Sunday, January 25, 2015

Death by Chocolate

I can't have chocolate. Did you know that? Eating it, or simply smelling it, triggers horrible migraines which can last up to three days. I only discovered this about the time I was pregnant with Benjamin and got serious about trying to figure out what might be triggering the migraines. It was crazy how cutting out the chocolate cut down significantly the migraines which have been a steady part of my life since childhood.

My first migraine came with a smell of burning rubber. For two days I would sniff the air and ask other people if they could smell what to me was the noxious scent of someone peeling out in their car on the street. No one could. Then the headache hit and it was so bad I threw up several times. Sometimes I also smell oranges. I don't smell burnt rubber before a migraine anymore, but I'm still suspicious when I smell citrus in a place where there isn't something obvious to give off the scent. If I don't have a phantom smell to warn me of the impending pain bomb about to explode, I get these lovely little lights and dark spots around the periphery of my vision. They scare me worse that the smell of oranges, because they mean the worst kind of migraine is about to hit.

I've had a variety of medications over the years to keep the migraines at bay, some of them had side effects that were worse than the migraine itself. I finally found something that works (Maxalt-MLT, a prescription tablet which is dissolved on the tongue and provides immediate relief if I use it at the first twinge of pain or when I start to see those lights). Unfortunately, it's expensive and not available in Asia. But it allows me to breathe a little more freely, be a little less cautious.

Four years ago when we first moved to Macau, I would still occasionally consume chocolate. I would only do it if my stomach was already full and I had no trace of a headache to begin with. If that was the case, I'd only get a migraine 25% of the time. I thought those were odds that made the possible pain worth it so that I could still eat chocolate. But then I realized my supply of the Maxalt was dwindling. Not having health insurance in America means no way of getting any more when it runs out. And beyond that, even with a 75% chance of no migraine at all, eating chocolate was self-destructive behavior. So, I made a choice to not eat any more chocolate. None at all.

Two things happened. First, the migraines fell from maybe once every four weeks to once every season. And second, every time I made the choice to not consume chocolate when it was offered to me, I felt stronger and more powerful. Because it does take self control to not consume something which tastes good, even if it does cause pain. Now I have no temptation at all to eat chocolate. And the one time I did in the last year (before Christmas, taking a huge swig of a mocha coffee that I thought was caramel coffee drink), the resulting migraine was so severe it took two days in a dark room with bouts of vomiting every few hours to get over.

I've spread the word, of course. In our year of the dinner party, guests would frequently ask what they can bring, and I'd recommend dessert, but no chocolate please. Through that, I found another friend who also cannot have chocolate, and he's my dessert buddy, sharing recipes for sweet treats that we can actually eat (PS, here's a winner). Unfortunately though, it's an easy thing to forget. I can't tell you how many times in just the last year I was gifted with a box of chocolates. For a job well done, for my birthday, for Christmas. Chocolate is an easy gift, which most everyone appreciates. Michael, who has no problem with it, enjoys benefiting from other people's forgetfulness.

I always remind myself that it's the thought that counts. Sadly, some of the worst offenders are people who I count as closest friends and even some family members. In the month of January alone, I've been invited to dine at someone's house three times where the dessert they offered was chocolate based. All the people in question are people who know I can't eat it. Man, that is hard. Because while I've stopped consuming chocolate for my own good, my deep desire for desserts and sweets and sugar has not waned one bit, and as I mentioned above, even the scent of chocolate can trigger the pain.

So what to do? I'm an adult, not a whiny toddler, so I shrug it off. I have a good memory for other people's likes and dislikes, allergies and idiosyncrasies, but that is not true of everyone else. I look at the accounts of schools who are completely banning peanut based products (and even some who ban students from consuming them at home before school) because a tiny percentage of people are allergic (in 2008 it was 1.4% of the population), and think that's absolutely crazy. To bend policy for an entire school because there are 3-4 students who are allergic? Why must the burden of non-consumption fall on the community if there's only a handful who can't consume? So it is with me and chocolate. Though admittedly, a migraine is not life threatening the way anaphylactic shock can be. Even if in the worst stage of pain I have been known to lay in the dark on the cool bathroom floor, trying not to vomit any more, praying to die.

But let me just say this... there are a few spectacular people in my life who remember that I can't have chocolate, and go out of their way to still make me feel loved. My friends Riza and Lirie (the ones we went horseback riding with) recently went to the Ice Festival up in Harbin, and brought back a wide variety of Russian chocolates for my group of friends. Having spent a summer in Russia (or what was then the USSR), I know that Russian chocolate is crazy good. Riza remembered that I can't have chocolate, and she brought me back a set of sweet nesting Matryoskha Dolls instead.


Considering how badly I wanted a set back when I was actually in Russia, but never got one, and how I've always admired (coveted?) the sets my friends have, she could never have known how deeply meaningful this would be to me. Not just to be remembered in the midst of a chocolate buying frenzy (likely a more economical souvenir than a set of dolls to bring back from her holiday), but to have her go out of her way to pick something special out that I actually could enjoy. I'm humbled, especially in a month where I could have grumbled about the abundance of desserts I couldn't have everywhere I've gone.

We don't need dessert, right? We don't actually need chocolate or sweets. We'll live. I'll live, you'll live. But we all need to be seen, to feel valued, to be remembered. Thank you Riza, for the amazing gift. I'm so grateful.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2014: How did I do?

So last year was great! I had some incredibly high highs. Michael and I had a recent conversation where I was somewhat mopey and blue and said I felt like I didn't do enough this year, and he corrected me with a massive amount of things we did indeed accomplish. Not just little things, but huge, life changing, world changing things.

I think that one problem that kept me from truly embracing the highs was one particular low that I allowed to creep in and affect even the good things early on in the year and then let it hang out and stay around. I'm not going to share specifics as the root issue is still there and unlikely to completely resolve any time soon. But I will say that I'm resolute to not let it color 2015 in a negative way like last year. What's one of my biggest beliefs? That we may not be able to change a situation but we can change our attitude about the situation? Ugh. Practice what you preach, Heather! Enough is enough! Let it go!

So how about we focus on those highs? Let's check in with my goals from last year, shall we?

They were to get organized, finish writing my book, and to host 14 dinner parties (one a month plus two spares). Let's start with the least successful and work our way up...

Writing my book. So here's what happened... the book that I thought I was writing, that I've been working on in one form or another for the last five years, decided it was not the book to be written right now. I lost steam, I lost direction, I lost passion for the project. And instead, another story from a deeper, more meaningful place presented itself for my consideration. In September. Which was just four months ago. Which means "the book" or really any book, did not get finished. But I'm allowing myself to spread this goal out to the end of 2015. I'm not beating myself up over its lack of completion. This is something I really want to get right. I've done a lot of work on the new story, but almost none of it has been actual writing. Most of it has been behind-the-scenes preparation to dive into the subject matter. For Christmas this year, Michael bought me a laptop (my first ever! And it has a touch screen! Hello future!) to help remove one of the barriers to writing that I've been using as an excuse. Namely, being rooted to my office desk during the busiest, noisiest, most distracting time of day in my house, which also coincides with the time I'm at my creative peak and would love to spill some words on to the screen somewhere, anywhere, else. Now there's no excuse! Let's get it done! We bought my Christmas computer in Hong Kong (it's cheaper there than in China) in October on holiday (that's it below, being set up by the guy at the computer market). And then I had to wait and wait and wait until Christmas morning to open it. It's simple but absolutely gets the job done! 


Next, my somewhat successful goal, to get organized. The problem with getting organized is less the "getting" part, and more the "staying" part. In a very #firstworldproblems manner, allow me to complain for a moment about my part-time housemaid, or ayi. Full disclosure, I love not cleaning toilets, doing laundry, ironing, or dishes. I love being able to afford help who does those things quickly and efficiently though with great care. Our ayi does not speak a word of English (other than sorry, which she says to say goodbye at the end of her shift) and my Mandarin caps off at about 25 words, most of which are pleasantries and ways to give directions to taxi drivers. All that to say there have been some missed communication moments. Such as when I ask her not to water my plants and she water-boards them to a boggy death. Or more central to this situation of getting organized, when I ask her to not touch my desk or "organize" my office, and she goes in and grabs every single paper and proceeds to sort them by size then color, rather than my more efficient method of subject matter then importance. Also, my ayi never met a box that she couldn't find something to put in it, and her classification system hinges on a priority of what fits rather than what might more logically go together. Meaning I had a box that had three pairs of long underwear, my favorite black v-neck sweater, a bag of unfilled plastic Easter eggs, the boys framed baby photos, Pop Rocks candy gum from Auntie Holly in the States, a bunch of Disney pins for the new Cars Land area in Disney California Adventure, all topped off with a stack of colored printer paper. And that is just one box of many, which were similarly creative in their contents. And without staying right on top of it, my office became like Aladdin's Cave of Wonders, a place filled with super neato stuff, if only you had the time to dig through and find it. Yes, yes, I repeatedly told her not to "help" in this way, and she repeatedly agreed, but it still happened. There is too much to like about her to let her go over this, but it's hard when the area I struggle the most with (clutter, staying organized) and am working the hardest to overcome is being sabotaged at every turn.


I confess, it wasn't until the very last week of 2014 that I finally snapped. My office looked like what you see above. I couldn't take it any more. No light cleaning was going to help, it needed major surgery. I removed every single thing from the office except the furniture and then went through it all in the living room, putting things back one by one, tossing massive amounts of junk, until I now have a somewhat peacefully arranged space where I can get what I need quickly and efficiently. Will it stay that way? I don't know. I'm trying to use my tactic from the beginning of the year where I do just a little bit every single day to keep it tidy. I have no after photo, but I'm sitting it in now, in that black chair by the window and feel peace while looking around.

And finally, my third and most successful goal from 2014. Throwing 14 dinner parties in 2014. Are you ready to be blown away? On December 26, 2014, we hosted our final dinner party of the year. It was not number 14. It was number 41. I am more shocked about this than perhaps anything else I've ever done in my life. Four years ago I had to teach myself to cook because I was allergic to shrimp/shellfish and we lived on an island where everything had some sort of fish sauce on it, leaving me forever itchy and covered in hives. Four years ago I dove into learning how to make things from scratch because convenience foods were not easy to come by in Macau, and when they were, they were expensive. Four years ago I had three "signature dishes" that I would rotate through when people came over for dinner, and two of them involved opening cans and combining them. This past year, I had over a hundred people (not all at once!) come to my home, sit at my table, and eat food I prepared by myself from scratch. With great love. From many recipes I created myself.

To say I'm shocked by this is such an understatement. I loved doing this! I loved inviting people from our various circles to join up with people they had never met before and leave our home as friends. I loved the creative challenge I set for myself to make things from scratch cheaply rather than jump to the more expensive ready made imported products. And I loved being able to tangibly show my affection for people and make them feel loved and at home by giving them a meal to eat. I'm not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point in 2014, what I thought was a Big Hairy Audacious Goal became a lifestyle. And best of all, I love that my final dinner party of 2014 was like coming full circle... it was with 9 of the 10 people who sat around my table at Christmas of 2013 and inspired me to make the dinner party goal in the first place.


Life is beautiful. So are these people.

So what's up for 2015? I've got some things up my sleeve. I decided not to make a big set of goals again. Definitely will be working on my book. I have a theme word for the year, as well as some other creative endeavors which I'll be sharing soon. When I think about the year laid out before me, twelve months lined up in a row, I get butterflies in my stomach. The kind you get when something really awesome is about to happen. Looking forward with great anticipation!

Happy New Year, friends. Glad you're along for this journey!