Potato Chip Factory

Down the alleyway we’d speed
On our American Flyer bikes,
Spitting stones in our wakes
As we dug down the pedals.

Dropping them sideways
In green tufts of grass
Off the ash-strewn alley,
Breathless we’d head

Toward the half-open door
Of the black wooden shanty
To peer around the corner
Into the steamy depths where

The short squat old woman stood
Beside the steel cauldron in which
Slivers of freshly sliced raw potatoes
Boiled in bubbling fat.

The thin old man would bring
Armfuls of peeled potatoes,
Dump them into the shoe-box sized
Shredder that spit the slices out

Into the bubbling grease.
He’d sweep the wooden floor,
She’d stir the floating chips
With a wooden paddle.

When they were cooked to a crisp
He’d skim them off with a long-handled strainer,
Shuck them out into a screened box
To let the excess fat drain off,

Then shake the sharp salt on top,
Scoop them into open-mouthed
Waxed paper bags, and without a word
Hand them to you for a nickel.

The old woman mopped the sweat
From her red full face,
Flesh from her upper arms
Trembling as it swung from the bone,

Her ankles swollen with fluid
That I later learned had a name:
Pitting edema, doctors called it,
Sign of kidney disease, heart failure.

We had no thoughts of death
When we were boys,
Neither that of the old woman
Or the old man, nor even that

Of ourselves. Young as we were
In those summer days we only dreamt
Of salted crisp potato chips
Still warm from the frier on our tender tongues.

11/26/2011

2011 © Brian T. Maurer

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Reach out and touch something

Children under 8 are spending more time than ever in front of screens, and an “app gap” is emerging between children in affluent and low-income households, a new study found.

“What brings Amelia in to the office today?” I ask her father. He sits in the chair by the sink in the exam room, moving a stroller back and forth with his foot. The stroller houses Amelia’s 2-year-old sister, who snoozes contentedly in the seat.

“Amelia has a sore throat,” her father explains. “Her mother thinks she should be checked out before the party this afternoon. Today is Amelia’s birthday.”

“So it is!” I exclaim, glancing at her chart. “Well, let’s have a look.”

Amelia sits on the exam table in a pretty new dress. Pink sparkling shoes adorn her dangling feet. At my request she opens her mouth wide and sticks out her tongue. If anything, the throat is minimally injected. A few non-tender nodes are palpable in her neck. There is no fever. Overall, she seems well.

“My wife asked for a strep test,” her father says. “We’re hosting eight kids at the house later today, and we don’t want to get anyone sick with strep throat.”

“I understand.” I reach for a cotton-tipped swab and stroke the back of Amelia’s throat. She gags a bit, but recovers fine. “I’ll be back in five minutes,” I say, pulling the exam room door closed behind me.

The test is negative, of course. I knew that before I ran it, but these days a laboratory test carries more weight than the medical opinion of a seasoned clinician.

“No strep,” I tell the father as I step back into the exam room. “Amelia can have her birthday party as planned.”

“Good,” he says. “Amelia, tell the doctor what you got for your birthday.”

Amelia’s face lights up. “An iPod!” she says.

“An iPod?” Involuntarily, I’m caught up short. An iPod for a 4-year-old?

“She’s always playing with our iPhones,” the father says. “She’s gotten the hang of a few of the games. We figure it’s never too early to introduce kids to the touch screen. She’ll be that much further ahead when she starts kindergarten next year.”

The next day I glimpse a headline in the New York Times: Screen Time Higher Than Ever for Children. The article carries the photograph of a 3-year-old boy playing with an iPad. I let my eyes drift down over the lines of type. Evidently, this boy’s 1-year-old sibling has gotten into the act as well. “It beats the hell out of sitting and watching television,” their father explains.

Recently, I had the opportunity to view the 1979 film “Being There” for the first time. Peter Sellers plays the lead character Chance, the gardener, a grown man who has spent his entire life within the four walls of his elderly benefactor’s house. When he is not working in the courtyard garden, Chance is watching TV. He spends most of his waking hours channel surfing through shows as varied as Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, cartoons, commercials and the nightly news. His TV addiction is so complete that when he’s cast out into the street after his benefactor’s death, Chance attempts to disburse a gang of switchblade-waving delinquents by clicking his remote. “This is just like television, only you can see much further,” he says.

“Being There” poses other themes besides TV addiction. Yet it seems as though we have taken little heed to such warnings. Indeed, we have seen fit to hand such addictions down to subsequent generations in the form of all sorts of wireless devices, most of which sport a screen, some of which can be stroked with a finger, almost like pocket mirrors set before our eyes in which an astute observer might glimpse the folly of our contemporary lives.

The Way

Emilio Estevez’s 2010 epic cinematic journey “The Way” unfolds along the panoramic backdrop of el Camino de Santiago — the Way of Saint James — the medieval pilgrimage route across northern Spain to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela where the remains of the Apostle are interred.

Filmed on location against the gorgeous landscapes of northern Spain, the spiritual journey of American ophthalmologist Thomas Avery (Martin Sheen) begins as he is called from the comforts of his California home to Saint Jean Pied de Port in France to identify the body of his only son Daniel (Emilio Estevez). Avery elects to walk the Camino on behalf of his son, embarking with Daniel’s ashes which he dutifully portions out along the way.

Early on Avery meets a drug-imbibing Dutchman from Amsterdam (Yorick van Wageningen) who has decided to tackle the trek in hopes of losing some weight, and an asthenic chain-smoking Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger) who pledges to give up her cigarettes forever at the feet of Saint James. Together this unlikely threesome encounters a slightly mad Irish traveler (James Nesbitt) who’s come on pilgrimage to confront his writer’s block.

As the journey proceeds, bit by bit each character gradually sheds his (or her) façade. After a drunken confrontational scene, where tactless truth is meted out, relationships are patched up; and the pilgrims begin to understand some things about themselves as well as each other. When Tom Avery’s rucksack is stolen by a young gypsy boy, the doctor nearly becomes undone. The boy’s father discovers the crime and forces his son to return the pack intact with the box of ashes. “Our children carry the good and the bad in all of us,” the father says.

Bonded in friendship, the four finally make it to Santiago de Compostela, where they reverently pay their respects in the cathedral. Afterwards they apply for their final testimonials, citing reasons as to why they elected to make the trek.

In the end they decide to push on to Muxia, where Tom Avery sprinkles the last of his son’s ashes over the ancient weathered rocks washed by the sea. The Irish writer has no words to offer; the woman lights up yet another cigarette; the mildly despairing Dutchman opts for a bigger suit. None of them, it seems, has successfully overcome his (or her) vices.

And yet, in subtle ways, each has experienced a redemption of sorts—redemption through healing. There might have been something mystical about the Way, but much of the healing takes place through understated human interaction. Although incomplete, this healing is substantial; and as such represents of nearly all of the healing we experience in our lives.

That is the way it seems to be with us humans. Blindly we stumble along through life, groping our way down dimly lit corridors, seeking a firm footpath to our final destination, where eventually, if we are lucky, we encounter ourselves, face to face.

Fractured limbs: Remnants of giants

Two weeks have passed since the freak October snow storm trashed the landscape along the northeast corridor. Countless trees came down under the weight of heavy wet snow, blocking streets and roads; thousands of branches snapped power lines, leaving over 800,000 customers without electricity in Connecticut alone.

Although power has been restored with the assistance of line crews from the lower 48 states and Canada, the cleanup of limbs and brush continues. You can’t drive down any residential street in most towns without passing scores of piles of branches and brush at curbside.

In our area the storm damaged several ancient giants as well: a 400-year-old oak and a sycamore of similar vintage.

I was up before daybreak and headed north to check out the old white oak. Several large branches had broken off and lay strewn about on the ground below the upper canopy, reduced nearly 40 percent. At least one sizeable limb hung suspended by splinters high up on the tree. Still the old giant stood stately in the midst of the destruction.

I snapped a few photos, then drove south to examine the 300-year-old sycamore named for the founder of the Yale School of Forestry, Gifford Pinchot. Numerous leafy branches had fallen down, skirting the base of the tree, making it nearly impossible to view the massive trunk, 26 feet in circumference.

Judging from the remnant limbs still viable, it seems as though both of these giants will survive.

Yet one lesson remains clear: when it comes to climatic events, nature shows no mercy.

Of time and the river

We stood on the bluff, looking east over the town that lay at our feet.

It was a clear November day, unseasonably warm. You could make out the red brick many-windowed building on the square, catty-cornered from the grey granite slate-roofed structure, both signature edifices in this historic Pennsylvania town. The main street was lined with maples, now scarlet in their late fall foliage.

The river made its wide blue arc, skirting the grid of streets to the south. Two hawks soared in great circles on the air currents overhead. Off in the distance, beyond a plume of smoke, you could see the bridge and the white ribbon of highway going up into the mountains of New York.


Although we had been getting together for an afternoon at least once a year over the past decade, this was the first time we had hiked to the Knob for a panoramic view of the town. The waitress at the inn had afforded us directions: head south across the old concrete bridge, turn off into the cemetery and drive to the trailhead at the top of the hill.

We paused to inspect the metal structure lying on the ground at the bluff: a rusted cross constructed from steel pipe wired to a galvanized steel star — the town’s signature holiday decoration, erected with colored lights every Christmas.

We retraced our steps down the steep leaf-covered trail to the car and headed back to the inn for a round of Guinness and an extended dinner by the fire in the great room. We talked medicine, we talked work. We talked family, we talked about writers and the book we had both read. Four hours is not a long time for conversation over a meal at an inn with a good friend that you only get to see once or twice a year.

Eventually, darkness descended over the town. Here in the east it comes early after the timepieces are turned back for winter. Where my friend lives and works, time is untouched — the clocks are let alone.

We ambled to our cars along one of the back streets. My friend would traverse the extended detour back down through the gap in the darkness, groping toward Bethlehem, while I followed the moon, nearly full, across the dark river and up into the black mountains beyond.

“Notes from a Healer” — A Remembrance of Things Past

When you feel the strike, slack the line before you set the hook; and then you’ll have him for keeps.  more»

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerA Remembrance of Things Past — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online journal fostering discussion about the culture of medicine, medical care, and experiences of illness. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.

Power outage

I dropped my bow saw and walked down to the end of our driveway when I saw the silver-grey pickup truck pull up.

Tom sat behind the wheel. A green plastic oxygen line ran from the container on the seat up to his nostrils. He wheezed when he talked. “Just wanted to let you know there’s gas to be had down on Route 44. The Shell station at the corner of Bushy Hill ran out, but the guy says he’ll have another delivery in by 1:30 PM. Otherwise you can get some at the Citgo station a little further down the road.”

“I appreciate the info,” I told him. I’d been out with my son-in-law the day before looking for gasoline, but no local service stations were open. “Maybe I’ll take a run down there after I finish cutting up the fallen limbs in my back yard.”

Tom and the old man sitting beside him shook their heads. “Ain’t never seen it this bad before,” the old man said in a raspy voice. He held his thumb up to cover the small hole at the base of his throat when he spoke.

“Me neither,” said Tom.

“That makes three of us,” I said.

“Just wanted to let you know about the gas,” Tom said.

“Thanks,” I said.

They drove off down the street below the cracked tree limbs that dangled overhead. I walked up the driveway to the back yard and started in again on the fallen branches. Minutes later I noticed the old man walking up the driveway. I stood up from the downed limb I was sawing as he approached.

“Say,” he said, plugging the hole in his throat with his thumb, “I heared you was a hospital corpsman in the Navy, that right?”

“Coast Guard—but yes, I was a corpsman.”

The old man hesitated a moment, then he brought his thumb up to his throat. “I was wonderin’,” he said, “if you would take these out for me.” He pointed to the back of his neck. Four sutures marked the line of a healed incision. “I was operated on for skin cancer.”

“How long have they been in?”

The old man squinted his eyes. “About two weeks,” he said. “Actually, it’s two weeks today!”

I looked at the wound. It was clean and dry. It would be easy to take the sutures out, but I didn’t have the instruments on hand.

“What do you need?” he asked.

“A pair of suture scissors, tweezers and some rubbing alcohol,” I told him.

“Peroxide okay?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “That’ll do.”

He gave me a thumb’s up and walked back down the driveway. Twenty minutes later he returned with an iris scissors, a pair of tweezers from a make-up kit and a small brown plastic bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

I rummaged through the garage and found two plastic crates that I stacked at the head of the driveway and motioned for the old man to sit down in the warm sun. I moistened a paper towel with the peroxide and dabbed the wound. “Might be cold,” I said. The old man didn’t flinch as I cut and pulled each suture out in turn, laying them on the paper towel.

“There you are,” I said, showing him the tiny blue remnants of nylon thread. He looked up at me and smiled.

“How much you want?” he said, his thumb at his throat.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Sure?”

I wiped the instruments with peroxide and handed them back to him. His fingers were gnarled, his hands thick and calloused.

“Where were you stationed in the service?” he asked.

“Took basic training at Cape May, New Jersey; corps school at Great Lakes; shipped on a cutter out of Boston. Saw San Juan, Gitmo Bay, Lisbon. Spent a year in Spain, then came stateside for my last year at Southwest Harbor, Maine.”

He listened intently, nodding his head. “Tell you a story,” he said. “One morning I was fishing off the rocks at the Beavertail in Jamestown, plugging for striped bass. It was early, and a mist was coming off the water. I cast my plug out, and all of a sudden two frogmen come up out of the sea. They come up through the mist onto the rocks right before my eyes. I was so scared, I started to shake; I thought they was coming for me.

“Well, sir, they raised their hands to show me the collection of bass plugs they’d got. Turns out they’d been fishing for a different sort of fish — lures that had been snagged underwater on the rock ledges!

“They offered me a couple of them plugs and disappeared back into the water. That was one morning of fishing I’ll never forget. Say, you sure you don’t want nothing for taking out those stitches?”

I shook my head and smiled. With that story, I figured I’d been paid in full.