The Poetry Project 2010
Classics smackdown.

I hate people with multiple skills.

Take a book like David Watts's The Orange Wire Problem and Other Tales from the Doctor's Office. Watts is a practicing doctor, and the stories in this essay collection all come from his experiences working as a doctor. To which I say, what? It isn't enough that you have the skills and drive to be a doctor, you get to be a good writer, too? Leave something for the rest of us, would you, pal?

Orange I don't often read books about medicine, with the exception of medical thrillers by Robin Cook, which I used to eat up with a spoon (today's fun trivia: Rent the movie "Coma," based on Cook's first book, if you want to see Tom Selleck in a very early movie role). This is for a very good reason. Even before I had a not-fun surgery a couple of years back, the medical establishment gave me the heebies. It may be very wrong of me, but you know the way most people hate lawyers? That's the way I hate doctors. I recognize they're necessary but for the most part I never want to talk to one ever again. And nurses? Don't even get me started on nurses. Especially the evil ones that never call you back when they say they're going to.*

So reading this book was an education. For one thing, the essays are written in a rather dreamy, poetic style, with few quotation marks and (what seems to be) a thoughtful doctor's take on interactions with his patients. But the essay that most stands out in my mind is the one in which he describes his own experience as a patient, while undergoing a colonoscopy, titled "The Soft Animal of the Body." In the essay, he describes how he chooses no anesthetic (being a control freak), has chosen a doctor friend of his with years of experience to do the procedure, and how during the procedure, he suggests that the doctor turn him onto his back. This is what Watts normally does for his patients, as it helps minimize the pressure of the scope against the bowel walls. His dcotor responds only that it's okay. Meanwhile the nurse is relating the information that Watts's pulse rate is fluctuating alarmingly, and then you go to this:

"Time to stop, I said, as if from nowhere in particular. The words just popped out and surprised especially me. If I had had time or inclination I would have tried to imagine where that voice had come from.

No response.

George, I said.


And while I was figuring out what to say, the voice took over: PULL IT OUT.

There was a delay, then a soft, Yeah..."

And, later, as Watts was thinking about the procedure in the recovery room:

"I was thinking how in this situation, that of the first sustained low heart rate, I would have been out of that colon in a flash. A different appreciation of risk? A difference of style, I told myself.

Then I wondered: could it be that my style is determined by what the soft animal of my body knows about itself, knows about what it can take and cannot? And what it fears? I was astonished to learn that, despite my comfort with the whole idea of colonoscopy, my body had a different take on the process." (pp. 97-98.)

That really hit me, for some reason. I was interested that even when a doctor is telling a doctor to stop, they don't always listen as fast as they should. And it made me feel better about the soft animal of my body. Read this book. And next time you have to go to the doctor, I will hope you find a doctor who is respectful of the soft animal of your body, too.

*There are exceptions to prove the rule. I have been lucky enough to come across a few stellar doctors and nurse practitioners, and I'll say this: you appreciate them all the more after you deal with any of their multitude of lackluster colleagues.