It was back in September, and the Korean doctor was running the ultrasound wand back and forth across my lubed-up abdomen, shaking his head and looking stern. “Patty Ribber” he repeated, three or four times, pointing at the monitor, on which I saw nothing but the usual indecipherable patterns of amorphous grey blobs. I nodded like I knew what he was saying, which is my usual strategy. After nearly 15 years since I came to Korea, I’m still not that great at parsing things out when I’m in an unfamiliar situation.

The doc sat back down behind his desk while his disconcertingly attractive nurse wiped the lube off my stomach, and started talking at my wife, in the arrogant tones that Korean doctors favour. I was catching one word in three, as usual, but when she grabbed a piece of paper from a stack on the shelf beside her and handed it to me at his behest, and I saw the picture, “patty ribber” suddenly resolved in my brain to “fatty liver” and my blood ran cold.

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Ball Squeezing Time

It’s a scary moment when you finally stop telling yourself that everything’s fine, and accept the fact that it might just be possible that you’ve got cancer of the balls. Especially if you’re someone like me, who, although built like a veritable Adonis (well, you know, with a few extra kilograms and body hair that’s just slightly more simian than I might like), is a bit on the body-shy side. Almost as bad as the idea of actually having something sinister growing in your satchel is the idea of having a stranger squeeze it, or, god forbid, stick his finger up your ass searching for the lost gold of Tumacacori. It seems insane, but there it is. I’ve gone 40 years with my nether sphincter working in one direction only (with entirely too much vigour, usually), and I wasn’t about to change now.
For a while, I’ve been having the occasional dull ache in the lower back. I figured that it was sleeping in my customary discus-thrower pose on the new, Korean mattress my wife had bought a few months back. Being new, and in particular being Korean (although cunningly named ‘Lady Americana’ to give it that so-important New Jersey cultural cachet), it is approximately as hard as a slab of granite. Not that soft, dissolute western granite, either. Good, hard, Korean sleeping-granite, ripped from the very earth in the mattress mines of Kangwon-do.
But a couple of weeks back I also started having some pain in the old goolies. Kind of a dull ache. I figured: ‘Well, I ride the bike to work everyday, I use the exercise bike at the gym a few times a week, I spend far too much time sitting on my butt at work lately, and, having emerged triumphant into my fifth decade, I have developed a major case of the Swingin’ Dad Balls, which remain largely unconstrained by my capacious boxer shorts. The poor boys are just getting mashed and mauled a bit more than they like…’
The ache went away, came back, went away, always just south of being really painful. Much closer to ‘crossed my legs and squashed ’em’ than ‘log-rolling accident of the worst kind’. Ignorable.
I did the self-exam thing, conscientiously. Soaped up the sack, squeezed and stroked, had a fine old time. Couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary. They did feel a little bigger than I remembered, perhaps, but I put that down to the continuing expansion of the universe or losing weight in my fingers or something.
But last weekend the pain came back, and didn’t really go away. I made the mistake of telling She Who Must Be Obeyed, who promptly freaked out. I hate when people freak out, even though I do have a tendency to do it myself, when it’s about something other than the possibility of ball cancer. It was fun teaching her all the slang words for testicles, though, and that seemed to calm both of us down a bit. Balls hadn’t ever been a topic of conversation for us before, so it was a new experience.
She made me promise that we’d go… to the doctor. Damn it. I don’t like doctors. I agreed, realizing that now that the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, there was no putting it back in.
So yesterday, we went to one of the approximately 70,000 little clinics in this small port city. Here in Korea, you don’t go and see a GP who then refers you to a specialist, you just go straight to the specialist. Don’t even bother making an appointment — those are for dupes! That’s not the way I recall it in Canada, but then, last time I went to a doctor in Canada, they were giving me a lollipop if I made wee-wee in the cup without getting it all over the wall. Or at least that’s how I remember it, officer.
Although there are about 120,000 clinics in this town — three for every citizen, and about half as many as there are singing-rooms cum blowjob parlours — there are apparently only two that deal with maladies of the male meat-and-two-veg. One is the hospital, where I’d been before when the wife had been ill last year, and where competence is second only to cleanliness at the very bottom of the priorities list. The other was a place called, predictably, ‘Mr Kim’s Dermatology and Urology Clinic’. It was also dim and dirty, but that barely fazes me these days. I just wanted to get it over with.
After a short wait, in we went, and the doc in front of the computer spoke a little English, as most of the doctors seem to. As I sat down at his desk, he looked at me and asked pleasantly “Your face, right?”
“Er, no, actually.” Christ, I thought I was looking pretty good these days! I glanced over at my wife, as I’d already forgotten the polite Korean word for ‘balls’, and she obliged by explaining the symptoms.
He got me to stand up and drop trou, and shunning such undoctorly nuisances as gloves of any kind, went to town on my danglers.
It actually didn’t feel too bad. He’d clearly done this before. I forgave him for the dermatological blunder earlier.
The good news hooray! was that he didn’t figure there was any cancer to be found. He said he figured the problem was either a)kidney stones b)orchitis or epididymitis c)prostatitis. I was rooting for epididymitis, because one of the songs on my Monty Python records from 30 years ago ended with ‘…epididymi-iiiii-tis’, and I’d been singing that line for a week or two to myself, and I thought that’d be pretty cool, given the alternatives. It was time for a urine test to check for white blood cells or spimes and blogjects or something, which’d show that there was a bad thing happening somewhere. His English wasn’t all that great, when it came down to it. I dutifully took the cup down two flights of stairs to the — dim and dirty, of course — toilet, and did my best not to pee on the walls, hoping there’d be a lollipop for me somewhere at the end of all this. I was expecting the Greased Digit of Humiliation, and somewhat distracted.
We sat for about ten minutes in the waiting room while the machine did its thing with my pee, and the receptionist showed us back in.
His diagnosis: prostatitis, and a not-terribly malign and quite common sort. No treatment, no major worry apparently, brought on and aggravated by stress and, like I’d fancifully told myself weeks earlier, the rough treatment my bottom had been receiving by various bicycle saddles. He told me to rest and eat lots of vegetable protein — soybeans, in particular.
He also demonstrated how to take a ‘sitz bath’, a phrase that I’d encountered before, but didn’t really understand. Taking off his lab coat, he squatted down, and brandished an imaginary wand. ‘Shower,’ he said. He held the wand under his butt. ‘Five to ten minutes.’
‘Ooookay,’ said I, uncertainly.
I was still expecting the command to bend over at this point, but he talked to my wife in Korean for a bit, and then it was all bows-and-goodbyes.
Maybe he was out of rubber gloves. I suppose I should count myself lucky. Korean men don’t tend to trim their fingernails that well.
We paid at the counter, and there my story ends, almost. As we were walking back to the taxi rank at the bus terminal to return to our Corporate Island home, I asked my wife (who is the wielder of the plastic) how much it had cost.
It was 3000 won. Under four dollars.
Korea never ceases to surprise me.

Biting Through Meat

The sound that is made when you are biting through your own flesh is a little like that of thick rubber being torn. It’s wetter, and when you hear it inside your head, it’s kind of terrifying.
I bit a hole about the size of a dime deep into the top of my tongue, near the centre, the other day. I don’t know how the hell I managed to do it. I was eating some soon-dae (potato noodles spiced and stuffed into pig intestines, with boiled, sliced organ meat on the side – tastier than it sounds) when suddenly the molars on the right side of my mouth met a bit more resistance, there was that odd sound, loud enough that my wife beside me started and stared, and the hot, salty flood started. No pain, not right away.
I went to the bathroom and let a mouthful of blood pour out — a real Wes Craven moment, which made me once again wish we could afford that digital camera I want — and had a look. Great meaty flap, deep hole, reddish-black blood gushing out. Cool.
I hate doctors, so I applied ice and didn’t eat for a few days. The nub of flesh that pokes up out of the scar and the crater beneath it will be with me for life, I suspect. This is, in its way, good.
The sound that the small bones in your foot make when they break are not so much a crunch as a crack, startlingly loud. About 3 months back, I drove the corner of a doorjamb between my third and fourth toes on my left foot as I walked calmly into the bedroom to get the ironing board. Broke both toes, and a couple of bones in my foot as well, judging by feel. I did the ‘apply pressure/apply ice/elevate above your heart’ routine to minimize swelling, and bound the toes together.
I hate doctors, so I self-medicated, went back to work the next day, and limped around for the next 6 weeks or so while my foot slowly changed colour. I don’t think some of the bones set properly, and the area is still a little tender if I poke or prod it the wrong way. This is, in its way, a valuable reminder to watch where the hell I’m walking.
I’m not sure precisely what led me to my wholehearted loathing of the medical profession, although I do have a few ideas as to the antecedents.
My hometown, an island of a couple of thousand brave and drunken souls isolated in a sea of trees way up in the part of British Columbia where the map merely notes ‘Here Be Monsters,’ was served by an odd, sullen, ragtag crew of medical practitioners over the years I grew up there. Most were South African, and were bound by contract to be there in order to get their residency in Canada. How much our town benefitted from the Immigration Department requirements that doctors migrating to Canada spend their first few years dealing with family violence and alcohol-related injury in the Boonies was debatable, perhaps. Still, they were a novelty, with their funny accents and poorly disguised, simmering resentment.
I particularly remember one Vietnamese doctor who was, in fact, one of my favorites (and a rarity in a town where there was precisely one Asian family – the Chinese folks who ran two of the half-dozen restaurants), and who, thanks to his redneck comedy gold inability to pronounce /r/ and /l/ according to my expectations, precipitated one of the funniest conversations in which I have retrospectively been involved when he handed the 10-year-old me a plastic cup and a small wooden ice-cream spoon and asked for what I swore was a ‘stew’ sample.
One of the various medical mistakes, blunders, and life-threatening f–kups (back before the first thing I did upon injuring myself was Google up some advice) that I was either the victim of or a witness to was, for example, my bottomless prescription for tetracycline (a broad-spectrum antibiotic) as a teenager, intended to combat the Aetna-shaming eruptions that my face and body produced. Not on-and-off, but on, for years, nonstop. My body, strong as it is, is still paying the price for that. And this was in the early 80’s – not before medical thought had come around to understanding that continual massive doses of antibiotics might just have a deleterious effect on the patient overall.
My step-father, who pulled Dad Duty from not long after my father died until about 20 years later, died, I am certain, as a direct result of the interactions in the cocktail of drugs prescribed by his doctors — by this time another ragtag gaggle of Africans, mostly — but not after going quite mad beforehand. Or if not bibbledy-bibbledy mad, so far sunk into full blown paranoid delusions that it was painful to carry on a conversation with him on anything but the most trivial matters.
My current step-father, ‘Ol’ Number 3,’ a tough, boozy, no-bullsh-t ex-cowboy, experienced runaway heart fibrillations and tremors and pitty-patting for more than four months this year, to the extent that any kind of physical labor would sometimes make him lose consciousness. This was deeply embarrassing to him, and made life extremely difficult for him and my mother. He visited the docs over and over again, several times a week, a situation made more difficult by the 140 km of unpaved road between the fishing lodge where my folks live and the nearest town. Bamboozled, they merely scratched their heads in confusion, and ordered more tests. Finally, after months of this, unable to take it any longer, he just stopped taking his meds (including the new ones the doctors had prescribed), and the problem simply went away.
(There are more stories, and I’m sure you have a few too. C’mon – share!)
To hell with doctors. They can keep their pills and their guesswork. Unless I need a limb sewn back on, I’ll be taking care of myself. This attitude draws great chagrin from the wife, who is a big believer in the power of The Doctor, like most Koreans I’ve known, who tend to run in panic to the nearest doctor (and Korean doctors are a worry in and of themselves, let me tell you) if something flies out of their noses when they sneeze.
I tell her that whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. I’m certain, as she shakes her head in annoyed bemusement, that in her mind she replaces ‘stronger’ with ‘stupider.’
I can live with that.