Unusual Attitude Recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firmly, But Gently

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practice Makes Perfect, Sometimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving Trieste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






They Call the Wind the Bora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



What Matters

Morning:  Caffe San Marco

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

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

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

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

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

Afternoon:  Café Specchi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Somewhere Else

There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own.  They are the lordly ones!  They come in all colours.  They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists.  They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor.   They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinists.   They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding.  When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically.  They laugh easily.  They are easily grateful.  They are never mean.  They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness.  They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it.   It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste.

—Jan Morris, 2001

Usually when I read a paragraph more than once it is because I find that I am sleeping through it and don’t remember what I just read, but this one— from Jan Morris’s Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere—  I read repeatedly because to me it may as well be a prayer.

The first time I read it I imagined her Fourth World as the nation of travellers, and I thought Morris painted an exquisite picture of the people I have come to know through travel.   I recognized myself in the description, as well as so many others.   But then, reading it over, I thought her Fourth World described instead the nation of the expatriate, something I am not and unless Trump is elected president, something I am likely to never be.

The third time I read it I felt exposed– pleasantly lost and found at the same time.   It was as though I was wandering the meandering streets of an ancient city knowing I had no idea where I was in relation to anywhere else, but confident that soon I will spill out onto a known boulevard, exactly where I should be.

I have often wondered why I love to travel, what is the spark that motivates me.   I often just want to go someplace, and have as long as I could remember.   I imagine myself happy when I travel, but that is not exactly how it feels.   A couple of years ago my wife reminded me that the emails I send her while I am sitting alone in some skanky hotel room reveal deep loneliness and longing.   It is true, and my recollections of most of those cities whose ports of entry stamps bloat my passport—Tallinn, Helsinki, London, Paris, Hanoi, Manila, Yerevan, Budapest, Berlin, Tbilisi— would never warrant an adjective even close to happy.

I am happy, though, when I am with people who I meet, be they locals or expats, because happiness I suppose for me dwells in the texture of relationships with people and not place.   But there is something else, something other than happiness, that pulls me to place.   Given how often I have read over Morris’ paragraph above, I suspect it has something to do with her idea of a fourth world, that world she calls Nowhere.

Perhaps in my own version of Morris’ musings, I might prefer to call that fourth world Elsewhere, because for me, the magic that resides in travel is that I am not in the comfort of my own nest–  my warm, loving, familiar, and nurturing nest.  I am Somewhere Else, a place that isn’t so safe, a place that challenges my ability to communicate with others, to find a glass of water or a bathroom, or to figure out how to use a squat toilet.

Home is indeed as it should be—a place of safety and nurturance, but one cannot live on safety alone because that is a stagnation of its own sort.   I don’t know if you engage in this silly game, but I do more often than I would like to admit:  when I wake up in the middle of the night, or after I turn all the lights off and my wife has already gone to bed, and it is now pitch black, I am forced to navigate my way around the house blindly.    I bruise easily, and if I move too quickly I might even meet a wall or corner forcefully enough to nearly knock me out.   So while I am temporarily blind I imagine I have lost my eyesight altogether and am destined to navigate my way through touch and memory alone.  I take minor perverse delight in succeeding, although I do welcome my irises eventually adjusting and the gray visual world coming back on line.

Navigating blindly is uncomfortable, but it is easy to do in the familiarity and comfort of home, where you have a solid map of where the bed should be.   Home is the somewhere you know, the somewhere familiar.    And while the phrase “familiarity leads to contempt” is usually reserved for people interacting with other people, it may be equally as true for people interacting with the places they inhabit.

So it may well be that I do this traveling thing not to be happy, but to be uncomfortable, not to be familiar, but to be unfamiliar—not to be somewhere but instead to be elsewhere, or, in its ultimate form, to be nowhere at all.   And perhaps those of us who do the same find ourselves inhabiting a fourth nation, a nation with no singular passport to stamp, but a nation whose inhabitants have a deeper understanding of what it means to be confidently lost.  We laugh easily, we are easily grateful, we are never mean.




I am writing this particular post in a café in Trieste, Italy, not too far from where Rilke wrote the beginning of his “Duino Elegies.”   So it is fitting that I defer to Rilke’s poem from his “Love Poems to God.”   I am not sure this is the best translation, but here it is:

How surely gravity’s law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the strongest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.

Each thing-
each stone, blossom, child –
is held in place.

Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we belong to
for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God’s heart;
they have never left him.

This is what the things teach us:
to fall,
patiently trusting our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

I am convinced that the trick to becoming an expert at landing an airplane– or anything for that matter, is to approach each landing as if it were the first.   You bring everything your body knows to whatever first you are engaging in.

In Rilke’s poem, we learn to land better by first surrendering to “earth’s intelligence,” and then beginning again (and again), as a child.     We learn to land not by entangling ourselves in knots of our own making (over-thinking), but by instead maintaining what the Buddhists call a “beginner’s mind.”

I used to play tennis a bit in high school, and I find that whenever I am away from the game for a decade or so, my first time back I tend to play exceptionally well (for me).   The same is true for flying.   If I am away for a while and then return my first flight looks like I’m a pro.   It is the next 20 flights that look bad, because I am thinking rather than trusting what I already know.

There is an old story about how the philtrum—that little fold beneath your nose, comes about.   When we are conceived, the story goes, God gives us all the knowledge in the universe, but when we are born God touches us just below the nose and we forget everything.

In the course of mastering any skill, our task isn’t necessarily how to learn that which we don’t know, but instead, with the mind of a beginner, surrender to what is already known.

Here is Rilke again:

If the angel deigns to come it will be because you have convinced her, not by tears but by your humble resolve to be always beginning; to be a beginner.




Landing in Trieste

Trieste, Italy:  Tommy Roe is singing “Sheila” over the speakers at the Caffe degli Specchi in Trieste.    He is pretending to be Buddy Holly.   And now Bobby Vinton is crooning Blue Velvet.   Warmer than May her tender sighs.

I have no idea why American music from the sixties is—apparently—so popular in Italy.   To me, it seems so out of context and awkward, as if it should be welcoming to me as an American, but it isn’t.   I certainly don’t expect to get a good hamburger here, or even a good New York pizza (where, by the way, it was invented.)   But awkward or not, it just so happens to be my favorite type of music, and as such, it reminds me somewhat of a good landing at an unfamiliar airport.

As a pilot, there is little in life that compares with the thrill of a nicely executed landing.   Perhaps I am just stating the obvious when I say that in order to get there, or anywhere, you must go on the journey first.   You must take off and fly a while before you can experience the thrill of landing.

It has been said that the greatest thrill for a gambler is winning, and the second greatest thrill is losing.   For a pilot, the first thrill—if not the greatest, is the take-off.  The moment the wheels leave the ground and pilot and passengers are airborne is a thrill unlike any other.   It is a moment of sweet incredulity; it is a moment that happens but somehow is not supposed to happen.   It is similar to the simple, guilty thrill of breaking a rule and getting away with it.   In fact, when humans fly we are breaking the most fundamental “rule” of all—the law of gravity.

For some pilots, the flying itself– cruising above the surface of the earth, is their chief thrill.   Certainly, it is a vantage point one can hardly get any other way.   Personally, I love flying above the traffic on busy freeways, noting how stressful it feels to be down there stuck in a row of cars, and taking a brief moment of appreciation that there is nothing restricting my own movement but the limits of the airplane.

Then there is the thrill of landing.   I am not sure how other pilots measure this against the other aspects of flight, but it is certainly the biggest thrill to me, partly because it is the biggest challenge.   While you have certainly heard the pilot adage that any landing one walks away from is a good landing, there is clearly something special about gracefully touching down, planting the wheels on the ground like a sweet, gentle kiss on the cheek.   It is more, though, than the accomplishment.   It is also the symbolism.   Flying is dangerous– being planted on earth is less so.   Flying represents movement and stretching the boundaries of the possible, while landing represents the passive stillness and rootedness of home.   Travel without the sweetness of returning home yields more of a feeling of being lost than a feeling of safety.

For, as long as one is flying in the cockpit of an airplane, there is no looking across the table at one’s spouse of many years over coffee and tea, reading to each other what we have written.

Hearing about Tommy Roe’s sweet little Sheila whispering in my ear at a café in Trieste is certainly disorienting; where am I?   But a glance above the MacBook Air’s screen reveals the comfort of having a good landing.   There, you see, is the comfort of home.   Warmer than May her tender sighs.


Flying Too High

imgresIn the Greek myth, King Minos gets pretty annoyed with Daedalus, and exiles him and his son Icarus to a remote area of Crete.   Crafty craftsman that he is, Daedalus creates wings made from wax and feathers in hopes of escaping.   Knowing his son well, as good fathers do, Daedalus warns Icarus to fly neither too high nor too low, because the sun’s heat would melt the wax and the sea’s mist would drench the feathers.   The father and son together practice flying, and when Daedalus is satisfied that the two of them have mastered it, he sets a date for the escape.   When the date arrives, Icarus ignores his father’s injunctions and flies boldly toward the sun.   Lacking the strength of youth to fly after him, Daedalus can only watch as his son eventually plummets to his death.

The very first aviation aphorism I learned was that “there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but no old bold pilots.”   While some may point to the exuberance of youth and lack of fear inherent in the young as the primary moral to the Icarus myth, to me it is a story about the danger of boldness, or what those old Greeks called hubris.

Pilots crash and die for many reasons, and although there is no official category for hubris, it is often easy to detect.    At my local airport, a pilot died a couple of years ago while flying low along a riverbed.   Besides being illegal, it is also stupid, for reasons bold pilots have ignored since they took to the sky.  The pilot who died while flying along the riverbed managed not to see the electrical wires that spanned the riverbed, and he and his new girlfriend got tangled up in them just before reaching their ultimate destination.  I don’t mean to be tongue in cheek about a disaster that killed two people, but it is hard to be sympathetic knowing the pilot also killed his new girlfriend and caused such grief in their families.   All, it seems to me, as a result of a case of hubris.

Before doing a radio interview once I was coached to not be self-effacing.   The coach didn’t know me from Adam, but apparently he knew enough about radio to know that people who listen to radio aren’t particularly drawn to those who put themselves down.   Humility is one thing, but taken too far it sucks the sex appeal right out of you.

On the other hand, given the popularity of such characters as Donald Trump, hubris can have its own cachet, at least for half the populace.   From a romantic perspective, I believe I understand this.   Self-confidence and self-assuredness spawn feelings of safety, and that is the foundation of any relationship.   You don’t want your partner to quiver in his or her boots when protecting you from the blue meanies who have come to ruin your day.  But just as humility can slip into a lack of self-confidence, too much self-confidence can easily turn into hubris.   While a lack of self-confidence can cause you to melt under pressure, hubris can cause you to fight when fleeing would be the wiser (and safer) option.   It can cause you to believe that somehow you can outsmart nature and find a way to make it through that nasty thunderstorm, or believe that the instrument that is giving you that strange reading is just a faulty gauge and not the first in the long line of problems that will eventually kill you.

The Greeks knew this thousands of years ago, when they conceived the story of Icarus rising.   For pilots, altitude is our friend because it gives us more time to recover from problems and prevents us from bumping into things near the ground.  Hubris, however, has a way of evaporating our friendships, and leads to the kind of mistakes that can kill us.