Phillip A. Snyder

Chew the Coca, Take the Valium

My sister Tracey never tires of telling the story of Aunt Maurine and Uncle Wilson going to Peru with a tourist group to visit Machu Picchu, the famed Inca stronghold.  Being intrepid and experienced world travelers, they prided themselves on blending in by observing the local customs of their various global destinations.  So when their group’s Peruvian guide strongly recommended the chewing of coca leaves to counteract the altitude sickness that so easily besets flatland visitors, they complied immediately by purchasing a bag from the nearest coca supplier and then placing a generous pinch between their cheek and gums.  “Wow,” they must have thought as the medicinal buzz kicked in, “Altitude, smaltitude. This coca really works!”

That was the closest either of them ever came to chewing Redman rough-cut chewing tobacco, but thanks to their observations of Redman chewers throughout the West and the military, they knew how proper chewing was done.  Most of their fellow tourists followed their example, except for one stubborn gum-totaler of a man who absolutely refused to imbibe of the coca leaves.  All seemed well with him until the return flight, during which he experienced a fatal stroke just after the drinks service.  He must have died flying somewhere above the very Andes that did him in, thereby joining a fatal sort of Mile High Club.  Aunt Maurine and Uncle Wilson immediately attributed his demise to his failure to follow their guide’s sage advice, counseling us soberly that if we ever find ourselves at Machu Picchu to make sure we “chew the coca” lest we risk spending the last part of the flight home as a corpse, forever unable to redeem the frequent-flyer mileage we’d just earned.

I’ve always considered their “chew the coca” counsel to be an existential aphorism for wisely avoiding unnecessary suffering in life, a common-sense counter to more stoic forms of advice in the face of adversity such as “suck it up”; “tough it out”; “grit your teeth”; “grind it out”; “buck up”; “bear down”; “walk it off”; “man up”; and “If you don’t stop crying right now, I’ll really give you something to cry about.”  I’ve also always prided myself on exerting a moderate amount of effort in applying the “chew the coca” principle in my own life, although there have been regular lapses, the notion of “cowboying up” in particular sometimes being way too tempting for me to resist.

A few years ago, while on the telephone scheduling an MRI of my lower back to diagnose the cause of the excruciating sciatica down my left hip and leg, I was kindly offered the opportunity to order a Valium as an aperitif to the MRI.  With my wife, Delys, looking on, slack-jawed with incredulity knowing my history of mild anxiety and claustrophobia, I politely declined the offer, saying that I thought I’d be fine without it.  As my wife silently mouthed “Are you sure?” at me, the scheduling secretary repeated the offer.  Again, I declined.  My wife then erupted with an “Are you crazy?” loud enough for the secretary to hear while urgently moving toward me in an attempt to keep me from hanging up the phone.  Too late.

“Do you even know what an MRI is?” she asked.

“Sure,” I replied, “I had one before my sinus surgery and didn’t have a problem with it.”

“Ok. What did the machine look like?”

“It was kinda big and had this table thing I laid on that slid me into the machine.”

“Right,” she responded skeptically, “but when I had the MRI on my right shoulder last year, I had to imagine myself painting the inside of the machine to stay sane.”

“Hmm. . . . May I ask a question?”


“What did you do when the imaginary paint started dripping on you?  Didn’t the imaginary paint fumes make it hard for you to breathe?”

“That’s right.  Laugh it up now, funny guy.  I don’t think you’ll find the MRI quite so amusing next week.”

As foretold, my cavalier attitude toward the MRI had dissipated greatly by the time we arrived at the outpatient imaging center.  Observing my somber demeanor, my prophetic wife gently inquired whether I had any more MRI jokes to share.  Nope.  Not a one.  And that was before I got a look at the actual MRI machine—a round, narrow culvert of a contraption that growled quietly before me in anticipation of devouring me whole.  Most definitely not the machine I remembered.  The technician watched me as I stood there contemplating the machine—along with my suddenly tenuous place in the universe.

“Have you ever had an MRI before, Mr. Snyder?”

“Yes. A long time ago. For my sinuses.”

“That wouldn’t have been an MRI, but a CT scan.  Two very different things.”

“I see.”

And, for the first time, I truly did see.  Like an Inuit on a brilliant Arctic afternoon observing a polar bear approaching from across the ice.  Everything was in sharp perspective.  My faulty memory.  My sheer stupidity.  My smart-ass bravado.  My forgetting to always “chew the coca.”  Now, I was screwed.

“Do you have claustrophobia?”

“A little.”

“Were you given the option of a Valium?”


“And you chose not to take it?”


Long pause between us as we both pondered, heads slightly bowed, the disastrous effect of my refusing the Valium.

“Well, shall we give it a try anyway?” he suggested hopefully, “It’ll last thirty to forty minutes.”

“Might as well,” I gulped, “We’re all set to go.”

“Very good,” he said, folding up what looked like a big wash cloth and then handing it to me.  “Many people find it easier if they put a blindfold over their eyes.”

Blindfold?  Terrific.  At this point, I thought, a firing squad might be a mercy.

As I climbed up, blindfold in hand, and lay down on the table with my head tilted back enough to see the tiny opening to the MRI machine, I kept telling myself, “Cowboy up, Phil, Cowboy up!” while desperately mixing some imaginary paint, a calming Colonial Pewter to be exact.  I figured that by using a narrow imaginary brush instead of a wide imaginary roller I could keep painting throughout the allotted time.  I didn’t want to finish the first coat before the MRI was done and then have to wait for it to dry before I put on the imaginary second coat.

But it was no use.  My panic continued to rise in my throat like a bad burrito.  With nothing to fight but myself, flight was my only option. There would be no cowboying up or imaginary painting for me today.  I never even got to the blindfold part.  I leaped up from the table to face the technician, who was standing there as if he’d been expecting me to do that very thing.  He hadn’t made a move to start the procedure.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Snyder,” he assured me calmly, “This happens all the time.”

“It does?”

“Yes.  Many people realize too late that they should have taken the Valium.  If you wish, I can order one for you right now.  Luckily, I’ve got an opening in an hour, so you won’t have to come back another time.  That should give the Valium plenty of time to work.”

As things turned out, the Valium did have plenty of time to work its sedate wonders, transforming the dreaded MRI death coffin into a comfy little cocoon humming with life and electromagnetic magic.  I hopped up on the table and slid into the machine without hesitation, instantly becoming one with the world of diagnostic imaging.  All my previous cares and concerns evaporated into space.  I rose up with them to reach a higher, universal sort of semi-consciousness.  Everything and everyone was beautiful.  Lulled by the noise and vibration, I fell asleep for a few minutes.  As I was drifting off, I thought, “Now I understand what Seals and Crofts were trying to tell us about their Bahá’í faith during that 1976 concert.  This must be how the Dalai Lama feels every moment of every day.  If only I had a cool mantra to repeat.”

The diagnosis, by the way, was four bulging lumbar disks, so now I do back exercises every morning, hang upside-down regularly on my inversion table, avoid sitting in my Herman Miller Aeron chair with special lumbar support for too long at my desk, and walk around the halls of the English Department to stretch my back every hour or so.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also note that I used the blindfold, which greatly reduced any temptation to open my eyes and, during a couple inadvertent eye-openings, it also kept me from viewing the inside of the MRI machine that Delys had imagined painting the year before.
Chew the coca, take the Valium, use the blindfold.

If you’re holding a ticket for the middle seat in the five-seat center row of a jumbo jet about to depart on a twelve-hour transcontinental flight, pop the Xanax before the boarding call, half then and half in reserve for the half-way point, a distant six hours away.  That’ll help counteract that desperate, claustrophobic, sinking-heart feeling when, after credits roll from the third movie you’ve watched, you realize that you’re barely half-way through the flight and now have to scramble over your neighbors for the third time to go to the lavatory because, following Rick Steves’ sage advice, you’ve been keeping yourself well hydrated during the flight.  Now, the only question is whether you’ll roust the snuggling, smooching honeymooners on your right or disturb the Italian Mafioso types on your left, who reek of cigarette smoke and exhibit some obvious nicotine withdrawal symptoms that they’re trying to moderate by drinking up the plane’s supply of Pinot Noir.

If you’re about to take a group of Boy Scouts on a backpacking trek into the mountainous wilds of Utah, pack the Imodium to counteract the digestive effects of their consuming all the assorted candy, chips, cookies, pop, and other contraband crap they’ve managed to smuggle into their packs between last night’s inspection and the start of the hike.  The Imodium will also help settle the digestive distress you’ll experience from eating food prepared by Scouts who failed the cooking merit badge the month before.  In the event of their running out of toilet paper, you should also have taught them how to confidently identify poison oak and ivy.  Remember, too, that their failure to follow the Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared,” by packing insufficient toilet paper doesn’t require you to share yours because that would cheat them out of experiencing the consequences of their poor choices.  After all, that’s what Scouting is all about: developing mature young men through their suffering the natural consequences of their inevitable failure to be prepared.  Being their Scoutmaster, by definition, means you’ve already suffered enough.

If you’re going on your first ocean cruise and looking forward to getting your pre-paid money’s worth from the sumptuous, round-the-clock gourmet dining options among all the other amenities, but aren’t sure whether you’re subject to seasickness, apply the anti-nausea patch as a little travel insurance well before the ship gets under way.  This is not the time to test your sea legs or that acupressure point your yoga instructor Sunshine showed you on the inside of your wrist or the Queasy Pop suckers you found online.  You’ll want to greet each new day at sea with a fresh buffet, not the one you consumed the day before.

If you’re invited to help round up some cattle in the fall after a dry, drought-ridden Utah summer, take a couple huffs from your asthma inhaler before swinging into the saddle, pulling your wild rag up over your mouth and nose, and trotting off after those mother cows and calves.  It’s much too hard to manage the reins, the rope, and the inhaler while wheezing through the clouds of dust that the cattle kick up—all while navigating between the scrub oaks and trying not to lose the cattle, get brushed out of the saddle, or become impaled by a branch.

So, to review: chew the coca, take the Valium, use the blindfold, pop the Xanax, pack the Imodium, apply the patch, huff the inhaler.

However, if you’re an authentic, honest-to-goodness cowboy or a cowgirl, you might be able to modify or even ignore all the foregoing advice because cowboying or cowgirling up could be enough to get you through all by itself.  I once bought a pure-bred, red-roan quarter horse from a cowboy named Chris, who team-roped with his younger brother, Nick, in local jackpots as well as in a number of regional PRCA rodeos.  On a ride together one afternoon up Diamond Fork Canyon as I tried out this nervous new horse, Ricks, our conversation turned to the nature of cowboy character, and, to illustrate the points he was making, Chris told me about a bad wreck Nick experienced on a deer hunti