Life Lessons In Ceiling Tiles


I snapped this picture in the waiting room at my clinic. These friable acoustic
ceiling tiles are absolutely everywhere. We generally don’t think much about
them until there’s nothing else about which to think.

So, I’m sitting here alone in the semi-darkness, staring at those institutional ceiling tiles wearing one of those absurd open-backed surgical gowns. It is blue with a faded flower print. Who made that decision?

I’m patiently awaiting a minor medical procedure. It really isn’t a big deal. I’ve been clearing my throat a lot and asked a colleague to take a peek inside just to make sure there wasn’t something we could do about it. My wife calls it my moose call. It is worse after meals and is justifiably annoying for those around me.

The possibility I might die from this is fairly small. There is some anesthesia involved. However, I rather suspect that statistically speaking, the really dangerous bit was the drive to the clinic. The possibility of my buddy coming back to tell me he found something truly horrible is also fairly minuscule. But that is not the case with everybody in this building today. It also will not always be the case with me.

I have faced my own death before. At some point, if I feel really froggy, I’ll share the details with you guys. I was a soldier, and soldiering is innately dangerous. I have also had five people die in my arms. That’s the sort of thing to make a guy wax introspective. But back to those ceiling tiles …

Those things are everywhere. Dropped ceilings are all the rage in institutional settings. When I worked on the psych ward in residency, the facility sported two sequential locked doors, like a prison. In theory, you couldn’t get in or out without clearing each barrier in order, but they still outfitted the place with those dropped ceilings replete with ceiling tiles.

One young man took it as a challenge to elope from the place. He told us as much. And then, one evening, he just vanished. It was pretty amazing. They reviewed the security footage, but the kid was just gone. As they say, the authorities were vexed.

The following day one of the elderly patients complained that a little monkey had scampered out of the ceiling and eaten her breakfast. At first, everyone just wrote that off as some mystical combination of her rarefied mental illness, advanced age and her sparkling personality. And then somebody thought about that little missing dude. You guessed it; he had been hiding in the ceiling overnight. I am still amazed he found someplace comfortable enough to tolerate the experience.

Think back to the last time you had to endure something ghastly at the dentist. Perhaps you had a tooth extracted, a cavity filled, or a canal rooted. I recall the last time that happened to me. I was staring at those institutional ceiling tiles and wishing I could be absolutely anywhere but there. How about if we took that to the next level?

They call it the Big Blue Marble. Our time on this lovely little
ball is limited. It behooves us all to think a bit about that.

I once toured the death house at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The facility was constructed by the inmates and was configured to accommodate lethal injection as the method de mortis. It was an utterly fascinating place.

The room itself was covered on the inside with soundproof material and sported two walls comprised of one-way mirrors — one for the victim’s family and the other for government witnesses. How does one get invited to something like that? Would anyone think ill of you if you respectfully declined? Does anybody ever do so?

I realized at the time I would likely never have the opportunity again, presupposing that I successfully resisted the urge to kill anybody, so I resolved to maximize the experience. The table was built like a cross with heavy leather tie-down straps. I climbed up on it and spread my arms out on the thing just to see how it felt. The table was hard. Apparently, Uncle Sam saw little need to waste resources on comfort given the circumstances.

As I reclined onto that table and imagined the dark circumstances surrounding their using it for real, I was struck by those ubiquitous acoustic ceiling tiles. The corner of one of them was cut away to admit a small microphone. The condemned got three minutes to speak before the warden departed the room. In such an institutional setting, when you die, you die alone.

The bottom line is that those benign unremarkable ceiling tiles play witness to some awfully profound human drama. They adorn my own medical office as well as that of my dentist. The trauma bays in the big urban medical center where I learned my craft sported them as well. That was the most dramatic place I had ever imagined. There is literally no telling how many people died horribly staring at those things.

Our sojourn on this odd blue orb is, by definition, time-limited. Everybody dies. Sometimes it is quick; other times, it takes a while. If you could tolerate a little unsolicited advice, if you haven’t already, you need to get right with God. The time to think about that for the first time is not when you are staring desperately up at those blasted ceiling tiles.

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