Reasons for Moving

Unknown-1Just about a year ago I wrote a blog post in which I quoted one of my favorite poems—“Keeping Things Whole,” by the Canadian-American poet Mark Strand.  I have always loved contemporary American poetry, and Strand was one of the best.  Just prior to leaving for my back-to-back trips to Mexico and Vietnam (from where I am writing this now), Strand passed away at the age of 80.  Poet Laureate and the Pulitzer prize were just two of his many honors.   I read “Keeping Things Whole” before I had any awareness of a desire to fly, but it struck a chord in me that continues to this day.   So, in honor of one of the greats, here it is again:

In a field

I am the absence

of field.

This is

always the case.

Wherever I am

I am what is missing.

 

When I walk

I part the air

and always

the air moves in

to fill the spaces

where my body’s been.

 

We all have

reasons for moving.

I move

to keep things whole.

 

Altitude is Your Friend

images-5I made a few mistakes when taking my private pilot checkride, that crucible that determines whether or not you get the privilege of taking to the skies and risking life and limb.     After showing the examiner that I could find my way from point A to point B without getting too lost, and that I could make the airplane go up and down, handle a loss of power and a few other tricks, he asked me where I wanted to “do my landings.”   At that moment, we were flying almost directly over the town of Santa Paula, with an airport conveniently right below us.  I told him I wanted to do my landings in Oxnard, some 13 miles away, which was one of several surprises I had for the examiner that day, because he was expecting that I would choose the airport right below us.

I chose Oxnard because it had once been a military base and the runways were long and wide, and really hard to miss.   My checkride hadn’t been going so well up to then, and I wanted to give myself plenty of room for error, and landing in Santa Paula, even though I had already done it often, was like squeezing into the proverbial sardine can.

I had also landed in Oxnard many times, and each time I did my instructor had me begin my descent into that airport at just about where I happened to be at the time the examiner asked me where I wanted to do my landings, 13 miles away over Santa Paula.

As I began to descend, the examiner urgently asked me what I was doing.  I was obviously doing something wrong; I just didn’t know what it was.  I responded that I was beginning my descent into Oxnard.   He impatiently growled at me something I have heard many times since then: “Remember– altitude is your friend.”  He told me to climb back to my previous altitude, and not to descend into Oxnard until I absolutely had to.   “You’re safer up higher.   Down lower is where helicopters hang out.  You’re in an airplane.”  I’m not sure about my memory here, but I think I also heard him mutter, “For god’s sake, you’re not a crop duster.”

Of course the examiner was correct, and I have always tried to remember the phrase that “altitude is your friend.”   Altitude keeps you safe because it gives you more time to figure out what to do if an engine quits, and more time to maneuver to a safe landing spot.  But also, there are far fewer things to bump into the higher you go. “Controlled flight into terrain,” as it is officially called, is one of the biggest killers of pilots and their flying companions.   Another reason we like altitude is that the higher you go the more you see, and it is therefore more difficult to get lost.   Pilots learn “the three C’s” of what to do if lost while flying are to confess, climb, and communicate.   You climb in order to be able to see more of what is around you.

Good management, whether it concerns an airplane, a business or one’s self, has a lot to do with the dance between immersion in the details (descending, if you will) and pulling up (climbing) to see the big picture.   If, after all, the devil is in the details, perhaps the sky is where the angels reside.

It is not a matter of whether managing details or seeing the big picture is the best approach, but the ability to move between them that is important.   Getting stuck in either the details or the big picture can be a recipe for disaster.   In companies, it is often the CFO who is charged with mastering the details, while the CEO is typically the big picture person, but someone needs to make the final call, and that person is usually the CEO.   It is too easy to miss the forest for the trees, and the best way to see the forest is from high above it.

Brandy Lovely, a Unitarian minister in Pasadena, used to tell a story about an argument he and his wife had over a small detail.  He knew he was right, but the argument went on and on for hours as each of them dug their heels in.  Finally, his wife said to him, “Look, do you want to be right, or do you want to be married?”  Sometimes the big picture has to be forced upon us, and as my examiner reminded me, finding a way above it all can be our best friend.

Miso Aviator

imagesI’m sure every profession has its way of distinguishing the amateurs from the professionals.   In aviation, the lowest rung of the ladder is “airplane driver.”  I heard it more than once in my training, typically when I did something wrong: “You don’t want to be a driver, do you?”

The next higher level is the pilot, the one who has mastered the technical aspect of flying, the one who finally makes the shift from the two dimensional steering of the driver to the three dimensional flying of the pilot.   But there is yet another level, one reserved for the masters of flight.  These are the aviators.

They are, of course, somewhat artificial and arbitrary distinctions.  Yet, just as Justice Potter said about the difference between pornography and art, “I know it when I see it.”

The aviation writer Budd Davisson describes the difference between a mere pilot and an aviator this way:  “The difference is that an aviator is the airplane, and they move as one, while the pilot is simply manipulating the proper controls at the appropriate time and sees the airplane as a machine that he forces to do his bidding.”

I have flown with a lot of pilots, and the best pilot with whom I have ever flown was my first instructor, Floyd Jennings.  I witnessed Floyd’s flying on several occasions, but the most memorable was on my second flight as a student.   The first and only time I had ever felt nauseous in a small airplane was on that flight.

The nausea, which seemed to come from out of nowhere, was so bad that I knew I wouldn’t make it down to the ground without creating an embarrassing mess in the cockpit.  I was sweating profusely and my face was pale as I was trying to hold back.  I finally told Floyd that I couldn’t hold back any longer.  He glanced over and saw the sweat on my face and my normally pink Polish skin shift to a whiter shale of pale.

We were about halfway through the downwind leg of the pattern in Santa Paula, which means we were flying parallel to the runway, but pointed opposite to the direction needed to land.  Floyd took control of the airplane.  In what appeared to be a single movement, he looked from side to side, cut the power to idle, pointed the nose down, swooped down and around, and in a matter of mere seconds, the airplane kissed the ground sweetly and almost imperceptibly.

Whenever Floyd took control of the airplane, I had the distinct feeling that he and the metal bird were one.  Though he was a grizzled, curmudgeonly character, his flying was seamless, effortless, like wearing a comfortable shirt.   When he moved the airplane moved, when he blinked the airplane blinked.  He met Budd Davisson’s definition of aviator to a tee.   This was sadly in contrast to my flying, in which I often felt that I was wrestling with a metal beast.

I am currently working on a collection of poems I am calling “One With the Miso.”  It’s just a whimsical, silly title, but I like it because on the one hand, it sounds meaningless, but on the other hand, it expresses something bigger.   We can eat or drink the miso (that is, be a pilot), or we can become one with it.   Whatever our behavior, be it simply brushing our teeth, drinking soup or flying an airplane, we can get to the point where our sense of self as separate from the universe disappears, and the thing that we do and thing that we are becomes one.

Shit and Shinola

Unknown-4Although my dad, who never made it past high school, took pride in his vocabulary, he was not beyond vulgarity– undoubtedly resulting from his Bronx roots and likely nurtured by his 3-year stint in the Navy.  One of the vulgar sayings I heard emanating from my father was that a particular person didn’t know shit from Shinola.

Shinola was a popular brand of shoe polish, presumably with enough of a cachet that it could be used to distinguish the high quality stuff that was applied to the top surface of your shoes from the low quality stuff that might be found clinging to the bottom. It also had a nice alliterative ring to it, more so than the other phrase I heard my father say in similar situations– that a particular person didn’t know his ass from his elbow.

Although Shinola was the “good stuff” and the other wasn’t, I came to associate the two words.  One became what behaviorists call the “discriminatory stimulus” for the other, which in English means that one thing signaled the presence of the other.   I was therefore surprised the other day to see an advertisement in a magazine for a new Wright Brothers commemorative watch made by, you guessed it, the Shinola Company.  That took me to the Internet, to find out how it came to be that a shoe polish company began manufacturing watches.   What I learned is that the modern Shinola Company, headquartered in a beautiful building in Detroit, began three years ago after the initial investors bought the rights to the Shinola name from the New York based company that had since gone out of business.  Besides watches, the new Shinola manufactures leather goods, journals and bicycles, all made nearly exclusively from American components, or so they claim.

Now, exactly what brought the owner of the Shinola brand to buy a name from a defunct company that is associated with shoe polish seemed intriguingly out of the shoebox to me.   Shinola has a great website (www.shinola.com), and on it they claim to be “reinvigorating a storied American brand.”

The new Shinola has been criticized because while it is true that its products are assembled in Detroit, a place badly in need of resurrection itself, most of its parts emanate from elsewhere in the U.S., and some come from abroad, including China.  “It’s not like we’re saying everything is 100% made in Detroit,” said company President Jacques Panis.    The fact that the new Shinola isn’t all about Detroit doesn’t bother me all that much; I’m not sure that the economic interdependence of nations isn’t a bad thing.

I don’t know whose decision it was to buy the rights to the Shinola brand name, but to me that is the intriguing part of the story.  Clearly, the idea that someone didn’t know shit from Shinola resulted from the fact that Shinola shoe polish was, in its day, considered the bomb, to use current parlance.  But for me, even the idea that Shinola was supposed to be a sign of quality gets lost by its contiguity with the stuff that all living critters deposit.

I imagine that if I were to buy and wear one of those watches, as Bill Clinton proudly does, I would be compelled to roll up my sleeve and declare, “See, I really do know the difference!”

 

 

Think Goodness: My iPad Wrote That

Unknown-2I was taking notes on a future blog post on my iPad, and I was attempting to write the aphorism thqt “flying is hours of boredom filled with moments of terror,”.  Whatever I had typed in as “flying” was auto corrected to “dying,” which, when read back, was perhaps even more apt.

I don’t know how often the autocorrect feature on my ipad gets things right, because I type quickly and I often don’t know what I actually typed until I attempt to read it back.  I suppose if I actually looked at what I was writing it would help things, but that joule require more focus than I actually have.  Okay, so I did it in the last sentence, just as an experiment, and noticed thqt I was auto corrected correctly four out of five times.  Whatever I typed in as “would” was changed to “joule” which is a beautiful word, but “joule require more focus” is a bit too ungrammatical to work even for Wallace Stevens. well, maybe not.  (and for those of you who noticed, i am not going to bother correcting the autocorrect’s inability to figure out that I mean to type “that” instead of “thqt”)

I do like the idea of writing freely and posting exactly what the iPad interprets me as intending to say, just for fun.  The problem is thqt when I do just that I am post traumatically trqnsformed to my days tacking at unnamed graduate schools and grading student papers.  But that is another story.  Oh, and “tacking” was meant to be “teaching,” but in this case I do think that tacking works a bit better.

I cannot help but wonder, as one would think occasionally about how the toaster works when dropping a slice of bread into it, how the autocorrect function works.  Is it simply a built in dictionary with some sort of algorithm that recognizes when a word doesn’t exist and then matches it through some sort of matrix logic to the closest word in the English language?  I don’t think it could be that easy, although perhaps it started out that way.  It seems, somehow, to take context into consideration, or is that just an illusion?  No, not an illusion, as I had typed “must” instead of “just” in the prior sentence and it auto corrected me to “just.”  Obviously, both are words but somehow the programmers at Apple or wherever decided that some words don’t fit into some contexts and so it corrected me.  Like some people I know?

Humans, of course, have their own autocorrect feature, otherwise known as a conscience.  Well, at least most humans do.  In th autism world, it is often referred to as a “theory of mind,” which is essentially the concept that humans are aware that other humans have awareness.  It is wht the information theorists in the old days sometimes referred to as “feedback loops,” It is often posited thqt the single most defining characteristic of autism is the lack of a “theory of mind,” which makes for the idea that those on the spectrum do not know how to autocorrect. (Thankfully, I just read over what I had written five minutes ago and had to correct the autocorrect.  It had interpreted me as saying “shoes on the spectrum.”)

I once heard the story of a very “successfully” treated young man on the spectrum who got a job working at the post office sorting mail, which was a perfect job for him and which he did very well, at least for the two or three days he got to work there.  He was fired when he went up to a female coworker and asked her to have sex with him.  It was a very logical question, but he didn’t know how to autocorrect, and he lost his job as a result.

Perhaps if he had only written out his request on an iPad, and was fortunate enough to type something incorrectly, he might instead have asked his coworker if she wanted to make sticks with him, and he might still have that job today.

It’s a Drag, Man

images-3Every budding pilot learns the four forces that act on an airplane in flight:  the upward force– lift, the downward force– weight (or gravity), the forward force– thrust, and the backward force– drag.   There are many different types of drag.   One of these is called parasite drag, which occurs partly due to friction on the airplane’s skin, and partly due to interference of other objects, such as ice.   The best way to demonstrate drag is what happens when you put your hand out the car window as you are driving.   If you face the palm forward, you expose more of the surface to the wind and your hand gets pushed back.   Unless you want to fly backwards, drag is, well, a drag.

I have been lucky in my life to not have too many stories to tell about parasite drag, either the kind that interferes with flying an airplane or the kind that interferes with navigating through life.

There was the time, however, when I allowed a woodworker to crash in my workshop for two weeks, as he was between places to stay and needed a temporary shelter.   The two weeks turned into nine months, rent-free.    My patience having run out, I did my best to politely evict him.  Even with my considerable charm I was unable to convince him to leave my workshop, so I eventually invited the police to assist me.  Unfortunately, they were no help at all, informing me that I had to go through a legal eviction process to get him out.   That would have cost me a lot of time and money, so out of sheer frustration I eventually resorted to dubious legal and somewhat primitive methods of evicting him, which ultimately did prove effective.  Although it did not exactly come to blows, one could say, I suppose, that enough thrust was used to overcome the parasite drag.

The lesson learned from this misadventure is the same one that aviation textbooks have been advising for years:  the best way to avoid parasite drag such as icing is not to get yourself into that position to begin with.   At times that is difficult to do, because sometimes you don’t see it coming.

While my life hasn’t exactly been like a box of chocolates, there were many times that my life has been a bit like being alone in the cockpit of an airplane with ice forming on the wings.   If I were to let it build up, the parasite drag could have killed me.    For all of us, in those situations the struggle is to find the “warm air,” the place where troubles melt away.    It may or may not come in the expected place, and it may not come right away, but staying where you are is usually not a good idea.

There used to be two small islands southeast of Ireland that have long since disappeared under the rising ocean.   One of them was called “Hook” and the other was called “Crook.”   Once, when Cromwell was asked how he was going to invade Ireland next time, he allegedly said, “By Hook or Crook.”   The phrase stuck, and now we say it when we are determined to get someplace without necessarily knowing how we’re going to get there.  The important thing is to know when enough is enough, when staying where we are is likely going to kill us, and start searching for warmer air.

Standing Up to Authority

Unknown-1In 1978, as United Airlines flight 173 was approaching the airport in Portland, Oregon, the captain noticed an abnormally loud thumping sound, along with an unexpected vibration and a yawing motion to the right.   The captain aborted the approach and began to circle the airport while trying to solve the problem.   Steeped in thought, he circled the airport for an hour, just long enough for all the fuel on board to be exhausted.   The first officer casually mentioned the low-fuel condition to the captain, but the captain was too entrenched in problem-solving mode to heed the warning.

The “good news” was that only 10 of the 189 people aboard died from the resulting crash because the lack of fuel on board prevented a fire on impact.   And as a result of the accident new recommendations were put into place that led to what is now called crew resource management.   This is a set of procedures pertaining to how members of the crew are to relate to one another in order to prevent confusion.   One of these procedures has come to be called the “sterile cockpit rule,” in which no idle chatting is permitted below 10,000 feet (i.e., on takeoff and landing).  Another pertains to the importance of speaking up assertively in the face of authority until a problem is resolved.

When I ran my own company I encouraged my employees to reveal to me any inadequacies they saw in the company.   One of my supervisors sent me an email in which she outlined, in detail, all the things she thought was wrong with the company.   When I received the email, I called to thank her and ask her permission to share her email with the other supervisors.   I heard her take a deep breath, after which she said that she thought my phone call was going to be her termination notice.  I told her that I admired her courage, and that I wanted to not only address her concerns, but to encourage other supervisors to emulate her.

Before I ran my own company, I worked for two non-profit mental health centers.  In both places, I climbed the executive ladder quickly, moving from therapist to assistant clinical director at one agency in a matter of two years, “climbing” over others who were in some cases twice my age.   Even in those days, I knew the “trick” was to meet with the people running the show, and respectfully tell them how they could do their jobs better.   Though I knew I could be fired because they thought I was an egotistical upstart or gunning for their job, I had the good fortune of working for leaders who were not intimidated and did what James Collins (in the classic management tome “Good to Great”) saw as a hallmark of a great company– actively breed and nurture leaders who would ultimately take their pace.

In my private pilot checkride,–the crucible that determines whether or not you earn your ticket to fly, there were three instances in which the examiner raised his eyebrows because I made decisions that were contrary to his expectations, but proved to be in the best interest of safety.   Technically, the student on a checkride is acting as “pilot in command,” but most students emphasize the “acting” and will defer decisions to the examiner, who has the authority to determine your future ability to fly.   It turns out that I made a lot of mistakes during my checkride, and was fully expecting to fail, but when the examiner told me I had passed I looked at him nonplussed, and he said to me, “You earned it.”   I suspect it had a lot to do with the decisions I made to unabashedly yet humbly defy his preferences.

Several major aviation catastrophes later, a lack of standing up to authority has been cited as a potentially critical link in the accident chain.   Without a doubt, leaders need followers in order to lead, but the best leaders know that the best followers are the ones who can be counted on to speak up, even at the risk of being punished for doing so.

 

And Who Dies?

images-1More than 150,000 people will die today, according to the CIA (and who better to get our statistics about death from?). I think about dying almost as much as that other thing men think about practically all the time. And frankly, I don’t really understand people who don’t.

In “A Year to Live,” Stephen Levine gives an account of how he lived a year of his life as if it were the last: “One of the first beliefs we come across is that the only reason we imagine we will die is because we are convinced we were born. But we cannot trust hearsay! We must find out for ourselves. Were we born? Or was that just the vessel in which our timelessness momentarily resides. What indeed was born? And who dies?”

What was born? Who dies? Jeez Louise. The conclusion, I suppose, is to question whether that bag of bones we call our selves has anything to do with the essence of who we really are. We are, Levine suggests, timeless.

This is a compelling thought, because I have wrestled with the notion of time almost as much as I have wondered what my life would have been like if I wasn’t born with this terrible nose. Time, I have suspected, is the construct that grants our non-corporeal souls the illusion of mortality. Yup, I really meant to say mortality, because that is the illusion at least as much as immortality is. (I am not a big fan of Newtonian time, which suggests that there really is such a thing. I am closer to Kant, and think that time is primarily that thing that humans create to aid their quest for survival. Sequencing events allows us to predict more accurately, and the more accurate our predictions, the more likely our arrow will end up in the bison.)

As I age, I cling more to life than I did when I was younger and had more of it left. That thing I cling to, of course, is my corporeal life, because as much as I might believe in an afterlife, I don’t know whether it is going to look more like Tahiti or Detroit. And that clinging is certainly a bad thing, because sooner or later I am going to have to let it go, and I am so ill-prepared.

There was a very brief reality TV series back in 2006, an American adaptation of a British series called “The Monastery,” in which a group of 5 men from LA was sent to live in a Benedictine monastery in New Mexico. In one episode, the men were taken to visit the hermit, which was a very honored role within the monastery. One of the LA businessmen asked the hermit what he did all day, and the hermit said incredulously, “preparing to die.” The businessmen looked at each other, puzzled, and one of them finally said to the hermit something to the effect of, “Doesn’t that seem like a waste of time?”

To that, the hermit responded crisply, “I can think of nothing in life more important to do.” The LA businessmen chuckled uncomfortably. Maybe they had more important things to do.

When Less is More

Mies van der RoheTwo years ago, I began writing a post titled “When Less is More,” but never finished it.  I suppose I couldn’t figure out a way to get my point across in a short enough space for a blog post, failing miserably at making less more.

But last week I came across a post written by Greg McKeown of Stanford Business School.  Turns out he recently published a book called “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” which I will undoubtedly add to the queue of 35 books by the side of my bed.  In the meantime, in the spirit of “less is more,” here is a link to a short video summarizing his ideas:

http://youtu.be/T9x6D09AKBU

The point I was trying to make in my unpublished blog post two years back was that doing a little to help others often makes the biggest difference.  I told the story about a family therapist who recounted that in the early years of family therapy big changes in family structure were often wished for and expected, but it rarely turned out that way.   The irony was this: family members who experienced very small changes in their family’s functioning often perceived those changes as having huge consequences.  Less is more.

Behavior analysts working with children with autism or with any complex, daunting set of problems, systematically break complex challenges into their smallest teachable components.  Good flight instructors do the same. Perhaps one element of being a good instructor in any field is learning how not to let knowledge of complex phenomena get in the way of teaching the most fundamental, simplest elements.

Whether it is the journey of a thousand miles that begins with the single step, or losing 40 pounds a few ounces a day, or building a small house in which to fulfill big dreams, as Mies van der Rohe proclaimed many years ago, less is more.

 

 

Pilot in Command, or Directing the Dream

demonsI had a recurrent dream when I was a child that I was being chased by faceless, flying demons wearing black capes.  I frantically flew away (without benefit of airplane or wings, Superman-style) trying to escape them, and managed to wake up just before they destroyed me.  I woke up sweating in fear nearly every night of my childhood.

A psychoanalytic dream interpretation book I bought at a supermarket checkout stand diagnosed the dreams as symbolic of a sense of impotence, a helplessness and hopelessness to have an impact on the frightening world around me. And later, when I heard a late night talk show psychologist say that one could control one’s dreams just like a director directs movies, at about age 18, I turned around and faced the demons, daring them to expose their faces, and they all at once disappeared.  I never had that nightmare again.

We each fight our own unique demons throughout our lives, and learning to fly was for me a symbolic way to overcome a life rooted in fear.  I don’t know how many other pilots share that motivation, but I do know that nearly every pilot with whom I have ever spoken shares the quickening of the heartbeat and chill down the spine that comes the moment one loses the chains of gravity and launches into sky, leaving the earth and its accompanying worries below and behind.

Flying, like directing my teenage dreams of being chased, is one way some of us attempt to manage fear.   The term that every pilot learns immediately when taking flying lessons is that he or she is the “pilot in command,” a way of drilling deeply into one’s psyche that the ultimate responsibility for making the decisions and taking the actions that will keep you and your passengers alive is yours, and it is a responsibility that doesn’t cease until all occupants are safely off the airplane.

Being pilot in command means that you are in ultimate command even when a controller tells you what to do, that no matter what anomaly or distraction threatens you, you are where the buck always stops.   It means, ultimately, that no matter how frightening the demons are that are chasing you, you must turn toward them and face them.   And that is the only thing that will make them go away.

Dreaming appears to be a fairly ubiquitous phenomenon, shared by most animal species on earth.  (New book title: Do Plants Dream?)  Whether dreams are simply the “residues of the day,” whether dreaming is a form of catharsis or working through of conflicts, most dreams probably don’t need a conscious director.   To beg the aviation metaphors a bit, they probably do just fine on auto-pilot.   But when the content of our dreams become disturbing to us, whether those dreams occur during sleep or wakefulness, it is time to find the pilot in command within us.