Thursday, March 31, 2005

Anchor for a Fugitive

by Zinta Aistars

The advice is always the same:
jump the stone wall,
run headlong into the night,
arms open, heart split in two
reddened halves still pulsing,
raw and meaty and true .
Scaling walls has never been easy
or simple—to land the hook
with steely bite, just so,
into the chink of brick at right angle
that will hold,
hold the full weight
of feather light touches,
fingertips that draw sweet curlicues
across your skin, your face,
sandpaper of your unshaven cheek,
sugared plump of your lip,
the weight of a smile.
The poundage of an autumn day,
skipping steps through russet leaves
falling like slow paper rain.
The weight of whispers,
such scurrying secret mice
from pillow to pillow, mouth to ear.
The tonnage of a Sunday morning,
coffee beans ground to aromatic dust,
onions for an omelet simmering
in the sharp sizzle of Jim Beam,
your trademark, eggs a la you.
Robes tied loose and easy,
easy to lean into the sleep warmed
crook of your welcoming arm,
loyal pup at your knee.
The ballast of a book
shared, read, read again,
pondered and discussed,
words strung like pearls,
not a one thrown to swine.
The weary heft of the wanderer
and journeys in duet marked
to every star guided direction,
accrued and shared memory—
Pacific crash of moonlit waves,
Central Park and its ghostly protagonists,
Superior star studded and bejeweled,
infinite black velvet sky,
southern drawl and spill
of Spanish moss draping trees,
these are yours, mine, ours.
Race beyond this maze of walls,
the heart itself split into borders
outlining what has been, what will be,
what forever holds.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005


by Zinta Aistars

As it happened, the fuses blew,
burning our fingertips –
passing fireworks from hand to hand.
Sparklers fizzing, a childish joy,
living stars sizzling white light,
writing our names across the sky.
It’s a common need:
the desire to leave an imprint,
sign a name to a lifetime
before it turns to the grit and gravel,
bone chips, of memory pounded to dust.
Passage of time, clouded by old desires,
an irresistible rewriting of history.
I would rather have been
a finer grain of intoxicant,
enough to fuel moon rockets
beneath your skin.
You would rather have dared
to reach for more meaning,
holding out the courage of a straw man
playing with matches.
The cripplings of human nature,
Don Quixotes fighting windmills.
Everyday fare, but we play instead
with sparklers, pyrotechnics,
blazes of Roman candles,
cones of fire, fountains of liquid flame,
writing a momentary name across sky,
there, then not.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Raggedy Ann and Andy--World's Most Beloved Rag Dolls

by Zinta Aistars

“It is the Gruelle ideal that books for children should contain nothing to cause fright, suggest fear, glorify mischief, excuse malice or condone cruelty. That is why they are called ‘Books For Children.’” -- Johnny Gruelle, author of the Raggedy Ann and Andy books.

When my family of four decided to leave home for an undetermined time, pack up the 27-foot RV, and head for Alaska, my daughter, Lorena, was 9 years old, and my son, Markus, was 7. Life on the road, out of school and away from work for nearly a year – it just didn’t get much better than that. Home was on wheels, and the scenery outside of our windows changed by the second. Every night we bedded down to sleep in a different place than the night before. Every morning we woke to a moment of confusion, bleary eyes searching our surroundings for something familiar to orient ourselves, before we realized where we were this time.

Stopping in a store in Juneau, Alaska in search of a souvenir, Markus and Lorena made a simultaneous squeak of joy. What had they spotted? I peered over the merchandise to see….two dolls sitting hunched together, hair of bright orange yarn, black button eyes, red triangle noses, a simple curved line for a mouth. Such simple faces, but so endearing. I could see why my children could not resist giving them a cuddle. And I couldn’t resist buying them the two dolls – Raggedy Ann and Andy.

As our cross-country journey continued, covering not only the breathtaking beauty of Alaska, but also much of the United States, I noticed that both of my children snuggled their new rag dolls more and more, carrying them along everywhere they went. The dolls came along on hikes into woods as well as into cities. They sat in restaurants just as they perched on rocks along the California coastline, looking out to the ocean with that pleasantly blank and patient stare. They smiled through the night, tucked under the children’s arms, greeting them with the same familiar smile each morning.

Familiar smile, I thought. Hmmm. Yes, I understood. Even as we explored the expansive and varied beauty of our country day after day, month after month, Markus and Lorena seemed to thrive on the sense of adventure, even as they seemed to need the familiarity of that friendly Raggedy smile. The two rag dolls were a symbol of the security of home, a familiar and unchanging smile wherever we traveled, wherever we might roam. They were the painted bright faces of love that touched a child’s heart and gave comfort.

With the rag dolls having quickly grown to be such a favorite with both children, I decided to include the series of books featuring the characters of Raggedy Ann and Andy in our homeschooling curriculum. The storyline appealed to both adults and children, perhaps appreciated for differing reasons. Reading these wholesome children’s stories, the kind we come across so rarely in contemporary literature, led to curiousity about the author and creator of the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls my children loved.

Johnny Gruelle, although best known for these dolls and their stories, was a freelance artist, a cartoonist, who loved to create his enchanting drawings to illustrate his stories, but also as cartoons for newspapers and magazines. Born in Arcola, Illinois in 1880, he moved to Indianapolis in early childhood, where he grew up under the wing of an artist father. By his early teens, he was already known for his cartoons. When Johnny had a family of his own, including a daughter named Marcella, he found a muse in his little girl, and a character in the doll that, legend has it, she one day brought down from her grandmother’s attic to place upon her father’s knee, asking for a story. The raggedy little doll had a missing eye and looked a bit battered, but the father picked up his cartooning pen and drew in the missing features – the triangle nose, the simple but sweet smile. From there the stories would unfold, as told to his daughter while clutching her rag doll. And, as the legend continues, the name for the doll came from a blend of two of Johnny Gruelle’s favorite children’s poems: “The Raggedy Man” and “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley, to become - Raggedy Ann.

Tucking my own into their beds for another transitory night, I smiled at my babes… their rag dolls firmly held against them. Life could sometimes be a scary road to travel, I knew, but the unconditional love of a doll with a friendly face would make it easier to brave the unknown.

Today, my children are grown. The road they travel now is their own. But Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy still sit on my shelf, their button eyes still wide, their smiles as charmingly simple as ever. Perhaps that is the reason we love dolls so. They are our tie to our childhoods, our own and those of our children.

(This sidebar to "Once Upon a Time There was a Woman Who Loved Dolls..." was published in the January 2003 issue of Encore magazine. Photo at top of Markus and Lorena, dressed as their dolls, for a Halloween on the road, in Portland, Oregon.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Another War Story

by Zinta Aistars

Irrigated minefields -
these forays into the past,
these ventures into the future,
dancing between blows,
skating on dynamite,
on a TNT hammering heart.

So I have a few flaky dreams left.
Just two, just three, just
one lonely dozen.
Moistened with a kiss
that wandered loose from its mark.

I sense stray hopes looming,
lost sheep to count
for those who cannot sleep,
but dream awake, staring,
staring down shadows so hard
sight illuminates shapes -
real or imagined, only morning will tell -
trace the ragged edges
of mismatched faces,
old, young, worn, with scars
stitched like pearl necklaces
where yet unclaimed dreams
shine in the dark
like teeth.

(Published in the July 2003 issue of Poems Niederngasse)

Monday, March 21, 2005


by Zinta Aistars

I remember children, and being one—
world in my mind larger than sky.
Pain was an echo in someone else’s woods.
The heart was a blood red muscle,
shape pointed with rounded ears
and made of thick rubber.
Shot through with steel.
I was forever. I was
heroine of my own bright tales,
meek wolves for pets, blunted teeth,
white and black unmarred,
summer songs in tune and sung
from the high branches of an oak tree,
bare legs swinging through leaves.

To have lost her:
the child, the heart, the wolf, the song, the oak tree
drives an older woman mad.

Watching snow fall.
Each flake a frozen wisp
of nothing,
yet together
a cold, white drift.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Watching Emma Watch the World: The Eyes of Emma Bickham Pitcher

by Zinta Aistars

Emma is a naturalist, a writer, a treehugger, a woman extraordinaire. This "Spotlight on the Artist" feature is published in the March 2003 issue of Encore magazine. (Photo - Emma's driftwood.)

Emma’s small apartment at the retirement community of Friendship Village feels like a cozy bird’s nest. It snuggles around me as I walk in at her kind invitation. My sense of comfort here is immediate. The walls are lined with bookshelves, crowded with books, books, and more books, and the table has books on it, and there are stacks of books alongside the soft, worn chairs. A collection of drawings and paintings on the walls show her favorite bird: the woodpecker, his glossy red head in various poses. Dainty and gracefully curved pieces of driftwood hang in a mobile from the ceiling, dancing a little in the breeze when Emma passes just below. The window is crowded with plants.

Emma Bickham Pitcher, self-taught naturalist, poet, essayist, birdwatcher, teacher, tree hugger, is also, quite simply, the kind of person in whose presence one feels at home. Her artistry is born of her powers of observation, and to be observant she has learned to be silent and unobtrusive, inviting those in her presence to be themselves.

"In summer on faraway Baffin Island’s arctic shore, I liked quiet, early morning summer walks downhill to Frobisher Bay to see what the tide was doing… I never tired of seeing daily differences in light and tide levels. I liked to stand absolutely still at water’s edge watching that immense volume of water move past me in absolute silence, never hurrying, never slowing, just creeping, creeping up or down the beach in almost imperceptible never-ending movements." ("Ramblings: Reflections on Nature")

Nature, Emma feels, is to be watched, respected, admired, and, when possible, captured into words. She is the author of three books of such observations: "Ramblings: Reflections on Nature", "Of Woods and Other Things" and "Up and Down the Dunes". Her book of poems, "Wordsong", was meant as a gift for her four children, but a few other lucky readers have also been able to enjoy it. For 13 years, her essays on nature have appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette. The Kalamazoo Nature Center, where she frequently volunteers, teaching classes and guiding walks, publishes her work in newsletters. She also teaches at Nature’s Acres in Comstock Township.

"I’m not trained in the sciences," Emma says, smiling. "I have a degree in sociology, and I’ve studied art history. But I think that is why my readers enjoy my work – everyone can understand it. Everyone can walk in the woods, or along the dunes, and learn to open their eyes, their senses, and see all the beauty that is around them. I’m just writing about what I enjoy."

Emma’s love for nature, and incorporating that love into writing, was not evident in her younger years. Born and raised outside of Chicago, she enjoyed her mother’s flower gardens and her father’s vegetable gardens, and she enjoyed taking walks. "But I was in the Scouts when I was young, and when we took nature classes, I hated them. I didn’t want to hear about plants and animals. I wanted to be outside and to play!" she laughs.

Her appreciation for the intricate beauty of a plant, or the warbling song of a bird, or the sweeping silence of the night, or the violin solo of a cricket all developed much later in life. Emma had married, and with her husband moved to Buffalo. After five years, however, they returned to Chicago, where both attended the University of Chicago. Emma’s husband worked on earning his doctorate, while she raised their four children – two sons, two daughters.

"We bought a shack on the Indiana Dunes around that time," she says, "because I didn’t want my children to spend their summers in the city. They called us the ‘suitcase family’ because we kept stacks of library books in suitcases, taking them back and forth to the library for our summer reading. The shack had no electricity. It had no plumbing. And I loved it."

Living at the ‘shack’ during summers, Emma took long walks, studying the dunes, watching the crash of waves, and she noticed the details of birds and plant life all around her. Nature, she realized, no longer bored her. Her eyes had begun to open to the wonders of nature, and before long, that wonder was translating into words on paper.

"I love words," she says. "I had an English teacher in high school… oh, I had a crush on him!" Emma twitters. "And he would read out loud to the class, and I would love to listen. He taught us to love words."

Emma’s essays about her summers spent in the Dunes are collected in "Up and Down the Dunes". When her marriage broke apart, she found strength in these Dunes, but practical needs, those of caring for her children, put her back into the workforce. Having had little training on the work front, she took a secretarial job at the University of Chicago in the office for the Graduate Division of Social Sciences. By her retirement in 1981, Emma was dean of students in the Graduate School of Business.

"I enjoyed that job very much, and I enjoyed working with students," she says. When computers began to invade the office, however, Emma found she had no interest in learning technology. Retirement beckoned. Spending more time on the Indiana Dunes beckoned. Muses to write were singing to her, and in 1981, Emma answered their call. She left Chicago and moved to the Dunes, wandering the beaches, reading about environmental concerns, and volunteering.

"I read endlessly," Emma says, her eyes flicking over to the stacks of books in her apartment with pleasure. She pulls a volume from a shelf – a fieldguide on wildflowers – and places it in my lap. She thinks for a moment, then rises from her chair and pulls another volume from a shelf, its cover well worn, well loved. "There are many authors who inspire me," she places this one too in my hands, "but Rachel Carson is among my favorites. I love to read John Muir, and of course Henry David Thoreau, and Mary Oliver’s poetry is enchanting, and…"

Emma frequently alludes to her favorite authors and artists in her nature essays, speaking of them like old friends:

"’One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the Spring come in.’ So wrote Henry David Thoreau, perhaps our most perceptive writer on nature. I prefer his 'Journals' to the more widely published 'Walden' and 'Maine Woods' but any Thoreau is good reading – either for dipping in lightly or for serious study. If his opinionated and dated social comment doesn’t appeal to you, just skip it and enjoy his intimate observations on the day-to-day changes in the natural world around him." ("Up and Down the Dunes")

As much as quoting her favorite authors, Emma will also bring in comparisons between nature and art, or nature and music."In my college years, I had the opportunity to travel around Europe," Emma remembers. "For an art history buff, that was true inspiration. But when I lived in Chicago, I was a constant visitor to the Art Institute. Now I like to teach what these artists saw in nature in my essays or in various classes. They help to open our eyes by what they see and what they paint." Georgia O’Keefe’s immense and lush flowers are a particular favorite, she says, or her portrayals of the clean beauty of a bare desert landscape. The paintings of George Innes inspire her – and Emma reaches for another book to show.

"I find inspiration in the work of other artists, just as I find inspiration in a walk in the woods," she says. "I don’t plan these things. I see something, or an idea comes to me, and I begin to think about how to put it into an essay. Do you see that mobile of driftwood hanging there?"

I glance up, where the delicate pieces of gray and weathered wood float above me.

"Do you see how they curve?" Emma says. And I see. Some of the pieces are long and thin, bent like a cat’s back when it hisses, others are little chunks, wiggling along like gray worms. Yes, I see.

"I was walking in the woods and thinking about curves," Emma says. "And I thought about writing… about curves. What is your favorite curve? The gentle curve of a bird’s egg?" She holds her hands up to form the shape of an egg. "Or the curve of a bird’s belly? Or the shape a tree branch?"

I see.

Emma has opened my eyes to the simple beauty of a curve in nature, but while I look around her room, watch the twisting and turning ballet of driftwood overhead – pieces, she says, that she collected on the Indiana Dunes – Emma has pulled a notebook from a nearby table and quickly scribbled something. For a moment she is lost in thought. The paper is already covered with notes, some scratched out, others underlined. She puts it aside again, smiling.

"I have to write things down as I think of them so that I don’t forget. I see something, and I want others to see it, too."

My eyes awash with sudden sight, I am reluctant to leave Emma’s nest. As I put on my coat, Emma reaches to lift my hair out from underneath it, gently fussing. I don’t want to leave this place, this presence, now that my eyes are open…

In the parking lot of Friendship Village, in the night shadows, I sense the woods beyond, where Emma takes daily walks. A tree branch is leaning heavily from one of the tallest oaks, shaped in a curve like an extended hand.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Then in That Moment

by Zinta Aistars

--to Maya Angelou, in tribute and in reply to her poem for the United Nations, titled “A Brave and Startling Truth”, after hearing her read in her deep and resonating voice to an audience of at risk youth at Starr Commonwealth in Albion, Michigan on October 5, 2003.

When we come to the truth,
will we bear its shining?
That glorious blaze, that roaring heat,
that gaze into the eyes
that pierces every fog?
The strangeness of morality,
values we have shirked from our shoulders,
become a beggar’s threadbare and tattered coat,
more holes than fabric, more stitch than warmth,
we who have become such suave experts of evasion,
escape artists from the weight of a yoke
of avoided responsibility. Not me, no, never I.
Will we wear this patched and humbling garment?

That we might cherish such words
that do not slice and cut and wound,
but apply them instead as balm and heal
the long-aching wounds of mistaken passion –
the greed, the avarice, the lies.
To polish away the centuries of tarnish
of words coated with sheen of gold
but beneath the basest metal,
a trickery of hissed apologies
when the heart was hollow,
of honeyed seductions
when the heart was empty,
of illustrious praise
when the tongue was forked.

When we come to it, when at last
we arrive – will we recognize
this beauty that is, once was,
or might have been – ourselves?
The gallant spirit of ordinary goodness,
the reach of a warm and loving hand,
the medicine of a kind word,
the strength of a shoulder
that leans against another
and together walks a common path.

We are neither devils nor divines,
but the brave if faulty heart of a single good man
and the singing spirit of a single good woman,
and the shining arc of a globe
that circles and twirls in its smooth orbit
of a peace found, understood,
cherished, and retained.

When we come to it,
as we must, in our evening of peace,
on this lonely and silent circuit
with scrubbed clean faces,
hand holding hand,
bless us in that moment
with the ability to not only see,
but to endure the radiance of light.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Hard Currency

by Zinta Aistars

Were it in my power - I would renounce this day,
steam it from its gluey edge where it peels away
at earliest morning, dawn still too pale to identify
as color or light, peppered already
with quick, sharp sneezes of doubt:
that its final sheet would remain tamped down
like new, fooling, lie that it is,
first page to last, first glance to final
closing of the eye, white moon
sucked into the black hole of night sky.

I lied. You lied. We pretended warmth
neither heart felt. Undone.
Perhaps the next page turned
may reveal something bright,
truth so golden, I can turn it
in my fingers
like a hard coin and toss it
high, midsky, squinting in delight.
Morning returns, and with it, fool's gold
that it might be:
hope like a coin,
yet unspent.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Crossing the Country of a Name

by Zinta Aistars

A country crossed, a continent subdued,
a thousand conversations begun, ended,
miles humming silken into the wheels,
rivers ribboned and spun into a loom
quilting prairie into desert into mountain
into forest into wheatfield into ocean –
where in the joy of the moment, conqueror,
life now, and this place, and this breath
of cool salted air caressing the travel worn
curve of your face and suddenly shining eyes,
all belonging to you, claimed and flagged,
you write my name in the sand.

Gulls complain overhead, then ignore
this new momentary scar
on the scenery of their hunting ground.
Veterans of the sea, they wheel overhead,
eyeing each stray rippling of an incoming wave
for signs of an unexpected feast, and peck
inside the zag of the Z in my name
as if it were a roadsign:
“Joe’s Diner: Eat Here” –
as you have, nourished on tender pink slices
of my willing heart, sautéed with the seaweed
of a luscious promise
that every mile traversed
will become a bond, yours, mine, ours,
shared experience threaded into conversations
yet to be had by two hardshelled crabs
niggling across the distant shore
into the final bleed of a sunset
both of us by then accept and understand,
even as another, and another, and another
wave nibbles away at the outside edge
of my name crumbling into yours.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Chemist on a High: For Joan Esson, the Sky's the Limit

by Zinta Aistars - published in April 2004 of Encore Magazine; photo of Zinta skydiving for "research"

“Once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward for there you have been and there you long to return.” –Leonardo da Vinci

All week long, as Joan Esson stands at the front of the analytical chemistry classroom, or sets potions to bubbling in a laboratory, or grades reams of student papers, her thoughts wander from time to time to flying. That moment when the plane climbs towards the setting sun, levels off, and then, most adrenalizing of all, when the door opens midair and there is nothing between Joan and earth but the sensation of taking wing. Release, and Joan is floating, falling from 14,000 feet above the earth, weightless and free.

An assistant professor of chemistry at Kalamazoo College since 2000, Joan loves few things more than teaching, but skydiving is her ultimate high.

“Skydivers really live life,” she says. “We are a breed that would rather die doing something we love than not do it at all.”

Joan has been skydiving for approximately four years, taking the leap of faith 10 to 15 times per weekend—she frequently leaves the classroom on Friday to head for the drop zone and jumps on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—amassing about 200 jumps per year. Her favorite drop zone (a place where parachuting operations take place and usually supplies aircraft, instruction, gear sales and services) is the Napoleon Skydiving Center, located on M-50 and approximately 8 miles southeast of Jackson, Michigan.

“I started skydiving in ’97 or ’98,” she recalls. “A friend of mine was a skydiver, and I initially would just go along to watch him jump. But, believe it or not, I’m afraid of heights. When he encouraged me to give it a try, I thought, no, not me! Eventually I did try… and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

As Joan quickly learned, before leaping from a plane, instruction is needed. Various training methods are available, some requiring hours, others only minutes before the plane door opens. Tandem jumps are the easiest, offering an introduction to the sport without a large investment of time. An experienced jumper, called a tandem master, wears a special harness that attaches to the back of the harness worn by the student jumper. With only 15 to 45 minutes of preparation, most anyone can experience the thrill of skydiving while the tandem master assures the jump is done properly (see sidebar for the author’s description of her first tandem jump).

Two other methods are suited for those who wish to jump solo. Static Line (SL) is a method that has evolved from military parachute jumping. After 4-5 hours of ground training, the student is then taken up to an altitude of about 3,000 feet for the jump. A static line attached to the aircraft deploys the canopy as the student exits the plane by standing on the strut of the plane, then releasing. While tandem jumping allows for about 30 to 50 seconds of free fall, the SL method initially allows for only about 2 to 3 seconds of free fall prior to pulling the ripcord. When the student has made a couple such jumps, he or she is ready to pull the ripcord for themselves—or at least a “dummy” version of the ripcord. After few jumps that demonstrate the ability to pull the ripcord successfully, the student may try their first independent free fall. While initially required to pull the ripcord immediately upon leaving the aircraft, eventually the student is allowed to wait longer to deploy the canopy, allowing for a longer free fall.

Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) is the method preferred at Napoleon Skydive Center. Considered an accelerated learning process compared to SL, ground training takes a few more hours, but the jump is made from a much higher altitude of 10,000 to 14,000 feet, so that already by a second jump the student will experience a 50-second free fall. Two experts, called jumpmasters, exit the airplane alongside the student. The jumpmasters grip the student from either side from the moment of departure to the moment the canopy is safely open overhead. They assist in practicing ripcord pulls, monitoring altitude, and maintaining a stable form in the air. The student pulls his or her own ripcord at about 4,000 feet altitude. Completing 3 levels of instruction and practice jumps, the student can then jump alone, but for the next levels of instruction, up to level 7, a single jumpmaster again accompanies the student to teach turns, forward movement in midair, docking (attaching) to other jumpers to create formations, making loops and various types of exits from the plane.

“I prefer the AFF method,” Joan says. “The sense of freedom I feel when jumping is so different from anything else in life. It’s so hard to describe. There just isn’t anything to compare to it. I suppose why I am still afraid of heights is that I associate that with losing control over my descent, but skydiving, I’ve learned, is to be able to fall through the air with control over my descent, so that I can enjoy every moment.”

Joan has made about 600 jumps since she began skydiving, earning a coaching license to teach others. She works with students who are in the intermediate stage, even while learning more herself. In 2003, she joined a competition team based in Napoleon that competes regionally.

She says, “I’m competitive by nature, so I really enjoy the competitions. We compete by trying to get more points, and by points I mean patterns we create, how fast we connect midair to make points, how well we line up. The higher the level of the competition, the more complicated the maneuvers.”

When the teams initially decide upon a formation, they practice first on the ground. “We call that a dirt dive,” Joan says. Once the maneuver is perfected on the ground, the team goes up to practice in the air. Competitions are then judged for style and accuracy, and those who win at the regional level may proceed to the nationals. Joan and her team are hoping to move up to the nationals within the next year.

“Another thing I love about this sport is the relationships we build with other skydivers. It’s such a diverse group of people. There’s a minimum age requirement of 18 for a first jump, but after that, well, the sky’s the limit. Just a little while ago, I met someone well into their 80’s doing a jump for the very first time! And I meet with many men with a military background of parachuting who return to skydive in later years, to recapture something of a time in their youth.”

Prospective skydivers must be in general good physical shape, strong enough to carry 35 pounds of equipment, flexible enough to maneuver a canopy, sturdy enough to take the shock of landing, and healthy enough to endure sudden temperature changes of about 30 degrees along with atmospheric pressure changes. Weight restrictions in general top off at 230 pounds, with most drop zones unwilling to risk higher weight due to increased risk of injury, but some allow jumps at higher weights if using special gear.

Fatalities? Equipment malfunctions? Pshaw! Joan, like most skydivers, worries little about such probabilities, although they do exist. Statistics show that most skydiving fatalities are due to the jumper not opening their parachute with enough time for a safe landing. Altitude awareness is critical, but it is not always easy to determine how quickly a jumper is losing altitude while in the air. After making many jumps, an awareness of altitude develops, but for those who have not yet developed such awareness, as well as for those who have, an altimeter is an absolute necessity as part of a skydiver’s equipment.

A skydiver jumping from 12,500 feet above ground will accelerate from 0 to 110 miles per hour in about 10 seconds. As dramatic as that sounds, however, keeping in mind that the plane was moving at about 100 miles per hour, the jumper gains only about 10 miles per hour upon jumping. Air pressure quickly balances against the pull of gravity, so that the sensation is not so much one of falling, but rather of flying. Expert skydivers try to increase their time to free fall, before pulling a ripcord.

The second cause of most skydiving fatalities or malfunctions is body position. The principles of free falling are a matter of dealing with two factors: your body, which serves as an airfoil, and the wind. A perfect, relaxed arch with your body parallel to the ground, head and shoulders back, legs bent back at about a 45 degree angle, presents a curve to the wind that will make for a stable fall. To anyone jumping alongside, the skydiver appears to be nearly stationary, as if floating on air. Making turns is done much as an airplane might, by banking to one side or the other, one arm down slightly, the other slightly raised, or by lowering one knee in respect to the other. To speed up, arch more; to slow down, flatten your body.

“Yes, I have had malfunctions,” Joan grins. “Jump enough times, and it will come up at some point. But that’s why we have reserves, and almost every time there is a malfunction of some kind, it is because the skydiver neglected to do something that should have been done,” she admits a little sheepishly. “Scared the hell out of me, though.”

Proper packing of equipment is another “must” for a safe skydiver. When Joan experienced a malfunction, she realized it was due to packing her gear herself and not checking it carefully before going up.

“It was the first time I packed my own gear,” she says. “Most skydivers rent gear, since it can be so expensive, but with all the jumping I do, I finally invested in my own. When I pulled the ripcord, I discovered bad line twists, so I flipped over in the air trying to get the lines straightened out, but… it wasn’t happening. I had to cut away and use my reserve. I thought to myself, ‘I’m not allowed to die today,’ and once I landed, I made sure to go right back up again for another jump. Otherwise I might have frozen up. I did have another malfunction at another time, but I learned from my first malfunction that it was no big deal. That’s why we have reserves.”

Skydiving gear includes what is called a “rig” or sport parachute, which includes two canopies, a main and a reserve, a deployment system of pilot chute, bridle, and bag, canopy, suspension lines, steering lines, toggles, risers, and a harness. Deployment is initiated when the container opens and the pilot chute is carried up into the wind, acting as an anchor while the jumper continues to free fall. The bag is pulled open by the chute’s deployment, and the suspension lines are pulled out and extended at that time, followed by the canopy. Today’s square design of a canopy has no known inherent design malfunctions. The malfunction rate is about one in every one thousand, and nearly all of those are preventable. When a malfunction does occur, a reserve saves the day.

The sport is safe enough that Joan regularly takes groups of her students at Kalamazoo College along for group jumps. “About once a year I take students interested in giving it a try,” she says. “Usually, that means about 10 to 15 students. Although more will always sign up than actually jump!” she laughs.

According to Joan, one of the greatest benefits she sees in those who try skydiving is an increase in confidence. She sees it in her students, and she sees it in herself. “Getting over your natural fear of jumping from a plane at 14,000 feet boosts confidence like few things can. I have seen emotionally withdrawn people open up in their lives after they try skydiving. Any time you conquer a fear, confidence is the reward. That’s why I enjoy teaching so much. Whether in a chemistry lab, or a classroom, or on a drop zone instructing people to skydive, if there’s any thrill nearly as wonderful as the jump itself, it’s seeing my students get excited over taking a risk and trying something new. Even if it is a little scary.”



Zinta's Leap of Faith--It's As Easy As Tripping Over Your Own Feet

Fourteen thousand feet above the earth, the door of the tiny Cessna plane opens. Winds at 220 miles per hour push me with breathtaking force back into the plane, but I fight the push and place a tentative foot onto the small step that juts from the side of the plane.

Nothing but air and clouds below that step.

With a tandem master—an expert parachutist—harnessed to my back and a second parachute, I get ready to take the leap.

Far below, Joan Esson, assistant professor of chemistry at Kalamazoo College, already dove into the clouds, just as she has nearly 600 times before. This time, she brought along 8 students from the College—and me. This is my first jump.

Anything for a story!

Earlier that morning, we stood in a group at the Napoleon Skydiving Center in Napoleon, Michigan, eyeing the sky. We pulled on our jumpsuits and harnesses, strapped canopies to our backs, chattered nervously, and watched the propellers of the Cessna whir into readiness for flight.

“I’ve been jumping for about five years now,” Joan said earlier this morning. “My mother still thinks I’m nuts. It’s taken her this long to be able to just talk about it in casual conversation. She refuses to come out to watch.”

I consider this as I watch clouds underfoot, bracing against the wind, counting the seconds before taking the leap. This is the day my parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, and my own mother was in a horrified snit when she heard about my mad venture. I’m a journalist, I told Mom, this is research. I thought you worked on a computer, she wailed, and you’re going to ruin our anniversary by getting yourself killed! My father was almost too angry to speak to me. I understood the anger was but a father’s fear for his little girl’s safety. I assured him life is full of risks, even when just taking a bath in a slippery wet bath tub, or crossing the street in traffic. He huffs something about “unnecessary and foolish risks” and makes me promise to call as soon as I hit the ground. Softly.

But we all know: children never listen, even when in their fourth decade of life, and so here I stand, on the edge, secretly praying I will not ruin my parents’ anniversary.

I grip the bar from the wing of the Cessna as the tandem master has instructed me and wait for his signal to let go. It comes. We fall. We backwards somersault, and the wind carries us away from the plane that quickly shrinks to a dot overhead. For forty seconds, we free fall, then the tandem master taps my shoulder to indicate it is time to pull the ripcord. I pull. With a stomach-churning wrench, our bodies soar upwards as the canopy opens, and then we are suddenly floating, floating, weightless, free and untethered among the clouds, and the ground below is a beautiful quilt of green and golden fields. For this moment in time, I am suspended in air, feeling the freedom and exhilaration of a bird in flight.

Too soon, we approach ground, and the tandem master signals for me to pull on the toggles at my right and my left, connected to the canopy, and with a gentle tug, we float slowly down towards the grass, landing with a surprisingly gentle touch to the earth.

The students, Joan, and I eagerly compare experiences. Some in the group have jumped already, while others listen with wide eyes, anxiously awaiting their turn. Joan is preparing for yet another jump; her face is as flushed with youthful enthusiasm as those of her students’. During the week, she teaches analytical chemistry, but today she is teaching the chemistry of adventure and flight.

Peeling off my jumpsuit and harness, I prepare to make a call to my parents to let them know I have not ruined their anniversary. Someone hands me a cell phone. My father answers. The relief in his voice to hear mine is palpable. But then, he has bad news: Mom has taken a spill and broken her arm. What?! I howl. How? And on your anniversary yet! He hems and haws for a moment. It seems she tripped on her own feet and took a spill in the kitchen.

Is that a touch of embarrassment I hear in his voice?