Friday, May 27, 2016

Non-Preparation for Landing

I’ve always been a leader, not a follower. 

That’s not because I believe I have any great leadership skills; I just don’t trust anyone else to take me to the right destination, either physically or metaphorically. It’s probably the reason I’ve never been married. If you can’t trust someone to walk you down the aisle, it doesn’t bode well for a future with what’s waiting at the altar.
People tend to follow me, though. Again, not because I possess any great skill, but because I carry my actions through with such conviction, everyone thinks I must be doing the right thing. That’s how 250 people, following me off a plane, landed up in a dead end in Malaga airport. Incredibly, upon reaching the dead end, they all followed me back the way we had come, as, despite my error, I marched forth once more with Alamo like conviction.
I was less lucky when landing at John F Kennedy airport last week, following a Virgin America internal flight from Los Angeles to New York. It’s my third least favourite airport in the world (after Charles de Gaulle and Miami) and I try to fly in and out of Newark, which is more accessible to where I live in New York. 

But JFK was unavoidable on this occasion, and so, being the first to leave the plane (as per usual), I marched off forcefully, my troops (as per usual, again) scurrying up the rear in the belief that I knew where I was going.
The last thing I remember before my hysteria was pressing a metal bar on a door and finding myself alone on the other side. My troops had deserted me. I went to carousel six, which is where the announcer had told us to go, but not only were there no people I recognised from my flight, there were no bags.
There were, however, lots of officials telling me I had to join a long queue, but then directing me to a tiny queue when I explained I had Global Entry (which enables you to cut all queuing at US airports – it’s a joy). Now the fun really began: I had a Domestic flight ticket but was, inexplicably, in the International Arrivals area, and so wasn’t allowed out. I wasn’t allowed anywhere, in fact. This was it. Groundhog Day: destined to roam the corridors of JFK for all eternity.
What’s a girl to do? Cry. That’s what. And I did. Sobbed. Blubbed. Uncontrollably. I stopped anyone wearing a uniform to try to explain my fate. One female in security was unsympathetic and all but had me deported on the spot. But then there were men. Lovely, lovely men, who were a great deal more understanding. I fell upon their mercy and sobbed some more. 

“My luggage, where’s my luggage?” I wailed, with the kind of escalating enthusiasm one would normally reserve for a lost child.
More hunky security and police gathered around, all incredibly solicitous and really, really kind. One had managed to obtain a film of what had happened and showed me. It transpired the fault had not been mine, but that of Virgin America, who, as the evidence clearly showed, had ushered us towards the wrong exit. 

“What I don’t understand,” said Man with Film, pointing to my figure storming purposefully through the door, “is what happened to all these other people behind you.” 

Me neither, mate. Me neither.
Now, they all got very excited. They said they would be fining Virgin America. I, too, was now very excited, and, out of gratitude, watched the movie for a third time. But now the concern was how my followers had vanished in the Narnia of JFK.
Still crying about my luggage, which, given my history, I was sure had been stolen, I was escorted back to Domestic Arrivals, where my red case stood outside the Virgin America office, a lone surviving soldier at the end of a long battle.
So, what have I learned from this?

1.     Stop being a control freak and follow someone who really does know what they are doing.
2.     Men will rescue you if you cry long and hard enough.
3.     Tears don’t work on women.
4.     JFK now beats Charles de Gaulle and Miami as the worst airport in the world.
5.     Doors at airports are closed for a reason.
6.     Virgin America’s trolley service is better than its geographical landing procedure.
7.     There is nothing quite so lonely as an empty carousel.
8.     When the going gets tough, everyone will desert you.
9.     You can always find more tears, when necessary.
10.  I love men. Did I mention that?

Tomorrow, I am flying Virgin Atlantic back to the UK. I’ll be second off the plane.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Happiness Pause

I watched Brooklyn again last night. It was my favourite film of 2015, not least because I was facing the decision of totally embracing my new life or returning to the comfort of the familiar. 

Like Eilis in Ireland, I had a light-bulb moment in Wales of  “I’d forgotten”, when a small-minded individual made some comments that were a salient reminder of why I’d crossed the Atlantic in the first place.
I have a wonderful career in the UK, and fantastic friends and family; but I’ve always sought new experiences, cultures and people. I think it’s what every writer worth their salt does – Scott Fitzgerald, D H Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway. Okay, they ended up dying of alcoholism, TB and suicide, but you can’t have everything. Travel takes it out of you.
So, I’ve been four days in my new LA abode and tomorrow I fly back to New York. I’m looking forward to it: a screening on Tuesday with Welsh friends, a party to celebrate the June issue of W42ndSt (the Hell’s Kitchen magazine for which I write a monthly column), and a meet-up with an artist friend over from the UK on Thursday. Plus, I’ll see my beloved sunsets over the Hudson after nearly three weeks away.
I’ve been enjoying a break following the sale of my house in Cardiff, and while I won’t be rushing back to Salt Lake City in a hurry, it’s been a much needed relaxing time, laughing with mega clever, funny friends, and sleeping right through the night for the first time in years. 
It’s been a time in which I’ve allowed myself to be happy. I use the word “allow” carefully, as the nature of happiness sometimes carries a lot of baggage: guilt, when one sees the extent of suffering in the world; trepidation, because all happiness is at some point countered by its ugly twin, sadness; and also darkness - fear for the future, that one may never re-experience the intensity of joy. 
The writer and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire said: 

“Now and then it's good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”

So that’s what I’ve been doing. Talking, looking at trees (the purple jacundas are at their most glorious in LA at the moment), walking and playing. 

Yes, playing.

My friends Karl and Richard, who live in LA, treated me to a flight experience – in Karl’s living room. Insisting on strapping me in my seat, they lifted the sofa and shook it for turbulence; upon landing, I was detained by Customs and put in a cell . . . You had to be there, really.
It’s fun being a child again. Although I don’t have children (and absolutely no regrets there), I love them: their ability to live in the moment, even though at such an early age the fears that will be their future are present: two girls in New York, throwing their tiny hands to their mouths in horror when they saw a dead bird on the street; a boy in LA recoiling in disgust at some cigarette butts in a sand bin. But also, the abandonment that is the essence of a lack of expectation: a group in the late afternoon Californian sun, throwing a ball, their effortless laughter in a jacunda of calm.
I love laughter. Despite a difficult few years, I have never stopped laughing. I am blessed to have so many really funny friends, from all walks of life. To quote Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing.”
No, none of us know what is coming; if we did, we’d probably jump off the nearest bridge to save ourselves the trouble of facing it. But we are resilient beings. We have words to help us make sense of life; we have empathy in our souls; and we have each other.
And so, moving on: thank you to everyone who has seen me through and given me such support in oh, so many ways. I might be hit by a bus this afternoon (I’ll try not to be), but at the moment I’m living for the laughter – the pause of happiness. 

Just don’t make me watch The Revenant again.  


Monday, May 16, 2016

Out of the Woods

I cannot think of a more lonely way to end one’s life than surrender to the sea. 

The news of writer Sally Brampton’s suicide last week is heartbreaking at so many levels, but those last steps are the most horrible even to contemplate.
My friend Angharad chose the same method: sitting on a rock on a freezing January night on Penarth seafront, waiting for the waves to swallow her. The image still haunts me.
I have suffered from depression, as many have, but at this point am in a very good place. It’s been an incredibly tough seven years financially (which I’ve written about), but still nothing that pushed me to the point of wanting to end it all; because if there is one thing that now frightens me more than life continuing, it’s the thought of it ending. It’s rushing by so quickly, I can’t bear the thought of all the things and people I will never get to see or meet. I suspect that’s how the myth of everlasting life came about.
I remember when my friend Jonathan committed suicide many years ago, I wept the most when I listened to Mozart’s Requiem shortly after. The knowledge that he would never again experience it filled me with sorrow; ever after, when I reached rock bottom, the grain of hope that was the absence of Mozart pulled me through.
Yes, I know it’s not that simple, and that depression is the Monster in the House (to use Blake Snyder’s film term) that is always lurking. But it’s why I try to store up the good in order to prepare me for the bad.
I am no longer a religious person, but I still love the teachings of Jesus – be good to one another, damnit! How hard can that be? I especially love the parables – apart from the one about the Rich Fool.
So, in summary: the rich fool’s idea is to store up as much grain as he can in his barn, and eat, drink and be merry for evermore. God’s having none of it. His reasoning is that the man may die tonight and everyone else will benefit from that which he was saving for himself (Tip of the day: Never turn to God on the subject of material possessions; he’s never going to approve of that new iPad).
There is, nevertheless, a nice metaphor in there on the subject of storing things up. Despite the Seven Year Bitch, as I call it, I didn’t die (always a bonus) and was still able to enjoy so much through friends and travel: the emotional grain you store up that will be the resource to get you through the next emotional famine.
My life changed completely three weeks ago when, after four years, my house in Cardiff finally sold. I won’t pretend that it wasn’t emotionally difficult, and many tears were shed. Was I doing the right thing? Why was I parting with the thing I had worked so hard to get? What’s life all about anyway?
But on Wednesday, I take the keys to my new Los Angeles apartment. I lived in the city for six years and, when I moved to New York two years ago, held on to the dream of being bi-coastal. New York is wonderful April to June, but a monster November to February; Los Angeles is great all year round, but there are only six months of the year that it is humanly possibly to listen to actors and directors pontificate about meetings and jobs they will never get.
I’ve lived in two places most of my adult life: London, Cardiff, Bath, Paris, Marbella – and, at one point, in four of them at the same time. I have no idea why. I suspect I have a very low boredom threshold that applies to people, as well as places: bring me an act, or you’re gone. It doesn’t have to be an all singing, all dancing act, but you have to bring something to the table: even silence (actually, especially silence, if I’m the act).
I’ve just enjoyed one of the best weeks of my life – debt free, great people, laughter so hearty the people at the next table thought I was having a stroke – and if it all went tomorrow, I’ve still had a better life than most people in the world. Most of the time, I don't know how anyone can bear not to be me. Now that's happiness.
The support from people, and especially those in social networking during these difficult times, has been phenomenal; I really would not have survived without it: family, friends, strangers. To quote Hebrews: my cup runneth over. Truly (some of it’s okay, this Bible lark).
While the phrase “You’re so lucky” has been bandied about (and I know it’s not in a malicious way), luck really has very little to do with it. The people who have seen me struggle for so long will know that my current existence has come at a price, both financial and emotional.
There will doubtless be new obstacles and pressures ahead but, as the genius Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke said: 

“The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.”
Where there’s breath, there’s hope. 

And Mozart.