I dreamed of being a fighter pilot: memories at Air Force Academy

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Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a young girl who was smart and stubborn feisty and nontraditional and she refused to live within the cookie cutter shape anyone else suggested (or demanded) she try to squeeze herself into. When she was in 8th grade she took a skills assessment test and despite whatever boring career those results told her to pursue, she was determined to be a fighter pilot, followed by a lengthy and successful stint as a military attorney, JAG. As she progressed in school, the dual fighter pilot-JAG dream continued to grow with her, she made good grades, loved political science and geography, and kept her eye on that prize. Her senior year of high school she took a test for the armed services and scored ridiculously high, every branch of military started actively recruiting her. She chose the Air Force and by spring was ready to enroll in the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and was mentally and physically preparing for basic training.

She was going to be a fighter pilot. And then an attorney, a Judge Advocate Officer, for the United States Air Force.

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…..and then she started to doubt herself, people told her that women shouldn’t be fighter pilots, or military attorneys, or have the big dreams that she had. They told her that she was too hard, too prickly, and would be alone forever because no one wanted to be with a woman like that. Even her friends began to seriously question her choices and tell her she’d be better off pursuing something more feminine. And this young woman began to falter, she’d had a REALLY rough year and, despite her brave heart, she wasn’t strong enough to continue this dream on her own. She told Air Force she wasn’t coming, she gave up her spot to graduate in the class of 2005. She moved to the city, began working three jobs to save up tuition money for a university she hadn’t applied to yet, hoping to begin classes the next January.

Four months later a couple of hijacked planes crashed through thee long-reigning peace of American soil.

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Once upon a time, I was going to be a fighter pilot. Once upon a time, my career trajectory was a JAG attorney. Once upon a time, Air Force Academy would have been my home, my alma mater, my family. I walked away from this opportunity fifteen years ago and from time-to-time I still wonder what my life would have been like had I pursued that path. Everything would be different, in some really positive ways, and in some very scary ways.

A few weeks ago I was in Colorado Springs, CO for a work conference and on my one free afternoon I drove to the Air Force Academy campus for a tour. As I was driving towards the visitor’s center I started to cry–to sob, really. I absolutely was not expecting that reaction. As I watched the video following a group of cadets through their first year at the Academy I sobbed, heartbroken because that experience wasn’t my experience. I walked around campus, grateful my sunglasses hid my tears. I spent quite a bit of time in the Air Force Cadet Chapel, trying to get a hold of myself and sort through my emotions.

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I would have been a great officer for the Air Force. I would have been a great fighter pilot. I would have been a kick-ass attorney. That could have been my life; I would have missed so many of the horrifying and hurtful experiences of my twenties; I would have had a family of support and camaraderie; I would have been happy. Now, intellectually I know that my most painful memories would have been replaced by equally difficult experiences that come with military life. No one escapes life completely unscathed, and the military is not a place to hide from fear or pain. I know that. But, even so, it was impossible to explain that to my grieving heart.

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This grief and heartbreak, trying to process why I was so emotional about a dream I had walked away from fifteen years earlier, was very unexpected. Recounting the story afterwards–the dream, the tour, the tears–I got emotional all over again, and even in writing this post I had to brush tears away. I don’t know if all of that emotion is based on my wishing I had pursued that dream**, or if it is frustration on those UNIMPORTANT PEOPLE who told me I couldn’t or shouldn’t, and me listening to them and agreeing that “Yes, you’re right, I should be more who you think I should be, not who I think I should be.” For the record, not a single one of those doubters are currently involved in my life in any way, not even social media contacts. Yet they were so important to me at the time that I permanently altered my life’s course and set aside my dreams to appease them.

**Sidenote: Blue Eyes and I would still have met had I joined the Air Force, we were set up by friends who would have still been friends and gotten married, regardless of my higher education choices. My JAG career could have aligned with my current sweetheart, a man who has always supported my biggest, craziest, most out-there dreams.

My adult self tells me that it is useless to hold a grudge towards those doubters, I made my choices fifteen years ago and cannot go back. My life as an Air Force JAG will forever be a dream lost, and that’s all there is to it. My optimistic adult self also tells me that in my interactions with young people I should never EVER poo-poo on their dreams simply because those dreams are not mine, or never would have been mine. Telling someone they can’t (or shan’t) simply because it’s not my cup of tea is heinous and will leave nasty little cockroaches in their brains and hearts for years and years to come. I want to positively encourage young people to take a careful stock of their dreams, their skills and talents, and opportunities, and to make the best choice they can. And then, dammit, I will support that choice. I will never tell someone they “can’t” be or do the thing that makes them happy.

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A few notes on the photos: The Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel is definitely the most distinctive building at the Air Force Academy, designed by architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 1962, it is this looming monolith among low-slung classroom buildings and retired fighter jets scattered on the enormous lawns. Each week there are services for Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, and others in the various spaces of the chapel. From the outside, this building is all steel and concrete, sharp and straight and pointing towards the sky, beauty found in an austere, architectural, modern sensibility. The inside, however, is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Stained glass and other windows that are practically invisible from the outside make the inside glow throughout the day as the sun filters through, slowly changing the colors on the pews. Smooth benches and very little frouffy decoration give off a Scandinavian vibe, but to be honest, I mostly felt like I was in an art deco spaceship, in all the best ways imaginable.

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The Tidal Basin in Washington DC

Washington DC Tidal Basin_feistyharriet_June 2016 (1)A few weeks ago I spent a whirlwind two days in Washington, D.C. for a work conference. I knew I wouldn’t have much free time, so I decided to spend the few hours I did have doing things I’d never done in DC before. After my meetings were over I decided to walk around the Tidal Basin, swooning over all the monuments all lit up at night.

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Mr. Lincoln was a very popular stop with crowds of people everywhere. I only spent a few minutes here and kept wandering, past the Korean War monument, and the Vietnam Memorial. I stopped at the Martin Luther King monument and listened to a tour guide talk about Dr. King’s life and his dedication to civil and human rights. I walked through the memorial to FDR and his political policies, and kept wandering around the Tidal Basin towards the Jefferson Memorial, my favorite. It was pretty late by the time I got there, and I had the place almost to myself.

Carved into the wall of the memorial are several quotes, but this one hit me square in the gut:

I am not an advocate for frequent change in laws and constitutions. but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered, and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society remain even under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

—Thomas Jefferson

Of late, there have been a lot of political upheavals on better gun control and policy, LGBQT rights, issues surrounding race and ethnicity, religious freedoms, women’s rights to determine their own healthcare needs…and I can’t help but think that our Founding Fathers are shaking their collective heads, somewhere. Jefferson knew that government must evolve as humanity progressed, so I am baffled at the argument that it should not because that’s not what the constitution intended. Wrong. The constitution is a living, breathing, CHANGING document, as it should be, as we as a collective citizenry are constantly changing, evolving, and becoming more enlightened than our “barbarous ancestors” who didn’t provide protections and established individuality for women, people of color, and the “other.” We know better, and we should campaign for better, not for status quo.

Washington DC Tidal Basin_feistyharriet_June 2016 (4)I have been thinking about activism a lot lately, and the more I think about it the more I get this sinking feeling in my gut that it is time for me to act; and that scares me a little, it’s outside my comfort zone. But if I don’t–if we don’t–actively work towards a more inclusive, safer, more peaceful world, who will? Watching so much fear and hate and violence and Drumpism fill the media, I just…I can’t sit still anymore. For my fellow Americans, as you celebrate your independence over the weekend, perhaps spend a little time thinking about those who have gone before you to grant you the freedoms you enjoy, and how can you help those who are coming along with you, or behind you, to enjoy similar freedoms in their lives.

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Joshua Tree National Park

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Joshua Tree National Park in the desert/deserted part of Southern California is a completely other-worldy place. I mean, I’ve seen Joshua Trees many times as I criss-cross the dry and seemingly barren spaces of the Wild West, but I’ve never wandered around dozens and dozens of them, and I’ve never seen them glow with that low afternoon golden light.

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My late afternoon hike in Joshua Tree consisted mostly of my trying to get plenty of photos that I liked, while trying NOT to get stuck by cholla cactus spines. I was moderately successful on both fronts.

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These trees really do feel like a cross between some kind of alien life-form and something Dr. Seuss/Tim Burton would dream up. And the hills are COVERED in them. They weren’t super close together, there’s definitely not enough natural water for that kind of density, but I felt like the Joshua Tree soldiers just went on for miles and miles, never thinning out, never clumping up, just well-ordered spike-balls on sticks, marching away into the distance.

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So weird, so alien, so gorgeous.

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My visit to Joshua Tree included spending a night solo camping; I have never been afraid of road tripping by myself, but it was a new experience to go camping by myself, and one that at times made me a wee bit uneasy. I mean, I was staying in a well established campground at a national park, it’s not like I was camped on the side of the road near a high security prison, or anything. But still, there were nerves.

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I’m glad I didn’t chicken out and go stay in one of the motels in town, honestly, they looked quite sketchy. Besides, the sunrise over the trees was just gorgeous. For the record, I stayed in Black Rock Campground on the north side/Yucca Valley side, mostly because they accepted reservations and I didn’t want to be solo camping AND short one camp spot, and then end up on the side of the road. Ahem.

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One of my life goals is to visit 50 National Parks, after last weekend I am sitting at a pretty reasonable 19, I’ve got a lot more adventuring to do! That being said, I would definitely visit JTNP again to do a little more exploring.

Until next time, Joshua Tree!

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You can view my whole photo album here.

Have you been to Joshua Tree!? What kind of hiking or exploring did you do?

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When mountains beckon

Bell Canyon Reservoir_Little Cottonwood Canyon

I grew up at the feet of a soaring mountain range, granite-topped peaks that often retained snow year-round melted into forested skirts sweeping down towards my small little town. Mountains ground me, they keep me centered, and are my true heart-home. I mean, LOOK AT THEM! Snowy peaks, springy-green trees that show no trace of the browned, brittle wild-fire dryness of July and August.

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I have been in Salt Lake this week for work, and I have made the most of the daylight hours after leaving the office by getting into the mountains and soaking in the gorgeous views, the nature-y noise, and fresh pine-y smells.

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The melting snow has turned the creeks and rivers into white thunder, storming down the mountains and smashing into rocks and trees. This cold, terrifying sound is like a lullaby to me. I mean, I don’t want to go wading or anything, but I could listen to spring runoff rush down the canyon for hours and hours.

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A friend and I hiked up Little Cottonwood Canyon to the Bell Canyon waterfall and reservoir (photos above) and while the climb was brutal for my suburban, lower-altitude legs and lungs, it made my heart so, so happy.

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The mountains are so close to the Salt Lake valley, truly you can be immersed in Nature in under 20 minutes. Watching the sun set over the Great Salt Lake, painting the sky in coral and orange and purple, and feeling the chill of the mountains, talking with friends about things important and trivial…all of this soothed my ragged soul and was a balm to my anxious heart.

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Chicago: Art and Museums

I know there are a lot of competing schools of thought on museums, some people find them stuffy and full of crumbly, boring antiques. Others are fascinated and inspired by them. I certainly fall into the latter camp, especially when we are talking about art museums. For me, a trip to Chicago is not complete without a few hours spent wandering around the Art Institute. Their Asian art wing is amazing, their Islamic textiles are gorgeous, and their ancient world exhibits are near perfection. I appreciate their religious art and icons from the middle ages, but what I love the most is the contemporary and impressionist wings.

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Georgia O’Keeffe spent some of her early life in Chicago as a commercial artist and took classes at the Art Institute as well. She donated a large chunk of her work to the museum and they have it mixed in with contemporaries of O’Keeffe, artists who were just beginning to break the mold of realism in the United States (the Impressionists in Europe had a head start, for sure, but they also mostly painted recognizable objects where the “modernists” in the United States in the 20’s and 30’s painted abstract shapes and forms, using color and line to convey emotion instead of familiar objects.) This is O’Keeffe’s largest painting, inspired by the clouds she saw from the window of an airplane. I love this painting and the way she uses almost Pop Art techniques to simplify the shapes down to their very basic form: white ovals = clouds.

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Ah, Piet Mondrian, you sure know how to populate a square and make a girl swoon! The contemporary wing of the museum has some beautiful pieces in it, some resonate with me quite strongly, others I don’t even respond to at all. And that’s okay. This is a public art museum, not my living room. I don’t have to love everything on display. But the handful of Mondrian’s? Oh yes, I love those.

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May I introduce Vincent Van Gogh’s palette. There was a huge Van Gogh exhibit going on while I was there, they had imported pieces from around the world and had ROOMS full of Van Gogh paintings, highlighting the similarities and evolution in his style, as well as the themes he painted over and over.

There were so many people packed into those rooms that I began to panic and get a little claustrophobic. Hundreds and hundreds turned out to see these masterpieces, which is fantastic, but is not really my ideal setting for viewing art. I did squeeze through the crowds to peek at all the Van Gogh goodness, but after about 30 minutes I snuck out to other areas of the museum that were nearly empty.

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The grand staircase at the entrance. I had to wait a very long time for a clear shot, people are up and down those stairs constantly in search of something inspiring.

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I love this Seurat painting, I can stare at it for hours, kind of like people watching. It’s easy to zone out and let my own thoughts take over (a much needed relief after the intensity of the crowds hovering around the Van Gogh paintings), and imagining George as he painted, dots and more dots and more dots, tiny little components that, at a distance, create this jaw-dropping masterpiece. That is probably why I love the Impressionists, they seem to turn unrelated chaos into art. Life is–or should be–like that a little bit, I think.

Chicago 14_Agora_feistyharriet_April 2016Agora, by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. These enormous metal legs and torsos populate a sizable swath of Grant Park, on the south end, near the skate park. My nieces call this section the Pants Park, and love running through those legs, playing tag and hide and seek. I love that their everyday lives have such richness, so much culture and art that, for them, is just part of the backdrop of being little kids in the heart of a city.

I’ll be back, Chicago. I’ll always come back.

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