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, March 25, 2012

Women in my life

Diane, Helen, me, Lynn, Marilyn, Peggy
This picture was taken at my apartment in Boulder of my long-time women's group. I didn't live in the Pacific Northwest, so I had all those plants in a south-facing window to give my life some year-round greenery. For some reason, my past life has been visiting me lately in dreams and revery. Those who have gone over, and those I never see any more. I spent some time last night googling the names of a few people I wonder about; where they are, what they're doing. I looked up these women, but only a few of them come up at all. Helen died in 1998.

We met in the early 1980s at folk dancing. I think it was Diane who was behind the idea of getting together to consider whether we might start a women's group or not. I missed the first one, held at Helen's, not realizing that it was destined to become an integral part of my life. We decided to meet again the next month at Diane's, and she said she would fix dinner for us if we would bring the wine. This ended up being our usual pattern: if you had the group to your home, you would prepare dinner and clean up afterwards, pampering the others. No men, no visitors. Your husband and kids had to go elsewhere. We actually started with seven, but Judy moved to Oregon in the early 1990s.

For almost three decades, we got together once a month on Mondays, with no agenda to follow, other than to find out what was happening in each person's life and sharing an incredible meal with one another. I didn't realize it until we began, but it's rare to be treated to a fancy meal and then not being expected to help clean up afterwards. Sometimes we had a lot of wine, but the hostess would keep the extra bottles for another time. It was heavenly.

Several of us were single at the time we first came together. Folk dancing was sponsored by a group at the University of Colorado, and I suspect the activity was considered by some as a way to meet prospective dates. I didn't know these women very well, but that changed over the years. The only person who was married to her husband when we began and was still married to him three decades later is Lynn. Diane married and divorced and had a daughter during our time together (she was the youngest); Marilyn and Peggy both met and married their husbands, and Helen, who was a schoolteacher, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Her daughter was pregnant with her first grandchild when Helen died. It was traumatic to everyone, but we kept getting together for years after that.

Once a year, we would go out to a restaurant so that nobody would need to be in the kitchen, and occasionally a mother or sister would join us, which was allowed. I knew everything about these women, and they knew everything about me. They watched me decide to become a skydiver and listened with bated breath as I described the process of getting certified to them. I was the adventurer in the group.

When I retired and moved away from Boulder, several parties and celebrations were held for me, and when they asked who I wanted to invite, these women were always at the top of my list. My boss Mickey and his wife Karen had a catered dinner in their home for me, and one poignant memory that stands out is that gathering, with all my work friends and the women's group all gathered together to say goodbye and wish me well.

For a couple of years after I left, I would call and talk with Marilyn about how everybody was doing, but as my life here became more involved, I stopped calling. My friend Judy is now someone who fills a part of what I shared with these women for all those years. I love each of them with all my heart and hope they are doing well.
Lynn, Peggy, Diane, Helen, Marilyn, me
This is the first picture we have of us, taken in the early 1980s. I used the self-timer and am a little surprised to realize that the camera was probably one of my first. It caused me to become the person who would immortalize all our time together. It was of course not digital, and my memory of it is hazy at best, but I am so grateful to be able to look back and remember who we were then.

And now I have these blogs, and the memories of the women's group will be available to me for many years to come. I just realized how fortunate I am to have been born in this day and age, when my penchant for writing and preserving the past can be indulged without restraint. It's a good time to be alive.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Blustery weather and exercise

I took this picture last Thursday outside the Senior Center. Looking out the window, I saw that this tree had exploded with blossoms; spring is definitely here. So far my allergies haven't bothered me as they usually do. It could be because of the amazing amount of precipitation that we've had this past month. Perhaps it's helping to keep the pollen counts down. We usually get lots of rain in any event, but I have been hearing even seasoned residents complaining about the rain.

Before I moved here, I owned one raincoat, but now I have three, along with rain pants, a rain poncho, and three different sets of gaiters. My hiking boots are waterproof. These all help me to be out in the weather. If I were waiting for the rain to stop, I wouldn't be leaving my house much. I'm sure that many of you wouldn't be very happy living here; some people require much more sunshine that I do or depression sets in. I've read that exercise helps, but one needs to be motivated to be out in inclement weather. Where does my own motivation come from, I wonder?

Everybody is different. That's part of what makes life interesting, but since everything you read says that getting a certain amount of exercise is important to be healthy, finding my own style was important. I realize that I am a social exerciser: I need company to motivate me. At the gym, I take a class along with twenty other people, jumping around to the music to get my heart rate up. Being one of the regulars, I have a spot in the room that I gravitate toward and if for some reason I move to another place in the room, the instructor will notice and comment on it. If I don't show up for class, she will ask where I was the next time I see her. I like all that; it helps to keep me coming. If for some reason I'm going to miss the next class, I let her know. Joanne has taught this particular M-W-F class at 9:00am for a quarter century, and a core group of perhaps ten people rarely miss. I've become one of them.

Our local YMCA is where I travel every morning, four days a week. As I've mentioned before, I really need a daily routine to be happy, and starting every morning with a bus trip to the Y for my class has taken the place of heading to the office. There are times, like this past Friday, when I look outside and see that the wind is blowing the rain sideways and ponder the correct configuration of clothing for the weather. But I invariably head out, the question is only about what to wear. I'm always glad afterwards, and my need for social interaction has been satisfied as well.

A man and his wife are usually leaving the gym as I arrive. He's got some sort of degenerative disease and needs help walking. She is always right there with him, helping him down the stairs and into the street. In the four years that I've observed them, I noticed that his condition has deteriorated somewhat, but he keeps coming, working out and using his body to the best of his ability. He never fails to smile and has a great attitude. If he can keep coming every day with his infirmities, he must inspire many others besides me.

My Thursday hiking group, the Senior Trailblazers, have become dear friends. We know each other's foibles now, and who won't show up if it's raining and who will. I am constantly amazed at how the days turn out. Last Thursday was another one of those horizontal rain days, and I headed out thinking I was crazy, but I went anyway. The weather cooperated: the rain stopped just before we arrived at the trailhead, and we heard the wind but were in the lee of Blanchard Mountain, so we were protected from the strong southern wind. After a day out in the elements with good friends, even a day that isn't perfect is much more tolerable when I've got people to commiserate with.

I've become an integral part of the group. When I get home after the hike, I download my pictures onto the Mac and write a post on my other blog to document the day and the time we had. Several hikers have commented (tongue in cheek) that they had to read the post before knowing if they had a good time or not.

When I was working, I used my lunch hour for exercise. My office was located in the beautiful foothills of Boulder, and I'd take to the trails in my younger days, jogging several times a week. I was by myself, but the rest of the day was filled with social interaction, so the time spent outdoors alone was a welcome respite. We were also fortunate to have showers and no time clock. My hour usually stretched to ninety minutes, but nobody minded as long as my work was done. I would usually go to the cafeteria and grab a quick salad to consume afterwards. It worked well. I knew then that if I waited to exercise after work, I wouldn't do it at all.

Hmmm. After writing all this down, I realize that it's been several decades now that exercise has been part of my daily routine. It was never a conscious decision, really. Wait, I take that back: I remember one day when I was in my thirties that I bought my first pair of running shoes. The moment that I stood in the doorway of my home, looking down at those shoes, I changed the course of my life forever. Although I went through many trials and tribulations on the way, I became able to run races and become fit. I've had several injuries and even some really bad accidents over the years, but I always return to exercise, finding a way to get that endorphin fix.

Although I can't run any more, I can still walk and work out. Transitioning to a full fitness routine after retiring and moving to another part of the country became a goal I've fulfilled. My intellectual life is still active, using the internet and blogging to remain engaged in the world of the mind. I've made friends through this venue that mean as much to me as many family members do. And every day I look to see what is going on in their lives. How did I ever manage to squeeze in a full-time job? I marvel every day at the fullness of my life.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Resting on my laurels

Me in Colorado, 1992
Have you ever wondered about the meaning of the phrase," to rest on one's laurels"? It occurred to me yesterday after having attended the 2012 Safety Day at Skydive Snohomish. I wrote about the day's experience on my other blog here. I wasn't sure I wanted to attend, to drive 75 miles south in the rain to spend the day being reminded about all the safety issues involved in jumping out of airplanes. After all, I have more than 4,100 skydives to my credit.

But I haven't made a skydive since the end of last October, and one cannot rest on one's laurels (i.e., be satisfied with one's past success and consider further effort unnecessary). I was amazed at how much I had forgotten and was particularly reminded of two things: everyone needs to practice safety in many facets of life, and nobody else can do it for you.

As I listened during the segment on skydiving equipment, the instructor asked how many of us are comfortable inspecting our own gear and hooking up the three-ring release system. Most hands raised, but a few young women said they were not at all comfortable and were actually unaware of how it works, relying on others to inspect it for them. They reminded me of myself when I was young in skydiving experience. It was because I became an instructor and had to teach others how to do it that I learned how myself. I was amazed at how simple and elegant the system actually is. It allows the jumper to pull a handle to release the cable behind the loop at the top of the three rings (one on each shoulder) and just like that, the main parachute is released, giving the skydiver clean air to deploy the reserve parachute. Even though it releases quickly, when it is hooked up properly it will stay intact through many times the forces involved. I now feel very comfortable hooking it up and teaching it to others. But I wasn't always that way. I felt intimidated and was more than willing to let others decide for me whether I was safe or not. Becoming an instructor forced me to think about safety, not only my own, but the safety of others as well.

Early during the day, I chatted with Elaine, wife of Tyson and co-owner of the Drop Zone at Snohomish. They emphasize safety above all else and have an impressive record. I have been at Drop Zones, even worked at some, that don't do that. This may seem impossible for you to believe, but corners are cut in order to maximize profit in jump operations. It's up to every single skydiver to decide whether the place they frequent is a good one or not, but many will go to the place that offers the cheapest jump ticket.

Elaine mentioned in our conversation that I had accomplished so very much in the skydiving world, and she seemed sincere in her complimentary remarks. But I wish now that I had asked her what she meant, what she thinks I have done, since none of it seems remarkable to me. I started skydiving at the advanced age of 47 and never stopped. I got my instructor rating at 51 and taught for twelve years. I made as many as 400 jumps in one year, while holding down a full-time job. But was that really all that amazing? I was addicted to skydiving, I simply had no choice, it seemed to me. It's also true that I spent four years on the USPA's Board of Directors, but all that taught me is that politics is not for me, and being on any board seems to be fraught with back-room dealmaking. Not my cup of tea. I was glad to let that go.

As much as I enjoyed teaching, it came time to stop. There is no cutoff date for an instructor to stop teaching skydiving, but there should be, I think. There are no hoops to jump through every year to indicate you are still a good instructor, and that is also a problem. I saw many people who became so indifferent and unconcerned about their students that they were dangerous, but there was no way to remove them from their coveted positions. That is, until something happened, and by that time a hapless student had usually made a grievous error because of poor instruction. Then there would be action.

When I retired from my job and moved to a new part of the country, it seemed like a good time to change my approach to skydiving. I did sit through a First Jump Course at Snohomish, but the system of teaching was so unlike what I had taught that I didn't want to have to learn a new system, so I let all of my ratings go and decided to simply enjoy the experience of playing in the air, with only myself to be responsible for. And it's been good: for the past four years I have jumped seasonally, no longer traveling to faraway places just to skydive, as I did for two decades. Now I am truly back to the simple enjoyment of making easy formations with like-minded friends, no competition, nobody to take care of.

But you cannot rest on your laurels when it comes to safety. That's what I learned yesterday, and it was a lesson I will not soon forget. As much as I love the sport, there will be a day when I will have made my last skydive, and hopefully it will not be forced upon me but will be my own choice. If I pay attention to my intuition, to my body, and practice my emergency procedures faithfully, I'll keep on going up in the air. And I hope the sport of skydiving will someday fall away with only good memories left behind.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A lesson in ethics

Some of the past week's events have got me thinking, so I'll take an opportunity to explore some of my concerns here. If you look up the definition of the word "ethics," it generally means "the moral correctness of specified conduct." Kant was a philosopher who also posited that humans are bound, from a knowledge of their duty as rational beings, to obey the categorical imperative to respect other rational beings. I believe that, too. But it doesn't extend to the natural world, although I think it should, because I want the world to be fair, and it isn't.

There is a salmonella outbreak happening right now in the songbird world, with vulnerable pine siskins being hit especially hard by the disease. Apparently they have little to no resistance to it, and I received a warning in my email from the local birding group to make sure to clean my feeders often with bleach and to keep the area where the birds congregate as clean as possible. I've done that, but still I've found a few birds that have died. They first get lethargic and then begin to look really sick.

Some birders have removed their feeders in order to encourage the birds to disperse, hoping they wouldn't sicken as easily. I called Valeri at the Wild Bird Chalet where I buy bird seed to ask for advice. She said this happens every few years, and that stressing the birds further by removing a known food source is not a good idea and would only make them more vulnerable. So I didn't, and a few days ago I saw a sick bird on the porch. As I was filling the feeders, the bird didn't fly away, didn't move except to shiver. As I watched with pity, it died. The life just left and the eyes closed. Its suffering had come to an end.

I have special birding gloves I use to handle birds, so I gently picked it up (so small!) and carried it out to the area of blackberry bushes where the birds nest at night and laid it down, knowing that it would be returned to the world as food by some foraging animal. Many raccoons and skunks live in there, along with feral cats. I've seen blackbirds catch and eat sick birds, and of course the falcons.

It was only a little bird, but that event keeps coming back to me, remembering the moment when it went from a living being to a dead one, now simply food for predators. I asked Valerie if salmonella would sicken other animals and birds (like hawks) who eat them, and she said no, they have a different digestive system. That made me feel better.

I love the wild birds that come to my porch, and I've watched a few that I know aren't long for this world, one chickadee who had lost a leg, a finch with some sort of disease over its eye, a house sparrow with a broken wing that didn't seem to keep him from flying, although it hung down at an odd angle. My heart goes out to all wild creatures that are part of the natural world, and I wish that somehow I could alleviate a tiny bit of suffering. That's one reason I feed the birds, but I recently learned about cowbirds.
Although they are prevalent in all parts of the United States, cowbirds are what is known as "brood parasites." They don't make a nest and raise their young; they slip an egg into an existing songbird nest (after removing at least one original egg), where the chick hatches and is raised by foster parents. They are bigger and more aggressive and usually cause the other chicks to starve and wear out the parents who struggle to feed the big bird. Cowbirds evolved to follow herds of bison and learned to survive the nomadic life by developing this technique. With urbanization and development of forest lands, the cowbirds have thrived and become prevalent, at the expense of declining populations of songbirds.

Some species of birds eject the cowbird egg from the nest, and others abandon the nest altogether. But many species just raise the bird as if it were their own egg. The cowbird never sees its own kind until it's time to mate, but it somehow knows its own call and manages to carry on the same behavior through the instinctual hard wiring in its brain. It's fascinating, even if a little scary to realize what evolution has wrought through brood parasitism.

All the birds that I've learned about have one thing in common: they do what is necessary to survive; birds of prey are magnificent creatures in so many ways. But I don't like cowbirds, and I find that I have an aversion to their instinctual behavior, and it's this aversion that causes me concern.

Birds are not rational beings like humans are. They follow a different drummer, so why am I so bothered? Why do I expect other creatures to treat each other with respect? Of course they don't, but I want to alleviate suffering in the world, not add to it, and I am confused by my attitude towards the evolutionary adaptation of brood parasitism. I think I want to believe that Nature is pure, not flawed like humanity. I am ashamed of the cruelty that so many humans display toward other species, as if we have the right to cause other creatures (and each other) suffering.

Those people who derive pleasure from watching the suffering of others are, I have always believed, damaged through their environment or some physical mis-wiring in their brains. I think I have found the root cause of my discomfort: that perhaps ethical behavior is not hard wired into our brains, but superimposed upon our mental framework through a desire to find meaning in a world of suffering.

I know I will not find any resolution to these questions, which have been asked and pondered since humanity first began to realize we are sentient beings, along with all the other sentient beings on the planet. But struggling to put these words into a post have helped me to understand my feelings.