I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Meeting a new relative

Waking up today, this Sunday, I know that I will be traveling back home from Alexandria, Virginia on the East Coast all the way to Bellingham, Washington on the West Coast. it will be long and hard, but every bit of this trip has been worth the effort. You see, I was introduced to my niece Allison's daughter Lexie, who is two months old, born June 18. My sister Norma Jean, Lexie's grandmother, and Pete, Lexie's grandfather, and I have all been together with Lexie for five days now. Totally different from my quiet and well-ordered life at home.

Lexie is an IVF baby, with a sperm donor father. Allison has a 25-page biography about this man, and when she is old enough Lexie will be given the opportunity to meet her biological father, if she chooses to. Allison paid extra for this feature because she felt it would have been hard to explain to Lexie later why she didn't give her that option. She will know about her heritage, all of it, from the time she's old enough to care.

Allison is now a Lt. Colonel in the Army, with a career in operations research. She is very good at her job, and for the past few months has been home on maternity leave. She goes back to work after Labor Day, but since Lexie was born Allison has devoted every moment of her life to nurturing her newborn. Allison is good at everything she does, and Lexie is no exception. I am totally and completely in love with this beautiful child.
When Allison decided to have a baby as an unmarried mother, I was at first unsure of the wisdom of the action, but now I cannot imagine a world without this child. She is perfect in every way and of course at this point in her life she spends it drinking breast milk, pooping said breast milk out, sleeping and even spending a bit of time awake, and I was gifted with three beautiful smiles yesterday as I held her, cooing to her. I am amazed at how fantastically beautiful a newborn is, I had forgotten.

This whole experience has also awakened feelings in me about the passage of time. I thought I had dealt with all of that during the period when I read Biocentrism and wrote about it here. I look at my sister, two years younger than me, and as I see her through my mental lens, she still looks the same to my eyes, but now she has gray in her hair (not as much as me). Pete is suffering from COPD (chronic pulmonary obstructive disease) from decades of smoking. He still sneaks a puff now and then, and gets grief from both Allison and Norma Jean when he walks back in from the back yard. I know it's because they love him but I also know he's never been able to completely break the cycle of addiction to nicotine, even though he's dying from the disease.

I don't know if I'll ever see Pete again, and I think that each time I see him, so my heart strings are pretty darn sore from these five days. He's much worse now and fights for each breath. Very limited in what he can do now, he is still totally engaged in life through the wonders of the Internet. I helped him fix up a blog and I hope, really hope, that he uses it to leave Lexie some of his writing, his thoughts, because he's a really good writer and Lexie will never know him any other way; he won't be around.

This made me realize that I won't either, and I don't suffer from COPD. I'm almost 68 now, and by the time she will be an adult, the chances of my being around are slim. I'm just not sure I'm interested in living to 90. Having mobility and a decent mental capacity are my whole life. I don't know very many sharp and energetic 90-year-olds. Or any, actually.

The interaction between the parents and Allison fills me with awe. It never changes, really, as most family dynamics don't, but there is an undercurrent of cherished shared time together and the realization that there won't be many more like this. And then there is Lexie. Everyone centers their love for each other around this new life, this new hope for the future. Me too.

Because of today's electronic wonders, and because Lexie already has videos and lots of pictures available on Allison's Facebook page, I will watch her development from afar and will try hard to keep myself from becoming that doting great-aunt who shows all her friends the new baby in her life. But then again, most of those friends and family are also on Facebook. It's a new era of virtual connectivity, so in many ways now that I have held her, smelled her precious babyness and fallen in love with her, I will hold her in my heart forever. I will cry over her trials, and I will celebrate her accomplishments.

There will never be this moment again, but I have captured it here and I am sharing it with you, and I too can come back and visit as I pore over the pictures and exclaim as she grows from an infant to a toddler. I wish I could keep her safe from all that she will endure in life, but it's a lament that everyone who has ever loved a child understands. Now that my heart is full to bursting, I'd better stop here.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


In a comment on my friend Linda's blog where she wrote about her son's mountain climbing experience, I mentioned that I had climbed 26 of Colorado's fourteeners (peaks at least 14,000 feet high). She wrote back and suggested that I write an Eye blog about how that happened, so here it is.

Looking back, I have wondered just where it was that I began to exercise regularly, because I recall only hazy memories that included cigarettes and eating poorly. In thinking about how it came about, it happened with a group of friends I met when I first moved to Boulder. I was living in a rooming house with perhaps fifteen or so other residents. Although it was not an official communal living experience, it turned out to be so in many ways. We each had a smallish room but we shared the kitchen and bathrooms, which means you get to know each other pretty well. Among them were a bunch of guys who made trips into the Rockies to "bag" fourteeners. One day, they invited me to join them.

I was instructed to pack a lunch, take rain gear, water, and wear absolutely NO cotton anywhere. This seemed strange to me, as it was midsummer and hot without a cloud in the sky. I did as I was told and very early one morning we piled into Jim's big old van and headed up the road from Boulder to bag Quandary Peak.

What I remember most about that day is how early we started and how long the three miles to the top were, relentlessly heading up and up. I stopped often and cursed the heaviness of my pack and wished I had not agreed to come on the trip. Every time I thought I was close to the top, I would climb a little more and find that it was still in the distance. I will never ever forget the experience of reaching the top, however: it was glorious. I truly felt I was on top of the world, with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains. The air at 14,000 feet is thin but exhilarating in a way I had never before experienced. We didn't have any rain that day, and I felt so good as I headed back down the trail, I wanted to do it again and again.

I went on to climb all the peaks near Boulder with these friends or others who I met through them. This was the beginning of my getting in shape. I also learned the reason for the rain gear and the early starts.
I don't remember which peak this was, but one of my friends had a camera and took this picture as he was amazed that my hair was standing on end. This, of course, was from the lightning that was just getting ready to strike! I had noticed a tingling feeling on my scalp but didn't know this was what it looked like. One friend who knew about this told us to hustle back down the trail because this was a dangerous sign. As we descended quickly, the storm moved in faster than I could have imagined possible, and above our heads we saw dark clouds forming and heard thunder. I didn't see any lightning but I did get quite wet and was grateful for my rain gear.

Over the years, I traveled around the state and ended up climbing some of the more difficult ones. Some are quite easy, actually, and one day I climbed three in one day, but they are all next to each other (Lincoln, Democrat and Bross). To be considered a distinct fourteener, a peak must rise at least 300 feet from the saddle that connects it to the nearby mountains. The most difficult one I ever climbed was Pyramid Peak. It was very steep and nothing but loose rocks in many places. I remember someone above me dislodged a huge rock that went barreling down fairly close to me. He yelled, "rock!" as it went whizzing by I realized that it would have killed me if I had been unable to avoid it. I also smelled ozone as it bounced from rock to rock. I quickly turned and yelled to the climbers below me.

This was much later in my years climbing fourteeners. I learned to be much safer in the mountains and sometimes spent as long as a week camping with my friends and climbing mountains, large and small. It was the beginning of my lifelong love of the outdoors. It's funny when I think of it, and wonder how different my life would have been had I not chosen to rent a room in that old house in Boulder.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

My home town

Having grown up as an Air Force brat, I never really had a home town. I happened to be born in California, and we were stationed there a good bit during my childhood, but we lived in different places so I never had a place I felt I was "from." When someone asked me, I explained about moving around a lot. In the early 1970s when I was ready to plant myself somewhere permanently, I adopted Boulder as my home town. I lived there from 1975 until 2008, more than three decades.

When Smart Guy and I looked ahead to retirement, it wasn't easy to decide where to live. I knew I had to leave Boulder behind, because it tied me to old ways of being, and ever since I met him, when he was living in San Francisco (which he loved), I wanted to head with him back to the west coast after I retired from my workplace. Back in February, I wrote here about how we ended up in Bellingham.

Today I'm looking at what it's been like, more than two years later, living here. First of all, I've carved out a new life that is full to the brim. It contains everything I ever thought I wanted, but part of that is because I'm not the same person I was in Boulder. I am now a Washingtonian, and I'm different now. We are shaped by our environment in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

I need a social group to be happy, and the almost-daily classes at the Y have provided one aspect of that need, while the Thursday hikes with the Senior Trailblazers have provided another. The skydiving aspect is provided by the Drop Zone in Snohomish, and when we show up there, we are welcomed by our peers. I like the fact that skydiving is seasonal here, because it gives me a time to let it fade into the background, while in Boulder I was at the Drop Zone every weekend that the weather allowed, year round.

Because of my Trailblazer group, I learn about Washington's incredible natural beauty that I never would have discovered on my own. During our day-long interactions, I also have learned things about my new home town and environs that I would have missed. Dan told me about the Skytrain in Vancouver and how to use it; two of the women, Linda and Peggy, invited me to join their Saturday morning walking group and I've met new people there. I would have been there yesterday but I was in Snohomish jumping out of airplanes.

Riding the bus has also broadened my social group. Many of the bus drivers know me and greet me by name, or wave to me if they see me walking on the street. It's a good feeling to belong here now. When I ride the bus to the Y, I see the same people get on and I know their routines and miss them if they are not there. We chat sometimes, and I know some of their names and have even joined a Facebook page or two. When I walk into the coffee shop where I quaff my daily latte before class, I've become a "regular" and know the other regulars by name. We also visit and chat. One guy, Gene, and his parrot have become my friends. He's a fisherman who brings me some of the best sockeye salmon I've ever tasted. This picture shows Smart Guy, Gene, and me at the Farmers' Market in the springtime. Notice that he's obviously a native, we are bundled up and he's in shirtsleeves.
One person, Judy, who I met in class at the Y has become a good friend, and we go to movies and out to dinner together. We are the same age and I enjoy her grandchildren, as I also enjoy hearing about and visiting the children and grandchildren of my blogging buddies. The blogosphere and my two blogs fills the need to keep my mind active.

Writing all this down makes me realize why I am so content to be a Washingtonian. It's not often that we experience the kind of heat that has kept the rest of the country sweltering, although we do get some hot weather. Yesterday the high temperature broke another record. The previous high for the date was 84; yesterday it got to 88. I know this doesn't sound very hot for those of you stuck inside with much higher heat and humidity, but that's not normal for the Pacific Northwest, especially here on the coast. Just a few miles inland and it's much hotter.

And there's you, my faithful readers. You join me and I look forward to your comments. I follow your lives on your blogs and suffer with you when you have trials, and rejoice with you when you are happy. Thank you for joining me in my other home town, Blogaritaville.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Surviving against all odds

I don't usually do book reviews for this blog, but I've been lost for the past couple of days in the Japanese occupation of Malaysia and Java during World War II through two very absorbing books. I just finished the second one and am sitting here pondering the meaning of surviving through what, to me, seems to be unbearable circumstances. The first book is historical fiction: The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, a Malaysian who wrote his first book in 2007 about this tumultuous time. An excerpt from a review by Su Lin Lewis of the Times Literary Supplement:
The Gift of Rain is a war novel with a personal odyssey at its heart, one that complicates the stark lines of right and wrong during wartime. Tan Twan Eng exposes the way in which the complexities of collaboration and resistance, and the duties to one's country, are made more difficult by a mixed-race heritage and the demands of friendship. 
I had a hard time getting starting with this book, as I would go to bed pretty tired every night and  put it aside as I began to fade. But Friday night I couldn't put it down and was up late reading it, finishing it yesterday morning. I cried for quite awhile after closing the cover, which I found to be very satisfying. A weighty book that absorbs me like that and gives my angst a focus doesn't come along that often. I finished it wanting to know more about the period.

I went to Village Books, my favorite local bookstore, to see if the author has written any other books, but he hasn't.  However, one of the bookstore owners, Chuck, and I had a conversation about another book he highly recommended covering the same time period. This one is a memoir, written by a woman a few years older than me who lives right here in Bellingham: The Flamboya Tree. To think that I've probably walked right by Clara Kelly, I was intrigued, so I bought a used copy of her book and brought it home. Within a few hours, I had finished her story.

Clark Olink Kelly has this picture of the flamboya hanging in her home here in Bellingham, the only tangible piece of memorabilia surviving from that time in her life. She lived for almost four years in a Japanese internment camp in Java. By the time she left that camp, she had spent half of her life there and wanted to write down the memories of that time, especially of her mother's incredible strength of will and love that gave them the ability to survive this almost unendurable situation. I am amazed that her mother, who had grown up as a privileged Dutch citizen until taken away with her three children, found a way to survive and to bring all of them through that terrible time.

It really makes me wonder about how we find the strength within us to go through periods when it doesn't seem possible to find the will to take one more breath, much less to keep struggling against all odds. That link above takes you to an interview with Clara, so you can get a glimpse of the wonderful mother and grandmother she is today.

It reminds me also of another book I read in my twenties that affected me profoundly, Man's Search for Meaning, written by Viktor Frankl in 1946 about his experience as a concentration camp inmate. It describes a psychotherapeutic method he developed during that time, and he found the will to live. It has always fascinated me as to what makes one person just lay down and die when confronted with adversity, and another rise above it, even to create something transcendent out of the experience.

The 65th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima was this week as well, and my country, which is the only one so far to use the atomic bomb on another population, sent representatives to Japan's annual memorial for the first time ever, acknowledging the horrific loss of life in an official capacity. That really stunned me, since I assumed that this had been done long ago. The Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima is well worth visiting. The inhumanity of war hasn't changed throughout history, but maybe, just maybe, something is coming to fruition that started seven decades ago. And maybe that something is positive. We won't know during my lifetime, most likely, but I like to think that humanity will choose to survive against all odds.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Today, August 1, is known as "Lammas" to many people, the festival of the wheat harvest. The name comes from "loaf-mass," and it was customary to bring a loaf to church made from the year's first wheat on this day. It is also the day exactly between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, the first day of fall.

Definitely an in-between day, which exactly fits my mood this Sunday morning. As I sit here listening to the birds making their normal morning racket as they gather at my feeders, the sound of a light breeze rustling through the trees, I think it's time to take stock of why I feel so in between.

I had another friend die skydiving this past week. Every year at the end of July to the first part of August, a "boogie" (a gathering of skydivers and plenty of aircraft for lift capacity) is held at a private airstrip near Kalispell, Montana. The boogie is called "Skydive Lost Prairie." I attended a few times during my years as a very active skydiver. When I lived in Boulder, a good friend, John, who has his own small plane took me and another old friend, Garl, to Lost Prairie in his plane.

I was told that it takes about four hours to fly there and that there would be no "pit stops," so I didn't have my usual morning coffee and was careful not to drink too much water the day before. It turned out to be pretty easy, actually. We all wore headsets and could talk to each other, as we flew at a low altitude across the country. It was really beautiful to see the countryside this way, and the weather was perfect.

Once we arrived, we set up our tents and spent several days jumping out of Twin Otters (a wonderful plane that seems made for skydiving) and partying at night. It gets quite cold at 3,000 feet in Montana, even at the end of July. I remember crunching across the frosty grass in the mornings as I headed to the bathrooms for my morning shower. We returned to Boulder in the same way, and the weather was again just fine. John doesn't fly when the weather is iffy, thank goodness.

Last Wednesday, Garl and John arrived in John's new plane for the boogie. After getting squared away, they went on a skydive with 14 others, their first of the boogie. At the end of a skydive, people are supposed to track away from each other to give separation for opening your parachute, and the two of them had off-heading openings, and collided. Apparently their main parachutes tangled and John was able to cut his main away and deploy his reserve. Garl was observed from the ground to be "incapacitated" for at least part of the time, and he reacted too slowly, which meant there was not enough time for his reserve parachute to deploy before he hit the ground.

I have known Garl since I first began skydiving in 1991. He was an old hand, very experienced, back then when I was first beginning. He didn't have time for me, as I was a "newbie" who didn't know much about the intricacies of relative work. (Relative work, or RW, is what skydivers do in freefall, flying relative to each other while falling.) As the years went by, we were on jumps together, and since we were both from the same Drop Zone, we got to know each other. I thought Garl was a "skygod," someone whose level of proficiency I would never reach. But within a decade, as I continued to learn, instruct, and jump, we became equals in the sky.

I got to know Garl well enough to be heartbroken to hear about this tragedy. And I also feel heartbroken for John, who was injured but had to watch his dear friend not make it. That hurts almost as bad, because I know John will never be the same. In the blink of an eye, everything changed for him.

You could say it was just bad luck, but there was more to it than that. If either one of them had spent just a little bit more time tracking away from the others, if one of their parachutes had opened turning in the opposite direction, rather than toward each other, it wouldn't have happened, and I would be writing about something else this morning. But skydivers have a saying, "track like your life depended on it, because it does."

In a track position, skydivers extend their arms and legs and push on the air to gain horizontal separation from others. This allows a good tracker to get as much horizontal separation as the distance that they fall, in a one-to-one ratio. I have had some close calls myself, and once I even had a canopy wrap with another person, but we didn't hit bodies and both were able to separate from the main parachutes and use our reserves.

Today I will head to my favorite local Drop Zone, Skydive Snohomish, and play in the air with my friends. I will be thinking of Garl and John on the ride to altitude, but once it's time to leave the airplane, I won't be thinking of anything else except the jump. And when I turn to track, I will get just the tiniest bit more impetus to track as if my life depended on it.

Goodbye, Garl! I hope you are flying free up there in the blue blue skies of heaven.