PART VIII: Father/Daughter Stories–Training Wheels

140913_HO_LedeFor me, there are three milestones that a father is responsible for with his daughter, three sacred trusts that belong only to a dad. These are teaching her to ride a bike, explaining how to deal with boys, and teaching her to drive.

Taking the training wheels off and guiding her through that first wobbly ride is more than an apt metaphor for enablement, it’s a right of passage, living proof that her own capabilities can earn her sovereignty; her first realization, small as it is, that she can steer her own course and go where she chooses. She’ll peddle away, turn, stop and look back, her face flush with pride, delight, and most importantly freedom.

I want to see that face.

I am a divorced, single parent with joint custody, and my daughter Madi lives equal time with both her parents. Several years ago, Madi’s mother had her first significant relationship and introduced that new element to Madi’s life. No matter how well you manage things, your ex’s other will have an impact on your young child–you hope it’s a good one. It is inescapable that you’ll feel a little bit tweaked at another male figure in your daughter’s life that you didn’t pick; I’ve never had insecurities with my status as Dad and neither has Madi, but it’s a caution. Fortunately, this fellow was a lovely and kind man (they’re not together anymore).

A few years ago, just before I was to make a first stop at this fellow’s house to pick some items of Madi’s, her mother mentioned that “Dave” had been teaching Madi to ride a bike and had taken the training wheels off the bike she used there. Now, she had no clue about these sacred paternal trusts, because I had never had the opportunity to share them with her, though she may have asked, but the betrayal was none-the-less brutal. I liked Dave, and his family was great, but why the hell was he teaching my kid to ride a bike without asking me?

I guess you could say I was a little distracted as I drove to Dave’s, Madi happily in her car seat in back waiting for her fun afternoon with dad to start. I was trying to tell myself, unsuccessfully, that it didn’t matter. His was an older house with a gravel driveway that sloped down to a rural road, across from a wooded embankment on the opposite side.

I pulled up the drive in a hurry to get this pick-up of ‘stuff’ over with. There was a “thing” going on at the house, which included some other friends of theirs that I had never met, and Madi’s mom was there as well. Madi opted to stay in the car, and I jumped out and headed for the door.

Half way to the door I happened to turn and look at the car. It was rolling, gathering speed towards the road and embankment with my daughter in it. <insert Homer Simpson scream> I had apparently been distracted enough to not quite get the shifter into park and left it in neutral. The beeps and audible protestations of the Nissan Murano went unheard in my distracted funk. Funny how fast you can forget your own body at times likes these. I leapt toward the car, aiming PAST my closed driver’s door so that I had a chance of opening it.

I got it open and threw my body at the moving car and into the seat. The bright flash of light and skull-on-metal sound told me that I had not ducked my head sufficiently to get it into the car door opening. I hit it so hard I really couldn’t see, and felt immediately nauseous.

“Fuck! Don’t pass out! You cannot pass out”

The car still rolling, I grabbed the roof with my right hand and pushed off the ground with my left leg, aiming my right foot in the vicinity of the brake pedal. It found its mark and the car lurched to a stop just before reaching the street. The momentum, however, caused the door to slam shut.

Through the throbbing pain and disorientation in my head, I became aware of another pain. Briefly, I thought it was my left leg, which had been solidly jammed between the seat and door when it closed, but when I reached to free it, my right hand didn’t move.

“Oh, that’s where that hot stabbing pain is coming from.”

I looked with a bleary morbid fascination at my hand shut three fingers deep into a completely closed and latched door. <insert Homer Simpson scream>

“Oh, man, those have to be broken.”

They wouldn’t budge. I cannot explain how badly I wanted to get them out of the door, I kind of panicked for a moment, man, it just didn’t look right, but between my addled head and the odd contortion of my body, I couldn’t reach the door latch.

“Okay Gary, limb check. Left leg hopelessly wedged, right foot on the brake, (don’t move that), left hand crushed, that’s all three, I’m fucked. Wait, there are four! Use your right hand, put it into park, free up your brake foot then turn to open the door.”

(Sure, it sounds simple to you, but it’s brilliant when all you see are stars and you want to cry from the pain.)

It was about this time when Madi spoke up.

“Daddy what’s the matter!” I called up my best matter-of-fact, nothing’s wrong voice.

“Nothin’ I uh… forgot something.” (Yeah, brilliant.)

I stepped from the car and held up my hand, then tried to curl my fingers to see what broke. “Bend suckers!” Astonishingly, they did bend.  Nothing seemed to be broken! I sent a mental note of thanks to the Nissan engineers who worked out enough room in a latched door NOT to shatter a finger bone and made a partial apology to the designers of the spare tire anchors [See Flat Tire]. Pretty cool.

My fingers still hurt like a mofo and my head wasn’t quite right, but I made my way to the door and stepped inside.

As I got to the door, Madi’s mom led me to the kitchen where Dave and a cluster of their friends greeted me with the now familiar, “So that’s the guy” face that I have become accustomed to in certain divorced parent circles. It’s a polite smile and a half-hearted attempt to appear interested, but they didn’t want me there any more than I wanted to be there so all’s fair.

I prouder man than I would have kept the stupid faux pas of the driveway to himself, but I believe that one who cannot laugh at their inner fool, is doomed to forever look truly foolish—and why waste a good story.

“You would not believe what I just did pulling in…!”

It was a good story. Polite smiles all around.

Stuff retrieved, I got back in the car, rested one and a half hands on the steering wheel, remembered the sacred trust forever broken, and sighed.

It is NOT your day dude.”

“Daddy! What are we going to do today, I’m bored!”

I looked at my hand and rubbed my throbbing head, utterly defeated.

“Let’s go ride bikes Madi, I’ll take your training wheels off and…”

“NOOOO!!! I don’t want my training wheels off!”

“I thought you took them off and was riding without them?”

Noooo! I can’t ride without training wheels! Please don’t take them off, please??”

“But I thought…”

“Pleeeease?”

“You got it girl!” And so we did.

Madi’s tenth birthday is approaching now, and I have tried several times since that day three years child-on-bike-008earlier to take her training wheels off, without success. She’ll say, “Not yet Daddy.” And I’ll say,

“That’s alright kid, I’ll be ready whenever you are ready.”

Still looking for that face.

A Greater Voice: The Power of Our Intention

angel-gabriel-1986When I was five years old I was suddenly tired all the time, then I got a bad cold. After a week in bed, I was taken to the doctors and ended up in the Children’s ICU at a hospital in Rochester, NY. I had contracted mononucleosis complicated with double pneumonia. I stayed there for a month, and I left with not only my health, but also a strange experience and an early lesson I have kept with me.

In my family, you pretty much had to have a limb dangling in order to be taken to the doctor’s. My mother was not big on doctors. When I was thirteen I broke my back playing football. I lived on the couch for weeks before I could walk; Mom never took me to get it checked so I only learned years later that I had broken a piece of my lower vertebra off and that my body had eventually dissolved it.

I had two younger sisters and two very loud older brothers then, so I was very happy for the quiet, and more than a little happy with all the attention. There was only one other boy in the ward; his name was Robbie. Robbie had a tracheotomy, and once he could talk we had many pleasant conversations between nurse and doctor visits and being hauled out for x-rays and tests. I was always better one on one. My bed was right by the door and there was a picture window on the wall alongside it, allowing me to watch the comings and goings in the hall when they didn’t have the curtain drawn.

Robbie left after one week, but I had to stay, having only gotten worse. (I still wonder what became of Robbie; he was a fine fellow.) I was alone the rest of my time there. Funny how you don’t retain the parts that hurt when you are that young. Between painful shots of vitamin C in my butt each day (I remember that part), and a nose so continually stuffed that my upper lip was bloody and blistered from blowing, I had a delightful time of it. I had plenty of attention and felt kind of special; I didn’t get that at home.

The long hours and days were filled with the singular bliss of reading my Little Golden Books! You may remember Little Golden Books, they were a popular children’s book series with cardboard covers and a distinctive gold-leaf spine. Every time my parents visited, they asked me if there was anything I needed, the only reply I remember was, “More Golden Books!” The long days were filled with pouring over them again and again. I amassed quite a stack of them. They lived by my side in my bed at all times. I would wake up a lot during the night, and they were my constant companions.

As weeks went on, my condition worsened. My nose and sinus had gone completely solid. I thought I must have been getting better because I didn’t have to brave the blisters and blow my nose anymore. One day the doctor came in with a bunch of nurses and my mother. He was carrying a length of wire that was glowing red-hot. He explained what he needed to do and promised me he would not touch the wire to my skin, and then proceeded to put the wire up one nostril then the other, straight up into my sinus. It smoked, and it sizzled inside my head. It was not at all comfortable, but true to his word, he never burned me.

Some time after that, the doctor called my parents, who were both visiting together, out into the hallway. I watched them through the window talking, but could not hear what they were saying. I remember noticing that my parents looked very serious, and when they came back in to say goodnight seemed unusually nice, said a lot of nice things to me that I don’t remember, and didn’t seem to want to leave. They promised that they would be back first thing in the morning, and kept asking if I’d be alright. “Why wouldn’t I,” I thought, “I’ve got my books, I’m fine”

Years later, my mother told me that the doctor had told them that I probably would not make it. It must have been a hard night for them, but my night was quite different.

The late nurses were gone, the dim lights were on, and I was completely alone and awake in the middle of the night, my trusty Golden Books by my side, just looking around the room when I heard a voice. It is difficult to describe the sound of it. It was at once the most powerful and the gentlest voice you could imagine; I thought of it as a male voice, but it was neither male nor female, it was every voice; it was a great voice. It was not a voice in my head; it was outside of me and filled the room. It seemed to come from behind and above me, I remember looking to see what was there, but there was only the wall.

It called me by name, and I asked it if it was God. I don’t remember the answer, but my little catholic brain concluded that it must be God. It explained to me that I was very very sick and that I was not getting better. The doctors were doing everything they could, but they could not do it without my help. It said that it understood how comfortable I was here, but that I was not doing my part. The only specific words I retained was this sentence, “It is not enough that you are comfortable, you must try little one, you must try to get better.” It made me promise that from here I would pay attention to this and that I would remember that I must try to get better.

I promised.

I got better.

I was elated and didn’t sleep the rest of the night. I couldn’t wait to tell my mother, that God talked to me last night and told me that I had to get better and that I was going to get better. My mother was a devout Catholic, and I can’t imagine what she must have thought of this; I never got to ask her.

Years later I asked a well-known trance psychic about this during a reading and he said “Yes, call it the Angel Gabriel if you like, there are those who look after us and he is the one who sends us messages when we most need them, this is why he is depicted with a horn.” I am not a devout Catholic, but I practice openness devoutly enough to be certain that there are greater voices to be heard and heeded. Certainly this was. And, to be honest, I kind of like the idea that the Angel Gabriel came down to blow his horn for me.

There have often been times in my life when things worked well enough, and I settled into a kind of complacency that kept me in one place, not happy, only merely content. It is always then that things fall apart, forcing me to remember my promise.

Life will never happen to you without the power of your own intention. Had I not heard that greater voice, I would not be here to tell you this: “It is not enough that you are comfortable, you must try little one, you must try to get better.”

I will try.

I am trying.

I have done.

A Dandelion in Winter: How I learned that breaking the rules matter.

Dandelion field 2I am discontent in winter. It’s the death; everything is dead. Dormant, yes, I know, but it’s death to me, and my psyche struggles here in the bowels of February. When this happens it will reach of its own accord to memories of sun and earth and life.

Sister Leona was Hawaiian. She was small, with a flat brown face and round, kind eyes. She was my second grade teacher at the Immaculate Conception Grade School, and other than my ongoing debate over which of the Bodie twins I had the bigger crush on, was my only fond memory.

She was different than all the other nuns there, steal-toed, white-knuckled, bitter women, bent on a wayward course of love through discipline and sacrifice. I survived five years of uniforms, clip ties, ridged single-file lines that followed black habits to silent afternoons of forced reverence, bloodied hands (yes, they did that then), and a catechism that was lost on me from the start.

Sister Leona had a quiet sweetness about her, and she played the Ukulele for us, a large Baritone one that made her look even smaller. She did not fit in there.

It was June. We counted the days to summer and freedom, and we burned for the outdoors. On one spectacular day, we sat at our desks with our proper posture and folded hands, looking jealously out the windows at the recess yard behind the school as she entered the classroom. She took her customary place by her desk, but instead of speaking she just stared at us. She stood quietly regarding her class until the last head turned from the windows to see why she had not begun. Then she said, “Line up class, and follow me.” Then she picked up her Ukulele and went to the door.

We followed her into the hallway and out the front doors of the school, a path unheard of unless there was a fire drill, which there was not. Sister Leona’s second grade class followed her down the walk, across the parking lot and onto the lawn of the convent, then behind it. The sun and the scent of spring soon washed away our whispered questions, and we followed the tiny shrouded figure into the woods.

We emerged from the trees, still in single-file, and stood at the edge of a secluded glade no more than a few acres long and completely surrounded by trees. It sloped gently to the south like an ocean swell. What we saw there, I have never seen since. We stood like pilgrims at the Elysian Fields gaping at an awe-inspiring field of Dandelion.

They stood nearly as tall as we, and blanketed the field in an unbroken, sun-drenched, dazzling yellow tide. You could burry a yardstick in them. I have never seen them so tall. They were packed like wheat the length and breadth of the entire field. We were second graders and about four feet tall, and we could stretch our arms out straight from our shoulders and tickle our palms with the soft yellow canopy.

The silent questions were now voiced, “Sister Leona, what is this, why are we here, what are we supposed to do now?” She smiled and nodded toward the field, “Let’s go!” and waded in with her Ukulele.

The field was pristine, it was easy to tell that no one had been there before or had walked among those flowers, or if anyone even knew they were there. I have thought since about how she didn’t seem to fit in with the other sisters or enjoy the stiff protocols of the school, and how she must have wandered the convent grounds in meditation over questions I will never know. She must have come upon that glade in her wanderings. Whatever she saw there, she must have been thinking of us, because she left it untouched.

The line broke, and with screeches of delight we plowed into the flowers. Some walked alone picking armfuls of dandelions and flung them in the air, others jumped and rolled and tunneled, then huddled together to make nests. We lied in them looking up at the perfect sky, thumbs against the sun, talking and laughing, and guessing at cloud shapes. Sister Leona gathered us after a while and sang songs from Hawaii, only now we learned them and sang with her.

She taught us how to make leis with the dandelions we’d harvested for her. The way we knew each other as classmates ended and we became children again, and friends for the first time. The popular girls championed the lei-making, and helped the boys, who forgot all about their feigned irreverence. They made sure that every shy girl and fat boy wove as well as the rest, there were no loners that day.

dandelion_by_megan_griffith-d4iyibw
She talked about her home, and the ocean, and we wondered together how the field would look when the dandelions went to seed—a million new wishes waiting to be blown on the wind. We were her dandelions.

Leona is a Hawaiian name, it means “lioness.” This one broke every rule we had learned, and taught us the proper way to value what really mattered. This, it seemed, was her plan.

Whatever questions lead her to that field; I believe that we were among them. I also believe that I had the privilege that day to play in Leona’s miracle.

She did not stay long at the convent. Some years later I heard that she returned to her home in Hawaii, and there the sea took her back.

I never shook the image of a Ukulele floating on the water.

I’ve had many teachers, and I did not know this until I was older, but there have been none so important and formative as that of little Sister Leona.

If what she meant to do for us was to grant one golden day, one pure, bright spot in the seat of the soul…

She did that.

dandelion-1

PART VII: Father/Daughter Stories–Proving Santa.

Santa petrogliph“Daddy guess what, there is no Santa Claus, my friends at school told me!” Two years ago December, my then seven-year-old daughter Madi came home from school to start Christmas break with the inevitable story of how her friends at school said that there really was no Santa Claus. “Their Mom and Dad said so too.” I was caught off-guard and didn’t expect to hear this quite so soon.

Too many parents these days are careless or apathetic about Santa, and it shows. The statistical age of a child losing their belief in Santa Claus has dropped in the last 30 years from 11-12 years old to 8-9 years old. We are losing something here; our information age is missing some important information.

The question parents should be asking is not whether we believe in Santa Claus, but why we believe in Santa Claus. Some of you may know my view of the importance of childhood wonder, (see PART V: Father/Daughter Stories October 23), the ability to be inspired by the unseen and unknowable is a cornerstone of a happy adult life. The knowledge that there is a benevolence in the world that knows, cares, and provides for us no matter who we are is a basic human necessity. How some parents can be so attached to their rationality that they are willing to rattle the wonder and magic out of a child’s head is beyond me.

Thus confronted however, I had to think fast. I fell back on my improv training. First rule of improv, agree with the premise. I answered without hesitation.

“Well of course there isn’t.”

“There’s not??” She was surprised and a little alarmed.

“Not for them anyway. The reality is that if you don’t believe in Santa Claus then he doesn’t exist. And, he won’t leave you presents. These kids who don’t believe in Santa anymore, do they get presents from him?”

“I don’t think so, they say it’s their parents are doing it.”

“Exactly! Presents from parents pretending to be Santa, but not really from Santa, because he doesn’t come to their house, because they don’t believe.”

“Ooh.”

“You get presents from Santa, because you believe in Santa, right?”

“Right!”

Success for now, but it was only triage, doubts still lingered with her. If Madi stopped believing in Santa Claus, then Santa would stop visiting our house, and that would be sad. I needed a longer-term solution, something that would stick, but how do you fight the kids-at-school, the modern, empirical, verifiable, sensible, rational, mundane of the world. Ironic isn’t it? How readily some give up the Santa myth, but not the merch.? –Black Friday indeed.

Christmas Eve came, Madi was snug in her bed, Clement Clarke Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” read, and visions of sugar plumbs already dancing in her head. I went downstairs to put out MY presents to her.

I had found no solution. Upset and bereft, I stood staring at the tree puzzling like the anti-Grinch with his finger to his chin.

“I must save Santa, but how…?”

When in doubt, follow the premise, if this then what?   Improv had spoken, it was clear that what I needed was PROOF, but how can you prove the un-provable?

“Screw this, I’ve got work to do.”

I had unfinished business at my computer. I didn’t have the resources, the program, or the technical expertise to finish my work, so it took me another four grueling hours before I was satisfied. I went to bed near three am.

At five thirty Madi bounds into my room, ready to go downstairs.

“Hang on a minute, let me check my iphone first.” I thumbed through my phone as her impatience roiled.

“C’mon Dad!!!”

“Okay, let’s… What the f**k is that!! Wait…! Holy sh*t! I can’t f**kin’ believe this!!”

DADDY!

“Oh, sorry sweet pea, pardon my French. (still staring at my phone) You just won’t believe this picture!”

“Lemme see!” she reached for the phone, and I yanked it away.

“Wait, I’m looking!”

“Daddy lemme see lemme see!!!”

“Okay, let me tell you first… Last night I was finishing up some work on my computer, it was a huge pain in the butt you would not believe… but anyway, I heard this thumping from upstairs. I thought maybe you fell out of bed, but when I checked on you, you were fine. So I went down stairs to set out my presents to you, and stopped to take a picture of the tree. You know that ornament that your aunt and I used to say was our favorite that belonged to your great grandmother? I took a shot of that, and here’s the picture.” I handed her the phone. She stared intently at the photo.

“So?”

“Look carefully.”

“I don’t see it”

“Look at the window behind the tree.”

“I don’t see it!”

“Look in the lower right hand corner of the window, what do you see there?” Suddenly her eyes snapped wide and she inhaled like she had just come up from deep underwater.

Santa window pic

This cropped version doesn’t have Great grandma’s ornament in it.

“WHO IS THAT!”

“Whom does it look like?”

“Oh my gosh it’s SANTA! It’s Santa, it’s Santa daddy, you got a real picture of the REAL Santa, an actual picture of the actual Santa!”

“It sure looks like it.”

“Did you do that?”

“Hell no, I’m as surprised as you are. (I enlarged the picture.) Look at the glare on his face from the reflection of the tree lights. They are in front of his face. Whatever is there was outside the window. Let’s go down and see what he brought.”

“I can’t believe you got a picture of the real Santa, daddy you have to send this to the Smifso… Smifisonio…”

“Smithsonian Museum?”

“Yes!”

“I’ll email the curator tomorrow, they’re closed today. We must be the only ones Madi.”Santa Window close p

When we got downstairs we looked from the same position I took the photo. I went outside to stand in the garden to judge his height, and then came back in.

“From the look of it, he is between four and five feet tall, and has a pretty big head; the only tracks where right by the window, so it couldn’t be somebody else. He must have just come down from the roof, and that thumping sound I heard was probably him landing on the roof.”

I checked the NORAD map of Santa’s flight we track and concluded that the photo was taken at roughly the same time that Santa hit North America. After we examined the milk and cookies, and read the note from Santa wishing us a merry Christmas, telling Madi that she was a good girl this year, and suggesting that her dad get to bed earlier, we ransacked the presents under the tree.

Later we sat on the couch and mused over the photo again.

“You know what I think Madi? I think that nobody sees Santa unless he wants to be seen. I think he meant to be in that picture, came down from the roof for just that purpose, because he wanted us to know that he is real.”

“That must be true Dad.”

The next Christmas Madi used that photo to make her own Christmas cards to her Mom and Dad.  When this question comes up again, I will be prepared, I am saving this…Virginia clipping

It’s also for you, dear blog reader, a Christmas present from me, and here it is…

If you have never actually read, in its entirety, the September 21, 1897 editorial in The New York Sun, by Francis Pharcellus Church, here it is for you.

This is a photo of the actual clipping. In it, Church answers an important question from an eight-year-old girl by the name of Virginia O’Hanlon. She wrote to the newspaper at the suggestion of her father who assured her that, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”

Church’s answer to this ubiquitous childhood question is the most profound and enduring answer to a “skeptical age”, which you or I or anyone since can come close to.

For our children, Santa is real; for us he is a metaphor for something that is as real as you or I.

Screenshot 2014-10-24 09.03.19

Virginia O’Hanlon’s home at 115 West 95th Street as it appears today. Notice the plaque out front.

Have a very merry Christmas everyone!

Flying in the Face of Fear

warriorI have had a life-long fascination with flight. When I was six, my most fervent dream was to be able to fly. I had no thought of being a pilot, I wanted to levitate off my bed and sail through the air by force of will alone. I held on to that dream into my teens. I was neither the loudest nor the cutest, being a middle kid in a large family, so I was often invisible. Granted, that was fine with me most of the time, but it did leave a vague sense of being overlooked.

In my mind, spontaneous flight was the obvious solution. My prayers each night for years was to wake up and discover that I could fly, now that would get me some attention! I would nonchalantly float down the stairs one morning to the surprise and astonishment, and dare I say it, admiration of all, not to mention the host of baffled doctors and scientists at the door.

My first actual airplane flight happened when I was about nine. I had a window seat and spent the entire flight with my forehead glued to the window. It was one of those glorious days when the aircraft curved lazily through a towering forest of high cumulous clouds that created spectacular cities of immense sky-castles. I remember thinking that if the plane suddenly fell out of the sky and killed us all; I would be all right with that. I would die happy, and I wouldn’t mind being afraid.

clouds3_fly_590x300When I was in my twenties, I would occasionally be gifted with a flying dream, a dream wherein you find yourself flying through the air not unlike my childhood wish. As a result I began practicing techniques for acquiring a waking dream state, and became pretty good at it for a while. A waking dream state is a state where you are consciously aware that you are dreaming, and you can in some cases control or direct your actions within the dream. It’s a pretty cool experience when you get it.

Once I would become “awake” in my dream, I would walk forward then jump up a little on each step, lengthening my “hang-time” on each bounce. Soon I would be doing moon-landing size leaps, and then finally stay airborne. It takes a great deal of concentration, but I would often be able to stay aloft and fly around at will!   As cool as this was, it was just a dream; it wasn’t really flying. Yet, it was not without its own sort of peril.

Some times I would lose myself in it and fly too high. Looking down from a great height while floating in the air calls to mind falling. This is distracting and can break your concentration, which is the only thing keeping you in the air! Fearful thoughts of, “I could fall”, and “ holly shit, what am I doing!” creep into your consciousness. Suddenly you are Icarus with wings melting and it is really terrifying!

Dream or not, your subconscious does not know the difference, and the fear is real! A huge effort of concentration is then required to quell the terror and will your body to sink, sometimes agonizingly slow, back to the safety of the ground.

One time I was riding straddled atop a balloon no bigger than a beer keg high over a beautiful white city when it occurred to me that the balloon could pop, sending me to my death. It took me “hours” of fear and suffering to get that damn balloon down again, and I awoke drenched in sweat. Fear does not need a real circumstance in order to be potent, ask anyone with nightmares.

Years later I found myself between marriages, with no life, but reasonably funded in a bachelor pad in Orlando. One day while contemplating the cul-de-sac that was my life, I thought to myself, “Holly crap! I could learn to fly!” Two miles down the road was Orlando Executive Airport, which had a very nice little FBO and flight school, so I literally got off the couch, drove down and signed up to get my pilot’s license.

They told me I could choose my own instructor and ushered me into an open workspace filled with a dozen young men doing their time as flight instructors, building their hours on their waypoint to a job with a major airline. Stricken with the romance of it all, I decided I wanted an instructor with a personality, a rebel and a free thinker who would make this a fun and adventurous experience. It didn’t take me long to spot him, sitting on the edge of a table, foot up, smirking at his shoe, clearly in the midst of an extracurricular story to the guy beside him working.

After chatting up the guys, I suggested that this fellow would be my instructor. I noticed an exchange of glances between the flyboys, and one of them pulled me aside.

“Are you sure you want to pick him, there are a lot of guys here with more experience teaching.”

“Yeah, I’m good, thanks.” (Jealous? Come on boys there’s only one of me!)

It turns out I got everything I was asking for. My flight instructor, let’s call him Dale, because it is possible you may have once been on a flight he piloted, was an alcoholic and a terrible teacher. I’m not saying that he was ever drunk when we were flying, at least not that I could tell, but he was often hungover while we were out. I never gave up on him though, and true to form, he was a hell of a lot of fun.

A few months later, Dale said, “Izzo, let’s do your first solo flight.” I wasn’t sure if his request involved some secret knowing in the heart of a flight instructor, or if he was just bored; I think it was the latter. The first thought in my head was, “No way! He’s trying to kill you, the bastard is actually trying to kill you!” So I approached a gaggle of jaunty, desk-leaning instructors and asked them how you know you are ready for your first solo. They passed a glance around as if deciding which of them would give the unanimous answer.

“You’re never ready, “ one said with a rueful smile.

I wasn’t ready.

The minimum requirement for a first solo flight is for the pilot to taxi out, take off, do one full circuit of the pattern, and land on the second one. You get a hand held radio to your instructor on the ground and that’s it.

Warrior2

This is not my plane, but veery much like it.

We flew out to a nearby airstrip where we once practiced dead-stick landings. It was small, remote, and had no tower or traffic to contend with, ostensibly it was chosen because it was easier on the pilot, but I think it was also because you would kill fewer people when you crashed. I have taken a lot of tests in my time, but never one where if you failed you died!

I taxied out to the end of the runway. My legs were rubber, and my fingers were numb. Checklist complete. Staring at the open runway, there were a seemingly infinite number of reasons NOT to do this, and only one to go forward. Embrace your fear, I heard. So I kissed it squarely on the lips, “Fuck it!” Set flaps, power up, takeoff roll, V2 reached (take off speed), rotate (lift the nose) airborne!

“Wait! I changed my mind! I wanna go home! Oooh, shit!”

I focused on my rate of climb and compensated for wind to stay in line with the runway falling away beneath me. I had done this many times, but with no instructor it was completely different. I had never been so frightened, so alone, so beyond aid or assistance, so utterly reliant on myself, so completely in control of my destiny, so awake, so alive…!

“Whoo hoooo!! Ha Haaa!!” Heart soaring, I flew the first circuit perfectly, and then lined up my downwind leg.

Flying has a lot of cliché sayings that are never so true as when you live them. Among them, “Flying is easy, it’s landing that’s hard.” The Downwind Leg is where you are flying parallel to the runway before a turning decent to your Base Leg, and then turn onto Final Approach to land. This is where you begin a series of tasks that must be done accurately and in sequence; radio calls, airspeed, rate of decent, flaps, gear, etc. all while doing the actual flying to put you in position to get your plane on the ground. As I looked out my left window and saw the runway stretched out below me, I forgot everything.

I began to panic. Flaming squirrels were running up and down the inside of my spine, and I could not remember anything about landing an airplane. I have had stage fright before, but my life never depended on it. Another flying cliché popped into my head, “Panic equals death.” Imagine that you are taking your SATs, you have two minutes left and your looking at the last question, one of those ridiculously complex math essay questions, and someone has the barrel of a loaded gun to your temple ready to fire at the bell if you don’t finish it in time. I had to control this panic.

I’ve heard it said that you must “fight your fears”, those people in my situation end up a smoking heap in the asphalt. There’s no fighting that kind of fear! That is not the way to conquer fear. Embrace your fear.

Fear, in all its various forms, stops action. When we encounter fear, our instinct is to run from it, to run to safety. But we are not animals, and we rise above our base instincts. How many of you, I wonder, spend your lives chasing your dreams while running from your fears? You wouldn’t be alone. Have you ever stopped to wonder why those dreams never materialize before you? It’s because they are behind you, on the other side of those fears you are running from, and they are chasing you! Yup, you are actually running from your dreams. Sorry, tough luck my friend, no one said this was easy.

Do you really want to reach your dreams? Turn around. Open your arms, and let that fear wash right though you. Embrace your fear, accept that you are afraid, no fighting, no denial. Forgive yourself for it, befriend your fear, acknowledge that it is a part of you, breathe, and watch as it dissolves before your eyes. Fear cannot exist without your compliance. Your acceptance of it denies it of its power over you.

Scan, call Left Base, airspeed, rate of decent, scan, quarter flaps, scan… me and my pal terror began to land the airplane. Final approach. Fly to the numbers.

Most people think landing a plane is like a bird landing, where they just gently glide to the ground, but airplanes tend to want to stay in the air (thank goodness), so you actually have to point the nose down and fly it to the ground. It’s a little unnerving, at least to me. You aim straight to those great big numbers painted at the very end of the runway.Landing in Hyannis

By now I am showered in sweat. The runway looms toward me with its odd perspective and I am suddenly reminded of an old Star Trek episode, the original series, the one where Captain Kirk is fighting a giant ship-eating space thing that looks like a giant traffic cone, its open end glittering with a planet devouring plasma. Kirk was heading straight into the mouth of it, his only way to destroy it.

“Steady Mr. Sulu…”

If you know the episode, you’ll remember the corny music theme, the one they used whenever something dreaded was approaching. It sounded like this:

Da..nah Da..nah  DA..NAH  Da..nah… Diddley DEEE…!

Desperate to remain focused and away from the panic still lurking in my scull, I invoked Captain Kirk, and began singing the little anthem.

“Da..nah Da..nah  DA..NAH  Da..nah… Diddley DEEE…!”

It helped. I felt just stupid enough to regain control of myself. Full flaps, Vso (landing speed) reached, fly to the numbers.

“Steady Mr. Sulu… steadyyy…”

“Da..nah Da..nah  DA..NAH  Da..nah… Diddley DEEE…!”

Since that day, I sing that little tune in my head every time I line up on final. Thanks Star Trek.

Warrior3Once you are over the runway and within Ground Effect (about as high off the tarmac as your wingspan is long) your plane will encounter a cushion of air that makes it kind of float a bit. The trick of landing well is to flare at just the right moment. Flare is lifting the nose so that your rear landing gear touches first. Flare to soon and your plane stalls and then comes crashing onto your landing gear making a truly awful sound that makes little dollar signs fly out of your head. Flare too late and you land flat or on your nose gear, possibly collapsing it, and ruining your day (year).

Just my luck, as I entered ground effect a cross wind came up. A cross wind will blow your plane off the centerline of the runway or even off it entirely, unless you correct for it by adding rudder and yawing the plane into the wind. This lines up your flight path, but your nose is cocked into the wind, which will make your wheels land sideways-ish, and they don’t like to do that. So, you must straighten out the plane just before you land. While you’re doing that, if you should let your upwind wing tip catch air underneath it, the opposite wing tip may touch the ground, and that’s very, very bad, i.e. cartwheel in a fiery ball of death bad – probably. A mild crosswind landing is a very easy maneuver once you get it, but for a terrified and under rehearsed first solo pilot, it’s a chore.

The panic returned, and at a point in the landing where there was really nothing to do other than do it right. Fear spoke.

“Oh fuck, I’m gonna land sideways, I’m gonna hit a wing tip I know it, I am screwed!! I will die here!”

As fear made its case, I countered out loud with a line corny enough to be worthy of Captain Kirk himself, but it didn’t seem that way to me then.

“Not today, pal, not today!

The landing wasn’t what I would call perfect, nor was it worthy of a cinematic ending, but this is real life. The first two kinda hurt, but the third bounce was okay!   (No, you’re not supposed to bounce.) Dale’s voice crackled in the hand held as I completed my landing roll.

“Congratulations Izzooo, you just completed your first solo!”

“Yeah, sorry about that landing, it wasn’t so good,” I said, as relief and pride swept out the last of the panic.

Dale responded with the best and truest flying cliché of all, “Any landing you walk away from is a good landing.”

I got a whole lot better at flying after that. After a total of seven month’s of training, I finally got my license.  I eventually bought a plane and leased it back to the FBO, one way to own a plane if you’re not rich, which I’m not. I owned a sweet little low wing four-seater, a Piper Warrior II.

On calm days when it was partly cloudy I would leave my bachelors couch, gas up my plane and go flying. I loved it, hard. Flying alone on these days was best. I would soar through cloud canyons and sky-castles remembered from my very first airline flight. I would fly parabolic arcs, climbing steeply then pushing sharply on the yoke, diving down until loose items floated through the cabin and I was lifted weightless in my seat. I had finally achieved my childhood dream of flying through the air at will, and I was not afraid.

I used to open the tiny forward window and stick my fingers out into the wind, remembering the words of John Gillespie Magee, Jr. “…I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings… … and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds… … put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

A dear friend of mine, now gone, used Warrior4to say that there are only two choices to make in life, Love and Fear. I say that if you want to live an extraordinary life, do something that frightens you every day, and don’t mind being afraid.

Remember too that those who say No are rewarded with safety, and those who say Yes are rewarded with adventures!