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Joe's Neighborhood

Expedition to the top of the head

4/3/2024

My dermatologist slowly goes over my bald head with gentle fingers and a calm voice. He dictates to his assistant as he goes — much like an explorer taking notes on the unusual flora and fauna found in this remote and inhospitable landscape: 

“Blah blah blah, and here’s a blah. Oh my, more blah blah. Ouch, look at that blah. And this would be a blah also. Please note that. Some people call this a barnacle. Now let’s go to the other side of the head.”

Although I am merely part of the undergrowth, I startle to hear the word “barnacle” somewhere in there.  

Without a doubt, as we age, strange things happen. What was once physically up there is now down here; or, hold on to your pants, completely vanished from the face of the earth. But, really? A barnacle? I guess my head now looks like the bottom of a boat too long in the water.

Of course, I don’t tell my dermatologist that I am not surprised to have a barnacle or two up there. As I edge into my seventh decade, I have immersed myself in books about aging, death and dying; health and longevity; moral and spiritual rebirth; and whether it is better to eat buttery popcorn or a cream donut. Trust me, these books range from Seneca’s “How to Die” (a fun, catchy title) to “Counterclockwise” by Ellen Langer. I particularly love the Langer book because its unstated conclusion is so bold — it is YOUR OWN FAULT if you die. Yup, you just didn’t have the right mindset to turn back the clock. Oh well, better luck next time, you loser. 

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But a barnacle? 

Well, sure, I’m either a guy with a crustacean cemented to the side of my head or it’s a sign that I’m a pirate. I’m going with the pirate. And not the crazy Barnacle Bill the Sailor type of pirate, but the more waggish Captain Jack Sparrow type of pirate.

In other words, isn’t it time to morally pillage and plunder regardless of popular opinion? Since I have a barnacle on the side of my head already, I might as well wear shorts in the winter, and five-toed shoes year round, and listen to John Prine songs in public, and let anyone use my bathroom without proof of gender. How about that, you crustacean-free landlubbers?  

But my dermatologist doesn’t stop with barnacles. He gently feels around the parameters of another bump, dictating all the while: 

“Blah blah blah blah. What do you think? Blah blah blah fatty tumor. Blah blah. Harmless.” 

The indignity of it all. If I’m going to have a harmless tumor, do we have to call it names? In the downhill ski world, they call a raised protuberance a mogul, not a fatty tumor. Skiers love to cut back and forth, carving these bumps deeper and deeper. They are as challenging and fun as this person demonstrates at Winter Park, Colorado. I know this because I am safely on the ground looking up while eating a cheeseburger. 

But, honestly, how many bumps have we all had in our lives? Too many, for sure. Have I skied around them all with laughter and joy? Hah, I don’t think so. I’ve plowed into a few with a direct hit and barely made it out the other side.

But I sort of admire that dude, the Preacher, of Ecclesiastes fame. Besides inspiring the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by Pete Seeger, the Preacher does have a great message — eat, drink, and enjoy the moment, because there ain’t much else but moguls ahead. Oddly enough, I find that inspiring and can get my head around it. Especially my fatty tumor head. 

Back in the dermatologist’s office: 

“As for this,” my dermatologist says, while pausing to touch my head, “this is a spot caused by sun exposure.”

“Oh, a liver spot?”

For starters, I don’t think the liver gets quite the star turn it should in our society. In my family, I suspect this bad rap was due to my dad, who ate pickled pigs’ feet and dined on liver and onions. Gross and traumatic. And, yes, I’m a hypocrite. When I found myself in France in front of a plate of fois gras — goose liver made into a paste that is not in any way approved by PETA  — I swooned with delight.

Dining aside, Mayo Clinic weighs into the liver fray: “The liver has the greatest regenerative capacity of any organ in the body.” In other words, if they cut out part of your liver for a transplant to help someone else, it grows back for you and for the guy with no liver. Amazing. 

So, a liver spot on my noodle? I’m going to go with it as a mark of regeneration, growth, and scrappiness. Why not? Pickled pigs’ feet in my future? Undoubtably. 

My dermatologist pats me on the back with a smile, chitchats for a moment, but needs to get to the next patient. The expedition to the top of my head comes to an end. I am left sitting on the examining table in my underwear. Alone.

There are few things more special than sitting in a doctor’s office alone in your underwear, which is why I always carry a snack pack. My granddaughter taught me this, and you should do it, too. And don’t forget, nuts and dried fruit aren’t all you include in your doctor-visit snack pack — “Grandpa, we can also have two marshmallows in our snack pack. The big ones.”  

So I nod with my recently explored head and have a marshmallow. Or two. ♦

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

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