Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Before It's Too Late

There are, no doubt, better times to change your mind than at the last minute. If we're completely honest, though, decisions like this have usually been percolating for a long time. So, we're not being impulsive as much as we're finally giving ourselves permission to do something else. I've known of someone who did this and it changed her life. Most of the time, in my experience at least, it happens in the movies.

I'm talking about the bride (or groom) who backs out on the wedding day, and on film, this is very romantic. Usually it involves a guy who is racing to get to the ceremony before it's too late. He crashes into the church, slugs the groom, grabs the bride by the hand, the music comes up, and they drive off into the sunset, leaving the audience to wipe tears and lovers to turn to one another and kiss. It's the perfect formula for a date movie.

In reality, it takes a tremendous amount of nerve to depart from the scrip
t, especially when so many are invested in it. There are guests with gifts to return, there's the minister and musicians, there are family and friends, some of whom are recently married and don't tell me that doesn't generate pressure. When your peers are making the leap and it's like everyone's doing it?

You tell yourself you're being childish, that doubts are normal and you'll be fine once you're on your honeymoon. If you don't go through with it, think of all the people who will be disappointed, maybe heartbroken. You owe it to them to do the right thing, don't you? All through the preparations, you've been so busy it was easy to relegate doubt to the back of the bus, but now it's standing right next to you, breathing down your neck.

I think this might happen more often than we realize and if a person is lucky, there's an aunt or uncle (thank God for aunts and uncles) -- a trusted someone -- who says the words yo
u need most to hear: "You don't have to do this; it's okay to change your mind." Like the handsome prince who alone can awaken Sleeping Beauty, they break the spell and you're free. George Eliot wrote, "It's never too late to be who you might have been." Even if it's not a wedding, even if it's something else, this is so very true. Even if it's at the last minute.

(Creative Commons image entitled "Runaway Bride" by Tina Vega via Flickr)

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

'Monk' In Tights

Michel de Montaigne
My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes -- most of which never happened. ~ Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne was a 17th century writer with 21st century angst -- and delivery. His massive volume of essays (the equivalent of the blog in his time) culminates with one entitled, On Experience, in which he talks about how he knows his body better than any physician. It's hard to say, but he may have been just a tad OCD --sort of like Monk in tights. But you have to give him credit, he could see the irony in his thinking and make a joke of his own fears.

Still in all, he must have been very good at sensing the slightest unusual feeling and associating it with illness, if not impending disaster. Medicine being what it was in Renaissance Europe, there were no doubt limitations on what he could find (he probably found enough anyway). But turn him loose with Harrison's Textbook of Internal Medicine and I can imagine him associating a simple headache with a cerebral aneurysm, a blister signaling melanoma, and a swollen gouty big toe the onset of gangrene.

If things are fine, you'd best be careful, if things are bad, they'll get worse. Fate is lurking round the next corner, lying in wait with doom at its heels. Always on the lookout, never quite able to let down his guard, another hundred years and he'd have been like the Minutemen, ready to fight or flight at a moment's notice. Chicken Little seems tame in comparison.

Fortunately for him, he was wrong more often than not and the catastrophes of which he was certain, avoided him like the plague. His watchfulness may have helped, but life bit less than it barked and it may have barked far less than it wagged its tail (tip of the hat to dogs everywhere). As with most of us, the worst thing he had to survive was his own doubt that he would.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Wolf In Sheep's Clothing

You might wonder what it's like, doing a daily blog. I'm not certain I can answer that question as easily as I can ask it. What comes to mind is having something to write about in the first place. Some days it's almost humorous how easy it can be and when it's like that, I quickly forget or conveniently ignore, the other days -- the ones when the computer screen and I are locked in a stare-down match, daring each other to blink.

On those days, you scour for an idea, looking at what you've done lately a

Author: Marian Gladis Water pump, ƀahanovce

nd hoping you're not repeating yourself. The last thing you want is for an essay to be like a wolf in sheep's clothing -- pull back the wool and it's what you said two weeks ago. So, you prowl your favorite inspirational hangouts for an idea or maybe you just say the heck with it and begin writing. It's like priming an old hand-powered water pump: you have to add some water to start the flow.

Once the words have your attention, then you've got to follow where they lead
, even if it looks like nowhere you've ever been. Stick with them long enough and even when you're thinking, this is awful, reading back over it, you can be surprised. Then again, it may be the kind of writing that makes you think the author should be prohibited by law from ever getting near a keyboard, and you start over from the beginning or the middle or wherever things turned sour.

When you've gotten near the end, you start wondering what's the point and will it mean anything to someone else. True, sometimes it doesn't matter all that much because the readers are going to take away whatever works for them anyway. But the goal is to try to make that process easier if you can. Then you edit, do a spell check, make sure the photo fits neatly, and hope someone stays on the page long enough to get to the last word.

But what's it like? It's like taking hold of something that's never been outside the confines of yourself, holding it by your fingers, and seeing it for the first time. It's revelation and incarnation all at once. It's like encountering someone you've known for years but never actually met. It's really pretty remarkable. And it never gets old.

(Public domain image via Wikipedia)
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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Patience is Our Virtue

Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan of a head
Psychiatrists (and, by extension, psychologists) get a bum rap in movies and on television. Most of the time we're either more troubled than our patients, we're sleeping with them, or we're just plain goofy. It's our own fault to a certain extent, because (don't tell anyone, okay?) we're kind of boring. At least to the casual observer. There just isn't a lot of drama that goes on, most days, and we like it that way.

We prefer organization to chaos because we want to create an atmosphere in which people can get better, not worse. We want to anticipate crisis situations in order to avoid them. Calm is good, we like calm. And that just drives Hollywood crazy. Emergency medicine, surgery, and obstetrics are pregnant (no pun intended) with scenarios that can be rendered exciting. What do you do with an hour of psychotherapy on network TV? Change the channel.

Even ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) doesn't help because it's not at all like the version you see on film. Patients are under anesthesia, the charge is delivered, and if you didn't know otherwise, you'd think nothing happened. So, to make things interesting, some creative license has to be taken and we end up with a mobster in analysis (Analyze This), psychiatrists in love with their patients (Color of Night, Spellbound), or Hannibal Lecter terrifyingly doing what he does best.

Every now and then, however, you get a glimpse that suggests we might be right in the head after all. Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting is sane and empathetic. Gregory Peck in Captain Newman, MD, despite the comedy, is devoted and effective. Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense actually helps his patient and Adam Arkin in The West Wing is down to earth and reasonable. See? We're not all nuts.

But it's a tough business, nevertheless. Gains are often slow and progress gradual. We can't call a code, apply the defibrilator paddles, and get a person's brain breathing psychological health in a matter of moments. Patience is our virtue. E.R. gave emergency medicine a real boost in popularity among medical students. We don't have the equivalent. Instead we have to rely on the old standby, third-year rotations, to show students how good it feels when someone goes home with hope in their pockets, knowing you made the difference.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Thanks, Noah Wyle

Noah Wyle

I really owe Noah Wyle. When I got onto the perpetual motion machine of medical education, his John Carter from E.R. helped keep me going. There was no Grey's Anatomy -- Carter was my man. His screw-ups, successes, and everything in between were an image of the ones I was intent on having for myself. I wanted watching him to be like seeing my future -- without the commercial interruptions.

It seems kind of odd, I suppose, that I'd rely on a character who was considerably younger to be a role model. The problem was finding role models in the first place. In real life, of course, I'd worked closely with doctors who kicked my motivation into high gear. But I wasn't working in a hospital anymore, I was taking classes, and sometimes it felt like the far side of the moon.

It gets even harder when you consider the demographics. Younger students outnumber the older ones (though non-traditionals are the fastest growing segment of this population), so it's even harder to find someone who's been there, done that, and because of their own experiences, can imagine what it's like being you. Sure, there was an online group at the time and they helped, but we were all pre-med students, so it was more like a support group, and I'm all for support groups.

In a situation like this, you take advantage of what's available, and John Carter was there. It's going to be different -- it's already different -- as the current generation of medical students enter residency. There are more of us who've decided No Limits isn't just a mantra on a T-shirt. We're writing, telling our stories, and sooner or later, someone's going to realize the next generation of E.R. or Grey's should depict an older student as the lead character, doing the job and doing it well. Just wait, it's coming.

(Promo image of Noah Wyle as John Carter in ER; copyright by NBC Entertainment. Image via Wikipedia)
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Friday, September 25, 2009

Dancing on the Table

Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That'll teach you to keep your mouth shut.~ Ernest Hemingway.

I'm not a Hemingway scholar -- the closest I've come to reading him is seeing The Old Man and the Sea with Spencer Tracy. The closest I've come to the condition he describes took place on my eighteenth birthday and once was enough. I never, ever wanted to feel like that again, so I took the cure gladly. From what I know of Hemingway, though, this quote sounds like him and it's good advice. Not that I'm writing about how to behave when intoxicated -- like I say, my only expertise on the subject is about avoiding it in the first place.

But I imagine him telling this to a group of men, perhaps younger ones, whom he felt could benefit from his experience. It's the kind of thing you say when you

Hemingway posing for a dust jacket photo by Ll...Image via Wikipedia

realize you've stuck your foot into your mouth and bitten off more than you can chew. We do that when we're disinhibited, when we've shed a few pieces of our usual social attire, and dancing on a table suddenly seems like the most reasonable thing in the world to do.

Hemingway might also have said, do the things you say you'd do when you're tired, angry, frustrated, or in love, because the effect is similar to the one produced by a fifth of Jack Daniels (one fifth of a gallon, in case you've ever wondered). The adrenalin flows and we feel invincible or at least more honest. And that's when the speech centers in the brain can disconnect from the judgment centers and our words come home to roost.

Not that this is always a bad thing -- I don't mean that. Thank God for the limbic system (emotion processing areas of the brain). If we didn't feel, we might not say half the things that need to be said at the right or the wrong time. Or write them. Sometimes you have to call a spade a dirty, damn shovel, as some might say. But it can also help to wait until the "lubrication" wears off before we do.

(Public domain image of Hemingway via Wikipedia)
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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Help Desk Psycho-Babble

The Help Desk -- that cadre of computer gurus who, thankfully, keep me connected, interactive, and functional in those dark, Druid-like ways that completely mystify the uninitiated (like yours truly) -- has informed me there is a temporary system-related disruption. In the meantime, they say, I may experience "issues."

Mm. What kind of issues, I wonder? Do these wizards of the electronic ether know something I don't? Am I at risk of becoming codependent and turning into my laptop's caretaker, engaging in unnecessary disk defragmenting or compulsively running the virus software over and over in case there's (whispering) an infection?

Chip 'n Dale

Worse yet, is there a chance I could become paranoid and start looking for a conspiracy somewhere? Maybe it's not the system at all, maybe it's the chipmunks trying to get back at me for blocking their secret pathways into the foundation of my house. Yeah, that's it, Chip 'n Dale have hacked my network.

You know, this is starting to get just a little weird. If the people who are generally the most adept at dealing with the digitized reality of a computer screen are beginning to talk psycho-babble, what's next? Oh, no, they're going to want to know how I feel about it. And then one of them is going to offer me a Teddy Bear and ask if I need a hug. I'm not ready for this -- it's too much -- does anyone out there have a Xanax?

(Title screen from the Chip 'n Dale cartoon short Chicken in the Rough. Copyright The Walt Disney Company, 1952. Image via Wikipedia)
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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Cougar Phenomenon


Well, it's really gone public now, the Cougar Phenomenon, I mean. This season, a new television show entitled, Cougar Town, will debut. It's about two women who relocate to a town where, it turns out, all the available men are younger than either of them. Golly, what a coincidence. I'm sure the producers would like it become the stuff of comic legend. I like Courtney Cox, so I hope she has a winner.

Anyway, when I'm asked what I think about this (the theme, not the show), I have to say I'm surprised it's taken so long to catch on. Speaking from experience, it's extremely flattering to be a younger man and find an older woman is interested. For one thing, you realize you've got enough game to actually be appealing to someone who has more experience, may have a successful career, and could easily make other choices. Instead, she chooses you. Wow.

At the same time, it's not so surprising when you think of the limitations women have had, and still have, to overcome to achieve genuine social equality. And not women only; interracial dating has only gained acceptance in recent years and, in some locales, I'm sure it's frowned upon even today. So, in a real sense, romantic relationships between younger men and older women are the natural result of women becoming freer to express themselves.

But relationships are complicated things (as if you didn't know that already) and the reasons for attraction are as varied as the persons involved. I think it's grossly unfair to assign blanket attributions to sex, unresolved Oedipal desires for mother, or any other generalization that strikes a fancy. Truthfully, one of the best things that could come from all of this is a change in the ways we describe a relationship as appropriate or not. It seems to me that it's far more important to be concerned about mutual respect, compatibility, and yes, love, than whether a couple fits within a given socially-acceptable category. But that's me and, hey, what can I say?

Image by digitalART2 via Flickr)
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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Blogger Glitch: Missing Followers

Good evening -- if you are a registered follower of this blog, you may notice that your follower icon is missing to the right of the text. This is a problem with Blogger and they are working to correct it. This does not, apparently, affect all browsers -- I've tried Safari and all the icons are in place, so don't worry, you haven't been dropped. It's a glitch and hopefully, all will be well by tomorrow (or so). Thanks for your patience!

An Autumn Story

A jack-o'-lantern illuminated from within by a...

On this first day of autumn, I thought I'd skip ahead to Halloween -- it's not that far away -- and share a story I wrote a few years ago, as a creative exercise, in a woman's voice. I hope you like it.

It's that time of year again. The leaves cover the backyard like my grandmother's quilt on her big, four-poster bed that I climbed up and jumped on as a child. The breeze in the morning is chilly and high clouds wash across the faded blue sky. After the chaos that is breakfast with three children, the house is quiet and the dog and cat lie like lovers in the sunlight coming through the bay window. I can see my neighbor putting out jack-o-lanterns and bales of hay -- the forever child, I think he loves Halloween as much as the trick
-or-treaters who flock to his house every year. It's autumn, and autumn always makes me feel...I don't know...reflective?

I was never very fond of school when I was younger. I stood out from the crowd, too tall, too skinny, freckles, braces, glasses. My hair never cooperated with my mother's religious attempts to make me look beautiful. "Darling," she'd say, "beauty is as beauty does," and she'd shoo me out the door.

But when you're young and it seems as though all the other girls are candidates for the cover of Cosmopolitan and the best you're suited for is the back page of Field and Stream, that's not so easy to believe. So, I became a watcher. I watched the other girls become cheerleaders -- teenage imitations of Barbi -- too eager for love, marriage, and childbirth, and I watched the leaves fall.

Somewhere in the mix, I stopped doing Halloween. Instead, I became my mother's assistant, passing out candy, acting grown up, getting old without even knowing it. My father, not unlike my bachelor neighbor, thought the holiday was a great thing. He'd always buy a mask of some sort or other, and every year his seasonal ritual involved lying in wait for me on Halloween evening, and when I wasn't looking, put it on and give me a "Boo!" I think it must have saddened him when I stopped acting surprised -- maybe I was sad, too.

When my own children were old enough, we began taking them out on Halloween. It's a delight to see them dressed up and hear them squel as they "count their loot" at the end of the evening. But I still feel a little sad. It's as though somehow I can't quite let go and fully share the experience with them. Something within me holds back, as if fearful of discovery. Honestly, I think I'm afraid my children will see me as I sometimes see myself -- too tall, too skinny, with braces on my teeth.

I almost have to laugh or maybe cry. The memories of childhood are so powerful. And yet, there's my husband, raking red maple and oak leaves into a huge pile. Tomorrow night he'll put on that scary mask he doesn't know I know he bought, creep up behind me, and give me a "Boo!" I haven't gotten it all sorted out, not yet at least, but I also know life is brief, all too brief, and that pile of leaves looks like it wants me to run and jump into it, so that's exactly what I'm going to do. My grandmother would be proud.

(Image via Wikipedia)
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Monday, September 21, 2009

George Carlin: Messing With Us

Carlin is in my all time top 5 comedians.

Doesn't "expecting the unexpected" make the unexpected expected? ~ George Carlin

Well, gee George, I don't know. Does this mean there's no such thing as the unexpected -- unless something really is unexpected, but only because we didn't expect it and if we had, we wouldn't be worrying about this in the first place? And since we didn't, it's nobody's fault but our own because we were warned -- to expect it, that is? Whew. Gandalf might have said it best, "Expect me when you see me." But, does this mean the rest of the time we shouldn't expect him?

Let's think about this for a minute. If the unexpected is like a surprise or something we hadn't looked for, does this mean we should look for things we shouldn't look for? That kind of sounds like we might get in trouble, you know, looking for things we shouldn't be looking for. What if we find them, what then? Maybe we shouldn't look for certain things, but if we don't, we're not expecting the unexpected. Oh, my, this does get confusing.

And what about those surprises? I like Christmas and being surprised. Does this mean I should anticipate being surprised? I do that anyway, it's what happens on Christmas morning (at least in America, unless we open packages on Christmas Eve -- another topic for discussion). But this is a good question: if I anticipate it, is it a surprise anymore? Maybe what's in the box is (and it may be one heck of a surprise, if you know what I mean), so it could be that this is a smaller, more localized type of surprise rather than a huge, global one, huh? Kind of a like a pain in the neck instead of a pain in the, um, well, that doesn't exactly work, but you get the idea.

Okay, let's try to put this all together. We should expect the unexpected, anticipate the unanticipated, look for the things we don't look for (how do we do that, I'd like to know), and be un-surprised by surprises. Now, it could be that we're really supposed to prepare for the unexpected, but that means we know what's coming so we can be ready for it. And I don't always know what's coming so I can't always be prepared or at least sufficiently prepared so I can act like I knew what was coming all along, even though I didn't or couldn't have or wouldn't have if I could have.

You know what I think? I think this is all a bunch of nonsense and George (Carlin) is just messing with us. That's what I think.

(Photograph by Bonnie from Kendall Park, NJ, USA via Wikipedia)
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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sisyphus and the Garden Hose

Sisyphus by Titian, 1549

It was an odd dream. I had to get water from far away to a galvanized steel water trough and the hose was short by two inches. Don't you hate it when that happens? You pull and tug, trying to stretch out all the kinks and twists. It looks like it's j-u-u-u-s-t going to make it, you let go, it shrinks back and you're two inches short again. The Myth of Sisyphus revisited.

I literally scratched my head and tried to think of anything that might work. Standing nearby was a woman, her two young sons, and her husband, a hard-working handyman-type, the kind of guy you'd expect to have a common sense solution for something like this. She asked him if he had any ideas but he scratched his head and looked dumbfounded.

At that moment, the lights came on, and I began tracing the course of the hose, discovering it passed through a neighbor's patio that was cluttered with old, rusted bicycles. I reasoned that if I cleared the path I might get the inches I needed. Just before I reached for one of the bikes, the woman admonished me to exercise caution -- they were old and fragile. So, I carefully lifted one of them out of the way, pulled on the hose, and I was golden.

The dilemma posed by this dream is how to get water to the trough when it looks like there's not enough hose. Some problems are truly related to inadequate resources. But in my dream, it's actually not the length of the hose, but the fact that it's path crosses interpersonal territory that creates the difficulty. As long as we live in community, we're going to run into situations like this. Resolving them depends as much on our willingness to be considerate as it does anything else. Sometimes that may be all it takes.

(Public doman image of Sisyphus via Wikipedia)
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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Autumn in New England

Saturday morning and it's in the upper 40s. The lane beyond my house, as it crosses an unnamed brook, is scattered with curling yellow leaves -- I think autumn has come to New England. My neighbors are busy putting out pumpkins, farmers are busy getting the last cutting of hay bailed and stacked, and the squirrels are busy as only squirrels can be, gathering nuts. It was chilly enough in my study yesterday morning that, for a moment, I actually contemplated building a fire.

That's one of the things I love best about this place. The heating system is not exactly ancient, but it's certainly old, and woefully inadequate to do much good at this end of the house. As a result, I rely on the fireplace which, being lined with a fairly efficient insert, does a fine job of warding off the cold. If it sounds cozy, well, it is.

I'm a guy and "cozy" is one of my favorite words. Maybe there's nothing incongruous about that, but I feel like it's an admission of some sort. Anyhow, the word is probably of Scandinavian origin, though I don't think anyone knows for sure. But when you think about the meaning Mr. Webster suggests, "providing contentment or comfort," it makes sense that the someone from the far North would have invented it. Cold nights near the Arctic Circle, a warm cabin, the intimacy of family around the fire, I can easily imagine a Laplander saying, "Ya, this is cozy, all right."

All of this is not to say we won't have some days ahead when I'll wish I hadn't taken the air conditioner out of the window. Here in Maine, like most places where there are four distinguishable seasons, anything goes. We may get hammered with an early season blizzard and then again, it might be Indian Summer until Thanksgiving. You never can be quite certain. I guess that's what I like about living up here -- and life in general. Every day can seem like a miracle if you just remain open to it.

(Photo by the author)

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Friday, September 18, 2009

The World Through My Eyes

The colors of the rainbow as viewed by a perso...

I thought she was crazy when my mother said, "Oh, isn't the grass a pretty green today." It was red to me and a very nice one; I rather liked it. That was my first inkling, at about six years old, that the world through my eyes was different. The second came in elementary school when I discovered there were a lot of crayons in my box of 64 that were basically the same color. Despite their labels, emerald green and autumn brown were virtually identical and purple was just a cheery navy blue.

As long as I wore jeans and whatever was in my closet, I was fine. But once I began to take an interest in clothes as a teenager, that's when I got into trouble. When I suggested a particular shirt with a pair of pants, salespersons politely pointed out how the same style in a different color would be a better match. Or my mother would say, "That's a lovely pattern, but are you sure you want a green tie?" Well, of course not, but it looked red -- why else would I choose it?

Eventually, I learned how to adapt and ask whether colors clashed. I even turned it into an opportunity to flirt by asking attractive young ladies what they thought of a particular combination. Women love being asked their opinion about clothes, I found out, so why not use it to my best advantage? It was another matter when they smiled solicitously and said, "Are you color blind? My brother has that problem, too." Oh, thanks, that's just what I wanted, to be like your brother.

What makes all of this even more difficult to describe is the fact that, when I explain my experience to the non-color-blind, they have no frame of reference for understanding it. To them, grass has always been green and they can't imagine it being the color of bricks or fire engines. And it's not that red, it's more like rust, or a bright russet. Trees are the same way, except for the tips of the ones in the hayfield out my window that are gold in the morning sun. I know, they aren't gold, they're green -- but they aren't, they're gold. And that's how it goes.

It's not that the world is somehow lacking in color because there's plenty of variety. It's just that, unless you're colorblind, it's not the same one that nearly everyone else sees. In a sense, you can feel rather lonely, as though you're inhabiting a world of one. But you also realize how unique we are, how each one of us "sees" in ways that are all their own. That changes everything and suddenly, you're not alone anymore. All it takes is a little perspective.

(Psst. I know the grass really is green -- whatever that means.)

(The colors of the rainbow to someone with deuteranopic red-green colorblindness, public domain image via Wikipedia)

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Stem Cells and Moral Ambiguity

A colony of embryonic stem cells, from the H9 ...Image via Wikipedia

It is a tricky thing to apply moral principles in situations that are inherently ambiguous. For instance, let's take the debate about stem cell research. Initially, we were talking about using embryonic stem cells and that raised a fire storm from those who are opposed to abortion. Abortion is bad, they say, and any benefit that may be obtained from it implies otherwise and so, no, you can't use stem cells from an aborted fetus. Lately, we've been talking about using our own stem cells instead, but that doesn't seem to make things any easier. There are still those who are angrily fearful that we'll end up skipping naively down the garden path to utter depravity. As if we haven't been there countless times already.

As much as I hate to admit it -- and believe me, I do -- there is some value to be obtained from listening to these people. Unwittingly, they remind us that we can't avoid questions of ethics while experimenting with biotechnology. Not because we're sneaking around like giggling teenage boys who don't want to get caught looking at a copy of Playboy magazine, but because we're human and we wish to act humanely. We have great capabilities and we want to use them responsibly.

That said, we're entering new territory with stem cell research and rethinking the whole question of how to apply moral principles is part of this process.
Principles allow for interpretation and creative application to novel circumstances; absolutes imply rigidity and inflexibility. This is the trickiest part of all because moral principles are often viewed as moral absolutes by persons who have difficulty accepting and managing ambiguity.

Unfortunately, we can't wait for them to adjust completely. We have to move forward because that is the next step. We've come about as far as we can and now we have to go further. It's not just about the potential for good, it's about discovery. Forty years ago we walked on the surface of the moon. That's fine, what's next? Eighty years ago, penicillin was isolated. That's fine, what's next?

Truthfully, we don't know with any precision what's coming around the corner, but we know what will happen if we hang back out of fear and self-doubt: not only do we stagnate intellectually and culturally, but people will continue to suffer and die needlessly. If we have it within our possession to do good and choose to do otherwise, someone please tell me, how is that not a violation of moral principles of the highest order?

(Public domain image of embryonic stem cells via Wikipedia)
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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Character and Six-Pack Abs

First reconstruction of Neanderthal man

A few days ago I began a post by describing a fictitious (sorry to break anyone's balloon) account of Neanderthal dating rituals. If you'll indulge me, I'd like to revisit that scenario and take it in a slightly different direction.

Once upon a time there was a Neanderthal named Lug. He was in love with the girl in a neighboring cave and to impress her with his prowess, he went out and slew a saber-toothed tiger. Arriving at her cave later that day, he was met at the entrance by her father who politely informed him that Slug had brought her a mammoth and the nuptials were a done deal. Sadly, Lug returned home, took some charcoal and poured out his heart in images that endure to this day.

Never mind the fact that the saber-toothed tiger was the same one that chased Slug around the campfire the previous night. Never mind the fact that Slug can't pick up a piece of charcoal without burning his fingers.
And never mind the fact that Slug can't put two words together without grunting. He brought down a mammoth and that's what counts.

I know you can see where I'm going with this. The intelligent, courageous, and creative guy loses out to the bonehead with the big club. "Strength" takes precedence over depth of character. The problem is, you can't talk to muscles and grunting makes for poor dinner conversation. The capacity for relatedness and an ability to engage on multiple levels are ultimately what make the chemistry interesting, particularly in the long run.

Character grows out of experiences that are often painful and its development takes time. It doesn't necessarily conform to romantic fantasies nor does it always come with six-pack abs. But empathy, maturity, good sense -- these are the kinds of things that keep a person warm on a winter night.

Especially when the fire burns low in the cave.

(Public domain image via Wikipedia)
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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

This Old House

I live in an old house. Now, depending on your experience or where you live, that may evoke images of Southern mansions or The Haunting. Though there are mansions in Maine, this isn't one of them and neither are there any ghosts, at least as far as I know. It certainly has been around long enough to have a one or two but I've never encountered any and I'll be quite happy not to.

But, it's been a feature in this part of the country for over two hundred years and now and then something comes along to remind me of the fact. For instance, the other night the cat vanished. If you've ever had cats you know this isn't unusual. Even the most social of them -- and mine is definitely that -- have a tendency to disappear occasionally. In this case, he was visible one minute and gone the next. Won
dering whether Lewis Carroll had decided to pay me a visit, I found him climbing into the wood bin of the fireplace in my study.

Concerned he might get stuck, I pulled him out to his disappointment, and discovered bricks from the original construction dating to the late 1700s. That was an unexpected find. There are other signs of age, though, that are less romantic. For instance, there's a bit of wood rot around some of the window frames and this week a crew is busy replacing them.

One thing has become utterly clear and that is, this old house won't take care of itself. I'm sure it would if it could, but lacking that ability, it has to rely on me. If I simply assume it will last forever, it won't. Age correlates with deterioration when accompanied by neglect. If we want our bodies to continue to function optimally as we age, we've got to give them some attention. It may take a little more effort but it's worth it in the long run.

I mean, just because this is an old house doesn't mean it's not going to look incredible after a new coat of paint. Ahem, if you get my drift.

(Photo by the author)
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Monday, September 14, 2009

Cain and Abel Revisted

"Am I my brother's keeper?"

It's an interesting line, especially when you consider it was spoken by someone who'd just committed fratricide. As the story goes, two brothers made offerings to God from the labor of their hands. One was acceptable, the other not, and in a fit of jealous rage, the one killed the other. When confronted about his missing brother, he said, in essence, "Why is it my responsibility to look after him?"

We haven't gotten so far from Cain and Abel as we might think. In the current debate about healthcare reform, there are some who seem eager to ask the same question. It's as though they consider economic hardship a sign of unworthiness instead of a fact of life.

I've always wondered what would have happened had God made the same inquiry of the murdered brother? What would Abel's response had been? There's nothing in the story itself that tells us, but somehow I think he might have known and been willing to say. As a matter of fact, I think he might have taken it for granted that he ought to know, because that's what brothers do: they make it their business to care for one another.

In our economy it's reasonable that we should have to pay something for healthcare, however little, if for no other reason than the fact that we're responsible for one another. The absence of resources no more relieves us of this than the presence of wealth. It can be argued that we're responsible only for ourselves but those who signed the Declaration of Independence didn't think so. They pledged to each other, not only their lives and sacred honor, but also their fortunes.

In the best of times, this is easy to forget; in the worst of times, it's easier to neglect. But our best often comes out when things are at their worst, and the care we offer one another in those times shows what we're made of. We know what our business should be, it's just a matter of doing it.
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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cheerios and Homework

When I was a kid, I could nearly sleep the clock around. Go to bed about midnight and, barring a bomb going off next to me, rouse at ten or eleven the next morning. Now, an empty stomach, full bladder, or my internal alarm, has me up before the clock's rubbed the sleep from its eyes. If you ask the pros, they'll tell you our sleep cycle undergoes certain changes over time. If you ask me, they have too much time on their hands.

Over the past year or so, I've grown very fond of waking up with the world. When the only sounds, aside from Denver's classical radio stream (KVOD), are the occasional bird and the pad of the cat's feet as he runs from window to window, chasing it. When life is just starting to stretch languidly and shake the dew from its face.

Someday I'm going to have to build a house with a breakfast nook and windows that open onto a field or forest. An outcropping of kitchen where you can take a cup of coffee, fresh muffins, and the laptop, and be surrounded by morning light. Maybe have skylights so that, late at night when mother nature calls, you can sit with a glass of water under the stars.

BRISBANE, CA - MAY 12:  Boxes of Cheerios cere...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

That would be nice. A little piece of peace and quiet. A place where children splatter milk and Cheerios, where supper is loud, boisterous, and overflowing with six conversations at once. Where the evening table is covered with papers penciled with arithmetic problems and surrounded by puzzled brains. Where mom comes with tea before bed and dad with words before sunrise.

A place like that would be very nice, indeed. I think the cat would like it, too.

Image by Getty Images via Daylife)

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

9/11 -- The Morning After

The morning after 9/11 was slightly different from the morning of. The initial shock wearing off, anger was beginning to plaster over the cracks that appeared in my emotional foundation from the previous day's earthquake. Students at my college appeared oddly normal as they went from class to coffee bar -- the conversation was anything but. Overnight everyone seemed more subdued, more serious, more adult.

While standing in line to pay for my usual wheat bagel and French Roast, a student I'd never met turned and said, "I guess it won't be long before we're not doing this, huh?" I looked quizzical and he responded, "Military food, we're all going to be in a chow line." Looking at me a little closer, he went on, "Yeah, man, even you -- they'll have a place for older guys. We're all in this together."

I took a deep breath and thought about what he'd said. I was about a year short of completing premedical studies but I thought I might be lucky enough to get into the medical corps as a medic. I had a cousin with some influence in the Marines -- he might put in a good word. Then I thought about family, my dogs, and puttin
g my house in order.

None of this ever came to fruition, but it doesn't alter the fact that this is h

Bronze Star Medal; Decoration of the U.S.Image via Wikipedia
ow it was. The course of life didn't change for most of us, at least not in the way we anticipated. I finished my program, got a job as a psychotherapist, wrote a book, and my cousin went on to be awarded a Bronze Star for bravery in Iraq. He's home now, thankfully, with his wife and four children, that part of his life logged in memory.

It seems like it's taken us a long time to work through the grief process over 9/11. We acted out our national rage in a war that remains
unresolved. Instead of experiencing catharsis, the release of pent up emotion, we've cooked up a recipe that leaves us feeling nauseated. Healing can be a messy business. Scar formation takes time and the more serious the wound, the longer it takes. I think we're still working at it, but we'll get there -- eventually.


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Friday, September 11, 2009

Transforming 9/11

It was a fine Colorado autumn morning and I'd taken my car to the shop for something unmemorable when, listening to NPR, it became clear this was no

LITTLETON, CO - APRIL 20: Jake Schreck, 25, of...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

ordinary plane crash. Along with most of America, I spent the rest of the day glued to the television, calling family members to tell them I loved them.

The mental image of a country at war, younger friends being drafted, me in
sisting on enlisting in order to take care of them, began to form as a real possibility. There was no way to tell what was coming next or where, and daily life seemed comically trivial in comparison. I thought to myself, so this is what it was like for my father sixty years ago. Well, dad, now I know.

That's where I was then. Where I am now is something else again. You see, a little
over a year before September 11, 2001, thirteen were killed at Columbine High School, only a few miles from my home in Boulder. Over time, I would eventually work with some of the survivors. The strangeness of this life can't be measured and even the outcome of terror may be transforming.

While there are still some who pejoratively accuse the new President of being "an Arab," as a though that qualifies him for a front row seat in hell, I've become friends with medical students who are Islamic. We share the same desire to become doctors, we've stood side by side long hours in the anatomy lab and together, sweated out the uncertainty of exam week. Their uncertainties are identical with mine and they, too, rely on their faith to get them through. It would never occur to any of us to show each other anything other than respect -- and trust.

We love our country and we love one another. We're people, we wish to be healers, and we remember where we were on September 11 not only because it was horrific but because we want to do something about it. We want to change the future, and we do that best by changing one another and ourselves, as well.

Reflecting on Columbine, Image by Getty Images via Daylife)
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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Message in a Bottle

Message in a bottle - castaway

I happened to be chatting via Facebook with a friend last evening and I realized something new. Writing The Beggar's Blog is very much like composing a message, inserting it into a bottle, and throwing the bottle out to sea. Once away, it's out of your hands. You can only hope it will wash up on shore somewhere and someone will find it, rinse off the sand and seaweed, break open the seal, and read.

You don't know who that someone might be nor can you imagine what they might think. Water may have leaked in around the cork and the ink has become smeared. Even if they know the language, the words are unintelligible. But that's not what you think about. What you think about is how you hope someone will find it and find it meaningful.

It's about reaching out, trying to touch, sharing feeling, yearning to connect. It's what we do, humans and animals alike. We weren't meant to be alone and we know it. We wish to be a part of one another -- any part -- so long as we are not apart. Arms outstretched, fingers extended, leaning farther than we've ever dared, we hope to meet.

A person might leave a comment, send an email, find me on Facebook -- they were wandering the edge of the sea when they saw the sun flash off the glass. They reached down for a shell and found me beneath. Twisting away the cork, they reached in and drew me forth. Breathing the air of that unknown land, hearing familiar words in an unfamiliar voice, discovering how it looks through their eyes -- this is what it's like, this single step.

Of faith.

Image by alles-schlumpf via Flickr)
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Crossing Our Fingers

Image of a horse from the Lascaux caves.

I'm guessing it all started with the Neanderthals. Some poor schmuck named Lug went out and slew a saber-toothed tiger to impress the girl in the cave next door. He was met at the entrance by her father who politely informed him that Slug had brought her a mammoth and the nuptials were a done deal. Heartbroken, Lug returned to his cave, picked up a piece of charcoal, and began to scrawl pictorial advice to the lovelorn on his wall. And so it continues to this day.

You don't believe me.

Okay, me neither, but the idea that we need help understanding the opposite (or same, as the case may be) sex had to start somewhere. It probably wasn't all that necessary in the days when people had limited resources. If there's only six in your graduating class, three girls and three boys, and the nearest town with any population at all is a ten-day ride away, it's not hard to figure how things are going to turn out at the altar.

But as things get more complex and the competition gets stiffer, we seem more like Olympic athletes, our performance separated by a mere thousandth of a second. So, we turn to consultants to tell us how to dress, advice columns to tell us what to say, practice creative visualization to build our confidence, and cross our fingers, hoping it all works.

I'm not opposed to any of these things, by the way. It's just that there comes a point where you start to wonder if anyone really knows the answers. Maybe that's not what it's all about anyhow -- maybe it's about learning as much as we can, applying it to the best of our abilities, realizing we're at our best when being ourselves, and um, then crossing our fingers.

(Image via Wikipedia)
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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Playing Like Miles

Author: I found in an old box some of my past ...Image via Wikipedia

It's a lovely early autumn day in Maine. The asters (I think that's what they are) in the yard are pastel blue and while the trees aren't turning yet, I see traces of yellow here and there. Autumn is also the time when fourth year medical students begin applying for residency positions and my entering class is no different. They are and I'm not.

Now the reason is, of course, because I elected to do medical school in five, rather than the traditional four, years. I made that decision early in my second term and haven't looked back. Still, there are times when it's easy to feel, I don't know, wistful? I knew this was coming, it was part of the package, and no surprises. But I see my friends moving on, a year ahead of me, and I want to call, "Wait up!" And, naturally, they can't, nor should they.

In situations like this, there really are few choices. Either we ignore how we feel, fall into depression, or find ways to cope. The first is no good because suppressed feelings are notorious for cropping up in ways we least expect. Like it or not, we're stuck with them, so we may as well get used to it. Getting the blues is normal, but settling down to live with them only works if you live in New Orleans and can play the horn like Miles Davis. I'm a guitar man, so that's out. I guess I'll have to cope, eh?

Coping's good, it really is. Coping means getting creative, making connections with new friends, maintaining them with my pals who will become my teachers in another year, and contributing to life in the space where I find myself. Coping keeps us healthy and, don't tell anyone but I think it keeps us young, too. It teaches us to how to find joy and pleasure in situations others might find unbearable. Sure, I'd rather be applying for residency, but since I'm not, I may as well cope. It's not such a bad alternative when you think about it.

Peter Buitelaar

Monday, September 7, 2009


I've really got to resist the temptation to go off on a rant this morning. I'm still reeling from yesterday's encounter with Roz Savage and regular readers know how these things stick with me. It's just that I love people who challenge preconceptions and do the opposite of what they're "supposed" to do.

I mean, in a very real sense, that's what adventure is about: taking risks and embracing uncertainty. There are a lot of ways to do that and they don't all involve physical danger. It's part of our cultural heritage, I suppose, that we equate adventure

Seeking adventure

with youth and daring-do, but anytime a person extends themselves beyond the bounds of known capability, what else can we call it?

The poet, Robert Browning once said, "a man's reach should exceed his
grasp," but somewhere along the line we've gotten the idea that ceases to apply once your hair begins to grey. Ironically, that's when it begins to make the most sense. Loving with passion, achieving and possessing a vision for the future are what make life worth living. These are things we never outgrow.

Well, I guess I didn't resist temptation very well, did I? (smile) That forbidden fruit, it gets me every time.

Image by nick_russill via Flickr)
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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Rowing Across The Pacific


And here I thought I was the only one. Well, that's not true, strictly speaking. I knew there had to be others, but I hadn't met any, and so the field seemed kind of lonely. But this morning, I've met a kindred spirit.

Her name is Roz Savage and at this moment, she's rowing across the Pacific -- alone. She prefers doing it that way because, for one thing, if there's a mutiny, it's pretty easy to put down. She has a support team that meets her at various locations along the way and she maintains contact by iPhone.

How did all this start? The short version is, she was married, working as a consultant, and making a nice living. She had the life to which many aspire and still, there was something essential missing. While riding a commuter train, she set about working on two versions of her obituary -- an interesting approach to self-evaluation. The first was her life as she might have wished it to be. The second was the life she had been living. The difference was startling and she (like me a few years ago) realized she didn't want to arrive at the "station" saddled with regrets. Right here is where we connected.

So, she began making incremental changes, shedding the trappings of her old life, to begin the pursuit of one she felt was truly worth living. She's learned a lot in the process and one thing she's said has really stuck with me: if you repeat what you're doing today, every day for the next 365, will you be closer to or further from the life you wish to live?

I'll be the first to admit, not everyone can or needs to become a Roz Savage. This is her story, mine is mine, and yours is, of course, your own. Still, her's is well worth reading because she's living in a way that she finds to be genuine. I think that's the real point. Not whether I've abandoned home and hearth to do whatever, but am I living my life in a way that leads to fulfillment, joy, enhances love, and enables me to face the inevitable without regret. Not always and not everyone, but some of us may have to row the equivalent of an ocean or two to get there.

Image by Getty Images via Daylife)
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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Speaking To My Younger Self

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin
Never, for the sake of peace and quiet, deny your own experience or convictions.~ Dag Hammarskjold

This quote reminds me of one I love by Benjamin Franklin: Those who would give up essential liberty for a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. There is a price for sacrificing yourself in order to avoid conflict and it's often paid by the loss of self-respect. But it's one thing to deny your experience and convictions and quite another to know when to voice them.

If I were to give any advice in this regard to my younger self, it would be to pick your battles carefully. Credibility is far more important than you realize, especially when it comes to making a point. And it's easily lost when you treat every battle as a matter of life and death. Some are and some aren't.

I'd also say that your words carry more weight when you've thought them through carefully. The heat of the argument is no time to try to figure out what's on your mind. Forethought increases the impact of what you say, demonstrates maturity and -- here it comes again -- credibility.

If you aren't believable, what's the use of saying anything? If your comments aren't respected, it may be that you haven't shown yourself worthy of respect. The truest truths suffer most when their bearer is unworthy to speak them. So, if you want what you say to move the heart, be someone who uses his head.

Yeah, that's what I'd say.

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