The Container and the Contained

I was on a Boeing 757, sitting in the economy section, feeling grateful for having short legs.   Returning home from New York where a film I conceived and executive produced had just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, my thoughts meandered to one of the films competing with mine. The film, called “In Transit,” is a beautiful and moving documentary interweaving stories told by real passengers (i.e., not actors) on the Empire Builder, an Amtrak train whose route goes from Seattle to Chicago.   The stories themselves were captivating, but I was equally captivated by the fact that the stories were told as the American landscape unwound behind it, by the essential idea that as we move rapidly through space, insulated by a machine that allows us to traverse the landscape faster than our bodies alone, we retain the singularity of our lives and the stories that make us uniquely who we are.

In the 757, I too was contained in a moving vehicle as the landscape unfurled beneath me, traveling at 514 miles per hour, about four-fifths the speed of sound, 40,000 feet above the ground. We humans, through the ingenuity provided by the evolution of our cerebral cortexes, have created and built machines that allow us to use nature in order to defy it. We find reasons to physically move, and then to move faster, over, amid and beneath the earth, partly to survive, but partly to move ourselves emotionally as well.   Yet, as we travel through the space that surrounds us, we ultimately remain contained, in our bodies and the constructed shells that carry us.

In the history of this planet, I imagine the ultimate traveling-while-contained experience were the Apollo missions to the moon. In wondering what it must have been like to be one of the astronauts stepping foot on the moon, or even circling the earth and seeing it from space, I think less about the experiences themselves than I do about what it would be like to come home to a world in which the majority of people with whom you interact have no knowledge of where you have been or what you have done.   You may have walked on the moon, but you still go shopping at the same grocery stores and gas up your car at the local Shell station.   Some of us have moved beyond what the vast majority of humans have accomplished. Some have climbed Everest and have been inalterably moved by it, but the tailor may not know them from Adam as she alters their pants just as she would alter anyone else’s.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on an aspect of double bind theory, the theory of schizophrenogenesis propounded in the late fifties by a group of researchers led by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson.   The theory was based on Russell and Whitehead’s philosophical work on “logical types,” described in the massive philosophical tome called “Principia Mathematica.” The more than thousand pages can be summarized in the aphorism that you can’t mix apples with oranges.   Sometimes, it seems, problems arise when one confuses the container with the contained.

The film I conceived and produced, expertly directed by Matt Fuller, follows the lives of several people diagnosed with autism as they navigate the waters of romance and love. I always disliked the title “Autism in Love,” but I could never find a better one.   I felt, and still feel, that it reifies the already dubious construct of autism. Autism is merely a label we give to a cluster of symptoms, and while it does offer a few descriptors, it doesn’t say much about an individual person.   It also confuses the container with the contained.   Does someone who has been crowned with the label of autism live within its label, traveling through life’s vicissitudes contained and sheltered by it, as if to say, “I did that because I have autism”?   Or is the container instead the individual, responsible for his or her own actions regardless of the box or label in which he or she resides?   This is not merely an academic question, because there is a major practical difference between the clothes we wear and how we wear them, and whether we choose our clothes or our clothes choose us.

Regardless of the clothes we wear, there is someone contained within them.   Whether we find ourselves riding the rails of Amtrak, sitting on a bus, or flying on a Boeing 757 at 40,000 feet over the Grand Canyon, however stylishly, fast, or efficiently they move us, there remains an us to be moved.   Each of us will experience the landscape moving around us differently.   Some will prefer to fixate on the screens in front of them while others might prefer to look out the porthole at the natural world and wonder where rain comes from or if the leak in the bathroom sink will have been fixed by the time they get home.

It may be that there must always be something to seek in order for there to be a seeker, some place to go in order to be a traveler.   There must be a container in order to be contained, whether that container is the loving arms of another or a Greyhound bus that takes us to Paducah.   The existential philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty once said that “we exist by virtue of our resistance to the world.”   In that case, when we cease to resist, when the container ultimately merges with the contained, we cease to exist.

It’s a Free Country

It’s spring, daylight savings time does its job preserving the light, and there is more time after school to hastily dispatch homework and go outside and play.   There’s a small playground just around the bend beside the building where I live, and that is where lessons in life outside the family take flight.

I remember the bullies; there seemed to be a lot of them.   It didn’t matter much how old you were, or even how scrawny or beefy you were; if you were on the swing too long someone—undoubtedly a future lawyer, would come along and try to push you off.  If you were brave enough, you might shout back, “It’s a free country!”

I shied away from most of those interactions, as I did from all those outside my immediate family.   Kids, by and large, were cruel folks, and although I was full of envy for those who managed to get along, it was all too scary in the playground.

It’s a free country.   How did we learn that?   What does it even mean?

Curious, I once asked a colleague of mine in Armenia whether as a child she ever uttered any phrases similar to “It’s a free country!”   She knew of no phrase in either Russian or Armenian that translated to anything like it.   While our childhood lives had much in common, such as “duck and cover” and fallout shelters, what was then a Soviet state had no such notion of being a free country. (When I asked her about “It’s none of your business,” she likewise had no idea what I was talking about.)

As much as the current political situation in the U.S. sickens me, we still can boast some rather impressive freedoms. Pilots enjoy a relatively great amount of it.   In the U.S., a pilot can fly his or her airplane legally from coast to coast without even so much as having a radio, as long as care is taken to avoid certain restricted airspace (such as Washington, DC and the area around certain major airports.) In most other countries, pilots not only have to be communicating with controllers, but they are required to pay “tolls” or taxes every time they take to the air. If I have the time, the hankering, and enough digits in the bank for fuel, I could drive the 15 minutes to my local airport, take out my airplane, and go flying about with no predetermined idea of where I want to go. I need no one’s permission. In that very real sense, it’s a fairly free country.

When I go to a foreign country I typically inquire about the state of general (as opposed to commercial) aviation.   In Europe, it is similar to the United States, although considerably more regulated.   In the Philippines, where my cousin lives and flies for a hobby, it is alive and well, and according to my cousin, not overly regulated.   In Vietnam and most Communist or former Communist countries, it is essentially nonexistent. In Armenia, a post-Soviet country that claims to be a democratic republic, it is relatively non-existent, despite having a tradition, in “Soviet times”, of great aviation inventors and aviators.   I imagine you have never wondered where the “MiG” designation in the Soviet MiG fighter jets derived from. They were designed and made by Mikoyan and Gurevich, hence the contraction “MiG”. Artem Mikoyan was one of many great Armenian inventors and aviators.

I haven’t been around a sandbox for a while, so I don’t know if some of those phrases I used to hear back when I was chronologically challenged are still popular. I don’t imagine, though, that kids are still yelling “It’s a free country!” at each other, but it may be so. I wonder, still, how it came about. I remember that my father taught me that “life isn’t fair’ and how to tie a Windsor knot, but I don’t think he ever uttered anything about this country being free.

Perhaps it was just something that became popular post WWII, given the struggle that most of the world engaged in order to obtain this illusory thing called freedom as it triumphed, at least in the eyes of the victors, over tyranny.

Certainly, freedom is both an illusion and a stark reality when bumping up against the lack of it.   The Rhodes scholar and pop country songster cum actor Kris Krostofferson may have tried to convince his listeners that freedom was “just another word for nothing left to lose,” but that’s just too much a stretch for me (and Bobby McGee). As a child, freedom would have been the ability to play in a sandbox devoid of bullies, but that was not the world I lived in.   Perhaps that is why, chronologically challenged on the other end, freedom is getting into an airplane, launching into space, stepping on the rudder and turning toward anywhere.


Behind the Airplane

The airplanes I learned to fly more than a dozen years ago were built between 1958 and 1977, so were at least 30 years old at the time.   I was only 50 then, which is a really funny thing for me to say now, because at the time I was quite a bit over the hill, unusually old to be learning how to fly.   Now, age 50 seems quite young to me, but that is how this aging thing goes.

I had some scary moments in those airplanes, learning some lessons that, due to the accompanying moments of terror, emblazoned them in my memory.   While I appreciated learning those lessons, and even moreso appreciated the fact that I survived them, I did vow to leave those creeky little Cessna crates behind as soon as I was able to afford more modern and reliable equipment.

In the course of shopping for a new airplane, I test-flew a Columbia 300, which later became the Cessna 400 TTx.   It is a beautiful, sleek, fast airplane.   When landing it, I found myself lined up perfectly with the centerline, but I floated nearly all the way to the side of the runway before I touched down.   There was more to do to slow the airplane down and much less time to do it in than I had been accustomed to, so I found myself “behind the airplane.”   The airplane did things before I anticipated that they were going to happen, so I had to react to them rather than lead them.   Had I had some instruction beforehand, I might have prepared myself better and not have felt as though my airplane was pulling me toward a ditch, and possible oblivion. In fast airplanes, things can happen quickly, and sometimes a small mistake can lead to an airplane or an autopilot doing something surprising.   In those moments, it can feel as though the airplane is flying you, and not the other way around.

When I was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, I felt as though I fell behind the airplane.   The cells in my body were out of control.   They were doing things I didn’t expect or want them to do.   However my DNA got corrupted, this bug in the programming was likely going to kill me, and I didn’t know which buttons I could push on the panel to regain control.   The airplane was flying me.

I have been blessed with a few good friends, and one of them is an architect who had also been diagnosed with cancer.   At one point, I asked her what kept her going in her darkest days.   She mentioned several things, but the thing that affected me the most was her sense that she was being held.   I don’t recall at the moment who she felt held by, but we did discuss the idea that perhaps all of us, in one way or another, are being held.   Whether that means that we are held in God’s hands, the arms of our ancestors, or whatever else might be meaningful, there is within us the sense that—as a mother holds her infant child, there are arms that enfold us.

I don’t know exactly what it means to be held in the context of death.     But if death can never be known and only imagined until it occurs, then being held can be imagined as well.   Sure, it’s just a metaphor, and in the face of death relying on a metaphor to carry us gently into the good night can seem inadequate to the task, but given the unknowable nature of death itself, it seems as though metaphor is the only tool in the shed, if you’ll pardon the metaphor.

The traditional wisdom in learning how not to get behind the airplane is to practice as much as possible, dreaming up whatever might go wrong in advance and either getting oneself to a simulator, or up to a safe altitude with an instructor, and create the situation that might lead to adversity and rehearse the actions required to respond safely and quickly.   While that will help, rehearsing the unexpected is also an oxymoron, and when something truly unexpected happens all the prep in the world may not help.

In those truly novel situations we can struggle to problem-solve our way out of extinction with so much trepidation that panic sets in and the mind goes blank, or instead trust that somehow, some way, someone or something will put tender arms around us, keeping us safe while we muster whatever resources we can to keep flying.   It may indeed be a metaphor, but if it keeps us ahead of the airplane, it might be one worth believing.

Clear Air Turbulence

It’s the smack in the face that you don’t see coming that stings you the most.   When the day is clear and cloudless, the danger of being rocked by severe turbulence is the highest.   It’s called clear air turbulence, and it can make your insides tumble like a rack of billiard balls after the solid whack of a speeding cue ball with topspin.

Clear air turbulence makes you appreciate the paranoid folks who find danger where the reasonable person you think you are wouldn’t even look. The once ubiquitous bumper sticker that said “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t after you” should, I think, be followed with the motto “respect the paranoid.”

I know it isn’t fun being paranoid, which I can say as a charter member of the club, but it is certainly useful.   I don’t think I would trade it for anything approaching the opposite.   It is the excessive fear of danger that has probably kept me relatively safe for much of my life, albeit a life likely shortened by the accompanying unremitting anxiety. I would love to capture the vigilance without all that accompanying fear, but I don’t think life works that way.   It’s the fear that drives us, and the greater the fear, the more horsepower in that engine.

Turbulence is caused when masses of air moving at vastly different speeds collide with each other.   You don’t see it so much on cloudy days, because in order for clouds to form the air masses must be calm enough to contain the moisture within them.   Sometimes cirrus clouds—those wispy, mostly horizontal ones—are clues that there is likely to be turbulence around, but the worst of the turbulence occurs when the air masses are moving so quickly that the particulates that hang around the atmosphere are so dispersed that you can’t see them at all.

Clear air turbulence is a reminder that that which cannot be seen and that therefore can cause a shitload of trouble is all around us.   It could be an unrevealed secret, the elephant in the room as it were.   It could be the car that comes barreling through the red light out of nowhere; it could be a cancer diagnosis when you’re feeling just fine, thank you.

Not all surprises are bad, of course.   It’s just hard to think of any.   I have never, for example, received a letter in the mail alerting me to the fact that a distant relative has left me a lot of money.

Sometimes the mere fact of having been born with a sensitive nervous system can be mistaken for paranoia.   The line between just being extra-sensitive to one’s own and therefore another’s pain can lead to assuming that others feel the world the way you do.   Often they don’t, and when they don’t and you think they do they are going to call you paranoid.   They are wrong, of course.   Those of us who are extra-sensitive are not paranoid; the rest are just out to get us.

In a relationship, you know you are in trouble when you don’t know you’re in trouble.   The air gets thick with “Everything’s just fine, honey,” and then you know the volcano is likely to erupt.   Yes, the air gets still and calm right before the storm.   Better to have clouds in the sky, because when there are clouds you can see them and therefore you know where you are in relation to them.   Things are finer, for sure, when they are not fine, when there are clouds in the sky you can see and read.

I have believed for quite some time now that there are few things worse in life than not knowing where one stands.   I would like to know whether the affection you are showing is real and deserved, just as I would like to know if I am in the doghouse so I can at the very least hide in it until the invisible storm has passed.

For those of you stuck on the ground looking up at the sky, you might want to consider that if the skies are clear and blue there’s a lot more danger there than you think.   If you don’t see any big, puffy clouds, you might want to lose that naïve complacency of yours.   Get a grip.   There’s danger out there, just when you thought it was safe to go outside.

Ocean, Sky and Desert


Pilots seek the sky.   For some, it is where their solace resides. Not for me, though.

I became a pilot about the time I turned 50, so for the first half-century of my life I didn’t have the option of mounting an airplane and shooting into the blue to find comfort.   If there was comfort to be found there, I didn’t have the means to find it.

I could drive, however, and if I really wanted to get away from it all I could have driven myself to the nearby mountains. But I didn’t do that either, preferring to level myself at sea level.   I would walk along the beach for hours on end, typically at dusk after the stark California sun began its retreat.   Alone with my thoughts, the receptive sand beneath my feet and the soothing rhythm of the ocean waves sedated my nerves. I would just walk, and try less to find solutions than to let my thoughts emerge, as if some caged and reclusive solutions would emerge from their indolence if I could allow my body to ease up, to listen to its whispers rather than to think my way through the maze of pressured and tortured “what if’s?” that stultified me.

When the beach didn’t do the trick, there was the unforgiving Southern California desert, and in particular the Joshua Tree National Monument area near Palm Springs.  Exactly how the desert worked its magic was a mystery, but perhaps the invitation to death provided by its vast vacuity, knowing that every pathless path led to a singular absolute and assured ending rendered big decisions banal. If every place I could possibly wander led to death then any choice I could make would be just as hopeless as the next.

The ocean, sky, and desert are places we can go to soothe our aching souls, but still, they are just places. Although its benefits are many, relocation is rarely a panacea.   City dwellers may claim that they must leave the intricate web of distractions around them to find serenity in the simpler life that the country gives them.   Yet, life in the country for some can simply mean a swapping of one form of chaos with another.   It might be a relief to be out of cell phone range, to not have 118 channels of TV from which to choose, or hear the rumbling of the buses, trains and taxis outside your door; but soon enough the mosquitos will become noisome, the lack of air conditioning will propagate noxious body odors, the screen door slamming shut will shatter the peace, the raccoon will plunder the garbage, and the bursitis will act up when you think you are still capable of chopping wood.   But worst of all, that decision about taking the new job will still need to be made, the paperwork and the report will still need to get written, and the catalytic converter will need to get serviced, that is, if you have a car that has one.

The biggest problem with relocation therapy is that nerve-wracking tendency to carry ourselves with us when we move from one place to another. Whether strewn on a beach in Tahiti, sipping a latte at a café in the Marais, or nursing a local red wine in Rome, a simple, sarcastic comment from your partner can instantly wipe away any shred of numen the immediate environs may have loaned you.

Thoreau, best known for hanging out in a borrowed cabin in the woods, was also an accomplished traveller.   He wrote in his journal:   ”It matters not where or how far you travel—the farther commonly the worse—but how much alive you are.”   I would argue that while one can feel alive anywhere, the challenges of novelty that relocating offers can be an injection of vitality unto itself. The external world confronts us subtly or unabashedly with its array of colors, sounds, cruelty and aesthetic beauty. Finding ourselves crossing a reedy bridge over a deep chasm between mountains taunts us into the abyss; a sheer cliff begs us to lose ourselves in a slip off the edge.   Or, as the novel scenery helps to bridge the depths of our soul and psyche, we turn our aggressive impulses toward others: who might we gently nudge off the edge of the cliff, or who may choose to nudge us off the edge?

In 1975, on my first trip abroad at age 21, I was wandering through the streets of Verona just past dusk.   I lost track of where I was, and was feeling that pleasingly uncomfortable queasiness that over the years I have come to appreciate.   I looked up at a sign carved into a granite plate on the wall beside me.   It was a quote from the first act of Romeo and Juliet, which read:

O, Where is Romeo?

Tut, I have lost myself, I am not here; this is not Romeo, I am some other where.

 Shakespeare knew the feeling.   He knew that wherever we are, we are capable of being somewhere else at the same time.   My wife, in one of her moments of Zen, once told me that she thought that the reason I had so few memories of my childhood was that I wasn’t there at the time.   Perhaps it doesn’t matter at all where we are at any moment on the earth, and the only thing that truly matters is that wherever we are, we are present and alive.   I can’t help but believe, however, that sometimes finding the sky, a mountain, or an ocean to treat our senses to can help bring us back to ourselves.   Occasionally, it has done that for me.










Visibility Balls

R6BFcbnThere are a lot of ways to die as a pilot.   My favorite one is at a ripe old age, quietly in the midst of a good night’s sleep.

One way pilots come to their end is to get themselves and their airplanes wrapped up in power lines. Those nasty things can be pretty invisible, thin as they are, and although looking up at them from the ground you can see them against the contrast of the light sky, looking down at them from above they disappear into the background of the terrain.

There are large, bright orange balls that are occasionally attached to power lines in order to make the lines more visible to pilots.   I never knew what they were called until a friend of mine referred to them as “visibility balls.”   The term, you have to admit, has a ring to it, and in the hands of a poet I image it can be dangerous.

From the air, I really appreciate when I see these big balls surrounding wires.   From the ground, they are pretty ugly, but then so are the power lines they are meant to expose.   Ugly on ugly just makes more ugly, but I do appreciate the intention, which is beautiful.   I feel that way about a lot of ugly things with good intentions. Just don’t ask me to name them.

Visibility balls are considerate things, similar in effect to lighthouses for ships and beacons on tall buildings designed for the same purpose.   I am here, they announce, so please don’t bump into me.

In some ways, visibility balls are similar to tattoos, which I think are ultimately designed to say here I am, look at me.   I think even hidden tattoos serve the same purpose, but in that case they are merely being reserved for a specific set of onlookers.   The difference, I think, is that tattoos aren’t really designed to keep anyone safe, unless they are meant to frighten and keep bad guys away, or announce a political affiliation, as I imagine the swastika on Manson’s forehead was intended to do.

I like things designed to keep people safe, but they too can be annoying.   I don’t really care if the public bathroom floor is wet following a good mopping.   If I need a sign to tell me it’s wet then I don’t deserve to use it.   I do like signs telling me to slow down to 35 miles an hour when a curve is approaching, because that clearly indicates that I will need to slow down to 60. I find guardrails on winding mountain roads humorous, as if that would stop a car from tumbling down the side of the mountain. The sign that says “icy” by the side of the road near my house has been proclaiming that fact for 25 years, although I don’t recall a single day in the last 25 years when the road actually became icy.   The sign, by the way, is located a few yards from Thomas Aquinas College, a fact which has given me the inclination to stop alongside the road in the middle of the night and put periods or dashes after each letter, so the sign would read “I-C-Y”, which should be the primary purpose of the nearby college, especially one that emphasizes theology and philosophy.

I am sure I am not the only pilot who likes the idea of giant orange balls strung up high to keep from being caught up in a catastrophe.  The thing I can’t understand is where to find the giant orange men willing to sacrifice them.

Sierra Oscar Lima

There are good aviation movies, and great aviation movies, but very few bad ones.  The opening scene in the movie “Dark Blue World” is one of the best I have ever seen, consisting simply of a young aviator showing a female friend how to fly an airplane. It is simple and sweetly suggestive. The rest of the film is pretty spectacular as well, on my personal top 10 aviation list, and that opening scene, to quote Johnny Tillotson far out of context, is poetry in motion.

There are some films which sound great on paper but just don’t work on the screen.   Woody Allen’s film adaptation of the book “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex…” is an example of a film that is hilarious when you describe it, but when you see it in the theater it is almost intolerable, at least to me.

The worst aviation movie I have ever seen has a great premise.   It is called “Sierra Oscar Lima,” and the film’s dialog is a verbatim enactment of the last few minutes of several doomed flights, based on recovered cockpit voice recordings. (It is actually a film of a play.)  Given how much I love to study accidents, and just about anything aviation-related, I went out of my way to find and rent this film.   I was so excited about it that I thought I could show it as a fundraiser for a charity.   While I am a firm believer that truth is far stranger than fiction, and a whole lot more compelling, in this case the film was a sheer soporific. Think Benadryl overdose. The philosopher Hannah Arendt demonstrated the banality of evil, but it’s difficult for me to imagine the last few minutes of a doomed flight as even approaching banal.   But perhaps it is so.

Here’s the trivia point.   As a lover of most everything aviation, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t get the title.  Sure, I know the phonetic alphabet, and I knew that “S.O.L” was an abbreviation; I just didn’t know for what.   When I discovered that it stood for “shit outta luck” it all made sense.   That’s what happens right before the final lights go out.

I occasionally hang out with a bunch of pilots, a fairly friendly lot, if a bit on the conceited side. If I am in a forgiving mood, and not too conceited myself, I forgive them their conceit because it takes a bit of hubris to fly airplanes.   The thing is, as much as I have hung out with pilots, I have never heard any of them say “Sierra Oscar Lima,” as in, “the poor fella’s tail fell off and was sierra oscar lima.” I have heard a lot of metaphors for, well, you know, biting the dust, going west, buying the farm, etc., but have never heard anyone say sierra oscar lima. (I understand the military have a similar phonetic abbreviation for dying– “tango uniform.” I couldn’t guess this one either, a fact of which I am proud.   It reportedly stands for “tits up,” which is I guess what happens when you’re finally laid to rest.)

I probably never heard “sierra oscar lima” because these days people are generally less worried about scatological language than in the past.   If you want to say someone’s shit out of luck, you would probably just say the person was shit out of luck.  No need to speak Yiddish so the kids won’t understand; these days they know more than you do.

There may, however, be other uses for sierra oscar lima worth exploring.   Let’s see now. Your drug-addicted, underage son asks to borrow the car.   No, that’s too hackneyed. Applying for a bank loan because you really need the money?   The loan officer cracks a slight grin and whispers, sierra oscar lima.   Oh, and how could I have forgotten this one?   Yes, you turn to your partner in bed…

I suppose there are hundreds, if not thousands, of solid uses for sierra oscar lima.   I’m just not sure the cute abbreviation is necessary these days when polite company itself is a rarity.   I don’t think I would know where to find polite company if I tried. If I did try, I guess I would be… you know, sierra oscar lima.




The Contrast

A few days ago I took my small, single-engine airplane on a very short flight from Santa Paula to Santa Monica.   I am realizing now, as I write this, that on my way back I probably hit two LA area airports in alphabetical order.   You didn’t need to know that, and I didn’t need to say it, but I just did and you read it, so it’s done now and behind you.   Just let it go.

If I flew direct, at the speed my airplane is capable of, I could have made the flight in 18 minutes from point to point.   But one rarely if ever truly flies direct, unless you are flying in a helicopter, because airplanes need to depart and arrive in a fixed direction, often requiring flying a pattern.   All told, the flight took me a half hour in each direction, which beats the 2 hours or more it would have taken me if I attempted to make the trip via LA freeways.

The reason I am bringing this up is because of the contrast between flying a couple of days ago and what I am doing at this very moment, which is flying as a passenger in the cabin of a United flight to Frankfurt, on my way to a conference in Krakow, Poland.   The view at 35,000 feet out the window is not that different than the view at 5500 feet, especially nowadays where humans are used to zooming in and out with the pinch of their fingers.   Up here, where the air is minus 62 degrees Fahrenheit, travelling with the help of the jet stream at 640 miles per hour over the ground, I had the strange sensation that all I had to do was sit back and pinch my fingers for the world to become a miniature moving map beneath me.

It’s daytime right now at this point on earth, and it’s quite cloudy out there, mostly cumulous clouds, but the earth below occasionally reveals itself, a built environment of concrete, steel and lumber.   It is remarkable what these human beavers have crafted onto the plains, nestled in the mountains and hung over the cliffs.   How industrious we critters are, how unashamed of what we have done to the miraculous topography of this planet.

I am on the second of three flights needed to get me to Krakow. I could have done it in two flights, but adding a leg made it less demanding on the bank account.   This flight will last about 10½ hours in the air, and all three, with layovers, will take about 18 hours.   That’s a lot of sitting, but I have done the long haul often enough that I have mastered seat yoga, or chair yoga as they call it in senior homes. It’s amazing what kind of a workout one can get while sitting and watching fuzzy movies you intentionally missed at your local theater.

I am now on Boeing’s triple-7, which for me is the equivalent of her majesty’s yacht, after rowing my little aeronautical kayak the 36 miles from Santa Paula to Santa Monica.   It’s really quite a thrill each time I do either one of them; I can’t help but marvel at the engineering masterpieces that emanate from the cortexes of wily dreamers intent on stretching human capabilities to its conceivable limits. I suspect I will not live long enough, or have enough lives, to get to ever fly one of these big birds, and sitting back here in the cabin is the best I will ever do.   That’s okay, because I kind of kicked the bucket list a few years back, and my stores of vitality have been nearly depleted by a few too many slings and arrows.

I have many challenges ahead of me in my little aeronautical kayak, and while I will be occupying a lot less square footage, at least I will be at the helm.   It’s a lot easier back here, being chauffeured and all, but when I get to where I am going I will have had little to do with it.   God willing, I will be home in a week or so, where my little airplane awaits me.   I will wrap my fist firmly and gently around the stick, tilt into the wind, slowly and confidently push the throttle to its limit, and nudge its nose into the blue.   I don’t know yet where I will be headed, maybe just take her for a spin around the neighborhood.   There will be no pinching of my fingers to make the trees bigger or smaller, but I will use the stick to make the elevator do that. The movie flickering out the windscreen may not be nearly as exciting as “Mission: Impossible” or “Kingsman”, but it will be a whole lot more realistic.   And while I won’t be landing in Europe, I will be landing just a stone’s throw from home. It’s all about the contrast, and that’s what makes it good.






Flying on Wheels

There is a scene in the small but wonderful film, “The Way, Way Back” in which the 14-year-old lead character discovers a bicycle in the garage of his mother’s new boyfriend’s summer cottage where he has been trapped for what promises to be a torturous summer.   With a spectacular blast of background music he breaks out of the garage on the diminutive bike and rides away with a new sense of freedom.

The scene struck a deep chord for me, because it brought back memories of my childhood, when, each day after school to escape the constant shouting and threatening that surrounded me in my garden apartment in Queens, I would ride as far away as I could on my bike until I became just a bit lost, and then eventually find my way home.   I remember never really wanting to go home, and trying to calculate ways to run away, but as a young child I of course didn’t have the wherewithal.

I remember the sense of freedom I had when riding my bike, the sense of movement and the rush of air over my face, and even a more acute sense of smell. When I left Queens at age 10 we moved to Framingham, Massachusetts, and lived on a street located on a small hill. At age 10 the hill wasn’t so small, and I distinctly remember getting on my bike at the top of the hill, raising both hands in the air, and closing my eyes as the bike picked up speed on the way down. I could even turn the corner at the bottom of the hill with no hands and no sight, just the sensation of the bike beneath me and the air blowing over my chest and face.

That habit ended when one day I took the turn at the bottom of the hill and hit a parked car. I was thrown first into the handles, which knocked the wind out of me, then tossed onto the trunk of the car to be stopped by the rear window. The car was dented, and I was bruised, but nothing else broke.

In high school in California I learned to drive, and that was my greatest ticket to freedom. I would work as many jobs as I could during high school just to pay for gas and I would drive my ‘65 Barracuda (which I bought used for $500.) until the gas was half gone, then turn around and see if I could make it home before I ran out. I didn’t think of it at the time, but that is what I did as a young child on the bicycle.

My cousin Peter flies an open cockpit Raven, which he took me for a ride in when I visited him in the Philippines. With an open cockpit and the propeller pushing from behind us, it was the closest thing to flying without benefit of an airplane I had ever experienced. The wind in his face served as the airspeed indicator, and I couldn’t help flashing back to riding my bicycle downhill with my eyes closed as a child.

I am not a thrill-seeker, but when the thrill seeks me I won’t resist it. I had a couple of close calls when flying the rickety Cessna 150 during my training, close enough to insist that when I could afford to I would buy the safest airplane my wallet could handle.   Eventually I did just that, a Diamond DA-40, which had the best safety record in the industry. When I bought it, I made sure to add the optional extra large fuel tanks so that I could go as far as I could without having to land, just as I did as a child when I mounted my bicycle and rode it as far away from home as my legs could take me, or drove my Barracuda as far as I could on the most gas I could afford before having to turn back. Opening the throttle to the stop as I roll down the runway, I could swear the engine sounds like a full orchestra, generating the lift needed to take me away from the earth, with all of its constant shouting and conflict.

You Better Press the Button

I can’t imagine it happens too often, but a few years back the captain of a commercial airliner died mid-flight.   An announcement came over the PA: “If there’s a pilot on the airplane, please press the flight attendant call button.”   A vacationing Air Force pilot sitting in the cabin glanced over to his wife.

She turned to him and said, “You better press the button.”

A flight attendant escorted the Air Force pilot to the cockpit, where the pilot took the captain’s vacated seat. (None of the accounts mentioned where they put the expired captain.) The co-pilot who was flying the airplane asked the Air Force pilot what equipment he flew, and then she said, “Ok, you’ve got the com and follow my instructions.”

I have never been in the armed services, a fact of which I am not particularly proud, but I am fairly certain that military service teaches or at least reinforces one’s ability to take orders.   I also think that excelling in taking orders generally makes one better at giving them, although like most things, this gets complicated and only works sometimes.

The Air Force pilot who “stood in” for the expired pilot on an unfamiliar airplane would have been used to giving orders. But in this case, although he was a captain in the Air Force, the less experienced airliner co-pilot remained the pilot in command throughout the flight.   Although she was feted afterward for her performance under pressure, it should be no surprise that she did her job and did it well. When interviewed afterward, the Air Force pilot said the commercial co-pilot confidently, professionally and calmly flew the airplane—so much so he wished he could go flying with her again under better circumstances.

It all went smoothly.   The experienced Air Force pilot wasn’t familiar with the airplane, and the co-pilot of the commercial jet knew the airplane well.   It was “her airplane,” and she was in charge.   Following the incident, there were a couple of editorials that appeared in aviation magazines that questioned whether the fact that the co-pilot was honored for her alacrity was a subtle form of sexism.   If she were a male co-pilot would she have been praised, or would the seamless handling of the stressful situation be simply assumed?

I don’t know, because I tend to see sexism hiding under most rocks.   And yet, having your captain expire next to you instantly doubles the workload and adds just a bit of psychic stress to the moment.   It would be a troubling situation for anyone regardless of gender.   But still….

When I read about the incident, I was not only impressed with the co-pilot’s performance under unusual pressure, but I was also impressed with the Air Force captain’s, who placed himself in an unfamiliar cockpit in a stressful situation, although all he really did was handle the radios, which was second-nature to him.

What made the situation work so effectively, though, was that each pilot recognized the abilities and the roles of the other.   The Air Force captain, undoubtedly used to being in charge, happily followed the co-pilot’s orders.   It all reinforced my view that the best leaders tend to be good followers, and the best followers also tend to make good leaders.

As I mentioned in other posts, the attributes of good leaders are the same as the attributes of effective followers: flexibility, humility, commitment to the organization, the ability to think outside of the box and consult and collaborate with others.     It’s important to remember this, the next time a pilot expires in the seat next to you.