Sunday, April 8, 2012

Writing and Airplanes: A Common Bond


Somewhere in the dim reaches of the past, you learned to fold sheets of foolscap paper in a way that produced a triangular hat.  Big deal. Once or twice was enough.  Your sister taught you a more origami-like technique for producing a novelty that looked like four pyramids.  By clever manipulation, it became a “Cootie Catcher,” a device for “determining” which of your victims had head lice.

Also boring.

But the folding and pasting were building toward something.  All the while, you were too focused on the present moment and overcoming such present moment boredom as might occur to think about future developments.

The next step was your discovering you could fold sheets of paper into boat-like structures that were perfect for floating in gutters, puddles, and even such larger targets as what was then called Westlake Park (Wilshire at Alvarado, midtown Los Angeles) and is now known as MacArthur (after I shall return Doug) Park.

Boats didn’t quite do it, either, but paper airplanes did.  You were, in your time, a veritable Boeing or Douglas; your repertoire included at least six different versions of paper planes.  With stubs of Number 2 Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, you began to draw idealized airplanes, filling Big Chief note pads with sketches, already eager for the time when you could make your way to Pasadena, whereupon to enroll at the California Institute of Technology.

After a serious discussion with your sister, you realized a bachelor’s degree would not be enough of a platform from which to be trusted with the design of aircraft.  At the least, your sister suggested, a master’s degree in engineering.  Better still, a doctoral degree.

While some of your chums were beginning to investigate the potentials of pin-ups and what at the time would have made the grade as soft pornography, you were collecting pictures of small, medium, and large aircraft.  Your future was a certainty, even though, after a time, you became interested as well in pin-up photos and, of course, the real thing—girls in person.

There could, you reasoned, be room in your life for both girls and airplanes.  You had it on good authority from your sister that many—not all, but many—women would not find it objectionable to marry a man who designed airplanes.

For the next five years, an extraordinary number of model airplanes passed through your hands as you cut, fit, glued, and shepherded various airborne vehicles from box to completed form, their power sources ranging from hand-launched gliders to propeller-driven-by-twisted-rubber band to the ultimate, the gas-propelled metal engine.  There were experiments with rockets, and a few imaginative models propelled by carbon dioxide cylinders originally intended to carbonate water.

You replaced your number two Dixon Ticonderoga pencils with books of paper matches, sheets of tinfoil, and a cork, which made a convenient carrying case for a straight pin.  With these implements, you could, on the spot, create a mini-rocket that would arc across the room with a gratifying sizzle.

Those days were remarkable in the way they drew you to contemplate the ways of flight, of the qualities of force and power required to propel a vehicle through the air.  Shapes and such qualities as lift and drag fascinated you.  What did streamlined mean?  Where did the power source go for best delivery of energy?  Why did some craft stall when others glided with such elegant grace?

You watched birds land and take off.  You spent hours at the Santa Monica airport, watching student pilots executing touch-and-go landings and takeoffs.

Of course you were reading, in over your head at such concepts as laminar flow, torque, vector.  Such aspects of your reading stalled, could not maintain lift.

You find it difficult to remember when the shift began.

Ah-ha moments are more rare in real life than in dramatic narrative.

Now you still launch vehicles of your own expansive and relatively uninformed design, at least uninformed in the more formal, academic, critical sense.  Even though you have been in a sense reviewing books for your entire editorial career and continue to do so now, your awareness of why a particular story flies and others do not is often as idiosyncratic as your own narrative.

Your hands are no longer marked by the telltale blotches of dried Tester’s model airplane cement that used to lurk like skin, peeling away after sunburn.  They are often stained by brown ink, and thus a shift in technology and discipline.  You’d given no thought whatsoever about the help and focus your interest in flying vehicles might have imparted to your interest in dramatic vehicles, not until this moment of writing about the two of them.

There are similarities in launching a model airplane and an advanced draft of a story.  Will it fly? Will it stall?  What corrections are needed and where are they to be applied?
There are separate beauties to be experienced upon seeing an aircraft fly and reading a moving story, yet the beauties are rooted in feelings of freedom from various gravitational forces.

We write and read to free ourselves of the restraints of gravity.  Even works of drama we may categorize as nihilistic are nevertheless free from the everyday weightedness of reality; they find soaring height in their own depiction of failure.  They give us artistic failure, tragic failure made all the more lofty by the expressions of determination given by the characters.  They give us the uplifting sense of there being nobility and grace in a sincere, well-executed failure.

We read to ingest the diet of failure served to us as a species.  Failure is nothing to us if we have tried, if we have launched ourselves forth.  Living, flying, writing:  all are about takeoff, hoping for graceful glide and lift.  All are about reach.  


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