At least I caught up on my reading. The seventy-fifth-anniversary issue of Fortune was particularly interesting. I didn’t really mind that it was dated September 2005. Where, except in a doctor’s waiting room, can you easily find popular magazines more than a year old? The Christmas 2004 issue of PC World was a disappointment, but I hadn’t seen a copy of House Beautiful in years, so the fact that it was six months out of date was hardly a drawback.
Except it was. All right, I’ll admit it: Even the conscious ironic comedy of browsing frowsy old magazines didn’t help. These are the reading material the demons lay out in the waiting rooms of hell, and if I could have found a box of kitchen matches, I would have burned down the offices of the various doctors I’ve been forced to visit over the last three weeks.
Not to worry: There’s nothing wrong with me except some aches and pains and lingering colds, all caused by general lack of "taking care of yourself," as one doctor kindly explained. In fact, she said, "You are in as bad a shape as a body can possibly be and not actually be very sick. There are these things called exercise, sleep, and regular meals. You ought to try them sometime."
Turns out that coffee and cigarettes are not completely reliable substitutes. Good to know, I suppose. But that physicians’ tone of moral authority¯oh, how it grates, and, oh, how it works. Even dentists have it, the voice that speaks from certain knowledge of right and wrong in your personal behavior: " Do you floss after every meal?" There isn’t priest or pastor left in America who would dare assume that stern, judgmental tone.
Besides, it comes at you just when you’re worn down¯by the sickness that brought you there in the first place, by having nothing to read except an age-yellowed copy of People , by the sheer, unendurable boredom of waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
I realized today, waiting to see yet another doctor for yet another test, that I have organized my life to eliminate waiting, insofar as anyone who is not wealthy can. It wasn’t conscious, but I’ve always worked in fast spurts rather than steady flows, and when I start something or arrive somewhere, I want it to zip and zing and get done . And the body¯that vile slosh and sway of meat around our bones¯ah, yes, that’s the thing that breaks us, in the end, to the yoke of mere enduring.
Actually, I rather like having a body. I confess that I wish it were a better one. I’ve always thought I was designed by nature to look like Rupert Brooke , the famously sappy and over-handsome World War I poet, and it was just bad luck that made me look more (in another famous poet’s phrase to describe his own face) "like a wedding cake left out in the rain." Still, you aren’t human if you haven’t at some point in your life imagined it would be better to be an angel, or an animal, or a rock, or a machine¯anything but this base, corruptible stew, with all the aches and shocks that flesh is heir to.
And it is, of course, the doctor’s office that brings it home. Somewhere in one of his great essays on Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton describes the novelist as having a "generous impatience." It sounds almost admirable, until he explains that Dickens was the kind of man who would put his fist through a window if it wouldn’t open fast enough and he wanted air. Much in my life I have arranged to escape temptations to furious impatience, but avoiding the occasions of vice doesn’t actually teach one the practice of the corresponding virtue, and I have found in myself these past few weeks a slow but constant irritability.
For the medievals, patience was the virtue opposed to the vice of anger, while for moderns it seems rather to be the virtue by which boredom should be confronted. I hadn’t realized the connection until recently, for the idea of boredom always suggested to me the dangers of ennui and acedia. Sitting in the doctor’s office, like patience on a monument, however, I start to get it.
A little late in life, I admit. But I had a fourteen-month-old issue of Fortune to get through first.