I was the only kid I knew who read Reader’s Digest.
For some reason, my parents saved old issues of the once-iconic magazine going back to the ’70s, with a few scattered issues from the ’60s. These paperback-size copies lined a couple of bookshelves in our perpetually darkened den, which we called the “family room,” even though as a family I don’t remember spending all that much time in there.
Starting sometime around age 9 or 10, I would sidle up to the bookshelf, which was all but blocked by a dormant organ and an itchy couch, and pick out copies of Reader’s Digest at random and decamp to my bedroom or the living room — or pretty much anywhere else in the house that had better lighting — and read the magazine from cover to cover. My grandparents usually subscribed, so I mixed contemporary copies with ones that had sat untouched on that shelf for years.
Reader’s Digest was my encyclopedia and World Wide Web. Before we had dial-up Internet access or satellite TV, that’s where I got my roots in storytelling, world events, politics and even bad jokes (courtesy of the “Laughter, the Best Medicine” page). I believed most everything I read, because, as I was told, “They can’t print it if it’s not true.”
The truth is, and this is something the 10-year-old me would not have understood at a fundamental level, is that much of what I read was misguided, biased or wrong. (Coincidentally, I remember reading the July 1983 copy of RD depicted above. I probably skipped the article on the “amazing” F-Plan diet, but that turned out to have a lasting impact.)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that Reader’s Digest was intentionally deceptive — it wasn’t. RD was simply an amalgamation of other publications — publications that had their own biases, angles and flaws. Add to that the truth that the “certainty” of the immediate present is always outdone (trumped?) by the perspective that only the passage of time can offer. Surely the 1980s seemed like a good idea at the time, but …
Now, I get my news and information a very different way. Most of it comes via my phone, which the 10-year-old me would have found unimaginable, through push alerts, tweets, Facebook posts and headlines — all of which are, by nature, very short. Much shorter than the Reader’s Digest articles that I would challenge myself to finish.
One of my main information-gathering apps is Twitter, and I have a widget on my phone that provides quick access to my timeline. It is populated mostly by news sources and those familiar themes of politics, features and world and national news. (The bad jokes have been replaced by memes and GIFs.)
While years ago I puttered through Reader’s Digest believing almost every word, I now can look at everything with a sharp skepticism.
Two recent tweets caught my eye; they popped up within minutes of each other on a quiet night. The first was an article from The New York Times with the headline “Turns out, flossing may be overrated.” The second was a piece from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site that proclaimed “There’s probably nothing that will change Clinton or Trump supporters’ minds.”
— FiveThirtyEight (@FiveThirtyEight) August 3, 2016
The next night, another New York Times story popped up in my Twitter feed: “Why Useless ‘Surgery’ Is Still Popular.” It turns out that several common surgeries, including spinal fusion and meniscus surgery, are not scientifically proven to work better than physical therapy alone. Yet some doctors continue to recommend that their patients go under the knife rather than trying therapy. Why?
“I think there is a placebo effect not only on patients but on doctors,” a Mayo Clinic doctor is quoted as saying in the article. “The successful patient is burned into their memories and the not-so-successful patient is not. Doctors can have a selective memory that leads them to conclude that, ‘Darn it, it works pretty well.’”
The common thread of these news stories, as well as my Reader’s Digest reminiscences, is the idea that so much information we are exposed to is blatantly wrong, mistakenly wrong or so incomplete it might as well be wrong. A study by the American Press Institute, a nonpartisan media watchdog, found that incorrect information on Twitter outnumbers correct information by a ratio of 3-to-1 and that many Americans are “confidently wrong.”
There was another tweet that popped up in my timeline between the floss and the politics: It was a New York Times obituary for the writer James Baldwin. Baldwin died long ago, in 1987, but the Times has taken his and many other luminaries’ obituaries and published them in one place (the kind of aggregation that Reader’s Digest capitalized on). The Times’ tweet displayed a timeless quote from Baldwin:
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they be forced to deal with pain.”
Substitute “opinon” for “hates”/”hate” and “ignorance” for “pain.” Bingo.
What ties all of this together? Let’s start with a bit of flossing, but of the mental variety. Why do we feel compelled to buy reels of string, wind them around our fingers and pursue flecks of food in front of the bathroom mirror? Because we are told to.
Why do we espouse certain beliefs? Because we are told to.
The “conventional wisdom” pervades our society, and not just ours. We are creatures who are built to do what we are told, especially by our parents, teachers and others in positions of responsibility. We carry this formula past our earliest years and into childhood/adolescence, in the form of peer pressure, and adulthood, in the form of “keeping up with the Joneses” and other facets of life in an ever-accelerating rat race.
We do so many things a certain way because, hey, they worked for your father or your great-uncle or someone else, so it must be right, right?
We cling to our conventions so stubbornly because if we admit that they could be wrong, we would be forced to rethink things. And rethinking things is hard. From an evolutionary perspective, we are programmed to not want to rethink things. Doing so uses up a lot of time and energy and … we could be wrong! It feels so much safer to stay with the current mode of thinking — even at the risk that it could be harmful or wasteful.
Eleven years ago, a scientist named John Ioannidis published a paper in the journal PLOS One titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” Not to get too deep into maths here, but studies rely on something called a p-value, which is so complex that even scientists can’t explain what it really is. It also can be manipulated to confirm researchers’ preconceived notions, which is completely against what the scientific method is all about. Lies, damned lies, and statistics, as they say.
If I were to go back through all those years of Reader’s Digest, I think I’d find some neat nostalgia (and some fine editing), but I also think I’d find scores of stories that have, in due time, been proved to be misleading or simply wrong. In fact, I’d have had the same problem if medical journals had lined the shelves of our family room instead of Reader’s Digest.
Human progress is a process. We have volumes of information at our fingertips now, but how much of it is reliable? How much of it is perilously incomplete? How much would we gain if we paused to consider how much of this “content” that is buzzing all around us is true, useful, lasting information that will retain its value in 10, 20, 50 years? Everything on the Internet gets saved in some form or other, but how much of it is really worth saving? How much of it would be worth putting on the shelf for future generations — who will have the benefit of learning from our errors — to read?
I was recently going through my notes and found these entries, written (for the most part) during a trip to Spain with my wife at the end of April:
April 29: Driving on the E-5 highway that slices from southwestern Spain directly through its middle, the feeling hits you: This is a big country.
As we are finding out today, it takes more than five hours to drive from Sevilla to Madrid, with a mandatory half-hour rest stop for the driver, a genial, earthy man named Paco.
The E-5 really does cut through the heart of Spain, too: About a half-hour south of downtown Madrid, the highway travels just to the west of a monument that marks the center of the Iberian Peninsula.
As Americans we are a nation of drivers, and it’s clear that Spain also loves its driving: This is a holiday weekend, as Paco points out, and traveling up through Andalucia we see a wall of traffic backed up for miles and miles. The cause is a cloudburst that had causes some flooding on the southbound side of the highway. Thankfully we are going on the opposite direction, toward the Innside Luchana Hotel in Madrid, where they don’t operate the HVAC system in the springtime. *Shudder* Had we been headed south, I’m not sure we would’ve made it there by midnight.
Even with good traffic, the day has been long enough. In the end, we will have been on the road for over six hours, having toured La Almuzara horse farm, walked in and around La Mezquita in Cordoba and returned to the capital city.
There is graffiti everywhere, on buildings, overpasses, sheds. Ron’s Crew and El Ron’s Crew have emptied untold cans of paint for miles between La Mancha and Madrid, probably well beyond. In New Zealand, graffiti was rare; when it popped up, officials raced to erase it as quickly as possible. But here in Spain, it seems to bother no one.
April 30: We receive a private transfer to the train station, which was another perk provided by Friendly Planet, our travel agency. The train station is beautiful and cavernous, with an indoor arboretum on the ground floor; dozens of turtles swim and clamber about in a small pond. Kacey and I wished we could have viewed the arboretum from up close, but once we had our baggage scanned — a cursory check compared to the security process at airports — it was unclear whether we could exit and make our way down to the arboretum. We decided not to chance it.
We are at the station to board the AVE, Spain’s high-speed train. Relative to the price, I cannot imagine a better way to see the Spanish countryside than a trip on the AVE.
Spain may be, like the United States, a country of drivers, but it also has advanced public transportation, like most of the rest of Europe. To travel 385 miles from Madrid, in the center of the country, to Barcelona, on the northeastern coast, we take the AVE (Alta Velocidad Española). The train looks no bigger than Washington’s Metro, but that is where the similarities end. The AVE zooms along the track at speeds up to 300 km an hour or 180 mph; the line between Madrid and Barcelona first opened in 2008. Once we left the outskirts of Spain’s capital, the train hovered near that speed for most of the ride. By comparison, the Metro has a permitted top speed of about 60 mph and an average speed of only about 30 mph. (Those numbers don’t reflect the widespread delays and closures in the Metro system this summer, part of a yearlong project to fix the crumbling system.)
While the ride on the bus on the E-5 was often bumpy due to the hit-or-miss condition of the road, the AVE was incredibly smooth — especially considering that we were traveling nearly as fast as a NASCAR driver running “wide open” at Talladega Superspeedway. And the AVE is quiet — so quiet that it took me an hour to realize that the noisy ride that I expected wasn’t coming. I suppose I am inured to the bone-rattling comforts of the Metro and the New York subway. The first two rooms we had at the Innside Luchana hotel in Madrid were much noisier than the AVE.
At 180 mph, the scenery immediately in front of you is just a blur; blink and you will miss it. But as you look off into the distance, from 500 feet away to as far as the eye can see, the view is unforgettable. Brown rolling hills sprinkled with green give way to darker mountains. The fan blades of white windmills spin; from afar they look like children’s pinwheels whirling lightly in the breeze.
White, puffy cumulus clouds hang low, beckoning mortals to reach out and try to touch them. But we are moving past them so quickly that even if we could, we would not catch even a wisp.
On screens hanging down from the ceiling of the train cars, one of the “Night at the Museum” movies plays. Just before the train departed, attendants offered headphones to riders.
Curious, I plug in a pair of earbuds left over from the flight; a jaunty big band number flows through the speakers. There are eight radio stations in all, from rock and roll (en inglés!) to classical. Can you imagine a train service in the United States offering an in-ride movie as well as a music selection?
It’s clear the U.S. has a deficit compared to much of the rest of the developed world when it comes to public transportation. We are addicted to driving and we have little incentive to do less of it or give it up entirely, even though the average American spends 42 hours a year stuck in rush-hour traffic. And there’s also the fact that some of the most negative effects — mainly, carbon emissions that contribute to global warming — are all but invisible and so incremental that we never see their direct impact.
If there’s any consolation, in 10 years we might be riding at 800 mph on this thing.
>>Here you’ll find a bit more from the Spain trip, including a strange little tale about a cellphone, a plane and a paranoid woman.
There are two sides to receiving health care in the United States: one is finding, and getting, the actual care itself; the other is dueling with insurance companies to make sure they pay what they owe.
It is difficult enough to find top-notch care, so the fact that we in the United States are regularly required to fight against our own insurance companies — which are, in theory, supposed to be overseeing our well-being — is frustrating and even shameful. It’s a topic I wrote about more than two years ago, when I began to see firsthand how fractured the health care system is.
Anyone who faces this kind of patient vs. insurance situation needs inspiration. So here’s a little story to show that this battle is winnable and that the fight is worth fighting:
Last December, I received the last of my dental implants. As I found out, there is a bizarre relationship between dental implants and health insurance companies in this country. Even though implants are increasingly common, health insurance companies often do not cover them. And those that do cover them will typically not pay for the whole thing. The usual procedure is for insurance to pay for the implant post — which is drilled into the jawbone and anchors the new tooth — and the piece (called an abutment) that attaches the crown to the post, but not to pay for the crown. The crown is the responsibility of dental insurance, according to their line of thinking.
Why would a health insurer pay for only part of a solution but absolve itself of the rest?
That is what I was consistently told is standard procedure by a handful of representatives of my insurance company, Blue Cross Blue Shield, during numerous phone calls over the course of many months.
I never accepted that as a reasonable answer.
During one conversation earlier this year with one of those representatives, I was given a shred of hope. I explained the circumstances of my case and reasoned that because BCBS paid for the implant posts, it also should cover the cost of the crowns. Neither the posts nor the crowns are any good on their own, I said; they are part of a cohesive whole and BCBS should treat them as such.
Even though the rep admitted she’d never heard of a case where BCBS paid for crowns, she said it wouldn’t hurt to submit a claim and see what happens. Why not?
After waiting for late-arriving paperwork from my dentist, I mailed my claim in March. BCBS said I should expect to hear back in 30 days, but that didn’t happen. Around the 30-day mark I called for an update. The representative had no idea what the status of my claim was, but she said she would help it along. She also added to the chorus of “I’ve never heard of anyone getting crowns covered.” It didn’t look good.
While I was on vacation, BCBS called and left a message at my work. Hopeful, I dialed.
“Hey, Jonathan, this is [name redacted] from Blue Cross and Blue Shield. …. I did want to let you know that the review came back and according to everything that I’ve read, it doesn’t look like we’re going to cover the crown portion of your, you know, implant surgery. You are more than welcome to call us back if you want further details. Um, I’m sorry to have to give you this bad news, but uh, give us a call, like I said, if you want more details. Have a great day. Bye-bye.”
A day or two later, I received an email from BCBS saying the claim had been finalized. Without a clear idea of why I wanted more punishment, I logged in to my account. I couldn’t find the claim anywhere. Just as well.
I got home that night and found a letter that had arrived from the insurer. I thought about tossing it directly into the recycle bin, but with nothing better to do at that moment, I ripped it open.
The first page was a chart related to my claim. One line caught my eye within seconds: “Total benefits approved: $2,623.76.”
Below that: “Payment of $2,623.76 was made to JONATHAN C FOGG on 05-05-16.”
“HAH!” I shouted.
I flipped through to the last page. It was a check … in the amount of $3,393.76. Why was it more than the cover page said it would be? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. It’s gravy.
I’m reminded of some incredibly inspirational writing I came across this week. I was reading an article compiling the greatest graduation speeches ever delivered, and No. 2 on the list was Steve Jobs’ address at Stanford University in 2005 (which happens to be the same year I graduated from Susquehanna University):
“Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking,” Jobs told the students. “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
I fought the conventional wisdom of an insurance company and won. And after two-plus years of being told by insurance reps and secretaries, and even my own dentists and oral surgeon, that health insurance doesn’t cover crowns, after receiving the “sorry, we don’t cover that” voicemail, I refused to be trapped by dogma and other people’s definition of what’s right.
I deposited the check today. It was the most fulfilling trip to the bank I’ve ever made.
I’ve been trying to reach the traffic squad detective assigned to the case after an unmarked Baltimore cop car pulled out in front of me and caused an accident on Orleans Street/U.S. 40 on March 29.
I talked to the detective at the scene for a minute or so, at most. He gave me his card and told me to follow up with him.
On April 6, I called his number at 2:01 p.m.* A woman answered the phone. “You just missed him — he gets off at 2. Call back about 20 minutes sooner,” she said.
On April 12, I called at 1:05, just to be on the safe side. A man answered; it was not the detective. “He works 5 to 1,” the man said. “And he’s on vacation until April 19.”
“OK,” I said, “I’ll call back then.” The man also cautioned that traffic cases involving city police are sent to internal review and take a long time to play out.
Yesterday, I dialed his number at 12:45. A man answered. Again, not the detective. “He actually works 4 to 12. A lot of people say it’s a 5-to-1 shift, but it’s actually 4 to 12,” he said.
Good to know.
“I’ll call back tomorrow,” I said.
Today I called at 11:22 a.m., quite confident I would get through.
A man answered. I asked for the detective.
“Oh, he’s off today,” the man said.
“Will he be in tomorrow?” I asked.
“Let me check the schedule — hold on.”
There is no hold music in the Baltimore Police Department.
The man returned. “Hello, sir? Yes, I can’t find the schedule. But I’m pretty sure he’s working tomorrow. I mean, I think he is.”
I can’t fathom why someone who works at BPD wouldn’t be able to find the schedule, but that’s exactly what happened and how this attempt ended.
The search continues.
* — Times are exact and are based on my call log.
It began as a day just like any other. March 30, 2001. A Friday.
At Sacred Heart High School in Vineland, New Jersey, teachers and administrators began to trickle into the building. Raindrops streaked off their umbrellas under the bleak sky.
Students eventually began to filter in, too, including some of my senior classmates. Many of them walked into the brick, two-story building near the corner of Landis and East avenues through the entrance by the gymnasium. That was the side of the school closest to the parking lots, the side I always entered and exited through. The front door of the building was actually on East Avenue — North East Avenue, to be precise, but I don’t remember anyone ever using it.
But maybe I just didn’t know. After all, it was my first year at the school, and it was a chaotic time.
I had college applications and scholarships on my mind, as well as the imminent start of baseball season.
The gym, formally known as Jim Mogan Auditorium, was where my friends and I would talk about these topics, and whatever else came to mind, as we waited for the homeroom bell to ring.
And on this Friday, they gathered as usual. I was not there. That was unusual.
Maybe Jon is late or sick, they reasoned. But they thought it was odd, because they knew I almost never stayed home sick and was rarely late.
They waited some more and chatted to pass the time. The bell sounded. Everyone grabbed their backpacks and headed to their lockers.
Growing up, my perception of what life as a senior as supposed to be like (which I had acquired mostly through TV) was that it was mostly about partying, applying to college, avoiding blemishes on my permanent record and generally enjoying the lofty status and admiration/respect of underclassmen.
But when I got to senior year, I was a stranger in a strange land. The high school that I had attended for the previous three years — St. James High in Carneys Point, New Jersey, in the shadow of the Delaware Memorial Bridge — had been abruptly closed by the Diocese of Camden at the end of my junior year. Faced with the challenge of finding a suitable venue to finish high school, I chose (like dozens of my fellow St. James refugees) Sacred Heart.
“Choice” might be the wrong word. Once St. James closed its doors, Sacred Heart was the next-closest private school of its kind, and so it was a foregone conclusion for my parents that I would enroll there.
Vineland has roots as a farming town, and its claim to fame was that it was the birthplace of Welch’s Grape Juice in 1869. But in the late 20th century it was caught between two inexorable forces: the decline of American industrialism and the rise of urban poverty. I knew it as a place where you had to pay only half the normal sales tax.
I adjusted to the school switch about as well as possible: I made new friends, got involved in clubs and activities (including a stint as the public address announcer for the successful Sacred Heart boys and girls basketball teams) and did just as well academically as I had at St. James, where I had been on schedule to be valedictorian before the diocese came in and callously announced that “the decision has been made” to shutter the school.
Seeing a school community go through the equivalent of corporate downsizing could have alienated me; I know it did for others. But I didn’t let it.
By the end of March, I had A’s in all my classes and was ranked No. 2 in the class. There was a bit of disappointment when I found out I wasn’t at the top overall in this new setting, but I also knew there were far bigger things ahead academically. I was still trying to figure out whether to apply to Syracuse, which had left me feeling awestruck during a visit two years earlier. Even though it was late March, I still had time, but it was vanishing quickly.
I can still remember bits and pieces, to a certain point.
It was a drizzly morning, and I felt an urgency to leave a few minutes early because the car that I was driving at the time, a 1988 gold Chevrolet Monte Carlo that was a hand-me-down from my older sister, needed extra care in anything but optimal driving conditions.
But leaving more than a few minutes ahead of schedule for the 45- minute drive would be difficult on any morning. I was a night owl, and getting out of bed was a battle with my alarm clock.
I tapped the mouse of the computer in the kitchen to check AOL Instant Messenger. I left it logged in, as always, but this time I forgot to put up an away message.
I hefted my black golf bag, loaded with a budget set of irons and woods, and eased it into the trunk of the Monte Carlo with a thud. The latch had a tendency not to close correctly, so I always made sure to slam it shut.
I was on the golf team at Sacred Heart, which was unexpected given that until the previous summer, when I took a maintenance job at a golf course about 10 miles from my house, I had never swung a club in my life.
Thankfully, the golf team was not good, which meant I could have fun and not worry about the fact that I was one of the least experienced players on the team — and that I had made the decision (in hindsight, a very questionable one) to spend much of my meager savings from my first summer of employment on an assortment of golf clubs.
But I was nonetheless happy to be making use of my new skills, and it gave me something to do in addition to my work on the school’s award-winning public speaking (aka “forensics”) team. Because it was rainy that Friday morning, I didn’t know whether practice would be canceled. Since I packed the clubs, I must have thought there was a chance the weather would clear.
I opened the Monte Carlo’s cumbersome driver-side door, which groaned sharply as always, flicked on the windshield wiper blades and eased the car down my parents’ long dirt road.
As a child in a farm family, I quickly got used to being in a moving vehicle. Whether in my father’s pickup truck, my family’s 1986 black and red Chevy Suburban, an 18-wheeler or a tractor, I was quite often along for the ride during the work of running a farm. There was even a time or two that my dad picked me up from school in his green John Deere harvesting combine, which — if you’ve ever seen a combine — was quite a sight amid the stream of cars and yellow school buses.
A product of spending so much of my childhood on these countless work trips was that I got to know some routes quite well. One of the usual destinations was Bridgeton, a town about 20 minutes east of my home in Lower Alloways Creek. I came to know quite well the various ways to get there.
One of the main ways to do that was to pass through a little village called Roadstown — a village so small that if you blinked you’d miss it.
The center of Roadstown is the intersection of County Route 626 (Roadstown Road) and County Route 620 (Shiloh Road). To get to Bridgeton, you’d travel east on Roadstown Road, with farmland on your left and right, and end up within Bridgeton city limits.
If there was a dangerous part of that route, a part where your heart skipped a beat, it was right at that intersection of Roadstown Road and Shiloh Road. A blinking light marked the crossing — yellow for drivers on Roadstown Road, red for the cross traffic on Shiloh. There was (and still is) also an Arco gas sign there, a landmark that is one of the few remnants from a filling station long gone.
Heading east on Roadstown, the roadway veered around a curve to the left, and to make matters even more hazardous, it also went uphill. The result was that as you approached the curve, with the Arco sign coming into view on your left, there was a moment where you entered into a Twilight Zone of uncertainty, where you could see only the roadway in front of you as it bent out of view and you didn’t know what was next.
It was, in effect, a blind curve. Cumberland County had wisely compensated for this by making the speed limit for that section of road very low — it was in the range of 20 or 25 miles per hour.
I went around that bend a hundred times during all those trips of my youth, and if my mother were driving, she would often remark that she didn’t like it. And we would creep around the bend as she peered to the left and right to make sure no cross traffic was coming.
That morning, Liam and Brandon arrived at Sacred Heart and headed to the gym to hang out before homeroom. Liam drove from the Swedesboro area, Brandon from Salem County. They waited for me to arrive.
But the bell rang, and I had not shown up. They headed off to homeroom; I had Mr. Schelder for homeroom, and neither of them did, so they probably figured I was just running late.
But at some point during homeroom or first period, Liam and Brandon were called down to the office of the vice principal, Mr. Jones. He told them I had been in a car accident; he wanted to inform them before announcing it over the school’s intercom.
At some point in the day, Liam and Brandon, and perhaps other friends of ours, spoke with Ms. Shuster, a gym teacher whom we’d had at St. James, about what had happened. Ms. Shuster characterized the accident as bad. Liam asked her whether I would live.
In Liam’s words, “She gave a look that said, ‘It doesn’t look good, so don’t ask that.'”
It was a nightmare come true.
One moment I was driving, my eyes focused on the road in front of me. I was on Willis Road, which runs east-west through the township of Stow Creek. Just before it meets Roadstown Road, Willis bends to the right, then goes straight for a few hundred yards. That bend means that Willis meets Roadstown Road at a sharp angle. To head toward Bridgeton and points east, you have to turn your head and look far over your shoulder to check for oncoming traffic.
There was no traffic at that intersection that morning. I turned the Monte Carlo’s steering wheel to the right and eased through the turn.
And that is where, in the tape reel of my mind, everything stops — the screen goes black and the audio cuts out.
At least that’s how it feels at a normal level of consciousness. At some greater depth, I sometimes think, there is a faint imprint in my memory of some of the moments of sheer chaos that occurred on Roadstown Road on the morning of March 30, 2001.
Infrequently I feel that some of these snippets are there in my mind, but that for some reason I cannot bring them into focus. The mind works in mysterious ways, and its limitations are sometimes for the better.
What I do know is that I awoke in a hospital bed.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Tubes tethered me to a monitor.
How did I get there? Immediately, I had no recollection.
Where exactly was I? I did not know.
To my left, a curtain hung from the ceiling.
It was no longer Friday, but Sunday or early Monday. As I would find out, I was in Cooper Hospital in Camden, New Jersey. I had been induced into a coma to alleviate swelling on my brain. I had also been intubated but had pulled out the tube on my own.
My mother asked me whether there was anything I wanted. My CD player, I said. So she brought it to me, with a disc my sister Meredyth had burned for me at college; at that time CD burning technology was new and our Gateway PC at home didn’t have it.
Someone placed the headphones around my ears and hit the “play” button. I was too weak to do it myself, at least at first. I couldn’t stay awake for more than an hour or so at a time, so I drifted in and out amid the sounds of Collective Soul, R.E.M. and the rest of the mixtape.
Lock the door, lock the door
And it’s good to know that you’ll drive away
From this car crash nightmare
And I’ll be there to help you again
There’s no danger
We’re just killing time again
When they order up new parts
I have been good
Like a machine they’ll fix you from the start
“Who beat me up?”
That was one of my first questions to my mother and whoever else was in my room. She remembers it even now.
As I regained awareness, faint memories rose to the surface like bubbles from the depths of my mind. I tried to retrace my path mentally but could not.
As I would find out, I had been in a car accident, a head-on collision, at the bend on Roadstown Road. Moments later, at least three passers-by happened upon the scene — a nurse, a county worker and a farmer. The farmer, a man named Dean Roork, had been driving toward the intersection on Greenwich Road, to my right. He was the first to reach the car. Someone called 911 from a phone booth at the intersection.
The collision had such an incredible amount of force that it jolted the Monte Carlo backward, perhaps some 75 to 100 feet, from the point of impact, sending the car into a telephone pole and guy wire. That second impact was hard enough to dent the trunk and the metal sheath around the guy wire. (The wire still has the dent, my mother says.)
Most of the bones around my left eye were broken, and it was uncertain whether my eye was damaged. My right ankle was severely sprained, though not broken.
I had been hit by two teenage brothers, Christopher and Dustin Opperman, who were speeding in a Geo Metro on their way to a public high school in the area. As they went around the curve, the most notorious one in the area, they lost control of their car. I asked about them; they were fine.
I had lost a lot of blood. At the hospital I received two units via transfusion.
This was too much for me to process. How could this happen?
I also began to notice the commotion coming from the bed to my left. It was, as I found out, a teenage boy who’d been in a dirt bike accident. I do not remember how long he had been in the hospital. I do not even remember his name. Sometimes he would scream out in pain; at others, he would demand painkillers. He became addicted to them, and as he was denied the drugs, he would yell out even more.
Enduring his yelling was difficult, especially given that I’d had a severe concussion and couldn’t handle loud noise. His cries did, however, strengthen my resolve that I would not ask for painkillers. I was hurting, but I was determined to tough my way through it. I searched in my mind for a place where the pain could not reach me.
As a sleep-deprived teenager, I’d never imagined that I would get tired of lying in a bed. But being hospitalized showed me that a bed can be a terribly confining place. I longed to do something as simple as standing up and walking around. But even if I’d been allowed to get up from the bed, I didn’t have the energy to do it. My equilibrium was out of whack, my strength and stamina gone.
Perhaps a day or two after I regained consciousness, the nurse told me I was allowed to get up out of bed. Not only was I allowed, but I should. So I decided I would use the bathroom. Mustering all my strength, I slid to the edge of the bed and rose slowly. My legs wobbled. I nearly fell over but stayed upright. I shuffled toward the door.
There are some moments, some points in our lives that are imprinted in our memories indelibly. My first trip to the bathroom was one of those moments, because of what I saw when I looked in the mirror: a bizarre version of myself, one with the left side of its face caved in. I had not been prepared for that. My heart sank. I still held childhood dreams of becoming a sports broadcaster, and in my reflected image I saw my future career vanishing. Who would hire someone with a lopsided face?
I also felt something so strong that I remember it even now: determination. Many emotions coursed through my body, but above all was a sense of resolve. Hurt as they did, these injuries would not stop me. For a a few seconds, I thought of a day, far into the future, when this very scene of looking into the mirror at a bizarre version of myself would be but a brief memory.
I soon found out that I would be having surgery to insert two titanium plates in my face — one behind my eyebrow and the other below my eye. The doctors, Mulligan and Lanzi, assured me that I would look like I did before the accident. But clearly they had some uncertainty; my mother signed a waiver permitting the removal of my eye if the damage was too great.
I joked with Dr. Mulligan that he’d better not live up to his name. It took everything I had to get that joke out, given the circumstances. He laughed.
I was a Philadelphia Phillies junkie. I followed every game, whether on TV or radio, and read the stories and looked at the box scores in the next day’s paper.
The Phillies have the most losses of any franchise in pro sports history, so it is generally hard to be a fan of them in any era, but with that said, the end of the last millennium was a bleak time. The last piece of the oddball 1993 National League champions, Curt Schilling, had been traded away to Arizona in the middle of the 2000 season, and the Phils went on to lose 97 games.
Understandably, expectations for the 2001 Phillies were low, yet that had never stopped me from watching and listening, and as April neared I was looking forward to the season opener April 2 at Florida.
I missed that game — and it’s probably just as well. Closer Jose Mesa, the team’s big free agent signing in the offseason, blew the save in his first appearance as a Phillie. The Phils would go on to win in 13 innings.
I have an uncanny memory for remembering exactly where I was for certain games, and one way I know I must have been feeling better by the next day, April 3, is that I remember watching the game on the small TV mounted high on the wall in the hospital room. As Mesa threw warm-up pitches before the bottom of ninth, with the Phillies leading 4-3, I felt nervous. That says it all about what kind of baseball nut I was — I was in the hospital and I was worried about the outcome of the second game of the season.
Mesa allowed only a single and earned the save. The next night, the Phils rallied in the eighth inning and won, 7-3, to start the season with a sweep.
On April 8, the Sunday before Easter, I was released from Cooper Hospital. I had been there for nine days.
According to hospital policy, or so they said, I had to ride in a wheelchair to the exit. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t have the energy or wherewithal to argue that I could walk to the door.
And anyway, my right leg was black and blue from the upper ankle almost to my toes. The area around my left eye was purple, and the eye itself was streaked with red from bleeding. I just wanted to go home.
I had shed 15 to 20 pounds — which was ironic because it happened to be the same amount of weight I’d been trying, in vain, to lose for seemingly my entire life.
I spent the next couple of weeks at home, thinking that I could heal quickly enough to do two things that were very important to me at the time: One was to rejoin the golf team before the end of the season in heroic fashion, and the second was to compete in the forensics meet that would determine who would go on to the national competition.
A couple of times, I ventured into the backyard with a few golf clubs and tried to hit balls into the marsh. But for a right-handed golfer, the right ankle has to turn and flex during the swing, and the pain and stiffness was too much. When the swelling didn’t subside, I went to see a doctor, who put me in a walking cast for six weeks. There would be no more golf and no forensics nationals.
There wasn’t much left in the academic year by the time I returned to school. Everyone at Sacred Heart made me feel so welcome on my first day back — something I’ll never forget. It was as if they hadn’t seen me in years. Perhaps some thought they would never see me again.
Teachers went easy on me, which I had mixed feelings about. I got through final exams. I probably could have skipped some of them and still passed, but I’ve always resisted taking the simple way out.
Even though I was back at school, my cognitive function took some time to return. I’m not sure anyone else noticed except for me. I wrote and delivered the salutatorian speech, but to this today I don’t remember any of it.
Cast, swollen eye and all, I went to prom and stayed on the dance floor longer than at any other school dance I ever attended.
For many years, however, the left side of my face and nose felt numb, flat, dull. I would occasionally wonder if the numbness would ever go away, if the feeling would ever fully return.
At some point, I stopped thinking about it regularly, and it healed.
Going through a traumatic experience brings physical wounds as well as emotional wounds, and they overlap like a Venn diagram.
In a way, it was a terrible experience to have as a senior in high school. But there are always hidden blessings, and for me one was that I didn’t have much time to ruminate. After graduation, I went back to my weekend job at the Sunbeam newspaper, then to my summer job at the golf course. I worked seven days a week for the entire summer, without a single day off. I really couldn’t afford to; the golf job paid 6 bucks an hour, the newspaper job minimum wage, and if there was one thing I knew about college, it was that it was expensive.
There also was the legal aspect to deal with. The driver of the Metro faced driving charges that were eventually pleaded down to speeding. He never apologized to me, in court or since. And because he was underinsured, my family had to fight our own insurance company. That was disillusioning, especially for my first experience with the legal system. I don’t think the insurance company took my injuries as seriously as they were, in part because I determinedly returned to school and finished out the year. In their eyes, that lessened the severity of what I had been through.
I live in Maryland now, and it’s been more than five years since I last drove through Roadstown. But when I was still in college, I would go down the same stretch of road nearly every time I was home on break. For years, memories and anxiety would flash through my mind. But over time, they became less and less, until I didn’t think about it at all.
Part of being a survivor is confronting your fears, and there is no greater fear than returning to the very scene that brought you, and loved ones, so much pain and anguish. There is even one expert who says the only way to overcome a traumatic experience is, essentially, to simulate it but to change the outcome.
Thanks to Google Maps’ Street View feature, I recently took a look at what a Google van equipped with a camera recorded as it drove through Roadstown. My first reaction was that the bend in road didn’t look nearly as steep, but given that it’s lined on both sides with historic homes and a fire company, I don’t think the curve or incline had been flattened.
As I clicked on the arrows to travel through the intersection one more time, in virtual reality, I noticed a major change: The intersection was a four-way stop.
The implications lingered in my mind. Had the intersection been a four-way stop fifteen years ago, perhaps everything would have played out differently and March 30, 2001, would have been just another quiet, rain-soaked morning in the hinterlands of southern New Jersey.
But if I have learned anything in the 15 years that span that morning to now, it is that reality happens only one way for us and thinking about would-haves, should-haves and could-haves is wasted time and energy.
It is at that point in space and time where I had a close call, an instant where everything could have ended for me. Yet for some reason, perhaps only for sheer luck, it did not.
It has taken me 15 years to get to the point where I felt comfortable writing about this. But it’s more than that — I felt that I had to write about it, because it was and is such an important story and I am the only one who can tell it from a first-person view.
In hindsight, I can see now that this experience affected me in profound ways. I experienced what is known as survivor’s guilt. I can remember the first and second anniversaries of the crash and feeling overwhelmed as I revisited what I had been through.
I felt embarrassed, too. That is one of the worst parts of being a victim — the loss of control, the sense of powerlessness.
In late summer 2001, I gave a short speech at the Salem County Fair on behalf of a group called the Saved By the Belt Club, which promoted seat belt awareness. It was a positive experience, yet at the same time I didn’t know how to deal with that kind of attention, didn’t know how to process it. I think I also didn’t want to accept it, at least not fully. That was the only time I spoke about the experience publicly — until now.
A car is one of the most dangerous things we handle in our lives. In our hands, these 3,000- to 4,000-pound machines have the potential to maim and kill, yet as a society we write this off as simply the cost of such luxury, or — worse yet — a “tragedy.”
If you take anything away from this essay, let it be this: It could have been you. In the Baltimore area, where I live now, traffic is among the worst I’ve ever seen. Why is it that way? It’s really an issue of selfishness and lack of caring. Most people drive 10 to 20 miles per hour over the speed limit. Everyone behaves as if they’re in the biggest hurry and that their immediate desire — to get to where they are going, be it work, a Royal Farms or a stop sign 100 feet away — is more important than everyone else’s. And because of that, people get hurt and people suffer. Yet we can all do more to keep it from being so. If there’s anything you take away from this, I hope it’s this: Slow down, always buckle your seat belt and drive your car as if lives are always at stake. They are.
Note: These events are based on my memory and conversations with my mother, as well as Liam and Brandon. Some details are a bit hazy after the passing of 15 years, but with their help I have pieced them together as best I can.
8:30 p.m., March 29: I was working on the end of this essay this afternoon, sitting in a nearly empty Subway restaurant in the Wal-Mart in Dundalk while waiting for a minor car repair that, at three-plus hours, seemed to be taking far too long. I walked back to the auto body shop, asked for my car back (the shop kept the driver-side mirror cover, which was what needed work) and drove toward my job in Baltimore City. About 15 minutes later, as I traveled on U.S. Route 40, an unmarked police car pulled out in front of me in the middle of the intersection with North Gay Street. The driver of the police car, a Ford Crown Victoria, was trying to turn left across three lanes of oncoming traffic that had the right of way; I was in the far right lane and had no way to see it. I slammed on the brakes and gripped the steering wheel as tightly as I could.
For a moment, it was as if all the air were sucked out of the world. I held on, powerless, as my car skidded along the pavement. BOOM! Like the sound of a giant balloon bursting, my car smashed into the front end of the Crown Vic. Everything seemed to be in slow motion and fast forward at the same time. I waited for the air bags to inflate; they didn’t. Cars whooshed past relentlessly; none stopped to help.
As I type this, I think I am OK. My nerves are rattled, and I hope that is the extent of it. Many people would say this is simply a case of bad luck. Is it? If this essay has shown anything, it is that I am lucky.
How’s this for irony: My car is back at the same repair shop I had departed before this latest crash. It will get fixed. Soon I will be back driving, as I usually do, in the far right lane. You can look out for trouble, as I’ve found out, but sometimes it finds you. Hopefully you are lucky when it does.
A song comes to mind that I’ve heard quite frequently recently thanks to Internet streaming: “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. It is a song that is really a poem, a meditation, an incantation that, to me, celebrates a paradox. It’s a song that I thought about while writing this essay, and again as I sat in my car this afternoon and waited for the tow truck.
Endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe.
Pools of sorrow waves of joy
Are drifting through my opened mind
Possessing and caressing me.
Nothing’s gonna change my world
I recently finished reading “The Greatest Show on Earth” by Richard Dawkins. If you know nothing about that book, or author Richard Dawkins, let me assure you that it is not about the circus, but it does have quite a bit to do with animals.
Anyway, once you’ve read a chapter or two of any of Dawkins’ books, it becomes clear that he loves to go off on tangents, as well as give far more background information on a topic than necessary.
During one of these tangential discussions, Dawkins dropped a name that bounced off the neurons in my brain in a way that convinced me I’d heard the name before. The name was Hermann von Helmholtz, and if that means nothing to you, it probably shouldn’t. Helmholtz was a German scientist who lived in the 19th century. That’s not to say Helmholtz wasn’t a big deal, because — as Dawkins makes sure to point out — he was. Helmholtz not only was a physician, but he also was a physicist — a truly rare combination, even today.
In physics, Helmholtz is one of three scientists credited with developing the concept of the conservation of energy, especially as it applied to living organisms — no small feat in itself, considering that for centuries it had been believed that living organisms received energy from a mysterious “vital” force.
This was just one notable piece of Helmholtz’s legacy in physics, but the mark he left on biology was arguably even greater, and this is why he makes an appearance in “The Greatest Show on Earth.” One of Helmholtz’s highlights (say that five times fast) in the field was the invention of the ophthalmoscope, a device that examines the retina. A modern version of the tool is still used today. Helmholtz also helped devise the theory of three-color vision, which says that the human eye uses three types of receptors sensitive to blue, green and red light.
All that aside, Hermann von Helmholtz is not a household name. So why did it strike a chord when I read it that night? I couldn’t decipher the connection. I continued on past the mention of Helmholtz.
When I woke the next morning, the name was still lingering in my brain.
What did it mean?
The next night I picked up the book and flipped backward a few pages, returning to the paragraphs on the German scientist. I reread them, hoping to spark the answer.
The following day, when I had stopped thinking about it again, the answer popped into my consciousness. I’m sure I wasn’t doing, or thinking about, anything important at the time, which I find is when the brain works its best.
Anyway, the answer to the Mystery of Hermann von Helmholtz took me back to my high school days and unlocked many memories — not just my own, but for countless other people, many of whom I’ve never met.
At the late, great St. James High School I had an English teacher, Mr. Donald McNulty. To say he was a legend would be an understatement of Homeric proportions. That’s the kind of literary reference that, if you were fortunate (and put the study time in), you might be able to make after taking McNulty’s class.
My tenure at St. James was just long enough ago that there is a scarcely a digital trace of my three years there. I didn’t have a smartphone (or even a cellphone of any kind, for that matter) or a digital camera. The Web was still a curiosity for most people.
My memories from my time at that school are preserved, for now at least, only in my mind. And because, for me, Mr. McNulty’s class was the focal point of the entire St. James universe, many of my memories from my two years in his classroom, taking British Literature and Analysis & Interpretation, still remain.
It is an impossible challenge to try to set the scene of what it was like to be a student in Mr. McNulty’s classroom, which was on the second floor when I attended the school. I have two older sisters who went through his classes before I did, so he was a name on my radar long before I walked up to his corner classroom for the first time on the opening day of sophomore year.
Above the door hung an inscription: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
That quote, from Dante’s “Inferno,” was the first of many literary references in the dimly lit chamber lined with books, tchotchkes and dusty old college pennants. Mr. McNulty had a worn wooden lectern (also called a rostrum, but please don’t call it a podium) that he would push around the front of the room as he taught in his Socratic style. The front of the lectern was adorned with a medieval coat of armour and another inscription: “You have to be armed to have a battle of wits with this.”
From those two facts alone, it should be quite clear that Mr. McNulty set out to create a certain atmosphere in his classes. Another aspect of this, and the one that is the heart of this post, was that he rarely called students by their actual names. From day one, he had nicknames for the vast majority of us.
Now, his class wasn’t unique in this regard. We also had nicknames in Spanish class, but the difference there was that we got to pick our apodos. We had no say in our nicknames in Mr. McNulty’s class. He devised them, and like it or not, that’s what we’d be called. Some of us had more than one; some would be called by three or four different names during the same class, while an unlucky (or was it lucky?) few never received even one moniker.
These nicknames were assigned without explanation. Mr McNulty left it up to us to figure out the meaning or connection. I imagine he thought we’d never understand some of them.
I had a few nicknames, but I can remember only one with certainty: Foghorn. I remember that one especially because I despised it and Mr. McNulty knew that. There was no honor in being compared to a big, dumb, stuttering chicken.
Among the nicknames for my 12 or so classmates were Adam-12 (for someone named Adam); Jukie (Julie, who signed her name in a way that made the L look like a K); Daisy (Tina … I can only guess that this one had a connection to “The Great Gatsby”); Brandle (Brandon); Billiam/Bon Bon/Bilbo (Bill, whose last name is Bonhage); Lima (Liam) and Sterling (Tom).
And there also was … Helmholtz. Helmholtz!
My recollection tells me it wasn’t a regular nickname, but I know one of other kids in the room was called Helmholtz a few times. Maybe it was Tom. He sat front and center, just to my left. It’s interesting how I can still remember exactly where I sat for most of my classes in that room — and I also remember that was not where I sat for my first class with Mr. McNulty; I decided to move up to the front row because that first class was like a slap in the face and I suspected early on that he branded anyone who sat in the back as a slacker.
I think it was Tom who was called Helmholtz on an occasion or two because I remember talking to him after class one day. The conversation went something like this:
Tom: Helmholtz? Who the hell is that?
Me: A scientist, maybe? Not sure.
Since my family probably didn’t have an Internet connection, or even a PC, at that time, looking up Helmholtz would’ve required a trip to the school library, so it was easy enough just to laugh it off as one of McNulty’s eccentric references. I imagine that was the end of it.
I forgot about that name soon enough, and then St. James was closed by the Camden Diocese after my junior year. Mr. McNulty gave away a lot of the books in his room, including a bag that still remains (I hope) in my old bedroom at my parents’ house.
Like those books, the nicknames that he gave us have been stored away in dusty corners of our minds and forgotten. It takes the resurfacing of one of them to bring back all those memories, of the Analytical Sentence Outline (the famous ASO method of writing essays) and nervously reading aloud in class and cramming for tests. The resurfacing of Helmholtz brought a lot of those back for me.
It’s ironic that a scientist — not a novelist or essayist, or Mr. McNulty’s beloved High Priest, T.S. Eliot — would bring back memories of this class. Mr. McNulty scoffed at the sciences during his classes and ridiculed how schools were pushing students into programs now commonly known as STEM. “Math-science,” “math-science,” “math-science” he would say in a mockingly mechanical chant with no pause, blending the two fields into one that he could scorn even more.
On the afternoon of Jan. 27, I reached out to my friends through text messages and to the St. James High School Facebook group (I’m sure McNulty would tsk tsk about texting and Facebook) to see what they remembered about their nicknames. The first response came on Facebook within 30 seconds, and the outpouring continues almost a week later. Here are some of the responses:
Almond Eyes – Theresa Forsyth
Annie – Andrea Patterson
Daisy – Tina Kemp
Billiam aka Bon Bon – Bill Bonhage
Boots – Fr. Connelly
Bubbles – Nikki Powell
Butchy – Mary Beth Gallagher
Buffy – Azuree Schnur
Calvin – Kevin Flanigan
Carrie Nation – Carrie Sterrs
Currie – Carrie Smith Boggs
Darryl – Larry Maurer
DiFlip – Jerry DiFlippantonio
Edward Edward – Ed Doughty
Evie – Christine Kleban
Harley – Arwen Raineiri
Jukie – Julie Allen
Jenny-Bob – Jennifer Tessmer
Jim Bob – Jim Tessemer
Jock – Bomber Bennett
Kelvin – Kevin Weatherill
Klaus – Kenneth Sheeky
Kwistian – Christian Jones
Lakers – Veronica Smith
Lorlie – Lori Gioia-Grether
Meegie aka Muskrat – Megan Facemyer
Mel Allen, Voice of the Yankees – Melanie Allen
Meredythe – Meredyth Fogg
Mersault aka Bon Bon – Joe Bonhage
Mongoose – Matt Lopes
Mrs. Honorata – Mary Maurer
Nelly Bly – Lisa Earnest
Neutron – Nathan Izzo
Nuke (after Nuke LaLoosh from “Bull Durham”) – Jack Smith
Pabs/Pablo – Ron Pushkar
Pepe – Frank Costello
Petey aka Little O – Vinson Powell
Purgatory – Jason Graham
Rachel – Jennifer Byrne
Right Hand – Ben Campanella Jr.
Robert (with French accent) – RC Cobin
Rocky aka Polly – Rachel Anglade
Rug – Tom Napoli
Sarita – Stephanie Maurer Hassler
Simi (after Simi’s Gym in Pennsville) – Tom Leisner
Speed aka Molasses – Paul Vincent
Tedward – Ted Morris
Tink – April Smith
Water Babies – Kevin and Joe Johnson
Woody aka Dr. Roadkill – Steve Schelder