My Friend John

My first flying instructor, Floyd Jennings, didn’t say much.   When I asked him once how I would know if I was doing something right, he said that he would tell me if I was doing something wrong.   I guess the idea then was to keep him quiet, but it was frustrating nevertheless.   Once, when I went to reach for the wrong control– to pull the mixture knob instead of the carburetor heat, he abruptly slapped my hand away.   He didn’t even bother to use his words when I did something wrong.

By contrast, my instrument instructor, Michael Phillips, is verbal when he needs to be, but he can also be indirect. After breaking off a practice instrument approach and heading away from the airport, I wondered why my airplane was climbing with its nose down and its rear end skyward as though it were doing a downward dog.   Michael said nothing, until long after I should have realized it I noticed that I had neglected to dump the flaps, which I had set for the aborted landing.   I was embarrassed, and a bit frightened as well, but I figured it out, corrected it, and asked Michael why he didn’t correct me.   He smiled a bit wryly, and said that he wanted me to figure it out for myself.   Fortunately, the airplane was sturdier than my ego, and all was well.

In the behavioral world, both positive punishment (the slap on the hand is considered positive because you are adding it rather than removing it) and extinction (the lack of a reinforcer) are well-established methods of learning.   They both work well, although it is an open question whether the effects of one last longer than the effects of the other.   I don’t have a carburetor or carb heat in my current airplane, so I really can’t tell you.   But I think Michael’s approach works better, partly because my first instinct upon having my hand slapped is to respond with an uppercut to the instructor’s jaw. I refrained from doing that with my first instructor, because I learned to restrain myself from my instincts when I was three, and even then he was a lot older than me.

In Michael’s case, having allowed me to discover my own mistake and correct it, I not only learned that it was a good idea to retract my flaps when breaking off an approach and trying to climb, but I also learned to trust my ability to independently problem-solve.   One could say, arguably, that Floyd’s approach of immediately punishing the mistake was a form of direct instruction, and Michael’s approach of waiting for me to discover my own mistake was more indirect.

Many moons ago I took a year-long training course in hypnosis.  One of the techniques taught in that course was called “My Friend John.” It was designed as a method of hypnotizing someone who had difficulty with the perceived vulnerability involved in the process of opening one’s self to suggestion.   The therapist in this case merely says something to the effect of, “Let’s not worry about doing hypnosis now, but let me show you how it is done.”   The therapist then proceeds to instruct the client to imagine that he has a friend named John sitting in the empty chair beside him, and then the therapist proceeds to “hypnotize” the friend in the empty chair.   In the meantime, the client succumbs to the process and finds him or herself indeed suggestible.

The point to this isn’t merely to say that we learn vicariously through modeling, but instead that direct communication can be threatening to some and that indirect communication can have a powerful effect if it can open doors that otherwise might have some rusty hinges.

The editor of the magazine I write for, “Plane and Pilot,” writes a column called “Going Direct.” It is a double entendre, of course, the aviation entendre referring to what pilots do when they navigate the shortest distance between two places—the straight line.   For reasons primarily of time and fuel economy, it is usually the pilot’s preferred way to travel, but it is rarely achievable in many places because airspace restrictions, mountains, and weather often get in the way.

But we do tend to see the direct route as the preferred route, just as we tend to admire straight-shooters. Martin Buber, one of my favorite Austrian-born philosophers and existentialist pop stars, said back in 1950 that “the origin of all conflict between me and my fellow-men is that I do not say what I mean, and that I do not do what I say.” Perhaps that is meant more as a statement pertaining to integrity, but it could just as well be an argument for going direct.

There are times, however, when going direct will get you into a canyon you can’t get out of, and saying what you mean can get you into more trouble than it’s worth. I received the most humiliating “C’ in my life in my first year of college. The professor who gave it to me was eventually to become the poet laureate of the United States of America, the truly extraordinary poet Charles Wright.   He was a wonderful man, in spite of his insanely good looks.   And frankly, in retrospect, he was generous even to give me a “C”; when I look back at what I wrote those days I cringe. One of the poems I wrote then was so embarrassingly frank in its sexual references I am too ashamed even now to admit I wrote it.   But when meeting with Wright, he kindly told me that the art of seduction—and he would know—was about subtlety, and the art of keeping things hidden. Those weren’t his exact words, but that was his meaning, having managed to measure his words with just the right amount of indirectness.   I was merely 18 years old then, barely conscious, but I walked away from his office rightly humbled and appreciative at the same time.

Artists of all kinds know this well.   Sex scenes in movies are great as long as you don’t have to sit next to your kids in the theater, but I am grateful to be spared the grunts and groans and appreciate the cut away to the gently rolling ocean waves, or the cigarette smoke rising to slightly obscure the rosy-cheeked afterglow.

The harsh brutality of life softens in indirect light. Direct sunlight has a way of bleaching out the soft shades that give life depth, leaving images that have too much contrast and not enough tones of gray. Photographers in Southern California must wait for the rare cloudy day in order to capture its beauty. In the studio, they bounce light in order to see the detail and combat brutal shadows.   Simply stated, we see better in indirect light.

There are cultural differences here as well.   The Japanese are noted for saying yes when they mean yes and saying yes when they mean no.   This has created many an abusive marriage, which I understand is a big problem in Japan.   New Yorkers are known to be very direct, while Californians are known to smile at you and then continue jogging.   People with autism (which I often think of in cultural terms) will not give or receive subtlety, which is both refreshing and dangerous if you prefer to think you’re having a good hair day when you’re not.   The English are known to be extremely indirect because it is difficult to be direct and polite at the same time, while Armenians from Armenia (as opposed to diasporan Armenians), having learned how to survive through multiple generations of Soviet fiscal mismanagement, will tell you whatever they think you want to hear in order to get what they need. Jews from the east coast will tell you your breath stinks and you should have a piece of rye bread, and Jews from the west coast will ask you if you ever had rye bread.

Of course, there is the omnipresent danger of being too subtle. People differ in their degrees of perspicacity, on a scale from completely clueless to paranoid schizophrenic. The trick, I suppose, is knowing who your customers are and their shopping habits. Or, if that is too indirect for you, knowing just how perceptive your listeners are and their preferences.

Pulling the mixture knob instead of the carburetor heat would have killed the engine, and practicing engine-out landings wasn’t on the agenda that day.   Even my instrument instructor might have slapped my hand away in that same situation after all.   To everything there is a season, I suppose, and it is in the knowledge of when it is best to go direct and when it is best to circumnavigate that the poetry resides.

One thought on “My Friend John

Leave a Reply