Monday, October 29, 2012


"So do you understand what these numbers mean?"

"Clearly doctor," I replied. "Cairo is now officially killing me."

It is no longer simply a metaphor. I knew Cairo was frustrating, annoying, often agitating - but deadly?

I went to see the school nurse two weeks ago. My daughter had contracted a strange, but not particularly dangerous virus called hand, foot, and mouth disease (not the cow one). She had a sore throat, low fever, and a nasty rash on her hands and feet. The disease is quite contagious. So she was at home, supposedly resting while the virus ran its course. I went to work, but I wasn't feeling so hot myself - run down, depressed, exhausted. The nurse looked at me and told me to sit down. She wanted to take my blood pressure. It was high. She told me to come back and have it checked the next day.

The next day it was still high. And the next. Appointments were made. Blood work was ordered. Damn, I hate needles.

 She sent me to the doctor; the same doctor who nine months ago told me that I was surprisingly healthy and would be even healthier if I drank red wine, cooked with olive oil, exercised more, and dropped a few kilos. I have been remarkably compliant in matters of red wine and olive oil consumption.

Apparently that wasn't enough.

It seems that both my blood pressure and cholesterol have moved up the charts from, "Drink red wine and try to get a little more exercise," to, "Take these pills every day for the rest of your life and dramatically change your lifestyle." 

"So, have you been eating a large amount of beef?"

"No. Not really. I do eat entirely too much bread." Ironically, my pork consumption has also increased while living in Egypt. There is this great little Coptic store nearby that sells hand cut bacon. Also, I tend to binge on sausage and ham when we go for Friday morning brunches at the US embassy club house. It has been a delicious way to feel slightly subversive, a scrumptious and subtle protest against my life in Cairo. Now my bad cholesterol is up, good cholesterol down. I suppose Allah always gets the last laugh.

"What do you do to relax? Do you exercise much?"

"Mostly I brood and sweat as if I were exercising without actually doing any excercise. Do those count?"

It is hard for me to relax here, hard to exercise. My favorite things to do are to walk and swim. The streets are loud and chaotic, a little dangerous and uncomfortable for strolling. Swimming, the kind I like to do, is out of the question. Though I feel a sense of peace when I am near the Nile, I am rarely tempted to jump in for a swim.

In Texas I was stressed. My job was actually more insane and I was a regular at at least half a dozen local TexMex joints. I probably should have been in much worse shape than I am now. But in Texas I had outlets. I could walk for hours without hearing a single car horn, without quickly jumping out of the way of a careening taxi.

But things are looking up. Perhaps I needed a jolt to help me break some of my bad habits. I have replaced the daily lemon squishies and thick, melted mozerella sandwiches with raw veggies and cool, refreshing water. Breakfast now consists of only one (albeit large and strong) cup of coffee and a small bowl of muesli with honey. I am taking my pills. The doctor says that if I can get this under control quickly, I may not even need to take the dreaded pills forever. I have already lost some weight, my pants loosening after just two weeks.

But I know what really kept me relatively sane and healthy before I came to Cairo, and what will restore me upon my return home. It was the river that washed away the daily madness. I realize now that I am destined to be one of those crazy old people who wake up at the crack of dawn in any kind of weather, pull my swim trunks up too high, mount an old cruiser bike, and peddle down to the place where water magically pours from the ground. I will pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and serenly dive into the cold, inviting river that seems to make everything in this crazy life just a little better.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

When I Grow Up...

When I was eight years old I wanted to be the pope. There was a priest at our church, Father Lagezi, who delighted in weaving jokes into his weekly homily. Sometimes he was quite funny. Other times, not so much. But regardless of the quality of the humor, the congregation laughed at every punchline. I figured that if a simple parish priest could garner that kind of power, the pope could say almost anything even slightly amusing and sit back, self assuredly listening to the multitudes chuckle.

But time passed and I moved on to other ideas. It wasn't the incredible improbability of ever becoming the pope so much as the intensity of the vows that dissuaded me from my lofty goal. So, if not the pope, what would I be when I grew up? I toyed with possibilities without committing to anything. At times I wanted to be a journalist, a cartoonist, a bartender, an orator, a gentleman farmer, a feluca pilot, and an international man of leisure, among other things.

A month before I graduated from college with a vague and immediately useless degree in Communication and English, Jenn bought me a homebrewing kit. I made my first batch of beer. It was terrible and so I made another. The second time it was not so terrible. A few more batches and the stuff was becoming delicious. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. Remember that this was in the early days of the micro brewing revolution. There were still more NBA players in this country than professional brewers. The very first brewpubs in Austin were just starting to open. So I bottled a couple of batches of beer, printed my resume onto labels, and started knocking on the doors of these new breweries. I did not get a job on the first round. There were already too many ambitious homebrewers and too few breweries to employ us all. Still, I told myself that somebody had to be a starting forward in the NBA. Why couldn't it be me? I went back again and again.

While I had struck out with the first generation of brewpubs, my persistence paid off. I picked up a job at Austin Homebrew, which morphed into a brewing job at what may well be the coolest bar in the known universe - Lovejoys. It was a fantastic job and I worked there for four years. My boss, Chip, was great. He told me to make whatever I wanted. And so I did. Some of it was pretty good. I loved the artistic freedom of brewing small batches of craft beer for an eager and open minded clientele. Eventually the desire to move on and my waning interest in the science of brewing overcame me and I didn't want to be a brewer when I grew up anymore. Or maybe I just wanted to grow up again.

I started teaching because I heard that I could find a job in Mexico as an English teacher. I had never wanted to be a teacher. I never even wanted to step inside another school after graduating. I often ask myself now if I would be back in school if I had paid more attention the first time around. If I didn't want to be a teacher, I really never wanted to be a behavior specialist. But I am good with kids and for whatever reason, I have an ability to talk people down when they are about to do something stupid or dangerous - a talent that is sadly in high demand in American public schools.

A minor nervous breakdown and a lucky(?) break landed me a teaching job at an unnamed international school in Cairo. The job is OK but I'm tired of the stress and sick of the city. My blood pressure has become a clinically significant problem and I am increasingly asking myself, "What do I want to be when I grow up?" Last week I tendered my resignation and have until the end of this school year to reinvent myself and perhaps grow up a little.

I was discussing the prospect of growing up and moving forward with a colleague and told him that what I really want to do is this - write. I told him I want to be an essayist, or what the kids today are calling a blogger.
"People make a living writing essays." I naively told him.
"Sure, five people do." He replied
At first I was crestfallen. It is true that in a world where everyone is giving away milk, it is no easy feat to sell a cow. But then I thought about the five people who are doing it and about NBA players and how I was once a twenty-five year old hobbyist, pounding the street with a six pack of homebrew under my arm, knowing beyond any doubt that what was in my bottles was worth buying.