Sunday, December 9, 2012

Memories & More

11 November 2012, Minneapolis MN
So much has happened since the month began:  the end (for a few days at least) of electioneering and all those awful attack ads from both sides.  Now we’re  enduring election analysis overkill and a blame-game exercise.  No wonder I “watch television” on Netflix and HBO To Go on my laptop.  But this isn’t a political blog so that’s all I’ll say on that.

Today is Veterans’ Day in the US, originally called Armistice Day to mark the end of World War I at 11 am on 11/11 and now honoring all war veterans.  It’s Independence Day in Poland because the end of “the war to end all wars” reunited the country after it’s last partition into three zones (German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian).  I remember going to a Dzien Niepodleglosci celebration in Warsaw a few days after our Peace Corps group had arrived in the country in 1991.  Somewhere in my photo piles I have one of the prime minister’s feet, the best I could do by raising my camera above my head from the back of a very large crowd. It was our group’s first trip into the city from our suburban training center, buying biletow (tickets) at the Ruch (a kiosk selling a wide assortment of small necessities, including newspapers and tickets), riding the koljeka (small train) into Warszawa Centralna (central train station) and wending our way to the plac (plaza) where everyone from war veterans to Girl Scouts marched in celetration.  At the end, Palac Kultury i Nauka (Palace of Culture & Education) with its highly visible DEC sign on top was our guide back to the train station.  PKiN was Stalin’s gift to Poland (a similar gift was bestowed on other satellite countries -- I saw another in Riga, Latvia).  The sprawling, ugly structure was not a favorite among Poles, the joke being that the prettiest view of Warsaw is from its top tower because it’s the only view that doesn’t include the PKiN.  Here it is last June.

So, what have I been doing so far this month?  At the end of October I used a Sun Country Airline voucher to fly to Lansing, Michigan, and visit my 93-year-old aunt, the only surviving relative from my parents generation, in Jackson 30 minutes away.  Her husband, my dad’s youngest brother, died in late March.  I usually visited Uncle Frank and Aunt Betty a couple of times a year but more immediate priorities (my South Sudan assignments and my friend David’s brain tumor) pushed those aside.  In her condition Aunt Betty wouldn’t know whether I visited or not.  Her mental and physical health has been declining for some time.  She’d been in hospice care at the assisted living facility for two years, and although she was told of Uncle Frank’s death, it was unclear whether she actually understood.  For a number of reasons, her nephew John, who has looked after their affairs for several years, decided to move her to a hospice facility.  That took place the day I arrived in Michigan.  She made the move far better than anticipated.  Usually any change caused strong agitation on her part, even with anti-anxiety meds.  She made this transition uneventfully.

For a week I drove between Lansing and Jackson to spend a big part of each day with her.  John and his wife Nancy were also often around the hospice when I was there, giving us a chance to discuss what’s been happening.  We agreed that donating bed linens, bath towels and such to a shelter was a good way to dispose of those.  Aunt Betty had enough supplies for far more than the two bedrooms their last apartment had.   I’m glad they all be put to good use.  We had dinner one night at a “new” place, Knight’s Steak House, where Nancy and I both had the most perfectly cooked pieces of salmon.  Easy to stick to the detox plan.

Aunt Betty recognized me once, mostly she slept or ignored me and stared at whatever was on the Lifetime channel on television. Because she’s hard of hearing and always refused to use her hearing aids, she’s always been hard to talk with.  This was even worse.  When she did talk, it was about her mother, who died decades ago, and wanting to go home.  One day she mentioned my uncle for the one and only time in months.  She pointed to his photo on a nearby shelf and started to cry gently.  She said she loved “that man” but wasn’t able to take care of him.  I reassured her that he also loved her and that she’d taken great care of him.  Another day she was pretty aggressive about “going home,” forcefully pushing aside her blankets and trying to edge to the side of the bed.  When I left that evening, the staff had a volunteer sit with her to ensure she didn’t try again.  In general, I was thoroughly impressed with the staff and facility.  Hardly an hour went by when someone didn’t stop to check on Aunt Betty, not just to dispense her meds, and talk to her.  Her room is large and includes a sofa bed as well as comfortable chairs and a TV set up high.  Since the room is on the end, it has large windows on two sides.  She can look out the side window and see the same flock of wild turkeys that used to walk by the assisted living suite’s window.  She and Uncle Frank loved to watch those birds.  Meals are whenever she wants as are snacks and beverages.  The nutritionist checked with us to see what she likes and doesn’t.  Despite everything, Aunt Betty still has a huge appetite.  I went to Red Lobster one night and brought back her favorite shrimp dinner, which she polished off over a dinner and a lunch.

A trip to Michigan always includes catching up with friends who live there.  Had lunch with Ewa, a Polish-American friend that I met when she was helping to establish the Polish-American Chamber of Commerce in Warsaw in the mid ‘90s.  At 80, she is as vital as ever although she is avoiding a recommended knee surgery.  Ewa’s mother went into a Krakow hospital for surgery and never returned home; she was taken to a concentration camp.  So Ewa has a deep-seated fear of hospitals.  She’s doing well with her cane, still drives her yellow Beetle and recently hosted a Polish author who’s writing about Ewa’s family.  I hope she can go on without the surgery if that’s what she wants.

While I didn’t catch up with Eve, another American that I met in Warsaw in the ‘90s, I did have lunch with Mary and Stan, two friends from way back -- we lived in the same apartment building in Crystal MN when our sons were born three months apart.  We stayed in touch even after we bought houses in different suburbs and after they moved to Santa Rosa CA, but somewhere along the line the contact broke.  I found Mary on FaceBook, expecting to visit her when I was in San Francisco ... learning that they are now living near Detroit.  It was fun to reconnect after so many years.  We met for lunch at a fantastic deli in an historic part of Ann Arbor, a city I haven’t really visited before. 

And a Michigan visit always includes dinner with school friend Bruce and Donna in Lansing.  The pork roast dinner was well worth deviating from my detox regimen!  And the company and conversation are always enjoyable.  Donna was surprised at how many of our teachers we remember.  I was disappointed that their Ethiopian friends couldn’t join us but understood the need to return there for a family funeral.  

Tonight I prepare for the last of my medical exams.  You may recall that I started my annual medical and dental visits in late September, continued into October and tomorrow my once-every-five-years colonoscopy will occur.  I have the jug already filled with water and cooling in the refrigerator.  In a couple of hours I start the preparation process.  ‘Nuff said.

12 November
It’s over ... and my colon is all clear; no polyps.  Check that exam off for another five years.  Hurray!

I’m waiting for a pizza and a salad to be delivered for dinner.  Tomorrow I return to my detox regimen.  I’ve lost somewhere between 12 and 15 pounds depending on the scale and time of day.  I feel great.  I will continue to deviate when I need to, but I’m committed.  I had a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup for lunch on the way back from the hospital.  The plate also included a pile of potato chips ... and I didn’t eat one.  That’s how determined I am.

We had our first snowfall that stayed on the ground.  While I waited for friend Linda to pick me up, I saw a bicyclist take a bad skid and fall in front of my building.  The street was very icy.  Luckily he wasn’t hurt from the slide and no cars came from behind him, so he hopped back on and rode away.  He was one of three bikers I saw in a short few minutes.  I don’t know how/why they bike on such an icy day.

15 November
I’ve commented to friends several times recently that I haven’t gotten a bill from my clinic although I started having all those annual checkups in September.  Have gotten notices from Humana, my insurer, but since I don’t pay from those, I hadn’t bothered to open them.  Yesterday I decided to see what their accounting said my costs would be.  I didn’t want to get a $1000 bill from the clinic.  Other than my already paid co-pay amount, every item said I didn’t owe anything.  No wonder I hadn’t gotten a bill.  Way to go Medicare and Humana!

This afternoon my sister Barbara and I leave for Pittsburgh, meeting our brother for a belated celebration of his 65th birthday.  I’m all packed and ready to go.  Of course, this time of year packing is problematic:  How cold will it be?  Will it rain, snow? Plus we’re going to the Steelers-Ravens game Sunday evening.  Weather in the ‘burgh can change as quickly as it does in Minneapolis.  I have many layers in the suitcase, along with all the photo albums of our late Uncle Frank; my brother requested them.  

In prep for the trip, I’ve been watching reruns of “The Guardian,” an old television series that takes place in Pittsburgh.  The main character is a young corporate lawyer who gets busted for drugs, then sentenced to community service, working in a free legal clinic.  It’s so much fun seeing panoramas of the city’s hills and bridges and rivers, charming and not-so-charming city locales, hearing references to August Wilson’s old neighborhood, the Hill District, to Kennywood Park, Shadyside and towns like Donora, Monessen, Homestead, knowing Rt. 51, listening to the problems of the Mon Valley played out in the script.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday nights baking so I can deliver some goodies to my brother and not have to mail them.  Previously I had decided I was going to limit my holiday baking to two of my favorites that Mom used to make -- black walnut fudge and Scottish shortbread.  I remember going to the mountains in fall and getting black walnuts.  Back home, Daddy would run the car over the paper bag of nuts to crack the extremely hard outer shell, then we’d have to pick out the nut meats for Mom. It was time consuming but well worth the finished product.

19 November
What an awesome weekend we had in Pittsburgh -- perfect autumn days with sunny skies, a chance to see out old haunts, to enjoy each other’s company which we don’t get to do so often these days.  

Dan & I on Mount Washington
Dan & Barbara on a sculpture

My brother Dan got in a day early which he spent with childhood friends Paul and Lynne, then came to the airport to meet Barbara and me.  Our rooms at the Westin downtown were in just the right spot -- Friday we walked to the Strip District about six blocks away and enjoyed the wide spectrum of what Pittsburgh is.  We  browsed dozens of stores and sidewalk stands selling Steeler gear and bought a few tee shirts and souvenirs.  Since it appears there won’t be a hockey season, Penguin items were hardly visible much to Barbara’s disappointment.  We waited in line for a late breakfast at DeLuca’s, a local cafe that’s been featured on Diners, Dives and Drive-ins on the Food Network and gotten all kinds of awards.  Looked for Vegeta Natura in a Polish store and deli, bought freshly made biscotti at an Italian bakery.

The Golden Triangle from Mount Washington.  The aluminum-glad Wyndham Hotel was a Hilton when the City of Pittsburgh insisted that it be 'golden' aluminum, which ALCOA developed

That afternoon Paul and Lynne took us to the Frick House where Paul, a retired teacher, gives tours.  He’s a knowledgeable guide and wonderful story teller, giving a much more rounded view of Henry Clay Frick.  Frick is well known for bringing in the Pinkerton’s when the steel mill went on strike, for his lawsuit against his former partner Andrew Carnegie and other negatives.  But we learned and saw evidence of another side of him.  He was enchanted with the technology of the time, an early adopter whose home had electric lights, a telephone, vacuum cleaners, a “player” organ.  And a father more interested in his children than most Victorians.  During an era when the children of the wealthy were basically presented to their parents for a few minutes before their bedtime, the Frick children ate all of their meals with the parents.  Small leather chairs were made for them to comfortably participate in Sunday games and reading.  Unfortunately the museum has a ‘no photos’ policy, so no photos.

Courting customs of the day included a form of “texting.”  A young woman used placement of her fan to indicate her level of interest in a young man.  He wrote her formal notes, sent through the mail which was delivered five times a day! 

That night we had a unique dining experience.  Paul and Lynne introduced us to Jozsa Corner Hungarian Restaurant, a place you definitely would not find unless you were looking; it’s the only building left on its block in Hazelwood.  The owner is the maitre d’, chef, server and cleaner upper (hence disposable plates, utensils).  He prepares food for how ever many have made appointments.  Since we were stuck in traffic, we called to tell him we were en route.  Thankfully we did as we were the only guests.  From appetizers through dessert, the meal was outstanding.  If you’re ever in Pittsburgh, give it a try.

Back downtown, we wandered over to Market Square, then to the bank of the Allegheny River to watch fireworks.  It was “Light up the City” night, and the fireworks were the best I’ve ever seen.  They lasted about 30 minutes.  The waterfall from one of the ‘Three Sisters’ bridges was spectacular. And there were some interesting corkscrew upward spirals that I’ve never seen before.  We wondered if the manufacturer, which is nearby in Zelienople, provided this extraordinary spectacle as a marketing promo.  Certainly would’ve sold me.  Just wish my photos had been better.

FYI, the Three Sisters cross the Allegheny River from downtown to the now-named North Shore (it was just the north side in the old days).  They are historically relevant because they are the only trio of nearly identical bridges and the first suspension bridges to be self anchored. They were each given names for important city residents -- Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson.  Clemente was a slugger for the Pirates baseball team who died in an aviation accident; Warhol is most identified with the pop art movement; and Carson was the author of “The Silent Spring.”.  I remember when Clemente played for the Pirates and when he died, and I knew Warhol was from the area but not that Carson was; Carson Street downtown was also named for her.  Never too late to learn something new.

Saturday we toured our old haunts -- from the neighborhood where our dad grew up to the one where we did, the schools we attended, the corner store where we bought hand dipped, triple-decker ice cream cones at five cents a scoop and penny candy for a penny.  We visited Colleen and John who still live across the street from our old house.  When they bought their house, they were the “kids” in the neighborhood; now they’re the “old folks;” all the original owners, like my parents, are gone.  But the neighborhood remains a great place to raise kids, friendly neighbors, within walking distance of the elementary school and the grocery/deli again offers hand-dipped ice cream cones though the cost of both that and the penny candy has risen markedly.  

"714," the house where we grew up

Main entrance to Elizabeth-Forward High School, from which all three Kanyr kids were graduated

Sunday I had brunch with friend Alexis and her beau Marcus who both recently got their master’s degrees in library science from Pitt.  Alexis landed a job at the Pittsburgh Seminary so they stayed in town.  After brunch, they went off to Marcus’ family in Ohio, and Dan, Barbara and I vegged at the hotel.  They watched an afternoon football game while I mostly read. If I’d been thinking about this empty time, I might’ve called a few high school friends, but alas ...  

View from my seat
Off to the Steelers-Ravens game at Heinz Field on foot.  A long walk but welcome after so much sitting.  The new stadium is awesome, and although our seats weren’t together, we could all see well.  Because the weather had been so mild all day, I thought I might’ve put on too many layers.  Not.  It was chilly in those stands ... and I was toasty warm most of the time.  Should’ve known the Steelers would lose when the substitute quarterback ran for a touchdown less than a minute into the game.  The starting QB was badly injured in the previous game.

22 November, Happy Thanksgiving
Have been sending Thanksgiving messages and making phone calls in between general clean up around the condo and watching the Macy’s Parade in fits and starts.  Shortly it’ll be time to get dressed for dinner.  I’m joining my sister and her kids, Christopher and Tomery, at a nearby restaurant, something they’ve been doing for the last few years.  I’m looking forward to the traditional and non-traditional buffet and while I hope not to ‘break the bank’ calorie-wise, I’ll eat what I want today.  FYI -- I signed up for the “maintain, don’t gain” holiday pledge at my YMCA.  The idea is to work at maintaining one’s weight during the food-centric holiday season through New Year’s.  I think I can do that!

Later ... dinner was fantastic.  Good food, good company and no clean up.  My kind of meal.  Afterwards we went to a movie, “Silver Linings Playbook.”  It started slowly but was really a good film with an upbeat message.  

24 November
Spent some time yesterday having breakfast and lunch with friends, then the afternoon and evening cooking and baking for the holidays.  I’m doing that early since I leave on Tuesday for Poland and wanted to send a few packages of goodies.

I had expected to drive with my niece Michelle to see the Brainerd Hagens today, but my sister-in-law Elyse broke her arm earlier in the week and isn’t up to company.  We’ll go in December some time. 

Reading this morning’s paper, I learned that Larry Hagman died.  I’ve been a fan on his since his “I Dream of Jeanie” days, and I loved “Dallas,” though not as much as my friend Doug who could probably do tours of South Fork.  Hagman was a great actor who relished his role as the villainous JR.  I saw one episode of the reprised “Dallas” and had thought I might watch in reruns since I’m gone so much.  Wonder if they’ll do another “Who killed JR?” to explain his death?

Speaking of deaths, I’ve discovered that another old boyfriend died - cancer almost two years ago.  I’m beginning to feel like a jinx.

28 November, Warsaw, Poland
Uneventful international travel -- hurray.  Flights were on time out of both Minneapolis and Amsterdam.  Barbara, a friend from my Serbia days who’s now working in Tajikistan, met me at the airport.  She’s in Warsaw for a few days of meetings at the OSCE offices here.  It was wonderful to see her and hear what she’s been doing.  And Hala’s daughter Marta arrived as planned too, bringing my lined raincoat and picking up a few things.  I had Reeses candy bars that she ordered and three Kindle Fires for her boyfriend.  (I also have an unlocked iPhone for the son of one of the managers at the Center.)  Marta gave me an autographed copy of the newest Diana Krall CD.  Last summer I bought two tickets to her Warsaw concert hoping to return in time to take Marta as my ‘thank you’ for all the times I’ve stayed in her/”my” apartment.  Since my return date was unsure, I left the tickets with her and later suggested she take Lukasz as I would not return that early in November.  She said it was a great concert and got me the CD.

Now I’m waiting for the driver and for Steve, the other US board member who’s arriving on a flight from Paris.  It’s 3 pm and already getting dark ... I am definitely in Poland.

30 November, Sandomierz, Poland
Our drive from Warsaw Chopin Airport to Sandomierz on Wednesday afternoon took four hours!  Traffic at 4 pm, when it was already pitch dark, was a nightmare -- we inched along the road in a rush hour that would rival Chicago or Manhattan.  Steve and I used the time to catch up, then each dozed off.  

Yesterday I went to the salon for a manicure, pedicure and waxing of my eyebrows and mustache. The cosmetician was supported by the Center with a small grant, which is why I went to her the first time a few years ago.  Now I go each time I’m here because she’s very good ... and very, very cheap by US standards.  I got all of those treatments for the price of a manicure back home.

I’m doing a pretty decent job of not over-eating, which is a real challenge.  The chef at the hotel does a great job and always prepares multi-course meals.  I’ve sworn off “the whites” during meals while here too but let myself have a slice or two of the chewy, dense darkish break that I love for breakfast.  And I only eat half of most meals, including desserts.  A little wasteful but I also am not hungry for more. 

At the board meeting today we marked the 20th anniversary of the Center with lots of photo slide shows, reminiscences by staff, kudos from clients and officials.  Hala, president of the Center, and Ryszard, chair of the board, gave lovely plaques to three 20-year employees (Halinka, Piotr and Ania), and Ryszard gave Hala 20 red roses since she is also a 20-year employee.  All in all, a lovely day.

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