RATHER UNEXPECTEDLY, I find I have something in common with my most ardent liberal friends (and foes): I feel more comfortable on the left. Wherever I look these days, everything to the left seems clearer. Whenever I speak, it's with an unmistakable left-wing slant. This is an odd experience for someone who has been conservative since junior high, but there's no getting around it. These days -- for me -- everything on the right is awkward and disordered. Only on the left do things feel as they should.
No, I haven't undergone a political metamorphosis. I haven't become an acolyte of Hillary Clinton, or started curling up at night with the collected ravings of Noam Chomsky. I haven't been touched by a sudden conversion on the road to the Kennedy School.
I have, however, been touched by something else.
I am in my second week of an odd affliction called Bell's palsy, a disorder of the 7th cranial nerve that paralyzes one side of the face. In my case, it is the right side and the paralysis is total. After 36 years of never giving my facial muscles a moment's reflection, I am abruptly missing half of them. Without warning, my ability to smile normally vanished. And to talk normally, and eat normally. While the left half of my face remains regular and animated, the right half droops, flat and expressionless. My right brow sags over my eye, so I can't see as clearly on that side; I can't breathe as well, either, because my right cheek weighs down my nostril. All at once the most familiar habits have become frustrating challenges: Swallowing water. Closing my eyes. Pronouncing words with "f" or "v" or "th." Kissing.
In order to speak intelligibly, I have to manually push the right side of my face out of the way -- otherwise I sound like a cross between Bugs Bunny and Sylvester the Cat. (Sufferin' succotash, could this have been the secret of Mel Blanc's success?) To keep my right eye from drying out, I am forced to blink it by hand and lubricate it with a dropper of artificial tears. Protecting an eye that cannot shut is an annoyance during the day; at night when I try to sleep, it's a real problem. And chewing has become truly hazardous - since I can't move my cheek and lips in sync with my teeth, I keep inadvertently biting down on the inside of my mouth.
The whole thing, needless to say, is demoralizing. Nobody ever imagines literally losing control over his face, and when it happens, it's hard not to feel freakish and abnormal and sloppy. There is no more public part of your body than your face; it's the aspect every stranger sees and judges you by. "It is no use to blame the looking-glass if your face is awry," wrote Nikolai Gogol. Well, what should you do?
Bell's palsy is embarrassing and distressing, but at least it isn't permanent. The doctors promise it will eventually go away, although "eventually" can mean four weeks -- or four months. Until the damaged cranial nerve decides to repair itself, there is apparently nothing I can do but tough it out, learn to be self-effacing - and keep trying to find a way to wash my hair without getting shampoo in the eye that won't close.
Of course, it would help if the medical profession had some clue where this paralysis comes from. But the cause of Bell's palsy is unknown. Some experts blame a virus. Some suspect a glitch in the autoimmune system. Still others point to pressure on the facial nerve as it passes through the skull.
The docs' guesswork just goes to show how miraculously improbable human health really is. Look at us: scores of organs, hundreds of glands, thousands of bones and limbs and muscles, nerves and genes and arteries and cells beyond counting. We are machines made of a million moving parts, and only when every one of them functions as it should, only when the whole impossibly complicated contraption is balanced just so, only when a dizzying myriad of components align in a single correct combination -- only then do we call our condition "normal."
And yet most of us, most of the time, are normal. We assume without thinking that all those moving parts will do what they're supposed to. Rarely does it strike us as an astonishing miracle that, by and large, they do.
Until something goes wrong. A valve misfires, a node tweaks left instead of right, a facial nerve stops working -- and suddenly the mundane experience of "normal" good health seems so pricelessly extraordinary that we swear we'll never take it for granted again.
This Bell's palsy is a blow. It makes me very self-conscious, and I yearn for it to end. But no one needs to tell me I have blessings to count. What is temporary paralysis in half the face next to the crippling paralysis of a stroke? Or the wasting, fatal paralysis of Lou Gehrig's disease? I haven't been shot or struck by a car or lost a leg. This isn't Hodgkin's disease or lung cancer or Kaposi's sarcoma or Alzheimer's. It's just a messed-up face. It'll get better.
Until it does, I'll remain skewed to the left. Granted, that goes against the grain. But it does come with a silver lining: No one can accuse me of talking out of both sides of my mouth.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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