The Airport

There is little about an airport, a bus depot, or train station that I would think of as exhilarating.   These way stations, these points of departure and arrival are dreamy places, often fusty and threadbare, atavistic relics of the exhilaration of travel when travel was taking root among the new middle class in the U.S.   It seems, even, that by the time the new infrastructure is built, the remodeled terminal’s ribbon is cut and in a matter of just a few years, the features designed to freshen and update become mere architectural assumptions.

Airports are dreamy places because, at least for me, I am nearly always tired by the time I get there, either from having to awaken at an awkward time or having arrived after sleeping fitfully at best en route.   They are also dreamy because, although one is about to go someplace or get someplace, we sit in waiting areas because, well, we are waiting.   Having now traveled for many years I rarely if ever plan a trip with a short connection.   The stress of the rush to the next flight, ferry, or bus is not worth whatever convenience it might afford on the other end. So more than ever, the harbor is a place of waiting, and often a matter of waiting alone.

Bus depots, these days, are often louche, home to drifters and grifters, a homeless home for the homeless, with bathrooms devoid of toilet paper, toilet stalls whose doors don’t align, graffiti scratched in the partitions, and urine smells that hang in the air.   One can be assured there will always be something out of order, whether that be a vending machine filled with expired candy bars or the entire women’s rest room, and if there’s an alley nearby you know that it would be best to avoid it, lest you inadvertently step on a used syringe.   The internet has now replaced most ticket offices, which remain for decorative, nostalgic effect, or more likely, because the remodeling budget didn’t include enough dough for demolition.

One can, I imagine, live their entire lives without ever encountering a classic American way station, but that would be difficult now in days when at least some travel is within the reach of all but the poorest of Americans.  It would be a shame, I think, but not everyone shares the sensations that I have when in an airport, or a port of any kind.   As a portmanteau, it is easy to forget that an airport is an airplane port, a port like any other, a harbor whose waters run deep with stories of shelter, departures and reunions.     The port shelters us from stormy seas, welcomes us, and nurtures us after and between long journeys.   They are windows through which we glimpse opportunity and adventure, or smell the subtle scent of home approaching. It is the diving board from which we escape the tedium of life and trade it in for a guaranteed adventure, or, on the other hand, it is the place that welcomes us to the relative calm of a storm left behind.

They are not always welcoming places.   Than Son Nhat airport in Saigon, for example, always seems as though I am walking into a steamy bee’s nest, perhaps an appropriate greeting, but still frazzling as hordes of humanity busily dash from one square meter to another and back again in what seems like a random pattern. I would prefer a softer greeting, but there is something refreshing about the slap in the face that this airport offers, just in case you had any delusions about serenity being in your short-term plans.

Yet, for each of these frantic airports, there are many more like Duluth, Minnesota, where there never seems to be more than a handful of people politely waiting to get through security, and the warmth of the indoor heating gives you a taste of the hearth and ingleside to come.

Whether frantic or placid, they all serve their purpose, and they all have those (now, sadly, mostly electronic) boards, inviting you to wonder and wander.   There it is—Rio de Janeiro, Tucson, Manchester, Prague.   Someone gets to take a ride among the clouds tonight.   Someone will get to walk down a gangway and into a vessel that will pierce the sky on its way over continents, oceans, cities and farms. Someone will get to leave this port and land at another.   Someone will make their dreams come true.




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.




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.






A Friend in Low Places

My angels, when they decide to show up for work, are my friends in high places.   But I, along with all pilots, have a friend in low places too. She goes by the rather awkward name of Ground Effect.     It is one of the least poetic of aviation monikers (she once whispered to me that she would prefer the sexy, French name “Pitot Heat”), but when she shows up she can indeed be quite poetic.

Aeronautical textbooks tell me that this angel is the “increased lift and decreased aerodynamic drag that an aircraft’s wings generate when they are close to a fixed surface.”   That surface is typically the ground, and so a simpler definition of ground effect is an airplane’s increased performance as it launches skyward and touches down.

As you touch down, ground effect feels like a friend, a soft cushion, or a nurse with sweet, knowing eyes as you wake up from a coma in a foreign hospital. And as you depart skyward, ground effect temporarily adds a little oomph to the launch, a gentle assist, a glance and a wink from the girl on the barstool that you imagine might actually happen someday.

Those of us who have lived long enough to tell stories have undoubtedly encountered such effects in our lives. It may appear to be the guardian angel who intervenes when the doctor calls and says that the test results were negative, or the mother who picks you up and comforts you when you come home in tears after being hit between the eyes by a snowball that turned into ice as it rapidly reached its target.

Having a purposeful life—a life of service to others, functions similarly to ground effect as well, as a balm for bitterness and regret.   Having a life filled with service to others not only cushions others’ hard landings, but eases our own burdens as well. Emerson said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Ground effect can fool you, though, into believing you are flying better than you are, and has undoubtedly contributed to some pilots meeting their maker just as they meet that hill in front of them that they initially thought they could climb over. That is because on takeoff, the effect of improving your ability to fly will get you off the ground quicker than if ground effect didn’t exist, and as you climb and exit ground effect, you experience a reduction in flying ability and the airplane will lose some lift and sink.   While pilots are trained to “fly out of ground effect” and adjust as they make their way through this transition, especially when combined with a hot, humid or high altitude situation, they fail to consider just how difficult it can be to climb once the extra support of ground effect leaves you and the airplane behind.

Sometimes, expecting that ground effect will ease your transition from air to earth, it will seem as if it is doing its job too well, and delaying your appointment with the runway.   If you find yourself running out of runway before the airplane touches down, ground effect may seem like that good friend that Oscar Wilde reminds us stabs us in the front.   It becomes the friend who tells us straight up that our zippers are down, or that you left that long sticker on the back of your pants that lets everyone know how big your waist is.

Physics will have a good explanation for those occasions when ground effect seems to work too well for its own good, or when it seems absent entirely and I land with an unwelcome thud.   I have always landed hard on myself when my airplane lands hard on the runway, but perhaps it isn’t really my fault.   Although I may have had a good flight, my angelic friends in high places keeping me safe as I leave the ground, cruise, and begin my descent, maybe that thud as I land hard is just my friend in low places failing to show up when I need her.   Angels, I guess, occasionally need some time off.





The Big Sky Theory

mathOn any given day, there are about 87,000 flights undertaken, and at any single moment, there are between 5 and 10 thousand airplanes (commercial and private) in the skies over the United States alone. According to the FAA, on an average day, controllers handle 28,537 commercial flights, 27,178 private flights, 24,548 “for hire” flights, 5,260 military flights, and 2,148 cargo flights.   And these numbers don’t include private pilots who choose not to talk to ATC, as I often do when out cruising the neighborhood or when flying around non-towered airports.

There’s so many airplanes up there at once it’s a wonder they don’t bump into each other more often.   They don’t, it seems, because relative to the sheer volume of atmosphere in which they fly, all those airplanes actually don’t take up a lot of space.   The relative volume of airplane to the volume of sky in which they fly being the reason that they don’t bump into each other more often is called the “big sky theory.”     And statistically, given the ratio, the chances of one airplane bumping into another should be close to zero.

But although it is happening less and less, it does happen, roughly a dozen times a year, especially in crowded airspace (such as busy airports) where airplanes are more likely to converge. The big sky theory, it appears, doesn’t work that well, because the statistical probability of it ever happening is very close to zero.

Once, at a party in the living room of the Victorian house I was renting as a student with several roommates in Santa Cruz, California the math instructor and brilliant folk music satirist Tom Lehrer entertained us by demonstrating statistically that it was impossible to get wet when walking through the rain.   Perhaps it was the blackberry brandy that mysteriously found its way from a bottle in my back pocket to my tummy that prohibited me from understanding the arithmetic, but his statistics appeared impeccable and his argument was compelling.

Now, I may not be able to tell you the formula for chi-square off the top of my head, but I can work my way around ANOVAs, MANOVAs, and one of my favorite statistics (and Russian movie stars)—ANACOVAs, with fluency. Compared to highly trained academic statisticians, I still sit at the kid’s table, but I retain some perhaps egoistic pride in my ability to do discriminant function analyses, and I can work my way around most research articles I read.

The big sky theory doesn’t work for similar reasons that you really can’t wet when walking through the rain.   It is very easy to misunderstand (to be generous) or deceive (to be cynical) with statistics.   (I am fond of “proving” to kids that I have 11 fingers by counting down from 10 on one hand and then adding five when I get to the other.)

That is why Joel Best’s book “Damned Lies and Statistics” and its subsequent editions should be required reading for anyone who reads anything, pretends to know something, and hasn’t studied statistics. It should also be required reading for journalists, with whom I have particular antipathy for perpetrating the most heinous of statistical misstatements.

Theories can be extremely convincing, especially when backed by statistics.   As an autism “expert,” I once described in detail the theory behind how the preservative thimerosal, used in the MMR vaccine, can cause autism.   I had a room full of family practice residents convinced, possibly because I sprinkled the explanation with statistics. (The proportion of thimerosal in vaccines, the multiples of mercury based on the FDA’s own limits of safety, the correlation between mercury poisoning and autism symptoms, etc.)   The theory can be made to look rather compelling, but it’s just wrong. These residents were smart cookies, but I could have just as easily convinced them that I had 11 fingers.

One of the many problems with statistics is that it is a very poor method for predicting low-frequency events, such as rain in California, earthquakes, violent behavior, or midair collisions. It is nearly impossible to account for all the variables required for a low-frequency (or extremely complex) event to occur.

The driveway to my domicile is located a half-mile up from a highway.   Although I typically drive that half-mile slowly, the other day I had to swerve to avoid a squirrel that decided to dart in front of my car.   Sadly for both me and the squirrel (but mostly the squirrel), we collided. If I had to create a statistical model that would attempt to predict the likelihood of me colliding with a squirrel down that half-mile stretch of road, I can assure you that it would reveal that colliding with a squirrel could not happen in thousands of lifetimes.   Statistics, it seems, cannot take into consideration the notion that squirrels appear to have a robust death wish, or have a secret ritual in which the transition to adult squirrelhood is marked by darting across a road in front of Lexus crossovers with balding drivers.

So, you see, it isn’t that difficult to prove, statistically, that it is nearly impossible to get wet when walking in the rain.   And really, it should never be necessary to look out your window when piloting an aircraft because the chances of bumping into another airplane are infinitesimal.   If you believe the statistics, that is.


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.













Play Missedy For Me

Returning home once from a flying lesson, my wife asked me what I had worked on that day.   I excitedly told her that I worked on “missed landings,” and that I “went missed” three times in one day!

She seemed puzzled, and said something to the effect that, yes, it was foggy that day, but her brow remained crinkled.   When I asked her what was wrong, she timidly said that it seemed dangerous to be landing an airplane in such misty conditions.   It took me a few seconds before I realized that she heard my saying “missed landings” as “mist landings,” and that I “went mist” three times!

I wished I had really meant to say that I “went mist,” because it was clearly more poetic, but while I often get overly poetic in my prose, I rarely speak that way intentionally.   It was, simply, another mist-understanding, and all I felt was amused and some shame at being done in by a homonym.   It wasn’t uncommon for my wife and I to be speaking different languages to each other, and this particular mist-communication (stop it already) was delightfully benign, but many, if not most, misunderstandings have toxic outcomes.

I suffer from an over-attachment to the literal.   I can’t honestly say that such a problem arises out of some scholarly or writerly perfectionism in which –as commandants of writing camps are wont to repeat—there is only one word that is ever precisely correct for each situation.   It is, rather, possibly a biologically driven manner of thinking (he said frustrated by his own lapse into dualism), a way of perceiving the world that many have attributed to gender differences.    While I have many feminine characteristics, when it comes to following a set of instructions, alphabetizing my record collections (I still have them), constructing a chair or deconstructing an argument, I am hopelessly male in my tendencies.

The chief problem (of many) in stereotypical maleness is that one about forests and trees.   I may be able to tell you all about the tree in front of me, but sometimes I am clueless about what forest I am in, or even realizing that I am in one.  This can turn mundane conversation into both silly and profound argument.   The silly end of the spectrum is exemplified by the misunderstanding that occurred some months back when I was scolded for (after all these years) mixing up the long forks and the short ones in the silverware drawer. How can I be wrong? I stood them on end, and put the longer ones in one bin and the shorter ones  in the other.   NO! “Longer,” as any civilized spouse will know, refers to the length of the tines, and not the entire body of the fork.

On the deeper end, accusations can go flying when one person insists he or she said one thing and the other insists it was another thing, or no such thing at all, and the consequences are severe.   When you asked me if I would like to pick up our child after soccer practice and I said I would and then you assumed that meant that I would actually pick up our child rather than that I simply would like to but instead had to be at the office for a meeting so the child was left abandoned and feeling entirely unloved—that sort of thing.   (This actually never happened, but that is generally how it goes.)

John Gray’s “Men are from Mars…”, according to Harper Collins, is the largest selling hardcover book of nonfiction in history, spending over 2 years on the best-seller list. It sells so well that Gray’s “Ph.D.” still adorns the cover of the book despite having been received from a non-accredited correspondence school (i.e., diploma mill).   His work was loosely based on the research of the very legitimate psycholinguist Deborah Tannen. I have never read “Men are from Mars…” although I started it but couldn’t get past the first few paragraphs.   (If there’s two things I can’t stand, it’s pop psychology books and seeing white men dance– even though I wrote one myself and on occasion have been seen dancing.)

But I have read two of Deborah Tannen’s books, which to some degree bridges the pop and “legit” genres. She asserts, among many other things, that men typically engage in conversation for different functions than do women.   Men engage primarily to discover their current status in the power hierarchy and/or to learn what activity they are being required to do at the moment.   Women, generally speaking of course, engage in conversation primarily to serve the function of a shared emotional experience.   These are certainly broad generalities, but I have found them helpful, nevertheless, in sorting through the mist.

I have learned, mostly through my work as a therapist and the much more difficult work of being a spouse, how to converse like a girl.  It’s still a bit like throwing a ball with my left hand, but it helps to remind myself before engaging in a conversation that the purpose of the conversation is not to learn what I have to do or where I stand but rather to have a shared emotional experience.   It can be rewarding, like reading a good book or going to the theater, but sometimes I become mystified (mistified?) and have to work my way out of the farrago by rewinding the words I heard and struggle to find their hidden meaning.

I suppose my testosterone rises and suddenly the forest transforms to a collection of disparate trees and I feel like a lost child wondering if his parents will ever pick him up from soccer practice.

In the end, there may be little difference between missed communications and mist communications.   In an airplane, pilots “go missed” when there’s just too much mist to see the runway, which may or may not be beneath them. It’s just safer to miss an approach than it is try one’s luck at a mist approach.   Did you get that, or did you go mist?



Reading the Wind

UnknownI want a windsock–  a nice new one, bright orange that can be seen from miles away, with trusty ball bearings that are quiet and free as– you guessed it, free as the wind.   But please, as kind as both you and I know you are, don’t go rushing to Amazon to get me one.  Let me tell you why.

Wind is invisible to the human eye, but we know it is there because we can see and measure its effects.   It can be still and quiet, enfolding us peacefully, or in its extreme it can carry us away and violently transport us to Oz.   It is especially important to pilots, because it is the very medium through which airplanes fly.   It is the sin qua non avion, the thing without which there would be no flying.

Wind is merely the shifting of the atmosphere, caused by the unequal heating of the earth’s surface.  Heat rises from the earth, and the heat that rises changes the temperature of the atmosphere, which in turn changes the pressure of the air.   Lower pressure air yields to higher pressure air, and that is the wind.   There are, of course, more subtleties, such as Coriolis force, friction at the earth’s surface, and jet streams, but the shifting of air masses due to pressure differences accounts for the vast majority of what we call wind.

In our primary training, we learn to “read the wind.”   We are taught to look for the movements of tree limbs, flags on flagpoles, and whitecaps on the water.  We learn about the wind-reading instrument located on our posterior side below the back and above the legs, which in my family was referred to by its technical name, the “tush”.  And the devices located at airports designed specifically for the sole purpose of revealing the wind’s secrets, such as the tetrahedron or the omnipresent heretofore-mentioned orange windsock.

Reading a windsock is not as simple as looking at the direction it is pointing and how far it is sticking out.   Those are key elements, but are much less important than looking for the things that may truly be “gotchas”.    Besides merely direction and velocity, the windsock will tell you the variability in direction, the stability of the velocity, and the character of gusts.   Friendly gusts will come at you from a single direction and drop off slowly.   Nasty gusts that are intent on ruining your day will suddenly snap the windsock to attention and then just as quickly cause the sock to lose its erection—never a good thing.   Even nastier gusts cause the windsock to dance like a white person, frenetically in all directions, revealing turbulence close to the ground or perhaps even the presence of the invisible pilot nemesis, Morris Microburst.

Our moods and the moods of those around us are like the winds that surround us in that they are invisible to the human eye but certainly there.   With no convenient windsock to tell us which direction those winds are blowing, we sometimes are left with having to wing it and go alone.  If we are fortunate enough to be in an intimate relationship, sometimes we learn to read our partner’s moods by the crinkling of the forehead, or the sudden brisk, snappy retort.   But reading our own feelings can be more challenging.  When my partner asks me what I am feeling, the only feeling I am immediately aware of is annoyance at being asked what I am feeling.   That is because, despite my years of reading feelings in others as a psychologist, and even tuning into my own within the context of a therapy relationship, outside of the therapy room I spend most of my time in my head.  I am too busy figuring out how to fix the refrigerator to label the fact that I am angry enough to kill it, and I am not convinced that labeling that feeling will help me to find the right nozzle for my air compressor.

My own best emotional windsock is the physical cues my body reveals.   Years ago, during a particularly “interesting discussion,” my partner accused me of wanting to leave the room.   I asked her why on earth she would think such a thing, and she pointed out that for the last five minutes I was straddling the threshold of the room; I literally had one foot out the door.   Busted.

Of course these are things I should know on my own.  Do I have a knot in my stomach that might reveal anxiety or fear, or perhaps tension in my face or a shortness in my breathing?  Truth be known, there is a point at which labeling the nature of the wind is helpful and eminently important in effectively managing it.   Knowing I am angry calls for different reactions than knowing I am grieving, just as knowing I have a 15 mile an hour variably gusty wind 15 degrees off the runway calls for a different landing technique than a steady wind on my nose.

That is why I can always use a nice, new windsock, and why you can’t buy me one.