Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Natural

Teaching is both gift and craft, art and artifact. Sometimes it's just a lot of hard work. Some teachers are made, others born, and some should probably have gone into something else entirely. But today I saw someone teach who is born to the task, puts his heart into it, and is willing to labor to become better at the process.

He's not a teacher, per se, but a third-year medical student. I say, "per se," because he most definitely is a teacher, just not in the formal sense -- yet. We've been friends since the early days of our first term together, but today I saw him in a way I'd never seen before. He presented a lecture for second-year students to fulfill the requirements of his masters program -- a degree he will earn concurrently with his Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.

If you've ever witnessed someone do whatever it is they do with a natural presence, you know what I'm talking about. He was truly himself and the students responded as though he was their professor. I thought he was better than some paid instructors I've known. His humor was spontaneous and, perhaps because he is a student, he clearly understood what was important for his audience to know. Instead of getting lost in the details, he made the subject matter live and the applause he received at the end was vigorous and well-deserved.

I think it's safe to say a new face is standing in the doorway of medical education and his students are going to be very fortunate. I rather envy them because they're going to learn from someone who will be unable to forget what it's like to be one of them. He will remember late hours in the anatomy lab, meetings with the Dean discussing student concerns and long hours in the clinic because this is the kind of person he is. Modest, unassuming, and much appreciated for his contributions to his fellow students, he is going to be some kind of teacher. There's no doubt about it.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

To Blame or Not to Blame, That Is the Question

Sometimes we just can't seem to help ourselves. You know what I mean. You're going along, minding your own business, and then you do something that you swore you'd never do again. It doesn't have to be anything "big" and it usually isn't. The things that trip us up are most often the things we take for granted.

So, we kick ourselves for falling victim to the wiles of human nature and swear one more time, things are going to be different. And, guess what? They're not. We do whatever it is again. Now some folks would say this is typical of everyone, it should be expected, and why worry about it? Well, anytime we're concerned about something we're doing, it's generally because it causes some discomfort or it has the potential to do so. My psychologist friend, the late John P. Smith used to describe pain as the universal motivator. We might like to think we'll change because of some anticipated benefit but more often than not, it's because we're tired of doing something that's painful.

But you'd think we'd eventually start to get some things right. Surely, after enough experience, hours in therapy or whatever, we'd figure out what we need to do in order to alter our behavior once and for all. Just be done with it. And then, without realizing it, there we go again.

Is this addiction? Do we just like to suffer? Perhaps some are and some do, but I don't think that applies to most of us. I think most of us are genuinely distressed when we find ourselves subject to what classical writers might call the "weakness of the flesh." And we'd honestly like to do something about it. So, we proceed to beat ourselves up and promise to be more disciplined in the future.

I'm starting to think all that self-recrimination really does is strengthen whatever it is we're trying to overcome. The more we blame ourselves the more blameworthy we feel. It's hard to do better when you feel badly. So, what if we try forgiving ourselves instead? There's a lot of power in forgiveness. For one thing, when we forgive, we move toward reconcilliation and reconcilliation is one more step toward healing.

It's easier to blame, that's for sure, and moral outrage seems to demand it. But forgiveness brings renewal and my guess is, most of us could use a good dose of it, having administered ourselves more than one bitter teaspoon of blame. Anyhow, it's a place to start.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Seven Pounds, Guilt, and Suicide

Now and then, writing is as easy as watching the golden eagles sail over the hayfield. Lately, four of them have stopped by for a visit and they are incredible guests. Tip to tip, their wing span must be five feet and the shadows they cast on the ground make me feel like I've stepped into a scene from Jurassic Park with the pterodactyls in flight. Then there are times when writing is simply hard work. Today's post is one of those; I've been struggling with it for nearly three days.

It all started Sunday evening when I watched the 2008 Will Smith film Seven Pounds on DVD. I like Will Smith a great deal and particularly enjoyed his portrayal of the off-beat super hero Hancock. He is incredible in Seven Pounds but I can't talk about his role without referring to an earlier one that featured the late Bobby Darin. Darin was a popular singer in the 1960s and the subject of the 2004 Kevin Spacey biopic, Beyond the Sea.

Darin co-stars in the 1963 film, Captain Newman, MD with Gregory Peck, a story about an army psychiatrist in the closing days of World War II. Darin's character was a gunner on a B-17 shot down over Europe and he is dominated by a tremendous sense of guilt for having abandoned his best friend to die in the crash. In truth, there was nothing he could have done -- the plane exploded soon after impact, but instead of turning back at his friend's cry for help, he ran for his life.

At one point in their psychotherapy, Newman (Peck) suggests his guilt demands penance and perhaps cutting off a foot or hand would be sufficient. "That's crazy, Doc," says Darin, "You're nuts! That won't bring Big Jim back."

"Neither will all the things you're doing to torture yourself," replies Newman.

Perhaps it's because Darin had someone who was willing to face the pain with him, but he found a way to see it for what it was. In Seven Pounds, Will Smith's character never takes the time to look. A tragic accident, the result of a moment his eyes left the road to focus on his cell phone, claimed the life of his wife and seven others. Throughout the remainder of the film, Smith searches for individuals whom he deems worthy of life and systematically, he gives one his home and to the rest, a portion of his lung, a kidney, part of his liver, and following his suicide, his corneas and heart. Quite literally, Smith tries to pay off his guilt piece by piece.

The filmmakers describe the movie as a redemption story and I suspect Smith's character was intended to appear incredibly generous. But this isn't redemption: it's punishment and Smith's character acts as judge, jury, and executioner.

What concerns me about this film is the way it romanticizes suicide, and maybe in Hollywood, suicide is romantic. Maybe in that place where reality is replaced by fantasy, things don't hurt that badly. But in the real world, suicide is far from romantic. I've had to make the phone call and inform someone their son-daughter-wife-husband has killed themselves. All the king's horses and all the king's men are never quite able to put Humpty Dumpty together again, just so. Suicide leaves scars and those who are left behind have to live with them.

If there is anything redemptive about Seven Pounds it's this: when someone has experienced a loss, when they appear sad and irritable all at once, and begin giving treasures away, don't hesitate to be nosy. Don't hesitate to call for help, especially if they tell you everything's fine and you aren't convinced. They may become angry and accuse you of "meddling," and you may not think they'll get over it, but at least they'll be alive and the potential for reconcilliation will be there. Yes, Smith's character made a contribution to the lives of persons in the film, but we'll never know how many more he could have helped had he lived. 

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Einstein Again

"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." Ok, maybe a person could live their lives as though some things are miracles and some are not, I'll grant that. But I didn't make up the original quote; it's one of those Einstein-isms that find their way into conversation from time to time.

Einstein was different, that's for sure. I plowed, quite literally, through his Special Relativity once, substituting numbers for his symbols in an effort to try to make sense of something that otherwise may as well have been hieroglyphics. Actually, hieroglyphics might have been easier. I don't recall much, if anything, of what he wrote but I do recall feeling that I was reading something more related to poetry than science.

Someone asked me once, "How can you be a person of faith in the face of all that science can explain?" I responded by saying, it's a misunderstanding to think faith is about explanations. The more science explains the greater my sense of wonder becomes. I love the sensation I get when looking through a microscope: I feel as though I'm standing on the brink of a great gulf and if I just let go, I'll parachute down into an entirely new world.

Faith isn't about explanations; it's a relationship. And if the explanations of science displace faith, it's because faith was misplaced. In a relationship, the more we know, the closer we may become -- or not, depending on the relationship. But in the case of science, I find it more like the companion of faith than the divorce lawyer.

You've no doubt heard or even asked the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" It's a good question and when asked, my scientist friends frequently proceed to outline the cause and effect of chemistry, physics, and biology. For me, it's a matter that there is something rather than nothing that is fascinating. That we even exist, that the universe, expanding exponentially in the spring night sky above my farm, is even there at all, is a cause for wonder.

I love the final scene in the play and film, Inherit the Wind, in which the agnostic attorney for the defense, Henry Drummond, holds a Bible and a copy of Darwin's The Origin of Species in each hand as though weighing them, one against the other. Finally, he jams them together as if to join them even more forcibly by his effort, puts them into his briefcase, walks out of the courtroom -- the place of contention and debate -- and back into life.

Integrity in science and faith does not seem to me to lie in the effort to render them mutually exclusive, but in the willingness to hold them in tension. I'm thinking just now of a professor of biology under whom I studied while doing my premedical coursework. He confided once that his fellow faculty members regarded him as something of an oddity because he was a serious scientist who was open about his faith. When I asked how he integrated the two he said, "Science can only take me so far, but my faith is like an envelope: the more science puts in, the greater the envelope expands and there is no end in sight." I can't say it any better than that.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Author Stephen White

Several years ago a friend of mine handed me a book entitled, Privileged Information by a new author, Stephen White. The plot revolved around a clinical psychologist named Alan Gregory who lived and practiced in Boulder, Colorado. It was a murder mystery and the truth is, the only mysteries I'd read with any frequency were those of Sherlock Holmes. Some people consume mysteries like holiday peanut M & Ms; while I enjoyed them on film, I rarely read the book afterwards.

Privileged Information was different. For one thing, with the exception of the fictional house that Alan and his partner had converted into office space, Boulder was accurate down to the detail. For another, Stephen allowed the reader to experience the therapist's inner process; fact overlay fiction creating an introduction to clinical psychology in story form. That in itself was unusual -- so many novels with medical or psychological themes treat the science so superficially, you come away no wiser for having read them.

Not so Privileged Information. Its clinical and geographic reliability reflects not only extensive research, but the fact that Stephen practiced as a clinical psychologist in Boulder for several years. He obtained his PhD from the University of Colorado just down the street from Alan's "office." I've had the pleasure of getting to know Stephen a little bit and he's really a fine guy.

Privileged Information was his first book but now there are many others. The newest, The Siege, is due for release on August 4 and I'm looking forward to it. On his website,, you can read an excerpt. And no, this is not a paid advertisement - Stephen has no idea I'm writing about him this morning.

In fact, I'm bringing him up because some readers of this blog are medical students. It's true, medical students scarcely feel they have time to breath much less read a work of fiction. But there are vacations and I can hardly think of a writer who would appeal to medical students more. Partly because his work is refreshingly clinically-relevant, partly because he's been a clinician -- one of us -- and Alan's encounters with patients are proof of it.

For readers who aren't medical students, you'll enjoy Stephen's work because frankly, he's a darned good writer. He doesn't over-simplify the psychology but neither do you need a graduate degree to understand it. His style is intelligent and engaging, his characters human and humane. Stephen doesn't follow a formula, though, so no matter how many of his books you've read, you never, ever, know "who done it" until the final chapter.

(Update: Stephen White has announced the final two novels in the Alan Gregory series, the first, Line of Fire, to be released in August, 2012.)

(Creative Commons image of Kill Me by Stephen White by sweet mustache via Flickr)

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

I Wanna Be a Rock Star

One of the most interesting contributions to popular culture by the Baby Boom generation may be the ambition to become a rock star. A lot of factors contribute to this including, obviously, the birth of rock and roll music which many suggest coincides with the birth of Elvis Presley in 1935. In 1946, Leo Fender introduced the Broadcaster, a solid body electric guitar whose successors would yield an entire generation of fathers shouting, "Turn that crap down!" Radio was huge.

It's harder to imagine members of the Great Generation fantasizing about being the next Glen Miller or Artie Shaw. For one thing, to make music like that, you needed more than a band, you needed an orchestra. Four guys in a garage didn't cut it. Still, the Great Generation was the first to be exposed to music on demand. Turn the dial, wait for the tubes to warm up (radios had vacuum tubes in those days), and the kitchen became a dance floor. But unless you were part of an orchestra, it wasn't the kind of music just anyone could make.

All that changed in the 1950s. And in the 1960s, with the boom in folk music, all a person needed was a guitar and they were in business. That was always true, more or less, for country music. My father played his guitar and sang on the radio in the late 1940s. You've seen, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou -- well, apart from George Clooney and the four-part harmony, that was my father. I've followed in his footsteps and gotten on stage at nearly every opportunity.

But the idea of starting a band -- four people with bass, drums, lead and rhythm guitars and a vocalist -- that seemed to really take hold in the 1960s. In time, people would play air guitar to follow along with the stars. Now we have Guitar Hero and anyone can hold the rapt attention of a virtual audience. I don't know whether we're all just a bunch of frustrated musicians or what, but the idea of being a rock star has nearly become a phenomenon. In October 2007 alone, 1.4 million copies of Guitar Hero III were sold. That's a lot.

Maybe it just comes down to the music. I mean, it's accessible. Unlike the big band sound, its possible to take a rock and roll song and match it with four guys in the garage or arrange it for solo acoustic guitar and do an unplugged version. After we've jammed together elbow to elbow, inches from the stage at a concert, we go home, switch on the Nintendo and play until the wee hours. I still don't understand it, I can't explain it, but it's something we do. Or many of us do. Or some of us. And some just dream of doing it.

There's nothing wrong with dreaming.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Children's Books

I'm an unabashed lover of children's books. No kidding. Many times I'd much rather wander through the young readers section of the bookstore than prowl the stacks of current adult fiction. As a result, I made friends with Madeleine L'Engle's work years ago and discovered Kate DiCamillo (The Tiger Rising) one Colorado Christmas. Sadly, Madeleine passed away in 2007, but her books are consistently timely.

I've always been something of a late bloomer and when it comes to children's books, I think I'm a reverse bloomer. My mother taught me to read before kindergarten and by the time I was in elementary school, I wanted to read books that much older students found interesting. As a result, I somehow by-passed the stage where The Chronicles of Narnia or Madeleine's A Wind in the Door might have been just the thing. I was in graduate school when I picked up The Hobbit for the first time.

There are distinct advantages to reading children's literature as an adult. For one thing, we're able to understand metaphor and symbol in ways that simply escape us as children. The average person is unable to think in terms of abstractions until at least age 12 and frequently 13 or older. Even in adulthood, some individuals tend to think "concretely," demonstrated by their inability to interpret simple proverbs like, "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." A concrete thinker will say, "If you throw rocks in the house, you'll break the windows."

Sometimes parents can become impatient with younger children who don't seem to understand what we're saying. It's not because they're recalcitrant or spoiled, it's simply because they haven't matured sufficiently, in terms of plain old brain cells, to follow our meaning. Concrete thinking, however, is a core element in comedy and the classic duo, Abbott and Costello, were its masters. Do a web search sometime for the YouTube clip of their famous sketch, "Who's On First," and you'll see what I mean.

So, now as an adult, it's possible to read the classics of childhood as well as those destined to become classics, and see ourselves in new ways. A favorite author has written, "I am frequently blind to the very things that make for my own peace." Under pressure to "hurry up and relax" we miss the whole point. Visiting the writers of childhood takes us out of the world as we know it and allows us to see it with younger eyes. Seeing life with younger eyes...I hope we never outgrow it.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Hail and Well-Met

An event in the news yesterday got me thinking of persons I've run into, usually by accident, over the years. One evening in Dallas, while working at a Bennigan's restaurant, I turned around and met the ABC sportscaster Pat Summerall as he walked in the door after a Cowboys' game. Just this past fall, I happened to be at an Obama campaign meeting and shook hands with Senator Ted Kennedy, something I'll never forget.

In years to come, Michelle Obama will no doubt describe for her daughters what it was like meeting Elizabeth II and the Duke of Windsor. Moments like that are encounters with living history. But this time, upon her return to the White House, I imagine a slightly different conversation.

"Mommy, Mommy, did you really meet her? What was she like? Did she give you an autograph? Tell us, tell us!"

"The Queen? Oh, she doesn't give autographs, but she was delightful."

"No, Mommy, not the Queen -- J. K. Rowling!"

It seems the First Lady was seated next to J. K. Rowling at a dinner for GD-20 spouses and I have no doubt the Obama daughters can hardly wait for their mother's detailed description of their meeting. They may have discussed Rowling's involvement with charitable causes and I wouldn't be surprised if she received an invitation to visit the White House at some point. But for her daughters, knowing their mother spent the evening with the creator of Harry Potter, it has to have been nothing short of magical.

In the midst of all our appropriately laiden concerns about the environment, the war in Iraq, and the future of the economy, it's wonderful having young children in the White House once again. The First Family being a family helps create a sense of proportion and optimism that we've badly needed. We can be battered but not defeated, stressed but not in despair, down but not out.

I'd like to be a fly on the wall when Michelle tells her daughters about J. K. Rowling and it does my heart good to think of the Harry Potter novels on a bookshelf in the White House. I hope it does yours good as well.
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