Mitt the Spider


Watching Landings


You’re at the local airport. You watch landings, because pilots always do. Today, because there is a lot of traffic and you're not pressed for time, you watch for awhile. Twenty, maybe thirty landings go by. What do you see? Fifty percent (this is a flight school strip) touch down halfway down the runway. One or two touch down in the last 1000 feet.

What do you take away from the experience?

Gossip, certainly – if you're standing there with fellow pilots. Comfort, possibly – if you feel you can do better than most of what you're watching. Or perhaps chagrin, if the reverse is true and a recent example of your own work sticks in your craw.

But there is a more important take-away: forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing.That is the dictionary definition of judgment. And the aviation version of judgment is more practical: if I find myself in this situation, can we do it?

The we in the last paragraph refers to you and your airplane. You learn skills and you memorize your airplane's limitations. You are a team.

The situation is whatever pickle you're going to get into on your next flight. Can I land on a 2000-foot runway?

You look up the Landing Distance Required in your Flight Manual or Pilot Operating Manual. For my N-Model Bonanza I find 1600-2000 feet (no wind, 75°F. or less, 2000 feet pressure altitude or less). So we can do it, right?

Not so fast. The runway at my local airport is just under 4000 feet long. I consistently turn off on the center taxiway, but not without some braking. I have a bit too much speed over the fence and I float too long. So I'm not quite ready for that 2000-foot strip. My airplane is, but I am not.

Here is another clue. My POM also lists Landing Distance Required for a Short Field Landing. Same configuration, but the over-the-fence speed is 5 knots less. Instead of 1600-2000 feet, the required distance is 1200-1400 feet. Add five knots and add five hundred feet! Nope: my energy management – hey, my hands and feet, if you get right down to it – are not good enough yet.

Why not, you may ask? After all, I have been a pilot for 45 years. Well, two things: first, I'm 68 years old; and second, after I retired from airline flying I didn't touch a yoke for six and a half years. So I had to write exams and do a lot of re-learning. Now I'm learning the hands and feet again.

In short, for the moment my airplane is better than I am.

Hours, Experience, and Judgment

How do we discern and compare on the road to developing pilot judgment? First, look at the one or two Bottom Guns who touched down in the last 1000 feet. “Good enough,” they say. I guess so, if their airplane can stop in that distance. Then the fifty percent who touched halfway down. “Plenty of runway left. No sweat.” These guys are like me. Their airplanes are better than they are. It's just a matter of how much better.

What's missing? A path to learning judgment.

Experience is measured in hours. Judgment, theoretically, comes from experience. But it is not automatic. Hours of flight or even hours of practice take you nowhere unless they are accompanied by some discernment and comparison. Neither the Bottom Guns nor the halfway-down-the-runway pilots are safe trying to land on a 2000-foot runway. But do they know that?
Spiders are kind to their own. Well, story except for the kinky Black Widow, who eats her husband after sex.

Spiders are very good at controlling the populations of lesser insects – gnats, for example.

Above all, spiders dine in style. Pheasant under glass has nothing on them. Have you noticed? A fine, strapping exoskeleton gets stuck in a beautiful, geometric web whose strands are stronger than steel. There is no rush, no baring of teeth or ripping of flesh. No blood on the floor.

The spider, epicure and medical professional, injects a magic potion under the shiny shell. The guts and muscle of the beautiful captive are reduced, sautéed and flambéed. Only then does the spider dine – elegantly and unhurriedly.

After the meal the prize remains. The beautiful prey is still there, intact and whole, framed in the skyscraper web. Its value seems undiminished.

But it will move no more, except when the wind pulls at the strands binding it. The soul is long gone.

So too does private equity provide for its own.

What’s in it for Me?

I admire Maureen Dowd and enjoy her columns, but she is off track on this one (Playing Now: Hail to the Chiefs – New York Times, Sunday, September 9, 2012).

She does, however, speak for us.

We live in a market-driven society that has come to expect service. I'm paying. You deliver. We have become puffed up with the importance of our money.

But education doesn't work that way. Good health care doesn't work that way. And – this was the President's point – democratic government doesn't work that way.

Just before the line Ms. Dowd satirizes – the election four years ago wasn't about me. It was about you – the President had the courage and the leadership to remind Americans that “We, the people, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights.” He goes as far as to say that “freedom without a commitment to others . . . . is unworthy of our founding ideals.”

President Obama is right. We won't get out of the mess we're in unless each of us can turn to a fellow citizen who has done good work and say, “Welcome home. You did that. You did that.”

We can't demand good work. We can't demand good teaching, good health care, or good government. No matter how much money we have, we can't put the “good” in any of these. Paying is not enough, and the Market is not a leader.

So perhaps Ms. Dowd has done all of us a service by putting a voice to our selfishness. The voice rings hollow in a society largely emptied of respect for good work and of motivations other than money. But perhaps Ms. Dowd was satirizing us and not the President?

What We Lose by Winning

We teach our kids to be competitive. Since we want the best for them, we put them into the best preschool we can afford, hoping to get the edge for admission into the best kindergarten. And so it goes, all the way through to university and graduate school. Sometimes it is not so much the education itself but the cachet of having the right degree that we are aiming for. For that will determine whom our child knows and what doors are open to him. Ultimately, we believe, it will determine how much money he makes.
Ours is a competitive society. We believe in hard work, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, personal responsibility. We believe in sports and team play. We believe we live in a meritocracy and that all this competitive striving will bring rewards. The purpose of this article is not to dispute any of this; rather it is to put it in perspective, particularly the perspective of an older person.
I am on the far side of the arc of life. I have grown up, been educated, played a part in raising a family, and retired from a job I loved. So I look at life not as future possibility or as the hectic present of job and growing family. Instead I strive to remain relevant.
Indeed, virtue is in the striving. Sports teach us to try harder and to play as a team. University teaches us to hone a critical intelligence. But what is the goal we are striving for? Winning the game? Landing the job after college?
There is only one thing wrong with these goals: they might be reached. If they have not been thought of from the start as sub-goals, stepping stones to a higher end, goals like winning the game can take on a corrosive power.
At the moment of success there is a well-earned feeling of exuberance. Like many pleasures, however, the feeling quickly fades. Too often what we learn from this experience is that we have to go on winning if we are to continue feeling good. Gradually our self-worth creeps into the equation: we are no good unless we keep winning.
The parallels to addictions of all kinds should serve as a warning. Drugs, gambling, sex, and countless other cravings have the same short arc of pleasure, the same compulsive return to the trough, the same sapping of the spirit. What, then?
There is an old Arab proverb which, robbed of its poetry, says roughly: If you strive towards a noble goal, do not be content with less than the stars/ For the life's blood you spend (on a lesser goal) will be the same life's blood you spend climbing reaching for the stars.
If what we do is to have meaning, we must work for a purpose larger than ourselves. The work begins in elementary school and before, where we learn that we are not the center of the universe and that we must respect the dignity of others. Later we learn that as a team we can achieve more. In these endeavors there is always a currency. We play as a team to win games. We work as a team to make money. Our progress toward (or away from) the regional championship or the Fortune 500 is measured by games won or by net worth.
Where we can go astray is in becoming distracted by the currency. Winning games or making money become goals in themselves. We forfeit our honor and sometimes our soul.
The legend of Arthur bears heavily on this issue. He becomes King not because of superior prowess as a knight but because he is the only one who can pull the sword from the stone. He is born of a loveless union and dies at the hand of his son, born of another loveless and deceitful union with his half-sister. He is betrayed in his own love by his best friend and most trusted knight.
But Arthur understands that it is his destiny to lead. He comes to understand that he will suffer and not know many of the comforts of being human. The Holy Grail he seeks is, in the end, nothing more or less than being true to his work.
There, in essence, is the challenge that faces us. Will we know, at the hour of our death, that we have done the best we can with the gifts we have been given? That we have been true to our work?
The temptations will always be with us. To seek pleasure and avoid pain. To win at any cost. To believe, because we are in a meritocracy and we have made money, that we are better than our fellows.
But in the end nobody is fooled, not even ourselves. Our goal cannot be simply the best outcome for me. We must aim higher than that. We must not fail to give back to humanity the unique and precious gift that each of us has been given.
Is there a social, political, or economic system which makes this more likely? Probably not. But as individuals we can set ourselves noble goals and live a life of honor.