Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Heat is On

About six years ago, I began a journey that would forever change my life.  And oh what a journey it has been (and not in the most positive of senses!) 

No, I’m not talking about CrossFit, though you already know how that has changed my life.  I’m talking about the thing that no one wants to talk about, yet most everyone with two X chromosomes will suffer through.  Say it with me, girls: 


Let’s backtrack a few years (and just a few, because it was just like yesterday).  When puberty hit and brought with it, all the joy that it entails – or so we were led to believe in health class.  The bloating, the moodiness (as if being a teenager with raging hormones just wasn’t enough!), the unpredictability of Mother Nature and all the fun that She can impose upon a young girl as she blossoms into a woman.

It was my experience that if cramping was anything close to being in labor, then I wanted nothing to do with ever having a child.  It didn’t help matters that I’ve always had an aversion to taking pills (thanks to my childlike wonderment with a grape-shaped magnet that I managed to swallow, the hard resin bundle no doubt stuck in my throat for a while before I could get it down).  And so when the cramping commenced, the only thing I could do was soak in a tub of the hottest water I could tolerate.  I remember one spring break, when I should’ve been spending time hanging out in the mall, but instead, spent it soaking in a tub and trying not to cry.  On another day, during an early morning band practice, as the sun was coming up and blaring right into my eyes, it took every ounce of energy to stand at attention with my trumpet facing up to the press box and not pass out from the pain in my lower abdomen. 

This is “joyful”?  This is “wonderful”?  This is a “beautiful” stage in a woman’s life? 

Fast forward 28 years and I’m staring menopause right in the eye.

I wasn’t sure what it would look like for me personally since my mother had rid herself of her uterus many, many years ago.  And if my sister’s menopausal experience was a guide, I knew I was not going to enjoy this.  At.  All.

I had stayed at a consistent weight post-birthing experience (yes, I did eventually have a child and no, I did not enjoy labor) until the first signs of “the change” began.  The scale didn’t so much creep upwards, as it skyrocketed seemingly overnight.  Ten pounds.  That’s where it stopped.  Even though I began eating a bit “healthier” when my husband and I shacked up.  (I say “healthier” because it wasn’t until a year ago that we well and truly began eating healthier.)  And still, that stupid scale would not budge.

Yes, I think CrossFit was drastic enough to help with the weight loss, but … I ended up trading in my fat for muscle and so, the scale stayed the same. 

Mother Nature has a sense of humor.  Who plays cruel jokes.  My body then reverted to its teenage state and by that, I mean, unpredictable cycle timing and horrific cramping that no amount of ibuprofen would alleviate.  (I finally got past my pill-popping problem too – but only for the tiniest of pills.)  She thought it comical to come for a visit on the very day Keith and I would leave for vacation.  Every damn time. 

My gynecologist had previously told me about a procedure which could “improve my quality of life”.  Long having surpassed the baby-making years, I decided to forego the further surprises that Mother Nature intended and scheduled an endometrial thermal ablation.  Good-bye Aunt Flo!  And thank you, Dr. Schneider!  You are my hero!

Oh, but the fun was just getting started.

Then came the night sweats.  The kind that leave the bedsheets soaking wet.  The kind that require you to drink a full 16 oz. bottle of water to try and cool down.  The kind that cause you to sleep with the fan on when the temperature drops to 19 degrees in the dead of winter and leaves your husband to sleep under all the blankets.  The kind that when done, chills you to the bone to where you steal all the blankets from said husband.  And the kind that results in an overwhelming fear that you’ll never sleep through the night.  Ever.  Again.

Hormone Replacement Therapy?  I think I’ve tried them all:  pills, patches, gels.  Nothing helped.  Nothing.

But wait!  There’s more!

Because there hasn’t been enough fun up to this point, here come the hot flashes.  When my hot flashes were at their worst this past summer, I thought I might actually spontaneously combust.  Keith seriously considered carrying a fire extinguisher around but opted instead for the next best thing (and probably a mite safer):  a mini-fan which I could plug into my phone. 

We had a mercilessly brutal summer (where temps were concerned) – a record 60+ days with the high temp exceeding 100!  Couple that with a woman in the throws of menopause and … well … let’s just say   the lava from Mt. Vesuvius would’ve been chillier than what I was experiencing.

Mine started at the back of my neck, then moved down my back, around the front, up to my head, before gravity took hold and the incapacitating heat went all the way to my toes.  And by the time it reached my toes, sweat was literally pouring from every pore.  Not kidding.  You could set a clock by my hot flashes too, if you were so inclined to set a 40-minute timer.  Yes, you read that right. 

Every.  40.  Minutes.  For.  The.  Entire.  Summer. 

Thank God (I think) that part is behind me.  I’ve been praying a lot recently.  Praying that I don’t see a repeat of my body’s bad behavior next summer.  Otherwise, I’ll be looking for cheap flights to Antartica!

Oh!  And then … there’s the lack of libido.  My husband wants to put out “Missing” flyers throughout town.  And that’s all I’m gonna say about that.

Still looking for some relief from the night sweats and insomnia, my current PCP suggested, of all things, blood pressure medication.  It works better than anything else I’ve tried.  I still have night sweats, but now they don’t hit until around 3:00 or 4:00 a.m., giving me a good five or six hours of sleep.  Oh!  I didn't mention the insomnia?  And when I do wake up, I’m not staring at the ceiling, counting the number of times the ceiling fan circulates for hours on end (252 turns per minute, by the way!)  I’m usually able to get back to sleep rather quickly.

Did I mention my poor husband?  As if what may or may not be happening in the bedroom isn’t enough punishment for HIM (what did he ever do to deserve this?), then there are the mood swings. 

These are the moments when I turn into a she-devil in the blink of an eye.  Seemingly sweet, caring and loving one minute and an unbelievable bitch, the next.  Fangs emerge, my eyes glowing with such fire, and horns sprout from the top of my sweet little head.  And the language that spews from my mouth?  The entire U.S. Navy has nothing on me!  Let me tell you!  You know what they say:  Hell hath no fury like a woman going through menopause. 

Curiously, my husband, God love him, says “WHAT is wrong with YOU????”  And I have no answer.

Conversely, I can sometimes be found curled into the fetal position, tears springing from my eyes like Niagra Falls and I can’t explain that either.

And you know what?  It ain’t over yet!

So how much longer is this going to last?  I ask my mom.  I ask my sister.  I ask my friends.  I even ask my doctor; surely, she would know.  But no one knows for sure.  WHAT??????  I thought five years was the magic number.  Yet, here I am in about year six.  Someone said they thought it could last 13 years.  I’m no longer on speaking terms with that person. 

So, were those first few years, with simple weight gain and night sweats just the beginning, just perimenopause?  OMG!  WHY, Mother Nature, WHY???

When I begged the question just one more time, my PCP smirks (from her perspective, it was probably an innocent smile, but to me, it looked like an evil sort of grin) and says she thinks I can expect this to last until I’m 55.  That’s two more years.  It’ll be a miracle if I make it to 55 without landing myself in jail and with my marriage still intact. 

Thanks Mother Nature.  I hate you.

To those of you who are in this same season, know that you are beautiful.  You are strong.  And you will get through this.  Many have done so before, many will do so after, and we will too!  The next season is upon us and it promises to be the best yet.

To those of you who have not yet embarked on your own special journey, you too will survive.  Please know you’re not losing your ever-lovin’ mind.  I wish for you many a cool night, dry sheets and the patience of loved ones when your crazy slips out.

And gentlemen, be brave.  When it’s your partner’s time and you think she’s channeling her inner-Linda Blair, know that she is.  Give her some space, but before you do, give her a cold drink and a fan to plug into her phone.  It could save your life.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Just a Small Town Girl

The year was 1982.  It was a Saturday night.  I was flipping through all four channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS – because my dad was too cheap to spring for this new-fangled thing called cable TV) and there appeared on PBS, Journey’s 1981 concert (promoting their hit album Escape) at the Houston Summit.  PBS ya’ll. 

My teenage hormones raging, I was completely captivated by this band and in particular, their lead singer, Steve Perry.  I was practically in tears when the show ended.  I wanted more.  Not only was their music the absolute best in the industry (because you know, at age 17, music is life), but Perry’s stage presence was the stuff of legends.  His vocals, soulful, and the range of which justifiably earned him the moniker, “The Voice”.  His long dark hair and tight jeans were something for a teenage girl to behold.  Visions of Steve in his yellow leopard print shirt and his tuxedo tails invaded my dreams that night and many others thereafter.

And thus began my one-sided love affair with Steve Perry and the band Journey.

Every Saturday afternoon, while my mom grocery shopped, you could find me in the magazine aisle, pouring over every Tiger Beat and 17 magazine, looking for stories on and pictures of Journey.  It was a good day when the magazine’s centerfold poster was Steve Perry.  Move over Willie Aames, there’s a new crush in town. 

Imagine my surprise when I discovered Journey had been around for a while and had released several albums pre-Steve Perry.  My vinyl collection grew as I found myself spending all my allowance at Second Hand Records, searching for the older Journey albums.  But the newer stuff, that was mine on the day it was released! 

They even had a video game.  And yeah, obsessed as I was, I owned that too.

When I got my first car, a Journey sticker adorned the back window.  My cassette case filled with Journey. 

I still remember one Friday afternoon in January 1983.  I was a high school senior and my mom was picking me up from school for a doctor’s appointment.  As I buckled in, she pushed Play on the car’s cassette player.  The opening beat of “Separate Ways (World Apart)” pounded out of the speaker; my mom had surprised me with Journey’s latest album, Frontiers.

I saw them for the first time following the release of Frontiers and was just beside myself.  There are truly no other words to describe what that was like.  Steve danced across the stage, his dark locks shorn just above his shoulders.  All my teenage dreams had come true.  Well … maybe not ALL of them.  Because you know … hormones.

While in college, I had a pet parakeet.  While he (or she?) was not quite as musically-inclined as the talented Mr. Perry, I named him ‘Perry’.

Steve released his first solo album, Street Talk, in 1984.  Friends gifted me the album for my birthday that year, which I listened to for hours on end and probably drove my sister (who was my roommate) crazy.  Steve was a little more subdued when he toured for this album (of course, I went to see him!), but still … there was something magical about his voice.    

My first husband was almost as huge a fan as I was.  Like a high school boyfriend of mine, he too had dark hair and a strong chin.  And what’s more … he could sing a bit like Steve Perry too.  If you’ve read my post An Ounce of Strength, you know those were about the only redeeming qualities the man had.  We saw our favorite band together when they toured for their album Raised on Radio.  As the front man of Journey, his stage presence had returned to the category of ‘riveting’, his dark hair now longer and permed.  What?  Well … it was the 80’s.  And he was still damn sexy.

Once I re-entered the dating world post-divorce, my friend Debbie said to me, “Now remember, Sharon, we don’t date guys just because they remind us of Steve Perry!”  She was a wise one, Deb was.  Miss you, Deb!

I saw Steve for the final time while he was touring for his second solo album, For the Love of Strange Medicine.  This was far from my favorite piece of his work.  I found the music odd, and very much unlike the Steve Perry I had fallen in lust with some 12 years prior.  His hair, now practically down to his waist, looked greasy and stringy.  But … I certainly wasn’t going to turn down tickets I won on the radio by answering the question, “Who was Journey’s drummer for the Escape album?”  Uh … duh … Steve Smith!  I think the highlight was when his red tuxedo tails descended from the rafters and he greeted it with “Why hello there, old friend”.  I do, however, still have the concert t-shirt; it’s become a “work shirt” of sorts and it saddens me when I wear it, to think that he basically fell off the radar.

In 1996, Journey released one more album together with the same band members as were together for Escape.  It was after this release, and before they could get out on the road, when Steve left the band following a hip injury.  My hopes for ever seeing them together again vanished.  Poof.

I tried to listen to Journey when they brought on different lead singers.  But nothing, in my opinion, would ever be as good as having Steve Perry standing (and gyrating … um … dancing!) up front.  It’s for this reason, that while I love their older music, I won’t see them in concert without him.  I feel it would be sacrilegious, really. 

And in some small way, I want that part of my youth, the point in time when Journey was filling stadiums nightly, to remain intact.

Over the years, I randomly googled Steve Perry to see if, by chance, he was re-joining Journey (sadly, it looks as if that will never happen) or even release some solo work.  Nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  Zilch.  The only thing I would find occasionally was the rumor that he had throat cancer.

In 2014, video of Steve singing with a band called The Eels emerged (who names their band after a sea serpent?  really?)  Why hello there, old friend, how I have missed you.  He sang a couple of Journey songs and it was almost disturbing.  His voice was raspy, somewhat off-key, and he was moving rather slow.  This was definitely not the comeback I had waited so long for.

A couple of years ago, Journey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  I was elated to see them all together and heartbroken at the same time, for Steve Perry would not be performing with them.

Journey’s music provided the soundtrack to my teenage and young adult life.  And various songs highlight significant memories. 

When I hear “Open Arms”, I can’t help but think of Brian, a dark-haired boy I met in Georgia while on a band trip. 

“I’ll Be Alright Without You” served as my own personal anthem after finding the strength to leave my first husband. 

“Don’t Stop Believin’” transports me back to 1983, our Senior year in High School.  And to Destin, where my high school friends and I, my wise friend Debbie included, sat on the beach, sipping what adults sip, and celebrating our 50th birthdays, and where Julie and I bounced the elevator as we jumped and danced to the same song.

And “Lights”, which was playing as Keith and I sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge while on a cruise along California’s coast.

Heck!  I even had a God-awful tattoo put on my foot with the Infinity symbol, the symbol which long-graced Journey's album covers!

I guess you could say Journey is, without a doubt, my all-time favorite band. 

I had all but given up on the prospect of him re-emerging, when last week, who, but one Steve Perry appeared on Good Morning America.  Imagine my complete and utter delight upon hearing he had released a new solo album after having been MIA for the better part of two decades. 

He’s apparently been doing the media circuit for two months, leading up to the release of Traces.  Where have I been and why didn’t anyone tell me?????

As I listen to tracks from his latest release, I’m easily transported back to that Saturday night in 1982.  And just like 1982, I’m awoken in the middle of the night with music from Steve Perry playing in my head.  It’s not Journey, no.  But there are glimpses of the old Steve Perry.  The vocal range, a little smaller.  The hair, a LOT shorter.  “The Voice”, alive and well. 

As my husband leaves for work, seeing me glued to YouTube, watching both old and new videos of Steve in action, he says to me “I know you must be getting all hot and bothered.  I’ll be home early today.” 

And my 17-year old self smiles.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Don't You Ever Stay Home?

My husband and I love to travel.  In fact, being a good traveling companion was kind of a deal-breaker for him when we first started dating.  I’m happy to report I passed this piece of the compatibility test with flying colors when we took our first trip together to Rome nine years ago.  Even though the act of packing for that trip (and many others since) totally stressed me out, it was one of our favorite trips to date!  In fact, it was a picture taken of us in front of the Vatican that sparked our reunion after a brief break up (but that’s a post for another day).

This year, we’ve been lucky enough to venture to Milan and Florence, Beijing and Shanghai, to Arkansas to visit the family, to Madison, WI where I volunteered at the CrossFit Games, to Miami which we combined with a cruise to Key West and Havana, and most recently, we traveled to San Miguel de Allende for my nephew’s wedding.  We have one more trip planned this year, much to Keith’s chagrin (he’d love it if we could fit in another trip, but considering we’ve just demo’d one of our bathrooms, we need to keep our feet on the ground). 
I’m regularly asked how is it that we’re able to travel the way that we do.  For those of you who have asked, this is for you. 

Make no mistake, Keith and I both know how incredibly blessed we are to do the things that we do.  We’re incredibly lucky to have the flexibility to travel so often, with me being retired and him being his own boss.  And that, more than anything, has been the key.
Years ago, pre-Sharon, when Keith realized all work and no play was making him a dull boy, he committed to taking one vacation each quarter.  So on New Year’s Day, he and then we, would sit down and schedule four trips for the upcoming year.  That process has evolved over the years, as we (*I*) put on my travel agent hat and put together our trips using many available resources.

Using a plethora of travel tools, we’ve had many a memorable trip since that first one.     
Take for instance December 4, 2009, where we had booked a trip to Mazatlan using air miles and RCI.  We spent roughly 18 not-so-luxurious hours at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport because of a single snowflake (and then another and then another).  The airport closed, all flights were delayed, and our luck was not as good as we’d hoped when we didn’t make it on standby once the airport re-opened mid-afternoon.  We survived with the help of United Club passes while we waited for our 11:30 p.m. flight.  We finally boarded at 1:30 a.m. and sat on the tarmac and waited and waited.  Because that’s what you do when you’re 26th in line for the airport’s sole de-icing machine.  We took off at 3:30 a.m., some 17 hours after our originally-scheduled departure.  I can still smell the jet fuel which permeated the cabin whilst we sat on the tarmac.  A week’s worth of relaxation was in store following that whole ordeal.      

If you’re current or retired military or a civilian employee of the DOD, you can’t beat the deals found on Armed Forces Vacation Club!  For $369/week, we celebrated our anniversary in the Mayan Riviera near Cancun.  Our 1-bedroom villa (complete with separate living area and full kitchen) was beautiful.  Which was beneficial seeing as a tropical depression settled over the peninsula for the entire week we were there and we spent most of the time in our room.  Want to get dinner?  Fantastic!  There were something like 4 different restaurants available on the resort – just pick one based on whether you were wearing shorts or capris because you had to choose between whether you wanted to traverse ankle-deep or knee-deep water to get there.  Grab a garbage bag to cover yourself and go (because the pathway to the gift shop, where they had umbrellas and ponchos, was flooded too)!  Thanks goodness we were on the third floor – because no one wants to sleep on a soggy mattress, such as were on the first floor. 

We don’t always suffer such challenges when traveling.  We’ve had wonderful trips using Hilton Grand Vacation Club.  I mean … when a week in Hawaii cost you less points than a week in Miami … what’s not to love?  We do, however, find there are limited properties/locations available to us and navigating HGVC and trying to convert points to Hilton Honors is a bit of a pain.  Still … it’s a nice resource to have seeing as we bought the timeshare second-hand, on the cheap.  For me, buying into Disney Vacation Club would make the most sense financially, but seeing as Keith is not as fond of Mickey as I am, I haven’t been able to convince him … yet.

Air miles are nice and all, but we've noticed in recent years, how utterly stingy our preferred airlines has gotten with their points.  Enter my stepson, who introduced us to the wonder that is Scott's Cheap Flights.  *Note:  this is not a paid advertisement.*

Scott’s has two different “subscription levels”.  A free one, which will get you 3-4 deals per week (sent via email).  And a paid one, which, for $39/year, will get you 5 or more deals sent per week AND you can identify your preferred departure airports, which I think get you even MORE deals.

So how do the deals work?  With Scott’s, flexibility is key.  They scour whatever websites they scour to find the deals.  The emails you receive will read something like this: 

Flights to: Europe Starting at $400
From:  certain cities (hopefully there’s a city near you)
To:  certain cities (hopefully there’s a city you want to visit)
Good for:  this month to this month (usually, the deals are good for a 3-4 month window that begins about six months from the date of the email)
How long will these deals last?  x number of (hours or days) (I’ve seen deals that last 12 hours and deals that last 1-2 days).

Obviously, Scott’s is not like the airlines’ websites or even something like Travelocity where you can enter your preferred destination and dates. 
This works for us – because we have a bucket list and when a deal comes up for something on our list, we grab a calendar, jump online and see if we can make it work.

One other thing to note is the phrase “starting at …”.  I mean … who wouldn’t love to fly to Europe for $400/person round trip?  But if you can’t leave on one of the dates with the $400 fare, you can probably find a date that will work for you for just a little more.  Still, you can’t deny it’s better than paying full price!

The first trip we booked with Scott’s was from Austin to Milan.  At $524/person round trip (on American Airlines, no less!), we thought it was a steal!  And … it got us back to my absolute favorite country!  Seeing as we were traveling with my stepson and his girlfriend, we thought sharing an Airbnb would be the way to go.  We split our time between Milan and Florence, enjoying the rusticity of Florence and the fashion-forwardness of Milan, with a bullet train ride in between. 

Our next trip using Scott’s also departed from Austin and took us to Beijing.  For $541/person round trip, I got to spend my birthday hiking The Great Wall.  We flew on a Chinese airline and based on our flight over, I questioned using Scott’s as I thought perhaps we had landed a deal with the Chinese BUDGET airline; the aircraft was old and rattled for the entirety of the 11-hour trip between Seattle and Beijing.  Further, the most recent movies available on the in-flight entertainment system were “Toy Story” and “A Walk to Remember”.  Oh boy.  Based on the hoops we had to jump through to get Chinese VISAs, not to mention the language barrier, we felt it best to stay in hotels both in Beijing and Shanghai.  With hotels booked through hotels.com, we stayed right in the city center and within reasonable walking distances to the major tourist attractions.  Following a bit of a snafu getting the train back from Shanghai to Beijing, I’m happy to report that the airline wasn’t necessarily budget-class after all; a brand new Dreamliner transported us home.

If our past and future flights booked on Scott’s are any indication, we usually snag air fare that’s roughly half of what you can find on the airlines’ websites.  And really, who doesn’t love a good bargain?  Just today, there were flights to Rome for $377 round trip!  $377!!!!

So what happens if we have our heart set on a destination and there are no deals to be had?  We use air miles or Travelocity or Orbitz or some other search site.

Keith and I each have our favorites.  You’re probably not surprised to know that I love the Disney Parks.  I can plan a Disney trip with my eyes blind-folded and my arms tied behind my back based on years of research I’ve done.  Thanks to Keith's military service, we manage to get both park passes and rooms at a significantly discounted price through MWR and Disney's Military Discounts.  Enough that he has occasionally acquiesced and we've visited both the west coast and east coast parks in the same year.  Yet another reason I love this man!    

Keith, on the other hand, loves to cruise.  I must admit … there’s a lot to like about unpacking your suitcase once and seeing several different cities.  Our go-to cruise site is VacationsToGo.  We’ve found some crazy cheap deals (mostly military discounts or old-folk discounts) using this site and we just wouldn’t go any other way.  And because we’ve booked a number of cruises with them, there is usually some form of complimentary something or another from them, awaiting us in our cabin.

So how do we decide on what to do once we get where we’re going? 

Simple:  we use Trip Advisor.  As the designated travel planner, I scour the list of top things to see and do, and together, Keith and I narrow down our choices.  I love working in Excel, so I put together a rough itinerary with things we can see and do each day, including rest days and time to just wander.  I also buy tickets ahead of time if possible.  Is this over-planning for some?  Yeah, it probably is.  But we’d prefer to be sure and plan for everything we want to see because in most instances, we’ll only visit once.  And besides, who doesn’t love having all their information in one color-coded spreadsheet?  (oops – the geek in me just slipped out, didn’t it?)
That’s not to say we plan every minute of every single trip.  We don’t.  But if we’re certain we’ll only visit a destination once, I want to be sure and get the most out of it!

So is this the only way to plan travel and get the best deals?  Absolutely not.  And I, by no means, am an expert nor am I a certified travel agent (though I think I would absolutely love it!)  I’m quite certain there are a multitude of ways to find travel deals, as well as different ways to explore.  But for those of you who have asked, here’s how we do what we do. 

I cannot emphasize enough how fortunate we are to have the flexibility to travel this way.  And I realize those of you whose nests aren’t quite empty might be a little more restricted.  Just know I’ve seen plenty of deals come across for spring break and even the summer months.  Those cheap fares could be worth the cost of the (free) subscription alone.

Bon Voyage!

Friday, September 14, 2018

I Can't Write Now

Every writer knows what this is.  The inevitable feeling that there are no unique ideas in your head.  The dreaded Writer’s Block.  I’m currently in such a place. 

I have three different blog posts in various stages of completion but can’t seem to finish any of them.  It’s just not flowing.  It’s not right.  And I can’t get it right. 

One is about childhood playthings.  Inspired by a song I heard, which immediately transported me back to the 70’s, I thought it would be a great subject.  It’s done.  It should be ready to post.  But it’s just not right.  Not just yet.  I heard the same song about a week ago and thought “Hey!  That piece needs to go in a different direction and I know just what to do with it!”, but I didn’t have time last week to do any writing (retirement is rough, ya’ll.)  And now, I don’t remember what direction I wanted to take it.

Another is about the simile between a fresh coat of paint and changes in one’s life or starting over or fresh perspectives.  As you can see, I really don’t know what it’s about.  We began remodeling our home about a year ago and just this past weekend, we painted another room.  I thought maybe I’d find the inspiration to finish this post.  But nope. 

And then, I have one in the works about Keith.  Part 3 of my failed marriage trilogy (only … as you know … this one’s alive and well).  You would think it would be easy, that the words would flow directly onto the page.  But they’re not.  It’s not easy.  It’s not easy to put into words what this man means to me.  And because it’s ongoing (and I thank God every day for that!), it’s kinda hard to write just one post on the subject.

I know I’m not alone in slamming into the proverbial creative wall.  I’m not the first and I won’t be the last.  But damn.  It’s hard.  I want to write and I can’t write.  So what am I doing?  Writing about not being able to write! 

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame) talks of being inspired.  And creating.  And writing.  And how creativity leaves you.  And returns.  She even talks of an idea leaving her – an idea for a book she had – and landing in someone else’s head – someone who finished the book years later.  Weird, right?  I’m trying fiercely to rely on her words and be okay with the fact that right now, my ideas and my words have seemingly escaped me.  Heaven forbid, though, that my thoughts end up in someone else’s head.  Scary.

Why not pick up on one of the half dozen topics I have written down to someday include in my blog?   Topics I think would be fun.  And make for enjoyable reading.  Topics that would allow me to create.  Because I’m stubborn.  That’s why.  Because I want to finish one of the posts I’ve already started.  And because of this stupid thing called Writer’s Block.

I miss my blog.  I miss seeing the bright colors on the home page.  The picture I took in a tea house in China.  And the stock picture of the Moroccan Tagines (thanks Ana for telling me exactly what those brightly colored pots are!).  And I miss …. Writing.

Yet, I know it will return.

When I’m not so busy.  When I’m not feeling so pressured … about life and about writing.  When the mood hits me just right.  When I’ve slept well.  Or maybe when I’m exhausted.

It will return.  Hopefully in the not-so-distant future.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Following Hemingway

My husband and I LOVE to travel.  And yes, we’re lucky.  Lucky to be able to travel.  But even more lucky to open up our world and get out of the “Stone Oak bubble”.  To experience other cultures and other people.  To eat different foods (even if they are questionable).  To peek into history and walk the same path as others have before.  And sometimes, it helps us realize that home is truly sweet.

Most recently, we followed Hemingway from Miami to Key West to Havana (and the Caribbean in between).  Now, I’m not a big fan of Hemingway’s by any means, so it’s not like this was the point of our trip.  It just so happens that our ultimate destination of Havana happened to be among his favorites and the points that led us there were too.

The city of Miami.  Vibrant.  Colorful.  Buzzing.  Loud.  Hot (both figuratively and literally).  This was the start of our journey.

South Beach.  Where exposed skin is pervasive; ask Keith about the multitude of thong-wearing and topless sun-bathing women.  Where adults cruised Ocean Drive in their Ferraris, Rolls Royce’s, Bentleys and such.  Where the tropical humidity was not a good thing when coupled with a woman’s hot flashes.  Where every bar has Happy Hour, where you can get 2 for 1 drinks of the 56 oz. variety (and which we did on more than one occasion).  Where Latin music infuses the streets.  Where you hear a variety of languages spoken, some of which you can’t even identify.  It’s that kind of place.  

And apparently Hemingway liked Miami.

After a couple of days on South Beach (both on the beach and touring the Art Deco district), we decided we wanted to see a little more of Miami.  First, we toured the city by bus, with a stop in Little Havana.  Here, we watched cigars being hand-rolled, enjoyed spicy chicken empanadas and Cuban (i.e., mango) smoothies.  I’m not a smoker by any means, but I must admit, the smell of that shop was almost as delicious as the empanadas.  By boat, we cruised past houses currently and formerly owned by the rich and famous, with names like Shakira, Ricky Martin, Al Pacino, Will Smith, and Beyonce on the tax rolls.

Cruising is probably Keith’s favorite way to travel.  You unpack once, and you visit multiple cities.  I must admit, it’s not half-bad.  On day 5, we bid Miami adieu and embarked on a 5-night Caribbean journey aboard Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas.

Having made certain lifestyle changes (of the dietary variety) less than a year ago, we knew this would be a challenge.  Not only with the never-ending buffet that’s available 20 hours out of every day, but in the dining room too; the bread is plentiful, and you can order any number of appetizers, entrees and desserts.  All in all, I’d say we didn’t do too bad.  We indulged, yes (who can say no to ice cream and cookies?), but we tried to stay reasonable, while still enjoying ourselves.

Our first port of call:  Key West.  I visited Key West at the age of 13 and cannot say I remember much about it except for the drive to get there (on all the bridges, over all the water).  As an adult, I found it far less exciting than anything I might’ve felt as a teenager.  Admittedly, that is solely because of the heat and humidity (again) that resulted in my having a raging headache that I could not get rid of, no matter how many pills I managed to get down my throat.

There is no shortage of touristy-type of things to see and do and buy in Key West. 

We opted for a hop-on/hop-off trolley tour of the island, but we only hopped off once, to see The Little White House.  Recommended by a friend, we both enjoyed this tour of former naval commandant housing, which appealed to President Truman and which he often visited during and after his term as President.  The house is filled with both original and replicated furniture from the 1950s and was extremely charming.  As were many of the homes on Key West.

Our trolley tour also took us past Ernest Hemingway’s house, home of the 7-toed cats.  We also passed several famous (or … infamous?) bars along the way and about 2,001 souvenir shops.    

The heat, humidity and my headache got the best of me and it was everything I could do not to spout off to the trolley driver (whose incessant chatter became rather annoying), the drunk woman up front who wanted to get off at Stop 9, when we were approaching Stop 10 (pay attention!), or the bickering couple from the northeast who sat directly behind us and who, based on the husband’s comments, appeared to have never gotten out from under their own roof.  For example, this exchange actually took place:

HIM:  Look!  A Taco Bell!  Take a picture!

HER:  Yes, they have Taco Bells here too, Harold.

One of the local tour guides suggested food and drinks at Two Friends Patio Bar and we were not disappointed.  We opted for shrimp dinners (a Cajun shimp wrap for Keith and a shrimp salad sandwich for me).  The Pina Coladas with Meyer’s Dark Rum floaters were divine.  It turns out I only needed food to erase my splitting headache.  Or maybe alcohol. 

Key West boasts the Southernmost Point in the Continental US – 90 miles to Cuba, they say.  It’s a quick overnight where nautical miles are concerned. 

That night, we enjoyed dinner in the ship’s specialty restaurant, Chops Grille.  Steaks, grilled asparagus, a bottle of their finest Malbec, and the most amazing key lime meringue pie I will probably ever eat.  Afterwards, hand in hand, we strolled Deck 6.  The sky and the water dark as ink, except for the stars and the satellites dotting the night sky.  As the lights of Key West diminished behind us, I saw a shooting star and made a wish.

After our departure from Key West, the ship was filled with Latin music.  In every venue where alcohol was being served, the sounds of bongos and trumpets were prevalent.  It was a nice precursor to our arrival in Havana the next morning. 

The ship was abuzz as we entered Havana’s port.  To the left, one of the city’s forts, El Morro, complete with a lighthouse, and to the right, the city’s skyline.

We waited patiently as the computers in the immigration and customs building had gone down and they wouldn’t clear the ship until they could make things right.  Finally, we joined the other 998 passengers and the 1000 passengers from another ship which had just arrived and proceeded through customs and immigration.

Paperwork.  Paperwork.  And more paperwork.  This is vacation.  If you wish to visit Cuba. 

Tourist VISAs are required and were handled largely by the ship.  When I say this, I simply mean, they handed the paperwork to us to fill out and charged us $75 each for the pleasure.  We also had to complete paperwork certifying what we would be doing in Havana and were told to hold onto this for five years, lest we’re ever asked what we did while in country.  They could’ve been pulling our proverbial legs, but you never know.

Foreign credit cards are not accepted here and US Dollars may or may not be accepted, so exchanging money was necessary.  The thing about it is, you don’t want to exchange too much because not only does the Cuban government take about 13% right off the top in the exchange (when exchanging US Dollars – it’s much less if using other forms of currency, e.g., the Euro), but it takes another 13% if you want to re-convert to US Dollars. 

Additionally, there are two types of Cuban pesos – one used by the locals, the Peso Cubano, or CUP (they have faces of Cuba’s leaders) and one used by tourists, the Peso Convertible, or CUC (pictures of historical landmarks).

1 CUC = $~1 USD = 25 CUP

In town, you really have to be careful and ask whether prices quoted are CUC or CUP (and that you get the correct currency back in change).

Because of this, I didn’t want to exchange any more than we had to.  I asked someone who worked one of the gift shops in the port terminal, the average cost of a meal in town.  In return, I received a blank stare.  For this is not something the locals can (afford) to do.  My heart hurt just a little.

Our first shore excursion introduced us to the city of Havana.  As the bus exited the cruise terminal, we got our first close-up look into the heart of Old Towne, Plaza Veija.  And driving past it, were several early model cars.  As if the tour guide were the director and we were her choir, we collectively ooh’d and aah’d on que as we were transported back in time. 

Between Old Towne and New Havana, we saw several major landmarks. We exited the bus and saw a couple of the landmarks up-close:  The Christ (think of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer), El Morro and Revolution Square (where Fidel Castro spoke to the masses).

We finished our tour at the local market, where private vendors sold a multitude of goodies to take back home.  The vendors were welcoming.  A polite "No thank you" and they smiled politely in return.  If you showed interest in something, they were quick to bargain.  And bargaining didn't require you to say a word; if they sensed any amount of hesitancy on your part, they started dropping the price!
As the rain moved in, we decided to return to the ship for a breather and to cool down a bit.  Only it didn’t help to cool things down so much as to only make it more humid. 

After the rain subsided, we headed back into town.  We wandered the streets, popping into various shops and looking at menus to see what we might fancy for dinner. Along the way, puddles filled the myriad of potholes that punctured the cobblestone and un-paved streets.  

It was easy to see how grand the city once was; influenced by Spanish architecture, the tall buildings with rounded corners and ornate windows and balconies are now falling into disrepair.  Literally, they are crumbling to the ground.  And my heart hurt just a little more.

We stumbled onto a bar with crowds tumbling into the street, the sounds of live music filling the square as the doors opened and closed.  All the guests were sipping grapefruit infused daiquiris; a bust of one Ernest Hemingway sat in the corner.  Unbeknownst to us, we had happened upon one of his old (and maybe favorite) haunts, El Floridita.  The crowd was thrilled when the 5-piece band played the song “Havana”.  We started with the famed daiquiri at a cost of 6 CUC each.  We each had a Cubano, because … why not?  We finished with a local beer at a cost of 4.50 CUC each.

When the band packed up their guitars and violins, we walked to the bar (literally) next door and enjoyed the same local beer for 1.50 CUC each.  Sure, El Floridita was fun, but I’d much rather pay 1.50 for a beer than 4.50.

As we stood admiring the architecture of the square, someone approached us in the “pssst … hey … you want to buy some cigars?” kind of way and much to my surprise, my husband followed him.  We struck a deal for a case of Cubans under a low wattage lamp in the man’s home.

With rain drops falling again, and the promise of more to come (if the lightning in the sky was any indication), we made our way back to the ship for the evening.

The next morning, we exchanged more money and made our way into town for more sightseeing and in my case, picture-taking.  Inspired by my sister’s earlier works of art (some of which were shot in Havana), I set out to find beauty amongst the rubble.

After lunch, we embarked on our second shore excursion:  a Hemingway pub crawl and walking tour through Old Towne. We start at where else, but El Floridita.  If I thought happy hour the night before was crazy, I was mistaken.  THIS was madness.  I’m not sure if there is such a thing as fire codes in Havana, but if there are, I’m quite certain the place was in violation at that very moment.  Nevertheless, the daquiris were cold and even tastier than the night before. 

Our next stop was El Bodeguita, Hemingway’s favorite place to score up a refreshing mojito.  With crowds spilling into the street (the bar itself no bigger than a storage room), we tried to find a sliver of shade in which to enjoy the minty, sugary concoction as the brutal sun beat down on those of us not able to fit into the bar. 

The “pub crawl” version complete, we finished our walking tour a short while later, having traversed a small portion of Old Towne, visiting churches, glimpsing into historic homes, admiring government buildings and resting in beautiful parks. 

We finished our time in Havana wandering the streets, looking for nooks and crannies which we had not yet discovered.  We stopped at one of the local breweries, Factoria Plaza Vieja, and enjoyed a drink, some snacks (grilled shrimp, brown rice and black beans) and a cigar.  Here, a little boy no older than 5, stood silently at our table, watching our every move.  He moved from one side to the other, finally tapping me on the arm and saying something in Spanish I didn’t quite understand (I understood “Englis”, but that was it).  I told him (in Spanish) that I spoke very little Spanish and asked if he spoke English.  He shook his head “no” and disappeared.

Satisfied that we had seen all that Old Towne had to offer, we made our way back to the ship before departing at 8:00 p.m..

As we reflected on our visit to Havana, we agreed the city is much like some of the poorest areas you might have seen in Mexico (yet different because of what once was).  Yes, they have free medical and free (higher) education, but what good are those if a government employee (someone who works in a government-owned business, which is most of the businesses there), earning $20-$30 CUC PER MONTH can’t even afford aspirin or toothpaste?  And even if they could afford it, I suspect it might be difficult to find in the government-run grocery stores, the shelves of which were mostly empty.  Can non-government employees really cover the cost of repairing the architecturally un-sound buildings which are crumbling from the top down, when they’re earning $200-$400 CUC PER MONTH? 

It breaks your heart.

In hindsight, I wish I would’ve done a little more research before going, because I would’ve liked to have taken something to the locals (toothpaste and aspirin maybe).  

That said, we found the people to be happy.  And grateful to any foreigner who might help their economy in some small way.

We were told that after incident at the US Embassy there, most, if not all the Embassy workers have left.  I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before the country is closed to US visitors again.

 As we departed Havana, we lounged on the stern of the ship, smoking a cigar as we glided past El Morro, its lighthouse showing the way to the sea, and the lights of the city flickering to life.  

Cars on the Malecon honked as we left, I imagine not only to say “adios”, but to say, “thanks for stopping by”.