Musings on Hang Gliding

For my last birthday, Emily bought me a LivingSocial certificate for a hang gliding ride. Surprise! She gives creative gifts, that wonderful wife of mine. To tell the truth, my feelings were mixed. I’ve always wanted to fly – dreamed about it ever since I can remember. But, growing up in my church ward, there was a paraplegic man, a former Navy Seal, who had snapped his spine during a record-setting hang glide from Phoenix to Tucson in the early ‘80s. Whenever I talked as a teenager about wanting to fly or hang glide or skydive, my parents would warn me that I’d break my neck, like George. I wish I could have known George before his accident. I’m sure he was a bold adventurer. I picture him in the enthusiasm and strength of youth, standing firmly on strong legs, preparing to launch his glider into the wind. All the years I knew him, George was kind, cheerful, and friendly. And determined. Many times I saw him muscle his wheelchair through the neighborhood on his way to church or to go home teaching. I’ve wondered how those same attributes would have shined in connection with physical strength and daring. I never had the courage to ask him about hang gliding, about his accident. But I always viewed his story as a caution against severe physical risk.

With all of that in the back of my mind, I sat on the LivingSocial certificate for nearly a year and didn’t redeem it. But it itched at the back of my mind. Just a few weeks before it expired, I finally called the hang gliding guy and scheduled a flight. I figured that, if I died, Emily couldn’t complain for my having taken a stupid risk. She put me up to after all. My brother, Austin, had also bought one of the same certificates. We scheduled a day to go together, last Monday morning.

If you’ve ever driven from Provo to Salt Lake City on a breezy summer day, you’ve seen the hang gliders and paragliders, circling the Point of the Mountain like eagles over a carcass. How many times have I watched them, wishing I could go where they go. It turns out I know one of those guys – my friend, Jeff Silk, is an avid paraglider, here in Provo. He does the Point of the Mountain, and, on clear days, the majestic mountains of the Wasatch Front. I told him about my upcoming adventure, and he offered to go with me for moral support and to take pictures.

The morning arrived with the perfect winds and clear skies. I picked up Jeff and Austin and we headed to the Point of the Mountain Flight Park, arriving right as the sun rose above Mount Timpanogus. The hang gliding guy, Kevin “The Birdman,” showed up, set up his glider, and had us sign our lives away. Literally, at least prospectively. I read the whole dang waiver with lawyer’s eyes, and didn’t see any loopholes. If I die, I guess I just die. No wrongful death lawsuits to drag it out.

Preparing for Launch

Saluting My Pilot (At least that's what it looks like I'm doing)

I volunteered to go first. The Birdman strapped me into the harness, then instructed me to give him the longest man-hug I’ve ever given in my life. “Don’t touch this bar; don’t touch that bar. Don’t touch this wire; don’t touch that strap. Just reach around me and hold on. Anything else could be really bad. Got it?” Got it. We inched up to the precipice in our tight, tango embrace. Nose into the 20 mph wind, Jeff held down the cables so we wouldn’t lift off prematurely. “Clear!” the Birdman yelled. Jeff jumped out of the way, and the Birdman and I jumped off the cliff.

Into the Blue

Up and up and up. The wind lifted us as smoothly as an elevator, as evenly as the hand of a child lifts his model airplane. It wasn’t until that first little dip that the butterflies exploded in my stomach. But I held onto the Birdman and held onto my emotions. We glided and spiraled in the wind. Hawks floated and swirled off our wing. I breathed in the air of the altitude and lived in the moment. We slid along the ridge, glided above paragliders, and twirled below another hang glider. We dive-bombed Austin and Jeff. We circled above the gravel pits. Cars hustled by on the freeway. Houses soaked in the rising sun in the cool of October. The chill wind broke into my body and gave me shivers, but I looked down on the world like a bird would. I existed in that sphere.

Soaring

Icarus

My 20 minutes went fast. Before long, we were approaching the hilltop from the east, and the Birdman was yelling, “Clear for landing!” We put down, landing into the wind, only a few feet from where we had taken off.

My feet on the ground, I finally allowed my emotions to engage and felt an excitement of life.

Austin went next and flew through the same routine. Just as thrillingly, just as safely.

Austin, me, and the Wind

As we drove home on the freeway, Jeff and Austin and I talked about flight. We talked about dying. We talked about risk. Jeff told us about a long-distance paraglide he’d once taken, skimming above all the majestic mountains of the Wasatch Front, from the Y above Provo, then above Timp, and into the mountains above Salt Lake City. He said he saw Springtime streams of water, trickling through granite rivulets and into mountain pools.

Thanks, Emily. I really had a great time. And thanks, Jeff. Thanks, Austin. Thanks, Birdman. And A footnote: Knowing that my parents would stress out about this little adventure, I hadn’t told them about it. But Austin told them, the night before we went, and it really did stress them out. And yes, they reminded Austin about George and warned him about the risks. But thanks, mom and dad, for praying for a safe landing. The landing was great, and the flight was amazing.

Sermons In The Mount

“If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” Luke 11:13.

A picture of the mountains from Elliot's game a year and a half ago. Rock Canyon trail ascends up to the meadows inbetween Y Mountain and the snowy peaks behind.

View from Squaw Peak Road near Hope Camp Ground, top of Rock Canyon.

Incredible mountains loom right out of my back yard, and for the last three years I’ve been saying that I’m going to get to know them better. Last Friday night, the local Boy Scout troop (of which Elliot is a new member) camped in the woods above Squaw Peak. On Saturday morning, I set off on my mountain bike to find them. I often ride up into Rock Canyon, but this time I struggled all the way to the top to Hope Campground. I listened to the Gospel of Luke on my iPhone, and contemplated Jesus teaching the Sermon on the Mount as I ascended.

     Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

I saw lots of wildflowers, they may have even been lilies.

At the top of Rock Canyon, three or four majestic peaks meet in the meadow like rival generals for a war counsel. Waters poured from each of them into the drainage of Rock Canyon Creek. The meadow rang with the sounds of the rushing water, the birds, me puffing my way up the road, and Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead. All peace, and all sound. After a while, it dawned on me that I wasn’t hearing other human sounds on the road. I wondered why until I ran into the first snow avalanche blocking the road.

Avalanche blocking Squaw Peak Road

After crossing that one, I found an even bigger one and also a road collapse, making it impossible for vehicles to come this far south.

Heavy snow and rain this year. Squaw Peak Road collapsed, I assume from excessive water drainage.

Being the only wheels on the road, I left the breaks totally open on the long, straight down hills. No one was there to hear my laughter and see the smile split across my face. I even thought that phrase in my mind, then also thought that no one would be there to see my head split open if I went down at 40 miles per hour. I didn’t go down.

That trick of taking a picture of yourself is difficult with an iPhone.
My bike standing in for me with Timponogus in the background.

Because of the road closure, the Boy Scouts weren’t able to go as far south as they had intended, and it took me two hours to get to their camp. Twice as long as I had planned.

I hadn’t eaten breakfast because I had wanted to eat with them. My muscles were totally calorie depleted on those last down hills, and the bumps in the road weren’t the only reason my arms were shaking. But not to fear, when I finally found them, they had saved a bagel sandwich for me, and I gladly refueled.

Not even taking off my helmet, I rested against a tall pine and smiled as I ate and watched my son goofing around with the other twelve-year-olds. With the help of their leaders, they looped a rope over an aspen branch for a swing.

Elliot on his first campout with the Deacons/Scouts.

I’m glad to see him growing up, glad to see him enjoying the woods. What gifts, life and these beautiful surroundings.

My bike standing in for me on the crest above the back side of Rock Canyon. I love the rock formations. Zoom in to see Provo and Utah Lake in the background.

Shine Your Light

This month’s song.

When I was a kid I loved to listen to Raffi. My favorite song was the one about the Palomino pony riding to the fair. The melancholy of that melody made the song deep for me. But I also loved the one about Mr. Golden Sun — Please Shine Down on Me. So when I was writing songs a few years ago, I wanted to write something similar, while also creating something new. Thus was born Shine Your Light. Instead of just Mr. Sun, my song also talks about the lights that shine on children at night. I hope you enjoy it. Notes on the song: All voices and guitars performed and recorded by me on ProTools. Bass and some of the drum effects are programmed by me on Garageband. The main drum lines are Drums on Demand, live loops, mixed also by me on Garageband. I think there’s also a live tambourine that I recorded on ProTools. Enjoy.

The picture was done by my son, Elliot. The Oak Hills First Ward, my church congregation, created a Christmas album a couple of years ago; and Elliot was picked to do the cover art. I thought it would go well with the song, even though the song’s not a Christmas selection. Notes on the picture: Layered construction paper cut-outs. Elliot did several pencil sketches in order to find an image that worked; and this final version follows the concept of the sketch we all liked the most. I helped him cut and arrange the pieces, then photographed the final with my Cannon Rebel. Emily had a large print of it framed, and we hang it up at Christmas.

Flying, Flipping, and Running; or, The Ascension of the Pedestrian

Halloween. 1979. Phoenix, Arizona.

When I was four-years-old, I won the wishbone contest at Thanksgiving. A few minutes later, my mom found me in the living room, leaping off the furniture in a Superman cape she had sewn for me. A Halloween costume from the month before. “What on earth are you doing?” she asked. But I, knowing that wishes don’t come true if you told others, kept my mouth shut. Wishes are funny that way – like light that might spill out of you and evaporate if you let others see. It must have been the jagged wishbone, still clenched in my little fist, that gave me away. “Did you wish that you could fly?” she ventured. I nodded reluctantly. The powers couldn’t hold it against you if your mother guessed right. I remember her sitting down next to me on the couch and teaching me wisely about the kinds of wishes that come true and the kinds that don’t. Before that talk, I had fully expected to fly, wrapped in the light of that wish.

Camping with the Priest Quorum. 17. Somewhere in Arizona.

Over the years, that desire to fly has always been a part of me, though it has translated into and expressed itself through other kinds of movement. Motion. I was a gymnast when I was young: seeing the US gymnastics team in the 1984 Olympics convinced me that pealing off the high bar, flipping and twisting through the air, was pretty close to what I wanted. That motion translated again into diving for my high school when I got a little older. I always enjoyed biking, swimming, skiing – anything with motion. Anything that moved my body through space and in time.

Run up the wall flip. Valparaiso, Chile, as a missionary. 1996.

But I was never much of a runner. Running felt very pedestrian for someone who aimed at clouds. Not only pedestrian, but painful. It hurt my sides, my feet, my knees, my shins, and my back. And my pride. I couldn’t do better than an eight-minute mile in grade school, and I was so jealous of the kids who could do it in six. I never ran in high school. Never ran more than a mile or two in college. Then, when I was in law school in Tucson, I decided I needed to do something to get in shape, so I tried running. I don’t think I made it three quarters of a mile before I quit that first run. But the next time I made it a mile. And then two and three, until I was doing six or seven. And Tucson was a great place to run in the dark of night. We lived on the edge of the desert, and the cool, silver moonlight would shine down and glint on the back of a coyote, trotting in the distance.

Since working at the university, I’ve increased my mileage and also my enjoyment of running. Now it’s become another of those magic motions – like skiing, like mountain biking – that stand as proxy in my heart for flight. A month or so ago, I was out at night in Provo, and the mountains and sky were consumed by cloud, and the heavy mist above me reflected the orange of countless city lights. I had changed my stride after reading Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, and my feet were quiet on the ground. I was listening to a good book on my headphones, treading through the cold of winter’s last storm. Pushing through the eighth or ninth mile, the snowflakes started to fall, slowly and singularly at first, like the opening, drawn notes of a violin before the full orchestra. And then other instruments began to join in. And then the flow was like the full music. Myriad, white flakes coming down like the sky falling, peacefully. Or like the pedestrian ascending. Cold, and luminous, and moving.

Rehearsing for the Ascension of the Pedestrian. 35. Provo, Utah.

First Let’s Dance

I GOT THROUGH HIGH SCHOOL, college, and law school by drawing pictures instead of taking notes. The sketch method of learning. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s still up and coming. I sat on the front row of my 10th grade world history class, skipping notes on Hammurabi and his written code of laws, and instead drew a picture of a snake kissing a rose. Bic pen, blue ink. I still have it. Here it is.

I remember Mr. Heck looking over my shoulder, appraising my masterpiece, then politely requesting that I pay attention instead of drawing. As if the two actions were mutually exclusive instead of synergistic. I don’t hold it against him. I’m sure I would have done the same thing if I’d been in his position, but I’ve learned over the years that I pay better attention to life’s lessons if I can quiet the other half of my brain through creativity. (Note, Mr. Heck, that I remember all about Hammurabi and his written code of laws, even though I didn’t take any notes, clay tablets or otherwise.)

Anyway, during one of those high school, no-note taking sessions, I had written my name, very large,  on the inside cover of a spiral notebook, and then graced the name with little stick figures dancing all over it. I wrote, “And his army of small people,” to complete the thought. I still have it. Here it is.

This evolved into the idea of me and my army of small people. It became a theme of my doodling — drawing the army of small people in their various vocations, note taking not being one of them. So while I was busy not taking notes in college I drew this picture of me and my army of small people.

Law school served up serious lessons on common law, Constitutional law, criminal law, and the general ordering of a society. (We’ve developed a big old cannon since Hammurabi.) And the creative side of my brain swam hard to keep up during the reading of all those serious texts. In a desperate attempt to hold in some of the creativity leeching out of me, I created a childrens book for my kids: “Charlie and His Army of Small People.” Fourteen oil paintings, done in my garage in Tucson, Arizona. Charlie and his army of small people dreamed of adventures far from monotony or law school, but before embarking on their adventures, they chanted the refrain: “But first let’s dance! First let’s dance!” I still have the paintings. Here’s one of them.

A few years later I was practicing law in Phoenix, Arizona, working for a brilliant, successful, and determined litigator. I was listening to my boss strategize on a lawsuit one day; and I wasn’t, like the other young associates, jotting notes of all the great things he was saying. (I still remember the great things he was saying, but I can’t write them here because they’re attorney work product, privileged, and confidential.) But I had, by that time – thanks to Mr. Heck and others like him — learned that some authorities don’t buy the sketch method of learning – so at least I wasn’t drawing. Anyway, in the midst of his brilliant legal strategizing, my boss suddenly fixed my gaze, pounded the marble table, and exclaimed, “Steve, I look at you and you don’t know what in the world we’re doing, you haven’t taken a single note, and it’s about to boil my blood.” And that’s the slightly edited version.

So I started taking notes. Furiously. I wasn’t sure how to do it, so I just wrote the things he said. I’m pretty sure that “Boil my blood,” was the first note I ever jotted. I might still have it somewhere, but most of the page is attorney work product: privileged, and confidential; so I wouldn’t post it here.

A year or two later, still working at the same law firm, I tried to reconstitute some of the creativity that had been leeched out of me (the leeches by that time having expired and dried to dust and my creative juices with them) by getting into songwriting, another of my old high school hobbies. I purchased some recording equipment to capture some of those ideas. One of the songs I wrote (late at night on my own time, and not on the client’s) was a song for my kids to accompany the book I’d created. It’s called “First Let’s Dance.” I still have the song. Here it is at the top of the post.

And now I work as University Counsel at a wonderful institution of higher education. It’s the best law job I can think of, and I’m very happy and beyond fortunate to have it. But that other half of my brain still needs some creative engagement. So I’m starting a blog. Here it is.

You probably won’t read a lot about work here because that’s all privileged and confidential. But I’ve got a lot of backlog, creative material, and some new ideas as well. I’ll explore some of those ideas here, and see where it takes us.

But first let’s dance.

(Song Details: All guitars and voices are performed and record by myself on ProTools. Drums are Drums On Demand live loops, selected and arranged by yours truly on Garageband. Bass and Piano are also programed by me on Garageband.)