Friday, April 27, 2012

The Price of Vanity

Not surprisingly, it turns out that the price of vanity is a pretty steep price indeed. I’ve had a minor medical saga that’s been going on for the past three months. It is at last coming to a close but there is no question that it has contributed greatly to my prolonged funk.
I decided to have some visible spider veins in my legs treated. Two patches on my left shin would turn very dark like bruises when my heart rate increased such as when I was really hot or when I was exercising. I found them unpleasant to look at. And because I wear shorts and skirts most of the year here, I was looking at them often. After some tests to make sure my veins and arteries and valves were functioning as they should, I arranged to have several areas of spider vein in my legs injected with a chemical that burns the tiny capillaries out.
The doctor clearly and on two occasions reviewed the risks with me: blood clots, ulcers at the injection sites, shifting of the spider veins to a nearby location, etc.I went ahead with the procedure fully informed of these risk. I want to be clear on this because what happened is not the doctor's fault.
The two patches on my left shin were large and required injection of a considerable volume of the caustic chemical. I had half a dozen other smaller areas treated at the same time. All is well with the small treatment areas. But within 3-4 days of the treatment, I developed two large ulcers, each about 2.5 cm in diameter, on my left shin. The chemical burned out the veins and the surrounding tissue as well.
I’ve been living with these open wounds on my leg for more than three months. They have to be treated with a type of antibiotic ointment that is used on burn victims (they were the result of chemical burns, after all) and covered at all times, mainly because it was very painful when fabric brushed against them. The doctor debrided both of them three times, an excruciatingly painful procedure in which he cut and scraped the dead tissue out. It felt like he was grabbing nerve fibers with tweezers and yanking them out of my leg. The ulcers were always extremely painful to the touch…I had to be careful that the dogs didn’t bump my leg.
There is no CVS here where I can get bandages or gauze or things like that. I managed to cadge some dressings from the doctor at each visit, but when those ran out I had to cobble together coverings for the ulcers out of eye patches, the only bandage I could find here that was large enough to cover them.
Finally, one of the ulcers got small enough to excise. Two weeks ago the doctor removed a lump of flesh from my leg about the size of a meatball and stitched me up with several yards of what felt like 30-lb test line. Now I had an entirely new type of wound to clean and care for. The incision was about 6 cm long. Not surprisingly, for the first week, it was very painful. But, amazingly, quickly, it began to heal. After two weeks, the doctor removed the external stitches (there are some dissolving ones inside) and seemed quite pleased with the result.
Even the quiet little Jordanian nurse seemed pleased, telling me “mafi mark, mafi mark,” an amusing conflation of Arabic and English (mafi means no or none). I agree: the thin scar that will eventually be left will certainly be better than the hideous round scar that would form if the ulcers were not removed—and who knows how many more months it would take for the ulcer to completely heal, if it ever did?
As an aside, I should mention that the excision procedure itself is rather messy. Only a local is used so I sat up and checked on things every so often out of morbid curiosity. The excision part itself goes quickly. Cauterizing the veins and arteries is a bit complicated; lots of them are exposed because of the depth of the incision. Because an electric current is used to cauterize them, I had to be grounded to the machine. Even with that, if the doctor held the probe to my tissue for too long, electricity would begin to flow through my leg and it would begin to twitch like I was some sort of frog in a dissection tray. He had to give me more local anesthetic injections to shut off the nerve response to keep my leg from moving. There was quite a bit of sizzling and smoking as well. Puts one right off beef, I'll tell you. But the stitching up part was by far the worst. I could feel every single tug and pull of the sutures; my brain was screaming "pain!" even though all I felt was pressure.
I don’t have to cover the first excision site now, and only have to apply some basic antibiotic ointment once a day for a few more days. Whew. Low maintenance wounds are a great improvement over those damned ulcers.
And at last, the second ulcer shrunk down to a manageable, or I should say, excisable size. It was cut out yesterday morning. Another 6-cm incision, another meatball removed, and more 30-lb test line. But by the time I head out for my holiday in mid-May, my medical saga should be behind me.
The price of vanity? I won’t have to worry about those damned spider veins on my shin now. No, I will now have scars to replace them.


One of the more frustrating aspects of living in Saudi Arabia is dealing with the extraordinary cultural exceptionalism of the locals. All cultures view themselves as unique from their neighbors; that is a fundamental aspect of culture. It’s the “we think we are better/behave better/think better than everyone else” part that causes problems.
Allow me to tell you a short story to illustrate the point.
I had Azza in the vet to get one of her vaccinations and there was a local couple in there at the same time. He was in western clothes, she was wearing an abaya and head scarf but didn’t cover her face.
A bit of an aside before I continue the story. You have to be very careful about assuming that a local male wearing western clothes is westernized. Although many of those who work at Aramco were educated OOK and exposed to modern concepts in science and technology and medicine and biology and so on, a surprisingly small number of those ideas remain with them upon their return. So on a daily basis you encounter such superstitious nonsense as “you should never eat an even number of dates; you can only digest them if you eat an odd number." 
So this man asked me if Azza was a saluki. I told him she was a mix. The woman then asked if she could pet Azza. I was surprised because most Arabs and Asians will not have a thing to do with dogs, will cross to the other side of the road to avoid passing us on the sidewalk, that sort of thing. I told her, sure, she could pet Azza. She reached down her hand to touch Azza’s head, and Azza promptly peed a bit on the floor and began licking the woman’s hand, both submissive/appeasement behaviors that drive me utterly mad (because she does them constantly even though appeasement isn't required). I have almost trained her to stop licking Harry, Mimi, me, and my friends and their dogs, but strangers are another matter. Then the guy told me that salukis are the “only dogs that muslims are allowed to own.” I was working out how to tell the woman that there was now some dog pee on the floor that she might want to avoid and didn’t quite hear him. I looked up and said “Allowed?” He said, yes, allowed by religion. I said, “Oh?” And then he came out with this conversation stopper: “Yes, because salukis have different chemicals in their mouths than other dogs and are therefore clean.”
Where do you go with that? Tell them that they are ignorant of basic biology? That such nonsense is not mentioned in any official text used by Islam (the Prophet Mohammed’s comments about dogs are in a couple of hadiths, and no hadith mentions salukis or their mouths)? Try to explain that the flora and fauna in salukis’ mouths are no different than any other dog's mouth? That just that morning Azza ate bird poop and worms off the sidewalk and licked her butt, and how exactly does that make her mouth clean?
I simply turned away to move Azza to another corner of the room. I’m going to hell anyway so I never mentioned that his wife’s abaya was dragging through dog pee.


I’ve been in a bit of a funk the past couple of months. Lots of stressors have contributed to this, including a lack of whine (poor planning on my part but a batch is on its way, perhaps three weeks from drinkable), some medical issues, being stuck IK since November because of further poor planning, not being able to walk the dogs in the mornings because of a large pack of aggressive feral dogs stalking the land, and being super busy at work.
I’ve posted before about my “method” for the blog. My method requires time for me to first ponder the stories I want to write about and then to sort out the language that I will use to tell them. Of course I have dashed off the occasional post on the fly but most of the time I have most of a post worked out in my head before I sit down at the keyboard. Being so busy at work has cut into my pondering time.
But back to the funk. It has specifically cut into my ability to live in the moment and find interesting stories to tell you. Not that interesting things aren’t happening around me. I live in Saudi Arabia after all, smack in the middle of the Middle East. Plenty of stupid, amazing, infuriating, awesome things going on all the time. Unfortunately, the funk is causing me to focus on the infuriating more than the entertaining and any story I start to tell quickly turns into a rant.
Another interesting corollary of living in Saudi Arabia is that ranting online is a particularly stupid and rapid way for you to lose your job. Heck, ranting in public will produce the same result. You even have to carefully choose with whom you share your rants. You certainly don’t want to go further and leave a public record of them.
But the funk is clearing. I’ve got a nice leave coming up in May with a good friend—you’ll hear plenty about that when I return.
And my dogs still love me.

Sunday, April 08, 2012


I encountered this bit of local fauna almost a year ago (late April, 2011). It's a sand viper. They are poisonous but not necessarily deadly. The birds got to this one and he was nearly dead by the time I crossed paths with him. They pecked his head with such accuracy that his skull was staved in and locking his lower jaw in place.

Sand viper. Grass for scale?

Close up view of his mangled head. The red streaks to the left are his blood. The birds, probably the Indian mynahs, clearly put a smackdown on this guy, who shouldn't have been out after sunrise anyway.

And I found this treasure right outside my patio gate just the other morning around 4:30 a.m. I've been told that these creatures are everywhere in the housing areas, and you might recall Harry's close encounter with one, but this is the first time I've spotted one so close to home.

The spot in the concrete at about 9 o'clock is the diameter of a dime. This guy is fairly hefty!

It's a wind scorpion, also known as a camel spider. You can count the legs and tell right away that it isn't a true spider, but it is clearly related! I completely addled it by taking these photos because its eye spots are on top of its head. It rambled around a bit, fell off a step into the grass, then hunkered down to recover.

Of course a post on wildlife wouldn't be complete without a couple of pictures of the dogs.

Harry is amazingly tolerant of the pesty puppy as long as she is calm. She's been doing some growing, but he still outweighs her! She's still nothing much but leg.

A sea of dog beds and blankets, perfect for a pack of sleepy dogs.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Shower Evangelical

I've mentioned before that houses in Dhahran have two kinds of water in them. We have a special water faucet in our kitchens for sweet water. This water has been treated and desalinated. It tastes okay and I drink it right from the tap.

Raw water comes out of the other faucets. This is well water that has been treated with chlorine to kill nasties. It is salty and extremely hard but potable, although I don't drink it or cook with it. Dishes washed in it have to be rinsed in sweet water or they get permanent spots. It rusts metal. It eats cotton. And unfortunately, this is the water that comes out of the shower. Imagine what it does to your skin and hair. You never feel clean. Soaps and shampoos don't work like you expect them to.

So I'm very pleased to report that I found a solution to the raw-water showers: a shower head with a chlorine-removing filter inside of it. This thing is totally amazing. You can literally feel and smell the difference in the water coming out of the shower. For less than USD 50, I can have soft hair and clean skin for about a year. I've shared the news of this great product with dozens of people--I'm sure Amazon is wondering why they are getting a rash of orders for the shower head from Saudi Arabia!