Saturday, July 13, 2002


You want to know all about aspirin then you just go get yourself a good case of sciatica, nothing will teach you about aspirin better than a good case of sciatica, you know, that pain that sings top-volume Wagner up and down your leg nerve that big leg nerve the sciatic nerve, that when it decides to hurt gets your attention way better than sitting on a tack twelve hours a day.

Sciatica is when you learn that you, not the leg, are the appendage. It's a big revelation, and it's free. You can get sciatica pretty easily, so don't worry about that part. You can get it like I did, by tossing around a lot of roofbeams like you were still an undergraduate, which basically takes one of those way-postgraduate spinal discs (pulpus nervosus for the uninitiated or anybody who might want to talk about this at a higher level, at which point you can count me out, I have to go lay down) and squashes it like a semi-truck ran over a jelly donut, and that now very pissed-off disc just pokes out there where it shouldn't and jabs that ubertouchy nerve and keeps on jabbing like two kids in church, when all of a sudden you are, as the preacher says, lying on the ground screaming your fucking brains out.

As I indicated, you can get sciatica any number of ways, but mine is as exciting as any. Which brings, us more or less, into the general neighborhood of aspirin. Now sciatica, as you might expect, is pretty much the same all over the world, I mean you get sciatica in Wichita, you can compare notes no problem with a sciaticized individual in Kuala Lumpur or, in my case, Shiga, Japan, which, believe it or not, brings us even closer to the subject of aspirin.

It should be stated at this point, so as to debaffle the inattentive, that when you have sciatica, proximity to aspirin becomes a major interest in life. Which brings us to money. Because when it comes to aspirin in Japan, money isn't quite the same thing as it is in Wichita. Well, not only aspirin. Or Wichita either, for that matter. For example, the price of enough land to park your car on in central Kyoto is roughly equivalent to the price of Wichita, or maybe Washington DC, depending on whether it's 1995 or 2002.

The other day, to get back to the subject, I was purchasing aspirin for the new ruler of my existence, before whom I humbly abase myself and whom I honor with my entire being and to hell with every other leg in the country, and asked the price of the small box of the only leading American brand - in fact the only aspirin - for sale in the pharmacy nearest my leg. The druggist informed me, without the slightest sign of falling on the floor laughing, that the 24-aspirin box cost 700 yen, the 48-aspirin box cost 1100 yen and the 96-aspirin box cost 1900 yen! I did not let my feelings show as I reflexively calculated the price in dollars: TWENTY DOLLARS for 96 aspirin!!! And 96 is the largest size!!! Why, In the US you can buy a bucket of aspirin!!!

I know in some generally unexplored part of my education that aspirin is cheap to make, you just mix some stuff together that you get for free out of the ground or off a tree or something, so I know that the real price of 96 aspirin, in terms of the legal tender nearest my heart (does one ever abandon one's native currency?), is around 25 cents, allowing for inflation. So was I going to pay this outrageous price? YOU BET, said my leg with a voice way lower than Darth Vader's, though I got the small box, you've got to put your foot down somewhere, each aspirin costing about 30 yen, or 28.6 cents at the then-current exchange rate.

As I limped home under the added weight of knowing that I had just paid seven dollars for 24 aspirin (actually I think the packaging, in which each aspirin has its own hotel room, eats up most of the expense), my sciaticated mind obsessively traced the uniquely Japanese system by which aspirin (and countless other products), in an impenetrable process of premarketing prestidigitation, are sold and resold several times before reaching the consumer way up there at the top of the pyramid, a single carton of aspirin thereby generating sufficient income to send a middleman's kid to college to get rid of a chronic pain.

I felt touched, somehow, and in a place where I must say I don't like being touched. Later I sent to the US and got 500 aspirin, mailed to me across the entire American continent and the entire Pacific ocean, or halfway around the world, for $2.95 (310 yen), about .6 cents (.7 yen) per aspirin. To the attentive expatriate, the differences between cultures can closely resemble sciatica.

First published in slightly different form in Kyoto Journal #32

[Thought I'd add this here in view of its fundamentally sciatic connection to my last post. RB]