Saturday, October 28, 2023

Trains, Planes, Illness and Choices



The Roomette. Those stairs lead to the upper bunk we can neither access, one of us not bendy enough, the other too fluffy.

We're dealing with an interesting scenario. Soon we are to launch our Amtrak trip to the  Tampa FL area to visit George’s brother, who is ill. Since we’re traveling all that way and we haven’t been to Florida for many years, after spending time with his brother, from there we’ve (read “I’ve” since all tech and travel plans are on me) planned a couple side trips to visit a friend and a cousin.

We’ll drive about 4.5 hours from our home in Winona MN to spend the first night of this Old People Extravaganza in the Chicago suburb of Bartlett IL with a dear friend, get in a good gabfest. Wednesday she’ll take us to the commuter station where we’ll catch a train into Union Station, which is handy dandy since that’s exactly where we’ll board the Capital Limited for Leg One of our Amtrak Journey. 

Trip Overview:  Winona MN to Bartlett IL to Chicago Union station, to Train One to DC (roomette);  to Train Two to Tampa area (roomette) three nights; to private car driving us to The Villages For three nights; after which The Villages friend drives to meet my cousin halfway to Oviedo (where cousin lives) to pass off said Old People for three nights; to departing Oviedo for home on the Amtrak out of Winter Park, twenty minutes from my cousins, to DC; and DC to Chicago; and Chicago to burbs and home.  The only time we'll be manning  or womaning (Grrr!) our transportation is driving back and forth from Winona to Bartlett. Nice. No rental cars in the midst of all that! Soon away we’ll blast off on our long-and-carefully-charted trip!

Or will we? (Enter DRAMA from Stage Left-Field)

You see my husband has been ill since the end of September. He is guardedly better but definitely not good—by a long shot. Cause of his misery after three urgent care visits, 2 appointments, two IVs, 14 hours of being seen: Clueless. Toward the beginning, a two-week fever and super wonky blood work--fever now thankfully gone--they suspected something tick related (not Lyme) so a 10-day protocol of 200 mg/day of heavy duty antibiotics ensued. His “whatever” was/is producing lingering extreme fatigue and occasional light headedness. And he is unsteady on his feet.

Tick results came back negative--at least thus-far. Symptoms and wonky blood work continue but some blood work has “resolved,” as they say, or is “trending in the right direction”—like a sloth on the "run." He's wiped out.

These issues have caused us to wonder: a) should we pull the plug on this trip?; b) should we fly instead?; c) do we care how much money we lose on any changes? and d) should we head out in spite of his issues because staying home doesn’t get rid of them? Just cross our fingers and bloody GO FOR IT?

As for choice c] (do we care about money), of course. We’re financially okay but we don’t have money to burn. To decide to fly at this point in the game could lose us serious Amtrak money, should we just cancel, plus add the whackydoodle price we’d pay for purchasing plane tickets on last-minute flights.

Also, for those who say, OH MY WHY would you subject a less-than-perky man to two nights on a train when he could fly and be there in a little over three hours?! BWA-HAHAHA! Like actual time in the sky has anything to do with how many hours flying takes! First we have 2.5 hours to get to MSP, and the best rates leave at 6 a.m. so that means a hotel the night before. Then security and making it to the gate, hoping for no gate changes, and hoping it’s on time and prying the ol’ bod into a seat fit for an American Girl Doll and perhaps languishing on the tarmac for hours and then ZIPPITY ZAP in three hours in the air we arrive in Tampa to sit on the Tarmac and … You know how it can go.

Enter Winter Weather from stage right and ...

The last time we flew, the woman sitting next to me hacked her snot-laden self to pieces while never once covering her mouth. Not once. Also fragile George would be stuck sitting next to me (How do you feel? Are you okay? Do you need water?) after we pay extra money for the privilege of choosing that marital bliss opportunity. Whereas on the train, we have a roomette (good LORD, more cozy togetherness) but at least we can close our curtain-that-serves-as-a-door and keep all snot-laden folks at bay. For two days, over two trains.

But, on the train we’d get all those yum meals in a dining car whereas on the plane if we’re lucky we’d get two peanuts in a package we can’t tear open, or perhaps nothing. In either case we’d get to sleep sitting up because neither of us can make it into the top bunk in the train’s roomette. Trust me: we sized up that opportunity when we took the Amtrak to Albuquerque last April. Nonetheless, it was a trip we really enjoyed right up until on the way home when our sleeper car was DIRECTLY behind the engine, its train whistle blowing all night, drilling BLARING siren-ous sounds into the dark recesses of our brains. But still, compared to driving or flying, we appreciated the scenery and the lull of the clickety-clack and the chance to meet new folks during meals.

What have the docs thus far said about him traveling? “If he feels up to it, he can go.”

What, exactly, is “feeling up to it?” That he can manage to get onto the train with the help of a wheelchair? That he can make it to the bathroom without falling over during a train shift? I mean he can have meals brought to the roomette and … But there’s the on-and-the-off of the commuter train, and the Leg One to DC train, and the same on Leg two and reverse all of that and  … Does he have to feel GOOD to “feel LIKE” it?

What should we do? His brother is combating the Big C and the outlook is somewhere between short and long and they are each other's only siblings who haven't seen each other for two years and  …. Anyone who asks how George is, and we tell them the truth-- and the options in front of us-- finds it necessary to weigh in with STRONG opinions about “Of course go!” or “Are you nuts to subject him to that?” to “MY GOODNESS FLY!” to…

What to do. What do DO?!

         TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK…(we already know some of this, but not all of it yet)




Thursday, March 25, 2021

Post Vaccine Reentry (?)

Early this morning one of my beloved cousins phoned. Such a happy way to begin a day—right up until he posed the most difficult question I’ve been asked in a year.

Frankly, the last year rendered nary a question with a tough choice since all questions required no brain power: The answer was no. No we’re not getting together with anyone. No we’re not getting haircuts in salons. No we’re not skipping our masks, ever. No we’re not considering attending book club in person. No we’re not grocery shopping in the store since we’re ordering online and picking up in the parking lot. No we’re not sitting indoors with children and grands for Thanksgiving, Christmas or any other whatevers. No we’re not (fill in the blank). No. No. NO!

But my cousin delivered a question for which I don’t want the answer to be no. (I don’t think.) George and I are now both two vaccines in, although not yet past that prescribed “two weeks past.” But … this morning’s question from my cousin involves long-distance travel.

Travel?! Holy schmoly!

Will we come if he books our annual family reunion reservation which was of course canceled last year? As was every other delightful thing we’d booked for our lives.

My cousin’s question comes with a financial commitment. A few years ago the cousins began a lovely new tradition of each chipping in to rent a large house for a few days so as to spend every last non-sleeping minute together. This luxury replaced the annual grind over which hotel/motel to select that could: accommodate everyone’s budget; offered large enough “food rooms” for us to drag our caches into and engage in a proper snacky cocktail hour; satisfy personal tastes regarding extra space vs desired room configurations…

After that first  experimental year with our own community kitchen for cooking and game playing—no elevator waits, loud neighbors, bad air conditioners--we were hooked. We even rented a place with a large enough living room to comfortably seat us all for a little TV watching, which happened when we needed a break from talking. Talking, talking, talking. So much to say when there’s a lifetime of shared history, now so many age-related health conversations (sigh), grand-kiddos’ photos and hijinks over which to oogle and laugh and be horrified. (Kids today!)

That is after we first slog through lengthy opening conversations about how to use the houses’s unfamiliar wi-fi and remotes, which is its own ongoing revelation into the Aging Adventure. At least we cousins are doing it together. YAY COUSINS!

So, cousin called and asked. And I … sputtered. He and his wife are a couple weeks ahead of us with vaccines so they’ve already experienced some post-vaccine break-in time. First a meal at an outdoor patio. Then inside. Then a short trip to visit with other vaccinated relatives. You get the picture. Let’s call it Post Vaxx Reentry (PVR).

PVR requires a process. Increments. Ones that hopefully build toward a YES to travel. Choices that lead to a plethora of happy Yes Yes YES!

I hate these chicken-s^*# inner dialogue shenanigans I play with myself since COVID-19 struck. Well, I know several fully vaccinated people who have gone out to dinner and none of them are dead. Yet. Or sick. Yet. And they haven't totally proven the new strains are going to bypass the vaccines. Yet.

Even though I trust the science, in the beginning the science itself demonstrated a teensy yet prudent hesitancy to conclude what We Vaccinated could safely do. Although they’ve finally landed the verbal plane with “You can visit with other vaccinated people without masks,” there always seems to be a small caveat that appears in my brain in capital letters: UNLESS WE CHANGE OUR MINDS AS WE LEARN MORE.

Make no mistake: I love my cousins and am more than ready to swirl in the energy of their laughter, love and realness. And the food. OH THE FOOD! (Which involves eating out, which we haven’t done yet. Are we ready for that? Shut UP overactive brain!) I’m also desirous to visit friends in Illinois on our way from Minnesota to Indiana, where the reunion takes place. We always drive and always spend a couple/few nights in our old neighborhood in a series of whirlwind visiting/talking events with old-time friends we accrued over 47 years of marriage before we moved to MN. This past year several of them have experienced heart issues, cancer and other traumas. We want to see the bright light of their faces while we’re all still here on planet earth.

A barrage of “Are you fully vaccinated yet?” questions has begun. By reunion time (perhaps June) we shall all be, which is GRAND news! So … what’s the hesitancy to Just Say YES?

ME: Don’t carelessly erase the safety of an entire year of hiding out at home!

ME: SHUT UP OVERACTIVE BRAIN and just jump in! If things go haywire after reservations are made, we can always bow out and eat the money. After all, surely we’ve saved lots of money the last year with all those NO responses. Right?


The packages are still arriving. Items received like dozens of masks (there's always one better than the one I just received), organic flour since my oven is now always on, more KitchenAid attachments, cute new shoes I have nowhere to wear...  My first ever Le Creuset pan is in transit, as is my purple hair dye. (Created for brown hair and mine is gray but it was a Deals and Steals on GMA [found poem] so what could possibly go wrong?!) I’m also shopping for my first ever good 8” chef’s knife. These purchases happen after you watch a year of cooking shows and have time and a cell phone on your hands—and have avoided the salons. (And apparently imagine you’re 22 and magically hip rather than 75 years old and bored, what with the purple.)

Here’s what I’m imaging at the moment: I’m going to say YES! YES, YES, YES to the reunion! And I’m going to cook something fabulous to take in my new pan after cutting the ingredients with my new chef’s knife. And I’m going to pack my QVC-ordered wig—just in case the purple hair experiment runs amok.

Yes, we’ll have so much to talk, talk, TALK about when we all get together! Won’t we?

Won’t we?







Thursday, August 27, 2020

Mississippi Love Affair #4: Levee Drive


Our condo is right behind Waterworks Park, upper left

Levee Drive. That’s what we call it. The one-way, less than 4ish block route ends only ½ block from our condo building and skirts Levee Park. Any time we’re on our way home and have a moment to divert a block off the main road home, our Subaru, as if possessing a will of its own, veers toward the river to slowly take the beauty in.  (Process of full disclosure: it often does the same thing for casinos, as did my last car. Well, back in the day when our automobiles actually left town.)

Even though we view the Mississippi River from our condo windows, it feels different when you’re right down next to the Ol’ Man. His shiny skin sparkles more in the ripples. His power reigns more palpable. A 19- year-old boy drowned right across the river from levee drive within the last couple months. Not the first or last time for dive teams in our area. Not all bodies are recovered within such a short amount of time, his quick enough to encounter fruitless CPR on the shore.

Respect the river. 

 Officially the levee drive is named East Front Street, which I only discovered during research to type this paragraph, this after driving it since the 90s. (Thanks, Google!) You enter East Front Street via Walnut Street (the Subaru veer) where you currently pass by the busy-bee construction site of Bay State Milling’s new expansion and storage facility, the old site of Godfather's Pizza.

Aside from her occasional rebellions, even though the river stays the same, there is always change around her.

When Godfather’s Pizza suddenly closed, most in town hoped a new restaurant would take over the space since it’s prized river view location came complete with an outdoor deck. Before we moved here from Illinois—back when we rented a hideaway place in Winona where we’d stay to visit our son and family and I’d come to write under book deadline--I spent many a leisurely lunch sitting on that deck, eating, lolling, visiting while discouraging scrounging birds and seagulls from heisting parts of my meal.  You know how it is around the water.

Memories gathered along the river, like the river itself, run deep. Fond crisp memories, as crisp as the edges of a good pizza dough.

I often parked my backside in that very Godfather’s pizzeria after the lunch pizza buffet shut down (1:30 I think it was) until shortly before they’d reload for the dinner buffet around 4ish. After pigging out on lunch, I wrote major portions of my Dearest Dorothy series for Penguin Books looking at the river. Unlimited self-serve drinks, those last couple pieces of dessert pizza I’d hoard before they’d remove the remnants, taking a bite between typing words while watching the river and towboats and   … What’s not to love about that kind of working environment?

Although I also owned a laptop, I never took it to Godfather’s. I mean … pizza grease. So I often wrote on an AlphaSmart, later moving to the Neo version of same. You can still find used ones on the Internet. They run hundreds of hours (like 600-700!) on I think it was 3 AA batteries. The best news: they do not (at least my versions) access the Internet. They were big in grammar schools and nearly indestructible. You can only see about a sentence at a time, so there’s no getting bogged down in editing. Nothing but you, a keyboard and words that seem to blaze forward. Many of my author friends loved them for the same reason: no distractions; you can edit later. Then when home, after a simple tethered connection, you push a button and it dumps those words into your computer. You actually watch them TYPE IN across your screen!

This YouTube video affirms my take and shares everything else I recall, right down to people passing by asking, “What in the world is that?” The only thing you don’t see in her short take is the words actually typing on your computer screen when you dump them in. They’re kind of fun to watch, akin to a player piano.

I always tried to ignore checking word count as I worked and was amazed how the input would type and type, going to a next page, and a next page … I’d do a word count after they uploaded and consider how much lack of interruptions for self editing can accomplish. Even while licking pizza grease off your fingers.

Pieces of my past. My imagination set free and recorded in Godfather’s restaurant at the head of  levee drive, the Mississippi as a backdrop. Such a peaceful and productive time.

Before Godfather’s moved in, I have a very brief but warm memory of drinking a cocktail at a higher end restaurant, Finn and Sawyer, at that location. We dined there with our son and his college roommate during one of our many visits to see him, waaaaay back (he’s going on 50 now!) when he attended Winona State University. I recall him pointing out the gorgeous stained glass mural map section of the Mississippi River they’d commissioned and had installed. The beauty remained in the building when Godfather’s took over. I learned when Bay State razed the building it was saved and reinstalled on the 2nd floor of the 201 Walnut building in Winona, picture courtesy of their landing page which also gives you a hint of the beautiful restorations going on around our fine town. Thank you Peter Shortridge for this info and your hand in preservation around Winona.

 All these ingrained memories, right where we turn the bend to enter levee drive. Memories that spark my enjoyment of the jaunt; it’s more than simply viewing the river. The ongoing igniting of great moments along that stretch cannot be underestimated. 

For instance last year, for our 50th wedding anniversary, as part of our celebration we invited friends on a charter of the Winona TourBoat, which departs from levee drive. We told our guests we’d be serving Golden Mimosas and snacky treats. I remember walking up and down the tour boat aisles, champagne bottle in one hand, orange juice in another, filling and refilling during the 90-minute journey up river through Yeomans Lake, up past the Dam Saloon near the lock and dam, the cut into Pollywog past our friend’s cabin, downriver past the boat houses, continuing the loop past Bay State Milling right back to levee drive.

One guest asked, “What makes this a Gold Mimosa?” He looked perplexed at the typical mix.

“Fifty years. Golden Anniversary,” I said. “Golden Mimosa.” Bam! Shortly thereafter I knocked back yet another, "Hold the orange juice for me!"

Further back in time, our beloved dog Kornflake (RIP) and I would often sit by the river together for writing breaks. He also loved walking along the cement walkway watching the ol’ man roll by. His tail activated into hyper-drive when he’d take note of the car veering over to the levee road. He knew what was coming next.


If I had a tail, it would do the same.



Thursday, August 06, 2020

Mississippi River Love Affair #3: Towboats, Tugboats and Barges

“Tow!” Via texts, phone calls and hallways the cry ricochets throughout our condo building situated alongside the Mississippi River in Winona MN. After watching the river freeze over then slowly open her veins again in the spring, the sight of that first towboat causes quite a flurry of excitement.

The joy of the towboats’ return feels almost as if our very own blood is once again pumping through our winterized and sluggish bodies. Sharing the joy revs our energies and therefore begets life itself a warmer ride.
It's as if the Hope of All Things Good rushes back when the towboats return--especially this year since COVID-19 lockdown began before they returned. At least something felt normal as they floated on by.

While shopping for a new home for our move to Winona, we first visited this condo when the towboats were still pushing barges up and down the river. Sure, the river view enticed and lured us. But when a tow pushing 15 barges passed by while we were sipping a glass of free champagne during that initial viewing (15-tow limit on upper Mississippi [3 wide, 5 deep], but 30-40 barge limit on the lower which is downstream of Cairo IL), the sheer magnitude, grace and humming while softly pulsating and vibrating sound caused our eyes to follow the giant river creature upstream.

Yes, going on five years ago, I still remember the direction of that first sighting from our condo window. That is the power of the river to imprint an aging brain.

In our naivety we referred to the ensemble as “a barge.” In other words, everything moving together in a grand choreography was known to we ignorant interlopers as “a barge.” The kind and proper gentlemen who’d served us champagne quickly gave us a schooling.

The tow is the towboat. The giant containers it pushes (neither tows nor tugs them but pushes) are the barges. One may refer to that particular ensemble as a 15-barge tow. To state anything otherwise is indisputable proof you are not OF or FROM anywhere near the big river.

Since husband George and I were both born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, we took our corrective medicine (while continuing to sip champagne) and are now the fine deliverers of same education when out-of-town company arrives and makes that same misguided verbal utterance. There is no letting their faux pas quietly pass. Nope. They need to KNOW. We shall pour them anything in our booze cabinet while doing so.

Egregious verbal missteps grow to feel disrespectful to the Old Man himself when people don’t get these things correct about his vital and muddy life. We are a protective lot, as it turns out. Speak river talk or watch him roll along in silence. Please. (We are, after all, Minnesota nice here.) 
When we moved in, the river was pretty well done with traffic for winter 2015/16. Fish houses,
Brave Souls

whether wood-structure fancy, portable or tent-like, dotted the white of winter. And of course there are those hearty souls who bundle up and park their behinds on buckets right out in the elements, shelters be darned. The beauty of the frozen river surrounded by the luscious curves of Her Wintership’s bluffs continues to render majesty as the howling winter winds cause snow to ski downriver atop the ice. There is that mysterious time of winter and dusk when the sky and snow and  ice and land all turn that same certain moody shade of blue … Ahhh. Oneness.

But after our first winter on the river, then came spring. Fish houses need to be off the rivers and lakes by March 4 in our parts, a little later further north. The last thing you or the DNR want is to show up for yet another attempt to land that lunker (or simply drink a lot of beer) and find your fish house gone, or the ice too thin to get your truck out there to tow the fish house off. More than one truck has disappeared through the ice during this endeavor. 
Usually by mid-March, openings appear in the river, luring gathering eagles to their fishing spots and watering holes. As the river continues to shed its winter skin, ice chunks begin floating by as the river gussies up her sparkles and readies herself for Big Barge Business.
So many purposes
But Mother Nature … well she sometimes casts her own meddling spells. Here’s a 2018 link to one perspective on those happenings. You'll also find there interesting explanations about Lake Pepin  (upriver from Winona), its vastness freezing deep and long, creating one of the most difficult and last places on the entire river to open in the spring, enabling the journey upriver toward the northern headwaters. This year barge traffic/commerce through Winona was held at bay until into April, due to high risky waters, high enough to keep towboats from handling their brave chores. Early on they couldn’t even fit under some of the bridges.

Barge commerce. Whew. The first time—and every time thereafter—we took the Winona Tour Boat ride and heard Captain Aaron Ripinski (a great source for just about anything Winona and a jack of all trades) talk about the cost of barge transport vs. truck or trains, we were blown away. Every. Single. Time. Gobsmacked. For a great nutshell visual education, check out these charts. The barge/truck/rail visual comparisons are amazing, right down to the Rate of Spills in Gallons per Million Ton-miles for each. For instance did you know it takes 16 rail cars or 70 large semis to contain the contents of one barge? Yeah, I didn't think so. Check those charts!
[Now that you’ve taken a moment to check the charts, all together now: raise your hands for river transportation!]

Among the action of skidoos, fishing boats, pontoon boats, house boats and commercial river boats, a 15-barge tow creeps along the river like the holdover dinosaurs of the waters. Of course not all towboats are pushing 15, but nonetheless they are working.
Yeomans Pond to the far left, right past the bridge next to our condo.
The river bends to the right past the bridge and just before Yeomans
Speaking of working, the local White Angel and Suland tugboats (not towboats) are the tireless local Winona port workers. They are like the busy-beaver-little-tugboats-that-could  on the stretch of river in front of our condo. They belong to the Port of Winona, Commercial Harbor located in Yeomans Pond which is practically a rock-skip upriver from us. If you really want to geek on stats, check this out. They spend their days shuttling barges around in our port, staging and whisking barges to and from the port to CHS Winona River and Rail, out of the picture to the right and helping large tows back out of Yeomans and make the bend … You’ll find interesting stuff at that link.

Each tow proudly displays her name. The first spring we lived here our son gifted us with The Little Tow-Watcher’s Guide (this edition along with  info about the author), a field guide that includes maps and photographs and other information to stock your brain and help you keep a log. Every time we spy one from our windows or deck we yell TOW! or BARGE! to the other spouse so someone grabs the book. We used to log the date and time but this year we began logging date only. We always enjoy the “Oh, we’ve SEEN that one X times before!” discovery. Or, “We’ve seen this one every year!” And now, after 4 years, there is still a happy moment when we spy one we’ve never caught before—or one not even in our book. There is a newer edition but switching to that triggers a dilemma: if we swap now, how do we compare our history? Our sentimental dog-eared copy whispers Please don’t ignore me… So we scribble on, oftentimes writing upside down and in margins. Sometimes even take note that "this one" (Samual B Richmond) is a "Twin screw, 6,000 hp; formerly Ulysses; Ingram Barge Co., Nashville, Tenn.
From our patio

Lots of loading in Yeomans Pond

Up close and personal
You can always tell empty barges since they ride high in the water, while full ones need at least nine feet of river depth, which is why there is endless dredging on the river. After 4.5 months of staying home to stay safe (oh, so NEAR the pantry!), I know the feeling.

I found an interesting recap of life on a towboat as well as keen info about the actual structures here, along with some terrific photos. I’ve even checked in with a Facebook group called Mississippi River Photos. Folks up and down the entire length share their river moments, including a few avid posters who work the river. Their point of view is breathtaking and informative.

I’m going to sign off for now because I hear that familiar hum coming our way. Gotta go grab the book, record in our log! I feel there is more than enough here to get you acquainted. My hope is you start to “feel” the river in your spirit. She definitely grows on you.