Friday, March 30, 2012

Star Struck!

It was just like that time at Disney World, when My Lovely Wife and kids jumped out of the van and ran to the bathroom because they all had to pee furiously after a nine-hour ride from North Carolina.

Well, okay, it wasn't exactly like it, because no one had to pee and we had driven only an hour north to Raleigh, but you'll see what I mean in a minute.

When they came back from the bathroom that day in Florida, a young woman with a clipboard was following them. She told us we had been chosen, as part of Disney's Year of a Million Dreams, for a free upgrade to Concierge Level at the Grand Floridian Resort. The building required room keys for entry and provided a free breakfast, free evening reception, and even free beer and liquor in the evening. We later researched the value of this gift from the Great Mouse of the Everglades only to find we would have paid well over $1,000 for the luxury.

You must understand, we're not the kind of people who often get smacked in the back of the head with that kind of luck. So, when fate does smile upon us from time to time, we are genuinely taken by surprise and just as genuinely grateful. We get gratefully giddy, in fact, and trip all over ourselves to repeatedly express our gratitude.

Such was the case this past Sunday evening.

We had traveled to Raleigh for an evening performance of the "Mythbusters: Behind the Myths" live stage show. My Lovely Wife and I have watched the Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel ever since the show premiered almost a decade ago. Our children have grown up admiring the antics of the show's stars, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. Now, there they would be, just a hundred feet in front of us on stage. Talk about perfect entertainment for the entire family!

On the way into the theater, the Italian commented on how awesome it would be if we got to meet Jamie and Adam, shake their hands, maybe even talk to them. We made sure he understood that was not going to happen. We were there only to see the show.

After running back out to the van to get our camera after finding out we were allowed to bring them in with us, I heard My Lovely Wife frantically calling my name. A very tall man with a clipboard in his hand and backstage credentials hanging around his neck was standing next to her. She excitedly explained that our boys had been chosen to appear in the show. Would that be okay?

Let's see. Hell, yes!

Will, the young man with the clipboard, led us to the stage left dressing room where Bob, a model of calm efficiency, explained the parts the boys would play in the show and fitted them with eerily lifelike masks of their scientific heroes. The Italian balked at first -- the whiskers scratched his face and the mask made him a little nervous -- but he quickly recovered. The German was thumbs up from the word go.

The five of us watched the first act backstage from the wings which, though exciting, rather limits what one can see and hear. We got the general gist of everything, however, and the cast and crew danced excitedly around us in a neatly choreographed production.

When it came time for the boys to get ready, we headed back to their dressing room and got them fitted in their costumes, complete with matching outfits to those being worn by the Mythbusters. The joke went over with a tremendous laugh from the audience as the boys took the place of Jamie and Adam on stage for a quick sight gag. Adam even got the boys' names right when he introduced them to the crowd.

We got to meet the Mythbusters twice that evening during the intermission, before and after the boys got out of their costumes. A crew member took pictures as the boys and their big sister got autographs and chit-chatted with the two down-to-earth stars of the show.

Jamie and Adam thanked us for letting the boys be in the show, while we tripped over ourselves to thank them for giving our family an experience we will never forget.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Straight To Hell

Allow me to begin by pointing out that I am not an overtly religious man.

While I do enjoy church and have no trouble with the concept of organized religion, I'm not the kind to wear my faith on my sleeve. I don't walk around God-Blessing and Praise-Jesusing every cute little child I see, and I'm pretty lapsed when it comes to the idea of prayer. If God is all-knowing, then I don't need to bother sending off some private ethereal text message detailing what I want and why. He already knows.

The problem I have now is the same one I had when I was five years old -- lack of concentration. You could say this is more of a life skill problem than a religious one, but for some reason it stands out more clearly in church.

Perhaps it's because everyone else around me seems so determinedly intent on reciting the Lord's Prayer, or singing that hymn with the ridiculously complex melody. Seriously, what do they think we are, classically trained? Can we at least stick to a single octave so I don't have to modulate between sounding like a lead in the Vienna Boys Choir one minute and that "Oom Poppa Mow Mow" guy from the Oak Ridge Boys the next?

We hadn't even got ten minutes into the service last Sunday when I found my eyes darting around the room, checking for cracked paint, familiar faces, and bad toupees. The Italian, even more distracted than I, was flipping mindlessly through his hymnal when I caught glimpse of a hymn titled "Jesus Took a Towel."

Jesus took a towel?

"Jesus Took a Towel" might be a lovely hymn. It might be the most beautiful, spiritually-inspired verse ever put to music. Angels might sing it in their sleep at the end of their happiest days, but that won't change the fact I kept picturing Jesus poolside at some beachfront resort taking one of those cheap white towels with the broad blue stripe down the middle from a giant rolling bin. Or worse, Jesus nabbed for shoplifting at the home goods department of Walmart.

What, you think Jesus never went shopping?

It must have struck Our Daughter's funny bone similarly when I pointed it out to her, which made me feel a little better about myself. As we stood to sing the first hymn of the morning, I leaned over and whispered to her.

"What hymn are we going to sing now, 'Jesus Bought a Loofah?'"

There was no recovering after that. I'm probably going straight to hell in the fast lane, but if there's no sense of humor in heaven then that suits me just fine.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Taco Intervention

There once was a time when if I hankered for a taco, or a burrito, or even just a small cup of pintos & cheese, I sat alone. My nuclear family left me no alternative.

Recently as one year ago, not one other person under our roof shared my craving for the occasional flour tortilla wrapped around spiced meat and vegetables, covered in enchilada sauce and sprinkled with queso fresco.

El Vaquero? No.

El Chapala? No.

San Felipe? Maybe, but only because they have stir fry platters and we can pretend those aren't Mexican dishes.

Faster fare such as Moe's or Taco Bell? Don't even waste the energy it takes to speak their names.

Then things changed. Somewhere along the way from last summer to this spring, My Lovely Wife discovered a heretofore under-utilized portion of her equatorially-oriented palate. I don't recall the exact date she first requested tacos for dinner, all I know is she didn't have to ask twice. It was just like the time she commented on taking down the wallpaper in the guest bathroom and I started peeling it off the wall before she had a chance to change her mind. That was some horrendously ugly wallpaper.

As the months passed, requests for tacos came more frequently. Our daughter didn't seem to mind, since we didn't ramp up the heat too much, which isn't saying a whole lot since this is the same kid who wouldn't eat the honey-coated chicken nuggets at Chik Fil-A when she was little because she said they were too spicy. "They make my tongue itchy," she would say, causing us to wonder whether she needed to be institutionalized.

The German also seems to enjoy the occasional taco dinners. It's the Italian who balks, but we've found a way to satisfy him by filling his tortilla with bland chicken and salad dressing. Essentially the opposite of a vegetarian wrap -- a carnivorian wrap, if you will.

But lately the strain of the prospect of yet another week of taco nights is beginning to show when their Mother makes the suggestion. "We just had tacos," the German will whine, while his brother shuts his eyes and shakes his head like an angry mime.

Even I have to confess to occasionally attempting to thwart the taco regime from taking full command. After all, at this rate it won't be long before My Lovely Wife's weekend naps are officially relabeled "siestas," the poodle is replaced with a chihuahua named Chuy, and we're all required to wear sombreros to the dinner table.

Just be forewarned if you call our house and the person who answers says "Hola," don't immediately assume you dialed the wrong number.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Chronicled Hives

My experiences with hives vary from minor irritation to throat-tightening panic. That said, the infrequency of occurrences hasn't led to an exhaustive search to figure out the cause of my breakouts. They come, they go, I put them behind me.

The first time the German turned up hivey, we didn't make any more of if than a fluke occurrence. We medicated him until he was clear and didn't really give it much thought until he had a significant breakout five months later.

We were assembling a seesaw the twins had received as a birthday present when I noticed the red splotches. That weekend, at his sister's dance recital, we had to pump the German full of Benadryl just so he could tolerate his own skin. Beginning that May, we entered into a period in which our family phsycian prescribed multiple rounds of prednisone and allegra, which would help until the medication ran out and the hives returned full force. His condition would occasionally kick into overdrive, causing his skin to swell and making him almost unrecognizable.

A visit to a local allergist proved almost useless. If you've ever been to a doctor who could care less whether or not people continued breathing, let alone sustained a bearable quality of life, that was the kind of "expert" to whom we were recommended. The only good thing that came out of that visit was his referring us to Duke. Not that he had high hopes for us. When we asked which doctor we should request, he said "Just be happy with who you get," and then told us it could take months to get an appointment.

To shorten a long story, we ended up in the hands of a dedicated, inquisitive, experienced professional at Duke. She asked questions. She ran mulitple tests. She considered all the possible options. Then, when we felt she was on the cusp of resolving the German's hive issue, she transferred to research and referred us to someone else.

We headed next over to Duke Children's Hospital where we met with a doctor whose name I don't recall. We saw him only once, maybe twice, but he wanted to go in a completely different direction from the other Duke doctor we had been seeing. The change unnerved us. He also talked about running tests, such as a biopsy of one of the German's hives, that sounded painful and, to my uneducated ears, futile. I could understand a biopsy of a permanent item, like a mole or a wart or a birthmark, but what possible good could come from cutting a chunk out of a transient discoloration of the skin of a six-year-old boy?

During those first months we heard many scary words we were told might be associated with his condition. For some reason, some of the more frightening of them began with the letter L, like Lupus and Leukemia and Lymphoma. The only thing we weren't hearing was a name for the German's condition. Not knowing what to call it only heightened our fears.

There were many times when the hives kept the German from participating. Being around animals seemed to make his skin worse, as did spending time outside on hot days and working up a sweat playing with his siblings and friends.

He was hit hard by a flare-up during a trip to Disney World in 2008. Although we had kept him on his regime of prescription medications, all the activity was proving too much for him. The night of his sister's birthday dinner he desperately wanted to experience the fun of a flume ride in Epcot's World Showcase, but his skin crawled with red splotches and the itchiness drove him to tears. We took him to the Epcot infirmiry where they graciously provided a dose of Benadryl. It gave him relief only because it knocked him out.

That said, there were some not-so-subtle reminders along the way for us to keep our imaginations from running amok.

One day, at Duke Children's Hospital for yet another round of bloodwork and assessment, we passed a mother and young child, maybe 9 or 10 years old at most. The mother tried to provide a comforting embrace as her child wept uncontrollably. A woman with a clipboard and a handful of brochures was talking to them about the Make A Wish Foundation. It was one of those moments when you wish you hadn't intruded on someone else's suffering, even if they hadn't noticed you. It also was one of those moments when you tell yourself things could be much worse than they are. Our son had hives that itched. That child had been handed a death sentence. Note to self: Quit bitching.

Luckily, at the same time we saw Duke's Dr. Biopsy, we also were referred to an infectious disease specialist whose attitude moved and encouraged us. Not that she took us any closer to a resolution, but she was readily available to us via email and was genuinely concerned with helping us figure out what was going on.

Through pure good fortune, a volunteer at the boys' school who had been working with the German on his reading skills noticed the hives. She knew of another family that had a son with a similar condition. She approached My Lovely Wife and asked if it would be okay if she put our family in touch with that other family. It was an exciting breakthrough.

Not long thereafter we found ourselves at VCU, Virginia Commonwealth University, meeting with a pediatric immunologist widely considered to be one of the nation's leading authorities in her field. She and her team spent four hours with us, exhaustively questioning, poking, proding, observing, reviewing past bloodwork results, ordering new bloodwork, and looking over the slew of prescription medications we had been pumping daily into the German at the advice of the doctors who came before her.

It was the first time in over a year of medical appointments that we had a name to put to the condition: Chronic Hives. As the specialist explained, if you have hives for more than three weeks without a clear indication of a related allergen, then you call it chronic hives.

Turns out the German's mast cells, which create and distribute histamines throughout the body in response to an allergic reaction, were confused. They were pumping out histamines at breakneck speed even though no allergens were to be found. For lack of a better analogy, they were stuck in the "on" position and have remained so ever since.

The best thing to come of our visit to VCU was the elimination of prescription strength medications we feared could have deleterious effects if taken daily over long periods of time. They weren't even doing a very good job of keeping the hives at bay.

Each day since that first meeting at VCU, the German has taken only two Pepcids and one Zyrtec, and the results have been consistently clear skin and an elimination of the itching.