Friday, October 28, 2011

I'm in Stitches

I hate going to the doctor.

Still, I go every ten years or so, whether I need it or not.

Mostly. I hate all the waiting. Who else has a room specifically named for waiting?

Then you wait in the examination room for the doctor. He bops in, chats about your maladies, and you wait again while he goes and looks up what he's supposed to do about them. Most of the waiting is done half naked, sitting on the edge of a half bed, like you don't feel vulnerable enough just being sick.

I want the most arrogant person in the room to be me. I want to make other people wait until I grace them with my appearance. I want to burst into the doctor's examining room saying, "I'm so sorry I'm late. The traffic was terrible!"

Doctors don't let you burst into any room, to prevent you from walking in on the doctor with his thumb up your banker's butt. It's just wouldn't be good for any of us. And how could I resist saying, "Looking for his head?"

I would do just about anything to avoid going to the doctor. Just about anything doesn't include cancer, so when I developed an ugly growth on my face, I went to a dermatologist. Anything that looks ugly against the background of my face deserves special attention.

At a glance he said, "It's cancer. Let's take it off right now." He began sharpening knives. "Don't worry," he added,  "it's the good kind."

I didn't know there was a good kind of cancer. I tried to imagine my friends saying, "Hey – nice job on the cancer. Good choice." As I figured out, the "good" cancer doesn't spread around, trying to recruit all your other organs to join the revolt. It just looks ugly. The "bad" cancer kills you in a year.

"Close your eyes," the nurse instructed. I learned closed eyes keep you from seeing your own blood squirt from your head like a squeezed lemon. He cut off the lump, leaving a teaspoon-sized crater. Then they proceeded with the "Mohs" technique, where he chips out a little bit at a time, tests each tidbit, and comes back for more if he doesn't get all the tumor. The idea is to leave as much of your face as possible, which I appreciate, but it psyched me out every time they came back and knifed at what had already been cut. I'd like to send fan mail to the guy who invented Novocain.

What's left is an impressive scar by my left eye. I like how it looks. It gives the favorable impression that I've been in a fight, although the only knife fight I was ever in was over who got the last 50%-off chef's knife at Linen's and Things.

While removing Big Ugly, Doc also clipped a tiny fleck off my back, a mole I didn't even know I had. Two weeks later the biopsy revealed it was cancer too. The bad kind.

There are two ways to treat The Bad Kind: 1) Cut it out, or;  2) "Palliative Care," which means make yourself comfortable for your last months on this Earth. The week-long wait to learn whether you are Scot-free or on the short-timer's list is a weird one.

They don't do the Mohs technique for The Bad Kind. They clear a swath around it. The scar I have looks like I partied too long in Juárez and someone stole my kidney.

But after another weird week, I learned the doctor got it all.

Just to be safe, an oncologist checked me over like mechanic buying a '57 Chevy. The only thing slower than a doctor's office is the radiology office. There were only two other people in the Waiting Room. A chest X-ray takes 20 seconds. I waited for an hour. Even the elevator felt slow.

But hey – you'd say – at least I still get to ride elevators.

The curious thing I learned during that week was that I wouldn't change much about my life if I had only a year to live. I cherish time with my wife. I love my home. I steal every opportunity to drive my convertible. I suppose I should wear a hat now, but that's about it.

I'm reminded that I don't have forever to get those new songs recorded, to get that next book finished. No one can do it but me, so I'm motivated. But it's odd to have such a Big Mortal Warning, and to change so little about my life because of it.

The other curious thing I learned: the mechanic found a mole under my right big toe. Who knew?

Thanks to my newfound vulnerability, I get to visit the oncologist and the dermatologist twice a year from now on. Can anyone recommend a few good, long books?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Condimentary, My Dear

I was 27 years old when I learned that ketchup doesn't come with a refrigerator. Every fridge I ever saw had ketchup, mustard and pickles. I never met anyone who bought ketchup.
My formative years were spent living with a series of women, starting with my mother. These women ranged from "caretaker" to "obsessive she-beast." I was encouraged to do "boy things" like mow grass and stick my arm into the toilet up to my shoulder to retrieve a dropped brooch or contact lens. I did not have security clearance to help with refrigerator inventory.
Newly divorced, I was the first tenant in a freshly-renovated apartment, complete with brand new appliances. I opened the refrigerator to a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I blinked as bright light poured out from the gleaming white plastic and chrome, and not a hint of humanity. I pulled out a note pad and wrote across the top: "Grocery List, and underlined it." Beneath that I wrote: "Everything."
At the grocery store I learned that cinnamon, rosemary and cayenne are about the same price as silver. I needed basics: glassware, flour, sugar, measuring cups, a can opener, mixing bowls, and ketchup. I looked around for the financing department.
I learned that "ketchup" is not a brand name. I found a variety of bottle sizes and shapes, but I figured it didn't matter because the contents were the identical tempera-paint red. I chose Heinz because "Heinz ketchup" sounded familiar. I selected a tub of Plochman's mustard because it came in a familiar yellow plastic barrel with a red nipple on top, like that from which I nursed mustard as a kid. I never noticed the barrel of mustard had a name on it. Heinz made mustard too, but "Heinz mustard" didn't sound right.
A new refrigerator with a fresh bottle of mustard and ketchup is a glorious site, clean as an operating room. My apartment was now a home.
Mustard comes in many varieties: spicy, brown, sweet, maybe flecked with brown bits of what I think are seeds but look like flies. There is dijon, which is French for "costs twice as much." These are gourmet foods, not condiments. You can tell the difference because the fancy mustards go on the top shelf of the refrigerator with your olives, feta cheese and capers. The yellow barrel of mustard goes in the door next to the ketchup.
Ketchup takes up a whole section at the grocery store. Family size, picnic-size, upside-down bottle with no-drip spout. But the stuff inside is all just ketchup. Some try labeling it "catsup," which makes my pinky itch to stick out. "Catsup" sounds like dinner's ready at a Vietnamese restaurant. I don't see any hot and spicy ketchup, smoked chunky mango ketchup, or ketchup with black flecks. The Heinz guys are smacking their foreheads for not thinking of it, because while they were making fancy upside-down bottles with clever slogans, the Mexicans invented hot and spicy chunky ketchup. They named it salsa.
So how did ketchup earn a place in every American kitchen? We don't put ketchup on chicken, pizza or tacos. The bottle in my refrigerator today is the same one I bought in 1987, having outlived three refrigerators. Thanks to the magic of the American food industry, it's still edible. I've been through 200 bottles of Ranch dressing, which flavors everything from chips to cheeseburgers — just about everything but salads — but Ranch is still considered a second-tier condiment. I've seen Ranch-flavored Doritos, surely proof of its ubiquity. There are no ketchup-flavored chips. You won't see Hint of Ketchup Triscuits.
Yet ketchup is part of our religious ritual. Your burger arrives. You open it, lift off the bun cap and discard the lettuce like a wet napkin. Shake-shake-shake of salt, shook-shook-shook of pepper. Squeeze a spiral of ketchup followed by a zig-zag of mustard. Any restaurant table is stocked with four items. You know what they are. Since we all agree mustard, ketchup, salt and pepper are supposed to be on the burger, why doesn't the chef apply it for you with his masterful hand, fancy as a $5 cappuccino?
The only other food I know that one is expected to complete at the table is pancakes. And that's only because restaurants give you a dozen different syrups, just to mess with your hung-over head.
I've shopped for refrigerators. When I go to Bulbous Appliance Mart, the dazzling array of crisper trays, door options and water dispensers is overwhelming. You know what I really want? A white refrigerator that comes with a stop-sign red bottle of ketchup and a PlaySkool yellow tub of mustard in the door tray.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Driver's Ed

When my twin daughters neared sixteen years old, I forced driving on them. I love to drive. I was baffled to discover how many of their friends were seventeen or eighteen before bothering to get around to the driver's test. To me, driving was up there with the Statue of Liberty and the right to vote. If you're an American, you just do it.

Driving lessons had literal fits and starts. I insisted they learn to drive a manual transmission because all the best cars are stick-shift. After some screaming, cursing and whiplash, they learned. They have yet to thank me, but I know they think it in their hearts.

I attempted to teach them how to drive on ice, mostly because I wanted an excuse to throw my truck into a skid. Sliding sideways as I chatted, we hit a dry patch and rolled the truck onto two wheels, where it balanced for a long moment before landing mercifully on four wheels. I suppose they learned how to drive in the snow.

I first drove at the age of five, when I kicked the family station wagon into neutral and rolled down a hill into cross traffic. But I was thirteen before I actually swiped a set of car keys and drove.
I was so eager to drive that I didn't see the dark intentions of Mr. Mendenhall when he offered to let me drive his long, floppy Impala. The lanky man who lived around the corner encouraged me to sit on his lap and take the wheel. Soon I had the Chevy bouncing like a motorboat over country gravel at sixty miles per hour, a spiral of dust in my wake.

He had other lessons he wanted to teach me out there in the middle of nowhere. I didn't feel in danger. He accepted no. I didn't even condemn his advances. I just wanted to drive his car.

I remember vividly the thrill and smell of driving fast, but it was many years before the rest of my memories of Mr. Mendenhall slithered out of the dark.

At fourteen, I got a job clearing tables at a restaurant, and a sweet waitress named Nancy gave me rides home. It wasn't hard to convince her to let me drive. A mid-size car back then is an aircraft carrier today. Her car was long, silver and clean, with a chrome shifter on the steering column. We stopped in the parking lot once and I slid across the squeaky vinyl bench seat. We tried to kiss. No talk, no schmoozing — we just started kissing. Her tongue poked through her tiny round pucker like a worm out of an apple. I nearly jumped out the window. I expected her to laugh at me, but her eyes were as nervous and disoriented as mine, and I figured she did it because she thought she was supposed to. That's pretty much how I felt too. I dared to touch her breast through the deep, scratchy weave of her polyester waitress uniform. It was never spoken of again.

I got my driver's license about ten seconds after I turned sixteen. Prom was coming up and my dad's frumpy Datsun sedan (pictured above, right) wouldn't do, so my friend Odee loaned me his gleaming, forest green Dodge Scamp. We buffed it to a spotless gloss, a boy's way of primping for a date. Odee sprayed the front seat with Armor-All to make it slick so that every time I turned right my date would slide into me. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do with that. I couldn't drive in circles all the way to the prom, and she wouldn't appreciate getting all dressed up just to go on an arcade ride.

Odee had as much experience at romance as I. My date managed to stay in her seat just fine, and although we did park a while and talk after the dance. After about twenty minutes, Odee's 500-watt stereo drained the battery dead, and we had to hike down the highway for help, she in her frilly white prom dress, I in my mint green tuxedo.

My dad made me drive off a highway at 60 miles-per-hour onto the gravel shoulder so I would know how it feels if it happened in real life. I'm grateful he didn't think I needed practice driving off a cliff. I passed that lesson on, in my own way. My girls know how it feels to skid sideways on the ice in a top-heavy SUV. And when I bought them their first car, I put jumper cables in the trunk.