Checking Back In

I want to express my gratitude for those of you who have been contacting me “off-line” stating that you are missing my posts. It seems that something went wrong in the virtual universe and I lost the ability for my posts to be distributed to subscribers. I am working on this now, with able help from Pakistan. Thanks again for your patience while we struggle to fix whatever has gone amiss.


The Pokey Thing

After spending a few days in Austin visiting my daughter, her fiancé, and a small gaggle of extended family, and, by the way, to watch the eclipse, I am flying back now to Burbank on Southwest’s Boeing 737-700.     Austin is in the band of totality that swept across the U.S. from Mazatlán to Maine, which, weather cooperating, allowed for complete solar umbrage.  

After finding a large open pasture (an unused soccer field) close to the Air B and B, a small party of friends and family settled picnic-style on the field, lying on our backs, cheap eclipse-viewing glasses attached to our faces, waiting and watching.    The sky was overcast, thunderstorms approaching, so the likelihood of seeing much of anything was small.

But somehow, with the help of the eclipse-viewing glasses, enough ambient light was filtered so that we were able to see, from time to time, the moon encroaching and slowly scooting its way between our earth and sun.    It was a dramatic sight, one which I remembered having seen once before from some time in my childhood.   As the sun became increasingly covered, the sky eerily and beautifully darkened, as though a cosmic dimmer had been controlling the atmosphere.    At the moment of totality, the sky was too thick with clouds to see the moon’s aura, but the shifty clouds did manage to leave a few holes just before and afterward.   The image above was taken as the sun began to reappear from behind the moon.

The most dramatic moments occurred as the moon passed through the center of the sun, and the temperature dropped.   At 1 o’clock in the afternoon we were slowly plunged into near darkness as the southern heat dissipated.    It all lasted only a few minutes as the Great Controller waved her hand and then brought us all back to the ordinary.

Sadly, I find myself inured to much of this precious life lately, perhaps as I turn towards the last years of corporeal life and wrestle with the inevitable, knowing that the inevitable always wins the match.   Never one to grieve easily, it’s easier to shut down than to feel the pain and pleasure that surrounds this thin armor of skin.   These days, it’s the small things that manage to poke through and generate outsized emotional reactions.   

Or maybe the pokey thing must be so large that the self-inflicted anesthesia that makes life tolerable doesn’t stand a chance.   It was less the passing of the moon between earth and sun that made me remember what awe felt like than the shift into darkness in the cool air.   Sure, there are days when the clouds cover the sun and the earth becomes gray, but this felt different in a way I can’t quite describe.   It was somehow more like the “fade to black” we are accustomed to seeing in film.  I had read about what to expect, and so intellectually I suppose I anticipated the darkening and cooling, and expectation itself often robs an experience of its numen;  yet the visceral experience of it, in the middle of a soccer field, friends and family nearby, in an unfamiliar place somehow, however briefly, managed to wash away the din of expectation.

Frequency Change Approved

I once saw a psychiatrist who told me he thought that I had “a little bit of autism.”    I confess that although by that time I had spent a big chunk of my life working with folks who had been formally diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, I just didn’t see it in myself.   Maybe the reason I couldn’t see it was because I had a little bit of autism.

Children who are diagnosed with autism have a notoriously difficult time switching from one activity to another.   Once the child gets into a groove, they get into it so deeply that it takes a Herculean effort to get out of it.  I too have difficulty with transitions, but it’s the opposite kind of difficulty.   That psychiatrist, perched in his leather throne in his basement office in a converted Victorian Pasadena house, bless his heart, didn’t really see the true me, the one whose attention deficit disorder superseded the 15 other diagnostic categories in which I seem to fit so cozily into.    It is that disorder that captures the distractibility, impulsivity and inattentiveness that might be most apt for my tombstone, but kids, please, if either of you ever read this, don’t put that onto my tombstone.  For me, transitions are way too easy.   It’s the thing I want to do all the time.   Give me a transition any moment of the day and I’ll gleefully take it.   There’s a road less traveled!  Let’s go there!

Psychologists who work with kids who have difficulty with transitions have developed a variety of techniques to help them with this important task in life.   One of them is called “priming,” which is simply a way of warning the child ahead of time that a new activity is going to begin.   It’s really the same thing pilots do when adding fuel to a carbureted engine before igniting it, or what drivers of cars with manual transmissions do when they pull out the primer and crank the engine, or what happens when you push that little bulb five times on your lawnmower.  Air traffic controllers also prime pilots with the word “Expect,” as in “expect further clearance at…”  

Transitions occur on every flight.   There are transitions between various stages of flight (such as takeoff, cruise, approach) and transitions between different kinds of airspace.   Knowing where you are, what you are doing, and what you are getting into is important in flying, as it is everywhere else in life.   As a couples therapist, I always used to say that knowing where you stand in a relationship is more important than where you stand.  

Airspace around the world is divided into 3-dimensional sectors, and by and large, each sector is assigned its own radio frequency.    When flying from one sector to another, ATC “hands you off” to the next controller by telling you to “contact [NorCal] approach” and then gives you the frequency to dial into your radio.    When you are flying around a towered airport, you need to change from the ground frequency to the tower frequency, and then from the tower frequency to the frequency of the sector you are flying into.    The tower controller will let you know when to do that by reciting the magical words “frequency change approved.”  It’s reassuring to hear those words, because it signals that you are now leaving somewhere and going somewhere else.   It is a transition warning, a priming for the adventure to come.    It’s also a signal of relief that you have safely left the earth and made it to the next phase of flight.  Some pilots will respond to the approval with a nicety, such as “Have a Nice Day.”  It’s rare, however, to hear anything clever, unless you’ve known the controller for a while.  I’ve never heard a pilot respond to the approval with anything like “Hope your kids get over the flu,” but I’m sure it’s happened.

On the ground, I have often been in the position of wanting to know when my desire to change frequency is approved.  Maybe it’s my “little bit of autism,” but I find it difficult to know when and how it’s okay to transition to my next activity.    It’s hard for me to negotiate that part of life, especially in conversation.   There are several people in my life who seem to think I have all the time in the world to talk on the phone, and even when I do, there’s only so much a fellow can take.   What do you do to indicate you’ve had enough without hurting the other person’s feelings?  

As a therapist, it’s easy, because you’ve already set the expectation that the session will last 50 minutes.    It’s not uncommon for me to prime the transition with clients who inconsiderately ignore the timeclock.  “We only have 10 minutes left today, so we should talk about….”  But in the rest of life, it would be nice if there was some sort of structure as there is in the air traffic control system, someone who can inject him or herself into the conversation at just the right moment, dictatorially demanding: “Frequency Change Approved.”  It is, after all, a rather polite way to say what is really meant: “I’m done with you.   Get out of my airspace.  Now get on with your life.”   Frequency change approved.

There but for Fortune

I have often been accused of being too literal, and so please understand that when I use the phrase “dumb luck” I have no intention of insulting anyone, but instead I use the phrase because, quite literally, luck itself cannot speak.  It has no message, no meaning.   It doesn’t know where it comes from and it doesn’t know where it’s going.   It’s a meandering ghost lurking behind every tree and under every stone and in every breath we take and even those we don’t.

Pilots like to believe that they are in control of their destiny.   It’s important that they believe that, because if they didn’t, they likely wouldn’t step foot in a cockpit and advance the throttle.   Flying is certainly more dangerous than staying at home and watching TV, and that is because there are more opportunities for something unlucky to happen.   “Fate is the Hunter” could not be a more apt title for aviation writer Earnest Gann’s autobiography, along with a 1964 film starring Glenn Ford and Suzanne Pleshette.   Shakespeare said it best when, no doubt while sitting on a pubstool, he said, “Shit happens.”   Good thing there was a bumper sticker writer around to write it down at the time.

I have found it fascinating over the years to listen to pilots discuss a recent deadly accident—any recent accident.   One might think they would be kinder to fellow pilots, but most often they are angry and critical of the pilot who died.   Even before knowing a detailed explanation, they blame the pilot for doing something stupid to cause their own demise.   “Pilot error” is in fact the cause of over 75% of fatal accidents according to the NTSB, but there’s a big percentage left over.   And that’s where the hunter comes in.

Dumb luck wields its unwitting existential sword in all directions.   It kills and it rescues.  Take, for example, my bout with stage IV cancer.  I don’t exactly feel lucky to have survived this far, now seven years after my cancer diagnosis.   Instead, I attribute my survival primarily to modern science and the physicians who have mastered their art at City of Hope.    I never had much hope, really, nor did I have much faith.    What I did have in copious amounts was resignation and compliance.   And in the end, I think it was entirely them, the physicians, who were to blame for you reading these words.   I am deeply grateful, even if you’re not.

But that too involved not a small measure of luck.   I had a protein, labeled simply P16, residing in my squamous cell carcinoma that was particularly responsive to the chemotherapy and radiation that killed, or at least postponed, the tumor’s metastasis.   That was lucky.    And I was lucky to have found that team of physicians who practiced their art form flawlessly, as well as a profoundly supportive family to monitor and shield me from contextual harm.

And yet, there are those whose bodies end up downstairs, in the basement morgue, refrigerated until claimed by their loving and supportive families.   Many of those had copious measures of hope and many of those even had sublime faith, but the mortality police came and snatched them anyway.  

The thing about dumb luck is that, by definition, it is out of our control.   We can hope and faith our way through the vicissitudes of this churlish life all we want, and the freaking plane might still crash, and the wayward car might run the light and smash us to smithereens.   These are hard realities, and not incidentally, it’s the anticipation of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that is the definition of anxiety and the chief reason why pharmaceutical companies remain a good investment.

What remains out of our control can plague and preoccupy us, or we can choose the path of optimism, with the caveat that optimism when blind becomes ignorance, and ignorance causes a lack of the kind of healthy vigilance that keeps us relatively safe.   Going with the flow I sometimes think can be fun in a kayak, but it can also smash the kayak into a boulder and ruin our day.

Optimism, I suppose, is simply the idea that luck strikes disproportionately on the positive side of things, giving more than it takes.   The balance of probability, as Conan Doyle’s Holmes would say, certainly leans in that direction.   Plane crashes happen every day, but proportionately to miles flown, that’s still very little.   When they do, it’s usually the pilot’s fault, but usually isn’t always, and there’s still more than a smidgeon of fate involved.  So, to paraphrase the brilliant folk musician Phil Ochs paraphrasing everyone else, there but for dumb luck go you or I.

This Blog’s Title

In the many years I have been writing this blog, no one has pointed out that its title, “Clear for Takeoff,” is a misnomer.  Frankly, I thought I would be busted early on, because people in the aviation world like to be know-it-alls.  Trying to come up with the title, I thought it made sense to use something pilots hear in their headsets just before departing the earth.  But controllers don’t actually say “clear for takeoff” (though for years I did think that was what they were saying).  Instead, they say “cleared for takeoff,” prefaced by your airplane’s identifier.  I am not certain of the grammar of it, because they are both sentence fragments, spoken undoubtedly with the assumption that the first half of the sentence is extraneous.   

In my headset, before nearly every flight at a towered airport, I hear the words: “Diamond Star One Romeo Alpha, Cleared for Takeoff.”  It’s my cue to look for traffic, advance the throttle, roll past the runway hold short line, turn to the center line, angle my ailerons into the wind, tease the rudder petals back and forth to awaken my feet, check that the flaps are set correctly and glance at the heading indicator, all within a few seconds, release the brakes and advance the throttle gently (but firmly) to the firewall.  

This is the thrill that is paired, as Pavlov would have us say, with the words “cleared for takeoff.”   If I were wearing my Garmin watch, I’m sure it would show a quick increase in heartrate as the old heart muscle flutters in anticipation, like a dog lifting her head and opening her eyes wide when she hears, “let’s take a walk!”

But “cleared for takeoff” as a title was someone else’s blog, I think, at least at the time this one came to fruition.   And while I knew full well that I was violating any sense of accuracy, I did like the sound of “clear for takeoff,” as if the infinitive form of the word clear connoted something slightly more spiritual.   Not at all a nod to Scientology, mind you, where going “clear” has implications of transcendence, as well as a significant capital expenditure.   More like the allegorical lyric in reggae time:  I can see clearly now; the rain has gone.

There are, of course, a host of other phrases pilots are accustomed to hearing on nearly every flight.   Just as the heart twitters in excitement to hear the words “cleared for takeoff,” there is an incipient serenity, accompanied by an unwitting exhalation, when a pilot hears the words “clear to land.”   Yup, you guessed it.  I seldom if ever hear the parallel “cleared to land.”   Maybe I have, and it just sounds like “clear to land.”  I don’t think so, though.  Why it is exactly that I am cleared for takeoff but am short two letters on landing I don’t know.    (Maybe there’s a physics principle having to do with losing letters in proportion to fuel depletion.)  

On nearly every flight in which you are talking to controllers at all (there is no requirement that you do if you are flying visually in certain airspace), you will inevitably hear the 3-word phrase “frequency change approved.”   That, I imagine, might also be a great blog title, and probably someone has used it already, but I am at a coffee shop and too lazy to get up and get the internet code, so I will probably never know.  

I am going to tell you something about those three words, “frequency change approved,” because I already wrote it and for now it’s right below these words on the screen.   But the additional four paragraphs make this post too long to be readable in the short amount of time we all have these days to read anything, given how computers and Sesame Street and post-modernism has melted our brains.

So perhaps next week I’ll share those paragraphs with you, but presently I will pretend I am an air traffic controller and I have some say with what you do with your precious time, and tell you, somewhat wistfully and without entirely feigned kindness, you’re “cleared for the option.”

Point Nemo

Captain Nemo was a fictional character created by the science fiction author Jules Verne.   Verne’s Nemo, who was cleverly named after the Latin word for “nobody,” would aimlessly roam the depths of the sea in his submarine “the Nautilus”, consumed by his antipathy to imperialism and seeking vengeance against his very own British Empire.

It was fitting then, that when engineers were looking for the most remote place on earth, the place farthest from any land mass, they decided to name that place Point Nemo, honoring the seeker named after nobody searching for nowhere.

The practical need for finding a place farthest away from somewhere was due to the fact that most of the things humans put into space to orbit the earth have a lifespan, after which they become space junk, potentially cluttering the atmosphere the way things that we put into the ocean pollute the ocean.  Orbits eventually degrade, and the satellites burn up into tiny particles as they re-enter earth’s atmosphere.   But many of the bigger chunks end up landing somewhere on earth, potentially creating a hazard.    Although to date there has only been one recorded incident of space junk injuring a human, and it only braised the very surprised woman’s shoulder, the threat to humans and other animals is very real.

To abate the hazard, engineers decided to simply aim a satellite’s degrading orbit to a specific place on earth.   Hard to imagine the scene; maybe they were passing a joint, sitting on barstools, walking down the sterile hallway on the fourth floor of building A7 at Caltech,  or searching a cabinet for a Keurig cup, unaware of the soft buzzing of the fluorescent lights above— I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but I can imagine one of them turning to the other and saying,  “Let’s find a spot on earth that is big and uninhabited, and preferably really wet and deep.”    So they set out to determine the place on earth that is farthest away from any land mass.

One of the engineers, undoubtedly fond of poetic phrases, referred to the place as the oceanic pole of inaccessibility, and it is, essentially, the middle of nowhere.   They dubbed it Point Nemo.  In Wikitruth, credit for discovering Point Nemo goes to Canadian-Croatian survey engineer Hrvoje Lukatela, and Caltech had nothing to do with it.   He’s a rather interesting fellow, I imagine, participating in projects as diverse as planning the orientation toward Mecca for King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah to designing the geometrics for Environment Canada’s Ice Centre in Ottawa.

Point Nemo is so far from humans that the closest people to it are aboard the International Space Station.   Perhaps coincidentally, rather than teeming with sea life, it is also one of the most lifeless places on earth due to it sitting within the South Pacific Gyre, a current which manages to flow far from nutrient-rich waters.

If you were interested in going there (and who wouldn’t be interested in intentionally going nowhere when most of us spend our lives unintentially going nowhere?) you may or not be surprised to find that in fact there is a lot of stuff there.   If you guessed plastics, you would have nailed it.  Yeah, that plastic container you discarded in Santa Monica may travel to the farthest corner on earth.   Point Nemo, it turns out, may not have much life there, but it is filled with human detritus.

The problem of course is that our search for nowhere inevitably leads to somewhere, and our search for nothing inevitably leads to something.  We can aim our obsolete satellites and DVD players toward Point Nemo, but as philosophers and scientists have been telling us for millennia, matter is generally conserved, so even the place farthest from anywhere becomes cluttered and transmogrifies from nowhere to somewhere.    Perhaps, as my favorite book title by Paul Watzlawick says, “The Situation is Hopeless but Not Serious.”   Perhaps, like fictional Nemo, this existence is not so much about finding the elusive nowhere, but instead roaming the depths of the sea seeking vengeance against, well, whoever and whatever life has thrown at us.  Or as my college friend Rabbi David Frank said to me once, we just keep on raging until the end. 


The venerable LA Times still comes to the door on Sunday, or actually, some random driveway within a half mile that the delivery person, bless her soul, thinks somehow belongs to the address on her list.   But I am out of the habit of reading it as my news delivery methodology has shifted almost entirely to annoying email forwards of NY Times articles that I can’t open because, like a parent trying to gain control of herself, tells me I have “reached my limit—”.   I do want to support journalism, and although I have always had to pay for newspapers, there were always ways to get the free press for free, and I suppose I have been spoiled.   But also, when you received a newspaper made from paper, you actually HAD something you could, albeit awkwardly, hold in your hand, and maybe that’s one reason I refuse to pay a dollar a day to subscribe to something I can’t use to start a fire with should it ever get cold enough in California again to need one. 

I do occasionally tear open the green plastic wrap covering the LA Times, there presumably because someone had the peculiarly optimistic notion that it might rain again in this desert wasteland.   I skim the disappointing headlines, and fall back into my old pattern of seeking out the obituaries.  

Oh, sweet death.   I know I’m not alone in the arguably macabre habit of seeking out the obituaries, not, as the old joke goes, to see if I had made the list, but to see who else had.   To this day, my favorite part of the Academy Awards ceremony isn’t seeing who most successfully lobbied to take home a statuette, but rather the brief montage of the faces who bit the dust in the preceding year.   And in the aviation magazines that clutter my house, I have a keen interest in reading about legendary flyers who recently kicked the bucket, usually described with the reassuring undertone that the cause of death had nothing to do with aviation.  

I don’t completely understand my preoccupation with obituaries, because I am much better at understanding others’ motivations than my own, though I do think that it has something to do with the fanciful term anticipatory grieving.    In reading other people’s obituaries, I feel the pain and angst of grief, but it’s unclear to me how much of that grief is about them and how much is about the anticipation of my own demise.   Maybe there’s really no difference after all; we are all both the eggmen and the walrus.

Lest you be left with the wrong impression, I don’t believe I am obsessed with death, nor would you necessarily care if I was.   Come to think of it, maybe I am, but I would prefer to think it’s more about having a lot of difficulty with aging.  I don’t mean to say that it is my body in need of spare parts, but instead it is my mind that may be due for an overhaul.

When I decided to take flying lessons at age 50, I thought I was being clever by asking to be taught by the oldest, most experienced pilot at the school.  That was nearly 20 years ago. I have been told I was the last official student of Floyd Jennings.  Floyd didn’t actually teach me how to fly, but rather flew next to me for two years while I somehow absorbed from him how to do it.   After all, no one taught him how to fly, except perhaps, as he put it, “the seat of my pants.”   When I look at the photo of me and him in front of the Cessna 150 I wore after my first solo, he doesn’t look that old, and at the time he was likely younger than I am now.   (Cue Bob Dylan?).    

I have gotten to that point in my life where those people who taught me in school, the people I would happily call mentors, have either kicked the bucket, are pushing up daisies, bought the farm, or have gone tits up.   I am feeling lonelier and lonelier.     When I try to find someone to look up to, they’re no longer taller than me.   In fact, I can’t see them at all.

My go-to poet, W.S. Merwin, who also died recently and has been an important part of my life, wrote “Now all my teachers are dead except silence.”   It’s getting quieter and quieter out there.

Looking Back

In a few hours from now I am likely to be attending my Orange County high school’s 50th reunion.   It was a small school, and there aren’t too many of us left alive or interested in attending, so I anticipate a rather meager turnout.   But for now I am taking advantage of the local cuisine, sitting at the Thien An Vietnamese restaurant in Garden Grove, California.

Fifty years ago, when I lived here, this town was fairly ramshackle, populated mostly with large strawberry fields that were gradually taken over by housing tracts. It was in one of those that my parents bought a small house, I believe for $28,000., which according to Zillow this morning is worth almost a million dollars.   Of course that’s in current money, so I’m not sure what the equivalent dollars would be, but I’m not that interested to look it up.   I probably shouldn’t have even mentioned it.

In those days, as the Vietnam war (or, as they call it in Vietnam, the French-American war) was winding down, the only Asians you would ever see in these parts were the descendants of Japanese immigrants who had been interned during World War 2.   As partial compensation they were offered some land, which they had turned into rather nicely producing agricultural fields.   After the Vietnam war, however, so many immigrants from South Vietnam chose this spot to set up home that the area became what is now known as “Little Saigon,” and having spent a few years going back and forth to Vietnam consulting with an autism service company, I miss the food and ambience.  

Enough generations have passed in Vietnam now that the subject of the war just doesn’t seem to interest anyone other than tourists and tour guides.   There is a distinct sense of not wanting to look back, and I don’t know if that is related to how generations cope with trauma or if this has something to do with the influence of Buddhism.  Only 12% of the population identifies as Buddhist though, while Christianity in the form of Catholicism is a close second.  The vast majority of the country follows some folk religion or none at all.  

In Buddhism, I understand there is a value in honoring one’s ancestors, and I wonder if the emphasis is more on honoring than remembering.   In any case, for me, this looking backwards has always been a struggle.  Perhaps my mother said it best when I asked her why she never talked about her past.  “It’s too painful,” she said in an uncharacteristically succinct way.   


Of course, looking back is what a high school reunion is all about.    But it’s a dangerous endeavor, because it comes with the reminder that there is very little about the world that can be verified and that truth and reality rests squarely in the solipsistic eye of the beholder, and that people most likely didn’t ever see you the way you saw yourself, and that even when the two perceptions do match it seems like a random event.

It was a bit fun, and grim of course, which is to be expected of these gambits. My favorite moment came when a thin, tall woman whose nametag was flipped over and whose face did not ring the dimmest of bells, told me of her memory of me that had lasted through the darkness of these last five decades.    I don’t know that I can capture the humor of it here, but it went something like this:   We were sitting in a class, and a substitute teacher was going through roll, but stumbled when he tried to pronounce my name.   Kindly, he asked me how I would like my name to be pronounced, and reportedly I said, “well, I would like it to be pronounced Miller.”   She and the class cracked up, she told me.  I suppose even then I was a snarky, attention-seeking kid, maybe a tad less diffident and depressed than I remember.

So the joke was kind of a “you had to be there” moment, or maybe it requires the two tequila and pineapple juices I drank beforehand, but I really laughed and was impressed that I could tell a joke in high school that could last in someone else’s mind for 50 years, while I can’t remember any joke, no matter who tells it, for more than about five minutes. 

Passer le Beurre

I knew some time ago that pilots say “Mayday” in an emergency because it is the Anglicized version of the French “M’Aidez!,” meaning “Help me!” but I recently learned that the reason we call the place where people keep their airplane a hangar is that it is the French word for “shed” or “outhouse.”   I have, in fact, seen many hangars that resemble outhouses, and had it not been for the arrival of the family troops a few years ago to coerce me to discard things that they thought I would never need and assist me in the cleaning operation, I may have had to include my own hangar in that category.   

Three years before I was born, over 70 years ago, the International Civil Aviation Organization decided that English ought to be the exclusive language for radio talk in the airline industry.   Not having a universal language was a formula for disaster.  (It is said that many lives were lost on the Titanic, for example, as a result of there not being clear and monolingual emergency procedures.)   People were flying throughout Europe more often, and although even the word “aviation” itself has somewhat of a French origin, English was taking root as the universal language in the business world, and so English won out.  I imagine that decision riled quite a few people, but it wouldn’t have been the first time the Empire had its way.

“Mayday” had already been in operation by then, allegedly because the English version (S.O.S.) didn’t come across that well over the radio, as was “pan-pan,” the distress call that translates roughly to “I’ve got a problem that I don’t know how to fix and I’m warning you that there might be a mayday on its way if I can’t get my shit together to figure this out.”   Pan-pan derived from the French word “panne” that referred to a breakdown, as opposed to the homonymic pain, which is a loaf of bread.   When you put two loaves of pain together you get pan-pan, which means you’re about to have a breakdown.  I may be boring you now, but I’m having a really good time.   So the Civil Aviation Organization decided to keep those signifiers, while adopting English for pretty much everything else.

In junior high school I was required to take a language.   There were many choices, but for all intents and purposes they narrowed down to two:  Spanish and French.   I wanted to take French, because for reasons that weren’t clear to me at the time, that’s what the prettiest girls were taking, but my father convinced me to take Spanish, because after all, who speaks French in the United States?   He couldn’t imagine I would ever want to travel to France, or have the means to do so.  

As was true for many things, my father knew best, and I don’t regret taking Spanish, well, not too much.   Maybe I do regret it, because after 3 years of classes I can barely get through Pimsleur lesson one.    Whenever I try to speak a foreign language, I am told that I have a great accent but whatever I say makes no sense.  I guess that’s the same problem I have with English; I can read it just fine but comprehension is another thing altogether.  I can also talk a lot without saying anything at all, if you haven’t noticed.

As I mentioned, the word “aviation” has somewhat of a French origin, coined in 1863 by French naval officer Gabriel La Lande from the verb avier.   Avier was a neologism that never caught on, stemming from the Latin word for bird—“avis,” so La Lande fancified it and the word aviation stuck. 

The word “pilot” derives from the 16th century French pilote (someone who steers a ship).  The tube that air runs through and tells us how fast we are going is called a pitot tube, which looks a lot like pilot if you’re not wearing your glasses, so you would think that had French origins as well.   Well, sort of.   The pitot is French alright, but it’s what we call in English a proper noun, meaning it’s someone’s name, because I guess if you’re English and you don’t have a name that would just not be proper.   The pitot tube got its name from its inventor, a French physicist named (how many guesses would you like?) Henri Pitot.

I never did get around to taking French, although I took a few lessons, but my French teacher was very strict and thought somehow that studying ought to be intrinsically motivated.   I was old at the time, and while the lure of pretty girls hadn’t entirely dissipated, as Woody Guthrie said, much of my get up and go had gone up and went.   I suppose I should get back to it—studying French, that is, but I have to figure out instead how best to end this post.   Hmmm. 

Speed or Altitude?

Then there are those who do whatever they can to resist the natural order of things, eking the most out of their lives by doing what nature surely did not intend them to do.   They fly airplanes, jump out of them, dive off 80-foot cliffs, chase tornadoes, scale ridiculously sheer mountains, walk on wires over deep chasms, and take drugs that they find in someone else’s bathroom just to see how far they can bend their consciousness without breaking it.  

C’est pas moi.  I would rather sit by the fireplace in the lodge sipping hot chocolate while reading W.S. Merwin than ski down the side of that groomed mountain I can see out the window.   I’ve never done that, by the way, because I don’t know how to ski and I don’t think I have ever been in one of those places, though it looks wonderful in the movies.  It’s not that I’m averse to the occasional small thrill, mind you, but I just don’t like the idea of breaking things, including myself, and death is inevitable anyway so why push it. 

Aviation journalist Sam Weigel once imagined that there were two kinds of pilots (and by inference, two kinds of people):  There are those who like speed and there are those who like altitude.   Those who like speed I suspect are akin to what psychologists call sensation-seekers.  There’s a robust research literature on those folks, and they are an interesting lot.  It turns out, unsurprisingly, that those who score high on the MMPI sensation-seeking scale are the most likely to become drug addicts.   Their bodies are geared toward going for the high, and with the right chemicals, you don’t need to leave the ground to get there.   For them, it is all about the bodily sensation, the rush as it were.   They like the rush; they like the speed.

But then there’s the altitude folks who lean toward a different kind of high. Pilots who prefer altitude to speed like to be above it all, away from the hustle and bustle of prosaic life, rising above the pettiness of everyday conflict, nestled in their confined cockpit watching clouds go by.   Altitude comes up a lot in these virtual pages, because, for a pilot, as has been said here before, altitude is your friend.   She’s a good friend, indeed, because she is positioned better than anyone to save your life when you really need her.   For these pilots, the earth may be home, but it’s one where all the tsuris resides, the thing that has to be grappled with, approached with precision and caution, the most dangerous place.   Earth sites capable of landing can be difficult to find and hide from you when you need it the most.   Earth can break your airplane and break your heart, and for many pilots it’s the former that matters the most.

Altitude has a lot of advantages.   There’s the obvious, of course, in that the higher you go, the more time you have to fix whatever goes wrong or navigate your way back to earth if you lose power.   In pilot school you are taught something called “dead reckoning”, which is navigation without the benefit of instruments.   (The “dead” derives from “ded”, short for “deductive”.) When dead reckoning, the thing to do when you are lost is to climb higher.   Climbing gives you a greater view of the earth—there’s’ more to see and it’s easier to recognize landmarks.   You see patterns you don’t have an opportunity to see up close, the sinewy rivers, the orderly quilt of farm fields, just how concentrated the earth’s population is, how much is devoid of artificial light at night.

The world from miles up moves much slower, as your field of vision takes up a larger expanse of earth.    Cars on freeways going fast seem to be crawling along, not because you are going that much faster, but because things on the ground are much smaller.   It’s a great reminder that we tend to make petty things in life big and lose our perspective.

I suppose if I had to choose, I’m an altitude person.  It’s often a difficult thing to do, taking the high road, but it’s usually the best way of resolving conflicts.   As Michelle Obama’s Madison Avenue handlers said, “when they go low, we go high.”   Sure, I do like speed, and I tend to rush through much of this life, cramming in as much as I can as I watch the sand settle in this increasingly fragile hourglass.  But when it comes up to it, I would rather dwell less in the petty conflicts here on earth than in the serenity and compassion that resides, at least for me, way up there.

And you?