Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,
It was time for a new page and, after twenty-plus years of doing this, I could not figure out how to proceed. We still want a record of our lives, I suppose, but with a new war in Europe, it's hard to write about the relatively trivial things that are happening with us, while also recording some of our views of the current world - also for our own record. I guess there is no way to proceed but to proceed.
March 6, early Sunday morning edition
Ukraine and War
We lived in Kyiv for four years, three years working and for one year it was our travel base. It is heart breaking to see the subways, that we used regularly, now filled with people escaping bombs. Memories of our weekend trips to Lviv and Odessa take on a whole new meaning. Missiles hitting buildings near my old office show up on CNN, as do pictures of Chernobyl, the object of my work.
We have tracked down two or three of the people that were part of our Ukrainian life. They are OK, two still in Kyiv and one escaped with her kids to The Czech Republic. Unfortunately, we did not keep in touch with many from those days, but their faces continue to show up in our memories and pictures. Where are they now? Where will they be weeks, months, or years from now. I wish we could do more than display yellow and blue flowers.
Cancer and Chemo
Marianne is almost mid-way through her second round of chemotherapy and treatment is producing a range of side effects, none debilitating, but all unpleasant. Wednesdays are infusion days and it was a double-drug round this week, with more effects. Through it all she is pretty tough, distracted perhaps by people who are in worse positions, particularly in Kyiv and Ukraine. I wish I could do more than run errands and offer sympathy.
We still have our distractions, mostly at home because of the lingering threat of Covid for our "compromised" patient and her "elderly" care-giver. We did manage one lunch out at Annesso Pizzeria, one of our favorite light Italian spots. We sat outside in pleasant temperature and received good service from the wait staff and even from the management. The later was to mollify our complaint about the chef's too-heavy hand with olive oil. Even with food shortcomings, it was nice to be out in public!
My puzzle distractions continued. I started and finished a 713-piece wood puzzle, a 1945 map of California. Maybe that will be the start of our return to travel. The plans are for a drive through the south of the state, once chemotherapy is behind us. May? Part of travel preparation for me includes photography, just for muscle memory if nothing else. Front yard flowers have to do for now.
Marianne's distractions fall in two, overlapping, categories: art and calls with friends. A studio full of paints and an internet connection for classes and chats have been marvelous investments. Facetime calls with Claudia are heavy on art since the two are in an on-line class together, a difficult class from all I have heard. The artists are learning to practice the nuances of color. The more-or-less weekly calls with Dale in Germany, touch a little on art, but more on European events. All calls also have a health aspect, a little discouraging, especially with the passing of a good friend from our Bavaria group. It's a cliche, I know, but we all want to do more to stay better.
Our big distraction this week was a Thursday evening ArtHop, maybe our first since Covid and Cancer#2 arrived. We managed five stops in the three-hour visiting window, with each stop containing art and artist friends. It was great!
Bob Ogata was showing one of our favorite pieces at Fig Tree Gallery.
This piece is an amazing illustration how a skilled artist can add a dimension to a two-dimensional surface.
At Clay Hand Studios, Susie Rubenstein had a room full of black and celadon pieces,
each delicately decorated. I expect one will show up at our house soon.
Ren Lee's farm animals were being packed up for shows.
It's too bad these will not show up at our house. We've run out of display space and budget.
Friend Myrna Axt had a show at our local public television station. Her work always wins our imagination award, even if some of the found-material pieces may not be to our liking. They are an acquired taste, I suppose, and we have not yet reached that point, though we enjoy Myrna and appreciate her dedication.
Our fourth stop was Scarab Creative Arts, my first time there I think. Marina Halladay, another ceramicist friend, was showing and, since she was born and raised in Kyiv, we needed to talk about the world. She is in daily touch with family and friends, reminding us there are real people frightened and suffering. We bought memory ribbons, but it all seems like too little, too late.
Our last art stop was Vernissage, where Ma Ly was showing student work. He has managed to survive in these Covid times by pivoting to teaching and commissions. In the before-times, Vernissage also showed a wide range of local artists, Marianne included, but art sales vanished in lock-down. We were glad, however, that our friend seemed at peace with the change to teacher-artist from gallery entrepreneur. Hopefully, when this is all over, Ma can move on to a larger challenge to make better use of his skills and talent.
Across the street, we treated ourselves to a snack from Ampersand, our local premium ice cream store. This was another neighborhood business whose survival in Covid has been a positive note. Truthfully, we are not frequent customers (diet, you know), but we are encouraged by the return of enough customers to almost qualify as crowds.
And so, that was March Week One; War Day 8. We will continue to be glued to news from Ukraine, when we are not distracted by art, puzzles, chemotherapy, family, and friends.
March 10, early Thursday morning edition
Ukraine and War
The good news was that we tracked down our friend Lena, who had managed to reach Cologne, Germany with her two younger boys. She turned down any offer of financial help but mentioned wanting to work and we were able to put her in touch with a friend of a friend who offered to talk to her about architecture and design work. We hope the connection works, for both sides of the deal. She's an amazing interior designer. (We can not help but wonder what will happen to her original company in Kyiv. )
The bad news is everything else. Cities bombed. Two million refugees have left the country. Many more have left their city and town homes for the countryside. News is filled with death and suffering. The pictures and stories on CNN can not be viewed with a dry eye.
Speaking of pictures, I learned that a photographer I follow on Facebook, Peter Turnley, has left his comfortable Paris home for the turmoil of Ukraine. It's like having one more friend in danger, but the 66-year-old is a veteran of wars and harsh places. If he survives, his black and white Leica photos will help define the human war experience.
Is this the start of World War III? Maybe. A nuclear war? Perhaps, unless the Russian military comes to its senses. (Putin won't.) Will cyberwar interrupt American systems? It's possible enough that I have withdrawn an envelope of cash. Just in case. Over-reaction? I hope so.
Cancer, Chemo, and Covid
Another Wednesday infusion session on the heels of a difficult week. Our patient is tired, unsettled, and coming up against some sort of limit to her toughness. Who can blame her? Actually, no one ever comments in any way that isn't supportive. She gets a free pass for life.
There was no real progress on defining when we will return to normal life. Covid is down, but not out. We are still compromised. We need to get out for our own sanity, but nothing sounds attractive enough to warrant the risk. Maybe a Fresno Art Museum visit? We'll see.
We went on another Blossom Trail drive on Sunday, but didn't even stop for pictures. I figured the little flowers would not have changed since I snapped them last time, or the many times before. The Warriors, my favorite basketball team and reliable distraction, lost five games in a row before yesterday's win. Not the sort of performance that improves my mood. I still deliver the New York Times to neighbor Vern. He's had a bad week too, with daily doctor visits for this, that, and the other. Still, he complains very little and has a surprising and silent toughness. Being 93 isn't easy.
Marianne still cooks and paints, at least when she has the energy. We have ventured out to a couple restaurant patios, but home-cooked food is still better. Her Zoom and Facetime conversations with girlfriends and art colleagues are a safe-from-Covid social life. We do wonder how long it will take for us to be comfortable with flesh and blood people.
March 16, Wednesday morning edition
Ukraine and War
The Russian war on Ukraine continues to destroy cities and lives. Ukrainians have held out far longer than expected, at the cost of thousands of lives - soldiers and Ukrainian civilians. It is completely unrealistic to think the smaller country might win, but it is becoming possible that the larger one will not win either. One TV talking head speculated that there are only ten days left before the Giant Red Bear is exhausted from the fight. (Germany took 700,000 soldiers to encircle and conquer Kyiv. Russia does not have an army of such WWII proportions.)
Our friend Lena, safely landed in Cologne with her two young boys, is now trying to arrange escape of her parents. Her father is quite ill, so we sought recommendations from our German friend Fritz for an appropriate medical faculty. He and his doctor-daughter came through, but now we wait to see how in the world the elderly and frail pair can make it out of the war zone. God help them.
One other local connection has popped up. Neighbor Jeanne coaches the Fresno State University women's swim team, including two best friends: one Ukrainian, and one Russian. Both want to stay in the States, and we reached out to retired State Department friends to understand what should be possible. Those friends reached out to theirs, and word came back that both swimmers should be able to stay here in Fresno, through one visa extension program or another.
The yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag seems to be everywhere: porches, fences, garage doors, and flowers in gardens.
Upstairs, in our library, a Ukrainian soldier from The War to End All Wars decorates his weapon, trying to distract from the reality. Who would have thought war would return to these flowered fields?
I am writing this diary sitting on a Starbucks patio. Overhead, F15s from the 144th Air National Guard Fighter Wing take off. Even this deafening routine practice has taken on more meaning.
Cancer, Chemo, and Covid
Another week grinds on. Covid cases are going down locally and in much of the US, but rates are going the other way in Europe. Marianne and I, compromised and old, still wear masks and avoid most indoor spaces. Airplane travel seems months away for us. Europe, in our lifetimes, seems no better than an even bet.
Chemo is about half done and this week has been neither bad nor good for our patient, at least for cancer/chemo. On Tuesday, after a bone medicine infusion in the morning, that OTHER elephant in our room, irregular heartbeat, struck again. This was despite new afib medication. The return was discouraging, but Marianne took it with patience and trust that the heart would just settle back down. Otherwise, we knew it would be a trip to the Kaiser Emergency Department. Hate that. After several hours, her heart rate did go back down and became regular. Whew.
There was not much different on this front. Marianne worked in some art class work with her group of "pro" students and regularly chatted with friends. My creative activity was limited to re-solving of an old puzzle, and walking with cameras.
I also visited Vern and Joan and other neighbors on their Cambridge Avenue porch. The 93-year-old had been a bit discouraged by a new regime of frequent vitamin shots, and worried about an upcoming heart procedure. Aging isn't easy. On Monday, while we boys were out on the porch solving world problems, Joan went inside to feed cats. Unfortunately, our animated discussion distracted us from hearing her cries for help and when we were done discussing, and bringing glasses inside, we found she had fallen and could not get up. Eventually, her son Steve and neighbor Steve got her on her feet and, at her insistence, she struggled upstairs into bed. Aging REALLY isn't easy.
On Saturday we had a real treat: human visitors. Our sister-in-law Leisa came over from Monterey to visit some of her family nearby and managed to drag along husband Chris and son Spencer. (Chris has apparently become very travel-averse, visiting us only about every half-decade.) The trio are some of our favorite parts of family and we thoroughly enjoyed sitting around the patio table on the warm Spring day.
Otherwise, there have been no distractions to mention. That's a shame, but we'll try to do better.
March 18, Friday edition
Ukraine and War
The carnage continues. Millions of Ukrainians have been displaced, in-country and across borders. Tens of millions are projected to end up in abject poverty. I check the Kyiv Independent every few hours to read their on-the-ground reports, and it's chilling. Meanwhile, CNN and the New York Times serve as sources for news with an American flavor. I look to Deutsche Welle (DW) YouTube for a mainstream European view. As I write this, they all project a long and bloody war.
A couple months ago, I started reading "Fighting Words", a 2020 book telling the stories of four famous foreign reporters and their coverage of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. They chronicled the rise of populism, communism, fascism, isolationism, and expansionism that culminated in the war that killed tens of millions in Europe (and drove Marianne's family to flee Hungary as refugees). Fighting Words spends a great deal of time on the intertwined personal stories of the reporters Dorothy Thompson, James Sheean, John Gunther, and Rayne Raphaelson. That was reasonably interesting, but more important was the author's ending chapters where she pointed out parallels with the world of the 20s and 30s that the reporters covered and today. If the stage for WWII was set years before German and Japanese invasions, so too was the stage set years ago for Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. It's an ominous observation.
We have received no new word from our friend Lena, safe in Germany, but presumably still trying to get her elderly and ailing parents to safety. No other word from people we knew, but we do note with alarm that bombs and shrapnel are falling just blocks from our old apartment.
Cancer, Chemo, and Covid
Wednesday infusion came and went and we knock wood that side effects this round have been minimal. Covid numbers locally and nationally keep drifting lower. We continue to have hope that we will be able to travel in a month or two.
We made it to an art museum, the Fresno Art Museum (FAM)! It is less than a mile from home, but the visit represents a hopeful return to indoor art venues. The featured artists were Andy Warhol, Ansel Adams, and Chester Arnold. Warhol's material came from a Bank of America collection and included many standards that we have all seen a zillion times. Adams' exhibition celebrated 120 years of his work containing oft-seen visions of California and the West. As standard fare, despite their extraordinary talents, I could not get excited about either exhibition.
The work of California artist Chester Arnold was more interesting to me. FAM had collected large and small works from 1971 through 2021and each seemed to have its own attraction. Later this month we will go to a Museum reception for Arnold and maybe our house artist will be able to get some tips. Completely different styles and mediums, I know, but one can never have too much skilled input.
We celebrated our return to art galleries with cocktails: shrimp cocktails from a food truck not far from the museum. We are living it up! We did to-go, because our backyard patio is wonderful this time of year, not too chilly, not too hot, and bug-free. We need to remember to do this more often.
Now we need to get on with an exciting weekend. Of course, we first need to find something to do.
March 21, Monday edition
Ukraine and War
News from the front. Our friend Lena's parents are out of Ukraine and on the way to join her in Germany where the generosity of Germans will provide required health care. Hopefully, the family can land on their feet and then return home when it is safe. No one wants to be a refugee.
Our other contact had been artist Sergey Gerasimenko, a ceramicist from whom we bought probably a couple of dozen pieces in our Kyiv years. On the first day of the war, I reached out to express awareness and Sergey responded with thanks. Since then, there had been nothing. Then came a Facebook notice that he was OK and selling painting reproductions on Etsy. I've never been so happy to buy painting photos.
I have been reviewing our pictures from when we lived in Kyiv from 1998-2002. It's sad and sobering. The majority of our friends were (English-speaking) ex-patriots and have moved. They are now, like us, remembering friends enduring wartime suffering.
I believe Ukrainians will prevail, in part because they have been through worse. Eighty-some years ago, Kyiv fortified itself with lines of defense against an overwhelming invader. Those lines have been rebuilt. The pitched battles that killed tens or hundreds of thousands are being replaced with skirmishes inflicting orders-of-magnitude less death, while nuclear threats loom with the prospect of far more than the WWII casualty levels. Twenty years ago, we watched a parade celebrating the end of the Great Patriotic War, featuring veterans with dozens of battle and campaign medals on their blouses. Ukrainians were tough then and current citizen's of that land undoubtedly remember what their parents and grand-parents went through to achieve victory.
Cancer, Chemo, and Covid
Nothing new, and that's a good sign. We have a meeting on Tuesday with the oncologist and expect to get some sort of future projection, hugely uncertain though it inevitably will be. We are still cautious about Covid and staying off to ourselves. Fortunately, we like each other.
Our social life has been heavy on Zoom calls. The Friday games sessions with Brian, Jen, and Geoff regularly updates us all on everybody's pretty-normal lives. Marianne's frequent Facetime calls with Gabby keep us current there as well. It's not the same as in-person visits, but we do what we feel comfortable with.
Months ago, we had penciled in a return visit to cousins in the Northwest. That plan collapsed with the resurgence of the world curse, but, instead, we arranged a Zoom with Tim, Maryetta, Tom, and Kathleen. In the course of the laughter, we also heard news from cousins Pat, Mary Lou, and Kim, all doing well, given the complications of life. We speculated about the four or five cousins who have fallen off the edge of our awareness, wishing them well, I suppose, but not expecting a reunion anytime soon. The call was a great reminder of how much we like the attendees and the laughter that accompanies our gatherings. We'll do it again.
Otherwise, our distractions remain simple and the same. I take pictures of red flowers and blue birds that look like the dozens I have taken before. Marianne paints and chats from her art hut lair. It's all good.
March 28, Another Monday edition
Ukraine and War
The war that was expected to be lost in a few days has stretched to a month. Friend Lena seems to have managed to get her family to safety in Germany, although we've had no recent news. She's busy. Front line reports from the Chernobyl worker town of Slavutych (received second hand via a friend) paint an uneasy picture of occupation, but not destruction. In Kyiv, friend Sergey's Etsy page is up and running, offering photos of his paintings. We take that as a positive sign.
Little else is positive. Cities are being pounded. Mariupol needs evacuation, likely to be refilled with little green men and separatists. Ethnic cleansing at its worst. Ukrainian resistance has stopped occupation of Kyiv, but at significant cost. Maybe our century-old flat will survive, although it could be a long time before the bombs and missiles cease. Half of Ukraine's children are refugees, internal and external. Half.
Cancer, Chemo, and Covid
On Tuesday (the 22nd), we met with Dr. Box, the oncologist. The status assessment was scheduled to decide on the course of chemo treatment: four three-infusion rounds, or six. Because her cancer is not detectable, the end of chemo depends on her tolerance for more poisoning. Hearing Marianne's description of side effects, particularly recently-developed ear-ringing, the doctor canceled Rounds 5 and 6 and suggested a "holiday" before Round 4. Canceling rounds sounded OK, but the holiday would only prolong the whole process, so we opted to continue with Wednesday's infusion appointment.
However, the next day, the infusion nurse grilled Marianne about how she felt (bad) and asked Dr. Box if infusion really was a good idea for the day. It was not. Our patient reverted to having a week holiday and over the next few days, it became clear the break was needed. Even doing Round 4 is now in question and another Tuesday phone conference will be required.
As for Covid, it seems like the worst is over, at least judging by the disappearance of general mask wearing. We have not yet joined the public world of faces and smiles, but should get there soon. Can travel be far behind?
It's a struggle writing about "distractions", in the shadow of distant war and nearby disease, but there's a tradition to maintain: record our lives, good, bad, and banal.
I've taken a few Peloton rides, to pretend these are real trails while doing real exercise.
Puzzles continue to distract as well. And flower pictures for me. Marianne works in art studio time when she's up to it and Mamo-chair resting when she is not.
Away-from-home excursions are limited to Kaiser visits, grocery shopping, and a Saturday breakfast up at Wild Fig Kitchen in Coarsegold. The 45-minute drive seemed like a grand excursion, compared to our normal days' journeys.
As I write this early morning note, it's raining. This is our first sky water of 2022, and it may be the last before September or October. I hope we continue to be allowed to irrigate, because the yard and garden will look pretty dismal if we need to stop for six months. Fresno may return to being a desert after all.
Stay in touch.
John and Marianne