Editor’s Note: Racing Stripes | May 2021 | Editor's Note | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Editor’s Note: Racing Stripes | May 2021 

Last Updated: 05/07/2021 3:51 pm
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File this under: Normal signs of aging that seem shocking when they happen to you. Hustling out the door the other morning—running behind, always running behind—I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The kind of fleeting peripheral glance (really no more than a flash of light)—it enters the cornea, passes through the pupil, hits the lens, then on through the vitreous humor to the retina before the optic nerve carries the signal to the brain's visual cortex to turn signal into vision—that's easily ignored. But not this flash of light. This flash of light clearly showed wide stripes of gray hair streaming out from under my baseball cap. The contrast of the gray (closer to white than gray if I'm honest) with the jet black cap made it all the more striking—silvery swooshes like twin Sontag racing stripes above my ears. 

I turned to face myself in the mirror. It was all true. No optic nerve malfunction, no stroke-induced occipital lobe damage to blame. Just a 50-year-old1 man going gray. Nothing special to see here. 

Horrifying intimations of mortality aside, I was also genuinely surprised that I hadn't noticed. Had I just gone gray overnight after seeing a ghost in my sleep or some other nocturnal trauma? Turns out no, as various friends and colleagues later attested—I have been graying faster than I thought. And one "friend" even volunteered that my bald spot was, well, not as small as it seemed and that applications of sunscreen to the top of my head were recommended for when I might be outside.  

Trying to position the baseball cap in such a way that it didn't look like the black-and-white tiled floor of a Parisian bistro was hopeless, so I took it off and stepped into the morning, the dogs patiently waiting on the porch for their dawn walk at the park. 

When we got to the park, I let the dogs off leash to investigate olfactory mysteries and raced to catch up with the rest of our dog-walking group. Right as I did, I felt an intense itch at the small of my back. Going to scratch it, I felt a tick. A tick quite firmly attached to my skin. Without a thought, I ripped it out and looked at the tiny creature caught between my thumb and index finger as it wriggled its mouth2 at me. I could see its mouth moving, fast and angrily, like a prisoner yelling final slurs as he's led to the guillotine. "Ewwww," I said and dropped the tick and hopped around from leg to leg for a minute in revulsion and anxiety.

Despite the fact that I've picked more ticks than I've dared to count off myself3 and our dogs over the years ago—Shazam had a rough bout of Anaplasmosis a few years—I've never really gotten used to them. They represent a connection to nature's untameable biological weaponry that's existentially frightening—like COVID.

And I've known a handful of people who've suffered long bouts of debilitating Lyme disease, which is as difficult to diagnose as it is to treat. 

Then I remembered that you're supposed to keep the tick and bring it to the doctor with you. So I squatted down and started looking for a bug an-eighth-of-an-inch long on the pockmarked road surface. Wendy, one of our dog-walking group, came over and asked me if I was hurt, hunched over as I was, one hand furiously scratching the tiny hole in my back to scrape the Lyme disease out, the other steadying me against the ground while I scanned the ground—fruitlessly—for the tick.

"I just pulled a tick out of my back and I dropped it and I'm trying to find it," I said.

"Ewwww," Wendy said, and walked away.

I got home and told Lee Anne about the tick. She told me to take off my shirt so she could have a look. "Ewwww," she said. She poked and prodded and probed and took a few photos of the raw, red hole in my back and sent them to me so I could see for myself4. I saw for myself. "Ewwww," I said.

It would get stranger, however. At Lee Anne's urging, I went to set up an appointment with my doctor. I googled his name, got the number, called the office, and had a thoroughly disconcerting encounter, recapped below, with the receptionist.

It should be noted that I had only seen this doctor once, on December 26, 2019, when I went in for a new patient physical. A lovely guy, the doc looked at my blood test results and told me that I should lose weight and drink less—standard medical advice. I shook his hand and said I'd see him in a year, thinner and radiant with sobriety. But I never scheduled another physical—we were in the midst of a pandemic a year later. So here I was, almost 18 months out from my sole visit with this doctor, looking to get checked out.

The Disconcerting Encounter

Me: Hello! Brian Mahoney here. I'm a patient of Dr. M and I'd like to make an appointment.
Receptionist: What seems to be the trouble?
Me: I just pulled an embedded tick out of my precious back-flesh and I have mounting anxiety about the various tick-borne illnesses that are possibly brewing inside me.
Receptionist: Gotcha. What's your date of birth?
Me: [Redacted]
Receptionist: Hmmm. We don't seem to have you in our system.
Me: Well, I was only there once. Perhaps it was lost somehow.
Receptionist: What's your date of birth again?
Me: [Redacted]
Receptionist: Hang on one moment. I'm going to put you on hold.
[Time passes. I wonder what I'll cook for dinner.]
Receptionist: Hi, Brian? We have no record of you being a patient of Dr. M.
Me: That can't be. I saw him at his Kingston office the day after Christmas in 2019. He fat-shamed me. I remember that part quite clearly.
Receptionist: Dr. M's never had a Kingston office.
Me: Are you sure?
Receptionist: Very sure, sir.
Me: [Hangs up.]

This conversation leaves me with two options: Either Dr. M's office is gaslighting me or I just need to embrace my early senility. After some frantic searching, it turns out that I am in fact not a patient of Dr. M. My doc is Dr. E., who does indeed practice in Kingston and did see me 18 months ago. My confusion around the name stemmed from an attempt (denied) to become a patient of Dr. M and having to fall back to Dr E.

Early senility, gray hair to boot, is now definitely an option.

1. It's not all bad being 50. I was able to jump the vaccine line to get my doses before all the young whippersnappers, and I started receiving the AARP Bulletin, which contains informative articles like "Olive Oil: Your Pantry's Secret to Longer Life," "How Do Robocalls Work?" and "How to Fight Age Discrimination in the Workplace." A recent favorite: "11 Ways to Look Better in Sunglasses," which contained this bracing nugget of humility: "No one's face at 50 is really a square, heart or round shape; in fact, our faces become more asymmetrical with age. Hairlines recede, ears and noses continue to grow, lips sometimes flatten or thin and jawlines can look droopy. The right sunglasses shape should give your face back some definition, lift your features, and create a more balanced look while diverting attention away from whatever you'd like to ignore."  

2. "Ticks have a lovely, evolved mouth," biologist Kerry Padgett complimented the parasitic arachnids in a 2018 piece on NPR. In fact, a tick's lovely mouth is so evolved, it's covered in hooks. NPR science correspondent Gabriela Quiros explains: "A tick digs in using two sets of hooks. Each set looks like a hand with three hooked fingers. The hooks dig in and wriggle into the skin. Then these 'hands' bend in unison to perform approximately half-a-dozen breaststrokes that pull skin out of the way so the tick can push in a long stubby mouth part called the hypostome." Hypostome = blood straw.

3. The first person to disgorge a tick from me was my father. I was probably 10 or 11 at the time. After returning home from a Boy Scout camping trip, I felt a creepy-crawly on me and went running to dear old Dad, who found three ticks embedded in my lower abdomen. My father, who would go on to a distinguished career as a public health official, was not yet established in that field. It would be field surgery nonetheless. He told me he was going to remove the ticks, but that he needed me to go fetch the tweezers—and Mom's cigarettes. Suffice to say he got the ticks out. I don't know if holding a lit cigarette up to a child's tender skin was endorsed by the AMA in the early `80s. 

4. Word to the wise: Delete all the photos on your phone of bites, scratches, cuts, bruises, and skin irruptions before someone else finds them while scanning the hundreds of cute dog photos you're making them look at.

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