Flying Through the Crash

cycloneThe old wooden roller coaster in Coney Island that once claimed to be the biggest in the world is still there.   I don’t know how much it cost to ride it now, but when I lived down the street from the Cyclone in the mid-nineteen sixties, the price of a ride was 80 cents. That was way too steep for this pimply teenager—about a penny a pound actually, so all I could do was imagine the feelings of the intrepid riders as I heard the squeals of excitement from my 13th story window in Brightwater Towers.

That was the excuse I gave back then.   But as I look back at it now, and feeling as I do about my own life mimicking that ride, the truth, I imagine, was that I was just too frightened.   Eighty cents indeed was hard to come by, but if I wasn’t so afraid of my frail frame evading the harness and tumbling to the pavement below I might have managed to find the requisite change left behind in the coin returns of pay phones.   Remember pay phones?

For every incline, for every ascendant pleasure, each plaque of appreciation, every dollar in the bank or glistening smile from across the room, there is an attendant crash.   I don’t think I knew it then, at least not consciously, but now I know too well that there is no grace without a fall, no breaking of a glass ceiling without mortal gashes from scattering shards.

In aviation there is an injunction that, if not saying it all, says it the most.   When you are about to crash, you have a singular task: to fly through it.   Not around it, but right through the middle of it. The simple four-word command to my mind reaches rarefied tattoo status: fly through the crash.

This is preposition power in all its elegant glory; to go through something implies there’s something beyond it.   You can go into something without ever coming out of it, such as a coma or a whole mess of trouble.   But to go through it means you’ve made it to the other side—scathed or unscathed— and therefore requires the assumption or faith that indeed there is another side.

It is, it seems to me, a fundamental principle of how one effectively deals with most of the crashes that a long enough life inevitably brings us.   I have had a few fairly overwhelming ones in my life, ones that I would certainly not wish on anyone, except perhaps in a few cases those who may have caused them.   (I’m struggling to let Karma handle those, but I hear she’s a bit of a chameleon and you can never tell if she’s really there.) You may well have managed to live through a few crashes yourself, maybe even some much worse than mine, and given that you are reading this now you have found some way to survive.   I suspect, though, that the more you continued to fly your airplane right through the crash the better the outcome.   The alternatives are denial and panic.   Denial– closing our eyes, pretending we aren’t in the midst of whatever painful landscape we are inhabiting, doesn’t bode well.  And when we begin to take in water and panic at the fear of drowning, that panic can lead to franticly flailing and taking in more water until we succumb.

The idea of accepting where we are rather than denying or panicking, and then continuing on by putting one foot in front of the other, is how we fly through the crash.   We just know where we are and continue to act toward whatever resolution awaits us on the other side.   And if we do so crippled by fear, having already taken in enough water to feel as though we are drowning, then we remain afraid, because that is where we are, as long as we continue to do what is necessary to keep flying.

While I am referring to faith, which is a deeply rooted assumption in a positive outcome, I am not referring to hope, which to me is a hook screwed into drywall that misses the stud. It may temporarily hold a flimsy picture, but don’t try to hang anything heavy on it. Hope will not get us through a plane crash, because if we depend on hope to get us through then we will end up assessing many potential disasters as hopeless, thereby robbing us of the motivation to keep flying.   It is only faith, which doesn’t ask questions or analyze situations, that keeps us fundamentally motivated to do what appears impossible, and keep flying.

Inevitably, we will survive some crashes and not others.   We just won’t know which is which until and unless we fly through them. There is an exact replica of the Cyclone at Magic Mountain in Valencia, by the way, about a 45-minute drive from my home in Ojai.   Some years back I paid the price of admission and tried it out.   By that time, I already survived a few crashes, so the Cyclone was a breeze.   I walked away from it a bit queasy, but mostly, I am here to tell you, I flew right through it.


Behind the Tree

Sometimes I still feel it as the airplane lifts off the runway, and for a brief moment my body becomes heavier and my stomach lighter as the ground begins to shrink below me.   I definitely feel it as the airplane enters a billowing cloud, and I become temporarily white-blinded and meld with that which from the ground I have often looked up at and tried to find meaningful patterns in.

There are moments of alchemy in which the ethereal crystallizes into the tangible, and the tangible appears to dissipate into ether. These moments are at once pleasurable and gratifying, and occasionally transformative.   People seek them, but I don’t think they can easily be found by seeking. They hide whimsically behind trees like children, but only come out when little is expected of them.

In each of these moments, all that exists is that single moment. We are unburdened by the past or future, by pretense or self-consciousness.   Shame, guilt, depression and anxiety vanish.   We become, fleetingly, exactly what we are and nothing else.

After all, most of us spend our waking hours engaged in acting out some sort of a role—a husband or wife, father or mother, sous chef, poker bluffer, dinner guest.   For those of us who may find life outside the confines of our solitude a struggle to put some square part of ourselves into the round holes of social interaction, moments in which all masks are off and our intrinsic selves are all we need to get by are precious.  For each of us, I think, whether socially fearful or not, freeing ourselves from the burdens of our roles allows a receptive engagement with the world around us, and when we do so we gain altitude, as it were, elevating those moments above the rest, and in the process elevating ourselves.

These numinous moments have the potential of becoming pivotal when they change the direction of our lives, but that doesn’t happen too often, and for stability’s sake probably shouldn’t.   Most of these moments are merely brief glimpses into what we hope heaven might feel like.

While seeking those moments can be a frustrating endeavor, most of us do try to create the conditions under which they are more likely to occur. Whether they are more likely to come in nature among evergreens and moss, or in a dank basement among rusty bicycles and greasy furnaces is a matter, I suppose, of knowing ourselves and our histories.   And whether they are more likely to come in a novel environment or one with which we are familiar and have traversed a thousand times, is also an open question.

When and how the numen appears I suppose is different for each of us.   It happened to me the other day when a red-haired, fair-skinned waitress with porcelain features and light blue eyes walked tentatively across the floor of the café where I was sitting to deliver some plates.   Every movement seemed fragile and uncertain, and something about her vulnerability tugged at me.

It used to happen to me (before my taste was diminished by cancer) when I ate certain sushi and closed my eyes because my visual sense detracted from the climactic experience of the perfect combination of tastes.

I still feel it sometimes when I listen to music and all else in life seems free from worry, often in the voices of Frankie Valli, Sinatra, Paul Williams, or Janis Ian.   Occasionally, Tim Moore singing “Second Avenue’ or Tom Waits singing his “Heart of Saturday Night” will set something stirring.

I can feel it when I touch a beautifully bound and printed book, or see a glimpse of a painter’s soul in her art. I used to feel it on boats moving across a body of water, perhaps in the primitive recollection of being tucked safely in the uterus, the taste of the saline mist and the gentle rocking as if held in loving arms. I feel it occasionally in the innocent, winsome, carefree play of a child.   A killer poem, such as James Reiss’s “The Green Tree,” will do it to me almost every time.   And of course, it happens sometimes when I am around the people I love; perhaps it is the very thing that defines that love.

I don’t have that feeling much anymore, and I wonder if that’s what happens when we pile up too many resolved or unresolved crises, or losses.   I don’t agree with Nietzsche’s statement that that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger; I think instead that it deadens us in another way, by numbing us to whatever numen might be hiding just behind the tree.   Occasionally too I think the lack of numen in my life is a sign of dysthymia, a jargon term for a mild depression.   But then I think that no, it is, instead, simply dukkha, the Buddhist notion of the rather normal suffering that pervades our daily lives and is part and parcel of that terminal condition that comes along with consciousness itself. And I also remind myself that efforts to combat that feeling of emptiness are only likely to worsen it, the efforts themselves setting up an ultimately unwinnable battle.

When I let myself think about it, which can be a curse unto itself, I wonder why I do anything in a life that is guaranteed to end. I don’t know why I write these blog posts, I don’t know why I fly, I don’t know why I go to the movies or travel.   I don’t know why I sing, write songs, or listen to music.   But I do know that I resent going to sleep because I feel as though I am going to miss one of those things, or something, or anything.  I do know that the more I concern myself with figuring out the reasons for things the less I seem to enjoy them.   This narrator who accompanies me wherever I go trying to figure things out can become annoying, and sometimes I want to shoot him, but I am afraid that if I shoot the narrator he’s likely to take me with him.

I am looking now across my living room at my dog who, despite her large lipomas has found a rather comfortable position in which to snooze.   She’s an old dog, and likely to die soon, but I don’t imagine she thinks much about it.   I do think she has a narrator, but I think the narrator tells her different stories, stories about the walk she took yesterday or the dog that once tried to bite her ear off.   I don’t think she worries much about dying, or whether or not she is losing her faculties, or if the strange sensation on her tongue means her cancer is returning. She simply manages to limp her way through the walk down the road, where the numen, perhaps in the scent of a rabbit, can be found hiding just beyond the tree.







The Flight of the Enchilada

enchiladaI don’t eat Mexican food too often, but when I do, I usually go for the chile relleno. There’s something wonderful about the balance between the spiciness of the chile and the softening effect of the cheese.   And even though most Mexican restaurants serve generous portions of everything, if the relleno came with only half a chile, I would likely be annoyed.   Like an enchilada, there is something unsettling about half a chile, half a dictionary, half a blog post, half an airplane, or half a flight to anywhere.

One can leave most things half-completed, but flying is something that essentially requires the whole enchilada. You can’t really stop flying mid-air between San Francisco and Houston, although you could always land and call it quits, and spend the night in a roach-infested motel in Gallup, New Mexico.   But in order to be a whole enchilada, or a whole anything, you are going to need more than the sum of its parts.

In order to get off the ground, you need just the right ingredients mixed in just the right proportions. Lift alone won’t get you anywhere, thrust won’t necessarily get you in the air, and drag—needed to keep you from going out of control, is actually designed to get you nowhere, which is why drag is a drag.   You need the whole enchilada, ingredients mixed just right, to achieve the alchemy of controlled flight.

I had a professor in college, whose name for reasons I would prefer not to mention, I don’t recall. (I give in– he slept with my ex-girlfriend, and even though she was an ex, it still bothered me.) He was fond of saying, half-jokingly I hope, that when he died he wanted the definition of “gestalt” written on his tombstone.   It was a silly thing to say, but as a mnemonic device it worked well because I remember the phrase now, more than 40 years later.   A gestalt, Dr. Whatshisname said, was the “ongoing, contingent, sociobiological organization of attention and action.”

We experience life in chunks—in organizations of attention and action, and each chunk is not only ongoing, but it is also contingent on what comes before and after it. The “before” part is obvious, but the “after” part was something illuminated by behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner, who insisted that what we do is often determined by what immediately follows it.

Contingency is important, because it is how things are connected, how we are all interdependent, and why if a tree falls in the forest we may not hear it but it will still scatter the ants beneath it.

As long as you keep cutting the enchilada in half, and realize that you still have an enchilada, then each half becomes a whole unto itself, especially if you keep eating it. You’ve just created smaller enchiladas. That is why in order for something to really be whole, it needs to be something greater than the sum of its parts. If, on the other hand, you were able to break down the enchilada the way I remember breaking down water in chemistry class into hydrogen and oxygen, interesting things begin to happen.

Enchiladas require tortillas, which require flour or masa, and water. To make the cheese you will probably need some milk, rennet, and maybe a starter culture. You might even add some salt to be adventurous.   Then there’s the chile pepper, and maybe a little guacamole.   None of those things on their own look or taste anything like an enchilada. But, mixed together in the right proportions and under the right Mexican sun, something greater than the mere sum of its parts begins to emerge.

It is, of course, alchemy when we mix ingredients to create something transformative.   It is alchemy when we mix lime with sand and water to create concrete, which by some magic of physics or chemistry becomes the building I am writing this in, and alchemy when you add rice to salmon roe and quail eggs to create the transcendent mixture of earth, sea and sky we call sushi.   It is alchemy when we fall in love, and even greater alchemy when we remain in love. It is alchemy when we fly an airplane. It is alchemy that is the foundation and the very substance of the feeling of awe, which so many have equated with a sense of holiness, numen, or spirituality.

Flying, as is true with everything we do, is a gestalt—a contingent organization of attention and action.   To be up high, beyond the realm even of happy little bluebirds, is an alchemical miracle.   As is true for love, good food, and those things that we value most, it is the transformation of disparate elements under the right conditions—a series of intentional acts that taken together exceed the mere sum of its parts.   It is, dare I say, the whole enchilada.






Faking It

For a short time, the woman who eventually became my wife lived in Schaumburg, Illinois, where she taught fifth grade. When I went to visit her from Kentucky where I was attending graduate school, she said she had two cats, but that I was likely only ever to see one.   Shadowfax, it seems, was terrified of strangers, and always hid when people were around.   I asked her where she thought Shadowfax might have been hiding at the moment, and she suggested he often hides beneath the Indian print skirt covering the large, retired wooden spool that served ubiquitously as a table in the sixties and seventies.   I got down on my knees, lifted up the skirt, saw a wide-eyed black cat cowering in the corner, reached in and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, pulled him out and cradled him firmly in my arms. My future wife was stunned by my stupidity, thinking no doubt that by all rights I should have been mortally wounded by panic-driven claws, but I was more than confident. I didn’t think about it; I just remembered what it felt like to hide behind the couch and somehow knew what was required of the situation.

I struggled with extreme shyness most of my childhood, to the point where neighbors used to say that they didn’t know my parents had three kids—they only ever saw two.   And when I learned about Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell, I remembered the sound of the doorbell in Queens that signaled my darting behind the semi-circular couch in the corner of the living room.   That corner behind the couch was my temenos, my safe and sacred space, where no one could harm me.

At 14, I somehow managed to find a girlfriend (or rather, she found me), but she grew increasingly impatient because I found one excuse after another to avoid meeting any of her friends. Approaching a group of people, and parties in particular, was like walking through the gates of hell.

When I reached my early twenties, I vowed to overcome my shyness and I used every technique I could find in the textbooks and some I invented on my own to lick it.  The best strategies were the ones I developed on my own.   It’s embarrassing, in retrospect, but the most effective was simply to pretend, to convince myself I was someone else.

Although I was skinny as a rail, hunched over, and had a face that was plagued by “the second worst” case of acne my dermatologist had ever seen, convincing myself I was someone else meant that I would imagine I was handsome and famous (Paul McCartney was often the favored choice), study their mannerisms, and pretend I was them. When I was a Beatle, I even had a pretty good Liverpool accent, but I only went that far when talking to myself.   The thing about self-help is that some of these silly things work, and when they do it’s pretty exciting.

“Fake it til you make it” wasn’t quite a mantra, but the fact that people responded positively to the feigned confidence made it worth the discomfort and great effort that went into it.

But faking it had its down sides.   Besides the effort it took, I knew it was a fabrication, a mask to hide the truth, and in lying that way I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt, but perhaps even worse, I was still hiding. Yet, I also knew that the goal of faking it was to make it, and making it means that the it you’re seeking becomes a genuine part of your personality.   It’s a classic strategy for learning anything, especially in the arts.   Some of us read literature in order to write; how many poetry professors over the years would tell us to imitate the style, if not the content, of our favorite poets, until we find a voice that is distinctly our own?

But imitation can only get you so far to making it, because, well, after all, I wasn’t born in Liverpool and can’t sing worth a damn.   The goal is only to model others insomuch as we learn who we are, what feels right and good, and matches whatever inherent predilections we might have.   To truly conquer diffidence, you need more tools in your toolbox.

I tried implosion, in which you force yourself to face your worst fears directly by brass knuckling it, and systematic desensitization, where bit by bit you pair relaxation with your fears. I became so good at relaxing that after my first year as a psychologist at a day treatment center for children with emotional disturbances I was voted the person the staff “most wanted to go through a crisis with.”   I was really hoping to get “best dressed” that year, but I had to settle with the former.

Hypnosis helped as well, although those effects were serendipitous outcomes of my work with clients.   I would use the prompt of having my clients press their thumb against their index finger, and gently squeeze them together in order to trigger a relaxed state that we had previously practiced, and after a while I would begin to recognize when I was tense because I would look down at my hand and notice my own thumb and index finger pressing together.

The encouragement of angels helped as well. As an intern at a large state mental hospital, I was required to attend case conferences in which the staff sat around in a circle discussing a patient.   Once, after having attended multiple conferences and never daring to speak, I meekly raised my hand (unnecessarily) and made a soft-spoken comment in spite of my rapid heartbeat.   After the meeting, the kind charge nurse came up to me, and undoubtedly out of some maternal instinct not normally found within miles from a psychiatric hospital, told me that she really appreciated what I had to say at the meeting.   It was sweet and simple, but that small kindness went a long way, given that I remember it so well now 40 years later.

I do believe, along with Eliot, that the goal of this one wild and precious life is to return to the starting point and know that place for the first time.   If I did return to that beginning, I might find myself hiding behind the couch again, or at least finding my own temenos and settling into that feeling of comfort and safety.   In some ways, retreating into my favorite chair at home, my car, my workshop, and my office are all little corners in which my five-year-old self hides.  But I think I have traveled too far, been scratched and bitten too many times in this life, to reach into a dark place to grab a terrified cat.   But who knows?   I pretty much licked that shyness thing, so maybe anything’s possible.





The Best Advice

Thomas Moore, the monk, musician, professor, psychotherapist, and author of a series of “soul” books, tells the story of a Zen master on his deathbed. His monks are all gathered around him, and the senior monk asks for any final words of wisdom.

The old master weakly says, “Tell them life is like a river.”

The senior monk relays this message to the other monks. The youngest is confused and asks, “What does he mean, life is like a river?”

The senior monk relays this question to the master, who replies, “Okay, life is not like a river.”

When I bought my Diamond DA-40, a sleek single-engine, four-seat airplane, back in 2008, I was rightly required to take a transition course to help me adjust to my new steed. Transition courses have saved many lives, and I was grateful to do it.   Although there were many new, sophisticated features in my airplane, the most difficult part of flying nearly any airplane is, of course, landing them.

I was proud of my landings in the Cessna 150s I trained in, so much so that I could dare you to throw a quarter on a runway and bet that I could land on it.   But landing an airplane with long wings close to the ground and double the horsepower that seemed to just wait around eagerly wanting to fly was a steed of a different color. My initial landings were acceptable, but the transition course focused mostly on other things, so I took additional lessons afterward.

That next instructor gave me very clear, specific advice on how to land my new airplane properly. Airplanes have certain landing attitudes, which in this context means the lateral angle of the fuselage to the ground, that seem to work best.   My instructor wanted my final approach to be as flat as possible all the way to the runway, so although I was descending at a certain rate and moving forward at another rate, my nose would be level with my tail. This was somewhat different from how I landed the Cessnas I had flown before, but eventually I was able to do it fairly well.

Then along came my instrument instructor, who saw my landings and immediately reprimanded me for doing it all wrong. The best way to land my low-wing airplane was to point the nose at the runway, and keep my tail in the air behind me.   I was confused.

Then, a few years later, on an oversold commercial flight, I was lucky enough to sit next to an airline pilot whose job it was to fly regional jets.   In fact, she was flying the jet we happened to be in at the time, and was sitting next to me in a curtained-off section of the cabin to get some rest while she was temporarily relieved in the cockpit.   Before she closed her eyes, I explained the conundrum, and she told me: there’s several ways to land an airplane.   I usually land one way for 10 times, then I rotate and land another the next 10 times so I don’t get stale.

Perhaps, life is not like a river after all.

In some psychotherapy circles, advice is seen as a mark of an inexperienced or ill-trained psychotherapist.   I don’t entirely agree, thinking instead that advice is akin to having a rudder, and inexperienced therapists, like inexperienced pilots, just don’t know how to use their rudder well.

Many clients become rightfully angry with their therapists for withholding advice.   After all, many people see therapists because they think that therapists know the recipe to the secret sauce that makes life tolerable, or that they know the route out of the maze of each client’s suffering.   And, to some extent, good therapists do know these things and more, so it is a reasonable request for clients to simply ask and then receive, especially given the fare.

But in the hands of a lesser skilled therapist, advice can become problematic because it can be based on the therapist’s worldview rather than the client’s.   And, at the same time, advice-giving in some contexts can obscure the part of the therapeutic process that instills self-reliance. I would often deal with this dilemma when clients sought parenting advice by saying: “I’ll make a deal with you.   I promise I will answer your question if you will first reach into the deepest part of you and tell me how you think it should be done.”   While this gambit often irritated my clients, after some cajoling they played along, and I would always make good on my promise.   Inevitably, after telling me their own answers to their own questions, my sincere response would start with “Wow.   I love that answer, because as I expected, it turns out it’s much better than mine. I was going to say (fill in the blank), but I like your idea much better.   Clearly, no one knows your child as well as you do.”

There is another story, one that I read many years ago and liked so much that I jotted it down. I don’t remember where I got it, but it might have been from that font of profundity, Reader’s Digest. The story goes that a reporter asked then president Harry S. Truman if he ever gave his grown daughter Margaret advice. Truman allowed that he did on occasion.

“What kind of advice do you give her?” the reporter asked.

“Well, I usually ask her what it is she wants to do. She tells me. And then I advise her to do it.”

Maybe that bespectacled Southern democrat, responsible both for authorizing the dropping of atomic bombs and the Marshall plan, integrating the military and helping to found the United Nations and without whose support there would be no Israel, was a Zen master himself. Or maybe not.



The Thomas Fire

  1. Sitting in my chair in the living room, out of the window I can see the branches and fulsome leaves of the oaks and crepe myrtle trees as they sweep back and forth, revealing the wind that has been carrying the flames and scattering embers to ignite the Thomas Fire and sending the material tokens and touchstones of lives to oblivion. Firefighters decided to call it the Thomas Fire, because it began close to Thomas Aquinas College, just a few miles from my home in the Upper Ojai valley.

The winds right now are not frantic, as they have been at times, but they are confused, darting from one direction to another, remarkably mirroring my wife’s mood.   Each sweeping movement of the branches injects an ounce of fear, it seems, into the normally placid mornings in Ojai.

I should not be writing right now, but instead I should be dressed and outside vigilantly scanning for spot fires, raking leaves and clearing debris that could ignite and spark the flames that could consume our homes and our tokens.   I should be a better protector than I am.   But I am slow to wake up, slow to meet danger, slow in my body and mind.

… So slow, in fact, that it has now been nearly a week since I wrote those words, a week in which I have discovered that a dozen friends and acquaintances have lost their homes, including one that borders my own property.   We have lost two structures—outbuildings, including a yurt that I recently fashioned into a framing studio for my photographs and a horse barn that has not seen a horse in at least 25 years.   Compared to many of my friends, we have escaped significant damage, but somehow feeling grateful in that context seems sinful and unkind.

Our children have become the heroes they always were—our son in particular working tirelessly to help others as he protected his own homestead, our daughter leaving the safety of Los Angeles to join us and do her part. My wife is the heroine she too has always been, caring for our children in ways I couldn’t begin to imagine. And I have been doing my best to care for them, although I feel inadequate in my somewhat compromised health right now, and slightly guilty that I am writing these words from a patio in a luxury hotel in Pasadena where we escaped for better air.   Angelinos reading this will sense the irony, because Pasadena is known for its poor air quality, but now it is a refuge from the toxic particulates that hide even in what otherwise might appear to be clear air in the fire area.

I recently read a story about Thomas Aquinas in which he drove off a prostitute sent from his family to “dissuade” him from joining the Dominican order by breaking his vow of celibacy.   He drove her off with a fire iron.   The threat of destruction by fire is indeed a potent force, another reminder that each of our existences are temporary gifts of resistance to the eternal, in which all eventually turns to ash.



A Friend in Low Places

My angels, when they decide to show up for work, are my friends in high places.   But I, along with all pilots, have a friend in low places too. She goes by the rather awkward name of Ground Effect.     It is one of the least poetic of aviation monikers (she once whispered to me that she would prefer the sexy, French name “Pitot Heat”), but when she shows up she can indeed be quite poetic.

Aeronautical textbooks tell me that this angel is the “increased lift and decreased aerodynamic drag that an aircraft’s wings generate when they are close to a fixed surface.”   That surface is typically the ground, and so a simpler definition of ground effect is an airplane’s increased performance as it launches skyward and touches down.

As you touch down, ground effect feels like a friend, a soft cushion, or a nurse with sweet, knowing eyes as you wake up from a coma in a foreign hospital. And as you depart skyward, ground effect temporarily adds a little oomph to the launch, a gentle assist, a glance and a wink from the girl on the barstool that you imagine might actually happen someday.

Those of us who have lived long enough to tell stories have undoubtedly encountered such effects in our lives. It may appear to be the guardian angel who intervenes when the doctor calls and says that the test results were negative, or the mother who picks you up and comforts you when you come home in tears after being hit between the eyes by a snowball that turned into ice as it rapidly reached its target.

Having a purposeful life—a life of service to others, functions similarly to ground effect as well, as a balm for bitterness and regret.   Having a life filled with service to others not only cushions others’ hard landings, but eases our own burdens as well. Emerson said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Ground effect can fool you, though, into believing you are flying better than you are, and has undoubtedly contributed to some pilots meeting their maker just as they meet that hill in front of them that they initially thought they could climb over. That is because on takeoff, the effect of improving your ability to fly will get you off the ground quicker than if ground effect didn’t exist, and as you climb and exit ground effect, you experience a reduction in flying ability and the airplane will lose some lift and sink.   While pilots are trained to “fly out of ground effect” and adjust as they make their way through this transition, especially when combined with a hot, humid or high altitude situation, they fail to consider just how difficult it can be to climb once the extra support of ground effect leaves you and the airplane behind.

Sometimes, expecting that ground effect will ease your transition from air to earth, it will seem as if it is doing its job too well, and delaying your appointment with the runway.   If you find yourself running out of runway before the airplane touches down, ground effect may seem like that good friend that Oscar Wilde reminds us stabs us in the front.   It becomes the friend who tells us straight up that our zippers are down, or that you left that long sticker on the back of your pants that lets everyone know how big your waist is.

Physics will have a good explanation for those occasions when ground effect seems to work too well for its own good, or when it seems absent entirely and I land with an unwelcome thud.   I have always landed hard on myself when my airplane lands hard on the runway, but perhaps it isn’t really my fault.   Although I may have had a good flight, my angelic friends in high places keeping me safe as I leave the ground, cruise, and begin my descent, maybe that thud as I land hard is just my friend in low places failing to show up when I need her.   Angels, I guess, occasionally need some time off.






I am editing this post now on a short flight from Warsaw to Cracow, where a small disability film festival will be showing the film I produced and I will be doing a Q&A. The captain will soon announce our arrival in Cracow, and despite my trepidation about being in Poland for the first time (the land my ancestors escaped from), I am looking forward to the adventure.   But before I arrive, here are a few thoughts I wrote about the idea of arrival:

I arrived late at my friend Ollie’s house a couple of weeks ago, in the midst of a conversation among some of his “LA friends” about the three legs of the stool that comprised “success.” I don’t recall exactly what those three legs were—I vaguely remember something about opportunity and luck, but I do remember bristling at the idea that—while everyone was arguing about the legs, no one was questioning what “success” meant.   So I tried to guide the discussion there, and it came to me that they were discussing something akin to what I might have preferred to call having “arrived” somewhere, not unlike landing at your intended destination.   Each of us may start our journeys with a different destination in mind, and at some point we realize we have landed, taxied to the safety of a hangar, and tucked our airplane in for a good night’s rest.

Of course, not all journeys are specifically intended, as has been the case of my last few years living in the thick cloud of fear of my cancer returning.   Because it seems that over time that particular fear recedes somewhat, I believe I will find success, or know that I have arrived, when my few and far between moments of serenity become closer together.   I don’t suspect the ultimate serenity will likely come until the ultimate end of the journey, and of course it is possible it won’t come even then.

For some of the others at Ollie’s house, it seemed unclear to me that they had any idea of what having arrived at their destination might look like.   How many movies must you produce before you feel as though you can rest on your laurels?   Must it be just one more than your successful producer father?   How many screenplays must you write and how many Oscars must you win? Will one of those gleaming statues on your mantel do just fine, or will you ache for its identical twin?   Triplets? How much money will reside in insured bank accounts?

There is an old aviation saying that the key to a good landing is a good approach.   In order to do something well, we need to prepare the road in front of it.  Perhaps that is where the three-legged stool comes in to play.   If the first leg were opportunity, that certainly does seem important.   I did not have the opportunity to fly until my kids were grown and I was close to 50 years old.   Opportunity might imply a certain privilege, and a certain amount of discretionary wealth.   It also might imply a friend in high places who will take you there.   Luck also does seem important, although I know there are some who might argue that there is no such thing.   I believe though, along with most people and the bumper sticker, that shit happens, which also implies that from time to time shit doesn’t happen.   That’s luck, and I do think there are some who manage to inadvertently walk into a lynch mob or catch their big toe in a bear trap or find a malignant lump growing somewhere in their body.   Shit happens.

I don’t remember the third leg (and I’m not sure I have the others right either), but I imagine it must have something to do with skill or mastery.   There’s just no way to safely get to the end of any runway without having mastered the skill required to fly the airplane.   There may be shortcuts to opportunity and luck, but I suspect there are no shortcuts to skill, mastery, and the elbow grease required to get there.   At this point I don’t find it particularly difficult to land my airplane, and it is easy to forget the effort it took me to get to that place.  I remember occasionally when I think back, or the time that I made the mistake of giving the reins of my airplane to a fellow pilot who flew his own plane beautifully, and we barely survived his valiant effort to bring my steed anywhere near the center of the runway.   Perhaps a great violinist can play any violin, but I’m not sure what she would do with a cello.   In that sense, perhaps the third leg of the stool is the same thing that is needed to get to Carnegie Hall.

It seems to me that there might be a fourth leg to this stool, which would make arriving somewhere more of a chair, I suppose.   In order to know that one has arrived at one’s destination, it seems necessary to know where one is going, although I’m not so sure about this.   Some people might refer to this as a goal while others might call it an intention.   I have never been a big fan of goals, thinking that it often detracts from the journey itself, but I can’t imagine knowing that we have arrived somewhere without knowing where we intend to go.   T.S. Elliot comes to mind here, of course, in poster form from the sixties: We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

I’m not entirely sure Elliot wrote those words, because I don’t trust posters from the sixties, and I don’t know the context.   But it’s compelling to tie the notion of arrival  directly to departure, in that wonderfully prosaic platitude (and Harry Chapin song) that all of life is a circle.   If we are to consider this notion seriously, as in ashes to ashes, then we will ultimately know that we have arrived when we reach the beginning.   But for now, I’m looking forward to three days in Crakow.

A Guest

There’s a small community hospital in Murray, Kentucky, where I went to school to get my master’s degree in psychology. As a second year student we were seeing clients in the counseling center, and one day when one of my clients didn’t show up for her appointment, I discovered that she had been admitted to the hospital for “exhaustion.” She had refused to eat for several days, and although pop singer Karen Carpenter had yet to succumb to anorexia and the general public was barely aware, the medical establishment—even in rural Kentucky, knew well of its danger and feared for my client’s life.

By truculently opposing all those well-intended folks who tried to get her to eat, my client had entered what pilots call the “region of reverse command,” in which airplanes do the opposite of what you tell them to do. I was about to join her there.

I decided to visit my client in the hospital.   Just outside her door, a nurse took me aside and said, “Please do what you can to get her to eat.   Her parents are on their way, and she hasn’t eaten in days.   We’re all really worried about her.”

Just a day or two before that I attended a lecture given by J. Thomas Muehleman, a young psychologist who may in fact be the only one of my professors from those days who is still alive (and still, I am told, residing in Murray). The particular lecture was on a topic called “paradoxical intention,” and in it he outlined the behavioral approach to the use of paradox as a psychotherapeutic tool.

Fortuitously, within five or 10 minutes after my arrival, lunch was delivered on its plastic tray, and was placed on the wheeled table next to her bed; the nurse slid the table over the side of the bed and my young, frail client looked down at it disgustedly.   From my vantage point, the ugly slab of meatloaf couldn’t have been a better choice of food.   She took one look at it and shoved the table to the side.

I proceeded with the cocky insouciance of the 22-year-old graduate student that I was:  “I don’t blame you,” I said.   “It looks…. just horrible.”   She looked at me quizzically, half-expecting me to follow everyone else’s suit and push her to eat.   “I can’t believe they would try to get you to eat that.   It looks… well, you know, it looks like a piece of shit.”

My client gazed at me angrily.   I went on.   “And can you imagine how they handle food in the kitchen? It’s probably made somewhere down in the basement.   Dirty, disgusting.   It could’ve fallen on the floor and they wouldn’t care, they’d just pick it right up and put it back on the plate…”

That was enough for her. She pulled the table back over the bed, grabbed her fork, forcefully stabbed the meatloaf and shoved it into her mouth.   As she wolfed it down she continued to stare at me with fiery eyes.   Although she was angry with me, I could see that while she was rejecting me she was nurturing herself, and that was what was important.  Before we could talk further we were interrupted by a nurse politely asking me to leave the room because my client’s concerned parents had arrived.

I admit that I was thrilled that my intervention could somehow, magically, accomplish what others couldn’t.   Psychotherapy and life rarely work that way, and a whiff of potency can be intoxicating to a young clinician, so thus began a lifelong interest in the landscape of paradox.

What began simply in my mind as a technical move, like moving a rook in position to threaten the queen– over time grew into a deeper understanding of how the game of chess is played.   Rather than simply a method of “joining with the resistance,” as some have described it, paradoxical thinking became a path to more deeply understanding how we all build shelters in which to hide our demons and modulate our interactions with the dangerous world around us.   The walls of that shelter sometimes consist of our strident adherence to our positions, however problematic or self-destructive they become.   Sometimes we can’t break down those walls by confronting them directly, because that only makes them more necessary and strengthens them.  But by surrounding those walls with love, compassion, and eventually understanding, those walls begin to crumble.

I like to think of paradox as a way of inviting a discomfiting guest into Rumi’s guest house.   The guest is those demons, those ugly, sturdy walls we construct to keep us invulnerable, the shameful and destructive behaviors that we repeat even though they trip us up and trap us.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

In the region of reverse command, the way out of danger is to do the very opposite of what you instinctively are wont to do.   When you are sinking, sometimes you need to reduce power and point the nose down in order to find the energy needed to climb.   My client, way back in the 1970’s, was suffering.   I don’t doubt that the food that appeared before her symbolized the nurturance that she found so utterly “distasteful,” and that those who benevolently pushed her to eat stood in firm opposition to her need to reject that nurturance.  I don’t believe for a moment, nor did I back then, that this single intervention was all that was needed to resolve those underlying conflicts. Yet, by honoring her protest and welcoming the dark thought, the shame and malice, she was able to make a foothold into the path of letting go of her protest and nurturing herself.

Hot Air Rises

imagesPerhaps there is no greater evidence that hot air rises than the election of our current president.   You would think that having been a psychologist for all these many years I would know a thing or two about how that happens, but I confess that although I struggle—I really do—for the life of me I can’t figure it out.

I can explain with greater facility and perhaps a modicum of accuracy how actual hot air rises, even though I have never seen it directly.   But I have seen its effects while flying, and it’s dramatic. The local County fire authorities designate certain days of the month “burn days,” in which farmers can legally set large piles of brush ablaze without sparking the brave men and women who get paid to keep us safe to don their heavy protective gear, put their playing cards on the table and slide down their poles to their big trucks.   Years ago I was out flying on one of those days with my instructor, who thought it might be fun to give me a physics lesson by guiding our rented Cessna over a few of those pyres.

Although the flames disappeared under the airframe, we knew we were flying right over them because, commanded only by the rising heat below us, the Cessna gently rose as we passed over them, then settled back down a few seconds later.

The fact that hot air rises and cold air sinks is one of the keys to understanding many weather phenomena.   The uneven heating of air is a result of the uneven heating of the earth, which absorbs radiated sunlight differently depending on the terrain.   As the earth’s temperature varies, the heat it generates warms the air, and the differences in the air mass’s temperature causes differences in pressure, because the molecules in hot air move faster and expand outward, while cold air is more compact and dense.  Cold, dense air, is “thicker,” and therefore heavier.

I suppose we call people who spout empty phrases, devoid of depth or import, as filled with “hot air,” because their verbiage takes up a lot of space but there isn’t much substance to it, like the air in a hot air balloon.  All that is required for a hot air balloon to take flight is to capture a chunk of air and heat it up.   Off you go into the wild blue.

In struggling to understand just how it is that certain hot-air balloons, such as the one on Pennsylvania Avenue, manage to rise, I have observed that there are some people who are attracted to bluster, bombast, posing and empty rhetoric. Narcissists marry, often several times, so at some point in their self-aggrandizing lives there are those to whom hot air is appealing.

I have known many people over the years who have been filled with hot air. Almost to the person, each of them had very few, if any, friends.   Most of them had significant alimony payments.   Generally, they didn’t care much about having friends, but they cared greatly about the alimony.

The thing is, many people who voted for Mr. T report that they actually like the man, which is astounding to me.   He may be a liar and a thief, but he’s at least a thief you can count on to be a thief.   I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said that a friend is someone who stabs you in the front. Mr. T may lie to you, but you know he’s a liar, and so does he, so it doesn’t much matter.   What matters is the same thing that probably mattered to Melania; if he buys you that diamond ring you wanted, at least you’ll end up with a diamond ring. He may even convince you he has a good heart, and will even take care of you, and that he cares as much about you as he does himself; but if you fall for all that, well then, you’re just naïve and deserve what you get. None of that’s important, after all.   It wasn’t important for all the years Chicagoans supported the elder Mayor Daley.   What was important was that the trash got picked up, the potholes were fixed, and that you got that diamond ring you always wanted.

So if you pay for a ride in a hot air balloon, you expect that when the air inside of it is heated it will reliably rise into the atmosphere, taking you passively suspended in a basket beneath it.   The amazing thing is that, after all is said and done, all that hot air will lift you off the safety of the earth and take you with it.   You will, however, have no power to steer it, so where it will end up, well, that’s anybody’s guess.