Twirling towards freedom

Crying high

For the past couple of years, I’ve been steadily racking up frequent flyer points, jetting around Australia and the world to host literary salons. I’ve memorised my own version of the packing list Joan Didion had taped to her closet door throughout the ’70s; I can pack an overnight bag in ten minutes, although instead of a typewriter I carry a laptop, and instead of bourbon and cigarettes I travel with melatonin and an asthma puffer.

I spend a lot of my time on planes observing fellow passengers. This year I have noted heightened aviation anxiety. The day after MH370 disappeared, I was on a plane set to fly from North Carolina to Chicago. I’d fallen asleep as soon as I buckled my seatbelt, and awoke an hour later to find that we were still on the tarmac. When the announcement came that there was a problem with the engine, half the passengers stampeded towards the exit door, demanding that the airline staff find them a seat on another plane. Understandable, really.

On recent trips I’ve noticed a number of passengers buckling under the weight of anxiety: it’s been less leisurely commuting while abusing the drinks privileges, more white knuckles on armrests and travellers unexpectedly bursting into tears mid-flight. But perhaps this isn’t all about planes inexplicably disappearing from the skies.

Recently, a friend confessed on social media to having cried while watching Are We Officially Dating? on a plane. As more and more people commented, the confessions piled up. Here were a dozen or so young professionals freely admitting to weeping on planes during the worst kind of movies: Rugrats in Paris and Katy Perry: Part of Me. Earlier this year, I found myself crying uncontrollably during a Rachel McAdams movie about time travel. When Bill Nighy’s mastery at phoning it in – by way of scrunching up his face and shrugging – became all too much, I was reduced to a tearful mess.

Three years ago, Virgin Atlantic conducted a survey asking passengers to describe their airborne emotional experiences. A majority of passengers recorded “heightened emotions” while flying, and, most notably, 41% of men said that they had “buried themselves in blankets to hide tears in their eyes from other passengers”. After running the survey, Virgin Atlantic began adding warnings to films like Toy Story 3 – the following contains scenes that may cause viewers of a sensitive disposition to cry, weep, sob, wail, howl, bawl, bleat or mewl.

I’m not sure what it is exactly – the change in air pressure, the inescapable discomfort of trying to jam my six-foot frame into a cramped row shared with strangers, the fact that I am encouraged to drink wine with my 11 a.m. lunch? – but I find air travel turns me into a baby. It’s actually quite infantilising to fly long haul, in any case: it is a licence to turn off one’s brain, righteously ignore a squalling inbox and other real-life pressures, and become completely dependent on the flight staff, who at the press of a button will bring baby her bottle and something to eat.

In that space, in which one feels the helplessness of hurtling through the void in an impossible metal tube, anxieties creep in. The logical part of me knows that air travel is safer than just about any other activity – driving a car, riding a bicycle, and it’s certainly safer than eating the food served on a Qantas flight – but logic has little to do with it.

My life is comfortable and free of the terrors and obscenities that crowd the newspapers, and which we, to preserve our sanity, largely ignore on an emotional level. Up in the air, though, you can’t help but confront the reality that, albeit rarely, calamity will strike. Planes will drop from the sky; bombs will rain down on civilians; life – lives – will be snuffed out.

So maybe, rather than turn my attention to the horrors occurring on the ground below, for the duration of a flight, I’ll watch Toy Story yet again, and hold back tears as Woody and Buzz fight the good fight.

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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