Trinidad and Tobago


A Sense Of Tumour

September 5, 2001

WHEN the phone rings these days, it is no longer safe to answer even occasionally with a light-hearted remark, because cheap humour might just be the most inappropriate response in the circumstances.

And really, it used to be fun, if only on All Foolsí Day, to pick up the receiver and say: "Good morning, St Annís Hospital, Mad Max speaking," then enjoy a moment of resulting confusion before rescuing the caller.

But these days, such pranks are simply not recommended and as a rule, late night calls should all be treated with the solemnity they very often deserve. In any event, the more we learn about places like the St Annís Hospital, the less funny jokes about them become.

Improperly greeting a query from a bailiff, banker or potential employer would be awkward enough, but given the frequency of todayís calls that bring news of sickness or death, it is just no longer a good idea to be funny on the phone at first opportunity.

In fact, its getting so that far too many of my friends are either suffering with something malignant, recuperating from corrective medical procedures, going into remission, or being remembered in melancholy tones at a wake.

No longer a predictable hazard of advancing age or unhealthy lifestyle, men in their prime are succumbing to major medical problems their fathers managed to avoid well into the winter of their years. In general, younger persons are today suffering from what historically were maladies exclusive to the elderly and a vigorous sporting or aerobics regime is no longer any guarantee against debilitating disease.

You get a sense that over the past five or six decades, just about everyone was born with some little tumour, the nuisance nestling for years, eluding x-rays and biopsies, waiting on the right conditions or a secret cue to mature into irreparable horror for its host.

Those who argue that the sudden rise in major medical disorders are directly attributable to food additives or artificial nutrition, seldom follow up that claim with palatable alternatives. The intrinsic goodness of castor oil, for instance, has never been effectively marketed by a subsequent overdose of candy.

And old habits are often impossible to adjust. A people weaned on syrupy beverages and foods dripping with cholesterol cannot be expected to settle for soya, sushi and tofu at short notice. Then we also have to live with the expectation that every other Monday, some medical research team will unearth a fresh barrage of hazards.

Writing in the latest issue of Harperís, Elizabeth Giddens and Margaret Cordi list a litany of startling revelations, some from the very people with whom we felt most safe. The US Government, the article said, was investigating Johns Hopkins University for carrying out experiments in which healthy children were recruited to live in houses with varying degrees of lead contamination.

We also learnt that in Thailand, amphetamines were being added to the drinking water at all-night amusement arcades, to keep people playing longer. A 22-year-old patron died recently from heart failure after an all-night computer-game binge. And scientists found that people who eat a lot of snacks are more prone to macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the US.

To me, these developments represent a blatant breach of contract, a clear departure from the original grand design, which promised fire and brimstone at the maximum. And even so, the deal was that painful punishment awaited only the stubborn few that laughed away the value of repentance.

Admittedly, the threat of burning in Hell for all eternity was certainly more effective, when only a privileged minority had access to sciences that argue nothing can burn forever. And now, in the face of space age fabrics able to withstand the heat of re-entry into earthís atmosphere, this aspect of coercion lost much of its earlier merit.

It has therefore become difficult to scare mankind into compliance, with mere incineration as the only impending peril for those found in breach upon arrival at the Pearly Gates. It is not unreasonable to suspect, therefore, that instead of positioning a massive flame-thrower to bring about the end-of-the-world (in accordance with earlier promises) attrition might have been quietly substituted.

Political correctness has long excised from the comedy circuit jokes about cross-eyed girls, stuttering boys, armless men and women afflicted with gender-specific ailments; bring a fresh level of seriousness to such difficulties, many of which become terminal through the inability of sufferers to afford specialised medical care.

Perhaps then, the new attrition plan is to whittle us down to just two remaining people. And if leaking radiation or global warming doesnít whack them, mankind can start again with a Garden of Eden. The lucky two should however steer clear of beliefs like: "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."

Look where that got us.

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