Come Sail Aboard S.S. Nepenthe

In mid-October, our HHE (household effects) arrived at last. Mr. Postcard has been hard at work unpacking it, several boxes at a time. At more than 120 boxes, the piles seemed like they were never going to end. But sure enough, more and more, the look of our house is starting to take shape as familiar and beloved items are unwrapped. My Felix the Cat cookie jar. My grandmother’s crystal rose and gold decanter set from her 1944 wedding. My fireproof safe. And so many things both sentimental and practical. Things I haven’t seen since our packout last May in Tashkent and in some cases, almost forgot about. I tend to easily and intentionally shed clutter and things I don’t love, especially in this lifestyle, so the things that arrived were precious. There are two boxes yet missing and being sought, and we are getting to the bottom of that, but for the time being we are trying to turn a house into a home. As we unload and reassemble and reimagine our things into the spots where they’ll live in this new configuration we are establishing, I remind myself that through the mess and chaos, at a certain point there will be a critical mass of things falling into place.

Until then…

Creating a nice nest space has been somewhat delayed by my medical issues, in the sense that I haven’t been as much of an active participant in setting up house as I normally would be. In Tashkent, I’d unpacked thousands upon thousands of pounds of our UAB air freight (unaccompanied baggage) and HHE myself as my husband was delayed almost four months in coming to Post. But here I have been tired and resting a lot in the midst of the mess, and not able physically to do much to help other than serve as what Mr. Postcard calls “aesthetics director”.

In mid-October (on Friday the 13th no less), I had a minor procedure to remove the chest catheter I’d been wearing for six weeks. It was through that IV tube that I’d received six weeks of liquid antibiotics, one daily 240 ml (8.1 oz) bottle at a time. I was then successfully discharged from Canberra Public Hospital’s “Hospital in the Home” (HITH) program, ending phase I of my osteomyelitis treatment. Technically I was an inpatient for those six weeks, but I did sleep at home and go to work more than 80 percent of the time. Since I saw the nurses every day for 43 days in a row, it was kind of bittersweet to say goodbye.

For all the weeks when I was wearing the chest catheter, and a little while afterwards, the threshold for my physical activity level was low: nothing more strenuous or rhythmic than washing a dish. The reason was to avoid working the tube out of my arm; only a couple centimeters’ movement and I would’ve needed another procedure to reset it into the vein. So although I busted my buns going to work every day and all that entails, there has been very little unpacking and organizing house on my part until recently.

One of the things that made me the happiest after the tube came out was being able to lie on my right side without impacting the insertion site on my arm. Oh, and taking a shower without putting the antibiotic bottle into a mesh bag around my neck and jamming my arm into a tight plastic sleeve bookended with elastic suction to keep it dry. And not having my foreign counterparts stare at the tube snaking from under my arm bandage when I went to deliver a policy demarche. And not having to see a nurse at 07:30 seven days a week come hell or high water to swap my bottle out! Being on time for work and not having to wake up early on weekends to get myself together is something I won’t take for granted for some time. And cheers to me for surviving left-side driving in multi-story hospital parking garages incident-free during rush hour!

So until the end of November, I am in phase II of my treatment: oral antibiotics. The doctors are giving me only about a 50/50 chance of keeping my toe. As the weeks go on, I have to say it looks mildly less swollen and discolored than before. But the bone infection has just persisted unchecked for so long (more than eighteen months), that I personally have some doubt that it will get better. These toe bones are just millimeters thick, and they can die. The pain vacillates between a dull ache and a razor-sharp sting that comes and goes in short bursts. Based on my observations, my toe’s documented appearance over a period of several months, the results of the weekly blood work, and other data, I’m just skeptical.

I still cannot wear a normal shoe, since almost two years ago now. More importantly, the presence of a bone infection is keeping me from getting a back surgery that I urgently need. You can’t have an operation with concurrent osteomyelitis, because it can spread, and you really don’t want a bone infection transferring to your spine.

On a positive note though, I have found the neurosurgeon who will perform my spinal surgery. He said there is a 95% chance it will relieve the nerve impingement that causes me to continue to trip and fall, and have numbness and pins and needles in my left leg and foot. How I look forward to being able to easily get out of bed again, to walk down the stairs, to get in and out of the car, to load the dishwasher, and so on and so on without crying out in pain, jumping out of my skin, grabbing onto something.

After Thanksgiving, if the infection in my toe is still present, it will be amputated in early December. Then there will be nothing stopping me from having the discectomy on my multiple herniated discs. Merry Christmas to me.

If the bone infection is gone after Thanksgiving, I will schedule the back surgery, stay on antibiotics for a few more months, and then have a minor foot surgery around February to straighten what’s left of my toe bones so that I can wear closed-toes shoes again. Most importantly of all, once I am infection-free, since I now live in a place without endemic tuberculosis, I will be able to restart my biologic medicine for psoriasic arthritis, the lack of which has been the whole reason this started to begin with.

No matter what happens, I have to give tremendous credit to the HITH program. Other people had warned me that the south side public hospital was to be avoided at all costs. I did not have that experience. The infectious disease doctors and the nurses there took such good care of me. I felt not only well taken care of medically, but everyone there went above and beyond to show kindness and treat the whole patient, as it were. My experience with the Australian medical system in general and HITH in particular has been resoundingly positive and I am so grateful for it.

The hospital is also very near our house, and it was convenient enough to stop off there each morning right on the way to work: toe bandage changed, blood pressure and heart rate monitored, occasional ultrasound to check for clots, flush the line, plug in a new bottle, and I’m off to the embassy. The youngest patient there, and some of the older folks looked at me in my business attire and smiled wistfully, thinking their own thoughts.

This photo was taken upon my discharge at the end of phase I, after the liquid antibiotic equivalent of almost 30 American-sized cans of soda worth of powerful medicine flowing through my veins.

It has been important to me, through this illness and my decision to commit to the twelve week antibiotic treatment, to do everything I could to correct the health problems caused by two years of substandard medical care in Uzbekistan. And, my admitted choice not to take a medical curtailment from my work in Tashkent. I didn’t just want to come to Australia and immediately amputate my toe and move on. I don’t need the toe, and removing it will not negatively affect my mobility or balance.

But it’s like the orthopedic surgeon here initially said to me in the hospital: that normally, in more than 90% of cases, he and his contemporaries would recommend removing the source of the infection, especially when it reached a life-threatening stage as happened in early June when I returned to DC. But, he considered aloud, “You’re in your 30s, and if you were my wife, I’d tell you to fight.” Fighting for myself is something I know how to do.

So I have. And if the effect is a few more months of suffering, including delaying a resolution to back pain that has had me in the emergency room where I stayed for three days in February, prevented me from putting on my own shoes for most of the past year, and robbed me of my productive and healthy lifestyle, then I can manage a few months more. At least then I’ll know that I didn’t add haste and shortcuts to what had already been a difficult chain of decisions that led me to this condition.

So… I’ve been working hard in a difficult job, far from friends and family. I’ve been feeling like crap. And I’ve had the added and considerable pressure of being the sole breadwinner in my household, thanks to the 1950s “officer and dependents” setup of the Foreign Service. And there’s more I could say about all of that, but suffice it for now to say that I’ve needed things to look forward to.

And I don’t just mean someday having our house in a condition worthy of guests – that’s a given. We also have continued our attempts to get out and about in Canberra as much as we can. I plan outings, and so does Mr. Postcard. We buy tickets to movies, to little tours, to food and wine festivals, sometimes weeks out.  We are eagerly awaiting the Marine Ball, and a three day weekend coming up.

Sometimes the enjoyment is spontaneous and immediate. In October, we celebrated my birthday at a Croatian seafood restaurant, and had (almost) no shame about the feast they brought us…

…We visited the Australian National Botanic Gardens in CBR and were delighted with the continental flora and fauna we found…

…I found a hairdresser who I love on the first try…

…and we spent some time walking around our neighborhood while our car was yet again unexpectedly in the shop, me huffing and puffing along in my prosthetic boot. How lucky are we to live on a street like this, on the edge of a pine forest and 15 minutes’ drive from downtown Canberra?

So now I have to go off on a huge niche tangent. One of the things I am looking forward to the most right now is that my favorite band, Incubus, will be on tour in a few months across Australia and New Zealand. The last time I saw them was in January 2000 in Sacramento at SnoCore, and I don’t even understand how that can be, given that I never actually fell off as a fan.

I saw the announcement a few weeks ago and was like, YES. I bought tickets, of course, literally three minutes after they went on sale. Listening back through their albums (all of which I own, in addition to every piece of solo work, movie soundtrack appearances, etc.) over the last weeks has brought back a flood of nostalgia and I find that I love the old and new surprises in their sound as much as ever.

Incubus recently released their eighth studio album, but as true and longtime fans know, there’s a lot more to the story. The chronological collage of demos, EPs, compilations, and albums (both label and independently released) that I put together below doesn’t even count their four live and five DVD albums. I count many more than eight!

From top to bottom, left to right:

  • Closet Cultivation (1994)
  • Let Me Tell Ya ‘Bout Root Beer (1995)
  • Fungus Amongus (1995)
  • Enjoy Incubus (1997)
  • S.C.I.E.N.C.E. (1997)
  • Make Yourself (1999)
  • When Incubus Attacks, Vol. 1 (2000)
  • Morning View (2001)
  • A Crow Left of the Murder… (2004)
  • Light Grenades (2006)
  • Monuments and Melodies (2009)
  • If Not Now, When? (2011)
  • Friends and Lovers (2012)
  • The Essential Incubus (2012)
  • Trust Fall, Side A (2015)
  • 8 (2017)

One of the things that has amazed me about Incubus for almost twenty years is their profoundly lyrical and genre-bending diversity of style and sound, not only between albums but even just on a single album. Lead singer Brandon Boyd’s unique voice is both a stand-out constant and a beautifully fluid variable amongst piano, guitars, drums, bongos, diggeridoos, synthesizers, bass, and record-ripping genius. This “flexibility” I think has caused some people who became fans as I did during the Fungus Amongus-Enjoy Incubus-S.C.I.E.N.C.E. era of the mid- to late-90s to question, and even lament, a more “mainstream” sound that was ushered in between 1999 and 2001 with their Make Yourself and Morning View albums.

Yes, I also rolled my eyes at the sudden appearance of teenaged fangirls screaming their name, and the first MTV interest predicated on their more ballad-friendly sound. Some of these types were the same friends and sorority sisters of mine who had wrinkled their noses at me blasting the S.C.I.E.N.C.E. album for the prior few years. Where were all these fans when no one outside of Incubus’s early hard rock/jazz/funk/rap cult following even knew who they were? When they had zero promotion or play outside of small shows in the western states that they toured in a crappy van? Probably in elementary school? Or listening to mainstream pop on FM radio? Incubus themselves have looked back on some of the S.C.I.E.N.C.E. album tracks as “ridiculous”, and on that point of view I can only respectfully disagree.

Another major point is that, unlike a lot of other rock bands, Incubus lyrics have never devolved into negativity, misogyny, violence, and hatefulness. The songs and the messages have stayed conscious, enlightened, striving, sometimes painful or critical of society, but always honest and elevated. Which is probably why a couple of years ago on the blog I wrote out lyrics to Drive and The Warmth that were particularly resonating with me at those times.

And after all these years gone by, I have come to believe that Incubus’s ability to attract fans of different ages and backgrounds over a sustained period of time, in addition to their wide-ranging sound variation that was present even in some of their earliest work (the Summer Romance/Anti-Gravity Love Song from the S.C.I.E.N.C.E. album comes to mind), is part of why they’ve stayed on the scene. They ultimately have been a really successful band, if also a somewhat slept-on and under-appreciated talent in my opinion. The band itself has commented that their diversity has been a double-edged sword, an asset and a weakness, with songs that attract some fans while repelling others. 

I will never agree with the perspective of their newer sounds as the “grown up” version of the band. The fact that they no longer wear dreads and Adidas and headbang while belting out “Redefine” at small San Francisco venues doesn’t make them a sellout. That shit was a long time ago. Back then I had a perm and wore JNCOs, for crying out loud. What was, was. Living life fully means, at least for me, not staying in one modality for too long. I think they have just evolved, as artists, like people do, and honestly made music that reflected whatever authentic and creative space they were in at the time. I think that personal expression superseded commercial success every time, and where those two coincided, it was so much more real than just an intention to attract a softer, wider audience. Not only that, but they stayed together, remained strong and scandal-free, leveraged new technology to continually engage with and show love to their fans, and gave back. And they rock. 

Over the last several years the band has increased its focus on philanthropy through charitable work with their Make Yourself Foundation. Established in 2003, the MYF has provided more than two million dollars to dozens of nonprofit organizations and is still active in California and beyond. Several members of the group have also worked on side projects across the spectrum of music, art, writing, and production (Brandon Boyd in particular released his own solo album in 2010 and later formed another band called Sons of the Sea). I think some of these individual creative outlets allowed the band to explore and express their own styles, while always coming back to Incubus where it all began, in Southern California back in 1991.

Looking forward to the 2018 show big time!

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Sarah W Gaer

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