OM281 - Vesa Vulovic

This week, Ken and John talk about:

Getting used to flying (OM281)

Having had a pilot’s license in the past affects how confident John feels about commercial air travel. There is almost no commercial air travel right now, but by the time this gets added to the time capsule in August one can hope that it will gradually be coming back. InshAllah! There are still Delta Airlines flights right now, averaging something like 20 people a flight, but don’t say InshAllah or they won’t let you on. There was a picture of a United flight where every seat was full.

Just like with anything, if you know a little bit about the science behind air travel it is less spooky and you don’t feel like flying in a jet involves any magic. A plane wants to fly, and in normal weather it takes a lot to experience enough stress to affect it flying. John doesn’t feel stress on a plane, although if it drops 3000 feet in a second he feels his stomach go up, but he knows that this is not going to break the plane. Plane crashes are always human error or mechanical failure, but they don't happen because they got hit by a wind.

Ken was pretty young when they moved overseas and he has been doing trans-Pacific flights as far back as he can remember. It feels like he is in a car and he doesn’t really have the sense that he is in a precarious situation. Some of those flights are 18 hours and it feels like being in a magic tube that turns Seattle into Seoul or San Francisco into Singapore.

John always feels very excited when the plane does its various rotations, when the nose wheel comes up at take-off and you feel the plane slip the surely bonds of Earth. It is a thrilling moment that he likes to be in. Ken is often sitting next to people for whom that is their least favorite moment of the weekend.

John's good Rock musician friend (Jesse Sykes, see RL280) has tremendous flight anxiety. She sits with every bone and muscle tensed and tears streaming down her face every time the plane does anything. Every time the pilot reduced the throttle she would imagine the end times. Ken wonders how much the fear of flying is innate. If you were a pre-technological person sitting in a cave and all the sensations of air travel were visited upon you, the sound, the vibrations, the pressure change, it would portent a disaster.

John’s daughter’s first flight (OM281)

John's daughter was just under 3 years old when he took her on a flight for the first time. She was old enough to apprehend most of what was happening. They went to the San Juan islands in a small floatplane from Lake Union, looking out the window, and when the plane got going she said: ”Wow! We are moving fast on the lake!” As the plane lifted off she was stunned and fascinated until they got to about 200 feet when she absolutely looked away from the window and didn’t want to look outside, but once the plane was over 1500 feet she could look again because now they were looking at a landscape.

Watching her go through that, John did have the sense that a primitive mind is going to struggle with that. You can absolutely get it when you are at the height of a tree, but between the height of a tree and feeling fully in the sky our minds are struggling to grasp it. In a commercial airliner that uncanny valley passes in a matter of seconds unless you are in a long approach on LAX.

Drones gave us the uncanny valley between high buildings and areal view that we never used to see. Movies now use this to great effect and we can get photography from a level which we never used to see, which is a little upsetting because you realize that you are not on the ground, but there is the ground.

John getting his first panic attack on a plane (OM281)

Ken has been uncomfortable in turbulence, but he never had an existential moment of: ”Wait, I am floating 6 miles in the air, what am I thinking?” He has never had any claustrophobia. John is mildly claustrophobic in a lot of ways.

During the height of the Long Winters touring John would be on 50-60 flights a year and he used to buy the cheapest ticket possible. One time he got onto a wide-body jet on a fully booked flight from Seattle to Frankfurt and his seat was all the way back in the middle. The girl next to him chose this flight to Frankfurt to detox from Crystal Meth and she was really coming down off of drugs. As they were pulling back from the gate John could see up the aisle far enough to get a sense of: ”… and then there is the next section of the jet” and he though: ”What are you doing? You cannot possibly be in this environment for 10 hours!” He had a fight-or-flight reflex with flopsweat and fast breathing.

John sat for a second and asked himself if he was going to be the one who stands up in the back of the airplane and starts yelling: ”Let me off!” - ”No, you are not going to be that one!” Having a panic attack was not an option because short of getting off the plane his only other option was to calm down and sit for 10 hours. He managed to talk himself out of having a panic attack, but he also never had one before until that point. Now having had a few he knows that the danger of having a panic attack is that you start to panic about having a panic attack. There were only two options: Deal or bail, and to bail was inconceivable and was not an option, so John had to deal!

Ken’s flight experiences in Korea (OM281)

Ken never had a panic issue. He had been on flights with plenty of turbulence, but he just found it more exciting. One time he was on a little regional flight from Soul down to Jeju, an island off the Southern coast of Korea, where the plane was literally rocking back and forth like Newton’s cradle for the entire 90 minutes and they were sitting right by the bathroom. At least on two occasions somebody ran for the bathroom and on one occasion they didn’t make it and there was vomit splattered all over the wall right next to them. Ken is a sympathetic barfer, but he didn’t do it in this occasion.

One time when Ken was probably 8 years old they were coming in on approach to SeaTac. He knew the checklist and what sound is the flaps going down or the landing gear going down and you hear the ping for 10.000 feet, but then there were some other sounds he had never heard before and he asked his dad about it, but even he had never heard that before and he said: ”If something happens to you on a commercial flight it is pretty much over!” and Ken will never forget that his whole life. He still thinks about that anytime he hears some unexpected noise on a plane. That is generally true and a lot of people walk away from plane crashes.

Flying in Alaska (OM281)

In Alaska people are very blasé about aviation because everybody has to fly and there are more small pilots in Alaska than anywhere else in the world by a large margin. Growing up John had a lot of experiences in the jets of the 1970s.

One time he landed in Ketchikan in a 707 under whiteout conditions in a crazy blizzard. When the plane finally did get its landing gear on the ground it still had to figure out how to skid to a stop on the ice runway. The whole plane broke into sports-stadium applause because it felt improbably that they were going to survive this approach. The pilots were just flying with IFR (Instrument Flight Rules), using just their wit to put the plane on the ground.

John has been in small planes where you could see the ground through the crack between the door and the fuselage and the guy had put some duct tape on the thing before the flight. A lot of these guys crashed their planes! One time John’s dad was in a plane crash in Prince Rupert or somewhere in Canada, and the mounties had to pull him out of the forest. The first thing he said to John when he got him on the phone was: ”Boy, I wish you had been with me! You missed it!” He was so right, it is a rite of passage!

There are almost no commercial plane crashes anymore although the margin of error is pretty slim: Planes are big, full of gas, and they are moving fast, which is a bad combination. Sometimes a little thing will happen and a side panel will blow off a SouthWest jet and it will make an emergency landing, or the roof will peel off of that Hawaiian Airlines flight (in 1988, see here).

John’s uncle Jack surviving a plane catching on fire (OM281)

Ken was told that it was safest to sit in the back of the plane and somebody statistically crunched the numbers and it might be true. In 1948 the Students of Yale University from Seattle had chartered a DC-3 to fly them all back to Yale and John’s uncle Jack was on the plane because he was in the Yale football team. On the runway there was suddenly a fire and because he was sitting closest to the back door (the DC-3 is a taildragger) he popped the back door open hopped out while everyone else on the plane died.

The plane was instantly engulfed in flames. It wasn’t pressurized and opening the door was just turning the handle. He probably assumed that he was going to jump out and everybody else was going to follow him. Today there would be 10 psychological barriers keeping you from doing anything that 6 voices hadn’t told you to do over the PA, which is true for Ken, but John would be right out that door! Every time a flight attendant says: ”You are sitting in an exit row. Are you prepared to help in case of an emergency?” he is ahead of her and says: ”I’m ready! Tell me what to do! I will be there! I have studied the brochure!”

Ken always just says: ”Yes!”, but thinks: ”No!” like everyone else. He will just say: ”Yes, I want the leg-room!” and the will accept that. John’s uncle Jack had to deal with quite a bit of guilt over the yeas. He knew everybody on that plane because they were all college friends, not just football players, but everybody in the Northwest who was going back to Yale after Christmas. It was a real catastrophe! How could a plane be so engulfed so fast?

John in Morocco (OM281)

One time in Morocco John went to a little shop that was selling candy bars and cigarettes. He said: ”Give me a pack of Camels!” - ”Huh?” - ”Camel cigarettes!” He tried to pronounce it many different ways but the guy couldn’t understand what he meant, turned over, pulled out a pack of cigarettes and asked: ”Winston?” and that was the day John started smoking Winston.

Weird healthy food from the past (OM281)

John jokingly said that he had a smoothie of spinach, fish oil, and chocolate for breakfast. Sometimes he has those things as a sandwich between two entire cinnamon rolls, with the chocolate melted into the bottom roll and then you put fish oil on top and finally spinach. The fish oil and the spinach gives it umami. The foods that in John and Ken's childhood conveyed magical powers don't exist in today's technological West of the United States anymore.

The closest thing we have is chicken soup which comes from Jewish thought. In other cultures it is extremely common for people to say they will beat cancer because they ate a ton of some weird food as a child like the bird rice from the bottom of the rice cooker.

John’s mom was forced by her stepmother to take a table spoon of Blackstrap Molasses every day, which probably does not taste good, judged by the face she makes when she tells that story. It is the thing that gives ginger bread that dark weird taste, but you don’t want to eat it straight.

John’s mom had read a magazine article in the Dr. Spock era and when John was little she would make in the blender a formula of molasses, brewer’s yeast, liver, spinach and 4 more ingredients that had the consistency of motor oil and was considered super-food in 1969 terms instead of milk. John happily drank this concoction until his sister was born who refused utterly to drink this slop and was given regular formula. One day at the age of 3 John grabbed his sister’s bottle as a symbol of brotherly love and took a drink from it and in a moment of total betrayal and incredulity he stopped being willing to drink his formula. That is why John is so big!

We don’t have this talismanic food in our folklore anymore, but we do still crave that idea and every 6 months there is a news cycle about how blueberries or kale or whatever else is the new superfood with antioxidants. We pretend it conveys superhuman powers instead of just calling it a mildly more nutritious substitute for similar foods. You want your betas to be blocked!

The one mystical thing that Ken’s mom thought would confer amazing benefits, and that she thought would reflect badly on them as a household if they didn’t have it, was a warm breakfast. You couldn’t get away with a bowl of cereal or a piece of fruit because those don’t get you going for the day because they are not warm. You need something prepared and steaming to put in your stomach. This is the English vs the Continent. She was not making them rashers of bacon and mushrooms and tomatoes, but it would be cooked pop-tarts instead of uncooked ones or Cream of Wheat instead of Lucky Charms, which was awful.

Ken loved the gooey glutenous nutritionless white Pillsbury dough things that were extruded into different shapes and their mom would make a pan of this goo that probably came with a meteorite. The assumption was that you had to have something from the oven or it wouldn’t stick to your ribs.

Ken being in the Guinness Book of World Records (OM281)

Ken was in a past issue of the Guinness Book of World Records (for the record "Greatest prize money won on TV quiz shows (lifetime)"), but he never went to one of their soirees where other people were being fetted. He went on a special edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire for world record holders together with the guy with the largest comic book collection and someone who had done something weird the most times in a row, but not anything good like spinning plates and he can't remember what it was. He had burped the most times in a row, or something like that (most spits and catches of two table tennis balls).

John is a Winnie the Pooh devotee and he saw the movie Christopher Robin with Ewan McGregor with his 7-year old daughter. He also wears no pants, does stoutness exercises, and is unabashed about eating honey right out of the pot. John played Christopher Robin in House at Pooh Corner in the Shoreline Community College production of 1978. Everyone else in the production was a college student and most community colleges in the 1970s would have just picked the smallest girl to play Christopher Robin, but instead they cast John at 10 years old. It was a big moment for him!

John doesn't remember any lines from the play anymore, but he used to do many of them. He can still do some lines from the Aristeia. During the first few rehearsals he tried to do Christopher Robin with a British accent, but the director told him to just do it in a normal kid voice.

John in the Czech Republic (OM281)

There is a part of the Northern Czech Republic, like a big military base, that you can’t get past. John tried to figure out what they were doing there, but they kept him from going from here to there across this place. Everything in that point of the Czech Republic is funneled down a super-highway around this thing. The same happens with the Lewis-McChord airbase in the Northwest when you want to go from Tacoma to Olympia.

Ken almost drowning in a swimming pool accident (OM281)

In the year he started college Ken almost died from a swimming pool accident. He was goofing around in the pool with his little sister and suddenly somebody saw him floating in the wrong end of the pool. There was no life-guard, but luckily some guy knew CPR and proceeded to save Ken’s life. To this day nobody knows what happened. His sister was really little and wasn’t looking. Maybe he got kicked in the solar plexus and swallowed a bunch of pool water.

The whole day is gone in Ken’s memory. He had watched episode 5 of Ken Burns’ The Civil War that morning and then he hung out at the pool. Less than a week later he came home from the hospital and put on episode 5 and had no memory of who wins Vicksburg, as if it never happened. His parents were told that he would have permanent brain damage, and Ken claims he was smarter before and the rest of his life has been like dueling left-handed for him.


Ken got a tweet reply from Elon Musk, calling him a knucklehead.

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