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Waiting

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“I am to wait, though waiting so be hell…” ~William Shakespeare (Sonnet 58)

Doesn’t it seem sometimes like we spend most of our lives waiting?

  • When we’re young kids, we can’t wait to get “bigger.”  Any version of bigger will do, as long as we don’t stay “little.”  We wait for the bus, or for family members to pick us up from school.  We wait with one eye open for Christmas morning to arrive.
  • As teenagers we wait anxiously until we get our driver’s license.  We wait for our parents to say it’s ok to wear makeup.  Or go out on our first date.  Or stay out past 10:00 PM.  And then when we break curfew, we wait (grounded) in our rooms on a Saturday night for that one cute guy to call and talk about nothing for four hours.
  • In college we wait for “real life” to start while we sluice through the learning of information that we wonder if we’ll ever use.  We wait for Mr. or Ms. Right to show up, and then we wait out the realization of our mistakes as we watch the imposters walk away.  We wait for graduation, so that we can then start waiting for our “big break” to come along.
  • So then “real life” starts, the big break never shows up, and we wait for a puny paycheck from a stair-stepping job to pay rent and buy food, all on our own.
  • We wait in traffic to get to the job with the puny paycheck.
  • We wait on a tax return to give us back (not enough) money that was deducted from our puny paycheck.
  • We wait for a few measly days of vacation time in order to get away from the job with the puny paycheck.  We spend half that time waiting in airports or on long stretches of highways or on buses that smell like bratwurst.  But we glimpse a spark of paradise, and we can’t wait to go back.
  • We may decide to bite the marriage bullet and tie the knot (or knots), in which case we then wait for a year while all kinds of “important” wedding plans can be made.  Which all seem so useless when we’re later waiting for our final divorce decree to be mailed to us so that we can get untangled from that knot.
  • If it’s in the cards, we wait for nine months to greet a child.  If it’s not in the cards, then we still wait many more months…or years.  And then we wonder how long we’ll have to wait to be ok with that.
  • We start to get older.  Maybe we wait on another few stair steps, through another few jobs.  We wait for that “fulfilling” career opportunity to come along, the one we don’t mind waking up for in the morning.  We wait for dreams to finally happen, and we wonder what’s taking them so long.  We’re not getting any younger you know.  Anytime now would be fine.
  • We start waiting in more doctors’ offices.  Waiting for more test results.  Waiting to feel better.  Waiting to find out what the genetic roulette wheel might have in store for us as we enter the later phases of life.
  • And then of course as we get much older, like black-socks-with-sandals older, the ultimate waiting begins.  You know, for that last curtain call.  The final ka-bang.  I hear some people move to Florida during this time to make the wait more pleasant, but how could it be, with all the humidity and the hurricanes?  No thanks.

Yeah yeah, all the positivity-addicted optimists out there will read this and say something like “you can’t just wait for life to happen to you, you have to go out there and make it happen for yourself!”  If you’re sitting next to one of those people, punch them in the arm for me.  (Thanks.)  Actually, I’m willing to admit that’s probably true to a degree; I think we do reap (or suffer) the rewards (or consequences) of our choices.  And we’re each responsible for those choices of course.  

But I also think there are many people out there (more than we could ever know about probably) that feel a bit paralyzed when it comes to making life choices.  Especially the big ones.  And so they get caught in a pattern of waiting.  I think this happens to everyone at some time or another.  It’s just that some people are able to find their way out of the waiting room, and some people aren’t…or, it just takes them a bit longer, for whatever reason.

So, if you’re stuck in a waiting rut, what to do?  I wish I knew.  It’s easy to just say “go do something.”  I know it’s much tougher to make that happen sometimes.  Lack of motivation, resources, support – they’re all contributors to getting stuck.  

I guess the best we can hope for while we’re caught in the stuck waiting room of life is some really good 80’s music to entertain us while we’re there…like Pat Benatar or Bananarama.  Duran Duran and Simple Minds also acceptable.

À la prochaine.

Ant Kristi

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Treethanasia

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“I have a tree, which grows here in my close, that mine own use invites me to cut down, and shortly must I fell it…” ~William Shakespeare (Timon of Athens, V, i)

A few days ago I had to have a huge shade tree in my backyard cut down.  Not just pruned, but completely cut down.  I still feel pretty bad about it so I thought writing about it might ease my timbering guilt a little.  This is the tale of its treethanasia in pictures.

My house is almost 30 years old; I’m pretty sure the tree, a Bradford Pear, was planted when the house was built or shortly thereafter, because all the arborists who looked at it for me (to assess its health and give me bids on taking it down) told me they estimated its age at 25-30 years.  All of them also said it was at the end of its life span, that Bradfords rarely (and/or safely) make it past that age.  Here’s a picture of it at its full shady glory in my backyard:

IMG_5522It provided a huge canopy of welcome shade for the walkway on the side of my house and a large portion of my backyard ever since I moved in 4 years ago.  It also protected me from some rain when going back and forth to my flower shed.  The tallest part of it was easily twice as tall as my house.  I liked the dark glen it provided to look at outside my windows on that side of the house.IMG_5521As much as I liked the shade, I was equally very frustrated by its continual leaf drop seemingly twelve months out of the year, covering the porch and backyard in leaf litter and clogging my rain gutters, leading to muck and mosquitos.  Branches would rub against the roof and chimney, waking me up during windstorms and allowing creatures such as armadillos and squirrels an easy route to ramble along the roof whenever they wanted.

IMG_5524But then in the fall, it would redeem itself with an explosion of color for a short while, leaving a pool of nature’s confetti to slush through.

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IMG_0304I’ve learned over the past few months that Bradfords are very rapidly-growing trees and because of this, they often grow with many points of instability.  They split into many different joints and trunks and because of this, water and leaves pool in the wells in-between those joints and trunks, causing rot and weakness.  They are often the first trees to fall and/or split during wind or rain storms, especially as they get older like my tree was.  I learned this the hard way a few months ago, when this happened:

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IMG_5193A huge portion of the tree just split at the ground level and fell crashing through the fence into the neighbor’s yard (onto their porch roof).  It was several days before I could get some guys to come remove that part of the tree and repair the fence.  They painted the open-faced wound with “tree scar” tar to try to prevent it from rotting further, but they told me that eventually the whole tree would probably have to come down.

About two months and an arkful of Austin rainstorms later, I noticed a disgusting oozing amber gel-like substance on the other huge tree in my backyard, a pecan tree.  All the arborists who came to look at it said it was a harmless jelly fungus due to all the rain, but they also all pointed out that the Bradford was in imminent danger of now falling again, and that this time it was going to fall onto my roof and house because all the weight was now on that one side.

So, a few weeks later I found a company that would cut the tree down for a reasonable price.  On the morning of its imminent demise, before the worker guys showed up, I went outside to put my hands on its trunk; it was a living thing that had survived several decades, and I felt guilty that I was the one taking away its livingness.  Maybe I should have felt silly saying “I’m sorry, tree,” but instead I just felt sad.  (I knew however that I’d be much sadder if and when it fell on my house and I had to shell out an even bigger sum for my home insurance deductible, so it had to be done.)

The tree guys showed up and didn’t waste any time.  One guy harnessed himself high up in the tree and started cutting branches, which quickly covered the yard and porch; the other two guys would use their own chainsaws to cut the branches down even further and drag them out to the trailer behind their truck.

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Can you see him there in the middle of the tree?

IMG_5528It went pretty quickly after that.  I tried not to watch but I couldn’t look away.  I figured I was the one ending its life…I might as well document it and be there to face it.  The chainsaw whittling continued and the tree got stubbier and thinner.  More and more of the green part of the tree disappeared each few minutes.

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IMG_5533Until finally all the green was gone and only branches were left.

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IMG_5536And then only the bottom of the trunk remained.  When he cut into it horizontally for the very last cut at ground level, part of the huge trunk split in two vertically on its own, that’s how weak it was at its lowest level.  I had made the right decision; it really was on its last legs.

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This part of the trunk sat there for a long time while everything else was cleaned up. I felt a great sense of loss.

30 years of growing into the skies had now been reduced to a large leafy pile in a trailer to be hauled away.

IMG_5541And what was left was a large empty spot, a blank fence, and…sunshine.  So much sun, shining down on my two Mountain Laurel trees and ground jasmine that probably haven’t seen or felt true sunshine like that in decades.  And sun shining through my windows, making my house lighter than it’s ever been.

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IMG_5543I know it was just a tree, and that it didn’t have a brain or nerve endings so it couldn’t feel pain, but did it somehow know that its life was coming to an end?  I don’t know…I also don’t know why I’m worrying about this, I should just be annoyed that this tree has cost me about 40 times what someone probably paid for it back when it was planted.  It had a good life.  And life does go on, from the dark into the light.

IMG_5517And as I sit here writing this, streams of sunlight are shining in my eyes through the window for the first time.  It’s nice.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Cocoa Lamentations

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“To be forbod the sweets that seem so good, for fear of harms that preach in our behoof.” ~William Shakespeare (A Lover’s Complaint)

It’s been over four months now since I last had any chocolate.  I can’t ever remember that happening in my life, ever.  Even when I was in the middle-of-nowhere Africa in the Peace Corps, I could find chocolate cookies or make a chocolate cake in my dutch oven or I’d get chocolate chip energy bars in my care packages from home every so often.  I’ve done sugar fasts for a month at a time when chocolate was off the menu, but after the month was up, I could indulge again.  And no, I haven’t developed an allergy to chocolate – I’ve voluntarily eliminated it from my diet because it’s pretty much at the top of the acidic foods list and therefore a major red flag for my no-acid regime that I’ve been instructed to follow by my doctor .

I’m pretty cranky about it.

Like most rational people in the world, I love chocolate.  One of my nephews told me once that he doesn’t like chocolate and I looked at him like he was an alien from another planet.  Not like chocolate?  How is that even humanly possible?  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the chocolate concoctions that I miss the most, even though it’s a form of self-torture:

  • My mom’s hot fudge brownie cake (a gooey warm pile of chocolate indulgence);
  • Plain M&Ms mixed with white cheddar Smartfood popcorn (sweet & salty perfection that got me through every college all-nighter study session);
  • A steaming hot mug of creamy hot chocolate with marshmallows (comfort in a cup);
  • Warm chocolate chunk cookies right out of the oven;
  • Hershey’s Dark Chocolate Miniatures (cold & crisp out of the refrigerator);
  • Dove salted caramel dark chocolate squares (these should be illegal);
  • Dove chocolate ice cream bars (yes there’s a Dove pattern here);
  • Pain au chocolate (the best French invention ever, a croissant with chocolate inside).
Sweet samples from my Chocolate Tour of London last summer. (*sob*)

Sweet samples from my Chocolate Tour of London last summer. (*sob*)

I can’t bear to think of any more examples.  The other day I had to buy several pounds (yes pounds) worth of chocolate for a work event that I was hosting: brownie bites, Snickers, M&Ms (yes students will attend any event with free chocolate, and no I don’t feel bad about bribing them with sugar, they can eat healthy once they graduate)…the smell alone emanating from my bag as I carried it to the event was enough to elicit a distinct Pavlovian response from my salivary glands.  I stared at the students as they ate their chocolate in innocent bliss, feeling incredibly envious (and hating them just a little bit).

Sweet elixir.

Sweet elixir.

I know it’s healthier for me to not eat chocolate, I know that in my mind…and I know I’m lucky that this is a voluntary choice and not something more serious that is literally forcing me to not eat it…but my subconscious that dreams of swimming in a chocolate river is telling me that this substance brings me joy in some form or fashion and that I really, really miss it.  Almost as much as I miss cheese.  And peanut butter.  And chocolate WITH peanut butter, I forgot to put that on the list, that’s a good one.  (And don’t get me started on cheese…)

Someone last week told me “I’m sure it would be fine if you just had one little piece of chocolate once a week or every other week.”  What they don’t know is that I’m actually afraid now of trying that – I’m pretty sure that one piece would unlock the fudge flood gates and I’d then be drowning in an ocean of Oreos.  Hey, that’s going to make for a pretty good dream tonight!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

 

Four Mistakes and A Blue Chair

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“I cannot give thee less, to be call’d grateful: Thou thought’st to help me; and such thanks I give as one near death to those that wish him live…” ~William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, II, i)

The holiday of Thanksgiving holds some pretty significant memories and anniversaries for me.  Of course the day itself conjures up remembrances of huge family get-togethers in drafty west Texas garages when I was little, and then later, taste memories of my favorite foods that my Mom would cook each year as we grew up (her dressing could seriously win awards).  But it’s actually the day before Thanksgiving as well as the day after it that now both occupy the forefront of my mind when I think of this particular holiday.

Last year at this time I wrote a post about the rainy day I moved to Austin, which was the day before Thanksgiving, five years ago now.  (Read that post here if you missed it.)  It’s hard to believe I’ve been here five whole years now already.  The past year has actually been pretty steady and consistent, which has been a welcome change after the many tumultuous years prior to that.  I’m thankful to have a job that I like, and a business that I’m enjoying building piece by piece, a nice little roof over my head, and of course a family that is both near and dear.  I’ll always remember the day before Thanksgiving as the day I moved to where my family was waiting for me.

The day after Thanksgiving holds a different kind of memory for me, and in fact, part of it holds no memory at all.  It happened in a city with a crazy name – Ouagadougou, when I was about three-quarters of the way through my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in the African country of Burkina Faso from 1999-2001.  Most of us had traveled from our villages into Ouaga (the capital) at the invitation of the US Ambassador, who hosted an incredible Thanksgiving feast for us at his residence.  Our eyes popped out of our heads at the multiple tables heaving with actual American Thanksgiving food, and, after months of having eaten only tiresome rice and millet porridge, we gorged ourselves silly until we were literally sick (or at least I did).

Me & the rest of the 1999 Burkina Faso Peace Corps class, on the day we officially became Volunteers.

Me & the rest of the 1999 Burkina Faso Peace Corps class, on the day we officially became Volunteers.

The next morning, the day after Thanksgiving, I woke up and made plans for the day – first on my list was to head to the main post office in the middle of the city so that I could 1) pick up my monthly living allowance stipend and 2) mail my brother an African poster I’d gotten for him at a recent local art festival.  I felt good, the weather was great, and I was looking forward to a relaxing weekend at the American Embassy rec center.  I had no idea as my taxi dropped me off at the post office that I was about to experience one of the worst and most traumatic days of my life.

I waited patiently in the crowded customer area of the post office until it was finally my turn to withdraw my money from my account there, and then stuffed the poster into a cardboard tube and covered it with stamps to mail it.  I put most of my money into a small pouch that I wore hidden under my shirt.  Then I put just a few CFA (Burkina money), enough for a taxi, into a larger purse-type bag that I wore slung around one shoulder.  This bag was worn on the outside and was visible – Mistake #1.

I exited the post office onto a very busy roundabout traffic circle and waited several minutes for a taxi to stop at my signal, but none would.  I was trying to get to the Embassy, which was about a mile away from the post office.  It was 12:00 noon at this time & I was looking forward to a milkshake and maybe some pizza from the Rec Center cafe.  After several more minutes I got impatient of waiting for a taxi and decided to just walk to the Embassy – Mistake #2.  And, I was alone – Mistake #3.

The walk to the Embassy was almost a straight shot – mostly down a long, very busy boulevard, then turn left onto a side street, cross a bridge over a large and deep ravine, then take a right for about a block, and then another left, at which point you’d be there.  I’d walked it before with other Volunteers, so it was a familiar route.  It was broad daylight.  I’d been in the country for about a year and a half by this time, so I felt confident and reassured of doing things on my own.  I was an independent woman.

And then I wasn’t.

I’d just taken that first left turn and noticed several vendor stalls set back from the street on my left, merchants selling their wares.  I saw the bridge just ahead of me, with silver railings on each side and a narrow dirt walkway bordering the pavement.  It happened extremely fast.  I heard him before I saw him – running footsteps on the gravely dirt behind me and his rapid breathing, and then confusion and shock as he grabbed my bag that was slung around my shoulder and across my chest.  He jerked downwards, thinking it would just come off, but it didn’t – it had a thick strap, and I instinctively grabbed onto the bag and fought for it – Mistake #4.

He was Burkinabe, but other than that I don’t know what he looked like.  I do remember screaming – in English, not French, I guess I was too panicked – at the top of my lungs toward the nearby vendor stalls “help me help me help me help me!”  And then, everything just went black.  The next several minutes have been – I hope permanently – wiped from my memory.

I woke up at the bottom of the deep ravine under the bridge.  It was a sewage ditch with running water and raw waste that ran through the city, and I estimate that it was about a 16-foot fall.  I was lying on my back and face up in mud and water and waste and weeds, and the first thing I saw was my attacker’s face as he stood over me.  I would be told later from bystander witnesses that once the thief saw I wouldn’t give up my bag, he pushed me over the side of the ditch that was just before the protective railing, and then he ran to the opposite bank and sidestepped his way down to the bottom of the ravine where I was.  As I lay there stunned, he pulled my bag over my head, or maybe he cut it off, I don’t really remember, but I do remember turning my head to watch him then run with it down a huge round metal tunnel.  I remember several other men were yelling at him and had also jumped down into the ditch and ran after him to try to catch him.  They wouldn’t.

I tried to sit up, and fire ripped through my shoulder.  I remember being very worried for some reason about trying to find my flip-flops, which had fallen off.  I looked up toward the sky, I heard yelling – the vendors had rushed over to the side and were yelling at me to hurry up and climb up the dirt bank.  Their arms were outreached toward me, waving encouragement.  I was able to stand up, but when I tried to lift my left arm to reach toward them, I almost fainted from the pain and stumbled backwards.  I used my right arm and hand to grab handfuls of dirt to climb up the side of the ditch.  I finally was able to grab the hand of a man who pulled me the rest of the way up.  I yelled at him to not touch my other arm.

I asked my helpers to get a taxi to take me to the Embassy.  They frantically flagged one down and told the driver what had happened – he stared at me through the window, and what a sight I must have been.  He drove me the two minutes around the corner and I apologized profusely that I couldn’t pay him…”my money was just stolen, I’m so sorry”…I’d forgotten I had my other bag under my clothing.  He waved me out of the taxi and I stumbled up to the armed guard at the gate – I told him simply “I’ve been attacked, I’ve been attacked, please help me.”  It couldn’t have been later than 12:30 PM by this time – and everyone in the Peace Corps office was out to lunch.

The guard half-carried me inside and the only other person there was a cleaning lady, she was pushing a yellow mop bucket around.  He barked something at her and she ran to meet me with a rolling desk chair.  They eased me down into the chair and while they started making frantic phone calls to try to get the medical team back to the office, I sat there on that blue chair, waiting, shivering from shock, crying.  I remember that I slowly realized I was having trouble breathing – I was taking deep gasping breaths in, but feeling like I was suffocating.  I croaked to the mop bucket lady that I couldn’t breathe, please help me.  Hang on, hang on, she said, they’re on their way, just hang on a little longer.  She asked me if I wanted something to drink; I shook my head no.

The Peace Corps medical officer (MO) would tell me later that when she got word at the restaurant what had happened, that a Peace Corps Volunteer had been attacked and was seriously injured, she literally leapt up from the table and drove back to the Embassy faster than she’d ever driven in the city before.  I was still sitting in that blue chair when she and her assistant burst through the door and into action, asking me questions and taking my vitals and making more urgent phone calls.

I told her I couldn’t breathe, but the pulse oximeter they had on me showed I was getting adequate oxygen.  Eventually she told me she needed me to get up from the chair and into the exam room.  I tried, but I couldn’t get up – I cried out in pain as every muscle and ligament in my back felt like they had been ripped apart (they had).  I couldn’t stand up; she lifted me out of the chair, apologizing for the pain it was causing me, and they shuffled me to the exam room and up onto a table/bed.  It was only at this point that I noticed I was trailing blood from a mangled big toe. It didn’t even hurt, which I thought was weird.  (Adrenaline is an amazing thing.)

The MO told me an ambulance was on the way so they could take me to the hospital for x-rays; while we waited, she started cleaning up my toe and other skin abrasions that I didn’t even know I had.  She took the hair clip out of my hair and brushed it, smoothing it down…a very kind gesture that I only appreciated much later.  (She would tell me later that before she did that, I looked like one of those pencil troll dolls whose hair sticks straight up.)  I remember Ambassador Kolker came to see me while I was in that room waiting, he’d been informed of what happened and he rushed over to see if I was ok – and to tell me they’d do whatever they could to catch and prosecute my attacker.  I think I cried on his suit jacket when he gave me a hug.

Getting into that ambulance was probably the most physically painful experience of my life – every step was excruciating, and then having to climb up into the back of it and into a chair seat…I was sobbing out in pain and I didn’t even care who saw me or heard me.  A few minutes later we arrived at the back door of the x-ray facility, and then more pain as I was manipulated into unending different x-ray positions.  We were pretty sure at that point that my collar-bone was broken, and I know the MO was also worried about my back and my ankle (I had a pretty bad limp by this point).

The damage tally once it was all determined:  a shattered left clavicle (collar-bone), two broken ribs, a fractured ankle bone, a chipped tooth, the previously-mentioned mangled toe, and severe muscle and ligament damage in my back (which is what had been causing the labored breathing).  The ambulance brought me back to the Embassy, and a few hours later I was then transported to a private French medical clinic for three days of initial treatment.  The MO needed to consult with Peace Corps medical headquarters in Washington, show them the x-rays, etc…and they eventually decided to fly me back to Washington DC for surgery on my shoulder.

But I was to remain in Burkina for five days before my flight out.  Those three days in the clinic are a haze; I remember several Volunteers coming to visit me…one of them, Cristina (a certified RN and an angel), even helped me to use a bedpan on that first day because I couldn’t get out of the bed due to my back injuries – talk about going above and beyond.  I was so grateful for her help and her professionalism.  I remember the French nurses being mean and unfeeling the next day, telling me that if I wanted to go to the bathroom, I needed to get myself up and down to the bathroom without their help; I cried as I slowly inched my way out of the bed and wheeled my IV stand down the hall.  My Burkinabe colleagues came all the way from the village to visit me on my third day there, after I’d made an emotional phone call to them the day before to tell them what had happened.  They held back tears and clasped my hands, these people who had adopted me into their families and village, as we said goodbye – we all knew it might be the last time we ever saw each other if I wasn’t able to recuperate fully enough to come back and finish the last seven months of my service.

On the third day, I was discharged to spend my last night at the Peace Corps house and pack my things for my medical evacuation back to America.  On the ride from the clinic, the MO agreed to stop the van at the site of the incident – I gingerly climbed out of the van and walked over to where I’d gone over the edge.  The police had put up orange barrier tape after the incident report had been filed.  The van driver held my arm as I peered over the tape down into the ditch below; it took my breath away how far down it was.  The MO gazed down as well and then turned to me with a shocked look – she was thinking the same thing as me: I was lucky to be alive and not more seriously injured.  It was the closest thing to a miracle that I personally have ever been a part of.  The vendors from the street side stalls slowly approached us as we stood there – they recognized me and offered their well wishes.  One of them apologized, saying he wished he could’ve done more.  Another said that if the thief was seen again and caught, he’d likely be killed by those chasing him down. 

(They never did catch him, but they did find my bag later that day, emptied of its contents and discarded outside one of the well-known expensive French ex-pat hotels; he’d left my Peace Corps ID as the only remaining item inside.)

I was so grateful that Peace Corps approved and paid for Cristina to accompany me back on the flight, since I couldn’t carry my own bags and was still pretty doped up on pain meds.  The day before I left, I finally called my family from the MO office to let them know that I’d been hurt and was heading back to the States for treatment.  It’s a bit mind-boggling to me now that I waited that long to call them, and when I did, I didn’t tell them what had really happened; instead, I told them I’d been injured in a bike accident.  It’s a long story, but I legitimately feared that if they knew the truth, they wouldn’t let me (a grown 30-year-old woman) go back, and I wanted to go back if at all possible.  I told them the truth years later of what really happened as part of my ongoing therapy to deal with the PTSD issues.

Cristina and I started the long trek home, flying through Paris (in business class no less, so I would have more room for my injured shoulder) and arriving in a freezing cold and snowy DC on the evening of November 29th.  I remember the customs officer who searched our bags laughing at us in our tank tops and flip-flops, no coats, completely unprepared for the subfreezing weather – he correctly guessed we were Peace Corps Volunteers. We were then shuttled to the Peace Corps hotel where all the medical evacs stay – a surreal place of walking wounded, both physical and psychological.  We were thrilled to raid the Peace Corps headquarters travel closet to borrow appropriate winter gear the next day.

The next morning I made my way to the orthopedic surgeon’s office (who by the way was Wayne Gretsky’s surgeon also, he had several signed jerseys on his walls) for an evaluation; he took more x-rays and immediately bumped me to first on the surgery schedule for the following morning at George Washington hospital.  Up until then, my shoulder had just been taped to try to stabilize the bones and injury, but as you can imagine it was very uncomfortable.  On the morning of December 1 – one week after it happened – he opened up my shoulder and put back together the multiple pieces of my clavicle, wrapping them all up neatly with a stainless steel bow that I carry in there to this day (along with its 6-inch scar).  I spent one night in the hospital and was discharged the next day back to Hotel Sickie.  I had a bad reaction to the pain meds and that’s when I broke down and called my Dad to come help me – which he did, arriving that night in heroic Dad fashion to help nurse me back to health.

A permanent stainless steel reminder.

A permanent stainless steel reminder.

When you’re medically evacuated in Peace Corps, you’re usually allowed a total of five weeks for treatment and recuperation.  If you’re not healed by that time and cleared for service, you don’t go back to country and your service is terminated.  I was determined not to let that happen; I wanted to get back to Burkina.  I did all of my exercises and followed doctor’s instructions exactly (and got plenty of physical activity exploring snowy Washington every day for several weeks), and on the very last day of those five weeks, I met my doctor in his office and stared him in the eyes to tell him in no uncertain terms that I was ready.  He stared back at me for a long time, finally looking down to sign the clearance forms on his desk.  A few days later I was back on a plane to Africa; my arm was in a sling and my startle reflex was on high alert, but I was back.  I finished my service, and it made me a stronger person to face what had happened and try to overcome it.

So…that’s my day-after-Thanksgiving story.  I’ve second-guessed myself hundreds of times around the whole thing: if only I’d stayed in my village and not traveled into Ouaga for the holiday; if only I’d been more patient to wait for a taxi at the post office; if only I’d been smarter and not worn my bag where it was visible; if only I’d not been by myself.  I know what happened wasn’t my fault, but I am also not blameless.  I also know how lucky I am that I did not die that day – I could have landed on my neck, or broken my back, or hit my head.  I don’t remember anything at all of the fall itself, and when I explored this issue during subsequent therapy, I was told I probably never will; certain brain chemistry happens during such a trauma in order to help the body physically survive, but in the process wipes out memory aspects.  And that’s ok by me.  And despite what happened, I also don’t regret my decision to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer – the good memories outweigh the bad, and in my book, that’s a success.

Just typing the account of this story, I was shaking all over again.  It’s the first time I’ve ever put it all down on paper.  I hardly ever think about that day now, 14 years later – except around this time of the year.  I may not remember the fall, but the vivid clarity with which I can remember everything else that followed that day is astounding to me.  I think that blue rolling office chair sticks in my mind more than anything else – for a time, I really believed I was going to die in that chair.  I was fixated on hanging onto the sides of it, as if I were literally hanging on for dear life.  As I waited there, alone, gasping for breath for what seemed like forever, I focused on the color of the chair, the threads in the cushion, the height of it that left my toes grazing the floor.  That chair is a part of me forever now.  I’m grateful for it, as I’m so very grateful for everyone that day that helped me in all those different ways – the man who pulled me out of the ditch, the taxi driver who got me to the Embassy, the guard that helped me inside, the medical team that took care of me, the friends and family who helped me through the aftermath.  And the mop bucket lady who gave me a chair to sit in. 

I have a lot to be thankful for every Thanksgiving when I think of them.  Thank you doesn’t seem like enough, but I do, I thank you.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Big Changes for Better Health

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 “Tis not so sweet now as it was before.” ~William Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, I, i)

I’ve been dealing with a health issue for the past few months.  Actually it started many years ago, but has just exacerbated recently.  Before I go any farther, let me just say that I realize many people out there are going through far worse challenges than me – physically, emotionally, financially…one of my former college roommates is going through an extremely tough time right now, having had a liver transplant and then a complete bowel removal & reconstructive surgery (we’re pulling for you my friend!).  A family member of ours has been battling breast cancer & resulting complications for a few years now, and a dear family friend’s father is also waging war on cancer.  My problems seem so minute in the light of situations like that, so I do try to keep it all in perspective.  But maybe talking about my issues can help someone else out there, and it also helps me to just talk about it and get it out there instead of bottling it all up inside.

“When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”  I used to say that all the time to my chronically ill patients when I was a health counselor for a disease management company.  And it’s true – everything in life is secondary to the breaths we take over and over every minute of every day.  Without them, we are nothing and we can do nothing.  It was during my second year with that disease management company that I was told I had either asthma or RAD, or reactive airway disease.  I started seeing a pulmonologist (lung doctor); I went through all the tests and started taking several medications to help me breathe better.  I went to the emergency room once, not really for an actual asthma attack but because of unfamiliar feelings of chest tightness and shortness of breath.

About a year prior to that, and just after getting home from Africa and the Peace Corps, I started having acid reflux problems (GERD = gastroesophageal reflux disease).  I rarely had the typical heartburn, but instead I had constant throat clearing (especially after eating) and I woke up a few times in the middle of the night feeling like I was choking and couldn’t get any air (which is extremely scary, but temporary due to a laryngeal spasm caused by acid splashing up into the airway junction).  I started seeing a gastroenterologist (GI doctor) and also went through all the tests for that issue, including endoscopy, a stomach-emptying test, and 24-hour pH monitoring (I only made it 12 hours though before I had to rip the very uncomfortable tube out of my nose and throat). I was told after my endoscopy that I had significant reflux and a small hiatal hernia but that it “wasn’t a problem.”  I’ve also been told I just have “bad reflux genes,” and it’s true I guess, as both my parents have had GERD issues for a very long time.

Over the past decade I’ve been on four or five different reflux medications, and as long as I’ve been on them, those symptoms were held in check.  Eventually my breathing issues also subsided and I no longer needed the airway medications.  However at no time in all those years did any doctor tell me that the two issues – GERD and shortness of breath/asthma – could be related.  No doctor ever told me that taking the GERD medications (called PPIs, or proton pump inhibitors) for years and years at a time could lead to other serious side effects.  And no doctor ever told me that certain foods, drinks and medications could make my GERD worse over the years by weakening my lower esophageal sphincter (LES), allowing my hiatal hernia to get worse, therefore aggravating both the GERD and the asthma.  I had to figure out all of that on my own.

But I didn’t do that figuring out for many years.  For a long time, I just took my daily PPI medication, and ate and drank whatever I wanted without any health symptoms at all – either with GERD or asthma.  And while I wasn’t having any symptoms, I did gain weight, which also didn’t help things.  I’d lost 50 pounds before and just after moving to Austin, but over the past few years I’ve gained 20 of that back.  And then about two years ago, I started having these weird periodic shortness-of-breath episodes where I couldn’t yawn properly or seem to get all the breath in or out at different times. 

These episodes would last a week, maybe two, and they never felt like actual asthma.  It was better at night, with the shortness of breath worse during the day and especially after a big meal.  And then it would just improve and go away, for many months at a time usually.  This happened a few times over the past two years, and I had convinced myself that it was a cyclical thyroid issue.  Shortness of breath can be a symptom of hypothyroidism, and since I had a few other signs as well, I just thought that’s what it was.  I did go to my general doctor a time or two when it happened, but my thyroid tests came out normal; so did iron, so it wasn’t anemia apparently either.

I hadn’t had an episode in quite some time, but a mere two weeks after I got back from my England trip this past summer, it started again – on August 4th.  At first it was just like the previous episodes; it wasn’t that bad, and it would come and go.  A few weeks later it seemed to be gone and I was feeling good again; in fact, I’d started to slowly start running again on the treadmill instead of just walking, interspersing the two.  And then on August 26th, I did a strenuous run on the treadmill, running for a longer distance than I had in a very long time, years even.  And I’ve been paying for that run ever since.  I had what felt like actual asthma starting that same day after that run, my shortness of breath got much worse, and it hasn’t really let up since then. 

I think this is what happened: over the past many years I’ve been eating and drinking many things that have weakened my LES.  I think the trip to England this summer may have been one of the final straws, I drank so much tea on that trip, and tea (even decaf) is one of the main items that weaken the LES (it’s the tannins, which is also why coffee is very bad for reflux).  Then during that strenuous run, I think I jarred my hiatal hernia through that weakened LES and jammed it up into my esophagus and through my diaphragm (where it’s not supposed to be).  When a part of your stomach is sticking up where it’s not supposed to, it leads to even more reflux (which I definitely started having after that run on the 26th, lots of regurgitation) and pressure on your diaphragm and lungs and heart, making breathing difficult.  I think those multiple periodic episodes over the past few years was a precursor of things to come, maybe the hernia is a sliding one and was self-correcting, until this time it just couldn’t. 

I also think I might be having another type of GERD, called LPR (laryngopharyngeal reflux), which is when you reflux all the way up into your throat either at night or during the day; when this happens, the acid and pepsin enzyme particles can make it into your airways, your sinuses, and even your ear canals.  The pepsin attaches itself to those areas, and can be re-activated over and over by any acidic food or drink, leading to more symptoms.  Those symptoms can include coughing, hoarseness, burning in throat, postnasal drip, congestion, throat clearing, shortness of breath, and many others. 

I did see a new gastroenterologist here in Austin, after not needing one for five years.  I told him all of my symptoms and told him I really hoped he could help me, that I’d been struggling for breath for weeks and had gone through more asthma inhalers than ever before (but that they weren’t helping usually).  He took the predictable (and disappointing) approach of just treating symptoms rather than getting to the root of the problem, and told me to take an increased dose of my GERD medicine twice a day, and that losing some weight would probably help.  He didn’t order a new endoscopy or any other tests but I plan to ask him for them at the next visit to confirm my suspicions above and see if the hiatal hernia needs to be repaired.  He also told me to see a pulmonologist to make sure it wasn’t just an asthma problem, so I did, and they ran all the same tests as a decade before.  The doctor there told me they did see some signs of inflammation and she put me on an anti-inflammatory asthma medication as a trial, to see if it would help, and she said that yes, it could be due to reflux.  She also said that they are starting to see a LOT of patients coming in with breathing issues related to their acid reflux problems.

I’d begun doing research on GERD and breathing issues for several weeks by this time, and was struggling not to let my health anxiety get the better of me (something I’ve dealt with for quite a while, you can read about it in a past post here).  After feeling dismissed and brushed off by the GI doctor, I decided to take my own action by implementing some serious changes in my diet and routine to try to eliminate most or all sources of acid and switch to alkaline items, in hopes that it would help and lead to better breathing and fewer reflux episodes.  To say this was a complete 180 would be an understatement.  In the course of a day or two, my diet changed radically.  I’ve also had to stop taking ibuprofen – which I’d been taking quite liberally over the past year (after not having taken it for five years before that); any anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen or aspirin can weaken the LES significantly, making GERD and its complications much worse (which I’d somehow forgotten about).  (And in a vicious cruel circle for people with both asthma and GERD, most asthma medications can also weaken the LES, leading to worsened GERD, leading to worsened asthma.)

What did I stop eating & drinking?  Foods & drinks I haven’t had at all in the past month that I used to have either all the time or on a semi-regular basis:

  • Tea – chai or any black, green or mint tea, regular or decaf – including my favorites English Breakfast, Yorkshire & Peppermint
  • Gatorade or any other drink (or food) containing citric acid or ascorbic acid (including Vitamin C supplements and fruit/vegetable juices)
  • Chocolate or anything with chocolate in it (the theobromine weakens the LES)
  • Cheese of any kind
  • Peanut butter & peanuts
  • Pizza, Indian Food, Mexican food, fried foods, anything with any spice in it – everything good, basically
  • Anything with tomatoes, tomato sauce, onions, peppers or garlic in it, or anything made with a cream sauce
  • Other fruits & vegetables: all citrus fruits, strawberries, pineapple, grapes, blueberries, blackberries, mango, cucumber, most corn products or anything with a corn product in it
  • Anything with mint in it (also weakens the LES): gum, breath mints w/peppermint or spearmint, my peppermint tea, etc.
  • Yogurt & other dairy products like ice cream and sour cream
  • All condiments: mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, salad dressings, etc.

(About some items not on the list: I stopped drinking soda a few years ago, even diet soda, and I haven’t drank alcohol in years, but these two items also are at the very top of the reflux-causing list and should be considered off-limits for anyone with GERD or a weak LES [along with any carbonated drinks of any kind].  I don’t miss the alcohol at all but I sure do crave a good diet cherry vanilla diet Dr. Pepper every once in a while.  Some cravings are better left unsatisfied I guess…)

All of those items above either weaken the LES or are acidic in nature, and many are high-fat, which also contributes to reflux because they sit in the stomach longer.  The first week or so of not having any of the foods on the above list was pretty traumatic for me.  It’s been a month now since I’ve had any of them.  The last time I went one month without eating cheese of any kind was when I lived in Africa and it just wasn’t available – that was 13 years ago.  I have gone a month without eating chocolate before, during my self-imposed sugar-fasts I used to do each year in April since moving to Austin- but then as soon as the month was over, I knew I could go back to eating it.  It’s probably not going to be that way this time, and it’s pretty tough coming to terms with that.  At this time of the year, walking down the Halloween candy aisle is pure torture!

It’s very hard for me to imagine not having pizza again, or spicy Indian food (which I love), or peanut butter – which I’ve had almost every morning (on toast) for breakfast since high school, and that includes when I lived in Africa.  Life without chocolate or chips and queso from Torchy’s Tacos seems very empty and depressing indeed.  Grilled cheese & tomato soup on a cold winter’s day was the ultimate comfort, how can it be that I won’t have that again? Or cheese enchiladas with red chile?  I love all kinds of cheese, and I’m having a hard time imagining a future without it.

Walking by this at the store now makes me want to cry.

Walking by this at the store now makes me want to cry.  Seriously.

But perhaps the most difficult was having to give up tea.  I love tea, I collect teapots, I so enjoy the tea ritual in England – and how can I go to England again and not be able to drink their English Breakfast or Yorkshire or Earl Grey?  How will I get through my next cold or flu bug without a soothing cup of peppermint tea with honey?  I stopped going to Starbucks many months ago because it’s too expensive, but to not even have the option of getting their chai tea ever again? I did finally find a type of tea (after much research) that has neither caffeine or tannins (both of which cause reflux), called African Rooibus; it’s a red tea and not at all the same as the other teas I love, but it’s at least a warm cup of something.  (I can’t have chamomile or some other herbal teas due to their natural estrogenic properties, by the way.)

Glorious tea time, I shall miss you.

Glorious tea time, I shall miss you.

I know I’m healthier without the high-fat high-acid foods I was used to eating, but this is a big change that has thrown me for an emotional loop.  It’s got me pretty down, but I also feel pretty strong that I’ve been able to go a whole month so far without anything on that list above – not one piece of pizza or chocolate or cheese, not one spoonful of peanut butter.  I’ve lost eight pounds during the past month on this new regime, which doesn’t seem like a lot to me for the kinds of changes I’ve made, but I guess it’s a move in the right direction.  It shows me that it’s possible and that I can make these changes for the sake of my health.  Not being able to breathe very well is a pretty strong motivator.

So – if I cut out so much of my prior diet, what have I been eating & drinking?  Well, it’s been pretty limited:

  • Water – filtered and/or alkaline (alkaline water higher than pH 8.0 will deactivate pepsin particles)
  • African red rooibus tea
  • Almond milk, soy milk
  • Sweetener:  Honey
  • Proteins:  Almond butter, almonds, pumpkin seeds, tofu, egg whites, protein powder (in smoothies)
  • Rice (brown and white) with black-eyed peas and green peas
  • Rice cakes
  • Cereal – plain Cheerios, plain Rice Chex, plain Grape Nuts
  • Ancient grains bread, whole wheat tortillas, & whole wheat double protein English muffins
  • Snacks:  Oats & honey granola bars (made with only 7 natural ingredients), whole wheat pretzels, plain graham crackers
  • Fruit & Vegetables: Cantaloupe, pears, edamame, kale, avocado, potatoes (regular & sweet), salad (lettuce & carrots)

There aren’t many fruits on the alkaline foods list unfortunately – any melon is allowed, and pears, and sometimes raspberries.  Bananas are at the top of the good/alkaline list but their high potassium content gives me chest pain when I eat them, has for a long time, so I avoid them.  I’ve been eating a LOT of cantaloupe and pears lately; honeydew melon and watermelon would be ok too, but they’re pretty expensive right now.  Oatmeal is allowed as well, I just usually don’t have the time in the morning before work to prepare the slow-cooking kind, so I end up eating cereal and perhaps some egg whites with toast.  I cook a batch of rice with beans/peas, or roast some sweet potatoes, and that’s what I take to work for lunch most days.  Dinner is often a smoothie and some cereal or a rice cake with almond butter, or some more rice or potatoes.  It may seem like a high-starch diet, but apparently whole grains and starches are actually very good for reflux issues from what I’ve read.  (And for you non-vegetarians out there, there are other protein options on the alkaline list.)

Following this new diet did not bring me a ton of relief in the first few weeks, but I’d heard it could take a while to re-set the internal digestive system.  I had to think it was making some kind of positive difference to avoid all the “bad” acidic foods and eating much smaller portion sizes and meals, but although the regurgitation reflux was getting slightly better, I was still having significant shortness of breath, especially after eating anything more than a handful of food.  And then, three weeks after seeing the gastroenterologist MD and starting the twice daily medication, I bought some digestive enzymes at Whole Foods that I’d seen someone mention in a GERD/LPR Facebook forum.  I took the first two enzyme capsules with dinner that night, and within an hour I noticed a pretty significant difference – my shortness of breath was reduced after eating and for most of the rest of the night.

I’ve been taking the enzymes now for about 10 days.  As long as I take them when I eat, I don’t have the same degree of shortness of breath I was having before.  I do still feel it sometimes (it seems to get worse at the end of the day), but now it just seems to be there under the surface rather than a constant and conscious effort for each breath, like it was before.  I suspect that because of being on the PPIs for so long, my own stomach enzymes have been inhibited and I’ve lost much of the ability to digest my food.  So when I would eat, my food would just sit in my stomach for hours at a time, undigested, and pressing up against my hiatal hernia and the adjacent opened, weak LES, regurgitating back into my esophagus and even higher.  Then I’d eat my next meal and the meal from earlier was probably still sitting in there.  (I already knew I had very slow stomach emptying from the GI tests I had a decade ago.)  The enzymes are seemingly aiding with digestion (I had a very uncomfortable “cleansing” GI effect the first few days I took them), but they’re not doing anything to help or fix the hiatal hernia or weak LES – that is still the underlying problem, I believe. 

I am also still waking up most nights after a few hours of sleep with the feeling that I’m not getting enough air, and that I’m breathing shallowly (with my chest rather than with my diaphragm/belly) through my congested nose – I believe this is due to reflux still happening at night and getting into my airway, even though I’m sleeping on a wedge pillow (specially made for reflux) and I eat no later than 4 hours before I go to bed (which means I eat dinner very early and then have a growling hungry stomach again by the time I try to go to sleep). I’ve also had to try to get used to sleeping on my left side, which due to the position of the stomach leads to less nighttime reflux, when for most of my life I’ve been a right-sided sleeper.

I think that as long as I have the hiatal hernia which is forcing my LES open, I’ll have issues and symptoms (if that is indeed the problem).  I can manage it somewhat by following the low-acid and low-fat diet and behaviors as I mentioned above, but I’m not sure what else to do other than pursue surgery to fix the hernia, and I just don’t know if that’s the best option or not.  Then there is the issue of the PPI medication – which I feel is doing more harm than good, but with my “bad reflux genes,” am I ever going to be able to stop taking it?  I hope I can someday, and hopefully soon. 

GERD is an extremely common health issue in the US, with apparently every third person having it in some form or other.  You can’t watch more than a few minutes of TV without being pelted with PPI commercials.  It’s not insignificant, as it can lead to esophageal cancer, which is currently the most rapidly-growing cancer type in the country.  What’s even scarier is that PPI use tends to just address symptoms and not the causes of GERD, so that someone could still be refluxing for years and not even know it, but all the while still suffering damage to the esophagus and other tissues.  PPIs don’t stop all acid production in the stomach, but they do limit absorption of certain nutrients (leading to possible deficiencies like magnesium and B12) and inhibit digestive processes.

Well.  I guess that’s enough talk for now about stomach valves and hernias and breathing and acid vs. alkaline.  I wish I didn’t have the need to know all this.  Everything now seems to revolve around when I eat and what I eat and not eating too much and scheduling my activities around mealtimes.  Yesterday I went to a meeting that was a potluck and there was nothing on the table I could eat – the hashbrown casserole had peppers and onions in it, the cake was chocolate, and the juice had pineapple and spices in it.  If I can’t eat dinner by 6:30 PM, then either I go to bed hungry or I have to stay up until midnight.  Oh, and no more running for me – I’m back to just walking.

Change is hard.  I hope it’s worth it.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

 

 

Growing Your Wings After You Jump

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“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie…” ~ William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, I, i)

Welcome to a rare Friday post of operationUNunhappy.  I usually only publish on Mondays, but I wanted to recognize this specific day with a few thoughts.  It’s a special anniversary:  one year ago today was my last day at my misery-filled, soul-sucking, toxicity-laden city government job.  And it was a glorious day indeed! 

I had made the decision to finally cut myself loose from a bizarro world of constant negativity, mind-numbing repetitive tasks, and maddening bureaucratic nonsensical red tape.  Why did I wait so long??  It was one of the best days – and decisions – of my life.

(If you’re a fairly new reader of this blog and want to read more about how I quit that job, click here.)

I didn’t have another job lined up when I quit.  I was giving up an extremely comfortable income, high-level health & dental benefits, and a nice little retirement nest egg.  I own a home, and have bills to pay like anyone else.  I have aspirations and dreams, many of which require a significant source of funding. 

And yet I had no doubt I was doing the right thing by walking away. 

You know that little voice deep inside of your gut that tells you what to do, but much of the time you don’t listen?  Well I listened that day, and I got out.  For my own sanity, for my mental and physical health, for my future – I jumped off the edge of the known into the unknown.

“Sometimes you just have to jump and grow your wings on the way down.” ~ Les Brown

I love that quote by motivational speaker Les Brown (the husband of Gladys Knight).  Some might interpret it as a message of impending doom: that if you jump without wings – without having a plan – your only directional option is down (and then the unavoidable *splat*). 

I think it’s the opposite: if you have the courage and confidence to leave the negative behind, as scary as the unknown future is, your reward can be a pair of anti-splat wings to help you get to where you are really supposed to be.

There was another day, in what seems like another lifetime, that I listened to the urgent voice inside me, so I recognized it this time when it showed up again.  Completely different situations, the two, but similar in the debilitating effect they had on me – and that I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. 

The day before the one-year anniversary of my first marriage, my husband (and I use that term very lightly) yelled curses at me and called me names on his way out the door to work, telling me to not wait up and that he had no idea when he would be home, if ever.  This was not a new trend.  He’d only recently come back to our apartment after a 3-week booze-filled “break.”  And he’d already put a hole in the wall with his fist during an earlier fight we’d had, showing his true colors.

As he slammed the door behind him that morning, I stared at it through tears of anger, hands clenched into tightly-balled fists.  I shook with rage, and slid down against the wall onto the floor.  Then something happened that I’ll never forget: a voice inside me – soft but clear, faint but insistent – said “GET OUT. NOW.” 

And so I did.  I jumped that day.  I grew wings, and they took me and everything I owned out of that apartment in a matter of hours.  I was on a mission, getting on the phone to friends and family, and they came through for me with flying colors.   With all my stuff packed and in storage, family having flown into town on a moment’s notice to protect me, and a safe place to stay, he came home to an empty apartment.  And I started over.

It’s possible.  Excruciating sometimes, yes, but possible.  Screw that courage to the sticking-place already; chances are, you won’t regret it.  I don’t.  (Now go back and read the quote at the very top of this article, including the name of the play.)

In the past year, I’ve had many ups and downs but the positives have far outweighed the negatives.  I started my own business – it’s been a little slow-going so far and there’s still so much I don’t know, but it’s mine (www.MuchAdoAboutFlowers.com).  I found a part-time job that I truly enjoy with kind and competent managers and people who are nice to work with – with no benefits and only earning 30% of what I did before.  I’ve had more time to spend with family and on de-perfectionizing myself.  None of which would have been possible if I’d stayed in that dead-end job.

I started this blog just two weeks after that last day on the job a year ago, so on the approach of my blogiversary, I’d like to say thanks for sticking with me through 45 posts so far!  Thanks for reading and the positive comments and the support.  My wings are stronger because of all of you.

Wings

©operationUNunhappy

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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

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