Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Does Anything Ever Change?

My apologies for not writing the past few days -- one of the liabilities of being a student, there are such things as exams and I find the older I get, the more intent I am on passing them. As a result, some things go by the wayside during the days before an exam. Nothing important really: eating, sleeping, bathing, or truly listening to my wife when she's talking to me instead of thinking about how to tell angina from a heart attack by an electrocardiogram. Life as usual, right?

Anyway, that's my excuse, for better or worse, but it's the truth in any case. As it turns out, though, I'm taking a moment to write today because exams have been postponed due to an impending snow storm. Twelve to eighteen inches out here in the country and that, on top of the good foot that's left over from previous storms. I understand we've already had nearly five feet of snow this year and the season is far from over. Still, I wouldn't change it. Snow in Maine is picturesque and evocative -- that is, as long as the power stays on and you don't have to travel.

It occurs to me that I must be learning to delay gratification as an older student. When I was younger, a snow day meant sleeping late. Now, it means a chance to hit the books for a few more hours and I'm grateful even if the price is a close encounter with the snow shovel. To borrow a line from Dances With Wolves, it's a "good trade."

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Open Door

Have you ever wondered why Congressional and Senatorial Democrats and Republicans seem to be much more effective at opposing, rather than working, with one another? Who hasn't? Well, on this morning of the inauguration, I'd like to offer a thought or two about this. And for the sake of simplicity, from now on I'll refer to them as Democrats and Republicans.

A minister friend of mine once said, "Belief determines behavior." If that's the case, then part of the reason Democrats and Republicans have difficulty working together is a no-brainer: they believe differently about the nature and role of government. On the surface, at least, this is true. When an economic stimulus package, for example, fails to pass the House, representatives on each side accuse one another either of failure to care about the American people or of having socialist inclinations. From the perspective of this observer, it's a sad state of affairs.

Now, before going any further, it's true that a great deal has been done in Washington with bi-partisan support. But generally speaking, there's enough backstage political engineering going on that "we the people" have every reason to wonder why they can't get along.

I think the basic problem lies in the fact that they just don't know how to leave partisanship behind and focus on the larger issues. Either there's too much at stake in terms of re-election or they can't imagine what it would look like to really work as one body. Furthermore, they've had no leadership. There has to be someone who is willing to say, what we've been doing isn't working and continuing to try the same thing over and over constitutes insanity.

Enter Barack Obama. Truthfully, I don't think his task will be straightforward. Well, I take that back. It is straightforward: he has to lead Congress in conceptualizing and enacting a new way of doing government. It's just not going to be easy. Working cooperatively has to become not only the ideal but the commitment of all. Now, human nature being what it is, I doubt we'll see the members of Congress lining up to accept this like new converts at an evangelistic crusade. But given time and appropriate modeling by the new President, there's a chance, and probably a pretty good one, that we're going to see a different Washington over the next four years.

The President Elect has already begun showing us how he intends to govern, not only by creating a bi-partisan cabinet, but by refusing to adopt a radical agenda. He has continued to actively seek input from the people. I've never heard a President in my lifetime ask the people to "keep those cards and letters coming in." The concept of a cooperative governance that includes the people, while a core principle of this Republic, is one that has not been so energetically promoted as it has by the President Elect. Here again, the internet has, and will continue, to play a key role. But my point is, Obama has shown an intention to govern from a position within the citizenry rather than from one that stands above the people. It's a leadership style that says, "go with me," instead of "go where I tell you."

The political pundits have been talking about how everyone who supports Obama has a story. For me, this inauguration represents an open door. Andrew Jackson used to invite the public inside the White House. I'm not sure we'll see quite that degree of freedom; we do live in far different times than Jackson. But it's not far-fetched to imagine a presidency that embraces the people, all of them, and particularly those who are in disagreement with its policies. For me, today is about a President who will stand at the door of government and say to everyone: "Welcome."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A President With Heart

In this morning's Parade magazine there is an open letter from President Elect Barack Obama to his daughters. What struck me as I read this was its humanity. I think that's what attracted me to Obama in the first place. Other Presidents have seemed less approachable. What I mean by this is, with the exceptions of Jimmy Carter and John Kennedy, other occupants of the Oval Office have appeared so presidential that I had a difficult time imagining myself in a conversation with them.

Part of it, I'm sure, is the fact that Obama has made himself so accessible by means of the internet. This in itself is completely new. I mean, how often has a candidate opened himself to regular communication with his supporters and then actively encouraged it? Furthermore, every email I received from him was signed "Barack," not Senator Barack Obama. One might say this was a carefully crafted attempt to gain support by making people believe he was being personal. I'm not convinced. Too many have gotten elected previously without this kind of interaction; I think we're seeing who he really is.

I mentioned Jimmy Carter and I'm thinking of his fireside chats with him clad in a cardigan. I remember hearing how this failed to appeal to many Americans and it's possible Carter was ahead of his time. As a country, we may not have been ready for a President who was like us. Ronald Reagan presented the image of a strong Commander in Chief who was no-nonsense, all business, and intent on taking charge. I suspect this is the kind of image John McCain would have liked to have been associated with as well, but times have changed. While we want someone who can be counted on in a pinch, we are also willing and even eager to identify with a President who knows what it's like to overcome minority status, to experience loss and grow because of it. We like seeing him playing ball and being a family man. We're ready for a President who is not only a father, he's a dad.

I hope you'll take time to read the Parade article. I think you may find it refreshing and touching. It certainly gives us one more glimpse into the heart of the person we've elected, and that's important. We need to know a President has a heart. We've certainly had our share of Presidents who acted as though ambition was enough. It's not. We need more and I think this time, we got it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

No Longer Strangers

It was thirty below zero yesterday morning when the phone rang. "How cold is it up there?" asked the caller.

Assuming it was someone I knew but too sleepy to recognize, I said, "Colder than I've ever been!" The conversation went on for several sentences before I finally realized it was a wrong number. "The folks you want to speak to don't live here," I informed him, "but we're sure having a good conversation about the weather." To my surprise, we continued to chat for a few minutes and he explained he was a Maine farmer who spent his winters in Florida.

What I find interesting about all of this is, there we were, strangers talking on the phone like we were neighbors. He thought he was calling friends and instead he got me. I thought he was someone I knew and as it turns out, we've never met. Despite our absence of acquaintance, we enjoyed a few moments of company.

As I hung up, I chuckled to myself and thought, rural life and farmers. The fact that I lacked the giveaway southern Maine accent and therefore, am obviously "from away," as they say up here, didn't matter. He was a farmer, and I live on a farm; that, coupled with a chance wrong number, brought us together.

You just never know how things are going to turn out. He'll return in the spring and I may discover we actually are neighbors. But whether that happens or not, yesterday's call reminded me that we aren't all that different -- people, I mean. The potential connections between us can be surprising.

Oh, I forgot to tell you how the conversation ended. "I'm on my way to Florida where it's warm," he said.

"Sounds like a good idea," I replied, "have a good trip."

"Yep, well, I'll be seeing ya." And maybe he will.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Smelling the Roses

At ten below this morning it's clear we're months away from anything resembling spring, but that doesn't stand in the way of smelling the roses now and then. My aunt, following successful treatment for breast cancer, used to regularly remind me to take time and enjoy the moment. She's been gone for years now, but I still recall the strastospheric stress levels that characterized her life.

For many, life is like a diner and stress is the daily special served round the clock. Instead of pushing back from the table and declaring we're full, we keep eating until we can scarcely move and then ask ourselves, why didn't I stop earlier? The truth is, most of us can't just stop: we have bills to pay, children to feed, and life goes on. But in the midst of all this, if we don't push the plate away from time to time, we get sick.

It may not be something catastrophic -- it just might be a cold or the flu. But when stress levels are high or long-lasting, the immune system suffers and we have to pay up. A flu shot can only do so much.

A recent study indicates that adolescent boys with problems in attention and focus were able to function more effectively, if they spent about ten minutes twice a day meditating. Now I'm not suggesting we stop what we're doing, assume the Lotus position, and mutter strange incantations, but if we can find some simple ways to disconnect, we might help ourselves stay a little healthier. Sounds easy, I realize, and life is usually anything but. Still, my aunt may have learned a lesson we can all benefit from, and if we look hard enough, we just might find some roses somewhere out there in the snow.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Morning in Surgery

I was up at 4.30 AM this morning. It wasn't that I couldn't sleep, nor was it due to the cat roaming the house looking for company (his usual habit generally a few hours later, thankfully). This morning I had to be in surgery at 6.45 AM, but not as a patient. Our community preceptorship program arranges clinical experiences for medical students and second year offers us a chance to spend the morning in surgery. Today was my day, which explains why I was up at dark thirty fumbling for the coffee pot.

It was an amazing morning to say the least. A nurse assigned to shepherding medical students gave us a review of scrubbing and gowning procedures, then led us to our prospective operating rooms. Compared to the nurses and doctors, my tasks were simple: don't get in the way (too much), don't contaminate anything (especially myself), and try not to pass out. I managed on all three counts, so I think we can call the morning a success.

The procedure lasted only about three hours and I was allowed to hold a retractor and use the staple gun to close the incision. Little things, I'm sure, and probably every medical student does similarly, but I appreciated the chance to participate and actually do something. The most amazing thing was placing my gloved hand inside a living body to examine the tissue. Unless a person intends to be a surgeon, experiences like this don't come along very often, and it left me feeling a sense of wonder.

One thing is certain, surgery is nothing like it's depicted on ER. The staff take their roles very seriously but there is friendly conversation and humor about daily life. Patients, even when they are unconscious, are treated with respect and dignity.

As students, we're on temporary assignment; here today and someplace else next month. Nevertheless, we're treated as if we're expected back tomorrow, as though we're worth teaching. People listening, answering questions, taking time to make a contribution. People who were, at 6.45 this morning, total strangers, making the effort to make me feel welcome. It was quite the experience.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Old Friends

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is located in Concord, Massachusetts. It's a wonderful little place with hills and winding roads that seem to lead nowhere and everywhere at once. Aside from being a quaint New England cemetery, this is where you can find the graves of Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau's is unremarkable: it's one of several small white stones that are about six inches on a side, located on a hilltop called Author's Ridge, each inscribed with the first name of a family member. I was surprised the first time I saw it. I guess I was expecting the author of Walden and Civil Disobedience to have more fanfare.

Louisa's is a little more notable because it has her full name. And then, there's Emerson's. In contrast to his friends', Emerson's marker is a boulder -- a pretty good sized one. I don't know whether he chose it in advance or it was chosen for him, but I like to think it was a parting joke to leave a marker no one could miss.

Anyhow, Emerson once said, "It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them." I imagine that came to him while reflecting on an occasion when he'd succeeded in thoroughly embarrassing himself. Whatever the motivation, he makes a good point.

Family members are sometimes the least inclined to forgive. They have expectations, you know, and there are roles to be played. Maintaining the family structure may mean being predictable and acting consistently within your assigned or adopted role. Failure to do so can upset a lot of folks who then strive mightily to bring the black sheep back into the fold.

It's almost axiomatic that friends don't generally bring the same baggage to our relationships with them. And that's a good thing because we all need someplace in the world where we can try to figure out who we are and be that without feeling as though we're threatening the viability of the universe. I know, that sounds a little grandiose, but breaking the mold can seem like a pretty big thing and sometimes it is. And in the process, we may be "stupid" once in a while and it's nice knowing there are people who understand, empathize, forgive, and help us laugh at ourselves. Those people are friends and I'm grateful -- eternally grateful -- for those who call themselves mine.

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