Two lives, one adventure

25 02 2011

And so a great adventure begins. It’s my last day of work before I head off into a sabbatical, graciously granted by a supportive employer. The next 10 weeks are reserved for research, reflection and writing. The Savvy Aviatrix will return to the left seat, and Skater Girl also plans to make numerous appearances here. Out of sight is not out of mind because blogging can be done from anywhere.

For the next three months, I’ll also be going on a journey back in time, to an chapter of life that’s been swept into the corners of history and all but forgotten except by those whose nerves it directly taxed.

And this is what I hope to achieve.

"The death of innocence" 12-2-88

While searching for her dreams and her place in the world, a young woman faces twin challenges that put calluses on the heart in equal measure. She is forced to fight a (95%-curable) disease that kills her slowly and she spends too much of her too-short life looking for love in all the wrong places. All the while, she desperately tries to protect her little sister from the bad in the world. The older sister learns about wisdom and serenity as her clock ticks down, and the younger sister is too far away to hear.

It is story of a unique relationship between two strong-headed women, at a time when we know more than everyone else, we are smarter than everyone else and we deserve only the best. We are finally mature enough to truly appreciate and respect each other as grown-ups should. We struggle together, but also each in her own isolation. In the end, the decade that separates us in age also ensures that we only have a few short years to truly enjoy each other’s adult company.

My sister – the feminist, the rebel, the poet and the artist – was just 34 years old when she died. Her prose is violent and harsh, dark and damning. She was mad as hell and made sure everyone knew it. Letters, journals and poetry, along with interviews of mentors, friends and companions in art and crime are the cannon upon which the non-fiction narrative is based. Out of them emerges the story of a talented individual with a strong sense of justice who dies far too young, and her little sister, who realizes far too late exactly what that means.

Nighttime Anxieties

22 02 2011

A single night can be monumentally long if you spend it lying in bed and waiting…Waiting for it to end.

Demons are abundant in an unquiet mind, and sleep is elusive. I thought I got rid of those critters a few years ago. Valerian tea, lavender-eucalyptus sleep balm and finding a soul-mate successfully chased them out of town for a while.

But now it seems like it was only a changing of the guard – a younger and more aggressive generation of these parasites lies in wait for every moment of weakness. A car in the distance, a squeaky floorboard, the neighbor out walking her dog on the gravel path under my window – all innocuous sounds that open a door to insomnia and conspire to rob me of that which I so desperately need.

There are many reasons sleep escapes me and every night it’s something different – imagined or real and often incomprehensible to those who have never had a problem with it. Emotions long repressed play nasty tricks on my sanity. Deep personal fears, invisible in the light, reappear and go toxic with darkness, conquering the remnants of an afternoon’s happy memories.

The night drags on. And when it finally turns grey, bleeding light into the darkness, my demons run and hide. Suddenly the world appears in color again. And the thought of having to get up into the daylight is nearly unbearable. I must again function as a responsible adult in society after seven hours spent staring out the skylight above my bed into black, and chasing windmills.

A first unsteady moment on my feet passes. My pale face in the bathroom mirror features new shadow under the eyes. The flat feeling in the pit of my stomach goes away after a few minutes of splashing under a hot shower, and the fresh smell of “wild honeysuckle” bath gel infuses life into my lungs and brain.

I will be fine, I tell myself. It’s okay, today I will be fine.

And the day passes like any other. In the afternoon I am tired, my concentration lapses in phases, I look out the panorama office window at life beyond. And I was right – it’s okay, I manage. I function.

But the cycle repeats itself a few hours later. With darkness, the demons of the night return, once again bringing with them the iron grip of insomnia. I lose my way trying to find the cliff of unconsciousness, with no chance in hell of dropping off.

And that constant, repetitive fear of the insurmountable – the pressure I impose upon myself – turns it all into a self-fulfilling prophesy: A non-event that ends up happening anyway, because I will it to not happen.

A few days go by. Soon, it’s not just the weariness of one night lost, but a complete, thorough, crushing fatigue that punishes the soul. The body craves sleep, hemorrhages energy and it’s almost impossible not to lose is one’s mind as well.

But the new day always gives me hope that this too, shall pass. I’m sure I will grow out of this, someday. And that the waiting in the dark will end.

A sand bank in flames

17 02 2011

The Arabic Revolution has crept eastward, to Bahrain. The tiny island in the Persian Gulf is now also caught up in the wave of anger sweeping across Northern Africa and the Middle East. And here the fight for democracy and social justice has only just begun.

The night before. (Bahrain, February 16, 2011 - KEYSTONE/AP)

Bahrain holds a special place in my heart even though there is really not much there. Not even oil. My first visit in 1997 was for fun and for fun only….to visit Ironic Mom long before she became a mom. Fortunately no digital photographic evidence exists. (Hmm…. come to think of it…. where are those negatives?)

The second time I went to Bahrain it was as a working journalist, to wait for a war.

Between October 2001 and April 2003 I spent almost six months on the island on four different occasions. After a while, the tiny, friendly monarchy earned itself the sub-title: “Your favorite sand bank in the Persian Gulf”.

My Bahrain adventures started four weeks after 9/11. While Marines stormed the Hindukush about a thousand miles to our east, we already suspected the Bush administration was desperately trying to find an excuse to go after an old nemesis just north of us, Saddam Hussein. By September 2002, there was no doubt the powder keg would soon explode and the question was no longer if, but when. And because Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet, it was the logical place for journalists to congregate. And wait.

I will admit, the life of a waiting journalist in the field is a rather comfortable one, with editors safely in bureaus a couple of time zones away. Our days in lovely, warm Bahrain usually started with a breakfast buffet in the Diplomat Hotel, followed by a quick call to London to let them know the coast was still clear. Afternoons at poolside included  hummus and iced tea, served at my lounge chair. And for dinner it was either “Fiddler’s Green” Irish Pub, a fabulous Asian restaurant called “Monsoon”, and on really special occasions we went all the way to the Ritz Carlton to feast at Trader Vic’s.

This was, after all, a time when we all still had corporate credit cards and generous expense accounts.

The international appetite for news from Bahrain was rather limited and any remotely exciting event drew a disproportionately large western media crowd. An anti-U.S. march here, a Chess tournament between a human and a computer there, and – our biggest story while on the island – the first fair and free national election in which women had the right to vote and stand as candidates.

I still bathe in the glory of that day in October 2002, when we got the Emir’s only quote to a western media outlet. (But please don’t ask me what it was.) For my efforts in that scrum, a resentful Arabic television journalist speared me in the ribs with his microphone pole.

That's us on the left: Western, blond and female. Eye candy for the Emir and his entourage.

Fun and games aside, the pictures coming out of the Gulf state in the last couple of days – of demonstrations and protesters camped out under the Pearl Monument in the center of Manama – I guess surprised me more than they should have. I remember Bahrain as an exceptionally peaceful place (except for that MBC cameraman), with an autocratic but mostly harmless, benevolent ruling family and a couple of drunk obnoxious Saudis on the weekends.

What disturbed and shocked me to the core was the news this morning that the government broke its promise and used violence – teargas, rubber bullets and buckshot – to attack sleeping men, women and children in the middle of the night on Pearl Square. Six Bahrainis died and hundrends were injured.

But the voice of the people is getting louder even in Bahrain. And the royal family would probably be wise to listen up. Inshallah.

The morning after. (Bahrain, February 17, 2011 - KEYSTONE/AP)


Here is a New York Times opinion piece – worth reading – about the protests in Bahrain.

Go play with guns, kids.

14 02 2011

The Swiss never cease to underwhelm me. Yesterday’s national referendum on weapons control which I wrote about a month ago (here), went down in flames. More than 55 percent of the population voted to keep semi-automatic military weapons in homes, garages, sheds, stables, cottages and greenhouses across the country.

And they said loud and clear: Children, you can continue to have fun playing with firearms you find in the closet. Men, you can continue to threaten your families with your weapons. And suicide-endangered individuals, Hey – go for it!

The trench was clearly drawn between the country’s small urban, cosmopolitan population and the vast majority of (backward, insular, godforsaken mountain) folk that live the Alps and behind the moon. There is also a marked division along language lines – the French-speakers said mostly “yes”, the German-speakers said mostly “no”. The so-called Röstigraben, the ditch dividing the two language regions, just got that much deeper.

The French and the Zurichers got it right this time.

Some German-speaking cantons declined the measure with majorities of more than 72 percent. 72 percent! If this had happened in any other country on the planet, the OECD election observers would declare the vote unfair and corrupt and say ballot boxes had been stuffed. But because it’s Switzerland, nobody bats an eyelid.

Why does this make me so angry? Because the referendum’s opponents knew nothing better than to use propaganda and intimidation to get their point across to a willfully brainwashed public. There was no single logical, rational reason to decline the referendum, as there is no single rational reason to keep these lethal weapons (responsible for more than 300 deaths every year) at home and not locked up in an armory. But the opponents’ message rang loud and clear: “Take away our weapons and you take away our traditions.”

Well you know, I’m not sure that would be such a bad thing. Some ancient traditions, established in the dark ages, really need to be done away with. One such tradition is the annual Zurich holiday called “Knabenschiessen.” Literally translated that would mean: “Young Boys Shooting (Day)”.  (No, young boys are NOT lined up to be shot – as much as we might wish that to be the case sometimes.) It’s a day when a canton-wide shooting tournament is held for young people. A few years ago, the organizers graciously started to invite the girls too.

And simply questioning the status quo or any God-given rights regarding guns those oh-so-traditionalist Swiss claim for themselves instantly draws their (f)ire and an emotional overreaction. On Knabenschiessen day two years ago, I was filleted by a Facebook friend when I posted an anti-childrens’-shooting status note. Shortly thereafter she defriended me.

Yesterday’s vote is another prime example of where direct democracy just doesn’t work, and where a country’s population must be protected from its own supidity.

After more than six years in Switzerland, I think it is time for greener pastures. And the winters here are too damn cold, anyway.

Singapore is starting to look pretty good right about now.

True piloting and love letters

11 02 2011

On Monday I once again took a foray into the mysterious world of night flying. Two winters ago, I decided to get my qualification – under visual flight rules – just because, well, because it seemed like a cool thing to have.

Not that I would ever dare to go out there after sunset without an instructor safely belted into the right seat. You don’t actually SEE anything when you fly at night except lots of streetlights. And on this night the slim crescent moon provided zero additional illumination. So it just tends to be… really dark out there, and the biggest challenge is making sure you know where you are going. And avoiding terrain, of course.

Cool, huh?

We hit evening rush hour at Zurich International Airport, and despite having reserved a slot time in advance, the folks in the tower decided that our little Cessna 152 would be relegated to their lowest priority. HB-CFF is a trusty trainer, about my age, and, like me, a workhorse that loves to fly and hates to idle on the tarmac.

But as the one of the creatures lowest on the aviation food chain, she and her fellow 152s are also regularly subjected to a fair amount of abuse from aviation authorities (like air traffic controllers) and anyone who flies in anything with more than two seats.

Such as the insult of having to wait at the holding point as at least 15 heavies – commercial aircraft, behemoths of the sky – saunter past with the arrogance that giants tend to exude. They all know that our prop wash is peanuts against their jet blast, and they could knock us over in less time than it takes to say “Full power”.

Our view out the windshield is just about at the same level of their million-watt headlights. Thank you, gentlemen – that’s almost as much fun as enduring a laser attack on short final.

A full 23 minutes after an initial “Ready for Departure” call to Zurich Tower, I wondered aloud if Zurich Tower was going to let us sit there all night till we were completely blinded or till we ran out of fuel – whatever came second. A follow-up call had its desired effect: we were told to line up on the active runway 28. Only to wait some more as another three jets were cleared to cross on a taxiway in the distance.

Once (finally, FINALLY!) in the air, that familiar feeling of ultimate liberation returned and I once again wondered why it took me so long to come back. We flew into the deep orange stripe still highlighting the western horizon, chasing the sun that was long gone. Our destination was Basel, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of here, and finding the airport was a challenging mini-refresher in night navigation (sans GPS, folks).

Three smooth as silk touch-and-go’s on a runway lit up like a Christmas tree validated my confidence in my landing abilities. On the homeward leg, a clear starry sky stretched over us like a cloudless ink-black dome. Simply magical. It doesn’t get any better than this, I think. You just don’t get this feeling in an jet, no matter how hard you try.

Little birds like CFF are often mocked in places where tonnage and thrust play a leading role, but I maintain they are still the better way to fly. After all, what’s cooler? Actual piloting or systems management? It’s a philosophical discussion among aviators that’s been conducted ad nauseum since computers crept into the cockpit.

I guess that’s kind of like the debate between a ring binder full of paper and an I-pad. Of course the I-pad can do so much more than a stack of paper, but honestly – don’t you long for a handwritten love letter once in a while?

Yeah, me too.


(Thanks to the folks at Flying in Crosswinds for the ultra-cool night landing photo. And I sincerely apologize for not having given credit earlier.)