Sticks and screens may break my…

[estimated reading time 11 minutes]

May break my memories, I suspect. But doctors, there’s no may about that, they’ll hurt me endlessly.

I began the day with the first of four short writing prompts (this is day 10, if it’s not clear from the order of these posts). There are still three left, after more than two thousand words on graduation, drunkenness, societal waste and, more relevantly to the prompt than anything else, the difference between breakfast and lunch, especially to someone who wasn’t going to eat either of them.

Write about a memory of a popsicle.

Popsicles are truly an interesting thing. I have to say, I have consumed more than my fair share of them. I have quite a history of throat infections and the like. I was, indeed, a singer and that took its toll. And as a teacher, someone who speaks nearly constantly all day, that doesn’t help issues either. I was singing from the youngest I can remember and, while I wasn’t a particularly unwell child — such problems that come with Lupus didn’t appear until a little later — I did have frequent sore throats. Not to mention, I have an undying love for fruits, even if I don’t have a particular interest in licking things. I was also a child of the eighties and there was nothing if not a cultural obsession with sucking on frozen things at the time — if you’re not familiar with the prevalence of frozen fruit-flavored things kept in the freezers at the time, you may wish to search out a part of your cultural heritage that will certainly be a pleasant surprise to you and might give you a break from all the high-fat snacks you likely find yourself craving. If you pour hot cocoa with a little honey into small glasses and insert popsicle sticks (or toothpicks), freezing them overnight, I promise you you’ll be in love the next day when you first indulge yourself. If you want something more involved, coat a banana in melted pure chocolate, drizzle honey over the top, sprinkle crushed peanuts over the whole thing and freeze a bunch of them with popsicle sticks sticking out of them. When you eat them, you won’t remember that there’s no added sugar, no real fat content, nothing artificial and that they took you less than ten minutes to make the whole batch. Midnight runs to the fridge for another piece of cake? I think not. Suck on this. The banana, I mean. Suck on the banana.

That being said, though, my experience with popsicles is actually a little less midnight-phallic-consumption-oriented. When I was in my teens, my mother’s twin brother came to live with our family for awhile — I can’t remember exactly how long but maybe six or eight months. He’s a great guy, kind and generous. We spent many hours playing cards or just chilling in the back garden talking about life. Or just sitting around not doing more than being quiet and reading. He was, indeed, someone who had learned how to be still and relax, something most people in the western world (and increasingly many in the eastern world) have exorbitant and myriad difficulties either doing or finding reason to try to do. I didn’t necessarily put it into practice at the time but quite a lot of the peace that I later learned in practice from the mouths of HH, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh were first planted as seeds by my uncle.

Anyway, I had had a bit of a disastrous experience in school. I had been attacked by another student. And most of the people around me had decided to take the other side of the conflict. Not that they didn’t think I had been a victim of an attack, just that my being so obviously different and not particularly being interested in fitting in, made them judge me very harshly and turn against me in a rather extreme way — something I once was told, a meanness and hatefulness only children can demonstrate, which I later found to be completely untrue, as the general public is now doing much the same thing, what I have often termed the Trump effect, populism and mob violence merging into a social dynamic that is defining the western world in the twenty-first century. I just wanted people to accept me. They didn’t have to like me but they had to see me as a valid human.

I wasn’t particularly interested in going to the store nearby to buy a treat. I don’t understand the concept of treat but that was harder to explain back then. Not to mention there were no sidewalks in the district I grew up in, many cars, badly-maintained roads and the store was a considerable distance to walk — I grew up in a very car-dominated culture, something I don’t see as a problem even now, just that those cars are still not powered by sustainable electricity. We headed off to the store, though, and it felt like no time at all. He wanted a popsicle and a paper, he said. And some coffee. None of which was the real purpose of the exercise, I’m sure, especially since he could have done the ten minute drive in a car had he wanted to, even if I was too young to legally put foot to gas pedal. We spent the entire way there with me whining about my situation. He should have told me to stop but he didn’t, for some reason, letting me continue. When we came out of the store, he looked at me and said “you know, they all take a shit the same way you do”. We walked back the whole rest of the way in silence. I got it. I learned my lesson well that day. Popsicles? Not worth the bother. We are all the same, even if people don’t notice.

And there was a far more vital lesson there to learn. If someone is in pain, you hold their feelings in your hand and lift them out of it. It’s your duty as a human. I don’t know if I knew it before then. After, I never forgot it.

Write about a memory of sunscreen.

Driving has been the source if not of masses of pleasure, at least the experience of freedom and escape that is so fundamental to my life. Most of you likely remember the infamous sunscreen song. It was a poorly-written essay by a reasonably-well-known columnist named Mary Schmich, who must have skipped a few courses in college on the use of the English language. But that’s not the important part. It was transformed into a pseudo-rap parody of contemporary culture (which was already pretty good at looking silly on its own, since this was, indeed, the late nineties, a time of abject musical silliness and anti-music being sold on the newly-popularized compact discs that every kid worth their Nikes was hooked on spending their hard-earned cash on acquiring). I can’t remember who turned it into a song but, like most things not worth listening to, it skyrocketed up the popular music charts that year. The British listening public, of course, being even more mob-centered and mindless than those of the domestic market, actually had it hit the number-one spot at one point that year. I’m not sure how high it got in the American top-forties but the fact that anyone mistakenly identified the thing as music is a source of some curiosity to me — it bears as little relationship to must as does the notated silence of John Cage or the pounding of hammers in a woodworking shop. Silence and the sound of woodworking are beautiful things. They are not, however, music. Neither was this.

Anyway, nineteen-ninety-nine was a summer of many things for me. It wasn’t my first kiss, nor was it my first time driving, but it was full of both of those things in many ways. I had a truly wonderful friend I spent a lot of time with — oddly enough for me, as I’m not particularly good at it, nor have I ever been, we spent a huge amount of time playing tennis. But we spent more time together in the evenings, chilling in out of the way places, listening to loud music and generally being the “young deviants” we were often called, among other, less pleasant names. There was a night at a place called Cape Spear, the most easterly point in all of North America, where there is, of course, a lighthouse. We were sitting there, perhaps three or four in the morning, with a boom box (even I can’t think of the thing, not being either black or hispanic, as a “ghetto blaster” — I’m not sure either of those two cultures would like to lay claim to that term but I can’t bring myself to even pretend to want it and while my cultural background is mixed, none of its components really lay claim to the popular version of “ghetto life” to blast anything with) on the ground turned up to (as was popular in those days) eleven. There was nobody else there. Nobody else for the entire visual distance which, thanks to the area, was vast. So there was absolutely no possibility anyone was going to hear the music, anyway. Which was good, since we’d have been dragged in for noise violations if there’d been anyone else around, without a doubt! It was a clear night and we sang along for a good couple of hours to whatever was playing. I didn’t much care. We both knew the words to most of the songs and if we didn’t we made them up. We ran out of our own music and had the radio on and this sunscreen travesty showed up. We both looked at each other and laughed and, while I didn’t know the words, she certainly had every single one of them committed to memory. I’ve never been a radio listener — while popular music is something I often like to spend time listening to, especially the popular music of my childhood rather than that of today, I can’t stand broadcast media. She was, though. About thirty seconds into the thing, the batteries on the radio gave out and the song stopped but she kept going right to the end, dancing around the pavement in front of the lighthouse as if she was on stage in front of a stadium audience. At the end she bowed, I applauded, and we sang ourselves back to the car. I’d like to say that was the end of a beautiful night but we actually just went back to get more batteries and saw the sunrise later that morning before falling asleep in the car. We got woken up a few hours later by the park police banging on the windows but, since we were both fully clothed and not doing anything illegal, it wasn’t a problem and we headed home for a lengthier nap. So, sunscreen, right? La.

Write about a memory of a doctor’s appointment.

Oddly enough, as someone who has had many thousands of doctor’s appointments, the first thing that comes to mind is actually something a bit less ordinary. I have had many friends study to become doctors but one of them is far more frequently on my mind than any others, mostly because of how much time we spent together during her first year at medical school. I have made a point of not sharing the names of other people in my public writing and I’m not going to make an exception now but I have no doubt that she knows who she is and I hope she knows how much that time meant to me.

She has been through some truly traumatic experiences in their life and I certainly have no intention of sharing them, even anonymously, in public or in private, with anyone. They are her memories to share or not share as she wishes. But it’s important to know that there were such memories. She disappeared out of my life for awhile and I worried a lot about where she had gone — not because I hadn’t heard from her in a week or two but because she disappeared for what I think was probably a couple of years in complete silence. Suddenly, there she was, talking to me again, pretty much every day. I don’t remember what the reason for the renewal of our friendship was but whatever it was, it was completely insignificant and likely just an excuse to break the dam and reach out. At least, that’s how I remember it. I was there to listen and that’s all I could do at the time. I thoroughly enjoyed those days, although they mostly just blur into one. There was a lot of talking, a huge amount of writing — on her part mostly, although I can’t remember what the topic was and it likely wasn’t something in my area of expertise but writing is, for the most part, writing and it’s something I’ve spent huge portions of my life doing, usually with others.

Eventually, though, that time gradually drew to a close and she went off to start a new chapter in her life. A chapter that would lead to her becoming a doctor, something that I strongly encouraged her to do, since it was always her dream — she may have been too intelligent to fit the mold of medical practice in this country, where most doctors are only slightly more intelligent than the chairs in their offices, but there are certainly some truly brilliant medical minds floating around and she was undoubtedly going to be one of them, if she could deal with the incommensurate levels of bullshit and meaningless data memorization that are the medical school qualification process, something strikingly unrelated to actual medical practice, even as a family doctor. So she was on her way into what I think is probably the most prestigious medical qualification program in the UK. And I was happy to offer to help however I could.

Anyway, we talked about starting a huge (perhaps overly-ambitious, although I think it’s possible to accomplish it) project together. I don’t mean as equal partners. The vast majority of the work would be hers, as would be the credit, but I was happy to be behind the scenes. I was already far too ill to do a full workload in any case but the happiness I get from being useful and helping one of my closest friends — probably the person I spent the most time with at that time or most others, in fact — accomplish something she truly wanted to do was incredibly rewarding and something I strongly wanted to do. I remember seeing her smile so genuinely when she completed another milestone or learned how to do something that she had once thought beyond her grasp, often after only a few hours of trial — writing computer code, for example, and learning to use Adobe Illustrator, which she didn’t just get the hang of but absolutely mastered in a few short months. Those smiles carried me through those times.

I was very broken, too, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to help. Actually, helping was the only thing that gave me the structure and meaning in my life that stopped me from giving up. See, I had already spent many years on prescription medication for my mental illness, which had in the beginning given me the ability to continue to function, even if I was barely aware of the fact that I was doing so. I continued to teach and write but gradually my ability to even stand up was diminished to the point of impossibility. There came a point, though, at which I realized that my body couldn’t stop taking the medication. I had never been warned of the chemical dependence that the medication would cause when I started taking it — I’m not even sure how well-known its addictive properties were at the time, all those decades ago. But it has subsequently been discovered to be one of the most addictive drugs out there and is generally never prescribed in anything other than the most extreme circumstances now, mostly emergency-room kinds of situations where someone is in danger of going into shock or stimulating a heart attack or aneurism from the panic they feel. I had been on it for so many years, the effect was decidedly minimal — I was still having panic attacks on a nearly-constant basis. But I couldn’t stop taking the pills, at least not all at once. I had tried several times to reduce the amount that I was taking but it was no easy task, as anyone who has ever been prescribed benzodiazepines long-term will know all too well. So I came up with a far more gradual reduction plan (actually, with the help of that particular friend) and, after about a year, had gone from an incredibly high dose that I will not publicly disclose to absolutely none. The withdrawal effects were some of the worst experiences I have ever had and resembled living through a waking nightmare of having things crawling on me, hallucinating, fevers and the like. Anyone who has gone through serious systemic chemical dependency and come out the other end has likely had similar experiences. If you haven’t, be very glad this is not one of your memories. Those were, in spite of the tranquilizing effect of the drug still left in my body, the worst days of my life.

But day after day, we got together and worked hard. There were days we accomplished little and simply talked about shared (not that it was experienced together but that we shared it with each other) pains, many more that we did more than I ever thought possible in my diminished state. We had, realistically, a standing daily doctor’s appointment, with each other. And it is those appointments that kept me living through those nightmarish nights of terror. I’ve thanked her many times for being there for me. She’s well aware of what she meant to me and still does. But sometimes it’s still nice to remember that not everything in those times was darkness and suffering.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.