Evidence we may not be campers

Fiona and St. Francis

Fiona and St. Francis

Typical mess

Typical mess

Fancy coffee maker we love (not appropriate for camping

Fancy coffee maker we love (not appropriate for camping)

6 months of jam, note Red Vines in background

6 months of jam, note Red Vines in background

No poisoned apples

Not poisoned apples


Lunch at the Wet Dog

Beautiful Columbia River

Beautiful Columbia River

Picture of Fiona not barking

Picture of Fiona not barking

She Who Must Be Obeyd

She Who Must Be Obeyed

My family never camped. Family vacations involved long car rides to see other family. There was an element of camping because we slept on the floors of our cousins’ rooms sometimes. At my Aunt Alma’s farm we didn’t camp but my sister and I slept with one or another girl cousin upstairs in the dormitory style room at the farmhouse. It was sort of like camping. Aunt Alma and Uncle Larry had 11 children—7 girls and 4 boys; the house had 2 bedrooms as well as the long dorm room and one bathroom. My brothers remember when there was an outhouse instead of a bathroom and I have vague memories of using that outhouse when the bathroom was occupado. We loved the farm—because of the cousins, the freedom…and the vehicles. There was always something to drive—years before legal driving age arrived: my cousin Danny’s motorized go-cart, a tractor, snowmobiles, even bicycles down long country roads. Years later I realized that going to the farm gave my parents a break from us (they didn’t’ stay there) and an opportunity to see other family and friends. My parents grew up near Detroit, briefly attended the same school, went to Guardian Angel Catholic Church, and knew each other for most of their lives. Since Dad was in the air force, my family lived all over the world and I wonder if the 20 moves during the first 10 years of their marriage is why camping had little appeal.

If I don’t count an unfortunate day camping episode that involved dropping all the hot dogs in the dirt and burning my fingers on a primitive stove that involved hot wax and a can , which led to an end of my brief career as a girl scout, I never camped until I was in college. At that time a friend of a friend had access to family land on the Mason-Dixon Line so we often headed north to “Beth’s land” to camp in loose groups of fairly clueless college chums. Luckily there was usually someone along with experience to guide us and keep us alive. Mainly I remember utilitarian tents, (very) basic food prep, and inebriated fun as we hiked and waded in the stream that flowed through the property. One time I went camping with some forgotten people somewhere in Virginia and we went canoeing. That time in my life is a genuine blur. I worked selling shoes and periodically waitressing, carried a heavy load of college classes, lived in a sub-standard (scary) apartment, and plotted my escape from East to West Coast.
Flash forward to life in California: I’m in my twenties with my first teaching job (thought I was rich when my first contract for nearly $10,000 was signed). Camping was the way I vacationed then and there is plenty of beautiful camping in NorCal. We (and who “we” was changed periodically) tent camped in state and national parks mainly, occasionally forced into a commercial camping area. In those days, people mostly camped in tents; the fancy ones had those extra pop up shades to put over the park-supplied tables. The really fancy ones had Coleman stoves and lamps and didn’t have to climb into their sleeping bags at dark. Somewhere in my late twenties I started seeing more trailers at campgrounds. How I loathed getting behind someone pulling a trailer up winding mountain roads. Even more I hated the loud generators that roared all night keeping wimpy would-be campers comfortable. Why I wondered didn’t these people, who needed all these electrically driven comforts, stay home? I still wonder but now I wonder it about myself.
Camping stated losing its appeal when I had a baby. Camping (or as I called it: doing housework and childcare in the dirt) was less relaxing with a toddler to chase over uneven ground, keep from the fire, and bathe in “3 minutes for 50 cents” showers. Still I persevered for a while and hope those pictures of my son fishing, playing with friends, listening to ranger talks, and eating s’mores provide Max with nice memories. I notice he doesn’t camp and has consistently ignored my efforts to foist a sleeping bag, pad and equipment on him.
So now, retired and in possession of a fifth wheel and the time to camp, I wonder what I have gotten myself into. We’ve had our truck and trailer for almost five years and have managed to use it for about 30 days total. Initially I was working and unenthused about spending my limited free time cooking and doing housework on wheels (sound familiar?). Also, people lie to you about how effortless camping with an RV is. It’s true. They rhapsodize about the ease and mobility, post gorgeous scenes on FB, and suddenly acquire a whole new group of camping friends. A case in point is my brother Mike. I have never known him to be an excessively social person but now, a mere year and half after acquiring a fifth wheel and truck, he has embraced camping with evangelical fervor. He and Peggy, his genuinely social wife, spent 100 days in their rig last year; this year they will again achieve that goal. They travel to rallies with other RV owners they’ve befriended and apparently have the times of their lives hiking and socializing. They camped last March, in Virginia, on purpose. It’s cold then and I know my brother well enough to know that he doesn’t run the heater all night. So Mike and Peggy woke and could see their breaths when they said “good morning.” However, and I want to be clear about this, I envy them. Mike and Peggy seemed to have rolled into RV life effortlessly: staying in beautiful places, making new friends, reconnecting with old friends and, and basically doing it right. My Mike and I, on the other hand, can’t seem to get our crap together.

Currently we are camping in Oregon on the coast, which I have to characterize as our “safe place.” We’ve had fun camping in Oregon. Last summer we camped on the coast with our children and grandchildren—a different kind of fun but well worth it. We also camped on the coast and in the wine country with our good friends Randy and Sue. They are experienced campers and a lot of fun, which is great for us novice RV-ers. We were supposed to go on a month long, 7000 mile, camping trip to Canada and Alaska with Randy and Sue in July but I ended up back East instead. Mike and I were really looking forward to this trip but if our current camping experience is any indication, we weren’t ready for it. When I told people about the proposed trip to Alaska they reacted in one of two ways, both extreme. They either glowed and said it was their dream to go on a trip through western Canada and into Alaska or recoiled in horror and suggested we fly into Anchorage and rent a car. I think the second group may know us a little better.
Today is Day 10 of a two-week trip and we are in a campground/ golf course in Astoria, OR. This clean and lovely park provides golf carts, a pet area the size of a football field, water/sewer/Wi-Fi, and an activity room for us to meet with our imaginary RV friends. With an Airstream on either side of us and motor coaches dotting the sites along the golf course, we are clearly the poor relations here. It hasn’t been particularly warm (but that was the point, wasn’t it) so we haven’t fired up the grill. Perhaps that’s how campers meet each other. Our favorite camping food seems to be Red Vines. I’m not bothered by the sounds of the other campers running their heaters, watching television etc. because I can’t hear them over our own noise. Right now I’m using a laptop, the space heater is running, Mike is using hot water generated by the propane tank to shower, and the little dog is wearing a sweater and huddled in her special bed. Not exactly roughing it. The list of things we should’ve brought lengthens daily and features both the obvious (matches, playing cards) and the ridiculous (heated, therapeutic socks). The list of things we were going to do and didn’t, expands: write for 3 hours a day (me), work on genealogy (Mike), and walk at least 5 miles a day (both). So on Day 10 we are finally kicking in. Mike is walking the dog and I’m finally writing. What I have done is listen to 3 books on tape, read the new Jack Reacher novel, crocheted most of a scarf, think about writing, watch the little dog’s antics, serve several “snack” dinners, and figure out how to stream “Monarch of the Glen” through Netflix on Mike’s computer.

I’m including some pictures in this blog of our messy camper, the jams Mike buys in every town (apparently he harbors a morbid fear of a post-apocalyptic jam blight), and a few shots of the titular focus of this blog. For now this is “Travels — with Fiona.”  Traveling with Fiona is like traveling with a canine Scarlet O’Hara. She is self-centered but adorable, vociferous about getting her needs met while laying on the charm whenever necessary. We were concerned that she would bark constantly and disturb the other campers but Fiona barely barked the first 8 days of the trip. Now she apparently can’t stop barking. I don’t know if it’s the openness of these RV sites or if she is expressing her contempt. She seems to favor campgrounds with more trees and privacy and doesn’t care about amenities. In Newport she suffered to have her picture taken with a statue of St. Francis and took a nap in the car while we looked at pottery. In Astoria I’m pretty sure Fiona barked the entire time we were in the Columbia River Maritime Museum. Strolling along the River Walk she confined her remarks to a few short woofs at other dogs and sat smugly in the patio of the Wet Dog enjoying occasional bites of pretzel and cheese. After that, the party was over and it was an outraged dog who returned to the campground. Last night, for the first time, Fiona woke us with hysterical barking and a dash to the window. She did this 3 or 4 times (I lost count). Each time I stumbled after her, shushed her, and brought her back to bed where Mike told her she was a good girl. She isn’t. Today she has watched at the same window, alternately growling and whining. And I wonder what is going on over there in that Airstream. We kind of met the couple and their yellow lab Riley yesterday when we walking around the place. They weren’t particularly friendly and the woman pounded on Riley’s back when he jumped at me and called him stupid. Maybe there’s some dog torture going on over there that Fiona senses? Or maybe the dog torture is going on here and we’re the victims…. Just a few minutes ago Mike left in the truck to seek supplies. I muttered softly that it would be nice if he would take the dog and he hissed, equally quietly, that he didn’t want to. I pulled the trump card that I can’t write if I have to tend to the barking madam. He acquiesced and I know that he will return with tales of Fiona barking incessantly from behind him on the back seat. She goes there to avoid him pointing at her and telling her to stop. She hates that.

I have several hypotheses about why I’m not a natural at camping. It could be that I missed out on important formative camping skills in my youth. My Valko cousins (all 10 of them) and their parents camped all the time—in a station wagon with tents and children sitting on laps (this was pre-seat belts). I think the Krupitzer cousins must have camped too because at least 4 of them have bought some kind of camping vehicle in the last two years. My mother had an aversion to camping—probably realized it would be an opportunity to cook, clean and take care of children in the dirt—that I may have inherited. Or maybe it was the bizarre camping I did in college. I brought my cat along, which should tell you a lot about the group I camped with. Talk about an “anything goes” attitude. Sometimes we left with such short notice that people forgot sleeping bags and had to share (or maybe that was the point). One time the elegant grocery bag containing all of my clothing for a long beach weekend was left behind and I was forced to wear my bikini and borrowed t-shirts from the guys until one of the girls bought me a set of ugly sweats. Sweet. The best camping I ever did was pre-child and in places of breath-taking beauty (Big Sur, Morro Bay, the redwoods) with people who went off hiking and fishing and left me alone to “guard” the site and read away the day. When they returned I would listen to their fish tales and imply that my time had been spent bird watching or re-reading Walden. Lately, with a fifth wheel and friends along, camping has been fun. But it takes a few days to regain the rhythm as I fight the feeling that I should be doing something productive. Conversely I don’t want to be pushed into planned activities so I resist the hearty souls who want me to bike (“it’s only”) 50 miles or agree to tour the local antique firearms museum. No thanks.

Still. There are many things I like about camping especially the space that it creates for other things to happen. Lots of times the cell service is weak so no one can call me—same with emails and texts. I get to wear my favorite old, demoted clothes. These are the shirts that are worn into the comfort of a second skin and the jeans that fit perfectly (and by that I mean loosely) but have that bleached spot or rip that isn’t fashionable just grungy. Also no one cares what you look like and you can always put on your sunglasses if someone comes at you with a camera. Someone left us apples on the table at this site and I didn’t really think about poison or razor blades or asking around about the character of the people who left them (except as a possible detail in a mystery). I can produce a dinner of salmon spread on crackers with red vines for dessert without guilt or adverse response. When the temperature drops, the little dog gets cold and becomes affectionate and cuddly and sweet. Also it takes only half an hour to clean up everything and hit the road. And after a week or so I actually relax. Here’s the best part. Mike and Fiona just got back. Fiona barked incessantly as predicted but Mike found what he needed and brought back breakfast sandwiches and ice tea (my favorite). I think I’ll finish breakfast with an apple.


“Click here to change preferences or unsubscribe from emails”

I’ve been thinking about what it would mean if I could unsubscribe from my life, if we all could. A minor irritation–me getting tired of so many commercial emails–inspired an orgy of unsubscribing. CVS, Lucky Vitamin, Afloral, Overstock–gone. Classmates? Getouttahere! Bye bye Karen Kane, Lululemon, Fresh Produce, and all Facebook notifications (surprise me when I get there). Amazon? Let’s not get crazy. Amazon and I have a deep relationship that includes prime, audible, and me as a reviewer they’ve never published. I don’t know what it is but I always get rejected for inappropriate material. I swear that I don’t–swear in my reviews, that is. I think this repression of my First Amendment rights drove me to become a Trip Advisor reviewer. Imagine how thrilled, I (an aspiring writer) was to discover I’m in the top 10% of reviewers! In my town. I didn’t read the fine print until I had received a couple of congratulatory emails. I’m getting ready to unsubscribe from Trip Advisor/Big Brother because they bug me for reviews any time I search restaurants or hotels online…. Also I don’t like the way they show me a map of the earth with pins where I’ve written a review: I don’t seem to have gone many places.

Back to this notion of unsubscribing. I realized that we subscribe throughout our lives to different versions of ourselves. Always, when I read Stephen King ( a master of evoking eras), I am slammed back into vivid memories from my childhood or adolescence and then there I am, the person I was. So here’s my question. Can I unsubscribe from certain versions of myself? Can I reduce contact with my current self to–say–once a month and increase my preferences for some of those other selves? What would it look like if the hope and energy of my early 30’s informed my choices today? I don’t mean I would act like I’m younger; I don’t think I mean that. (Although I would have a hard time resisting the time machine that let me change a few past decisions.) What I think I mean is that layers of memories could be peeled away. Traumatic, sad, disturbing memories, regretted decisions, and uneasy reflections on past actions would be part of me, of course, but they would be controlled by my preferences. Just like I can control how often Classmates sends me blurry pictures of people I can’t remember ever seeing, I could set up mental preferences that would let me decide how often I need to feel the inchoate fear of nothingness (death) that increased with retirement but has made guest appearance throughout my life. I could prefer to weekly memories of the actor/director and set up daily visits from my 5 year old self. Maybe then I could re-learn the Spanish I knew fluently at that age.

Here’s the deal: life or time, if you will, moves at a snail’s pace when you’re waiting to be tall enough to reach the kitchen faucet so you can get your own drink of water. It drags through high school when you’re struggling to figure out your place and whirs through college when you realize that place is fluid and largely irrelevant. It freezes ugly moments, giving them an unshakable solemnity and rushes sweet moments past savoring.

I would subscribe to several selves: one would be the person who, at various times in my life, has connected profoundly with nature and the indisputable God. (I would like to hear from her every day.) I would keep the confident teacher close by and unsubscribe completely from Bleak Christmas Erin and Prozac Barbie. Actually that last one is a joke, sort of, but the depression I’ve periodically experienced could happily go to the unsubscribed nether world, never to return. I would love to access The Writer more often but I’m pretty sure that’s an issue of discipline. Maybe what I really want is a strong subscription to creativity. That sounds good–I’ll do that. The irony of the fact that I haven’t posted a blog in quite awhile does not escape me…
I wish I could say I’ve been working on my novel but it’s more like I’ve been rereading and over-writing the 90 pages I’ve already written. I would actually have to access my liar self (junior high) to say I’m making progress and no one wants to see her again.

Today I’m subscribing to the just-publish-it when-you-write-it self. She’s new.

Trying something different

Inspired by a former student who writes brief and pithy blogs, I’ve decided to write some short pieces. Of course this could be a response to my last (epic) blog. Anyway, this is like the haiku of writing–say it all in a few words. So here goes.

Can we PLEASE come up with a better word than blog? I don’t love it as a noun but I loathe it as a verb (I blogged last night. Sounds like a painful yoga move. Downward blog?) Anyway, I’m open to suggestions. Essay and article are out and reflection is pretentious.

Speaking of haiku, here is my favorite.

Follow the yellow brick road,
Follow the yellow brick road,
Follow it.

The Cancer Card or “Honk if You Love Houston”


This is a reflective piece that I’ve avoided writing. It’s hard to write about cancer—yours, your husbands, your friends—all bring a rush of pain and fear that lands in your stomach and wraps itself around your throat. Lots of things that were automatic, like sleeping, command your attention and require an effort to sustain. So I have waited nearly ten months to write about the topic (event? process?) that has overshadowed pretty much everything since my husband Mike received a diagnosis of prostate cancer.

First—the good news: Mike was able to get world class treatment for his cancer and his prognosis is excellent. And because we’re retired, both of us could go to Houston and be together while he had several sessions of proton beam therapy. The bad news—and this is just for me—is that several people in my life have had cancer including my college roommate and dear friend Janet, who had breast cancer back when it was a death sentence. Gone at 39. My previous husband died of melanoma when he was 40, after 6 months of surgeries, chemo, and radiation. It was combat and we lost. Three years ago my best friend was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and chose aggressive treatment—so far, so good. Cancer, the fact of it and even the word itself, is overlaid with fear and reflexive denial for me. This time, however I experienced being the partner of a cancer patient differently. For two months we lived in Houston, near the renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Houston is different. We were reminded of this by the ads on TV for the Texas primary election, all of which ended with what is clearly a dearly held axiom: “This is Texas, not California.” Occasionally the tag line would be switched up: “This ain’t California; it’s Texas” or the pithier “This ain’t California.” Okay, message received. Mike briefly forgot this fundamental truth one day when we were in a Fresh Market. I may as well admit right here that one of us has a relentless sweet tooth and the other is his partner in crime. So we were wandering through the store, and, seduced by the mouthwatering displays of pastries, cookies, and candy, we selected quite a few. On the way up to the counter, I whispered to Mike that we looked like we had the munchies. That’s all I said. When it was our turn to check out Mike said in a loud and carrying and (he thought) funny tone, “We’re not smoking marijuana.” That stopped traffic at the Fresh Market. There was a brief, appalled, collective silence and then the people behind us moved to another line. The beauty queen smile of the checker faltered but then she pasted on another one and started ringing us up. She kept her eyes on us and processed our order at lightning speed. On the way out I told Mike, “This ain’t California, Honey.”

Yes, in so many ways, Houston is not like Northern California. Houston’s weather is so changeable that a 90 degree day can be followed by a 45 degree day. The humidity is so much a part of the city (even in February and March when we were there) that the weather report includes a visual of a woman’s head and rates the level of “hair day” one can expect. If my hair was any indication, one of the humidity predictions should’ve been limp and frizzy with a chance of unattractive curl. I think the weatherman confined himself to good, bad and iffy hair days. Some days we could sit by the pool at our complex and other days we braved strong winds with or without rain to get out of our 630 square foot apartment. Wherever we went, we drove into potholes and got clear on why there are so many four wheel drive trucks in the city. Houston is a city of potholes. Apparently the disastrous combination of a drought followed by a season of torrential rains coupled with clay like soil-made large parts of Houston sink into the earth and turned the roads into obstacle courses. Often there was no way around the holes and you just had to grit your teeth and hope you came out on the other side. People who complain about their local roads need to drive around Houston, which we did for seven weeks.

Speaking of Houston and vehicles…this is a town that does not tolerate lollygagging. The instant the stoplight changes to green, you are expected to move. The slightest hesitation is greeted with a cacophony of blaring horns. Even after we had shed our laid back, California ways and stepped on it, we continued to get the honk treatment. Observation taught us that merely moving was not enough. No, the driver had to tear away from the light, accelerating as fast as the car could handle. And this is the driving style in Houston—drive as fast as you can everywhere, slamming on the brakes when necessary. This makes for exciting freeway travel. In a California city–say San Francisco—brake lights ahead signal a slow down or even stop for all cars. And it is the unwary driver who ignores those red lights because they mean that everyone needs to slow down. On the Houston freeways, brake lights just mean that one driver has ridden up on the butt of another car and has been forced to slam on the brakes. It took us a few rides before we learned to ignore those lights.

Houston is also a city of kind, friendly and genuine people. The day we arrived, we went to a nearby Randall’s market (just like Safeway) to stock up on bread, eggs, cheese, condiments, milk, cereal, etc.—the basic things you need to set up a kitchen. I was paying and Mike was behind me chatting up a young woman whose husband was a doctor at MD Anderson. (With 76,000 Houstonians employed by MDA, this would become a theme. Everywhere we went, we encountered folks with an MDA connection). Mike, who doesn’t know a stranger, inevitably ends up in a conversation. I tend to be more reserved, but this time the checker started talking to me. She asked if we were moving into a new place and I told her we were just going to be in Houston for two months. Then she nodded toward Mike and asked which one of us was getting treatment. Stunned, I told her that Mike had prostate cancer but that “he’s going to be all right,” my mantra. After she finished our transaction she came around the corner and took a rather surprised Mike’s hands, looked him in the eye, told him she would pray for him and she knew he was going to be fine. I didn’t doubt her for one second. This happened several times, and each time it was comforting.

This generous spirit characterized all of the people we met at the Proton Beam Center and throughout the MD Anderson complex. Everything is designed to make it easy for the patient. The underground garage has pathways to the elevators and reminders about what floor and section you are in. These signs continue when you exit the elevator and head to the rotunda that has several elevators leading to different areas, like, for instance, the Genitourinary Clinic, where a lot of men of varying ages, usually accompanied by women with strained eyes, wait for consultations. Or the Radiation Oncology Clinic, where test results are explained and a treatment plan developed. Each clinic we visited had art and inspirational stories on the walls, a large tropical fish aquarium (very soothing), snack and drink machines, comfortable furniture, and tables with in-progress jigsaw puzzles. Every employee was friendly and pleasant and (most important) patient. The thing is, when you receive a cancer diagnosis, it’s hard to take in all of the information at first. I listened to Mike’s doctor explain the results of the MRI and I could see on Mike’s face that he was getting none of it. I learned to ask questions that would cause the doctor to repeat information. He was on to me pretty fast, and after a while he made sure I understood everything, knowing that I would relay it to Mike later.

Once Mike began treatment we spent three afternoons a week at the Proton Beam Center. I have to explain the way patients were prepped to receive radiation. First of all the bladder needs to be full to protect it. An ultrasound machine determines if the patient needs to “release” some of the fluid before treatment. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does the patient is given a measuring cup and told exactly how much he can pee. This doesn’t sound easy or pleasant or (to me) even possible. More often the patient has to drink more water; when this happens he is sent to the back of the radiation queue, the proverbial “walk of shame.” The rectum also needs to be protected. And a balloon is involved. Each time a stint is inserted and air is pumped into the stint to inflate the balloon that will protect the patient. The “Balloon Boys” is the moniker at MD Anderson; at another treatment center they are called the “Brotherhood of the Balloon.” The men all wait together in a room and I think the atmosphere could be described as Eau de Locker Room. The men relax in their hospital gowns and talk, sports, family, and cancer. I think this is an inspired way to make these men as comfortable as anyone who is about to have a stick and a balloon shoved up his butt can feel.

Meanwhile, in the light-filled outer waiting room there was a beautiful fountain, coffee and mints, comfy furniture, and sick children. You see, proton beam therapy was originally developed for pediatric brain tumors. The specificity of the beam makes it a viable treatment. Since pediatric brain tumors are blessedly rare and the proton beam machines incredibly expensive there are only 13 in this country right now. So these parents and kids were lucky—a word I can hardly bear to ascribe to these families—to be able to receive this treatment. If doctors hadn’t figured out that this therapy works on prostate cancer, there would be even fewer of these machines. So, in the light-filled waiting room, parents with babies and toddlers talked about sedation because the children are too young to hold still for delivery of beam therapy. Older children did homework and a teenage boy played games on his phone. There was no playing of the “cancer card” here; I could see that the parents were committed to keeping life as normal as possible. Every now and then a gurney bearing a tiny patient would be wheeled into the room and a parent would rush to join the parade of people taking care of this little person. They all got on an elevator and disappeared. All of the children had lost their hair; all had the round faces that come with taking steroids. Some of their parents looked shell shocked behind their smiles and murmured, prosaic reminders. “Don’t forget to put sunscreen on your head before you go back to school.” “You need to get those math problems done before treatment; you’ll be too tired afterwards.” Their bravery and resilience was humbling and inspirational and, ultimately, too painful to witness.

After the first day, I sat in the outer waiting room, armed with headphones and a crochet project. I sat alone in a chair near the fountain and I was soon joined by a little girl, maybe 8, who was writing in a work book. I hope the woman with her wasn’t her mother because she was mean. The girl would frequently look up and smile and wave at other patients; this exasperated her companion who adjured her to “get busy and quit fooling around.” The fact that she had a German accent may have made this sound harsher than she intended. The little girl was unperturbed and went on working problems. The next day I sat on a couch behind the family groups that knew each other, probably because their children’s appointment schedule coincided. This gave me a view of many families and a teenager who looked somewhat like my son, if he had had cancer and lost all his hair. After two weeks I asked Mike if he cared if I came with him on treatment days, which he didn’t. After all, the Proton Beam Center was only a mile from our apartment and Mike always drove there and back, so it wasn’t like I had a function. And Mike spent his time with the Balloon Boys in the locker/waiting room. So it wasn’t like I was keeping him company. But still I felt like a coward for not going so I went for another week.

I never interacted with the parents although I did engage with some of the kids. I helped the little worker girl with a vocabulary assignment and she told me her goal was to be caught up with her class when her treatment was over and she was all better. She had to miss school because she couldn’t risk an infection. Her name was Annika and I never mustered the courage (or insensitivity) to ask her if that was her mother who brought her. I asked the teenager (Josh) what game he was playing; we chatted I and ended up showing him a picture of my son Max. Josh seemed flattered that I thought he looked like Max. I listened to a heartbreaking conversation between parents of toddlers—one of the children was starting chemotherapy when they went back home. He had already been treated for a tumor—this was a recurrence. The mother said it was a good thing her son could get more proton beam radiation. A good thing? Lucky? I understood the need for hope that drove these parents. Being here propelled me back 21 years in time to the futile 6 months of Bruce’s treatment and the little victories that gave me hope. After three weeks I couldn’t go back to that light-filled room and stayed in the apartment painting pictures of pears until Mike’s last appointment.

While I painted I thought about how none of the patients or families were self-pitying, about the frequent laughter I heard in the waiting room. I thought about Mike and the grace with which he approached his cancer and the optimism he brought to his recovery. He never played the cancer card. Not once. He never asked for or expected special treatment from me or anyone else. I thought about my Aunt Aggie, a strong and funny lady. She has had cancer more than once and she made a joke of the cancer card. “Can you get me a coke? I have cancer.” Her family laughed and told her to get herself.

The odd thing is that I was the one who played the cancer card.

In January, I had started a new life insurance policy with the same company I had previously been insured by. I specifically asked the agent if the new policy would automatically cancel my old one because the premiums were going to go up from $40 to $400 dollars a month. He said yes and that he was also canceling my husband’s previous policy which would jump to $1400 monthly. In March I was checking my credit card statements online and I noticed that we had been charged the new inflated rates on the old policies–$1800. I called the agent who assured me that he never told me the old policies would be cancelled and gave me a number to call, telling me that the money would “probably be refunded.” When I called, a woman told me that the policies had to be cancelled in writing whereupon I promptly burst into tears. I told her we were in Houston and why; I kept apologizing for crying and said it was just a lot of money to lose. She was on my side in a flash. She gave me her email address and had me fax letters cancelling the policy and explaining what happened, not to the big company fax but to her personal fax machine. She told me she would be in early the next day (a Saturday) and would get the faxes and process them right away. I asked if she would email or call and let me know she had received them and that they were what she needed. The next day Mike and I went to Galveston so I could put my feet in the Gulf of Mexico. About 9:00 I received an email that all of the documents were there and would work. The email mentioned that she didn’t call because she didn’t want to wake us up but that everything was taken care of and that she knew Mike would get well. Also she was praying for us.

My playing the cancer card happened again when I was trying to convince Sirius XM that I shouldn’t be charged fees on a truck we hadn’t owned since 2010. It’s not that I intended to bring up Mike’s prostate cancer; it was more that I was uncharacteristically overwhelmed when I had to deal with these problems over the phone and while away from home and all the paperwork that would prove my case. The gentleman was very nice, refunded the fees and told me he had a “feeling that [my] husband would be well.” Meanwhile, in emails to family and friends I dwelled on the funny things like how Mike, after hormone injections to suppress testosterone, bought 4 pairs of shoes at the outlet mall. With people I knew I held it together; with strangers I broke down. At the Blake Shelton concert I offered to email the pictures I was taking to the girl sitting next to me. Her iPhone couldn’t zoom as well as my camera. She asked me if I was enjoying the show and I said yes and that we were in Houston because my husband had cancer. Then she put her arm around me and I cried.

I have to wonder what it is about me that makes me impenetrable to those who know me (“Mike’s fine; we had a great time in Houston. Everything’s fine.”) and open with those who will never see or talk to me again. Part of it is that I know our family and friends are dealing with their own fears about Mike’s health and maybe their own fears about cancer. I don’t believe that bursting into tears and saying that I’m terrified about losing the love of my life is something anyone who knows us wants to hear. But it’s not even a possibility; it’s not on the table. Among friends and family I must be the person who believes all will be well, and I am that person most of the time. I think about the parents in the light-filled waiting room. Maybe among people they would never see again they could tell truths too hard for their families to hear. And in that company of beloved, desperately ill children, they could also muster fragile hope for a better future. Because, here’s the thing: I have no right to their kind of pain. It is not my child with cancer that is likely incurable; it is my husband and he’s going to be all right. That’s my mantra and I believe it.

At 15 camels, it’s a bargain

As I mentioned in the last email, now I have the distance and perspective (not to mention the loss of our luggage for 2 days between Casablanca and Madrid) to write about Morocco. Despite the fascinating history and sites, the funny camels, our nice tour guide/cab driver, I’m done with Morocco. I think it was the constant reminders that I’m a big, “rich” American infidel, not to mention a woman who clearly doesn’t know her place. Here’s one example: despite the fact that I felt the Souks (bazaar) was a scary place at night with cars and motorcycles driving through huge, compacted crowds and almost psychotically aggressive vendors (in a place of extreme poverty and wretchedness), I agreed to go back the next day in search of bargains. If we hadn’t gotten lost in the winding streets and then been led out (the long way, I’m sure) by a teenager who kept shaking us down for more money, it would’ve been an overall, pleasant experience. We went during the day–less crazy and fewer people running into me (these people were, by the way, all men and all managed to knock into my breasts before leering at me and apologizing–charmingly–in French). Back to the actual example…

After bargaining (not very well, I’m sure) I purchased a couple of supposedly handmade pashminas from a semi-sleazy vendor, probably in his 30’s. He offered to give Mike the pashminas in exchange for me. Pretty sure he was thinking, “I’ll make her my 6th wife, the one exclusively for beating.” I could be extrapolating here…. Later he offered Mike 15 camels for his daughter Kelly so maybe he just wanted to have a full American experience.

On the day we left, we talked to a couple from England who were traveling with a tour group. When they heard we were traveling alone, the man said, “Oh, brave.” Maybe that’s British for stupid. The only other person we spoke to was from Mass.; she’s Moroccan by birth but has lived in the U.S. for 14 years. She was very nice, had 2 little girls who were darling and spoke perfect English (French and Moroccan also). Other than that, everyone was French and apparently still pissed off that Americans rebuilt their country after WW II. The good thing was that my high school French proved useful and more and more of it came back to me as we talked to people. I can now ask how much in French and Moroccan; the resulting “rip off” doesn’t change, though. We fully expect to be overcharged on the way to the airport tomorrow and I could write an article on being overcharged by cabbies in Porto, Sevilla, Granada, Marrakesh, and (no doubt) Madrid.

This is likely the last you’ll hear from me until we meet in person although I may send a few more pictures. Hopefully by then I will have dropped the speech pattern that is the result of attempting to speak simply in 3 languages other than English. Or as I like to say (in Portuguese, Spanish, and French): I will later have wine today.

I left my knees in Old Malaga

9/19/2010 (Marrakesh, Morocco)
Preview of coming “attractions”: Today we visited a tannery, rode camels, bought a carpet, and got full (and I mean full) body massages… But that’s for the Marrakesh installment. I will set the scene, however. We are staying at the Royal Mirage (a Sheraton hotel in an earlier incarnation) and it is a study in contrasts. The lobbies, pool/patio, 6 restaurants, and stores are spectacular! The carpets are old and stained and the bedspreads are suspicious….it’s clear that vacuuming and sweeping are more symbolic than actual. I’ve discovered that Americans are overly focused on hygiene.

Back to Malaga, at least mentally. The road to Malaga took us through the Sierra Nevadas of the Andalucia region–impressive peaks of green and gray leading to a coastline dotted with villages of white washed, red-roofed houses. Since most businesses and restaurants in Spain shut down at 2:00, it’s impossible to get anything to eat before 6:00. Mike and I have established a couple of traditions since we arrived. We like to make sure that we’re walking around outside during the hottest part of the day and we try to schedule being hungry when no food is available. True to form, we arrived in Malaga at our ultra-modern hotel about 4:00. It was difficult to take pictures that really convey the sense that Jane Jetson designed the furniture in the lobby but I’ll send one or two the next time we upload photos. The Hotel Barcelo’s location (in a train station) with unlovely surrounding neighborhoods persuaded us to eat Italian food in the mall–good actually. (I have to admit that I’m ready to eat something other than Spanish food although Moroccan food may not be it…).

The next day we found the beautiful old town of Malaga and enjoyed sitting out a rainstorm in the Dos Gatos bocadillo before going to the Picasso museum. (One of us was really excited about this and the other was a good sport.) A 16th century building houses 200+ paintings, drawings, and sculptures, all of which were donated by Picasso’s daughter and her son. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures. In each of the salons there was a quote by or about Picasso that revealed the character of the artist and the reality of the times in which he lived. His work, his subjects, and his words were powerful forces in the development of modern art. I loved it all.

After our museum visit Mike and I strolled through a lovely city park and went and looked at a Spanish galleon (a reproduction of the type that went across the Atlantic but built about 200 years ago). The marina wasn’t lovely and, in fact, the beaches on the Costa del Sol are gray pebbles, not the beautiful white sand beaches of the Costa Brava further east (near Barcelona). Malaga and surrounding towns are pretty densely populated and many British people have retired here or bought vacation homes/apartments here. We met a couple from Northern Ireland who has a house near Malaga and mentioned that they come here several times a year. Still, Malaga has the airport we flew from so it was worth seeing for a day or two.

One thing I will always hold against Malaga is the fall I took on the way back to the Hotel Barcelo. There is literally no street in Spain that isn’t uneven and dangerous. So I’ve been very careful, watching my steps and wearing the sensible (old lady) walking sandals I brought instead of the cute, chic shoes I got in Porto. So landing on my knees and hands on a side street pissed me off almost as much as it hurt. No injuries that won’t fade eventually–I’m sure I’ll still be bruised when I see you. I did decide to get a massage when possible because my back was so jarred.

Before I close–a few words about our flights here. We did the usual stand in lines until we got to our alleged gate in the (huge) Malaga airport. There was no indication (anywhere) that our plane would depart from the gate. When I asked someone, he told me that we were at the right gate–probably. Later Mike talked to a woman who said that if we were told the plane to Casablanca would leave from this gate, then it would–usually. So Spanish–it cracked me up. The layover in Casablanca was long and we had planned to leave the airport for a few hours or at least take care of money exchange, find a restaurant, shop, etc. It’s different in an Arabic country… After going through customs we were shunted off to the waiting area for the next flight (we were not allowed to leave). So…we spent 4 hours in a smallish departure area with supercilious, chain-smoking French people, unable to exchange money and told to “attende” (listen) if we wanted to know when our plane left.

French is the language everyone speaks here–French and “hello, I will be happy to overcharge you…” We leave for Madrid tomorrow and by then I will have the distance and perspective needed to write about Morocco…

Au revoir

What Malaga did to me

What Malaga did to me

Granada–love it and leave it (if you can)

9/17/2010 (Malaga, Spain)

After a couple of days in Granada without Wi-Fi, it’s nice to be in this ultra-modern Hotel Barcello in Malaga. The halls of the hotel are so sterile, they feel like a prison in outer space. When you walk down the narrow corridors, the lights above the doors of the room come on as you walk past. Our “key” is a card that you pass in front of the door–like a barcode but with a strong “open sesame” feel. It turns out that this very quiet hotel was built in a multi-block, one building structure that includes a large shopping mall (complete with McDonalds–they’re everywhere), a food court and all of the chain stores of Spain (Zara, Cortefeil, Negra/Blanca to name a few), and (believe it or not) a high speed train station. So when we found the car rental return at the train station (we were exhausted from our trip from Granada) I looked up to see that the hotel unbeknown to Mike, was in the same building. He really has done a great job with our accommodations.

These travelogues are turning into a 3 layered presentation. The pictures are from Sevilla and Granada; the narrative will be about Granada, except layer 3 which tells you where we are as I write this.

Ah, Granada–it had the best tapas, the fanciest hotel, the most incredible view, and the snottiest people (at the front desk). On our last night there I left my (absolute favorite light-weight) sweatshirt on the terrace. A simple task to get it back, no? No! I spent most of our last morning there getting the brush off to all inquiries. Both Mike and I felt that no effort was made to locate it–none, nada, nothing. To a person, everyone at the front desk had perfected an air of, first, disbelief that you would ask such a stupid question (may I have a wake-up call for example); second they would answer you in rapid fire, impatient Spanish complete with eye rolling and gritted teeth at los stupidos, and, finally, reluctantly deign to pull out a map or speak a little English when they realized you weren’t going away.

We had tickets for the Alhambra (supposedly the most beautiful example of Islamic art and architecture in the world). We got tickets for 7PM so we could see what the guide book promised to be one of the most spectacular sunsets on the planet. I’m sure it was thoroughly enjoyed by the people who were walking up the long hill to the Alhambra after we (and all of the other 7:00 people) were kicked out of the place at 8:00. Walking down the long hill we were fortunate to come upon and wander through the Arabic section and get an idea of what we might be able to buy in Morocco (for a lot less hopefully). After that we had sangria on a nearby plaza and then took a cab back to the Hotel Carmen. We ate on the terrace again–excellent–unable to completely finish a bottle of excellent Penedes vino tinto.

A few words about prices in Spain. A McDonald’s hambuger is about $5.40 (and no, we haven’t eaten there), coffee con leche (I take it with milk because it’s so strong–basically espresso) is usually 1.5 Euros (about $1.95), still water runs about 1.20 Euros, and a decent class of house wine is 2-2.5 Euros, the same price as sparkling water. Pastellerias (selling pastries and sandwiches) and Heladerias (ice cream) are everywhere. At Boccarillas you can get sandwiches, tapas, wine, and coffee as well as desserts and ice cream (in case you haven’t had anything sweet for a block or two).

We finished our Granada tour by taking an unplanned, hour and 45 minute driving tour in and around the city and through all of the construction and traffic jams. I felt like Granada, not content with stealing my sudadera (sweatshirt) was hanging onto us and wouldn’t let go. On the other hand, my Spanish improved of necessity and I now know how to say (quite fluently), “There is no one on the terrace and I lost my sudadera on the terrace last night.” I can also say, “where is the road (any road) that will get me to Malaga?” and “My God, please help get me out of Granada.” (Dios mios, ayudame caminar de Granad, por favor.”

We leave tomorrow for Marrakesh where friendly sales people follow you down streets aggressively hawking their wares. As long as they don’t roll their eyes and sigh with exasperation, I’m good with it. Next installment: the Picasso museum, the Malaga marina and a Spanish galleon, and falling on my knees and hands on a (bumpy) side street in Malaga. Who says I don’t know how to have a good time?


Good food in Granada

9/15/2010 (Granada, Spain)

Today is September 15th, the Feast of the Virgin, and all day vendors have been selling flowers for pilgrims to take to the Basilica–perhaps the one church we haven´t seen in Granada. Tonight we see the Alhambra–reputedly the most beautiful example of Moorish art in the world. We will be there at sunset, which may be even more spectacular than the view of Granada from the terrace rooftop of our hotel. In addition to many churches, cathedrals, remains of Moorish castles and fortresses, Granada has the best tapas in the world. That’s what they claim and I believe it. Last night we enjoyed 2 outstanding tapas: little sirloins in a whiskey cream sauce and something called ¨Spain-3 ways. These included tomatoes and jamon (similar to Serrano ham or prosciutto) marinated in olive oil and spices, fried olives, and spicy potato wedges in some kind of mustard sauce. Unbelievable. You´re supposed to be able to travel through the neighborhoods tasting specialty tapas in each neighborhood. That would be great if I were a skinny little Spanish woman (hardly anyone is overweight here and I suspect the ones that are came from another country): Of course, the diet is pretty much out the window. I can only hope that walking 5-6 miles a day can help me maintain.

Just in case you thought I was finished talking about food, I need to describe the breakfast included in the price of the hotel. This hotel is very nice, with a swimming pool and terrace restaurant (where we ate last night) as well as a pub (live music–we may go there tonight), a bar and a restaurant with a bigger menu. Back to breakfast–clearly an effort to appeal to the tastes of foreigners from across Europe and America. Besides every kind of bread, including the palest bagels I´ve ever seen, they had a wide variety of meats, cheeses, and fruits (some of which I could not identify). There were also eggs and ¨bacon, desserts, cereal, something that looked like chunks of tofu and several pastes (or patés). Before you hit the buffet line you are given a pot of coffee and a pot of steamed milk as well as glass of fresh orange juice.

Because we´re slow learners we found ourselves trekking around in the heat again while the stores closed around us. I think it´s because we wake up late (9:00) and don´t get outside until 10ish. Tomorrow I´m getting an early wake-up call so I can walk around a little before we get into our rental car (an Audi wagon) and head to Malaga, via the coast. Looking forward to seeing the Mediterranean.

We´re in the heart of the shopping district where everything is expensive and designed to entice tourists. So far I haven´t bought anything–not even shoes!

I’m typing this in the back of a convenience store and I can´t check my spelling on this message because according to the Spanish program, every word is misspelled. Also, I promise to be funny in the next email (as if).


Probably not seeing a flamenco show…

Last night in Sevilla, the waiter asked me if I wanted a menu in Francais or Ingles. I think the combination of chic sandals and limp American hair (it’s very humid here) confused him….All of my smugness about adjusting to the tempo of Spanish life disappeared when we couldn’t sleep last night. I think it was after 4:00 when we finally crashed, and of course we overslept, waking up at 11:00.

Before I forget–a quick recap of Porto. It really is a pretty city although not very clean and (unfortunately) has a lot of gang tags on the ancient stone and buildings. We didn’t see any gangs but we did see skateboarders (they’re here in Sevilla also)–a scourge, imported from America probably. We got quite a bit of exercise walking down to the river Douro and back to the hotel. On our last night we ate at Avo Maria, a restaurant along the river. We had a table in a little alcove by a balcony, where we could look at the river and the diners below us. Our dinner of mixed grilled fish and a local blended red wine was wonderful. I wish I had taken a picture of the fish on the platter as it was so colorful and appealing–which is why we ate first and thought later.

I don’t know if we’re going to see Flamenco dancing–Mike is down the street hopefully finding out if you can see Flamenco dancing without taking out a second mortgage. It’s about $70 a person to see it–that’s with dinner. If you don’t eat dinner, you still have to buy drinks… I guess every place has something like this–in Ireland it was $75 to watch jousting and eat meat with your hands–we didn’t do that either.


At the Avo Maria restaurant

At the Avo Maria restaurant

The Douro River

The Douro River

Passing for European

9/12/2010 (Sevilla, Spain)

Not sure who wants to get these updates, so send me a “please stop” and I’ll take you off the list. Second disclaimer: Mike’s laptop (which I’m now glad we took) has a stiff keyboard–especially the space bar. So some of myemils may lok lik this… depending on how late it is and how many vino blancos or tintos I’ve had. I can now ask for wine in Portuguese, Spanish, German (we flew Air Berlin to Majorca and then Sevilla), French, and English. I think they understand French in Morocco or I will have to learn whatever language they speak.

Sevilla is amazing–a very European city with tremendous history, gorgeous architecture, and lots of tourists. We’re staying in an apartemento in the heart of all the action. It’s a cute place with a bathroom so tiny, I’m sure I could fit it into a broom closet. The style is very modern and clean; we’re on the 3rd floor overlooking an ancient stone street lined with apartments and shops with garage door fronts that close up between 2 and 6 when everyone goes home to take a nap–a civilized custom that we should immediately adopt. At 6 everything opens up again and around 9:30 people start thinking about dinner. I have to admit that this is an easy tempo to fall into.

We crazy Americans didn’t get going until later in the morning so we managed to be looking for an open market during siesta time–we have the Spanish equivalent of 7/11 down the street so we were able to pick up wine (vino, vine, vinho…etc.) there and a ham and cheese sandwich (jamon y queso) which is just that: Serrano ham and cheese on bread–nothing crazy like a condiment or tomato. Were’ resting before going out to shop a little (maybe)–we’re looking for a cord that will allow us to upload some pictures onto the computer. We’re also planning on having some dinner (much later–it’s only 8:00) and watching flamenco dancing. The nightclubs and bars seem to be open all night.

Flashback: last night after two flights (both fine) we took a cab (and were ripped off but that’s another story) and arrived at our apartment after 10:00 and found out we were in trouble with the receptionist who had emailed us that she wouldn’t be available after 10. Unfortunately, she emailed us while we were on the way… Luckily she left us a note on the door of the lobby/reception/place that directed us to our place and a pissed off 20-something. We dragged our way too heavy luggage up 3 flights (Nora offered to help one landing before our door (no gracias). After looking around we rallied and strolled down the street to an intersection where no fewer than 6 restaurants (all in a row) had their tables, chairs and misters out on the street. It’s kind of hard to tell here what’s street and what’s sidewalk. The rule seems to be if you can drive on it, it’s a road… We ordered olives, bread, shrimp, and tortilla des patatas (that’s a potato omelet). The waiter complimented me on my Spanish accent and I’ve been insufferable ever since. Never mind that he couldn’t understand me when I asked for olives–clearly his problem… On the way back we found that there’s an ice cream (helados) place a half black from our place. Another sign, don’t you think? Mike had something caramel and I re-lived Barcelona in 2008 with the banana split helado. I don’t even like bananas that much and I hate banana flavored stuff, but there’s something about this helado.

Today we toured the Alcazar–Peter the Cruel’s 14th century Mudejar palace. It’s a magnificent combination of Moorish and Spanish art and architecture–exquisite tile work, gorgeous Renaissance paintings, lush gardens, and huge tapestries (some of maps that showed the 4 continents and their general lack of knowledge). After a Sangria (not as good as my sister’s recipe) and cerveza break, we visited the Sevilla cathedral and Giralda tower–the cathedral is the largest Gothic church in the world and the architects wanted people to think they (the architects/designers) were mad (crazy) to design and build it. The tower was built by the Moors in the 1100s and made even higher by Catholic royalty in 1568 (those folks were small so this tower might have involved a little compensation if you know what I mean…). After that we wandered around the shopping district affirming (store by store) that everything was, in fact, closed, found the little market and came back here to relax, get out of the heat, and get ready for a late night. We are here until Tuesday when we pick up a car and drive around Andalucia on our way to Granada and the Alhambra–supposed to be the most beautiful example of Islamic art in the world–so beautiful that the Catholics couldn’t bear to burn it down when they conquered the Moors and kicked them out of Granada.

I know you’re all wondering (will this ever end?) about Porto but Mike and I need to get going so that may have to wait (forever). Suffice it to say, I bought a pair of black and white flats (on sale–saved 30 Euros) and a pair of black sandals with ankle straps and zippers up the heels) that will help me pass for French or Italian (until I speak).

News flash from Mike: if you get a ticket in Spain you have to pay the cop on the spot (hopefully they take credit cards). Mike is reading about Spain as I write this and has occasional tidbits of information to share. He’s supposed to be figuring out how to get to the Flamenco place.


street café in Sevilla

street café in Sevilla

Sevilla Cathedral

Sevilla Cathedral

Alcazar interior

Alcazar interior

Alcazar interior

Alcazar interior

shoe chic

shoe chic