Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Night at the Movies

If you've ever gotten the impression that I'm not exactly up-to-date on the movie scene, you're absolutely right. I've got a list of excuses as long as my arm -- in excess of three feet, shoulder to fingertips -- but lack of interest is nowhere on it. I love movies and the latest Harry Potter flick got me hooked on IMAX and 3-D. All I have to do is walk into a theater and smell fresh popcorn, and it never fails, somewhere down inside I'm ten years old again.

Ultimately, the main reason I'm behind is cost. I'd betray my age if I told you ticket prices I recall, so as singer Jim Croce would say, "let's forget all that." My point is, it's darned near prohibitive, on a medical student's salary, to see first-run movies. And, unfortunately, the neighborhood movie house, as they used to be called, is a fond memory tucked away in American history. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, movies used to arrive first at downtown, upscale theaters. There they'd run for a few weeks before transferring to smaller, less expensive and less fancy theaters down the street from where most of us lived.

As a kid, Saturday afternoons were easily spent with my best buddy at the Woodlawn (isn't that a great name?), munching candy and watching double features. With the advent of the shopping mall and multiple screens, the local guys could no longer compete. Now, at least in my hometown of Denver, many of them have become venues for live music. That's a good thing, really, because it preserves the art deco architecture that was in its heyday in the 1920s and has become part of our cultural heritage.

Some towns, Dallas for example, have or used to have, dollar theaters. The seats weren't quite luxurious and the sound systems usually dated, but, hey, for a buck what can you expect? It was cheap and it beat paying several times that amount to see a film that had yet to go to DVD. The closest I can approximate that today is the automated dispenser at the grocery up the street.

True, my living room isn't the Paramount and the lounge chair I inherited from my parents isn't fitted with cup holders. Nor do I have the experience of surround sound and a screen wide enough to lose myself in the drama. But I can hit the pause button while I take my dog outside or skip backwards to hear a line that bears repeating in casual conversation. Peter Jackson and the Olympians was out in June and now it's available on DVD -- two months, that's not too bad.

The disadvantage isn't so much that I'm at a loss when someone asks what I think of the newest blockbuster. It's more that I don't have anyone to come around after "a night at the movies" to vacuum the carpet and collect the trash. I know, I need to have kids.

(Creative Commons image of Denver's Gothic Theater by DenverPam via Flickr; Operator by Jim Croce, copyright 1972)

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Friday, July 30, 2010

No Dead Ends

The comments on yesterday's post (To the New Class) have me contemplating the similarities between medical and theological thinking this morning. That there are similarities might be surprising since we ordinarily regard medicine as a scientific enterprise, theology a religious one, and never the twain shall meet. There is a way, however, of talking about the kind of thinking we do in each that may provide a healthy corrective and help us understand how these disciplines address the human condition in a manner that is complimentary, rather than mutually exclusive.

Let's begin by defining our terms. When I use the word theology I'm referring to a critical reflection on the nature of religious experience. Not religious as a category of human experience, but very specifically, one that falls within the framework of an identifiable religious tradition. This is in distinction from religious studies, which is the scientific, historical, psychological, or sociological examination of a religious tradition or religion in general.

Theological thinking attempts to describe one's experience of ultimate mystery in a way that is communicable, and as such, is limited by language. How do you put into words that which by its very nature, transcends comprehension? Someone has said theologians should be poets. Religious studies, on the other hand, isn't interested so much in the implications or practical application of religious experience in the context of a faith persuasion. Instead, it wants to know to what extent the experience can be scientifically examined, placed in an historical setting, or evaluated psychologically. Theology presumes one is speaking as a believer; the practitioner of religious studies can be, and not uncommonly is, an atheist.

For our purposes, in place of theology and religious studies, I'm going to substitute clinical thinking and medical science. This is my own choice of terms, by the way, so be aware other writers may choose differently. Medical science refers to the process whereby we analyze, describe, and diagnose, while relying the scientific method, examination, the accumulation and evaluation of evidence, and technology where applicable. Clinical thinking is the process of reflecting on what we do as physicians; its tools are experience, education, training, and hopefully, maturity. Medical science, in a sense, tells us how well we do it and how to do it better.

If theology is a reasonable analogue of clinical thinking, it follows that one must be a clinician of some sort to engage in it. Not necessarily a doctor, but someone whose livelihood is earned in the trenches. A critical reflection on being a clinician and the experience of caring for persons implies possession of first-hand knowledge. It's why many physicians are poets. Medical science knows no such condition; observation is accessible to anyone willing to pay attention.

Now, all of this gets sticky when we consider how practitioners evaluate their own disciplines. It's tempting for a psychiatrist to say, for example, that only psychiatrists are in a position to critically appraise the field of psychiatry and the same holds true for other specialties. But that begs the question, just as it does for Christian theologians, because our situation within a given theological or medical context colors our perceptions. Consequently, of great value to both is the opinion of one who stands outside the perimeter of "faith."

All of this is not to say the theologian's or clinician's self-criticism is invalid, only that it is inherently limited and one should resist marrying one's perceptions. Whether in medicine or theology, we're working with humanity in ways that far exceed the capacity of any single person. We need one another if for no other reason than to keep each other honest. In the pursuit of understanding, the only dead ends are the roads we refuse to take.

(Creative Commons image by rustytanton via Flickr)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

To the New First Years

A friend of mine once said, "Cockroaches are tender-hearted. One dies and a million comes to its funeral." Advice for first-time medical students tends to be as prolific. Once you announce your admission, semi-serious and tongue-in-cheek comments range from "Is it too late to back out?" to "'C' is the correct answer for every test question you'll ever get." A lot of it is general, all of it is well-intentioned, but only some of it is really useful. What is most useful seems to come by experience and what follows has been mine.

To begin with, medical school, like the real world of medicine, is a communal endeavor. The person standing next to you in anatomy lab may turn out to be a valued colleague, even though at the moment they're struggling to keep their head above water. Competition was fine as a premed but now you have more important concerns than who's on first. Students committed to helping one another make lasting friends as well as a lasting impression, so be sure yours is a good one.

Second, despite the fact that you're about to be inundated with information, more than anyone could possibly absorb, digest, and retain, you will learn some things and you'll be surprised at how much. Not all of it is testable, however, and your mission, since you've chosen to accept it, involves ferreting out what is from what isn't. Make no mistake, this is a critical skill and the first week is not too soon to get coaching from upper classpersons about how to do it well.

Third, not everyone learns in the same way. There are students I've admired who can memorize in their sleep. Others are process-learners who need to explain and talk through the material. If you're one of these, don't tell yourself you have to know something before you describe it to a friend. Use your notes -- your instructors do. The point is to get the concepts into your head by whatever means, so they are available when you need them.

Fourth, I was about to say, don't wait until you're in trouble to ask for help, but I've changed my mind. It's difficult for medical students to admit to themselves, much less someone else, that things aren't going like expected. We have high expectations for our performance and assume others do as well. Getting past denial and facing the truth is tough. Just don't wait until you're in deep trouble to become honest with yourself. Trust me, as much as it hurts, you'll feel better once your problems are out in the open and you've got the people you need on your side.

Finally, even though I said medical school is a communal endeavor, it's also an individual one. For each of us, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that truly does go by, way too fast. It's incredibly precious -- gobble it up, enjoy it, revel in it. After four or five or however many years it takes, you'll be in residency because of what you've accomplished. Don't ever take it for granted and don't ever let it get old.

(Creative Commons image of the University of New England by Harmoney via Flickr)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tattooing Me

Custom Tattoo design by Denise A. Wells
So, I had to get my annual ppd (tuberculin skin test) this afternoon. You know how that goes, you get a little subcutaneous (beneath the skin) injection of serum and 48-72 hours later have it "read." Reading simply means looking for a reaction that indicates a positive result and a little bruise from the injection itself doesn't count.

Anyway, despite my well-known, long-standing, needle-phobia, I stuck my arm out, gritted my teeth, and looked away. It didn't matter that I knew from previous experience this particular nurse is gifted at giving painless injections. Come at me with a needle and I'm wondering where's the fire exit.

All of this is to say, while it's never been a serious consideration, I am definitely not getting a tattoo. If they were done with magic marker, that might be one thing, but they're not. The whole idea of being stabbed over and over, even if it's only a pin-prick, is almost enough to make me break into a cold sweat. Besides that, there's the question of what to tattoo and where.

Where is simple: nowhere -- keep that needle away from me! What to tattoo is more complicated. I didn't serve in the Navy, so the traditional anchor is out. I love my mother, but a heart wreathed with the name "Mom," is kind of limiting. You see, I also love my dad and a number of relatives; there are only so many names you can put on a tattoo before it ceases to be art and starts looking like a population explosion.

I could go the route of animals, I suppose, but a dog neglects my cat, horses neglect both, and on top of that, I don't have a horse. That brings me to the biggest problem, namely, I don't know what I'd like to say with a tattoo that I'd be content saying the rest of my life. I try not to wear my faith or politics on my sleeve, so to speak, and placing them where they can't be seen doesn't make sense because then I'd be the only one to see them, and since I know what they are, why would I need reminding?

What about decoration? Well, here's the thing. Body art implies to me that one has a body that is conducive to showing off art. Mine isn't. Not that it's a bad body, but decorating it would be like hanging a Picasso in a barn -- and I don't mean one that's been transformed into a gallery, either. Some things just aren't done, and on a scale of one to ten, tattooing me is somewhere close to number one. And did I mention I have this thing about needles, by the way?

(Creative Commons image by Denise A. Wells via Flickr)

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Getting Past the Cover Art

Billy the Kid (1860 – 1881).
If I was inclined take advice offered by the professionals, I'd entitle this piece "How to create a good title." That's where I'd have to stop, however, because the hardest thing for me about writing is coming up with an interesting title in the first place. Ordinarily, you'd think the topic would be the determining factor, but not necessarily. In the book publishing business, with the exception of academic works like mine, author titles are rarely seen in print. Usually the publisher makes the final decision.

My problem is complicated by the fact that I tend to write using the Nike philosophy, i.e. just do it, and then try to figure out what to call an essay after it's finished. Interestingly, even in a small venue such as this, a well-crafted title is more important than content, when it comes to attracting readers. Good content keeps them coming back, but they won't stop by at all if the title doesn't grab their attention. Ironically, some days I think I've got a winner and my visitors counter indicates everyone is at the beach, reading Michael Palmer's new novel (The Last Surgeon). Other days I think I've blown it completely and readers are lined out the door.

Ideally, blog post titles incorporate key words or a phrase within the body of the essay so web search engines can pick them up more easily. I don't understand how that works, but it's what the Google people tell me, so I assume they know what they're talking about. Suiting the needs of the techno geeks, however, doesn't necessarily mean a title will be intriguing, particularly when content leans more toward the creative side of the spectrum. So, this explains why, every now and then, you may expect one thing from me and get another.

People are like that, too. Men with names like John and Bill, we're told by those who know such things, are considered solid, grounded, and dependable. If there's any truth in that, John Denver and I lucked out, big time. Then again, there's John Wilkes Booth and William Bonnie (Billy the Kid), so names guarantee nothing. What ultimately counts is content, and with people as well as literature, that means getting past the cover art, however appealing it may be.

(Public Domain image of Billy the Kid via Wikipedia)

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Monday, July 26, 2010

A New "Do"

Ah, change is hard. ~ Rifiki from The Lion King

He wasn't kidding. Change is often hardest on those who initiate it and in this case, that means me. As you can see, the layout for The Beggar's Blog has undergone a facelift. I've been contemplating this for months, experimenting from time to time with new ideas and ultimately, discarding all of them. Either the formatting didn't permit me to retain the sidebar gadgets, the fonts were weird, or I just didn't care for the "feel" of the new design.

This morning, however, I discovered Blogger, my hosting service, had introduced a new way of working with existing templates, so I succumbed to temptation. I feel a little bit like I've gone to the "hair cutting place" -- the person who cuts my hair isn't a barber but neither do I get my hair styled, so I'm at a loss for what to call her shop -- and asked for something new and now it's like, what have I done?!

I'm sure I'll adjust over time but more importantly, will you? What do you think? Do you like the new formatting? Is the print easy or even easier to read? What about the colors? I'm so darned colorblind I had to get a consult before I trusted the appearance of the page. I'd really appreciate any feedback you'd like to leave in the comments section of this post and thanks in advance!

(Creative Commons image via disneysexclusiveonline photostream via Flickr)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Lessons from Lance

Seven times yellow jersey winner Lance Armstro...
If I'd had my druthers, as they say in Texas, Lance would have been on the podium in yellow today. I would have dearly loved to see that, just one more time. Not because winning is everything and I perceive this particular Tour de France as representing some kind of loss. It's because I wanted to see him overcome the odds once again. The funny thing is, he's already done that, by surviving cancer and winning the Tour seven years running. How many "A's" do you have to get before you no longer need to prove to the world you're a good student?

Commentators and sports writers have noted how relaxed and congenial Lance has seemed this year. I think he'd loved to have lead the Tour all the way to Paris but the falls and delays early on interfered. What I find interesting is the way he took it all in stride and ultimately refused to allow bad luck to create a bad attitude. One could say, being at the top of the pyramid he can afford the luxury of being a good sport, but frankly, I think he's matured to the point where he can put things in perspective.

I recall a conversation in which a fellow student and I were chatting about exams and I mentioned something about how good it felt to secure a passing grade. He said that was fine for a person "my age," but he was young and still had to live up to certain expectations. I explained the academic pressures were similar for us both and prior life achievements did not secure anyone a free ride in medical school. He agreed but also pointed out that, at this stage in life, grades were his primary means of demonstrating his capability.

I found it difficult to argue with him without seeming callous or insensitive, and as time has gone along, our common experiences have drawn us closer, erasing differences and highlighting similarities. We've gained a greater appreciation for the kinds of contributions each of us can make as well as for the "falls and delays" we've both encountered. I'm always amazed to see how we change and adapt, how finding ourselves toward the rear of the peloton, so to speak, and struggling our way to the finish -- forget about the sprint -- have created mutual respect.

I know, it's not the Tour, but we're gotten a few "lessons from Lance," just the same.

(GNU Free Documentation image via Wikipedia)

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Small Town Afternoon

If I was Doc Hollywood, this could be Grady. It certainly felt like it today. Sometime in 1772, someone decided this part of Maine looked like home and that's when my town, loosely so-called, was born. Although it's mostly farming country now, years ago there was a mill located on the river bordering my hayfield, and old photographs depict loggers riding islands of timber like acrobats in Cirque du Soleil.

For two days each July, you can wander the grounds of a national historical site (photo), a mansion built in 1805, watch frog jumping and ladies' pan toss contests (the latter has to be like an egg toss only more risky), and munch cotton candy. Everyone from the Boy Scouts to local politicians and craftsmen/women set up tables, announcing to the world, here we are -- right here -- you can find our coordinates on your GPS. Making new friends is as easy as extending your hand.

Saturday morning there is a parade replete with marching band, antique cars, and a local hobbyist pulling a flat-bed trailer with a gigantic miniature railroad set up on its surface. The Masons or Elks, I never got which, drove a series of go-carts, each one dressed up like a life-sized 18 wheeler, and a group of lovely young ladies clad in wedding dresses walked along behind them. Being the equivalent of the Village Idiot, I chose this morning to drive to the veterinarian's, only to find myself weaving in and out of the parade as it gathered -- the cop who brought up the rear thought my foolishness more worthy of a laugh than a ticket. Such are the people here.

In the fall, county fairs spring up all over Maine, reminding you that this portion of New England is rural. We may have cities on the coast and ski resorts in the mountains, but in between are a collection of communities that dot the field and forested landscape like freckles on a kid's face. Tonight, for those so inclined, there will be a bean supper with fireworks afterward. I'm passing on the meal, no pun intended, but the fireworks are tempting.

This is a small town afternoon and small town life at its best. Uncomplicated, straightforward, no nonsense, and no posturing. Accept us as we are and we'll do likewise. Children taking pony rides, mom and dad taking pictures, grandparents taking their time, sitting in the shade. And tonight, there will be fireworks. Can it get any better than this?

(Photo by the author, copyright 2010)

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Friday, July 23, 2010

What Women Have Taught Me (about Women)

Reading advice to men from women has always been a favorite with me. A guy can learn a lot from the opposite sex and mostly, all he has to do is ask. Be sincere, genuine, admit he hasn't got a clue, and doors open. If only getting a date were so simple.

Naturally, it's important to ask the right women and for me, that's usually meant those who seem like they're in the know. The truth is, experience counts and who better to offer advice based on it than those who've accumulated some in the first place?

It's also important how you ask because women can't be expected to be disloyal to their gender nor do they want to give away the family jewels. What I mean is, there are some things they're simply not going to tell you, no matter how nicely you broach the subject, so don't expect the equivalent of who really shot JFK. That said, there are others they'd love to coach you about, such as how to tell if a woman finds you attractive.

I know this to be a fact because I asked once -- how could I know, that is, not whether any did or not. I'm only willing to risk so much self-esteem. What I learned may surprise you. Sure, there was the old, do her pupils dilate when she looks at you, but the problem with this is, the light might be bad and they'd be dilated anyway. Besides, it's more subtle than that.

For instance, when talking with two men, which one is a woman's body facing or at least angled towards? Whose posture is she mirroring? Looking closer, at which of the two do her eyes light up? These are unconscious cues that can speak volumes, especially if the other guy's one of the Backstreet Boys and you think you haven't got a chance.

On a more obvious note, does a woman go out of her way to speak to you? Is she easily drawn into conversation with lots of eye contact? This is no time to develop fumble fingers -- hang onto the ball for dear life and make up something to talk about if you have to. When you're wearing a jacket, does she pick lint from your shoulder or lapel and then smooth the fabric? See guys? Haven't I been telling you to wear sport coats?

The point is, become a student of women. Speak less and observe more. Learn the nuances of body language and conversational style, pay attention to detail. Don't be afraid to approach a mentoring type (moms don't count) and ask a few honest questions. Oh, and uh, one more thing: buy a decent sport jacket and whatever you do, don't leave it hanging in the closet.

(Creative commons image entitled "Hands" by michael.newman via Flickr)
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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Surviving Board Exams

country road

Well, I think I'm going to live. Yesterday, I wasn't so sure, but this morning, waking up hungry at 5.04, two hours ahead of my alarm, the world looks brighter. Surviving board exams is all about endurance. Two hours of 100 questions followed by a ten-minute break, 100 more and lunch, then another hundred, break, and the final hundred. It sounds like a lot, but the time goes fast, sometimes too fast. By the last hour, you're fighting brain fatigue, butt fatigue (despite a comfortable chair), and a bountiful desire to just get it over with.

Now comes the waiting. For reasons that baffle me, practice question sites, such as the one I used and highly recommend to any readers who are osteopathic medical students (Combank), are able to process exam scores immediately while boards require two-three weeks. To paraphrase Thomas Paine, these are the times that try medical student souls. Even the best of us (and I don't mean me) come away with a measure of uncertainty about the outcome.

Honestly, I think its part of the process of making doctors, teaching us how to live with ambiguity. Even the most straightforward of surgeries, for example, may conceivably involve a post-op infection. We never really know things are going to be absolutely okay until the fat lady sings and sometimes she's late coming onstage. Becoming accustomed to waiting is essential and the sooner we get good at it, the better off we'll be.

So, yesterday about the only thing I did, besides nap with the dog and cat, was mow the lawn. Now, here on the farm, that means getting out the tractor mower, because I'd wager I drive at least a couple of miles back and forth, maybe more. I looked at the computer screen and thought about writing and that's as far as I got. Exam days are always hard on the frontal cortex (the part of the brain that handles conscious thinking) and the day following, one feels as washed out as a country dirt road following a cloudburst. The fact that I'm here this morning indicates Tuesday wasn't a flood after all.

(Creative Commons Image by Grant MacDonald via Flickr)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

This is No Puss 'n' Boots

Six days on the road and I'm a gonna make it home tonight. ~ Dave Dudley

I'm sitting here, six days away from taking board exams, and last night I dreamed I was walking through a relative's back yard when I noticed a shadow in the trees above me. I looked up and saw a tiger, growling, about to pounce on me. At first, I wasn't sure whether to be afraid or to try to reason with it, but when it landed in front of me and bared it's teeth, my limbic system (the portion of the brain that processes emotion) told me this was definitely no ordinary house cat.

It grabbed hold of my right hand and yet, somehow, I managed to drag the two of us toward the open patio door, hoping those within would hear me shouting, "Call 911!" At that point, the tiger let go of me and charged inside, attacking my cousin. I followed, attempting to intervene, and was grateful to see my "friend," actor Joachin Phoenix, ready to come to our aid. What he was doing in my dream, I have no idea, but together we drove the cat back out the door.

My initial impression of this dream is, I'm not as anxious about facing the "tiger" this year as I was last June, but I still have a healthy respect for it. Furthermore, I'm better prepared, as indicated by the fact that I was aware of the tiger before it was literally on top of me. This time, I've gotten help from friends and a coach to identify strengths and weaknesses, so I'm able to keep my wits about me when the attack comes.

I suppose one could interpret the tiger as representing fear, in which case the message of the dream is, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Fear can be plenty formidable, so whether the tiger is the exam or the emotion it can generate, the outcome is pretty much the same. The important thing is I came out of the encounter with my hand (I'm right-handed, so this symbolizes capability) intact and able to act on behalf of someone else.

All in all, I think this means I'm in a good space where next Tuesday is concerned. I still have topics to cover, practice questions to do, and sleep to try to get, but things look more positive than they did a year ago. Tigers like mine aren't the petting kind and only a fool would treat one of them as though it was Puss 'n' Boots. Still, from the dream imagery, it looks like I'm not going to get eaten alive, and that feels really good. Makes me think of the limerick, "There once was a lady from Niger, who smiled as she rode on a tiger. They came back from a ride with the lady inside, and a smile on the face of the tiger." Not me, I hope, at least not this time.

(Creative Commons image of Puss in Boots by Dyak via Flickr; Six Days on the Road, by Carl Montgomery and Earl Green, recorded by Dave Dudley, copyright 1963)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Psychiatrist's Banquet

Down the Rabbit Hole

I suppose I ought to be scared, but usually I'm not, when a psychotic (or otherwise) patient loses control or goes ballistic. For one thing, it doesn't happen as often nowadays as it used to because we've gotten better about anticipating melt-downs and taking steps to prevent them. They're not good for patients, they disrupt the unit, people can get hurt, and I've been one of them. You'd think if anything would scare a person, besides simply the idea of being on a psychiatric unit, it would be the possibility of patient violence.

Actually, it came as a relief when I found these situations didn't generally unnerve me. For one thing, you want to be useful when stuff hits the fan and if you can't think on your feet, you're more hindrance than help. For another, frankly, it felt good knowing my first inclination was not to immediately withdraw from the face of danger. I don't think it's a "guy" thing, either, because I've known women who felt similarly and men who didn't. It really seems to revolve around discovering that you can be capable in extreme conditions and this brings with it a sense of confidence in your ability to address the rest of life.

So, what does scare me? Besides asking a woman to dance, you mean (see 3/28/10)? What scares me are the people you wouldn't expect to. The ones who appear mild-mannered and calm, whose pleasant demeanor hides Hell Boy under the surface. Now, it's true, everyone wanders too close to the dark side of the Force for their own good, at least once in a while. But I'm talking about those whose behavior subtly and genuinely reveals a tenuous hold on reality.

The image I have is one of a fenestrated capillary. These are tiny little blood vessels with pores along the vessel wall facilitating the exchange of fluid and electrolytes with the tissues that surround them. People who are like fenestrated capillaries slip in and out of the pores without even realizing it. One second they're with you and the next they've fallen down the rabbit hole. Circumstances you'd consider ordinary trigger paranoia for them. A misspoken word and they're on guard; look closely, you can see it in their eyes.

You might be tempted to consider them a psychiatrist's banquet, a virtual cornucopia of diagnostic possibilities falling under the mystical rubric of Axis II personality disorders. That, however, like the passage of particles through capillary pores, is too easy, particularly when someone doesn't possess enough criteria for a specific diagnosis. No, for the most part, these individuals look and act normal -- until they are stressed. And what rocks their world may be absolutely nothing to you or me, but for them, it's all they need. It's their unpredictable unpredictability that makes me nervous. Mt. St. Helen's and the Richter Scale shows no activity. That's what scares me.

(Creative Commons image of Alice about to enter the rabbit hole by Valkyrieh116 via Flickr)

(Note: credit for the title as well as the inspiration for this piece is due to a loyal reader who prefers to remain anonymous. My sincere thanks for her creative turn of the phrase.)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Mother Teresa I'm Not

I have found the paradox that if I love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, but only more love. ~ Mother Teresa

It's just possible Mother Teresa was elevated to sainthood because she already was one. Her words on loving until it hurts remind me of a dialogue from the television program, M*A*S*H, between Radar and Colonel Potter. When asked how he deals with Mrs. Potter being confusing, the Colonel responds, "I figured out long ago I could either stop loving her or love her more. Since I couldn't stop, I had only one choice." I've always liked that.

Loving differentiates as widely as the origin of species. It's possible to conceive of a loyal British subject living in Maine 234 years ago, in the very house I currently occupy, determined to fight for independence on the grounds it was in Britain's best interest. In other words, imposing unfair taxes and withholding liberty does Britain more harm than good. Since she can't save herself, love dictates one ought to act on her behalf.

My parents used to say, "This hurts me more than it does you," and of course, I didn't believe them. Once I stood in the role of a parenting person, I began to understand how they felt, when the interests of someone far younger who depended on me, took precedence over my own little corner of the universe. Until then, I'm honestly not sure I knew what it meant to love. That's one of the things kids do -- besides giving gray hair, that is -- they get us out of ourselves and introduce us to a relationship like no other.

It's hard when your kid needs medication in order to remain stable or get that way in the first place. When sitting still is impossible because there's an internal motor idling 2000 rpm faster than the rest of the kids in class or when, at 19, s/he starts hearing voices mute to everyone else. If simply having children hasn't rocked your world, this will. It hurts us as much as them, but someone has to step up to the plate saying, "Take this pill or therapy, it's good for you," and if not us, who? And that's love, too.

My own words come back to haunt me more often than I'd like. Those occasions when they should have been carefully clothed in love and weren't, when I ought to have said, "I love you," and fumbled the ball as though I had dipped my hands in a vat of WD-40. We balance those with the times we did say it well, when we took a leap of faith and risked heartbreak in the name of heartfelt devotion. We have to do that because none love perfectly and none are perfect, least of all me. Mother Teresa I'm not. But we keep trying and that's what counts.

May you and the ones you love have a wonderful Fourth of July.

(Creative Commons image "Mother Teresa's Eyes" by mrsdkrebs via Flickr)

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Clinging to the Curves

View From Berthoud Pass.
It was my 19th Fourth of July weekend and I was beginning to feel grown up in ways I'd never known. Up until then, my uncle and I drove across the mountains together to visit family over the holiday, frequently in his 1966 Mustang GT. The GT model had a 289 cubic inch V-8 with four-barrel carburetor, four-speed stick shift, and a nice, tight suspension that made the curves on Berthoud Pass a teenager's delight. This particular year, however, I drove myself in my own 1966 Mustang.

It struck me as appropriate to be driving through the mountains in a car designated the "High Country Special," though I never figured out what made it "special" except that it was mine. I could have ridden with my uncle and he offered, but the idea of being "lost and alone on some forgotten highway, traveled by many, remembered by few," was too great and I yearned for the freedom of the open road.

I've written about my Mustang on other occasions and if you recall, I mentioned it had a 200 cubic inch in-line six cylinder engine. In-line means the cylinders were quite literally placed in a straight line, front to back, unlike the newer V-6s that place three cylinders on a side at oblique angles from one another. Like my uncle's, mine had a stick shift, but only three forward speeds and first gear was non-synchromeshed, which meant double-clutching to downshift from second. I guess you could say it was a transitional gearbox, incorporating elements of the old and new, perfect for someone in transition from youth to manhood.

Anyhow, my Mustang, with its Dunlop radials, clung to the curves with the same smooth grace every woman wants in a slinky black silk dress. Uphill was another matter, because those six cylinders couldn't generate enough power to get me out of second gear. So, there I was, being passed by everything from eighteen wheelers to grandparents towing aluminum Airstream motor homes behind massive Chevy V-8s. It was embarrassing, for sure, so I kept my eyes straight ahead and waited for the downhill when I'd make them eat my dust.

I knew the route by heart and every stop and start was like an old friend, but it still felt as though we were being introduced for the first time. At long last, the road was mine and I was meeting life head-on in a rush of cold mountain air. I'll never forget that first trip -- it was like my first date, only better. There was no kiss at the door -- neither had there been on my first date, by the way, but since I didn't know how to kiss it would have probably been a let down for both of us. Still in all, each one left me feeling I'd done something meaningful and in a perhaps small but decisive way, I was becoming a man.

(Creative Commons image of the view from Berthoud Pass, Colorado by ajaswa via Flickr; Sweet Surrender, words and music by John Denver, copyright 1974)

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