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Shoulda Gouda Woulda (A Cheesy Valentine’s Story)

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“He is deformed, crooked, old and sere, Ill-faced, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere; Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind; Stigmatical in making, worse in mind.” ~William Shakespeare (Comedy of Errors, IV, ii)

Some of you have heard this story before, but in honor of the year’s most sappy holiday, I thought it was time for a re-telling of the cheesiest Valentine’s Day ever.  So hunker down with your Havarti, get chummy with some cheddar, and be prepared for a Tillamook tale of Edam proportions.

I dated a few guys during college.  One of them was a geeky pre-med major who, although basically a nice guy, gave new meaning to the word dork.  When he enthusiastically introduced himself to my family for the first time as being “from the thumb of Michigan!” (complete with hand directional display), he gave them fodder for teasing me for years to come.  We dated for about a year before he nonchalantly broke up with me via a MESSAGE ON MY ANSWERING MACHINE.  To protect the identity of the daft, we shall hereafter refer to him in my story as The Cowardly Doofus (or just Doofus, for short).

(I can’t remember why I dated him for so long…ah, wait, he had a very hot older brother who lived with him, rode a motorcycle, had long hair, and wore lots of black leather, it’s all coming back to me now…)

This is the way I understand the story: we’d been dating for probably about 9 months or so when Doofus decided he would call my MOTHER for ideas on what to get me for Valentine’s Day.  Gee that’s romantic.  And incredibly uninspired – he couldn’t think of anything on his own?  I think my mother was just as bewildered when Doofus called her and started asking questions such as “What does Kristi like?”  The problem was (one of many), was that he didn’t tell her this was for a Valentine’s Day present, he just wanted to know what some of my favorite things were.  (We’d been dating for NINE MONTHS, he had no idea what I liked?  What a clod.)

Confused, my poor Mom told me later she just said the first thing that popped into her mind during that weird and cryptic conversation:  “Well, I know Kristi really likes cheese.  She especially likes those fancier kinds like Gouda and Edam I think.”

I don’t blame her (mostly).

About a week later, Valentine’s Day was upon us.  I lived in a big sorority house during college which housed 58 women.  It was a great place to spend my college years, but it left little room for privacy when it came to the details of one’s dating life.  In other words, everyone knew everything about the romantic relationships of everyone who lived in that house.  Unbeknownst to me, I was about to become an infamous urban legend for years to come whenever anyone in that house brought up Valentine’s Day.

I had been at class earlier that morning, and happened to arrive back at the house right at lunchtime – the most crowded time of the day usually (of course).  When I opened the doors and entered the foyer, I saw a large gathering of my housemates in a bunch, all looking at something.  “She’s here!” one of them said and the crowd parted to reveal a very large, gift-wrapped box.  It was about the size of a washing machine and it came up to waist-level.  A gift tag on the outside revealed to everyone that I was the lucky recipient of this enormous mystery and that Doofus was the enigmatic bestow-er.

For a few minutes, I was the envy of every girl in that room.  Other (normal) boyfriends had sent bouquets of pretty flowers, which sat waiting on the bench in the foyer, seemingly small change compared to this giant gift that had piqued everyone’s curiosity.  The air of romance in that room that day was palpable.  If I could only go back in time, I never would have opened that box.  But I did, in front of all those other girls, who would look at me very differently after that day (with pity, mostly).

So with the highest in-person Nielsen rating of any gift-opening in that house ever, I unwrapped and opened the large outer box.  I was just as excited as everyone else, and really had no idea what it could be.  What could be in a box that big?!  Inside was lots of crumpled up newspapers, cushioning another wrapped smaller box about the size of a microwave oven.  “Another box!”   Everyone was all smiles.

I unwrapped that box, inside of which was another wrapped smaller package the size of a shoebox.  By this point, everyone was getting pretty impatient.  Especially when inside the shoebox was one more wrapped package the size of a small brick.  At the sight of that one, all the eyes lit up a little more and everyone moved a little closer, anticipating the big reveal.  Every girl knows that the best gifts come in small boxes right?  And he’d put so much effort into this, it must be something really good!

My heart beat a little faster.  This was a serious relationship, after all (or so I thought).  I imagined a sparkly bracelet, or maybe a really nice watch.  A heart pendant, perhaps. The last thing I could have ever imagined that my boyfriend would give to me for Valentine’s Day – and make me work so hard to reveal IN FRONT OF EVERYONE – was the shrink-wrapped brick of smoked Gouda cheese in a poop-colored brown rind that lay under that last layer of wrapping paper.  (Yes, he went the extra centimeter to get the smoked variety instead of just plain unimaginative Gouda.)

(Source: Cheese.com)

(Source: Cheese.com, Photo Credit: Sulzberger Käserebellen Sennerei GmbH)

All I really remember about the next moments:  a stunned silence; shocked stares; a few sympathetic pats on the shoulder; a kind soul who started rummaging through the newspapers in the bigger boxes, mumbling “There has to be something else in here somewhere…”  I think someone used a few choice curse words, although whether they were aimed at Doofus or at the wasted time and outcome of the whole spectacle, I’m not sure.

I remember staring at the brown brick in my hands and reading the label very intently, hoping my devoted scrutiny of the ingredient list would allow me the time I needed to will my flushing red cheeks back to a normal tint.  Cheese?  He got me cheese?  For Valentine’s Day?  I forced myself to think of alternatives.  This couldn’t be it.  Was it the beginning clue to a romantic scavenger hunt that would lead to the real Valentine’s treasure?  Was there a message under the wrapper saying to bring the cheese to a nice romantic dinner that night at a fancy restaurant, where we’d pair it with strawberries and chocolate?

The answers were yes, yes, yes, no, and no.  After the disappointed crowd quietly faded into the background, I stumbled downstairs to my room and called The Cowardly Doofus, at which point he confirmed that he had proudly shopped for that Gouda himself (OH GOOD FOR YOU), knowing it was one of my favorite things.  He honestly thought it was the greatest gift ever.  I just sat in silent amazement on the other end of the line. 

I guess you could say that was the day I saw the light through the holes in the Swiss cheese.  He left his break-up phone message for me a few short months later.  Now that I reflect back on it, it was probably because I’d been treating him like a plate of stinky Gorgonzola after the V-Day debacle.  He deserved it, of course.  He’d burned a cruel and farcical Valentine’s Day memory on my brain that I can never forget or live down.  On the other hand, he set the bar so unbelievably low, that all Valentine’s gifts I ever got after that seemed like gold-plated gemstones in comparison. 

By the way, my mom wasn’t lying:  I do like cheese.  Not as a romantic Valentine’s Day present (ever), but I probably could live on baguettes and a nice Somerset cheddar for the rest of my life if I had to.  Give me some tangy goat cheese and a sourdough roll and I’ll be your friend forever.  And not one to let a good cheese go to waste, I did enjoy that Gouda that I got that day long ago, with some crackers and grapes if I remember correctly.  By myself in my room of course, so as to avoid the cackles of laughter that would’ve no doubt ensued if I’d shown it in public again.

And if you’re wondering whatever happened to The Cowardly Doofus: well, he is now Dr. Doofus, practicing as an emergency room physician after going to medical school back in Michigan.  Yup, the Gouda giver finally made the long trip home to the thumb motherland.  I guess he couldn’t Camembert it anywhere else.

Here’s wishing you & yours a very UNunhappy Valentine’s Valencay Day everyone!

Valencay cheese from France (Source: Cheese.com)

Valencay cheese from France (Source: Cheese.com, Credit: Creative Commons/DocteurCosmos)

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Hulk Headaches & Health Anxiety

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“So sick I am not, yet I am not well…” ~William Shakespeare (Cymbeline, IV, ii)

I haven’t been feeling too great lately.  Nothing life-threatening or too deeply dire, just lots of mostly minor maladies here and there that add up to an overall sense of suckiness.  Headaches, weird muscle aches, earaches, toothaches, overall body aches…it’s getting pretty tiring, both physically and mentally.  I seem to have a few good days where everything seems in pretty good working order, but it’s inevitably then followed by about a week of bad days where I feel crappy…and then the cycle repeats itself.

I know no one likes to be sick or feel bad, and I realize there are many people out there that are dealing with a LOT worse than me, but the fact remains that when I don’t feel good, I seem to just…shut down.  Being sick or hurt for me presents a mental roadblock that is pretty tough for me to push aside.  You see, I have a history of some pretty impressive health anxiety.  It used to be a lot worse than it is now, and I’ve brought it under manageable control with the help of a life-saving therapist – but I continue to grapple with it and have come to accept that it will probably always be a part of who I am and something I have to work to overcome.

For someone with health anxiety, the whys and whens and hows and what-ifs threaten to overwhelm a person when they get sick or hurt, or have any “unusual” symptoms: Why is this happening to me, what’s the exact, specific, pinpointed cause?  (Because if I know the cause, I can then hopefully prevent it from happening again.)  How and when did I catch this cold, or get this headache, or become short of breath?  What if this headache is really the beginning of meningitis?  What if this weird muscle spasm in my armpit is a sign that I have clogged heart arteries?  What if those recurring cramps in my legs are because of life-threatening blood clots?  When we can’t get answers to these questions (which is most of the time), it just makes our anxiety worse, which then leads to more stress, which then causes even more health problems.

Stopping that fatalistic self-talk as it begins and trying to not immediately imagine the worst possible scenario is part of what I learned and practiced through therapy, back when the anxiety was at its worst.  I was also not allowed to look up any of my symptoms on the internet, so as to not induce even more panic and feed the medical monster.  I was banned from taking my pulse more than once/day or at times other than during exercise.  Ultimately, I decided I had to quit my job as a health counselor where I talked about horrible health problems all day every day (the worst possible environment for me) and take myself out of that personal mine field. 

(Source: criticalscience.com)

(Source: criticalscience.com)

For the most part, I still am able to enlist those calming strategies and avoid the full-blown panic attacks and vicious worry cycles that I used to incur on a pretty frequent basis.  I remember my therapist’s teachings: to tell myself what the most likely and unlikely scenarios are, and then to logically handle the symptom and situation from there.  To realize that everyone – especially as we get older – has aches and pains as the normal part of life.  To also realize that life doesn’t always come with an explanation pamphlet for every scenario we encounter, and to learn to live with not always knowing why (as crazy as it may drive me).  I’m happy to say that I’m no longer a frequent flier at the doctor’s office, but I also still believe in timely visits for those issues that truly do warrant it and not ignoring what could be serious (like the stabbing/piercing ear pain I had this past week).

But – I am kind of a worrier by nature anyway, something else that was in the genes and I just have to accept and deal with.  Which means, that even when I am able to not panic out loud about an illness or strange symptom, I still quietly and subtly worry about it (for both me and for things happening to those closest to me).  Health anxiety quietly hovers in the corner of the dark room that you usually try to keep closed off, but then sneaks out every once in a while when you least expect or want it.  People tease you about it, or avoid talking to you about any health topic whatsoever, in fear that you’ll just have some kind of fit-like meltdown.  (This just makes us feel worse by the way, when we’re working so hard to improve.)

And I admit that even that subdued level of worry is still enough to cause me to focus on the issue more than I should.  I find myself making more mental room for it and sacrificing attention to other things on my to-do list that get waylaid by the worry.  Every once in a while, I allow myself to guiltily look up a new symptom online, and then usually regret it as soon as I see all the uninformed prattle on the chat boards.  I lose my appetite when I worry too much about what’s going on with my physical failings, but maybe that’s normal?  Being “normal” and feeling “good” are what I wish for every day, so I guess I feel let down and anxious when the opposite happens.

As mentioned above, I also know that worrying about my health – or anything really – actually contributes to a negative circle of physiological health effects in and of itself.  Ten days ago I had a spectacular tension headache across the back of my head that lasted for a tight and burning 48 hours; nothing would make it go away but time, but what was most frustrating for me (in terms of figuring out why it was happening) was that I’d been feeling what I thought was relatively tension-free lately!  I have a job that I really enjoy, and my overt stress levels compared to a year ago are practically nil.  But no one can ever be totally stress or worry-free, that’s unrealistic.  Even minor stress levels over things like money, or the future, or family issues, can apparently cause your cranium to feel like it’s being clobbered by the Hulk. 

So, it’s a work in progress, this tempering of my teetering.  I feel alone in my anxiety journey most of the time, and I don’t usually like to talk about it, but I wanted to shed a little light on it today in case someone else out there is also struggling to get a handle on it too.  It can get better, so hang in there.  Get help if you need it.  Figure out the source and root cause of where this anxiety is coming from, as that’s how you’ll be able to start dealing with it.  I’ve been lucky to have a few friends and family and therapists help me through it in the past, but it’s a constant effort that I have to work at mostly just by myself.  Like Pam from ‘The Office’ said, “Pobody’s Nerfect.”  Definitely not me…and I don’t want to be perfect anymore anyway (or nerfect). 

Bonne santé et à la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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