Sorry that I was not able to post my weekly essay today, but hopefully you will understand. Gary and I were in Spain this past week (!) and I had no time to write and little access to the internet. Vacations are wonderful! We took a whirlwind tour that included Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba, Ronda, Seville and Madrid – fascinating and beautiful places all.
Now if I can just figure out what day and time it is, I will be back next week with more stories. Thanks for staying with me!
Note: Today is Gary’s birthday. In this blog post I highlight one of the many times he came through for me. He remains one of my heroes. Happy Birthday, my love!
I have written before about problems with my eyes (here). That entry recalled the semi-successful attempts to correct my strabismus (crossed eyes) when I was very young. It took two surgeries to improve the alignment of my eyes, but it was not the end of the story for me and eye surgery, not by a long shot.
I graduated from SUNY-Binghamton in May of 1980, at age 20, and went straight into a master’s program in public administration and policy at Columbia University. The first day of the semester there was a meet and greet session. There were about 25 students in the program. We sat in a large circle and went round giving our names and undergraduate background. Several people introduced themselves and said, “I went to the The College.” I was baffled. I looked around for clues. I couldn’t tell if others were as perplexed. I’m not sure how it was revealed, I’m pretty sure I didn’t ask, but somehow I learned that “The College’ referred to Columbia. Okay, message received. I was intimidated.
Some public administration programs are designed to accommodate part-time students, with classes offered in the evening. Columbia’s was not. It was a full-time, two-year program that was demanding. I started experiencing a lot of migraines as that first semester unfolded and the stress mounted. To rule out a change in my eyesight as a cause of the headaches, I saw an ophthalmologist. Unrelated to the headaches, the doctor found that I had ‘lattice’ of both retinas. Lattice, it was explained, was a thinning and weakness of the retina. At that time the recommendation was to have a surgical procedure where they froze the retinas to keep them from tearing. This finding was revealed in mid November. The doctor told me I could wait until the December break for the procedure.
While I had some anxiety, I got through the remainder of the semester and completed my classes. The appointed day for surgery arrived and my parents took me from our house in Canarsie at the crack of dawn to Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital on East 64th Street. I was used to coming to the upper east side for eye care, but the old red brick hospital looked menacing in the dim morning light and my memories of the nausea caused by anesthesia the last time I had eye surgery heightened my nervousness.
We did the necessary paperwork and I was prepped for the surgery. Next thing I knew, I awoke with my eyes bandaged. I heard voices by my bedside. I felt someone touch my foot. “Hey, it’s Steve,” I recognized my brother’s voice. “How ya doing?” he asked. “I think I’m okay.” I managed to croak out some sound, my throat was quite raw. “Just wanted to say hi and tell you to feel better,” he said.
My Mom and Aunt Clair were there, too. They explained that my Dad, after the surgery had been successfully completed, went out to get some air. He was so relieved it was done, he was overcome with emotion and needed to take a walk. My father never did well with hospitals. Ever since visiting his mom after her neck surgery when he was a young man, he would breakout in a cold sweat whenever he went to a hospital.
It was odd waking up and having both eyes covered. As I emerged from the cloud of anesthesia, a wave of intense nausea swept over me. Damn that anesthesia! The nurse gave me ice chips, which helped. Gradually I started to feel better.
A friend from graduate school, Sally, stopped by to visit later that afternoon. She had no expectation that my eyes would be bandaged. Although I could not see her, I sensed her discomfort. I tried to make small talk. We chatted for a few minutes; I made some kind of joke about getting pity points on our next test. Each visitor stayed briefly, except for my Mom and Aunt Clair who were there for the duration that first day.
I was moved to a semi-private room. There was a woman, Marcia, recovering from a detached retina, in the bed next to mine. She was a Manhattanite and quite a bit older than me. I had a lot of visitors. Marcia did not. When another uncle or aunt came to visit me, Mom and Clair would move over and visit with Marcia. They offered to share the grapes and chocolates that they brought for me.
After spending that first day completely bandaged, I was given pinhole glasses to use for mealtime. The glasses were thick black plastic with just a small dot of an opening, where the pupil of the eye would be, so I could see what was directly in front of me. Other than when I ate, both eyes remained covered. I think the idea was to minimize the movement of my eyes so the retinas could heal. I had to turn my head to see anything other than what was straight ahead of me. After I finished eating, back to the darkness.
At the time of the surgery, Gary and I had been together for just over a year. He was working at a lab at Columbia Presbyterian at 168th Street on the west side of Manhattan while I was attending graduate school. Each day after work, he came to the hospital to visit. Clair and my mother would go get some coffee or visit with Marcia when he came.
The first time he visited Gary brought me a fragrant rose that sat in a vase on the nightstand next to the bed. Although I couldn’t see the flower, I could surely smell it. There seemed to be some truth to the notion that your other senses sharpen when one of them is compromised. The second time he visited he brought two cassette tapes and a portable cassette player with headphones. He taped two of my favorite albums, Dan Fogelberg’s Homefree and Beethoven’s 6th Symphony– the Pastoral. Such great choices! Not that I had any doubts, but a person shows who they are when a challenge is faced, like my surgery, and Gary showed himself to be incredibly thoughtful.
One night after everyone had left, Marcia was angry. “You are really inconsiderate!” she rumbled. At first I didn’t realize she was speaking to me. She continued, ranting, “There isn’t a moment of peace. I’m fed up with the noise and hub bub. Your visitors are so loud!” I apologized and said we would be more thoughtful, but I hadn’t realized we were being disruptive. She railed on at me.
Lying there, in effect blind, I was frightened. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I felt threatened. I groped for the phone on the nightstand and feeling for the buttons, I called my parents. They picked up immediately and I whispered into the phone that I was scared and explained what had happened. They said they would call the hospital to see what could be done.
I hung up and tried to relax. Marcia had quieted down by that time, but I was still anxious. A little later my phone rang and my dad explained that my room would be changed first thing in the morning. He was disappointed that it couldn’t be done right then, but they told him it just wasn’t possible. Aunt Clair, who lived in Greenwich Village, would come up to the hospital in the morning to make sure everything went as planned.
My doctor rounded very early in the morning, before 6 a.m. There’s nothing like being awoken to bandages being removed, your eyelids pried opened and a penlight flashed in your eyes. That morning the doctor and two other hospital staff members arrived at the usual early hour, along with Aunt Clair, to examine and then move me.
Aunt Clair was not an early riser; if left to her own devices she was a true night owl. She set a series of alarm clocks to get up for work, and sometimes she still slept through them. There were many times when she and my mom sat up talking late into the night in the living room of our Canarsie house and rather than go home, Aunt Clair would sleep on that same couch. In the morning I could rattle around in the kitchen and take my breakfast with no fear of waking her up. Even though she lived in Manhattan, not that far from the hospital, it was quite an imposition for her to get to the hospital before 6 in the morning. But there she was.
Aunt Clair gathered my things, including my rose and cassette player, and followed us to the new room. This one was a single. They got me settled and I went back to sleep.
I was in the hospital one final day. My eyes were no longer bandaged. The following morning Dad picked me up to take me home. I was given eye drops and instructions about symptoms to look for that would indicate a problem. Dad drove me home and I got into my parent’s bed and put on the TV. Dad went back to work. I would be home alone for at least three hours until my mom returned from work. I tried to find something mindless to watch.
I felt strange, oddly unbalanced and queasy. I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t realize that being in bed with my eyes covered for four days would leave me feeling weak and disoriented.
As I tried to concentrate on the TV, I had some brief flashes of light and in the corner of my field of vision things looked wavy, like seeing through a puddle. Then it went away. I wondered if I imagined it. I wasn’t sure if these were the symptoms I was supposed to be concerned about. The flashes and the visual distortion came and went very quickly. I waited a while and when it recurred a couple of times, I called the doctor’s office. I described what was happening and they told me it sounded normal, as long as the flashes and visual changes didn’t persist. I was relieved when my mom got home. Fortunately, the rest of the healing went uneventfully.
I learned some things from this surgical experience. First, and most important, when I needed help, my family and Gary could be counted on. I would always want them in my foxhole. Marcia was not so fortunate, she appeared to be alone in hers.
I also gained a greater appreciation for my eyesight. I have always loved the beauty in the world – man-made or natural – but now it was heightened. I didn’t want to miss seeing the Grand Canyon or the Alps or the great cities of Europe, or the ordinary things like the sunlight on a forsythia bush in early spring. I felt an urgency to make sure I didn’t take my vision for granted. I carry that lesson with me still.
Note: It took a little persuading, but Leah agreed to write a blog post! Here’s her take on our recent road trip. Thank you, Leah!
My mom’s is decisively the best memory for (auto)biographical details. I think I have a reasonable memory, but generally for numbers. For instance, on our recent road trip, my mom and I stayed in room 211 in Rapid City, SD, and 218 in Rochester, MN. 222 in South Bend, IN. I share that mostly to illustrate that if you want qualitative details, she’s your gal, not me. But, she’s asked me to provide some thoughts on our recent trip, and after enough reverse psychology (“I know you won’t write anything,” she said multiple times), I finally assented.
Though my mom and I technically had the same experiences during the road trip – we stopped at the same locations, ate at the same restaurants – it represented very different things. She was on a road trip, while I was closing one chapter of my life and heading into the great unknown of a new one. And in that sense, for me, the road trip began in September 2016. That was when I started looking seriously for jobs. It really got serious when I thought I was going to leave Seattle at the end of January, though I actually stayed, in limbo, until the end of March. At that point, I tetris-ed* my belongings into the car, and said my goodbyes. (*I’m using tetris as a verb here because I think using a word like “pack” would not do justice to the monumental effort it took to get everything into the car, with room for two passengers and my mom’s bags, too.)
The morning we left, it was rainy and grey. I said a last, highly emotional goodbye, and drove to pick up my mom from her hotel, trying to hold it together. Honestly, the most contentious moment of the trip probably happened within the first two minutes when my mom chirped “Bye Seattle!!” I quickly replied, “If you want me not to be sobbing while driving, then how about we not say any more goodbyes?” She agreed, and I actually pleasantly surprised myself – there was no sobbing for the rest of the trip. That alone could constitute a victory!
Our first day we made great time, stopping for a light lunch in Spokane, crossing into Montana, grabbing an iced tea at a recommended café in Missoula, and finally coming to rest in Butte. Rest was about all Butte was good for, best I could tell, and I was pleased to hightail it out of town early the next morning. That next day, Montana’s big sky greeted us as Springsteen sang us eastward. We crisscrossed mountains and valleys, relishing the meandering streams and rocky crags we passed. The burgers we had for lunch in Billings got top marks, and they literally fueled us as we headed slightly south. In Wyoming, I had never seen so much nothingness. Well, not nothingness, but no sign of humans, that’s for sure. Rolling hills with snow-capped mountains in the distance made for a pretty landscape, but it was so isolated. We were also highly amused by a weather front while in Wyoming, which is not something I ever thought I’d say. It was clearly raining a bit in front of us, but the scale of the land made us completely unable to identify where the rain was. We kept saying, “I think we’ll be in it when we crest this next hill” or “I think the rain is coming down on that ridge.” We were wrong so many times! Though we did ultimately hit the rain, it was amusingly disorienting to be so thrown off by the scale of the landscape and sky.
Ultimately, we ended that second day by winding our way through the Black Hills of South Dakota to visit Mount Rushmore. The Black Hills were unexpectedly stunning. While I was anticipating being wowed by Mount Rushmore (and I was), I did not realize that it was located in the midst of a Yosemite-eqsue landscape. Dark, granite spires with scattered evergreen trees shone in the glorious setting sunlight. It was a special time to be in the park as it was off-season and the end of the day, so we got to experience the monument with only a handful of other visitors. We spent the night in Rapid City, SD just outside the park, managing to avoid hitting the many, many deer we saw nibbling the grass on the side of the road. I attribute this successful avoidance of deer to my ongoing conversation with them: I just calmly and repeatedly told the deer, who definitely could not hear me, that I did not want to hit them and if they just stayed where they were we’d all be fine.
The next day – day 3 – we hit our first stretch of truly lousy weather. As we drove through the emptiest stretch of country I’ve ever seen, the rain, sky, land, and road spray all joined together in various shades of drab. It was like purgatory: everything was empty and sad, and you drove forever and never seemed to get anywhere. I swear when we hit the end of the rain around the time we crossed the Missouri River I couldn’t help but cheer. That day we saw the Corn Palace and the Jolly Green Giant, which were strange and welcome breaks from the driving, and ended the night with a delicious dinner and a restful night in Rochester, MN.
Day 4 I’d happily erase from my memory, aside from a delectable lunch in Madison, WI. Let’s just say that after hemming and hawing about how to best avoid traffic in the greater Chicago area, we went 70 miles out of our way to avoid said traffic, and ended up in a big ol’ traffic jam anyway. Plus rain. Plus truly boring scenery. Blerg. Getting to our hotel that night didn’t go exactly as planned, either. Instead of plugging in the address of our hotel, I managed to just plug in “South Bend.” When my GPS cheerily displayed “You have reached your destination!” we realized we were just at a random intersection at the exact center of South Bend. We had a good laugh about that. And ultimately, we were rewarded when we did get to the hotel because our room was incredibly swanky! It was entirely unexpected, but it had a gas fireplace, two bathrooms, and two king-sized beds. Needless to say, that was a highly welcome surprise after a rough day on the road.
Day 5 was a long but rewarding day. We initially planned to stay overnight in Buffalo, but we hit slightly better weather than expected, found a much better rest stop than expected, and with the Weather Master’s approval we decided to keep driving ‘til we finally made it home after a full 12 hours on the road. (To claify: I refer to my dad as the Weather Master.)
If you haven’t driven on I-90 through western New York to Albany, you might not know that the landscape changes around Utica. In truth, western New York is pretty boring to drive through, but about an hour outside of Albany you start to hit these beautiful hills and mountains. That stretch of the Thruway always reminds me of driving home from college. I never appreciated the Hudson Valley’s beauty when I lived in Albany, but that landscape always told me I was almost home.
In many ways, my road trip is still not over. I’m home, but I’m not home. In about a week, I will be headed to Boston, and two weeks after that I will start a new job. There are so many questions and possibilities for the future, and whatever comes next, I imagine that I will always be comforted and a little thrown off by coming home.
Not everyone gets to drive cross-country with their daughter. I’ve gotten to do it twice! Leah went to graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle. She began the program in September 2011. She drove the first part of that trip from Albany by herself, visiting friends along the way. I joined her in Minneapolis. The remaining journey went fine, but it was a tense time for Leah and the stress took its toll on us. While I have some fond memories, I’m not sure that either one of us would describe it as an enjoyable venture.
Now that she was done with her program and earned her PhD (I proudly think of her as Dr. Leah), we had a chance to do it again. After considering a number of options, from renting a U-Haul to hiring movers and flying, Leah decided to ship much of her stuff, sell or give away other things and pack up her Honda Civic with the rest and drive. Casting caution to the wind, I offered to share the driving and she welcomed the company. I flew out to Seattle.
I like road trips. Always have. Some people get antsy in the car. I don’t. Between music and scenery, I’m usually good. The only issue for me, as I get older, is that getting out of the car brings an unpleasant reality: after a couple of hours of sitting in a car my hips and lower back scream in protest when I climb out. But even with that, I still enjoy the trip.
I arrived in Seattle late on Saturday evening. We started out at 8:15 a.m. on Sunday in a light rain. Our arsenal for the trip included our smart phones, podcasts, audiobooks, music, a map of America, a triptik from AAA, a charger that could accommodate two USB connections (keeping phones charged was key!), patience and a sense of humor. Oh, some cash and credit cards helped, too.
Success in planning a cross-country trip depends on managing expectations and making sure your travel companion is on the same page. Leah and I agreed to take a middle ground where we would try to be efficient (cover a long distance each day) while taking a bit of time to enjoy ourselves. Not surprisingly, enjoying ourselves usually meant finding good food for lunch and dinner. We used Yelp and/or Google to find a good lunch spot in a town off the road. No McDonalds or Burger King at a rest area.
With the wonders of the World Wide Web available to us (cell service was pretty consistent), we found quirky cafes and burger joints. We had some excellent lunches. Only once did the apps fail us. The #2 rated place in Butte, Montana, for dinner, which was walking distance from our hotel, was a disappointment. The fact that it was a Mexican restaurant in a small casino should’ve been a clue, but we ignored that. Afterwards we agreed that Taco Bell probably would’ve been better.
That first night on the road in Butte, before turning in, we stopped at a Walgreens so I could pick up breathe-right strips. I don’t want to believe I snore, but Leah tells me otherwise and we were sharing a hotel room. Leah has trouble falling asleep under the best of circumstances, all we needed was for her to be kept awake by my snoring. I decided discretion was the better part of valor, swallowed my pride, and bought the strips. Why do we view snoring as a personal failing? Just wondering.
Other than the Three Amigos (yes, that was the name of the Mexican restaurant in Butte), we did quite well with our meals. If you’re ever in Billings, Montana, check out Burger Dive. It was a truly excellent, award winning burger (see picture below) and the restaurant itself was comfortable and decked out with funky, odd pieces, like a reclaimed Blockbuster video store sign. The service was friendly, too. Look at me becoming a restaurant critic! Leah and I returned to the road fortified and happy.
Proof that it was an award winning burger
Lest you think the only places we saw were the inside of restaurants, we did make a couple of other kinds of stops. Based on a recommendation from the woman at AAA we stopped at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. This is one of those ‘only in America’ kinds of places (see pictures below). We also had a fine lunch at Teresa’s Café (I would never forget a meal!).
The Corn Palace features ‘mosaics’ made of corn kernels. Each year is a new theme – 2016-17 is rock-n-roll.
We stopped at another oddity (again based on a suggestion from AAA) in Blue Earth, Minnesota. Just off I-90 there is a 55-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant. Blue Earth is the home of the brand and the humongous green statue is an homage to the partnership between the town and the company. It was good to get out and stretch our legs, take some fun photos, and hop back in the car. There is a museum, but it was closed; we were not heartbroken.
The only ‘real’ tourist destination we visited was Mount Rushmore. I had been there 44 years ago on a trip with my parents. While the huge sculpture of our presidents carved into the mountainside has not changed, the area surrounding it has. Now there is a four level parking garage, a huge plaza, a walkway lined with each state’s flag, an amphitheater, and café. We arrived just before sunset on Monday, March 27th – hardly a peak time for tourists. Almost everything was closed. The gift shop was still open – fortunately for me since I collect magnets from places I visit. Other than a few hearty souls, we had the place to ourselves. It turned out to be a beautiful time to be there. The setting sun, the tall pines and Black Hills against the baby blue sky were lovely. The faces of the presidents are illuminated at night and we saw the lights come on and then we got back in the car and headed to our hotel a few miles away in Rapid City. Exiting Mount Rushmore we drove through a faux old western town. It was a tourist attraction made of up shops and motels. Off-season, empty and shuttered, it looked like a movie set.
The western part of the United States is such a contrast to the east. The landscape in the west ranges from long stretches of amber fields of grain where the only signs of life are cattle, to other stretches that feature granite, snow-capped mountains that look like painted backdrops. Eastern Washington state and central Minnesota had vast areas of plains dotted with wind farms. Leah and I agreed that the sculptural white windmills were whimsical and graceful – they weren’t a blight on the scenery. I wondered why South Dakota and Wyoming didn’t have them, too. The common denominator in those western states was the wide-open space.
photo by Leah
Borrowing from a Jackson Browne lyric, the road and the sky collide on long segments of I-90. At one point it all became indistinguishable. In South Dakota the slate gray skies, pouring rain and copious amounts of road spray made for a bleak scene. Passing an 18-wheeler under those conditions was a white-knuckle experience. We were quite lucky that didn’t happen much during our five days on the road.
As we moved east the landscape became increasingly congested. While there was farmland in every state we drove through, we simply didn’t see the awe-inspiring views in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. As we drove through Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming we couldn’t help but break out in song – The Sound Of Music, America the Beautiful, Home on the Range and Country Roads spontaneously burst forth. The bad weather, increased truck traffic and flat, uninteresting landscape cut down on our spontaneous singing once we arrived in the Midwest. We were left with On the Road Again each time we returned to the car.
With all those hours to pass we listened to a 7-part podcast called S-Town (or Shit Town). This was a fascinating deep dive into a Southern town with a focus on a particularly eccentric individual. The series wasn’t entirely satisfying in that it was advertised as a murder mystery, but didn’t exactly fulfill its promise. However, it was still well worth listening to as a character study.
Aside from the many hours of distraction, the podcasts provided lots of fuel for discussion for Leah and I.
Our fourth night on the road found us in South Bend, Indiana. That day had been the most stressful, with almost constant rain and Chicago-area traffic. We were so relieved to get off the road, we just ordered pizza to the room and called it a night.
We studied the maps and the weather forecasts. Our plan had been to ease up and complete the last part of the trip in two days by stopping in Buffalo the following night. We considered taking the northern route from South Bend and crossing Michigan and part of Ontario, instead of continuing on I-90. The weather forecast was bleak so we decided to stick with what we knew. Leah went to college in Ohio so the trip from Cleveland was well known to us.
The uninspiring portion of our trip.
The Ohio Turnpike gets the award for the best service areas. At this point in the trip, with the weather so miserable, we weren’t feeling adventurous. We opted for convenience and in Ohio the food choices on the turnpike were much better than what one typically finds. We had lunch at Panera’s at the Vermillion stop. We warmed up with some chicken noodle soup and then got back on the road.
We crossed the New York State line at about 3:00 in the afternoon. I was behind the wheel. “Maybe we should just go the distance and get home. We have a lot of daylight left and the weather may be worse tomorrow,” I suggested. We knew that the next day’s forecast called for a wintry mix. Leah’s eyes lit up, she liked that idea. We got a second wind. I drove through some more rain and we didn’t stop until we got to a service area outside Syracuse (our first Burger King of the trip). Leah took over the driving. I played DJ and we powered through the rest of the way listening to Springsteen and Billy Joel.
At 8:30 pm, tired but happy, we greeted Gary and our two cats, Roger and Raffa. This had been a far better trip than the one we took almost six years before. Leah and I chatted easily, sang, enjoyed listening to S-Town and took in a lot of America. I will treasure my memories.