December 2008


Christmas morning I woke up with the nastiest present ever, probably sent to me from the devil: a horrible sinus infection, the raging kind that makes it feel like someone is standing on your face, like your head will explode from the throbbing, aching pressure, and also makes your teeth hurt because your sinuses are so swollen.

Obviously I couldn’t go to the doctor, because it was Christmas.  So I had to spend my last Christmas in Texas in a tasteless, decongestant-induced haze.  Today was the first day I could go to the doctor since this began and miraculously, I was able to snag an appointment.  I showed up promptly, knowing exactly what to expect from the 13, 467 other sinus infections I have had in my short life thus far: What color is your snot?  Does this hurt (as they press on your cheekbones)?  An answer of “green” or “yellow” to the first and “YES” to the second gets you a diagnosis and a prescription for antibiotics, usually amoxicillin, which does not work because that stuff hasn’t worked for me since I outgrew the pink refrigerated version.

I answered the standard questions for the nurse and waited patiently for the nurse practitioner to arrive and do the “Does this hurt” test, but to my surprise the nurse came back with a small square of waxed paper.

“Blow your nose on this,” she instructed.

I looked at her dubiously.  “Are you serious?”

She nodded.  “Yeah, as much as you can get on there.”

I obliged and gave her back the occupied paper between pinched thumb and forefinger.  She carried it out of the room.  The nurse practitioner came in a bit later to look in my ears.  “We just a new nasal swab that we have wanted for a long time,” she chirped.  “That way we can see what’s really going on under the microscope.”  She left and came back, informed me I was just loaded, and handed me four prescriptions – none of which was amoxicillin, thank goodness.

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This holiday season has so far been the reflective, melancholy, pensive type for me.  I think this is mostly because of all the changes I am facing, knowing that this is my last Christmas with my family for quite a while and that this time next year, I will be in a different country with different people and different food and different ways of doing things.  The uncertainty of the future makes me pay more attention to the present, storing up memories in case the next 2 years are flat-out rotten.

I have also been thinking a lot about traditions and how they communicate meaning and weight, and how some variations of American Christianity seem lacking in meaningful traditions.  My religious upbringing, for example, made no mention of Advent, but I find the idea of a month (give or take) of spiritual preparation for Christmas to be intriguing.  Advent: the Coming.  The celebration of the incarnation: God becoming human – one of us – showing up in our midst.  Emmanuel: God with us, a profound mystery.

A song popped into my head shortly before Thanksgiving and I have found myself humming it ever since: a brooding yet hopeful song that I have always liked.  Christmas music seems to have much more lyrical weight than typical church fare (Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail th’ incarnate Deity!, or Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing) and this one is no exception:

O come, o come Emmanuel
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, o Israel

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from satan’s tyranny
from depths of hell Thy people save
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, o Israel

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadows put to flight

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, o Israel

O come, Desire of nations, bind
Thy people in one heart and mind
bid Thou our quarrels and sorrows cease
and be Thyself our King of peace

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, o Israel

It is fitting, I think, for this song to sound so melancholy while it speaks so decidedly of hope, because hope is rooted in sorrow.  And what would it look like for God to show up in the middle of our sorrow?  From depths of hell Thy people save, and give them vict’ry o’er the grave…death’s dark shadows put to flight.  Hell, the grave, and death don’t just happen in the afterlife; they are here and now too, in marriages, families, friendships, jobs, money problems, self-loathing, fear – these things that cause us to die small deaths, day after day.  And these are the places that we invite Jesus into, should we choose it – into the broken parts, into the mess, into our lonely exile, into our mourning, into the pieces of ourselves we keep shrouded in darkness.  And when we invite Him to come, we are joined by the Man of Sorrows – once a tiny, fragile baby, who came into the world just like the rest of us – who mourns with us but leads us out, making what was broken into something beautiful, slowly moving aside the ugliness to see the glory of God.

Come, Jesus.  Come to our brokenness, our dirtiness, our injuries, our darkness, our death.  Come to our anger, our fear, our worry, our pride, our insecurity, our uncertainty.  Come join us, be with us.  You can heal – You will heal – but it is enough if You just come.

I have been deprived from my bargain hunting the past few months, stranded in the wilderness – no more free stuff from CVS or Kroger, no more compliments from cashiers.  I felt weird.  But yesterday I discovered that I have not lost my touch, and have even graduated from groceries and household items to electronics!

I have been wanting to get a stereo/speaker thingy for my ipod before we go overseas, and various clues led me to believe I would not be receiving one for Christmas.  So I started to shop around for a good deal, because if I’m going to have to spend my hard-saved allowance money it will only be on a good deal, and I found one at A Particular Store.  It was a stereo I had included on my Christmas list, normally priced at $150 and on sale for $60.  Unfortunately it was an online only deal, and they were out of stock online (the cheaters!).  I kept shopping around and found some decent prices on good speakers, but nothing that was really exciting.  We decided to go to Best Buy to examine some of the contenders in person and verify their voltage for overseas purposes, and I printed out the Particular Store’s deal just in case.  We looked around at Best Buy and there was still nothing that just seemed like an unbeatable, once-in-a-lifetime deal.  I didn’t expect anything but asked an employee if they matched competitor’s prices, and he said yes.  My heartbeat quickened.  I asked if that included online prices and at first he said yes and then he said he’d have to check to make sure.  Oh, the agony of waiting on the verdict!  I totally expected to get shot down but the manager said to go ahead and match it!  Without even looking at it!  I handed the page to the employee, he rang us up, and we walked out without setting any alarms off.  So I got a $150 stereo at a place where it wasn’t on sale for $60, which by the way is way below their employee price too.  Hooray!

Now I just hope it doesn’t get squashed in our luggage.

Today I checked my claim online and Delta still had no record of the bags, so I headed to the airport for a tete-a-tete with the U.S. Airways desk.  It went a little something like this:

U.S. Airways guy: I’m sorry Delta didn’t take care of this.  They shouldn’t make you do their job, and I shouldn’t have to do their job either.  I don’t send people to them to do my job.  But I will take care of this for you.
me (to self): YOUR airline screwed me over in innumerable ways yesterday.  YOUR airline LOST MY CARRY-ONS.  YOUR airline is responsible for this mess.
me (to him): Well, Delta is saying they haven’t gotten the bags from you guys yet.  Could you please check with the desk in Atlanta to see if they’re still there?
USAG: Yeah, I’ll do that. (asks other lady to handle it)

That lady got off the phone and told me they said they didn’t have it, which means they didn’t scan it.  I will not expound upon their lax scanning habits.  I told her they are very distinctive bags (my theory of luggage purchases is that they should be sturdy and DISTINCTIVE) and if someone would just look for them they would be easy to spot, and got a lecture about how their “system” works and how Delta should haul their tail ends down to the U.S. Air counter and find the bags and how I shouldn’t have surrendered a bag containing medication and irreplaceable items to be checked, and how this should be handled with Delta from here on out.

me (to self): YOUR airline forcibly took my bags away.  YOUR airline gave me no choice.  YOUR airline’s competency level is lower than a snake’s belly.

So I left empty-handed and hopping mad.  I called Delta later, after seeing no record of my bags online, and was told they were on a flight to Dallas.  I arrived at the bag claim carousel before all the passengers disembarked and claimed the prime real estate at the mouth of the conveyor belt.  Excitement mounted.  Some kid kept encroaching on my personal space so I stuck out an elbow.  Finally, luggage appeared on the conveyor belt.  I shouted, “BIG MONEY, BIG MONEY!” and was hopping with anticipation.  One of the early bags was ours!  I did the arms in the air Rocky type thing while jumping up and down and fell over (apparently the carousel in my peripheral vision makes me dizzy).  Bag after bag fell onto the carousel and person after person left.  Jake got in line at the claim desk while I waited, dejected, in my place of prior joy.  Finally they started taking the leftover bags off the carousel and I knew that was the death knell of my hopes for my red bag – which contained my anti-inflammatory patches for my knee, my charger for my laptop, my wall charger and any necessary cords for my ipod, my journal (which isn’t monetarily important but embarrassing if found by someone else), my Chacos, my medicine, and all our important papers like bank information and medical records.  I joined Jake in the now long line at the claim counter and thankfully we were next in line.  The guy looked at our bag ticket and said there was no record of it, but it would probably come in on one of the later flights from Atlanta.  I am usually not much of a worrier but at this point I am starting to get concerned, because that is the bag that I don’t think has any address information on it, because it was never intended to be checked luggage.  The guy at the counter made a note that they should call me when it came in and I would come get it.

We came back home and talked for a while, and finally I called the Delta claim line to see if my bag had popped up somewhere, anywhere yet.  She said, “Oh!  It just got checked in at Dallas, at 11:52.”  The clock had just announced midnight.  She told me they were open until 2:30 so I had plenty of time to go get it.  We hopped in the car with my sister and zoomed to the airport, to be greeted by a deserted claim desk with no red bag in sight.  A Delta guy finally came around the corner and asked if we needed something and we told him our bag was supposed to have just been checked in but we didn’t see it anywhere.  “You’re lucky,” he said.  “We usually close up at 12:30.”  I handed him the bag ticket and told him it was a bright red wheeled backpack, and he headed into the back storage room.  He came out a few minutes later to inform me that there was only one bag back there, not two like on the claim paper.  I told him we picked one up earlier.  He went to look again and returned with my lovely red bag, a bit more dirty for its voyages but otherwise unharmed.

me:  OH!  My bag!
me (to self):  Could you not have just looked for a bright red backpack when you went back there?

And thus my bag with my medicine and chargers and bank papers and embarrassing journal was returned safely to me, and thus I have sworn to drive on any trips in or across the lower 48.

In which I regale you with tales of our traveling woes.

Yesterday, our day began after a refreshing 3 hours of sleep.  We were supposed to arrive in Dallas around 2 pm, so we anticipated a relaxed afternoon with family, a delicious home-cooked dinner, and an early bedtime, so we stayed up late watching a movie with our quadmates and cleaning our apartment.  We caught a bus to the airport at 6:30 and were pleased when they failed to put our one overweight bag on the scale and went ahead and tagged it.

It was our one stroke of luck for the entire day.

Our first flight was from Richmond to Philadelphia, and yes, that is in the wrong direction.  Thankfully our layover wasn’t too long and we lined up promptly at the gate as they started boarding.  As I handed my boarding pass to the attendant, they said I would be the last passenger allowed on and unfortunately, Jake was behind me.  Weight restrictions had been implemented due to visibility conditions in Dallas.  I stepped aside, inwardly grumbling about the lady I had just graciously allowed to shoulder me aside.  They let 2 more individuals on the plane anyway.  We trekked across the airport, which is the most poorly designed airport in the U.S., to find the service desk, where we waited in line for a long time and had the joy of seeing Santa walk by, and where they were eventually able to schedule us on a later flight to Atlanta and then a very late flight into Dallas arriving after 11 pm.  Visions of my delicious dinner evaporated.  We accepted it, as the lady claimed it was the best she could do.  They also gave us vouchers for a different trip, which we will most likely not be able to use since we are moving out of the country soon and even if we weren’t they’re for $200 each – and I don’t know if you’ve checked airfare recently but there’s not much in that price range.  Also they’re not transferable, so we can’t even give them to someone else.  We acquired lunch, although the place Jake wanted to get his lunch from wouldn’t accept the vouchers, and ate before boarding our plane to Atlanta – a regional jet, even though Pennsylvania and Georgia aren’t in the same region unless we are talking about hemispheres.  As we waited to find our seats, the announcement was made that the overhead bins were full and we would have to short-check our carry-ons.  We surrendered our two carry-ons – one for Jake, one for me – because they would be delivered to the gate.

They didn’t make it.

I always assumed that carry-ons were safe from the looming danger of being lost, but apparently it is possible.  The airline, by the way, with the abysmally low intelligence and competence that allowed them to LOSE CARRY-ONS was U.S. Airways, and also the same airline that bumped us and put 2 different people on instead.  Rather than delivering our bags to the gate as promised, they took them to the baggage claim in Atlanta.  Obviously we couldn’t go get them, because we had to stay behind security.  We were promised the bags would be delivered to Delta, the airline that saved the day by providing a way, any way, to Dallas.  We were supposed to have a 7 hour layover in Atlanta, but on the departure/arrival screens we noticed several earlier flights to Dallas so we checked in and asked for standby tickets, which were granted.  We could leave 2 whole hours earlier!  Maybe.  The Delta guy we talked to said our bags may be on the standby flight or possibly our scheduled flight, but they should arrive in DFW that evening.  We ran into a few people who had been at training with us, who got to have a leisurely morning and flew straight to Atlanta rather than the roundabout method we employed, and struck up conversations with people around who were having similar travel days.

Anxiously we waited and miraculously, we were assigned seats!  We made our way onto the plane and sat next to a slightly drunk, very disgruntled guy.  At least he was the funny drunk/disgruntled sort.  A while after we were seated the people standing in the aisle began murmuring and looking around for an attendant because there were no more empty seats.  I tightened my seat belt because THEY WERE NOT GOING TO TAKE ME OFF.  Two attendants came over and tried to figure out what was going on.  They kicked off some pilots but all the other passengers still standing after that had to leave.  All the hullabaloo over “We have a problem.  We have too many people and not enough seats” delayed us about half an hour, and by then the taxi-ing space was overcrowded and we got to sit around for another half hour.

Finally we took off.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, because almost everyone on that flight had experienced some of the same troubles.  We made it to Dallas and were greeted by my dad and sister, and no baggage.  Delta said they had no record of our carry-ons that got misplaced, and they also looked up our checked bags which made the flight from Philadelphia to Dallas and U.S. Airways didn’t have those checked in either.  Jake went with my dad to go look at their desk while my sister and I waited for the next Atlanta-DFW flight (the flight we were originally scheduled to be on) to come in – just 15 minutes later.  The carry-ons didn’t show up, which was totally awesome because everything we had with us that was irreplaceable was in those bags, but fortunately Dad & Jake located our checked bags, which U.S. Air had neglected to scan in.  We filed a claim with Delta, which didn’t make sense to me since they had nothing to do with the loss but said they would handle it.

It was after midnight at this point.  Hunger strikes around midnight, so we stopped at Whataburger for some tasty breakfast items.  Unfortunately they had to begin making a fresh, from scratch batch of gravy for Jake’s order so that took forever.  We got home, dragged the big heavy bags in, ate, and fell into bed exhausted.

And yes, we could have driven with all of our possessions intact in the amount of time it took us to fly and have all our really important stuff strewn about the country.

My sister graduated from college today.  And I missed it.  I mean, it would have been neat to see/hear former President Bush and Barbara, and current President Bush too, but mostly I am sad because I wanted to be there for Allison.  I told her a long time ago I would be there for this, but I couldn’t leave campus today for a variety of reasons – the top two being that today was our last “shot day” and also I had no way to get to the airport – and I feel horrible.  I missed her high school graduation due to a “miscommunication” with my mom about the exact date so I was still on my honeymoon, and I thought I would be able to be there for this one.  Tomorrow my brother graduates and I will miss that too.

This is my biggest hangup about moving overseas – I feel like I will let people down by not being there for them.  These are just the first two of momentous occasions that I will miss over the next two years, and that is a sobering fact.  What if somebody gets sick?  What if some horrible tragedy happens and I am just not there?  What if one of my siblings has a whirlwind romance and gets married and I can’t scrape up enough money for airfare?  Forever, when my family is sitting around telling “Remember when…” stories I will feel a jolt, like I just missed a step on the staircase, because I won’t remember.  And then it will hit: Oh yeah, we were in France.  Two whole years of “Remember when…” stories will be missing from my memory, two years of writing me out of the group story.  Maybe George Bailey has it right – maybe I should be missing out on what I want to do, for the greater good.

During our first or second week here, we had a “share” time.  Most of it was, of course, a semi-revolting excess of emotion, but a few people said some things that really stuck out to me.  This one guy got up and said something very similar to what I worry about – what will happen to everybody else?  What happens to the people I leave behind?  And that he felt guilty, like everyone was depending on him and now that he’s leaving, what on earth will they do without him?  He said he was reading in Matthew and right after Jesus picks His 12 apostles and sends them out, in chapter 10, chapter 11 opens with “Jesus went on to teach and preach in THEIR villages.”  How cool!  It might be ok to miss important things if Jesus is taking care of it.  And Elbert, who is Our Fearless Leader here, added that “Your disobedience doesn’t help anybody.  No one benefits from you disobeying God.  Your family will not benefit from you sticking around if you’re supposed to go.”  I still feel bad, and I really wish I could do both – but if my options are me staying or me going and Jesus showing up in my stead, I firmly believe the latter is the best option.  Jesus is best, always.  It is hard to follow Him sometimes, and it is a heavy cost to pay – not just for me but for everyone around me.  I guess the question is, Is He worth it?

I think answering that question will be a big part of the adventure of the next two years.

Apparently I live in The Party Quad.  A quad is like a dorm for married people/families – there are four bitty apartments off a common room.  And we stay up past 9 in our quad, so the other quads started calling us The Party Quad.

A few weeks into our stay here on a Friday night we (the adults) were all sitting around in the common room, telling stories and laughing til our sides hurt.  Around 11 or 12 we noticed some people darting around outside and surmised a game of Capture the Flag was underway.  The single people were playing and had neglected to invite their boring married peers to join.  One of our quadmates, who I will just call Quadmate, was excited because he loves war games.  So he put on a black coat and black sock cap and headed out into the night.  Shortly thereafter he was “captured” by a guy whose name I cannot reveal but was nicknamed by Quadmate as “The Limp-Wristed Vagrant,” and the next part of the story is inspired by his retelling.

LWV was gleeful over his “capture” and escorted Quadmate to the prison, and was disturbed upon arrival to see Quadmate walk away.  “Hey, you’re cheating!” he whined.  Quadmate replied that he was not playing and continued on his way.  LWV asked for his name and Quadmate craftily replied, “I have no name.”  Then he ran off, only to be accused of going out of bounds by a girl.  He also informed her that he was not playing.  He hid for awhile and observed a search party of mainly girls, presumably looking for him.  He returned to the quad and we are all laughing about his terroristic exploits when we noticed the game had come to halt.  We watched for a while longer as the people outside – mostly girls – were on their cell phones and we deduced they were calling off the game.  Quadmate and Jake headed outside to let them know it was a joke and the game could continue as planned, and they were alarmed to discover that LWV had called security and security had called the state troopers.

I will pause here to inform you that all the big strong guys who had been playing were holed up, safely inside, letting the girls do all the brave work of finding the intruder.  Quadmate and Jake walked over and suddenly, miraculously, they were recognized.  “Oh!  It was you!”  And then: “Man, you really scared [LWV] when you dragged him off into the forest.”

The security car (a Scion, the box kind) drove up – at a very dangerous speed and on a walkway where vehicles are STRICTLY FORBIDDEN.  LWV was with the guard and was suddenly sheepish upon their rendezvous with the intruder.  The security guard began a tirade which included threats of shooting and maiming with sharp objects.

Um..okay.

And thus was born the legend of The Party Quad.