Friday, January 27, 2012

Bad Cholesteral, Good Doctor

Although I am not a smoker, the ashtray on my new doctor's desk put me at ease. It made him seem more approachable, if a little decadent. I don't delight in going to the doctor. Going to the doctor in a foreign country for a full physical, including blood work, is not exactly what you would call my dream come true. In fact, I was almost too scared to try to be funny.... almost.

In the waiting room, a kindly nurse in a hijab asked me if I was doing well. I told her that she should know better than me - she was the one holding my lab report. She smiled knowingly and replied, "Oh, the doctor will discuss all that with you." I was suspicious that my blood pressure was already reaching dangerous levels. Her ominous remark put an extra squeeze in the cuff.

This was my second time at the doctor's office this week. Two days earlier I had to go to have my blood drawn, chest x-ray taken, and urine collected. I was certain that I would faint at the sight of the needle and have something unseemly show up in my x-ray. I was even afraid I wouldn't be able to pee in the cup.

Did I mention that I don't like going to the doctor? Surely I am not the only person who believes that there is something terribly wrong with me, something terminal. The only way to keep this something from coming to be is to avoid going to physicians and hospitals at all costs. On a rational level, I know that the opposite is closer to the truth. Having a good relationship with a trusted doctor and facing health issues head on is the best way to stay healthy. Yes. I get that. But we are in the realm of beliefs, not reality.

Finally, the smiling Egyptian doctor smiled and opened the folder containing our reports. This was a family affair - Jenn, me, the kids all sitting in his office for the consultation. I don't remember everything he said. In fact the only thing I remember well is that he told me to drink more red wine. He actually told ME to drink more red wine. I love this guy.

Apparently my X-ray looked great, cholesterol is not bad, blood pressure is normal, and I am not diabetic. He even said that my liver and kidneys were functioning beautifully. I never would have put money on that horse. He did a comparison of my numbers and Jenn's. I am reasonably healthy, but she is clearly in better shape. He suggested that I listen to her more and to eat fruit and olive oil. Did I mention that he told me to drink more red wine? He did say that I could do to lose a few pounds. But he told me the amount in kilos, so even that didn't seem so bad.

It is odd to receive this good news now that I finally have good insurance and no deductible. We even have full coverage for prescriptions. In a sense, his recommendation to drink more wine was sort of like a prescription. I wonder if he would write it up and send a copy to Drinkies, our local wine delivery store. Maybe I could talk him into writing a prescription for a rejuvenating trip to Italy, land of artery cleansing olive oil and life giving red wine. And to think I made it to forty without significant medical intervention...

Friday, January 20, 2012

Learning to Breathe

When we rejoin our hero, he is once again in a taxi. It is a different taxi, one of the old and dangerous black and white Fiats. Unencumbered by suspension, it flies over potholes, around packed buses and overloaded donkey carts, horn blaring. His eyes are closed, but more in thought than agony now. His countenance is shifting, an old look glinting on his face.

He had really done a pretty good job packing for this adventure - rugged shoes, weather beaten leather satchel (thanks Hov), traveling pants, a sensible knife, and his trusty whip, that braided leather weapon that could double as a rope in times of peril. On these trips, there was always peril. There had been that moment when he realized he had left his stove top espresso maker back in the relative safety of Texas. He had to turn away, spend a moment alone so that the villagers, who revered him like a god, wouldn't see or hear him weeping.

These first two weeks had been difficult. But, facial muscles relaxing slightly, he realized that luck had largely been on his side. The wild dogs he wrestled in the wadi had turned out not to be rabid. When assaulted with poison gas (a clever ploy by Turkish assassins), his arab's scarf, a secret gift from the sultan's wife, was already wrapped tightly around his face. Even the poison darts had missed their mark, leaking their venom harmlessly into the large wooden door of the tomb.

The pyramids had been a different story. Most of the booby traps were long since sprung, the trap door jammed, and the crocodile pit dried up. But the pickpockets were as swift as ever, stealing a little of his confidence along with several of the rubies he had been carrying to his Greek connection. At least one of those thieving dogs would carry a scar, a bloody gift from our hero's knife across his cheek - a mark that he would look for later when the time came to exact his revenge.

It was really the last few years that had worn on him, stolen something from him. His BMI had increased at nearly the same rate as the speed of his internet connection. He had become softer, more practical. He had re-embraced the anxiety of his youth, the awkward self-consciousness.

Sure,there had been adventures since he left the side of Subcomadante Marcos ten years ago to return to Texas, get a job, and make babies. There was the time he and his beautiful wife hacked through the jungle and braved the slums of San Pedro Sula, successfully cracking open the Honduran underworld of conch smuggling. Princes (and princesses) still called on occasion, sent letters of gratitude for deeds done long ago.

The Romanian taxi driver hissed something in Italian, slapped down the visor to block our hero's face, and lurched forward into what appeared to be a crowded alley. Long ago our hero had learned that when you really needed a driver you could trust - the kind who would slide his car sideways into a truck if needed and give his life for you - the only ones worth hiring were Romanians. Not only are they loyal and brave, but they all share a keen sense of direction and amazing attention to detail. It is not easy finding a Romanian taxi driver in Cairo. But this trip was never supposed to be easy.

He inhaled slowly, tentatively as though he were learning to breathe for the first time. His eyes opened slightly as he exhaled. And a second breath in deeply and out - the calm spreading across his face. He started to remember something he learned many years ago, probably in Mexico. With each new breath, his smile widened. His eyes were open now, taking in the insanity of the world racing toward him and for the first time in a very long time he began the process of letting go.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Grand Mal

It was probably a little bit irrational to believe that I could plan my own nervous breakdown. It just doesn't really work like that. But I had a plan. It went like this... I would be moving through my regular life as a behavior specialist with a wife, a mortgage, car payment, unbreakable cell phone contract, and two small and spirited children - the stress mounting. The pressure would gradually build until somebody would say or do something that was too much. The scale would tip, the tension snap that little bit of brain matter that keeps me tethered to something that looks a little like sanity.

Then, according to my plan, I would simply get in my car (the Mystery Machine - so named by my daughter) and drive somewhere. I am not entirely certain where I would go, but it would be somewhere pretty. If the nervous breakdown were a minor, petit mal, style breakdown, I might not go too far. Maybe someplace like Krause Springs. For a grand mal breakdown I would consider Ruidosa, New Mexico. Wherever the car took me, I would find a small body of water. In New Mexico this would probably be one of those gorgeous little mountain streams. I'm sure they have one somewhere around there. If the weather was nice, I would probably disrobe. I would wade into the water and stand there for a long, long time. I don't know how long. I would get cold, but thanks to my manatee like physique, I would be spared from hypothermia. After a swim and a good think I would find a small hotel, drink a dozen or so beers, and sleep until they came to bring me home. People at work would donate a few personal days so that I could convalesce and still be able to pay the mortgage. Jenn and the girls would forgive me - they kind of saw it coming. Nobody would get hurt, a guilt free nervous breakdown. More of a spontaneous solo vacation really.

I actually had a sort of close call in late September. I remember sitting on McCarty Lane, my car hastily pulled over, mind racing, hands shaking. I checked the tank. It was pretty full, enough to go a long way without having to stop for gas. As a courtesy, I called my boss to let her know what was happening. I told her that I would try to keep the manifestations of my nervous breakdown under control until 3:30 (they kind of turn a blind eye to folks clocking out a little early on Fridays). I don't know how she talked me down. She is pretty good at that sort of thing.

When I told my brother that I was cracking up, he took it very seriously. When he heard I had a plan, he seemed even more concerned and came to the house. It is probably not insignificant to this story that he ended his public school teaching career by telling his assistant principal that he was going to "kick his ass". John knew I needed a better plan B than standing naked in a trout stream until the madness passed. Never a lover of team sports (thus the "I'm going to kick your ass, principal" statement), I was surprised when he agreed to accompany me to a Dynamo soccer game. I think he was trying to gauge my condition as much as offer practical suggestions.

I pulled it together, a little. Months passed in a blur. There were car rides, a plane ride, another plane, one final plane ride, and a van ride to a strange apartment in a strange place - what we dismissively call a 'geographic fix' in the world of special education. And now climbing into a taxi cab, I don't know the right words in Arabic to make the proper request. I mumble, "Nile, please" and reach down, unbuttoning my shirt, loosening the buckle on my belt...

Monday, January 9, 2012

Culture Shock

The CD player, which we had packed into one of our six suitcases (each weighing slightly less than 50 lbs), loaded into Jenn's folks' car, drove to the Austin airport, and sent on its way by air through Houston and Frankfurt before finally reaching Cairo, actually played a couple bars of my favorite Gourds song before making a popping sound and fizzling in a small puff of acrid smelling smoke. I suppose the plug adapter wasn't quite enough to change the voltage and save our beloved jam box. Jenn and I both looked nervously at this freshly plugged in lap top and simultaneously lunged to yank the cord from the wall.

In the United States I have never had much need for Radio Shack. I really don't even know how it continues to exist. I suppose they have useful plugs and doodads for the rapidly aging, and increasingly lonely HAM radio enthusiasts. But here in Egypt Radio Shack is a beacon of light to those of us who are sadly addicted to technology that we can't even begin to understand. I don't even want to imagine how little the brilliant, helpful, competent, and highly educated young men who work there are getting paid. In perfect English they explained to me about voltage input. Apparently, some things are very particular about how much voltage they receive... like our radio. Other electronics can handle a wide range. The smart young man showed me how to determine the voltage input capacity based on what is written on the back of electronic devices. Some will work fine. Others will flame out mid song.

And I wondered about this. Do I have variable voltage input capacity? Does Jenn? Do the kids? Will we adjust to the madness of Egypt. Or will we pop and flame out? I was already smelling strangely of burning wires and discontent - sparking more than usual before we left. But what about Jenn... the kids?

And so, after checking the alarm clock and computer monitor for their voltage input, as the nice young man at Radio Shack taught me, I quietly crept into the room of my sleeping girls and gently looked behind their ears, on the backs of their precious necks for some sign... some written verification that they would handle the extra voltage, and slip as seamlessly as my laptop from the safe predictability of 110 volts to this strange and powerful world of 220, where we now reside....