The Heroin-Ivy Itch, Revisited

I have no heroes. I’m not mad at people who do. I’ve just always, since I was a little kid, considered the concept silly. Maybe by elementary school I’d already known too many athletes whose mistreatment of fellow human beings seems more significant than any cool thing they can do in a cute sports outfit. Maybe I really am more insightful and honest than folks who fawn over politicians. Maybe I’m not smart enough to understand why writers and artists and academics deserve worship.

Don’t misunderstand: I’ve been at least as hero-silly as I claim to have distaste for being. I sometimes clumsily try to connect with musicians and other artists whose work moves me enough to believe I get it more accurately than anyone else possibly can. I’ve sent awkward messages to folks whose ways of going about life I admire and feel connection with. I generally struggle to feel like I connect with people, and that gets pretty lonesome. Then I mostly withdraw from interactions I assume will feel superficial or frustrating or embarrassing. There are folks I really like and know fairly well and dread spending time with because of how inadequate I feel around them and how hung up I get on my self-perceived inability to be exactly who and how I want to be in their presence. Then sometimes, when it seems like a connection might be possible or present, I lumber and barge beyond reticence with great gushes of wordy emotiveness in attempts to share vulnerable parts of myself. I always regret those overtures. I’m blushing right now thinking about a few. They probably come across as really weird and maybe kind of sad to the folks who have to endure them. It might also be true that a lot of what experience tells me is true about any of that exists only inside my own head.

I admire a lot of people. Some of them know it. Some of them don’t. I hope Jason Cork does. He might not, because even when he lived in Duluth I never really made much effort to hang out with him other than going for runs sometimes, and since he’s been gone, traveling the world while coaching elite Nordic skiers at places like the Winter Olympics, I seldom initiate contact with him. Even when he’s in town I too often don’t accept his offers to grab a beer or run some trails.

Cork means a lot to me in ways that get manifested almost exclusively by me telling other people how cool and admirable I believe he is. If I had heroes he’d be one. He works harder, has more fun, finds and creates more opportunities, and has more of certain sorts of elegance and courage than almost anyone I know. He’s one of my favorite human beings. I wish I’d have had some of his foresight and resourcefulness when I was a younger man. I hope to be more like him when I grow up.

He sent me a Facebook message recently. Because I’m trying to get better at listening to people whose perspectives are wiser than mine — and because I believe in providing valuable public services when I can — I’m going to follow the message’s advice:

Do you still have a copy of your I-got-poison-ivy story?

I usually read PDD’s Saturday essays, and (if you’ve recently been thinking, “damn, I want to do another one of those, but I can’t think of a topic, so hopefully someone will barge in and tell me what to do”), I think you ought to reprint that AND write about how that’s stood up.

I remember thinking that story was hilarious — and I’ve paraphrased it tens of times to people — but one thing that stands out to me is the part about how you could commiserate with an opioid addict. [Note: I haven’t read that in years, so I may have some details wrong.] At the time, at least to me, heroin use was something from “Trainspotting” and that was it. Obviously, things have changed.

The “I-got-poison-ivy story” he’s referring to is a Ripsaw News adventure-section piece that was published in 2000. Probably in November or December, but I did a poor job of keeping a portfolio of Ripsaw clips so I don’t know for sure. I did save an MS Word copy of the story’s text.

I already had some topics in mind. I’ve got two drafts I could have readied for this week: one’s a tear-jerker about the toughest dog I’ve ever known; the other starts with the sentence, “I still love the Professor,” then ineptly tries to explain what music means to me. I’m following Cork’s advice because in addition to believing he knows what he’s talking about I believe the piece can A. maybe give folks who are feeling grim about sub-zero weather something to chuckle at; and 2. provide a reminder that even when temperatures are balmy, danger lurks.

I don’t know if the story stands up in anyone’s mind other than Cork’s. I think some of it’s OK. My 29-year-old voice looks and sounds weird to me. So far I’ve resisted seductive urges to revise some parts and annotate others. We’ll see how that goes.

Anyway, here’s the piece:

The Heroin-Ivy Itch, Part 1

When the head of my penis disappeared, I became concerned. I knew where it was — it hadn’t fallen off or vanished, Harry Potter-style — I just didn’t like where it had gone.

(A brief cautionary note: this story only gets more graphic. If you’re already offended, stop reading. But if you can tolerate tales of bodily function gone vile, if anecdotes about other people’s mistakes boost your self-esteem, or if you simply gravitate toward any piece of writing that includes the phrases “agonizing rash,” “massaging one’s ass and genital region,” and “weeping through my khaki cutoffs,” carry on.)

It all started on an August Thursday not too long ago, when Guy, Hansi, Hex and I went for a Minnesota Point jog. We started at the Duluth Rowing Club boathouse and headed toward Sky Harbor Airport, where we left blacktop for a sandy trail that winds through towering pines and occasional clearings filled with low, scrubby foliage.

“Stay on the trail,” said Hex. “All those plants on either side of the trail are poison ivy.”

Almost a couple miles in, close to the old Minnesota Point lighthouse, the trail passes a concrete ruin that was once a U.S. Lighthouse Board buoy depot. We stopped. Guy and Hex poked around, venturing far into the cavernous room, toward a pie plate-sized hole in the opposite wall. Soon, they crept back toward us, eyes wide and faces red. In a whispered scream, guy squeaked out, “Holy shit! You guys have to look through that hole!”

But I digress. That incident is truly another story — the Heroin Ivy Itch Part 2.

We kept running till we reached the Superior entry to St. Louis Bay. While we wandered along the pier, I suddenly realized I needed to … uh … see, my stomach … I mean … I had to take a dump. (I’ve written about this need before; it’s tough to articulate with grace. But again, I digress.)

Like I said, I had work to do. Immediately. I notified the other guys, then jogged back down the pier, up the trail a few strides, and into the bushes. I did my business, grabbed some leaves from the one plant that didn’t look like poison ivy, and emerged just as the fellas were starting back. Guy found a crisp, folded $20 bill. We parked at the Tot Lot and cooled off in The Lake. Guy treated us to Bulldog pizza with his windfall. Everyone went home.

Friday, my ass was a little itchy. Nothing outside my many leaves-as-toilet-paper experiences, but I had a lot of trouble sitting still. By Saturday morning, a raging, red, agonizing rash covered every inch—every inch—of skin from just below my belly button to a couple inches below my bum. If I had shorts on, it was invisible; if I was naked, it looked like I was wearing rash-colored hot pants. Next to my pasty white skin, it was garish and fiery, mottled hues of magenta, rose, and crimson, swollen, bumpy like an avocado, hard as a good Braeburn apple. Late in the day, I unzipped to take a leak and found that my rash-ridden penis, swollen to the circumference of a cucumber, had engulfed its own head. It looked stubby and uncircumcised and bloated, and I had no idea how to scratch it. I think I shrieked.

From 5 a.m. Saturday till mid-morning Monday, I visited Walgreen’s half a dozen times, desperately trying every anti-itch potion they sell. I slathered myself with cream and ointment speedballs and gobbled pills like they were Skittles. No relief. I hovered in the YMCA swimming pool, because chlorine had killed my last miserable case of poison ivy, circa 1980. Cool water suspension calmed me, but I had to leave because no one else was in the pool, and the teenage lifeguard girl seemed to be creeped out by the dude who just floated, moaned, and looked like he might start crying. While sitting a chair side-saddle or standing, I surfed the Web for home remedies, but only learned how to prevent a rash after brushing up against (or massaging one’s ass and genital region with) the plant, not about how to put out the fire. The whole time, I knew a doctor could prescribe quick-fix steroids, but I was broke, between jobs, and without health insurance.

During an itch-delirious sleepless night, I took a worthless oatmeal bath, then gobbed on a few layers of cream and lotion, left my shorts at my knees, kneeled by the bedside, and laid my torso down. If I could just let the rash air out, and if there were no pressure on it, I thought, I’d be fine. I wasn’t.

And always, I had to scratch.

Only the itch existed. Tantalizing fits of scratching and rubbing would leave ripped flesh, oozing rash, and fingernails full of ointment and skin. I understood the spiral of irresistible need, absolute ecstasy, and ever-diminishing returns. I didn’t or couldn’t care.

I don’t know what heroin addiction feels like. According to written accounts (including a fascinating one about Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart, published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune a few years ago), many addicts are good at describing how every high makes sobriety more painful; they also acknowledge an inability or lack of desire to break the cycle, and an omnipresent (maybe even omnipotent) craving for the drug.

I scratched till my shoulders and forearms were sore. I got a little emotional and forgot where I was and it seemed like I was actually removing the rash and soon everything would be all better. When I stopped, it itched worse than when I’d started. I did it again. Worse. And again. Worse. Every time seemed like the last one I’d need. Helpless and alone at 3 a.m., I cried in abject frustration.

Monday morning, I went to urgent care. The doctor laughed, gave me prednisone, and told me a story about some young lovers who had boned in a Minnesota Point poison ivy patch. Within an hour of the first pill, I was able to function mentally. By that evening, I was euphoric with lack of itch. I slept all night. And on Tuesday I discovered that a scalding hot shower aimed at healing poison ivy rash provides intense pleasure beyond my powers of description. I took four showers a day for the rest of the week, and they are among the most intense, sensual, and interesting experiences of my life. During four days of teaching in-service the next week, I had to pack my drawers with paper towels so the rash, which breaks open and oozes as it heals, would stop weeping through my khaki cutoffs. My skin was mottled red and purple into mid-October.

Don’t misunderstand the heroin comparison: I’m not so stupid that I think poison ivy’s itch connected me with true addicts. Duh. Indeed, it showed me that only addicts know how addiction feels. Ignorant, self-righteous assholes who say shit like, “Well, if you know drinking/shooting up/smoking/eating/etc. is bad for you, just don’t do it,” deserve a crotch full of itching, burning rash, and a steady stream of smug, condescending people reminding them not to scratch.

My mistake did not magically make me a wise man. It did teach me humility through weakness; I realized that empathy often requires experience; I understand that ignorance identifies itself quickly.

And I know what poison ivy looks like.

I think.

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