Phlegm

Jesse Bull '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

There was an old Person whose habits,
Induced him to feed upon Rabbits;
When he'd eaten eighteen, he turned perfectly green,
Upon which he relinquished those habits.
&mdash Edward Lear

My mother tells me that I used to spit food at people in restaurants. I once spit part of my half-chewed hamburger at some guy in the booth next to us at McDonald's. That's the kind of habit people generally outgrow. They stop sucking their thumbs and eating things from their noses.

But some of us don't. I still trim my fingers orally or manually: manually to start the process and orally for the finer touches when the nails get so amputated as to lose their effectiveness against their counterparts on the other hand. One of my college roommates still eats boogers. He has some kind of salt deficiency. He sprinkles salt on his steaks as if he envisions the dead cow as a snail he never managed to kill as a child. He's not the type of kid who would've killed a snail as a child.

Boogers are salty, and he eats them without shame. Presentable clothing, regular showers, and dental hygiene all fall into his definition of the Social Convention. As does not picking one's nose and eating the contents. "Yeah, sure, you guys don't eat your boogers," he says with a tone assuming our embarrassment upon having a secret ritual exposed. He really thinks he's just doing something natural, something that people hide — something private like defecation.

The mucus in your nose collects dust and noxious materials — maybe even fecal matter floating through space — so it can't get in your lungs. Your body doesn't want this stuff to enter. The little black hairs called cilia move the clumps of mucus and dirt forward or to the back of the throat. In the former case you can blow your nose; in the latter, you can spit. My friend removes the gooey morsels and stuffs them into another orifice. They taste great.

But who am I to judge? I still spit. It's a disgusting habit. Mostly I spit at times like right now. I'm sitting on my porch, and I'm sick. I've reached the point in my illness where, in my father's words, "I'm coughing like a dog." It's a loose, deep cough, but it means you're getting better. It brings up a lot of phlegm. You get rid of the phlegm because it contains unhealthy things. You must avoid swallowing the dirty mucus at all costs, making situations calling for propriety especially uneasy when you're sick with this kind of cough. Sometimes you just have to swallow the stuff down. Sometimes it can get you in trouble.

During the November of my senior year, we were having a party at my house. I, having a proclivity at the time to burst out into sudden fits of semi-violent rage under the influence of just the right amount of beer and liquor (not exactly exemplary of the phlegmatic character as defined by medieval medicine), became a bit belligerent. It was not my fault. I insist to this day on that point. It was not even the fault of the liquor or the beer. I must blame the entire incident on my natural tendency for expectoration caused by (a) 6 years at an all-boys prep school in the South and (b) a case of chronic mucus — a nasal drip that intermittently acts up to a severe degree mornings and after physical strain — of course, only amplified by cold weather. This affliction was the official diagnosis of a physician.

Under the influence of these factors, I spit a lot. Mostly on the grass or the sidewalk. Rarely at humans and never at animals.

It doesn't matter why, but this guy pushes my little brother who was visiting for the weekend. I come up from downstairs to see my skinny 16-year-old brother pushed by this gigantic, drunk nineteen-year-old water polo player. My 16-year-old brother does not drink and was not drinking at the time. He was standing around dead sober probably completely stunned by the behavior of all of these drunken strangers . . . these kids 3 or 4 years older than he and yelling and screaming and dancing all over the place. He was maybe just trying to act natural in all this craziness — as if he'd seen it before. For whatever reason, the guy pushes my brother. I grab him, and, after a bit of a scuffle, manage to remove him from our home.

Unfortunately, being intoxicated, and a bit choleric, I did not have the patience to tolerate this young man's sitting on my porch and talking on his damn cell phone. He's sitting there yelling into his cellular phone about, "These bastards totally over-reacted at this party because I barely touched this kid." So, naturally, I open the door, much to the chagrin of my more balanced friends, and unleash a colorful tirade of this general hue: "Get the fuck off my porch, you son-of-a-bitch . . . I don't give a shit, It's my porch. Get the hell out of here."

And then, at some point in our exchange, as I'm standing with my back against the front door and he's facing me on the second or third step of the porch, I decided that something drastic had to be done. I quickly appealed to the submandibular saliva gland in the back of my throat and landed a nice one directly on my adversary's chest. Someone helped me up a few seconds later. My assailant had already fled half way down the street. I put a package of frozen peas against my head. I don't think I was ever really unconscious, but my memory remains completely blank for those few seconds during which he was mercilessly pounding my skull with his gigantic fists.

Smoking has a lot in common with eating boogers. It puts a lot of dust and noxious materials in your body that your nose tells you to reject. In addition to its many side effects (including cancer), it makes you want to spit. As I come to the end of my college career, I have decided to quit smoking (although my habit was never really that bad).

I love when people tell me that smoking is "bad for you because it causes cancer." They know that I know this. They say it in such a way as to imply, "This is so obviously stupid. Let me remind you of this common fact that proves what you are doing is completely irrational and against the very basic biological instinct for survival and procreation. Maybe, if you hear it enough, you'll take it to heart." Sometimes I like to answer, "Yeah, I know. My dad died of lung cancer." He died after struggling six years, on and off. That usually makes them say something like, "Oh sorry." Secretly they might be thinking — wow, this guy is really dense or wow, that stuff really is addictive, isn't it — or, "Why the hell did he say something like that. Jesus Christ." But they also feel genuinely bad and perhaps reconsider the next time they decide to state the obvious.

My father started smoking when he was nine. He quit before I was even born, but I guess the damage had already been done. A lot of damage had been done. I read a section of my father's rough autobiographical sketches where he explains the heroin-induced sensation of having bugs crawling under your skin. You imagine that microscopic creatures have burrowed their way into the flesh near where you've injected the drug. You scratch away at the skin and poke at it with dirty needles until you realize what horrible damage you're doing as your arm bleeds and no bugs emerge. When the doctors searched his body years later for veins to draw blood for some cancer tests, the only places they could find any veins worth a damn were in his feet and in his toes.

Death loves irony as far as I can tell (isn't there a saying to that effect?). A Rolling Stone article came out about my father when he left rehab. " 'There was even a death rumor going around when Richard Farina died,' he said. 'It was crazy. I was killed in a motorcycle accident in Turkey. I had OD'd somewhere. I was dead in Vietnam. Every college I played, people'd come up and say, 'Hey, I thought you were dead.' And it came just at the worst time. I was staring death in the face every day, and that made me wake up.' " So, he woke up and didn't even touch a beer or a glass of wine for twenty years. He went to AA meetings every week. And then he gets a tumor; they remove part of his lung; he goes through chemo; he gets better; he gets worse; the cancer spreads to his vertebrae; he has another surgery. But when the headmaster walked into my American Government class and told me I had to get down to the hospital, it was because my father had caught pneumonia. That's what killed him. He didn't even have the strength to cough.

According to Reutershealth.com, infectious agents reach the lungs and cause pneumonia through different routes:

My girlfriend just came over while I was trying to write this paper. She picked up a glass from my desk. I was too late in warning her not to look. I've been keeping that glass on my desk to spit into. As I said, I've been sick, and now the cough has reached a painful stage. My throat feels raw when I swallow and really throbs when I cough. I don't know what the hell my dad was talking about with that "Coughing like a dog" stuff anyway. Days ago I was coughing like a dog and spitting like a llama. I should be better now, but I've got to keep a glass on my desk and next to my bed when I sleep to fill with phlegm and mucus. If I'm in the middle of a thought and suddenly cough up a bunch of viscous refuse from somewhere in the back of my throat or squeeze it out with a sort of grimaced gag reflex, it's nice to have that cup around.

Anyway, I couldn't help remembering her suggestion a few weeks ago when I told her I couldn't think of anything to write about for this assignment. "I wonder if anyone's ever written a really graphic sex scene for a school paper?" "Probably," I said. My film professor once received a student project that gave visual instructions on How to Perform Vaginal Fisting. I find death to be the more interesting subject in literature.

I remember every once in a while, while driving, my father would make a lot of noise drawing up some deep-rooted phlegm that must have been building up for a while and then send a thick yellow mass of the stuff out the window.

My high-school headmaster told me, after he died, that "I think it was Sigmund Freud who said, 'The most important day of a man's life is the day his father dies.'" Those words have haunted me ever since. It makes sense, but shouldn't we be able to decide that kind of thing for ourselves? But no — here I am trying to find a link between some drunken event in 2004 and my father's death four-and-a-half years earlier.

From time to time, we have a "Running of the Bull" at my college house. At the end of a debaucherous night, everyone with the courage lines up at the foot of the staircase. I stamp my feet against the ground, grunting and shaking my head. The runners push jostle for positioning. Someone counts . . . 1 . . . 2 . . .3. And they're off. I give two seconds head start and then charge after them, bringing them down like so many bowling pins as I pursue the head runner before he makes it to the third floor.

For years, my closest friends have called me the "Raging Bull." Considering that (a) I went to an all male prep school in the south and (b) I have a little brother, I tend to play a little rough. At some point, I began to worry that I might hurt somebody sometime maybe. By accident.

And then I got bashed across the head. It was the first time I had ever really gotten into a fight (albeit a completely one-sided scuffle).

And it kept hurting . . . in my temples for a month and 6 weeks and 2 months and didn't seem to be going away and sometimes seemed to be getting worse. I think I was more tired than usual. On top of that I had no idea what a brain tumor or a brain hemorrhage might feel like. How the hell do you know what a brain tumor feels like. Surely at some point it begins to hurt terribly, and maybe you start going completely nuts, but at that point it must be too late.

And to think that it was just because I spit at this guy that I might have a brain tumor and die all of the sudden. I seemed to notice a difference when I was reading and writing papers, some kind of deficiency in comprehension and coherency.

I thought at one point about this story that a kid wrote in my 9th-grade English class. I don't remember it that well, but I do remember that we all gave him a hard time because, in the story, the protagonist or someone gets smacked in the head by some crazy mast or something on a sailboat (because in a storm all of those ropes and bars are always flying around like crazy and when the waves are really crashing over the sides it's hard to really see something like that coming) and, as a result, naturally, this guy develops a brain tumor and probably dies. But we all know tumors come slowly and mysteriously. Nobody gives you a tumor. Maybe if scientists are doing some wacko experimental testing with radioactive materials in your town or you use a cell-phone too much, you might get a tumor, but not from some blunt object. Not from some crazed, drunk bufoon.

When my father died, I wrote this poem that we put in the little pamphlet we made for the service held in our front yard next to this gigantic beech tree. I think it was a villanelle. For some reason, that form fascinated me. I think the sheer technical difficulty involved in the structure could give badly chosen words some sort of unearned weight. I have to cringe when I think back on that poem. I don't know if it was a selfish act to have tried to get some compliments that day or what. What makes me cringe though is that the poem was just so terrible and that I could even have considered sharing such a piece of shit with all the mourners that day. And that memory taints what should be a purely depressing, sad, and beautiful moment in my life. Even worse, on a different page were some words in my father's handwriting off of a scrap of paper we found somewhere in his studio. They were dark and meaningful, and it turns out they were taken from some kind of 12-step literature. But they were better off without that poem.

A bolt of lightning completely destroyed that tree a few years later. The tree fell and crushed my dad's red 1957 El Camino.

My father's ashes sat on our mantle for a few years. It's sort of an odd ritual to put a dead family member's burnt up remains over a fire-place. A rather tasteless joke if you ask me. We eventually decided to get rid of them so we treated ourselves to a nice vacation to St. Bart's — a tiny, exclusive island in the French West Indies and one of my father's favorite places in the world. There are a lot of regulations concerning the transportation and disposal of cremated remains.

The website of the Transportation Security Administration reads:

Carry-on: You are allowed to carry-on a crematory container, but it must pass through the x-ray machine. If the container is made of a material that prevents the screener from clearly being able to see what is inside, then the container will not be allowed through the security checkpoint.

Checked Baggage: You may transport the urn as checked baggage provided that it is successfully screened. TSA will screen the urn for explosive materials/devices using a variety of techniques; if cleared, it will be permitted as checked baggage only.

NOTE: Some airlines do not allow cremated remains as checked baggage so please check with your air carrier before attempting to transport a crematory container in checked baggage.

As I remember, we simply taped up the urn, placed it in a carry on backpack, and presented the proper officials with certain documentation authorizing the transport of said dead father's ashes.

On the island, we rented a boat and drove out off the coast. It was windy, and the water was a bit choppy. Everyone threw some of the ashes over the side of the boat, except my little brother. The wind blew some of the ashes back at our faces — a funny and cathartic situation. I have written about this experience on one other occasion, in a personal memoir for a non-fiction writing course. However, either subconsciously or intentionally, in order to maintain a certain tone, I left out one important detail. Some of the ashes actually got into my mouth, and I had to spit them out into the ocean.

***Now that I think about it, I've actually been hit twice for spitting on people. When I was in 9th or 10th grade, my friends and I were passing by this stairwell where some younger kids from the lacrosse team were waiting to get their pads or jerseys at the beginning of the season. I yelled at this temperamental kid named Buck. "Hey, Buck." He looked up as a wad of my saliva landed on his forehead. He was short and stocky with a face full of puss and pimpled from a hormone overload. It was a joke, and when I saw him the next day outside of my Biology classroom in the basement near the gym and the vending machines, he extended his arms to give me a hug, as if to say, "Nice one, man. You got me. No hard feelings." But as we embraced, he kneed me hard in the balls. I worried for a long time about whether I could still have kids.

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Last modified 12 May 2005