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 25, 2022

Buz and Pixie

A wintry day a few years ago

A few of you are aware that I've written about my brother Buz in past posts, but today I would like to take a longer look at my baby brother. My parents only produced one son among the six of us. I was the first-born and the biggest disappointment to my father when I didn't end up being male. (Back then, in the 1940s, it was a bigger deal than it is today.) When the next two children were born, Norma Jean and PJ, I think he sort of gave up on ever having a son.

However, my brother Buz was born when I was sixteen, when my parents apparently decided to start a second family. His full name is Norman Francis Stewart, but he's always been known by the nickname Buz, after a good friend of the family. My parents went on to have three more children, my sisters Markee and Fia, and Tina Marie (who was born prematurely and didn't live more than a few days). The second family were all pretty much raised in one place, Fort Worth, after Daddy retired from the Air Force and after I was married and gone. They bought a rambling house on Lake Worth. All of my siblings were like little otters, born to the water, and I visited them sporadically for years. Wherever my parents lived was home, even if I didn't live there growing up.

Daddy wasn't all that old when he retired, so he ended up with another job at General Dynamics, located on the other shore of the lake. Daddy "drove" to work via his boat, Gigi, but this was a part of their lives that I didn't get to know well. I was busy having my own trials and tribulations to pay much attention to their lives. Occasionally I would need to stay there for awhile, but I didn't stay long. Wherever my parents lived, however, felt like it was home.

That was all a long time ago, and all my siblings but one have retired from their professions. Buz was in Information Technology (IT) until he was forced out, partly because he was now older and making more money than his bosses want to pay him. It's an old story. I'm a little murky on the details, but he was essential to the company for many years. He has settled into retired life with his wife Phyllis, who still works, as far as I know. The two of them had a couple of dogs that they spoiled and loved immoderately.

I think they were both rescue dogs, and I got to know them a little when I visited over the years. Bella was a pretty Scottish terrier, and Pixie was the textbook definition of a "mutt," a small mixed breed terrier. Bella was Phyllis' dog, and Pixie and Buz were inseparable for a very long time. She died earlier this year at the age of 17, so it wasn't unexpected, but when you have a companion for such a long time, it's very hard to pick up the pieces once again after such a loss. Anyone who has loved a fellow critter who gives you unconditional love knows what I mean.

Back of Pixie's head and Buz's foot

Last week, Buz wrote a story on his Facebook page, which I read and re-read and decided I need to share it with my virtual family (that would be you guys) about a sweet love story between a man and his dog and how he is coping with her loss. He named his rowing machine Gigi, after Daddy's boat.

* * *

Every day we go for a boat ride. We used to go for car rides, but I donated her special car seat to Goodwill. Also, I can’t close my eyes while driving my car.

I sit on the rowing machine, tighten the foot straps, tap my Apple watch a couple of times, lean forward to grab the handlebar (i.e. “the oars”). Then I close my eyes and start rowing our little boat, gently down the stream.

Without actually pointing (because I can’t point and row at the same time), and somehow without speaking, I direct her attention to the myriad sights in the water, in the sky, along the shore. She doesn’t need me to do that, but she seems to enjoy the sound of my mental narration because her smile widens as she watches the world, as she watches the life around her. She doesn’t bark—she hasn’t barked in years—but she glances at me occasionally, just as she always did, to acknowledge our connection, our sharing of this experience. She smiles, and I row.

Of course there are always horses, with riders, trotting along the shore. And sometimes we see cows. We see fish and birds and trees and clouds. Squirrels. All the things she always loved. We can feel the breeze as it caresses the trees and ripples the water.

Sometimes we see new things. Penguins, boars, lions, tigers, bears. Oh my. No matter what she sees, she smiles. And I row and row.

Along the way, we also see signs and banners, intended only for me because she can’t read. Duh. There’s a sign I posted myself, and it changes every day. Today it says, “46 days and 46 nights.”

There are also signs from others. I never know when or where they will appear. Most are compassionate or at least understanding, but others are unwelcome, intrusive even, signs like, “What’s wrong with you?” and “She was only a dog” and “Get over it already.” The thoughts of others. Thoughts that resonate a bit too much, that make too much sense, that have the capacity to wear me down.

My rowing slows. I grow tired. My narration has already died away.

Exhaustion, both physical and emotional, eventually forces me to stop rowing. When I open my eyes, she’s not there, of course. It’s just my room, filled with emptiness. The ride is over. I wish I could lift her from the boat, feel her heart beating as my hand presses against her chest. Just as I always did.

I am healing, lest you think otherwise. I am able to laugh. Interacting with me, seeing me from the outside, you would say I’m perfectly normal, or at least as normal as I ever was. My wife sees a bit more. Fortunately for me, my wife is an angel, and she’s guiding me gently down the stream.

Sometimes life is pain, and sometimes pain gives meaning to life. Speaking only for myself, I’m okay with that. So many others know levels of pain that I will probably never experience. I’m lucky, I’m blessed, I’m privileged. I can’t deny it.

It’s a slow process, but I’m learning once again how to fill the days, and the emptiness. With meaning. Not to replace the pain, but to shape it into a more manageable form. I would never want to lose it completely. It’s mine.

Yes, I’m just fine. But for now, my little girl and I will continue to go for boat rides. In that special place where life is but a dream.

* * *

My heart is full as I read this, with the understanding that he will indeed heal and recover from the loss. We always do, but we are changed through the interactions we share with other blessed beings who die before us. It doesn't matter how short or how long the bond has been, it still hurts. I know many of you have shared your loss through your blogs and I have certainly done the same. Today I wish that all of you dear friends are able to have your loved ones close by, but if not, know that love never dies. It just grows and changes shape. Until we meet again next week, be well, my friends.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Solo walk by the bay

Late summer flowers

This weekend, Melanie is in the San Francisco Bay Area attending her high school reunion. Since she is out of town, I walked by myself down by the bay at Squalicum Harbor, one of our favorite Saturday walks. I enjoyed visiting the booths at the local waterfront, where the SeaFest annual festival was in full swing. It was fun, and just hanging out there and walking from the Farmers' Market gave me more than five miles and lots of steps. 

But still, I missed Melanie and hope she's having a good time. She left Friday and returns late today, a quick trip, although she's still having to navigate the airports. I'll be very interested in hearing what she learned about travel during the Covid era.

When I spoke to my sister Norma Jean during our monthly FaceTime call, she asked me to consider traveling to Florida to be with her and my siblings to celebrate both my big birthday (my eightieth) and my youngest sister's sixtieth. We were born almost exactly twenty years apart, the eldest sister and the baby. It seems almost more impossible for me to believe that Fia is going to turn sixty, than it is for me to consider that I myself am leaving behind my eightieth decade of life and beginning my ninth! 

Does she look eighty to you?

I am always surprised to see pictures of me; I look different to myself from inside my own eyes, looking out at the world. But recently I saw a picture of Joan Baez, who is almost 82, and she and I look similar to one another. She's prettier, of course, and was probably wearing makeup, but in the whole we look about the same age. Of course, we actually ARE, so it's not too unusual, but she made me feel good about it, when I studied her picture and found lots of vibrancy and health still evident. But see, there's the rub: the "still." Nobody ever says that about someone half our age.

When I was working, I traveled a lot, to many different countries and loved it, mostly. Although it was mostly positive, there were times when it was tedious and difficult, but life is like that in many ways, not just travel. These days, however, I find I am not wanting to go anywhere away from my safe and familiar surroundings.
No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow. —Lin Yutang

But then again, we are all getting older and already one of my sisters has passed into the Great Beyond, and who knows whether we will get another chance to be together again or not. That makes me consider whether I want to go to all the trouble, expense, and hassle to travel somewhere I really don't want to go. Yes, I'd love to see family. But I am truly in a quandary about it. Travel is exhausting and I find myself protecting my daily routine from disruptions, and that would be a major one. The upside, however, is seeing my siblings and spending time with Norma Jean once again, in person. My birthday is ten days after Fia's, and Thanksgiving lies between the two, so maybe traveling on Thanksgiving Day would mean fewer fellow travelers, since everyone should have already arrived at their destination before then. I don't know what I'll end up doing, if anything.

Yesterday after my walk, I went to my friend Lily's home and saw that her furniture has been moved from their old place, and she drove me over to where they are moving to. It's not far, and it's conveniently located in a tree-sheltered large apartment complex. It's got a nice underground parking area for residents (which I immediately coveted) and they are moving into a one-bedroom apartment on the top floor (4 stories high). It's one of those places where you call whoever you are visiting and they are able to release the outside front entrance in order to give you access into the building. Very secure and nice. Plus never having to scrape ice off the car during the winter, that would be a big advantage. Anyway, seeing once again the chaos of moving reminded me I hope we don't have to move again soon.

Which reminds me, our rent is going up again come January, which is I guess to be expected if you don't own your own place. But Melanie told me her condo association fees are increasing, and property taxes as well. Everywhere is becoming more expensive with inflation, and landlords having to pay more for everything, too.

That's just the reality of the world situation at the moment. It's not just here in the United States, it's everywhere. When I see the awful situation in other parts of the world, like Pakistan, or Ukraine, I realize I have no room to complain. Instead, I'm going to concentrate on all the parts of my life that are positive and working well. 

Positivity is like a muscle: keep exercising it, and it becomes a habit. —Natalie Massenet

There are two things I think of immediately when I contemplate the good parts of my life. The first one is, of course, that sweet person sleeping next to me as I write this. Although we have our issues, as does every couple, they are miniscule when I think of how much I depend on him, how much I love him, and how much he adds to my daily life. I don't know what I did to deserve him, but whatever it is, I'm grateful.

The second is my ability to reach out into the world and commune with dear friends across the world. The internet, where the entire collection of human knowledge is available right here at my fingertips, well, it's a condition of living that was unimaginable just a few decades ago, but now is essential to my daily life. And having starting a blog and writing to you once a week adds an incredible amount of meaning to every day. I can picture some of you in your daily lives, even if I don't know your real name or where or live, but that doesn't matter. The fact that we are connected like this is an incredible gift that I don't ever want to take for granted.

I feel surrounded by positivity. The heat of the summer is past, and the cool, crisp air of fall will greet me when I walk out the door. Today I will wait for my friend John to pick me up in his truck and transport me to Fairhaven, where we will enjoy a good breakfast together before coming back home to spend some time with SG. Hopefully I'll get a chance to walk in Cornwall Park sometime today, look at the changing leaves, listen to the birds, and give thanks for all that makes my life worthwhile. I do hope that will extend out to you, dear friend, and that you will have a wonderful day and week to come. Until we meet again next week, I wish you all good things. Be well.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Remembering bygone times

Returning from Chain Lakes hike

This picture depicts what has long been one of my favorite hikes, the relatively short (7-ish miles) hike from the Bagley Lakes area up to Herman Saddle, down to Iceberg Lake, up to Artist Point and then back to the starting point via the Wild Goose trail. Although there's some elevation gain and loss of around 2,000 feet, it's simply gorgeous and the views are without parallel in our beautiful Mt. Baker wilderness area. This picture was taken five years ago, in late August 2017.
Old age and the passage of time teach all things. —Sophocles

What I have learned in these past five years is how much I have enjoyed my hikes with the Senior Trailblazers, and how long five years can be in the life of one person. Although I can probably still make this hike if the weather is good, meaning not too hot, not too sunny and with all my faculties functioning properly (knees, back, and feet in good shape). I've done it many times but feel some trepidation just contemplating the excursion once again.

Last Thursday I accidentally went on a longer and steeper hike than I intended, and although I did it, I was so tired and sore at the end of it that I figured I won't be repeating it. I'm done with long and steep hikes. And yet... the call of the wilderness is so strong that I think I might end up pushing myself like that again in the future. As long as I can keep going, I'll probably be finding myself wondering how the heck I ended up trudging up a long and arduous trail again. But five years when you're in your late seventies is not the same journey as it once was. 

Chain Lakes wildflowers galore

How do I stop when the views are so glorious? When there are others even older and less fit than I who keep on going? I have been hiking with the Senior Trailblazers since 2009, more than a decade of going out in all kinds of weather, putting one foot in front of the other and making it mostly without serious injury. I have fallen more than once, but with the help of others have safely gotten myself back home. I miss these trips.

My spirit is still willing and if that was all I needed to be comfortable covering long distances in the mountains, I'd be there in a minute. But that's not the case, and I've been wrestling with myself all summer long. Melanie and I did one fairly long trip a month or so ago, and I did pretty well, but it was rather cool and she always allows me to set the pace to accommodate me. That makes all the difference, and I've been happy to take advantage of her stronger ability, which makes me feel safe when we're out there. I hope to make it up to Goat Mountain this fall, when conditions are good, since it's another of my favorites and no harder than last week's hike.

We had reasonable air quality when we went out for our five-mile walk yesterday morning, but then during the afternoon the air began to get much worse, as the smoke from a nearby forest fire reached our area. It was eerie as the sky darkened and got scary yesterday evening, with the air quality falling to unhealthy. This morning (I just checked) it's still bad, in the unhealthy category. That means we will have at least another day of bad air. Many places in the country have been dealing with this, too, but this is the first time for us this season. I pray they get the fire under control. This one is called the Bolt Creek Fire, and I've added a link from a local news outlet. Apparently the residents in the area have been evacuated for their safety.

Other than not wanting to exert myself much today, because of the air quality, I have plenty of indoor tasks to accomplish and keep me occupied. I just purchased a new (to me) Apple iPhone 12, replacing my 7. I loved that phone, and it took good care of me for years, but with the newest version (the 14) having been released, I would not have been able to update the old phone with the latest operating system. That means I have a lot of learning to do, since it's quite different from the earlier version. The hardest part for me is realizing that there's no "home" button, and everything now needs to be done with swipes across the screen. Mercy! But before long, it will be old hat and I'll be fine. Just a day or two of hassles. 

And I have been watching the goings-on with the passing of Queen Elizabeth. Nothing much else has been on the news, and I have truly felt the enormity of the change in the world with her gone. Melanie and I were on our Thursday hike when my Apple Watch sent out an alert about her death, so we stopped on the trail and acknowledged the significance of it. She was truly a dedicated servant to the Commonwealth, and she watched how much the world changed during her realm. We will not see the likes of her again. I wonder how the monarchy will fare without her. May she rest in peace, with her beloved husband with her once again.

Today is the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks 21 years ago. It changed the world in ways we could not have imagined at the time. Although it's been more than two decades, will any of us who were alive at the time ever forget where we were when we heard of it?

If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short and there is no time for hate. —Sandy Dahl, wife of Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl

What surprises me is that it has been 21 years since that happened, and it still remains vivid in my memories. My son Chris was in the Army and stationed in Germany when it happened, and since he died the following year from a heart attack, he was spared from having to be involved in the war that emanated from it. I suspect he would have died in Afghanistan if he had survived, and I am grateful he didn't go through that trauma. Many have died from it, both our soldiers and civilians as well. 

There are so many world events happening right now, and I am very much involved in their experiences, through the magic of the internet, as well as all my devices, including my new iPhone. And here we are, once again, joined as we are to one another through our blogs and comments. I know that some of you were not able to reach me for awhile, and I tried to fix it, but apparently Google fixed itself. One blogger was only able to find me through a Google search, but if you do find yourself unable to reach me, please let me know my email. I smiled when I wrote that, thinking of how you wouldn't know any of this if you couldn't get to this blog. 

My tea is gone, my dear sweet partner is still sleeping next to me, and I'm thinking of all of you, my dear virtual family, who are as precious to me as my "skin" family and friends. I hope that you will have a good day, safe and sound from harm, and able to experience robust good health. It's my prayer for you today. Be well until we meet again next week.

Sunday, September 4, 2022


After 10th anniversary jump

This picture was taken of me and SG on our tenth wedding anniversary, May 5, and since we got married in freefall on that day a decade earlier, we decided to make an anniversary jump from the same plane we had jumped out of ten years before. This photo was right when we landed after the jump.

As many of you know, we met skydiving in the 1990s. We connected through a now-defunct FTP internet message board called "rec.skydiving," which was just one of many different groups to help you to find like-minded people. This was before the modern World Wide Web. We sent a few private emails to each other, which expanded into long phone calls (when long distance was actually expensive) and finally into visits into each other's homes. I lived in Boulder, Colorado, and he lived in San Francisco. After several months in this mode, we decided to make the leap: he quit his job and moved to Boulder.

After lots of fits and starts, we gradually realized we belong together, and on May 5, 1994, we got married in the air above Loveland, Colorado. The above photo is ten years later, in 2004. We lived in Boulder until I retired from my job in 2008, but we spent several months trying to decide where we wanted to move to. We favored San Francisco, because that's where SG felt most at home. But it had grown far too expensive for two retirees on a budget, so we took a long car trip to the west coast to explore other options.

We spent a week in Bellingham, Washington and thought it would be a good place as a stopgap until we found out where we would finally settle. That was in 2008, and we've never left. Happy to be here in the Pacific Northwest. And we found places to skydive here, until we both decided we were probably finished with the sport. He had taken his own gear apart and stored it, but I sold my harness/parachute system in 2015, after I took my last skydive in Snohomish at the ripe old age of 72.

And there are a couple of other anniversaries that fit in here: SG made his very first skydive sixty years ago! On September 1st, 1962, as a college student of twenty, he made his first jump. I asked him what he remembers from that day:
There I was, scared shitless! Jack, the pilot of his Piper Cub, had me sitting in the back seat, and he said, "okay, climb out!" It was a very tight fit, so I scraped the back of my container across the back of the door, and then there I was on the strut, and my parachute was falling out, so Jack pushed me off the airplane. I don't remember much after that. But what I do remember is that when I was about to land, I was steering and it was looking okay, but suddenly I realized how fast I was coming down. The ground jumped up and hit me! I was twenty years old. I could hardly wait to do it again!

What had happened as he climbed out is that he broke the static-line break cord that held his parachute in its container, and quick action was required to keep it from entangling with the plane (which is why Jack pushed him off). The Piper Cub is a very small airplane that only holds the pilot and one passenger. When I began my own skydiving career, it was quite a different scene. 

It was September 1st, 1990, when I made a tandem jump with an instructor, in a little bit larger plane, a C-206, which holds five jumpers plus the pilot. Although I had the option of pulling the ripcord, taking us from freefall into the second part of the skydive, the canopy portion, I didn't need to do it; the instructor was responsible for it all. However, I loved freefall just as much as SG did, and I could hardly wait to do it again, either. Both of us went on to make many more thousands of skydives over the years, but I thought you might like to see a picture of our very first logbooks. Most skydivers keep a record of every jump we make.

His on top, mine below

These little logbooks hadn't changed much in thirty years, still recording the important information: date, altitude, airplane, amount of freefall time, equipment used, wind speed, and so forth. I ended up using this little book through my student jumps and until I bought my own equipment. And along with it, sitting on my bookshelf, I have dozens of full-sized logbooks, filled to the brim. Just looking at some of the entries brings back a memory of the jumps.

So, as you can see, this post is about several anniversaries: our wedding anniversary and our first jumps. Although we are no longer active skydivers, we will always be connected to the sport. Some couples might say (for example) that they still have Paris, but we will always have skydiving. Although the memories might fade as time goes by, the amount of time we spent in freefall will never change.

Our lives are full and satisfying, even though we are now well into our elder years. I turn eighty this fall, and SG had his eightieth birthday back in February. He is doing quite well after having suffered a stroke two years ago and later developing a blood cancer (lymphoma) but is under a doctor's care and for the moment doesn't need any treatment other than to monitor his progress. The older one gets, the more things begin to fall apart, since we weren't made to last forever, but if you can maintain your mobility and health, life can be quite fulfilling. I am so happy to be sitting here in the dark, a laptop connected to the world, and my sweetheart still sleeping next to me.

I'll finish up this post with a quote from somebody who has been in the news this past week. She has developed the same illness that SG has. And she still looks great and tells us to stay active.

The most important thing to do as you age is to stay physically active. Lots of people just throw in the towel if they can't do what they used to do, and that's terrible. —Jane Fonda

I have to remind myself every day that each time I get to see the sunrise and the sunset as well is a very, very good one. My tea is long gone, but I look forward to the new day ahead, and hope that you, my dear friends, will have a beautiful, bright new day as well. Until we meet again next week, I wish you all good things.