Yes, It Really Is Brain Surgery

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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.

As I write, surgery is a few days off. But you can assume, if you are reading this, that it went well. And thank you for your concern. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, brain surgery. Thinking I would give self-deception one more shot, I tried to convince myself that dbs isn't really brain surgery. They don't crack open your skull; they just drill a couple of small holes to put the wires through. Tiny holes. Itsy-bitsy holes. Teensy-weensy little holes. The propaganda they give you when you sign up for the operation describes the holes as "dime-sized." That took me aback. The dime, there's no denying, is a seriously undersized coin. But frankly, I wasn't thinking coins at all. I was thinking grains of sand. A dime is huge! The hospital printout of all the things you can't do afterward describes it as "major brain surgery." Is there minor brain surgery?

To an American middle-class professional of the 21st century, what is scariest about brain surgery isn't the ever present risk of disaster or even the chance of unexpected side effects. It's the danger that people will look at you differently. We are all brain snobs, and we are all—those of us over 20 or so—losing brain cells. But if you're walking around with wires in your head and batteries flanking your chest, every senior moment when you can't remember the term for, you know, when they drill holes in your skull—right, brain surgery—is ... is ... is ... well, it's going to seem significant to others and to you.

That's why my first words coming out of surgery are so important. They have got to tell the world—and convince myself—that I am all there. Of course, there are the obvious jokes about brain surgery ("Well, it wasn't exactly rocket science") and about those wires in my head ("Can you hear me now?"). There is Dada ("I am the Defense Minister of Poland. Who the hell are you?"). And slapstick ("I feel as if I've lost 10 pounds ... uh oh"). I'm still working on it.

Editor's note: Kinsley's surgery took place on July 12 and went fine. His first words were, "Well, of course, when you cut taxes, government revenues go up. Why couldn't I see that before?"