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Behind the Curtain: Essay published in the American Journal of Nursing

My latest essay, Behind the Curtain (.pdf) was published in the November 2016 issue of the American Journal of Nursing.  The Reflections essay appears each month inside the back cover of AJN, and features previously unpublished personal stories that explore health, health care or nursing.  The article is available online, will be included in their print edition, blog and social media.  The online article link at ajnonline.com is here.  I will make sure my print copies of the American Journal of Nursing magazine are casually yet prominently available for comment and admiration on my coffee table for your next visit.  

Even the Goats Have Sticks …

Last post from Slovenia - written after returning.  Thanks for following. "How do they harvest the grapes that are planted straight down those steep mountains?"  The wine cellar guide in Ptuj (pronounced Pit-tooey) looked at me like I had tasted one too many of their lovely wines.  "Well they just climb down and pick them." The day before on a loop ride out of Ptuj along the Drava River and into the Haloze wine region on the Croatian border, we had found ourselves at the top of some of these mountains with vineyards planted straight down the steep slopes.  I had stood at the top and looked down those almost vertical lines of grapes, so steep that I had held on to a grapevine with one hand and leaned out as far as I could, only to see the grape-laden vines disappear immediately from sight as they plummeted down the steep slope. As I stood hanging on at the top, I assumed the only way to pick the grapes was to anchor at the top with a rope and harness and essentially belay down.  So I asked the question again assuming she had not understood.  And she just laughed, "Oh no.  They just climb down and pick them.  They are used to it.  There is a saying in Slovenia - Even the goats have sticks." This was the end of a very interesting morning tour of the central wine cellar in the small medieval town of Ptuj in the northeast corner of Slovenia.  Wine has been produced here since the Romans, and consistently in the town for over 700 years when the local royalty chartered a monastery and charged them with wine-making. Since then the area has produced wine consistently, and is particularly known for its incredible white wines. We were touring the old Ptuj wine cellar,

Piran

"Sorry. Do you speak English?" This comes from one of three grungy and slightly odiferous young men sitting on a bench overlooking the Aegean Sea. "Do you like Rock music? We are a rock band from Estonia." We play rock and roll, blues guitar, Jimi Hendrix ... He hands me a CD with eighteen songs, one named "A Stairway to NO Heaven". "We wrote the songs ourselves." They are dividing their time trying to sell their CD's to everyone who walks by and watching the naked young woman swim in the clear waters of the sea below. The young woman is proving an effective distraction from commerce. They say they are selling these CD's to support their music tour around Europe, which will ultimately end in a show in Bulgaria. They are surprisingly persuasive, and I see people holding their CDs as they walk up and down the promenade of the ancient seaport town of Piran, Slovenia. They assure me that I can buy the CD for good karma, if not for the music. I have to admire their tenacity. But hauling everything on a bicycle has a way of making saying No easier ... Even to charming young rocker wanna-bes who assure me they will make it big and come to the States one day. Plus, sadly experience has taught me to be wary of charming people speaking perfect English with a grand tale to tell and a request for money ... Especially in a place that attracts tourists. There is no telling what's on that CD. I'm in Piran, Slovenia, a former walled city on the very tip of Slovenia on the Aegean Sea. The City was part of the Venetian sea empire for five hundred years, and the walls and cramped old city with winding streets and Venetian styled windows and

The Acceptable Price for Something Special

"Tree! Tree!"  I looked up and wiped the sweat out of my eyes. A little man was gesturing towards a lovely fig tree hanging over the road where Julie and I are standing in the shade, hanging our head and panting, trying to breathe again. He has watched us push our bikes up a hill so steep that it's taken all my effort to slowly creep up the winding road to our missed turn. Calves burning, feet slipping backwards, face bent almost horizontal to the ground with all my weight leaning into the bike to keep it moving slowly forward and up. We must have looked like we needed sustenance. Or a brain transplant. I was wondering what the heck we were doing up that skinny mountain road, too, and cursing the lack of good through bike routes in Slovenia. So we caught our breath and thanked our benefactor and had a snack from his fig tree before climbing back on the bike and heading down a dirt road back down the other side of the mountain. We were learning that those promising little white roads on our navigation app ... while usually gorgeous and scenic and interesting ... were also risky routes for planning bike rides. This was not the first time we were off the bike pushing up unspeakably steep hills. Or looking at a sketchy dirt path wondering if we dared follow the trail further or should admit defeat and try another route. Unfortunately for us, we are both stubborn and found ourselves pressing on more often than turning back.  The temperatures were nearly 90 degrees in the afternoons, leading to grumpy hallucinations of Slovenian road builders driving a truck to the top of hills and letting the asphalt roll down where gravity took it. Some of the climbs of the

Fences

"There is no end. There are no jobs here for Italians, much less for immigrants." Our Goritzia hotel clerk is visibly agitated as she quizzed us about the United States and tells us how she wants to move to America but can't find a job even though she travels there twice a year. She speculated that the biggest influence on Italy's liberal immigration policy was the Pope - especially this Pope who is so inclusive of everyone. But she says the people are angry. Then she asks us about Donald Trump - whose anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance and promises to build a wall between the US and Mexico has gotten the world's attention. We tell her we hope he does not become our President. We don't believe he will win. But I am not so sure she sees Trump as the same extremist we do. She has been living under a government that she blames for the immigration policies that she believes threaten her - and her country. She believes Italy has operated with the completely opposite philosophy and immigration policies that Trump touts, though my limited research into the asylum rules seems to indicate that asylum is dictated by European Union rules rather than Italian policies ... Though I'm sure the reality is more complicated. But regardless of the policies that actually govern asylum and immigration, it's clear that this woman finds them threatening to her way of life and she fears the consequences of more migrant immigration as her country becomes the gateway. It is also clear is that all of Europe is struggling under the weight of the exodus from North Africa of war and economic refugees that now fill their cities with different cultures and religions and dress and economic dependents. Immigrants come from Libya, Syria and other beleaguered countries

Divided City

The menu tonight has pasta. And goulash. And even goulash on pasta.  A typical menu at a typical restaurant here. Gorizia Italy is a true border town. It also lies in the heart of one of the most contested areas of Europe over the last century. The result is a cultural blend of Italian meets Austrian meets Balkan meets Slavic. Gorizia was the front lines of some of the bloodiest trench warfare of World War I - still called the Great War here unlike other countries when the atrocities of WWI were overshadowed by the horrors of WWII. This is where Earnest Hemingway drove the ambulance for Italy and was wounded, and wrote A Farewell to Arms about that bloody experience. It was here in Gorizia that the Italians managed to push the Austrian-Hungarian Empire back after years of trench warfare and successful invasion that almost reached Venice. And the town of Gorizia was the tipping point on the Italian front for victory near the end of the war. The Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI rewarded Italy with this former Austrian town that had been part of the Hapsburg empire ... along with other chunks of territory that reduced Austria to a relatively small, landlocked country. Italy lost over one million in that war. Slovenia was a subject state of the Austria and part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and many of the men who lived in this area were sent to the Eastern Front to fight Russia for Austria. The turmoil continued when the new State of Yugoslavia - including the country now known as Slovenia - was created and eventually became Communist under Tito, establishing a tense cold war border. The new communist government built a new city on the Communist side of Gorica at the edge of town called Nova

Diverted to Italy

Oh Italy.  There always seems to be a reason to go back.   This time, as I write this from Gemona, Italy in the North Eastern province of Fruila, we find ourselves here because, simply, we could not find a good route via bike through Slovenia's Julian Alps with our heavy loaded touring bikes.  The leg-wrecking alpine passes with their multiple switchbacks and 15% grades seemed stupid to attempt at the beginning of a long ride, regardless of how tempting they might be on my super-light Orbea unburdened by panniers stuffed with gear.  And the mountain bike trails offered challenges for Julie's skinnier tires. So, after riding 70km northeast from Ljubliana to the Slovenian resort town of Bled in the Julian Alps and spending a day taking in the Bled Triathlon, we headed north again to the valley on the border of Slovenia and Austria and caught the gorgeous international bike trail through the Alps into Italy. The cycling has been gorgeous - though challenging.  The mountains are spectacular.  Wildflowers line green valleys and grey granite peaks pierce the blue sky.

Squat

The thin, long-haired young man stopped his skateboard and spoke with Julie while I photographed a red mural that was painted on an abandoned building by the river.  "You should go to Metelkova," he said.  He handed us a glossy postcard of the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum.  "It's only 15 minute walk. "  Then he looked at me, "There is lots of graffiti there." That got my attention.  I love street art if it is intelligent.  Graffiti and murals tell stories.  They can say more about a culture - and its less promoted counterculture - than any museum or tour.  Plus ... I love photographing those colors and the contrast of bright paint scrawled on pompous or boringly functional buildings. The next morning, our geeky tourist maps in hand, we set off north along the maze of streets and eventually found what Ljubljana locals describe as a "City within a City", rows of art-covered walls and sculpture and graffiti sprawling across several blocks and unmistakably our destination. Metelkova is one of the largest squats in Europe.  It is a sprawl of old army barracks and a former prison that were taken over as housing after Slovenian Independence in 1991 when artists moved in to the vacant buildings and started their own community.  The city did not - and still does not - like them.  They are tolerated however - perhaps because people here seem to hold the area as a special place which may be a product of the decades of socialism under Tito and the spirit of a brand new democracy. They have turned their entire community into a creative haven for alternative artists.   Today, over twenty years after moving into those abandoned buildings, they still squat and live there live there rent and tax free.  Metelkova has become accepted enough now by the

Transformations …

Another personal essay published February 23 on Curetoday.com.  Even though cancer treatment is behind me ... hopefully forever ... I've learned that sharing my story and voicing many of those feelings and fears that cancer patients know is truly helpful for others and healing for me.  So I've begun sharing and writing about my treatment based on journal entries that have remained private until now.   I watched the warm water rinse away the long hair that clung between my fingers and wrapped around my hands and wrists. I ran my hands through hair and rinsed away the hair again. And again. And again. It was time. My oncology nurse had prepared me for this moment. “I will bet my last paycheck you will lose your hair”, he said. “Make sure you procure protection for your head from the cold and sun.” Which was good advice. Hair turns out to be surprisingly practical. But his advice didn’t touch my worst fears. My hair was soft and fine and honey blonde. Now that beautiful hair would be gone, replaced by the scarves and hats that are a symbol of sickness. My bald head would scream “CANCER” like a neon sign, flashing “Sick person, right here”. Strangers would look at me and see a disease. But I wasn’t a diseased sick person. I was healthy and strong and fit and capable and attractive. At least I was until this breast cancer came out of nowhere. I hated the idea of the world seeing anything else. A request to my friends yielded a cascade of gift certificates and hats and scarves. A trip to the wig shop became an adventure as we tried on dozens of wigs. And as we laughed and experimented it occurred to me that I could become anyone I wanted. Perhaps a platinum blonde Marilyn Monroe? Or sexy

Mobile Mardi Gras

Mobile, Alabama is home to (arguably) the country's first Mardi Gras.  They have been parading and celebrating for over 150 years.  Think of the Mobile's Mardi Gras as a more "family friendly" version of New Orlean's notorious party - the kind your mother will enjoy, too.  The last two years I've visited Mobile with my Mom and attended some of the Mardi Gras parades.  I've loved the spirit of fun ... everyone is smiling and playing.  Great music.  Fying Moonpies.  Tons of throws.  Festive hats.  All walks of Mobile Society are out and about together. This celebration of culture and traditions is special. I'm sharing some photos from attending two parades this year on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday and LundiGras in February 2016.   More photos from 2015 Mardi Gras are in the photo galleries link.  If you want to learn more about Mobile's fabulous celebration, check out the Mobile Mask.

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