Gear up son – there’s been a sudden change in the weather and things are about to get nasty. Unfortunately, I know the drill all too well. I also know I can handle it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to like it.
This is one of those times when life throws you a 90 mph curveball and, although you’re never ready for it, you’ve been through this shit before, so you know what you’ve got to do.
Hunker down, get mean, and prepare for some pain.
Life ain’t for pussies.
This is the kind of shit I never did before I started writing this blog. I’m eating breakfast and reading this essay in the New York Times and I come across this sentence:
“Society is not simply an aggregate of millions or billions of individual choices but a complex, recursive dynamic in which choices are made within institutions and ideologies that change over time as these choices feed back into the structures that frame what we consider possible.”
And I go back and read it again and think: “I like your logic – and sentence structure!” Even as I think this, I silently laugh – what a ridiculous response! But I’m not thinking it as if I’m grading a paper – I’m thinking it in admiration for it’s beautiful structure and the writers ability to convey a complex thought in a sentence that contains exactly what it needs and nothing more. The writer, Roy Scranton, is a professor of English, but that designation alone certainly doesn’t explain his gorgeous writing. I encourage you to read the whole piece, because there are several other masterful expressions of dark logic.
See, writing makes you a better reader, which in turn makes you a better writer. You start paying attention to the nuances of language and sentence structure in a way you never consciously did before.
If you love language and the process of expressing ideas verbally, it’s an endless well to explore.
One of the downsides to working in an ER is that, by definition, you’re surrounded by sick people. This has a couple of obvious implications. The first is that, the longer you do it, the more robust your immune system becomes. So far so good.
The second is: you’re going to get sick. Most of the time this will be garden variety illness; upper respiratory and GI infections, usually viral in nature. In other words, the kind of sick that puts you out of commission for a few days, then you bounce back. Because these infections are viral, antibiotics are useless – you’re just going to have to suffer, rest, and let your body do it’s thing.
So here I am. Sick, but business as usual. Nothing to see here folks.
Feeling shitty is sometimes just part of being alive.
Tomorrow is a new day.
“Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying.”
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR
May I direct your attention to one Rafael Méndez, born to a poor family with 19 children in Jiquilpan, Mexico in 1906, and who is certainly one of the greatest trumpet virtuoso’s of all time.
The subject of this post is his recording of a composition by Paganini titled “Moto Perpetuo.” It was written as a single continuous line that goes on for over four minutes and was meant to be played as a showcase for the violin. Because the trumpet is a wind instrument, Rafael learned to play it by using a technique called “circular breathing,” whereby the performer breathes in through their nose without disrupting the air stream while they are playing. As far as I know, this is the first time anyone attempted this technique on the trumpet, much less pulled it off so spectacularly. This recording was made sometime around 1960 when he was 54.
Listening to it today, it still seems impossible, like there must be some sort of trickery involved. He would, however, periodically perform this live throughout his life, so there is no doubt it was real.
So how was this possible? An uneducated, poor Mexican boy develops into one of the most spectacular, ground breaking trumpet virtuosos of all time? That, I think, is part of the mysterious magic of being human. We all have the ability, to a greater or lesser degree, to figure shit out and then, through the application of personal discipline, develop that idea as far as we can. In Rafael’s case, it was playing the trumpet, and he was obviously very gifted in doing so. Others have done the same in every field of endeavor, moving humanity ever forward. These are the visionaries who show us what’s possible.
We all can, and should, contribute to this evolution no matter how small and inconsequential it may seem to us at the time. Because at the end of the day our contribution may not be as inconsequential as we originally thought.
We exist for a brief time to do something.
So go and do it!
All doctors and nurses, at some point either in their education or as they begin to practice, will experience a profound fear of morbidity and mortality. This usually happens fairly early in their training, at the point in which they begin to realize how many horrible ways there are to get sick and die. I’ll never forget when I was in nursing school, one of my instructors saying to me (about my sick patients) – “Always remember, you are not them.” The thing is, the longer you live, eventually you will be become them, however (hopefully) temporarily. But it is always a fear that is just below the surface.
With me it usually only surfaces when I am under the weather or otherwise compromised in some way.
It is scary as fuck – you have to stop your mind from running away like a train out of control and free-associating worst case scenarios for you and your loved ones. Stroke and Alzheimer’s strike the greatest fear in me – unfortunately, I have personal experience with both, so I’ve seen the devastating results up close. These are my doomsday scenarios of choice.
So what do I do to combat this useless anxiety?
For me this works better than Benzos – I don’t know how it works, I just know it does. Because worrying about having a stroke or Alzheimer’s is just about the most useless, dysfunctional activity ever. It’s ok to think about these things in the context of “what can I do to prevent them,” but to just imagine it happening to you or a loved one is an exercise in useless anxiety of the highest order. It’s on the same level as worrying about a nuclear weapon – there’s virtually nothing you can do to prevent it, so you’re just wasting precious time you’re never going to get back.
Take a deep breath and live in the moment you have right now. It’s all you’ve really got.
What a glorious gift it is.
Seriously – fuck our entire government and every morally reprehensible asshole in it.
You don’t represent me.
I don’t hate anyone because they think differently than me. In fact, I like it when others think differently – it makes life more interesting. But if their ideas are hateful and ignorant, I say fuck ‘em. I don’t have the patience to waste my precious time and energy on your mindless blather.
Blatant nihilism, the desire to destroy just for sake of seeing everything crash and burn, makes me ashamed to be a human. You are the kind of people who, as children, enjoyed pouring salt on slugs just to see them melt. What is wrong with you? Did you lose your moral compass, or did you never possess one to start with?
And our so-called “leaders” in Washington? You people represent the public manifestation of the absolute worst possible human behavior. Lying sociopathic grifters who couldn’t be honest and decent if you had a gun at your head. I actually feel physically nauseous just looking at your sanctimonious, lying mugs. I know it doesn’t matter, but here’s a news flash – some of us see right through you. You’re not fooling everyone, but you clearly already know that and don’t give a shit. Because you just have to fool most, and you know a good way to do that is by appealing to the lowest common denominators – hatred, xenophobia, and fear.
Have you no shame? Well, here’s how I’m dealing with you. First of all – fuck off. I’m not going to be a sucker lining up to be fleeced at your carnival. Unfortunately there’s clearly plenty of rubes out there willing to fall for your bullshit.
Secondly, I’m going to keep trying to be a kind and empathetic human. I won’t always make it, but goddamn it, I’m going to give it my best shot.
At least that’s something I have some control over.
As for the rest of you lying, deceitful pricks – have a nice life. I can assure you I’m enjoying mine more than you enjoy yours. I sleep well, and I’m not repulsed to look at myself in the mirror. I’m not perfect, but I’m sincerely trying to do the right thing.
It’s the best I can do.
The really pathetic and profoundly disturbing thing is that you probably feel the same way. I’d say “god help us all” but I’m an atheist. I’m afraid if we’re going to fix this we’re going to have to do it ourselves.
I’m not hopeful.
May I turn your attention to exhibit A: Let’s examine Mel Brooks showstopper “Springtime For Hitler” from the movie, then subsequent Broadway show, of the same name. WTF! Where do I even begin…
It’s hard to imagine anyone pulling this off today – in 1967, a mere 22 years after the end of World War II, with it’s genocide of 6 million Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany, a 40 year old Jewish comedy genius named Mel Brooks decided to write the ultimate “fuck you” to the oppressors in the form of this comedy masterpiece. Seriously, just stop a minute and appreciate how profound this was – it is the ultimate example of weaponized comedy, polished to diamond hard perfection with an edge sharper than a razor. It is so ridiculously over the top and funny it’s breathtaking. And like all great art, it’s a gift that just keeps giving.
Before going any further, take a moment to watch the 1967 clip of this set piece from the film, and then the longer version from Mel’s re-worked number in the 2005 Broadway show.
Springtime For Hitler, 2005 (apologies for the ad – trust me, it’s worth waiting for)
Hats off to Alan Johnson who died last Saturday for choreographing this piece in the style of a Busby Berkeley musical. When the ensemble assumes the formation of a swastika and we switch to an overhead view where they begin rotating with the dancers taking tiny goosesteps is dumbfounding. Some of these lyrics are little comedic gems by themselves: “It’s springtime for Hitler and Germany, winter for Poland and France” and “We’re marching to a faster pace, look out, here comes the master race” kill me every time. If anything, the 2005 version is even funnier – playing Hitler as a gay man channeling Judi Garland has to be seen to be believed. When they bring the lights down and Hitler sits on the edge of the stage and softly begins singing:
“I was just a paper hanger
No one more obscurer
Got a phone call from the Reichstag
Told me I was Fuhrer
Germany was blue
Oh what oh what to do
Hitched up my pants
And conquered France
Now Deutschland’s smiling through
Oh it ain’t no mystery
If it’s politics or history
The thing you gotta know is
Everything is show biz”
This is one of the things I love about comedy, and why NOTHING should be off limits as subject matter – it’s one of the most powerful art forms for making a statement about the worst parts of human behavior in a way cuts to the truth and makes you laugh at the same time. But I would argue that what Mel is doing here is much, much deeper. For a brief moment he turns the tables on Germany – the funny Jewish kid from Brooklyn is going to figuratively usurp the entire Third Reich and make fools of them for all the world to see – forever.
Question: How do you make comedy out of the holocaust?
Answer: Springtime for Hitler!
Is there really anything stopping you from at least trying to do whatever it is you dream about?
Or are you the only obstacle standing in your way?
And if you think it’s unattainable, maybe you’re looking at things from the wrong perspective.
Perhaps actually attaining your goal isn’t really the point.
Maybe the point is the process of trying to achieve it.
If you want real try spending a 12 hour shift with a nurse. Any nurse, any setting, doesn’t matter. What you’ll see is life with everything stripped away – except for what’s real. All pretense fades away with suffering – your station in life, or lack thereof, means nothing. Pain, fear, and death – this is about as real as it gets.
The death of a child while your hands are still on them, trying desperately to save them, then the wailing of the parents and family when they realize it’s all over. This isn’t a movie or some cruel fiction, this is real – as brutally real as it gets. Alive one minute, then dead. Life goes on, and you go on to your next patient. Keeping it real.
How about going to the ER because of “stomach” pain and finding out your abdomen is filled with tumors. It’s real in a way you wish it wasn’t.
Trying to put an IV in a burn victim while the smoke is still rising from their cooking flesh – that’s a real you won’t soon forget.
The sixteen year old boy who will be a quadriplegic because he was shot over some ridiculous bullshit in the street. He thought he was “keeping it real,” but real is spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair being fed by someone else.
But I don’t want to paint an overly negative picture. There’s “good” real too…
The stroke patient who came in not being able to move his left arm and now he can, because you helped him get the right drugs quickly. When you go in to check on him and he says “thank you for taking care of me.” If you’re a nurse it doesn’t get much better than that.
Or even just going into a patients room, and a family member looks up and smiles, saying “you took care of my (mother/father/daughter/son/grandparent, etc).”
I always ask “I hope I did a good job...”
Just trying to keep it real.
I love language, particularly old, weird turns of phrase. I first heard this term from boxing commentators and never heard it in any other context – it’s used to describe a fighter who is in deep trouble after sustaining a devastating attack by their opponent. They are not all there, legs wobbly and desperately just trying to hold their shit together until they can regroup. In this state they are said to be “on queer street.” (Interesting side note: The term “queer” didn’t become associated with homosexuals until about a century later.)
The phrase originated in England sometime in the late 1700’s – Arthur Conan Doyle used it in several Sherlock Holmes stories. This is a great definition I found in a phrase dictionary:
“An imaginary street where people in difficulty live.”
Here’s the interesting thing about a visit to queer street – it just means you are in deep trouble, it doesn’t mean you are out of the game. A great fighter can, and often will, come back from a seemingly insurmountable beating and win the fight, or at least score a draw (see Pacquiao-Marquez 1, round 1). So couldn’t this just be a great metaphor for life’s difficulty’s? Aren’t we all on queer street at some point in our lives?
Perhaps it’s a measure of our character how we deal with this difficulty – do we fold and give up, or do we fight, and through sheer grit and determination either win or die trying?
What will you do when you find yourself on queer street?
It’s impossible to really understand what this means until you begin to age – if you’re not careful you can wake up one day and suddenly realize you can no longer do something because you stopped doing it a long, long time ago.
Sometimes it seems like I spend an inordinate amount of time each day using something simply because I don’t want to lose it. I’m hanging on to what I have like grim death. No going “peacefully into the good night” for this grizzled motherfucker. I’ve got shit to do.
So I write and think and work and exercise and hopefully make some cool shit and just fucking live life as righteously as possible. I’m at the beginning of act three and I’d like to make some kind of a ruckus before the final curtain falls. I hope it’s not a short act.
Let’s start some trouble!
So you’re at work and you ask a coworker for help on how to do something and they proceed to tear you a new asshole like a drill sergeant at Parris Island.
How do you process this?
First, make a mental note not to ask this person for help again, then take a moment to silently thank them for helping you become more independent.
Because here’s a critically important point that will make your life so much more pleasant: Although we have no control over how the assholes of the world treat us, we have complete control over how we perceive their indiscretions.
Use this knowledge to change your internal dialogue and grow.
“The state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone.”
“The state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something.”
“The opportunity or ability to act independently and make decisions without authorization.”
There’s a certain type of personality that’s drawn to the latter as a way of exercising their brain and autonomy, to the former because they feel challenged by attempting to fairly take charge of and lead a group, and as a result they are comfortable being held accountable for the consequences.
Why? That’s a good question I’m not sure I have an answer for… What kind of a person wants this?
One mistake at a time.
I am reading a wonderful book, “The Language of Kindness” by Christie Watson, about her 20 year career as a nurse in the U.K. I was struck when I came across this term (which was new to me) for what will soon be obvious reasons. She is describing her first day as a psychiatric nurse, and it becomes clear to her preceptor that she is overwhelmed by what she sees. The teacher then tells her: “You should write it down. Reflective practice is part of the job. Every day, reflect on what’s happened and, if you can, write it down.” Christie goes on to elaborate:
“Reflective practice—like all nursing theories—has a number of different models and ideas, but essentially it is the process of making sense of real events. It is widely regarded as some kind of emotional protection for nurses who are paying the cost of caring for vulnerable people, and it helps the nurse to understand her own personality, life story and memories and how they influence events. One of the models of reflective practice, developed by Beverley Taylor, a nurse and midwife, acknowledges that some questions may remain puzzles.”
Her mentor, Sue, then goes on to say “Keeping a reflective journal helps me stay well and on difficult days I still do it. And you will see how far you’re coming, as you move through your placements. That, plus a large gin and tonic at the end of the day…”
Hmm… writing as a powerfully therapeutic way of making sense of the world. Sound familiar?
What are you willing to do when no one else is watching?
Let’s make this more interesting: Would you let one person die to save a thousand?
Would you kill someone to save a loved one? What about to save a child? How about to save yourself?
If you were a pharmaceutical company performing a final double blind study on a promising cancer drug before going to market, would you give this drug to a dying child on the chance that it might work, forever destroying your one opportunity to test it before treatment and jeopardizing the chance to treat thousands if not millions?
Would you lie to damage someone’s reputation in order to get ahead?
Do you have a strong moral compass to guide you in making these decisions, or do you need an outside force to threaten punishment as a deterrent?
If you have a moral compass, where did you get it? Were you born with it or did society teach it to you?
Do you think you know the answers to these questions as if they were black and white, or do you understand them as existing in a constantly shifting shade of gray?
Sometimes you won’t know the answer until life forces you to make a decision.
Don’t take criticism personally – even if you think it’s unfair. Trust me, I understand that this can be easier said than done, especially if you’re hurt in the process.
DON’T GO THERE.
Instead remind yourself you’re stronger than them, think clearly about what’s best for the greater good, and hold your head up. Once you’ve cooled off, think clearly about the criticism – maybe you can learn something from it, maybe not. Approach your analysis as an opportunity to grow. Then move on. Don’t perseverate.
If you feel like you’re being bullied, aggressively and forcefully ask for clarification. Don’t back down – look them in the eye and try to get a handle on whatever the issue is. You have to face this head on while remaining in control, but whatever you do don’t allow yourself to get emotional. It’s going to get uncomfortable and that’s ok – by confronting the bully you are going to make them uncomfortable too, and they won’t like it. Even better, do this in front of other people.
Don’t ever respond when you are angry. You will regret it. If you feel yourself becoming angry, just don’t say anything. Respond only when you can do so calmly. Remember that you are the one in control.
Ultimately try to be an agent for good. If I’m feeling down or out of sorts, I think “What can I do for someone else?” and soon I’m feeling better.
And finally, don’t hold grudges.
You’re a better person than that.