Monday, June 03, 2013

Question/Answer #2: Was It Scary Getting Malaria?

I recently wrote a blog post requesting submissions for questions to be used as writing prompts, so here's the next in the series of posts I am calling "Question/Answer." 

Question: Was getting malaria scary?

So I got malaria last fall. Was I scared? Not really. Malaria is a dangerous disease, and in these parts it certainly wreaks lots of havoc. Many people die of malaria, but with proper (and simple) treatment, it generally lasts only a week or so. It’s no fun and can make you miserable, but if you have access to the right medication and a decent immune system, you’ll survive. That’s what is so tragic about the number of deaths from malaria ever year, primarily children, who are particularly susceptible.

But back to the original question: I was not really scared.  When you look at the potential symptoms, I had a fairly mild case. I had an inkling I was infected after a day or two of a weird headache that was coming in waves. I was really tired and noticed I as taking really long, really intense naps. I was fatigued and couldn’t make it through an afternoon without crashing, and when I would I was entering REM sleep for hours at a time. After a few days of this, the headaches kicked in and I suspected malaria. I went to a lab in town, gave a blood slide, and lo and behold, I had malaria.

Now, I take a low-grade antibiotic as a preventative measure (and this method is very debated among the ex-pat community due to concerns of eventual resistance to the drug). Our nurse in the US said if we took a prophylaxis we would never get malaria. The long-time folks out here in TZ just laughed and laughed when we repeated that fact to them.  They told us everyone will eventually get malaria regardless of the meds. It’s just too prevalent, and we live in Tanzania’s hot zone for infections (the Lake Zone), but the meds will prevent cerebral malaria, which is nasty and much more fatal, evidently.

So I got a blood slide, bought some medicine for US$5, and just two doses cleared me up. I took it seriously, but any of the numerous times I’ve had strep throat were much much worse than the malaria. It sounds exotic and scary, but with proper treatment most folks will be fine. In reality, everyone seems to have malaria here, and for most people it’s just a fact of life. Nets are available, but many people don’t use them, and you can’t just sit under a net from dusk until dawn. And the locals don’t always have the leisure that I did to take a break, get rest, and recover. People get malaria and go work their farm because they have no other option. It’s not healthy nor is it recommended, but it’s hardcore, to be sure.

I’ve also had worms. Ascaris. I was feeling tired again earlier in the year, so I should have suspected something was up again. But it wasn’t until…

[Those of you who are squeamish should skip the next section.]

…it wasn’t until I pulled a 7-inch long worm out of my butt one morning that I thought “Hmm…I think I might have worms.” You think having a cup of coffee in the morning will wake you up? Try the worm method. You’ll perk up pretty damn quick. Anyway, three days of meds and I was fine. I told two long-time residents that I had worms and they both gave me practically the same response, word for word: “Welcome to the club!” Everyone gets worms here.

The worst? Amoeba. It also makes you very tired and can give you headaches and diarrhea. But the worst thing about the diagnosis is the treatment: Flagyl, or some variant thereof, is a terrible, potent, strong, and sickening medicine. I lost about 8 lbs in a week because of my inability to eat anything and my inability to stop crapping. The meds cause terrible, strong, nauseating headaches, gives you diarrhea, and causes a nasty, metallic taste in your mouth that takes days to wear off. It got so bad, just putting the medicine in my mouth made me gag and/or vomit. I’ll take malaria over amoeba any day of the week.

While all of the above was concerning, none of it was “scary,” per se. Do you know what WAS scary? Nothing too exotic at all: having an asthma attack. You can buy inhalers here in Mwanza, and I have one with me at all times. Recently, the change of weather flared up my allergies, which in turn flared up my coughing, which kicked my asthmatic wheezing into gear. I was lying in bed in the middle of the night, after having woken up wheezing, waiting for the inhaler’s medicine to kick in, and I thought about how in the States, in a worse case scenario, I could get to an ER and get a breathing treatment immediately if the situation ever called for it (and one time several years ago, it did). But it occurred to me that here in Mwanza, a breathing treatment would very likely NOT be available, and if it was, it may not be administered in a timely manner. THAT was a scary realization. Without an inhaler (which are available in town) I was facing a life-threatening scenario. Something so mundane-sounding, like asthma, and something so exotic-sounding, like malaria, can both kill you if you can’t get the treatment.

I recently read the transcript of a speech given by Dr. Paul Farmer where he describes findingsomeone who was at the point of death from an asthma attack. After a few puffs of an inhaler, the man immediately began recovering. Something so simple, but something out-of-reach to the ill man. So as I lay in bed thinking about my health, it wasn't the scary sounding disease that was giving me concern; I was my boring-old, 100% treatable illness that had me worried. And it gave me a moment’s pause, after I took a blessed inhaler puff, as I reflected on how lucky I have it and how hard it must be for so many people around the world who still must contend with the reality of lacking adequate treatment on a daily basis.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Question/Answer #1: Why Did You Decide to Give Up on Being an Artist?

As many of you know, I recently wrote a blog post requesting submissions for questions to be used as writing prompts, so here's the first in a series of posts I will call "Question/Answer." This request was inspired by a question from a long-lost friend who asked several questions about what had transpired in the two decades (!) worth of time since we last saw each other. Subsequently, my sister requested that I share the answer to that particular question, so here you go…

The question: Why did you decide to give up on being an artist?

Around age 20, after a few years as an art major, I made the conscious decision to stop making art. I have dabbled in it again over the years, but the decision was a fairly life-altering event and one that I felt I had to make or I would just go crazy. 

All growing up, I loved art. I always had art supplies, sketch pads, paints, etc. I was known as an "arts guy." In high school, I delved fully into the arts: Honors art, played trumpet in band, worked set (and eventually stage managed) the school musicals, designed school t-shirts, worked on layouts for the year book, etc. I was never the best, but I was pretty good and very dedicated. My senior year, I won the overall “Art Award” for the school. When I graduated, I went to Hinds Community College and double majored in Fine Art and Commercial Art Technology (AKA Graphic Design). My plan was to get the vo-tech degree in Design then go get a BA for Fine Arts.

But somewhere in there, I came to the realization that I didn’t ENJOY making art. It was not a fun process for me. This doesn’t mean that the physical act of drawing a picture was without any enjoyment. Rather, the whole concept of “creating something” just stressed me out. Was it good enough? Was the picture impressive? Did I make a mistake? Would people like it? I was unable to divorce the act of creating from a concern about others’ opinions of my work. Making art should be about the desire to create, not impressing other people. I stressed too much on whether it was “good” or what other people would think and it sapped away any of the pleasure of creating art for the sake of art. It took me a while, but I slowly came to recognize that this was the root of my problem, and I decided that I would stop. I made a very conscious decision to cease making art because it was literally driving me nuts. The decision made me sad, but it also gave me peace. I have pursued art projects in the years since, but for the most part, the decision was final. I tried to do some painting/assemblage type work again years ago, and once again, I had to pull back because the old feelings of stress and pressure crept back into the process. I stopped again.

To further put a nail in the coffin of my time as an artist in the traditional painting/drawing/fine arts sense, a few years ago, during a very fast purging of my mother’s house that occurred when we quickly moved her to a smaller house for health reasons, I had to make a decision on what to do with all my art from high school and college. I decided to take pictures of the better works…and then I threw it all away. Pretty much everything I had done, I put in the trash (I saved a few pieces). A very difficult process, but necessary in light of the circumstances. But on some level, it honestly felt almost like an albatross around my neck was purged; the thing that had caused me such stress over the years was washed away, almost with a trace (save a few photos). It was definately losing part of an identity, for better AND worse. Then a year or two after that, I packed up all my remaining art supplies (which I still hauled around for years) and gave it all to my niece, Lizzie, who IS inspired to dabble and create. It was the end of an era.

There’s a second side to my decision to NOT make art. The deep-seated desire to “be good at art” was sadly not accompanied by the desire to “BECOME" good at art. I never really wanted to commit the time that it would take to become better. That sounds lame, but honestly, honing a craft takes lots of time and energy and I wasn’t compelled to give the time to art. I did not have the passion that I saw in others that drove them to spend hours and hours in a studio, practicing, studying, making mistakes and learning from those errors. I just wasn’t drawn to it (pun intended). And honestly, I am “good” at art by conventional standards, but put me up against other artists who really mater their trade and I wasn’t all that great. Not bad, but nothing particularly noteworthy. So I opted to take a step away. Why drive myself crazy for something I wasn’t enjoying? So I walked away.

Well, mostly. I didn’t leave art completely thanks to my Graphic Design degree.

Now, I knew I didn’t want to be a full-time graphic designer before I even finished that degree (again, I could tell my skills weren’t up to snuff to really make it a profession) but I use that degree fairly regularly. Very glad I got it. I have used my training at every non-profit I have worked with, whether it’s designing fliers, creating logos, or just making a form or document look better. Even here in Tanzania, I redesigned all our regional materials and have designed 2 logos for different groups. One of the logos, for Chanua, a support group for orphans and their caregivers, is pictured to the right. My style is very conservative, simple, and clean, which doesn't make for particularly groundbreaking or exciting design but is exactly what most organizations need to spruce up their materials, so that's my niche. And I’m fine with that. (Nothing bothers me as much as a poorly designed flier or form!) I’ve also designed a few t-shirts over the years for friends and families, and even created a 50-page comic book with fairly not-very-good art, but it's funny and I’m very proud of it nonetheless. (Click here to download the comic or read it online.)

So there’s the reason that I did not pursue a career in art. I still have an artistic eye that serves me well, but overall, I don’t do art. I have some sketchpads here with me in Tanzania, but so far I have not cracked them open. The old pressure to create a perfect work of art rather than simply enjoying the process for its own sake is still present and still rears its head. And that’s OK. Some people’s demons drive them toward art. Mine just asks that I keep my distance.