Monday, October 11, 2010


Although the doctors on board the ship are very good, there are limits to what they can do, in large part because of the lack of sophisticated diagnostic and surgical equipment.  When we were on the fifth day of our northern Pacific crossing, the captain announced that we would be changing course, heading towards Kodiak, Alaska, where we would meet up with a US Coast Guard helicopter to evacuate a passenger for medical reasons.

Naturally, there was much discussion among the passengers.  It had been a long passage, and even with all the programs offered, including, of course, writing classes and book club, many passengers were restless or bored.  The captain had not told us who the ill person was, or what sort of illness required this urgent transfer to a better medical facility, and everyone assumed, naturally, that the person was elderly and probably suffering from a heart attack or respiratory illness.

Only a few people knew otherwise, and I was one of them, because the person in question was Sasha, one of Melissa's closest friends on board, and the godson of Sidney Mobell, a well-known jeweler and amazing artist with precious metals and stone.

This is Sasha, with Melissa and Sidney.

Sasha's family is from the Ukraine, and they lived close to Chernobyl.  When Sasha was five, the family moved to the US, where Sasha's father became  close friends with Sidney.  The father died of cancer at age 44, when Sasha was 19, no doubt due to the radiation caused by the Chernobyl reactor's meltdown.  Sidney, who took his responsibilities as godfather seriously, gave Sasha many opportunities, and offered his home, too, when Sasha needed a place to stay.  Sasha came on the cruise as Sidney's guest, a chance to travel and see something more of the world.

During the Pacific crossing, Sasha became suddenly very ill, and Sidney spent a night awake with him, helping him as best he could.  When there was no improvement the next morning, Sidney took him to the medical center, where the doctors worked with him.  They closed the doors to anything other than emergencies, which I later learned they'd done when they worked on resetting my dislocated ankle.  They do this because even three doctors and two nurses are not enough to handle some emergencies and other patients as well.

Sasha was in a great deal of pain, but they were able to help him, and that evening he went back to the cabin.  The next morning, though, he was worse, and returned to the doctors.  When even the highest dose of morphine they could give him could no longer help him enough, they sedated him and, realizing they could do no more without diagnosing exactly what was wrong, and that they couldn't diagnose with the equipment on board, they informed the captain there was a medical emergency.

All this, of course, was very hard on Sidney, who'd just celebrated his 84th birthday on board, and on Sasha's friends.  Over the few hours it took to reach the rendezvous point where the Coast Guard would meet the ship, some passengers learned that the patient was a young person.  Given the scarcity of young people on board, other than the crew, and everyone knew this patient was not a crew member, and given the amazingly effective rumour mill on board, soon many people knew who it was that was so ill.  And, of course, everyone had a theory of what was medically wrong, and was convinced that they knew all the facts.  I have no idea how this sort of thing happens, but as we all know, rumours, however they begin, take on a life of their own.  No one really knew what was wrong, but the doctors  suspected Sasha's gall bladder was causing at least some of the extreme pain.

Melissa, needless to say, was very distraught.  She could be brave with Sidney, but spent a lot of time alone, or with me and Stryker, her other close friend.  The doctors had let her in during the day, and she said Sasha was very pale and weak.  Now, as we reached the rendezvous point, she pleaded with the doctors to let her see Sasha before he left.  They refused.

Two helicopters and a small airplane arrived.  Both were painted in bright orange and white, for visibility, I assume.  The seas were rough, and once the ship stopped, it was tossed about by the choppy waves.  The transfer was to take place on the bow deck, which is the front section of deck four.  The captain asked that everyone stay well away from the area, including away from the hallways leading to the bow deck.  The plan was for one helicopter to lower a stretcher.  Sasha would be strapped onto this, and then lifted into the helicopter.  A doctor and nurse were on hand to oversee his care while the helicopter returned to Kodiak, where the hospital was waiting.  No one else could go with them, for there was no room.  Sidney very badly wanted to stay with his godson, but the doctors promised that he would get email as soon as they knew anything, and he had to be content with that. 

Since the ship was moving so much, the Coast Guard decided to do a dry run, to make sure the transfer could be done safely.  As well as the rough ocean, there were patches of thick fog, small patches, but very dense.

It had been a long passage, as I said, and a lot of people were very interested in what was happening.  As it was cold out, the best place to observe what was happening was the Crow's Nest bar, on deck 9, and although I wasn't there, I was told it was very crowded.  A few hardy people braved the weather and went outside on the decks that had a view of the bow.

I was in the library, my usual hangout, and while I was interested in how the transfer would take place, I refused to make Sasha's ordeal into an entertainment, and stayed where I was.  Melissa also couldn't watch.  She went back down after the dry run, and the doctors did let her see Sasha as they wheeled him on a gurney out of the medical centre.  He was awake, she told me when she rejoined me, and actually looked much better than he had before, so she felt somewhat better.

The dry run took a while to complete.  In the library, some people pressed themselves against the large windows, and offered a commentary on what they could see, which was a part of the bow deck.  The fog patches seemed to come at the worst moments, just as the helicopter was trying to stay in a stable still position over the bow, and the ship's motion made lowering the stretcher difficult.  The plane, which I think someone said was a C30, (there were several air force vets aboard). circled the ship the entire time.  As the time dragged on, people began to speculate why the plane was there.  The best guess was that it would pick up anyone who fell in the water, but that makes no sense, since a helicopter would be a much more manoeverable source of help.  But, I don't know much about flying and moving people over open water. 

There was some question of whether there was only one helicopter or two, but later we learned that the actual evacuation was filmed, because it appeared on the Coast Guard's website, so the second one probably was there for the cameraman.

After what seemed a very long time, at least an hour, I think, we heard that the Coast Guard and ship's crew decided to go ahead with the transfer.  Sasha was wheeled outside, and lifted successfully into the helicopter.  The aircraft them took off, and we resumed forward motion, moving back toward our original course.

Melissa and I learned later that while many of the people who watched the whole thing were respectful of both Sasha and the process, some saw it as a special entertainment just for them.  A couple of overheard comments: A man, unhappy at how long the dry run had taken, complained while Sasha was being strapped onto the gurney, "I wish they'd hurry up, or we're going to miss dinner."   One woman, after Sasha disappeared into the helicopter turned to her husband and said, sounding annoyed, "I thought he'd wave to us while he was going up.  I wanted to get a picture."

Fortunately, these people were in the minority, and Sasha's friends never learned who they were.

Sasha made it to Kodiak, and was later transferred to Anchorage.  In Anchorage, he was put in the ICU and his condition was upgraded to critical but stable.  That last word, stable, meant a lot to all of us.

Meanwhile, life on board went on.  Sidney received a lot of support from passengers and crew, which helped him a great deal.  People began to joke, in a nice way, that Stryker had better be careful, because bad things happen in threes, and two of Melissa's three closest people on board, Sasha, myself, and Stryker, had had bad things happen.  (I think she was a little relieved when the end of the cruise arrived and Stryker was still healthy.)

Sasha's mother flew up to be with her son.  Sidney had a hard time because the hospital would no longer give him updates on Sasha's condition, since he was not immediate family.  Sasha's sister, though, helped out by sending emailed reports to both Sidney and Melissa.

Sasha slowly improved, and he is now home in California, having made a complete recovery.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cruise Ship People - Troon Sul

Troon, and I’m not sure if that’s how he spells his name in English letters, is a Korean man in his seventies.  He was born in Beijing, and lived there for a number of years.  He told me today about his former addictions, alcohol and gambling, and the one he hasn’t been able to give up, smoking, although he is down to five cigarettes a day.

He started smoking when he was in the army.  An officer came out to see the new recruits, and stopped in from of Troon.  “Do you smoke?” he asked.

“No, sir.”

The officer pulled out a pack of cigarettes and, taking one, put it in Troon’s breast pocket.  “There,” he said.  “Smoke, and you’ll be a real soldier.”

Troon married a few years later, and started drinking and gambling.  One day, years later, he came home late (to California) from Las Vegas.  When he opened his front door, he found his wife.  She’d pulled a chair to directly face the door, and she was sitting there, tears streaming down her cheeks.

He decided then that he had lost his wife’s respect.  Respect, and the idea it has to be earned, was taught him by his mother, and he determined to do whatever it took to gain it back.  He said it took him 14 years, during which she could never truly trust him or anything he said, but now, a long time later, he feels like a good man and a good husband again, even though he still has those few cigarettes a day.

I told him he deserves a lot of respect for being able to give up the two addictions.  It started me thinking, later, about how that marriage had held together.  I suspect his wife didn’t see leaving him as an option.  Although they got married in 1967, I suspect their culture was not one of ‘free love’ as it was in parts of North America.  I respect Troon, but I respect his wife even more.  She is on board, but I haven’t met her.  Troon is the only other person who ever sits in the green chairs, that I describe in another post.  We don’t always feel the need to talk, both happy to read or otherwise occupy ourselves, but we are getting to know each other.  Today we were talking about the difference between an actor and a writer, both of whom create characters.  We probably got into this because the remake movie of Fun With Dick and Jane was on a couple of nights ago, and Bob Morrisey, the acting teacher on board, has a role in it which, while not huge, is still definitely part of the movie.

Troon wondered if actors become different people when they portray a character, and then maybe find it difficult to become themselves in between roles.  Bob, though, during his classes, tells the students to figure out the situation and what the character wants, and then think about how they, the person they are, would react and do that.

I’ve always thought that if I acted, I would become the character, and that it would be liberating, in a way, to become someone else.  Bob teased me, when I was attending his classes regularly B.A. (before ankle) that I was too nice, too sweet.  He’d give me an angry scene to do, and ask what do I do when I’m angry.  I don’t usually let anger out, though, which perhaps is why I suffer from depression. (Someone once told me that depression is anger turned inward, and for some reason that concept has stuck.  But maybe it’s true.)  But I guess I have gotten angry and had arguments or fights with some people, so I tried to draw on that.  But in the class, I found it easier to just think that I had become this other person who did express anger, and my portrayal was better that way.  (I hope Bob never reads this.  He’ll be shattered.)

Anyway, back to Troon.  We had an interesting discussion that moved to creating characters in a movie, which is a combination of the writer’s words, the individual actor, the director, and probably all sorts of things how the actor is lit and what music plays during the scene, and camera angles, and all sorts of stuff that Bob knows about and I don’t.  But when I create a character, I do it all by myself.  Complete creative control.  And I told Troon that I write, in part, to become people I’m not and have experiences that I never have had and never will.  I don’t write about myself, although something of me must be in everything I write, since it comes from me.

It was an interesting conversation, and then I told him that my background is in psychology, and right away he shifted back in his chair, and said that he had to be careful what he said.  I could tell that he was genuinely uncomfortable, and I said the usual things that I used to say about how I am unable to learn secret things about people just from looking at them and that I’m essentially just like anyone else when it comes to those subconscious assumptions we are always making about others.  I talked about how we all reveal ourselves through body language and facial expressions as well as what we say, and that we are social animals, so we all can read these cues.

He went away at that point, and I felt terrible, even though, while I sometimes used to get this reaction from strangers back when I was an undergrad at McGill, nobody’s really seemed concerned about since the mid-‘70s.

A few minutes later I saw him going up the stairs to deck five, and since I know he drinks coffee, I called to him and asked if he’d bring me a steamed milk with strawberry syrup in it.  He did so, then went back upstairs for his coffee, and so I apologized profusely for making him go up twice, even though he takes the stairs nimbly and quickly compared to a lot of the other elderly people on board.  And when he came back, and we talked some more, and any fear about psychologists had vanished.

T little bit of my brain that still knows anything about psychology wondered if my asking him to do me a favour had given him a sense of control over the relationship we have, and so he felt more comfortable, but then I decided that was all nonsense.

And then he told me that when he was in the army, not only had his commanding officer given him that first cigarette, but the Red Cross regularly handed out packages which were sampler packs of different cigarette brands.  And that freaked me out more than anything else.

I look forward to our next conversation.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Fragility of Bones

Our skeleton is all that holds us up, at least when we are trying to ignore the pull of gravity.  Muscles, of course, need to be strong, too, but without the bones, we have no way to stand tall.
  My bones are healing, and I no longer wear a cast.  I am using a cane, so I can teach my ankle and foot how to walk, without experiencing too much pain.  I can walk on my own with my right foot at a more-than 45 degree outwards angle, but I don't want to lurch from step to step in that way forever, and so am seeing a physiotherapist and using the cane in the way she has shown me. 
    I haven't used painkillers since a couple of weeks after the surgery, but she warned me to use some before each appointment, as she has to move my foot and ankle to positions they haven't experienced in three months.  The bones, muscles, and ligaments are happy with the new position they assumed during the time since my injury, and are resistant to change, even though the new positions, which really are the old positions, will be healthier.  It's okay, I am willing to deal with the pain, since I know it will bring me to a healthier place.
  We have bones, muscles, and ligaments in the non-body parts of our lives, too.  When Carl left me, I succumbed to gravity and became a puddle, something with no skeleton, no shape.  I was just a raw pool of grief and poor self-esteem, that sought the lowest level.  Just as water always follows gravity, I sank, unable to rise up and chart my own course.
  But over time, my bones have once again begun to give me a shape.  It's been painful, even more painful than what I'm experiencing as my ankle once again learns to function.  Still, I've risen against the pull of gravity, found ways to move into new positions.
  It's not a completed process yet.  A surgeon here told me my ankle will probably always be a little stiff.  My physiotherapist said my ankle will never be as thin as it was, because the healing bones build up more thickly, to better cover the breaks.  I can understand than my mental injuries may well need a thicker protective coat to keep those parts of me strong enough to function.
  It's silly, when I was quite young, I read a novel in which a boy didn't like a girl because she had thick ankles.  Because of this, I've always been proud of having thin ones.  My right ankle is still very swollen, enough that it's difficult to even get a sock on, never mind a shoe.  I'm not sure how it will look once the swelling is gone and all the healing that can take place is complete.  I'm beginning to realize that it doesn't matter.  I may have a thick ankle, and the scar from the surgery will always show.  It's okay, though.  They are there because of things I've gone through.  There's no sense in pretending these things didn't happen, and if I meet a person who can't like me because I have a thick ankle, well, I don't want to like that person anyway.  I am who I am because all these things have happened to me, and I want to be loved not despite them, but because they are part of me.
  Even more important, I am learning to have compassion for myself.  For the person who tripped and fell, who was too concerned with not making a mess and so didn't fall well.  But also for the person who married a man who loved her more than anything, but whose love changed so quickly after the marriage, who was often cruel, critical, and controlling, but who also could make her laugh.  Who, in the last years of the marriage, was more supportive, was a good partner, but who I now know was less happy because I was more happy and more independent.  Who destroyed me in many ways, but I stayed anyway.
  I can never heal without finding new positions.  And it is painful, thinking about why I stayed for so long when I knew doing so was dangerous.  It's been tempting, to see myself in the role of victim.  All the therapists I've seen, during the marriage and after, have told me he was abusive and that I should leave.  Why didn't I?  Was I truly so weak?  I know that women with abusive partners often feel they don't deserve to find happiness, and don't have the strength to handle the new life that could be theirs.  It's frightening to look change in the eye.  It's easier to keep trying, and I can't blame anyone for feeling that way.  Trying is a strength, a gift, in many ways.  But there comes a time when we realize that what we are losing, what is being taken from us, is more important, more deadly.
   I didn't have the strength to leave.  He left me.  Now, more than a year later, I can realize just how beaten down I was.  When he told told me he was leaving, I made a bitter comment about how his first wife, who left him after only a few years, must have known things that I wish I did.  He got angry with me, said it was because I said things like that he was leaving, and so I immediately felt guilty and apologized.  That was what my reality was back then, I was always wrong, and I had no idea life could be different.  I don't have it in me, not yet, to thank him for finally ending the marriage, but I do need to forgive myself for not leaving.
    I have to find ways to feel compassion for the person I was, and to welcome the pain now as I push myself into new positions, a new life, a new way to stand up and resist the pull of gravity.  It hurts, maybe it always will, but I am doing my best to work through the pain to what it will give me.
  Bones are both strong and fragile.  I've only broken a bone once before, and that was two toes.  It happened because of the one crime I've committed.  It was a long time ago, when I was around twenty.  I was at an all-night party, and at around 4:00 a.m., some of us decided to go out and steal signs.  I wanted a Dead End sign, I'm not sure why, but we found one, we got it off of its pole, and I took it home.
  When I reached home, I parked my car near my apartment, and carried the sign across the lawn towards the building.  I was with my friend Ruth, who was too drunk to get home, so she was going to stay with me.  As I walked, the sign slipped out of my hands ( it was surprisingly heavy.)  It was a diamond shape, I was holding it by its upper corner, and its full weight landed on my foot through the bottom corner.  I was wearing those suede-topped clogs that were so popular then, and they offered no protection at all.
  I picked up the sign and limped into my apartment,  My foot hurt, more than anything I'd ever experienced, and the big toe's nail was rapidly turning black.  Now, I'm someone who once, when I was a kid at camp, stuck my foot under the end of a canoe that had just slipped out of my hands, because I'd been told to never let the canoe stand in the sand.  That had hurt, and the camp councillor told me it would have been okay to let the canoe fall in the sand.  Back then, as in so much of my life, it's been difficult to put my own needs ahead of others'.  But this hurt more, and Ruth and I evenutally decided I should go to the hospital.
  I have only ever driven a standard transmission car.  Ruth was still too drunk to drive (I've never been drunk.)  So I drove, using my hurt left foot on the clutch.  When we arrived, the ER wasn't very busy, so we were shown into a cubicle right away.  Ruth promptly climbed on the bed and went to sleep.  I sat in the chair and smiled at her.
  I was so glad she was there with me.  She made me laugh turning what could have been a bad experience, into a good one.  I could have been angry at myself for my carelessness and stupidity, I could have seen what happened as punishment for stealing.  Instead it was an experience that made me feel I was alive.  I was an individual, a person who made mistakes, just as we all did.  The pain would go away, I would heal, and I would remember this time with laughter, because of my friend.  It turned out two toes were broken.  The nurse told me the pain would ease if she could remove the pressure of the blood behind my toenail.
  This was surprisingly low-tech.  She unbent a paperclip, held it in a bunsen burner flame, and put the tip against my nail.  This hurt a lot, more than the bones did, and at one point I couldn't help it, I jerked my foot away.  Embarrassed to show such weakness, I muttered, "Oh, I am such a coward." 
  The nurse stopped what she was doing at that point, lifted her head from where she concentrating on my foot, and looked straight at me.  "No, you are not," she said.  And something about how she said it, so directly, as if saying it was the most important thing she could ever do, changed something for me.
  She returned to what she was doing, and I don't remember her name, but I will always remember her with gratitude.  My upbringing up to that point, and my marriage that was to come, tried to shape me into someone who was weak, who was always at fault.  What that nurse told me that night was the first type of therapy I encountered that showed me I am not those things.  I am strong, and that's why my marriage became so difficult.  I couldn't be the weak pliable person I appeared to be when Carl met me.  That's what he wanted, and I couldn't do it.  I've been working against gravity for a long time.
  Breaking bones hurts, but it results in stronger bones and newly built muscle.  I laugh now when I think of breaking my toes.  I wish I still had that sign, with its warning that was so appropriate.  I gave it away when I left Kingston, to someone who really wanted it.  I hope it has brought laughter to him.
  And so I'm dealing with pain still, but know that it's there for a reason.  I'm moving into new positions.  Someday soon, my foot will point straight ahead, instead of to the side.  I'll move ahead, and up, resisting gravity, so I can find compassion for the person I was, and learn just how strong my bones truly are.  We are all fragile, and we are all stronger than we know.

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Whine

Okay, since I got home my life has become ever more chaotic.  Actually, it's mostly the house's fault.  I've been okay with everything until today, and so you get the whine and hopefully I can go back to being okay.
  I came back and got the cast off, which was good, so now I can kind of hobble around, even without the crutches on good days, and I can drive the car, which is also good.  I hobble to the car, take the walking cast boot thing off, drive, put the boot back on, and get groceries or whatever.  It's a sign of how housebound I was feeling, that I actually want to go grocery shopping.
  We've been having a lot of rain here, which is unusual but seems to be part of the overall weather changes that are happening all over the planet.  Since the basement has been leaking for the last few years, it is continuing to flood, only with more water than before.
  . We'd tried smaller fixes in the past, making sure the land of all sides of the house sloped away, taking up the patio and getting someone in to put more sand and a water barrier in before putting the bricks back.  These things helped some, but not completely. 
  Jesse was getting the water out while I was away, but he went to Toronto for ten days, and it rained almost the whole time.  The whole room down there, the new basement, for those of you who've been here,  (The original basement, from 1912, has never had any problems.) was full of water to about two or three inches deep.  Since I can't haul buckets of water, I found some big containers, those tubs you can get for storage.  I found some waterproof boots that probably belong to Jesse, sat on the couch, watched several episodes of House and used a mop to move water from the floor to the tubs.    I moved a lot of water, but when I reached to point where my arms hurt, I couldn't tell that I'd done anything. 
   So I got smart and looked in the yellow pages under Flood.  I discovered there are a lot of 'didaster' companies, that will come in and take care of the problem from start to finish, acting as a contractor to bring in people with the different skills and areas of expertise that are needed. 
  I've had pretty good luck choosing services out of the phone book, and I'm very happy with the people who are here now.  I chose the ad that included the word 'smile' in it.  These guys are great and knowledgeable.  The only problem, in fact, is that they are getting things going too quickly.
  They brought in a carpet cleaning truck to suck out the water.  They left a dehumidifier running, and vented it out the small basement window.  They brought in a mould guy, who showed me all the areas with mould.  They tracked down possible suspects for how and why the water is getting in.  And after just a couple of days, they started tearing out the drywall in the basement.  I knew it was going to have to come out, since there has to be damage back there.  Even I could figure out that the water was coming in along the back of the house, going down mostly inside the wall, although sometimes along the floor above a little way and then dripping from the basement ceiling. 
  I wish I'd brought in these people years ago, when the problems first started.  I didn't, in part because it made sense to try the smaller, cheaper fixes first, and part because I trusted Carl when he said everything was fine, there was no need to do expensive work.  In the past when he was still here, we took water out, and sanded and painted over stains.  This, though, has become a much more serious problem, and the mould could well be a major component of the many allergies and other health problems we've experienced over the last few years.
  Anyway, while trust, and lack of trust, is an issue I'd like to whine about, I won't.  But it turns out that the walls, part of the ceiling, and probably my lovely tile floor are going to have to come out so the mould can be removed.  Riley, the mould guy, takes this seriously, and has put up good plastic barriers, several layers in places, so dust and mould won't spread to other parts of the house.  He tells me the spores, if they spread, could grow if they find moisture in other areas. 
   It rained again over the weekend, and so there is more water.  It was actually kind of nice to go downstairs and see the water and know I didn't have to deal with it, at least I don't as long as I don't think about all these things contributing to the final bill I'll have to pay.  The dehumidifier quit working Saturday night, though, and I thought, with my tiny bit of elctrical knowledge that there'd probably been a short because the unit was now sitting in water, and that the water might be dangerous. 
  I wasn't brave, or stupid, enough to find out for myself, and I started worrying that the guys, when they arrived to work on Monday morning, might get electrocuted.  I know this is silly, that they know far more than I do about all this, and they have a lot of experience, but I couldn't help it.  Since they might arrive early, before I got up, I wrote them a note.  They were very polite about it when I did talk to them, didn't snicker at all, but were totally not worried about being electrocuted.
  Anyway, this has resulted in lots of chaos, because everything in the new basement had to come out.  Riley took the couch away to clean and dry, and he said he'd tell me if he thinks it's worth keeping.  One end of it is falling off, and I was thinking about replacing it, but that will depend on how much all this costs.  The guys put all the books and dvds in boxes and extra strong huge plastic bags, which was great because packing and moving stuff is another thing my ankle prevents me doing.  all teh Tv boxes, dvd player, VCR, speakers, etc, also came up.  I know I have to pay for their time, but I'm trying to look at how great it is to have these good-looking guys around doing stuff for me, instead of worrying about money.  The shelving unit for the dvds had to come out and can't be salvaged.  The pink bookshelf, a relic from when Melissa was very young and actually liked pink, is also a write-off for the base is rotting from being wet some often.
  Some of the this stuff could be put into the old basement, but it is already pretty full, because I cleared out my office and bedroom, and the third floor before I left for the cruise, to make room for the renters, and most of that stuff is down there.  So, lots of stuff came upstairs and is in my quilt room and office.
  I've always lived in a bit of chaos.  My desk is never neat, and usually there are piles of stuff on the floor.  It's organized chaos, though, and I can find things.  As I've grown older, I find I have less tolerance for too much stuff, and right now, with some piles blocking space between rooms and growing almost as tall as I am, I'm beginning to feel overwhelmed.
  Then yesterday, the phone stopped working.  I have a cell phone, and so this wasn't a big issue, but I guess it was the first last straw.  There were others, though.  Anupama had invited friends over for dinner, which was fine, but the table in the solarium was the only one that could reasonable be big enough, and it was covered with stuff.  I was invited for dinner, too, and so while she cooked a wonderful Indian meal, I moved it all into my quilt room and office, building piles upon piles.  She was able to use my cell to call people who needed to reach her and give them my number, and the dinner party went well, although, Monster, for some reason, has taken a dislike to all men and barks and growls at them nonstop unless you get very forceful with him.  Even then, he growls out of the side of his mouth when he thinks you're not looking.  He's fine with women.  The three women guests arrived first, and he was very cute.  When the two men arrived, well I guess he was still cute, he can't not be cute, but he was very noisy.  It's almost as if he's afraid of men, and with the work guys coming and going, he's finding plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his fight or flight impulses.
  Anyway, I called about the phone, and spent time as directed by the phone guy I spoke to on my cell.  Anupama helped, which was good, as we had to unplug all the phones and then plug them in one at a time and then I had to find the phone modem in the basement.  This was tricky because I knew about two boxes down there, but they are both internet related.  Fortunately the phone company had a note saying the phone box is near the electrical panel and thanks to the phone guy describing it, I found it. 
  All of this was complicated by my ankle, and by the fact Anupama hurt her back a week ago, lifting something heavy in her lab.  So she can't bend over or lift, and I can't crawl around to find cords.  We'd been joking about how useless we are are, even before all this began.
  Anyway, all this plugging and unplugging helped the phone guy on the phone figure out someone needed to come to the house.  He came today, and learned that the phone had shorted out from the water, which makes sense, I guess, although I didn't think any of its wires were low enough to get wet.
  The phone now works, but the work guys told me they need to take out the wall beneath the window in the solarium.  This means that everything in there has to be moved out, or at least well back, so they can put up the plastic barriers and give themselves enough room to work.  I was also shown how the tile floor along the base of that wall is beginning to crack, because of water.  Sigh.
  I've been doing pretty well dealing with all this, in fact I was pleased with how calm I've been.  I figured that as long as I could keep a pathway to my desk, to my sewing machine, and to my bedroom, I was okay.
  But, and this is a big but, tomorrow night Melissa and her friend Sarah arrive to stay, and her fiance Matt will be joining us in a few days, after his conference in Regina.  We will then have six people in the house, with no basement, no solarium, and with the usual room that Melissa uses, on the third floor, inhabited by Anupama.
  This is why way up near the beginning of this post I said it was bad that the guys were doing the work so quickly.  Still, I suppose no one would have appreciated sleeping in the basement if it meant having a snorkel handy, and I am glad that this problem will finally be taken care of.
  But today I am not calm.  I'm overwhelmed and stressed and I've been walking around in my cast without the crutches more than usual so it hurts, only it doesn't really because with my high pain tolerance I'm aware of pain but it doesn't bother me, but I always worry that I'm making things worse becasue Itlon't stop doing whatever is making it hurt becasue it doesn't bother me.
  Apparently I'm overwhelmed enough that I write run-on sentences, too.
  So, that's what I'm whining about.  I actually feel better, now that I've whined.  If my ankle wasn't a problem, I could also lie down and kick and scream, which would probably help, too, but I guess the whining is it for now.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Quilting While Cruising

  Despite the fact that everyone thought I was insane for bringing a sewing machine on the cruise, I was not the only one who did so.  There were several quilters on board and at least one of them also brought her machine.  And none of them thought I was nuts.
  I brought my older Bernina, bought in 1983, because it is built like a tank and has a good hard shell case.  I meant to bring it onto the plane as carry on, but in the beginning of January, when I flew to Florida to meet the ship, no one flying into the US was allowed any carry on.  Not even my laptop bag made it, and I had to grovel and whine in order to bring on a book, so I'd have something to read during the flights.  Once through security, the gates were full of people clutching naked laptops to their chests.
  I told the airline that the sewing machine was fragile, and they stuck one of those broken wine glass stickers on the case.  I think those stickers are seen by airline baggage handlers as an instruction, as in, "This should be broken so it matches the picture."  Even though it was treated as normal luggage, and so did the conveyor belts with their associated drops, the Bernina survived perfectly.  The case was even cracked open on one corner, but the machine worked perfectly all during the cruise.
  To get it home, I took if off the ship in Vancouver, and it is returning here by bus.  I assume teh bus ride will be gentler than the flights.
  That machine does only seven stitches, but I knew I'd have very little room to spread out while sewing, and so I brought only projects that were simple, those involving squares and rectangles, nothing more.  I brought fabric for three tops.  One was the red and black log cabin I'm making for Melissa's future grandmother-in-law, and I picked out the fabric just before I left Saskatoon.  The other two were kits I bought years ago, when I first started quilting. 

 When I did the first cutting for a project, I took the fabric, my mat, and rotary cutter up to the Lido, and used this round table near the back.  Through the windows behind me you can see the aft deck, which is outside on Deck 8.

For smaller cutting jobs, those that needed to be done while sewing, such as cutting apart chain-pieced block sections or trimming, I used the cabin.  Before I broke my ankle, I knelt at my bed.

There was a small moveable table in the cabin, and I put a towel over it and it became my ironing board.  The chair at the front of the picture is at the desk, and I used it while sewing, so you can see tht no area was very far from any other.

And here I am, sewing.

After I broke my ankle, I became much more efficient.

I finished two tops, which still need borders, but here they are.

Working in my cabin wasn't ideal, since the cabin, being low and right in the bow, showed clearly whenever the ship pitched while underway.  I could have taken the machine up to the library or the Lido, but there were only a few plugs near tables, and it would have been difficult to carry everything in one trip.  I need one of those rolling sewing machine carts, with lots of pockets!  But I could sew when the ship was in port, and when we were in calm water.  I started the third top, but it isn't ready to be photographed.
  I also got a pair of socks knitted, which I gave to Sidney Mobell.  I'll be doing a post on him soon.

I didn't sew the items in the following pictures.  Some of the quilters on board did a little show and tell, and I just love what these two quilters are doing and so had to share them with you.  Unfortunately, I didn't get anyone's name.

These are all clothing, and for the top two, the quilter began with a man's while business shirt.  She cut the white fabric away under the applique pieces, so that there would be no extra bulk.  Aren't these pieces amazing?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Standing on My Own Two Feet

On May 5th, exactly two months after the fall that broke my ankle, I stood on both my feet, with the weight distributed equally between them.  This was a Big Deal!
I can't put any more weight than that on the right foot, but it is progress.  The cast came off on May 3rd, which was a Very Welcome event.  I have a walking boot now, which is something like a ski book that goes up to my knee.  I can take it off at night, and whenever I am sitting for a while.  I do stretches and circles with the ankle, which currently has very limited motion.  It is slowly improving, though, which I guess is the best I can hope for.
  I am home now, but I still have more things to post about the cruise.  And, since I now don't have to pay for Internet by the minute, I can upload more photos.  So stay tuned to this spot!
  I seem to be in a mood to use Capital Letters and exclamation marks!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Hangouts On Board

We are crossing the northern Pacific, leaving Russia in the Bering Sea, and passing by the Aleutian Islands.  I am not getting about to take pictures as much as I’d like, but they are very beautiful.  They rise starkly from the water, dark brown in the distance, streaked vertically with the clear white of snow and ice.

Today is the fourth day of the passage, with three more to go.  For the last three days, and tomorrow, we lose the hour between two p.m. and three.  Two days before the passage, we lost two hours, one in the afternoon, one at night.  Everyone is very tired, feeling stretched thin.  I would honestly choose jet lag, changing eight or twelve hours all at once, over this changing the clock gradually.  Every night I get to sleep an hour later.  Last night it was five a.m.  I get up in the late morning, but I’m still always tired.

Usually during the cruise, since I normally go to sleep between one and two a.m., the library is inhabited by very few people.  There are the jigsaw puzzle ladies, and one or two people who are reading or on the Internet.  Recently, though, it is more crowded, because more and more people are finding it difficult to sleep.  The casino, also, is busier late at night.

I like the jigsaw puzzle ladies.  Most people, over a long cruise, find their favorite place to hang out.  It’s a big ship, and there are several sorts of places, which is good.

(I intend to add some pictures to this post, but in case I don’t or they aren’t very good, and you are curious, go to the Holland America website and look at the ship named ms Amsterdam.  Their photos make everything look fabulous and classy, which I suppose it is, but it’s also just the ship I’ve been living on for almost four months.  Kind of like living in a mobile hotel.)

Decks one and two are cabins only.  Below deck one are decks A, B, and C.  These are crew quarters, although some crew are on passenger decks – officers, heads of departments, entertainers who are brought in for one or two performances.

Deck three is the one that has an outside deck running all around the ship.  It’s the promenade deck, since that’s where you go to promenade, but on this ship the deck is called the Lower Promenade.

Near the center of the ship is the atrium, which is a large vaguely round area that rises three storeys.  All the cruise ships I’ve been on have an atrium, and each one has a large piece of art or something rising through the center.  This one has a fancy clock.  Our atrium starts on deck three.  The various heads of departments, hotel manager, cruise director, and others have offices around this space, and in the center are desks that are used mostly by travel agency representatives.  Many guests book through Cruise Specialists International or another agency like that, as they can get good group rates for cabins, and usually organize social events and shore excursions especially for their group.

Deck four, called the Promenade deck, holds the lower level of the large theatre where the evening shows take place, in the bow.  In the stern is the lower level of the main dining room.  In between, in the atrium, is the front desk, which handles just about everything the guests need.  It’s like the front desk in a hotel, which essentially, is what the ship is.  There’s also the smaller theatre, which is where movies are shown, and where classes like mine, and lectures are held.  And the photo gallery.  Every cruise ship has photographers wandering around taking pictures, and also taking formal posed shots on formal nights.  All the photos are set out in the gallery, where you can go and look through a very large number of pictures of people who, like you were when the picture was taken, were leaning on the stern rail on the Lido deck.  If you’re persistent or lucky, and they don’t all start to blur because they all look alike, you’ll find the one of you.  If you like it, you can spend what seems like a large amount of money for a photo, and take it home.  You can also take your own pictures and take a tech class on deck five, to learn how to do marvelous things with them.  Each Holland America ship has a Microsoft trained employee, who teaches people how to use Microsoft software to edit photos.

Deck five, the Upper Promenade deck, is where the library is.  In the bow and stern are the upper levels of the large theatre and dining room.  The Ocean bar is on one side of the atrium, the area in which a band plays dance music starting at four in the afternoon, and continuing as long as there are dancers.  This is one place the dance hosts work.  They are enrichment staff, like me, but work more hours, four or five a day.  They are here to dance with women who don’t have a partner, and as there are more women than men at the age level of most guests, and on board, they keep busy.

There are three shops on deck five, also.  One sells jewelry, and it is larger than both other stores put together.  They constantly bring out new things, so that there is always a reason to go in – to see what’s new.  Oh, I forgot, there is a fourth shop, also a jewelry store.  It is smaller, and sells only very expensive stuff.  It has a curtain across its entrance, which is drawn when someone requests a private viewing of a Faberge egg or something equally valuable.

One of the other stores sells clothing, most with the Holland America logo on it, and also hats, bags, and other Holland America stuff.  The smallest store sells liquor, but also has some drug store items, such as toothpaste and aspirin.  That is where my books are on sale, along with CDs and DVDs from assorted entertainers.

Further back, there is the piano bar and Explorers Lounge on one side, and the library on the other.  The piano bar, known as the Rembrandt Lounge, is Stryker’s bar.  It isn’t a traditional piano bar, it doesn’t have the piano in the middle and people sit around it and chat with and confide in Stryker.  The piano is on a platform at one end of the room, and people sit in chairs with little tables scattered around, to listen.  As in all the bars on board, there is alcohol available, for a fee, but no one feels uncomfortable if they sit there and don’t drink.

Stryker has become one of Melissa’s closest friends on board.  He’s had an interesting life, working for a time as an actor.  He needed a stage name at one point, and chose Stryker, and that’s what he goes by now.  For those of you who are X-Men movie fans, the Colonel Stryker in those movies is named after him.

He can’t read music, but can play anything.  He is well valued by Holland America, because he is an excellent entertainer, singing as well as playing.  He is good at interacting with his audience, and has introduced Name That Tune games this year which I really enjoy, especially because when I play with Tony, who’s from Calgary, our team usually wins.  After the daily humiliation at the regular trivia game, it’s nice to win, even if the prize is yet another Holland America key chain or luggage tag.

The casino is on this deck, and sitting in the library I hear assorted dings and clangs, as people play the slot machines.  Once in a while I hear a slot machine release a surge of coins, but that doesn’t happen often.  There are tables, too, for poker, roulette, and blackjack, and a cashier who is barricaded behind wood and glass.

There’s also a sports bar, with a flat screen TV tuned to, what else, sports.  There’s usually no one there.

At the front end of the library is a room full of card table-sized tables, usually the haunt of bridge players.  Then there is the library proper, with bookshelves and lots of books.  Along the outside wall are large windows and the leather chairs with footrests that I like so much.  This area is usually crowded, and noisy.  It’s rather odd, but people who want a quiet place to read tend to go across the ship to the Explorers Lounge.  If I can’t get a leather chair, and there are only five of them, I’ve discovered a little area on deck four, where there’s a space about ten feet by ten, which isn’t really useful in any way.  There’s a storage area on one side and a wheelchair washroom on the other.  It’s a very narrow washroom, as I’ve discovered, too narrow to turn a wheelchair around in.  The one time I tried I got wedged between the sink and the garbage bin, which is set in the wall and so can’t be moved.  I wondered how long it would take for someone to discover me, and wished I’d brought a book in with me, but after much wriggling of the chair, I did get out.  Now, I back straight out.

One other wheelchair washroom, while I’m on the subject, on the Lido deck, for some reason has its own speaker and so the canned music playing at a subtle volume out in the restaurant, is ferociously loud it there.  Plus, it’s always freezing in there, too.  But, they do have push buttons to open and close the door, and rails to hold on to, and a sink at a lower, more-reachable-from-a-chair height, so they’re all good.

Anyway, back to this area of deck four.  Someone has thoughtfully placed two green chairs there which, although they aren’t as comfortable as the ones in the library, have footrests.  There’s rarely anyone there, so it’s a good place for me to settle to read or write or do email.

Just aft of the book part of the library, is an area with two large tables.  This is jigsaw puzzle territory, and as such, it is well guarded from anyone who might want to do something else with the tables.  Puzzles are worked on by groups, and at assorted times, but every night, beginning around midnight, three or four of them arrive, and they are often still at it when I leave at two a.m.

They are older ladies, and they get quite rowdy as they put pieces in place.  The ship has a lot of puzzles on hand, and the librarian even kept one hidden, so that they’d have something new to work on during this crossing.  Rose is the puzzle lady I know best, although I first met her when I was sitting out on the promenade deck (which also has deck chairs) and she approached me out of the blue and wanted to show me some photographs she’d taken.  I was happy enough to look, and although she was a little uncertain of how to bring up the pictures she wanted to show, or how to zoom in to the part she wanted, she was so enthusiastic about them, and told me about assorted people in some of them, it was all interesting.  She showed a lot of concern when I broke my ankle, and always stops to chat when she arrives in the library.  She’s a widow, still misses her husband a great deal, but is determined to continue traveling and have new experiences whenever she can.  She wears large glasses of a type that distort the eyes, so she often looks vague, but she’s not.

Behind the puzzle room is another room with some computers and comfortable chairs.  At the back is a large table whose top is all inlaid in different colours of stone.  There are a couple of electric plugs back there, and so laptop users tend to congregate there.

In the evening, while Stryker is playing, there is a violinist and pianist in the Explorer’s Lounge, and I can hear them play when I sit in the library.  They are very good, and play a wide variety of music.  There’s also usually a small chocolate buffet set up there at night, but I pretend I don’t know that.

During the day, the bars and lounges are used for assorted events.  There is a kind of Olympics going on, in which people hit small balls with large hockey sticks through traffic cones, or toss rings into hula hoops.  All participants win Dam Dollars, which can be exchanged for assorted Holland America clothing and cups and things.  These games sometimes take place in the Ocean Bar, which is where I teach my off-program but regular writing classes.  The book club is in Stryker’s bar.  My on-program writing classes are in the movie theatre.  Most spaces are busy most of the day.

Deck six, the Verandah deck, is where the verandah cabins are, cabins that the same size as most, but have a small balcony.  Deck seven, the Navigation deck, has the suites, double-sized cabins with bigger balconies.  That deck has its own lounge, which has its own concierge as well as other staff.  There’s also a business center there, with Internet hook ups.  I guess for what those people pay, they deserve a few extra perks. The bridge is near the bow of deck seven.

Deck eight, called the Lido deck, has one swimming pool near the bow.  It has a retractable roof and deck chairs all around it, and is a popular place.  I’m not sure why, as it tends to be stuffy and smell like chlorine, but especially when we were in warmer places, it was filled with bodies, most of which overflowed their bathing suits by a considerable amount, lying in the sun if the roof was open, and in the humidity if it wasn’t.  (Speaking of bathing suits, one of comedian performers did a hilarious bit about how guys above a certain age should not be allowed to wear Speedos.)

Deck eight also has the cafeteria style restaurant, and then there’s an outside deck at the back, which also has a pool.  It’s a nice place to sit, as there is shade if you want it, and lots of tables for people who want to eat outside, as well as lots of deck chairs.

Deck eight has the gym, where the treadmills are right along the front, in front of tall windows, and the spa, where you can get everything – waxings, massages, facials, mud wraps, acupuncture, and so on.

Deck nine only exists in the front third of so of the ship.  It’s called the Sports Deck, and as a volleyball court, a basketball court, (both with netting as walls and ceiling so balls don’t end up in the ocean), and a short running track.  When we’re moving, it tends to be very windy, so runners tend to go very slowly for half the lap, and very fast for the rest.  There’s also an area for teens to hang out, and a day care area, where little kids, who are very rare on long cruises, can paint and play.  The ship has a childcare person.  She spent the first three months with one five-year old, but currently I think there are three or four little kids.  She does many other jobs, too, helping out as needed.

Also on deck nine, right in the front, is another bar called the Crow’s Nest.  This is the party place.  While the music there for much of the evening is dance music for ballroom style, like the Ocean Bar, and this is the other place the dance hosts keep busy, after about eleven or so there’s a DJ who, when he gets tired, lets people plug in their iPods to the sound system to they can dance to rock and roll or whatever the current popular music is called.  He plays this style of music, too.

Each formal night there’s a party up there, and as the formal nights on this ship are all themed, there are appropriate decorations and drinks, and people come dressed appropriately.  Most recently we had a Prohibition theme, and everyone who went to dinner in the dining room was given either a fedora hat or a feather boa.  Bullet hole stickers and signs saying things like “Bathtub Gin Joint” were common.  Other themes have included pirates, garden gnomes, and the tropics.

The Crow’s Nest is the favorite place with the few younger people on board who find each other there.  Some older folks hang out with them, too.  I find it amazing how comfortable people are these days with people much older or younger than themselves.  I would no more have sat around with one of my parents’ friends than I would have agreed to go to a high school class wearing a beanie cap.  And I never called any of them by their first names.  It’s different now, and better, I think.  (OMG, I sound so old!)

Cruise Ship People - Dr. and Mrs. Rosenberg

They are the couple that everyone is referring to when they talk about how it’s so wonderful to see such old people enjoying life on a cruise ship, but really, some people should recognize when they’re just too old.

They are both in their nineties.  He was an army surgeon, and then, I assume, had a practice.  I don’t know very much about her.  I only know about him because today, I was sitting in a green chair, and the other one was empty.  For some reason he sat down in the other one and told me a story about when he was an army surgeon in these waters, the northern Pacific along the Alaska coast.

I’ll get to the story in a moment, but I want to think about why people feel the couple is too old to be on this long a cruise, or maybe on any cruise.  She is definitely suffering from some level of Alzheimer’s, although she is often quite lucid.  During the early weeks, not just days but weeks, she had problems remembering which cabin was hers.  This wasn’t a problem only for her, as the hallways run the length of the ship, and all the doors look the same.  Still, a number of people ended up memorizing her cabin number, so they could help her find it.  She is very trusting when she is confused, and turns to the nearest person for help, so the others in cabins near hers were her first helpers.  She also had problems early on figuring out the taps in the washrooms, some of which turn on automatically, and some of which have handles to turn.  She normally wears baggy track suits, comfortable and easy to put on and take off.  Her hair is curly and, while thin, is long enough to stand up from her head and wave gently in any breeze, looking like milkweed pods in flight.

She is very dependent on her husband, and he is not as patient as he might be, although I know it is very difficult being a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s.  Still, he speaks harshly to her, often, and she cries.  At first a lot of women on board spent time comforting her and were angry with him, but I think we all have a more balanced idea now of what’s going on.  Sometimes, though, she singles me out from everyone else in the library and wants to talk.  Often she’s sitting at some distance from where I am, and I can’t always hear well enough to understand, as she never speaks loudly, but I enjoy seeing the animation in her face.  And I smile and nod, and sometimes ask a question based on what I have pieced together, and that’s all she requires.  She has one of the most wrinkled faces I’ve ever seen, and the loveliest smile, and her eyes are blurred with age but that just makes them look soft and sweet.

Today, for the first time, I had a little time with him.  He sat in the empty green chair and told me about how, during the war, (WW II, I assume) he was the surgeon on ships that carried upwards of two thousand soldiers up and down the coast of Alaska.  He said they got their pay every month, but given the sparse population along the coast of Alaska at the time, there was nowhere to spend it.  So, they started gambling with it, and craps became the most popular game.

One time, everyone on board was playing craps.  “There was a group of about thirty guys over here,” he said, gesturing with a hand, “and another thirty over there.”  As people lost, the groups got smaller, and they merged.  “Eventually, there were about twenty guys who had all the money, and they got together and decided to keep playing until one man had it all.  And after a while, there were two guys, and they each had $70,000.”  His glasses are slightly tinted, and his eyes are still sharp.  He glanced up at me from time to time to make sure I was getting the points he wanted to make, but most of the time his gaze was slanted down, and inward.

“They weren’t sure what to do at that point, a lot of money would be riding on the next throws, so someone went and got the chaplain.  He found a brand new pair of dice, so no one could say they were loaded, and he stood right there while they threw.”

I don’t know much about how to play craps, but Dr. Rosenberg told me the different numbers that came up, and I gathered that the two men were tied for a while.  Then came the throw that wasn’t a tie, and one man won it all.  Everyone was very civilized about it, and the chaplain took the money and put it in the ship’s safe.  And everyone else wondered what it would be like when their tour ended and the ship took them to whatever port was their home base in the States, but the guy never said much, so no one knew.

And then, when the tour was over, and the ship reached the home port, the first people aboard from the shore were two Military Police, and they marched right up to the man who’d won all the money, arrested him, and took him away.

And none of the other men could ever find out what happened to all the money that was in the ship’s safe.

Near the end of his telling me this, his wife came by, looking very lovely in a beige suit, jacket and skirt, and a matching cloche hat, her hair wisping out beneath it.  She tapped him on the shoulder and said they needed to get going.  He ignored her for a little while, and so as I wanted to hear the end of the story, and since I could tell he was approaching the finale, I asked her if they could wait a couple of minutes.  And he twisted in his chair to where she stood just behind him, with her hand on his shoulder, and in the gentlest way said he’d be ready in a moment, and she smiled and stood quietly while he finished talking to me.  And then he rose, she put her hand through his arm, and they went off to do whatever it was that had got her to dress up so nicely, looking like a couple who’d lived together forever, which I guess they have.  And I though with envy of the couples on board who know each other’s flaws well, and are sometimes brought to anger or tears because of them, but who know at the deepest parts of their hearts that they still want to be with that person more than anyone or anything else in the whole world.

Monday, April 19, 2010

I'm afraid that after all the excitement about finally having the x-ray, I don't have any news.  The doctors sent the x-rays to a lab where someone of the orthopedic persuasion will look at them.  They wanted to know how quickly I will be able to see an orthopedic surgeon once I get home, so I will try to find out.  The fact that this question was asked makes me a little nervous, but I think it's because the doctors here are ER doctors, and so don't know as much about long term care for an injury like mine.  I pleaded for a walking cast, but they want to wait to hear what the x-ray reviewer says.  They also seemed reluctant to let me fly home without using the wheelchair.  So things might change, but they might not.  But I am getting stronger with using the wheelchair.  One doctor also suggested I might be able to use a walking case with a walker, but I think I prefer the wheelchair to that. 
  Anyway, my spirits are good, and I continue to get more writing done that if I was more mobile, so it's not all bad.  I'm still letting people help me more than I used to, which seems to make them feel good, so it makes me feel good, too.  And since we are crossing the Pacific now, I'm not missing any ports.
  Russia was the last port, and we reach Vancouver on the 25th.  We stop in Seattle the next day, then have two sea days to Los Angeles, which we reach on the 29th.  I get home around midnight that day.
  We cross the Date Line tonight, which is kind of cool.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ankle, Take 2

As I write this, it's almost midnight, April 18th.  Tomorrow, the first April 19th for us, is more or less six weeks since I had the surgery on my ankle.  And tomorrow I will have a x-ray, to see if things have healed enough for me to graduate to more mobility.  I don't know what all the possibilities are, but a walking cast, even with a cane, would be heaven.  Keep you fingers crossed for me!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Wheelchair World

I’ve been using a wheelchair for six weeks now.  And if I thought before this that I had an understanding of what it’s like for people who use them, I was way out of line.

In the wonderful comic strip For Better or For Worse, there is a teacher who uses a wheelchair.  She meets a man, falls in love, and plans to get married.  When one of her students asks her how she knew this was the right man for her, she says that when they first met, he sat down to talk to her.

I so get that now.  I have sometimes wondered if my dogs, very small ones, get sore necks from looking up at people all the time.  I don’t know if they do or not, but I do know that my neck gets a workout.

Lots of people stop to chat, which is great.  It’s nice to know people care.  Sometimes they just want a quick update on how I’m doing, sometimes they have time for a bit of conversation.  I usually enjoy the attention, and most of them are interesting people to talk to.  Some of them have boarded the ship more recently, and they often ask me what happened.  Sometimes this seems a bit intrusive, but usually they are genuinely curious, in a good way.  The way they ask sometimes reminds me of when I was pregnant, and complete strangers would feel perfectly comfortable asking me about it and even touching my big belly.  I guess when someone is different in a way, but not too different, people feel less of a barrier exists between private and public.  I’m not sure, but it’s interesting.

The world looks different from this lower level.  It reminds me a bit of being a child, or of a museum exhibit I once saw in which furniture and other common household items were all huge.  Climbing on to a chair and sitting with my feet dnagling, because they didn’t reach the floor, was fun, helping visitors to rediscover the child within.

In a wheelchair, though, it isn’t always fun.  My feet do reach the ground, but when I go to the cafeteria restaurant I am not high enough to see what food is available.  When I go in a store, on board or on shore, the display cases are too high for me to get more than a sideways look at what’s in them, which usually isn’t enough to tell what anything is.   Some aisles or sidewalks are too narrow, and some sidewalks don’t have ramps at the corners.  I can’t reach some things, clothes hanging on hooks, some light switches, books on a higher shelf in the library.  My ankle has improved enough that I can often stand up on one foot to see or reach things, but it’s still a special effort.

And maybe being short adds to how everyone seems to believe that I am totally incapable of doing anything for myself.  I know that for the most part, people genuinely want to be helpful, but I’d rather wheel myself than have someone I don’t know well push me somewhere.  I know how far a normal chair has to be for me to comfortably and safely get myself from wheelchair to it, and which brake to set on the wheelchair so I’ll be able to reach it when I need to get moving again.  The one thing I can’t do is carry a plate of food or a drink to a table, and the stewards who work in the various restaurants are always ready to help.  Why, though, if I wheel myself into the dining room, does one of the servers, or even the maitre’d feel that they must push me to my table?

There are dangers, too, caused by the inattention of others, although this is rarely deliberate.  I’d never noticed before how often people step backwards while talking to someone, without looking behind them.  Or they stretch out their legs under a table and, since my bad leg still doesn’t bend well at the knee, kick my bad foot.  Or they are walking down the middle of a hall, and don’t think to move to one side to make room for my chair, which is wider than I am.  And the number of people who text while walking through a crowd, without looking at all where they are going, is phenomenal, and common in every port I’ve been in since breaking my ankle.  And, even if people are looking where they are going, they are looking at their face level, not down lower.  All this is perfectly normal behavior, but it takes on a whole new facet from a wheelchair.

I’ve encountered, in the past, a person in a wheelchair who became annoyed when I asked if she wanted me to hold a door open for her.  At the time I was a little offended.  Now, I understand.

Using a wheelchair removes so much independence and control from your life.  I want to hang on to every little bit I can.  I’ve worked at wheeling myself around, and while my triceps are still not at the level where I can wheel laps to get an actual workout, they now rarely begin to ache when I wheel myself around the ship.  And even if they do begin to hurt, I’d still rather push myself, to make them stronger.

The wheelchair is my friend, because I can get around the ship, and some places on shore, with it.  It’s faster than using a walker, and crutches are still considered by the doctors to be unsafe.  I can still teach writing, do my own writing, come up with discussion questions for the book club, sew, feed myself, take a shower, etc.  So, of course, I start feeling horribly guilty when I whine about the limitations I experience, and about what I have to miss at the ports we visit.  There are many people on board who use wheelchairs or motorized scooters.  They have been and will be, in their chairs for months and years.  I will use mine for only a few weeks.

There’s a fraternity of wheelchair users, too.  We always smile at each other, or nod in passing.  Sometimes we stop to speak.  We notice each other, and I suspect that most of them don’t get noticed by many mobile people.  I’m a bit of a different type of user, since so many people saw my fall or heard about it.  My leg is obviously in a cast, and I work on board, so lots of people know me, or know about me.  Through the book club and the writing classes I’ve worked with at least a couple hundred people, and even if I don’t remember all their names or faces, they know me.  I suspect, though, that most people in wheelchairs do not get asked how they are doing, or even if they are enjoying the cruise or what they did on the last shore day, which is what most people ask each other all the time.

Maybe mobile people feel uncomfortable with people in wheelchairs, or people with any sort of disability.  Maybe, like me, they feel guilty for what they have that the other person doesn’t.  Maybe, just because the person in the chair isn’t at face level, the mobile person honestly doesn’t see them.  I think most people know in principle that a person who uses a wheelchair is still a person, but it’s difficult to treat them as if they’re no different.

I’m the same person still.  I know this, even if others don’t treat me the same.  I understand, I really do.  Having been on both sides of the wheelchair issue, I am lucky, because once I can leave my chair behind (and not attached to my behind) I hope that I can use my newfound understanding to continue to realize that people are people, no matter how different they might appear.


I wrote the above yesterday.  Today I decided to do an experiment, and accept help whenever it was offered.  I allowed my trivia team to move my chair to where they thought was the best place for me to get into it, and to watch while I transferred from the place I usually sit during the game into the chair, because they worry that if I make the transfer with no one around, I could fall and reinjure my ankle.  Usually I explain that I’m trying to be as independent as possible, and so tell them I prefer to do it all myself.

While seated in the library, reading, one of the book club members asked if I wanted anything to eat or drink.  Normally I would have said I didn’t need anything, but I actually was a bit hungry, so she went to check out the snack place in the library, told me what there was, and carried a plate to me.

After book club, one of the members stopped to chat with me.  When we finished talking, it looked as if I could be trapped inside the circle of chairs we’d used for the group discussion.  I thought I could get through, but I might have had to push one or two of the chairs aside for the wheelchair to fit through the gap.  I waited while the person I’d been talking to moved several chairs, so that there was plenty of space.

I went for supper alone, as Melissa was otherwise occupied, and as soon as the stewards in the cafeteria restaurant spotted me, I permitted three of them to help, one to push me past the foods so I could see what there was, and he even read out the little signs for me, so I’d know what there was and the signs, while they actually aren’t to high for me to see them, could have been.  He then asked what I wanted and wheeled me to a table.  He joked about it being the best table in the house, but it was by the window, and not the first and easiest table to reach.  Two other stewards then brought my food and a glass of water.

And you know what?  It actually felt kind of good that all these people wanted to help me.  Yes, it does make me feel more helpless than I’d like to feel, but accepting help from other people is not something that comes easily to me.  Trust doesn’t often come easily to me, either.  Letting down my guard today resulted in a positive experience.  I felt a little less alone and more a part of the human community.  And it’s kind of nice to know that just as I can give to others, it can feel good to allow others to give something to me.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Darker Side

Four months is a long time for any community, especially one made up of primarily older people.  Life is lived to its fullest on board a cruise ship, at least by most, although there are some who complain of being bored.  But just as life is lived, so too it ends.  I was going to call this post “Life Goes On”, which seems a rather dark joke, because I am going to talk about illness and death, but perhaps it would be an apt title, because death is part of life.

It’s a part that we don’t seem to want to think about very often.  In a couple of the books the book club has read, there have been references to days in which the dead are celebrated.  The Day of the Dead in Mexico, the Ancestors’ Festival in China, these are days when the dead are remembered and bonds with them are renewed.  One question I raised for discussion was why Americans and Canadians have no such festivals.

No one had much to say, which interested me because it appeared that our culture’s reluctance to think about death extended to not wanting to even discuss the possibility that we might take a regular time, even if only once a year, to think about it.  North Americans are focused on the future.  We think about where we are going, and not about where we came from.  While some cultures consider the connections from the past to be of paramount importance, because they have shaped who they are today and the life they continue to lead, North Americans wish to shake off the bonds of the past.  It’s what is new that is important, ways in which we can change, grow, and become more than we are today.  As countries formed primarily by immigrants, with the exception of the First Nations people, our lives are, by definition, shaped by a desire for change and a hope for something better.  Remembering the past has no role to play in this.

There are always several deaths on a cruise ship.  I don’t know the exact number, but I’m told on a world cruise there are usually up to a dozen.  The first occurred only three days after we left Florida, where the cruise began.  There are also medical debarkations at pretty well every port, people whose illnesses need more than what the doctors and their facility on board can do.  Sometimes the people come back.  Sometimes they go home.  Sometimes they do neither.

I’d met the woman who died three days into the cruise.  She was a very large woman in a wheelchair, happy to be on board, eager to meet lots of people.  I knew the wife of one of the men who died.  He felt ill, the doctors wanted him to go to a hospital, he insisted he felt fine, but agreed to get off.  He died two days later.  His wife hadn’t packed anything, as she and her husband were expecting to get back on board at the next port.  Her friends packed for her, and shipped the luggage to her home.  How does one deal with a loved one dying so far from home, in a strange place, with no friends or family close by?

Today one of the watercolour teachers, the equipment manager, as the aides, such as she and Melissa, are laughingly called, learned that her husband, at home in Florida, died of a heart attack yesterday.  This woman, Jane, had accompanied Carol, the main watercolour teacher, two years ago, but didn’t come last year because her family didn’t want her to be away for so long, again.  Her children are grown and married, and this year she persuaded them all to do without her for the four months so she could come on the cruise again.  Her husband had heart problems for a number of years, and has had surgery for it.  Yesterday, he called 911 when he felt the chest pain, was taken to the hospital, was treated, but died.

Maybe it’s because I was at a birthday party last night, at which most people were Jewish, and we talked about Jewish guilt and Catholic guilt, but what is mostly in my mind now is how guilty Jane must be feeling.  Even though it sounds as if there is little that she, or anyone could have done for him, she must wonder.  Jane is a wonderful person, always smiling, upbeat, and energetic.  As one friend said, if they are on a tour together, and the tour is boring or tiring or a dud, Jane still always makes it fun.  I didn’t know her well, but I always enjoyed spending time with her.

Her husband died at home, in a familiar place, with friends and family close by.  It is Jane who is alone and in a strange place.  Did she, or anyone else here, think that when they get home, someone they looked forward to seeing might not be there?

And so I’m thinking of all the people who were on the ship, and who now aren’t, who aren’t anywhere.  They came on board expecting to spend four months on board, making new friends, and seeing new sights.  They spent time reading, or listening to music, seeing the shows, going to the movies, eating good food, playing cards, or whatever they liked to do.  Did they think, when they boarded, that they might die during the cruise?

And yet, despite the sorrow, I admire them.  Many of the people on board are not healthy.  You can tell, just from looking at them, listening to their harsh breaths, seeing the flushed faces, observing how little energy they have and how difficult the slightest things can be for them.  They chose to come anyway, instead of sitting at home, waiting for what is to come.

There was an elderly man on board last year.  He was called ‘the skeleton’ by others, because he was clearly very ill and was wasting away.  Most people assumed he had cancer, but no one knew him well enough to ask.  He was traveling alone, and one thing people did learn was that when he was younger, he had been a famous singer, giving concerts in clubs and later on stage.  One night there was a talent show for the ship’s guests, and he received permission to get on stage, not to sing, because he didn’t have the breath, but to play one of his recordings and lip synch to it.  He did this, and everyone applauded him.  After the show, he returned to his cabin, went to bed, and died, discovered the next day by his cabin stewards.

I love this story, and it has been corroborated as being true, unlike some of the stories I’ve been told.  He relived his glory days, and then let go.  Other people are here doing something they love, maybe experiencing the dream of a lifetime.  Maybe they continue to travel to carry on learning and growing as human beings.  Or maybe they just want to be with people they like, in a setting they like.  Whatever it is, they are living their lives in the way in which they want to.  Death comes anyway.  It is never welcome, but the knowledge it is coming cannot prevent you, or those you love, from living.

I don’t know what Jane is thinking.  Yesterday she’d gone to Tokyo with some friends, and so no one knew how to reach her.  She learned about her husband when she returned in the late afternoon.  Today is a sea day, and so she will fly home tomorrow.  Today, she insisted on playing trivia, which Melissa and I also do every sea day.  We call it our daily dose of humility.  Jane isn’t on our team, and her team sits at a distance from ours, so I didn’t see her.  She played because she always does and her teammates have become friends.  I like to think, though, that there’s a deeper reason why that game should have been her final social event on the ship.  So much of our lives is made up of trivia, the small but quirky, interesting, surprising, and unusual pieces that fill our existence.  I hope Jane continues to value the small elements of her life, even when they are overwhelmed by a larger event.  I hope her husband did, too.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Hulang Bay, Vietnam

Our second stop in Vietnam was this lovely area.  I've always wanted to see the South China Sea, with it's outcrops of rock sticking up above the water, each one wearing a wig of greenery.  I wasn't able to get about here, but luckily my kids took some great pictures.

This is the sort of thing I mean.  Isn't it beautiful?

These rocks are known as the kissing rocks, because they lean towards each other without quite touching.

This photo is a little blurry to give them some privacy.  Here they are again, from a different angle.

   And here it is again, serving as backdrop for my two equally beautiful children.

The tour they went on included a boat ride through this area, and a stop on an island which held a cave.  The above sign was in the cave.  Here are a couple of pictures of it.

The kids told me it was very beautiful, but also very crowded.  The only way to get to the cave way by boat, and this tour, cruise and cave, was very popular.

All of the boats jammed in together here are tourist boats.

Other than boat tours, there were many other things to see in Vietnam.  A couple of my friends, instead of taking a regular organized tour, hired a taxi, which is most cases was a motorcycle.  Riding around on the back of a bike is a good way to see things, because the driver knows the area and can take you to the sorts of things you want to see, or take you to his favorite place.  Motorcycle taxis were common in Cambodia and India, too.

Since he was on a boat, Jesse had to be piratical.  Here he is, with the equally piratical Sasha, one of Melissa's good friends from the cruise.

Pirates are supposed to climb masts with knives held in their teeth.  Jesse didn't have a knife, but he did climb.  Melissa also attempted to climb but, while no one noticed Jesse, her climb did catch the eye of someone official, and so she had to come down without reaching the top.

Sorry, this seems to be more a family album than a travel piece, but Sasha took some very good pictures.  Here is one of my piratical children.