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From hospital room to stateroom

3 May

My 2013 was pretty great until August when it sunk into fear and loathing in hospitals. As a result of the clarity that emerges from losing control of situations, I began 2014 with a renewed focus on how lucky my unlucky August actually was. Even worse than last year, it’s halfway through 2014 before I’m publishing this reflection. I am nothing if not inconsistent. Here are three things that happened right when the current school year started:


It was mid-August. Our bedroom was draped in blankets and sheets to buffer the echo of our terrazzo floors. Aaron was talking to the producer of the Judge John Hodgman podcast prepping for us to go live. About an hour prior, I had talked to my mom about my dad going in for hip replacement surgery. They were expecting him to wake up four hours later. She would call me then. Only an hour and a half later, my phone lit up with the words “Mom.” I stepped out of the pre-taping sound check to take the call.

My dad had stopped breathing and they’d sewn him up mid-surgery and rushed him to ICU. My mom was alone at the hospital, the promise of routine surgery now broken along with Dad’s hip. I was 1000 miles away about to tape a podcast about an egg chair. Mom told me she’d call me when the doctors came back to report his progress. I could sit there and imagine the worst or continue with the taping. I walked outside and took several deep breaths and said my first honest prayer in a long time. Fifteen minutes later I was explaining to John Hodgman why I didn’t think a 70’s era pod chair belonged in our living room.

Sixteen hours later I was on a plane to visit my dad in ICU.

Twenty-four hours later I listened to the podcast with my dad in his hospital room. He thought it could use some editing.

One week later, my dad was recovering at home after a successful second surgery.

Five months later,  that pod chair was in our third bedroom. IMG_2100


At the end of August, one week into my new classes, Aaron woke me up with severe abdominal pain. Within minutes, I was driving half-asleep to the nearest hospital. After an educational middle-of-the-night ER experience that our nurse friend later described as working in the back of a restaurant (completely accurate comparison), a doctor told Aaron he had appendicitis and would be sent to surgery as soon as possible.

At this point we could definitely rule out Aaron’s previous fear that this was just SEVERE GAS.

Early the next morning and a couple of narcotic doses later, Aaron was asleep and I was operating on one hour’s sleep. They moved us to a holding room prior to surgery. I notified our families of the situation and became so tired that I finally crawled into Aaron’s hospital bed with him and took a nap like two cats in a hammock.

Surgery to remove Aaron’s vestigial appendix proceeded normally and we hoped to be home by the next day.

Instead we logged close to a week in the hospital because of the internist’s poor management of Aaron’s type I diabetes post-surgery that led him into Ketoacidosis (DKA).

Without going into the details of the poor care Aaron initially received after surgery, I choose to focus on the excellent care he received when the hospital moved him to more capable nurses and doctors in the IMCU. The surgeon was amazing–in fact, it was her phone call to me in the middle of Aaron’s DKA that got action taken to move him. She had the direct and gruff manner of a surgeon, and was not popular with the nursing staff, but that’s exactly what we needed right then. Someone to take us seriously and cut through the red tape.

I finally resorted to rolling my eyes at the doctor who caused Aaron’s decline, yet continued to defend his actions and treat Aaron as some kind of anomaly. It was a strong reminder of the importance of admitting when you are wrong. That’s been difficult for me to do in the past, and this doctor was young.

Hey doc, the one thing that could have made us feel better about your wisdom being consumed by confidence (to borrow from Julius Caesar) was for you to apologize. At least for what happened to Aaron. I know you see admitting mistakes as permission for us to sue you, but honestly the more you insisted you were right, the more we wanted to punish you.

Aaron’s doctor didn’t listen to him when he expressed his concerns over how his diabetes was being treated. Aaron lives with the disease every day; he understands it better than a doctor.

In an interview with Marc Maron, comic actor and former doctor Ken Jeong (best known for The Hangover and Community) said the most important thing he learned about practicing medicine was to listen carefully to his patients. That internist hadn’t learned that yet. He was still in the “I must project that I am right at all times” phase of not knowing what he was doing.

Our surgeon was the first to tell us when she didn’t know why something was happening. She was blunt with the staff, but she never feigned knowing. She took action to find out instead. That is a trait I admire. (Mostly because younger me did not possess such a trait.)

I realize that should make me feel sympathy for the internist, but NO. *Rolls eyes just thinking about it.*

That week in the hospital feels like a distant place, a pin on the map during a long road trip. Only this pin shredded most of the paper and stabbed us first.



Two weeks after Aaron was discharged from the hospital, we hopped a cruise ship at the Port of Miami and headed for the Bahamas for a long weekend. We booked this getaway long before hospital August, so at the beginning it felt like another thing to endure.

This looked exactly like the cruise we took two years ago. Same port. Same boat. Same destination. Only this time there was a significant faction of cruisers who all listen to the same podcasts. Enjoy the same music. Laugh at the same comedians. It was the Atlantic Ocean Music & Comedy Festival, and they’re doing it again in July if you’re into nautical irony.

The rest of the boat featured typical cruisers. You saw an extended family reunion, a lady wearing a mesh dress, a man forever shirtless, etc.

It was fairly easy to pick out the nerd cruisers with their graphic tees and Warby Parker glasses. Aaron and I looked more like native cruisers with our “we live in the tropics” maxi dresses and guayaberras, so I think we proved a challenge to diagnose.

On our first cruise, we only lasted one night in the main dining room. Our assigned tablemates were a pair of 21-year-olds on their honeymoon and a regular-cruising French Canadian couple in their 60’s who could only talk about motorcycles or nothing at all. Awkward was served with every course.

We fled to the Windjammer the next three nights to gorge ourselves at the buffet instead.

On the nerd cruise, table conversation flowed as freely as the cultural references. We all knew what we had in common before the bread came. And we all had the same reaction to formal night when the entire wait staff stopped service to sing and dance.

“Nobody wants this.”

Instead of choosing between the juggling comedian and salsa lessons, this time we got a private show of comedians and musicians we would pay to see separately, all on one bill. Three nights of talented and hilarious performers who happened to also be nice, generous people.

I still couldn’t deal with swimming in the Caribbean next to people I used to watch on TV. I turned around and Daily Show alum Wyatt Cenac was a few feet from my face. *Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…*

But we did meet John Hodgman the first night and because of his brief involvement in our life at the start of this triology, it was a welcome weirdness. Though he plays a snooty, eccentric billionaire on TV, in person he’s incredibly genuine, despite what this photo implies.


And this is where I leave you. John Hodgman was with me in the middle of a horrifying moment (though he doesn’t know it), and was on the other side of a second one.

All on a giant ship in the middle of the ocean.

We lived life through a porthole window last fall and it’s just the right amount sometimes. It taught me not to worry about the entire ocean and chart the course at hand.

It also taught me to use nautical cliches.

There are always side effects.


Why I love distractions

11 Nov

Back in September, I met (for the first time) my childhood Austrian penpal in Washington, DC. Above is photographic documentation of  this encounter I wrote about earlier. We are modeling that first letter I sent her. Because of my freakishly good memory, I remember that school picture stuck to the letter is from the 5th grade. Not only do I know that frog outfit I’m wearing is ESPRIT, but I also remember that morning I told my mom it was school picture day and she decided she needed to “do my hair.” I emerged from her blow dryer with a flip closely resembling this:

Kylie Minogue with a little case of crazy eyebrow, another thing we have in common

My parents are searching for one of the letters from Sabine to me, which I will post when they find it. Hers is more glamorous than mine; that whole Alps in the background thing is hard to compete with.

My friend Catherine tagged me in the following little game of distractions and little did she know how much I love these things. I’m a professional procrastinator which accidentally gives me a passion for email forwards inquiring about my favorite beverage/time of day/brand of clothing. So if you ever need someone to respond to one of those, now you know I’m your woman. The woman, in fact. As long as you don’t ask about my favorite movie or band. This question brings me a fit of anxiety that leads to more stress than a mere diversion should ever really produce.

I’ve been needing to get out a blog post (I managed only one the entire month of October. Let’s blame my new job. Or laziness, you decide.) So this was a great little push to get the writing train rolling again. Thanks, Catherine!

Most embarrassing moment?

For more than half my life, I had an easy answer to this question. In second grade, I vomited all over my new pale blue (with a grainy finish) t-shirt in front of my entire second grade class. Now it’s hard to think of any others. But that’s mostly because I don’t embarrass easily anymore. Just recently, similarly to Catherine,  I walked around a Target with my skirt tucked into my underwear until a complete (but kind) stranger let me know. I felt weird for maybe two minutes and then was over it. After all, there was only a five minute window between me exiting the bathroom and her telling me. I like to think it gave someone a laugh who needed it:

Imagined stranger to imagined stranger’s friend: “Today was so awful I just wanted to crawl back in bed by noon.”

Stranger’s friend to stranger: “At least you’re not that poor lady with her skirt tucked into her underwear. Now that’s pathetic.”

[Both laugh  heartily at my expense and emerge from Target feeling beautiful and confident. They later retell the story to others, adding the detail that toilet paper was also stuck to my shoe.]

How did you meet your husband?

It sounds like the plot of a romantic comedy, but I met my husband at a wedding of less than 50 people. I’d known the couple since college, before they were a couple at all. The groom and my husband were childhood friends; they even became Eagle Scouts together. We could have met so many other times; his sister and I even attended the same college for one year. But we had to wait ten years until he approached me at a wedding reception wearing a sport coat with pineapples woven into the fabric and revealed he was a beekeeper. How are you supposed to resist that?

What is the one thing you would change about yourself if you had the chance?

I could only come up with superficial answers to this question which made me feel, err, shallow. My husband says he’d change having (type I) diabetes. I told him my shame over only have appearance-related answers and he said, “I’d also like six-pack abs.”

Banishing cellulite it is!

Now if I got to pick something for Aaron, I’d cure him. That guy from Jersey Shore might have ruined the overall appeal of the six pack anyway.

And the appeal of the word “situation,” which I used to be so fond of that it’s my answer to “favorite word to overuse in conversation.”  Sadly, it’s an RIP kind of situation for me. (See it’s not even funny anymore! I hate you, Mike Sorrentino).

What is your biggest pet peeve?

It used to be people not using turn signals, or leaving them on forever. It’s  infuriating when someone slows down suddenly for no reason without warning; it’s equally frustrating when I’m stuck behind someone with an ever-blinking signal. Are you turning? Are you exiting? Is your music just too loud? End the mystery, people: turn on, turn off. I thank you.

South Florida drivers are the among the most aggressive, most impatient I’ve ever encountered on the road. Maybe it’s that they’re all from New York but these people cannot and will not put up with you following basic traffic laws if it shaves a few seconds off their travel time. Turn signals? They’ve never heard of them. A few examples:

1. I was traveling on a four-lane highway and slowed down (after putting on my turn signal) to make a right hand turn into my apartment complex. The man behind me slammed on his horn because I didn’t make the turn at 50 mph.

2. I was turning left into a major intersection with a pretty severe angle (signal on). The car behind me blasts the horn and passes me in the middle of the intersection,  just before he gets back into my lane to slow down and make a turn without a signal.

3. My husband was traveling  straight (with a green light) through an intersection. A woman turning left into traffic (no signal) pulls out in front of him and stops to give him the finger. How dare he take his right of way–how dare he!

To clarify, I do not drive like a grandma. I am aggressive when necessary and have the speeding tickets to prove it. You pay for a few of those and you learn to slow down. My point is that my perspective is not that of some slow, timid driver who is daunted by interstates. I may have grown up in a small town with few stoplights, but at age 17 when I first drove on the beltway outside Washington, DC, I was rolling in the left lane like a pro. I love to drive. I just need SoFlo to bring it down a notch. Let’s start with signals.

What is your favorite song?

I can’t even answer the favorite band question so this one is even more impossible. So I’m going with my favorite song right now. As in song I would marry if Aaron left me to study Ecuadorian termites (which he promises not to do. Yet.)

Luckily two of my friends both put this song on separate mixes for me; it feeds my obsession nicely. I took a break for a few weeks but answering this question gave me a pleasant reason to fill my ears once again with the swelling inferno that is “Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National.

I’ve been listening to their 2001 self-titled debut, and am most impressed by their lyrical mastery. The track “Beautiful Head” contains a line that currently lives inside my head: “You’re measuring me lately / and I can tell I’m losing weight.” God bless boys who use their words.

What’s your favorite place in the world?

I’ve been to the beautiful coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, the Alp-dropping Switzerland, the gorgeous English countryside, and the olive groves of Spain. I live amongst breathtaking beaches and lush plant life, but my favorite place might have to be Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia. I grew up there; I got married there; and here’s what it looks like at sunset :

View from my parents' dock at sunset

If you could rename yourself, what name would you pick?

The child version of me would have strong opinions on this subject. I wanted to be Elizabeth (my middle name) and wrote it on all of my papers in the third grade. I never met another person with my name until I was 13 years old. Over the years, I have grown to love my name and wouldn’t change it if given the chance.

Unless people would accept “Kara the Great.” Then, maybe.

Feeling lost? Go to IKEA.

22 Sep

On 9/9/10, I was an accidental guest star in a solo reenactment of “The Parking Garage.” And you are likely to laugh at my unintentional Emmy-nominated performance as “woman-who-lost-her-car-in-a-parking-garage-while-holding-Austrian-chocolates.” I had great pictures of this narrative, but they suffered the same fate as my pictures of  The Austrian Penpal. I will do my best to recount sans visuals.

If you read part one of my 9/9/10 post, you know I spent the morning in DC and that I parked my car here:

Franconia-Springfield Metro Station

There are over 5000 parking spaces in that garage, and as I learned later, at least four entrances.  After leaving DC, I hopped on an orange line train and  met up with my friend Alex in Vienna to see his new condo. After a quick lunch, he dropped me off at the above shown parking garage and drove away into the sunset in a Toyota Matrix. I waved goodbye and made my way on foot to find my own Volkswagen Jetta; still had plenty of time to get back on 95 and miss the worst of afternoon rush hour traffic. Couldn’t have executed a plan better. (I might have high-fived myself in my mind at this point).

You should never do that.

Time you should be on 95 to avoid major traffic: Before 3:00 pm

Time of arrival at garage: 2:26 pm

Time of departure from garage: 4:05 pm

Projected location of my car: Level 1, 2, or 3

Actual location of my car: Level 5

Projected highest level of entrance: 3

Actual level I entered on: 4

Number of black Jettas that were not mine: 9

Number of desperate phone calls made: 3

Number of calls that were dropped because I was IN A GARAGE: 3

Number of  people in garage I considered asking for help: 4

Number of people in garage I asked for help: 0

Number of people who asked me for help: 2

Number of times I smiled confidently while screaming help me! in my head: 8

No, I did not scream or curse at unsuspecting commuters or SUVs. No, I did not give in and ask the one non-computerized, human money-taker in the booth for help. I had a hope deep inside me that I’d find my black Jetta on my own. (And this way I’d never have to admit to said human that I am the moron who’s circling levels 1, 2, and 3 looking for a black Jetta. And no, lady-of-the-booth, I did NOT write the section number down, thankyouverymuch!)

Often when we’re lost we don’t ask for help because we’re afraid of looking bad. We’re also afraid of being alone. I felt like the only person outside out of sitcom world who’d lost her car in a parking garage, even though this is overwhelmingly not true. People in South Florida airports do it all the time. Five times a day in Fort Lauderdale, and three times a day at the Palm Beach and Miami airports. The Sun-Sentinel article also mentions that people’s first reaction upon losing their car is believing it has been stolen. One frequent traveler who lost his car confessed: “In all my years of traveling, this has never happened to me before.”

My first reaction after car was not parked where I expected: Stolen

My second reaction: Towed (because in a hurry I might have missed a ‘reserved parking’ sign)

One of the first things I said to my friend Alex on the phone before losing the call: “This has never happened to me before.”

Final conclusion: I’m just like everybody else.

Blistered by rush hour traffic, I made it as far as Woodbridge before I found myself veering onto the Potomac Mills exit because as Alex and I had discussed at lunch, I’ve never been to IKEA. For four years I went to college a mere thirty minutes from this hipster furniture mecca yet it was still a Swedish myth to me. Plus Aaron and I needed a kitchen storage solution (our apartment hates cabinets), so I had utilitarian reasons as well.

I learned upon arriving that like everywhere on earth, you get to park in a garage. This time I took a picture of my section number.

See, I learn.

And if you were wondering, yes, that picture also fell victim to the great accidental delete of 9/9/10. Luckily, the pictures I took AFTER that survived; this way we can get lost in IKEA together.

One the first things I noticed other than overwhelming we real cool vibe was this water fountain:

Is the stool necessary? I should have coerced a stranger into posing next to it for scale, but I think that sort of thing is frowned upon in IKEA. Shortly afterwards I noticed I was in the kids’ section. So it’s not that funny. Picture relegated to sight gag rather than commentary on IKEA’s catering to customers who may be elves.

I commence shopping for storage solutions for our kitchen.

Option #1: For all our GIANT bowls (we grow them)

Option #2: For all the glasses and food we'd like to showcase

Option #3: Mug storage, winner!

It’s at this point I start to become fully aware of my surroundings. IKEA creates environments for customers to meander through and imagine themselves in. This is code for making you jealous with all our hip stuff so you’ll feel bad enough about your poorly designed home that you’ll be lured in by our deceptively low prices enough that you’ll buy allourshit.

I’ll be the first to admit that good design is like crack. And just like anyone who is addicted to crack, I will follow good design until you make me fill out an order form to purchase a $4 mug rack. You can’t just pick up something and buy it here–that’s so pedestrian.

And you had me until paperwork, IKEA.

So I decided to finish my tour of the store and mock its contents because loving IKEA is boring. And I’ve had enough everyone else for today. As I made my way through the carefully styled environments, I imagined what each room was saying to me as I walked by.

"If only you were Miami enough to live here."

"We're wacky. Can't you tell by our light fixture?"

"We just got back from the world; what did we miss?"

"Eat your cabinet heart out."

It was time to say goodbye to this charming little universe, which has friendly arrows to guide you.

"You are going the wrong way."

I toured the entire store backwards on accident. It was a giant metaphor for my entire afternoon/evening. No, it wasn’t over yet. I’d made it past rush hour, but I still had major accident traffic and close-two-lanes-for-line-painting traffic ahead. So much more of this:

"Patience is a virtue."

So I walked away from IKEA with nothing tangible, but in a weird way it saved me. I’m not sure I could’ve survived leg 3 of that journey without my sojourn at the home furnishing mothership. Right now I’m in a new city, searching for a job, hoping to meet new people who get me. It’s easy to feel lost. Just like I did in that parking garage.

But here’s where it’s comforting to be just like everybody else: we all get lost, and more importantly, we all get found.

"Life is better with glow sticks." (photo: J. Kingston)

The Austrian Penpal

17 Sep

Last week I returned to Richmond, VA for a few days to do a final cleaning of my house and to reclaim my car (which I spent all of Monday driving 14 hours in from VA to SoFlo: a drive that is about 300 miles too long).

The weather in Virginia was 70’s-blue-skied happiness. The entire drive once I got deep into the Carolinas: sunshine for miles (and miles and miles and miles). Even the Sunshine State lived up to its name.

Then Tuesday happened. I woke up to the reality of tropical climate during hurricane season. Meet our parking canal:

No, that’s not my car, but a brave soul in an SUV trying to drive through a river. I gasped as I watched this from my balcony. Then promptly snapped a photo.

Here’s my parked car as another nearly hits it trying to navigate the canal:

Our friendly Haitian waste management professional told us one of the ground level apartments in another building had water filling half their apartment. Thank you, second floor!

And that concludes today’s weather segue. And now  I give you the first half of 9/9/10: a day so overstuffed that it needs two posts. I tried it with one post, but even my attention span couldn’t keep up.

Mission: Drive to DC to meet childhood Austrian penpal Sabine for the first time EVER. (Condensed backstory: we wrote back and forth starting in the fourth grade until college, then lost touch. 15 years later she found me on Facebook. A year and some months later she conveniently went on a two week vacation in the US which included a stop in our nation’s capital that overlapped with my return-to-VA-to-clean-my-house mission.)

The Complications: Apparently my Verizon Wireless plan doesn’t allow me to make international calls, but it can receive them from Austrian cell phones. So, super convenient. This thwarted our plan to meet at Potomac Mills just hours after I landed at the Richmond airport, as I missed her first call. Several attempts to call, text, Skype her later, I learned I didn’t have enough Skype credit for transatlantic chat. An awkward conversation with the State Plaza Hotel desk clerk led me to realize I didn’t know Sabine’s husband’s first name (under which the reservation was listed). Bless the kindness of this man, though, he read every German-sounding name on the guest register.

You know when you feel like a stranger is going to do anything to help you? Well, I stopped just shy of giving a “this is one of the moments in the movie when…” speech ala Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the nurse in Magnolia. Luckily, Sabine called again just in time.

Plan B: Have breakfast at Sabine’s hotel Thursday morning before she and her husband begin the drive up to New York and eventually Canada to round out their North American journey.

The Strategy: Leave soul-crushingly early. Washington, DC, according to Forbes Magazine, has the worst traffic in the US. Atlanta comes in second, as its sprawl can’t quite compete with that of Spin City. After consulting with my friend Alex, a home-grown resident of Northern Virginia, I opted to drive to the Franconia Metro station and take the train into the city.

After waking from my friend Carrie’s house at 5:00 am, I was on the road by  5:20 after a gas and coffee stop.

Sidenote: the coffee at 7-11 is now bad again.

I met my share of brake lights on the road, but I arrived in Springfield pretty close to when I expected, though a few minutes behind.  I parked right next to the entrance, thinking this would make it easy to find my car upon returning later that afternoon. Stay tuned for how that went in my next post. The time of metro ride + walk to hotel  was unknown to me and I did not want to have another international missed connection, so I switched into hurry mode. I locked the car door, walked briskly behind the crowd headed for the platform, and dashed inside the station. Within two minutes I’d purchased my fare card and was seated on the departing blue line train. Just as I heard the I’m pretending like I’m covering a sports game announcer note that the next stop was VAAAAN DOOOOORN Street, I realized I didn’t look to see the numbered section of my parked car. This is back when I thought parking near the entrance would save me.

Austria meets America: Sabine and her husband greeted me warmly in the lobby of their hotel. It had been a while since I’d been to Europe, so I found myself caught in the cross hairs of one-kiss-or-two confusion, but they were very gracious. Sabine’s English is quite good which combined nicely with my non-existent German. Danke!

As we sat down for breakfast, Sabine presented me with the first letter I ever wrote to her: it was fashioned on orange construction paper, laden with photos and accented with stickers. I took pictures of the letter, Sabine’s husband took shots of the two of us posing with the letter, and tragically I cannot post them due to a memory card formatting error. [Insert apology to my friend Carrie, whose camera I borrowed to document this encounter after leaving mine in Florida. Her photos were also victims of my HP inexperience. You should probably not let me borrow your camera unless it’s a Canon.]

Sabine and I started writing to each other as children; she lived in the magical land of the Alps. You might be thinking of this:

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music

The hills are alive! But only in America. While many of us associate Austria with amusing children donning clothes made out of curtains singing to escape the Nazis, Sabine never even heard of the musical until college. I love perspective.

Trying to present my life in small town Virginia as interesting proved difficult when I was 8 years old. It took me months to write back after that first letter; I waited until after a trip to Disney World and a big snow gave me something photo worthy. I felt like the snow might help connect us. Wasn’t I cute with that? Strangely, it ended up being my “insignificant” small town that reconnected us 25 years later.

During the 2008 election, Sabine was watching the news in Austria and there was a story on my town saying how Obama probably wouldn’t do well in the area because it was so conservative. (FYI, my county went 68% for McCain). She saw this story and the day following the election she searched and found me in the social networking universe. Almost two years later we met in person for the first time. Sabine said to me at breakfast how big the world seemed when we were kids and how small it has gotten as adults.

I used to resist this change–I preferred hiding inside my private thoughts, my private world. It’s easier, safer, to live inside yourself, but you miss connecting with others, and in the end helping them by sharing your experiences. So something that could’ve been a school project that ended in college, has now turned into what I hope will be lifelong communication. Sabine’s a journalist for a newspaper with the highest circulation in Austria and she brought me Mozart chocolates!

Hopefully when Sabine returns from her vacation she will email her pictures of our meeting and I can post them, because the letter/collage/bad art project is something to behold.

Since I don’t have pictures of my penpal reunion, here are some more of Ramona. Her blog is still inactive:

“I’ve got your wedding present right here!”

Stay tuned for Part II of 9/9/10 with hot topics such as a parking garage and Ikea. Just try and stay away.