Sunday, December 28, 2008

if you were never aware of what was around you

One of my favorite poems by Kenneth Koch says:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line--
Then it is safe to go on reading.

In Buenos Aires, the traffic lights flash yellow before they turn green. When I first saw this, I thought it was brilliant. I figured portenos are more concerned with preparing themselves to go rather than to stop. I was wrong, of course. The traffic lights flash yellow before they turn green, but they flash yellow before they turn red as well. They have just covered all their bases. I guess Americans place more weight on stopping, which I suppose says something too.


It's hot and humid, but every so often, a breeze blows through the trees and so it does not seem so bad. I am not quite adjusted to the time, but jet lag just makes for lazy mornings right now, which is no tragedy, especially in Argentina. Hardly anything was open when I emerged from the hotel at 11:30 yesterday.

Tomorrow I leave for Iguazu Falls. The forecast is horrible, but I remain hopeful that I will get a decent view of the falls, however briefly. Right now, I should probably be more concerned that I have no place to stay once I get there. One of my travel companions is supposed to arrive today, so a part of me is quite inclined to just throwing my hands up in the air and passing the baton.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

you've known it all the time, I'm learning it these days

This is not what I should be writing about, to be certain. I should be writing about the sunburn on my nose this afternoon, how a humid sweat is welcome after a summer in the desert, a fall and winter in the bitter cold. I should write about how Spain becomes Argentina and Argentina becomes Spain, how Barrio Retiro becomes Buen Retiro and suddenly I am not so sure where I am. Am I in Madrid or Buenos Aires? When you're alone, your mind can play tricks on you. I guess that's what I'm writing about.

It was the same time of year. Many, many, I don't even know how many years ago now. What I like to call my year of great upheaval. Up until November, I had been teetering too high, floating like a balloon waiting to be popped. By December, the deflation had started, but I was not ready to fall. Going home, being alone in the company of multitudes of uncles and aunties with their interrogations and pitiful looks, it was too much. It would have been the pin that burst the bubble, and I would have hurtled down to the ground with too much force.

I have always worried that I have a little too much of my father in me. Once, on a lark, he drove from Chicago to LA to visit his brother. This was in the 60s and he barely had enough money for gas. It is one of those stories that is always told in my family with a laugh, but is then followed by a pause and a shake of the head.

Me, I hopped on a train and went off to Montreal. In the dead of December, when no one thinks of vacationing in Montreal. My first (and come to think of it, only) trip wholly and completely alone. On the train ride up, three friendly Canadian brothers gathered around me and gave me a slew of tips about the city. One of them was a medical student and gave me his number in case I wanted to go to Musee des beaux-arts while I was in town. I threw his number away, but I did go to the museum.

After recovering from the chilling 10-minute walk from my hotel to the museum, I settled in. In one room was a temporary installation of Goya's Los Caprichos. It's weird how I have forgotten a lot of that trip, but that little set of Goya prints stuck in my head. Lead was starting to fill the balloon. I was walking through the simple, spare room, the weight of Goya's prints slowly chipping away at me. It was so cynical, so inevitable. It was a giant dose of who are you kidding.

It was one print in particular, titled Tal Para Qual that had done me in. They were all, every single one of the prints, indictments, but this one had forced me to sit down. Tal Para Qual, a simple enough statement, a couple that seemed right and happy. But looking at it more closely broke the illusion to pieces. The man was a scoundrel, the woman was a coquette.

Tal Para Qual. Easy come, easy go. Who are you kidding? Goya had meant to have just this effect, to shine a nasty, fluorescent-lit mirror on what everyone took as a matter of course. Of course the bubble was going to burst, of course the balloon was careening towards the ground. I drank two glasses of Cotes du Rhone that night and scrawled in a moleskin: I hope that's not us. But what I really meant to write is: I hope that's not me. I already knew one half of that picture fit just a little too well.

And all of this may seem rather irrelevant, and I assure you it is. Except that I was walking through Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes today, turned a corner, and was nearly knocked over by the sight of Tal Para Qual staring me in the face. In Buenos Aires. Pero por que no? I stood and stared at it, and found that it no longer had the same impact on me.

I said before that you can lose track of time and place when you're alone, and that's true. But, while I confused Buenos Aires for Madrid, I did not mistake that moment in the museum with the one when I was looking at the same print in Montreal. It was two different, distinct me's staring at that print. Two different, distinct feelings about it. That younger, deflated version of me had written: I hope that's not us. I looked at it today and thought: That's sometimes all of us.


Despite the impression this post may give, I really adore Buenos Aires. People are not as friendly as they were in Peru, probably because they figure they don't have to be, what with their dashing good looks. There are alfajores everywhere. It doesn't take a clairvoyant to figure out what I'm going to be doing in my kitchen when I return. I'll write more about Buenos Aires itself tomorrow. I just got back from a long walk and needed to let this out.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

2000 miles is very far

All hail free wireless in the airports- why don't all airports have this?!?  In other news, Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it.

I've conveniently neglected to mention it, because I am starting to think this is one of my more hare-brained ideas, but by tomorrow, I will be in Argentina.  Unfortunately, it has occurred to me recently that any trip I take while in medical school is going to be like this.  I'm really not equipped to plan things out while I have class, and vacation always presents itself after a grueling set of finals that leave me in such a vegetative state that all I can do is mix together butter and sugar-- booking hotel rooms and planning out itineraries is wholly out of my skill set at that point.

So I have a place to stay the first night and that's about it.  Yesterday, I finally got my act together and at least committed to going to Iguazu falls.  I have no clue how I am going to meet up with my friends who are joining me there.  And yet, here I sit in an airport writing a blogpost.  Even though the movie was annoyingly twee in some parts, I always think of Geoffrey Rush at times like this- his character keeps insisting that things will work out, but when asked how, he simply shrugs and says, "It's a mystery." That's sort of how I feel right now- I'm relying on things just falling into place even if I have no idea exactly how that will happen.

But I mean, really.  It will be warm.  There will be Malbec.  How bad can things possibly go?

Stay tuned- I know it's shameful but my junky non-Mac laptop is accompanying me on my trip.  I blog so rarely these days that it might actually be nice to post about my travels here.

In the meanwhile, and in case all my good intentions do not amount to anything and I wind up radio-silent for the next week and a half, hope everyone has a great holiday and a happy new year.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

something is not right with me

I may need some mental help. This is not including the cheesecake I made 3 days ago.

Clockwise from top left, we have cinnamon swirl loaves (I couldn't leave well enough alone and sprinkled some cinnamon-sugar on the top of the loaves, which gave them a nice sugary, crunch crust), snickerdoodles, iced gingerbread cookies, chocolate quakes, shortbread jam cookies, and peanut butter chocolate chip cookies that have defied gravity (forgive the laziness of the photographer). Wish I had my act together enough so I could have made these all in time to mail out. Instead, they're being dispensed locally. But I was thinking of you all when I baked them, does that count?


Slumdog Millionaire finally opened in my neck of suburban wasteland, so I got to check it out. It's the first time in a while that the cinematography of a movie swept me up such that I had no idea of how paper thin the plot was. The thing is, I don't hold that against Danny Boyle. I do hold against him that he chose a Brit to play the lead male role- Dev Patel may have physically fit the role, but he did not even seem to make an attempt to speak with a proper accent. I have lots of quibbles about the movie. Why were the characters speaking almost exclusively in English? If you were considered part of a group called the Three Musketeers, wouldn't you maybe make an effort to determine what the names of said musketeers are? If you just won a major sum of money, could you really sit in a train station in solitude without a mob of Mumbai-ites close behind?

But see, it's not that kind of movie. It's not the sort of movie to take that seriously. Danny Boyle had to walk a tightrope to make it, and I can appreciate that. For once, the use of Paper Planes did not make me want to scratch someone in the face (Entourage, I'm looking at you). And I have no idea why, but every time Anil Kapoor speaks in English, I get a major case of the giggles. I can sort of see the comparisons to Little Miss Sunshine now, because they're both ultimately frothy movies. The only thing is that Boyle set his frothy tale in someplace gritty, someplace where reality is mind-boggling, and that gives it a little more weight. But only a little.

Friday, December 19, 2008

waiting here for the next time with a bottle in my hand

The artist formerly known as Pied Piper sparked a thought in an email today. I haven't been writing much lately, and sometimes a proper email is enough to get you back in the spirit, as it turns out.

For the past week, I've had more than one conversation regarding the changes that come with age, and how the simplest things seem to require more energy than they used to. Why is it so much harder to cope? Are we too old for these obstacles we have created for ourselves? It can be tempting to just feel a great sense of weariness, to feel tired right down to your very bones, and to just want to curl up and admit defeat. At times.

I was thinking about what makes the specific notion of change harder as we get older. It's been a little roundabout for me. I acted like a senior citizen when I was an adolescent, so frightening was the notion of uncertainty. Learning about Heisenberg filled me with a sense of melancholy instead of comfort. Then, there was a shift, and suddenly I almost seemed to take an unnatural interest in pulling the rug out from underneath myself. Now I'm probably somewhere in the middle.

But if I was going to think chronologically, think about how I should have felt, then I start thinking about beginnings and endings. It comes down to our chromosomes, all there in our DNA. Chromosomes have telomeres- they're something like the rings you find on the inside of trees, that give you an idea of just how old a redwood is. Well, except they work in the opposite direction. Every time your cell divides again, every time you begin anew, every time, the telomere shortens just a little more. Eventually, it gets too short, and it's a warning sign- the cell knows its number is up, and it cashes it in, unobtrusively committing suicide.

And I think maybe we're like that. Don't get me wrong. We can handle a lot of change. We can handle a lot in general. It's always, always surprising what we can bear, how we can push ourselves given the circumstances. But I feel as though maybe we have a finite number of beginnings and endings. Only so many times a dream can be chased, a heart can be broken. Only so many times a lurching dive can be made, a stumbling fall face first can be withstood. Part of the problem, of course, is that you have a signal too. The telomere gets chopped off, the cat has one less life, and you know what is coming next. You know with every beginning, there is the inevitable end. The more beginnings, the more endings, the more aware you are of just what you're getting yourself into with every new attempt. And of course, of course- wouldn't it make you tiresome right down to your bones, when you thought of it that way?

Yet, here's the thing- I think you have to trash all of that, ultimately. While it's all true, while it is unlikely that there is anything constant and sustaining, still- still- how can you not try, try again? I think we get tired sometimes, and we have to give ourselves that. But giving in to it altogether, no. At some point, you have to shrug off the burden of awareness and experience and just blindly barrel on to the next, great unknown.


Of course, there have been a lot of hijinx going on around here. Pictures to follow if I ever get my camera and flickr to cooperate, but there has been a lot of cookies, bread and even cheesecake made the past two days. Also, today, I blew out a light bulb in the kitchen, was out of replacement bulbs, and managed to replace it with a more energy-efficient bulb by this afternoon. That is, by far, a record for me. It's a Christmas miracle!

Monday, December 15, 2008

them other boys don't know how to act

I'll have something actually legitimate to say someday, but in the meanwhile, I have a little something to share.

Dear Studio Executives who think it's pointless to market action movies to women,

No, you do not need to cast some androgynous pretty boy and make a tame movie about Mormon romance. Instead, here's the solution:
  • Hugh Jackman, in the only role in which he seems to be able to pull off seeming like a tough guy
  • Taylor fricking Kitsch playing one of the most entertaining superheroes of all time (seriously, I never understood how Gambit's ability to throw cards was a superpower but the dude's Cajun drawl and overall swagger always won me over in the comics)
  • Liev Schrieber

Now I'll grant you that Taylor Kitsch is a borderline member of the straight-men-who-may-wear-lipgloss club, but let me tell you, studio executives, I don't need some stupid romantic comedy, or worse yet, some vampire nonsense, if instead, you could just fast-track this:


Yes, I know it's shallow, but I'm only human.

XX's for Mindless Action Movies Done Right

Thursday, December 11, 2008

and it will keep me safe but I don't know from who

I haven't been doing a good job of documenting anything lately, especially photographically. Truth be told, I'm just so horrible at taking pictures that it rarely comes to mind. Last night, I made gingerbread, after a classmate guilt-tripped me into baking something for a group discussion that we regularly attend. It wasn't gingery enough for me, but that spawned a series of jokes, since, apparently, what is gingery enough for me is the equivalent of FTLOG, my tongue is burning from ginger overload. Anyway, if you're at all interested in a very simple gingerbread recipe, it can be found here- it's one of the few recipes I've ever encountered that I follow without fiddling. I used to make this stuff when I lived on the East coast all the time, but for some reason, I hadn't revisited it out here. Maybe it never seemed quite cold enough in San Francisco. Considering I bundled myself up in a hat, gloves, scarf, and wool socks this morning, it's cold enough for gingerbread now.


At school, weirdly enough, I have been thinking about how you really define yourself. Maybe most people are not as inconsistent as I am. I find I have to put a condition on everything. I am this way but only under this circumstance and not this one.

It came up today in the context of how touchy-feely one should be when interacting with patients. The conclusion was that a lot depends on what you're comfortable with. And that's when I realized that what I am comfortable with varies wildly. There are certain people who, when they see me, automatically burst forth with hugs and even kisses, and I do not freeze like a board or have a seizure. And yet there are other people who have simply put their hand on mine and it has elicited an involuntary elbow straight to the ribs.

That part is not weird, I suppose. There is probably some degree of that in everyone, varying comfort with varying people. But what I realized is that there is a perception and the perception can become reality. I know that I give the impression that I might haul off and punch you in the face if you touch me without my permission. I'd say that 90% of that impression is absolutely intentional. I like my space uninvaded, and I even consciously make the tradeoff of staving off unwanted contact at the expense of missing out on some welcome contact.

A specific incident came to mind then. It seems a long time ago now, because it was, but there was a day and then a few days after it that the world seemed to be crumbling. There was no footing underneath the ground. Everyone felt this way. Everything was a little off-kilter. We came home from work early, everyone dismissed but with nothing much to do. Pretty soon, we did not want to watch television. The weather was unbearably sunny and cheerful, and it felt absurd that this is what the world might feel like right before it ends.

And what I remember is that my roommate and I stood next to each other awkwardly in that sunlight. Not for very long. It felt somehow unsafe to be out of doors, like the perfect blue sky might crash down on our heads. But we stood beside each other, and I think we were both thinking the same thing. That day and for those few days afterwards, everyone wanted to cling to the things that meant something to them. And for the first time ever, I just wanted to be held. My roommate once, at a party, trashed out of his mind, had kissed me on the cheek, and I, Elaine Benes-style, had nearly shoved him across the length of the room. It was too much to expect that he would know the difference, too much to expect him to risk getting rebuffed when we were all already so raw and vulnerable. And me, I just stood there, wanting one thing, but acting in opposition to the wanting.

Of course, I didn't know things then. But I wonder if I really know so much more now.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

you don't miss me but I really don't mind

I just remembered that, oh yes, I have this thing called a blog, and I used to post here. You let a few days pass, and then they become a week, and then all of a sudden, it seems like maybe keeping a blog isn't much of a priority. And then there's some weird itch I can't scratch, and I am writing weird random garbage on post-it notes and other places, wondering why I have this need to get these things out.

I saw A N N A this weekend, which was good for the soul. I've baked so many cupcakes, cakes and cookies for the past few weeks that I may be single-handedly responsible for the country's diabetic epidemic. I have found big cracks in my foundations, a big gaping chasm where a friend used to be, and have been too tired and distracted to do anything about it. It's as though addressing that crack might crumble what is still keeping together. I've been feeling generally run down, and so I enlisted the help of Indian Uncle-ji to be my drill sergeant. Because no one does harassment better than Indian Uncles.

There's nothing much in all of that, now, is there? Also, I am trying to acquire a plane ticket for the holidays. Which is a borderline insane thing to do a week into December, with limited vacation time and an even more limited budget.

My defense mechanism in all of this has been humor. Oh yes. I have been watching Justin Timberlake dress in a leotard in order to be a backup dancer for Beyonce. I have been watching Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich threaten little children with Christmas tales involving them losing their toes. I've been watching every episode of 30Rock I can get my hands on.

Oh, and I've been mercilessly ridiculing Twilight to combat the idiotic affection some of my classmates have for it. But it's kind of like making fun of George W. Bush- way, way too easy.


I've also discovered something about how I feel about medicine. I'm interested in it, sure. Unlike some of the haters who think nothing in books prepares you for anything, I do think the classes are all important and helping me. Similarly, I know that next year, I will learn a lot from the doing aspect of things. But, I've also figured something out. It turns out, I kind of like drama. I like listening to one field of medicine attack another- and let me tell you, you don't have to go too far to find that. The surgeons rail on the internists, the primary care folks rip on the surgeons, almost everyone finds something to tease the emergency doc's about, and absolutely everyone has a hate/envy thing going on with the dermatologists. And while my classmates were all either dying of boredom or frantically trying to translate the indecipherable language of rounds this past week (what we're doing right now is just like dipping a foot in the pool, just so that we get an idea of how bad the water is going to feel when we get dunked in it in our skivvies), I was blissfully following along for one reason and one reason alone. Initially, sure, I was trying to figure out what all the terminology meant, and noting which drugs I had never heard of, all the responsible med student stuff. But after 2 hours of rounds, when you're a 2nd year student who is not supposed to understand really, most of my classmates were zoning out. Instead, I was watching the dynamic. Just like I treat my fellow medical students, being on rounds was like watching the Discovery Channel. I got to watch an entire episode of When Attendings Attack, and it beat the sh*t out of any crap you could write for House or such nonsense.

This is, of course, not much of a skill, and certainly not a skill of any use as a medical student. But it was an interesting realization. If that's what interests me, I guess I need to find the specialty with the highest concentration of headcases, well, excluding psychiatry.