Who Are You? I’m A Nervous Flyer


Who Are You?” asks members of Culture on the Edge to reflect on one of their own many identities (whether national, gendered, racial, familial, etc.), theorizing at the same time the self-identification that they each chose to discuss.

Preparing for Departure: I Knew I Knew You!

I’m am extremely nervous flyer. Walking onto a plane – and preparing for the anxiety of the flight – I enact rituals of certainty. Such practices don’t begin on the plane. They commence in the airport once I’ve arrived at my gate. I might call them rituals of identification for in turning myself into data as often as I do when I’m enacting such practices, I am clear that such things rely on the strategies I enact in reading other people (for my own purposes) – i.e., ones that often involve strategies such as authenticity and strategic essentialism as I scan the crowd trying to take stock of the “who” I might be in company with on the plane. In being a nervous flyer and by reflexively examining my practices, I seemingly learn more about this thing we call identity – how I catalogue others for my own social interests (i.e., protection and safety) and thus, how others read me back.

At the gate – I begin to identify – sorting the identities around me as to try and figure out my context and surroundings – who might be comforting, nice, understanding, and so on – for I know in the back of my mind that I could end up sitting next to any of them which in turn affects how I manage the stress of it all.

Seated for Take-Off: Single Serving Grandparents

When boarding the plane, I must first see “who” is in the cockpit before I take my seat – indeed this is probably the most politically incorrect part of my identifying techniques. I’ll spare you the details. Then quickly I connect my earlier “operational acts of identification” like a game of memory, from the terminal to coach: looking for the ones most certainly to provide certainty. I don’t look for single serving friends on airplanes; “clever” won’t cut it. I look for single serving grandparents. The ones often thought to be authoritative on life – those assumed to embody all things wise and prudent. For surely with age, comes practice, and with practice comes knowledge and wisdom – they’ll for sure be able to offer a calming word. Plus, they’ll see me more as a granddaughter if anything, right? And, we all know that grandchildren are the apples of grandparents’ eyes.

Take-Off: No Longer “On the Ground”

I don’t pray as a ritual—though I have in the past. I usually focus on myself not praying [habitus – you are my data!]. That is, I even turn my anxiety attached to something like prayer into an interrogation of the relationship between scholar and data, noting the weightless, liminoid space created for me (in the sky) between my typical data and point of view – when on the ground of “certainty.” Noting my anxiety, folks seated near often recite the “fact” that being in the sky is way safer than being on the ground, although it quite often feels reversed (assuming the tactility of feeling the ground below me signifies something of safety, control, protection and agency). Sort of like the conundrum produced by those “on the ground” critiques and questions one might get when being “too in the sky” (aka, theoretical) – because doing scholarship in the “air” (as opposed to “on the ground”) is suspected of being free from the concerns of concrete things. Well… not in my case.  I carry all of my “concrete” concerns with me in the sky, like luggage, where it’s said to be “safer” – for my “on the ground” worries largely inform my “in the sky” angst.

Cruising Altitude: Competing Strategies of Identification

My identifying strategies shift with context – that is, I am, or try to be, aware of who is around me and how I’m being read as I read those around me (for we all code switch, no?). While I need the person next to me to be of a particular sort – gracious, kind, caring, not easily annoyed (at my occasional gasps and erratic, anxious movements), willing to make small talk as to help keep me steadily distracted from my nerves. All of this depends on context. Trying to read my context becomes especially prominent when on my way to professional conferences for in these moments I become hyper aware that my anxiety – and the practices I enact to mediate it – are quite illogical and unfounded (as in, not very “scholarly”). So, in such moments, I look for the clues that’ll help me sort the “AAR” types from the “Wise Grandparent” types.

In giving myself over to small conversation with the person next to me to help keep my mind at ease, I’ve found that when confessing how anxious I am they’re more apt to be kinder – offering comforting commentary such as “It’s okay … that’s a normal bump” or “don’t worry you’re okay, see the attendants face? They aren’t worried, so you shouldn’t be either, you’ll know if something changes by looking at their facial expressions.” Ha – they too have identifying strategies in knowing when all is and isn’t well! In such moments, I often get asked, “what do you do for a living?” So, I tell them, and they usually reply with an assumption, “well, you’re safe, we’re safe in god’s hands.” Over the course of many flights, based on knowledge of my profession, I’ve been offered everything from rosary beads to Christian self-help books. In many of my seatmates eyes, my fear of flying + occupation as a scholar of religion says something about the role (or lack thereof) of religion and spirituality in my life. Without that knowledge, many will often assume I am a pitiful poor girl who hasn’t been able to afford to fly much offering advice like, “as you can afford to fly more, you’ll get used to it.” Others take the self-evident route by offering detailed science lessons about the mechanics of planes – of course, assuming that I am unaware of how it all works.

Landing: Finally, Out of Danger!

Isn’t landing supposed to be the most dangerous part? If so – why are we always so happy to get back on the ground? As soon as I know we’re preparing to land, my mind suddenly shifts from the fear of flying towards getting my phone prepped for powering on. The closer we get to the ground, the more interest I seem to lose in continuing the kind and generous conversation with the person next to me. In taking stock of what makes a flight  “navigable” for me it strikes me that much of the techniques and strategies I employ to address my own fear of flying are quite rooted in identification – whereby my “rituals of certainty” are, in effect, highly calculated operational acts that rely upon fabricated affinities, authenticity, and authorization. Social interests – and the contexts that enable such curiosities – indeed mediate the “logic of [my anxious] practice.”

“Baggage” Claim: Airplanes Are Magic


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