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.”
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?”
“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.”
“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 hunting trip they’d gone on together the previous fall. As they were riding along the trail somewhere up in the mountains, the colt Nick was riding spooked—dropping his head, humping up, and bucking off the trail into the woods. Nick was so surprised by the colt’s sudden blow-up that he lost his seat and one stirrup, quickly finding himself, not just bucked off, but also being dragged, one foot caught in the other stirrup, through the dead-fall and underbrush as his gear flew off the bucking colt in every direction. Chris immediately kicked his horse into hot pursuit of the colt and his hung-up brother, trying his best to keep the rodeo in sight through the trees. At some point, Nick was knocked unconscious and the colt got tired of his bucking extravaganza because, when Chris finally caught up to them, the colt was standing quietly, his sides sucking in and out from the exertion.
Nick, slowly regaining consciousness, was laid out beneath the colt, foot still stuck in the stirrup, and moaning softly. Chris jumped off his horse and walked up carefully to the colt—all the while talking gentle, soothing words—until he could grab the reins. Only then did he pull his brother’s foot out of the stirrup and examine him for injuries. Nick was pretty well gashed, bruised, and dirtied up with a big lump on his head, but nothing obvious seemed to be broken. After a while, Chris helped the groggy Nick to his feet, who began walking around testing all of his extremities. Everything was working. Their initial diagnosis being confirmed, they set out together to gather up all of Nick’s scattered gear. Of course, there was no question of their turning around and heading home or, heaven forbid, going to the ER because there were still deer tags to fill, so they mounted up again, rode for a couple more hours, made camp, fixed dinner, broke out the first aid kit, and cleaned and dressed Nick’s wounds. When his brother complained of a headache, Chris looked for some analgesics. All he found was an old Tylenol bottle with two pills rattling around in it, which he immediately offered to Nick, who demurred, asking seriously, “Don’t you think we should save them? What if one of us gets hurt?”
Save the Tylenol.
But only if you’re a cowboy or a cowgirl.
Otherwise, chew the coca, take the Valium, use the blindfold, pop the Xanax, pack the Imodium, apply the patch, huff the inhaler.
But what do you do when your foot gets caught in a stirrup, and the horse never stops bucking?
In March 1998, two months before she was scheduled to take her PhD oral exams in American history, my first wife, Lu Ann, was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer that had metastasized to her liver. After a midnight run to the emergency room for what we thought was a gall bladder attack, an ultrasound revealed a number of ominous spots on her liver. A needle biopsy of the liver a few days later showed cancer cells. A colonoscopy two days after that confirmed the suspected cancer diagnosis, which had been studiously unspoken by any of the medical personnel who’d attended us up to that point. Dr. Dickinson, who’d done the colonoscopy, gave me the official news while Lu Ann was still coming out of the anesthesia. She needed surgery immediately to remove the apple-core tumor he’d found, and since she was already prepped for surgery, he could have them admit her to the hospital right then and get the surgery done that afternoon. I was all for it, but when he presented that option to a revived Lu Ann, she stoutly refused because 1) she had a conference paper to present at a symposium that Friday and 2) she wanted time to deliver the awful news to her family and friends herself. That indomitable attitude would characterize her approach to the cancer that would eventually take her life twenty-two months later. As she often observed, “This cancer is going to kill me, but I’m not letting it do anything more than that.” She especially hated how cancer cramped her style and independence and refused to give up anything—research, writing, driving, cooking, travelling, gardening, lunch with friends, and so forth—until she was forced to do so.
Near the end, after the cancer had found its insidious way around each chemotherapy treatment her oncologist prescribed, Lu Ann slept in a hospital bed in our bedroom while I slept on the floor next to her, so I’d be able to help her in the night when she inevitably awakened and decided to get out of bed and cruise around the house. I usually woke up when she did, but sometimes she managed to get up and out of bed without awakening me. She refused to call out to me because she said I needed my rest, but I think she also relished the nocturnal privacy. Worried that in her weakened condition she’d take a fall, I raised the rails on the bed, but she managed to get over them. As a remedy, I hung a bell from the bar above her, so it would ring whenever she lifted herself up to get out of bed, but the bell never sounded. One night I observed her grabbing the bell to silence the clapper before she quietly crawled over the rails and out of bed, so I finally gave up, put down the rails, and took away the bell. A woman like that should never have been constrained in the first place.
Lu Ann was on some major-league pain medicine that I administered to her, under the direction of our hospice nurse, Dixie, to keep her relatively pain-free. That was fine during the day when I was awake and the house was bustling, but, in the middle of the night, when I was asleep and she’d awakened, it galled her to be forced to get me up for her pain meds. So I took two small pieces of paper, labeled them #1 and #2, and placed them on her side of our master bathroom counter. Each night before we went to bed, I’d put the appropriate pain pills on each paper, so when the pain awakened her in the wee hours she could dose herself, first #1 and then, if she awakened twice, #2. Thus, she took back her nightly independence. Sometimes she’d read, sometimes she’d write, and sometimes she’d wake up one of our children for an intimate conversation—but always she’d do things on her own terms and in her own time without my ever-hovering supervision. I think that personal empowerment made the long nights more bearable for her.
Administer the nightly Oxycontin yourself.
Lu Ann didn’t awaken in the night solely because of pain; she was also afraid that if she slept too long or too deeply, she’d risk slipping into a coma. So she relied upon her native stubbornness and grit to keep her deteriorating body awake and moving as much as possible, day and night, which meant that we were both seriously sleep-deprived. One morning I was awakened by the January sun shining in though our bedroom windows and realized that we’d both slept through the night—something that had never
happened before—so I immediately jumped up to check on Lu Ann. She was still in bed and, to my great relief, also still breathing, but it was also apparent that she’d slipped into that dreaded coma, her strong will finally having succumbed to her ravaged body.
Throughout her illness, Lu Ann liked me to recite the closing lines of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” a Victorian paean to valiant aging and endurance to the end:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
She much preferred Tennyson’s verse to Dylan Thomas’s villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” because of its Victorian sensibility and relative modesty compared to Thomas’s dramatic “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” although, for the record, no one held out harder against death than Lu Ann did.