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, 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.