Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Laboratory and The Pulpit

While yesterday's post was obviously humorous, it demonstrates the use of creative license. A "Hearing Curve," in actuality, is the product of an audiogram, a clinical measurement of hearing loss, though it easily became something else in the service of a story. Its use illustrates how we can apply a term in a number of ways, some more accurate than others. 

Take "myth," for example. The way I used it and recently, its most common use, suggests a fairy tale at best and an outright falsehood at worst. As I've said before, however, "myth" refers to a fictional story that serves as a vehicle for truth. Notice the difference. Not a "false" story, but a fictional one that may have some connection with history. It's like a film credit attributing the screenplay to "real events" while certain details having been altered to render the story more interesting. 

The myth of Jason and the Argonauts and the pursuit of the Golden Fleece depicts the extent to which one will go and the dangers one will face, to lay hands on a treasure. For all we know, Jason may have been an ancient Greek sailor known for acts of bravery and a desire for wealth, but even if he wasn't, we can identify with him. My journey through medical school was definitely one in pursuit of "treasure." I even seem to recall facing the many-headed Hydra in the form of first-term gross anatomy. I'm sure I wasn't alone in that experience.

Myth represents a type of creative license, taken for the purpose of communicating truths that might otherwise elude us. Truths that do not lend themselves well to factual or common sense explanation. The writer of Genesis was confronted by such a difficulty. How to explain why people do terrible things, why evil seems always present, even in the very best of circumstances.

Imagine a quiet, solitary oasis somewhere out on a Middle Eastern desert, a few thousand years ago. The night sky is littered with stars and a family sits round a campfire telling stories before the children are shooed off to bed. One of them asks her father, why do bad things happen? The father gathers his thoughts and says, "Mm, well, once upon a time, before there was anything at all, there was God and everything was peaceful. Then he made humans and gave them the capacity to love and make decisions in the same way he was able. Things were fine until their choices went awry, creating a pattern subsequent generations have followed far too closely. In short, my daughter, evil is present because some of us act evilly and have done so since the dawn of time. We are responsible for much of the evil we see."

Problems arise when we insist the elements of a myth have greater significance than its meaning. The first chapters of Genesis weren't meant to explain the origin of life. They were meant to explain how humans, even when they reside in paradise, will make bad choices. An ideal environment can be the setting for murder as easily as a ghetto. Genesis was intended to set forth the basis for ethical behavior and mutual responsibility.

Science and religion really are talking about two different things. Conflict results when persons of faith mistake the language of myth for fact and persons of science believe them. Darwin wasn't the enemy and our children don't need protection lest "evolution" turn them into amoral beasts. Faith poses no threat to science because faith, from the beginning, has been about relationships. Literalism is the enemy, attacking both science and faith with equal ferocity, utilizing "divide and conquer" as its chief strategy. The laboratory and the pulpit are where this battle should be fought, faith allied with science, determined to overcome ignorance and do so together.   

(Creative Commons image by the mad LOLscientist via Flickr)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Scientific Myth-Busting and The Hearing Curve

It is a little known otologic fact that hearing improves with age. 

You don't believe me. 

You've heard and read and perhaps even experienced the opposite. Well, I'm sorry to tell you this, but hearing loss in adulthood is an urban myth desperately in need of busting and we're going to do that, right here and now.

The truth is, hearing develops, declines, and recovers in a manner comparable to an inverse bell curve, a phenomenon known as The Hearing Curve. We start out hearing rather well in our elementary years as evidenced by the fact that our parents can't open a can of pop on the other side of the house, quietly as a mouse, with the barest hisssss of carbon dioxide escaping, without us hearing them and calling out, "I want some!"

With the onset of puberty, hormonal changes occur, resulting in observable physical changes such as increased vertical growth, the appearance of secondary sex characteristics, and gradual hearing loss that peaks at about age 16, usually coincident with the passing of one's driving test. We know this to be true because teenagers listen to LOUD music, particularly in the car. They talk LOUDLY and make LOTS of noise doing absolutely nothing.

Adulthood is marked by the gradual recovery of hearing acuity, accelerated in some cases by childbearing and child-rearing, and becoming most noticeable in the mid-40s to 60s. Adult hearing can actually become highly sensitive to the most subtle of sounds. For instance, the creek of the front door when teenaged son creeps in past curfew can awaken the soundest of sleeping fathers more readily than a gun fired off beside the bed. The best medical evidence for hearing improvement in adulthood, however, derives from the observation that parents the world over shout at their teenaged children who, naturally, are listening to LOUD rock and roll, "Turn that crap down!" It's obviously painful, otherwise why say anything at all?

So much misunderstanding and familial conflict could be avoided if parents only knew the truth. When asking, for instance, if their teenaged daughter or son was "deaf" when told to take out the trash, help with dinner, or clean their room, what a great thing to know that, yes, their teenagers were in fact, quite deaf or so close to it as to make no difference. Furthermore, that it's only temporary, literally "a stage" they're going through. On the other side, just as it takes becoming an adult to realize one's parents aren't stupid, it takes becoming one to be able to hear what they're saying without misinterpreting their shouting as expressions of anger or frustration. Everyone benefits.

It's really quite amazing what the teensiest bit of scientific myth-busting can do to improve our lives and relationships. And we did it all without mentioning "evolution." Isn't that amazing?

(Text copyright 2013 by the author -- written with tongue firmly planted in cheek)

(Creative Commons image by Rob Gallop via Flickr)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Doc Bugs and Me

One of my favorite places to shop is anywhere Christmas decorations are sold. When I was growing up, my mother instilled in me a real love for rare, unusual, or antique ornaments. Thanks to her, the drawers of my ornament cabinet contain bells and glass bobbles that date from her childhood before the War (as World War II was known in our house). Over time I've added my own preferences for traditional wooden soldiers, dogs, moose, and cartoon characters, notably Snoopy and Woodstock.

One ornament has special meaning for me -- the one in the photo. I picked up Doc Bugs, as I call him, in a little out of the way place called The Spruce House, in Estes Park, Colorado. It must have been late fall, during my first year of premedical studies, when I found him hanging on a rack all by himself. Lone ornaments are hard to resist, especially if they stir up an emotional connection and you realize leaving the store without them is a mistake. 

Well, Bugs Bunny and I go way back. Tall, wise-cracking, with big feet, like me, he was my favorite cartoon character when I was a kid. Only this time, instead of his trademark carrot, he was holding a stethoscope and smiling as though he knew a secret I didn't. Right off I was certain he'd been "waiting for me" and took it as a sign that someday I'd be in his shoes, or paws, as the case may be. The next year, I came upon another version of the medical bunny, a ceramic Bugs looking rather distinguished in a long white coat holding a hospital record, another portent (except for the "distinguished" part). 

It's funny how, when pursuing a dream, you latch onto things that symbolize its fulfillment to give you hope. I'm not superstitious, but I definitely believe in the power of images to fuel our ambitions and sustain us spiritually. When such things hang on a Christmas tree, itself a very rich symbol of life and new birth, they take on deeper significance. It's as though they participate in all the tree represents and pass it along when we're most in need.

Doc Bugs has done that for me the past fifteen Christmases. Each year, taking him out of his box and hanging him in plain view has been an act of faith and each year I promised myself my time was coming. Last night, bringing Doc Bugs out once more, I said to my long-eared alter ego, "Well, Bugs, this is your first Christmas as a real doctor." It just so happens, it's mine, too.

May you have the most wonderful and joyous of Christmases and the happiest of Holiday Seasons.

(Photo copyright 2013 by the author)

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Night Train to Christmas

"Nite train!" he called, waving with one hand and holding his daddy's with the other, as they walked out the door. I'm guessing he was probably four years old and he'd been playing so quietly, it wasn't til he spoke that I realized what held his attention. 

I was wandering through my favorite toy store, Tree Top Toys, in the Old Port. The Old Port is a gentrified section of downtown Portland that abuts the harbor (hence, the name) and could easily be mistaken for the backdrop for A Christmas Carol, especially during the Holidays. My attention was held by a Schilling display of wonderful classic tin toys that echo a time before batteries, when toys were wound up by keys and ran on pure imagination. 

The store was crowded, though not so much you couldn't move, and he stood in a corner, near the entrance. His father watched from a few feet away, holding baby sister in his arms and ensuring both daughter and son were kept occupied, freeing mommy to play Santa. I noticed them at first just in passing, like I'd noticed other shoppers, picking up puzzles or stuffed bears, turning them over to look for prices or stroking their soft fur and turning into children as if on que. Some items go to the cash register right there and then, others wait for dreams of sugar plums and a jolly old man with a sleigh to find their way "home."

Like a fictional doctor of my acquaintance, a four foot tall stuffed giraffe resting high on a display rack with a smaller one planted between his hooves and a smaller one yet, between his, caught my eye. The clerk told me she'd recently sold one exactly like the tallest to a little girl who saw him last Christmas, fell in love, and saved her allowance the entire year to raise the purchase price. I brushed away tears at the thought of her carrying him home. Christmas brings out the magic of the heart in ways we rarely anticipate.

 Working my way back to the entrance, I heard a small voice call, "Nite train!" and looked over to see him leave with his parents and wave as though the cars and engine understood. And maybe for him, riding the night train to Christmas, they did, indeed.

(Photo of horse-drawn carriage in the Old Port copyright 2013 by the author)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

So Much Fun

The snow started so timidly last night, I could count the flakes drifting cautiously past the shadow of my CRV, as though they felt self-conscious being seen. By midnight, their courage having grown in proportion to their numbers, enough had gathered for me to shovel an inch off the front patio; by morning, they reached, shamelessly, halfway to my knees. 

Depending on your inseam, that can be a lot or a little. Mine's 36 inches, so this was a lot. The dogs, by the way, agreed with me. When we went out for morning bathroom break #1, my Yellow Lab took one step, then looked at me and intuited, "Where did all this come from?" 

"From the sky, big guy," I responded, aloud.

Now, if I was a kid, an arguable point on days like this, I'd be torn between anticipation and lament. Anticipation because it snowed and that meant play, lament because it fell on Sunday and not Monday, guaranteeing a snow day. Overall, though, I'd be gladder than sadder since this much, this close to Christmas, ensures this year it will be white. 

We didn't spend much time shoveling snow when I was younger, certainly not in comparison to what I did today. My father would clear off the back walk to enable my mother to reach her car, but otherwise, we'd trudge through the drifts to the barn to feed the horses. If we'd had a snow thrower, it would have been different, but as they hadn't been invented yet, it makes no difference. Besides, dad was raised on a ranch where knee-deep snow was common and no one thought twice about it. 

I probably wouldn't think about it either, but for the fact that snow accumulates in Maine. At the foot of the Colorado Rockies, where I grew up, snow is like a relative, just passing through. Back here, the snow moves in and sets up housekeeping. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of snow days I had in high school. Back here, it takes both hands and a few toes to keep track of them.

One thing is incredibly similar, though, between the snows of my older youth and those of the younger one I discovered as a medical student, and that is, any snowfall is a chance to play. My new snow brush -- the one I use on the car? -- has a  movable head that lets me pull the snow off the car in sections, creating little avalanches as I move from the hatchback to the windscreen. 

With snow flying in all directions and oblivious to the cold, it came to me: I cleared the cars the same way as a kid. All I had then was a straw broom, so my avalanches had to move away from me. The push broom from my father's shop was okay, but the brush was too soft to work very well. My new one is perfect and as it was then, creating avalanches is still, so very much fun.

Am I ever glad.

© 2013 All Rights Reserved (text and photo) by the author.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Lawn Mower Face

Ten day's stubble, that's what women want to see on a guy's face, according to a recent study. Full beards mean good daddy material; heavy stubble makes us look like men. Personally, I wonder whether the female study participants (males in the study responded similarly) really want to snuggle up with Mr. Scratchy or they simply like "the look." 

Marketing likes it, that's for sure. Check out the male models in the latest L.L. Bean or Land's End catalog; almost every one has several days accumulation of 5:00 shadow. True, they're also young (20s, early 30s) and muscular, with finely chiseled facial features, characteristics no doubt chosen because of their presumed appeal to women. I'd like to know where all the mature male models have gone. You suppose, after a certain age, we don't have to try to look manly, we just do?

If maturity is a sign of masculinity, it's a darned good thing because whenever I've enjoyed more than a day of unshaven bliss, forget about women gazing at me with undisguised "I want to have your children" yearning on their faces. They only glance long enough to make a cross with both index fingers and point it in my direction. Makes me wonder if I've been watching too much True Blood (HBO) lately. Anyway, Daniel Craig's 007 looked pretty scuzzy in Skyfall (2013) after a few weeks hiding out in paradise. Even M noticed. So, what gives?

Maybe it's a shift in women's ideas about masculinity. Instead of a sensitive soul who wears his feelings on his sleeve, they want someone who appears and probably acts, a little tougher. Not in the sense he's inconsiderate or abusive -- qualities more accurately reflective of narcissism than genuine masculinity -- rather he has a kind of durability that says he can take life on the chin.

The authors of the study seem to think women consider a shaven face as too youthful, while a full beard makes men seem older, hence better candidates for parenting. Stubble characterizes the guy in the middle, situated on the cusp of masculinity. He has enough testosterone to develop a beard but not so much that he might be considered overly aggressive. "On the cusp," however, usually means "at the point of beginning." From that perspective, a man on the cusp of masculinity is still a boy, something worth remembering when you go out on a date. Appearances can be deceiving.

I have a sneaking suspicion character or manliness are more accurate terms for the qualities that came to mind when the participants viewed stubbly male faces. With a nod of the head to evolutionary psychology, I don't think women are so shallow as to be mainly interested in how closely we approximate our prehistoric ancestors. The problem is, unlike the onset of facial hair, character and manliness don't accompany puberty. They have to be earned and the proof a man possesses them is demonstrated by the way he treats others and the standards he maintains for himself, implying an investment in time and experience. We may be born male but we have to grow into manhood. Facial stubble may signal "sexy" but if Lawn Mower Face is all a fellow's got, he doesn't have nearly enough.  

 © 2013 All Rights Reserved

(Creative Commons image by Twaize via Flickr)
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Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Angel in the Hayfield

We were taking a late afternoon walk, my dogs and I, around the hayfield, trying to make the most of its company before snow buries it for another winter. We were three quarters the way around, counterclockwise, on the eastern side when I caught whiff of the familiar scent of Velvet pipe tobacco and the sound of a Maine accent I'd heard before, following it.

"So, how does it feel, bein' done and all? Ya ah a doctah, now, aintcha?"

He stepped out of the trees as he spoke, not an old man, but older than me, wearing a red and black buffalo plaid jacket, rubber boots, and a crumpled brown fedora. His took his pipe out of his mouth and gestured, "Nice dogs."

We'd met a couple of years ago when my yellow Lab and I got off the beaten path in the early twilight. He must have recognized the old man as well, because he made no move to growl. The black one, too, was uncharacteristically quiet and both sat, also uncharacteristically, as if on command. "Thanks," I said, "and yes I am, got my passing scores this week. I can't do much with it, though, since I'm not licensed, but that'll come. As to how it feels, I'm not sure. I can't quite figure it yet."

"Makes sense," he said, kneeling down to pat the dogs, who wagged the tips of their tails in response, back and forth across the leaf-strewn stubble. "Fer all ya put inta this, it has to feel kinda strange, kinda like maybe ya don't know how to feel. That's understandable."

He's got good therapeutic technique, I thought, showing empathy and paraphrasing what I say while being non-committal. "To tell the truth, I'm a bit afraid to feel. In the past, whenever I've gotten this close, something always came up to get in the way. It's hard to believe there's nothing 'out there' lying in wait for me. Though there is finding a residency. Still, it's a little anticlimactic."

He nodded, stood up, and looked away to the west. A cloudless winter sky passing into sunset was his view. He puffed on his pipe in silence a moment or two before he spoke again. "How could it not be? Ya been doin' this, med school, what, seven years now? It's been more yer life than an education." The way he said it, sounded like "edgikayshun."

"Yes, it has, with all the good and some of the bad associated with it. Not everyone I know expected me to finish. I never had any doubt, I just didn't know when. Oddly, it feels like something I want to keep to myself instead of shouting from the rooftops. Almost like it's too...too..."

"Too personal? Kinda like havin' a baby? Ya tell ever'one after it comes, but ya don't mention anythin' 'bout how ya made it in the first place. I think that's 'bout right. Shows respect fer what ya been through." He turned his pipe over, knocking ashes onto the ground, and refilled it. 

"Listen," he said, "some things you gotta respect, things that make ya who ya'ah, what ya pay fer in ways you can't imagine when you staht out. You didn't know it would take seven years, you couldn't. Nobody could. What matters is, ya did it. Faced down all the demons and come further than ya evah thought ya could. Yuh've done what ya were s'posed to, what ya always been s'posed to. Time'll come fer shoutin' -- right now, just love it. Love it and respect it, cuz things like this don't come 'long ever day."

Before I could reply, he reached down and patted the dogs once again, "You take care uh this fella, ya heah?" They looked at me and wagged, leaves flying as though caught up by a breeze. "As fer you," he said, straightening up and looking me in the eye meaningfully, "Residency'll come too, don't worry, maybe where ya least expect it. Been good seein' ya." Then he nodded and walked back into the trees. 

"You, too," I said, watching the angel in the hayfield vanish as he was swallowed up by the woods. 

(Photo copyright 2013, by the author, all rights reserved)

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