My lifetime engagement with the pharmaceutical industry has been minimal. This, I know and regret, is un-American. Every red-blooded native-born citizen of this republic is an amateur pharmacologist. He can tell you the names and proper dosages of drugs, as well as their indications and side effects. I have tried to Americanize myself in this respect, browsing the Physician’s Desk Reference in libraries, but all that came out of it was a spoof column once.
Until my lymphocytes got out of line, my entire self-medication regimen was a couple of Tylenol when I had a headache. An American-born friend even scoffed at me for that. “It’s an antipyretic,” she explained patiently, as to a dim-witted child. “For pain relief you want ibuprofen.” I had to look up “antipyretic,” though I waited until she’d left.
Then the Big C came calling, chemotherapy commenced, and suddenly I was in pharmaceutical hell. Allopurinol; ciprofloxacin; methylprednisolone; prochlorperazine; ondansetron…whatever they are, it wasn’t enough. My appetite was shot and food tasted awful. On a visit to the oncologist two months into the chemo I learned that I had lost twenty pounds, dropping from 195 to 175.
The doctor frowned and shook his head. If I went on slimming at that rate, he said, he’d have to recalibrate the entire treatment. Typical medical professional: Me being able to feel my backbone through my belly button was OK, but him having to rework his sacred schedules would be a cosmic disaster.
(My son was born on a July 3rd after being induced. The actual due date was July 4th, which would have pleased me to no end, but as a medical friend explained to me later: “OB/GYNs don’t like working on public holidays any more than you do.”)
“I’ll give you a prescription,” said the doctor. “Appetite enhancer.”
I took the prescription to my pharmacist and gave it to a beautiful young woman. Half an hour later I called in to collect it from a different, but equally beautiful, young woman: Let us call her BYW2. She handed me a small bottle of liquid.
(Brief pause here for a general-interest question. What is it about pharmacology that attracts so many hot babes? There is more female pulchritude behind the average pharmacist’s counter than you get in an Olympic beach volleyball team. Has the whole industry been quietly absorbed by the Hooters chain, or what? OK, back to main narrative.)
BYW2: That’ll be $60, please.
Derb: Say what? But I have insurance!
BYW2: Yes, it’s $60 even after the insurance.
Derb: Good grief! What would it be without the insurance?
BYW2 (consults computer): $780.
Sell utilities! Buy pharmaceuticals!
You get what you pay for, though. That stuff is a miracle drug. Within a couple of days I was eating like a pig. I could have eaten an actual pig, properly roasted. I was eating the leftovers on family members’ plates. I was eating free snack samples in the mall, then circling around for seconds. I was scavenging forgotten week-old potato salad, the bloom of mold already visible on it. I was popping boiled eggs like jelly beans. I was chomping through bags of potato chips, normally of no interest to me. “You can’t eat just one” used to be the slogan. I was having trouble holding the line at one bag. Toby’s Purina Beneful was starting to look good. (Not the wet food, though. I was not that far gone.)
Sure enough, I put on weight. Then I put on more weight. Dressing for an event, I noted I was having trouble fastening my pants. Maybe I should switch to half-doses? I began to have food fantasies, which are somewhat like erotic fantasies, only not so…busy.
The moment of truth came a week ago, as I was driving along Jericho Turnpike here on Long Island. It was mid-afternoon.
Suddenly I had a vision. I simply can’t describe it any other way. It was a vision, clear and solid, hanging in the air in front of me, midway between my eyeballs and the car windshield. A vision—like Joan of Arc seeing her saints or the angel of the Lord appearing to those shepherds at the Nativity. I could have reached out and touched it, it looked so real. It was a vision of…a napoleon.
A napoleon, in case you don’t know, is a type of confection: layers of flaky pastry separated by slabs of thick rich cream.
(Pay no attention whatever to recipes that allow custard or vanilla pudding in place of true cream. Here at Taki’s Mag we are dedicated to upholding Western Civilization’s core values. Putting custard into a napoleon is the culinary equivalent of playing a Bach partita on the kazoo.)
I had not, in my life to that point, had any particular relationship with napoleons. I liked them all right and would eat one with pleasure if it was put in front of me, but there was no element of obsessive-compulsive disorder in my affection for napoleons. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way. Now, suddenly, here was this vision. I had to have a napoleon or die.
Around that point on the Turnpike, a few hundred yards west of Oakwood Road, there is a supermarket. I pulled into the parking lot. (If you want some drama here—if, I mean, you don’t think I have already dramatized the story sufficiently—you can imagine screaming tires, pedestrians diving out of the way, and opposing traffic veering and colliding, with horns blaring and curses flying.)
I ran into the supermarket, straight to the bakery department. Yes!—they had napoleons. I purchased the biggest, creamiest one I could find, begged a plastic fork from the deli counter, took that napoleon outside, and sat in my car in the parking lot eating the thing. It lasted about twenty seconds—impressive work, as napoleons are not designed for fast eating.
Then came the downer. Licking the last flecks of cream from my fingers, I suddenly felt ashamed and…soiled, as if after an act of self-abuse. Had I really given in to my base appetites like that without even a struggle? Was I really such a slave to my metabolic urges? Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins—the seventh, the way I learned them.
Ancient philosophical conundrums about volition and free will swirled in my brain. I recalled Thomas More’s reproof of the Duke of Norfolk in A Man for All Seasons:
(MORE goes up to him and feels him up and down like an animal…) Is there no single sinew in the midst of this that serves no appetite of Norfolk’s but is just Norfolk? There is! Give that some exercise, my lord!
I drove home thoughtfully. Arrived, I took the miracle drug—it was a nearly full bottle, as I had refilled the prescription two days before—and put it at the very back of the refrigerator, among unpopular flavors of yogurt and the remainder stubs of disappointing cheeses.
There it remains. My appetite has gone south again and food tastes like sand again, but I don’t care. I am no longer the helpless tool of fleshly appetites. Possibly I shall wither down into a bag of bones and be blown away by some summer breeze, or, like Tithonus, get turned into a grasshopper by some sympathetic goddess—but I still don’t care. I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
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