Over the Ultimate City: To Live or Die in L.A.

It is always unnerving yet comfortably familiar to fly into LAX. I will need to do so again in a month or so. The vast urban landscape from Palm Springs westward to the Pacific shore is amazing to behold, if you really look at it. For about 125 miles, the mostly low-lying “built environment” stretches the entire way. It takes 2 or 3 hours…or more… to drive via the freeways, “depending on traffic.” Asphalt and concrete everywhere separates apartment complexes, commercial buildings, strip malls, mega-shopping centers, suburban neighborhoods, and elite “gated communities.” It has been over six months since my last visit. Still, it is never any less strange and prosaic despite my having lived and worked there for nearly four decades — until I retired over a dozen yeas ago.

Last time I had a window seat aft of the wings. I can never resist watching the mega-city go by below. But I’ve seen it all many times, both as an airline passenger and as a private pilot. I learned to fly in 1976 over this same urban desert. The complexity even back then sure gave me a sense of the importance of the instructor’s official admonition to “stay well clear” of any nearby aircraft. It also instilled an appreciation of the complexity of the air traffic control system as a blend of highly skilled living beings interacting with sphisticated information technology that is always in need of an upgrade.

LA Sectional

LA Terminal Area Chart – LAX at west shoreline.

Whether as pilot or passenger, I experience both the air traffic control system and city below it as marvels of human ingenuity and collective coordination. Yet they seem ever more vulnerable to chaos and ultimate collapse. Sometimes around dusk, I used to fly my little Piper PA-161 from Compton Airport out to the north east below the LAX final approach path under visual flight rules, then west along the Santa Monica Freeway, passing downtown LA to my north, heading toward the Santa Monica shoreline.

That way I could take the coastal route north saving time by not having to file an instrument flight plan. It was quicker that way when controllers were so busy with “rush hour” airline and business-jet traffic and hardly had time to issue another clearance. The city lights of downtown LA, the sunset, the many other aircraft in all quadrants with their nav. lights and landing lights so easy to see threading their way through the geometrically parsed airspace as daylight receded were all so beautiful, yet so delicately tentative and dangerous.

On disembarking into the LAX terminal on my last trip, I faced a mass of humanity flowing haphazardly in all directions in the very large multi-gate concourse. A virtual sea of diversity was lining up at a Southwest gate to board the next flight. I had a sudden sense of the quantitatively unimaginable scale of worldwide over-population rarely mentioned among environmentalists or politicians these days as the consumption of resources and energy by the people of the industrial nations reaches truly crisis scale.

Even as Los Angeles still works, more or less, it is difficult to imagine how such intensity can continue much longer as so much fossil-fuel energy and so many resources reach their extractive tipping points. LA, with its 13.1 million people in the metro area, seems the epitome of the extent to which humanity can appear to overcome nature, then approach a dead end. Big changes lie ahead. Meanwhile, can we learn anything about our future from this glorious megalopolis that may soon die of thirst?

Some Words on Wood and Wings

 ~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

I can’t remember not working with wood. My father was an amateur woodworker. He built some really nice furniture for our house – a hallway entry table, a coffee table, and end tables in the “early American” style – with little more than a radial-arm saw and some hand tools. It was an antidote to his high-stress small-salary white-collar working-class job as an insurance adjuster. He was known as the top adjuster in the Los Angeles area; that, of course, did not get him a particularly high salary. But, as a confirmed “company man,” he took his job very seriously and was ultimately damaged from the chronic stress. He didn’t get much of a retirement; the lung cancer, aneurisms, and vascular disease made sure of that. But along the way, woodworking provided a creative outlet.

My first year in high school he got me a summer job as a construction laborer with a contractor friend; that was an education in itself about the use of wood and other materials in building construction. It also gave me an initial understanding of the ways of the working man’s world. The contractor specialized in demolition of fire-damaged buildings and their reconstruction – he called himself a “building surgeon.” The experience of tearing down old houses taught me how they used to be built decades before. Even in 1954, I could see that they didn’t build them like they used to. But I digress.

Gruman F6F-3 Hellcats in tri-color camouflage_May_1943

F6F Hellcat

When I was about 9, I built a model of a World War II fighter plane. It was a Grumman F6F Hellcat carrier-based fighter, which had dominated Japan’s infamous Zeros in the Western Pacific in 1942 and ’43. The real Hellcat was mostly metal, including armor plating for the pilot and engine-oil cooler – two “mission critical” on-board systems. I made mine mostly out of balsa wood for the structural parts such as ribs and bulkheads, tissue paper for the skin, and “airplane dope.”

Just like the older airplanes, you paint the tissue paper (linen on a real 1920s biplanes) with airplane dope, a quite volatile organic compound no doubt illegal in California today. The dope soaks in and dries like a lacquer, transforming the paper into a strong light ‘skin’ for the airplane.  That model had balsa wood bulkheads and ribs just like the airplanes of the 1920s and early 1930s; the real ones, of course, had used mostly spruce.  That Hellcat model I made must have been almost 2 feet long – but I was smaller then, maybe it was 18 inches…or less…  Along with numerous other airplane models, I also built some model boats, including the classic Chris-Craft speedboat, that one with a skin of thin mahogany veneer. Only about 7 inches long, it had a little electric motor, a brass drive shaft through the keel, and a little brass propeller. I ran it in a local pond.

Well, as life would have it, from college and graduate school and through most of my working life I did little woodworking, except for building two houses – but that is a story for another day. All that time, I never lost my attraction for wood nor the desire to work with it again. But, ah ha, jubilación! (That’s retirement, en español.) Once settled in Santa Fe, I began to take classes in the Fine Woodworking Department at Santa Fe Community College, which has a national reputation for its high quality instructors, program, and well-equipped shop. At the onset, I decided that I would take my time with whatever project I undertook, learn everything possible and enjoy the process. So much to do, but I had all the time in the world, as a Mad Jubilado.

“Time is money,” the saying goes. But that is just a way our overheated over-production over-consumption predatory economy keeps us focused on serving it instead of serving our lives. Time is actually Life itself. That is why, when I am in the woodshop fully engaged in a project, seeking elusive perfection in wood, time dissolves into life. To live is to ‘take’ the time needed to live. Life is a craft; live it.