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?”

“Sure.”

“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 remembe