Truth be told, I’ve always been nervous about flying.Not terrified, not paralysed, but nervous enough that when I get on a commercial jet to fly somewhere, I usually wonder whether I’ll be coming home again.
I remember the exact moment when this fear started–when I was 13 or so and an American Airlines DC-10 crashed after take-off at O’Hare, after one of its engines fell off.
I picked up the paper the next morning and saw the picture above. Then I saw other pictures of the crash site, where everyone in the plane died. And I imagined what it must have been like inside the plane in the seconds during which a routine event–takeoff–suddenly lurched and rolled into a terrifying dive and everyone aboard knew they were done. And ever since then, I’ve always been a bit wigged out by flying on big jets.
I know it’s not rational. I know the odds. I know I’m safer once I get on board than I am in the car to the airport. I even have a pilot’s licence and know how to fly, so I don’t get freaked out by gear retracting or bumps or flaps or any of the other stuff that’s supposed to happen in the air.But still, when I have a trip coming up, I think about it. And I don’t go unless I have to–for that and several other reasons, namely that many business trips are a waste of time and that I prefer not to be away from my family. When a plane does go down, like the commuter turbo-prop in Buffalo a couple years ago, or the Air France plane that plunged into the Atlantic, or the heroic landing of the US Air jet on the Hudson, I obsess about it. And that’s one reason why you get to read so much detail about those crashes here.
On occasion, I’ve thought about doing the John Madden thing: Surrendering to the fear and vowing never to fly again. But I’ve always decided against it.
First because it’s impractical: I’d have to quit my job. I have to travel sometimes, and I can’t afford to spend a week being driven back and forth across the country in a gigantic bus just because I have a meeting I can’t miss in Silicon Valley. (And it’s not just the time: Those buses are expensive!).
Second, and more importantly, because the benefits of travelling far outweigh the fear of wondering whether I’ll be coming home again. On Monday evening in the Valley, for example, I drank seltzer, ate “sliders,” and talked tech with smart folks on a Sand Hill Road veranda while the sun set and the fog rolled in over the Palo Alto Hills. Then I drove up to Hillsborough and watched The Rise Of Planet of The Apes–a current release–in a 3D surround-sound theatre at a tech-mogul friend’s house. (How cool is that?)
Third, and most important, because life isn’t safe. You can’t eliminate risk. You never know what will happen. And you can’t live your life in the fetal position.
I got a nice reminder of this this morning, when I arrived home after taking the red-eye in from San Francisco. I’d spent one of the hours leading up to the flight eating in a burrito restaurant I used to eat at 21 years ago when I was an under-employed writer living in the Mission District. And that coming-full-circle experience, combined with the upcoming flight (would this be it? The End?), had led to some existential reminiscing on Twitter.
But the flight was fine.
And when I opened the door of my house this morning, bleary-eyed, I got the real surprise: A huge section of the plaster ceiling in our living room had come crashing down on our couch–the same couch I might well have been sitting on had I not been flying in from San Francisco.
I work on that couch for about six hours a day (before and after the office). My family watches TV and movies on that couch for several more hours a day. Collectively, we spend as much time on that couch as we do in bed. It’s hard to imagine a “safer” place.The ceiling over that couch also isn’t (wasn’t) garden-variety sheet rock. It was 100+ year-old plaster moldings.
As I discovered when I began to pick up the mess, big chunks of plaster dropped from a height of 10 feet have approximately the same heft and aerodynamic qualities as bricks.
Would I have been killed if I’d been sitting there safe on my arse when the plaster fell?
But I might have been knocked silly.
And, infinitely worse, my kids might have been sitting there. And their heads are smaller and more fragile than mine.
So I was glad I hadn’t surrendered to fear and crawled into the fetal position on that couch to avoid flying to San Francisco and doing all the other things I’m afraid to do in life (failing, getting old, screwing up, losing friends and family, etc…). And I was glad that I hadn’t become so paralysed with fear of losing the people I love that I’d prevented them from living and made them sit there “safe” on that couch.
Life can be scary, but you can’t make it safe. So there’s only one answer:
Get out there and live.