I think I’ve written before that my Tae Kwon Do school was located in Hemet, California and that I lived about a half hour up a nearby mountain in the town of Idyllwild – a quirky town of artists, old hippies, and other misfits. At the center of town in Idyllwild, there is a large wooden building that locals call “the fort.” It’s supposed to look like some kind of Old West outpost, but really it’s the center of the town’s tourism, with souvenir shops and places to buy outrageously high-priced hiking boots. I remember similar enterprises in towns like Virginia City, Nevada, which I visited often as a child.
At some point after I started sparring seriously – and therefore started carting around serious bruises – my teacher took me aside to tell me that one of the stores in Idyllwild’s fort was a front for a Chinese apothecary. The store itself sold incense, wall hangings of waterfalls and Chinese calligraphy, little green Buddha statues, and faux-silk blouses with Mandarin collars. On the back wall were two doors: one led to a dressing room, and the other, according to my teacher, led to a dark musty room where a toothless old woman – the mother of the woman who ran the store and dealt with the tourists – futzed around with various powders and liquids and herbs and would sell you a concoction to cure whatever ailed you. But only if you knew that she existed.
“First you have to pretend to browse around in the store,” he said. “If there is anyone else in there, just keep pretending to look at the crap they have for sale. But as soon as the store is empty, tell her that you want to go in back. You can tell her that Frank sent you.”
I was twenty-nine, and for the first time in my life (and, dammit, I hope not for the last) mentioning the name Frank would get me access to underground businesses in dark back rooms. I had arrived.
“Tell her that you want some of the patches for bruises,” he continued. “You take them home, you put some water on them to make them sticky, and you put them on your bruises overnight. The next morning your bruises will be gone. It’s some kind of miracle medicine.”
“What are they made of?” I asked.
At that point my teacher’s face transformed, morphing from a friendly big brother figure (not to be confused with his unfriendly Orwellian Big Brother persona, which was another one of his alter egos) and putting a look on his face that clearly said I know a special way to kick you so your liver will pop out of your anus before your brain even knows you’ve been kicked.
“NEVER ask a Chinese person what’s in their medicine!” he roared. “Goat vomit! Monkey semen! Horse pus! How the hell do I know? All I know is that it WORKS!” He shook his head, glared at me, and picked up a Star Wars comic book – his standard signal that I was dismissed. “Asking what’s in the Chinese medicine,” he muttered behind me as I left.
So anyway. Seven years have passed, and once again I am wondering what is in the Chinese medicine. My acupuncturist thinks that my energy levels, which are still quite low in spite of the fact that I am sleeping well and have much less body pain, will benefit from a Chinese herbal treatment called MOXIBUSTION. (Wait, Moxibustion? the academic in me asks. Like combustion? Are ancient Chinese herbs supposed to have Latinate names? I’m thinking too hard about this, aren’t I?) Moxibustion is a treatment that involves burning MUGWORT (and if that doesn’t sound like something out of a Harry Potter novel, I’m not sure what does) and placing the stick of burning MUGWORT next to various acupuncture points on your body. There are two types of moxibustion: the SCARRING KIND and the NON-SCARRING KIND. My acupuncturist has recommended the non-scarring kind. Making a note to get her an extra-special Christmas present this year.
And what happens when you heat your acupuncture points with burning mugwort? Why, it balances your qi. Which is apparently what all Chinese medicine does. What is qi, you ask? As far as I’m concerned, it is a highly convenient Scrabble word. Especially if you can manage to put the Q on a triple-letter-score square.
So I’m sitting here, holding this stick of MOXA in my hand (correction: a POLE of moxa. It’s called a pole of moxa – you know, like a murder of crows). Inside its wrapper, it is the exact size and shape of a super-absorbent tampon. The wrapper is stamped multiple times with the word HOIST (the brand name, I guess?), which because it rhymes with MOIST is an inherently gross word. There is also a good bit of Chinese writing on the package, which I suspect translates as GOAT VOMIT! MONKEY SEMEN! HORSE PUS!
(I should mention that this moxa pole – which my acupuncturist says should last me about a week of daily treatments – cost me $2.13. That’s some seriously cheap monkey semen. I could buy 21.13 moxa poles for the cost of a CO-PAY for one month’s worth of ONE of my prescription medications. But I digress.)
So now I am opening the package. What’s inside is jet black and looks like a cross between a cigar and a piece of sidewalk chalk. I am intimidated by it. I mean, who wouldn’t be intimidated by a flammable black tampon-cigar-shaped thing that Chinese people have been burning over their acupuncture points for centuries and that isn’t going to make one single pharmaceutical executive rich?
So I’m going to burn the darn thing and wave it over my abdomen for ten minutes per day and see what happens to my energy level. I’m not going to start right this second – probably this afternoon – but when I do, I will tell you all about it.
By the way, I never tried the bruise patches from the underground apothecary shop in Idyllwild. I got by instead on arnica and tiger balm (and raw steak. And lots of gin and tonics.). I think I was honestly a little worried about what might be in the medicine – and I was also a little afraid of exactly what might happen if I used my mercurial Tae Kwon Do teacher’s name as a password to get into some dank cell-like room that no one else knew existed. But I regret backing away from his advice. I don’t think there is any one definitive rule of thumb about how to live one’s life, but I do think that if an intriguing-if-creepy person with a specialized skill set tells you to do something, you should do it. If only because someday you might have a blog, and your readers will want to know how the story ends.