Turn, Turn, Turn

Unless you’re quite a bit younger and have been deprived of some of the greatest music in the last century, you know the song:

To everything, turn turn turn/ there is a season, turn turn turn/ and a time to every purpose under heaven.

And you also know that the lyric is an adaptation from Ecclesiastes, with the exception of the words “turn, turn, turn” and the “I swear it’s not too late” for peace at the end. Pete Seeger joked that he wrote the music to the song and “six words,” although I don’t know how or why he came up with the “turn turn turn” part.   It certainly worked, especially for the Byrds who had a smash hit with it. (When it was released previously by the Limeliters it was called “To Everything There is a Season.”)  I imagine that the notion of turning captured for Seeger the essence of the bible passage, that we can turn away from one path and go down another, or perhaps simply that we have choices in life.   There may be a time for war and a time for peace, but we humans have the agency to turn away from one and point ourselves in another direction.

King Solomon, of course, was the dude who enabled a couple of women to save on DNA testing by cleverly instructing the alleged mothers to cut their disputed baby in half in order to determine maternity, and he’s also the guy who is the attributed author of Ecclesiastes. I have neither a bone nor baby to split with Solomon the wise, so if he were around I might be inclined to confess a failing in order to get some aeronautical advice. It’s about turning.   Are you ready?   I am whispering now.   I really don’t know how an airplane turns.

There, I said it.   Sure, I know the answer I was supposed to memorize to get the question right on the exam, having to do with ailerons creating unequal lift and all that, and I sort of know what that means, but that doesn’t really explain it.   According to Rich Stowell, who knows more about the physics of flying in his fingernail than I do in my BMI-challenged body, the primary way an airplane turns is—hold on—the elevator.   That’s the thing on the tail that you usually think makes the airplane go up and down. (That’s why it’s called an elevator, after all.) But you see, flying an airplane is tricky, because most earthbound people think of turning in a two-dimensional way, and flying happens in a 3-dimensional way.   In other words, when you change the path of an airplane from going straight and level, you are curving its path, and that is a turn.

So, for example, if you say to a fish, turn around and look at me, and the fish could understand your thick Cockney accent, the fish could choose to swim in an upwards loop, a downwards loop, a sideways loop, or any other loop it chooses and still turn around and look at you.   All it would need is its tail operating the way an elevator does (although with eyes on its side, it might need a bit of rudder as well).

Now, while I am a bit embarrassed about my lack of understanding of what is probably some basic physics, I am not alone.   According to that same Rich Stowell (who used to bother me with his aerodynamic lectures in the tiny room where I was trying to pay attention to my own instructor), of the 900 pilots he has asked (he does this for a living), about a quarter of them said that it is the rudder that turns an airplane.   Even a fish knows better than that!

For any of you who might have considered flying with me but have changed your minds now that I have confessed that I don’t know how an airplane turns, you should have figured out by now that I do know how to make an airplane turn.   I won’t explain it to you now; you’ll have to trust me on this.   There is an essential difference between knowing and doing, and on top of that there is the fact that there are also a lot of different kinds of knowing.   Once you do something well enough, it could be argued, conscious knowing (e.g., verbal explanations) often disappears.   My friend David once witnessed me catch a hard hit line drive just above the dirt after diving like a bolt of lightning.   When I came up with it I humbly said, “I have no idea how I did that.” David, looking incredulous, said “It was just luck.” Fat chance.

While there are plenty of sources to which I can turn to learn more about turning, I prefer to consult the admired atavistic ones, such as King Solomon and Pete Seeger.   Just slightly less atavistic would be the words of Leslie Bricusse as channeled through the voice and melody of Anthony Newley, who asks “Who can I turn to, when nobody needs me?”   And rhetorically answers: “My heart wants to know and so I must go where destiny leads me.”   Destiny? Really?   Are we all just dogs on Fate’s leash?

Let go of the controls and the winds of destiny surely will turn us, whether we like where it takes us or not.   Ultimately, I suppose, neither Solomon, Seeger nor Bricusse tell us how to turn, but when Seeger adds the words “I swear it’s not too late”—great activist that he was– he’s hinting that maybe we can willfully decide to move from here to there.   And maybe, after enough practice, while we may not know just exactly how our airplane turns, we already know how to make it go where we want it to go.



Drop It

There are lots of things you can do in small airplanes, and some of them are legal. Surprisingly, perhaps, one of the things you are allowed to do—or perhaps more accurately, not legally prevented from doing—is drop things from them. According to the regulation, as long as you are not in danger of causing damage to anyone or any structure on the ground, you can drop anything you like from an airplane. If you’re really bored, it might be fun to think of creative things you can throw from an airplane. Maybe we can make a bored game out of it.

Here’s what immediately comes to mind: an old toilet bowl, water balloons (these would change in shape as a result of changes in air pressure as they descended), anti-fascism leaflets, magazines from many years ago that people will discover and think they were discarded a long time ago, unexploded ordnance if I could get my hands on them and they were assured not to explode, old cell phones, and rolls of biodegradable toilet paper, just to watch the beautiful streaming effect.

I hope you were perspicacious enough to notice that not once did I mention dropping, let’s say, an old severely neurotic girlfriend who ran off with my best friend, although it would be perfectly legal, well, maybe not perfectly, unless she was already dead, and then I am not sure why it wouldn’t be perfectly legal. I didn’t mention anything like that in my list because the thought never even crossed my mind.

There are people who make a living dropping things from airplanes. All around the country there are places where you can go, take a lesson, strap on a parachute and even drop yourself from an airplane. I haven’t done that yet, and I don’t plan to. It’s nowhere near my bucket list, and wouldn’t be even if I had one.

There are people who spread pesticides onto fields of vegetables that some of us dare to eat, and them there is pretty fun piloting if you can get over the guilt. And then there are the pilots who spread human remains when they finally get from ashes to ashes.

Now that’s an interesting way to spend your time. I can imagine the scene now. Most pilots, sadly, are men, so excuse me for the gender bias you are about to encounter. Joe Pilot is sitting at the table in his suburban kitchen, sun harshly glaring through the kitchen window, drinking his coffee and waiting for the toast to pop up. How he loves the sound of that pop. How he knows he puts way too much butter on the sourdough toast, but hell, you only live once.

“Busy day today honey. Damn, I’ve got four urns scheduled, and two of them want to be spread on the hillside, one of them on the lake, and one of them on the pasture by the house. It’s crazy, you know, getting the timing just right.”

Sally’s finger momentarily stills as she lifts it from her cell phone screen and looks up, a bit bleary-eyed. “What did you say honey?”

Joe smirks, “Never mind.”

Sally suddenly takes it in. “But you’ll be respectful of course. Of the ashes I mean. I know you always are.“

Because this is often done at low altitudes, and can be tedious if you don’t want the ashes spread around your cockpit, the ash dispersal business can be dangerous; there have been instances of pilots meeting their ends as a result of stall-spin accidents while spreading—ironically, other pilots’ ashes. Of all the ways to die in an airplane, doing so while dispensing a dead pilot’s ashes has a sweet symmetry to it.

But, truth be told, I don’t plan on dropping anything from any airplane for any reason whatsoever.  It’s just plainly a bad idea.

All the News that Fits

777 struggle

My friend and occasional instructor Don Becker posted the above screenshot of a hilarious CNN chyron (the sometimes scrolling bar of information at the bottom of the TV screen).  In case you’re having trouble reading it, it says “Boeing 777 will struggle to maintain altitude once the fuel tanks are empty.”   You have to wonder who writes these things.

Enthusiasm, the God Within

Annie-HirrellMy son had the privilege of going to a college in which he studied the classics, and in so doing had to learn Greek.   I envy that, but not enough to study it myself.   I am too old, I think; perhaps not really, but as I look toward the end of my life and time seems thinner there seems to be a narrowing of choices.   In any case, he is not around right now for me to ask about this, but I have come across the kind of little linguistic gem that thrills me, and that is that the root of the word “enthusiasm” is the Greek enthousiasmos, which means “the God within.”   An enthusiast, one can say, is one inhabited by God.

And also, I am told, the ancient Greeks called those who created works of art “enthusiasts,” which makes perfect sense to me, as my own working definition of art is that which inspires (or deepens the breath), and in that sense brings God forth.   In the very rare instance in which I am grandiose enough to think that I have created art, either in writing or photography, or landing an airplane, I believe that somehow something spiritual has moved through me, and when engaging the art of another I believe that something spiritual moved through them and I was fortunate to catch a wisp of it.

There are many things in this life that I approach with enthusiasm, although I prefer to think, in line with the word’s origins, that these things approach me, or pass through me having emanated from some sort of spiritual place.   I recall one of my trips to Ireland in which I attended a copious amount of fleadhs— music festivals that were taking place all throughout the western part of the country.   From time to time, a single woman would come onto the often makeshift stage, sit upright in a chair, close her eyes, still her body, and begin to sing a capella.  Once, one of these women explained to the audience that this was the Irish way of singing, and it was based on the idea that the music did not emanate from within oneself, but instead it emanated from some spiritual other place and that the singer was merely the vessel. Perhaps this is at the core of all art, a kind of enthusiasm that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself in an effervescent moment of glee, but rather a lachrymose, mournful offering, a moment in which the “thou within” expresses itself.

In depression, the God within us goes on vacation. Enthusiasm disappears. The external world fails to spark anything within, because in a state of depression the pilot light that might spark enthusiasm is all but extinguished.   One knows the demons of depression are departing when enthusiasm returns.   It may be a simple feeling that a cup of tea might hit the spot right now, or a renewed interest in seeing, hearing, or making art.   In that sense, the level of one’s own enthusiasm becomes an indicator of one’s general well-being, a touchstone of sorts letting us know the degree to which we are engaged in living this one precious life.

These days I find myself enthusiastic about a lot of things I do, but often the enthusiasm doesn’t show up until I find myself in the midst of it.   I get a thrill when I get in the cockpit, a familiar place, and eagerly go through the steps needed to light up the engine, spin the propeller, and roll down the runway. I get a spark of enthusiasm when I am sitting with a client, somehow manage to connect to their pain, and join them in a way that sparks their enthusiasm.   Then there is a moment of healing, and there is deep satisfaction in having that shared experience.   I get a thrill now when I look at great visual art, or hear a great song, although frankly, those are few and far between.   The old songs, sadly, don’t do so much for me anymore, unless perhaps it is Lightfoot or Janis Ian at their heights.

I got into a little tiff with a colleague a while back, who wanted to define the work we do on a website as “the science of behavior.”’ I objected to the word science in this context, because, while arguably accurate, I thought the use of the word on a website in a marketing context was misleading.   It was as if calling something a science rather than an art made it more legitimate.   If we understand art, though, the way the ancient Greeks did, and called artists “enthusiasts,” then to me it is both a compliment and an honor to be known as someone who practices the “art of behavior analysis.”

To practice behavior analysis, fly an airplane, engage a book, poem or story with enthusiasm– to do anything with enthusiasm, elevates ourselves to more spiritual beings.  It signifies to me that we are bringing passion and gusto to our work, and so long as that passion doesn’t blind us to the world at large, that can only be a good thing.



Java Jive

coffee cupI like coffee, I like tea.   I love the java jive and it loves me.” I am proud to say that those lyrics, written to match the great Ben Oakland tune, were written by a cousin of mine.   Pride in this as in most situations is unwarranted of course, given that  Milton and his brother Irving Druckman (who changed their names to Drake) granted me through their progenitors only a small fraction of their DNA, and even so, I am not sure pride would even then be relevant.   I do love music, and struggle to create it, but more to the point of this little missive, I really love coffee.

I didn’t always.   I really didn’t acquire the taste until some time in high school, when I used it primarily as a drug to stay awake while working the graveyard shift at Denny’s and putting up illicit real estate signs by the side of the road on Friday nights and then picking them up on Sunday nights in Orange County, California. It has, over the years, developed into my drug of choice, so much so that, in all candor, I need to stop writing these words right now at 8:14 in the morning so that I can go into the kitchen and brew some up.   Otherwise, I won’t be able to make it to the next paragraph and you will feel an awkward abruptness and wonder why I even brought this up in the first place.   Be right back.

Having suffered a variety of health problems for my entire adult life, I have often wondered if drinking coffee is good for one’s health—mine in particular. So, curious bloke I am wont to be, I have tried to follow the literature.   Some of this curiosity, by the way, has been driven by knowing that my Mormon acquaintances, along with the occasional Seventh Day Adventist, refrain.   Adventists don’t drink coffee primarily because one of the church’s founders and arguably one of the most colorful figures in American Protestantism told them not to.   Besides being the author of 40 books and allegedly the most translated female author of all time, Ellen White was a vegetarian who thought tobacco might be a really unhealthy, nasty habit.   That was pretty bold at the time, and she sure had that right.   But this is what she said about coffee in 1890:

“Coffee is a hurtful indulgence. It temporarily excites the mind to unwonted action, but the after-effect is exhaustion, prostration, paralysis of the mental, moral, and physical powers. The mind becomes enervated, and unless through determined effort the habit is overcome, the activity of the brain is permanently lessened.” 

Well, to my mind, she got a lot of that right as well.   Said another way, and not to be too disparaging of a great forward thinker, it’s not a good idea to drink coffee because it works.

The science pertaining to coffee is pretty interesting to me.   The research is copious, and most of it would lead a rational person to think that drinking coffee is a pretty good idea.   The health benefits, it seems to me, far outweigh the liabilities.   Take, for example, this recent study published in the Journal of Gerontology.   The researchers looked at the coffee-drinking patterns of more than 6,400 women aged 65 and older, and found that those who drank more than the median level of caffeine were significantly less likely to develop dementia or any kind of cognitive impairment than those who drank below the median amount.   Those in the “above-median” group drank an average of 261 mg. of caffeine per day, the equivalent of about two to three cups of coffee.   I am not quite 65, although I am rapidly approaching, and not a woman, nor have I played one on TV, but I am quite encouraged by these results.

I will confess that my coffee habit has, at various times in my life, gotten out of hand. When I averaged over 10 cups of coffee a day, even though in those days my blood pressure was low, I thought that even I had taken it too far.   I self-imposed a year’s abstinence, and after about a week of headaches I was really fine.   In fact, I had barely noticed a difference, perhaps because at 10 cups a day tolerance had set in and the coffee no longer had much effect.   Nevertheless, when the year was up, I got right back to it and here I am, years later, drinking about 4 cups a day.   It is still my drug of choice, and hopefully, along with greasing these fingers it will ward off the dementia that eventually got the best of my dad.   That brilliant lyric from “Java Jive” says it all: “A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup—boy.”




It’s not the Airframe, but How it Flies

In the nautical tradition from which aviation emerged, I call my airplane “she.”   She’s a rather beautiful ship, I think—sleek and sexy, with long wings and I could go on but the metaphor becomes too suggestive and I have already taken it too far.

Boys often call their toys “she” for a reason.   There is an erotic quality to the relationship men have with their airplanes, cars, drill presses, and for geeks like me, even their books.  Sure, I don’t call my Encyclopedia of Philosophy “she,” opting instead for the neutral “it,” but in all candor, I will confess that books for me have long had a sensual, if not erotic, connection.

I don’t know exactly how or when it started. I had once heard that you could often tell a book is going to be a good read by the effort that went into its binding, the selection of the paper and cover, and even the type style.   The way it worked, I heard, was that publishers will invest more money and design effort in books they have confidence in, but I don’t know if any of that is true.

What I do know is that when I encounter a book, I will touch it, caress the cover and flip through the pages, gently feeling the nap of the paper.   If the paper has ragged edges, it is going to be a special book indeed.   I will admit here and now that occasionally, if no one is looking, I might bring the pages up to my nose as though I were smelling a rose.   By smelling a book, you can tell if it has been inappropriately stored (it shouldn’t have a musty smell), and if the ink is fresh off the press. Just as cigarette makers spike their tobacco with addictive stuff, I wonder if printers spike their ink to make it somewhat intoxicating. Wine connoisseurs, I am told, can tell a lot about wine by its bouquet, although the only thing I know about wine is that I love the word terroir.   Paper also has a bouquet, and if you’re good enough at it, you might be able to read its terroir as well.   Central New Jersey, the lake district no doubt, 1986, a good ink year indeed.

While it may be true that you can’t tell a book by its cover, you can tell a cover by its cover, for a book without its cover is like emerging from a shower on a cold day with no towels or robe nearby, or to remain aviation-focused, like flying an airplane with its cowling missing.   It probably can be done, but for several reasons it’s probably not a good idea.    The cover won’t reveal the soul of a book, but a nice cover can sometimes be a clue to what’s inside.

When I say that boys have an erotic connection to their toys, I mean that quite literally, in the sense that “eros” renders in English simply as love. “Eros” as a god is right up there– some say the child of Chaos, from whom the universe emerged.   Yes, in some mythologies, we go right from Chaos to Eros, in order to bring some sense into the world.

I think about love a lot, for reasons I won’t go into here, and sometimes when I think about love I think about it as connection.   We love that which we desire to be connected to, or connect to that which we desire.   But nowadays we often associate eroticism with sexuality, stemming from the Freudian notion of libido.   Libido is simply the life-force, the energy that contains both sexual and aggressive impulses, the impulses that drive survival.

That is why, I believe, boys often call their favorite toys by female pronouns. They  want to get close to them, connect with them, driving, as they do, their life-source, toward and away from their mothers—the female who, very literally, was their original life-source.

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough women who are pilots to know whether they call their toys by male or female pronouns.   But if I did, I am not sure what I would make of it.   Could it be simply that they were co-opted into a male tradition? Could it be that women in general are socialized to be more gender fluid? Whatever the explanation, for those of us who care about such things as gendered pronouns, it might be interesting to know.   For the rest of us, well, I apologize for bringing it up.








Earning It

I made a lot of mistakes during the checkride that was to finally determine whether or not I earned the privilege of carrying a blue pilot certificate around with me in my wallet.  I made so many of them that I was convinced I had failed.

I was shocked when after my last landing the examiner offered me an outstretched hand and said “congratulations.”  He told me to tie down the airplane and meet him inside while he did the necessary paperwork.  When I got inside, I told the examiner that I was certain I had failed.  He looked at me reassuringly and said, “You earned it.”

Given the number of things I had done wrong, and his criticism at several key junctures in the flight, I began to wonder exactly what I did right to earn the privilege.   Eventually I came to believe that I was rewarded with the certificate because I demonstrated something that I don’t think the examiner ordinarily saw.

There is an interesting rule that applies to the checkride.   Despite the fact that the pilot being scrutinized is still technically a student, the pilot is also legally considered the “pilot in command.”   What it means to be pilot in command is that the pilot, and only the pilot, is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the flight.   That responsibility, it seems, is not just about knowing the craft of flying so well that the airplane is truly subservient to its pilot; it is also about an attitude.

At the beginning of the checkride, the examiner suggested that we head out toward the coastline between Point Mugu and Santa Barbara to do the maneuvers that demonstrated that I was proficient in handling the aircraft.   I responded by saying, “No, let’s go to the Santa Paula aerobatic box.   The place you’re suggesting is a corridor for traffic up and down the coast.   It’s safer near Santa Paula.”

He looked surprised that so early in the flight I opposed him, but he also seemed pleased at the decision, and quickly relented.   He broke one of the few smiles I saw during the flight, and simply said, “Okay. “

Another moment of surprise came after the maneuvers, some of which did not go so well.   We were flying out of the box, just east of the small Santa Paula airport where I had taken most of my lessons, and he said, “Where do you want to do your landings?”  Just as we were approaching Santa Paula, he said “How about Santa Paula?”

I responded contrarily again, and said that I would rather do my landings in Oxnard, a relatively large, towered airport only a few miles away.  I thought, but didn’t say,  that I would rather have the comfort of a 6,000 foot long and 100 foot wide runway which would more likely hide my mistakes than the needle in a haystack runway in Santa Paula.   The examiner undoubtedly expected that I would choose the more familiar Santa Paula airport that we were just flying over, so he was surprised again.   But I was the pilot in command and that’s where I wanted to go.

The last surprise came as I entered the pattern at Oxnard.   The controller, who didn’t know I was a student, gave me an instruction I had never heard before and one I have rarely if ever heard since.   He told me to “make short approach” and abort the remainder of the downwind leg of the pattern and land immediately to make way for fast traffic coming into the airport behind me.  I quickly glanced over to the examiner, who began to nod his head to cue me to say what was indeed the first thing that came to my mind.   It was the single magic word that gets you out of jail free: “unable.”

Exhausted and convinced I had already failed, I keyed the mic and instead of the magic word I said another one: “wilco.”   “Wilco,” for those not familiar with the shorthand, is a portmanteau for “will comply.”   Out of the corner of my eye I could see the shocked, and even a bit frightened, expression on the examiner’s face.   I simultaneously kicked in left rudder, pushed the nose down, cut the power, and turned the yoke toward the big fat runway.   The gentle Cessna 150 floated swiftly and gracefully toward the center of the runway, where I made one of the best landings in my life.

I couldn’t help but once again see the surprised expression on the examiner’s face.   Although he had nothing but criticisms to say up to that point, he couldn’t help himself and he uttered, “That was a great landing.”

“Thanks,” I said diffidently, still convinced I had failed.

I did two more good landings after that, and it is possible that it was my landings that convinced the examiner to pass me.   But in retrospect, I don’t think so.   After several years of pondering what went right (what went wrong was obvious), I think that the key to my passing was my polite but clear refusals to do what he came to expect.

It takes both skill and judgment to fly safely, but in the contest between the two, judgment wins out.   In the case of my checkride, I didn’t merely accept what I thought was expected of me, but instead opted to make my own decisions.   I clearly did not demonstrate that I was the most skilled pilot, but I did show the examiner that I knew how to be pilot in command.   Hopefully, that’s why he thought I had earned it.


Angels and Science

5732575967_66cfcf10df_bAlthough it may appear so to the casual observer, I don’t believe a gang of angels is responsible for lifting my or any airplane gently off the earth and into the atmosphere.   I attribute that near-miraculous feat primarily to the difference in air pressure that occurs above and below the wing due to its shape, although I do reserve the belief that someday, as knowledge of physics widens, angels might be found to eventually have something to do with it.   For some reason, I imagine that angels giggle profusely, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the future the practitioners of physics discover that indeed, in that realm just beyond the reach of human senses, fulsomely winged messengers are having a joyous time watching humans wrestle their tin crafts off the ground and clumsily bringing them down again.  Well, maybe I would be surprised after all, but I would also feel thrilled and redeemed.

My dad was a professed atheist, and he would probably scoff at my belief in angels from wherever he is or isn’t right now.   We argued about it on several occasions, his dismissal of the existence of any sort of Higher Power resting principally on the view that no Higher Power worth worshipping would permit something like the Holocaust.   I found his views on the agency of God unpersuasive, but I certainly respected the angst-tinged lens through which he came to view the world.   He saw considerably more misery in his one wild and precious life than have I, privileged as I was primarily as a result of his determination.

For many reasonable folks, believing in science precludes a belief in angels. But, along with Francis Collins – the noted geneticist, former NIH director, rock musician, motorcyclist and self-proclaimed born-again Christian, I see no conflict between the two.   In “The Language of God,” Collins persuasively argues for the compatibility of science and religion.   In public interviews he has famously derided agnosticism as a “cop-out,” although he makes exceptions for those agnostics who have deeply considered the evidence and still have come to no conclusion.

Science elucidates a lot, and I am both a fan and a practitioner of its methods.   But science fails miserably in its attempt to explain those things that its methods are simply incapable of explaining.   Science does well explaining the “what” of things, but is inept at explaining the “why.”   It can tell us how to get places, but not where we should be going. Its inability to answer questions does not, as some casual agnostics would prefer, make the questions less significant.

I grieve a little when I see what has become of the profession in which I have spent my entire adult life.   The word psychology itself derives from the Greek roots meaning study of the psyche, the psyche being “breath, spirit, or soul.”  The earliest reference to the word in English, according to the venerable OED, was in 1694 in Dutch physician Steven Blankaart’s “Physical Dictionary,” in which he refers to “Anatomy, which treats the Body, and Psychology, which treats of the Soul.”  Yet these days the study of the soul has transmogrified into the study of the brain.   I am sorry, but no collection of electrons firing through synapses soaked with gamma-aminobutyric acid will explain the feeling I get when I watch my daughter dance, hear Frankie Valli shift into falsetto, or lift off the ground in my airplane.

I am not intending here to support notions of Intelligent Design, although even the prolific astronomer and atheist Sir Fred Hoyle admitted that “Life arising through random chemical reactions is as likely as the assemblage of a 747 by a tornado whirling through a junkyard.” Or, as noted physicist R. Piccioni stated, “Randomly replicating the DNA of the simplest known life is about as likely as drawing the ace of spades (randomly from a deck of cards) 119,000 times in a row.”  While I don’t own enough hubris to even hypothesize how life as we know it came to be, I will assert my view that knowing how it came to be is not something likely to be uncovered by the tools of science.

No one said it better than the astrophysicist Robert Jastrow, who concluded his book “God and the Astronomers” with this pearl: “At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”







The Putt and the Pendulum

Poe_pit_pendulum_byam_shawIt’s a good thing you can’t copyright titles, because I had to steal this one.   It’s just too good.   The play on Poe refers to a clever study by Harvard social psychologist Daniel Wegner designed to emulate a phenomenon well-known to golfers—the tendency to miss easy putts when the pressure is on.   In the study, subjects were told to hold a plumber’s pendulum—a string with a pointed weight on the bottom of it—and try NOT to move it in any direction. Wegner found that the greater the pressure to get it right, the more the string moved. The more you try not to do something, or tell yourself not to do something, the researchers hypothesized, the more likely you are to do it.

Eventually, after a series of similar experiments this notion became known as the “ironic effect,” because giving clever names to common phenomena makes you famous, helps you get published and increases your chances for tenure and income, especially after you do a TED talk. Perhaps because it wasn’t catchy enough, Wegner renamed the phenomenon the “white bear (or polar bear) problem” after reading Dostoevsky during his summer break.  Fyodor wrote: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.

Ironic processes have been proposed to arise as a result of the unconscious (automatic) component of thinking being heightened during periods of stress, creating an overload which then interferes (through “hyper-accessibility”) with conscious thought, resulting in less focus and poorer performance. The unconscious monitor is thinking “If I miss this putt I’ll lose the tournament, be ashamed, and my mother will have to tell her friends in the nursing home.”   The stress created by TV cameras, high stakes, and Tiger Woods teeing off behind you can be intense, thrusting the unconscious monitor into consciousness, thus interfering with the conscious thought—“softly about six inches to the left,” thus distracting the golfer enough to impair concentration and performance.

Increase the pressure to do something right and we are more likely to do it wrong.   But that principle doesn’t work all the time.   Performance under pressure works like an inverted U-shaped curve, in which too little pressure has no effect on performance, and too much pressure really screws us up.   The trick is to find that middle way, in which there is just enough pressure to push us toward our best performance.

When I was a young teenager, there was an Orthodox synagogue located down the street from where I lived called the “Sea Breeze Synagogue.”   The old wooden building was built close to the turn of the last century, and badly in need of repair, but rather than tear it down they decided to build a new building in the empty lot next door.   There was a steel girder, about a foot wide, spanning the length of the empty hole where the foundation and basement was to be, maybe 25 feet long.   The width of the girder was certainly large enough to walk across without fear.   But the fact that it was suspended over a large hole, large enough to do serious damage should one fall into it, made the walk from one end to another too daunting. I knew some kids who did it, or said they did, but I wasn’t going to be one of them.

It was an easy task, but the context “spoke to me” and made it out of the question.   If I simply were able to put it out of my mind it would have been a sea-breeze.   But instead, had I tried it, the knowledge that if I fell I would likely not survive or be paralyzed for life would overtake my focus and I would, as it were, be more likely to miss the putt.

Psychologists recommend distraction as a chief strategy for dealing with such distractions.   In other words, think about something else while doing the thing you already know how to do well, and your newly conscious thought will serve as the antidote to the venomous voices in your head. While it seems counter-intuitive that thinking about how to best prune roses while walking across a tightrope will increase the likelihood of making it across without splattering one’s viscera on the floor of the arena below, to then be devoured by the abused lion while the lion-tamer is distracted by the malfunctioning of his assistant’s wardrobe, who in turn might be distracted by the thud of your own body having fallen three feet from her, I am told by psychologists more knowledgeable than I that indeed this is a good way of coping with the white bear problem.

My white bears often overwhelm me, and distraction never quite does it for me.   I try, for sure, but sometimes I just have to give in to the white bears.   Maybe that’s why I could never play golf.



The Edge

When the kids were small, we took them to Ireland and stopped at the rugged Cliffs of Moher.  The cliffs are a popular tourist site, dropping precipitously 700 feet to the ocean, and extending eight miles wide.   (They make an appearance in the wonderful film “The Princess Bride” as the “Cliffs of Insanity.”) I pleaded, practically on my hands and knees, for my wife and kids not to get anywhere close to the edge, but they forged ahead while I stayed far back and worried like a frantic hen.   I stayed close to the parking lot because I am afraid of heights (as I have learned is the case with many pilots) and when it comes to the edge of anything you will generally not find me too close to it.

Even the relatively tame paths over the bluffs near our home in Northern California are difficult for me. (Signs that say “Danger: Bluffs Crumble” don’t help.) I work at it, and sometimes I do fine, but occasionally some implacable ghost residing in the ether will crop up and set off a panic attack that can only be eased by moving as close to Chicago as I can.

Despite my fear, and possibly because of it, I have a certain respect and even attraction to places that reside close to the impossible or unadvisable. I do understand that, for many reasons, the edge seems to be where it’s at.   In his handbook “Enlightenment Step by Step,” Amit Ray, who found his way from the world of engineering to the rarefied and potentially more lucrative air of spiritual mastery, wrote “You may fall down when you dance on the edge but edge is the source of all miracles and mystery.”

I can appreciate the falling down part, but the edge actually being the source of all miracles seems hyperbolic to me.  Some miracles, maybe, but all of them?   I have no doubt that, sitting here in my favorite chair in my living room, as far away from any edge I know about, a miracle is about to happen any second now.   It just did.   And hopefully, I will be taking quite a few more breaths in the days to come.

But I do realize that when one is in the middle of things, centered and on course, life is predictable and a dreary monotony sets in.   Humans are novelty-seeking critters, and it is the tangling with the unknown, forbidden, unknowable, and even dangerous that creates the anxiety and tension that is the wellspring of emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth.

When I travel to foreign places, my general routine is to leave the comfort of my room and head out into unknown streets.  I intentionally travel just far enough to become disoriented.   It is on the edge of knowing where I am, somewhat lost, that my heart rate picks up and my adrenaline fuels just enough nervous energy to drive the vigilance that is at the root of discovery.   It is the venturing forth beyond the endeavor that turns a venture into an adventure.

Beauty resides on the edges.   To call someone “plain” is not a compliment.   A face that lives either on the edge of ruin or the edge of pedestrian captures interest and suggests depth, because it is an invitation of sorts.  Come, it says mysteriously, to the sweet tedium of the average; we are not there yet, but it will come.   Or, on the edge of ruin, we are invited to hold on to the precious glimpses of youth, or the luscious narratives of this person’s past; true stories, undoubtedly, more incredible than fiction.

It is just so with personalities. We tend to be intimidated by those who are too clever, or find them remote, but instead prefer those who function on the edge of clever, showing brief moments of brilliance now and then.   We like humor, don’t we, but please, not while we’re trying to be serious.   We like to be understood deeply, but appreciate a break now and then. It’s nice to just float for a while, sit and drink coffee and talk about what cousin Sara might be doing in Seattle.

There is a red line on most airspeed indicators which indicates the “never exceed” speed.   Exceeding that airspeed threatens the integrity of the airframe.   Most pilots I know like to nudge as close as they can to that speed.   We like to see how fast we can go without breaking the airplane. It is in the flirting with disaster that we learn our limits, and when we master our limits then perhaps contradictorily we know better how to stay safe.

Of course my wife and kids did just fine at the Cliffs of Moher, in spite of my protestations and the fact that, among the many wonderful characteristics of the Irish, they don’t seem to be too fond of fences.   Master Death may reside just one small step off that cliff, and that is a truth that must be faced.    A fence may temporarily shield us from the inevitable, but it will also keep us comfortably away from the edge.  Yet,  it seems, the edge is where life comes most fully alive.