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Friday, November 18, 2011

Mister Magoo Goes to Philadelphia

OK, it’s a catchy headline, but I don’t want it for a new nickname.  Recently, I took a vacation to Philly.  It was the first time I flew alone since before my vision decreased in 2003.  That time, I went to Chicago.  In 2008 I flew with a friend to Boston.  I like going to big cities.  I’m developing a fondness for the Northeast.

Not seeing well enough to watch the movie or read on the flight gives me time to think.  I realized how much happier and healthier I am this fall than last fall, when the cancer was diagnosed.  Then I flipped back through the fall of ’09, ’08, etc. and discovered that this is the happiest fall I’ve had in quite a while.  It set the tone for the next few days.

Who says re-circulated air is bad for the brain?

I’ll admit I was nervous about flying alone.  But I notified United Airlines of my visual limitations and they had some meet and assist me to the gate I needed.  When I changed planes in O’Hare, a young man was there with a wheelchair.  There’s nothing wrong with my legs and pride almost made me tell him I would just walk beside him.

Then I remembered how big O’Hare is and all the times I changed planes in big airports when I worked for airlines.  A ride would have been nice back then.  So I rode for about twenty minutes.  The concourse was a blur of moving people, passing waiting areas, and brightly-lit shops and restaurants.  The aroma of different kinds of food rose and fell away.  Seafood.  Italian.  Hamburgers.

Near my gate, I ordered a small pizza from a man with an accent like John Belushi’s character in the Saturday Night Live sketch who said “Cheeburger, cheeburger.”  One big difference was this guy was extremely helpful and took me to the last available table where I had plenty of time to relax and eat. 

At Philadelphia I was met by another airline employee with a wheelchair.  This one told me he had MS and I almost offered to push him if he would tell me where to turn.  That would have stressed us both out more than it was worth.  My friend, Alan, drove me to his home in a suburb in the rush hour traffic.  We ate at a diner where they have me a huge sandwich.  The fries and a cup of Manhattan Clam Chowder were standard sides that went with it.  It's a Philly thing.  I was stuffed.

I should point out that, for me, any trip out of town means sampling the local cuisine—or at least food I can’t get here.  A big part of my travel budget includes food—anything from street vendors to fine dining.  I don’t leave my stomach and taste buds at home, so they should enjoy the trip too.

Saturday was the busiest day.  We went to Center City (their term for downtown) and stopped by Reading Terminal Market (or as I call it, Food Hog Heaven).  It’s like a mall food court on steroids, but with A LOT more choices and without the annoying mall.  I tried a Pennsylvania Dutch turkey sausage on a bun, known in many parts as a hot dog.  It tasted better than the average hot dog, though.
I could have spent a few hours there, but we had a 1:00 appointment to see Independence Hall and were told to be there early.  Alan guided me through the bustling big city streets and I wished I could see more of it.  He pointed out a few things along the way and I squinted in the bright sunlight to make them out.  It’s a National Park, so a funny park ranger with an encyclopedic knowledge of history quizzed us and kept us laughing. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize sighted friends with digital cameras come in handy at times like this. 
     “Can you see the design on the ceiling?” Alan asked.
     I squinted up at it, “Nope.  Take a picture of it.”  I knew I could probably see it with the magnifier program on my computer.  My only regret is not being more aggressive and elbowing my way to the front of the crowd.  My cane was unfolded, so they would have given me right of way.  If they wouldn’t have, the cane doubles as a weapon.

The Liberty Bell is next door.  It’s in front of some tall windows, so the light in my face kept me from seeing the famous crack very well.  But, it’s much bigger than I thought it was, so that made the rest of it easy to see.  We could walk all the way around it.  With the light shining from behind me, I saw the back of it much better.

On the way to Betsy Ross’ house, we stopped at an old cemetery where Ben Franklin is buried.  It was frustrating not to be able to read the headstones.  Alan told me some of them were worn too smooth to read.  It was easy enough to make out the size and shape of all those tall headstones, though.  Really old cemeteries have always fascinated me.

Later that afternoon, we found ourselves back at (surprise!) Reading Terminal Market.  I was hungry and wanted to sample new things.  One such item was from the Middle Eastern food stand.  It was ground lamb and beef with pine nuts in a thin dough shell that was fried.  I could taste spices like the ones used in pumpkin pie.  All I remember about the name is that it started with a K.  It was the best tasting thing I ate all weekend!

After that, we stopped at the Jewish deli, where I tried a kanish.  Let’s just say it had a tough act to follow.  I was hoping for something spicier.  Alan told them I’m from Arkansas, so they felt sorry for me and let me sample a bite of lox.  It’s very salty smoked salmon.

Somewhere along the way I had gourmet coffee from Central America and a shrimp eggroll.  It was good, but I’ve had Chinese food too many times to count. 

The last stop on my gastronomic world tour was the Italian bakery.  It was almost closing time and the line was pretty long.  It was worth the wait.  We both ordered cannoli and watched the woman behind the counter fill the pastries with cream filling from a hose hanging from the ceiling.  It tasted incredible!  If you ever get a chance to eat fresh cannoli, DO IT.  Life is just too short not to.

Alan pointed out certain buildings while we walked around Center City.  The sidewalks were so well lit I could see better after dark than during the day.  I was happy to watch the last glow of orange, red, and purple light of the sunset contrasted against the tall dark buildings on both sides of a street.  They were the same colors I’ve seen in sunsets here, but in an urban landscape.  Whenever I get a chance to see stuff like that without having to strain, I savor it.

That concludes Part 1 of my Philly trip.  Next: A live zydeco and blues show, eggplant fries, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and an authentic Philly Cheese Steak sandwich.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Year Since I Met Cancer

Last night, a friend of mine said, “It’s almost winter again.  Seem like it was just last week.”

Most years I agree with that sentiment.  This one has been much different.  This time last year, I found out I had cancer.  At various times, time has slowed to a crawl and (most recently) sped to a dizzying pace.

It had stalked me for seven months.  But, like most stalkers, it wouldn’t be able to keep its identity a secret.  I never associated the on again off again pain in my back with the anything serious, let alone cancer

The chemotherapy loomed in front of me for nearly four weeks.  There were the combined emotions of dread and anxiety to get it over with.

Then I was in the thick of it, having to be hospitalized when my body had a worse than typical reaction to the toxic drugs that fought the grapefruit-sized tumor near my lower spine.  A few days later, my beard and most of the hair on my head fell out—just in time for one of the coldest winters on record.  The cancer provided the perfect excuse to stay inside.

The last chemo treatment was in late January.  February was a blur of mouth sores that kept me from eating or speaking and fatigue that kept me from walking more than a few feet.  I dropped 25 pounds and looked like a stick figure, but was reacquainted with my abs.

In March, I was able to be on my own again, after several weeks of being cared for by my parents at their home over an hour away.  After being frailer than at any other time in my life, being on my own again scared the hell out of me, but I knew it was the only way I would fully regain my strength.

Appetite, weight, strength—they all came back gradually, in lock step with each other.  This was unlike an organ transplant, when the medications caused my appetite and weight to increase faster than any other time in my life.  Maybe that’s why this time all the weight came back lean.  By mid-July, I had regained all that I lost, but my pants have been loose since then.

I don’t recommend the cancer diet plan, so don’t envy me.  But it’s ironic that I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in.  After a couple or organ transplants and cancer.  At 47.  I have to laugh every time I think about it.

This was more brief but more intense than anything else I’ve had to face.  All that other stuff helped prepare me for this.  Just before I got out on my own again, my dad told me, “As determined as you are, I know it won’t be long before you get your strength back.  You’ll do what you have to do to make sure of that.”

It meant going to the gym again, something I’ve liked to do for 25 years.  It meant not being self-conscious about how thin and weak I was when I first went back.  It meant getting to watch the man in the mirror become less pitiful and more familiar.

This summer, I got to meet the latest version of myself.  He’s much more confident than the previous one.  The chemo left the hair thinner over his ears (of all the weird places for that to happen) so he wears a slightly shorter haircut to keep it from standing out.  He has to wear a belt more often.  He has a more intense side that he allows to come out and play (and write) once in a while.  Most things just seem easier for him now.  He’s much more driven to succeed.  And he looks older, too.  But, he’s quite comfortable in his skin, even if it has a few more wrinkles. 

Most important, he has a better sense of what he’s capable of.

In many ways, the cancer was a gift.  Even though I lost valuable time moving the writing career ball down the field, I just wouldn’t be the same man today without the experience.

This is my latest dance with “What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.”  I know it by heart, but I wish the band would learn a new song.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m flying to Philadelphia this weekend to visit my friend, Alan, a fellow cancer survivor.  It’s the first time I’ve flown alone in almost ten years—since before my vision worsened.  I remember an old Elton John song from the 70s, Philadelphia Freedom.  The lab numbers from a few weeks confirmed that I am free of cancer.  Flying doesn’t make me nervous.  Once I’m past airport security and high above the clouds, I might feel even freer than I do on the ground these days.

Hard to imagine, but possible.  After the past year, I don’t put limits on my imagination or the possibilities.