Friday, December 05, 2008

Caribbean Hot Spots

Nobody ever taught me how to go on vacation. Sleeping in, eating a leisurely multi-course breakfast, wandering down to the beach to sit on a lounge chair and read or nap or eat snacks until heading to the lounge at 5 to drink a blended margarita the size of my head—these activities do not come naturally to me.

I’m more of an anxious, thinking-all-the-time, headache-prone sort of a person. In graduate school, when both my abilities and budget for vacationing were at an all-time low, I started getting migraines all the time. They weren’t the crippling kind where you feel like an ice pick is stabbing at your eyeball from the back of your head and you throw up a lot—they were just the kind where you feel like a dowel rod has been gently nudged through your temples and like you might be the descendent of worms or moles or other subterranean, sun-averse critters who would rather be somewhere dark and peaceful and devoid of English professors.

This is to say, I was able to function, but I wasn’t a very reliable dinner date.

After trying a spate of expensive prescription drugs that didn’t work, I tried thermal biofeedback—a process in which a man who’s supposedly a doctor tapes a thermometer that’s connected to a computer graphing program to your index finger to show you that even when you think you’re calm, you’re not.

Supposedly, a 70 degree finger indicates an aroused autonomic nervous system—a body in “fight or flight” mode. Supposedly, a relaxed person’s finger is 98 degrees. Supposedly some of us are always tense, even when we’re on a beach in Mexico or otherwise deluding ourselves into believing we’re relaxed. People like us apparently need a computer graphing program attached to our finger to show us that we’re not really relaxed. If we were really relaxed, our temperaure line would be at a balmy Caribbean 100 degrees, not slumming at a Seattle summer 70.

The supposed doctor that “taught” me biofeedback—by which I mean the guy who taped a thermometer to my finger and then left the room muttering “Just try to relax” every Tuesday afternoon for ten weeks—he seemed quite relaxed. He appeared to have always just woken up from a nap: wrinkly Dockers, wrinkly oxford, wrinkly lines around his eyes. He never spoke in a voice above a murmur. He reminded me of this kid I used to baby-sit who, at the end of a particularly long winter day of being cooped up indoors, whined, “Let’s doooooooooooo something! I’m sooooooooo borrrrrrring!” This doctor guy was boredom incarnate.

“Just ... relax ... and make ... the line ... go up ...” he explained to me on my third visit after my line and I had made no progress. I explained to him that I have perfectionism issues and if you show me the high water mark on a line graph, I will get there, by god—but this uptight approach didn’t seem like it would help me calm down. It seemed contraindicated, right?

How was I supposed to relax? He offered no suggestions.

When my frustration began to show up in the form of crying, Boring Relaxed Doctor Man suggested I get a therapist—forgetting I already had one. I fumed as I untaped the wire from my chilly finger for the sixth, seventh, eighth time, my head clenching all-too-familiarly into a migraine as I forked over my co-pay. Who was this rumpled man with the pronounced apr├Ęs-nap demeanor, and what were his credentials?

“What if this just doesn’t work for me?” I challenged on my ninth day. He gazed at me through half-closed lids and said, “Well ... there is ... a class ... a sort of ... mindfulness class ... It’s where I send people ... with ... ... ... how should I put this? ... ... ... extremely ... active minds ... ”

Basically, I was so bad at relaxing that the Boring Doctor fired me.

Did I mention how much I hate boredom—in all its incarnations? And how happy I am that the doctor to whom I’m engaged is hardly the type to recommend “mindfulness” classes to anyone, blessed as he is with an extremely ... active ... mind of his own?

Here we are on a beach in Mexico, and I confess, I’m the tiniest bit bored. I’m not complaining—that would be rude—I’m just saying that sometimes relaxation is ... boring.

I’m wondering what to do with myself.

After I’ve read all my books and eaten all the snacks and taken so many naps I’m unable to speak in a voice above a murmur—after all that, what’s there left to do?

I mean, I suppose I could put on my bathing suit and do a forward summersault into my giant blended margarita and swim around for a while. But the problem with doing that is I’d no longer be officially relaxed because surely my fingers would get icy cold all over again.

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