[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
— Donald Rumsfeld, February 12, 2002
The children kept falling asleep. Along their rows of desks, they would nod off, their arms folded in soft crosses to support their small heads, as though their teachers had issued that familiar command, “Let’s put our head down on our desk for a moment.” But the teachers hadn’t, and the children of Brent Elementary School kept falling asleep.
I know this because my father was principal at the time and had to deal with the teachers’ complaints: Why were these kids so disrespectful? So lethargic and lazy?
To him, it didn’t make sense. Second, third, and fourth graders shouldn’t doze off in the middle of the afternoon. (That’s when it inevitably happened.) If anything, they should be riled up. The final bell wasn’t far off. My father suspected there must be some strange cause behind their collective slumber.
This was in the late 1970s, before school cafeterias had become delivery systems for refined sugar and before the first waves of Ritalin had washed across American schools and subdued the fidgeters, wrigglers, fussers, and squirmers. These children weren’t misdiagnosed, weren’t overdosed. And yet off they went. My father saw it for himself, in classrooms up and down the halls, even as he tried to find out why.
At some point, he decided to have the air in the school tested. It turned out that the classrooms (the building was one of those 1960s, rectilinear, Frank Lloyd Wright knockoffs, with hard horizontals, a flat roof, and those large windows that don’t open except for slits that run along the top and bottom) were insufficiently ventilated. By mid-afternoon, the children didn’t have enough oxygen to stay awake.
This memory is fused in my mind with another from roughly the same time: When my father returned from work, he would take two Excedrin, each and every evening. He kept a pale green bottle of it in the kitchen cabinet. At the time, I saw this as a sign of his hard work: Managing teachers, reckoning with displeased parents, herding hundreds of children from drop-off to pick-up, these responsibilities left my father, understandably, with a headache.
He thought so, too. That is, until he noticed one day that his collar felt particularly tight. He unbuttoned his top button and loosened his tie, not much, and in a manner that made it appear as though his collar was still buttoned. His headache disappeared. He could breathe. Blood ran freely through his carotid arteries and reached his brain. The Excedrin could sit in the cabinet, unused.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.
I tell you these memories because I have just bought a pair of fat pants.
These are my first fat pants, and I should note that, were you to meet me, you would probably not think that I am fat. You might, as my wife does, dismiss my fat pants, thinking of them not only as not-fat pants, but also as an offense to those people who are truly struggling with obesity. You might think I’m indulging in an illusion of fatness that is, at root, vain and dumb.
Maybe so. I concede my fat pants have a waist-size not commonly considered fat. I also concede that I bought these pants—khaki cargos with roomy side pockets—at the Rocky Mountain Boot Outlet in Nelsonville, Ohio, a store that sells pants and other attire to men who hunt and drive and lift and build, men whose waists are, as evidenced by pants that come in XL, XXL, XXXL, and XXXXL sizes, as large as their labors. Indeed, I am not Rocky Mountain Boot big.
And yet my fats pants have, as fat pants should, an elasticized waistband that allows them to expand well beyond their professed size, such that when I bend over I do not need to make a sharp inhale to lace up my shoes. I further add that fat, though an organic tissue that’s measurable in inches or pinches, exists as a mindset, one with an oblique relation to the fat cells that one does or doesn’t have pressing strenuously against one’s non-fat pants as one tries to get into or out of one’s economy-sized car. Jockeys, gymnasts, and ballerinas are all fat. Just ask them. So, too, I submit, are some middle-age men with a perfectly acceptable body mass index.
Consequently, I maintain that my fat pants are fat pants, as I will demonstrate with a brief account of how I ended up in Nelsonville, Ohio, shopping beside big men, as my wife shouted encouragingly, as though we had were in a Banana Republic: “Oh, those make your thighs look good!”
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.
The fat began as a “few pounds,” which is what I called them when I first noticed them in the shorts-friendly summer. Initially, I enjoyed them. I could see my body taking on a certain mass that, as a gangly teen, I had associated with the hyper-male body of Sylvester Stallone. Back then, I didn’t know then that those fleshy wads curving around Stallone’s waist and rippling sweatily were better know as “love handles,” the very signs of age he trained so hard to eliminate. To me, they looked cool. Powerful. And now, with handles of my own, I took pleasure in my torso, as if I could batter down a door or a godless communist opponent. I finally had some man meat to throw around.
By summer’s end, however, I started experiencing a strange pain in my leg, a rippling, radiating stab that shot down the outside of my left thigh and lasted until I’d make an audible yelp, then faded away, as though it had never arrived. I’d screech like I’d just been pig-stuck.
“What?” my wife would say, her brow quizzical.
“My leg,” I’d answer, but already the pain was disappearing, and I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it. “It’s— It was—” I’d try to describe it, but it was difficult, because it wasn’t there anymore. And when it wasn’t there, it was easy to ignore that it had ever happened.
Which is exactly what I did. Both my wife and I are prone to imagining worst-case medical scenarios. For us, a sniffle presages Swine Flu or the Ebola virus and a headache becomes a memento mori, reducing us to a melancholic farewells. “I want you to know you’ve been the love of my life,” we’ll say, just before the Advil kicks in. “I’m sorry I didn’t save more for the day when I wouldn’t be here.” Consequently, a severe pain, one that could accurately be called a symptom, was too unnerving to acknowledge.
Except that it kept happening. And happening.
“It’s happening again, isn’t it?” my wife would ask, unevenly, trying to fend off our collective fear, as though the fact that I’d inadvertently clutched the dashboard and shouted, “Fuc-yaaaaa!” might have another cause. There was nothing to be done. I’d have to go to the doctor.
…. it is the latter category that tend [sic] to be the difficult ones [sic].
So I did, reluctantly, describing to my physician this mysterious pain while sitting in the examination room. Before I’d even finished, she started nodding. Like a savvy game-show contestant, she’d already cracked it.
“You have meralgia panaesthetica,” she pronounced. She immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper, in doctor handwriting:
Staring at this, I did not feel more informed.
My doctor continued. “It’s damage to the lateral cutaneous nerve that runs along the outside of your thigh.” With her index finger, she drew a deliberate path from her hip bone to her knee. “You can look it up on Web MD.”
Are you kidding me? I did not say this aloud, but looking it up on Web MB is exactly what I had avoided doing. I have learned that, when I type in symptoms such as “nerve damage” and “severe pain,” the site confirms my worst fears, giving me back possible causes like “Cancer” or “Shingles: Are You Risking Nerve Pain?” I asked my doctor if she would mind giving me a little more information.
She told me that all my symptoms matched those of meralgia anaesthetica—the location, the duration, and the nature of the pain, which, I learned, is often describes as “like bee stings.” I also learned I shouldn’t worry. Meralgia Panaesthetica can be painful, but doesn’t denote a more serious illness. I’d have to live with it, I’d be uncomfortable, but otherwise I’d be fine. Finally, almost as an aside, I learned that no one is entirely sure what causes the damage in the lateral cutaneous nerve that leads to meralgia panaesthetica. Sometimes it just shows up, although it can result from trauma, as when a seatbelt jerks into a driver during a car crash, or from nerve-damaging diseases such as diabetes.
“You know,” said my doctor, a smile in her voice, “it can even happen if your pants are too tight.”
Eric LeMay has taught writing at Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. He is currently on the faculty at Ohio University, his alma mater. He also serves as web editor for Alimentum: The Literature of Food. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Gastronomica, Poetry Daily, the Best Food Writing series, and other venues. He lives in Athens, Ohio, with his wife and fellow writer, Kristin LeMay. Email him at email@example.com.