Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Paying Respect

I didn’t notice the little boy at first. I was sitting in the front row of the church, fixated on my grandpa’s coffin, and the boy was somewhere in the very back. Even when the service ended and we all filed out, I still didn’t see him because I was embarrassed that I was sobbing while having to walk past all the firemen from my town, who were there for the funeral in uniform, honoring my grandpa who had been the Fire Chief for many years.

We left St. Aloysius Catholic Church, where my grandpa had also served as an usher until his multitudes of cancer became too much for him to get out of bed, and his family and friends got into their cars to head out to the cemetery. My grandpa’s coffin was loaded into a hearse and my grandma rode along with it, led by a police car and a restored antique fire engine.

My dad turned the lights of our car on, which is standard procedure in a funeral procession, but the chilly and rainy October day might have necessitated it anyway. People stopped to stare, as they do for any funeral procession, as we drove down Madison Street toward Highway 12. The cars moved slowly, slow enough that a young boy, perhaps ten or eleven, could keep up with our progress on his bicycle.

I was old enough by that time, eighteen and had just started college, that I didn’t feel that this boy was my peer. I didn’t recognize him and didn’t give him much thought. The old fire engine would be a draw to any kid, and I didn’t think that his pedaling alongside our group was anything more than a child interested in a fire truck.

When we got to the cemetery, we gingerly stepped out onto the fallen leaves and wet ground. The casket was placed onto the little elevator that would eventually lower it into the freshly dug hole after everyone left. The family and closest friends of my grandpa then gathered around the coffin once more while the priest said a few more words. My grandma and her three daughters, including my mother, linked arms and stood closest to the coffin. A huge profusion of red carnations was draped over the casket. After some final words, someone in uniform, standing apart from the group, was given the signal to give my grandfather a final gun salute in honor of his service in World War II. I remember the first of the three-volley salute, the way it blasted through the air with violence, upending the quiet, reverent moment and causing my grandma to jump in fright. It was also then that I noticed the small boy, who had followed all the way out to the cemetery on his bike and was standing off to the side.

When the final words of prayer were over and my aunt had distributed red carnations to each of grandpa’s female relatives, the funeral goers moved back to their vehicles. As the young boy was getting ready to get back on his bike, my grandma approached him.

“Did you know Doc from the river? Were you one of the kids who would fish with him sometimes?”

“No, ma’am,” the boy answered, holding his jacket tight around him with his head bowed. “I just came to pay my respects.”

“Well, thank you,” my grandma replied. We walked back to the car and she mentioned that she had also spotted him in the church.

As is tradition, the funeral and grave-site visit was followed by a potluck in the church basement. We all headed back into town and gladly trooped out of the rain and into the cozy basement. A series of tables had been set up along the walls with more casserole dishes than I had ever seen in my life. The other attendees hung back to partake in the feast until my grandma had gone through the line first. But she saw the boy, who was lurking alone in a corner, and encouraged him to get a plate of food as well.

Once we all had gone through the line and sat at the tables to eat, the room became loud with the buzz of everyday conversation. I was sitting kitty corner from my grandma at the table and watched as one person after another came up to her to tell her they were sorry. There are not  many words that can be said on this topic, besides I’m sorry and thank you, and every time it felt awkward and made us all teary. When the priest came up to talk to my grandma, she asked him, “Do you know who the little boy was?” By this time he had eaten his fill and disappeared. The priest said he did know him. He attended funerals of the townspeople on a pretty regular basis. I remember the priest half apologizing for this, and also conveying the message that the real reason he came to the funerals was because of the hot meal that was served afterward.

I took a lot away from that day. Besides the red carnation that dried long ago and has now been sitting in my closet for more than twenty years, I received a deeper insight into the human condition, from those who were at the center of attention that day and those who were at the periphery. My grandpa had a great life, with a remarkably kind wife, three beautiful daughters, a successful business, an active life in the community, and a peaceful refuge found in the surrounding countryside. But his life didn’t start out so bright. His father died before he turned five years old, leaving just his mother and baby brother. The little family struggled to make ends meet, including distilling their own alcohol during prohibition and bootlegging into neighboring states and running from the notorious competition. Somehow my grandpa still managed to be salutatorian of his graduating class and go on to open an ice cream shop with his younger brother before starting his own electrical company. But it would have been possible to imagine him, around the age of ten or eleven, attending funerals of people he didn’t know, all in search of a hot meal.

My grandpa as a little boy

My grandpa ("Doc") and his little brother ("Shimmel")

My grandpa during his Fire Chief years


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Tornado Chasing During Wisconsin’s Record Outbreak

August 18, 2005, would turn out to be the biggest tornado outbreak the state of Wisconsin had ever seen. But it was early in the day and my sister and I had no way of knowing that as we decided to try our hand at tornado chasing for the first time.

It was a hot, muggy summer day and we were both visiting our parents’ home near Sauk City. My husband Jeremy and I would be celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary the following day in the Dells after dropping off our kids with my parents for some weekend babysitting. But today Jeremy would be participating in a golf tournament at the Reedsburg Country Club with my father and I would be spending some time with my mom, my sister Kristin, and my kids.

When we arrived at my parents’ house that morning the sun was emerging after a morning shower and the air was heavy with humidity. There were reports that the afternoon could bring severe thunderstorms, but by nightfall 27 tornadoes would scour great swaths of land in the south central portion of the state.

Like any Midwesterner, I know the inky blue darkening of the western sky, the sudden chill in the formerly humid summer air, and the distant sound of rolling thunder, only to be interrupted by the piercing wail of a tornado siren. People who live in Tornado Alley either love or hate severe storms and I, for one, love them. Back in the days before cell phones with cameras, I would carry a camera stored in the glove box of my car on the off chance that I might blunder onto a tornado sweeping through farm fields on my way to the grocery store. I am a person whose recurrent dreams usually involve a handful of themes, such as losing my teeth, searching in vain for a clean public toilet, discovering that I must take an exam for a college class I never attended, and witnessing a tornado.

The first tornado warning we heard that day was for a tornado that was on the ground and moving toward the area of the Reedsburg Country Club. Rather than be worried for Jeremy and my father, I was jealous. I have always wanted to see a tornado and now they were going to get a good shot at fulfilling my dream.

Although I had never seen a tornado first hand, that’s not to say I haven’t had some close calls. My husband and I were in Nashville during the tornado of 1998 that struck the city’s downtown. We were safely inside and away from the storm when the tornado knocked a giant old tree over onto our car in the parking lot of Vanderbilt University, crushing it. I was hoping that today’s storms would give me the chance to see a real live tornado, only without my car getting totaled this time.

The storms were coming to a full boil on August 18th around my children’s nap time. I had my mom put the kids to sleep in the guest bedroom in the basement of their house, which seemed as safe a place as any for them. Kristin and I decided we would go out chasing tornadoes while my mom kept a watch over my napping children.

Here comes the disclaimer: Don’t try this yourself. We were foolish novices, never having storm chased before. I had taken meteorology courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but I had not yet taken a storm spotting class and gave it no more forethought than “There’s a tornado warning for our county!” and  “Wouldn’t it be cool to see a tornado?”

We grabbed our digital cameras, jumped in my vehicle, and drove through Sauk City headed north toward the Reedsburg tornado. Fortunately for the golfers that day, the tornado dissipated before it reached the country club. Kristin and I didn’t know that at the time, but we kept the radio on, listening for weather updates. We were now hearing warnings broadcast for locations in the opposite direction, around the Madison area.

We were heading up Highway 12 over the Baraboo bluffs into a dark wall of clouds when the rain hit. It seemed our tornado chasing adventure was going to come to a quick end; it just wasn’t safe to chase in the blinding rain. I was disappointed but not yet defeated. We turned around and headed back toward town, out of the rain, making a new strategy to set up somewhere in a location that would allow us a better view of the edge of this storm.

At the base of the bluffs and across from the old Badger Army Ammunition plant was the Bluffview trailer park. I jokingly said that we should stop here, because if a tornado was going to strike anywhere, it would be this area of mobile homes. A gas station sat in front of the large collection of trailer homes and I did stop because I was running low on gas. I might have been a novice chaser but at least I knew that running on empty was not a good way to start.

As I got out of the car by the pumps I heard a sound that I had never heard before. It sounded like the rumbling of a locomotive, only it was coming from straight overhead. The noise was also eerily like the constant rolling of thunder, but there was no lightning whatsoever.

“What is that sound?” I screamed to my sister over the roar and rush of the wind. She had also gotten out of the car as I was filling up my tank.

“You’ve never heard that before?” she yelled in disbelief. She knew I had been close to tornadoes before, but this noise was new to me. “That’s it! That’s the sound!”

I still don’t know what made that sound. How can you hear thunder without lightning? Isn’t that physically impossible? Or was it something in the clouds, the wind and the pressure warning us of the genesis of a tornado?

“But where is it?” I yelled. The clouds overhead were a gray color, and not that menacing, although they were rushing by quickly. Because of the gas station blocking our view to the west, we couldn’t see the whole horizon. I willed the gas to pump faster into the car so we could get out of there and get a better look to see where this tornado might be. It sounded like it was in the sky right on top of us.

Suddenly a new terrifying sound filled the air. But it was a sound that, this time, I was quite familiar with. It was the sound of the tornado siren going off, right behind the gas-station building. Now we were really deafened by the noise. I stopped the gas pump even though the tank wasn’t quite full yet. We jumped in the car and took off down the road back toward Sauk City. But my desire to see a tornado wasn’t going to scare me away entirely.

At my next chance I turned off the highway on County C, about a half mile down the road from the gas station and trailer park. I pulled the car off the road and turned it around so that if we needed to escape from our position we were headed in the right direction. We rolled down the windows and sat on the edge of the car doors like the boys in The Dukes of Hazzard. We started snapping pictures of the clouds behind us. The roar of locomotives could still be heard overhead. We watched the gray, smooth cloud formation stretch above us and curl into a tail toward the western horizon. It was not at all how I expected the clouds to look. I was expecting dark thunderheads and wall clouds.

We exited the car and moved to the yard of the farm house across the street, where we continued snapping pictures until we realized that the clouds in the “tail” of the storm by the horizon were moving to our left, and the clouds over our heads were moving to our right. We discovered to our horror that the entire cloud formation was circulating above us. I took one more photograph before we retreated into our vehicle. It was the only picture in which either of us was in the shot. Kristin was turning to look back at me and was about to tell me, “We have to get out of here, NOW!” But she is captured in mid-turn with a look of concern and fear stretched across her face that speaks volumes.

It was a lucky thing that I had my sister with me on this tornado chase. Because even though I was aware of the situation I was in, I was more exhilarated than afraid. Had I been making the decisions on my own, I almost surely would have unknowingly put myself in the path of the tornado that day. My sister was more cautious and directed me when to back up from the storm. I followed her directions to retreat even though I wanted to stay.

I drove us a little farther down Highway 12 and again turned off on the next convenient road, Old Bluff Trail. We passed a quiet farm on our left and great stretches of farm fields. On our right and behind us was the storm. Also on our right were high hills that blocked a good portion of our view. A convent was tucked in among these hills.

We stopped twice along Old Bluff Trail to take more pictures. The sky was turning green overhead and the roaring continued unabated. We could see the clouds racing in opposite directions in the sky behind us, yet the air was quite still on the ground — for the time being, anyway.

The storm (and Kristin) continued to push us farther away from where we first stopped at the gas station. We cut across old Waterbury Road, a little-used stretch that is bordered by fields on each side, and came to Highway 12 once more as it straightened out after it curves around the extensive grounds of the former ammunition plant. By this time some of the other drivers were taking note of the storm and pulling off to the side of the road. The clouds were taking on newer and stranger appearances. It seemed as if an invisible giant were shredding little clouds by the horizon and then yanking them upward into the cloud mass above. We watched the now rain-wrapped cloud mass cross Highway 12 at the corner by the ammunition plant, and we crossed at a greater distance but parallel to the storm. The storm was heading toward the river and the hydroelectric dam. We got out of the car one last time by a graveyard at the side of the road and took a few more apropos pictures.

At this point we could see what looked to be a rain-wrapped funnel. It didn’t yet appear to us that it was making contact with the ground. But in fact, on every step of our retreat as my sister urged me to abandon our previous locations, an F2 tornado was tracking our steps.

As we had sat in the car’s windows on County C, two miles down the road and beyond our vision the tornado was ripping apart a garage and barn. As we passed the quiet farm before the convent on Old Bluff Trail and then drove beyond it to take more pictures, we were unknowingly crossing in front of the tornado’s path. A few minutes behind us, the tornado shattered the stillness at that farm, tearing off the barn’s metal roof and discarding it in a field. As the tornado crossed over the curve of Highway 12 in the cloud bank, it blew cars off the road not a mile from where we were watching on Waterbury Road. And as we stopped by the cemetery to take pictures of what appeared to be a rain-wrapped funnel cloud on the other side of the corn field, it was flattening old storage buildings at Badger Army Ammunition.

As the storm crossed the Wisconsin River I knew that we could no longer safely follow it and see, what I thought would be, the point when the tornado finally appeared out of the clouds and rain. The land on the other side of the river is hilly and forested and the curving roads are dangerous even in good weather. We crossed the bridge over the river as two miles away from us, the tornado, hidden from our view due to the rain that encased it, blew out a big electrical station at the dam. We were now close to home so we turned south as the storm continued east. As soon as we made the turn that took us farther away from the tornado, the skies opened up and the rain fell so heavily I could hardly see to drive the four miles home.

We would learn that the storm we chased until it crossed the Wisconsin River and entered Columbia County died out about ten minutes later after roping off into a very visible tornado shape. At the same time, a new storm was forming 30 miles away in southern Dane County. This storm would produce an F3 tornado that would rip through the community of Stoughton and kill a man who was sensibly taking shelter in his basement when his chimney toppled over onto him.

The tornadoes on that single day produced more than $40 million in damages across the state of Wisconsin. In Stoughton alone, 69 homes were destroyed and 304 were damaged. Governor Jim Doyle requested federal aid but by the time the request was considered, a hurricane by the name of Katrina had brought a large US city to its knees. Even though Wisconsin had received federal disaster declarations recently for damage caused by tornadoes and flooding that had a lower price tag than the August 18th tornadoes, FEMA denied aid to the tornado-stricken people of Wisconsin.

When I look back at my tornado-chasing adventure I think about what close calls we had and the destruction the tornado caused, and how I would have been directly in the path of this destruction had it not been for my more fearful (or is it sensible?) sister. Yet the event has only made me want to go out and chase tornadoes that much more. Even driving past the destruction the next day of mangled metal in fields and trees broken off at odd angles has not dampened my enthusiasm. So for now “seeing a tornado” will remain on my bucket list. Let’s just hope I continue to have a sensible chase partner with me so that it’s not the last item I ever get to cross off.

The "tail" of the storm near the bluffs was moving one direction while the clouds above us were moving the opposite direction, resulting in one massive rotation.

Nearly the same pic - the farm in the back to the right would sustain damage maybe 10 minutes after this picture was taken.


My sister's look of worry that got me to get in the car and leave the path of the storm.
(I think she'd want you to know that she has since ditched the unflattering capris.)


In reality the sky looked quite green. Taken from nearby the convent on Old Bluff Trail.

Waterbury Road, where vehicles were starting to pull off, looking back toward convent.

Rain-wrapped tornado leveling old buildings at Badger Army Ammunition behind the field. Taken from Prairie Road.


Gratuitous shot of a cemetery. Storm behind can barely be seen.


Peering toward the damage at Badger. I think these photos were taken several days after the tornado.

As I understand it, the buildings with the worst damage at Badger were farther back on the property, which is closed to the public.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Art of the Trapeze

                “She flies through the air with the greatest of ease, the daring young girl on the flying trapeze.” Okay, so I’m not exactly a young girl anymore, but I did take a trapeze class last weekend at TSNY Chicago. The greatest of ease part is probably debatable.

                We decided to take the family to Chicago for a quick two-day getaway. Summer is drawing to a close and the weekends have been busy with one thing or another, but one August weekend miraculously demanded nothing from us, so we went on a little adventure. I picked out a historic old hotel to stay in (Congress Plaza Hotel), I booked us on a Lake Michigan fireworks boat cruise on Saturday night, and then asked my husband if I could book three spots in trapeze school for me and the kids Sunday morning. He said no.

                I never planned to ask my husband if he wanted to join us in the school. He has a fear of heights, so much so that standing on a chair is an activity that makes him uncomfortable. The platform for the trapeze is 23 feet off the ground via a ladder, which I knew he’d never be able to do. So, I figured I would go some other time with friends and we would find different Chicago adventures for this trip.

                I was still looking forward to our upcoming weekend in Chicago, despite not getting to do the trapeze. I had golf with my girlfriends Tuesday night and came home to the family that evening and the first thing I heard when I opened the door was my daughter yelling down the stairs to me, “Mom, I want to do the trapeze!”

                “Why did you tell her about it if you said we couldn’t do it?” I asked my husband. I never bring up activities with my kids until I’m actually sure they’re a go. No need to get them excited for nothing. He didn’t have a good answer. I searched YouTube for videos of the trapeze school so he could see it wasn’t as scary as it sounds. We all watched them and then the next day I asked him again if I could book three spots in the Sunday morning class. This time he said yes.

                We had a great Saturday in Chicago seeing the sights, but that night as I went to bed, it was not the notorious ghosts of the Congress Hotel that kept me awake but the thought of doing the trapeze the next day. I wasn’t scared, but I was nervous. I wanted so badly to do well. Not being able to complete a catch would feel like failure to me. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to bring my knees up to hook onto the bar.

                A couple days before we went to Chicago, the kids and I drove around our town looking for a playground with a bar to practice on. The playground sets are all very specialized these days. It’s not like when I was a kid and they’d put a metal bar up on top of two logs and call it a piece of playground equipment. The best we could do at the playground was a twisting set of monkey bars.

                I told the kids they had to get their knees up to the bar without kicking off the ground, because they would be high off the ground when it came time to do it on the trapeze. Neither one of them could do it. I couldn’t do it from a still hang either, but if I started swinging I could get the momentum to do it. I realized that on the trapeze we’d have a nice big swing to start us off and figured that should be enough to give us the help we needed. This turned out to be true and not true.

                Our trapeze class was two hours long and began at 8:30 outside at Belmont Harbor. We were the first students to arrive, so we checked in and I bought a souvenir tank top with the word “trapeze” across the front, further solidifying my absolute need to succeed at this or be hugely disappointed. I showed the kids how to stretch out their shoulder and leg muscles and we waited for the rest of the students to arrive.

                Probably everyone who comes to trapeze school is delightful and friendly, but we lucked out with our group. Besides me and my kids, there was a pair of friendly ladies who cheered everyone on, a nice young girl and her boyfriend, and a woman and her adult daughter. With only nine students signed up, there was room for one more, but my husband declined.

                They put our belts on us tighter than you'd think they could go. It felt very much like I imagine a corset would feel. The instructors introduced themselves and then went over the basics of how to tie ourselves in, get up the ladder and then get in position to go. The instructor up  on the board would hold onto the back of our belt as we put our toes over the edge and put first one hand and then the other on the bar. We were to lean out and already have our weight over the net, then at the call of “Ready” we would bend our knees and at “hup” we would take a small jump. After that we would swing across and at the far side of our swing they call “knees up” at which point we roll into a ball while looking up at the bar and slip our feet over the bar. With any luck, we get into this position by the time we have swung back toward the platform, then we let go with our hands and let our bodies fall backward and stretch out toward where the catcher will eventually be. Then we just put our hands back up on the bar, let our legs down, and let go and drop into the net when we’re told.

                I’ve always been good at following directions. I grew up a rather quiet and obedient child, so when someone tells me to jump, I jump. I was the first in my family to go up. I got to the top of the ladder and onto the platform and was not very concerned with how high up we were. I was laser focused on doing what I was told, getting a feel for it, and nailing the practice knee hang. That’s exactly what I did.

                I got off the net and got ready for my daughter’s turn. She was clipped in and climbing the ladder and all seemed to be going well until I saw her face at the top. That fear combined with her obstinate personality meant there was really nothing that would convince her to put her hands on the bar and go. It was heartbreaking to see, because she was the one who really pushed for it and was so excited to try it. But she is not quiet and obedient like I am. She was not going any farther in this class. She had to do the backward climb of shame down the ladder.

                My son was up next. He is like me: quiet and obedient and generally easy to manipulate. He should have been the first child to go. But he got up there and I can only guess that seeing his sister’s freak out had poisoned his mind. My husband and I even shouted bribes up to my son for twenty dollars or whatever he wanted from the Lego store, but it wasn’t happening. And so it was that both my children backed down the ladder.

                I was disappointed that they didn’t go through with it, but it was also important to me that they know their limits. That, and I wasn’t going to have them climb the ladder again and have to be coaxed by the instructors and their parents while the rest of the class waited for them.

                The burden of the family’s success now rested on me. While it was great to have a large cheering section, every time I got to the top of the ladder, the whole world disappeared except for the instructors. Meredith was on the platform most the time, tying me in and giving me my signal to start. Chris was on the lines below and yelled up to me when I should do each move on the swing. Keene would be the one who I would be trusting to catch me when the time came. The rest of the class, the people passing by in the park none of that existed when I got on the trapeze. Looking back later at photos, I am surprised to see the male student climbing the ladder and reaching the top just before I take off because I never had any awareness of anyone else in my presence except for my three teachers.

                We did the knee hang twice and many of the students got it both times, though there were some exceptions. It definitely is not as easy as some of the students were making it look. I may have been getting too confident, because on my third practice I swung my foot up hard and instead of getting it under the bar it smashed into the bar and then rocketed away and my feet dropped. Once I was no longer in the prime swing position for getting my knees up, it was hopeless. So instead we moved on to the dismount that the students in front of me had just learned: the backflip. On command, we swing our legs forward, backward, forward and then let go, curling our legs into a ball and grabbing onto our knees. Once again, I did exactly as I was told and landed my backflip safely into the net with little effort. When you do what you’re told, the rest of it follows naturally.

                But that miss had shaken my confidence.

                I didn’t know how many times we were going to practice the knee hang, and I wanted to move on to trying catches. You don’t realize how much energy each little turn up there takes until you're back on the ground. I would be panting and need to sit and rest after my jolt of adrenaline. Then when we added in the backflips, I would also be dizzy afterward from the adrenaline/tumbling combo. We ended up doing five practices, and I completed the rest of them successfully. On the last turn, Chris asked if I wanted to try a double backflip. By that point I was ready to go back to stage one and just fall easily into the net, but I said yes because I do what I’m told. Also, I would have regretted it if I hadn’t tried.

                The double backflip is the same as a single except that, as far as I know, you stay tucked and hope to spin around an extra time before crashing into the net. I’m pretty sure he also pulls you a bit higher with the lines and lowers you more slowly so you have time to get around, but that’s just a guess. Whatever the trick is to it, it worked. My husband took the video of it but he moved the camera so that you can't see me on the second flip. But I promise you that I didn’t land on my head.

                Finally we were up to catches. The only difference at this point was that we were to hold our hands a certain way and chalk our hands and arms up good so that we were easy to catch. Then once we were safely in Keene’s hands we just released our legs from the bar and let him swing us out and back and then he dropped us in the net. Easy peasy … as long as I didn’t fail at getting my knees up again.

                There were three women in front of me, and all made their catches. One required an extra swing to get her knees up, but she still did it. They were making it look easy. When it was my turn I climbed up and went back into good listener mode. I could do this. I had to do this. If I didn’t, everyone there would soon see a very ugly side of me.

                I got into position and put my toes over the board and my hand on the bar. Then I put the other hand on the bar and listened for the command from Keene, who was in the swing and preparing to meet me. Just as before, at the command of “Ready” I bent my knees and at “hup” I descended into my swing. I got to the far side of my swing and at “knees up,” curled into a ball and got one foot and then the other over the bar and to my knees. At the top of the swing at “hands off,” I lowered myself down and then stretched back as best I could. I looked for Keene and saw him swinging toward me. It was like watching a video tape in that squeaky, fast forward mode where you can see all the action but it happens so fast that you can’t linger or examine any part of it. You have to know what to do and be fully committed, showing only determination and no fear. Keene called “reach here” and “gotcha” so fast that I swore he said that he had me before he did (the video says otherwise) but when I heard the word “gotcha” I knew I had done it. Once he had his hands around my arms I let go with my legs almost without thinking. He swung me out and back and then we let go and I dropped easily into the net.

I did it! I did it, I did it, I did it! No one would ever be able to take that away from me.

                We had one more catch to go, and I was as stressed about that one as I was about the first one. What if I can’t get my knees up again like that time during practice? I wanted to leave there not feeling like I had messed up at the end. I wanted to believe that the catch wasn’t luck but skill. I had to make the second one too. I just had to.

                This time I was aware of one thing in the outside world besides my instructors. As I climbed the ladder I could hear Kelly Clarkson’s song “Stronger” playing. Kelly Clarkson has never let me down. I couldn’t let her down!

                Once more, just like before. Only I think I may have actually gotten my knees up even more quickly this time. I made the catch, I dropped into the net, and I think I smiled my first genuine, relaxed smile in two hours. I had successfully completed the flying trapeze.

                I’ve never been the type to enjoy watching myself on video, but this time I couldn’t get enough. I watched the videos my family took of the trapeze catches at least twenty times that day and many times since. The whole event happens so fast that there are things I didn’t even realize until it was over and things I can’t remember even though I keep reviewing it in my head. For one, I was supposed to grab onto my catcher’s arms and squeeze as tightly as I could. I have no idea if I did that. I wouldn't even know that I’d grabbed his arms at all if I didn’t have the pictures and video to prove it. I was only focused on him grabbing me. I also was surprised to see that sometimes I grabbed onto the trapeze bar with my thumbs around the bar and sometimes with them sticking next to my fingers. They never said which way to do it and it wasn’t something I even thought of as important until long after the fact.

                It’s been a couple days now and my entire upper body has never been so sore. It hurts to turn the steering wheel in my car or to put my hands together behind my back. I also have bruises in places that have never been bruised before, like behind my knees and, strangely, on the backs of both arms above my elbows (maybe from landing in the net after the backflips?). But I gained so much from the experience, including a newfound confidence, the knowledge that I can push myself to accomplish seemingly unreachable goals (and the seemingly unreachable arms of a trapeze partner), and the reminder that some moments, while so momentous and crucial, rush past us in the blink of an eye. Thank God for the video.

My husband bought me the professional photos as my anniversary gift.

Chalking up. Keene was on the board here but later would do the catching. 

Just going for a swing, 23 feet up.

"I can see Lake Michigan from here!"

The first catch. Looks like I did grab for his arms after all!

The easy part.

Letting go.

My 9-year-old daughter took this pic. Pretty amazing shot.
She may not be a trapeze artist but she is one heck of a photographer.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

You’re Getting Verrrry Sleeeepy

After ten years of being Earth-bound I was ready to try flying again. I have never enjoyed flying; giving up control to someone else 10,000 feet above the ground seems like more trust than any reasonable person should have in a stranger. I had decided many years ago that I simply wouldn’t fly again. I had seen too much footage of fiery or charred crash sites and went through the understandable practice of mentally putting myself in their position. Eyewitnesses say such things as, “I can’t imagine what kind of terror they were feeling” as the plane plunges earthward in the final few seconds. I guess that’s my problem, because I can imagine it. Too well. And that’s why I chose not to put myself in the position to ever experience it.
But time has passed and I now have children who I want to be able to see the world and for whom I want to be a good role model. One of my proudest parenting accomplishments is having a daughter who is not afraid of spiders so that when I see one in the house I can call to her to pick it up and take it outside. I decided that in order to overcome my fear of flying, I would need outside help. I had heard of classes that are offered at some airports to teach people what to expect and get them familiar with the surroundings they would encounter. These programs have high success rates. However, I did not live close enough to the airport for this to be practical with the limited amount of time I had each day when my youngest was at her half-day of kindergarten.
So my plan of action came from an ad I saw in a community coupon flyer sent to me in the mail. The ad was for hypnosis and offered to help you make that change you had been dreaming of, whether that involved smoking, weight, gambling, stress, or even improving your golf game. I kept the flyer on my desk for months before I finally had to courage to call in late autumn.
My conversation with the hypnotist, whom we’ll call Lana, was pleasant. She gave me the basic information, such as how long it should take to “fix” me (2 sessions), how long a hypnotherapy session usually lasted (1 ½ hours), and how much it cost ($85 a session). She gave me instructions on how to get there and then asked me a few questions.
“I just want to ask you about a couple of scenarios to make sure you are comfortable with them, because sometimes I use this imagery at the beginning to get my client to relax. Are you okay with walking through forests?”
“Yes,” I quickly replied, wondering how these things could be scary and then immediately being able to conjure up frightening ideas concerning forests, from spiders dangling in your path to startling a mother bear with her cubs.
“How about walking on the beach?”
“Yes,” I answered impulsively, before remembering scenes of the tsunami washing thousands of people to their deaths.
“Riding down an elevator?” Lana asked.
“Okay,” I said, now growing more nervous about revealing any more issues I might have. I didn’t need to explain to her that I often had nightmares about elevators with cables breaking and dangling at heart-stopping angles or the doors sliding open to reveal half of one floor and half of another, and wondering whether you should risk jumping out of this impaired machine before it zipped off to another half-floor and crushed you as it went.
“Riding down an escalator?” she continued.
“Yes,” I replied. Somewhere in there I imagined the question changed from “are you okay with this” to “do you have a fear of this,” so at least I was answering the questions honestly. Didn’t everyone have a vague fear of their pantleg or shoelace getting caught in an escalator and sucking their whole leg into its metal jaws?
“Good,” she replied. “I look forward to meeting you!”
It was then I realized that giving up my fear of flying might transfer that fear too heavily onto other areas of my life, permanently disabling me. Sure, I could fly to Florida this winter, but forget about enjoying the beach or going to the shopping mall while I was there!
The week before my first appointment brought a sense of dread. I was not looking forward to the appointment, and I couldn’t pinpoint whether that was from a general reluctance to be hypnotized or from the thought that I was going to fool my brain into thinking it was okay to fly and then actually get on a plane.
I had reasons to be uncomfortable with the thought of being hypnotized. I had been hypnotized once before. It was in high school, when a hypnotist came to do a show that involved hypnotizing a bunch of teachers and students on the stage and then having them do embarrassing things to get a laugh out of the audience. I remember being able to think rationally during my hypnosis but I was certainly open to his suggestions. As I got older I learned that it was a state not unlike having too much to drink and lowering your inhibitions. When the hypnotist had us all pretend we were driving a car and someone cut us off, we had to roll down the window, stick our hand out, and “really show the other driver how we felt”. I was told later by friends who were in the audience that I was one of only two who actually gave the finger to the pretend driver. But as the performance wore on, I started to regain control of my surroundings and wonder what the hell I was doing making an ass of myself in front of hundreds of people. Unfortunately, this slow dawning did not come soon enough, as I had already danced like a fool in front of the entire school, which was recorded on film and edited into my class’s video yearbook to haunt me for eternity. I remember driving home from the hypnotist’s show to an empty house, where I retreated to my room and cried myself to sleep. Yet here I was, ready to put myself through another hypnosis experience.
On the appointed day, I dropped my daughter off for her afternoon kindergarten class and headed for the hypnotherapy clinic. The clinic shared space with other like-minded businesses, such as an acupuncture/acupressure office. My destination was in the basement of the building, accessed through the side door. I entered and followed the signs into a lobby that was slightly partitioned off from the rest of the basement. I saw no one there, so I sat and waited. There were curtains hung against the walls to make it feel less like a cement-block basement, soft music was playing, and a tabletop fountain tinkled water pleasantly.
As I waited, I read through some of the literature on the table before finding a large binder filled with testimonials. Most of them did not apply to my situation, such as people who had come to improve their memories, quit smoking, and lose weight, among other problems. There was just one testimonial that I came across that dealt with conquering a fear. A woman had been afraid of riding in a car ever since she was in a violent collision. She reported that she was riding home from the therapy session with her husband behind the wheel when they came upon an accident. Her husband remarked to her that he was amazed she was so calm, unlike her usual reaction to simply riding in a car, much less witnessing a small crash. Her testimonial gave me hope.
Soon Lana appeared out of one of the two doors I could see from my spot in the lobby. She introduced herself and asked for payment for the session. I thought that would have been more appropriate for after the services were rendered, but I didn’t want to start off on a bad note. She didn’t tell me how much to write the check for, but I seemed to recall it was $80, so I started filling in the blanks. While I wrote, she told me that the first thing I would do is watch a video that explained about what therapy could do and how it worked. It seemed like a nice way to ease me into the hypnosis rather than plunking me down in a chair and putting me under. I finished my check, ripped it out and handed it to her. She looked at it for a second, and then said, “Oh. It’s supposed to be for eight-five dollars.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, slightly embarrassed. “I couldn’t remember exactly.” I dug in my purse and pulled out my wallet. I didn’t have enough singles or a five, so I offered her a ten dollar bill. “Thanks, I’ll get your change while you’re watching the video,” she replied, and then led me off into another room in a distant corner of the basement.
The room was smaller than a bedroom and a tad larger than a closet. I sat down on the little green couch and she slipped in the VHS tape. She turned the lights off and left me alone while I watched the video. It was about 15 minutes long and was not terribly interesting, but it also left me bored and eager to get on with it, which was better than the apprehension I had been feeling.
When the video was over Lana came back and brought me into the room where we would be having our session. I sat in the recliner and looked around for the device that would be used to lull my brain into a moldable plastic. In the movies it is always a swinging coin and back in high school it had been a red flickering light, but I saw nothing here that fit those descriptions.
Lana spent some time talking about herself and then asked me questions about myself, trying to make me feel more at ease in the unfamiliar surroundings. I was still eager to get on with it, partly because in two hours my kids would be out of school and deposited at the bus stop by my house, and I had to be there to get them.
Finally, after a peaceful conversation among two new acquaintances, it was time to dim the lights a bit more and get into position. She leaned me back in the chair, had me close my eyes, and began her count backward from ten. But suddenly her voice went from the neutral, conversational voice she’d had since she introduced herself, into a stage voice that sounded as if she were about to conjure up dead spirits or cause my body to hover above the chair. It was all I could do to keep from bursting into laughter.
“Ten! Your eyelids are getting heavy,” she cried in a deep, sing-songy voice.
“Nine! Your arms and legs are getting heavy,” she continued.
“Eight! Every time I say a number you feel yourself falling deeper into the chair. Seven! – Oh wait, let me bring you back up for a second.”
And so I opened my eyes and twisted back to look at her, where she had positioned herself over my right shoulder.
“I forgot to tell you that if you have an itch or something like that, go ahead and scratch. Do whatever you need to do to feel comfortable.”
“Okay, thanks,” I replied, even though I was already way past my comfort level. I closed my eyes and got back into position.
“Ten! Your eyelids are getting heavy,” she started again.
“Nine! Your arms and legs are getting heavy. Eight! Oh, one more thing,” she said, briefly returning again to her normal voice. “Are you comfortable if I touch your shoulder and arm while you are under?”
I couldn’t possibly be any more uncomfortable than I already was, so why not add getting touched by a stranger during hypnosis? “That’s fine,” I answered and decided that I would do whatever I had to do to get this over with as quickly as possible.
She began her countdown for the third time and made it all the way to one this time. Then she told me that I was going to try to open my eyes but my eyelids would be too heavy and I would be unable to do so. So at her command, I rolled my eyeballs around in their sockets a bit, playing that I was making an effort, but for all practical purposes my eyelids were just glued shut. I certainly did not want to open my eyes and have to go back and start the counting routine over once more.
As Lana tried to get me deeper into the hypnotized stage, she had me count for her and imitate the things she said. It seemed to be a strategy of getting me to open up to her suggestions by first having me follow simple, nonthreatening commands. Throughout the hypnosis session, I imagined different friends and family in the room with me, and how hilarious of a predicament they would find this. I worked like mad not only to keep from laughing, but to not even crack a smile and betray what was really going on inside. Instead of giving up control to the hypnotist, I was wielding more self control than I ever had.
“And now I want you to count backward from 10, repeating it just as I have said it,” Lana intoned and then began her count. “10 … 9 … 8 … 7 … 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1.”
Ah ha! I thought as I listened. Skip six, I told myself.
“10 … 9 … 8 … 7 … 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1.”
“Good,” she told me, sounding very pleased with my progress. “When we are done and you awake, you will continue to count in the same way until I give you the command to correct it.” I thought it would be an interesting test of the hypnosis. I certainly felt coherent and in control and not the least bit hypnotized, but perhaps I was being sucked in without truly realizing it.
After what seemed like an eternity of trying to bring me deeper and DEEPER into hypnosis with her voice that got deeper and DEEPER, she seemed satisfied that we were ready to continue. She began by asking me to relive other experiences I’d had with airplanes. The theory that hypnosis worked on, she had told me before we’d begun, was that our fear of something such as flying was triggered by a traumatic event that we had come to associate with it.
There were certainly a few instances I’d had that I could have offered up to Lana that would have satisfied her probing. I could have blamed 9/11, although I had already quit flying by then. I could have blamed the flight I took to Florida with my boyfriend in college. I was nervous about flying, but once we got up and the captain turned off the seatbelt sign, I relaxed and smiled and turned to look at my boyfriend. He was paler than the clouds outside and was sitting hunched in a ball with his fists clenched. His terror was palpable. I tried not to let it affect me and was successful for most the flight until it came time to land. Thunderstorms lined the coast as we dipped down toward the Fort Lauderdale airport. It was nighttime, and the captain had us turn off the cabin lights, bringing darkness to the plane. As we flew through the clouds, every few seconds a bright flash of light would surround us from out every little porthole window and the plane would shake, then again darkness and calm before another flash and shake. This went on for quite a few minutes in complete silence. We never heard a crack or boom or rumble of thunder, we simply saw the lightning and felt the plane tossing. Everyone on the plane was still, breath held, waiting for what would happen next. I gripped my boyfriend’s hand and we sat there, hunched and pale together, hoping that when we reached the ground it wouldn’t be with a splat. Finally we exited the storm clouds and continued our descent until we reached the runway, with a dry and uneventful landing.
But again, my fear of flying preceded this event. Another bad experience I could have recounted was the time my family spent Christmas in Los Angeles. We were scheduled to come home on New Year’s Eve on a flight from Los Angeles to Minneapolis and then a short leg from there to Madison. When we got to LAX, we discovered that our flight had been overbooked and people were being given tickets for a free flight to anywhere in the U.S. if they were willing to take a later flight to Chicago and then on to their final destination. I was immediately worried. In my 13-year-old brain I was comfortable with the idea of taking our scheduled flight and flying home the same way that we flew here, but changing that plan might throw my fate into some situation that it was not meant for. My 17-year-old sister did not want to take the later flight because our current flight would have us home before midnight and she would be able to make a New Year’s party that she had been invited to. We were dead set against taking the new flight, and my mother was determined to get those free tickets. My father seemed to have disappeared in all this. There were copious tears, mine out of fear and my mother’s and sister’s out of frustration. We were all becoming dramatic and overwrought, tired and so far from home. At one point my mother exclaimed, “You girls have ruined everything I’ve ever wanted to do!” and soon after that my sister got up and walked off, disappearing for about 15 minutes. I glanced up through my tears at the other people waiting at the gate, wanting simultaneously to disappear from them and be saved by them. In the end, enough people took the free tickets and flight to Chicago that we were able to board our originally scheduled plane and take off. Ironically enough, when we finally got back to our house after that pain-filled day, there was a note waiting for my sister that the New Year’s Eve party planned for that night had been cancelled.
I shared none of this with Lana. My fear of flying did not begin with any of these other bad experiences, although to be fair, they certainly couldn’t have helped the situation any. Lana made me rehash every airplane flight I could remember. Things were going fine, until she made me relive an experience from when I was about four. I had to embellish some of my flights, because my memory from this time was not very clear. All I really knew was that I flew to Texas when I was young. I also remember getting off the plane to a large band playing, welcoming the governor of Texas back home who had also been on the plane with us. I had no negative memories, but if I wanted to be cured, I would have to help her find the source of my anxiety.
“Tell me how you feel, four-year-old Kelly,” Lana asked me.
“My stomach feels strange,” I replied.
“Am I talking to four-year-old Kelly?” Lana asked. Uh oh. I was doing something wrong. She couldn’t possibly want me to … no. But I had to do it.
“My tummy hurts,” I answered in a baby voice. I was so glad no video tape was being made of this hypnosis.
“And why does your tummy hurt, four-year-old Kelly?” Lana asked.
“Because I’m afwaid of the pwane,” I answered. The real four-year-old Kelly never lisped, but I wanted to be convincing.
“And why are you afraid of the plane, four-year-old Kelly?”
“Because it might cwash. I saw it on the Tee Bee.”
Bingo. Lana soothed four-year-old Kelly and told her that planes were safer than cars, that she would grow up and take many flights and they would all be fine, and that I didn’t need to be afraid of them anymore. She then talked to my present-day self and asked me to picture myself on a flight to somewhere (I picked Greece). I was supposed to picture myself relaxed, reading a book, napping, and then reaching my destination happy and calm. I was thinking that would be great, but when I have to fly with a real four-year-old girl, relaxing, reading, and napping with her next to me was probably out of the question.
At long last, Lana brought me up from the hypnosis.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“I feel great,” I said, and I meant it. I was glad to be done and I was willing to keep faking my way for as long as I had to. Lana was thrilled with my progress. She said she didn’t expect us to get as far as we did and that there wouldn’t be any need for me to come back for a second session. She said I was the perfect type of person for hypnosis because I was very open to suggestion. I felt that was probably the farthest thing from the truth. She then asked me to fill out a testimonial for her binder in the lobby. It seemed a little early for that, as I had just come out of hypnosis, but again I complied in order to get done and get to the bus stop on time. I wrote a little paragraph about how I felt great and couldn’t wait to go to Florida. Finally, Lana released me back into the world and I skipped out of there merrily, glad to have the hypnosis session behind me.
On the drive home, I was reliving the whole experience when I suddenly remembered she still owed me five dollars. Then I remembered the backward counting and when she had me skip the number six and that she had never given me the code to retrieve it. I kept driving along in the quiet, thinking about it, when I suddenly blurted out, “SIX!”
Whew! She may have stolen my five dollars, but she hadn’t stolen my number six.

In case you're wondering, we did fly to Florida that winter.

We had a wonderful time at Disney and the ocean.

The flight home was smooth and uneventful.

And I haven't flown since.