Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Thanks a Million

Ask an expat why she left home and you’ll hear a smorgasbord of reasons: exotic job offers, Jimmy Buffet concerts, running from a spouse. Running from the law.

And sometimes, she’s just running. Maybe it’s a cancer scare. Or a key anatomical part has suddenly become a little less dependable (though that tends to happen one humbling, crumbling step at a time, doesn’t it?).

Maybe someone she loved should have lived another 30 years (but didn’t).

Or, it could be that her stylist, poking around her scalp, gave a startled little gasp and said, “Um, I have some really bad news for you.” She thinks: This is it. Advanced flesh-eating disease. Stylist says: “Your first gray hair.” Either way, it’s a sign that the hourglass has flipped, and it’s time to get to work on that bucket list.

A few weeks ago I spent 48 hours in the hospital. It was elective, but significant in a you’ll-never-be-quite-the-same-again kind of way. Surgery was scheduled; robots were prepped; preliminary peeks were ordered, some involving pea-sized cameras housed in tree-sized tubing. (“Any problems with anesthesia?” No. “Sleep apnea?” No. “ Okay, ready to go?” No.)

There were moments, in all the countdown drama, when I doubted whether my husband and I would ever sail off on our own brand of expat adventure. (Still to be defined. Think Amazing Race, but hopefully without the begging and crying.) Anxiety had made a home in my chest.

Then, in the midst of it all—all the poking and prodding, the credential-checking (You’ve done how many of these?), all the woe-is-me-ness filling every space—I noticed something sweet and unexpected bubbling up:

A little trickle of gratitude.

Just a soft little tweak to my heart, a growing sense of appreciation. I suppose it’s not really surprising; nothing cranks up the inner sentimentalist like being asked—repeatedly—to “initial here,” acknowledging that you are fully, completely, totally, okay-I-GET-IT-ALREADY aware that death could be mere moments away (and the hospital is in no way liable).

I began appreciating every stop on the way: The scheduler who called me “honey,” “baby,” “darlin’.” The navigation system – on my cell phone! – guiding me through such a wonderful array of routes to the medical center in Baltimore. (Who knew there could be so many! To the same place!) And the phlebotomists, who missed the vein a few times but always found gauze and tape that matched my outfit. (Not to mention the word phlebotomist! How great is that!)

I had deep gratitude for the bacon-egg-and-cheese biscuits in the snack bar, and for the scowling little latte-maker who broke into a glowing smile as he handed over my coffee. (I was secretly certain that my traveling cloud of goodwill had shifted his mood; I was a pollyanna Pig Pen, but with a swirl of appreciation instead of dog hair and dust.)

And now, two months later: I’m healed. I woke, I ate, I stood. I test-drove key anatomical parts, and then my husband drove me home.

But I can’t shake the appreciation. It’s become an obsession.

Newspapers. Every day, thousands of smart, courageous reporters go out and talk to people who don’t want to talk to them. They deconstruct mysteries and, in mere hours, write stories that tell me, in just minutes, what important things are happening in Afghanistan and Iraq and St. Barts that may affect my safety, my money, my long-term travel plans. All for 35 cents, delivered daily.

Significant others. That in a world of uber-complicated humans who’ve spent decades honing their body-type preferences and building aversions, growing idiosyncrasies and the odd wild hair or unsightly mole, we can sometimes find another person who delights us. Someone we can relax into, confessing more than we should. Someone who doesn’t gag when we ask, “Wanna see my incisions? I have two belly buttons!” That is a miracle.

Outback Steakhouse. For how long now – decades? – this place is full to overflowing, puts out one perfectly-cooked prime rib after another, only occasionally overcooking its perfectly-seasoned vegetables. The lighting is always conspiratorially dim, the prices are always in the ballpark, and you can always get more remoulade to go with the the Bloomin’ Onion. Are the line cooks all grey beards, back there shuffling slabs of meat on and off the grill at the magic moment every day for 20 years? Or is there a bullet-proof Outback training program putting out Stepford chefs? While other restaurants go under from boredom or inattention, Outback is a miracle.

So, whoever’s in charge of these mini-miracles: Thanks. Sorry I didn’t mention it sooner.

Oh, and Dr. G? You rock.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Caretaker in Paradise

My husband, Rick, is a smart and handy guy. You know the type. He thinks The Way Things Work is a relaxing read. He spent a week taking a Myers-Briggs Certification Course because it sounded like fun. He’s a walking Wikipedia.

Of course, knowing how to fix a faucet or spit-roast a pig isn’t worth a hill of beans if He Who Knows How would rather spend the day on the couch, watching CBS "Sunday Morning" and geotagging digital pictures of Egypt. Neither of which advances my expat ambitions.

So I never really expected much when, on long-ago evenings, I’d steal a moment from our regularly-scheduled broadcasts to read aloud the occasional exotic tidbit from my monthly Caretaker Gazette.

CARIBBEAN – Culebra, Puerto Rico
LOOKING FOR a semi-retired person or couple for part-time light duties on a small Caribbean resort. Free housing on the resort's premises plus moderate pay in exchange for about 50 hours per month work. Applicant should be in good health, resourceful, and addiction and drug-free. If you are handy, it is a plus.

When I'd get to that last bit – the bit about being handy – that’s when Rick’s head would swivel around and he’d sputter “I have no intention of spending my retirement changing light bulbs and fixing air conditioners.”

I’d point out that I’d be working right alongside him – chatting up the guests, packing their lunch boxes and such. I’d remind him that when we weren’t working, we’d be kicking back, sipping frosty Pina Coladas – really, how hard could it be?

Now, years later, I get the occasional nice email from the Caretaker Gazette, inviting me to renew my subscription. They toss out tantalizing offers from Hawaii, Fiji, Australia. They paint beautiful, cerulean pictures of lives well-lived in cozy huts and waterfront mansions.

But Rick's still not buying what I'm selling, so here we sit. Him with all the skills in the world, and me with all the schemes. It's almost as if he doesn't trust me....

Photo (c) Take a look at Rick's site for more pics of Egypt (geotagged!), Hawaii and other exotic lands.