Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Little Thought About Memory--and Ice Cream

Yesterday, I was writing some little doggerel to include in the Easter cards we are sending to our grandsons (9 and 5). For the older boy, Logan, I'd written this silly thing ...

Logan wondered if it would be
Really kind of dandy
If he found a way that he could
Get all Easter candy.

Later, lying in bed, the lights out, sleep somehow playing cagey (Morpheus stubbornly refusing to extend his arms), I began thinking about mountains of candy--not that I wanted any, mind you. Just the image appeared. And then--who can tell why?--I began to think about my father. And I remembered ...

When I was a boy, living in Oklahoma, we took several long summer drives to Oregon and Washington, where Dad had grown up--and where he still had many relatives (it seemed to me that there were thousands of them). Our drives--in the late 1940s and on into the 1950s--were in the days before most cars had air-conditioning, so you can imagine the pleasures of driving across the Great Plains, the deserts? Windows wide open, three boys whining for a stop at every Dairy Queen and A & W we passed? Begging for a motel with a swimming pool (a rarity then)? Mom was in charge of the Thermos jug of lemonade that sat at her feet in the front; it began the day cool, but before long the contents were warm--or worse. Nothing like tepid lemonade on a hot day in Utah.

But Dad was full of stories and silliness. He used to tell us--Just wait. Soon we'll be in the Rockies. And then you can be on the lookout for Ice Cream Mountain and the Root Beer Falls!

I believed they were real, early on. And as soon as we nudged our way into the Rockies, I was on fierce lookout for them. As was little Davi, four years younger than I. Dickie--three years older--never believed, I don't think, but--bless him--he did not (as I recall) disabuse us of our belief. Maybe he was just grateful that it kept us quiet so he could read War and Peace in peace (yes, he read books like that in childhood; I first read it when I was in my 60s; comments welcome).

Of course, I didn't live much longer before I realized the Ice Cream Mountain and the Root Beer Falls existed only in Dad's imagination. But I don't remember feeling any resentment for the Adult Lie; instead, I think I felt more gratitude for a father who could tell fine stories--and for the image of a mountain I could eat, a waterfall I could drink--ideas that appeal to me even now, in the dark, sleep evading me, and memory washing over me like ... like ... like a Root Beer Falls.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (82)

In town—without Gil, who went with his mother back to the hotel to rest—Harriet and I wandered around, poking in gift shops and other odd little stores and quiet museums. In one of them we looked at a display about people who’d gone over the Falls—on purpose and otherwise. Harriet was shocked when she saw one of the information cards on the display.
“Vickie! Look at that … thousands of people have died at the Falls.” She looked closely at the display. “Accidents. Suicides. Stunts that didn’t work out. I had no idea.”
“I didn’t either,” I lied, not wanting her to know.
She looked at me. “Are you lying?”
She paused. “Are you lying about the Falls? Or are you lying about whether you knew or not?”
Harriet couldn’t help it. She laughed so loudly that a nearby adult with a group of kids from somewhere gave her a sharp look—not something that really impresses Harriet too much.
“But it’s not just people,” I said. “Fish, of course, go over all the time, and a very high percentage of them survive and swim on downriver.”
“I’d actually wondered about that. About how fish manage the Falls.”
“And you want to know a weird one?”
“Of course!”
“In the 1820s some guys bought an old boat and loaded it up with a variety of animals. They announced what they were going to do, and tens of thousands of people showed up to watch.”
“That’s gross,” muttered Harriet.
“Yes.” I waited. “Want me to go on?”
“Of course.”
“Okay, well, on the boat they put two bears, a bunch of geese, a buffalo, an eagle, two foxes, a raccoon, and more than a dozen geese.”
“This can’t be true,” said Harriet.
“I wish. But it is true. So they launched the thing, but the ship was so rickety it fell apart before it arrived at the Falls. The big animals—the bears, the buffalo—jumped off, and one of the bears was saved. All the others went over.”
“That’s horrible.”
“Guess how many lived?”
“No, one goose. And that’s it.”[1]
“I’ll tell you something,” said Harriet as we were back outside, walking back to the bus. “I’ll bet Blue Boyle would survive it. He’d probably just swim right straight up the Falls itself.”
“I’d kind of like to find out,” I said.
Harriet looked shocked, then we both giggled and raced for the bus, not knowing whether our speed of foot was powered by happiness—or terror.

We had our simple Saturday night dinner in the hotel, and Mr. Gisborne gave us strict instructions to go to bed as soon as we could. We were planning to leave after a 7 o’clock breakfast in the hotel so that we could get home in the early afternoon on Sunday. I was ready for that. I was exhausted with all the walking, all the on-and-off-the-bus stuff. And I missed Father—not something that a lot of middle school kids would admit … missing their parents.
We saw Gil’s mom at supper, but she told us he was resting and wouldn’t come down. She was taking a few things up to him in the room. I asked if we could stop in a minute and see him. Which, of course, she was happy for us to do.
We found him propped up in one of the beds reading one of those little pamphlets about the Falls that he or his mom had picked up at one of the gift shops. There was a small pad of note paper beside him, too, and a pen. When he saw us, he closed the booklet and turned over the notepad.
“Writing your memoirs?” I joked.
He just smiled. He looked so pale, so weak. It was hard, in fact even to look at him and pretend I wasn’t seeing something that was breaking my heart.
“Something like that,” he said.
“Am I in it?”
“Oh, of course!” he said. “Major role.”
“And me?” asked Harriet.
“Your role is exactly the same size as Vickie’s.” He gave us a Gil-smile.
“It had better be!” joked Harriet.
“I’m not sure how I feel about that,” I said.
“You should feel pretty good,” he said. “It shows I like both of you.”
“So you say only good things about us?” I asked.
“Of course.”
Harriet said softly, “I don’t think you really feel the same about us, do you?”
He looked at us, now seriously. “I love both of you,” he said.
“I’m glad,” I said, not knowing what else to say or do.
“We love you, too, Gil,” said Harriet.
“Yes,” I said. “We love you, too.”
Gil dropped his head and suddenly—though this doesn’t seem possible—looked even more tired and drained that he had just moments before. I actually think he’d fallen asleep.
“You girls probably ought to go back to your room,” his mother said, her voice tight with emotion. “And I can’t tell you how much …” Her voice trailed off. She came over and hugged us both, and we returned to our room feeling a torrent of emotions.

[1] Unfortunately, Vickie’s story is a true one and can be found in Berton’s book Niagara.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

It's That Time ... Again

Seidman Cancer Center
University Hospitals

My numbers were good this time.

Last week I had my quarterly blood draws to see how well Lupron is controlling my testosterone--and to see if my body is holding up under the big chemical changes that this treatment for prostate cancer is causing. Of course, I was nervous (not quite a "nervous wreck") as the tests drew nigh. I know that Lupron is only a temporary measure (at some point, my cancer cells will figure out a "workaround"), and I also know that the level of my cancer is dangerous. On the two-to-ten Gleason scale (10 is the worst), my post-op pathology put me at a Gleason 9. So I know that my cancer is a vigorous one and that one of these quarterly tests is going to give me bad news.

But not this time. My PSA remains undetectable. It had shot up to 22.9 last June, and it should be zero (I have no prostate gland--it was removed in June 2005), so any number at all indicates that the cancer cells are, well, eating again. And my life is on the menu.

Also good were my metabolic numbers--and, especially, my liver numbers, which had given us all some worry at various points.

Today (Monday) Joyce and I drove to Seidman Cancer Center (University Hospitals) near Chagrin Falls and met with my oncologist. He actually had suggested I cancel the consultation because things were looking good, but I did want to talk with him about some things.

The side-effects of Lupron are difficult at times to live with. I'm tired a lot (I sleep at least two hours a day more than I did in pre-Lupron days); I have frequent (as often as hourly) suffusions of heat that cause me to perspire heavily; my energy level has diminished (no testosterone). I used to be able to ride the exercise bike--hard--for thirty minutes without stopping, burning about 500 calories and going about eleven miles. Post-Lupron, I can't do better than ten-minute bursts. I do three of them, and if I've not hit 500 calories, I do a fourth, stopping when I hit the 500 mark (anywhere from 2-4 more minutes). By the end, I am exhausted. 

I'm also much more emotional--at least outwardly--than I used to be. I cry easily--over nothing. Even my laughter sometimes morphs into tears. I'm also much more ... moody than before. Depressed some of the time. I don't want to see people, don't want to socialize--though I was never much of a Party Animal at any time. Anyway, it's worse now. I have to force myself to be in company.


But worst of all? No libido. I've lived with a woman I adore for forty-four years. But once I received that first Lupron shot last July 26, my libido drained away in a matter of weeks. And for the first time since the mid-1950s--junior high!--I've had no sex drive--none. I know that Old Folks are not supposed to have any interest in sex--it's a source of humor in many venues. Even disgust. But I'll tell you this: Those who are laughing (and/or feeling disgusted) are the young, who have (as yet) no real clue about how it feels to be in love for forty-four years--to be in love in every way. And then to see it all slip away after a single visit to the doctor's office.

I really like my oncologist at Seidman. He is very patient (never looking at his watch, never making us feel he's in a hurry), very helpful. I like that he doesn't just sit there and ask questions (I've had oncologists who did that). He puts his hands on me, listens, pats my shoulder. Today, I went over some of these anti-Lupron feelings I was having, and we had quite a discussion about alternatives. (And, yes, I had tears in my eyes.) He told me that my pathology (Gleason 9) is dire (many men with that number do not live nine years, as I have--or are suffering grievously)--but that I've lived more than nine years with it and that must mean that my body is fighting hard--and effectively. He reminded me, too, that despite my losses, I have a lot to live for. (Which I know--but it's nice to hear it from someone else.) He also thought it might be okay to go off the Lupron for a while and go on Casodex (Bicaludamide), a drug that will block but not turn off testosterone. It could conceivably reanimate my libido.

This was a decision I did not want to make quickly (Casodex has some different side effects that are not pleasant--e.g., the possibility of enlarged breasts), so I went ahead and got the quarterly Lupron injection today. And Joyce and I will talk it over for a couple of months and see what makes the best sense.

Meanwhile, I'll sweat, and sleep, and cry, and yearn ... and be immeasurably grateful for the woman beside me, holding my hand. Squeezing it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (81)

We rode the elevator back up and then boarded the bus to head across the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side, where we would get a good look at the rapids and whirlpool a little bit downriver from the Falls.[1] Gil and I dropped hands before we began to mingle again with our own group. I’m not sure who made the first move. I hope I didn’t do it. But I might have.
Gil’s energy was high as he stepped up into the bus. I guess the ride on The Maid of the Mist had gotten his adrenalin going because I could hardly keep up with him. We moved quickly to our assigned seats. Mr. Gisborne checked the roll (all present and accounted for) and then took the microphone.
“Okay, people, that was one heckuva ride, wasn’t it?”
Lots of clapping and cheering—even from Harriet, Gil, and me. A surprise. I’d never before applauded anything Mr. Gisborne had to say—and I was pretty sure I never would again, either.
“Now,” he said, “we’re gonna drive down to the rapids and whirlpool area for a little look-see. And then we’ll go back up into town where you can walk around and look at the shops and museums and junk for an hour or so.”
It was a quick time across the border, a quick ride to one of the parking areas. And we all got off the bus and looked at the rushing rapids and marveled at the whirlpool. I stood there with Gil and his mom and Harriet.
After a few moments, Gil said, “Didn’t you say you were going to tell a story here?” he asked.
“Yes!” I said. “It’s another quick story about Edward John Trelawny, who—”
“Was the friend of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley,” said Harriet, sounding authoritative. “And when they burned Bysshe Shelley’s drowned body on the beach—”
My story!” I cried, interrupting, but in a way I hoped sounded playful to Harriet and the others. “My story!”
Harriet grinned at me, her teeth flashing. “See how fun it is to listen to a SmartyPants,” she said. But I could tell she was joking, too, so I just prepared to go on with the story.
“What happened on the beach?” asked Gil.
“I’ll tell you another time,” said, flashing a silent warning from my eyes at Harriet. The last thing I wanted to do was to tell a story about death to Gil Bysshe, who was living his own death story as we stood there.
“About a dozen years after Trelawny had been with the Shelleys,” I said, “he came to Niagara Falls.”
The others were silent now.
“He wrote later that he was about where we are now—about a half-mile below the Falls. And he decided he was going to swim across.”
“That doesn’t seem possible,” said Gil, gesturing toward the river.
“Just listen,” I said, and I pulled from my pocket some pages I’d photocopied. I looked them. He said that the water above the rapids and whirlpool was—let me quote him here: ‘was too sluggish.’ So he swam downriver a little because ‘I was determined to try my strength in those places where the waters are wildest.’”
“How long did he last before he drowned?” asked Harriet.
“He didn’t,” I said. “In fact, he said he swam”—I looked at my sheet—“‘without much difficulty.’”
“I think he’s a liar,” said Gil.
“Well, swimming back, he overestimated his swimming ability, that’s for sure,” I said. “He saw himself getting closer and closer to the rapids and the ‘terrible whirlpool.’ He says that his fear really propelled him to safety—fear and luck.”
“I still think he’s a liar,” said Gil. “I don’t believe anyone could swim in this river—and survive it. And certainly not both directions.”
“Trelawny did have some trouble with the truth,” I said. “Or, at least, that’s what I’ve read.”
“Just like everyone else,” said Harriet. I glanced at her and saw her steady gaze fixed on me.

[1] In 1996 it was much easier to cross the international border between Canada and the United States. Remember that this was well before the horrible events of 9/11, and crossing into Canada was not much more difficult than crossing from Ohio to Pennsylvania.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

As I Didn't Like It

On Friday night, Joyce and I saw the Great Lakes Theater's production of As You Like It, the first play by the Bard I remember anything about. As I've written elsewhere (and perhaps even here?), I remember--when I was nine or ten--that my dad played Charles the Wrestler in a production in Enid, Oklahoma, where we were living at the time. I didn't actually see the show (why? too young? didn't want to? parents didn't think I could handle it?), but I remember Dad leaving the house, dressed in red tights (long underwear--dyed red with Rit by Mom), flexing his considerable muscles as he posed at the front door. (He'd grown up on a farm in Oregon, had played football and run track in high school and college; he could have kicked my ass at any point before he declined into a wheelchair--and even then it would have been a close call).

And, of course, I can't really remember when I didn't know "all the world's a stage"--not the entire speech, of course--just that phrase. (I do know the entire speech now.) Near the end of my career at Harmon School in Aurora, I used the "Seven Ages of Man" as the framework for one of our final Eighth Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Shows. It was more the "Seven Ages of Middle School"--and we had a good time with it. Kids recited lines from the speech to introduce each segment of the show.

I think As You Like It was the first Shakespearean play that Joyce and I saw together, too--more than forty years ago, a visiting troupe at Kent State. It was not too good, and for a time afterwards I always said I didn't care for the play.

Then, in 1996, I took some 8th graders to see what turned out to be a wonderful performance at what was then called the Great Lakes Theater Festival. The Rosalind was wonderful--but the part the kids liked the best? At the end, the god Hymen arrives unexpectedly to bless the marriages (there are four at the end), and he came out, virtually naked (a fig leaf covered ... It), but adorned in body paint and glitter. The kids went nuts when they saw him and talked all the way home about "The Glitter Guy."

Since then, I've seen it several more times (in Cleveland and Stratford, Ont.), and it is one of my favorite plays now. It's a story about learning how to love, about forgiveness, about loyalty--some of the Bard's greatest themes. And it's got the usual cross-dressing, trickery, horniness, etc. that you associate with his comedies.

But I didn't really like the version we saw on Friday. They set it in early 20th-century America (okay--I don't mind shifts of venue and time: they can be revelatory), but they used actual American songs ("I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now," etc.) instead of the Bard's (grrr); they eliminated Hymen's entrance altogether (grrrr); they changed/modernized some lines (grrrrr). Among other things.

The cast was okay--a frisky Rosalind, a strong Celia, a ripped Orlando, a funny Charles the Wrestler (though nowhere near as good as Dad was, I'm sure!). The Jacques was about as dark as I've ever seen him--but he delivered "All the world's a stage" about as well as I do (!). The rustics were fun. Touchstone worked as hard as he could--Shakespeare's clowns are notoriously hard to play--and could tap dance (to the crowd's delight). But the changes bothered me so much that I just couldn't enjoy it as much as I wanted to.

But ...  I saw in the audience a couple of school groups, one of them clearly middle-schoolers. And that, my friends, got my heart going flippety-flop. I only wish they'd gotten to see a (nearly) naked Glitter Guy.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The One Piece of Sidewalk I Need

Okay, I've not been positive that The World Is Against Me, but there is mounting evidence. I've watched it accumulate over the years, piece by piece, but I've always been able to dismiss it. Coincidences, that's all.  I mean, if I have in a drawer every type of battery except one--guess which type I need that day? Or if I really need that special table at Bruegger's today, guess what I see when I walk in the door? Or if I decide to leave the umbrella in the car--just for a minute? You get the picture.

And speaking of pictures, what you see above is, more or less, my morning route from my house to Bruegger's, where I work for a couple of hours each morning, sipping coffee from a mug that cost me a fortune but allows me to have "free" coffee for the entire year. (How long before I lose it? Or someone steals it?) Anyway, I have a few transportation rules I follow on this route of about a half-mile each way: (1) If it's below 20 degrees, I drive; (2) if it's below 40 degrees, I walk; (3) if it's above 40 degrees, I bike; (4) if it's raining, I walk with umbrella; (5) if it's an electrical storm, I drive. Sensible, mature rules, wouldn't you say.

Now, if you look at that picture closely, you'll see, to the left (the west) are two sets of train tracks. Each has a bridge over the sidewalk, and, as I've written elsewhere, I hate it when I'm under a bridge while a train is roaring overhead. What if it fell? (There's really no what if? here, is there? I'd be dead--that's all.)

What you can't see from the picture is that there is only one sidewalk under the bridge--on the north side of Ohio 303. The south side has no walkway, just a curb. What you also can't see: People drive 1000 miles an hour on 303 in the morning (they just can't wait to get to work!). So ... when I bike, I stay on the sidewalk all the way (thus, I live to ride another day).

Anyhow, on Wednesday this week, I was walking briskly to Bruegger's (mouthing the memorized poems I recite silently each morning), but when I arrived at the portion of the sidewalk that goes under the RR bridges ... orange traffic cones. That's odd, I thought, marching resolutely under the bridge. And when I got to the other end, I saw 2 more orange traffic cones--along with yellow police tape connecting them. Uh oh.

On the way home, I waited until there was little traffic and hurried along the curb-side of 303, feeling like a game animal with some mobile hunters behind me. I knew I could not do that again, not if I wanted to live much longer.

The next day was nicer, so I biked. And when I arrived at the bridges, I saw a sign this time: SIDEWALK CLOSED. So I waited for traffic to slow, biked out onto 303, pedaled rapidly under the two bridges (wishing I'd taken performance-enhancers), then back onto the open portion of the walk. Whew. Same thing on the way home.

But I knew I was tempting the Grim Reaper. When I got home, I emailed the city of Hudson: How long will the sidewalk be closed? No answer, of course.

And so ... until it reopens, I'm going to have to drive, to forgo my morning constitutional.

The only good news in this? I'm now positive that The World Is Against Me. I mean, think about it: The one piece of sidewalk that I absolutely need is closed until ... Forever, probably.

PS--The only other sidewalk route is 1.5 miles each way.

PPS--Saturday morning: IT'S OPEN!!! Forget everything I just said--the world is not against me!

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (80)

We descended a long elevator down to the Niagara River where we would board the Maid of the Mist. As we already knew, there was not just one boat with that name—but several, each with a Roman numeral after it. They were up to Maid of the Mist VI when we were there.
When we got to the bottom, we found Gil and his mother waiting for us, and joined them in line. “I’ve been watching down here,” he said, “and you want to try to be among the first on the boat.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“You want to get up toward the front—”
“The bow,” I said before I realized I was once again saying too much. This thought arrived just about the time Harriet’s elbow hit my ribs and she was coughing eruptively.
“Yes,” said Gil, “the bow.” He looked at me and smiled thinly. “And here’s why. The boats get so crowded that unless you’re right up against the rail—”
“Gunwale,” I said. Another elbow, more coughing.
Gil was laughing.
“Rhymes with funnel,” I said.
And now we were all laughing. “Who needs a dictionary,” asked Harriet, “when you’re friends with Vickie Stone.”
“Anyway,” said Gil. “If it looks like we’re going to be among the last to board one of the boats, we should step aside and wait for the next one.”
We agreed that would be a good idea. But we were lucky. We were among the very first to board one of the Maid of the Mist vessels. I was amazed at the variety of human beings in line with us—it was like attending a riverside session of the United Nations.
As we boarded, they gave each of us a blue plastic slicker to pull over our clothing. “It gets a little wet,” said one of the employees. (He was wrong. It gets very wet.) Gil and his mother hurried to very bow of the boat, and Harriet and I were right behind them. We had a spectacular view as we swung over toward American Falls, then out into the center of the river and then seemed to head right in to Horseshoe Falls—something almost suicidal.
But, of course, we weren’t. We steered to the portside (left) at the last moment and followed the contour of the Falls, so close that we were all getting soaked, slickers or no. It’s astonishing, being at the edge of death while at the same time saying to yourself This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
And then we were pulling away. Conversation had been impossible—not just because of the noise of the Falls but because I don’t think anyone even wanted to say anything. We just wanted to look. And think. And feel.
Back at the dock, we four were among the last off the boat, of course (first on, last off). I found myself beside Gil, his mother and Harriet in front of us. I felt his thin hand clutch mine, and I clutched right back. I looked over at him. He was staring back at me, and his face was wet with Niagara, red with tears.