Monday, August 31, 2009


2006-08-23 - Road Trip - Day 31 - United State...
The quieter you become, the more you can hear.
~ Ram Das

Try to get quiet, you'll miss out on something, like someone who's looking for someone who's looking. ~ John Denver

Whenever someone talks about the virtues of quieting the mind, I sometimes wonder if we live on the same planet. I mean, with all that most of us have on our plates, where is there room for another helping of anything? As it is, we often feel like we're dribbling off the edges and half-expecting mom to remind us to wipe up the mess after we're finished.
Disconnecting from the chaos around us is hard enough, tuning out the interior noise is even harder. Thoughts as determined to distract as an intractable itch push and shove themselves to the forefront of consciousness without so much as a word of excuse. They're demanding, inconsiderate, and insistent upon such importance that we're hesitant to tell them to shut up.

There is a word in the Hopi language,
koyaanisqatsi, that means crazy life, life out of control, life that needs redirection. In the 1992 film, Thunderheart, a Sioux medicine man says of the cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, "he needs to go up to the mountain and get himself focused." For most of us, those occasions when we can get away are too far and few between. Somehow we need to find a way to integrate them into daily life.

One of the skills I used to teach (while trying to learn myself) involved mindfulness. Becoming more aware of how I felt, forcing myself to inhale deeply when my chest was tight, paying attention to tension -- it all has the effect of turning down the mental volume and fortunately, it doesn't take time, it just takes practice. Since we're breathing already, it doesn't take much to breathe intentionally. And it doesn't take up any room on the plate, either.

(A Wild Heart Looking for Home by John Denver.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

We Were Gazing at Jupiter

Caption: Voyager 1 took this photo of the plan...
I had a curious experience the other night. At the time there seemed nothing unusual about it but days later, it was far different. I had taken my dog out for his last-of-the-evening prowl around the yard and while he sniffed, I looked at the stars. Living in the country, the sky is incredible most nights and this one was no different. Jupiter loomed large in the east, but as I watched it I had a funny feeling. Nothing explicable, just, you know, funny. It was almost as though I should be watching, that there was a reason for it.

Friday evening, I learned that Caroline Kennedy and her husband were looking at Jupiter at nearly the very same time. Her uncle had passed away shortly before and she was imagining him sailing away, with this brightest "star" to guide him. I didn't know -- how could I have known -- what was taking place only a few hours away on the coast of Cape Cod. But there we were, gazing at Jupiter, each lost in our own private reverie.

I'll be the first to admit, there's a great deal I don't understand. Hamlet said it, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Did he ever get that right. I was reviewing anatomy when my dog urged me to get out of my chair and attend to real life. And even as I was thinking about how the body works, the life in Ted's was slowly winding down.

Carl Jung wrote about synchronicity and the way seemingly random events may appear interconnected. Taken at face value, it was a full bladder coupled with his own inner sense of time-for-bed that got my dog to drag me outside. But knowing what I do now, I can't help wonder. Even if it was coincidental, it reminds me that so much more is going on, all the time, than life as we know it.

(Image of unknown licensure via Wikipedia)

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

The "Other" Ted Kennedy

Senator Kennedy

I spent last evening watching the wake for Senator Ted Kennedy at the presidential library in Boston. Long-time friends spoke, sharing personal memories that rarely reach the public eye. At the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, for instance, Ted privately took soil from the graves of his brothers, and spread it over Rabin's grave after the crowds had left the scene.

The Vice-President Joe Biden related how Ted had been like an older brother, helping him find his way as a senator. Had it not been for Ted, he said, he'd not be where he was in life. Bobby's eldest son, Joe Kennedy, thanked Ted's children for sharing their father because he, his siblings, and Jack's children, needed a father figure and Ted was there for them.

There was laughter as stories about sailing, practical jokes, and family trips to historical sites surfaced. Some talked about the visible change that took place in Ted's life when he met his wife, Vicki. Everyone talked about how, in one way or another, they felt like they were members of his extended family, whether by kinship or by friendship.

I was struck by one thing in particular. The Ted I had met was the same one they had known. This was his way with everyone, it seems, and I wondered what made him so. As I listened to their stories, I came to believe his pain had made the difference. Not simply losing his brothers, but the failure of his first marriage, Chappaquiddick, his own struggles with alcohol.

Whatever history or those who somehow feel qualified or justified in passing judgment might say, I think he learned from his pain and turned it into compassion. Love helped immensely. Watching his wife that snowy day in Maine, she struck me as natural, unaffected, spontaneous, and kind. She took a man 22 years her senior and helped him find his heart. The debt many feel they owe Ted, they owe her as well.

A community choir sang last night -- not the great hymns of faith that one might expect, but rather the bluesy-jazz-gospel mix you hear in an African-American church. And like Ted, when I first met him, at the very end they led the crowd in singing, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. And that's when I lost it.

(Image by Barack Obama via Flickr)
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Friday, August 28, 2009

Preferring Hell

You've probably heard of or even read the book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. Well, I'm wondering why don't bad things don't happen to bad people? And, to answer my own question, of course they do. The fellow recently released from prison in Scotland for his role in engineering the Lockerbie air tragedy has cancer. We'd call him a bad guy and cancer is a bad thing, no doubt about it.

But there are other times when the bad seem to walk between the raindrops that douse the rest of us. Someone lies, manipulates, or deceives and appears to get away with it, while you or I would be caught red-handed. Maybe to be good at being bad, you need to practice and most of us would rather not.

For one thing, there's the tiny matter of conscience. We feel guilty because we're capable of imagining how it might feel to be someone else. Conscience doesn't bother the bad because they don't care how others feel. The boundaries of their concern extend no further than the surface of their own skin.

I'm not certain how they manage to dodge the doom that would befall me. Perhaps
it's a matter of perspective and they really have a lot more bad luck than it seems. In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle, hell is depicted as the willful choice, over and over, of self over everything and everyone else. Eventually, nothing is left but an empty, dark, and lonely universe. Maybe that's the worst luck of all.

(Creative Commons image by Vibrant Spirit via Flickr)

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Age of Aquarius

Urbi et Orbi (EP) album cover
My dog's horoscope suggested he structure his time today. I'm not kidding. Now, it's true I haven't looked at his Paw Pilot calender lately, so this might be good advice, but I try not to intrude. It's his business (no pun intended) and we all need respect. Still, one wouldn't want to tempt the stars, would one?

Now, admittedly, there's a bit of a problem with this forecast -- I'm not entirely certain of his birth date. When I adopted him, it was assumed he was born in early January, a Capricorn according to those in the know. But he could just as well be an Aquarius, in which case he's predicted to learn something new about himself today. My dog as Mr. Introspective -- who would ever have guessed?

Then again (pardon my indecision here) he might be a Sagittarius and he should restrain his natural inclination to be involved in everything all at once. Cultivate the inner therapist, observe, scratch your whiskers and when your person offers you a cookie, ask, "And how do you feel about that?"

It's really too bad he wasn't born in October because Libra fits him perfectly: "You have no interest in being intellectual; you're all about feelings." That's absolutely spot on. Don't get me wrong, this is not to say he's, ahem, a bone head, but given a choice I think he'd prefer Dogs are from Mars, Cats are from Venus to The Journal of Cat Communication. He's just not that into academics.

He is a Puppy School graduate, though, and has a diploma to prove it. And he does have his Paw Pilot, but you can bet your life I'm not getting him a phone application for it, at least not until he can pay the monthly bill himself. You've got to draw the line somewhere.

(Image via Wikipedia)

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Meeting Ted Kennedy

{{w|Ted Kennedy}}, Senator from Massachusetts.Image via Wikipedia

It had snowed fairly heavily the night before but it was a spring snow, full of water, and the downtown streets were soon more awash with slush than ice. I drove through neighborhoods that smelled of old money, where hundred-plus-year old brownstone mansions reminded me I was a newcomer to New England. I found a parking place a block from the site where the Obama rally, if it can even be called that, was to take place. It was an assisted living facility and the speaker was going to be Senator Ted Kennedy.

I'd gotten there early, anticipating a crowd, but I needn't have worried. There were plenty of seats in the living area where a piano stood in the corner. Older adults gathered, a few at a time, filling the chairs. I took my seat, quite happily, on the floor as close to the podium as I could get. I'd never seen him before, in person, and I knew this was my chance -- if I wanted to meet the man who'd played football with Jack and Bobby, it was now or never.

Eventually the media arrived and anticipation grew as noise and bustling was heard down the hallway. Ted, his wife Vicki, and their two Portuguese Water Dogs walked in as though visiting family and made their way to within ten feet of me. It was all so casual I nearly laughed out loud. No police, no secret service, no relocating of ordinary people like me to the periphery.

He spoke entirely off the cuff, introducing his wife, his dogs, and then talking about the issues as though the entire election depended on this small gathering. I felt like I was witnessing a much younger man running for Congress at a time when "the press" meant a reporter with a pad and pencil. I can't tell you much of what he said, partly because I was so caught up in watching him and his wife. I remember how he looked at her, how she looked back, and there was no question I was in the presence of two people in love.

Before I knew it, he was finishing and asking us all to stand and join him in singing, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. I didn't know the words but I couldn't have sung them anyway, so choked up I was becoming. So, I stood there, blinking back tears and waiting for my moment.

As the crowd thinned and he started to make his way from the podium, I seized it. I laid my hand on his shoulder, he turned, shook my other hand, and looked me in the eyes. Not the, "is there someone more important I should be talking with" sideways glance that politicians polish, but eye to eye and person to person. It was brief and that was what I expected. What really mattered, was simply meeting him -- anything else would have been like pie a la mode. For me, it's always the pie that counts.

And, yes, I did meet his dogs, they were delightful, and I passed along greetings from mine to them both.

(Image via Wikipedia)

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Going with the Flow

Rocking Chairs at Historic Poole Forge
"If you stand in the same river for too long, even the banks will trickle past you." ~ Colum McCann

This one takes some thought. We could take it literally, but then the notion of the banks moving becomes surreal, like a dream sequence created by Salvidor Dali. That's artistically intriguing but it doesn't get us anywhere. What does it say about a person when they're so attached to one way of thinking, one way of being, that everything around them can move on and they don't even take notice?

The image that immediately comes to mind is geriatric. The old geezer sitting on the porch in his rocking chair, muttering how things were different "back in the day." Yet, I've known many older adults who were forward thinking and far too many young ones who were old before their time. Stereotypes don't apply here.

Nor do assumptions, but we make plenty of them. And not only about age. We do it with gender, race, and just about anything else you can think of. It's that mental short-hand based on familiarity and it gives us a feeling of control. But it can also be like strapping concrete overshoes onto the feet of the person in the river. Even when they'd like to move, they're rooted where they stand.

In a sense, it's as much about facilitating growth as experiencing it. Bracketing assumptions and allowing people to be themselves paradoxically liberates everyone concerned. It not only allows them to follow the flow, it gets us moving as well. It's all too easy to point out how someone else is stuck, when we're not going anywhere either.

(Creative Commons image via Zemanta)

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Risky Business

Swing BatterDespite what you may have heard on TV, psychiatry is not always a gentlemanly specialty. As a matter of fact, it can get downright physical and flat-out dangerous. One of those times started out like an ordinary evening. It was the end of my shift, I was wrapping up some last-minute details, when the PA system announced, "Code Green, ER." Now a code green means "out of control patient" and summons any available hospital personnel to help.

I'd been recovering from a disk injury I received managing another out of control patient and probably should have just let it go. But I've always wanted to be wherever the action is and I felt guilty staying behind, so I hobbled off down the hall, trailing my fellow therapists who could still run. I figured by the time I got there, everything would be over anyway. Famous last words.

I walked into the ER only to find security and staff standing around calmly and looking at me as if to say, "And where the heck have you been?" Rather than even try to explain, I asked instead, "What's going on?" Someone nodded in the direction of a young man who was shouting obscenities and wielding a telephone like a baseball bat. Anyone who came near, he yelled, would find out how much damage he could do.

At that moment, he gestured in my direction, "You! I'll talk to you!" I looked around, rather hoping he meant someone else, anyone else, and of course, everyone was looking at me as if to say, "Well, what are you going to do now?" I felt like an intern in a staged training session wondering when my supervisor would call a halt to the madness. No one budged.

So, I cautiously approached him and sat down on the floor (don't try this at home), figuring if this was as stupid as it looked, at least I had plenty of backup. To my surprise, he dropped the phone, and when I suggested we go into a treatment room and talk, he agreed. It was over that fast. I don't remember what was said nor what set him off. All I remember thinking was, you never know what's going to be important to someone. Maybe all he needed was to find out whether someone was willing to take a risk. You just never know.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?

A friend of mine said recently, tongue in cheek, "If this whole 'doctor' thing doesn't work out for me, I have a backup plan: winning the lottery." Aside from completely cracking me up, he made a good point. Some things are so important to us that the only backup plan we can imagine is one that is utterly ridiculous. As counter-intuitive as this sounds, it makes complete sense from the standpoint that some things aren't like other things.

For my friend, becoming a doctor isn't like reaching into a bowel full of jelly

This is a picture i took for the Candy article.
beans, finding none of your favorites, and taking another color instead. It's not like that at all. It's more like discovering a treasure that's more precious than anything else you might possess.

Sometimes we fumble about, searching in the wrong places, like a man seen crawling on the floor. When asked why, he said he'd lost his contact lens. When asked where he'd lost it, he replied, "Over there, but the light is better here." The truth is, some of us have to do precisely that before we start looking in the right places. You see, "X" doesn't always mark the spot and treasure maps are often unreliable.

Ironically, what we want the most may be staring us in the face and we just can't recognize it. We're conditioned to expect certain things by our upbringing, friends, or social status. Then one day, it's like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, and we're as surprised as everyone else by what we've found and we wonder why it took us so long to see it. I realize I've touched on this theme in previous posts, so no, I don't have creeping memory loss. But some things are worth repeating occasionally, and my friend's commitment reminds me this is one of them.


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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Crackers or Sex

If you spend any time at all (and any time is probably too much) prowling the social websites, you'll notice there's a topic I haven't covered. It's (looking around surreptitiously and whispering) sex. Did I say that (blushing)? Um, let me reconsider here...maybe I should have said hybrids and gas mileage. No? Your appetite's already whetted and now I have to deliver. Well, here goes.

Sex is bad -- don't do it (literally and metaphorically speaking). I'm serious. I mean, consider the consequences. For one thing, you can find yourself living out the childhood rhyme: "Beggar and Bonnie, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Beggar pushing a baby carriage!" Oh, that's right, this is the 21st century and we have birth control. Okay, let's move on.

Next there's the issue of obtaining it. Sex isn't like Ritz crackers -- five kinds on the grocery shelf, take your pick. You've got to do your homework: fig

Ritz CrackersImage via Wikipedia
ure out the best watering holes, decide which "lines" have even a tiny chance of working, learn how to determine whether s/he's interested, practice reading the signs, and then decide what to do if you're shot down. Clearly, sex involves a lot of work. Do you really want to put yourself through all that? Mm, you do, eh?

So, here's the real problem. Sex costs money. No, not that. You've got to have a decent wardrobe, maybe a cool ride, and the worst thing of all, you've got to clean your apartment! Most maid services won't even touch a job like that, especially if you're a guy, for less than a month's salary. Wouldn't you rather just get a nice DVD, throw some popcorn in the microwave, and grab a soda out of the fridge? It's cheaper.

I didn't think so.


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Friday, August 21, 2009

Last Gasp of Summer

It must be the heat, the heat and humidity. I feel like I screwed my head on crooked this morning and haven't been able to think straight since. It reminds me of Texas, actually (the weather, that is), and in more ways than one. We had tornado warnings tonight in South Central Maine. The good thing is, we have basements, but they're not usually meant for hiding, or at least not from the weather.

I suspect it's global warming, or perhaps El Nino or La Nina -- whatever the weather people are naming climate fluctuations this week. In any case, we're not exactly accustomed to the idea of funnel clouds. Thunderstorms, absolutely, but trees uprooted, roofs torn from houses, that kind of thing is supposed to happen somewhere else. Oh, and there were 12,000 lightening strikes in about an ho
ur, too, thrown in for good measure.
Maine winter

Looks like Mother Nature got things a little screwy, too. But we'll adapt because this is Maine, the home of what my late aunt loved to call "that stern and rocky coast." Where hardy people struggle with the elements and winter seems like the longest season of the year.

There's a silver cloud to this lining: next Friday we'll see lows in the 40s. Brewers have released seasonal pumpkin ales, the apples are falling from the tree alongside the house, and I see glimpses of yellow among the mass of green leaves in the forest. All we have to do is get through the last gasp of summer. If only it didn't have such hot breath.


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Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Little Bit Of Fun

I love the questions posed by marketers on Facebook. "Has someone been looking for you?" Well, gee, if they were and I knew about it, I guess it'd be because they found me, right? Duh. And notice how these ads almost always depict a smiling, sensuous, often bikini-clad woman, as if she'd be looking for me. I want to write and say, listen, even when I was younger, women like that weren't interested in me, so what insanity makes you think they're hot for my body now? I mean, not that I could blame them (I have a rich fantasy life), but really, get a clue.

Then there's the one, "How heavy is your brain?" Like I keep that information in my iphone, you know? Just in case I get asked sometime. Wait -- this could come in handy as a pick-up line: "Hi, my name's Beggar, let's go somewhere quiet and, um, weigh our brains, shall we (wink, wink)?" Like that one's going to do anything but get me acquainted with the bouncer. Him I don't want to meet.

20030926 - Simpsons - Homer Simpson - Rubik's ...

Oh, and I can cartoon myself. If I do that will I be like Brad Pitt in Cool World, stuck in toonland? With my luck, I'll look like Homer Simpson -- pot belly and all. Right, that's definitely how I want my friends to see me.

The options aren't quite endless, though the ads themselves seem that way. I'm not complaining though, because they've given me something fun to write about. By the way, I wanted to see what would happen if I clicked on the "Guess who's looking for you" icon. Turns out, they want some personal information including my gender. That's where I stopped. I mean, seriously, don't you think anyone who was really looking for me would already know I was a guy? I sure hope so, because if not, they've got bigger fish to fry.

Image by Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL) via Flickr)

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Looking Like Home

I felt it shelter to speak to you. ~Emily Dickinson

I don't know to whom Emily was referring, but I know what she meant. You've been running through a rain, the drops getting larger, falling heavier, falling faster. The sky overhead is darkening quickly, the wind picking up and the trees twisting almost down to their roots with the force of it. You run faster, trying to outpace the p

Hurricane Emily was spinning through the Carib...Image via Wikipedia
ursuing storm, and suddenly, you see a shadow, you can barely see it because the rain keeps striking your face and you have to wipe it away. Closer, your hopes rise. Yes, it's a roof. Yes, there's a door. Yes, it's shelter. You rush inside, you're safe.

Not everyone can do this. There are those whose demeanor is as turbulent as the storm, whose interior is as fragmented as a marble dropped in boiling water and then placed in a glass of cold. The fra
cture lines form a beautiful crystalline lattice but when struck by another marble, it shatters like a wet plate slipping from your hands and striking the floor. In constant need, they can neither protect themselves nor another.

There are those who, like the house built with straw or sticks, can endure the sun but not the sunami. When the wolf howls the foundations shake. There is no basement deep enough in which to hide and like its owner, you fly for your life out the back door.

Then there's Emily's. The ones whose pillars go deep into bedrock, who've endured God knows what and God knows how, but they have. The ones who shed security like autumn leaves, who make you feel wrapped as though by the wings of an archangel, who seem solid because they are and now you are as well. The ones to whom we speak and it feels like something more than shelter.

It feels like home.

(Image of Hurricane Emily 2005 via

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Friends and Procupines

Old World porcupine

I love living in the country. Last night, while my dog and I were taking a late evening stroll, a huge porcupine ambled out of the yard (fortunately I had a flashlight), across the road, and disappeared in the bushes next to the barn. His demeanor clearly said, "Pardon me, I'm walking here!" Seeing the mass of spines on his back, I had no intention of arguing. My dog, having no experience with procupines, pulled on the leash indicating he had other ideas.

I restrained him, not because I wanted to deprive him of the delights of the chase, but because I had a sudden vision of us making a mad, midnight drive to the emergency vet clinic to have spines removed from his nose. I tried to explain my reasoning to him, "Sorry, pal, but you've never encountered a porcupine before -- trust me, you're out of your league this time." He wasn't quite convinced but didn't have much choice and I was just grateful it hadn't been a skunk instead. Things could easily have been much worse.

Like my dog, there are times when I've needed to have someone hang on tightly to my leash, too. I chafe at the collar, pull and tug, bark and whine in my own way, but afterward, I appreciate the friend who saw danger where I only saw opportunity. It's a good thing to have people like that in our lives. Family are sometimes so close they fear to say what they think, but friends tell it like it is.

When I'm asked why I like Harry Potter so much, I have to say it's more why do I admire him so much. I suspect it's because Harry knows about loyalty -- if you're his friend, he'll charge at hell with a bucket of water on your behalf. He knows the truth and believes the best. He knows when to hold onto the leash and when to let go. It's what friends do.

Image via Wikipedia)
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Monday, August 17, 2009

For the Two of Us

Desk with chained books in the Library of Cese...
Just when all the fun was about to start. Well, maybe this will make more sense if I take you back a bit. I mentioned a close friend yesterday and how we had written a book together. It was more than that; we sweated through hours of research, late evenings writing and editing, for nearly four years. At one point, we thought we were done at last, got reviews from a potential publisher, and ended up rewriting nearly the entire book.

On a typical day I'd get a late night call and my friend would have an idea. He talked while I took notes and then put them into something readable. The next day we'd meet, revise what I'd written, and add more. I'd always wondered how anyone could fill two hundred plus pages. Now I found myself essentially writing twenty or thirty page term papers, week after week, each one becoming a new chapter. I'll tell you this, it gave the phrase "step by step" a whole new meaning.

In the beginning we were just two guys tackling a project. By the time we'd gotten through the second rewrite, we thought so much alike it was difficult to know who had said what first. Half the time one of us started a thought and the other finished it. And now, I'm the one who will really finish it. Not the book itself; I mean the fun stuff.

You see, I get to do things like choose cover art and read proofs of the final draft that will go to press. The kinds of things my friend anticipated with relish. For the past three years, while I was "up to my neck" in medical school, he and I burned up the telephone lines several times a week. His plans, my schoolwork, progress with the book, how are my dogs, how we miss the conversations over coffee -- we drank enough to retire a Starbucks CEO. This morning I'll obtain permission to use an illustration, talk to our editor about one thing and another, and do my best to enjoy the process -- for the two of us.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Life by the Numbers

Jaguar SS hood ornament. Photograph by Trevor P.
I was prowling one of my favorite web sites this morning and a comment caught my eye: "Age is but a number." I guess it depends on the number and whose it is. One of the best friends I've ever had was a guy who was in his 80s. When we met he was 78, looked 68, acted 48, and I had to push it, most days, to keep up with him.

He'd been a writer, psychologist, and musician.
He drove his Camry like a Jaguar while listening to jazz with the volume way up (no, he wasn't hard of hearing, he just liked the beat). And yes, he flirted, and far more successfully than me.

We wrote a book together that will be in print early next year. About mind-body relationships and the nature of illness, it was his last and it's my first. When he passed away last year, he was getting ready to embark on a second career consulting in pain management.

The most important thing I learned from him was life shouldn't be lived by the numbers. They really don't matter nearly as much as some seem to think they do. It's more important what you do, how you treat other people, and whether you're enjoying yourself. He certainly did, enjoy himself that is, and he treated everyone like they had value. He taught me it's better to outlive your body than to outlive your usefulness. Or your ambition. Or your dreams.


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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Inside Out

Italian neo-expressionist painter Francesco Clemente said, “The nature of painting is to redeem an undercurrent of sadness. That's what every painting is about." I'm not sure whether he was referring to the sadness of the painter, the one who views the painting, or both. But I'm intrigued by his comment.

Redemption means a lot of things. We redeem coupons, exchanging a piece of paper for monetary value. We redeem by making up for, correcting, undoing one thing and replacing it with what we hope is better. Redeeming an undercurrent of sadness, though -- this is something different. It makes me think of raising sadness to a new level.

Not so much that it becomes even more sad, but rather that it not be ignored. Pretending it's not there only delays the inevitable eruption of emotion out of the blue. I think he means creating a channel for the current to flow freely and become transformed.

Into what? That depends on the one who is doing the redeeming. For him, it's the painter. Me, I can't put brush to anything other than the side of a barn. But, thankfully, there are other ways to transform the undercurrents of life into something meaningful. It might be a song sung to no one but ourselves driving down the road. It might be a moment spent kindly excusing the stranger who passes too closely in a crowd. It might be gazing at the sunset from wherever you are. However it may be, it's within us to turn the tide of those currents toward joy.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Tree Talk

It seems a little early for this and awfully incongruous -- I mean, it's supposed to get into the mid-80s today -- but I smelled autumn in the air this morning. It was 59 degrees and there was an unmistakable scent of change on the wind. I love how that occurs. One morning it's summer, then sometime during the night, autumn sneaks up and you're left shaking your head, wondering what happened.

I passed a Locust tree yesterday that was nearly completely yellow. Surrounded by green leaved oak, maple, and poplars, I imagined their comments went something like, "There she goes again, making a fashion statement. Well, I suppo

Locust tree
se she has to do something to make up for having been named after a bug." Sigh. Trees, you know?

Well, it turns out the dames in the wood might know far more than I imagined. According to one story, the Locust (photo) was given its name by Jesuit missionaries who fancied it was the tree that sustained John the Baptist in the wilderness. The problem is, it's only native to North America, so maybe they were just being tacky after all. Who knows?

I suppose someone has to take the lead, though, if anything's going to change. Stick their neck out, take a risk, maybe look a little silly to the rest of us. It's hard being the only one standing while everyone else is sitting down, muttering, "What's wrong with her?" Sooner or later though, if she stands her ground, it becomes contagious and the next thing you know, the rest of the forest will join her. Then she can smile and quietly think to herself, "But it was my idea first."


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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Thank You, Mick Jagger

It was a morning I hadn't expected. I sat at the computer intending to write a letter of encouragement to some older premed students I knew who were about to take the dreaded MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test). Instead, the song Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones kept running through my head and something far different resulted.

So, with a nod to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, here is Ode to the Non-Traditional Medical Student -- and anyone else who could us a little smile.

"Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a soul with age and grace;
I was around when Bobby died, I remember, 'Lost in Space.'
And I was ‘round when a Macintosh was a coat you wore in the rain,
watched Bill Gates make history through my jaded window pane.

Pleased to meet you, can’t you guess my name?
My persistence blows your mind, I say.

I was there when Viet Nam wasn't so very far away.
where young men died as old men cried, it was only yesterday.
My kids, they play at video, while politicians play with oil;
corporate kings with virtues clean call the tune, we play the foil.

Pleased to meet you, don’t you guess my name, oh yeah;
pardon my insistence, but I ain’t takin’ no blame, oh yeah.

I saw the stare of managed care, rip the heart from life and limb;
steal doctors from the public trust, scare patients out of their skin.
Ethics dim, as profits skim the poor from sight and mind;
Uncle Ted says we’d all be dead it if weren't for those who're kind.

Let me please introduce myself, I’m a soul with age and grace,
a lifetime of experience, sometimes makes me hard to take.

Just when you thought I’d be satisfied, to be mindful of my “place”;
keep silent while security drops a shroud over my face.
Let the years become a barrier and time a cheap façade,
pretend I’ve done it all, oh yeah,‘til I’m covered up with sod.

Forget all the limits cuz
I’m here to stay (woo, woo, woo, woo);
Tell that resistance, just get outta my way
(woo, woo, woo, woo).

So if we chance to meet, show a little courtesy;
show a little grace and some decency,
‘cause someday, you’ll be me.

Tell me baby,
don’t you guess my name
(woo, woo, woo, woo)?
Call me doctor,
yeah, I'm goin' all the way.
(woo, woo, woo, woo)."

(Inspired by Sympathy for the Devil by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards - no copyright infringement intended)

(Image by alvarezperea via Flickr)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Would You Like to Dance?

dancing couple 18

Sometimes I get asked why I attend an osteopathic, instead of an M.D. type (allopathic) medical school. The short answer is because it was a D.O. school that accepted my invitation to dance. Being an older guy, you've got to have some moves if you want to get out on the floor. And even then, it helps to choose the right partner. You can spend a lot of time alone at the table otherwise.

I was looking for someone who was more than attractive. She needed to have her own ideas and be able to articulate them. It would be even better if she had a philosophy and heaven if it dovetailed with mine. She should be comfortable with herself and not need me to complete her. And there had to be chemistry, that ineffable something that you can't quantify but know it when you find it because you can feel it.

So, when I began the club crawl, I knew what I was looking for, but how to catch her eye? For one thing, it was time to leave the jeans at home and dress the part. Even at Billy Bob's Texas you need to polish your boots. Then, take a step or two (no pun intended) and ask. Eventually you hit the right combination and she says, "Yes."

For me, all this means I was looking for a way of doing medicine that was based on a philosophy of patient care. One that regarded patients as persons and integrated ones at that. In other words, an approach that related body to mind and both to spirit. While most physicians, I think, would agree on these principles (whatever intials are behind their names), osteopathic medicine writes them on their doorposts. It's what I was looking for in the right partner and can she ever dance.

Image by nelly! via Flickr)
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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Soul of the Healer

Recently, I came across an intriguing comment in a local paper. "Since nobody reads poetry anymore, why should our taxes pay for a poet laureate?" At first I was amazed anyone would object to having a national poet laureate. Then I was even more amazed by the suggestion that no one reads poetry anymore.

Still, it's entirely possible this might be true in a certain sense. When was the last time a poet's work made the New York Times Bestseller list? Maybe it's the

Signature of William Shakespeare from Page 3 o...
notion that poetry is difficult to understand or that only intellectuals read it? But we love music and lyrics are poetry of a particular kind. What's so different about Ogden Nash, E. E. Cummings, or Shakespeare?

Although his name is not a household item yet (emphasis on yet), I'd like to recommend you take a look at the work of my friend, Dr. Richard Berlin ( A psychiatrist, teacher of medical students, and gifted writer, his work reveals the heart of the healer better than any I've ever read (William Carlos Williams just rolled over in his grave). Here's what I mean:

If You Ask Me My Name

I will say healer, priest,
turner of textbook pages,
searcher, listener, arrogant crow
costumed in white, reflecting moon,
My name is scared and foolish
and sometimes too tired to care.
I am death's reluctant lover,
a child's guide, mother, father,
hero and fool,
and if you like it simple,
doctor will do.

Poetry is about soul and poets reveal not only their own but ours as well. They open themselves to vulnerability and by exploring their internal world, we have the chance to come away seeing ourselves differently and anew. We need this from time to time; it's good for us and you know the best thing about it? You don't even need a prescription.

(Poem from How JFK Killed My Father by Richard M. Berlin; image via Wikipedia)

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Behind the Scenes

Vermont Autumn-05
Here it is, early August, and I'm told leaves are changing in Vermont (the photo is actually later in autumn, but I thought you'd like it). It seems awfully early for that, especially with a warm sun spreading itself over the hayfield. My cat is laying on the bookshelf near the window, gazing yearningly at birds that scamper in the yard. I sometimes think they do this on purpose, glancing occasionally at him as if to say, "We're not afraid of you!"

I have friends who are beginning third year rotations this morning even as I write. I will not be joining them, however, for at least a few weeks as I have a second date with board exams. As happens more frequently than one might imagine, I didn't pass my first time through and so it's preparation time once again.

Interestingly, I'm not as disappointed as I think I ought to be. For reasons I have not been able to isolate, I have a queer feeling that this is purposeful. Don't get me wrong, I certainly intended to pass and gave it my best effort. But not passing seems to me to be no accident. I'd prefer, naturally, to be on the wards, trying to make my way through patient records, doctor's orders, and the confusion that accompanies anything new. Nevertheless, I feel like I'm where I'm supposed to be and have no idea why.

It's as though something or someone is working behind the scenes, directing the action, and I'm on stage knowing only my lines and waiting for a cue from my fellow players. What we see, how we respond to one another, is only a part of the whole and, in actuality, a small part at that. Everything could change in a moment and we'd have to adapt, ad-lib, and go with the flow. Maybe that's the lesson I'm "supposed" to learn (do I have to learn it again???) out of all this. Beats me, but I intend to be a good student, one way or the other.

(Creative Commons image via Zemanta)

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Little Trust

"My Pet Dog Turbo" - By DylanImage by rachel_r via Flickr
"Can I pet your dog?" she asked with a winning smile. "Of course," I replied and my dog eagerly wagged his agreement. She and her sister were playing a game to see which one could pet the most dogs in PetSmart yesterday. Not that I would have, but there was such confidence and trust in her smile that I couldn't have turned down her request had I tried.

You can't pet just any dog. They really are like people; some only look approachable. Once you're near enough to tell, there's a reserve, a reticence that says, "Look, but don't touch." Clearly, the young girl had been instructed by her mother to be polite and ask first, always good advice.

But what struck me about it all was her trust. There were other children in the store but only she and her sister were going about, petting one dog then another. Even her sister (I think they were twins), whom I met later, wasn't quite as certain as Girl Number One (I never got names).

As I say, she wasn't incautious; she knew to ask, but her manner not only suggested a confidence that I would approve but one that made me wish to approve. I'm sure both she and my dog would have likely been disappointed had I refused, but I don't think that would have stopped her from looking elsewhere for another "objet de petting." She was too engaged, too willing to put herself forward, to allow a setback to get in her way.

Trust reproduces itself. It doesn't do, expecting to be trusted while being suspicious of everyone else. I'm not saying we should be naive -- the girl I mentioned was far from that -- but naivete is not the only option. Being confident that our trust will be reciprocated is a much better one. After all, it would be tragic to go through life never having petted at least one dog.

(Image via Flikr: "My Pet Dog Turbo" by Dylan)

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Holding a Grudge

γνῶθι σαυτόν, "gnothi sauton", &quot...Image via Wikipedia
I think the worst kind of grudges are the ones we hold because someone failed to be the person we expected. But it's not only that they aren't who we expected them to be, it's how they dared to be anything but. We do this especially with parents. We've known them all our lives or so we think, and we arrive at adulthood only to discover they've been someone else all along.

How can this happen? Have we been deceived, have they led us on a merry chase for twenty or thirty years only to turn round and cry with wicked grins, "Surprise"? I don't think so, or at least not intentionally. As we grow up, our relationships with parents change and we become, or at least we ought to be, more capable of experiencing a person in their fullness.

When my father passed away, one of the most intriguing things that happened to me was visiting with his friends. Their relationships with him were far different from mine, and with their help I began to realize there was a great deal about him to which I had never been privy. I came away from these encounters wondering just who it was I'd grown up with. There was so much I'd never known and to which I'd paid so little attention.

Despite the common conception, age does not necessarily correlate with self-knowledge. Coming to know ourselves, as advised by the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece (Gnothi seauton: know yourself intimately), doesn't always get the attention it deserves. Ironically, neither does knowledge of others. We structure our lives based on assumptions that allow us to feel secure. When reality intrudes, we can feel disrupted and resentful. Grudges ensue.

The freedom we value for ourselves we need to grant to others. I've written several times about the mystery that presents itself in the face of another, lover and stranger alike. Grudges only serve to isolate us. They enshroud with the mask of angry familiarity and prevent us from knowing as truly as we wish to be known. Intended to protect against pain, they only create more, making all of us losers in the end.

(Image from Wikipedia)

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Close Encounter with a Role Model

Veterans Day 2007 poster from the United State...Image via Wikipedia

I don't know his name, I've never seen his face (as far as I know), and it may not be a him at all, it might be a her. The handwriting on the note looked like a guy's, but for all I knew, it could have just as easily been E.T. practicing his human.

A group of us had spent the day at the Maine Veterans Hospital, getting oriented for rotations that begin Monday. We attended a lunchtime lecture, toured the campus, and were inundated with information -- some of which, at least, I hope I'll remember at the right time.

As I walked out the main entrance I noticed a white piece of paper on my windshield and wondered how I could have gotten a parking ticket so soon. On closer inspection, it wasn't a ticket at all, but an unsigned note informing me my driver's side front tire was low and there was a nail in the tread. Someone not only noticed the tire inflation but looked closely enough to see the nail.

Fortunately, the leak was a slow one and I had time to have both nails (it turns out) removed and the tire repaired before making the 75 mile trip home. Mr. or Ms. Whomever didn't have to stop, didn't have to write, and could have walked on. But bother they did, and by so doing, saved me from spending part of the afternoon on the side of the road -- assuming the tire didn't blow at 65 mph causing me even greater problems.

At some point, I may see this person in one of the clinics and provide medical care in exchange for a hastily written note. We'll never know and while I have no proof, my intuition tells me the author is a veteran who was on campus and happened by my car. In any case, I'm grateful a perfect stranger believed service to their country didn't cease just because they were no longer in uniform. Talk about a role model.

(Image via Wikipedia)
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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Third Year Defined

Medical Students and physician review a techni...
Yesterday I mentioned third year rotations. Readers who are medical students know exactly what this means but others may not be so familiar with the concept, so here's an explanation. Medical school curriculum is divided into two parts: the first two years are devoted to learning the basic sciences while the second two years are spent in clinical settings, learning hands-on how to deliver effective patient care.

We spend four to six weeks at a time "rotating" through the various medical specialties. For the most part, our mentors are physicians, but ask any doctor you happen to see and they'll tell you the nurses and auxiliary hospital staff are some of the best teachers we'll ever have. So, in the course of those few weeks, we learn about delivering babies, treating sick children, working in the operating room, and so forth.

Rotations are an opportunity to see how medicine "works" in all its various applications. By the end of third year, we've learned how to
obtain a patient's medical history in a way that really aids in diagnosis. At the end of the fourth year, we'll have learned how to do an equally effective physical examination. We can't prescribe medications because we aren't licensed physicians, but we learn how to make treatment recommendations under the guidance of persons who do this every day.

One of the most important things we learn -- hopefully, we learn this -- as third year students is how to relate to patients as people. And not only that, but how to do so with a sense of genuine humility. The more we learn, the easier it becomes to forget or overlook how much we actually don't know. Fortunately, there are seasoned professionals around to remind us of that on a regular basis. As painful as it may seem at times, it is an incredibly valuable lesson and a little humility never hurt anyone. Now just watch, tomorrow I'll get a double-helping.


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