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The Doctor Will See You Now 13 min read

The Doctor Will See You Now

On doctors and health, plus viral personal essays, cruise ships, The Masters, the art of saying 'no', and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

I went to the doctor this week for the first time in a long time.

I know, I know; I can hear you saying, “You’re too old not to be going to the doctor regularly.” And you’re right. As much as I wish you weren’t, you are.

Some of it wasn’t my fault. Like years of it, sure; that was my fault. But the state of our country’s health care system leaves much to be desired. I tried to be seen in November, and this week was as soon as they could make room for me. Isn’t that wild? You, of better health practices than I, probably already know this and have seen it in your doctors’ offices, too.

Not going to the doctor is supposedly a guy thing, like how we also don’t ask for directions. There may be some truth to that, since I did, after all, avoid the doctor for a long time. But it was more like a careless car owner, I think. 

Careless Owner: If I’m not seeing any issues, why would I take it in? 
Normal Person: Well, have you checked the oil even once in the past year?
CO: … Didn’t you hear me? There’s nothing wrong with it.
NP: ... [blinks]

As ridiculous as that sounds to reasonable ears, I do think it’s how I’ve treated my body, even though I’d never treat my car that way. So much of my “aversion” to going is that I feel, by and large, fine, almost always. Which is to say, outwardly I appear perfectly healthy. Now, as you can tell from my highly specific language there, I am no doctor, so what I think about this should mean very, very little. And it does.

But now I’m left to reckon with the reality of my life that, for all my talk of being old, I actually still have trouble grasping: I’m not 18 anymore.

It sounds so unoriginal to say it (and it is, no doubt), but I wonder if others around my age (mid-30s) have the same experience I do, which is something akin to our minds and somehow the very eyes with which we look out and take in the world, feel frozen in a point before. Not in a defiant way, not in a deliberate way. Just in a “I feel like I haven’t changed all that much” kind of way. Where we can remember past athletic accomplishments and delude ourselves into thinking they’re not so far off, that we could probably do that again if push came to shove. (And I don’t mean those blessed few of us who actually can, like my brother, who I believe genuinely could roll out of bed and run a marathon but he’s just built differently.) It’s that lack of accurate perception that lulls me into a false sense of security when it comes to the doctor. 

But last year was disorienting in the way only shocking medical discoveries can be. My dad was diagnosed with cancer, though showing no outward signs of it, and was gone in a mere four weeks. Not even six months later, my mom was diagnosed with cancer of her own, and it’s been a completely different experience. Much slower, much better response, more than a fighting chance.

Because of these things, suddenly my body and its very foundational bits seemed untrustworthy. I became the living embodiment of every Google search you’ve ever conducted about any imperfection or slight pain in your body and as sure as the sun rises in the east, cancer will be listed as a potential cause. It’s been a joke for most of my life, from back in the early days of the internet and WebMD. It’s understood that the internet will return cancer as a possible answer. 

It’s not helped by the very real statistics surrounding cancer that aren’t encouraging. Right there on the American Cancer Society’s home page is a sobering stat: One in 2 men, and 1 in 3 women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. 

It’s with stats like that when a person could start looking around a room and counting the people; statistically, one of those two men over at that table in the coffee shop will have cancer, one of that group of women walking three abreast down the sidewalk in the spring sunshine.

They don’t seem that worried about me after my first doctor’s visit. I was borderline begging for a colonoscopy, but there’s not a lot of cause for one since I had one 5 years ago. Sure, I thought, but this is a new reality; now everything is different. In my mind, maybe. But not necessarily medically. I could get the colonoscopy if I pushed harder to get it, and maybe I will at some point. But right now, any aches and pains and imperfections seem most likely to be anything else on the WebMD list at the moment.

That’s not to say there wasn’t room for me to worry. In that mixed blessing of too much information and not enough communication, I got access to my labs in the little online portal but no call from the doctor. So I was googling each and every abbreviation and test and checking my results. But then I came to the numbers that were actually out of the optimal ranges: my cholesterol is high. Which wasn’t a shock to me, as it had been high in the past, and I’d even been on medicine for it in the beforetimes. 

It wasn’t so much the news of (re)learning this truth about my body that upset me; it was learning this truth in this new reality. It was how it compounded and magnified the lack of trust I feel toward the very blood pumping through my veins. I could feel myself getting anxious over it, beating myself up for it and looking into diets that would help reduce it. I just knew I was going to get a call the next day and end up back on a statin. And then I didn’t. I got a brief note through the internet portal saying that he wasn’t worried about my labs, just incorporate more exercise and a diet of lean meats and reduce intake of any fried foods. That was it. All that worrying for not a whole lot.

For what it’s worth, I think the doc is wrong. I think he’s assuming that maybe I just had a bad day, that when I see him again in three months, I won’t have such terrible numbers. And I might have better numbers, if I can keep up with running and biking and eat with my cholesterol in mind a little more. But I’m going to have high cholesterol, you can take that to the bank; it was a gift from my mother. 

But the whole thing did help to calm the raging thoughts in my mind. “Do your part,” is what I keep telling myself. “There are lots of people who want to keep you around for a long time.” At the end of the day, we can only do what so much. As long as I don’t blithely sit by and double down on fried foods and red meat, I can only change so much in this body of mine. It’s what I’m stuck with, for better or worse. And life isn’t made for looking over your shoulder constantly, at potential saboteurs that can’t be seen working inside my body. They’re not to be discounted, for sure: Go to the doctor, people. Don’t be like me. But don’t forget to live and enjoy what precious time we have left in the meantime. 

And so I say to you: Do your part. There are lots of people who want to keep you around for a long time. 

  1. Last week, I mentioned two long pieces that sparked a lot of online chatter, but they weren’t the most viral pieces that drew online condemnation. That crown, at least recently, belongs to The Cut’s delightfully bad piece about the perks of marrying an older man. But more fun than that single piece is Caitlin Dewey’s roundup of infamous internet essays in her indispensable Links I Would Gchat You If We Were Friends newsletter. Check out her list, which includes The Cut’s essay (and it’s previous title holder from its own financial columnist about the time she got conned into handing over $50,000 in a shoebox to scammers. Related podcast: The Press Box, featuring a guest appearance by Amanda Dobbins.
  2. Will we ever tire of the long, first-person narrative essay from aboard a cruise ship? Not before we take in Gary Shteyngart’s massive dispatch from Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas for The Atlantic. The piece is painfully aware of the glut of these pieces, ever since David Foster Wallace shipped out for Harper’s back in 1996. But this one is an entertaining romp on a monstrosity of a ship by an author who didn’t want to be there. For a cruise-piece links roundup like Dewey’s infamous internet essays above, Today in Tabs has you covered.
  3. A truly excellent piece of writing from Esquire, but the content is a truly tough story to get through. The writer’s extreme empathy and tender tone relieve readers from having to muster it all on their own; it becomes easier to take in all the terribleness because one knows he’s in good hands. The story is the one behind the lurid headlines that came from Alabama after a small-town mayor and preacher committed suicide after his deepest secret was revealed online.
  4. It’s one of my favorite weeks in all of sports (which I know, coming from me, might not sound like much, but it’s a truly beautiful week when the best golfers in the world make the trip to Augusta, Georgia, for The Masters. As a result, I was riveted by this recent story from Garden and Gun, about a history that doesn’t really surprise me, but I guess I’d never looked too hard to find in naive that hopes that it weren’t really so. For many years, the tournament was a racist and segregated affair: all of the golfers would be white, and all of the caddies would be Black. Despite this ugliness, a group of local Black men turned intimate knowledge of the land and conditions into indispensable knowledge for the golfers who came to the tournament. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the tournament allowed the golfers’ full-time caddies to replace the all-Black caddie corps and essentially end a way of life for these men. The story is a celebration of those men and that history that’s far too often overlooked in the golf world.
  5. Let’s dispense with the obvious: Toni Morrison was a real one. In her role as senior editor at Random House, she wrote hundreds of rejection letters who’d sent in unsolicited manuscripts. Such letters would be dreaded by any creative, impossible to not feel as if a rejection of the material is a rejection of their very self. But writers especially talk about those notes that rise above a mere form letter, those that might contain a small handwritten note of encouragement, of affirmation that all hope is not lost though the result remains the same resounding “no.” Morrison’s letters, the subject of this piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books, were a display of an unfettered kindness of spirit, of commiseration with the task, of how the craft of writing is sustained through equal parts criticism and support.

What Morrison repeatedly stressed, trusting her exceptional acuity as both a reader and writer, is that writing is a skill of its own—one that doesn’t automatically follow from intellectual brilliance, nor from simply being an interesting or important person. She told one young writer that his ideas were good, but warned that concept was the first and lowest hurdle he would face:
Your work needs force—some manner of making these potentially powerful characters alive and of giving texture to the setting. Giving details about the people—more than what they look like—what idiosyncrasies they have, what distinguished mannerism—and details about where the action takes place: what is in the room, what is the light like, the smells, etc.—all of that would give us texture and tone.

Characteristically, this detailed rejection ends with encouragement, as Morrison told the author, “I hope you are able to work on [your manuscript] to give it the vitality it certainly deserves.”

  1. A delightful (but perhaps infuriating) profile in the New York Times Magazine by Brett Martin on a seemingly random man who’s written more than 24,000 largely nonsensical songs. The author found him by hearing his own name in one of the songs, followed by the musician’s phone number. He called, though he was calling some 11 years after the song had been released. The musician had no idea who the author was. His response? “You have to understand…I’ve written over 24,000 songs. I wrote 50 songs yesterday.” And the story goes from there, and at times is a meditation on the act of creation, of listening to the muse and not discarding ideas, no matter how random or bad they might be. It was a genuinely fun piece to read.
  2. New York magazine’s excellent archive-based newsletter, Reread, recently sent around a story about the late, great Clay Felker, the editorial powerhouse behind the early days of New York magazine, penned by none other than Tom Wolfe. In the email, the author wrote: “He makes a pretty good case that a big swath of the New York City we know is partly a reflection of the magazine Felker and his team made. Are you always curious about the next young power broker coming up through the political system, the next restaurant you and your friends will want to patronize, the next show or club or consumer object or artist that will be the talk of New York? You are, in more ways than you may know, reflecting the interests and inclinations of Clay Felker and his editorial view of the world.” A line in Wolfe’s piece about how he came to be tapped to run the then-newly renamed Sunday supplement to the Herald Tribune caught my eye and made it seem like this was a great spot to list it. “A … Sunday supplement! The Sunday supplement was the lowest form of newspaper journalism in America at that time. With the single exception of The New York Times Magazine, Sunday supplements were cotton candy for the two areas of the brain (Broca’s and Wernicke’s) that process language.”
  3. I loved this recent piece from Chicago Magazine on the program at a maximum security prison that allows inmates to earn not just credit hours or certificates but a full bachelor’s degree from one of the best schools in the country, nearby Northwestern University. It tells stories of some of the students, it tells of the massive undertaking to get the program in pace, and it tells of the tensions it created with the guards who weren’t getting any free degree from a top-notch school. Just really well done all around.
  4. Texas Monthly does celebrity profiles (and cover story ones, at that) right. It’s never just for the sake of whatever thing the celebrity is promoting (though it’s still a big reason), but because of the nature of the magazine, the main touchpoint is, of course, Texas. They recently profiled actor Jesse Plemons, with the catchy headline “How Jesse Plemons Came to Star in, Well, Pretty Much Everything.” From the piece: Plemons has scored an Oscar nomination (for The Power of the Dog) and three Emmy nods; shared the screen with Tom Hanks, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep; and appeared in some of the buzziest TV shows of the past twenty years. With Killers of the Flower Moon, Plemons has now acted in seven Best Picture nominees, putting him in rarefied company, including Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, and Laurence Olivier. But he has not yet had the kind of starring role that takes you from being critically respected to being relentlessly hounded.
  5. The celebrity time peg for Plemons’s profile in Texas Monthly is the forthcoming Civil War, the new film from Alex Garland. Here’s a review of the film from Airmail, and if you’re in the mood to get your Garland on, revisit his debut film from 2015 Ex Machina and then check out this podcast episode from the guys at Filmspotting (who thought they were celebrating the film’s 10th anniversary when they planned it but quickly figure out they were wrong).

More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

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Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film,  Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

4/2: Top Chef, S17 (4)(Peacock); Shogun (Hulu)
4/3: Top Chef, S17 (3)(Peacock); Good One: A Show About Jokes (Peacock)
4/4: Top Chef, S18 (5) (Peacock)
4/5: Survivor, S46 (Paramount+); Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Max)
4/6: Top Chef, S18 (3); DUNE 2* (theater); Survivor, S45 (2) (Paramount+)
4/7: Survivor, S45 (6) (Paramount+)