Beating re-entry burn

Ann Dowsett Johnston September 10 2001

Beating re-entry burn

Ann Dowsett Johnston September 10 2001

Beating re-entry burn

Ann Dowsett Johnston

Maybe this has happened to you: you’ve just wrapped up your summer vacation, a blissful retreat into the land of lakes and loons and purple-mauve sunsets. A week in the wilderness, where the only mirrors are on the water, and the only clock is the sun. A week, maybe even two, to remind you that yes, there is a master of the universe and no, it is not your boss. A vacation that has left you relaxed, unwrinkled, sandpapered down to your better self.

Now, it’s September and let’s face it: if you’re an adult, there will be no back-to-school perks to brighten your fall. No brand-new Laurentien pencil sets. No sympathetic teacher who wants to know just how you spent your summer vacation. No, for you there will be only this: an Everest-sized stack of unopened bills, an even larger heap of laundry and an e-mail in-box that threatens to play Venus flytrap and swallow you whole. And yes, winter is just around the corner.

So, as you hurtle back towards the city, you make yourself a promise. This time, no matter what, you will hang on to your equilibrium and your better, unfrazzled self. No-siree, you will not be undone: not by cranky children, not by stop-and-go traffic, not by small mountains of junk mail. Zen is your new middle name, and nothing will penetrate your cone of calm.

And, with luck, that promise will last a day. Of course, if you could canoe back to your front doorstep, you’d make it home scot-free. But once you’ve made your way down the twisty little backroads and hit the highway, all bets are off.

This summer, it took all of 20 minutes in an Air Canada lineup before my world-weary self began to reappear. It was a brilliant summer morning, but the mood at the airport was black. The computers at the Express Check-in kiosks were on the fritz, the counters were understaffed and long, angry lineups were snaked from here to kingdom come. Lineups of sad-eyed families sharing boxes of Timbits, and businessmen cursing into their cellphones. Meanwhile, the woman behind me seemed to believe things would move faster if she jammed her suitcase into the back of my ankles at regular intervals. By the time I hit security, I had begun to think of my laptop as a weapon. Yes, I was in the frill throes of re-entry burn.

And the true test—the flight—had not yet begun. Making my way down the narrow gaundet of an aisle, past crying babies and surly faces, I said the prayer of the economy passenger: “Please Lord, may my seatmate be well-schooled in arm-rest etiquette. May he not be a lecher or a burper. And if possible, may he be smallish, just like the seats. Amen.” And with that, I took my place in 16F, sardined in by the window, arming myself with my book—a makeshift duck blind from which to scrutinize the approaching passengers. The minute my seatmate arrived, I would pull out my laptop and get to work. Clearly, my vacation was over.

“Hi,” said my seatmate, looking me straight in the eye. My prayers had been answered: he was smallish, just like the seats. In fact, he was smaller than any seatmate I’d ever had.

“This is my first flight,” he announced. With that, he yanked offhis sneakers and made himself right at home, sitting crosslegged on the seat. His mother wrinkled her nose, but I thought: this guy has chutzpah. As the plane took off, he sat back in full confidence. “It’s good we’re right by the wing,” he said brightly, “because if the plane crashes, we’ll be OK.” His logic was faulty, but who cared? I liked his spirit.

The man behind us gave a loud keep-it-down grunt, but my seatmate was unfazed. “Hey, look! Is that snow? We’re already in the Arctic!” Actually, I explained, we’re in the clouds. “And what would happen if someone poked a hole in the window?” The man behind us coughed, but I put my book away. This guy beat Jane Austen, hands down. “I have to go to the bathroom,” he told me. “Do I have to ask the pilot first?” A gentleman to boot.

When the food arrived—a soggy omelette over a wet sausage patty and limp potato puff—my friend was unimpressed. “I don’t like anything except this,” he said, holding up the roll. “I’m not hungry.” No kidding. For a unseasoned flyer, he made a lot of sense. I decide that my work, in fact, could wait. Technically, I was still on vacation.

“Do you think they would ever give you a bed on a flight?” he asked. “Because if they did, this plane wouldn’t be big enough.” Out of the mouths of babes. “Hey, the TV screens just went blank,” he told me. “Maybe we’re too high in the sky to catch the show.” A poet, too.

As we approached the farmland north of Toronto, my friend looked puzzled. “It looks just like home,” he said, craning over me. “But the fields are in a different order.” I’d never thought of it that way, but he was right. “My dad says that you can’t breathe the air in Toronto.” “SHHH!” said his mother. “But he says there are moving sidewalks in the airport so I’m excited.” He paused. “You know, first I was excited about coming to Toronto, then I wasn’t. But,” he whispered, “now I am again.” Me too.

Allan Fotheringham is on vacation.