a few miles around the neighborhood Thursday on bumped-up sidewalks and cobblestones and downtown Saturday for breakfast before the annual Pride Parade. And then Sunday I skipped out of church and went on my first ever ride on the bike path along the river. Now I understand why all of my bike-obsessed cyclist friends have been urging me to buy a damn bike already. Now I'm in love.

I shopped for months. After I moved into this house in the city the end of last summer, just four blocks from the Great Miami River, which is lined on both sides with bike trails, I knew I'd have to ride something besides my clunky, 22-year-old General mountain bike. Something I could carry up and down the stairs to the river path and haul easily in my van. I started getting excited about it the end of winter, so I mentioned to this Guy I've Been Dating, who's been cycling for several years, that I was thinking about buying a new bike. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I'm going to start looking for a new bike soon so I can ride around downtown and on the river path by my house. Maybe we could go for a ride together some time. Would you want to?
Guy I've Been Dating [looking like I just asked him to donate a kidney, takes a deep breath]: Maayyybee. Ummm. [Clears his throat and breaks eye contact.] How fast do you think you can ride?
Me: I don't know yet. Do I have to make a commitment to a particular speed just now? Thinking: Ouch. Obviously out of your league, but OK for you, buddy. See if I pack a tasty picnic of fine soft cheese, crusty bread, and a cold bottle of wine and take you out on a lesser-traveled bike path some Sunday afternoon for a leisurely ride. Give me a chance and I might make you want to slow down, speed racer.

So I researched and I shopped all the rainy spring. I consulted my serious cycling friends. Pat spent an entire Saturday riding bikes with me at various bike shops; Maury started preparing me to wear bike shorts. I read the Team Estrogen message boards and dreamed about riding along the river for miles.

I thought I wanted a commuter bike, a flat-bar hybrid with a cushy saddle, so I wouldn't have to ride bent over, but a lot of people seem to start there and then end up buying a road bike the next season. I didn't want to buy twice. The hybrids really didn't feel like what I wanted, yet the road bikes were more expensive. I agonized over bumping up to almost twice what I'd expected to spend and then getting something that might not be comfy. I really couldn't see my butt sitting on one of those tiny, hard saddles. It looked like I'd be riding on the head of a golf club. And those low handlebars with their weird shifters...I was sure I'd pitch right over on my head, and I didn't think I'd earned such confusing technology. But finally I started testing the road bikes and whee! What a ride! It's like playing a Gibson. Once you play an expensive guitar, you don't want to play the cheap ones any more. I rode the Lexa, loved it, haggled the price down $50, and finally handed over my debit card for the bike and various other necessities like lights, a computer, and a water bottle holder. Squeeee!

Imagine my surprise and consternation when the Guy I've Been Dating suggested a ride the very next weekend, less than two days away. He'd been telling me about the 12-mile sprints he rides most days after work and the longer rides on the weekends. His legs look like he's got bricks under his skin. (Girls, he can rock a kilt, that man, but my love of kilts is another story... and some kilt stories shouldn't be told at all on a blog.) He describes himself as a semi-serious biker, but he seems more like serious to me. I had....well, I had ridden around the neighborhood once. I was still on training wheels. Might as well dive right into the deep end though, right? I accepted, but asked him if he would even have fun riding with someone so far out of his league. He said we wouldn't know until we tried. Fair enough. He still wasn't getting the picnic though, not even the low-carb option.

We met downtown Sunday at noon at a little deli for brunch. I drove my bike over in my van and he rode nine miles in from the suburb where he lives. Same one I lived in for almost 20 years. He was already there at the table, sweating in his hot red shirt, sexy black bike shorts, and his special biker shoes that clip right to his pedals. Serious. I changed my clothes five times and ended up in my longest shorts, a tight black yoga top and sneakers. I had ordered some new bike shorts the night before, but for my virgin ride, I had to settle for civvies. I did not feel like one of the cool kids, even with my cool bike. For the first time I wanted to be wearing tight spandex shorts that look like they have a diaper built into the back, in spite of my friend Karen's warning that the chamois (which is supposed to both mop up crotch sweat moisture and provide padding on the golf club narrow saddle) will get lodged up into the lady parts if it's too thick. And not in a good way.

We stuffed ourselves with meat and fat and then I drove both our bikes over to the river. Almost time to put my new baby to the test--or rather to put me to the test. I was sure I was going to poke along behind the Guy I've Been Dating for about half an hour and then pass out from heat stroke, burnt crimson from midday sun and shame. It was already in the mid-80's and hazy. Sweat started dripping down my back as soon as we walked out into the humid air. As we were walking down the street to my van, I happened to look down at his legs. His muscles popped every time he took a step. I looked at my legs. My muscles....were probably under there somewhere. I considered asking him to put me in a kiddie seat and ride me behind him.

I said I was such a newbie at biking I felt like a freshman girl dating a senior boy. He said he doesn't wear a helmet when he rides; I said I do and mine matches my bike perfectly. I said I ride on the sidewalks sometimes; he frowned and said he doesn't. My inner bad girl pledged to see him ride on the sidewalk at least once that day.

We parked and unloaded his Fuji hybrid and my Lexa. He had saddle bags on the back of his bike, so he offered to take the ridiculous backpack tote bag I brought to carry my phone, keys, money, and a yellow bandanna. Why the bandanna? I don't know. I have always carried one when I biked and it comes in handy sometimes.

We got on our bikes and headed down toward the river, riding side by side on the brick sidewalk. My bike felt good under me, but we were just riding into the gates; the race hadn't started. We circled around Riverscape, where kids were playing in the fountains while the adults watched and fanned themselves, and headed down the ramp toward the river.The heat blew away as my bike picked up speed and settled onto the the bike path. I shifted into my highest gear and caught up with the Guy I've Been Dating. His calves still concerned me, but pedaling my bike was almost effortless and soon I stopped worrying about keeping up and just enjoyed his company and the view of the river. As we rode, I made note of bike path etiquette: the Guy I've Been Dating would speed ahead of me to pass slower riders on the left, usually saying, "On your left" as he came up on them. When we passed other riders coming from the other direction, he pulled ahead of me so we were riding single file. I said hi to every person we passed. I felt like I was being initiated into a new club, even though I didn't have the right clothes or speak the language yet.

We rode and talked....OK, I talked more because I'm a nervous blabbermouth dedicated conversationalist. I thought he was probably slowing down for me, but we didn't seem to be poking along compared to the other cyclists. We'd ridden several miles and I felt great. The seat wasn't uncomfortable and we were going fast enough I couldn't even feel the heat. I had no idea where we were part of the time, but it's a path. Where you've been is right behind you like a jet trail. I felt like I was flying along in utter freedom. In fact, I was eating bugs because I was smiling so much. I looked down at my computer and saw we were were cruising along at about 13.2 mph, which meant nothing to me. I wanted to see just how much I was slowing him down.

Me: How fast do you usually ride on your daily sprints?
Guy I've Been Dating: About 13 mph, although since I've been on this low carb diet my energy level has dropped, so sometimes only 10 or 11.
Me [looking back at my computer, which seemed to be malfunctioning already]: That can't be right. We're going a little over 13 mph right now.
Guy I've Been Dating: No, it's right. We've been cruising the same speed I usually ride. Why? Are you getting tired? Do you want to slow down?
Me: No, I'm surprisingly fine. I could ride this speed all day. I thought you'd have to ride slower for me.
Guy I've Been Dating: You don't even seem like you're breathing hard.
Me: No, I'm not. Have I shown you my new bike? It almost rides itself. (I probably said that five times. Obnoxiously happy with this bike, I am.)

We kept up that speed most of the ride. I started riding ahead when we'd pass people at least as much as he did. Eventually we rode down a part of the trail that was under trees, where it felt cool and shady. We weren't passing any other riders. We crested what looked like a long downhill grade and the Guy I've Been Dating said, "OK, we're turning around now." I had no idea how far we'd gone but evidently our ride was half over.

I stopped my bike, pulled up my water bottle and gulped half. Suddenly the heat slammed into me like it had been racing to catch up. Bugs hummed in the hazy, humid air. "Damn," I said. "It's fucking hot when you stop. We need to keep riding so we don't lose our air conditioning." So we headed back the way we'd come. We wanted to stop and watch an old fashioned baseball game we'd passed, but they had finished by the time we got back. We kept moving.The ride back seemed to take no time at all. My seat got a little hard the last quarter of the ride or so, and my feet went to sleep, but he assured me that was normal. Once we got to an area with a few stoplights where we had to stop and wait, they woke up and felt fine.

We did make one longer stop. We were probably less than a mile from Riverscape when we passed a young woman walking her bike. I kicked up ahead of the Guy I've Been Dating, but slowed down to ask her if she was OK. She said yes, but she had a flat. When he pulled up beside me he asked if she was OK. I told him about the flat and we dismounted under an overpass a few yards up the path to wait for her. She had an inner tube and a CO2 cartridge, but didn't know how to change the tire. I was clueless, of course, but the Guy I've Been Dating knew how and offered to show her how to do it; he even pumped up her tire with his little carry-on pump. Serendipity for me that I got to learn on her flat instead of one of my own. It took maybe half an hour to get her on her way, wipe the grease off our hands with the bandanna, and collect our karma points. Then we continued back to Riverscape and up the ramp to the water fountain.

I got off my bike expecting to feel sore and tired and wobbly, but I didn't. In fact I felt like I could have turned around and done it all over again. Beginner's hubris, I'm sure. I hadn't bothered to figure out how to set my computer for a trip so I asked him how far we'd ridden. He figured it out and said we'd gone about 14 miles. I know there are people who ride 50 or 100 miles in a day, so I wasn't sure if that was a respectable number of miles for a first ride or not. He said it was, and he also said I kicked his ass out there on the bike path. He was lying, but I might consider the picnic now--the low carb option with meat, fat and a flask of bourbon some fancy French water.

We rode back to my van on the sidewalk....hee. I loaded my bike and we said goodbye. He still had to ride nine miles back to the 'burbs. I wished I could ride with him because I still had some juice left in me, but I wouldn't have made the ride back into the city. It was enough for my first ride. Looks like maybe I can keep up with the cool kids after all.