Category Archives: death

Australia Bound

Twelve hours from now, I will be in Los Angeles waiting for my flight to Sydney. Sydney is 13 hours ahead of LA, and the flight is 15 hours long, so that means in theory I will try to stay awake as long as possible and then sleep the second half, so I will be somewhat rested when I arrive in Australia at 7:30am.

If Lynn is reading this she is probably laughing, because she knows I can barely stay up past 9pm.  But I have been slowly moving my bedtime forward in anticipation of this trip, and last night I was awake until 1:30am—probably for the first time since I was a teenager.

I downloaded an app called Timeshifter that claims to help people shift their wake/sleep schedules ahead of long-haul trips.  I just couldn’t bear the thought of staying indoors with the blinds drawn to block out the sun during the day, and drinking coffee at 3:00 in the morning.  So I deleted the app and concocted a do-it-yourself program. I’m not great at math so I may have it all backwards. I fully expect to get no sleep on the plane and arrive completely exhausted.

As is my habit—and I recommend this to anyone—I use a big trip as a deadline to really get in shape so I will have energy and strength for lifting and pulling bags and walking everywhere—and staying awake.  For the last seven weeks I set a goal for myself to swim for 45 minutes once a week, bike 20 miles a week, lift weights twice, do yoga twice, and walk two or three times.  I am happy to report I stuck to this plan so now I can let myself go.

Yesterday after work I went for a swim even though I Really Did Not Want To.  I am still a crap swimmer.  I have no endurance; rare is the instance I can do the crawl for a full pool length. I always tell myself, “It’s okay to go slow” but that gives me the sensation I am sinking.  So then I flail and thrash about and am soon winded.  I do a half dog paddle, half crawl the rest of the way, gasping for breath.

Which brings me to the What Ifs.  What if my lousy swimming is due to having undiagnosed lung cancer?  As usual, I think about all the possible things that could go wrong before or during a big trip.  This is not helped by the half dozen comments I’ve received from well-meaning people warning me about crocodiles, sharks, and poisonous things in the desert.

What about you?  Would you rather be attacked by a shark or a croc?  I’d take a shark any day.  I think it would be a quick death, whereas crocs pull you under water while you’re still alive and munch on you at their leisure.  Plus, you can punch or kick a shark and maybe they’ll back off, or at least that’s the lore.

But my mind is not limited to savage wild animal attacks.  What if I stub my toe and break it today, and the doctor says I cannot fly with a broken bone?    What if someone hacks into my bank accounts while I’m camping in the desert and cleans me out?  What if someone breaks into my house while I’m away and steals…my plants or my 10-year-old TV?

Most dreaded of all: What if my flight turns into another Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?

While all this is whirling around in my head I will carry on doing what needs to be done, including putting my plants in the bathtub so they’ll live without me for a month, fishing the goldfish out of the backyard pond and delivering them to a neighbor who has a year-round pond, calling my mother, going for a walk, packing, unplugging all my appliances, and cleaning out my car because I am renting it to someone while I’m gone.

What an exciting life I lead!  I really am fortunate.  Even if the plane does go into a death spiral over French Polynesia, I will have had a fantastic time up until then.

A Great Life and a Rainy Ghost

It was my turn to go into London and spend the day with Heidi.  I wanted to visit the Churchill War Rooms, which are an underground complex near Parliament that are operated by the Imperial War Museum.  Heidi had already been there, or wasn’t interested, I can’t remember—so we planned to meet at the Houses of Parliament for a tour at 2pm.

I bought tickets online for both places which enabled me to breeze past the block-long line of suckers hoping to get in to the Churchill rooms.  There’s a reason they control the number of people who enter.  These were the underground bunkers where Churchill and his team lead the war effort, and so they are dark and cramped.  I was only inside for a couple hours and I felt claustrophobic.  I can’t imagine spending days and nights down there—breathing in thick cigar smoke and hearing bombs falling overhead.

Winston Churchill was complicated.  He was born into wealth—at Blenheim Palace, near Oxford, where I had enjoyed many long walks on the pleasure grounds.  He joined the army, was captured in South Africa during the Second Boer War, and made a movie-script-like escape.  He was elected Prime Minister and indisputably led the nation through World War II with world-famous speeches with lines like:

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

“… we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.”

World War II—and the US making England repay every penny we contributed to support them during the war—and lots of other factors, broke the Empire. The official end wouldn’t be until 1997, when they turned Hong Kong over to China, but many would argue that it really ended with decolonization/independence of India, Malaysia, Singapore, Jamaica, Sudan, Ghana, Kenya, Jordan/Israel/Palestine, and many, many others after the war and into the 60s.

Churchill opposed Indian independence on paternalistic grounds—the Indians needed the British to get them organized.  If Ghandi went on another hunger strike, he said, they should let him die.  When Churchill was elected PM a second time, he had a front-row seat for the Empire’s dismantling. He lived to be 90 despite being—famously—a chain cigar smoker and heavy drinker.

I feel so inadequate when I write these posts about which hundreds of books have been written and dozens of movies and TV shows made … go see the film that’s just out now, called Churchill.  All I can do is repeat my caveat that I am not a history professor, although sadly I think I could play one on TV.  I am just a curious person traveling around, learning a bit here and there, and forgetting most of it by dinner time.

One thing I can say with certainty: the War Rooms have a really good cafeteria and gift shop.  After spending time and money in both I emerged into the rainy street.

I had hours to kill before meeting Heidi.  I opened my souvenir Wimbledon umbrella and fought my way through the crowds to the Houses of Parliament bookstore, where I bought more stuff which forced me to carry more bags.

I made my way to Victoria Tower Gardens, a quiet park on the west side of Parliament, and gazed out over the Thames through the rain.

Suddenly I felt something like an electric zing.  I have few photos of my father.  Being here triggered a memory of a black and white photo of him standing in this exact place with his umbrella open, 50 years ago.

Church Goin’

It was a hot Sunday night in Amesbury, and I mean hot only in the sense of the temperature.  If this was 1986 I would have gone into The Bell, drank way too many pints of cider (“It was on sale—£2.20 a pint!”), picked up a guy, danced until closing, woken up in a strange place, slept with my contacts in, missed my bus, and had to hitch hike back to Eton.

But this was 2017, so I’m afraid this won’t be such a titillating tale.

My interests these days run more to quiet places. That included all of Amesbury on a Sunday night, since almost everything was closed.  I passed the euphemistically-named Camelot Nursing & Retirement Centre.  Camelot?—Not.

I found the parish church and spent a quiet hour there.

Singing drifted from inside, so I snuck into the musty-smelling interior.  I’m always afraid the minister is going to wave me over, “Come, join us, sister!  Come sing praise to the Lord with us!”  So I tip toed and hid behind one pillar after another until I could get a look at them. There were half a dozen women, all over the age of 40, being led by a man I assumed was the minister.  He kept stopping them and instructing them to do something different, better … I couldn’t make out what he was saying but the tone of his voice was stern.

I spied a table with stuff for sale on it.  Oh joy!  This is always the best.  I darted from behind my pillar to the one in front of the table.  Postcards, tea towels, greeting cards, aprons.  Aprons!  Aprons went out with the Betty Crocker Cook Book and Tater Tot Hotdish, but they were only £2 so I grabbed two, and five tea towels, and a pack of greeting cards, all with the image of Amesbury Parish Church on them. I was set for hostess and housewarming presents for the next six months, and all for only £8.

In my excitement I nudged the table and it made a scraping sound.  “Who’s there!” the minister called out.  I waved and smiled as I quickly exited.

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, my favorite subjects are death and travel.  So I enjoyed some time in the churchyard. Poor Leonard Frank George Williams had a long name but a short life.

There were lovely mossy tombstones.

And these above-ground crypts.

There was this monument to the Great War.  Note that there are three deceased named Ford, two Lawrences, and two Southeys.  This was before the geniuses in command figured out that you shouldn’t assign all the men from one town to the same unit.  Because when the unit was annihilated in a battle, every son in every family in town was killed.  So incredibly sad.

Here is the plaque for the Word War.  Hmmm…I thought they had learned a lesson by then, but there are repeat names on here, too, including a woman who appears to have died along with her brother.  I guess it was literally all hands on deck during these wars.

The Great War.  The World War.  What will we call the next one?

I saw this and thought I was in for some comic relief.  A pet cemetery!

But no.  It was more dead people, just a section for the new tradition of cremation.

I was feeling “peckish” as they say (meaning hungry) so I wandered along, looking for food.  The bakery was closed but the pennants in the window provided a lovely photo opp.

I ended up back at the Econolodge, which had a Burger King and something called a Little Chef next to it. I waited in line at the Burger King for 45 minutes.  Everyone in town must have been there, since all the other restaurants were closed.  I gave up and went to the Little Chef, which I highly doubt employed any chef—little or otherwise.  It was supposed to look like a 1950s American-style diner.  If such diners were filthy and served horrible, dry, bland food back in the day, then it was completely authentic.

A Hole in History

I walked around Canary Wharf after my meeting.  Every single person appeared to be under 40 and was dressed like this.

Yes, there were women too and they were also attired in blue.  Blue was The Colour.

I still felt schlumpy but what did I care?  Now I was a tourist and I intended to wear down my heels even more.  I would take the rest of the day off and wander around.  A sign directed me to the Museum of London Docklands.  The Docklands was, I thought, exactly where I had stayed 30 years before.  The area was unrecognizable, with market vendors’ stalls replaced by food trucks selling “gourmet” macaroni and cheese.  Just as in the US, there was a queue 50 people deep waiting for the privilege of paying £8 for what you could make at home for £1.

I passed a sign pointing to Poplar, an area popularized (that was unavoidable) in the popular (sorry!) TV show Call the Midwife.  The street signage was good and I found the museum easily.  It was free, which was a bonus.

If I had been in the mood to learn about the sugar and slave trades, I could have spent all day there.  Instead, I focused on three exhibits and breezed through the rest of it.  The first exhibit was a recreation of a seedy dockside from maybe the 18th Century, complete with pirates in pubs, houses of ill repute, and the obligatory dental surgery with giant pliers prominently displayed.  This area was undoubtedly for kids, but it was my favorite so what does that say about me?

The second section I perused was about World War II specific to the Docklands, featuring bomb shelters for families and singles or couples.

This is the damage the German bombs wreaked:

Imagine, coming across one of these while hoeing potatoes in your garden, five years after the war.

I’m fascinated that people were expected to discern German from British bombers. Can you imagine teaching your kid, “Now Jimmy, study this carefully.  The ones on the left are the bad planes.  When we see them we run for the bomb shelter so we don’t get blown to smithereens like the Evans family.”

I don’t know about you, but I could study this poster all day—even have it in my hands while looking up at the sky—and I would never be able to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.  In the dark, under stress?  No way. I imagine all this well-intentioned poster did was make people more anxious.

They had their version of the American icon Rosie the Riveter; recruitment campaigns to bring women into the workforce to take the place of the men who were off to war:

Of course as soon as the war ended, the women were told to go back home and have babies, which set the stage for women’s lib.

There was a bonus exhibit at the end that displayed items found in the construction of Crossrail, the new Elizabeth train line being built in London.  Imagine, tunneling 26 miles under London, with all the other tube lines down there.  It being London, they had to stop every five feet to make sure they weren’t grinding up a significant archaeological site.  Here’s my favorite artifact, a chamber pot:

There were skeletons recovered from plague cemeteries.  People died in such numbers they had to be dumped into mass graves—before the grave diggers caught the Black Death and followed their customers into the ground.

I had my eye out for something about the story of how Pakistanis came to work the docks in the 50s and 60s after Indian independence and partition.  It was hoped they would work for cheap, then go home.  But they stayed and brought their families.  This had been the whole learning topic during my Volunteers for Peace week long “work camp” in the east end in 1988.  Now Sadiq Khan, a British Pakistani, is Mayor of London.

There was nothing.  Nothing!  I just went to the museum website and searched for “Pakistani” and found nothing either.  Did I imagine this big historical story, or get it wrong?

Fallen Leaves

Another report from real time.  I apologize in advance that this post is longer than most.

A friend invited me to an five-hour writing and meditation retreat.  My first reaction was, Who’s got time for that!?  My second reaction was, If that was my first reaction, it must mean I need it.  So I signed up.

On Sunday I got up early and schlepped over to Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis, which is slightly smaller than New York’s Central Park.  I didn’t get lost because last winter I got “pre-lost” on a walk there.  I had to call this same friend to come and rescue me in the dark snowy woods.

The retreat was in the pavilion, which I would guess was built in the 20s based on its deco-era light fixtures.  It has a high vaulted ceiling, screen porches that run the length of it on both sides, and a gigantic hearth. The pavilion is set on a hill with oaks whose leaves were in their autumn finest colors of russet, pumpkin, and gold.

The retreat was led by a woman named Jeannine who runs something called Elephant Rock.  Their retreats “harness the transformative power of writing in breathtaking natural settings.” The first thing I noticed was the vocal fry.  I was going to be here for five hours, so I “set an intention,” as they say, to not let this get on my nerves.

Jeannine was paired with a guy named Tyler who is a Buddhist monk and the director of a temple in Chicago.  There were a dozen or so participants, all women.  White women with scarves, we call them where I work.  Upper middle class, white, professional women.  Oh well.  That was me, too, so for the second time that day I pledged not to be distracted by my observations.

The pattern of the day was that Tyler led a short meditation, then Jeannine gave us a writing prompt to inspire us in 10 minutes of scribbling, followed by a brief discussion.  The first prompt was an excerpt from The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich:

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”

I wrote:

In my new backyard, I sit on the bench we threw out here because we didn’t know where else to put it and the U-Haul had to be returned by 7:00.

I smoke a Swisher Sweet and drink a Blue Moon and look up at the leaves of an enormous oak tree.  It’s the end of September and the leaves are just turning.

Once a week or so I repeat this ritual and if I’m able to actually notice the leaves—if I don’t pass the entire time in my head—I notice they are now gold, now brown, now gone, fallen in heaps in the driveway, now slimy after a rain.

I moved, my mother had a stroke, then we moved her, all in a month.  My minimalist pride was blown because I had taken home piles of her shit that I just couldn’t throw away, like the giant, heavy-duty cookie sheet she used to bake chocolate chip cookies for the four of us.

My mother is recovering in her new $6,000-a-month “continuum of care” digs.  The same apartment can be independent living, assisted living, or memory care (they put a lock on the outside of your door when you get to that stage).  There’s a cemetery next door.

Just kidding.

But no one moves out of there alive unless they’ve run out of money.

We’re all moving along a conveyor belt.  My mom will never spend the winter in Phoenix again.  Never ride a bike again.  Now she’ll never drive a car again.  No more baths now.  She’ll never go for a walk in the woods alone again.  Now, no more showers without an aide nearby.  Her daily glass of wine is forbidden.

My mother is blessed with a mind that never worries, never obsesses, never ruminates.  Yesterday I found her in the party room at a Bloody Mary party.  When she saw me she put down her plastic cup and said with a foxy grin, “I forgot I’m not supposed to drink!”

I do worry, obsess, and ruminate, which is why I need to write and meditate and sometimes, have a beer and a cigar out in the backyard.  But not now, not until spring, because it’s too cold and dark outside.

Elder, Kickin’ It

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

In the real world, there is more bad news in addition to all the shenanigans in Washington.  Every day there are reports about all the people overdosing on Carfentanil, a synthetic opioid 10,000 times more potent than morphine.  The anniversary of Prince’s death just passed; he overdosed on a similar drug, Fentanyl.  Carfentanil was developed as a large animal anesthetic.  Really?  Who takes drugs like that?

Sadly, my dad did.  It was his birthday recently; he would have been 81 if he hadn’t overdosed in a Wisconsin motel room nearly 50 years ago, aged 32.  He died of a lethal combination of alcohol and Paraldehyde, which used to be prescribed to treat alcoholism.  Paraldehyde is classified as a “hypnotic” and has mostly been replaced by safer drugs. Was it an accident or intentional?  I’ll never know.  What I do notice is how little emotion I feel about it anymore.  That’s taken a long time and a lot of work.  He loved to travel, so I like to think he would be happy about my adventures.

After our snorkeling day, we were herded onto the van by Mark to attend a Garifuna drumming performance at the Hopkins Cultural Center.  It took an hour for us to drive the mile distance as the crow flies.  It was a very dark night. Thank goodness there were potholes the size of bathtubs full of water, which reflected the light from the three streetlights in town.

Eventually we were ushered into a large thatched-roof hut where we waited for our supper.  A woman about my age was the cook, and she was obviously working her ass off. She had been summoned on five minutes notice to produce food for 20 people, and after an hour her young adult children served up bowls of hudutu and fry bread.  Again, it was full of bones, but we were so hungry we had no complaints.

A 30-something man in a dashiki jumped up on the stage and started shouting into the mic.  “Let’s give a hand to Elder Elspeth for the wonderful meal!”

Elder?  If she was an elder, that made me one too.

The guy, whose name was Myron, launched into a long, disconnected rant about Garifuna culture.  I had read about it in the guide books, and he seemed to be making stuff up.  Garifuna is a language and a culture brought by mixed-race slaves from the Caribbean to Honduras, Nicaragua, and British Honduras—as Belize was then called—in the early 19th Century.  I asked a question; I don’t recall what it was because he angrily yelled, “No!” at me and resumed his animated monologue.  He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder.  He was very muscular—maybe he had ‘roid rage.

Myron went on for half an hour, then two other men joined him and they began drumming and singing manically in the Garifuna language.  It reminded me of a pow wow, where the first song is really cool, the second one is good, and then they all sound alike.

Despite it being ear-splittingly loud, I was trying hard not to nod off, as were the other snorkelers. Mercifully the trio only played five songs.  Then they jumped off the stage and started selling CDs and passing a hat for tips.  It was clear they couldn’t wait for us to get out of there.

Midnight.  One hundred Fahrenheit with 99% humidity.  I lay in my bed in the middle of the room, between Trudy and Emily.  Our table and chairs had disappeared while we were gone but we were beyond curious about why things came and went.

My Restless Legs Syndrome is always worse when it’s humid.  It sounds like a silly condition, but it’s ruined more nights of sleep than any worry or noise or excess of caffeine or alcohol.  Just as I’m falling asleep, I get a creeping feeling around my knees and have an overpowering urge to Move My Legs.

Then music started up in the distance, a low throbbing beat.  This would last for hours, I thought, as I kick, kick, kicked to the beat.

Kaukokaipuu

I don’t normally promote travel services, hotels, etc., but I would like to make a plug for a travel agency I used to book my flight to the UK.

You are probably thinking, “A travel agent?  Didn’t they go out with video tapes and big hair bands?”  That’s what I thought, too.  Everything is online, right?  Expedia, Orbitz, Kayak; there’s no need to pay someone to find your cheap flight.

But a coworker told me how an agent had saved him about $500 on a flight to Japan.  The agent and I went back and forth.  This was London, not Japan, so the savings were only about $50, but still—that’s $50 more I’ll have to pay for fun stuff.  If you’ve got an upcoming trip, feel free to contact Caroline at caroline.b@airconcierge.com and tell her Anne sent you.

I’m renewing my passport.  I always find it difficult to put the old one in the mail.  What if it gets lost?

I once worked in the HR department of a certain international organization, so I know how precarious it can get.  I would have to get a transit visa, for instance, for a Canadian public health nurse who was coming to the UK for orientation before traveling on to work in Kenya, via Dubai. She would mail her passport and extra photos.  I would fill out the paperwork, stuff everything in an envelope, courier it to London, and hope for the best.  If all went well, the courier would return with a transit visa and I would mail everything back to the new employee in Canada well in advance of her travels.  There were a few close calls, but the Home Office always came through.

Sometimes when we had leftover passport photos, we would talk about who we thought would make good-looking couples.  Coworkers who had been there a long time accumulated drawers full of photos, so we strung them together and used them to festoon our cubes.  This is probably not something we should have done, so shhhh….don’t tell anyone.

I went to Walmart to get new passport photos.  I hate Walmart, but you can’t beat their price of $7.50.  I was relieved when I compared my pics from 10 years ago to today; I didn’t think my face hadn’t aged more than 10 years.  I accept that I’m aging, but I don’t want to look older than I am.

I reminisced over the places I’d been in 10 years: multiple times to the UK.  Jordan, Israel, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  Kenya, Dubai.  Guatemala, Belize. France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Spain.

I talked to my sister and told her I was thinking of summering in the UK.

Our mother and her husband were planning a move to a senior apartment building in April.

“I feel like it’s a good time to do something like this,” I told Connie. “Mom and Jim will be safely ensconced where they’ll have transportation and help if they need it.  Vince is out of prison.  You’re in the clear.”  Connie almost died of colon cancer two years ago.  She had just had her semi-annual battery of tests and been told she was cancer free.

“Yeah,” she replied, “By the way, I was over there today and they’re now saying they’ll wait to move until June.  They want to enjoy one more spring in their house.”

“What!?” I asked, “Do they realize they’ve signed a lease and they’ll have to pay rent for an empty apartment for month?”  Yes, she said, they knew that.

“I guess I can stick around through June, to make sure they’re all settled,” I said. “My remote work request isn’t official yet.”

No,” Connie replied, “Go—you should go.  If it’s one thing I learned from thinking I was going to die within days, it’s that you have to live now.  So go.”

A friend who is an artist gave me a handmade birthday card that said Kaukokaipuu on the cover.  It’s a Finnish word which means “craving for a distant land.”

I’ve always craved distant lands, but since Connie’s illness, Angus’ death, my mother’s frailty, and my son’s stint in prison, I’m feeling Kaukokaipuu on steroids.