Steinberg: Flying into fear


Columnist Neil Steinberg says It isn’t the going part that scares him, it’s the leaving part.| AP Photo/Kyodo News


Paris. London. Rome. Jerusalem.

Sure, I’m an international traveler. Flitting about the globe like a luna moth — off to Tokyo on Saturday — wearing a bespoke suit, crisply folding my International Herald Tribune in airports from Copenhagen to Hong Kong, stifling a yawn as I notice that my flight takes off in 20 minutes and I had better finish my espresso and amble over to the departure gate ….

No, that’s a lie. Not the cities; I’ve been to those places. But I’m a stressed out traveler, stumbling through endless causeways, face set in a mask of anxiety, one hand clutching the lump of my wallet through my clothes, the other my boarding pass, using an elbow to guide my rolling bag.

But I can aspire, can’t I? Why should Donald Trump be the only one with carte blanche to shout down reality and substitute a more flattering image? If a crude, mendacious, gold-plated, P.T. Barnum of a fraud like Trump can insist he’s serious presidential timber, and people buy it, then I can pretend I’m Daniel Craig, picking a piece of lint off my lapel as I slip out of a limousine parked on the tarmac at Doha International.

See, that’s why I’m a Democrat. Lying does not sit well with me. Even lying to make myself look good. I live in the fact-based world, and in that world I snapped awake at 2:30 a.m. Thursday, this trip twirling my guts on a splintery stick.

I tried to pin down what, exactly, I was stressed about and couldn’t. Going through the airport? I’ll be there two and a half hours early.


Follow @NeilSteinberg

The discomfort of flying? I like flying. I like to sit. I like to read. I like snacks. I once flew from Bangkok to Chicago in a window seat, and two huge Marines fast asleep the entire flight in the aisle and middle seats. I got up once in a 14-hour flight. A happy memory.

I know some people can’t hear their flight number, “Pan Am, Flight 431, ready to depart at …” without imagining the primary color USA Today graphic showing their corkscrew doom: “The Brief, Tragic Flight of Pan Am 431.”

I’m not that guy. I know I’m safer on the plane at takeoff than driving to the airport. I’ve flown in the Goodyear blimp and in a stunt biplane doing barrel rolls over Lake Michigan. I think I can do JAL to Narita.

What then? The difficulties of navigating a foreign country, particularly one as confusing as Japan? I was there in the 1980s, pre-cellphones, pre-Internet. They have Google Maps in Japan.

I try to shame myself out of it. This is white privilege. Chicago is full of hospitals jammed with patients facing death and her handmaidens with more grace than I’m facing converting dollars to yen. Whole swaths of Chicago contain mothers who experience less fear seeing their children leave the house to run the gauntlet of street gangs than I endure trying to decide what kind of coat to bring.

Boo hoo. I haven’t gotten my bullet train ticket to Kumamoto yet, and thus risk showing up at the shinkansen station and, in my grim imaginings, being refused a spot on the train. I might miss the beginning of Kumamon’s three-day birth fest, the reason for my trip, a truly insane mission who’s strangeness brings great comfort (If you want a laugh, go to YouTube and plug in “Kumamon.” Watch the first video. That’s who I’m traveling around the world to see).

Meanwhile, Syrian refugees clamber over barbed wire fences in Cyprus. Mexicans ford the Rio Grande at night. Me, I’ve seen pictures of my exact hotel rooms, which are staggering cheap because of Japan’s limping economy, not that I’m paying for them. A London Web site, Mosaic, is. (This Internet stuff; it works if you work it.)

Got it made and still fretting about it. I’d be too ashamed to admit it, but I can’t be alone here. Why worry about the trip? The honest answer — and not being Donald Trump, I’ll give you the honest answer, warts and all — is: It isn’t the going part, it’s the leaving part. Travel is a little like dying. I’m loathe to leave my house. My wife. My dog. To leave writing for you. Honestly hate to miss even a week.

What a surprising thing to realize.

I was commuting into work Thursday, and thought I’d crack the cool facade and confess.

“I’m stressed about this trip, lamb,” I said to my wife.

“Did you do your homework?” she replied.


“Do you have a plan?”


“Then go boldly forth.”

See why I’m reluctant to go?

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