Any travel, really. I can easily be derailed somewhere in the middle of my walk from the couch to the fridge. But in particular, air travel is a constant and merciless pain in my ass.
With me living in New York, my parents living in Florida, the rest of my family and old friends living back home in Ohio, Girlfriend living in Colorado for the first months of our relationship (and her family and friends still there now that she's moved), and everything in between, it's safe to say that I have to do a lot of flying. And I always have, ever since I was a wee lad.
I'm told I was somewhat of a... problematic child. I know, I know, it's hard to imagine your beloved author being anything short of a perfect child and a model citizen, but apparently I was kind of a drag as a kid. Supposedly, I was fussy (I like to think I was just full of energy and verve), diabolical in my crib escapes (just the beginnings of a brilliant mind in action), and very quick to cry (I'd say that was just my passion revealing itself at an early age).
On their own, these are annoyances for any parent that can be excused because, after all, they're coming from the light of your life, the fruit of your loins, and all that. But put together, and placed inside of a confided metal tube with wings for multiple flights a year... That's less than fun. In fairness, I didn't force my parents to take us on tons of vacations growing up, so I can hardly be blamed for screaming or running in the aisles on an airplane. And I certainly can't be held accountable for my first in-flight experience consisting of vomiting all over my mother and partially into the air sickness bag.
You would think that my childhood troubles with flying, much like with potty training, would improve or even completely disappear with aging. But not mine. Mine only seemed to grow more diabolical, mutating into ever-frustrating and patience-trying masses of bad luck.
For instance, I wouldn't call myself a superhero, per se, but I do most definitely have the ability to control the weather, as massive, roiling storm fronts tend to follow me wherever I happen to fly and keep me and my fellow travelers grounded with their rainy/snowy torrents.
(By the way, I realize that the above map isn't geographically accurate, in that America is not an island floating in the ocean, and that Mexico and Canada begin at our southern and northern borders, respectively. But in the interest of not having the drawing look any worse than it already does, I excluded our brothers to the north and south. Besides, there's a giant, evil cartoon cloud chasing a plane in that picture, so realism wasn't exactly my aspiration. Regardless, to my potential Mexican and Canadian readers, I apologize. Lo siento. Soo-ry.)
Over the course of the last 6 years, I have not once had both my departing and returning flights leave and/or land on time. Not once. That amounts to at least 40 flights over that stretch. When I fly home for the holidays, my family doesn't even plan for me to be there at the start of festivities, and usually have pools where everyone tries to guess when I'll actually land. (My family has a gambling problem.)
Cancellations and delays just became the norm for me. I would purposefully schedule early flights so that when I was inevitably delayed, it wouldn't be too much of a burden for whoever had to eventually pick me up. Once, while about to fly to D.C. for a conference with a few co-workers, our flight was canceled and we couldn't get any other flights out that day. (We had to drive all the way from Columbus, Ohio, to D.C. just so we could make our own conference on time.) When it was announced, I stood there in silent shame, knowing that my curse had spread to others and was causing them anguish that I knew all too well. I was like that carrier monkey at the beginning of Outbreak.
But the worst of all happened back in January of 2007. I'd just been down to Florida to visit my parents for New Years, and upon hugging them goodbye and stepping foot into the Orlando airport, I looked at the Departure board and saw those words that have become oh so familiar to me:
At this point, I wasn't even fazed. The fact that there were storms in Atlanta (worst airport and city EVER, by the way) that caused my flight to Ohio to be canceled rolled off of me like water off of... well, anything, because that's what water does. (Why should we give ducks such a prominent place in the simile?)
I walked over to the ticket kiosk to go through the usual rigmarole, figuring that I'd be able to at least get home late that night so I could go to work the next morning. I approached the desk and the kiosk lady flashed a smile as big as a Hummer grill at me, clacking away at her screen as I explained where I needed to go. She mentioned something about storms around the country doing a lot of damage to flight schedules, but that I would be able to fly into Philadelphia that night and catch a connecting flight there back to Ohio. I was skeptical.
I stared into her intensely grinning maw, knowing that somewhere behind those pearly whites lay an evil creature that secretly lurks within all airport kiosk workers. I figured I'd try to reason with her on a human level.
"Now, with all of these flights being delayed, I'm not going to get stranded in Philly, am I?" I asked, warily. "They're sending flights out? No delays or whatever that will keep me there? Because I have nowhere to go if I get stuck there."
"Let me seeeeeeeeeeee..." she responded, not once looking up from her monitor while she clickety-clacked away on her keyboard and held my future in her crisply manicured hands.
"Nope, looks good."
And with that, I took my ticket and made my way to the gate. And then into the plane. And then out onto the tarmac. And then... nothing. We sat, not moving. Don't panic, I thought. Things like this happen all the time. You always wind up waiting a little bit before take-off. You'll get to Philly in time for your connecting flight.
After another 30 minutes or so, the captain came on over the intercom:
"Uhhhh, ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Seems like we've got a bit of trouble with our reserve electrical system which (some sort of explanation that I didn't hear because my brain was starting to melt). Sooo we're just going to sit tight while our techs work the problem out, and as soon as we get our departure instructions from the flight deck we'll be on our way to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, we can't go back to the gate and let anyone out, so just sit tight."
I could practically hear the plane mocking me through my double-pane window.
Once we finally taxied out onto the runway, I did a bit of quick math in my head and figured that by the time we landed and deplaned, I would have a good five minutes to get to the gate to catch my connecting flight. No problem, I thought. Miles have been run in four, so I can easily pull this off.
We landed, and even though I had everything gathered on my lap so that I could make a glorious sprint to the door a mere six rows in front of me, I of course was stopped short when the heavyset woman in 4B popped into the aisle and started arguing with her brood of kids about who would get their bag from the overhead bin first.
Somehow I got by her in the jetway and sprinted through the halls of Philly's airport. I was like Usain Bolt, except slower. And not Jamaican. Or black. Or famous. Maybe I was more like Seabiscuit... Regardless, I ran practically across the length of the airport and rounded the corner into where my departure gate was.
Just in time to see the plane pulling away from the gate.
There are few feelings of disappointment greater in all the world.
Dejected, and realizing that as the sun had already set, I would be lucky to get home that night, I made the futile walk over to the airline's customer service station and inquired about getting another flight home. But, as I could've foretold, there was nothing else going out that night. Without offering me a hotel to stay at to compensate for their technical problems (silly of me to think that might happen), I was told that I could take the 8:00 am flight the next morning.
With no other choices available to me, I went to the airport bar to grab dinner and drinks and proceeded to watch my beloved Michigan Wolverines get pummeled by USC in the Rose Bowl.
I walked away (missing an amazing Boise State-Oklahoma game in the process) and settled into a seat at the next morning's gate, hoping to grab a few hours of shut-eye when the terminal emptied out.
I should say at this point that even though Christmas had already passed, the airport was playing a steady stream of Christmas carols, which, after the 25th or so song on the list, would repeat, on a loop. For whatever reason, these songs, which I normally love, were being blasted out of the speakers, probably because of the din of an airport full of people that it normally has to compete with. I figured they'd just shut it down sometime after midnight, when the flights were done for the day and the terminal was closed.
It wasn't bad at first; I sort of bobbed my head along to the ones I like, as much as you can bob your head to a 75-year-old holiday tune, at least. But after a while, when the clock started to drift well past midnight, I realized that it wasn't going to stop. Even though I was eventually literally the only person in the terminal, the carols continued blaring on and the lights all stayed on at full shine.
I consider myself a pretty hearty sleeper, so I ignored it, and gathered up a few spare airplane blankets and settled down for the night, using my carry-on bag as a makeshift pillow. But the music... The music would not stop.
1:00 am comes and goes. Still the music goes on.
2:00 am. Burl Ives tells me for the 19th time how holly, and also jolly, Christmas is.
3:00 am. I hate Alvin, the Chipmunks, and his hula hoop.
4:00 am. If I ever find Bing Crosby, I will beat him to death with a candy cane.
5:00 am. This is what insanity feels like. Cold and lonely, like the grip of Frosty the Snowman.
I'd been up for almost 24 hours at that point, and felt like I'd never fall asleep. The music went on and on and whenever I felt like I was about to nod off, BAM, another rousing chorus about snow and cheer and all that bullshit would start up again.
Somewhere around the realm of 6:00 am I managed to fall into a fitful state of sleep.
I dreamed of a land where I am the only air traveler in the world; where my seats are always in first class, and first class is just called "Ryan" because everyone knows you can't spell "class" without "Ryan," unless you're going by a dictionary; where the insides of airplanes are lined with silken sheet-clad mattresses and buxom supermodels feed me Sour Patch Kids and beer (I promise you that's a good combination); where the word "delay" is never uttered, unless someone asks, "What does 'delay' mean?" and I answer, "Why, kind sir, I believe you're speaking gibberish. I've never heard of this 'dee-laigh' that you speak of" and we both laugh and laugh until our top hats and monocles fall off.
Imagine my annoyance, then, when I was pulled out of my peaceful slumber when I felt someone licking me. I thought perhaps I was still dreaming and one of the aforementioned buxom, Sour Patch Kid and beer-wielding supermodel flight attendants had decided to take things to second base. Slowly I opened an eye and saw what appeared to be a very dog-like face staring directly at me.
I felt certain that I'd either descended into madness or that during the short time I'd been dozing, an alien race of dog-men had taken over and now ruled the day. I was ready to surrender and welcome our new dog-man overlords when clarity began to enter my sleep-deprived brain and I realized that some early traveler's chihuahua had wandered free of its carrier and was obtrusively licking my face.
And of course, through it all, the never-ending funeral march of the Christmas music carried on in the background.
So I sat there for a bit while some Latino mutt loved up on me, trying to decide whether it was worth the effort to try and go back to the wonderful land of sleep, but the steady increase of gathering passengers basically made that impossible, so I got up to go check in for my 8:00 am flight out so I could finally get home, pass out in my own bed, and put this nightmare behind me.
I walked up to the counter, presented my ticket, and heard words as smooth as the chorus of "Silent Night":
"I'm sorry, sir, but your flight's been delayed until 10:00 am."
It's the most wonderful time of the yeeeeeear...