Getting Out of Jail Free

Get out of jail freeIn March of 1967, James Robert Ringrose was arrested by Japanese police in Osaka, Japan while attempting to pass bad checks.   It turns out he happened to be on the FBI’s “10 most wanted fugitives” list, and when extradited to Hawaii he told the waiting FBI agents that he had been saving something for them for several years and that now he needed it.   He reached into his pocket and presented them with a “Get Out of Jail Free” card from the Monopoly game.

Pilots have their version of the “get out of jail free” card as well. It’s called an Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) report, and it allows pilots to reveal their own violations before they get caught and sent off to jail.    The reports go to the folks at NASA, where the information is collected, and then, while keeping the identity of the pilots confidential, sent along to the FAA in order to point out the potential dangers in the system.   As long as the violation wasn’t intentional, if the FAA comes after you and you reach into your pocket, Ringrose-style, and show them the receipt for making the report, the FAA will not be permitted to prosecute you.

The program was created in 1975 after an airline accident involving a misunderstanding of procedures known to pilots but kept hidden from the FAA.  It was a rather elegant solution to the age-old problem instantiated by what happened when I was four years old and lit a book of matches in my closet right underneath the highly flammable plastic dry cleaning cover.   My father found the matches, lined up his three kids, and “inquired” as to whom among us was the guilty party.   Even though my father eventually resorted to saying he wouldn’t punish the one who fessed up, that just wasn’t a big enough guarantee, so, sad to say, he went to his deathbed almost 90 years later never knowing that it was I who lit the matches.

I might have fessed up if I really understood and trusted that my dad would forgive, although I doubt it.   The shame of having endangered the family and the guilt for having done something wrong undoubtedly would have defeated the courage needed to confess.   Yet I still can’t help being impressed with the deep power of forgiveness.   The Old Testament context in which I was raised sadly doesn’t emphasize interpersonal forgiveness, but the New Testament, via Jesus’ injunction to forgive “seventy times seven times”—presumably because there were no calculators in those days, is rather pivotal throughout.   This is especially true, Luke tells us, if there is repentance involved, which can, I suppose, come in the form of a genuinely offered ASRS report.

I don’t know, but I doubt that the governing forces involved in creating aviation’s “get out of jail free” card were motivated by Christian virtues when they decided that this would be a good idea.   They must have realized, though, that in order to improve safety it was important to gather as much data as they could in order to best understand just what could be done to improve the system. Danger lies in the hollows of deception, and deception arises in an environment of fear, guilt and shame.

Some will say that there is no such thing as a get out of jail free card in real life; karma will rear itself sooner or later.   But if there were one, I imagine it would function much like an ASRS report, as only an invitation to the healing by shedding some light.   It would be nice if, Ringrose-style—I could offer up a get out of jail free card to others I have hurt or wronged.   In doing so, I don’t imagine I will get out of jail free, but perhaps if offered with genuine repentance and a true commitment to doing better, in some small way I can contribute to making the skies a safer place in which to fly.

Growing Up

peter-886132_960_720According to an article I recently read, a large number of kids say they want to become pilots when they grow up.   I am still not sure what I would like to be should I ever grow up, but I can tell you with certainty that I never dreamed of becoming a pilot when I was a child.   The idea that I might be able to fly an airplane didn’t strike me until I was in high school; when driving around the suburban streets of Orange County, California, a friend and I saw a sign on a junior college marquee advertising flying classes.   We looked at each other and decided that would be fun, but neither of us had the time nor money, and besides, by the fifth grade I had already decided to become a psychologist (after glancing through my brother’s high school psychology textbook), so the idea of flying evaporated into the rather thin mist from whence it came.

Years before, while attempting to grow up in New York, I don’t remember any one of my friends ever saying they wanted to be a pilot.  That could be because I only had one or two friends, or more likely it was because I grew up around lower middle-class Jewish kids, and we were culturally programmed to be doctors or lawyers, whether we wanted to or not.   If we failed at those endeavors, we could become some sort of accountant—a kind of mini-lawyer, or maybe a dentist or podiatrist if we couldn’t get into medical school.

Flying around 8 miles in the air didn’t seem culturally acceptable, although there were certainly those who did it.   (Take a look at the inspiring documentary “Above and Beyond” about Jewish WWII pilots involved in the founding of Israel.) I can only imagine my mother’s reaction if I told her I wanted to be a pilot when I grew up. “A pilot?   What kind of job is that?

Fast forward—and believe me it was fast—about 35 years, and at the ripe old age of about 50 I earned my pilot’s certificate.   I had already become a doctor, but not a real doctor, of course, because psychologists only doctored the mind and couldn’t do orthopedic surgery, take tonsils out or smash a Jewish nose to bits and make it look less ethnic.   All psychologists could do was help make people feel less ethnic.

But I feel pretty good about having become a psychologist, especially after having such a gratifying career, and even better about getting my pilot’s certificate. But the growing up part?   Not sure I have ever been there or done that.

Of course, growing up means different things to different people.   Most of my psychologist buddies might be inclined to offer an oblique definition, struggling painfully to avoid jargon and likely failing, saying something like, “Well, it’s the ability to differentiate yourself from your parents, you know, well uh, like to individuate (jargon alert)– to find your own identity and function independently in the world.”   Okay, got it.

To my parents, growing up undoubtedly meant making it on your own, which meant using your own means to create enough personal capital to support one’s lifestyle and care for the next generation, who will undoubtedly be incapable of growing up given how much my generation will spoil them.

To me, growing up means taking responsibility for my actions, suffering the consequences gracefully, and learning how to forgive when I have the least inclination to do so.

The way to do this, traditionally, was to go to school, find some sort of career, start at the bottom and work one’s way up.   The shortest route to anywhere is a straight line, so working one’s way up in one’s chosen career was considered the best path to a successful and meaningful life.   Getting married and having babies who then get married and have babies, and then eventually go on cruises to the Bahamas, or move at least part-time to Florida were the things to do.   It was, I repeat, all very linear.

I am happy to see that many so-called millennials don’t subscribe to this notion.   Blessed or cursed with more choices and support from the previous generation, it is now au current for one’s life course to be more like that described years ago by anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson in her revelatory book “Composing a Life”.   A life, as she instantiates by following several women mentors who reached the epitome of their careers and then switched to completely different careers, can look more like a quilt made up of entirely different squares but patched together to create something beautiful.

I like this metaphor, because in it one doesn’t grow up simply by moving in a straight line from one milestone to another on the same, narrow course.   I am not disparaging that notion, having myself followed a fairly straight line from fifth grade to fiftieth.   What I don’t like about the straight line, though, is that it implies that growing up has something to do with reaching a certain destination, rather than recognizing that in life, the destination can also be the journey itself.   In the quilt metaphor, one merely needs to pause at any point and reflect upon the beauty of the quilt that has been pieced together so far to understand that one has already composed a life.

I don’t know that I have ever grown up, or will ever grow up, if growing up means getting the next aviation rating, having a thick enough academic vita, or reaching a certain number in my bank account.   Those targets keep moving.   And if I am correct in my view that growing up means finding grace in taking responsibility for my actions, not blaming others and deeply forgiving those who have harmed me (including myself), I’m pretty sure I may never get there.   In the meantime, I guess, I will strive not only to reach those goals, but pause for a moment now and then to reflect upon the life that has been lived so far, and find a bit of gratitude for where I have come along the straight line, and the beauty of the ever unfinished quilt I have managed to piece together so far.



More Words I Hate

It surprises me that the most popular blog post I ever wrote, according to Google Analytics, was the one I wrote on the topic of words that I hate.   I’m not sure if that’s because people are generally interested in words or hatred, but either way, I suppose it makes a delicious and perhaps relatable combination.

The word that has bugged me most these days continues to be “issues.”   I am hearing it more frequently than ever, apparently catching on I suspect because it is a convenient way of trying to approach a sensitive topic without offending anyone.   People are increasingly trying not to offend anyone these days, which, I think is a bit offensive unto itself.  I do appreciate and respect politeness; it makes this occasionally cruel world a considerably more tolerable place in which to live, but I have difficulty with indirectness, a subtle line indeed but ever so important.

I despise the word “issues” so much that I occasionally find myself considering publishing a magazine called “Mental,” just so I could hand a couple of copies over to someone and tell them that they now have Mental issues.

As I have written before, I also have mental issues with the phrase “Have a good one,” although I am pleased to say that it appears to be going through a slight decrease in usage.  That is really a good thing, because I eventually did get tired of what I thought were witty retorts that completely flew by the recipient, only validating the absolute lack of authenticity on the part of the original speaker.   No, they didn’t really want me to have a good anything, they just wanted to get to the next person waiting at the register.

“Communication” certainly makes the top ten list.   It’s a good word when applied to diseases, but when someone tells me that he’s discovered that his marital problems were due to lack of communication I immediately think that what he’s really telling me is that he has no idea what his marital problems were due to.   Are you telling me you don’t understand your partner?   That she doesn’t understand you?   That you are lonely because you aren’t able to identify your needs and find a way to get them met?

“Oftentimes” really bugs me, although it is as legitimate a word as any.   I hear it often, but I can’t understand why so many people insist on saying it rather than merely saying often.   It saves a whole syllable, and means the same thing.   Doesn’t “often” really imply “times”? I can’t help but think that people who say “oftentimes” instead of “often” have something they are trying to prove, as if they are trying to sound smarter than they are.   If you’re trying to sound smarter, just say “frequently,” or better yet, “habitually” if its relevant, or even better yet, just don’t say it all and substitute the whole sentence for a better idea.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression here—I truly do appreciate when people attempt to speak or write English.   Even though it may be their native language, it’s a really difficult one.   And I don’t want to sound sanctimonious—the fact is that I screw it up all the time.   I am as hard on myself as I am on others, occasionally flashing images of shooting myself when I discover my own grammatical flaws. I so envy Jan Morris—one of my favorite writers—who claims she never corrects anyone else’s literary or grammatical mistakes or cares so much even when they make them.  Was she born that way, I wonder, and if not, what price must she have had to pay for such enviable lack of judgment?

As always, I appreciate your comments in the space below, but just don’t tell me you have issues with anything I say.   If you do, I don’t want to hear it.   And if you oftentimes have communication difficulties, I would respectfully request that you dig a little deeper. If, on the other hand, you would like to share words that drive you to the brink of senselessness, please do so.   I am running out of enemies.





The Airport

There is little about an airport, a bus depot, or train station that I would think of as exhilarating.   These way stations, these points of departure and arrival are dreamy places, often fusty and threadbare, atavistic relics of the exhilaration of travel when travel was taking root among the new middle class in the U.S.   It seems, even, that by the time the new infrastructure is built, the remodeled terminal’s ribbon is cut and in a matter of just a few years, the features designed to freshen and impress become mere architectural assumptions.

Airports are dreamy places because, at least for me, I am nearly always tired by the time I get there, either from having to awaken at an awkward time or having arrived after sleeping fitfully at best en route.   They are also dreamy because, although one is about to go someplace or get someplace, we sit in waiting areas because, well, we are waiting.   Having now traveled for many years I rarely if ever plan a trip with a short connection.   The stress of the rush to the next flight, ferry, or bus is not worth whatever convenience it might afford on the other end. So more than ever, the harbor is a place of waiting, and often a matter of waiting alone.

Bus depots, these days, are often louche, home to drifters and grifters, a homeless home for the homeless, with bathrooms devoid of toilet paper, toilet stalls whose doors don’t align, graffiti scratched in the partitions, and urine smells that hang in the air.   One can be assured there will always be something out of order, whether that be a vending machine filled with expired candy bars or the entire women’s rest room, and if there’s an alley nearby you know that it would be best to avoid it, lest you inadvertently step on a used syringe.   The internet has now replaced most ticket offices, which remain for decorative, nostalgic effect, or more likely, because the remodeling budget didn’t include enough dough for demolition.

One can, I imagine, live their entire lives without ever encountering a classic American way station, but that would be difficult now in days when at least some travel is within the reach of all but the poorest of Americans.  It would be a shame, I think, but not everyone shares the sensations that I have when in an airport, or a port of any kind.   As a portmanteau, it is easy to forget that an airport is an airplane port, a port like any other, a harbor whose waters run deep with stories of shelter, departures and reunions.     The port shelters us from stormy seas, welcomes us, and nurtures us after and between long journeys.   They are windows through which we glimpse opportunity and adventure, or smell the subtle scent of home approaching. It is the diving board from which we escape the tedium of life and trade it in for a guaranteed adventure, or, on the other hand, it is the place that welcomes us to the relative calm of a storm left behind.

They are not always welcoming places.   Than Son Nhat airport in Saigon, for example, always seems as though I am walking into a steamy bee’s nest, perhaps an appropriate greeting, but still frazzling as hordes of humanity busily dash from one square meter to another and back again in what seems like a random pattern. I would prefer a softer greeting, but there is something refreshing about the slap in the face that this airport offers, just in case you had any delusions about serenity being in your short-term plans.

Yet, for each of these frantic airports, there are many more like Duluth, Minnesota, where there never seems to be more than a handful of people politely waiting to get through security, and the warmth of the indoor heating gives you a taste of the hearth and ingleside to come.

Whether frantic or placid, they all serve their purpose, and they all have those (now, sadly, mostly electronic) boards, inviting you to wonder and wander.   There it is—Rio de Janeiro, Tucson, Manchester, Prague.   Someone gets to take a ride among the clouds tonight.   Someone will get to walk down a gangway and into a vessel that will pierce the sky on its way over continents, oceans, cities and farms. Someone will get to leave this port and land at another.   Someone will make their dreams come true.





At Los Angeles International Airport, it’s possible to park your car in an external lot and watch the behemoth bellies of modern airplanes descend less than a football-field length above you.   The sight is rather stunning, a rumbling assault on the senses, bearing witness to the simultaneously crude and sophisticated fulfillment of humanity’s bird envy.

I try not to park there, though, because I don’t go to airports to watch the landings, and when I do go I am eager to get to the gate as quickly as possible.   There are few things more annoying to me in this precious life than rushing to get to an airport gate on time.

In high school, on more than one occasion, I drove to Los Angeles International Airport, not to watch the airplanes as I might be inclined to do today, but to people-watch.   It was before the days of hijacking and high security, so you could walk directly to the gates as people boarded and deplaned.   I would sit in the terminal and watch people as they tearfully embraced their child going off to school, or sobbing with joy as their family members returned from a trip to some strange, distant place, such as Chicago or DesMoines.   I felt, even then, that my voyeuristic tendencies were quirky; other kids went surfing or worked on their cars which they rarely took anywhere.   I don’t know how my voyeurism served me—maybe some sort of vicarious vitality revealed in the adventure of travel, the tenderness and occasional curious vacancy in the greetings.   I remember wanting to know the stories behind the greetings: where did they go on their travels? Who were they? What called them? What kind of adventure did they have? Why, I wondered, did some people cry with joy or pain, while others seemed aloof and disinterested?

Once, a friend and I walked through a door and found ourselves on the tarmac.   When we tried to get back in, the door behind us locked. We saw a group of people deplaning and entering the terminal through a different door.   We joined the group, but when we got through the doors we were asked for our passports, and when we explained that we were locals who went through the wrong door, we were taken for stowaways, separated, and brought to small rooms where we waited for the police to arrive.   We were searched and interrogated, and I recall one unfriendly officer threatening to anally probe me—although in the mist of time I’m not sure whether that was a real threat or an imagined manifestation of an incipient homosexual panic.   (I think I recall asking my friend, who had been taken to a separate room, whether they did that to him as well, and he said they had.) Eventually we were released after a yellow card with our vital information on it was recorded and we were told never to appear at the airport again.   I imagine that card no longer exists, and maybe even was trashed shortly after it was filled out, but if they really did keep it on file it would be a wonderful souvenir.

Since becoming a certificated general aviation pilot, airports have taken on a new meaning.   Rather than places to go to watch and envy the life of others, I now go there to live the life I envied.  I have the opportunity to see airports from the side of the passenger and the pilot.   Yet, occasionally, just to relax, I will sit on a bench at my local small airport and watch airplanes take off and land.   And just recently, I went to Los Angeles International Airport, nearly 50 years after being a suspected stowaway, to pick up my wife and daughter.   I arrived early, so went to the cell phone waiting area—something that didn’t exist back then, got out of my car and stared upwards at the awesome sight of those behemoth bellies, undercarriages exposed, eager to greet the waiting tarmac.   And it was beautiful.




Second Best

The Trumps with PS100 in the background

The Trumps with PS100 in the background



PS 100 is an elementary school that sits in the midst of Trump Village in Brooklyn, between Coney Island and Brighton Beach.   The “village,” a vast array of virtually identical apartment buildings, is named after its developer, the elder Trump, the guy who sent his rambunctious son to military school to try to teach him some manners.

I attended PS 100 for one year, my sixth grade.   When the weather was inclement, students would gather inside for PE, and the favored activity was dodgeball.   I was particularly good at dodgeball, consistently coming in second place after Marty Schneer.   In those days, it bothered me greatly that Marty always beat me, especially because he managed to garner all the attention and I felt rather invisible—even though invisibility is somewhat of an advantage when playing dodgeball.   Surviving after all my classmates but one were eliminated was still quite an accomplishment, though, and lest you think I am bitter about coming in second, let the record show that not only did I eventually get over it, I am now happy about not coming in first, because I have come to appreciate the benefits of dwelling in the shadow of something or someone else.

Living in the shadows means not having to deal with the poisonous rays of the sun, the heat it produces, or the unearned perspiration.   Repeated harsh exposure to the sun not only causes all sorts of bad things, it also exposes you to the view of others.   That may be a good thing if you had the good looks of, say, a Marty Schneer, but not so helpful if you were a big-nosed, weak-chinned, pimple-ridden, skinny kid like me.   People like me need to find other ways of gaining exposure, so we must develop other skills.   Sometimes, certain skills are best nurtured in the dank corners of shadowy places.   Sunflowers can be big and smiley, but oh, the complexity and depth of shade-grown mushrooms can be stunning.

We must learn to do the things that are best done when others aren’t looking, such as studying for long hours, or simply developing rich and dangerous fantasy lives that seem to grow heartily in the gut-wrenching, insomnia-stirred hours spent alone in our rooms.

The advantages of being second-best were capitalized upon by the advertisers who developed the Avis car rental campaign that was so good that I remember it 30 years later— unnamed Hertz was always first, and Avis was always second, so the Avis motto was “We Try Harder.”   There’s a slight duplicity in that motto, oh wonder, because being second best in a field of hundreds or thousands of competitors probably requires that you already tried a lot harder than the rest. Maybe that’s why it worked so well, because while you were thinking they were comparing themselves to the best, they were really gloating about being better than the rest.

I am not sure that “trying harder” would have flown with my father, who used to respond to my saying that I was trying to do something by saying that there was no such word as “try,” which, although not accurate, got his message across clearly.   I did, however, have to try pretty hard to become a B plus student, or, as they might have said in New York where numbers are valued more than letters (there are a lot more of them to choose from), a solid “88”.

The whole grading thing and comparing oneself to others is something that has troubled me ever since working at an alternative elementary school while attending college.   The students there received no grades, following a trend in education that stemmed, if I remember correctly, from the Summerhill School in England. The radical idea behind Summerhill was that academics should revolve around the child’s needs and personality, and not the other way around.   In that kind of environment, if grades were to be given at all they should be given to the instructors and not the kids, because it was the instructors’ job to understand the needs of kids. Coincidentally, after working at the Farm School at UC Irvine, where my own grades were not stellar, I transferred to the ungraded UC Santa Cruz.   I remember the brouhaha that was unleashed when the administration struggled with the idea of adding grades as an option.

As a pilot, I know my skills are very poor when compared to any of the instructors who sit next to me in the right seat, or an aerobatic pilot. On the other hand, compared to a 63-year-old with roughly 350 hours of experience, I don’t think I’m that bad.   I know I’m not near the best, but I am good enough and confident in my skills.

I do admit to some hubris in my self-assessment as a psychologist, but I have lived in that arena for as long as I can remember.   I have been practicing for so long that I find by some miracle that I often get it right.   Psychologists know a good psychotherapy session the way a pilot or a gymnast knows a good landing.

I haven’t played dodgeball in a long time, and even if I could find enough people to make it interesting, it strikes me now as a rather cruel game.   It echoes, though, those years in New York, where it seemed as though survival came down to just wantonly throwing something at another person or evading what seems like random acts of unkindness.  It was dog eat dog; everything was graded, and survival meant being the fittest of them all.   I’m not too angry about it.   After all, it taught me how to always strive to be second best.




Marmosets and Tamarins: On Premature Rotation

Every year, at least a few pilots die as a result of attempting to get their airplanes off the ground too soon. In aviation lingo, they become victims of “premature rotation.”   It happens for a variety of reasons, but most often it occurs when the airplane is heavy, the weather is hot and humid, and the end of the runway seems to be approaching rapidly.

Whether a pilot chooses to pull on his stick prematurely may have something to do with whether he is more like a tamarin or a marmoset.   For those of us who grew up in New York and could tell you the difference between a Pennsy Pinky and a whiffle ball but think that tamarins and marmosets are, perhaps, different flavors of jam, you should be informed that they are, instead, cute little monkeys.

The two different breeds can be difficult to tell apart, but if you are in the monkey business you will know that tamarins are a bit larger on the whole, while diminutive marmosets have larger incisors.

But beyond their physical appearance, their personalities differ as well.   In 2005, some researchers decided to give both species a task in which each monkey had a choice between taking a small reward immediately, or waiting for a variable period of time for a larger reward.   It turns out that marmosets waited significantly longer for food than tamarins.   The researchers hypothesized that, while these differences might be explained by social behavior, brain size, or life history, it was more likely due to their feeding history. Tamarins feed on insects, requiring quick, impulsive action, while marmosets rely on slow-flowing gum from trees. As a result, marmosets evolved to have better self-control.

Patience, or the lack of it, may be partly responsible for premature rotation. On hot and heavy days, the key to successful liftoff is to hold off until the airplane is capable of climbing. That requires patience as well as confidence in your airplane. The airplane may “know” when it’s ready, but the pilot may not.   If the airplane isn’t ready when the pilot thinks it should be, there’s trouble in River City, or wherever you happen to be trying to get away from.   You have not developed the airspeed needed to become airborne. Airspeed is a bit like capital for businesses.   You need a certain amount of it in order to get your business off the ground, and lack of it is the primary reason businesses fail.

Whether or not a pilot miscalculates weight and balance, or neglects to calculate it at all, the pilot will know he or she has rotated prematurely when the airplane refuses to climb when commanded.   And depending on how much runway lay ahead, the airplane’s reluctance to leave the ground can ignite a moment of panic in the pilot.   That’s because airplanes generally do not have much in the way of brakes, and they are difficult to slow down quickly.   The end of the runway may be the beginning of a more permanent ending if you slam into a berm, drainage ditch, poplar tree or a giant panda reserve.

Psychologists often see patience as the choice between a small, short-term reward or a more valuable long-term reward.   Most humans, and most animals in general, lean toward smaller, short-term rewards, which in the case of pilots, means that they make the choice of getting off the ground quicker as opposed to waiting to get closer to the end of the runway in order to ultimately live a longer life.

There are some who argue that the ubiquity of internet browsing has created a generation with less patience.   If you’ve ever wondered why video streaming services give you the option of skipping the advertisement after 5 seconds, it is because research has shown that few people who use the internet will wait more than a few seconds for a video to start before switching to another site altogether. Rather than use your large motor skills to grab a dictionary off of a shelf and suffer the slings and arrows of having to leave the comfort of your chair and use your hard-earned first grade alphabet skills, the internet will take you to the definition of any word in under 3 clicks, or about a second.

Theories abound relating to the reasons some people appear to be more patient than others. Like everything else, it is likely a combination of nature and nurture. Regardless, few can deny that patience is almost always a virtue. If you are a tamarin, however, you might die of hunger if you don’t act quickly when your food flits by. Flying airplanes requires the ability to make quick decisions, especially when the fit hits the shan. But, in both taking off and landing, the two most critical phases of flying, it makes more sense to slowly suck the gum from the tree.










Somewhere, in some dank corner of my storehouse of useless knowledge, I recall having heard or read that the word “run” had the most meanings in the English language.   Now the folks at “Google” inform me that I was misinformed, and another three-letter word—“set”—outruns run considerably, 464- 396.

It might be a fun diversion to see how many definitions you can come up with on your own for each of these words.   You could even playfully combine the words into sentences pertaining to your own area of interest, such as:

During taxi, make sure to set the gauges properly, keep the engine running at the proper rpm, and after performing the engine run-up, set the heading indicator to the runway heading, and then you’re all set to taxi to the—you guessed it, runway.

 The three paragraphs above may serve poorly as a setup for discussing a different kind of running, but what the hell, let’s just run with it.

My sister once told me that as long as she knew me I was running.   She is older than me, so that means that I have been running all of my life. My response was to ask her if she thought I was running toward something or away from something.   She said she didn’t know, but felt more as though I was running away.

Not all sisters get it right, but being a perceptive lassie, mine hit the nail on the head. Clearly, she wasn’t referring to the hyperactive, fidgety kind of running as much as the kind of running that happens when you always manage to find a way out of knowing what’s going in your own head, failing to muster the courage to sit with it long enough to get to know it.   That kind of running doesn’t require a lot of movement; sometimes, for me, it even took the form of sitting still at the edge of my bed in a trancelike state not knowing what if anything I was thinking, but somehow feeling transported to nowhere, a destination that I am certain exists because I have spent a lot of time there, although all I can really tell you about it is that it isn’t here.

I have occasionally wondered, superficially no doubt, if my running is an attempt to keep up with my heartbeat.   Physicians who place their stethoscopes to my chest (not too many do that anymore) often raise their eyebrows at the hummingbird rapidity of my heartbeat.   I read once that each species has an average limit to the number of heartbeats in their lifespan, which has convinced me that I am likely to have spent them already and am truly on borrowed time, or perhaps due for an engine overhaul.

As a kid, I was very active, and loved to ride my bicycle at breakneck speed, play most sports, and dart between places rather than saunter.   That all ended with a very nasty bout of mono when I was 14, from which I am convinced I have never fully recovered.   I have been sluggish since then, tiring easily. In high school, I quit the tennis team after 2 weeks because I couldn’t run around the track once, let alone the repeated times that others easily seemed to do it.   My ANA and other autoimmune markers have remained elevated since then, and I recently have been through a rough and tumble bout with stage 4 cancer, another autoimmune disorder. So whether it was the mono virus or some genetic time bomb that went off, the literal kind of running has been pretty limited since adolescence.

But that wasn’t what my sister was talking about.   She was talking about the constant doing and the avoidance of being.   Although I didn’t have much physical energy, I managed to busy myself non-stop.   Some might call it driven.

Over the years as a psychologist I have worked with a few clients who suffered from what they identified as a lack of drive, or motivation.   Some were clinically depressed, which usually was a style of coping and thinking about some event or series of events, but some had no symptoms of depression other than that lack of drive.   They just didn’t care much about anything or anyone, and the only reason they came to therapy to begin with was because someone in their life insisted on it, and they were being compliant in spite of not seeing the point to being there.

I always had difficulty understanding those clients, what made them tick and what made them want to continue ticking. Reaching inward to find some way to connect, all I could know was that I had my own panic, probably as a result of my biology and childhood attachments, a sense of deep insecurity and overwhelming but ineffable fear.   Sometimes I came to know this in recurrent nightmares of being chased by demons, and I needed to fly away (running alone along the ground wasn’t sufficient) lest they kill me. I woke up nightly in a sweat, checking to make sure I was still alive. Ultimately, in late high school or college, I faced them head on and they disappeared, but I’m sure they continue to exist in some form, responsible no doubt for waking me at 3am and coercing me to write these words.

My clients who didn’t care much about anything reported no such demons. I tried my best to find the agitation in their souls, but couldn’t. I would not say that they seemed serene, but rather unperturbed as if in a mild zombie trance. Undoubtedly my frustration in trying to find their pain was the same frustration that drove others in their lives to send them to see me, but I don’t know that I did those clients any good.

Sometimes I think the antidote to this constant running is to attempt to master idleness. (I am not, however, unaware of the oxymoron. I recall watching a video in which Krishnamurti brilliantly confronts Trungpa Rinpoche by asking, “Isn’t meditation just another thing to do?”) I meditate, although when I have gone on a couple of weekend meditation retreats, I found it similar to Chinese water torture. I spend most of my pent up energy trying not to think so much about getting the hell out of there and exploring the beautiful surroundings, or checking in to a nice hotel, seeing a movie or making one, singing or working or making money or driving—just driving.

Clearly, my sister was right. I have been running all my life—running towards ephemeral goals, jumping over hurdles, ducking under fences.   Perhaps there is such a thing as being addicted to moving, and that may be one reason I fly. Or, perhaps, flying is merely a reenactment of airborne running to keep ahead of the demons. It doesn’t matter a whit I suppose whether I am running toward something or away from it; they are the same thing.   The demons are always there.   I will face them from time to time, and they will go away occasionally, but as long as this hummingbird heart keeps going they will return to poke and prod me on until my set of allocated heartbeats run out.








C’est Normal

Dominic Owen Mallary was a punk rock musician who died tragically at the age of 24.  As part of his act, he would routinely wrap his microphone cord around his neck for dramatic effect, but apparently one night he did so too tightly, possibly causing a loss of oxygen that eventuated into seizures and then death a few hours later.

Mallary, besides being a rather consummate musician for his age, was also a writing and literature major at Emerson College.   He was a prodigious writer (a book of his poems was published posthumously), and I believe this was pulled from one of his journals:

In 12 years of education the most important lesson I have learned is that what we see as “normal” living is truly a travesty of our potential. In a society so governed by superficiality, appearances, and petty economics, dreams are more real than anything in the “real world”. Refuse normalcy. Beauty is everywhere, love is endless, and joy bleeds from our everyday existence. Embrace it.

While Mallory’s short time on earth was, perhaps, a testament to refusing normalcy, his death may well have resulted from taking that refusal just a bit too far.  As a pilot, I tend to crave normalcy, because when things go just as they should the likelihood of unhappy endings is reduced.   I listen attentively to the steady hum of the engine, and the predictable shift in rpm when I change the pitch of the propeller.   Instrument pilots seek normalcy when they execute the “standard rate turn.” We train to “recover” from an “unusual attitude,” as though the unusual, or abnormal, is a sickness to be avoided.

French culture seems to be abnormally fixated on normalcy.   My sample size is small, but over the years in my psychotherapy office I saw two couples in which the female partner was French and the male partner was American.   In both couples, the French partner would repeatedly ask of her partner’s behavior, “Is that normal?”  The question struck me as odd, because I couldn’t really understand what made it so important. When I inquired, I was told that conforming to certain rules of behavior and dress was indeed an important element of the culture, lest others would think you were crazy, which, if you’re French, I guess is not such a good thing. N’est pas formidable!

Although drawn to the intellectualism and political verve of the French, I am happy to leave both conformity and escargot in the French countryside where I unhappily don’t reside.   Give me silliness or an unkempt dumpster-diver barking bizarre yet poetic responses to his imaginary tracker any day; perhaps it is the freedom to be different that makes me proud of at least that element of American culture.

I do recognize, though, that flying 10,000 feet above terra firma in a piston-engine driven vehicle is, in a sense, abnormal enough; if I, for one, was supposed to be there, I would be skinnier and sprouting feathers from my arms.  Because flying itself is more than a mere flirtation with abnormality, it makes sense, I think, to crave some normalcy while being somewhere or doing something that approaches our design limits.

Those who loved Mallory were devastated by the loss of such a young, talented soul.  Following the opening quote, Mallary went on to write:

I love all of you, all my friends, family, and community. I am ceaselessly grateful from the bottom of my heart for everyone. The only thing I can ask of you is to stay free of materialism. Remember that every day contains a universe of potential; exhaust it. Live and love so immensely that when death comes there is nothing left for him to take. Wealth is love, music, sports, learning, family and freedom.  

Sure, go ahead and wrap that cord around your neck, that’s what I say, but watch out for the jugular.   Keep that oxygen flowing, at least enough to try it another day.




Follow that Bug

bugThe autopilot button on my airplane is small, and easy to miss.   I’m rather certain that’s intentional, because it’s not a button you want to press accidentally. If you do push it accidentally, it will immediately turn you in the direction you last set it, which may be toward Bermuda or Kazakhstan, when you were really intending on landing in New Jersey.

There are a whole lot of buttons, knobs, switches and even a little joystick that controls the rather sophisticated set of electronic instruments on my little airplane, instruments that these days are referred to by the lovely portmanteau “avionics”.   It is so complex that future versions were designed with the goal of simplification in mind, replacing touch screen inputs for buttons and bows.

When it comes to “buttonology,” the heading bug may well be one of the most important buttons on the panel.   You can push it or turn it.   If you push it, a little indicator aligns with the heading you are currently flying.   If you turn it, the “bug” will move to the heading you select. It is quite a useful little knob.   If a controller tells you to turn to a certain heading, or if you choose to do so on your own, the first thing to do is to set the bug to your intended heading, and then turn the airplane, either manually or by use of the autopilot, to the bug.   If you are flying straight ahead, and remember to push the knob to align the bug with your present heading, it can remind you when you are drifting off course.

I am not sure what the origin of the word “bug” is when it comes to flying.   It could simply refer to the idea that it is a reminder—something that “bugs” you to do what you intend to do.   It’s a pretty versatile word, being used in espionage, entomology, little German cars, medicine, software, and even cute rabbit cartoons.   The idea of something annoying seems to run through most of the definitions, except if you’re a fan of air-cooled, rear-mounted engines, in which case reminders of those little German death traps might be nostalgic.

Pilots who have been flying for a while will remember their instructors continually bugging them to “center the heading bug.” Really, the very simple idea is that it is always a good idea to know where you are going, so that if you wander from your intended goal, you can realize that fact by comparing your current heading with the one you might have forgotten you were trying to follow.

One could easily infer that the idea of a heading bug is that it is important to have some sort of goal along with a reminder of that goal.   Forget that goal and you are lost, roving through the sky with no particular place to go. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I am not a big fan of goals, as they tend to restrict our options and pull us away from the vitality of the moment, although I do use them in my life more like a heading bug.

Yet, one really doesn’t need a heading bug in order to get somewhere.   All you need is the heading indicator itself, so that you know where you are going.  Without a bug, all a pilot needs to do is remember the heading she should be flying, and go there.

The problem is that pilots, similar to other superhumans, have a lot of things to remember at once, so little mnemonic devices can be really helpful.  In fact, there are a lot of bugs on modern airplanes—various airspeed and altitude bugs being the most common.   They help us keep track of our intentions, and are especially important when doing a lot of things at once.

That, I believe, is the point of those pointy little things.   They represent not the goals themselves, but the gentle reminders of where we want to go.   Yes, I should really write that thank you note, and I really want to, and I know I’ll get around to it, unless, that is, I forget.   In that case, a little reminder—perhaps in the way of a judiciously placed post-it note, can go a long way.

It usually surprises sales people, bill collectors, and other generally annoying people when I tell them that, in fact, not only do I not mind being bugged to do something, I actually enjoy and appreciate it.   People who bug me to do things increase the likelihood that the thing will get done, and that will make both them and me happier citizens.   I know that if I have no intention of paying a bill or doing the dishes, I can simply insist that I stop being bugged about it, and with the exception of the Internal Revenue Service or the collections department at Cedars-Sinai, that usually does the trick.

And you see, most of us busy folks spend much of our time on our autopilots anyway, and as any pilot will tell you, autopilots—at their core, do one thing alone; they follow the bugs we set for them.   Without them, you might end up landing in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere along the way to Kazakhstan, while someone in New Jersey might be waiting for you with some delicious marinara sauce simmering on the stove.