Monday, March 2, 2015

In My Next Life I Want Hair

                                                In My Next Life I Want Hair
            Recovery from surgery has multi-faceted aspects. In my considered opinion, most aspects don’t bear the attention we tend to give them. The grim reality is that we get to go through the discomforts, fears, outright pain, immobility, etc., whether we want to or not, whether we give energy to the process or not.  Eventually, discomforts pass.

            Take a simple thing like learning to walk. When an infant learns to walk, she is cute. The baby pulls herself up onto the lip of the chair cushion, with concentration, turns around, jerks forward two steps only to land on her well-padded bottom. We, who watch, laugh, clap our hands, murmur nonsense words of encouragement. She gets up and tries again. We take her hand and ferry her around the room. She keeps going until she masters the arcane achievement of placing one foot in front of the other, until she artfully eliminates the jerks and the bottom-falls.

            Not counting infancy, this is my fifth time of learning to walk—again. At near seventy, one-hundred sixty pounds, five foot eight, and minus the diapered bottom, I am not cute. Nobody laughs and claps. If I fell on my bottom, definitely that would not be cute. But I have a system. Long years ago I reduced the process to a one-two-three-four cadence, with each number receiving a corresponding body movement. All walking requires in adulthood, much the same as in infancy, is time and practice. And balance. A walking stick helps.

            Let’s agree from the start that physical therapy is evil. A necessary evil. Enough said.

            Every time I have surgery, I lose my hair. Vanity or not, I hate this. I have been cursed with English hair, fine as a baby’s fuzz, each strand straight as a stick. I’ve never had a bad hair day. I have had a bad hair life. Nevertheless, I have grown rather fond of my hair. I hate to lose it. The first time, nearly bald (in my mind), I resorted to wigs. Since in my early twenties I had three surgeries in three years, mathematically that equals four years of being wigged out. In retrospect, I cringe to think what I must have looked like. I had three wigs, each a different style and length. I alternated them. Cringe again.

            Fortunately for my vanity, I don’t go chemo bald, though I have considered simply shaving my head and starting over. While I’m losing my hair, new baby fuzz grows beneath what’s left. That is not cute either.  These days, instead of buying wigs, I entertain fantasies.

            In my next life, I want to be a wooly mammoth.

            Seriously. I’ve given this a deal of thought. A lot of hairy cats and dogs and rabbits look like mops. Common. Too much like giant dust balls under the bed. I considered a beautiful rosy haired tarantula but, while not afraid, I’ve never been fond of spiders.

            A super hairy monkey from the rainforests of Southeast Asia with a long white mustache makes me smile. However, I have enough trouble keeping my own mustache under control.  I’m fond of pigs and again, there is a lovely hairy bearded pig. While I don’t have a personal problem with beards, I don’t care for them. So nix the pig.

            Nope. I’ve set my mind. In my next life I want to be a wooly mammoth, covered with thick dreadlocks of curly hair. While most people think this beast is extinct, I wouldn’t be too sure. Consider the frequent sightings of the Himalayan Yeti, the Abominable Snowman, the eastern and western versions of Bigfoot. Extinct? Imagination? Real?  Who knows?

            I understand there have been recent sightings of a strange being in the wilds of Alaska. People call her Sara, the Pale One. She seems to have a predilection to tea parties, which makes no sense to me. I simply repeat what I have heard on Fox News. Rumors abound.

            My mind is set. Let me be a wooly mammoth, with long, thick, dark, musky, tangled locks of hair and never a cause for vanity, never a bad hair day. And if you squint a certain way when you are hiking the wilderness, you might just sight me, especially if you catch me admiring my beauty in the mirror of a mountain lake.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

February 26, 2015

Carnival, the Mardi Gras of Mazatlan

                Carnival, the Mardi Gras of Mazatlan
            The 117th annual Carnaval! This year the theme is Los Suenos del Rey Momo—the Dreams of the King. Momo—a  mythological Greek god who wore masks of satire, mockery, and censure, the god of writers and poets.

Carnival in Mazatlan, similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, a riotous round of celebration and merry-making with abandon, which screeches to an abrupt stop on Tuesday night. Ash Wednesday ushers in Lent, the forty day period of penitence and fasting in somber preparation for the joys of Easter. Parties, parades, fireworks, dancing and songfests, a unique blending of traditional, religious and modern festivities. Smaller family events juxtapose with crushing crowds along the Malecon, the ten kilometer walkway along the waterfront. One may partake in official community fiestas, rub elbows with kings and queens. Feast on gourmet food. Watch a naval battle fought with fireworks.  Burn the Bad Humour in effigy. Always, for everything, there is music. 

            Jostling passengers, many in costume, crowd onto the buses, striving to get from here to there, to be part of the fun. Streets fill with a melee of cars, transport vehicles and eager people afoot, hustling in every direction to participate in as many activities as possible.  

            Me? I’m still housebound in recovery from surgery. But I see a lot from my doorway, from my window to the world. And I rely upon those who venture out. Friends and neighbors drop in daily to regale me tales of their own activities and mishaps.

            This year is rare and unique in that Carnival embraces Valentine’s Day. 

            Saturday night, Valentine’s Day, every table and barstool in the restaurants along Sabalo Cameron and adjacent streets, were reserved and filled. I got this straight from the horse’s mouth. My neighbor Ted, who waited until the last minute, had to trudge both sides of the street to find a place to take his girlfriend, Theresa, to celebrate with dinner and dancing.

            Across the street from my casita, a wedding party, one couple of hundreds eager to tie the knot of matrimony on the Day of Love in Mazatlan, had booked the Spectaculare. All day I watched trucks unload food, drinks, ice, pastries, flowers, decorations and band equipment. While beautifully dressed men and women entered through the front door, young band members gathered around the back steps warming up, tuning instruments, practicing bits and pieces of numbers for the night.

            Promptly at nine o’clock, stragglers streamed into the building and wedding festivities began. I went to sleep. At two-thirty I jerked awake to shouts, laughter, music of the party after the party, as young people continued to celebrate in the extra-wide street. Loudly. With great vim and vigor, for two hours, they celebrated. Nobody came and stopped them. No neighbors protested. No police slowed to check them out. Such street parties are a normal part of Mazatlan life. As suddenly as it began, promptly at four-thirty, seemingly for no reason, somebody turned off the noise faucet, the young men and women scooted into cars, and drove away. Instant quiet. I fell asleep.

            Next year, ah, next year, I have a plan. I vow to join the festivities of Carnival. I cannot think of one more body part that needs to be replaced, with the possible exception of my brain. After years of acquaintance, I’m quite comfortable with my quirky brain. I think I’ll keep it!

My plan: I shall rent a hotel room across the street from the Malecon, preferably in front of one of the three-story high statues depicting a figure based on the Carnival theme.  From my balcony perch above the action, without being jostled by the crowds, I shall watch the parades. At street level, bands will continuously play on one of the numerous stages.  

In the rare moments when not so much is happening, I’ll enjoy the sweep of the bay, watch the ferry sail into harbor from La Paz. Perhaps I’ll see a floating city, one of the cruise ships, alight like a Christmas tree in the distance. I shall enjoy every moment of the raucous crowds with noise the entire night. I’ll brew another pot of coffee. Who needs sleep! I’ll dress in finery, flounces of feathers, ribbons and bows. When the Malecon is crowded I shall wave and bow, as if I am somebody.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

February 19, 2015

All Dreams Fall From the Same Sky

                                    All Dreams Fall From the Same Sky
            Upbeat. Uplifting. Positive. I like to fill my weekly articles with humor and hope. Re-read the title, an ancient Hopi expression. That’s all the hope I have to give you.  

            This is my second week under house arrest, chained to my walker. I know I am healing. I know it is a slow process. My mind knows. My heart is unrealistic. I want surgery last week followed by entering the 10 K this week and perhaps a full-on tri-athalon next week. I feel like Snow White with the six dwarfs: restless, irritable, discontent, itchy, ache-y and twitchy. I could identify a seventh dwarf, something like “frothing at the mouth” but that seems excessive. And the six are more alliterative.

            Truthfully, I was never that athletic with my old hip and I’ve no intention of running with Rosie, my new hip. I’m merely describing my frustrations.

            To add insult to injury, this is the week of Carnival in Mazatlan, a week chock full and overflowing with fun festivities, parades, floats, dancers, “bandas”, mimes, jugglers, acrobats, the crowning of royalty and generally whooping it up.

            Not only that, Valentine’s Day is around the corner. Don’t get me wrong; I treasure aspects of my solitude. But I have to admit that coming home to rattle around in an empty house following hip-replacement surgery, adds mud to my wallow. As long as I insist on immersing in self-pity, I might as well dig deep and get down and dirty.

            But if I were going to send out lacy, frilly, old fashioned valentines to everyone I love and whom I know love me, the cards would stack to make a tower. First on my list would be all of you who have surrounded me with love and prayer and good wishes.

            Next I would have to hand giant valentine cards to a few people around me who have demonstrated love with skin on it.

            Almost daily emails or phone calls from my daughters, Dee Dee and Shea, friends Dick and Jane, Shirley, Kathy, Richard and others, mean more than the sun and moon to me.

            My immediate neighbors, Ted and Frank, check several times daily to make sure I am okay and to get me anything I might need. Ted’s girlfriend, Theresa, cleaned my house and refused to take payment beyond a heart-felt hug. Frank brought me a chunk of chocolate cake.

            Carlos refilled my prescriptions and took money to pay my electric bill, a whopping seventy-six pesos. He and Selena are on call for me any time I need them.

            Sylvia and Reuben from the Luncheria at the corner, deliver meals to my own table on week days. Reuben goes to the market every morning at 5:30 to shop for the day’s supplies. All my food is fresh and delicious. Sylvia comes to wash my feet, possibly the nicest gift of all, and help me on with a clean pair of Hot Sox, my equivalent of support stockings.

            A special card goes to Dr. Valle, my surgeon, who comes to my house to check progress, removed stitches, and bring me some of my medicine. I know this is hard to believe, but it is part of the full-meal deal that I paid for with hospitalization and surgery. I have only good things to say about my medical treatment.

            Well, mostly good things. Now I have excessive exercises to do and orders to get out in the sunshine and walk, walk, walk.

            Wish I could say the same good words for Mexican postal service. I would gladly send you each a real, homemade valentine. Fifty or sixty percent of you might actually receive them.   Probably in May.

            With love, Happy Valentine’s Day.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

February 12, 2015

Saturday, February 7, 2015

I Left My Hip in Sinnn-a-lo-a: Meet Rosie

                                    I Left My Hip in Sinnn-a-lo-a: Meet Rosie
             With a bit of lyrical jiggling, I could write a new hit song. Okay. So I’m not Tony Bennett. Okay. So not all my good ideas work.

            I’m happy to be back in my casa. My bionic knee, Ruth, acquired in India, is bonding with my new bionic body part, Rose Hip. With every step, I lean onto the arms of my new best friend, Hopalong Cassidy. I have another supportive friend who lives in the bathroom whom I call Howdy Doody.

            This sounds like my body is quite cosmopolitan, chic multi-national. However, I suspect Ruth and Rosie were each purchased in a US Body Part Store.

            No, I do not have multiple personalities. I have multiple replacement parts.

            My hospital experience was the best, new modern facility, attentive doctors and nurses. I can say only good things about my care. My surgeon came to check me several times a day. I know this is hard to believe, but he comes to my house to check my progress at home and replace the dressing over the incision. He will come to my house to remove the stitches. I tell the truth.

Two more truths. I’ve become a firm believer in prayer in the trenches. Surgery is not fun.

In one area only did this hospital experience fail to impress. After eating the best Indian food I’ve ever had at the hospital in Bangalore, India, the food in this lovely facility was despicable. How can anybody render Mexican food both unappealing and tasteless?

Rueben and Sylvia who own the luncheria at the corner of my apartment building make the best marlin quesadillas in town. They bring meals to me until I feel up to cooking again. They are open weekdays only but friends and neighbors keep me well supplied on the weekends.

First in a steady stream of visitors, Dorothy from St. Paul, Minnesota and up the street six houses, walked in with a good old-fashioned mid-western macaroni hot dish in hand. Comfort food, yes, and I enjoyed every comforting forkful. Frank, my neighbor, makes a killer southern-style chili (an American dish I’m talking about here) at least once a week. He brought me a bowlful. Mmmm. More comfort food.

I’m soaking up all the comforting I can get. My post-surgery emotions keep me on a tilt-a-whirl, bouncing from gratitude to my good friends and neighbors to abject self-pity and feelings of alone-ness. Feelings pass. I know that in my head. Heart rules.

Physically, I’m healing quickly. On my hip, covering a six inch incision, looking like a fungus growth on a tree, rests a poufy bandage the size of an Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. But it couldn’t weigh three grams. I have to wear dresses, loose and casual, not slinky. I like dresses.

The next three weeks I will read an amazing number of books, sit in my chair with my leg propped on a stool, keep my foot jiggling to make the lymphatic sausage effect recede, and will drink enough water to drain a mid-size lake. I had more pain pre-surgery than I have post-surgery. The way it should be.

While I was in the hospital I could feel all the good hopes, prayers, best wishes buzzing over the airwaves all the way from Havre. Now that I am in recovery, please send books, tuna casserole, grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, Cocoa Puffs, more chocolate and lots of love.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

February 5, 2015

A Hip Bionic Woman Gets A Tire Change

                                                A Hip Bionic Woman Gets A Tire Change
            Holy Smokies! I never know which way the ball will bounce when I get up in the morning. Hey, keeps me on my toes.

            When I saw my x-ray, I knew I’d soon have to go under the knife, become more bionic than I already am. My hip joint was shot. Hip shot, get it? Whoops! Is it even legal to use “hip” and “joint” in the same sentence?

            Despite instant knowledge I decided to live with the painful hip as long as I could stand it. Stupid, yes? Why would any normal person make that decision? I know. Follow that thought to its logical conclusion. But I’m a Montana Woman. Rough, tough and hard to bluff. We can handle Pain. That was two months ago.

            A couple weeks ago, said Pain changed my mind. I began research into surgery, surgeons, hospitals. Choices became overwhelming. My best bets in terms of cost seemed to be Tijuana or Mexico City. Travel complicated that bottom line. I would go back to Bangalore where I met Ruth, my titanium knee, in a heartbeat. If it were not for the 25 hour commute.

            I want to stay in Mazatlan. So I consulted my local search engines, Rudolfo and Carlos. Between them they know nearly everyone in a city of over 800,000. All they had to do was ask who, where and what were the results. Throw the information into a hopper, turn the handle and out pops a certain doctor and a certain hospital.

            So mid-morning Rudolfo knocks on my door. Get ready. At 6:00 this evening we go meet the doctor. I checked with the clinic and got his hours. Today? Yes, today, why not? Gulp.

            After an exam, questions, answers, a ton of information, I made my decision. I liked the surgeon. It’s a go. The next day I went for blood work. Until my new doctor saw the results of tests, he would make no further commitment.

            Blood letting terrifies me. Needles give me nightmares. I bravely bared my arm, turned my head, squinched my eyes, breathed like a woman in final stages of labor and gave my life-blood to the cause. The vampire man told me I picked the best surgeon in Mazatlan—words more soothing than any band-aid.

            When one has tests done in Mazatlan, one returns, picks up the results and hand carts them across town to the doctor. The doctor said, you are healthy as a horse. He flipped a calendar in front of me. When do you want to do it?

            I don’t know what you are like. You are probably healthier than I am. Patient. Calm. Serene. Once I made the decision to go under the knife, I pointed to yesterday. My doctor has a sense of humor. He laughed and shook his head. This was on a Friday. I pointed to Monday. He indicated Tuesday would be a better day for him. Tuesday it is.

            Just enough time for the night terrors to set in. Mostly I’m excited. But I’m also scared. It’s okay to be scared. When I got my new knee, it gave me a whole new life, sort of like I renewed my lease. Now my hip’s worn out. So I expect the new hip to give me another lease on life.

            Sleeplessness isn’t much fun. Silly questions without answers keep me awake. I did get to put one urban legend to rest. I had heard, you know, the “someone said” thing, that when a person is hospitalized in Mexico, a family member had to bring in meals. So I asked Rudolfo what about food? What do you mean? In the hospital, what about food. Who will bring me meals? He looked at me like I had nine heads. They feed you meals in the hospital. He gave me a really strange look again and sort of made the mental finger roll around his head that said, this woman is moon-struck.

I can’t wait to meet my new hip. I wonder what to name her. Anything I’m that intimate with must have a name. I’m thinking along the lines of “Rose”, as in “rose hip”. Or maybe “Rosie the Riveter”.  Or maybe Jaime Sommers. If you remember this character from late 70’s television, you are officially, bionic-ly hip.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

January 29, 2015

Getting To Know You

                                                Getting To Know You
            When I moved from Montana to the Seattle area in 1984, not my first relocation by any means, I knew it would take a while to develop friendships. Two years later, coffee outings with a couple of women eventually led to trips to Seattle for the Symphony or Elliott Bay Books with Lynn and to picnics or family dinners with Karen, who also had children. A couple more years and I had many friends; men, women, couples and singles.

            Friendships take time to develop. I sorted through a few acquaintances before I had friends with whom, over steaming mugs of coffee, we could bare our souls. The former are great people and the latter are rare and precious. I treasure both.

            By the time I moved to Harlem in ’06, the community in which I’d grown up, I knew what to expect: sure enough, in a couple years I began to form real friendships. Volunteering in my community speeded up the process arithmetically. I simply met more people.

            So I knew that when I came to Mazatlan a year ago, time and solitude would be my first friends. And it is so. I arrived physically and emotionally exhausted and needed rest more than activity.  This past year has been an extended retreat, a gift of incomparable value.

            I rented a small apartment in a building with seven units and a luncheria, each unit a different size and configuration. Four of us share a tiled courtyard in back with covered areas, fruit trees, and a variety of plants, exotic and domestic.

            Since I don’t play golf, cook most of my own meals, and don’t hang out in drinking establishments, the first people I got to know were three other apartment dwellers, snowbirds. The remaining three are friendly but speak very little English. We greet one another, smile and wave and converse with sign language.

Ted, our resident gardener and part-time courtyard caretaker, hails from Edmonton, Alberta. He owns a sand and gravel business back in the north-country. Frank, a retired electrical inspector in nuclear energy plants, or something of that nature, lives in Ione, north of Spokane. I once shared poems at a reading at Ione. Frank was not present.

More recently, I met Don and Dorothy, snowbirds from St. Paul, who live up the street half a block. Don graciously came over an uncluttered my computer. Dorothy brought me a huge bar of Sweet Obsession dark chocolate as a thank you for using my printer.

And, of course, I have several Mexican acquaintance-friends year round. Our interactions are limited by language, but we make ourselves understood, most of the time. I’ve not yet become part of the year-round English speaking ex-pat community. That may happen in time. For now, I am content.

What I find different in my life in Mazatlan, is my role with my new acquaintances. I am the listener, the repository of their stories.

Ted and I fuss over the courtyard garden, his tomatoes and peppers and my garlic and ginger. Then we sit and watch the hummingbirds while he tells me stories of his winter job as a trapper.

Then Frank knocks on the front door. His hair-raising childhood family stories have given me a whole new understanding of and respect for the man.

Both Dan and Dorothy, a couple who seem like two peas out of the same pod, have spent hours telling me about parents, siblings, work, how they met, about friends I’ll never meet. The funny thing is, I feel I know them quite well. They don’t know anything about me.  

Only in retrospect do I recognize my listener role. I didn’t arrange it or make any conscious decision. It just happened. I’m used to conversations being interchanges. 

One thing I learned years ago. No matter my initial judgment of a person, when I hear his story, my first impression flies out the window.

My door is open. I don’t know many people. But when one knocks, I make a pot of coffee. I sit. I listen. It is enough.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

January 22, 2015

Real Montana Winter

                                                            Real Montana Winter
Hi John,

I understand the weather is a bit on the rough and tough up there. I’ll not talk about the weather down here.

Hello Sondra,

That’s what a little time in Mexico does to you. You’ve lost your Montana bravado. Don’t you long for the minus five temperatures, the minus twenty wind chills, the eight inches of snow? You’ve become a wimp.

            Well, that sure shut my mouth! And that after I’d been whining about what a cold winter we are experiencing here, what with the dregs of the cold flowing downward along the Pacific coast. Lows of fifty and highs of seventy for days! Brrrrr.  Locals donned layered clothing and winter jackets. I, accustomed to going barefoot, caught a chill and sniffles and thought I had just cause for complaint. Another Montana friend suggested I stuff a wool sock in my mouth. 

            The socks proved fuzzy and uncomfortable so I took them out of my mouth and put them on my icy feet. The truth is I do long for Montana winter. But only little pieces, as if I could choose to keep this bit and to discard that bit.

            Nothing is more beautiful than morning sunrise with an inch of new frost glittering on branches and twigs and power lines. Or, lying in bed listening to pure silence, knowing that when you look out the window the world will be snug, tucked in beneath a blanket of new snow. And, oh, the delight when fat, puffy snowflakes sift down into piles on the rare windless day, snowman material. Or when the night sky dances and hums with aurora magic. Or the melancholy beauty of the overcast day when the tortured frozen limbs of cottonwood trees seem to hang onto the heavy sky.   
            When I envision these wonders, I like to imagine sitting in a well-worn overstuffed chair in front of a crackling wood-stove fire, fleece slippers on my feet, my cat curled in my lap, a steamy mug of hot chocolate in my hand.

            Unfortunately, what I remember most vividly is a different picture. I shudder to think about bundling up to face extreme temperatures and the chilling, killing wind. Of leaving the warmth of home looking like the Pillsbury Doughboy, so bundled I can hardly waddle. Of nose hairs that freeze with my first cautious breath. Of not being able to wear glasses because the frame gets too cold. Of keeping my mouth clamped tightly shut against the wind.

            Of my feet sliding out from under me on a patch of hidden ice, slamming me so hard I cannot catch my breath. Of my eyes making uncontrollable tears, forming icicles on my cheeks. Of fingers that turn numb despite wool liners inside leather mittens. Of wondering if my toes are still attached.

            Of wind that grabs my coat and tries to rip it from my body. Of walking backwards down icy streets, to keep the wind at my back. Of finally reaching shelter, my muffler frozen solid with a sheet of ice from my breath, salty icicles beneath my nose, eyebrows rimed with frost.

            Of plugging in the car. The sluggish sound when the motor will barely turn over. Of tires that freeze flat in extreme cold, turning round-clunk, round-clunk, round-clunk. The heater full blast, unable to penetrate the chill.

            Of driving through a blizzard, or on black ice, or in a white out, guessing, hoping where the road might be, not daring to stop. Of sliding off the road and wondering how long I can leave the motor running before the exhaust pipe plugs with snow and suffocates me, wondering if help will come, wondering if I have enough gas to keep the heater going, of wanting to walk for help knowing that is wrong decision.

            I flatter myself that I’m pretty good at evoking a scene to convey to others. But I’ve tried to explain winter to Mazetlecas only to be faced with a flat look of incomprehension. Finally I quit trying. If one’s not lived a real Montana winter, one cannot imagine it. I will content myself with whining when the nighttime temperature plunges to 52 Farenheit and I can’t go barefoot.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

January 15, 2015