A Little Health Problem

Posted By Peter Vilbig on Mar 27, 2011 in Domestic Life, LIfe | 3 comments

It all began three days ago—it seems like eons have passed since—when I woke up with an odd feeling just below my right collarbone. Of course I immediately touched the spot. Nothing strange in that; it’s what we do when something unusual appears on our bodies. What I felt––and it was beyond my field of vision so I could only feel––was a smooth flat nodule that seemed to have formed almost precisely flush with my skin. Naturally I went to the mirror, though at first I didn’t understand what I was looking at. Not that I didn’t know I was looking at my upper torso: there was my chest, my collarbones jutting out a bit too prominently for my taste, and my neck, my gristly neck, of which I’m rather self-conscious. But in addition to these geographically normal items was a black button, uniform, round, and to all appearances made of a durable high quality plastic, situated just below my collarbone.

My first reaction was annoyance. Another normal response. My health is generally good and who wants to deal with a health problem? My second reaction—an impulse, to be precise—was to push the button. I won’t say whether I think this was normal or not, though it’s true, not everyone would have felt this urge. (I had no idea how apt that word would turn out to be.) And yet my desire to push the button could not have felt more completely natural, and I will even venture to say that many would have felt the same way. I almost did push it too, raised my hand until my finger (index) was hovering over the button––when I stopped. Because I suddenly wondered, what if it’s an off button?

Until that instant, the thought had not occurred to me. Not that the button said “Off,” or anything like that. But it’s the nature of a button to turn things on and off. Which raised the further questions, if it was an off button, was it also an on button? And if I did turn it off, would I be in a position to turn it back on? I think you can see the problem, though I must admit the full measure of my difficulties hadn’t hit me. But I did see right away, somewhat bitterly, how much better off I would have been if my first thought had been instead: what if it’s a start button? Perhaps even a kind of physical rejuvenation button. And why isn’t that just as likely? Then I would’ve pushed it immediately in the hopes of being young again, and then whatever would’ve happened would’ve happened. Except, and perhaps you already see the problem, the formula of the question itself more or less demands the negative answer. What if? We aren’t built to ask that question in full-blooded optimism. So in other words, and I saw this pretty quickly, I was being led around by the nose by semantics.

And yet, as I mentioned, I didn’t see the full panoply of the issues right away. In fact I was in a terrible rush, late for work as usual, and because I feared losing my job more than I feared discovering the true purpose of the button I actually managed to push my discovery out of my mind, wash up, dress quickly, and get out the door. And for the most part, that first day was not so terrible. I was quite busy, and though I occasionally felt the button there under my shirt, I taught my classes with good concentration. With the freshman, we read “Ozymandias.” With the juniors, we reviewed vocabulary words. They had trouble with “indulgence.” Only toward the end of the day did I start to wonder if perhaps some of my colleagues or even my students might be experiencing the same health phenomenon, the same kind of button appearing somewhere on their bodies, and I began to wonder if many of us aren’t similarly disabled—though that seems too strong a word—and all undergoing the issue in equal silence.

And then I went home.

That might’ve been a mistake, though how I could have predicted trouble, after my bland first day, I don’t know.

The problem was at home I had nothing to distract me from—the button. I will call it that. My evening, usually dedicated to study (I have been reading the collected works of Georges Sand) quickly devolved into a nightmare, an endless oscillating loop between an increasingly urgent desire to push the button, just push it, just push the god damn button. Push. It. And an equally intense resistance that set itself up as a reverberating clamor in my brain that boomed the words as though from a train-station loudspeaker: what if it’s an off button?

And then I would think, don’t be ridiculous. It could as easily have been a button that did absolutely nothing. Or a button that got rid of my allergies, or my acid reflux, or my toe fungus.

Sleep was out of the question under these circumstances, and the night wore on, and I truly understood the night then, how we are, each of us, lowered in those late hours of dark and silence into its deep well, narrow and cold and dank, where we experience our own hopelessness and taste the awful cold and tainted water of death. I had the TV on, its cool bluish light washing across the room, a movie about some guy in a desert location with motorcycles, and it was then, and only then—I say this with certainty, since it struck me as very odd that it took this long to have such an obvious thought—yet I swear I had not had it until just that moment when I sat on my old easy chair in the den, hopeless in the deep well of night—that I had the thought: who the hell put it there? You see what I mean. Why had it taken this long to have this most obvious of all thoughts? I can’t answer the question. I told myself it had to do with my being one of those people who makes a conscientious effort to be forward-looking. But that sounded like bunkum, and before I could even start to evaluate, I found myself thinking once again, the thought like some invasion of ants crawling up my brainstem, push it, why don’t you just push it? And I could see that another casualty of this medical condition (for so it seemed this was) was that my new obsession made impossible higher order ethical reasoning.

But who did put it there? I quickly ran through the usual suspects that paranoia might suggest: the Obama administration; rogue CIA agents; thugs hired by that Russian dude putting the stadium up at Atlantic Yards for the Nets. (I signed the petition, so sue me.) These were easily dismissed at least at first. Then came darker thoughts, thoughts that coincided with my own developing sense of the nature of consciousness as an endlessly fracturing and reassembling illusion, in which the unconscious was nothing less than our own unknowable reality, the dark sea we catch only glimpses of even in our greatest moments of illumination, flashes of wind whipped waves crashing together under moonlight. In other words, it was as possible that I had had the button installed in an outpatient surgical procedure by my dermatologist as not. What “I” might’ve done not anything I could know. So that this button, as I’m calling it, might be none other than an artifact from that ocean scene, that vast Atlantic of some other self whose life takes place within me, the button as I prefer now to call it, the work of my homunculus…

There were many other strange moments in the last three days. I became more and more concerned, for example, that I would press the button accidentally when I bumped into a doorframe. Or that I would press it in my sleep. So that even on the second night, when exhaustion demanded it, and I did fall asleep, it was only in fearful helpless snatches, each time jerking awake after a few moments riven with fear. The problem of showering was soon going to be an issue I could no longer avoid. And what about the gym? Yes, answer that. What about the gym?

And perhaps it is those little life moments and inconveniences, more than the grand questions, which bring me to now, to this moment, before this computer screen, typing these words for my blog. Three days after this odd moment in my life began unfolding in ever increasing misery, I sit here composing what might turn out to be my last testament. And don’t worry. I’m not in a score-settling mood. I’m just not angry enough at anyone for that, not even against whoever has played this dirty trick on me, because I’m enough of a realist to know that it were not this trick, it would be another. Besides, I’ve begun to see that there is something in the nature of the button itself, or to be more precise, in the way the mind is capable of perceiving and thinking about the button, that makes this torture inevitable. As long as I have even the faintest belief in the possibility that the button is in fact the off button, I’m trapped. It doesn’t require a story. That’s what I’m trying to explain. No script with CIA agents is needed. How incredible. No narrative is required at all. Or one might say the narrative is embedded in the object itself. And so a kind of freedom begins percolating in me. The testament idea bored me to tears actually, and so I can it. Which leaves me to check this blog for random spam comments. Perhaps you can see how everything is beginning to funnel in one direction. At least it’s becoming obvious that I must blog the event itself.

And so here I am. And as with everything associated with my recent health issue, if I may be so bold as to call it that, I am suddenly rushing headlong into uncharted territory, a stream of unexpected thoughts careening in my head. Yes, it’s really true: here I am. Me. This Me I have known all these long years, or thought I did. Typing. Giddy feelings sweeping through me now. Perhaps I am preparing the ground, creating the conditions, for enhanced impulsivity. And yet I’m also thinking: why don’t you just go to the doctor; perhaps you could have it removed. (The answer may not satisfy the practical minded, but I will give it anyway: though I am suffering from a medical problem—I in no way deny this fact—I also consider this problem to be ultimately personal in nature, and one which requires my own personal confrontation with its meaning.) And thinking too: you can get used to the button, this new fixture that I hardly notice for hours at a time, or notice only as an odd presence under my collarbone. Give yourself time. Perhaps because of my patience I will even someday learn why this happened to me, in the same way that if we are patient enough we may come to understand one day why we must die.

But let me let you in on a secret. All of this doesn’t matter, because in just a few minutes, I’m going to do it, despite all the arguments. (And please, don’t pretend that you’re not happy to hear this: your desire for the story supersedes your concern for me.) But I’m just going to do it, anyway. It’s not about you. Liveblogging the event. Not that you’re guaranteed the story you’re hoping for. Because, consider, either I will do it and nothing will happen at all—I’ll be here just as I was before, and I’ll be able to write another sentence, in which case I’ll be instantly drained of narration, another boring blog junkie with nothing to say. Or I’ll do it and then my last sentence will be the last sentence I write just before doing it, and I’ll become glorified in the narration, I’ll be the possessor of a story of stories, and yet I’ll be unable to narrate a bit of it, to complete it.

Tough choice. Wicked bad problem.

But enough of all this. Because now, drumroll please, I’m sick of it all, I want an end to it, even after only three days. I’m going to do it, in other words. Goodbye to all this. And so farewell. My last words. Ever. Farewell. Fare-thee-well, hey nonny neigh …

Of course, I didn’t do it.


But then, really being honest, I didn’t expect to do it. Not right away.

But no, that’s not true, I’m going to do it right now, this time for sure …

So it’s ten seconds later. I actually waited that long to see if I might do it, just sort of for the hell of it.

This is going to get old.

No, yes. Now. Do it. Fool …

I need luck.

I need to trick myself.

Yes. Now. Finally. The readiness is almost everything.

I’m so. Now …

No, mi amor? No? Porqué?

Yes …


Yes …


Okay, so really I’m going to do it right now, and if I don’t, well …

A number of minutes have passed, and the thought has occurred to me that stories have episodes. In other words, to be continued …

In other words, this story is a little like life.

To be continued …

No, really, to be continued. Maybe for a long time.

Because now I see that. How stuck I am. But still maybe I’ll do it just … now?


  1. <3

    I felt a weird tingling right there earlier today.

    I love reading your writing, uncle.

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  2. Just now walking thru the hallway in my apartment I noticed a small black button like object on the runner. I have not idea what it is or how it got there. All I DO know is it reminded me of your story, which I had just read. This naturally increased my button fascination. Thank you for the nice story and personal button stymie.

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  3. it seems we are full of places, bumps and bruises, where our bodies bulge and sink, that only begin to have meaning when we discover that they may be signposts on a map that at the very least could have provided some clues to the nature of the journey we are on, even though the choices in direction and destination are more limited than we’d like to believe.

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