Crash, boom, bang

26 08 2010

Ah, the memories…. The sights and sounds and smells of a skate training run gone terribly wrong still hang around me like an old friend.

My skate crash exactly twelve months ago today that ended my season 2009 rather suddenly and violently was a freak accident. It could have happened to anyone, anywhere. Instead, it happened to me (wearing appropriate safety equipment, I hasten to add) at the bottom of a hill – when a cyclist and I took each other’s right-of-way as I was forced to swerve to avoid an oncoming car. The end result of it was three broken bones (all mine) – one of which was shattered enough to require two operations to fix. To add insult to injury, the cops nailed me with the blame and a fine of $500.

The chronology in a couple of words goes something like this: Happily skating. Crash (snap! snap! crunch-smush!). Pain. OH, F***ING PAIN!!!!! Ambulance, drugs, PAIN!!!!! More drugs, hospital, operation, titanium plate and screws, three days inpatient, two weeks on the sofa at home. Bored, bored, bored. B-O-R-E-D! Harumph.

Yep, that would be my left arm.

The best part of the whole experience was indeed the drugs they gave me while still in the ambulance. They were quite amazing – the world went fuzzy, and then suddenly colorful neon flowers lit up right in front of my eyes, where, rationally, I knew there weren’t supposed to be any. The drugs in the hospital were good too, but the halucinations were slightly less impressive.

(Just for the record, the worst part about the whole business was the sound of the electric screwdriver during surgery. Two surgeries, seven screws.)

At the time, without knowing any of the details, my mother sided with the cop. She chided me for being reckless, told me that it was all my fault and I deserved the consequences. (Thanks mom, I always knew you loved me.) She also tried to talk me out of skating ever again. To those who know me, a ludicrous thought. If you fall off a horse, aren’t you supposed to get right back on? Exactly.

As I do my training laps here this summer ahead of the Berlin Marathon in a month, my accident always gives me pause to think about how fragile the human body is, and how miraculously it heals. Still, while the physical damage has, for the most part, been repaired, the psychological after-effects remain. These days I do think differently when I skate, and my situational awareness is significantly higher than it was before. I don’t speed down hills anymore, confident that nothing will happen if I just keep my eyes open. My faith that other athletes (cyclists, joggers, dog-walkers, skaters) will behave predictably and sensibly as we speed past one another is also considerably lower than it was a year ago. In short, I’m now scared of all the stupid crap other people are capable of when their brains are stuck in neutral.

Swoosh!

I now skate as defensively as humanly possible, but not so defensively as to risk being picked up by the sweeper-bus in my next race. And despite all the time I am spending on my eight wheels this summer, I’m not really sure where I stand physically or mentally, and I often wonder if I’m just wasting my time and risking my health. My only other event this year was a cold, rained-out half-marathon in March, where I clocked my slowest 21 kilometers e-v-e-r. The marathon in September is supposed to be my opportunity to pick up where I left off a year ago, a triumphant return for a fallen gladiator, rising from the ashes, charging to a personal best and set to leave her mark on the history of the sport.

I’ve now spent the whole summer skating and I’m tired. But this afternoon, after work, I will be out there again – padded, helmeted and wheeled – swooshing my way on one of my two favorite routes in Zurich – around the airport (17km), or a local lake (19km), I haven’t decided yet which. One thing is for sure: with every training circuit I complete, I’m a couple of kilometers closer to the finish line. See you there in a month.

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The Anti-Parent

23 08 2010

It’s back-to-school time so let’s talk about… children.

Now…I am over 40 and I am childless. No, excuse me, child-free. I make that distinction because to me, “less” implies there is something one wishes one had but does not, and “free” implies that one never wanted it in the first place. So I am happily child-free, most content to have nothing to do with kids, and to be able to keep a healthy distance between them and me. As far as I am concerned, kids = problems, noise, trouble, anxiety, stress, mess, complications, expenses, broken stuff, and an all-around pain in the neck.

As far back as I can remember I had no interest in having or just being around children. A cousin and I discussed this when we were teenagers… she said she wanted kids, but didn’t care for a husband; I said I wanted a husband but no children. (Today she is a lesbian mother of two, and I am a wife. At least that worked out for both of us.)

In my early 30’s my attitude towards kids shifted temporarily. My friends started procreating and I was briefly under the delusion that I, too, must experience that facet of life, and add the label “mother” to my CV. But thankfully that phase passed and, while currently being subjected to a second veritable baby-boom in my immediate vicinity, I am now more positive than ever that I don’t need the aggravation nor do I need to boost my own ego by attempting to create another being in my image.

I can’t imagine going through the discomfort of pregnancy and the high drama of childbirth. And those two traumatic experiences mark just the beginning of problems that will last a lifetime, with no escape.  No, no matter what the norms of society dictate, I can’t see how locking myself in that emotional and existential cage would make me happier, or a better person.

Seeing a very good friend turn into a shell of her former self after becoming a mother, and watching a marriage deteriorate because the adults have no alone-time has certainly not helped.

And in not having children, I am actually doing all you purportedly happy parents and the world a favor. I am making a significant contribution to the sustainability of our planet. There will be one less human being to feed, clothe, house, educate and keep safe for 80 or so years; one less person whose garbage and waste will pollute our limited natural resources. There will be no contribution to overpopulation, and in waiving my right to offspring I am also leaving more space on this earth for your kids to romp, make a racket, be creative, and thereby realize their potential. It’s only fair that they then help pay my pension.

So parents, skewer me if you want to – I’m used to it. I just don’t buy into the “kids are the best thing that ever happened to me” mind-set. Yeah, sure, your little bundles of joy are all wonderful – as wonderful as screaming, dominating little tyrants can be. Actually I love (your) kids… and thanks for going through the hassle of having some so that I don’t have to.





Goodbye Iraq

19 08 2010

With “Operation Iraqi Freedom” coming to a close after a seven-and-a-half year nightmare, I am reminded of the day I left Iraq, a long time ago. In a different lifetime, it seems. I spent almost six weeks in the war zone in August and September 2003, as a journalist. That was after “Mission Accomplished” but before the real carnage began. Admittedly, a couple of weeks is a joke compared to the many months and years that others, including friends – civilians like journalists and aid workers as well as military personnel – spent there. And of course the Iraqis themselves, who have to face a violent reality every day, and who don’t have the luxury to be able to hop in a car or a plane and start a new life elsewhere.

This is the email I wrote home after I left. My observations may seem superficial, and you might think I don’t have the credibility to pass judgment. On anything about this war. If I would have known what I know now, I might have made different choices back then. But it’s safe to say that my time in Iraq was probably the most intense, enriching and educational experience I have had so far, both professionally and personally, at a time and in a place I will never forget.

*********************

September 10, 2003

My shift in Iraq is over, I have returned to Europe, many experiences, stories and snapshots richer. I arrived there knowing no one and nothing, and when I left, I left friends behind in a hostile environment. Time for you to stop worrying about me, and me to start worrying about them. I hope they will fare well, inshallah.

Thank you for your thoughts, prayers and good wishes. Every email from every familiar voice was welcome – you guys made me smile a lot when the going was tough. I spent a few days in the Baghdad bureau, but office work was never my thing. Most of my time, more than three weeks, was spent on a U.S. Army embed near Baqouba, about 60 kilometers northeast of the capital, near the border to Iran. Camp Boom, a former Republican Guard base, is now home to the soldiers of an Engineer Battalion of the 4th Infantry Division. Baqouba is a hotbed of loyalist activity, the soldiers’ main mission is to search for former regime supporters and their weapons caches. Every so often an informer leads them on a hunt for the big fish himself, the Ace of Spades. But even after 75 such tipoffs across the country since the coalition arrived, Saddam Hussein remains at large.

It was hot, uncomfortable and downright filthy in the desert. With the summer temperature in Baqouba reaching 120 degrees Farenheit – 48 degrees Celcius – or more our living conditions were very basic. No air conditioning, no running water and no privacy. I never knew I could get so sweaty and dirty and disgusting and still be able to live with myself. We slept in the open air, under a perfectly clear starry sky every night, with gunfire in the distance. The local fauna included sand fleas, black scorpions and wild dogs.

An Iraqi and and American

There was also enough tragedy on my watch. On August 17th we lost a friend and colleague, our company’s second fatality of this war. Our cameraman survived years of dangerous unrest in his home, Hebron, only to die on an empty Baghdad street in broad daylight at the hands of a U.S. tank gunner. Two days later, the United Nations was dragged into the ever tightening spiral of violence. Earlier in the month, the Jordanian embassy was bombed. On a peaceful Friday in Najjaf, south of Baghdad, the first shot of a possible civil war was fired. During my time in Iraq, about 20 U.S. and British soldiers lost their lives to ambushes and homemade bombs.

My cameraman and I had some close calls and we were very lucky, narrowly escaping one such bomb. An explosive device, planted at a busy Baqouba traffic circle, went off  as a  military convoy passed. It was intended to kill Americans, instead it killed two Iraqi children. The humvee in which we were traveling had passed that very spot just 15 minutes earlier. Another time, at night, our vehicle swerved to avoid the carcass of a wild dog lying on the side of the road. We found out later that the carcass had been stuffed with explosives.

Baghdad in the afternoon

Was I scared at all? Strangely, no, not really. Looking back, the only real fear I felt was on my way into the country, at night, on an eleven-hour car journey from Amman to Baghdad, into the unknown. Once there, it was futile to be scared or to panic, and somehow, after a few days, I didn’t even think of it. My senses were more acute, I had to trust my instincts and I had to trust those who know the territory much better than I ever will. I only took risks that I could justify and the fear quickly gave way to curiosity, disbelief at times, heightened awareness and determination. Only after I left Baghdad, two days ago, did I realize how mentally exhausting living like that really is. My journal was my release – in those weeks I wrote more than 100 notebook pages.

Tomorrow is September 11th again, the events of that day two years ago brought the world to where it is today, and they brought me to Iraq. After this, I now question, more than I did before, the wisdom of the policy that took us from there and then to here and now. I know some of you disagree. I’m still trying to sort through the conflicting feelings I have about it all.

My next challenge is to return to normalcy: pay bills, do laundry, get a haircut. Six weeks in a war zone was long enough to want to return to creature comforts and my own bed. For the first time in a long time, I am happy to be home. The next opportunity to travel will come, so in the meantime I will enjoy taking a break, knowing I did my best to tell a few of the stories.

Be well, everyone.

Farewell, friends.





My Swiss Tour Guide in America

16 08 2010

So after writing about my job/workplace once I think its time I got back to some of the more interesting things in life. Like my next vacation, starting in exactly 17 days.

The summer has been a long haul and it’s about time for another break. On the one hand SOMEone’s got to hang around and hold the fort when everyone with kids decides to take off for Rimini, St. Tropez or Ibiza. On the other hand it’s been stressful trying not to die of boredom, while sitting in an office building watching the clock tick and paint dry, looking out the window at the sun-drenched scenery below and wishing one was out there and not in here. And when I did get out there I’ve been training my tush off for the marathon (in exactly 40 days).

But soon I’ll be getting on a pseudo-psychedelically-painted plane, headed for San Francisco…. You got it – with flowers in my hair.

Photoshopped here, but this airplane also really exists.

The West is still a bit of a mystery to me, I of Yankee Mid-Atlantic heritage. Before I met my husband, my first-hand experience of the U.S. was limited to the region enclosed by the following geographic perimeter: the Canadian border to the north, the Jersey Shore to the east, the Potomac to the south, and Pittsburgh to the west. I also kind of knew a bit about South Florida, where I was born and my father had retired, and oh yeah, when I was 12 I went to Toledo, Ohio once, for my sister’s college graduation. And I once had a boyfriend who dragged me to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. (24 hours in Louisville were more than enough.)

So I had to meet this Swiss guy when I was 36 in order to discover some of the real treasures in my own country. In his former life, R. was an adventure tour guide based out of San Francisco – nice work if you can get it. He has traveled every highway, byway and dirt road left of the Rocky Mountains. Multiple times. He is, so to speak, my personal living, walking, breathing Rand McNally Atlas of the American West.

He introduced me to some of the most spectacular natural and man-made features my home has to offer, many of which I had previously been ignorantly, scandalously unaware of. Others I had seen only in National Geographic documentaries and my parents’ large-format coffee-table books. On that first trip out west together we covered all the relevant bases, and more: We hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up again (The Classic), he taught me how to play craps in Las Vegas (The Reckless), and we feasted on 18oz ribeyes off the Swingin’ Steak Grill at the Mexican Hat Lodge (The “Kick-Me-If-I-Ever-Contemplate-Turning-Vegetarian-Again”).

The highlight was, of course, the City by the Bay. And we have spent the past three years since then trying to figure out how we can end up there. You know, for good. So far without success, but hope still springs eternal around here. We’re working on it.

Coming soon!

This next road trip out west in (in 17 days) will be more than just a visit and an homage to the place we know we’d love and thrive in. We’ll also be taking in another part of the country I’ve always romanticized but so far never actually met – the Northwest: the northern California coastline, Yellowstone, the Redwood forests and Grand Teton National Park. We’ll stop in wonderfully-named places like Bend Oregon, Jackpot Nevada, Boise Idaho and Jackson Hole Wyoming. And once again my Swiss sweetie will be my all-American tour guide extraordinaire. Can’t wait.





The Aquarium

11 08 2010

Many of my loyal readers might think that all I do here in Switzerland is fun stuff. Well, unfortunately that’s not the case – I do have a day job, in an office in which I spend about a third of my life. A place that sucks the creativity and lifeblood from my veins in exchange for a monthly paycheck. Ok, ok, in this economy, that’s worth a lot and I don’t mean to diminish its value. The pay IS good. Nevertheless, this wasn’t how the story was supposed to go. I was supposed to thrive in my chosen career. I was supposed to flourish in a nurturing, positive environment. I was supposed to be excited and happy about everything I did. I was supposed to be special and successful and always out doing something fulfilling. Something super-action-heroine-like.  I wasn’t supposed to end up in an aquarium.

As office buildings go, the one in which I am sequestered to for ten to twelve hours every day is actually pretty luxurious. I have spent time in much, much worse. It’s big enough to be called humane for creatures living in captivity, they feed and water us regularly and there’s a lot of daylight. The building is a new and very modern-looking high-rise, built to withstand a hurricane. Thankfully, it is air-conditioned, something not to be taken for granted here in Europe. And I, oh lucky one, hit the jackpot – a window spot on a high floor. Therefore, I actually have a view.

We call it the aquarium because there’s a lot of glass. Glass to the outside, and glass to the inside.  Opposite the oversized panorama window out (on a clear day I can see the mountains), I am also separated from the inside hallway by a wall of soundproof glass. If that were not enough, a ceiling-to-floor window makes up part of the wall that my (often absent) neighbor and I share. Management likes the implicit transparency these see-through separations represent and the observation/monitoring opportunities they afford. For the rest of us, it is, indeed, just another fishtank with no privacy.

For what it’s worth, my personal glass cube is on the hallway furthest from the kitchen and the bathrooms. Advantage: It’s mostly quiet and nobody comes down this way unless 1) they really need to 2) they get lost on their way to their next espresso 3) they intentionally set out on an adventure hike without a compass or other survival kit. (I’ve had to make a few calls to search & rescue about disoriented colleagues that were found, wide-eyed, wandering cluelessly through the halls.) Disadvantage: I’m so isolated back here that if I simply disappeared or keeled over right here at my desk or drowned, no one would notice for a long, long time.

Blub blub blub….

An Aquarium





Five reasons I will (probably) never skydive

6 08 2010

A very dear friend of mine here in Switzerland, let’s call her Anne, will be going on her first skydive this weekend. She is doing it for a charity project she is involved in and will be sponsored by family and friends.

Anne is about my age, she has lots of friends but also values her alone-time. She is soft-spoken, well-read, very smart, a bit introverted, and could easily be mistaken for a timid person. But those folks who might have that first impression do not really know Anne. She recently came flying with me and while aloft she told me one of her dreams is to go skydiving. I had to turn up the volume on my headset and ask her to repeat herself because I wasn’t sure I understood what she said the first time.

“I want to go skydiving,” she said nonchalantly. “Wanna come?”

Now ladies and gentlemen, I think I said somewhere here that I would try almost every sport once. This happens to be one offer I must categorically and humbly decline.

Not me

And this is why. Five reasons skydiving is not for me. (Aside from the super-obvious.)

1) It’s f*@#ing cold up there.

Brrr. Did you know that for every 1,000 meters in altitude the temperature drops by 6.5 degrees Celcius (or, for every 1,000 feet,  by 3.57 degrees Fahrenheit)? So that means, at about 4,000 meters (or 13,200 feet), the altitude at which they throw you out of the plane, it’s 26 degrees C (or 47 degrees F) colder than it is on the ground. Sorry, I get enough cold weather during our 9-month winters here.

2) The higher you go, the better the view.

And therefore, the faster you fall, the less you see.

3) There’s nothing wrong with the airplane!

So why anyone would volunteer to abandon a fully functional motorized aircraft with full tanks in flight is beyond me.

4)  Have you ever noticed what raindrops do to exposed flesh as it speeds toward earth at 200 kilometers an hour (125 mph)?

I would rather get my face peeling at a local spa, thank you.

5) For the actual jump there’s MasterCard. For the DVD that you can show your grandchildren, there’s MasterCard, too. But spending an afternoon watching the rookies land, hyperventilate and walk around the rest of the day intoxicated on an adrenaline high is: Priceless.

And you know that hangover is going to be a doozy… including the typical, day-after reaction of either severe addiction or swearing off the substance for life.

******

So, dear Anne, you are a better woman than I. Or rather: a better super action heroine than I. And I promise to be here on the ground, watching and cheering you on every step of the way – from the moment you zip up your jumpsuit and adjust your goggles till the moment you once again safely set foot on earth. Just please understand that I won’t be joining you. But thanks for asking.

******************

Update – She did it! She really did it!


Anne, you're the greatest!





Happy Pilot Birthday

1 08 2010

Today, Sunday, August 1st, 2010, we celebrate not only Switzerland’s birthday (its 719th) but also my own birthday – as a private pilot. Ten years ago today, I climbed into the left seat of a small aircraft and took the controls for the first time – and I have never looked back.

Can't wait!

The decision to learn to fly was long in the making, but the logistics of life, including the lack of three essential ingredients of which one needs to have a great deal for this kind of project  – time, patience and money – kept getting in the way. I’ve wanted to pilot an airplane since I was six, and spent most of my life till I was 16 preparing myself for the aerospace engineering education I was going to get at MIT and the astronaut career I was going to have with NASA.

Until a crotchety, old, mean-spirited 12th grade physics teacher with thick glasses and a plastic pocket protector stopped me in my tracks. In the two short weeks I was enrolled in his class he manged to convince me I had the intelligence of a rock. My career in aviation was O-V-E-R before it began.

Nine years and two aviation-unrelated university degrees later, a friend’s uncle let me dream again. He gave me my first ride in his own two-seater Cessna 150. He had built himself two crossing runways on his farmland in western Canada and he kept his little bird in an oversized garage right next to the combine. It took another five years after that short flight across endless green and yellow miles of Manitoba canola fields for me to get my act together. When I saw Uncle Ron in July 2000 again, I had already registered for ground school and scheduled my first lesson.

On that sweltering August afternoon, with waves of heat rising off Berlin-Schoenefeld’s runway 25L like a mirage and with an instructor at my side, I was up and away. My ride on that auspicious first flight was D-EHPF – an orange-and-white striped Cessna 150, almost as old as I was. The chips in her beige plastic interior paneling and the comfortably worn upholstery on the seats indicated several generations of student pilots had passed through this trusty workhorse before me. And none had killed it.

That first day was a lesson in endurance and survival. The temperature inside the cozy cockpit reached well over 95 degrees F. Thermal heat ascending from the forests below made for a bouncy first flight that had me reaching for the sic-sacs more than once. We flew to an old military airfield just east of the city, today often used for landing practice. The grass strip is almost 9,000 feet long – more than enough space for pretty much any student pilot to safely get a plane on the ground somehow. (And those who couldn’t were advised to quit trying right then and there.)

Thirteen circuits later and rather green in the face, I unfolded my 5′ 10″ frame out of the miniature cockpit and gasped for air. My landing attempts had been painful for all concerned – the pilot, the passenger, the aircraft and the audience. My oh-so-patient instructor assured me after those first two hours of flight training that I had “potential.” Meaning:  I would probably not kill his bird either unless I flew it vertically into the ground. Little did we know at the time that it would take six instructors and countless more hours of patient, painstaking coaching before any instructor had the guts to send me solo. But that is a story for another day.

Happy Birthday, Switzerland! And many, many more happy landings, Evelynn Starr!

D-EHPF & me. Isn't she a beauty?