Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Category: Health (page 1 of 7)

Family Genes

Of all the sports available to us during my grade school years, I most enjoyed playing basketball. I wasn’t good at it, but I had a tall and lanky body, so I was useful as the center. Some team captains even picked me first during the tense boyhood ritual of “choosing sides.” It boosted my ego.

My job as center was simple – wave my gawky arms in the face of the opposition until someone fouled me. Then I would strut up to the foul line, dribble once or twice, and throw the ball into the basket for a point. It sounded easier than it was to do.

One afternoon, I stood at the foul line, bouncing the ball, sweat soaking through my knee-high white crew socks, readying the shot, when I couldn’t fully extend the fingers of my right hand. My hand opened only to a 75% angle, so when I tossed the ball upwards, it spun like a planet flying out of gravitational orbit.

When I showed this to my parents, they assumed I had sprained my hand. I received the typical lecture about “being careful” when playing rough sports, as if my participation in my Hebrew School’s basketball team was the same as playing left tackle with the Dallas Cowboys.

When my hand didn’t heal, I heard whispering in my parents’ room at night. One afternoon, my parents took me from school early and we traveled to Long Island Jewish Hospital by bus. I found myself flat on a neurology department table while a gray-haired doctor put electrodes on my head and stuck me with thin, electrically charged needles. He said I should tighten my muscles, then he twisted the needles in a circular motion into my body, as if searching for hidden treasure in the sand. Next to me stood an aquamarine metal box that reminded me of a Geiger counter I had seen in an episode of the Twilight Zone. It screamed with noisy static depending on the angle of the needle. The pain shot through my body, but I stopped myself from crying. After the test, my parents took me to Baskin-Robbins for Rocky Road ice cream.

My father was a funny and compassionate man, but born to that stoic generation of fathers that did their duty, expressed their love, but never shared their personal lives with their children. I knew nothing about my father’s childhood, his time during the Korean War, or even his job as a physical therapist. He didn’t imagine it would interest me.

Twenty-five years earlier, my grandmother brought my father to a neurologist in Brooklyn to take the same painful tests. His weakness affected his neck and chin rather than his hand. The doctors were baffled by it. It didn’t match any neurological diseases known at the time, such as muscular dystrophy. My grandmother, not wanting him to take any more tests, told him to just “live with it and forget it.” My father, the oldest of three sons, and close to his mother, took her advice. He then ignored his disorder for decades, not even telling my mother about the condition before they were married.

While eating our Rocky Road at Baskin-Robbins that day, my father filled me in with vague information about the “small” muscle condition that affected both of us in different ways. I had an unknown weakness in my hand; he had one in his neck and chin.

“Live with it, and forget it,” he said, repeating the advice of his mother. “It’s better than getting prodded with those needles all your life.”

I wasn’t going to argue with that.

Even at that age, I knew my father avoided reality. By ignoring his ailment, he believed no one would notice it. Everyone did. As the years flew by, his muscle weakness got worse. When my father grew  tired, he would put his fist under his chin to hold up his neck. Friends asked questions which I avoided, wanting everything to appear “normal.” Two bullies teased me about my father, saying he looked like he had a perpetual toothache. When a doctor suggested that my father wear a neck brace, he was too proud to wear it in public, certain no one noticed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth.

I’m ashamed to write this publicly, but I became embarrassed by my father’s mysterious muscle condition, and angry that he deluded himself about it. Why didn’t he try to fix it? More troubling was the inevitable conclusion – this was going to be ME when I’m his age. I imagined my hand getting weaker and my neck collapsing, and by adulthood, I would look like the Elephant Man. I attempted to follow the path of “live with it and forget about it,” but I was never able to forget about it. I exerted years of energy into hiding my shame from others. I wouldn’t let anyone see me weak or abnormal.

In high school, I taught myself to type by pointing and pecking. In college, I used chopsticks with my left hand. When a woman thought I was gay because I held a wine glass effeminately, I never held my wine glass in that hand again. Most people never noticed or cared much, but I always feared it. If they did, men would find me weak and exploit me. Women would find me monstrous and reject me. Employers wouldn’t hire me, especially for production jobs in Hollywood. Even when thriving at school and work, I worried how people would respond if they discovered the truth.

If there is a hero in this story, it’s my ex-wife, Sophia. After dating for two months, I told her about my weakness. She wasn’t surprised or scared by it, but confused by my lack of knowledge. She made it her personal project to get to the bottom of the mystery.

After extensive amount of research and calling, she found two specialists who dealt with obscure neurological diseases. My case was so unusual, two hospitals, the Mayo Clinic and UC Davis, started a bidding war for me as their research subject. Free airfare, hotel, and breakfast buffet! One doctor in Minnesota, Dr. Engels, had identified a disorder that fit my weakness. Sophia dragged me to take another of those needle tests, now known as an Electromyography (EMG). Sophia lovingly held my foot as they poked my body with needles. I had a biopsy that confirmed the diagnosis. My condition was slow-channel congenital myasthenic syndrome (CMS), an inherited neuromuscular disorder caused by a defect at the neuromuscular junction.

Slow-channel myasthenic syndrome is rare, about 800 cases of it in the country, all inherited through family, many of them either Eastern European Jews or French Canadians. The “slow” in slow-channel describes the closing speed of the nerve junction. In a normal action, the nerves send pulses through the body, and then the junctions close. With a myasthenic syndrome, the nerve junctions close too slowly, and chemicals leak into the muscles, causing atrophy. The severity is different for each individual. My weakness was in the extension of my right fingers.

Sophia also wanted to understand the family component to the disorder, so she pushed my father to get tested again, much to his dismay. She didn’t stop there. Sophia contacted my two uncles and a male cousin, questioning them like Sherlock Holmes. She discovered that each male member of my immediate family had a muscle weakness somewhere on the body, in the leg, neck, back, or toes. We had a common inherited syndrome, but no one knew it because no one confided in one another. We were the type of family that kept secrets. It took an outsider, Sophia, to bring us together to deal with our health. My grandmother’s advice to “live with it and forget it” created an atmosphere of silence and avoidance for three generations. Sophia prompted every male family member to get tested. We discovered that we inherited this syndrome from my grandmother herself. The doctors at Mayo Clinic and UC Davis wrote a paper about us.

There was some good news. Dr. Engels found a common prescription drug that stopped, or at least slowed, the leakage into the muscles by speeding up the closing at the junction. It was Prozac. For the last fifteen years, I have been taking 40-60mg of Prozac every day, not for depression or anxiety, but for the slow-channel disorder. My hand hasn’t gotten better, but nothing has gotten worse. Little has changed since childhood. Luckily, I have a mild case.

Of the thousands of people I’ve met over the last fifteen years, I’ve only told four of you about the slow-channel disorder. I’ve lied rather than be honest. I’ve come up with stories to explain why I hold the camera like a precious doll or text with my thumb. When I go on dates, I never order spaghetti because I never mastered eating it with my left hand. Whenever I’m asked why I don’t have children, it’s easier to portray myself as a selfish Hollywood type busy with his career than say the truth. Sophia and I feared having kids. Doctors told us that a child would have a 50/50 chance of inheriting the syndrome. Would our child’s ailment be mild, like mine, or more severe, like my father’s? We didn’t know the answers, so we just avoided the question of children until it was too late.

This mild ailment has plagued me my entire life. The anxiety was mostly self-made, intensified by a family that didn’t communicate. I’m sure my father felt guilty for passing the disorder to me, which became a barrier between us, and the reason he avoided telling me about his past.

I recently visited my neurologist in New York. He suggested I take a genetic test. Ten years ago, it would cost $10,000. Nowadays, you spit into a tube at home, and send it to the clinic via the post office. I now have a chart mapping my genes, showing the irregularities. It’s cool what science can do. It’s also a reminder of the importance of health insurance (hint, message to the Trump administration).

One of my favorite sayings goes something like this, with some paraphrasing, “When you are twenty years old, you worry about what others think about you. When you are thirty, you try not to care what others think, but you still worry. By fifty, you realize others were always too busy with their own sh*t to think about you at all.”

Why write about this subject today after these years of silence? I chatted with a friend last week who admired the honesty of my writing. I’ve always tried to be authentic on my blog, writing about my father’s passing in 2006, my separation with Sophia, and the ups and downs of my dating life. But I’ve hidden this important truth from everyone, the result of a family tradition of avoidance.

And it’s time to break the pattern of shame.

Ask Dr. P., An Advice Column

While I have been fiddling around with this dumb blog for the last ten years, my Penis moved to Baltimore to attain an advanced degree in Psychiatry at John Hopkins University.  We here at Citizen of the Month are now proud to bring a new voice into the community to help my readers with answers to pressing problems related to issues of mental illness, anxiety, and depression.

About Dr. Penis —

Dr. P., as he is known by his colleagues and patients, brings a wide range of professional and life experience to his practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He has spoken to national audiences on radio and at workshops and seminars internationally, and is a frequent guest writer at the Elephant Journal, Jungian Newsletter, and Huffington Post.  Dr. Penis is sought after for his work in Dream Analysis, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Somatic Work, and Hypnosis.

All questions submitted to Dr. Penis are real, submitted by real people, but kept anonymous for privacy reasons.

Dear Dr. P,

Hello, Dr. P. I could really use your help. I’m a man who considers himself a bit of a budding photographer. Recently, I went to a fun and creative photo retreat in Canada. There were thirteen other participants. On the first day of the retreat, the leader wanted us to split into pairs in order to practice portraiture. I wanted to pair up with “Katie” because I was a fan of her photography, but when the time came to ask her, I started to worry, “What if she wants to pair up with someone else — someone more of a professional than I am — and then if I suggest we pair up, I will be putting her in the awkward position of saying no to me, or even worse, yes just our of politeness, and then a coldness would develop which would tarnish our friendship forever. Soon, everyone was partnered except the last two, one being me, and I had flashbacks to being picked last for softball in camp. Do I sound codependent to you? One of the attributes of codependency is an overwhelming need to care for others before themselves? Should I join a codependent twelve step group?

Codependent Carl

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Dear Codependent Carl,

First of all, thank you for writing to me. Expressing your fears is the first step in overcoming them. All men have fears. Imagine yourself walking into a bar, seeing Scarlet Johansson sitting by herself, and going over to her to say, “You don’t know me, Scarlet Johansson, but I’d like you to come home with me tonight to make sweet sweet love.”

That would be difficult for even the most confident of men.

Of course, you were just pairing off at a photography retreat, so there is no real comparison with picking up Scarlet Johansson in a bar.  You are just a fucking wimp. Grow up, pussy boy! What’s the matter with you?

And don’t give me that bullshit about you protecting this “Katie” from making the decision. She’s an adult who can make her own decision. She’s probably more of an adult than you.   Stop trying to read the minds of others.  And stop rationalizing your own pussyhood.  You didn’t do if because you were protecting her or fearing her reaction.   You were afraid of your OWN reaction!   Maybe she even WANTED to pair up with you also.  I wouldn’t be surprised if that was your real fear — that she would say YES,  and then you would feel responsible for her enjoyment for the rest of the day.   Your mind is like a sewer plant of wrongful thinking.

Jung once said, “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”  I say, “Get over yourself, you narcissistic nutjob!  Stop treating others like children and yourself as the dutiful, responsible parent.  Their decisions are their own.  It’s always easier worrying about others than yourself.”

“Am I codependent?” you ask. How the fuck should I know? No real professional gives a diagnosis on the internet. I do know that whatever size dick you were born with has grown progressively smaller as you have grown older, almost the reverse of what happened with Pinocchio’s nose, and if you continue on this path of thinking you need to please others all the time, by the time you are retirement age, you cock will have shriveled up and turned into dust.

Should you go to a codependency twelve-step group? I would. Many codependent women substitute sex for love. You get my meaning or do I need to spell it out?  You go to F-U-C-K THEM.

To wrap this up, Codependent Carl, because I’m growing a little tired of thinking about you, here’s what you need to write on your forehead and look at in the mirror every morning —

“Let others make their own decisions.  Grow up and take care of your  own fucked-up life first.   Because no one else will.   And most importantly, always remember this  — every time you don’t ask for something that you want, you dick grows smaller.”

Dr. Penis.
Please follow Dr. Penis on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Ello.

The Password

I sat in an upscale coffee bar on Fifth Avenue, drinking a cup of coffee, killing some time before my therapy appointment. I noticed on my iPhone that the establishment had wi-fi, but it required a password. I looked up towards the front counter, where the bearded barista was creating a little foam heart in a latte, and saw a little sign tacked onto the front counter that read “password on receipt.” Ten minutes earlier, when I went to add some milk to my coffee, I tossed my receipt into the swinging door of the metallic garbage receptacle.

The hipster barista had a friendly face, even a nicely-trimmed beard, and he was only a few feet away. The cafe wasn’t crowded, with only two giggly private school girls on line, probably playing hooky during the afternoon. All I had to do was stand up from my plastic chair, go over to the barista at the front counter, smile at him, and say, “Oh, I threw away my receipt. Can I have the password?”

But my mind started playing tricks on me. In quick succession, these are my actual thoughts, “Oh, he seems busy. Nah, why bother. I can just use data rather than wi-fi. I have unlimited data so it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to bother him. Maybe he will have to print out another receipt, and then everyone will have to wait longer for their orders. Maybe the password WASN’T on my receipt, and only given to those who order a pastry or a sandwich, and the barista will have to say — in front of everyone — “I’m sorry, Sir. You only had a cup of coffee. And not even a fancy cup of coffee, just a regular American cup of coffee. You don’t DESERVE the password to the wi-fi.”

I never asked for the password, and I got so pissed at myself for how my thoughts took something incredibly unimportant and escalated it into a battle of wills.

I will be posting something on this blog each day, for the entire month of March.

Therapy, NYC: The First Two Contacts

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Therapist’s Office Over Manhattan’s Only Hooters.

First Contact

“Hello,” I said as I answered my iPhone.

“Hello. This is Steve Goldman. You left me a message.”

“Oh hello. Thanks for calling. Yes. I was recommended to you and I was interested in making an appointment.”

“Of course. May I ask who recommended me to you?”

“Yes. Oh. Uh, wait. Can you hold on for a second? I’ve put you on the speakerphone of my iPhone for a second while I go to Facebook. This is embarrassing. You see, I’ve known the person who recommended you for six years, but I never knew her real name, only her online name, NewYorkMamaS. You know how it is online. But I knew you would be asking for her name, so she messaged me yesterday on Facebook with her real name, but now I’ve completely forgot it. It’s something that starts with a “S.” I know she needs to remain anonymous because of her work, but she told me her real name anyway, which was nice of her — although I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone else other than you.”

“It doesn’t really matter.”

“No, no, I’ll get it. One more second. I’m on Facebook. It’s just slow. It’s this new update to the Facebook app that’s slowing it down. All the advertisements. It slows things down. Everything has to be ruined with advertisements and monetization. Whatever happened to REAL talking with a friend, one on one? Maybe that’s what intrigues me about therapy. Of course, even in therapy, I would be paying you, so that is monetization too. But that’s different. I suppose it’s the world we live in. Aha, here it is –Shana Danbury is her name! So funny, knowing so much about a person via online life — about her family, her dreams, even the brand of vibrator that she uses, but not her real name! By the way, you do know Shana Danbury, right? She was your patient? Is she normal? I don’t really know her. Ha Ha! That’s only a joke.”

On my iPhone, I could hear him scribbling notes.

Second Contact

“I’ve always wanted to go into therapy. I mean, I did once go to a therapist with my ex-wife, but it was HER therapist, and it didn’t exactly work out the way I hoped, because we ended up just fighting over who the therapist liked better, so that was a bust. But now I’m taking action on my own, which is a big deal, because I sometimes have a problem taking action.”

“And what made you finally take the step to call a therapist on your own?” asked my new therapist.

“You want to know the truth? Of course you want to know the truth,” I continued. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Yes.”

“Well, you know how everyone is catching up on old TV series on Netflix and places like that? So, I’ve been watching the Sopranos over the last two months. I’m now on Season Five. It’s a pretty intense experience. And there’s this big subplot where Tony Soprano goes to this female therapist –”

“Yes, I’ve seen the show.”

“Anyway, it’s like I relate to Tony Soprano in many ways. Like if only I was Italian instead of Jewish, lived in New Jersey instead of Queens, and grew up in a mobster family instead of whatever the hell my parents did. Frankly, my father would be a terrible mobster. Just too nice and not aggressive enough. I’d probably be a bad mobster, too. Maybe my mother could be a mobster’s wife, but it would probably make her too anxious if she knew he was out there beating up people. But back to the point. I noticed that Tony Soprano made a lot of changes in his life by going into therapy, so I figured if it was good for him, why not me?”

“You do realize that the Sopranos is a fictional TV show?”

“Of course. But I also write a lot. And I’ve always believed that there is a fine line between the fictional and the real. And to be honest, my final two choices as therapist was between you and a female therapist, but I decided to go with you because you’re a man, and I didn’t want to be like Tony Soprano, thinking what it would be like to fuck his female therapist so much because that would be a waste of my therapy time, since we only have an hour. Or fifty minutes. Why do therapist only give you fifty minutes, anyway? Shouldn’t it be an actual hour? It’s a bit of a rip-off if I might be so brave to say.”

My therapist didn’t answer, but he certainly took a lot of notes.

Swimming Past the Sharks

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In case someone reads this post two years from now and doesn’t remember the name Diana Nyad — she is an American endurance swimmer, and today, at age 64, she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the help of a shark tank.

It was Nyad’s fifth try to complete the approximately 110-mile swim. She tried three times in 2011 and 2012. She had also tried in 1978.

Her last attempt was cut short amid boat trouble, storms, unfavorable currents and jellyfish stings that left her face puffy and swollen.

“I am about to swim my last 2 miles in the ocean,” Nyad told her 35-member team from the water, according to her website. “This is a lifelong dream of mine and I’m very very glad to be with you.”

I learned about her success on Facebook. My timeline was filled with supportive responses to her amazing feat.

“Diana Nyad is my hero.”

“This just proves what I tell my children. If you try hard enough, you can succeed in anything.”

“I hope to be like her when I get older — accomplishing greatness in MY sixties!”

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“What do you think of the woman who swam from Cuba to Florida?” I asked my mother at lunch.

My mother wasn’t following the story. She was watching a Labor Day Perry Mason marathon on the Hallmark Channel.

“What woman? I haven’t been following it.”

“Her name is Diana Nyad. And she’s sixty four years old!”

“That’s great. Amazing. Was she trying to escape?”

“Escape? Escape from what?”

“Escape from Cuba for asylum? Is that why she was swimming to Florida?”

“No. She wasn’t swimming to escape. She was swimming because she is a long distance swimmer and this was her lifelong dream! She never gave up.”

“Her lifelong dream was to swim from Cuba to Florida?”

“Yes.”

“That’s crazy. Couldn’t she just take a boat?”

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3PM, Labor Day

I’m in my bed. Thinking about swimming from Cuba to Florida. There are vibrations going up and down my body, as if a thousand electric toothbrushes are powered up and pressing against my skin at once, shaking my nerves.

There is something about Diana Nyad’s accomplishment — the fact that she never gave up, even for a goal that my own mother saw as rather unnecessary — that has brought me close to a nervous breakdown.

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3:30PM, Labor Day

Maybe I was being a little over dramatic before. I’m fine. I can be a bit of a drama queen. Everything’s fine.

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4:00PM, Labor Day

I’m sitting at my laptop. I’m feeling better. Not sure what happened before. But let me tell you — during the last couple of weeks, I have been acting very strangely, more so than usual. It’s as if my body is sending my brain a message. Or more likely, the other way around.

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4:30PM, Labor Day

In the 1960s, there was a popular therapy technique called “flooding.” It was used on patients with various phobias. A woman scared of elevators, for instance, would be forced into a closed elevator to confront her darkest fears until she would pass out from hypertension, but then, miraculously, from that day on, she would be able to take elevators without a problem. While the method seems primitive and cruel today, it was also quite effective.

During the last two weeks, I have been flooding myself, almost as if I want to fix every leaky valve in my brain before the start of Rosh Hashanah. While none of my personal little goals have been as dramatic as swimming a shark-infested ocean, they have been dangerous to me in that they forced me to swim into the dark waters of myself.

Two weeks ago, I submitted a screenplay that I had been working on for three years.

My thoughts at the time: (Is it any good? What if it isn’t any good? What if he doesn’t like it? What if it was better in that draft from two months ago? Why did I take that friend’s stupid advice of changing the “priest” character when it was way better before? Why am I so weak and compromise so easily?)

Last week, I placed a banner ad in my sidebar of my blog.

My thoughts at the time: (Am I being a hypocrite after everything I’ve ever said against monetization? Is it even worth if for such little money? How will my readers take it? Will they see me as too needy? Did I lose face with myself? Why do I feel nausea when I see the ad on my personal blog? Should I tell everyone to use an ad blocker so they don’t have to see the ad when the read my blog? Why WOULD I tell everyone to use an ad blocker so they don’t see the ad — isn’t that the point?!)

This weekend, while most of my friends enjoyed the last weekend of the summer swimming in lakes or hiking mountains, I stayed home, with an eye on a new prize — putting a few of my instagram photos for sale on my blog as prints.

My thoughts at the time — and now: (How much should I charge? Will I look like I am extorting friends? What if I charge too little and my real photographer friends feel like I am degrading the art of photography? Do I deserve to even make any money on an iphone photo? Who am I fooling? What if someone feels obligated to buy one, and they don’t really want to? What if someone buys one and then in a month they start a Kickstarter campaign for their own project, and I feel obligated to donate to it?)

Today, as a sixty-four year old woman finished achieved greatness in the water, my body, as a reaction to my own thought process over the last two weeks — gave up.

“This is not normal,” I told myself while lying in bed, looking up at the ceiling. “You have anxiety.”

I can hear some of my friends laughing.

“Dude, I could have told you this YEARS ago.”

I hate when people call me “dude.”

Why am I suddenly so obsessed with this idea of “feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” Why am I pushing myself? What am I trying to push myself to do? Would anyone care about Diana Nyad if she failed again, and decided it was time to give up? Why is she a hero? What did she do? Is she a nice person? What do I need to prove to others? To myself? Do I want to be the second person to swim from Cuba to Florida? Wouldn’t it better to just take a boat?

I exhaust myself.

Speech Therapy

Thank you to everyone on Facebook who recommended a good therapist in New York. You’re nice people  (and apparently rather troubled).   I promise to look into it this week.

Today I went to my family doctor for a check-up.   After the nurse took my blood, Doctor R enter the examining room and sat across from me.

“I hear you wanted to ask me something, Neil.”

“Yes, I wanted some recommendations on seeing two other professionals.”

“OK.”

“First, I’ve been feeling congested lately and I want to see an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor.”

“Fine.  Let me send you to Doctor Grossman at NYU.  He’s very good.”

“And then, I was wondering if you know… because I was thinking of going to…. well, like a therapist.”

“Is that rotator cuff still bothering you.  I can send you to that physical therapist in Flushing.”

“No, not a physical therapist.”

I noticed Doctor R checking out my shoulder.  I pointed my finger upwards towards my face to help him understand what type of therapy I was discussing.

“Oh, I know someone very good at Queens College,” said Doctor R.   “She’s the chairman of the speech therapy department.”

“Speech therapy?”

“She’s a speech therapist.”

“Why would you send me to a speech therapist?” I blurted out.

“I thought that’s what you wanted.”

“Is there something wrong with the way I speak?  Jesus, now I’m really paranoid.  No, I’m talking about…”

I pointed my finger upwards again, this time directly at my head, as if I was about to shoot myself with my index finger.   The doctor’s “speech therapy” comment made me so anxious, I couldn’t think straight or come up with the right word.

“…I’m talking about… what do you call it.  I can’t think today.  A head therapist.   A brain therapist.”

“A psychiatrist?” he asked.

“Yes!  Well, no.  A psychiatrist sounds too serious.  I just probably need a regular therapist.  Not anyone with a fancy medical degree.  To talk to about things.  Someone’s who relatively cheap.  But still good.”

“I see.  An inexpensive therapist who’s still good.”

“Yes,” I said.

“I know of one person.   But would you mind seeing a therapist who shares his office with an auto body shop on Queens Boulevard?”

Note:  The previous was mostly true, except for the last line, which was thrown in at the last moment for humorous effect.

The Five Day Man Cold: The Final Chapter

Let’s recap. This month has centered around my health. On May 1st, I switched health insurances from one in California to one in New York, a process way more complicated that I ever expected. I found a new primary doctor, and I went to him for a physical. His nurse took my blood for a lab test, and I almost fainted when I noticed the needle entering my arm. A week later, when the results came back from the lab, the doctor told me that I had high cholesterol and high sugar. He made me promise that I would stop eating too many “everything” bagels shmeared with cream cheese.

I listened to the doctor, trusting in his authority. But on the sixth day of my bagel fast, I found my body grow weak and my mind cloudy. Like an addict without a fix, my system went haywire. I collapsed onto my bed. Diagnosis: a man cold.

But this wasn’t a typical man cold. This was one that kept me in bed throughout the entire Memorial Day Weekend. Friday I was “under the weather.” Saturday, I had a sore throat and a runny nose. Sunday, I was coughing and crying for help. Monday, I could hardly move. Tuesday, I was crawling on the floor, like an wounded animal.

“Wait a minute,” you might wonder. “Can you really get a man cold from not eating a bagel for six days?”

I asked my new family doctor the same question, and he said, “no, that’s utter nonsense.” But let’s face it — even the most famous of medical scholars cannot honestly that science knows all the answers. Sometimes we need to go on simple faith. So I will continue to believe that the lack of bagels caused the man cold.

During my five day cold, I spend much of my time pondering the everyday importance of good health. One of my mother’s favorite aphorisms is, “If you have your health, you have everything,” and is there any wiser statement? Why doesn’t anyone ever post that in some fancy typography on Pinterest rather than another boring take on “Stay Calm and Carry On.”

health

Whether you are white or black, man or woman, gay or straight, there is one privilege that trumps them all — having good health.

I left the house today for the first time in five days. The outside world beckoned to me, filed with life and vibrancy. No one should stay inside for too long and miss all that it offered.

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Even though I was still sneezing, I knew it was time to rejoin civilization. The sun warmed my body, and my soul. I felt the urge to celebrate. Why not treat myself with a bit of the forbidden fruit? — yes, an everything bagel shmeared with cream cheese.

I walked over to my local bagel shop and ordered an everything bagel with cream cheese and a small coffee.

bagel

“Regular coffee?” asked the guy behind the counter, the New York shorthand meaning sweet and with cream.”

“No. No sugar at all,” I replied. I wasn’t going to go hedonistically crazy and return to the unhealthy habits of the past. Even I had boundaries.

I crossed the street to the courtyard by the decrepit playground in the center of the hunched-over brown apartment buildings of the 1960s-era housing project, and sat down on one of the faded green wood benches, placing my cup of coffee and the paper bag containing my aromatic bagel on the bench, to my side.

I took a sip of my coffee. It needed sugar. But I would get used to it. I turned to my brown paper bag. The bagel inside was calling my name. But just then, there was a surprising distraction. A tiny squirrel jumped onto the adjacent bench a few feet away, and he stared at me with a bemused smile. I love New York. Even the squirrels are fearless in this town.

squirrel

I reached into my pocket for my iPhone, hoping to get a photo for my new Tumblr blog, “Squirrels of New York,” a sure-shot concept for an inevitable book deal. The iPhone’s zooming capacity is weak, so I waited for the squirrel to take a step closer. And that’s when it happened. The squirrel pierced the quiet, jumped over my lap, grabbed my brown paper bag containing the everything bagel and started to run.

But my furry-tailed adversary was no match for a human being, even one handicapped with a five day man cold. I sped into action, and as I pursued him, the squirrel slid under the bench and ran towards a nearby tree, dragging the paper bag on the ground. But the excessive weight of the bagel, heavy with the fat-laden cream cheese, turned out to be a burden for the hapless creature. As I closed in, he had no choice but to climb up the tree to safety, leaving the booty behind to the rightful owner. This was one time in human history when right and might were on the same side.

I returned to the bench with my bagel bag and sat next to my unsugared cup of coffee. And my thoughts turned to God.

Was this squirrel attack a random act of nature, or was it a higher power sending me a message? Isn’t it possible that the squirrel stole my brown paper bag as a spiritual warning to me that I keep my promise to eat better and to care for my health?

As a man of faith, I don’t discount that a message can come from above.

But today was a special day, and I had no time for lofty idealism. I pushed past my man-cold and even defeated a wily enemy who stole my property. I was a hero.

Yes, I ate that everything bagel spread with cream cheese. Yes, I finished my cup of coffee. And I went home, with my head held high. But next time, I will order a whole wheat bagel with low-fat cream cheese.

The Problem with the Tray at McDonald’s

One childhood ritual of mine that continues to this day is my method of eating French fries at McDonald’s. I spill the fries onto the tray, rip open two of those jagged-edged ketchup packets (one is never enough) and squirt the tomato delicacy into the empty zone situated between the fries and the edge of the tray. As most of you probably know, when I say “the tray” I don’t mean that I eat directly off of the dirty, plastic, dark-brown McDonald’s tray. No, I throw the fries on the paper “placemat” that is slid on top of the tray by the McDonald’s employee before the arrival of the food. These placemats tend to be colorful advertisements on the front, extolling the fun and community-mindedness of Ronald McDonald, while the back contains the nutritional information, hidden from the customer’s view.

My French fry eating method has one major drawback. Since there are no waiters or busboys at McDonald’s, the customer is expected to do his civic duty and bus his own tray. Several garbage receptacles are provided with swinging doors, so a customer could open one of them by pushing it inward with his tray, avoiding hand contact, and then with a mere shake of the wrist, empty the tray into the darkness of the receptacle. The cheerful customer would then place his tray on top of one of the gray, fake-linoleum receptacles, adding it to a neatly arranged pile of identical trays, ready to be cleaned and reused.

While I am sure this clean-up system works efficiently at the McDonald’s Engineering Lab at Hamburger University, my ritual of spilling out the fries and ketchup onto the paper placemat exposes a major glitch. My placemat always sticks to the tray itself, and no amount of shaking, or banging the tray against the side of the receptacle can ever release it from its greasy prison.

This unfortunate problem requires me to make some hard decision when I visit McDonald’s. Should I stick my hand into the receptacle and manually pull the paper placemat off the tray, potentially splashing ketchup all over my hand, arm, or even my shirt? Or should I just pass the problem off to others, by tossing the tray, with the sticky, stained, paper placemat, right on the remaining pile of trays.

Over the years, many of my friends, having the same difficult with the receptacles (after copying my technique of eating French Fries) chose the second route of action, rationalizing it by insisting that they, “cleaned it off as best as they could.” I could never sink that low. My parents raised me to do better.

But recently, as in many stories, a change in direction came from an unlikely source, forever changing my relationship with the garbage receptacles at McDonald’s. Last week, after my yearly checkup, my doctor told me that I had high cholesterol and sugar levels, and that I should probably stop eating at McDonald’s. A mere day later, another event occurred, adding more fuel to the drama. The Dominican Diner down the block closed down, seized by the State of New York for the non-payment of taxes. The closure of the diner left McDonald’s as the only place within ten block to grab a quick and inexpensive cup of coffee.

McDonald’s or not? That is the question. My decision was — I compromised. This week, I visited McDonald’s four times, but only to order a cup of coffee – no food. No breakfast burrito. No hamburger. No chicken wrap. Not even French fries. I noticed that because I only ordered coffee, the cashier skipped the tray, and just handed me the coffee, right into my open hand – even if I intended to drink it at the restaurant.

This not only enhanced my health, but revolutionized my handling of the clean-up. After drinking the coffee, I now simply push open the garbage receptacle with the paper cup, and toss it away. No more fighting with the unruly paper placemat grabbing hold on to the tray for dear life. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even start to bring my own cup down to McDonald’s and avoid using the garbage receptacle at all.

Truth quotient: 100%. This is the type of story you get when the truth quotient is 100%.

Medical Insurance

I hope you don’t mind these smaller throw-away posts. They are not great writing, but little diary entries for my sanity. Maybe they will get me off of Twitter.

Over the winter in New York I developed this cough that wouldn’t go away.  My mother kept on insisting I see a doctor, but since I had an HMO in California, I could only see my primary doctor 3000 miles away in Los Angeles.  Considering that I was paying for health insurance out of pocket, it seemed like an incredible waste of money, but I am too much of a nervous-nelly to go without insurance.

I called my insurance company in California asking for advice on seeing a doctor in New York, and they told me that I was covered in New York only if I went to the emergency room or an urgent care center.

I had never gone to an urgent care center, but I read up on it and learned that it was a place where you could walk in and see a doctor for a non-emergency medical problem.

I found a urgent care center nearby in Queens that was associated with a major hospital. After waiting an hour in the hallway (the waiting room was filled), I was called in to see the frazzled doctor, who seemed exhausted jumping from one patient to another like a frog in a white coat.  I told him about my persistent cough, and he looked inside my mouth.  He noted that there was no infection in my throat.

“You have a bad cough,” he said, giving his professional opinion.

He prescribed a stronger cough medicine, one with codeine.

If you followed me on Twitter at the time, you might remember me making several jokes about me taking this codeine cough medicine and ultimately seeing Jesus in my tea cup.

Two weeks later, the cough disappeared.

This morning,  my mother called me from New York.  She was upset.   She just received a letter from the urgent care center.  The entire fee was paid by the insurance company.

“That’s great,” I said.  “So why do you sound so angry?”

“Do you know how much your visit cost the insurance company? A thousand dollars! Six hundred for seeing the doctor and four hundred for the presciption!”

“Jesus. What a rip-off.  But at least WE don’t have to pay for it.”

“What do you mean we don’t pay for it. We DO pay for it. That’s why your medical insurance is a thousand dollars a month!”

She was right.   Why was this five minute visit to a doctor costing the insurance company a thousand dollars?   And why was the insurance company paying such an outrageous amount?

I mentioned this to a friend in the medical field, and he said that it is unlikely that the insurance company paid this amount for my measly visit. The urgent care might have asked for a  thousand dollars, but the insurance company paid a reduced amount.

“So, if they didn’t pay that amount, why did the urgent care center send me a receipt saying that the insurance company paid them a thousand dollars for my visit?” I asked.

“So you don’t leave your insurance company,” he said.  “It’s all a shell game.”

Crowdsourcing Therapy #1

When you walk into a room — a party, a new office, an interview, a meeting, a dinner with friends — do you tend to (the majority of times):

1)  feel “better” than the others  (I’m smarter, saner, better-looking, richer, have better behaved kids, have more followers on Twitter),

2)  feel “less” than others (they’re smarter, richer, better-looking, better writers, have Dooce’s phone number, skinnier, have bigger penises)

3)  or feel that since everyone is different, you have a unique set of values and talents to offer, which makes you as interesting and sexy as everyone else, and if others don’t see it, there isn’t much you can do, and besides, we all drop dead eventually anyway, so at least we all have that in common?

I know many of us think #3.  But does anyone really FEEL #3?  And are #1 and #2 basically the two sides of the same coin?

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