Friday, June 10, 2005

Flying Out of Chicago

I left Chicago this evening, leaving the Sofitel at 5:00 p.m. to return the Hertz and catch a 7:00 p.m. flight. Upon entering the terminal, I was mildly disappointed to see that my flight was delayed until 7:30, and even more disturbed to see that the prior flight to Atlanta had been cancelled altogether. Like falling dominoes, would one flight after another be delayed, then cancelled? Arlene, the first tropical storm of the season, was already heading for the Gulf Coast - I wondered if this could be the cause of the delayed and cancelled flights.

I made my way to the gate and waited. By 6:45 p.m., there still wasn't a plane at the gate, and shortly after the gate agent got on the intercom and announced that the flight hadn't even left Cincinnati yet - for some reason, it had pulled away from the gate but was still on the tarmac somewhere, waiting to take off. "Probably the weather," I thought.

It was a two-hour flight, and I'd lose an hour due to the time-zone change, so if we left at 7:30, I wouldn't arrive in Atlanta until 10:30 p.m. After deplaning, taking the parking shuttle to the off-site lot at which I had parked, and driving home, I figured I'd be lucky to get to my house by midnight. The problem was that I had to get up Saturday morning to lead a hike on the Appalachian Trial with a group from the Zen Center. I would have to get home, go straight to bed, and then get up after six hours' sleep to lead the hike.

No problem. That was do-able.

The problem, however, was that the gate agent then announced that her best estimate was now for a 7:50 departure. Uh oh, the slippery slope - a 7:00 o'clock departure becomes 7:30 p.m., then becomes 7:50, and then becomes . . . who knows? At what hour would I finally get home? What if the flight gets delayed until tomorrow and I couldn't make the hike? I'm the trip leader!

Anxieties. I was reminded of a flight back from the Bahamas in 1995 or '96. It was a Saturday, and I was flying home with my then-girlfriend, a red-headed flight attendant named Beth. We had decided to just pay for the low-cost airfare from Freeport to Atlanta rather than try to arrange to fly standby on her employee benefit, but after we got to the airport and cleared security, we found out that a.) there was no plane at the gate and b.) there was no ticket agent or any other airline employee to tell us when we might expect a plane to arrive. There were, however, ample seats, a duty-free shop, a newsstand and even a bar. But the security guards would not let us back to the terminal after we had cleared security, so we couldn't get any flight information from the ticket counter, and we had no choice but to passively wait for someone to show up or something to happen.

Other passengers slowly trickled in, and their reactions to realization of the flightless situation ranged from mild perplexity to outright indignation. Many had connecting flights they were concerned about missing. Since there was no one to complain to, many took to just talking out loud to themselves,"Well, I've never seen such a shoddy operation," and "My elderly mother is expecting to meet me at the airport. I've got to let her know I won't be there," and "No wonder Bahamas is still a third-world country!"

Mind you, this was in the years before widespread availability of cell phones, and of cell phone coverage for those who had them. However, Beth, being a flight attendant, knew that there would be a telephone in the bridge behind the gate, and found the door to be unlocked, so she used the phone to let the ticket counter know that folks were getting upset and to get some updated information on when we might expect to see a flight. However, she was rudely told that she had no business to make an unauthorized call from that phone and to hang up immediately. Someone will be along soon, she was told, and we were all to just be patient. A ticket agent did finally show up, but only to lock the door to the bridge and its phone, and walked off huffily without answering any questions.

Now, there was no reason at all for us to get anxious. Beth and I had all day to get home, no connecting flights and nothing planned for that day or the following Sunday. There was a newsstand to browse through, a full bar, and plenty of available seating. But I didn't like to have to passively wait, and felt an urgent need to do something. I was a man, damn it, and I needed to take charge. Beth knew about the telephone in the bridge, good for her, but now I felt it was my turn. Perhaps, I thought, I could negotiate with the security guards and leave the gate area and find out at ticketing what was going on. But the more I tried to convince the guards to let me out, the firmer their resolve became to keep everyone inside. I walked back to Beth, defeated and fuming.

She had escaped into a book. I stood over her, arms folded, and surveyed the crowd. Many were clearly upset, talking loudly to each other (or to themselves), pacing, and berating the bartender and newsstand cashier for not having the answers to their questions.

But then I noticed two other passengers. They were a younger couple, sitting quietly by themselves, he, like Beth, reading a book and she resting her head on his shoulder and gazing into space. Their whole demeanor and body language suggested that they did not find the situation all that unpleasant, and that they were content to make do with it as best they could. They seemed like a calm island in the midst of a swirling sea of anxiety all around them.

It's then that I realized that all of my suffering and stress were due to my own reaction to the situation. After all, I didn't have to be anywhere. I had plenty to read with me, and if I wanted something new, there was a newsstand. I was with my girlfriend, the bar was open, and hell, we were in the Bahamas, albeit not necessarily at our selected location. It was only my own ego, perhaps a little bit challenged by Beth's finding the telephone first, and desire to be in charge that were making the delay so unpleasant.

Obviously, sooner or later, a plane did pull up to the gate and we all got home. All told, Beth and I got back to our apartment in Atlanta about an hour later than our itinerary anticipated, but still in the mid-afternoon.

Years later, when I heard the Buddha's teaching that we create our own suffering, and that the cause of this suffering is our own desire and attachment, my mind came back to that gate in Freeport, GBI, and I immediately understood what he had meant.

But meanwhile, back in the here and now of Friday-night Chicago, I was once again passively waiting for a plane, now somewhere on the ground in the Cincinnati Airport, to arrive in Chicago and take me home to Atlanta. My only real concern was how much sleep I would get before the next morning's hike, but whatever happens will happen. There was no need to upset myself over things I could not control. So I sat down, opened my book, ironically titled "An End to Suffering - The Buddha in the World," and passed the time as best I could.

The plane arrived at the gate at about 7:30. After a slow boarding, due to all of the standby passengers from the earlier, cancelled flight, we were delayed on the tarmac by a passing rain shower, but finally took off at about 8:30. However, despite this late departure, I still pulled up to my house at just about exactly midnight, just as I had predicted.

No comments: