The Big Sky Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dubliners in Trieste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Aerolinguistics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Hiding in Plain Sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angle of Attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There will be a quiz next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Let George Do It

I learned to fly in a venerable Cessna 150, which I once overheard referred to as “the closest thing to not having an airplane at all.”   The controls on the 150 couldn’t be simpler, and the idea of equipping one with an autopilot would be a bit like adding GPS guidance to a lawnmower.   It was a good thing that the 150 had no autopilot, because if it did a newbie might be inclined to use it, and in the process lose precious time actually learning how to fly.

Early autopilots were primitive, and seemed to have a mind of their own.  Flight instructors—even to this day, are fond of grilling their students on the many ways to shut them off, because historically they were so unreliable that even turning them off often failed.   That’s when the department of redundancy department came in.

Autopilots are supposed to be designed for simplicity, but if engineers could talk they might tell you the more complex the instrument the more difficult it is to prevent it from going haywire.   To invert and paraphrase the song from Hair!, it’s hard to be easy.

I am happy to report that my own airplane, the Diamond DA40, has a marvelous autopilot made by a company called Garmin (the name being a portmanteau for founders Gary Burrell and Min Kao).   It has 11 ways to shut it off, although I can only remember 4 or 5 of them at any time.  Prosaically called the Garmin 700, it is fully integrated with the airplane’s navigation system, which means that once you tell the airplane where you want it to go, with the press of a single button it will take you there.   It corrects itself three times per second, which anyone who knows me will tell you is much more often than I do.

Ever since flying behind an autopilot I have heard them referred to either as George or Otto.    The reason they are called Otto is apparent, but I often wondered why they were also referred to as George and not Fred, Nancy or Butch.   Turns out that it was the RAF pilots who first encountered them who jokingly decided that they should simply let the airplane’s true owner, King George VI, fly the airplane.   “Let George do it.”

Nowadays, the use of autopilots is de rigeur, and the term has worked its way into common parlance.   When we do things by rote, without giving it much thought, we are said to be on autopilot.   But flying on autopilot can be hazardous to your health, as we learned from Air France 447, whose pilots flew into the icy Atlantic Ocean killing all aboard when they couldn’t manage to hand fly the airplane once the autopilot had been degraded.

As life in these United States gets increasingly complex, most of us rely on variations of our own internal autopilots.   This can be deadly, as when someone is so used to driving they think it should be no problem to let the car drive itself while applying makeup or reading text messages.   One could argue, and many do, that the reason autopilots have become necessary is that the tasks associated with daily living have just become too complex.   It stands to reason, then, that the best way to turn off our collective autopilots would be to simplify the tasks ahead of us.   So, perhaps out of a strange desire to be symmetrical, I am going to try to list eleven ways of simplifying, enabling us to shut off our autopilots, hand-fly our airplanes and get the most out of our lives.  If you can come up with your own list of eleven, I would be proud. Here’s my list:

Simply unplug.   Everything.  Then observe what is going on around you.

Meditate.

Uni-task.   Simply create a “task boundary” around you and insist on doing one thing at a time.   Take that one task to completion.

Observe the Sabbath as Orthodox Jews do.   No cars, no elevators, nothing with electricity or fire.

Take a familiar task and make it unfamiliar by breaking it down into its smallest manageable parts.   Instead of brushing your teeth or taking a shower on autopilot, focus on each component part of the process.

Use chopsticks instead of forks and spoons when eating.   Eat slowly and savor every bite.

Write something by hand.   Instead of sending emails or tweeting, write a postcard.

Pay restaurant checks with cash.   Try using exact cash and count the change in your pockets.

Park your car and walk as much as possible to do errands.

Have a garage sale and rid yourself of everything extraneous in your life.

Cancel any future commitment or event that doesn’t enrich your life somehow.

I am convinced that the less we allow George to take care of us, the more we will feel as though we are flying our own airplane and getting the most out of our lives.   And that is why most of us learned to fly in the first place.

 

An Anniversary

Exactly one year ago today I completed my last radiation treatment. As far as I know, no detectable cancerous lesion has returned since then, which makes this a cautious but happy holiday. The caution is prudent, given the size and mass of the original tumor and the fact that it had metastasized to lymph nodes, thus increasing the chances that it will pay a return visit. If it does, according to my medical oncologist, it will do so “with a vengeance” having cleverly re-engineered itself to evade the effects of chemotherapy and radiation.   A relatively prompt death is likely.

I have believed in and witnessed the truth of the saying that “we die the way we live.” Among other things, I have lived a life of short-term pessimism and long-term optimism.   Things will work out in the long run, I have always thought, but the rub is in the present and immediate future.

Unfortunately for me and those committed to living with me, this has made me a rather troubled and troubling companion.   For if the diagnosis of stage 4 cancer does anything, it creates a shift in perception.   Whatever cuddly visions I have had of the long-term future quickly vanish into the thin air of fear.   Some say cancer is a wake-up call, but for me it has always been more than a challenge to wake up at all, let alone from a nightmare  that projects itself into the waking state of monthly hospital checkups, blood tests, radiation-rich carcinogenic body scans, and the harrow of waiting for results.

Yet without the battle there can be no victory, and today is a time for celebration. And in this very moment, as others around me are wont to remind me, things are looking good. And as I try to remind myself, this very moment is the only moment that matters; it is the only moment which this brave and betraying body of mine can ever embrace.

And, perhaps in spite of what you have been kind enough to read so far, I am not a whiner.   I have fully embraced my father’s dictum that life isn’t fair, and that it is all of our jobs to work with what we got.   And though it’s too easy for me to miss what is right in front of me, I’ve got a lot.

It is about 4 in the morning, still unaccustomed to the time shift from L.A. to Galway. Yesterday my wife and I walked over 5 miles along the coast in the gray chilly mist, as the sun set over the Atlantic between this continent and the Aran Islands. Gas-fueled flames in the faux stove heat this cozy AirBnB, a modern addition to a traditional rowhouse just four easy blocks from the pub-lined High street that twists through shops packed with a mix of tourists and locals. And peregrinating through the streets of this, one of my favorite cities, I am constantly reminded that there is nothing quite like the amity, charm and wit of the Irish. In this, the only moment there is, life is good.

So today I will struggle again, as I have each day, to find a suitable folder in which to file the fear that each of these bizarre symptoms that arrive daily, uninvited and unwelcome, are signs of the cancer returning.   No, they are just the creaking of an aging body or the teasing of my guardian angels.   I will, today, try again to inhale the crisp air of gratitude and allow its sweet calming effects to wilt the tension in my muscles.   I will, today, if only briefly, imagine the soft embrace of a mother’s arms in order to protect me from the ill wind, and soothe the bristles of expectation.

 

Driving on the Left

Galway, Ireland.   I tried taking my taxi driver’s advice, and booked my rental car through the internet in order to avoid being screwed at the Budget counter. (The cab driver used a more colorful Irish or English word for the act, but although the meaning was clear, his enunciation wasn’t.)   I had to check in through the counter anyway, and the price managed to jump from a reasonable 40 euros for two and a half days to over 250 euros, and when I asked about the difference the thief behind the counter said it was for the fuel that will be returned to me when I bring the car back full.   Over 200 euros to fill up a car no bigger than a giant’s fingernail?   I’ll try to work it out when I bring the car back, probably unsuccessfully, or 3 weeks later when my anger reaches its pitch.

I have been to Ireland several times before, and have driven here, but the last time was about 25 years ago when the kids were little and annoyingly disinterested in castles.   (I guess I should have been more compassionate with the notion that when you have no history of your own it’s difficult to be interested in the history of others, but I wasn’t.) I confess that I took the wheel with more than a little apprehension, given that my own mental state has deteriorated since the cancer treatment, and I feared that with age my coordination and reaction time had as well. Nevertheless, with a touch of the Brooklyn chutzpah that occasionally surfaces when needed and an opportunity to save five euros, I opted for a stick shift, making the challenge of driving on the left just a bit more alluring.

My wife, beside me in the left seat (which made no sense at all), had no control over what was happening to her, so was understandably more terrified than I was as we watched cars incomprehensibly barreling right toward us before vanishing in a whoosh that should by all rights have ended in a collision. She kindly kept repeating, softly but urgently, firmly and gently, the word “left,” which was at once reassuring and annoying.  The word “left” became simultaneously an injunction and a prayer, and while my wife was saying it out loud, I was repeating it subvocally to myself.

The thing I most want to tell you, and the whole reason for this post from abroad, is that it has been thrilling to drive on the left side of the road.   First, entirely unexpectedly, it feels a lot like flying.   I haven’t flown since I grounded myself due to the effects of my cancer treatment, and I have been curious about what my hopefully eventual return to flying will feel like.   Now I suspect it will feel much like driving a 5-speed peppy Ibiza on the “wrong” side of the road.

The first thing that is awkward is the fact that the stick is in your left hand, and not on the right.   For a right-handed person—as most people are, that itself is a bit of a challenge.   But when flying from the left seat, as most pilots do, the stick or yoke that controls both the pitch and the roll (the elevator and the ailerons) are continually operated with the left hand, while the right hand usually hovers somewhat lazily over the throttle, or throughout most of cruise flight, in the lap. Right-handed pilots quickly train their brain to “steer” with their left hands, but it isn’t natural.

Almost immediately after realizing that pushing on the steering wheel doesn’t actually shift gears for you, it is important to remember that the third pedal somewhere down there on the floor isn’t a rudder.   But driving with a clutch requires the use of both feet, refreshingly similar to flying an airplane.   After a few attempts at coordinating a turn in an Ibiza with a clutch pedal, it doesn’t take long to learn that it just won’t work that well, and in a car the human foot has a distinctly different purpose.

But the most important thing about driving on the left side of the road is the most ineffable. It is, I suppose, partly the thrill of mastery—simply doing something different and getting to the place where the awkward becomes mundane. Accomplishment unto itself (“because it is there,” says Mallory) is sweet.   But it is considerably more than that.    I imagine—although I know nothing about it, that it’s like playing the piano. I tried it more than a few times, and I have yet to get to the stage in which the left hand manages to coordinate with the right, but it must be wonderful when it happens.

There is also the feeling that, having successfully returned home after a day driving through the countryside in a mirrored reality, one has gotten away with a minor crime.   Those of us who have spent countless hours in darkrooms know the frustration of accidentally printing a negative that has been flipped to the wrong side, but in Ireland the wrong side is the right side, and as most hormonal adolescents can tell you, that can feel really good.

I should add, simply for the sake of justice, that I no longer have the slightest interest in castles.   Been there, done that, and they’re too damn drafty.   But getting there, now that can be a blast.

 

 

 

You Can Fly

Whatever self-deprecatory thing I might have said (I’m sure there were many, but I don’t recall this particular one), my mother responded in her strongest voice, “Ira, you can do anything you set your mind to do.”

I was snooty and literal even at 11 years old, which is when I believe this happened, so I said to her, “I can never fly.”

I remember my mom’s response better than if it were yesterday.   She bent down, gazed directly into my eyes, and said, “If you wanted to badly enough, you could fly.”

If I had any doubt that my mom was crazy, it ended right then.   But the line between crazy and brilliant is fuzzy, and sometimes not even there at all.

My mom spoke volumes with those few words, and it took me about 50 years to figure out what the hell she was talking about.   She was, in her typical way, telling me that reality shouldn’t necessarily get in the way of my thinking.   I don’t think it got much in the way of her own thinking, although I never fully understood what motivated her, and how she thought.   I thought I might better understand her by asking her about her childhood, but she always refused to talk about it.  When out of frustration I once asked her why, she simply said:  “It was too painful.”   Other than vague impressions, I suppose that is all I was meant to know.

My mother had a way of looking deeply into your eyes and finding something residing there that you couldn’t see yourself.   She was many people’s confidante, although it was always a one-way street.    That was the way she wanted it.

I am convinced, perhaps in my hokey way, that she could see into your soul, so when she gave advice it was pretty damn good.   And getting down on her knees to my eye level and looking straight into my eyes was a damn good trick, which is, perhaps, why I wanted so much to believe that she was right and that if I only wanted to badly enough, I could fly.

I wanted to believe it because I thought she believed it.   It wasn’t that I was worried about disappointing her; it was more about the fact that I trusted her.   At that point, I had the problem of figuring out how to make sense of her willingness to suspend belief in the empirical, to reside with one foot in this world and another, well, somewhere else.

Whatever was in that magic potion of hers, it worked.  I am particularly intrigued whenever someone says to me that something can’t be done.   And particularly challenged when they suggest that I am not the one to do it.

That is perhaps why I continue to imagine that one day I will finish that novel I wanted to write since I was 23, or that I can successfully translate a book into English from a language I haven’t begun to master.  (I will learn it as I go!) I am, however, still encumbered by enough of a dose of reality that when told that I can somehow lick the cancer that constantly threatens to invade, displace and destroy the healthier cells in my body, I quickly retreat.   Denial has its place in one’s armamentarium, but it is not the best instrument of courage.

My mother may not have known what she was doing, but I think she did.   She saw in front of her a frightened teenager, a friendless, self-hating, dispirited child who sucked his thumb until he was 11 and hid behind the couch whenever the doorbell rang.  She saw in front of her a child who believed he was incapable of mastering anything because the realities of living in the real world was just too daunting.   So she instilled in him a belief in magic, a belief that anything is possible.

When I think back, wittingly or unwittingly, I have drunk often from her magic potion.   It helped me cope with the many failures, big and small, on the path to each success.   The list of failures is long, and the list of successes is short, but they are—to my mind, big ones.    One of the smaller but significant ones is that it allowed me to eventually find my way into the cockpit of an airplane, fire up the ignition, and—dare I say, to fly.

 

 

 

 

Unusual Attitude Recovery

Imagine yourself in the left seat of the cockpit of a small airplane.   You are flying a few miles from the coast, over the ocean, with an instructor in the right seat beside you.

He tells you to put on your Foggles, a pair of plastic glasses designed so that all you can see is the instruments in front of you.   The area outside the cockpit is “fogged out” (hence the trade name), as if you were flying through the clouds.    You are staring at your instruments, keeping you and the airplane happily right side up by referring to the indicators in front of you.   After flying “straight and level” for a while, the instructor gives the following instruction:  “Now close your eyes and continue to fly straight and level until I tell you to open them.”

This shouldn’t be difficult, you think, because you were taught to fly “by the seat of your pants,” to feel the airplane underneath you and use your vestibular senses to know what attitude your airplane is in at any particular moment in time.   It seems and feels easy.

You are now flying blindly, paying sharp attention to your butt, the position of the stick in your hand (sorry), and using all your sensations to feel what the airplane is doing.   It is quiet and calm in the cockpit, and you are feeling good about how well you can fly blindly.   Now the instructor says:  “When I tell you to open your eyes, look only at the instruments and recover back to straight and level as quickly as you can.”  A few short moments later, he continues, “Now, open your eyes…”

As you open your eyes and see the instruments in front of you, your eyes burst open to their widest position, and your heart just about jumps out of your chest as you see that the airplane and both of its occupants are in a steep, turning dive, about to enter a deadly spiral.  You can’t see the ocean below, but you know it is there.  As a tiny bead of sweat appears out of nowhere on your cheek, you quickly analyze the situation, reduce power, level the wings, center the rudder, and gently pull the nose up.  The airplane is heavy, primarily when pulling the stick back, but it complies with your commands and all returns to normal except your breath, which takes a bit longer to recover.

You have now recovered from what pilots call an unusual attitude.  And in that process, you have learned several important lessons.

The first one is just how easy it is to get into trouble, and how quickly things can go wrong.   But even more important is the fact that they can go wrong without even knowing it.  You were, truly, in a steep diving turn when your body was saying you were level on the level.  You may have a big American fast-food-fed butt, but that butt isn’t nearly as sensitive as your eyes.  And while your middle ear may be even more sensitive than Davy Crockett’s wild front ear, it will easily deceive you.   Things aren’t always as they seem, and life can be quite a hazardous business. Whether it is the loss of a loved one, a betrayal by a business partner, or a diagnosis of a terminal illness just when you are feeling at your healthiest, life has a way of bringing us to the brink of a death spiral without seeing it coming.

The second insight is also fairly obvious, but worth considering as well.   With proper training, mental rehearsal, a good aircraft, and enough skills, we can usually recover from the unusual attitudes in which we find ourselves.   These requisites are significant; without them we might not have what it takes to steady ourselves before we smack into the icy ocean below.

Proper training is a given.  Whether it is a course on how to handle marital conflicts that could save metaphorical hearts from breaking, or a course in relaxation and meditation that could save literal hearts from breaking, training is essential.  Mental rehearsal does work and it is necessary in order to master anything.

Having a good aircraft is also a given.   The bodies we fly in should be well maintained.   The FAA requires me to give my airplane an annual physical.  Not a bad idea for all of us.  I can assure you that being healthy itself doesn’t necessarily keep you out of trouble, but I can assure you as well that the healthier you are to begin with the more likely you will be to get out of it.

If you choose to leave the confines of your house or apartment and are old enough to drive, you are already in the left seat.   Inevitably, life will throw us curves, and we will find ourselves in an unusual attitude.    While there is wisdom in avoiding unusual and dangerous attitudes to begin with, survival depends on our ability to recover from them.

-Thank you, Michael Phillips, for sitting in the right seat and conducting this exercise with me.   It is a real confidence booster!