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Archive for the month “November, 2012”

Part II: What it felt like to skydive

This essay follows “Part I: The Freefall,” published on Sunday, November 11, 2012.

“Just don’t die.” This was my boyfriend’s response when I informed him on a Friday that I was considering skydiving on Sunday.

Die? I thought. I hadn’t considered that. Death hadn’t felt like an option whenever I had originally come up with the idea.

It had been in 1995, the year the movie Apollo 13 came out with Tom Hanks. I had already been in love with the 1986 Space Camp that my family kept on near-constant loan from my aunt Carol for its thrilling plot about handful of teens stuck orbiting the Earth due to a space shuttle test launch gone awry, and my brother described Apollo 13 as “just like Space Camp but wayyyy more satisfying.” And it was, for the simple reason that this storyline was actual historical. The momentous liftoff! The explosion in the oxygen tank! The tension of the leakage, the carbon dioxide levels, the fuel cells! It was all true!

But somewhere during the movie, my thoughts began to drift. Stranded in space, the astronauts of Apollo 13 were in grave, history-altering danger — this I understood. However, while my brother sat beside me on the couch plotting trajectory angles for re-entry, I was captivated by the way the characters swam through the air between the lunar module and the command module, delicately weightless, pulling in their white-socked feet as to not hit any buttons.

Everything floated in outer space as gracefully as ballet dancers: orange juice droplets, radio, bag of urine.  Life-threatening situations aside (we all knew the astronauts survived), I wanted to float, too. I took to jumping on my bed when my brother wasn’t watching to try to snag seconds when there was nothing below me but air. When those moments didn’t last long enough, I needed more air-time, springing spindly-legged off the 9-foot high dive at the pool at Messiah College and managing to count to two before I hit the water. But that moment of nothingness beneath my feet when the pool rushed up to greet me was still too short. What options remained? Puzzled, I sat myself down one day and realized that I had two choices on how to discover weightlessness: I either had to become an astronaut or to go skydiving, which had to be close enough.

I chose skydiving — or so I claimed. I never once looked up prices, locations, lessons, or Groupons, even after I turned 18. Occasionally, my brother and father would drive to the Chambersburg Skydiving Center on Sundays to watch the planes take off and the parachuters land, and I joined them only once. But whenever the topic emerged among friends in the typical “sky-diving-or-bungee-jumping?” conversation that ensues after long hikes in perilous places, I always leaned forward, thumped my fist on a nearby table, and claimed, “Skydiving. I’d do it.”

Seventeen years later, Paulina, a friend from the University of Pittsburgh who is working on her A license at the C2 level with the United States Parachute Association, tells me she is headed to Skydive Pennsylvania for a training weekend and asks to borrow a sleeping bag so she can sleep over in the airplane hanger. I do not have a sleeping bag, but I do have an ego.

“That sounds awesome,” I say, raising my fist. “If I had the chance, I’d — ”

“There are extra tandem slots for Sunday,” she replies.

I stare at her. Politely, I excuse myself, go home, and fret on the meaning of freefall and faith. It occurs to me that declining would prove me a two-decade liar. I do not sleep for two nights straight. And this is how I decide to jump.


At Skydive Pennsylvania — a little set of hangers and a runway off of Route 79 near Grove City — everyone is surprisingly cheerful. I burst through the door panting at 8:30 AM to greet young men rolling brightly-colored parachutes across the worn carpeted floor and a woman who accepts my check for one tandem jump and does not seem to mind that I’ve written in “for LIFE” in the memo line.

“Thank you!” she beams.

I half-giggle, half-snort. “No, thank you,” I say. “You know, for keeping me alive. Well, I guess I haven’t dived yet. Thanks in advance for keeping good equipment, I mean. Well, I’m assuming you do.”

The woman smiles slightly. Either she has seen thousands of reactions like mine before and is holding her tongue, or she has seen jitters so often that she no longer notices them. “Enjoy,” she says.

The USPA meticulously gathers statistics about skydiving fatalities and reported 21 deaths out of approximately 3 million jumps in 2010, an average of 0.007 per 1,000. That’s one fatality out of every 141,509 skydives when the odds of dying in a car accident are somewhere around one in 6,500 drivers. This is hardly comforting, however, when I’m handed a multi-page document littered with the words INJURY and DEATH that requires my signature after every couplet. Strangely, I find I’m less worried about actually dying than I am about breaking a promise, for I had told my boyfriend that I planned to live and would call him when it was over.

Out of nowhere, Paulina bounds breathlessly in a pale blue jump suit, having just completed her first jump of the day, her 24th jump since 2011. I pause, my pen poised.

“Hey!” she says. “You made it!”

I sign.

Skydive Pennsylvania, November 2012

I’m assigned to the fourth plane of the morning and given a brief set of instructions for tandem jumpers on how to fall — belly first, knees bent between my instructor’s like a scorpion — and how to land — legs parallel to the ground. I listen carefully, but since I fell down the stairs in my apartment in Pittsburgh just a week ago, I assume I will be okay. An instructor straps me into a jumpsuit that looks depressingly like the insulated coveralls I used to wear while working winters on the farm, but I’m distracted from the fashion show by Paulina who hands me her altimeter, which I sling between my fingers and strap on my wrist like a watch. She tells me that it will show me how high the plane is and when we’ll jump, which I don’t exactly want to know until I realize that the higher I am the less close I am to hard objects, most notably, the ground. Suddenly, plane number four is called, and I’m told to move toward the runway. I turn to Paulina, expecting her to look me in the eye and tell me gravely to consider my loved ones, but she just waves as if I’m headed to class. I turn solemnly and walk toward the plane like Tom Hanks without an overture.

The plane, which the others call a Hopper, is already running, the engine purring in a hearty, full-pitched hum. I step up into it with seven others, equally suited and strapped, and we duck down and rearrange ourselves on the floor in a space the size of the interior of a small car. I’m jammed up against the knees of my instructor Ron who will jump with me, and another first-time tandem jumper is sitting between my legs. In front of him is his instructor; to my right is a solo jumper named Erica who looks remarkably calm and a couple who just finished stapling black ties to their black suit jackets and securing black hats to their heads so they can jump as the Blues Brothers. Behind Erica is a third man with three cameras mounted to his helmet who will jump with them and be the photographer for the couple’s annual Christmas card. Then the engines rise, and our little plane rumbles forward and wooshes off the runway in the lightweight, jittery way that a small plane always rises, our tightly-packed bodies rising with it.

I gaze out the eye-level window and steady my breathing. The ceiling is so low I could probably touch it if I tried, but I keep my arms tucked tightly around myself, like a hug, trying to melt the fear that’s lodged cold in my stomach. I’m not necessarily afraid of falling; what scares me is the unknown, our collective singularity of purpose. The ascent is a one-way ticket, a ski lift up the mountainside; what next is supposed to be so simple, the option of going down. This wouldn’t be so difficult except for the fact that I once refused to get off a ski life once I reached the top, staying on the chair as it circled the cable and headed back down the mountainside, causing all the ascending skiers to stare and a panicked instructor to ski down the hill beneath me, yelling, “MA’AM! DON’T WORRY! EVERYTHING’S GOING TO BE OKAY!”

Around me, the plane holds the tinny smell of cold fuel and moving air. Outside the world below is small and fading, first to doll-sized houses, then smudges of colors tinged by humidity. My left leg jiggles and kicks the other tandem jumper. I apologize, and he leans back into me and gives me an answer, which I cannot hear. And I realize I plan on not returning to earth by plane.

I try to think of a multitude of things, but I can think about is how the eight of us are in this tiny metal capsule rising above the suburbia of fields and homes and how it’s as isolated as I’ve ever felt in my life. We’re in a tree house, I think. A very high one. If I’m not looking down, all I can see out the windows is white sky. If I weren’t about to jump out of this tiny room, I could maybe start daydreaming.

Ron leans forward over the roar of the engine and tells me how the next few minutes will go: first, I will put my goggles on. I nod. Then he will strap himself to me. I nod again. When we jump, I am to lean my head to the side so our heads don’t knock together.

The needle on my altimeter is approaching 9,000 feet, then 10,000. Outside the glass and down, the houses are pinprick-small.

For the first few seconds of our fall I am to hold onto the straps over my chest so my arms aren’t in his way.

11,000. 12,000.

“I’m afraid — ” I yell. It’s the first time I hear my own voice since the plane has left the ground. My stomach’s quivering, but my voice, strong as a high school teacher’s, hits my icy stomach like a cup of coffee after a morning out in the cold: warm like strength. “I’m afraid I’ll forget what to do.”

“That’s fine,” Ron said. “I’ve got everything under control.” And suddenly, at 13,000 feet, somebody opens the door.

A spinning wooosh of cold air floods in. The engine’s suddenly louder, splattering against the senses, filling my pores, my stomach, my eyes. My view of the horizon is surprisingly larger now that it’s unbroken by windows, and more rapidly than I’m ready for, we mobilize. The camera man swings out and holds himself against the side of the plane. Erica springs out the door without hesitation, like all those kids in elementary school who trusted a pool enough to cannonball into it; the Blues Brothers follow her and the camera man lets go, all of them zipping down and away from the plane in an instant so breathless I don’t understand how quickly they have fallen. Every other time I’ve been a plane this high, our goal has been to somewhere other than straight down. I high-five the other tandem jumper and he grins, but out the door they vanish, too.

The last ones in the plane, Ron and I sit on the edge of the door and dangle our feet out and pause for a moment. It’s exactly like sitting on the edge of a swimming pool. I remember that I hate swimming pools — the 9-foot high dive had been my one exception. The world is splayed out before me even wider than before, broad like a Google map, a breathing patchwork of fields. Beyond my feet, there is 13,000 feet of empty space and then the view, pale green and scratched with roads and hazed with humidity. The horizon is easily visible. The wind tugs on scraps of my hair. Ron leans us both forward gently and then tilts us back — it’s the signal. He leans us forward again and we bellyflop out of the airplane.

I scream. The acceleration rises in my chest like a roller coaster, but only for an instant. The next thing I know is we’re stabilized, Ron pats me to allow me to loosen my hands, and I hold them out at 90 degree angles as taught. We’re falling into a thick nothingness that continues and continues. It’s windy, and the view is everywhere. I breathe, check the altimeter, whose needle has dropped rapidly, and check the position of my legs. It’s windy. If I remember anything from physics, we’re hit terminal velocity and we’re falling — 120 miles per hour falling — but without a reference point, I cannot tell; the houses beneath me have remained unchanged from small to small. Impressions flick like opening shutters: It’s windy. I breathe. The world is green. We’ve dropped 8,000 feet in 30 seconds. It’s windy. I breathe. The world is beautiful. Ron signals, and he and I pull the parachute.

The sensation of an opened chute is the same as putting on your brakes in a car — head thrown forward, your heart jostling with it — but suddenly the world is very calm. The houses spring before you, noticeably bigger, the horizon is lower. When did we get so close? Instead of watching the world from above, I am entering into it, floating gracefully. It’s the moment when the roller coaster comes to the stop and you’re screaming, breathless, dizzy, suddenly realizing the extent of what you just did, your mind flooding open with sensation, piling up your throat and into your mouth.

I’m screaming stuff. I don’t remember what about. Ron lets me steer the parachute, and we twirl, not unlike a ballet dancer, in the sky. He points out landmarks, major roads. On a clear day from the max height you can see Pittsburgh, Cleveland. The hanger and the runway reemerge and enlarge, and my understanding of life emerges with it. I think slowly about Paulina, still on the ground. I remember with some shock that I have a PBJ sandwich in my car.

Paulina tells me later, “Skydiving gives you perspective. For one moment, you can’t worry about anything else; you just have to focus on that one thing, which is, well, not dying.” But she’s right. The dream had felt complex, but falling was simple. While falling, I looked at the world, I breathed, and life became as beautiful as human worries laid out before me in a map of pinpricks, meaningless before the power of the wind.

Skydive Pennsylvania, November 2012

Skydive Pennsylvania, November 2012

Friday Photo: The Grove women

Thanksgiving Day, 2012

In France in 2007, Thanksgiving was just another day of assisting in high school classes, cous-cous in the cafeteria, and pan-made stuffing.

This year, I was very conscious of coming home, not for the stuffing or mashed potatoes, but for this: the faces of the Grove women, bent over the noon meal, tasting and stirring with the lips and eyes and pride that define the women from which I’ve come.

Free Pancake Friday, Oakland Avenue, Pittsburgh

Fresh pancakes, Oakland Ave, November 2012

“Pancakes! Get your free pancakes!”

The voice is loud and authoritative, and it cuts through the crisp morning like a fishmonger’s. Danny Santoro, a junior computer engineering major at Carnegie Mellon University, bends over two hot griddles on his front lawn, pouring scoopfuls of batter from industrial-sized mixing bins and waiting until the pancakes bubble and sizzle. Roommates Chad Miller and Adam Britton along with a handful of neighbors gather around, exhaling steam into the morning air. It’s week 11 of Free Pancake Friday on Oakland Ave.

“They’re free, like, for real? I just can’t wrap my mind around it,” says a passerby, leaning over the griddle and accepting a hotcake and a cup of hot chocolate. “I figured you were a bunch of boys doing a science experiment. Thank you so much!”

“Yeah, they’re free,” says Santoro. “No ulterior motive. Well, we have a tip jar.” He flips a few pancakes and then adds, almost as an extra thought, “For charity.”

Hot chocolate and morning joy, Oakland Ave, November 2012

Past charities have included the Pittsburgh Food Bank, breast cancer research, and Hurricane Sandy relief, but raising money was not the original point. Free Pancake Friday began first as a mistake.

“The first week happened because we were trying to have a house breakfast, and Chad made way too many pancakes,” Santoro explains. “So we just kind of stood out on the street and gave them out, no plates or anything. Hot and free, like America in the summertime.”

Today, they not only have plates; they have syrup, hot chocolate, a lawn table to lounge at, and pancakes whose flavors vary per week, ranging from pumpkin to buckwheat to red velvet. The group plans to keep making pancakes through the winter and through the snow. “Who doesn’t like pancakes?” Santoro says.

Danny Santoro, a CMU junior, mans the griddle; November 2012

Part I: The freefall

Decisions. I’ve never been very good at them. It’s partially because I love details; for example, if you ever come grocery shopping with me, you’ll notice that I get a thrill out of finding the best cereal to match my mood or if it’s going to be a week of 2% milk or skim. (If you’ve already shopped with me and haven’t noticed this, it’s because I was being polite.) Buying clothes are worse. My friends from Avignon, France, can surely remember the 2004 Saga of the Green Coat, a suede, mint-sage, knee-length number that I blabbed about for weeks before I finally could agree to swipe my debit card. In 2008, signing my name on a lease for my 2004 Ford Focus was a reason to cry in front of the salesman, and, after that, I naively refused to buy car insurance for awhile because I pegged it as “too expensive.” I bought a Macbook Pro in 2010 after having considered one since 2007 and even then had to close my eyes when I clicked “purchase”; this is also what happened when I bought a pair of leather boots from Metz (2007), a ring from Paris (2008), a watercolor from Avignon (2005), and my first Victoria’s Secret bra (2012). Money, for me, complicates. I’m okay with other people’s possessions, but my own are superfluous. To allow myself to have them, I have to block out something within myself, close my eyes, and plunge.

But money’s not the only aspect that’s hard. In 2003, deciding to attend Susquehanna University instead of my family’s alma mater Messiah College left me miserable for months. Choosing between job offers and selecting apartments since then have hurt friends’ feelings and almost cost me all of the above. I know this, but in the moment, I hardly know how to care: faced with a choice, my mind jerks about like an old film, moving bone-on-bone between pros and cons. I’m left short of breath, prickled with anxiety, and devoid of logic, a panicked shell — pacing from one Starbucks to another in Manhattan or crumpled asleep on the Dublin airport floor. In most of life, I am a chill, good-natured, “whatever goes” kinda person, but when it all comes down to me on a day without a Plan B, there’s no middle ground: I’m either steadfast or reckless, sleeping or sobbing, in short — absolutely terrified.


It’s 6 AM on a Saturday in November as I’m writing this, having been blown awake out of a solid sleep by the fear of a looming Choice. Really, Sylvia? I ask. After backpacking across Europe, making impromptu lessons as a high school English teacher, and flying standby to Amsterdam, Alaska, and Santiago, Chile — where nothing is ever in my control other than choosing to go forward — shouldn’t I be good at life already?  But no. My first agonizing life decision came in fifth grade when Mr. Wilsom made me chose between playing the flute and playing the oboe (or was it the moment I stood in front of the Super Duper Looper at Hersheypark with my cousins for forty minutes in the growing dark, unable to just do it?), and now, seventeen years later, here I still sit. I’m not getting better; I might as well be getting worse.

The very notion of facing a choice scares me so much that I don’t even have a strategy for making one. When confronted with a handful of options, I imagine that I should probably identify which one’s most desirable and weigh it against the financial and emotional cost to myself and to others around me. However, it’s the knowing — or, more accurately, the admitting — of what I want in the face of whatever I feel I owe as a daughter and a woman — or worse yet, as a Responsible Daughter and Woman — that’s hard. I prefer my life to remain just outside of the limelight so that both victories and defeats can be hidden by the shadows, but a choice thrusts me front and center. Some self-help book would probably tell me that I’m afraid of my Really Knowing Myself or something else I’ve always dismissed as bull because I already know I like the noodles that slurp and old men who play accordions, but none of this explains why almost any choice, however superficial, will drive me to days of wide-eyed helplessness.

But as I’m sitting here, I wonder if what I’m really afraid of is recognizing that my life is up to me. While I’ve had the luxury of being surrounded all my life by those whom I deeply love, I’m afraid of realizing that it makes no difference, that when the rubber meets the road, it’s only me who will be left standing, eyes fixed on the horizon, hair wafting in the wind. If I could face this person in the terrible loneliness and power of that moment of realizing that her voice exists, I’d tell her that strength is not a quality but a series of decisions, that life is an expression and not a performance, and that living begins at the end of her comfort zone.

I’d tell her to plunge.

And so I plunged.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Skydive Pennsylvania; Sunday, November 11, 2012

This essay continues at “Part II, What it felt like to skydive,” published November 29, 2012.

The wisdom of the bathroom stall

American women are infamous for using public restrooms in pairs, talking to one another while in adjacent stalls, and continuing the conversation while washing their hands and heading right back out to the public sphere. However, nothing surprised me more than these written words found in a bathroom stall in the woman’s room on the second floor of Pittsburgh‘s iconic Cathedral of Learning, where bomb threats had marred the bathroom walls less than a year ago.

Bathroom graffiti isn’t unusual, and the comments in this stall aren’t all pristine, but the tone of many of these words uplifts, rethinks, and inspires. Comments and artwork are added daily, and I visit this stall as much as possible. Seriously. Why shouldn’t a public restroom be a place of reflection and dialogue? A new perspective is sometimes most effective when it’s unexpected.

October 2012

October 2012

October 2012

Friday Photo: Placing an order, Primanti Bros., Pittsburgh

Primanti Bro's., the Strip District, September 2012

Primanti Bro’s., the Strip District, September 2012

When I was a student in Avignon, France, in 2005, a sandwicherie in the center city sold what they had dubbed “the American sandwich” — some kind of monster hoagie stuffed with French fries and made with bread that wasn’t a baguette. “That’s unfair, greasy, and stereotypical,” I said. And then I ate a sandwich at Primanti Brothers on a Saturday in the Strip District in Pittsburgh, when the lines were full and the timing was perfect.

There are twenty-one Primanti Bros. locations, but this one’s the original, brimming with Steelers’ fans, spot-on servers, and Toni Haggerty who has been working the grill for almost 40 years. (“Too long!” she grinned at me, then jerked her finger toward the friendly dark-haired man ushering customers to tables. “As long as I’ve been married to him!”)

Toni — as well as Primanti Bros.’s “almost-famous” sandwiches stacked on hearty Italian bread, stuffed with grilled Italian meats, provolone cheese, vinegar-based coleslaw, and a fistful of freshly-made fries — have been featured everywhere from Pittsburgh Magazine to Man Vs. Food.

Go for the food, but leave with the experience.

Primanti Bros.
46 18th Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 263-2142

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