Friday, April 23, 2010

34 Minutes

Here's a true story from my trip. Had fun writing it out on the train to Chicago.

Who knows when the critical error happened. Should a mother travel alone with a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old? Does that decision fly in the face of the logic of child development and travel etiquette? Perhaps. But grandparents have needs. Desperate needs. So there I was on a plane last Wednesday afternoon for a short jump over to Houston, a 3-hour layover, and then a 3 hour flight to Detroit.

This day was covered in a blanket stitched of equal parts prayer and worry. And as the plane to Houston reached altitude, I let out a huge sigh of relief. Anderson was not screaming as was his custom and Maizie was not loudly pointing out the physical anomalies of fellow passengers as was hers. It would seem that the prayers were paying off and the worries needed to shove off. And besides, according to the pilot we’d be back on the ground in 34 minutes, so what could go wrong? I decided to move my anxieties to the 3-hour layover and the long flight ahead.

That’s when it began. As the pilot finished his announcement, Maizie got down from her chair and reached down for her bag under the seat in front of her. She bumped the seat in front of her. A perfectly-pressed-perfectly-manicured-perfectly-annoyed woman in her 30s was of the misfortune (for us both) of sitting directly in front of my daughter. Upon feeling the bump, which I guarantee was minor and accidental, Veronica (as she shall be called) did a complete 180-degree turn, sighed a hostile sigh and humphetedly returned to her original position. I returned a look of sincere apology laced with a tinge of “help me out here, lady.”

During past flights, Maizie would become obsessed with the fold-down tray, an obsession we would try against all odds to contain. I went over the rules of flying again with her, using the ultra-cool authority of the “pilot”. The pilot does not want any children on this flight who talk too loud, because it takes a lot of concentration to fly a plane and people around us may want to sleep. And please be considerate of our friends that are sitting way too close to us due to the systematic disappearance of personal space on airplanes. Also, the pilot says not to clean between Anderson’s toes during the flight. It creeps him out.

I kid you not, I’ve been on about a dozen flights with my she-child. This was the best one yet. I had brushed off the Veronica glare and was actually enjoying a peaceful existence watching the fluff of clouds pass by as Anderson nuzzled into my lap, sleepy but happy.

Maizie was arranging herself to quietly color when the second chair-nudge incident of Flight 434 occurred. This time, it was too minor to correct. Another full, infuriated turn and sigh ensued. This time, anger begat anger. I stared straight back in silent desperation. My inner thoughts this time were, “They are happy. They are not screaming. She is not incessantly, deliberately kicking. Through the grace of the all-powerful Almighty, she hasn’t even acknowledged the existence of the tray. Don’t mess with me, lady.”

My prayer-worry blanket now fully removed, my temperature rose and I could feel my whole body getting flushed up to about mid-chest. It hovered there, as I thought through all the possible reasons why Veronica was having a bad day, hoping against hope that Maizie wouldn’t move or talk or breathe for the next half-hour, and breathing deeply, calling on some yogic exercises to calm the storm brewing inside.

As a life-long conflict avoider, I also jumped into a common personal practice. I have an over-active “after the fact” dialogue engine in my head. I never have the right things to say in the moment, but if you run into me 15 minutes later, you better watch out!

When the book I was reading to Anderson fell onto the 3 inches of floor space between Maizie and Veronica, I bent over to fetch it, consequently committing a third offence. As I shimmied back into my seat, Veronica’s now vile glare met mine. Like an overheating car, I was boiling inside, only able to send off a few warning signs. A trace of smoke.

My inner dialogue fully developed now, I gave her a final warning in my head, “One more glare, Veronica, one more glare,” I thought.

And as if she had heard my inmost yearning, she turned around one last time. I’m not sure what caused the final vitreous stare, but I am sure it caused me to act. I leaned in closer to her seat and in a quiet and firm voice said, “If you would like to have a discussion about this, that would be great, because your glares are not helping the situation.”

She quickly turned around and stiffened against the back of her chair, like a child caught misbehaving and trying hard to disappear. Maizie asked me “Who are you talking to, Mommy?” and I explained that we were disturbing our friend and we needed to be very careful not to touch the seat. And that when we left the plane, we needed to say we are sorry. Maizie yelled out “Sorry, friend!” in a premature, earnest fashion.

I considered it case closed. By now we were descending and Anderson was fast asleep in my arms. Like a pot of boiling water removed from the stove, I had immediately cooled. I had not considered, though, that by confronting her passive aggressive behavior, I had put Veronica’s pot on high heat.

About five minutes after my hushed confrontation, Veronica turned and said, “You said you wanted to have a discussion, so let’s talk. What did you want to talk about?” Great.

By now those around us were staring wide-eyed straight ahead. I’m sure the other business travelers were secretly rooting for Veronica for finally standing up to “the Mom” after decades of having their lives interrupted by the tyranny of toddler air travel. A few soft-eyed folks were gently smiling at me and the sleeping baby, offering up a silent pity.

Thankfully my inner dialogue was complete and I was feeling unnaturally feisty. “Ok,” I said. “Let me tell you my situation. I am traveling on my own with two small children. I’m doing the absolute very best that I can. My daughter is doing the best that she can. I’m sorry we were disturbing you, but I could really use some community support and the glares were not it.”

Unfortunately, her inner dialogue was not fully formed. I honestly feel bad for her, because she’s going to be replaying our conversation for days, complete with zingers about how she didn’t choose to give birth to my children and how youthful airplane tomfoolery leads to lives of crime and maybe even chronic Restless Leg Syndrome. She simply repeated, “What do you want to talk about?”

So I pulled from my inner dialogue bank. “She’s 3. How old are you?” Zing!

Veronica did not divulge her age. And she did not appreciate my clever turn o’ phrase. “Don’t tell me that she’s 3!” her voice rising. “Don’t tell me that she’s 3!”

When dealing with difficult adults, I’ve found that I generally revert to techniques gleaned from parenting books. So as her voice got louder, I got softer. “What would you like me to tell you?” I whispered. She responded a little quieter, “Just don’t tell me that she’s 3.”

“Ok,” I say. “I can do that.” Returning to the comfort of my inner dialogue, I thought, “Now go to time out.”

She turned forward-facing one last time, adjusted her neck pillow, and we all prepared for landing.

+ + + + +

So, here I am recounting my little “episode” while sitting on a train from Detroit to Chicago. My parents’ desperate need to spend quality time with their grandkids and my desperate need to take a little break from being needed have collided in a wonderful opportunity to spend some time with my brother and his wife sans kiddos.

An older woman sitting behind me has kicked my seat about 40 times, perhaps the victim of the Restless Leg Syndrome Veronica would’ve warned me about if she had time to prepare. She’s also loudly chatting away on a cell phone about a veritable cornucopia of medical ailments. I can’t say I’m enjoying the lesson in anatomy or the feeling of being bumped—this is “my” time, right—but I think if I were sitting in the middle of an empty train with no community, no one traveling along the same path I’m on, it would be an extremely lonely world. So, thanks lady (I’ll call you Francine), and for now, I’ll keep my glares and my inner dialogue to myself.


Pryncss Briana said...

And I do believe you said exactly the right things, because faced with what was the right thing to do, Veronica instead wanted, desperately to hold onto her own sense of entitlement(to personal space and no interruptions) instead of letting in the compassion and sense of mercy for those who may be having a hard time and could use a break, and if you had been hostile and uppity as well, she would have had exactly the excuse to get all crazy lady on you. I have been "the mom" on the plane with a fussing, crying toddler, and it was not fun, and I got just as many compassionate looks as I did mean glares. Glad you survived ...

Anonymous said...

Hilarious! This story keeps getting better! And to think, the best part is, now you have this awesome story as part of the repertoire of stories you can pull out at parties, along with many of your other humdingers (I'm thinking of some in my head and laughing right now!).

And I LOVE it when I say exactly what I want to say in the situation and not later on the phone to my friends. It's a rare thing. Congratulations on handling that with grace and aplomb. I hope the ride back went smoothly!

Humphetedly. Love that word.


Jeremy and Alyssa said...

First let me say how I am very sorry you even had to endure this. Secondly, thanks for the laugh. I would not have said anything at all and let my kids kick the back of her seat until she asked to me moved. As I figure it I paid good money for my seats just like she did and I can't help it if airlines don't give personal space. Glad you endured and if you aren't back home then I hope your travels back will be much more pleasant.

Noelle said...

HAHAHA You are so much nicer than I probably would have been. I would have probably let some words slip out that I was thinking then Luc would have probably repeated them. You go for stanind up for yourself...and your kids...and all the parents who don't.

The Robinsons said...

Caren, I love your witty recount! Sorry it had to happen to you, but glad I got to hear it in your voice. Good for you for standing your ground (and managing to avoid a fistfight in front of your kids!)

Debby McCrary said...

I sure needed a good laugh...have to print this off for my Mom...and if you were flying SWA,I think you should request wings for the offended, and have the flight attendant sing to her, they can come up with something.
Myra's Mom

myra said...

I love that you used the word "tomfoolery". And I'm so glad that you had a chance to share your 15 minute later dialogue. I'm the same way but my later dialogues are never as witty as yours.

May the Lord bless that lady with several "normal" children of her own. And when I say "normal" I secretly mean loud and overactive. And may she fly with someone just like her one day. :)

Debby McCrary said...

Just one more thing...I urge you to send this to the SWA Spirit magazine. It would be a favor to lots of traveling Mom's

Mark said...

Don't EVER think your efforts at meeting grandparents' needs are going unnoticed. We were so blessed to have Maizie and Anderson with us. And if I ever meet Veronica, I'm having her arrested.

sydney campbell said...

I am sitting in my ergonomic, expensive chair within my soundproof (not totally) cubicle at good ole' A&M on a boring Friday afternoon; reading your absolutely hilarious story! You and your children have made my day. I would love to meet them. Just keep the adventures coming....please and thank you!

Gem said...

People in apartments, on planes, or on trains have NO expectation of silent surroundings. None. She was rude & you were graceful. I don't care if Maizie was 3 or 30, bumping seats happens. Your children were fine. Glad you had the presence of mind to know that & not shush them overly much nor thump them. :) And glad you passed along the grace you deserved to the chair-kicking cell phone lady.