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

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

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, August 28, 2016

MIlestones and me

A toast to summer
As usual, the first thing I did before I started to write this post is look for a picture to start it out. I found this one from a few weeks ago, where Lynn (who is smiling), my hand in the foreground, and Carol's fingers curled around her beer, are toasting our friendship. I'm a red-wine drinker; Lynn enjoys white, and Carol loves beer. There is another glass on the right, which belongs to Lily. (clink!) Four friends who all live here in the apartment complex with me.

What I really wanted to do is find a picture of Lynn, because I'd like to introduce you to her this morning. It was a year ago that she moved into the ground-floor apartment at the base of the stairs with her grown son. Although she is in her early fifties, I wondered if she was retired (not knowing her exact age) but learned that ten years ago she was in a horrific car accident, with her husband driving their motor home. She and her then-13-year-old son were in the back, traveling home from a vacation, with husband and his brother in the front seat. In the accident, both men were killed instantly, along with the driver of the pickup that struck them.

Her life changed completely from that moment on. Although her son was only slightly injured physically, Lynn suffered many broken bones, with one leg and ankle shattered, along with serious head injuries. She spent the next year in a convalescent hospital. At one point they almost amputated her leg below the knee, but instead she opted to keep it with all the metal and pain, learning to walk on it again. At first she was in a heavy boot (which she still occasionally needs to use), but when I met her last year, she was determinedly going on long walks with her cane. Not always, though: sometimes she went without it, and now if you were to see her on a good day, you'd never know about her disability.

A few months ago she joined our walking group on Saturday mornings, and she goes out for a long walk several times a week, at a fast pace and with friends she has made from the group. Lynn is one of those people who makes friends every single day with everyone she meets. She is the essential ingredient that was missing from our apartment complex. After she showed up, we began to have evening gatherings of the women in nearby apartments, all of us fellow gardeners, too.

Last month she moved from the downstairs apartment to the one right next to me. We all helped with the move, and she used the opportunity to shed some of her more cumbersome furniture. And now her front porch is the hub where we all gather. This past Friday night we enjoyed an evening visit with Kitty, who was the previous occupant of the apartment next door, along with the four of us mentioned at the beginning. They all knew I would be the first to leave, because I just don't like to stay up late, and after I left and snuggled into my bed (SG was out for the evening), I listened to the sound of their laughter until I fell asleep.

Yesterday as we were returning from the Saturday morning walk, I stopped at the local drugstore where I can pick up some wine (we drank it all the night before), and I bought a box of my favorite. While we were at the checkout counter, I pulled out my ID (it doesn't matter if you're ninety, they have to see it). The clerk announced it would cost $19.56. Lynn and I said together, "that was a good year." Lynn added, "if I had been around to see it, of course."

Nineteen fifty-six. "What do you mean," I said, "if you were around. Of course you were." She looked at me and said, "I was born in 1965." Shocked, I realized that I was only a teenager in 1956 and suddenly realized the difference in our ages. Although I know it intellectually, I don't ever feel it. I am more than old enough to be her mother. I grew up in the fifties and sixties, but that was more than half a century ago. Where did all that time go?

The incident got me to thinking of how I compartmentalize my life. When I first started skydiving (1991), my skydiving accident (2000), when my son Chris died (2002), and when I retired and moved away to Bellingham (2008) — these are milestones that give me a way to think of what happened when. The scary thing is that they all seem rather immediate when I pull them up out of my memory to ponder. Time does not follow a linear path in my mind, but has peaks and valleys. I guess that's normal. How could I already be a septuagenarian? Wasn't it just 1956 the other day?

*  *  * 

Part of the reason I forget, I guess, is that I am still able to live an active life. After I finish this post and start my day, I'll do my exercises and head off to the coffee shop before my morning yoga class. It will be the second week with a substitute who knocked my socks off last Sunday. She's harder than Laifong but I found that I was intrigued to see what I could and couldn't do. She had us in a full shoulder stand (which I didn't think I would be able to accomplish, but I did), and although I was sore the next day, I'm looking forward to what she will introduce me to today. This foray into yoga has been really good for me. I feel more balanced and confident as I move, and I'm totally convinced I'm getting taller. Last week I signed up for the fall semester, and when I sign up for the winter, I'll have been attending for a year. 

Two weeks ago as I was leaving the class, Laifong mentioned to me that she had been surprised at how well I have been doing and said that I had exceeded her expectations. That sure gave me a boost. Obviously, her expectations weren't very high, since I'd been attending the gentle yoga classes and had not been exposed to Level I, the next step up. I think I've found my current level, although it makes a huge difference who is teaching it, I'm discovering.

Fall is coming. After another three-day mini-heat wave, we had a day with the temperature in the sixties yesterday (20°C) and another to follow today. It's probably the last heat of the summer, and I won't miss it a bit. I've become a Pacific Northwesterner with little tolerance for the heat. Oh, wait: I've always been that way, which is part of the reason we moved here. Next week will also bring some chances for rain, which has also been absent during July and August. I miss the lush green we usually have, but it's coming back now that fall is righ around the corner.

And with that, I'll say farewell for today. My partner is still sleeping next to me, and the sun is finally over the horizon. Tea is gone and the day is calling. I look forward to my coffee shop friends (not to mention my daily latte) and the class that awaits me. Until we meet again next week, I hope you will stay safe and surrounded with love and light. Be well.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Remembering on a Sunday morning

Melanie took this of me at Lake Ann last Thursday
I didn't get this picture from my friend Melanie until Friday, so I couldn't put it into my post about the hike on my other blog. It's a favorite, though, so here you go, it shows how incredibly clear the sky was, and gives you a taste of the ordeal we had just accomplished to get here. A little more than four miles and much of it climbing up to this spot from the valley below, in blazing sunlight, punctuated with a hot breeze now and then.

That was three days ago, and I'm recovered from the hike, and even went on a very long walk yesterday morning with my Saturday group. This morning I'll attend my yoga class that will help me stretch out my well-worked muscles. I'm not complaining, mind you, because hardly a day goes by that I don't give thanks for the ability I still have to continue this level of activity. I do wonder sometimes how much longer this old body will last doing such strenuous hikes. Some of the Trailblazers that normally would have joined us considered the heat to be a deal breaker. It makes everything so much harder.

I've been reading a book for the last few days that has really got me thinking about life in general. I picked it up at the library after seeing an interview that told me of a young man who was given a lobotomy in 1953 to cure his epileptic seizures and lost the ability to form any long-term memories after that. The book, written by Suzanne Corkin, is titled Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient H.M. It's not the kind of book that you just can't put down, but I keep mulling over what I've learned about the workings of the brain and go back to read more.

The author is a scientist who studied Henry for many decades and became his friend, if you can call a friend someone who doesn't remember who you are. An excerpt from the above link:
Henry never remembered Corkin from one meeting to the next and had only a dim conception of the importance of the work they were doing together, yet he was consistently happy to see her and always willing to participate in her research. His case afforded untold advances in the study of memory, including the discovery that even profound amnesia spares some kinds of learning, and that different memory processes are localized to separate circuits in the human brain.
She describes the endless testing procedures that were performed on Henry to discover how the brain encodes memories, and I have been pondering the memory deficits that I experience in my everyday life. The forgetting of the names of things, an inability to recall many of the events I've lived through, that feeling of a memory almost within reach and my inability to retrieve it — all perfectly normal diminishment (hopefully) but unnerving nevertheless.

Once you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder if it's normal to forget so much, or whether it's the beginning of dementia. What I've learned from the book so far is that the brain has many pathways for memories, and they are all handled differently. Yesterday I learned that two different kinds of memories, semantic and episodic, are encoded in separate parts of the brain. Semantic memories are those that you cannot recall directly, such as when you first learned that Columbus discovered America in 1492. Episodic memories are autobiographical events that happen to us personally. In amnesia such as Henry's, he could remember semantic but not episodic memories.

The operation performed on Henry removed so much of his brain that it's amazing that he kept his intellect and, in fact, found ingenious ways to circumvent the fact that he only remembered things for thirty seconds or so. Corkin provides a fantastic account of how the research questions raised by his case developed, how the studies were designed, and how new lines of inquiry were suggested.

All this happened because of a lobotomy. Of course I had to read up about it, because I knew it was in vogue during the 1940s and 1950s, but in reading this book I've learned how many lives were destroyed because of this "psychosurgery" procedure. Read all about it here, if you're interested in delving deeper into its history. I was simply appalled when I read that Wikipedia link, because I had little idea of how many people it was performed on: in the United States alone, it was more than 40,000 people (mostly women).

If you were admitted to a mental institution during that time period, you were at risk of having it done to you, even if you were there because a disgruntled husband, for example, decided his wife was "hysterical" and had her committed. It gives me chills to think of the horrors that women endured during those times. And it makes me glad to realize that we have come as far as we have from those terrible procedures. It does make me consider what is being done to our bodies these days that will someday be looked back upon and seen as barbaric. I wonder.

The sun just came up. It's happening later and later these days, and we're losing more than three minutes of daylight every day at this latitude. We are quickly moving towards my favorite season of the year: autumn, when the leaves begin to change color and fall from the trees. I saw the first signs of it last Thursday, but it was so hot and dry that fall seemed very distant. Today is supposed to be the first day of normal temperatures since our mini-heat wave, and I'm looking forward to it.

I'm also looking forward to my yoga class, which is in two hours. Between now and then, I need to get up, do my morning routine, and head to the coffee shop for my latte before class. Hopefully wherever you are in the world, you'll have a chance to enjoy this day and will store the memory of it safely away in your incredible brain. Until we meet again next week, I'm wishing you a wonderful and memorial journey. Be well and don't forget to hug your loved ones, just because you can.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Halfway through the Summer Olympics

It sure was a good latte
I like to take pictures of some of the prettiest lattes that I am served, since once I've taken a sip, the art is lost forever. Whoever came up with espresso served with steamed milk deserves a medal. I rarely begin a morning without one at my local coffee shop. Speaking of medals, the Summer Olympics in Rio are half over today, since they began a week ago. I've been following them with interest.

Swimming and women's gymnastics are my favorite events, and they didn't disappoint this time. The USA dominated both. I haven't been much of a fan of Michael Phelps, but there is no doubt that he is a very talented athlete, having competed in four Olympics and earning 23 golds, more than any other person in history. At the age of 31! And then what about Katie Ledecky? The Washington post has a great article about her, with this excerpt (by David Sheinin):
She got there, at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, with a dominant performance — four golds, one silver, two world records, victories by unheard-of margins of 4.77 and 11.38 seconds — that left grizzled coaches, their fingers permanently curled in the shape of a stopwatch, unable to conjure a precedent. Because one doesn’t exist.
I never heard of her before the Olympics, but she will go down in history as one of the most amazing athletes ever, and since she's only 19, I wonder where she will go from here? She looks so average, standing there on the stage at Rio, but she is anything but. I wonder how much blood they took from her looking for performance-enhancing drugs.

And of course, my favorite of all time: Simone Biles! What an incredible athlete. I've been sitting at the coffee shop watching videos of her performances with my pals as we watch her in slow motion making the most incredible flips, twists and turns with her powerhouse of a body. She's only 4'8" and perfection in motion. She's already won several gold medals and will compete in the vault today. I can barely watch them as they take off running, it's so dramatic. I found this video on YouTube that explains the physics of what she does, with illustrations and even some video of what women's gymnastics looked like before 1952.

At any rate, I've been enjoying the spectacle of the Rio Olympics, and I hope you have been as well. Now that we are through the sports where the USA dominates, I'm hoping we will see some athletes shine from other countries. It's been exciting and amazing so far, hasn't it?

Summer is more than half over, too. It's been hot here, but compared to other parts of the country, we have only been "suffering" with temperatures in the low 80s (around 23C). Of course, if we lived in some of the hotter areas, we would have more air conditioning, which we don't. We have fans and our windows open, which allows the apartment to cool down to around 70 at night. Bearable, but I sure do sleep better when it's ten degrees cooler than that. As long as I have air moving around me, I can tolerate the heat.

And the days are definitely getting shorter. When I wake in the morning, the sun isn't already up with those annoying chirping birds. I love late summer and the entire season of fall, so I've got that to look forward to. My least favorite time of the year is the hot, dry summer. Last year we also had an extended drought and hotter temperatures than this year, so I really am not complaining. After all, I'm still able to enjoy the High Country every Thursday, and with hats and sunscreen, it's pretty darn wonderful. That same terrain we cover every week is buried in snow during the winter. No, I'm not complaining at all.

What else? As I sit here with my laptop and thinking how fortunate I am to have such a wonderful life, I must also remember that even as seasons change, so do my surroundings and my own health and wellness. It's important to take stock, something I have the opportunity to do every Sunday morning with this blog, and to be grateful for today and let tomorrow take care of itself. After all, I've been here on this planet for more than seven decades, and all those tomorrows have become todays without me worrying about them. Okay, maybe a little, but I'm trying to let go and just enjoy each day as it comes. I've had plenty of practice. Somehow or other, I got old while I wasn't paying attention.

I like this Francis Bacon quote about getting old: "Age appears to be best in four things: old wood for burning, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read." Age benefits some things, at least. One thing that I keep noticing as each day recedes into the past, each and every season brings its own joy and sorrow, and it does little good to try to hold on as it changes. I'll just watch the show and smile at my good fortune to be here now.

I don't have a yoga class this morning, so I can lounge in bed awhile longer before getting up and heading to the coffee shop. Even though it's only been six Sundays since I started that class, I really miss it when I don't have it. What a great way it's been to start the day. Instead, I'll go to the early movie with my friend Judy, who has had endless company and guests during the summer and finally has time for me again. We'll see that new Meryl Streep movie, which has gotten fairly good reviews.

And with that, I have written another Sunday post, and it's time to wrap things up. Right now I'm thinking about you, my reader, who will hopefully forgive me for being all over the map again this morning. When I opened my laptop, I really didn't know what would come out. Partner is still sleeping, it's quiet outside, and my tea is long gone. Please remember, as you read this, to take a look around and give thanks for all that is good and know that you are loved and cherished by at least one person: me. I'm sending you a virtual hug and giving thanks for you. Be well until we meet again next week.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

My life as a reader

View taken on last Thursday's hike
This picture has nothing to do with the theme of today's post, but I always like to start it out with some eye candy. I actually took this photograph to capture the pretty flowers in the foreground, but they are washed out, and the vistas in the background dominate the scene anyway. I didn't see the view when I took it, really I didn't, so it was a surprise when I examined my pictures later.

What got me thinking about how important reading has been to my life was a chance encounter with my neighbor yesterday. I had just picked up a book from the library that I'd been waiting for. When I first put it on hold there were more than twenty people in front of me in line, so it took months before it finally came up. I'm a fan of Mary Roach's books, having read all of her previous ones, and this latest one is called Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. When I walked out to show the book to three of my neighbors, who were chatting while one was watering her porch garden, they were all very interested in it, except for Carol. She said, "Oh, I don't read." Both Lynn and I are voracious readers, so it surprised me to learn that one of my dear friends isn't interested in reading for its own sake. She said she's an article kind of gal. And then it occurred to me that I had never seen any books in her apartment.

I remember learning to read as a child. Remember the Dick and Jane books? They were the very first books I ever read, and I still remember them with real fondness. I have an ancient memory of tracing the word on the page and sounding it out, and suddenly realizing I could read it! That link takes you to a Rare Book Exhibition description of the history of those books. To think that there are people who have never heard of them, while they are essential to me.
Sample pages of Dick and Jane reader
In this era of being able to pull up pictures and descriptions of almost anything, I found these pages from a Dick and Jane reader to share. It illustrates how I was taught me to read by using simple, repetitive phrases, and because I smiled at the wringer washing machine that Mother is using. Yes, it was a long time ago, all right.

My parents had bought a multi-volume set of books called Childcraft when I was little, and my sister and I would pore over them and once we could read them, we read stories and poems to each other. We share some wonderful memories of those books, and we can still recite some of the poems back to each other, to this day, more than half a century later. Do you remember who Dilliki Dolliki Dinah is? Not long ago, Norma Jean and I recited this one to each other. What memories surfaced from that one: A Ballad of China.

I wish I could say that I was a fan of the Nancy Drew mystery stories, which many of my compatriots read, but I didn't read them as a child. Instead, I loved comic books, especially Little Lulu. I remember the joy of getting a new book and reading it over and over. When I think back to identify the first real book I ever read on my own, nothing comes to mind. Apparently there was nothing special enough about it to capture the memory for easy retrieval. I'm sure I was assigned books to read in school, but they are lost to me today.

Daddy was a science fiction buff, and as a teenager I remember him giving me several classics to read, and I will never forget the excitement of learning about worlds beyond our own, and sagas of long journeys across empty space to new planets. Mama was always a voracious reader, but when I was young I don't remember her sharing any of her books with me. My memories of her were usually with knitting in her lap, rather than books. I know she read plenty of them, though, because when she went to the library she would bring back a heavy box of books and managed to read every one.

Once I graduated from high school, my very first paid employment was as an assistant to the librarian at the base library. It was my job to return books to their shelves when they were returned by patrons. This library used the Dewey Decimal System, and I had to become familiar with it so I could find the appropriate stacks. It's an interesting system and is still in use today. In fact, the library here in Bellingham uses it, and distant memories sometimes emerge when I'm roaming the library shelves.

And then in 1979 when I went to work for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, I was fortunate to become the assistant to Mickey Glantz, who mentored me from lowly secretary to a salaried writer/editor, over the course of thirty years. I helped him with every aspect of book publishing. Over the years we published more than a dozen books, mostly volumes of edited papers from scientists. It may seem curious to some people, but one of my favorite things to do was to create an index at the end, containing names and topics that would be of interest to the reader. Not only did it give me the opportunity for one more detailed read, giving me a chance to catch errors, I also enjoyed the task. A scientific book is immeasurably enhanced by a good index.

And now, here I am in my retirement years, and fortunately for me, the world has evolved enough so that it's possible for me to keep my hand in the publishing world through my blogs. Being a creature of habit, my Sunday morning always begins with this post, and I usually have a topic in mind before I start, but it's fun to just let whatever is on my mind come to the surface. Once I've got a first draft on the page, I'll read it over and make adjustments, usually additions and deletions as my mind goes off in another direction than where I originally intended to go.

Once I finish Mary Roach's book, I have four more standing by, waiting for me to give them my attention. Two are from the library, and two are ones I purchased at our local independent bookstore. Oh, and I have two more on my Kindle that I downloaded because they caught my eye for some reason or another. Recently I've gotten interested in reading memoirs and just finished one by Liz Murray, about her journey from being a homeless teenager to Harvard graduate. There is an entire universe to discover out there, through books. I cannot imagine my life as a non-reader.

It reminds me of the importance of taking care of my eyesight, which gives me the opportunity to read. When I spend too long in front of the computer, or staring at the written page, my eyes get blurry and need some time to recover. That is when something like an all-day-long hike comes in handy. I look out at the vistas, such as you see in that first picture, and gaze at the beauty all around me. And I'm in the company of other like-minded elders, who enrich my life with their adventures and memories, as well.

Yes, life is pretty good right now. And once I finish this post and publish it, I'll hop out of bed and make my way to the coffee shop. I've got a 9:00am yoga class, which I look forward to all week, and then I'll enjoy the rest of my day until I fall into bed. With a book, of course.

Until we meet again next week, I hope you find at least one good book to keep you company. Be well and don't forget to give yourself some appreciation. You deserve it; we all do.