Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I demand a rematch

I blame Pied Piper 115% for this one. (You’ll note I’m not even bothering to come up with some sorry excuse for why my blogging frequency is both inconsistent and pathetic of late, because I think it would just be a bunch of empty promises at this point and you all deserve better.) This is one of the best things about music though.

R.E.M’s Green was released in 1988. I was very young at the time. I mean, not so young that I shouldn’t have been listening to the album. I was maybe just a few years younger than those who the album was targeting. And I have to say that Green was responsible for getting me some major cred points among my classmates. A few years earlier, I had distractedly scrawled ‘R.E.M’ onto my jeans and ‘it’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine’ on the margin of my notebook during study hall and CR, your average teenage boy who made a point of noting anything that did not conform perfectly to accepted norms, had called me a freak. Only ‘freaks’ listened to R.E.M and The Cure and The Smiths at that time.

Then Green came out, and everyone was dancing around to Stand, and suddenly I got a reputation for knowing about music. In case you have not guessed, this is me rolling my eyes.

Anyway, the thing is, I listened to Green a lot. I mean, a lot, because it was a pop album, at its core- it had catchy hooks and even some straightforward lyrics. But to be perfectly honest, I did not pay them much mind. Usually, with Michael Stipe lyrics, I found little gems in the gibberish and clung to them even if they meant to me something altogether different than what was intended. Even if I could not get a complete handle on what Stipe was trying to say in The Finest Worksong, I could celebrate the poetry in “what we want and what we need has been confused, been confused.Green seemed a little bit of a departure, because the lyrics were seemingly a bit more obvious.

Maybe. But I was still too young, too new to the world to really have them mean a lot to me.

And I did not really revisit a whole lot of R.E.M. Maybe because the assault of Losing My Religion and Everybody Hurts cured me of the need to hear much of them. Also, R.E.M, while it was often played by teenagers and on college radio, was never really a band for teenagers, I realize in retrospect. They really lacked the angst of adolescence.

There is no better proof of that than World Leader Pretend which that troublemaker Pied Piper brought back into my consciousness recently. It is not like I had forgotten about that song. He mentioned it and almost reflexively, I heard the lyrics this is my mistake, let me make it good. But it did not mean anything to me. When I was listening to this song as a little punk, it was someone else singing to me. I mean that it was about someone else. It was a character, and I was listening to his story.

Surely not mine. I hadn’t made a mess of much, hadn’t built walls, hadn’t brandished weapons, hadn’t done much damage. I had little to regret. The song was not about me, not then. So imagine my surprise when I revisited the song and found it was telling my story. I am not entirely certain I am glad of that. I sometimes don’t think of myself as that different, who I was as a little teenage punk and who I am now. But this song is all about the contrast, all about how it's impossible to go back, how some changes are irreversible.

I do not mean to suggest that I am in any way special, and I suppose that is the point. You get this far in life, oh, you’ve done some damage, you’ve eaten the pavement a few times. Which gets to my original point. The song was always meant for an adult. And I was not one when I first heard this song. And ultimately this:
This is my world and I am world leader pretend
this is my life, this is my time
I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit
It’s high time I raised the walls that I’ve constructed

Well, this is rather hopeful in my opinion. This fills me with a sense of purpose. It’s an urge, an entreaty not to simply give into patterns and history with melancholy and resignation. In some ways, the peace treaty is just as big of an undertaking, just as big of a fight as the war.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

pretending that you're oh so shy

In EBF, we had junior high, which I guess was middle school for some people. Since our high school could only handle three grades, there were no freshmen there. Instead, junior high had grades 7-9. Big deal, right? When I think back on it, actually, yes, really big deal.

There is a pretty sizable difference between a high school freshman and a 7th grader. Now granted, I was a pretty sheltered 6th grader. I didn’t have older siblings. I had an older cousin who came to stay with us during the summers, but that didn’t start until I was already in junior high, and that’s a story for another time. Most of the kids in my neighborhood were my age. The ones that were older were relatively mild-mannered types, or thankfully immature boys, who still got a kick out of playing dodgeball in the street after suppertime. But even taking all of this into account, I don’t know how things are now, but back then, the most scandalous thing you did in elementary school was learn how to curse. And possibly some boys and girls held hands or kissed.

Until I started junior high school, all the music I had been exposed to came from relatively safe sources. My father played music, but it was either old Beatles’ albums (not edgy Beatles, but She Loves You Beatles) or Kishore Kumar’s greatest hits. The radio played music, but in EBF this meant that you heard some J. Geils’ Band and whatever happened to be on American Top 40 that week. One of my masi’s was a disco fanatic, so occasionally, I got to listen to ABBA or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. We finally got MTV in EBF when I was nearing the end of elementary school, and so I got to see Michael Jackson, Run DMC, Prince, and Duran Duran.

The thing is, I can think back and realize that a lot of the music I was listening to, even before I started elementary school, was not appropriate for a kid. Prince songs? Definitely racy. J. Geils’ Band singing about finding out a girlfriend made some change on the side by posing as a playmate? Also not appropriate (nor was the video in retrospect). Even Adam Ant bemoaning “don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?” is far from the right message to send a pre-teen. Still, none of that music seemed at all scandalous when I was listening to it in those days. For one thing, we conveniently were too na├»ve to understand the innuendos and inappropriate messages. For another, the music in those days was so bubbly and playful, it was easy not to take it as anything forbidden or dangerous.

Which is why it still stands out in my head, a day early in 7th grade. Riding the bus was terrifying in those early days. The 9th graders sat in the back, and looked like they could eat you alive. I didn’t grow up in the rich part of town. These 9th graders had been around. They smoked. They wore tight jeans. They had aggressively feathered hair, and I don’t mean that in a girly way with Aquanet and curls- it looked like an animal’s mane, unkempt and scraggly, like they’d been in a fight with a lawnmower. They looked like they were just waiting for an excuse to tell you to shut up. I remember one of them would snap, “what the hell are you looking at?” the moment your eye wandered in her general direction.

Because they knew you were looking at them. It was hard not to look at them. They looked dangerous. They looked like they had crossed lines you were afraid to, and they carried themselves as if they thought you were a weakling for staying safely within the boundaries. They were decidedly un-ladylike, but unapologetic about it.

So I still remember that day on the bus. The 7th graders were sitting in the front as we always did, nodding our head along to Madonna or whatever stupidity was playing. The reception went fuzzy, and the bus driver switched the dial slightly, and suddenly, there it was. The driver was about to change it, but the girls in the back yelled, “Don’t touch it!” and “Leave it on that!” And when I think back on it, it’s kind of funny, because I am quite certain that even the bus driver was scared of those girls. Because the bus driver froze and left it on the station.

It’s not even her most aggressive song, not even her most suggestive song. She didn’t even write it herself. But wow. There was the alarming drum roll, the angry hand claps, and the, well, demanding guitar. As a kid, you just heard that some girl liked rock’n’roll and wanted the jukebox to play another song. At least, you knew that’s what you were supposed to be hearing. Just harmless fun.

But there was nothing harmless about hearing that song as someone about to become a teenager. It was a dangerous song, no getting around it. The guitar and the beat and that flattened what-the-hell-are-you-looking-at voice. Joan Jett was the patron saint of the girls on that bus. She was like nothing I had heard prior to that. And she was always alarming. My father, who would put up with us listening to Madonna and Michael Jackson and even Run DMC, would blanche at the idea of leaving Joan Jett and the Blackhearts on. Because this was a girl who did what she wanted and would not be swayed. You could say you were all for women being able to do a man’s job, but Joan Jett showed up and actually did it, and it was discomfiting. Because she wasn’t demure about it, she wasn’t batting her eyelashes and modest. She had a swagger. And this was not the kind of strong woman my father had in mind when he issued platitudes about being independent and doing anything I wanted.

It’s obviously no coincidence that I’m bringing all of this up, when a biopic about The Runaways is soon to be released. I probably won’t watch the movie, but the constant commercials reminded me of those early days, the fear and the fascination. I was too young to listen to the Runaways when they were together, but I listened to them plenty later, in junior high. I never became one of those girls at the back of the bus. I was never that strong, never that aggressive or angry. But I was rebelling, and my favorite way to do that in those early days was music. When it came to Joan Jett and The Runaways, no one had to issue the dare, no one had to actually voice the words, “this is wrong” or “girls shouldn’t do this.” It’s like it was programmed in all of us. The moment you heard the songs, the first time you heard it, you knew it was wrong, you knew it in your core. It went against everything that was ingrained in everyone at the time. It wasn’t just for the girls either. I remember how the boys both liked Joan Jett and were confused by liking Joan Jett.

Later on, Pat Benatar showed up and gave everyone something safe they could like, a watered down version. But Pat Benatar, for all her scowling and pouting and threatening pimps, never frightened me. Joan Jett scared the crap out of me. And it was awesome.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

take only what you need from it

There have been a lot of questions swirling around in my head, but no space or time to find any of the answers.

Two of the rotations I was dreading most in medical school were Obstetrics and Pediatrics. Really, more people should dread Obstetrics than do- fear the placenta, I say, for there is nothing particularly appealing about that part of childbirth conveniently left out of the likes of Knocked Up. I was also dreading (forgive me, XX's of the world) the idea of working in a female-dominated area. In the past, in groups of women, I've always floundered a bit. There's a hierarchy and code that I somehow missed by being too much of a tomboy when I was a kid and hanging out with way too many teenage boys when I was a bit older. And even though I got better at it as I got older, I still always felt more comfortable hanging with cowboys as compared to sororities. Pediatrics, I feared for less rational reasons- I thought of children as little alien beings who make a lot of noise at Target, and I worried about dealing with anxious parents.

In the end, both of the rotations went surprisingly better than I could have hoped. While I happily leave the delivery of babies to those more interested in that sort of thing, I liked how focused the field is. You can figure it out and become fairly competent at it, and, as a medical student, that's always an attractive quality. Moreover, I got to spend some time in the OR, resecting ovarian tumors, and that felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I'd reconciled by then that I have a fondness for surgery, but no aspirations to pursue it. But in some ways that made it more interesting, as I could just allow myself to be fascinated. The patients were so interesting, facing an uphill battle that can sometimes feel much like Sisyphus, but most of them were ready for the fight.

While I was justified in thinking of children as aliens- after all, they did infect me with their foreign pathogens and render me half alive for a solid 2.5 weeks of an 8 week rotation- Pediatrics was also one of my favorite rotations of medical school.

For one thing, it bridged a gap for me. There was a young, idealistic version of me that was once interested in medicine. But that was a long time ago. It wasn't until much later that my interest in medicine experienced a rebirth, and this later, more measured, eyes wide open version of me decided this was the right thing for me to do with my life. Amusingly (to me), the earlier version of me was keen on Pediatrics. When I was young, I had this connection to children that seemed like a secret power. At family parties, I was always handed little babies and toddlers. I liked them even. They seemed to just know whether your intentions were pure, and I loved that they couldn't be fooled.

But all of that seems like ancient history, and most people who know me these days wouldn't even believe any of what I just wrote was even true. It's annoying though, the pressure to be consistent. So it was nice not to be. I'm sure my fellow classmates concluded it was some kind of act. But it was actually nice to be around some of the children (I can still do without the monosyllabic adolescents, though, when you finally get them to talk, you feel as though you just cured Polio).

And there's something else too, which I could not have predicted at all, having never worked with children in the hospital. Kids are often extremists. They usually present as previously healthy little dudes who were minding their own business, or they come to you with a whole host of issues. The latter is both complicated and difficult to bear. But the former makes pediatric medicine much more attractive than treating a 55-year old. A 55-year old comes to the hospital with poorly controlled diabetes, hypertension, and COPD secondary to smoking, and wants you to figure out why he has a stomach ache. Your head proceeds to spin off its axis, as you can amass a list into the next day of all the possibilities. A 5-year old comes in with a stomach ache, it's a completely different game- the list still has to be generated, but it's a shorter and cleaner one. You can come up with a diagnosis, run the right tests, figure out what is going on. And kids, of course, rebound better than your average 55-year old, which makes treating them, in many ways, more satisfying.

When I write that down, I realize it could come across as though I am considering a future as a pediatrician. It's strange, because I keep getting pulled in every direction except the one that I want to be pulled in. But I think that has more to do with the external rather than the internal. I've gotten a lot closer to be being certain of what is best for me to do. I just wish I could figure out why it took being told that I should be an obstetrician and/or a pediatrician to get to this point.