Saturday, June 16, 2012

Serenity Kicks My Ass

In the summer between 7th and 8th grade I worked at a glider airport. I had an aviation obsession at that time and this glider-port was about an hour's bike ride from my house, so I'd ride out there and do what they call 'line running'.

Gliders are towed into the sky by a normal airplane with a long rope. Since most gliders only have one wheel in the center of the fuselage, they can't just taxi around on the ground before takeoff. They need a line runner to snatch the rope from the tow plane, attach it to the glider's nose and then hold the glider's wing tip level as both aircraft line up on the runway. Then when the tow plane throttles up, the line runner runs alongside the glider, still holding the wing, until the glider is going fast enough for the wings to do their job and allow the pilot to start flying.

I didn't get paid. I got discounted gliding lessons . . . which was illegal, but whatever, I didn't care.

My instructor was a guy named Rusty.

On the day of my first lesson he taught me how to do a 'walk around', which is your basic pre-flight check. As we walked around and he explained how to check the various rivets and surfaces I noticed something odd. It was a little piece of red yarn taped to the top of the domed cockpit glass. I thought it was a good luck charm. Rusty explained it.

"That's the yaw string" he said. "It's one of the most important pieces of equipment that a glider pilot has. If you don't pay attention to it you'll come up short and not make it back to the field."

The idea is simple.

As the glider flies along, that little string points in the direction of the airflow. If the pilot looks up and sees the string wiggling in a tight line, completely parallel with the center of the fuselage, he knows he's flying straight and therefore getting maximum efficiency out of the wings and tail. If he looks up and sees the string swinging off center, he knows he's slogging sideways through the air, or 'yawing', which means less lift, more drag, loss of speed, loss of altitude and much greater chance of crashing.

Since there is no engine in a glider, it's really important that you be efficient. The little piece of yarn has yet to be improved upon. Low tech and extremely effective.


Last night I was supposed to do cardio. I usually hit the treadmill.

Unfortunately I went into the gym at my usual time and found all but one of the treadmills occupied by people who had just started. The only remaining treadmill was the miserable old broken one whose belt slips forward on the roller every five steps or so and threatens to toss you onto the concrete where your neck surely breaks.

Dammit . . .

So instead I went back to my room in a huff. You see, it's hard to be me.

Once there I flipped open my trusty iPad and tapped a yoga app that I downloaded before headed overseas. I have very little knowledge of yoga, but I had anticipated this disrupted exercise scenario and made the contingency plan. Yoga looks so peaceful and serene, it's probably exactly what a spoiled, grumpy treadmill person needs when denied his routine.

I soon learned the truth about yoga. It will kick your ass.

The app is basically a series of videos where this lady does yoga out on a beach somewhere and a voice over talks you through all the poses.

"We begin with this simple 'child's pose', move gently into 'plank', now inhale into 'downward dog' with shoulders away from the ears, back straight, tailbone to the sky, and exhale . . . Then we inhale back into 'plank', knees down, chest down, palms up into 'chatarunga'. Head up into 'cobra' and exhale. Back to the feet now, knees up and inhale into 'downward dog'. The breath moves the body . . ."

According to this sadistic bitch, that was supposed to be three breaths. Well I had taken about fifty breaths at that point and was beginning to sweat. Mind you I have been doing cardio just about every other day for quite a few weeks now so this wasn't pure 'out-of-shapedness'. I'm not saying I'm ready for a triathlon, but I should be able to handle two minutes of what looks like barely moving without getting winded. Not the case.


I released the cord at about 5000 feet. The Piper that had been towing us banked off to the left as Rusty banked us right. Then he gave me the controls.

I was immediately taken by how loose and buoyant it felt compared to a powered airplane. You barely had to move the stick or rudder for the aircraft to respond with a wobble or a dip. It was almost like it was reading your mind.

We banked and turned a few times as he explained the manner in which thrust and lift overcome drag and gravity, then he went into the names of the approaches - downwind, base, final. He congratulated me on my smooth turns and my hand-foot coordination, then he pointed out a gap on the horizon in the distance.

"You see that notch between those hills? Just point the nose of the aircraft toward that notch and try to keep your airspeed between the two dashes on the airspeed indicator . . . watch that yaw string and keep it lined up parallel."

As well as I had done with banking and turning, I found the simple act of flying in a straight line incredibly challenging. When the string was straight I went too fast, when I corrected my speed, the string went off center. Rusty had to take the controls a few times because I was nearly causing us to stall. Those few minutes kind of sucked the fun out of the lesson. I was so fixated on the string, that I couldn't really enjoy the rest of what was going on.

"It's fairly typical" Rusty assured me. "Of all the maneuvers and skill required to take off, land and recover from stalls, the one thing that gives us fits is simple, straight and level flight. If you're trying, you're probably failing."

Here is this carbon fiber gliding thing that looks like a giant, white albatross. It can grab hold of a thermal updraft and just float around for hours in complete silence. It looks graceful and effortless, just like yoga.


At the end of the session the lady on the beach sits crossed legged with her hands on her knees for a minute, then she straightens out and lays down on her back.

"And this is 'shivassna' or 'corpse pose', the final pose of the lesson"

An aptly named pose because I feel just about dead at this point.

"Our feet are pointed to the sides, our palms are up and we breathe the 'ujayi' breath. We take in energy with the inhale and with the exhale we release anything we've been holding in our consciousness that we no longer need. Our minds are clear."

I don't know if you've ever tried to make your mind blank, but just like yoga and just like flying straight and level, it's not easy.

In this instance however, after having just embarrassed myself by taking a 20 minute ass-whooping from an activity that I had previously considered 'almost' exercise, it was far easier than I expected. The relief of not holding a pose and not paying attention to anything gave me a brief moment of nothing. My mind was blank for the first time that I can remember. It was quick, but it was stark.

I wondered,

'Do people who are good at yoga know how to get to that place whenever they want?'

I'm sure the lady on the beach can transition from 'cobra' to 'downward dog' to 'chatarunga' in three slow breaths and I'm sure Rusty can glide for hours with his yaw string wiggling right down the center of the canopy glass.

Yoga and gliding are indeed serene, graceful and effortless - provided you can get to a point where you no longer have to try.

So many of our goals in life are directly dependent on the amount of concerted effort we apply. We gear ourselves to strive for things and exert energy with singular focus. But then, every once in a while we are presented with a challenge that requires us to stop trying and allow our selves to give in and let something passive occur.

Suddenly our disciplined approach doesn't work. We try to point the nose of the glider toward the notch in the hills and attack the challenge like we're lifting weights or running up an incline. The result is an aircraft that does everything except fly straight toward the notch. We look like fools.

For me, the challenge of lifting actual heavy weight off my chest is nothing compared to the challenge of clearing my mind. The aforementioned is analogous to everything I've ever tried to do in life, but the latter is something new and mysterious.

My little glimpse into the serenity of a clear mind has given me a new appreciation for people who have the capacity to achieve it without trying. I can see the value of knowing how to get there.

I wish I was better at it.

I'm gonna try.

 . . . No, wait. I'm not gonna try.

See? It kicks your ass!

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