Monday, November 22, 2010


Oh, what may man within him hide, though angel on the outward side!
      - William Shakespeare

 As I rested on the ledge of the pool to catch my breath, I noticed a woman was watching me.  Well, it was more like she was glaring at me.  Through the edge of my goggles I was able to catch a glimpse of her, without making eye contact and she was definitely scowling at me.  I didn't know her and couldn't imagine why she was looking at me in such a threatening manner.  
Ignoring the hostility, I pushed off the wall and started swimming back to the other end of the pool.  My right arm wouldn't extend much past my head and the stroke amounted to a kind of flapping dog paddle, but I was improving. I thought it was funny that I managed not to be swimming in circles.

 After my mastectomy, I lost most of the range of motion in my right arm and I was working hard to rehabilitate it.  Hours of brutal ripping and tearing with the Physical Terrorist had restored some of the function and swimming was performing its share of  wonders as well.  I had a long way to go, but I was getting there, slowly. The water was warm and I felt well enough so I kept up my slow, easy pace, back and forth across the pool.  

That day was one of my better days when I didn't feel sick.  I tried to take advantage of those and spent as much time active, or being as normal as I could. I never knew what the next day might bring.  It could have found me sick on the couch or worse, in the bathroom.  I never wanted to waste a good day.  As I swam, I thought that being bald from chemotherapy could impart some advantages for swimmers.   I didn't need my swim cap and the strap from my goggles didn't slip or pull my hair at all!   "I could almost like this", I thought..."No wonder many of the male swimmers kept their heads shaved".

Every so often I looked around the pool area to see if that woman was still staring.  She stuck around for a few more laps, made it clear she disapproved of me and then after a while she disappeared. 

 I finished, got out of the water and grabbed a couple towels.  It was summer time and I was dreading leaving the warm pool area for that blast of air conditioning in the locker room.  Being bald, and  generally not quite well, also meant that I got chilled more easily so I was in a hurry to get dried off and into some warm clothes.   
I had just removed my wet bathing suit and gotten wrapped up with a towel when I saw the scowler again. She had turned the corner past the sink area and was heading in my direction.  I didn't pay any attention to her and reached into my locker for my clothes.  My back was to her when she began speaking and it took me a moment to realize that she was talking to me.

"How dare you"! she hissed at me.  
 I turned around and there she was right up close in my face. I was so taken aback I hadn't really understood what she was saying.   I had no idea why she was grinding away at me. I'm standing there half naked, and dripping...and shivering.  It's hard to defend yourself intelligently with your pants in your hands...

"Excuse me"? I barely managed to say. 

"How dare you come in here and make a show of your lifestyle!  Don't you know that this is a Christian organization"? She put a heavy emphasis on the word "Christian" .

I was shocked speechless and had no idea what she was talking about. I just stood there staring at a possessed lunatic.  After a few moments of silence I must have blinked and she took that as her cue to continue... 

"Your radical hair cut has no place in a Christian organization!  You can do whatever you want when you aren't in here, when no one has to see you, and as far as I'm concerned you are going to hell... but while you are here you should consider what kind of example you are setting for the children"!
She was on a roll,  "Come to think of it, don't I think people with your lifestyle should be allowed anywhere near children or the Y.M.C.A."!

She stomped off around the corner to the next bank of lockers and I could hear her loudly murmering to someone about THOSE people... 

As I sorted out what had just transpired I realized I was shaking now from anger as well as the cold. I dressed quickly.

"She thinks I'm bald because I'm some kind of radical lesbian??? She thinks I shaved my head as a fashion statement"? What the....? I guess in her mind, she couldn't imagine that anyone could be sick, and still swimming, so it had to be a "lifestyle" thing".

My jaw ached from being clenched, holding back things I knew I shouldn't say, that I might regret... I knew I had to say something but I didn't know what.  The first thing I thought of was that I didn't want anyone else to have to deal with someone that mean.  She was dangerous and could do some real damage.  I am not so fragile, my skin is thick enough but it frightened me to think that she might unload on the next person that did not meet with her "Christian" seal of approval.  I wanted to teach her a lesson.  How could I teach her one that would make an impact?  What could I say that would make a difference?  

 I think it's wrong how people like her use religion as a weapon of hatred rather than as a vehicle for love and understanding. She completely missed the boat on this evangelical moment. 

Although I am not religious I do believe there are important life lessons that are imparted in the bible.  It bothers me a great deal that some people seem to selectively extract only the parts that support their prejudices and miss the big picture.

I thought about all those WWJD bumper stickers and bracelets folks were so fond of showing off. I wondered if any of the people that so proudly displayed them really lived what they preached.
 I wondered further what Jesus would have thought of someone like her and that gave me an idea.  
 I knew exactly what I had to say. 

Once I was fully dressed I gathered up my courage and walked around to the bench where she was sitting.  I didn't want her to see that I was still shaking so I kept my distance.

"Excuse me", I said, assertively.

She looked up and the self righteous smile disappeared  the instant she saw me. She tried to speak but I cut her off. 

In a very loud voice I said, "Apparently, you are unaware that hair loss and baldness are some of the side effects of chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer".  

She realized the depth of the mistake that she had just made and in that moment I could see from her face that she was horrified.  She once again opened her mouth only this time she was trying to apologize.  She got up off the bench to approach me and once again I cut her off. 

I held up my hand- "Stop"!  I said.  "It's too late to apologize to me, the damage is done. 

But since I know just how important being a Christian is to you, I'm going to do what I think Jesus would do in this situation. 

I'm going to forgive you.
I'm going to turn the other cheek and walk away.  
I am going to hope that you learned something.

I got out of there as fast as I could. 

When I made it to the parking lot it was nearly 100 degrees outside. 
I got in my truck, and the heat hit me like a blast furnace as I rolled down the windows and drove off.

I shook all the way home.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Connecting Flights

Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.”
--Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine)

My frequent travels have afforded me the chance to meet and interact with so many different and interesting people.  Although airports have become intelligence-free zones of late, they have always provided me with many moments of entertainment.  Sometimes, I get to be part of the show.

I was between flights in the Atlanta airport and had a couple of hours to kill, so I made my way down the huge escalator from the A Concourse into the tunnel that connects all the terminals.  Once below ground I usually take the opportunity to stretch my legs and walk the distance between the terminals.  For anyone not familiar with the Atlanta airport, it’s about a ¼ mile or so between each concourse which makes for a nice, relaxing walk when you have the time.
On this particular occasion, I opted to take the train because my backpack was exceptionally heavy.

Standing there on the crowded platform I began to overhear a conversation behind me.  Despite the noise level in the tunnel, I heard every word because 2 people were yelling and gesturing madly.  As I turned around I saw and heard a woman slowly and deliberately shouting, “YOU HAVE TO GO TO THE B CONCOURSE, THE B CONCOURSE!  IT’S THAT WAY”!  THE B CONCOURSE IS THAT WAY”! She over articulated every word, as though she was hoping that her lips could be read as well.  The man with her chimed in even louder as though somehow it would help, “YOU HAVE TO GO THERE, THAT WAY… IT’S OVER THERE”!  And then he made a pointing motion so huge he could have been shooting a free throw.
I looked at the gentleman to whom (at, really) they were directing this tirade and saw that he was standing there, ticket in hand, eyes wide with panic and incomprehension.  He wasn’t deaf.  He just didn’t speak English.  He hadn’t uttered a word and yet somehow, in that instant, I knew he was Russian.  To this day, I can’t for the life of me explain how I knew, I just did.

 I stepped between Mr. and Mrs. Loud, and asked, “Izvenitye, nuzhen pamoch”? (Excuse me, do you need help?)

 In an instant I saw the relief on his face as he heard me speaking Russian.   He started speaking rapidly… “Da Da, pozhalsta, nye goveritye po Angliski”! (Yes, yes please, I do not speak English!) Then he held his ticket out for me to see.  His ticket was for San Francisco, and he needed to go to gate B-15.   Easy enough.  Digging deeply in to my memory banks for vocabulary, I told him in my rusty Russian to “Come with me I can take you there.  It’s this way”. 
Spaciba! Spaciba! Bolshoi Spaciba! (Thank you! Thank you! Thank you very much!) he exclaimed.

I led him off of the train platform on to the walkway towards the B terminal.  I thought it would be nice if we could walk and talk along the way.  My brain was scrambling to try to remember enough to make some conversation.   I didn’t have to remember much because he started speaking first.  He asked me if it was far to the plane, and I told him no, just a short walk.  He then said that he had just stepped off the plane from Moscow and had gotten lost in the airport.   He told me that he was getting married in San Francisco the very next day and was afraid he wouldn’t be there for his own wedding!  That certainly explained some of his hysteria.  He asked if I was going to miss my flight by helping him and I told him not to worry, I had plenty of time.  He asked me how I learned Russian.  I started to tell him about my time in the Air Force and language school and then I remembered something.  I asked to see his ticket again.  I wanted to know what time his flight was scheduled for.  He held it out to me again.  The flight was due to depart at 7:30pm.  I glanced at my watch and it was 7:15!  I waved and yelled to him,” Let’s go, we’ve got to run”! We both took off in a sprint.   I guess I managed to forget how heavy my backpack was because we were dodging people, weaving left and right.  We ran through the tunnel, made it to the B Concourse escalator and ran all the way to the top.  I turned and ran towards gate B-15 but stopped in my tracks when I saw it was deserted except for one person behind the counter.  There was no plane, no last minute passengers making their way to the door, even the sign at the counter was blank, no city was listed.   By this time we were both breathless and the panic I had seen on his face earlier had returned.  I asked the gate attendant what had happened to the San Francisco flight.  She said, “Oh, there was a gate change, it’s now at A-1”.
I looked at my watch and then at my new Russian friend.  It was now 7:20 and for the second time in a short while, I said, “Let’s go, we have to run!” 
In my best Russian, between gasps for air, I tried to explain that the plane was somewhere else, that he hadn’t missed it.   I was hoping he wasn’t having second thoughts about placing his trust in me.  Here I was thinking I was going to be a hero and so far all I’d managed to do was drag him all over the airport and probably caused him to miss his plane.  
Who knew the gate had changed right back to where we started! Damn!

His faith in me obviously hadn’t wavered because he was still close behind as we sprinted down the same escalator that we had only dashed up moments ago.
No train in sight when we hit the tunnel so the only option was to keep running.  The entire time we were running I kept yelling in Russian, “Don’t worry, it will be ok, don’t worry, we’ll make it”!  He said nothing but stayed right with me. For once I was hoping that a flight had been delayed.
We ran the quarter mile back to the A terminal, flew up an escalator once again, and tore down the full length of the A terminal to the very last gate.  I looked up at the electronic sign:
Gate A-1  Flt#  1749
San Francisco
Now Boarding

I could see about 15 people still waiting in line to show their tickets to the agent so I slowed down and stopped.  I pointed to the sign, and said in Russian, “We made it, this is it,  this is the flight to San Francisco”.  He looked at me with a bit more scrutiny this time and asked me, in Russian, if I was sure.  I looked at his ticket for the last time.  I even repeated the flight numbers aloud to him as I pointed to the sign.   “Da”, I’m sure.
I walked with him to the back of the line and we stood there, sweating and heaving in unison as we both caught our breath.  I took off that damned backpack that had suddenly gotten much heavier and placed it by my feet.
 He was going to make it on time for his wedding.

Playing ambassador, I said, “I hope you like living in the United States”. 
I told him San Francisco was a beautiful city.  I told him there were many Russians there and even a neighborhood called Russian Hill as well, and he laughed.  Over and over he kept repeating  spaciba, spaciba .  I told him, “Pozhalsta!” (You’re welcome) Then I remembered a colloquial phrase that I had learned a long time ago.    
 I said, “Nye zha shto”.
There are 2 translations for “nye zhe shto”.
 It could mean, simply-
 It’s nothing.  Or, think nothing of it.

But in this context, I think one good colloquial expression deserves another,

“Ain’t nothin’ but a thang”, probably describes it best.

He started laughing and shaking his head.  I think I got the connotation right on that one.

The line was growing shorter and it was almost his turn to board.  I picked up my backpack and got ready to leave. I turned to him, and held out my hand.  He took my hand, shook it, as I said, “Do zvidanya, zhelayoo vam oospehka,-Farewell, I wish you success.  It was probably too formal or stiff of an expression but it seemed to fit and it was all I could come up with. 

I started to walk away and he grabbed my arm gently.  As I turned back towards him he reached all the way around me, pulled me off of my feet into a monstrous, Russian bear hug.  When he let me go, he stepped back, took a deep breath and in heavily accented but perfectly clear English said, “Gahd blyess you!

He turned away and handed his ticket to the gate agent.  I stood there watching and then he waved to me one last time as he entered the jetway.  I waved back for as long as I could and when he finally disappeared I walked away.  I only managed to take about 2 or 3 steps before I burst into tears. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lost and Found

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

--John Donne

My phone was ringing but I didn’t recognize the number, or even the area code, so I hesitated to answer it.  I figured if it was important, whoever was calling would leave a voice mail.  I waited for the ringing to stop, and sure enough, the double beep signaled that the caller had left a message.  Some guy had found my Road ID bracelet while snorkeling off of the coast of Tobago. 

He had been working his way through my various contact numbers on it, and finally found his way to me.  I too had been snorkeling in Tobago several weeks before; but I had taken it off at some point because I didn’t want the reflective surface attracting the attention of any barracuda that might be lurking about in the reef.  I had thought it would be safe on the boat, but apparently it had been washed overboard. Road ID’s are great things to have.  They serve double duty as a medic alert bracelet/emergency contact list; so it not only tells the paramedics about any medical conditions or allergies you may have, but it also tells them who to call in case of emergency.  Somehow mine must have wound up in the water, and this guy found it.  He had been concerned that the body it had been attached to might have been claimed by a shark and was immensely relieved when I returned his phone call right away.  He described how he saw it wedged in the coral and dove down several feet to retrieve it.  I was amazed that he had found it and had made the effort to track me down. We marveled at how he had found such a small, personal thing in such a big ocean.  We exchanged information, and he promised to put it in the mail as soon as possible.

          Once off the phone I thought about the reason I bought that bracelet in the first place.  I have some allergies and other medical conditions that paramedics should know about if I was found lying on the side of the road somewhere.  

 At all the races I run, folks are constantly talking about how important it is to be able to be identified and have emergency contacts in case something happens. At most races, especially the longer distances, runners are even instructed to put important medical and contact info on the back side of their race numbers. 

After one particular marathon, I was sitting in the post-race food tent inhaling my peanut butter covered bagel when another runner came in and slumped down in the chair across from me.  He looked too exhausted to move so I stood up and got him something to eat. I introduced myself as I handed him a bagel. He thanked me for the bagel and told me his name was Scott.   We started chatting and he noticed my newly acquired Road ID right away.  He mentioned that he had seen the ads for them as well and thought they were a good idea but just hadn’t gotten around to getting one.  I told him I had also procrastinated, but that something significant had happened a few weeks earlier that had finally motivated me to get one.  His eyes widened with interest and he said, “Really, what happened?

I told him about being out on a run about a month ago when I saw a car.

Just sitting there.

It was at the top of a long, twisting road and it sat there poised, almost suspended it seemed, facing downhill. The engine was running, the headlights glowed and brake lights illuminated the early morning darkness as though the driver had merely stopped for a moment to contemplate his next move.  As I got closer, I noticed that cars were pausing behind him, momentarily, then, realizing it wasn’t going anywhere, tried to find ways to get around it on the narrow road.  They either went to the right and drove half over the lawn of the nearest house, or more perilously, passed on the left by crossing the double yellow line on a nearly blind curve.  It was my usual, oh dark thirty, morning run, with my dog, when I noticed that something was odd about the entire scene. I wondered why the car was just sitting there, brake lights engaged, at the top of the hill, not moving.  As I ran up alongside the car I glanced in at the driver and had my answer. He was slumped over the steering wheel.  My first thought was to wonder if he had fallen asleep, or was drunk and had passed out. Then I realized in horror that the reason didn’t matter because the only thing keeping that car from careening down the hill was his foot locked on the brake.  I reached for my cell phone and dialed 911.   As I was speaking to the operator, giving her the car’s location and nearest cross street, I found a tree, tied my dog’s leash to it and began walking back towards the car.  As I got close, another car approaching from the downhill side slowed down and stopped.  Dean (not his real name), a radiology tech from St. Something or Other hospital was on his way to work, had passed the car, noticed that the driver was unconscious and returned to help. As he got out, I quickly explained the situation and pointed to the driver’s foot on the brake.  Together we eased up to the driver’s side and Dean tested the door handle.  Thankfully, it was unlocked.  We could hear some music coming from inside the car and it made for a macabre soundtrack for what happened next.   In one swift move, as though we had rehearsed it, Dean yanked the door open, I reached in and pulled the driver upright and out of the way so he could grab the gear shifter and throw the car into Park.  The sigh of relief was short lived as we both took one look at the driver and realized he needed immediate medical attention.   We quickly slid him out of the car and stretched him out on the yellow lines. The driver had on his work badge and I saw right away that his name was John. (also not his real name) He was the Director of Rehabilitation at the same Saint Something or Other hospital where Dean worked.   Cars were still zooming all around us and I began to get furious.  I was furious that people wouldn’t even slow down as they passed us kneeling on the ground beside this person.  Finally, another vehicle approaching from the opposite direction did stop and a woman in scrubs rolled down her window and said, “Hey I’m a nursing student at some other Saint Something or Other Hospital, do you need any help”?  I heard myself practically yell an order back to her, “YES! Block that lane with your car and help us with this guy! She turned her car sideways and jumped right out into our little mess in the middle of the road.  I couldn’t find a pulse anywhere; she didn’t detect a pulse or any breathing either.  Strangely, I kept thinking, he’s still warm, we might have a chance, but I knew he was already gone.  Just as we finished assessing him, Dean returned with the breather mask he kept in his car’s first aid kit.
           The 3 of us were working together, taking turns performing CPR and continually checking for signs of life when suddenly there were sirens, flashing lights, a fire truck, ambulance and paramedics. As John got connected to the EKG we passed along all the details about how we found him, and what we did, to the paramedics.  I kept watching the EKG display for anything that even closely resembled a heartbeat.  There was a lot of shifting around and movement of the wires which caused the EKG to register some crazy zigzag lines, but I didn’t see anything that indicated any real cardiac rhythm.
Once the paramedics had taken over there was nothing left for us to do but get out of the way. I thanked Dean and the nursing student (never got her name) for stopping and went back to where my dog had been waiting. Considering all the noise and commotion he had done well.  We both had some nervous energy to burn off and I didn’t really know what else to do, so we continued on our run.  A few minutes later the ambulance that had come for John, passed us, rushing to his hospital less than 2 miles away.

I called the Emergency Room a couple of hours later to see how “John” was doing.  I figured they could at least tell me his condition.  When the ER charge nurse heard that someone was calling about “John” she asked to speak with me right away, “Are you family, are you next of kin?” “We can’t locate any of his family and we don’t know who to call”.  As it turned out, John lived alone and his cell phone had been left behind in his car. His friends at work had no idea who else to contact.  “No,” I told the nurse, I’m not family, I’m the one that found him and called the ambulance. I wanted to check on him to see how he was doing”.  She told me he was in critical condition and that they were desperately trying to contact his family. She asked me to pass along any information if I found out anything.  I told her I would, thanked her and hung up.  

I next called a friend that worked at that hospital and asked her if she could casually drop by the ER to check on someone for me.  By the time I got to work that day, my friend had checked, and called me back.  “John” had died.
I heard later that in order to contact his family some of his co-workers had to break into his house and dig through his desk to find some phone numbers…

Scott had been listening intently to the entire story.

I concluded, “So, that’s why I finally broke down and bought the Road ID.  I lived alone at the time and I didn’t want anyone to have to search through my things to contact my family”.

As I finished I noticed that tears were welling up in his eyes. He put his head in his hands and started sobbing.  I thought perhaps it was due to exhaustion and asked him if he needed anything else. He sat back up, wiped his eyes and started shaking his head in disbelief. Finally, he said. “Oh my God, that was you”?  “You were the one that found him”?  He told me that, “John”, had been a close friend. While attending his funeral, a few weeks prior, he said that he had been told someone out running with a dog had found him and tried to save him.

There are no islands.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kibo (Ode to Norah Jones)

“Jam-boooooh”, Jammmmm-booooo”, Kambona, the camp cook called softly…the sound of that gentle, Swahili greeting penetrated the cold, the dark, and the tent all at once. I realized I was awake, and shivering in the sleeping bag. “Karibu”, I replied-“you are welcome, please come in”- and in an instant Kambona is kneeling at the entrance of the tent holding a small tray, upon which sits a cup of steaming, hot water and a small bowl of ugali. It's no mean feat to boil water and prepare hot food, on a mountainside at 15,000 feet. As he hands me the tray I smile, say, “asante' sana”-thank you very much- and nod my head vigorously, in a manner which I hope conveys the full extent of my gratitude.

       This had become our customary routine each morning for the last 5 days as we ascended higher and higher up the challenging terrain. Each morning seemed harder than the next to rise from, but always, Kambona was there to lure me out of the tent with some moto maji-hot water- and ugali, that east African staple, sort of a cornmeal porridge, I'd grown rather fond of. Since his English was better than my Swahili, we mostly conversed in English, but I would try to use whatever Swahili I could. “Tonight, you will summit” he said, and instinctively, both of us gazed upward, in the direction of Kibo, though it was invisible in the darkness. “It will be hard-you are small, but you are tough, I know you will make it”. I had my doubts, but I nodded in agreement as I contemplated what lay ahead. “Ndio”-yes, I mumbled, “ndio”. It was nearly impossible to guess how old Kambona was, since he, like the majority of Tanzanians, seemed infinitely youthful.  The only evidence of age that belied his muscular frame was the touch of gray beginning to show in his hair.  He read my doubt, so to encourage me, he said, with a laugh and a huge smile of perfect teeth, you are “kitcha mzungu”-“crazy white person”, so of course you will make it! I will greet you in camp when you come down from the top”. I laughed along with him and just kept repeating “kitcha…ndio… kitcha”.  

      There was still over 4000 feet of elevation between where we are standing and Kibo, the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We would hike at midnight, in order to reach Kibo in time to be there to greet the sun; welcome it, as it rises up from beneath the clouds that will then be below us. It's only 18 degrees Fahrenheit, and the temperature will continue to drop as we climb through the night. I am determined to make it to the top and I focus my thoughts on the notion of sunrise. I resign myself to the fact that the next 6 or 7 hours will probably be miserable, exhausting, or even dangerous. I tell myself that the only way out is up. I'm so afraid of heights; it occurs to me that I'm actually grateful for the darkness because I can't see past the edges of the cliffs we'll be ascending. As I add on the layers I'll need to stay warm, I prepare mentally by centering my entire self on one thing.


“No matter what happens”, I tell myself, “keep moving until sunrise”.   By the time the sun comes up, the hardest part will be over” I repeated it over and over to myself until it seemed that the sunrise, rather than the summit, had become my destination.
      Shortly after midnight, it began to snow while some of the other climbers departed Barafu camp. We left a few minutes later. There were several groups of climbers attempting to summit this night so we staggered our departures to allow for safe spacing. When I found out a few days later that Barafu meant “ice” in Swahili, I just shook my head and laughed.   Didn’t need a dictionary for that one!
The terrain did not require ropes, ice picks, crampons or other more technical gear that you'd find on a climb of something like Everest. It was however, quite challenging just to stay upright on the steep, rocky slope that was rapidly becoming snow covered. Our headlamps created a little snow swirling, bubble of light, about 10 feet in diameter all around us. That's as far as we could see side to side or to the front. I didn't look back or down. I kept reminding myself that the only way out was up. There were many steps, rocky outcroppings really, that created obstacles for me. Because I am short, I found myself having to use my hands to clamber or scramble up some of these outcroppings, while the taller folks just took what looked like giant steps from rock to rock. I think all the extra effort helped to keep me warm. In fact, I have no memory of actually feeling cold the entire night. 

      I can't recall how long we'd been walking when we paused to rest for a few moments; I looked up, tilted my head way back, and saw what I thought were stars. But these stars were moving, ever so slowly, steadily. And then my altitude addled brain remembered it was snowing, and that there's no way I could be seeing stars so I thought I might be hallucinating until I realized it was the headlamps of the climbers ahead of us. “Holy crap”, I thought, they are practically overhead; the pitch was THAT steep. “Holy crap”, I gasped, again.  I thought it was because I was shocked, then I realized that it had suddenly gotten a lot harder to breathe. For days, I had worked very deliberately to stave off the effects of altitude sickness. “Pole' pole'”-which rhymes with and means, “slowly slowly”, the guides and porters admonished us, even at the lower altitudes. Climb slowly, drink lots and lots of water, was the refrain constantly heard on the mountain. I realized that I hadn't been drinking enough and that I was beginning to feel the altitude more acutely. I crunched the ice that was forming on the mouthpiece of the drinking tube and immediately sucked down, huge gulps of water from my camelback. I made a mental note to drink every few minutes whether I was thirsty or not. Pretty soon, or so it seemed, I had to pee, thanks to my renewed efforts at staying hydrated. I really couldn't say how long I'd been moving because I had no idea what time it was. No watch, no sun, moon or stars in the sky…no frame of reference at all.  I called out to the guide, to let him know I was going to stop for a moment to take care of business. He pointed to the wall of rock to my left and said “There! Do it right there”! Then, he looked away.  I realized he was telling me in just so many words, not to step off the trail. As I removed my bulky mittens momentarily so I could free up my hands, it occurred to me how modesty and altitude were inversely proportional. I glanced at my hands and even in the direct beam of my head lamp they seemed dark. I was confused for a moment, “dark” I thought? But I'm kitcha mzungu, the crazy white person, how can my hands be dark? The guide turned back around, took one look, and said “your hands are blue-that's from the altitude”. He eyed me closely, his headlamp nearly blinding me and asked if I felt ok. Suddenly the confusion cleared and I realized that blue meant I was getting hypoxic.
 “Ndio, nzuri-good I'm ok, a little tired, not even cold”. My brain was a little fuzzy but that was to be expected. I'd read and reread all the literature about altitude sickness and the rare, but deadly things that could happen; pulmonary or cerebral edema were the biggies. Those killed you pretty quickly if you didn't descend far and fast enough. I wasn't anywhere near that stage of course, but I had to make a concerted effort to keep myself from panicking. “Keep drinking, and no matter what, keep walking”, I told myself, “the sun has to come up at some point”. I was afraid to ask the guide what time it was because I didn't want to hear that all this had transpired during the course of 15 minutes. That would have broken me right there, so I left it as an unknown and was satisfied with that. I knew that each step brought me closer to the next moment, so that was my indication that time was somehow progressing
      I perked up for a while as we fell into a rhythm of walking a few steps, sliding back a little, then walking some more. The snow stopped falling at some point and I stopped to pee at least 2 more times along the way. I know bodily functions take some time to process so I was encouraged that a sizeable, though undetermined, chunk of time had passed. Off to the side of the trail I thought I caught a glimpse of something glowing in the snow. I figured it was just a reflection of the headlamp beam, but then there it was again, up ahead. As I got closer I studied it. It looked like a very small television laying there in the snow. “Now where the hell would someone plug one of those in, all the way up here?” I thought. It was on, and there was a picture. It was someone's face; I don't know whose, but they seemed friendly enough, in fact I think they were trying to encourage me to continue on but I couldn't quite hear them. Up ahead there was another little TV. Same face. And then another, and another, lining the trail. It was like some bizarre, finishing chute at a marathon where the crowd gathers to cheer the runners for their final steps. Just then someone reached out from a little television and punched me in the nose. I stood there, shook my head, woke up dazed and I realized I had walked smack into the guide from behind. I hadn't even seen him. My eyes were open but I'd either been asleep on my feet and dreaming or awake and hallucinating. Either way, it was an indication I was close to exhaustion. Again, he looked at me and asked if I was ok.

“Ndio", yes
I'm fine.
"Nzuri". I'm good
"Twende"-let's go. 

      I was nervous about what had just happened and tried to think of something that would calm me down. I began humming a Norah Jones song that had always had a soothing effect on me. Sunrise, sunrise…looks like morning in your eyes… hmmm hmmm, hmmm hmmm… I didn’t even remember most of the words, but I just kept humming that portion of the verse over and over. 
Sunrise indeed. 
 I could hear all the words and music in my head, but all I could do was hum. And walk. And hum. I eventually understood that if I had enough breath to expend humming, I must be doing better and in fact, I was feeling better. The humming was working and… it was getting lighter! A faint seam of light was now visible on the horizon. I kept humming…Sunrise, sunrise… And walking. Sunrise, sunrise… I looked up again and I could now see the outline of the mountain and Stella's Point immediately overhead.    
Stella's point indicates that you have ascended to 19,000 ft. in altitude, but more importantly, marks the end of the insanely difficult portion of the climb. If you make it to Stella's point, it's just another 30 minute walk over much easier ground to Uhuru Peak, the official summit of Kilimanjaro,  at 19,341 feet. We were almost there and it's getting even lighter and I'm still humming.  I know my humming didn't actually cause the sun to rise, but I want to say it seemed as if it helped. I almost felt like running.  Now I know I'm going to make it to the top and I feel fantastic.
“Ndio”! Yes!
I did it.
"Nzuri sana"!-Very good!
"Mambo Poa"-Cool! 

      I wondered how many people have stood atop Stella's Point and shouted, “Stellaaaaaaaa” like Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire”.  I contemplated doing it, for a while, but decided to keep it as my own private joke.    
I'd made it to the top and it was just not that kind of moment. 

The view from the top encompassed the vast expanse of the Serengeti. To my left and right were the ice fields, glaciers really. Hemingway's “Snows of Kilimanjaro” were, in actuality, massive glaciers. 

Sunrise from Stella's Point was other worldly. The rising sun first appeared below the clouds, causing them to glow an eerie orange, and then punched through them in a blaze of color.

Hope Highway

This piece appeared in Birmingham Magazine's Dec. 2008 edition.

Driving home from work some time ago, something caught my eye about the older couple in the car that drove past me. I glanced over and saw that the woman in the passenger seat didn't seem well.  A moment later, stopping alongside them at the red light I caught a glimpse of her again. She had that all too familiar look. She's wearing a dew rag to cover a bald head, no eyebrows, her skin is pale...My cancer detector lit up; I was 99.9% sure she was in the middle of chemotherapy. Then as the light turned green and the car eased ahead, I saw the rear license plate frame that said, "We support the American Cancer Society".  That made me 100% sure. I always feel compelled to say things to others I meet that are walking the same path I traveled not so long ago. I want to say something encouraging, tell them it will be alright, show them how well I'm doing, hug them, show them my latest marathon picture, something- anything, but what can you do out on Highway 280 in heavy traffic? It's not the most conducive place to start a conversation.

But then, I got an idea. I wear one of those yellow, LiveSTRONG bracelets.  It's a simple, cheap, fundraiser that caught on big time, from the Lance Armstrong Foundation.  It's bright yellow, because that's the color of the race jersey worn by the winner of the Tour De France. Just to complete one is considered a remarkable cycling accomplishment.  Lance Armstrong won the Tour De France 7 times in a row; a staggering feat of endurance for anyone. What makes it even more astounding is that he managed to accomplish all of this after being diagnosed with testicular cancer that was so far advanced it had already spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain.  At the time of his diagnosis his doctors had estimated his chances of merely surviving, to be somewhere in the 10% range. Talk about odds? This set of unlikely ingredients caused him to become some kind of “hope machine” for all cancer survivors. Wearing that bit of Tour de France yellow is a way to jump on his wheel, so to speak, which, in cycling terms, means drafting behind so closely that you are pulled right along with him.

Sooo, I drove like a maniac to catch the couple at the next light…I maneuvered alongside their car, as close as possible, and gestured to the woman to roll down her window. She looked a bit shocked and seemed reluctant at first, but I think my big smile helped me to appear harmless...I rolled my window down, pulled the yellow band off of my arm and handed it across to her. All I said was, “Here, you NEED this”!  As she looked down and saw what it was, a huge smile lit up her face. I pointed to my head, now full of thick wavy hair, and said, “See, it grows back great!” The light turned green and as we both started moving again, I heard her yell "God bless you"!  At the next light the couple was a few cars behind me, but in the rear view mirror I saw that she was waving her arm with the bracelet like a madwoman. I waved back.
 We parted ways a few more lights down the road, and I wished I'd gotten her name or thought to have given her my card. It would have been nice to keep in touch with her, hear about her progress.  There were so many things I'd never know about her.  How sick was she? Was she just starting or was she nearly done with her treatments?  All I did know, was that on that day, I was able to give her something special. A little piece of hope.

Two months later.  Same road. Same car pulls alongside me. A woman rolls down her window and waves. Talk about odds?

Monday, November 15, 2010


No one expects a business trip to Kansas to be eventful.  I don't mean Kansas City, either, the Missouri or the Kansas side. I don't even mean Lawrence, or Manhattan where they have those big, college parties going on most of the time. 
I used to spend a great deal of time in airports…traveling was part of my job. For a period of about 5 weeks I found myself on a project that had me flying in and out of Wichita, Kansas on business. Some big city folks may make fun of Wichita for being “small”, or, for being in the middle of nowhere…especially the airport. Some may never have even heard of it. I loved the Wichita airport. It's small enough to get in and out of, easily. It's sophisticated enough to have wireless internet that really works every time I've been there (AND FREE!!!). The airport lounge staff was always nice to our group of corporate rats that they had become accustomed to seeing fly in and out. In short, as flying goes, it was a most pleasant experience.

One particular day I was privileged to witness a scene that is probably repeated many times over, in big cities and small towns.  In airports, train and bus stations, front porches and driveways all over this country- someone is returning home. 

That day, at the airport, was not business as usual for me. It was emotional. Who expects that? I was standing on the security line, making conversation with the attendant that worked there because we came to recognize each other thanks to my frequent trips. I noticed a crowd had gathered just beyond the checkpoint. I didn't need to be told that troops were coming home. I saw families waiting, I saw a few hand held signs…Welcome back Fill-in-the Blank…WE LOVE YOU! I saw American flags, waving. There were men and women in uniform, awaiting their buddies' return…all eagerly looking towards the empty hallway.  Pretty soon, it was obvious that just beyond my view, a plane had pulled up to some unseen gate and discharged its passengers. A stream of people began to walk out past the rest of us waiting to get in, toward the gates. After a few moments there were subdued gasps and screams from a few in the crowd…There she is! There he is!  I saw one woman come running from across the terminal…the way she body-slam-hugged her husband would have made any NFL linebacker proud. A young couple found each other and walked away holding hands. The woman was very obviously pregnant and appeared to be ready to start labor any minute. He had arrived home just in time for the birth of their baby, I am sure of it.

As I stood there watching the intense reunions, I noted to myself that the media was not present here. No cameras, no interviews, no flashes, no marching bands. Troops returning home was no longer considered a newsworthy event. It was now, just another part of the American landscape. This moment was a landmark event for the families and friends, but it no longer captivated CNN's imagination. 

Suddenly, I realized that I had welled up with emotion. I was on the verge of tears.   I noticed that many of the people standing in line with me, watching the same scene of strangers returning home to their friends and families, had also been moved to tears. I felt compelled, obligated even, to stand there and watch until everyone that had been waiting, found the person they were waiting for.

             For once, I was glad that the line was long.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Say What?

You find yourself in a nondescript room, # 2 pencil in hand, clock ticking on the wall.  From somewhere unseen, a voice is speaking.  It sounds like some language you may have vaguely heard in a restaurant somewhere, only now you have to answer a question based upon what you just heard.  But it was gibberish... Can you distinguish between the subtle vowel sounds?  Can you guess where the stress of the word falls, without actually understanding the word?  There isn't time to logically consider an answer because the voice is already moving on to the next audio sampling for the next question.  Picking one of 4 choices you have no idea why you selected the one you picked-it just feels right.  You suddenly realize why your dog tilts its head at you that way when you speak, because now you are doing the same thing...Back and forth your head keeps shifting as though it will help.  It doesn't.  The other parts of the test involve learning a made up language whose rules are dispensed to you one piece at a time.  You are suddenly grateful for all of those diagrammed sentences.  Or, you find yourself wishing you bothered to learn the difference between an adverb and an adjective because now your future career is depending on it. The third part of the test involves looking at pictures with garbled captions. You then get to choose between 4 other pictures with differently garbled captions the one that is supposed to somehow make sense with respect to the first picture.
Finally, either you finish the test or run out of time.  Most walk out of the room without completing the test, heads still shaking side to side.
Unlike any other test you may have taken, you have no idea how you may have scored.   You don't even remember why you picked the answers you picked.  If ever a zen experience in the modern world could be defined this is it.  You heard the sound of one hand clapping and followed it, suspended midair as it pointed you down the path towards the answers.  
 Welcome to the DLAB!  The Defense Language Aptitude Battery-the test administered by the DOD that is used to determine an adult's ability to learn a foreign language.  Previous fluency in 2 or 3 or even more languages is still no guarantee you will score well enough to be admitted into the Defense Language Institute (DLI).  It doesn't test what you already know.  It tests (or attempts to predict) how well you learn.
Depending on your branch of service, and the degree of difficulty (known as Category I, II III or IV or Cat for short) for the language you may potentially be assigned you need to score in the upper percentiles.
Language school at D.L.I. was the most intensive and challenging academic environment I had ever experienced.  I spent a year there with the expectation that I would be fluent in Russian in that time. The pace of learning was relentless.   All the teachers were native speakers.  I presumed mine were all KGB agents.  I was in school, every day, 8am-3pm. After the 1st week we had to toss a quarter in our class leader's hat for every English word spoken.  Approximately 2 hours worth of homework each night kept us busy.  The fear of falling behind and being dumped into another career field not of your choosing (Rocking out) kept us motivated.  I would get up at 5 am for a 3-4 mile run, conjugating Russian verbs in order to distract myself from the 10% grade hills found all over the Presidio of Monterey. 

I felt tired in parts of my brain in ways I never felt before.  Which brings me to some interesting observations of the place.  The Air Force treated us differently than the trainees at its other tech schools.  We were regarded as intelligent but eccentric, a breed apart. Weirdos.  We were.  
We didn't have to march to class, and by comparison, we had minimal military obligations.  For the neurologically inclined, I noticed that nearly half the people in this place were left handed.  Almost everyone either played an instrument, sang or had some other unusual skills.
 I met some of the most wonderful, gifted and engaging people there and am grateful for the experience.
Makes me wonder what else the DLAB tests for and who created the test.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

WWII and Back Again (Is you is or is you ain't my war hero?)

Studying WWII has always been a hobby of mine. My great uncle Seymour, for whom I am named, was a bombardier on a B-24.  He was the only member of my family to ever serve in the military until I came along. My dad was born just 9 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor so perhaps it was the proximity of the date, or for whatever other reasons there may be, I have been compelled to study the circumstances of those days.
 One of my favorite movies as a kid was Tora Tora Tora...the original one, of course. Go figure? 

Although I never knew him, I feel connected to my uncle Seymour in some interesting and strange ways... 
  My uncle Seymour was not drafted in the Army Air Corp. He volunteered at age 22.  He didn't have to. As the youngest son of a widow, he could have sought a deferment.  Most Jews do not, (except for Israeli's)  then, or now, generally join the military.  In fact, while I was in the Air Force, I had a conversation with an F-15 fighter pilot that I'd met on base.  He told me that not only was his family not impressed that he was a fighter pilot, but that they had practically disowned him because he'd joined the military rather than become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant.   It was as though, to them, serving one's country was a lowly, contemptible position in life.

Uncle Seymour was a member of the 450th  Bombardment Group, 721st Squadron based out of Manduria, Italy.  They were known as the Cottontails because of the splash of white painted on the tail of the plane. 

He was killed by flak on a bombing run that was headed for some marshaling rail yards near Linz, Austria on  Feb. 25, 1945... less than 3 months before the Germans finally surrendered in May. His plane, was the only one lost that day.  Ironically, Linz is noted for the following: 

  Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889 near Linz, Austria in Braunau Am Inn just outside of Bavaria, where one day the Nazi movement would take root and grow. Hitler was so fond of the city of Linz that he wanted the city to become one of the five Fuhrer Cities of the Third Reich. 

I have some amazing details that I've managed to compile from various websites, including the debriefing notes, maps and reports from the surviving crew members of his plane.  I've always been interested in what his experience as a bombardier was like.  When I saw the movie Memphis Belle I figured I had learned a bit about what life was like even though it was about a B-17 and not a B-24. 
I was impressed, but was sure there was much more to the story... The book by Stephen Ambrose, The Wild Blue, was even more informative.  As I read about Mcgovern and the others in the book, I realized I was reading my uncle's story as well. 

After his plane was struck by flak and damaged, most of the crew managed to bail out. Prior to jumping out, other members of the crew came down to the nose to check on Seymour. If you aren't familiar with where the bombardier sat in a B-24, this picture should provide some reference.  The bombardier was positioned by the plexiglass below the nose turret.       

Note that the entire front portion of the nose is made of nothing but glass. Enough said.  Just sitting there took amazing courage.  According to their debriefing notes, the crew had commented to the effect that there was not much left of him or the navigator, to rescue or worry about. I was strangely comforted knowing that he probably died instantly and had never been thrown into a concentration camp. His plane was found by the Germans near the town of Steyr, in Austria.  The German soldiers questioned the captured crew members and showed them my uncle's dog tags as proof that at least parts of him remained.  The surviving members of the crew were taken prisoner, but only briefly as all hell was breaking loose and the rapidly retreating Germans didn't have the energy or the resources to worry much about prisoners at that point.  Not sure if he was actually buried there, or anywhere, but his name is on a plaque in France at the Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial.

I also believe that being raised Jewish set me on the path to wanting to better understand the Holocaust.  How could it have happened? WWII ended less than 20 years before I was born, My grandparent's generation lived it, and their lives touched mine so somehow I felt that through them, it touched me too. 
I wondered why the Jews didn't stand up for themselves better, why didn't they fight back more? To my childhood perception it was because they were such wimps; always more concerned with education than anything physical.  It seemed to me, growing up in New York, that being healthy or athletic was frowned upon.  As a youngster I loved and participated in sports and karate but it generally wasn't something that was encouraged, especially for girl.

It seemed to me that the only time a Jewish kid received any positive feedback was when they got 100% on a test at school.  Sometimes even 100% wasn't good enough... Most parents would just scoff and ask why they didn't get a higher score..."What, no extra credit"? 
  It was no mystery to me why everyone kicked their asses.  
Nothing was ever good enough when it came to academic achievement, but we'll leave that for another day.
  I read Anne Frank's diary when I was about 8, and that was when I decided for certain that I did not want to be Jewish anymore.  I didn't want to be associated with, I wanted no connection to, people like this who chose to hide instead of fight.  I wanted nothing to do with them, as I abhorred weakness (still do).   I didn't really believe in the religious fairy tale anyway as I was way too logical and scientific a child.  I knew one thing for certain-I sure as hell didn't want to die for something I didn't even believe in. I later learned that what I did or didn't believe in would not have mattered to Hitler and his thugs.  Somehow being Jewish is rather complex and has as much to do with genetics as it does worship. I imagine it's not so easy to disinherit your DNA.  I've come a long way, towards better understanding what happened during that period of history, and I'm a bit more forgiving and less harsh about it, but you won't be finding me in Hebrew school anytime soon.  Still, I was fascinated with the details of that war and felt connected to the story on so many levels I struggled to understand everything I could about it.
The multilevel connection is also a part of what deepened my interest in finding out exactly what had happened to my uncle.  Before my research, all I knew was what I had heard of the family story-I didn't know the exact year... 1944 or 1945...He was shot down somewhere over Europe and never returned.  They first heard he was MIA and then 5 months later confirmed, KIA.  Maybe others in the family knew more of the story, but I never got the details from them. Given what I knew about how the Germans treated Jewish POW's, and how the military would instruct Jewish soldiers back then to throw their dog tags away if captured...I had wondered if in fact he had survived the crash, with the rest of his crew, and had been subsequently sent to a concentration camp.  I was determined to find out if a member of my family had been subjected to the horrors of the holocaust.  Many years later, even though the potential battle fields were different, I had atheist stamped on my dog tags.  I wanted to ensure that no one could label me as Jewish.  I was also thankful that my last name wasn't "obviously Jewish" either or I would have changed it before enlisting.  I guess either way, it made me an infidel on the modern battlefield, but at least I wasn't going to die for what I didn't believe in...wait a minute...

The strange connections I mentioned earlier... 
When I joined the Air Force, I worked in intelligence and became a Russian Linguist. Shortly after completing language school, the "Needs of the Air Force" dictated that my security clearance would be put to better use as Photo (Imagery) Interpreter.  What did photo interpreters do?  Well, depending on the technology of the day, they  looked at pictures taken by bombers and reconnaissance aircraft and satellites and picked out things on the ground for the bombers to bomb. Or to make our intelligence agencies aware of things that may be of some consequence to our national security. (think Cuban Missile crisis) After bombs hit the ground,  photo interpreters look at the pictures taken by the gun cameras and other imaging platforms and conduct bomb damage assessment, among many other tasks.  In many respects, it came to pass that I got a peek through the gun sights into Uncle Seymour's world.  If it were 1944 or 1945 someone like me would have been with the pilots and crews during the pre and post-flight briefings with the pointer, the pictures and the maps. You've seen the movies...
One more thing...
A few days before I departed for basic training, I called my grandmother. Seymour had been her much beloved, brother-in-law and here I was, heading off to the military...She asked if I was going to do anything special for my last night at home.  I told her that my boyfriend and I, were going to do a night on the town in the city.  He was an opera singer and huge opera fan. I told her that he was taking me to a special dinner and an evening at the Met, to see Porgy and Bess.  There was an extended silence at the other end of the phone.  Finally my grandmother sounded more like she was scolding me..."You better be very very careful missy"!  I thought that was an odd thing for her to say in that manner.  I asked her what she meant.  She explained, "The last time we saw your Uncle Seymour alive was right before he left for flight training.  He took us all out for dinner and to see his favorite opera at the Met..."
  Porgy and Bess