In No Laughing Matter, the novelist Joseph Heller outed his friend Mel Brooks as a world-class hypochondriac. “He is the only person I’m acquainted with who subscribes to The Lancet,” Heller wrote. “Principles of Internal Medicine and Dorland’s Medical Dictionary are Mother Goose to him.” I grew up in a two-doctor home strewn with medical curiosities. Among my childhood toys were plastic models of inner ears, femurs, and gastrointestinal tracts. Every day, our postman delivered a stack of medical journals dense with text broken up by gruesome clinical photographs. Every morning while eating my Cheerios, I used the magazines as placemats, read the articles absentmindedly, and stole glances at repulsive skin conditions. When I left home to travel, the memory of those photographs kept me feeling healthy. When… More…

 

The boy had the kind of ears no human could possibly hope to grow into, and when he showed up at my restaurant table, just tall enough to mouth-breathe into the backside of my newspaper, I told him to eff off. I had become the anti-Mother Teresa in my first month in India. I knew from experience that if I gave a street kid food from my plate, it would lead to him asking for more food, money, and eventually, I feared, a piece of my soul. So I took to regularly telling the kids, beggars, and even the monkeys of Mysore to piss off while I was eating.

As the kid with the ears breathed on the other side of my paper, I read English-language personals to my friend Carly across the table. She was reading the… More…

Once, because I’m a sloppy packer, I almost poisoned myself to death by inserting a tampon covered in DEET insect repellant. It brought me the closest I have ever felt to death, and in those brief moments I believed I was entirely alone and dying in the most humiliating way a human had ever died.

I was studying religious archeology in India on a college study abroad program, and every day we woke up before sunrise at our university guest house, showered, and consumed a breakfast heavy in vegetables and clarified butter before we were bused to a temple. On the field trips we were completely unable to hear our low-talking Brahmin professor explain the iconography and distant gods that we were supposed to be memorizing for an upcoming test.

One day at a temple, students crowded close to our professor like a pack of puppies trying to suckle at… More…