Sunday, June 08, 2008

Cheese and Crackers, So Civilized

First off, I get to La Guardia and the security twit throws away my Colorado snow globe. Fascist. He was a real jerk about it too. He even mocked my liquids in tiny bottles, insisting that they had to be in the original bottle. Okay, whose rule is that? That is the first and only time I've heard that you can't put conditioner in a smaller, less than 3.4 ounce container because the container is not the one you bought it in. On top of everything else I have to deal with when I travel, now TSA agents are making up new, capricious rules. If this is a real rule, why isn't it on the website? If it’s not on the website it’s clearly not a real rule.

La Guardia is kind of a lame airport. All airports are lame, but La Guardia is a lot like New York itself- crowded, claustrophobic, impossible to get far enough away from jerks and the food is about on the same level as street vendor food. I was hanging around the terminal waiting for my flight to start boarding around noon and I hadn't eaten all day. The safest thing I could find was this hot dog pig in a blanket thing. This is not really safe for me because it had bread around it. I am either gluten-intolerant or I have celiac disease, either way my abdomen blows up like the blueberry girl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I eat bread or anything else with wheat or wheat flour in it. I am also dairy intolerant (cheese, milk, sour cream, yogurt, and butter are all out). This makes it difficult to find something to eat with any substance in certain places, places such as airports, sports arenas, and, well, restaurants. I live in a sorry state of dependence on the overpriced yuppie blackmail of Whole Foods as my main source of gluten and dairy-free foods. When I run out of the special Kristina-friendly goodies I bring with me when I travel, I am in dire straits. The forbidden food cheating and accompanying stomach pain began in La Guardia.

I was flying to Seattle with a layover in Chicago. (Those of you who are road warriors are probably already anticipating the O'Hare debacle.) The actual flight from La Guardia was fine. When I got to Chicago I had about an hour until my flight to Seattle, so I speed walked from the far end of one of O'Hare's octopus arms to the far end of another, only stopping to pick up a colorful Chicago snow globe (ooo, pretty) and experience O'Hare's state of the art toilets. (They have electronic seat covers.) I also called my friend in Seattle to tell her everything was okay so far, big stress on the so far.

Traveling really stresses me out. There are so many opportunities for something to go wrong- get detained going through security, lose a bag, get there late, argue with some insane airline stooge... I could go on and on. I know that most people are not crazy about airline travel these days, but for me traveling requires a lot of PTSD symptom management. I have a very overactive fight or flight response, so seemingly little things can cause me to go into full-on panic mode. The other day I was in a bathroom stall that didn't lock properly, and someone started to walk in on me. I was startled, which for me meant that my heart attempted to force its way out of my chest to freedom, sweet freedom. I ran out of the bathroom and attempted to put up a normal front while hyperventilating, my heart settling on the goal of beating as fast as it possibly could for as long as it possibly could rather than actually breaking through my rib cage. Thank you, heart! Much better than the feeling that my internal organs were hell-bent on abandoning my physical structure, I thought as I sat on my hands to hide the violent shaking. All that in response to an unexpected and accidental violation of my privacy. Just another day in Kristina World. It only gets worse on the actual airplane. Have you ever thought about how trapped you are on an airplane? I generally avoid talking to the people I'm sitting next to because I have no idea if they are "safe". Who knows what kind of a psycho could be "accidentally" brushing my shoulder as he fiddles with his seatbelt. Thank god for my iPod's ability to discourage friendly banter.

I manage all this anxiety with "self-talk" and by diverting my attention with semi-brainless activities. I tell myself that the flight will be over soon, everything will be okay, nothing will go wrong, and I distract myself with the Sudoku puzzles in the in-flight magazines, NPR podcasts, and by watching DVDs on my laptop. My boss and some of my former co-workers (workaholic auditors) have given me the impression that they are highly productive while on airplanes. I don't know that I believe them, but that's definitely not me. Moving numbers around in spreadsheets and writing action-packed, brilliantly convincing memos requires a level of attention that I need to direct towards PTSD management. It's almost like meditating, and if I lose concentration on maintaining my calm, Zen-like state of relaxation I start having flashbacks. The flashbacks have nothing to do with how freaky my seatmate may or may not be. They just have to do with how anxious I am, and their ability to break into my conscious mind and take over when I'm stressed. Accounting and flashback don't go so well together.

I brought a bunch of Doctor Who DVDs with me. My computer only lasts a couple hours when it’s not plugged in (i.e. on the plane), so I was trying to meter out my time so I could watch while trapped on the plane. Doctor Who totally pulls me in, so it’s an excellent diversion, especially wearing headphones and in the soothing dimness of the plane. I have been impressed with how imaginative this new series is, and some of them have such great, dark atmospheres. I was watching season two, which includes the episodes "The Impossible Planet" and "The Satan Pit". Dark, atmospheric, engaging, relaxing. (The picture above is from the 4th season, though. Donna is about to travel back in time, sans the Doctor. Great episode.)

Okay, psyching myself out for the flight from Chicago to Seattle. I can't wait to get to Seattle. I'm staying with my friends there and sleeping in the bed I stayed in right before I drove down to L.A. I can't wait to see them, and my friend Juliana who is picking me up from the airport. I've got an aisle seat, and my seatmate seems nice. I even chat with him a little. The seatmates across from me are chatting pleasantly as well. I'm relaxed as we coast away from the gate, excited as we build up speed on the runway, and then, the roar of the engines suddenly drops off, and the plane starts to slow. We all look at each other quizzically. The plane cruises into a right turn, and we're almost back to the gate before a voice crackles on the intercom- "Sorry folks, we had a warning light come on. It's for a door, and we think it's just a malfunction in the wiring of the warning system, not the door. We're going to have the ground crew check it out, though, just to be safe. It should only be about a half hour, and we'll try again. Everyone sit tight."

There was an audible moan in the cabin. I felt my consciousness slip back, like a person sliding into water. I held my head above water by looking around the airplane and thinking dispassionately about the other people on the flight. There was a little boy, a toddler who was already starting to whimper in front of me. A baby gurgled behind me. The man beside me looks at me with a friendly shrug. I decide to attempt to be somewhat productive, getting out my CPA ethics book. I've already got past the tax chapter so the reading is not so dense. A half hours goes by, then another, and another. In the absence of any information from the crew, people started asking the people in the window seats if they could see what the ground crew was doing. Yes, they confirmed, there were people working on the outside of the plane, but they couldn't see what they were doing. I kept reading my book, but listened for information.

Finally a flight attendant came on the intercom- "We've had some requests to get off the plane. The problem is, if we let you de-plane, it will take time for us to board again, and we want to leave as soon as we're cleared by maintenance. Please be patient, it should only be another half hour." The toddler started to howl, as if he understood exactly what the flight attendant had said and didn't believe him, like the rest of us, "I want to get offfff; I want to get offfffff." I couple people chuckled, and someone said, "I know exactly how he feels."

I am really, really glad I was on a flight to Seattle. People around me were joking around about how they needed to start bringing us free drinks, and even about how they were going to miss their connecting flights to Alaska and Portland, Oregon. Joking, like in a, well, there's nothing we can do, so might as well make the best of a bad situation by commiserating with our seatmates, kind of way. If I was trapped on a flight full of pissed off, stressed out people, it would have been sheer hell for me. As someone who is really affected by other people's moods, someone who compulsively tries to cheer up anyone in a bad mood, I would have felt not only deeply claustrophobic, but emotionally assaulted if I was trapped for hours with angry people. Like, say, New Yorkers.

I was also deeply grateful that I was sitting in an aisle seat, so I could go to the bathroom whenever I wanted. My bladder is the size of a pea, a really small pea, and it helped to walk around a little. On one of my trips to the back of the plane, I overheard a passenger politely explaining to a flight attendant that he was getting hungry, and couldn't they please give us all some of that food that they normally make you pay for these days? She said they didn't have enough for the entire plane, but 15 minutes later they were passing out snack boxes of cheese and crackers.

Yes, both cheese and crackers, especially the crackers, are not Kristina-friendly foods. Combined, even worse. Listen, I am only human. A hungry human. I don't know what kind of willpower it would have taken for me to turn down the free food that had just been handed to me (with a smile), but I didn't have it. Who knows how long I could be stuck on this plane. Boy did the cheese and crackers taste good, and boy did I start paying for it almost immediately. (See the blowing up like a blueberry section above.) Shortly after the bloating and pain began, we were told that the plane was ready for takeoff. I was relieved that in a mere four and a half hours I would be on my way to sleeping in that bed. A non-hotel bed with a regular bedspread instead of those plastic-y polyester monstrosities that feel like a shower curtain, and without the covers being tucked into the sides so tightly that I feel like I'm being restrained by the sheets.

That is, I was so relieved and happy until we taxied to the runway and the exact same thing happened again. The collective groan on the plane was the most vocal protest so far. A few minutes later, the guy comes on the intercom again, and tells us again that the same light went on and we're going back to the gate. By this time my iPod had ran out of juice, so I broke out the computer and DVDs and blanked out. I've never concentrated on Doctor Who so much in my life. I didn't even notice that the plane hadn't made it back to the gate until the intercom explained that there was another plane there we had to wait for. An hour later we finally docked, and a couple people bolted down the aisle and off the plane. Almost everyone else stood up, perhaps indicating a non-violent protest was occurring. The man on the intercom took notice- "Folks, we're going to let you get off the plane if you want, and we'll give you all vouchers so you can get something to eat. You'll have to check back in to get back on the plane. We'll let you know when we're ready, so stay near the gate. We want to leave as soon as we can."

I grabbed my computer, barely able to stop myself from running down the aisle, throwing people who were in my way into the seats. (I fantasized about it.) Instead, I shuffled towards the door, moaning softly and patting my belly. I used my voucher to get the biggest bottle of water I could find, because the whole concept of eating food, or even drinking anything besides water, was not something I could handle at that time. I'd rather chew on the plastic bottle than try to ingest anything that would require the cooperation of my digestive system. I took my water and my computer and curled up in a corner with a power outlet so I could try to recharge my computer enough to watch the rest of the two part episode I had been sucked into. (I know it's not very civilized of me, but I would much rather sit on the floor than in those seats at the airport. They are so uncomfortable; it's like they were made to piss off my lower back.) From my vantage point in the corner I was also able to stare pathetically at a group of people whose plane had successfully arrived at the gate next door. Wow, I thought, those people look so happy to be done with their air travel, and I am so sad to be stuck in Chicago, which I'm sure is a nice town but I can't wait to get away from here.

In conclusion, yes, I did make it to Seattle, and only five and a half hours after I was suppose to. Eventually, my abdomen returned to a somewhat normal size. And yes, I will never schedule a flight through Chicago O'Hare again.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

New York- the big apple or stinkville?

I think I may have cursed myself with my prayer to the "Great Travel Goddess". I did get everywhere I was trying to go, and I did get a Chicago snow globe, but that was about all that went right. On the way to New York, I was sitting next to a guy with stunningly bad gas. I spent most of the flight with my face buried in the sleeve of my sweatshirt.

The first thing I noticed coming into NY was that it was Fleet Week, which made me laugh. I remember watching David Letterman in high school when his audience was full of sailors, and there was a Fleet Week episode of Sex in the City. The hotel that I stay at is in midtown right next to Times Square, which just adds to the surreal feeling that I'm on the set of a television show. (This is sort of ironic, I suppose, since I don’t feel like I’m on a movie set when I’m in L.A.)

I got to the hotel after 10 pm, which was when they stopped doing room service. The woman at the front desk assured me that the Irish pub next door was still serving food and it was "really good for pub food" so I dropped off my luggage in my art deco room (black and white all over with surrealist prints on the wall) and walked over there. No big surprise, the pub was full of sailors, but they were concentrated at the back with the handful of women who were there (about four sailors per woman). I sat at the big wooden bar and ordered fish and chips to go and a shot of tequila to enjoy while I waited for the food. As I settled in, my eyes were drawn to the NBA playoffs on TV.

A few minutes later, I looked around and, out of nowhere it seemed, I had a guy sitting on either side of me. The second they got my attention they were both hitting me with a barrage of questions- where was I from, what was I drinking, could they buy me another (no), what was I doing in New York... Of course, they wanted to tell me all about themselves too. One guy was in his twenties from Israel having his first New York adventure, and the other was in his forties from Norway on a business trip. It wasn't the first time I've had men 10+ years younger than me and 10+ years older than me competing for my attention. It's a little disconcerting because 1) I'm trying to keep up with two conversations at once happening on either side of me, 2) I'm not very interested in either and just want to be left alone, and 3) the whole time my brain is frantically thinking "how do I get out of this?" I start to get this feeling that the competitive spirit has taken over for these guys, and I'm stuck in the middle of a grudge match between the desperate yearnings for female attention of The Youngster vs. Middle Aged Man. (It was just like the Stanley Cup final this year between the upstart Pittsburgh Penguins and the highly seasoned Detroit Red Wings, only way less entertaining and no one won.) And what do you want to bet that Middle Aged Man is married, and The Youngster has a girlfriend back in Israel?

When I finally got my food and was getting ready to leave, the youngster bitterly and sarcastically says to me, "It must be great for you to have two men trying to get your attention and you're not even interested." Oh yeah, it's great.

Wait, what is supposed to be so great about it for me? I'm the only woman in this bar who's not being monopolized by sailors, and these two guy want to get laid while they're in New York so of course they come sit next to me because there's no sailors around me to compete with. It has nothing to do with me- my intelligence, my personality, my creativity, or my Je ne sais quoi. I could be any moderately attractive woman (or not) and they'd be just as interested, and that's supposed to be flattering to me? That I'm fuckable. Wow. I am so flattered that the indiscriminate attention of men has landed on me. As a woman, my life purpose is fulfilled since random men who don't know me find me attractive, or at least, not so unattractive as to turn them off sex. How dare I not be interested?

I know New York is supposed to be such an amazing place, and it is, but the level is discourse here often leaves something to be desired. Case in point, my first conversation with a New Yorker on the street:

Guy in a suit- "Hey, stop and talk to me for a minute."
Me- "No."
Guy in a suit- "You're an asshole."
Me- "Fuck you."

Every time I visit my company's New York office, I get into the Los Angeles vs. New York debate with one of the guys here. Actually, the debate usually consists of him ranking on L.A. people, that "they" (he leaves me out of this characterization, at least while talking to me) are shallow and silly and lame. At the same time, he acknowledges that his argument is very male-centric. As he says, there are so many women is New York that a man can dump a woman for the smallest thing he doesn't like because he can replace her so quickly. This trip he also told me that men in New York consider it to be their prerogative to date multiple women at once. I responded that there was nothing wrong with that, as long as the women were free to date other men.

"No" he says, "the men expect that the women they're dating are only dating him." I made a face at him, and he says, "Yeah, I never really thought about how unfair that is. I guess it's not so great to be a woman in New York. But I stopped acting like that and got married, so I'm not one of those guys."

I love it when someone talks themselves out of their own argument without me having to say anything. I guess if women are used to dealing with assholes, it doesn’t take much effort to be a “nice guy” in comparison. It’s the power of low expectations and a society that accepts the idea of treating women as commodities, like that cell phone that has all the features and the look that you love when you get it, but grows tiresome in the face of newer, different models.

Even the signs in New York are argumentative:
No Standing
No Bus Layovers
No Honking
No Parking
No Photos
No Videos

That said, I forgive New York because of Times Square, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and a store that appeared in between my hotel and our New York offices since the last time I visited- the NHL store (above). Of course, I was thrilled just to see the store, but slightly less thrilled by the prices (no t-shirts or other clothes below $55, hardly anything below $85. Ouch. Do hockey fans really pay these prices for crap other than jerseys? I guess if you're willing to pay $250 for a jersey, maybe.) I would have been totally disappointed if it wasn't for this shocking find-

I was shocked, anyway. New York doesn't strike me as a Trevor Linden town, which is driven home by the commercials I see on the NHL channel advertising a commemorative video celebrating the New York Ranger's victory over the Vancouver Canucks in the 1994 Stanley Cup finals. (Grrrr. I have to change the channel when that comes on; it drives me so crazy.)

You can't really see all the detail in the picture, but it’s amazing. (Even more amazing, it was one of the cheapest things in the store at $14.99.) This super-cool action figure comes with a tiny little puck that has the NHL logo on it, but what really impresses me is that the handle and blade of the stick has "tape" on it. Stunning.

In my next blog post, I come up against the real wrath of air travel.