When All Else Fails: Regulate

UnknownI don’t like the word “regulation.”  It feels and sounds ugly to me.   I suppose that is because when I think of regulations, I think about them as a set of rules foist upon us by politicians, designed to govern behavior externally– echoes of “make your bed, Ira,” or simply, “you have to go to school, Ira.”

But in my day job as a psychologist, the word “regulation” often appears with the word “self-“ preceding it, and that gives it a different connotation.   Self-regulation means to be in control of one’s self, to have a smoothly operating thermostat capable of turning on the heat when needed and cooling down as the situation demands.   It is a popular word today, perhaps because it is less theory-bound than the term “ego strength,” which essentially meant the same thing but was promulgated by those sex-obsessed Freudians.

Most pilots I know are like most people I know, and they hate regulations imposed upon them by the government.   On the other hand, they tend to be in favor of self-regulation, especially when it comes to things such as determining what medical conditions should prevent them from flying.

As a pilot, I am aware of the fact that the vast majority of accidents are caused by something called “loss of control.”   It can happen at any time, but it often happens when life offers up a surprise, such as a malfunctioning instrument or a sudden weather change.  Accident investigations of such major catastrophes as Air France 447 and Colgan 3407 revealed that the pilots were “startled” by the events unfolding in the cockpit, and that the startle response may have led to a deterioration in the pilots’ reasoning ability.

Regulations designed to prevent such disasters are often aimed at improving training of how to recognize and respond to specific emergency scenarios, which is all good.   But let’s face it, the whole point of the so-called startle effect is that, almost de facto, when faced with a real emergency, the human body is designed to flood the bloodstream with hormones that simultaneously have the effect of muting learned responses and instigating a primitive fight or flight response.

One of the oldest clichés is that a pilot’s license is a “license to learn.”  I deeply appreciate the ongoing training I avail myself of, as well as the early training I received in which certain fundamentals were drilled into my head.   One of those was the mantra that, above all else, one must “fly the airplane.”   That mantra is there because, when the fit hits the shan, pilots and humans in general forget the basics.   Whether panic takes over completely, or one concerns oneself so much with problem-solving that one fails to focus on the simple basics of flying, the failure to self-regulate can have devastating consequences.

“Flying the airplane” is a metaphor for self-regulation.   When the unanticipated bill arrives from the IRS, when the person in the Escalade cuts you off on the freeway, when the process server knocks on your door, the first thing to do is to take a deep breath and simultaneously level your wings.   Slow down if you’re going too fast, or speed up if you’re going too slowly.   Above all, don’t let the airplane fly you.   Self-regulation beats the other kind hands down.

Shit and Shinola

Unknown-4Although my dad, who never made it past high school, took pride in his vocabulary, he was not beyond vulgarity– undoubtedly resulting from his Bronx roots and likely nurtured by his 3-year stint in the Navy.  One of the vulgar sayings I heard emanating from my father was that a particular person didn’t know shit from Shinola.

Shinola was a popular brand of shoe polish, presumably with enough of a cachet that it could be used to distinguish the high quality stuff that was applied to the top surface of your shoes from the low quality stuff that might be found clinging to the bottom. It also had a nice alliterative ring to it, more so than the other phrase I heard my father say in similar situations– that a particular person didn’t know his ass from his elbow.

Although Shinola was the “good stuff” and the other wasn’t, I came to associate the two words.  One became what behaviorists call the “discriminatory stimulus” for the other, which in English means that one thing signaled the presence of the other.   I was therefore surprised the other day to see an advertisement in a magazine for a new Wright Brothers commemorative watch made by, you guessed it, the Shinola Company.  That took me to the Internet, to find out how it came to be that a shoe polish company began manufacturing watches.   What I learned is that the modern Shinola Company, headquartered in a beautiful building in Detroit, began three years ago after the initial investors bought the rights to the Shinola name from the New York based company that had since gone out of business.  Besides watches, the new Shinola manufactures leather goods, journals and bicycles, all made nearly exclusively from American components, or so they claim.

Now, exactly what brought the owner of the Shinola brand to buy a name from a defunct company that is associated with shoe polish seemed intriguingly out of the shoebox to me.   Shinola has a great website (www.shinola.com), and on it they claim to be “reinvigorating a storied American brand.”

The new Shinola has been criticized because while it is true that its products are assembled in Detroit, a place badly in need of resurrection itself, most of its parts emanate from elsewhere in the U.S., and some come from abroad, including China.  “It’s not like we’re saying everything is 100% made in Detroit,” said company President Jacques Panis.    The fact that the new Shinola isn’t all about Detroit doesn’t bother me all that much; I’m not sure that the economic interdependence of nations isn’t a bad thing.

I don’t know whose decision it was to buy the rights to the Shinola brand name, but to me that is the intriguing part of the story.  Clearly, the idea that someone didn’t know shit from Shinola resulted from the fact that Shinola shoe polish was, in its day, considered the bomb, to use current parlance.  But for me, even the idea that Shinola was supposed to be a sign of quality gets lost by its contiguity with the stuff that all living critters deposit.

I imagine that if I were to buy and wear one of those watches, as Bill Clinton proudly does, I would be compelled to roll up my sleeve and declare, “See, I really do know the difference!”