It’s not the Airframe, but How it Flies

In the nautical tradition from which aviation emerged, I call my airplane “she.”   She’s a rather beautiful ship, I think—sleek and sexy, with long wings and I could go on but the metaphor becomes too suggestive and I have already taken it too far.

Boys often call their toys “she” for a reason.   There is an erotic quality to the relationship men have with their airplanes, cars, drill presses, and for geeks like me, even their books.  Sure, I don’t call my Encyclopedia of Philosophy “she,” opting instead for the neutral “it,” but in all candor, I will confess that books for me have long had a sensual, if not erotic, connection.

I don’t know exactly how or when it started. I had once heard that you could often tell a book is going to be a good read by the effort that went into its binding, the selection of the paper and cover, and even the type style.   The way it worked, I heard, was that publishers will invest more money and design effort in books they have confidence in, but I don’t know if any of that is true.

What I do know is that when I encounter a book, I will touch it, caress the cover and flip through the pages, gently feeling the nap of the paper.   If the paper has ragged edges, it is going to be a special book indeed.   I will admit here and now that occasionally, if no one is looking, I might bring the pages up to my nose as though I were smelling a rose.   By smelling a book, you can tell if it has been inappropriately stored (it shouldn’t have a musty smell), and if the ink is fresh off the press. Just as cigarette makers spike their tobacco with addictive stuff, I wonder if printers spike their ink to make it somewhat intoxicating. Wine connoisseurs, I am told, can tell a lot about wine by its bouquet, although the only thing I know about wine is that I love the word terroir.   Paper also has a bouquet, and if you’re good enough at it, you might be able to read its terroir as well.   Central New Jersey, the lake district no doubt, 1986, a good ink year indeed.

While it may be true that you can’t tell a book by its cover, you can tell a cover by its cover, for a book without its cover is like emerging from a shower on a cold day with no towels or robe nearby, or to remain aviation-focused, like flying an airplane with its cowling missing.   It probably can be done, but for several reasons it’s probably not a good idea.    The cover won’t reveal the soul of a book, but a nice cover can sometimes be a clue to what’s inside.

When I say that boys have an erotic connection to their toys, I mean that quite literally, in the sense that “eros” renders in English simply as love. “Eros” as a god is right up there– some say the child of Chaos, from whom the universe emerged.   Yes, in some mythologies, we go right from Chaos to Eros, in order to bring some sense into the world.

I think about love a lot, for reasons I won’t go into here, and sometimes when I think about love I think about it as connection.   We love that which we desire to be connected to, or connect to that which we desire.   But nowadays we often associate eroticism with sexuality, stemming from the Freudian notion of libido.   Libido is simply the life-force, the energy that contains both sexual and aggressive impulses, the impulses that drive survival.

That is why, I believe, boys often call their favorite toys by female pronouns. They  want to get close to them, connect with them, driving, as they do, their life-source, toward and away from their mothers—the female who, very literally, was their original life-source.

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough women who are pilots to know whether they call their toys by male or female pronouns.   But if I did, I am not sure what I would make of it.   Could it be simply that they were co-opted into a male tradition? Could it be that women in general are socialized to be more gender fluid? Whatever the explanation, for those of us who care about such things as gendered pronouns, it might be interesting to know.   For the rest of us, well, I apologize for bringing it up.








Earning It

I made a lot of mistakes during the checkride that was to finally determine whether or not I earned the privilege of carrying a blue pilot certificate around with me in my wallet.  I made so many of them that I was convinced I had failed.

I was shocked when after my last landing the examiner offered me an outstretched hand and said “congratulations.”  He told me to tie down the airplane and meet him inside while he did the necessary paperwork.  When I got inside, I told the examiner that I was certain I had failed.  He looked at me reassuringly and said, “You earned it.”

Given the number of things I had done wrong, and his criticism at several key junctures in the flight, I began to wonder exactly what I did right to earn the privilege.   Eventually I came to believe that I was rewarded with the certificate because I demonstrated something that I don’t think the examiner ordinarily saw.

There is an interesting rule that applies to the checkride.   Despite the fact that the pilot being scrutinized is still technically a student, the pilot is also legally considered the “pilot in command.”   What it means to be pilot in command is that the pilot, and only the pilot, is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the flight.   That responsibility, it seems, is not just about knowing the craft of flying so well that the airplane is truly subservient to its pilot; it is also about an attitude.

At the beginning of the checkride, the examiner suggested that we head out toward the coastline between Point Mugu and Santa Barbara to do the maneuvers that demonstrated that I was proficient in handling the aircraft.   I responded by saying, “No, let’s go to the Santa Paula aerobatic box.   The place you’re suggesting is a corridor for traffic up and down the coast.   It’s safer near Santa Paula.”

He looked surprised that so early in the flight I opposed him, but he also seemed pleased at the decision, and quickly relented.   He broke one of the few smiles I saw during the flight, and simply said, “Okay. “

Another moment of surprise came after the maneuvers, some of which did not go so well.   We were flying out of the box, just east of the small Santa Paula airport where I had taken most of my lessons, and he said, “Where do you want to do your landings?”  Just as we were approaching Santa Paula, he said “How about Santa Paula?”

I responded contrarily again, and said that I would rather do my landings in Oxnard, a relatively large, towered airport only a few miles away.  I thought, but didn’t say,  that I would rather have the comfort of a 6,000 foot long and 100 foot wide runway which would more likely hide my mistakes than the needle in a haystack runway in Santa Paula.   The examiner undoubtedly expected that I would choose the more familiar Santa Paula airport that we were just flying over, so he was surprised again.   But I was the pilot in command and that’s where I wanted to go.

The last surprise came as I entered the pattern at Oxnard.   The controller, who didn’t know I was a student, gave me an instruction I had never heard before and one I have rarely if ever heard since.   He told me to “make short approach” and abort the remainder of the downwind leg of the pattern and land immediately to make way for fast traffic coming into the airport behind me.  I quickly glanced over to the examiner, who began to nod his head to cue me to say what was indeed the first thing that came to my mind.   It was the single magic word that gets you out of jail free: “unable.”

Exhausted and convinced I had already failed, I keyed the mic and instead of the magic word I said another one: “wilco.”   “Wilco,” for those not familiar with the shorthand, is a portmanteau for “will comply.”   Out of the corner of my eye I could see the shocked, and even a bit frightened, expression on the examiner’s face.   I simultaneously kicked in left rudder, pushed the nose down, cut the power, and turned the yoke toward the big fat runway.   The gentle Cessna 150 floated swiftly and gracefully toward the center of the runway, where I made one of the best landings in my life.

I couldn’t help but once again see the surprised expression on the examiner’s face.   Although he had nothing but criticisms to say up to that point, he couldn’t help himself and he uttered, “That was a great landing.”

“Thanks,” I said diffidently, still convinced I had failed.

I did two more good landings after that, and it is possible that it was my landings that convinced the examiner to pass me.   But in retrospect, I don’t think so.   After several years of pondering what went right (what went wrong was obvious), I think that the key to my passing was my polite but clear refusals to do what he came to expect.

It takes both skill and judgment to fly safely, but in the contest between the two, judgment wins out.   In the case of my checkride, I didn’t merely accept what I thought was expected of me, but instead opted to make my own decisions.   I clearly did not demonstrate that I was the most skilled pilot, but I did show the examiner that I knew how to be pilot in command.   Hopefully, that’s why he thought I had earned it.


Angels and Science

5732575967_66cfcf10df_bAlthough it may appear so to the casual observer, I don’t believe a gang of angels is responsible for lifting my or any airplane gently off the earth and into the atmosphere.   I attribute that near-miraculous feat primarily to the difference in air pressure that occurs above and below the wing due to its shape, although I do reserve the belief that someday, as knowledge of physics widens, angels might be found to eventually have something to do with it.   For some reason, I imagine that angels giggle profusely, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the future the practitioners of physics discover that indeed, in that realm just beyond the reach of human senses, fulsomely winged messengers are having a joyous time watching humans wrestle their tin crafts off the ground and clumsily bringing them down again.  Well, maybe I would be surprised after all, but I would also feel thrilled and redeemed.

My dad was a professed atheist, and he would probably scoff at my belief in angels from wherever he is or isn’t right now.   We argued about it on several occasions, his dismissal of the existence of any sort of Higher Power resting principally on the view that no Higher Power worth worshipping would permit something like the Holocaust.   I found his views on the agency of God unpersuasive, but I certainly respected the angst-tinged lens through which he came to view the world.   He saw considerably more misery in his one wild and precious life than have I, privileged as I was primarily as a result of his determination.

For many reasonable folks, believing in science precludes a belief in angels. But, along with Francis Collins – the noted geneticist, former NIH director, rock musician, motorcyclist and self-proclaimed born-again Christian, I see no conflict between the two.   In “The Language of God,” Collins persuasively argues for the compatibility of science and religion.   In public interviews he has famously derided agnosticism as a “cop-out,” although he makes exceptions for those agnostics who have deeply considered the evidence and still have come to no conclusion.

Science elucidates a lot, and I am both a fan and a practitioner of its methods.   But science fails miserably in its attempt to explain those things that its methods are simply incapable of explaining.   Science does well explaining the “what” of things, but is inept at explaining the “why.”   It can tell us how to get places, but not where we should be going. Its inability to answer questions does not, as some casual agnostics would prefer, make the questions less significant.

I grieve a little when I see what has become of the profession in which I have spent my entire adult life.   The word psychology itself derives from the Greek roots meaning study of the psyche, the psyche being “breath, spirit, or soul.”  The earliest reference to the word in English, according to the venerable OED, was in 1694 in Dutch physician Steven Blankaart’s “Physical Dictionary,” in which he refers to “Anatomy, which treats the Body, and Psychology, which treats of the Soul.”  Yet these days the study of the soul has transmogrified into the study of the brain.   I am sorry, but no collection of electrons firing through synapses soaked with gamma-aminobutyric acid will explain the feeling I get when I watch my daughter dance, hear Frankie Valli shift into falsetto, or lift off the ground in my airplane.

I am not intending here to support notions of Intelligent Design, although even the prolific astronomer and atheist Sir Fred Hoyle admitted that “Life arising through random chemical reactions is as likely as the assemblage of a 747 by a tornado whirling through a junkyard.” Or, as noted physicist R. Piccioni stated, “Randomly replicating the DNA of the simplest known life is about as likely as drawing the ace of spades (randomly from a deck of cards) 119,000 times in a row.”  While I don’t own enough hubris to even hypothesize how life as we know it came to be, I will assert my view that knowing how it came to be is not something likely to be uncovered by the tools of science.

No one said it better than the astrophysicist Robert Jastrow, who concluded his book “God and the Astronomers” with this pearl: “At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”







The Edge

When the kids were small, we took them to Ireland and stopped at the rugged Cliffs of Moher.  The cliffs are a popular tourist site, dropping precipitously 700 feet to the ocean, and extending eight miles wide.   (They make an appearance in the wonderful film “The Princess Bride” as the “Cliffs of Insanity.”) I pleaded, practically on my hands and knees, for my wife and kids not to get anywhere close to the edge, but they forged ahead while I stayed far back and worried like a frantic hen.   I stayed close to the parking lot because I am afraid of heights (as I have learned is the case with many pilots) and when it comes to the edge of anything you will generally not find me too close to it.

Even the relatively tame paths over the bluffs near our home in Northern California are difficult for me. (Signs that say “Danger: Bluffs Crumble” don’t help.) I work at it, and sometimes I do fine, but occasionally some implacable ghost residing in the ether will crop up and set off a panic attack that can only be eased by moving as close to Chicago as I can.

Despite my fear, and possibly because of it, I have a certain respect and even attraction to places that reside close to the impossible or unadvisable. I do understand that, for many reasons, the edge seems to be where it’s at.   In his handbook “Enlightenment Step by Step,” Amit Ray, who found his way from the world of engineering to the rarefied and potentially more lucrative air of spiritual mastery, wrote “You may fall down when you dance on the edge but edge is the source of all miracles and mystery.”

I can appreciate the falling down part, but the edge actually being the source of all miracles seems hyperbolic to me.  Some miracles, maybe, but all of them?   I have no doubt that, sitting here in my favorite chair in my living room, as far away from any edge I know about, a miracle is about to happen any second now.   It just did.   And hopefully, I will be taking quite a few more breaths in the days to come.

But I do realize that when one is in the middle of things, centered and on course, life is predictable and a dreary monotony sets in.   Humans are novelty-seeking critters, and it is the tangling with the unknown, forbidden, unknowable, and even dangerous that creates the anxiety and tension that is the wellspring of emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth.

When I travel to foreign places, my general routine is to leave the comfort of my room and head out into unknown streets.  I intentionally travel just far enough to become disoriented.   It is on the edge of knowing where I am, somewhat lost, that my heart rate picks up and my adrenaline fuels just enough nervous energy to drive the vigilance that is at the root of discovery.   It is the venturing forth beyond the endeavor that turns a venture into an adventure.

Beauty resides on the edges.   To call someone “plain” is not a compliment.   A face that lives either on the edge of ruin or the edge of pedestrian captures interest and suggests depth, because it is an invitation of sorts.  Come, it says mysteriously, to the sweet tedium of the average; we are not there yet, but it will come.   Or, on the edge of ruin, we are invited to hold on to the precious glimpses of youth, or the luscious narratives of this person’s past; true stories, undoubtedly, more incredible than fiction.

It is just so with personalities. We tend to be intimidated by those who are too clever, or find them remote, but instead prefer those who function on the edge of clever, showing brief moments of brilliance now and then.   We like humor, don’t we, but please, not while we’re trying to be serious.   We like to be understood deeply, but appreciate a break now and then. It’s nice to just float for a while, sit and drink coffee and talk about what cousin Sara might be doing in Seattle.

There is a red line on most airspeed indicators which indicates the “never exceed” speed.   Exceeding that airspeed threatens the integrity of the airframe.   Most pilots I know like to nudge as close as they can to that speed.   We like to see how fast we can go without breaking the airplane. It is in the flirting with disaster that we learn our limits, and when we master our limits then perhaps contradictorily we know better how to stay safe.

Of course my wife and kids did just fine at the Cliffs of Moher, in spite of my protestations and the fact that, among the many wonderful characteristics of the Irish, they don’t seem to be too fond of fences.   Master Death may reside just one small step off that cliff, and that is a truth that must be faced.    A fence may temporarily shield us from the inevitable, but it will also keep us comfortably away from the edge.  Yet,  it seems, the edge is where life comes most fully alive.




































Getting Out of Jail Free

Get out of jail freeIn March of 1967, James Robert Ringrose was arrested by Japanese police in Osaka, Japan while attempting to pass bad checks.   It turns out he happened to be on the FBI’s “10 most wanted fugitives” list, and when extradited to Hawaii he told the waiting FBI agents that he had been saving something for them for several years and that now he needed it.   He reached into his pocket and presented them with a “Get Out of Jail Free” card from the Monopoly game.

Pilots have their version of the “get out of jail free” card as well. It’s called an Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) report, and it allows pilots to reveal their own violations before they get caught and sent off to jail.    The reports go to the folks at NASA, where the information is collected, and then, while keeping the identity of the pilots confidential, sent along to the FAA in order to point out the potential dangers in the system.   As long as the violation wasn’t intentional, if the FAA comes after you and you reach into your pocket, Ringrose-style, and show them the receipt for making the report, the FAA will not be permitted to prosecute you.

The program was created in 1975 after an airline accident involving a misunderstanding of procedures known to pilots but kept hidden from the FAA.  It was a rather elegant solution to the age-old problem instantiated by what happened when I was four years old and lit a book of matches in my closet right underneath the highly flammable plastic dry cleaning cover.   My father found the matches, lined up his three kids, and “inquired” as to whom among us was the guilty party.   Even though my father eventually resorted to saying he wouldn’t punish the one who fessed up, that just wasn’t a big enough guarantee, so, sad to say, he went to his deathbed almost 90 years later never knowing that it was I who lit the matches.

I might have fessed up if I really understood and trusted that my dad would forgive, although I doubt it.   The shame of having endangered the family and the guilt for having done something wrong undoubtedly would have defeated the courage needed to confess.   Yet I still can’t help being impressed with the deep power of forgiveness.   The Old Testament context in which I was raised sadly doesn’t emphasize interpersonal forgiveness, but the New Testament, via Jesus’ injunction to forgive “seventy times seven times”—presumably because there were no calculators in those days, is rather pivotal throughout.   This is especially true, Luke tells us, if there is repentance involved, which can, I suppose, come in the form of a genuinely offered ASRS report.

I don’t know, but I doubt that the governing forces involved in creating aviation’s “get out of jail free” card were motivated by Christian virtues when they decided that this would be a good idea.   They must have realized, though, that in order to improve safety it was important to gather as much data as they could in order to best understand just what could be done to improve the system. Danger lies in the hollows of deception, and deception arises in an environment of fear, guilt and shame.

Some will say that there is no such thing as a get out of jail free card in real life; karma will rear itself sooner or later.   But if there were one, I imagine it would function much like an ASRS report, as only an invitation to the healing by shedding some light.   It would be nice if, Ringrose-style—I could offer up a get out of jail free card to others I have hurt or wronged.   In doing so, I don’t imagine I will get out of jail free, but perhaps if offered with genuine repentance and a true commitment to doing better, in some small way I can contribute to making the skies a safer place in which to fly.

Growing Up

peter-886132_960_720According to an article I recently read, a large number of kids say they want to become pilots when they grow up.   I am still not sure what I would like to be should I ever grow up, but I can tell you with certainty that I never dreamed of becoming a pilot when I was a child.   The idea that I might be able to fly an airplane didn’t strike me until I was in high school; when driving around the suburban streets of Orange County, California, a friend and I saw a sign on a junior college marquee advertising flying classes.   We looked at each other and decided that would be fun, but neither of us had the time nor money, and besides, by the fifth grade I had already decided to become a psychologist (after glancing through my brother’s high school psychology textbook), so the idea of flying evaporated into the rather thin mist from whence it came.

Years before, while attempting to grow up in New York, I don’t remember any one of my friends ever saying they wanted to be a pilot.  That could be because I only had one or two friends, or more likely it was because I grew up around lower middle-class Jewish kids, and we were culturally programmed to be doctors or lawyers, whether we wanted to or not.   If we failed at those endeavors, we could become some sort of accountant—a kind of mini-lawyer, or maybe a dentist or podiatrist if we couldn’t get into medical school.

Flying around 8 miles in the air didn’t seem culturally acceptable, although there were certainly those who did it.   (Take a look at the inspiring documentary “Above and Beyond” about Jewish WWII pilots involved in the founding of Israel.) I can only imagine my mother’s reaction if I told her I wanted to be a pilot when I grew up. “A pilot?   What kind of job is that?

Fast forward—and believe me it was fast—about 35 years, and at the ripe old age of about 50 I earned my pilot’s certificate.   I had already become a doctor, but not a real doctor, of course, because psychologists only doctored the mind and couldn’t do orthopedic surgery, take tonsils out or smash a Jewish nose to bits and make it look less ethnic.   All psychologists could do was help make people feel less ethnic.

But I feel pretty good about having become a psychologist, especially after having such a gratifying career, and even better about getting my pilot’s certificate. But the growing up part?   Not sure I have ever been there or done that.

Of course, growing up means different things to different people.   Most of my psychologist buddies might be inclined to offer an oblique definition, struggling painfully to avoid jargon and likely failing, saying something like, “Well, it’s the ability to differentiate yourself from your parents, you know, well uh, like to individuate (jargon alert)– to find your own identity and function independently in the world.”   Okay, got it.

To my parents, growing up undoubtedly meant making it on your own, which meant using your own means to create enough personal capital to support one’s lifestyle and care for the next generation, who will undoubtedly be incapable of growing up given how much my generation will spoil them.

To me, growing up means taking responsibility for my actions, suffering the consequences gracefully, and learning how to forgive when I have the least inclination to do so.

The way to do this, traditionally, was to go to school, find some sort of career, start at the bottom and work one’s way up.   The shortest route to anywhere is a straight line, so working one’s way up in one’s chosen career was considered the best path to a successful and meaningful life.   Getting married and having babies who then get married and have babies, and then eventually go on cruises to the Bahamas, or move at least part-time to Florida were the things to do.   It was, I repeat, all very linear.

I am happy to see that many so-called millennials don’t subscribe to this notion.   Blessed or cursed with more choices and support from the previous generation, it is now au current for one’s life course to be more like that described years ago by anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson in her revelatory book “Composing a Life”.   A life, as she instantiates by following several women mentors who reached the epitome of their careers and then switched to completely different careers, can look more like a quilt made up of entirely different squares but patched together to create something beautiful.

I like this metaphor, because in it one doesn’t grow up simply by moving in a straight line from one milestone to another on the same, narrow course.   I am not disparaging that notion, having myself followed a fairly straight line from fifth grade to fiftieth.   What I don’t like about the straight line, though, is that it implies that growing up has something to do with reaching a certain destination, rather than recognizing that in life, the destination can also be the journey itself.   In the quilt metaphor, one merely needs to pause at any point and reflect upon the beauty of the quilt that has been pieced together so far to understand that one has already composed a life.

I don’t know that I have ever grown up, or will ever grow up, if growing up means getting the next aviation rating, having a thick enough academic vita, or reaching a certain number in my bank account.   Those targets keep moving.   And if I am correct in my view that growing up means finding grace in taking responsibility for my actions, not blaming others and deeply forgiving those who have harmed me (including myself), I’m pretty sure I may never get there.   In the meantime, I guess, I will strive not only to reach those goals, but pause for a moment now and then to reflect upon the life that has been lived so far, and find a bit of gratitude for where I have come along the straight line, and the beauty of the ever unfinished quilt I have managed to piece together so far.



The Airport

There is little about an airport, a bus depot, or train station that I would think of as exhilarating.   These way stations, these points of departure and arrival are dreamy places, often fusty and threadbare, atavistic relics of the exhilaration of travel when travel was taking root among the new middle class in the U.S.   It seems, even, that by the time the new infrastructure is built, the remodeled terminal’s ribbon is cut and in a matter of just a few years, the features designed to freshen and update become mere architectural assumptions.

Airports are dreamy places because, at least for me, I am nearly always tired by the time I get there, either from having to awaken at an awkward time or having arrived after sleeping fitfully at best en route.   They are also dreamy because, although one is about to go someplace or get someplace, we sit in waiting areas because, well, we are waiting.   Having now traveled for many years I rarely if ever plan a trip with a short connection.   The stress of the rush to the next flight, ferry, or bus is not worth whatever convenience it might afford on the other end. So more than ever, the harbor is a place of waiting, and often a matter of waiting alone.

Bus depots, these days, are often louche, home to drifters and grifters, a homeless home for the homeless, with bathrooms devoid of toilet paper, toilet stalls whose doors don’t align, graffiti scratched in the partitions, and urine smells that hang in the air.   One can be assured there will always be something out of order, whether that be a vending machine filled with expired candy bars or the entire women’s rest room, and if there’s an alley nearby you know that it would be best to avoid it, lest you inadvertently step on a used syringe.   The internet has now replaced most ticket offices, which remain for decorative, nostalgic effect, or more likely, because the remodeling budget didn’t include enough dough for demolition.

One can, I imagine, live their entire lives without ever encountering a classic American way station, but that would be difficult now in days when at least some travel is within the reach of all but the poorest of Americans.  It would be a shame, I think, but not everyone shares the sensations that I have when in an airport, or a port of any kind.   As a portmanteau, it is easy to forget that an airport is an airplane port, a port like any other, a harbor whose waters run deep with stories of shelter, departures and reunions.     The port shelters us from stormy seas, welcomes us, and nurtures us after and between long journeys.   They are windows through which we glimpse opportunity and adventure, or smell the subtle scent of home approaching. It is the diving board from which we escape the tedium of life and trade it in for a guaranteed adventure, or, on the other hand, it is the place that welcomes us to the relative calm of a storm left behind.

They are not always welcoming places.   Than Son Nhat airport in Saigon, for example, always seems as though I am walking into a steamy bee’s nest, perhaps an appropriate greeting, but still frazzling as hordes of humanity busily dash from one square meter to another and back again in what seems like a random pattern. I would prefer a softer greeting, but there is something refreshing about the slap in the face that this airport offers, just in case you had any delusions about serenity being in your short-term plans.

Yet, for each of these frantic airports, there are many more like Duluth, Minnesota, where there never seems to be more than a handful of people politely waiting to get through security, and the warmth of the indoor heating gives you a taste of the hearth and ingleside to come.

Whether frantic or placid, they all serve their purpose, and they all have those (now, sadly, mostly electronic) boards, inviting you to wonder and wander.   There it is—Rio de Janeiro, Tucson, Manchester, Prague.   Someone gets to take a ride among the clouds tonight.   Someone will get to walk down a gangway and into a vessel that will pierce the sky on its way over continents, oceans, cities and farms. Someone will get to leave this port and land at another.   Someone will make their dreams come true.





At Los Angeles International Airport, it’s possible to park your car in an external lot and watch the behemoth bellies of modern airplanes descend less than a football-field length above you.   The sight is rather stunning, a rumbling assault on the senses, bearing witness to the simultaneously crude and sophisticated fulfillment of humanity’s bird envy.

I try not to park there, though, because I don’t go to airports to watch the landings, and when I do go I am eager to get to the gate as quickly as possible.   There are few things more annoying to me in this precious life than rushing to get to an airport gate on time.

In high school, on more than one occasion, I drove to Los Angeles International Airport, not to watch the airplanes as I might be inclined to do today, but to people-watch.   It was before the days of hijacking and high security, so you could walk directly to the gates as people boarded and deplaned.   I would sit in the terminal and watch people as they tearfully embraced their child going off to school, or sobbing with joy as their family members returned from a trip to some strange, distant place, such as Chicago or DesMoines.   I felt, even then, that my voyeuristic tendencies were quirky; other kids went surfing or worked on their cars which they rarely took anywhere.   I don’t know how my voyeurism served me—maybe some sort of vicarious vitality revealed in the adventure of travel, the tenderness and occasional curious vacancy in the greetings.   I remember wanting to know the stories behind the greetings: where did they go on their travels? Who were they? What called them? What kind of adventure did they have? Why, I wondered, did some people cry with joy or pain, while others seemed aloof and disinterested?

Once, a friend and I walked through a door and found ourselves on the tarmac.   When we tried to get back in, the door behind us locked. We saw a group of people deplaning and entering the terminal through a different door.   We joined the group, but when we got through the doors we were asked for our passports, and when we explained that we were locals who went through the wrong door, we were taken for stowaways, separated, and brought to small rooms where we waited for the police to arrive.   We were searched and interrogated, and I recall one unfriendly officer threatening to anally probe me—although in the mist of time I’m not sure whether that was a real threat or an imagined manifestation of an incipient homosexual panic.   (I think I recall asking my friend, who had been taken to a separate room, whether they did that to him as well, and he said they had.) Eventually we were released after a yellow card with our vital information on it was recorded and we were told never to appear at the airport again.   I imagine that card no longer exists, and maybe even was trashed shortly after it was filled out, but if they really did keep it on file it would be a wonderful souvenir.

Since becoming a certificated general aviation pilot, airports have taken on a new meaning.   Rather than places to go to watch and envy the life of others, I now go there to live the life I envied.  I have the opportunity to see airports from the side of the passenger and the pilot.   Yet, occasionally, just to relax, I will sit on a bench at my local small airport and watch airplanes take off and land.   And just recently, I went to Los Angeles International Airport, nearly 50 years after being a suspected stowaway, to pick up my wife and daughter.   I arrived early, so went to the cell phone waiting area—something that didn’t exist back then, got out of my car and stared upwards at the awesome sight of those behemoth bellies, undercarriages exposed, eager to greet the waiting tarmac.   And it was beautiful.




Second Best

The Trumps with PS100 in the background

The Trumps with PS100 in the background



PS 100 is an elementary school that sits in the midst of Trump Village in Brooklyn, between Coney Island and Brighton Beach.   The “village,” a vast array of virtually identical apartment buildings, is named after its developer, the elder Trump, the guy who sent his rambunctious son to military school to try to teach him some manners.

I attended PS 100 for one year, my sixth grade.   When the weather was inclement, students would gather inside for PE, and the favored activity was dodgeball.   I was particularly good at dodgeball, consistently coming in second place after Marty Schneer.   In those days, it bothered me greatly that Marty always beat me, especially because he managed to garner all the attention and I felt rather invisible—even though invisibility is somewhat of an advantage when playing dodgeball.   Surviving after all my classmates but one were eliminated was still quite an accomplishment, though, and lest you think I am bitter about coming in second, let the record show that not only did I eventually get over it, I am now happy about not coming in first, because I have come to appreciate the benefits of dwelling in the shadow of something or someone else.

Living in the shadows means not having to deal with the poisonous rays of the sun, the heat it produces, or the unearned perspiration.   Repeated harsh exposure to the sun not only causes all sorts of bad things, it also exposes you to the view of others.   That may be a good thing if you had the good looks of, say, a Marty Schneer, but not so helpful if you were a big-nosed, weak-chinned, pimple-ridden, skinny kid like me.   People like me need to find other ways of gaining exposure, so we must develop other skills.   Sometimes, certain skills are best nurtured in the dank corners of shadowy places.   Sunflowers can be big and smiley, but oh, the complexity and depth of shade-grown mushrooms can be stunning.

We must learn to do the things that are best done when others aren’t looking, such as studying for long hours, or simply developing rich and dangerous fantasy lives that seem to grow heartily in the gut-wrenching, insomnia-stirred hours spent alone in our rooms.

The advantages of being second-best were capitalized upon by the advertisers who developed the Avis car rental campaign that was so good that I remember it 30 years later— unnamed Hertz was always first, and Avis was always second, so the Avis motto was “We Try Harder.”   There’s a slight duplicity in that motto, oh wonder, because being second best in a field of hundreds or thousands of competitors probably requires that you already tried a lot harder than the rest. Maybe that’s why it worked so well, because while you were thinking they were comparing themselves to the best, they were really gloating about being better than the rest.

I am not sure that “trying harder” would have flown with my father, who used to respond to my saying that I was trying to do something by saying that there was no such word as “try,” which, although not accurate, got his message across clearly.   I did, however, have to try pretty hard to become a B plus student, or, as they might have said in New York where numbers are valued more than letters (there are a lot more of them to choose from), a solid “88”.

The whole grading thing and comparing oneself to others is something that has troubled me ever since working at an alternative elementary school while attending college.   The students there received no grades, following a trend in education that stemmed, if I remember correctly, from the Summerhill School in England. The radical idea behind Summerhill was that academics should revolve around the child’s needs and personality, and not the other way around.   In that kind of environment, if grades were to be given at all they should be given to the instructors and not the kids, because it was the instructors’ job to understand the needs of kids. Coincidentally, after working at the Farm School at UC Irvine, where my own grades were not stellar, I transferred to the ungraded UC Santa Cruz.   I remember the brouhaha that was unleashed when the administration struggled with the idea of adding grades as an option.

As a pilot, I know my skills are very poor when compared to any of the instructors who sit next to me in the right seat, or an aerobatic pilot. On the other hand, compared to a 63-year-old with roughly 350 hours of experience, I don’t think I’m that bad.   I know I’m not near the best, but I am good enough and confident in my skills.

I do admit to some hubris in my self-assessment as a psychologist, but I have lived in that arena for as long as I can remember.   I have been practicing for so long that I find by some miracle that I often get it right.   Psychologists know a good psychotherapy session the way a pilot or a gymnast knows a good landing.

I haven’t played dodgeball in a long time, and even if I could find enough people to make it interesting, it strikes me now as a rather cruel game.   It echoes, though, those years in New York, where it seemed as though survival came down to just wantonly throwing something at another person or evading what seems like random acts of unkindness.  It was dog eat dog; everything was graded, and survival meant being the fittest of them all.   I’m not too angry about it.   After all, it taught me how to always strive to be second best.




Marmosets and Tamarins: On Premature Rotation

Every year, at least a few pilots die as a result of attempting to get their airplanes off the ground too soon. In aviation lingo, they become victims of “premature rotation.”   It happens for a variety of reasons, but most often it occurs when the airplane is heavy, the weather is hot and humid, and the end of the runway seems to be approaching rapidly.

Whether a pilot chooses to pull on his stick prematurely may have something to do with whether he is more like a tamarin or a marmoset.   For those of us who grew up in New York and could tell you the difference between a Pennsy Pinky and a whiffle ball but think that tamarins and marmosets are, perhaps, different flavors of jam, you should be informed that they are, instead, cute little monkeys.

The two different breeds can be difficult to tell apart, but if you are in the monkey business you will know that tamarins are a bit larger on the whole, while diminutive marmosets have larger incisors.

But beyond their physical appearance, their personalities differ as well.   In 2005, some researchers decided to give both species a task in which each monkey had a choice between taking a small reward immediately, or waiting for a variable period of time for a larger reward.   It turns out that marmosets waited significantly longer for food than tamarins.   The researchers hypothesized that, while these differences might be explained by social behavior, brain size, or life history, it was more likely due to their feeding history. Tamarins feed on insects, requiring quick, impulsive action, while marmosets rely on slow-flowing gum from trees. As a result, marmosets evolved to have better self-control.

Patience, or the lack of it, may be partly responsible for premature rotation. On hot and heavy days, the key to successful liftoff is to hold off until the airplane is capable of climbing. That requires patience as well as confidence in your airplane. The airplane may “know” when it’s ready, but the pilot may not.   If the airplane isn’t ready when the pilot thinks it should be, there’s trouble in River City, or wherever you happen to be trying to get away from.   You have not developed the airspeed needed to become airborne. Airspeed is a bit like capital for businesses.   You need a certain amount of it in order to get your business off the ground, and lack of it is the primary reason businesses fail.

Whether or not a pilot miscalculates weight and balance, or neglects to calculate it at all, the pilot will know he or she has rotated prematurely when the airplane refuses to climb when commanded.   And depending on how much runway lay ahead, the airplane’s reluctance to leave the ground can ignite a moment of panic in the pilot.   That’s because airplanes generally do not have much in the way of brakes, and they are difficult to slow down quickly.   The end of the runway may be the beginning of a more permanent ending if you slam into a berm, drainage ditch, poplar tree or a giant panda reserve.

Psychologists often see patience as the choice between a small, short-term reward or a more valuable long-term reward.   Most humans, and most animals in general, lean toward smaller, short-term rewards, which in the case of pilots, means that they make the choice of getting off the ground quicker as opposed to waiting to get closer to the end of the runway in order to ultimately live a longer life.

There are some who argue that the ubiquity of internet browsing has created a generation with less patience.   If you’ve ever wondered why video streaming services give you the option of skipping the advertisement after 5 seconds, it is because research has shown that few people who use the internet will wait more than a few seconds for a video to start before switching to another site altogether. Rather than use your large motor skills to grab a dictionary off of a shelf and suffer the slings and arrows of having to leave the comfort of your chair and use your hard-earned first grade alphabet skills, the internet will take you to the definition of any word in under 3 clicks, or about a second.

Theories abound relating to the reasons some people appear to be more patient than others. Like everything else, it is likely a combination of nature and nurture. Regardless, few can deny that patience is almost always a virtue. If you are a tamarin, however, you might die of hunger if you don’t act quickly when your food flits by. Flying airplanes requires the ability to make quick decisions, especially when the fit hits the shan. But, in both taking off and landing, the two most critical phases of flying, it makes more sense to slowly suck the gum from the tree.