Don’t Let George Do It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Anniversary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Driving on the Left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




You Can Fly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Unusual Attitude Recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firmly, But Gently

The radiation oncologist, a dark-skinned, diminutive Indian woman with a prominent gap between her front teeth who looked to be about my age, was reviewing my treatment options, as it were.  There were really no options.   I suggested that there was the option of no treatment, which momentarily rattled the normally even-tempered doctor.

“You’re too young and healthy,” she said.   She left out the words “to die” but it was clear that was what she meant.   I came to grow quite fond of Dr. Vora, although I did resent how much information she didn’t give me at the outset.   Early on, she described the primary tumor as “bulky,” but later, after the chemo and radiation shrunk it to oblivion, she said it had been “massive.”  She chose her words carefully, shielding me somewhat from the immensity of her task, yet she remained truthful.   When I asked her if the radiation will prevent me from speaking or swallowing, she looked me directly in the eyes and said softly, “it’s a possibility.”  Throughout the ordeal, she remained gentle with me, yet firm in her convictions.

Dr. Vora was one of a team of three physicians who took me through the early phases of my cancer treatment.  The medical oncologist, who I also came to love and admire, managed to remain upbeat throughout, which, while slightly annoying, was also reassuring.  He too was firm, but gentle.

Famed aerobatic pilot and avid golfer Michael Goulian, speaking about his dual passions, once said “Golf and flying take a lot of confidence and skill… If you grip it and rip it mindlessly, either on the golf course or in a plane, you won’t have much success.”

It is no wonder that good flight instructors seem to always watch how you hold the stick.   They know it will reveal a lot about your confidence and even your overall relationship with flying.  Gripping too tightly reveals your anxiety, and you will overcontrol the airplane.   Gripping too loosely and you are likely not paying attention and have too frivolous a relationship with the airplane.   It may end up controlling you.

I am not sure when I first heard the phrase, “firmly, but gently,” but I believe it was from my college fencing instructor, Charles Selberg.   He was answering a question on how best to hold the foil.   He even demonstrated a trick that I used to my advantage on several occasions:  If you notice your opponent gripping his weapon too tightly, it is very easy to disarm him.   Simply use your forte (the strong part of your blade) to aggressively swipe your opponent’s forte and his weapon will go flying out of his hand. 

This little trick, this little hack as they call it these days, applies to nearly everything.  How does one best hold a dance partner? How does one best discipline a child? How does one best negotiate a deal?

The emotional part of my cancer has been by far the most difficult mountain to climb.   Prior to my diagnosis, I had no idea how difficult it would be for me to loose the cold grip I had on life.

People around me advised me to fight, but it never felt right for me to fight.   The doctors were in charge and my function was simply to follow.   Even faith seemed irrelevant.   That too takes energy, and every ounce of energy left in me needed to be spent following, complying.

What exactly would I be fighting for?   I was fighting to stay alive, but then and now that felt like the wrong fight.   It is a fight I knew I could never win, and I didn’t even know who was with me in the ring.  The real challenge was to let go.   I needed to find a way to let go of expectations, wishes, the future, life itself.   I needed to learn to say goodbye, something that throughout my life I never even began to do well.

When it came to this fight, the fight to end my desperate clinging to life, I was a failure, or as I believe my mother might have said, “a rotten failure.”  I knew then and I know now that wanting something too much is a curse.   As a therapist I always counseled others that wanting was healthy, but needing could get you into trouble.  I did not merely want to live, I needed to live.

The thing I could not do was apply my little tricks, my sneaky alchemical algorithms to my own life.   I could not find the right grip.   I could not hold my life in my hands firmly but gently.  I held on too tightly.   And that, I fear, made it too easy for something to come along and wrest it from me.

Practice Makes Perfect, Sometimes

When it comes to flying commercially I don’t get a choice of who is going to be in the cockpit, but if I did I would choose my pilots the same way as I would choose my surgeons.  We want our surgeons and our pilots to have beaucoup hours in their logbooks because we are putting our lives in their hands and we think that we are going to do best in the hands of someone with the most experience.

It turns out that such a viewpoint is correct some of the time, but not always.

The reasoning is straightforward:  more experienced pilots and surgeons make fewer mistakes than less experienced ones.   Well, when it comes to pilots, that isn’t exactly so.   Aviation researchers have found that highly experienced pilots tend to make just as many mistakes as less experienced ones.   There is one critical difference, however, and that is one of those differences that makes all the difference.   While more experienced pilots make just as many mistakes, they tend to recognize their mistakes and recover from them faster than their less experienced counterparts.

When it comes to medicine, the research indicates that in highly technical procedures, such as those involved in neuro- and thoracic surgery, the more procedures a physician performs the lower likelihood that mistakes will be made.   That is as expected.  But, just to make life more complicated, less experienced physicians tend to do better than more experienced physicians when treating more routine problems, perhaps because of their more recent knowledge base and fewer biases.

Years ago I remember being startled by the research finding that young, inexperienced therapists were often rated by their clients as more effective than their highly experienced counterparts.   No one knew for sure what the reasons were for this, but I hypothesized that the energy and optimism of young therapists were transmitted to their clients, whereas more experienced therapists, who had seen so much more in their lives and practices, were often jaded and less hopeful, which was also transmitted to their clients.  I imagine this may be true for physicians as well.

When a new category of airplane called “light sport aircraft” was introduced a few years ago, the idea was to create an affordable, easy-to-fly aircraft that would, in part, encourage people to enter the aviation world who otherwise couldn’t.   The light sport category has brought us literally hundreds of wonderful new aircraft, but not long after their introduction there was a noticeable jump in the number of accidents associated with flying them.   Most would think this would be because the appeal of the new aircraft would be to younger, less experienced pilots, but the accident investigations revealed that the majority of those involved in accidents by far were older, more experienced pilots who were “transitioning down” from more advanced aircraft.   It turns out that light sport aircraft each have their own idiosyncratic ways of flying them.   They are not merely baby versions of their much larger, sophisticated cousins.  So what got the experienced pilots into trouble?   I can only guess that their assumptions, or old habits, got in the way.

Given the choice between being flown around by a low-time pilot or a pilot with thousands of hours in her logbook, I am going to choose the high-timer all the time.   I feel the same way about pilots as I do about surgeons.  I suspect that people who are not actively suicidal agree.  Yet, while it is true that we often don’t get to choose our pilots, our physicians, or in these days of managed care, even our therapists, it is also true that experience isn’t always the best measure of effectiveness.   The old adage that practice makes perfect only works sometimes, especially if the thing that is being practiced are mistakes.

Leaving Trieste

Alitalia doesn’t let you choose your seats.   It wasn’t a problem on the short flight from Trieste to Rome, but now, on the long flight from Rome to Los Angeles I find myself in the center aisle.  Perhaps because I worked my way up to business class with frequent flyer points and not hard cash I don’t quite merit my preferred window seat, but I am not complaining.  I am in the first row, and especially grateful for the 30 square feet of real estate, and especially the “lie-flat” seats that comes along with the business class fare.

In the center aisle I am almost robbed of the view out the window, but I can see enough to give me that jejune thrill a child has when riding his bicycle for the first time without thinking.

It is a beautiful, crisp morning at the Rome airport, situated well outside of Rome on the west coast of the Italian peninsula.   We are departing to the north, or so it appears, although I thought I caught a glimpse of the number 27 roll by as we were slowly taxiing to the runway.   That would mean we were actually departing to the west, which might be possible given the California-like, confusing northwesterly sloping coastline.

It has taken us a long time to taxi, probably indicating there were many flights queued up ahead of us, and given that we were awake at 3:30am in order to make our first departure from Trieste, I was just too tired to keep my eyes open to read during the taxi.   So I surreptitiously plugged in my iPod and it graciously provided the soundtrack:  Jimmy Buffett, Frank Sinatra, America, Jay and the Americans.  This is how taxi and takeoff should be experienced.

Leaving Trieste is sad in an ineffable sort of way.   Nothing sad here happened to me, with the exception of the mosquito bites, the few remaining signs of cancer, ridiculous quantities of carbohydrates and the impossibility of finding anything even resembling an American breakfast.

It was good to be away from the stage on which the last year unfolded.    Yet, I am so looking forward to going home.    Although it is going to be another stretch of PT/CT scans and doctor’s appointments, there really is no place like home, Dorothy.   Nowhere that grants the illusion of safety better than the place I only part-jokingly say my wife built.

We are lined up now with the center line, so we are number one for departure.   The gargantuan Pratt and Whitneys roar to life and I imagine the pilots, only about 15 feet in front of me, hand over each other’s hand, pushing the throttles all the way forward, their other hands gently cradling the yoke while they guide the Boeing down the runway with their feet.   Sure, I would rather be up there, but it is so much less stressful back here.  Go Alitalia, I think, and leave the driving to them.

I don’t know what kind of trees I am seeing out the window, but they are lined up too neatly to have been planted by nature.   Their canopy sits awkwardly on top of their straight trunks, with twisted branches like the Baobob tree gracing the cover of many a St.-Exupery “Little Prince” book.    The whole 777 is vibrating and whirring now as it picks up speed down the runway, and the rows of trees seem to unwind past the window.     In less than half a minute, the nose lifts off the ground haughtily, almost as if the big jet is smirking at the earth, saying “I don’t need you, buddy, any more than you need me.”  I don’t think all airplanes would talk that way if they could, but this one would.

We climb, steadily, gently, but severely, out over the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea, then, after a minute or two, turn left to chase the sun.    We will chase it for 12 hours but never catch it, the earth spinning in the same direction in which we are flying.   For many on this magnificent technological behemoth, this is the start of an adventure in a new, strange, English-speaking part of the world.   For me, I am at once returning home and leaving Trieste behind.    I wonder if I will ever return, and if so, what fragments of memory will bring tears to my eyes.   And when I arrive home, what will spark the memories of Trieste’s sinuous streets, late-night strolls through piazzas, writing and drinking coffee in antique coffee shops, music, humidity, and an incomplete jigsaw puzzle?   Ultimately I suppose it doesn’t matter whether we are here or there, because it is all part of the journey.   And even if you are relegated to the center aisle, there’s still a lot to see.






They Call the Wind the Bora

isWay down south, they call the wind Mariah, but in Trieste, they call it the bora.   It blows across the rugged mountains of the Karst, is pulled down the hillsides toward the Adriatic Sea, picks up speed and wreaks havoc over the land and sea below.

The bora wind is katabatic.    Katabasis is Greek for “descending,” so katabatic winds are also rather poetically called “fall winds,” although they don’t necessarily occur in the fall.   (Really they should be called “falling winds,” redolent of something Frank Lloyd Wright might have designed.)  Katabatic winds occur when a cold air mass, which (by virtue of the fact that it is cold and its molecules are squeezed together tightly—I think) is heavier than the air beneath it, “falls” down the slope of a mountain replacing the warmer and lighter air below.   The result is a bitter cold, sometimes ferocious and always chaotic wind.

Intimate knowledge of the wind is essential for pilots.   If it weren’t for the breeze, I like to say, flying would be a breeze.  Flying in turbulence requires a special set of skills, and being able to land in stirring crosswinds is the difference, perhaps, between a pilot and an airplane driver.

The city of Trieste itself is designed to some degree to shelter its inhabitants from the wind, with thin winding streets and some buildings sporting railings built into their walls onto which people can grasp when the wind winds up.

Life in Trieste without the bora might be pleasant enough, but it would lack that reminder of what living in the real world is like.

Many years ago a very green intern I was supervising complained to me that she just wasn’t getting this therapy thing.   She was a chipper one, effervescent, with a quick and easy smile.   I liked being around her, but not for too long.   So I played a hunch and asked her what her own, personal goal in life was.    She said, predictably, that it was to be happy.   “Isn’t that everyone’s goal?”

Trying to be kind, I simply said, “I want you to do me a favor.   When you go home I want you to think about that goal of yours.   Think about it long and hard.   Then, when we meet again next week, let me know what you come up with.   If it’s the same thing, then that’s fine, but I want you to think about it.”

Sure enough my childish ploy worked, just like telling a kid not to eat his tofu might work the first time.   She came back and said “You were right!” even though I said nothing to be right about.  “I don’t want to be happy, not all the time.   That wouldn’t be real life.”

“No, it wouldn’t be real,” I said simply.   “You want to feel things deeply, and sometimes that means happiness and sometimes it means pain, guilt, shame, or anger.”    She then said she thinks she now better understood how this therapy thing worked, and from then on—when she stopped trying to guide her clients towards happiness, she became a more competent therapist.

Trieste has a raw beauty to it.   The deep blue Adriatic, the quaint, cobblestone streets that wind their way gently up the side of a hill, the singular kindness of the people you meet, the magic of the baristas concocting what they claim to be the best coffee in the world, and so much more.   There is beauty all around, yet even without the bora blowing much of it can be dreary as well.     No one quite knows for sure why, for example, it happens to have one of the highest suicide rates in Italy.

If we had the mindset of thinking that life is about being happy, we wouldn’t welcome the bora, in whatever form it manages to assault our lives.   We wouldn’t dare go outside and tussle with it.   We would avoid life’s challenges rather than face them.

A souvenir bookmark that accompanied a purchase I made at one of Trieste’s numerous bookstores has two pictures on it.   One is a picture of the grand palace and the other is of the bora as it tosses the sea over the pier.   The juxtaposition of the two photos is compelling.   Can we really appreciate the grandeur of our shelters without bowing to that which we seek our shelter from?



What Matters

Morning:  Caffe San Marco

There is an older man, maybe my age, sitting at the table where the three girls sat yesterday.   He is fanning himself with a menu.   He must be Italian, because he is reading “Il Piccolo,” but he is a bit strange because his eyes are darting around the café, probably taking in all the tourists, and occasionally looking back to his newspaper and reading out loud although there is no one with him.   His left leg is bobbing, and now for no apparent reason he moves the plastic sugar and napkin holders over to the side.  Now both his legs are moving, his feet planted but his knees nervously moving back and forth as if he were fanning a flame with them.

He has no drink in front him, nothing but the newspaper which he occasionally lifts off the table, opens, reads from and then replaces on the table in not enough time for him to read more than a sentence or two.   He rests his right elbow on the table now, and cups his chin in his right hand.

I see him, and I think he sees me watching him.   But I don’t know what he sees, what he is thinking, who he thinks I am and what I am typing.  I see him, but I don’t know him, not at all.

I am not without judgment.   I think he is off, and maybe he thinks I am as well, especially if he noticed the funny hat I was wearing when I walked in to this place.

No, I don’t know him, and he doesn’t know me.   We are bookends, of sorts, as all of us are to each other.   Between us there are other lives, each of them bookends as well.  Inside each of us resides the self-deceptions, the illusions that we define as the adventure of our lives.   The things we see, the complexions on the faces, the surprises, the mysterious aches and pains.   We are divided by our beliefs, our stories and our convictions.   But we are united in that together we share in the illusion that all of this somehow matters, that hearts can be healed and broken, dreams fulfilled and shattered.

Afternoon:  Café Specchi

Now, I am sitting in the Café Spechhi as have generations before me.  There is a cruise ship parked a half-mile from here.  The ship is Cunard’s Queen Victoria, a mountain of steel turned on its side.   Its passengers ramble through the piazzas, park themselves in restaurants, snap photos of each other with architecture in the background.   They are young and old, and speak in languages foreign to each other.

I am 62 years old now, and before this last year of cancer I thought of myself as a 45-year old, which is old given that just a couple of years before that I thought of myself as about 35.   I entered my sixties in absolute disbelief that the numbers were so high, that I managed to let so many of the years go by.   It isn’t that I wasn’t using or even abusing those years.   I was building, I was living as much of those years as I could, but it still felt as though I took a nap and woke up and looked at the clock and decades had passed.   I don’t know what to do with the brevity of this life, how to breathe and grieve my way through it.

After the diagnosis, after the surgeon’s gasp as she looked at the picture of the big black spot covering my throat that represented the primary tumor on the CT scan, I decided that the next year of my life, if I had one, would be devoted strictly to healing.   I had little choice, as the treatment knocked me out for the count and I couldn’t work or play if I wanted to.  It has been one hell of a parenthesis, and yet as the days go by I begin to forget.   I anticipated forgetting, even looked forward to it.   It is a platitude that one doesn’t remember pain, and that is certainly true.  You remember that the suffering was there, and occasionally you recall the images and your heart quickens with the memory, but the pain isn’t there.

Yet, fortunately, there was little physical pain to the treatment.  Plenty of psychic pain, more worry and fear than I would ever like to see again, but the physical pain was quite manageable.   It strikes me that if we are lucky or so inclined, we get to travel to different places during our life times.   Many of those places we tell ourselves we wish to return, as I did with Ireland and Northern California.   Whatever the place gives us, whatever adventure it hands us, we want more of the same.  And then there are those places we land that we wish to never see again.   This last year of chemo pumps, IV fluids and snap-down radiation masks is such a place.

Trieste is one of those places to which I would like to return, but my heart wouldn’t be broken if I don’t.   It is that sort of place.   It is somewhere that is nowhere.  But that is the point.   We are all, each of us, someone who is no one, someone whose life matters to those who believe in us, but their lives too are fleeting, and they too are only the collection of illusions that they hold.   We may ultimately be creatures of flesh and blood, but as far as I am concerned we are really only matter as long as we matter, for as long as we are remembered and felt.

These self-deceits that fill a life are large and small.   I am handsome today, I am ugly; I can write well, I will never get this writing thing down; I can master a new language, I can’t do anything new at this age; life has meaning, we die and it is all pointless.

So, we are left with the shifting sands and sins of our beliefs, holding some of them as precious and others less so.  The beliefs that matter to me happen to be ones that are promulgated by my religion—that the two most important things are loving-kindness and repairing the world.   But this too is just a belief, an operating principle as the behaviorists call it—my meager, humble assertion that will exist for me only so long as I hold it, as long as I indulge in the illusion that what I believe matters.

In the meantime, each of us finds within us our own Trieste.   We find our own capital of nowhere, our own gypsy fluttering, our own illusions, our own truths.  We sit in our preferred cafes and watch the others as they watch us, we take the space where someone sat just an hour ago, or walked a hundred years ago.  We replace the others as others will replace us.