AN ENGLISH MAJOR DECIPHERS MEDICAL JARGON

DOCTOR: Well, we have some test results now. We’re still waiting on more information from Texas, where they are analyzing the contents of the nodule we removed from your lungs.

ENGLISH MAJOR: But we know it’s not tuberculosis, right?

DOCTOR: Right. And not a fungus. Not histoplasmosis.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Oh. So. It’s not contagious, is it? I won’t infect my family and friends by breathing on them, or by coughing?

DOCTOR: That would be highly unlikely.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Unlikely isn’t quite the same thing as impossible, but I suppose. . .

DOCTOR: The infection in your lungs does appear to be one of the rapid growing bacteria.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Rapid growing? That doesn’t sound good.

DOCTOR: Well, although that is the scientific term for this type of bacterium, in your case, the infection is indolent.

ENGLISH MAJOR: (laughing) Indolent!?

DOCTOR: You think that’s funny?

ENGLISH MAJOR: No. No. It’s just that, when you encounter that word in literature. . . or. . . whatever, anyhow, it means lazy, just lying around and not doing anything.

DOCTOR: Oh. Well, I suppose you could say that this bacterium is lazy. It does not, in fact, spread rapidly, in spite of its name.

ENGLISH MAJOR: So. An oxymoron.

DOCTOR: What? I know you’re not calling me a moron.

ENGLISH MAJOR: No. No. That’s a term for two words used together that contradict each other. You know, like “open secret” or “friendly fire,” or “an absolute maybe.”

DOCTOR: Or an indolent rapid grower. I get it.

ENGLISH MAJOR: You know, I’ve been rather indolent myself. Over the past few weeks since the surgery. Not much get-up-and-go. Weaning myself off the meds.

DOCTOR: Any problems with that?

ENGLISH MAJOR: Not really. I’ve just been in kind of a “wait and see” mode, you know. Wondering what happens next.

DOCTOR: With your treatment?

ENGLISH MAJOR: Yes. And with my life. My priorities. How I need to be making
plans. . .

DOCTOR: Well, as far as this condition is concerned, you still have plenty of years ahead of you. This is not going to be a fatal disease.

ENGLISH MAJOR: You’re sure.

DOCTOR: Highly unlikely.

ENGLISH MAJOR. As good an answer as I’ll get, I suppose. So we’ll begin treatment now, right?

DOCTOR: Not quite yet. We know in general what kind of infection it is. But there are three different strains. And we need to find the best antibiotic to fight it. That can be tricky. It’s why we need to speciate it.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Oh. Let me guess. To find out exactly what species it is, right? What kind of rapid growing bacterium that’s not growing rapidly.

DOCTOR: Um. exactly. . . I can tell you that most likely it is a form of something called “mycobacterium avium.”

ENGLISH MAJOR: “Avium?” something to do with birds?

DOCTOR: Birds? No. . . As I was saying. . .

ENGLISH MAJOR: Sorry.

DOCTOR: As I was saying, sometimes they used to call this category of bacteria Mac.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Wait. I’m googling it.

DOCTOR: Don’t—

ENGLISH MAJOR: Oh. My. God. This does not look good. It says here that during the AIDS crisis, early days, people who were HIV positive would come down with Mac, and it invaded their bodies and did all kinds of damage and—

DOCTOR: Shh. Shh. Yes. This infection is dangerous for people with compromised immune systems.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Compromised. Like the immune system is untrustworthy because it has made some kind of dirty deal with. . . what?

DOCTOR: I am going to ignore that question. Because in your case, you appear to have a very robust immune system. So—

ENGLISH MAJOR: Robust. I like that. But. Then how did this thing get into my lungs? Since, you said, it’s not contagious. And my immune system is supposedly robust.

DOCTOR: Who knows? These germs are in the air we breathe, the dirt we walk on or handle. This one may have been in your lungs for quite some time. Your body appears to have been fighting it off, sealing it up so that it couldn’t do damage.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Oh. Then. . .

DOCTOR: Let me explain. In terms of what you discovered about HIV. While for people like you, the infection spreads very slowly, for those with compromised immune systems, this bacterium can be very exuberant.

ENGLISH MAJOR: (laughing) Exuberant? Exuberant. Like “energetic,” “celebratory,” “Hooray! Hooray. The receiver just caught the long pass for the touchdown.” Like that?

DOCTOR: “Exuberant” is the medical term for it. But yes, I suppose. . .

ENGLISH MAJOR: Not “aggressive.” Not “invasive.” Exuberant.

DOCTOR: I’m glad to have made you laugh. That doesn’t happen so often with these consultations. So. . . Do you feel less worried now?

ENGLISH MAJOR: Yes. And a bit less indolent. Maybe not quite exuberant. Not yet. But relieved. More optimistic. More ready to get up and get on with it.

DOCTOR: Good. So. Let’s make another appointment in a few weeks. We should have all the results by then. And we can begin treatment.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Fine. And I want to thank you for being so patient with my . . . interpretation of—

DOCTOR: Believe it or not, I am looking forward to working with you. As a patient. . . Get it? This should be an interesting, maybe even an entertaining, venture. For both of us.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Indeed.

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IS ALCOHOLISM THE SOLUTION TO THE FORD-KAVANAUGH MYSTERY?

In the recent public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford seemed totally belivable when she asserted that she was 100% sure that the boy who groped her and covered her mouth when she tried to call out was Brett Kavanaugh. And then Brett Kavanaugh seemed believable when he asserted that the event never happened. Could they both have been telling the truth, according to what they remember?

One solution to this mystery has been suggested by some on the committee. Maybe Dr. Ford “mis-remembered” and her attacker was someone else. After hearing her account, that explanation does not seem plausible to me. Weighing both testimonies, as well as the accusations made in public and online, it seems much more likely that it is Kavanaugh whose memory is inaccurate.

I have come across 6 accounts of Kavanaugh’s patterns of drinking. In every case, he is described as severely impaired by alcohol—stumbling, barely able to walk, slurring his speech, or throwing up. One of these accounts is from Christine Blasey Ford, who said during her testimony that Kavanaugh could not succeed in taking her clothes off, partly because he was “very inebriated.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/national/wp/2018/09/27/kavanaugh-hearing-transcript/?utm_term=.4c4c7b0f2541

Two other accounts are from women who did not testify, and whose stories were not investigated by the FBI. Deborah Ramirez reported that a drunken Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a dorm party. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/senate-democrats-investigate-a-new-allegation-of-sexual-misconduct-from-the-supreme-court-nominee-brett-kavanaughs-college-years-deborah-ramirez

Julie Swetnick reported that Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge used to slip grain alcohol into women’s drinks and shut them in rooms with a line outside of boys waiting to rape them. https://www.yahoo.com/news/brett-kavanaugh-third-accuser-julie-180040160.html

A fourth anonymous accusation from more recently (1998) asserts that a drunken Kavanaugh pushed the woman he was then dating up against the wall of a building “very aggressively and sexually.” https://www.denverpost.com/2018/09/26/colorado-fourth-kavanaugh-accuser/

The fifth account comes from Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge (who has asserted that what Ford described is “no situation I ever remember being in”—a slightly different claim from saying that it never happened.) Judge is mentioned as a participant in a number of these accounts, including Ford’s, and seems to have been the ring-leader in these escapades .It is his laughter, along with Kavanaugh’s, that still haunts Christine Blasey Ford. Judge wrote a book celebrating years of drunken misbehavior, Wasted—Tales of a Gen X Drunk, which makes reference to Kavanaugh. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/09/27/mark-judges-book-validates-christine-fords-timeline-alleged-kavanaugh-assault/?utm_term=.dce4fa380f14

Perhaps the most damning account is from Kavanaugh himself. In a speech he made in 2014, recalling his years at Yale Law School. Kavanaugh spoke about “organizing 30 classmates in a bus to go to Boston for a Red Sox game and a night of Boston bar-hopping, only for us to return falling out of the bus onto the front steps of Yale Law School at about 4:45 a.m.” He also tells how he and a classmate “were reminiscing and piecing things together the other day. We think we had more than a few beers before the banquet. Might have been at Toads. Not a good idea.” These words suggest that his memory of events that happened while he was drinking is less than perfect. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/09/brett-kavanaugh-gave-a-speech-about-binge-drinking-in-law-school/

Is Kavanaugh still drinking heavily? His anger-tinged response to questions about his drinking would suggest that the answer is yes. “I liked beer. I still like beer” followed by a denial that he had ever blacked out or assaulted anyone while drinking. https://www.nbcnews.com/card/kavanaugh-i-liked-beer-i-still-beer-n914326

Kavanaugh’s demeanor during the hearings has drawn many comments. Sometimes he was visibly very angry, lashing out with wild accusations. Sometimes he was in tears. He was fixated on the cost of these accusations to himself and his family. In many ways, his response resembled a temper tantrum thrown by a toddler or a young adolescent. Those who study patterns of addiction to alcohol or other substances suggest that addicts become emotionally frozen at the age when they first began using. Clearly, Kavanaugh is mentally and logically advanced far beyond the age of 15. But his public testimony suggests that emotionally he is a petulant, entitled young teen who believes that he should be spared the consequences of his actions.

Amanuenses

AMANUENSES

 

Tolstoi’s wife wrote out the whole of War and Peace

in careful longhand—our professor told us—

narration and common speech in Russian,

the dialogue of aristocrats in French.

She performed this feat seven times, he said

as her famous husband obsessively revised the text,

again and again.

 

Blind Milton composed the stanzas of Paradise Lost

in the early morning hours.

Then at dawn, his daughter took dictation,

as depicted in the painting in the New York Public Library.

It was, she said, like milking a cow.

 

Wendell Berry, noble defender of the old agrarian ways,

spurns computers.

And why shouldn’t he?

“My wife,” he tells an interviewer, “types my work

on a Royal standard typewriter, bought in 1956.”

There’s more. “My wife, my critic, my closest reader, my fellow worker,”

he says, has served as his editor

for every poem, every story, every essay, every book.

Her name is not mentioned in the interview

Or in any byline or on any title page.

 

Let us now praise unrecognized women—

Sofia Tolstoi, Mary Milton, and Tanya Berry—

whose hidden roles made possible

the works we treasure.

THE MARTINS HAVE LANDED!

No, not Orson Welles’s aliens from outer space. The large purple swallows that swoop and dive and catch insects to feed nestlings housed in gourds. Those martins.
He has been waiting for them to come—for thirty-seven years. He hung hollowed gourds from tall poles. He constructed his own multi-tiered martin apartment building. He bought plastic gourds and a fancy manufactured martin housing project. Most years, in the spring, he cleaned house, discarding nest remnants from other species of birds that had taken up temporary residence. Occasionally, a few martins would drop by to inspect the property. But none ever moved in. Until this year.
Envy is one of the seven deadly sins. He never envied anyone else’s fancy car, or beach property, or fame and prestige. He did envy others’ martin houses—at Chatauqua, or on Sullivan’s Island, or in a field on a back road a couple of miles away. Why couldn’t a pair or two escape their crowded conditions and migrate over to our yard?
He was like Charlie Brown, hoping to kick that football, believing that –this time at last—Lucy wouldn’t jerk it away.
He knew that there were certain disadvantages to hosting a martin population. A man near Fayetteville, whose martins he envied, explained, “Well, you know, they’ll dookie on you.”
So. We now risk getting shitted on (or is it shat on?) while walking outside. But, on the other hand, martins eat mosquitoes—by the thousands. With all the dripper hoses, rain barrels, bird baths, and saucers under potted plants, mosquitoes breed here to the extent that when I want to get from the back door to the carport nearby, I have to either spray myself with deet, or run full-tilt (always unsuccessfully), to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. What’s a little bird poop compared to that? The martins could alter the whole ecology of our acreage—for the better.
And now we have the pleasure of watching the martins circle and swoop and dive with amazing speed and precision straight to the hole in one of the plastic gourds to deposit a bug before taking off again in constant motion that may seem like ADD but is actually utterly purposeful. It is not the martins’ purpose to inspire wonder or gratitude for the fulfillment of a dream long deferred. Those are merely side effects unwittingly bestowed by the purple martins.

TENDING THE INNER FIRE

Thomas Merton quotes Vincent Van Gogh, who said, “There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passersby only see a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney. . . Must one tend the inner fire. . . , wait patiently yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down—maybe to stay?”
Eventually, many strangers were attracted to Van Gogh’s domain, paying outrageous prices for his sunflowers and starry nights. But that was long after his flame had sputtered out.
And I am left to wonder, must one keep that inner fire burning at all costs, resisting anything that might damp it down?
Suppose this is not just a cozy fire to warm and light a room that might shelter a guest. Suppose sometimes it flares up, out of bounds, to destroy that room and everything in it. Suppose inspiration runs rampant—without the focus or patience to bring ideas to fruition. Suppose tempers flare, friendships are sundered, property is destroyed. Suppose the blaze inspires a person to cut off his own ear—or to so enrage a roommate that he cuts off the ear and departs the next day for the South Seas.
Are there times when truly tending the inner fire means overcoming the stubborn will, accepting the terms of one’s human condition, listening to advice, and taking whatever measures are necessary to keep the flame steady—neither a dying ember nor a blazing inferno?

THERE IS NO ESCAPE

I have been spending time since the election in activities that help me avoid unsettling news– Putin, bizarre cabinet appointments, well-engineered take-overs of North Carolina’s government, etc., etc. One path of escape is repeated games of Sudoku. Another is computer solitaire, which I have chosen to uninstall because it was consuming too many hours. In the past, I have also sometimes withdrawn from the world into facebook, but my facebook feed has even more distressing news than NPR.
Another way I escape is to get absorbed in a book. I thought I was safe retreating into Jonathan Ames’ novel, The Extra Man, published in1998. (I love to find books in coffee shops and little libraries. I actually found this one in a give-away stack on a stoop in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.)
In Ames’s novel, Louis Ives, a young man unsure about his sexuality, moves to New York and finds a place to live in the dirty apartment of Henry Harrison. Harrison is penniless but navigates the upper echelons of New York society. He teaches Ives how to sneak into Broadway shows and opera performances during the intermission and how to enjoy fancy snacks at fund-raising galas.
I was nearing the end of the book, at the point where Harrison returns from a winter trip to Florida, when I was ambushed by this passage:
“Didn’t you exercise in Florida,” I asked.
“I had no time. Something was always going on. It’s very competitive. Trump tried to break in again. He threw a big party at Mar-a-Lago the night of the Red Cross Ball. Said he was going to have beautiful models. They were nothing but prostitutes, and then at the end of the party they did the inevitable—jumped into the pool. So he’s finished for another year. Too vulgar.”
Aaaaaargh!
Recovering from the shock, I realized that this little clip helps explain some of Trump’s behavior. For years he was mocked and rejected by the wealthy socialites he was courting. Now, he has put himself on a pedestal, and they must stoop and bow to him.
There is no escape. We must all turn to action—making a stand in whatever way we can for love, inclusion, transparency, democracy. Meanwhile, I am sorely tempted to install another program on my computer. It promises to turn every picture of Trump in my facebook feed into an image of kittens.

THE WEDGE THAT DIVIDES US

The southern elite—plantation owners before the Civil War, bankers and mill owners during the Jim Crow era—benefitted from keeping African Americans and whites in separate spheres. They engineered a system that prevented exploited people of both races from conversing—at a lunch counter, on the bus, at a school meeting, at church, at a movie theater, or at a neighborhood gathering—and discovering how much the “rigged system” hurt all of them. And they even manipulated less privileged whites into supporting and enforcing the segregation that prevented a bi-racial populist uprising. It was a brilliant strategy.
One of the most powerful weapons in this “southern strategy” was the manufacture of horror at the mere thought of “race mixing”—specifically any kind of sexual contact between black men and white women. (An amazing feat of denial conveniently ignored the generations of sexual contact between white men and black women, obvious in the multiple shades of “colored people.”)
Most of the lynchings of the Jim Crow period involved the suspicion of inappropriate behavior between an African-American man and a “Caucasian” woman. The accusation of merely whistling at a white woman was enough to get Emmet Till beaten to death.
Donald Trump’s first attempt to grab public attention and open a path to political success was not the “birther” controversy. It occurred 27 years ago, in 1989, when the jogger Trisha Meili was raped and severely injured in Central Park. Five young African American and Hispanic men—ages sixteen and under—were charged with the crime. Donald Trump bought newspaper ads urging the city to BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY in the case. In essence, he was calling for modern day lynching. We now know that the young men were manipulated into false confessions. Twelve years later they were cleared of charges on the basis of DNA evidence and a confession by a serial rapist. But just as Trump continued to argue that President Obama was not born in the United States, for years after the long-form birth certificate was produced, he still insists that those originally accused of the attack in Central Park are guilty.
It is no coincidence that Trump’s second intrusion into politics was to proclaim that the product of a sexual union between a blond woman from Kansas and a very dark-skinned man from Kenya could not possibly be a real American.
Recently Trump’s 2005 boasts about fondling any woman he finds attractive have made the news. There might seem to be a contradiction between his bragging about forcing his attentions on women and his horror at the Central Park incident. The explanation, of course, is white supremacy. As was true on the plantation, Trump seems to believe that a white alpha male should have unquestioned access to any female. But a black male who approaches a white woman challenges this entitlement and must be severely punished.
The divisions between black and white voters persist. After Reconstruction, African Americans began to migrate from the party of Lincoln to the Democrats. And, true to LBJ’s prediction, after 1965, working class whites left the Democratic party to form an odd alliance with country club Republicans. Nixon and Reagan argued that some people (especially African Americans) were too lazy to get a job and were living off welfare at taxpayer expense. This clever strategy caused white voters to approve of cuts to the social safety net from which they, too, could have benefitted.
Trump has recently made some attempts to woo black voters—or to appear to be reaching out to them as he speaks to mostly white audiences at his rallies. So he uses coded language for his racist statements. For example, he does not depict those who benefit from social programs as undeserving “welfare queens,” but he promises that a six-month maternity leave program could be financed by ending fraud in the unemployment insurance program. He has not openly called for the kinds of voter intimidation that led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but he asks his supporters to volunteer as “Trump Election Observers” in “certain areas—you know where they are.”
I will not call Trump’s supporters “deplorable.” But I will say to them, don’t get tricked again by these time-worn tactics designed to silence our voices by driving a wedge between us. All of us who are not (like Trump) in the top 1% of the economy are in the same boat, if we will just open our eyes to see. We all need access to affordable, high-quality health care. We all benefit when social security, Medicare, and Medicaid are fully funded, when college tuition does not burden us with huge debts, when a variety of good jobs are available. I dream of an America where we can find spaces for all of us—of many different hues—to meet and talk and find common cause. I dream that we can join forces to vote for the only candidate with detailed plans for creating a world where we can all succeed. That person is not Donald Trump.