Saturday, February 21, 2009

57 Channels and Nuthin' On

The comic, "Mutts" depicts a cat sitting in an easy chair with the television remote and he comments, "I finally get the remote and there's nothing on." It's easy to identify with this frustrated feline because, despite the promise of channel proliferation, cable television often fails to live up to expectations. Talk about life imitating art.

But there's more to this scene than the obvious truth. It depicts the fear that can keep a person's feet in cement overshoes, figuratively speaking. "What if I put all my efforts into ________ (you fill in the blank) and then have nothing to show for it? What if I get to the end of the road only to find it's a dead end?" Probably everyone who has gone after a dream has heard this from someone.

There was a person in my deep dark past (why is the past always deep and dark?) who used to say, "Better take what you can get because you might not get what you want." I believed that for many years until one day I realized, if you take what you can get, you may become so preoccupied with it that you never recognize what you want when it comes along.

In the wonderful film, Treasure Planet, the character of pirate Long John Silver says, "You give up a lot, chasin' a dream." For him, it meant a foot, arm, and an eye. The other side of it is, you gain a lot, too. And in his case, it was redemption. Maybe that's what waits for everyone at the end of the rainbow: a chance to redeem the past by valuing something greater than ourselves. I don't know for sure: I'm musing this morning. But I love redemption stories because they reinforce my belief that hope should be nurtured, not taken away.

I live near the end of a dead end street and I marvel at the cars that pass in the summer with the apparent expectation that the road goes somewhere, after all. People drive by and a few moments later, drive past again, going the other way. I've jokingly said we ought to put up a sign that reads, "Dead End: Did You Think We Were Kidding?" But it's not really a dead end. It takes you to my house and two others beyond. For those who live there, the road leads home.

Maybe that's the point of taking the path that seems daring or even dangerous to the risk-avoidant. They only see the potential "dead end" sign, but for those who see things differently, the path of a dream leads to that one best place in all the universe: it leads home.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Reach Out and Touch Someone

A few years ago, AT & T encouraged us to "reach out, reach out and touch someone" by giving them a call. It was a pleasant jingle and I'll bet you can recall the tune now that you have the first line. Funny how those things stick with a person -- repetition works.

In their book, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century, authors Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz talk about the effects of loneliness on such things as physical health, child emotional problems, and global warming. I haven't read the book yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

Now, I'm bringing this up, not because I'm feeling particularly lonely this morning but because of the way the generation of 20 somethings seem to have countered it. In the future I think social scientists will refer to this group as the "Cell Phone Generation." I watch them on campus and it seems they all have one of these and would be lost without it.

For Boomers, the cell phone was initially a convenient way to do business in the car. For our children, it's a way to maintain connection across the room. Theirs is the generation joined at the hip. They went to school together, played together and even dated together. A young man I've known for many years once quipped with a smile about young kids' soccer, "It's swarm soccer. No one plays a position, they just swarm after the ball!" Any parent who has witnessed their elementary child on the field must know what I mean.

Well, I think this generation definitely does swarm dating. I've mentioned this to some and they agree. They're so comfortable within their peer group that no one wants anyone to feel left out, so they do everything together. As an older learner, I've directly benefited from being a part of this generation's class.

At first, I was concerned because I feared their mutual dependence might not adequately prepare them to survive in a world that rewarded independence. Now I realize they have a point and a darned good one. Being connected doesn't mean you lose yourself in the herd; instead it means you're nurtured and supported and thus may become an even better self.
In a lot of ways the ideal of the self-made man characterized the generation of our parents. Despite the promise of the 60s, many Boomers eventually seemed to resemble their parents more than themselves. Maybe it's something that happens to everyone, but I hope our children are better at maintaining their own identity.

As Baby Boomers age, we have a great deal to gain from emulating the younger generation. Old habits die slowly and it may be very difficult for many to allow themselves to become immersed in a community. But I definitely think the kids have the right idea.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Darwin Rides Again

At the risk of sounding like something I don't intend, I have some serious questions about relying on the free market to manage itself. My guess is, I'm not alone if you look at the actions being taken in the Executive Branch. But the concerns I have stem from thinking about Darwinian theory.

If I understand it correctly, survival of the fittest means those species most adapted to their environment are most likely to be the ones that reproduce and thrive in adverse conditions. Now, this concept seems to be getting a lot of airplay lately as pundits argue about the appropriateness of a government bailout. Some insist the market itself is best capable of determining which businesses should survive and which should not.

There was a time -- not long ago, actually -- when a different kind of market determined the fate of human beings. I'm referring to that period in history before the advent of modern medicine. Just a little over a hundred years ago, battlefield amputation was common practice because there was little doctors could do to manage infection. More recently, I remember the polio scare of the 1950s. I doubt anyone would suggest we had no business intervening in the course of natural selection by developing antibiotics, vaccines, and learning how to treat diseases effectively.

Ultimately, we've grown in our knowledge and practice of medicine because it is humane to do so. We want calling a doctor to be a good thing. Can you imagine taking a sick child to the hospital only to be told that because she was ill and could not heal herself, she was not among those naturally selected for survival? True, some would argue managed care does precisely this but that's a topic for another day.

My point is, just like that child, the American economy is sick and most of us are suffering because of it. Intervention may not be entirely popular but clearly the market hasn't been able to heal itself. "Watch and wait" can be a very reasonable medical strategy in some situations, but if we do that with the economy the outcome may be far worse than the treatment.

Speaking metaphorically, there are some who seem to long for the good old days of Civil War medicine. You got shot, you lost your leg. Somewhere along the line people decided they wanted a better future than one spent on crutches. I think it's time we thought the same way about the economy. It's not something that can be regarded as independent of that living and breathing entity we call the American People. The economy is all of us working, living and sharing a fate that, together, we create. Its survival depends on far more than a toss of the Darwinian dice. It depends on us, and so kudos to Republicans Olympia Snow and Susan Collins of Maine for crossing the aisle and placing their constituents above party loyalty. They may pay a price for it, but in the long run, it's worth it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Second Look

I haven't been able to shake the feeling that I need to give yesterday's post a second look. The reason is, despite my argument that being an older student isn't harder, it really is. But it's harder in a different way than you might imagine.

Generally, when people find out I'm a medical student, I get two kinds of comments. The first is enthusiastic and followed by a vigorous handshake. Whether it's expressed verbally or not, these folks like the idea of an age-group peer tackling four years of medical school and residency beyond. The second one seems to focus more on age itself as an obstacle to be overcome: "At your age?" I think comments like this are unintentionally influenced by what I believe to be the mistaken notion that as we age, we should seek comfort rather than challenge.

I had a friend in nursing a few years ago who, when I asked about her late hours, replied, "I'll have plenty of time to sleep when I'm dead." I liked that and I still do because, taken metaphorically, it suggests life is about being engaged, aware, and sensitive to what's going on around us. Age isn't about withdrawal, theories of human development notwithstanding, it's about becoming better at living. Or at least it ought to be. I feel certain my geriatrics professor, an extremely young and active 60 something, would agree completely.

So, back to the business of hardness. Yes, it is hard being a student and for me, a medical student. It's also hard for my classmates, all of whom are sleep-deprived at this point in the school year. We study long hours and exam-related stress is very real. But this is true no matter how old the student may be. Trust me, the younger ones don't get through this without the same blood, sweat, and tears as the older ones.

What makes it harder is learning and applying new ways of study, throwing out what worked thirty years ago and no longer applies. It's a matter of adapting and that is somewhat harder the older we get. But whether young or less-than-young, the moment we cease adapting to change, that's when we really start to get old. From that perspective, it's easier being a student at my age because it puts me in a position to have to adapt and continue growing. And the more you do it, the more proficient you become, and the easier it gets. In that sense, being a student now is far easier than it was when I was younger. If you are a mid-life student, I hope you'll take a moment to weigh in on this subject and leave a comment. I'd like to read what you have to say.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Not-So Hardest Thing

I think I may have figured it out. I'm not sure and I could be wrong. It's happened before -- being wrong, I mean. I think the hardest thing about being an older student is convincing other people that it's not all that hard. As a matter of fact, in a lot of ways it's easier than when I was younger. For one thing, I'm more focused and certainly more disciplined. Part of this grows out of being an intentional student rather than simply a student. By that I mean, when I was an undergraduate I could afford to be lost in the maze of options. Now that I'm just a tad bit older, I have a clearly established goal and I know what I have to do to get there.

That still doesn't solve the problem of convincing others. Now, I suppose in the long run, it really shouldn't matter, but for the sake of sustaining relationships it does. So, when I'm asked by a well-meaning someone how can I do this at my age and, gee, it must be difficult and more power to you, it's hard to tell them that it's really not that bad. The very last thing I'd ever want to do is sound unappreciative because I believe they are truly attempting to be empathetic. So, I smile and thank them, and try to resist telling them how much fun I'm having and that I wouldn't trade this experience for the majority holdings in Microsoft.

Wait a minute, did I say Microsoft? Mm...well, that would be nice, but not if it meant giving up medical school. Some things you just can't put a price on. Things like walking through the snow with my dog looking up at me with a wide grin as if to say, "Isn't this great?!" And he's right, it is. Things like sitting round the table with friends over hot chocolate and pumpkin coffee cake, talking about long hours at the hospital. And things like visiting an elderly woman and listening to the wheezes at the base of her lungs and knowing what's causing them.

Yep, sorry Bill Gates, I'll take a donation but if it means giving up these things, it's no deal. Somewhere, like a modern William Barret Travis (Texas readers know this name well), you have to draw a line in the sand and say this is where I make my stand. Maybe in the end, you don't have to convince anyone. Maybe a smile and a little gratitude are enough. You never know just how things will turn out. Some day, they may be my patients. Whoa. Now that's a thought.

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