Tobacco & Firearms

Sobering Thoughts

May 16, 2008

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There’s nothing to put a damper on your columns about food and wine like a grumpy old doctor who tells you have to lose 50 pounds. A dour World War II Navy veteran, he was the only Cigna doctor with an open appointment, and I had some symptoms that needed checking out.

“I had a man in here last week,” he said in that sour-apple Yankee accent one hears up here on the lips of skinny men with wispy beards outside Dunkin Donuts (there’s one every 300 feet, it seems, in New Hampshire). “His blood sugar went up 300 percent in a matter of weeks, and now he’s on insulin. But he wasn’t fat like you.” I’d have to call this not bedside but “gravesite” manner. The internal medicine man stared at me with undisguised contempt, and told me I needed to get back to the same weight I was when I was 18.

“But who weighs the same at 43 as they do at 18?” I pleaded.

“The ones who don’t end up on insulin.” With a glint of triumph in his icy blue eyes, he contined. “I weigh exactly 10 pounds more than I did after Normandy!” he said, jabbing the air with his finger. “It’s all about self-discipline. None of you people have that any more.”

I wasn’t sure which people he meant, but explained that I have been trying to lose weight, despite the more sedentary life that comes with moving from a walking city like New York to a town like Nashua where you have to drive a car (or in some months a snowplow) to buy a stick of gum.

“If I sent you to a concentration camp, you’d lose 50 lbs., just like that,” said the doctor.

I almost asked him if he was recruiting for one…. “And your point is?”

“The point is—it’s possible.”

This doc had clearly seen his share of DPs, so I let it pass. I volunteered that one reason I’d come was for a weight loss drug called Meridia that suppresses the appetite. The last time I took it, I only needed one meal a day, and lost five pounds in two weeks.

“I don’t believe in that sort of business. You people nowadays want to have it both ways. You want to have your cake and eat it too.”

“Well no,” I said. “The pills help you lose the taste for cake. Or something. Anyway, I don’t like cake. Beer is more my weakness.”

“Beer!” he spat, and demanded to know how much I drank. I admitted to some 3-4 most nights, with meals.

“You sound like an alcoholic,” he said. He glared at me as if I’d just slid my hand up his granddaughter’s thigh.

I ran through in my mind the 10-point checklist from AA. All clear. “I’m pretty sure that’s not the problem….”

“You keep this up, and your liver’s going to end up sliding out of your ass one day in the shower,” he explained. “I tell people things like this, and they don’t want to hear them. That’s why I don’t have a waiting room full of patients,” he said with pride.

All at once it made sense why he’d had an opening for me—in this office which looked like it hadn’t had a technological update since Macarthur accepted Japan’s surrender. “What do you eat? How often do you eat? Three meals? You don’t need three. You’re too sedentary for that. Have you ever heard of the number ‘two’?”

I ran down the grim list of bachelor microwaveables which I pick up from Trader Joe’s—which are at least all-natural, whose ingredients don’t read like the right side of the periodic table. “I live alone, and cooking for one is kind of depressing.”

“So is dying at 50, young man. Or, you could start slapping a salmon fillet into the microwave—if that’s not too much trouble. But it’s all up to you. If you want to eat and drink yourself into an early grave that’s your own business. But don’t expect me to give it my seal of approval. That’s not what I do. If you want that, you’ll have to find somebody else.”

Which by this point sounded like a pretty good idea. I felt like I’d stumbled into a confessional with one of James Joyce’s Jesuits.

“Now drop your pants,” he said, as he slipped on a rubber glove…. Fade to black.

The upshot of this particular middle-aged epiphany? I won’t be sampling wines and beers except on weekends—especially since my girlfriend did the math for me, and showed me how drinking (say) a bottle of Riesling on a given night is almost like eating a birthday cake all by yourself. So Fridays and Saturdays will be my nights for yeast-related research. Every other night it’s carrot juice, filets of lightly lemoned fish, and long walks chasing imaginary squirrels with the hounds. Behind me, lopes the angry Yankee doctor, crying out in his Northern way, “Memento mori, my young friend!”

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