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

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Day 2011

This is what the passenger side window on my car looks like today. I took this picture with my old (and now only) camera of the theft of my purse at Lake Padden. I don't want to rehash what I wrote on my other blog, which I've linked if you are interested in the details. Right now I want to clear myself of the feelings I'm experiencing, so that I can enjoy the quiet beauty of the day.

Last year I was traveling home from Boulder, my first trip back since I left in April 2008. It was loss of another, more devastating kind that took me there. I wrote about it here on the Sunday following last Christmas. My habit of writing in this blog on Sundays gives me a sense of continuity of emotions. Last year I had to deal with the loss of my beautiful Emily, a far worse kind of loss than this one today. I'm growing accustomed to finding ways to deal with the constant need to let go of possessions, even the hardest of them, of friendships and family who mean everything to me.

Although now I am still feeling a sense of violation, knowing that the thieves know where I live, have a key to my car, are looking through my un-password protected iPad2, probably smiling at the pictures still in my camera, they are the losers here. They are the losers because they will one day be caught, probably not because of me, but because they will continue until something goes wrong with their scheme. As some pointed out on my other blog, the first thing they did was fill their car with gas and go grocery shopping. Perhaps they are out of work and stealing to make ends meet. It's a lucrative thing to do: I was surprised to find that the charges on my cards will be covered by the bank, but they will keep the goods they purchased before the cards stopped working.

I am thinking of someone here in my home town having a nice Christmas dinner with those groceries. The Starbucks cards will give them coffee and treats for quite a while. Whatever they bought at Rite Aid (which is not only a pharmacy but has just about everything else) will most likely be useful things. I couldn't see what they charged on my credit card, just the amounts, but I am picturing them as being something they really needed. I wanted to gift the needy in some way, and inadvertently, that's just what I did. But it will be the last time. Password protection and never again leaving anything of value in my car will make sure of that, since my car will never feel secure again, as long as I know they have a key to it and know where I live. But I will not hate them.

In this crowded world where there are so many who cannot survive without taking from others, it's only going to get worse. I saw the movie "Contagion" this year that showed Matt Damon playing a father trying to protect his family as people began to die and civilization began to break down. A scene of him seeing the family in the house across from his being systematically gunned down to steal the food in their kitchen, because there was no other way to get food, chilled me then, and chills me even more now. I know in my heart that once it becomes that bad, those with guns will not hesitate to kill me for what I have. As the police pointed out to me yesterday when I was so distraught, at least I am not dead and will recover from this.

What choices I still have about how to deal with this, now that I think I have stopped the hemorrhaging of loss, lie entirely within my heart. Yesterday was too soon for me to do anything but cry and moan, but today is a day of renewal and joy. The light is beginning to return to the skies, although the days are merely seconds longer than the days before, but they will continue to grow longer and spring cannot be far behind. Seasons only last a few months, and while we are busy living our lives, loving those who matter to us, imperceptible change begins to take place. One day, not too long from now, I'll realize that I'm healed and stronger than before.

So I can say with the tiniest bit of Christmas cheer, be joyful today. Hug your loved ones to you and realize that they, too, could be gone in an instant, but be glad you have them today. The present moment is really all we have. But love never, ever goes away.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ghosts of Christmases past

Christmas with Mama and Daddy
This picture was taken in 1943, and it's not really my very first Christmas but the first one where I wasn't just a few weeks old. One thing I love about this picture are my parents in the upper left. Mama is wearing a lacy apron and must be opening something from Daddy, who is leaning forward in anticipation. I sit in the middle of the picture, oblivious to everything but the shiny object in my hands.

I don't know who took the picture, but I suspect it was my aunt or grandmother, since I think we are in their home. It was such a long time ago, but it began my childhood appreciation of Christmastime. And here we are again, as the planet moves around the sun and completes the journey to the winter solstice once more. Four years since I retired and we moved to the Pacific Northwest; how time flies.

Last year at this time I got the news about my dear friend Emily, that she was severely injured from a parachuting accident gone bad. Then I learned that she died. A year ago today I was on the phone getting reservations to fly back to Colorado for the first time since I left. I spent less than a week there and came back home on Christmas Day. It was a terribly hard time, but I saw so many of my friends again and realized with amazement how much I had changed in just a few short years. I had transferred my affections for my previous home town, Boulder, to my new home seamlessly. There is nothing more for me in Colorado, except for the friends of my heart who will always be part of me.

If I were in Texas visiting my siblings and their incredibly huge families, I'd be enveloped in the flurry of visits, parties, Christmas trees, presents, shopping. But since I'm here in Bellingham with my partner who feels as I do, a quiet enjoyment of the season is enough. We don't have to be part of the craziness unless we want to, and we are happy to have a nice Christmas dinner together and buy ourselves anything we might desire. I ordered a new fluffy bathrobe for myself and am wearing it now, my Christmas present to myself. I will give gifts of food to my neighbors, and we have already attended the one party we wouldn't miss. It's enough.

But oh, how I remember the Christmas wishing of my childhood! I would sit and ponder what I wanted to receive from Santa, what desires might be fulfilled. I know I wanted a bride doll one year, and when I would look at her in the window of the store, I was filled with longing. Norma Jean and I actually crept into our parents' closet one year and found our Christmas presents. We stealthily opened them to see what we were getting before wrapping them back up. I think I was the instigator, being the older sister. Since I did that, I well remember the pretty dress I would receive. It's one of the few I recall.

I don't remember at all what I might have bought for other people. When I was young, it was all about the getting, not the giving of Christmas. Now that I am older, that has turned around completely. The enjoyment I receive these days is all from giving things to others, little things that show appreciation and love. Yesterday I finally sent off a pair of my earrings that Norma Jean admired one day on iChat. They just weren't "me" so I was happy to pass them on to her. She loves earrings.

My closet is filled with clothes that I don't wear any more, and I'd like to get those passed along to the right people. I had hoped to do it before Christmas, but it's only a week away now, and I'm not sure I'll get it done before then. I recently gave away some silk scarves I don't wear any more, and that was really fun, making me happy and bringing cheer to other people too.

At the party the other day, one of my friends told me she's got a tree in a pot that she brings in every year to decorate, but a chickadee has built a bird's nest in it that she doesn't want to disturb, so that it can be used again in the springtime. She always has live trees, she told me, because one of the things that bothers her about Christmas is the murder of so many trees. When I was a kid, though, one of my favorite things to do at Christmas time was to lie on my back with my head under the tree, looking up at the sparkling lights, the ornaments glinting, and let the incredible smell of the tree fill me with delight. That smell, along with the smell of gingerbread, takes me back to Christmases past.

Now that I am older, it seems that acquiring things has become more of a burden than a pleasure. Since I don't lack for much, and I seem to have plenty of food and warm clothes to wear, there's not much to wish for any more. My last big purchase was a raincoat that will hopefully keep me dry when hiking in the hills and mountains around town. Next Sunday will be Christmas Day, and until then, I'll reminisce about Christmases gone by while enjoying the present moment.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The passage of time

Last night I picked up one of my old journals that I kept during the 1980s, wondering what I would talk about this Sunday morning. Those numbered journals began in February 1982 and petered out by the time 1990 rolled around. They all started with me deciding I needed to keep a food journal and see what I felt about the food I ate. Of course, it didn't stay just about food for long, because I found the experience of journaling, writing what would not be read by anybody but me, very valuable and cathartic. The one I picked up was #13, covering the period September 1985 to March 1986. I looked up my birthday to see who I was back then.

It was easy to remember who wrote all these words, but it's not the me of today. Twenty-six years later, the person sitting in Bellingham, composing on her laptop, bears very little resemblance to the 43-year-old young person who wrote this:
Mama and I finally had a fight. It cleared the air but was very traumatic to me. More than to her, I think. She finally let me take her blood sugar, and it was amazingly good. It confused me, because I was so sure it would be terrible. We started to argue, I don't know now just what the trigger was, but I let her know my visit was awful and I wouldn't be coming back at Christmas. 
I went into the bathroom to cry and when I came out she insisted that we "have a talk." The talk went on for at least an hour, maybe two, with me telling her all that I had been holding in since my arrival, all the resentments about her drinking, her friends, her lifestyle. Soon it became clear to me that nothing would make me happy but to have her (1) stop drinking completely, (2) eat only the best foods for her, (3) walk at least a mile a day, and (4) renounce her affection for her other children and see me as the best, most accomplished and devoted.
In 1985, I had not discovered skydiving. That wouldn't happen for another six years. My mother was still alive and had not yet gone through all the pain and suffering that awaited her. She died in 1993. My son Chris was still alive and healthy, and I had not yet met my life partner. I spent almost thirty years working for the same organization, and when I had my birthday in 1985, I had only been working there for six years. So many days, weeks, months, and years have flown by.

It is interesting to realize that time passes and changes are invisible from day to day. Each day I am a little older, a little different than the day before, but until I look back, until something like these journals gives me a glimpse into the past, I don't have any way to measure the imperceptible change. I remember illnesses and injuries, births and deaths, but the day-to-day life I live is also flowing by, the passage of time like a deep gentle river. The little soul perched on a leaf that makes its way along the river doesn't notice the changes on the river's bank. All it sees is the river and its vessel, the leaf.

When I wrote those words in 1985, I wanted my mother never to leave me. I knew that she would and was hoping that if she did what I wanted, she wouldn't die. She wasn't even as old as I am today. But you only have one mother, and I guess it's normal to try to keep that person from changing. We all know this is impossible, but it doesn't keep us from trying. It's the same reason that we dye our hair, get facelifts, exercise obsessively and diet: to stave off the inevitable passage of time.

Once in awhile, I will wonder about these things. I might catch an image of myself in a passing window and wonder when I got old. My hair is completely white now, the wrinkles on my face a permanent part of me, not a visitor that has any intention of leaving. I don't really mind, I feel fortunate to still have a vessel that works well. I know that will change, too, but for now I am happy to see that the old Leaf has most of its parts and is still on top of the water.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


This past week, birthdays have been on my mind, since I just had the last one of my sixties and now look forward to beginning my seventieth year. That's a lot of birthdays. Funny how few of them I remember, but I guess that's true for all of us: unless something causes it to stand out, all the days of our lives blend together in memory. The only birthday I remember as a kid was my tenth.

In 1952, Mama was only 29 and had borne three children, all girls. Daddy was 35 and an officer in the Air Force, stationed at Fairfield Air Force Base in California. I have very little recollection of their relationship. It was invisible to me as I grew up, which must be a good sign. No childhood memories of fights or discord. But it must have been there, since Daddy liked to drink and as an adult, I know it marred much of their happiness. Mama drank, too, but I think it was because she wanted to join Daddy in his activities and grew to like it.

The Officers' Club had Monte Carlo Night every once in awhile, and on December 1st of that year, Daddy didn't come home. He was supposed to bring a present for me and just simply never came home. Instead, he went to gamble at the Officers' Club and probably drank way too much. The only reason I know this is that Mama was distraught and told me where Daddy was, that he had forgotten it was my birthday. We waited and waited for him to arrive, but he never did. No present for me, and I cried when I went to bed because I had been forgotten by Daddy. Mama was furious at him, that much I remember, which didn't make me feel any better. I was filled with grief, which is one reason it sticks in my mind.

And then he came home. I could hear them talking in the living room, Mama's angry accusations and Daddy's voice, low and remorseful, I suspect. It couldn't have been terribly late, because I was still awake, and then Daddy came into my bedroom. He sat down beside me on my bed and told me how sorry he was that he had forgotten my birthday. I'm sure he told me many things, but the only thing that stands out in my memory was that now I was older, ten to be exact, and life was going to hand me some sad times as well as good ones. I was grown up enough to be able to handle that, to get used to facing trials and tribulations. I can still hear the sound of his soothing voice when I think of the memory. He didn't hurry, he took his time.

Then he put ten silver dollars on my bedstand, piled one on top of the other. In those days, silver dollars were BIG, and I remember my eyes got big, too, as I stared at what seemed to me to be a fortune! He told me that this is my birthday present: a silver dollar for each year of my life. When he left the room, I picked them up and felt them, then went to sleep with the silver dollars right on the edge of the bedstand so I could see them first thing when I awoke.

I have no memory of what I did with that money, although I'm pretty sure I spent it on trinkets. In those days, silver coins were 90% silver, and they would have been worth a great deal by now. I have never been a saver. But looking back on all my birthdays, that is the one I remember the most. Probably because of the emotional roller coaster of the day, and the happy ending. It was indeed a happy birthday after all.

And now, today, I think fondly of my parents back then, their relationship, especially their love for one another. They were married for almost forty years by the time Daddy died of a heart attack at 62. Now I'm older than he ever was, and Mama died a few months before she would have turned 70. She never stopped missing him all those years she was without him, and it gives me comfort to think of them being together again, if such a thing is what happens when we die. I won't know until it's my turn, will I? Until then, I am entitled to their imagined reunion.

As is my habit, it's still dark and my partner is sleeping lightly next to me as I write on my laptop. We didn't meet until we were both 50, but now that has been almost twenty years ago. The two of us are unlikely life partners, and I believe it is nothing short of a miracle that we met and married. As he has said before, we didn't so much meet as collide. That collision changed the way I think about life. It's so much better than I could ever have imagined.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bulk bins and organic food

When I lived in Boulder, I didn't have anything like this amazing number of bulk bins of rice and beans. This is a picture of just a few of the bulk bins available to me at the Community Food Co-op here in Bellingham. There's even bulk Forbidden (black) rice!

When we decided to move here, Smart Guy drove up in February 2008 to find us a place to live, while I finished the last few months of my job in Boulder. He told me the very first thing he did was join the Co-op and shop for some foods. We didn't know about the store when we made the decision to live in Bellingham, but it has made a huge difference in our quality of life.

During the three decades I lived in Boulder, many times a community cooperative was attempted and we always joined, but none of them ever took off. I don't really know what the difference is, but the bulk bins and presentation of foods never seemed optimal; instead they were dusty and presumably stale. At the Co-op here in Bellingham, the sheer volume of customers and turnover of produce allows me to choose from a huge variety. From the link above, on the Co-op's "Vision, Mission, Values" page, I learned that it "promotes a sustainable economy by supporting organic and sustainable food production and other environmentally and socially responsible businesses locally, regionally, and nationally." I visit the store almost every day, since it's located just behind the YMCA where I exercise four days a week.

I ride the bus from home every morning to attend my class at 9:00am. The bus in my part of town is hourly, so I arrive a few minutes after 8:00am and walk to Avellino's coffee shop for my morning latte and visit with the regulars before heading two blocks to the Y. After class, I have about a half hour to wait after I've showered and changed, until it's time to catch the bus, so I head to the Co-op and buy any little thing I might need (since I've got my recyclable bag tucked into my purse) and get a small cup of coffee. Then I make myself comfy in the cafe section of the store. I pull out my iPad, check my email and read the latest news before heading the few blocks to the bus terminal. By now I know most of the bus drivers and feel very much a part of the community. I know the other riders who use the bus at this time of day; it goes by Bellingham Technical College and there are times when the bus is very crowded, but this week when schools were closed for the holiday, I was able to chat with the driver.

Sometimes when I feel like learning more about the Co-op, I'll walk the aisles that I don't usually visit and notice what items they have (like the cereal aisle, I never buy the stuff). Almost everywhere there is a sign to remind me to "buy local" and many times a sign declaring an items "certified non-GMO." GMO stands for "genetically modified organism." Once I searched in the store for items containing HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). Even in the aisle with soft drinks (not many of them) and other drinks, I didn't find even one!

Where am I going with this post? I guess I just want to point out that I realize how fortunate I am to have such a place to shop. Not many of you have this luxury; it truly is exactly that. Sometimes I take one of the ladies who lives in my apartment complex grocery shopping (she no longer drives) to the local Albertson's store. She has shopped at this store for decades and knows the aisles and what is where. No way is she interested in changing her routine and going to the more expensive and foreign Co-op, and I never even suggest it. Just for grins while waiting for her, I will walk the aisles in the same way, looking at what foods are displayed there. No comparison, really. Just as an example, the massive aisle filled with cereals has hardly any natural cereals, they are all highly processed and filled with sugar. No wonder we have such an obesity epidemic in this country.

This week I will have my sixty-ninth birthday and begin my seventieth year. Because of my food choices, I believe that I have managed to maintain a semblance of health that eludes many people my age. Although none of us knows what the future holds, I do think that the food we put into our bodies is a choice that can assist or retard our health. A cartoon I saw recently showed a guy declaring that there are only two things that keep him from losing weight: diet and exercise.

It's still dark outside. These days the sun doesn't come up until after 7:30am and sets at 4:19pm. The wind has blown all night, bringing in a cold front after a warm and windy day yesterday. I sit here with my partner sleeping beside me, listening to the howling wind, propped up in bed with my laptop and tea. When I finish here, I'll dress and head to the Co-op to see what breakfast item they are serving today at the deli and if appropriate, I'll pick up a couple breakfasts to bring home. It's our regular wintertime Sunday morning routine. Kristin is usually behind the counter and she writes our names and a cute smiley face on the take-out boxes. I order my soy latte, pick up a Seattle Times newspaper and come home to my waiting partner. Life is pretty darn good.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My friend Robert

Robert died on Friday the 13th in July 1990. I haven't thought of him very much in years - decades, even. But something happened last Sunday that has brought him into my thoughts daily since then. I met Robert when I first moved to Boulder in the mid-1970s. He and his life partner David had lived in Boulder for years and were some of the first people I became close to. It's funny how a situation can change your life, and moving into a rooming house on Boulder's university hill was the catalyst for friendships that have lasted a lifetime. The old house had maybe a dozen small rooms and a central kitchen. As I became friends with the other residents, we would gather at the kitchen table and have communal meals. That's where I met Robert, and we became immediate friends. Although he didn't live in the house, he visited often and I learned to appreciate his intellect and droll sense of humor.

I knew Robert was gay, it was hard not to know, since he was effeminate and "swishy" in his manner. I found it rather refreshing that he didn't make any fuss about it, it's just who he was. We became fast friends and he taught me a great deal about art, one of his passions. Every time he would travel out of town, I would receive an art card from him with a nice note, letting me know he was thinking about me.

At one point in my life in Boulder, I was without a place to live and moved in with David and Robert into their lovely rural home. Although I was working half-time at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, I didn't want to live alone, and the time I spent there was memorable because of Robert's touch. While there, I took a six-week leave of absence from work and went to Peru. It was a wonderful time, but apparently while eating something from a (probable) street vendor, I picked up infectious hepatitis. It didn't appear immediately because of a gamma globulin shot I had had prior to my trip, but showed up about a month after my return. Robert took me to the doctor when I woke from a terrible sleep and looked into the mirror to see that the whites of my eyes were yellow as egg yolks.

Robert nursed me back to health. I was so sick that walking up the steps from my room once a day was all I could manage. I missed another ten weeks of work and could do nothing but read and rest. I think Robert saw my situation as a perfect opportunity to teach me about some of his favorite things. He brought me book after book of art appreciation, and he introduced me to Emily Dickinson, one of his favorite poets. I became as enamored with her as he was. He fixed my meals and eventually took me for walks when I was able. It was shocking how weak and sick I was, but there is nothing for hepatitis except to rest and let your body recover. It also made me incredibly appreciative of the good friend that Robert was to me. He thought constantly of things that he hoped would make me happy and contributed a great deal to my recovery. We became even more fast friends, and he told me stories from his life that made me realize that Robert was really a woman in a man's body. He thought like me, was gentle to his very soul, and never hurt a fly.

That is what caused me to remember him so much this week. Last Sunday I went to see the opera "Tosca" by Puccini at the cinema, with English subtitles. Although I had heard the famous aria before, since Robert loved it beyond all others, I never knew the meaning of the Italian words in Vissi D'Arte (the aria), but he did. When he knew that he was dying of AIDS, Robert asked me to be in charge of his memorial service, and he was adamant about certain parts of it. At the time I lived in a basement apartment with a spacious and lovely back yard. He asked that I play that aria from "Tosca" as I slowly ascended the steps from the apartment into the yard with his ashes in an urn. It was very moving, but even more so now, more than twenty years later, when I learned the meaning of that aria sung by Tosca.
I lived for art, I lived for love,
I never did harm to a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of.
Ever in true faith
My prayer
Rose to the holy shrines.
Ever in true faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
In the hour of grief
Why, why, Lord,
Why do you reward me thus?
I gave jewels for the Madonna's mantle,
And songs for the stars in heaven
That shone forth with greater radiance.
In the hour of grief
Why, why, Lord,
Ah, why do you reward me thus?
When Robert was very sick, I would give him foot rubs and read to him. He would tell me what he wanted me to read, and I watched as David grew more and more distant. Sometimes when a loved one is dying, it's so difficult that one pulls away; it seemed cruel to me that David would not even sit with him. But I did, and I was happy to spend as much time with him as I could until the end. And now as I enjoy remembering him after all these years, I thank God that I was blessed with his friendship.

Robert was one of the best friends I ever had. I hope he is sitting somewhere in Heaven smiling as I write this. If he is, I'm sure he would be laughing gently and correcting any inaccuracies I've introduced. Or he would start to tell me a story, always with a moral that I might learn to be a gentle soul, too.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Diane took this picture of me on Thursday during our stop at the North Butte of Blanchard Mountain, overlooking Samish Bay. I look happy and content, don't I? Wearing my little ear cozies and gloves, I was quite warm without need for my new expensive raincoat. This week, however, I'm getting plenty of use for it, as the weather has turned blustery and very wet.

Although I was glad to go on the hike last Thursday, the date kept bothering me, since it would have been my son Chris' fiftieth birthday, if he had lived. I wasn't really as carefree as the picture makes out. It's been almost ten years now since Chris died in August 2002, and I find that anniversaries, especially big round anniversaries like fifty years, won't stop bothering me without some introspection. I sure know where I was fifty years ago. I wasn't hiking and skydiving and being surrounded by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. I was in Puerto Rico with my first husband awaiting the birth of my first child. I wrote about that time in detail here, at the beginning of this blog when I needed to examine carefully all the pieces of my life. Today I'm trying to dispel the melancholy of the past week.

I just re-read what I wrote in that link and find that it brought it all right back into the present. I was so young and inexperienced, not even nineteen when he was born. I remember being terrified about having to experience childbirth and knowing so little about the process. There were no internet search engines, no computers to connect me to the wider world, only whispers and conjectures from one female friend to another. I lived in a ramshackle house off base surrounded by Spanish-speaking neighbors, so my only source of information was from other Air Force wives in the same situation.

The wild ride in a fellow soldier's car in the middle of the night to the Air Force Base Hospital is a dim memory, but what I remember the most was the doctors and nurses putting me onto a table and strapping my arms and legs down so I couldn't move! The first thing they did was shave my pubic area and then put an ether cone over my face. I remember trying to stop them but it was no use. The next thing I knew I had delivered my baby and he was somewhere else away from me. In those days, especially in military hospitals, the mother was considered to be a nuisance and the doctors and nurses routinely knocked out the mother so they could do the important work. Today it seems almost brutal, and the wonderful experience I had in a regular hospital with my second son makes me realize it actually wasn't done everywhere.

After I was released from the hospital and back in our home, there is a moment frozen in time when Derald and I had our arms around each other as we gazed into the crib at this miracle of life. He was lying on his stomach (which is now rare with a newborn baby) and he looked so incredibly perfect and so tiny. (He actually weighed 7 pounds 7 ounces, a healthy size, but what did I know?)

That child grew to be a big man who loved and was loved throughout his life. He was married when he died, to Silvia, a German woman he met while serving in the Army, which had become his life. The terribly painful time when I went to Bamberg Air Force Base to attend his memorial service, when I saw my son for the last time, in a coffin wearing his dress uniform... it is still painful to this day to recall that memory. But I learned how loved he was in his life, how much his fellow soldiers loved him, how much Silvia loved him, and I know he died surrounded by the same love that started his life.

And he is still loved today. Silvia still misses him, I still miss him and wonder what life would have been like for me if he had lived. All the different decisions I would have made if I had had a grandchild, if Chris was somewhere still in the world raising a family. It is a shock to realize that any child he might have had would be grown and I could be a great-grandmother without any stretch of the imagination.

No more than a hundred years ago, living to be forty years old was considered to be a complete, full life. Chris had begun to turn gray and was distressed by the fact that he was beginning to lose his hair. He struggled to keep his weight under control because he loved to eat. The Army required him to keep it down, or he would have been quite a bit heavier, I suspect.

Fifty! I remember when I turned fifty and now my son would have passed that milestone. And then on Friday of this week, the world marked Veterans' Day, or Remembrance Day, and I thought of my son and all the other members of my family who have served their country. I have nieces and nephews who are still in active service.

It all started with my parents, who met when Daddy was a young handsome soldier who saw a beautiful brown-eyed girl across the room at a party. As he made his way over to ask her to dance, the future expanded and the possibility of my existence was born. I am grateful.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Travel to Manchuria

Harbin from my hotel room
In 2007, I spent an entire month in Beijing working for the Higher Education Press (HEP). Although I was also still employed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, I took a month's vacation in order to travel to Beijing and ascertain the level of English translation in 17 scientific journals that are published by HEP. The job was arranged for me by Qian Ye, the Chinese member of our staff, because HEP needed someone who would be willing to do this work while not expecting to be paid a great deal for it. Since I was already collecting a salary from NCAR, they paid my travel expenses and a small stipend to be spent for food. They put me up in a hotel room that was used exclusively for people working at HEP. A fairly large van picked us all up every weekday and took us into Beijing proper into their offices. Smart Guy traveled with me for the month, with us paying for his travel, and it worked out very well. But that is not what this post is about.

During that month, my NCAR boss Mickey had arranged to travel from Colorado to Harbin (in Manchuria) for an environmental conference where he would be making a presentation. He asked me to come along for five days. I took my work with me so I didn't lose any actual time in my duties for HEP. We traveled by train into Northeast China (also known as Manchuria). All travel in China, everywhere, was arranged by our Chinese handlers. There is simply no way I could have managed by myself, since I speak no Mandarin and even taxi drivers need a slip of paper or business card with my destination in order for me to travel from place to place. Taxis are incredibly cheap and available everywhere. I cannot imagine what Chinese travelers to the US think when traveling by taxi.

The name "Harbin" (as you can find from the above link) means "a place for drying fish nets" in Manchu. It is known for its incredibly harsh winters and its legacy of Russian culture. One day while there we were taken on an excursion into the city and learned some of its history. It's amazing to see buildings that bear little resemblance to what I think of as being Chinese. But then again, this is another part of China that has had many conflicts, all of which make for fascinating reading and available for further research in the link. Here's a picture of Smart Guy in front of a magnificent church in the town's center.
One notable event at the conference was that it was attended by a few students from one of the many universities, who were very interested in environmental concerns. They asked Mickey if he would be willing to make a presentation at their university. He tried to decline, since there was only the weekend before we would be leaving on Monday morning. The young earnest student said that if Mickey would agree to talk to them on Sunday morning, she would arrange it, so he agreed to meet them the very next morning at 8:00 am. Imagine his amazement when he walked into an auditorium filled to capacity with hundreds of excited students! Smart Guy went along too, and he met a young student who he still communicates with by email these days, four years later. She earned a scholarship and entrance to Baylor University in Houston and now they carry on an email conversation that covers a wide range of topics on life.

One of my blogging friends once asked me to write a bit more about the people when I visited these exotic places. And I do want to say that the Chinese people are some of the friendliest, helpful, and passionate I have ever met anywhere. Once when I was in a very crowded train terminal, a woman came over and gestured to me to cover my purse so that it would be close to my body and therefore unavailable to thieves. She must have seen me looking vulnerable and wanted to protect me. This sort of thing happened all the time and I began to take it for granted. Then once I came home to the States, I felt a sort of shock at the lack of concern we Americans seem to have for one another. Of course it didn't help that I landed in New York and had to navigate back to Colorado. Although I was never actually knocked over, I felt in danger of it, and I wondered how a Chinese person coming here sees us.

Today I don't travel around much, but it is good to have these memories of international travel. As I have said before, international travel anywhere is not as exciting as it is grueling. Although there is plenty to be said for travel in order to experience different cultures, I am glad that these days here in retirement are spent mostly at home or traveling locally to different places in my area. I am blessed to have a group that has introduced me to the wonders of the mountains and trails nearby, and with Vancouver, British Columbia less than an hour away by car, my local world still carries plenty of adventure.

During my working years, I managed to accomplish what now seems to me almost an impossibility. One thing about getting older and retiring from that world, my life is now filled with numerous activities that are fulfilling and chosen by me. The pace is slower now, which is appropriate, and it all evolved in small incremental steps, so I never actually noticed. It's good to have a chance to look back and look ahead at what still beckons in my day-to-day life.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Head cold, chin hairs, and wheat

This week, when Al took this picture of me and Mt. Baker, I was on top of the world. I felt great as we hiked in the sunshine and fresh snow. That was Tuesday, and then on Thursday we hiked again in the sunshine. The two trips in the High Country totaled more than sixteen miles and 5,500 feet up and down.

However, on Thursday morning when I woke up to get ready for the hike, I wondered if it was my imagination or did I have just the slightest bit of a sore throat? I decided to ignore it and went anyway. While we were on the trail, I didn't feel sick at all, but in the car during the ride home (more than an hour), I began to sneeze. Fortunately I carry a hankie so the other people in the car didn't get sprayed. By the time I reached home, my head was stuffed up and I couldn't stop sneezing. Not to mention that I felt miserable. I went to bed around 7:00pm and continue to sneeze. I had some homeopathic Zicam in the closet and took it, along with some Nyquil and managed to get a halfway decent night's sleep, although I had to breathe most of the night through my mouth. I hate that. I was up and reading my blogs before 5:00am.

On Friday I noticed that my nasal voice and red nose were the least of my worries, as I felt like crap. So much for getting in one last day of skydiving on Saturday before the season ends. Nobody jumps with a head cold. I did once long ago and thought my eardrums were going to rupture when I opened my parachute after a minute of freefall. This didn't improve my mood one bit. As I looked in the bathroom mirror while I brushed my teeth, the sick grumpy visage that stared back at me was sprouting chin hairs! That did it, I got out the tweezers and went to work.

Years ago, I remembered watching my mother do the same thing and I laughed at her. This was in my hippie days when I dressed "naturally" and wore Birkenstocks. I told her that if the same thing happened to ME, I'd wear my chin hairs proudly. As I looked in the mirror at myself I couldn't help but smile, plucking out the hairs with the same tweezers she used all those years ago. Sometimes I am embarrassed when confronted with my own arrogance.

I am not a good patient. I don't know how to be sick and wonder how I would fare with a chronic illness. Some of my blogging friends give me plenty of inspiration as they deal with myriad trials and tribulations with humor and courage. My life has changed plenty because of my blogging. The friends who greet me every morning when I read their blogs have given me more than a new perspective; sometimes one of you will give me a new direction to follow.

Last week Technobabe suggested that I read a book called Wheat Belly to discover what she and her husband feel has changed their lives for the better. In fact, her husband James, a musician, wrote a wonderful song about it which is in that link to her blog. I did indeed read the book, and my dear Smart Guy and I have decided to do a month-long test to see how we fare without wheat. The author, William Davis, is a cardiologist who has discovered that today's wheat has been hybridized and changed to such an extent that it causes many illnesses in his patients that can be treated without drugs -- by removing wheat from their diets.

Dr. Davis goes on to suggest that anyone who is diabetic or prediabetic should get rid of all gluten and severely restrict carbohydrates, but we aren't going that far yet, keeping rye bread without added sugar, beans, and occasional brown rice in our vegetarian diets. Well, we are not actually vegetarians since we eat fish. I remember learning that vegetarians who eat fish are called "pescatarians." That's us. Who would move to the Pacific Northwest and not take advantage of the local fantastic salmon? We are less than a week into our quest and decided also to eliminate all added sugars such as honey. I don't eat a lot of wheat in the first place, but I am a fan of locally baked spelt bread. I found that it's got a pretty heavy glycemic load so I've replaced it with pumpernickel, which is actually really good too.

I went to bed Saturday night not feeling very well, but I was able to sleep for almost twelve hours and woke feeling like a new person. Usually on Saturdays I take an early morning walk of five or six brisk miles with the Fairhaven Walkers and then swim a half mile, but I decided not to push it and forego (forewent?) those activities. Instead I went to the Farmers' Market to pick up some collards and kale, two of my favorite vegetables, as well as some absolutely delicious delicata squash. I am fortunate to have organic veggies and fresh-caught wild salmon to enjoy. It would be hard living somewhere that doesn't offer the variety we have here and attempt to eliminate wheat. It's in so many processed foods!

The one big difference I've noticed already is that I am not hungry in between meals. I'm definitely eating less, but that could be a function of having a cold. I'll know more by next Sunday and will let you know how it's going. It does make me hopeful that perhaps I won't gain back my hard-won weight loss of the past nine months by going wheat-free. The winter months when I don't get out as often are hard for me to deal with; exercising in the rain isn't my favorite activity.

Sitting here in the dark before dawn drinking my tea, pouring out these words on my laptop, I realize that I'm over the hump and will now be getting better each day. One thing about feeling so awful for a few days is that when health begins to return, everything around me begins to look brighter.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Genetics and numbers

The Sixlings, March 2011
I was going to write more about travels in China, but that's not what I've been thinking about this week, so here it is: numbers. Cholesterol and lipid numbers, to be exact. Our parents are possibly at fault, but I've simply got to find out how to get my cholesterol under control. This is a picture of my siblings, with me as the oldest on the left, then Norma Jean, PJ, my only brother Buz, and baby sisters Markee and Fia. (Baby Markee just turned fifty.)

Last week Norma Jean had gone to get her cholesterol checked and was disappointed with the results. Both of us had read a book positing that higher doses of vitamin C and lysine would help to lower these numbers (along with good diet, of course) and we both began a regimen that we hoped was the answer to the genetic predisposition our parents gave us. Since both my mother and father didn't have statins available to them, they both had high cholesterol when they died (very high, in the 400-500 range) and heart disease is rampant in our family. Every single one of the six of us are on statins for high cholesterol.

Back in January when I went to the doctor's office and found that my cholesterol was elevated (total 246), I decided to go on a diet to lose the ten pounds I had gained since the previous checkup. I was very successful, losing fifteen pounds, to be exact, and feeling better than I have in years. I get more exercise than many seniors, I'd say, and on Thursday I went to see my doctor, confident that my numbers would have improved. Friday I had my blood drawn while fasting.

Thanks to the miracle of the PeaceHealth online connection, that very afternoon I got an email saying that my test results were available, and I pulled up the page with confidence — and was crushed when I saw the numbers. Total cholesterol is UP to 259, with my good cholesterol (HDLs) have dropped from 77 to 65. That's still good, of course, but I've been exercising more this past summer than I have in years, having added swimming and getting in extra hikes with the Senior Trailblazers. And to top it off, my triglycerides have doubled from 79 to 141! I don't eat ANY simple carbohydrates and that just floored me. Granted, I had never had such low triglycerides before, as they usually run right around 100.

So, color me disappointed too. I spent Friday night waking up, tossing and turning and wondering what I have been doing wrong. The doctor's notation was also on the test results, and I saw that he will be suggesting to me that I double my dose of simvastatin (Zocor) from 20 to 40. He wrote that I should just take two tablets instead of one every evening until they are gone, and then he'll give me a prescription. He hasn't called me yet, then again that was just two days ago, but I immediately began to take two and will have my blood drawn again in three months to see how I'm tolerating the higher dose.

Genetics is probably the reason for all these numbers being elevated, but I remembered that years ago I decided to try the Dean Ornish diet for heart disease. He wrote a book in 1992 called Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease and I jumped on the bandwagon, following everything to the letter. The short version of the diet is to limit simple carbohydrates completely, concentrating on complex carbs, with small amounts of protein and fat. I lost weight then, too, but when I had my blood drawn, my numbers were sky high, and I was twenty years younger, too. My doctor at the time told me that some people have a strong genetic predisposition to what she called "hyperlipidemia" and that statins would lower my numbers, and she was right. So I'm now doubling my statin drugs and hoping for the best.

The actual diet that helped me the most is the South Beach diet, which is what I follow pretty closely. The way I lost the weight I had gained last year is to start to count my calorie intake, as I had gotten more and more cavalier about portion size and the weight just crept up. I knew I had stashed my favorite pants had in the back of my closet since they no longer fit, but I figured it was simple aging. I'm proudly wearing them again, though, and I'd like to keep the weight from coming back.

My genetics is probably the reason I've got these numbers, but I will never stop trying to find a natural way to lower them. I feel stronger and better with the vitamin C and lysine, so I'll keep on doing that, but striving to find the diet that will keep these numbers all within normal parameters without drugs... maybe it's possible. So far, the statins are my only hope to avoid heart disease.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Travels in Western China

Xinjiang Province, Western China
I just wasn't sure what to write about this morning, since nothing special has been on my mind this past week, and one of the blogs I read this morning discussed how in her job as a public servant, everybody complains about everything in this country. She speculated about whether we should just go back to living without government in our lives. This reminded me of my travels in Western China, where things are very, very different from what I experience in my own country.

The sign behind these ladies is in Arabic, Chinese, and perhaps another language I don't recognize right off. The two ladies in front are sitting down for lunch. The people behind the tables are serving them, with face masks for cleanliness, but you might notice, no gloves of any kind. Since the thin woman in front is not wearing a head scarf, she is probably Chinese while the others are Uyghurs. If you aren't aware of the conflicts going on in this part of China, it's because the Chinese don't allow you to know. I fully expect that one day, perhaps during my lifetime, the Uyghurs will rise up against the Han Chinese. They don't call themselves Chinese, but of course the Chinese government says they are. For more information about this part of the world, you can read about it here (Wikipedia of course).

I was there for a week while we held an international conference in the capital city of Urumqi. Because we had our evenings and the weekend free, we were taken on excursions to other parts of the area so we could appreciate the sights. The market where you see these women was actually considered to be off limits to us, but my old boss Mickey never let something like that stop him. However, I did notice that we were scrutinized by several people and I got the strong feeling that our presence was not welcome. Certainly my camera was not. But when I had the chance to interact with any of the people, they were kind and inquisitive. The language barrier was huge. Although you might hear that the Chinese people study English for years in school, they are never exposed to it. This sign might give you an idea of what I'm talking about.
The picture was actually taken in a train station on the other side of China, Harbin. I'll talk about my travels there in another post, but I didn't get a picture in Xinjiang Province that shows so perfectly how vastly different our languages are. The translation must have been done by an official, and that's as good as it got. Back to Xinjiang Province.

I was actually able to visit there twice, since we held two conferences at the university in Urumqi. Perhaps five years separated the first visit from the last, and the tension in the countryside was even stronger. We were last there in 2003, and in July 2009, there were riots in the city. When I read about the situation, I could picture the people and knew that it was inevitable. The Chinese government executed many Uyghurs who were suspected of being involved, but there's no way to know for sure. In China, there is no such thing as a real trial. Within a week of being accused, these people were executed by the government. I was appalled and wondered how many of these men were innocent of anything other than having been born Uyghurs.

There are many things that could be improved in my own country, but when I visit a place like Xinjiang Province and come back home, I am always struck by two things: one, I can say what I please and nobody is going to come to my home and arrest me; and two, my government provides me with many things, such as libraries, roads, and food safety standards, which I take for granted until they are suddenly not there.

As is true everywhere, our home has a special place in our hearts, because we know it so well. I am sure that many of the people in Xinjiang Province feel the same way. They showed me many kindnesses and were curious and inquisitive about my own way of life. I wish them all well. Given the chance to visit there again, I don't think I would go, because the tensions can only grow, as much as the Chinese government might want them to go away.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Creative writing

I snapped this picture of one my chickadee friends yesterday morning through the front window. They are my favorite birds, since they seem to recognize me and spend time "talking" to me when I'm on the porch filling the feeders. I wish I could speak bird.

The past week or so I've been thinking about what it means to write creatively. Years ago I took a class in creative writing and learned some techniques that I still use today when thinking about a blog post. And several times people have suggested to me that I consider writing a book of some kind, maybe even memoirs if nothing else. It's true that my life is pretty unique, but then again, whose life isn't?

One of the things that the teacher of that long-ago class taught me is that if you do want to become a writer, then you should write something every day. Practice makes perfect. She would start each day by sitting at her desk and answering correspondence to get herself in the writing mood, and then she'd start back at one of several different projects she had going all at the same time, depending on what interested her that day. I have found in my own life that I do enjoy writing, but I don't have much knack for fiction stories. I did write several for the class and she even read a couple of them out loud. (I wonder if I've got those old stories tucked away somewhere.) The class would then critique them, what they liked and didn't like, and that was also very informative. Some people have a real gift for writing dialogue, but I find it almost impossible to make it believable. We also learned the basics of a good story.

One tip I remember is that in any story, the first sentence or two should grab the reader's attention. I have forgotten that in blog posts— but then again, I figure if you are here reading, you are already interested. Visiting other blogs often feels like stopping by a friend's house and having a chat over a cup of tea. Being enticed inside isn't even a question.

What I've decided is that I actually prefer the form of blogging rather than the creation of a static book or story. In my life these days, I realize that the first thing I do every day is make a cup of tea and open my laptop, while my partner sleeps next to me. (He isn't bothered by the click of the keyboard or the low light next to me; he sleeps right through it.) It's still dark outside and I learn what has happened in the lives of the people I follow since my last visit. Sometimes it's fluff, or pictures of their day, or a soliloquy of inward thoughts. Or something that happened that concerns them, such as political theater or economics, or books... it's really endless, but it gives my day a certain flavor, and I can comment immediately and sometimes get instant feedback by receiving a private email from someone who might respond privately to my comment.

As a very social person, I realize that this sets the stage for the rest of my day, and sometimes one post will strike me deeply. I will contemplate it, turning it over in my mind, and find myself traveling in mental directions that would never have occurred to me otherwise. I am a different person because I read and write blogs. Oh, and comment on them, too; that's an important part of the experience. I know some people by the consistency of their comments on my own posts, and they must feel the same way about me. It's just common courtesy to comment on posts you appreciate, but it's also important to the creator of the post to know how it is being received.

The instantaneous world of the blogosphere is, as I've said before, a new art form in the world. I'm feeling privileged to be part of it. Creative writing? I read it every day. And some days, I produce it for the pleasure of others. Or to stir something that needs stirring.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

October sunrise

This sunrise picture was taken from my front porch last Friday, so it wasn't exactly an October sunrise, since it was taken the last day of September. Close enough. I remembered that old phrase about "red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight." I went to Google to find out where that phrase came from and found many sources, one even from the Bible (Matthew 16:2-3). It is an interesting read. A quote from that link:
If the morning skies are red, it is because clear skies to the east permit the sun to light the undersides of moisture-bearing clouds coming in from the west. Conversely, in order to see red clouds in the evening, sunlight must have a clear path from the west in order to illuminate moisture-bearing clouds moving off to the east.
This past week has been filled with introspection, probably because of the change in seasons and the constant monitoring of the weekend weather to decide if I can get another day of skydiving in before the weather closes that avenue until spring. In Boulder, I could jump all year round, but here, it is entirely seasonal because of the low clouds and rain that accompany us during the fall and winter months. I really don't mind. If I still lived in Boulder, I would probably make many more jumps but be unable to extricate myself long enough to find out what other activities I might want to explore.

I am much more active since I moved to Bellingham and discovered my hiking group. Last Thursday we had an absolutely beautiful blue-sky day. We went to the Baker Lake area to climb up to a lookout cabin in order to take in the glorious 360-degree views. When we were there two weeks ago, the area was socked in with fog and rain.

Before I began jumping in late 1990, I was an avid backcountry skier and climbed many of the fourteeners in Colorado. All that fell by the wayside once I discovered the thrill of skydiving. The friends I had known for decades grew weary of me telling them about it and gradually I only hung out with fellow skydivers. It's that kind of sport for many -- not everybody, though. I would wake up on a weekend morning and dash to the window to see if it looked at all possible to skydive. I'd jump in my car and drive fifty minutes to the Drop Zone if there was any possibility at all, since I was afraid my friends would be there having the time of their life, and I would be missing out!

But my Smart Guy once told me that it's not possible to have a hundred jumps forever, if you keep skydiving. And he is right. With more than four thousand now, the thrill I had back then is gone, but the habit and excitement of the familiar feeling of freefall keep me coming back. I also enjoy the friends I've made at the Snohomish Drop Zone and look forward to the feeling of simple play I have when I'm with them.

There is no natural physical cutoff time to stop skydiving. It's more a sense of when your body no longer can do all that packing and hanging on the outside of airplanes and flying your canopy to the ground once you open it. I have an acquaintance in California who I've jumped with over the years who is turning eighty next month. He plans to attempt to make eighty jumps that day, with the help of a whole bunch of friends, two airplanes, and lots of support staff. But he's in incredible shape and jumps in California year round. I don't have any desire to try such a thing, since my focus is turning away from skydiving into the next phase of life.

The same day that I took that picture, I happened to run into at least six different people on the street who I have met in various ways here in Bellingham. As I was walking back to the bus to head home, a feeling of belonging right here, right now, caused my heart to swell with happiness. This is where I was headed when I left Boulder, looking for a new home. I've found it, and everything is in its proper place.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Our changing world

Me in 1943
When this little girl was little, the world was a very different place. More than I can sometimes fathom. My dad took this picture, and it was translated from a color slide into a digital print by Pete, Norma Jean's husband of 44 years. Daddy has been gone since 1979, and Pete died this past spring. The little girl is now a senior. Although the toddler doesn't exist any more, I am still here, in a world no one alive back then would recognize, if they somehow had a chance to visit.

Probably the biggest changes can be traced to two sources, the first being the number of people on the planet today, versus when the picture was taken: more than three times as many. Before the current year ends, the world will have seven billion human inhabitants. I found this graph on Wikipedia:
What this tells me is that there is no way the world could have added this many people without massive changes in the way everything is distributed. In this country, it means that the rich have become richer and the poor are much poorer. Income distribution makes everything different. And then there is food. Of the seven billion on the planet right now, one-sixth of them are hungry, and more than six million children die of malnutrition every year (2010 statistics).

When that picture was taken, I would bet that many adults believed that, with the wealth of the world today, hunger would be a thing of the past. I know I did when I was growing up. But who could have guessed then at how much greed and avarice would run things? Certainly not me. I truly believed that our better nature would prevail.

The other big change in our world has been caused by the huge advances in technology. Without even thinking about it, I googled the web to find the statistics and graph I used in this post, and without a thought of the amazing nature of this, I have at my fingertips all the facts and figures anybody could wish for. Kids born today don't know a world without cellphones and instant messaging; they know how to "keyboard" before they can talk. Yesterday, Leo at my local coffeeshop begged me to take out my iPad so he could look at pictures. He swiped his finger across the screen confidently to change from one picture to the next. He's not even three years old yet. What will the world be like when he's my age?

This has been on my mind lately, since I've been mulling over the creation of an "epitaph" post: one I write and give to my Life Partner so that, in case of me expiring suddenly or unexpectedly, all my followers will not be left to wonder what happened to me. Somebody gave me the idea of writing this as a sort of Living Will for my two blogs. If you have ever tried to think of what you would write in this situation, trust me: it's quite a useful meditation. I have only just begun the process, and it may take me a while, but I will have written it all out one of these days. And in the process, I'll learn something.

Years ago, when I was a Hospice volunteer, we were given a similar exercise: to give a memorial statement about my life at my own funeral. I remember doing it, and somewhere in my things I believe I still have it. I'll try to dig it up and see what I said back in the 1980s about who I thought I would be by the time I died. At that place in life, I didn't know Smart Guy, hadn't started skydiving, and Chris was alive and well. So I suspect it would be quite different from what I will write these days. I'll let you know how it goes.

Hopefully this post will not be depressing, but it's what is on my mind as I sit here in the dark, listening to the wind and rain blustering outside. Every once in a while a gentle breeze blowing through the window caresses my face. The state of the world might be scary in the aggregate, but right here right now, it feels just right.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The end of summer

Late snowfall brought spring flowers in September
This year, 2011, has been one for the record books in so many ways. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, summer comes to an end this week, and we only really had two weeks of warm weather in my part of the country. Other parts, like Texas, had nonstop 100-degree days; I'll take our version of summer any time. I'm listening to the rain falling outside right now, reconciled to the fact that skydiving this weekend won't happen and hoping the next weekend will bring warmer and drier weather.

The springtime brought us so much snow and cool weather that we were sure that come July our summer would start. It didn't. Then August came, and it started out cool and rainy. It wasn't until September that it began to be really warm. I enjoy Scott Sistek's weather blog on KOMO News, and he wrote here about how we had six consecutive months of below-normal temperatures.

The late snowfall in the mountains and the cool temperatures meant that snow would cover most of the trails in the Mt. Baker wilderness that I enjoy every summer. This year we couldn't even get to the trailheads of most of them, and I just learned that the snow level is lowering to 6,000 feet this week, meaning that the remaining snow will not clear, only to be covered by more. I wonder what the bears have been eating to get ready for their long hibernation.

The upside has been the wildflowers this year. They have been everywhere in amazing profusion at the higher elevations, when usually they are long gone by this time. Tomorrow we'll go on another hike in the mountains, and I suspect I'll see more flowers. They thrill me when they are in such abundance, especially when the sun is shining. Tomorrow's hike will be the seventh extra hike we added that takes us to new places farther south, since so many of our usual treks are impassable. It's supposed to be hard, one of the hardest I'll have done, but the rain should have stopped by then.

I'm in the best shape I've been in for decades. Because of the extra hikes on Mondays on top of the regular Thursday hikes, I noticed this past Thursday that a 1,700-foot elevation gain over three miles felt like nothing. Tomorrow's 4,000-foot elevation gain on Mount Dickerman wil be a challenge, I'm sure, but it comes at the best possible time for me. Although the summer is coming to an end, and my ability to keep this hard-won fitness will probably not last for the entire winter, I'll do my best to help it along. At my age, the adage "use it or lose it" applies to many aspects of life, but especially to fitness.

Interesting to me to consider how hard it is to become fit and how easy it is to lose it. It's not fair, but there you go. Nothing to be done about that fact. At any age, getting in shape is a worthwhile goal, but when your seventies are looming on the horizon, it's very satisfying to walk for long distances and feel my body continue to perform admirably. It's not that I don't get tired, but a good night's sleep or two and good healthy food and I'm raring to go again. I haven't felt this strong and vigorous in a long, long time.

I know I will be writing in here soon enough about my aches and pains, I've done it plenty in the past, but today, it's the other side of the equation I'm feeling. At the end of summer 2011, I can look back at the past season and be grateful for it. The rain is pattering gently on the roof, a light breeze wafts in through the window as I sit in the darkness, my tea finished and the day just beginning.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years ago

Another anniversary that brings back memories of the day ten years ago that the Twin Towers were destroyed. I have read many remembrances from that day, but the ones that have moved me the most are first-hand accounts of what each person was doing at the time.

My day started with me getting ready to go into the office for a two-day-long evaluation of our department's work during the previous five years and the direction we were planning to follow for the next five years. At the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), each section would go through this on a rotating basis and it was our turn. Scientists who made up several panels had arrived during the previous weekend from both coasts. NCAR is located in Boulder, Colorado. We had prepared for this day for months.

It was during the first break that we heard, and one of our administrators had a small television on her desk. We all came in and crowded around while we watched in horror as they played, over and over, the planes hitting the Twin Towers. Although it was difficult, we tried to carry on with the planned events until the first Tower fell, and then it was all canceled. At home that afternoon, I remember so well the tears flowing as Smart Guy and I held hands in silence watching the events of the day. None of our visiting scientific staff were able to return home since all air traffic had been shut down. Everything was in disarray.

Tragedy sometimes sucks me in and I try to absorb it a little at a time, but these events were so huge and all-encompassing that I spent the next days in mourning, along with the rest of the world. I didn't feel scared for my own safety but filled with sadness for all those who had lost their lives in the event, and the terrible wreckage left behind. I remember hoping that they would find survivors in the wreckage, which they didn't. Not even one person. When they showed a special filled with images of those people who jumped off the Towers, it hit me hard. I can still see those images in my mind's eye, and to this day I cannot shut them out.

A few months later, I traveled to New York for a conference and saw the lights shining in the darkness where the Twin Towers had stood. It was impossible to get close to Ground Zero, I didn't even try, but everywhere we went in the evenings, we could see those lights shining up to heaven. The world had changed, but we didn't really know how or why.

My son Chris was stationed in Germany and he was involved in protecting his Army base from possible attack. I heard much later, when I visited the base for his funeral, that he had stayed up all night and performed magnificently in stressful circumstances. Then we went to war with the Taliban in Afghanistan. I was filled with worry for his safety. He told me not to worry, someone had to sort the mail. However, less than a year later, Chris would be gone, and not long after that, the United States would be at war with Iraq. I had a hard time trying to understand why we were going after that country.

And today we are still at war, ten years later. Can anybody tell me why? All those people dead and more every day. I still remember the awful feeling in the pit of my stomach when I heard we were starting another war in Iraq. Oh, the country I love: what has happened to us? Have we lost our way in the fog of war?

I can only hope that the world's wounds will heal once we stop blowing things up in the name of revenge. Or something. I am too small a person to understand the sweep of history during the passage of events, but I do hope I live long enough to see peace and prosperity return to my little corner of the world. Today I will be thinking of that event ten years ago that started us down this long journey and seeking solace in friendship. It is all I know how to do.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Peruvian adventure

I took this picture at Machu Picchu thirty years ago. The way the stones were carved into this little niche fascinated me. But now, what fascinates me even more is that thirty years have passed since I was there. My first international adventure was in the fall of 1981. Now it's the fall of 2011.

On the first day of summer in 1981, I was hit by a truck from behind while riding my bicycle down Boulder Canyon, which I wrote about here. I sustained a compression fracture in my back, which turned out to be rather fortuitous in many ways: the last thoracic vertebrae is not involved in weight bearing for the upper or lower body, so after healing up from the injury, I received a small settlement from the driver's insurance company ($10,000). Most of my friends at the time thought I should invest the money (which would have been the sensible thing to do), but I decided I wanted to travel to Peru. After arranging for a six-week-long absence from my job, I took off for Peru. One thing I wanted to see was Machu Picchu, and a tattered poster of the ruins had followed me from one apartment to the next. It embodied my dream of travel to distant places.

My traveling companion, Marla, was unknown to me before some well-meaning friends hooked us up. Those same friends didn't like the idea of me traveling alone, which I was prepared to do, but Marla and I were such different people that we only spent a small portion of our time in Peru together. We did, however, both meet up again for a five-day excursion from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. We took the train from Cuzco to Kilometer 88, where about a dozen fellow hikers from all over the world disembarked along with us for a three-day-long hike across three mountain passes on the ancient Inca Trail. I found a description of the hike on line and learned that now the Peruvian Government does not allow anyone to take this trip without a guide. Thirty years ago the trail was open to anyone who wanted to take it.

We carried a tent and iodine pills to treat whatever water we might find. After those three days of hiking, we crested a hill and looked down on Machu Picchu, with Huayna Picchu (the big mountain behind the ruins) resplendent in all its glory. This picture was taken from Wikipedia, but I have a similar one somewhere.
When we arrived early in the morning, there were only a few fellow hikers there, but as the day went on, busload after busload of tourists arrived from Cuzco so they could walk around the ruins and then be transported back to town. I climbed to the top of Huayna Picchu after touring through the ruins. I felt that the bused tourists' experience of the place could not be anywhere like mine, since I had actually WALKED there.

I don't even remember what kind of camera I had with me, but of course it had film back then and I didn't see my pictures until I arrived back home in Boulder. Funny, now that seems so strange since I'm used to seeing my pictures instantaneously. Life has changed a great deal, in ways that no one could have predicted. But one that is the same today, I'm still hiking.

Thirty years is a long time. I was in my late thirties when I took this journey to Peru, and I've now experienced the culture of many more countries and had numerous adventures. But this was my first, and I will never forget how it shaped me. You never forget your first time.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

I am getting older

This picture of me, taken last week by Fred while we were on our hike to Goat Lake, shows a nice smiling lady standing in front of a beautiful scene. But something about the lovely picture nagged at me and I just couldn't figure it out at first. Then it hit me: I am getting older, and no matter how much I exercise and diet, time doesn't stand still for anybody, and it shows. The three pictures I keep in the header of this blog show a progression of aging, and it hasn't stopped or slowed down at all. This is natural and inevitable, but every once in a while, I notice and think about where I'm headed.

The world has changed so much since I was born almost seven decades ago. Even though birth and death are major events to an individual, they continue to occur all over the world at every moment, not just with humanity but with everything. It's usually so gradual that we don't notice, but if I think of the world as it was when I was young and compare it to the world I live in today, the differences are staggering. The population of the United States has more than doubled. How could that not be noticeable? But it also has happened gradually and although I realize how many more people are around, I always think that it is simply where I am living, and that somewhere the world exists as it did when I was little. But it's just not true. It's gone. The Wizard of Oz was made in 1939, and we still watch it occasionally on TV. Every single person, from stage hand to Munchkin to actor, has died. There was no massive catastrophe that caused this, just the simple passage of time.
The world doesn't stand still for anybody or anything. The wrinkled and spotted hands that type this today were once pretty, with manicured and painted nails, and I cared a great deal how they looked. That has also gone; today they function just fine, and I cannot imagine putting polish on my nails ever again. It just doesn't have the importance it once did. But today I notice, marking another change that happened while I wasn't paying attention.

If I could see a map of the United States with a light winking on at every birth, and a light winking off at every death, I might notice an upward trend. More people are being born than are dying in this part of the world, and this not only changes the quality of each life, but the sheer numbers cause me to realize that it cannot continue at this rate for much longer. There are more than 312 million of us in the US today, and when I was born, it was around 140 million. And even though I'm old now, it's taken less than seventy years for this enormous change to occur. The demographics are fascinating to me, and if you are interested, take a look for yourself. This is just in my small corner of the world; it's happening everywhere. I remember when I was in school learning about the fact that the world population would reach 6 billion by the turn of the century. At the time, this represented a doubling of the 3 billion on the planet. I couldn't even begin to imagine how different life would be, but the gradual rate of change has made it noticeable but not incredibly so. Certainly nothing like I imagined.

The other side of the passage of time has been the incredible rate of change in connectivity. I'm sitting here with a laptop that is connected to the world in ways that I could never have imagined even a decade ago. Yesterday I video chatted with my sister on Skype; this morning I've googled several items to check facts or download a picture, and I am writing this article on a blog that will appear on your own computer instantly after I hit "publish." If you try to imagine how that sentence would have puzzled someone who tried to make sense of it just a few short years ago: what's a Google? Skype? Blog?

It all seems so natural to me. I can hardly imagine how different my life would be without my connections. Smart Guy and I each have a cellphone and can talk to each other while out walking or while driving somewhere (although here in Washington state, I now pull over if the phone rings so I don't get a ticket). But how cool is that? And the best part is that I can TURN IT OFF if I feel like it. I remember how annoyed I would get when I would receive a phone call when I wasn't feeling receptive. All these changes have come in the past few years, too. We don't even have a landline any more.

Thinking about the passage of time, of the inevitability of change, I feel a little like I'm standing on the edge of a cliff looking down into a beautiful valley. I realize that as I can see everything from this vantage point, I can also feel the breeze lifting my hair and the rush of exhilaration that comes from having climbed this high.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Whatever comes

I took this picture last Thursday while we Trailblazers were on our hike up Welcome Pass, which I wrote about on my other blog here. It was a beautiful day and a very hard hike; my legs have still not recovered and it's Sunday morning already. But it was totally worth it for the views and the wildflowers.

Last night I tossed and turned and wondered what I would write about this morning. The past few posts have been on the painful side, and the only thing I really hope turns out from this stream of consciousness attempt (hence the title "whatever comes") is that is be uplifting. I'm weary of looking at the past and wondering how I got here. Where is "here," anyway?

I'm reading an interesting book by Henry Alford, "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People." The inside cover has teasers like "Part family memoir, part Studs Terkel, How to Live is more than just a compendium of sage advice; it is a celebration of living well." So far (I'm on page 61), I'd say that is pretty accurate. Lots of food for thought. Maybe that's one reason why I'm feeling introspective without old memories crowding into my brain.

Alford peered into the philosophies of some old sages: Confucius (551 B.C.—479 B.C.), Buddha (563 B.C.—483 B.C.), and Socrates (470 B.C.—399 B.C.). For some reason I noticed that all three of these sages were right around 70 years old when they died, and I'm getting right up there with what has for so long been considered a full, complete life. What wisdom have I come up with? Not that I put myself into the same category as these old sages, but heck, who's to say I can't come up with some modern equivalent? For one thing, we in the modern age have unprecedented access to so much information, not to mention a new paradigm for communication: the blogosphere, which allows me to ruminate and share my thoughts, with instant feedback and unlimited possibilities. I have at this moment 78 followers, which means, if we were in a room together, it would have to be a big one. I picture the virtual classroom where we are gathered, with ideas and warm sentiments being shared. Lots of virtual hugs, too. This scene makes me smile just to think of it.

Last night I went to see "The Help," a movie adapted from a novel I read recently. Scenes from that movie kept coming up to me during my nighttime tossing. Viola Davis is magnificent as Aibileen, one of the main characters. The film adaptation is every bit as good as the book, to me, but something about the movie kept nagging at me. The theater was crowded, and people laughed and applauded at parts they liked, which always changes my experience, causing me to get caught up in the shared experience. After reading the reviews, I was able to put my finger on the same nagging discomfort that I felt from the book as well: somehow the interpretation of black maids in 1960s-era Jackson, Mississippi, flattened the historical era into larger-than-life villains and heroines. I lived through that time, too; it was a time like no other, but it was very complex. This is not to say I didn't like the book or the movie. Both were very worthwhile, and I wonder what other people think.

After all, I'm here in this new era: the crowded room where we share with one another gives me access to the wisdom and insight of all of you. I'm sitting here in the still-dark morning, laptop and cup of tea at hand, thinking large thoughts and smiling to myself. Today I'll get up and head down to Snohomish to jump out of airplanes with my friends (hopefully), come home tired and renewed, and check my email to find out how this stream of consciousness blog went over with you.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Tomorrow is the ninth anniversary of my son Chris' death. August 15 is also the day in 1964 when my second son, Stephen, was born. Time has a way of helping one to forget the joy and pain we experienced in the past. Sometimes nine years seems a long time ago, and sometimes it seems much more recent. The remains of both of my sons lie in separate graves somewhere, but I wouldn't visit them, even if I could. Stephen in Flint, Michigan, and Chris in Bamberg, Germany. To me, graveyards don't contain the important part of a person's remains.

Somebody else made the decision in each case to bury them. I myself will have my body cremated and leave nothing but ashes behind, hopefully to be scattered in some beautiful place. But it won't matter much to me in any event. It's those of us left behind that it matters to. Silvia, Chris' wife, wanted him buried in her cemetery so she could visit him, and that's fine. Everyone has different ways to commemorate those who have passed on before us.

When Chris died in 2002, I remember waking up that morning and thinking it was a special day somehow, but I didn't remember why, at first. By the time the day was over, and I was making arrangements to travel to Germany, I remembered that it was also Stephen's birthday and I had forgotten. Today the anniversary of those events does not escape my notice. But I didn't set out this morning to grieve, but to celebrate the full life my son Chris had accomplished by the time he had turned forty.

People die prematurely all the time, and in the old days, forty was not so premature. Chris had lots of gray in his hair and although he had not produced any children, it was not for want of trying. I think he really would have been a good father; he was very close to his stepson, Silvia's son from a previous marriage. I am not close to him and only met him during my stay in Bamberg for Chris' memorial service. Silvia is German and her English at the best of times is not good. We are Facebook friends and that is enough for me these days.

Chris worked in the mail room on the Army base and so many people told me of his generous spirit and quick laughter. I remember when he was a young boy that he was fiercely independent. When I would read to him, it was for me and not for him, since he would allow me to read to him but didn't care if I did or not. And forget hugs and kisses! But we would share many things and I remember laughing together at things long forgotten. But I still remember the affection and laughter.

He was a pretty good student. That changed as he grew older and lost interest in academics, but I am grateful that he never experienced the kind of bullying that seems rampant in elementary schools today. Although he was influenced by his peers and took up drugs in high school, it was his habit of smoking that I believe killed him. He tried so many times to quit, and finally managed to give up cigarettes completely a few months before he died. He was so proud of his accomplishment and we emailed back and forth about his struggles and progress.

He had been given a three-month temporary assignment in Macedonia, and he was away from his wife and stepson when he died. His roommate in their quarters told me of Chris' enjoyment of coming into the air-conditioned comfort of his room after a hot day outside, when he would quaff a beer and sit in his skivvies, making everybody laugh at his satisfaction of a job well done, the day's work finished.

Chris would call me twice a year, on his birthday and on Mother's Day. He would tell me of his latest trials and tribulations, but he seemed really happy most of the time, and that was confirmed when I went to Germany. He was not only well liked by his friends and loved by his family, but he loved the Army, and he wanted very much to stay in the service.

I was astounded to learn that he was also known by his friends and acquaintances as a very accurate palm reader and would tell the future that appeared to him in the lines of people's hands. When he developed this interest, I have no idea. But it reminded me that Chris had a second sense about people; he would make instant likes and dislikes to those he met. I had no doubt that he loved humanity and especially his mother. His relationship with his father was a good one, too.

Although I didn't want to talk to Derald (his father) and didn't for years, unless it had something to do with Chris, he kept pushing me to call Derald and talk with him. His desire to have us reconciled was something he never gave up on, and one day, sometime in the 1980s I guess, I called Derald and we talked on the phone for hours. We healed old wounds and spent time forgiving each other for our youthful mistakes. I knew after that phone call that Chris was responsible for removing our old painful memories and replacing them with good ones. Not long after that phone call, Derald died suddenly. He was only 51, and his son Chris would die of the same thing: sudden cardiac death.

Chris has been gone for nine years now, and I didn't see him in person during the last four years of his life, but he lives on in my memories, and I'm sure also in the memories of many others who knew and loved him. The infant I held in my arms almost fifty years ago grew into a very special person who made a difference in the world. Chris, I love you, I will always love you until the day I die.

And then, if there is life after death, we will meet again and I'll join you over a cup of coffee and we'll tell stories of our adventures since we were last together on Earth.