Whenever I visit the doctor, I tend to think of it like a trip to Jiffy Lube: I know he's going to want to sell me a whole bunch of other services as if it's life or death, but I usually persist in waving him off and repeating 'just check the fluids, please.'
Not last time, though. Last time Doc pinned me to the wall, gagged me with tongue depressors, and spoke his piece.
"Gary, your cholesterol is high. Too high. We've got to do something about it."
"The good cholesterol or the bad kind?" I intoned hopefully around a mouth of popsicle sticks.
"Don't be an imbecile," Doc said, slapping me with a plastic glove and ordering a battery of unnecessary blood tests just to remind me who was boss. Then, to add insult to injury, the nurse he sent to stick me seemed to be both clinically blind and to have expert training in fencing.
Doc never did like me much.
The bottom line is this, he told me over the phone after the tests were done. You must change your life. Do I eat a lot of red meat, asked he. That depends on your definition of 'a lot', says I. Do I get enough cardio exercise? Oh sure, I reply, I have to get up and walk into the kitchen to get a beer in the evening, which is two rooms away from the couch, and sometimes I'll have up to ten beers, so that's a lot of walking.
Havre, where I live, has ten or eleven doctors, and all of them are friendlier than mine. But when I was a kid I remember my mother explaining to me that the bad taste of the medicine was the best part - you could tell something was working because it hurt, tasted bad, or made you ashamed of yourself. That was the mark of efficacy and why I went to see Doc, who made sure that every appointment combined all three experiences.
I never asked him much about his life because every time I'm in the same room as him I'm cowering in fear or protecting my orifices with both hands. But if I had to guess as to his past, I'd say that he was either an escaped Nazi doctor hiding in obscurity or a man who chose the medical profession after having been turned down as Grand Torturer of the Spanish Inquisition.
"You're fat, too," he said. "Damned fat. A man as fat as you at your age has got to be about as reckless as Evel Knievel."
"Well, I'm a daredev-" I started to say before he leaped onto the examination table and whipped me across the face with his stethoscope.
The unvarnished truth, as he told me later, is this: where other people have a heart, I have something more closely resembling a Blooming Onion from Outback Steakhouse. if I want to live to see the cows come home, I'll have to get that cholesterol down. And somehow, the key to that plan is giving up everything I like and eating everything I don't like.
For instance, he says no more red meat. No more processed meat, no more salted meat. Meat, if I must consume it, should be lean, like fish or chicken. No more beer. No more whiskey. No more late-night pints of ice cream while I watch an old Western. No more salt. No more joy.
I asked him what, exactly, that left to eat, and he launched into a litany of unpronounceable and unappetizing sounding words like "quinoa" and "kamut." There were also nuts and legumes, great gobs of them, in fact. All I could eat. But that's like saying all the packing peanuts you can eat. If I loved lentils, I'd be the luckiest guy in the world. If whole grains didn't taste like little bits of cut-up cardboard, I might be over the moon.
Even so, I decided, I have to do it. After all, I've got wonderful kids and a beautiful wife, and if I were to die, I think they'd be significantly inconvenienced and maybe even a little down-in-the-mouth about it. I'd hate to ruin someone's weekend.
Does that mean my loving brood is going to join me in my heart-healthy efforts and show solidarity by eating the same kind of dreck as I? Hell no! In fact, my youngest told me he's going to eat twice as many cheeseburgers as before just to pick up the slack. 'Thanks, boy,' I said, proud of the little monster.
What's worse, the editorial staff at Distinctly Montana got wind of it, and now I'm expected to report periodically on my progress, as well as to review certain aspects of it. I'm told that I'm to try some recent health food trends like, for instance, edible bugs, cricket flour, ancient grains, wheatgrass, plant-based meat, and a host of other horrors. Just hearing about them sent shivers down my spine. Why oh why, has God forsaken me?
One morning a few days after my appointment with Doc, still smarting from what he jokingly calls a physical, I awoke to feed the dogs and tend to the cattle like usual. I poured a cup of coffee. Black, no cream allowed.
I stepped off of the porch into the blistering cold. I felt, as usual, the trudge of the snow under my boots. Then the wind biting at my nose and freezing the debris of sleep still hanging at the corners of my eyes. Freezing snow or hot sun, this is how I've started every morning for years and years. My joints always pop in complaint as I bend to fill the dogs' dishes, though it gets harder and harder to get back up. When it's cold, it gets harder and harder to warm me up after I come back in. That's ok; there's plenty of coffee for that. But no matter how much my joints hurt, or how long it takes for the stiffness in my limbs to go away, the view of the sunrise cresting over the gently rolling hills of scrub like a Charlie Russell painting still soothes me.
And sure, the face staring back at me in the mirror as I brush my teeth every day gets uglier and uglier, but somewhere in there, I can still see myself.
All of this is to say it's worth it to eat a lot of disgusting crap if it means I live a few more years in this place I have loved my whole life, among the people I love the most.
So sure, I'll eat quinoa and brown rice and ancient grains and insects and fistfuls of lawn clippings and whatever else I'm called upon to eat even if I have to use a belt sander to remove my taste buds to do it. And I'll occasionally check in to let you know how it's going and to describe in detail how harrowing and genuinely unpleasant-tasting it is along the way.
But I want you to make me this promise: if I start to actually enjoy any of this health food stuff, you can take me out back and put me to pasture, where I can munch the grass until I expire.
One thing's for sure: Doc's going to be happy to have me around for a few more years of torture and abuse.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.