Monday, December 29, 2008

I have not disappeared

Into our 2nd week in Oaxaca and all is well.

The first week was spent in spanish classes. I am still a beginner.

The food has been largely great, except for one notable disaster dinner. The sights are fascinating. Highlights include the fiesta of the radishes (look it up) and eating fried grasshoppers (never again).

We did a 2-day trek in the mountains north of Oaxaca and that was amazing. Photos and anecdotes to follow at some point.

This afternoon we hope to visit a neighboring village where the specialty is colorful carved wooden animals. Tomorrow we hope to make it to Monte Alban.

We have encountered an amazing number of folks from the pacific northwest, and Portland in particular.

Will write more at some point (access is difficult and this mexican keyboard not quite as confusing as in Turkey).

Adios for now, everybody.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Our plane to LA leaves at 6:50 Saturday morning. The Portland forecast is for snow hitting in the afternoon, so we should be OK.

We change planes in LA and Mexico City, and should arrive in Oaxaca later in the evening.

I am looking forward to this trip - a chance for a real change of scenery and pace. A chance to reflect. A chance to begin healing.

It's about time to pack and get the house ready to turn over to the house-sitter.

This is a week unlike any other.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

36 hours

Tuesday, Dec 16th 2008

Left the house in Portland at 6:15 am. The flight to Philadelphia was uneventful and I arrived at 3:30 pm, on schedule, fully expecting to rendezvous with the Milwaukee family members around 6:30.

There was a message from them on my phone. I called my brother, to learn that bad weather in Milwaukee had delayed them to the point where it was impossible for them to make the 8:30 to Elmira, the last flight of the day.

Over the next four hours, there were innumerable calls among us and friends and family already in Elmira. Schedules and options changed every half-hour, as more delays were announced, throughout the entire air-control system.

There was a magic hour, around 7:30 pm, when it seemed possible that the delayed arrival from Milwaukee would still be over a half-hour before the delayed departure of the Elmira flight. Feeling happy and assured, I had a very tall beer in the noisy bar, and settled into that comfort zone, where everything appears to be worked out in the best possible way.

Not to be. My phone rang and they were still in Wisconsin, thwarted by bad weather. Finally, I heard that they could make it to Rochester that night, and would drive to Elmira in the morning, the funeral having been pushed back from 10:30 to noon.

At that point, all I could do was wait and watch my departure slip farther and farther away, as the hours passed. I boarded the flight around 10:30 pm (two hours late), and a half-hour later, was descending to my frozen home-town, in which I had not spent any significant time since 1970.

Amazingly, my bag showed up and the complementary cab soon arrived to whisk me to the Holiday Inn. The driver was a young, pierced dude, who was happy to describe in detail the horrendous job situation in Elmira. We drove through the frozen, snowy streets I had not traveled for many decades, my remembering the landmarks along the way, him pointing out where certain places from my memories were either unchanged or obliterated. It was surreal.

He had gone to the same High School I attended. I was Class of ‘69 and he was Class of ‘96.

I knocked on my cousin Steve's door around 12:30 am. He and my cousin Carolyn had arrived together earlier that evening, he from Orlando and she from Phoenix. Steve and I chatted for a while. Allen called from a motel in Rochester around 2 am – they made it!

Steve and I settled into a night of very unsettled sleep. I drifted in and out, but had the sense of spending hour after hour, lying there while Steve snored. Curiously, Steve reported exactly the same sleeplessness the next morning.

Wednesday, Dec 17th 2008

Up at 7 am. Shaved and showered, then headed to the restaurant for some coffee and breakfast. Carolyn joined me (coffee only) as we got caught up on our lives and families. It turned out to be just about the happiest, most relaxed episode of the entire trip.

The three of us checked out and drove in their rental car thru the slushy, familiar streets, past their old house, and then to the synagogue.

This was a building that played a central role in my childhood. I spent many hours each week there, for my first 17 years. It was a true time-warp.

I found my 16 year-old self and my mother in several places in the many collages of historical photos, that my old optometrist had prepared some years ago. Memories and ghosts popped up with every glance.

I asked the office manager if there was a piano in the building and she said it was in one of the classrooms. Not only did it turn out to be the same classroom where I first learned Hebrew as a very young child (an event which, I believe, led directly to my lifelong facility with languages, both computer and human), but, as I expected, it was the very same piano that my parents had donated to the synagogue back in the early 60’s (the plaque was still there), and upon which I had played my first public piano performances, for an endless series of holiday skits and synagogue events over those years.

Soon, guests, friends and the funeral guys arrived, with Dottie’s casket. I was reintroduced to many folks I had not seen in 35 years, many of whom were as shocked to be seeing me again, as I was in seeing them again.

Here's a cell-phone photo of four old jews (Steve, Allen, Billy and me):

One of my old friends from elementary-thru-high school came by (we had been communicating off and on over the past few months, have been reconnected via, and we had a fine, but brief reunion. We had both experienced recent losses. I am so happy to have had those moments.

Mom's casket, simple and tasteful, was wheeled into the sanctuary and covered with a nice blue embroidered cover. I spent several long minutes with my hand on it, in that quiet oh-so-familiar room, again totally surrounded by ghosts.

Finally, it was time for the service. My brother and cousin Steve spoke at length. It was dignified and heartfelt, and the stories told nicely reflected the character of the woman. My little anecdote took two minutes max, as I intended.

We left for the cemetery - a line of ten or so cars. Across the river, slowly, along the white, slushy streets, to the old jewish cemetery, where so many familiar names are resting.

The service there was brief and moving, under gray skies and a hint of drizzle. We said Kaddish and we said goodbye, everyone adding a shovelful of dirt - a wonderful custom. I placed a small stone I had brought from Portland for that purpose on the marker that, for the moment, has only my father's name inscribed.

We lingered, but with an eye on the time. We visited other graves - grandparents and family friends. It was cold and overcast.

Our work there was done, for this visit. What had been a single grave plot for 26 years was now a double.

We got in our cars around 2:15 and headed for the airport and the 3:50 flight to Philadelphia that all six of us were to take. All cell phones went off at once. Flight cancelled.

At the airport, we improvised. Steve, Carolyn and I appeared lucky - there was one other flight to Philadelphia that *might* allow us to make our various connections. Allen, Ellen and Jeff bid us a hasty goodbye and sped off back to Rochester, where, three hours later, another Milwaukee flight was scheduled to depart.

I alerted Karen in Portland that it looked good for my arrival home that night, and got a beer and ate a couple of cookies that Karen had made a couple of days before. It was all going to be OK.

A half hour later - nope, another delay. They told me that, even if I got to Philadelphia that afternoon, there was no way I'd make the 6 pm Portland flight. I might make it home late Thursday. It was a tad depressing.

I lay down on the floor and closed my eyes for a few minutes, imagining spending the night in Philadelphia.

Another half hour later, though, came the surprise boarding announcement. An hour had been shaved off the delay. We would land in Philadelphia around 5:30 and, if I ran at full speed (and caught the shuttle to a different terminal just right), it was 'possible'.

We landed in Philly, I ran to the shuttle and pushed to the front of the crowd. Steve and Carolyn made the same shuttle a minute later – we stood together in the doorway, me poised for a mad dash.

Carolyn had, in the brief interim, heard from Ellen. They did make it to Rochester on time, but a mechanical problem came up and all bets were off. So near yet so far. They had the worst luck of all of us. As of this writing, I still don't know if they made it home yesterday.

When the shuttle stopped, I bade farewell to Steve and Carolyn and ran.

I ran up an escalator, around a corner and ran full-speed, thru concourse C, weaving my way through the crowds like a maniac.

About seven gates away, I heard the 'final boarding call' message and ran faster.

I made it with less than four minutes to spare, my chest heaving and my throat dry.

On Tuesday, I spent seven hours in the Philadelphia airport; on Wednesday, seven minutes.

A long, unreal flight through the dark, bumpy night. Landed in Portland around 9:30 pm, on the same day I had helped bury my mother. How could this be?

Karen was waiting for me at the curb with the dog. My bag is still in Philadelphia, but I don’t care. I went to bed.

Late update - 11:30 am Thursday

Just talked to Allen and Ellen, as they were pulling into their driveway in Milwaukee, almost 24 hours after we watched them drive away from the Elmira airport.

They did make it to Rochester, but were on an overbooked flight, which they missed. They were placed on a United flight, but it had a defective tire and was delayed. They switched to a Delta flight (to Atlanta!) but that had a defective door-latch and was cancelled. All efforts to get out of New York State had been thwarted.

They ended up spending the night in Rochester, getting up at 4 am and finally arriving in Milwaukee a short time ago.

Final update: 6:15 pm

My bag, last seen at the US Air counter in Elmira 18 hours ago, is now with me again.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

early morning in elmira, new york

Left the house in Portland at 6:30 am Tuesday, and knocked on my cousin Steve's Holiday Inn room in 'downtown' Elmira around 12:45 am Wednesday.

I spent more time in the Philadelphia airport yesterday (>7 hours) than it took to fly there from Portland. Bad weather across the country prevented my brother and his family from getting out of Milwaukee until late last night, missing the last plane to Elmira (that I was on, and that was delayed almost 3 hours).

They made it as far as Rochester, and are driving down from there this morning, hoping to arrive by 11:30. The funeral was originally scheduled for 10:30, but this has now been pushed back to noon (of course, nobody but the family knows this - not the general public).

All of us are booked on the same flight out of here, at 3:50 pm. A lot has to happen between now and then, but, first, I must have some breakfast and think about the weirdness of being here, after what is essentially a 40 year absence.

Monday, December 15, 2008

best blog comment so far, on the Bush shoe incident

What the guy shouted, was, "This is a farewell kiss, you dog!".

A poster on Commondreams said that he expected the Mainstream media to report the story as

Grateful Iraqi offers Bush shoes and calls him "man's best friend."

I have to laugh.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

something to make you feel good

You may not know this, but, for the past 3-4 years, I head over to the local Jewish-oriented Independent Living facility (Rose Schnitzer Manor) every Monday afternoon, to accompany the chorus there, composed of residents.

We have performed many times, at other Assisted Living places nearby, at the nursing home connected to RSM, and in the annual Portland Jewish Music Festival.

The group likes a variety of tunes, from old Yiddish standards to Broadway tunes - we even did 'With a Little Help From My Friends' a couple of years ago (with the lyric 'I get high with a little help...' replaced by 'Eat some pie with a little help...').

Recently, we've been working on a group of tunes that mention various cities, and we presented that program last Monday, with an audience of other residents and family, plus the residents of a nearby facility.

The performance was taped and has been edited to show highlights, and posted to YouTube. What is there at the moment may not be the final version, but you'll get the idea.

Students of American popular song will no doubt notice that, in 'Chattanooga Choo Choo', we subtly replaced "...than to eat your ham and eggs in Carolina" with "...than to eat your scrambled eggs in Carolina". Dietary laws must be obeyed!

That is me playing the piano - I make a brief appearance around 5:53 (right after 'Little Old Lady from Pasadena' - don't miss it!).

All these years I've been accompanying this group, I have always thought that I was playing piano for them because I couldn't be in Wisconsin every week playing for Mom, and that the forces of karma and Cosmic Balance would insure that someone would also be entertaining the troops there in Milwaukee.

UPDATE: Saturday 9:40 pm

The original link was taken down and replaced with the new one, which should now work.

Friday, December 12, 2008

how i remember her

The webcam photo from yesterday (how is it possible that that was only yesterday?) is not what I want to remember.

THIS is what she loved best - my playing the piano at her assisted living place, surrounded by her friends. Too bad you can't see the smile on her face:

Just before I said goodbye, three weeks ago. It's funny - back in 1953 she seemed so much taller:

She loved to sit in the sun at the front entry at Meadowmere, greeting everybody. This was early October. This is what I want to remember.

The funeral is Wednesday in Elmira, New York. It will probably be a very quick trip.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


8:00 pm Thursday.

Just got the call from my brother. Dottie died a couple of hours ago.

The timing of the funeral is still uncertain, but will probably be Sunday or Monday. I'll be heading to my home-town of Elmira, New York, probably with my son, Dylan (who just arrived in Portland, on Winter Break, from Ashland, two hours ago).

I am so happy that I was there just before Thanksgiving. She was so proud to be sitting there while I played the piano and her buddies were gathered around.

I am numb.

mom - down but not out

Just received from my sister-in-law:

"She had more medication for her pain and agitation, so she's resting comfortably. Ester and an aide helped sponge bathe her, as she's now in diapers.

While they were doing it your mom squeezed her hand and Ester asked if your mom knew who she was and she said 'Ester'.

mom update

She's on morphine now, and unlikely to ever get out of bed again.

I just had a webcam session, where I was viewing her from across the room. It looked like this:

The odd thing was that I had two windows side-by-side: one photo editor window where I had pasted in this static screen-shot, and, right next to it, the window with the live video. The only difference between the two was that the live screen (so to speak) had small movements as she breathed. It was very eerie.

My brother and sister-in-law and Ester, her loyal attendant for the past few months, were there in the room, too, and we chatted while the view was largely unchanging.

We are just waiting now for the inevitable. At some moment, I will get the call, and leap into action making airline and lodging plans, and dealing with the Mexico reservations (now 9 days away).

Also, I'm trying to get some programming work for the Nature Conservancy done before year-end. It's nice to have something that's under my control.

Dylan is expected to drive up from Ashland tonight, and tomorrow is Ben's 22nd birthday - we are taking him out to dinner. I am appreciating these rare occasions where everyone is together.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

antidote to gloom

It ain't much, in the human scheme of things, but Zacky and I walked over to our wonderful neighborhood grocery store, then walked back home thru our wonderful neighborhood 'wilderness' park.

He was happy, and, despite an occasional slip, did fine.

Then, turning into our driveway, I caught a straight-shot to a peaceful, luminous, gleaming Mt. Hood, covered in fresh snow. It was an elevator of spirits, and I needed it.

Time to get some dinner cooking.

more good news

so, not only is my mother apparently dying, but I just got back from the vet, who diagnosed Zacky, our corgi, with degenerative myelopathy, a common neurological flaw in corgis, that will eventually lead to loss of hind-leg function and death.

We had noticed, over the past few months, that he was losing control of his hind-legs, so this was not a surprise.

It's just a little hard to take. Those of you who have met Zacky know him as a gentle, neurotic, loving little guy.

I am not having a good day.


Mom is not doing well in Wisconsin. They had to take her to the Emergency Room in the middle of the night, and she was in a lot of pain. She is back in her room, now on morphine, and they are discontinuing some of her meds. What's the point of giving her vitamins now, when the discomfort of taking them outweighs the benefits?

We assume that this rapid decline can only continue and are trying to mentally prepare for the end. My sister-in-law has notified folks back at our home town in Upstate New York, and funeral decisions are being made.

Just now, I ended a Webcam session, where Ester, her attendant, held up her laptop so that Dottie could see me and I could see her. I did hear her say 'hi', but it was very feeble and she is obviously in some discomfort, and not very alert. It's hard to watch.

I did save a screen-shot of her from the webcam, but I don't think I will post it here.

This is bringing up too many memories of the summer of 1982, when my father died, after a lingering, horrible decline. At least, this time around, things appear to be moving faster.

We will try for another webcam session later today.

We are scheduled to fly to Mexico for 2 weeks on Dec. 20th, but I am having doubts about going on that trip. The next few days may decide that question.

Monday, December 08, 2008

atheists in olympia

Yes, the language on their sign was pretty inflammatory (if you're a Believer), but isn't it amazing to see the rabid hatred and intolerance directed at the goddless?

I guess the Believers will never understand how alternately amusing and galling it is to have God continually invoked by sanctimonious politicians and others, when they assert that the United States of America is the obvious primary beneficiary of His benevolence.

I am reminded about a recent quip from Bill Maher, who, when asked if he thought that Obama sincerely believed all his references to God blessing and protecting America: "I hope not".

I don't recall hearing the Epilogue to the "Emperor's New Clothes" story, but I wouldn't be surprised if the little boy who shouted out the truth about a public delusion was immediately torn to pieces by the angry crowd.

Blessed are the Iconoclasts, but it's a tough way to make a living.

Friday, December 05, 2008

the Chanukah miracle

here is a pretty fascinating article explaining where the amazing 'little vessel of oil that burned for 8 days' story came from. The surprising fact is that it wasn't mentioned in jewish sources until 600 years after the fact. Why?

I've always believed that this was a tale-for-the-kiddies, whose chief purpose was to mask the Winter Solstice origins that, I believe, lay behind all the holidays that tend to cluster around December 21st.

This article, however, presents a different explanation for the '8 days' celebration, that makes perfect sense, historically.

Still, that won't prevent me from thinking, as I do every year, that I am grateful that the Sun is not going to disappear, and that the annual return of Spring will start becoming certain around December 25th.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


So AIG gets 150 billion dollars without any significant hearings, yet there doesn't seem to be enough political will to divert 35 billion to the auto industry.

Why is this?

I think it's largely because the American people, as dense as they often are, do fully understand that the plight of the Big 3 is largely due to their own mismanagement and incompetence, whereas the mismanagement and incompetence of the mortgage industry and big Wall Street investment banks is just too complicated for Joe the American to comprehend.

We know that Detroit dropped the ball on electric cars and hybrids, but we are just paralyzed with incomprehension on how the sub-prime mortgage guys screwed everything up.

Of course, there's the alternate explanation that the Wall Street guys simply made more campaign contributions. Ya think?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

better living thru technology

So, some years ago, on a whim, I bought a QuickCam at a garage sale for about $1.50. Over the years, I pulled it out occasionally, played with it, and put it away in a drawer.

On my last visit to Wisconsin, I noticed that my Mom's attendant, Ester, was communicating with family in the Philippines, using her laptop's built-in webcam and her wireless broadband connection. This gave me an idea.

Yesterday, I dusted off the QuickCam, installed it, pulled in the latest upgrades, and, last night, did a successful test with Joe and Shirley in Florida (hi, guys), where we could each see the other's video. It was pretty cool.

This morning, I contacted Ester via email and asked if she had a Skype account. She said 'no', but she had a Yahoo Messenger account. It took me a minute to properly configure it for my Webcam and add Ester to my Contact list, and, a minute later, Mom was viewing me, as I sit here in my computer dungeon.

Obviously, we had to take it to the next step. I put on my headphone/mike and placed a VOIP call. Ester answered and it worked great. Mom got out of bed and was able to speak a few words that I could hear, confirming that she could see me.

It would have looked something like this:

Then, she had to go back to bed. We will try again in a couple of hours.