Coincidences and curmudgeons

May 1, 2009 | By | 13 Replies More

This past week has been quite a ride for me. Lots of good things, magic things, have been happening to me, over a background of physical pain and worry. I’ll explain with two examples, two of many.

On Saturday, my 10-year-old daughter (“JuJu”) was walking about the house constantly singing a song that sounded familiar. She explained to me that it had recently become one of her favorite songs, “Vida la Vida” by Coldplay. It was enchanting to see her so excited about a particular piece of music (and it really is a terrific song). After saying good night to my two daughters in their room, I went outside to walk the dog around the block. It was now 10 pm.  Once outside, however, I saw and heard three young men with guitars and a drum walking along my street singing “Vida la Vida.”  I ran upstairs to get JuJu out of bed so she could hear her new favorite song being sung by these three strolling musicians. It was just one of those things. I had never before seen anyone walking in front of the house strumming a guitar and I’ve lived in this house for 25 years. The music, the clear night, the perfect weather. The moment seemed almost orchestrated. Because I am a skeptic, however, I don’t personify the reason why such moments sometimes happen. I simply enjoy them.

Today, I had another unusual moment. I need to provide context first, however. I’ve been struggling with the symptoms of a pinched cervical nerve root for about two years. It has caused several periods of terrible pain in my back. I’ve seen a massage therapist, an acupuncturist who was a chiropractor, a sports medicine doctor, two surgeons and three physical therapists. Until three weeks ago, it seemed as though the problem, or at least the pain, might simply fade tolerably into the background, letting me get on with my life.  “Not so fast!” Fate must’ve thought. Three weeks ago, my left hand suddenly became numb. I had trouble feeling any of my fingers. I started dropping things. My left-handed handwriting (my usual hand) became so slow and sloppy that I switched over completely writing with my right hand. My left arm felt like it was being stabbed with a knife or shocked with high-voltage day and night for 10 days. My upper back and left shoulder flared up. I often over-ate to provide a buffer for the medications I was taking.

My focus and my patience dwindled, and I often felt almost panicked, but also excited, at the thought that I might need to have this problem fixed surgically. I had first heard about this type of surgery in August, eight months earlier. The surgeon would go in through the front of my neck, excise the two herniated cervical discs and then fuse three contiguous vertebrae with chunks of cadaver bone, locking it into place with a titanium plate and screws. The result, for almost 90% of patients, is that much of the pain goes away, but at a price. There is a significant loss of mobility in one’s neck. Back in August, a highly regarded surgeon at Barnes Hospital indicated that aches and pains are expected for anyone with my condition (he called it “gray hair of the spine”), but if I ever got numbness in my hand, I should quickly get back into the office because numbness indicates that permanent damage is being done to one’s nerves and that the numb areas might never recover.

The "gray hair" of my spine.

The "gray hair" of my spine.

I primarily a left-handed writer and I constantly work at a keyboard at work and as a writer for this blog. Further, I have played a lot of music in my life, some of it professionally, and I truly hated the possibility that my pinched rotting nerve was threatening my ability to ever play the guitar again. I quickly got another appointment with the surgeon. He confirmed that all the new symptoms (including the numbness) were flowing from that pinched nerve in my neck.  He said that for every month that one allows a numb hand to stay untreated, it gets much more likely that one will never get that feeling back. After six months of numbness, you should not expect feeling to return to your hand.  Therefore there was a clock on my decision-making process.  By not deciding, one is deciding to give up substantial hand function.   It is also ironic that the surgery ends up fixing the hand at the expense of the neck.  I’d be giving up neck function to try to get back hand and arm function.

I agreed to the surgery a couple days after this recent office visit, but over that weekend, I noticed that some feeling was returning to two of my fingers (the surgeon had clearly stated that this was possible, even likely). The thought of surgery became more harrowing and less exciting the more I considered it. I decided to cancel the surgery and see if more feeling would return to my hand. Maybe, just maybe, all of the numbness would go away, and I would not need to do anything at all, at least for the time being. To make this plan work, however, I would need to get rid of the numbness, and I decided to see if that could be done by seeing a physical therapist often. For the past 10 days, I’ve been working hard at physical therapy, and I am seeing some results, though there is still substantial numbness in my left hand and it concerns me.

A bit more context. About two months ago, I received a notice that I needed to report to the courthouse on May 4 for jury service (in Missouri, attorneys can be called for jury duty). Back in March I filled out my form and indicated that I would show up for jury service.

The above is an awfully long prelude to my story, I realize.  But I do hope that you’ll find it worthwhile, based on the ending.

Because I am now going to physical therapy three times a week for long sessions, I decided to call the court to see if I could postpone my jury service. Over the phone, someone at the jury office started scolding me that I shouldn’t have filled out the written form saying I was available if I wasn’t. I explained to the woman that when I signed the form saying I was available, I did not yet have this medical condition. She scoffed at me more, then hung up, somewhat exasperated.

I took a guess and visited a judge might have been assigned to jurors’ issues. I got lucky.  He granted my request to postpone my service.  He wished me well with the treatment and signed an Order indicating that I was excused from jury duty the week of May 4, and that I should, instead, report to jury duty in August, 2009. All I needed to do now was to bring that “order” down to the Jury Commissioners Office to make sure that their records were straight.

I walked into the tiny lobby and showed the judge’s “order” to a short woman behind the Plexiglas window.  After looking at the Order for five seconds, she started scolding me that the “9” in “2009” was an inked over “8.” She told me that I “couldn’t do this.” I told her that I made a mistake by writing 2008 but then corrected it to 2009. She told me that this was improper. I told her that I made the correction before the judge signed the Order. She stared at me, convinced that I was lying. I asked her whether it was even possible that the judge wanted me to show up last year, in 2008. I challenged her to call the judge if she didn’t believe me.

She told me that I should’ve indicated back in March that I would not be available for jury service. I told her that back in March I did not have a medical issue and that it arose only a few weeks ago. She looked disgusted.

She asked me what I did for a living. I told her that I was a lawyer. “How can you be a lawyer when you don’t even know how to write 2009?” She barked.

After another minute of uncomfortable silence, she finally acknowledged that she would obey the judge’s order, and that I would need to designate a particular week in August when I would do my substitute service. She told me to pick a Monday or Wednesday in August. I asked her what the difference was between Mondays and Wednesdays (I previously assumed that all jurors showed up on Monday and were committed to stay the entire week).  She demanded to know what kind of lawyer I was that I didn’t know the difference between Monday jury service and Wednesday jury service. I told her that I try cases in front of juries, but I didn’t know how they gather the jurors. She was incredulous.

She then wanted to make sure that she knew the correct spelling of my name, which I wrote out by hand at the top of the “order”.  She told me that I had terrible handwriting. I told her that I knew my handwriting was not good because my left hand was numb and I have trouble holding a pen.  I told her that this numbness is the reason for the physical therapy I am receiving, which is the reason I needed to reschedule my jury duty.

She was incredulous again. “Your hand is numb?”

I said yes.

The clerk then said the following:  “My hand is numb too.  I went to the doctor and he told me that I have a pinched nerve in my neck and that I would need surgery to fix my hand. But I’m scared of the surgery. I don’t want anybody cutting into my neck. I am 82 years old and I can’t stand that thought of going through something like that. I live with my daughter, and that’s my whole family.”

She paused.

I asked her when she first felt the numbness in her hand. She said “two weeks ago.”

I asked whether she knew of the danger of not taking care that numbness early on. She stated that she did not know this. I told her what my surgeon had told me. I told her that I was trying to see whether intense physical therapy would help bring back feeling to my hand without surgery. I asked her whether her doctor had offered her any physical therapy. She stated that he had, but she had not followed through. She again told me that she was scared to death about neck surgery. She asked me more about the surgery.  I explained that she would spend one night in the hospital and she’d need to wear a cervical collar for 6 to 8 weeks while the new bone healed.  I told her that she’d be on strong narcotics for several weeks following the surgery (because you can’t take NAISD’s such as aspirin or naproxen while you’re trying to get new bone growth). I told her that her neck range of motion would be somewhat limited if she had the surgery, but that she would eventually be able to do most of the things that she used to be able to do.

We talked for about 15 minutes about her worries. I was apparently telling her some things that she hadn’t really understood before. She told me that she would most definitely look into physical therapy immediately. I told her about the place where I was getting my PT, and how happy I was with the therapy they provided. She started smiling, and told me that she would try to get her therapy at the same place.

This was an 82-year-old woman who attacked me repeatedly when I first appeared at her window, but I outlasted her. To me, she appeared, at first, to be playing the role of a curmudgeonly clerk. From her perspective, I was just another one of those shiftless people trying to get out of jury duty for no damned good reason.  It took a bit of work, but we finally recognized the humanity in each other.

Before I left, we held hands through the little opening under her Plexiglas window, and she told me that it was a wonderful thing, perhaps predestined, that I would appear at her window.  She told me that she now felt much better about making some decisions to deal with her hand numbness.

I don’t believe that “everything happens for a  reason.”    It irritates me to hear people cherry-pick particular moments of their lives and annotate those moments with this all-purpose silliness.  Nonetheless, this belated connection with the grumpy clerk almost did seem orchestrated.  It was as magic as the emergence of the joyful strolling guitarists out of the darkness.   Because I am a skeptic, though, I don’t personify the reason why such moments sometimes happen. I simply enjoy them.

Epilogue:  The numbness continues to recede, bit by bit.  With some luck, it will recede completely.   I certainly  understand and respect that many of you simply cannot pray for me . .

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Category: Friendships/relationships, Health, Medicine, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (13)

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  1. Tony Coyle says:

    Erich

    Good luck with your PT, and surgery if it comes to that. I won't pray for you, but I will think of you.

    I'll also share with you that I've had a number of friends/colleagues with similar conditions who have all had very successful surgeries, and all are fully recovered.

    I do have two comments regarding coincidences and curmudgeonry.

    Coincidences do happen. As you and (many) others have said, we humans are pattern-matching creatures, so we take special note when we see apparent patterns in the chaos around us. You don't recall seeing musicians before, but would you necessarily recall that you had – if there was no special reason to do so? (no co-incidence that flagged your awareness into paying attention)? There is lots of literature to support this premise (of confirmation bias in co-incidence awareness) but I won't bore you with details – just google.

    Regarding curmudgeonly behavior – I suppose it is something we all fall into, because we do tend to stereotype people to some extent or other, especially in casual, semi-formal meetings.

    We simply don't have time to converse and discover our shared interest in phyllo pastry (?), or bonsai cultivation, or listening to music played on mongolian nose flutes! Instead our days are full of meetings that are, at root, mostly automatic. In such circumstances the reaction of the clerk is both predictable and, dare I say, expected (and one that you, I, or many others may have assumed in her shoes). The internal dialog is thus You are here during the day! Obviously you just want to avoid your civic duty, you shiftless wonder. You're a malingerer, that's what!

    I regret the pace of our times, and the relentless drive to 'do'. When do we get the time to sit and smell the flowers?

    Sometimes I think that's exactly what blogging (and commenting) are sublimating – our need to connect on a deeper level than the faceless role-based meetings and appointments that fill our days. That's why I think this particular social innovation will be around for a long time to come.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tony: You've focused in on what now seems to be the most important part of my meandering post. Yes, the clock pushes most of us along every day and it is so tempting to stay in our role (whatever that is) and to pidgeonhole others in the name of expediency, thereby locking out the possibility of meaningful interactions. Instead, we chose to act on the cartoon versions of ourselves and others. For some reason (perhaps because the clerk seemed REALLY outrageous to me) I decided that I wouldn't fight back. Rather, I would earnestly state my positions and see where it led (I had this luxury because the judge had the final say and he was already on my side). I also was curious as to what was driving the little verbal swords and daggers that were coming my way.

      Sure enough, my patience (or maybe it was my curiosity) paid off and the clerk opened up to me. It makes me wonder just how often it is that what seems to be outrageous anger is really a veil for insecurity, worry or some other facade for vulnerability. I thought this as she and I held hands through the hole in the plexiglass, a hand-holding that lasted about 10 seconds.

      Life too often moves at a crazy pace that deprives us of the chance to understand who other people really are, doesn't it?

      Now here's a crazy thought. I've often thought that IF I WERE A GOD, I would come down to earth, taking the form of ordinary people, including lots of people who were down and out. I would run this test to see just how often people, all of whom would carry my "spark" would mistreat each other. In fact, since I would often take the form of a homeless person, or someone missing a limb, or an old woman hunched over with osteoporosis, people would often ostracize ME. Those people ignoring me would include many church-goers who claimed in church that all human life is sacred. But when I (again, assume that I were God) was in my "common person" form hobbling about, I would see all the Holy Joes and Janes averting their eyes and walking quickly past me, categorizing me as someone who was not of any use to them.

      I don't believe in God, but I do think that the basis for morality is empathy, Buber's I-Thou. And I admit that I'm the guy that often walks on by, averting my eyes, but this time, I didn't. I could have barked back, but I didn't. Again, I'm not sure whether it was patience or curiosity (I sort of wanted to see how much more outrageous this woman's behavior was going to get). This particular time, I was rewarded for my patience. I came back home with happy memories of a touching connection instead of being pissed-off and ready to repeatedly tell my story about "that bitch clerk."

  2. Karl says:

    I will both think and pray about your pinched nerve and physical therapy.

  3. tmol says:

    you should have had the Judge initial where you changed the 8 to a 9.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I should have left it as "8" and tried to go back in time, somehow. That way I could have complied with the order and shifted around some of my investments at the same time.

  4. Stacy Kennedy says:

    I've been meaning for some time to post a comment thanking you for Dangerous Intersection. It's become my favorite blog.

    Thanks too for sharing these two charming anecdotes. And best of luck dealing with the pinched nerve, Erich.

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    As someone who has lost count of my Jury duty participations, I consider the whole exercise a violation of the spirit of the system. My many times going through voir dire convince me that "jury of his peers" means a group of people necessarily ignorant of the law, provably ignorant of any points of the case at hand, certifiably ignorant of any persons involved, and distinctly different in social class and economic standing than the primaries in the case. In product liability cases, one must also be ignorant of the laws of physics (I was removed from one for having an engineering degree).

    It is no wonder the clerks involved expect lame excuses, and even perceive lame excuses in perfectly valid reasons.

    Yet I find that a Dale Carnegie moment of sympathetic chat with normally surly clerks makes it easier for everyone. Try it the next time you are stuck at the Post Office, Jury Duty, or the DMV.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Dan: I agree with you. I think and hope that I've come away from this incident with a lesson learned, and not just a good story.

  7. Tony Coyle says:

    Erich:

    what seems to be outrageous anger is really a veil for insecurity, worry or some other facade for vulnerability

    Speaks volumes to those of us who have teenage children – and reminds us of how confused and insecure our own teenage years were.

    Anger is often justified (Karl might call it righteous anger). Spite and meanness of 'spirit' is never justified.

    Your 'if I were a god' sounds like the basis of groundhog day — to become human, we need to see everyone as human, including and especially those at the 'wrong end' of the bell curve.

  8. Karl says:

    Thank-you Erich for acknowledging your human nature regarding this matter.

    Human nature needs a new infusion of personal responsibility for their own culpability. Let he who is without sin call himself an evangelical, a fundamentalist, a secularist or an atheist.

    Again, thank-you Erich for being transparent, grace is at work in your life, where ever it is coming from.

  9. Mindy Carney says:

    I love this, Erich. See, I am very easily swayed to believe that some sort of force beyond what we understand caused all of that – I like to believe that something akin to magic exists in this world. She needed you, that very cranky woman did, and the power of that need pulled you in and inspired you to be patient – or curious.

    Or, it was a lovely coincidence, and you are to be commended for what you gave her that day.

    As for the strolling musicians, how lovely!! I can picture it – wish they'd have walked over our way. What a nice moment for you and Juju.

  10. Derek says:

    The song would have been nice if I didn't annoy me everytime I hear it because it is a harmonic rip of Joe Satriani's – If I could Fly.

  11. Ben says:

    Whenever my neck or back has a spasm, it is because I haven't been stretching my legs enough. You need to do it 5 or 6 times a day. All the large muscles (hams, quads, glut, calf). Also stretch your triceps and pectorals.

    You need to stop blogging, not that we don't all love and appreciate it, but so that you have a few less hours per-day sitting with your head cocked downward toward the monitor. This is for your health and your family and friends. I think that you should consider limiting your bike riding to a few days a week, and incorporate some other exercise instead, such as walking or swimming.

    Think about getting new pillows, and a new mattress. You deserve them. And you need them.

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