Next week, I am doing the closest thing on earth to actual spaceflight. In the near future, people who are rich enough are going to blast into space for the fun of it. But we can’t just bundle them into a shuttle and begin the countdown. For a magazine story, I am taking a civilian training course on the physiological effects of being shot into space, including a ride in a giant centrifuge that simulates the g-forces of a sub-orbital rocket. I plan to pretend I’m Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 (minus the whole Houston-we-have-a-problem thing).
But before I take my ride, the Federal Aviation Administration insists on making sure the G-forces won’t kill me. I have to get a special medical certificate from an FAA-approved doctor. I called the first Philadelphia doctor on the FAA website.
I apologized for the short notice, but asked if I could get an appointment before the 17th of March.
“Oh, St. Patrick’s Day!” said the doctor.
“Yes, I guess it is.”
“That’s a good day!”
“Yeah, I suppose it is.”
“How about ten o’clock tomorrow?”
My husband agreed to come along, and we set out in his car the next morning in the pouring rain.
The doctor, retired except for FAA medical exams on aspiring pilots and G-force journalists, met us at the front door and ushered us into his spacious living room, where a cooking show blared on a small TV. Lala sat down, and the doctor and I went into a home office complete with a Mac and four or five pairs of the glasses on the desk, a scale, a vision chart, a bowing shelf of cookbooks, and a framed photo of the Pope watching over it all.
He settled me in a chair by the desk and handed me a medical form.
Seemed like pretty standard medical stuff, except for the boxes asking how many hours I’d piloted planes. He indicated the areas I needed to complete, and watched my answers with interest.
“So you’re a writer,” he said. “Pretty good with the English? I mean, what the Americans call English. Such a shame how they’ve bastardized the language.”
If I was Bruce Banner, this is where I’d turn green. My pen froze and I found my finger in the air like a sailor testing a dangerous wind. “American English is a perfectly legitimate evolution of the language,” I declared before I remembered my inside voice.
“Ooh, I kid, sweetheart, I do. I love America – I’m an American, meself, now.”
I subsided to writing down my medication.
“A lovely language, wherever it is,” he said. “But the Irish do speak the best English in the world.”
“They do? I’ve never been to Ireland.”
“Oh, haven’t you! Well you must go. It was the Irish taught the English how to speak.”
“Oh yes. You know, the best writers in the world are Irish,” he added slyly.
“I was just reading some Frank McCourt this week.”
“Oh, McCourt.” He shook his head. “He died last year, God bless him, he were a professor in New York and all, but do you know, he didn’t do well back in Limerick.”
“No, not popular a-tall. I grew up in Dublin, see, at the same time. Folks in Limerick think badly because none of it were true.”
“Really? The whole miserable, Irish, Catholic childhood thing?” I wanted to believe him – from Angela’s Ashes to Teacher Man, I had always found McCourt to be a bit of a whiner.
“Oh, he did. I tell you, I’ve been in Limerick and it’s nowhere like he said it were – dirt everywhere and people pissin’ in the gutters and all of that. No, he made it all up. Now tell me about yourself.”
I gave the short version of my hometown, college, and writing career.
We debated the merits of Marylanders versus Philadelphians (“people in Maryland are the loveliest people in the world”), and then he unfolded the tales of his daughters, one a fat, short sweetheart living in Dublin and the other a sweetheart doing PR for Vegas casinos, who once brought the doctor to a three-day press event for gourmet chefs in New York City (“and I tell you, all the food was free!”), where he met that siren of the Food Network, Giada De Laurentiis (“such a sweetheart, that girl, let me tell you, a real real sweetheart”).
He took my weight and then perused my forms. “What’s this medicine here, then?” he asked.
I explained that it treats an unusual condition called Interstitial Cystitis, which causes ulcers in the bladder. There is a website that says I am Strong, Caring, Courageous, Smart, Determined, Thoughtful, Generous, Hopeful and Loving despite my Interstitial Cystitis. I rarely visit it.
He waved the Interstitial Cystitis away with his hand. “Oh but that’s nothing,” he said. “Of course most women have some kind of problem, you know, like that.” I waited for the inevitable next line, uttered by every non-urologist who ever learns my secret. “You know what you need. You need some of that red stuff, you know, what is it…the juice that’s red.”
“Yes, yes, that’s the ticket.”
“Thanks, but cranberry is actually very bad for Interstitial Cystitis.”
“Well. That is quite a fancy diagnosis you’ve got there.” He considered me afresh over the rims of his glasses.
“Now what is the problem with your eyes?” he asked.
“I’m near-sighted and I’ve got pretty bad astigmatism.”
“But what is astigmatism?” he pressed.
“An irregularity in the shape of the cornea?”
“But what does it cause?”
“It causes a fault in the angle of the light through the lens?”
“I know what astigmatism is! I’m a doctor!” he barked. “It causes poor depth perception!”
It is certainly true that I can’t catch anything thrown to me when I’m not wearing my glasses.
“Well, take them off then and tell me what you read on that eye chart.”
“What’s the first letter?”
“Very good. And the next two letters?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, try to read it – you must be able to read it.”
I squinted and strained. “I really can’t read it.”
“Well now, that’s a problem, isn’t it, because I can’t give you your certificate if you can’t read that line.”
I imagined my editor slumping in his chair, sighing in disappointment because he could not publish a story about what it’s really like to ride the simulator.
“Don’t be afraid of the chart,” soothed the doctor. “You can do it. Go ahead and lean in. Close one eye and squint. You have to be able to read that line.”
When your body fails you at moments like this, you have to be resourceful. I had seen the chart with my glasses a few minutes ago. What had those letters been? An “F” and a “P”, I was almost sure. If I was right I had a 50/50 shot. That first blur could be an “F”.
“That’s right, you’ve got it! And the next?”
“Oh good girl, you’ve got it! I knew you could read it.”
I assuaged my conscience with the thought that I am never going to actually fly a plane- just ride a simulator – and therefore am not endangering anyone.
I put my glasses back on and reeled off a much smaller line with ease.
“You know you’ve gone from 20/100 to 20/20 with your lenses?” he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had eyes as bad as that in my office.”
Perhaps that is because people who aspire to become pilots generally aren’t the people who go around patting down the bedroom after they get out of the shower, because they cannot see that their husband, as a joke, has had the glasses stuck in his waistband all along while he pretends to help look.
The doctor resumed my chart.
“Your periods, now, no problems there?” He leaned in conspiratorially. “You know some people, especially the old ones back home, what do you call them, chauvinists they are, would say that the, you know, the PMS and those kinds of women’s gripes are just the ladies whining because they want to lay about and not get to work.”
“How unfortunate that anyone would say that.” My voice crept near the bastardized-English levels.
“Yes, yes, well that’s the chauvinists, it is.” He buried himself in the form and then his gaze popped back up.
“And where,” he burst out, “do we get the meanin’ of the word ‘chauvinist’?”
I gave it serious thought and came up empty. “I don’t know the etymology of that word.”
Whether or not he knew it will remain forever a mystery. “I like the way you speak,” he announced instead.
“You know,” he continued, “You remind me of my granddaughter. 21 she is, out in California. Such a sweetheart. We have secrets, you know. She tells me things because she knows I won’t tell anythin’ to anyone else.”
He moved in with a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff, rhapsodized over my perfect blood pressure and heart rate, and checked my ankles for swelling.
“Well, my girl, do you ever want to fly?”
“You mean like be a pilot? No, never.”
“Why not?” he demanded.
“I guess I wouldn’t want that responsibility,” I replied lamely. “I’m happy to let other people fly, and I’ll write about it.” He seemed inordinately disappointed for someone who just watched me straining to read an inch-high “P” at twenty feet.
He bent over my forms and poised his pen to sign the last box, but his eyes popped back up.
“What d’ye drink?”
“I don’t really drink,” I said.
“You say you don’t drink a-tall?” He said, eyes round. “Whyever not?”
“It’s very bad for the Interstitial Cystitis.” No Sea Breezes for this little trooper. (Is there anyone else out there who has this condition who does not use a kitten or a fairy for her profile picture and who sometimes leaves the house instead of covering online message boards with litanies of her pills? If so please, please contact me.)
“Ah. Well, well. The Italian food is what gets me down, you know the sauces and the salsas and all of that. But I tell you what you do. Put some sugar on your pizza, and it’ll go down very nice.”
He rolled a small yellow certificate into a typewriter and began to peck. “Spell your name again for me, sweetheart.”
I spelled it.
“Now tell me,” he said, pointing to the next room, “if your husband there was a woman, would his name be ‘Mabasa’, you know with an ‘a’ instead of an ‘o’?”
“No, in South Africa last names…surnames…it works the same as it does here. The name is the same whether you’re a man or a woman.”
“I see.” His gaze sharpened. “And what do they call the last names down there?”
“Surnames. They speak more British-style English there.”
He nodded with evident satisfaction, and turned back to the typewriter.
He typed a few letters before the chair swiveled again. “D’you watch Bill O’Reilly?”
“No.” I said. “I mean, uh, I don’t watch much TV.”
“Ay well that’s best. Best not to go into all that, it is. Me daughters and me, we get all into it, we do, going every which way, those politics. Yes, yes, best not to go into that.” He typed a few more. “And d’ye know that other fellow on the TV, Brett or Ben his name is, the one with the glasses, I don’t suppose you…?”
“Yes, yes, that’s him. Now that man, that man I think could stand to calm down a little bit.”
“I do think that would be best for everyone.”
“And how do you like grammar? I bet you’re a stickler for the grammar.”
I replied in the vein of a relative grammatical moderate. While incorrect spelling practically gives me hives, I am less interested in a rigid enforcement of grammar.
“They just don’t teach it in the schools anymore,” he sorrowed and returned to the typewriter, but not for long.
“That Bill O’Reilly…the year of the Chosen One, do you…well perhaps I ought not….yes, well, anyway.” He subsided to his typing.
He finished, extracted the certificate, and poised his pen over the signature box.
“Ooh, look at that now,” he exclaimed, pointing to a photo of himself with a magnificent German shepherd on his computer desktop.
“That’s my daughter’s dog. My daughter married John, and John is jealous, you see, because the dog loves me more than he loves him. All I have to do is look at him, like this, and he come right over to me. But here’s the secret! John doesn’t know I keep the treats right here in my pocket!”
“So he’s your grand-dog,” I said.
“Ay, he is that, my grand-dog!” He went into a convulsion of mirth, slapped his thigh, and then remembered his pen.
“Now I’ll sign with a bit of a flourish, how’s that?”
“Please, the more flourish, the better.”
“Now, which should it be, corrective lenses or correcting lenses?” he asked shrewdly, holding the certificate aloft.
“Well, ‘corrective’ is how I’ve always heard it,” I say. “but I guess ‘correcting’ is also correct? One’s an adjective and one’s a participle?”
He handed me the certificate and I signed in the box marked AIRMAN’S SIGNATURE.
“I like the way you use the language,” he declared, and I knew it was high praise. “Now do you do your writing, your articles and such, on the computer, like?”
“So you know how to use the, what is it, the office thing, the documents?”
“Yes, that’s it!”
“Yes, I know how to use it.”
“I just got mine yesterday. The nicest young man was here and he showed me how to do it. But now I just don’t know how to open it and all. D’you know how to find where it is?”
“Well, let’s see.” I took the mouse.
He was lucky. My technological expertise is pretty much limited to Microsoft Word and showing people over fifty how to adjust the volume on their cell phones.
I showed him how to find Word in the Start menu, how to create a document, save it and find it again and delete it.
Delighted, he thanked me, and we joined my husband and Giada in the living room. “Now who’s driving home?” the doctor asked.
“I am,” my husband replied.
“Oh good,” the doctor said to him. “You know the ladies, they’re terrible drivers.” He clapped my husband on the back as he ushered us out with utter bonhomie. “Ooh, but we kid. That’s only what the chauvinists would say. Enjoy your ride and please do let me know how it all turns out!”