A midlife assessment.

Department of complaints.
Aug. 18 2005 12:17 PM

Midlife Assessment

Cataloging my ruination.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Click image to expand.

I'm 41 years old, and I'm absolutely falling apart. I'll start from the top and work my way down, cataloging, as it were, my disintegration.

I am bald, except for the sides of my head. All the stuff at the top has just about melted away. There are a few resilient, aberrant strands, so I buzz my hair down with clippers so that I don't look like I have mange.

My eyes, from staring at a computer all day, are often blurry and in pain. I bought reading glasses a few years ago, but they are so smudged that I think they are making my eyes worse. I shouldn't stare at the computer so much, but I'm addicted to Internet backgammon and I'm a writer, which means I spend my days writing e-mails. The collective word count of all my e-mails would surely equal Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Inside my head, behind my eyes and beneath my bald dome, is a lingering mild depression, which causes me to procrastinate and not do simple tasks like cleaning my reading glasses or to begin important tasks like writing my version of War and Peace. Generally speaking, my depression manifests itself as this feeling of subtle displacement from my life. I'm reminded of this line from the movie The Red Shoes: "Life rushes by, time rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on dancing forever." All of that applies to me, except for the red shoes part. Everything seems to be rushing by, and I'm floating above it all, reaching my hand out to life, but not quite grasping it, like waving your hand for a taxi that is clearly occupied.

My nose gives me a lot of trouble. When I was 5 years old, I was attacked by a disturbed youth, and he broke my small, just-forming beak. This did something to a vein inside my nose and ever since I've had hundreds, if not thousands, of nosebleeds. This past winter, my nosebleeds were the worst they've ever been. The heating in my apartment baked the interior of my nostrils, and I had two or three nosebleeds a day. I thought of going to a blood bank and hooking up my nose to some kind of contraption and earning some extra cash. Naturally, I exacerbate the situation with the occasional unconscious exploration of my nostrils with a digit (i.e., finger), while nervously playing Internet backgammon. There's nothing more humiliating than bleeding on your laptop from nose-picking while wasting time playing Internet backgammon.

Of all my body parts, my mouth is in pretty good shape. Not having dental insurance, I haven't been to a dentist in years, but I bought a tooth scraper in a drugstore and take great pleasure in removing my own plaque and tartar, which sounds like the name of a law firm. Just this morning I spent at least 15 minutes on my plaque, and I'm always amazed how quickly it comes back. It's sort of like my massive credit card bills. Every month I pay them and I experience this naive sense of satisfaction that this will be the last time I ever have to do that again. But there they are the next month. Plaque and debt are clearly spiritual brothers. One area of concern in my mouth is my front right tooth. It is half fake and completely yellow but rapidly moving toward brown. I fell in a bathtub when I was 6 and chipped my tooth, and the cap hasn't been replaced in 21 years. But this tooth gives me character; it is kind of like a mood ring, growing darker each year as I grow increasingly strange.

My neck is no good. I can't turn my head when I parallel park. I'm like the Seabiscuit jockey, who didn't let people know he was half blind. I don't let people know that I can't actually turn my head.

My right shoulder was pulverized by my enormous 19-year-old son. He still likes to have "tickle-time," though now it's called "Let's wrestle," which means that he attacks me without warning and injures me terribly. I'm kind of like Inspector Clouseau and he's Kato, and except in this instance Kato weighs 200 pounds, is 6 foot 1, and combines his Oedipal complex with a passion for weightlifting. One of my son's attacks—he sprang from behind a door and threw me to the ground, while giggling—is the cause of my shoulder problem. I've been unable to fully extend my right arm over my head ever since. Oddly enough, it's also very painful for me to reach across my body and retrieve my wallet from a sport-coat pocket. So an act that previously had been symbolically painful (see above reference to massive credit card debt) is now literally hurtful.

Recently, I got health insurance for the first time in years, and so I decided to see a doctor about my shoulder. The fellow spent about one minute with me and pronounced that I have either tendinitis or a torn rotator cuff. It's unclear. I was sent for physical therapy, which I greatly enjoyed. It was kind of like a gym for hypochondriacs. I told the physical therapist about the chair I sat in to do my e-mail writing—an old wooden chair I found on the street 12 years ago—and he said it was damaging my neck and my shoulder. So I purchased an inexpensive office chair. I sat in it for a day, and my lower back went numb. The physical therapist said this was because I hadn't sat properly in a chair for years. Anyway, my shoulder still doesn't work, and my lower back is still numb, but I like my chair because it has wheels.

In the last six months, I have had three precancerous moles removed from my right shoulder, middle back, and abdomen. I've received over a dozen stitches. The hole in my abdomen, like something out of a Kafka story, has not healed, and I'm procrastinating about going back to the doctor. Surely it's not normal to have a hole in one's abdomen going on four months now. These precancerous moles were caused by my childhood summers at the Jersey shore. Back in the early 1970s, sunblock wasn't widely used, and every summer I was burnt alive and would spend our weeklong beach vacation stuck to the sheets of my motel bed, which has always made me sympathetic to the abandoned wife in the Heartbreak Kid when I see it on the classic movie channel every five years.

Not long ago, after playing a marathon game of Wiffle ball with my son, a strange lump formed in the palm of my right hand. I noticed the lump the next day when I ran my hand over my bald head and in some weird sensory mistake thought that the lump—a brain tumor?!?—was on the skull. I looked in the mirror at my head, didn't see any tumor, and then looked at my hand and saw a lump the size of a marble. Something about the way I grabbed the plastic Wiffle-ball bat must have inflamed the sensitive tendons in my hand. It's a painful lump, and it announces itself when I grasp the steering wheel while parallel parking. The benefit, though, of this palm-lump pain is that it distracts me temporarily from my neck pain.

My stomach is actually good these days. In 2001, I had irritable bowel syndrome brought on by heartbreak and was seriously thinking of getting fitted for a diaper. I was a walking scatological time bomb. But my heart healed and my intestines followed suit. My libido is down by about 40 percent, but this is probably a blessing, though my weakened sex drive may be linked to the existential displacement described above.

The lower third of my body, I have to say, is also in excellent shape, except that my right ankle is frozen and probably in the early stages of arthritis, but debilitation-wise it's nothing to write home about. Not yet anyway.

Well, I've run out of body parts, and I'm rather relieved. If I had any more depressing limbs or organs to discuss, I might not have been able to finish writing this catalogue of my ruination. I have noted that my disintegration, like some kind of spreading tree rot, has only reached my ribs, where the Kafka-esque hole is. I don't think there's anything I can do to stop this rot from spreading further, but at least I can watch its progress, as I might watch the lengthening of a shadow at the end of the day as light fades and darkness predominates.

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