Point Nemo

Captain Nemo was a fictional character created by the science fiction author Jules Verne.   Verne’s Nemo, who was cleverly named after the Latin word for “nobody,” would aimlessly roam the depths of the sea in his submarine “the Nautilus”, consumed by his antipathy to imperialism and seeking vengeance against his very own British Empire.

It was fitting then, that when engineers were looking for the most remote place on earth, the place farthest from any land mass, they decided to name that place Point Nemo, honoring the seeker named after nobody searching for nowhere.

The practical need for finding a place farthest away from somewhere was due to the fact that most of the things humans put into space to orbit the earth have a lifespan, after which they become space junk, potentially cluttering the atmosphere the way things that we put into the ocean pollute the ocean.  Orbits eventually degrade, and the satellites burn up into tiny particles as they re-enter earth’s atmosphere.   But many of the bigger chunks end up landing somewhere on earth, potentially creating a hazard.    Although to date there has only been one recorded incident of space junk injuring a human, and it only braised the very surprised woman’s shoulder, the threat to humans and other animals is very real.

To abate the hazard, engineers decided to simply aim a satellite’s degrading orbit to a specific place on earth.   Hard to imagine the scene; maybe they were passing a joint, sitting on barstools, walking down the sterile hallway on the fourth floor of building A7 at Caltech,  or searching a cabinet for a Keurig cup, unaware of the soft buzzing of the fluorescent lights above— I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but I can imagine one of them turning to the other and saying,  “Let’s find a spot on earth that is big and uninhabited, and preferably really wet and deep.”    So they set out to determine the place on earth that is farthest away from any land mass.

One of the engineers, undoubtedly fond of poetic phrases, referred to the place as the oceanic pole of inaccessibility, and it is, essentially, the middle of nowhere.   They dubbed it Point Nemo.  In Wikitruth, credit for discovering Point Nemo goes to Canadian-Croatian survey engineer Hrvoje Lukatela, and Caltech had nothing to do with it.   He’s a rather interesting fellow, I imagine, participating in projects as diverse as planning the orientation toward Mecca for King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah to designing the geometrics for Environment Canada’s Ice Centre in Ottawa.

Point Nemo is so far from humans that the closest people to it are aboard the International Space Station.   Perhaps coincidentally, rather than teeming with sea life, it is also one of the most lifeless places on earth due to it sitting within the South Pacific Gyre, a current which manages to flow far from nutrient-rich waters.

If you were interested in going there (and who wouldn’t be interested in intentionally going nowhere when most of us spend our lives unintentially going nowhere?) you may or not be surprised to find that in fact there is a lot of stuff there.   If you guessed plastics, you would have nailed it.  Yeah, that plastic container you discarded in Santa Monica may travel to the farthest corner on earth.   Point Nemo, it turns out, may not have much life there, but it is filled with human detritus.

The problem of course is that our search for nowhere inevitably leads to somewhere, and our search for nothing inevitably leads to something.  We can aim our obsolete satellites and DVD players toward Point Nemo, but as philosophers and scientists have been telling us for millennia, matter is generally conserved, so even the place farthest from anywhere becomes cluttered and transmogrifies from nowhere to somewhere.    Perhaps, as my favorite book title by Paul Watzlawick says, “The Situation is Hopeless but Not Serious.”   Perhaps, like fictional Nemo, this existence is not so much about finding the elusive nowhere, but instead roaming the depths of the sea seeking vengeance against, well, whoever and whatever life has thrown at us.  Or as my college friend Rabbi David Frank said to me once, we just keep on raging until the end. 


The venerable LA Times still comes to the door on Sunday, or actually, some random driveway within a half mile that the delivery person, bless her soul, thinks somehow belongs to the address on her list.   But I am out of the habit of reading it as my news delivery methodology has shifted almost entirely to annoying email forwards of NY Times articles that I can’t open because, like a parent trying to gain control of herself, tells me I have “reached my limit—”.   I do want to support journalism, and although I have always had to pay for newspapers, there were always ways to get the free press for free, and I suppose I have been spoiled.   But also, when you received a newspaper made from paper, you actually HAD something you could, albeit awkwardly, hold in your hand, and maybe that’s one reason I refuse to pay a dollar a day to subscribe to something I can’t use to start a fire with should it ever get cold enough in California again to need one. 

I do occasionally tear open the green plastic wrap covering the LA Times, there presumably because someone had the peculiarly optimistic notion that it might rain again in this desert wasteland.   I skim the disappointing headlines, and fall back into my old pattern of seeking out the obituaries.  

Oh, sweet death.   I know I’m not alone in the arguably macabre habit of seeking out the obituaries, not, as the old joke goes, to see if I had made the list, but to see who else had.   To this day, my favorite part of the Academy Awards ceremony isn’t seeing who most successfully lobbied to take home a statuette, but rather the brief montage of the faces who bit the dust in the preceding year.   And in the aviation magazines that clutter my house, I have a keen interest in reading about legendary flyers who recently kicked the bucket, usually described with the reassuring undertone that the cause of death had nothing to do with aviation.  

I don’t completely understand my preoccupation with obituaries, because I am much better at understanding others’ motivations than my own, though I do think that it has something to do with the fanciful term anticipatory grieving.    In reading other people’s obituaries, I feel the pain and angst of grief, but it’s unclear to me how much of that grief is about them and how much is about the anticipation of my own demise.   Maybe there’s really no difference after all; we are all both the eggmen and the walrus.

Lest you be left with the wrong impression, I don’t believe I am obsessed with death, nor would you necessarily care if I was.   Come to think of it, maybe I am, but I would prefer to think it’s more about having a lot of difficulty with aging.  I don’t mean to say that it is my body in need of spare parts, but instead it is my mind that may be due for an overhaul.

When I decided to take flying lessons at age 50, I thought I was being clever by asking to be taught by the oldest, most experienced pilot at the school.  That was nearly 20 years ago. I have been told I was the last official student of Floyd Jennings.  Floyd didn’t actually teach me how to fly, but rather flew next to me for two years while I somehow absorbed from him how to do it.   After all, no one taught him how to fly, except perhaps, as he put it, “the seat of my pants.”   When I look at the photo of me and him in front of the Cessna 150 I wore after my first solo, he doesn’t look that old, and at the time he was likely younger than I am now.   (Cue Bob Dylan?).    

I have gotten to that point in my life where those people who taught me in school, the people I would happily call mentors, have either kicked the bucket, are pushing up daisies, bought the farm, or have gone tits up.   I am feeling lonelier and lonelier.     When I try to find someone to look up to, they’re no longer taller than me.   In fact, I can’t see them at all.

My go-to poet, W.S. Merwin, who also died recently and has been an important part of my life, wrote “Now all my teachers are dead except silence.”   It’s getting quieter and quieter out there.

Looking Back

In a few hours from now I am likely to be attending my Orange County high school’s 50th reunion.   It was a small school, and there aren’t too many of us left alive or interested in attending, so I anticipate a rather meager turnout.   But for now I am taking advantage of the local cuisine, sitting at the Thien An Vietnamese restaurant in Garden Grove, California.

Fifty years ago, when I lived here, this town was fairly ramshackle, populated mostly with large strawberry fields that were gradually taken over by housing tracts. It was in one of those that my parents bought a small house, I believe for $28,000., which according to Zillow this morning is worth almost a million dollars.   Of course that’s in current money, so I’m not sure what the equivalent dollars would be, but I’m not that interested to look it up.   I probably shouldn’t have even mentioned it.

In those days, as the Vietnam war (or, as they call it in Vietnam, the French-American war) was winding down, the only Asians you would ever see in these parts were the descendants of Japanese immigrants who had been interned during World War 2.   As partial compensation they were offered some land, which they had turned into rather nicely producing agricultural fields.   After the Vietnam war, however, so many immigrants from South Vietnam chose this spot to set up home that the area became what is now known as “Little Saigon,” and having spent a few years going back and forth to Vietnam consulting with an autism service company, I miss the food and ambience.  

Enough generations have passed in Vietnam now that the subject of the war just doesn’t seem to interest anyone other than tourists and tour guides.   There is a distinct sense of not wanting to look back, and I don’t know if that is related to how generations cope with trauma or if this has something to do with the influence of Buddhism.  Only 12% of the population identifies as Buddhist though, while Christianity in the form of Catholicism is a close second.  The vast majority of the country follows some folk religion or none at all.  

In Buddhism, I understand there is a value in honoring one’s ancestors, and I wonder if the emphasis is more on honoring than remembering.   In any case, for me, this looking backwards has always been a struggle.  Perhaps my mother said it best when I asked her why she never talked about her past.  “It’s too painful,” she said in an uncharacteristically succinct way.   


Of course, looking back is what a high school reunion is all about.    But it’s a dangerous endeavor, because it comes with the reminder that there is very little about the world that can be verified and that truth and reality rests squarely in the solipsistic eye of the beholder, and that people most likely didn’t ever see you the way you saw yourself, and that even when the two perceptions do match it seems like a random event.

It was a bit fun, and grim of course, which is to be expected of these gambits. My favorite moment came when a thin, tall woman whose nametag was flipped over and whose face did not ring the dimmest of bells, told me of her memory of me that had lasted through the darkness of these last five decades.    I don’t know that I can capture the humor of it here, but it went something like this:   We were sitting in a class, and a substitute teacher was going through roll, but stumbled when he tried to pronounce my name.   Kindly, he asked me how I would like my name to be pronounced, and reportedly I said, “well, I would like it to be pronounced Miller.”   She and the class cracked up, she told me.  I suppose even then I was a snarky, attention-seeking kid, maybe a tad less diffident and depressed than I remember.

So the joke was kind of a “you had to be there” moment, or maybe it requires the two tequila and pineapple juices I drank beforehand, but I really laughed and was impressed that I could tell a joke in high school that could last in someone else’s mind for 50 years, while I can’t remember any joke, no matter who tells it, for more than about five minutes. 

Passer le Beurre

I knew some time ago that pilots say “Mayday” in an emergency because it is the Anglicized version of the French “M’Aidez!,” meaning “Help me!” but I recently learned that the reason we call the place where people keep their airplane a hangar is that it is the French word for “shed” or “outhouse.”   I have, in fact, seen many hangars that resemble outhouses, and had it not been for the arrival of the family troops a few years ago to coerce me to discard things that they thought I would never need and assist me in the cleaning operation, I may have had to include my own hangar in that category.   

Three years before I was born, over 70 years ago, the International Civil Aviation Organization decided that English ought to be the exclusive language for radio talk in the airline industry.   Not having a universal language was a formula for disaster.  (It is said that many lives were lost on the Titanic, for example, as a result of there not being clear and monolingual emergency procedures.)   People were flying throughout Europe more often, and although even the word “aviation” itself has somewhat of a French origin, English was taking root as the universal language in the business world, and so English won out.  I imagine that decision riled quite a few people, but it wouldn’t have been the first time the Empire had its way.

“Mayday” had already been in operation by then, allegedly because the English version (S.O.S.) didn’t come across that well over the radio, as was “pan-pan,” the distress call that translates roughly to “I’ve got a problem that I don’t know how to fix and I’m warning you that there might be a mayday on its way if I can’t get my shit together to figure this out.”   Pan-pan derived from the French word “panne” that referred to a breakdown, as opposed to the homonymic pain, which is a loaf of bread.   When you put two loaves of pain together you get pan-pan, which means you’re about to have a breakdown.  I may be boring you now, but I’m having a really good time.   So the Civil Aviation Organization decided to keep those signifiers, while adopting English for pretty much everything else.

In junior high school I was required to take a language.   There were many choices, but for all intents and purposes they narrowed down to two:  Spanish and French.   I wanted to take French, because for reasons that weren’t clear to me at the time, that’s what the prettiest girls were taking, but my father convinced me to take Spanish, because after all, who speaks French in the United States?   He couldn’t imagine I would ever want to travel to France, or have the means to do so.  

As was true for many things, my father knew best, and I don’t regret taking Spanish, well, not too much.   Maybe I do regret it, because after 3 years of classes I can barely get through Pimsleur lesson one.    Whenever I try to speak a foreign language, I am told that I have a great accent but whatever I say makes no sense.  I guess that’s the same problem I have with English; I can read it just fine but comprehension is another thing altogether.  I can also talk a lot without saying anything at all, if you haven’t noticed.

As I mentioned, the word “aviation” has somewhat of a French origin, coined in 1863 by French naval officer Gabriel La Lande from the verb avier.   Avier was a neologism that never caught on, stemming from the Latin word for bird—“avis,” so La Lande fancified it and the word aviation stuck. 

The word “pilot” derives from the 16th century French pilote (someone who steers a ship).  The tube that air runs through and tells us how fast we are going is called a pitot tube, which looks a lot like pilot if you’re not wearing your glasses, so you would think that had French origins as well.   Well, sort of.   The pitot is French alright, but it’s what we call in English a proper noun, meaning it’s someone’s name, because I guess if you’re English and you don’t have a name that would just not be proper.   The pitot tube got its name from its inventor, a French physicist named (how many guesses would you like?) Henri Pitot.

I never did get around to taking French, although I took a few lessons, but my French teacher was very strict and thought somehow that studying ought to be intrinsically motivated.   I was old at the time, and while the lure of pretty girls hadn’t entirely dissipated, as Woody Guthrie said, much of my get up and go had gone up and went.   I suppose I should get back to it—studying French, that is, but I have to figure out instead how best to end this post.   Hmmm. 

Speed or Altitude?

Then there are those who do whatever they can to resist the natural order of things, eking the most out of their lives by doing what nature surely did not intend them to do.   They fly airplanes, jump out of them, dive off 80-foot cliffs, chase tornadoes, scale ridiculously sheer mountains, walk on wires over deep chasms, and take drugs that they find in someone else’s bathroom just to see how far they can bend their consciousness without breaking it.  

C’est pas moi.  I would rather sit by the fireplace in the lodge sipping hot chocolate while reading W.S. Merwin than ski down the side of that groomed mountain I can see out the window.   I’ve never done that, by the way, because I don’t know how to ski and I don’t think I have ever been in one of those places, though it looks wonderful in the movies.  It’s not that I’m averse to the occasional small thrill, mind you, but I just don’t like the idea of breaking things, including myself, and death is inevitable anyway so why push it. 

Aviation journalist Sam Weigel once imagined that there were two kinds of pilots (and by inference, two kinds of people):  There are those who like speed and there are those who like altitude.   Those who like speed I suspect are akin to what psychologists call sensation-seekers.  There’s a robust research literature on those folks, and they are an interesting lot.  It turns out, unsurprisingly, that those who score high on the MMPI sensation-seeking scale are the most likely to become drug addicts.   Their bodies are geared toward going for the high, and with the right chemicals, you don’t need to leave the ground to get there.   For them, it is all about the bodily sensation, the rush as it were.   They like the rush; they like the speed.

But then there’s the altitude folks who lean toward a different kind of high. Pilots who prefer altitude to speed like to be above it all, away from the hustle and bustle of prosaic life, rising above the pettiness of everyday conflict, nestled in their confined cockpit watching clouds go by.   Altitude comes up a lot in these virtual pages, because, for a pilot, as has been said here before, altitude is your friend.   She’s a good friend, indeed, because she is positioned better than anyone to save your life when you really need her.   For these pilots, the earth may be home, but it’s one where all the tsuris resides, the thing that has to be grappled with, approached with precision and caution, the most dangerous place.   Earth sites capable of landing can be difficult to find and hide from you when you need it the most.   Earth can break your airplane and break your heart, and for many pilots it’s the former that matters the most.

Altitude has a lot of advantages.   There’s the obvious, of course, in that the higher you go, the more time you have to fix whatever goes wrong or navigate your way back to earth if you lose power.   In pilot school you are taught something called “dead reckoning”, which is navigation without the benefit of instruments.   (The “dead” derives from “ded”, short for “deductive”.) When dead reckoning, the thing to do when you are lost is to climb higher.   Climbing gives you a greater view of the earth—there’s’ more to see and it’s easier to recognize landmarks.   You see patterns you don’t have an opportunity to see up close, the sinewy rivers, the orderly quilt of farm fields, just how concentrated the earth’s population is, how much is devoid of artificial light at night.

The world from miles up moves much slower, as your field of vision takes up a larger expanse of earth.    Cars on freeways going fast seem to be crawling along, not because you are going that much faster, but because things on the ground are much smaller.   It’s a great reminder that we tend to make petty things in life big and lose our perspective.

I suppose if I had to choose, I’m an altitude person.  It’s often a difficult thing to do, taking the high road, but it’s usually the best way of resolving conflicts.   As Michelle Obama’s Madison Avenue handlers said, “when they go low, we go high.”   Sure, I do like speed, and I tend to rush through much of this life, cramming in as much as I can as I watch the sand settle in this increasingly fragile hourglass.  But when it comes up to it, I would rather dwell less in the petty conflicts here on earth than in the serenity and compassion that resides, at least for me, way up there.

And you?

License to Learn

If I had a nickel for every time I have heard the cliché that the pilot certificate is a “license to learn,” I would have at least 25 cents in my pocket.   That would be more than I have now, mostly because I keep my pocket change in the car.  But the point of that cliché isn’t to create cents in the pocket as much as it is to create sense in the head.

On its simplest level, the idea that the certificate is a license to learn just means that now that you’ve got your ticket, don’t let it get to your head and turn into a hotshot.  You know, there are old pilots and bold pilots….

Over time, however, as is true for many cliches, I have come to better grasp its significance.  Certainly, or perhaps arguably, our primary training does equip us for the task at hand.  We couldn’t pass the written test without knowing what a mode C veil is and what we need to do if we’re in it.   But realistically, many of us (don’t look at me) just memorize the answers and often forget them soon afterward.   Passing the practical test is another thing.   It means that we have convinced the examiner that we can make the airplane do certain things and do them within certain limits.   It’s a good test, the practical one, because frankly, there aren’t too many people who could pass the practical test without having developed some skillset along the way.

So, what we know when we get our certificate is that we can do some things passably.  If we know our capabilities, and we know our limits, and vow never to fly beyond them, shouldn’t the certificate be enough?

Flying, as is true with the rest of life, brings surprises that will push us beyond our limits, so it makes sense to keep getting better at what we do just in case we have to resort to doing something out of the ordinary, such as the unexpected mountain wave that flips your airplane around as if it were a pair of pants in a clothes dryer.

A newly minted plastic certificate is, or at least should be, a symbol that you have mastered fundamental skills, and now have a sense of what you can do.   That’s important, certainly, but it’s less important than knowing what you cannot do.   The real challenge for the examiner ought not to be that she is assured that you can perform certain tasks within prescribed limits, but rather that you have achieved a level of discernment to know what you cannot do.   It is achieving that level of discernment that ought to be the difference between the day you took your first white-knuckled grip on the yoke and your sweaty palm as you shook your examiner’s hand and welcomed you to the club.

Although I have been a certificated pilot for more than 15 years, and do whatever I can to keep learning, the most important thing I have learned is that there is always more to learn.  When we do our biennial reviews, it’s as important to learn a few new tricks as it is to practice the fundamentals.  It could be something as simple as practicing the use of oxygen equipment and donning the gear in flight or practicing callouts—both things that my primary training never included.

It has been said that an unexamined life is not a life worth living.   In flying, it could be that an unexamined life could lead to a deadly lack of humility, because if you don’t know where and how you can improve your flying you won’t know what you need to get better at, and, well, you know the rest of the story.   Most importantly, you may have missed the unwritten disclaimer that ought to accompany every new certificate.  Your plastic card should tell you that you have reached the point in your flying career when you know enough to know that you don’t know everything there is to know.   It is a master’s degree in humility, a certificate of discernment, a license to learn.

The Map and the Territorty

The other day, a colleague of mine called me to consult on a case.   Her client was a young adult who had been diagnosed with autism.   At one point my colleague said, “His black and white thinking is caused by his autism…”  I interrupted her and curtly said, “No.  His black and white thinking isn’t caused by his autism; his black and white thinking causes his autism.”  She seemed confused, so I did my best to explain the damage that can be done by reifying labels.   I probably did a lousy job, because her mystification lingered.

I told her that the more she relied on a label (a diagnosis) the less likely she would be to know her client.  Although it’s helpful, indeed necessary, when starting out in any field to learn the jargon, and thus have a shorthand for reducing the morass of information into manageable bits, it can also lead us down wrong paths.   It is no accident that the more experienced a clinician the less jargon you will hear.

Diagnostic labels obfuscate more than they clarify.   Reducing someone’s personality to a group of symptoms may serve to focus on what some have concluded are the most meaningful bits, but by doing so we too easily fail to see the richness and contradictions of those behaviors that lie outside our expectations.  If the label we give to the jar with the white powder in it is “flour” then that is what we expect will be in the jar, not the sugar that you put in that jar when you were preoccupied with getting the internet upgraded.  It is not necessarily that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy but rather that the therapist actually misses the deeper truths of who is sitting opposite.

Diagnoses are, essentially, metaphors, in the same way Susan Sontag brilliantly described cancer in her seminal essay “Illness as Metaphor.”   Metaphors can be compelling ways to describe things, but they are not the same as the things we are describing.   You can’t meaningfully say that John is schizophrenic any more than you can put a blanket of air on your bed, shoot an idea, buy a moral compass from the nautical supply shop, or really give me a piece of your mind.  As the semanticist Alfred Korzybski famously said, “The map is not the territory.”

Another Hungarian hero– Thomas Szasz, made a career out of professing that psychiatric diagnoses were essentially a form of social manipulation.   A psychiatrist himself, Szasz insisted that he was not anti-psychiatry, but anti-coercive psychiatry.   He saw psychiatric diagnoses as socially constructed with little to no medical evidence to support them, to be used, perhaps, to remove someone’s freedom (as in the case of hospitalizing a schizophrenic), cast someone aside from society (such as calling homosexuality a disease), or sell drugs that don’t work or cause more harm than good.

Too many wrong roads are driven when we begin to think that the metaphor is the real thing.   The depth of personhood, the miraculous complexity and uniqueness of each individual becomes transmogrified into the label we put on the package.   Korsybski once dramatically demonstrated this when he took a break from a lecture to eat some biscuits that had been wrapped in white paper.  After commenting how much he enjoyed them, he offered some to students in the front row, who enjoyed their taste until Korsybski removed the white paper to reveal that they were dog biscuits.  The students became nauseated, and Korsybski said something to the effect that we not only eat food, but we also eat words.

The problem with my colleague stating that her client’s “black and white thinking was caused by his autism” is that “autism” is merely the label on the dog biscuit package.   It may or may not have anything to do with what is inside, but instead may have everything to do with what we think is in the package.

When we reify something, we also give it a static quality.  We take something that should be a verb and turn it into a noun that just sits around on a shelf waiting for someone to pull it off.   And in doing so, we begin to think that there is little we can do with it.   If we only referred to John as a noun we would imagine him standing somewhere.   But if we said he was “Johnning,” we would imagine all that he does that makes him tick.   Saying someone has autism, or depression, or even a virus, leaves us little to do with it, freeze-drying it as it were, and even creates a bit more distance between us and them.    If autism, or any diagnosis, was a verb rather than a noun we would be more interested in what it does and how it works, thereby bringing it to life and moving us to engage with it.

Another problem with my well-intended colleague’s comment is the direction of causality.    We need to know the territory before we can draw a map, but drawing the map will not create the territory.   Does giving someone the label of autism make that person lose the ability to perceive life’s grays, or does the inability to perceive gray cause us to give someone the label of autism?   And if it is the latter, then what useful information does that give us?

My colleague fell into a dangerous trap, but although the landscape of our language is littered with those traps, no experienced clinician should fall into them.   Confusing the map with the territory is something that ultimately can hurt our clients when the label is a psychiatric diagnosis, and when the labels we serve up are liberals, conservatives, Palestinians, Moslems, Jews, Christians, or even Hungarians, we may succeed only in creating obstacles to understanding each other.


Extending Your Flaps

If we were birds we could flap our wings, and without a moment’s reflection, find ourselves aloft.   But we are featherless humans, blessed and cursed with heavy heads; and having evolved to be prisoners of gravity, flapping our arms is likely to do no more than get us a diagnosis.

So we build airplanes, and although the engineers who design them give them a wide array of forms, the vast majority of them come with stationery wings.   And while they don’t flap like bird wings, most of them come with movable parts called flaps.   Flaps typically extend outward and mostly downward, and the end result is that they change the way air flows around the wing itself.   What pilots say is that they “change the shape” of the wings.   They are, as it were, shape-shifters.

Now, if you were fortunate enough to have the kind of mother who encouraged you to spread your wings and fly, you would know that she thought you were pretty awesome and had something to contribute to the world, or perhaps was really tired of you leaving dishes in the sink and couldn’t wait for you to leave home.    But the problem with the platitude is that, while we may want to spread our wings and fly, we are not metaphors and as children don’t yet know how to do that.

The way flaps work on airplanes is simple, if you don’t think about it too much.   In changing the shape of the wing by adding a downward surface, a significant amount of resistance to wind is created, increasing “drag”.   The best example of this is what I used to do as a child, before we could afford air conditioning in our car, and I put my hand out the window to “fly it” through the wind.  A simple tilt of my hand, exposing more of its surface, would shoot that sucker right up into the air.  If my arm was connected to the car and was strong enough, it would also help slow the car down.  But if my arm was really strong, it could also help lift the car off the ground.

While drag can also increase lift, for the most part, it is the thing that slows us down, as Mick Jagger reminded us in the simplistic and prescient lyric “what a drag it is getting old”.    I believe it was the French philosopher-psychologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty who said that we “exist because of our resistance to the world.”   Merleau-Ponty was an existentialist, and I suppose the idea is that the very nature of our existence is resistance.    (He was French too, which likely added to his admiration of resistance.).  When we breathe we push the air around, when we move we part the air, but more importantly, when we make an impact in the world, when we lead others, we resist the status quo.   To exist in the world around us means we are always disturbing something, always changing the universe, always annoying or pleasing the people around us.  We resist the natural tendency to settle into oblivion, we upset the stationery apple cart.   I once heard that the only place you will ever find a lot of contented people is in a cemetery.    They are at rest, disturbing no one.   They are, presumably, at peace.   They don’t resist, and therefore don’t exist.

My mother was deeply flawed, like me and the rest of us.   In one of my many moments of self-loathing, she assured me I could do whatever I set out to do.   Digging my heels in, I told her that no matter how hard I tried, I could never fly.   Digging her heels in, she crouched down to my eye level, gave me that haunting stare of hers, and said that if I wanted to badly enough, I could fly.   I thought she was crazy, but those words never left my mind.

Of course, like most things, she was right and wrong.   One of the secrets, I discovered, is that if I wanted to get off the ground quicker I needed to extend my flaps.   I needed to create resistance and find a way to get things done outside of the status quo.   And I also learned that those same flaps could get me down to the ground quicker.   Pilots talk about the difference between being a pilot and being an airplane driver.  The airplane driver is the Reader’s Digest version of piloting; someone who pushes buttons and does the basics.   Being a good pilot and not just a driver means creatively knowing how and when to extend your flaps, how much to extend them, and when it’s time to raise them up again.

The Wrong Gauge

It should all be rather simple.   The heading indicator tells you which direction you are going, the altimeter tells you how high you’re flying, the airspeed indicator tells you how fast you are going.   But it isn’t so simple, because aviating isn’t just about reading our gauges; it’s about how we read them.

Many, many moons ago, I attended an “Evolution of Psychotherapy” conference, which those of us who have been in the head-shrinking field for a while will remember as the mecca for psychotherapists.   Roughly every decade, Jeff Zeig, a renowned Arizona psychologist, would bring together the living legends in the world of psychotherapy, until they died out one by one and it just got too depressing.  At one of those conferences, the brilliant psychoanalyst James Masterson was asked by a member of the audience why it was that no matter how confrontive she was with a particular patient, the patient remained unphased.   Masterson replied quite masterfully that the therapist was likely using “the wrong gauge” by judging her level of confrontation by how she would feel if someone said those things to her.   What mattered, of course, wasn’t her confrontation gauge, but the client’s.

It used to be thought, and likely still is, that people on the autism spectrum have difficulty understanding others’ perspectives, a lack of what the prolific psychologist David Premack originally called a “theory of mind”.  That observation has led to the view that people on the spectrum lack empathy, but it may well be that the problem instead could be caused by reading the wrong gauge.    It turns out, some new research indicates, that while it may be true that people diagnosed with autism often have difficulty understanding the perspectives of so-called “neurotypicals,” they don’t seem to have difficulty understanding each other.   In that sense, they only “lack empathy” when dealing with people who lack empathy for them.   We may, mistakenly, be looking only at the person with autism, and not the people with whom they are interacting.   That has led to a revision of the “empathy problem” such that some prefer to call it a “double empathy” problem.   The problem only occurs when two people lack empathy for each other.   Otherwise, the world turns just fine.

Reading the wrong gauge can have tragic consequences.  The crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (the day the music died) took place in snowy conditions in Northern Iowa.    21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson, in spite of his young age, was not inexperienced, but although he passed the written portion of the instrument exam, he failed the instrument checkride and wasn’t technically legal to fly on that snowy day.  No one could determine exactly why, just 5 miles from the airport, the airplane that Peterson was flying turned and crashed nose-down at high speed, but one theory that emerged is that the airplane he flew on that day had a new attitude indicator (or “artificial horizon”) installed, one that was different from the gauge in the airplane Peterson had been used to flying but that happened to be out of service that day.   In one gauge, the depiction of the airplane in the center moved in relation to the static horizon line, and in the other, the airplane symbol remained stationary while the background horizon moved.   The result is a “figure-ground” difference such that up is one direction on one gauge and down on the other.   Flying blindly in a snowstorm, Peterson could have thought he was climbing when in fact he was descending.   He may well have been flying the “wrong gauge.”  Had he not done this, Buddy Holly would likely have lived to know his son and Don McLean may never have been able to retire.

In primary flight training, we are taught not only how to read our gauges, but how they relate to one another and even the best ways to scan from one gauge to another.   In psychotherapy, we try to teach our clients how to read their own gauges, especially the one that tells us what to do with the other gauges.   When clients first appear, it’s not uncommon for them to perceive themselves living in a world in which they can’t tell up from down.

It should be simple– the airplane is climbing or descending, I’m getting too angry or too tired.   It’s making sure we are reading the right gauge at the right time in the right circumstance, and then knowing how to level out and stabilize ourselves; therein lies the challenge.





There was Dennis

What was that errand I needed to do in San Jose?    As the waves keep rolling to the shore, there was Dennis Skaggs.    I met Dennis in late 1969 when he was the high school photographer and I was made the editor of the school paper (the 4-page, offset-printed cleverly titled “Paw Prints” after the lobo school mascot).  I was a fledgling photographer, developing film in my closet since childhood, and we became fast friends (though he never let me step foot in his darkroom, which was his temenos).  Dennis became my first roommate when I moved out of my house at 18 to go to college.download-1

Before stepping foot in a cockpit, Dennis gave me what had been the biggest sensual thrill up to that point in my life, and for years to come.   With the heat and radio blasting, ocean waves crashing to the left and mountains rising to the right, he drove me up the Pacific Coast Highway one night in his topless Triumph TR3 sports car way too fast for comfort.   White-knuckled from grabbing whatever surface I could, I occasionally asked him to slow down, but he had traveled those roads many times before and had no interest in the slow life.

After graduating college, or during, he made a living as a projectionist in movie theaters.   I once met him at work in the projection booth at a pornographic movie theater in San Jose.  His job included cleaning the seats after the last show, an image even more disturbing than those on the screen.   Dennis eventually became a founding partner in a chain of 21 movie theaters in San Jose.

We reconnected for breakfast after a 30-year hiatus at a classic San Jose diner, where he proposed a brilliant concept for a new business that the next day I agreed to embark on in our golden years, but due to our mutual failing health never got around to fully executing.  He also introduced me to CinemaCon, the large Las Vegas conference for movie distributors where studios introduce their films to theater owners.

A few years back, always kind, sweet, quirky, with a quick and easy laugh, tall, awkward-gaited Dennis was diagnosed with ALS—“Lou Gehrig’s disease”—and he gradually lost the use of his muscles until the world lost him in September.  He was 67.

I flew up to San Jose because, according to his remarkable wife Susan Godman, Dennis decided that he wanted his collection of vintage 16 and 35mm films to be left to me, along with an old analog 35mm projector, and I needed to assess my capability of transporting them all to Southern California.  Among the films he himself had made was a short, silent satirical rendition of Bergman’s “Seventh Seal”, which Dennis called the “Seventh Steal”.   He cast me in the lead role, and I don’t recall (come on, it’s been over 50 years!) much of it other than, I think, me stealing something and riding off on a horse down the Santa Ana riverbed.   Before Dennis died, Susan attempted to find it among his collection but it was likely lost to the ravages of time, as seems to happen to us all.  Gonna miss you, sweet friend.