It's two weeks before Christmas, and my dad has just told me what he's bought for my aunt and uncle; a microlight flight.
"Ha." I say, grinning. "Nice one. I would hate that. HATE it." In hindsight, this was a mistake, because it convinced my dad that booking me my very own microlight flight would be a really funny thing to do. I should know better by now; admitting any kind of weakness or vulnerability will never escape unpunished. Come Christmas morning, impressed I was not as I peeled open the envelope to find a voucher 'congratulating' me on my first flight in what I've since heard described as 'a lawnmower engine with wings'. I joked about the need to sort out my Last Will and Testament before going, but in all honesty that was the least of my worries. My biggest fear was actually fainting on the way up and spending the whole flight unconcious, dribbling over the edge. With a father like mine, I would never hear the end of it.
Well, yesterday, I did it. I spent 20 minutes flying over an immense patchwork quilt of fields, gardens, playgrounds, car parks and forests. On one side was the green Essex countryside, stretching towards the horizon, on the other the grey urban sprawl of London. I saw the Thames flowing lazily past busy docks, under bridges and then snaking around Canary Wharf, out of view and on towards Westminster, the sunlight dancing on its surface.
I have been in a plane before, but this was different. For a start it's lower, and smaller. You're exposed to the elements and your view is more or less unimpaired. I realise now that my perception of the geography of the region in which I live was incredibly skewed. I had no idea where we were flying until I could pinpoint landmarks; a windmill, a shopping centre, a pier or a station.
It didn't just sort out my abismal sense of direction, but also gave me a renewed respect for the world around us and how it works. I mean the man-made stuff, the logistics. We're so dependent on things that we don't know exist or take for granted - things like water treatment plants or electricity grids. Huge roads and railway lines carving their way through town and countryside. Tiny little cars whizzing around tiny little roundabouts, giving way at tiny little junctions. So many connections, exchanges, rules, systems. And that's just infrastructure; concrete, tactile and in-your-face. As soon as I started thinking about all the hundreds of houses, all the thousands of people, all the millions of thoughts, actions and conversations, my head was ready to explode.
And this was just a miniscule glimpse of part of the world; a tiny snapshot in an immense collage of millions of others, no one the same as any other. At one point we flew over a huge container ship waiting to be unloaded at the docks - a ship that probably contained goods from all over the world - from faraway lands with their very own roads, landmarks and fathers who think it's amusing to scare the shit out of their first-born sons.
I've always thought an experience like this would make me feel powerful, but it had the opposite effect. Rather than making the most of being on top of the world, I felt lucky to be living in it.