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?



The Mensch Checklist

Business consultants and fitness gurus Adam and Jordan Bornstein interviewed various corporate leaders for Entrepreneur magazine, asking each of them to mention their most valued characteristic in a leader.   They came up with a list 22 items long, including:

focus, confidence, transparency, inspiration, integrity, passion, innovation, patience, stoicism, wonkiness, authenticity, open-mindedness, decisiveness, personableness, empowerment, positivity, generosity, persistence, insightfulness, communication, accountability, and restlessness.

While Elliott Ness might have been proud of how many of his progeny made it into the list, I, personably, would be thrilled to at least eliminate “personableness,” if for no other reason than that there is no such word.   (I don’t think “insightfulness” is a word either, but if it is, it shouldn’t be.)

It is not at all surprising that most of the words on the list describe the elements of what I think make a great pilot in command, although I might eliminate wonkiness.   Then again, without a bit of wonkiness I am not sure anyone would become a pilot to begin with.

Nor am I am surprised that the authors of the article failed to mention that, along the lines of Harvard Business School researcher Robert Kelly, these same characteristics also describe the ingredients of a good follower.   Great leaders want followers who are passionate, patient, innovative, inspirational, positive, accountable, and dare I say it, even personable and wonky.

So if great leaders have the same characteristics as great followers, what really does all this mean?   I would venture the obvious: these are simply the characteristics of people who are good at whatever they do—be they great leaders, great followers, great pilots, great anythingers.   I might be inclined to add “humility” to the list, although accountability and authenticity get pretty close.

If what goes into making a pilot a great leader are the same elements required for anyone to be good at what they do, then it might be more accurate to call this a mensch checklist.   While technically the word mensch translates to “man,” it figuratively translates into “the kind of person you would want to be married to your daughter.”  No gender bending is needed here because, according to Google, mensch in German is similar to man in English, i.e., it can be used for both man (as in mankind) and woman.   In other words, German is just as sexist a language as English in that there is no word for “woman” that can apply equally to men.   But I digress.

Mensch checklists are not only useful for assessing the qualities of potential in-laws, but they can also be useful as a self-assessment tool.   Note the characteristic of “accountability” on the list.

As the leader of a company for nearly three decades, I can easily point to a few things I did poorly.   I often lacked both focus and patience, and the older I got, the more I lacked decisiveness.   Overall, though, I think I did pretty good, if I must say so myself.   Unless I was having a bad hair day, I don’t think I lacked personableness, whatever that is, although I probably was way too wonky for my own good.

What I lacked as the leader of a company, however, I found I could make up for in the cockpit. There, it seems, I have little choice but to exhibit most of those characteristics, because in the cockpit a lack of generosity might not kill you, but a lack of focus, confidence, decisiveness, and accountability just might.

Most pilots will tell you that checklists are good things, although many pilots I know are reluctant to apply them to their attitude and personality.   Aviation safety experts often cite this failing as problematic, and I agree.  As a psychologist who took up flying relatively late in life, I am certainly in the ranks of those who think that an unexamined life is indeed a dangerous one.   Or, possibly, I am just letting my wonkiness get out of hand.



Don’t Let George Do It

I learned to fly in a venerable Cessna 150, which I once overheard referred to as “the closest thing to not having an airplane at all.”   The controls on the 150 couldn’t be simpler, and the idea of equipping one with an autopilot would be a bit like adding GPS guidance to a lawnmower.   It was a good thing that the 150 had no autopilot, because if it did a newbie might be inclined to use it, and in the process lose precious time actually learning how to fly.

Early autopilots were primitive, and seemed to have a mind of their own.  Flight instructors—even to this day, are fond of grilling their students on the many ways to shut them off, because historically they were so unreliable that even turning them off often failed.   That’s when the department of redundancy department came in.

Autopilots are supposed to be designed for simplicity, but if engineers could talk they might tell you the more complex the instrument the more difficult it is to prevent it from going haywire.   To invert and paraphrase the song from Hair!, it’s hard to be easy.

I am happy to report that my own airplane, the Diamond DA40, has a marvelous autopilot made by a company called Garmin (the name being a portmanteau for founders Gary Burrell and Min Kao).   It has 11 ways to shut it off, although I can only remember 4 or 5 of them at any time.  Prosaically called the Garmin 700, it is fully integrated with the airplane’s navigation system, which means that once you tell the airplane where you want it to go, with the press of a single button it will take you there.   It corrects itself three times per second, which anyone who knows me will tell you is much more often than I do.

Ever since flying behind an autopilot I have heard them referred to either as George or Otto.    The reason they are called Otto is apparent, but I often wondered why they were also referred to as George and not Fred, Nancy or Butch.   Turns out that it was the RAF pilots who first encountered them who jokingly decided that they should simply let the airplane’s true owner, King George VI, fly the airplane.   “Let George do it.”

Nowadays, the use of autopilots is de rigeur, and the term has worked its way into common parlance.   When we do things by rote, without giving it much thought, we are said to be on autopilot.   But flying on autopilot can be hazardous to your health, as we learned from Air France 447, whose pilots flew into the icy Atlantic Ocean killing all aboard when they couldn’t manage to hand fly the airplane once the autopilot had been degraded.

As life in these United States gets increasingly complex, most of us rely on variations of our own internal autopilots.   This can be deadly, as when someone is so used to driving they think it should be no problem to let the car drive itself while applying makeup or reading text messages.   One could argue, and many do, that the reason autopilots have become necessary is that the tasks associated with daily living have just become too complex.   It stands to reason, then, that the best way to turn off our collective autopilots would be to simplify the tasks ahead of us.   So, perhaps out of a strange desire to be symmetrical, I am going to try to list eleven ways of simplifying, enabling us to shut off our autopilots, hand-fly our airplanes and get the most out of our lives.  If you can come up with your own list of eleven, I would be proud. Here’s my list:

Simply unplug.   Everything.  Then observe what is going on around you.


Uni-task.   Simply create a “task boundary” around you and insist on doing one thing at a time.   Take that one task to completion.

Observe the Sabbath as Orthodox Jews do.   No cars, no elevators, nothing with electricity or fire.

Take a familiar task and make it unfamiliar by breaking it down into its smallest manageable parts.   Instead of brushing your teeth or taking a shower on autopilot, focus on each component part of the process.

Use chopsticks instead of forks and spoons when eating.   Eat slowly and savor every bite.

Write something by hand.   Instead of sending emails or tweeting, write a postcard.

Pay restaurant checks with cash.   Try using exact cash and count the change in your pockets.

Park your car and walk as much as possible to do errands.

Have a garage sale and rid yourself of everything extraneous in your life.

Cancel any future commitment or event that doesn’t enrich your life somehow.

I am convinced that the less we allow George to take care of us, the more we will feel as though we are flying our own airplane and getting the most out of our lives.   And that is why most of us learned to fly in the first place.


An Anniversary

Exactly one year ago today I completed my last radiation treatment. As far as I know, no detectable cancerous lesion has returned since then, which makes this a cautious but happy holiday. The caution is prudent, given the size and mass of the original tumor and the fact that it had metastasized to lymph nodes, thus increasing the chances that it will pay a return visit. If it does, according to my medical oncologist, it will do so “with a vengeance” having cleverly re-engineered itself to evade the effects of chemotherapy and radiation.   A relatively prompt death is likely.

I have believed in and witnessed the truth of the saying that “we die the way we live.” Among other things, I have lived a life of short-term pessimism and long-term optimism.   Things will work out in the long run, I have always thought, but the rub is in the present and immediate future.

Unfortunately for me and those committed to living with me, this has made me a rather troubled and troubling companion.   For if the diagnosis of stage 4 cancer does anything, it creates a shift in perception.   Whatever cuddly visions I have had of the long-term future quickly vanish into the thin air of fear.   Some say cancer is a wake-up call, but for me it has always been more than a challenge to wake up at all, let alone from a nightmare  that projects itself into the waking state of monthly hospital checkups, blood tests, radiation-rich carcinogenic body scans, and the harrow of waiting for results.

Yet without the battle there can be no victory, and today is a time for celebration. And in this very moment, as others around me are wont to remind me, things are looking good. And as I try to remind myself, this very moment is the only moment that matters; it is the only moment which this brave and betraying body of mine can ever embrace.

And, perhaps in spite of what you have been kind enough to read so far, I am not a whiner.   I have fully embraced my father’s dictum that life isn’t fair, and that it is all of our jobs to work with what we got.   And though it’s too easy for me to miss what is right in front of me, I’ve got a lot.

It is about 4 in the morning, still unaccustomed to the time shift from L.A. to Galway. Yesterday my wife and I walked over 5 miles along the coast in the gray chilly mist, as the sun set over the Atlantic between this continent and the Aran Islands. Gas-fueled flames in the faux stove heat this cozy AirBnB, a modern addition to a traditional rowhouse just four easy blocks from the pub-lined High street that twists through shops packed with a mix of tourists and locals. And peregrinating through the streets of this, one of my favorite cities, I am constantly reminded that there is nothing quite like the amity, charm and wit of the Irish. In this, the only moment there is, life is good.

So today I will struggle again, as I have each day, to find a suitable folder in which to file the fear that each of these bizarre symptoms that arrive daily, uninvited and unwelcome, are signs of the cancer returning.   No, they are just the creaking of an aging body or the teasing of my guardian angels.   I will, today, try again to inhale the crisp air of gratitude and allow its sweet calming effects to wilt the tension in my muscles.   I will, today, if only briefly, imagine the soft embrace of a mother’s arms in order to protect me from the ill wind, and soothe the bristles of expectation.


Driving on the Left

Galway, Ireland.   I tried taking my taxi driver’s advice, and booked my rental car through the internet in order to avoid being screwed at the Budget counter. (The cab driver used a more colorful Irish or English word for the act, but although the meaning was clear, his enunciation wasn’t.)   I had to check in through the counter anyway, and the price managed to jump from a reasonable 40 euros for two and a half days to over 250 euros, and when I asked about the difference the thief behind the counter said it was for the fuel that will be returned to me when I bring the car back full.   Over 200 euros to fill up a car no bigger than a giant’s fingernail?   I’ll try to work it out when I bring the car back, probably unsuccessfully, or 3 weeks later when my anger reaches its pitch.

I have been to Ireland several times before, and have driven here, but the last time was about 25 years ago when the kids were little and annoyingly disinterested in castles.   (I guess I should have been more compassionate with the notion that when you have no history of your own it’s difficult to be interested in the history of others, but I wasn’t.) I confess that I took the wheel with more than a little apprehension, given that my own mental state has deteriorated since the cancer treatment, and I feared that with age my coordination and reaction time had as well. Nevertheless, with a touch of the Brooklyn chutzpah that occasionally surfaces when needed and an opportunity to save five euros, I opted for a stick shift, making the challenge of driving on the left just a bit more alluring.

My wife, beside me in the left seat (which made no sense at all), had no control over what was happening to her, so was understandably more terrified than I was as we watched cars incomprehensibly barreling right toward us before vanishing in a whoosh that should by all rights have ended in a collision. She kindly kept repeating, softly but urgently, firmly and gently, the word “left,” which was at once reassuring and annoying.  The word “left” became simultaneously an injunction and a prayer, and while my wife was saying it out loud, I was repeating it subvocally to myself.

The thing I most want to tell you, and the whole reason for this post from abroad, is that it has been thrilling to drive on the left side of the road.   First, entirely unexpectedly, it feels a lot like flying.   I haven’t flown since I grounded myself due to the effects of my cancer treatment, and I have been curious about what my hopefully eventual return to flying will feel like.   Now I suspect it will feel much like driving a 5-speed peppy Ibiza on the “wrong” side of the road.

The first thing that is awkward is the fact that the stick is in your left hand, and not on the right.   For a right-handed person—as most people are, that itself is a bit of a challenge.   But when flying from the left seat, as most pilots do, the stick or yoke that controls both the pitch and the roll (the elevator and the ailerons) are continually operated with the left hand, while the right hand usually hovers somewhat lazily over the throttle, or throughout most of cruise flight, in the lap. Right-handed pilots quickly train their brain to “steer” with their left hands, but it isn’t natural.

Almost immediately after realizing that pushing on the steering wheel doesn’t actually shift gears for you, it is important to remember that the third pedal somewhere down there on the floor isn’t a rudder.   But driving with a clutch requires the use of both feet, refreshingly similar to flying an airplane.   After a few attempts at coordinating a turn in an Ibiza with a clutch pedal, it doesn’t take long to learn that it just won’t work that well, and in a car the human foot has a distinctly different purpose.

But the most important thing about driving on the left side of the road is the most ineffable. It is, I suppose, partly the thrill of mastery—simply doing something different and getting to the place where the awkward becomes mundane. Accomplishment unto itself (“because it is there,” says Mallory) is sweet.   But it is considerably more than that.    I imagine—although I know nothing about it, that it’s like playing the piano. I tried it more than a few times, and I have yet to get to the stage in which the left hand manages to coordinate with the right, but it must be wonderful when it happens.

There is also the feeling that, having successfully returned home after a day driving through the countryside in a mirrored reality, one has gotten away with a minor crime.   Those of us who have spent countless hours in darkrooms know the frustration of accidentally printing a negative that has been flipped to the wrong side, but in Ireland the wrong side is the right side, and as most hormonal adolescents can tell you, that can feel really good.

I should add, simply for the sake of justice, that I no longer have the slightest interest in castles.   Been there, done that, and they’re too damn drafty.   But getting there, now that can be a blast.




You Can Fly

Whatever self-deprecatory thing I might have said (I’m sure there were many, but I don’t recall this particular one), my mother responded in her strongest voice, “Ira, you can do anything you set your mind to do.”

I was snooty and literal even at 11 years old, which is when I believe this happened, so I said to her, “I can never fly.”

I remember my mom’s response better than if it were yesterday.   She bent down, gazed directly into my eyes, and said, “If you wanted to badly enough, you could fly.”

If I had any doubt that my mom was crazy, it ended right then.   But the line between crazy and brilliant is fuzzy, and sometimes not even there at all.

My mom spoke volumes with those few words, and it took me about 50 years to figure out what the hell she was talking about.   She was, in her typical way, telling me that reality shouldn’t necessarily get in the way of my thinking.   I don’t think it got much in the way of her own thinking, although I never fully understood what motivated her, and how she thought.   I thought I might better understand her by asking her about her childhood, but she always refused to talk about it.  When out of frustration I once asked her why, she simply said:  “It was too painful.”   Other than vague impressions, I suppose that is all I was meant to know.

My mother had a way of looking deeply into your eyes and finding something residing there that you couldn’t see yourself.   She was many people’s confidante, although it was always a one-way street.    That was the way she wanted it.

I am convinced, perhaps in my hokey way, that she could see into your soul, so when she gave advice it was pretty damn good.   And getting down on her knees to my eye level and looking straight into my eyes was a damn good trick, which is, perhaps, why I wanted so much to believe that she was right and that if I only wanted to badly enough, I could fly.

I wanted to believe it because I thought she believed it.   It wasn’t that I was worried about disappointing her; it was more about the fact that I trusted her.   At that point, I had the problem of figuring out how to make sense of her willingness to suspend belief in the empirical, to reside with one foot in this world and another, well, somewhere else.

Whatever was in that magic potion of hers, it worked.  I am particularly intrigued whenever someone says to me that something can’t be done.   And particularly challenged when they suggest that I am not the one to do it.

That is perhaps why I continue to imagine that one day I will finish that novel I wanted to write since I was 23, or that I can successfully translate a book into English from a language I haven’t begun to master.  (I will learn it as I go!) I am, however, still encumbered by enough of a dose of reality that when told that I can somehow lick the cancer that constantly threatens to invade, displace and destroy the healthier cells in my body, I quickly retreat.   Denial has its place in one’s armamentarium, but it is not the best instrument of courage.

My mother may not have known what she was doing, but I think she did.   She saw in front of her a frightened teenager, a friendless, self-hating, dispirited child who sucked his thumb until he was 11 and hid behind the couch whenever the doorbell rang.  She saw in front of her a child who believed he was incapable of mastering anything because the realities of living in the real world was just too daunting.   So she instilled in him a belief in magic, a belief that anything is possible.

When I think back, wittingly or unwittingly, I have drunk often from her magic potion.   It helped me cope with the many failures, big and small, on the path to each success.   The list of failures is long, and the list of successes is short, but they are—to my mind, big ones.    One of the smaller but significant ones is that it allowed me to eventually find my way into the cockpit of an airplane, fire up the ignition, and—dare I say, to fly.





Unusual Attitude Recovery

Imagine yourself in the left seat of the cockpit of a small airplane.   You are flying a few miles from the coast, over the ocean, with an instructor in the right seat beside you.

He tells you to put on your Foggles, a pair of plastic glasses designed so that all you can see is the instruments in front of you.   The area outside the cockpit is “fogged out” (hence the trade name), as if you were flying through the clouds.    You are staring at your instruments, keeping you and the airplane happily right side up by referring to the indicators in front of you.   After flying “straight and level” for a while, the instructor gives the following instruction:  “Now close your eyes and continue to fly straight and level until I tell you to open them.”

This shouldn’t be difficult, you think, because you were taught to fly “by the seat of your pants,” to feel the airplane underneath you and use your vestibular senses to know what attitude your airplane is in at any particular moment in time.   It seems and feels easy.

You are now flying blindly, paying sharp attention to your butt, the position of the stick in your hand (sorry), and using all your sensations to feel what the airplane is doing.   It is quiet and calm in the cockpit, and you are feeling good about how well you can fly blindly.   Now the instructor says:  “When I tell you to open your eyes, look only at the instruments and recover back to straight and level as quickly as you can.”  A few short moments later, he continues, “Now, open your eyes…”

As you open your eyes and see the instruments in front of you, your eyes burst open to their widest position, and your heart just about jumps out of your chest as you see that the airplane and both of its occupants are in a steep, turning dive, about to enter a deadly spiral.  You can’t see the ocean below, but you know it is there.  As a tiny bead of sweat appears out of nowhere on your cheek, you quickly analyze the situation, reduce power, level the wings, center the rudder, and gently pull the nose up.  The airplane is heavy, primarily when pulling the stick back, but it complies with your commands and all returns to normal except your breath, which takes a bit longer to recover.

You have now recovered from what pilots call an unusual attitude.  And in that process, you have learned several important lessons.

The first one is just how easy it is to get into trouble, and how quickly things can go wrong.   But even more important is the fact that they can go wrong without even knowing it.  You were, truly, in a steep diving turn when your body was saying you were level on the level.  You may have a big American fast-food-fed butt, but that butt isn’t nearly as sensitive as your eyes.  And while your middle ear may be even more sensitive than Davy Crockett’s wild front ear, it will easily deceive you.   Things aren’t always as they seem, and life can be quite a hazardous business. Whether it is the loss of a loved one, a betrayal by a business partner, or a diagnosis of a terminal illness just when you are feeling at your healthiest, life has a way of bringing us to the brink of a death spiral without seeing it coming.

The second insight is also fairly obvious, but worth considering as well.   With proper training, mental rehearsal, a good aircraft, and enough skills, we can usually recover from the unusual attitudes in which we find ourselves.   These requisites are significant; without them we might not have what it takes to steady ourselves before we smack into the icy ocean below.

Proper training is a given.  Whether it is a course on how to handle marital conflicts that could save metaphorical hearts from breaking, or a course in relaxation and meditation that could save literal hearts from breaking, training is essential.  Mental rehearsal does work and it is necessary in order to master anything.

Having a good aircraft is also a given.   The bodies we fly in should be well maintained.   The FAA requires me to give my airplane an annual physical.  Not a bad idea for all of us.  I can assure you that being healthy itself doesn’t necessarily keep you out of trouble, but I can assure you as well that the healthier you are to begin with the more likely you will be to get out of it.

If you choose to leave the confines of your house or apartment and are old enough to drive, you are already in the left seat.   Inevitably, life will throw us curves, and we will find ourselves in an unusual attitude.    While there is wisdom in avoiding unusual and dangerous attitudes to begin with, survival depends on our ability to recover from them.

-Thank you, Michael Phillips, for sitting in the right seat and conducting this exercise with me.   It is a real confidence booster!

Firmly, But Gently

The radiation oncologist, a dark-skinned, diminutive Indian woman with a prominent gap between her front teeth who looked to be about my age, was reviewing my treatment options, as it were.  There were really no options.   I suggested that there was the option of no treatment, which momentarily rattled the normally even-tempered doctor.

“You’re too young and healthy,” she said.   She left out the words “to die” but it was clear that was what she meant.   I came to grow quite fond of Dr. Vora, although I did resent how much information she didn’t give me at the outset.   Early on, she described the primary tumor as “bulky,” but later, after the chemo and radiation shrunk it to oblivion, she said it had been “massive.”  She chose her words carefully, shielding me somewhat from the immensity of her task, yet she remained truthful.   When I asked her if the radiation will prevent me from speaking or swallowing, she looked me directly in the eyes and said softly, “it’s a possibility.”  Throughout the ordeal, she remained gentle with me, yet firm in her convictions.

Dr. Vora was one of a team of three physicians who took me through the early phases of my cancer treatment.  The medical oncologist, who I also came to love and admire, managed to remain upbeat throughout, which, while slightly annoying, was also reassuring.  He too was firm, but gentle.

Famed aerobatic pilot and avid golfer Michael Goulian, speaking about his dual passions, once said “Golf and flying take a lot of confidence and skill… If you grip it and rip it mindlessly, either on the golf course or in a plane, you won’t have much success.”

It is no wonder that good flight instructors seem to always watch how you hold the stick.   They know it will reveal a lot about your confidence and even your overall relationship with flying.  Gripping too tightly reveals your anxiety, and you will overcontrol the airplane.   Gripping too loosely and you are likely not paying attention and have too frivolous a relationship with the airplane.   It may end up controlling you.

I am not sure when I first heard the phrase, “firmly, but gently,” but I believe it was from my college fencing instructor, Charles Selberg.   He was answering a question on how best to hold the foil.   He even demonstrated a trick that I used to my advantage on several occasions:  If you notice your opponent gripping his weapon too tightly, it is very easy to disarm him.   Simply use your forte (the strong part of your blade) to aggressively swipe your opponent’s forte and his weapon will go flying out of his hand. 

This little trick, this little hack as they call it these days, applies to nearly everything.  How does one best hold a dance partner? How does one best discipline a child? How does one best negotiate a deal?

The emotional part of my cancer has been by far the most difficult mountain to climb.   Prior to my diagnosis, I had no idea how difficult it would be for me to loose the cold grip I had on life.

People around me advised me to fight, but it never felt right for me to fight.   The doctors were in charge and my function was simply to follow.   Even faith seemed irrelevant.   That too takes energy, and every ounce of energy left in me needed to be spent following, complying.

What exactly would I be fighting for?   I was fighting to stay alive, but then and now that felt like the wrong fight.   It is a fight I knew I could never win, and I didn’t even know who was with me in the ring.  The real challenge was to let go.   I needed to find a way to let go of expectations, wishes, the future, life itself.   I needed to learn to say goodbye, something that throughout my life I never even began to do well.

When it came to this fight, the fight to end my desperate clinging to life, I was a failure, or as I believe my mother might have said, “a rotten failure.”  I knew then and I know now that wanting something too much is a curse.   As a therapist I always counseled others that wanting was healthy, but needing could get you into trouble.  I did not merely want to live, I needed to live.

The thing I could not do was apply my little tricks, my sneaky alchemical algorithms to my own life.   I could not find the right grip.   I could not hold my life in my hands firmly but gently.  I held on too tightly.   And that, I fear, made it too easy for something to come along and wrest it from me.