Mother Nature does own a furnace in Northern California, and on occasion She likes to crank it up as high as it will go, to make sure it’s in good working order. Sweltering August days can catch us off-guard, here in the land of perpetual outdoor air-conditioning. Today, as weatherfolk like to exclaim, was a scorcher. And, of all places, I was heading to my daughter’s soccer tournament, where I grumpily predicted being salty with sweat and continually on the move, stalking shade, partnered with my collapsible folding spectator’s chair.
My dread over my impending discomfort became my shame. After all, my girl was the one who would be in constant motion today, churning up dust in the heat like part of a galloping herd of adolescent mustangs out on the field. While I sat and observed, expending a meager amount of energy to perhaps fan myself and tip my water bottle. And maybe check my phone a few too many times, in an effort not to fall asleep in a heat coma. Shouldn’t I be more concerned about her situation? Damn Motherhood. Always crashing my Pity Party.
The team plays two games today. The first game is at the crack of dawn, which, despite me having to wake up ridiculously early on a Saturday, is actually good, because it won’t be as hot. But of course, the second game is scheduled almost five hours later. It’s too far and traffic is too gnarly to drive home and back, so we’re stuck at the tournament all freaking hot day long. I am beginning to wish quietly to myself that I had never encouraged my three daughters in sports, ever. I know it’s just the heat making me think this way, but I’m starting to get irritated, thinking of all the glorious Northern California days we’ve squandered. Days we could have spent frolicking at the beach or on scenic hikes, that instead I have spent planted on the sidelines of a pool or a sports field. The pie chart depicting “how I’ve spent my life” has a disproportionately large slice of the pie devoted to “spectatoring.”
This negative line of thinking progresses along the old familiar trail to the whipping post, where I lament how I never do anything, really, to improve myself, or the world around me. I feel like I majored in “perpetual observer,” with a minor in “giant consumer,” and now I’m doing nothing more than setting a subliminal example for my daughters to follow suit.
I mean, we pass the time, we feel as if we are productive because our calendars are not blank, and we’re always frazzeled, but what are we really doing? Why are my days so vanilla? Why am I already thinking of today and it’s numerous responsibilities as one more day I can check off that I’ve done nothing more than complete my motherly assignments. “Damn,” I mutter, “my scroll is getting shorter and shorter. Before long I’m not gonna have any more days to put a handy dandy check mark by, and what will I have to show for it?”
So yah, it wasn’t shaping up to be the chipperest of days. I had gotten sucked down the rabbit hole that leads to feeling inconsequential. I hate that place and, like Alice, will try almost anything to extricate myself as soon as possible. Thankfully, motherhood involves a lot of soldiering. And a lot of hacks. I would compare myself to unfortunate humans in third world countries and I would dig myself out. I would slip back into Mom mode, before anyone noticed I’d been absent. I would remind my daughter to put on more sunscreen, complete with the annoying lecture on how freckles were actually skin damage. I would weather the negative thought storm, as I’ve always done. I might feel like a footnote on a footnote on a footnote to the tenth power in the Great History of the World, but I did have three kids to raise, and I do indeed love them and care about cultivating their souls. I hoped that at least would add a paragraph to my obituary.
My daughter’s team wins their first game. The girls are exhausted, but pumped. Parents and players all go to a nearby air-conditioned restaurant and devour a hearty brunch. The team still has several hours before the next game, so they go with their coach to hang out in the shade. It’s kind of a team-bonding/resty thing, so, happily, I am relieved of any parental duties and free to do as I please for a while. Napping in my car is out, as it’s chic to sweat your ass off in a sauna at a posh spa, but not in the front seat of your Mom mobile. Conveniently the soccer fields appear to be near a paved pedestrian path, so I decide to go for a nice, pleasant power walk at high noon. I’m being very sarcastic here. But I remind myself that these temperatures are what it felt like at sunrise back on an August day in Austin, Texas, and I am, by nature of being born a Southerner, pre-wired to withstand extreme temperatures. Armed with a water bottle, off I go.
My location is Burlingame. I knew we were near the San Francisco International Airport as we frantically proceeded to our destination that morning, but we were late and I didn’t really know where I was going, and I was preoccupied cursing out my entirely-too-vague GPS, so my proximity to the airport didn’t really register with me earlier. My walking path takes me alongside the San Francisco Bay. And directly across the water from me sits one of the runways for SFO incoming flights.
If you’ve ever flown into SFO, you might have, on occasion, had a descent onto one of these airstrips I mention, which jut so very far out into the water it looks as if the pilot has grossly miscalculated the landing and you’re about to have to use your seat cushion as a floatation device.
Just as you’re wondering if those little yellow margarine tubs with oxygen tubes attached will drop from the ceiling, and why no one else around you appears to be concerned about an imminent water landing, the airstrip, suddenly, in just-in-the-nick-of-time, cinematic glory, reveals itself beneath you. I had a perfect observation point, and I felt I knew exactly what mild panic every first-time arriving passenger to San Francisco was feeling as their plane began it’s descent. I chuckled at the memory of my own.
Most likely due to the heat, another quirky thought struck me as I became mesmerized watching these massive jets land, one right after the other, one plane perfectly synchronized behind it’s predecessor, approaching in frighteningly rapid succession: this was reminiscent of a beautifully timed symphony. A symphony I would have titled something like, “Life in a Nonstop World.” Note the clever pun there with the flight analogy.
Although the weather was fair and sunny, the heat of the day created a high cloudy haze that prevented me from seeing any approaching planes until they were almost close enough to open their landing gear. I pinpointed the spot in the sky where each new plane would appear, and watched in fascination as, like a factory assembly line, a new plane “popped out” in rhythmic succession. Every 90 seconds they emerged in silence. Moments later I could hear the roar of their jet engines as the sound caught up with them as they touched ground.
“Life in a Nonstop World.” I feel like my own life, despite it’s ordinary-ness, moves at a remarkably fast pace, but apparently the whole world does too. And it took the simple act of viewing an airstrip from a distance on a hot summer’s day to pull me out of my own Private Idaho and make that fact sink in. Our modern world really, truly, does not slow down. “Where are all these planes coming from?” I wondered. The progression of arriving airliners was as regular as a heartbeat. I found it fascinating. And, almost unnerving how it never appeared to let up.
I marveled at the precision. All so perfectly timed. So meticulously directed. One dawdle, one goof and mayhem could ensue. My focus turned to the air traffic controllers and the responsibility they must have at an international hub like this one. I was overcome by the enormity of their task. Each of these planes was filled with beating hearts. There was no time for these jet directors to daydream at their desks, no time to do a little online shopping, return a quick call, enjoy a coffee or make a hair appointment. They had to remain laser focused and on point, or the beautiful transportation symphony would get all distorted mighty quick. Such responsibility suddenly floored me.
I mean, I had thought about air traffic controllers before, but only in terms of “I hope they bring my plane down safely.” Not how the barrage of arriving planes seemed endless, and how everyone’s skill sets dovetailed so seamlessly.
I wondered if the air traffic controllers were ever bored at their job. It’s human nature, once you have done something umpteen million times, to get kind of blase about it, like me and the soccer game. I hoped these guardians of our very future were the exception to the rule. I hoped they were superior human beings, who somehow ascended above boredom and urges to glance at their cell phones. And then I noted that I really never knew anyone, or knew anyone who knew anyone, who was an air traffic controller. A mystery occupation. Did they not get out much? I had no good stories and no good rumors. Nothing to base my musings on, to give my imagination any direction to fill in the blanks. They were indeed unsung heroes. A footnote on a footnote on a footnote… I’ll bet no one had ever published a “Sexy Air Traffic Controller”calendar, let alone sent them a thank you note.
Air traffic controllers, the maestros of this winged orchestra, really didn’t have any choice. They simply couldn’t allow themselves to feel bored or inconsequential. They had to show up for every single shift with the alertness and intensity someone like myself might bring to the job only on their first few days.
At the end of every shift, I hope they fist bumped for having done something important. I was filled with both admiration and envy. Every 90 seconds these nameless saviors were doing something monumental as they brought each plane safely to the runway, averting disaster. Even brain surgeons and fire fighters or Gandhi and Oprah Winfrey can’t say that. Every 90 seconds. I hoped that maybe at least once in 90 years I could do something this heroic. So heroic and yet, to look at all the approaching planes, so commonplace.
And maybe it was the heat working some tricks on my brain, but I think I had a revelation at that moment. That unending, rhythmic progression of airplanes, literally from out of the blue, led me to compare them to the challenges each and every day brings.
You know those challenges never seem to end. You can’t always see them coming and you can’t hear them, but you know, you KNOW they’re out there. Headed straight for your runway. You get one safely landed, take two breaths and the next one comes right on it’s heels. You can’t just say, “Aw screw it,” because then you are wrecking the whole symphony.
I guess this is what it means to “grow up.” We learn we must engage with our planes. We finally realize they are just going to keep coming at us, one, right after the other. We have to communicate. We learn to use our own internal radar. We must bring them down safely. It’s just what we do. And the pressure is enormous. But we build skills. We have to take care of ourselves so we can be ready for the bombardment. As parents, we try, like on the 70’s TV show Star Trek, to lock the plane in a tractor beam, if such plane involves anything to do with our children. Every single one of us has these planes coming at us that we must quickly figure out how to guide. We can’t let ourselves get bored. We can’t ignore the symphony.
So what do we do with this analogy? Our lives are like busy airports and we are the superhuman conductors that constantly hold catastrophe at bay. Sounds like a recipe for a nervous breakdown. I wish I had answers. It would make for a phenomenal essay right now if I could suddenly provide succinct solutions to life’s unrelenting barrage of issues and problems. Maybe I’ll make a cartoon out of this runway analogy, and every plane will have a different life problem as one of it’s logos. Instead of Lufthansa, one would see “Alzheimers.” Instead of Aer Lingus, one would see “Addiction” Instead of United, “Empty Nest.” And then we might see a plane with “Trump Pence, Make America Great Again” and obviously that Doomsday Machine needs no re-naming.
My point in all of this being, it’s impressively, mesmerizingly beautiful when it works. Beautiful on the outside, watching from the walking path. Beautiful that our world can be so busy, so advanced and so precise. We have come so far from cave dwellers, pilgrims and pioneers. Inside, the air traffic controllers’ tower likely looks a lot like the inside of our brain: Chaotic. Tense. An onslaught to the senses. I picture many screens tracking many planes. But all stations are alert. Prepared. Proactive: Grace Under Pressure.
I can’t say I went back to my daughter’s second soccer game a changed woman. I remained salty from the heat and still had no grand plan to redirect my life after being so moved by the orchestration of airliners. Yet it did occur to me that this day might be different from all the rest. Because you can’t “un-think” something once you’ve had a big revelation. It’s like the first time your kid looks at the sunset and says “Hey, that’s the same color as my blankie.” And you will never again look at an orangey-pink sky and think of anything other than a tattered, crocheted coverlet.
A challenge appears in my life and I now picture a flight path, with an airliner approaching. I say to myself, “You can do this. You can land this plane.” And somehow, it happens. Then I’ll take two breaths, brush the hair out of my eyes and scan the entry point in the sky for the arrival of the next one. This symphony, “Life in a Nonstop World” is inside each and every one of us. I want my part to be beautiful, pleasing, skillfully executed, even if no one ever realizes my contribution. The melody, my melody, will reveal itself to me when the time is right, in perfect synchronicity with the rest of the performance.
Allow the confidence that comes with acknowledging your ability and experience in landing your planes to nurture your very soul. Somehow it seems more important to safely land a real plane full of real passengers in real time, but don’t forget about that symphony. Sometimes it’s just as critical that our carpool of kids arrives at the destination safe and sound. It’s equally important that we guide and land our own metaphorical planes at our own inner airport. We can’t wait around for any recognition of our contributions. That might not ever happen, so it must come from within.
Confidence. Confidence. Confidence. It’s the magic elixir that ignites our dreams. Your own inner SFO is a beautiful, functioning place. Take a moment, in your control tower, to marvel at what you actually orchestrate.
Meanwhile, across the choppy waters of the San Francisco Bay from the busy airport, there is a soccer game starting. My heat induced delirium is now receding, my water bottle is empty and my collapsible folding chair awaits me, on the sideline.