A Finger's-Worth of Finesse

A Finger's-Worth of Finesse

Last spring, I was part of an accountability group, friends and acquaintances encouraging each other to achieve various goals. Mine was to finish Triage. A guy in the group wanted to get his pilot’s license. (We’ll call him The Pilot—capital T and everything...)

The Pilot has journeyed around the sun atop this rock of ours over seventy times, and he figured it was as good a time as any to elevate his game.

I figured he’s right. “You get your license, and I’ll go up with you,” I tell him in passing.

He thought I was joking, as is the nature of our relationship most of the time.

“I’m not kidding.”

Others thought I was joking, too.

“No… really?” Why, yes, yes, I am. (These days, the fastest way to get me to do something is to tell me I can’t. I think I’ve been hanging around Little Miss Muse too long).

“It’ll be a little plane.” Yes.

“Do you trust The Pilot?” I suppose.

“Aren’t you scared?”

Gregarious holiday parties? Running out of story ideas? Flat tire on the interstate with six lanes of traffic whizzing by at 80 miles an hour? Cooking? These things make me nervous.

Cooking for other humans? That’s terrifying...

But I’ve landed in Chicago Midway enough to know that if I can survive touching down on that runway with potholes the size of pot-bellied pigs, I’d likely survive The Pilot’s maneuvering of the Piper Cherokee 140. (And right there, those last two words and that number? I’ve no idea what I’m talking about. May as well be a step in a recipe for angel food cake that I’ll never try again. I trust that The Pilot was not trained by the folks who write Betty Crocker cake mix directions and that those who permitted him to take to the skies have this under control.)

I truly wasn’t nervous, even if that plane turned out to be built in the ‘60s. I was reassured the engine was completely rebuilt. Or refurbished. Overhauled. Or something like that.

I couldn’t help the fleeting, intrusive thought that the last refurbished item I bought from Amazon was a dud, but hey. We’ll either land and have a good day or crash and not know—at least not for long—that the day wasn’t so good.

Hubs, The Pilot, The Pilot’s Wife, and I arrive at the small airstrip. Gorgeous day, clear blue sky. The Pilot says I can ask anything I want as we make our way to the hanger.

The Pilot’s Wife grins. She knows where I’m gonna go with my questions. The Pilot assumes I’m interested in wingspan, airspeed, altitude. You know. Flying stuff.


I adjust my bag around my shoulder and rest my hands on it (I did this subconsciously, not as a setup, I promise).

“I want to know if there’s a window or a hatch or something in this plane that we can open when we hit altitude so we can scatter human cremains.”

Little Miss Muse shoots off a bottle rocket and tap dances on my shoulder in glee, soooo glad I’m not asking about the boring stuff, like wingspan, airspeed, and altitude. I tell her to put the explosives away—we are at an airport, for crying out loud.

See why she gets kicked out of public places?

The Pilot’s face freezes. He stares at me, then my bag, then back to my face. “Do you have someone in there?”

No. No, I don’t, but I sure wish I’d hung on to Grandma. She’d have loved the flight and the freedom, I think. I could’ve spread her over her old homeplace. Because, as it turns out, there is a tiny little window on the pilot’s side of the cockpit for just this task.

It’s just big enough that if you cut the end off a bag of ash, you could let the remains taper like a streamer out over the wing and into the great beyond.

Too bad, though. We already buried Grandma in her urn.

I did learn, though, that there is no specific hatch to shove a whole body out of. You’d have to shove it out the door, and that would take some doing because the four of us barely fit in that plane, and handling a full cadaver—well, you get the picture.

Anyway, before we take our seats, The Pilot does his pre-flight check and explains that flying this particular type of plane takes a certain amount of finesse.

“Just one finger.”

Another intrusive thought: I hope he doesn’t fly the whole way with just one finger.

Contortionist skills are helpful for seating oneself in this aircraft, FYI. Hubs and The Pilot’s Wife in the back seat. Me the co-pilot after much insistence that I’m using this experience to gain story fodder and need to be in the front.

The Pilot, though he never outright voices it, is concerned I’ll mess with the controls. Or reach across him to play with that little window. No way. Not me. I know how to behave when the situation calls for it. Usually.

I do refrain from telling him, however, that Little Miss Muse is bouncing on the dashboard, flipping levers and turning knobs. She set them all back to their original states, but I think knowing a fifth being is on board would concern The Pilot a great deal.

He tells us many pairs of eyes are good and we can call out other planes (we didn’t see any). Call out birds, too. Especially big ones.

“But if we see Big Bird, we can assume we’re suffering from a group hallucination, and we have bigger problems…”

He doesn’t think this is funny. His wife does, though, and that’s all that matters.

We flew over our house. Twice, because I missed the photo op on the first pass, and, turns out, you can’t put the brakes on and back up an airplane. We flew over three counties, the lake. It was fantastic fun.

When we hit a calm patch of sky—and no birds in sight (big, small, or Yellow)—he let me fly.

For about ten seconds.

“Finesse,” he reminds me. “One finger.”

Now, I don’t have a finger’s-worth of finesse to be found in my whole body (Girthy Girl Yoga, right?). I’m too jerky with the control, and the plane dips.

“You’re going down.” The Pilot says this very calmly. No alarm in his voice at all.

Little Miss—who can fly of her own accord, mind you, purple-winged imp that she is—startles and sends an entire vial’s worth of lavender glitter into the vent when The Pilot calls out our downward status.

The third and final intrusive thought: I’m gonna crash us.

“You take it,” and I let go of the controls.

But I flew. For about ten seconds.

I glance behind me. Hubs is green. The Pilot’s Wife is still smiling. But there’s a trail of lavender smoke billowing out the back end. I don’t call this out. It’s not Big Bird, after all, and the flight is nearly done. I take the win, grab Little Miss, and firmly set her on my lap. “You have to stop. We’re about to land,” I whisper. If The Pilot hears me, he doesn’t acknowledge. He’s concentrating on his landing.

I brace, expecting something like a Chicago landing, but I don’t even slide forward in my seat. Smoothest landing I’ve experienced in a long while.

The Pilot, on the other hand, launches into self-critique mode (where he stays for days, so I gather) that his landing could’ve been better.

I thought the landing was great. The entire experience. Total finesse. A whole finger’s worth, even. I’d go again…

I understand his angst, though. That’s how humans are, right? The most critical of ourselves—especially something we’re striving toward.

This wicked self-critiquing happens when I write:

I can’t fit all the characters I want into the story, requiring contortionist skills to give everyone a seat.

Or I fly right past the point of an entire scene and must take a second go because I couldn’t find the brakes.

Or I run the plot into a hole the size of a pot-bellied pig.

Basically, I can float for about ten paragraphs of finesse before the thing threatens to go down in purple flames and I beg Little Miss Muse to take the controls.

But readers don’t see the behind-the-scenes maneuvers. They board the flight, have an adventure, and then land—hopefully satisfied and ready to go again.

Even if the author, on five separate occasions, wanted to chuck the manuscript pages out the cremation window…

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