There are dozens of ways to cope with a fear of flying. Some folks plant their feet flat on the airplane floor, close their eyes, and chant a mantra at the first sign of turbulence. Others swill $4 vodka tonics till they pass out. And me? I got a tattoo.
I once read about a particularly unsavory air disaster, one in which the plane went down excruciatingly slowly. When the bodies were recovered, rescue workers discovered that many of the victims had written goodbye notes and stuffed them into their pockets before the crash. A few had even scrawled messages directly on their bodies.
I am not the bravest soul. If my plane goes down, I won't spend my last moments digging through my carry-on luggage for a Sharpie. I will be too busy screaming or passed out unconscious from the terror. But on one occasion several years ago, during a patch of particularly bumpy air, I began seriously contemplating what farewell words I'd choose.
It didn't take long to arrive at an answer: "I have wonderful friends." I'm proud of many accomplishments, but I derive the greatest satisfaction from knowing my life has been enriched by myriad creative, caring people. As a testament to all those souls, I decided to permanently immortalize this phrase on my inner arm, where I would be able to see it at all times.
For several years, I postponed getting my tattoo, unsure of how to design it and nervous about the pain. But then life turned upside down on Sept. 11, and I decided it was now or never. Since this would be an homage to my friends, I reached out to one of them, a writer, to help nail down the image. I pecked out "I have wonderful friends" over and over on every vintage typewriter in her collection until I found the font I wanted.
When it came time to select where to have the work done, I once again let a friend guide me. One of my dearest chums, who recently moved to New York City, had always wanted to try out Anchor Tattoo in Ballard but never got around to it. So I did it for her. I showed a man behind the counter my humble sheet of typing paper and, within minutes, was offering up my quivering, naked forearm to a complete stranger. (Not surprisingly, our conversation later revealed that fate had delivered me into the chair of a fellow who is tight with several of my "old Seattle" comrades.)
Just before he put the needle to my skin, my ink jockey got up to change the CD. "Please put on something mellow," I wished silently. My nerves were too frayed to handle punk, metal, or any of the other genres I associate with tattoos. As I heard the lilting opening of "Terrapin," from The Madcap Laughs, the 1970 solo debut from former Pink Floyd singer Syd Barrett, I knew my prayers had been answered.
As he commenced work, my new best friend with the steady hands and firm grip mentioned recently winning a bet off a client who'd insisted Barrett was dead. Syd Barrett is still alive. Sort of. Since dropping out of the music scene completely in 1970, the 55-year-old has resided in Cambridge, England, where he grew up. He lives like a hermit and has virtually no outside contact.
They say that if you're not busy living, you're busy dying. The world might seem a terrifying place for Americans right now, but I refuse to hide. It saddens me when I see half-empty clubs; I would rather perish on a dance floor than alone in the false safety of my apartment. Fear of the unknown will not cut me off from enjoying time-though it may be running out-with my loved ones.
One of my oldest friends is getting married in Manhattan next week, and, unlike many of the invited guests, I still plan on attending. For the first time since Sept. 11, I am getting on an airplane. And though I still intend to drink my share of midair cocktails, I am no longer frightened. Because even if I never make it to my final destination, I will never be able to forget that my friends are always with me.