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.

 

 

 

Stowaways

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running

Somewhere, in some dank corner of my storehouse of useless knowledge, I recall having heard or read that the word “run” had the most meanings in the English language.   Now the folks at “Google” inform me that I was misinformed, and another three-letter word—“set”—outruns run considerably, 464- 396.

It might be a fun diversion to see how many definitions you can come up with on your own for each of these words.   You could even playfully combine the words into sentences pertaining to your own area of interest, such as:

During taxi, make sure to set the gauges properly, keep the engine running at the proper rpm, and after performing the engine run-up, set the heading indicator to the runway heading, and then you’re all set to taxi to the—you guessed it, runway.

 The three paragraphs above may serve poorly as a setup for discussing a different kind of running, but what the hell, let’s just run with it.

My sister once told me that as long as she knew me I was running.   She is older than me, so that means that I have been running all of my life. My response was to ask her if she thought I was running toward something or away from something.   She said she didn’t know, but felt more as though I was running away.

Not all sisters get it right, but being a perceptive lassie, mine hit the nail on the head. Clearly, she wasn’t referring to the hyperactive, fidgety kind of running as much as the kind of running that happens when you always manage to find a way out of knowing what’s going in your own head, failing to muster the courage to sit with it long enough to get to know it.   That kind of running doesn’t require a lot of movement; sometimes, for me, it even took the form of sitting still at the edge of my bed in a trancelike state not knowing what if anything I was thinking, but somehow feeling transported to nowhere, a destination that I am certain exists because I have spent a lot of time there, although all I can really tell you about it is that it isn’t here.

I have occasionally wondered, superficially no doubt, if my running is an attempt to keep up with my heartbeat.   Physicians who place their stethoscopes to my chest (not too many do that anymore) often raise their eyebrows at the hummingbird rapidity of my heartbeat.   I read once that each species has an average limit to the number of heartbeats in their lifespan, which has convinced me that I am likely to have spent them already and am truly on borrowed time, or perhaps due for an engine overhaul.

As a kid, I was very active, and loved to ride my bicycle at breakneck speed, play most sports, and dart between places rather than saunter.   That all ended with a very nasty bout of mono when I was 14, from which I am convinced I have never fully recovered.   I have been sluggish since then, tiring easily. In high school, I quit the tennis team after 2 weeks because I couldn’t run around the track once, let alone the repeated times that others easily seemed to do it.   My ANA and other autoimmune markers have remained elevated since then, and I recently have been through a rough and tumble bout with stage 4 cancer, another autoimmune disorder. So whether it was the mono virus or some genetic time bomb that went off, the literal kind of running has been pretty limited since adolescence.

But that wasn’t what my sister was talking about.   She was talking about the constant doing and the avoidance of being.   Although I didn’t have much physical energy, I managed to busy myself non-stop.   Some might call it driven.

Over the years as a psychologist I have worked with a few clients who suffered from what they identified as a lack of drive, or motivation.   Some were clinically depressed, which usually was a style of coping and thinking about some event or series of events, but some had no symptoms of depression other than that lack of drive.   They just didn’t care much about anything or anyone, and the only reason they came to therapy to begin with was because someone in their life insisted on it, and they were being compliant in spite of not seeing the point to being there.

I always had difficulty understanding those clients, what made them tick and what made them want to continue ticking. Reaching inward to find some way to connect, all I could know was that I had my own panic, probably as a result of my biology and childhood attachments, a sense of deep insecurity and overwhelming but ineffable fear.   Sometimes I came to know this in recurrent nightmares of being chased by demons, and I needed to fly away (running alone along the ground wasn’t sufficient) lest they kill me. I woke up nightly in a sweat, checking to make sure I was still alive. Ultimately, in late high school or college, I faced them head on and they disappeared, but I’m sure they continue to exist in some form, responsible no doubt for waking me at 3am and coercing me to write these words.

My clients who didn’t care much about anything reported no such demons. I tried my best to find the agitation in their souls, but couldn’t. I would not say that they seemed serene, but rather unperturbed as if in a mild zombie trance. Undoubtedly my frustration in trying to find their pain was the same frustration that drove others in their lives to send them to see me, but I don’t know that I did those clients any good.

Sometimes I think the antidote to this constant running is to attempt to master idleness. (I am not, however, unaware of the oxymoron. I recall watching a video in which Krishnamurti brilliantly confronts Trungpa Rinpoche by asking, “Isn’t meditation just another thing to do?”) I meditate, although when I have gone on a couple of weekend meditation retreats, I found it similar to Chinese water torture. I spend most of my pent up energy trying not to think so much about getting the hell out of there and exploring the beautiful surroundings, or checking in to a nice hotel, seeing a movie or making one, singing or working or making money or driving—just driving.

Clearly, my sister was right. I have been running all my life—running towards ephemeral goals, jumping over hurdles, ducking under fences.   Perhaps there is such a thing as being addicted to moving, and that may be one reason I fly. Or, perhaps, flying is merely a reenactment of airborne running to keep ahead of the demons. It doesn’t matter a whit I suppose whether I am running toward something or away from it; they are the same thing.   The demons are always there.   I will face them from time to time, and they will go away occasionally, but as long as this hummingbird heart keeps going they will return to poke and prod me on until my set of allocated heartbeats run out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C’est Normal

Dominic Owen Mallary was a punk rock musician who died tragically at the age of 24.  As part of his act, he would routinely wrap his microphone cord around his neck for dramatic effect, but apparently one night he did so too tightly, possibly causing a loss of oxygen that eventuated into seizures and then death a few hours later.

Mallary, besides being a rather consummate musician for his age, was also a writing and literature major at Emerson College.   He was a prodigious writer (a book of his poems was published posthumously), and I believe this was pulled from one of his journals:

In 12 years of education the most important lesson I have learned is that what we see as “normal” living is truly a travesty of our potential. In a society so governed by superficiality, appearances, and petty economics, dreams are more real than anything in the “real world”. Refuse normalcy. Beauty is everywhere, love is endless, and joy bleeds from our everyday existence. Embrace it.

While Mallory’s short time on earth was, perhaps, a testament to refusing normalcy, his death may well have resulted from taking that refusal just a bit too far.  As a pilot, I tend to crave normalcy, because when things go just as they should the likelihood of unhappy endings is reduced.   I listen attentively to the steady hum of the engine, and the predictable shift in rpm when I change the pitch of the propeller.   Instrument pilots seek normalcy when they execute the “standard rate turn.” We train to “recover” from an “unusual attitude,” as though the unusual, or abnormal, is a sickness to be avoided.

French culture seems to be abnormally fixated on normalcy.   My sample size is small, but over the years in my psychotherapy office I saw two couples in which the female partner was French and the male partner was American.   In both couples, the French partner would repeatedly ask of her partner’s behavior, “Is that normal?”  The question struck me as odd, because I couldn’t really understand what made it so important. When I inquired, I was told that conforming to certain rules of behavior and dress was indeed an important element of the culture, lest others would think you were crazy, which, if you’re French, I guess is not such a good thing. N’est pas formidable!

Although drawn to the intellectualism and political verve of the French, I am happy to leave both conformity and escargot in the French countryside where I unhappily don’t reside.   Give me silliness or an unkempt dumpster-diver barking bizarre yet poetic responses to his imaginary tracker any day; perhaps it is the freedom to be different that makes me proud of at least that element of American culture.

I do recognize, though, that flying 10,000 feet above terra firma in a piston-engine driven vehicle is, in a sense, abnormal enough; if I, for one, was supposed to be there, I would be skinnier and sprouting feathers from my arms.  Because flying itself is more than a mere flirtation with abnormality, it makes sense, I think, to crave some normalcy while being somewhere or doing something that approaches our design limits.

Those who loved Mallory were devastated by the loss of such a young, talented soul.  Following the opening quote, Mallary went on to write:

I love all of you, all my friends, family, and community. I am ceaselessly grateful from the bottom of my heart for everyone. The only thing I can ask of you is to stay free of materialism. Remember that every day contains a universe of potential; exhaust it. Live and love so immensely that when death comes there is nothing left for him to take. Wealth is love, music, sports, learning, family and freedom.  

Sure, go ahead and wrap that cord around your neck, that’s what I say, but watch out for the jugular.   Keep that oxygen flowing, at least enough to try it another day.

 

 

 

Follow that Bug

bugThe autopilot button on my airplane is small, and easy to miss.   I’m rather certain that’s intentional, because it’s not a button you want to press accidentally. If you do push it accidentally, it will immediately turn you in the direction you last set it, which may be toward Bermuda or Kazakhstan, when you were really intending on landing in New Jersey.

There are a whole lot of buttons, knobs, switches and even a little joystick that controls the rather sophisticated set of electronic instruments on my little airplane, instruments that these days are referred to by the lovely portmanteau “avionics”.   It is so complex that future versions were designed with the goal of simplification in mind, replacing touch screen inputs for buttons and bows.

When it comes to “buttonology,” the heading bug may well be one of the most important buttons on the panel.   You can push it or turn it.   If you push it, a little indicator aligns with the heading you are currently flying.   If you turn it, the “bug” will move to the heading you select. It is quite a useful little knob.   If a controller tells you to turn to a certain heading, or if you choose to do so on your own, the first thing to do is to set the bug to your intended heading, and then turn the airplane, either manually or by use of the autopilot, to the bug.   If you are flying straight ahead, and remember to push the knob to align the bug with your present heading, it can remind you when you are drifting off course.

I am not sure what the origin of the word “bug” is when it comes to flying.   It could simply refer to the idea that it is a reminder—something that “bugs” you to do what you intend to do.   It’s a pretty versatile word, being used in espionage, entomology, little German cars, medicine, software, and even cute rabbit cartoons.   The idea of something annoying seems to run through most of the definitions, except if you’re a fan of air-cooled, rear-mounted engines, in which case reminders of those little German death traps might be nostalgic.

Pilots who have been flying for a while will remember their instructors continually bugging them to “center the heading bug.” Really, the very simple idea is that it is always a good idea to know where you are going, so that if you wander from your intended goal, you can realize that fact by comparing your current heading with the one you might have forgotten you were trying to follow.

One could easily infer that the idea of a heading bug is that it is important to have some sort of goal along with a reminder of that goal.   Forget that goal and you are lost, roving through the sky with no particular place to go. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I am not a big fan of goals, as they tend to restrict our options and pull us away from the vitality of the moment, although I do use them in my life more like a heading bug.

Yet, one really doesn’t need a heading bug in order to get somewhere.   All you need is the heading indicator itself, so that you know where you are going.  Without a bug, all a pilot needs to do is remember the heading she should be flying, and go there.

The problem is that pilots, similar to other superhumans, have a lot of things to remember at once, so little mnemonic devices can be really helpful.  In fact, there are a lot of bugs on modern airplanes—various airspeed and altitude bugs being the most common.   They help us keep track of our intentions, and are especially important when doing a lot of things at once.

That, I believe, is the point of those pointy little things.   They represent not the goals themselves, but the gentle reminders of where we want to go.   Yes, I should really write that thank you note, and I really want to, and I know I’ll get around to it, unless, that is, I forget.   In that case, a little reminder—perhaps in the way of a judiciously placed post-it note, can go a long way.

It usually surprises sales people, bill collectors, and other generally annoying people when I tell them that, in fact, not only do I not mind being bugged to do something, I actually enjoy and appreciate it.   People who bug me to do things increase the likelihood that the thing will get done, and that will make both them and me happier citizens.   I know that if I have no intention of paying a bill or doing the dishes, I can simply insist that I stop being bugged about it, and with the exception of the Internal Revenue Service or the collections department at Cedars-Sinai, that usually does the trick.

And you see, most of us busy folks spend much of our time on our autopilots anyway, and as any pilot will tell you, autopilots—at their core, do one thing alone; they follow the bugs we set for them.   Without them, you might end up landing in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere along the way to Kazakhstan, while someone in New Jersey might be waiting for you with some delicious marinara sauce simmering on the stove.

 

 

 

This Isn’t About Safety

You know that thing you hear all the time about the most dangerous part of flying being the drive to and from the airport?   Well, it’s true if the flying you are doing is on a commercial airline.   There simply isn’t a safer way to get from one place to a much farther away place than on a commercial airliner.   But if the flying you are doing is in a general aviation airplane– the kind with a propeller or two in the front of it, well then, you’d be safer driving. Small airplanes typically crash somewhere between sea and shining sea at the alarming rate of several a day.   Not that that is very much as a percentage of miles flown, but it is greater than the percentage of cars that crash to the whole of miles driven.

While it takes some statistical gymnastics to get there, the research on aviation safety concludes that flying in a small, general aviation airplane is just about as safe as riding a motorcycle.   If you ride motorcycles, you know all about that.   And if you don’t ride motorcycles, that’s probably the reason why. Riding motorcycles is more dangerous than driving a car not just because there is little to separate you from the environment, but also because they slip, slide, bump into things and are harder to see.

In spite of their danger, many people in the United States ride motorcycles, and many more people throughout the world ride motorbikes, sometimes, as one often sees in Southeast Asia, with whole families, infants, pets, laundry, and lumber precariously balanced over two wheels traversing pothole-ridden, detritus-laden roads. They do so primarily because it is a cheaper form of travel, and gives you greater access to places than cars.   But some, I imagine, do so because riding a motorcycle is thrilling, not unlike flying in an airplane with an open cockpit.   My cousin Peter flies an open cockpit Raven, and I can assure you it is much like riding a motorcycle in which you not only own the lateral dimension, but the vertical as well. His only speed gauge, he told me as we were flying, is the feel of the wind on his face.

But what you’re reading right now isn’t really about safety, because I am superstitious and a friend of mine died in a horrific aircraft accident not long after his safety-oriented article appeared in a magazine.   He was—I believe, a safe pilot, but sometimes the forces of nature are just too powerful compared to the meagerness of the best human ingenuity. Yet, glancing over at the other hand, perhaps most everything—to some extent, is about safety. It is just a matter of how far one can stretch a metaphor.   I suppose if you carry fear around with you at all times– and if you aren’t I’m not sure you’re worthy of being released on your own recognizance, all things are, more or less, about safety. Once ejected from the relative safety of the womb, we each land on a planet with wild winds, earthquakes, tsunamis, guns and white bread. That is why some really sensitive people don’t ever venture outside of their apartments, but still manage to get electrocuted in their bathtubs.

Nevertheless, some who do venture out inevitably crash and manage to simply dust themselves off, walk away and collect insurance.  What makes one person see danger as a mere inconvenience and another see the same danger as a tragedy is certainly a combination of genetically determined temperament and early experiences. It is, I imagine, a parent’s ability to sensitively manage an infant’s fear and provide a safe environment that goes a long way to equip innately fearful children to steel themselves against life’s inevitable challenges.

Most pilots with whom I speak don’t admit that they feel the least bit frightened when they fly.   They also think that being fearless is a good thing.   And apparently, according to a poster I saw hanging on the wall of a yoga studio, fearlessness is the number one characteristic of a yogi. I don’t think that would be hanging on the wall of the yoga studio unless someone else also thought that was a good thing.   I don’t think it’s a good thing; in fact, I think it’s a really stupid thing.   To me, fear is the friend who accompanies me everywhere and teaches me how to calculate that risk-reward ratio that defines life outside the uterus.   Without it, I suspect I wouldn’t be here, nor would you.   In all fairness, I don’t think that what a yogi or yogini says when he or she refers to fearlessness is exactly the same thing as what I mean.   There’s only so much you can explain on a poster, or only so much people who read posters want to know as they are doing warrior two.   Fearlessness to a yogi likely has more to do with a certain amount of comfort or acceptance of fear rather than the absence of it, and if I’m wrong about that you should probably switch lamas.

I take my friend Fear with me every time I fly, from the moment I get into my hangar and eye that beautiful beast of mine to the moment I leave the hangar and feel grateful the big hangar doors didn’t land on my head and crush me. It is also why, safely on the ground, I feel a sense of mastery and exhilaration when it is over.   And it is also why, if I want to be as close to absolutely certain that I will make my friend’s daughter’s wedding in Paducah in one piece, I will fly commercially, and hope the ceremony isn’t too far from the airport.

 

 

The Go No-Go Decision

imagesSomebody decided to turn the world into ones and zeroes, and thus began the digital revolution.   Such a simple idea.   It’s either this or that.   Maybe the world really is black and white.   Maybe that whole idea that I have lived by all these years, that life is really analog, that understanding others and oneself is all about appreciating the subtlest shades of gray, the overlap between good and evil, the mysteries residing in the spaces between the lines, the sweet paralysis of ambiguity—maybe I had it all wrong.

Maybe the analog life is the illusion after all.   It really is now or never, and the hackneyed question “if not now, when?” really has currency.  Life would be so much simpler, wouldn’t it, if a person was all good or all evil, or if you are either in love or out of it, and if there really were only two sides to every story.   After all, it is probably indisputable that a person can’t be in two places at the same time, unless of course you’re struggling with one of Zeno’s paradoxes, in which case you might dispute the notions of place and time altogether.

Pilots call it the “go-no go decision.”  You either takeoff or you stay home.   It’s that simple.   As the paean to binariness that Rosie taught me goes: whether you like the weather you got, you gotta have weather, whether or not.  And if the weather is good enough, the airplane is working correctly, and you are physically and mentally capable, you go.   You crank up that engine and open the throttle and start rolling.   Or else, you go home, open a bag of potato chips, and watch TV or read a book. It’s that simple.   Ones and zeroes.

Now, I have nothing against ones and zeroes themselves; in fact, the invention of the zero, probably by ancient Olmecs in Mexico, is a milestone in mathematical history.   Even the ancient Greeks, who came later, struggled with the concept, wondering how nothing can actually be something, a question which many self-doubting adolescents ask themselves daily.

The notion of one, and its philosophical sibling oneness, is perhaps the biggest concept of all.   I would go so far as to say that the number one is like my friend Stephanie’s cheesecake– which is so delicious that it’s probably too sinful to eat, in that the number one is so profound that it’s probably too sinful to even talk about. It is, in Judaism, arguably the definition of God itself, in that every Jewish house has a little scroll wrapped up in a decorative case and affixed to the door that starts with the words—printed in larger type than the rest of the biblical excerpt: “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One.”   “Is” is the verbal representation of the mathematical “equals” sign, which is to say that, based on the principle of commutation, the Lord, God and the number One are all the same.

But while I have no problem with ones and zeroes, I also really like a lot of other numbers.   Thirteen, for example, has always been lucky for me.   Three is particularly romantic, and frankly quite mystical, being associated with the holy trinity and managing to represent both three gods and one simultaneously, while a lot of people believe that the third time you do something is “the charm.”

The magic of the digital revolution, I suppose, is the particular kind of alchemy that arises by stringing a bunch of ones and zeroes together into a byte, which as all you computer geeks know is eight bits.   A bit is a portmanteau for “binary digit,” which is generally coded as a one or a zero.   When you string together eight ones or zeroes, you can create all the letters of the alphabet, and a whole lot more.   But in order to do that, you are still bit-dependent, and so you still, ultimately, exist in a reductionistic, binary world.   No computer geeks worth their weight in kilobytes will tell you that the number eight is magical, because they know that it all really boils down to stringing together a series of binary digits.   Binary is where it’s at.

So the fact that you can perceive color or shades of gray on a computer screen is really an illusion based on making ones and zeroes dance to a programmer’s tune. Perhaps the purple salvia, brown rocks, light green and yellow leaves on the koelreuteria tree outside my window are all an illusion too, constructed out of bits of ones and zeroes, a carbon atom here or not, a bit of silicon or an empty space. Maybe the yearning to see my kids, the anticipation of an adventure, or the thrill of my airplane lifting off the earth is nothing more than a series of ones and zeroes, an electron jumping from one neuron to another or not.

I am, after all, either going to stop writing this now and check my email, or continue.   I am going to pour another cup of coffee before it gets too cold in the press, or not. I am going to face the chill of this Monday morning and get my ass off this chair, or I am going to sit here longer and try to craft something that you will enjoy reading, or I am going to get off my ass and unpack the backpack full of hopefully income-producing paperwork and have at it or not.   It’s go or no-go, now or never, this or that, yes or no.   The rest is an illusion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Route Not Taken

I submitted an article for a column I write in Plane & Pilot magazine called “The Route Not Taken.”   I’m fond of the piece, probably because I just submitted it and haven’t had the requisite amount of time and distance to re-read it and hate it, and to question what I was thinking and what makes me think I have the chops to be writing articles in magazines anyway.

The idea of the piece is essentially that pilots are often reluctant to divert from their original destinations because certain elements of their personality that may be strengths also work against them.   Their dogged goal-directedness, for example, may contribute to a diminished psychological flexibility—perhaps the main ingredient required to make the important decision whether or not to divert from their original destinations or route.   Diversions, by the way, are an essential part of keeping pilots and their passengers safe from potentially hazardous weather, bumping into other airplanes, or being escorted by an F-16 or two and forced to land at a military base to be greeted by uniformed machine-gun toting patriotic Americans taught not to smile even when pointing a gun at an unarmed, gray-bearded and balding man exiting a wimpy airplane, perhaps alone or perhaps with a miniature poodle left in the cockpit because he couldn’t carry him out of the airplane at the same time that his hands were reaching for the sky.

In writing the article, I couldn’t help but think about a few diversions in my own life, although I decided not to mention them because of space limitations and because they weren’t specific to aviation.

It was the summer between the second and third year of college, and I saw an ad for a researcher position at Learning Magazine in Palo Alto.   The researcher was the one who read articles and wrote summaries for the staff writers, and it was a step above the mailroom on the path to becoming a writer.   I interviewed well, but didn’t get the job. When I told my housemate, who knew how badly I wanted the job and also happened to be a fearless, only child, he asked my permission to call the editor himself and find out why I didn’t get hired.   I reluctantly gave in, and sure enough Jason was able to coax the editor to reveal “off the record” that although I was the most qualified and possibly most talented of the three finalists, I was the wrong gender.   The magazine staff was almost entirely male, and they were being pressured from management to even things out.   Jason was angry, but being rather feminist even in those days, I wasn’t, and even felt somewhat satisfied that I had lost the job for a good cause.

But I have often thought that, had I been able to score a paycheck for writing, which was my first love, I would never have gone on to become a psychologist.   It is not that I entirely regret having spent most of my life in a career that has allowed me the privilege of contributing to the relief of suffering one human at a time; my career has been a blessing on multiple levels. Yet I do sometimes regret that my practical fear of not earning enough money to support myself and a potential family —a fear to some extent that was nurtured by my parents’ dogged determination to shrug off their own poverty—prevented me from following my deeper passion.

I also know had I gotten that job at Learning Magazine I have no idea how my life would have turned out.   The entire game would have been altered. Every subsequent moment would have been different, never to intersect with the life I actually ended up having. The expenditure of any significant amount of energy on regrets over paths not taken is one of the least productive ways of engaging the past, unless of course we use it as motivation to act in a more courageous way in the moment.

There are, of course, many reasons pilots end up making decisions to forge ahead when doing so may not be the safest thing to do, and each pilot in each circumstance will be motivated differently.   While the article in Plane & Pilot began as an article about diversions, it turned into an article about psychological flexibility– a key factor that correlates highly with overall measures of mental health.   There is considerable evidence that enhancing one’s own ability to be less rigid is a skill that can be learned. It requires the motivation and determination to do so, but people who already find themselves too rigid to adjust their plans and thinking to the demands of the moment often don’t lack the determination to see things through. It just requires the decision to channel that determination into being more flexible, or, as Yogi Berra was alleged to have said: When you come to a fork in the road, take it!