from “The Art of Travel”

Rarely, if ever, do I allow someone else to write my blog post, but here, without consent and possibly in violation of copyright laws, I quote from Alain de Botton’s “The Art of Travel”:

…Nowhere is the appeal of the airport more concentrated than in the television screens which hang in rows from terminal ceilings announcing the departure and arrival of flights and whose absence of aesthetic sef-consciousness, whose workmanlike casing and pedestrian typefaces, do nothing to disguise their emotional charge or imaginative allure.  Tokyo, Amsterdam, Istanbul.  Warsaw, Seattle, Rio.  The screens bear all the poetic resonance of the last line of James Joyce’s Ulysses: at once a record of where the novel was written and, no less importantly, a symbol of the cosmopolitan spirit behind its composition: ‘Trieste, Zurich,Paris.’  The constant calls of the screens, some accompanied by the impatient pulsing of a cursor, suggest with what ease our seemingly entrenched lives might be altered, were we to walk down a corridor and on to a craft that in a few hours would land us in a place of which we had no memories and where no one knew our names. How pleasant to hold in mind, through the crevasses of our moods, at three in the afternoon when lassitude and despair threaten, that there is always a plane taking off for somewhere, for Baudelaire’s “Anywhere! Anywhere!’: Trieste, Zurich, Paris.

Ups and Downs

I had some trouble sleeping last night, so I took the advice I usually give to others and got out of bed.   That is why I am writing these words at 5:30 in the morning, after waking at 4– a cruel hour if there ever was one.   Sleep may be one of the only occasions this life offers in which—finding oneself unable to get down, one should just get up.

It happens sometimes in aviation, when an airplane’s wings begin to collect ice, and warmer air might be found at higher altitudes.   Then, going down might be more hazardous than climbing, so sometimes you have to temporarily go up in order to eventually land safely. Usually, however, what goes up must come down, and what comes down need never go up.

One of my day jobs is to teach a class at UCLA Medical School (now sadly named after David Geffen), where each week a new “case”– as physicians are trained to refer to humans in order to see them as less human– is presented and discussed.   The other week we presented the case of someone who was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mood disorder in which a person swings between periods of mania and depression (hence the outmoded term “manic-depression”).

Bipolar disorder is fairly common, affecting about 6 million Americans a year, but when I was seeing 30 clients a week I found it one of the easiest diagnoses to miss.   That is because when a person shows up in front of you who might be suffering from a bipolar disorder and isn’t in the midst of either a manic or depressive episode, there is nothing in their manner that would lead one to believe there is anything to diagnose. The diagnosis resides in the history (or herstory).

The psychiatric nomenclature (as codified in its “bible,” the DSM) reflects Newton’s law in that what goes up must come down, while the opposite doesn’t apply. One can be diagnosed with either a bipolar disorder or severe depression, but if you are severely manic then you must also be bipolar.   You just can’t stay manic forever. (You can, however, according to DSM, be “hypomanic,” which means you can go on a shopping spree and charge up all your credit cards as long as you don’t go over the credit limit.)

Mania, though, has been around a long time, although I suspect it has generally been viewed as less pathological than depression. Emil Kraepelin, the prolific German psychiatrist often cited as the founder of scientific (as opposed to Freudian, which seemed to emanate more from Freud’s imagination than empirical data) psychiatry, described mania this way over a hundred years ago:

The patient feels the need to get out of himself, to be on more intimate terms with his surroundings, to play a part. As he is a stranger to fatigue, his activity goes on day and night; work becomes very easy to him; ideas flow to him. He cannot stay long in bed; early in the morning, even at four o’clock he gets up, he clears out lumber rooms, discharges business that was in arrears, undertakes morning walks, excursions. He begins to take part in social entertainments, to write many long letters, to keep a diary, to go in a great deal for music and authorship. Especially the tendency of rhyming … is usually very conspicuous. … His pressure of activity causes the patient to change about his furniture, to visit distant acquaintances, to take himself up with all possible things and circumstances, which formerly he never thought about.

One of the first things I did when I awoke at 4 was try to rhyme some words (it’s a song lyric, and it’s not bad but needs a lot of work). On the other hand, I like my furniture exactly where it is and although I love many of my acquaintances, I will be happy today to stay home and clear out my lumber room. And not only am I no stranger to fatigue, she is my constant companion.   No, this is just simple anxiety-driven insomnia, probably about a scan I have coming up.   No mania for me.

It could be that one of the reasons I tend to miss the diagnosis of bipolar disorder is that it is one of those labels I have never applied to myself.   Surely I have had my bouts of depression, a few of which have immured me, but the idea of having boundless energy is as foreign to my nature as waking up one day being able to speak Russian.   Not likely in this lifetime.

The idea that what goes up must come down is echoed in the notion that one can go through life getting stronger or weaker.   Freud (who happened to be born a couple of months apart from Kraepelin but outlived him by 13 years) had a rather bleak view, and having been a military man saw life as a battlefield in which each battle leaves fewer troops surviving to fight the next.   Nietsche, from whom Freud undoubtedly stole the notion of an unconscious (and who, by the way, may have known Kraepelin as they both spent time in Leipzig) is famously quoted as having said that “Whatever you don’t die from makes you stronger.”   I don’t know if he ever really said that, but a friend once tried to console me by telling me that Nietsche said that.   No good friend should waste precious breath with consolation when confrontation could suffice.   There are just too many examples of things that happen, from divorces to lawsuits to car wrecks to marriages to chronic, debilitating illnesses that wear us down and from which recovery just doesn’t happen. Surely, what comes down often just keeps coming down.

On the bright side, however, I am reminded that in order to safely return to earth, one must safely leave it.   And I am convinced that home is made more soothing after having flown far from it and fought a few dragons along the way.   It is simply a matter of fact that one’s wings can collect ice at just about any altitude, and it is never entirely clear whether warmer air can be found above or below you. And in that sense, it may matter less whether one is going up or down than whether one is going at all.

 

 

 

Happiness

Street in Bergen

Street in Bergen

My family moved from New York to Orange County, California toward the beginning of my junior year in high school.   We lived only a few miles from Disneyland, which billed itself as the “happiest place on earth.”   I did love going to Disneyland.   My next-door neighbor’s sister worked there, and I was able to use her pass to get in for free. This was back in the days when you needed tickets to get on the rides, but I would go there at night and settle myself in New Orleans Square, where a “real” New Orleans jazz band would play and I could sit back, drink a non-alcoholic mint julep, and just take in the music. It was obvious that the happy world Disney created was two-dimensional—mostly facades held up by scaffolding, and while New Orleans Square itself was also faux, the jazz musicians were the real things. Those solitary nights represented brief moments of happiness, something I didn’t experience too often in high school. But it was the brevity of those moments that, I suppose, made them precious.

I am thinking about happiness because I am writing this in the place that the most recent “World Happiness Report” ranked as the actual happiest place on earth—Norway. What makes this the happiest place, according to the committee chaired by the noted economist and likely distant relative John Helliwell, is that it is rich not with money, but with all of the factors empirically found to correlate with happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance. Okay, income is on the list, but not at the top and not necessarily because it is plentiful, but because its distribution is more equitable. I love the notion, as quoted in the summary of Helliwell’s report, that “It is sometimes said that Norway achieves and maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but in spite of it.” The U.S., by the way, came in 19th, down from 3rd a decade ago, primarily due to declining social support and increased corruption.   And these data were taken before Trump’s ascendancy, so I can only imagine how much further the U.S. has sunk.

I have only been here a few days now, but I admit there are many things that make me happy when I see them.   People have faith in their government, which seems to act prudently and on behalf of its citizens and not in the oligarchical fashion I see in the U.S. now and nearly everywhere else I go.   In spite of drastically falling oil prices its economic forecast is excellent according to the financial posts I read, because of the government strategy to develop slowly and plan for the long-term.

I am happy too about the single payor health system, the fact that women are paid and treated equally (the heads of both armed forces are women!), that women receive 100% of their pay while taking 10 months of leave for pregnancy (or 80% if they take a year), that the trains are so quiet and have “family cars” with playrooms where kids can play and mothers can nurse, that I rarely see a police officer and the ones I do see do not wear guns, that there is a general air of safety here, that there is virtually no traffic, multiple options of public transport, babies and young lovers everywhere, that the mentality of the place has caused Norway to take in a large percentage of Syrian and other refugees (1% of its population compared to 0.3% in the U.S.), and yes, no matter which direction you turn there is something natural and beautiful to look at.

The Norwegian attitude, in which humility is considered one of the highest virtues, is a refreshing counterpoint to the narcissism and self-aggrandizement that is now represented on the nightly news as the chief symbol of my native country, as well as the fact that no one expects you to tell them what you are feeling but you are expected to be direct and honest about what you are thinking.

Of course not all is pleasant in Pleasanton. For some reason they speak Norwegian here, which I imagine sounds a lot like English to people who don’t speak English. It should be an easy language to learn for an English-speaker, given its shared Germanic roots and similar grammatical structure, but local variations in pronunciation are so profound that even Norwegian language TV shows have Norwegian subtitles. (They might claim this is for the deaf, but I don’t buy it.) There is a dearth of available real estate, so what is here is beyond the price range of most rapacious Americans. Food is expensive, even for Norwegians who trek to much-despised Sweden to get good deals. And most gringos find the weather here miserable, although I confess that after living in drought-ravaged California most of my life I find the occasional unpredictable downpour quite refreshing.

As I have written in these virtual pages before, I am not a big fan of happiness.   In my humble opinion, it is a greatly over-rated emotion. It is, I believe, a gateway drug and must be consumed accordingly.   If not consumed sparingly it can lead to elation, which is a dreadful state of vacuous inauthenticity. I’ve encountered it before, and it’s a tough addiction to crack.

Whether or not the people of Norway are any happier than the rest of us is not something I would trust to a bunch of researchers to tell me, nor frankly do I care that much.   Happiness is not something that you have or earn.   It has you.   Perhaps Jefferson knew that well when he declared that humans had an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.   We have no right to happiness, only the right to pursue it.   Or, perhaps William Blake said it more poetically when he wrote that famous four-liner          more than 200 years ago:

He who binds himself to a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

As a teenager in Orange County every once in a while I kissed that joy as it flew past me in the mirage of New Orleans Square, in the shadow of a papier maché Matterhorn, and now, as it gently rains outside the very real “Godt Brod” bakery and coffee shop in Bergen, I can feel it hovering about in the air.

 

The Big Sky Theory

mathOn any given day, there are about 87,000 flights undertaken, and at any single moment, there are between 5 and 10 thousand airplanes (commercial and private) in the skies over the United States alone. According to the FAA, on an average day, controllers handle 28,537 commercial flights, 27,178 private flights, 24,548 “for hire” flights, 5,260 military flights, and 2,148 cargo flights.   And these numbers don’t include private pilots who choose not to talk to ATC, as I often do when out cruising the neighborhood or when flying around non-towered airports.

There’s so many airplanes up there at once it’s a wonder they don’t bump into each other more often.   They don’t, it seems, because relative to the sheer volume of atmosphere in which they fly, all those airplanes actually don’t take up a lot of space.   The relative volume of airplane to the volume of sky in which they fly being the reason that they don’t bump into each other more often is called the “big sky theory.”     And statistically, given the ratio, the chances of one airplane bumping into another should be close to zero.

But although it is happening less and less, it does happen, roughly a dozen times a year, especially in crowded airspace (such as busy airports) where airplanes are more likely to converge. The big sky theory, it appears, doesn’t work that well, because the statistical probability of it ever happening is very close to zero.

Once, at a party in the living room of the Victorian house I was renting as a student with several roommates in Santa Cruz, California the math instructor and brilliant folk music satirist Tom Lehrer entertained us by demonstrating statistically that it was impossible to get wet when walking through the rain.   Perhaps it was the blackberry brandy that mysteriously found its way from a bottle in my back pocket to my tummy that prohibited me from understanding the arithmetic, but his statistics appeared impeccable and his argument was compelling.

Now, I may not be able to tell you the formula for chi-square off the top of my head, but I can work my way around ANOVAs, MANOVAs, and one of my favorite statistics (and Russian movie stars)—ANACOVAs, with fluency. Compared to highly trained academic statisticians, I still sit at the kid’s table, but I retain some perhaps egoistic pride in my ability to do discriminant function analyses, and I can work my way around most research articles I read.

The big sky theory doesn’t work for similar reasons that you really can’t wet when walking through the rain.   It is very easy to misunderstand (to be generous) or deceive (to be cynical) with statistics.   (I am fond of “proving” to kids that I have 11 fingers by counting down from 10 on one hand and then adding five when I get to the other.)

That is why Joel Best’s book “Damned Lies and Statistics” and its subsequent editions should be required reading for anyone who reads anything, pretends to know something, and hasn’t studied statistics. It should also be required reading for journalists, with whom I have particular antipathy for perpetrating the most heinous of statistical misstatements.

Theories can be extremely convincing, especially when backed by statistics.   As an autism “expert,” I once described in detail the theory behind how the preservative thimerosal, used in the MMR vaccine, can cause autism.   I had a room full of family practice residents convinced, possibly because I sprinkled the explanation with statistics. (The proportion of thimerosal in vaccines, the multiples of mercury based on the FDA’s own limits of safety, the correlation between mercury poisoning and autism symptoms, etc.)   The theory can be made to look rather compelling, but it’s just wrong. These residents were smart cookies, but I could have just as easily convinced them that I had 11 fingers.

One of the many problems with statistics is that it is a very poor method for predicting low-frequency events, such as rain in California, earthquakes, violent behavior, or midair collisions. It is nearly impossible to account for all the variables required for a low-frequency (or extremely complex) event to occur.

The driveway to my domicile is located a half-mile up from a highway.   Although I typically drive that half-mile slowly, the other day I had to swerve to avoid a squirrel that decided to dart in front of my car.   Sadly for both me and the squirrel (but mostly the squirrel), we collided. If I had to create a statistical model that would attempt to predict the likelihood of me colliding with a squirrel down that half-mile stretch of road, I can assure you that it would reveal that colliding with a squirrel could not happen in thousands of lifetimes.   Statistics, it seems, cannot take into consideration the notion that squirrels appear to have a robust death wish, or have a secret ritual in which the transition to adult squirrelhood is marked by darting across a road in front of Lexus crossovers with balding drivers.

So, you see, it isn’t that difficult to prove, statistically, that it is nearly impossible to get wet when walking in the rain.   And really, it should never be necessary to look out your window when piloting an aircraft because the chances of bumping into another airplane are infinitesimal.   If you believe the statistics, that is.

 

Dubliners in Trieste

James Joyce wrote most of the Dubliners in Trieste.   The images he saw were projected not through the inward projector of his eyes, but instead outward from his amygdala.  The Italian city throbbed around him, while he managed to populate rural roads and city streets and pubs of Ireland from somewhere inside of him.

I accompanied my wife once to her high school reunion, I believe it was the 25th.   25 years later, it amazed us both how few people left the confines of the villages they called home.  How on earth, I wondered, did they find themselves?   Or, perhaps, they never felt lost to begin with.

I find myself uncomfortably judging those others, the Ones Who Never Left Home, as if that is a thing.   I see them, pretentiously, as once-born elves living in a forest from which I do not want to return.    But that is unfair.    As I once overheard at a coffee shop, we are all water balloons submerged in the ocean, our skins getting thinner as we age, until we burst and what was once separate is no longer.  The name of the person who spoke those words was Ocean Oracle.  Yup, that coffee shop was in California.  How did you guess?

I am probably as wrong about this as I am about most things, but I have always believed that it was necessary to leave a place in order to find one’s place in it. That is because if you are a Sequoia tree growing in a grove of Sequoias, you grow up believing that all trees are Sequoias.  Or, to torture both you and the metaphor further, all redwoods look the same until you live among the redwoods.

I wrote in a long ago blog post that I thought that one reason baseball is so popular (or once was), at least in the U.S., is that the object, against terrific odds, is to leave home just so you can eventually return to it.  No one I know has ever given a passing thought to the idea that a home run is pointless because it merely takes you back to where you started.

My wife and I went to Trieste not to sightsee, but to write.   We certainly could write at home, and we do, but it has its drawbacks.   We are surrounded there by the typical distractions of our daily lives.   We have our day jobs, our kids with whom we are blessed to love spending our time, dogs and friends, and other gardens that need tending.

Neither my wife nor I speak Italian, and along with writing we were struggling to figure out what my body was capable of doing shortly after chemotherapy, so we made no deep friendships while we were there.  But that was not the reason we went there.  We were there, ultimately, because in being in the unfamiliar there we were not in the familiar here.   There were new sounds that we never heard.   American music playing at the cafes, but not the music we ever would have chosen.    Different sirens, the beautiful prosody of the Italian language around us, different birds and birdsong.   In the unfamiliar there, the visual sensations were different.   Men in tight pants, hair buzz-cut on the sides, straight-backed women with sharp facial features and soft skin.  And if it hadn’t been for my allergies, I imagine the smells around me would have been different.    And if it weren’t for the cancer that dulled and sullied my taste buds, I am sure the food would have tasted better than whatever they call Italian food at home.

I can’t help but wonder if Joyce writing the Dubliners and other tales located on the streets and houses of Ireland took him away from feeling the sensations of the city that actually surrounded him.   I don’t think so.   There is life that happens when one isn’t writing.   For Joyce, there were the English lessons he gave while trying to support himself, the women he met and seduced before coming back to his apartment and his wife and young children, the cafes in which he sat, the food he ate and the friends he made.

That is the thing about writing.   It doesn’t happen without the writer, and the writer never really leaves home because he takes it with him wherever he goes.   Until or unless dementia grabs hold of our memories, we carry our histories wherever we go, and can’t escape it.

Perhaps it is the contrast between the world around us in the present moment and the worlds we carry in the baskets of our memory that even enhances our ability to write about that which defines us.   The trick can even work in both directions.  An acquaintance of mine wrote wonderful novels that took place in a foreign city to which she had never been—except for the virtual exploration she did through Google Earth.

For Joyce, writing about Dublin and rural Ireland from Trieste may have been just the ticket he needed.   He could see the forest better when he wasn’t in the trees, but instead from the top of a metaphorical mountain located in an actual place a thousand miles away.

 

Aerolinguistics

lessonIf you become a pilot you will be greeted with poetic terms such as “unusual attitudes” and “going missed.”   “Holding patterns” is pleasingly romantic, while “death spiral” could easily be a feature film title.   One term of which I have always been particularly fond is “angle of attack,” perhaps because I used to fence in college and the term, which is a key concept in aviation, has both martial and mathematical bits, and it’s alliterative to boot!

The goal in landing an airplane is to fly a “stabilized approach.”   Failing to do so often results in a “missed approach,” which is redolent of my entire adolescence, although words such as “awkward,” “clumsy,” “incompetent,” and “hopeless” could apply equally to teenage and airplane approaches.   The best I could manage in those awkward, clumsy, incompetent years as an adolescent was an occasional “touch and go.”  How life does imitate art.

When pilots fly “deadstick,” they have lost their engine power.   It’s a bit of a misnomer, in that the actual stick is alive and well– it just has no power behind it, but you really can’t beat the word for its rather perfect sexual connotation.   Conscientious pilots practice “deadstick landings,” which sadly describes some of my own geriatric tribulations.

And, just to get past the suggestive bits, when learning to fly on instruments pilots are taught the proper procedure for “entering holds.” I imagine that is also something pilots have in common with wrestlers.

While it isn’t required, the best among us get “spin and stall training,” which would have helped me once years ago when I stalled in front of more than a hundred people while giving a presentation at a psychology conference. It was difficult to recall in which order I needed to reduce power, slam on the rudder and level my ailerons.

We learn not to “scud run” and aviation lore tells us about “barnstormers.” I’m not exactly sure what a “barnstorm” is, but it sure sounds awesome. Somehow I imagine a bunch of drunken, squaredancing cowboys in too-tight boots and cowgirls in fripperies frenetically whooping it up on a Saturday night.

Speaking of cowboys, pilots learn how to lasso, but we spell it LAHSO, which stands for “land and hold short operations.” This could be the title of a chapter in the Kama Sutra, or something you wished your father had told you about. Pilots land with a flare, not just because it’s pretty, but also because it increases drag.   Too much flare, I imagine, can turn you into a drag queen, potentially resulting in a tail strike.

Most pilots speak French, although they often don’t know it.   “Mayday” is merely the Anglicization of venez m’aider (come help me) or simply m’aidez (better get off your ass and help me now), and pan-pan (the urgency call) is simply the French word for bread.   No, wait, that’s Spanish. It’s actually the French word for “breakdown,” as in “you’re really a pannes in the neck.”

When you fly an airplane, you are controlling three things: pitch, roll, and yaw.   I can’t help wonder if Bill Haley or one of the other Comets took flying lessons thus inspiring the classic song “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”   The latter might, on second thought, be a better description of flying through turbulence.

“Dead Reckoning” is not what a jury does when considering the consequences of an accused’s misbehavior, but rather a shorthand derived from “deductive reckoning,” a form of navigation based on computing timing between visual cues.   Both, however, may have a similar result. (Full disclosure: some historians believe “dead reckoning” stems from following straight roads, as in “dead ahead.”)

I love practicing “accelerated stalls,” which, although it sounds like a contradiction, can happen if you rotate too much on takeoff.   I think it is also the process behind stuttering.

Enough already.  Before I get behind the airplane and lose control, I should quit today’s aerolinguistics lesson.   Don’t know about you, but I need to pitch, roll and yaw my way out of bed, take a shower and go to the scale and compute my load factor.   Hopefully, there won’t be too much turbulence ahead.

 

 

 

 

Hiding in Plain Sight

downloadThis morning I had some trouble finding my watch.   I eventually did find it, wrapped comfortably around my wrist.   Sadly, this sort of event isn’t entirely infrequent.   My glasses often disappear until I find them perched on my head, and my keys are often sitting in the exact spot I kept looking for them.   I guess if you’re going to hide something, there really is something to the idea of hiding it in plain sight.

Budding pilots are taught to keep their heads “on a swivel,” in case the big sky isn’t quite big enough at any one moment in time and place for more than one airplane. As pilots advance in their training, they learn how to do a dance with their eyes known as “the scan.”   It turns out that it isn’t as easy to see an airplane and differentiate it from the backdrop of sky and earth as it might seem to the observer on the ground.   The method that pilots are taught– developed from extensive research, is to divide the sky into roughly 10 degree patches, then, beginning on one side, look intently and briefly at each patch of sky, assess it, and finding nothing noteworthy there, move on to the next.

Vision is complex, so intertwined with brain function that most textbooks consider the eyes part of the brain.   I have never done the experiment myself, but I believe those researchers who tell us that when you wear glasses that flip the world upside down, eventually the brain will turn it right side up.

Among the other wonders of the visual process, it turns out that while we may experience our entire visual field clearly, only 1% of our visual field is actually “seen” sharply on the fovea (the center of the retina).   Outside of that 1% is a blur that our brain fills in.   Some sources consulted for this post state very simply that if we look only straight ahead, we miss 99% of our visual field.

Another problem with finding stuff is the fact that it takes the eyes between one and two seconds to focus, so that continuously sweeping back and forth actually creates nothing but a blur.   That is why it is necessary to divide the field of vision into small blocks, spend at least a few seconds looking at one block, and then shift to an adjacent block.

Leadership, to me, works the same way.   As the head of an organization, one must have a vision, or in the words of management guru Rober Mager, “If you’re not sure where are you are going, you’re liable to end up someplace else.”   But keeping your eyes too close to the prize may also lead you down the wrong path, as looking straight ahead for too long increases the risk that something will come at you sideways.   Good leaders, it seems to me, focus intently on specifics, then shift their attention to another bit, making certain that they eventually take as wide a view as possible.

There is, also, the problem of attention.   It is easy to look but not to see.   I heard it said once that motorcycle accident victims often report that the last thing they remember was looking into the eyes of the driver of the car that plowed into them.   The car’s driver was looking, alright, but not expecting to see the motorcyclist, simply didn’t.

It is not, after all, looking at the phone while texting or making a call that is the chief problem, but the fact that our minds are occupied on the content of the call or text and not on what our eyes are seeing.   We may see the bicyclist dart in front of us, but not register the danger while we are trying to remember what is on the grocery list.

So, it seems to me, the adage that the best place to hide something is in plain sight can be true for several reasons; we may be missing what we are trying to find because we are sweeping from place to place and experience the world as a blur; we may think we are looking straight ahead but in reality only 1% of what is directly in front of us is clear; or our minds may simply be somewhere else.

Now, it could be that the reason my staff used to call me the “absent-minded professor” was because I often did things like search for my glasses while they were on my head, or look for my keys while they were in my hand.   That could be the reason they called me absent-minded, but for the life of me, I can’t remember.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angle of Attack

angle of attackAnything can “fly” if you push it through the air, or propel it, as you might have done with a balsa wood airplane as a child.   Or, if you played with dolls instead of airplanes, threw your Barbie across the room because your mother refused to let you wear your party dress to school. But if you aimed the airplane or the Barbie, or the Barbie in the airplane, straight ahead of you it quickly would have been pulled down to the ground by the relentless force of gravity.

For an object to continue on its path upwards it needs a force other than the thrust of an energetic arm to oppose the pull of gravity.   Physicists give this mysterious force the simple but poetic name “lift.”

Lift, in an airplane, is created by the difference in air pressure above and below the wing.   Due to the shape of the wing, air flows smoothly below the wing, but is disrupted above the wing by the wing’s curvature.   This disruption causes gaps in the atmosphere, lowering the pressure above the wing such that the higher pressure beneath “pushes” the wing upward toward the lower pressure.

That is why nerdy, snooty types take joy in saying that it isn’t really the airplane that is flying, but rather the wing.   For the most part, wings “carry” the fuselage and its passengers upwards. Not incidentally, when a pilot wishes to “roll” an airplane, that is, to rock its wings so that one goes up and the other goes down, he or she merely changes the shape of its wings by raising and lowering ailerons (a section of wing that is capable of moving).

Now, if you think about it for a moment, in order for the difference in air pressure to be created by the wing at all, the wing needs to have an air mass to oppose it. A wing won’t fly in a vacuum—which is why spacecraft don’t need wings at all. (Without gravity, there is no need for lift, and “up” and “down” have entirely different meanings; essentially, there is only “here” and “there”.)

Now, lest you think all this silliness is just random aviation arcana, I would suggest that it is rather important prelude to understanding the notion of “angle of attack,” which is the topic of today’s lecture. Simply stated, if you were to imagine a line drawn from the front edge of a wing to the back, and call that line the wing’s cord, then the angle between the cord and the wind is called the “angle of attack.”   It is a beautiful name, as so many things are in aviation, because, in essence, the wing attacks the wind, and the result of that altercation is not fight but flight.

If I haven’t lost you yet, you should begin to appreciate the richness of this metaphor.   First, you simply can’t get anywhere–you can’t even get off the ground, without creating a difference. Combine that difference with energy in the form of thrust and you really can take off.   It gives new depth, at least for me, to the old French saw “vive la difference!”   There really is no vive without difference.

But, too much difference may get you in trouble and lead to a stall.   You see, when a wing exceeds its critical angle of attack, the air above the wing will burble, and the pressure difference needed for the wing to fly disappears.   The wing “stalls,” is overtaken by gravity, and tumbles toward the earth.

I had a mentor who once said that the only difference between creative people and crazy people was that creative people get paid.   Sometimes, I suppose, that may be true, but sometimes crazy is just taking creative a bit too far.   Difference may be essential for flight, but too much difference may be hazardous.

As good metaphors would have it, exceeding one’s angle of attack and stalling is also a danger of metaphors themselves.   One risks the danger of creating meta-metaphors, and rapidly spiraling toward oblivion.   So, in a desperate effort to maintain your attention and remain airborne, let me lower my wings and get literal.   Perhaps it is just a simple, physical truth that in order to achieve flight we must make a difference.   That could be as simple as trying a new brand of coffee bean, adopting a neglected dog, or if you’re so inclined, creating a new vaccine.   But going too far ahead of the curve might land you out of a job or earn you a ticket to the few remaining loony bins.   Just remember to aim high, but when you begin to feel the burble, lower those creative wings of yours.

There will be a quiz next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All This Blighter Can Do

belly dancerI have nothing to say.   Not this morning as I sit here waiting for my coffee beans to extrude their bitterness into the water in which they are bathing.   Not any morning.   I am the embodiment of Billy Preston’s dictum in reverse: nothing plus nothing is nothing.   Nada.

Even as my daughter’s sweet little dog leaps up to join me in this favorite chair of mine, cuddling against my right arm and trembling, perhaps realizing that my wife is preparing to take a week-long writing retreat and leave the two of us to fend for ourselves—even as I sit here now fueled by darkly roasted coffee beans steeped long enough in the French press to enable most humans to leap tall buildings in a single bound, I can offer you, dear, sweet, patient and charitable reader of mine, nothing.

I can hear Julie Andrews singing in my ear: “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through– First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?”

‘Fraid so, Julie. You see, in the mid-seventies, as a graduate student in Murray, Kentucky, we had a visiting professor come to teach a course or two.   Michael Kaye was a graduate student himself from some other university, an “ABD” as we called them (having completed “all but his dissertation”), and he was simply brilliant, or at least that’s what my 23-year-old, barely crinkled brain thought.   He lived with his short, stocky, effervescent girlfriend, who once popped into the living room in full belly dance attire to entertain my then-girlfriend and I in their living room, the image of which I still have trouble wresting from my mind.

I admired Michael, in spite of his choice in girlfriends, and asked to read the most recent draft of his dissertation.   It was, as I recall, an extraordinary tome, literary and conjectural, and I told him that I liked it so much that he should publish it as a book. He didn’t hesitate to tell me that he had “nothing new to say” so wouldn’t even consider publishing it.   Was this humility, I wondered, or was he simply making a fair point?

Many years, perhaps decades later, I was teaching family therapy at Harbor-UCLA Medical School to psychiatry residents and a sprinkling of psychology fellows. One of the psychology fellows—Martine Van Milders, devoid of any trace of obsequiousness, commented after one of the classes that she enjoyed the way I presented family therapy, and that I should write a book.   Channeling Michael Kaye, and quite honestly, I simply expressed gratitude for the compliment, and added “But I have nothing new to say.”

Clearly more perspicacious than I at a similar point in our careers, she didn’t hesitate to set me straight: “No one has anything new to say.   It isn’t whether you say something new that matters, but how you explain what everyone else has to say.   That is always new.”

Comeuppance sings and hums like a perfectly tuned airplane engine, and learning from our students is especially sweet, in that “child is father to the man” way. Martine’s encouragement was a turning point for me, providing the rationale I needed to write my second book (the first one being a schlock collection of “activities” written with the jejune and dubious motivation of getting a book published before I turned 30).   So I wrote a book with nothing new to say, although I said it differently than others, contributing a single snowflake to the vast storm of family therapy literature.

These days, as I sit in fear of the dying of the light, I can’t help but find myself wondering why on earth any of us—what we do or who we are, matter in the brief moments between the before and after.   In the vastness that is the universe of space and the infinite of all that came before and all that will come after, I can’t help but wonder—perhaps in the renewed adolescence that seems inextricably woven with senescence, what meaning to attribute to this minute speck that is each of our lives.    Sometimes, I imagine, we are merely God’s expendable playthings, little marbles forever lost under the couch.

Perhaps, some of us will be remembered for a brief period after our corporeal deaths. Perhaps, a few of us will be quoted generations down the road.   But none of us, I imagine, will have had anything new to say.   Perhaps the only task that is embraceable is to simply say it all differently, to live a life that is uniquely ours.   We have little choice in that, I suppose, other than the choice of how fully to embrace that task. We can certainly choose to not bother to read or write because it has all been done and said before.   Or, we can embrace it, and write about nothing in our own unique and hopefully gratifying way, or hell, who knows, maybe even break out into a belly dance, chunky middles and all.

Play Missedy For Me

Returning home once from a flying lesson, my wife asked me what I had worked on that day.   I excitedly told her that I worked on “missed landings,” and that I “went missed” three times in one day!

She seemed puzzled, and said something to the effect that, yes, it was foggy that day, but her brow remained crinkled.   When I asked her what was wrong, she timidly said that it seemed dangerous to be landing an airplane in such misty conditions.   It took me a few seconds before I realized that she heard my saying “missed landings” as “mist landings,” and that I “went mist” three times!

I wished I had really meant to say that I “went mist,” because it was clearly more poetic, but while I often get overly poetic in my prose, I rarely speak that way intentionally.   It was, simply, another mist-understanding, and all I felt was amused and some shame at being done in by a homonym.   It wasn’t uncommon for my wife and I to be speaking different languages to each other, and this particular mist-communication (stop it already) was delightfully benign, but many, if not most, misunderstandings have toxic outcomes.

I suffer from an over-attachment to the literal.   I can’t honestly say that such a problem arises out of some scholarly or writerly perfectionism in which –as commandants of writing camps are wont to repeat—there is only one word that is ever precisely correct for each situation.   It is, rather, possibly a biologically driven manner of thinking (he said frustrated by his own lapse into dualism), a way of perceiving the world that many have attributed to gender differences.    While I have many feminine characteristics, when it comes to following a set of instructions, alphabetizing my record collections (I still have them), constructing a chair or deconstructing an argument, I am hopelessly male in my tendencies.

The chief problem (of many) in stereotypical maleness is that one about forests and trees.   I may be able to tell you all about the tree in front of me, but sometimes I am clueless about what forest I am in, or even realizing that I am in one.  This can turn mundane conversation into both silly and profound argument.   The silly end of the spectrum is exemplified by the misunderstanding that occurred some months back when I was scolded for (after all these years) mixing up the long forks and the short ones in the silverware drawer. How can I be wrong? I stood them on end, and put the longer ones in one bin and the shorter ones  in the other.   NO! “Longer,” as any civilized spouse will know, refers to the length of the tines, and not the entire body of the fork.

On the deeper end, accusations can go flying when one person insists he or she said one thing and the other insists it was another thing, or no such thing at all, and the consequences are severe.   When you asked me if I would like to pick up our child after soccer practice and I said I would and then you assumed that meant that I would actually pick up our child rather than that I simply would like to but instead had to be at the office for a meeting so the child was left abandoned and feeling entirely unloved—that sort of thing.   (This actually never happened, but that is generally how it goes.)

John Gray’s “Men are from Mars…”, according to Harper Collins, is the largest selling hardcover book of nonfiction in history, spending over 2 years on the best-seller list. It sells so well that Gray’s “Ph.D.” still adorns the cover of the book despite having been received from a non-accredited correspondence school (i.e., diploma mill).   His work was loosely based on the research of the very legitimate psycholinguist Deborah Tannen. I have never read “Men are from Mars…” although I started it but couldn’t get past the first few paragraphs.   (If there’s two things I can’t stand, it’s pop psychology books and seeing white men dance– even though I wrote one myself and on occasion have been seen dancing.)

But I have read two of Deborah Tannen’s books, which to some degree bridges the pop and “legit” genres. She asserts, among many other things, that men typically engage in conversation for different functions than do women.   Men engage primarily to discover their current status in the power hierarchy and/or to learn what activity they are being required to do at the moment.   Women, generally speaking of course, engage in conversation primarily to serve the function of a shared emotional experience.   These are certainly broad generalities, but I have found them helpful, nevertheless, in sorting through the mist.

I have learned, mostly through my work as a therapist and the much more difficult work of being a spouse, how to converse like a girl.  It’s still a bit like throwing a ball with my left hand, but it helps to remind myself before engaging in a conversation that the purpose of the conversation is not to learn what I have to do or where I stand but rather to have a shared emotional experience.   It can be rewarding, like reading a good book or going to the theater, but sometimes I become mystified (mistified?) and have to work my way out of the farrago by rewinding the words I heard and struggle to find their hidden meaning.

I suppose my testosterone rises and suddenly the forest transforms to a collection of disparate trees and I feel like a lost child wondering if his parents will ever pick him up from soccer practice.

In the end, there may be little difference between missed communications and mist communications.   In an airplane, pilots “go missed” when there’s just too much mist to see the runway, which may or may not be beneath them. It’s just safer to miss an approach than it is try one’s luck at a mist approach.   Did you get that, or did you go mist?