Thursday, May 9, 2019

Two Recent Glimpses of Ridiculous Death

Indexing previous reporting from my 2019 Italy trip:
The Naples Diet
Lines in Italy Explain My Exasperation
His Dying Thought: Oh, right; this is how you die in Italy
The Surprising Truth About Real Neapolitan Brick Oven Pizza
The Surprising Truth About Real Sicilian Rice Balls
Marzipan, You Idiot! Marzipan!
Naples: Mistaking Soulfulness for Danger
Two Recent Glimpses of Ridiculous Death

First Recent Glimpse of Ridiculous Death:

It was the coldest night of the year, the temperature sub-zero, and I'd arrived home without my house keys. No problem. I walked over to my "Big Green Egg" barbecue set-up, where I kept my spare key. But it was frozen shut.

The BGE has a hole in the top, so I took off my jacket (a quiet voice whispered "Uh, wait a sec....."), confident that I could handle a few seconds of exposure, and reached down and grabbed the keys, and....could not get my arm out. I was essentially wearing a 150 pound advanced ceramic barbecue unit. On the coldest night of the year. With my jacket off.

This seemed like a non-serious situation, even in the cold. More absurd slapstick than real danger. It would be silly to panic, so I calmly surveyed my options. And....there were none. At least no good ones. I brewed up only three miserable alternatives:
1. Scream my head off and hope a neighbor hears, cares, and arrives before frostbite sets in. This is not a friendly neighborhood of helpful people.

2. Drag the weighty Big Green Egg up the steps, swing it into my glass door to shatter the glass, and head inside to warmth, likely dislocating or breaking my shoulder in the process. I tried lifting the BGE and it barely budged (I had no leverage, and my other arm was not positioned to assist). Okay, forget option 2.

3. Dial 911 and hope the police come up with something. I.e. "HELP!"
I'm not a big screamer, and resorting to 911 seemed extreme. Still calm, firmly certain there was some resourceful way out, I applied all my ingenuity, and...nothing. Worse, the flavor of that nothingness was deathly. Doing nothing meant - not to be dramatic, but - likely death. Death was a suddenly horrifying single step away; the default result unless somehow actively prevented. Death ten feet from my doorway (I imagined the obituary) wearing this absurd green thing on my freezing arm.

At moments like these humans tend to compound their stupidity. In their consternation, stress, and counterproductive emotionality, they get extra-stupid and make things worse. I've trained myself to focus my attention and summon my smarts when things start going awry. So I methodically did NOT drop my phone as I fished it out of my pocket to call 911.

Then I waited for the squad car, helpless, shivering, and trying to understand where, exactly, I'd gone wrong. Which action put my life at risk? I couldn't identify the culprit. It shocked me to know that ordinary, sensible actions can escalate so quickly to extreme peril. This was the familiar horror of high places, where one suddenly recognizes the easy banality of a life-ending death plunge. Zero to Styx in a quarter of a second.

Necessity finally fathered some invention, and I began pinching my arm skin, hard, in concentric circles around the lip of the BGE, managing, with considerable bruising, to extricate my arm just as the squad car pulled into the driveway.

"Sir, I'm told your arm was trapped in your barbecue unit?" "Yah, but I got it out." "Sir, do you require medical attention?" "Only psychiatric." Mrs. Cop surely got an earful once he got home that night.

Second Recent Glimpse of Ridiculous Death:

Midnight before my last full day in Naples, my friend Peter emailed to urge me to visit Pompeii, which is nearby and unmissable. I researched tour group options, booking a last-minute slot before finally getting to sleep at 1:30 am. I'd need to be at the train station (20 mins away), by 8 am, and I normally require 8 hours sleep to function. But what the hell. I could nap afterwards.

Worse, I'd need to go out on an empty stomach due to medication timing issues. So I'd travel to Pompeii without breakfast and grab a bite in the snack bar. I hadn't factored in the painful blister that had been forming on my foot while walking an average of 7 miles per day for the past two weeks.

The train to Pompeii was sardine-packed with tourists (I literally couldn't raise my arm to scratch my nose), and oven-hot. It was also late, leaving me no time for the snack bar, so I went directly to the tour, involving 2.5 miles of walking in the hot sun.

Toward the end, I noticed my phone had been going crazy, so I fished it out to check my messages, discovering that I'd screwed up my room reservation. I'd figured I had one more night, but today was my scheduled departure and I'd blown right through the 10am checkout. My very kind but very fastidious B&B host, the estimable Giancarlo, needed his keys back for incoming guests, STAT, and for my stuff to be packed up and removed from the apartment. He'd sent a lot of texts. I was provoking a crisis for Giancarlo, who'd been nothing but nice to me.

I tried to call him, but AT&T chose that precise moment to cut off my roaming data and phone service. It's a long story, but I'd suspected this would eventually happen, and had been living in the futile hope that it wouldn't.

So I ran full-blast through the ancient streets of Pompeii back to the train, nearly fainting from heat, hunger and sleeplessness, my foot throbbing, eventually making my way back to the apartment, grabbing my luggage, dumping the keys, and collapsing in the outer hallway, where I tried to puzzle out where to sleep that night. That's when I felt a disturbing rumbling in my chest.

My cardiologist warned me that while I had unlimited potential capacity, I needed to build up slowly and not push too far past my fitness level, wherever it might be. This is the only remaining consideration from my otherwise fully-resolved heart issue from a few years ago. But the extreme walking had brought me to my threshold, the other factors had nudged me over them, and my body was explaining that this was unacceptable.

With all this overhead, walking was hard and thinking was harder. I couldn’t imagine booking a room without a phone. With my body shutting down, I found myself shifting into the higher-level musing of the previous winter while freezing to death a few feet from my doorway with a huge green thing hanging from my arm.

This current scenario didn't have the same elegant simplicity. Instead, I was edging toward a death of a dozen cuts. None were major problems. I can handle being sleepy, or hungry, or physically tired, or pained, or unable to access communication/data networks, or without a place to stay, or approaching cardiological thresholds. Each issue is trivial, and even bundles of them would be manageable. But all of them together? Alligator mating sounds emerged from my chest. The Alien monster seemed poised to pop through my rib cage.

Happily, my "Don't compound the stupidity!" instinct kicked in once again. I dragged myself to a coffeeshop with wifi to contact my previous AirBnB host in Rome and book a room (if I were still 25 years old, I'd have indulged my preference to stay in Naples for another night, with considerably greater effort). I needed to catch the next train to Rome, and at the station I wolfed down three horrendous muffins plus bad packaged orange juice (if I were 25, I'd have dashed to the Moroccan restaurant I desperately yearned to squeeze into the available half hour). I walked slowly and calmly, reminding myself - sometimes aloud - that stress is optional. Upon arrival in Rome, I spent the rest of the day - and some of the next - in bed (if I were 25, I'd have hated myself for squandering precious Italy time). Not being a foolish 25, my story ends anticlimactically with the observation that while Dr. Scholls may not normally be a part of your life, it's fantastic that he exists when you need him. “Dr. Scholls: Fixing Minor Death Factors since 1906."

I'd once again drawn closer to the precipice than I'd have liked without having taken any horribly wrong step that one could single out. The only insight I can cough up is "sometimes shit happens and you die ridiculously." Flippant though that sounds, it's actually good to know - if only to renew my commitment to avoid compounding stupidity in bad situations.

In the second tale, I contrasted my current wisdom with my 25-year-old naïveté. When I was 26, my friend Teddy Barlocher was biking down a mountain road when he witnessed a gristly traffic accident. He tried to rescue the driver from his overturned car, but, having lost awareness of the cars whizzing by a few inches away, Teddy himself was struck and killed.

Somewhere inside me, Teddy always reminds me to bear down and get extra smart (and situationally aware) whenever things start going haywire. Several times, now, I've had opportunity to heed such urgings. Not that it would be much consolation to him, but Teddy's saved my life more than once.

Next installment of my Italy trip: Pasta Time!

1 comment:

Val in Seattle said...

Great reading. Thanks.

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