Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Proliferation of Porcupines

English: Photograph of two North American porc...Image via Wikipedia
I had just gotten out of the car, backpack and arms loaded down with books and miscellaneous school-related items, when I saw a shadow scoot across the ground in front of me. It was after dark, but the street light was bright enough for me to discern a basketball-size shadow with a little nubbin sticking out of one end and four legs. Then I noticed there were more of these NBA wannabees, maybe a dozen, multiplying so quickly, I couldn't keep up with their numbers. Suddenly, there were what I took for babies, hundreds of them, swarming around my feet like flocks of birds gathering to migrate south for the winter. Next, hundreds of infants swarmed behind the babies, and like Mary's lamb, everywhere I stepped, they were all sure to go.

Porcupines. Big ones, little ones, littler ones still, following me like geese in the film, Fly Away Home (1996). Sounds cute, you say? Well, I suppose it was, but cuteness wasn't going to solve the problem of getting into the house without a proliferation of porcupines clinging to my heels. Fortunately for me, dawn's early light intervened at that moment, accompanied by a full bladder and empty stomach. I didn't tell you? Shame on me. Yes, this was a dream from night before last in the wee, wee (no pun intended) hours of the morning.

Why was I dreaming about porcupines? I'm glad you asked. It all started with Freddy, a sweet little porcupine who lives under my barn, snitches apples from the tree next to the house, and has been growing increasingly comfortable having dogs and a person around. I won't use the word "tame" because he's still a wild animal, though one who's obviously nonplussed whenever the dogs and I go outside while he's gnawing away at lunch in the front yard. I speak to him, naturally, and he seems to respond to "Freddy" by looking my way.

Porcupines are supposed to be nocturnal, but this fellow's more of a day person who likes the warmth of the sun on his back. There have even been a few occasions I've discovered him lying in the flower bed, snuggled up against the house, right below my study window. The first time this happened, he had me worried because he hadn't moved in several hours and I thought, Oh, no, he's been sick, I didn't know, and now he's gone to the Happy Munching Ground in the sky. I got down on one knee, maybe an arm's length away, and gently called his name. He woke up, looked at me sleepily, and of course, said nothing, as is his way.

Now, why my dream has porcupines in such numbers is probably due to there having been another one in the yard lately, a big one, easily twice Freddy's size. He or perhaps, she -- I'm not getting close enough to find out -- lives in the forest behind the house and when the dogs and I go out at night with a flashlight, s/he looks at me as if to say, Do you mind, I'm eating here?! and ambles off into the bushes. I'm guessing Freddy's mentioned something about the quality of the menu and as with any good restaurant, the word gets around. Either that, or he's left his scent on the grass like a sign reading, Porcupines Welcome Here. The point is, now there are two -- well, actually, three. Last evening we had a new customer who took off before I had a chance to ask how they liked the service.

Jung or Dr. Freud would likely say my dream was a portrayal of how my unconscious views the coming months of board preparation, graduation, fourth year rotations, residency interviews, and the Match. I'm not going to argue; they know dreams better than me. But that doesn't change the fact, I'm honestly a bit worried. The last thing I want is to become so popular my best customer (Freddy) takes his patronage elsewhere simply because he doesn't like having to wait for a table. Porcupines are particular about these things, you know.

(GNU Free Documentation image via Wikipedia)

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

OB/GYN: A Dream of Women

As of last Friday, my obstetrics and gynecology rotation has come to an end, and as you've probably noticed, I've been uncharacteristically reticent to talk about it. Don't worry, nothing bad happened. As a matter of fact, in retrospect, this has been one of my favorite rotations. Scrubbing in on surgical procedures several times a week was an absolute kick and being able to act as first assist because I'd just completed surgery was like the icing on German Chocolate Cake. And, naturally, there were the babies. One, a few weeks premature, had the most beautiful, delicate, perfectly formed little fingers. Another fell asleep in the crook of my arm with her lips sealed against my left shirt pocket. No, darlin', I'm not mommy, but thanks anyway.

The truth is, I really had a wonderful six weeks and when it came time to leave, I felt almost as wistful as on the last day of my psychiatry rotation and that is saying something. What was holding me back from writing, though, took a few days to reveal itself, and unexpectedly, it did so in a dream.
I was a student on the obstetrics unit in an unnamed hospital one evening, sitting on a counter ledge in the nursing station, watching a group of women. A few feet away on my left was a new mother breastfeeding her infant. Directly across from her, on my right, seated on a soft, pillowed couch, were five other women -- nurses -- mostly in their 40s and 50s. They were smiling and singing or chanting, I can't recall which, and clapping their hands in unison, swaying from side to side. I couldn't hear the words clearly, but they were obviously enjoying themselves immensely.

Everything was so totally natural no one, not even the woman breastfeeding, seemed even remotely self-conscious or uncomfortable because a man was present. I got up from my seat and approached one of the older women whom I knew well, just as the group stopped singing and began laughing, with the intent of whispering to her, "This is the first time I've seen breastfeeding have cheerleaders," because that's how it appeared. In the dream, of course, I thought this terribly funny and was sure she'd think it uproarious. It's easy to be Robin Williams in Dreamland.

What strikes me about the scene were the colors. Everything, including my clothes and those worn by the women, was done in shades of white. Not paper white, but more like the pastels used to depict heaven on film, with boundaries fading at the extremes and an absence of sharp lines. It reminded me of heaven as Maxfield Parrish might have painted it, ethereal yet earthly, mythic yet real.

It seemed to me, I was seeing womanhood in a way few have the opportunity. The women themselves knew this to be true and graciously permitted me a glimpse of the way they are privately, when they're amongst themselves. As a man, I wasn't exactly an outsider, but neither was I an initiate. I don't know what I was, a guest, perhaps? All I know with any certainty is, I was witnessing a young woman in the company of older women, all of whom having done as was she, feeding their children from their own breasts, and the feeling I had was of joy and serenity.

Rotations are about a lot of things, I suppose, learning and practicing new skills, adding to a growing body of knowledge, feeling more confident in oneself, but this one was far more. Frankly, I'm still having trouble putting it into words. I'll figure it out eventually; right now, I'm still in awe.

(Creative Commons image "White" by LaWendula via Flickr)
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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Letting the Chips Fall

A pile of gambling chips.
I was getting some work done on my car and enjoying a visit with the mechanic when it happened, but I'll get to that in a minute. I like talking to mechanics and it's unusual for them to allow customers in the auto bays -- liability, you know. But this fellow's doubled as his waiting room, which, by the way, says a lot about the size of his operation. Anyway, since one of the two chairs was occupied by a morbidly obese collection of tools, greasy parts, and half-empty cans of WD-40, I sat down in the other.

I'd actually brought a book along to keep myself from distracting him with questions, but he wanted to talk and so talk we did, mostly about this and that. In which of the neighboring towns did I live, had I been there long enough to know his sister, when is the next snow coming. The kinds of things that make up life outside medical school and are common to small-town Maine. Probably small-town anywhere, for that matter.

Then he asked what I did for a living. If not the first question men ask one another, this is certainly the second or third. Men talk about work, what we do, how long we've done it, have we done it all our lives and where. It's how we size each other up, determine if we're responsible, reliable, if we can be taken seriously. I thought he handled my answer, that I was a medical student, rather well. It only took him about ten seconds to recover from the initial shock -- he did, however, turn around sharply and look at me like I'd just offered him a thousand dollars for a job he'd bill at ten -- before composing himself to ask what I'd done before. A guy my age must have done one or two somethings, maybe a few more, before sticking his neck out.

"I was a psychotherapist," I said in the most benign tone I could conjure. He picked up the theme like it was a favorite wrench he kept near at hand and related tales of family members who'd engaged the county mental health service, saying how he'd love to "get outta this garage" and do something with his life, while there was still time. Before standing on an uninsulated concrete floor in the dead of winter crippled him like it did his father. He reminded me of the bartender in Billy Joel's Piano Man.

He walked away from the window he was repairing in my passenger side door, shattered late one night by small-time crooks too stupid to realize a 2001 Honda was too old to have a navigation system they could pry free and fence for drug money. If they'd taken time to look in the window before throwing a brick through it, they'd have known. He stepped through the maze of tires and boxes, found a radio sitting on an oil drum, and switched from classic to alternative rock to country, listened a moment or two, and returned to my window. Watching him, I ducked my head and smiled; it was the same thing I would have done.

"Have you always been a therapist?"

Here it comes, I thought. No, I said, I'd also been a minister since about 19 aught 3, or so it seemed on weekends when I came home from rotations, dog tired, with two days to catch up on a week's sleep deprivation. Trying to salvage the situation, I added, but medicine had always been simmering on the back burner and just before my dad died, I finally gave myself permission to move it to the front. Too late, his demeanor had shifted as subtly as the tectonic plates and as noticeably as the Richter Scale identifying a tremor. Some things never change.

Up til then, we'd been two relatively ordinary guys talking about life and limb; a stranger would have sworn we'd known each other for years rather than 30 minutes. All that vanished so quickly it felt like it had never been there in the first place. I was a minister now and he was on his best behavior.

I didn't say it then, but I really haven't spent my adulthood with my head buried in the sand, fearful seeing the world as it was would sully my spiritual sensibilities. If I ever had them, and I feel sure I must have, they've been knocked down, brick and stone, by my own fallibility. A religion that's only good for Sunday morning rarely has much value the rest of the week. Some clerics like the interpersonal distance a collar or title provides; I like risking honesty. I like people who are sufficiently real to swear and not give a damn whether I notice.

In any case, I wasn't eager to put on my minister's hat quite yet and my friend couldn't see me wearing anything else. It's going to take some time. I'll go back to get my snow treads installed, and we'll talk again. Maybe eventually we can find a middle ground, one where he's him, I'm me, and we let the chips fall where they may.

(Creative Commons Sharealike image via Wikipedia)

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