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On my way to Oz recently, I had a long layover in LA, during which I stayed at my friend Vicky’s house in Sherman Oaks. I met Vicky at a Sun magazine retreat about 7 years ago and we’ve seemed like lifetime friends ever since.

It was fitting with our Sun-born friendship that on the very day of my visit there would be, she told me, an annular eclipse – a rare event in which the moon passes across the face of the sun, creating a “ring of fire” effect. It would be late afternoon, peaking (or ringing) around the time I’d be waiting on her front step for my airport shuttle. But, she warned me in her best school-psychologist tone, “The only way to see it is not to look at it.”  She said we must  improvise a “viewer,” possibly  from cardboard and paper.

“We could use film,” I said, thinking back to my last eclipse-viewing, ca. 1979 in Florida, when the more scientifically minded of my classmates created little pinhole boxes that worked like cameras to project the light of the sun (of, actually, the absence thereof, in the form of the moon’s shadow) onto a safe viewing area. Other Floridians, we read in the paper, were viewing the phenomenon through used film strips, the brown, sharp-edged negatives that used to be returned when one had one’s photos quaintly “developed” at a “lab.”

Of course Vicky and I didn’t have time that Sunday to look up a website and figure out how to make a viewing device before it was time for the eclipse. We were busy talking, drinking, talking, eating, walking and talking and then packing in a flurry for my flight. I barely had time to call my sister on the East Coast and advise her of the “annular” eclipse.  She had been having cocktails with her neighbor and my mother and they were all a little tipsy.

“A lunar eclipse?” she said, both to me and to her neighbor, Betty, and other assembled guests. “How exciting!”

“No, not lunar, annular,” I said. “It means ‘ring of fire.’ It’s visible here; you’ll have to Google it to see if you can see it there.”

“There’s a lunar eclipse this afternoon!” she sang out to her friends, implausibly.

“No, there isn’t!” I shrieked. “It’s annular. It’s a ring of the sun showing around the moon!”

“An eclipse of the moon?” she asked me. There was a lot of noise in the background, and some static on the line.

“No, the sun! Look it up,” I said. “Google it, or ask Paul.”  Paul, my brother-in-law, tends to know about scientific phenomenon, having been a state park superintendant for most of his life.

“TellFrank and Paul there’s an annual eclipse!” she sang out, incorrectly.

“It’s once every 120 years,” I said. “Annular, not annual.”

“Well, I don’t know what that is,” she said, slightly annoyed. But she was excited about seeing it, whatever it was, and hung up torun find Paul.

Back in California, we toddled outdoors with my suitcase about 5 pm, Vicky carrying a piece of typing paper and a chunk of cardboard with a pencil-sized aperture.

The air was brownish gray and soft, as if it were dusk, and lots of neighbors were out on their own stoops, peering up at the sun between two high buildings. “Oh, wow, it’s really happening!” I said.

“Don’t look at it!” Vicky proffered the two pieces of paper. “If you look directly at it you’ll go blind.” Vicky is Scottish, and her premonitions of doom have a serious Celtic ring of firey authenticity to them.

“But it’s not bright right now,” I protested. “The moon is over it, see?”

“DON’T LOOK!”  She handed me the cardboard-plus-paper like someone giving a prescription drug to a dying person.

I hummed a few bars from the Manford Man song: “Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun; but, Mama, that’s where the fun is!” and we argued briefly about who’d written those lyrics. We agreed that Vicky’s boyfriend, Bruce Springsteen, had done a brilliant job with recording it.

I turned my back on the sun as directed by my hostess, and noted that there was a brilliant and interesting reflection in the window of an apartment nearby. “Can we look at it that way?” I asked.

“Not unless you want to go blind!”

I held up the cardboard and let the sun shine through it onto the paper. There was no result at all of my doing so, as the hole was large enough to allow a full beam of light in, with no lens-creation effect at all. “This is not a pinhole,” I complained. “This is supposed to be a hole made by a pin, not a pencil.”

One of the people standing near us overheard, and said, “A pen-hole? Do you have a pen?”

I didn’t (some writer I am), but he did, it turned out, and I pushed it through the thick cardboard in order to make a smaller,  more lens-like aperture.  Then, with a certain amount of angling of papers and imagination, it was possible to see a vague, half-moon-shaped shadow palely displayed on the paper.  It was hardly the “ring of fire” I’d been hoping for, but it was nonetheless evidence of an astronomical occurrence in progress, and I showed it to Vicky with pride.

She didn’t see it. When I looked again, I didn’t see it, either.

The neighbors, who were squinting at the sun through their eyelashes and not going blind, said they could see something, but they didn’t seem impressed. People in LA have pretty exciting lives and a once-in-120 year event is no biggie.

I gave the neighbor his pen back, and Vicky and I sat and waited for my shuttle, and talked some more, updating and deepening the long and ongoing exchanges that make up our friendship.  In the 18 or so hours I’d spent in LA, we’d caught up on our current views and experiences of The Sun, love, sex, families, her work at school, my writing, and weight-loss strategies that were working for us both. Mama, that’s where the fun was.

My flight itinerary from Budapest to Navsehir (in Cappadocia) indicated a comfortable layover in Istanbul. I got in about 2 pm, and my next flight on Turkish Airlines left at 5.45 pm. It was plenty of time to make the connection and maybe grab some Internet as well.

The flight from Istanbul was exemplary. No wonder Turkish Airlines was named European Airline of the Year. They offer about 9 different special meals, including Indian (Jain) vegetarian, Oriental vegetarian, ovo-lacto vegetarian, vegan, Kosher, and “special celebration” with cake.

The food was good and the service better. One of the smiling attendants, who all seemed to enjoy their work, taught me how to say “Thank you” in Turkish – it sounds like “Tea shay cur idiom,” or so I thought after many practices with the smiling, head-scared woman. She helped me again when the pilot announced that anyone on the flight who was going to a destination without customs offices must get their bags in Istanbul, clear customs, and check the bags back in. I was hopping that I would not have to do this – my bag is relatively heavy since the nuns gave me a lovely rug-runner – so I wanted to make sure my destination – NAV, or Lavisher airport, would allow me to clear customs. I The lovely air hostess looked all through the online magazine for me until she found the tiny print that indicated, clearly if minutely, that NAV had customs facilities. Therefore, she assured me, I would not need to collect my bag in Istanbul but could proceed with confidence and without luggage to the domestic terminal for my ongoing flight.

And so I did, stopping once at the airport drugstore to obtain those feminine hygiene products for which in this, my 50th year, my need is always unpredictable and never convenient.  I then cleared security, located my gate (102) and took a seat at a relatively charming café with wireless internet (a.k.a. wifi, pronounced “veefee” in the Balkans).

I ordered water and salad (my staples when they are safe and available; otherwise it’s pizza and sour-cherry juice or elderberry lemonade) and whipped out my notebook and plugged it in, using my recently remodified and newly cumbersome adaptor, now featuring a second adaptor plug on top of the first worldwide adaptor that is the receptacle for the original AC power cord from the computer. In less than five minutes, I managed to get it all rigged up and plugged in; the battery was charging by the time my food arrived.

It took about 7 tries, and the assistance of more than one waiter, but I did eventually get a viable connection to the Internet, and went immediately to Gmail to tell the relevant rellos in London know that I’d booked a flight for the UK on August 7th, just in time to make it to a family get-together at Jean and Ray’s house.

I wasn’t smug, but I was feeling good. I was very excited about my stay in Cappadocia, then the Bodrum Peninsula, and then my trip to Istanbul, none of which had been even a serious consideration (and two of which I’d never heard of) until last Friday afternoon when JETSETTER offered some assignments in Turkey. I bought my plane tickets yesterday, in Istanbul, and got an astonishingly cheap fare. I knew I was going to be treated well (by which I mean, indulged and catered to) by the PR/marketing people at Sacred House (just look –you’ll see why I was eager to get there and indeed there was an email from the manager giving me the itinerary, starting with dinner or my arrival and a balloon flight starting at 4.30 a.m. the next day!

So, sitting with my salad and my Gmail on a soft seat in a clean café with a sanitary bathroom nearby, I felt that the hard part of my trip – including more than two and a half days on buses from southern Macedonia to Budapest – was over, and I could relax and enjoy the sumptuousness of five-star resorts and the wonders of Turkish nature.  I ate my salad (featuring great cherry tomatoes and some kind of small red dried pepper thing, plus fried cheese and roasted eggplant) and sent emails. When my watch said 5 pm, I put my water bottle away,  packed up the notebook, paid the bill and headed to my gate for an early check in.  The flight was at 5.45 and the gate within a hundred meters.

En passant, I checked the departures board to make sure that the gate had not changed again, and was startled to see that the first flight listed was for 1800 – 6 p.m. And, oddly, it was “closed.” Abruptly I realized that the 6 pm flight had closed because it was, in fact, in Istanbul, 6 p.m., Istanbul being one hour ahead of Budapest time.

The words, “I’ve missed my flight” flashed in large black block letters across my brain and I quickly moved through the 4 of the famous Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of mourning: denial, anger, bargaining, sorrow, and then, instead of acceptance, panic. I shouted at myself internally for being stupid, and my throat got clogged with held-back tears.

I accosted the first uniformed person I saw and begged him to call the gate and hold the flight. “It is closed,” he said. Well, I knew it was closed: it was supposed to have gone 15 minutes ago. The point was, I wanted him to find out if the flight was still on the ground and if it could be re-opened to permit me to board, but he directed me away from him – the first of a long series of people to do so for the next several hours —  and told me I must ask at the Turkish Airlines counter.

The counters were not in sight, but I ran (on my bad knee, remember, which I am supposed to be RESTING) in the direction of his pointing arm, and then stopped another blue-uniformed person and begged for help. She told me I must go to one of the Turkish Airlines desks, which, as she indicated, were behind a formidable glass partition on the other side of a one-way security checkpoint through which people were exiting, coming towards me.  “But how do I get there?” I wailed.
“You must talk to the security,” she said. Well, I thought I was talking to the security, but she waved towards the far end of the barriers, about 40 feet away from her and conveniently out of hearing range. I ran there, hoping I might still find someone to hold the flight for me, but there was no way through the checkpoint. I turned back the other way I’d come, dashed past the woman (who avoided eye contact) and, at the far end of the checkpoints, I saw a small guarded gate with perhaps a security guard there. I don’t know why the woman had pointed me in the opposite direction; probably it was to get me away from her.

Going through the security gate were a youngish man and a woman, obviously a couple traveling together. As the guard was checking the husband’s pass or papers, I slid into place behind him, at the same time that the wife went through the open gate, unnoticed by the guard. The man passed through and the guard looked at me, and at the other woman, confused. Maybe the guard thought the man had two wives, one conventional and one a fat, panting, middle-aged American hippie. I held up my boarding pass as if I too had authority to pass the wrong way into a secure area, and the guard looked away and let me in.

I dashed to the closest TA desk, and said to the woman working there, “I’ve missed my flight.” I wasn’t intending to cry, but my voice broke on the last word and I didn’t stop myself. The only thing I know about relating to customer-service personnel is that it’s a good idea to emulate their own facial expression and affect as soon as they set eyes on you – that way they feel identification with you and are more likely to help. I learnt this from someone who taught salespeople, and I’ve found it enormously helpful in the past, but I was too distraught to try to mirror the woman in front of me, and besides, I thought crying might help.

She looked into my wet eyes, astonished and not unsympathetically, shook her head and said I had to go to a Turkish Airlines desk, over there. She pointed behind her. Well, I knew for sure that I was at a Turkish Airlines desk  — the row behind her was identical to the row she was sitting in – and I was hesitant to move again when I had a sympathetic person paying attention to me. “Which one?” I said.

“Safari mmurgruh,” she said, once or twice. Like a lot of Turkish and Macedonian people she seemed to think that repeating words I didn’t understand, and saying them more loudly, would help me realize their meaning. I squinted and did not move. Then she pointed to the top of her little booth and said “N. Supervisor.”  Her own booth had a “G” or something over it, and so I realized that she was trying to help by directing me to another letter of the alphabet, presumably a more important booth.

Running towards the second row, I didn’t see any Ns anywhere. But I did see another TA official and asked him where the supervisor was. He pointed to another booth – I think it was a letter ‘J’ or something – and opened the special dividing rope that marked it off from the general TA queuing areas.

I stood panting and impatient while the three people under the J all spoke desultorily and thoughtfully to the couple ahead of me in line. I couldn’t understand and therefore deemed unimportant the conversation they were having, and I found myself becoming very bad company, a very ugly American indeed at least inside my head.

And so came one of the great lessons of the trip so far. At the worst moment of the last 2 months, I found myself thinking horrible things about not only the inhabitants of booth S but all the employees of Turkish Airlines,  about Turks in general and in fact all of humanity myself included. I reminded myself of the contemptible American men (GIs I bet, on leave from Kosovo) I’d seen a few days before in a train station in Belgrade, swearing and abusing the poor harassed ticket-seller in juvenile and obscene and unimaginative terms. I’d wanted then to turn to them and say something like, “It’s people like you who make me ashamed to be American,” but at this point, at booth S, it was ME who was making me ashamed to be American.

I tried to improve my state of mind. In Be Here Now, Ram Dass says that if you don’t like where you are, change your head. He also says, as the title implies, that the best way to change your state of mind is to be fully aware in the present moment in whatever circumstances you find yourself. Although I’ve found the words “Be here now” useful since I was 14 years old, and although I’ve joked with friends about our ability to be, say, about a mile away right now, or here last week, I had never before really considered the verb in that sentence: BE.

So I tried to bring my full attention and awareness to the claustrophobic little roped-in section of airport where the couple ahead of me were still conferring at length with all available staff about their own all-absorbing crisis. I thought about how Sy (Safransky) would handle that moment – this is the SUN devotee’s version of “What would Jesus Do?”.  And I thought of Sy’s essay where he spoke about praying after his daughter’s car crash – how he prayed not only for grace but also “to keep his heart open.” I took a few conscious breaths and I became aware of a section of my chest loosening a bit. I put down my carry-on bag. I thought about how probably the worst thing that would happen would be a night in Istanbul or in the airport and a flight the following morning. A loss, yes, of a comped night at a boutique resort and the balloon ride of a lifetime, but hardly a tragedy. In a few breaths, I felt calm and then, to my surprise, a little happy.

Next time: But the panic comes back