Fair Enough

I don’t get out of the house much. Most of the time, I convince myself it’s by design, and most of the time, I’m kidding myself. It’s certainly easier to tell myself that I’m making a choice to stay home and write all day, or research markets for my writing, or continue binge-watching ‘Gilmore Girls.’

The reality is more nuanced than that. Actually, it’s not even a matter of nuance. The reality is that sometimes I simply feel too awkward to be out in public, due to what I’ve come to think of as a neurological quirk.

Technically, I have a spinal ‘condition’ — or is it an ‘issue’? No, that makes it sound like something I should just ‘talk out,’ and eventually resolve.

Is it a spinal ‘problem’? Well, that implies a solution, and there really isn’t one which doesn’t involve a risky neck surgery that only has a fifty-fifty chance of making a difference.

So let’s just stick with ‘quirk.’ It’s a quirk that, fortunately, rarely causes me pain, and almost never prevents me from doing my work. The awkward part — and this is the part that keeps me inside on beautiful days — is that this quirk causes me to walk funny.

Not ‘funny’ in that people might point at me and laugh, but ‘funny’ as in “Why does he walk so funny? Is he OK?” I’m so wobbly when I walk that it looks like, at any moment, I’m either going to veer into traffic or tumble, ass-over-Keurig, into a broken heap.

When I first started using a cane, I imagined I had something of a ‘pimp walk,’ which would be accurate, if you were talking about pimps with spinal problems (“I got 99 problems but stenosis ain’t one”).

Frankly, even with the aid of a walker, I am so clumsy that I often worry that, if I’m going downhill at all, my unresponsive feet will get tangled in my walker and I’ll start careening, toboggan style, eventually crashing ignominiously into a parked car.

Now, of course, I find myself in a new city yet again, and this time, I don’t know a soul here. Why am I here? Well, the liberal politics; the free-spirited vibe; and, I suppose, the fact that it was the only city where I could (barely) afford a room to rent within driving distance of the few friends I have in the entire state.

I used to move to cities without knowing anyone there all the time — for a gig, to avoid eviction, and once, to move in with a Hayley Mills lookalike in Florida who flirted with me after she saw me do a comedy show in Vero Beach. I vaguely remember a time when I was fearless.

Lately, though, the newly hobbled version of me comes with some handy, built-in fears. For instance, sometimes I’m afraid of ending up alone, with Facebook chats as my only conversation. Mostly, I’m just afraid of falling down, and I’ve tried to embrace a risk-averse lifestyle. So I don’t leave the house much.

Thankfully, my brooding never lasts long, because, like with a lot of my moods, I lack the commitment to really plunge in. True self-pity requires a real dedication to moping, and I’m too lazy for that.

Nurturing one’s depression takes real effort, what with the turning down of invitations, and the making of excuses, and the whining. Whining can be flat-out exhausting.

Over the last few years, I’ve had big plans to teach myself piano, study birds, and write an alternate history novel. At this point, I know where middle ‘C’ is, I might be able to identify a blue jay, and to be honest, I can’t remember the last novel I finished reading.

So, while I might have every intention to wallow in my dark place, I don’t have the kind of devotion necessary to take up permanent residence there. My point is, the hermit thing wasn’t going to stick, and it was time to move on.

Besides my own problems (quirks!), the world around me didn’t seem much better, at least based on the news I was reading. I’m online for hours a day, and lately, even my Twitter feed was starting to piss me off. I needed to escape. I needed to breathe. I needed to feel groovy again.

So, a week after arriving in the Eugene area, an online writer friend of mine connected me with a friend of his who lives here, and I scored a day pass to the Oregon Country Fair. It would involve a long bus ride, to an unfamiliar place, where I would be surrounded by thousands of people I didn’t know. Oh, and I would have to leave the house.

Picture nearly three hundred acres of Oregon Farmland.Naturally, there are crowds of young people there, because nothing about the place feels like anything your parents would endorse.

Now, add a mix of aging hippies — fifty-something men rocking gray ponytails and their wives, who wear a lot of purple and seem to be constantly twirling.

Finally, throw in a healthy contingent of people who have confused the 1960s with the 1690s, and who dress accordingly. It’s like a parallel universe where hippies hang out at Renaissance Faires, united by glass-blowing.

When I first got off the bus, I was so overwhelmed by the size of the crowd at the ‘will call’ tent that I gave some thought to just calmly walking back to the bus, taking my seat, and calling it a day. I figured, I saw a couple people wearing tie-dye, smelled some nag champa . . . we can go back now. But, primarily because I made such a big deal out of going to the fair when I spoke with friends this week, I forged ahead. Besides, the official website made the place seem like the exact opposite of the world I found so difficult.


According to its website, the Fair is “an annual three-day festival offering the finest in entertainment, hand-made crafts, delectable food and information sharing.” Spread across the fairgrounds are twelve stages with musicians, magicians, and jugglers. Thankfully, there was no mention of mimes.

The Fair started as a benefit for an alternative school almost fifty years ago, and for three days in July, becomes a fully functioning city with infrastructure like water, power, and in a delightful bit of cognitive dissonance, ATMs. Because you didn’t realize you would need a two-hundred-dollar hand-blown bong, did you?

I’m just grateful that counter-cultural jewelry makers are willing to accept my dirty establishment dollars for their wares. By the way, you’ll also need money for food, and it’s all amazing.

There were so many different aromas that, by a certain point, my nose actually got confused and gave up. The food quality is top-notch, well above your typical trying-too-hard-to-be-different State Fair concoction, with more variety than giant turkey drumsticks and unidentifiable-meat pasties you get at a Ren Fest.

An event this free-spirited and loose is, surprisingly, the work of an actual 501(c)(3) non-profit, educational, and charitable organization. Yet somehow, this official organization creates the illusion of a world where ‘scarf-maker’ and ‘troubadour’ are respected occupations.

The most surprising thing on the Fair’s official website is buried in the FAQs. It’s one line that clearly states “The Fair is a drug and alcohol free event.”

That’s like a sign at a concert venue that says, “No videotaping.” Sure, you can post it, but I will still be able to watch Springsteen from his most recent tour on YouTube within twenty-four hours of the show.

Don’t be shocked, but some people, despite explicitly stated policy, do indulge in herbal recreational endeavors. That’s not to say everyone does drugs at the Oregon Country Fair. Some people do drugs on the way to the Oregon Country Fair.

An altered mind is the only explanation for some of the fashion choices at the Fair. I only had empathy for one particular fellow, who seemed to be in the midst of realizing that wearing only a small burlap pouch tied around his junk with twine was not the best idea for walking through the woods.

The point was, I was outside! Now I needed to take pictures, if only to prove that I had, in fact, left my room. First, though, had to figure out how to get around the place.

I knew my cane would be a non-starter, since I could be easily toppled, and staff would find me at the end of the day, trampled by a thousand Birkenstocks.

I thought the walker would work, but on bumpy, branch-strewn trails, it felt like trying to go for a stroll while operating a jackhammer. Then I remembered two important things from the website:

“The crew can lend out wheelchairs” and “they also provide . . . teenagers to push wheelchairs.”

Feeling empowered, I weebled my way to the ‘alter-abled’ booth, prepared to ask the staff for my chair and my teenager.

The ‘crew’ at the fair are a close-knit collection of volunteers, most of them related to other volunteers, or friends of volunteers. I met staff members who first came to the fair as an infant, brought by their parents who were volunteers a generation ago. For a couple minutes I thought the ‘family nature’ of the staff was going to screw me out of my wheelchair.

That’s because I overheard one of the gals at the booth tell another staff member that her grandma told her they can’t have teenagers just “push somebody all around the fair anymore . . . we can have someone push him to a particular stage if he wants . . .”

And then what? Freaking leave me there? Assume that magically I’ll develop the arm strength to wheel myself somewhere else? So, you’ll take me to get some Indian food, but then I’d have to spend the rest of my day at the Indian food booth? That’s not very grandmotherly!

Also, I wasn’t exactly planning to force young Moonbeam or Suncloud to parade me, rickshaw-fashion, around three hundred acres for eight hours. I just thought you might help me get a little food, maybe hear a little music, and then maybe roll me over to where they sell those overpriced bongs.

Besides, if any demographic group is a natural for cripple duty, it’s teenagers. They’re freakishly strong for their size, they have limitless energy, and they need things to do, so that they don’t decide to build a meth lab, or get sucked in to playing Pokémon Go.

I didn’t have to tell them these things, because after a couple hushed conversations amongst the staff, one of the other adult staff members said, Mafioso-style, “We’ll take care of this for you.” The next thing I knew, I was relieved of my walker, my ass was in wheelchair #7, and the nicest kid in the world was asking me where I wanted to go first.

Which was Indian food, courtesy of the Golden Avatar. I got the sampler plate, which was a challenge to keep on my lap while Kalil kept using my wheelchair as a pothole detector.

Seriously, guys — I’m not saying I need smoothly paved asphalt paths, just level the dirt! The Fair only runs three days — you have three-hundred and sixty-two other days to fix the roads!

The wait in line gave me a chance to get to know my temporary chauffeur. Turns out, it was his first Fair as a staff member, but he’d been to several others.

He truly looked like he had the whole world in front of him, full of hope, nothing but potential. I really wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t. By the way, sorry my generation mucked up civilization, kids.

These were the two teen staff members who were tasked with helping me get around to see everything. Yeah, I’m pretty sure “pushing an old, crippled pothead on bumpy dirt roads for a couple hours” is exactly what they wanted to do on a Saturday afternoon. The weird ‘halos’ in the pictures were unintentional, but these two kids were definitely angels.


After an hour or so, I needed to stop looking at things for a bit. Have a cigarette, do some contemplating. That’s right–after an hour. Don’t judge me. Anyway, this is how cool young Kalil was–my helpful new friend rolled me over to the designated area and patiently waited for me to pollute myself. And it was there, on benches and on blankets on the ground; standing, sitting, sprawling; dressed or only barely, painted and glittered — that I found my people.

Don’t feel sad for the man in the wheelchair, smiling wistfully at his lost youth, wishing he could somehow be a part of all this…
Because a charming, skinny, androgynous dude handed me his vape, and I got very high. Then I was good with sitting. I can always dance on the inside.

It was as if I had wandered into a rehearsal for a staged mashup of Godspell and Rent, and I loved it. I felt more of a sense of place and belonging in those few minutes than I had for months. Still, I didn’t want my helper to have to deal with any more secondhand smoke, so we hit the road.

The woman in the left foreground of the shot looks to be reconsidering her plans for the day. “How could I have possibly thought that this was a good idea? You know what I like? Gin rummy. I like to play gin rummy. And bowling — bowling is fun. Not whatever this is.”

I was happy to have a guide with me, as it can be easy to get lost. You can only see so many hand-crafted dreamcatchers and tie-dyed bandanas before everything starts to blend together, making it hard to give directions.

“You’re gonna want to take a left at the ceramic peace signs, walk down the winding dirt path past the third juggler, then loop around that big tree and head toward the vegan panini booth. We’ll be on a blanket on the grass. If you get to the drum circle, you’ve gone too far.

Music was everywhere, and if I was in just the right place, I could hear the sounds from different stages in a peculiar mashup of marching bands, mariachi, and Elizabethan madrigals, like an odd but delicious audio casserole.

Because of the sheer scale of the event, and the fact that I was starting to feel sorry for the poor kids in charge of my transportation, I only stayed for a few hours, but it was enough time for me to take more random pictures.

Now, with my peripheral neuropathy (another quirk!), I have enough trouble taking pictures that aren’t blurry, so trying to capture a perfect shot while being pushed along less than flat roads is damned near impossible.

I took some excellent pictures of blurry dancers, out-of-focus minstrels, and at least one shot that seems to confirm the existence of Bigfoot. Fortunately, I also captured a few quintessential Fair moments, ending up with a photo album as delightfully random as the Fair itself.

In fact, the woman in this picture is a lovely grandmother I met, with her grandchild, in a stroller decorated to look like a jellyfish. However, to me, she LOOKS like an Eastern European arch-villain, about to detonate some sort of weird superbomb that will poison the entire planet, except she’ll survive because she has the only antidote.
 
There were several stages at the fair where people danced, and in front of them, there were always people sitting, and watching. I never saw one of the sitters join the dancers, though, and I’m not sure if there’s a life metaphor here involving dancers and sitters, but I will say the dancers seemed to be having the better time.
 
The picture here makes it look like this guy was just holding a crystal ball, but I assure you, he was doing really cool things with it. I’ll admit, I was also impressed with his muscle definition (“Get six-pack abs in just thirty days with this magic sorcery ball!”).
“I told you to put your baggy stilts pants on BEFORE we got here, didn’t I?”
Finally, I saw this character as I left the fairgrounds, and though the horns looked surprisingly realistic, I felt the rest of his costume reflected a lack of effort. You can see his wife, texting her friends, “I didn’t think Vikings wore cargo shorts either, but he insisted.”

All in all, my big adventure was precisely what I needed to shake myself out of my unproductive, stay-at-home funk. Just before I got back the bus, I was able to get one last picture, one that encapsulates the wackiness, relief, and joy of my Oregon Country Fair experience.

 

I may not have experienced everything at the Fair (next year, I’m bringing a jet pack so I can get around), and I may have spent more time in buses than I did at the Fair. But it was all worth it, every spine-jostling pothole.

That’s because, for a few hours, I wandered through a magical place, just outside of a small town in Oregon where, once a year for three days, you can completely escape the confines of your everyday life, and dress like a tree. That, my friends, is freedom. Rock on, tree dude.

 

A Letter to Dad

Dad,

I know it must seem a little weird to get a letter from me, but I thought it would be good to catch up a bit, since we’ve been out of touch for so long.  It’s gotta be at least . . . fifty years, right? Continue reading

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parenthetically crazy

This is a piece from my new collection, “The Line Between Funny and Crazy,” which will be available soon. Until it’s published, you’ll have to be satisfied with a short teaser from the book

Until the book is finished, you'll have to be satisfied with looking at the cover.

and this mockup of the cover…

 

According to a recent study, over forty-five million Americans have a mental illness. While that still leaves us with two hundred sixty some-odd million people who don’t, it is more than ten percent of the population. And based on my experience, that estimate is low.

In just my circle of friends, we’ve got

  • bipolar disorder
  • anxiety disorder
  • PTSD
  • depression
  • OCD
  • emotional withdrawal
  • anti-social behavior

We’ve also got more than a couple narcissists, and at least one person who avoids going to the doctor even though he has some things he ought to have checked because he’s afraid of what might be wrong with him. My apologies if I left anyone out.

My point is simply that, in my experience, mental illness is . . . pretty common. But I’d take it a step further—I’d go so far as to say that, on some level, everybody is looney tunes. Okay, maybe that’s more than one step. But I believe we’re all screwed in the head.  It’s just a matter of degree.

braincrop

Everyone is at least parenthetically crazy. As in, “I’d like you to meet Jim (who happens have depression),” or “Do you know Mary (who, by the way, has a lot of anxiety)?” That doesn’t mean that they’re defined by what’s in the parentheses.

As a society, I think we could help wipe out the stigma of mental illness simply by acknowledging that we’re all mentally ill. Understand that I’m not trying to minimize the darkness some people have to slog through because of their particular brands of insanity, and I’m not saying there aren’t valid cases that warrant actual medical care.

 lobotomy

But ‘insanity’ comes in a lot of flavors, and there are definitely times when crazy is funny. So, where’s the line? How about the guy screaming obscenities in the alley? Clinically speaking, he might be a depressed alcoholic with Tourette’s, but take some video of him with your cellphone from a safe distance, and you could create a hilarious viral sensation. It’s all about context.

In theory, I suppose it’s not ‘normal’ to find humor in mental problems, but we all do it. Now I realize there’s creepy crazy, and scary crazy, and violent crazy, and I’m not suggesting there’s a lot of humor there. Some, but not a lot.

However, if you don’t think mental illness can be entertainment, then you don’t watch enough basic cable. Take, for example, the popularity of the show Hoarders.” It’s on the A&E network and since it’s clearly not art, it must be entertainment.

Now, if you’ll turn to the new DSM-V, the standard reference book of mental disorders, you’ll see that hoarding gets its own chapter. And if you’re one of the two million viewers who tuned in for this season’s premiere, you suffer from voyeurism, which I’m pretty sure is also in the book.

Then there’s Bravo. It spawned the ‘Real Housewives’ franchise, and you don’t need a psych degree to know how messed up those gals are. This year, they’ve added a show called “L.A. Shrinks,” about shrinks in L.A. Sure, it diminishes the integrity of the psychiatric profession as a whole, but now we get to see into their dysfunctional personal lives! Bravo!

The ‘Biography’ channel has a new show called “Look Who’s Stalking.” This should be a huge hit, at least amongst the one of every six women in the country who have been traumatized by an actual stalker. Talk about a key demographic! The website for the show promises “disturbing stories of obsession,” so . . . make some popcorn and get comfortable.

What’s next?? A show called “I Had a Psychotic Break?” If you include all the conspiracy theorists on TV (or as they’re known in the manual, people with “delusional disorder”), and the medium has fulfilled its initial promise as a way to watch weird people do weird things.

I realized a long time ago that I’m not wired like ‘most people.’ Only recently did I figure out that most people aren’t wired like ‘most people.’ As soon as I figured out that nobody is ‘normal,’ I started to see just how crazy we all are.

And I started to laugh at my own lunacy. Bad choices, stupid moves, broken relationships—when I took myself seriously, those were heartbreakers. Now, I like to think of them as amusing anecdotes with wacky twists—the kind of stories I might tell on a late night talk show.

Instead of ‘mental conditions,’ I choose to use terms like ‘idiosyncrasy,’ or ‘peccadillo,’ or ‘quirk.’ Much less judgy than what you’ll find in the DSM. But you can draw the line where you want.

As a licensed humorist, I will give you one rule of thumb for laughing at people. If someone does something unusual, and the word ‘quirky’ comes to mind instead of ‘sick,’ you can laugh at them. It’s the difference between collecting umbrellas and collecting Nazi memorabilia.

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a pain in the neck

If you’re following along at home, you’ll remember I visited a neurologist recently to find out why my body seems to be breaking down like a car with a just-expired warranty. Like any older car, it’s a little sluggish to respond (especially in winter), and I’ve definitely got some alignment issues. Begrudgingly, I agreed to take their fancy tests, because, well, I’ve always been good at taking tests.

Of course, these weren’t like the exams I used to ace in school. My English teachers never hit me with a hard rubber hammer or poked me with needles or shot electric current into my arms and legs, although that might have given me more incentive to actually read “Paradise Lost.”

I was hoping the tests would be both definitive and reassuring. They were, I suppose, a little of both. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Buried a few paragraphs down, in amongst these 1,689 words, you’ll find what the diagnosis is, but first I should talk about the tests. Whatever’s wrong with me, I still have an understanding of dramatic structure. (If you don’t mind spoilers, the answer is in the twenty-first paragraph.)

The Neuro-Conductivity Studies were done by a very quiet man named Dr. Sharazz, which I kept thinking sounded like the name of a Bond villain (“We meet again, Doctor Sharazz…”). The name of the test had me imagining being strapped into something some gigantic, shiny apparatus like you might find in ‘Star Trek,’ but in fact the device looked like some precocious kid’s Science Fair experiment, very low-tech and definitely not shiny.

After an hour or so of this particular doc putting electrodes on various parts of my body and cranking the voltage to 11 (I’m guessing here), causing my arms and legs to twitch on his command (“You won’t break me, Sharazz!”), he began the EMG, which is like the previous test, except the electric jolts are sent through needles deep into your muscles.

I got an ‘incomplete’ on this one, because frankly, I wimped out. The pamphlet said, “The pain is less than a typical hypodermic injection” and “You may feel a tingling in your muscles,” which was accurate if by ‘tingling’ they meant ‘really disturbing radiating discomfort that will make you believe your leg is on fire.’

So after twenty minutes of this vaguely medieval process I said “No mas” and eventually he stopped. He seemed empathetic, and said he “got a lot of information.” Mostly, I’m sure, about what a wuss I am.

Next up was the MRI. Since I was pretty stressed, I wanted to have a cigarette, but at this clinic, there didn’t seem to be a place where I could have a cigarette in the MRI machine.

The room and the machine were all cool and sterile looking, like the second hour of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Now I was getting the high-tech wonders of modern medicine. Unfortunately, this was another ‘incomplete.’

They were hoping to do four MRIs, two after being injected with contrast dye. I thought it would be just like a flu shot (damned lying pamphlets!), but as they started describing it, I just remember hearing terms like “put you on an IV” and ‘side effects’ and “nausea’ and…you can guess where this is going. I’ll take just the two MRIs for now, thanks.

Almost everyone I dealt with at the clinic had at least pretended they understood my irrational fears. Not the MRI lady. She was thoroughly professional, but let’s just say she didn’t have the warmest bedside (‘tubeside?) manner. I would try to lighten the mood (at least my mood—I suppose she was fine) with a joke, which just seemed to make her more annoyed.

At one point I had an itch and I moved a little, and she seemed genuinely put out when she said “You know, every time we pull you out of there we have to start over, and I’m not going submit crappy test results.” Now, I suppose she could have had a full slate of people she still had to shove into the pod that day, but c’mon—I might be a little easier to work with if I didn’t feel like I was being scolded.

me, looking all cross-sectional...

I had a week to wait for my ‘consult’ with the neurologist, and spent much of that week trying to distract myself from the test results. I even went out to a ball game for the first time in years.

In my somewhat reclusive writerly life, I can go days without real reminders of my ‘condition.’ But at the game, around forty-three thousand other people, I felt a bit more ‘disabled.’ There were two moments in particular that strengthened my resolve to see this medical stuff through.

First, since I can’t lift my right arm above my head, I’m incapable of giving a proper ‘high-five,’ and there’s not much point to watching sports if you can’t do that. I tried left-handed, but that felt really awkward and I knocked over a guy’s beer.Second, when ‘the wave’ came around to our section, I could only sort of half-stand stand and could only raise one arm, making it look like I was mocking the wave, or worse, trying to stop it. This was the compelling evidence I needed to get me back to the doctor.

I suppose sitting in a room with a guy is one of the better ways you could find out scary news. Although it might be cool to have those Publisher’s Clearinghouse people come by with an oversized envelope announcing “You may already have won an invasive procedure!”

But this was just my-far-too-young-looking-to-seem-like-he-knows-enough neurologist. My neurologist is young enough to actually have used Facebook in medical school—I’m just hoping his status updates were along the lines of “Can’t go out tonight—studying again” rather than “Can’t believe how hungover I am again.”

Suddenly I wanted to be in 1972, so that my doctor could be Marcus Welby, M.D., all gentleness and aphorisms, with everything wrapped up in about an hour. I wanted a kindly old doctor who would take my hand and start his talk with “Now, son, I know this has been hard…” I don’t think they even teach ‘kindly’ in medical school anymore.

Actually, by this point, I had gone from dreading the results to hoping I had something they had never seen before—maybe an article in a respected medical journal about my strange pathology, or some grant money. Then I realized the grant money would go to the doctors, not to me.

So, ready for the worst, I walk in with The Girlfriend, and the doc says “Well, you don’t have MS or ALS.” Okay…so we’re going to have me guess, by process of elimination? “Uh…Is what I have…longer than eleven letters?”

Then he says, “I think I’ve figured out what’s wrong.” Keywords: ‘think’ and ‘figured out.’ It’s at this point that I remembered the old saying that medicine is an art, because he sounded exactly like a chef stating, “I think I know what the sauce needed—more tarragon.” Great—now I’m worried I have a tarragon deficiency!

I tried to make a joke about not taking all the tests, and he just sighed and said “Well, I have limited data to work with” with the same resigned but mildly disapproving tone as your freshman biology professor saying “Well, the midterm is forty percent of your grade…”

For some odd reason, he did the Hitting Me With A Metal Hammer test again, and either my HMWAMH responses were ok, or he got bored hitting me, because out of nowhere he said “Your brain is fine.” Not ‘you’re fine,’ just my brain.

"Why, that's a FINE brain you have there, young man. Just fine."

The it was time for the slide show. I saw pictures of my ‘fine’ brain, and he pointed out how the pictures showed I didn’t have MS. “The problem is in your neck. You have severe spinal stenosis.” More pictures, this time clearly showing my spinal column narrowing until, at one point, it looked like my spinal cord was being pushed through a straw. This, it turns out, is not good.

Severe. Spinal. Stenosis. I liked the alliteration, but a long-held theory of mine says that if your diagnosis starts with the words ‘severe’ and and ‘spinal,’ it doesn’t matter what the third word is. I wasn’t gonna be able to just get a prescription for this.

As for how it happened, it was one of those Zen moments in which I got the impression that didn’t matter either. The doc muttered something about “wear and tear,” and since I had been clumsy all my life, he thought I could have injured my neck in a fall, but what he knew for sure was that I would need surgery to fix it.

He went on to say “The concern is, if you get in a car wreck and get whiplash, you’ll be a quad.” I guess he figured it didn’t need any sugar-coating, but…YIKES! Get me Doctor Welby, stat! Look, I’m not sure when I might sign up for spinal surgery, but I know damn sure I’m gonna try to avoid getting into whiplash-inducing car wrecks.

When I left they gave me a CD with all my pictures, though I’m not sure why. I’m probably not gonna look at them again, but maybe I’ll put one of the brain scans on a t-shirt or a hat with a catchy phrase (This is MY brain on drugs.”) Anyway, the next step is a consultation with a neurosurgeon.

After not seeing a doctor for decades, I see a GP, then a neurologist, then a neurosurgeon…you know what, I’m gonna keep going up in the medical hierarchy—see if I can get seen by someone who teaches neurosurgery, or maybe a dean of neurosurgery somewhere. Just to be sure.

Eventually I may even become comfortable enough to have the operation I need. If I do, I know the first thing I’m gonna do when it’s over…I’m gonna high-five the hell out of someone.

seeing a guy about a thing…

I saw a neurologist today, and by that, I don’t mean I spotted one from a distance (“Look, there’s one now!”)—I had an appointment. If you know me, you know that I’m dealing with some health issues, and I’m irrationally afraid of going to doctors. But, thanks to the State of Minnesota, I have insurance now, and my friends would kick my hypochondriacal ass if I didn’t at least start the process. So, I saw a neurologist today.

Actually, I told myself I was just ‘seeing a guy about a thing.’ That’s not scary—and it sounds a helluva lot better than SEEING THE NEUROLOGIST. People don’t see THE NEUROLOGIST unless something is seriously wrong. But this is just some guy—just gonna talk to him about some stuff. And besides, I’ve realized something that makes this ‘process’ a little less daunting—whatever I ‘have,’ I’ve already beaten it so far.

Now I don’t want you to think you’re gonna have to suffer through regular updates on my condition and progress—I don’t intend to become the inspiration for a Lifetime original movie, “Tingling and Numbness—the Michael Dane Story.” I will let you know if my case gets written up in any medical journals, but if I’m still writing, assume they haven’t found any BSD (Big Scary Disease).

I figured I had an advantage going in, because I know a little something about medicine, having been pre-med for two years as an undergraduate. Still, I think everyone fondly remembers their first ‘specialist.’ I’d seen the occasional general practitioner, but this time I was gonna see a guy who took extra years of school specifically to figure out my shit.

The neurologist’s lobby looked like a cross between an airport Starbucks and a bank, all curved lines and earth tones and a water dispenser that looked like an espresso machine. And the people couldn’t have been nicer. I was glad The Girlfriend was with me, because otherwise I would have been pestering the other patients with my wry observations about the health care industry.

The receptionist/teller asked if I wanted The Girlfriend to be able to access my medical records, and it felt right, so I signed a form. After all, anyone willing to deal with my anxiety and drive me to clinics and wait around calmly while I flip out should be able to find out the results of my paraneoplastic antibody panel.

Awkward moment: figuring how to discretely go outside for a smoke. Yes, I get it. Kinda defeats the whole “getting health care” purpose to burn a cig while you’re waiting. Regardless, I made my exit, and just past the “No Smoking” boundary I saw the charge nurse, enjoying a refreshing cigarette. And I gotta tell you, there’s a perverse fun to smoking in front of a hospital. And fitness centers with big picture windows.

The neuro guy was what you would get if you were casting “a dramedy centering around the life of a quietly witty neurologist” (how have I not made it as a writer with ideas like that?). Good-looking in a vaguely ethnic way, he was easy to talk to and seemed to listen.

After some questions about my history, and what seemed to be an unnecessary amount of time hitting me with a metal hammer, the doc and I agreed there’s something wrong with me. I was hoping he’d say something along the lines of “It’s just a bad cold,” but since only about half  of my limbs seem to work properly right now, he thought some tests might be in order.

I had hoped that the ‘tests’ would consist of asking me a bunch of questions, after which he would deduce what was wrong (“It’s murky, but I’m getting a vision of…it’s becoming clearer…peripheral nerve damage.” Apparently I had ‘doctor’ confused with ‘Gypsy fortune teller.’)

In fact I will be having eight tests: five blood tests, an EMG, and two MRI. And I think I have a punch card that gets me a free procedure of my choice after ten, so that’s nice. The blood tests are no big deal, but I didn’t really know what an EMG involved.

Turns out, an EMG involves someone poking me repeatedly with needles and electrodes. I guess it’s not as fun as that sounds, and I wasn’t thrilled to read in the little pamphlet (“Your First EMG”) that it is used to test for “blah blah blah,” “blah blah,” “some other random thing,” and ALS. That’s right, there’s like fifteen things listed, but all I remember is Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  And not because I’m a huge baseball fan. That’s just how my mind works.

I didn’t need the pamphlet to tell me to “avoid tobacco and caffeine a few hours prior to my test,” since I figured being jumpy and edgy and jacked up might affect their ability to stick needles and electrodes in the right places. And I’m sure there will be highly trained professionals doing the poking. But I bet they get burnt out on their jobs like anyone, and sometimes just screw with people by making their arms and legs do funny things –“Watch—I can make him hit himself in the face.”

I have free time, nervous energy and an internet connection, so I looked up ‘EMG machines’ online and found a catalog where they sell them. Reading through it I got an idea: right before the test starts, I’m gonna mess with their minds by asking ridiculously detailed questions about the machine, like “This one does have four channels of surface electromyography with analog and USB output, right?” Or, “Please tell me this thing does at least three paraspinal images and has the E-Stim trigger option.”

Speaking of selling things, any idea how much an MRI machine costs? They start at around A MILLION AND A HALF FREAKING DOLLARS! I’m not really familiar with how much big machines typically cost, but isn’t that about what a rocket costs? Am I being sent into space for this test? Because I don’t think Medica covers that.

I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to smoke before the MRI, either (doctors are so militant about the smoking thing). The overly perky twenty-something who scheduled my procedure told me I’d get to see some ‘cool pictures’ of my brain, and I explained that those pictures might show signs of a debilitating terminal illness, which got her to ratchet back the perkiness a bit.

She also asked me whether I was claustrophobic, and I said, “No…,” but in retrospect, I should have said “I’m not sure, because up till now, I’ve managed to avoid getting trapped in big metal tubes, so I guess we’ll have to see–might want to figure out a way I can smoke in there.”

Apparently, you get to listen to music while you’re entubed, which seems great, depending on who has control over the playlist. What if they pipe in ‘80s arena rock (“Just relax…we’re gonna play Poison’s second album now in it’s entirety.”)? Or if, just as the anxiety of claustrophobia has passed and I’m very calm and still, the lab tech-slash-DJ decides to blast that part of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ with all the bells and chimes?

I’ve always known that my mind doesn’t work the same as most folk, and the great thing is, now I’ll have the pictures to prove it. From now on, whenever someone questions why I’m doing something, I’ll just whip out a wallet-size copy of my brain scan. They won’t know what it means, but they’ll figure I must have a reason for having it with me and leave me alone. And since I don’t have kids, I’ll have something to show at parties!

In the end, this isn’t about needles, or electrodes, or being in a claustrophobic coffin-like metal tube while someone magnetizes the atoms in my brain. It’s just about me, seein’ a guy. Just checking out a few things. No. Big. Deal. After years of not dealing with my health, if whatever is causing my various infirmities hasn’t stopped me yet, I’m not gonna worry about it.

fine, i’ll see a doctor

I’ve never been too worried about my age, and I’m sure when asked “When did you first start feeling old?,” everyone can point to something different. For me, the first time I sensed a ticking clock was one day about a year ago, when I looked at my hands. See, you might look like someone out of a Bowflex ad from head to toe, but the hands don’t lie.

I can’t say time has treated me badly—if you never saw me walk, and were looking at me from a distance, you might even think I’m in my forties. Losing my hair never made me feel old—that started in my twenties, and I’ve been shaving my head for twenty years. But those hands. They have some explaining to do.

Truth is, in fifty-plus years, I had never really worked with my hands, unless you count…typing. But there they were, looking (and feeling) like they’d been on an assembly line installing tiny widgets for the last thirty years. It looked like someone had Photoshopped my stepfather’s hands onto my body. I had Larry King’s hands. Even my fingers looked old.

I think as I’ve stumbled on in later years, it seems I’ve spent about half of those years just fixing things that younger me messed up. And paying attention to the little things. Like my health. Which I had pretty much ignored. What with being afraid to go to the doctor and all.

One morning, five or six years ago, I woke up and couldn’t lift my right arm higher than my chest. No pain—I just couldn’t lift it. Now if you’re a math whiz, you know that one arm is at least half of the total number of arms you have. For a lot of people, THIS would enough to see a doctor. Not me.

Then, over the past few years, I’ve developed a fairly pronounced hitch in my stride, on account of my left leg not being on the same page as my right. We’re down to TWO working limbs, people—obviously time to call the doctor. Or not.

I’ve never been the doctor-seein’ type. First, they work in hospitals, and I hate that ‘hospital smell.’ I got my fill of it visiting Mom. I always thought it odd that Mom, who had been a nurse, was such a horrible patient. I still remember tracking down some poor beaten-down orderly to apologize for the way she made him essentially reconsider his career choices.

Odd, also, that I am so doctor-phobic, considering when I started college I was pre-med. My high school yearbook is filled with things like “I’m sure you’ll be a right-on doctor (it was 1978, after all). Nobody wrote, “Remember me when you’re a published humor essayist.” I thought ‘being a doctor’ was what you were supposed to do with a 4.0 GPA, until I realized it would mean being around sick people all the time.

But beyond that hospital smell, I had what I felt was a very rational reason for not going to the doctor–I might get bad news. Now, I KNOW that going to the doctor won’t actually CAUSE me to have some telethon-worthy disease, but it’s damn sure where I’m gonna find out if I NEED a telethon, and why would I want to know that? That’s depressing!

I don’t handle run-of-the-mill bad news well—I went into a funk when they cancelled ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ I start frantically calling vets if the neighbor’s cat seems sick. I got a little weepy when Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon broke up. You get the idea. Friends usually offer some variation of  “Wouldn’t you feel better knowing what’s wrong?,” to which I can definitively say, “Ummm…I’m not sure?” Sorta depends on whether ‘what’s wrong’ can be fixed, doesn’t it?

And since I didn’t pay much attention to that memo about smoking being bad for me twenty-five years ago and have had more than a few times in my life when I drank more than the USDA recommended daily allowance of vodka, I figured, why push my luck? I felt the same way about my health that I feel about the Tea Party—what little I know bothers me, and I’m not sure I want to hear any more about it.

Besides, the few times I’ve been to a clinic, I’m as bad a patient as my Mom was, I think because I watched all fifteen seasons of “ER.” So when nurses ask me questions, I throw out words like ‘contraindicated.’ I tell them I’m ‘presenting’ with certain symptoms that seem ‘consistent’ with a specific ‘pathology.’

Of course even without the medical guidance of George Clooney, I’ve got the internet.  Doctors must hate WebMD. Just enter some symptoms and…click! With zero training, I can diagnose with at least twenty distinct illnesses, conditions, and syndromes I probably have. WebMD is like Wal-Mart for people with Münchausen Syndrome.

It doesn’t help that I tend to, given several plausible explanations for a symptom I’m feeling, latch onto the one most likely to be featured on an episode of “House.” I have a headache, it must be a brain tumor. I get a muscle spasm, I’m joining support groups for people with MS.

Now, if you’re following along at home, here’s where we are—I’m paranoid about my health, but at the same time I’m afraid to find out if anything might be wrong with my health. Talk about wanting to have it both ways—there’s not much point in being a hypochondriac if I’m not gonna see a doctor! I was missing out on one of the perks of thinking I’m sick—the attention!

Then it hit me. Let’s say I go to a doctor and find out I have some scary neurological weirdness (often referred to as ‘SNW’). First of all, it’s not like I have to DO anything about it. I can be every bit as careless with my health as I’ve always been! And it wouldn’t be bad ‘news,’ exactly, because it wouldn’t be news! Whatever yer fancy book learnin’ and yer computers and yer spectrographomometers tell you I have, it obviously hasn’t kicked my ass yet and I’ve clearly had it for a while.

Gotta admit, it makes a difference having The Girlfriend in my life. Beyond being someone who is willing to listen to me whine when I hurt, it’s a lot easier to face the health care boogeyman knowing someone has my back if I happen to have some made-for-tv movie affliction .

What I’m getting at (talk about burying the lead) is that I have an appointment in a couple weeks with a neurologist, which my friends assure me is a kind of doctor. Don’t get too excited–it’s just a conversation—just a couple of guys sittin’ around talking about, oh, I don’t know, degenerative neuromuscular diseases and the like. It is, however, a step. One wobbly step toward dealing with my shit. So do your worst, doc. But if I see one jar of leeches I am out of there.