The Weary Executioner

As you well know, My Beloved is an avid and accomplished hunter.  When he is on the hunt, game beware.  The man will trek 15 miles into the Trinity Alps during an Indian Summer heat wave in search of a buck.  He has multiple game heads mounted and ready to hang in commemoration of his kills–although we have yet to find a suitable place outside the house to hang them.  Despite the tenacious heart of a hunter, for some reason, when it comes to insects, My Beloved suddenly transforms into some kind of pacifist Buddhist monk.

Case in point, just prior to my Ranch relocation, I had the grave misfortune of finding a very large spider, of the “terrifying” variety in my bathroom.  Hearing the shrieking, My Beloved came running, like the dutiful man he is.  I immediately ordered its swift execution.  I should have noticed the minute hesitation in his countenance.  I assumed that with my decree, the errant arachnid would be promptly meet it’s maker.  It is never that simple.

About 5 minutes later, believing the area was spider-free (and therefore safe), I walked back into the bathroom and entered the commode area to finish what I started.  From my seated position, I could see the trashcan where My Beloved deposited the tissue holding what I believed to be the intruder’s crushed remains.  Within seconds, I could see the edges of the tissue rustling and brown legs emerging.  Instead of having a peaceful tinkle, I witnessed a resurrection.

The spider was back and mad as hell.  The shrieking started up again, like an air raid siren.  This time, it was peppered with expletives and a healthy degree of inquiry about the quality of My Beloved’s work.  What had gone wrong?  My Beloved is an enthusiastic administrator of “the beat down,” when need be.  Had he gone Benedict Arnold on me?  Was he part of a scheme to help the spider fake it’s own death, thus avoiding my death warrant?  Wait a minute…I swear I saw a couple books by the Dalai Lama in his collection.  To this day, he has never offered a reasonable explanation for this calamity.

Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth and current Dala...

Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama, is the leader of the exiled Tibetan government in India. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Photographed during his visit in Cologno Monzese MI, Italy, on december 8th, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fast forward several months to The Ranch and yet another “spider in the bathroom” incident.  This time, the spider was larger and faster.  My Beloved had his work cut out for him.  My screams roused him from the Giants game he was watching.  Tissue in hand, he knew the drill.  This time, when he pulled his “I’m not squeezing tight enough to kill this thing” turn-coat shenanigans, it bit him in the ass. For the first time in my life I heard My Beloved scream.  It was a manly, Carhartt wearing, proud Marine scream, but it was a scream.  The spider had made its way out of the tissue in his hand, and wrapped its hideous legs around one of his fingers.   Cringe worthy indeed.

Just this past weekend there were a few suspiciously ineffective attempts at murdering flies and a wasp that made their way into our house.  Although they were killed “dead,” it was only under my vigilant supervision that they received the death knell.  My Beloved claimed to have dispatched a “huge” spider on our porch, but I have my doubts.

Clearly the timing of this rant is fortuitous.  Just moments ago, My Beloved knocked me out of the way in order to prevent my contact with a large brown spider seated on our mahogany window frame–clever and rather devious camouflage.  He ran to get a rag, which he immediately twisted in order to “snap” at the disgusting bugger.  My Beloved marksman, inexplicably missed and according to his account, it jumped out of sight. Right.  I am convinced that he is in cahoots with the vile insects plaguing this house.

Like any self respecting Parisienne at heart, I decided to direct my attention elsewhere until I can find a suitable solution to this treasonous, unholy alliance.  Champagne tasting! Cin-cin for now.

Some respectable French delights…not a spider in sight!

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Sunday Dinner on The Ranch, Je t’aime

I used to absolutely hate Sundays.  The bitter dread of the impending work week would creep up and punch me squarely in the face around 4:00 PM.  The late afternoon used to mark the time when my imagination would go into overdrive about how to delay the inevitable, mundane, often the painful return to my work-week reality. Sometimes the thought of having to return to the confines of my windowless office, with the occasional jaunt “upstairs” into the cesspool, clearing house for criminal activity was too much to bear.    In order to avoid an extended period of time in a women’s prison, I determined that instead  of allowing my thoughts to drift toward automatic weapons, I would channel my angst into something I love.  To redirect that energy is my way of blocking the punch of the dreaded work week, and smiling back at it as I kick it in the neck.  From this, Sunday Dinner was born.

Cooking is my escape.  It is my catharsis.  I have no technical training in the culinary arts.  Rather, whatever skill I have in the kitchen comes from sheer determination, an addiction to cooking shows (from Julia to Giada), a life long love affair with food, and a passion for entertaining the people I love.  Sunday Dinner is my ritual, it is my relief.

Sundays are now my favorite day of the week.  I spend all day in the kitchen dicing, chopping, browning, roasting, and baking–with my Pandora channel set on Dave Brubeck or John Coltrane, and glass of wine in hand.  I usually decide the Sunday Dinner menu by Thursday, and do all of my necessary shopping by the time I am Northbound to The Ranch on Friday evening, thus avoiding the supermarket wasteland that lies north of Whole Foods.  My Beloved steers clear of the kitchen, except to offer to be the official “taster” of my work.  Unlike my day job, Sunday Dinner affords me the unique opportunity of having tangible evidence of my efforts, be it in the form of braised grass fed short ribs, Valrhona chocolate pot de creme, or otherwise.  I love, love, love Sunday Dinner.  It is the one time during the week that the Ranch Family can get together and catch up.

Like any true Parisienne at heart, for me, the sound of my friends’ and family’s laughter and witty repartee, coupled with great food and wine, keep the specter of the work week at bay.  Isn’t this exactly what life is all about? Indeed, the work week is imminent, but my Sunday Dinner talisman against it’s evil, ensures that I don’t let it’s stink pollute my precious weekend a minute sooner than necessary.  Work will always be there.  These small, but powerful moments won’t.

Give Sunday Dinner a shot.  Spend your last hours of freedom from the work week sharing a meal with the people you love. It doesn’t have to be “fancy” or perfect.  You just have to mean it.

Tonight’s Delights?  Flank steak marinated in Meyer lemon, olive oil, and garlic, along with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, roasted brussel sprouts and carrots, and fresh pumpkin pie, of course.  The wine? 2010 Unti Segromigno from Dry Creek Valley.  Delicious.


Marinated Flank Steak--DIVINE!

Marinated Flank Steak in Meyer lemon, garlic, and flat leaf parsley–DIVINE!

The Makings of Pumpkin Pie from scratch!

My faithful kitchen sidekick…Diego

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Ranch Wildlife: When Bats Attack

Last Thursday night started out as a relatively typical evening on The Ranch.  My Beloved and I had taken our assigned seats in the living room–me on the side chair with my new knitting project and him on the couch with Diego and Tiberius next to him.  As usual, with sole, unrelenting custody of the remote, he was  flipping through the channels in search of shows featuring guns, gun smithing, game poaching, gold mining, explosions, mixed martial arts, or extreme violence.  Sometimes I wonder if taking up knitting was a sort of subconscious defense mechanism, tripped by my feminine-city dweller DNA.  Knitting is truly the perfect distraction.  Thankfully, it confines my “testosterone TV” exposure to the limits of my peripheral vision.  Gone are the days when I could watch French TV and foreign films on my couch with reckless abandon.

About an hour into our nightly routine, while My Beloved was tucking into a second episode of “Homeland” (a show I actually like) our evening calm swiftly descended into chaos, for me at least.  In a chillingly calm voice, which I now believe is a ritualistic method by which he attempts to prevent a full scale freak out on my part, he says, “Wow, I can’t believe that is in here.”  His voice was so calm that I did not immediately look up.  It was only when he slowly started to get up, that I bothered to look up from my “knit 2, purl 2” sweater ribbing.  When my eyes met his, I could see something fast and brown flying in large circles around the living room.  At first, I thought, “that is a huge moth.”  Heavens no foolish woman!  It was a bat.  A BAT!!!

little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus)

little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) (Photo credit: K.P. McFarland)

I was seized by panic.  I could feel the adrenaline washing over me.  What in the name of all that is holy was a bat doing in my living room?  The bat flew in furious, frantic circles.  Out of nowhere it started diving towards our heads.  That is when I hit the deck. I was overcome with images of it getting caught in my hair or latching onto my neck.  Seeing me assume crash position on the floor, while we were under attack, sent My Beloved into fits of hysterical laughter.  Of course he had his wits about him!  Like the even keel Ranch Man he is, he simply walked over to the front door and opened it.  After doing a few more laps in our living room, the wayward flying mammal quickly found its way out and went on its batty way.  How he got into the house in the first place, remains a mystery.

I can say with confidence that I have no innate fear of the myotis lucifugus that graced our living room that night.  I actually think that bats are reasonably cute, as long as they are not rabid.  It is just a bit shocking to have one flying around my living room, without an invitation, warning, or the proper mental preparation (on my part.)  Seeing as though I am on the road to “Ranch Hard,” maybe next time  little myotis makes his appearance, I will offer him a treat.

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The Road to “Ranch Hard”

It has been 6 months since I first set foot on The Ranch as a permanent resident.  Although enthusiastically motivated by love, I could not ignore the hand wringing of my inner City Girl.  How was this going to work?  I have lived all of my life in cities.  I was accustomed to a comfortable cocoon of concrete.  Had I gone mad in swapping the relative comforts of city living for dirt roads and a 15 minute trek to the nearest “decent” grocery store?   Maybe a little, but the transformation that has occurred during my tenure on The Ranch perhaps says as much about me, as it does about the power of The Ranch.  The transition has not been easy, and it is by no means complete.  At times it has been down right painful. I have found though that picking up new skills, letting go of some of my neurosis, and broadening my appreciation of the absurd go a long way in helping to soften the blow.

The Ranch is a wild place.  Like Sparta, it is not for the weak.  When I came to The Ranch, the depth of my survival skills were, shall we say, limited.  It is safe to say that I could lead a search and destroy mission through the opening hours of the First Call Sale at Neiman Marcus, with the steely eyed discipline of a Recon Marine, but that was about it. I had purposely remained relatively ignorant about anything even remotely related to being “handy,” save a desperate, practically at gun point, late night lesson in sheet rock repair, facilitated by my one of my best friends who is an unapologetic slum lord.  In any event, suffice it to say, that I hadn’t the slightest clue where my fuse box was, much less how to use it if things suddenly went dark.  If there was a major disaster, such as a broken water line, a large spider, or heaven forbid, if my internet went out,  I figured I would just call my Dad. I learned quickly that such nonsense doesn’t fly on The Ranch.  As a long time resident of The Ranch, “Uncle E” would say, I would have to get “Ranch Hard.”

During these 6 months, I have made huge strides in the “Ranch Hard,” department.  I now know exactly where the circuit breaker box is in the house, and I have used it on more than a few occasions.  But survival skills on The Ranch call for more than just being savvy in the midst of ongoing construction and general chaos…it literally means knowing how to survive.  By all reasonable calculations, help IS NOT nearby, and even if it happened to be, it would take the authorities a while to get onto the property and sort out the exact location of the crisis. (Anyone who as read my piece titled “Ranch Ingenuity: The Wisdom of Looking Away,” will know that chances are “the crisis” would be found in the Bermuda Triangle of: heavy machinery, power tools, and my Beloved.)   One has to be able to think quickly on The Ranch, or risk being overrun.

Even the seemingly simple act of going to the grocery store presents unique challenges.  There are no more quick jaunts to Whole Foods.  My geographical location, not only requires me to drive almost an hour to get to the nearest organic-food-snob holy land, but it forces me to do something I never had to do before–plan ahead.  Trust me, I could more readily find a pound of “the devil’s lettuce,” than I could find a terrine of pate’ de canard, in these parts. In a pinch, yes, I can drag my butt to some grim alternatives such as the GMO den commonly referred to as Safeway, or a poser Whole Foods flanked by soap averse hippies, but frankly, at times, I’d rather get a tooth pulled.

In my previous life, I was able to keep things like dirt and dust at a comfortable distance. I was obsessive about cleanliness.  There is no place for such idle foolishness on the Ranch.  Why?  It would be too exhausting. There is a thin veil of the most aggravating, powdery, dirt on almost everything. EVERYTHING.  It’s the kind of dust that would make Steinbeck shudder.  My once immaculate car, now looks like I am a frequent flier at the county tractor pull.  The shine on my once glorious shoes has been replaced with a filmy, tan haze.  No matter what I do short of wearing a protective smock at all times, there will be large smudges of dirt or a filthy paw print on me guaranteed.  These days, I consider it a minor victory if I make it through the day without a co-worker asking me if I just had a nasty fall in the parking lot, or if I had been attacked by something.

My Chucks, Gucci loafers, and Cole Haan wedges nestled between My Beloved’s hunting rifle and straw hat…if you look closely enough you will see the dust…

The Ranch has gotten to me on a few occasions during these 6 months.  Whether it was my stockpile of extraordinary wines that was “cooked” due to inadequate storage conditions, the achingly slow internet connection I have since being “off the grid” equals “air card,” or the lumbering chaos of living in a house while it is under construction, I have had my share of meltdowns.  My Beloved, the patient, generous soul he is, knows when and how to talk me off the ledge.  He assures me that the proverbial dust will settle.

Thanks to the Ranch, I am, for the most part, now able to kill spiders on my own. I now know the difference between a tractor, bulldozer, excavator, and auger.  I can even navigate my way around the Tractor Supply Company. Never fear, my inner City Girl is alive and well.  Yes, I am a long way from Paris, but now I am home.

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Prompted to Purge in Paris: 36 Inches to Freedom

My teeny tiny Parisian Closet…my bedroom and kitchen were to the right, just to give you some perspective.

It would not be an overstatement, hyperbole, nor fiction to say that my 5 week stay in Paris in 2010 changed my life forever.  It left an indelible print so deep on my soul that I am happy to say it is most certainly permanent.  I love the Parisian way of life and vowed to incorporate aspects of it into my life at home. Being a frequent visitor to the City of Light, with each visit, I bring back more and more of that state of being.  But, on this last trip, it was not fashion, language lessons, food, wine, or the sublime cafe creme that caused me to have an existential epiphany. It was my miniscule Parisian closet.

In preparation for my trip, I remember spending a few hours in my large walk in closet, perusing the multiple rows and shelves for the items that would be the foundation for my Parisian wardrobe.  My closet was teeming with beautiful things. It was so carefully organized that it would leave any observer certain that my initials were “O. C. D.” When I was done packing, I felt rather smug about being able to fit everything I needed into a single suitcase, with plenty of room to spare, in light of the myriad options I had to choose from.  How was I to know then that a mere 5 weeks later, I would come home bleary eyed from my flight, and go Ghengis Khan on my lovely closet?

Indeed, I was able to fit everything into a single, average sized piece of luggage, but the devious, invisible, stow-away that lurked inside my periwinkle blue Samsonite  roller bag, was my characteristically American desire for quantity.  Although I considered myself a connoisseur of quality, I have to admit I took tenuous comfort in quantity–as if having more options was a good thing.  It rarely is.   (Anyone who has ever stood in their cavernous closet, staring into obscene abundance, and uttered the words “I have nothing to wear,” knows exactly what I mean.)  It would be near impossible to be completely impervious to this American notion that if you like something you must have LOTS of it.  For Heaven’s sake, America is where the Big Gulp, the All You Can Stand Buffet, and mamoth portions delivered to your table on a flat bed truck were born.   When was the last time you heard someone say,  “Man! The portions at that restaurant were tiny, but the quality was so exquisite, it was perfect!?” This isn’t limited to food. Just consider the ridiculous amount of debt held by the average American. We have an insatiable appetite for bigger, better, faster, and MORE, MORE, MORE.

I’m not certain whether it was the 3 flights of narrow, twisting stairs I had to climb to get to my apartment, or if it was panic at the sight of the Lilliputian proportions of my Parisian closet that caused me to hyperventillate.   18 inches of shelving.  18 inches of hanging space.  5 weeks in Paris. How do people live like this? If you look closely at the photo above, you will see in the mirror reflection that the hilarious rub in all of this was that my closet also served as the parking spot for a disproportionately gargantuan vacuum cleaner.  I stifled my screams, unpacked my bag, and bucked up.

In less than a week, I made some observsations about Parisians that made my teeny closet seem less of an abomination.  Parisians, although often well dressed and effortlessly chic, rely on a mere handful of excellent quality items to make their wardrobe.  I witnessed this first hand in the French class I attended Monday-Friday, and also in my conversation groups.  It was not unusual to see people wear the same exact outfit or variations of the same pieces several times a week and sometimes 2 days in a row.    My immediate thought was to be a little embarrassed for them–do they not realize they just wore that get up yesterday?  Did they forget? Maybe they were out all night engaging in “Parisian pursuits,” so they didn’t have time to go home and change before class?  I then asked myself the dread question, are these people poor?  No.  These people were not suffering from memory loss, they were not on a proverbial walk of shame, nor were they living out a scene from Les Miserables. They were enlightened.

Taking a closer look, I could see that the items cycling through each person’s wardrobe tended to be of good quality and were comprised of generally classic shapes that suited each subject to a T.  This was true even for the shop keepers and residents of my adopted quartier of the 1st Arrondisement, whom I saw on a daily basis.  I became acutely aware of their patterns.  It was clear there was greater emphasis on the quirky details of someone’s ensemble–yes, they were wearing the same black T-shirt and skinny jeans (insanely in vogue at the time), but they would adjust things slightly by adding a blazer, chunky necklace, or scarf.  Whatever tricks they pulled, they somehow made the same few pieces look fresh and frustratingly chic.  Even more bizarre? They seemed quite comfortable and content with what they had.  What a concept!

I could not ignore the evidence before me.  So, with a classic Parisian shrug, I decided to approach my closet like a local.  Undoubtedly, those who know me will allege that this was no stretch since I already have a “uniform” of sorts.  This experiment had nothing to do with developing a uniform.  It was about cutting through the crap.  As I began recycling the same pieces over and over again on my trip, I noticed I was paying more intense attention to quality and how things fit me.  Was this piece of the best quality I can afford?  Did it fit perfectly?  Did I feel amazing in it? If the answer was “non,” it was gone!  The end result was a careful honing of the little wardrobe I brought with me from the States (with a few pieces from Paris of course) and distilling it down to the simplest, most pure reflection of me and my personal style.

When I got home, I did a slash and burn number on my closet.  I couldn’t get rid of the excess fast enough.  I was ruthless. It didn’t matter how much I had paid for it.  If it was time to go, it was time to go.  What I learned in Paris wasn’t rocket science, nor was it an entirely new concept.  Paring down my “things” to a healthy minimum, was an idea I thought about for a while, but it lacked practical application.  I had to see it in action with my own eyes.  Paris was the perfect forum. When I was done, I was free.  I promised myself that nothing would enter my closet again, unless it is what I now call Paris Perfect.  How could this simple exercise not have applicability in every aspect of my life?  This emphasis on quality over quantity now pervades every part of my life, from the food I eat, to the company I keep.

Have I turned into a possession-free hippie lunatic, not even close!  But, what I have found is that by staying focused on quality and what is perfect for ME, I am free to sail past distractions.  Try it!  I dare you. Survey your unedited closet.  I am sure you will find that it is probably an accurate historian of who you are and where you have been. Undoubtedly, there are things festering in there (perhaps much like in other parts of your life), that have stayed way past their welcome–things that no longer fit, or maybe even things that never suited you to begin with.  Purge them! Clear the underbrush, cut off the dead branches!  The results could be profound.

Foiled by Flan in France

Any meaningful attempt at self analysis must include (amongst a myriad other things) the discovery and acknowledgment of one’s triggers, weaknesses, and perhaps most importantly…one’s Achilles Heel.  Until you know these things, you will forever be vulnerable to the sucker punches of life, and less likely to survive torture by foreign operatives for the national secrets you might be concealing.  As you read this, you know exactly what “it” is or “they” are, and if you don’t, it won’t be hard to figure out.  My guess is that most of us, with tenuous bravery fueled by bravado, think we can vanquish these evils with the steely, ice-blue eyed, slightly unhinged, laughing resolve of Daniel Craig as Bond in Casino Royale (you know the scene of which I speak.)  The truth, if you are willing to face it,  is that we would more likely to quiveringly cave, than to laughingly beg for more blows from a sap.

For me, that trigger, that weakness, that Achilles Heel, that moment of weakness in a dark, damp interrogation chamber is flan patissier.  When faced with sharp objects, spiders, beatings, water boarding, or any other manner of torture, I guess it would be easy enough to just give up and die.  In my twisted foodie mind, I believe the cruelest and most persuasive misery would be to use something seductively delicious.   To this day, you could wave chocolate, prime rib, the perfect Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, lobster, caviar, or even butter in my face and as tempted as I may be, no government secrets would pass my lips.  Flan patissier is a different story. A slice would have me singing songs of treason like a canary!

I never really had a chance against it.  My Mom tells fantastic tales of having wild cravings for custard during her pregnancy, she religiously fed me Gerber’s Vanilla Custard Pudding from infancy, and it is now undoubtedly mutated into my genetic make up.  I was custard primed for what was to come.  From my earliest trips to Paris, when my eyes first made contact with it I was hooked.  When I first tasted it, I was toast.  I make it my personal mission while there to consume as much as possible, within reason of course.  Like any discerning Parisienne, I will ruthlessly sacrifice quantity for quality every time.  I am flan patiessier mad.

What is it you ask?  Quite simply, it is thick custardy luciousness baked into a butter crust shell.  The custard is so thick, that a slice can be held up and eaten without the officious  interference of utensils. (Much like a  cool slice of Zachary’s Chicago style pizza.)

Flan patissier is on the left, and a freshly baked Parisian baguette is on the right. The baguette, although tempting, was not even a contender…and yes, I was wild eyed!

The challenge whenever I get home is how to hold myself over till my next trip to Paris.  I have searched high and low in every city I have been to near home, that claims to have a French Patisserie. Rien!  Nothing even comes close.  All were French flan flops. Never one to accept “no,” or “can’t” for an answer, I set out to make my own.

After years of sifting though recipes in both French and English, I stumbled upon one that worked from none other than the slightly satanic, jailed, but unrelenting domestic goddess Martha Stewart.  Her version is one based on a recipe developed by chef Sebastien Rouxel of Bouchon Bakery.  My version is further modified from that recipe and I omit the prunes.  The result is the best thing I have found this side of the Atlantic.  Am I saying I am an ace baker? Absolutely not, rather I am a lawyer who can read and follow directions.  I am certain that the unrefined edges of my crusts would make any real pastry chef cringe and avert their eyes, but I swear, you won’t regret looking past the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of pate brisee crusts.  Cradled inside is a custard lover’s delight.  I made this for the first time ever this year, after I moved to The Ranch.  In this way, I have been able to use my kitchen to make the dirt roads around here seem a little more like the Boulevard Saint Germain.  Quick tip: I don’t have a baking ring, so using Ranch Ingenuity, minus the blood loss and brushes with heavy machinery,  I jerry-rigged one using the outer ring of my spring form pan!

As I wrote, the lines above, my flan patissier baked away in the warm cocoon of my Jenn-Air double oven.  The proof, as they say, is in the pudding:

Pate Brisee crust in the making

Stirring the custard dreaminess…

Going into the oven

Golden brown flan “skin”

One tall flan!

Perhaps you will share in my dream and go just a little flan mad.  Bisous!

The recipe:

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Solo Flight to Paris: A Phobic’s Tale

Being the product of parents who came from two very different parts of the world, I spent countless hours at SFO and OAK–picking up and dropping off relatives, my Dad (who travelled weekly,) or heading somewhere with my family. I was enchanted by the cosmopolitan, sophisticated romance of air travel.  There was something magical about the electric air of purpose and anticipation at the international gates.  I especially loved watching the glamorous European women breeze through the terminal.  (Not one of them looked like one of the herd over in the Domestic Terminal, dressed in old comforters, and looking like they should have passed on that second packet of peanuts.) So chic!  I vowed to be like them.

By my early twenties, I had crossed the Pacific no less than 9 times, and had flown all over the US.  I made my first solo trip to Europe at age 23—Madrid to be exact, with only a month of Pimsleur Spanish, and not knowing a soul! (Indisputable proof that I am my Mother’s daughter.)  I made my first trip to Paris with my maverick traveler Mom just a couple years later.  Air travel was an easy-peasy way of life.

Most people can pinpoint when “it” happens.  That moment when everything changes. My once blissful romance with flying ended in 1998, as I attempted to cross the Pacific on a return flight from my cousin’s wedding.  The pink cotton candy bunnies that used to skip through my mind as I thought about flying, and for that matter while I was on a plane, were shot dead with an AK-47, by the new slimy, green, blob-like bully sheriff in town called, “Fear.”   Lulled into a false sense of security, I bought the notion that even in the “unlikely event” of an “in flight emergency,” things would play out exactly as illustrated on the eerily sticky, laminated, passenger safety instruction cards in the seat pocket in front of me.  I scoffed haughtily at the notion of disaster, with likely the same characteristic arrogance of one of the First Class Passengers on the Titanic.

Long, torturous story short, my Northwest Airlines flight blew an engine 3/4 down the runway on take off, setting off a chain reaction of events that left me terrified of flying.  At first, I  wasn’t alarmed.  It wasn’t until it hit me that our flight path takes us over the Pacific for almost 7 hours with virtually nowhere to land that I freaked. The gravity of what “could have” happened sunk in.  Thankfully, semi-rational thought intervened.  I remembered some show I had watched about the wonders of the Boeing 747 and how it could still stay in the air with 2 engines.  That show could have been shameless Boeing propaganda, but in that moment I didn’t care.

Things  did not improve when I was re-routed to a new flight. To soften the blow of being a refugee from my original flight, I was graciously given an upper deck seat.  Upper deck, miles away from the unwashed masses!  Twenty minutes into the flight, it didn’t matter where I was sitting–I was convinced we were going down.  We hit the worst turbulence I have ever experienced.   It was as if Lucifer decided to amuse himself by violently jerking the marionette strings holding up the aluminum cylinder I was riding in, as it hurdled through the air at 500 miles per hour. The other passengers who had been thus far orderly and silent could be heard shrieking in the lower deck.  Even the flight attendants, who were usually my trusty barometers, were sheet white.  With the shrieking, I could feel myself becoming unhinged.  Had part of the plane been ripped off?  Could someone see a gremlin destroying the wiring in the wings? (Yes, I was scarred by seeing that scene in Twilight Zone: The Movie.)  The rocking and rolling went on for most of the flight.  I swear I lost 10 pounds sweating and was so exhausted from terror that I passed out.   When I landed safely in San Francisco half a day later, I resolved to never fly again.

In the years since that incident, despite my proclamation, I have continued to travel. The classic phobic move of simple avoidance wasn’t an option. The siren song of European travel was just too sweet.  Like any self respecting phobic, I developed slightly irrational rituals and strategies to deal with my fear.  First, I always sit by a window.  If I can’t get a window seat, I take a different flight.

I get to the gate early, so I can take a good look at my fellow passengers.  I have no idea exactly what I am looking for, but in the wake of 9/11, I keep an eye out for possible crazies and people who I think could help me kick some ass if the need arises. Word to the wise?  Seeing people pray as if their lives depended on it, as they are about to board a plane, is a bad sign.  Take the next flight.

I immediately engage the in flight map on the seat back screen–I need to know exactly where we’re positioned in flight at all times…just in case the pilot needs my help.  Speaking of the pilot, I make a point of scanning the faces of the pilots and flight crew.  Does anyone look like they might have just had a fight with their spouse?  Do they look sober? Do they look like they are having a religious or existential crisis? If anyone looks like they might have some issues to work out on my flight, I’m out.  It would be to awesome to have clones of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and put them to work on every non-stop flight to Paris.

I have a flight uniform.  It may have some connection to  my sincere belief that if one is to meet their maker, they should have the decency to dress for the occasion. Formal? No. Neatly comfortable? Yes.  Dark jeans, black t-shirt (not a bit faded), perfectly tailored wool blazer, a freshly dry cleaned cashmere pashmina, and polished black loafers.  I always, always, always wear a watch.  I look at my watch hundreds of times during the flight hoping that somehow 5 minutes would turn into 5 hours and I would be landing that much sooner.  (The irony is that all that watch gazing probably makes me look pretty damn suspicious…)

I have a firm policy of rarely leaving my seat during the flight. Inexplicably, I operate under the bizarre idea that if I move from my seat I will immediately cause the plane to tilt to one side or the other.  Preposterous, but who cares!  My neurosis, my rules!

On occasion I have even called upon the strongest talisman of all against air travel evil–my Mom. Cheerful, funny, and prepared, she has the unique ability to keep me from going off the deep end.  With her on the plane, nothing could go wrong, and even if it did, I would have my Mommy to hold me as we plunged into the abyss.

Since “it” happened in 1998, I have survived crossing the Atlantic during hurricane season, a specific terrorist threat against my Air France flight on Christmas Day in 2003, a multitude of patches of turbulence that caused me to seriously consider the purchase of a parachute to place in my carry on, and in 2005 the wing of my United flight bursting into flames at 130 knots as I was about to take off from Charles de Gaulle in Paris.

By the time I decided to make a 5 week solo trip to Paris in 2010, I had some serious baggage when it came to flying.  That baggage was heavy and unquestionably of the phobic’s Louis Vuitton variety. Nevertheless, renting an apartment in Paris and living like a local for a period of time was a lifelong dream.  I cast fear aside as I purchased my ticket for August 31, 2010.  When I got to SFO, I felt confident.  I was excited to be on my way.  32 hours prior, I had secured an upper deck window seat on the Air France flight. ( A steal at a mere $70, available online.) Maybe my luck would differ from the last time I had an upper deck seat.  After I waved `a dieu to My Beloved and parents at security, I made my way to the gate.  I scanned the waiting area and happily determined that there were no members of Al Queda on the flight.

In the upper deck, I was seated next to a pleasant American woman and her French boyfriend.  Their presence was mildly comforting.  Before take off though, I had a “holy shit” moment.  I started to ask myself, “what the hell am I doing?” A few hours into this flight it will be dark and I won’t be able to see the ground! I am entirely on my own!  If there is an emergency, they will start shouting the instructions in French!  Will my formal French be of any use when the flight attendants are speaking freak-out French? Not wanting to scare away the nice couple next to me with my panic attack, I managed to conceal it (or at least I thought I did.) Instead of having a screaming meltdown, I talked their ears off for 4 hours until they passed out from exhaustion.  Panic did wonders for my French.  Once the American woman stopped talking, I dove headlong into conversation with her boyfriend.  Decorum be damned, this was about survival people! There is no doubt in my mind they must have thought I was on methamphetamines.

Once they were out, I was left to my phobic rituals and devices.  I looked at my watch every few minutes.  As I looked out the window, I could see the occasional lights here and there as we flew over northeastern Canada.  I was glued to the inflight map, trying to calculate whether if we went down at any given moment I could safely swim to land.  Why didn’t I just watch a movie to pass the time you might ask?  Heavens no. That would only distract me from my vigilant observation of the map.  There also seemed to be a rather suspicious correlation between me not looking at the map and a sudden increase in jostling around of the plane.  Phobic irrationality at its finest.  Up to that point there were a few small bumps, but nothing to send me into a panic.

The story changed when we started to go over the southern tip of Greeland.  Jarring bumps and dives.  I started sweating profusely.  I waited to hear the screams from the lower deck. I started thinking about the Air France flight from Rio that had gone down just months prior.  Was this pilot going to have the sense to slow the plane down in this turbulence so we didn’t break apart mid air? Had the perpetually striking Air France mechanics actually addressed the speed sensor issue that was blamed for the Rio to Paris tragedy? Could metaphorical lightning strike the same airline twice in the same year? Why was I such an idiot for booking an Air France flight!?

I looked all around me and almost everyone was asleep. How in the hell could they sleep through this?  We were going down!  My arms were completely wrapped around the under sides of the arm rests.  Why?  Why did I have to live out my dream to be in Paris?  Why couldn’t I just be a sheep and stay at home day dreaming? It would be a lot safer. I looked over at the American woman and her French boyfriend–should I wake them up?  They had the decency to be patient with me earlier.  Didn’t I owe it to them to wake them up and inform them that were were going to die?  There was not a single flight attendant in sight, so I had no barometer.  Had they decided to jump?  I began working out a plan in my mind to take a Norwegian fishing boat home if I was able to survive this flight.

Then, it stopped.   As dawn broke, I started to breathe easier.  Relief washed over me as we flew over Scotland, then down through England.  The view of Normandy as we glided over the English Channel was magnificient.  As we flew into Paris, we made a giant loop of the city, putting the Eiffel Tower clear in my sights on the right.  That view, that magic, the anticipation of living out a dream, is what I braved that crazy flight for, despite my fear and baggage.  I could see Parisian life playing out on terra firma below me.  I was ready for it.

Am I cured of my fear of flying?  Absolutely not.  Every time I get on a plane I am in crisis.  For me it is about choosing to live my life, rather than having fear dictate my existence.  Paris (and a few other things) are worth it.  N’est pas?

Elation at Landing in Paris in One Piece