The Empathy Exams
On medical acting and real pain.
On medical acting and real pain.
A father's death, the nature of stories.
Discovering why we hurt.
Painful memories and strange reactions plague a man's series of online dates.
Imagine you felt like your skin was always on fire. Imagine you couldn’t even feel a bone break. The genetic link between those two extremes could hold the key to ending physical suffering.
Current personal problems are tied to racial issues from years past.
"Helen Conley knew this story: When Maxwell Conley was sixteen and in high school, with a bad attitude like many of us have, two young members of the Black Panther Party saved his life. It happened because a recent veteran of the war in Vietnam woke up one morning believing he was still in the jungle. Adrenaline began pumping through his body at impressive levels. He didn't have a gun, but he found an oak baseball bat in the alley behind his mother's apartment building. He laced up his combat boots. He stormed down the street until he came to the high school. He kicked open the doors of the school, and came through the hallway breathing hard, fists clenched around the bat. It was seventh period. The hallway was quiet. Around the corner came Maxwell Conley, cutting class as was his custom. He was not sober. He was wondering why Kay Svenson wouldn't pay attention to him in art class. He was admiring his long curly hair in the reflection of the fire extinguisher case mounted on the wall. His Converse sneakers flapped open and his unwashed sock came through. The Vietnam veteran, only a few years older than Maxwell Conley, met him in the hallway, and wasted no time."
The aftermath of a back alley operation.
" He was lying in a tub with a gash around his gut that looked badly sewn up and possibly infected. The stitching was so poor that it mirrored the seams on a homemade football done left-handed. Ugly zigzags. The tub was floating full of Pabst and Budweiser cans. No ice, just cans and lukewarm water the color of weak coffee doing the cooling."
A husband and father throws away old junk and painful memories.
"It's such a relief; I feel so wholesome, so pure, the toxins drained from my blood. I want to find more, so I dig up the shame of getting fired from my first job out of college. It's a nasty gray thing, like an old dried out iguana, hidden in a dark corner. As I pick it up, it begins to flake and crumble in my hands. I throw it into the dumpster like a football and it bangs against the metal wall. Then I find an ugly little puss-filled creature, looks like an over-cooked eggplant, my guilt for losing my temper and smacking my daughter once when she was five. I hold it far in front of me as I carry it out and chuck it in the giant metal bin. I dig up the anxiety about whether I'll make the next round of cuts at my job, the disappointment in myself for being a weak athlete in high school, and the remorse over not having spent more time with my dad toward the end of his battle with cancer, each thing strangely malformed and grotesque. I dump them all."
A series of hallucination-like memories in the aftermath of a car accident.
"The accident happened at sunset, so that is when I felt this way the most. The man I had met the week before was driving me to dinner when it happened. The place was at the beach, a beach on a bay that you can look across and see the city lights, a place where you can see everything without having to listen to any of it. A long time later I went to that beach myself. I drove the car. It was the first good beach day; I wore shorts."
In the wake of his grandmother's death, a young man struggles with intense bouts of anger.
"I'll describe the walls because that's easy — they were white, and I hurt my right pinkie knuckle-punching some of them while I walked through rooms searching for my car keys. My inability to find them frustrated me so badly that I beat up the bathroom door, limped away, and waved my fist at the plaster statue of Beethoven's head on top of the piano we never learned to play. After all that, I found the keys in a coat pocket I had already checked twice but somehow missed. I grabbed the video and made toward the back door, but on my way I noticed Sparkles cowering under the kitchen table, shaking, terrified of me. I hated myself a little extra, fed her a slice of manufactured cheese, patted her on the head, and took the back steps three at a time."
Small town acts of violence intersect with moments of despair and redemption.
"Roddy and I talked about it a couple of nights later in the lot of the Arby’s on route 15, and I told him that he was pretty damned lucky, after all. If he’d been cold-cocked by someone local it would have been all over the town in a matter of a week; since it was college kids who did it, all the locals could just say 'goddamn college kids' and forget it’d happened, and it wouldn’t come up again until someone got drunk enough to forget what they should and shouldn’t say. I don’t think I made him feel any better."
Sketches from the violent, troubled life of a Middle Eastern man.
"The boy’s name was Mokhtar, but no one ever called him anything but Chico. I first got to know him when he was fifteen. He had grown up healthy and handsome. His pockets were always stuffed with money, and that was what was special about him. His life consisted of sitting in cafes, day and night, and he learned to drink alcohol and to sleep with whores. He was generous and goodhearted, but if he got angry he could be dangerous, and he often got angry when he was drunk. When Chico was seventeen his aunt died, leaving him her bank account, three houses and a bakery in the city, and a big farm out in the country. He began to give large parties, buying great quantities of food and drink for many friends, and spending even more on girls."
Escalating competitions between two boys take an unexpected turn.
"Most of my losses, though, were at the hands of the son, Jimmy Knockwood Jr. Two years older than me, Jimmy wore a hint of Iroquois aristocracy in his cheekbones, and some part of his body was usually sheathed in a dirty plaster cast. He beat me at every sport we had equipment for. At 13, he had arms like a man and could throw a baseball with such force that after playing catch with him you couldn't turn a doorknob. Once, when we were wrestling, he put me in a choke hold that made my vision go white. I cursed Jimmy's mother, and he rubbed a toad into my teeth. Seeing me in tears afterward, my father asked why I put myself through the disgrace of playing with Jimmy. He had forgotten the infatuation a boy has no choice but to feel for a peer who is good at everything."
The hungry, woozy thoughts of a young hitchhiker.
"The time since our last bath has made us smell completely wanton, like we’re bad apples. That is why I am not allowed to faint, no matter how hungry I get. If I swoon, there won’t be help. My body will not be held in arms until it can be laid gently among the reeds. Rather, my skull will split against, and brains will spill great fountains on the sidewalk. The crowd will continue, too busy to observe the tableau by their feet. If anyone hears my splash, they’ll see the dark sky and be convinced that it’s somehow got to do with rain."
An abstract observation of a man on life support.
"The contract was spongy white yellow and was held by a paper clip and smelled of musk and told her to unplug them no matter what. He had wanted it that way. She too. But now here she was three sweaters down and two pairs of striped socks snug and warm against a niece’s fourteen-year-old cream calves and her drink resting on his chest sweating itself to dilution."
An isolated young boy engages in strange hobbies and interactions.
"The garage still dark, Gerald found the stepladder. He climbed the second step, reached up, and yanked the chain. The single bare bulb lit up. He stepped down, pushed the small ladder against the workbench, then climbed back up and clambered onto the chipped wooden bench. One by one he unscrewed the dusty glass jars, each held onto a shelf by a single nail driven through their lids. Gerald fingered the contents of the jars: short screws, long screws, shiny silver and dull gold screws, tiny square nuts that threaded onto some screws and not onto others--"
An invitation to Timbuktu; an attempt to push away life's problems.
" Here, do not think about the past; do not worry about the future. Instead, think only of the present. Of the brilliant shining sun. Of the opalescent waves. Of the bleached rolling dunes in the distance. Let yourself fade away. Enjoy the weather of Timbuktu.……Walk across the island. Notice how the temperature is exactly what you’d want it to be if someone asked you. Do not think about how no one ever asks you—about anything. How most things occur against your will. Instead, realize that throughout Timbuktu, the temperature varies from 64° to 95°."
A troubled mother and daughter spend their first day in Los Angeles.
"I wonder what we looked like then, that day we drove over into California. My mother could probably still tell you what we wore. We were driving to California from Bay City, Wisconsin, just the two of us, so I could be a television star. We'd taken Ted's Mobile Credit Card and stayed in motels, charging gasoline and Cokes on the bills. We dug up to our shoulders in the ice chests, bringing the cold pop bottles up like a catch. We'd stolen vegetables all across America, anything we could eat without cooking. My mother spotted the trucks."
A woman mourns and reflects on a suffering romance.
"I resolved to stay mute on my walk to work. But then I saw a man wearing your green cap, and I called for you. The sidewalks echoed. When he turned I saw he was somebody else. His smile was too white, his eyes too blue. He was too young and his face too square. Everybody stared. I fled. I told myself to stop the wishful thinking. But eight more times it happened. Eight more times I called you because eight men had clothes or gaits or napes like you."
The mishaps and growth of an accident-prone child.
"But Oliver had come late in their little pack of offspring, at a time when the challenge of child rearing was wearing thin, and he proved susceptible to mishaps. He was born with inturned feet and learned to crawl with corrective casts up to his ankles. When they were at last removed, he cried in terror because he thought those heavy plaster boots scraping and bumping along the floor had been part of himself."
For over one hundred years, a malicious supercomputer named AM has enslaved five tortured survivors who look for a way out.
"Oh, Jesus sweet Jesus, if there ever was a Jesus and if there is a God, please please please let us out of here, or kill us. Because at that moment I think I realized completely, so that I was able to verbalize it: AM was intent on keeping us in his belly forever, twisting and torturing us forever. The machine hated us as no sentient creature had ever hated before. And we were helpless. It also became hideously clear:If there was a sweet Jesus and if there was a God, the God was AM."
A story about the tortured life of 1910s ballplayer Morrie Rath.
"Morrie's 1920 season is awful. He's sent back to the minors for a little while, then to the Pacific league, and then it's over. He will never have another World Series at-bat. He will never know what it's like to really be the best in the world."
In the midst of unspoken emotions, a horseback riding trip goes terribly awry.
"And he was right, it did, but I kept on talking and soon I was telling him about the pain in my mouth and the back of my head and what Billy had done that day in the barn, and the ghosts I carry with me. Blood was coming out with the words and pieces of tooth, and I kept talking till I told him everything, but when I looked at his face I knew all I’d done was make the gap wider with the words I’d picked so carefully that he didn’t want to hear."
A wounded WWI soldier reflects on the absurdities of battle.
"Men were more humane when they were killing each other than when they were talking about it. So was civilization nothing but a vast edifice of sham, and the war, instead of its crumbling, was its fullest and most ultimate expression. Oh, but there must be something more in the world than greed and hatred and cruelty. Were they all shams, too, these gigantic phrases that floated like gaudy kites high above mankind?"
Two parents react to their child's accidental scalding.
"The Daddy was around the side of the house hanging a door for the tenant when he heard the child's screams and the Mommy's voice gone high between them. He could move fast, and the back porch gave onto the kitchen, and before the screen door had banged shut behind him the Daddy had taken the scene in whole, the overturned pot on the floortile before the stove and the burner's blue jet and the floor's pool of water still steaming."