Do you know what I’ve discovered? Maintenance is a bitch! It doesn’t matter who you are or what you own, or where you bought your most excellent designer clothes and luxury cars, or how well the house-of-your-dreams is built — without maintenance, it will all gradually decline into decay, disorder, and chaos.
My family, my dentist, my gynecologist, my cardiologist, my nutritionist, my personal trainer, my vet, my car repair dude, my beautician, my garden center, my nail technician, my neighborhood association, my spiritual advisors, my place of business all want me to maintain something at all times to ward off decline. I added up how many hours it would take to do all the things they asked of me once, and the maintenance totaled 150 years, working every second of every day, if nothing died and had to be replaced, thus starting the cycle all over again.
The consequences of not maintaining just one thing can be disastrous. For instance, let’s say that on a random, beautiful, summer day, you decide to pack a cooler with several pints of Häagen-Daz cookies and cream ice cream, several thick rib-eye steaks, a brick of cheddar cheese, and a bag of ice to keep everything cold. Then you head out to meet your friends (the ones bringing the fruits and vegetables) for a picnic at Loring Park in Minneapolis. You assume the weather is going to be 80 degrees and balmy, because it’s been that way for the past several days. On the way to the park, your car breaks down because you missed the maintenance appointments your father told you never to miss – those check-ups when the mechanic usually examines your car’s water and coolant hoses for wear and tear. While you wait two hours on the side of the road for the tow truck, your friends call to postpone the picnic until next week, because storm clouds and tornado funnels have just been cited on the park’s side of town.
The tow truck arrives and takes you and your car to the auto shop, but the mechanic has to close for the weekend because his “goddamn wife didn’t tell him this was the weekend her mother was coming to visit.” So you leave your car at the mechanic’s and catch a cab home. The Somali cab driver tells you that it’s going to be 115 degrees in the shade today in Minneapolis (the place that was 30 degrees below zero just 6 months ago when he moved there), and he thinks it must be global warming because God never intended Minneapolis to be “Africa-hot.” Suddenly all you can think of doing now is falling asleep naked in front of the air conditioner, which you do when you get home, and promptly forget about the cooler full of food you left in your car at the mechanic’s shop.
When you finally pick up your car from the mechanic (who doesn’t manage to get to your vehicle until mid-week), you discover the forgotten picnic cooler in the trunk and the aftermath of the lack of maintenance: the ice cream is soup, the steaks are maggot food, the cheese is a mold farm, and the bag of ice cubes is a water balloon. As you’re throwing away all the melted and decomposed food, you can’t imagine how an idea of a simple picnic did a slip-an-slide into such a costly day of mayhem and chaos — just because you missed one maintenance appointment with your mechanic!
And there you have it (as my friend Jean is fond of saying).
I’m rather a control-freak about maintenance on every front in my effort to hold back the decline of my stuff and my life as long as possible. But there were at least two items in my life that got away from me before I even knew what hit me: my dog and my body.
For 14 years I held off on getting a dog. I didn’t buy that bullshit from the kids when they were young that I wouldn’t have to do any maintenance for the dog – they’d do everything. “You’ll see, Mom; you’ll never regret getting us a dog because we’ll do it all.” Yeah, right!
I knew better – I’m no fool. I knew my little barbarians could lie like a rug, and they were trying to pull the wool over my eyes. I envisioned exactly what would happen: they’d be into the dog for exactly one week, two days, and one minute, and then the only one who would walk the dog, feed it, pick up its shit, groom
it, or discipline it would be me.
I held out on the dog until only one child was left at home. My resolve broke one Thanksgiving at the end of an exhausting day, having hosted a house full of people, and after I’d had too many margaritas. Somehow the kid formed a posse of her dad, her Aunt Maggie, and her Uncle Joe, and they convinced me this was needed to assuage the loneliness of being the last kid standing at home. The next thing I knew, I was up all night with a crying puppy while everyone else slept soundly through the night. She would only stop crying if I held her and rocked her to sleep like a human baby.
Our dog took only six months to turn into a little bitch. I honestly think she was mentally ill from the beginning. I would discover that incestuous parenting was hidden from us by the breeder. All we saw when we first met our darling puppy was a delightful little puff-ball that kept falling on her head as she listed sideways like a sailboat blown off course. We figured it was an adorable puppy anomaly – we had no idea it was “loose marbles.”
The dog’s name was “Precious,” but I privately called her “Miss Thang” once her true personality was revealed. At eight months old, Miss Thang developed something called Small Dog Syndrome in which she decided to become “Queen of the Hill” and make herself pack leader over all the humans in the house. She barked incessantly, wouldn’t come when we called her, wouldn’t eat without throwing up, had explosive diarrhea every other month, and wouldn’t go outside to do her business if it was above 75 degrees or below 50 degrees. The high-maintenance-diva-dog from Hell wouldn’t poop on grass because it was “too prickly” and wouldn’t poop on the driveway if anyone was watching.
Precious hated cars and had to be given puppy Demerol in order to go on a trip just ten minutes away from the house. She would have fits of hysteria and run up and down the stairs at 90 miles an hour until she collapsed from exhaustion. If you scolded her, she’d get a ‘tude, become whiney, and refuse to look at you for hours at a time while placing her right paw over her nose to hide her eyes. Finally, when she started gnawing on her left foot and scratching holes in her side, the kid and her father decided that The Mother —“since you’re home with her more than we are” — should take Precious to the “dog whisperer” in our town to see what was wrong with her.
“Mrs. Tomczyk,” said the vet, “I don’t know how to break this to you, but Precious has issues that have caused serious psychological problems.”
“She told you that?”
“Precious is suffering from separation anxiety since leaving her brothers and sisters at the kennel. Surely you can understand how traumatizing that could be for a sibling.”
“Noooooo, not really – she’s a damn dog. Where I come from dogs weren’t even allowed in the house – I certainly didn’t arrange play dates for them. They just guarded your shit from being stolen by the heroin addicts and were grateful for a pat on the head once a day and the leftover scraps from the table at the end of the day. They stayed outside 24/7, and this was in Cleveland which isn’t exactly temperate weather.”
“Well, Mrs. Tomczyk, need I remind you that this is not a Cleveland ghetto? This is a Washington suburb and you have an expensive purebred that must be treated with the utmost respect. I would like to
prescribe a maintenance program of special diet food for sensitive stomachs that we sell for $40 a cup, and I would like to start Precious on a Prozac regimen for her stress. I highly recommend massages on a weekly basis to help settle her nerves, and I propose monthly conditioning treatments at the Fabulous-Puppies-R-Us to help lubricate her dry skin. I’ll also need to see Precious on a weekly basis to gauge her psychological improvement.”
“Well, Dr. Dog-whisperer, I’d sure like that exact same prescription for myself – yes, indeed (minus the dog food, of course). But here’s the deal: PRECIOUS DOESN’T HAVE A JOB! Nor does Precious have any health insurance, and until she can produce both — you can kiss little Precious’ ass, good-bye.”
As I gathered up my dog, I whispered into her ear a guttural threat that made her hair stand up on her head and her eyes become the size of saucers: “Miss Thang, don’t you go getting any fancy ideas from this man. That crazy-ass doctor must think I’m a fool! I already spend half the day picking up your shit, looking after your shit, or paying for your shit. Now let’s get your little “vanilla behind” into the car. Because before I pay $500 a month for a psychiatrist, a spa, and Prozac for a dog, I’ll make sure your stress is permanently taken care of – you hear me? You’ll be singing with Jesus before you can utter another ‘bow-wow.’”
“I HEARD THAT,” said the panicked vet. “We don’t condone violence against animals at Doggies-R-Us….I’ll have to call Doggie Protective Services if you don’t change your tune.”
“But of course, Doc – what on earth was I thinking?” I said, ever so sweetly. “Tell me — how do you feel about violence against dog whisperers?”
During the season with the dog from Hell, when I thought I was maintaining my body with daily exercise and an excellent diet, something started to go horribly wrong. But none of the doctors I had consulted seemed to be able or willing to help me.
Whenever I ate, my stomach felt like it was digesting glass, and I was always in excruciating pain. I knew something was rotten in Denmark (and somewhere else, too) when I complained to my disinterested physicians about the noxious gases that exploded from my ass without warning and at the most inappropriate times — (think formal weddings, in church, having sex, riding in a crowded elevator, eating in a Wolfgang Puck restaurant with Chef Puck standing right next to my table) — no place was sacred. And don’t even get me started about the mouth sores, the chronic fatigue, the debilitating joint pain that caused temporary paralysis, and the constant diarrhea that kept me goose-stepping to the toilet every 20 minutes no matter where I was for twelve long years.
The first six doctors I went to told me my symptoms were all a part of menopause, and I should take hormone pills and just get over myself (you know, the pills that we now know may cause breast cancer!). The next two doctors told me it was stress and recommended I take antidepressants and sleeping pills. The ninth doctor was so young and inexperienced that he actually “googled” my symptoms (and, yes, google as a verb is the only way I can convey his misinformation about my suffering).
“Well, from what I can discern,” said my Doogie Howser, barely-wet-behind-the ears-doctor, “you either have Cotard Syndrome, Munchausen Syndrome, or Cushing Syndrome.”
As the explanations of these potentially devastating illnesses came floating up from Google on my
Blackberry, I stared at the doctor with a look of complete and utter disbelief and said, “you don’t have many black patients do you?”
“No, you’re my first one,” he said with a cheery smile.
“Uh-huh. So in your educated opinion, you think I might have Cotard Sydrome – the ‘fear of putrefying or becoming non-existent or dead’ – in other words, ‘walking corpse syndrome?’” I said while reading the
definition from my Blackberry.
“Well. . .”
“Or that I might have Munchausen Syndrome – ‘feigning or exaggerating my symptoms to gain attention?’ Are you trying to tell me I’m crazy? You don’t even know me!”
“Now, Mrs. Tomczyk, don’t get upset; we’re just exploring our options.”
“Oh, but then again, according to you, I could have Cushing Syndrome – ‘tumors on the pituitary gland causing me to blow up like a blowfish with dark purple stretch marks on my belly and irregular periods?’ Well, I’ll give you the blowfish part, but I had a hysterectomy 10 years ago and kissed my little red friend good-bye without missing a beat (you would know that if you had read my file). And as far as dark purple stretch marks, as of two hours ago I didn’t have marks on my stomach, just stretch marks across my ass. No offense Doc, but do you see why I might be just a teensy-weensy bit frustrated with your ersatz diagnosis right now?”
“I only said these were ‘suggestions’ of what you might have. We’ll have to do multiple tests, many consultations, maybe even some exploratory surgeries after you’ve gone to see several of my colleagues in endocrinology, psychiatry, cardiology, and gastroenterology. It will probably take us six months of testing — maybe even a year. By the way, what type of insurance do you carry?”
“Well, two can play at this Google game, Doc. I ‘googled’ my symptoms with Uncle Joe last night, and we think I have celiac disease.” (Just for “grins and giggles,” if you want to see a doctor’s head explode, try saying this sometime.)
“Mrs. Tomczyk, who is the doctor here?” asked Doogie rather testily. First of all, you can’t be a “blowfish” and have celiac disease – it’s a wasting disease. Besides, African-Americans don’t get celiac disease — only people of European descent are prone to this problem. Trust me — I’m the expert here!”
It wasn’t easy, but I made a deal with Dr. Doogie. If he gave me a blood test for celiac and the gold standard intestinal biopsy test, and if both came back negative, I’d consider his other options. I was lying through my teeth, but I was counting on the I’m-so-vain-doctor humoring me, because he only had ten patients and I suspected that he thought treating my symptoms – real or imagined – was going to make him some serious money.
Both tests from the gastroenterologist came back overwhelmingly positive, and all Dr. Doogie could do was smack his forehead and say: “Well, I’ll be darned – you’re a fat little African-American with celiac disease. Who knew? Let’s start you on high doses of . . . .”
As his office door slammed behind me, I hope the Doc heard his first (and probably his last) African-American patient say: “Hell to the no, Doc – Heeell, to the no!”
As I joined the growing number of African-Americans who have celiac disease, my unpredictable, debilitating journey ended. The only cure for celiac is religious maintenance of a gluten-free diet. But I’m okay with that because, although still a little “blowfish,” I’m safe to hang out with now without you having to wear a gas mask, and maintenance has saved me from a premature death from a leaky gut. I can live with that.
I’m discovering through this dance with the dog and my body that maybe we humans tend to enslave ourselves to things that don’t mean much in the long run — missing the joy of life all together. Maybe it’s meant to teach us to “number our days” so that we focus on what is really important. The house will eventually decay no matter what, and the garden will turn back to its uncultivated nature. My body will sooner or later go to the grave in spite of all its diets, vitamins, creams, flossing, medications, and exercising, but what can’t be touched is genuine love for other people. Since there is only twenty-four hours in a day, and I’m not getting any younger, maybe I should concentrate a little more on the love part and a little less on the maintenance of stuff that I can’t take with me when I “cross over” anyway.
“So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt
without love.” MSG – I Corinthians 13
UPDATE ON THE DOG:
“Precious” went on to become “Sheba-Di” when she moved in with a rich family that really catered to all that dog whisperer shit. I recently got a postcard from her that just said: “I’m livin’ large, suck-kers”! I fell in love with a “perfect dog” (Wednesday Addams) that is just my speed but doesn’t have anything to do with maintenance in my life because she doesn’t live with me (she’s also not insane). I get to spend time with her and give her back to her mommy when I’ve enjoyed her enough — kind of like being a grandmother.
“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” Kurk Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007)
If you or someone you know is demonstrating any of the symptoms I described, please check out the Celiac Sprue Association website http://www.csaceliacs.org/
No puppies or doctors were hurt in the making of this story.
All text and photos by Eleanor and John Tomczyk © 2011
Except photos of Precious (Miss Thang) and of Wednesday Addams – (perfect dog) by Crystal
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Eleanor Tomczyk and “How the Hell Did I End Up Here?” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.