This Wild Balloon

On August 10th, 2006, I woke in a setting typical of a simpler America: in cabin by a lake in the woods in The Adirondacks. The cabin was small, slightly larger than the one famously inhabited by Henry David Thoreau in the 1840's in Concord, Massachusetts. The lake outside the window was small, too, and comparable in size to Thoreau's Walden Pond. I was with my son, Tom, 6; he slumbered in his nearby bed. It was our last morning in Tom's father's family's Adirondack Camp. Tom and I had been away for ten days, away from our home in Los Angeles, away from freeways, e-mail, cell phones and Cartoon Network. I had been away from my boyfriend and his Blackberry with its 24-7 connectivity. I love to spend evenings with my boyfriend, but sometimes I am bothered by the sounds his Blackberry makes. In the Adirondacks, the only night messages are the calls from the loon on the lake. I missed my boyfriend, but he's a banker and rarely takes a vacation.

I woke at seven and there was a lot to do. We were scheduled on a 5:06 pm flight on Continental Airlines from Albany to Newark, and a 7:30 flight from Newark to Los Angeles. As I lay in my bed, scrolling in mind the tasks and activities that awaited me, I had no idea that raids in and around London had resulted in the arrest of dozens of British nationals who had imminent plans to blow up numerous planes with liquid bombs and thus commit mass murder and provoke global sky terror.

I had to search camp for Tom's toys -- Legos, transformers, and a stretchy green lizard that had gone missing. I had to find the missing flip-flop, clean our cabin and pack us up. And I wanted to make blueberry pancakes, swim a final mile in the lake with my three beloved, former sisters-in-law. But before my day got underway, I stole a moment. I sat up and reached for the book on the bureau: Nature, Addresses and Lectures by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Miraculously, I had come across a first edition (1849) in a long-neglected bookcase in camp. I opened to the essay, "The Transcendentalist." Thoreau, Emerson's neighbor in Concord, was a transcendentalist. I had written an essay on Thoreau, and it got me into college. Emerson wrote,

"The materialist, secure in the certainty of sensation, mocks at fine-spun theories, at star-gazers and dreamers, and believes that his life is solid, that he at least takes nothing for granted, but knows where he stands, and what he does. Yet how easy it is to show him, that he also is a phantom walking and working amid phantoms, and that he need only ask a question or two beyond his daily questions, to find his solid universe growing dim and impalpable before his sense."

I woke Tom up. His sleepy face instantly scowled when was reminded that it was our last day of vacation and we had a long day of travel ahead. There was an antique Rand McNally Atlas in the cabin, published in 1937. On one page was an index of distances between cities. With our fingers, Tom found New York and I found Los Angeles. The chart said the distance between them was 2446 miles. I had no idea then we would not make it to Los Angeles.

We walked the boardwalk that runs alongside the lake, heading for the kitchen. Seated at the table in the large kitchen were Tom's Aunt Patience and Uncle Van and his younger cousins, Theo, 5 and Gus, 2, circled their whispering parents. I decided not to interrupt and searched the pantry instead. I was happy to pull out a box of mix that promised "Light and fluffy" pancakes. Tom watched as I filled a Pyrex measuring cup and dumped the dusty flour into the mixing bowl. Patience came to the counter.

"I don't want to alarm you," she said, eye-brows raised, "But it seems there was a T-E-R-R-O-R-I-S-T-P-L-O-T to B- L- O-W -U-P some P- L- A- N- E- S."

In my life, I have noticed that there are two kinds of mothers. There are the mothers who, when nasty subjects arise, revert with ease to the spelling out of words, and those who do not and cannot. This superior maternal instinct is hard for us mothers who lack it. Patience did this effortlessly. She forgot, however, that Tom can read and write and though he might loose track during the spelling of terrorist, he put together the rest of it, no problem.

Patience must have seen the distress cross my face.

"I don't know if I should talk in code," she said.

I glanced at Tom.

"Talk in code," I said.

As an American, however, I refuse to succumb to terrorists or to allow these people, bent on destroying our way of life, to interrupt my living life. I went on stirring the pancake mix.

"We are on Red Alert," she said under her breath and near my ear. "Van says you can't take liquids or gels on the plane and you should get to Albany crazy-early."

We had a quick swim and found the missing flip-flop. We poured batter into the pan, shoveled pancakes into our mouths and dropped our dishes in the sink. Aunt Marian loaded the car for us and drove it up to the kitchen door. After some quick group shots with digital cameras, we kissed and hugged Tom's cousins and my nieces and nephews. We got in, strapped in and rolled away honking. We high-tailed it to Albany.

Our trip from the Adirondack camp to our home in Los Angeles began slowly, on a dirt road through woods. We drove it for five miles. There, the road improves. Slightly. It becomes naturally cobbled road, a road studded with stones with a hump running down the middle of it. Tom was relieved to turn onto the smooth Route 28N, a mostly empty avenue that seemed simply an aisle among trees. By the time I got on the Interstate 87S, Tom was slumped and asleep. I turned on NPR and listened to reports from London and airports around the US. No liquids, no gels, long lines. I woke Tom in Latham as I was pulling into a parking lot. We had a long day ahead of us and we would need treats. Tom got a transformer at Target, I got a latte at Starbuck's.

I have a problem. I am an aguaholic. I am powerless over water and I drink it continuously. Further, I have intentionally passed on this addiction to my children. (At any opportunity I have said to them and asked that they repeat after me: "Water always makes me feel better. Drinking it. Swimming in it. Taking a bath or a walk in the rain." Nick, now 17, put up with this till about 12. Tom still nods and repeats after me.) When Tom and I pulled into our Alamo Rent-A-Car garage space at Albany Airport, we had no fewer than half a dozen Poland Springs on us.

We entered the small airport. It was not too bad. Everywhere were signs that read:


We pulled along our rolling suitcase and backpack, but our carry-ons were weighted down with the suspect substance: water.

We checked my huge suitcase and Tom's car booster. We ascended the escalator to the gates. At the summit, I pulled Tom aside and sat him down. I lined up our bottles; there were five bottles of Poland Spring Water.

"All right," I said. "Let's get to work."

I cracked one and passed it to Tom.

"Bottoms-up, Tom."

I cracked another for myself and started to swig. Side by side we sat, doing some determined chug-chugging. I drank faster, longer, more. Tom saw this and, cannily, switched bottles with me. Still, Tom did his part. He drank till exhausted, till he gasped for air.

"Good job," I said.

We arranged the empty bottles near to the airport garbage can. Near to it, because it was already bulging with beverage bottles.

Next was the security check-point.

I had armloads of carry-ons and between the two of us we filled six or seven bins.
There was my handbag, my LL Bean bag, my lap-top and lap-top case. Tom offered his Dodger backpack on rollers. We removed our shoes and I pushed Tom towards the security frame, as a male TSA beckoned him forward. We both passed through without event. On the other side, though, there was a problem.

"Is this your bag?" An elderly female TSA faced me.


"Will you surrender these?"

She asked with blunt seriousness. Her face had the blinding, unwavering intensity of an interrogation bulb. She was holding out her two palms. She opened her hands revealing the contents. Despite some of its current connotations around the globe, I am proud to be an American and consider myself willing to sacrifice for my country. However, I hesitated. In her opened palm she held two items: a new tube of my favorite Kiehl's lip gloss and a jar of foundation. The foundation was old, actually, and near the end of it, but it is expensive and you can only get it at Barney's.

Another TSA appeared and held an un-cracked bottle of Poland Spring. In our chugfest, I had overlooked a bottle in my LL Bean tote. I reached for my new tube of Kiehl's. She closed her fist. I reached for my Poland Spring. The TSA girl held it tight. I was confused. My lip water bottle... mine.

"Will you surrender these?" the older woman repeated.

Sometimes, I am transfixed by how people say things rather than what it is they are saying. Her grave seriousness over my lip gloss put me in an inert trance of fascination.

"Will you surrender these? Or, do you want to return them to your checked baggage?"

I snapped back to reality and the gravity of the situation at the security check-point.

"Isn't it too late to pack them in my checked baggage?"

"It's not too late."

As she described what re-packing my Keihl's lip gloss and foundation would entail -- the Escheresque route leading back to my Samsonite - going backwards through the screening check-point, the escalator and hallway to the cordoned maze of the ticket line, I felt a modern mixture of frustration and fatigue, pettiness, danger and pointlessness, ending in ennui and dismay. I guessed that Thoreau never knew feelings like these.

"I surrender them."

We made our way to the gate and to begin our wait. Tom and I waited at the Albany Airport for five hours. The delays were due to the new level of security, and there was weather in Newark. We had lunch. We had dinner. We bought a Cartoon Network Scooby-Doo Puzzle book and we did word games and puzzles. On TV monitors, I saw a clip of our president on the tarmac in Texas. The thwarted attempt was, he said, "A stark reminder that this nation is at war." Looking around me, I marveled and admired the calm endurance of everyone about us, the passengers, the TSAs, the airline workers. I talked to a young woman who said she was in charge of garbage at Albany.

"We've thrown out a lot of stuff," she said, shrugged, and went on mopping the floor.

By the time our plane was leaving Albany for Newark, our plane for Los Angeles had left Newark.

I got on my cell and called around, looking for a room. Lots of the nearby hotels were booked. Roberta, at the Marriott on Wolf Road, told me they were oversold, but they would take us anyway. Tom and I climbed into the Marriot shuttle van.

We ended our day in a luxe hotel room. Everyone at The Marriott was so nice. It was a two-hundred-a night room, however, the management kindly granted us the "distressed traveler rate" and then surprised us with a snack: a box of Boursin cheese, some Carr's crackers and two bottles of Poland Spring, on ice. After our days in the woods, with nothing to watch at night but the moon and stars, Tom was excited by the jumbo TV. Before I let him watch, I turned on CNN; I saw the house outside London where one of the raids had taken place. I learned how the foiled plotters had intended to mix innocuous substances - like lip-gloss or hair gel or a sports beverage -- and somehow jack it to life with the current from an iPod or MP3 player. They would convene and concoct in the plane's lavatories and turn them into terrorist labs....

My father was a glider pilot and always and anywhere paused to admire a plane crossing the sky. It was a vision of beauty to him. I used to, too. I don't anymore. Since Sept. 11, now when I see a plane in the sky, I look away.

I let Tom tune in to Cartoon Network.

After our arduous day, I appreciated the comforts of our room; sunk in a cloud-like duvet, eating French cheese on English crackers, drinking water from Maine. I looked out the window -- my gaze was met by a lit concrete lot. I thought of how our day began in the cabin by the lake. Most of the year, like most people, I live in modern times. I wondered what Thoreau or Emerson would have made of our modern world.

I kicked off the duvet and got out my lap-top. I found the hotel's wires, plugged in, signed up and got connected. I got my server going, did a search and logged on to I clicked on "The Transcendentalist" and read on:

"The sturdy capitalist, no matter how deep and square on blocks of Quincy granite he lays the foundations of his banking-house or Exchange, must set it, at last, not on a cube corresponding to the angles of his structure, but on a mass of unknown materials and solidity, red-hot or white-hot, perhaps at the core, which rounds off to an almost perfect sphericity, and lies floating in soft air, and goes spinning away, dragging bank and banker with it at a rate of thousands of miles the hour, he knows not whither, - a bit of bullet, now glimmering, now darkling through a small cubic space on the edge of an unimaginable pit of emptiness. And this wild balloon, in which his whole venture is embarked, is a just symbol of his whole state and faculty."