What readers are saying about San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing

 I thoroughly enjoyed every page. The writing is, as expected, exquisite, but there is something new and powerful about this memoir… [It] builds a strong emotional core that pulls you in from start to finish… And then, there are countless characters that just make you laugh out loud… Like the land it depicts, this is a book of rare beauty, hope and possibility.”

“A sensual feast. Rick Skwiot gives us history, culture, and humor as he describes the beauty, poverty, and peculiarities of life in small town Mexico. His words will make you feel the warm sun and the lure of tequila, but are grounded in the reality of life struggles–his own, other gringos, and his Mexican friends…Excellent read.”

“…a man’s version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love but without her fat checkbook and self-indulgence.”

“It is not about folk-art and being a clever expat artist living an unreal cocooned life in a Third World country, but about a man, a bit lost, who discovers things about himself through his interaction with people who really live there. If you want to know about the real San Miguel, and not the Tourist Guide version, then you will enjoy this book as I did.”

…The author’s elegant, evocative style demands that the reader slow down–as the American who would absorb and understand Mexico must–and relish each carefully crafted phrase, apt image and well-chosen word set before him. In an era when our neighbor nation to the south appears inscrutable, incomprehensible and dangerous, Skwiot lays it bare, picks it apart for our study and reassembles it whole in a love song to the land where he came of age, lived within his body and found his writer’s soul. Memorable and important, this slim volume is to be savored, reread and treasured.”

“I read it once and just had to go back and read it again–I was so fascinated–for it delves into the lowest and highest reaches of Mexican culture… [The] award-winning author has accomplished another masterful writing…”

“…a thoughtful, sensitive and sometimes funny memoir of the author’s personal journey to personal discovery… His transformation occurs through personal observation and deep understanding of the people he meets. People who live in the present, live in their hearts and most of all live in their bodies… Skwiot discovers that to become an artist requires all one’s ardor. And that is not bad advice for the rest of us.”

Novelist Rosalind Brackenbury’s review of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

[published in Solares Hill, October 31, 2010]

Memoir of a Sensual Quest For Spiritual Healing

Reviewed by Rosalind Brackenbury

“San Miguel de Allende, Mexico” 

By Rick Skwiot

Antaeus Books, $14

A memoir of a time, a place, the people in it and the young man he was 25 years ago, when he lived in Mexico, Rick Skwiot’s beautifully observed and written new book pleases at all its levels.

On repeated visits to Mexico, Skwiot takes us from a first, dazzled encounter with blue skies, bougainvillea, the smells of the street and the easy warmth of casual acquaintance into deeper realities: the poverty of the people, their intimate lives and crises, his own fears, the distance between languages, the complications of love relationships and friendships, fights and arrests on the street, death, sorrow, misunderstandings, all the events of life that will include you, in the end, if you decide to be more than a passing tourist in a place.

A memoir can benefit from being written some time after the events described. Here, the perspective gives the writer a chance to see what really mattered. The mature Rick Skwiot looks back on his younger self, in different times, and is able to see the wood for the trees.

Of course, to do this you need to have taken notes, and kept them. Memory fades over the years, but for a novelist (which Skwiot is) this can deepen the impact of the narration. The book has no real plot — well, life hasn’t either. But there’s a narrative tension that is quite rare in memoir, each story drawing you in to wait for the outcome, the denouement of a particular event.

It’s also quite rare in a memoir to find characters who are as real as the narrator. Here, they move and speak on the page: Licha and Adriana, the women with whom, at different times, he finds love; Ernesto his friend; Ramos the eccentric doctor; Lupe his landlady; the American Arnold Schifrin, and others.

Skwiot went to Mexico in the first place to cure a fit of the mid-30s blues. Is any time in our lives more agonizing than our 30s?

This was after a broken marriage and a sense of his life going nowhere. So far, so recognizable. He installs himself in San Miguel de Allende the way many dissatisfied, ex-pat Americans have installed themselves in foreign cities, from Hemingway in Paris and Havana to Paul Bowles in Morocco and on.

He is lonely, doesn’t know the language, goes through the inevitable throes of panic and homesickness as well as amazement at the beauty and kindness of the place. He sits alone, makes notes, is determined to become a writer. People begin to come to him with their stories, he receives them, gets involved, and this is what makes the book a joy to read.

As in Skwiot’s earlier novel, “Sleeping with Pancho Villa”– reviewed here some years ago — and as the place-name of the title suggests, it is the place and its people that are allowed to speak.

Skwiot doesn’t hide his feelings but neither does he dwell on them; the quest for spiritual healing through a sensual involvement in life is allowed to emerge from the events rather than being analyzed.

Yes, if you immerse yourself in life, life will pick you up and take you somewhere.

 Mexico offered him its insights: Money doesn’t matter that much, live for today, enjoy yourself, let your body take over from your mind, let go of anxiety. But it is the writer’s ability to let us see how this happened gradually, as well as a humorous irony that includes himself, that makes it a pleasure to read.

A memoirist needs to be sufficiently personal to be interesting, to connect the dots that are the random events of life, to make us want to go along for the ride.

Essentially, however, he has to get out of his own way and let life in.

Gabriela Popa, Author of Kafka’s House, Interviews Rick Skwiot

Romanian-born novelist Gabriela Popa (author of Kafka’s House) recently interviewed Rick about his new memoir and his work. Following are excerpts from that interview.

GABRIELA POPA: What can you tell us about San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.

RICK SKWIOT: It’s been described—aptly, I think—as “sexy, surreal and darkly comic.” In it I paint an intimate portrait of Mexico and Mexicans, a people who stole my heart over my years living among them. It’s also a story about how, with their help, I changed who I was—evolved from a man I had come not to like very much to someone with a healthy serving of Mexicano self-love. The book can be enjoyed by anyone planning on visiting Mexico, to help them better experience the nuances of the culture. Conversely, for those put off by swine flu epidemics, dysentery and narcotraficantes, it’s a good way to travel south of the border without leaving home.

GP: What is your journey as a writer?

RS: My journey as a writer is long and circuitous, all uphill, with numerous cul-de-sacs—but also with some spectacular scenery and stirring adventure along the way. The journey for a writer, or for any artist, is very different than that of, say, a scientist, lawyer or carpenter. For a writer, the best training, mentoring, and educational credentials guarantee you nothing. You have to be lucky as well as good—it’s that competitive and difficult. Like a lot of writers, I started out as a newspaper reporter, which helped me build discipline and practice concise writing. I still work as a freelance journalist. But my Mexican days were pivotal in my development as a writer. My sojourns there gave me some great material, which I’ve now mined in two novels and this memoir. But that experience also helped expand in me my human sympathy. All literature, I think, works to expand the bounds of human sympathy, by exposing us to the lives of others. A writer needs to find that sympathy within himself in order to ably convey it.

GP: How did you arrive at writing a book about spirituality?

RS: This book is as much about sensuality as spirituality—and how one can find spiritual deliverance through the senses…Like a lot of gringos traveling south, I went to Mexico in part for the sensuality. But the Mexicans won’t let you let alone with your rigid Anglo-Saxon verities. They infect you with their ample humanity, religiosity and spirituality. Virtually all Mexicans I met, from all classes and backgrounds, assumed spiritual existence, the presence of God or some greater force in our daily lives, as a given. How could they not, what with all the supporting evidence all around them—all the miracles, supernatural occurrences, and grace that seem to seep from the haunting land there?

GP: I enjoyed very much Sleeping with Pancho Villa, one of your novels situated in Mexico. What drew you to that country and its culture?

RS: When I first visited there I felt as if I was time-traveling. The simple lives that people lived in Mexico reminded me of my frugal childhood, which I wrote about in Christmas at Long Lake. The people reminded me of my parents, first- and second-generation Americans who still carried with them European folkways, which you’ve written about so effectively in Kafka’s House. The Mexican people were dignified, warm, whimsical, and soft-spoken—and, then, yet to be massified. It was like a homecoming for me. I kept going back until I found myself there.

GP: It is not easy to introduce any public (American or otherwise) to foreign cultures, such as the Mexican one. How does one go about doing it successfully?

RS: By telling stories that place the reader inside the culture. By layering in the sensory details and dialogue in scenes that work to transfer the emotion inherent in the lives of your characters—in both fiction and nonfiction, such as in a memoir. The trade secrets that the creative writer employs work to bring those people to life, so the reader gains an intimate acquaintance, so the reader can see them and their surroundings in his or her imagination. Fortunately, I kept an extensive journal when I lived in Mexico, which helped me immensely when, at a distance of some years, I sought to recreate that culture in words. In those volumes I had recorded incidents, dialogue and images from Mexico, which stimulated memories and my imagination.

GP: What do you think are the recurring themes in your work?

RS: I think that perhaps someone other than myself—someone with a little distance and perspective—might be better qualified to answer that. I have been told that loss and redemption seem to figure importantly. I like very much the idea of redemption or metamorphosis—perhaps influenced by my own life story as well as by the writings of Carl Jung and by great literature, such as Homer’s Odyssey, that recounts the hero’s quest. As readers, we are terribly moved by the story of anyone who struggles against great odds, against monsters and tyrants, and ultimately succeeds in some way, finding a boon or an answer that somehow brings order to chaos…Also, like most literature, my books, both fiction and nonfiction, involve a search for home—either in the larger world or within oneself.

GP: Can you share with us your next project?

RS: I have been at work preparing manuscripts for the re-issue of my previously published works, Sleeping with Pancho Villa, Death in Mexico (formerly titled Flesh) and Christmas at Long Lake.  They are being re-released this fall 2010 by Antaeus Books in both trade paperback and e-book versions…I’m also putting finishing touches on a new novel, Key West Story, set here in the Conch Republic and in Cuba. It tells the story of a down-and-out writer/gigolo—though not autobiographical in the least!

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico | Excerpt | “De Efe”

By Rick Skwiot

Excerpted from

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico:
Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing

Contact: publisher@antaeusbooks.com

De Efe Mexicans call it, D.F., El Distrito Federal, or simply México. Licha was a chilanga, a native of the capital, a choking city of twelve million then, in 1983. I had agreed to accompany her there one weekend, hoping to get my tourist visa extended in the capital. (I should have known better. That Friday morning at the Gobernación, the department of the interior, I learned that the sole person in charge of tourist visas for the whole country had begun his weekend early.)

Licha had come to see her son, Alejandro, who lived with his lawyer father. That the father would get primary custody of a child in a Mexican divorce was not uncommon among her class. The daughter of an army general, she had married at nineteen into a wealthy family of lawyers and judges and into a life of suffocating ease and scrutiny. Servants did all the housework, cooking, and gardening. Licha was expected to travel by chauffeured car each morning to take coffee with her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. Then she was free to do as she pleased: to shop, to visit her mother and married (but not unmarried) girlfriends, or to see a movie. But always escorted, purportedly for her safety in the teeming city, by the chauffeur, who’d sit two rows behind her in the movie theater. Licha spent a lot of time alone, reading. She suspected that her husband, like many men of his class, kept a mistress at a casa chica somewhere in De Efe.

I never doubted Licha’s accounts of her married life, which she gave only reluctantly and with an anger in her eye that I would not have wanted focused on me. Further, she was so clueless about household chores that I figured she had to have had servants her whole life. Also, I had heard stories of marital malpractice from Mexican women of all classes. Women whose husbands would not let them smoke. Wives who, like Licha, were not allowed to travel un-chaperoned or attend classes. Women who were required to devote themselves to the maintenance of rigid traditions, fulfilling endless social obligations—christenings, quinces, birthday parties, saint’s day celebrations, weddings, and funerals—with a dizzying number of in-laws. Nor was physical abuse uncommon. All this with macho husbands who often were having sex with other women or men.

As a result, many educated and independent young Mexican women like Licha, informed and emboldened by feminist movements in Europe and America, opted out of ossified Mexican marriage. But with few educated and non-traditional men about, some turned to lesbianism. Others sought out less tradition-bound European and American men.

That Thursday afternoon I had met Licha at the hotel when she got off work, and we walked down the hill to the dusty San Miguel de Allende bus-plaza. There we caught a grimy, smoke-spewing Flecha Amarilla headed for De Efe, some five hours distant, and settled back amid campesinos and workers on their way to San Juan del Río and Querétaro.

I tried to sleep, but the lowering sun came streaming through the window of the stuffy bus. Licha and I had been out dancing the night before, locals’ night at the disco, when the usual cover charge was lifted. We’d met Martina at La Fragua at nine-thirty for drinks and near midnight walked down the hill to Laberintos. There we danced and drank until four, leaving then only because both women had to work in the morning. As a result I was, typical of Thursdays, tired and hung-over.

I tried to open the window, but the latch was missing, and I thought of The Man with the Steel Teeth. I’d heard his legend from a friend who claimed to have met him. An American CIA operative who had lost his real teeth in Vietnam, he traveled about Mexico ferreting out information on radical groups. But he had seemingly lost more than his teeth in Vietnam, for he always carried in his coat pocket a miniature tool kit of screwdriver, pliers, hammer, wire, screws, nails, nuts, and bolts. With it he tried to fix Mexico, which had been left in disrepair. He leveled beds in hotel rooms, tightened legs on restaurant tables, and reattached handles in taxis. If he had been in my bus seat he would have likely gerry-rigged a latch and opened the window that I could not.

It had been dark for hours when our bus pulled into the capital’s Terminal del Norte. We bought a taxi voucher and queued for a cab. Then, since we were headed to the far south side of the city and taxis were scarce, we were shoved into a small cab with four other passengers, along with their plastic sacks and paper-wrapped packages.

We sat in the back seat, Licha pressed against the left door, me against the right. Between us sat two stoic mestizas clutching bolsas on their laps. The taxi moved silently through the cool night. I lay my head against the glass and finally dozed. But then a raucous yelp broke inside the packed cab. I woke with heart thumping, turned and saw the woman next to me tucking the head of a rooster back inside the plastic sack on her lap. Licha looked away, hand over her mouth, trying to stifle her laughter and turning dark red from the effort. A minute later when she had regained control, she got my attention and mouthed the words: “Only in Mexico.”

After an hour in the cramped cab we arrived at the home of Licha’s ex-sister-in-law Griselda, who lived in a new two-bedroom apartment with her husband Armando and their son Armando Junior. Though no doubt considered luxurious and commodious by the millions of Mexicans ringing the capital in shantytowns, the building seemed flimsy and a potential hazard in earthquake territory. And, like many Mexican structures, it stood uncompleted. The hallways were but partially painted and light bulbs there dangled from wires. I learned that Griselda and Armando had moved in three years earlier.

But more bothering was the smell. Somewhere in the darkened valley stood a paper mill that spread a putrid cloud across the sky day and night. I supposed one got used to it after three years.

However, once inside the apartment I forgot about it. Griselda was beautiful and charming and soon pulled me aside conspiratorially to share a flattering letter that Licha had written her about me. Armando, a mechanical engineer, brought out drawings of an invention he was working on, a wind-resistant bicycle. Armandito, just six, sat on my lap smiling and holding my hand. It was like coming home for the holidays but without all the family baggage.

Since I had not eaten since lunchtime and the women wanted to talk, Armando took me to a nearby restaurant in a new shopping mall. I guess he thought that as an American that’s what I’d want. He ordered us beer and shots of tequila and began telling me of his recent business trip to Los Angeles.

Armando could not speak English. Yet, for the benefit of the middle-class Mexicans seated around us who perhaps had not noticed that he was in the company of a gringo, he did so anyway. At least on occasion he threw in a few English words, the most Anglo-Saxon he could muster.

What he found most amusing on his American trip he had encountered at a sex shop. With tears of mirth he related his discovery of inflatable American “party dolls.”

“Primero, they inflar,…” Armando made a pumping motion. “Then…then they fook it! Ha ha ha ha! They fook it!”

Armando was nearly falling off his chair in delight over this bit of Americana. I glanced at two prim women seated next to us, but they seemed not to hear Armando or be offended by his four-letter words in this land of five-, six-, and seven-letter expletives.

While I ate, Armando drank, patting a premature paunch and stating he was on a diet. He talked more of his invention and laid out our plan for Saturday: Licha would visit her son. Armandito would go with his aunt for his piano lesson. Griselda would clean house, as was her custom on Saturdays. And Armando and I, under the guise of attending the horse races at the Hipódromo, would go to a brothel near the Plaza Garibaldi and get laid.

“Yes,” he said winking. “We go fooking.”

*

Next morning Licha went to visit her son, Alejandro, as planned. Armandito’s aunt picked him up for his piano lesson. Armando and I walked downstairs to his car, ostensibly on our way to the Hipódromo, Griselda following.

I had no great desire to go fooking as Armando had plotted. I was still hot for Licha. But as a writer, or at least as someone striving to become a legitimate one, I saw this as valuable research. I figured to get a short story or magazine article out of an afternoon in a De Efe whorehouse. But Griselda acted suspicious. Maybe she sensed something in Armando’s manner, or maybe she knew him only too well. Even after he and I were seated in the car and he’d started the engine, she lingered, leaning an arm on the roof and making idle chatter.

“It is such a beautiful, sunny day. I hate the thought of being inside.”

“Then why not come to the Hipódromo with us, mi amor, as I suggested.”

“No, you men want to be alone. We agreed. I would only intrude.”

“You know you are always welcome, wherever I go,” said Armando. “To the ends of the earth.”

She stepped away from the car. “No, no, no. I should stay home and work.”

“Well, whatever you think is best, my kitten.”

Griselda glanced down to Armando in the idling automobile and frowned as if she had just gotten a whiff of the paper mill. Then she looked up and squinted at the sun. “Well, it is a nice day. Maybe I will go with you after all. If you two don’t mind.”

“Of course not. We are overjoyed. Come, my sweet.”

As she walked around the back of the coupe to get in on my side, Armando looked at me and shrugged complacently. “Ni modo,” he sighed.

At the racetrack Armando insisted on getting a table in the open-air clubhouse overlooking the final turn. We ordered cocktails and la comida from a white-jacketed waiter. Another came to take our betting slips and place our wagers. For a railbird like myself it was quite luxurious, with bleached tablecloths, crystal, and polished silverware. And the track was beautiful, with pink flamingos strolling about a lake on the infield. I suspected it to be somewhat beyond Armando’s means, though he insisted on paying.

But luck was with me, and I was able to put him onto some winners going off at two-to-one and better, which more than paid for the outing. It had been the same on my previous trips to the Hipódromo. I suspected the Mexicans to be emotional, not scientific, bettors, playing lucky numbers or fetching names. Maybe some could not read The Form. Whatever, I saw to it that Armando came out in the black even after picking up the tab. Which was considerable given what he consumed.

He had apparently come off his diet. Before dinner he drank three tall cubalibres. Then he ate a meal consisting of soup, salad, roast lamb, fried potatoes, and dessert, a piece of flan, with coffee and brandy. But he was still hungry. He looked to his wife, holding his forefinger and thumb a millimeter apart.

“I’ll get just a little more, my dear. I still feel a bit empty.”

Griselda sat smoking. She glanced at Armando with heavy eyelids and went back to gazing at the flamingos and nursing a vodka-tonic. Armando called over the waiter and ordered a piece of chocolate cake. As he was finishing that we won another race. Feeling celebratory he ordered us more brandy and himself another piece of cake, lemon this time. Griselda sat and smoked.

The waiter returned with our drinks and placed the piece of golden cake, Armando’s third dessert, in front of him. Eyeing it with obvious lust he lifted his fork. As he did Griselda took a final puff on her Marlboro, reached in front of him, and pressed the cigarette out atop his cake, the red tip hissing in the yellow icing and turning black. Then she turned again to the flamingos.

Armando looked at his cake, fork frozen in midair. Then he lowered the utensil, pushed away the dessert as if uninterested, and, turning to me, shrugged. Ni modo.

*

That evening Licha returned to the apartment in a black mood. Her ex-husband had done his best to undermine her plans with their son, having arranged a children’s party that left her little time alone with Alejandro. She paced from kitchen to dining room as if searching for an object on which to vent her frustration. I vowed that I would not be that object and hunkered with Armando in the living room. I had seen Licha angry before, had seen her blister those who crossed her with hot harangues, eyes ablaze, nostrils flaring, the trilled double Rs of her rapid Spanish sounding like machine-gun fire. Further, I had just awakened from a brandy-induced siesta and wanted to return to full consciousness in peace, with a mild kick-start from the coffee I sipped and some dark-chocolate toffee I’d bought at the track.

But just as I was reaching for the toffee, Licha stormed through the living room. She stopped abruptly before me and gazed down with eyes wide. “Chocolate toffee!” she exclaimed. “That is my favorite!”

I froze, momentarily speechless. But then I felt Armando’s light touch on my sleeve.

“¡Sí! ¡Exactamente! That is what Rick said when he bought it for you: ‘This is Licha’s favorite. I will buy it for her because she too is so sweet and delicious. I have missed her so much all day.’”

Licha gazed down at me, tears welling in her eyes, a smile playing on her lips. “¿En serio? No, you didn’t really say that, did you, Rick?”

Again I heard Armando’s words sliding over my shoulder. “I swear to God, Licha, those were his exact words.” Armando sat erect, right palm raised as if taking an oath.

I felt his hand release my sleeve. I grasped the chocolate, stood, and presented it to her with a kiss. She stared into my eyes and caressed my cheek.

As she devoured the toffee I glanced toward Armando. He winked and surreptitiously made a brief yet obscene gesture with his fist.

#

Inside the Bad Knee and Sick Mind Of the Arthroscopic Surgery Patient

By Rick Skwiot

(First published in PortFolio Weekly)

My first mistake, fueled by youthful enthusiasm, was sprinting up the stadium steps with another lineman on my back. Conditioning, we called it.

My second critical mistake, some three decades later, was going into arthroscopic knee-surgery without the benefit of sedation.

Some might see a masochistic pattern here, but it wasn’t that at all. By now I was a writer. I thought there might be a story in it. For a writer, such thoughts can justify most anything.

Who Is Arthur Skopic?

For years I’d heard sportscasters talk about Arthur Skopic surgery. I figured it was like Tommy John surgery, named for the Dodger pitcher on whom elbow-reconstruction was first performed. Skopic, I guessed, was likely a linebacker for Chicago and maybe a distant cousin of Dick Butkus.

But my knee doctor set me straight. The arthroscope, he explained, contained a camera, light source, and a pathway for fluids. He planned to make incisions in my knee and insert the device, which would send him pictures of my torn cartilage on a TV monitor. Then, guided by this live video, he would stick in other tools to shave away the damaged tissue.

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You’re going to ram a video camera and an electric shaver into my knee, and I’ll be walking in two days.”

He shrugged like it was nothing special.

“This I’ve got to see.”

Pure Consciousness

In addition to trips up the stadium steps, I’d done deep-knee-bends with two hundred pounds on my shoulders and played years of basketball and tennis on hard courts. For some reason, the left knee kept getting worse.

Finally, this spring, after a week of tennis in Key West, I couldn’t push off on it, merely waving at balls to my backhand. I figured it was time to do something about it.

My MRI (magnetic resonance imaging, where they slide you into a metal tube for forty-five minutes—not recommend for claustrophobics) showed a torn and degenerated meniscus. That’s the cartilage atop your tibia, or shinbone, on which your thighbone, or femur, sits.

Cartilage helps cushion the bones and keeps them from rubbing against one another. That is, if you’ve got enough left after years of abuse and wear. Its absence brings on Arthur Ritis (no relation to Skopic or Butkus), with bone grinding against bone, tenderness, swelling, stiffness, and pain. Not much they can do about that.

I had my pre-op instructions: no aspirin for a week, no alcohol for 24 hours, nothing at all to eat or drink the day of surgery. I showed up at noon feeling pure and slightly hallucinatory from the sensory deprivation.

In the pre-op ward I donned a fetching, baby-blue, split-tail gown. A nurse came in with a purple magic-marker and wrote “NO” on my right kneecap. An anesthesiologist appeared.

I explained that I wanted to remain conscious and alert throughout the operation. Not only did I wish to conduct research for a magazine article, I balked at being knocked-out cold for fear of never waking up. My only experience with general anesthetic (other than tequila and such) had been an unpleasant episode with ether in childhood.

“No problem,” he said. “We’ll just do a spinal without sedation. You’ll be perfectly alert. No problem.”

After that second “No problem,” I looked him up and down. He smiled and slapped my leg like a butcher might a side of beef.

A Knife in the Back

Lying in my immodest gown, I was wheeled on a gurney into an operating room that at looked more like a computer lab: TV monitor, stacks of metal boxes with knobs and digital readouts, wires everywhere. But then the room began to fill with a green-smocked, green-masked, rubber-gloved team: anesthetist, scrub nurse, circulator (an operating-room gopher), surgical assistant, and my knee surgeon.

I scooted onto the operating table and sat hunched forward as instructed. Pods of overhead lights came on.

“This will feel cool,” said the anesthetist.

She swabbed my lower spine with a cold liquid that smelled of alcohol. “Now you’ll sense a pinch and a burning.”

I felt a sting, then heat as she injected some anesthetic just under the skin.

Next she pulled out a syringe with a three-and-half-inch needle that seemed to grow as I stared at it. She placed her hand on my spine. “Now press back against my thumb.”

I sensed the needle sliding deep inside, next to my vertebrae, and wondered if she had, at the last moment, substituted a butcher knife for the syringe. I moaned involuntarily and said:

“You forgot to tell me: ‘Now this will hurt like hell.'”

“You’re feeling pain?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Where?”

I told her where, good and deep. I felt the needle slide out.

After a moment she said, “Now press back against me again.”

I did, she stabbed me again with the butcher knife and again I moaned.

After three tries I guess I wasn’t looking so good, because the circulator brought a plastic chuck-bucket and set it beside me on the operating table: “Use this if you feel sick.”

I nodded. I did feel something like seasickness coming on, though from the point of view of a speared tuna.

Finally the surgical assistant came over to help. On perhaps the fifth try—I’d lost count in my giddiness—they found what they were probing for and let me lie down.

“You’ll feel a tingling and a numbness move down your legs as the lidocaine takes effect,” the anesthetist said.

The scrub nurse shaved my leg and disinfected it with an iodine-colored solution. The surgical assistant turned on the TV monitor and adjusted the brightness.

My legs were numbing, but we still had some time to kill as the lidocaine did its job. My doctor tossed a roll of adhesive wrap across the operating table, bouncing it off the scrub nurse’s forehead. They all laughed through their surgical masks. He joked with me: “Now that you’re numb from the waist down, I can perform that circumcision you wanted.”

I demurred and thought to ask about an enhancement.

When I could no longer move my toes, everyone got suddenly silent. Lights, camera, action. The circulator handed my doctor a scalpel, and he went to work.

The anesthetist bent close and cooed, “Can you feel anything at all now?”

“Why, yes. As a matter of fact, I can feel the doctor slicing a hole in my leg.”

It hurt but not as bad as a knife in the back.

“Hmm. Well, sometimes these spinals anesthetize unevenly.”

“Truly. That I can sense.”

I tried to raise up to take a look at the scalpel work though couldn’t get a good angle. But soon the cutting phase was over. He’d made two small, bloody holes on the outside of my knee and one on the inside. I lay back and followed my doctor’s gaze to the TV monitor. He had already inserted the quarter-inch-wide arthroscope. But I didn’t feel it. I couldn’t feel a thing from the waist down.

The Four-Letter Word

The surgical assistant and the circulator moved my orange-painted leg north and south, left and right, at my doctor’s instructions, guided by images on the monitor. Once they dropped it down when he wanted it up. He barked, “No!” and they corrected.

On the monitor I could see yellow tissue (chicken fat?) and white tissue—cartilage. Though for all I knew they might have stuck the arthroscope most anywhere. To me it looked surprisingly like the inside of a tuna. Nonetheless, it was eerie watching folks probe around inside me.

My doctor manipulated a hooked surgical tool, testing what parts were intact and what was floating about. I could see the hook on the screen and sense the jolt when it slipped off a rigid target. But I couldn’t feel it.

As he manipulated the arthroscope, images of white shreds—damaged cartilage—came into view. In went the Norelco, or whatever, a tiny, tubular device. A whirling blade shaved off the torn tissue and sucked it away.

The surgical assistant nodded toward the screen and said, “I can see why you had trouble.”

Within a half hour he was sewing me up and injecting marcaine and morphine into the knee.

My doctor leaned forward with the bad news: a split articular cartilage, rough femur, advanced arthritis. No more tennis, ever, unless I was keen on a follow-up knee replacement—an operation that would make this one look like a pinprick. Then he used the four-letter word: golf.

The Sure Cure for Self Pity

The anesthetist wheeled me into the post-op care unit.

“I guess that wasn’t very good news,” she said.

“No, it wasn’t. Oh, well.”

But I couldn’t feel sorry for myself too long. For I was lying in a ward of groaning old women fresh from surgery likely not elective like mine. One cried out in anguish. A nurse went to her and affixed an I.V. She leaned over her patient and said:

“When you want more painkiller, press this button that I’m placing in your hand.”

The old woman, eyes still shut, groaned again and lay motionless.

The nurse looked at her and let out a breath. “Well, even if you can’t hear me I’m telling you anyway: Just press the button when you can’t stand it anymore. Good luck, sweetie.”

Looking at my fellow post-ops, I felt lucky to be alive and conscious and able to play golf if that’s all there was. At that moment, it seemed like a lot. Still, I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. But they wouldn’t let me go until the numbness went away.

I’d discovered, when I helped lift myself from the operating table back onto the gurney, that my legs felt like dead meat. I tried now to move my toes but couldn’t. Nor could I feel the touch of the blanket on my legs. I thought, if this is what it’s like to be a paraplegic, to have half your body a useless appendage without feel or function,…I looked about for some wood to knock on.

After an hour I could wiggle my toes. When the nurse asked if the numbness had gone, I lied:

“Vanished. I’m ready to go.”

They wheeled me to the outpatient recovery room, where at least people weren’t crying out in pain.

Feeling: Good

Here, after another hour, the numbness finally left my legs. But when I reached beneath the blanket to touch myself, I still had no feeling whatsoever.

I wasn’t exactly panicky, though I wondered if this was normal. However, I was afraid to ask. So my sick mind fixed on the worst-case scenario: Maybe, when the anesthetist was jabbing my spinal column, she clipped a minute nerve, permanently severing all sexual function and feel. I contemplated that at length, in horrific detail.

The recovery-room nurse came by, smiled, and laid a reassuring hand on my blanket. “You’ll be walking out of here in no time.”

I felt it when she patted my foot. But she could have kicked me between the legs and I still would have had the same crooked smile on my face.

Was this my fate: endless rounds of golf and genital road kill? In one afternoon I’d aged forty years. Even a billion-dollar malpractice settlement would be of scant value to me: All I wanted was a Kevorkian machine.

I tried not to touch myself. But I was obsessed. It was like I was fifteen once again—but with a slightly different motivation.

From across the room, a rotund, silver-haired man just back from a colonoscopy tried to engage me in conversation. But my mind was elsewhere: between my legs.

When he eventually looked away I checked once more. Finally I thought I sensed something. Yes, most definitely, yes!

So what if I couldn’t play tennis anymore. There were other pleasures lying in wait along the road of life. This was just another aching step down that road, and, as promised, in two days I was taking it.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]