Rules of survival | Aeon

Always be properly dressed: a United Airlines flight attendant talks with a passenger, 1968. Photo by Dean Conger/Corbis


Rules of survival

Mid-air is a bad place, where nightmares happen. Only witches and meteorites belong there. Avoid it or be destroyed

by AL Kennedy + BIO

Always be properly dressed: a United Airlines flight attendant talks with a passenger, 1968. Photo by Dean Conger/Corbis

When I start writing this, I’m in the air. Last week I flew out to Vancouver for a literary festival. Then I took the train — the lovely, lengthy train — to Toronto for another festival. And now I am flying back to London. The challenge remains: how to avoid or indeed avert a plane crash.

Rule 1. If the trip out didn’t kill you, the trip back will.

Despite listening to my happy tune on my MP3 player and performing my tapping rituals, I am already shell-shocked with horror, and we’re only 10 minutes into the flight. And I am still horribly in the air. Which is better than being horribly not, but also means I’m at 20,000 ft and climbing. And I am breaking one of my cardinal rules: never fly.

Rule 2. When you are airborne, do not think about being airborne.

I am not superstitious. Magical thinking is an open well of nonsense into which we fall at our peril, it leaves us prey to charlatans and all that is self-defeating about human psychology. I use tapping and listening to music to induce positive states as a kind of self-hypnosis, I don’t believe I’m performing magic… I don’t believe in magic… Yet as soon I get within sight of an airport I know that reality is, in some ghastly way, porous or sensitive at great heights. Some deep, irrational urging, some remnant of young hominids’ anxieties around over-tall trees, tells me that nature itself is able to feel my thoughts at any altitude from which a fall would prove fatal. The higher I get, the more clearly my conscious mind’s emanations will invite attention. It will lean close, like a startled mother bending in over a baby she suddenly realises is not a baby, but merely a baby-shaped monster swapped for her beloved by evil elves and likely to bite her at night if she doesn’t throw the appalling thing clear out of a window right now. To be precise, the more I fill with fears, the more the universe will attend to and believe my fears, thus making them real. And down will come baby, cradle and all.

Rule 3. If you see a baby on your flight, be reassured. Cling to the sight of innocence too sweet to sacrifice, and let your pulse ease.

Rule 4. Likewise, you may relax slightly should you encounter persons who appear old in a saintly way they are clearly good at staying alive and deserve the benefits of longevity.

Rule 5. Persons professionally affiliated to a recognised religion: nuns, rabbis, voodoo houngans, reincarnations of Krishna, etc may also bode well for your flight, as they might be protected by powerful forces. Or they might be oozing with hypocrisy and courting annihilation.

But even if I am seated next to an ancient, levitating Sufi of pure heart who is holding delightful twins, I am still certain that when I imagine, as I surely will, our ailerons working loose, or a loss of oxygen, jet fuel, navigation systems, hydraulic fluid, or crew member sanity, or accept that my walking about in the tail section will cause it to detach, then reality will listen and respond.

Rule 6. Mid-air is the place where nightmares happen. Only witches, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and meteorites belong there. It’s a bad place. Avoid it or be destroyed.

But I have been commissioned to write about my flying-related superstitions and rituals. So I am thinking about flying. My oncoming terror is therefore inevitable and yet must be avoided at all costs, because it will kill me in a self-fulfilling manner.

This means I will have to study the in-flight route animation as if it were a birthday snap of my non-elf-abducted first-born and I am far away.

I am far away.

I don’t have a first-born.

Rule 7. Flying on your birthday will always be safe. In a world rich with the kind of bizarre coincidences that even daytime soaps would eschew, dying in a plane crash on your birthday would still be distastefully neat/ironic/unlikely.

Sadly, it was my birthday a few days ago and so I am in a hot zone of potential extinction. ‘Only a few days after her birthday…’ has a chillingly convincing obit ring. So I really do need that in-flight route animation, to calm if not protect.

Rule 8. While watching the in-flight route animation, you will be safe to consider that you are in flight.

I peer up at the cabin’s multiple TV screens. The tiny plane icon progresses, inside it a tiny me with tiny hopes and breakable tiny bones and delicate tiny organs and wishes for a tiny future. The icon wriggles infinitely slowly and rather haphazardly along the perfect arc of its predestined route and I am reassured. I am supported by immutable laws of physics and the statistical truth that I am more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport than I am in a plane crash having left it.

Rule 9. There might be a statistical correlation between the number of people who tell you how likely you are to die in a car crash on the way to the airport and the likelihood of your proving them wrong and dying in a plane crash. When being reassured, avoid collecting a critical mass of advice that will actually doom you.

I am scribbling notes on the back of my e-ticket. My last ‘there-and-back’ didn’t involve e-tickets — it’s been that long. Around me are mainly southern European people of rural appearance. They are old ladies (not visibly saintly) in black frocks and head squares, old men (not visibly saintly) with outdoor faces and synthetic cardigans, middle-aged men (not religious) with deep tans and various cosmetic assets — luxuriant moustaches, pomaded hair, dashing hats — that seem designed to attract younger women. There don’t seem to be any younger women. Or babies. I had never heard of this airline before today. I don’t know if it’s safe. It seems to be the preferred carrier of Portuguese farmers. I try to guess whether these are the wily, financially prudent kind of farmers, or a flock of hicks who’ll board any death-trap with wings and whose relatives know nothing of class actions.

Rule 10. Before leaving your home, make sure it presents itself as the residence of someone admirable.

My flat in London contains nothing to offend a policeman, or grieving relative.

Rule 11. Before leaving your hotel room, remember you might be dead soon and needn’t bother to keep it shipshape. A vaguely louche aura might make you seem interesting in later obituaries.

My hotel bed in Toronto was left rumpled and there were some hairs in the bath. That’s as louche as I get.

Rule 12. Just before stepping from the bridge into the metal belly of the devouring aircraft, peep down for your last glimpse of solid ground.

Damn, damn, damn. I forgot to do that. I try to work out if this means I am bound to arrive in one piece because I am owed a good stare at some ground, or if my next ground will be viewed at speed as I hurtle through deafening altitudes, slewing in and out of consciousness, my extremities frostbitten into especially fragile states until I am partly shattered and partly mashed to a close.

My impending destruction has also led to more psycho-spiritual types of cleansing.

Rule 13. Say goodbye to everyone. Nicely.

Don’t leave bad feeling behind that might spoil the memorably and tastefully moving funeral you have envisaged.

Rule 14. There might be those who underestimate the wisdom of your horror.

That’s why you should use a marker pen to write a parting message on your stomach for others to find.

Rule 14 b. You have the option to leave the message: ‘I told you so.’

Rule 15. Bad karma can cause metal fatigue and engine failure avoid it until you are back in your living room with no flights planned.

Everything is emotionally neat in my interior and I have spent the entire period between my outgoing and homecoming flights behaving as pleasantly and helpfully as I can.

Rule 16. Always be properly dressed.

For your journey, wear underthings that wouldn’t cause a reasonable forensic investigator to giggle. Try also to imply that you might be comfortably-off. Incautious lingerie, cheap fabrics and tacky T-shirt slogans will mean strangers don’t meet you at your best when you are unable to amend your condition. This rule blithely ignores the fact that explosive forces and tearing winds can strip your body of clothes entirely, but does combine well with Rule 17.

Rule 17. Always wear organic materials: cotton, leather, linen, wool.

Synthetic fabrics will melt and act like napalm on the skin when exposed to blazing jet fuel. Shoes without leather soles also melt, making it more difficult to flee an inferno with any kind of success. This is less a superstition and more a practical measure. I also carry a small stash of energy bars, medicines and a compass in case I survive a crash into wilderness. Current security measures preclude my having anything else helpful, like kerosene or an axe.

Rule 18. When you land, promise you will never ever do this to yourself again, and this time keep your promise.

If I make it, I’ll finish the article and then — really, really, really — I won’t ever fly again. I shouldn’t. It makes me upset.

Mental healthTravelTechnology and the self

Aeon is not-for-profit and free for everyone

Make a donation

Get Aeon straight to your inbox

Join our newsletter