Effortless proficiency

Increasingly effective use of cognition is essentially proportional to effort until thought travels to the hidden back side of reasoning’s circle where effort mysteriously vanishes. What seconds earlier took tremendous concentration and effort suddenly flows with unimpeded focus even while the complexity of the task increases significantly.

Or, does this phenomenon occur exactly because the task’s level of difficulty increases significantly?

Few of us are fortunate enough to have experienced this remarkable transition point where ultra-performance becomes second nature and automatic. Fewer still are able to call upon this extreme level of alert acuity and skill at will.

The central control for this nirvana of effectiveness is no doubt buried deep in the psyche as some sort of evolved survival response.

For most of us living in the confusion of post-modern society (well, I never left, at any rate), this apex of proficiency is usually arrived at through a sharply defined medium that allows for a quick and predictable break through. Incredibly intense meditation might get one there, or a dangerous task, hobby, or job where the operator in question is both well experienced and under extreme pressure to perform at the highest possible level.

Professional athletes are often ultra-performers, but—in my opinion—serve as simplistic, one-dimensional cartoons of the greater meaning and potential that this learned skill has to offer. Playing a game for money, fame, and/or a superficial sense of glory offers little or no lasting reward, again, in my opinion.

It’s not enough to just perform at the level of effortless proficiency to truly understand and leverage the power of this state. Other parameters must be satisfied:
• the activity must require extraordinary personal risk;
• the challenge must be an individual’s choice; and
• the endeavor must be accomplished for a greater good.

I’ve been both fortunate and cursed with catching brief glimpses of this higher state, and these few instances have left me floundering for a way to replicate the experience’s essence. Each of my personal incidents have occurred flying in the Navy, largely due to the third requirement that the endeavor be accomplished for a greater good.

While I’ve had very close calls diving, the ensuing heightened awareness was strictly due to a desire for self-preservation; only my life was at stake. Performance was raised, but not nearly to the same level for me as when flying off the aircraft carrier.

In Naval Aviation, “mission” is everything, not letting down your buddies is a close second, and somewhere in distant third is one’s life. Put the three together and it’s amazing what the body and mind can do making high “G” turns at 480 knots, 200 feet above the ground in the fog, with several thousand folks trying to kill you with bullets and missiles.

To be able to transfer this “in the zone” flight perfection to an on demand talent that transcends any task might just be our next evolutionary leap forward. Or it might just be the outline of a bad war story. I would love to know the reflections, thoughts, and experiences of others on this subject.

Cheers,

Pete

A quick note regarding Peter Hunt’s professional credentials:

I am not a formally trained scientist or philosopher. I do, however, visit a neurologist every three months, and I did stay at a Holiday Inn Select after drinking too much one evening in the not too distant past.

 

No need to panic

The Internet was out this morning. So was the phone and cable. Only in these exceedingly rare moments of blissful disconnection (once the initial panic subsides) do I seem able to connect with the only person that matters, or at least the first person that should matter–me.

Without an occasional, honest attempt at self-reflection, it’s easy to automatically lead in reality what self-reflection consistently points to as the most probable reality: a pathetic life of utter incoherence.

Personally, speaking in this moment of blissful disconnection (albeit a forced labor of inner peace as I glance down at the Internet connection icon—again), I’m not too concerned about the incoherent part. What could I possibly do to introduce a common line of understanding or meaning to mankind, aside from becoming another Sunday morning for-profit prophet? It’s the pathetic thing that worries me.

What if I flail in my efforts (images of a panicked drowning)? What if I rock-steady plod down the dead-wrong path? Both seem pathetic, but not nearly as pathetic as the third recurring nightmare: what if I give up trying?

Trying what, one would surely ask (and don’t call me Shirley)?

Even though I know deep down that my “quest” (images of Monty Python’s Life of Brian aside) is extraordinarily unlikely to yield any lasting life altering principles, paradoxically, that has nothing to do with trying. How will I learn more of what I don’t know that I don’t know if I don’t at least keep trying?

And so, the well-worn path toward perceived enlightenment spider-webs with exponential incoherence into utter confusion. Pathetic.

Thank God (or Tony Robbins, whatever); the Internet icon stops me cold from spiraling further into pathetic incoherence (maybe…). Time to quit wasting time and get on with the day, you know, to get cracking at giving “it” a try: after all, it’s the manly (and womanly) thing to do.

Note
Please be advised that this was written earlier and the internet, phone, and cable are all operational. There is no need to panic.

Ghosts of the corridor

To be unseen, everywhere an outsider, at home only with ghosts abandoned long ago in the deepest recesses of secret holds.

Time is the difference, bringing closer the once imagined, but now understood to be real spirits that prowl the wreck’s darkened corridors.

No season’s spring of introduction, no cocoon of warm transition. There is no learning or knowing; only existing. Hello spirits and thank you for the kindness of acknowledgement.

It is life’s inevitable disease: identity betrayed; a tainted aura, not worthy of analysis or action. The lack of decision suffocates in finality.

Fight or flight, instinct demands with a hollow ring, but nature’s indifference serves proof for the young to act with the crushable weight of ambivalence.

Life still breathes deeply, as a billion accepted incomprehensibles surround us without frustration or curiosity: a flower, a butterfly.

The flash of a neuron brings the transition from achingly different to the devastating vacuum of invisibility, because what cannot be seen does not exist.

Hello ghosts of the corridor; hello my old, new friends.

Keeping it real

Have you ever attempted to count the number of times over the course of a day when asked, “How are you?”

I haven’t yet, but I think I will tomorrow. Why?

Most everyone rely on a canned response to this nicety of civilized interaction. For example, you walk into a store and are greeted full on with a loud and courteous:

“Good morning! How are you today?”

To which most would reply, “Fine! And you?”

“Fine” is the coward’s answer.

It is commonly assumed that the depth of the question is non-existent. It is not really a question at all, but an acknowledgement of a daily mind-numbing convention that should shame us all in our superficiality.

I was fortunate enough to have this truism of an uncaring life identified to me as a child, and I’ve tried to adhere to my father’s simple advice to counter this bad habit:

“If you ask someone how they are,” my father would demand of my shaping morality, “then look into their eyes and mean it.”

If you don’t mean it, then don’t ask the question, my Dad would go on to say.

Again, if you are going to ask, then mean it. If not, then a simple “Good morning” should accomplish your goal.

And my advice: ask the question sincerely and wait for the answer.

A daily societal ritual has developed into a formula for isolation: the sequestration of honest emotion into silos, and the abrogation of any attempt at a truly sophisticated and connected (i.e. meaningful) conversation.

It is the ultimate small talk, and small talk is for small people.

(Although there are those who propose by their actions that small talk is the most noble of gases. I would suggest that the lightness of the noble gas helium should be forsaken for the greater weight and warming power of the noble gas argon. Helium provides for the cheap thrill; argon is a choice of comfort and security.

Breathing more helium may give a diver a clear head with which to plan one’s battle, but the properties of argon simply keep a diver warm. At the end of the day, spiritual warmth is what matters most; that is, if you are willing to share.)

To continue in dishonesty is a waste of life’s offer – not promise – of time and the squandering of one of life’s few opportunities to connect with a stranger. And it should make us all angry with ourselves for playing the game.

And it is not a little thing.

When the perceived world no longer expects an honest or heartfelt answer to a simple question, that is not being polite; that is being rude in a manner that coarsens the heart and turns our daily lives into a pointless video game.

And we all have the opportunity to change this travesty of omission virtually every day. Take a chance tomorrow; live a little, please listen to strangers. Take a chance and care.

If you are indeed sincere, I guarantee that you will be surprised and even inspired by the answers of you fellow spirit-beings.

Cheers,
Peter

 

Running in sand

Run fast; try to pass quickly, nimbly, but in the recurring multi-dimensional purgatory of the ailment, of my ailment, it is not possible to clear feet of the drag of thousands of emotionless grains of thought, each cognitive morsel bogging down body and soul in mocking slowness, each thought unfulfilled, each unborn image serving only to sharpen the flame beneath frustration’s cauldron.

Stubborn anchors claw, grasp and drag in a toe-hold, steadily and patiently halting clarity and ambition, dooming both to exist without influence. The clutching dregs of ennui deflect the body’s course to a meandering circular shuffle, losing each step forward to two steps sideways.

And I don’t care. Deep within the recesses of my being, I utterly do not care, but even closer to my core is the panicky certainty that I must give a damn, and in the mind’s periphery it becomes – no, it always was – the same indescribably horrible helplessness that a diver experiences with deep water blackout.

Deep-water blackout: When labored breathing is allowed free rein, the pull of the regulator yields insufficient oxygen, and carbon dioxide builds in the horrible cycle of panic until the corner is turned.

Deep-water blackout: Suffocation while breathing; fighting the body for control, desperately needing to move, but knowing that to move now, at the height of incapacity, is to die.

Deep-water blackout: When primal fear harkens to an ancient experience far beyond conscious understanding.

Deep-water blackout: For the diver, losing this battle means death of the worst kind; death by default, death without evidence of a fight.

Deep-water blackout: Nature’s misplaced compassion abates the pain of suffocation and the weight of sleep is seductive and overpowering; the fear of surrender pulls opposite, leaving the diver confused in the middle.

And that is ultimately what kills – hesitating, confused purpose.

When found—if found—the diver appears peaceful in a cruel parody of death’s seduction.

My ailment’s path to life lies opposite deep-water blackout: not moving is death.

So, I straighten my neck and back against the relentless pull, rock back and forth in my Levodopa utopia, and struggle to ignore the suffocation of those who surround me, those who look but do not see; those who question but seek no answers; those impatiently awaiting my peaceful departure.

And I continue to move.

Veteran’s Day

Being a combat veteran is not simple. A personal incident from several months ago comes to mind as an illustration. Please let me explain.
I had been invited to a dinner sponsored by the Northwest chapter of the Intruder Association in an effort to drum up support and build ties between Vietnam era aviators and those from follow on decades.

The thinking was that a local author might provide a bit of leverage to jump start the process and close the gap.

With the official presentations and introductions over, one gent immediately caught my attention as he weaved between diners in a bee-line directly to me in the restaurant of the Oak Harbor Yacht Club.

He carried himself with a confident yet relaxed stride that seemed to match his disheveled, but comfortably neat attire. He squared off in front of me.
“I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your book.” He looked at me with intelligent intensity.

Ten minutes earlier the guy had been alternating his attention between light-heartedly bidding on various A-6 sketches for charity and entertaining his grandson, although the man didn’t look or act old enough to be a grandparent.
He carried himself with the self-confidence of a well-liked and skilled aviator who also aspired to the class-clown mantle and frankly didn’t give a damn about any perceived inconsistency.

Instantly, I admired him. I mumbled something back about it probably being a pale shadow of his experiences flying Intruders in Vietnam.

“Killing people is killing people.” He replied.

He said it without hesitation. He didn’t lower his voice or offer a subtle apology, and of course there was no reason he should have.

After all, that was the common thread between most of us in the room – we had all killed people from the platform of the old A-6 Intruder, a retired Navy low-level bomber. Still, the straightforward honesty jolted me into refreshing alertness.

“Yes, that’s true.” I replied evenly. I liked this guy. I respected this guy a lot.
Veterans should be thanked at least once a year, but to those who have not served please be forewarned: things are not as simple or straightforward as they might seem. I am proud of my time in the Navy and my combat experience.

And that pride is deeply unsettling.

Life carries many contradictions. Combat magnifies that effect exponentially.
When you thank a veteran today, it’s okay not to know the full extent of what you are thanking him for, but please: pry only if invited and remember that compassion need not be familiar with circumstance to be honest.

Thanks to all my fellow veterans.

“The Swordsmen delivered more than 2 million pounds of ordnance and flew 1358.8 flight hours during Operation Desert Storm. VA-145 was officially credited with destroying or severely damaging 33 tanks, 48 artillery pieces, 41 naval vessels, 25 missile components, 23 conventional and chemical munitions bunkers, 13 oil facilities, 7 communications sites, 5 hangars, 8 piers, 2 barracks, a bridge, a power plant, and a rail yard. Additionally, the squadron mined 4 critical lines of communication.

The only number that was conspicuously missing was the one we would never know – how many people we had killed.”

– From the closing chapter of Angles of Attack, an A-6 Intruder pilots War

A book with a soul; the writing of Setting the Hook

Self-publishing was not my first choice for Setting the Hook, a Diver’s Return to the Andrea Doria; not by a long shot.

I was fortunate to have had my first nonfiction book, Angles of Attack, an A-6 Intruder Pilot’s War, accepted by a traditional publishing house (Ballantine Books imprint, Random House) in 2002 with modest effort, and I fully expected the same when it came time to circulate the proposal for Setting the Hook.

It was only much later that I came to realize how lucky my first experience in publishing had been.

Only through a series of fortuitous coincidences did that first manuscript find its way into the hands of a reputable agent, an agent who loved the book and aggressively shopped it to the big New York houses. The book was picked up in less than a year and my understanding of the normal publishing experience would be severely skewed for quite a while during my follow on efforts to get other works published.

After Angles of Attack was published, my agent worked Setting the Hook in traditional industry fashion and the manuscript sat idle on my desk while I gave fiction writing a try.

We received multiple “close but no cigar” turn-downs by traditional publishers over the next two years and my agent gradually lost interest in the project. The first draft of my foray into fiction fell flat with my agent (and thankfully so; it was awful), and communications slowed to a stop between us.

Then, in 2005, my life circumstance abruptly changed forever when I was diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease at age 43.

My primary career as an airline pilot was over in an instant due to the loss of my medical clearance to fly commercially. I took on various part time jobs, went to graduate school, and took care of the kids while my wife traveled frequently for her work.

For the next several years I tinkered editorially and stylistically with Setting the Hook, but focused my efforts almost entirely on getting the original version of the manuscript published, first through the few larger houses that did not require an agent, and eventually by unsuccessfully trying to gain new representation.

I lowered my sites. Two verbal acceptances by small independent publishers were rescinded almost immediately for vague reasons that were never fully explained to me (in both situations I’m guessing the editorial patriarch said “yes,” but was overridden by the young heir apparent on the editorial board).

It was only later that I realized how closely my desperate efforts to get virtually anyone to publish Setting the Hook mirrored my handling of the Parkinson’s diagnosis; I was in denial about both.

To be fair, initially it seemed reasonable to deny both problems: medication mitigated most of the Parkinson’s physical symptoms for the first several years of treatment, and the original version of Setting the Hook was a fairly good true adventure story with a smattering of history.

After about four years of not truly examining the underlying meaning of my health situation or Setting the Hook as anything more than an exciting story, I had an epiphany of sorts; the two issues were not simply related, they were the same. Both the story I was telling and the life I was living were shallow, passive observations leading nowhere of substance or value.

I stopped flitting in random directions and began to direct my energy toward producing less heat and more light in understanding both.

Over the course of the next two years I completely rewrote Setting the Hook; not the chronology, structure, or events – they were all fine. I took a hard look inward and gave Setting the Hook the only truly important component of any book: I gave it a soul.

Through the process I came to understand my disease and my life more clearly. I’m still a long, long way from truly knowing myself, or anything, for that matter, but I’m confident that understanding the past is a worthy start.

I do have a point to all this squishy philosophic mumbo-jumbo: the process of re-writing Setting the Hook made my publishing decision easy.

I no longer cared a great deal about achieving the lofty hubris of knighted credibility bestowed by traditional publishing. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still fall back to old, bad habits and patterns, such as subconsciously defining the worth of the book and me as a person in terms of sales or reviews or critiques.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good review and hate a negative one, but I try to catch myself, not lose perspective, and – occasionally – I’m even successful.

I decided that it was pointless to split my focus between improving Setting the Hook and trying to break back into the New York publishing world, which at a minimum would delay the project for years, might go nowhere, and would in no way make the book any better. I was confident in the story and wanted to own the entire publishing process without the concern of an outside editor muddying the creative or marketing waters.

There was no question in my mind when the re-write was complete. I can open Setting the Hook today, a year and a half later, and find nothing of substance that I would change. That did not mean, however, that the copy editing was anywhere near finished, which was my first lesson in self-publishing – despite being my second book, I hadn’t a clue as to the depth of the publishing process.

I re-read word by word, line by line, page by excruciating page the entire book about twenty times making copy edits. My third to last effort yielded about fifty changes; the second to last about twenty; and even the final run through picked up probably five or six errors, things like a stray “em” dash where I had decided to use all “en” dashes for consistency and to resolve pagination issues.

Scrupulously re-reading twenty times a manuscript that had essentially been complete for ten years is not easy work.

Marketing is all on me and it has been daunting, fun, tedious, embarrassing, and endless. At first, nothing seems to gain traction, and then, somewhere between the second and thirtieth independent marketing plan, it suddenly becomes clear that no single effort will ever miraculously gain traction!

Over the past year and a half I have given presentations on early technical diving and the Andrea Doria to as few as five and as many as 150-200 people across the country (fun), done many book signings (embarrassing and tedious), built a reasonable following on Facebook and through a web page (fun and tedious and embarrassing), received eight professional online and print magazine reviews in addition to Kirkus (all of which have been miraculously positive), and many, smaller scale marketing attempts (daunting), with an end result of steady but not particularly earth shattering sales.

Book sales revenue has paid for all my travel expenses over the past 18 months with a bit left over, which is still more than I made going the traditional route and selling 26,000 mass market copies of Angles of Attack. If Setting the Hook never really takes off as a commercial success, I’m just fine with the memories and have absolutely no regrets.

I’ve read that it takes two years of committed marketing if a book is to have any real chance at breaking out. It might be more difficult for non-fiction; I don’t know. I plan on sticking it out with active marketing for this final six months, and then let the chips fall where they may.

I am proud of my latest book, but far more importantly, I honestly believe in Setting the Hook’s value independently of any commercial considerations.