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, 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.