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, September 29, 2013

So many different lives

Wet leaves on a sidewalk
Maybe it's because it's the time of year when I always get introspective, but I've been thinking for the past few days of the myriad lives I've lived in my seven decades. Many of my blogging friends track a nice clean line from the life they live today to their earliest days. It seems to me, when I think about it, that I'm not that way at all. Having been married and divorced three times by the time I turned thirty certainly contributed to it. And to have lost my infant son at 22, which altered the trajectory of my life completely. Until then, I was sure I would have the same life as my mother, giving birth to and raising children, being a housewife and not working outside the home.

Grief sometimes brings a shaky marriage together, and sometimes it breaks it apart. My then-husband Derald and my two children were the center of my existence, and when Stephen died at the age of thirteen months, Derald and I could not comfort each other but went separate directions in our grief. My poor son Chris was four at the time, and he was just as broken but had no functioning parents to care for him, so he was scarred from those days, too. As an adult, he once forgave me for those awful years in a heart-to-heart conversation. Now he himself is gone over to the Other Side.

From the time I was 22 until I turned thirty, I divorced my husband, married a much older man who I thought would rescue me from my misery, and then left him for a younger man who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. The fortunate thing for me is that I had marketable skills and was always able to find work as a secretary. It didn't hurt that I was also pretty, and bosses in those days also liked to decorate their office with an attractive secretary. When I couldn't find a job immediately, I worked for temporary agencies, and thinking about those days brought back some buried memories.

Not long ago I heard someone talk about having been a Kelly Girl, and I remembered that I was one, too. I was a fast typist and knew shorthand. To be a Kelly Girl, you had to be able to take shorthand at a fairly fast rate. I remember sitting at home with a record player (remember those?), putting the needle on a record with typical office letters being read at varying speeds. I studied hard so that I could make top dollar with Kelly Girls. I knew Gregg Simplified Shorthand, and after awhile I was really good. I found the following piece of shorthand online and wondered if I could still read it, after all these years.
The amazing thing is, I could read it just fine. Plus, if you know shorthand at all,  you might puzzle at this piece, since most of these markings are not for actual words at all, but are for "Jabberwocky," a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll. ("Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbel in the wabe") It's funny that somewhere in my brain cells that information still exists. With a little practice, I could probably even use that old skill, but it's gone the way of the record player and the typewriter. Now that I am retired, I think about all the different lives I've lived as if they happened to another person.

When I applied for Social Security, I remember looking at the amounts I earned year by year, and I could see the trajectory of my life written in those numbers. From the earliest days, when I earned $5/hour, which was good money back then, to the final entry, when I was no longer paid hourly but earned a salary of $63,000/year, showed that I worked at least a little bit every single year, starting in the early 1960s. I was in my mid-thirties when I went to work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and I stayed there for thirty years before retiring in 2008. I began my career there as a temporary employee, although being a Kelly Girl was long in my past. It was Western Temporary Services that gave me my assignment. So, in a sense, I used the skills I learned during my Kelly Girl days to find my real career. I started as a secretary and ended up as a writer/editor, which is another story.

Yesterday I went to see Blue Jasmine at the movies with my friend Judy. It's a Woody Allen movie, one of the best he's made in years, although I did love Midnight in Paris. This is a much stronger movie, but it wasn't sweet and nostalgic like that one. It's well worth seeing, however, for the performance of Cate Blanchett, who I'm sure will be at least nominated for an Academy Award. She is stunningly good. But what I keep thinking of is how incredibly unsuited her character is for any actual work in the world. She plays a privileged New York socialite whose Bernie Madoff-like husband ends up in jail for his crimes, and she goes to San Francisco to live with her sister, who is as different from her as night and day. I won't go into more detail, but the salient point is that Cate portrays a woman in total denial about who she really is as she goes into freefall.

What if her character had learned some marketable skills? How different would her life have been? I know that the first thing anyone must learn is how to be open to new experiences in order to change. Jasmine (the character in the movie) attempts to drag her previous existence, a life of privilege, into a life of much smaller means, failing spectacularly. Maybe I've been more fortunate than I realized, having had to find a way to make a living from my earliest days.

As long as the government doesn't dismantle Social Security, I will be able to pay my bills and even have enough money to travel and skydive now and then. Although I have to pick and choose my entertainment, I have enough money to get by, and I give thanks for the years I spent being a secretary, which somehow or other led me right to this point in my life, a happy septuagenarian. I've been given the ability to communicate, the tools to help me (such as this blog), and even an audience (that would be you). Although I don't have much in the way of material goods, if that were the place I looked for meaning, I have what seems to be just enough.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Autumn 2013 begins

Yesterday's sunrise from my front porch
Today marks the beginning of fall, the autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. The days and nights are of equal length, and from this day our days will be shorter than the nights, until we reach the winter solstice, when the light begins its gradual return. I learned another interesting fact about the equinox yesterday from a fellow blogger: did you know that on the autumnal and spring equinox the sun rises due east and sets due west? This is true for everyone on earth. I found this fascinating website about today's celestial event.

I have always loved to learn things about astronomy. Part of my morning routine is to look at the Astronomy Picture of the Day and see what exciting picture is shown for each day, with explanations. Today's picture shows the progression of the sun through the year: high in the sky during the summer months and low on the horizon during the winter. Before we moved to the Pacific Northwest, I had never lived this far north. The short winter days with lots of rain is one reason why people don't like it here, but I find I do just fine, as long as I can have a break sometime during winter by visiting my sister in Florida or going to southern California. A few of my fellow hikers leave for the winter and go to sunnier climes, and some of my blogging friends do, too.

Yesterday was supposed to be rainy, but instead the sun came out and brightened everybody's spirits. This morning the rain has returned, and I can hear it falling gently outside as I sit here writing. I really don't mind the rain, but I can't go skydiving today as I hoped. Yesterday the clouds didn't clear off in Snohomish until late in the afternoon, and by that time I had given up. When I have to drive an hour and a half with only a slim chance of skydiving, my day usually turns to other activities. The season is winding down, and by the end of October my gear will be placed in the closet to wait for spring to return.

When I was first getting into skydiving, I jumped all year long, which is possible in Colorado. I didn't stay home when it was cold, as long as the sky was clear. I traveled to Skydive Arizona three times a year and spent ten days every summer jumping in Illinois at the World Freefall Convention. I got somewhere between 250-400 jumps every single year, and now I'm lucky to get 50. But then again, the first heady years of being a skydiver meant my entire life revolved around the activity. When I traveled overseas for work, I took my gear. I jumped in France and Russia. It was a time I look back on with fondness, but it's now in the past. Traveling with one's skydiving gear is a real drag these days. However, in less than three weeks I'll be heading to southern California to attend a record attempt for Jumpers Over Seventy. There aren't a lot of us, as you can imagine, so I feel it's important to make the trip. Plus it's nice to remind myself that I'm not alone; there are other septuagenarians like me who still like to skydive now and then.

Last Thursday was a beautiful day, the only really nice one of the entire week, so the Senior Trailblazers had a wonderful hike up to Lake Ann. I've done that hike once a year now for the past four years. We see two glaciers on the back side of Mt. Shuksan, and a new hiker asked if there was any significant difference in the size of the glaciers over the past few years. It made me wonder if my pictures would show any difference in four years, so I got out my pictures from summer 2009 and looked at the glacier to see if I could detect any changes. Sure enough, in just that short time it was possible to see that the glacier is slowly shrinking. Al told me that it will change from year to year with different climatological conditions. I'm sure glad I've gotten a chance to see glaciers.

While I was comparing pictures of the glacier, I also noticed that four years has made a significant difference in the appearance of all the Trailblazers. Some don't come any more, for various reasons, mostly because it's not so easy to hike eight miles up and down at our age. Once you stop because of a knee or hip giving you problems, it's pretty easy just to stop going. And it doesn't usually get better. Many of us use anti-inflammatory preparations to help, and knee braces are a common sight. Looking at the pictures, it made me nostalgic for those people I don't see any more, and I wondered how they are doing. When you spend the whole day out in the wilderness with people, a bond begins to form that doesn't let loose just because you don't see them any more.

There is a core group of Trailblazers that I would desperately miss if they stopped coming. When one or more of them don't show up for a hike, it makes a real difference to me. I suspect they would feel the same if I didn't show up. All you need to do is arrive a little before 8:00am at the Senior Center; nobody needs to say whether or not they are coming. The only one who is required to show up is the leader, who will provide a substitute if for some reason he can't make it. The importance of this activity to my own enjoyment of life cannot be overstated. I love Thursdays and spending time in the beautiful wilderness, even when the weather is inclement. We might complain about the weather, but we still get together and head on out. We may change our plans a little if it's really pouring out there, but we go anyway. I know the fair-weather hikers quite well by now, but I am sometimes surprised when we have a rather large group even when it's rainy.

There will come a day when I can no longer play in the air with my friends, and a day when I will no longer be able to hike eight or ten miles. The glacier is slowly shrinking, time is passing, and I am getting older every day. This season often reminds me to stop and take stock of my life as I begin the journey towards winter. The garden is finished for the year and needs to be mulched as it goes into hibernation. I wake from sleep at this time of year and realize I've been spending time with someone long gone from this world. In my dreams, the past lives on. I cannot help but give thanks for the life I have now, and remember the loved ones whose presence is ephemeral but, just for a short while, is as real and solid as that glacier on Mt. Shuksan.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Bridging the seasons

Foot bridge
September is the month that bridges the gap between seasons, to me at least. It can be blustery and rainy, or it can be gloriously sunny and bright. We had one of each of those days on our last two Thursday hikes. I took this picture on the overcast day; pictures often turn out better for me when clouds are present. Fall colors also provide a chance to get creative with my camera; the brilliant hues of fall are just now beginning to show up in the High Country and on the streets in town.

Here I sit on a Sunday morning, with my laptop and cup of tea beside me, wondering what I'm going to write about. I don't have anything scheduled to do today, since my friend Linnie is not able to skydive and the weather isn't all that wonderful anyway. I'll probably end up going to the gym and using the treadmill for 40 minutes or so and listen to a podcast to pass the time as I burn calories.

I have been able to maintain the fifteen-pound weight loss that I struggled to rid myself of two years ago, partly because of the iPhone app "Lose It" that I use to keep track of the calories I ingest daily, and partly because I really don't want to get back into my old eating habits. But it's that time of year when I struggle not to overeat. Over the summer I've also let some ice cream and pizza (and even the occasional beer) slip back into my diet. I love those foods and figure if I count them honestly I can afford to stop being quite so strict on myself.

But. Now I want more of them. I find myself thinking about pizza laden with cheese, even when I'm not hungry at all. When I don't eat those foods, I gradually forget about them and avoid them, but when I indulge occasionally, I begin to hear their siren song in my mind. And it's that time of year when I think my body wants to bulk up anyway, getting ready for the coming winter, maybe. Well, I'm just NOT going to let that happen. I've been avoiding the scales and realize the first step is to get on them.

Okay. I just did it, and I've gained a little weight back, which I already knew and was the reason I didn't want to step on the scales. Fortunately it's not a lot, two pounds, but just acknowledging that I'm going the wrong direction will help me resist what I think of as inappropriate foods. The truth of it is that I feel so much better when I'm not carrying around the extra weight; I like the way my clothes fit me, and my blood pressure stays under control. Those are the reasons I struggle with my weight. It's maintenance that I find so difficult, as it's easy to indulge and gain weight or restrict my dietary intake and lose it (when I'm in the right mindset, anyway).

I know that inherited tendencies towards thinness or overweight make a difference in body size and shape. We are all "apples" in my family, with excess weight being deposited in our middles rather than around the hips (the "pear"), which I've learned is indicative of a tendency towards heart disease. Well, that figures, since both Mama and Daddy died of it, as well as my son Chris. Every one of my siblings takes a statin drug because we also inherited high cholesterol. It's probably the only reason why none of us, except for my sister PJ, has yet had a heart attack. PJ is diabetic and had bypass surgery long ago.

So there are plenty of reasons for me to keep my weight under control. Do you have the feeling I'm giving myself a pep talk here? Yes, you would be right. Whatever I need to do to maintain my hard-won weight loss during this season is fair game, even if I have to bore my readers. I know that many of us struggle with this same issue. We are inundated with pictures of food on television, in magazine ads, and several of my favorite bloggers post pictures of their meals to share with me. I often stare at those pictures and imagine the taste on my tongue. Yes, I would enjoy it, but I sure don't want to WEAR it. My dad once said to me, when I was getting ready to eat some potato chips, that they would be a minute in my mouth, an hour in my stomach, and a lifetime on my hips!

As I get older, I realize that short-term satisfaction, like eating potato chips, can be resisted. It's been ages since I've even eaten one, but then again that combination of salt and grease is present in plenty of other foods that I do eat. Plus, potato chips lend themselves to what I've learned is mindless eating, where you just nibble away without thinking. Mindful eating is much more satisfying in the long run.

Actually, this season is my favorite. Fall is the time when I begin to turn inward, spending more time with indoor pursuits. Although every single Thursday is reserved for my time with the Trailblazers, all year long, the rest of the time I find I'm drawn to knitting or reading. Even though I have all the iPad apps for reading without books, the feeling of a real book in my hands is one of my favorite activities. It's just not the same with a screen, which I spend enough time in front of already. I love my blogging friends and look forward to the fall season with your stories and pictures, your lives as you are living them. What a different world we live in today! I can feel your presence in my life, even though we will probably never meet in the flesh.

Which reminds me: next month I will spend a weekend retreat on Vashon Island with five other bloggers, who have become "skin friends" as well as blogging buddies. We got together last October and after next month, it may become a bonafide tradition. Until next week, my dear friends, stay safe and I'll catch up with you in the blogosphere!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Summer is not over yet

Woods Coffee at Bellingham Bay 
I took this picture with my iPhone yesterday morning after finishing a nice brisk walk with the Fairhaven walking group. I had already checked the weather and knew it wouldn't be a good day for skydiving, but today, Sunday, looks much better. We had a couple of days of rain, and now it's looking like we'll have more summertime weather for the upcoming week. That's good, since I'm going on another "extra" hike tomorrow, a trip down to the Mountain Loop Highway with some of my hiking friends.

Pretty busy life I'm leading, it seems. I woke this morning feeling some sadness about the change of the seasons, coming up as fast as it does. Only another month or so for this skydiving season, and then I'll put my gear away until springtime. Some of my equipment will be out of date by then, and I'll have to spend more money to get it back up to speed, and that means making some decisions. I never thought I'd still be skydiving at this age, but I can't quite seem to stop just yet. The winter layoff gives me time to figure things out.

And then I remembered my first jump back this spring. It had been more than six months since my last one, and I was nervous and really wondering if I should still be doing this. I wrote about it on my other blog here. When I had gone up and faced my fears, I was ecstatic with joy about being under canopy again, remembering why I love this activity so much. Now I'm at the end of the season, wondering if next spring I will be going through this same activity or not. At some point, the "or not" will be the appropriate choice.

However, before the end of the season I'll be making another trip down to Lake Elsinore with Frankie, another septuagenarian friend I met in April, and we'll be trying to make a record formation with all jumpers over the age of 70. I will travel by bus to Portland and stay overnight with her before we will fly to Lake Elsinore for three days of playing in the air. That will probably mark the end of the skydiving season for me, with my gear going out of date somewhere in the week after I return. Your reserve parachute must be repacked every six months and inspected, and mine was last packed April 26. Of course, this assumes that I will not need to use my reserve before then. If I do, then it must be repacked before I can use it again.

I've only used my reserve a couple of times in more than 4,200 skydives, but you never know when you might need to use it. Just thinking about it makes my heart rate increase. The last time I needed it was many years ago in Arizona. When I opened, my parachute went into a hard turn and I saw that one of the brake lines had come loose. I tried to fix the problem, but it only got worse, and fast. When you are spinning, you're losing altitude very quickly, so I made the decision to release my main parachute and deploy my reserve. I reached for my handles to do just that, and they were not where they were supposed to be, since I was spinning so quickly that my harness had shifted. Once I got ahold of them, a good six inches higher than where I expected them to be, I just did what I had practiced so many times. I had so much adrenaline going that I didn't even realize that one of the released risers had whacked me under the chin, and it wasn't until the next day I saw the big bruise and knew what had happened.

By the time I had landed under my reserve parachute, the efficient organization that is Skydive Arizona had followed my released parachute into the desert and brought it back to me. Many skydivers had seen my actions and came up to congratulate me on my successful cutaway and reserve ride. My knees were weak, but otherwise I was just fine. I was able to get my gear to the rigging loft so that it could be repacked and I could jump again the next day.

Reserve rides seem to come in spurts. When you are hanging around between jumps, watching the canopies open after a skydive, you will sometimes notice that someone has a problem and you see them drop away from a malfunctioning main and the blossoming open of their reserve. The statistics are something like one reserve ride every 800 skydives or so. Like I said, it's been a long time for me, but I could have another one today. My friend Christy had one a few weeks ago. I wasn't there, but she told me she hurried to pack for one more skydive before the end of the day, and she must have stepped through her lines and packed it without noticing. When she opened, she was unable to release her brake lines because of a severe twist in the risers. She will be back to using her own gear when we meet today and, hopefully, nobody will be needing to use a reserve parachute!

But you never know. It's like having a blowout in a tire when you're driving down the highway; all you can do is what you have practiced. Nothing that we do is without risk in the world we live in, and we must think about how we will perform if things happen to us unexpectedly. Minimizing our risks by checking the tires, getting your reserve repacked and inspected, or locking the doors on your home when you leave—it's all part of the same package, part and parcel of our daily lives.

I am hoping that I'll have a good day today and tomorrow, and that all will be without incident, and I can only hope that your own days will be the same. It's always comforting to log onto my computer and see what my cyber friends are up to, and I'm always happy to hear when everybody is safe and sound. Life is a gift that we have all been given and are sharing with one another. Let's seize the day, shall we?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

September song

Rainy scene last Thursday
It's already September, and the long weekend that heralds the unofficial end of summer for most of us is here. The strange weather we had this year, with the driest June on record, made it possible for me to spend much of it skydiving instead of watching the usual low clouds. Then July, which is usually cloud-free, had many weekends filled with low stormy clouds. August was unusually muggy, with dewpoints and humidity much higher than we Pacific Northwesterners normally enjoy.

Last Thursday was a wet one. Although we have had many hikes that were wetter, it made it impossible for us to reach our destination; the cold wind and rain caused us to pull out all our warm gear, while we attempted to stay dry as we hunkered down for a quick lunch. Although it sounds pretty miserable, it actually wasn't. I enjoyed myself because I had all the right gear, dry feet inside my hiking boots, and the company of my fellow hikers. I came home and wrote this post about the adventure.

What is on my mind this morning? Two things surface: the first is the gratitude I feel for being able to enjoy my favorite pursuits, hiking in the beautiful Pacific Northwest wilderness and skydiving, both with favorite companions. After I wrote last week's post, I drove down to Snohomish and made three skydives before heading back home. On Monday I went on a long 12-mile hike with the Trailblazers, and then Thursday's shorter 7-mile-long wet one. And yesterday, another two skydives. All in one week, interspersed with trips to the gym for my usual exercise classes. I look back on this week and am grateful that I can still do it. As we were walking back to the hangar after the last jump, Christy told me how glad she is that I decided to continue skydiving this year. I was reminded that I had considered hanging it all up when I turned seventy.

Which brings me to the other thing on my mind this morning: the incredible speed of time passing by. Now that it's already September, I'll begin to focus on my trip to southern California next month, and ponder the future of my skydiving career. Not to mention the future of my hiking career. Both of these activities require a fit and resilient body, and my 71st birthday is right around the corner. Several times lately I've shown up at the Senior Center for a Thursday hike and discovered that someone is not joining us because of an infirmity, such as knee problems (which I have), inflamed tendons (ditto), or a bad back (so far so good).

As we age, we either work through our pain or we stop being so active, or both. It's part of life, and it's not possible to ignore the fact that these bodies wear out. I have long thought I would be smart enough to be willing to listen and make the appropriate decisions. But here I am, pushing myself and my body to the limit time and time again. As long as I can continue to do it, I will. I tell myself it makes me stronger, but there's some denial in there, too. It's not that I don't have pain: I pamper my sore knees by using trekking poles, although they continue to complain on steep downhills. The achilles tendon on my right heel refuses to work in the mornings until I warm it up. I hobble around for a few minutes before it works properly, but by the time I leave the house, I've forgotten about it.

Skydiving has a reputation for being a daredevil sport, but it's actually not like that at all. I'm one of the dinosaurs, because I come from a generation of skydivers that likes to make formations with others, all while maintaining a belly-to-earth configuration. That's become old fashioned, as most youngsters like to fly head down, and speed increases as you present less body surface to the air. Things change. I tried it once and hated it, but there are some DZs where nobody does belly flying any more. I'm glad I play in the air with friends who enjoy the same things I do.

Climbing outside the airplane requires some upper body strength, as I hold on in the wind, but that's probably the only part of the skydive that involves much muscle. Being in freefall is easy (other than the psychological aspect), and if my parachute has been packed properly, the opening is not jarring in any way. Flying around under my canopy as I set up my pattern to land is also not only fun, but it doesn't take much upper body strength, either. The landing is usually just a step down onto the ground, but if I misjudge the timing, the worst that usually happens is that I scrape in on my rear end. My pride is injured, but that's about it.

Hiking requires much more stamina than most people have developed, but since our hikes are rated easy, moderate or hard, one can make a decision about whether or not you are up to it. I've been pushed to my limit many times this summer, but I'm stronger today than I was at the beginning of the summer, even at my age. I know that during the winter when our hikes are shorter and closer to town, I'll lose some of that aerobic fitness, and one day it will not return when I start out on a longer hike. I know this, and I will have to learn the lesson of gracefully bowing out of a hike that is beyond my level. Paying attention to the subtle signals that my body sends me is paramount. I'm trying to be reasonable, really I am. I suspect that some of my readers think I am imprudent to carry on the way I do, but is it really true? Or is it the perception that as we age we must retire to our rocking chairs based on what the calendar tells us?

I don't really know. As I sit here in the early morning, I can feel the twinges in my left knee, and that pesky tendon in the right heel is tight. The clicking of the keys as I type doesn't disturb my softly sleeping partner next to me. Taking an inventory of my aches and pains reveals that I'm not doing too badly, and I'll go to the gym today, since it's closed tomorrow for Labor Day. I'm scheduled for a massage tomorrow that I'll enjoy tremendously. It also helps to keep me active, and just the thought of it gives me pleasure.

Those two things: gratitude for today's blessings and the grace to accept what the future holds reminds me of the Serenity Prayer, which I offer here: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Until next week, I wish you well, and maybe you'll give somebody close to you a hug. As soon as Smart Guy wakes up, I'm giving him one.