The Go No-Go Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








The Route Not Taken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Chair in the Living Room

There’s a simple, upholstered chair in my living room.   It seems to fit me perfectly, just small enough for my feet to reach the ground, and sometimes I imagine it waiting for me as I shuffle out of bed in the morning.   I sat in that chair daily for long hours and weeks connected to a box slung over my arm that spit toxic chemicals into my jugular vein, ticking off the doses intended to destroy the cells in my body that just wanted to do nothing more than grow with reckless abandon.   Now that chair is where I like to write in the morning, before I am awake enough to censor my thoughts, or conscious enough to feel the pull of the dreaded details that strip me of the delicious languor of sleep.

It takes multiple cups of coffee to break up my nagging morning indolence, until the peripatetic ghost hiding in what’s left of my bone marrow finds my musculature and takes it over.  I don’t know how or why I feel driven to roam gypsy-like from one landscape to another, but I imagine that it began when I discovered the advertisements in the New York Times Travel Section that came to our apartment door promising free brochures in exchange for sending in the coupon.   I was a lonely kid, and desperately wanted to receive mail, and those big manila packages were delightful and made me feel important.   I do think those brochures were my introduction to the world outside the distance between my apartment and James J. Reynolds Jr. High School.

I hid them, for some reason, as though they were pornography, in the box inserted in the wall where you could put an air conditioner if you were wealthy enough to afford one. I had to unscrew the four corners of the metal cover in order to open and access the contraband.   In those troubled, pimply and pathetic years of adolescence, travel brochures were my refuge.  How I loved receiving mail, even if the sender had no idea or cared not a whit about who I was!   The Canadian Travel Bureau, if that was what it was called, did it the best, by the way.

I don’t know if it was the lush photographs in those brochures and the poetic marketing verbiage that fueled my imagination of distant places, or if they merely decorated what was already just a simple wish to escape the drama of my family. I was ill-equipped to handle that drama, so I drove a nail into the doorframe, bent it over the door to keep out intruders, unscrewed the cover to the air conditioner box in the wall, pulled out the travel folders, and escaped into the Norwegian fjords, quaint Old Montreal, and Yellowstone geysers of my mind.

So it was that a love of the places out there and the feelings that they generate grew in me.   It extended into high school, when I managed to get my driving permit at 15½.– the earliest age allowed.   I got a job washing dishes at Denny’s just to earn enough money to buy a car ($500. did it) and earn the money for gas so that I could drive it until exactly the amount with which I started was left in the tank, turn around and drive it back home.   At that point in my life, there was no greater feeling on earth than the cold wind blowing through the open window with the heater on full blast warming my body from the legs up as I twisted up the Pacific Coast Highway at night with the moonlit Pacific on the left and the hillside on the right and the radio blaring Janis Ian singing “At Seventeen” just to me.

Then, after college, and multiple trips across the USA, I bought a Eurailpass (I think for $200.) which gave me unlimited access to the European rail system for an entire month.   It was 1975, the year made special when, in a dormitory lobby in Innsbruck, I met the woman who 7 years later was to become my wife.   I stalked her (with her informed consent) for 3 days while we traveled on trains singing and gently arguing about whether Sinatra’s version was better than Ella’s.

When my kids were grown, I finally got the opportunity to take to the skies as I had always wanted.   Launching off the earth and guiding a ship through the skies is a thrill unlike any other.   But it is always about movement, about condensing time so that somehow, magically, it is possible to be one place and then another, very different place, where people dressed, spoke, walked and even gesticulated differently, architects designed buildings differently, and surviving the weather presented different challenges.

Then, there is the thrill that has taken me half a century to appreciate, the singular experience of coming home to the relative safety of the nest, where that upholstered chair is waiting for me in the living room.










Not Flying

Although it’s only flown once in the last year, my airplane is still required to undergo its (expensive) annual checkup, because in this country of fractured health care and inconsistent legislative imperatives, we are required to take better care of our airplanes than we are of ourselves.

While it is receiving its annual checkup, it is taken apart and I cannot fly it.   But I miss her, so after writing this, and going shopping for dinner tonight, I will be heading to my hangar to pay her a short visit. I know it can get cold and lonely in that hangar, especially with the cowling off.

It is said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, which is a platitude that has always rung true for me, at least until enough time passes that the walls of the heart thicken and whatever fondness may have resided there calcifies just enough to cause the heart to stop beating and kill us.   That is why falling in love with anything or anyone is one of the worst ideas God has implanted in the human psyche, yet many of us weaklings do it anyway, over and over again, until we drop dead from grief and longing.

This is a problem with flying. If you love it, and can’t do it, it becomes oddly reminiscent of that feeling you had when you fell in love with the girl in fourth grade who didn’t know– and probably would never know until 45 years later when you’re married and connect for the first time on Facebook, that you even existed.

Not flying, as is true with unrequited love, presents the practical problem of what to do and how to handle oneself until the desperation ends and the steed once again becomes mountable.   Many of us pass much of our time in this purgatory, and face the continual task of combatting the angst that sometimes accompanies languor.   The challenge, it seems, is to somehow get comfortable with the emptiness, how to find value not only in what we do, but what we don’t do.

This, I have discovered, can be learned.   I am a person who, when seeing an empty shelf in a bookcase feels compelled to find enough books to fill it up, or, when seeing a bare wall in my house, feels compelled to find a piece of art to make it interesting.   These things and others like them is a kind of sickness, I think, a form of avoidance of the essential, the abstract, the quiet and pedestrian.

One of my earliest failed attempts at fiction was a story about a man staring at a bare plaster wall, noticing all the cracks in the wall, and wandering through the cracks as though it were a map leading him somewhere.   The story, which sounds better as I describe it than what it was, was an unintended metaphor, I suppose, for how one can get lost in the mist of finding something in nothing, which, I suppose as well, is another metaphor for this life itself.

Ultimately, everything we either choose or are forced not to do presents us with an opportunity to do, learn, or be something else, and that reduces down to an attitude shift.   Albert Ellis, one of the two major originators of cognitive-behavioral therapy, dubbed a certain kind of thinking musturbating, in which we get fixed on what we believe we must be doing, thinking, or feeling.   Sometimes we think inside little boxes of our own creation, just like some of us manage to dress in the same drab style every day, not because it is what we particularly want to do, but simply because we feel skittish about stepping outside of our own boxes.

The voyeur in me loves to watch what people do when they are waiting to do something else.   Pilots in pilot lounges are often diligently sitting at a computer screen checking the weather and planning their next flight, catching some z’s, watching a big-screen TV, or reading a newspaper.   For some reason, I don’t see too many of them reading books, but that’s fodder for another post. At airports, as is true throughout the world, these days people are increasingly spending their precious time staring at their smart phone screens, probably, I assume, watching documentaries or studying the latest thoracic surgery research. I won’t tell you how I feel about “screen time,” although you can probably guess pretty well by now, but isn’t it sweetly hypocritical of me in that most likely you are reading this right now on some screen somewhere, and not in some tangible book, the pages of which you can feel and smell and put on a shelf and never have to worry about its batteries dying on you mid-sentence.

So I won’t be flying today, which, unto itself, is one of the several sad facts I am likely to encounter before the day is over. I do hate supermarkets, and I will be in and out in as short a time as possible. My challenge is how to make those empty spaces precious, how to find the maps to far-off places in the cracks in the otherwise bare walls, and I am confident that although I can musturbate at times with best of them, I am going to succeed.




Flying Through the Crash

cycloneThe old wooden roller coaster in Coney Island that once claimed to be the biggest in the world is still there.   I don’t know how much it cost to ride it now, but when I lived down the street from the Cyclone in the mid-nineteen sixties, the price of a ride was 80 cents. That was way too steep for this pimply teenager—about a penny a pound actually, so all I could do was imagine the feelings of the intrepid riders as I heard the squeals of excitement from my 13th story window in Brightwater Towers.

That was the excuse I gave back then.   But as I look back at it now, and feeling as I do about my own life mimicking that ride, the truth, I imagine, was that I was just too frightened.   Eighty cents indeed was hard to come by, but if I wasn’t so afraid of my frail frame evading the harness and tumbling to the pavement below I might have managed to find the requisite change left behind in the coin returns of pay phones.   Remember pay phones?

For every incline, for every ascendant pleasure, each plaque of appreciation, every dollar in the bank or glistening smile from across the room, there is an attendant crash.   I don’t think I knew it then, at least not consciously, but now I know too well that there is no grace without a fall, no breaking of a glass ceiling without mortal gashes from scattering shards.

In aviation there is an injunction that, if not saying it all, says it the most.   When you are about to crash, you have a singular task: to fly through it.   Not around it, but right through the middle of it. The simple four-word command to my mind reaches rarefied tattoo status: fly through the crash.

This is preposition power in all its elegant glory; to go through something implies there’s something beyond it.   You can go into something without ever coming out of it, such as a coma or a whole mess of trouble.   But to go through it means you’ve made it to the other side—scathed or unscathed— and therefore requires the assumption or faith that indeed there is another side.

It is, it seems to me, a fundamental principle of how one effectively deals with most of the crashes that a long enough life inevitably brings us.   I have had a few fairly overwhelming ones in my life, ones that I would certainly not wish on anyone, except perhaps in a few cases those who may have caused them.   (I’m struggling to let Karma handle those, but I hear she’s a bit of a chameleon and you can never tell if she’s really there.) You may well have managed to live through a few crashes yourself, maybe even some much worse than mine, and given that you are reading this now you have found some way to survive.   I suspect, though, that the more you continued to fly your airplane right through the crash the better the outcome.   The alternatives are denial and panic.   Denial– closing our eyes, pretending we aren’t in the midst of whatever painful landscape we are inhabiting, doesn’t bode well.  And when we begin to take in water and panic at the fear of drowning, that panic can lead to franticly flailing and taking in more water until we succumb.

The idea of accepting where we are rather than denying or panicking, and then continuing on by putting one foot in front of the other, is how we fly through the crash.   We just know where we are and continue to act toward whatever resolution awaits us on the other side.   And if we do so crippled by fear, having already taken in enough water to feel as though we are drowning, then we remain afraid, because that is where we are, as long as we continue to do what is necessary to keep flying.

While I am referring to faith, which is a deeply rooted assumption in a positive outcome, I am not referring to hope, which to me is a hook screwed into drywall that misses the stud. It may temporarily hold a flimsy picture, but don’t try to hang anything heavy on it. Hope will not get us through a plane crash, because if we depend on hope to get us through then we will end up assessing many potential disasters as hopeless, thereby robbing us of the motivation to keep flying.   It is only faith, which doesn’t ask questions or analyze situations, that keeps us fundamentally motivated to do what appears impossible, and keep flying.

Inevitably, we will survive some crashes and not others.   We just won’t know which is which until and unless we fly through them. There is an exact replica of the Cyclone at Magic Mountain in Valencia, by the way, about a 45-minute drive from my home in Ojai.   Some years back I paid the price of admission and tried it out.   By that time, I already survived a few crashes, so the Cyclone was a breeze.   I walked away from it a bit queasy, but mostly, I am here to tell you, I flew right through it.


Behind the Tree

Sometimes I still feel it as the airplane lifts off the runway, and for a brief moment my body becomes heavier and my stomach lighter as the ground begins to shrink below me.   I definitely feel it as the airplane enters a billowing cloud, and I become temporarily white-blinded and meld with that which from the ground I have often looked up at and tried to find meaningful patterns in.

There are moments of alchemy in which the ethereal crystallizes into the tangible, and the tangible appears to dissipate into ether. These moments are at once pleasurable and gratifying, and occasionally transformative.   People seek them, but I don’t think they can easily be found by seeking. They hide whimsically behind trees like children, but only come out when little is expected of them.

In each of these moments, all that exists is that single moment. We are unburdened by the past or future, by pretense or self-consciousness.   Shame, guilt, depression and anxiety vanish.   We become, fleetingly, exactly what we are and nothing else.

After all, most of us spend our waking hours engaged in acting out some sort of a role—a husband or wife, father or mother, sous chef, poker bluffer, dinner guest.   For those of us who may find life outside the confines of our solitude a struggle to put some square part of ourselves into the round holes of social interaction, moments in which all masks are off and our intrinsic selves are all we need to get by are precious.  For each of us, I think, whether socially fearful or not, freeing ourselves from the burdens of our roles allows a receptive engagement with the world around us, and when we do so we gain altitude, as it were, elevating those moments above the rest, and in the process elevating ourselves.

These numinous moments have the potential of becoming pivotal when they change the direction of our lives, but that doesn’t happen too often, and for stability’s sake probably shouldn’t.   Most of these moments are merely brief glimpses into what we hope heaven might feel like.

While seeking those moments can be a frustrating endeavor, most of us do try to create the conditions under which they are more likely to occur. Whether they are more likely to come in nature among evergreens and moss, or in a dank basement among rusty bicycles and greasy furnaces is a matter, I suppose, of knowing ourselves and our histories.   And whether they are more likely to come in a novel environment or one with which we are familiar and have traversed a thousand times, is also an open question.

When and how the numen appears I suppose is different for each of us.   It happened to me the other day when a red-haired, fair-skinned waitress with porcelain features and light blue eyes walked tentatively across the floor of the café where I was sitting to deliver some plates.   Every movement seemed fragile and uncertain, and something about her vulnerability tugged at me.

It used to happen to me (before my taste was diminished by cancer) when I ate certain sushi and closed my eyes because my visual sense detracted from the climactic experience of the perfect combination of tastes.

I still feel it sometimes when I listen to music and all else in life seems free from worry, often in the voices of Frankie Valli, Sinatra, Paul Williams, or Janis Ian.   Occasionally, Tim Moore singing “Second Avenue’ or Tom Waits singing his “Heart of Saturday Night” will set something stirring.

I can feel it when I touch a beautifully bound and printed book, or see a glimpse of a painter’s soul in her art. I used to feel it on boats moving across a body of water, perhaps in the primitive recollection of being tucked safely in the uterus, the taste of the saline mist and the gentle rocking as if held in loving arms. I feel it occasionally in the innocent, winsome, carefree play of a child.   A killer poem, such as James Reiss’s “The Green Tree,” will do it to me almost every time.   And of course, it happens sometimes when I am around the people I love; perhaps it is the very thing that defines that love.

I don’t have that feeling much anymore, and I wonder if that’s what happens when we pile up too many resolved or unresolved crises, or losses.   I don’t agree with Nietzsche’s statement that that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger; I think instead that it deadens us in another way, by numbing us to whatever numen might be hiding just behind the tree.   Occasionally too I think the lack of numen in my life is a sign of dysthymia, a jargon term for a mild depression.   But then I think that no, it is, instead, simply dukkha, the Buddhist notion of the rather normal suffering that pervades our daily lives and is part and parcel of that terminal condition that comes along with consciousness itself. And I also remind myself that efforts to combat that feeling of emptiness are only likely to worsen it, the efforts themselves setting up an ultimately unwinnable battle.

When I let myself think about it, which can be a curse unto itself, I wonder why I do anything in a life that is guaranteed to end. I don’t know why I write these blog posts, I don’t know why I fly, I don’t know why I go to the movies or travel.   I don’t know why I sing, write songs, or listen to music.   But I do know that I resent going to sleep because I feel as though I am going to miss one of those things, or something, or anything.  I do know that the more I concern myself with figuring out the reasons for things the less I seem to enjoy them.   This narrator who accompanies me wherever I go trying to figure things out can become annoying, and sometimes I want to shoot him, but I am afraid that if I shoot the narrator he’s likely to take me with him.

I am looking now across my living room at my dog who, despite her large lipomas has found a rather comfortable position in which to snooze.   She’s an old dog, and likely to die soon, but I don’t imagine she thinks much about it.   I do think she has a narrator, but I think the narrator tells her different stories, stories about the walk she took yesterday or the dog that once tried to bite her ear off.   I don’t think she worries much about dying, or whether or not she is losing her faculties, or if the strange sensation on her tongue means her cancer is returning. She simply manages to limp her way through the walk down the road, where the numen, perhaps in the scent of a rabbit, can be found hiding just beyond the tree.







The Flight of the Enchilada

enchiladaI don’t eat Mexican food too often, but when I do, I usually go for the chile relleno. There’s something wonderful about the balance between the spiciness of the chile and the softening effect of the cheese.   And even though most Mexican restaurants serve generous portions of everything, if the relleno came with only half a chile, I would likely be annoyed.   Like an enchilada, there is something unsettling about half a chile, half a dictionary, half a blog post, half an airplane, or half a flight to anywhere.

One can leave most things half-completed, but flying is something that essentially requires the whole enchilada. You can’t really stop flying mid-air between San Francisco and Houston, although you could always land and call it quits, and spend the night in a roach-infested motel in Gallup, New Mexico.   But in order to be a whole enchilada, or a whole anything, you are going to need more than the sum of its parts.

In order to get off the ground, you need just the right ingredients mixed in just the right proportions. Lift alone won’t get you anywhere, thrust won’t necessarily get you in the air, and drag—needed to keep you from going out of control, is actually designed to get you nowhere, which is why drag is a drag.   You need the whole enchilada, ingredients mixed just right, to achieve the alchemy of controlled flight.

I had a professor in college, whose name for reasons I would prefer not to mention, I don’t recall. (I give in– he slept with my ex-girlfriend, and even though she was an ex, it still bothered me.) He was fond of saying, half-jokingly I hope, that when he died he wanted the definition of “gestalt” written on his tombstone.   It was a silly thing to say, but as a mnemonic device it worked well because I remember the phrase now, more than 40 years later.   A gestalt, Dr. Whatshisname said, was the “ongoing, contingent, sociobiological organization of attention and action.”

We experience life in chunks—in organizations of attention and action, and each chunk is not only ongoing, but it is also contingent on what comes before and after it. The “before” part is obvious, but the “after” part was something illuminated by behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner, who insisted that what we do is often determined by what immediately follows it.

Contingency is important, because it is how things are connected, how we are all interdependent, and why if a tree falls in the forest we may not hear it but it will still scatter the ants beneath it.

As long as you keep cutting the enchilada in half, and realize that you still have an enchilada, then each half becomes a whole unto itself, especially if you keep eating it. You’ve just created smaller enchiladas. That is why in order for something to really be whole, it needs to be something greater than the sum of its parts. If, on the other hand, you were able to break down the enchilada the way I remember breaking down water in chemistry class into hydrogen and oxygen, interesting things begin to happen.

Enchiladas require tortillas, which require flour or masa, and water. To make the cheese you will probably need some milk, rennet, and maybe a starter culture. You might even add some salt to be adventurous.   Then there’s the chile pepper, and maybe a little guacamole.   None of those things on their own look or taste anything like an enchilada. But, mixed together in the right proportions and under the right Mexican sun, something greater than the mere sum of its parts begins to emerge.

It is, of course, alchemy when we mix ingredients to create something transformative.   It is alchemy when we mix lime with sand and water to create concrete, which by some magic of physics or chemistry becomes the building I am writing this in, and alchemy when you add rice to salmon roe and quail eggs to create the transcendent mixture of earth, sea and sky we call sushi.   It is alchemy when we fall in love, and even greater alchemy when we remain in love. It is alchemy when we fly an airplane. It is alchemy that is the foundation and the very substance of the feeling of awe, which so many have equated with a sense of holiness, numen, or spirituality.

Flying, as is true with everything we do, is a gestalt—a contingent organization of attention and action.   To be up high, beyond the realm even of happy little bluebirds, is an alchemical miracle.   As is true for love, good food, and those things that we value most, it is the transformation of disparate elements under the right conditions—a series of intentional acts that taken together exceed the mere sum of its parts.   It is, dare I say, the whole enchilada.






Faking It

For a short time, the woman who eventually became my wife lived in Schaumburg, Illinois, where she taught fifth grade. When I went to visit her from Kentucky where I was attending graduate school, she said she had two cats, but that I was likely only ever to see one.   Shadowfax, it seems, was terrified of strangers, and always hid when people were around.   I asked her where she thought Shadowfax might have been hiding at the moment, and she suggested he often hides beneath the Indian print skirt covering the large, retired wooden spool that served ubiquitously as a table in the sixties and seventies.   I got down on my knees, lifted up the skirt, saw a wide-eyed black cat cowering in the corner, reached in and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, pulled him out and cradled him firmly in my arms. My future wife was stunned by my stupidity, thinking no doubt that by all rights I should have been mortally wounded by panic-driven claws, but I was more than confident. I didn’t think about it; I just remembered what it felt like to hide behind the couch and somehow knew what was required of the situation.

I struggled with extreme shyness most of my childhood, to the point where neighbors used to say that they didn’t know my parents had three kids—they only ever saw two.   And when I learned about Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell, I remembered the sound of the doorbell in Queens that signaled my darting behind the semi-circular couch in the corner of the living room.   That corner behind the couch was my temenos, my safe and sacred space, where no one could harm me.

At 14, I somehow managed to find a girlfriend (or rather, she found me), but she grew increasingly impatient because I found one excuse after another to avoid meeting any of her friends. Approaching a group of people, and parties in particular, was like walking through the gates of hell.

When I reached my early twenties, I vowed to overcome my shyness and I used every technique I could find in the textbooks and some I invented on my own to lick it.  The best strategies were the ones I developed on my own.   It’s embarrassing, in retrospect, but the most effective was simply to pretend, to convince myself I was someone else.

Although I was skinny as a rail, hunched over, and had a face that was plagued by “the second worst” case of acne my dermatologist had ever seen, convincing myself I was someone else meant that I would imagine I was handsome and famous (Paul McCartney was often the favored choice), study their mannerisms, and pretend I was them. When I was a Beatle, I even had a pretty good Liverpool accent, but I only went that far when talking to myself.   The thing about self-help is that some of these silly things work, and when they do it’s pretty exciting.

“Fake it til you make it” wasn’t quite a mantra, but the fact that people responded positively to the feigned confidence made it worth the discomfort and great effort that went into it.

But faking it had its down sides.   Besides the effort it took, I knew it was a fabrication, a mask to hide the truth, and in lying that way I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt, but perhaps even worse, I was still hiding. Yet, I also knew that the goal of faking it was to make it, and making it means that the it you’re seeking becomes a genuine part of your personality.   It’s a classic strategy for learning anything, especially in the arts.   Some of us read literature in order to write; how many poetry professors over the years would tell us to imitate the style, if not the content, of our favorite poets, until we find a voice that is distinctly our own?

But imitation can only get you so far to making it, because, well, after all, I wasn’t born in Liverpool and can’t sing worth a damn.   The goal is only to model others insomuch as we learn who we are, what feels right and good, and matches whatever inherent predilections we might have.   To truly conquer diffidence, you need more tools in your toolbox.

I tried implosion, in which you force yourself to face your worst fears directly by brass knuckling it, and systematic desensitization, where bit by bit you pair relaxation with your fears. I became so good at relaxing that after my first year as a psychologist at a day treatment center for children with emotional disturbances I was voted the person the staff “most wanted to go through a crisis with.”   I was really hoping to get “best dressed” that year, but I had to settle with the former.

Hypnosis helped as well, although those effects were serendipitous outcomes of my work with clients.   I would use the prompt of having my clients press their thumb against their index finger, and gently squeeze them together in order to trigger a relaxed state that we had previously practiced, and after a while I would begin to recognize when I was tense because I would look down at my hand and notice my own thumb and index finger pressing together.

The encouragement of angels helped as well. As an intern at a large state mental hospital, I was required to attend case conferences in which the staff sat around in a circle discussing a patient.   Once, after having attended multiple conferences and never daring to speak, I meekly raised my hand (unnecessarily) and made a soft-spoken comment in spite of my rapid heartbeat.   After the meeting, the kind charge nurse came up to me, and undoubtedly out of some maternal instinct not normally found within miles from a psychiatric hospital, told me that she really appreciated what I had to say at the meeting.   It was sweet and simple, but that small kindness went a long way, given that I remember it so well now 40 years later.

I do believe, along with Eliot, that the goal of this one wild and precious life is to return to the starting point and know that place for the first time.   If I did return to that beginning, I might find myself hiding behind the couch again, or at least finding my own temenos and settling into that feeling of comfort and safety.   In some ways, retreating into my favorite chair at home, my car, my workshop, and my office are all little corners in which my five-year-old self hides.  But I think I have traveled too far, been scratched and bitten too many times in this life, to reach into a dark place to grab a terrified cat.   But who knows?   I pretty much licked that shyness thing, so maybe anything’s possible.





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.