Monday, September 26, 2016

More Than a Number

When I was 12, I sat down to dinner with my brother and grandparents. Delicious fried shrimp awaited us on the table. At my place, there was a green salad. I do not remember exactly what she said as the others dove into their meal, but it was something like, “You’re getting to big, you need to lose weight.” And that small salad with iceberg lettuce and tiny slivers of carrots was all I was allowed to eat that night.

That was the last day of my life that I didn’t know my weight.

When I was 17, I wrote a column for my school newspaper about my weight loss goals. I was 189 pounds and my goal was to be 149 pounds. Everyone thought I was brave. The captain of the cheerleading team told me so.

I wasn’t brave, I was lost.

After my first year in college, I weighed 210 pounds. My dad promised me he would never bring up my weight unless he became concerned for my health. He brought it up. I lost 40 pounds that summer. Back at Oberlin, a stranger walked up to me and said, “You look like you lost a person.”

My guess is that I’ve been on roughly 30 diets in my lifetime, and spent close to $2000 on special meals, books, motivational programs, and weight-loss fees. I have tried all the big names: Atkins, Nutrisystem, Slimfast, South Beach, Weight Watchers, Slim4Life, etc. Then, there are the even crazier fad diets. One time, I ate almost nothing but cabbage soup and green tea for 17 days. Another time, I had 11 foods I could eat as much of as I wanted for 11 days and then take 3 days off. I stuffed my face with baked chicken breast, boiled shrimp, cashews, and sugar free candy until I just stopped eating altogether. On my three days off, I gorged on Chipotle and French Fries until I was literally sick.

On the Atkins diet, I ate so much Jell-O with real whipped cream that to this day, the thought of Jell-O or whipped cream makes me gag. Add that to chicken, shrimp, and cashews to the list of “Foods Diets Have Ruined for Me.”

When I moved to Egypt, I was at my heaviest, 266 pounds. I lost 60 pounds that first year, without really trying. When I was unsuccessful in meeting my final goal of “getting under 200”, I spent the second year gaining almost half of it back. When I left Egypt, I was 226 pounds.

In Indonesia, I worked-out harder than ever before, and tried to eat healthy. I attribute the 20 pounds I gained there to high stress, loneliness, and drinking. In case you’re keeping track, I was back up to 246.

Last April, when my feet became swollen and painful, I was diagnosed with tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, and a reoccurring ankle injury. I started to really think about this journey. In Egypt, I had to become confident in my body because I was defending it against sexual harassment all the time. By the time I left, I was solidly in the “health at any size” camp. I was convinced I could be indestructible at any weight, as long as I exercised. My foot problems directly contradicted that, and I knew something had to change.

By gaining that confidence in Egypt, I felt I had finally overcome the years of abuse inflicted by my grandmother, the taunting by my classmates, and the constant obsessing with the numbers as I stepped on and off the scale each day. If I started dieting again, in my mind, the confidence and my belief system would be diminished. I would be a hypocrite. Grandmother would win. Other big girls would feel I betrayed them. I would be betraying myself.

I continued my research over the summer, consulting my mom, the Internet, my podiatrist, and my doctor. I researched my family history and followed it with genetic research. I looked into different types of food to try to figure out what could be helping or hurting the pain in my feet. I discovered that my sensitive skin, which is prone to rashes, my daily upset stomach and dependency on Tums, and my recent foot problems were likely linked. I knew that given my family history, diabetes, dementia and severe obesity were practically imminent.

So, I decided to make a permanent change. It started as an experiment, which I guess one could call a diet. It turned into a lifestyle choice. I realized that though I still believe in “health at any size”, I also believe that I have to find the right size to be healthy. Scientifically, my feet cannot withstand my weight. Someone else’s feet can. For me, inflammatory foods live up to that distinction, but for others, they may not have that effect. By cutting out processed foods (specifically gluten, dairy, sugar, and alcohol), my body responded positively. That may not be the same for everyone.

I wish I knew my magic number—the weight that is right for me and my body. But part of me wishes I could forget all the numbers. Why do I remember my weight at all of those times in my life? Why do I still feel most successful when the numbers go down?  I cannot remember that head cheerleader’s name in high school, the one who called me brave, but I can remember my weight at the time.

While my physical journey is in process, so is my emotional journey. I’m still exploring all the reasons and feelings behind why this adventure feels so good sometimes and so crappy at other times. I’m still trying to get to a point when my body is more than a number. Thank you for sticking with me through this process.

Me at age 12 or 13.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

...Nothing changed at all?

“It’s like that, you know.” Justine pondered, lying on my favorite couch as I threw the last of my things into suitcases. It was on that couch where I sat for hours and days as the military cleared the protests. It was on that couch where I often fell asleep on a seemingly quiet evening during curfew and awoke to gunshots from the bridge.

“It’s like what?” I asked, immersed in the sorting of knick-knacks from my dining room. What to pack, what to leave?

“It’s like nothing has changed. When you go home, and you feel like things should be different. But everything is the same.”

I had just played Bastille’s “Pompeii”, my soundtrack-song for leaving Cairo.

“But if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
Nothing changed at all?
And if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
You've been here before?”

Matt and Steph were sitting on opposite couches, their agreement communicated in silence. They had all three been home in the last year, but this was my first trip. I hadn’t been to America since flying away to my first international teaching assignment two years prior.

I said my last goodbyes, then, to the three people who helped shape my time in Cairo. I thought I didn’t have any more tears, but of course that wasn’t true. I sat alone in my empty apartment and thought about what Justine said. Would it really be the same as I remembered? I had been so worried that I would go home and feel lost, feel like everything and everyone had moved on without me. I was sure I wouldn’t fit-in, imagining a dramatic Coming-to-America-esque vibe full of new fangled technology and shocking progress. I was also concerned that I was too different, full of social faux pas and unusual habits I had picked-up abroad.

I ended up with quite the transition time. Originally, my plan was to leave Egypt Wednesday morning and be at my parents’ by Wednesday night. The time change would make the change quick and jarring. But an unexpected 24-hour layover in O’Hare quite possibly pushed me through the initial stage of culture shock, instead. I got used to being able to understand the conversations around me, the clean, crisp, smoke-free air, and the way Americans travel with intense purpose, even when they are just walking to the bathroom.

I arrived home and after tearful hellos and a good shower, settled onto a stool in my mother’s kitchen. I watched her cook, hearing again the noises of my childhood: kitchen sounds of scraping, clanging and mixing. And it felt just like Justine said it would, like nothing changed at all.

The memories came flooding back to me. Instead of two years, I felt as if I had only been gone a week. Egypt was bottled into the back of my memory bank, and things like driving, watching TV with my brother, and shopping with my mom were easy, innate activities.

Two years of memories cannot, however, be bottled-up without eventually overflowing. I noticed little spurts of Egypt creeping into my comfortable Kansas life. I had to stop myself from speaking Arabic to the servers in restaurants, I missed the fresh produce and busy streets, and the calm, quiet demeanor of people in public was a little disconcerting.

I noticed changes in myself, as well. I walked with confidence and energy, no longer feeling as much insecurity about my weight or appearance. I felt strongly connected to my family, with a yearning to help them and care for them in a way I couldn’t for two years. And I felt perfectly fine sitting alone, no longer sad or lonely, without the need to be around people all the time.

A week after arriving home, my mother had major heart surgery, and I put aside any element of culture shock to apply myself fully in that experience. But the passion and love-for-life I gained in Egypt is what allowed me to fully invest in my mother and family at that time. I was a better daughter, sister, housekeeper and friend than I would have been two years ago.

The combination of Egypt and my home in Kansas make me so ready to continue my adventure in Indonesia. I am grateful for the things that haven’t changed, and the things that have. I am both excited for my journey and excited to spend the remaining week here with my family. I am proud to be from Kansas and have lived in Egypt. I know, as I delve further into international teaching, the positive changes will only continue.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

My Place in the Theatre

I was not born to perform. Some people may think that, because I have no trouble belting out a random line from “Some Enchanted Evening” in a crowd full of people. I am not embarrassed to krump in the middle of a shoe store or make strangers laugh in a restaurant.

The stage, however, is a different story. After performing a bell solo in the school concert when I was six, people were impressed at the effortlessness of my five-second moment. I knew the truth, though. I felt that shake, the nameless, unknown first hint of nerves and anxiety that would grow to haunt me for life.

As I got older, as I was able to understand the stakes and delve into the drama of who was watching, what they were thinking and how I looked and sounded, the anxiety ate at me daily. A performance several months away would run through my mind constantly. I would analyze every note and decide how I wanted everything to sound, how I wanted people to react. I listened to recordings over and over and imagined myself sounding just like the professionals. When I sang, my voice would shake and I would revert to a nervous chest sound. When I played violin, my vibrato was either incessant or nonexistent.

I used meditation, rituals and eventually a mild antianxiety medication as coping techniques. Eventually, this allowed me to pull out some surprisingly decent performances. But I never felt at home and I always knew that no matter how much I wanted it, I could never perform as a career. I was much too inconsistent.

So, I searched for another place in the theatre, on the stage. I wanted to immerse myself in music and performance, but I needed a different angle. I tried pit orchestras, symphonies, chamber music, choirs, and small ensembles, and ended up having some of the best experiences of my life. In the end, though, I valued the communities and the experiences but still stressed over each performance.

The summer after I graduated university, I settled into the ticket office at Starlight Theatre, a large outdoor venue that hosted Broadway musical tours and concerts each summer. I still got to talk about my love of musicals and I contributed to the “scene” with my strength: administrative work. I was promoted to supervisor and worked as hard at my summer job as I did teaching. Still, the stage seemed so distant and I imagined myself being up there again, singing or playing. But every time I so much as opened my mouth at the all-school talent show, the anxiety came rushing back.

This is how Adam found me. A nervous musician, a former performer, with a flair for organization and detail. Through the first musical we did together, I stood in where needed. I ran the sound at rehearsals, took care of some administrative details, and sang when actors were absent. I developed relationships with the secondary students, an age which always frightened me. I learned the light and sound boards. I eagerly watched Adam work, soaking in his expertise on acting and vision. I probably learned as much from him in three months as I did during my entire teaching program. Adam suggested that I direct my own show.

Directing a show was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but it gave me insight into the theatre, into the deep workings of a musical, that I did not have before. I was good at the technical elements and the administrative details, but I struggled with the artistic vision.  I cared very little about costumes and could not even sketch out set ideas. Thankfully, I had a team of people more creative than I to push the artistry forward and I ended up with a show full of talented children with several talented adults behind-the-scenes.

I don’t know if Adam knew where I belonged. He is the type to sit back retrospectively and watch, putting everyone in their exact right place. It is what makes him a brilliant director. One of us came up with the idea of me stage managing The Sound of Music, the all-school musical and the largest production this school had seen. At the beginning, I wanted to do a good job because I wanted to help Adam. I wanted to support him after he supported me as director and teacher. As the process intensified, I found myself extremely invested in the show, perhaps even more than I was in the production I directed. I immersed myself in the technical elements of light hanging, set building, and sound design. I opened the lines of communication with the students and parents. And on show-night, when I was calling cues and live-editing microphones up in the booth, I felt like I was performing, in a way. I was performing, but this time without the anxiety.

I owe a significant portion of my happiness in Egypt to Adam. He has put up with my anxious and emotional temperament and never stopped teaching me. He helped me love my job here. He made me laugh harder than I ever have and party more than I ever should. But most importantly, he found a place for me in the theatre. He has been a rock, a mentor, a colleague, a teacher, and a friend.
Adam, hanging curtains on the set of Sound of Music.
Trying to take pictures on closing night without laughing.
Light hang for the Sound of Music.
At the cast party with Stephanie (choreographer and lights) and Joe (teacher/actor). 
Director and stage manager.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


The water rushes upward, bubbling past my shoulders, escaping in a splash. My feet force themselves downward, but like a slow motion trampoline, I am returned to the surface, popping up in tact, howling about the coldness or the beautiful day, singing about the creatures we might see. I can already taste the saltwater as it clears my sinuses and settles comfortably on my tongue.

My first Open Water entry was on October 19, 2012, more than 150 dives ago. At that time, the 10 seconds from the step (or, in fancy scuba terms, “giant stride”) off the boat to the successful entry into the water were the most thrilling 10 seconds of my life. I had never been very prone to outdoor activity nor had this landlocked Kansas girl ever been so close to truly experiencing the sea, but in these 10 seconds I became a completely different person.

Sometimes, when I’m having trouble sleeping, I close my eyes and try to remember. I think it helps disguise some of my fears about leaving Egypt, if I can latch onto my memories. I swim through them slowly, calmly, trying to feel again as if it were the first time.

I remember my first octopus. The colors changing from red to white to purple, slithering tentacles growing spikes before my eyes. A beautiful, intelligent creature coping the best it could with eight divers huddled around its hiding place.

I remember tumbling backwards off a zodiac for the first time amidst jokes about badass Navy Seals and secret missions, followed by a drift dive which propelled us through the water as if we were flying.

I remember the first time I saw a banner fish, a lionfish, an anemone fish. I feel the butterflies from my first Napoleon wrasse and the slight cringe at my first stonefish.

I remember the shark. THE white tip reef shark that defined my social circle and our experiences for the next two years. I grabbed the guide’s hand tightly and froze as we met the shark that inspired the White Tip Dive Squad.

I remember the gangster school of hammerheads, the first manta ray that passed over us like a cloud, and the second that stayed for 12 minutes.

And then there are the people moments. Feeling Joe take my arm when he sensed I was nervous, hauling Bethany out of the water during my rescue course, and screaming with Justine on the surface after an amazing dive. Linda, whose endless excitement can inspire even the most apprehensive diver. Bassem, who can spot the tiniest, most beautiful nudibranch in every mass of coral. Titch who shows constant, true joy, even underwater. And Rick. Rick, who took a dramatic, anxious, difficult Kansas girl and, in two years and four courses, made her into a divemaster. Rick, who helped me to truly belong, to diving, to nature, and to my own self.

As I sat down to organize my last White Tip Dive Squad trip, I felt a little bit like that octopus. I wanted to back into a hole and cope, find a way to cope with my first last. I wanted to delay this inevitable last dive trip because I cannot imagine my life without this sea, and these fish, and my people. I want to change colors and put up spikes until I find a way out that isn’t going to hurt so much. But I’m not as smart as an octopus, and all I can really do is remember and be grateful. Be grateful and keep diving.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Men That Egypt Sent Me

I could write about the bad. I could share stories of dismissed heartbreak and careless games. I could dramatically discuss my self-worth, how it was propelled to new heights by meaningless compliments and then shot down to nothing by tradition and lies and assumptions. I could tell you about the men I dated here in Egypt. The three men who twisted my emotions and toyed with my established feminism. Man 1: afraid to date for a year; Man 2: swear off Egyptians; Man 3: sigh, and be done with dating all together.

Or, we could commiserate on the hundreds of men that shout across streets, walk too close, or tell me that they love me under their breath. We could exchange advice about hugging the buildings and staying close to the guards, or pulling back our hair because maybe, just maybe, the harassment decreases a bit with the help of a ponytail. No one really complimented my appearance before coming to Egypt, and now, I hardly want anyone to compliment it ever again. Nothing creates more vulnerability, fear, annoyance and frustration than being stripped down to nothing but blonde hair and female curves, every time I leave my apartment.

But instead I will tell you about the three men that Egypt sent me. These three men defy the norm and prove that Egypt has hope of becoming more than the daily dose of harassment most women experience on the street.

Ahmed, Taxi Driver

I met Ahmed, a quiet, hard-working driver, when Angela force-fed me his number in my first month. “He’s the best,” she explained, simply. Without a car and living in the suburbs, I started calling Ahmed now and then. I was still trying to walk or ride my bike to work and fill my backpack with groceries on the way home. Eventually, the harassment left me too vulnerable and I no longer enjoyed walking alone. Ahmed started taking me places almost daily, and his business grew as others learned of his dependability and trustworthiness. His fees are modest, too modest, and many of us press him to increase his fares. He humbly refuses.

Ahmed is more than a good business man, though. I can fall asleep on a long ride and feel safe. He plays Top 40 radio, and smiles when I sing along. He waits for me to get inside safely and walks me in if he feels uncomfortable about my surroundings. He politely tells me I look beautiful when I dress-up. He drives slowly and calmly, while the Cairo traffic swirls in ridiculousness around him. And he always, always gets me home, no matter how late, or tired, or inebriated I am. He is younger than us, but in a way, he protects us all like a parent might protect his children. Ahmed is the main reason I still feel safe here.

Ahmed, Dance Teacher

I was hesitant to continue my ballroom education in Egypt. There are cultural ideas, here, that imply inappropriateness when a men and women touch more than a handshake before marriage. What type of man would teach dance in Egypt? Would it be someone who wants an excuse to touch women all day?

My fears were quite unreasonable, but they were based on a year of experience, a year of the implication that if I danced with someone, I might accidentally give him the idea that I also wanted to take off my clothes. One courageous day, though, I boldly called the dance studio and requested an intro lesson, knowing that if I did not like it, I could leave and disappear into the Cairo streets to never encounter him again. That is when I met Ahmed, and 15 lessons later, we are still dancing.

Ahmed forces me to smile. I come in after a long day, after hours of teaching and rehearsal and answering parent emails, and he teaches me the jive and the cha-cha. Post-school-day me barely wants to walk, much less dance. But by concentrating on my strengths, with patience and encouragement, he makes it impossible not to enjoy that hour. When I am there, I feel safe, and best of all, I am actually learning something. When I leave, I feel confident and energized, able to bravely walk home and conquer Cairo. As a teacher, I appreciate good education and I know how hard it is to achieve. Ahmed has given me a long-lasting, positive relationship with dance, and with myself. For that, I am extremely grateful.

Bassem, Diving Leader

I get along with people who work hard. Perhaps it is my Midwestern upbringing, but when I look around at my friends, we are all people who take our jobs seriously and personally. In Egypt, I have had to adjust my expectations. Culturally, Egyptians enjoy life and build relationships. They work to live, whereas I live to work. This new attitude has taught me to relax (a little) and recognize that there (might) be more important things in life than my job.

But Bassem fits into the category that feels like home. If I were back in my comfort zone, he is exactly the type of friend I would have: hardworking, honest, hilarious and kind. Our relationship was purely business for quite some time. He is a business-smart owner of a dive center in Dahab, where I spent my summer, and I was an overzealous trip-planner with annoyingly obsessive organizational skills. As I got to know Bassem, I realized that I was being my most true self around him. He has seen me at my worst and best—melting down after a bad dive, or when a trip does not go as planned; or, finally completing my divemaster certification, feeling happy and accomplished. Yet, he still wants to hang around me, worst me and best me. It is his supportive advice that got me through the last of my poor dating choices. Our simple, natural friendship has encouraged me to remember that men and women can be friends without the expectation of anything more (an idea that has become obsolete since coming to Egypt). I admire him greatly and so appreciate our friendship.

Those are the three men that Egypt sent me. Not the three that I dated, the nameless three that broke my heart, not all of the men from the streets, cafes and stores that cause me daily discomfort, but these representative three: a driver, a teacher and a friend. It is them whom I will remember when I leave here. They made my experience in Egypt unforgettable.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

That Time I Lived Through a Revolution

There is no fancy angle here. No narrative from my past, no interesting anecdote to grab your attention. My feelings are too mixed-up to produce anything well written or thoughtful. I am too sad to be hopeful, too afraid to be confident, and too amazed to be descriptive. No matter how I write this, it will not do Egypt justice. And justice has been denied to Egypt for so long, that I almost did not write this at all.

We planned for June 30. As the Tamarod protesters gathered in Tahrir, we stocked up on groceries and kept track of each other. The night before, I locked my front door and charged my phone. Very little violence erupted from those protests. The thorough planning, mostly by young adults frustrated with a religious government, helped make the June 30 protests appear celebratory and demanding at the same time. A couple days later, when the military declared their support for the Egyptian majority, Emily and I walked down the street clutching recently purchased Egyptian flags and smiling at the celebration happening around us. The day the military removed Morsi from power, we gathered in my apartment to watch the news and then moved to Emily’s 14th-story terrace to observe the rejoicing spilling into the streets. We were prepared for it to get scary, but it never did. Aside from a few isolated incidents, the second revolution seemed successful. I was impressed with the petitions, protests and dedication of the millions of people throughout Egypt.

It soon became apparent that the Muslim Brotherhood was not going down without a fight. They had worked too hard, and for too long, to make Egypt an Islamic state. They appealed to the West’s sympathy by crying about democracy, military coup and free, fair elections. They made demands and continued to refuse to negotiate (which they had been doing for months). They acted like children, and eventually, the military and Morsi opposition started treating them as such. The public and media stopped taking them seriously. The nation started to progress without them.

Perhaps this was the mistake we made. Not just the opposition, not just the Egyptian military, but also the media and the Western world. Maybe we underestimated them a bit, and their willingness to fight, and worse, die for their cause. Could this have been prevented with a stronger hand in the beginning? Were there peaceful ways to appease them before they took to the streets with weapons?

When I left Egypt briefly to meet my parents in Spain for a week at the beginning of July, I was excited and energized by my international home. Political protest is so admirable, and here was a movement that had successfully overthrown not one but two oppressive governments. I had so much hope in a future in Egypt without religion preceding common sense. The rest of the summer, in a hippie ocean village at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, I felt proud and safe, confident that the pro-Morsi sit-ins would eventually dissolve and I could truly be a part of a new Egypt. Though tourism was low, and Dahab lacked commerce, Ramadan passed without incident. Protests continued on both sides but I was never worried about returning to Cairo. I was even a little excited to get back to my apartment, start fresh a new school year, and meet the incoming teachers I with whom I had only corresponded over the internet.

I returned to Cairo early morning, August 13. Later that day, I went to the spa and on a leisurely grocery shop. Feeling tired, I left before acquiring enough groceries, figuring I would finish the next day. The 14th, I was supposed to meet Emily at 10:00 a.m. to run errands. I overslept, and when she called me, I awoke to chanting protesters in the background, who she could hear from the rooftop of her 14-story building.

And then the news flooded in, faster than my Twitter-following mind could digest it. The military had cleared the sit-ins, which seemed effective until they relocated to Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque, about two kilometers from my apartment. A few hours passed. People started to die. A few more hours passed. I heard gunshots.

I stayed inside for more than two days (a privileged confinement, with fast Internet, Wii, television and cell phone service). Eventually I closed Facebook and Twitter, unable to read about where some of the bullets I heard were landing. Churches burned. People cried. The Brotherhood stood firm. I kept thinking of a quote I heard on a television program, about religious extremists, living with expectations and ideals of the 8th century, but weapons of the 21st. They don’t mix well.

I slipped out for a few hours on Friday morning to meet the new teachers. The brave, amazing people that got on a plane despite the recent events. I could tell immediately that this particular group of new arrivals were above-average individuals, fearless but thoughtful, readied and well-informed. And the little information that I was providing them as an orientation to Egypt will likely pale in comparison to the things they will teach me this year. They gave me hope.

After stopping at the grocery store, I literally ran home to be inside before the end of Friday prayer, a planned “Day of Anger” protest by the Muslim Brotherhood. Later that afternoon, though I felt safe locked-up in my apartment, I decided to take a break and move out to the suburbs for a couple days. My friends, Emily and Joe, joined me, and we made camp in our director’s beautiful home. I felt lucky, because I know that not everyone has the opportunity to take a break.

That’s the story of that time I lived through a revolution. It’s not over, but I felt like I had to write something. I would like to ask a few favors of my readers, as well. Please do not believe everything you see on CNN. Do not judge the Egyptians, military or Brotherhood, based on your understanding of how democracy or religion or justice works. Do not simplify events into “fair elections” and “peaceful sit-ins” and “military coups”. This is a complicated set of issues, and the Egyptians deserve better than our judgment. It is best to admit we don’t understand. It is best to admit we will probably never understand.

I am okay, safe, staying. I am proud to be here, even when it is a bit scary. I hope, once this all dies down a bit, we can all see Egypt for what it really is: a beautiful, historical, inviting country full of welcoming, kind, smiling Egyptians…my home.

Alternative non-Western-biased news sources:
Facebook: Egyptian Streets