Earning It

I made a lot of mistakes during the checkride that was to finally determine whether or not I earned the privilege of carrying a blue pilot certificate around with me in my wallet.  I made so many of them that I was convinced I had failed.

I was shocked when after my last landing the examiner offered me an outstretched hand and said “congratulations.”  He told me to tie down the airplane and meet him inside while he did the necessary paperwork.  When I got inside, I told the examiner that I was certain I had failed.  He looked at me reassuringly and said, “You earned it.”

Given the number of things I had done wrong, and his criticism at several key junctures in the flight, I began to wonder exactly what I did right to earn the privilege.   Eventually I came to believe that I was rewarded with the certificate because I demonstrated something that I don’t think the examiner ordinarily saw.

There is an interesting rule that applies to the checkride.   Despite the fact that the pilot being scrutinized is still technically a student, the pilot is also legally considered the “pilot in command.”   What it means to be pilot in command is that the pilot, and only the pilot, is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the flight.   That responsibility, it seems, is not just about knowing the craft of flying so well that the airplane is truly subservient to its pilot; it is also about an attitude.

At the beginning of the checkride, the examiner suggested that we head out toward the coastline between Point Mugu and Santa Barbara to do the maneuvers that demonstrated that I was proficient in handling the aircraft.   I responded by saying, “No, let’s go to the Santa Paula aerobatic box.   The place you’re suggesting is a corridor for traffic up and down the coast.   It’s safer near Santa Paula.”

He looked surprised that so early in the flight I opposed him, but he also seemed pleased at the decision, and quickly relented.   He broke one of the few smiles I saw during the flight, and simply said, “Okay. “

Another moment of surprise came after the maneuvers, some of which did not go so well.   We were flying out of the box, just east of the small Santa Paula airport where I had taken most of my lessons, and he said, “Where do you want to do your landings?”  Just as we were approaching Santa Paula, he said “How about Santa Paula?”

I responded contrarily again, and said that I would rather do my landings in Oxnard, a relatively large, towered airport only a few miles away.  I thought, but didn’t say,  that I would rather have the comfort of a 6,000 foot long and 100 foot wide runway which would more likely hide my mistakes than the needle in a haystack runway in Santa Paula.   The examiner undoubtedly expected that I would choose the more familiar Santa Paula airport that we were just flying over, so he was surprised again.   But I was the pilot in command and that’s where I wanted to go.

The last surprise came as I entered the pattern at Oxnard.   The controller, who didn’t know I was a student, gave me an instruction I had never heard before and one I have rarely if ever heard since.   He told me to “make short approach” and abort the remainder of the downwind leg of the pattern and land immediately to make way for fast traffic coming into the airport behind me.  I quickly glanced over to the examiner, who began to nod his head to cue me to say what was indeed the first thing that came to my mind.   It was the single magic word that gets you out of jail free: “unable.”

Exhausted and convinced I had already failed, I keyed the mic and instead of the magic word I said another one: “wilco.”   “Wilco,” for those not familiar with the shorthand, is a portmanteau for “will comply.”   Out of the corner of my eye I could see the shocked, and even a bit frightened, expression on the examiner’s face.   I simultaneously kicked in left rudder, pushed the nose down, cut the power, and turned the yoke toward the big fat runway.   The gentle Cessna 150 floated swiftly and gracefully toward the center of the runway, where I made one of the best landings in my life.

I couldn’t help but once again see the surprised expression on the examiner’s face.   Although he had nothing but criticisms to say up to that point, he couldn’t help himself and he uttered, “That was a great landing.”

“Thanks,” I said diffidently, still convinced I had failed.

I did two more good landings after that, and it is possible that it was my landings that convinced the examiner to pass me.   But in retrospect, I don’t think so.   After several years of pondering what went right (what went wrong was obvious), I think that the key to my passing was my polite but clear refusals to do what he came to expect.

It takes both skill and judgment to fly safely, but in the contest between the two, judgment wins out.   In the case of my checkride, I didn’t merely accept what I thought was expected of me, but instead opted to make my own decisions.   I clearly did not demonstrate that I was the most skilled pilot, but I did show the examiner that I knew how to be pilot in command.   Hopefully, that’s why he thought I had earned it.

 

The Putt and the Pendulum

Poe_pit_pendulum_byam_shawIt’s a good thing you can’t copyright titles, because I had to steal this one.   It’s just too good.   The play on Poe refers to a clever study by Harvard social psychologist Daniel Wegner designed to emulate a phenomenon well-known to golfers—the tendency to miss easy putts when the pressure is on.   In the study, subjects were told to hold a plumber’s pendulum—a string with a pointed weight on the bottom of it—and try NOT to move it in any direction. Wegner found that the greater the pressure to get it right, the more the string moved. The more you try not to do something, or tell yourself not to do something, the researchers hypothesized, the more likely you are to do it.

Eventually, after a series of similar experiments this notion became known as the “ironic effect,” because giving clever names to common phenomena makes you famous, helps you get published and increases your chances for tenure and income, especially after you do a TED talk. Perhaps because it wasn’t catchy enough, Wegner renamed the phenomenon the “white bear (or polar bear) problem” after reading Dostoevsky during his summer break.  Fyodor wrote: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.

Ironic processes have been proposed to arise as a result of the unconscious (automatic) component of thinking being heightened during periods of stress, creating an overload which then interferes (through “hyper-accessibility”) with conscious thought, resulting in less focus and poorer performance. The unconscious monitor is thinking “If I miss this putt I’ll lose the tournament, be ashamed, and my mother will have to tell her friends in the nursing home.”   The stress created by TV cameras, high stakes, and Tiger Woods teeing off behind you can be intense, thrusting the unconscious monitor into consciousness, thus interfering with the conscious thought—“softly about six inches to the left,” thus distracting the golfer enough to impair concentration and performance.

Increase the pressure to do something right and we are more likely to do it wrong.   But that principle doesn’t work all the time.   Performance under pressure works like an inverted U-shaped curve, in which too little pressure has no effect on performance, and too much pressure really screws us up.   The trick is to find that middle way, in which there is just enough pressure to push us toward our best performance.

When I was a young teenager, there was an Orthodox synagogue located down the street from where I lived called the “Sea Breeze Synagogue.”   The old wooden building was built close to the turn of the last century, and badly in need of repair, but rather than tear it down they decided to build a new building in the empty lot next door.   There was a steel girder, about a foot wide, spanning the length of the empty hole where the foundation and basement was to be, maybe 25 feet long.   The width of the girder was certainly large enough to walk across without fear.   But the fact that it was suspended over a large hole, large enough to do serious damage should one fall into it, made the walk from one end to another too daunting. I knew some kids who did it, or said they did, but I wasn’t going to be one of them.

It was an easy task, but the context “spoke to me” and made it out of the question.   If I simply were able to put it out of my mind it would have been a sea-breeze.   But instead, had I tried it, the knowledge that if I fell I would likely not survive or be paralyzed for life would overtake my focus and I would, as it were, be more likely to miss the putt.

Psychologists recommend distraction as a chief strategy for dealing with such distractions.   In other words, think about something else while doing the thing you already know how to do well, and your newly conscious thought will serve as the antidote to the venomous voices in your head. While it seems counter-intuitive that thinking about how to best prune roses while walking across a tightrope will increase the likelihood of making it across without splattering one’s viscera on the floor of the arena below, to then be devoured by the abused lion while the lion-tamer is distracted by the malfunctioning of his assistant’s wardrobe, who in turn might be distracted by the thud of your own body having fallen three feet from her, I am told by psychologists more knowledgeable than I that indeed this is a good way of coping with the white bear problem.

My white bears often overwhelm me, and distraction never quite does it for me.   I try, for sure, but sometimes I just have to give in to the white bears.   Maybe that’s why I could never play golf.

 

 

Follow that Bug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

This Isn’t About Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Angle of Attack

angle of attackAnything can “fly” if you push it through the air, or propel it, as you might have done with a balsa wood airplane as a child.   Or, if you played with dolls instead of airplanes, threw your Barbie across the room because your mother refused to let you wear your party dress to school. But if you aimed the airplane or the Barbie, or the Barbie in the airplane, straight ahead of you it quickly would have been pulled down to the ground by the relentless force of gravity.

For an object to continue on its path upwards it needs a force other than the thrust of an energetic arm to oppose the pull of gravity.   Physicists give this mysterious force the simple but poetic name “lift.”

Lift, in an airplane, is created by the difference in air pressure above and below the wing.   Due to the shape of the wing, air flows smoothly below the wing, but is disrupted above the wing by the wing’s curvature.   This disruption causes gaps in the atmosphere, lowering the pressure above the wing such that the higher pressure beneath “pushes” the wing upward toward the lower pressure.

That is why nerdy, snooty types take joy in saying that it isn’t really the airplane that is flying, but rather the wing.   For the most part, wings “carry” the fuselage and its passengers upwards. Not incidentally, when a pilot wishes to “roll” an airplane, that is, to rock its wings so that one goes up and the other goes down, he or she merely changes the shape of its wings by raising and lowering ailerons (a section of wing that is capable of moving).

Now, if you think about it for a moment, in order for the difference in air pressure to be created by the wing at all, the wing needs to have an air mass to oppose it. A wing won’t fly in a vacuum—which is why spacecraft don’t need wings at all. (Without gravity, there is no need for lift, and “up” and “down” have entirely different meanings; essentially, there is only “here” and “there”.)

Now, lest you think all this silliness is just random aviation arcana, I would suggest that it is rather important prelude to understanding the notion of “angle of attack,” which is the topic of today’s lecture. Simply stated, if you were to imagine a line drawn from the front edge of a wing to the back, and call that line the wing’s cord, then the angle between the cord and the wind is called the “angle of attack.”   It is a beautiful name, as so many things are in aviation, because, in essence, the wing attacks the wind, and the result of that altercation is not fight but flight.

If I haven’t lost you yet, you should begin to appreciate the richness of this metaphor.   First, you simply can’t get anywhere–you can’t even get off the ground, without creating a difference. Combine that difference with energy in the form of thrust and you really can take off.   It gives new depth, at least for me, to the old French saw “vive la difference!”   There really is no vive without difference.

But, too much difference may get you in trouble and lead to a stall.   You see, when a wing exceeds its critical angle of attack, the air above the wing will burble, and the pressure difference needed for the wing to fly disappears.   The wing “stalls,” is overtaken by gravity, and tumbles toward the earth.

I had a mentor who once said that the only difference between creative people and crazy people was that creative people get paid.   Sometimes, I suppose, that may be true, but sometimes crazy is just taking creative a bit too far.   Difference may be essential for flight, but too much difference may be hazardous.

As good metaphors would have it, exceeding one’s angle of attack and stalling is also a danger of metaphors themselves.   One risks the danger of creating meta-metaphors, and rapidly spiraling toward oblivion.   So, in a desperate effort to maintain your attention and remain airborne, let me lower my wings and get literal.   Perhaps it is just a simple, physical truth that in order to achieve flight we must make a difference.   That could be as simple as trying a new brand of coffee bean, adopting a neglected dog, or if you’re so inclined, creating a new vaccine.   But going too far ahead of the curve might land you out of a job or earn you a ticket to the few remaining loony bins.   Just remember to aim high, but when you begin to feel the burble, lower those creative wings of yours.

There will be a quiz next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All This Blighter Can Do

belly dancerI have nothing to say.   Not this morning as I sit here waiting for my coffee beans to extrude their bitterness into the water in which they are bathing.   Not any morning.   I am the embodiment of Billy Preston’s dictum in reverse: nothing plus nothing is nothing.   Nada.

Even as my daughter’s sweet little dog leaps up to join me in this favorite chair of mine, cuddling against my right arm and trembling, perhaps realizing that my wife is preparing to take a week-long writing retreat and leave the two of us to fend for ourselves—even as I sit here now fueled by darkly roasted coffee beans steeped long enough in the French press to enable most humans to leap tall buildings in a single bound, I can offer you, dear, sweet, patient and charitable reader of mine, nothing.

I can hear Julie Andrews singing in my ear: “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through– First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?”

‘Fraid so, Julie. You see, in the mid-seventies, as a graduate student in Murray, Kentucky, we had a visiting professor come to teach a course or two.   Michael Kaye was a graduate student himself from some other university, an “ABD” as we called them (having completed “all but his dissertation”), and he was simply brilliant, or at least that’s what my 23-year-old, barely crinkled brain thought.   He lived with his short, stocky, effervescent girlfriend, who once popped into the living room in full belly dance attire to entertain my then-girlfriend and I in their living room, the image of which I still have trouble wresting from my mind.

I admired Michael, in spite of his choice in girlfriends, and asked to read the most recent draft of his dissertation.   It was, as I recall, an extraordinary tome, literary and conjectural, and I told him that I liked it so much that he should publish it as a book. He didn’t hesitate to tell me that he had “nothing new to say” so wouldn’t even consider publishing it.   Was this humility, I wondered, or was he simply making a fair point?

Many years, perhaps decades later, I was teaching family therapy at Harbor-UCLA Medical School to psychiatry residents and a sprinkling of psychology fellows. One of the psychology fellows—Martine Van Milders, devoid of any trace of obsequiousness, commented after one of the classes that she enjoyed the way I presented family therapy, and that I should write a book.   Channeling Michael Kaye, and quite honestly, I simply expressed gratitude for the compliment, and added “But I have nothing new to say.”

Clearly more perspicacious than I at a similar point in our careers, she didn’t hesitate to set me straight: “No one has anything new to say.   It isn’t whether you say something new that matters, but how you explain what everyone else has to say.   That is always new.”

Comeuppance sings and hums like a perfectly tuned airplane engine, and learning from our students is especially sweet, in that “child is father to the man” way. Martine’s encouragement was a turning point for me, providing the rationale I needed to write my second book (the first one being a schlock collection of “activities” written with the jejune and dubious motivation of getting a book published before I turned 30).   So I wrote a book with nothing new to say, although I said it differently than others, contributing a single snowflake to the vast storm of family therapy literature.

These days, as I sit in fear of the dying of the light, I can’t help but find myself wondering why on earth any of us—what we do or who we are, matter in the brief moments between the before and after.   In the vastness that is the universe of space and the infinite of all that came before and all that will come after, I can’t help but wonder—perhaps in the renewed adolescence that seems inextricably woven with senescence, what meaning to attribute to this minute speck that is each of our lives.    Sometimes, I imagine, we are merely God’s expendable playthings, little marbles forever lost under the couch.

Perhaps, some of us will be remembered for a brief period after our corporeal deaths. Perhaps, a few of us will be quoted generations down the road.   But none of us, I imagine, will have had anything new to say.   Perhaps the only task that is embraceable is to simply say it all differently, to live a life that is uniquely ours.   We have little choice in that, I suppose, other than the choice of how fully to embrace that task. We can certainly choose to not bother to read or write because it has all been done and said before.   Or, we can embrace it, and write about nothing in our own unique and hopefully gratifying way, or hell, who knows, maybe even break out into a belly dance, chunky middles and all.

An Anniversary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Driving on the Left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.