Sunday, June 12, 2022

TransIAm: Wheeling Through Hard Times

Introductory Note

I wrote this article by request for a compendium of articles on how trans folks survived through hard times.  I sent it to the editor in October 2021.  Two months later, the editor responded that they did not like it.  Why?  Because it sounded too much like a love story, the object of affection being a bicycle.  It turns out that the editor wanted an article not on how I survived through hard times, but what it was that I survived.  Signals thus uncrossed, I wrote a new article that will appear in the compendium that should be coming out in late 2022.

That said, I still like the original article on how I survived and offer it here.  It is unabashedly a love story, one that continues.  My next adventure with Woodswoman will begin a week from today as I bike-pack south from Deadhorse, AK, on the Dalton Highway and onward through Yukon Territory, British Columbia, and Alberta to reenter the US near Glacier National Park.  Stay tuned.

* * * * * * * *

I call her Woodswoman.  She’s my Rivendell Atlantis touring bicycle.  To be precise, I have two Atlantis touring bicycles.  One is Woodswoman I, and the other – surprise! – is Woodswoman II.  The names are my homage to Anne LaBastille, the author of the Woodswoman series.  Since Anne wrote four Woodswoman books, perhaps one day I’ll add Woodswoman III and Woodswoman IV to my collection?

Mine is a story of wheeling through hard times.  I’m what you might call a traditional trans woman.  Although I played with my sister’s dolls and loved it when they would dress me in their clothes, I was otherwise a pretty traditional child from a pretty traditional family.  I was also a pretty traditional child cyclist, first on three wheels, then on a hand-me-down from my sisters, and then on my own Raleigh three-speed English racer when I was eight years old.

Eisenhower was in his first administration when I entered this world.  When I first heard a term to describe what I felt deep inside, that term was transsexual.  I don’t reject it even today.  As I said, I’m pretty traditional.

What I really thought in the 1960s and 70s was that I was insane.  How could anyone be transsexual?  That was the stuff of tabloid headlines, something to run away from even as I wondered when my breasts would start to develop.  I played with the other girls at school recess until teachers made me go out to the sports field where I knew I wasn’t wanted.  Instead, I would go to the edge of the field and sit down alone, usually with a book.  What would people think if they knew what was going on in my head?

Only in college when I read Jan Morris’s Conundrum did I understand I wasn’t the only one like me in this world.  I reached out to gender identity clinics and for nearly a year lived a double life, appearing as male to friends and professors but as female at a solitary night job.  On my first ten-speed bike, a French Gitane, I took long rides through the countryside around Charlottesville, VA, trying to make sense of my feelings and what I now knew to be possible.

In graduate school I ran from the word, the white noise of feelings that could only be drowned out but never entirely driven away.  In academics and work I found the socially acceptable drug of choice to mute the feelings.  A double major in college, two Masters degrees, and an intense career in space flight dynamics were only part of the formula.  I threw myself also into Russian and Soviet history, getting research grants, working in Soviet archives, and publishing in academic journals.  Along the way I married even though I had never dated.  My spouse-to-be, also a historian, popped the question.  Somewhere along the way in the 1980s, I put the bicycle away as I strove to be the perfect husband, professional, and owner of a fixer-upper house in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC.

Being a round-the-clock activity machine can only get one through for so long.  The sand in my hourglass ran out in 1990.  That spring I was part of the launch and early mission support team for Hubble Space Telescope.  I also had a publication deadline for a major history paper.  On top of this, I was now a parent who was going through on-the-job training with a year-old son.

I spoke the trans word to my spouse for the first time that summer.  I had been at the University of Illinois with a writing grant to finish my history article, but I found I was unable to work.  It wasn’t writer’s block.  At the time of my greatest career successes and joy at being a parent, the contradictions inside me were yelling, "Enough, this can't go on!"  

A day after speaking the word, I found myself in a psychiatric ward at a local hospital.  My spouse declared me persona non grata and threw me out of the house.  The consequences of speaking the word were as bad as I feared, even worse.  I stood at the edge of a DC Metro station platform and wondered if it might not be best to end it all instead of facing the condemnation of family, friends, and co-workers.  In the end it was my own sister who took me to the hospital out of fear I might put my thoughts into action.

This was my first encounter with psychiatry.  It was not a pleasant one.  I don't remember the name of my psychiatrist.  I recounted to him my history of gender-confused feelings going back to earliest childhood.  He sat stony-faced, never commenting.  We met daily for a week.  Only at the last session did he pronounce his verdict, telling me, "What you are is overworked and depressed."  He was convinced there is no such thing as gender dysphoria, so he prescribed an antidepressant.  He released me to the care of my spouse, assuring her I would be fine.  I went back to work after having disappeared for a week.  No one said a word about my unexplained absence.

My dad wanted to take over my finances since I was obviously mentally disturbed. Continuing discussions with my spouse made it clear that I had to choose.  Pursue transition or take the pills.  It was also clear that if I went for the former, I would find myself divorced with no access to our son.  It was a stark choice.  So I chose to stay married, be a parent.  I chose to ignore my own desires, to accept the diagnosis of depression, to take the pills and go on for the good of all.

But there was one bright spot in the person of a housemate from the group house where I had lived in the 1970s.  We had not been particularly close.  Our politics were too different.  I was the progressive liberal while he was an arch, almost reactionary conservative.  Still, we had managed to stay in touch.  

He came the day after my release from the hospital.  We took a long walk, and I found the nerve to tell him my story.  When I was done, he stopped, turned and looked at me.  "Maybe this really is you," he said.  "Maybe you really were supposed to be born a woman."  I was stunned.  The person I least expected to accept me was the one person who validated my feelings.

Lost in my thoughts, I almost missed it when my housemate friend suggested joining him on a group bicycle ride the next weekend.  He thought the physical exercise would be a good release for me after the stresses of that long summer. 

A bike ride?  My college bicycle was gathering dust in the basement, but why not?  The next weekend I pumped up the tires, oiled the chain, and went on that ride.  It couldn’t have been more than ten miles through the Maryland countryside.  Thirty-six years old, I was woefully out of shape from a life that for a decade had revolved around office, libraries, archives, and family.  I had to push the bike up many of the hills, but I made it.

In the weeks and months to come, I kept riding.  I started commuting by bicycle, marveling at the stars when I commuted home on winter nights.  By now I was a senior pointing control analyst for Hubble, and I worked through many new algorithms as I pedaled the fifteen miles from work to home under the night sky.  The rhythm of my legs and the quiet of the night road became a solace and a source of peace.  The words from an old Gordon Lightfoot song played in my head:  

          Bless you all and keep you with the strength to understand,
          Heaven can be yours just for now.

Soon I was riding over 5000 miles a year.  Where psychiatry and its pills failed, the bicycle saw me through to a better day.

I also found refuge at a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club cabin in western Maryland.  It’s there that I discovered the first volume of Anne LaBastille’s Woodswoman series in the cabin’s book collection.  I couldn’t put it down.  Here was a woman who in the 1960s defied convention by divorcing and then building a cabin on a remote lake in the Adirondacks.  When I say she built a cabin, I mean just that.  She built it with her own hands and lived there without electricity.  There was no road.  Going to town meant a canoe trip in summer or snowshoeing in the winter.  Yet she thrived in nature and went on to become an Adirondack guide and an internationally recognized ecologist.  I understood the peace she found.  I felt it at the PATC cabin, on mountain hikes, and on long bicycle trips.  I found it in my first bike-packing journey, all of 184 miles along the C&O Canal from Washington to Cumberland.  I started to think of myself as an Aspiring Woodswoman.

Our son grew.  In 2004 I made a radical career change to the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO).  Why?  Well, why not?  Hubble was using only the mathematical part of my brain while I pursued my interests in Russian language and Russian/Soviet affairs as a sideline.  In 2007, with our son now in college, my spouse and I moved toward divorce.

Transition?  It was not on the agenda.  I thought it was too late, that I was too old.  I said nothing about gender issues when interviewed for a security clearance.  I didn’t know much about the history of gays and lesbians in the Foreign Service, but I knew it hadn’t been good.  As late as the early 1990s any FSO found out to be gay would lose their security clearance.  Transgender persons weren’t even on the radar.  

I lied through omission, and I feared that the secret would come to light one day.  But when?  In 2000 a NASA scan of its computer systems determined that someone at one of its Maryland facilities had been visiting pornographic websites.  A warning went out to all staff.  No one was named, but I knew it was me.  The warning identified a URL for a website with information about gender transition as the pornographic site.  What would the State Department do if it found out about my gender-conflicted life story?

I continued to ride.  Through the 1990s I had ridden a number of garage sale Motobecanes and Fujis.  I rode them until they could be ridden no further.  One failed when the top tube snapped in two on my morning commute.  

Woodswoman I, my first Rivendell Atlantis, entered my life in 2004 just as I was joining the State Department.  I rode her that year as a daily commuter to Foggy Bottom and my first position as a Political Officer on the Russia Desk.  I had jumped from being a respected, senior analyst on Hubble to being, “Hey, you!”  I was the most junior person on the Desk.  I could hardly find my way around the building, let alone navigate politics and policy.  Woodswoman steadied me and saw me through on the morning commutes and on the late evening rides home.

A year later the State Department sent me to Moscow.  Woodswoman went with me.  I was now an urban commuter in one of the world’s largest cities with traffic jams that made Washington look tame.  For the first year I did visa interviews, cringing at the thought that I held lives in my hands.  For the second year I covered the Russian nuclear energy industry when someone realized that a physicist/engineer who had worked on Hubble could be put to better use.  In the tumult of embassy culture and never-ending assignments from Washington, I found my peace with Woodswoman.  On weekends I would ride to the outskirts of Moscow to ride on the bicycle track that had been built for the 1980 Olympics.  On one long summer weekend I bike-packed to Borodino, camping along the way in woods where I hoped no one could see me from the road.

After Moscow I moved on to our embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where the State Department in its wisdom had assigned me to cover economic and business issues.  When I objected that I knew next to nothing about either economics or business, the wry retort was, “Neither do the Uzbeks.  You are well matched.”

Again I found balance with Woodswoman.  A 45-mile ride around Tashkent on the Ring Road, the city’s version of a Beltway, became standard for the weekends.  I rode 100-mile century rides to the dam at Charvak.   I rode the back roads for three days from Tashkent to Samarkand.  

Another time I rode to Khujand, Tajikistan, in the process gaining both a rebuke and a reputation.  Our political chief had loaned me out to Embassy Dushanbe to support a regional economic conference.  Relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were so poor that there were no flights between the capitals.  The only way to get to Dushanbe was to go overland from Tashkent to Khujand and continue from there by domestic flight.  In Tashkent no one believed me when I said I intended to bike the 100 miles to Khujand, but that’s exactly what I did.  When I got back to Tashkent, our Regional Security Officer rebuked me and told me never to repeat such a stunt.  Washington, however, viewed it differently, even as a positive for our relations.  Along the way I had attracted crowds wherever I stopped.  No one could believe that an American diplomat would ride a bicycle.  Even the guards at the Uzbek/Tajik border wanted photographs with me.

The fear that one day my trans secret would come to light was realized in 2010.  My divorce, conducted long distance from Tashkent, proved to be messy.  My trans history complete with my 1990 psychiatric ward sojourn was woven through the discovery materials.  It became a factor in the property settlement agreement in which I gave up, essentially, everything.  Word got out.  I was summoned for an interview with Diplomatic Security and found myself on leave without pay as my fate was decided.  

In the fall of 2010 I took long rides as Washington decided my fate.  With what little money that was left to me, I had bought a small camp in northern Maine that summer.  It was there that Woodswoman II entered my life.  I expected the worst from Washington, but I wasn’t aware that the world for transgender persons was changing.  Although I was stripped of a follow-on posting back to Moscow, I was allowed to take what the Foreign Service calls a down-stretch to a position below my grade in Bucharest, Romania.

As Woodswoman and I watched the Maine foliage change colors, it began to dawn on me that my biggest issue was that I had a secret.  What if I came out openly?  

Life on two wheels had taught me important lessons about visibility.  In the 1990s I learned the lessons of urban bicycling the hard way.  I hugged the curb, trying to stay out of everyone's way – which resulted in repeated mishaps and injuries as motorists pushed me into the gutter or off the road entirely.  As I gained experience, I learned that bicycle safety means taking one's rightful place in the traffic lane and being visible.  One is far safer positioning oneself as a vehicle, taking as much of the lane as needed.  Motorists might not like seeing me in their lane, but they accept me as something that cannot be ignored and pushed to the side.

In Bucharest it dawned on me that these lessons from my two-wheeled life applied to my transgender life.  In college I had gone forth as myself only in the shadows, scared to death what would happen if anyone recognized me.  In my trans life I had hugged the curb, doing my best to stay out of everyone's way.  Now I applied the same, hard-learned rule of riding a bicycle:  Be visible, be assertive, and join the traffic.  I had as much right to walk down the street as anyone.  “Yes, I am transgender, and I don’t care who knows or what anyone thinks.”  

In Embassy Bucharest in 2011, I became the first FSO to transition gender while posted overseas.  A bike-packing trip in Transylvania that summer helped to ease me through the period when my gender presentation could at best be described as betwixt and between.  I found a local endocrinologist and a local electrologist.  One senior embassy official wanted me out of the country on psychiatric grounds, but our regional psychiatrist pronounced me quite sane, only transgender.  Washington fretted about how the Government of Romania would react and insisted on press guidance, but in the end all loose ends were smoothed over.  My coming-out was the annual Marine Ball on November 12, and I never looked back.  Moreover, Washington now saw me as an asset with access to the Romanian LGBT+ community that no one else had.  Over the next two years I penned many reports on LGBT+ rights and conditions for transgender persons in Romania.  My Bucharest apartment became a regular meeting place for the community.

I continued to ride.  In Romania I rode with dykes on bikes and with an elegant Scottish ex-pat who had lived in the country for over a decade.  I found myself at rallies for bicyclist rights in Bucharest while also organizing events promoting LGBT+ rights. 

In 2013 I returned to Washington for a one-year assignment at the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center that overseas our arms control treaties with Russia.  That was the day job even if it was 24/7 shift work.  The real job was at glifaa, the State Department’s affinity group for LGBT+ foreign service, civil service, and locally employed staff overseas.  I had been elected president.  Still only a mid-level FSO, I now met regularly with John Kerry’s staff and other senior officials in Foggy Bottom as we worked through new policies on same-sex partners and trans-inclusive health insurance.

I was again a Washington commuter on Woodswoman in all weather and often at night.  I lived that year in a basic, spare apartment less than a mile from the home I had owned for 25 years.  On one rare snowy winter evening, I realized this spare apartment had become home.  Woodswoman and I had just rolled out of Foggy Bottom sometime after 11:00 p.m.  A light snow was falling.  I pedaled up Virginia Avenue and then into Rock Creek Park.  There was not a single car in sight on Rock Creek Parkway.  A thin layer of white covered the roadway.  What on most days was a busy car commuter route had become a silent, beautiful enchanted forest with wet snow hanging heavily in the trees.  I pedaled as slowly as I could, wanting to make the moment last.

When I finally arrived at my apartment, Woodswoman was dirty and snow-caked.  There was no way I could bring her into my living room.  I spent an hour bringing rags and buckets of warm water out onto the stairwell.  When I finally rolled her inside, I looked around and said quietly, "This is home.”  More than that, I was at home in the same area I had lived in during my former life.  I was at home in myself.

My overseas State Department career ended with a posting to Astana, Kazakhstan, in 2014-17 as the Regional Representative for Environment, Science, Technology, and Health.  I, a trans woman, now ran my own section with my own budget and travel that took me to all five post-Soviet ‘stans covering issues as diverse as climate change, water management, and global health security.

Of course, Woodswoman was with me.  I didn’t just cover environmental issues.  I walked the walk.  When I was invited to address a conference on ecotourism at a town 75 miles north of Astana, of course I went there on Woodswoman, thereby earning mention in the local newspaper as the American diplomat who lives the life she preaches.

I also walked the walk on LGBT+ life in Kazakhstan.  My apartment became a group home and a gathering place for the community.  We even got funding from Washington for a round table on transgender rights that included representatives delegated by the Government of Kazakhstan.  

I am retired now.  Being an FSO is one of the few careers left in the US that has mandatory retirement for age at 65.  After seeing more of the former Soviet Union in my working life than I had of the US, I finally have the time to discover my own country.  In 2019 I celebrated retirement by bike-packing from Washington, DC, to my home in Maine.  In the Covid year of 2020 I rode across the US on a route known as the Northern Tier.

2021 was my year to ride the TransAm from Virginia to Oregon with nine crossings of the continental divide along the way.  The TransAm, known originally as the Bikecentennial route, was created to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial in 1976, a time when I was deep in my college struggles with gender identity.  

In Kentucky a young trans friend from Western Kentucky University joined me for a day and two nights.  As we climbed the hills of Appalachia, Levi declared, “It should be called the TransIAm route.”

“How appropriate, how right he is,” I thought as Woodswoman and I pushed westward through the Ozarks with the Rockies and Cascades yet to come.  The passes we climb in our TransIAm lives take all our strength and effort, but we all have what it takes to make it to the top.  Woodswoman and I have climbed many passes together and will climb many more.  Whatever passes life may yet have in store for me, I am ready for the climb. 

* * * * * * * *  

You can find my day-to-day travel log of my TransAm adventure, complete with slideshows, in my alternate blog at:

https://attitude-maneuver.blogspot.com/2022/01/robyns-2021-transam-bikecentennial.html

Saturday, January 23, 2021

No Trotsky on the Potomac

Retired and nearly a thousand miles from the Washington, DC, that I called home for much of my professional life, I am now a bystander to events taking place there.  When I first moved to DC in 1978, it was no longer the sleepy southern city of pre-Kennedy days, but it had not yet become the metropolitan capital that it is today.  The downtown area near the White House felt abandoned, not yet recovered from the aftermath of riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.

At the same time, Washington was a wonderful walking city.  One could approach quite near to the White House on the Ellipse side, and on the other side Pennsylvania Avenue was still a traffic thoroughfare.  Every time I had a visitor from out of town, we would go to the Capitol, walking up the steps on the east side directly into the Rotunda.  There were no metal detectors or barriers of any kind. 

How times have changed.  The barriers began going up after the Kansas City bombing in 199x and accelerated after 9/11.  Each time I came back from overseas after 2004, I could feel the government buildings slipping ever further away, ever more distant from city residents and visitors. 

When a riotous mob stormed the Capitol on January 6, I thought back to my early DC days that now seem naively distant. Watching news coverage, I thought of another city that has played a major role in my life: St. Petersburg, Russia.  Whereas pundits compared the January 6 mob with the mass events associated with the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 30s, I thought of something different:  the storming of the Winter Palace in Petrograd on November 7, 1917. 

The genius of the Bolshevik coup that overthrew the Provisional Government is that its professional revolutionary core understood how to present itself as leading a populist cause.  Since the abdication of Tsar Nicholas in March 1917, successive Provisional Government cabinets had remained true to Russia's commitments in World War I, putting off major reforms until elections could be held for a Constituent Assembly.  The Provisional Government saw itself as a steward that would see the country through until that elected Assembly could take over. 

Lenin would have none of it.  When he returned to Russia in the famed sealed train from Germany, he announced his April theses that emphasized an end to the war and agrarian reform.  The Bolshevik slogan of "Peace, land, and bread" fell like rain on the fertile soil of Russia's working and peasant classes and on the common soldiers who had done most of the dying for the Russian Empire.  The masses could not care less about the Marxist dialectic or the differences between Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries, but peace, land, and bread?  "Why yes, we're for that!" 

With continued battlefield disasters and attempted counter-revolutions in the summer of 1917, more and more of army melted away as the Bolsheviks gathered the disaffected under its banners.  Trotsky led when the time came in November.  Brilliant, ruthless, and a military genius, he melded together a small, armed Red Guard with the broader masses.  Trotsky commanded, the Red Guard led, and the masses followed.  Presented in Soviet history as a heroic storming, the occupation of the Winter Palace on November 7 was an anarchic but more or less peaceful affair in which the mob wandered the halls while the Red Guard searched for the room where ministers of the Provisional Government were meeting. When they found the room, they took the ministers prisoner.  The Provisional Government was no more. 

Still, it wasn't quite over.  The one thing the Provisional Government has managed to do during its eight months was to organize the elections for the Constituent Assembly.  The elections took place, and the Assembly met on January 18-19, 2018. The Bolsheviks did not have a majority.  By this time, however, it was a simple matter for Trotsky to command the Red Guard into the meeting hall and disband the Assembly.  

From this time forward, it was All Power to the Soviets!, to the councils controlled by the Bolsheviks who soon declared all other political parties illegal. In short order true power was exercised not by the soviets but by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and by its Politburo.  With a growing bureaucracy of its own creation, the Politburo needed a General Secretary who could handle the minutiae of running a government.  Stalin, the grayest, least eloquent of the original Bolsheviks stepped forward to take up this thankless task.  The rest, as they say, is history. 

Ironically, in the reign of collectivization, industrialization, and terror that Stalin unleashed in the 1930s, he remained wildly popular among the mass population that saw him as more like themselves, less elite than the Trotskys, Bukharins, and Zinovievs whom Stalin eliminated one by one.  When Stalin died in 1953, the country wept while more than a hundred mourners in Moscow died of suffocation in the thronging crowds. 

Have I taken the parallel between Washington and Petrograd too far?  Perhaps.   Undoubtedly. If there is one lesson I take from this parallel that gives me hope, it's that there was no Trotsky in the Washington of 2021.  The mob that stormed the Capitol remained a mob.  When it succeeded in breaking into the hallways of power, it seemed lost at what to do beyond taking videos and selfies.  Leaderless, the mob melted away.  May it stay that way, and may Trotsky remain a figure of history.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

A Bike-Packing Journey for Our Times

Lake Koocanusa
Tears in my eyes, I had had enough.  On two wheels crossing the upper Midwest, I was nearing the end of my journey.  I had already been up the Road to the Sun in Glacier National Park.  Nothing could be more difficult than that, could it?  Lake Koocanusa in western Montana pulled the mask off my hubris.  The road taking me down its eastern shore was hilly, and a strong canyon-funnelled wind slowed my forward progress to a crawl.  

Six hours into the day's ride, my rear tire flatted.  I never should have left Maine without new tires.  I patched the inner tube but could not find the cause.  Sure enough, the tire went flat again in less than five miles as the sun sank lower.  There I was on the side of the road with the rear wheel off the bike and the tire in my hands.  I squeezed every inch of it to find the cause, the tears in my eyes and the silent "Why?" screaming in my head making the task that much harder. . . .

How many times in my life have I patched bicycle tires on the side of a road?  As readers of this journal know, riding a bicycle and being transgender are intimately related in my life.  If not for the former, I might not have coped with the latter during the decades it took me approach and finally succeed at transition.  I learned to be visible and assertive in my lane position on a bicycle, and those skills transferred directly to being visible and assertive when I transitioned at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, Romania, in 2010-11.  Experiencing two flats in a row that day by Lake Koocanusa reminded me that our life journeys, whether on a bicycle or in asserting gender identity, remain unpredictable even after we have accumulated years of life experience.

Covid and Trump.  It is ironic that without the latter's leadership on the former, I never would have spent the summer of 2020 quite the way I did, on two wheels across 4000 miles of the northern US where Trump flags wave.  

All through the winter of 2019-20, I had planned a cross-country bike-packing journey.  Given that I live in northern Maine, I had designed a route across Ontario and Quebec that crossed back into the US at Michigan.  From there I had planned to cross Michigan's Upper Peninsula and continue across the Northern Tier states to Anacortes, WA.

Then Covid hit.  The world as we know it went away.  The Canadian border closed, and even Adventure Cycling urged its members to stay home for the common public health good.  An unabashed northeast progressive, I complied and abandoned my plans.  Instead, I set out on May 31 to bike only around the state of Maine.  At no point would I be further than a few hundred miles from home.  I told friends this was my Bike Around Maine or BAM, a wry allusion to the Soviet Union's Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad.  I found myself watching YouTube videos of the controversial, tragically naive American folk singer Dean Reed playing his guitar and singing This Train on top of a BAM railroad car in the 1970s. 

That was my reduced plan, but a funny thing happened as I passed through Brunswick, ME.  I met up with a bike-packing friend who urged me to reconsider.  After all, she said, "What could be more socially distant than riding solo on a bicycle 6-8 hours/day and then camping at night?"

I mulled that over for several days as I continued north to the Canadian border that I could not cross.  I wasn't convinced at first, but the more I thought of the Trump administration's leadership in confronting Covid, the more I thought my friend had a point.  Infection rates in the upper Midwest were low as we headed into summer.  I might not be able to cross Canada, but I could strap Woodswoman II on the back of my car, drive to Michigan, and start riding west from there1

If there had been true national Covid leadership in Washington, I would have stayed home for the public good.  With no national policy, however, I understood that the situation would become much worse in the fall and winter.  The summer, on the other hand, still offered a more-or-less virus free route to the West Coast.  I seized my chance.

Crossing the Cascades
So it was that I rode forth from Marine City, MI, on June 24.  Each day I rode 60-80 miles across grassland, prairie, and mountains.  This retired Foreign Service Officer who has seen more of the former Soviet Union than she has of the United States finally got to see her own country.  I had never been in Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, or Washington State.  I rode through rain and heat and battled mosquitoes.  I stayed at cheap motels and at primitive campgrounds where wading into a lake or stream was the only shower available.  I climbed the Road to the Sun and four high mountain passes in the Cascades.

People were kind.  Camp hosts found a spot for me at campgrounds that were full.  One campground host in Montana brought me a home cooked dinner.  A retired Lutheran minister drove over a hundred miles to bring me a new front tire when I needed one. 

In Omak, WA, I took a day off to recover from the heat.  I may have been the only person in that town to tune in to the Democratic National Convention to listen to Joe Biden's acceptance speech.  Only after I had crossed the Cascades did the Trump/Pence flags thin out to be replaced by Biden/Harris 2020 yard signs, a sure sign that I was nearing my journey's end.  I dipped Woodswoman's front wheel into the waters of Puget Sound at Anacortes, WA, on August 25.

Like most progressive Democrats, I had hoped for a crushing repudiation of Trump at the polls on November 3, but I knew better.  I had seen and felt the adulation shown to him through most of the rural northern Midwest and also in my rural part of Maine's 2nd Congressional District.  When the race was called for Joe Biden on November 7, I'm certain I was the only person in my small town to go out on her porch and bang a pot in celebration.  

Come January 20, we will have a national public health policy.  I'll do my part.  If that means staying close to home for another year, so be it.  I long for borders to reopen and to visit friends in Kazakhstan, Romania, Russia, and Uzbekistan.   I look forward to other bike-packing adventures.  In the meantime I will take solitary winter walks, read my books, and enjoy the beauty of a Maine winter.  I will think back on the summer with a smile.

It is ironic that I owe my summer journey to leadership from Trump's Washington.  That irony turns to tragedy when I consider that five people in my circle of friends and family have contracted Covid.  One has died from it.  As memorable as the summer was, I would have preferred true leadership even if meant staying home.  In New Brunswick, less than 100 miles away on the other side of a closed border, the battle against Covid has been so successful that life has returned nearly to normal.

But let me return to that day along Lake Koocanusa.  Getting control of my tears, I found the culprit that had caused my flats, a small piece of wire that had worked its way through the tire wall.  I used eyebrow tweezers to extract it.  A half hour later I pulled into a Corps of Engineering campground south of Koocanusa Dam.  The first person I saw was a woman with her dog standing outside what turned out to be a school bus turned camper.  She invited me to set up my tent next to her bus.  She brought me cloths and a basin of warm water with which to wash away my day's accumulation of grime.  With the sun now set, she invited me into her bus to warm my dinner on her stove, and we whiled the evening away with tales of our travels.  I went to sleep that night with a smile.  My new friend had turned my worst cycling day into one of my best.

Journey's End at Anacortes, WA
That is what I take with me from this summer's adventure.  During three months of contending with physical challenge, heat, wind, mosquitoes, and storms, I had faded the political news into the background.  As different as we may be in our politics, people are kind.  People help each other.  There is still inherent good in this country.  As we head into 2021, may we all reconnect with that goodness.

* * * * * * * *  

You can find my day-to-day travel log from this summer's bike-packing adventure in my alternate blog at:

http://attitude-maneuver.blogspot.com/2020/11/robyns-2020-bikecentennial.html




1 Woodswoman I & II are my affectionate names for my two Rivendell Atlantis touring bikes and also an homage to environmentalist Anne LaBastille.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Hubble's 30th Birthday: A Personal Memory from Ms. FHST

Has it really been 30 years?  I can think of nothing better than to reprint below my 25th anniversary reminiscence published in my companion journal Alice in and out of State in 2015.  
In honor of the day, I'm wearing my Space Turkey T-shirt.  What I failed to mention in my 25th anniversary article is that this was our informal PASS project T-shirt dating from before Hubble's launch.  It was an inside joke in that one of the engineers in our project loved to call out requirements, designs, and anything else that was not up to snuff a turkey.  During the Hubble Trouble period of spherical aberration following launch, we put those T-shirts away for a several years, but a number of them are still carefully preserved, brought out for special days like this.

What a different world we lived in 30 years ago.  It is a tribute to all in the Hubble project that the mission continues to this day.  My own involvement is one of the proudest episodes in my life.



* * * * * * * * * *

30-летие запуска телескопа им. Хаббла:
Воспоминания госпожи астроориентатор



Под этим названием в 2015 былы опубликованы мои воспоминания о том, как я участвовала в запуске телескопа им. Хаббла в 1990.  Не стоит нажать на ссылку.  (
http://esquire.kz/2636-zapiski_diplomata_gospoja_astroorientator_ili_kak_ya_zapuskal)
Увы, статью давно стёрли, и я сама потеряла текст на русском.  Даже в машине WayBack не сохранялась.  Приношу свои извинения, что внизу я перепечатаю только текст на английском.

Есть повод снова опубликовать эти воспоминания:  сегодня, 24ое апреля 2020, мы отмечаем 30-летие запуска.  Фотография показывает, как я надела особенную футболку в честь этого дня.  Футболка Космическая индейка являлась шуточным символом проекта, в котором я работала специалистом по системам ориентации.  Не знаю, сколько таких футболок сохранились до сегодняшнего дня.  Их было не больше нескольких дюжин и тогда, но некоторые из нас их нежно сохраняют и осторожно надевают в круглые даты.  Принимать участие в проекте Хаббл -- один из наилучших этапов в моей 40-летнем карьере. 

* * * * * * * * * *

Hubble's 25th Birthday: A Personal Memory from Ms. FHST

Hubble Space Telescope was launched by the shuttle Discovery (STS-31) on 24 April 1990 at 12:34 UTC.  For those of us who worked on the project, the inside joke that the “Hubble Constant is 2 years until launch” had been broken.  No longer was this a mission that we were working towards but, rather, a mission that was about to become reality.  The question in all our minds was, “Will it work?  Will all the years of hard work and planning pay off?”

I first joined the Hubble project in 1982.  It hadn't even been named for American astronomer Edwin Hubble yet.  That was to come a year later in 1983.  When I started, it was simply ST, Space Telescope.  I was a comparative latecomer to the project.  For those who had been there at the beginning in the 1970s, it had been the Large Space Telescope, the Large being dropped as budgets and the realities of operating a telescope in space began to settle in.  Still, it was to be Big with a capital B, a 2.4-meter optical telescope that would operate above the distorting layers of the Earth's atmosphere.  It would be controlled remotely from a control center at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Maryland with all science planning done at the newly established Space Telescope Science Institute on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  To those of us who worked there, ST ScI would become known simply as the 'tute, truly an internationally-run observatory whose telescope just happened to be in orbit.

My own role on Hubble was a modest one.  I had an MS degree in astronomy with specializations in celestial mechanics and in astrometry, the science of positional astronomy that compiles positions of stars and other celestial objects.  Thus it was no surprise that my first assignment was to work on the attitude determination system that would use data from spacecraft sensors to determine Hubble's pointing to an accuracy of better than an arcsecond.  The name of the project was PASS, an acronym for POCC Applications Software Support, with POCC itself being an acronymn for Payload Operations Control Center.  Our often repeated inside joke was that we had to be an acronym within an acronym in order not to be a somewhat impolite-sounding POCCASS.

Hubble was to be controlled to an accuracy of 3 milli-arcseconds, finer than any pointing control that had been attempted until that time.  It was to be done using data from gyroscopes, sun sensors, and star trackers.  In 1978, on an earlier mission, I had already made my acquaintance with the Fixed Head Star Tracker (FHST).  Hubble was equipped with three of them, and they would be used to update gyro-based attitudes after every spacecraft slew to a new target.  An FHST had a field-of-view (FOV) of 8-deg by 8-deg and could measure a star's position to 20 arcseconds, good enough to go to the next step of determining what stars were in the field-of-view of the telescope's main optics and use them to determine Hubble's pointing to the sub-arcsecond level.  Little did I know when I joined the project that I was to become the most knowledgeable person on FHSTs, eventually becoming known to many as Ms. FHST.


Cutaway Diagram of a Fixed Head Star Tracker

Hubble was scheduled to be launched by the Space Shuttle in October 1986, and we were all under pressure to complete the ground control systems on time.  The pace was frenetic, and from one system audit review to the next, it was becoming clearer that we would not be ready.  But a shuttle launch could not be changed without upsetting all of NASA's mission schedules.  Senior managers began to think that we would launch Hubble and let it sit in safe mode in orbit, a sort of minimum energy cocoon mode, until the ground systems could be finished and tested.

That went out the window on January 28, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73-seconds after launch, killing all on board in the most tragic space accident experienced by the US until that time.  After the tragedy of the loss of all the astronauts on board Challenger had sunk in, we began to realize that our own problem now was not whether we would be ready for a launch in October 1986 but, rather, whether Hubble would be launched at all.  Would the Shuttle ever fly again?  After a few months we were assured that Hubble's launch would take place in 1988.  That launch date soon began to slip, however, leading to our inside joke that we knew the true Hubble Constant[1] to be “two years until launch.”

For me the morning of 24 April 1990 was one of sitting in front of the television and watching the launch and feeling the same thrill I had felt at every launch since the early days of the space program.  This time, however, the thrill was even greater, for Shuttle Discovery was carrying a mission that I had a direct role in.

My own launch excitement in the sense of work, however, began two days later on the morning of April 26.  That afternoon the Canadian-built manipulator arm was to remove Hubble from the shuttle bay and release it into space.  Hubble's systems were being turned on one-by-one and tested before the release.  I had just arrived at my office a short distance from GSFC when a PASS friend and colleague called.  I don't remember his precise words, but they were something like, “Robyn, get out here.  We can't identify what stars the FHSTs are seeing.”  A chill went down my spine.  If Hubble were to be released without the FHSTs being able to identify star patterns, Hubble would be literally lost in space, locked into its cocoon-like safe mode until engineers like me could figure out what had gone wrong.

An hour later I was sitting in front of a terminal in the Space Telescope Operations Control Center (STOCC) at GSFC.   My colleague and friend explained, “We've been trying ever since the FHSTs were turned on, but no matter what we try, the algorithms can't identify the star patterns.”  As calmly as I could, I asked, “Can you get me all the FHST telemetry since the trackers were turned on?  Let's start reprocessing from scratch, taking it step-by-step and paying close attention to detail.”

The STOCC at GSFC
From my experience on an earlier mission, I already knew just how temperamental FHSTs could be.  These were instruments from before the days of charged couple devices (CCDs).  They used simple optics and an image dissector tube, and they could observe only one star at a time.  A controllable magnetic field was used to cause the dissector tube's photomultiplier and photocathode to scan the FOV in a serpentine pattern and lock onto any object brighter than a threshold magnitude for 20 seconds before breaking track and continuing the scan.  FHSTs had been known to track not just stars but the Moon, planets, nebulae, other satellites, space debris, and even bright cities on the Earth's limb.  The trick was to edit out all the junk so that only star tracks remained and then massage those tracks into point images using gyroscope rate data that measured moment-to-moment spacecraft motion.  Finally, these FHST-measured star positions would be passed into a pattern match algorithm that would take the measured positions and compare them with positions in a star catalog.  That pattern match algorithm required fine tuning in order to work reliably.  All-in-all we had just a few hours to get it right before Hubble would be released into orbit on its own.

Slowly, as calmly as we could, we began reprocessing telemetry from the start.  We edited out spurious objects.  We adjusted the editing parameters to get star images with the smallest possible clump size.  As we worked, I became dimly aware of the big screen that hung at the front of the STOCC.  There was Hubble, perched on the manipulator arm, as the solar arrays began to unfurl, unrolling from their containers and glistening like ever-lengthening, golden sails in the bright sun.  Just as the second solar array finished unfurling, we did it.  We identified the stars that were being seen by the FHSTs.  We did some hand calculation sanity checks to make sure we had identified the right stars.  We had.  “Now let's do it again with another data set,” I said. 

Hubble on its Own, Released from the Maniupator Arm

One data set after another, we repeated the process, making further adjustments until we could identify stars correctly without further intervention from us.  The algorithms we had designed were working.  A higher level mission manager approached and asked, “Are we GO with the FHSTs?”  We nodded yes.  Shortly after we watched in real time as Hubble drifted away from the arm and from the shuttle.  We had done our part.  Hubble would not be lost in space.

That was my role 25-years ago.  My day in the STOCC as the solar arrays unfurled is one of those images frozen in my long-term memory.  Hubble didn't have an easy start.  Soon the newspapers were joking about Hubble Trouble when it turned out that the telescope's main mirror had been ground to the wrong figure and suffered from spherical aberration that was giving blurry images.  My FHSTs were not out of the woods yet either.  Another part of PASS, the Mission Scheduling System, was attempting to use the FHSTs in a way they had never been used before by commanding them to lock on to preplanned reference stars after each telescope slew to a new target.  The FHSTs were failing to find the right stars one time out of three, each failure resulting in the loss of science observations for a good part of an orbit.  It was the second largest problem in Hubble's early operations right behind the flawed mirror.

As they say, however, the rest is history.  Once the mirror's spherical aberration was understood, it was possible to grind corrective lenses that were installed by astronauts on the first servicing mission to Hubble in December 1993.  Those corrective lenses were known by the name of COSTAR, Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement, and they silenced the cries of Hubble Trouble, enabling Hubble to give the crisp images that have become part of both our scientific and cultural lives.

For my part, I was brought onto a team whose mandate was to reengineer the Mission Scheduling System.  We were known as MSRE, the Mission Scheduler Re-engineering team.  We pronounced MSRE like ms'ry, and thus our inside gallows humor was “MSRE loves company.”  My part of the mandate was the Pointing Control Subsystem.  Over the next several years, working as a team, we improved the FHST reference star success rate to better than 99%. 

The last effort I had a small hand in before leaving HST and PASS in 2005 was the design of what became known as the Two-Gyro Science Mode that would radically change the pointing control algorithms in a way that had never been attempted before.  A gyro gives information in one dimension, and thus three gyros are needed to know a spacecraft's orientation in three dimensions.  Six gyros were installed on Hubble for redundancy and in the knowledge that gyros are mechanical devices that eventually wear out and fail.  Hubble's gyros began to fail within a few years after launch, but they were replaced during servicing missions.  After the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, however, all future servicing missions to Hubble were canceled.  Of the six gyros on Hubble, three had already failed.  It was only a matter of time before yet another would fail and force Hubble into permanent safe mode, ending its mission of scientific discovery.

The idea behind this last effort on Hubble was to take me back to my FHSTs.  Gyroscopes give rate information, whereas FHSTs give position information.  But could we watch stars as they moved in an FHST FOV?  Could those position measurements be used to compute a rate, effectively allowing the FHSTs to take the place of one of the gyros?  The answer was yes, they could.  The newly designed control algorithms were so successful that NASA shut down the third of the three remaining operational gyros in August 2005, keeping it in reserve and thereby extending Hubble's operational life.  Even after a final servicing mission to Hubble was reinstated and six new gyros were installed in 2009, Two-Gyro Science Mode has remained the primary control algorithm for Hubble.

How long will Hubble continue to provide us with the beautiful photos and ground-breaking science for which it has no equal?  Current estimates are that Hubble will continue to operate at least until 2018, when the next generation James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for launch.  It may continue in operation well beyond that as long as budgets allow and spacecraft systems continue to function.  Not bad for a telescope that was designed and built with 1970s and 80s technology and that many thought would not last for its original projected lifetime of 15 years.

If you're wondering by now how it was that this engineer left the Hubble project to start a diplomatic career with the U.S. State Department, the answer is that even in those days, I had something of a double life.  Outside of my day job on the Hubble project, I was known as a historian of Soviet science.  In the summer after Hubble's launch, I published perhaps my most important history work on Soviet astronomy in 1936-37 during the height of Stalin's Great Purges.  When I left the Hubble project in 2005, in a sense I exchanged my hobby for my career, my career for my hobby.

But on this April 24th, on the 25th anniversary of Hubble's launch, my mind will be back there, reliving the moments of frustration and exhilaration and recalling the faces and names of so many colleagues and friends from the PASS project who were there at the beginning.  And Ms. FHST will smile and feel an inner warmth to know that her children-in-engineering, those three Fixed Head Star Trackers on Hubble, have not missed a beat and continue to guide Hubble on to discoveries that take us back ever further towards the dawn of our Universe.

2014 Reunion Picnic with PASS Friends and Families
 


[1] The actual Hubble Constant is a measure describing the expansion of the Universe.  The current best estimates are in the vicinity of 71 km/s/Mpc, where Mpc is a megaparsec, a distance of approximately 3.3 million light years.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Квартирник -- Evening of Russian Music -- on WERU

Знаю, что есть у меня русскоязычные читатели, и пора время от времени писать хоть несколько строк на русском.  Заранее прошу прощения, если иногда получается неграмотно.  Пользоваться не своим родным языком лучший способ сохранить ясность ума в старости лет.

Провела февраль-март в сочинении своих воспоминаний.  Сейчас редактирую.  То есть, как нельзя лучше провожу время всемирного карантина.  Надеюсь, приведу рукопись в окончательную форму в течение ближайших месяцев.  Раз занимаюсь рукописью, наверно буду редко писать в этом блоге.

В течение молчания с моей стороны, позвольте представить вашему рассмотрению своего рода квартирник на радиостанции WERU в штате Мэн.  Если хотите узнать, какую русскую музыку заслуженная Госдеповская пенсионерка предпочитает, можно слушать на YouTube.

Желаю всем беречь себя в это трудное время!

 * * * * * * * * * *

I know I have a Russian-speaking readership.  It's time I write a few lines from time to time in Russian.  I ask forgiveness in advance for anything ungrammatical.  Using a language other than one's native language is a good way to keep the mind fresh in old age.

I spent February-March writing my reminiscences.  I'm now working on edits.  In other words, I'm spending this time of quarantine in about the best way possible.  I hope to bring the manuscript into final form in the coming months.  While working on the manuscript, I will be writing in this web journal only rarely.

In the course of my silence, I invite you to my evening of Russian music on radio station WERU in Maine.  If you want to find out what kind of Russian music a State Department pensioner prefers, here's your chance.

Everyone be safe in these difficult times!







Monday, January 20, 2020

The Quads of Hope

2020 has come.  It arrived in the usual way on January 1 for most of the world that follows the Gregorian calendar, some 13 days later in the Old Style Julian calendar.  There's no escaping it:  2019 is in the past.  

What 2019 brought us, however, is alive and well with all the continuity of a spline interpolation fit.  The divisions in U.S. society are blooming in this winter as never before, something I now get to experience firsthand as I knock on doors in my conservative district on behalf of Democratic Congressman Jared Golden.  It's winter in America with little sign that our national vision will approach the acuity implied by the year.  Where will we be next November?  I was in Copenhagen when election morning 2016 dawned with the shock of a new reality, a nightmare that has engulfed us ever since.  Will this nightmare ever end?

My personal reality in retirement also has not been the rosy future I expected.  After one of the best month's of my life bike-packing from DC to Maine in September, my retirement was hijacked on October 4 by a legal issue involving my State Department pension.  What at first seemed like a simple, easily corrected error in the computation of my annuity has evolved into a legal morass involving attorneys with no end in sight in the near future.  For now, I am living on two thirds of the retirement income I expected.  That's more than adequate for rural Maine, but all thoughts of traveling back to Romania and Kazakhstan are on hold.  Moreover, October and November were consumed in their entirety by legal paperwork and the necessity of re-living some decidedly negative emotional episodes of my past.

The Quadrantids give me hope.  A meteor shower named for a constellation, Quadrants, that no longer exists on modern star maps, the Quads are elusive.  The peak lasts all of a few hours.  If one is not in the right place at the right time with a good, dark sky, it will be as though the Quads did not happen.  I remember a frigid January night in the 1970s with a friend on Long Island.  We stood in an open field in a park, rubbing our hands together and hopping from one foot to another in a vain attempt to stay warm.  Our hope of seeing even a single Quad proved just as vain. 

The years and decades went by.  I never seemed to find myself in the right place at the right time.  I never saw a Quad.  I thought I never would.

Then 2020 dawned.  The peak for the Quads was predicted for about 3am EST on the morning of January 4.  When I went to bed on the evening of the 3rd, the sky was completely clouded over with a forecast for the same through the 4th.  Another year goes by, I thought, as I turned in for the night.

Heating by wood in a small home in rural Maine saved the day.  I woke in my bed, feeling cold, and went downstairs to throw another log in the stove.  As I did, I noticed the time:  3am.  I looked out my window and with some surprise saw the sky had cleared.  Still in my nightgown, I pulled on a long coat, hat, and tall boots.  I stepped out onto my porch and looked up.  Within a minute I saw my first dim, swift meteor.  Then there was another much brighter one.  I started to count slowly from 1 to 60, my estimate of a minute.  Over 15 minutes I saw 15 meteors streak across the starry blackness of a Maine winter sky, the best count of meteors I have had since watching the Leonid meteor storm of 2001 with my son and friends.  

At a younger age I would have dressed even more warmly and headed out into my snowy field with a sleeping bag and reclining lawn chair.  I remember many a teenage August night in a field in Michigan staying up for hours to watch the annual Perseid shower.  Those days are in my past.  As the cold started to seep through to my skin, I smiled to think that at last, I have seen the Quads.  I went inside and returned to the warmth of my bed with a smile.

These were my Quads of hope, both for my personal, unexpected legal battle and for my country.  The wonder of a shooting star stays with us no matter what our age, who we are, or where we come from.  May that wonder lead us on to a better place.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Guest Blog: Comprehensive Statement for the Liberty of Gentle Peoples

Today I wish to draw attention to the excellent piece written in Quora by Emma Gabriel, a young writer who holds an M.A. in philosophy and rhetoric from Georgia State University.  Comprehensive Statement for the Liberty of Gentle Peoples is, as it's title implies, a plea against violence, a plea for understanding.  I highly recommend it to your consideration.