Paper Airplanes

In truth, I almost flew as a kid, if wishing and dreaming could make it happen. I loved my flying dreams. They were of two types: one where I would float, arms outstretched, over green hills and dales. People would look up and be happy to see me. And I was happy to see them. Warm and fuzzy. I was sad when I landed; I couldn’t figure out how to get airborne again. This would sometimes segue into the other kind of dream, in which I dove at the ground from a standing position in the firm belief that I wouldn’t get hurt. Sometimes the setting was the front yard; later, when I tried to levitate that pebble from camp, I sat in the exact place on the grass I had dreamed of flinging myself toward.

My mother tells me (and the occasional journalist or other open ear) that when I was small I once reported to her that I had actually dived at the ground “and it worked!” I was convinced that I had hovered for a second. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

I enjoyed making small things large by an act of imagination; somehow it never occurred to me to make large things small. I guess it’s because a young child can actually manipulate small things. Medium things, like sofa pillows, become towering palisades, crevasses, and other challenging terrain. Nothing a toy hero can’t handle! In the absence of an “action figure”, two of my fingers would suffice as legs for an adventurer who could leap, scale, run, flip (an interesting wrist motion), and generally be extremely energetic.

But he couldn’t fly.

Someone taught me to make a simple paper airplane, then the trick to making the basic form faster and sleeker. Soon it was decorated with crayon, with notes to a recipient on the other side of the room, with paper clips, with pin-and-pencil-eraser assemblies. My airplanes suffered experiments with scissors and with tape, not to mention ever more exotic origami-inspired folds.

The frustrating part was boarding these aircraft. I couldn’t send my little running man on two fingers along for the ride, nor an action figure. Even paper cutouts would have messed up the flight plans, and anyway, I was a boy – no paper dolls. I would just have to imagine.

When I visited the jungle in South America, I was reminded of those paper-airplane times. There they have “flying snakes” that basically launch themselves at the ground and fail to hit it. Monkeys blithely leap across great gaps in the canopy. Most people gape at this from below, but I got the eye-in-the-sky view. I was terrified when these hefty primates made their bid for the next branch. Would they make it?

Will any of us make it? Another of my favorite flying objects was the humble rubber band. Once I knew how to launch that, boy, nobody’s eyes were safe. I once almost blinded a kid. He almost blinded me. We escaped that time – from pain and from parental punishment.

But in time, we all will have some kind of loss. Some kind of pain. In fact, according to a certain Buddhist monk who went out of his way to make my acquaintance, besides aging and death, everybody suffers sickness…and rebirth.

Now, the news about sickness got me down a little. I figured that if there was a flying boy, there should be at least one human who never got any kind of illness. But Buddha says no. On the other hand, Newton said no to me. Which got me thinking: what about rebirth?

You might think rebirth is a hopeful prospect, another chance for happiness. But again, Buddha says no: it’s another round of suffering, basically. Even if you are reborn as a god in one of the heavens of Buddhist cosmology, you will experience suffering amidst your bliss. And when I heard about being born as a god, I thought: am I a god on Earth?

Well, you can’t just ask someone that – unless you’re me, and you can demonstrate why you’re asking. But whom to ask? My monk friend discounted himself as unqualified. But there’s got to be someone. Why can I fly? Maybe where I was supposed to be reborn, everyone can fly. Then why am I here?

It makes me sad, this feeling of not belonging here. Sometimes. Then I think two thoughts: first, That’s silly. I’m not a god. Second, Someday I’ll find her…the other flying human.

Flying versus Levitating

I figured if I could levitate myself, I might be able to levitate other things.

I started with a pebble. I chose it carefully. It was blue-grey, marbled with white veins, and approximately spherical. I felt an affinity for it. I tried to levitate it twice.

The first time, I sat in the grass outside my bunk at camp and set the pebble in front of me. With my hands on my knees, the way I had seen in pictures of yogis, I reached out with my mind and lifted.

It can’t have been longer than “rest time” or “free time” during the camp day, but it seemed like forever. I kept getting interrupted. I was irritated when I had to explain what I was doing. And other people’s noise kept intruding on my concentration.

The second time I set the timer on my watch. I wouldn’t try longer than an hour and a half. That seemed reasonable. I had brought the stone home from camp. I set it in the grass in the front yard and set to lifting it.

First of all, it was colder than during the summer. Also, the ground turned out to be wetter, so my legs and butt got cold. I didn’t want to break my concentration, though, so I didn’t move. Finally I decided that my window of opportunity to achieve pebble-lifting had passed. The magical season of summer with its camaraderie and free-wheeling 60’s spirit was over, the friends dispersed. Also, I had a headache after all that attempted psychic lifting. I thought of the superheroes in comic books who, after applying their telekinetic powers too strenuously, get a nosebleed. I didn’t want to break anything in my head, especially if that meant I would no longer be able to fly. So I gave up trying to float the pebble.

Still, I would occasionally reach out with my mind and try to affect things. Especially if I was angry. In my mind I would flip the cars of obnoxious drivers off the roadway and occasionally crush them. I would mash various body parts of idiots and tormentors.

I’m sure other people imagine this. But are they as terrified that they might actually succeed?

I wonder where that pebble is now. I probably chucked it into the backyard in a perverse fit of nostalgia for those summer days at camp. There are other rocks back there that mean something to me. But I’m sure that one is as lost as the superhero figures that I had buried years earlier. Now imagine if I could levitate those. That would have been cool.

I wish I could lift people up without carrying them in my arms. I wish I could touch fingers with them and give them the power to rise in the air…as long as we stayed in touch….

I wished I could lift people up. But I was just a kid, not a hero. I couldn’t even imagine being a symbol. After that summer, more and more, I wished I would meet just one more person who could fly. Just one. Preferably a girl.

Imagine if the air were full of people flying, floating. It would be crazy. Dangerous. Where would the traffic cops even stand? I think the world would go crazy. People would get out of hand. Abuse of power is dangerous. How does it go? Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Isn’t flying related to absolute power?

Jesus ascended bodily into heaven. Some say the Incan and Mayan empires’ founding myths involve a pale individual descending from the skies. What would happen if I descended into the jungle clearing of some isolated tribe? The only problem is that’s the only power I have. I think they’d soon find that I couldn’t help them in any meaningful way – any way that has meaning to them. How would I know what that would be anyway? They’d probably soon find that I bled, and that finally I wasn’t immune to poison arrows. What is it called? Curare.

Anyway, after my September pebble-floating endeavor, I got a cold. Then the flu. I can fly when I’m sick. But I’d rather stay in bed and be fed chicken soup.

Damn, I wish I could levitate things. Count your blessings, I guess.

How to Save Someone from a Burning Building

“What the hell! Get the hell away from me, man!”

I actually scared someone off a cliff face once. When people are in the zone, surprises jar much more. Surprises like me.

Think about that. Someone was so unhappy to see me that they cast themselves off a rock, screaming. Good thing their belay partner was paying attention.

If I feel bad about that, I contrast it with the reception I’ve had at fires. It’s tricky to catch someone jumping out of the window of a burning building. I’ve learned to coordinate with fire chiefs – they can use me and I can use them. Nobody likes a fire (except arsonists, I guess), but I like helping as eyes in the sky – and evacuating as many people as I can.

I’m making this sound as though I help out at fires all the time. Actually, it’s been maybe a few more times than I can count on one hand. It was easy, when I lived in the city, to fly over to the next borough’s conflagration. Upstate, everything is farther apart and the buildings are smaller. By the time I could get to the next town, everybody would be out…or…not.

I’m going to try to say this without being dramatic: it is painful to watch flames engulf someone. The first time, I thought I would never run that risk again. But I did. And it happened again. I have immense respect for firefighters, who have to face that possibility every day. If you want to know how to rescue someone from a burning building, don’t ask me; join a fire department. They’re the professionals.

That’s not to say I didn’t do my damnedest, and so did the fire crew. There’s an urge I think we all feel to throw ourselves into the flames, as though we could exchange our lives for the victims’. But it’s too late. So I learned to watch people burn. I wanted to bear witness.

It sounds grotesque. But you do it too. Don’t you? The camera can sanitize, but just because you’re seeing it on a screen doesn’t mean you can’t bear witness. Conversely, while seeing images of disaster on a screen makes it easy to distance yourself, you can ignore suffering just as well in person. Don’t you? Walking past the homeless, for instance.

Well, I’m not a professional homeless-aid worker, damn it. I can contribute to some non-profit, right? Just like I pay my fire-district taxes. Let the citizens focus their efforts through dedicated experts.

But just in case, my middle-school gym teacher – “Coach” – did teach us the “fireman’s carry” for one grueling class. Grueling not because it taxed my back to carry my classmate. It was tough getting that close to another pubertal kid.

Middle-school gym class was somewhat of a seminar in comparative physiology. Whose legs had hair yet? Who showed the promise of muscles? And that was in shorts and T-shirts. Imagine in the shower, where Coach’s office had a window on the proceedings, and occasionally the female Coach would drop by.

I treasure that time of change. The trauma recedes with time. I’m at that time in life when the body that emerged then starts to break down and fail me. But whatever your relationship with it, imagine that body catching fire. Imagine it starts with your fingertips. It spreads up your arms…your face melts, your hair goes up in a puff. No need to imagine the rest of your body – you’re already gone.

I had told them it would be OK.

“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…we shall be changed.” Observe the famous Vietnam-era photos of a monk immolating himself in Saigon. No doubt he believed that we are travelers and our bodies are our traveling clothes.

But tell that to someone in a burning building.

Risk and Reward

“Aren’t you scared when you fly?” says the intrepid interviewer.

Well, aren’t you scared when you walk? People have lost teeth that way!

The Pentagon wanted me to test PFD’s, “personal flight devices,” because presumably if one failed I could save both myself and the device. That actually worked out well, although I think the contraption looks goofy – especially the helmet.

I’ve considered wearing my helmet while flying locally, as my mother used to beg me to do when I rode a bike. I’m such a good boy. But where does it stop? Kneepads for walking? Fedoras in case of bird poop? Jockstraps for hitting on defensive women?

One thing I’m religious about is protection during sex. Which means, like most pious people, I fail at my goal fairly often. I run out of prophylactics or just don’t have them on hand when passion strikes. I imagine I would enjoy unrestrained monogamy with a woman who doesn’t mind having twenty children. No need for latex.

I thought when the Pentagon wanted me to fly for them that they might gussy me up in multicolored-latex, like a superhero. Instead, they had me put on your basic infantry camouflage. I found the flak jacket hot and difficult to adjust.

I hate things. Obstinate, obdurate, recalcitrant things. They break, they stub your toe, they won’t turn on, they hit your funny bone, they pinch your hand when you try to open or close them. Perhaps it is a comment on the state of affairs, modern man’s reliance on things, that even I, who can fly without the aid of machine, feel encumbered by things as I soar. When I’m on the job, traveling, I already carry a large backpack, like any trekker. It’s infinitely worse if I am equipped to go camping, but even if I am roaming from a base camp, hotel, or RV, I need a lot of stuff.

I used to write longhand with paper and pencil. Pens are messy and like to break all over the place – especially just as I put one behind my ear between thoughts. So if I were hovering over the Sierra Nevada at dusk, I would have to cradle a notebook in one arm and write with a mechanical pencil in the other hand. No room to hold anything else. Then I would need a light, because dark was coming on. So I got a miner’s style strap-on light for my forehead. When I got glasses, I had a light built into those. More batteries all around. More stuff to break or drop. It was too much. I gave in and got a little laptop computer. It’s mounted on a desk that swings and snaps into position from the side, attached to my backpack. I’m like a one-man-band.

I would like to take my violin out into the wilderness, but besides not wanting to bother other wilderness lovers, I don’t want to carry it. I rush back to practicing like a man starved for his lover when I get back from a trip.

I’m not scared when I fly. Not of losing control and plummeting. In the field, I’m more scared about, say, dropping my glasses, or my computer, down a thousand-foot shaft while spelunking. Seriously, the sidewalk is much more dangerous. Who ever heard of a bird tripping in mid-flight?

Occasionally I do worry about existential risks a flying person might incur. It’s the unknown ones that get to me. For instance, occasionally a mass mid-air bird “kill” will make the news – flocks of birds plummeting from the sky. At first news like this used to keep me grounded for a couple of days. Then I would engage in counter-phobic behavior, visiting the sites as soon as possible and flying in the very space in which the poor creatures had suddenly died.

In one case the birds supposedly died of multiple blunt trauma to vital organs. Hail? The Fourth Horseman? Each other? Technology? Aliens? Psychic attack? Fairies? My feeling is that it must be some human disruption. Chemicals in the environment. A new weapon being tested. The thought follows: “I hate people.”

So at times I hate things, and in odd moments I hate people. I think about leaving civilization for the Olympic National Forest — a great plan, except for the clandestine meth labs and marijuana groves hidden there, competing with the hermits for space. So I resign myself to my mysterious fate. We all have to die. I might just die flying.

Getting off One’s Feet

“Our man in the field” from Channel Whatever shoved a mic in my face and shouted, “So how does it feel to fly?”

I was crude, succinctly. I had specifically gone out in that field (that is, landed there) to get some time alone. But I don’t like to run away from people. Technically, he was trespassing. So I barked.

The studio was cited by the FCC for a “fleeting profanity”, which led to a court case, which led to a landmark decision. So once again I was at the forefront of human development.

I work in a seated position when I’m doing what I think of as my main job (writing), so getting off my feet, or the idea of it, doesn’t elicit a great sigh of relief as it does from other people. My grandmothers would have said, “Oy, what a mechiah!”. But two generations down the line, I have to worry about the health effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

I don’t burn calories when I fly, evidently. Nor does my brain light up where you might expect it to (at least, that’s what the scientists tell me). Sometimes I get a kick out of it. Sometimes I just go.

“What a great walk!” my mother said the other day, after I had arrived to visit at her house a little before she got there. Some people get a runners’ high. I just get high. I mean…you know what I mean.

I try, I really do, when media-types do interview me. Like when I have to pimp – excuse me – tour for my books. So what is it like to fly?

Me: “Well…the wind does rush by you.” Pause. “Or you rush by the wind. It’s all relative, you know.”

Interviewer: “Of course.” Pause. “That’s it?” (sometimes whispered off mic). “But what about that moment your feet leave the ground?”

Little do they know that sometimes it’s the crown of my head leaving the ground, if I’ve been doing a headstand. Or my back, stomach, or butt.

I’m fine a thousand feet off the ground. But put me behind a live mic and my hands get all sweaty. My stomach will feel like it’s full of writhing anemones. And I have to remember to take slow, deep breaths. That does work, incidentally. It calms my mind.

When I fly, my mind may be calm, upset, or in any other state. Flying does take an act of will; I never just find myself in midair. But there’s no effort involved.

When I carry people, there’s no more effort than when I pick them up standing on the ground. How much weight can I pull off the ground? Actually, that’s classified.

It’s when I fly while carrying someone else that my brain lights up. I don’t need a scientist to tell me that. Getting close to someone in any situation influences how you feel, even for you landlubbers. There are pheromones, and sympathies and antipathies, and the pleasure of sharing. There’s the importance of touch.

We touch each other so little in this culture. We stand so far apart. And even so, I’ve been accused of putting myself apart, being distant. It’s easy for me to get away from people, of course. But I also enjoy being close.

I took dancing lessons. I was okay at it; my partners were generally the ones on my feet, not vice versa. But I was only good when following the instructor’s demonstration. On my own I just couldn’t lead. I couldn’t come up with original moves.

I found that when I danced my hands got sweaty. I guess I’m a sweater. So more than once women would whisper to me, “you don’t have to be anxious.” I wanted to yell. I wasn’t, damn it! Also, I was self-conscious of the sweaty stains my hand left on the back of their dresses. And if they wore a dress that was low-cut in the back, forget it. My hands also get cold.

I wish I could find someone who didn’t mind cold, sweaty hands.

What a relief that would be.

‘Tis the gift

Fortunately, before my mother ever subjected me to Debussy, she sang me the tune “Simple Gifts” as she dandled me in her arms. Now that tune has the right mode. But I’ve often puzzled over the lyrics. In full:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

I’m sure a Shaker theologian would set me straight right away. But I’ve had my own interpretations, which have changed with time. For instance, when I was a teenager, I suspected that for the repressed Shakers, the “valley of love and delight” was, as Shakespeare put it, “in the secret parts of Fortune.” A rather straightforward sexual lesson seems to be taught here, though it gets rather obscene with “to bow and to bend.” And “turning” sounds downright painful.

The song drifted into my head one night while I was flying. Obviously, flying could be considered a gift. And it could be considered being free. But being simple? And how could one gift be both to be simple and to be free? Were the two equivalent? Or could it be a definition of the most important gift to the Shakers – the gift of being one of them?

The Shakers were celibate. Could simple mean single, free from romantic entanglement?

Sometimes I’ve taken solace in the idea that our destiny, “where we ought to be”, is necessarily a place of love and delight. And bowing to destiny, like a reed in the wind, or a leaf turning in the breeze, will get us there. Going with the flow.

Then I got into Buddhism. And being simple and free meant being free of delusions.

But somehow, none of these ideas or systems of thought fit the stanza quite right. They were like ill-fitting suits of clothes put on a five-legged beast. Somehow something always stuck out.

My most recent thoughts on the matter are that the song is like a koan. Shaker scholars, did any Shakers make it to Japan and back? Like contemplating the sound of one hand clapping, perhaps the song is meant to be a direct route to enlightenment.

I grew up with this song from such an early age – pre-natal, actually – that the tune and words are probably literally etched in my brain. If I could plug speakers into the right grey matter, out would come Simple Gifts. So am I enlightened?

No. But I have a gift. And sometimes I think, maybe that’s enough. Maybe the Shakers were saying that it’s important to have a gift, that ’tis the gift that matters.

Probably not.

Enough with Shakers. But onward with gifts. Is my flying indeed a gift? Or is it a curse? I’ve certainly been ambivalent about it, strongly so. Sometimes I feel ecstatically unified with nature, spinning and turning in the air (crashing into trees I would rather have hugged – gingerly), and sometimes I would much rather sit and face down a sheet of pressed wood pulp. But even then, zoning out and letting my mind drift, I feel at one with the creative energy of the universe. I feel privileged and grateful to be a writer.

It’s a gift, for sure.

Krypton Ruined My Relationship

Guess what my birth planet is.
Actually, I don’t even know if there is such a thing. Is there? I got a free astrology reading on the Internet and gleaned that my Zodiac sign is Gemini (I knew that). All the planets seemed to be important, somehow. Jupiter and Mercury were squeezed into Gemini right along with the sun – almost aligned.
Does this mean anything to anyone?
The idea of a planet being “in” a certain constellation made sense once I grew up and got a telescope. Studying star maps led to a desire to navigate by the stars. That didn’t work out. I wasn’t a dedicated enough student. So now I carry a GPS.
I get a lot of Krypton-related items in the mail, more than once a whole Superman suit. I was invited to bid on the suits used in the movies. I received a Batman suit, too, although he doesn’t fly. A Green Lantern necktie languishes somewhere in my house. But once, just once, a stranger sent me a sweater for Hanukkah.
It was hand-knit of yellow, purple, green, red, and black yarn. “Awesome,” I said when I opened the box, which smelled faintly of patchouli-tinged incense. “For someone else.” But within ten minutes I had it on. It fit.
Somewhere out there a stranger cared that I was warm. I pulled the brown wrapping-paper out of the garbage, shaking off canteloupe seeds. Ever after I associated Melinda (for that was the name on the return address) with the smell of canteloupe mixed with patchouli and coffee grounds. In my mind she became very earthy, Earth-Mother-y.
“Mundane”, related to the Spanish “mundo”, means “of the earth”. And that is what she was like. It turned out we had nothing in common besides our interest in me. I was into music. Language. Travel. Cooking. She was into watching videos. Knitting. Astrology. And reading/collecting comics. She was particularly into Krypton.
Now, there are things about Superman that I like. But there were many, many more things that she liked about him. The whole mythology…chronology, hagiography, eschatology. She didn’t want me to be Superman, but I started to feel that she only loved me because I was a shadow of him. True or not, I got irritated. Then angry. Then despairing. Then I left her.
That killed me. I hated hurting her. It blew my mind apart…kind of like Krypton is supposed to have blown apart. Pretty soon I found myself in an institution…again. After that I wrote to her, then ignored her…hated her when she didn’t write back.
At last my therapist convinced me that I was unhealthily obsessed with the idea of this woman and that I should forget her. I should reflect on my emotional needs that weren’t being met and wait for the right person.
I followed his suggestions. After all, I am easily influenced. I resisted fulfilling people’s wishe to see me dressed as Superman. But I gave in to the overture of a sweater. I pretended to enjoy curling up on the couch and watching videos every other night. I even tried knitting. I was worse than whipped. I was like a leaf blown in the wind. Now that is a feeling I know from flying on windy days, and when I realized what I was feeling, I threw a bowl of spaghetti against the wall and strode out of Melinda’s apartment and onto the deck.
“Are you having PMS?” she asked, slipping out through the half-open screen door so as not to let the cats out. “It’s a full moon tonight. And Jupiter –”
“I don’t care about fucking Jupiter!” I shouted. A light flicked on in the window of a neighboring apartment.
“I know you don’t. You care about Krypton.” She knew. She was just about in tears. In retrospect, I wonder whether she read my journal.
I flew away.
I came back early that morning. We made up within a couple of days. After all, I am easily influenced. By people.
But in the case of Melinda, maybe even more by a planet.