Ups and Downs

I had some trouble sleeping last night, so I took the advice I usually give to others and got out of bed.   That is why I am writing these words at 5:30 in the morning, after waking at 4– a cruel hour if there ever was one.   Sleep may be one of the only occasions this life offers in which—finding oneself unable to get down, one should just get up.

It happens sometimes in aviation, when an airplane’s wings begin to collect ice, and warmer air might be found at higher altitudes.   Then, going down might be more hazardous than climbing, so sometimes you have to temporarily go up in order to eventually land safely. Usually, however, what goes up must come down, and what comes down need never go up.

One of my day jobs is to teach a class at UCLA Medical School (now sadly named after David Geffen), where each week a new “case”– as physicians are trained to refer to humans in order to see them as less human– is presented and discussed.   The other week we presented the case of someone who was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mood disorder in which a person swings between periods of mania and depression (hence the outmoded term “manic-depression”).

Bipolar disorder is fairly common, affecting about 6 million Americans a year, but when I was seeing 30 clients a week I found it one of the easiest diagnoses to miss.   That is because when a person shows up in front of you who might be suffering from a bipolar disorder and isn’t in the midst of either a manic or depressive episode, there is nothing in their manner that would lead one to believe there is anything to diagnose. The diagnosis resides in the history (or herstory).

The psychiatric nomenclature (as codified in its “bible,” the DSM) reflects Newton’s law in that what goes up must come down, while the opposite doesn’t apply. One can be diagnosed with either a bipolar disorder or severe depression, but if you are severely manic then you must also be bipolar.   You just can’t stay manic forever. (You can, however, according to DSM, be “hypomanic,” which means you can go on a shopping spree and charge up all your credit cards as long as you don’t go over the credit limit.)

Mania, though, has been around a long time, although I suspect it has generally been viewed as less pathological than depression. Emil Kraepelin, the prolific German psychiatrist often cited as the founder of scientific (as opposed to Freudian, which seemed to emanate more from Freud’s imagination than empirical data) psychiatry, described mania this way over a hundred years ago:

The patient feels the need to get out of himself, to be on more intimate terms with his surroundings, to play a part. As he is a stranger to fatigue, his activity goes on day and night; work becomes very easy to him; ideas flow to him. He cannot stay long in bed; early in the morning, even at four o’clock he gets up, he clears out lumber rooms, discharges business that was in arrears, undertakes morning walks, excursions. He begins to take part in social entertainments, to write many long letters, to keep a diary, to go in a great deal for music and authorship. Especially the tendency of rhyming … is usually very conspicuous. … His pressure of activity causes the patient to change about his furniture, to visit distant acquaintances, to take himself up with all possible things and circumstances, which formerly he never thought about.

One of the first things I did when I awoke at 4 was try to rhyme some words (it’s a song lyric, and it’s not bad but needs a lot of work). On the other hand, I like my furniture exactly where it is and although I love many of my acquaintances, I will be happy today to stay home and clear out my lumber room. And not only am I no stranger to fatigue, she is my constant companion.   No, this is just simple anxiety-driven insomnia, probably about a scan I have coming up.   No mania for me.

It could be that one of the reasons I tend to miss the diagnosis of bipolar disorder is that it is one of those labels I have never applied to myself.   Surely I have had my bouts of depression, a few of which have immured me, but the idea of having boundless energy is as foreign to my nature as waking up one day being able to speak Russian.   Not likely in this lifetime.

The idea that what goes up must come down is echoed in the notion that one can go through life getting stronger or weaker.   Freud (who happened to be born a couple of months apart from Kraepelin but outlived him by 13 years) had a rather bleak view, and having been a military man saw life as a battlefield in which each battle leaves fewer troops surviving to fight the next.   Nietsche, from whom Freud undoubtedly stole the notion of an unconscious (and who, by the way, may have known Kraepelin as they both spent time in Leipzig) is famously quoted as having said that “Whatever you don’t die from makes you stronger.”   I don’t know if he ever really said that, but a friend once tried to console me by telling me that Nietsche said that.   No good friend should waste precious breath with consolation when confrontation could suffice.   There are just too many examples of things that happen, from divorces to lawsuits to car wrecks to marriages to chronic, debilitating illnesses that wear us down and from which recovery just doesn’t happen. Surely, what comes down often just keeps coming down.

On the bright side, however, I am reminded that in order to safely return to earth, one must safely leave it.   And I am convinced that home is made more soothing after having flown far from it and fought a few dragons along the way.   It is simply a matter of fact that one’s wings can collect ice at just about any altitude, and it is never entirely clear whether warmer air can be found above or below you. And in that sense, it may matter less whether one is going up or down than whether one is going at all.




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.

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?



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.



Maintaining Intention

Unknown-2My yoga instructor, Charles DeFay, is a kind, well-intentioned man, who is undoubtedly sincere in his beliefs, despite delivering his instructions a bit like a drill sergeant on Ritalin.   He repeats the same phrases along with the asanas (the positions) in each session; sometimes the phrases serve as punctuation, but just like the asanas, they are always the same.

This drives me crazy, because I despise conformity, and repetition of phrases, unless it is great poetry or literature, makes me want to tune out.  The phrases are recited as though they were scientific facts;  some are simply incorrect, while others, such as energizing “protons, neutrons and thought-trons” are just plain well-intendedgobbledygook.   But every once in a while a phrase pops up worthy of some real debate.  “Intention is stronger than will” is one that has perplexed me now for quite a while.

Now, I am a big fan of intention, or intentionality, as the existential philosophers like to call it, but I am also a big fan of will, and in a fight between these two superheroes I’m just not sure who would win.   While it is easy to fall into a pit of semantic mumbo jumbo, let me give you an example where I do think intention just might have an edge.

There is a common saying in aviation that if you believe you are going to crash, your job as the pilot is to fly through the crash—not into the crash, but through the crash.   I love that idea, because it rests on an assumption, a set of beliefs, that one can survive anything, that the situation is never hopeless, that one must never to give up.

If you intend on surviving a crash, while there are certainly no guarantees, you will give yourself every opportunity to make decisions even as you go through the storm.   On the other hand, if you simply willed yourself to survive, I suspect you would be more likely to stop making decisions, and in those particular moments, the Force may be busy with someone else, Luke.

Will usually has an object attached to it, but in its rawest form it is like an engine that roars but has no place to go.  Intention is the direction we give our will to go.  That is why, when an autopilot fails, instead of calling it George or Otto, I like to call it Willy Nilly.

To say that intention is stronger than will presumes that they are separate entities.  But if anything, will feeds intention and intention requires that food to survive.  I certainly intended to go to yoga today, but it wasn’t that intention that got me out of bed.  I am certain of that, because I stayed in savasana (corpse pose) while I tried really hard for the intention to get me upright.  Without pure will, and a whole lot of it, I wouldn’t have made it to yoga.

If you are inclined to argue with me, and if you are anything like me, you will be, then you could always argue that it was my intention to go to yoga that drove my will and not the other way around.   Or, even, in its more fundamental form, it was my intention to live a long and healthy life that drives the will to do so.  I am not going to argue with you.   I am only going to say that intention alone gets me nowhere slowly.   It is my will, a fundamental life-force not unlike Freud’s libido, that powers this fragile vehicle in which my intention resides.

At least that is how my thought-trons see it.




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.

The Raven Over our Shoulders

images-3I recently read an accident report in which a pilot lost power on the rollout, and then when he heard the engine surge back to life, resumed his takeoff.   Just after leaving the ground, the pilot retracted the landing gear, the engine quit again and the pilot died attempting to make the 180-degree turn back to the airport.

In a matter of a very few seconds, the pilot had some important decisions to make.  If he had made the decision to abort the takeoff the first time his engine lost power, he would likely be alive enough today to have learned that his fuel was contaminated with water.   But perhaps buoyed by the engines roaring back to life, he decided instead to climb out.   That was his first bad decision.   The second bad decision was to retract his landing gear before reaching the end of the runway.   The third was his attempt to turn around rather than find a place to land in front of him.   That was the one that sealed his fate.

I don’t fault the pilot for making the decisions he made.   We all make them, even the most experienced pilots.   But I suspect that once he heard his engine quit as he was advancing down the runway, he may have found himself struggling to manage his fear.   We will never know if the pilot panicked, thus preventing him from thinking clearly, or if he calmly made the decisions he thought were the most rational, or most likely, something in between.   But if it is fair to say that what killed him was a series of bad decisions, then I think it is also likely that (especially given his instructors’ statements that he had been a thorough and safe pilot) managing fear is a prime suspect in what may have led to those decisions.

There, I suspect, but for the grace of God go all of us.   I fear all sorts of things, from germs to failure to success.   But I am nothing if not tenacious, and I have learned over the years to try to welcome fear the way Abraham Lincoln is said to have approached his enemies.   While some have said that he borrowed the line from a Roman Emperor, when an elderly woman chastised him for not calling Southerners irreconcilable enemies who must be destroyed, Lincoln is reported to have said, “Why, madam– do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Making friends with our fears is the way to master them.  But mastery of our fears does not mean that we eradicate them—it just means that they begin to work for us as opposed to the other way around.   I often think about fear as Carlos Castaneda’s raven of death, which constantly flew just behind his shoulder.  Death cannot be run from.  It will assuredly outfly me so running away from it is a pointless endeavor.  Instead, while I often fail, I know my job is to welcome it into the house, feed it, get to know it.   If we blindly advance the throttle on takeoff without fear of engine failure, it is more likely to take us by surprise and potentially overwhelm our decision-making ability.

A Good Approach

images-1It has often been said that the secret to a good landing is a good approach. In flying, a good approach means that you hit all the altitudes and airspeeds you intended to, you are neither too high nor too low, neither too fast nor too slow, and that, above all, you remain stable.  Remaining stable means that you are not continually fluctuating your airspeed, trying to nail your altitude and constantly shifting to find the centerline of the runway.  Stability, in a good approach, is the key.

While I try to fly my approach in as stable a fashion as possible, I fail more often than I succeed.  I have become perhaps overly confident in my ability to land, because I have a history of pulling it off at the last minute.   This is bad technique, but a license to fly is a license to learn, and I keep learning.

I suspect that most of you have read these posts long enough to know what’s coming next.  Hopefully, neither you nor I are close to our final landing, but to the extent that any single moment could be our last, it is not far-fetched to try to live life as if we were always on our final approach.   And, in that sense, I confess that I have yearned to live my life as stably as possible.   And, as in my flying, I tend to fail more often than I succeed.   I am constantly struggling to find my right “airspeed” and stay on the centerline.

I don’t believe that I intend to live my life unregulated.  I yearn for stability, but for some reason stability and my nervous system don’t want to cooperate.   As I once had a yoga instructor who criticized my warrior pose because I was leaning too far forward, and I thought, “yup, that’s me… always leaning too far into the future,” perhaps my discomfort with stability has something to do with why I find it difficult to maintain stable approaches when flying.

But all this is overly simplistic.   In reality, in order to fly a stable approach, a pilot has to make constant, hopefully small, adjustments.   The pilot remains hyper-vigilant, sensing any shift in the wind and reacting quickly and gently in order to remain on target.   This is by no means a passive activity.   The irony of it all is that it takes a lot of activity to become stable.

That is where the difficulty of flying one’s final approach—and every other approach, comes in.   Just how does one achieve the hoped for “perfect landing”?  How does one face the inevitability of our flight coming to an end in such a way that we gently welcome the wheels to the ground, kiss the earth without having to frantically wrestle with our airplane?

Perhaps it is true that the secret to a good landing is a good approach.   Perhaps what is required is relaxed pressure on the controls, while calmly but vigilantly making the small adjustments needed to maintain just the right airspeed and just the right altitude, such that when our wheels finally come to rest, we find that we have barely noticed that we have eased ourselves onto the tarmac.  That would indeed be a good landing.

A Note from Saigon

Tea HouseI am writing this today from a tea house in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, still referred to by many as Saigon.  My business here is psychology and autism related, and the closest thing I am getting to aviation is the flight on the two miraculous jets that got me here– Airbus’ spectacular double decker A380, and Boeing’s stalwart triple-seven.

Vietnam is a beautiful country.  It would be even more beautiful to see it from a small airplane at a few thousand feet above ground, but that is not possible today because there is no such thing as general aviation here.  The skies are reserved for the military and commercial jetliners on flight plans.

To say that the fact that there is no general aviation in Vietnam is the result of communism is an oversimplification.  One can say with confidence that when it rains in Vietnam the streets get wet, but it seems as though there is little else one can say with confidence about Vietnam.

Yet, there does seem to be a relationship between the fact that the two “mostly communist” governments in Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Laos, are the countries that have the least going for them in the arena of general aviation.  Cambodia, which has been beautifully described recently as “vaguely communist” now has a flourishing albeit young general aviation community.   Other countries in the region whose political-economic systems are ostensibly democratic-capitalistic such as the Philippines and Malaysia, have flourishing aviation scenes.

In a previous post I mentioned that growing up in the U.S. I somehow knew that when you wanted to chase another child off a swing you would shout “It’s a free country!”   How interesting it is to be socialized (indoctrinated?) into believing in freedom.  A private pilot’s license grants another opportunity to define and even treasure this thing we call freedom. Here in Vietnam, a country where flying your own airplane is illegal, and one in which the U.S. lost 60,000 of its children and the Vietnamese sacrificed millions of their own, it is difficult for me to not think about it.

It is fascinating to me what a difference a generation can make.  My closest associates here are probably either one or two decades younger than me, and they have little consciousness of the Vietnam war.   Vietnamese themselves learn about the war in school, but it seems that very few carry the deeply felt conflict inside them that I do.  (Today, a receptionist here told me that she “sees it in my grandparents’ eyes.”)

I filed for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war, although the draft ended before my paperwork could be processed.  Clearly, I opposed the war at the time, but my filing for CO status was duplicitous if not downright disingenuous.  I was against the Vietnam war, and I was against war in general, but I also believed that there was such a thing as a just war (such as the Second World War).

The more I learn about the Vietnam war, the more I believe that both sides were right, and both were wrong.   Isn’t that true of damn near everything?  The North Vietnamese had a legitimate gripe– their country had been arbitrarily torn in half and the south was dominated by corrupt, imperialist nations that had subjugated and tortured their people for generations.   The South Vietnamese treasured their freedom and democratic ideals and were fighting the spread of communism.   These were noble goals on both sides.

The dominoes did not fall when we lost the war.  The Viet Cong did not commit genocide or even torture their own citizens when they won, although they imprisoned many and “re-educated” many others.  In fact, it was the post-war unified Vietnamese that fought off a Chinese invasion and routed the genocidal Khmer Rouge from Cambodia.  Today’s Vietnam is one in which the communist party is considered “irrelevant” or a nuisance by most Vietnamese.  There is no free press here, but there is widespread Internet access. It is a system rife with corruption, as is the case with governments throughout most of the world.

One of the reasons I love to fly is because I feel a deep sense of freedom when I do it.  I don’t know how to explain that phenomenon.  It just is.  And, perhaps coincidentally, flying one’s own airplane is also a symbol of freedom.  As Vietnam continues its gradual path toward openness, I suspect that general aviation will emerge.  Laos, closely aligned with Vietnam, has its very first flying club, and perhaps that will serve as a model for Vietnam.

Although I see faults in the American system, as deep as those faults can be, it remains one of the few places in the world where I could get in my airplane, start the engine up, and legally fly from one end of the continent to another without letting anyone know about it.  I can even do it legally without turning on my radio.   Sure, Langley will have me on its radar and will be watching every move I make, but as long as I don’t stray too close to Disneyland or Washington DC, they are going to leave me alone.  That is freedom, and that is noble.