Gabriel turns Two: Happy Birthday Sweet Boy

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Excerpts from Memoirs of A Book Flirt

What Women Want

What do I really want? I ask myself this question, sometimes wistfully, occasionally almost with a violent urgency. The fear of wasting this tiny lifetime looms on the horizon of every milestone, peering at me from the contours of daily routine. The close of another day finds me wondering, Is this as good as it gets? Can I live with that?
As a woman, the What do I really want? Is not like asking a five year old whether she prefers broccoli or ice cream. If you put this question to my daughter, she’d say, Ice cream, yeah baby! But ask me what I’d choose and my response would be that, on the one hand, I want broccoli because I want to live a long, healthy life and would prefer not to die prematurely of heart disease or cancer. I’d also like to avoid getting fat if possible. Equally, I want ice cream because I like it. And I want it. And doesn’t self-love include indulging in simple pleasures? So yeah, ice cream. But really, for the long term I should stick with broccoli. Except, tomorrow’s no guarantee, so carpe diem and go for the Mudslide Sunday.
At least half of my wants stand across from each other in tight-fisted, arms-crossed opposition. This leads me to wonder: Am I especially neurotic, or is ambivalence an unavoidable fact of being female, like menstruation? Fixated on this question, my eyes scan Border’s immense shelves full of everybody’s two cents, which would make a lot of sense if everybody’s two cents didn’t conflict just as much the viewpoints expressed by the little green men inside my head. My eyes flit intensely, searching the sea for a few good books with whom to trade secrets, desperately hoping to unlock the mystery what women –including me –really want, really deep down beneath all the angst and inner conflict.
The first of my co-conspirators is aptly called What Women Really Want: How American Women are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live. It’s written by a pair of unlikely collaborators: The top conservative and liberal female pollsters: Celinda Lake and Kellyanne Conway, who’ve teamed up to look at trends, statistics and points of convergence in the lives and priorities of women.
Did you know that 60 percent of women between ages 40 and 69 are single these days? Most of them aren’t terribly upset about it. They’d rather be single and celebrating than married to Mr. Wrong and stuck. The authors put it this way: “…the search for Mr. Right has been edged aside by the quest to become Ms. Right Now.” For better, worse or just different, female standards are skyrocketing, especially when we get ourselves one of them college diplomas. As it turns out, college educated and professional women are more likely than equivalently educated guys to say their main reason for remaining single is because they haven’t found the right person. Strong, financially independent women are living great lives and aren’t interested in making changes for someone less than amazing. Having been married to a severely wrong Mr. Wrong, I cheer them on. I think it’s tragically sad when people give up their dreams and marry someone less-than-special or really-not-good because some kind of “should” compels them onward. Of course there are also girls who get married mostly so they can wear a pretty white princess dress or for the social privilege of casually referencing, “My husband…” in conversation. These strike me as perfectly insane (yet perhaps not uncommon) reasons to marry. Wouldn’t it be better to stay single than to lose your own soul?
On the other hand, being married to a really wonderful (but not perfect) guy, I wish everyone who desires it the chance to experience committed love at its precious, sometimes painful, unbelievably beautiful best. It’s worrisome when I hear statements like this one from Fran: “For me to marry I’d have to find the male equivalent of me. That hasn’t happened yet.” Doesn’t that sound a little…um, self-centered? Not to mention dull. And besides, I’m not that easy to live with, so I definitely wouldn’t want to be married to my male equivalent. God help me!
Let’s see what the pollster ladies have to say about couples: Lots more older women are “shacking up,” mostly so they can retain a late spouse’s financial benefits, like healthcare, pension and social security. Then, there are adult children who want to make sure their piece of the pie isn’t chewed up, swallowed and excreted into the Depends of a new spouse. In other news, divorce is holding steady at about 50%, and women seem perfectly capable of being happy post-divorce, regardless of whether or not they find a new guy. On the other hand, people who are married are more likely to have emotionally and physically satisfying sex lives than single folks or cohabitants who reside together outside a marriage. Another check plus for wedlock is its great wealth-building potential.
Now if you’re thinking of giving marriage more than the old college try, you may want to increase your odds for success by picking somebody who shares your values and goals. People with similar worldviews are more likely to play well on the same team when it comes to marital happiness and longevity.
This just makes sense. Personally I could not have sex with someone who drives around town with Bush-Cheney stickers. Grand old party dinners, with “the children” dressed in frilly red dresses and slick hairdos? Please. Also, I wouldn’t want to marry a homophobe or aJim Haggi worshipper, however sincere (and misguided.)
On the other hand, while abortion may be the lesser of two evils in some situations, the thought of sharing my vagina with someone, who (however well-intentioned,) earns their living making short work of embryos and fetuses makes me shiver, like a chill from being wet in February.
So I guess one thing I’ve figured out about what I want is this: Someone in favor of a decent wage, healthcare and quality education for already-born people, who also believes in providing for due consideration of tiny humans swimming in a sea of creation as they prepare to make their grand entrance into the big, wide, scary, wacky, wonderful world.
From what I’ve observed, so many conservative people are pro-birth, but once they get you out alive, you’re liable to be abandoned to a sucky life, unless you can beat the odds and pull yourself up by your diaper straps.
Then again I hear liberals trying to make it a 1-0 equation, where the woman’s rights trump all consideration of the human being undergoing creation. A woman’s body is sacred; so is the life she creates from her body. Can’t we at least agree that woman first view the little human inside her womb before she closes her eyes and spreads her legs for an abortionist to “make it go away?” Yes, it must and will, regardless of the law, always be a woman’s decision to carry a child to term or induce an abortion. But insisting she consider alternatives and confront the tiny human she is about to destroy does not deny her procreative rights; it holds her accountable to weigh this decision from a place of truth and gives her a better chance to choose a path that comes from reflection, rather than panic. And it insists that human life deserves consideration, while upholding the sacred decision only a woman can make. After all, isn’t it hypocritical to give inalienable rights to those of us who manage to emerge, while denying even the right to consideration for a human life still getting underway?
Yet democrats depend on a base that passionately believes it’s 100% all about the woman, while the life or death of a fetus is absolutely none of society’s fucking business. Then equally and oppositely, republicans count on a base that coos and gives thousands of dollars for the rescue of embryos, while tending to get excited about a woman-centered-approach only when doing so is the most effective way to save fetuses. No thanks Mr. Red. No thanks Mr. Blue. I’m a purple kind of girl! Well actually, periwinkle, to be specific. Now boy was that a rant, and a tangent, and long, but it couldn’t be helped. Probably you hate me now, but that can’t be helped either. But don’t hate me because I’m beautiful – if only you saw the stretch marks on my stomach, you wouldn’t be jealous!
Here are some fun facts about America’s female citizenry: while some women are choosing a high—powered career and having kids later, other’s want to find a way to have it all – now. More women are packing up their babies along with their briefcases for business trips, spawning a new hotel industry of nanny services and other kids’ programs. 10% of business trips taken in 2003 included children!
The desire for meaningful work and meaningful motherhood also seems to be the driving force behind the growing segment of women going into business for themselves and their families, discovering balance in life by creating the jobs they want. Women now own 26% of the nation’s 20.8 million companies. Women-run companies tend to emphasize collaboration over competition. If men decide to emulate this trend in business, human beings might successfully stick around longer than the relatively short-lived stint of the dinosaurs. But maybe that’s like asking sperm not to compete for the egg. Speaking of eggs, technology is helping a lot of old eggs turn into new people, as many women who put career ahead of the baby carriage are now running wildly after the carriage with a nice heavy purse in hand. Increasing numbers of wealthier, less fertile women wanting a squirming bundle of their own genetic material is great news for the make-a-baby industry. One child in a hundred is conceived thru fertility treatments.
Clearly, the question “Can a woman have it all?” depends on what she wants. If she wants a mommy track or to start her own business, the answer seems to be “Yes!” If she wants a career that is equal to men in status and salary, the answer seems to be “No,” or at best, “Possibly, at a very high price.” Today the percentage of executive-management positions filled by women is only 18.8 percent. Does this make the feminist movement a failure? Does it mean women can’t do what men do? Or does it mean we’re smart enough to know that status and salary are not equivalent to joy and satisfaction?
My dad always says the reason most politicians are bad is because most of the good people know better than to play a game where cheating is part of the rules. And the good ones who try to play fair get kicked out of the game, or decide to leave.
Is there any hope for a different kind of world, where every bottom counts more than the bottom line? Yes, there are signs of hope. Lakes and Conway say that both men and women would prefer to work for a woman if their company was downsizing. It seems obvious why: for most women, the bottom line is people and their families, whereas for way too many male employers, the bottom is the bottom line.
Here’s the real bottom line: At the end of the day, when we go into the grave, whether we meet our maker or live on in the memory of the people we touched, winning doesn’t matter. Making a difference for the better matters. Loving matters. Doing something risky or embarrassing because it’s right matters. As Jesus said, the first will be last and the last will be first.
Another sign of hope for a woman-friendly world: Teri Hatcher notes in her part-memoir, part-self-help book, Burnt Toast, that it’s her personal goal to quit acting if a time comes when she can’t get a job succumbing to plastic surgery.
Now just because women are making the world a better place doesn’t mean us gals are just gentle curves and melted sugar. Alanis Morissette has a way of putting it, let me see…I’m a bitch, I’m a mother, I’m a child, I’m a lover, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint and I do not feel ashamed. I’m your hell, I’m your dream, I’m nothing in between, you know you wouldn’t want it any other waaay. Well truth be told, there is some in-between, and truthfully men really do want and need a break from the drama from time to time. This is why smart wild women learn to choose their full-moon adventures wisely. I want to be the kind of bitch who wields power like a martial artist moving gracefully and unstoppably through a “don’t fuck with me” ocean of compassion. My goal in life is to be a fabulous, wild, loving bitch. Bitch without the bitchy – accept once a month when that’s not realistic.
Seeing the title Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, I have mixed feelings. I like the boldness of the title. No shame, no apologies, just “here I am.” And I like the juxtaposition of “praise” and “difficult women,” joined in an unlikely conspiracy. I take it as a challenge to greater self-acceptance. “Difficult” is a label I got stuck with as a kid. Even nowadays, there’s some stickiness left from the old label, but a new tag that reads: Passionate troublemaker who shakes things up with mischief, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
“Difficult” sounds like “burdensome.” I don’t want to be a heavy load on someone’s back. I’d rather just be trouble where it’s needed. Or mischief of the kind that leprechauns make; mischief that unravels the old order and establishes a new balance that’s light and free and green.
After scanning the table of contents, which contains catchy headings like, “He Puts Her on a Pedestal and She Goes Down on It,” I open to page forty-four of Bitch. I find a perfect summary of feminist biblical critique, which I wish I’d read when I was a confused undergraduate majoring in Christian Ministry.
See if you don’t think this cuts right to the heart of the matter: “Of course the problem with the Bible is that is suffers from Tom Cruise syndrome, which is to say that it leaves an impression that men are the stars of the story, when anyone reading it knows that the women are the interesting part.” The author, Elisabeth Wurtzel is particularly fixated on the adventures of Delilah, the biblical babe who seduces and disempowers Samson, a riotous Israelite, who Wurtzel compares to a Hamas boss. She goes on and on about women’s sexual power, men’s fear of it and eventually the thing gets kind of dull, except for a vivid description of Madonna’s Movie, Body of Evidence, which is “predicated on the notion that a young, conniving woman can carefully choose older lovers with weak hearts – in the physical, not the emotional, sense – and engage them in sex so grueling that she finally fucks them to death by way of coital heart attack. Of course only weeks before the death dance, her men always rewrite their wills, making her the sole beneficiary.” So really, who has the problem: Strong, manipulative women or pathetic, hormone-enslaved men? My answer? BOTH! Why are we still playing the blame game? It’s as old as Adam and Eve.

Gray’s Anatomy: The inside scoop on Dr. Drama

My eyes scanned all around Borders for Gray’s Anatomy, but I couldn’t find the damn reference book. Sure there were plenty of anatomy books neatly shelved: texts by Barron, Netter and McMinn, but apparently Gray’s Anatomy not a current hit in the actual medical world. Such is the difference between TV medicine and the anatomy of real life. And standing boldly in the gap between unfiltered reality and soap opera fantasy are the real-life doctors who write their best stories and turn them into books. These memoir-essay-novel-medical journalism-lifetime-television-style books can be found in a subsection of “Medical Reference” aptly designated “Medical Narrative.” The stuff you’ll find under Medical Narrative might rightfully be called, “a reference for the rest of us,” or What Being A Doctor Can Teach You About Life For Dummies. A few multi-syllabic words here and there make you feel almost smart enough to pass the MCAT, but medical narratives are basically human interest tales that wrestle with the two basic facts of human experience: life and death.
I’ve always found it fascinating that of all the animals, human beings seem to be the only meaning-seekers. Meaning-seeking is pretty much what medical narrative is about: regular people in white coats who hold life and death daily in their palms; semi-normal people called doctors gazing through exhausted eyes at the ethical fuzz lining the scientific limits of medicine; reflecting on the idiosyncrasies and worth of a human life, and occasionally fucking a coworker suffering equally from too much life and death on too little sleep.
David, the man I married, is a medical student; as much as I’ve always admired his calling, I used to worry he’d get laid with some sexy female clinician who knew the trials of his day better than me, his wife. But I’ve discovered in David a love and loyalty that leads me to trust, however (perhaps) naively, my Love will be faithful. I keep this faith even thought David looks irresistibly sexy in scrubs – so sexy, in fact, that I asked him to wear my favorite pair on the first night we made love, which he did, though later he told me it felt a little silly wearing his work clothes to a poignantly romantic soirée. David did it for me. He is the best.
Sharing my life with a medical student, I know something about the reality behind the “real-life” medical narratives. One thing that holds true in real life is that physicians, students and patients are all living with the same (human) condition. Last year one of David’s favorite teachers killed himself after he lost his job and reputation to an amphetamine addiction. His wife suffered from multiple sclerosis. People knew she was sick. Why didn’t anyone know he was sick? Why did the school fire him instead of enrolling him in detox? Did his white coat bestow on him a superhuman status that was just too much to bear?? For all the medical dramas and narratives, do we still expect men in white coats to fly above it all like Superman?
Also really true is that being smart – even smart enough to get into medical school, doesn’t get you maturity for free. Wearing a half-length white coat with a “student doctor” badge doesn’t solve issues of race, abortion ideology or binge drinking. It does lead to large student loans that will eventually be paid off, and in the end, it leads down one of two paths: pride or humility. If you are a patient about to go under the knife, you may prefer pride. Mostly, you’re better off with humility, because true humility has two best friends: good judgment and compassion.
Apparently there’s a “human side of medicine” story for every medical specialty, judging from the sheer volume and diversity of tell-all literature about physicians and physicians-in-the-making. Books on E.R. narratives and Neurosurgery seem especially popular. The author behind A Pediatrician’s Journal probably edited out a few things when the journal went from Mead notebook to matte hardcover. Intriguing is a book about an OB’s medical screw up and eventual redemption, as well as a tale whose central characters are cadavers. The cadaver book, called Stiff, apparently made the New York Times Bestseller list. The old adage that fame comes easier when you are dead has just acquired some new evidence.
Carrying so many brilliant moments of utter humanness confidentially within one’s own soul naturally might breed a certain desire to confess, lay bare and be heard. And what better confessor than an anonymous readership?
Still, I can’t help thinking maybe all these doctors saw the celebrity status of TV doctors on ER, Scrubs, House, MD and Gray’s Anatomy and suddenly began to feel a little more profound, human, heroic…and possibly more shelf-worthy than before. Typically in publishing media there’s a book, then a movie. With the medical drama genre, it seems like the screen drama has really helped birth the books, helping a new generation of medical sagas make their way to the shelves. Such a role resolves (for me anway) an ancient mystery concerning the reproductive etiology of fowl: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” I think we can reasonably deduce that although usually the egg comes first, now and again the chicken kicks things off -- maybe prove it’s bad to get stuck in a rut. So alright, the chicken probably doesn’t think deeply about conceptual ruts, but the chicken is valuable for its metaphorical function, and therefore should not be killed for Caesar Salad without due consideration and respect.
Sitting on a packed shelf, a slim maroon book glimmers in my direction, and I chuckle under my breath as my eyes scan the title: s Kill as Few Patients as Possible. That’s every doctors goal right? Except Dr. Kevorkian, of course. This baby’s written by a guy named Oscar London MD, WBD. Nice, classy name, and MD always looks convincing a book jacket, I’m clueless about the WBD, besides three letters too man? Sometimes I wish ridiculously credentialed people would focus on the most important information, like whether they graduated from a fake online university or a real school, and whether or not Excess letters aside, we can all agree it’s a pleasant and positive goal to kill as few patients as possible, especially when such a worthy goal is undertaken with a spirit of humor.
I open the glossy paperback and feel the rough, off white pages as I glance down the table of contents intently. The chapter headings are splendid. A sampling:

Rule 8. If You Don’t Believe in Prescribing Valium for Anxious Patients, Be Sure to Take One Yourself.

Rule 28. Praise Nurses and Your Patients Will Live Forever or Die Happy.

Rule 3. If You Can’t Save Your Patient’s Life, Find Someone Who Can.

Rule 38. When She’s Absolutely, Positively Sure She Isn’t Pregnant, Get a Pregnancy Test.

Rule 52. Remember A Malpractice Lawyer in Your Prayers.

And perhaps most intriguing,

Rule 45. Call in Death as a Consultant.

You can find Consultant Death on page 78, where he stands in a physician’s corner, mouth curling eerily in sinister pleasure each time a doctor errs on the side of error. Death is depicted as a Physician’s ultimate accountability. Accountability is good but there’s a danger when a good doctor making a one-to-one correlation between death and failure; it’s tantamount to making immortality the measuring stick of success. And that’s too much to bear, too unrealistic, unforgiving and unrelenting – the thought of never dying, I mean, – and a good physician knows when medicine means helping someone make their peace and move toward the Great Beyond of God’s love with honor and sanctity. Since the days when doctors apprenticed into a trade, rather than cramming into an MCAT parade, the best doctors have known being a friend to the dying as part and parcel with being a true healer. A loving hand, a simple presence can bring more healing than another last-ditch attempt to prolong a life that’s journeying toward its natural end. Today a doctor may feel compassion, but she probably hasn’t absorbed the wisdom of a mentor comfortable with life, death and the Spirit that transcends both. She may know all about antibiotics and morphine, but little about how to do nothing as a way of healing someone’s soul. And even if she’s in sync with this ancient rhythm of life and death, she may feel pressure work efficiently throbbing from the HMO that employs her, and after a long grueling day or week or year, she may not be able to sit with her dying patient as long as he needs. Time to call a chaplain or someone uniquely suited to shutting up in a demeanor of accepting love, a stand-in for the Loving Presence that we sense waits for us in the Great Beyond.
I spent a year being student chaplain at Cooper Hospital. I was part of a program Clinical Pastoral Education, and we got to sit with dying people and people having babies and everyone in between. People seemed eager to open up and talk with me – maybe because I liked being with them, or maybe because my badge made me out to be an authoritative, real chaplain, rather than the small, young and inexperienced student chaplain that was my true identity. I guess the idea was to help us grow into bigger shoes. And probably to put the patients at ease. After all something to a clergy title that conveys innuendo of a direct line to God. Something not captured when that clergy title is preceded by the word “student.” Vocational equivocations aside, I learned a lot. Mostly about shutting up.
Another title for chaplain could be “bedside manner specialist,” since our badge and training enabled us to practice the human side of medicine with a remarkable degree of credibility. We treated people’s hearts and spirits while the doctors concerned themselves primarily with treating bodies. I loved everything about the experience except one of the senior chaplains who gave me hell because my strength is messy human beings, not anal paperwork. Isn’t it better to be sloppy with administrative poop than with people? I think so.
Gray’s Anatomy (the TV show) portrays human beings behind a surgical residency program. Now lots of people get woozy thinking of about the mess of childbirth, much less the thrill of open body cavities undergoing bloody reconstruction, yet a lot of these same people are enthralled by Gray’s anatomy, which while not overly graphic, frequently shows generous amounts blood and guts. What mystique about surgical residency subdues and surpasses the familiar sensation of nausea? Frank Vertosick (which sounds too much like vertigo-sick,) says on page three of his book, When The Air Hits Your Brain that the myth and mystique of brain surgery began with a guy named Harvey Cushing, father of American neurosurgery. Cushing apparently was a media-loving aristocrat who, according to Vertosick knew that, “the brain was better PR than blocked colons and gangrenous legs,” and kept his cigarettes in a sterling silver case. Long before Gray’s Anatomy was on Good Morning America, Cushing made the cover of Time magazine.
Despite the stereotype of the brilliant neurosurgeon, Frank Vertosick insists that grit is more telling than outrageous intelligence quotients in the birth of a brain surgeon. Despite the seventeen-year haul from high school to licensed neurosurgeon, Frank insists that while you can’t be stupid, you don’t have to be the smartest person on earth to twiddle your fingers around the gray matter of a human being. It’s just brain surgery.
There is a certain mystique about someone who sculpts and tweezes around the human mind. And I like Vertosick’s style – he’s funny and refreshing. I think I’ll stick around for a while, maybe ask his book out on a second date.
Here we are, on page four over a vanilla latte made with almond milk from home and a free sample of Border’s Café Trios decaf coffee. It’s late in the afternoon. I imagine neurosurgeons making more mistakes in the afternoon. I wonder how many lives have been forever changed by a miniscule error late in the afternoon, or simply the untrained hands of a newbie. Has anyone ever studied it? Would they dare?
Perhaps surgical residencies are so long to reassure the public, completely comprised, as it is, of potential surgery recipients, that the training is sufficient. Vertosick says “neurosurgery, like all surgical fields is a cult, a religion with mandatory rites of passage,” and that further more, the passage of time achieves the “unstated goal of turning out people who not only can do neurosurgery, but also look like neurosurgeons in the Cushing mold: gray, chain smoking males.” In the end Vertosick comes back to my original point: “The longer the program, the older and more persuasive the surgeon. A twenty-five-year-old man can pilot a space craft to the moon, but please keep him out of Mama’s head.” Vertosick fails to address the issue of women in brain surgery entirely. And come to think of it, if a female were to operate on my gray matter, I might inquire into her menstrual cycle and schedule my surgery to coincide with a hormonally balanced stage of the game. Women, no offense, I am sure some of you are hormonally well-balanced at all times of the month, but I know myself, so I’d rather not chance it when it comes to my thinking parts. After all, I’m already forgetful and ditzy about my keys, my wallet and buckling the kids in their car seats; if I lose much more of the wrinkly goo, I could become an official corn flake, with consequences I’d prefer not to ponder.


There are many cultures around these days, including pop culture, yogurt culture, subcultures, native cultures, family culture, cultural relativism and the all-encompassing, “other cultures” used by members of a dominant culture to talk about everyone else’s culture. My American Heritage Dictionary defines “culture” as “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions and all other products of human work and thought,” as well as, “the breeding of animals or growing up plants to produce improved stock,” and also “to grow microorganisms.” So it seems to me that “culture” is a synonym for “everything” and also a euphemism for eugenics. A culture, whether biological or social, is set on producing a specific kind of organism, which may be a law-abiding right-winger, an extremist lefty or a colon bacillus – which is a rod-shaped bacteria found in all vertebrate intestinal tracts. Turns out all of us have a rod up our ass. Go figure.
Now according to cultural expert, Clotiare Rapaille’s new book, The Culture Code, “The only effective way to understand what people truly mean is to ignore what they say.” This quote is found on page 14, and is in the context of discovering what Americans want in a car.
Rapaille’s point is an interesting one: when people are asked a direct question, they respond with an intellectual response that seeks to match what they assume the question-asker wants to hear. But when it comes to behavior, people rarely make decisions based on purely on intellect, and when the moment of action is at hand, the actor is probably no longer considering the agenda of a long-forgotten questionnaire or interviewer. In the end, we just do stuff, and don’t know why. We think we are so high and mighty, God’s thinking creatures, but when it comes to what we do, we typically act from deep down in our primitive center, for worse or better, depending on what sort of animal lives in our soul. Rapaille has made his life’s work figuring out “code words” that correspond to our core emotions – the driven, visceral ones found in our so-called reptilian brain. On page 83 I discover that the American code word for nurse is MOTHER. According to Rapaille, this is a positive association. I’m going more for mixed bag, emphasis on the bag. To be fair, I had a great nurse care for my after my C-section. She brought me water and reassurance at all watches of the night, just like my real mom did when I was a baby. But last week when I had an upper-endoscopy without sedation – it was a totally different story. My reason for declining anesthesia during a procedure that entails a Gastroenterologist shoving a black snake with a camera attached right down my throat, through my esophagus and waggling it ‘round my stomach and upper intestine? I’m breastfeeding (publicly, when possible) and the knock-me-out drugs are not approved for nursing women. Also, generally I think of “sedation” as something reserved for uncooperative pets and mental patients. In Europe, most people undergo upper endoscopies without sedation; it’s really a very American thing to elect much greater medical risk to avoid two minutes of genuine unpleasantness.
I survived sedation-less, thanks to the good European blood transmitted to me by my mother. The gagging, think-I’m-gonna-die experience lasted two minutes and was done, leaving both my esophagus and my mental faculties fully intact, thank God. I was ready to nourish my hungry son and resume public breastfeeding. I figured by now my little guy was probably trying to suck my husband’s nipples, perhaps hoping against hope to induce the rare-but-existent phenomenon of male lactation.
“She doesn’t have to stay long – she didn’t have sedation,” said my doc to the nurse, who briskly took vitals and left me to observe the feet of sedated patients peeking from behind plastic pale green curtains, my only auditory stimulation the occasional, but operatic fart of a neighboring colonoscopy patient. After what seemed a protracted waiting period, given my physicians instructions, I signaled a nurse, politely announcing my readiness to leave. The nurse got up in my face and quickly moved from condescension to pseudo-yelling, speaking to me like I was a mentally case trying to escape lockdown to visit my long-dead Uncle Herm in Yonkers.
“Sit back, Ma’am. Ma’am, you need to sit back.” She declined to offer a clinical reason for my detainment, or her condescension. Normally I am quite assertive, but Ms. Attitude R.N. was so intimidating that I caved when she said, “just one more set of vitals and then you can go.” It didn’t seem worth the fight, since I assumed she meant one more set of vitals now.
Obediently, with a great sense of humiliation, I lay back like a good girl and watched her walk away, with no evidence that my final set of vitals was on her list of things to accomplish imminently. Furious at being disrespected and manipulated, while my son was surely languishing without suckling access, I was done being a good girl. Now I know my patient rights, and for the sake of my son, as well as my mental health, which seemed in jeopardy should I spend even five minutes longer in this holding tank of sedated farters and irritating, overpowering nurses, I implemented my right to refuse treatment. Calling out in as friendly a tone as I could manage, I intoned urgently, “I’d be happy to sign the consent forms for refusing treatment, but I really need to go now.”
What ensued was a raised-voice battle of wills, in an exchange that went like this:

Nurse: You can’t leave yet. We have policies here.
Me: I have a right to refuse treatment.
Nurse: You already had the treatment.
Me: I’m still being treated with this IV here, (gesturing) and I would like it removed.
Nurse: Ma’am, we have policies.
Me: I have a right to refuse treatment.
Nurse: We have policies here.
Me: (getting louder) I have a right to refuse treatment.
Nurse: You can’t just leave. We have policies.
At this point, a friendly East Asian, male anesthesiologist walks by, and observing the ruckus underway, glances toward my chart sending a look of superior scoffing toward my power-mongering nurse. “Why?” he says with condescension. “She didn’t have sedation.”
Usually I sympathize with nurses, who do most of the hard work, while the physicians walk arrogantly around offering commands. On this occasion, I thanked my lucky stars for a nice cocky doctor who could tell a nurse-gone-wrong she was out of her fucking mind. I had personal revelation about why, according to Repaille, the code word for doctor is HERO. And I suppose it’s not a shocker that code for hospital is PROCESSING PLANT, with outpatient centers like the Endo Center chock full of medical cubicles augmented by shower curtains rather than potted plants or family photos. The nurse-mother connection is a little fuzzy, but becoming clearer: I think it’s just this: When we were babies, most of our mothers came, even during the night to love and care for us. But as time went on and we asserted ourselves outside their parameters, a lot of our moms became control freaks about the wrong things. They probably felt helpless, underappreciated and freaked out themselves. My nurse-gone-wrong maybe felt those things too, and her coping mechanism was to cling with a tenacious grip to her ridiculous little mantra about policies. Nurse or Mother, we have a right to refuse treatment.
Speaking of mothers, let’s talk about the motherland. If you’ve ever wondered when it became clear you would turn out to be an American (or Dutchman or Clansman or Bushman)? Rapaille says on page 23 that if you’ve been raised in a certain culture up to age seven, that’s what you’re stuck with, psychologically speaking. Even if you are embarrassed to be an American these days, it’s tough nuggies. You can’t just redefine yourself as a Canadian because it’s a nicer, less controversial country. Why? Because your emotional road mapping is pretty much done by age seven, and that includes emotional identification with your tribe or nation. After age seven you can call yourself a Canadian or a Farci, but deep down you’ll suspect you’re still an American.
Folks, I know this is disappointing, but at least you can still wear a Canadian flag on your backpack when traveling abroad. You don’t have to let your feelings rule your flag or your fate, cause even though you walk, talk and feel like an American, selecting a symbolic solidarity with a less offensive nation may at least point out to others that it wasn’t your fault you were not immersed in Canadian culture before age seven; that while you can’t change your cultural identity, you are in fact one of the good guys, out to change your culture. Or at least mitigate its damage done to everyone else’s culture.
Since you have to live with the damage we do ourselves right here at home, you might as well enjoy a positive spin on something usually thought of in the negative: In Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Pop Culture Is Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson argues that today’s couch potatoes are more sophisticated than past generations, and that there has been a gradual ramping up of the nuance and complexity of entertainment both giving rise to this enhanced sophistication, and in response to its presence in pop culture consumers. Maybe this is true, but here’s the rub: does ability to see moral ambiguity in the lives of sitcom stars into equal ability to perceive moral ambiguity in international relations or anything else that really matters? We may be able to follow a sophisticated storyline, but we’re still buying the line, hook and sinker. We feel for the characters we are intended to feel for, we justify the sins of those characters with whom the subtext teaches us to sympathize; we are washed along with the music and witty jokes and complex dramas, until we land exactly where the producers intend we should come ashore. The fact that we can be manipulated in more complex ways is a credit to the sellers of pop culture (Hey neat! Now we can make the rats push the wheel and follow a maze to get cheese!), but it certainly is not a finding in which we consumers should find either solace or a sense of pride. Will a day come when sophistication is measured in critical thinking and compassion, rather than media nuance?
Michael J. Silverstein, co-author of Treasure Hunt: Inside the Mind of the New Consumer, is another believer in the magnificent complexity of the modern creature known as Consumer. For Silverstein, consumer is a creature of considerable intrigue, as he sets his inquisitive gaze on the oxymoronic purchase patterns of average people who will spend top buckaroni for luxury items with an emotional payoff (like botox and bathroom fixtures) while simultaneously experiencing joy by bargain hunting for the world’s cheapest Macaroni. As though describing Homo Habillus first mastering the use of crude tools, Michael J notes on page 7 that, “Buying and consuming have become skills as fundamental as driving a car or using a computer.” Of course he’s right. I am willing to spend ten grand a year to send my daughter to a Quaker school where she will be intentionally taught that all human beings have value. On the other hand, the only time I purchase clothing from anywhere but the clearance rack is when I am shopping at Goodwill, which is where I usually shop in the first place. My local Goodwill is located twenty feet from a community noted for robust wallets and decent fashion. So I wait three or four months until the really fabulous people discard their really fabulous clothing, and then I enjoy it for $3.99 a pop.
Now here’s a useful tip-off, complements of Michael J: Some dollar stores and like-minded discount retailers trick you into thinking you’re getting a good deal by serving up products in smaller packs than the regular store’s standard. How clever! And deceitful. I admire that kind of marketing, but now that I know, I’ll be sure not to fall for it ever again.
Simplicity is not really a current American value, but it is a value that refreshes. Simplicity freshens in a completely new/old way that has nothing to do with purchasing and/or using a pricey facial spritz. Simplicity doesn’t shrink your pores or restore suppleness: it expands your spirit and restores a sense of wholeness. Space is made for breathing, which formerly was sucked up in consuming and deciding which things to consume.
Speaking of consumption burnout, I’m sitting in Starbucks today because for once I can’t stand another moment surrounded by endless book jackets jumping out from every corner and shelf, screaming for my attention. I spent over $70 this morning at Barnes & Noble, so I could walk out of the store with my books, minus setting off the alarm. I did this in desperation, to avoid spending more time enduring bookstore sensor overload this afternoon. Bookstores are wonderful things, really. But too much of a good thing can drive a person mad.
In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less; How the Culture of Abundance Robs Us of Satisfaction, Barry Schwartz overcomes his abundance of subtitles to show how a culture of limitless choice with a premium value on individual autonomy is a setup for depression. Choice and freedom as culprits in our nation’s epidemic of depression? Yuppers. Flipping to page 212 it turns out that Amish people living a quaint, choice-limited existence in Lancaster, Pennsylvania have an incidence of depression less than 20% of the national rate. Why? Because they don’t expect a lot of choice, they aren’t particularly peeved about the lack of choice. Without the expectation of freewheeling self-determination they are not queasy about buying into community – and being knit into a close social network is a proven recipe for psychological wellbeing. Plus, minus all those choices, sucky things can be chalked up to “the way things are” instead of being construed as personal failure to “choose” wisely. But we mainstream Americans think we can self-determine everything. We imagine we have more control than we really do, so when things suck and don’t work out, we blame ourselves, but are unable to fix our situation. So we feel helpless; then we get depressed. Perhaps doctors ought to prescribe an Amish conversion instead of Prozac.
Short of exiting common society, what recourse do we have to find a little sanity and simplicity in our modern age? In his chapter, What to do about choice Schwartz gives some ideas. Among them: self-imposed limits, such as giving ourselves only two options in a given choice-making scenario, just as we might stick with two drinks per cocktail party. Another suggestion: think about how much energy you expended hemming, hawing and weighing prior to some recent decisions. Then, “ask yourself how much your final decision benefited from that work.” I, for one can say with absolute confidence that my brooding ruminations are not worth it for what they get me, which is usually nothing, except stress-induced heartburn. Anyway, most of the time just making a choice – any reasonable choice – and handling the consequences would be simpler, and really a huge a relief from all the brain-tapping, contingency mapping that takes me away from my life right now. Schwartz says when you’re ready to spring for something, and you’ve given adequate, but not excessive consideration to your choice, embrace, accept, enjoy what you’ve got, and I really see this guy’s point. Savoring a nice hot mocha, sensing the espresso poking through the chocolate, warming from the inside out is much more pleasurable than wondering if I’d have been happier going with a caramel macchiato. After all, there’s no prize for wasting the most energy twiddling potential regret between your thumbs. Or toes. And if you’re stumbling over larger-looming regrets that missed macchiato, consider this anecdote from page 231: “I have a friend, frustrated over his achievements in life, who has wasted countless hours over the past thirty years regretting that he passed up the chance to go to a certain Ivy League college. ‘Everything would have been so different,’ he often mutters, ‘if only I had gone.’ The simple fact is that he might have gone away to the school of his dreams and been hit by a bus.”


ktismatics said...

Wow, this was long for a blogpost. But I read it all. For what it's worth, I like best your personal interactions with the books you're browsing, when the book triggers something in your own life experience. For example, I really liked the whole story about getting surgery without sedation and trying to walk out of the hospital. It's an anecdote that's triggered by the book, but neither a summary nor a commentary of the book.

Sometimes I agreed with your opinions about the books, sometimes not, but I don't think the opinions are as interesting as your personal reactions. E.g., you talk about whether you'd consider men with certain political opinions as worthy candidate for your favors. Pretty funny. More personal reactions rather than general; e.g., what's your thoughts about the impact of kids on your own work? Or are there specific things in your life where you feel like you wish you had fewer options to choose from rather than more?

I hope this is helpful and not too critical. But then again, I'm one of those guys who likes all that theological jargon and who can't remember how to make those little winky smiley faces out of punctuation marks.

Jemila Monroe said...

Ktismatics, thank you so much for reading. I think you were perhaps not critical enough, rather than too critical, because I am not sure exactly what you are suggesting for improvements other than reflecting on situations where I wish I had fewer options, which is a valid and helpful point.

BTW, I don't have a problem with theological jargon -- only its extraneous use when the point could be made just as accurately and more accessibly in common language, in a context intended to be as inclusive as possible. My problem with OST is that its stated mission is to provide a forum for professional theologians and lay people to engage in community theology, but when ideas are not respected simply because they are communicated in a straightforward, non-jargon manner, intellectual rigor crosses the line into intellectual elitism, IMO.

BTW, you exclude yourself from being branded a nerdy snob by your awareness and ability to laugh at yourself, ala, "I'm one of those guys who likes all that theological jargon and who can't remember how to make those little winky smiley faces out of punctuation marks."


ktismatics said...

I found your email address from your comment on my blog. Tell you what: I'll email you more details later. As for theojargon, it amuses me but if pressed I'd call myself an agnostic... which I suppose means I don't take the jargon too seriously. As for my own writing, I've got two novels gathering dust on my desk that even my friends couldn't make themselves finish. The fools; someday they'll know that genius was in their midst and they knew it not -- muahaha!

Jemila Monroe said...

Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts, Ktismatics :)

ktismatics said...

Just wondering if you got my email with my comments.

Anonymous said...

Like ktismatics, I hope this isn't too critical either, but I will be substantive. I sincerely hope it helps you on your quest.

So I read 95.5 percent (give or take three tenths of a percent) of your book excerpt and I must say it did rock. I smiled, wondered about stuff, and fast became filled with the urge to buy books at Barnes & Noble. A dangerous thing. There were a few points, however, where I felt tired and began skimming despite my previously joyful consumption of your delicious descriptions, offbeat analogies, and unexpected profundities. Occasions where I wanted to hurry up and get to the next section and become interested again – recapture that sense of immersion in your world of thoughts and ideas that I find so easy to swim in! No, I don’t think you lost me with your writing.

Maybe you could break up the paragraphs more? Some of them are longer than needs be and it's hard to keep attentive when ideas shift multiple times per big block o' text. Plus I'm lazy. Maybe because of ye olde Internet and stuff, who knows, but an author must "carry" the reader along not just with word choice and great writing (check), but with the physical structure of the text. Especially when it comes to non-fiction, where it can be so easy to zone out.

Especially where you tend to fly off on tangents and sometimes never quite come back. And that's part of the fun and freedom of reading you, perhaps even the whole point, but it risks backfiring sometimes. It’s like skating. You want the reader to get in your blades and glide as though on professional grade ice. The phrases, funny comparisons, irreverent adjectives and scenarios you craft so well are the skates. Textual structure laid out on the page is the ice. If it’s choppy or broken or thin or slushy then readers will bail. They bail pretty damn fast thinking, “Huh, fun book,” as they smile and slip it back on the shelf.

Maybe a better metaphor is the road. Internet and media saturated people who see pretty colors and flashing text and, hell, even some of the big highway billboards are electronic and all lit up now – they want a smooth ride that takes less effort.

Not that you have to compete with the Internet! God help us, we can hope and pray (prey?) that your soon-to-be-book-buyers came into a fucking book store ‘cause they’re the kind of folks who can actually deprive themselves of sensory orgasms for a spell and chew on something more substantive. Quieter. More introspective. At face value they do want to read a book, but it can’t hurt to help 'em along, especially when it’s expected that authors make their ice like Olympic bobsled tunnels, structurally and grammatically speaking.

Like the Alanis Morisette lyrics. They were great, but were part of the paragraph in such a way that I had to make sure I "caught you" when you suddenly rematerialized as the narrator again. I had to go back and check to make sure I got it right. The reader shouldn't have to do that unless they're simply re-enjoying something wonderful you've written (which I also did on numerous occasions). There are various conventions that could help those Alanis lyrics feel more separate so nobody gets confused.

Not that you're writing some academic paper where you need to abide by all these stuffy rules (although a book like yours at least demands a fun bibliography of some sort, yes?), but some things just help put more wind in their eyeball’s sails as people navigate over the page. This is an audience whom you hope will read your book in its virtual entirety instead of merely flirting?

Interesting paradox that.

Minor but important things you’ll probably catch anyway as you edit and hone in your final draft(s):

1) Capitalizing what needs to be capitalized.

2) Put book titles in italics. You probably do this and blogspot gives you trouble, but just in case. I certainly can't do italics in this comment section.

3) As mentioned, grammar. Specifically the annoying stuff like where to put (and not put) commas, where periods go at the end of a sentence when you throw in a pesky parenthesis and other little things like that.

It was a pleasure to read you, Ms. Monroe; you're an amazing and talented writer. Please do the world a favor and keep writing!

And for the record, your writing as it stands now is light-years better than plenty of crap that gets published. I could buy your book and be pretty close to completely satisfied, speed bumps here and there notwithstanding.

Jemila Monroe said...

Thanks for the insightful (anonymous) thoughts :) They were quite helpful!