I knew some time ago that pilots say “Mayday” in an emergency because it is the Anglicized version of the French “M’Aidez!,” meaning “Help me!” but I recently learned that the reason we call the place where people keep their airplane a hangar is that it is the French word for “shed” or “outhouse.” I have, in fact, seen many hangars that resemble outhouses, and had it not been for the arrival of the family troops a few years ago to coerce me to discard things that they thought I would never need and assist me in the cleaning operation, I may have had to include my own hangar in that category. Three years before I was born, over 70 years ago, the International Civil Aviation Organization decided that English ought to be the exclusive language for radio talk in the airline industry. Not having a universal language was a formula for disaster. (It is said that many lives were lost on the Titanic, for example, as a result of there not being clear and monolingual emergency procedures.) People were flying throughout Europe more often, and although even the word “aviation” itself has somewhat of a French origin, English was taking root as the universal language in the business world, and so English won out. I imagine that decision riled quite a few people, but it wouldn’t have been the first time the Empire had its way. “Mayday” had already been in operation by then, allegedly because the English version (S.O.S.) didn’t come across that well over the radio, as was “pan-pan,” the distress call that translates roughly to “I’ve got a problem that I don’t know how to fix and I’m warning you that there might be a mayday on its way if I can’t get my shit together to figure this out.” Pan-pan derived from the French word “panne” that referred to a breakdown, as opposed to the homonymic pain, which is a loaf of bread. When you put two loaves of pain together you get pan-pan, which means you’re about to have a breakdown. I may be boring you now, but I’m having a really good time. So the Civil Aviation Organization decided to keep those signifiers, while adopting English for pretty much everything else. In junior high school I was required to take a language. There were many choices, but for all intents and purposes they narrowed down to two: Spanish and French. I wanted to take French, because for reasons that weren’t clear to me at the time, that’s what the prettiest girls were taking, but my father convinced me to take Spanish, because after all, who speaks French in the United States? He couldn’t imagine I would ever want to travel to France, or have the means to do so. As was true for many things, my father knew best, and I don’t regret taking Spanish, well, not too much. Maybe I do regret it, because after 3 years of classes I can barely get through Pimsleur lesson one. Whenever I try to speak a foreign language, I am told that I have a great accent but whatever I say makes no sense. I guess that’s the same problem I have with English; I can read it just fine but comprehension is another thing altogether. I can also talk a lot without saying anything at all, if you haven’t noticed. As I mentioned, the word “aviation” has somewhat of a French origin, coined in 1863 by French naval officer Gabriel La Lande from the verb avier. Avier was a neologism that never caught on, stemming from the Latin word for bird—“avis,” so La Lande fancified it and the word aviation stuck. The word “pilot” derives from the 16th century French pilote (someone who steers a ship). The tube that air runs through and tells us how fast we are going is called a pitot tube, which looks a lot like pilot if you’re not wearing your glasses, so you would think that had French origins as well. Well, sort of. The pitot is French alright, but it’s what we call in English a proper noun, meaning it’s someone’s name, because I guess if you’re English and you don’t have a name that would just not be proper. The pitot tube got its name from its inventor, a French physicist named (how many guesses would you like?) Henri Pitot. I never did get around to taking French, although I took a few lessons, but my French teacher was very strict and thought somehow that studying ought to be intrinsically motivated. I was old at the time, and while the lure of pretty girls hadn’t entirely dissipated, as Woody Guthrie said, much of my get up and go had gone up and went. I suppose I should get back to it—studying French, that is, but I have to figure out instead how best to end this post. Hmmm.
Then there are those who do whatever they can to resist the natural order of things, eking the most out of their lives by doing what nature surely did not intend them to do. They fly airplanes, jump out of them, dive off 80-foot cliffs, chase tornadoes, scale ridiculously sheer mountains, walk on wires over deep chasms, and take drugs that they find in someone else’s bathroom just to see how far they can bend their consciousness without breaking it.
C’est pas moi. I would rather sit by the fireplace in the lodge sipping hot chocolate while reading W.S. Merwin than ski down the side of that groomed mountain I can see out the window. I’ve never done that, by the way, because I don’t know how to ski and I don’t think I have ever been in one of those places, though it looks wonderful in the movies. It’s not that I’m averse to the occasional small thrill, mind you, but I just don’t like the idea of breaking things, including myself, and death is inevitable anyway so why push it.
Aviation journalist Sam Weigel once imagined that there were two kinds of pilots (and by inference, two kinds of people): There are those who like speed and there are those who like altitude. Those who like speed I suspect are akin to what psychologists call sensation-seekers. There’s a robust research literature on those folks, and they are an interesting lot. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that those who score high on the MMPI sensation-seeking scale are the most likely to become drug addicts. Their bodies are geared toward going for the high, and with the right chemicals, you don’t need to leave the ground to get there. For them, it is all about the bodily sensation, the rush as it were. They like the rush; they like the speed.
But then there’s the altitude folks who lean toward a different kind of high. Pilots who prefer altitude to speed like to be above it all, away from the hustle and bustle of prosaic life, rising above the pettiness of everyday conflict, nestled in their confined cockpit watching clouds go by. Altitude comes up a lot in these virtual pages, because, for a pilot, as has been said here before, altitude is your friend. She’s a good friend, indeed, because she is positioned better than anyone to save your life when you really need her. For these pilots, the earth may be home, but it’s one where all the tsuris resides, the thing that has to be grappled with, approached with precision and caution, the most dangerous place. Earth sites capable of landing can be difficult to find and hide from you when you need it the most. Earth can break your airplane and break your heart, and for many pilots it’s the former that matters the most.
Altitude has a lot of advantages. There’s the obvious, of course, in that the higher you go, the more time you have to fix whatever goes wrong or navigate your way back to earth if you lose power. In pilot school you are taught something called “dead reckoning”, which is navigation without the benefit of instruments. (The “dead” derives from “ded”, short for “deductive”.) When dead reckoning, the thing to do when you are lost is to climb higher. Climbing gives you a greater view of the earth—there’s’ more to see and it’s easier to recognize landmarks. You see patterns you don’t have an opportunity to see up close, the sinewy rivers, the orderly quilt of farm fields, just how concentrated the earth’s population is, how much is devoid of artificial light at night.
The world from miles up moves much slower, as your field of vision takes up a larger expanse of earth. Cars on freeways going fast seem to be crawling along, not because you are going that much faster, but because things on the ground are much smaller. It’s a great reminder that we tend to make petty things in life big and lose our perspective.
I suppose if I had to choose, I’m an altitude person. It’s often a difficult thing to do, taking the high road, but it’s usually the best way of resolving conflicts. As Michelle Obama’s Madison Avenue handlers said, “when they go low, we go high.” Sure, I do like speed, and I tend to rush through much of this life, cramming in as much as I can as I watch the sand settle in this increasingly fragile hourglass. But when it comes up to it, I would rather dwell less in the petty conflicts here on earth than in the serenity and compassion that resides, at least for me, way up there.
If I had a nickel for every time I have heard the cliché that the pilot certificate is a “license to learn,” I would have at least 25 cents in my pocket. That would be more than I have now, mostly because I keep my pocket change in the car. But the point of that cliché isn’t to create cents in the pocket as much as it is to create sense in the head.
On its simplest level, the idea that the certificate is a license to learn just means that now that you’ve got your ticket, don’t let it get to your head and turn into a hotshot. You know, there are old pilots and bold pilots….
Over time, however, as is true for many cliches, I have come to better grasp its significance. Certainly, or perhaps arguably, our primary training does equip us for the task at hand. We couldn’t pass the written test without knowing what a mode C veil is and what we need to do if we’re in it. But realistically, many of us (don’t look at me) just memorize the answers and often forget them soon afterward. Passing the practical test is another thing. It means that we have convinced the examiner that we can make the airplane do certain things and do them within certain limits. It’s a good test, the practical one, because frankly, there aren’t too many people who could pass the practical test without having developed some skillset along the way.
So, what we know when we get our certificate is that we can do some things passably. If we know our capabilities, and we know our limits, and vow never to fly beyond them, shouldn’t the certificate be enough?
Flying, as is true with the rest of life, brings surprises that will push us beyond our limits, so it makes sense to keep getting better at what we do just in case we have to resort to doing something out of the ordinary, such as the unexpected mountain wave that flips your airplane around as if it were a pair of pants in a clothes dryer.
A newly minted plastic certificate is, or at least should be, a symbol that you have mastered fundamental skills, and now have a sense of what you can do. That’s important, certainly, but it’s less important than knowing what you cannot do. The real challenge for the examiner ought not to be that she is assured that you can perform certain tasks within prescribed limits, but rather that you have achieved a level of discernment to know what you cannot do. It is achieving that level of discernment that ought to be the difference between the day you took your first white-knuckled grip on the yoke and your sweaty palm as you shook your examiner’s hand and welcomed you to the club.
Although I have been a certificated pilot for more than 15 years, and do whatever I can to keep learning, the most important thing I have learned is that there is always more to learn. When we do our biennial reviews, it’s as important to learn a few new tricks as it is to practice the fundamentals. It could be something as simple as practicing the use of oxygen equipment and donning the gear in flight or practicing callouts—both things that my primary training never included.
It has been said that an unexamined life is not a life worth living. In flying, it could be that an unexamined life could lead to a deadly lack of humility, because if you don’t know where and how you can improve your flying you won’t know what you need to get better at, and, well, you know the rest of the story. Most importantly, you may have missed the unwritten disclaimer that ought to accompany every new certificate. Your plastic card should tell you that you have reached the point in your flying career when you know enough to know that you don’t know everything there is to know. It is a master’s degree in humility, a certificate of discernment, a license to learn.
The other day, a colleague of mine called me to consult on a case. Her client was a young adult who had been diagnosed with autism. At one point my colleague said, “His black and white thinking is caused by his autism…” I interrupted her and curtly said, “No. His black and white thinking isn’t caused by his autism; his black and white thinking causes his autism.” She seemed confused, so I did my best to explain the damage that can be done by reifying labels. I probably did a lousy job, because her mystification lingered.
I told her that the more she relied on a label (a diagnosis) the less likely she would be to know her client. Although it’s helpful, indeed necessary, when starting out in any field to learn the jargon, and thus have a shorthand for reducing the morass of information into manageable bits, it can also lead us down wrong paths. It is no accident that the more experienced a clinician the less jargon you will hear.
Diagnostic labels obfuscate more than they clarify. Reducing someone’s personality to a group of symptoms may serve to focus on what some have concluded are the most meaningful bits, but by doing so we too easily fail to see the richness and contradictions of those behaviors that lie outside our expectations. If the label we give to the jar with the white powder in it is “flour” then that is what we expect will be in the jar, not the sugar that you put in that jar when you were preoccupied with getting the internet upgraded. It is not necessarily that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy but rather that the therapist actually misses the deeper truths of who is sitting opposite.
Diagnoses are, essentially, metaphors, in the same way Susan Sontag brilliantly described cancer in her seminal essay “Illness as Metaphor.” Metaphors can be compelling ways to describe things, but they are not the same as the things we are describing. You can’t meaningfully say that John is schizophrenic any more than you can put a blanket of air on your bed, shoot an idea, buy a moral compass from the nautical supply shop, or really give me a piece of your mind. As the semanticist Alfred Korzybski famously said, “The map is not the territory.”
Another Hungarian hero– Thomas Szasz, made a career out of professing that psychiatric diagnoses were essentially a form of social manipulation. A psychiatrist himself, Szasz insisted that he was not anti-psychiatry, but anti-coercive psychiatry. He saw psychiatric diagnoses as socially constructed with little to no medical evidence to support them, to be used, perhaps, to remove someone’s freedom (as in the case of hospitalizing a schizophrenic), cast someone aside from society (such as calling homosexuality a disease), or sell drugs that don’t work or cause more harm than good.
Too many wrong roads are driven when we begin to think that the metaphor is the real thing. The depth of personhood, the miraculous complexity and uniqueness of each individual becomes transmogrified into the label we put on the package. Korsybski once dramatically demonstrated this when he took a break from a lecture to eat some biscuits that had been wrapped in white paper. After commenting how much he enjoyed them, he offered some to students in the front row, who enjoyed their taste until Korsybski removed the white paper to reveal that they were dog biscuits. The students became nauseated, and Korsybski said something to the effect that we not only eat food, but we also eat words.
The problem with my colleague stating that her client’s “black and white thinking was caused by his autism” is that “autism” is merely the label on the dog biscuit package. It may or may not have anything to do with what is inside, but instead may have everything to do with what we think is in the package.
When we reify something, we also give it a static quality. We take something that should be a verb and turn it into a noun that just sits around on a shelf waiting for someone to pull it off. And in doing so, we begin to think that there is little we can do with it. If we only referred to John as a noun we would imagine him standing somewhere. But if we said he was “Johnning,” we would imagine all that he does that makes him tick. Saying someone has autism, or depression, or even a virus, leaves us little to do with it, freeze-drying it as it were, and even creates a bit more distance between us and them. If autism, or any diagnosis, was a verb rather than a noun we would be more interested in what it does and how it works, thereby bringing it to life and moving us to engage with it.
Another problem with my well-intended colleague’s comment is the direction of causality. We need to know the territory before we can draw a map, but drawing the map will not create the territory. Does giving someone the label of autism make that person lose the ability to perceive life’s grays, or does the inability to perceive gray cause us to give someone the label of autism? And if it is the latter, then what useful information does that give us?
My colleague fell into a dangerous trap, but although the landscape of our language is littered with those traps, no experienced clinician should fall into them. Confusing the map with the territory is something that ultimately can hurt our clients when the label is a psychiatric diagnosis, and when the labels we serve up are liberals, conservatives, Palestinians, Moslems, Jews, Christians, or even Hungarians, we may succeed only in creating obstacles to understanding each other.
If we were birds we could flap our wings, and without a moment’s reflection, find ourselves aloft. But we are featherless humans, blessed and cursed with heavy heads; and having evolved to be prisoners of gravity, flapping our arms is likely to do no more than get us a diagnosis.
So we build airplanes, and although the engineers who design them give them a wide array of forms, the vast majority of them come with stationery wings. And while they don’t flap like bird wings, most of them come with movable parts called flaps. Flaps typically extend outward and mostly downward, and the end result is that they change the way air flows around the wing itself. What pilots say is that they “change the shape” of the wings. They are, as it were, shape-shifters.
Now, if you were fortunate enough to have the kind of mother who encouraged you to spread your wings and fly, you would know that she thought you were pretty awesome and had something to contribute to the world, or perhaps was really tired of you leaving dishes in the sink and couldn’t wait for you to leave home. But the problem with the platitude is that, while we may want to spread our wings and fly, we are not metaphors and as children don’t yet know how to do that.
The way flaps work on airplanes is simple, if you don’t think about it too much. In changing the shape of the wing by adding a downward surface, a significant amount of resistance to wind is created, increasing “drag”. The best example of this is what I used to do as a child, before we could afford air conditioning in our car, and I put my hand out the window to “fly it” through the wind. A simple tilt of my hand, exposing more of its surface, would shoot that sucker right up into the air. If my arm was connected to the car and was strong enough, it would also help slow the car down. But if my arm was really strong, it could also help lift the car off the ground.
While drag can also increase lift, for the most part, it is the thing that slows us down, as Mick Jagger reminded us in the simplistic and prescient lyric “what a drag it is getting old”. I believe it was the French philosopher-psychologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty who said that we “exist because of our resistance to the world.” Merleau-Ponty was an existentialist, and I suppose the idea is that the very nature of our existence is resistance. (He was French too, which likely added to his admiration of resistance.). When we breathe we push the air around, when we move we part the air, but more importantly, when we make an impact in the world, when we lead others, we resist the status quo. To exist in the world around us means we are always disturbing something, always changing the universe, always annoying or pleasing the people around us. We resist the natural tendency to settle into oblivion, we upset the stationery apple cart. I once heard that the only place you will ever find a lot of contented people is in a cemetery. They are at rest, disturbing no one. They are, presumably, at peace. They don’t resist, and therefore don’t exist.
My mother was deeply flawed, like me and the rest of us. In one of my many moments of self-loathing, she assured me I could do whatever I set out to do. Digging my heels in, I told her that no matter how hard I tried, I could never fly. Digging her heels in, she crouched down to my eye level, gave me that haunting stare of hers, and said that if I wanted to badly enough, I could fly. I thought she was crazy, but those words never left my mind.
Of course, like most things, she was right and wrong. One of the secrets, I discovered, is that if I wanted to get off the ground quicker I needed to extend my flaps. I needed to create resistance and find a way to get things done outside of the status quo. And I also learned that those same flaps could get me down to the ground quicker. Pilots talk about the difference between being a pilot and being an airplane driver. The airplane driver is the Reader’s Digest version of piloting; someone who pushes buttons and does the basics. Being a good pilot and not just a driver means creatively knowing how and when to extend your flaps, how much to extend them, and when it’s time to raise them up again.
It should all be rather simple. The heading indicator tells you which direction you are going, the altimeter tells you how high you’re flying, the airspeed indicator tells you how fast you are going. But it isn’t so simple, because aviating isn’t just about reading our gauges; it’s about how we read them.
Many, many moons ago, I attended an “Evolution of Psychotherapy” conference, which those of us who have been in the head-shrinking field for a while will remember as the mecca for psychotherapists. Roughly every decade, Jeff Zeig, a renowned Arizona psychologist, would bring together the living legends in the world of psychotherapy, until they died out one by one and it just got too depressing. At one of those conferences, the brilliant psychoanalyst James Masterson was asked by a member of the audience why it was that no matter how confrontive she was with a particular patient, the patient remained unphased. Masterson replied quite masterfully that the therapist was likely using “the wrong gauge” by judging her level of confrontation by how she would feel if someone said those things to her. What mattered, of course, wasn’t her confrontation gauge, but the client’s.
It used to be thought, and likely still is, that people on the autism spectrum have difficulty understanding others’ perspectives, a lack of what the prolific psychologist David Premack originally called a “theory of mind”. That observation has led to the view that people on the spectrum lack empathy, but it may well be that the problem instead could be caused by reading the wrong gauge. It turns out, some new research indicates, that while it may be true that people diagnosed with autism often have difficulty understanding the perspectives of so-called “neurotypicals,” they don’t seem to have difficulty understanding each other. In that sense, they only “lack empathy” when dealing with people who lack empathy for them. We may, mistakenly, be looking only at the person with autism, and not the people with whom they are interacting. That has led to a revision of the “empathy problem” such that some prefer to call it a “double empathy” problem. The problem only occurs when two people lack empathy for each other. Otherwise, the world turns just fine.
Reading the wrong gauge can have tragic consequences. The crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (the day the music died) took place in snowy conditions in Northern Iowa. 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson, in spite of his young age, was not inexperienced, but although he passed the written portion of the instrument exam, he failed the instrument checkride and wasn’t technically legal to fly on that snowy day. No one could determine exactly why, just 5 miles from the airport, the airplane that Peterson was flying turned and crashed nose-down at high speed, but one theory that emerged is that the airplane he flew on that day had a new attitude indicator (or “artificial horizon”) installed, one that was different from the gauge in the airplane Peterson had been used to flying but that happened to be out of service that day. In one gauge, the depiction of the airplane in the center moved in relation to the static horizon line, and in the other, the airplane symbol remained stationary while the background horizon moved. The result is a “figure-ground” difference such that up is one direction on one gauge and down on the other. Flying blindly in a snowstorm, Peterson could have thought he was climbing when in fact he was descending. He may well have been flying the “wrong gauge.” Had he not done this, Buddy Holly would likely have lived to know his son and Don McLean may never have been able to retire.
In primary flight training, we are taught not only how to read our gauges, but how they relate to one another and even the best ways to scan from one gauge to another. In psychotherapy, we try to teach our clients how to read their own gauges, especially the one that tells us what to do with the other gauges. When clients first appear, it’s not uncommon for them to perceive themselves living in a world in which they can’t tell up from down.
It should be simple– the airplane is climbing or descending, I’m getting too angry or too tired. It’s making sure we are reading the right gauge at the right time in the right circumstance, and then knowing how to level out and stabilize ourselves; therein lies the challenge.
What was that errand I needed to do in San Jose? As the waves keep rolling to the shore, there was Dennis Skaggs. I met Dennis in late 1969 when he was the high school photographer and I was made the editor of the school paper (the 4-page, offset-printed cleverly titled “Paw Prints” after the lobo school mascot). I was a fledgling photographer, developing film in my closet since childhood, and we became fast friends (though he never let me step foot in his darkroom, which was his temenos). Dennis became my first roommate when I moved out of my house at 18 to go to college.
Before stepping foot in a cockpit, Dennis gave me what had been the biggest sensual thrill up to that point in my life, and for years to come. With the heat and radio blasting, ocean waves crashing to the left and mountains rising to the right, he drove me up the Pacific Coast Highway one night in his topless Triumph TR3 sports car way too fast for comfort. White-knuckled from grabbing whatever surface I could, I occasionally asked him to slow down, but he had traveled those roads many times before and had no interest in the slow life.
After graduating college, or during, he made a living as a projectionist in movie theaters. I once met him at work in the projection booth at a pornographic movie theater in San Jose. His job included cleaning the seats after the last show, an image even more disturbing than those on the screen. Dennis eventually became a founding partner in a chain of 21 movie theaters in San Jose.
We reconnected for breakfast after a 30-year hiatus at a classic San Jose diner, where he proposed a brilliant concept for a new business that the next day I agreed to embark on in our golden years, but due to our mutual failing health never got around to fully executing. He also introduced me to CinemaCon, the large Las Vegas conference for movie distributors where studios introduce their films to theater owners.
A few years back, always kind, sweet, quirky, with a quick and easy laugh, tall, awkward-gaited Dennis was diagnosed with ALS—“Lou Gehrig’s disease”—and he gradually lost the use of his muscles until the world lost him in September. He was 67.
I flew up to San Jose because, according to his remarkable wife Susan Godman, Dennis decided that he wanted his collection of vintage 16 and 35mm films to be left to me, along with an old analog 35mm projector, and I needed to assess my capability of transporting them all to Southern California. Among the films he himself had made was a short, silent satirical rendition of Bergman’s “Seventh Seal”, which Dennis called the “Seventh Steal”. He cast me in the lead role, and I don’t recall (come on, it’s been over 50 years!) much of it other than, I think, me stealing something and riding off on a horse down the Santa Ana riverbed. Before Dennis died, Susan attempted to find it among his collection but it was likely lost to the ravages of time, as seems to happen to us all. Gonna miss you, sweet friend.
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.
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.
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.