Sunday, April 25, 2010

The thongue thinjury

Thi'm thalking thike thith now becauth I thurt my thod thamn thongue.

I was a minute into a two vs. two pickup basketball game when one of my opponents—swinging around to take a jump shot—delivered an uppercut to my chin with his elbow. I dropped to the floor, capturing the spit and blood that dribbled from my mouth with cupped palms.

I fled to the bathroom to assess the damage. Both the top and bottom of my tongue—imprinted with teeth marks—were oozing blood profusely.

I consider myself a fairly tough person. I’ve had my share of cuts, bruises, and broken bones and I’ve dealt with them—as my father taught me—“like a man.” During my freshman year of high school, my coach popped me a fly ball at baseball practice. Transfixed with the ball’s rotating red laces and graceful earthward arc, I forgot about catching it and let it land on my right eye—an injury that would require eight stitches. Once I chased my little brother who had been impudently masticating his food (my biggest pet peeve) to get a rise out of me. We scuffled in his room, where I crashed my knee through a drinking glass, requiring another six stitches. On a power play in a game of hockey, I slid feet-first into the boards, snapping my ankle.

My reaction to each of these injuries was different than the reaction to my most minor injury today. I felt pain then. Now I just feel anxiety. This is because I don’t have health insurance.

The uppercut was accidental and the guy who nailed me was apologetic, but I was frustrated and told them, with a mouth full of blood, “Thigh gotha go. Thi’m theeding theal thad.”

I spent the rest of the day in discomfort. I quickly tired out rarely-used facial muscles because I couldn’t let the tip of my tongue touch my teeth. It hurt when I exposed it to the air so I inhaled and exhaled through one half-plugged nostril. The thought of chewing dry food made me wince. I bought some yogurt and got worried when I couldn’t taste the French Vanilla flavoring. I figured that I'd irreparably damaged my taste buds before realizing I accidentally bought the “Plain” variety.

Ever since I graduated from college four years ago I’ve been one of the 46 million Americans without health insurance (except for a six-month period when I worked for AmeriCorps). I didn’t even get insurance as a ranger—easily one of the more danger-filled professions.

Because I couldn’t justify paying the ludicrous monthly rates for a service I could hardly afford and would probably never use, I decided to take my chances and go without health insurance. And to my good fortune, I’ve yet to have to visit a doctor.

But these days all my injuries—large and small—cause anxiety. A small bump on the back of my head. A sore knee. A pulled muscle. Could it be something more? What if I need surgery? Have I taken my cheapness too far if I consider removing my own appendix?

To get a doctor to even look at my tongue would probably cost at least $100. To get her to actually do anything about it would cost me immeasurably more. It’s all so discomfiting because an actual injury would ruin my loan-free-college-degree experiment and thrust me back into the world of debt from which I worked so hard to escape.

My friend Wally tore his ACL in a pickup football game. My friend John—who's maybe the most healthy-minded person I know—has been diagnosed with three types of cancer. Luckily, they had insurance, but if I got cancer, I’d either die or have to spend a good chunk of my life—perhaps all of it—paying off medical bills. To be honest, I’m not sure which I’d choose.

While my health-related anxieties are in large part due to my lack of coverage, I think my paranoia has as much to do with the influence of my mother, whose training as a nurse has somehow qualified her to make the most outrageous and whimsical medical evaluations. Last week on the phone, after a singular cough, she diagnosed me with bronchitis with a surety that suggested she made her determination based on careful analysis and scientific objectivity. She’s told me I have impetigo—whatever that is—on at least three occasions. Upon observing the slightest bump or discoloration, she’d say, worriedly, “I hope you don’t have [insert vaguely-related disease].” I always responded mockingly.

“Keep laughing. You think I’m crazy. But you’ll see some day,” she'd say.

I’ve yet to see that day. Instead of making accurate diagnoses, my mother has merely transfused her strain of fear into me. Now I find myself making hasty diagnoses based on information gleaned from internet medical sites.

The French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, said, “Priests, doctors and philosophers unlearn us how to die.” The fear-infected “bourgeois” of his day invented superstitions and ways to try to conquer death. The same is true today. The fear of death causes a fixation with tomorrow and a forgetting of today.

Without sufficient funds or coverage, people have to find work to get an insurance plan. Not just any work. But the 40-hour-a-week kind from companies that are well-off and for-profit. And with work comes a home, home repairs, the filling of the home with stuff, the bills for the home and all its stuff, not to mention the back pains, sore feet, and a stationary, uninspiring, and vapid existence. In this country you have to sell your soul to pay for security.

"Drive away the doctors," Rousseau said. "You will not avoid death, but you will feel it only once, while they bring it every day into your troubled imagination; and their lying art, instead of prolonging your days, deprives you of the enjoyment of them… Suffer, die, or get well; but, above all, live until your last hour.”

With all our attention devoted to prolonging life—or in fantasizing about frolicking in pleasant-sounding afterlives—we oftentimes forget to live the lives we have.

I'd like to admit I'm fear-free, but I'm not. Health insurance is one of the few things I want and am willing to pay for (if it was reasonably priced). But if I can't have both a secure and a free life, I’ll thake thy thinjured thongue and thy thances thany thay.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Images of resourcefulness (Part II)

My friend Shannon gave me a haircut recently. Ever since I moved out of Alaska, I've been thoughtlessly paying professionals to cut my hair for upwards of $15 probably three times a year. What a waste. I really can't see myself paying for one again. (Great job Shannon!)



My sleeping patterns are strange. Typically, I go to bed around 3-4 am, sleep until 8 am, and then take several naps over the course of the day to recharge. Since my parking lot is quiet, napping in the van is one of my favorite daily activities. Of late, though, it's been way too hot inside the van during daylight hours. Luckily there are some nice couches for napping in the library, and I've recently been sleeping on a tarp under a tree by my van.

Shirt: $2 from Salvation Army. Pants: (from 1997). Socks: free from Park Service. Crashing a wedding for free food and booze: priceless.

I charge up all my electronics (laptop, cell phone, and camera) at the library.

Lots of places on campus to fill up my water jug.

Students are not allowed to store stuff in gym lockers over night, but I've learned that the rules are rarely enforced. (I've only had my lock cut off once before.) I change my locker every couple weeks just so they don't think that someone's chronically breaking the rules. My first semester here I carried my gym clothes and shower toiletries everywhere, which was inconvenient to say the least. Having a locker at the gym--where I can keep my gym clothes, towel, and toiletries--makes things a lot easier for me.

I throw my trash out in a garbage receptacle on my walk to school. I use my plastic vegetable bags as garbage bags. I also reuse old bread and tortilla bags instead of wasting my money on ziplocks.

As I mentioned, it's starting to get really hot down here so cooking in the van is something I do less and less. Instead, I've been cooking on the lawn in front of my van. I wouldn't have dreamed of doing this before I unveiled my secret since it would have looked awfully fishy for me to be cooking on the campus lawn with backcountry gear. Nowadays, though, I just don't care as much. Plus, I really enjoy cooking outside. It would be great to have my own little fire pit, too. My meal, here, is fusilli noodles with garlic, mushrooms, zucchini, and carrots with alfredo seasoning. Probably about $5 for everything.

Whole Foods puts out free cheese samples every day, sometimes as many as five varieties. To make it seem like I'm not taking advantage of the free helpings, I put on an air of a cheese connoisseur who's meticulously evaluating each selection while wearing an expression that seems to say, "Hmm.. the rubusto this week is well-aged. Would go well with a Syrah."

People have called me "masochistic" because of my supposed "tough" life. Either I've mischaracterized my life or there are just a lot of wimpy people out there who can't help but think that vandwelling must be all struggle and strain. The fact that I'm able to rent films from the library and watch them at "viewing stations" (see below), not to mention keeping up with my favorite TV show (The Office) on Hulu, should dispel notions that my life is tough and that I'm masochistic.

To see Part I of "Images of resourcefulness," click here.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

NCAA Title

I could feel the heat of the fire from 50 yards away. Helicopters pitter-pattered far above and students occasionally incanted “Let’s Go Duke!” before being drowned out by laughter, throaty male yells and the babble of thousands of people who were clearly happy. Very happy.

From afar, I sat on a bench watching a horde of Duke students huddle around a 20-foot-tall bonfire in the middle of campus. Moments before, the Blue Devils defeated Butler in thrilling fashion in the NCAA men’s basketball championship, 61-59.

Student’s launched anything they could get their hands on into the inferno. Droplets of cheap beer and Amp—which promoters handed out for free at the end of the game—sprinkled down on the crowd as cans soared through the night sky en route to the blaze. Writhing rolls of toilet paper levitated amidst the smoky drafts. A shower of swirling sparks escaped from the fire, frantically curling every which way like a school of fish that lost their choreographer.

“Let’s burn shit up!” someone yelled.

“Let’s have a riot!” seconded another.

“Just because you’re feeling woozy is no excuse not to rage,” said a shirtless male to a female with impassioned sincerity, the lip of his underwear advertising the American Eagle brand.

Phones and cameras glowed as students texted and snapped photos. Several girls sat atop the shoulders of males. As one blond was escorted closer to the fire, the crowd cheered as if they selected her to be the virgin sacrificed.

As time passed, new smells of pot and liquor brought diversity to the prevailing campfire musk. There was a guy in a gorilla suit. An impromptu wrestling match broke out. Whenever the fire began to ebb, giant thousand-pound blue benches were carried on the shoulders of fraternity brothers who looked like pallbearers carrying a casket with the morbidly obese enclosed. They’d tip the giant structures into the flames and the fire—freshly stoked—would growl while onlookers took several wary steps back.

I was on a bench far from the fire, describing the scene in my notepad. I simply couldn’t get wrapped up in the revelry, even if that’s what I wanted most.

Before the game, I’d heard of the post-championship tradition and dreamt of surrendering my will to the whimsies of the mob. There’d be footage of me on the morning news tipping cars, heaving Molotov cocktails through campus windows, and circling the fire naked next to free-loving pre-meds and MBAs.

But this didn’t happen. The riot never really got out of hand and I knew all along that this was a crowd I’d never feel a part of. Before coming here, I thought I might identify with a young, ambitious and intelligent mass of people. But I’m just of a different ilk. I’m old, prefer to be alone, and there’s an ideological chasm between myself and most students too wide to bridge. It’s sad to admit, but here I’ll always be an outsider looking in.

Moments before I was in Cameron Indoor Stadium where Duke, over the past 10 seasons, has amassed an astounding 159-13 record (.924 winning percentage). By contemporary standards, Cameron is a small basketball court, only large enough to house a little over 9,000 fans who are considered the team’s “sixth man” for their ability to hex opposing teams.

I’d been in the stadium once before. I stood on the floor in the graduate section. For half the game—when the opposing team had the ball—the crowd jumped up and down in the rafters, screaming unremittingly. There were elaborate chants and hand gestures employed at different points of the game. The other team was ridiculed and demoralized. Duke won 84-48. Throughout my many years on sports teams and as a frequenter of sporting events, I’d never seen such organized chaos. And this was just an exhibition game…

Because I hadn’t watched another game until the tournament, I’d recently jumped on the proverbial bandwagon. Having been a Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan since my youth, I’m well-acquainted with unsuccessful teams and devastating losses. No goal. Wide right. The Music City Miracle. Four straight Super Bowl losses. The failures of these teams mirrored the outcomes of those I played on as a young man. I thought Duke might be my one chance to be on the side of a winner, even if I had to hastily pledge my loyalties. But really, I think I wanted to feel, if just for a day, that I was part of campus and the student body.

Because the championship was played in Indianapolis, Duke students who couldn’t make the trip were welcomed into Cameron where we’d watch the game on four television screens aired on the scoreboard.

Even though there were no players on the court, the atmosphere was just as electrifying. Chants erupted from the collective will. Mantras of “Let’s Go Duke!” and “De-Fence!” became common refrains.“Boos” moaned from the crowd whenever highlights of Butler were shown. For free-throws, the crowd would raise their arms and drop them as the ball went into the bucket, everyone yelling a synchronous “Whoosh!”

Because the players were several states away, it was obvious that the chants and cheers and boos weren’t for those in the game, but for the people in the stands. Each collective cry was a reaffirmation of solidarity. The thrill of being in a crowd comes from feeling that you’re part of something bigger than yourself; that you’re amongst people of your kind with whom values and traditions and beliefs are shared.

The game came down to the last seconds. Anxiety and excitement were palpable. There was concerted disconcertion. Butler had the ball and Duke was up by one with a just a few seconds left. Unease swept across the stands. The crowd mumbled their doubts. Palms were placed over heads as they watched Butler’s prepare for their last shot.

When they missed with three seconds left and Duke’s victory was all but sealed, a few streaks of blue flitted past me and ran onto the court. Before I knew it, I was in the midst of the throbbing throng—a hopping, hugging, fist-pumping mass of people who were swept from the stands and onto the court by some collective force too mysterious to name. Packed tight in the midst of the core beneath the scoreboard, I felt, if just for a fleeting second, that this was my team, my college, and my people.