Going Sterile

“That’s right,” the prodigious 10-year-old Teddy says in J.D. Salinger’s short story of the same name, “… I met a lady, and I sort of stopped meditating.”

Sometimes life throws us curves, and distractions get ahold of us.   In the cockpit, it is easy to be distracted by the fancy bells and whistles of complex computer-driven “glass cockpits”, or the chatter of a co-pilot talking about the time he went ice fishing in Wisconsin, or even the view of the major accident on the highway below.

Distractions have been determined to be major factors in some devastating accidents, including the horrible Asiana 777 crash that killed 3 and seriously injured 49 in San Francisco in 2013.   Some years back, well before the Asiana incident, realizing the pivotal part that distraction plays in accidents in general, the FAA recommended that airlines engage in something that has become known as the “sterile cockpit rule.”   The idea behind the rule was simply to reduce distractions during the most critical phases of flight—the takeoff and landing.

Along with many other pilots of small general aviation airplanes, I have incorporated the sterile cockpit rule into my own flying, and frankly, I love it. As part of the required passenger pre-flight briefing, I simply tell any passengers with whom I might be flying that they may not talk during takeoff from the moment I invoke the rule to the moment I tell them that it is over, and that the same is true during landing.   Usually, that means that following the runup, as I taxi to takeoff position, I tell my passengers that “we’re going sterile” and then, after reaching a comfortable cruise climb and the airplane is “cleaned up” (flaps are retracted and prop and power are set) I say “ok, we’re good to talk”.  On arrival to the destination, I invoke the sterile cockpit rule when I reach pattern altitude if flying the pattern or about 3 miles out if I am flying straight in.   I don’t release the rule until after exiting the runway and contacting the ground controller in order to get my taxi clearance.

I like the rule because I can present it as such and not seem like such a jerk in the process.   What I would really like to do is to tell my chatty friends, “I need to focus now so shut the hell up,” but that would be rude, so having a rule that applies to everyone regardless of whether I like you or not is convenient.

As much as I dislike rules in general, they really can be handy.   It’s so much easier to tell someone that smoking isn’t allowed in the house than to single someone out and say sorry, you’re stinking up the place and giving me cancer (or, in my case, making it worse), you didn’t wipe your feet before you came in and you smell like dogshit so I would appreciate if you kindly take your shoes off doesn’t work as well as a rule that no one wears shoes in the house.   It’s even better when you can say it’s your partner’s rule, because blaming someone else is often a handy way of making yourself look a little more tolerant than you really are.

It is always a confrontation when I am wanting some peace and quiet and people around me are (typically unwittingly) doing everything they can to disturb it. As someone who is generally shy about confronting anyone about anything unless I am in the therapist’s chair and it’s my job, it is clear to me as I write this that what I need is a sterile cockpit rule that I can invoke whenever I damn please. But although I can imagine myself, perhaps during a hailstorm in the Sahara desert, saying something like, “Excuse me, but I would appreciate a little quiet right now while I formulate a thought,” the truth is that I am not likely going to be that much of a pilot in command outside the cockpit or the therapy office, and instead I am going to have to try another tactic.   As much as I would like to say to everyone around me, “we’re going sterile,” I am afraid anyone other than a pilot friend would look at me askance and wonder exactly which one of my imaginary friends I am addressing.

The more realistic approach is to create a sterile cockpit rule that I can enforce myself, a procedure, perhaps as I launch into my day in the morning and again as I prepare to arrive back and onto the soft, nurturing runway of sleep. For a while, years ago, I was meditating religiously for 20 minutes twice a day, and that really helped.   I created my own sterile cockpit in my office, disconnecting the phone and putting a sign on my door as if I were in a hotel room doing something enjoyable.   No one bothered me.   I am not sure, exactly, how and why I stopped.   I had already met a lady, so that couldn’t have been it.   Perhaps Salinger’s 10-year-old whiz kid could tell me, although by now he’d probably be about my age.   And he never was anything more than a figment of a writer’s imagination anyway.   Guess I’ll need to figure that one out myself.

New Year’s Eve

imagesMay this new year bring you clear skies and tailwinds.   And may this new year’s eve be an opportunity to meditate, however briefly, on the blessing of living another day.   Among my many blessings are those of you who take the few minutes out of your day to read my often silly words, maybe laugh a little bit, maybe reflect a bit.   May your better angels accompany you on all your flights. Thank you for being there, and happy new year.

I’m Being Followed by a Wind Shadow

Owing to various undisclosed aspects of my personality, I can report that it is considerably easier for me to list my weaknesses than my strengths. This may be one of my few strengths.   When I took a boating course, I did pretty well but for the life of me I could not pass the knots section.   I am clearly knot challenged.   I even cannot tie my shoes properly, or at least the way most people do it.   I once had a bunch of behavior analysts teach me, and I could do it briefly, but then forgot.   Fortunately, as a pilot, other than tying down an airplane at some small airports, one doesn’t need to know how to tie knots and it isn’t on the test.

As far as the stuff that is on the test goes, I am considerably challenged in the important area of weather knowledge.   It is not that I am disinterested; in fact, I find weather fascinating.   I can tell you a few basic facts, but beyond that I’m not so good at it.   I could blame it on the fact that flying in California one doesn’t have much use for it, but that would be a pretty lame excuse.

Every once in a while a weather phenomenon pops out at me from the shadows that I find particularly romantic.   We are all familiar with moon shadows, thanks to Cat Stevens, and those nights when the moon shines brightly are particularly beautiful when flying.   On a well moonlit night, a pilot can sometimes watch the shadow of her airplane fly alongside her as it is projected on the tops of the clouds below.

Many of us are unfamiliar with the poetically named wind shadow.   Wind shadows occur close to the ground, when buildings, trees or other obstructions block the path of the wind.     When buildings are located near a runway, as they often are, and you are in the process of landing or departing, carefully adjusting your airplane’s attitude to honor the surface winds, the wind can suddenly drop away as you enter the temporary void of the wind shadow and poof!–there goes your previously well-adjusted attitude.

I like to think of wind shadows proportional to the wind that they are shadowing.   The greater the wind, the more the shadow will have an impact.   When landing or departing in a heavy crosswind, any sudden change in the wind will require speedy adjustment, but not so speedy as to lose one’s suavecito.   Any good pilot will tell you that one must never lose one’s suavecito.   This is an aviation term that roughly translates to the lack of sudden, jerky movements when controlling an airplane.

The nice thing about wind shadows is that, unlike moon shadows, they really can’t follow you.   You could—in theory—hide in one for a while, but unless you want to stay where you are or meet someone else who might like hiding in wind shadows that would be pointless.   On the ground, they may come in handy when trying to light cigarettes in the wind, but fortunately not too many people do that anymore.

There are some tree-lined streets a few miles from my home and I was told that local farmers planted them as wind breaks to protect the crops.   Leave it up to those clever humans to mess with Mother Nature in order to increase the yield of their crops. The next time you find yourself eating strawberries, artichokes, or God forbid iceberg lettuce, be sure to bow to the farmers who created wind shadows in which to nurture them.

Back when I was in college, before the dawn of civilization, I used to play and sing “Moon Shadow” to kids at the pre-school where I worked between classes.   I am not sure Cat Stevens wrote it as a children’s song, but it caught on big in that particular demographic.   Like many of the other children’s songs, the lyrics didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it was a catchy tune and you could infer somehow, buried deep between the lines, that Cat Stevens was just trying to let you know that we shouldn’t take life so seriously.   That’s a really tough concept for me, but one worth grappling with, hopefully not too seriously.   In that wind vein, I imagine that if the winds were winds of adversity, as winds often are, I wouldn’t at all mind being followed by wind shadows.   A life well lived, methinks, is a life bound to expose us to winds of misfortune, and a break now and then can be quite a blessing.

Winds will gust wantonly from time to time, presenting challenges to pilots and non-pilots alike.   We dance with them as best as we can, dip our wings and point our noses into them.   But as we struggle to leave the earth and return safely, their sudden disappearance can be a challenge.   The shadow of the wind can feel like a gift of safety, but when the shadow takes you by surprise and you lose your dancing partner it can be frightening.   The very idea of it ties me up in knots, and that’s not easy for me to do.

Be Prepared

I don’t know how the Boy Scout manual came to reside on one of my shelves, but there it was.   I had never been a Boy Scout, ever, at least not in any official capacity, although as a child I would have qualified to be called a Good Kid, at least by my mother.   I don’t remember how old I was when I read the manual, but I recall finding it interesting, filled with all sorts of practical stuff.   Among the least interesting bits though was the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.”

Then as now I found the motto curiously vague and uninspiring.   (As mottos go, you have to give the NYPD extra points for its passionate Fidelis ad Mortem— faithful unto death, especially when compared to the LAPD’s rather pedestrian “To protect and to serve.”)  What did those Boy Scouts, icons of purity and knots, mean by the admonition to “be prepared”? It seemed so obvious; why wouldn’t anyone want to be prepared?

The targets of the admonishment were Boy Scouts– not Men Scouts.   Boys, left alone to their characterological insouciance would not likely think about preparation.   They don’t even make their beds without being threatened. If they did, you might consider a referral to a local head-shrinker.

I guess the idea that we need to be told to be prepared is based on the assumption that everyone comes out of the uterus fundamentally lazy. We need the guidance of grownup men in shorts to learn how to get off our butts and do our homework.   Undoubtedly, the man scout founders of the Boy Scouts, unfazed by their organization’s very initials, didn’t grow up in a New York Jewish ghetto in which the failure to do one’s homework would clearly be the gateway drug to bad grades, which meant you were stupid, not really Jewish, probably adopted, and going to end up in a place called hell which didn’t exist for Jews but for you there would be an exception.

Pilots too have their dictum to be prepared, appearing in the form of a regulation requiring them to be familiar ahead of time with everything required to minimize surprises.   The rule is taken dead seriously by those pilots who don’t want to end up seriously dead. Pilots need to prepare by, among other things, knowing the amount of fuel required plus reserves for each flight, predicted winds and weather, the weight and balance of their ships, alternate airports and the services available at each, and must be careful to check that the route they are traveling has not been temporarily restricted because the president and his overly expensive airplane may be nearby.

But preparation has its limits, because sometimes life comes at you so sideways that even the best peripheral vision can’t catch it.  A few years back, I thought I was doing as much as I could to keep myself healthy: eating well, losing weight, hiking almost daily (at least in August) and doing yoga.   So when I had some minor symptoms I had no difficulty believing the symmetry that minor symptoms were symptoms of something minor. I was pretty surprised, as you might imagine, to learn that I was suffering from stage IV metastatic cancer. Despite doing my best efforts to stay fit, I suddenly found myself—as pilots would say, “behind the airplane.”

I would argue that there are times when preparation can be overdone.   In the course of presenting papers at conferences, I discovered an inverse relationship between preparation and audience interest.   In the old days, it was customary to write a paper and simply read it, but that practice has become effete and audiences now expect to be entertained by spontaneous displays of wit and wisdom.

The more prepared I was for a presentation, the more attached I became to saying what I had rehearsed, resulting in a loss of spontaneity, so my presentations became stiff and boring.   Nowadays, I prefer to create rough outlines ahead of time and then try to wing it as much as possible.   It doesn’t always work, usually because I am verbose and it takes me a half hour to get through the planned first five minutes.   Spontaneity certainly has its drawbacks, but generally, when it comes to most speaking engagements, as long as I can stay focused it tends to work out well for me.

In most cases, the Boy Scouts probably have it right.   It is hard to imagine being over-prepared for a flight.   Yet, an essential component to preparation is the preparation for a surprise, which may seem like an oxymoron, but I don’t think so.   As a family therapist, I always used to tell my students that one should always have a plan before going into a therapy session, but to be prepared to change course at any moment.   “Be spontaneous!” goes the paradoxical mantra, which I take to mean that while we set out on a path to a destination, we remain so connected to the moment that we are willing and open to shift course at any time.

As a grown boy, I don’t know if I would make my bed if I didn’t have someone else do it for me.   In all likelihood I wouldn’t.   Nor would I do the dishes shortly after I used them.   After all, sinks are made big so that they could hold a lot of dirty dishes. Maybe if I had been a real Boy Scout, instead of just reading the manual, things might have been different.


It doesn’t keep me up at night, but on certain rare occasions I have wondered why it is that airplanes “taxi” from the ramp to the runway and back again. Why, after all, don’t they just “roll” their way from one place to another, or simply drive, given that they are always on the ground when they do so.

Taxis and taxiing probably intrigue me because taxis are in my family’s blood. My cousin and his wife owned a taxi company in the Bronx. Gertrude Martell kept the drivers in line and seemed to run the show. She was a tough character, and was known around town as “Gravel Gertie”. For a few decades you could mention her name to any cab driver in the city and they would have at least have heard of her. My father drove a cab in his twenties at night to augment the income from his day job selling candy, as did my grandfather and others in the family as well. I always wanted to drive a taxi, but my dad thought it was too dangerous and used his influence to extinguish my fantasy (as in, “I forbid you to drive a taxi.”)  To this day I pause when I get an email from Uber or Lyft and spend at least a few seconds considering my options.

The word “taxi” is merely an abbreviation for “taximeter,” a meter that measures the distance traveled in order to determine the fare, or “tax”. (“Tax” stems from the Latin “taxare”–  to censure, charge, or compute.) Airplanes have dreaded Hobbs meters that measure the amount of time that an airplane’s engine is cranking; they are the bane of every student pilot because those meters determine how much your lesson is going to cost. At one point they were designed to switch on when the electrical system was ignited, but pilots quickly figured out that they could switch off the electrical master and taxi just fine without electricity, so Hobbs meters were redesigned to be switched on and off by oil pressure, so that they will run as long as the engine is running. But the use of the word “taxi” for what airplanes do on the ground pre-dated the invention of Hobbs meters, so the Hobbs “taximeters” in airplanes could not have been the origin of the term.

The most likely origin of the word in connection to what planes do on the ground dates back to Henri Farman’s flight school outside Paris in the early 1900s. In order to train new pilots, Farman used a “simulator”—an airplane with shorter wings and a heavier body, one that could not fly (or at least not fly too high or far) in the hands of an overly eager newbie, but could simulate the feel of an airplane. Farman thought it would be a good idea to create an airplane with “clipped wings” in order to not risk too many of the flock in the hands of inexperienced pilots.

Mostly, these “simulators” would roll around the ground like a taxicab driving slowly down the street looking for fares, and eventually folks began calling the machine a “taxi”. The expression took hold and spread to other schools. That’s the story, but if anyone knows otherwise, I won’t stick to it.

Regardless of the word you use for it, if you’re in an airplane, you have to find a way to get from your hangar or parking spot to the runway in order to get yourself off the ground. Maybe that’s why Mark Twain so famously said that there are only two things in life that are inevitable: death and taxis.


I have deep empathy for flight instructors.   They are minor heroes in their own right, having to sit passively while their ashen-faced students barely defy death attempting to place the wheels of their rented airplanes on solid ground, many times a day.   In trying to motivate their disheartened students, instructors sometimes reach into their bag of aviation clichés and mutter perhaps the most common one of them all: “Any landing that you walk away from,” they say with an ingenuous grin, “is a good one.”

Sure it is.   But while we are at it, let’s translate that ditty into plain English:   “That landing was so bad it’s a miracle we’re still alive.”

If you’re learning to fly an airplane, landing them is a pretty important skill, because the alternative can be pretty ugly.   For a variety of reasons, it is also the most difficult part of learning to fly, not the least of which has to do with the fact that building a machine capable of defeating gravity is such a divergent thing from building a machine that relies on it.   It’s really hard to do both things well, as those who attempt to build flying cars can tell you.  The difficulty landing has even worked its way into some crevices of common parlance, so when we say we “landed” a job we are acknowledging that doing so required some extraordinary effort.

Without knowing how to bring an aircraft back down to earth safely one cannot really claim to have accomplished much as a pilot, because the rest of the flying endeavor isn’t really that difficult.   Because they are engineered that way, airplanes tend to love to fly, if you’ll forgive the anthropomorphic indulgence, and all pilots have to do—for the most part, is gingerly nudge them along.

But landing is another thing altogether.   The earth is a lot less forgiving than the air in which our airplanes fly, and getting quivering tons of metal to gracefully and harmlessly greet the surface requires exceptional skill.   And while skill alone will get you most of the way there, the unforeseeable and constantly shifting forces of nature that impinge on flight sometimes can defeat even the most skilled pilot.   It is with that recognition that those who fly often and land well offer up words of consolation and reassurance to those who don’t that any landing you walk away from is a good one.

For those of us whose self-criticism seem to reside deep in our bones, it’s downright tempting to hear those words as a feeble attempt to tell us that not only are we lousy pilots, but we wouldn’t be trusted to hold a newborn infant for five minutes.   Like the poet Stephen Kessler once said about poets who read their poetry while intoxicated, “Sure, alcoholism is a disease.   So what?,” I am not really impressed by words of consolation when I have done a bad job.   I walked away from a bad landing. So what?

It is true that when dealing with near-death experiences such as landing airplanes, the stakes are high enough that we really don’t need much to motivate ourselves to do better.   The idea of praising our efforts and trying to soften our failures is simply to make sure that we get back on the horse and learn to do better.

It is also an attempt to combat the deleterious effects of abundant self-criticism.   Those unfortunate folks who go through life with hubris and who manage to do a lousy job landing their airplanes don’t need reassuring clichés; they need to be humiliated, shamed, or effectively tortured.   I don’t want those folks flying airplanes, walking the face of the earth, or, for that matter, representing my country in the White House.

I have had good instructors and less good instructors over the years.   After every bad landing the good instructors typically say something to the effect of: “Let’s go around and try that again.”   They like their students to end with a feeling of success.  As a certified pilot, I continue to fly often with instructors, because one of the other oft-heard aviation cliché’s is the pilot’s license (although it isn’t really a license, but that’s another story) is a “license to learn.”   But when I fly solo, or fly with non-pilot passengers, and manage to screw up a landing, I confess that if I don’t mutter it out loud, I do tell myself that, having walked away from the landing, it was a good one.   It is a lie, I know, but it allows me to get back in the cockpit another day.

Turn, Turn, Turn

Unless you’re quite a bit younger and have been deprived of some of the greatest music in the last century, you know the song:

To everything, turn turn turn/ there is a season, turn turn turn/ and a time to every purpose under heaven.

And you also know that the lyric is an adaptation from Ecclesiastes, with the exception of the words “turn, turn, turn” and the “I swear it’s not too late” for peace at the end. Pete Seeger joked that he wrote the music to the song and “six words,” although I don’t know how or why he came up with the “turn turn turn” part.   It certainly worked, especially for the Byrds who had a smash hit with it. (When it was released previously by the Limeliters it was called “To Everything There is a Season.”)  I imagine that the notion of turning captured for Seeger the essence of the bible passage, that we can turn away from one path and go down another, or perhaps simply that we have choices in life.   There may be a time for war and a time for peace, but we humans have the agency to turn away from one and point ourselves in another direction.

King Solomon, of course, was the dude who enabled a couple of women to save on DNA testing by cleverly instructing the alleged mothers to cut their disputed baby in half in order to determine maternity, and he’s also the guy who is the attributed author of Ecclesiastes. I have neither a bone nor baby to split with Solomon the wise, so if he were around I might be inclined to confess a failing in order to get some aeronautical advice. It’s about turning.   Are you ready?   I am whispering now.   I really don’t know how an airplane turns.

There, I said it.   Sure, I know the answer I was supposed to memorize to get the question right on the exam, having to do with ailerons creating unequal lift and all that, and I sort of know what that means, but that doesn’t really explain it.   According to Rich Stowell, who knows more about the physics of flying in his fingernail than I do in my BMI-challenged body, the primary way an airplane turns is—hold on—the elevator.   That’s the thing on the tail that you usually think makes the airplane go up and down. (That’s why it’s called an elevator, after all.) But you see, flying an airplane is tricky, because most earthbound people think of turning in a two-dimensional way, and flying happens in a 3-dimensional way.   In other words, when you change the path of an airplane from going straight and level, you are curving its path, and that is a turn.

So, for example, if you say to a fish, turn around and look at me, and the fish could understand your thick Cockney accent, the fish could choose to swim in an upwards loop, a downwards loop, a sideways loop, or any other loop it chooses and still turn around and look at you.   All it would need is its tail operating the way an elevator does (although with eyes on its side, it might need a bit of rudder as well).

Now, while I am a bit embarrassed about my lack of understanding of what is probably some basic physics, I am not alone.   According to that same Rich Stowell (who used to bother me with his aerodynamic lectures in the tiny room where I was trying to pay attention to my own instructor), of the 900 pilots he has asked (he does this for a living), about a quarter of them said that it is the rudder that turns an airplane.   Even a fish knows better than that!

For any of you who might have considered flying with me but have changed your minds now that I have confessed that I don’t know how an airplane turns, you should have figured out by now that I do know how to make an airplane turn.   I won’t explain it to you now; you’ll have to trust me on this.   There is an essential difference between knowing and doing, and on top of that there is the fact that there are also a lot of different kinds of knowing.   Once you do something well enough, it could be argued, conscious knowing (e.g., verbal explanations) often disappears.   My friend David once witnessed me catch a hard hit line drive just above the dirt after diving like a bolt of lightning.   When I came up with it I humbly said, “I have no idea how I did that.” David, looking incredulous, said “It was just luck.” Fat chance.

While there are plenty of sources to which I can turn to learn more about turning, I prefer to consult the admired atavistic ones, such as King Solomon and Pete Seeger.   Just slightly less atavistic would be the words of Leslie Bricusse as channeled through the voice and melody of Anthony Newley, who asks “Who can I turn to, when nobody needs me?”   And rhetorically answers: “My heart wants to know and so I must go where destiny leads me.”   Destiny? Really?   Are we all just dogs on Fate’s leash?

Let go of the controls and the winds of destiny surely will turn us, whether we like where it takes us or not.   Ultimately, I suppose, neither Solomon, Seeger nor Bricusse tell us how to turn, but when Seeger adds the words “I swear it’s not too late”—great activist that he was– he’s hinting that maybe we can willfully decide to move from here to there.   And maybe, after enough practice, while we may not know just exactly how our airplane turns, we already know how to make it go where we want it to go.



Drop It

There are lots of things you can do in small airplanes, and some of them are legal. Surprisingly, perhaps, one of the things you are allowed to do—or perhaps more accurately, not legally prevented from doing—is drop things from them. According to the regulation, as long as you are not in danger of causing damage to anyone or any structure on the ground, you can drop anything you like from an airplane. If you’re really bored, it might be fun to think of creative things you can throw from an airplane. Maybe we can make a bored game out of it.

Here’s what immediately comes to mind: an old toilet bowl, water balloons (these would change in shape as a result of changes in air pressure as they descended), anti-fascism leaflets, magazines from many years ago that people will discover and think they were discarded a long time ago, unexploded ordnance if I could get my hands on them and they were assured not to explode, old cell phones, and rolls of biodegradable toilet paper, just to watch the beautiful streaming effect.

I hope you were perspicacious enough to notice that not once did I mention dropping, let’s say, an old severely neurotic girlfriend who ran off with my best friend, although it would be perfectly legal, well, maybe not perfectly, unless she was already dead, and then I am not sure why it wouldn’t be perfectly legal. I didn’t mention anything like that in my list because the thought never even crossed my mind.

There are people who make a living dropping things from airplanes. All around the country there are places where you can go, take a lesson, strap on a parachute and even drop yourself from an airplane. I haven’t done that yet, and I don’t plan to. It’s nowhere near my bucket list, and wouldn’t be even if I had one.

There are people who spread pesticides onto fields of vegetables that some of us dare to eat, and them there is pretty fun piloting if you can get over the guilt. And then there are the pilots who spread human remains when they finally get from ashes to ashes.

Now that’s an interesting way to spend your time. I can imagine the scene now. Most pilots, sadly, are men, so excuse me for the gender bias you are about to encounter. Joe Pilot is sitting at the table in his suburban kitchen, sun harshly glaring through the kitchen window, drinking his coffee and waiting for the toast to pop up. How he loves the sound of that pop. How he knows he puts way too much butter on the sourdough toast, but hell, you only live once.

“Busy day today honey. Damn, I’ve got four urns scheduled, and two of them want to be spread on the hillside, one of them on the lake, and one of them on the pasture by the house. It’s crazy, you know, getting the timing just right.”

Sally’s finger momentarily stills as she lifts it from her cell phone screen and looks up, a bit bleary-eyed. “What did you say honey?”

Joe smirks, “Never mind.”

Sally suddenly takes it in. “But you’ll be respectful of course. Of the ashes I mean. I know you always are.“

Because this is often done at low altitudes, and can be tedious if you don’t want the ashes spread around your cockpit, the ash dispersal business can be dangerous; there have been instances of pilots meeting their ends as a result of stall-spin accidents while spreading—ironically, other pilots’ ashes. Of all the ways to die in an airplane, doing so while dispensing a dead pilot’s ashes has a sweet symmetry to it.

But, truth be told, I don’t plan on dropping anything from any airplane for any reason whatsoever.  It’s just plainly a bad idea.

All the News that Fits

777 struggle

My friend and occasional instructor Don Becker posted the above screenshot of a hilarious CNN chyron (the sometimes scrolling bar of information at the bottom of the TV screen).  In case you’re having trouble reading it, it says “Boeing 777 will struggle to maintain altitude once the fuel tanks are empty.”   You have to wonder who writes these things.

Enthusiasm, the God Within

Annie-HirrellMy son had the privilege of going to a college in which he studied the classics, and in so doing had to learn Greek.   I envy that, but not enough to study it myself.   I am too old, I think; perhaps not really, but as I look toward the end of my life and time seems thinner there seems to be a narrowing of choices.   In any case, he is not around right now for me to ask about this, but I have come across the kind of little linguistic gem that thrills me, and that is that the root of the word “enthusiasm” is the Greek enthousiasmos, which means “the God within.”   An enthusiast, one can say, is one inhabited by God.

And also, I am told, the ancient Greeks called those who created works of art “enthusiasts,” which makes perfect sense to me, as my own working definition of art is that which inspires (or deepens the breath), and in that sense brings God forth.   In the very rare instance in which I am grandiose enough to think that I have created art, either in writing or photography, or landing an airplane, I believe that somehow something spiritual has moved through me, and when engaging the art of another I believe that something spiritual moved through them and I was fortunate to catch a wisp of it.

There are many things in this life that I approach with enthusiasm, although I prefer to think, in line with the word’s origins, that these things approach me, or pass through me having emanated from some sort of spiritual place.   I recall one of my trips to Ireland in which I attended a copious amount of fleadhs— music festivals that were taking place all throughout the western part of the country.   From time to time, a single woman would come onto the often makeshift stage, sit upright in a chair, close her eyes, still her body, and begin to sing a capella.  Once, one of these women explained to the audience that this was the Irish way of singing, and it was based on the idea that the music did not emanate from within oneself, but instead it emanated from some spiritual other place and that the singer was merely the vessel. Perhaps this is at the core of all art, a kind of enthusiasm that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself in an effervescent moment of glee, but rather a lachrymose, mournful offering, a moment in which the “thou within” expresses itself.

In depression, the God within us goes on vacation. Enthusiasm disappears. The external world fails to spark anything within, because in a state of depression the pilot light that might spark enthusiasm is all but extinguished.   One knows the demons of depression are departing when enthusiasm returns.   It may be a simple feeling that a cup of tea might hit the spot right now, or a renewed interest in seeing, hearing, or making art.   In that sense, the level of one’s own enthusiasm becomes an indicator of one’s general well-being, a touchstone of sorts letting us know the degree to which we are engaged in living this one precious life.

These days I find myself enthusiastic about a lot of things I do, but often the enthusiasm doesn’t show up until I find myself in the midst of it.   I get a thrill when I get in the cockpit, a familiar place, and eagerly go through the steps needed to light up the engine, spin the propeller, and roll down the runway. I get a spark of enthusiasm when I am sitting with a client, somehow manage to connect to their pain, and join them in a way that sparks their enthusiasm.   Then there is a moment of healing, and there is deep satisfaction in having that shared experience.   I get a thrill now when I look at great visual art, or hear a great song, although frankly, those are few and far between.   The old songs, sadly, don’t do so much for me anymore, unless perhaps it is Lightfoot or Janis Ian at their heights.

I got into a little tiff with a colleague a while back, who wanted to define the work we do on a website as “the science of behavior.”’ I objected to the word science in this context, because, while arguably accurate, I thought the use of the word on a website in a marketing context was misleading.   It was as if calling something a science rather than an art made it more legitimate.   If we understand art, though, the way the ancient Greeks did, and called artists “enthusiasts,” then to me it is both a compliment and an honor to be known as someone who practices the “art of behavior analysis.”

To practice behavior analysis, fly an airplane, engage a book, poem or story with enthusiasm– to do anything with enthusiasm, elevates ourselves to more spiritual beings.  It signifies to me that we are bringing passion and gusto to our work, and so long as that passion doesn’t blind us to the world at large, that can only be a good thing.