On Turbulence

March 12

Turbulence makes me focus. At the slightest bump I whip out the laptop and begin to type. More often than not gibberish, but right now this sentence. We’re going through some major turbulence right now and typing, my clumsy click of keys is all that’s keeping me sane. In between books and with no new chapters to write it hits me; why not write about turbulence? At least it would be more constructive than typing QWERTY over and over until it stops. This is usually where I try to figure out why anybody decides to fly, after all Aretha Franklin doesn’t and she’s the queen. And yet it’s the calm right after turbulence that’s worse, because it’s not a calm at all, but a détente before the next jolt in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Maybe I should laugh at myself for freaking out. Or kick myself for picking seat 6F near the front, where each bump feels like you’re the head in a head first dive. Once in six seater from Montego Bay to Kingston the plane fell into so many airpockets that I grabbed the pilot’s knee and wouldn’t let go. Nearness to death sometimes makes me feel I’m on borrowed time even though I’m never scared in a car, which is far more likely to kill me.

May 16

This feels like an epitaph. But if I think such things God will demonstrate that dramatic irony he loves so much. Instead I will write about the B52’s whose ‘Girl From Ipanema Goes To Greenland’ just left my iPhone and who are now one chorus into ‘Roam.’ I love the B52’s, but now I’m being messed with by my own phone, shuffling up two songs in a row from a band named after a bomber. Why does this plane vibrate so much? I mean it’s goddamn air.  I’m in some 3000 lb monster’s death rattle because come on, heavier than air is such a ridiculous concept. I can’t keep calling on God to cradle the plane in his hefty bosom when as soon as I land I remember that I’m a budding atheist. How funny and pathetic this will all sound when I land, me frightened out of my wits while the plane flies steadily but sloppily to Minneapolis. Turbulence makes me use adverbs. Unabashedly.

June 27

For the terrible crime of deceiving me on my first flight, Eastern Airlines suffered the same 80’s fate as Dynasty-style shoulder pads and David Hasslehoff’s career in America. Kingston to Chicago in 1987; they served bun-less burgers with lettuce. At 16, I thought this must have been what American food tastes like. But the flight was so smooth that it felt noiseless, like the glider I would fly 15 years later.

Back when I was a Christian I would have called the previous paragraph speaking a curse into one’s life. It’s something I still believe in, that if you speak of a bad fate then you just gave a very bored devil something new to do. So I shall no longer think of crashes. Instead I will think of the Eastern Airlines flight to Chicago and how it fooled me into thinking that all flights were so blandly smooth. Years later on a flight from Miami to Jamaica we hit a bump over the Atlantic that stretched into jagged stretch of drops, hops and dips. It took a while to realize that the idiot screaming what was that, was me. And there was nothing to do but endure the damn thing until it was over. My legs tensed and my feet pressed hard into the floor as if it was applying gas. I gripped the chair arm and started to pray. On another flight turbulence got so bad that me and my fellow passengers in the row joined hands and prayed for Jesus to intervene. Other than this essay I have never used the word ‘intervene’ ever.

August 6

Another bump. Duran Duran is singing ‘Girls on Film.’ Will whoever reads this find it funny or pathetic? Since that flight from Miami to Jamaica, long before I turned Christian and unturned again, I’ve had nothing but bumpy flights. Writers are supposed to think about death, or at least mortality all the time but I only think about such stuff on flights, and on bumpy ones. On one nasty flight from New York to Jamaica, there was a hurricane in the area. We didn’t so much bump as dropped, slid, swung left and right and rolled. But then this: I was scared enough, but seeing the absolute terror of my fellow passengers gave me a certain peace, even smugness. The woman beside me does an 18th century swoon and I laugh.

Duran Duran’s ‘The Reflex.’ Thank god for the 80’s. Rio is up next. What I hate most about turbulence is that it immediately strips your sense of power, because there are few situations where I feel powerless. The two times I nearly drowned instead of panic I had a calm, an acceptance that this was really going to happen. But falling from the sky is nothing like drowning. Falling is gravity turned into the type of jerk who says boo-yah! when you’ve been punked. No I’m not erasing the previous line, I’m about to die, damn it. ‘Save a Prayer’ is on. Probably not the best song to listen to right now.

August 25

There is something I should confess. I cannot listen to heavy metal on a flight. I haven’t been to church in years, but something about listening to Black Sabbath on a flight makes me think I’m in some way summoning demons. Or at least God’s extreme annoyance. On a flight from Chicago to Wilkes Barre, I scrolled down to White Zombie and immediately ran into turbulence. And a rain storm with lightning marking webs in the clouds. We’re descending pretty fast. If I write no words after this you’ll know something happened. But then how would you? I’m assuming that this computer could survive a plunge in the ocean, or worse that somebody would care to recover it. Funny. I got jokes.

May 6

I’m on a plane to San Francisco. Five minutes ago, the pilot announced that he was looking for  clear patch outside of this long stretch of turnbulence we seem to be in, promising that  we should be in this for only a few more minutes or so. And yet as I type, we seem to have come out of it. The jaded side of my brain wants to add for now. I have been on over 200 flights since 1997, maybe more. I have never gotten over turbulence. I don’t know how, but it manages to turn your 200th flight into your first.

April 23

I’m over the Caribbean sea. Notoriously unstable skies always waiting to pop out a hurricane at any minute. Turbulence comes exactly when you expect it to but I don’t notice until halfway through it. I tell myself it’s mild until I realize several passengers are  going batshit. It’s a wing quivering, dining service interrupting, people praying quietly terrible, and I do not care. Come to think of it, I’m writing this paragraph at Shish Restaurant on Grand Avenue, not on the actual flight. For the first time, it’s the writing that jolts the picture of turbulence rather than the turbulence sending me to the laptop. Now I’m going to have to find some new thing to be scared about.

Front page image by Nimbot.

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Marlon James

About the Author

Marlon James was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1970. He is the winner of the 2015 Man Booker award for his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. His first novel, John Crow's Devil (Akashic Books, 2005) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and was a New York Times Editors' Choice. The novel was published in the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy in 2008. His second novel, The Book of Night Women (Riverhead 2009), won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, The NAACP Image Award, and The Minnesota Book Award, and was New York Magazine's third best book of the year. Marlon was Go On Girl! Book Club's 2012 Author of the year.
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