Monday, May 30, 2011
Thursday, May 26, 2011
No joke, it was a bear.
What...you can't see it? No problem. Here's a close-up.
Okay, you got me. It wasn't a real bear.
After this super-exciting wildlife excursion, I make my way to Orange and the DZ. I decide I will stop in and buy a Skydiver's Information Manual (SIM), say hi to everyone and then head back home. The first thing I notice when I walk through the door is that there are two AFF students with their name on the manifest board. I ask Cathy what the story is about the weather and she suggests I stick around until at least 2pm. So, I throw my name up on the board, buy my manual and sit under the shade at one of the picnic tables. A couple of guys are waiting for their tandem jumps and they pace nervously while launching testosterone-laden verbal barbs at one another to prove to themselves that they aren't actually nervous.
A guy wanders over to me and introduces himself as one of my jumpmasters. Dick is older, handsome, really grounded and, as I quickly realize, clearly doesn't get my sense of humor. It's okay, not everyone does but I have to shift gears into being a dutiful student. I pass muster when I can answer every question he throws at me (why couldn't I do that for the exam??) and can walk through every step of the exit and freefall plan. The plane is about to take a load of people up and I'm told that the next flight is flight 4 is next and I am on flight 5.
See, I knew it! I am definitely jumping today! We head over to pick out gear. The jumpsuit is my least favorite part, but I put it on anyway. Then the water emergency kit, the altimeter, the parachute (very important) and then helmet and goggles.
I am now about 15 minutes away from getting on the plane. I see a guy I went to high school with and walk over to say hi (turns out he's a tandem instructor. who knew?). In the middle of small talk with Sean I hear the announcement...clouds have moved back in and they are shutting down flights. I look at Dick and shake my head. We decide to stay in gear for a little bit to see what happens. I sit down on a bench, the weight of the parachute pulling me backwards a bit. After 30 minutes, Dick walks out and looks at the sky. I can tell by his expression that it's time to throw in the towel. I stand up, shuffle back the AFF corner of the hangar and slowly put my gear away. I know that the Universe is rolling around on the floor, clutching her sides from the pain of laughter.
I walk through the office to remove my name from the manifest board. Cathy watches me pick up the eraser. She tilts her head, frowns and says "Aww, honey. Don't worry, it'll happen."
I know that it will. Just not right now.
And it's okay, because my dad taught me how to hitch the RV to the truck. There are only so many giant leaps you can take in one day.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
We woke up on Saturday to (insert hysterical laughter from the Universe here) MORE gray skies. But it was inconceivable! to us that I wouldn't be jumping at least once that day so we decided to make our way to the DZ anyway. Jessica consumes about 6 of my Decaf French Vanilla Keurig K-Cups trying to ward off a caffeine withdrawal headache. To no avail (I know, shocking, eh?)-so we make the first order of business programming our GPS for the nearest Dunkin Donuts.
When we arrive at the DZ, the parking lot is 1/3 full-the regulars have come for the weekend. As they crane their necks to look up, it is obvious that their withdrawal from blue skies runs far deeper than Jessica's little coffee 'problem'.
People are hanging out at the picnic tables, by the plane, on the orange and blue couches inside and in the office/manifest area. Quite a few people are packing chutes and a few are stumbling over from the camping area, in varying stages of sleepy-ness. I put my name up on the dry erase board with the letter A next to it. That tells them I am here, want to make a jump and it's my category A skydive. I go to find Andreas to see if he has any hopeful news about the weather. I turn my back for a few moments to chat with Andreas and when I turn around Jessica is deep in conversation with someone so I wander out the tables and chairs next to the hangar and turn my face up to the little sliver of sun peeking through the clouds.
When Jessica joins me, she is wearing a bit of a smile-one I haven't seen her in for a very long time. Apparently she ran into one of her skydiving friends, someone she hadn't seen for several years. Throughout the day, I notice that as people chat with us, she refers to me as the newbie, here to do her first jump-but she also refers to herself as a skydiver, one with well over 600 jumps.
This is significant because she hasn't jumped since the birth of her daughter in 2008. I don't need to have a child to know how much being a mother changes you, your priorities, your willingness to take risks with your life. I'm quite sure my sister isn't the first mother to make sacrifices in her personal life in order to manage her family life. I know she can't imagine putting Nella in the position of growing up without a mother just so that she can pursue what she thinks of as her adrenaline junkie past-times. She owns that decision 100% but I also know deep down, she misses the freedom of skydiving and that part of her identity.
It fills me with a profound sense of joy to see her reclaim some of that. It really doesn't matter if she decides to skydive again or not-it just matters to me that she remembers how important it is to hold on to yourself - and - to find your community.
You know...the place where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came...even if you don't get to jump out an airplane that day.
Monday, May 23, 2011
While I am meandering up and down the six or seven aisles that comprise this boutique-y grocery store, Jessica calls me to find out what the plan is. I tell her she should meet me at the campground and she immediately understands that this means all jumping is likely out of the question for today. She expresses her disappointment for me and we move on to discuss how we will fill the time.
After enticing her with the glorious meals I have planned by using the amazing foods in TJs, I tell her that if anything changes with the weather I will let her know and she can meet me at the DZ (drop zone). The reality that skydiving has the potential to be a dangerous sport prompts me to ask her if I have given her a copy of my "Last Wishes". It's not exactly a will but more of a "If possible, I'd like this...". She doesn't think I have so I tell her that the most important thing is that I don't want to be buried-I want to be cremated. This surprises her - I guess she thought I was a box-in-the-ground kind of girl, but she recovers and she follows up by asking the exact right question: where do you want your ashes spread? (FYI-anywhere in the Green Mountains and if possible-the Aran Islands in Ireland).
All of sudden I realize that other customers are looking at me - discussing death in the middle of the store is actually a little weird.
But knowing what I want done with my body, my belongings, my assets, my own little legacy to those I love-this isn't weird at all. I'm only 37 - the possibility of dying now isn't a constant thought. But having lived though the untimely and unexpected death of a loved one, I know that if it -whatever 'it' is- really matters to me then I need to communicate and take care of it now.
So even though I suggest to my sister that we move on to lighter subjects so that I stop scaring the other patrons just trying to bask in the wondrous glow of Trader Joe's, I make a mental note to send her the full wish list.
Just in case.
Actually what the Universe said was: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
But before I explain that, I should start at the beginning.
I arrived in Orange, MA for Skydiving Camp on Wednesday night. I checked in at the Wagon Wheel Campground and settled into my parent's palatial RV. If lending me their taveling home wasn't love enough-I opened the fridge to find this:
Thursday morning, I arrived bright eyed and bushy-tailed for my AFF ground school. Oddly, Jumptown was more like like a ghost town - it was damp and overcast-and the only bit of blue was my lone car in the parking lot. Gray (his name not his palor) greeted me in the office and introduced me to Andreas-my Instructor. I can tell right away that Andreas has been skydiving for a very long time. It's not that he is old, or that his ego is huge (both of these may be true but they aren't evident to me)- it's more that he seems completely at home in the hangar and I sense he could run the AFF class in his sleep. He's comes accross as affable but reserved- content enough to be teaching me about his sport there is something a little overcast about his demeanor. He mentions that it has been a very rough start to the season-not much sunshine, not much jumping. I also know that within the last year and a half they have lost two members of the Jumptown inner circle -one to illness and one to an accident-and I can't help but wonder if there is still the heaviness of grief hanging about. He gives me a brief tour of the place and leads me back to the AFF classroom.
The next 8 hours are spent covering every possible problem one could experience getting on an airplane in order to jump out of it. "Cut away and pull my reserve" became such a standard response that it no longer scares me. Despite the fact that the information I was learning was well outside of the realm of anything I had previously been exposed to, I did really well for about 3/4 of the day. I was right with him through every canopy malfunction, the whole dive flow, aircraft emergencies, hand signals and landing plans. However, when it came time for the test, it was as though someone cut of the top of my head, tipped me upside down and dumped my brain out onto the ground. (Honestly, I feel like I have seen that exact animation in a Monty Python sketch.)
The first question was so easy I thought it was a joke.
1."Where is the parachute located?"
I looked at Andreas, furrowed my brow and said "Really?" He smirked at me and then gave me a short lecture about skydiving drawing in people from across the intellectual and educational spectrums and that the test was designed to make sure you knew what you were doing. Chagrined, I ducked my head a bit and wrote down 'bottom, right-hand side'. I got the next few right, in part because they were equally as obvious ("arch", "cut away and pull my reserve", etc) But I kind of bombed some of the bigger questions. I knew them, but couldn't articulate them. This frustrated me-as someone who likes having the right answers and it annoyed Andreas-as someone who expected me to have the right answers.
We muddled though and at the end of the day he signed off on my test and essentially cleared me to jump. As much as I really wanted to, I was exhausted so I wasn't completely disappointed that it was still too gray to go up. I mean, I had ALL day Friday, Saturday and Sunday right?
This is where the Universe started laughing at me.
I woke up on Friday to the same weather I had on Thursday. I called Gray and he informed me of that which I already knew: there would be no jumping on Friday.
Monday, May 16, 2011
On Sunday, May 15th I treated myself to five precious minutes in the SkyVenture NH Wind Tunnel- an indoor skydiving center. I had been once before and it was fun but I never felt like I got a good grip on stability. With my AFF Course at Jumptown quickly approaching, I wanted to have a chance to practice. Let me just say - it's not cheap. 5 minutes cost me almost as much as a month's worth of groceries, but it was absolutely worth it.
First, I realized that my tandem skydiving experiences combined with a true commitment to just relax made the quest for stability much easier. And second-I had a chance to practice left and right turns using my elbows instead of my hands. (Thanks to Jake and Ryan for your excellent instruction!) If you aren't familiar with skydiving this distinction might not make any sense to you-but trust me when I say it gave me much more confidence going into the weekend of "skydiving camp".
~Wait...you say...there's such a thing as "skydiving camp"?~
Yes, and it's for grown-ups!
I made my first tandem jump in 2006 with Ole Thompson at Vermont Skydiving Adventures (Love Ole, Love VSA!). I jumped just to prove to myself (and my lovely sister) that I wasn't too afraid to do it. When I landed I felt amazing and empowered ... and I had NO desire to do it again. Last summer (2010), for reasons I can't explain, I began to get this inkling that I might want to do it one more time. My brother-in-law, AJ Bowen, is an instructor at VSA and I had floated this idea of going again by him once or twice because this time I wanted to jump with him. One night we were out at the drop zone and he -quite out of the blue-suggests we go for a tandem jump.
I, in my own semi-subtle and semi-girlish way, freak out. I sputter at him every excuse I can muster. He just smiles as he casually swats away each regret I offer him.
Me: AJ, I don't have the money for this.
AJ: Did I ask you for any money?
Me: But AJ-I weigh too much to skydive right now.
AJ: Do you weigh more than 250 pounds?
Me: (A little indignantly) No! Oh....
Me: I'm wearing crocs and don't have any other shoes with me-thanks anyway!
AJ: Hey Jess, can Sara borrow your shoes?
Me: Oh, that's..well, that's great.
And the next thing I know I am 12,000 feet over the Champlain Valley and Pilot Joe is wishing me good luck as I sit on the edge of the plane.
That jump changed my life forever. (Hokey? Yes. I still don't care.)
I found that skydiving forces me to be "in the moment". When you jump out of a plane- the only thing you can focus on is the pure bliss of free-fall and the things you need to do to land safely. Nothing else matters - in that moment. For a woman with a very busy mind, I have never felt so free and alive as I did when I was in the first 50 seconds of that jump. I went two more times that summer, once to celebrate my 4th half-marathon. The last tandem jump I made, again with AJ, I kept my eyes open the whole time. I saw the belly of the plane as we tumbled away and knew that I had to learn how to do this on my own. If life, loss and the Shawshank Redemption have taught me anything it's that you need to "get busy living or get busy dying".
So here I am, six months later, signed up for skydiving camp at Jumptown. I'm still broke, and weigh more than I am comfortable with -but- I am tired of being cautious and full of excuses.
Right now, this is who I am. And this is the only life I have. You can judge me, and you may not understand it, either way I will be the woman jumping out of a perfectly good airplane this weekend. :)
What, you might ask, is a mental carb? For me, it represents whatever gets you through the tough stuff.
It all started in August of 2003-I had just moved to New London, CT after two long, and very difficult years following the death of my fiance. And because a new hometown and a new job weren't enough of an adjustment for me- I'd also signed up to run a half-marathon in Virginia Beach in September. In the week before my departure for VA, my very cool boss, Shelly Metivier Scott (she's one in a million, really) wished me good luck and lots of pasta. I laughed and said I thought the actual carb loading would be easy-if she wanted to wish me anything it should be for mental carbs so I didn't psyche myself out of this 13.1-mile run. This amazing woman took me quite literally and had all of our student staff members write good thoughts and well-wishes on ziti noodles. She strung them together and presented me with a 'mental carb' necklace before I left for the race.
It's one of the coolest gifts I have ever been given and it was thus that true Mental Carbs was born. I use that term all the time now-in fact if I ever own a business, that is what I would name it. It represents all of the love, encouragement, hope, courage and determination that we have and need for any challenging endeavor.
As I begin this summer of adventures, including: skydiving camp, marathon training, thesis re-writing, and fund-raising for a great non-profit called the Semper Fi Fund, I take with me boatloads of mental carbs. I endeavor to live in such a way that I make the people who give me these mental carbs proud and hopeful.
Does that sound a bit hokey? Yes, I suppose it does.
I'm okay with that. While I remain fluent in Sarcasm, Hokey is a good language to be familiar with-and to those who have been part of my journey thus far-you have my love and deep respect. I hope you enjoy the stories to follow.
Shelly and I at our last Housefellow Fall Training Dinner (2006). Don't judge my hair, I lost control of it a long time ago.