Saturday, June 3, 2017

Near Home

One of the many perks of my marriage is the right to a once- a- month reservation at  “The Property,” her family’s house on Galveston Bay.  An hour from Houston, and a long way from its hustle and bustle, the house offers ample space for holiday reunions and a site for solitary idylls for the rest of the year.  I write with the Memorial Day get together fresh in my mind.

In the early 1970s my wife’s parents located the site and built a house with an unoccluded view of the west bay and adjoining marshlands, a glorious prospect, especially at sunset.  Upon their deaths the deed passed to their four children, who equally share rights and responsibilities. The original house was severely damaged by Hurricane Ike, so much so that rebuilding seemed preferable to reconstruction. My brother-in-law, a talented designer, oversaw the project, making it larger and more hurricane resistant and incorporating a number of improvements to the original floor plan.  One of the many first cousins did the construction. So now we have great views and deluxe accommodations, and the cousin has a chunk of change.

Photographs taken over the years document changes to the marsh and to the neighborhood. Like a receding hairline, the marsh has slowly lost ground to the bay.  A futile attempt to impede erosion left behind undulating segments of a breakwater fashioned from a cloth-lined tube stuffed with earth.  Birds and intrepid anglers sometimes perch on its slippery surface. The spit of land that includes The Property has seen subdivision of some of the original lots and increasingly dense occupation, with one fortuitous exception.  A prosperous neighbor to our east bought and leveled a house that once stood between our property and his. This provides us additional privacy as the prosperous neighbor is seldom in residence.

In an elegantly written  history he calls The Gulf, Jack Davis recounts human depredations of marine resources in the "fishy sea."  We have played bit parts. Twenty years ago family weekends always began by laying crab traps in shallow water.  Sometimes we dragged the bay bottom with a twenty foot net deployed over the side of our power boat.  The haul, not always carefully culled for juveniles and females, filled our plates.  But our improvidence contributed to a sharp decline in the crab population, and the onset of old age has diminished our zest for fishing.  We no longer own a powerboat, and our kayaks often rest peacefully in the garage. Luckily a seafood market has located nearby, and my wife and in laws are excellent chefs.  The holiday routine revolves around cooking, eating, drinking and getting ready to repeat the cycle.

An interest in birdlife has offset our decline as watermen.  On the bay brown pelicans, black skimmers, laughing gulls, and several species of terns demonstrate their hunting skills.  Skimmers, as their name implies, fly close to the water, their lower mandibles extended just below the surface to vacuum up small fish. Pelicans and terns dive from the sky, the former making a loud splash, to capture prey from above and then swallow it whole.  We are sometimes lucky enough to see osprey, an eagle whose technique is to snatch fish near the water surface before butchering them on a safe perch.  Gulls scavenge, grabbing flotsam from the water, pestering hunters for part of their catch, or demonstrating remarkable aerobatics chasing bits thrown into the air by our delighted nieces.

Marshlands provide cover for shier, less agile fliers.  Herons and egrets wade through the shallow water searching for fish and crustaceans that they spear with their long, sharp beaks.  My wife and I recently saw a giant blue heron with a large, wiggling snake at the end of its bill. Roseate spoonbills are unmistakable in their deep pink plumage, especially striking during mating season, and their characteristic feeding behavior, swinging spatulated bills back and forth to capture small animals and insects from the shallow water.  Birds heard but unseen include the American bittern and the Clapper rail, the latter prized by our expert bird watching friends.

Galveston Island, although small, low, and close to the Texas mainland is an important stopover on the biennial bird migration to and from the neotropics.  Two years ago we witnessed what birders call a “fall out.” Songbirds had exhausted their energy reserves flying across the 650 mile-wide Gulf of Mexico, and the headwinds from cold front forced them to land abruptly. Baltimore orioles, Prothonotary warblers, painted and indigo buntings, ruby throated humming birds, arriving in singles and pairs, dropped almost simultaneously one afternoon and immediately grazed watered lawns and oleander hedges.  It’s hard to conceal bright orange, indigo, and red against brown and light green cover, so the birds moved in plain sight.  They sucked up nourishment and hydration as we looked on in delight. But it was only a pit stop; the next day none remained.  

We anxiously await another fall out at The Property.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

In Africa

At the time of our marriage in 1975 my wife and I “signed” a pre-nup.  We agreed to have children and to go to Africa.  The children came along in due time, and after forty-one years together, we completed our vows with a trip to Kenya and Tanzania.

No thanks to me, the planning went very smoothly.  Somehow I contacted an outfit styling itself TrueAfrica.  I thought that I had gotten their recommendation from a friend who had recently visited Botswana, but no.  Well, perhaps from my sister-in-law, a world traveling physician, not her, either.  I must have imagined or dreamed up TrueAfrica.  But whatever fates placed us in their hands, we were blessed with everything we hoped the trip would be.

Traveling to Africa requires a lot of sitting in airplanes.  At this time no US-flagged carrier flies non-stop to east African destinations.  Our choices required a flight to a European capital and subsequent travel to former colonial regions.  We chose BritishAir, Houston to London and London to Nairobi. Two months after the trip I remember nothing of our time in the air; memories begin at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

We arrived at 10:45PM and retrieved our luggage at midnight.  Airport infrastructure, at least the baggage handlers, could not manage the near simultaneous arrival of two international flights.  As we stood around, we met a number of our fellow passengers—a couple of Londoners on their honeymoon, a 30-year British expat returning to Kenya after visiting relatives in England, and a 40-something man who became so distressed with waiting that he had a Trump-like tantrum, yelling at the baggage handlers and cursing Kenya in general as a disorganized, third class country.  Our greatest worry was that the long delay might have complicated our transit to the Nairobi hotel.  Lucky for us Kenyans have first class patience.

The Fairview is a lovely place, built at what was the edge of Nairobi in the 1940s.  Much has changed in seventy years, and now the property sits smack dab in the middle of a gated community that also houses several embassies.  Security is tight.  We passed an armed guard at the hotel gate and a baggage scanner before check in.  In anticipation of President Obama’s visit in 2015, the authorities installed surveillance cameras, similar to those all over the British Isles, to record street traffic.  We inadvertently tested security the next day as we walked through the hotel gardens.  A path that promised a panorama took us to a position with a view of the garden and the hotel. Across the street rose a high wall with Kenyan soldiers patrolling its perimeter.  My wife noticed a sentry post on the wall itself, manned by a soldier of clearly un-Kenyan nationality.  She waved.  Rather than returning her friendly gesture, the soldier pointed and scowled.  Almost instantly, a man in a suit hurried up behind us.  He introduced himself as the hotel security chief and told us to return to the garden.  Turns out that we had gazed into the Israeli embassy compound.

Later in the day the hotel arranged a taxi ride to the Kenyan National Museum, our only tourist foray into Nairobi. The museum holds a well curated display of the country’s history from pre-colonial times to the present, sprinkled with skeletons and taxidermied bodies of the country’s celebrated wildlife.  The ride back to the hotel displayed the capital’s not-so-famous rush hour traffic.  Automobiles mixed it up with motorcycles, pedicabs and pedestrians. My wife and I agreed that Nairobi’s drivers are even less observant of rules of the road than their Latin American counterparts.  The Fairview welcomed us back with an early dinner and a comfortable bed.

Our flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro International Airport, just across the Tanzanian border, took us to the east of the majestic mountain of the same name.  The view from the plane would be our only glimpse of the peak.  Clouds occlude the summit for 300 days of the year, and our day at Hatari Lodge was not among the favored sixty-five.  Hatari (“danger” in Swahili) was the title of a movie filmed in the locale in 1962.  Howard Hawks directed and John Wayne starred, but more important for the future of the lodge was the appearance of the German actor, Hardy Kruger, in a supporting role.  The beauty of the area so impressed Kruger that he purchased land used in the filming and attempted to attract German tourists until newly independent Tanzania imposed laws discouraging foreign involvement in the national economy.  While the property offers fine accommodations and an open park that attracts game—we saw zebras, cape buffaloes and a pair of giraffes—its charm pales against that of the Tanzanian game reserves and national parks that we would see in the days to come.

To cover our wide-ranging itinerary, we made several short hops in single engine aircraft.  The first, Arusha to Kuro (Tarangire) had a pilot who spoke with a Castillian accent.  He looked so young that one of our fellow passengers asked how long he had been flying.  I was thinking “Tanzian Foreign Legion Air Corps.”  But Luis, from Madrid, proved older than his looks and had flown several years for Air Excel.

Tarangire National Park is justly famous for its large elephant population.  The park includes a large marsh that attracts animals when other water sources disappear. Although we saw elephants everywhere we went, the view of more than 100 in a single location was unforgettable. We also saw our first lions in Tarangire.  A pride of four females devoured a cape buffalo as we watched from our open Toyota Landcruiser.  We were so close, too close for my comfort, initially, that we could hear the lionesses crunching the bones of their kill.  As long as we did not leave our seats, the beasts apparently saw us and the vehicle as an unthreatening background.

In her pre trip research, my wife identified a site off the safari track.  The Kondoa rock paintings document ancient human occupation in east Africa.  Mary Leakey described the paintings in a book published in the 1940s, and more recently UNESCO has declared them a World Heritage Site.  To our request, the tour operator responded that no one had asked to visit Kondoa before.  That should have signaled hatari, but with our intrepid driver, we set off on the “highway” south.  Turns out that despite its cultural importance, Kondoa is rarely visited, and we discovered why.  The track to the paintings is steep, rocky, and gullied.  Only by the grace of the high-clearance, four wheel drive Landcruiser did we reach a parking lot.  Just who did the art, its significance and its dating are yet to be determined.  But clear to anyone with eyes and an imagination, the paintings show two dimensional representations of humans and prey animals—buffalo and giraffe.  I expect that the next time that tourists utter “Kondoa,” the True Africa folks will reference our experience and suggest that they reconsider.

From this point on everything—the fabulous Ngorongoro Crater, the giraffe colony near the Dunia Camp, waiting in vain for the Wildebeests to cross the Mara River (but seeing them framed in a double rainbow), and the single cheetah followed by a dozen tourist vehicles—went by like a dream.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


The symptoms were flu-like, high temperature and chills.  My impulse was to ride it out, but when the thermometer read 104, my wife drove me to the emergency room late on a Friday afternoon.  Thus I entered the world of medicine, a landscape similar to that of some distant planet.

My experience with emergency rooms was limited to visiting my mother at a downtown Los Angeles hospital near the end of her life.  That one was secured by a uniformed policeman cum sidearm and a metal detector. This one lacked any visible security, but this is Texas, and everyone present may have carried a concealed weapon.  Emergency rooms are all about triage.  A clerk, phlebotomists, nurses, and, finally, a physician gave interviews with annoyingly-repetitious questions (what are your symptoms; when did they begin; are you taking any prescription medications?), listened with stethoscopes (“take a deep breath”), poked and drew blood.  About an hour after we walked in the door, my wife and I were ushered into an examination room where the poking and questioning began anew. Isn’t this redundancy what sharing digital information is supposed to make obsolete?   Finally a nurse terminated the examination and inserted an antibiotic drip. Then we waited, me on a gurney, my wife in a chair. 

Sometime around 3AM, my wife crawled onto the gurney with me.  She had finally reached the end of her heroic endurance, and she was cold.  By this time the antibiotics and extra strength Tylenol were reducing my symptoms.  The fever broke, and a nurse was on the point of releasing me when she witnessed my very shaky walk to the rest room.  I toddled back to the gurney with her aid.  Soon the fever returned as did the antibiotic drip. Tests would reveal that I had contracted something called streptococcus maitis, from a bacterium that resides in the mouth.  I had made myself sick brushing my teeth.

Diagnosis in hand, I was admitted to the hospital.  An orderly issued a hospital gown, socks with nonslip soles, a bed pan, towels and washcloths.  I felt like a GI starting boot camp.  Then a nurse assigned me a room and hooked up an IV pump that administered antibiotics and a saline solution.  Over the course of my stay eight nurses (Jo Jo, Michael, Florence (twice), Rachael, John, Michelle and LaVell) attended me day and night, taking vital signs, refreshing medications, asking for my name and date of birth. Their irritating care and the medication quickly reduced my symptoms and raised my hopes for an early dismissal. I received visitors and read novels for the rest of the weekend.

On Monday physicians began their rounds.  First among them was the infectious diseases specialist who had prepared my wife and me for our upcoming trip to Africa.  After going over my chart, he asked if we had altered our plans.  What he really meant was that, despite my protests, he intended to do whatever he could to convince us to postpone the trip.  In the end, and after getting the same advice from the resident overseeing my hospitalization, our primary care physician, and my sister-in-law, the pediatrician, I gave in.  Apparently, if not completely eradicated, the maitis bacterium can cluster on a heart valve and cause serious pumping problems.

The next evening, as I lay in bed, a technician installed a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter), a thin, flexible tube threaded through a vein on my upper arm into a ventricle.  This allowed direct delivery of medication to the heart from syringes supplied by UPS.  The next day I was free to go, but not before signing a half ream of forms authorizing release of medical records, acknowledging that I understood the nature of my illness (a stretch) and promising to be good (what choice did I have?).

Once at home, I began a regimen of antibiotics administered through the PICC.  Every day at 11AM sharp my wife used syringes to push medicine and anticoagulants into my chest cavity.  This lasted a month and, apparently, did the job.  To mark the end of treatment, a nurse removed the syringe connection and pulled out the tube.  Therapy ended; billing began.

As a seventy-year-old and a retired academic, the cost of treatment and hospitalization did not affect my financial health.  But trying to deconstruct the billing documents has been migraine-inducing.  There are lines detailing services and costs followed by lines for Medicare, Medicare deductable, sequester adjustment, and finally “Amount You May Owe Provider.”  Some of the numbers are enormous, but through an inscrutable arithmetic, the bottom line is nearly always $0.00.  It is this system that Mr. Trump wants to disrupt; it gives me chills (and fever).