Reading the Wind

UnknownI want a windsock–  a nice new one, bright orange that can be seen from miles away, with trusty ball bearings that are quiet and free as– you guessed it, free as the wind.   But please, as kind as both you and I know you are, don’t go rushing to Amazon to get me one.  Let me tell you why.

Wind is invisible to the human eye, but we know it is there because we can see and measure its effects.   It can be still and quiet, enfolding us peacefully, or in its extreme it can carry us away and violently transport us to Oz.   It is especially important to pilots, because it is the very medium through which airplanes fly.   It is the sin qua non avion, the thing without which there would be no flying.

Wind is merely the shifting of the atmosphere, caused by the unequal heating of the earth’s surface.  Heat rises from the earth, and the heat that rises changes the temperature of the atmosphere, which in turn changes the pressure of the air.   Lower pressure air yields to higher pressure air, and that is the wind.   There are, of course, more subtleties, such as Coriolis force, friction at the earth’s surface, and jet streams, but the shifting of air masses due to pressure differences accounts for the vast majority of what we call wind.

In our primary training, we learn to “read the wind.”   We are taught to look for the movements of tree limbs, flags on flagpoles, and whitecaps on the water.  We learn about the wind-reading instrument located on our posterior side below the back and above the legs, which in my family was referred to by its technical name, the “tush”.  And the devices located at airports designed specifically for the sole purpose of revealing the wind’s secrets, such as the tetrahedron or the omnipresent heretofore-mentioned orange windsock.

Reading a windsock is not as simple as looking at the direction it is pointing and how far it is sticking out.   Those are key elements, but are much less important than looking for the things that may truly be “gotchas”.    Besides merely direction and velocity, the windsock will tell you the variability in direction, the stability of the velocity, and the character of gusts.   Friendly gusts will come at you from a single direction and drop off slowly.   Nasty gusts that are intent on ruining your day will suddenly snap the windsock to attention and then just as quickly cause the sock to lose its erection—never a good thing.   Even nastier gusts cause the windsock to dance like a white person, frenetically in all directions, revealing turbulence close to the ground or perhaps even the presence of the invisible pilot nemesis, Morris Microburst.

Our moods and the moods of those around us are like the winds that surround us in that they are invisible to the human eye but certainly there.   With no convenient windsock to tell us which direction those winds are blowing, we sometimes are left with having to wing it and go alone.  If we are fortunate enough to be in an intimate relationship, sometimes we learn to read our partner’s moods by the crinkling of the forehead, or the sudden brisk, snappy retort.   But reading our own feelings can be more challenging.  When my partner asks me what I am feeling, the only feeling I am immediately aware of is annoyance at being asked what I am feeling.   That is because, despite my years of reading feelings in others as a psychologist, and even tuning into my own within the context of a therapy relationship, outside of the therapy room I spend most of my time in my head.  I am too busy figuring out how to fix the refrigerator to label the fact that I am angry enough to kill it, and I am not convinced that labeling that feeling will help me to find the right nozzle for my air compressor.

My own best emotional windsock is the physical cues my body reveals.   Years ago, during a particularly “interesting discussion,” my partner accused me of wanting to leave the room.   I asked her why on earth she would think such a thing, and she pointed out that for the last five minutes I was straddling the threshold of the room; I literally had one foot out the door.   Busted.

Of course these are things I should know on my own.  Do I have a knot in my stomach that might reveal anxiety or fear, or perhaps tension in my face or a shortness in my breathing?  Truth be known, there is a point at which labeling the nature of the wind is helpful and eminently important in effectively managing it.   Knowing I am angry calls for different reactions than knowing I am grieving, just as knowing I have a 15 mile an hour variably gusty wind 15 degrees off the runway calls for a different landing technique than a steady wind on my nose.

That is why I can always use a nice, new windsock, and why you can’t buy me one.

The Raven Over our Shoulders

images-3I recently read an accident report in which a pilot lost power on the rollout, and then when he heard the engine surge back to life, resumed his takeoff.   Just after leaving the ground, the pilot retracted the landing gear, the engine quit again and the pilot died attempting to make the 180-degree turn back to the airport.

In a matter of a very few seconds, the pilot had some important decisions to make.  If he had made the decision to abort the takeoff the first time his engine lost power, he would likely be alive enough today to have learned that his fuel was contaminated with water.   But perhaps buoyed by the engines roaring back to life, he decided instead to climb out.   That was his first bad decision.   The second bad decision was to retract his landing gear before reaching the end of the runway.   The third was his attempt to turn around rather than find a place to land in front of him.   That was the one that sealed his fate.

I don’t fault the pilot for making the decisions he made.   We all make them, even the most experienced pilots.   But I suspect that once he heard his engine quit as he was advancing down the runway, he may have found himself struggling to manage his fear.   We will never know if the pilot panicked, thus preventing him from thinking clearly, or if he calmly made the decisions he thought were the most rational, or most likely, something in between.   But if it is fair to say that what killed him was a series of bad decisions, then I think it is also likely that (especially given his instructors’ statements that he had been a thorough and safe pilot) managing fear is a prime suspect in what may have led to those decisions.

There, I suspect, but for the grace of God go all of us.   I fear all sorts of things, from germs to failure to success.   But I am nothing if not tenacious, and I have learned over the years to try to welcome fear the way Abraham Lincoln is said to have approached his enemies.   While some have said that he borrowed the line from a Roman Emperor, when an elderly woman chastised him for not calling Southerners irreconcilable enemies who must be destroyed, Lincoln is reported to have said, “Why, madam– do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Making friends with our fears is the way to master them.  But mastery of our fears does not mean that we eradicate them—it just means that they begin to work for us as opposed to the other way around.   I often think about fear as Carlos Castaneda’s raven of death, which constantly flew just behind his shoulder.  Death cannot be run from.  It will assuredly outfly me so running away from it is a pointless endeavor.  Instead, while I often fail, I know my job is to welcome it into the house, feed it, get to know it.   If we blindly advance the throttle on takeoff without fear of engine failure, it is more likely to take us by surprise and potentially overwhelm our decision-making ability.

A Good Approach

images-1It has often been said that the secret to a good landing is a good approach. In flying, a good approach means that you hit all the altitudes and airspeeds you intended to, you are neither too high nor too low, neither too fast nor too slow, and that, above all, you remain stable.  Remaining stable means that you are not continually fluctuating your airspeed, trying to nail your altitude and constantly shifting to find the centerline of the runway.  Stability, in a good approach, is the key.

While I try to fly my approach in as stable a fashion as possible, I fail more often than I succeed.  I have become perhaps overly confident in my ability to land, because I have a history of pulling it off at the last minute.   This is bad technique, but a license to fly is a license to learn, and I keep learning.

I suspect that most of you have read these posts long enough to know what’s coming next.  Hopefully, neither you nor I are close to our final landing, but to the extent that any single moment could be our last, it is not far-fetched to try to live life as if we were always on our final approach.   And, in that sense, I confess that I have yearned to live my life as stably as possible.   And, as in my flying, I tend to fail more often than I succeed.   I am constantly struggling to find my right “airspeed” and stay on the centerline.

I don’t believe that I intend to live my life unregulated.  I yearn for stability, but for some reason stability and my nervous system don’t want to cooperate.   As I once had a yoga instructor who criticized my warrior pose because I was leaning too far forward, and I thought, “yup, that’s me… always leaning too far into the future,” perhaps my discomfort with stability has something to do with why I find it difficult to maintain stable approaches when flying.

But all this is overly simplistic.   In reality, in order to fly a stable approach, a pilot has to make constant, hopefully small, adjustments.   The pilot remains hyper-vigilant, sensing any shift in the wind and reacting quickly and gently in order to remain on target.   This is by no means a passive activity.   The irony of it all is that it takes a lot of activity to become stable.

That is where the difficulty of flying one’s final approach—and every other approach, comes in.   Just how does one achieve the hoped for “perfect landing”?  How does one face the inevitability of our flight coming to an end in such a way that we gently welcome the wheels to the ground, kiss the earth without having to frantically wrestle with our airplane?

Perhaps it is true that the secret to a good landing is a good approach.   Perhaps what is required is relaxed pressure on the controls, while calmly but vigilantly making the small adjustments needed to maintain just the right airspeed and just the right altitude, such that when our wheels finally come to rest, we find that we have barely noticed that we have eased ourselves onto the tarmac.  That would indeed be a good landing.

The Annual

imagesI returned home from Saigon last week with my airplane’s annual inspection nearly completed.   A backup battery was replaced, along with a set of three new tires, bearings greased, airbags and their control device replaced, and a half-broken door release handle fixed.

Owners of airplanes typically have mixed feelings over Big Brother’s requirement that we subject our airplanes to annual inspections.   The negative side of the equation is obvious: inspections cost a lot of “aviation units,” a term invented by pilots who prefer not to disclose exact dollar amounts to their spouses.

On the other hand, the benefits are equally as obvious.   The fact that the airplanes flying above us are thoroughly inspected by licensed mechanics at least once a year undoubtedly makes those flying inside them and those on the ground below them a lot safer.

When Wednesday rolled around, and my calendar reminded me that I had to fast from 9pm that night until my appointment with my physician the next morning, I couldn’t help but smile at the coincidence that both my airplane and my body were being checked out simultaneously.    The FAA requires that pilots over age 40 have a physical every two years, but since I turned 50 I have been getting my own physical annually.

I am not sure that my physician, who is about my age, enjoys poking into my orifices nearly as much as I enjoy looking under the cowling of my beautiful Diamond airplane.   I do hope, and am more than reasonably certain, that he knows a lot more about the internal workings of human bodies than I know about internal combustion engines.   Fortunately, just as one doesn’t need to know how a car engine works to be a good driver, one doesn’t need to know much about the inner workings of an airplane to be a skilled pilot.

Along with the annual, a pre-flight inspection is done routinely by all pilots, even those flying big birds, before every flight.   They are, in effect, largely scaled-down versions of the annual inspection.  I was once told that 85% of accidents could have been prevented by an adequate pre-flight inspection.   I don’t know if that number is accurate, but it is a very high number.

I can’t imagine that 85% of diseases could be prevented by daily self-inspections.  But even if the odds are reversed, and only 15% of diseases could be prevented by routine checks, it is probably still a good idea.   Women are encouraged to check their breasts every day, because the earlier one catches any kind of cancer the better the odds of survival.   We brush our teeth every day, not just for cosmetic purposes, but because the buildup of bacteria in the gums can lead to the heart and other vital organs.   Fair skinned lads such as myself would be wise to check their skin regularly as well, on the lookout for early signs of melanomas.

I suspect the most important tool in conducting an annual inspection that a mechanic has in her tool shed is also the least expensive tool: the checklist.   The mechanic runs through a series of items that are required to be dismantled and inspected based on the make, model and vintage of the airplane.   A good physical examination does the same thing.   The trained physician runs through a series of inspections based on a mental checklist learned through experience, in order to not miss something important.

Requiring that airplanes receive annual inspections by licensed aircraft mechanics is undoubtedly one of the reasons why flying small airplanes has gotten safer over the years.   While pilots are required to have physical exams to maintain their flying privileges, fortunately, our government does not require any such thing for the rest of us.    But maybe a peak beneath the hood every once in a while is a good idea.

A Note from Saigon

Tea HouseI am writing this today from a tea house in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, still referred to by many as Saigon.  My business here is psychology and autism related, and the closest thing I am getting to aviation is the flight on the two miraculous jets that got me here– Airbus’ spectacular double decker A380, and Boeing’s stalwart triple-seven.

Vietnam is a beautiful country.  It would be even more beautiful to see it from a small airplane at a few thousand feet above ground, but that is not possible today because there is no such thing as general aviation here.  The skies are reserved for the military and commercial jetliners on flight plans.

To say that the fact that there is no general aviation in Vietnam is the result of communism is an oversimplification.  One can say with confidence that when it rains in Vietnam the streets get wet, but it seems as though there is little else one can say with confidence about Vietnam.

Yet, there does seem to be a relationship between the fact that the two “mostly communist” governments in Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Laos, are the countries that have the least going for them in the arena of general aviation.  Cambodia, which has been beautifully described recently as “vaguely communist” now has a flourishing albeit young general aviation community.   Other countries in the region whose political-economic systems are ostensibly democratic-capitalistic such as the Philippines and Malaysia, have flourishing aviation scenes.

In a previous post I mentioned that growing up in the U.S. I somehow knew that when you wanted to chase another child off a swing you would shout “It’s a free country!”   How interesting it is to be socialized (indoctrinated?) into believing in freedom.  A private pilot’s license grants another opportunity to define and even treasure this thing we call freedom. Here in Vietnam, a country where flying your own airplane is illegal, and one in which the U.S. lost 60,000 of its children and the Vietnamese sacrificed millions of their own, it is difficult for me to not think about it.

It is fascinating to me what a difference a generation can make.  My closest associates here are probably either one or two decades younger than me, and they have little consciousness of the Vietnam war.   Vietnamese themselves learn about the war in school, but it seems that very few carry the deeply felt conflict inside them that I do.  (Today, a receptionist here told me that she “sees it in my grandparents’ eyes.”)

I filed for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war, although the draft ended before my paperwork could be processed.  Clearly, I opposed the war at the time, but my filing for CO status was duplicitous if not downright disingenuous.  I was against the Vietnam war, and I was against war in general, but I also believed that there was such a thing as a just war (such as the Second World War).

The more I learn about the Vietnam war, the more I believe that both sides were right, and both were wrong.   Isn’t that true of damn near everything?  The North Vietnamese had a legitimate gripe– their country had been arbitrarily torn in half and the south was dominated by corrupt, imperialist nations that had subjugated and tortured their people for generations.   The South Vietnamese treasured their freedom and democratic ideals and were fighting the spread of communism.   These were noble goals on both sides.

The dominoes did not fall when we lost the war.  The Viet Cong did not commit genocide or even torture their own citizens when they won, although they imprisoned many and “re-educated” many others.  In fact, it was the post-war unified Vietnamese that fought off a Chinese invasion and routed the genocidal Khmer Rouge from Cambodia.  Today’s Vietnam is one in which the communist party is considered “irrelevant” or a nuisance by most Vietnamese.  There is no free press here, but there is widespread Internet access. It is a system rife with corruption, as is the case with governments throughout most of the world.

One of the reasons I love to fly is because I feel a deep sense of freedom when I do it.  I don’t know how to explain that phenomenon.  It just is.  And, perhaps coincidentally, flying one’s own airplane is also a symbol of freedom.  As Vietnam continues its gradual path toward openness, I suspect that general aviation will emerge.  Laos, closely aligned with Vietnam, has its very first flying club, and perhaps that will serve as a model for Vietnam.

Although I see faults in the American system, as deep as those faults can be, it remains one of the few places in the world where I could get in my airplane, start the engine up, and legally fly from one end of the continent to another without letting anyone know about it.  I can even do it legally without turning on my radio.   Sure, Langley will have me on its radar and will be watching every move I make, but as long as I don’t stray too close to Disneyland or Washington DC, they are going to leave me alone.  That is freedom, and that is noble.


imagesFlying my Diamond DA40 home from a conference in Las Vegas with two colleagues on board not long ago was uneventful, until I came to the formidable mountains that comprise part of the Transverse Range.    While most of the flight from Las Vegas is over the wide Mojave Desert, my home airport in Santa Paula is tucked in a valley on the other side of those mountains.  The tops of the mountains were obscured completely by a line of clouds that extended as far as I could see in both sideways directions, and the tops of the clouds were higher than my normally-aspirated airplane could climb.

For an instrument-rated pilot this would present no problem, but I have yet to get that rating, so for me it was a challenge.   It wouldn’t have been difficult, mind you, but it would have been entirely illegal, and certainly unsafe for me and the passengers on board given my lack of “actual” (as opposed to virtual) time in the clouds.

After looking in both directions, it became clear that I immediately needed to alter my flight plan and make a diversion.   I disconnected the autopilot, and started a slow, wide turn to the left, with the intention of doing a wide circle while I figured out my next move.   I informed the passengers that there might be a delay getting home, and then called ATC to let them know that I was altering my planned route due to the line of clouds in front of me.    The composed voice came back with the query, “Are you instrument capable and qualified?”

I answered quickly that I was capable but not qualified, which means I have the appropriate instruments on board but was not certified.   The business-like voice simply said, “OK.”

I was considering diverting right or left to see if there was a clearing in the line of clouds that I couldn’t see yet, and what airports lay in wait below or just behind, and what the best place might be to spend the night, when the controller came back on the radio.   “One Romeo Alpha, it looks like there’s an opening in the clouds about 10 miles to the north.”

At about 150 miles an hour, that’s a pretty short diversion, so I thanked the controller and headed north.   Sure enough, there was a nice gap in the clouds that took me over the mountains near Santa Barbara, and I was able to turn south and head down the coast to my home airport with only a short delay.

Most pilots hate diversions.  Diversions make those aboard late, and usually create additional expense in fuel, time and lodging.  But diversions are a necessary part of getting there safely.

I would like to believe that having to divert is one of the more wonderful things about flying.   It forces us down a road that, if not less traveled, is certainly less anticipated.   And it forces us to live in the moment, a skill I have never been very good at, managing to immerse myself in the nostalgia of yesteryears, or the expectations and fantasies of life downstream.

There is a wonderful story that has been circulating the internet for many years now about how being a parent of a child with autism is like expecting to take a trip to Italy and ending up in Holland.  The point of the story is that if you live your life mourning the fact that you aren’t in Italy you’ll end up missing the beauty of Holland.

I do think that people who are good at accepting life’s diversions do so partly because they don’t allow themselves to get too attached to outcomes.   Lao Tzu said it best when he said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

I hate surprises, but I am convinced that surprise is where the adventure begins.  If the original goal, the runway on which you intend to land, is suddenly unsafe, then it’s time to open the throttle and find another one.

When I think of that simple diversion required of me to keep out of the clouds, I think of some small things I might have done differently.   It forced me to think under pressure, and later to review those decisions and therefore rehearse doing it better the next time.   But we all arrived safely, and enjoyed extraordinary scenery along the way that we would not have seen otherwise: wispy clouds teasing the mountain ridges, the beautiful Pacific Ocean and the California Coast, and the rolling foothills accompanying us home.




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.

Autism in Love

d0a08b_dea72ec2e51f45c3b2a5a9e1a948da8a.png_srz_p_346_192_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_png_srzI am on a Boeing 757, sitting in the economy section, one of the few times I am grateful for having short legs.   I am returning home from New York where a film I conceived and executive produced just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.   It is truly an honor, given the numbers: 6700 films were submitted and only 120 were selected for the competition.   The film, “Autism in Love,” is in the “world documentary feature” category, competing against 11 others in its category for a coveted award.

One of the films in competition with “Autism in Love” is called “In Transit,” a beautiful and moving documentary interweaving stories told by real passengers (i.e., not actors) on the Empire Builder, an AMTRAK train whose route goes from Seattle to Chicago.   The stories themselves are captivating, but I was equally captivated by the fact that the stories were told as the American landscape unwound behind it, creating a kind of metaphor within a metaphor.   Each person seems to be in some sort of transition in their lives, moving internally as they physically move through the landscape.  But on a train, the sensation is that it is the landscape that is moving, so that one’s internal movement is mirrored by the movement of the landscape.  And of course, all that occurs on a screen projecting a “moving picture,” a medium that is, by definition, about movement.

I am doing the same thing now, traveling at 514 miles per hour, four-fifths the speed of sound, 40,000 feet above the ground.  We humans, through the ingenuity provided by our cerebral cortexes, create and build machines that allow us to use nature in order to defy it.   We build machines that move us from one place to another for many reasons, but ultimately we build machines that move us physically in order to move us emotionally.

The film I produced, expertly directed by Matt Fuller, follows the lives of several people diagnosed with autism as they navigate the waters of romance and love.  Their lives are very different from one another’s, but they each live in the landscape others have called autism.   I have lost any objectivity I might have had about the film, but judging by the reviews I have been reading, it succeeds in a message I was hoping for; that love is love and nearly anyone, despite having a label that others insist prevent them from loving, can teach us about it.

In college days I was taught that humans, by nature and physiology, are novelty seeking animals.   That is undoubtedly what makes solitary confinement so punishing.  But without the contrast of stability there could be no novelty, just as a figure disappears when the ground around it disappears.

So whether we find ourselves riding the rails of AMTRAK, sitting on a bus, or flying on a Boeing 757, we ultimately remain figures embedded in the world around us.  We are moving, or being moved.

For more information on “Autism in Love,” see, or better yet, see “Autism in Love” on Facebook.

Flying Sdrawkcab

UnknownThe first time I saw it happen, I was taking my boat out of the harbor, and about 50 yards away I saw a seagull flying backwards.  It was one of those quirks of nature, one of those things that shouldn’t be possible but happens anyway.  It was a beautiful sight, his wings outstretched, his nose pointed one direction and his body moving backwards against the landscape of the island behind him and the water below.

Recently, on a particularly windy day, I told my instrument instructor that I always wanted to fly backwards, and as is typical of him he said, “let’s do it.”   We had other plans for that day, and I wasn’t in the mood to change them, so I opted for another time. Apparently, it’s an easy thing to do, especially in a small, low-powered airplane such as a Piper Cub or a Cessna 150.   The wings of a J3 Cub stall at about 33 knots, or about 38 miles an hour, so all you need to do to fly backwards is to point your nose into a 45 mile an hour wind, fly just over stall speed, and you can find yourself flying backwards over the ground.  Find a stiff 60 mile an hour wind or more and you can fly backwards at 20 miles an hour.

Although I have never flown backwards, I have done many other things backwards.   The Pimsleur language wizards somehow figured out that it’s easier to learn difficult foreign words by rehearsing the syllables backwards, which is how I learned how to say thank you in Armenian (shnorhakalutyun).

Reading backwards is tricky at first, but after a while it gets easier, because, just like reading forwards, one begins to notice patterns.  When I first moved to California, the moment I looked at the sign for the street named “Moorpark” I cracked up laughing.   Reading it backwards, I thought that it was a joke, but none of the locals seemed to know it.

In Northern California, where I wrote the first draft of this post, there is a town called Ukiah.  I never looked it up to see if it was intentional that it was named for the 17-syllable poem we all had to write as kids in school.  Maybe someone else who values his or her precious time even less than I do will look it up for me.

A friend was visiting me from New York, and when somehow the conversation came to reading or speaking backwards, he immediately mentioned the Long Island town of Lynbrook, which is not really backwards, just a swapping of the syllables of Brooklyn, but still, I think, clever enough to be mildly entertaining.

There is a natural food store in LA that is called “Erewhon.”  It is actually one letter off, but it is more difficult to read “Erehwon,” and as far as I’m concerned they can be forgiven.

I had always assumed Oprah’s parents were Marx Brothers’ fans, until I read that her birth name was actually Orpah, after a biblical character.  Apparently, people mispronounced it as “Oprah” frequently enough for it to stick.   Oprah calls her production company Harpo Productions, so at least she gets it.

There is also a coffee shop called Amocat in Washington (guess what city it’s in?) and one in Tokyo called Alucard, which as far as I know does not serve doolb.  And my old buddy Francis Albert used to sign his oil paintings as Artanis.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”  So, by illogical extension, perhaps if I get up in the air on a particularly windy day, rent an old Cessna, point my nose directly into the wind, and slow down, I will begin to understand life as I find myself flying backwards.   But I doubt it.

Flying as Therapy

Unknown-1 Along with sailing, polo and race car driving, aviation can be an expensive hobby.   But I am fond of reminding detractors that by and large flying cost about as much as ongoing psychotherapy, and can be equally as effective.  Here’s how.

Piloting an airplane requires complete and thorough attention.  Sophisticated instruments eases that burden a bit, but one needs to constantly monitor them, listen attentively to the sounds of the engine, and keep vigilant eyes out for things that might go bump in the day or night.  Stuff can happen very quickly in an airplane, and a lapse of attention can be deadly.

It is the combination of complete attention and mastery of the fear that accompanies any dangerous activity that in part makes it a therapeutic experience.  But there is another element that also makes it therapeutic.

Humans are outrageously complex organisms, and the human brain functions more efficiently and effectively (at some tasks) than the most complex computers.  What makes the brain so incredible is its ability to manage so many functions in parallel.   At any moment, the human brain is processing and directing multiple complex processes, the vast majority of them outside of awareness.

Some of those processes have to do with attempts to resolve conflicts that arise in childhood and continue to play out in daily life.   These ancient conflicts, along with those that arise in the more recent course of work and family relationships, are streaming through our awareness, and can wreak havoc with our daily lives as we allow them to rear themselves when it would serve us better to direct them instead into the background.

Most people see a good psychotherapy session as one in which the client comes to believe movement has been made toward resolution of childhood conflicts.  But those conflicts are a little like a war that goes on interminably, and, recalling the famous bumper sticker from the sixties, what if they gave a war and nobody came?

That is not to say that it is a good thing to deny the existence of our conflicts, but rather to embrace them and trust in our integrity to be responsible for them and “work them through” when the time is appropriate to do so.  Stepping into a cockpit does not stop the world from turning outside; the world remains unjust, the argument with your partner still festers, but in that moment one’s job is to simply fly the airplane.

We can eliminate suffering not only through successfully resolving conflicts, but also through coming to accept those conflicts and engaging life more fully in the moment.  That is what a “healing exchange” with a therapist can do, and that is how flying, or engaging in any activity requiring complete focus and which forces one to live fully in the moment can be good therapy.