Like NASA before the first moon landing, I have been soliciting advice about what to say when I wake up from brain surgery. That's right, brain surgery--it's a real conversation stopper, isn't it? There aren't many things you can say these days that retain their shock value, but that is one of them. "So, Mike--got any summer plans?" "Why, yes, next Tuesday I'm having brain surgery. How about you?" In the age of angioplasty and Lipitor, even the heart has lost much of its metaphorical power, at least in the medical context. People are willing to accept it as a collection of muscles and blood vessels rather than--or at least in addition to--the seat of various emotions. But the brain remains the seat of the self itself in physical reality as well as in metaphor. And the brain as metaphor looms so large that there isn't much room left for the simultaneous physical reality that the brain is material, performs mechanical functions, can break down and sometimes can be repaired.
So brain surgery remains shocking and mystical. People don't expect to run into someone who's having brain surgery next week squeezing the melons at Whole Foods. (Unless, of course, he's squeezing them and shrieking, "Why don't you answer? Hello? Hello?") Self-indulgently, I've been dropping the conversational bomb of brain surgery more often than absolutely necessary just to enjoy the reaction. And why not? I deserve that treat. After all, I'm going to be having brain surgery.
Brain surgery is a license for self-indulgence. Cancel that dentist's appointment; you've suffered enough. (Though technically, before you go under, you haven't actually suffered at all.) Take out the trash? "C'mon, honey, I've got BRAIN SURGERY next week." Writers devote a lot of creative energy to dreaming up reasons not to write. One of the all-time best came recently from Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, who told her readers that she was going to stop writing the column for a while because her husband had become Defense Minister of Poland, and she was moving to Warsaw. Sure, Anne, and I'm taking the summer off because I'm having brain surgery. In Cleveland.
But it's true. The operation is called deep-brain stimulation (DBS). They stick a couple of wires into your head, run them around your ears and into batteries that are implanted in your chest. Then current from the batteries zaps some bad signals in your brain so that good signals can be heard by the rest of your body. When it works, as it generally does, it greatly reduces the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. I wrote in TIME 41/2 years ago about having PD and adopting a strategy of denial: pretending to myself and others that I didn't have it. By now my symptoms are past the point where dishonesty and self-deception are a useful approach. But maybe this operation will get me back there.