Tuesday, September 27, 2011

W-b-N, Iowa (June 24 – 26) Part A

(written July 24)
The trip from Denver, Colorado, to Iowa City, Iowa, was far and away the worst drive of the trip and may well have been the worst drive of my life.  In the original trip plans, I had given myself three days for this leg of the journey, but because of the NJH scheduling, I was due to be in Iowa less than a day after my last appointment at NJH was finished.  I wanted to go to the Writers' Conference that week-end because I had paid for it, and because it was a workship on proposal-writing, where I hoped to elicit a professional-level critique of the proposal for my book about Korea.
I drove the R.V. out of the parking lot near NJH about 1:00 PM, Mountain Time (3:00 PM, EST) on Friday, June 24, and headed north through downtown Denver before the worst rush-hour traffic began, although rush-hour usually begins earlier on Fridays than on other week-days.  I picked up I-76 going out of Denver, and took that north-east to Nebraska.  This north-eastern section of Colorado was dry and barren, as had been the region east of Denver along I-70.  On I-80 through Nebraska, the countryside became greener, with large farms and less scrub-land, rather like Kansas, although greener.  There are probably larger rivers here than in eastern Colorado, specifically the Platte River and its tributaries.  The farmhouses usually seemed well kept, although barns nearby were often in serious disrepair.  I assume that the barns are left to rot because crops are no longer stored on the farm, but rather are sold primarily to wholesalers, who store grain and other produce in huge elevators that dot the landscape.  And fewer farmers raise both animals and plants for food these days; many need day jobs to support themselves and their families during the year.
I traveled straight across Nebraska on I-80, stopping only for gas.  The countryside was high-plains; copses of trees dotted the landscape and formed boundaries between immense, planted fields.  On the left, to the north, the sky was bright, with thin, drifting clouds glinting sunlight from their edges; to the south was a dark, threatening sky, the clouds roiled in uneven layers, occasionally glowing with veil-lightening.  This highway was as far north as I had been on the trip, and it was just past summer solstice, so evening drifted very slowly into night, and clouds on my left were lit with hues of orange and gold as the sun set behind me.  As night descended, the threatening southern sky to the right became even darker and more ominous.  It was after 10:00 PM when darkness finally fell. I had promised myself I would stop around midnight if truly tired, and a Flying J gas station in Gretna, east of Omaha, was the midnight stop where I parked and slept, willing myself to wake up at 3:30 AM.  I awoke at 3:00, filled up the gas tank, popped open a bottle of Frappuccino and a peanut-butter granola-bar, and headed for Iowa.
By this time, the surrounding sky was pitch-black, with veil-lightening frequent and intense, like brilliant strobe lights flashing and blinking capriciously. If the lightning stopped briefly, it left me blinded and unable to see the road for a few seconds.  Moreover, that whole section of the highway was under construction.  The road’s uneven edges were precipitous; orange barrels and cement barriers appeared and disappeared in the intermittent glare of lightening.  And then it began to rain – at first a normal, light rain, then heavy, pelting rain, and the highest windshield-wiper setting wasn’t fast enough.  Rounding curves felt like a carnival ride, and I feared I might roll the RV.  Fortunately, few other vehicles were on the road, so I put on the blinking vehicle hazard lights, set the beams on high, and slowed to 30 mph. Also fortunately I had a GPS, because the web-work of roads going through Omaha would have confused me utterly without it.  One scene from the drive is vivid in my mind:  I have maneuvered through a long, treacherous, zig-zag course of construction, and just as I am coming out of it, a lightning bolt zaps down nearby, nearly blinding me, followed by thunder, sounding as though I had crashed into something.  And then, suddenly, I come upon a bifurcation in the road and don’t know which way to go.  There are no signs, or if they’re there, I'm too blinded to see them.  I have slowed to about 10 mph, and look up at the GPS.  It indicates that I should go straight ahead, which I do, and finally drive out of the nightmare and come upon Council Bluffs, Iowa.  I have no idea when, where, or how I crossed the Missouri River. 
Coming into Council Bluffs and beyond was also surreal; hundreds of red lights started to blink on and off against the black, intermittently lightening-brightened sky, above what seemed like dark hills in the distance on both sides of the road.  Moreover, a thin, red dawn began to glow near the north-eastern horizon; the scene was like entering the gates of hell.  As slow dawn gave form to the red, blinking lights, I saw that they were, in fact, attached to huge, energy-generating windmills and the lights were aircraft warning lights.  There seemed to be thousands of windmills, only some of which had lights, and the slow churn of their dark arms - appendages of huge, unthinking, machine-beasts - felt ominous to my still-terrified, sleep-deprived mind.
Driving across Iowa in the lifting dawn, I could see that it was even greener than Nebraska, with dense forests and copses of trees.  The rest of the drive to Iowa City was relatively uneventful. I arrived at the site of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival barely in time to register, having finished the Frappuccino and granola bar, still very tired and a bit hungry.  Because of a hassle parking the RV, I missed the free fruit and Danish offered at the writers' conference, although I was able to snag a cup of coffee.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Nevada Air Show Disaster

This interruption of the "West-by-North" trip narrative is prompted by a reaction I had to the Friday (Sept 16) air-show disaster in Nevada that relates to our current socio-political contentiousness. 
As I was watching MSNBC evening commentary (probably Lawrence O’Donnell), a news-update announced a plane crash at a Nevada air show, with possible audience fatalities.  My initial reaction was concern and anxiety for anyone who might have been hurt by the fallen plane and its scattered debris.  As information came in periodically, we learned that some twenty individuals had been transported to a local hospital, but there were no fatality numbers.  Then we learned that the plane had hit in an area of VIP seating – "CEOs and their guests" – and I had an odd reaction of relief, almost satisfaction (not quite schadenfreude, but close).  Something in me said:  “It’s O.K., it was just the big-wigs who got hurt, the guys who have all the money and don’t work for a living.  Maybe some of them will realize what it’s like to experience loss and pain.” 
As I had this reaction, I was amazed at my own cold-heartedness toward a certain category of human beings.  I realized, again, that I bear considerable mistrust, even contempt, for the wealthy, most of whom I view as social parasites – basically useless and often harmful to the body politic.  And then I thought of the Tea-Party crowd cheering at Rick Perry’s claim to have executed more than two hundred prisoners in Texas, and of an audience agreeing with Ron Paul's comment that a person in poverty, without insurance, should be left to his own devices if he becomes ill. 
And I realized that these different reactions reflect, at a gut level, the two sides of our political argument – the different views of who is useful to our culture, and who is parasitic – as embraced by liberals and conservatives.  In general, conservatives (despite a purported Christian ethic and Jesus’ claim that the meek shall inherit the earth) believe that the poor are useless (although they do much of the manual and menial labor – the “real work” – that keeps the country functioning).  And liberals think that the wealthy mostly want to drain resources from those who work, and from the world in general, while rarely doing an honest day’s work themselves (although without accumulated wealth, there would be little or no commerce, art, or science).
Considering someone socially worthless probably means you don’t mind if they die.  In fact, you may view the world as a better place if they do.  I remember a time, early in my life, when I felt no grief at the news of the death of a former eighth-grade classmate whose behavior had been irritatingly asocial.  He laughed when others were hurt or disturbed, and he befriended a large, mentally challenged class-mate whom he prodded into outrageous actions.  I viewed him then as evil; I didn’t believe his home life was at fault, because he had a very likeable younger brother.  Today, he might be called a sociopath.  Perhaps his pre-frontal cortex had been damaged during a forceps delivery (common in those days).  When I learned, several years later, that he had been killed in a car-train accident, I was not sorry; rather, in a way, I felt relieved. 
Similarly, I felt relieved when I was told, as a child, that Hitler was dead, or later, when Stalin died, or recently, when bin Laden was killed.  Maybe this is why so many in Muslim countries cheered at the twin-tower attack and its aftermath of carnage; they viewed wealthy and greedy America and Americans as somehow inherently evil or dangerous.

To be sure, there are enlightened, wealthy and liberal individuals of conscience, just as there are lower-middle-class conservatives whose paranoia and political blindness keep them from seeing their own best interest.  Social chaos often stems from a huge disparity between the wealthy and the poor, as now exists in this country.  Such large economic disparity certainly helps fuel rebellions that currently roil the Middle East.  Looking at history with hindsight, it seems obvious that a blind disregard for the plight of the poor by French aristocracy--the “If they have no bread, let them eat cake” delusion--led to the guillotine and other angry excesses of the French Revolution.  If the Decembrists of Russia had been heeded, instead of being jailed, killed, or deported to Siberia, that country might not have been blighted by a century of communism and its aftermath.  In the ancient Roman Empire, Christians survived and ultimately thrived while everything around them was tending to chaos, probably because they lived in a community in which they all cared for one another, including the least among them:  the poor, the jailed, the widows and children.
Now that actual casualty figures from the air-show disaster have come in, and I know that ten individuals died there, I once again feel concern and sadness for them and for their loved ones.  And I also feel remorse that, for a time, I did not view those victims as human beings worthy of mourning. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

NJH, Denver

June 22, 2011
I’m in the first floor waiting room at National Jewish Health in Denver, scheduled for an early morning bronchoscopy. This will probably be the most traumatic procedure of a week-long series of tests and consults intended to ferret out the underlying causes of my ever-worsening pulmonary function.
The paragraph above was written a little over two weeks ago, and it was correct.  I was so ill after the bronchoscopy that I couldn’t keep food down all that day.  In addition to throwing up, I coughed up blood and mucus all day long, slept most of the afternoon, then slept another eight or ten hours that night.  I was given permission to spend the night in the RV in the parking lot, because I was not supposed to drive at all that day, and I had no one else with me.  The next morning, I was able to eat half a bowl of oatmeal and drink some tea without throwing up.  I went back to NJH for appointments that day.  Still, I have been coughing up blood and some clots daily since the bronchoscopy (for two weeks).
 It is now July 8, and I am parked in the RV at my sister’s wilderness home on Kelsey Lake in the back woods of Michigan.  Yesterday, there was less blood when I coughed, but today seemed worse than before, so I tried to call the doctor at NJH.  The nurses dealt with me, but apparently did consult with the doctor; doctors at NJH are heavily protected by nurses and schedulers and other buffer-type personnel.  It’s not a very satisfactory arrangement for patients, but I guess it’s necessary, given the number of patients who pass through that place.
The NJH ordeal involved a week-long series of tests, explorations, consultations and instructions, mostly involving the respiratory system.  Blake was with me the first day, when I did some heavy walking with an oxymeter to check blood oxygenation, and then I had a type of simple pulmonary function test (“pulmonary spirometry”).  After these tests, I saw the doctor (Dr. Beuther) for an hour, and afterwards talked with a nurse.   I had a test (“exhaled nitric oxide”) that was supposed to provide information on the degree of inflammation in my lungs, after which Blake and I went to lunch.  He waited patiently, playing games on his DS in the various waiting rooms, while I was being put through the paces.  In the afternoon was Radiology, where I had a chest X-ray and CT scans of chest and sinuses.  That was followed by barium swallow tests, involving liquid, gel, and solid; it seemed to me I swallowed a lot of chalk in that process (and more the next day).  Afterwards, there was a full-blown, complicated pulmonary function test, where I sat in a little glass cage. 
That night, Blake and I camped in the huge parking lot at Denver International Airport and in the morning I made breakfast (fried rice) in the RV.  We took the parking lot shuttle to the airport, got his ticket (I had to give them an extra $100.00 in cash for an unaccompanied minor), and we went to his flight gate.  I had an envelope of papers relating to the unaccompanied minor flight to carry for him, which I almost left in a coffee shop where we got coffee! I waited until his flight taxied away from the gate before leaving the waiting area.
In the afternoon, back at NJH, there was a patient education session on asthma and another fluoroscope, this time looking at the esophagus.  I wondered why the esophageal and pharyngeal fluoroscopy couldn’t have been combined; I really didn’t like the idea of swallowing so much barium.
On Wednesday morning, early, I had the bronchoscopy, which was all I could handle for that day, and on Thursday, there was a Psychology consult, quite interesting, with a Dr. Pearson, who was very pleasant.  If I were looking for therapy, and if I lived there, she would be a person I might choose.  Then there were an ECG and an ECHO cardiogram, during part of which, they injected small air bubbles into a vein, looking for possible cardiac septal defects.  In the afternoon was another class on asthma management, and then skin tests on my back, looking for allergens to which I’m reactive.  It was a “South Carolina panel;” I was surprised that they had different batches of allergens for different states.
On Friday, I was still coughing up blood, so they didn’t do a scheduled spirometry, thinking it might further irritate the tracheobronchial linings.  In retrospect, it doesn’t seem like it would have made any difference.  After that, I saw Dr. Beuther for another consult. He gave me some ideas of what might be causing my problems, but said he’d have to wait for test and biopsy results to come back.
I left NJH about 1:00 PM Mountain Time (3:00 EST) driving north then east toward Nebraska; I was scheduled to be at a week-end conference at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City at 8:30 AM, early the following morning.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

W-b-N Montana and Boulder

June 17 – 19
We left the Oakleys’ cabin around noon on June 17th.  I took the RV down the hill with some trepidation, but the snow was gone and the driveway wasn’t slippery, so we drove out with no trouble.  At Dinah’s recommendation, we took the north-eastern route back to Denver:  Route 277 north to I-90, then south into Wyoming to I-25, heading toward Colorado.  We spent the night at the KOA in Billings, Montana, the first KOA in the U.S., established as recently as 1962. Our campsite was right on the Yellowstone River, which we saw in Yellowstone Park, east of the continental divide.  It empties into the Missouri River, thence to the Mississippi and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico.  We ate a pancake breakfast offered at the campground, then left about 8:30 AM, mountain time (10:30 EST, which I continued to keep on my clocks).
The drive into and through Wyoming was impressive for the geology.  Buttes and cliffs, escarpments and mesas, loomed above largely barren scrublands.  Arroyos cleaved dry, dune-like hills, creating small, sandy canyons.  It was a landscape of sand and naked, raw rock, with pitiable scrub-like life forms bravely clinging to the dry, nutrient-poor ground that could scarcely be deemed soil.  We seemed to chase shadows of clouds cast across the empty landscape.  In the southern part of the state, all elevated formations were flat on top, no doubt shaved off by glaciers and eroded by wind and what rare torrents of water might pour from occasional clouds, creating a surreal table-land as far as the eye could see.
I had intended to try to reach Boulder, Colorado that evening, the home of a couple, Jim and Rachel Bender, whom I had met on a trip to Peru.  The drive took longer than I thought it would, so, south of Casper, WY, I called the Benders, saying we probably wouldn’t make it that evening.  But Rachel (apparently misunderstanding where I said we were) assured me that we weren’t far from Boulder.  So I kept on driving, and we did make it to their house that evening, albeit after an exhausting twelve-hour-long drive.  We just parked, went into their house, said “Hi,” had a drink of water, and then immediately went back out to the RV and went to bed.
The next day, the Benders took us on a tour of Boulder, particularly the University and the Center for Atmospheric Research, which was very interesting.  A huge computer occupies much of the basement; it crunches data on weather and atmospheric conditions, and provides information to the national weather service.  I would like to have spent more time there, but was having breathing difficulties and didn’t feel much like walking.  I believe the altitude was bothering me.  Blake enjoyed spending time with the Benders, who have grandchildren about his age.  Rachel played games with him, and Jim explained things to him at the atmospheric research center.  They also took us by their church; its roof is completely covered with solar panels!
That evening, we drove south to Denver and parked at the Flying J (gas station that caters to trucks and RVs) in Aurora.  The next morning, we got up early so that I could check in at 8:00 AM at the National Jewish Health clinic (NJH) in Denver, where I would be subjected to a week-long series of tests and examinations intended to determine what (if anything diagnosible) has been causing the serious worsening of my respiratory condition.