(Caption: Our view of Big Sur)
I met Kareem because we needed a contract script writer--badly. Copywriting was not Kareem's only career strength, and not exactly a career passion, but the project was temporary, and he had just come from a digital agency with too much experience on his resume to get picked up immediately in a downsizing economy.
Prior to meeting Kareem I'd spoken on the phone to another writer with an agency background. She was ready and eager to jump into our project. Shortly, after being briefed about the aggressive deadlines and requirements of the client, she reconsidered and backed away, mid-script. We were supposed to shoot the following week.
In ideal circumstances, we strive for a sane approach to project management, where we plan such things as scriptwriting and shooting schedules way in advance, but being in this Webby world we're in, projects are often inked close to launch. Some people thrive in this kind of environment, some fight it and give in begrudgingly, some reject it outright. I needed to see how Kareem would react early, before hiring him.
I was brutally frank in our interview. Our "co-created" project with Brand X was exciting stuff, but it was not without client oversight and last-minute changes. I said something that I wish I hadn't,
"I need someone who's comfortable with user-generated content that's not all user-generated...I mean, it is, but with an eye toward the brand... not that they want to influence the script, of course...it must be authentic, but brand-friendly..."
I decided to look up from staring down at Kareem's extensive resume; he remained smiling and calm.
"Yes, I think I understand," he said. He told me of several on-set projects he'd done as a creative director. The personalities he'd encountered, the seemingly contradictory directives. It was clear to me that, from a production standpoint, he'd seen it all, and he understood the dichotomous nature of client work--something that often relied on a paradoxical act of creating authentic connection. He didn't bristle when I told him we were shooting next week and still needed scripts to submit for approval. And these scripts depended on the availability of his script subjects, whom had yet to be selected, let alone contacted.
"No problem," he said.
The following week, he arrived for a briefing meeting with snacks for the team. Shortly thereafter, scripts written and approved, he arrived at the set early with props that our producer had trouble procuring. Everyone who had arrived on-set had been briefed by him and was ready to go. He got along famously with the camera crew and director. Later, when the rough cuts were complete he adeptly knew where to cut and even how to retroactively make guests look more comfortable than they actually were. Client requests that may have overwhelmed another writer/producer were creatively integrated with no complaints.
After our final shoot he suggested we go grab some coffee. Already I was trying to think of how else we could work with Kareem until a more suitable position opened up for him.
It was a hot day; I sipped ice-coffee in an air-conditioned Starbucks. He asked me, "Do you fly much?"
Seeing as I tend to fly every, or every other, week, I answered in the affirmative.
"Have you ever flown in a single turbo prop?"
I thought of the little puddle jumpers I sometimes flew in to get from Chicago to Cinncinnati, or SF to Palm Springs. But Kareem was talking REALLY small. Like airplanes as small as my car.
In Kareem's spare time, he loved to fly. In fact, he's been an instructor off and on; in fact he met his wife, Taylor, when she was learning to fly. He showed me some pics of his plane, which elicited an immediate "Wow!"
"It's hard to explain to people," Kareem said. "Most people who learn that I own a plane think I must be filthy rich or something. It's really not like that. Owning a plane is like owning an expensive car, only it's probably much, much older and requires more maintenance."
I've never had an interest in aviation, but to hear Kareem explain to me the differences between commercial and private air travel, the government lobbying that was going to punish the non-millionaire plane owners, even how JFK Jr. should have read his instruments to calculate the horizon, was fascinating to me. He and Taylor would take quick trips to places like Mendocino or Oregon, have lunch, and fly back home, for fun.
"You should come up with us sometime," he said. I agreed, thinking that, rather, I should have my husband, Jesse, join them sometime. Absolutely, they should take HIM up with them.
Over the next few months, Kareem met Jesse, and I met Taylor, and we all got along famously, and the once-mentioned flying trip was mentioned again. Having this trip come closer to reality I realized I was a bit fearful--of what I'm not sure. Kareem's knowledge was unquestionable, as was his experience. I worried about getting sick, or getting vertigo in such a small plane. But Jesse was determined to go, and determined that I go with him. We set a date.
The week before our trip Kareem asked me to send him mine and Jesse's collective weight so that he could calibrate the amount of fuel that would be necessary. This question made me wonder just how stable a piece of machinery is that needs to be calibrated according to my weight. Would it matter if I fudged mine by five pounds?
The day of the trek was gorgeous, even by Californian standards. The visibility was perfect, the sun warmed the 70-degree air in the East Bay. We drove Kareem and Taylor to the municipal airport and parked next to the plane. Our car had more room than their turbo prop.
I felt a bit useless as Kareem and Taylor began what I guessed was their standard plane prep: removing the cover on the plane together, then Taylor packing the cargo space while Kareem inspecting all the bolts and pieces to the wing, even going underneath the plane, lying on his back. Next, he inspected the engine. All I could think was, would I even know how to do that with my car?
Jesse asked various questions about the engine, his voice and Kareem's starting to sound like the teacher's in the Peanuts cartoon ("Wha-wha-WHA-wha....). All I could gather was that the engine was relatively new, compared to the plane itself. Kareem's voice came back to comprehension when I heard him utter the following to Jesse:
"...you and Jory are going to be flying the plane." I tried to breathe easy, thinking to myself, OK we would each get to ride shotgun for a leg, but that was it." He couldn't really expect us to fly this thing.
I was starting to get excited as we taxied toward the runway. Kareem's voice was recongnizable but barely comprehendable as he spoke airplanese to ground control. A lot of numbers were said so quickly I couldn't make out what he was referring to.
"I'm telling them where I am intending to take off and at what angle," is my translation of what Kareem explained to us. We all had our headsets on; I decided not to muck up critical airwaves with any ridiculous questions. So I sat there silently next to Taylor, breathing deeply.
The takeoff was magnificent. We floated higher and higher. Kareem's voice never rose above an easy, conversational tone. He uttered a few more unintellible things into his mike, to ground control, and then turned to face me and Taylor, in back.
"Notice that this plane can still go without me steering it all the time," Kareem said. "That's how planes operate. They know how to fly straight once you set them on a course."
I thought, thank you for the demo, Kareem, now would you please put your hands BACK on the controls, please?
But that didn't happen, Kareem turned to Jesse, "OK Jesse, time for you to fly." He shared some fundamental information about how to climb, how to descend, and keeping a course, then left Jesse to his own devices.
We decided to go to San Luis Obispo, where there was a nice lunch spot at the municipal airport, and a great beach nearby. Kareem walked me through how he calculated a time to descend, all while Jesse steered the plane. Once, when we hit some choppy air, he took over. The plane shook rather abruptly and freefell briefly twice. I gasped. Kareem calmly called ground control and in airplanese let them know of the chop. I looked over at Taylor, wondering if perhaps she might have barfed on herself. No luck. She sat there placidly.
Shortly afterward Kareem landed. I was expecting more drama, given the choppiness of the air, but we left it at about 3,000 feet and landed perfectly.
Over lunch we talked about the ride. Kareem and Taylor explained how they typically plug in their iPod and listen to music together, in silence, while in the air. They went out nearly every weekend. I laughed about how luxurious it must be.
"This is what we do," Kareem said. "This is how we spend our time and money." This resonated with me. What I think he meant was, we don't do this so that we can say we have an airplane and fly to San Luis Obispo for lunch. The destinations are secondary. We do this because we love flying.
I wondered to myself, what was my form of flying, something that I shared with Jesse that, perhaps, one was better at than the other but that both of us loved to do. That we relied on doing together. We have a few candidates that rotate in and out. But I think we need to pick one as the primary activity, as a focal point that the others may revolve around. Especially with so much of my life on the road, it's easy to be a dilettante. I wanted me and Jesse to be as masterful at our thing and as in-synch as Kareem and Taylor were in the air.
I was hoping Kareem would forget his offer of having me fly on the way back, especially since Jesse had requested flying back along the Coast, which, along with a headwind, would mean a longer flight." As we climbed Kareem prepared me with a quick lesson on the controls. I recalled a time when I'd heard that tone of voice of his earlier, when we were on-set, and he was coaching one of the more nervous guests on our video show. He never had to tell her to relax, he just encouraged her when she did things right, similar to what he was now doing with me.
"You're doing great Jory ... you know what? I think I want to go a bit closer to coast, why don't you take us that way?"
I wanted to look out the side window and get a passenger's view, one that I tend to prefer when embarking on new journeys, but I could see that wasn't an option. And my competitiveness compelled me to fly at least as long as Jesse did.
Don't get too fixated on the instruments, Kareem said. Rather, see where I wanted to go and stay focused on that. The dashboard obfuscated my full view of the horizon, so I initially steered by staring at our compass heading. Once I was comfortable, I looked at the coastline in front of me. I felt like I did when I was a child on my Dad's sailboat, on our way back to the harbor, and he gave me the tiller: "See that building," he'd say, pointing to the Chicago skyline, "go thataway." I'd look at the compass heading and microposition constantly to stay on that mark, waiting for him to take over as we got closer to shore. I just didn't want to screw this up.
"OK, Jory, let's take it down to 5,500 feet."
A few minutes later, "Now 4,500."
And on we went, until Kareem took control again and I could see our speed as it appeared next to motionless buildings out the side window.