Living in the ICE Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Airport in Sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Cross-Controlled

Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?

Such reads the label on the delicious confection “Screaming Yellow Zonkers.”   It is a testament to the brilliance of advertising that I remember the label better than the taste of the product.   I am a fan of the non sequitur, both in literature, life and, you guessed it, aviation.

The great non sequitur in aviation is the condition known as cross-controlling an airplane.   It happens when you point the ailerons and the rudder in the opposite direction, resulting in uncoordinated flight.   When turning an airplane, pilots are taught to dip one wing with an aileron, and use the rudder to move the tail so that it follows the direction of the turn.   The result is an airplane whose tail follows its nose, creating a balanced or coordinated turn.     If, on the other hand, you point the rudder in the opposite direction of the turn, the tail will wag the dog, and some say that can be dangerous.

The result of cross-controlling an airplane is something referred to as a slip. It is not at all unlike what happens in a car when driving on ice or hydroplaning and you turn the wheels to the left but your car careens to the right.   Unless you are a stunt driver or a really hormonal teenager it is not something you typically want to do in a car.

Uncoordinated flight can more easily lead to an aerodynamic stall, which means that the wings stop developing lift.   That can result in a dangerous condition known as a spin, and unless you are doing aerobatics or training for a disaster, that can put you on an unwelcome path to a rather abrupt meeting of airplane to ground to undertaker.

So, I had read or had been told by some old wife that cross-controlling an airplane was a thing to be avoided. My first flight instructor thought all that was hogwash.   “Real men,” he would say, “cross-control their airplane.”   He never actually said that, but I know he thought it.   Once, just to prove it to me, he cross-controlled the little Cessna we were in all around the pattern.   “It’s a perfectly legitimate way to control an airplane.” I believe he actually did say something just like that.

There are people who spend much of their grown lives cross-controlled.   They point their noses in one direction while going in the other.   They are living out the wrong gender, working in a job they hate, trapped in a world or lifestyle, sometimes of their own making, in which their hearts are aimed elsewhere.   We cross-control our lives for a variety of reasons; I suspect most do it out of fear of the consequences, letting other people down or feeling unable to survive the consequences of living authentically.

Then again, there are times pilots cross-control their airplanes intentionally. I, for one, enjoy doing it when I am coming in too high and need to lose altitude quickly.  It is called “crabbing,” because your airplane comes to the earth quite sideways looking like a crab walking in the opposite direction its head seems to be pointing. It’s quite a beautiful thing when you dip a wing, push the stick forward, and use full opposite rudder.   Suddenly you are looking at the ground beneath you through the side window rather than your windscreen, using the fuselage of the airplane to increase drag and both hasten and cushion your arrival.

The sad and perhaps most dangerous thing is when we cross-control our airplanes unintentionally.   Maybe we have relied too long on autopilots, and lose track of the fundamentals.   We forget how to slip intentionally, so instead we slip unintentionally and fall.   We let our airplanes control us, and take the simple way out.   We forget how much courage it takes to fly an airplane or live a life.   It all becomes too easy.

I believe that failure to intentionally cross-control emanates from discomfort with and a lack of appreciation for the beauty of the non sequitur. We want our lives to follow a sequential path.   We don’t want to choose between walking to school and carrying our lunch, but instead we like to choose either to walk to school or take a bus.   A mentor of mine used to be proud of how he would tell stories to his grandchildren of when he was a little girl.   As a child, my brother taunted me with the funniest joke he ever heard, a foreshadowing no doubt of my tussle with radios.    One bear in a bathtub asks the other bear to pass the soap, whereupon the other bear responds, “No soap.   Radio.”   My brother then laughed riotously. I never got the joke, until I realized years later that that was the point.   The joke was on me.

That was not a fun lesson, but it was a lesson nevertheless.   Sometimes, life is not sequential.   Sometimes, we need to break the rules, cross the controls and approach the ground sideways. The consequences can be dangerous, but therein resides the need for courage.

 

 

 

 

Going NORDO

“Nordo” is the aviation abbreviation for “No radio,” which is important to know because it follows the conservation of syllable principle to which all pilots solemnly swear to follow.   The challenge when dealing with potentially crowded radio frequencies in which everyone is trying to get a word in edgewise is to say as much as possible in as few syllables as possible.   As someone who tends to be verbose, I appreciate this principle.   I try to practice it when I can, but it’s difficult for me, especially when speaking to members of the opposite gender from whom I have been accused of “man-‘splaining” (a good example of conservation of syllables if there ever was one).

I confess that the use of additional, unnecessary syllables really bothers me.   The most common of these occurs when people say oftentimes. I hear it all around me, and it irritates me almost as much as when Dodger relief pitchers blow a perfectly good lead. If someone can ‘splain the difference to me between often and oftentimes I would greatly appreciate being set straight.   Irregardless is another one that scratches my chalkboard.   Please just say regardless.

Oh, and while on the topic of often, I often hear people pronounce the “t” right smack in the center of the word, when it is arguably improper and definitely unnecessary. Some consonants, like children, are just better off keeping quiet.

While flying, I have only gone NORDO once.   I was a student pilot at the time, which I suppose is as good a time as any to have something go wrong, and I was on one of the required “cross-country” flights.   For heuristic (i.e., man-‘splaining) purposes, the term “cross-country” in aviation parlance is any flight in which you take off and land at different airports, so I can technically take a cross-country flight in the 5 minutes it takes me to get from Santa Paula to Oxnard, or even the minute or two it takes to get from Oxnard to Camarillo.   But to fulfill the student pilot requirements, cross-country flights only count if each leg is more than 50 miles apart.   At least one of those flights require landing at a total of 3 airports sequentially, so my triangle consisted of flying from Santa Paula to Bakersfield and then to Santa Maria before flying home to Santa Paula.   Each of those airports are just over 50 miles apart as the Cessna flies, although I am rather certain my poor navigational skills at the time made them quite a bit farther.

I had flown to Bakersfield quite nicely, thank you, and was just about to cross the mountains surrounding Santa Maria when my radio went at least partially dead.   I could hear others but they couldn’t hear me.   I checked my frequency at least three times, and even plugged in a spare microphone I had in the plane.   Nothing worked.   At one point, I appeared over the mountains and saw the airport right in front of me.   Just then, the tower controller asked me to identify myself.   I tried, but couldn’t.   I rocked my wings to signal that something was wrong, and may have set the transponder code to signal “lost communications”.   (I actually may have forgotten to do this; this was 15 years ago now and my exact memory is fading.)   The controller asked me to key my microphone if I could hear him.   I did, and he replied that he had heard my click, and that I had “carrier frequency.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but didn’t waste time looking it up afterward.   He then told me to click the mic once for yes and twice for no, and began asking me questions.   I believe he asked if I was who he thought I was, because he must have gotten notice of my pending arrival from a previous controller.   I clicked yes.   He asked me if I intended to land, and I clicked yes again.   He then told me I was clear to land and on which runway, which I acknowledged with an affirmative click.   It was kind of fun. I felt well taken care of.

When I reached the ground, I called the tower from my cell phone and thanked them for their help.   All in a day’s work.   I then called the mechanic—who also happened to be the owner of the flight school, and tried to fix the radio on the ground.   Nothing I did worked.   It would have been perfectly legal for me to fly home without a radio, but it was late in the afternoon and the weather report showed a marine layer hovering over the coast and I didn’t want to risk a possible encounter with clouds and diversions without a working radio.   So I bit the bullet and called my wife to drive the 65 miles to come pick me up.

The saddest part of the story was that the flight school had to fly up to Santa Maria the next day with a second pilot on board to fly the airplane home, and when they arrived the radio worked just fine.   They checked it over and couldn’t find anything amiss.   The owner of the school was fine with it, but the chief pilot, charged I suppose with keeping expenses down, was angry that he had to pay for a pilot’s time and the extra fuel.   I had a fairly nasty confrontation with the chief pilot, who thought I should have made the trip home NORDO.   My claims that I made the right decision based on safety, especially given my greenhorn status, didn’t fly.   I asked him directly if it was the added expense that bothered him, and he acknowledged that it was. Ironically, that chief pilot went on to become an FAA examiner, and although I saw him a few times around the airport, I never spoke with him again.   I can still feel my blood boiling as I recall the conflict.

 

Writing while Jet-Lagged

Only once in my life had I felt completely paralyzed. I was living in an apartment on the aptly named Descanso Drive in Los Angeles, and upon someone’s recommendation I had taken a B vitamin—I don’t know which one, probably in a desperate attempt to regain some of the energy that had left me a decade earlier after a debilitating bout with mono.   I collapsed on the red and white striped loveseat handed down from my childhood and then couldn’t move.   I willed it, I instructed my limbs to respond to my commands, but they wouldn’t.   I was awake, surely, but truly paralyzed.   It scared the crap out of me, but fortunately lasted only a few terrifying minutes.

When I told my Beverly Hills psychiatrist about it a few days later, he chuckled and said, “A lot of people would pay good money for that experience.” My psychiatrist kept up his medical skills by working on the weekends at an emergency room in Burbank.   I thought he would tell me something helpful, but instead, he made a joke about it.

Jet-lag is a mild form of paralysis.   As is every morning I force myself awake before 11.   I hate this feeling.   I hate the mornings.   I despise feeling like a hummingbird trapped in a snail’s body. I like clouds, but I don’t like the feeling that they have invaded my brain and nested there for the winter. And I don’t like being told or trying to convince myself that they have silver linings.

As my psychiatrist unempathically coaxed, there may be hidden benefits to being paralyzed. Here’s one: People who I worked with in Armenia thought I was really a mellow guy.   Really, I was mostly sleep-walking.   And while I can’t imagine myself paying a nickel to be frozen stiff on a couch, I confess that there may be a few other benefits to being jet-lagged.   One of them, and this isn’t such a small thing, is that if you can arrange it so that no one expects you to show up for real work, it’s a good time to write.

For those of us who do it, writing can be quite painful.   It’s a simple thing to do, one writer said.   Just sit at a typewriter and stare at a blank page until blood leaks out of your forehead. But writing while jet-lagged can ease the strain.   Words somehow can drop out of the clouds the way one can perform stunning feats of memory, such as remembering the name of the girl sitting in the third row from the teacher passing notes in third grade, without having to try.   When one is too jet-lagged, strung out on Vitamin B-whatever, or muddied with morning mist to even try to do something, the something sometimes does itself.

“Jet-lag,” I wrote a year or two ago, “not unlike every morning in my life, is a dreamy, thought-meandering miasma, and reading about Finland in Vietnam, my mind wanders to Armenia, an adopted place I am missing after a long hiatus to tussle with the cancer that nearly killed me but through the graces of God and medicine has yet to reappear.”  Somewhere in Iowa, I imagine, a gaggle of pretentious writers are handing out citations for “writing while jet-lagged.”

I wrote that sentence on my first trip back to Vietnam after a two year “cancer-break”.  Perhaps it was easier to be grateful then, even for the jet-lag I was feeling, having made it back to work when so much of my time previously had been spent believing my body would never again be able to make it out of the house sans gurney.   I went on in a rambling way reminiscing about Armenia, a place I visited regularly for over a decade, about the changes I had witnessed, and change in general.   Though I never did anything with it, and that writing exists only in ones and zeroes embedded on silicon chips, it wasn’t half-bad, and for that, I suspect, I have jet-lag to credit.

Flying to Love

Unless it is in relationship to the machines they fly, most pilots I know don’t talk about love too often.  Given that our lives depend on those machines, it makes a lot of sense to love them.   We take care of the things we love, and when we do, they take care of us.

If asked, I suspect most pilots would say that they love to fly, and not because of the love they have for their vehicles.   Instead, they would tell you that they love the feeling they get when they rise above the earth, defeat gravity and part the air. But I don’t know any of that for a fact; I have yet to actually ask any pilots if they love to fly.   They reveal that to me in their enthusiasm, and the very fact that they willingly risk their lives in an expensive and dangerous endeavor.  I don’t imagine, however, that most pilots will tell you that flying also helps them to love others.   I think that it does.

Loving another person requires courage.   It requires the ability to be emotionally vulnerable, and to shed the layers of self-protective fabric we have built from childhood.   Loving another requires letting go, and not withholding our affection, which in turn makes us vulnerable to hurt. Loving another requires a certain amount of self-love as well.   It requires having enough comfort with who we are in order to share ourselves comfortably with others.

Becoming a pilot also requires courage, and as we take calculated risks, fail sometimes and then return to the cockpit for another trip around the pattern, we build mastery and resilience.   Each time we successfully battle a tough crosswind to a safe landing, complete a tricky instrument approach, or squeeze ourselves into a frantic traffic pattern, we have demonstrated to ourselves a level of competence, triumph over our fear and in so doing strengthen our ability to handle the next challenge.

There are, of course, many kinds of love, and love itself is experienced differently in different cultures and even from one person to another.   The old Greeks divided the love universe into four parts: familial love, friendly love, romantic love, and divine love.

Pilots often come to see aviation as part of a family (familial love), make friends while flying (friendly love), and while romantic or divine love seems a bit of a stretch, I can think of a few pilots whose partners become pretty jealous of the passion their pilot partners have for their flying affair.

Meher Baba, the Indian guru who remained silent most of his life but managed to say some of the stupidest and most beautiful things regardless (the stupidest being the four-word mantra “Don’t worry, be happy” co-opted by jazz artist Bobby McFerrin) described love as a “feeling of unity” and an “active appreciation of the intrinsic worth of the object of love.” There can be no doubt that the pilot in love with flying experiences that moment of unity as she merges with her airplane, and the sense of self as somehow separate from the aircraft vanishes into the act of flying.   I have had that peak experience just a few times when flying, but I have seen it happen many times as I have flown with more masterful pilots than myself.

Of course it is not the act of flying that teaches us to love, but the act of doing anything so well, so masterful, that we become one with it.   We then pause, and in Baba’s unspoken words, actively appreciate its intrinsic worth. Active appreciation is perhaps another way of simply saying that we are grateful.   Love is to be found in the act of gratitude for that which allows us to merge with it.

It simply stands to reason that if we can learn to love the thing we choose to do, be that flying, painting white stripes down the road, knitting a sweater, or helping someone learn to read, we can experience the unity of love, and deeply appreciate the intrinsic worth of another.   Whether they know it or not, those pilots who master their craft to the point of unity and appreciation are giving themselves the ability to love others.   If asked, they may tell you they love to fly.   What they likely won’t say out loud, perhaps because they never thought of it this way, is that they also fly to love.

(Bits of the above have appeared in “Plane & Pilot” magazine.)

Southwest Pilot Flies His Father Home

A young Army aviator with the beautiful name of Moss Love was on a training mission in San Diego when he crashed his Wright Model C biplane and died instantly.   It is reported variously that he was either the 8th or 10th fatality in aviation history, flying only a few years after the Wright Brothers’ historic flight. The Army named its field in Dallas after Lieutenant Love in 1917.

Love Field in Dallas is the home airport for Southwest Airlines.   Southwest has made much of the connection in its marketing.  Their website boasts, somewhat anachronistically, that they began service with the “prettiest Flight Attendants” who served “Love Bites” on their planes.  Tickets emanated from devices the airline dubbed “Love Machines” and when the airline went public in 1977, they chose the ticker symbol “LUV”.

Here is an article that appeared this morning in the Washington Post.   I hope you enjoy it, as it recalls the multigenerational power of love and how both symbolically and actually it can be carried in the actions of aviators:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/08/09/southwest-airlines-flew-remains-vietnam-airman-home-dallas-pilot-was-his-son/?tid=ss_mail

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.