I slept just a few hours last night, having to see the second game of the World Series from my hotel room in Washington, DC, to its unfortunate conclusion. The game ended past midnight here, and I had to be up and out a few hours later for a flight out of Baltimore back to L.A. I am now seated on an Alaska Airlines 737, cruising smoothly above the cloud deck that appears like the surface of a brain laid out flat and stretching to the horizon.
Due to that lack of sleep, I have barely enough energy to keep my eyes open, let alone to think about how to revise the following paragraphs that some time ago I released energetically from my fingertips as I thought about the complex topic of energy management. I have never been good in the mornings, and this morning—even as I chatted with the grateful Afghani Lyft driver who received a special residency visa from the US government after spending 5 years helping the US Army to rebuild his country—this morning is no exception. My head feels as though it’s surrounded by cotton that penetrates my skull and inhabits the synapses, muffling the firing of neurons and sending only one key message to the remainder of my body: go back to bed.
So, in order to manage the few remaining cubic centimeters of energy residing in this fragile corpus, I will push the small silver button on the side of the console that separates me from the tall, gangly man who somehow managed to transfer every hair on his head to his left arm. Pushing that button will have the disturbing effect of reclining my seatback a measly few degrees and granting me the illusion that I am actually making myself more comfortable. I am going to gently close my eyes along with the cover of my faithful laptop– which is actually on my laptop, stow the thing and close my eyes. I am looking forward to meeting with you later, to tell you what I think about this very interesting concept of managing energy.
I write this to you today because, given the struggle with chronic fatigue that has plagued me since a nasty bout of mono at age 14, I have been unable to avoid a rather obsessive concern with energy. Living in a body that feels as though it is always walking uphill, I am constantly reminded that energy must be managed, conserved and expended in the right proportions if this vehicle is going to get anywhere.
Energy, I am told, is defined as the capacity for performing work, wherein work is further defined as force multiplied by distance. Admittedly, I rarely think of my own work that way, but when I do it makes perfect sense. How much work did I get done today? Well, not a lot of force but a quite a bit of distance. Or, I worked really hard—didn’t get that far but I busted my ass.
This capacity to perform work we call energy comes in many forms, but at its most basic, it can be divided into two main categories: potential energy and kinetic energy. (Stay with me, because it does get interesting.) For a pilot flying an airplane, potential energy is usually understood and measured as altitude, while kinetic energy is measured as airspeed. But airplanes need potential energy even before they get off the ground and gain altitude, and that energy comes in the form of the stuff pumped out of the ground and left over from dead dinosaurs. Once refined it makes its way from storage tanks to the airplane’s fuel tanks, where it waits to be converted from a liquid to a gas, to be ignited and converted again into the explosions that fire the pistons, which then gets converted to torque energy, and so on. Fuel gets converted so many times and so quickly that it would make a missionary jealous.
The human who is hopefully sitting behind the yoke and controlling the airplane’s energy also gets his or her energy from fuel, fuel that comes from plants and animals that more recently sacrifice themselves in order to find their way from the earth to the supermarket to the refrigerator to gastrointestinal tract. That fuel also gets converted many times, ultimately transforming from potential energy to kinetic energy.
Pilots are essentially energy managers; every control input a pilot makes—every push on a rudder pedal or thrust lever, every movement of an elevator or trim tab, every bending of the shape of a wing with an aileron, is a shifting of energy designed to get the airplane to go where the pilot intends it to go.
None of us get out of school without learning the pledge of allegiance and that E=mc squared. While many of us may have believed the former, few of us understood the latter. (I didn’t really understand either.) Einstein already knew that neither mass nor energy could be created or destroyed, but his formula took things further by demonstrating that they were essentially the same thing, and that one can be converted into the other in both directions (hence the “equals” sign). As the song goes, “that’s all there is.” One could then argue, if mass—often described as matter, is the same as energy, then energy is all that matters (sorry about that).
I was once told that you could tell a good pilot by how often he or she trims the airplane. To trim an airplane means to set up the control surfaces in such a way that it requires the least amount of pressure on the pilot’s part to control it. In other words, you set the controls in such a fashion that the airplane essentially flies itself. This is done by adjusting knobs or servos that control small tabs on either the elevator (that points the nose up or down) or the rudder (that points the nose left or right). The best pilots set up a default energy management setting which harmonizes the airplane’s control surfaces with the demands of nature. In doing so, the pilot transfers his or her own energy to the trim tabs on the airplane, making them work harder so he or she works less.
We manage the potential energy of food by being careful to not eat too many carbs too quickly, or to buy food that is preservative free or chemically non-toxic. And we manage kinetic energy by exercising often and properly, resting and caring for the mechanisms our bodies use to convert it from one form to another. We schedule our work lives mindful of energy-depleting workload, and schedule the rest of our lives in order to replenish and nurture ourselves. Overall, we become mindful that we must also keep ourselves “in trim” in order to safely get us to our desired destinations, and maximize the cruise between ashes and ashes, dust and dust.
In baseball, as in aviation and in life, everything at its most fundamental level is about managing energy. By the time you read this, someone will have won the World Series, having managed to out-manage the energy expended by the other team. For many fans around the world, all that energy matters, and for many others, I suppose, none of that energy matters at all.