Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Health and/or wellness

The woman in the seat next to me is clad entirely in blue. Wide-legged denim pants, a loose denim jacket with white stitching, blue and white striped shirt, blue earrings. A blue handbag tucked between her feet. Only the scarlet nails make a daring bid for chromatic freedom, buoys in a harbour, a patriotic flourish. She is absentmindedly using the flight safety card as a fan. Suddenly, as though reacting to some inner shoulder-tap, she opens it, glancing up the aisle at the flight attendants. She dutifully scans the panels of faceless figures whizzing blithely down inflatable slides. She lingers for a while on the life raft deployment instructions, eyebrows raised slightly in feigned interest. One more furtive look up the aisle, and she snaps it shut again, fluttering it once more in front of her face.
Whew,’ she says. ‘They gonna turn the air on, or what?’

Her husband, sitting on her other side, is absorbed in the SkyMall magazine and doesn’t respond. She puts down the card, picks up her smartphone, holds it in her left hand. She licks her right index finger and starts swiping, effortfully, through blurry photographs of a small girl in pigtails, leaving smears on the screen.
‘She getting’ so big,’ she smiles.
‘Mmm hmm,’ says her husband, attention caught by the fully automated Grillbot, which is the easy, fun way to clean your grill.

She puts down the phone and dives for the magazine in the seat back pocket, like a gannet. She sits back and leafs through it rapidly. Struck by the full-colour ad on page 97, she informs her husband that she wants to go to the Bubba Gump shrimp restaurant the next time they’re in town.

‘The what? Bubblegum?’
‘Bubba Gump. From the movie. Run, Forrest, ruuuun. Oh, you know.’
He regards her blankly.
She changes tack. ‘Look, they got spicy lobster,’ she says. She jabs the advert. He obediently peers at the cartoon image of the smiling shrimp, pinned underneath her nail like a specimen.
‘Mmm.’ He’s interested. ‘Crab cakes look good too,’ he says, over his half-moon glasses.

The attendant arrives, teeth so white they’re almost blue, offering complimentary snacks. My neighbour asks for cookies and peanuts for the two of them. The flight attendant doles out the appropriate foil packages and glides out of view, snack box held majestically aloft beside her left ear, as though she were bearing, not a cardboard box with a few packets of crisps slumped insolently in the corners, but a silver platter bedecked with dates, figs, and the head of John the Baptist.

The woman opens her cookies, peers into the package suspiciously. Eats one.
‘I shoulda got the crackers,’ she says. ‘Honey. I shoulda got the crackers.’
Her husband, already having eaten most of his cookies, stops mid-chew. He swallows apologetically. ‘I guess we’ll know for the way home,’ he says.

They eat the rest of their cookies despondently.

When I next look up, she’s reading an ad for a health and wellness centre. Center. Not just health, but wellness too. Health and wellness must be distinct, though possibly overlapping, concepts. Can one be healthy, without being well? Well, but not healthy?

In Ireland, yes. ‘Well,’ stated in a flat, accusatory tone and accompanied by a nod and an eyebrow flash, means ‘Hello, how do you do?’ in parts of Munster and Leinster. No inferences about a party’s health are made on the basis of a reply in the affirmative. The more ecphonetic ‘Jaysus, are you well?’, delivered with a disbelieving lip-curl, approximates to ‘Some combination of aspects of your demeanour, utterances and conduct, present or immediately past, leads me to doubt your actual or potential capacity for rational thought.’

Yerra, she’s not well at all. But she’s not gawking or anything, like. She’s just not well in the head.

Health and wellness. Maybe it’s like rest and relaxation. Rock ‘n roll. Make ‘n do. Ant ‘n Dec. The two terms have the same referent, in contexts where they are used together, as a unified phrase. But the phenomenon in question sounds more robust when there are two concepts invoked to describe it, however interdefined they may be. Two feet, or the appearance of two feet, at least, planted squarely on the ground.

And perhaps their conjunction serves some other purpose, each term supplying something of what the other lacks to the emergent healthcare Gestalt.

Upon arrival at a mere health centre, you flinch, shielding your eyes from the flickering strip-lights with a forearm, as trolleys rocket past, screeching around corners two-wheeled, white-knuckled interns streaming from them like ribbons from a kite. You stumble backwards, out of the way, only to have your clothes yanked from your person by an unseen assailant. You stand dumb, arms obediently raised; you are a biddable, preposterously-large child; there are no lollipops.

A gown is crammed uncomfortably over your head. The cartilage of your ears bounces back up, surprised, embarrassed, furtive. The gown stands disdainfully off your skin, like a Chinese lantern. There is a cold draft: lowering your arms, you discover that your bare arse is exposed to the elements; but before you can do anything about it you are seized, manhandled onto a trolley, and portions of your viscera are fed, squidgily, through a writhing set of plastic tentacles, to some ravenous, seething, bleeping machine.

Quivering now, rheumy-eyed, you are shouted at by a doctor concealed behind a clipboard, before being pummeled for no obvious reason by an unspeaking orderly with the neck of a Soviet weightlifter, who proceeds to give you a violent enema, a clean bill of health, an invoice and a ballpoint pen advertising the latest Newspeak drug; an elevator-plunge of nausea when you see the bottom line; you swallow, say nothing. Sign here please ma’am. Your hand trembles, you have to grasp the pen in your fist like a crayon, you steady it with your other hand; you sign, two-handed; you are stirring a pot of paint with a stick; Jesus Christ, how did it come to this. A scrub-clad arm with a finger on the end of it is extended. Exit that way. Your clothes are in the dumpster in the parking lot. Have a nice day.

You stagger outside, knock-kneed, propelled by the stinging slap of the swing doors that lands reproachfully on your shivering, naked buttocks. You wail at the skies, tears and mucus streaming down your crumpled face; but your health is, at least, assured.

Wellness, on the other hand, sidles up to you like a pervy uncle at a barbecue, proffering terrycloth bathrobes, dog-eared magazines and close-up images of raindrops quivering at the tips of leaves. The smell of lavender. Wellness sounds like the rainforest. Or, rather, it sounds like what somebody who has never been to the rainforest before imagines that a rainforest might sound like, if it were sampled clumsily, doused in reverb, and then played on loop through a 1990s Panasonic ghettoblaster with a dented speaker cone: running water and rustling foliage, the occasional authenticating squawk, and intermittent buzzings of decidedly inorganic origin. Poorly-spelled treatments are advertised on signs printed in Papyrus typeface.

It’s hard to know what one can reasonably expect as an outcome of a stint in a wellness clinic, but the avowed goal, at least, is one’s ‘holistic wellbeing’. This is still a rather nebulous concept, but it appears to involve, somehow, smiling women with closed eyes, having their temples massaged next to orchids. Another component of holistic wellness makes reference in some way – again, the precise relation in question is not clear – to a naked woman lying face down in a Japanese pagoda with pebbles on her back. It is unclear whether I will, by virtue of a wellness treatment, find myself miraculously transported to Japan, my clothes having vanished in the teleportation process, conscious of the inevitable display of sideboob, with a heap of stones weighing me down like a foxed sheaf of scrap paper. Nobody seems to know. Wellness makes no promises – or, at least, no specific ones.

Wellness is not practical. It offers no diagnoses, no prescriptions, no machines, no real reassurance. Your best hope is that you will be patronized into rude health. But it serves a purpose, nonetheless. It cushions the corners of the steely clinic, dimming its fluorescent lights, burying its tumult under a polite avalanche of white noise, safely sheathing its scalpel edge.

And at least the enemas are consensual in a health and wellness centre.

My neighbour shifts in her seat, sighs. She rummages hopefully in her handbag, comes up short. Her husband looks up from the SkyMall magazine.

‘I sure could do with somethin’ salty now,’ she says.
‘We shoulda got the crackers,’ he intones, morosely.