Monday, October 31, 2011

"Reasons and Remedies"

I am on to something big in the “Ideas Department”, but I’m not quite ready to call a press conference, and blow people’s minds. For the moment, I remain content to nibble around the edges, monitoring the situation carefully. Stay tuned, however. It could be a earth-shaking.

My general thesis is that the things we believe – and I mean pretty much everything – relate less to fact than to a visceral need for reassurance. Little to nothing is verifiably provable as “right”. Instead, we simply agree as a culture that it’s right, so we don’t have to think about it anymore, and we can move on with our lives.

In that way – I will someday propose – the secular person’s reliance upon reason for acceptable answers is not significantly different – and maybe not different at all –from religious people who receive their acceptable answers through the avenue of faith. They may both, I am suggesting, be made up, differently generated but equally comforting fairy tales that we unquestioningly accept, so we can sleep more easily in our beds.

Okay, back down to earth.

“SPOILER ALERT”: If you don’t want to know what it’s like to get old, please skip the following sentence.

Getting old is incredibly stupid.

When you get old, without any warning or red flag whatsoever, parts of your body, out of nowhere, begin to malfunction, and you have no idea why, though, due of our, by now, reflexive reliance on reason, that does not stop us from trying to figure it out. (The religious alternate track explanation is, “It’s God’s will.”)

Former, now over fifty, SNL regular Dana Carvey, did a bit about this on his HBO comedy special:

“Ow! I hurt my back!”

“What happened?”

“I took a nap!”

Now most likely – and don’t press me about what I mean by that, because the entire area of probability is beginning to unravel on me – Carvey’s taking a nap had nothing to do with the newly discovered problem with his back. The two occurrences were simply time-connected. Carvey took a nap and when he woke up, his back was hurting. This seems to be a situation in which the perceived-to-be reliable logic process breaks down.

“I ate a radish.”

“My cold went away.”

“Radishes make colds go away.”

(Unless radishes, in fact, do make colds go away, the limitations of logic are herein glaringly exposed.)

Two things happening one directly after the other does not necessarily mean the first thing caused the second one. But how else to explain Carvey’s back problem? It happened during the nap!

Okay, forget Carvey. Let’s talk about me.

Recently, I experienced a debilitating cramp in my right calf. I was walking back from a very pleasant lunch with a rising, young commercials director, originally from Toronto. (Our families had known each other for years.) Though indisputably retired, I nonetheless – arguably because I was indisputably retired – wanted to appear still vital and not at all falling apart. That plan came crashing to the ground, however, when I almost did, my cramping calf suddenly giving out, requiring me to lower my now inadequately supported body onto a convenient resting spot, before continuing our journey back home.

What happened to my calf? I have no idea. Being unwilling – or unable – to exist without an explanation, however, I concluded that I had overdone my exercise regimen, having, the day before, walked a mile to meet a friend for dinner, after having treadmilled rather vigorously for two-and-a-half miles earlier that same morning. As explanations go, it was pretty weak tea, but that’s all I had, and I – maybe we all do, you might let me know about that – seemed to need to believe something.


Remedies are “reasons” at the other end. If “reasons” posits the cause of a malady, “remedies” posits the cure. However, often, especially as you get older, that cause is frustratingly frequently unknown. Equally frustratingly frequently unknown, quite often also, is the remedy.

At least it was with my calf problem. And here’s why.

In properly administered science experiments, the researchers isolate one specific and clearly delineated factor, and they study it intensely. This is a yucky example, but when I was in college, I recall hearing cat screams emanating from the laboratory adjacent to our lecture hall. When I inquired about the yowling, I was informed that brain scientists were studying which parts of the cats’ brains related to which motor functions by systematically removing tiny sections of their brains, and seeing if the cats could still perform the function. If they couldn’t, they concluded that the sliver of brain they had just removed was responsible for that function.

Disgusting, but that’s how you do things scientifically (or at least that’s how they did them back then.) On the other hand, there ‘s me, doing whatever I can think of to relieve the throbbing agony in my calf.

I try ice. I try heat. I try Vicodin (a pain reliever and, hopefully, though it is not listed as such, a muscle relaxant.) I try the Thera-cane, a curved, wooden contraption with numerous knobs on it recommended by my gym trainer for releasing spasmy “trigger points.” I try rubber “bongers”, to “bong” my knotted calf into submission. I press my leg down on a shiatsu-endorsed little pink ball. And then, after Googling “leg cramps”, Dr. M encourages me to try…

Pickle juice.

Which I drank, rejecting, however, the also suggested teaspoonful of mustard.

I subsequently purchased an “Active Sports Massager” from Brookstone, and resumed taking magnesium, which I had stopped because I’d gotten tired of taking it, and went back to because I was informed that magnesium was helpful with leg cramps in old people.

Shortly thereafter…

My calf spasm started to recede.


Because of one of those nine remedies.

Or the, simultaneous, staying off my leg.

Or the rehabilitating passage of time.

Some combination of some or all of them.


None of the above. It got better by itself.

Did I have any inclination to conduct a carefully controlled experiment, methodically trying one remedy after the other, until I discovered which, or which combination, of the nine definitively solved the problem?

Stop it! I was in excruciating pain.

The outcome?

I began feeling better

And I had no idea why.

Just like I have no idea why I got the cramp in the first place.

Logical explanations?

They are reassuring and comforting.

But it’s possible, I’m beginning to think,

That they have nothing to do with anything.

("He's losing it, Margaret. It's just a matter of time.")


Dimension Skipper said...

I often have these same types of philosophical "science vs religion" internal debates, so that makes this post (for me) an Earl Hall of Fame post.

Ironically (and perhaps Halloweenishly spooky too which makes it doubly ironic), my word verification is "match."

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; why do we want answers to everything when clearly there are somethings for which an answer is impossible?


Brian Fies said...

The big difference between reason and religion is that reason leads to replicable results and consistent principles about how the world works that matches closely with what we might lightly call "reality" (which Philip K. Dick defined as that which doesn't go away even when you stop believing in it. Such as aging. And death). Transcendental yogis may or may not be able to fly, but when they really need to get someplace they still hop on a science-built 747.

Mac said...

More like; “Ow! I hurt my back!” “What happened?”
“I got old!”

We're "fastened to a dying animal" as Yeats put it, the miserable old bugger. I prefer "It's God's Will" - I don't believe it, I just prefer it.

Frank said...

I thought in California almost all ailments could be cured by a prescription of medical marijuana.