I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Generations of Stewarts

Norma Jean (then and now), Allison, Lexie, me
This picture was taken last February when I was in Florida visiting Norma Jean. I wrote a post on my other blog about it here, but today I am thinking about my family and how the Stewart name is being carried on. We are all Stewarts in this picture.

I woke several times during the night wondering what I would post about this morning, thinking of how the "Sunday morning meditation" has morphed into a Sunday morning obligation. I set these things up for myself. Somehow I am a happier person when I have deadlines to meet. Probably I developed that set of muscles during my working years, I don't know, but it's definitely a part of me now. It's just after 5:00am, hot tea beside me, my partner sleeping; the birds are singing outside the window and a rooster is crowing in the distance. The stage is set, and now I write.

My father wanted a boy when I was growing up. Although he had three girls, he still wished for a boy, and when I was sixteen, my brother was born. His birth was followed in quick succession by three more babies, one a year. All girls. My youngest sister is almost exactly twenty years younger than me, and she and I will both have "big" birthdays this fall: she turns fifty, and I turn seventy. Mama was 39 when Fia was born, and 19 when she had me.

I don't know exactly why it was so important for Daddy to have a boy, being a girl and obviously a disappointment to him, I didn't even question it back then. It's very different these days. I myself had two sons, and I wished for a daughter because I knew girls much better than I knew boys, but I loved both my sons, even if I didn't get to dress them in frills and dresses. Was it to carry on the family name? Well, in that case, Daddy was a complete success, because we are all Stewarts in this picture: Norma Jean and her husband Pete changed their name legally to Stewart, as Pete's name (Polish) was constantly being mangled. Once they decided to do it, both of their children also became Stewarts. It's hard for me to even think of them as being other than Stewarts. When Pete died, the paperwork with the name change came up, and I saw the problem: it was misspelled in the process and caused some delays in getting everything legally transferred to Norma Jean.

Allison and Peter, their children, are Stewarts. I changed my name back to Stewart after years of taking on other men's names in marriages that failed. When Smart Guy and I married at fifty, there was simply no question of whether I would take his name. Why in the world would I? We would have no children, we were both established in our lives with the names we had. The world had moved on since the sixties, and many women don't change their names when they marry, and many couples don't even bother with the legalities at all and stay together but single.

Allison is a Lt. Colonel in the Army, a career woman who is not married, and she realized that if she was going to have a child, it would need to be soon. She decided to go the IVF route, using donor sperm, and little Lexie is the result. Today she is a beautiful little toddler, the apple of her mother's eye, and she will be raised without any father at all. She is very social and enjoys her days at the Day Care Center where she has become everyone's favorite. Lexie is also a Stewart. She has begun to develop a look that is all her own, but since we know little about one side of her genetic makeup, I wonder if she favors him at all. I know that Allison is very smart and has a gift for mathematics, and she chose a donor who also has math capabilities. Lexie is likely to have that trait as well.

A few years ago, CBS featured a program about sperm donor siblings and the new kinds of family ties that have formed because of people wanting to know about other relatives. Allison arranged to give Lexie the opportunity, when she comes of age, to find out about the donor. It is amazing to me to learn that more than 30,000 children are born in the United States every year from anonymous donor sperm. Yes, life has definitely changed in the years since Daddy was wishing for a boy to carry on his family name.

Life throws a curve ball every now and then. Because both of my sons died, I will not be carrying on the family name myself, but my sister, whose husband took her name, has two children who do. And the one female in the equation had a child who carries the Stewart name. Even though I have no living children, I have a very large family, with five siblings who all have children, and some of those children are busy having offspring of their own. Mama and Daddy would be proud.

It's time to post this and start the rest of my day. It has been very wet; yesterday it poured, raining much harder than I am accustomed to in this part of the country. I checked the garden, everything survived the onslaught, but I am still hoping for a break in the weather so I can get in a few jumps. It's now been three weeks since I was last able to make a skydive. I'll check the weather and if there is any chance at all, I'll head south to Snohomish to play in the air.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My years as a skydiving instructor

Graduation Day as an AFF skydiving instructor
I will never forget this day: June 18, 1994. After more than a year trying to get certified as an AFF (accelerated freefall) skydiving instructor, it finally happened on this day. My sister Fia with her daughter Megan (at my feet) and brother Buz are in the picture as well. I had flown to Dallas from Boulder to complete the course, and I asked my siblings who live nearby to come and celebrate with me. Tomorrow will be eighteen years since that happy day. I'm amazed that I didn't have any grey in my hair at all, and now it's completely white. It happens so slowly that you don't notice until you see a picture like this.

For more than twelve years, skydiving instruction became my true passion. Over the years I made more than 1,200 skydives with students, covering the gamut from me being terrified to me feeling totally competent to deal with anything that might happen in freefall. Sometimes we had a cameraman accompany us, but usually it was a threesome, the student and my partner. This is the way it works in AFF: the student has been through a rigorous training session. At some places I worked, a preliminary tandem jump was mandatory. I noticed that a student who had been introduced to freefall by making a tandem, before being required to perform certain tasks, was much more likely to pass the level. In AFF there are seven levels of proficiency to pass before you are allowed to jump out of the airplane on your own.
Me, student, fellow JM Cameron
On Level I, both jumpmasters have a secure hold of the student before the door is even opened, right at the center of gravity at the hips, one jumpmaster at each side. The student has been taught to arch (thrust hips forward) as this is how stability is gained in freefall. We jumpmasters are expected to maneuver the formation of the three of us out of the airplane door, with the student doing his or her part by assuming proper body position. Well, this happened most times, and then the fun started. The student performs a "Circle of Awareness," looking out at the horizon, then down at the altimeter on his or her chest, then getting eye contact with each jumpmaster in turn. Next the student makes three practice ripcord pulls, with the jumpmaster assisting if the student needs it. At 5,000 feet above the ground, the student then pulls the ripcord, and the jumpmasters let go of the student. If necessary, the instructor will pull for the student and of course the student needs to repeat the level. The student is alone under canopy and needs to ascertain if the parachute is airworthy, find the landing area, and fly it to the ground. Most Drop Zones have someone on the ground with a radio, and the student has a radio that the jumpmasters have hopefully remembered to turn on before leaving the plane. After everyone has landed, we meet together to discuss the skydive.

Sorry for the long description, but I realize that most of my readers have no idea what is involved in being a skydiving instructor. It's a lot of responsibility and I took it very seriously, not only because it was required in order to be a good jumpmaster, but because it gave me tremendous satisfaction to help someone else through that narrow doorway to become a certified skydiver.

Looking back, I am amazed at how much I learned from this activity. I was able to help students understand how to take it one step at a time, one success at a time, before moving on to the next task, and the intense satisfaction I felt when each student graduated to become a skydiver who was competent and filled with the joy of accomplishment. Each time a situation came up that was new to me (and students managed to surprise me throughout the years), I would discuss it with my fellow jumpmasters to learn the best way forward.

Every weekend I looked forward to working at the Drop Zone as an instructor, making between four and ten skydives with students in two days. I also earned money, as I not only had my jump paid for, but I also earned $25 to $30 for each skydive with a student. I used this money to take skydiving vacations or to buy the newest parachute gear. One year I made more than $5,000 skydiving and made more than 200 student jumps. It amazes me from this vantage point to remember how much I enjoyed all that. I could not imagine continuing to skydive without continuing to teach.

But you know, nothing stays the same. In 2000 I experienced a very bad skydiving accident by making a turn close to the ground. I've written plenty about it, but I had taught students over the years not to ever do something like that, and still I did it. Although there were other options, I didn't know what to do and made the wrong choice. I missed six months of skydiving from that accident, and it was awhile before I returned to teaching students. It's one thing to know something is dangerous, but it's still another to experience it in such a dramatic fashion. I like to think that my own accident has helped to prevent others from making the same mistake. Most skydivers don't get hurt or die from the freefall part of the skydive, but because they make poor decisions upon landing. Complacency builds up quickly when you have made thousands of soft landings.

Looking back at those years, I realize how much I have forgotten about those students, about those skydives. Who would have ever believed that something so dramatic, so extreme, could ever become mundane? One day I realized that I was no longer passionate about teaching and that it had become another job, that the spark was gone. Teaching the class on the ground became more enjoyable, because I was good at it and I no longer had to stretch myself to my physical limit wrestling a student around in freefall. Of course, by this time I had long ago passed my sixtieth birthday and was getting ready to retire from my career at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

There are no requirements for skydiving instructors to retire, but I felt that once I retired from my job, I should also retire from teaching skydiving. It was scary to contemplate at first, but I knew that playing, making formations in the sky with friends, was enjoyable. I spent more and more time doing that, and before I knew it, teaching had faded from my weekend activity. It also helped immensely to move away from Boulder and begin a new part of my life in another part of the country.

I have gone from making as many as 400 skydives in one year to barely making 50. It's been a gradual shift, but in the Pacific Northwest skydiving is a seasonal activity, beginning in May or June and stopping in October as the weather turns cloudy and rainy. So far this season I've been out to the Drop Zone four times and have made 12 skydives. I see the jumpmasters teaching their students, and I realize that those days are long gone. Not one molecule of my being wishes to trade places with those instructors. It's an amazing transition, really.

It makes me realize that the passage of years, the imperceptible movement from one state to the next, happens to all of us from birth to death. Now that I am in the twilight of my life, the light is gentle and oh those sunsets are spectacular. Contentment fills me, although it's Sunday and if the weather had cooperated, I would be driving down to Snohomish to play in the air with my friends. Today I am content to write this post, putter in the garden and read a good book.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

My first bike

From Retro Raleighs
When I was very young, maybe eight or ten, my dad came home from one of his TDY (temporary duty) overseas trips with a shiny black English Racer bicycle for me. It looked a lot like this one, as I remember. Nobody else had a three-speed bike with brakes on the handlebars; all my friends' bikes had coaster brakes and only one speed. I was terrified of it.

I've since learned (after doing a little research on line) that the Raleigh English Racer was built in Nottingham, England beginning in the 1930s. I found a cool website called "Retro Raleighs" and found the picture from Raleigh's 1951 catalog. The bike was too big for me and had the bar across the top, so it was a boy's bike rather than a girl's. I've actually only owned one bike that didn't have that stabilizing bar. It also didn't have the carrier bag in the back, that I remember anyway. When I looked at the picture in full size, I was amazed to find that the bike was pricey, costing £13 even back then! (That would have been about $600 in today's dollars.)

The bike stayed outside propped up against our house in California for a long time before ever being used. Every once in awhile my father would take me out and sit me on the seat to see if my feet reached the pedals. I remember scrunching up my leg so it wouldn't get anywhere near the pedal so I wouldn't be forced to learn how to ride it. Owning and riding a bicycle was nowhere near as common in my world back then. Today, a ten-year-old child has probably had a bike for years.

Daddy would try to encourage me to give it a try, and I loved my dad so much that I wanted to please him, but this was beyond scary. "How does it stay up?" I asked. When he explained the concept to me, it sounded like magic, not logical at all. I don't remember if he tried to ride it (the size disparity makes me dubious) to show me how it all worked, but I was sure there was a trick I didn't know about, and I kept my distance.

Then one day, I was looking at the bike, I don't know what made me finally decide to try it, but I propped it up next to the house and got on. My feet touched the pedals just fine; I was no longer given that excuse. I sat there, propped against the house and imagined myself going down the street for a long time before I finally worked up enough courage to try moving it. But curiosity and a kid can surmount many an obstacle.

Even though I have lived almost seventy years and have been on the planet for more than 25,000 days, that day stands out in my memory, bright and vivid. I learned through trial and error, and many spills, to ride that bike. It was exhilarating and empowering. Nobody was helping me, and I remember learning to keep it upright before I learned to stop it with the brakes, and I ran smack into a telephone pole. Fortunately neither of us were hurt very badly, but I remember that crossbar hit really hard in my private parts. I was sore for days, but I never told anybody about it until today, afraid that if I told my parents they might take my bike away from me! Plus it was a silly mistake, once I learned to coordinate riding AND stopping. Necessity is the mother of invention.

By the end of the day, I was riding the bike as if I had known how all along, and I only came in because the sun went down. I was in love. The magic of the bike staying upright thrilled me, and it still does to this day. The old saying about never forgetting how to ride a bike once you've learned is true, I find. Just last week I purchased a used bike and took it down to the local bike shop for a tuneup. I rode it to the bus stop (less than a mile) and put it on the bike rack at the front of the bus. I've watched people do this for years, but it was my first time. I made a couple of mistakes and was nervous, but the bus driver was helpfully shouting instructions out the door as he watched me attempt to secure the bike. A total of three bikes can be placed on the bus.

As I sat on the bus, proud of myself and holding my bike helmet in my hands, I realized that I have come full circle in my bicycling journey. The young girl who learned to love her English Racer, and the senior citizen who wheeled her newest purchase into the bike shop six decades later, are both proud bicycle riders. There might be yet another bike purchase in my future, if I catch the bug and find a community of riders that entices me into buying a fancy-schmancy bike with all the bells and whistles. I was a bit shocked at the price of the fancy bikes in the shop: well over $4,000!

In my years as a bike rider, I have used a bike to commute to work, went without a car for years and only used a bike, and have ridden my bike from Boulder to San Francisco (in 1974). I've replaced many a flat tire and knew enough to keep my bike in good working order. I've forgotten all that, but I guess I'll learn again. Bikes get flats and need regular maintenance. If you see a white-haired lady wrestling with her bike by the side of the road one of these days, you might stop and see if you can give her a hand. She may be old but she's willing to learn. And re-learn.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Rock climbing and other pursuits

When I was much younger, I used to climb fourteeners and took up rock climbing. I'm not sure exactly when this picture was taken, but I know it was taken on top of Longs Peak in Colorado. Colorado has more than 50 mountains that are higher than 14,000 feet, hence the nickname "fourteeners" for these peaks. I wrote about how I got started in this activity a while back.

Last week, Norma Jean asked me why I wasn't using this blog to write about the past, as I had done when I began writing here. After all, I designed my other blog to be short and sweet, with lots of current pictures, and she feels that the Eye blog has morphed into something more like DJan-ity. It made me think about why I write here. When she brought it up, I felt a distinct sense of guilt, as if I had somehow been caught out doing something not quite honest. She's right, you know: I realized (after feeling around inside myself) that writing these posts stirs up a whole lot of buried angst. One way I've dealt with the pain and sorrow of my past is to distract myself, and this blog was supposed to be designed to keep me from spending my entire life doing that very thing.

There are a whole lot of stories that are languishing in the dustbin of my memories, and if they don't get exposed to the light of day, they will die when I do. So here goes: some of those past experiences have begun to emerge, and I'm willing to dust 'em off and write 'em down. In the days like the one in the above picture, I was learning how to do things that most women didn't do. In fact, that's what appealed to me about pursuing them. Rock climbing was a big thing in Boulder, so I found some partners and purchased a harness and a rope.

Now you might look at that picture and think it's not that different from what I do today, going out and hiking up mountains, even if they were a lot higher in Colorado than they are here in Washington state. But Longs Peak has many routes to the top, and the woman (whose name is lost to me now and hovers right out of reach) and I, along with one other woman, had climbed up one of the technical routes on Longs Peak. (I don't have a clue who that guy in the white helmet is; he wasn't part of our group.) The third woman took our picture.

We climbed a route known as Kiener's Route. I found this link to Jared Workman's website, and he just happens to live and work in Boulder. I didn't know him but I'll bet we crossed paths more than once. He has a couple of cool pictures on that link showing what Kiener's Route actually looks like and explaining it in detail. We carried ropes and belayed each other as we crossed Lamb's Slide and a very exposed section known as Broadway. Here's Jared's picture of Broadway.
See? It's not actually all that hard to walk on that green area, but it's the fact that you just don't want to slip up. It's called "exposure" and when you see what the consequences of a missed footstep might be, using ropes to save yourself from certain death makes a whole lot of sense. In fact, now that I'm a skydiver, it's sort of like your reserve chute: you probably won't need to use it, but in case you ever do, it's there.

Anyway, we didn't have any problems making it up this rather easy technical route, and as we summited (when that first picture was taken), we saw many dozens of other hikers who had come up the non-technical traditional route, known as the Keyhole. They were amazed at seeing us come up from another route that looks terrifying, looking down from the summit. I've also climbed up the Keyhole route, too. The entire climb is eight miles each way and traverses up 5,000 feet in elevation. Knowing how tired I am after a hike these days of half the height and half the distance, I realize that I probably couldn't do this today. But then again, it was probably thirty years ago that I climbed up Longs Peak.

During my climbing days, I spent many a summer's day out in the wilderness enjoying the views from different peaks. Summiting fourteeners was the first time I realized how rarified the air is at 14,000 feet. In Colorado, it was so clear that it seemed you could see forever. Although at that altitude smokers and people who are not in pretty good shape have a hard time, it was exhilarating to me. I learned to slow down as we gained altitude and the air got thinner and thinner. My heart would pound from the effort and the lack of oxygen; everyone slowed down.

When I was a climber, I would get what is known as "sewing-machine legs," when I would become scared and the adrenaline in my system would cause my legs to tremble so bad that I couldn't continue until I gathered my wits about me and relaxed. It was usually because I was afraid that I would fall, even though the rope would catch me (theoretically, anyway) and I wasn't really in any danger. I saw it happen to many climbers, not just me. Exposure did it to me, my very active imagination allowing me to contemplate falling. The only way around it was to relax and concentrate only on the task at hand. Perhaps overcoming my fear of falling while climbing helped me to learn to skydive, who knows?

It was at the end of 1990 when I made my first skydive, and my interest in climbing mountains and even hiking into the backcountry began to fade. I didn't look back and didn't think I'd ever stop skydiving and return to the mountains, but I'm beginning to realize that no matter how much you love something, it doesn't stay the same. I get as much enjoyment from a brisk walk with my friends as I do when I head down to Snohomish and jump out of airplanes. Smart Guy once said to me, "you can't have a hundred jumps forever," meaning if you keep jumping you gain experience and knowledge... and familiarity. Spending 66 hours in freefall, as I've done, means that it's no longer thrilling. Well, it is, but not in the same way.

Now that I am much older and wiser (I'm smiling here), what are the trials and tribulations that are still out there to be faced? Well, as many who are older and wiser than I have said, "getting old is definitely not for the faint of heart."