So I tried jumping up and down, my head tilted to the right. I did it several times, at two in the morning. There was no one awake in the house to see me doing it, though I was careful not to jump too hard—I didn’t want to wake anyone up. Because even if I were to explain it to my wife Heather and to my fourteen year old daughter Maggie and to my seven year old son Julien, there was something about it that felt ridiculous. It would have been like someone coming down the stairs to see me not hard at work writing, but in front of the television watching Little House on the Prairie. Yeah, I love that show.
All right, I’m lying about loving Little House on the Prairie, which isn’t to say that back in the day, in the house I grew up in, I didn’t enjoy having it on in the living room, watching it with my mother. I especially liked Alison Arngrim as the mean and nasty Nellie Oleson. Nellie Oleson had attitude, and from what I remember, she liked to mess with people. Years later, Alison Arngrim would write about her work on the show as well as her real life struggles in Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.
I haven’t read the book, and I hadn’t thought about Alison Arngrim in a long, long time, but somehow I thought about her when my ears started to clear up. When, after jumping up and down a few times, I began to hear something beautiful in my right ear—sound. Sound from the outside world and not that of my heart beating or the blood rushing through my veins. Sound, like water dripping from the faucet. Sound, like the asshole next door with his unmuffled pickup truck, running the noisy engine for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes before finally driving off to who knows where. Sound. It was what the instructions I found somewhere on the internet said I would get. Sound—it’s what I got back in my right ear that Monday night.
Sunday, the day before, my ears had been congested for about a week (they’d been clogged on and off since December of the previous year, when I had pneumonia). With the general fatigue, achiness, and congestion that accompanied pneumonia having come back, it seemed like a good idea to go to a doctor. What’s more, with Maggie feeling like she’d come down with the flu, it seemed like a good idea for her to go as well. And so, as usual, we got in the car—Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I—and headed up to the Front Royal urgent care center, which was the only place open on a Sunday.
We got there at three, and not long after that one of the nurses led us all into one of the examining rooms. She took Maggie’s and my blood pressure, and left. Soon, the doctor opened the door. He looked at us and right away gritted his teeth. The look in his eyes seemed like scorn or disgust.
“OK, what are you here for?”
“Well,” I said. “My head is congested and my ears are all clogged, and I’m also having some chest congestion and trouble breathing.”
“And what do expect me to do about it?” He practically barked his words at me.
Maggie looked over to Heather, surprised at the doctor’s hostile tone. And I raised my voice a bit in response.
“Well, I’d like to know if there’s anything I can do,” I said. “I had pneumonia last month, and I’ve been feeling bad again for a week, so I thought I’d better have it checked out.” It was hard for me not to add, “Do you have a fucking problem with that?”
The doctor lightened his tone slightly—very slightly. “All right, let me put it this way. What are your expectations?”
This time, I had to refrain from saying, “My expectations when I come here are to be seen by a doctor who’s not going to act like a total dickhead.”
When he listened to my lungs, he said, “They’re completely clear.” And then, as I took another deep breath he added, “a little wheezing is normal.” I was ready to smack him. And, as Heather told us later, she was too.
The tension never let up. Even when he examined Maggie, he seemed ready for confrontation. His advice before leaving didn’t go much further than “wait it on out” for Maggie, and “blow your nose” for me. Usually, when we go to the urgent care center, we get a decent doctor. This was not one of those times.
Later that night, I googled the doctor. He lived in one of the towns out here in the valley. Right away, I found, in the opinion section of his town’s little newspaper, an op-ed piece he’d written. The paper titled his piece “Madison County physician decries warming ‘hoax.’” Among the doctor’s opinions was that “global warming/climate change advocates are part of what will undoubtedly be known as the greatest hoax in modern times and Al Gore as the 21st century’s greatest snake oil salesman.” Further searching found a letter-to-the-editor where he decried how “the self-reliant and personally responsible” are “in conflict with the dependent and entitled”—with him, of course, being among what he considers the “the self-reliant and personally responsible.” I wondered if the scorn he showed Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I was in response to his looking at us as part of an “increasingly dependent and entitled segment of the population.” Indeed, I wondered exactly what it was he saw.
The next night, after a day in which I blew my nose and drank plenty of hot drinks—after a day when the clearest sound I could hear was that of me chewing my food when I ate—my ears were still clogged. Then I jumped up and down. And Little House on the Prairie wasn’t the only thing that went through my mind that night. I also thought about House of Pain’s song “Jump Around.” And the Mikey Dread song, “Jumping Master.” And, I thought about the time when I was five, jumping up and down in the apartment in DC where my family lived at the time. Jumping over and over and hearing later, from my mom, that all the plaster in the ceiling of our downstairs neighbor Eleanor’s apartment, came crashing down while I was jumping. Eleanor, who’d had polio when she was a child and had to wear leg braces to walk. Eleanor, who couldn’t jump.
Over five decades later, there in the Shenandoah Valley, taking my kids to school the morning after a night when I jumped up and down, up and down, my ears were clogged again. After dropping them off, I turned up the car stereo so I could hear the music better. The song was Ahmad Jamal’s “ Marseille,” featuring vocals by Abd Al Malik. The vocals were in French, and in English they say something like this:
Marseille, I often walk your streets alone
And then, too often I am gone
Marseille, my lonely heart needs your caress
My life, is full of deep regret
Your sun, is unrelenting till it sets
And even though I have never been to Marseille, and have never even been to France, and even though my French is bad, I am feeling it. Feeling it, even when I’m not hearing it well. Feeling it even, sometimes, when I’m not seeing it. And sometimes, though not as often as I used to, I am walking. To somewhere and from somewhere, with the emphasis sometimes being on the former and sometimes on the latter. Sometimes, too, I will jump. I jump less often than I walk, but I do jump, because it’s my privilege. It’s something I’m entitled to do. And, for now, it’s something I depend on.
Photograph by Jose Padua