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

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.


Two Stans

Loss, it seems, comes in waves.  This past year and a half, with a half a million Americans succumbing to COVID alone, was a bit more like a tidal or rogue wave than the random waves of loss that normally accompany our precious lives.

Stan Goldstein was an avid reader of this blog.   When he died I lost a brilliant, loyal, quirky friend, who managed to find time to bake, package and deliver home-made almond roca every Christmas.   I wrote a blog post or two about him—he was the guy who wrote the word “stoichiometry” on a piece of paper after I tried to understand why the Cessna 150’s Continental engine gave out on me while I was flying over the mountains.   His life had its share of adversity, his estranged ex-wife and daughter having “pre-deceased” him, his daughter by suicide some years back.  Stan played poker with me every month for many years. He could be acerbic and just as quickly kind and compassionate, and if he could do anything to help you he would.

His heart was never quite the picture of health, and he reminded me periodically how he had died more than once on the operating table and had to be resuscitated.   He was an avid Scientologist, which always made for good conversation.  As a younger man, he raced cars and even held a record at some Southern California raceway.  He was born into a Jewish family, the son of a delicatessen owner.  His father kept in the local Mafia’s favor by storing their cash for them in his freezer.   When asked if he had experienced anti-Semitism as a racecar driver, he responded “Are you kidding me?  All the time.”  He recounted the many times he was sabotaged while racing, certain it was due to the “Goldstein” on the side of his car.   He was sincere to the point of admitting the truth of the accusations made against his adopted church, and he did not whitewash them.   He died in the midst of the COVID epidemic, but not due to COVID.    His heart eventually gave out on him.

Another Stan who I knew and worked with for nearly a decade did die from COVID.   I hired Stan Pavey to become the training director at a clinic where I worked in Glendale as the clinical director.   He was a highly respected and well-loved professor at California School of Professional Psychology, who had a thick crop of silver hair and a warm and engaging smile.  He was soft-spoken, whip smart and avuncular.   He was one of those people with whom everyone felt comfortable, and who treated everyone with the same level of interest and respect.

Stan’s health had not been good leading up to COVID, and apparently—despite his ever-youthful appearance, he couldn’t fight it off.   He never married, but each time I bumped into him at some LA restaurant, which was oddly often, he was seated with a different, younger woman, many of whom I learned were lifelong friends.

It’s been a rough couple of years.   As I write this now, I learned last night of the death of Bob Mann, a social worker with whom I had been close during our years working together at the San Fernando Child Guidance Clinic in Northridge, California.   Though we had barely kept in touch in the ensuing years, Bob was more than an extraordinary presence.   Kind-hearted, soft and loving, yet never too shy about reminding me that I always pronounced “Asperger” incorrectly.  He was one of the few people I knew who wasn’t afraid of using his vast vocabulary.   He and I would walk the halls of the clinic punning to each other under our breaths, and he was kind enough to offer an occasional chuckle when I attempted to say something funny.  No one who ever met Bob could say they were not in the presence of a uniquely brilliant, charming, kind human being.  He died from the ravages of prostate cancer.

Words certainly seem empty in the face of the ultimate mystery.   I suppose that it’s the pain of loss that gives life its value– or not.   There’s no salve for me believing in any of the myths the various religions provide, only degrees of discomfort with the unknown.   All we really have, I suppose, are brief moments of interest, laughter, sadness, fleeting moments of connection.  Each of us singular flowers, blessed, occasionally, by the visit of a hummingbird.


Slow Flight

After a flying hiatus, I insist on flying with a more experienced pilot in the right seat.   That usually comes down to Don Becker or Michael Phillips, both of whom well exceed 15,000 hours of pilot-in-command (PIC) time.   They both have been instructing since I had hair on my head, and both have shepherded me through the privilege of seeing the earth from new heights.

So last week I ran an errand from my home airport in Santa Paula to San Jose, a 2-hour flight in my small airplane, but a 5-hour drive if I were to have chosen a more grounded route.  The 2-hour flight to San Jose would allow me to run my errand and get back before sunset, which is when my home airport, sans landing lights, officially “closes”.  Don was free that day, so we were locked in.

The flight up and the landing at Reid-Hillview went very well.  On the return flight, however, I was tired, and decided to see how Don felt about taking the last 20 minutes, including the landing in Santa Paula, as PIC.   As usual, he jumped at the chance, and with the standard “you have the controls” the exchange occurred.

There was a predicted, rather dense marine layer over the ocean that was working its way slowly toward the airport that would have made it impossible to land had it crept a few more miles inland, necessitating a diversion to Van Nuys, a long delay getting home and then having to pick the airplane up on another day.    Santa Paula is too small to have its own automated weather reporting, and we were out of cell phone range to get a direct report from someone on the ground, so the only reliable way of finding out if the marine layer was over the airport was to fly there and check it ourselves.    Due to the fact that the airport is nestled among mountain ranges, you can’t easily see it until you get up close and personal.

I recommended to Don that we approach Santa Paula from the east, where we knew it was clear, but Don was PIC and he suggested flying to the nearby Saticoy bridge, west of the airport, above the marine layer, and get a birds-eye view from there.     We discussed it briefly, and I yielded to his 40 or so years of experience, which turned out to be a good call.  As we approached the bridge, it became clear that the marine layer hadn’t yet reached Santa Paula, although a slight mist had crept in.   That still left Don the challenge of descending from our original altitude of 7500 feet to the pattern altitude of 850 feet in short space.

There are lots of ways to descend rapidly, and Don chose the method that arguably might be construed as the safest.   He cut the engine to idle and flew to the airport just above the wing’s stall speed.   This made it easy to get a good view of anything or anyone that might be flying in the neighborhood, and also allowed them to get a good view of us.

Like most pilots I know, I’m a fan of speed and like to get places as quickly as I can.   Although I practice slow flight occasionally, it’s not one of my favorite things to do.    Idling either the airplane’s engine or my own has always been a challenge, and life just above stall speed is something I admire but just can’t sidle up to.  My heart rate has always been about 10 beats per minute over the average male’s, and perhaps beneath it all I am afraid that the closer I get to idling the more likely it will be that the engine will give out altogether.

The experience of a 15,000-hour pilot flying with the engine at idle was, to use one of Don’s favorite words, “awesome.”  The Diamond’s long wings and glider heritage is the perfect platform; she floats rather gracefully and sweetly through the sky, and with the engine at idle and full flaps, flying becomes much quieter.

Slow flight is surely a skill more than a talent, although the sheer beauty of it, especially the coordinated turns and feathery approach to the asphalt, make it appear to be the work of an artist.  In life as well, slow flight is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to my rather nervous system, but one that I struggle to master.   Couch time in front of my treasured big screen TV and Masterpiece Theater or its equivalent is helpful, but inevitably feels like “wasted” time.  Meditation is always good, but there’s bills to pay and phone calls to return.   Reading is good, but there’s only so long one can sit still.

Slowly descending through the mist as the sun sets behind you, looking down at cars scurrying through traffic on the freeway below—these are the numinous voyages that comprise a life that is well-lived.




Just a Reflex

Bruce Bridgeman was a prolific, brilliant experimental psychologist who died tragically a few years ago, well before his time.   I met him once, when I was an undergraduate and he was a young professor at UC Santa Cruz in California.   It was a brief interaction, but one that stuck with me all these decades later.   I had been roaming through the basement of the psychology building, when I came upon a rather large, unopened corrugated box.  Printed on the side were the words “Whittaker Corporation.”

It was a room full of gadgets, remnants of past experiments and artifacts of government budgets that needed fulfillment.  With the curiosity of an avid phone phreak, I opened the box; inside was an odd-looking device called a pupillometer, and I immediately wondered if I could make use of it.   I slowly closed the box back up and dragged it to the elevator to bring it upstairs where I could then take it to my dorm room for further exploration.

When the elevator stopped at the first floor, a tall, bearded man entered.   Sharing my curiosity, he asked me what was in the box.   I told him it was a pupillometer, apparently designed to measure pupil size.   He said something to the effect of, “Oh, so what are you gonna do with it?”  I told him that I had a hunch (which had just come to me) that maybe people’s pupils dilated when they were lying, and it could be used as a device to detect deception.   I don’t remember if he sighed, but the man who I later learned was Bruce Bridgeman scoffed at the idea.   “That’s ridiculous.   Pupil size is an autonomic response controlled by the third optic nerve.   It’s a reflex.  Has nothing to do with anything else.”

He was cocksure of himself.  I was rattled by his statement, as I would likely be by anyone who was cocksure of anything.   I was a jejune undergraduate, immature in all the important ways, but sophisticated enough to be cocksure that the only thing besides taxes and death that was certain in the universe was uncertainty.

Sure, I too have been accused of conceit, but I think unfairly.   I get excited about ideas and though I know very little about a lot of things, sometimes I lapse into that male thing of speaking with authority when I am ignorant.  I know well that mansplaining is dismissive, but it’s not meant to be, at least not in my case.  While I know it can be painful to be on the receiving end, please understand that for most of us in the weaker sex, mansplaining is a thin veneer covering deep insecurity and self-doubt.  It is never intended to cause pain.  I mansplain, but at the same time I rarely think I am right about anything—especially lately as memory for certain details wane.  And  I do enjoy being corrected, as it’s an opportunity to learn, and although I do feel copious amounts of shame when I make a truly dim-witted mistake (such as using the word “touchstone” instead of “milestone” in an invitation), for the most part, I am painfully aware of the extreme limitations of my fund of information.

The devil in me always wanted to reconnect with Bruce Bridgeman, perhaps out of a sense of comeuppance because it turned out my own research with the pupillometer did support my hypothesis, and it became my first ever published research article.   That little article garnered a whole lot of reprint requests (which was the method of choice prior to the internet), several of which came from the C.I.A.  As has so often been the case in this life I dilly dallied and never got around to checking in with Bruce and his death kind of shut that door.   I never learned if his life of stellar research inversely effected his degree of hubris, as it tends to do for most of us who make it past our thirties.  And I imagine as well that he would have a great neuropsychological explanation of pupil dilation that now transcends the simplicity of reflex theory.

Bruce Bridgeman died after being struck by a car while attempting to cross a street in Taipei, the day before he and his wife were scheduled to present at a conference there.   In his lifetime, he had published over 350 articles and a classic textbook.   He was only 71, an athlete, and in stellar health.

Soon, perhaps

I have not been flying; I have not been writing.   Neither endeavor creates revenue, at least not enough to pay for the occasional sushi dinner, and to some extent, because I am in COVID-business-rescue mode, I have been busying myself with revenue-generating activity.

Both endeavors—flying and writing that is, generate pleasure, or more accurately, satisfaction.

But as a few of you have noticed, I have not been terribly motivated to write this blog.    Only 3 (4 at the most) of my loyal and faithful readers have mentioned in any way that they missed me.   It hurts, but I’ll get over it.   I know where I stand, and the few people who might miss me should I disappear forever see enough of me already.

Through my own generativity, my own desperate sparks of desire and insecurity, I am fortunate to be sheltering in a rather beautiful, luscious place.   Avian life surrounds me, and despite the very sad demise of one of the largest oaks on my property succumbing now to the ravages of the Thomas fire, the vegetation surrounding me is lush.   I am writing this now on my back porch, the acrid air not yet stinging my eyes or constricting my lungs.

Human sounds, such as the one presently being made by the asshole who can’t imagine that the sound of his or her chainsaw at 9:20 in the morning rattles insomniacs such as I to the core, or more likely doesn’t give a damn, annoy me.   But I am not complaining.   Really.   I love my nest in Ojai.   Being fairly well-traveled, I can say with confidence that it is one of the most beautiful places in the world.   So when I can hear myself think over the sounds the humans are making, I am truly grateful to be here.

Soon I will get back up in the air.   That will be good, if not a bit nerve-wracking.   I will return to this blog as the mood dictates.  I am grateful to those of you who read it.   It is an odd thing; not unlike the radio disc jockey or the sports announcer who speaks to people he or she never sees.

Once, I sent a bunch of these posts to my literary agent—the one who helped me get my book on family feuds published, hoping that the concept of applying the aviation metaphor to a kind of self-help genre might be appealing.   She wrote back that I should forget about the psychological component and just write about flying.   I love reading about flying, so maybe she was right.   But I have spent a lifetime as a psychologist, trying to “repair the world” (as the West Coast Jews say) one life at a time, and I just can’t seem to rid myself of the temptation.  Today, however, there will be no self-help aviation metaphor.   You’re on your own.  Get over it.

So, as this bizarre, apocalyptic-insinuating world twists and turns around us, I will for now continue to metaphorically suck my thumb in this very sheltered existence, grateful to be alive, grateful that the person with the chainsaw seems to have accomplished the task at hand (or is pausing for hydration), that the big nasty black bee hovering around me hasn’t died from the polluted air, that George the feral cat still comes for her food in the morning, that I haven’t run out of coffee, and that I am alive to see another day unfold.   Soon, perhaps, I will get back up in the air.   Soon, perhaps.   (This post was written some time in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic– perhaps about a year ago now.   I had intended to post it but never got around to it.)



Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will remember the rather dramatic loss of power I suffered as a student pilot while flying a Cessna 150 over the mountains between my home airport and the Central California valley. I mentioned in that post the time my friend Stan Goldstein handed me a note with the word “stoichiometry” on it.   He asked me to go study up on the concept, which I dutifully did, and although it didn’t definitively solve the riddle of what went wrong in the little Cessna I was flying, it was an important thing for me to do.

Stoichiometric ratio is the blend of fuel and air that enters a carburetor (or fuel injection system).   There is an ideal mixture of fuel and air at which an internal combustion engine is able to utilize the full measure of energy contained in a drop of fuel.   When the ratio of fuel and oxygen molecules is imbalanced, the chemical reaction that occurs within the cylinders will be incomplete.   Typically, that means that a portion of the fuel will remain unburned and less energy is produced.

Few things in life are as simple as they seem, and that’s probably why Stan wanted me to look more deeply into this stoichiometry business.   What non-tech people like me often don’t know, or care to think about, is the fact that carburetors and fuel injection systems base their mixture on the volume of air entering the system, and not the weight of the air.   But the stoichiometric ratio is based on the weight of both the fuel and air, and that’s where a lot of pilots get in trouble.

The trouble in River City comes about because one can have the same volume of air with different weights; air gets thinner (less molecules floating around in the same space) as altitude increases.   That’s one reason it’s harder to breathe at high altitudes, as your lungs take in the same amount of air but fewer molecules of gas.

It is not uncommon for earthbound creatures to confuse volume with weight.   I think of it, somewhat metaphorically, in relationship to tasks.  As I write this, I have about 30 Word documents open at the bottom of my page, as well as about 25 windows open in my Chrome browser.   As is true for most of us, my task list is rather large—some observers say astonishingly so.   But the stress doesn’t come strictly from the number of tasks required of me, but the weight of those tasks.   The weight consists of deadline pressure, a parent anxiously waiting for a report, an editor waiting for a piece, an insurance company posing a billing deadline, the difficulty of the task itself, or even the level of pleasure derived from that task.   The volume of aversive tasks may be small, but if the weight of the tasks are large my suffering increases.   On the other hand, I do have quite a lot of rose bushes to trim before the end of February, but it is a meditative and pleasurable task. Here, the stoichiometric ratio is in my favor.

The stoichiometric ratio as applied to life in general can be compared to the notion of eustress versus distress.   Stress itself is simply running lean of peak.   When we stress ourselves, our immune system goes into overdrive and repairs damaged tissue, occasionally making it stronger than it was before.   Broken bones are often cited as an example, but the most obvious one is lifting weights. Eustress is the kind of stress that is good for us, and distress is the bad kind.   But they are both stress, and the only difference between the two is often the way we think about them.

Rowing upstream can cause distress or eustress, depending on our point of view.   Flying an airplane can be a source of distress if we spend the entire flight worrying about the cylinder head that is running too cool, or a source of eustress as we marvel at how well our engine works on just 3 cylinders. The test coming up can be a source of distress if our worry about passing it has to do with seeing ourselves as incompetent, or a source of eustress if we see it a great opportunity to show off how much we have learned.

When my little 100 horsepower engine desperately gasped for air above the mountains, the rpm dropped and there was nothing I could do but lower the nose and find thicker air below me.   The fact that there was a hostile mountain waiting to greet me just below was a great source of distress at the time.   Leaning the mixture didn’t do the trick at the time, because there just weren’t enough molecules in the air at my altitude.   Yet, the lessons learned, due in large part to Stan’s single word written on a scrap of paper, have led to a deeper understanding that it matters less how many things one takes on than the gravity of the tasks.   Perhaps I will trim the roses today, but only after I get that damn report finished.





Trust the Force

I have been on this planet—at least in corporeal form (lately more corporeal than I would like)—for over six decades and I still don’t know if I should trust the Force. Mostly, I think I do, and there have been moments when my trust in the Force has been rewarded, but I do think that, along with angels, the Force can be tricky.

Relative to most others of my vintage, I have not been flying that long—approaching now only about a decade and a half.   I might be called a late bloomer, but that would imply that I was a bloomer, and I take offense at that.   Frankly, I am still waiting to bloom. But this memory goes back to my training days with crusty old Floyd.

It is not uncommon for instructors to “fail” an instrument in order for student pilots to learn how to fly an airplane in the event that their instruments do in fact fail. They typically do that by covering the instruments so that you can’t see them, and saying something pithy like “Your attitude indicator just failed. Now fly without it.”   (You might be able to predict this in advance if you notice your instructor puts a pad of blank Post-it notes in her or his pocket before a flight.)

As I was doing a series of landings and takeoffs at my local airport, Floyd proceeded to cover one instrument after another, so that by the time I had landed several times nearly all the instruments were covered by Post-it notes, and I was landing merely by visual cues outside the airplane. Then, while flying on the downwind leg– which means that I was flying 850 feet above the ground in the opposite direction of the landing runway, Floyd said to me, “Now close your eyes and land the airplane.”   I am not sure what was going on in his head, nor had I ever been sure of what was going on in his head, but perhaps he thought it might be interesting that, while he was at it, he might as well fail one of the last critical instruments on the airplane—my eyes.

I immediately thought Floyd had lost his mind, but one thing I did know was that his was the kind of mind that was permanently trapped inside his head and could never be lost. While I suspected he didn’t care much about my life, I knew he had a wife and kids who he claimed to have loved very much and didn’t want to lose, so I followed his instruction, well, blindly.

By this time I had landed the little Cessna 150, I don’t know, maybe 50 or so times, but I always had the world outside or the instruments inside to guide me. This time all I had was my remaining four senses.

So I did what he asked.   I closed my eyes, and flew the airplane around the pattern completely blind. That means cutting the power just the right amount at the right time, gauging RPM strictly by the sound of the engine, then turning the airplane 90 degrees twice in order to line it up with the runway, all the while descending at just the right speed and angle.

A few terrifying minutes later, I heard the words “Now, open your eyes.” To my absolute shock, I was about 50 feet right over the center of the runway, in perfect position to land.   I have rarely been able to do it so well with my eyes open ever since.

A decade and a half later, I find this memory so incredible that I question it.   I do recall thinking that, unbeknownst to me, Floyd summoned his inner trickster and used his set of controls to subtly guide the airplane to where it ought to be, and this was really an exercise in boosting confidence rather than in learning to trust the Force that resided in my muscle memory.   I didn’t believe what I had not seen and asked him firmly if he guided the airplane without me knowing it.   Floyd insisted that he did not, but to this day I don’t think I believe him.   Acts of potential prestidigitation such as Floyd’s make it difficult for me to know whether the Force will guide me when I need it.

Speaking in public was once a difficult thing for me to do, the public amounting to any more than one person at a time.   I worked hard at it, and now the public sometimes gets irritated because I don’t know when to shut up.   On the few occasions when I have spoken to more than 50 or so people at a time, I have learned to trust the Force and it almost always works out just fine.   But on one occasion with well over a hundred folks in the audience my mouth became so dry that I truly could barely speak, and no matter how much water I drank the imaginary cotton in my mouth seemed to absorb so many of the words that very few escaped.   Sometimes the Force, I imagine, goes on vacation without any notice whatsoever.

Snapped down on my back while receiving radiation, mucous collecting in that same dastardly mouth of mine, with the act of swallowing made difficult by a large, bulky tumor in the base of my tongue, I summoned the Force (along with a little Ativan) to prevent me from asphyxiating on that same mucous. I managed to make it through seven weeks of 20-minute episodes of this procedure, far less I hasten to add than many of those alongside me in the waiting room whose cancer had progressed throughout their entire body.

Perhaps it was the Force that those big machines channeled into radiation-emitting photons aimed precisely at the enthusiastic cancer cells that enabled me to sit here typing these caffeine-induced meanderings today.   I could say without any doubt that those photons were indeed a force that showed up when needed; I just can’t say if they were the Force to which I am herein referring.

Whether the Force was involved in Floyd’s little act of deceit, the transformation of my exquisite shyness, or the beaming of light waves into the soft, mortal tissue of this fragile yet somehow unyielding body, it seems to me I can only remain somewhat agnostic.   There is belief, which when brutally honest can only be agnostic, and then there is observation, which is clearly less so.   It is from the perspective of observation that, whether due to sheer, whimsical luck or a unifying force greater than that, every day that we open our eyes to this world of flight, science, and ideas, is a day deserving of our attention and awe.   And perhaps in that sense alone, may the Force be with you.

It’s Your Party, Fly if You Want To

If you want to leave the surly bonds of earth, launch into the wild blue yonder, depart the chains of gravity, or stop yourself from over-writing, you’re going to need, at the very least, a big balloon filled with more hot air than the president, some sort of motorized aircraft, or some kind of wing capable of catching a thermal.

Flapping your arms won’t do you much good, and it might lead the other people in the coffee shop to wonder if you’ve taken your meds.   But perhaps I’m being presumptuous here; you may not be the kind of person who would enjoy flying.   You may be content sitting at home watching Netflix, or staring into the glow of the fireplace, reading a book, or working out at the gym.   If that’s the case, may God bless and keep you safe from existential ennui.   Before you die, in my humble opinion, it is your task to lead your own life, dream your own dreams, and not to follow anyone else’s. If you can do that—become yourself, that is, before you die, you’re a better person than I, or me. And if you know whether I am I or me at any particular place in a sentence, you’re a better man than I am, or at least a better grammarian than I, or me, or Marianne.

Birds may do it, bees may do it, and perhaps educated fleas ponder it, but that doesn’t mean you need to do it too.   You will likely be safer at home in your living or bedroom, unless of course you happen to live as do I in the land where the earth quakes, in which case when the big one comes you’d be a lot safer in the air.

As for those birds and bees, one can only imagine how sad life would be for them if their wings were clipped and they were forced—perhaps by some regulatory agency, to remain earthbound.  It would likely give rise to a life devoid of meaning, a chronic feeling of one’s life mission unaccomplished.

But that is because birds and bees, as opposed to humans, were meant to fly.   That’s how the Creator in Her Eternal Wisdom designed it.   Humans were obviously meant to remain earthbound, too fat and skinny in all the wrong places to take to the sky without help.

Yet, for some reason, humans have used their gift of a cerebral cortex to figure out a way to emulate the birds and bees, albeit primitively. I don’t claim to know the reasons, and the older I get the more cynical I am about reasons in general.   “Why,” I tell my graduate students, “is a four-letter word.” Best to approach life substituting “why” with “how” as often as possible.

“Why,” in this context, won’t likely get you off the couch and into the air, if that is your chosen path.   “How,” however, will guide you.   And if it is a mentor you seek, there are plenty who will oblige.   You are likely the only one standing in your way.

As a rule, pilots are not possessive of their privilege.   Nearly every pilot I know would love to see more pilots flying.   While the frequencies might get crowded up there, the more pilots there are, the less people like me would have to feign interest in casual conversation while waiting for the topic to come around to anything aviation-related.   So we who have earned the ability to fly welcome and encourage company.   “Come fly with me,” sang Sinatra joyously.   “Let’s float down to Peru.”

And while we are singing, let’s not forget that while those early supporters of women’s rights celebrated the fact that teen-aged Leslie Gore was not our little toy, we also couldn’t help singing along to her other major hit single—“It’s My Party, and I’ll Fly if I Want To.”   Go ahead, sing it. And may I add, flap your arms if you want to.