Dispatch (cough) from Portland (cough, cough).

Many avid readers and dear friends have inquired as to the situation here (mine and Portland’s), so here is a quick update:

Fires and Smoke.

Much of Oregon is suffering greatly from wildfires caused by a confluence of factors:

First, the table was set with summers that have become increasingly hot and dry. Our humidity level earlier in the week was down to 11% – unheard of in this area.

Second, an unusually strong wind from very hot and very dry central Oregon came barreling east over the Cascades, plunging down the mountainsides into the Willamette Valley, and continuing all the way to the coast. This is rare and occurs with this strength (60 mph or more) only every 20 or 30 years.

Third, add to the mix sources of ignition including lightning, accidents, and at least one case of arson that triggered the devastating fires in Southern Oregon that wiped out the towns of Talent and Phoenix. In fact, one major fire east of Salem had been burning quietly for weeks, and had been left to extinguish itself over time – until the winds came. Over the last few days, that fire combined with another and the commingled conflagration has threatened even some exurbs of Portland.

Fourth, the air circulation pattern shifted from easterly winds to southerly winds, which brought in smoke from Southern Oregon and California.

Fifth, after smoke from Oregon and California fires had covered much of the Pacific Northwest, the winds ceased, leaving virtually the entire Pacific Coast, from B.C. south to California, obliterated by smoke for days now.

The result was tragic loss of life and property from the fires, and horrendous air quality throughout the region. In fact, for four days running the contenders for the worst air quality on the planet have been Portland, Seattle, Vancouver BC, and San Francisco. That unsavory honor has gone to Portland more than one of those days.

Aficionados of conspiracy theories may inquire whether it is true that antifa is setting the fires so they can go in after people evacuate and rob their homes. It is not. And to the Russian internet agencies that no doubt initiated this rubbish: Utikhnut!

A Personal Perspective.

The normal view from our condo in the heart of Portland, looking south and east:

The view as the fires were being whipped up by severe winds pouring in over the Cascade mountains from eastern and central Oregon:

Our view for the last four days:

Protests, Violence, and Riots.

These events have been well-covered in the national and international media so no reason to cover what you already know. Here, though, is a personal perspective from my own observations:

First, protests have continued every day, to some degree or another. By “protests” I use the Biden definition: “Violence is not protest. Setting fires is not protest. Destroying property is not protest.” Protests usually start during daylight hours and end by evening. They are peaceful.

Second, violent demonstrations have occurred virtually every night as well, beginning after (usually well after) the protestors have gone home.

Third, the violent demonstrations consist of a small number of people, with only an even smaller number of them actually engaged in violent behavior.

Fourth, the violent demonstrations take place within a 2 or 3 block area of wherever they have decided to focus their activities that particular night. When violence begins, the police declare a “riot,” arrest some of the perpetrators and sometimes others, and the crowd ultimately disperses. Our newly elected District Attorney has decided not to prosecute unless they can show violence resulting in serious damage or injury, so after arrest most everyone is released. Next day, repeat.

In my view the term “riot” hardly applies. Watts in 1965 was a riot. South Central LA after the Rodney King verdict was a riot. What is happening in Portland is localized, predictable, and contained.

As a result, these activities still do not affect day to day (and even night to night) life in Portland unless the demonstrators happen to have chosen your neighborhood on a particular night. This happened twice in my area, home to the local ICE facility. The first was the subject of my recent post: “Surrounded.” The second took place last week before the air turned toxic, and this one was a dud. Around 11pm I heard someone leading chants with a megaphone, but otherwise heard nothing more, and the next day there was – thankfully – no further vandalism that I could find.

Now, with the air quality having turned hazardous for everyone, the streets have largely become the domain solely of the homeless living downtown and in other pockets of Portland. Today I drove the streets of downtown, including the hotbed area outside the Justice Center and the Federal Building. Nothing looked different, just the same graffiti and vandalism I saw a month ago. The only sign of human occupation was the homeless tent community in the park across the street.

Me.

For the interested few: I continue to be wary of the growth that has taken up residence in the pituitary area of my brain, although I remain greatly relieved that the effort to rid my body of cancer has otherwise succeeded. Knowledgable people suspect that the brain tumor is benign and harmless, and will bother me less than being served lukewarm coffee. The medical team at OHSU will weigh in, no doubt after extensive testing, come October. Otherwise, I continue to be frustrated that healing from my two tongue cancer surgeries and radiation is neither linear nor rapid. In context, however, the fact that I CAN eat, CAN swallow, and CAN talk at all speaks volumes about the miraculous hands of my surgeons, the healing touch of the medical and nursing staff who have taken care of me, and the prayers and good wishes of the squadrons of people whose kindness and love I do not deserve but deeply appreciate.

Surrounded

Another protest took place last night in my neighborhood, at the edge of which lies the unfortunate home of the local ICE facility.

Around 11pm we heard a siren, then more sirens. Stepping out onto our 19th floor balcony, I noticed one squad car after another circling our building, sirens blaring, lights flashing. I counted at least 4 squad cars and 4 motor cops. By midnight, around 100 to 200 people congregated in the middle of the main intersection adjacent to our condo. Amoeba-like, the crowd first moved one way, then with no apparent motivating cause, switched course, then after awhile, switched direction again. A picnic table once again was dragged into the center of the street. I kept waiting for this one to be lit on fire like the one last week, but the crowd ultimately left without any incendiary activities. A couple of people even moved the picnic table back onto the sidewalk. By 1am, we were able to head back to bed. A walk around the neighborhood this morning revealed no apparent vandalism.

Nonetheless, there is a certain vulnerability that you feel when you are surrounded by events – potentially violent – outside your control. Our safety was never at risk, and yet I had a dim sense what it would be like to feel vulnerable to violence.

I am not sure what these midnight romps accomplish. Organized and peaceful marches have gained the support and participation of millions of people across the country. Those marches have changed minds, and have brought to the fore the need for racial justice and changes in policing. That is how you change society. A midnight march through a residential neighborhood? Sorry, it just pisses people off.

Having observed over 50 years of protests, beginning with the student riots of the late 1960’s, I have some suggestions for the people who organize (if one can use the term) the protests in Portland:

  1. Peaceful protests are more powerful engines of change than violence or destruction. Over 70% of the populace support peaceful protests for racial justice; well over 70% actively oppose violent or destructive protests regardless of the cause.
  2. Protests are more powerful the more people who attend. Thus, they should be scheduled when more people can attend, and they should be publicized for maximum participation.
  3. Accordingly, secretly planned protests that start at 11pm or later on a weeknight will not be as effective as ones that happen during the day on a weekend. (Note: there is a reason why the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 took place on a Sunday during the afternoon, not at 11pm at night. Actually, there are a lot of reasons.)
  4. Disrupting neighborhoods at night, even though populated by a good measure of progressives who share the goal of racial justice, does not serve your cause.
  5. More to the point: if violence and destruction, regardless of the animating cause, becomes the dominating issue in the upcoming election, Trump will win. Is there really anything more that needs to be said?

[Well, maybe one more thing, this regarding a health update from your author. It seems he now has a brain tumor. It’s just a little guy, only about 5 silly millimeters long, that has found purchase on his pituitary gland. It is almost assuredly benign, but it does require some further investigation that will begin in early October. Allowed to grow, it can have an impact on vision, and nothing is more important to me than my sight so surgery is possible. I have already become a frequent flyer in the O.R., so if I do need to go in again, I am hoping I’ve accumulated enough points at least to get upgraded to high-speed internet.]

Update from the Portland War Zone

My neighborhood (South Waterfront) is populated by a number of high rise condo and apartment towers, some small, family owned businesses, a charter school, and the Portland location of ICE (the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency). The neighbors, in total NIMBY fashion, objected to putting ICE here a few years ago, but under federal supremacy the Feds do not need local approval and went ahead and put it here anyway. It was hardly noticed until the Trump administration started separating children from their parents with no plan or program for re-uniting them. Indeed, many children remain separated from their families to this day. This was nothing less than a war crime (since the President characterized the immigrants as an invaders, that is an appropriate appellation and not polemic), and the Portland Protest Class rose to the occasion and protested that for weeks and months. At some point, between the protestors needing to go back to school or their jobs, and the patience of the police class wearing thin, that protest ended.

George Floyd’s murder in May led to justifiable protests across the country. Over 70% of the country supports the movement for racial justice. While there is a struggle to determine how to convert the goal of racial justice to specific policies to achieve that, the groundwork is being laid.

Now, Portland is famous for three things. First our airport, routinely rated the best in the country. Second, our bike-friendliness. Third, our protestors. And when there is something to protest, our world-class protestors will not be out-lasted or out-done by any other group anywhere.

True to form, our George Floyd protests started early and often. We have now had almost three months of continuous daily protests. Sadly, the protests are becoming as notable for their violence as for the cause which inspired them. Even the head of the local NAACP has pleaded “As the demonstrations continue every night in Portland, many people with their own agendas are co-opting, and distracting attention from, what should be our central concern: the Black Lives Matter movement.”

So I can imagine the conversation that might have occurred last week among the protest dis-organizers (since there is no avowed organization):

“What do you want to do tonight, Marty?”

“I dunno. What do you want to do?”

“You wanna to go protest downtown again?”

“Nahh, we’ve done that the last 84 days.”

“Go try to burn down the Police Bureau?”

“Nahh, we did that last night.”

“I know. Let’s go protest ICE!”

“Yeah, that’s the ticket!”

I get the sense that it has become a protest in search of something to protest. It certainly isn’t about seeking racial justice. That train switched tracks from protest to working affirmatively for improvement months ago. The Portland Protest Class apparently did not get the memo.

So last week, while my wife and I headed to the Oregon Wine Country for some long-overdue R&R (and W), the protest transformed from a George Floyd/Racial Injustice protest, to a child-separation/ICE/Immigration protest.

OK, fine. 

On my return, I took a walk around the neighborhood. ICE is now boarded up.

ICE

No problem, no one ever noticed they were there anyway. And what do they need windows for?

The charter school next door has engaged in their own protest for months now, and their signs no doubt provided a defensive measure against vandalism (though I do not mean to demean their efforts which were genuine and pre-dated all protests in the neighborhood).

Cottonwood School

Local business owners, out of sincerity or self-protection or both, did the same.

Little Big

One business across the street from ICE, a vintage decor store, did not get the memo, and this was the result:

Vintage Decor

At one point the protest must have ambled over to my building three or four blocks from ICE because this graffiti was on the road in front of it:

MLK graffiti

abolition

and I am told that this it what is left of a picnic table, swiped from a Vietnamese restaurant in our building, and burned to chards (the entire meaning of which vandalism completely escapes me):

picnic fire

By now, Trump is thrilled. The Portland Protest Class, rather than advancing the interest of racial justice, has has distracted from it and provided all the footage that Trump’s campaign could have dreamed of.

A letter to the editor in the Portland Oregonian Sunday from a writer in Kentucky beseeched the protestors to back off. The Republicans there are now running ads non-stop of the Portland protests with warnings that this will befall Kentucky too if Biden wins. You can call BS all day long, but the damage is being done, and being done by the same protestors who absolutely hate Trump.

To everything there is a season. The season for violent protest is over. The season for rolling up your sleeves to actually do the work of restoring justice to all, has begun. So protestors with a proclivity toward doing violence and causing destruction, please go home, clean your rooms, and start doing the work.

[Health update: to those avid readers who have suffered reading along this far solely to know the latest on my health: The PetScan determined that I no longer have cancer anywhere south of my eyeballs. Unfortunately, something lit up on the PetScan in the area of my brain, so I will be having a brain MRI this Thursday. No one on the medical team is particularly worried, since it’s not their brain after all, and also since PetScans are notorious for giving false positives in the brain area. A further update will follow after the MRI results are in.]

Dispatch from the Portland War Zone.

Portland: City Under Siege

A number of friends from outside Oregon have asked “what the *** is going on in Portland” and have asked for my thoughts. One wrote “I’d be interested in your personal observations knowing that most news sources are biased one way or another.” My response 10 days ago:

“Well, there have been a LOT of peaceful protests. Like 50+ days of them. People march, there are speeches, there are chants, and then they mostly go home. A small number hang around, and more show up after the peaceful protesters go home (since peaceful is not their thing), and some of them are avowed anarchists and actual vandals. These people are out to do bad things. It may have originally been triggered by the death of George Floyd but for these small number, they come out to raise havoc. It had slowly been subsiding, and things were slowing down, police were finally catching a break, and fewer people were showing up and doing bad things. We were almost back to normal.


“And then the President decided he needed a photo op – this time of a city in flames, out of control, under siege, and to demonstrate how he sent troops in to restore order and take back the streets. Of course, none of this was true but sending in federal troops nevertheless resulted in a major flare-up – exactly what Trump wanted for his new pivot to a ‘law and order’ campaign.

“The city was not in flames.  And the city has never been under siege. In fact, before I even heard what the President and his media channels were saying about Portland, I was walking around downtown and everything was Covid normal – yes, some graffiti and boarded up windows from the first nights of the Floyd protests, but not much since then. Violence (with rare exceptions) is uncommon and confined to an area within a block from the police/justice/federal buildings.

“This is not about violent protesters roaming the streets striking out at people and businesses. It is about (a) a ton of people demonstrating peacefully by day and doing NO violence to people or property, and (b) a small number of people dedicated to violence who square off against the cops and try to provoke them. Idiots. Selfish idiots. And they are doing so much harm to the cause of racial justice. And they are giving Trump his campaign commercial.”

Not much has changed since I penned that 10 days ago, except that my comment that “they are doing so much harm to the cause of racial justice” was amplified last week by the head of the Portland chapter of the NAACP in a Washington Post editorial:

“As the demonstrations continue every night in Portland, many people with their own agendas are co-opting, and distracting attention from, what should be our central concern: the Black Lives Matter movement.”

It has been boringly predictable. Late at night, the hard-core few start tossing firecrackers at the federal building, and try to tear down the chain link fence surrounding it. The feds then come out from behind the doors, and they respond in kind, and being laughably ill-trained for this task, they frequently over-react. Violence begets violence. Blame begets blame. The two groups feed off each other, and the people who despise Trump lose all sense of how this is playing out on a national stage, and play right into the false Trump narrative.

There are 30,207 city blocks in Portland. The protests you see on TV involve only a few blocks, meaning that over 30,200 city blocks are untouched by the nightly theatrics. Most days I go to my office downtown, and yes it is safe to walk all over downtown including the area around the federal courthouse and the justice center – just stay a couple of blocks away after 9 or 10pm.

This past Sunday afternoon, between the “riots, violence, and pandemonium” on Saturday night, and the “riots, violence, and pandemonium” on Sunday night, I decided to go for a walk in downtown Portland:

Portland: City in Flames. Actually trash bin fires happen now and then downtown regardless of protests.
The Justice Center used to be the center of protest activity until the feds arrived. Now it is pretty quiet, guarded by cuddly plush toys, and the action has shifted next door to the federal courthouse.
Art in the Park: this is the heart of the park where the protesters gather. It reminded me of Berkeley’s Free Speech area in the mid-1960’s.
The park across the street from the federal courthouse is now largely populated by homeless and those serving the homeless, at least during the daytime. I noticed something caustic in the air as I walked through the area. It was leftovers from the last night’s tear gas. Even 12 hours later, it was very uncomfortable and I left quickly.
Late at night, those intent on provoking a federal response try to tear down this fence surrounding the federal courthouse. During the day, workers repair it. The cycle continues the next night. And the next day. During the day, no one is around except the workers and the mostly homeless in the park across the street, and a lot of people like me wandering around taking pictures.
I wasn’t clear what the political significance was of tearing down the Walk/Don’t Walk sign. In the background is the park across from the federal courthouse, filled with homeless tents.
Mom’s here.
Across the street from the park, life continues without obvious impact from the protests.
Two blocks from the courthouse, Starbucks remains open.

A quick health update for those interested (and the rest of you please feel free to bail now): I’m doing much better. Most of the radiation burns are gone. I am mostly pain-free. My tongue remains swollen and my speech somewhat garbled, but those who listen to me say it’s better than they expected. It will get even better as the swelling goes down. And if it doesn’t, they’ll go in and snip the excess away. My taste buds are coming back slowly. The fact that I have any taste at all is better than what I was prepared for. I have a PetScan coming up next week to confirm that all the cancer is gone. Thanks everyone who is still reading for thinking of me during the last 4+ months.

Road Trip!

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This started out as a travel blog. Not the kind where I tell you what I ate and where I slept. This blog had a different purpose: to seek out the quirky, the odd, the unusual. More than anything, it sought to show that no matter where you go in North America, you can find interesting things to see and do, and fascinating people to meet. Even in Podunk, North Dakota.

Since last summer, however, this journal – and I – have been hijacked by a cancer diagnosis, and since that time it has mostly covered a different sort of journey – my cancer journey.  It is now time to return this journal to its original purpose.

Today is a landmark day. After two tongue cancers, two cancer surgeries, plastic surgery to replace the part of my tongue that was removed, and 5 1/2 weeks of radiation, my last radiation treatment was today. Let the healing begin.

When you finish radiation, they have you ring a big bell on your way out, signifying that you have now “graduated:”

In my left hand is the Mask of Terror that secured my head to the table on which my body was offered in sacrifice to the Death-Ray Gods.

My medical team has emphasized that healing will be imperceptible for the next two weeks, and slow and non-linear thereafter. But the cancer is gone, and in some number of months, I will be able to say goodbye to the Ensures and milk shakes on which I have been subsisting, and once again enjoy seafood from the Pacific Northwest, Mexican food from the Southwest, Cajun cooking and BBQ from the South, butter tarts and poutine from Canada, and yes, maybe even walleye and meat loaf from the mid-west. It is not clear whether I will ever again be able to fully appreciate a fine Willamette Valley pinot noir or a lusty California cabernet, but my fingers are crossed.

In the meantime, I have pulled out the maps and travel guides again. It’s time to start planning the next road trip. I’m thinking maybe the Blues Highway from Nashville to New Orleans this Fall. Yeah, that sounds about right.

Road Trip!

https://maps.roadtrippers.com/trips/10427768?utm_campaign=trip_guide&utm_medium=share&utm_source=copy

I Miss Baseball

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I miss the smell of the grass. The whiteness of the uniforms at the beginning of the games. The traditions. Booing the ump. Cheering the hits. Arching your body to help the ball make it over the fence on a long fly. Sharing in the joys and sorrows of your team with thousands of people around you. The hot dogs. The beer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about baseball. By now we should be figuring out how our teams are doing, whether the new players are really helping, and whether the ones we lost will matter. Not this year.

We had tickets for Spring Training in Phoenix this year. As it turned out, the first game fell on the day I ended up in surgery. Now I’m in the late innings of radiation, and I keep thinking of baseball.

The first week or two of radiation is like single A ball. The Hillsboro Hops. The Hickory Crawdads. The Lansing Lugnuts. No big deal. Hardly noticeable.

Then by the second or third week you’ve moved up to Triple A. Skin starts to burn inside and out, it starts getting painful, everything south of your eyes and north of your collarbone gets red and swollen. It becomes hard to eat, and some end up needing a feeding tube snaking out of their stomach. Taste changes. In my case everything tasted like it was basted in sea water.

Just when you think it can’t get worse, you get called up to the Majors, the Big Leagues, the Show. I got my notice last week.  Like Crash Davis said in the movie Bull Durham, “everything is different when you get to the Show.” My surgeon looked in my mouth a couple of days ago and said “Wow, you’re on fire in there.” My radiologist said “Man, we’re really beating you up.”

I can no longer chew so I’m under orders to take in 3,000+ calories a day using liquids only.  So far, I can still swallow, I haven’t lost weight, I walk a mile or two a day, and though some would argue the contrary, I haven’t lost my sense of humor. This will continue for the last two weeks of treatment, and incomprehensibly, for the two weeks thereafter.

Avid reader Dave – a renowned writer, and life-long friend – just wrote:

“You are so much on my heart since your last blog. The honesty and insight combined to just, well, sit me down. — to ponder and try from distance, and fail, to imagine any small fraction of your present circumstance.

“I’ve probably read your paragraph about “Hope” 20 times. [see Carcinoma Blues] I’ve written it in my journal with long handed scribble. I’d never felt the connection between “my plans”—whatever they may be— and their role in producing a sense of hope: an expectation of future good.

“Against all of that an old old verse hit me on the head. So, this week, I offer it to you, my friend.

“ ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’

“Ancient wisdom from St. Paul to the Romans, and to me.

“And now from me to you.

“Love you, buddy. Dave”

My response:

“So true. When your world is on fire, hope is all you have. And love. Always love.”

Hope is why there is baseball. Your team may not have made it to the playoffs, but you hope they will do better this year. The hitter fanned on his last three trips to the plate, but there is always hope that he gets on base this time. Your team might be the worst in the league, but tonight, this night, there is at least a one in three chance they might eke out a win. And you are there because of your hope that they will.

A couple of weeks after radiation treatments end, down you go back to Triple A. The burns begin to fade, the pain begins to subside, swelling starts to get smaller.  After a time, you’re back in Single A, and months later you’ll be transitioning to your (new) normal. New normal is not normal. Some things will last the rest of your life: dry mouth, crappy mucus, taste changes. Some people never get their taste back but most do. Mostly. The big unanswered question: will I ever be able to tell a 2 Buck Chuck from a Silver Oak? That’s a question for next season. I just hope I’ll be able enjoy a hot dog and a beer at the ballpark.

Play ball!

(And it is worth your time to watch following clip to its end)

Carcinoma Blues

One by one, so many concerts, festivals, and events I had been looking forward to are being cancelled. The latest is the Oshkosh AirVenture this July. Oshkosh is Woodstock for people who love aviation, minus the mud, nudity, and weed – pilots get their high from altitude. Now shamelessly inserting a photo of my son Tim and son-in-law Marc on another Oshkosh trip:

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Of course, not going to Oshkosh also means not having to ingest Wisconsin food. I’ve been many times before and every time I look for that killer place with great food, and every time I come up wanting.

Once I asked what’s the best place around and was pointed to a giant dinner house off the freeway in Fond du Lac (home of the Fond du Lac Free Family Walleye Festival!). But I love meat loaf and there you had your choice: bland or tasteless. I chose bland. The mashed potatoes were instant, the vegetable was canned peas. Another time I went to a german restaurant figuring they must know how to make good german sausage, but it was forgettable, meaning I can’t remember a thing about it.

So last time, I decided I needed to go to the best place I could find for Walleye, which is the Wisconsin State Fish. Note that fish are so important in Wisconsin, you are required to capitalize the first letter. I mean of Fish. Actually the Muskie is the State Fish, but no one can catch one, and I doubt anyone has ever eaten one since the rare ones that are caught end up hanging on a wall somewhere. So after the ‘green salad out of a bag’ course, sitting right next to the instant potatoes and canned peas, there it was – Walleye. It was okay. No one goes to Oshkosh for the cuisine.

I do appreciate the fact that while I’m stuck here close to the radiology clinic I’m not missing much, but I’d be happier if Covid had not shut down the world. These days you can’t even plan, and a plan at least gives hope. I can plan a trip to New Orleans; I might not actually be able to go but a plan at least gives me hope that I might, a target, something to work and save for. And live for. Right now, how can you plan? Everything’s been cancelled.

This may be the first year in memory I won’t be able to go to a Blues Festival. These are so important to me that I capitalize the B and the F. The Waterfront Blues Festival – always the 4 days surrounding the 4th of July – is so close to my home I can walk to it. IMG_0652 It is the largest Blues Festival west of the Father of Waters (you know it as the Mississippi but I can’t spell that so I’ll go with the Native Americans on this one). Cancelled.

Fortunately, my friend Rich just clued me in to Roomful of Blues, a group of bluesmen I’d never heard of but who have been around for 50 years. They all look just like me. You put a bunch of grey hairs in a recording studio and something good has to come out.

When I was a bluesman for Legal Tender in the 80’s, we played a lot of songs about love: love sought, love lost, love regained. My how things have changed. The song that grabbed me from Roomful’s latest album was about something entirely different but of great interest to me right now. Here’s a version by Sam Bush – another grey haired bluesman:

We’ll get through this – and I mean ALL of this: Covid, cancer, canned peas. And when we do, off we will all go on family vacations, and visit our grandparents or our grandkids, and head to Disneyland, to the coast, to the mountains – heck, to the store!

And I will go to Oshkosh for airplanes and hot turkey sandwiches, to New Orleans for everything that is New Orleans, and to every Blues Festival I can find. Maybe I’ll even get to hear Sam Bush or Roomful of Blues, and tip my hat when they start playing the Carcinoma Blues.

 

Quartzite Yacht Club and Living With The Ray of Death

 

More than one avid reader (two, to be precise) have wondered how I am doing one-third of the way through radiation therapy. Most readers are aware that half my tongue was removed in early March due to re-current cancer and replaced with skin (medical term: “flap”) from my hairy forearm. I am not kidding. Why they did not shave it before installing it in my mouth apparently requires an advanced degree in “What the Hell?” which I do not have. Radiation is the next step in the process so the doctors can say “OK Ken, you are now cancer-free, and this time we really mean it.”

I will get to that. But first, you deserve something of more (or perhaps less) interest in return for your investment of 2 Minutes.

On the way back from Houston last Fall, we left the motorhome in Tucson, and drove the Jeep back home. On the way, we stopped for a night in Quartzite AZ.

Quartzite is hallowed ground for the boon-docking set. These are the people who prefer to park their trailers on dirt or sand in the middle of nowhere, receive no services (water, sewer, etc) whatsoever and pay nothing, or in the case of Quartzite, next to nothing for the privilege. The BLM manages hundreds of thousands of acres of raw desert surrounding Quartzite and for something like 10 cents or so, they allow people to park their RVs there all winter. Hundreds of thousands of people (by some accounts, over a million) take them up on that offer. Of course people also bring their tow vehicles, boats, one or two ATVs, a dirt bike or two, lawn chairs, propane powered fire pits, and who knows what else – all at no extra charge. So approaching the area in the winter at night it looks like a major city with fire pits blazing as far as the eye can see.

In the absence of an RV, the choice of accommodations in Quartzite consists of the Super 8 motel, or the cab of your semi. We decided on the Super 8. When I was younger, I could not afford to stay in a Super 8. Motel 6 was my preferred accommodation. Super 8 was a luxury I afforded myself only when the Motel 6 was full. It had been many decades since I had stayed at either and I was interested to see what this would be like.

After checking in, we noted that many of the luxuries of higher end hotels that we had come to expect over the years were missing: things like working lamps, a toilet that flushed reliably, and functional heating and air conditioning with fans that did not sound like a jet taxiing for takeoff. But, we did have four walls, a bed, and a bathroom, and it only cost 10 times what it cost the last time we stayed at one.

The motel restaurant consisted of a vending machine, so we went off in search of the local cuisine. On the way to the rowdy pizza parlor that we were told was the best place in town, we drove by the Quartzite Yacht Club and decided this was too good to pass up.

There is no body of water anywhere near Quartzite, but Al Madden bought a nondescript beer bar in the 1970’s and decided to call it the Yacht Club as a joke. He started selling memberships for $10, and business took off. It is no longer a joke. It is, in fact, the largest yacht club in the world, boasting a membership of over 10,000. For $49.95 you can become a member too, which gets you a t-shirt, a cap, and – most importantly – a membership card that has been honored by illustrious yacht clubs the world over (at least, until they figure out that the joke’s on them).

Commodore Madden rebuilt the club after a fire in 1995, and died within a year. His legacy now continues under the stewardship of current owners Omar (below) and MeMe.

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I struck up a conversation with a local and asked if he liked Quartzite. “Oh, love it. I’ve been living here for 15 years, ever since I retired.”

“What is there to do here?”

“Oh, lots!”

“Like what?”

“Well, most people get on their ATV’s and head out to the desert.”

“Great! What do you do out there?”

“Well, ride around.”

“Anywhere in particular?”

“No, just around.”

“So people around here mostly have ATV’s and ride them out in the desert?”

“Oh yeah.”

We did not buy a membership, but we did buy one of their unique glass toppers for $5:

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After bidding farewell to Omar and MeMe and the Quartzite Yacht Club, we returned to the Super 8 and tried to get to sleep. I had forgotten how much sound can pass through walls made of cardboard. Fortunately, there were no newlyweds on either side, and the rowdies down the hall had hit the sack early. The bed sagged so that from the side, a perfect V was formed. Next time I’ll check the box for the optional “real mattress.”

Alas my tongue, having not yet fully healed from cancer surgery #1, started to bleed and by midnight the bleeding still would not stop. So, off we went on a 45 minute trip to the nearest ER. Small rural hospitals are wonderful. In the middle of the night we waited only a few minutes and a nurse came out to the lobby. I told her the situation, she looked at it, and said “there’s nothing we can really do for it except apply pressure with gauze. When tongues bleed, it takes forever for them to stop and all you can do is apply pressure and wait.” She then gave me a bunch of gauze to cover us for the night. She then asked if I wanted to open an account and go through the formalities of setting me up as a patient and pay for the visit, or just be on my way. “I’ll just be on my way – and thanks!” By next morning, the bleeding had stopped.

I still wondered what the draw of Quartzite was, so I headed out to the local coffee shop.

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The Mountain Quail Cafe is out of the way, looks like a nondescript home, and is nowhere close to the Interstate. There is no buzz, no rush, no hurry. Everyone moves at a slow pace.  The parking lot is filled with only two kinds of vehicles – ATVs and Jeeps – so my car fit right in.

But I didn’t. As I sat down and perused the menu, all eyes were on me. First, I was a stranger. Everyone else knew everyone else on a first name basis. Second, I was dressed funny. I wore jeans, running shoes, and a shirt with buttons on it. Every other old guy – and they were all old guys – abided by the desert dress code: shorts, sandals, t-shirt, baseball cap. The few women all wore colorful flowered tops and slacks.

“I’m in town for the day, what should I do while I’m in Quartzite?” I asked the people seated next to me.

“Well, most people get on their ATV’s and head out to the desert.”

“Oh, where do they go?”

“Just around.”

“Any place in particular?” as if maybe there was a watering hole somewhere that everyone went to.

“No, just ride around in the desert.”

This was getting me nowhere. “What if I don’t have an ATV. Is there anything to do in town?”

“Oh, I’d just walk around, see what stands are open at the flea market…just walk around.” As we spoke, I found that everyone had acquired a slow, engaging drawl as if they were all from West Texas, though it turned out most were from California.

Many come every day. It is the unofficial senior center, though there are plenty of official ones in town as well. Marge sat alone at her table, reading a book from the religious rack. She comes here every day, and exchanges a few words with the servers and the other patrons, but I got the sense this was a lonely place for an elderly single woman who would rather read than hop on an ATV and ride out to nowhere in particular, Arizona.

The food was ample, as was the calorie count. I paid my bill (“thanks hon,” said the server, “see you tomorrow.”) and decided to walk around. Flea markets were everywhere. Lots of beads, jewelry, rocks, and more than one Trump Shop. I did not come across a Bernie Shop, and suspect that meetings of the Quartzite Democrats can fit around the dinette in a Fifth Wheel trailer. No democratic socialists around these parts, though pretty close to 99% of the residents enjoy socialized income (Social Security) and socialized medicine (Medicare and Medicaid).

It was time to press on, so I never found out about the joys of heading out to the desert in an ATV to turn gasoline into noise. I also did not come through town in time to meet Paul Winer, better known as the “Naked Bookseller,” who had recently died in his sleep. In addition to owning a bookshop, he was also a Boogie Woogie Blues musician known as Sweet Pie. I was glad he wasn’t known as the Naked Musician. His upcoming Celebration of Life was front page news in the Desert Messenger (Motto: “Always Free!”).

Well I could go on and on about all the wonderful things to see and do in and around Quartzite (did I mention going out on your ATV and riding around in the desert?), but I promised a brief health update and here it is.

The radiation treatments themselves have turned out to be no big deal. I arrive, lie down on the Rack, they put on the Mask of Terror, and the Death Ray machine goes around me a few times. The Rack is actually quite comfortable, and my fabulous radiology specialists always give me a warm blanket and turn Pandora to 60’s Classic Rock. It turns out I have no tendency to claustrophobia, so the Mask of Death has actually become my friend – it keeps my head from moving so I don’t have to worry about getting a twitch and having the Death Ray zap out my eye-ball. Two or three songs later I am out the door.

Radiation not only kills cancer cells, but also kills perfectly healthy cells. The body figures this out pretty quickly and goes to work repairing the good cells. This takes work and calories and protein. You may not be hustling, but your body is. Radiation-induced fatigue sets in after 2 or 3 weeks, and for me that has not yet happened. I remain modestly active, walking 1-1/2 to 2 miles a day. I’ll keep doing this as long as I can.

All those calories and protein have to be replenished, and so the dietary advice for anyone undergoing this is to eat “mindlessly and excessively.” In one of those ironic jokes that mother nature plays (like when you have your tonsils out and they say you can have all the ice cream you want – ha!), radiation also destroys your salivary glands, and messes with your taste buds, and pretty much destroys your appetite. So just when you not only may but must eat all those monstrously unhealthy snacks, appetizers, main courses, side dishes and desserts you always wanted, your body looks at them and, in its best Larry David whiney voice, says “ehhhh, I don’t think so. Not really interested.” But you must, and so you eat and eat and eat as much as you can throughout the day to maintain your weight. Losing weight increases the chance that cancer will recur, and makes ultimate recovery much harder, so I now treat it as a job. When I get up in the morning, after my first cup of coffee, I say to myself “well, time to go to work,” and that’s what eating now feels like.

More ominous side effects are now starting to arrive. Pain throughout my mouth now makes eating solid food almost impossible. I will probably wear out my blender. I no longer have any sense of flavor. Ice cream  and whipped cream have no taste and might as well be butter. Vanilla pudding and chocolate pudding taste the same – butter. These impacts were not unexpected but they did come on faster and harder than expected. My dietician warned me today that things will get worse. In the meantime, I’ve maintained my weight, and have avoided heavy duty pain meds and a feeding tube so far – and hope to keep it that way.

Here in the Pacific Northwest the trees are now leafing out, the sun makes an occasional appearance through the low overcast, I am still able to go out for walks, and our WiFi is wicked fast, so life is still good. I’ll report again when I have something half-ways interesting to say.

My New Tattoo

I am not the first in the family to acquire a tattoo.

When my daughter Kate was midway between being a girl and being a woman, in that amorphous period when it was not clear if she was still in my charge or not, she asked if she could get a belly button ring. As if she needed to ask.

Yet some time later, she came into my office and said: “Dad, I know you told me I couldn’t get a belly button ring, and I know you can stop paying for my college, but it was important to me and I decided I wanted to get a belly button ring, and so I did it.”

I don’t exactly remember what I said, but I think I gave her a hug and told her that although I was disappointed, we would still keep paying for her college.

Kate was a regular blood donor, and it was a bittersweet moment when she learned that because of her assertion of independence by way of the tattoo she could no longer donate blood for at least two more years. From that, she wrote one of the most eloquent college-level essays I have ever read about the entire experience.

Of course, she later got a tattoo. By his time, she was married and had a couple of kids, so approaching me for permission was no longer an issue. But word got around, and my disappointment, or perhaps just puzzlement, was tempered when I learned that her tattoo consisted of the key phrase of her favorite hymn: “How can I keep from singing?” There followed a number of other tattoos, generally coinciding with when she and her friend Lauren got together, and I have not catalogued them but do not believe they are phrases from hymns.

She is no longer alone in this family.

When you go in for radiation and they fit you for the Mask of Death to keep you restrained during treatments, they want to make sure you are properly aligned for the Death Ray. As a result they give you a tattoo that they can use to line up your pitiful body with the machinery that surrounds you as you lie prone and immovable. Fine. But did they ask what I might want permanently affixed to my body? A favorite phrase, a boyhood hero, a fetching design, a phrase from a song? Oh no, mine was simply this:

“.”

A period. That’s it. If I want to put a clever phrase in front of it to make it meaningful, that’ll be on my dime.

So today, after I arrived for my first radiation treatment, they placed me on The Rack, attached the Mask of Death, lined up the machinery using the “.” and laughingly asked if I wanted them to tie my arms up so they wouldn’t dangle on the side. “No thanks, I’ve got this.”

The first session involved another CT scan to make sure everything was properly lined up, about 10 minutes. The doctor checked the scan, I overheard gales of laughter coming from the control room as they confirmed that they were about to barbecue the correct areas of my head and neck, and then they released the Death Ray to kill any lingering cancer cells and any other cells in the neighborhood.

It turned out to be anticlimactic. The actual treatment (ie, when the ray-gun is actually on) was less than 5 minutes, painless, and hardly made a noise. I closed my eyes during the whole thing, concentrated on slow deep breathing, and had no trouble breathing through the mask.

One down. Twenty-nine to go.

So the treatments themselves are no big deal; all the action is in the side effects, and they are many, generally starting after a couple weeks, and becoming worst during the last two weeks of treatment and the two or three weeks after treatment stops. Everyone is different, although there are some side effects that everyone gets from this kind of radiation. No need to catalog those here, I will deal with them as they come. One can get through anything for a month or two.

Sadly, there is one other consequence of radiation treatment. No belly button rings, ear rings, nose rings, or tattoos are permitted until it’s all over. But after that, Kate, let me know when Lauren is coming to town. I’ve got some ideas.