Tuesday, October 28, 2008

the thing we need is never all that hard to find

As of the typing of this post, I am in the midst of attempting to make bolognese sauce. Without any real recipe. Instead, I just kind of surveyed a few different recipes, looked at what ingredients I had on hand (which included an old bottle of red wine that's been collecting dust for too long), shrugged and started going. This, I realize, seriously increases the risk of failure, but really- would you expect anything more logical from me? I think not.

So back to the wine, because who doesn't like to talk about alcohol? It was this bottle of Zinfandel from one of my early trips to wine country, before I'd even moved to the West Coast. At first, it didn't get cracked open because it was a special bottle and so it was waiting to be opened around those who might appreciate it or for just the right occasion. And then, it didn't get uncorked because it had gone past its prime. It's Zinfandel, so it's not really the sort of wine that gets particularly precious when it ages. There's probably some deeper meaning in that, but I don't have time for that noise right now.

What got me was the vintage on the bottle. This was one hell of an old bottle of wine. I was barely legally allowed to drink when this bottle was released. And it was funny how that was equally meaningful and meaningless. On the one hand, it was halting for a moment when I took the time to look at the year, had a little flash of what life was like back then. On the other hand, this wasn't some idle bottle of wine. It was being used for a purpose, and so the fanfare was minimal.

Which is how it should be really. On the one hand, the passing of time should be acknowledged, and marked, and perhaps even reflected upon from time to time. On the other hand, it's not particularly useful to ruminate on it for too long. So much left ahead. Including the learning of how to make a proper bolognese sauce.

Mind you, making bolognese sauce is a highly inappropriate way to spend Diwali (let's just say this is not a vegetarian version of bolognese and leave it at that). So how about I do one Diwali-esque thing today, and wish all of you celebrating a happy one!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I hear in my mind all of these words

We're having a casual enough chat, and RS is hitting us with an anecdote from his first week on Medicine. He's a 3rd year medical student, I'm a 2nd year, and across from me is T, a 1st year. T and I have some weighty exams tomorrow, but RS is such a treasure trove of stories and inexplicable calm that we couldn't turn down his suggestion that we meet for lunch. After all, though we spend them studying, we have our weekend off: RS gets one day off a week these days.

He starts telling us about cases, and at first it is the sort of conversation you might have with anyone. And then, subtly, but undeniably, there is a slight shift. "So this is a 72-year old woman who presents with a fever of unknown origin for the past 2 weeks". No one else would necessarily call that launching into medical jargon, but there's that shift in his voice. I recognize it, because this is what we're learning. We learn to hear that first sentence and start searching the files in our head. Already, I have a list of questions to ask him about it. He goes on, and it gets even more technical.

And at first, we don't really even notice. "So, have they let you do the Echo yet?" I ask excitedly, half-excited because the case is interesting, half-excited because I know what he's describing, where he's leading me. Then I glance over at T and she has a bit of a blank expression on her face.

Which is not her fault. But being there, she drives home a point. We're learning a new language, and the three of us are on a continuum. She's learning rudimentary vocab, maybe a few things about grammar. I've got a lot of the vocab and grammar on paper, but I'm not fluent. I'm not thinking in the language yet. RS is getting there. Having T there, we see that all the more clearly, how we, stepwise, learn to speak like this, learn to think like this.

For some reason, I needed to see that today. Sometimes, otherwise, it can all seem rather like a lot of flogging yourself for nothing. And mind you, medical school still contains that component. But at least the point of it all was temporarily made plain for me today.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

indoor fireworks can still burn your fingers

I have to get to studying in a minute. But until then, I'm taking a little spin with Elvis Costello. The first Elvis Costello song I really got pulled into, admittedly, was Everyday I Write the Book. I'd love to brag about how I found him way back in his 'super-cool edgy' period, but then again, let's consider for a moment that I wasn't even a teenager when Punch the Clock was released, so there's not a chance I would have discovered Costello during his My Aim Is True days.

Everyday I write the book is undeniably pop and not necessarily true to Costello's punk roots, I'd later discover. But as someone being fed a steady stream of John Cougar Mellencamp, J. Geils Band, Def Leppard, and the like, Elvis Costello may as well have been dropped from another planet into my living room. You can bemoan the shittiness of MTV all you like, but if you grew up in EBF in the 80s, there was something to be said about the channel. Of course, that was back when they were actually playing music videos, so perhaps you should just continue on in your ranting about MTV, since I certainly haven't turned my television to that channel in a year at the least.

So, here's this pop tune, light as air, nothing deep. Still, Costello's voice was something new, something strong but soft and sincere. And even though there was nothing so inspired to them, the lyrics were so much more clever than anything else I had been listening to. I can look at it now, and see how, in part, it's nearly an homage to or update of The Book Of Love. But at the time, I just thought it was such a wonderful song- not angst-filled, which would appeal to my teenage years more, not over-the-top, which would also appeal to my teenage 'high-school-dance' years. Just a bemused song. No major heartbreak, no major swoons. Just a little old school, good-natured teasing, as evidenced by one of my favorite lines:

Even in a perfect world where everyone was equal
I'd still own the film rights and be working on the sequel

I went backwards, but it somehow seemed to be age-appropriate. By the time Veronica came out, I could recognize how weird it was, what Elvis Costello had morphed into. By that time, I had gone back and discovered My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, and Get Happy!!, and realized that this dude who was pleasantly chirping away on Everyday I Write the Book once had one hell of a case of Angsty McAngstenstein.

Costello songs are fodder for all kinds of stories. They evoke a lot, and his much older stuff has just enough anger, just enough sarcasm to overpower the slight tone that suggests whining. And then always a little dose of the absurd, a little touch of humor, however bitter. That's perhaps what I like best about those old songs. Even Alison, which, before horrible, horrible television shows got their hands on the gem and besmirched its good name, is this piercingly sad song filled with regret, starts with the dry quip- and with the way you look, I understand that you were not impressed.

If there's something I consider very modern about Costello, it's that. Or maybe it shouldn't even be called modern, because, from the tunes that seem to be assaulting the airwaves these days, it seems we've gone back to the 'heart on one's sleeve' approach to songwriting. Weirdly, though, old Costello tunes always strike me as more sincere. There's something more raw and real in his rueful remarks.

I mean, yes, this line sounds absurd and surreal:

Oh I said, 'I'm so happy I could die'
She said 'Drop Dead' and left with another guy

But on the other hand, doesn't it perfectly capture what it feels like, the high's and low's, the putting yourself out there and getting stomped, more so than some weak-ass boy band nonsense? I mean, at least, any guy who is my kind of guy would invoke Costello before he would start identifying with Nick Lachey. Just saying. Okay, no more stalling. Back to my regularly scheduled cramming.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

some move away to make a way

AL and I have never exchanged a sweet word between us, no declarations of undying friendship or love. But yesterday, I got a message from him on my phone. He'd sent me a picture. Of himself. Mugging his goofiest expression into the camera while holding up a sign that said "Happy Birthday." Then today, he sent me a video of some dude who inadvertently set himself on fire while trying to blow out his birthday candles.

To me, he embodies the best of EBF. Which is funny because he didn't actually grow up with me. We met much later, but we were both from the boondocks, and more importantly, he reminded me of little pieces of people from my childhood. I suppose he represented all the things I had always hoped were true of those people from my childhood. Because EBF was such a cold place, such a hard place in so many ways. Compliments were not handed out with the abandon that they're given out here on the West Coast. But every once in a while, all those people I used to hang around with in high school would betray their soft underbelly- mostly it was in their actions.

I suppose I'm still partial to that. I'd rather a friend never said a flattering word towards me, but knew when I was upset and actually knew what to do with me when I'm the seething, silly mess that I can sometimes be.


In other news, I don't know if it's the effect of being surrounded by 23-year olds, or of being mind-numbingly fixated on school, but it feels like my taste in things is going down the toilet. I'm listening to Live Your Life by TI without a hint of irony. One of my classmates gave me a copy of Twilight and I read the stupid piece of crap (although, in fairness, I was aware, even while reading it, that it was a stupid piece of crap). I wonder what is next- will I be convincing myself that I should watch Grey's Anatomy? If so, I'm calling AL, because I'm pretty sure his response will be, "Is that a television show?"

Sunday, October 19, 2008

one day you'll look back and you'll see

Sometimes you just have to own it. Today is my birthday. I am not sad on my birthday. It's a rule I have; I made it when, on my 18th birthday, I acted like my birthday was the biggest tragedy ever witnessed. I didn't really get over myself at that point, mind you. It's just that I moped around acting like it was a day for sullen, melancholic dejection. And then the person who wound up being the most important one of my life in so many ways gave me an extremely elaborate card with the following words in them:

Allow me to say that it's possible to be critical of birthdays; they always seem to mean more to others. I mean, what does your birthday really mean? I don't know. If it's up to me, I'd rather celebrate my second birth. The one that brought my independence. The day when I first thought for myself- not of myself. So if your birthday doesn't seem to mean much, I hope this does.

If I've ever been cranky around my birthday (oh and I most certainly have), it's because no one could measure up to that. Especially as I was coming off 17 years in EBF, feeling as invisible as the air. Finally, someone saw me, didn't try to snap me out of my funk necessarily, but fought fire with fire, countered with the perfect combination of words and logic. I don't write about this often, and I won't really write about it today either. But what was written articulated a thought that I needed put down.

The idea of a second birth. It's funny to read those too-mature words now. Neither of us were quite there yet, neither of us had quite learned to think for ourselves. I was further behind, of course, a symptom of an overprotected adolescence. But I loved the idea. Eventually, I did come into my own, did stop operating without the net of expectations and automatic decisions. And I'll always have that. And I always think of that on my birthday now, how the words in that card were like a self-fulfilling prophesy of sorts.

I remember, though, that I had written back (and so began this obsession with words and putting them down and trying to make them mean something) that life is an interminable cycle of births and deaths. But we're always changing, the song used to bemoan. The person I was at 18 is not the person I am today. Perhaps I do believe in reincarnation. Constantly, some piece of us dying and some other new piece born. Some part of the original remains, or so I hope.

Maybe that is why people are not as enamored of their birthday as the years pass- so much more to realize, so many more pleasant surprises, and you still think the best of people. Later, things seem somehow less. There are still changes, shifts, births but they seem like small moves compared to the earthquakes of the past. But they're not really that small, it's just how they seem. This morning, a very well-meaning classmate insisted on taking me out to brunch. I forced myself not to fight it, and I am glad I didn't, because it was actually quite nice. When I was young, I would have made a big deal out of nothing, made things difficult simply because they did not fit some perfectly-envisioned plan. Instead, I was content. Not just content, but, even though he wasn't the perfect person to go to brunch with, maybe especially because he wasn't, I was really touched he had forced me into it. Then I went home and finished baking cakes. I know it's weird to bake a birthday cake for one's own birthday, but that's what I wanted to do, so I did it. And all in all, it was a good day, a very good evening. It might have even been enough of a good day to have cleared the tough climb. But that remains to be seen- tomorrow.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

trudged back to where the car was parked

So, it's happened again, and I don't know why I'm surprised. This time, that's what I've learned. It's no longer about recognizing the signs of the clouds coming on fast, no longer about knowing that I'll have to wear a raincoat for a while, no longer about realizing that there will be sunlight again.

This time the lesson is that there is no cure for this. What I dislike most so far about my medical training are the cases we see in clinic that end with us telling the patient there's nothing we can do. Even if the condition won't resolve on its own, there's nothing to be done about it- that's probably the worst of the lot. There was a patient who came in with a pterygium on her eye; her boyfriend had coaxed her into coming to the doctor because he thought it was getting unsightly. The patient was expecting to be given some eye drops or undergo some procedure to be rid of it. Instead, the doctor told her that it was harmless and that, until or unless it began encroaching on her vision, surgery would not be advised.

And that's how I feel about these vortexes that swallow me up from time to time. Not much to be done about them, relatively harmless, and until it starts creeping into bad behavior territory, hard to feel any sort of intervention is necessary.

I woke up this morning and knew the center would not hold much longer. Something gripped me, and I knew it was exhaustion. Preemptive exhaustion, because I know what comes next. It takes a lot of energy. So little energy to fall into chasms, so much more work to climb the sheer stone wall up. Even when I know all the steps, even when I've hiked up this mountain before. There's a component of Sysiphus to it, because it's just a matter of time- the rock will fall down the hill, and I'll have to push it right back up again. And there's a component of sheer weariness. I know how much it will take, how sore I'll be at the end of this trek.

There is no alternative though, it's the business of living, after all. And it will feel better up there, in the dizzying, cold, thin air. I suppose there is this. Every time, it feels like the same climb, but every time, the precipice is completely different. This isn't the sort of life for everyone, but up there at the top, I own my life completely, all its twists and turns, all its fortunes and follies, all that it has and hasn't yielded. Up there, it looks like mine. And every time I fall again, I'm still carrying that with me. It's in there somewhere, misplaced like some old letter that was packed in the moving boxes. All just a matter of time.

Monday, October 13, 2008

must be worth losing if it is worth something

There's dough rising in the kitchen, butter softening on the countertop for an undecided purpose. It will come to me, as it did the other day, when I decided I had been making entirely too many short, stout, plump cookies. Sometimes, you just want a thin, crispy-yet-chewy cookie. And that's how I wound up with these:

honey, we won't say a word

They taste better than they look, and are nearly the size of a palm. The trick was honey, and not too much sugar.


But, this blog used to be about music and other things, once upon a time. And as my MacBook Pro is on the verge of being sent to Applecare (don't even get me started on that), I've been sifting through old music on my PC.

I don't know if this ever happens to anyone else, but there are some songs that I find really difficult to hear. And I'm not talking about hard to hear as in William Hung hard to hear. No, these are great songs. These are songs I allegedly adore. But I got too close to them, and now I find it hard to come near them again.

A part of me hopes this will never happen to a song again, and a part of me hopes that it will. The song that wandered into my old iTunes library today that sparked all of this is Tear In Your Hand by Tori Amos. Even though I'll be the first to admit that Tori Amos can be batsh*t crazy, and her lyrics are at times absolutely incomprehensible, her first album, Little Earthquakes is still on my list of all-time favorites. But I can't really listen to much of it, especially this particular song.

It starts out, right from the beginning, with such bitterness, humor, and heartbreak all wrapped up into the opening lines, which include the absurd and yet perfectly captured lyrics- I don't believe you're leaving because me and Charles Manson like the same ice cream.

Weird though. You listen to a song, it seems pleasant enough, well enough said. And then something happens, and the song suddenly snaps into some new crevice in your brain, and all of a sudden, it fits. It says everything you can't say, it captures everything you don't know how to explain, explains your own feelings to you. Oh so many years ago now, Tear In Your Hand did that for me. I had that crazy album since high school, and I liked it, liked how it seemed to be about outsiders, seemed to be about not being understood. What adolescent can't appreciate that?

But then, there was the moment, and after the moment, suddenly this song was just a little too sharp, a little too crisp around the edges, a little too clear a focus. It hurt to hear it. It doesn't quite hurt anymore, doesn't hit me in the gut the way it used to. But I still find myself catching my breath, getting flooded by memories.

It's not really about what caused the hurt, because they were the usual, universal things. It's about how I felt, that's what I still find halting. That dizzy swirl of casually playing down the significance of it all, the doubts to what brought the end about, doubts of what is given as a reason versus what you believe the reason to be, the disappointment of thinking you were seen when really you weren't, and the crazed, bloodied badge of hurt that you carry when you first allow yourself to be this vulnerable. All of it comes together and, sure, some of the song makes no sense, but then again, some of you doesn't make sense at that moment. It doesn't have to make sense, it just fits.

I hate that it does, after all of these years, and yet I love that it does. You'll notice, if you listen for it, that Amos is practically bragging: all the world is dangling, dangling, dangling for me, darling- you don't know the power that you have with that tear in your hand. I like to think that meant, even should it all go awry, unrequited or turn out to be undeserved, the power was, and is, in the offering.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

or vice versa, that depends on wherever you're at

It's pretty clear the whole blog-thang is waning, but I am never content to just let things go, let them dwindle. I like messy, I like ugly, it's a simple fact. I like it spelled out, black and white, no doubt. It's like that with my friends, it's like that with this blog. One of my friends has gone off the grid recently, but I haven't left well enough alone. I wrote twice and now I plan to call. You've got no dignity, Muriel!, one of my GBFs would exclaim, shaking his disapproving head. I don't. I like undignified. I like undignified, messy, not-taking-the-hint, ugliness sometimes. So consider the blog like that. I'm not going away yet, even if I ought. Silence is not enough to dissuade me, really.

Today was a weird day at school. A student from another class, some years ahead of me, who I'd never met, passed away. It was sad, and a bit jarring. The administration, in their wisdom, never specified the cause of death. Good idea- tell a bunch of med students that someone has passed away and expect them not to pick it apart until they figure out the why's and how's. No one in our class knew the student, but a lot was made of the whole thing.

A few days ago, SP had been remarking to me that a recent study had measured depression and suicidal ideation in medical students. NPR had a piece summarizing the results as well. I thought a bit about it today, and to me, very little is actually done to address this issue, not in articles and not in medical schools. If anything, most of the stories that ever come out about this try to point to some convenient excuse. It's more complex than that. Then again, so is suicide itself.

This is simplifying it too, what I'm about to write, but I'm not pointing to it as a specific cause- just something that came to mind when all of this came out. Thing is, I think sometimes students put too much of their stake in medicine. It's a tightrope, because viewing medicine as just a job is a losing proposition too. You could certainly treat it like a job, but then you will really question why you are going to the trouble. There are plenty of other things you can do for a living that don't require as much training, debt, and pressure. But, still, investing all of one's hopes and dreams in medicine is just unsound.

I don't really know what I'm saying here, really, besides that I am cynical. I am somewhat cynical, I guess, but I never think of that as dark and dismal. Today, one of my classmates, who is a hardcore Christian, told me about three aspects of Christianity that particularly spoke to him:

  • Life is not fair, and you are not owed anything.
  • Life is full of suffering.
  • God is good.

Now, me, I'm about as far from religious as you can get, and normally, someone who says they're a religious fundie evokes anaphylaxis and an immediate plotting of an exit strategy. But when he came out with those three things, he revived my hope that not all those who are religious are intolerant and/or irrational. Because what he was talking about is the paradox of life that you just have to get your head around.

I'd replace 'God' with 'Life,' but the idea is the same. There is a lot of ugliness, and hard knocks, and bad luck, a lot. Plenty of times, things seem hopeless. Plenty of times, things actually are hopeless. But still beautiful. I don't know. I still find it beautiful. Those little packages of beautiful themselves, Yazzy and Chai make a point of pointing out 3 beautiful things from time to time. I probably don't take the time to do that as I should, with as clear a head as I ought to. But I try my best to find one thing, to remember one thing every day that made my heart squeeze just a little tighter for that moment- it's always something, inevitably, that someone else would find wholly mundane- dough rising, cracking a tough problem, overcoming procrastination to make lunch in the morning, a well-timed arm around the shoulder. It takes so little, but then, I guess I don't expect that much.

Anyway, for me, there is the matter of baking to always keep me from losing my mind entirely, and to, more importantly, keep me humble. Below were cookies I made for an exchange party. The oatmeal cookie pictured is a trick- the actual cookies I took to the party had butterscotch frosting in the middle. However, that frosting was improvised and was, how to say, what's the term, oh I know- epic fail. In fact, the bellyflop of that butterscotch frosting caused me to flip out and make the chocolate cookies on the fly, as a sort of penance. Of course, as luck would have it, the chocolate cookies were a far bigger hit at the party.

quite contented to take my chances

After that, I went another round with focaccia. Bread making is becoming my favorite thing to do on Sundays. Later this week, I'll show you another experiment that was a semi-fail as well. Even if you're not reading, or would rather read about something actually interesting, or would like your eyes to recover from my horrible photography. I told you, I prefer the ugly, unnecessary, messy varietal.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

may be an equal mystery

Since I started back in school, I've acknowledged that I'm bound to be a bit set apart from the other students, just because I am considerably older than them. In fact, though, most of it has been by my own doing. Most of my classmates forget a lot of times, or just don't know, and really do not treat me like an outsider.

In the past few months, though, it's become apparent that there are inherent differences, not necessarily good or bad ones, just differences. I take school a lot more seriously than some classmates, and for completely different reasons. When I do less well on an exam than I'd like, I'm frustrated mostly because I worry that I haven't grasped the necessary information, and won't have that knowledge to carry with me when I start doing clinical rotations. For my classmates, they get frustrated because they're used to being in the top 5% of all of their classes, and they still haven't gotten used to that being rather irrelevant in this setting. They pool answers before discussion sections to reduce their workload. In these discussions, about 3 out of 15 students talk. The rest blink blankly at the instructor every time he or she answers a question. Or they ask questions that are so elementary that it's clear that they've been too lazy to attend lectures or listen during them.

I get it, though. Were I 22, I'm not sure I'd be that different. They haven't been on the other side of it, for one thing, haven't had to lead a meeting or discussion in which everyone was awkwardly quiet and uncommunicative. They haven't really been taught to care about anything beyond what is graded. If we had been told that we get a point for every time we speak in discussion section, you can bet there would be a 100 hands up in the air.

Similarly, my classmates take a lot of pride in skipping class, playing all week, and then pulling all-nighters 3 nights in a row in order to pass an exam. Maybe some of them just absorb information better this way, but for the most part, I think there are just so habits developed in college that take a while to kick.

Anyway, I don't mind. It's mostly interesting to see what the real differences are between someone in their 20s and someone in their 30s, taking away all the other situational changes that occur. It's only natural that I've forgotten the 20-something version of myself, but it's interesting to watch some of my classmates, knowing I must have been somewhat like them back then.

And that gets me to the part that really does tickle me about being older and in school. It's the cutest thing in the world to me, watching very young 22 and 23-year olds trying to disguise relationships. One of my classmates cracks me up, because she reminds me so much of me at that age that I seriously worry about her. She's surrounded by guy friends, generally gets along with very few women, and projects a kind of toughness that only some of us know is a complete ruse. When she gets her feelings hurt, she's heartbreakingly wounded. She's been circling this classmate for a while, and, to me, it's plain as day. So it's very cute watching her try to conceal it. She finally confessed the whole thing to me yesterday, and I went for an Emmy trying to pretend I had not suspected it all beforehand.

She was looking for approval and that, too, cracked me up. As we get older, we get more defiant, perhaps. We find someone we like, we decide on it, and if our friends don't like that person, we suspect them of not wanting the best for us or not understanding. But here's the 22-year old version, experiencing things for the first time, and wanting very much for someone to validate it. So, so precious, in some ways. It's nice to remember that, at one point, we were all like that.