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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Icarus

They say that, overwhelmingly, the last phrase most frequently uttered inside of a commercial airplane's cockpit about to be demolished in a crash are, "Oh, shit."

The NTSB, the governing body charged by the United States government with investigating airplane accidents, reviews all cockpit voice recordings (CVRs) that are recovered after a fatal aviation accident. During the course of its investigations, this body frequently administers a test to measure stress in the voice of individuals in the cockpit, such as the pilot, the copilot, or the first officer. It is a neat way to tell if the pilots were surprised by whatever weather-related anomaly or mechanical failure or explosion that started the inevitably fatal chain-of-events, and it measures how calm they are able to remain as they struggle to reclaim control of a doomed airliner, whether they are working in concert with, or at cross-purposes, with each other in the final seconds of their lives. And the lives of everyone else onboard.

As a result of these stress tests, it has been determined that this often-uttered final utterance, "Oh, shit" isn't frequently said with high stress, with great force, or even as just a regular, run-of-the-mill exclamation. It is often said dryly, flatly, in a resigned way that indicates an experienced pilot knows, in the final milliseconds of his or her life, that this plane cannot be reclaimed, and into the Pacific Ocean, or mountaintop, or field beyond the desired runway it will go. It will just go.

Oh, shit.

Through circuitious circumstances, I got to thinking about Icarus yesterday. These things tend to happen when I have a week-day off. I'm here in the house, alone, noodling around-- tending to this or that, listening to taciturn, introspective folk music, and it just... happens. I hadn't thought of Icarus since 5th grade, when we all studied our mythology. I was assigned Hades, and I came to school dressed as him for the culminating project. I loved Hades, because he was dark and terrifying, and he embodied everything that I found dark and terrifying-- so I embraced him. I'll show you, mortals. Dip your toe in my little River of Styx and we'll see what's what.

Oh, shit-- right?

I don't remember which of my classmates were assigned the tale of Icarus and Daedalus, but I remember being impressed by-- and probably a little jealous of-- the wings-- fashioned out of string and popsicle sticks, glue, feathers, and sticks. I don't think Daedalus himself could have done better. I was sure their parents had helped them. But what of that? My mother made my Hades hat.

The morals of the tale of Icarus and Daedalus are plenty, and uninspired, and done and done over again.

Listen to your parents.

Don't fly too high.

Remember, you're only human.

Be mindful of danger.

Don't be prideful.

The sun is dangerous. Don't forget your Lancome Bienfait Super Fluid Facial, SPF-50.

Icarus is easy to dump on, from the comfort of an armchair firmly entrenched in reality's living room. Stupid shit-for-brains: what did you think was going to happen?

Well. I kind of have a soft spot in my heart for the kid. And I would think that anybody who is an enthusiastic participant in the uniquely American rat-race for popularity, for "Likes", for "Friends", for advancement, for prominence, for a legacy might do well to smile kindly on this poor, broken body whose wings are besmirched with melted wax.

I wonder what his last words were. Probably something more eloquent than, "Oh, shit." After all, this is mythology we're talking about here-- a high art-- meant to lift us up, ascending towards Phoebus.

On Monday, a well-intentioned coworker asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. "Surely you don't want to do this-- work here in a psych hospital-- for the rest of your life," she, a nurse, said.

"God," I sighed, "I don't know, Mary. I just don't know."

And my mind drifted away to the relaxation group I run for the patients. Seated on floral cushions in wicker rockers, they gently drift off to sleep as light Victorian piano music plays for them on the CD player, and I take them on a guided visualization. I always start by having them imagine they're on the beach, all alone, lying on their backs on the warm sand, the glorious sun warming their faces. Through the journey, they end up under water, gliding amongst the fish and the coral, and, the way I tell it, they inevitably end up giving the water a gentle kick and they soar up, up, and up as their heads break through the waves and they soar through the sky-- upwards towards the sun.

"I don't know," I said, smiling faintly, "but, for now, I love what I do."

"Well," she said, "I'm glad you're here."

Me, too.

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