|Jan/Feb 2003 Humor/Satire|
Prologue to a Clog
I've been thinking a lot about clogs lately.
Seems like everywhere you turn you run into one, become part of one, or one becomes part of you. You get in your car to go to work, the road is clogged with other motorists vying and merging and getting squeezed into a one-lane-work-zone-bottleneck-detour. You roll down your window, the air is clogged with exhaust fumes, dust, anxiety. Turn on the radio: clogged with inane ads and idiotic overcaffeinated DJs.
You push through clog after clog and arrive at work, where the "workflow" has clogged and dumped piles of backed up chunks of unfinished work into your "workspace." Three co-workers appear from three different directions, creating a literal clog in the aisle way outside your cubicle. The phone rings, the email chimes, the fax machine starts spitting out page after page, your PDA alarm goes off, your cell phone chirps, your pager vibrates. You experience a crisis of "competing demands and priorities," which is just another way of saying you've got a brain clog and that little bottle of mental liquid plumber you keep in your lower right hand drawer is out of reach.
Act I: Subterranean Homesick Blues
Last weekend the in-laws paid a visit. The additional showers, baths, dish washings and toilet flushings were more than the main drain could take. Somewhere in the subterranean realms between the house and the city sewer line—precipitated by the penetration of Ponderosa Pine roots and exacerbated by a sudden influx, from every drain in the house and the one overworked toilet, of various effulgent byproducts of multi generational communal living—a clog developed.
I spent most of the weekend in the basement, fiercely wielding a wet-dry shop vac, emerging occasionally, like a medieval servant on chamber-pot duty, with buckets to dump in a remote area of the backyard. Meanwhile wife, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and niece cavorted about town from antique shop to clothier to espresso bar, periodically stopping by the house to shower or do some dishes or (I suspect) flush Costco-size quantities of feminine hygiene products down the toilet (for the record, they deny this). And poor brother-in-law, who had come down with a nasty case of food poisoning, added his body's own plumbing crisis to that of the house. In a macabre and ironic interplay of organism and environment, his eruptions, from at least two unhappy orifices, became one with the periodic eruptions from the main floor drain in the basement.
I rented an industrial-size drain snake and unleashed it into the depths. The snake writhed, almost catching a hold of my pant leg at one point, and the drain cleared somewhere beneath the pine trees in our front yard. From the cleanout pipe echoed the blessed sound of far away gurgling. I retracted the snake, feeling like the new Adam, reversing the curse (the original clog in humanity's plumbing) and restoring my household to prelapsidarian peace, flowing like a river, down the drain.
Act II: Full Metal Jacket
My dad was in the hospital a few months ago. He's got a history of clogged arteries and, although he's done a lot, with diet and exercise, to reverse the trend since undergoing a quintuple bypass a few years back, he still has occasional episodes of clogs and crimps in the arterial plumbing. This time around, he got an ambulance ride to the hospital and some new galvanized piping installed.
I was at a conference in New Orleans when the situation arose (New Orleans itself could be described as a clog in the Mississippi River that became a city characterized in turn by such magnificent clogs as the Mardi Gras). My wife phoned me from the bedside of my father with the news that he had had a mild heart attack, caused by a clog plain and simple, and now they had him on anti-clogging medication. I phoned the airlines but there was a clog in their rules (the opposite of a loophole) whereby I could not under any circumstances catch an earlier flight home. Flummoxed by a loophole in my cash flow (the opposite of a clog) I had purchased my ticket through an online bidding outfit, thereby stanching the flow a bit; now, however, that stanching had grown into an out and out clog that threatened to deny me my God-given right to be by my father's bedside as he lay potentially (but not really, thank God) dying.
Clogs upon clogs!
Well, I resorted to the equivalent of renting a drain snake. I called the online bidding outfit and told them my father was on his deathbed, suffering from acute clogging. I begged, I pleaded, I dramatized all of Elizabeth Kubler Ross's stages in rapid succession. I cleared the clogs from the beleaguered customer service agent's ears with my moaning, hissing and rattling, until he relented and offered me a flight out the following day, two days earlier than my original departure(of course there would be a nominal hundred dollar service fee; there is always a cost when the snake is involved).
As it turned out, my father was not on his deathbed by any means. Far from it. His ashes would not be clogging up any mountain stream for a while longer yet. The doctor decided to inflate a little balloon at the end of a tiny tube (the snake again!) strung into the artery and then install some little sections of metal tubing called stents to prevent the artery from collapsing in and clogging again. My father already had a few stents installed in previous episodes. With the latest installation, the doctor said he now had what they like to refer to as the "full metal jacket."
A clever concept, but what sucks is that while expanding the artery and inserting the stents, a chunk of clog-stuff broke off and floated up into my dad's brain, wreaking a bit of cerebral havoc. Not too much havoc, but enough to give him a numb hand and cheek. The clever doc guaranteed this would disappear in a matter of days, which it didn't. Now my dad refers to that doctor as the "full metal jack-ass."
Act III: Ring of Fire
There's a muscle called Schatzki's Ring, which encircles the esophagus just above the point where it empties into the stomach. The doctor told me it's called Schatzki's Ring because a guy named Schatzki first identified it (this doctor wasn't as creative as the one that coined the Full Metal Jacket epithet, so I offer Ring of Fire as my contribution to esophageal shop-talk). There is no consensus in the medical literature regarding what causes Schatzki's Ring to enflame, enlarge, constrict, and ultimately result in disconcerting clogs (especially on occasions like Thanksgiving Dinner) of chicken, roast beef, ham, potatoes, rolls, cabbage, bagels, corn, apples, yams, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, etc. (especially when consumed in rapid succession).
In my case, I suspect at least one cause was the congenital acid indigestion I inherited from my father. I recall the burning upswell occurring often during my childhood and teens (and I recall reaching for my dad's ever present supply of "how do you spell relief?" Rolaids). Schatzki's Ring, I suspect, thickens and constricts in a misguided attempt to spell its own relief and create a firewall within the esophagus. As I grew into adulthood, the acid indigestion problem gradually lessened. I erroneously attributed this to eating better and staying fit. But in reality, and as is often the case as one grows older and wiser, I was eating worse and growing steadily flabbier, less fit and more prone to rationalizations. A more plausible explanation, I now must admit, was that the ring was tightening like a noose around my esophagus, preventing acidic eddies from splashing up, but also resulting in the occasional difficulty I noticed in swallowing things that I had previously swallowed easily in a single gulp.
These early episodes were like the occasional and seemingly random eruptions from our basement floor drain months prior to the Big Clog. Eventually—and this is a general principle of things clogged and clogging—it gets worse. In the case of my esophagus, I found myself occasionally and with increasing frequency having to deal with clogs that would not go down, which puts a damper on enjoying one's dinner.
So I visited the gastrointestinal disease specialist, Dr. Rooter (the snake again!), who laid me out on the endoscopy table, stuck a tube with little camera on the end of it down my throat and in about two seconds diagnosed my Schatzki's Ring. Then he took a long tapering implement from his table of what looked like medieval torture devices and jammed it down until it stretched the constricted ring. (The nurses referred to this as "the horn," but I refer to it as "the snake again!") Then he pulled that one out and grabbed an even bigger one to stretch my ring even further. Meanwhile I gasped and gagged and gurgled and writhed, wondering why I had asked not to be sedated (all for the sake of researching this essay).
Now I can swallow with ease, and the old acid burn is back. Johnny Cash, that's how I spell relief.
All of science, art and history—pretty much everything under the sun—can be viewed in terms of clog theory. In the beginning, the entire universe was compressed into a primordial clog which resulted in the Big Bang. The dinosaurs died when a massive meteor kicked up a nuclear-winter-like clog that plagued the earth. Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and apparently God does too, instructing the human race to be fruitful and clog up the face of the earth. Now we construct buildings and thoroughfares and Information Superhighways with a keen eye to maintaining a frantic clog-free flow. But clogs nevertheless (one could even argue: therefore) ensue. The hurrier we go the behinder we get. Wars and riots are the result of socio-political clogs. Bad art is clogged art. Bad ideas come from clogged minds. We are like sheep that rush after each other, creating clogs in fad and fashion. We want more, more, more—even when that more inevitably results in clog upon clog, frustration, paralysis, claustrophobia, insanity.
This morning I tried on some pants I hadn't worn since last summer. They seemed to have shrunk. Liposuction would be one solution (the dreaded snake, again!). Buying more and larger clothes, widening the freeway so to speak, is another solution. Or I could lose some weight, simplify, purify, embrace the golden mean, float like a butterfly. Moderation, perhaps, is the key to a clog-free world. Prophets and philosophers have been telling us as much for the last couple of millennia, but our ears have been too clogged to hear the message.