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.

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 www.autisminlove.com, or better yet, see “Autism in Love” on Facebook.

In the Java Sea

As I write this, there is a gentle rain falling outside the window of the Ojai Coffee Roasting Co., and halfway around the world bodies are being plucked out of the Java Sea.   It is too soon to know, but the odds are that those on the doomed Air Asia flight experienced the violent throes of a thunderstorm, with up and downdrafts moving as fast as 100 miles an hour.

Somehow, the violence of mother nature was more than the pilots or their steed could handle. Pilots are taught to avoid thunderstorms, but they often don’t. There were, in fact, at least six jets in the same vicinity as the Air Asia flight that made it home intact.   Undoubtedly, pilots who fly along routes such as the one over the Java Sea fly among storms often, and each time they get through safely reinforces their belief that they can do it again.

I had a client once who was a rock musician, and although his father was an aviation engineer, and the client himself had an encyclopedic knowledge of nearly every human-made object that traversed the sky, he never flew on them himself.  When I asked him why, he just looked at me and said, “I’m a rock musician.”  I understood that he felt jinxed, and preferred not to die the way so many musicians have died. We could, just as my client did, decide to stay closer to the ground, spending our time reading and writing in coffee shops or imagining that somehow we are safer in cars than in airplanes.

We could, but we probably won’t. We know that the chances of being injured or killed in an airplane are still relatively minuscule, that getting out of the house at all is dangerous, and that staying cocooned and perhaps watching TV will assure that our adventures will all be vicarious.

The traditional Irish blessing begins with “May the road rise up to greet you, may the wind always be at your back…”  Pilots have their version, which is simply a wish for “clear skies and tailwinds.”

The unfortunate Air Asia flight had neither, and we all grieve the loss of fellow travelers whose lives were untimely taken from those who loved them.  And, as the Irish blessing concludes, “…And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand.”

Happy Holidays

Just a quick note to wish you all a happy holiday season, and to thank those of you who subscribe to this humble blog.  I returned from a productive back to back outing to Mexico and Vietnam, jet-lagged and now flu-ridden.   Grateful for a body that (hopefully) heals itself, grateful for the kind words of encouragement many of you have written me over the last year of this blog.  I hope to entertain you more in the coming year… May you have many healthy, fulfilling years to come.

Giving Thanks

images-5I didn’t get to fly this Thanksgiving weekend, but being with my family was even more precious.  I have certainly been blessed to make it this far, to have an extraordinary family, and to have the ability to occasionally take to the sky.

I will most likely not have an opportunity to climb into my DA40 and continue my IFR training for at least a few weeks, because business travel will put me in the “back seat” of some heavy metal.   Nevertheless, I do look forward to planned trips to Mexico and Vietnam, hopefully garnering window seats if I can.

On my last commercial trip back from Mexico, I witnessed the most spectacular thunderstorms I had ever seen.  At 30,000 feet, the lightning show was occurring directly across from us.   The pilots of the Embraer 140 clearly chose not to divert, as the ailerons outside my window refused to budge the entire way.   Although it was difficult to judge distances at 30,000 feet, the airline either did not have a 20-mile safety margin from thunderstorms or the pilots decided to ignore it, as we skated along what appeared to be just a mile or two to the side of the massive string of cumulonimbus clouds that itself appeared to stretch outward infinitely.

The magnitude of nature’s constructions was thrilling, but I was also afraid that our relatively little airplane would become incapacitated.   Holding the sadness that sitting in the cabin 20 rows behind the front office meant there was no way I could have any control over the decisions being made there, I settled in for the show.

I love to fly, and although I much prefer sitting up front, I am also happy to be chauffeured, where I can relax, read some (usually flying-related) magazines, and look out the window.    Although it is by far not my favorite airline, I look forward to flights on United so I can tune in channel 9 and listen to air traffic controllers.   This time I will be on American to Mexico and Asiana to Vietnam, so there will be no ATC for me to cuddle up to.

While flying breaks no laws of physics, from the flesh and bones perspective of mere humans it feels as though we are at least bending those laws.   Like speaking Hungarian, it shouldn’t be possible, but somehow people manage to do it.

There is so much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving, and although I hope to be flying for many years to come, I am certainly grateful for all the time I have been blessed to be able to stretch the law of gravity, whether in the cockpit or in the cabin, and have such an amazing family to come home to.

Finding Emma Larkin in Thailand


6a00d8341bf7f753ef00e54f2513468833-800wiWith the exception of the Tom Swift science fiction books of my childhood, I have never been much of a fiction reader.   But I do dabble from time to time.   George Orwell was someone whose books I found eminently readable given my short attention span.  Recently, I read Orwell’s first published novel,  “Down and Out in Paris and London” for the first time.  I loved it, so I then went on to read a book by Emma Larkin called “Finding George Orwell in Burma.”

In “Finding George Orwell…,” the author Emma Larkin goes to Burma in order to retrace Orwell’s history there.   Orwell spent several years in Burma as a police officer for the Indian government while Burma was in Britain’s hands, and his experiences there undoubtedly helped to shape some of his views of the effects of totalitarianism.

As is my wont when I enjoy a book, I looked up “Emma Larkin” to find out a bit more about the author.  After all, a lone woman foraging through occasionally remote areas by herself in a country that periodically jails and tortures anyone who looks askance at the wrong person or who utters the wrong words is something approaching heroic (or stupid?) proportion.

What I found out about Emma Larkin was intriguing and a bit annoying.  First of all, Emma Larkin is a pseudonym, a fact which unto itself is charmingly synchronous, given that her book is about searching for the remnants of George Orwell, which is also a pseudonym.  Eric Blair—Orwell’s given name, chose to use the pseudonym partly to allow himself continued anonymity as he posed as poor, but also it afforded his family some distance from the controversial stands he was taking.   Not long after Eric Blair published as Orwell his real identity was revealed.   Even J.K. Rowling, with her fantastic resources, couldn’t hold on to her true identity for too long when she published her recent novel under a nom de plume.  But who, pray tell, is Emma Larkin?

I was once told that it was really easy to find anyone, with one exception.  The exception is when the person doesn’t wish to be found.  Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge in this millennium, knew some key facts about Emma Larkin, but it didn’t know (or reveal) who she really is.   We do know that Emma Larkin lives in Thailand, that she was born in the U.S., and was educated in the U.K.

Although Burma recently underwent significant reform, it is still far from being a safe place to speak openly about the military government.  Revealing the true identity behind the Emma Larkin nom de plume could likely put her in danger. The military government in Burma still has eyes everywhere, and the threat of writers and others being jailed for merely expressing critical thoughts about the government at a tea shop remains.

But knowing who Emma Larkin really is would also potentially endanger the people who she interviewed, as the military intelligence watched and followed her throughout her various journeys.  And it would, at the very least, make future visits to Burma impossible, at least so long as the current regime remains in power.

The idea of searching for someone who doesn’t want to be found seems like a fun project, like solving a Rubik’s cube.  I can easily imagine a documentary.  I would call it “Finding Emma Larkin in Thailand” in the spirit of “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” But then what?  Assuming one were successful, it would only be the right thing to do to keep her identity secret.  So, I suppose, one would have to keep the film in the can until such a time that it wouldn’t matter if her identity were exposed.  That would either mean until the world is a much safer place or her soul departs her body.  One would hope the former came sooner and the latter a long time later.