Basketball Is Not a Drug
TIKOSYN is a pale apricot capsule you take at ten a.m. In twelve hours you'll take another twenty-five milligrams. This drug regulates the rhythm of your heart, since your organ, which is only fifty-eight, can’t seem to regulate itself. The first six capsules you ingest in a shiny new cardiology unit, because the FDA requires monitoring. Some unfortunate soul might experience violent palpitations from this drug, the very symptom it is formulated to prevent. The kidneys of another poor soul might fail. But you endure the seventy-two hours as if you’re in a hotel with nurses, one of whom, every twelve hours drains your blood, testing it to see if the drug is advancing the state of your death. After three days, when such does not seem to be the case, you are discharged.
Leaving the hospital, you still experience the spells where your heart becomes a squirrel digging at your ribs, but now, instead of lasting up to forty-eight hours, the spells are over in ten minutes, especially since you’ve begun to meditate. Upon the first irregular thump, you drop to the floor in a lotus and breathe quietly. You concentrate only on your breathing, saying hush to the digging squirrel. If a wayward thought enters your head as you know it will, you chant—in your head—fie on thee, and the thought may or may not go away. It works as a fine adjunct to tikosyn, particularly if you don’t forget to take it. You try setting an alarm, because if you miss the dose by an hour, you have to wait eleven hours for the next one. And if you wait eleven hours, Mr. Squirrel will surely come a digging. You must remember to take Tikosyn, along with the many others, to keep your life on its glacial rock-gathering grind.
CONDITIONS REQUIRING THE USE OF TIKOSYN. At first you think you are to blame. The spells occur when you’re upset. They occur when you’re not upset. The spells occur when you’re anxious over your father’s health. They occur whether you’re anxious over your father’s health or not. They occur while you visit foreign countries. They occur in the bathroom, as you evacuate something one might mistake for a missile. They occur while sitting perfectly still. Before Tikosyn, they might occur thrice weekly; they might not occur for months, thus lulling you into believing your body has healed itself. As time passes, you realize anxiety only feeds the condition. It does not cause it. You realize you cannot pinpoint a cause, other than the fact that you are older than God. You finally accept that this condition is not your fault, and you become thankful for the days you have left on earth. You wonder why you are not this thankful in your thirties, as one halcyon day after another unfurls before you like a red carpet, bidding you with a crooked finger to follow the shadowy path leading to your forties. But, of course, to your fifties you follow this fickle finger of fate (thank Laugh-In, c. 1968).
INTERACTIONS: If a doctor prescribes something or if you need an OTC remedy for a cold, you must ring out alarms. You thus keep in your wallet a note printed in eight point Helvetica, which lists all your meds plus the following: tikosyn CANNOT be combined with CIMETIDINE, KETOCONAZOLE, HYDROCHLOROTHIAZIDE (HCTZ), MEGESTROL, PROCHLORPERAZINE, TRIMETHOPRIM, VERAPAMIL, or QT-PROLONGING AGENTS (such as LITHIUM, PHENOTHIAZINES, TRICYCLIC antidepressants, certain QUINOLONE antibiotics, SOTALOL, BEPRIDIL). If you fail to present this note to each concerned party, some innocent whose malpractice policy has lapsed might prescribe a substance that could advance your death.
BENEFITS OF TIKOSYN. Your heart beats in a healthy sinus rhythm, thus circulating blood more efficiently throughout your body. No near fainting if you stand too quickly. No longer, as you head for the bathroom in the middle of the night, does your body become a runaway train. You brace yourself to fall against anything you can find, a wall, a door, so that you won’t crash to the floor. You may now travel, without experiencing something akin to agoraphobia, a fear that you may never return home. As a liberated male who helps around the house, you can now scrub the toilet without dizzying yourself as you rise to your feet. You can do tubs of laundry that have stacked up over the many weeks you’ve felt like shit. You can drive without fear that you might be overcome in traffic and create a catastrophic accident. Your energy is restored to the point that you might work with some verve, as you did in your forties, before this unspeakable condition commandeered your life. Your hands are no longer cold.
SIDE EFFECTS OF TIKOSYN. You read the label. “With Tikosyn nausea or headaches may occur. You might wish to seek immediate medical attention if any of these rare but very serious side effects occur: confusion, dizziness, fainting, a fast/slow/irregular heartbeat. Mineral imbalances can increase the chance of developing certain side effects: muscle cramps/weakness, severe/prolonged diarrhea, increased thirst/sweating, vomiting. You might experience serious allergic reactions such as: rash, itching, swelling, severe dizziness, trouble breathing. If you notice other effects not listed here, you might wish to contact your doctor or pharmacist.”
You’re learning that every drug has side effects. You’ve heard it said as many as seven for each benefit. It’s referred to as Bradshaw’s Law, after the eminent physician and researchist, N. Theodore Bradshaw, who determines such a truth in 1970 and records it in an issue of JAMA. You Xerox the article and, no doubt, have full confidence in its veracity.
CO-PAY: Twenty-five dollars a month, or forty-two cents a pill. Pricey, but you pay. Baby, you pay.
As the players warm up, you ogle the cheerleaders, the pompom girls. If you were to meander among them, you would become invisible, wondering why the young and delectable ignore you so. Your wife catches you and nudges you; you nudge back. It’s a joke, always has been, because on a dare you both try out and make the squad your first week on campus in ’66. The girls today wear less than what might have been proper for a pole dancer back then, but you don’t care, no one does, not even your Christians, who gather, along with your Pagans (not that there’s much difference), to watch the home teams play their hearts out for thirty-five home games.
You and your wife sneak in Dasani in your coat pockets, because paying three dollars for twenty ounces of water is highway holdup. If the game is scheduled at an odd time, you might buy hot dogs or huge pretzels and kid yourself that the money’s going for a good cause, but most of the time you don’t. Your wife, after all, keeps track of finances, and when she shakes her head no, you go without a hot dog she says might kill you, anyway. Were it not for such thrift, you might not be able to afford your chairs.
After all, this seat you occupy leases for three thousand dollars—that is to say, the right to buy season tickets for the same seat for ten years costs you three thousand dollars—same for your wife (your daughter stays with a sitter, a much cheaper proposition). The personal seat license, this right to sit is sort of like reserving a pew at church. Since this venue is also used for concerts given by wayward girl bands who impugn the President of the United States (secretly you think they’re right), you can expect others will sit in your chair. Okay, when someone spills Pepsi on your three thousand dollar chair, upholstered harlot red, you become huffy and call the athletic office, demanding that it be cleaned. The next game the caramel stain has darkened, so the game after that you bring a can of upholstery spray and tackle the situation yourself, sitting in the upper level while the spot dries. The next game, an outline of the stain remains. You get over it. The sofas in your den are stained from jars of toppled salsa consumed during Super Bowls of yore. You get over these, too.
And sometimes if you miss a game—because you are puking your guts out with flu or have an out-of-town conference—your seat neighbors ask Where were you? Just like good Christians might ask, if you miss Easter Sunday or even Christmas, Where were you? Only those who attend every game have the right to ask Where were you? You don’t have to answer, but you do. You were at a conference. You were puking your guts out. You were blinded in one eye (and wear a pirate patch to prove it). Your father died. You endure these indignities to watch a game you love more than God, and you tell this to no one, not even your wife.
COUMADIN. One tablet is flat, pink, and oval. You take one and a half, seven point five milligrams a day, and realize you will do so for the rest of your unnatural life. You accept the fact your heart will always beat irregularly, if only at irregular intervals, and that as a result, you might suffer a stroke. You take the pink tablets between meals, because to do so prohibits your breakfast carbohydrates from diminishing their effects. Your cardiologist declares that if your heart begins to beat regularly over a long period of time, he will take you off Coumadin. You smile. Even you realize you have a chronic condition that cannot be reversed. You and most of your older friends are on Coumadin and will be for the rest of your unnatural lives.
CONDITIONS REQUIRING THE USE OF COUMADIN. Coumadin is used to prevent and treat harmful blood clots. If your heart beats irregularly (which it does, even taking Tikosyn), Coumadin will ensure that you will not suffer a stroke. Strokes can disable some or all of your body parts, rendering you inactive and basically senseless as a human being for the rest of your unnatural life. Oh, some people, through Sisyphean efforts, do regain some or all of their functions, but these are few. Most stroke victims will lurch along like indigestible lumps for the rest of their unnatural lives.
INTERACTIONS. You read these words from the fact sheet that comes with Coumadin: “A larger intake than usual of foods rich in vitamin K may reduce the effectiveness of this drug and make larger doses necessary.” These debilitating foods include “asparagus, bacon, beef liver, cabbage, fish, cauliflower and green leafy vegetables.” Boo hoo hoo, you cry and move on. Vitamin C in high doses may create coumadin resistance, so you cut back on C tablets, except during cold and flu season. Likewise, high doses of Vitamin E may increase risk of bleeding, so you avoid this substance, too. Although, when you have back surgery a decade earlier, Vitamin E applied directly to the wound makes it all but disappear. You keep this in mind should you have more surgery. Each month you take a blood test, to determine your dosage, which, along with your heartbeat, must be regulated like a baby’s formula.
“Coumadin should also not be taken with herbal medicines like ginger, garlic, or green tea.” Therefore, if you happen to have great affection for old fashioned ginger ale that burns your throat or the candied ginger you eat to calm you stomach after meals, forget about it. Coumadin also works in mysterious ways to increase the effects of acetaminophen, aspirin, or ultram, a drug you take three times a day for chronic pain. Hmmm. You decide to ask your doctor about interactions, the very next time you see him.
BENEFITS OF COUMADIN. “This medication helps to keep blood flowing smoothly in your body by decreasing the amount of clotting proteins in the blood. Coumadin is commonly referred to as a ‘blood thinner,’ but its more correct term is ‘anticoagulant.’“ Preventing harmful blood clots ensures that you will not suffer a stroke or heart attack.
SIDE EFFECTS OF COUMADIN. “Nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, stomach/abdominal bloating or cramps may occur,” although you’ve yet to experience any of these. “Remember that your doctor has prescribed this medication because the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects. This medication might cause bleeding if its effect on your blood clotting proteins is too much.” This means unusually high PT and INR results. You know this fact because every four weeks you make a pilgrimage to your cardiologist, where a nurse pricks your finger and tests your blood. She either tells you to continue the same dosage or refers the numbers to the doctor, who anon may lower or raise your dosage. “Even if your doctor stops your medication, this risk [of stroke] can persist for up to a week.” In fact, should you require a procedure, say, dental work, colonoscopy, or any kind of surgery, you must cease taking the drug up to seven days in advance. This move may make you vulnerable to having a stroke, but if it happens while you’re under, then who will know the difference? Certainly not you.
“Tell your doctor immediately if any of these signs of serious bleeding occur: unusual pain/swelling/discomfort/prolonged bleeding from cuts or gums, persistent nosebleeds, unusually heavy or prolonged menstrual flow, unusual or easy bruising, dark urine, black stools, severe headache, unusual dizziness. This drug might infrequently cause serious (possibly fatal) complications from the dislodging of solid patches of cholesterol from blood vessel walls, which can block the blood supply to parts of your body. Left untreated, this condition can lead to severe tissue damage or gangrene. Seek attention if the following occur: painful red rash, dark discoloration of any body part (purple toe syndrome), sudden intense pain (back or muscle), foot ulcers, unusual change in the amount of urine you void, vision changes, confusion, slurred speech, weakness on one side of the body [in which case you switch hands and dial 911]. Serious allergic symptoms may include rash, itching, swelling, severe dizziness, trouble breathing. Contact doctor immediately.”
CO-PAY: Ten dollars for sixty tablets or eleven cents per pill. A small price to pay to remain stroke free.
EXHIBITION GAMES. These are the first games of basketball season. You do not count them in the win/loss record. These games are for practice, but in recent years the NCAA has eliminated them from the men’s schedules. Your team, for example, begins the season with a tournament at home. Though you win, the first game is rough. The many new and talented players do not seem to know there exist on the floor four others, with whom they must function as a well-oiled machine. Thus saith Coach.
You keep looking at your program, trying to memorize a player’s name (which is not stitched to his uniform, so as to eliminate any sense of star quality), using your binocs to memorize his face or a quirky mannerism. Some players look too much alike, whether they’re white, blonde, black or brown. If, for example, two men of the same stature and build both possess crew cuts, you must memorize their numbers; same for two guys with shaved heads or two guys with dreads. If two women have dark brown pony tails, you must memorize their numbers. Frizzy blondes. You can’t just tell by looking which crew-cut male or pony-tailed female or frizzy blonde it is. But after you get past the superficialities of appearances, you learn the most about players by watching their actions.
In particular, the way players shoot a three can tip you off; some almost jackknife their bodies like Olympic divers. Others seem to levitate above the court, rising to an eerie height before releasing what is basically an intercontinental bomb. Some shots have a high arcing trajectory. This type results in one of two things: either the ball goes in slick as a whistle, or it makes a meteoric bounce off the rim, rebounding into the hands of the defense. Players who shoot a more direct, line-drive path to the basket seem to experience greater success. For one, there exists less time for the defense to react, as opposed to a high, arcing orb, during which time you could mix a highball. These shots also have a slight chance of caroming off the backboard and into the basket.
Last season, your women’s team loses one of its exhibition games to a squad that has only seven members, one of whom limps her way down the floor every play. It is not a good season for your women; they win only fifteen games. They do not go to the NCAAs for the first time in sixteen years. The coach, still venerated (especially after she resigns), ends the season with her head up, welcoming her winning and energetic successor from the Big Ten. Gone but not forgotten.
The women’s game is subtly different from the men’s, but each is enjoyable for its own reasons. Men have strength and athleticism going for them. Watching a player fight his way to the basket without fouling anyone or without getting the ball stolen or without getting fouled, is an act that is both dancerly—like boxing—and athletic. But the women rely on finesse, more like men played fifty years ago, before the Behemoths took over the game. Women are less likely to travel, foul, or commit other errors, mostly because they don’t have that pesky forward momentum working against them. And that’s beautiful, you see. They can and do shoot the three as skillfully as men, maybe more so. They tend to play better as a team, because, culturally girls stick together (going all the way back to sixth grade, when females like your older daughter make character assassination of their teacher a higher calling). Women make a better percentage of free throws, because winning close games always depends on making free throws, and women can be relentless about details. Women don’t dunk the ball; in fact, it’s against their rules. When the rules change some day—and they surely will, as women evolve in physical stature—their game will become more like the men’s. Refs will not call walking as much, because in looking up, to see what the Behemoths are doing with their elbows, they will miss the shuffle of feet. Refs will let the petty hand checks go. Unless an out-and-out brawl erupts (highly unlikely in this estrogen crowd), the refs will let the game proceed, just like the men’s. Pity.
LIPITOR. You take these ten white milligrams before bed time, say, ten o’clock (along with your Tikosyn and your pain pills), since your body produces cholesterol at the fastest rate between midnight and five a.m. “Ingesting the drug blocks a liver enzyme that starts making cholesterol, thus lowering the low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the cholesterol fraction thought to increase risk of coronary heart disease. Since the amount of cholesterol is reduced in the liver, the VLDL fraction may also be decreased.” It means you can eat fish and chips. A fucking Big Mac, if you want. Especially if your wife ain’t lookin’.
CONDITIONS REQUIRING THE USE OF LIPITOR. Back when you’re forty your cholesterol totals one hundred eighty. You begin to eat a strict high fiber, low-fat diet. You are relentless about it, ordering bran by the truckload, eating only fish and poultry, growing your own organic veggies. Your body and your wife’s body remain lean, but through the next decade your numbers rise (though not hers). Your kids are svelte, too. By this time, Lipitor has entered the market. When you hit your mid-fifties and your cholesterol totals two hundred thirty, your primary care physician places you on this wonder drug, lipitor. On the next test, your numbers plummet to one hundred forty-six, thus vindicating you, because, everything else being equal, you have proof that your sensible diet of grass, herbs, and fish works. See! you tell your doctor.
INTERACTIONS. You DO NOT take this medicine with grapefruit juice (a beverage you will miss as much as Ovaltine). Otherwise, excessive blood levels and increased risk of muscle damage may occur. You should take Lipitor with water or milk. Lipitor can increase the effects of Digoxin, the medication you are on before Tikosyn. If you were to take Digoxin again, Lipitor might increase the Digoxin levels, leading to toxic effects. This idea is good to keep in mind, in case your doctor should change your Master Drug Plan. You hope he won’t. Digoxin makes you feel depressed and sluggish. A depressed and sluggish slug of a slug does not accomplish much in the course of a day. For fun you teach your daughter to say it ten times fast, till your wife puts the kibosh on that.
POSSIBLE BENEFITS OF LIPITOR. Lipitor might reduce your total LDL cholesterol (you remember this is the BAD cholesterol because the word GOOD begins with G, which is one letter removed from H of HDL). Lipitor might decrease your triglycerides, but since you don’t know how these affect you, you don’t care. Lipitor is known to increase your HDL cholesterol (remember, one letter removed from G) if you have primary hypercholesterolemia or mixed dyslipidemia. Lipitor might even help prevent bone loss in type two diabetics, but you can’t know this assertion is true, unless you yourself develop diabetes and volunteer for tests.
SIDE EFFECTS OF LIPITOR. Lipitor can spin you into a drug-induced hepatitis (without jaundice), which is rare. It can cause drug-induced myositis (muscle inflammation), also rare. It can even trigger a decrease in the coenzyme Q10, whatever the fuck that is. Not many doctors concur with you, but you happen to believe Lipitor also contributes to weight loss. You notice it in your father, who, at seventy-eight, takes Lipitor when his numbers reach three hundred. Immediately, because his body responds so willingly, his dose is reduced from ten to five milligrams (he achieves this by employing a pill splitter). You notice that by age eighty, your father has begun to lose weight, and he’s still eating, according to your mother, what he’s always eaten, tons. You think little about it, until you yourself have been on the drug two years, and your primary care physician believes you might be a few pounds underweight. You wonder how, because you eat tons, too. Right away, you ask, Is it the Lipitor or the Coumadin? You wonder, because a few of your older friends are on one or the other or both, and you observe from this, quite scientifically charting their weights in your head, that it must be one or the other. Or both.
CO-PAY: fifty dollars for ninety pills or fifty-six cents a pill. If you didn’t achieve such excellent results, the drug might be a fucking rip-off.
GAME ATTENDANCE. When you first start going in 1976, attendance in the old Coliseum averages six thousand for the men’s games (forget the women, their time is yet to arrive). If they play one of their two in-state rivals, the crowd might grow to the max, eight or ten thousand (SRO). You’re talking a university of twenty-five thousand students. You’re talking a city that back then is a hundred fifty thousand. And this is the best attendance you can come up with? Please. Still, you kind of like it. Parking is easier if the Coliseum is not filled. You can get home faster. The Coliseum’s men’s rooms (both of them) are easier to negotiate. You can get a stall any time. And that is important, since your bladder, which can be quivering in agony, locks down if you are forced to urinate along a trough with ten other men. It won’t happen.
At the turn of the century (this one), Spirit Temple Arena, a new basketball venue, is erected on the edge of university property, along with six city blocks of parking. The $62 million Temple is huge, rising three stories and stretching itself out to the length of a ship, built with a hint of the Spanish Renaissance architecture found around campus. Free parking is a three-block walk. You do it, because it’s good for you and your wife, and because the Personal Seat License parking, located directly across from the Temple, is higher than a cat’s back and goes up thirty dollars each year —a mere trifle for the upper classes or those who aspire to join such classes, but to commoners it’s a sacrifice. In all weathers you cross the vast asphalt jungle, past the PBS station with its assorted satellite dishes, some as big as Suburbans, past Old and New Meats (thank Jane Smiley for the nomenclature). You believe Old Meats is located in the new building, and New Meats in the old, but it’s a hazy thought, something you might have read in the paper. On a given night, when a blue norther is advancing across the southern plains, you can hear the wind whistle like a train through the gridwork of the PBS tower, making you hold your parka tight around your head.
When Spirit Temple Arena first opens, you are agog with joy. It holds fifteen thousand-five-hundred-fifty bodies, and the first night, against a tough Big Ten opponent, each one of the harlot red seats is filled. That is to say, if a body is not urinating in one of the fifteen restrooms (fifteen for each gender), if a body is not in the food court buying something that will give it cholesterol overload, if a body is not picking up a hot dog at one of the dozen snack bars located along the perimeter of the arena, every body is in place for the tip-off. Every body is wearing scarlet or black, the two choices for Correct School Colors. The pep band, composed of sixty members, is playing all the old tunes, and you feel a warmth returning to your limbs that hasn’t been there for eight months. Yeah, it’s almost tip-off time.
Three officials are chatting up the team captains as they loiter around the oversized decal in the middle of the floor. In the 1999th year of our Lord, you find your seats, the ones you’ve carefully selected on a given day in the fall, when all the Personal Seat Licensees flock to the Temple to select their chairs. To cram in fifteen-thousand-five-hundred-fifty seats, the chairs are not configured in true stadium format. In the old Coliseum, the heads of the people in the row beneath you (there exists a subtle class distinction from one row to the next) are also beneath your line of vision. In Spirit Temple Arena the heads of those beneath you can actually block your vision. But then you learn to raise your head to the four-screened JumboTron suspended from the ceiling by thick iron cables. Five digital cameras record every play of the game, and the truth of each play is revealed, whether the officials abide by the truth or not. Yes, you learn to raise your vision to the blinking screen. If a crowd of people choke the aisle, blocking your view, you raise your eyes, where you can see live action. If there arises a question, you raise your eyes to view the call as it is replayed ad nauseum, till everyone in the Temple knows the truth. The officials fucked up. Or the officials got it right. Or the play cannot be determined, because not one of the five cameras focused on the game could capture the truth.
As the new millennium grinds forward a year at a time, you become less enamored with Spirit Temple Arena. A six-foot-five brute now sits directly in front of you (he’s really a guest of the PSL owner beneath you, the brute’s seat is behind the northern goal, you’ve seen the parties wave at one another like school girls), and you must view most of the game on JumboTron. If you try to watch the action, you must move your head as this musclehead moves his. He doesn’t realize how he ruins your vision at the slightest adjustment. He just doesn’t give a shit, a trait you find in his class of people, a row beneath yours. Of course, that’s what the little lady, a grandmother who sits behind you, thinks of you, but you don’t give a shit, either, so you’re square with both parties.
The men’s games still average six to eight thousand bodies, a number that half fills the Temple. If, when they play one of their two state rivals and “fill” the Temple with twelve or thirteen thousand, you feel good, as if the building is finally reaching its potential as a Temple. But again, you wonder. With a student body of thirty thousand, in a city of over two hundred thousand, and you still can’t fill the arena every game?
You finally accept that West Texas is not basketball country. No, now come on, it isn’t. At many places in the Midwest and along the Atlantic seaboard, denizens thrive on sitting in a starkly lit, cheer-full arena on a bitterly cold night and filling it to the brim. Think of the Phog in Lawrence. Rupp in Lexington. Cameron at Duke. Maybe it’s because some of these places offer free tickets to students, who are willing to queue up for forty-eight hours in subfreezing temps. Maybe it’s because some of these universities have had basketball teams for over a century now, making the sport as catholic as the book of common prayer. Maybe it’s simply because the costs to enter Spirit Temple Arena are just too dear. Yes, a seat that costs three thousand dollars up front may just be too dear. The bitter truth is that only if your teams win and keep winning, people will pay buckets of money to watch. Losers? Not so much.
AVODART. At first you take this drug every day for six months: a dull yellow, oblong capsule containing a half milligram of an androgen hormone inhibitor. This ingredient treats benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), which is, simply put, the swelling of the prostate, a little known organ (until it screams out for attention) installed behind your genitals where it engulfs your urethra, choking it off when you try to urinate. Why God couldn’t place this organ, say, in your wrist, for easier access, you have no idea. “This drug works by lowering the amount of the hormone responsible for prostate growth. It reduces urinary blockage and improves urine flow. Women and children should not take this drug.” Yeah, since the former have no prostate, and half of the latter group have one that has yet to develop. God, you’d love to meet the dopes who write this crap!
CONDITIONS REQUIRING THE USE OF AVODART. Your urologist has determined through a number of means that you must take this drug. He begins by placing his longest finger up your rectum and examining in a way that seems impossible to determine anything that your walnut-sized prostate has grown to unmanageable proportions. Ye Gods, it’s as big as an apple, he says. The doctor also refers to the result of your PSA (prostate specific antigens)—determined by testing a vial of your blood—which is elevated above the sacred number of four. Because such a figure means you might have prostate cancer, he then subjects you to your first biopsy. You will eventually suffer through three over a period of four years. Just to make sure.
The biopsy is an out-patient procedure, conducted on a gurney-like bed in his office, where you lie on your side, in a fetal position with your feet shoved against the wall. Accessing the prostate through your rectal wall, your urologist removes sample cores of flesh from ten segments of each lobe. Even with a local anesthetic, you believe he’s using a fondue fork. And when you bleed like a stuck pig, filling the toilet bowl as you try to staunch the flow with Northern tissue, you leave the premises with blood streaming down your leg, a substance that floods your socks and spills over to stain the waiting room carpet. In ten days you find out you do not have cancer; this is when you begin to take Avodart daily. After six months, when your prostate has returned to normal proportions, the doctor cuts your dosage to every other day, and you thank God for small favors.
INTERACTIONS. You ask your urologist right away, how this drug might interact with your other drugs: Tikosyn, Coumadin, Lipitor, and the two you’ve not discussed, Soma and Ultram. Oh, yes, and eighty-one milligrams of aspirin, or the occasional antibiotic you take for a scalp infection. No problem, he says, not bothering to research it while you’re in his office. So you research it on your own, consulting the World Wide Web of Indisputable Information. “From this point forward,” the web site says, “before you begin taking any new medications, either prescription or OTC, you must check with your doctor or pharmacist. This medicine may be absorbed through the skin. Any woman who is pregnant or who may become pregnant should not handle crushed or broken capsules of this medicine.” Ohhh, yes, now you see. “Any contact with this medicine by a developing male fetus might result in abnormal male sex organ development.” Ohhh, wow, now you see and move Avodart to the medicine chest in the utility bath, the one your wife and daughters wouldn’t use if you paid them.
BENEFITS OF AVODART. You now urinate more freely. You do not rise two to four times a night, perhaps only once, in the wee hours of the morning. You train yourself to go back to sleep—unless, of course, you’ve managed to wangle from your primary care physician a prescription for ambien while on a trip so you can sleep in a strange bed; in which case, you might conk out for seven or eight hours. It seems like so little ask for, because the benefits of sustained sleep are wonderful, sort of a temporary death, from which you are resurrected day after day.
SIDE EFFECTS OF AVODART. You can and do experience a change in sexual function: impotence (without the help of Viagra, Cialis, or Levitra—you try them all), decreased interest in sex (ever so subtle, your wife says with eyes as sad as Bambi’s), a decrease in the amount of ejaculate, a quantity you once produced in great volume, even in your forties (possibly the reason why, at fifty-eight, you have a ten-year old daughter). They say these effects may go away as your body adjusts to the drug, but you think someone’s lying. Breast tenderness or enlargement may also occur while you are on this drug. Thank Christ on his cross you haven’t noticed anything like this. “If these effects continue or are bothersome, you might check with your doctor.” But you don’t, because you enjoy peeing freely. You enjoy sleeping through the night. You realize you’ve now exchanged a more youthful form of sex for sleep, and you know you are old, older than God on his last birthday.
CO-PAY: fifty dollars for ninety capsules or fifty-six cents apiece. Another rip-off. You write the drug company. They never respond. They never do. They never will.
CONFERENCE PLAY. You’ve endured half the season now: games with Little Sisters of the Prairie and other religious colleges, state schools, schools from the North, South, East, and West. Your teams have played in tournaments and Shoot-Outs from Hawaii to Alaska to Key West. It’s now New Year’s Day and your boys are facing one of the major universities in the state north of here, the one with a true panhandle. (The women, as luck would have it, are playing at that self same university before a paltry crowd, because their women currently stink.) Every year these two men’s teams gouge it out till the last minute, no matter how lousy one team might be. Their coach is older than yours, but yours has more wins. The media say their coach drives drunk. Yours is portrayed as a bully, though if people would only get to know the guy, how he respects his players, you can clearly see he isn’t. He isn’t. Truly. You wouldn’t support the games if he were.
The Spirit Temple Arena is nearly full. You can see only a few harlot red seats vacant in the upper level, high, where all the banners hang. Students, mostly dudes in black-and-red face with red or black clown wigs, begin to stamp their feet and jump up and down, while the pep band plays the fight song on an endless loop. Waiting, waiting, waiting for the team to enter the arena. You know Coach is giving last minute instructions that are akin to what those felled soldiers at Normandy must have received. And suddenly you know why teachers make you read Beowulf; yes, even today, men must have dragons to slay. As soon as the band takes a breather, the sound booth plays a recording, some dude with a deep voice saying, “Put yur hands tuhgether,” followed by simulated clapping, going faster until the crowd can’t keep up and the sound dies out. The booth plays a CD where some dude screams, “Let’s get ready to ruuummmbbbble.” This crowd needs no encouragement.
You move to the aisle and up to the concourse to buy a bottle of Dasani because you forgot yours, and you’ll have to take pills before the afternoon is over. You also buy a pretzel, because you should not take your pills on an empty stomach. When you return, you have to scare some dude from your three thousand dollar chair, some nincompoop who sneaked past the usher, a guy who checks everyone’s ticket stub (except yours, because he knows you), though evidently not, or the nincompoop wouldn’t be occupying your chair. You raise your thumb (outta there, fella), and the dude, maybe eighteen, takes off toward the other aisle. You check the upholstery for stains that might have been incurred since your last game. No, just the same dark outline the athletic office refuses to steam clean. You get over it. Again.
You sit and now the teams race into the arena. The PA dude announces the players on the opposing team. Then yours. With a men’s game, the lights stay on. But at a women’s game, the place goes dark, and there are all these spotlights with the school logo and name twirling on the floor, especially where the opposition is standing. The women’s crowd spin little battery-operated lights of red that cost ten bucks (the money goes to a good cause). However, Coach doesn’t stand for such nonsense; the lights stay on. The teams are announced, and before you can say James Naismith, the ball has been tipped. Their player knocks it out of bounds, and it’s yours. Your point guard nails a three right off the bat, and Coach hits the roof, along with the crowd, but for different reasons. Coach likes for the team to pass the ball at least three times. But Jeez, you think, the dude’s wide open, and he’s been hot since mid-November. Why not take a shot that takes you up three-zip? (And because it’s so cool, you might keep using the word dude.)
Your opponent takes the possession down to the wire, and just for fun, you try to analyze their defense. Is it a man-to-man? Or a junk defense (box and one, for example, where one player guards, say, your hot point guard, and the other four play zone, right)? Three up front and two down low? Two up front and three down low? One-three-one? Sometimes the bastards even switch defenses, trying to confuse your boys. Their defensive coach holds up a big three or a “Z” or something ridiculous. Sometimes their defensive coach stamps his foot and throws the sign down, because his players, from thirty feet away, can’t see a damn thing. Before you know it, the first official time-out arrives. The score is only twelve - eleven, your team on top. You take a swig from your water, saving most of it for your pills. The pom-pom chicks do their little number to the theme from Austin Powers. They’re wearing slinky black tights and glittery red tops that look more like sports bras, leaving a nifty space to display their midriffs. One of the chicks has a bit of paunch. You think she’s pregnant? you say to your wife, who turns her head and speaks. No, the girl likes her Big Macs and fries. She winks. For one, your wife knows you cheat on your diet, and two, the pompom girls formerly wore short skirts . . . and sweater tops. You’ve traded views: bottoms for tops. How the world changes in a blink. You and your wife once cheered from the Coliseum floor, when she was your partner with her feet planted squarely on your shoulders, and you gazed up into her harlot red panties as if they were a world to be conquered. Which they were, if you want to be honest.
The first half stays close and ends thirty all. You can’t wait for the second half, because this is where Coach demonstrates his superior understanding of the game and makes adjustments, whereby your team can beat the opposition into submission. But first, you witness the Half-Time Shoot Out. Two of the men’s pep members roll a big slim TV onto the floor. Two male students compete at opposite ends of the court, and two female students, seeing how many free throws they can make in ten tries. Then each winner earns the chance to shoot a half-court shot that might win the big slim TV. Over the years you’ve watched the TV models change. You’ve watched the sponsor change. Everything about this shtick has changed except for the fact that no one ever hits the half-court shot. Today is no different. The female, a rather tall one with a fiery red pony tail, nearly makes it, bouncing the ball off the back of the glass. The crowd goes “Unh!” so loud you think she’s lost the war (and you know that sound). The guy lines himself up about six paces behind the time line. He eyes the basket, studies it, as many have done in the past. He takes one, two, three quick steps and heaves the orange ball, releasing it before he sails over the line. It makes a giant arc toward the basket. You remember what happens to half the balls shot with a high arcing trajectory, and your mouth snaps shut when the kid actually nails it. Maybe ten thousand people cheer (the rest are still out on the concourse feeding their faces or flushing a hundred-fifty urinals) as if the guy has won the game. On the JumboTron, you watch the shot as it’s shown over and over. The kid and his roommates run to the TV and caress it like a stuffed toy. Local stations interview the winner, and he says he doesn’t know where he’s going to put the big slim TV. He and his roommates live in the dorm. “Maybe mom’ll keep it for me till I graduate.”
Yessirree. You feel good about the second half, not just because you’re team is leading by ten, but because something great just happened here. A poor college kid, who might not make that shot again in fifty tries, wins an expensive plasma TV, one that may not even work when and if he graduates. Yessirree.
SOMA. You take three hundred fifty milligrams three times a day: one white tablet at noon, one at five, and one at ten, along with your Tikosyn, your Lipitor. This drug and your ultram have sustained you the longest. “This medication is used to treat pain and discomfort from muscle injuries such as strains, sprains, and spasms [for you, it’s the spasms]. It is usually used along with rest, physical therapy, and other treatments (e.g. anti-inflammatory medication or ultram). Soma is a centrally acting muscle relaxant. It works on the nerves to relieve muscle pain. It may also relieve pain by calming your nervous system.” Its effects are so soothing that, after several years, you become inured to them. You drive. You swim. You do Pilates. You do just about everything on Soma that you didn’t do on Soma. You like the name that one of the futuristic authors used for a drug that induced more than relaxation. A Brave New Drug, one of the oldest tranquilizers, that happens to relax your muscles, so you can manage one hour to the next. One day to the next. One month. Years. A decade.
CONDITIONS REQUIRING THE USE OF SOMA. Long ago, at forty-six, you lift a case of paper where you package and sell insurance, because one of the petite secretaries asks you to. It’s not half as heavy as your mower or what you lift at the gym, but it’s enough. You don’t notice anything right away, but slowly, over the weeks you realize your doctor, who’s told you to stop lifting weights, is right, when he shows you an x-ray that proves how slim the spaces between your vertebrae are. “Degenerative discs,” he says. Each day, upon rising, the electrical sensation of a buzz begins in your hip, as if someone is sticking you with pins.
But even before the Soma, you take Ibuprofen, as much as thirty-two hundred milligrams a day. You rise at seven, and the buzz begins in your lumbar region and through the day, as gravity applies pressure to your spine, the buzz continues down your left leg, into your toes. At times, your foot feels like it must be in a cartoon, where a duck hammers a rabbit on the foot and the toe visibly turns red and throbs like a squeezed balloon. Ibuprofen barely touches this buzz, but you watch the clock for the next dosage, because it’s all you have. You can no longer sit at the computer, a requirement of your job. In fact, all your duties seem to aggravate your condition. Sit. Stand. Lift. You realize anybody with a buzz like this in his legs can’t work. You buy a special computer chair that only dials up the buzz earlier than usual. You switch to one of those new laptops. Another mistake. If you sit with it in your lap, you are forced to look down. If you put it on a desk top, your hands and arms are raised in an unnaturally awkward angle. You tire of it all, your boss grants you medical leave, and you go home to lie in the position that would provide you the most comfort, if it weren’t for the spasms that shoot through your lower back like fireworks.
You are referred to an anesthesiologist who also does pain management (a true oxymoron). You remember in your thirties scoffing at the notion of chronic pain. Who could hurt all the time? You take something for it, grab a shower, rub salve into the affected area, and move on. But your views change. The buzz that runs from your spine down your leg and into your toes worsens each day. You might take the whole bottle of Ibuprofen, just to see what happens. You don’t care. Your wife says you look ashen and runs her fingers through your hair, what’s left of it. You feel like ashes, detritus of your former self. Your children avoid you like the plague.
The pain management doctor shoots stuff directly into your back—epidural steroid shots—to alleviate the buzz in your lumbar region that runs down your leg and into your toes. He gives you three over the course of several weeks. No good, you tell him. He prescribes physical therapy. Three times a week you go to the hospital where the therapist works. The tall strong woman who reminds you of actor Eileen Brennan begins by having you strip to your underwear. She places hot packs over your entire body, and you lie there for ten minutes. She returns and begins to massage your body. Your lumbar region. Ohhh, God, that’s heaven, can I take you home with me? She works lotion down into your legs, your toes. With strong rangy arms, she pulls the lotion along each leg, pulling, stretching your leg, breaking down the fascia in your muscles, trying to separate that space between discs. After an hour you feel decent. You go back to work for several weeks, while continuing therapy. But the buzz reasserts itself and you grab a beer, a substance that no longer gives you the relief it once did.
You continue with thirty-two hundred milligrams a day of Ibuprofen (called therapeutic doses). You feel as if you’re walking on a magic carpet—glide, glide, gliding along the floor. You remain ashen. You can no longer tolerate the entirety of your work day, whether you sit, stand, or lie on your sofa. Your boss begins to look at you differently. Slacking off? No, you want to say, it’s just this buzz you’ve got going in your back. Your colleagues stare at you the way they do the old agents who gather their briefcases at four-thirty and loiter in the lunch room. You’re not ready to be one of those men, but you may have no choice.
Your buzz has a definite curve. You go to bed at night, using the guest room, because your buzz —on a scale of one to ten—hovers above a nine. You now use traction to pull your feet, your legs, your spine downward. The apparatus consists of a girdle you secure around your hips. Then you hook weights to both sides, and, as you try to sleep, the weights pull (theoretically) your vertebrae apart, thus reducing the pressure and some of the agony. But it has no permanent effect; as soon as you stand, the buzz returns. You finally fall asleep, and since you are not free to roll over, you pass in and out of slumber like a train chugging in and out of tunnels. The buzz presently lowers itself to a hum, maybe a three. If you have to use the bathroom, you must unhook all the apparatus and hook it up to your hips once you lie down again. If you’re lucky, you fall asleep once again. For two nights your wife sleeps in the space next to you, but on the third she returns to the master bedroom. Your wakefulness keeps her awake. You’re still married. You love each other, but for the first time in decades, you’re not sleeping together, and it feels like divorce, though you’ve never been through one. Not yet.
INTERACTIONS: inconsequential. BENEFITS OF SOMA: Far outweigh risks of possible dangers, so stay with Soma forever, or until your doctor gives you a plan for gradual withdrawal. But you know it won’t be easy, so you don’t think about it.
SIDE-EFFECTS OF SOMA. “Dizziness, drowsiness, headache, unusually fast heartbeat [hmmm], low blood pressure, or face flushing may occur. If any of these effects persist or worsen, notify your doctor or pharmacist promptly.” Remember that your doctor has prescribed this medication because the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects. You keep it in mind, every time a nurse asks for a list of your medications.
CO-PAY: ten dollars for ninety, eleven cents a pill. Cheap. You might take two.
ULTRAM. Introduced in 1996, the year of your surgery, Ultram is used to relieve pain. Plain and simple. “Ultram increases the availability of serotonin and norepinephorine in certain brain centers and also works at opioid centers, thereby relieving pain.” For nearly ten years now, you take fifty milligrams at noon, another fifty at five p.m., and another fifty at ten (the magic hour for Tikosyn and Lipitor), each taken in concert with Soma. Because you’ve worked up a tolerance, you talk your doctor into prescribing another fifty milligrams (the Big Drug Book says you can tolerate up to four hundred milligrams daily). Doc looks at you as if you’re a drug addict, and you act like one, glaring back without blinking, until he relents with a scribble of his pen. Instead of taking a fourth one in a day, you halve it and combine it with your noon and five o’clock dosages. You do this because you can, and because it feels good, especially in the first half hour, when you sit staring at a syndicated Seinfeld for the umpteenth time, waiting for the blessed seventy-five milligrams to kick in.
You hoard pills. On rare days when you don’t use them all because you’re in bed with the flu or it’s February and your pharmacist doesn’t count the three days that a month might normally yield, you harvest twelve. You wheedle a few samples from your doctor friends, each unbeknownst to the other. Online you finagle exorbitantly priced pills from a Canadian firm (whose “doctor” authorizes your prescription), to give you a cushion for when you’re out of town. From your cache, from your stash, you sometimes take two, when you know you’re going to be jetting across the sky on your keister for four hours or if you’ve lifted something you shouldn’t and you’re buzzing a ten. You buy Ultram and Soma by the month, on the first date your prescription is renewable, not because, oops, you’ve run out of pills. By renewing a day early you can hoard four more.
You dream of a day when you might go to a Pain Farm and get off this shit, like overweight people go to a Fat Farm. You dream of feeling like you did before you lifted that case of paper, but unless the Medical Establishment comes up with something new and different, you realize your dream is a fool’s errand. You will die some day with Ultram and Soma lacing your blood, clotting your liver, creating kidney stones. Even so, you steadfastly adhere to your Ultram dosages because the alternative is Morphine. You’re not exactly sure what Ultram has done to you over this decade, but you do know you cannot function without it. And function you must.
CONDITIONS REQUIRING THE USE OF ULTRAM. In 1996, after seven months of your wife saying you look ashen, you seek advice from an orthopedic surgeon. Actually, you consult two, because your insurance policy requires it. You like the first guy better, a shrimp with glasses, because his procedure seems more solid. What he proposes to do is remove your flat-as-a-tire disc, the lowest one in your spine, and replace it with bone slivers from your own body, and, on a cold day in December he does precisely this. Through the great tender mercies of an anesthesiologist, he makes three slits in your body. From the slit in your hip, he harvests said bone slivers to shove between the discs. Because he does it all around, the procedure is called a Three-Sixty Fusion. Yes, the bone slivers, given time, bond together, thus creating a new sort of disc for you. Sort of, because, it is, by comparison to the original disc, rather inflexible. Because he must do this all around, he cuts a slit along your spine, and a colleague of his slits open your front, laying your intestines out on the table so the former may work. You find it hard to believe this shrimp can wrestle with the spine of a grown man, but after four hours he’s done. Oh, before he quits, he drills four titanium screws between your sacrum and the lowest vertebra, functioning much like a cast—only you know these screws are never coming out. He, later that night, tells you he did ten more spines after yours. It’s Christmas, after all.
You spend twelve weeks at home: you read thirty-eight books, conduct video festivals of your favorite actors, like Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine, and you begin to sell policies over the phone. During this time you work your way down from several opiates like Darvon, even the antidepressant, Elavil, to Ultram. Your surgeon suggests that you will reach a point in the future where you may take a couple of Tylenol should you have some discomfort. Clearly, all these years later, the fucker is quite mistaken. Perhaps this is why you sign a waiver in 1996, pledging not to take legal action if your pain isn’t alleviated. With scalpel in hand he says, “All I promise is to do the very best job I can.” At the time, it seems like a fair proposition.
After surgery, through days, months, and years of seeking non-surgical therapy (massage, Pilates, swimming), you can honestly say that the pain has been reduced by sixty percent, if you can quantify such a concept. Pain. But you seize it as an abstraction and tell your friends. Yes, the surgery does not take away all your pain, but it reduces it by sixty percent. “Not many people can say that,” you declare.
INTERACTIONS. “Ultram may increase the effects of Coumadin, requiring dose adjustments; more frequent INR tests are prudent.” These are the monthly pilgrimages you make to your cardiologist where your finger is pricked and your dosage adjusted for another month. Oh, my goodness, Ultram could effect a change in your Coumadin dosage is a sentence that has never left the mouth of any health care worker you know.
BENEFITS OF ULTRAM. Effective treatment of pain. You can make it through a staff meeting without screaming. You can visit with a client (standing for only three minutes feels like ten thousand needles being thrust into your back), until you ask the client if sitting down wouldn’t be nicer. Please. Thank you. You’re welcome. You make it through day after day, a functional addict who earns a living, drives a car, makes love to his wife (with modifications). Yes, you make it through the day and pray for one more.
SIDE EFFECTS OF ULTRAM. “This medication may cause dizziness [it doesn’t], weakness [nope], incoordination [maybe], nausea or vomiting [never], stomach upset, constipation, headache, drowsiness [only in that first lovely half hour], anxiety [no more than you already have], irritability [no more than when some Christian or occasionally a Pagan cuts you off on the Marsha Sharp Freeway], dry mouth, or increased sweating. If any of these effects persist or worsen, inform you doctor. Remember that your doctor has prescribed this medication because the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects. Many people using this medication [like you] do not have serious side effects. Notify your doctor if you develop any of these serious effects while taking this medication: chest pain, rapid heart rate [now there’s a thought], skin rash or itching, mental confusion, disorientation, seizures, tingling of the hands or feet, trouble breathing. In the unlikely even you have a serious allergic reaction to this drug, seek immediate medical attention. Symptoms of a serious allergic reaction include: rash, itching, swelling, severe dizziness, breathing trouble. If you notice other effects not listed above [like major loss of libido, you want to say, or inability to ejaculate after prolonged stimulation] contact your doctor or pharmacist.”
CO-PAY: ten dollars for a hundred twenty pills, or eight cents a pill. Also cheap, the Wal-Mart (now leading the way with a four dollar co-pay) of drugs.
YOU ARE NOT ADDICTED. You reach the season you would like to sell your Personal Seat Licenses. The men are playing like junior high boys, and the women like little girls. You haven’t paid three thousand dollars to watch this kind of nonsense, but since everyone feels this way, you have no buyers for your chairs. You and your wife continue to frequent Spirit Temple Arena. You’re well into the conference season. It’s even snowed once or twice. Each time you drive across town, in a climate where it might not snow for four years, the streets are crowded with four graduating classes of drivers who’ve never negotiated slick roads before, only watched the film or worked the simulators. Students from the Metroplex accuse local drivers of going too slow. The locals wave guns at these kids from the Metroplex, who drive as if fifty-five is prudent even on a dry pavement. Slowing down might be a good thing, you want to say to the kids from the Metroplex. A hundred accidents this day, and you wonder if you should hazard black ice to see the home team play the Phog boys from Lawrence. Yeah, why not? Your men have only beaten this team once in history, so why not? Yeah.
You and your wife show early, before the streets refreeze, for one thing, and to get a decent parking spot in the free lot, for another, for there is that three-block walk. Even this many years removed from surgery, bouncing across the asphalt jars your spine, increases the buzz down your leg, but you take your wife’s hand and bounce as smoothly as you can, past PBS, past the smells of Old and New Meats.
Once you take the elevator up into the Temple, you meet friends in the STA cafeteria and shell out twelve bucks apiece for a brisket buffet and as many cookies as you can carry away. When you finish, you find your seats. You look up and believe you see electricity arcing from one spotlight to another. The pep band seems to be playing with particular clarity tonight, the brass sounding as one big instrument. You watch your boys warming up, and each one seems to be making every shot he takes, whether it’s a lay-up, a jump shot, or a three. Might you begin to hope? Might your boys beat the second-ranked team in the country? You notice a new cologne, and it smells like victory.
The Phog opponents trot onto the floor, snaking their fifteen players in a shiny blue streak around the entire perimeter of the court before beginning a warm-up. Your fans boo. It’s arrogant to flaunt their team in front of your home crowd like that, as if they’re privileged, as if they’re entitled. But if any team is entitled, it’s this one. Over a century of tradition oozes from the pores of these players like sap from a maple tree. They can’t help it. It comes with their territory.
You look back at your boys. They’re still hitting lights out. Strange because most warm-ups, balls are bouncing off the backboard into the pep band. The same player may miss three free throws in a row. That new cologne is tightening the air, and more and more bodies fill the harlot red seats. Maybe this will be the night, the kind of night that makes you glad you’ve remained a fan through the many down seasons, like the one with nine wins, through the years of NCAA trouble. You stand and face a giant flag at the north end, or the electronic one unfurling itself on the JumboTron. The same gentleman who, as an opera teacher from the music school, has sung the national anthem at each men’s game for the last thirty years, belts out another one, emphasizing one syllable in our flag was still there, sending spinets of thrills up and down your spine, thrills that make you glad to be an American, watching this game, in this behemoth temple that is filled to the rafters with fans painted in red and black. If you listen, the air crackles like you are tuned in to an old radio, and finally the band begins to play the set of songs that will lead into the last three minutes before the game. Man, it can’t get any better than this. Eeeyow.
MISCELLANEOUS DRUGS FOR MISCELLANEOUS AILMENTS. Your cardiologist prescribes eighty-one milligrams of Aspirin. He says it thins your blood in a different way than Coumadin. You shrug and obey, combining it with your noon pills. Your scalp itches and when you aim your balding pate at the mirror, you see you have a head full of pimples. You look like your grandfather, and your dermatologist prescribes Cephalexin in five hundred milligram capsules of emerald green for what is usually a gerontological condition. You take one a day for the first thirty. Then you taper off to every other day, then every second day. “This medication is a Cephalosporin-type antibiotic used to treat a wide variety of bacterial infections (e.g. skin, bone and genitourinary tract infections). It works by stopping the growth of bacterial infections. It will not work for viral infections (e.g. common cold, flu).” You ask about interactions. There are none, so saith your dermatologist, so too, your pharmacist.
In addition, your dermatologist prescribes a shampoo, Loprox. It contains a drug that inhibits the growth of fungus. Hmmm. Isn’t your problem bacterial? Perhaps it’s both. When your scalp dries, you apply olux, a foam “which reduces the swelling, itching and redness that can occur in psoriasis, dermatitis, and other rashes.” Hmmm. You wait for the side effects: burning, stinging, itching, irritation, dryness or redness when first applied to the scalp. But there are none.
You might tolerate the scalp condition if it were not for your trip last summer. It’s bad enough you have to show up bald for your fortieth high school reunion in a city you haven’t stormed since you were eighteen. You don’t want your head to look like a strawberry patch, too. After a month of miracle drugs, it is clear again. It’s not the scalp of a young man, but it’s presentable. As your wife administers your regular crew cut, you don’t feel as conscious of all that bare skin. In fact you feel confident. Except for one thing.
You know that sleeping in a hotel bed may compromise your back, so you ask your primary care physician for a sleep aid. You’ve seen the ads on TV, men and women with their heads atop pastel pillows, animated butterflies floating over the sleepers’ heads (sorry, those are Lunestra butterflies). Doc prescribes thirty Ambien, which is good, because your drug co-pay is twenty-five dollars—only eighty-three cents a pill. “Ambien is used to treat sleep problems. It may help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and reduce the number of times you awaken during the night. Ambien belongs to a class of drugs called sedative/hypnotics. It acts on your brain to produce a calming effect. This medication is usually limited to short-term treatment periods of one to two weeks or less.” Your doctor hesitates to renew when you run out. “What happens over times,” he says, “is that this drug loses its effectiveness. Better to see if you can’t exercise a bit harder.” You argue, but he stands firm. In addition to the buzz you will endure for the rest of your unnatural life, you will now train for insomnia.
But, of course, he’s right. You have one lousy restless night, during which you reread In Cold Blood, but by the next night you’re so sleep deprived you fall right off and back into your normal pattern. You are lucky; you have compadres in this world who can’t sleep with the aid of five pills, some parts of their bodies buzzing like saws twenty-four/seven. All these years later, when you are horizontal, your buzz does lessen. And after you’ve read for an hour or so, you can go to sleep. Usually, except when you travel to your fortieth reunion and wonder who invited all these old geezers.
Your eyes search for youth in madras plaid shirts, search for girls with flip hair-dos, search for black-and-white saddle oxfords and everybody sporting full heads of radiant hair, but all you see are people you wouldn’t speak to if you were seated next to them on a plane. Would you? Well, of course you would. All evening at the picnic, you smile and nod and shake hands that are the same age as yours. You pull out pictures of your children, you take the guys over to check out your Land Cruiser. Of course, some of your old buddies have better vehicles than yours, but they act nice about it, admiring your car, too. Way too déjà vu, reminding you of the time you and the Woo brothers drag Douglas all night in their pale yellow GTO, a ’65.
After all the good-byes are over, all the digi-pics taken, you board the elevator to the eleventh floor of the Hyatt and look at the face beaming back at you in the bathroom mirror, but in a second, the Stephen King horror of your death passes over your face, like the eerie pallor cast over the earth by an eclipse. The evening of superficial jocularity roars in your ears, and you’d rather die, you’d rather die than stand before a hotel mirror and stare at this specter reflected back at you.
You limp to your bed. Your wife takes your hand, groans, and slides it between her legs, her little signal, but you feel no stimulation. “Just a minute,” you say and run to the bathroom for a round orange one, film-coated with BAYER imprinted on one side and 20 on the other. Yes, twenty milligrams of Levitra will bring you that pleasure you once inspired by the mere touch of your wife’s bush, the tenderness of love found there. You swallow the pill and wink at that ghost in the mirror before heading back to your love.
CO-PAY TOTAL FOR THE TAX YEAR: over eight hundred dollars. You cringe, but you know your older friends, some without insurance, pay five times that much, and you are thankful. Yes, thankful for small favors.
WITH SIX MINUTES TO GO. You’re on your feet. You sit. You stand. You sit. Funny, here at Spirit Temple Arena your back does not hurt. It’s as if the game is a concoction, not a drug exactly, but a vapor that seems to relieve your buzzing ganglia. Students do not sit down once as the score remains close throughout the entire game. The Phog stallions, gigantic and well-muscled, are a bit off tonight. You think back to the warm-up where your boys don’t miss a shot. It’s not the harbinger you’ve hoped for. Your boys have missed a few key shots—like every time they might have taken the lead. Yeah, they could be leading. Instead they trail by four, which, in itself, is a miracle. The Phog coach asks for a time-out to reconnoiter. Your opponent is minutes away from losing the second of twenty games on the year; their players just don’t know it yet. Yeah, you feel prescient about it. A lot on the line for your boys, too, since they’ve beat this team only once in school history. The Phogs trot over to their bench for a three-minute time-out. From your seat you can see the tiny monitor the TV announcers use. It’s playing a Dodge commercial that pays for the broadcast, and you wait for the floor to once again fill the screen. The timekeeper raises one finger. The band plays on.
You take your wife’s hand, like you used to in the Coliseum. You take her hand the minute you’re elected cheerleader at eighteen. You take her hand when you marry four years later. You take her hand during hospital trips that yield three children, two now grown and living on opposite coasts. Your hands meet often until you hurt your back. Then you slowly work your way back to holding hands weekly, yes a slower but more ardent love-making. You achieve a normal life. What say you, honey? You’re hurting my hand. Sorry, you say, loosening your grip, but you don’t let go. Not yet.
The band plays the fight song till the timekeeper’s second finger goes up, and ESPN returns. The red-and-black beasts in the crowd point their fingers like guns, now splashing their painted faces all over the JumboTron and millions of TVs from coast-to-coast. Sweaty torsos return to the floor and a whistle begins play. Your boys hammer away—with a stingy and dogged defense—until the last thirty seconds of the game. One of yours lobs a slick one to the center for an alley oop. Down by two, and your boys make an important stop at the other end. Your point guard Smith will dribble the ball down the floor through a sea of soaked jerseys, amid three Phogs with four fouls each. Smith will take the ball automatically. It could so easily fall from his hands, slip away to the defender, who is treeing him like a bird dog. But Smith holds tight, as his teammates head down the floor. He keeps the ball in a slow-motion dribble that might be called palming. Plunk. Plunk. Plunk. Smith plunks the ball to the top of the key. Twenty seconds left. He makes a crisp bounce pass to Boyd, the center. All five players rotate, making good cuts as they’ve been taught, and the Phog defense rotates, too. Now Boyd is at the top of the key. Seven seconds left. Raised on a farm, Boyd is heavily recruited, but his frosh average remains at three points a game. Zero for eight tonight, Boyd dribbles around himself in sort of a circle, as the defender tangos close, just outside the three-point line. When the defender falls back, almost as if Boyd has pushed him, Boyd levitates above floor, and you know what’s coming. Noooooooooooo, you scream. You’re supposed to pass off to Smith for a quick drive to the basket! But Boyd, who’s zero for eight, lofts the three, it arcs high, the type that will either go in or bounce off into the hands of the Phog defender, who now drools with joy over Boyd’s error, and, as fifteen-thousand-five-hundred-fifty souls watch, the ball does exactly what it should do if you want to win. Slick as a whistle. You can no longer hear; you believe streamers may unfurl from the rafters. Confetti may snow down upon the heads of 15,550 fans.
Boyd’s teammates run to him, but Coach is waving his arms like fucking Jerry Lewis, screaming orders in a manner that will keep him hoarse for days. Four point one seconds remain, and your boys line up for a defensive stand. The star Phog shooter is perfectly capable of hoisting one from mid-court, but as the ball is in-bounded to him and he releases it way too low, the buzzer sounds, the orange neon rim of the backboard lights up, and the crowd comes undone. You feel the Spirit Temple Arena rise from footings that sink three fathoms into the caliche. Your wife squeezes your hand, and the guys in soaked blue jerseys lope from the arena like bulls with spears dangling from their sides.
“Let’s go,” she says. “The parking lot will be mobbed.”
“No,” you say. “They’re handing Coach the mic.”
“You’re the boss,” she says, squeezing your hand.
“Damned straight,” you say, squeezing back.
The writer is indebted to the pharmaceutical
information distributed by Albertsons Pharmacy Answers™, Sav-On Pharmacy
Answers®. Caremark, and to a book by James J. Rybacki and James W. Long,
The Essential Guide to Prescriptions Drugs 2001. Without these sources