Paying Attention


A while back I was in the library checking my email on the public computers. The patrons of the library’s public computers constitute what may politely be called a cross-section of humanity. At my library, they don’t just let you sit at whichever computer you like. They assign you one, and it’s right next to the person who sat down just before you did. Which is to say, there isn’t any of that natural spacing of the discreet whereby two people in an elevator stand in the back corners and the third person stands in the middle right by the door. No, at the library computers you’re spang up against the next fellow.

The fellow I was spang up against was managing his account at an online dating site. He was a white-haired, paunchy old boy with a long, straight nose that bulged off to the left just at the tip-end, putting me in mind of a train that derailed right before pulling into the station. Every half-minute or so, he chuckled at something some dating prospect or other had written in her profile, wagging his head each time and cutting his eyes over toward me. Clearly he hoped I would ask him what he was laughing about or otherwise engage him in conversation. I was determined not to. I was in a bit of a hurry–just trying to check my email and get out of there–and I wasn’t up to it anyway.

Soon my neighbor wandered away from the dating site and to a medical self-diagnosis site. He stopped chuckling and instead made little murmurs of interest–or maybe it was concern. I didn’t take the bait. I was locked on to that email. At last the man nudged me with his elbow. He pointed at his screen. “How would you pronounce that word?” he asked.

I looked at his screen. “Splanchnoptosis, I guess.” I went back to my email.

“Splanchnoptosis,” he repeated. “Prolapse or backward displacement of an organ in the abdomen.” He rubbed his ample belly. “I’m pretty sure that’s what I’ve got,” he said. I glanced in his direction and gave a quick, sympathetic nod, then looked off, hoping he would get the message.

The man turned his chair to face me. “You probably didn’t know that you can cure cancer with baking soda, did you?”

It finally occurred to me that whatever my email said, it wasn’t going to be nearly as interesting as the things this old boy had to say. I turned my chair too, and we were face to face.

“That’s right,” he said. “Some doctors in Italy taped pouches of baking soda under the armpits of women with breast cancer. Six weeks later, the tumors were gone. No surgery. No chemo. No radiation. I saw it on YouTube.” He crossed his arms triumphantly, as if he had been one of the Italian doctors who made the discovery. “It’s all about the pH levels.”

He extended a thick right hand in my direction. “I’m David,” he said.

I shook his hand. If I told him my name, I’m quite sure he didn’t hear it. He was off again. “But there’s no money in baking soda, is there? Where would the medical-industrial complex be if everybody was controlling their pH levels with baking soda and wasn’t getting cancer? What would the doctors do? You can’t make the mortgage on one of those doctor houses by selling baking powder, can you?”

David looked behind him as if to be sure nobody was eavesdropping, though he was speaking so excitedly now that I suppose everybody in the computer room could hear every word, unless they were wearing foam earplugs. He leaned in close. “You know who built all the hospitals, don’t you?”

I shook my head.

“The Rockerfellers. That’s who. The same Rockerfellers that are in charge of everything else. You think that’s a coincidence, that the Rockerfellers built all those hospitals and the Rockerfellers are in charge of our health policy? You want to know why you didn’t know baking soda is the cure for cancer?” He snorted disdainfully. “Ask the Rockerfellers. Only they won’t tell you.”

David gestured toward the people who were lined up outside the computer room for early voting. “It’s like I told one of the women out there,” he said. “I said, ‘Do you really think you’re smart enough to vote? Do you think you can outwit the military-medical-industrial complex? Because that’s who runs things around here. Do you think you’re smarter than the Rockerfellers?’”

To think my natural inclination was to ignore this guy.

“But there’s no telling what women want, is there?” David said. I wasn’t sure if that was a rhetorical question. “I know what women want,” he said, “and I know how to give it to them.” He leaned in even closer than before and assumed a confidential tone. “They just want somebody who will listen.”

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


  1. Brenda Branson

    This article (and my response) needs to be read with a British accent in mind. The old chap seems quite daft, but he’s got it right about women wanting somebody who will listen.

  2. Ming-Wai

    This is excellent.

    And I don’t know about pouches, but there have been some promising studies done with baking soda. How do I know this? Because it’s one of the fun topics my family discusses at the dinner table, along with how sodium bicarbonate increases kidney function and how vinegar helps to regulate blood sugar. You know all the really fun stuff.

  3. April Pickle

    Just before reading this splendid post (thank you, JR), I was reading Letters from the Land of Cancer by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

    “However short or long my personal journey hereafter (a year, years, or half a year) time present remains for me what it always was before: an opportunity to pay attention. Time doesn’t become more intense. Time is…time. I am now. It is enough.
    I have always loved to walk in the woods and to work our land. And because of the wheeling seasons, no walk is the same as another. Work around here changes in obedience to the seasons. But that is what time has been and still continues to be: variety winter and spring, yesterday and tomorrow. An adventure walking, working.”

  4. Sally

    Oh, Jonathon, I once was sitting in a doctor’s office with one of my kids when this guy came in and started talking to me and my boy. It wasn’t baking soda that he was going on about, but how they’re poisoning the ocean and how everything is a huge (not right-wing) conspiracy.

    Later, I was convicted of my own attitude toward him, and wrote a post:

    He still is very much a part of our lives. If there ever was a Flannery O’Connor character with whom I rub shoulders, he’s the one.

    And to think it’s all our natural inclinations to ignore these guys.

  5. Andrew Peterson


    Thank you, Jonathan, for being awesome. And for using the word “spang.” I hope you keep writing these, because in a few years you could have a book–a strange, wise, and hilarious book of anecdotes. (These are anecdotes, not remarks, right?)

  6. Esther O'Reilly

    Now I’ll share one of my own—in my math department there’s an old boy who’s kind of a fixture. He’s really a mathematical genius who’s attending school on a “seniors” scholarship. Well, the other week we were in the computer lab and began talking about our religious backgrounds. His assumed name is Jewish and he was explaining how he wasn’t initially born as a Jew. At a certain point, he began launching into a detailed explanation of how he wasn’t circumcised as a child and got circumcised later. I was sitting at a desk nodding and he was standing leisurely talking, a few paces off. His quavery old voice was telling the story quite cheerfully. A few other people in the lab started turning and staring at him. It was all I could do not to lose it right there.

  7. Suzanne Tietjen

    Loved the use of spang. I had to read that part twice – the last time out loud.

    Neurologically, paying attention is seeing (or hearing, feeling, and so on).

    I love that you listened to him.

  8. Brent Lievers

    The old guy was close, but he’s confusing the Rockerfellers with the Rothschilds. As everyone knows, the Rothschilds are part of the Pentavirate along with the Queen, the Vatican, the Gettys and the late Colonel Sanders.

  9. Chris Will

    I really wish your comments section had a “like” button for each comment, because some of these comments are fantastic. It wouldn’t be a “like” button of course, maybe more like a “Huzzah!” button, or a “finger snaps” button (although that might be just a bit too beat-nic) for this crowd.

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