“Paging Dr. Toilet! Paging Dr. Toilet!”
Louis B. Cady, M.D.
Shrink-Rappped, Column # 12 – September 2001
Published October 2001
Some of my best education has come in men’s public restrooms. And, no, it didn’t involve reading creative graffiti.
In May of this year, I had arrived at the Dallas-Ft.Worth airport to give a talk on the mechanism of action of a new Alzheimer’s drug for a pharmaceutical company. Pausing to relieve myself on the way to my ground transportation, I overheard a conversation that had a massively clarifying psychological impact.
The one-sided conversation in the next stall was loud; it was impossible not to overhear. The guy was talking in that over-inflated tone of voice that people sometimes use when they have teeny little cellular phones up to their ears. After holding forth for a minute or so (OK, so I listened!) with a conversation punctuated mostly by “Unh-hunhs, unh!….unhn-unhn, unh-hunhs,” this master of scintillating verbal prosody terminated his conversation bluntly with, “well, I’ve got to pull my pants up and go.”
My first observation was that I hope he knew the person he was talking to REAL well. My second observation was that he was a clod. My third observation was perhaps more intriguing: technology is increasingly becoming ubiquitous, and cheap (would you really consider paying $10 a minute to say “unh-hunh” for that long?!), and is changing the way we think, behave, and communicate. Unfortunately, it does not yet have the capability of turning clods into princes.
In late August, I was again on the road, giving a presentation in Toledo, Ohio. (My motto is, “have mouth, will travel.”) Clearly, the pace of technological progress was still ratcheting up. As many other road warriors have noted, public bathrooms are increasingly becoming “smart.” First, it was automatic toilets that flushed because people were too dumb, stupid, and ill mannered to clean up after themselves. Then it was faucets that turned on when you stuck your hands under them – again, because people were too dumb, stupid, and ill mannered to bother to turn off the faucets. Now, however, at a swanky restroom at “The Pinnacle” in Toledo, I encountered a public facility which had truly reached the zenith of technological nirvana: one in which not only were the lights turned on automatically when you walked in but where, for your media deprived enjoyment, a television flipped itself on via infrared sensing over the row of “appliances” in order to keep the hyperactive 24/7/365 people amused – particularly, I suppose, those with enlarged prostates and urinary hesitancy.
But nowhere were my bathroom forays more educational than in a certain men’s room in
a convenience store off of I-64 on my way back from Louisville on a beautiful late July
The quarters were cramped. It was not exactly, shall we say, commodious. But there, in that cramped little room, I had my Ph.D. in postgraduate education in derived insights from public restrooms accommodations. The “terminal degree” — the zenith — the “ne plus ultra” of scatological and scintillating intellectual delectation.
You see, I lost my pager. No, not absentmindedly. I saw it, from the corner of my eye, gracefully arcing through the air off of my belt holster as I contorted in the close quarters. I knew, with a (pardon the pun) sinking feeling right where it had gone when I heard the “ plop”. Yep, you got it. Down the toilet. Literally. Submerged. Just like in one of those horror movies, everything seemed to be moving in slow motion as I watched in a mixture of disbelief, horror, shock, and self-reproach as that little black box sank to the bottom of the porcelain fixture. I had a clear view as, thankfully, this particular iteration of public accommodation was free of, umh, obstructions.
Then the question. What to do about it? It was, after all, OLD technology. Maybe I should just forget about it and buy a new one. Yet, I was somewhat fond of it. It had served me well. Decision time. Push the flush button and say “good bye” without even trying? Or grab for the errant little sucker. Could it be saved? Would it function? Was there a point?
I thought quickly, and then came to a decision. I rolled up my right sleeve and – yes I did! – I GRABBED for it, and I snagged it. The observing, curiously detached part of me, which didn’t want to think about what I had just had to do, immediately began wondering about such issues as, “Will it work?”“ What should I do?” The display was scrolling like my poor little Motorola had had a nervous breakdown. I tried pushing a button on it. Nothing. Then the LCD screen turned black. Nothing was legible. Not a good sign.
At that point, I realized that I was carrying a non-functional pager. Only time would tell if it would dry out and ever happily chirp at me again in the future. So I thoroughly dried it off, clipped it back on my belt, and continued back to Evansville where I promptly went to my office and changed the answering machine message that greets emergency callers if they need to get me. I changed it to direct them straight to my cellular phone, rather than the pager. (“Customer service” never takes a holiday in my practice.)
Happily, the next day, the pager was showing signs of coming back to life. By Monday, it was fully functional again. I heaved a sigh of relief and redeployed it with confidence. And then, much as I shared with you last month, I began having some reflective moments about what had transpired.
Here, then, are the “hidden lessons” I derived from my pager misfortune.
- There comes a time in many of our lives when things happen, through no fault of our own, (or perhaps DUE to faults of our own), where unpleasant consequences arise. It then falls on us to make choices.
- Some of the choices aren’t pleasant – but they may be the only ones left to us with which we have a hope of salvaging the situation.
- It seems to me that there are usually two, and only two choices: DO something, or, alternatively, don’t. Give up. Don’t fight. Flush your options down the toilet.
- Sometimes we have time to think about our options and brood upon them; sometimes we don’t. Had I engaged in overly involved contemplative navel gazing about the various pro’s and con’s of attempting to retrieve my soggy
pager, it very likely could have become unalterably damaged. Only by snatching it QUICKLY out of the offending receptacle was it salvaged. So, too, with our decisions: sometimes speed and alacrity are called for!
- Many times it would be nice if someone else came along to solve our problems. Too many of us – including some of my patients – end up fantasizing about someone ELSE taking care of the problems, someone ELSE rooting around through the muck of our lives to somehow magically make us
better. As my seven year old son sometimes remarks, “It ain’t gonna happen!” I like the little ditty Brian Tracy recommends: “If it’s to be, it’s up to ME.”
- A lot of the time, the choices we make are not the one-shot “grab it and be done with it” – type choices. We may find ourselves in such a boatload of fecal matter that one quick grab at the problem – no matter how unpleasant– will not get it done. More than one decision and action is required: one decision and action will beget another branching point in our decision tree, then another, then another, then another. The only way to work through the muck is to keep making decisions and doing our best.
- Outcomes are not always clear. When I decided to grab for my pager, I knew that whether or not it would work in the future was open to question. What was CERTAIN was that if I gave up and flushed it down the drain it would never be chirping on my belt again and I would end up buying another one. The cost-benefit analysis in my mind (which occurred simultaneously with my decision as to whether or not I was going to grab for the pager) was: “Is it likely that there is a chance it will work if I retrieve it?” If, in our own
decision making process, there is a CHANCE that we can redeem a potentially unsettling or disastrous eventuality by trying, by “reaching through the muck”, and doing so will endanger only our pride and sense of decorum– (not our reputations, ethics, or health) – then it seems to me that we should go ahead and “reach for it.”
- Sometimes, we must wait and see what our results will be. “Grabbing through the muck” – or courageously making a decision and then acting on it – will not always guarantee us the results we wish. In any case, we must sometimes
wait to see what will develop. We must therefore take action on the basis of FAITH: the faith that if only we will do what we must, when we must, then perhaps things will turn out alright. There are no guarantees that they will;
there is, however, a GUARANTEE that things will NOT turn out alright if we don’t do what we can, when we can, with what we’ve got.
- Finally, I suppose – and aside from any of the theorizing above – I would like to share with you the reality of the life of a physician. One view into the disparity that exists
between the way people actually live their lives and the way the public perceives them was in Richard Feynman’s wonderful and joyful book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr.
Feynman!” Feynman told the hilarious story of how, one summer, working behind the scenes in a sweaty kitchen at a swanky restaurant, he saw actually what went into the creation of the elegant desserts coming out of the kitchen. Unbeknownst to the guests who were dining in high style on fancy desserts served on delicate little “doilies”, there was a huge, fat, crass man in the kitchen with stubby little fingers who hated prying apart the cursed doilies. While doing so, he cursed under his breath, “Damn dese doilies! Damn dese doilies!”
Life – even for supposedly well-heeled “filthy rich” physicians – is similarly different from the presuppositions of most people. It’s not about swinging a golf club on a day off. I’ve had very few days off and I don’t play golf. Life for us – and probably for any particular group of people you want to name, including janitors, carpenters, plumbers, teachers, moms, executives – is about sometimes having to root around in the toilet of life.
Because life sometimes requires having to make choices and do things that we really don’t want to, but must. Life is about making choices. Life is about doing what we can, with what we’ve got, at the appropriate time, and not lying back like a regressed 18- month-old waiting for someone to change our diapers.
Life is about courage, and life is about the opportunities and the chance to better ourselves that go with the courage to make the right decisions and take action. And in that sense, life is about the limitless possibilities that are open to each one of us, if we only use the talents and the abilities that we all possess. What an adventure!