This was the worst flight of my life. That’s what a woman was saying, loudly, as we disembarked last night, blessedly back home in Cleveland, in the middle of the storm. Then she told her friend how she would write a letter of complaint to the airline.

Here’s what happened. We were stuck at the gate in Newark because one tray table could not be secured. An FAA regulation forbids flying without all tray tables locked in the upright position so the maintenance guys tromped down the aisle. Eventually the task was accomplished with a combo of duct tape and an extra seat belt.

Duct tape?

Okay, that was a little weird, when they actually used duct tape–which I was joking was all they needed–but we got off only a quarter of an hour late, and headed west. We had boarded this flight, two hours before the one we’d reserved, because lake effect snows carried on a brisk westerly Canadian cold front were threatening to close down the joint. We’d flown east Sunday for a funeral. Interrupted work awaited our return. Approaching Cleveland in and out of white-out snow squalls, then suddenly clear air: this is lake effect, we’re used to it, it’s normal here on the north coast. But the first pass at landing was a bust. They’d brought us in too close behind a smaller plane, the captain explained as we circled back around and came in low with Tower City sparkling off the right side of the plane. Back into the soup, we stared at a wall of cloud and snow till the ground lights came into view right on the cusp of the fifty-foot rule, where the pilot would have to pull up and circle again if he couldn’t get visibility for the final runway approach. We were still less than an hour late, as the plane lowered onto a snowy, cross-windy runway as if landing on silk, and soon we were clipped in to the gate, disembarking into a nearly empty airport.

The worst flight of her life? I don’t fly all that often but I could cull a handful of far worse stories. I could’ve kissed this pilot. He’s probably one of those guys who lives for the challenges of flying. He certainly did not show it, if he broke a sweat over this one. It was hardly his fault that the tray table was broken, or the tower had set us too near another incoming plane. In fact, the airline had nothing to do with that–it was a tower issue. So on what planet does this rate a letter of complaint? Is life supposed to be presented perfectly coifed with a ribbon on it, at all times? Shouldn’t we have some perspective, be grateful for landing in one piece, getting home even though there is a storm raging, having only a small amount of turbulence during this late, dark-skies, storm-threatened flight?

This is a face of our culture for which I have little sympathy, the entitled, snarky attitude that everybody owes not only their best efforts but a perfect result. Everywhere from libraries to emergency rooms to fast food joints to small presses, I hear stories of people copping an attitude over trivial problems and blaring their out-sized frustrations at the proximal person in their path.

I did not expect to be traveling this past weekend. I had planned some home-based R&R and some prep for a big work week here at the press. Friday evening news of a death in the family set us scrambling for a flight back east, stabilizing things at this end and hitting the road shortly after 6 a.m. Sunday morning. Trips back to see the elders of the clan become jack-of-all-trades interludes. There are handyman tasks, advice on matters from finance to future housing arrangements, fears to soothe, an endless stream of things that cannot be properly accomplished at a distance. At the funeral parlor I saw people I’d not seen in many years. A toddler babbled as the rabbi began to speak. There were a few stories we’d never heard of the history of the clan. I wondered what will happen once the generation ahead of mine dies out, and there’s not so much left to hold us all together.

My last conversation with the aunt who passed away took place a decade ago. She leaned in, eyes intense, determined to make me understand how harmful homeschooling was, what a bad idea. My kids were still young, I had no evidence yet that our choices would bring anything other than the ruin and disaster she predicted. Now we have one on the verge of college graduation, likely summa, matured into someone I enjoy the hell out of spending time with, and the other academically and socially happy as a clam on the front end of college. I don’t know if she’d have accepted this as proof, widened her perspective, or still claimed things would be better if we’d stuck with the schools that were failing our kids so miserably. It’s diffiicult when core values diverge within a family, the more so when one person feels compelled to bring the other around to the “correct” position. I loved this aunt but I certainly did not seek her out, after that day. I have drifted out of other branches of the family tree over similar differences, the sometimes unspoken disapproval of the black sheep and her chosen flock.

I was holding the arm of another aunt as we made our way in to the luncheon after the frigid graveside service. She’s got a knee thing, she walks with one leg almost rigid. She turned to me laughing at something I’d said and told me she never really knew me till this trip. Then she began rattling off my virtues as she sees them. It was an odd moment. I never feel I am quite as awful or misguided as those who dislike me seem to believe, nor quite as marvelous as those who sing my prasies.

We’re used to what we are. Normal–no puns intended–is entirely relative. Bridging the culture gap can be harder within one’s own family than in a very foreign country, where everybody can see the chasm between us.

This boingboing piece really made me laugh. It’s for you Doctor Who fans. I’ve spent a whole blog post not talking about the inaurguration, Mali, the middle east, the really weird things I’ve been hearing about the book business, our wonderful new intern, or the alarms that woke us in New Jersey, in the middle of the night, and what we did next.


With love,