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.

Living in the ICE Age

Dorothy Carter is an industrial/organizational psychologist headquartered at the University of Georgia, and she is involved in a project studying how well NASA personnel—astronauts, mission control and other staff, will get along with each other during a mission of long duration, such as the two and a half year journey from Earth to Mars.

The astronauts themselves would have to live in close quarters with little of anything resembling normal social stimulation. When things get a little tense, say, after repeated losses in a poker game (I see the green chip floating around the spacecraft and raise you one?) —there’s no stepping outside for a smoke.   Likewise, there’s no way to take a constitutional around the block to cool off after a particularly steamy night of arguing about whether Netflix or Amazon Space serves up the best fare.

Carter and her team want to know what concerns might arise as a result of competition and leadership hierarchies.   She wants to know the ins and outs of how leadership, cooperation and cohesion are affected by the unique space environment.

Psychologists have been studying team dynamics since before I was born, and frankly, being trapped on a spaceship with nowhere to go, little to distract you, and coping with high-achieving, competitive, leadership hungry people smells a lot to me like most jobs in which I have worked, and a lot like many of the marriages I have encountered in my psychotherapy practice.

Sailors and submariners have long been struggling with the dynamics of team functioning and intimacy in confined places over large stretches of time.   In the halls of academia, this research is often designated as ICE research, a neat acronym for “isolated, confined environments,” not to be confused with the brutes who come to take away the people who pick your strawberries, prepare your breakfast at the local diner and clean up after you.

Like most psychosocial research, what we know from studying ICE is fairly common sense.   Living in small spaces such as space ships for prolonged periods results in chronic, cumulative stress.   The key word is cumulative, because distress seems to accumulate over time, which is why frequent trips to the country dacha sans screen-time can be damn good medicine.

The problem of confinement is partly one of density. The more people who are placed together in a small space, the less control any one of them has over personal privacy.   While privacy may not be a fundamental need, arguably, control over one’s privacy is.   Distress does not necessarily result from being in a particularly demanding situation, but instead results from the lack of control over those situations.   In ICEs, violations of interpersonal distance, territorial desires, and privacy are common, and the inability to control those violations can lead to a lack of peace of mind, depression, and a host of bad things.

I find the cross-cultural components of ICY situations particularly compelling.   Different cultures maintain different norms regarding personal space. You should have seen the terror in my little kids’ eyes when greeted up close and personal by the Armenian staff at an agency where I once worked; as the staff lovingly invaded my son’s personal space his terror level went to DEFCON five. Cultural differences such as the meaning of eye contact and posture confound all sorts of things, and that is likely going to be magnified in isolated and confined spaces.

Much of the research that exists, understandably, has occurred in analogue settings, such as those created by Carter in her labs in Georgia.   It is difficult, however, to really emulate a situation such as that imposed by a nearly 3-year journey to Mars and back.   Getting the research through the institutional review board is a rather immense challenge, one that pales, however, to that of emulating a micro-gravity environment.   There are ways it can be done, at least on a short-term basis, and there’s some interesting research on its effects.   It turns out that many of the generalizations made about human interaction in ICE conditions are turned topsy-turvy in a microgravity environment.

While Carter’s research revolves primarily around leadership and human interaction in ICE environments, there’s so much more to it. Personality variables, social support, monotony and boredom, exercise effects, and the availability of Netflix all interact in order to determine the best way to assure that placing several people together in a confined environment over a long period of time will not end in a bloodbath or existential melancholy similar to that of caged animals in a zoo.   Soon, I imagine, as humans invade the extraterrestrial environment in order to go beyond where no woman has gone before, we will begin to know.

Airport in Sight

Like you, I “read” Playboy growing up because I loved the articles.   The interviews were the best.   But long before I ever saw a Playboy, my major magazine consumption was Highlights for Children. They usually appeared in a doctor or dentist’s waiting room.   I didn’t like the articles that much, and the interviews left something to be desired, but I did like the pictures. Mostly, I loved the “embedded pictures,” in which you would search for the hidden objects amid a more complex picture.   If you’re anywhere near my age, and we’re a dying breed, you’ll know what I am talking about.

I used to think I was pretty good at it, which wasn’t really hubris, because there’s a similar task on the classic Wechsler Intelligence Test, and when I practiced it in graduate school I did a pretty good job compared to my peers.   That is why I find it frustrating that I seem to have great difficulty finding the airport I am heading for from the air when I know I am near.   My maps tell me it should be right in front of me, but all I see is a whole lot of buildings, roads, and trees.   When I am flying with a more experienced pilot, it isn’t uncommon for the other pilot to point his finger and say, “See, there it is…. right next to that barn…”

“Oh yeah, that barn….”   I look, I really do, but can’t see it, sometimes until I am practically on top of it.

This is not a small thing.   Usually, when flying, I am being followed by an air traffic controller.   They are there to help me out, but at some point they need to stop holding my hand.   Usually, they do that based on my response to the question: “Do you have the airport in sight?”  I want to tell them I do when I don’t, because I know I should and they are very busy people. I have been so tempted so often to say “affirmative” when instead I have to clench my teeth, shorten my breath and abashedly key the mic to utter “negative.”

You would think that an airport would stand out like a sore thumb from the air, and it does if you are high enough.   But the way geometry works, it is easier to see something when looking down from above then when you are looking forward toward the horizon.   That is why, when learning to navigate, pilots are taught to climb when they are lost.   It is easier to make sense of where you are when you see the big picture as a flat map rather than a stretch of terrain in front of you.

There have been times, I confess, that I think I have found the airport, pointed my nose in its direction, and realized I was headed the wrong way.   Sometimes taxiways look a lot like runways, but sometimes even big drainage ditches or gaps in the constructed landscape can masquerade as airports.   It doesn’t happen often, a fact for which I am grateful, but it happens, even to famous people.

Harrison Ford managed to have his wrists slapped rather than face a stiffer fine when he, now famously, admitted to the controller “I’m the schmuck who landed on the taxiway.”   Humility sometimes gets rewarded, as it should, although humility may have had little to do with it.   Sometimes it’s difficult to know just what the folks at the FAA are thinking.

I have yet to land at the wrong airport, on a taxiway, or the wrong runway.   I got really close when I flew the pattern over an airport that I thought was Claremont in California.   No one responded to my radio calls on the local frequency, which was odd, but there was no one else in the pattern and there was no tower so radio silence wasn’t that unusual.   It was only when I saw the numbers on the runway not matching the numbers at Claremont that I realized something was very wrong. I aborted the landing, climbed out of the pattern, and discovered that I was about to land at Brackett Field, which was less than 10 miles from Claremont’s Cable Airport. From the air, that’s right next door, but still… I was flying solo, so my embarrassment was all internal, and I don’t think I ever told anyone until now.

There are many ways to prepare for landing at an airport with which one is unfamiliar.   Nowadays, you can use Google Earth to “fly” over the airport and get a good sense of what it will look like, but even then, subtle changes in lighting caused by time of day and weather can make the earth below look quite different from the day in which Google memorialized it. The idea, of course, is to prepare as best as we can, and then depend on the skills finely honed by Highlights for Children.