Doogie Howser, M.D.

This entry is part 25 of 25 in the series Cruising With the Mothers

“The doctor is available between five and six o’clock,” she said. “A few people have already signed up ahead of you, so you should probably come back around 5:30.”

“OK,” I said. “Put me on the list, please.”

The woman pointed to a sheet of paper on her desk. “Sign there, and write in your cabin number,” she said. “You’ll need to fill in these forms, too.” She handed me a clipboard and a pen, and resumed her chat with the wounded cyclists while I completed the forms.

Form design is tricky business, and I’ve always found the forms at doctor’s offices to be in need of serious overhaul. In three pages, I was asked to provide my name at least ten times. Perhaps they were trying to catch me in a lie, but more likely, whoever typed up the forms felt it necessary to fill otherwise blank space with something—anything. Just what the medical history of my dog had to do with the situation at hand, I’ll never know. By the time I reached the bottom of the last page, I could have added “carpal tunnel syndrome” to the list of the day’s ailments, but instead, I signed with an “X” and set the clipboard back on the desk. The three women continued to talk, and I slipped from the room without notice.

I still had more than an hour and a half to fill before my audience with the doctor, so I consulted the activity schedule. To my surprise, the second writer’s workshop with Garrison Keillor was scheduled to start at 4:00. I’d missed the listing previously and literally ran to the Wajang Theater, arriving just in the nick of time. Keillor was just getting settled on his center-stage perch, and a few seats remained up for grabs at the rear of the room.

“I spent an hour this morning working on my Villanelle,” began Keillor. “There was something I didn’t like about it, so I tried to make it right…” He began reading the revised version:

Monday morning headed northeast
Our ship bound for Charlottetown
Its horn blowing in the ocean mist
In a day-long fog the somnambulist
Passengers stroll around
Monday morning on a course northeast

We dream up figures from the past
Familiar voices, names unknown
Our horn blowing in the salt mist

I dream of the time we kissed
On a terrace, love new found
And we set out northeast

In dense fog but we’re moving fast
Sailing with comrades to the sound
Of horns blowing in the ocean mist
Fog, grief, longing, but we persist
Stubbornly, blindly, bound
Monday morning on a course northeast
Our horns blowing in the ocean mist

Keillor continued, “I think I like it even less, now. That sometimes happens, and it’s part of the process. Begin, and begin again—as many times as necessary. When it’s right you’ll know it, but you’ll never get to the end unless you start at least once. So, let’s see how you all started—who would like to read their Villanelle?”

I hadn’t done my homework, so I slid down in my seat to avoid detection. My reaction was instinctive but unnecessary as dozens of people raised their hands, competing to be recognized. One woman in the front row waved her poem like a flag of surrender.

“Yes madam—you seem especially anxious to share.”

The poem-waving woman stood and began to read.

“Please, stop right there,” boomed Keillor. “I don’t want you to read just to me and the five other people who can hear you. Please, come up here and let everyone have a look at you.”

The woman hesitated, probably regretting her outburst of enthusiasm. Keillor persisted, and finally coaxed her on stage.

“That’s better,” said Keillor. After a proper introduction he asked, “So, what is the theme of your Villanelle?”

“Charlottetown,” she relied.

“Charlottetown! It’s better to leave the depressing themes to me,” said Keillor. “What did you think of little Charlottetown?”

“Oh, I just loved it!” gushed the woman.

“You did?” replied Keillor, incredulously. After a perfectly timed pause, his face fell and he said “But, why?”

“I thought it was a beautiful place,” said the woman.

“Did we go to the same Charlottetown?”

“And there was so much to do…”

“You probably don’t get around much, do you?” said Keillor. ”First time out of Minnesota?”

The woman nodded her head, and the audience roared.

“I thought so,” said Keillor. “Charlottetown was good for about ten minutes—long enough to stretch the legs, but that’s about it. To each his own, I suppose. Let’s hear your ode to Charlottetown.”

The woman maintained good humor and read her Villanelle. She truly was smitten with the place, and her poem was a pledge of undying love and romance so vivid it made me blush.

Keillor listened with astonishment and when the woman was finished, he looked at her with grave concern. “My dear, I think you should see someone about this. I have a feeling that when we get to Halifax, you’ll forget all about Charlottetown. I don’t know what would happen if you ever went to Paris. It could be fatal.”

Unperturbed, the woman stood by as Keillor led the audience through an examination of the Villanelle’s construction. Despite the questioned thematic validity, it held up to technical scrutiny.

“Well, you’ve written a fine Villanelle,” said Keillor, in summary. “We just have to get you to some more inspirational places and you’ll take the world of poetry by storm. Thank you for being a good sport. Who’s next?”

The pool of volunteers didn’t appear to shrink. Feeling confident that I wouldn’t be forced to make up a poem on the fly, I sat up straight in my seat for the remainder of the session. All told a half-dozen people shared their work, and humor reigned throughout.

The workshop ended with perfect timing—I just couldn’t laugh anymore, and I was due in the doctor’s office in a few minutes. Arriving there at 5:25, I was recognized and taken straight away into an examination room. On my heels came a young man—too young, I thought, to be working as an aid in the infirmary on a cruise ship. Some loophole in maritime law, no doubt…

The man extended his hand and spoke. “Hello. I’m Dr. ‘Soandso.’ What brings you here? You should be out having fun.” I fought off thoughts of Doogie Howser, M.D., as I shook his hand and introduced myself.

We sat on opposite sides of a small counter, and made small talk for a minute. The doctor was an American, and for some reason that really surprised me. In the small-world department, it turned out that he was from Ohio. I was born there, and spent my first decade shuffling about within the state’s borders.

“I’ve been getting the most incredible headaches,” I began, “every night. First my sinus starts to burn, then I get all stuffed up, my eyes water, my nose runs and then wham—a headache.”

“Do you tend to have sinus problems?” the doctor asked.

“Well, noses run in my family,” I said, unable to resist the opening, “but I’ve never had anything like this before. The pain is incredible.”

“Sinus headaches can be extremely painful,” said the doctor. He asked many more questions before pronouncing, “You probably just have a sinus infection. I’m going to give you an anti-biotic. You should start feeling better tomorrow, but take the medication for 7 days no matter what. If you’re still having a problem by the time you get home, see your regular doctor right away. I’m sure you’ll be fine, though.”

The doctor left the room for a couple of minutes, returning with a bottle of pills. He spilled a bunch into a tray and counted out 14 of them, which he put into a smaller bottle. The pills were huge.

“Are those for me or my horse?” I asked.

“We want to knock this thing down quickly,” said the doctor. “You’re not allowed to suffer while you’re on vacation.”

I thanked him, and on my way out of the infirmary, stopped at the reception desk to complete the transaction. At $75, the fee for the visit was less than I expected. At first glance, I thought the fee had been inadvertently duplicated on the bill. Then I realized that the pills were also $75—about $5.36 each. A bargain, provided they worked. I swallowed the first one with a cup of water from a cooler in the waiting room.

Oddly, for the first time on the cruise, I felt relaxed. The sensation suddenly washed over me, as though it had been released into my body from the horse pill I swallowed. I headed for the cabin, detouring briefly for a stroll on the promenade. I was surprised to find that we were underway, and couldn’t recall hearing or feeling the departure from Charlottetown. That surprise paled in comparison with the next one, though. I was leaning on the railing, peering down at the rushing wake, when a horrendous noise split the air behind me—a million screaming ghouls ready to attack. My body immediately tensed and prepared for both fight and flight.

It is amazing how many thoughts can run through the human mind in a split second. The one I remember most is being grateful that we weren’t cruising in Alaska—at least the water would be warm when I hit the surface…

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