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!






lessonIf you become a pilot you will be greeted with poetic terms such as “unusual attitudes” and “going missed.”   “Holding patterns” is pleasingly romantic, while “death spiral” could easily be a feature film title.   One term of which I have always been particularly fond is “angle of attack,” perhaps because I used to fence in college and the term, which is a key concept in aviation, has both martial and mathematical bits, and it’s alliterative to boot!

The goal in landing an airplane is to fly a “stabilized approach.”   Failing to do so often results in a “missed approach,” which is redolent of my entire adolescence, although words such as “awkward,” “clumsy,” “incompetent,” and “hopeless” could apply equally to teenage and airplane approaches.   The best I could manage in those awkward, clumsy, incompetent years as an adolescent was an occasional “touch and go.”  How life does imitate art.

When pilots fly “deadstick,” they have lost their engine power.   It’s a bit of a misnomer, in that the actual stick is alive and well– it just has no power behind it, but you really can’t beat the word for its rather perfect sexual connotation.   Conscientious pilots practice “deadstick landings,” which sadly describes some of my own geriatric tribulations.

And, just to get past the suggestive bits, when learning to fly on instruments pilots are taught the proper procedure for “entering holds.” I imagine that is also something pilots have in common with wrestlers.

While it isn’t required, the best among us get “spin and stall training,” which would have helped me once years ago when I stalled in front of more than a hundred people while giving a presentation at a psychology conference. It was difficult to recall in which order I needed to reduce power, slam on the rudder and level my ailerons.

We learn not to “scud run” and aviation lore tells us about “barnstormers.” I’m not exactly sure what a “barnstorm” is, but it sure sounds awesome. Somehow I imagine a bunch of drunken, squaredancing cowboys in too-tight boots and cowgirls in fripperies frenetically whooping it up on a Saturday night.

Speaking of cowboys, pilots learn how to lasso, but we spell it LAHSO, which stands for “land and hold short operations.” This could be the title of a chapter in the Kama Sutra, or something you wished your father had told you about. Pilots land with a flare, not just because it’s pretty, but also because it increases drag.   Too much flare, I imagine, can turn you into a drag queen, potentially resulting in a tail strike.

Most pilots speak French, although they often don’t know it.   “Mayday” is merely the Anglicization of venez m’aider (come help me) or simply m’aidez (better get off your ass and help me now), and pan-pan (the urgency call) is simply the French word for bread.   No, wait, that’s Spanish. It’s actually the French word for “breakdown,” as in “you’re really a pannes in the neck.”

When you fly an airplane, you are controlling three things: pitch, roll, and yaw.   I can’t help wonder if Bill Haley or one of the other Comets took flying lessons thus inspiring the classic song “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”   The latter might, on second thought, be a better description of flying through turbulence.

“Dead Reckoning” is not what a jury does when considering the consequences of an accused’s misbehavior, but rather a shorthand derived from “deductive reckoning,” a form of navigation based on computing timing between visual cues.   Both, however, may have a similar result. (Full disclosure: some historians believe “dead reckoning” stems from following straight roads, as in “dead ahead.”)

I love practicing “accelerated stalls,” which, although it sounds like a contradiction, can happen if you rotate too much on takeoff.   I think it is also the process behind stuttering.

Enough already.  Before I get behind the airplane and lose control, I should quit today’s aerolinguistics lesson.   Don’t know about you, but I need to pitch, roll and yaw my way out of bed, take a shower and go to the scale and compute my load factor.   Hopefully, there won’t be too much turbulence ahead.





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.

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.


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.

The Most Annoying Word


In a survey of over 1,000 people conducted at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY, 39% of people age 60 or over rated “whatever” as the most annoying word or phrase used in conversation, coming in as the clear front-runner over second-place “like.”  Whatever.

Actually, maybe because I am not quite yet over 60, I don’t find “whatever” disturbing.  In fact, I actually like it.  And “like” doesn’t bother me much either.  To me, “whatever” has a lilting, poetic quality, and while some may find it dismissive, I find it a charming way to remind the listener of what is important in life.    Maybe that’s because being dismissive is not something to be dismissive of.    Saying “whatever” at just the right moment reminds the listener that life is too precious to spend it worrying about the corporatization of the world, the subjugation of particular groups of people, or the price of tea in China.   “Whatever” can be thought of as a vocal cue to detach from one’s ego, perhaps a quick and dirty form of meditation that can save us from having to spend 20 minutes twice a day doing the real thing.

I might actually consider silently repeating the word “whatever” as a method of reducing blood pressure.  Now there’s a study for you.

That is not to say that there aren’t words that get me really tweaked.   At the top of my list is the word “issue.”  I don’t mind the word when it is used to describe the location of a particular magazine article, or even the result of two people spending some happy time together, but I have a real issue with using it because people are somehow afraid of saying they have a problem with something, or God forbid may actually have a conflict.   For some reason, it is now more acceptable for people to have “issues” than problems, worries or concerns.

Try these two next sentences:  There are several other words with which I also have issues.  Or:  There are several other words that irritate me (or get my goat, bother me, annoy me, etc.)   Which do you prefer?   And yes, I am also bothered when people say “oftentimes,” a totally useless expenditure of syllables (they could just as well have said “often”).   It is one of those words that I think people say because they want to sound more intelligent but backfires on them.   The more often they use the word the less intelligent they sound.

Now, please don’t get the impression that I am holding myself out in any way to be a verbal virtuoso.   I frequently (oftentimes!) use words incorrectly, partly because I want to learn and hope those better-educated people around me will correct me, which they sometimes do.   A good friend is someone who will tell you when you are screwing up.

Undoubtedly, there are many intelligent people who will oftentimes have issues with what I am saying.   It is fine; my judgment of you will be wrong and it will be fleeting.   Whatever.



Lieutenant Kennedy’s Last Words


Within the next few years, it is estimated that there will be about 7000 drones flying in U.S. airspace. Many of these will be military, but eventually many more of them will serve a variety of commercial and research purposes. Jeff Bezos, CEO of, plans to use drones to hasten delivery direct to your door. Not sure how they are going to ring your doorbell, but I’m sure that will get solved.


Things go bump in the night, as they say, and to a pilotless drone in which there is no one who can look out the window, it is always night. The “big sky” theory, which states that things are unlikely to bump into each other because of just how much space there is out there, has never been very accurate. Whether the solution lies in designated “drone airways” or any other number of regulatory schemes, more stuff out there increases the danger in the sky and, when they crash, on the ground as well.

But the danger in drones doesn’t lie solely in their dropping munitions or even bumping into things. Just about everyone in the vicinity of my age knows that JFK’s older brother, Joseph Kennedy, Jr., died as a war hero. But many people are unaware that he died as a result of a drone accident. He wasn’t the target of the drone, but rather the launcher. In the Second World War, the US Navy used radio controlled PB4Y airplanes as unmanned flying bombs (they were called “robots” then). A pilot would take off from the ground, set the course, and then bail out. A shadow aircraft would then guide it to its exact destination using the radio in the shadow airplane. Joe Jr. died when the experimental PB4Y he was flying exploded before he was able even to don his parachute. In an operation code-named “Aphrodite,” he and his co-pilot left an airfield in England heading for France, with the intention of destroying the Fortress of Mimoyecques. They successfully were able to transfer control of their airplane to the shadow airplane, and arm the explosives. Kennedy keyed the microphone and spoke the words “spade flush,” the code indicating that he had successfully armed the explosives. Those were his last words, as the explosives detonated prematurely and his airplane was blown to bits.

Ed Renehan, Jr., in his book “The Kennedys at War,” reprinted the contents of the secret telegram sent from General Spaatz to General Doolittle in August 2004 (Note that “PD” is “period” and “CMA” is “comma”):


The U.S. Air Force publicly has acknowledged that its three principal drones have been involved in over 120 “mishaps,” undoubtedly military-speak for “unfortunate deaths.” That statistic leaves out drones operated by the other military branches and the CIA. The FAA is currently working on developing a regulatory scheme that will attempt to effectively keep drones from bumping into each other as well as commercial flights with people aboard. But concerns such as lost radio contact, or malfunctions that leave drones unable to be guided to safety, are much more difficult to address. Soon, I suspect, when you see something flying above, you best be prepared to duck.