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A different health standard

by Thomas Dillon

It was Friday the 13th. And two health officials showed up at our door.

Not doctors. Desk workers. With the unblinking gaze of brains on hold.

“You’re a 57-year-old male,” said one.

“You’re latest health check shows you have bum kidneys. You’d better watch yourself . . . while you still can.”

My son, who had answered the chime, tried to explain he was not 57.

“Our records say otherwise.”

So he summoned his mother, who argued back that the name on their papers merely read, “Dillon.”

“That could be anyone here,” she said.

They studied her closely and then responded, “Yes, but you’re not male. If this fellow’s not 57, who else could it be?”

And that is how I found myself sitting in a cluttered room at the health office with two officials, whom I now dub, “Doom” and “Gloom.” Gloom is bright-faced, but robotic. She thanks me for coming and apologizes for having dropped in when I wasn’t home.

“We did not mean to make you worry,” she says. “But that’s our job.”

“Right,” says Doom. She is taller, darker, denser. Her only moving parts are her lips. “On the chart behind me, you see three kidneys: a happy kidney, a nervous kidney and a kidney with nothing left to live for.”

All are illustrations. The first resembles a muscle-pumped Mr. Peanut, minus the top hat and monocle. The last looks like a bean that has just finished 12 bloody rounds with Manny Pacquiao. The center drawing is of a kidney torn between heaven and hell. He bites at his fingers and crouches as if expecting the sky to fall. Beads of sweat drop from his brow. “That,” says Doom, “is you.”

“Already you have the symptoms,” smiles Gloom. “Agonizing backache, frequent urination, foamy pee.”

“But I have none of those symptoms.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I don’t.”

Doom clears her throat. “May we remind you, Mr. Dillon, that we are highly trained government officials. If we don’t know your health, who does?” They back up their analysis with blood test results from my last physical checkup . . . six months prior.

“You should be thankful the government is keeping such close tabs on you. And your kidneys.” And I am. Truly. These things are nice to know, Big Brother jeebies aside.

“Yet why did you need six months?”

“These things take time. After all, people have two kidneys, not one. That’s double the paperwork.”

“But in the meantime, my condition might have deteriorated.”

Gloom nods. “It might have indeed. Do you have difficulty blinking? Icy cold extremities? Absence of breath?” I say, “No,” and she nods again. “Good. You haven’t died.”

I insist they re-check my data and Gloom agrees. She is a bureaucrat and this means more desk work. Rather than reluctance, I sense joy. She slides out of the room, leaving her coworker and I behind. I look Doom in the eye and ask, “What does all this mean?”

“Not so much,” she says. “Only that you’ll need to change your lifestyle drastically.”

She fingers a survey on eating habits that I completed at the time of my checkup.

“For one thing, it says here you never eat vegetables for breakfast. That must change.”

“But in America most people don’t . . .”

She cuts me off. “Tomatoes, lettuce, carrots — you’ll have to add those to your breakfast menu. Along with rice, fish and miso soup.”

“But I’m a Westerner and that’s not my typical breakfast.”

“Perhaps, but you need to focus on your kidneys now and your typical kidney loves a Japanese diet. All Japanese scientists agree.”

“And,” she goes on. “No more smoking.”

“But I only smoke about one cigarette every 10 years.”

“Well, you’ll have to give it up. Along with booze.” Now she’s getting serious. I begin to sweat like the kidney in the picture. But before she can say more, Doom is interrupted by Gloom.

“Interesting,” she says as she re-enters the room. “Yet there can be no doubt. According to the approved generic standards for average Japanese males of your age group, you are a full-fledged, borderline ‘Nervous Kidney.’ I only have one question.” She sits and asks, “Might you be Caucasian?”

The room echoes with silence. Until I answer . . . “Why, yes, I am.”

Gloom sucks her teeth. “Then it’s a case of good news and bad. The good news is that, according to North American figures for your blood totals, your kidneys are healthy.”

“And the bad news?”

“If you were not Caucasian, but instead a western lowland gorilla, your blood totals would have made you immortal.”

“So basically . . . I’m OK!”

“Yes, no more foamy pee!”

Gloom and Doom exchange high fives. “We’ve saved another one!” And when I leave, they bless me with about 500 bows.

All of this really happened, more or less.

And while sickness is nothing to joke about — and I will certainly watch my kidneys — the bureaucratic circus is always a fair target.

Because in Japan you must sometimes leap through hoops you didn’t even know existed.

I get foamy pee just thinking about it.