Inside Michael Nagrant
A Food Critic Gets a Colonoscopy
For a long time, I’ve had colon insecurity. I can’t say for sure when it started. If your twenties are the moments of bulletproof immortality, they are also likely the times (years long diets of Hot Pockets, Hostess pastry, and regular weekend binge drinking) when you foment the conditions for absolute colon destruction.
Maybe my butt self-doubt started sooner?
In sixth grade at Camp Tamarack, someone told me, just as I swallowed a wad of Big League Chew, that gum stays in your intestines forever. Once, pulling an all-nighter in some hotel with my middle-school friends on a field trip, I stuffed a slice of late-night pepperoni pizza in my maw as some insufferable newly-minted vegetarian lectured that red meat stays in your body for like thirty years.
Witnessing my own children’s early experiments on what in the world is and is not delicious, I’m sure as a toddler I licked a floor or two or swallowed a plastic He-Man accessory sword. There may have also been a couple sheets of loose-leaf paper hastily ingested to prevent prying eyes from seeing the love letter I had just composed to my elementary school crush Alexis.
And then there is the food writer life I chose. I have eaten my own weight in cholesterol-laden offal, sweetbreads, liver, and other assorted organs. The sticky mucilaginous consistency of a goat eyeball taco once eaten at the Maxwell Street Market all but ensures such a thing has never left my system. Then there’s the incredibly unnatural act known to foie gras ducks as gavage, whereby a foie farmer forces open the gullet of a duck and fills it with twice its weight in grain, which in turns leads to the delicious buttery engorgement of its liver.
Food critics too perform gavage upon themselves, except that we call it pre-fixe dining. All the TikTok stunt guys think they’re metal, but I challenge any of them to try and kill twenty-plus food courses and gallons of high-end wine pairings regularly. Only, my friend, competitive eater, Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti and his friend Joey “Jaws” Chestnut can pull this kind of thing off with regularity. These are trained professionals, and yet if you’ve ever watched the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog contest, the meat sweat arrives by the bucketful. After ingesting a Vienna factory’s worth of tube steaks, Chestnut in his post-contest press conferences always looks like a long-haul Covid-19 patient, struggling to breath, barely coherent, flashing a wincing smile capped by darting, pleading eyes that suggest, “Help! I’m being held against my will.”
In these early years, the conditions for intestinal insecurity certainly took root, but I guess the real insecurity started in late twenties thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s TV doctor, and asshat senatorial candidate, Dr. Mehmet Oz. Before Oz, I did my business without regard. But then Oz went on Oprah and described the ideal bowel movement, the gentle smooth “C” or “S” shaped waste that should leave your body with a barely audible woosh, the kind of silence reserved for Scientologist women giving birth.
Admit it, you just peed your pants. You want more of this!
This was pre or early social media, but suddenly I felt like a recent face-transplant survivor consuming a steady diet of Instagram photos of supermodels. Sometimes my poops were skinny semi-colons. Sometimes they did not come daily. Sometimes, I’d worked so hard to make them, it felt like I’d actually given birth. Surely, I had ass cancer.
It turns out Dr. Oz killed puppies by the hundreds for his research at Columbia. He got his own spin-off TV show whereby he declared (wrongly) apple juice to be full of carcinogenic arsenic. On a morning radio show he advised a caller that it was ok to bang your cousins.
As Oz’s quackery was exposed, his influence over my bowels waned. Travel took over as the dominant force in my body. You’ll be bored to death if I explain my day job, so let’s just say I’m like Liam Neeson in Taken. I have a very particular set of skills. These skills revolve around an arcane sector of data software. I am lucky that these skills create demand. Demand, however, means lots of Southwest flights and Marriott hotel stays.
Flying dehydrates you and unfamiliar beds facilitate uneven rest. Both factors impact your bowel habits. To stay even requires a VIP pass at Sweetgreen plus a cocktail of chalky fiber-larded water chased with the occasional shot of Miralax. I can remember by mom slurping down orange-flavored Metamucil regularly and in the hubris of youth thinking, there I will never go. Constipation, like news of Nick Cannon’s next child, comes for everyone at some point.
Because I’m American, it is probably weirder to talk about my love of hockey than it is about my digestive system. In America, hockey is like the fifth most watched sport somewhere behind Mixed Martial Arts and The Real Housewives. But, it is above all others, my jam. Hockey’s play-by-play and color guys are like bedtime white noise.
As a transplanted Chicagoan, Eddie “Edzo” Olczyk, then the Blackhawks color guy was like a wave machine that lulled me into hockey security each night as he broke down the exploits of Patrick Kane or threw out his best intel on Kentucky Derby betting. Loving the ponies is even rarer than loving hockey as an American. Love both as I do, and you’re almost a soulmate.
In 2017 at 51, Edzo got diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. He disappeared for a while. His initial goal was to make it to his son’s wedding a year out from his initial diagnosis. Just as Olczyk was recovering, Black Panther, aka Chadwick Boseman died in 2020 after a four-year battle with colon cancer at 43.
Celebrity relationships may not be real, but they are mirrors or crystal balls for our own existence. In 2020, stuck at home in a pandemic, hungry for communion with anyone, celebrity was one of the few relationships we could rely on.
Between episodes of Tiger King, watching Boseman post-humously as Levee Green, the Denzel-level charismatic trumpet player in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom during the pandemic moved me. That someone could shine such effervescent exterior light just as their own inner one was waning is extraordinary.
Boseman’s battle was absolutely a mirror in the sense that according to a recent article I read (I don’t have a medical journal fetish - I only read it as research for this essay):
“In 2020, 12% of all colorectal cancer cases occurred in those under 50, according to the American Cancer Society. Colorectal cancer rates have been increasing in people ages 20 to 39 years since the mid-1980s, and in those 40 to 54 years since the mid-1990s.”
While these things are true, math, as my high school aged son and even a lot of relatively intelligent people will tell you, is overrated. Even if the calculations reflect reality, numbers don’t invoke action like feelings and opinions do.
Which is funny, because when you turn 40, you find yourself doing a lot more math than you used to, most of it involving calculating how any years you’ve have left relative to life expectancy averages, making sure to work in a healthy discount for all the ways society and science has told you that you’ve failed. How many Big Macs equal a year of life? How many days have you lost due to “only smoking when you drink?”
When I turned forty, the other bit of math that seemed in my favor was that it was at least another ten years before I had to get a colonoscopy, aka have someone stick a camera in my bunghole.
I may have remarked on this beautiful gift a few too many times, at which point my wife, who has actually given birth, twice, and has gotten annual pap smears (whereby a doctor scrapes cells from a woman’s cervix with the alacrity of a child running a spoon across a bowl to get the last remnants of ice cream) and mammograms (I understand they smash your boob like a griddle cook making a diner burger to take the scan) reminded me I, like many men, was a child. Honestly, this is unfair to children, who are way more stoic in the doctor’s office than me.
You know who believes in math, though? Doctors and scientists, and wouldn’t you know it, they moved up the colonoscopy screening rec.
What a wonderful time to be alive and 45! I generally sailed through my annual physical last year except the blood pressure part which always goes something like this:
The doctor, nervously checks his watch, looks at the ceiling, pumps the cuff a couple times, and then says, “Your BP is a little elevated.”
He switches to the other arm, repeats the process, says, “It’s a little better. Are you nervous?”.
Me, “Because I’m afraid you’re going to tell me I have six months to live, and also this year I know you’re going to tell me I need to get an Instagram Reel of my rectum done.”
The doc then explained that I have two choices. Since I’m “young” with no family history of colorectal cancer, I can just poop in a jar at home and Fedex it overnight to a lab for analysis. The upside of this is you don’t have to stare down a team of people who are about to make a gastroporn video of your insides. The downside is that if they find something, you will still have to make digestive flicks with a classic colonoscopy. If they don’t find anything, you’ll have to repeat the process in five years vs. the ten-year interval you get with a clear traditional colonoscopy.
Pooping in a bucket felt like a logistical nightmare that would end in tears and an egocentric consideration of whether I’d provided a good sample. I also tend to have a Japanese rather than American cultural outlook on things, which is that I believe you should always seek to do something right and efficiently rather than expediently. (I understand that you’re 2000 words into my butt filming journey and you find this hard to believe). The real driving motivation for choosing a traditional colonoscopy, however, is my deep and abiding laziness, which is to say I could avoid all of this for another decade if things went well.
As anyone who has tried to find a reliable source of toilet paper and flour in April of 2020, or a consistent source of original flavor breakfast sausage (“sage” and “hot” are not acceptable), pandemic supply chain issues also rocked procedural healthcare. As the world opened up again, apparently everyone was clamoring for their preventive colonoscopy.
Northwestern told me the first available appointment was the day after Thanksgiving, six months from the day I called. Surprise! No one wants their keister scanned after the one meal that even fitness influencers gorge themselves at. I too did not want the medical tech version of Annie Leibovitz to take their close-up after my guts had been engorged with bruleed-marshallow fluff and turkey. I had black Friday sales to attend to, so I scheduled the procedure for a few weeks after Thanksgiving.
I am such a world class kvetcher that Larry David and Woody Allen seem like amateurs to me. Still, the anxiety of a procedure six months away wasn’t going to take root until after Thanksgiving 2022. Once Turkey day came, however, my entire life transformed in to BC and AC, aka “before colonoscopy” and after.
In the pre-colonoscopy week, I cried a few times. I succumbed to the overwhelming pressure I’d built in myself that I secretly knew something was wrong and this test was about to confirm it.
I cried because though there are rarely complications, a colonoscopy is an invasive procedure. Maybe the greatest trick the devil ever played was not providing an intelligently-designed easy-access hatch to assess the ails of the interior human body. A Tesla doesn’t even have a traditional combustion engine, and yet it still has a “frunk”, aka front trunk so you can open the thing up and see what the hell is going on with the electronics.
One false move with the polyp-snipper (colonoscopy cams are like Inspector Gadget arms, they can take photos, biopsy and clean up problem areas, irrigate your tubes and probably also predict your step count for the next day) and I’d have a perforated bowel that could end it all.
I wasn’t even thinking about a whole group of people staring at my puckered starfish while I manspreaded and exposed my naked undercarriage to the Channel 7 Butt Radar team at Northwestern Memorial hospital.
If I did die, my last solid meal was delivery Benihana (for real), which I immediately regretted the next morning, because if filet mignon (high consumption of red meat, colon cancer risk factor!) dipped in ginger sauce does stay in your body for 30 years, this was gonna be an epic colonoscopy.
In an ideal colonoscopy prep situation, it is best that whatever goes in also goes out. To achieve these results, you start a “clear” liquid diet the day before the procedure. Though I was freaking out about a lot of things, I did not do my due diligence on this diet. I saw that I could drink coffee without cream, drink chicken broth, and Gatorade, and eat popsicles (no red or purple dyes) with abandon. I’d be ok.
The coffee and Gatorade breakfast was fine, but by lunch as I faced down a carton of Swanson’s chicken broth as my only savory sustenance option, I started rifling through my freezer looking for homemade broth. There was none. Because I’ve been invested in learning to cook for a long time, I did the reverse of everyone else during the pandemic. I did not bake bread, master laminated pastry, or make stock.
The good news is that if you haven’t eaten solid food in fifteen hours, microwaved Swanson broth is as rewarding as the first sip of a cold lager on the hottest muggiest New Orleans August afternoon.
By dinner time, I had to start slurping down the first of the “prep juice”, which is basically human-safe Antifreeze. You can’t drink actual Antifreeze (active ingredient – ethylene glycol), because if you do it gets metabolized and it fucks up your kidneys for life. Polyethylene glycol, which is used in colon prep juice, has a molecular structure which can’t be metabolized. You can see where this is going. The prep juice basically turns your insides into an ice sculpture luge with a vodka-like sluice of clear liquid that pushes everything in its way out of your body.
The prep juice tastes like one part lemon lime Gatorade and ten parts bad chicken stock oversalted with meat-curing nitrites. You have to drink four liters over two sessions. Even if you have a strong spirit, you will struggle to ingest the first two liters via constant sipping through a straw in less than two hours. You can chug it, but the directions suggest this will result in vomiting, which would result in a clearing of the entirely wrong holes.
After finishing it, I expected my butt to rush like the River Jordan (and I will then say to thee, you are my friend).
Nothing happened. I have such a fear of failure, I started freaking out that I would be the one person that super colon blow juice doesn’t work on. All I could see is the gastro-doc up in my goods the next day crawling in the mud like some desperate soldier in a war movie, just hoping to escape this hellhole.
You love this, don’t you. If you subscribe I will write many more essays just like this one.
Dear reader, eventually, the juice worked.
First prep done, I locked in for a night of TV. I ate roughly 472 Otter Pops, mostly green and blue since those were not forbidden colors. Having subsisted on mostly defrosted Slurpee all day, I was still famished. I saw a couple uneaten Ritz crackers on the counter and fantasized that they were croissants. Surely eating one would not matter.
Being ravenous had the same impact as taking too many edibles. At one point I regarded the surface of the Ritz, the fluted edges and its seven perfect perforations as if it were a miraculous snowflake.
I was so catatonic with hunger, that both my sons who generally regard me as the ghost who just happens to pay for their Xbox Ultimate Game Pass expressed real concern. My oldest son gave me a pat on the back and said, “Dad. I’m sorry you feel bad. You’re gonna be ok.”. It was the first time I realized that my children legitimately loved me.
I held strong and did not get broken by a buttery cracker. I then started Googling to see if there was some secret “clear” food I could eat. I discovered hard candy was in bounds.
As my writing voice sometimes borders on late-age Florida retiree, I can understand how you might think I have lots of hard candy around my house, but I had to settle for the few Jolly Ranchers left over from Halloween 2021. I also developed a real empathy for babies at this point, recognizing they are on a liquid diet for months and can’t diversify with hard candy. Rancher supply exhausted I started convincing myself I needed to go on a late-night Lifesavers run.
Gopuff does not deliver rolls of Lifesavers. We’ve also established that I’m lazy, so there was no Werther’s recon mission. I decided to go to bed early instead. Turns out, I made a rookie mistake scheduling my colonoscopy at 9 a.m. because you have to do the second round of prep juice 6 hours before your procedure. I had to wake up at 3 a.m. for round two of chicken-flavored Gatorade.
If you take anything from this piece, it’s that you should go for the afternoon scope, so you can wake up like a normal person for the second cleanse. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in a hate spiral, alone in the middle of the night, googling “Katie Couric colonoscopy” on YouTube.
In my delirium, I remembered Couric, who lost her first husband to colon cancer, doing the live feed of her colonoscopy on Good Morning America to encourage people to get colonoscopies when I was younger. I found and watched the OG video. I also discovered Couric’s life mission has been to accompany her friends and other famous people to their own colonoscopies for the last few decades.
YouTube has an incredible assortment of poop-shoot photoshoots including one from Jimmy Kimmel. I know you probably wondered why I mentioned swallowing He-Man toys earlier, but it turns out ingesting childhood toys and fearing them resurfacing on scans is a real thing, as Couric delivered a batman figurine to Jimmy Kimmel after his colonoscopy and said, “Did you miss this?”
Salved by the perky Couric and her band of merry elves committed to digestive health, I found a few more hours of sleep. If you cleanse well, your waste basically looks like foamy Sprite at some point, which of course also makes you feel like you’re dying because your body is achieving something it never has before. The other problem with the second cleanse is you have to endure a ride to the hospital filled up like angry Mount Vesuvius. I was so focused on keeping myself together, I was super quiet during the car ride. I’m not sure my wife who usually prefers that I shut up more, truly appreciated the involuntary silence colonoscopy fears had wrought.
I made it to the hospital without incident. Because I’m lucky and my healthcare affords me access to one of the top University-affiliated hospitals in the country, aka Northwestern Memorial, I did not expect the minute clinic experience I was first confronted with.
You walk in and “take a number” like you’re at a butcher counter. There’s no red plastic thing, but rather a digital touch screen that once prompted, spits out a printed ticket. You go sit in the waiting room until your number is called to
pick up your happy meal show your insurance and driver’s license. They then hand you a sheet of stickers with your name on them. One of the stickers is applied to your arm like a bracelet after you sign the label affirming that you are in fact yourself. From now on my body and everything that might come out of it was in an official chain of custody, which seemed convenient should anything go wrong.
Because this is Northwestern, I expected top notch service for the Gold Coasters they mostly serve. But, catatonically hungry, all I could focus on is how all the fabric corners of the chairs in the waiting room were frayed like the furniture in the lobby of a Motel 8. Before I could go full Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin on the whole place, I had to rush to the bathroom again.
I came back, sat down, and read on Instagram that Jack White was releasing tickets to a last-minute concert at a small Chicago bar called the Empty Bottle. I told my wife that we had to cancel the colonoscopy and do everything we could to get these tickets. I then realized that the sale was the next day and that I would indeed have to go through with the procedure.
I eventually got called in by a nurse and taken to the pre/post procedure area in back where I was confronted with a bed that had a centrally placed piddle pad, aka, absorbent dressing for my leaky butt. It made perfect sense, but also encouraged my burgeoning insecurity.
The nurse went through the pre-flight checklist so abruptly that if anything did go wrong on this flight, I knew exactly where things went afoul. I kept trying to interject and tell her about a possible drug allergy I had and she kept plowing through the checklist. Eventually she listened before telling me to take all my clothes off, throw on the gown, keep the barn door open, and settle my tush on the piddle pad.
I sat alone in the room, adjusting the gown and blanket to make sure my man bits were not splayed out precariously. The suites are not acoustically sealed, so I overhead the results of some other dude’s colonoscopy being delivered. They guy had seven polyps and three hemorrhoids. They had removed the polyps and sent them for analysis. The man, groggy with meds, asked the question I was thinking, “What did you do with the hemorrhoids?” The doctor said, “We left them alone. They’re not a problem.” Relatively, I guess?
Fearful of breaking my neighbor’s polyp record, I settled in again to a catatonic regard for details like the terrible macro-close-up dewy grass blade “art” photos on the pre-procedure suite’s walls. Again, it’s Northwestern, could they not pop for some Warhol prints? I don’t want a visual of Better Than Ezra’s “Desperately Wanting” lyrics to be the last thing I remember.
Speaking of music, my doc bounded into the room. Though he was masked up, his forehead and eyes reminded me of Colin Meloy, the lead singer of the Decemberists. In character, he said, “You ready to take care of this nonsense?” As you can imagine I loved the hipster irreverence and truth from this man I’d only just met, because while this was very serious business, the act itself was indeed absolute nonsense. I started trying to establish rapport by talking about the past weekend’s football games, because I strongly feel you should really get to know someone before you engage in ass play.
I refrained from making any direct butt jokes to the staff, because you know they’ve heard all of them. I debated whether I should tell them that they were about to scope the insides of the former Chicago Sun-Times food critic, that they don’t get celebrity rectums up in here like this everyday.
Inside the suite, they started hooking me up like Robocop. I don’t think I told them about my food critic bonafides, but friends, let me tell you, the party drugs they push before the procedure are very good. Like I’m pretty sure they turned down the lights in the operative suite and turned on some soothing electronica, at which point I believe I remarked “Damn, it’s like the club up in here!” and the doc then responded, “We like to make it fun and comfortable” in the same way an escort might before they roll you. I also remember flickers of my pink pulsing colon on the video monitors, as well as a discussion with the nurse post procedure about “What I do for a living” to which I think I said, “Well, germane to this procedure, you might be amused that I write about food!”
I literally can’t vouch for any of these details for sure, because like I said, the drugs were goooood. I do remember being in post-op and the nurse offering me snack options. I chose cranberry juice and graham crackers. We’ve already established that Northwestern is not a three-star Michelin experience, so it won’t come as a surprise that I got cranberry juice and saltines instead.
As I gorged on crackers, the doc popped his head in and said everything looked great, that I had one tiny polyp but that it looked totally fine. For a microsecond, I was disappointed that the procedure wasn’t perfect, but the doctor’s tone and assurance, and the fact that he did not find any Smurf figurines in my kiester resolved in relief. (A few days later it was confirmed the polyp was not pre-cancerous) I was handed a discharge sheet which unbeknownst to me at that moment included six vivid Kodachrome snapshots of my colon.
Later at home, still slightly loopy, my wife revealed the Glamour Shots assortment of my guts. As I regarded their healthy pink vascular muscularity, my old intestinal insecurity was replaced with an unhealthy hubris. I suddenly felt proud of my digestive system, like it had been revealed that I actually had like the George Clooney of colons now and I could conquer the world.
It felt like mania, because as I’ve established earlier, I had been destroyed mentally at least a week before the procedure. While I’ve made a lot of jokes here, I remember feeling at many times the week prior devastated and fearful. This seems utterly ludicrous given how easy the procedure was now that I’m on the other side. Even if they had found something, the process of finding that thing and then being given the gift to solve the problem is better than dying and not knowing.
And yet, just this morning, I heard that the marvelous modern dancer Stephen “tWitch” Boss allegedly died by suicide. I have no idea what was going on in his life, but I’m certain it wasn’t worth ending his existence over. What I do know from my own mostly self-induced trauma over a basic medical procedure, is that the mind can play some pretty mean tricks, no matter the reality.
That is why, even though I imagine you’d prefer a food review today, I wrote this instead. If you are of a certain age or have high risk factors, I don’t want your imagination to win out over reason. I want you to know that colonoscopies, while annoying, are easy like Sunday morning (unless you work as a priest or on the weekend brunch shift at a restaurant), and you really should do the things that keep you amongst the living for a bit.
That being said, maybe the worst part in retrospect is that because of the procedure I could not make it out to Mike Sula’s Monday Night Foodball at The Kedzie Inn for Laos To Your House’s crispy rice salad or Nam Khao, one of my favorite dishes of all time. I had to settle for Opart Thai’s “peanut sauce lover” curry instead for dinner, which still turned out to be quite the prize for yours truly, the newly-minted Mr. Colon Secure.
If you made it this far, I know you love this kind of writing. Why not give “this kind of writing”, the gift that keeps on giving, to that special person in your life for the holidays?