Rats, Dragons, and Monkeys

When asked what I do for a living I tell people that I’m between colonoscopies. Last week I had my fourth, and sometime during Trump or Hillary I’ll probably have another. I think of it as checking for trouble, like riding fences looking for loose barbs, or the night watchman ensuring shop doors are locked. My phlebotomist, who’s 61, is pretty sure she’ll be around for the next one. “How’s the farm?” she wanted to know, swabbing me down to look for a vein. And then, “Still writing?”

“Oh well, you know,” I said. “Horses in the age of the auto…”

“And poetry in the age of video,” she interrupted, finishing my grumpy assessment. She’d heard it before. A Gemini like my mother, we’d become old pals. The blend of rye straw and manure dusting my brow hardly made her sneeze anymore.

Nancy switched my arms right to left, and found a promising little bleeder on the back of my hand to seat the IV. Another nurse played solitaire on the computer next to my head. We were waiting for the anesthesiologist, and then we were waiting for the gastroenterologist, and then we were wheeling towards the crypt. I turned on my side. The doctor considered his tiny dragonfly.

“If you lick it, it goes in better,” I said. Then I was out.


Ordinarily, I wasn’t so comfortable about my body, but I’d been practicing for two months. There had been a pre-operative physical during which I calmly opened two snaps on my shirt. My stealthy internist pushed her hand under the cotton plaid to guide her auscultation device. She found a little wax in my ears—“just the right amount”—and some appropriate dilation in my eyes. She prodded my throat with a stick as I gasped and cried a little.

“You have to actually say ahh to make this work,” she said.

Next she squeezed my ankles and knees and wrists to check for joint swelling. “You don’t have to take off your pants as long as I can feel your bones,” she said.


And, of course, the blood work. You know by the way someone holds a syringe whether it will be good or bad. I made a fist. Sheila took three vials. “Do you know about the secret way out of here so you don’t have to go back through the waiting room?”

It was something Clinton might say. I wondered if people who think they’ll die before the election should be allowed to cast a ballot by mail, and whether five dead votes could count as two live ones the way our constitution once allotted for slavery in its apportionment reckoning.


My biggest challenge had been to receive a massage. I’d known Ann for six years. Long ago, someone had given me a birthday present—90 minutes with Ann—that I’d always felt too self-conscious to redeem. Couldn’t I just have 90 one-minute  visits?

“It’s just nudity,” my daughter-in-law had encouraged three years ago when she discovered I still hadn’t cashed the voucher. Finally settling the appointment, I covered myself in a sheet and lay back in a panic. Above me, small astrological objects twirled from wires in the ceiling. There was a grinning Buddha in the corner, and an oasis of geraniums, and jasmine oils. A somber Grecian duet of cello and piano sounding like Yanni came out of a box.

Ann was warm but indirect. “Anything especially bothering you?”

“My right elbow,” I said. “Agony.”

The sheet sailed away like the Argo. It seemed like a good time to talk about flat tires, and I told Ann a few stories of my childhood. Driving somewhere with my mother, we’d sometimes have a flat tire, and a kind stranger would stop and offer to change it. She would pay him a few dollars, and write down his name. The stranger was always so grateful for that. Later, I asked why she took his name. “He’s black, and not allowed to go to our hospital but with this good citizen reference, if anything happens, they’ll treat him.”


“Ready to wake up now?” a nurse said. “What year is it?”

“It’s the Year of the Fire Monkey,” I said. That was the funny thing about four year election / colon cycles—they always occur in years of rats, dragons, and monkeys. Only the elements change. Sometimes water, sometimes wood. Now, fire.

I was a little embarrassed about not having been ready to sign a “medical directive” requesting that my life be ended if the new life couldn’t be the same as the old one. They always ask me, and I always clam up.

The effusive gastroenterologist stepped in front of my curtain. “Good news! I only found a few polyps. Nothing hardcore.”

“Are populisms dangerous?”

“They lead to cancer, but there’s absolutely no reason you won’t be able to vote in November.”

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