Saturday, September 24, 2005

Like riding a bike, unless you fall off

Takeoff roll
Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
Gail and I slept in this morning, enjoying the weekend break from my radiation treatments. When we finally roused ourselves, Gail took me up to the Cherry Ridge airport to enjoy the beautiful weather, and in hopes of catching a plane ride with one of my pilot friends.

Things worked out just that way, in very short order; in fact, I had just stepped out of our car when my friend Mr. Tibor pulled up behind us, and asked if I would like to go up with him. He owns a very clean little 2-seat Cessna 150, and likes to fly in the evenings - we often see each other at the fuel pump, but have never flown together. Gail shooed me off to go and have fun, and went off to take pictures around the airport grounds.

I watched as Mr. Tibor carefully preflighted his plane. It's a beauty, an all-metal 1975 Cessna that looks like brand-new, and which he keeps well-maintained and neat as a pin. It's a bit smaller than the Tri-Pacer (not many planes are!) but has some nice equipment; one item of interest is a traffic alert, which his daughter bought for him. It detects the transponder signal of any aircraft within a few miles, and gives a spoken alert over the intercom when another plane is nearby.

Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
We ran through our cockpit checks and took off, and then did one practice landing and took off again. Over Lake Wallenpaupack, I snapped some pictures and then took the controls for a while; I haven't flown a 150 in years, but it's a very easy plane to handle. Back at the airport, I even managed to grease on a smooth landing from the right seat; I guess I still remember how it's done, even though it's been - gasp - over two months since I've logged any stick time.

With my confidence restored, I offered to reciprocate, and take Mr. Tibor up in my Tri-Pacer. We walked from his hangar over to mine, and I preflighted 02P in the long evening shadows. As we taxied out, we chatted about the differences in our planes - mine is older, noisier and carries a bit more weight, his burns less fuel - but the performance of each is very similar. The air was getting late-evening smooth as we took off to the south, and turned east towards Lake Ariel to fly over Mr. Tibor's house. He took his turn flying, and noted how the Tri-Pacer is as light on the controls as his Cessna, but with a quicker roll rate due to the short wings. Back at the airport, I did one touch-and-go for practice; my approach was a little low, the first time. The next time around I did a bit better, and squeaked down right on the numbers.

It felt absolutely great, to get back into the air again. I really needed a day like this, after weeks of treatments and illness, to lift my spirits. So many thanks to Gail, for coaxing me out to the airport, and to Mr. Tibor for spending some time in the air with me!

Friday, September 23, 2005

Critiquing the critics

Last night, while idly browsing the internet, I found a rich vein of humor: amateur movie reviews on Now, I indulge in commenting on movies myself, here in the Logbook; I assume that most readers are friends of mine, and understand my perspective. But on mega-etailer Amazon, in the listing for each movie or DVD, is a place where anyone can post their personal review of the film in question - and by gosh, anyone does. The most well-known movies get the most reviews, of course; so it's easy to find a critique of The Exorcist, for example (726 customer reviews) from the perspective of, say, an 11-year-old whose favorite movie of all time is Fantastic Four. Or, from the point of view of a devout Christian, one with an extraordinary knowledge of the real mechanics of demonic possession:

"The problem is in the so-called "transference" of the evil entity into the supposedly consecrated body of the priest. Any student of theology should know that this is an impossibility: a priest (even one who has just regained his faith) invoking the power of Christ, blessed by Holy Water, and empowered by the Holy Spirit would never be able to entice a demon to "come into him" or "take him on instead'. Such a proposition (even if it were so) could not be taken up by a demon simply because the priest's consecrated body would burn like electricity to the touch if a demon were to try and gain access."

See? These are the kind of cinematic insights you just can't get from the mainstream press. Too, you typically can't get the range of horrible grammar and spelling that offer such grisly delights, even in USA Today. File this one under "Engrish":

This movie scared the crap out of me. When I go to are bech house I only go in water about half a foot deep. A shark is chompy the people. This movie was the second series of man eater. Better than the classic 1960 horror movie that inspires this genre of monstres.
Quint is herilious he made me laugh. This movie has some comedy as well. When quite said what you got her portable monkey cage. Anti shark. It very good movie. It had three sequels of which two I own. I did not buy the last one because it was alwfull bad plot and low death count.
My advice If you like this sea 2 and 3 but don't waste your time with the fourth on. Yes there is a movie call Jaws 5 Cruel Jaws but its not avilable her. It was sent over sea because it was made illegally.

There again - if "death count" is something you value in a film, then here is information you can use. This next one I have to classify as "sharing too much":

I just recently viewed the film, JAWS, in it's entirety. My brother Michael, who is now deceased, loved this film, so I figured why not get the film?

(By the way, in case you missed it, he was talking about the film.) Alas, sometimes we get to share in even sadder stories from the unsolicited movie reviewer:

I never recieved the product. I will never purchase anything from them again!!

Of course, there are other joys of browsing through these reviews: the Spoiler, who will recap the entire movie in detail, including the climactic end; the Nitpicker, who points out that some scrap of scenery dates from 1948, whereas the movie is set in 1945; and the Endless Babbler, who uses up the entire quota of space - usually with an intensely personal monologue, usually without paragraphs or punctuation. Thanks, Amazon, for providing this valuable service! I give it five stars.

Checking in

I haven't posted all week; it's been a rough one, in terms of my energy level. The good news is that the radiation seems to be really reducing my back pain - I haven't had to pop so many pills, and I can get up and around without the cane. But it also causes severe fatigue and nausea, so it's been tough to be active, or eat. Today I spent the whole day in sack-of-potatoes mode, I'm just getting up now to have a meal and get cleaned up. I really noticed, as I showered, how much weight I have lost; around 35 pounds. (And I still have a little bit of spare-tire!) I've been carrying an extra 20 pounds for years anyway, but it feels strange to be bony, something I've never been.

In other good news, my mother is home from the hospital, and enjoying her favorite pastimes: Scrabble, and worrying about me. Thanks for all the words of support.

Gail has spent the last few days in a flurry of activity, getting ready for the wedding next weekend. Besides the flowers and hotel and the other arrangements, she found some beautiful gifts for the wedding guests, and some nice touches for the house too. I'm looking forward to seeing our family and a few friends get together, it will be a real lift.

Monday, September 19, 2005

When it rains...

Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
In the midst of my own health problems, my mother had to check into the hospital today. She was feeling dizzy and weak last night, and her friend took her to the emergency room this morning. Mom suffers from COPD - Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, basically a deterioration of the lungs from a lifetime of smoking, and it limits her oxygen intake.

I spoke to her this afternoon - I had to track her down at the hospital, since the little dickens didn't call me. She is being monitored and tested, but sounds in good spirits, considering. For those of you who have been so supportive of me, please keep my mother in your thoughts as well. The picture here is from sometime around my first birthday in 1968 - and nothing has changed, really. She's a great mom, and I'm her one and only.

And hey, if I may make a suggestion: If you smoke, quit. If you don't smoke, don't start. I quit in 1993 with the help of a local wellness center, and my mother did when she was diagnosed, and we both may have been too late.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Movie Review: Winged Migration

Gail and I added Winged Migration to our Netflix queue after seeing a preview on another disc; the few scenes were enough to capture my attention. It is a mostly visual documentary, filmed on every continent, which follows the travels of dozens of species of migratory birds. The camera techniques are astonishing; filmed in the air, literally inches from the birds in flight; we wondered over and over how such scenes could be captured, without special effects and without frightening the birds. (More on this below.) Scene after scene shows the grace and beauty of the powerful birds, and the awesome variety of landscapes they fly through. There is little narration, mostly orchestral and choral music to accompany the visuals; a few helpful captions identify the species and the routes they follow.

The film has won acclaim for its beauty, and we were captivated too. On reaching the end, we went right into the DVD extras, looking for some insight into how the remarkable aerial footage was captured. The filmmakers developed a lot of innovative techniques, including the use of ultralight aircraft, balloons, helicopters and even remote-controlled model aircraft. But most striking was the fact that many of the birds in the film were actually raised and trained to be photographed in this manner, by a technique known to zoologists as "imprinting". Over the four years of production, the birds - many from shelters and zoos - were raised from chicks by the filmmakers and crew, and trained to tolerate (even pursue!) the noisy aircraft and camera vehicles. While the scenes in the film show the correct species of bird, flying over the correct terrain - in truth, the birds returned to their crates at the end of each day's filming, and travelled with the crew by airliner. Bird actors!

Does that change the impact of the film? I think it does, in a small way; it was disappointing to learn that what I had thought was the pure beauty of nature was in fact achieved with some artifice. Still, as mentioned, the film does show the correct species in the correct situations; with unforgettable images that could not have been achieved any other way. I still definitely recommend Winged Migration; the images are stunning, however they were captured, and the truths about the lives of these amazing birds are astounding.

The Machine

This is the machine that is used to treat me every day; as Gail wrote, on Friday I remembered to ask if she could come in and have a look. The staff of the radiation center, all women, have always been friendly and warm, and they allowed us a minute before the next patient stepped in. (The machine is in heavy use, apparently as many as 65 - 75 patients per day.)

The Machine - all the name it needs, at the clinic - emits precise bursts of radiation for the treatment of cancer. My initial treatment, for the tumor on my lung, involved two short treatments per day; each treatment consisted of three radiation exposures or "frames" from three different directions. The new treatment for the nest of tumors in my lower back involves 18 frames from nine positions, once a day.

The radiation treatments are designed precisely for each patient. The machine can rotate to focus on the patient from any direction, and the emitting mechanism has movable lead shutters to allow the radiation beam to be shaped specifically for each dose and angle. The patient lies still on a platform, after being raised up to the center of the machine; positioning is crucial, so custom-molded cushions are used. Small permanent tattoos on the patient are lined up with lasers along 3 axes to establish the initial position, and a computer program takes the machine through the gyrations and exposures as programmed by the directing physician.

That's the mechanics of it, anyway. I am always aware that we are hoping this machine will help save my life. I am becoming accustomed to the experiences - the technicians help me into position, and the lights flip on and off in the room as they use the lasers to line me up. Then the table elevates, and the techs leave, and I hear the 8-inch thick (!) lead door close. The machine rotates into the first of its positions, usually from below, and the lead shutters click and there is a whir of something focusing. Then a warning buzz sounds and the machine hums, for several seconds, as the radiation is released. There is no physical sensation; I sometimes think "Die, cancer, die!" as each burst sounds. I count off the exposures and watch the machine rotate around me, and look at my own reflection in the grey plastic casing.

Eventually the treatment is over, and I pull on my shirt and sandals and shuffle out. The physical effects of the radiation don't hit me until about an hour later; I think my new single dose is heavier than my old ones, as the effects are more pronounced. Fatigue hits hard; not mere tiredness, but a feeling that my arms and legs are weighed down with lead. I come home and lie down, not sleeping, but unable to get up; I read a lot. And I've been having a lot of nausea - this morning, I had to be let up from the MRI table while I was sick. Hopefully the 2-day respite over the weekend will let me enjoy a little normal activity, and keep down a few meals.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A Setback

Yesterday was a bad one. After my morning radiation treatment, I had a bad reaction to the injection, which saw me arrive home with severe nausea; I threw up before I could make it into the house. After suffering through this for over an hour, I finally passed out and got some rest before my MRI.

The MRI was ordered by one of the doctors in the radiation center, after hearing that my back pain had been getting more severe and more specific. I had to lie on the flat, hard platform of the MRI machine for almost an hour, which was excruciating. When we were finished, we went back to the radiation center for my afternoon treatment, with the new films from the scan. The doctor was able to see immediately that there are lesions on my tailbone, hip and two lower vertebra; the cancer has spread, and the new growths are causing the pain in my back.

This morning we spoke to Dr. B, who was very frank with us; it's bad news, and it makes my prognosis for recovery worse. They are changing my treatment immediately to irradiate the new areas for two weeks, which he thinks will quickly eliminate much of the pain; the treatment of my lung can stop for the time being, as the last scan showed a lot of progress on the original tumor. He also ordered another MRI for the rest of my spine, to see whether there is any more spread going on.

It's hard to say how or why this has happened; we knew from the start that this type of cancer is hard to contain, that it spreads very quickly. I've had arthritis-like symptoms since the outset, more than a month ago, and I've been on painkillers the whole time. So when the back pain began to get more severe last week, I just began taking more pills; I never thought that the cancer might spread while I was in chemotherapy. And short of getting an MRI every day, there's just no way of knowing - by the time anything shows up on a scan, it's really too late.

But I'm resolved to keep fighting, and hoping that the cancer can be fought into remission. Since I am no longer "limited stage", it's not realistic to think of being "cured", but there are always a few people who manage long remissions and survive for years. In the meantime, I am trying to live the best quality of life that I can, and make things easier for Gail. We're going forward with the wedding, and making plans for a train trip as a mini-honeymoon. And I'm working on drawing up some paper plans, blueprints, for a new model airplane - an old U.S. Air Mail biplane from the 1920s. There's always hope in making plans.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

OK, back to the fun!

Uploaded by AviatorDave.
Well, having been rudely interrupted by a bacterial infection, I felt much better today. Gail and I had hoped to return to Rhinebeck for the model airplane Jamboree, but I decided I was still too weak to travel that far. But then last night my neighbor Bill reminded me that our local model airplane club, the Waymart Wings, was having its annual airshow and model fly-in. Great! That's only a 20-minute ride, and I missed the event last year - because I was at Rhinebeck, actually.

It was perfect weather, and we drove out to the club's field on Kellachow's farm - actually a full-scale private grass runway for his own family. The club was out in full force, the flightline crowded with neat model airplanes, and a few full-sized ones too. As we arrived, a local pilot was performing stunts in his Decathlon monoplane, finishing with the "Delsey Dive" - just like Rhinebeck! He did great, too; he whirled around in descending turns, managing to cut the falling streamer of toilet paper at least six times before it fell dead-center onto the airfield. Gail and I took out our chairs and parked my model Jenny biplane on pit row, and walked around photographing the planes and the farm. We sat and chatted with Bill and my other model-flying friends, who I haven't seen much since I've been so involved in full-sized flying. We enjoyed the day, and the models buzzing overhead, and a few honest grilled hamburgers. (Gosh, it's good to have my appetite back!)

On the way back, we stopped at a nearby monastery; St. Tikhon's, a Russian Orthodox monastery and theological seminary. The onion-shaped domes and beautiful setting lured us in for photography, but as we were there, the brothers and sisters were congregating for a service. Gail was quietly composing a photo of one of the icons, when the air was split by the loud, clear pealing of the bells! We both jumped, and then wandered over in time to watch the spectacle of the bell-ringers; two cassock-wearing monks (I presume) were ringing the bells by hand, playing a fairly complex tune by pulling the heavy ropes on the freestanding bell tower. It was fascinating, and when they were finished we were left alone outside the chapel to photograph the monastery grounds. The bells themselves were among the most beautiful items; the largest, according to its inscription, was newly founded this year.

Were were just finishing our tour when I got a call from my CAP comrade Frank, who was in the area with his family and asked us to dinner. So we met a short while later at Kundla's Open Pit Barbecue, about which I have raved in the past, and had a barbecue dinner that couldn't be beat - and lively conversation with he and Marianne and Frank Jr., one of my cadets. An altogether satisfying day to be out of the hospital!

Friday, September 09, 2005

Free once again...

Whew. As Gail reported, I had to go back into the hospital Tuesday afternoon due to a high fever and nausea; I just got home. Apparently a bacterial infection of some kind - Dr. A, my oncologist, said that this sort of thing can happen due to my depressed immune system. He didn't think that it had anything to do with my going out this past weekend, it could have been bacteria from my own body run amok.

Whatever it was, it wiped me out. My fever spiked at 103 on Tuesday night, but broke early Wednesday morning. All along, I was wracked with such nausea that I couldn't look at - or even smell - food. So I didn't eat a morsel for almost two days, and between that and the many bags of I.V. antibiotics they dripped into me, I just felt weak and overmedicated. (The only bright spots were the extremely powerful pain injections, which were downright euphoric. But eventually I was shying away from them for fear of addiction.)

Early this morning I began to manage to keep a few bites down, and feel a little better. My last blood test showed my various counts back to acceptable levels, so I have been released in time to enjoy the weekend. I'll still be relying on Gail a lot around the house, but I'm glad to be out of the hospital. They do a fine job of treating the sick, but the food was awful - and you can't get more than an hour's sleep before someone comes in, at any hour, to check whether your feet are swollen or whether you've peed or some such matter of import.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Best Medicine

Aviation, laughter, antique cars and a beautiful late-summer day in upstate New York. Gail took me for a day trip yesterday, a two-hour drive up the scenic Hudson River valley to my favorite place in the world - The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, a working museum of antique airplanes.

The Aerodrome is a unique place; there's nowhere else in the country with a similar collection of ancient airplanes, that actually fly. It was founded by a pilot, Cole Palen, back in 1961 when he acquired a French "Spad" fighter from the first World War. Looking for a safe place to teach himself to fly the old biplane, he bought a spread of farmland near the Hudson River north of Poughkeepsie, and carved a short grass strip into the uneven land. From this unlikely beginning, Cole's collection grew over the years into dozens of rare machines from the early era of aviation, the years before World War II.

In order to fund his hobby - and just for fun - Palen began to give weekend airshows, demonstrating his old birds for the public. He maintained them the way he thought they should be seen, in working condition, not polished and behind glass in a museum. And to make the show accessible to children - and for fun - he added a campy, comic theme; a set of stock WWI characters, heros and villains, and livened up the airshow with fizzing TNT bombs, aerial dogfights and slapstick comedy.

Having spent a lifetime doing just what he loved, Cole passed away of natural causes in 1993. But the Aerodrome lives on, carefully preserved by a nonprofit foundation and the weekend airshows go on every summer. I haven't missed going at least once every season for the last ten years; one weekend is given to a huge model aviation meet. I have also made it a point to take my cadets there every summer to enjoy the show and learn about aviation history.

Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
Gail and I packed up our many cameras and left early yesterday, hoping to get there in time to sign up for a barnstorming ride in the museum's 1929 New Standard biplane. When we arrived, I trotted right over to the ride booth, but the young girl there said that the rides were sold out; and the morning rides were cancelled due to gusty wind conditions, as well. Well, that was too bad, but we were enjoying the day anyway; I led Gail around the old tin hangars and rattled off chapter and verse on each old plane and bit of machinery. She found an endless variety of things to photograph, from the old planes to the many cars and motorbikes, old engines, and the beautiful countryside around the museum. A friendly old gentleman in a flightsuit invited us to come into one hangar to examine the partially-completed "Spirit of St. Louis" replica; I noticed his nametag, Stanley Segalla - one of the airshow pilots, famous as the "Flying Farmer"!

At 2:00 we sat down on the rustic "bleachers" - planks of wood on cinder blocks - to watch the airshow. The wind kept the very oldest planes grounded, but the rest of the vintage biplanes did their barnstorming acts, as did Mr. Segalla in his Piper Cub. The evil "Black Baron of Rhinebeck" menaced "Sir Percy Goodfellow" and his lovely bride-to-be, "Trudy Truelove" - who shrieked at the top of her charming lungs when the Baron kidnapped her, and Sir Percy and his squadron mates set off in pursuit.

Uploaded by AviatorDave.
After the show, we waited for the crowd to clear out, and walked over to the flightline. I stopped at the fence to talk to a hero of mine, Bill King, another veteran old pilot and one of the lead performers at the Aerodrome. Gail snapped our photo, and Mr. King advised us to stick around, as he thought that the air was calming and the biplane rides would resume. So we did, and as the shadows got longer the air did cool and the wind subsided. We had to wait our turn until the very last ride of the day, but we finally climbed aboard - we had the plane to ourselves (it seats four), and the air was perfectly still. The setting sun over the Hudson valley was perfect for photography, and Gail and I enjoyed the ride immensely, tucked in the open cockpit with the wind and engine roaring. We snapped a few pictures and marvelled at the sensations. The pilot even threw in a little fun, what we call a chandelle; he dove for a little speed and pulled up into a steep turn, rolling the broad orange wings almost vertical, as we watched the glittering Hudson River below us.

After a silky-smooth landing on the grass strip, we drove into the historic village of Rhinebeck, and had an immense dinner at the Coach House Tavern. When we got home, we were exhausted, but fell asleep with the day's images still in our heads. I finally got my pictures posted today; Gail will be hours going through hers, and we have film to develop too. As always, watch her site for the results.

Thanks Gail, and Mr. Segalla and Mr. King... and thanks Cole, wherever you are. It was far and away the best day I've had in a long time.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Back In The Saddle

If not in the air, anyway. After a restful day free from the alarm clock, Gail and I went out to Cherry Ridge for an early supper, and to walk around and plane-watch. We missed the midday crowd, but had a nice chat with the Airport Cafe owners, Sue and Rick. They are working very hard, seven days a week at the little diner overlooking the runway; the reviews prove that they are doing a great job. The Cafe is a big draw for the airport, with pilots flying in from hundreds of miles away for a meal. The dining area is all glass, looking out over the parking apron and the peaceful woodlands that surround the airport.

Afterwards we wandered around, me looking over the parked airplanes, and Gail taking pictures of whatever caught her eye. She found a long-retired steam roller that was just a bounty of wonderful textures, rust and peeling paint. We pulled 02P out of the hangar and checked her over, since it's been over a month since my last flight. I made some minor repairs to an oil-line grommet, and we actually hopped in and started the engine, just to see that the battery was charged.

The Master Tinkerer
Originally uploaded by gail on the web.
I let it run for a few minutes and taxiied to the ramp, and discovered that the brakes were very weak; so I switched off and added some hydraulic fluid. The Tri-Pacer has a tiny, rudimentary brake system - one small piston on the firewall, operated by a hand lever from the cockpit, with a pair of hydraulic lines to the small drum brakes. Most heavy motorcycles have more stopping power, but this plane lands very slowly, and the system is simple and adequate. Since the volume of fluid is so small, even a slight leak will let the brakes go soft - and they all leak.

So we put the plane away, just as the sun went down. Later in the weekend, if I'm still feeling well, I'll shanghai one of my pilot friends and take her out for a flight. It felt good anyway, to be tinkering under the cowl, and to hear the engine rumbling away again.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Notes from the Irradiated

I've been extremely fatigued and sore over the last few days; I think it's a combination of the chemotherapy, and my first full week of twice-daily radiation treatments. Even with the drug I have injected every morning (two sore arms, ow) my energy is very low, and I have a definite burning sensation in my esophagus. Thankfully, I get a three-day break from the treatments for the holiday weekend.

The overall aches and pains make it difficult for me to get around, unless I take a lot of medication, which robs my energy even more and upsets my stomach. A thoughtful nurse at the radiation center arranged for a new pain med prescription, which I won't have to take as often.

My blood test this week showed that my various cell counts are sufficient to continue treatment, but I am slightly anemic, and my immune system is very low. So I'll have to avoid crowds; too bad, this weekend is the "Festa Italiana" in town, a yearly celebration of Italian food, culture, food, music and food.

Artist's rendering
And, perhaps the dreariest of today's news: The chemotherapy drugs, having spent two weeks seeping into every cell in my body, have reached my scalp. A few days ago, Gail optimistically pointed out that my hair was still its typical thick mop. Then today, as I sat at my morning bowl of cereal, I ran my hand through my bed-rumpled hair... and came away with a handful of it. Throughout the day, I've been shedding faster than Hugh, and I just took a shower and watched a great deal of it go down the drain.

So it seems that I will not be spared the most visible sign of the cancer patient, baldness. Fortunately, I am not vain, and what with Lance Armstrong so prominent in the media lately, I might actually be in vogue. (And what with Gail here, expect photos...) The point of all this is to cure me anyway, and the one piece of good news is that I haven't coughed all week - so the tumor has almost certainly shrunk already. Hopefully my energy will rally a bit ever the weekend, and we will be able to enjoy the late-summer weather, and post a few cancer-free stories and pictures.