The Best Advice

Thomas Moore, the monk, musician, professor, psychotherapist, and author of a series of “soul” books, tells the story of a Zen master on his deathbed. His monks are all gathered around him, and the senior monk asks for any final words of wisdom.

The old master weakly says, “Tell them life is like a river.”

The senior monk relays this message to the other monks. The youngest is confused and asks, “What does he mean, life is like a river?”

The senior monk relays this question to the master, who replies, “Okay, life is not like a river.”

When I bought my Diamond DA-40, a sleek single-engine, four-seat airplane, back in 2008, I was rightly required to take a transition course to help me adjust to my new steed. Transition courses have saved many lives, and I was grateful to do it.   Although there were many new, sophisticated features in my airplane, the most difficult part of flying nearly any airplane is, of course, landing them.

I was proud of my landings in the Cessna 150s I trained in, so much so that I could dare you to throw a quarter on a runway and bet that I could land on it.   But landing an airplane with long wings close to the ground and double the horsepower that seemed to just wait around eagerly wanting to fly was a steed of a different color. My initial landings were acceptable, but the transition course focused mostly on other things, so I took additional lessons afterward.

That next instructor gave me very clear, specific advice on how to land my new airplane properly. Airplanes have certain landing attitudes, which in this context means the lateral angle of the fuselage to the ground, that seem to work best.   My instructor wanted my final approach to be as flat as possible all the way to the runway, so although I was descending at a certain rate and moving forward at another rate, my nose would be level with my tail. This was somewhat different from how I landed the Cessnas I had flown before, but eventually I was able to do it fairly well.

Then along came my instrument instructor, who saw my landings and immediately reprimanded me for doing it all wrong. The best way to land my low-wing airplane was to point the nose at the runway, and keep my tail in the air behind me.   I was confused.

Then, a few years later, on an oversold commercial flight, I was lucky enough to sit next to an airline pilot whose job it was to fly regional jets.   In fact, she was flying the jet we happened to be in at the time, and was sitting next to me in a curtained-off section of the cabin to get some rest while she was temporarily relieved in the cockpit.   Before she closed her eyes, I explained the conundrum, and she told me: there’s several ways to land an airplane.   I usually land one way for 10 times, then I rotate and land another the next 10 times so I don’t get stale.

Perhaps, life is not like a river after all.

In some psychotherapy circles, advice is seen as a mark of an inexperienced or ill-trained psychotherapist.   I don’t entirely agree, thinking instead that advice is akin to having a rudder, and inexperienced therapists, like inexperienced pilots, just don’t know how to use their rudder well.

Many clients become rightfully angry with their therapists for withholding advice.   After all, many people see therapists because they think that therapists know the recipe to the secret sauce that makes life tolerable, or that they know the route out of the maze of each client’s suffering.   And, to some extent, good therapists do know these things and more, so it is a reasonable request for clients to simply ask and then receive, especially given the fare.

But in the hands of a lesser skilled therapist, advice can become problematic because it can be based on the therapist’s worldview rather than the client’s.   And, at the same time, advice-giving in some contexts can obscure the part of the therapeutic process that instills self-reliance. I would often deal with this dilemma when clients sought parenting advice by saying: “I’ll make a deal with you.   I promise I will answer your question if you will first reach into the deepest part of you and tell me how you think it should be done.”   While this gambit often irritated my clients, after some cajoling they played along, and I would always make good on my promise.   Inevitably, after telling me their own answers to their own questions, my sincere response would start with “Wow.   I love that answer, because as I expected, it turns out it’s much better than mine. I was going to say (fill in the blank), but I like your idea much better.   Clearly, no one knows your child as well as you do.”

There is another story, one that I read many years ago and liked so much that I jotted it down. I don’t remember where I got it, but it might have been from that font of profundity, Reader’s Digest. The story goes that a reporter asked then president Harry S. Truman if he ever gave his grown daughter Margaret advice. Truman allowed that he did on occasion.

“What kind of advice do you give her?” the reporter asked.

“Well, I usually ask her what it is she wants to do. She tells me. And then I advise her to do it.”

Maybe that bespectacled Southern democrat, responsible both for authorizing the dropping of atomic bombs and the Marshall plan, integrating the military and helping to found the United Nations and without whose support there would be no Israel, was a Zen master himself. Or maybe not.



The Thomas Fire

  1. Sitting in my chair in the living room, out of the window I can see the branches and fulsome leaves of the oaks and crepe myrtle trees as they sweep back and forth, revealing the wind that has been carrying the flames and scattering embers to ignite the Thomas Fire and sending the material tokens and touchstones of lives to oblivion. Firefighters decided to call it the Thomas Fire, because it began close to Thomas Aquinas College, just a few miles from my home in the Upper Ojai valley.

The winds right now are not frantic, as they have been at times, but they are confused, darting from one direction to another, remarkably mirroring my wife’s mood.   Each sweeping movement of the branches injects an ounce of fear, it seems, into the normally placid mornings in Ojai.

I should not be writing right now, but instead I should be dressed and outside vigilantly scanning for spot fires, raking leaves and clearing debris that could ignite and spark the flames that could consume our homes and our tokens.   I should be a better protector than I am.   But I am slow to wake up, slow to meet danger, slow in my body and mind.

… So slow, in fact, that it has now been nearly a week since I wrote those words, a week in which I have discovered that a dozen friends and acquaintances have lost their homes, including one that borders my own property.   We have lost two structures—outbuildings, including a yurt that I recently fashioned into a framing studio for my photographs and a horse barn that has not seen a horse in at least 25 years.   Compared to many of my friends, we have escaped significant damage, but somehow feeling grateful in that context seems sinful and unkind.

Our children have become the heroes they always were—our son in particular working tirelessly to help others as he protected his own homestead, our daughter leaving the safety of Los Angeles to join us and do her part. My wife is the heroine she too has always been, caring for our children in ways I couldn’t begin to imagine. And I have been doing my best to care for them, although I feel inadequate in my somewhat compromised health right now, and slightly guilty that I am writing these words from a patio in a luxury hotel in Pasadena where we escaped for better air.   Angelinos reading this will sense the irony, because Pasadena is known for its poor air quality, but now it is a refuge from the toxic particulates that hide even in what otherwise might appear to be clear air in the fire area.

I recently read a story about Thomas Aquinas in which he drove off a prostitute sent from his family to “dissuade” him from joining the Dominican order by breaking his vow of celibacy.   He drove her off with a fire iron.   The threat of destruction by fire is indeed a potent force, another reminder that each of our existences are temporary gifts of resistance to the eternal, in which all eventually turns to ash.



A Guest

There’s a small community hospital in Murray, Kentucky, where I went to school to get my master’s degree in psychology. As a second year student we were seeing clients in the counseling center, and one day when one of my clients didn’t show up for her appointment, I discovered that she had been admitted to the hospital for “exhaustion.” She had refused to eat for several days, and although pop singer Karen Carpenter had yet to succumb to anorexia and the general public was barely aware, the medical establishment—even in rural Kentucky, knew well of its danger and feared for my client’s life.

By truculently opposing all those well-intended folks who tried to get her to eat, my client had entered what pilots call the “region of reverse command,” in which airplanes do the opposite of what you tell them to do. I was about to join her there.

I decided to visit my client in the hospital.   Just outside her door, a nurse took me aside and said, “Please do what you can to get her to eat.   Her parents are on their way, and she hasn’t eaten in days.   We’re all really worried about her.”

Just a day or two before that I attended a lecture given by J. Thomas Muehleman, a young psychologist who may in fact be the only one of my professors from those days who is still alive (and still, I am told, residing in Murray). The particular lecture was on a topic called “paradoxical intention,” and in it he outlined the behavioral approach to the use of paradox as a psychotherapeutic tool.

Fortuitously, within five or 10 minutes after my arrival, lunch was delivered on its plastic tray, and was placed on the wheeled table next to her bed; the nurse slid the table over the side of the bed and my young, frail client looked down at it disgustedly.   From my vantage point, the ugly slab of meatloaf couldn’t have been a better choice of food.   She took one look at it and shoved the table to the side.

I proceeded with the cocky insouciance of the 22-year-old graduate student that I was:  “I don’t blame you,” I said.   “It looks…. just horrible.”   She looked at me quizzically, half-expecting me to follow everyone else’s suit and push her to eat.   “I can’t believe they would try to get you to eat that.   It looks… well, you know, it looks like a piece of shit.”

My client gazed at me angrily.   I went on.   “And can you imagine how they handle food in the kitchen? It’s probably made somewhere down in the basement.   Dirty, disgusting.   It could’ve fallen on the floor and they wouldn’t care, they’d just pick it right up and put it back on the plate…”

That was enough for her. She pulled the table back over the bed, grabbed her fork, forcefully stabbed the meatloaf and shoved it into her mouth.   As she wolfed it down she continued to stare at me with fiery eyes.   Although she was angry with me, I could see that while she was rejecting me she was nurturing herself, and that was what was important.  Before we could talk further we were interrupted by a nurse politely asking me to leave the room because my client’s concerned parents had arrived.

I admit that I was thrilled that my intervention could somehow, magically, accomplish what others couldn’t.   Psychotherapy and life rarely work that way, and a whiff of potency can be intoxicating to a young clinician, so thus began a lifelong interest in the landscape of paradox.

What began simply in my mind as a technical move, like moving a rook in position to threaten the queen– over time grew into a deeper understanding of how the game of chess is played.   Rather than simply a method of “joining with the resistance,” as some have described it, paradoxical thinking became a path to more deeply understanding how we all build shelters in which to hide our demons and modulate our interactions with the dangerous world around us.   The walls of that shelter sometimes consist of our strident adherence to our positions, however problematic or self-destructive they become.   Sometimes we can’t break down those walls by confronting them directly, because that only makes them more necessary and strengthens them.  But by surrounding those walls with love, compassion, and eventually understanding, those walls begin to crumble.

I like to think of paradox as a way of inviting a discomfiting guest into Rumi’s guest house.   The guest is those demons, those ugly, sturdy walls we construct to keep us invulnerable, the shameful and destructive behaviors that we repeat even though they trip us up and trap us.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

In the region of reverse command, the way out of danger is to do the very opposite of what you instinctively are wont to do.   When you are sinking, sometimes you need to reduce power and point the nose down in order to find the energy needed to climb.   My client, way back in the 1970’s, was suffering.   I don’t doubt that the food that appeared before her symbolized the nurturance that she found so utterly “distasteful,” and that those who benevolently pushed her to eat stood in firm opposition to her need to reject that nurturance.  I don’t believe for a moment, nor did I back then, that this single intervention was all that was needed to resolve those underlying conflicts. Yet, by honoring her protest and welcoming the dark thought, the shame and malice, she was able to make a foothold into the path of letting go of her protest and nurturing herself.

Hot Air Rises

imagesPerhaps there is no greater evidence that hot air rises than the election of our current president.   You would think that having been a psychologist for all these many years I would know a thing or two about how that happens, but I confess that although I struggle—I really do—for the life of me I can’t figure it out.

I can explain with greater facility and perhaps a modicum of accuracy how actual hot air rises, even though I have never seen it directly.   But I have seen its effects while flying, and it’s dramatic. The local County fire authorities designate certain days of the month “burn days,” in which farmers can legally set large piles of brush ablaze without sparking the brave men and women who get paid to keep us safe to don their heavy protective gear, put their playing cards on the table and slide down their poles to their big trucks.   Years ago I was out flying on one of those days with my instructor, who thought it might be fun to give me a physics lesson by guiding our rented Cessna over a few of those pyres.

Although the flames disappeared under the airframe, we knew we were flying right over them because, commanded only by the rising heat below us, the Cessna gently rose as we passed over them, then settled back down a few seconds later.

The fact that hot air rises and cold air sinks is one of the keys to understanding many weather phenomena.   The uneven heating of air is a result of the uneven heating of the earth, which absorbs radiated sunlight differently depending on the terrain.   As the earth’s temperature varies, the heat it generates warms the air, and the differences in the air mass’s temperature causes differences in pressure, because the molecules in hot air move faster and expand outward, while cold air is more compact and dense.  Cold, dense air, is “thicker,” and therefore heavier.

I suppose we call people who spout empty phrases, devoid of depth or import, as filled with “hot air,” because their verbiage takes up a lot of space but there isn’t much substance to it, like the air in a hot air balloon.  All that is required for a hot air balloon to take flight is to capture a chunk of air and heat it up.   Off you go into the wild blue.

In struggling to understand just how it is that certain hot-air balloons, such as the one on Pennsylvania Avenue, manage to rise, I have observed that there are some people who are attracted to bluster, bombast, posing and empty rhetoric. Narcissists marry, often several times, so at some point in their self-aggrandizing lives there are those to whom hot air is appealing.

I have known many people over the years who have been filled with hot air. Almost to the person, each of them had very few, if any, friends.   Most of them had significant alimony payments.   Generally, they didn’t care much about having friends, but they cared greatly about the alimony.

The thing is, many people who voted for Mr. T report that they actually like the man, which is astounding to me.   He may be a liar and a thief, but he’s at least a thief you can count on to be a thief.   I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said that a friend is someone who stabs you in the front. Mr. T may lie to you, but you know he’s a liar, and so does he, so it doesn’t much matter.   What matters is the same thing that probably mattered to Melania; if he buys you that diamond ring you wanted, at least you’ll end up with a diamond ring. He may even convince you he has a good heart, and will even take care of you, and that he cares as much about you as he does himself; but if you fall for all that, well then, you’re just naïve and deserve what you get. None of that’s important, after all.   It wasn’t important for all the years Chicagoans supported the elder Mayor Daley.   What was important was that the trash got picked up, the potholes were fixed, and that you got that diamond ring you always wanted.

So if you pay for a ride in a hot air balloon, you expect that when the air inside of it is heated it will reliably rise into the atmosphere, taking you passively suspended in a basket beneath it.   The amazing thing is that, after all is said and done, all that hot air will lift you off the safety of the earth and take you with it.   You will, however, have no power to steer it, so where it will end up, well, that’s anybody’s guess.



Energy Management

download-3I slept just a few hours last night, having to see the second game of the World Series from my hotel room in Washington, DC, to its unfortunate conclusion.   The game ended past midnight here, and I had to be up and out a few hours later for a flight out of Baltimore back to L.A.   I am now seated on an Alaska Airlines 737, cruising smoothly above the cloud deck that appears like the surface of a brain laid out flat and stretching to the horizon.

Due to that lack of sleep, I have barely enough energy to keep my eyes open, let alone to think about how to revise the following paragraphs that some time ago I released energetically from my fingertips as I thought about the complex topic of energy management.   I have never been good in the mornings, and this morning—even as I chatted with the grateful Afghani Lyft driver who received a special residency visa from the US government after spending 5 years helping the US Army to rebuild his country—this morning is no exception.   My head feels as though it’s surrounded by cotton that penetrates my skull and inhabits the synapses, muffling the firing of neurons and sending only one key message to the remainder of my body: go back to bed.

So, in order to manage the few remaining cubic centimeters of energy residing in this fragile corpus, I will push the small silver button on the side of the console that separates me from the tall, gangly man who somehow managed to transfer every hair on his head to his left arm. Pushing that button will have the disturbing effect of reclining my seatback a measly few degrees and granting me the illusion that I am actually making myself more comfortable.   I am going to gently close my eyes along with the cover of my faithful laptop– which is actually on my laptop, stow the thing and close my eyes.   I am looking forward to meeting with you later, to tell you what I think about this very interesting concept of managing energy.

I write this to you today because, given the struggle with chronic fatigue that has plagued me since a nasty bout of mono at age 14, I have been unable to avoid a rather obsessive concern with energy.   Living in a body that feels as though it is always walking uphill, I am constantly reminded that energy must be managed, conserved and expended in the right proportions if this vehicle is going to get anywhere.

Energy, I am told, is defined as the capacity for performing work, wherein work is further defined as force multiplied by distance.   Admittedly, I rarely think of my own work that way, but when I do it makes perfect sense.   How much work did I get done today?   Well, not a lot of force but a quite a bit of distance.   Or, I worked really hard—didn’t get that far but I busted my ass.

This capacity to perform work we call energy comes in many forms, but at its most basic, it can be divided into two main categories: potential energy and kinetic energy.   (Stay with me, because it does get interesting.)   For a pilot flying an airplane, potential energy is usually understood and measured as altitude, while kinetic energy is measured as airspeed.   But airplanes need potential energy even before they get off the ground and gain altitude, and that energy comes in the form of the stuff pumped out of the ground and left over from dead dinosaurs.   Once refined it makes its way from storage tanks to the airplane’s fuel tanks, where it waits to be converted from a liquid to a gas, to be ignited and converted again into the explosions that fire the pistons, which then gets converted to torque energy, and so on.   Fuel gets converted so many times and so quickly that it would make a missionary jealous.

The human who is hopefully sitting behind the yoke and controlling the airplane’s energy also gets his or her energy from fuel, fuel that comes from plants and animals that more recently sacrifice themselves in order to find their way from the earth to the supermarket to the refrigerator to gastrointestinal tract.   That fuel also gets converted many times, ultimately transforming from potential energy to kinetic energy.

Pilots are essentially energy managers; every control input a pilot makes—every push on a rudder pedal or thrust lever, every movement of an elevator or trim tab, every bending of the shape of a wing with an aileron, is a shifting of energy designed to get the airplane to go where the pilot intends it to go.

None of us get out of school without learning the pledge of allegiance and that E=mc squared.  While many of us may have believed the former, few of us understood the latter.   (I didn’t really understand either.)  Einstein already knew that neither mass nor energy could be created or destroyed, but his formula took things further by demonstrating that they were essentially the same thing, and that one can be converted into the other in both directions (hence the “equals” sign).   As the song goes, “that’s all there is.” One could then argue, if mass—often described as matter, is the same as energy, then energy is all that matters (sorry about that).

I was once told that you could tell a good pilot by how often he or she trims the airplane.   To trim an airplane means to set up the control surfaces in such a way that it requires the least amount of pressure on the pilot’s part to control it.   In other words, you set the controls in such a fashion that the airplane essentially flies itself.   This is done by adjusting knobs or servos that control small tabs on either the elevator (that points the nose up or down) or the rudder (that points the nose left or right).   The best pilots set up a default energy management setting which harmonizes the airplane’s control surfaces with the demands of nature. In doing so, the pilot transfers his or her own energy to the trim tabs on the airplane, making them work harder so he or she works less.

We manage the potential energy of food by being careful to not eat too many carbs too quickly, or to buy food that is preservative free or chemically non-toxic. And we manage kinetic energy by exercising often and properly, resting and caring for the mechanisms our bodies use to convert it from one form to another.   We schedule our work lives mindful of energy-depleting workload, and schedule the rest of our lives in order to replenish and nurture ourselves.   Overall, we become mindful that we must also keep ourselves “in trim” in order to safely get us to our desired destinations, and maximize the cruise between ashes and ashes, dust and dust.

In baseball, as in aviation and in life, everything at its most fundamental level is about managing energy.   By the time you read this, someone will have won the World Series, having managed to out-manage the energy expended by the other team.   For many fans around the world, all that energy matters, and for many others, I suppose, none of that  energy matters at all.






My Friend John

My first flying instructor, Floyd Jennings, didn’t say much.   When I asked him once how I would know if I was doing something right, he said that he would tell me if I was doing something wrong.   I guess the idea then was to keep him quiet, but it was frustrating nevertheless.   Once, when I went to reach for the wrong control– to pull the mixture knob instead of the carburetor heat, he abruptly slapped my hand away.   He didn’t even bother to use his words when I did something wrong.

By contrast, my instrument instructor, Michael Phillips, is verbal when he needs to be, but he can also be indirect. After breaking off a practice instrument approach and heading away from the airport, I wondered why my airplane was climbing with its nose down and its rear end skyward as though it were doing a downward dog.   Michael said nothing, until long after I should have realized it I noticed that I had neglected to dump the flaps, which I had set for the aborted landing.   I was embarrassed, and a bit frightened as well, but I figured it out, corrected it, and asked Michael why he didn’t correct me.   He smiled a bit wryly, and said that he wanted me to figure it out for myself.   Fortunately, the airplane was sturdier than my ego, and all was well.

In the behavioral world, both positive punishment (the slap on the hand is considered positive because you are adding it rather than removing it) and extinction (the lack of a reinforcer) are well-established methods of learning.   They both work well, although it is an open question whether the effects of one last longer than the effects of the other.   I don’t have a carburetor or carb heat in my current airplane, so I really can’t tell you.   But I think Michael’s approach works better, partly because my first instinct upon having my hand slapped is to respond with an uppercut to the instructor’s jaw. I refrained from doing that with my first instructor, because I learned to restrain myself from my instincts when I was three, and even then he was a lot older than me.

In Michael’s case, having allowed me to discover my own mistake and correct it, I not only learned that it was a good idea to retract my flaps when breaking off an approach and trying to climb, but I also learned to trust my ability to independently problem-solve.   One could say, arguably, that Floyd’s approach of immediately punishing the mistake was a form of direct instruction, and Michael’s approach of waiting for me to discover my own mistake was more indirect.

Many moons ago I took a year-long training course in hypnosis.  One of the techniques taught in that course was called “My Friend John.” It was designed as a method of hypnotizing someone who had difficulty with the perceived vulnerability involved in the process of opening one’s self to suggestion.   The therapist in this case merely says something to the effect of, “Let’s not worry about doing hypnosis now, but let me show you how it is done.”   The therapist then proceeds to instruct the client to imagine that he has a friend named John sitting in the empty chair beside him, and then the therapist proceeds to “hypnotize” the friend in the empty chair.   In the meantime, the client succumbs to the process and finds him or herself indeed suggestible.

The point to this isn’t merely to say that we learn vicariously through modeling, but instead that direct communication can be threatening to some and that indirect communication can have a powerful effect if it can open doors that otherwise might have some rusty hinges.

The editor of the magazine I write for, “Plane and Pilot,” writes a column called “Going Direct.” It is a double entendre, of course, the aviation entendre referring to what pilots do when they navigate the shortest distance between two places—the straight line.   For reasons primarily of time and fuel economy, it is usually the pilot’s preferred way to travel, but it is rarely achievable in many places because airspace restrictions, mountains, and weather often get in the way.

But we do tend to see the direct route as the preferred route, just as we tend to admire straight-shooters. Martin Buber, one of my favorite Austrian-born philosophers and existentialist pop stars, said back in 1950 that “the origin of all conflict between me and my fellow-men is that I do not say what I mean, and that I do not do what I say.” Perhaps that is meant more as a statement pertaining to integrity, but it could just as well be an argument for going direct.

There are times, however, when going direct will get you into a canyon you can’t get out of, and saying what you mean can get you into more trouble than it’s worth. I received the most humiliating “C’ in my life in my first year of college. The professor who gave it to me was eventually to become the poet laureate of the United States of America, the truly extraordinary poet Charles Wright.   He was a wonderful man, in spite of his insanely good looks.   And frankly, in retrospect, he was generous even to give me a “C”; when I look back at what I wrote those days I cringe. One of the poems I wrote then was so embarrassingly frank in its sexual references I am too ashamed even now to admit I wrote it.   But when meeting with Wright, he kindly told me that the art of seduction—and he would know—was about subtlety, and the art of keeping things hidden. Those weren’t his exact words, but that was his meaning, having managed to measure his words with just the right amount of indirectness.   I was merely 18 years old then, barely conscious, but I walked away from his office rightly humbled and appreciative at the same time.

Artists of all kinds know this well.   Sex scenes in movies are great as long as you don’t have to sit next to your kids in the theater, but I am grateful to be spared the grunts and groans and appreciate the cut away to the gently rolling ocean waves, or the cigarette smoke rising to slightly obscure the rosy-cheeked afterglow.

The harsh brutality of life softens in indirect light. Direct sunlight has a way of bleaching out the soft shades that give life depth, leaving images that have too much contrast and not enough tones of gray. Photographers in Southern California must wait for the rare cloudy day in order to capture its beauty. In the studio, they bounce light in order to see the detail and combat brutal shadows.   Simply stated, we see better in indirect light.

There are cultural differences here as well.   The Japanese are noted for saying yes when they mean yes and saying yes when they mean no.   This has created many an abusive marriage, which I understand is a big problem in Japan.   New Yorkers are known to be very direct, while Californians are known to smile at you and then continue jogging.   People with autism (which I often think of in cultural terms) will not give or receive subtlety, which is both refreshing and dangerous if you prefer to think you’re having a good hair day when you’re not.   The English are known to be extremely indirect because it is difficult to be direct and polite at the same time, while Armenians from Armenia (as opposed to diasporan Armenians), having learned how to survive through multiple generations of Soviet fiscal mismanagement, will tell you whatever they think you want to hear in order to get what they need. Jews from the east coast will tell you your breath stinks and you should have a piece of rye bread, and Jews from the west coast will ask you if you ever had rye bread.

Of course, there is the omnipresent danger of being too subtle. People differ in their degrees of perspicacity, on a scale from completely clueless to paranoid schizophrenic. The trick, I suppose, is knowing who your customers are and their shopping habits. Or, if that is too indirect for you, knowing just how perceptive your listeners are and their preferences.

Pulling the mixture knob instead of the carburetor heat would have killed the engine, and practicing engine-out landings wasn’t on the agenda that day.   Even my instrument instructor might have slapped my hand away in that same situation after all.   To everything there is a season, I suppose, and it is in the knowledge of when it is best to go direct and when it is best to circumnavigate that the poetry resides.

Swimming Upstream

imagesWhen it rains in Saigon the streets gradually empty of motorbikes.   They disappear like birds at night.   But in all but the monsoon season, the rains don’t last terribly long, and soon enough the motorbikes emerge again, one at a time, from the alleyways and the invisible niches that make this city magical.

 In full force, the motorbikes swarm through the streets, reflecting the tension of opposites that appears to be more present here than in many other places I have been. At once the motorbikes appear to reflect a society that huddles together, that moves within the protective membranes of family and ethnic identities, and yet there is the pronounced nudging and blistering off of the single motorbike driver; and it is rarely clear when some anonymous bike will dart away from the others in a random vector, rudely declaring its independence from the pack.

 And there are those few who dare to travel against the pack, weaving their way through the swollen mass directly toward you, like a lone salmon finding its way upstream.   The riders on the bikes in the pack somehow don’t appear to feel violated as they veer off to let the intruder through, don’t appear shaken, as if they are somehow recognizing that this is an ineluctable fact of life: that wherever you go and whatever you do there will be someone flinging an obstacle your way that must be dodged.

I wrote those few paragraphs a couple of years ago on a business trip to Saigon. On my first trip to Vietnam, I walked everywhere I went, the second I mostly took taxis and got lifts from associates, and by the third I graduated to motorbikes, the way the locals do it.   It is unreservedly a motorbike culture, although the last time I was there I was told there was a governmental move to ban them from the city.   One of the staff members at the company where I worked told me that you judge people’s social status by the motorbike they drive, which I suppose is no different from the U.S., although we do it here with cars.

It is frightening to ride your motorbike against the swarm of traffic.   In fact, it can be terrifying, but the motorbike riders of Vietnam take it in stride.  They are tough and resilient, and don’t appear to bat an eye at the danger coming toward them, if in fact they perceive a danger at all.

As often as I have happily ridden with the crowd in my life, I have also learned the value of riding toward and against it.   If you speak up against authority in an organization and they punish you for it, then you are in the wrong organization.   Better organizations value dissent.   Prior to starting my own company, in which I proudly welcomed criticism, I had a pretty stellar run in two non-profits.   In both of those organizations I started on a low rung and left on a high rung.   The pattern was simple: work with the pack, develop relationships with the leaders, and make constructive recommendations designed to further the mission even when that meant radical changes to the status quo.

Such an approach doesn’t always work. Staff rebellions took place in both organizations, and in one, those who complained vociferously were fired, and subsequent to their dismissal, almost as if in spite, administrators implemented their recommendations.   The staff were fired, I believe, because the constructive elements of their criticisms were buried beneath personal antipathies. They focused more intently on what was wrong with the organization than on intelligent solutions that met the needs of all stakeholders, and the leaders of the pack were more intent on punishing insurrection than in maintaining a pack of discontented employees.

It isn’t always fun to ride against the pack, yet while it can be hazardous, the rewards can be substantial.   Fortunately, in every instance where I stood up to authority and rebelled against the status quo, I was rewarded, whether it was getting a better night’s sleep due to an enhanced feeling of integrity or rapidly being promoted. But as bold as I may become, you won’t find me intentionally riding through a long pack of motorbikes in the opposite direction.   In an organization, pretty much the worst thing that can happen to you by insisting on going up the down staircase is that you will get pink-slipped.   On a motorbike, well, the pink may turn out to be blood and the slip may be more of a collision, and with all those bikes coming at you, that could end up being one singularly bad day.






American Diners

American diners are best experienced at about 5:45 in the morning, when the air is crisp and the underbelly that is America at its core reveals itself.   I imagine the rest of the world has its equivalents, but I haven’t seen anything quite like the counter culture in which locals and travelers find each other cohabiting among spinning cracked leather or plastic-covered stools, over-carbed locals waking for steaming black coffee meeting travelers along the veins of the great American westward expansion, highways and byways carrying the laissez faire, hyperactive souls of those intent on going somewhere, anywhere else, because in America you simply could.

The diners are still around, though harder to find, and I am as drawn to them today as I was when they were less fusty. The waitresses still call you “honey” or “sweetie,” and their faces if not weathered by a harder life than anyone should have, are overly smooth and naïve and primed for the etching that accompanies the trauma of what at first appears to be a good decision. Oh, the stories those waitresses could tell, I imagine, although I never heard any of them. With the exception of a couple of anachronistic coffee shops in my small town that don’t quite achieve true diner status, I am not, after all, ever a local.   I am always just passing through.

I don’t know how the waitresses do what they do, how they manage to crack convincing smiles while pouring the thousandth cup of coffee of the day.   But they do what they do efficiently, acrobatically carrying five plates or more at once, taking orders with charm and grace and a gritty grounding that would make a therapist blush. Somehow these heroines manage to instill hope among the hopeless, which is perhaps why they come, to see Flo or Rosie, Ali or Fran, and even from time to time perhaps ignite a small spark in the otherwise stale lives that greet them in the stiff of the morning.

The customers are, for some reason, mostly men.   Grizzled men, hard-scrabbled, calloused, simple with big opinions and broken hearts. They are, I imagine, Trump voters, because they are frightened, lost boys, and the Bloviator-in-Chief is someone they know, someone who breaks easily and gets feathers ruffled and calls his big brother to beat you up after school.   They know this guy.

One of the more corpulent customers, a man of about 50, or maybe 60, or maybe 40 going on 60, walks over to a booth where a family of three are sitting.   The youngest looks to be in her late teens, and the man recognizes them and asks the girl to stand and walk with him over to the counter.   She obliges, and he puts his arm around her in a proud, avuncular way, and announces loudly to the five or six other men at the counter that she has just received her degree in nursing from some college.   She corrects him, and says she is some sort of technician, but the men all applaud her and she smiles genuinely, recognizing that somehow becoming anything is something to be proud of. Slightly embarrassed, she walks back to her parents in the booth, and they resume their now cold breakfast, speaking in tones I cannot hear from my booth some 10 feet away.

When not threatened, there is a sweet vulnerability to these men, maybe to the species in its entirety. I feel uncomfortable thinking about them as the “other,” but there is a big divide in this country, and as a rule, I am not invited to their homes for dinner nor are they invited to mine.   That is a regrettable fact of current American life, one which I know I should work harder at rectifying, but it feels like the gap has become too large.

This all happened on my way to City of Hope, where I was about to receive an MRI to see if my cancer had returned.   I never saw myself belonging to that crowd in the diner. But the MRI technician reminded me, now mostly in retrospect, of the waitresses I have met over the years.   After being positioned on the table, lying flat on my back, she asked if I was ready, and when I nodded affirmatively she gently rubbed my leg for about two seconds, and that simple gesture calmed me down, like the easy smile of a waitress in an American diner who doesn’t know you from Adam, but calls you “honey” as she pours you another cup of coffee.

10,000 Noses

logbookI had a hard time learning how to read as a kid.   It seemed to elude me, and I remember feeling ashamed and incompetent that other kids were reading well before me.   I don’t think it really “took” until I was in third grade, and then I remember reading Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift books, such as “Tom Swift and the Megascope Space Prober.”   My other staple was MAD magazine, in which easy-to-read cartoons were plentiful.

Although not generally sycophantic, I bordered on being thrilled when, about 20 years ago now, I learned that MAD cartoonist Sergio Aragones lived in the same small town to which I had recently moved. I saw his unmistakable looming presence at a local coffee shop, and somehow we struck up a conversation. When I told him how much I admired his work, he invited me to his studio, which at the time was just about 20 yards from the coffee shop.

It was there that I was to add another entry to my long list of faux pas. When I asked Aragones if he would draw something for one of my son’s friends who I knew admired cartoonists (and grew up, by the way, to be an extraordinary artist himself), he happily obliged, but while he was drawing I mentioned that I couldn’t draw worth a damn and simply had no talent in that department at all.

I quickly realized I had stepped on a landmine when Aragones erupted that that kind of thinking was ridiculous.   He insisted that he had no inborn talent either, but had to practice and learn his craft through hard work.   He told me that he didn’t believe in the idea of talent. He then drew me a picture of a nose. “The first nose you draw is going to be awkward. It won’t look like a nose at all.   But by the time you draw ten thousand noses, you will have learned how to do it.”

Given that this occurred two decades ago, which is hard for me to fathom, I am not certain those were his precise words, or if the number was exactly ten thousand.   It could be a confabulation, because I do recall that Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers” happened to mention that in order to do anything well, it takes doing it about 10,000 times, or 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell, however, was not intending to dismiss the idea of inborn talent as stridently as Aragones.   Not even 10,000 hours of practice at chess, Gladwell asserts, could make him a master chess player.

For me, the nature-nurture question has become stale, but so have all the other big questions.   I used to think a lot about the nature of consciousness, i.e., how is it possible to form awareness out of the clay of neurons, what’s behind the sky, what time is it, and what is time, anyway? And the one, of course, that plagues me most these days, what is the nature of death? (Or, for that matter, what is a megascope space prober?) Perhaps it is characteristic of my age, or my tangling with cancer over the last couple of years, that have made these questions less pressing.   Maybe it just seems a fruitless expenditure of time and mental effort to try to solve the unsolvable, given the endless possibilities life has to offer and the limits that define mortality.   Why spend precious time and effort on unsolvable problems when I can build a birdhouse, and have something I can look at or give away and bring a sense of bewilderment to the recipient?

Aragones aside, I do believe that most people who think about these things would agree that both some genetic endowment and a lot of practice are required to master anything.   We will certainly disagree about the proportions, and I for one will continue to grieve my lack of endowment in the DNA department.   But if there is such a thing as a genetic endowment for persistence (which I highly doubt), I will assent to the possibility that it is there where I excel.   I have chosen to employ that asset in other places: learning to fly airplanes, write blog posts, do psychotherapy, play the guitar and carry a tune (which, although there has reportedly been some improvement, even 10,000 attempts have failed to accomplish).

I have yet to test Aragones’ theory directly, having drawn less than a hundred of the requisite 10,000 noses.   I could, if I wanted to badly enough, but I lack the motivation, principally because I believe my deficit is just too big, and the nose I see in the mirror is, frankly, quite enough for a lifetime.

The FAA requires pilots to keep a logbook in which they are to enter basic information for each flight.   It is not out of braggadocio alone that a pilot will tell you that he or she has 15,000 hours of flight time; pilots are required to know that number.   But there is some pride that pilots take in the size of their log, because there is a prevailing view that the thicker you make it the better.   I have written here before about the myth of experience (or, if I haven’t, I will soon).   My thoughts can be summed up the same way I have tried to placate just a few significant others in my life: it isn’t how big you make it, but it’s how you make it big.

I do believe, however, that if you have flown 10,000 hours, traversed 10,000 miles, or drawn 10,000 noses, you are certainly more accomplished than the person just starting on the journey.   But whether or not you will ever become an Aragones, perhaps no one nose.










It’s a pilot’s job to fly, but the last thing you want is a flighty pilot.   To be flighty, according to Webster, is to be fickle, volatile, or capricious.   None of these are particularly good qualities when flying an airplane.   In fact, much pilot training is designed specifically to resist these tendencies.

It is true in all phases of flight, but most pertinent when landing. The key to a successful landing, it is said ad nauseum, is a stable approach.  Stability, not volatility, is what you want in an airplane, and by direct extension, its pilot.

Yet, airplanes can be too stable.   My Diamond is an example of an airplane designed for stability, with long wings and an oversized T-tail and rudder. It descends from gliders, which—having no internal source of thrust to bail it out of sudden wind shifts, must be designed to resist volatility.   The problem is that—sometimes, stability can work against you, as when you attempt to make a quick, sharp turn, or land in my home airport of Santa Paula, which many pilots have likened to getting in and out of a sardine can. My Austro-Canadian sardine really doesn’t want to make the sharp turns required of getting itself into the can, so it takes considerably more effort on the part of the pilot to fight the sardine’s tendency to swim straight ahead towards freedom.

To call someone flighty is usually not a compliment.   In fact, I don’t think I have ever heard it that way.   It isn’t a particularly valued trait, in this or any other culture I know of.   People want to know where they stand, and they don’t like fickleness or unpredictability, unless they can dictate the time and place.   In other words, we value unpredictability when we can predict it.   Safety, in humans, seems to trump adventure.

But life without unpredictability, of course, would not be a life much worth living. As humans are safety-seeking, we are also novelty-seeking, because it is through novelty that we learn and grow, and learning and growing in its wonderfully circular fashion eventually makes us safer. But ultimately, it is about landing safely.

Flighty is an adjective we usually hear attributed to women.   Men can be flighty as well, but they are usually called “silly” or “undependable.” “Silly” is okay if it happens briefly and doesn’t get out of control, but “undependable” is usually a deal-killer.   At the risk of over-generalizing, women often want men to keep them safe, and men just want women to keep them.

The chief complaint I hear from women who are trying to find a male partner is that they are boring. Stable is good, and very necessary, especially on approach. Confidence, I am told, is a big turn-on.   But too much stability in a relationship leads to the kind of stultifying ennui that motivates the other to find adventure in dodgy pastures.

Flying, unto itself, is a risky adventure, because humans were not designed for it, so we are fighting nature the whole way. To fly is to fight nature in the same way the philosopher Merleau-Ponty said that we owe our existence to our resistance to the world. It is not whether we fly or not, or whether we fight or flee, but rather how we do it that matters, and we can do it with too much stability, be boring, dependable, and fail to turn before the mountain hits us in the nose, or too much flightiness, and guarantee ourselves a trip on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.   As in all things, the trick to flying is to find a middle way, the right combination of gentle and firm.   And ultimately, that is the most likely path to a safe and fulfilled life.