Above: On the wall behind me is an artist’s impression of a pianist tickling the ivories next to a photo of my father performing in a big band during the 1940s. I once played Mozart for Louis Armstrong.
Once upon a time, I rushed to create new posts each week on this website to increase the number of visitors it receives. The idea was to create anticipation for the book everyone is waiting for.
Well, last week some stupid shit hit the fan, and I’ve been spending a good amount of time and effort wiping it off my psyche. This spurred the realization that each consequential distraction interrupts the focused madness necessary to writing a complete book.
(You can anticipate what’s coming next, right?
Well, congratulations.) This website is going on hiatus for a little while.
Don’t be sad. If you want a further taste of who I am, peruse this website. A tribute to Danawa Buchanan can be found, a cross-country journey with a CHECK ENGINE light may humor you, and how my immigrant father emigrated here cum laude after arriving 101 years ago should comfort subsequent immigrants.
For those who are HBO subscribers, be sure to catch this week’s episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. (I once worked as a proofreader for The Miami Herald and later became a TV-radio writer for the Miami News.)
Oliver’s 25-minute complaint about bumbling coronavirus strategy is humorous enough, but wait until he moves on to the Sunshine State, entitled “Even during a pandemic, Florida just can’t help but be Florida.”
Oliver relays news accounts of Florida lawyers showing up for a virtual hearing wearing – nothing?!!! Our wacky host shows video of a manatee and alligator not practicing “social distancing,” and finally we learn about WWE – an outrageous wrestling simulation – being declared “an essential business.”
After a hilarious jab at my former home comes the “snapper to the capper,” a tribute devoted to the feline lover, called “Cat TV.” Those ubiquitous pets of ours are highlighted in a segment creatively hosted by TV and movie star Martin Sheen. Just to recognize their quirky behavior takes us away from this challenging time in American history.
So enjoy that part of the show. And this friendly TV viewing tip is meant to let you know I’m furiously working on the book. This time in personal history is an opportunity to capture memories that mean something.
The photograph above is the last image taken of Alice McCormick, and I am the lucky guy who took this picture. Alice and I were on the verge of returning home from the north side of Vancouver, Washington, where we “scored” a large package of Kirkland toilet paper during Costco’s senior shopping time. Twenty-four rolls, oh boy!
On the drive back home, Alice must have been musing about something, because she was notably silent. And once we sat down in the living room, she asked me to promise something. As I think about it now, I wonder if Alice knew she was close to leaving this gray-green planet.
“Mason, I need you to promise me something,” Alice began.
“Oh sure,” I responded. “What is it?”
“Mason, I want you to promise me that you’ll start writing again,” Alice said seriously.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve stopped [rideshare] driving. That means I have the time to do it.”
Alice looked into my eyes, and said, “Promise me.”
I mulled it over for less than five seconds, and muttered, “Yes, I’ll go back to my writing.”
Alice nodded to show her satisfaction, stood up, and went into the kitchen to put our Costco goodies away.
(Alice managed me so much that I was left few tasks in which to reciprocate. She simply wanted to witness me make a bona fide attempt before she took over.)
I look at the featured picture above and wonder what Alice was thinking about. In the almost 10 years living together, Alice was consistently good at concealing some pretty serious things.
I have no clue what Alice knew on the eve the day before I found her body wearing a faraway, wistful expression. (Alice would wake up early each morning to putz around the kitchen, cuddle the cat, open the blinds and gaze at the nearly 1,000-foot-high hill north of our development before coming back to bed.)
And now, I know I must write, I cannot screw around, I must make good to my promise, because Alice is all around, watching and guiding me. Dammit, I’ve already written one book, got it published, chronicled some major bands in concert (the Marshall Tucker Band, Heart, Norah Jones, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen), and won the heart of Alice McCormick, a remarkable denizen of a historic Pennsylvania town known as Doylestown.
My grandmother was a librarian, my mother was an English teacher and my father was a professional musician.
I went to private school in Princeton, N.J., and do I have a tale to tell about being there! Imagine a boy from Miami thrust into an environment where Albert Einstein was known to stroll, and being schooled with fewer than 8 children per teacher.
Twenty years later, the managing editor, Gloria Brown Anderson, at the Miami News increased my workload until I had to drop out of Florida International University in the late 1970s. Anderson justified this tactic by confessing she did not want to have an unknown scholar destroy a “natural gift.”
In 2002, I wrote a book: Gulag to Rhapsody: A Survivor’s Journey, for Paul Tarko, who was imprisoned in the same Soviet workcamp later occupied by noted Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. (After a literary agent showed interest, Tarko decided to self-publish.)
After promoting the book in Hartford, Connecticut, I discovered the Pennsylvania borough of Doylestown (30 miles south of Princeton), where I met Alice McCormick, although, in fairness, I say she met me. I have never been loved by anyone so unabashedly, so flagrantly, so wholeheartedly and so fairly. Yes, Kailey, you’re right, Alice was amazing!
So give a lot of credit to Alice for this decrepit creature I am becoming again. Every time I sit down to write something new, I’m fulfilling my promise to Alice. What comes from these slender fingers dancing over the computer keyboard is a celebration to that long-legged lady. Each phrase is a commitment, revisited over and over, checked and re-checked for readable style.
But here’s the amazing part: Alice made me a promise eight years ago. She said that when she disappears to an unnamed place, I would find a hidden message inside something I used, but a place where I seldom looked. She giggled when she told me.
Three days ago, in the top drawer of a small bureau in my writer’s office, where Alice had commandeered some of her possessions, I came across a Post-it note written by Alice, written on Dec. 22, 2011, approximately three months after our commitment ceremony:
I am honor-bound to follow up what I promised. Alice is all around me.
I have begun the book.
Members of the Aphasia Network created a GoFundMe page to support me during the time ahead. To see their message and hopefully donate, follow this link Alice was amazing
There’s no easy way to view the end of another being’s last breaths. Nevertheless, in providing hospice care, we fulfill our responsibilities.
Alice and I drove Millie, ever complaining about our Ford Escape’s motion, to
Cowlitz Animal Clinic, here in Longview, Washington. The well-regarded clinic sits on a wide
commercially zoned highway with little weekend traffic. Because it was Saturday, we appeared to have
the clinic almost entirely to ourselves.
history here: A month before we moved to Longview, Millie disappeared from our
cramped Somerset West (Portland) apartment for 17 days. Somehow, our tabby feline was found by a
respectable homeowner more than a mile away, a fortuitous happening.
uneventful months with us in Longview, where we kept her indoors (and to our
neighbors’ delight) Alice walked the cat several times a week outside on a
leash, Millie was deemed to have diabetes.
Skeptical about treating her with daily insulin shots and frequent
bloodwork; Millie was already down to skin and bones. Less than six weeks later, even after
changing her diet from Meow Mix to Iams, she was on the doorstep of wasting
away — literally.
This visit to
the clinic was made tolerable by a sensitive doctor of veterinary medicine,
Kayleen McLain, who shared a professional sense of grief with us, especially
while trying to find a vein — any vein — to administer the needed dosage to
send Millie away to a permanent dreamland.
some as we said goodbye to her spirit, but found comfort once we noticed the
serene look as she passed over. We did
not mourn long, because doing so would hinder Millie’s journey to “the
I once read
that bonding with an animal comes with a limited contract: One of you will go
before the other. After that, life goes
probably why, at the moment we returned home, Alice cleaned up Millie’s area
from visible memorabilia. Today, Alice
is gardening outside, watching for hummingbirds, working up a sweat, and
encouraging new life.
Millie was a
great companion. We dare not weep,
because we would be crying only for our loss.
We will not be selfish.
Thanksgiving is a time when one is supposed to feel grateful. This year, though, I believe my gratitude is far more abundant than at any other time in my life.
One particular cause of such supreme gratitude is our condominium unit and the community we now live in. Alice and I thank my cousins, Margaret Johnston and Carolyn & Jeff Levin, for investing in our vision, transforming us into stewards of a beautiful property overlooking the mountains of Washington. If it were not for them, our place would not be as spectacular as the view.
24-unit condo community with a view
Take a peek outside my second-floor writer’s office window. That’s one of several mountain ridges in the distance where a few developments punctuate the landscape. Frequent rain events during the fall/winter obscure their top-of-the-mountain view more than ours, which encourages a certain personal, snobbish feeling of superiority. And during an occasional burst of heat during the summer, a smaller ridge to the southwest shades our valley community an hour before dusk.
Inside the Loika/McCormick home
Our living room has become an audiophile’s wet dream. The television is mounted on the wall and the audio connected to my Bose surround-sound system. Before we moved in, Reid Rasmusson, a local Longview painter and stalwart resident who has knowledge of our building’s architectural history, applied several coats of paint to the entire apartment. What stands out is how Alice directed Reid to reinvent a cranberry-red wall into a more-aesthetically pleasing olive-brown accentuation to an artistically constructed fireplace. An added attraction, thanks to Bose: the acoustics are outstanding.
Therefore, one wouldn’t blame Alice for reclining on our six-month-old sofa toward the entertainment center. But that’s not her usual position. Alice lies in the opposite direction, sharing my outside view, but the downstairs window position aligns her 6-foot frame next to a riot of greenery. Already, Alice is adding her creative touch to the outside backyard.
(Our cat, Millie, complains loudly every day of wanting to go outside and explore. But we hear that bobcats, cougars and coyotes prowl about, so we admonish Millie for expressing reckless desires and keep her inside.)
After Reid finished painting, the carpet people showed up to execute our carpet and flooring plan. Every old piece of carpet was discarded in favor of a tan-colored replacement, with a luxurious feel and look we enjoy today. The carpet installers were finishing up barely moments before our movers were scheduled to arrive. The movers? That’s a different story, and a future post will detail the story of that near-disaster.
One particular view of the upstairs railing reveals light shining through the upstairs bathroom. (We have 1½ bathrooms, by the way.) That’s sunglare coming through the bathroom skylight. That’s cool, isn’t it? A skylight for the bathroom? Oh yeah, try to get that in a condo in Portland!
A feeling of community
Our digs are so splendoriferous that I hesitate to include the generosity of spirit from our neighbors. Nevertheless, I’m dutybound to report our next-door neighbors meet two criteria: quality and congeniality. Terry and Carole Sumrall introduced us to a restaurant they favor: Fiesta Bonita Mexican Grill and Cantina. Of course, our journey turned out to be a late afternoon on Halloween, so the tradition in town conjured up a wannabe for the Village People instead of a waitperson.
Other neighbors are equally generous with their time and talents. Already, Longview is full of revelations, and the history of this town is worthy of more national attention than it gets. This is a true community, and my future writing here may reveal what I call “living in a Gentile kibbutz.” I only wish I didn’t have to drive to Portland to buy whitefish salad, a proper bagel and latkes. Or cheese blintzes! A full story about Longview, Washington will appear in a future post, or perhaps be contained in the book I committed to when moving West.
Teri’s Restaurant is what’s happening
The photo at the top of this post was taken by one of the employees at Teri’s Restaurant in our newly adopted hometown. Besides a continuous dedication to provide restaurant fare a cut above the standard, Teri’s is a hubbub for local musicians and their groupies. (No age requirement to become a groupie.) We met a dean from Lower Columbia College (in Longview, naturally) who got on one knee in front of us to encourage Alice to return to work for child care. How is that for a welcome?
A quick apology
Please excuse the delay in getting this post written. There were plenty of chores for me to take care of, not to mention the time I wasted while being hooked on DishTV during this college football season. Yes, I am still functioning, sometimes badly, on the aftermath and life after a bladder removal surgery.
But I am far more than just alive, and I’m married to an Amazon woman who sets a pretty high standard for how she looks after me. That’s why every time she allows herself a genuine smile, my heart continues to go pitter-patter.
Dr. Seuss said, “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep, because reality is finally better than your dreams.”
As Alice and I prepare to celebrate Christmas Eve with my cousin Margaret Johnston, here’s a Christmas tale of good fortune and considerable divine providence to share:
On Monday morning, Dec. 12, after having my bladder and prostate removed, I met with surgeon urologist, Dr. Daniel Janoff. When Janoff walked into my patient room, he looked directly at me, beamed and uttered two words summarizing my pathology report: “Completely cured!”
Omigod! Am I hearing correctly? Then, like a proper surgeon, he muttered, “Well, unless something microscopic gets through.”
That’s as good as it gets, and the insurance I bought into by undergoing major surgery seems to be worth this post-procedure pain and rigmarole.
Cancer Affects Everyone Differently
The elation I allow myself to feel adds to the joy of this 2016 holiday season and causes me to count my blessings. How many cancer sufferers endure the diagnosis of a malignant body part without years of heartache, excruciating pain and mind-numbing self-doubt? For many of them, they’re always looking over their shoulder dreading the day when it’s confirmed that cancer has made its way into other vital organs.
On the other hand, what are the ramifications to a cancer patient when he or she loses a reproductive organ?
At an art exhibit opening in Bucks County, I once became attracted to someone related to one of the most famous show-business families in America. We were so instantaneously enraptured that we began making out passionately on the second floor of the Lambertville, NJ gallery next to the Delaware River, in full view of everyone there, and I entreated her to see me again.
Upon calling her for the first time, though, she expressed inconsolable shame at having contracted ovarian cancer, saying she was no longer a real woman because her ovaries were being surgically removed. She asked that I never call her again, and hung up the phone. What horrible expectations some of us have while fighting cancer!
Other friends and relatives have faced the “Big C” diagnosis with far worse implications and over a far-longer period of time. Therefore, it makes sense for me to be stoic about sacrificing certain body parts. After 73 years of life in this state of consciousness, I rationalize that some organs can be regarded as irrelevant. Considering I was diagnosed with “high-grade” cancer – somewhere between Stage 3 and Stage 4 – this was no time to play coy with life choices.
Earlier This Year
My cancer ordeal started in March, after Providence primary care provider, Dr. Mathew Snodgrass, confirmed another in what was a series of urinary tract infections. He referred me to Dr. Janoff, a master urologist/surgeon. Janoff, one of the busiest surgeons I ever met, ordered a CT scan, and in May diagnosed my urinary problems as being caused by bladder cancer.
The wicked carcinoma, he said, was caused by the chemical additives U.S. cigarette manufacturers put into their products to enhance addiction. Throughout life, I always concerned myself with lung cancer. But bladder cancer? No way, I thought!
That’s why I recoil whenever I see anyone smoking a cigarette, and I retreat as far as I can get from the sweet seductive scent of tobacco smoke.
Looking back, I am grateful. My ordeal lasted only nine months. How many other cancer sufferers can say the same? My late uncle underwent years of deteriorating health from Lou Gehrig’s disease. How can I put my health challenges on the same plane as his?
I am one lucky guy.
Janoff recommended that before surgery, I undergo four rounds of chemotherapy, and oncologist Dr. Daniel Gruenberg at Compass Oncology kept an eagle eye on my changing blood work.
Three-and-a-half months of intense chemotherapy – consisting of Cisplatin and Gemzar – followed in July through early October at Compass’s location adjacent to Providence St. Vincent Hospital. When my white blood cell count dropped precipitously in September, an injection targeted my bone marrow to precipitate increased white cell formation. The stratagem – although quite painful days later – worked, enabling me to finish the course of treatment.
The surgery followed, and its results are now a matter of record.
Alice has been my confidante and partner throughout, although she would have preferred to see if cannabis oil alone would cause me to turn the corner. I decided otherwise, and she shares this victory without mollycoddling me through the rehabilitation process.
The future ahead, she declares, lies in writing my own book, and she asks that I focus more on such an effort. She is right, because we cannot continue our lives without seeking some semblance of adequate compensation for my creative work.
But on the eve of another Christmas Day, it’s time to spread some holiday cheer with my personal accomplishment. It’s no accident that Hanukkah begins on Christmas Eve this year so whatever Jewish blood I inherited simultaneously shares season’s greetings with Christianity everywhere.
Take a good look at the photo above. In 2002, I wrote and co-published my first book, Gulag to Rhapsody by Paul Tarko, and appeared with Paul at book signings. My name appears on its cover below his, because Paul Tarko’s life mirrors an ideal protagonist for my narrative nonfiction account entailing more than 300 printed pages.
Because my father, who took his life when I was 16, had an honorable lineage in Hungary, writing about Paul – 43 years later – reconnected me with my Hungarian/Romanian heritage.
The picture above is apropos, because my purpose in Oregon is to reappear in a similarly posed photo – this time, alone. Alice brought me here to write another book – this time, about my own life. “Write what you know best,” I once was coached by a writing instructor. My life is what I know best; accordingly, I am destined to be its sole author.
I am here at the behest of Alice McCormick, who shed tears upon reading my early poetry, calling me a good writer. Considering how writers/authors must endure a modest existence as part of their nature, I need to use my new location well.
Throughout all our struggles, Alice sees the best in precarious situations, and this attitude tempers my dark depression when it comes to our finances. Whether it’s blissful unawareness or an unwillingness to comprehend simple math, she answers frequent moods of bottom-line depression with the kneejerk retort, “Well, everyone is in debt.”
I find her logic difficult to refute. Her steady, rosy attitude snaps me out of darkness, because I am forced to dampen a torrent of fierce impatience. Brightening my mood remains a constant challenge for her.
Sometimes, I make her laugh. Other times, I frustrate her and exasperation leads into loquaciousness; on occasion, she expresses an emotional soliloquy without the usual speech aphasia frustrations from her stroke in March. Whenever she appears to take one step back, she advances two steps. And I rejoice!
I unintentionally piss her off for such breakthroughs to occur. But I fervently wish our exchanges would not be so tempestuous, because emotionally they’re hard on me.
The last five weeks were a challenge. I spent five days a week as an Uber driver beating the bushes for passengers in Portland, and at times its well-publicized phenomenon appeared to be slacking off. Uber continues to seek more drivers, diluting demand; in its defense the “ride-sharing” service is also lowering the wait time for passengers who order its transportation on their smartphones.
The influx of revenue has enabled us to build up the required security deposit to move to an affordable apartment with a year-long lease. And last week, I secured the funds to hire someone to move our possessions.
These added resources come with a heavy price, though. Most days I am no longer home to work with Alice on speech exercises, so her path forward becomes lonely and treacherous. She misses our camaraderie and stays to herself.
Creator gave me Alice. Every time I get too full of myself, she brings me back down to size. My head often gets too big for such a fragile body, so it seems like it’s her mission to make my personality tolerable.
Alice brought me to Oregon with a purpose: She would work in childcare, and I would write my next book. Two weeks ago, the Hillsboro manager of KinderCare gave Alice a regular two-hour-a-day morning shift five days a week, and she began managing the babies and infants there with playful enthusiasm.
We are trying to lessen how much I drive, so I can be here to support Alice’s recovery while renewing a regular daily writing schedule. There is much work to do to create a book about myself and my family background. The pages on this website entitled “Virgil’s Story” are a sample of what is to appear in print.
In early August, Alice received a financial token of support from her best friend to help us. We acknowledge the feelings expressed, and we promise to keep moving forward.
I have a working title for the book, which has been shared with only a few. My close confidantes express support for the project, but it’s up to me to write the book and get a prospective publisher excited.
I wish I could wave a magic wand and proceed with the confidence that comes with following a well-traveled plan of action. But every day offers a new challenge, so both of us keep putting one foot in front of the other.
For the next couple weeks, this website will not be updated until our move to new digs is complete and Internet service reestablished. Stay tuned.
After a post headed “Alice Is Out of Work” written ten days ago, darkness enveloped me. Everything seemed bleak, hence our GoFundMe post.
Ten days since, light surrounds us, and I am ready to remove the GoFundMe appeal.
GoFundMe post brings contribution
To bring you up to date, an almost immediate response to our cry for help came from a dear friend in Bucks County who gave a $200 contribution. Alice and I are overwhelmed by his generosity, and plan to respond in kind by writing a firsthand account of nearby pinot noir wineries.
Writing about wine tours was an idea posited by him a month ago, and his donation should enable us to do a creditable job. Consequently, once it is written, we will send him an advance copy of the story, because writers swell with pride when earning their keep from readers’ help.
But that’s not the biggest news. In early November, I applied for a freelance job driving for Uber, but was rebuffed by the background-check company that Uber relied upon to validate application data.
The problem? That company didn’t check my driving record beyond what existed in Oregon. Even though I am a senior, I was listed as having less than one year’s driving experience.
Uber certification at last
Six months after supplying my Pennsylvania driver’s license information, in addition to attaining a Portland business license, vehicle inspection, first-aid kit and fire extinguisher, I finally received Uber certification to go with the logo we pasted on Betsy, our 2010 Ford Escape.
When? Last week. It felt like some kind of answer from a nondenominational heaven after wringing one’s hands in desperation.
Are drivers employees of Uber?
Uber is the result of what happens when technology transforms the car-service business. The product is called ride-sharing, and unlike a judge’s ruling in San Francisco this week, its drivers are not employees.
I set my own hours: not from a company-mandated list of options. I have full freedom to determine what hours I work, based upon my own schedule, not the company’s. What employer lets its workforce do that?
What Uber is doing – community after community – is lowering prices. Limousines are unnecessarily extravagant, considering what their drivers are paid. And limo drivers work under horrendous conditions, too. People at CBS News are still mourning the loss of Bob Simon to a limo driver’s blunder.
Cab drivers don’t compare to Uber drivers
Taxicabs are pricey, too, and their drivers are not exactly pick of the litter. Meet a few Uber drivers, and you will be able to make comparisons.
This week, I finished working a part-time schedule as an Uber driver and am optimistic enough to write this update. Hats should go off to Kaiser Permanente who forgave our entire medical debt; that is a huge help. We’re currently trying to convince Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital to reduce that bill to half its current size.
Here’s the downside of this good news, though. Alice brought me to Oregon so I could write more, but writing time will now be limited until debts are brought under control. I hope to add two new entries to the website each week.
Also, I worry about Alice when I’m not home. Will a new emergency arise while I’m not there? How can she let me know something’s wrong?
From a positive perspective, being an Uber driver will help me learn more about Portland and Portlanders. I can explore the area more, and detail findings on this website.
Thanks for all the good wishes and thoughts. I wish today’s readers had more resources, considering how easy I am self-critical when the cupboards get bare. But I accept the improved situation as it currently stands.
Stay tuned. Considering the quality of readers this website has attracted, new entries will continue to appear.