17 February 2015 § 2 Comments
Spring is only a month and three snowfalls away. It is therefore time for spring cleaning, by which I mean that I am adopting all* orphan bits of writing into one large, dysfunctional post of mismatched paras.
Two Septembers ago. I finally finished reading Augustine’s Confessions, which should be required reading for life. The only note that remains: [in an exploration of the nature of time] “Woe is me, that do not even know, what I know not” (Book Eleven).
Two Octobers ago. Happy Bachtoberfest! The Brandenburg concertos are perfect for triumphant October afternoons with their boldly blushing resonances, and the fugues are perfect for frosty evenings. If you fancy an outing, indulge in a golden clocktoberfest by perusing the display of the first (precise?…) clocks gracing an airy corridor in the Frick House. Almost all of them were gold, and beautiful. I also like clocks made of wood. Those are probably the two best clock materials.
Last March. My physics professor was making drawings for the sound lesson on the board and his several drawings of the cochlea resembled disembodied dragon tails.
Last April: the language of flowers, sans commentary. “A large group of volatile lipids produced in plants serve as signals that pass through the air, allowing plants to communicate with each other, and to invite animal friends and deter foes” (from my biochemistry book?).
Last July. Today, my professor found some old papers of hers that she let her sons edit when they wanted to play but she was busy working. They had pictures and comments like “your sentences are too long” in adorable child’s handwriting and it reminded me of when Kristen and I coloured in anatomical figures and helped father read his bike manual.
[A few days later] Today, I saw the worst telegram ever. Judging by the number of typographical errors, including the word “typographical” in reference to the South African Typographical Union, I assume a monkey was at the switchboard.
[A few days later] I have been in the depths of despair lately. Nearly dying by choking on a kale chip was really what shook me out of it. I immediately began working again.
[A few days later] The end of translations is not in sight. Apparently “telephonically” is a word, e.g., “I corresponded telephonically with His Excellency the Emperor of White Supremacy in South Africa just yesterday.”
[A few days later] Today’s winning letter comes from one Florence Chembeni, who accompanied her employer family as a domestic servant to England. They returned home. She remained in England and wrote the following:
I, Florence Chembeni,
I want to let the Government know that I do not want return home in South Africa. I now want to stay out here in England.
That is all my child.
[A few days later] Excerpt from the shortest rejection letter ever.
Maurice Smith Promotions
CONCERT AND THEATRICAL TOURS
PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING AND BOXING
SNOOKER [NB I never ascertained what this was]
You have not been accepted.
Yours faithfully . . . [NB irony]
Sometime later, and actually two days before beginning a Real Job, I finally finished translating the entire filing cabinet of papers.
Last month. Swann has been languishing for Odette for two hundred pages.
[A few days later] Marcel has been languishing over Gilberte for four hundred pages.
[A few days later] Marcel has been languishing over Albertine for a thousand pages.
[A few days later] I finished Proust. I am languishing.
Two weeks ago. Another day, another rejection letter. Disappointment is the punishment for hope.
Last week. I attended a lecture about circadian rhythms. It was reported that symptoms associated with circadian abnormalities or deviations include high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, cancer, obesity, insomnia, Alzheimer’s, and misery. Oh misery. Always making people miserable.
I just read a book by Eva Salber, a South African who became a physician, did community health work in Boston, Chapel Hill, and Durham, and wrote a book about it. Here are a few notable bits:
[On the lack of lamaze classes in a hospital in Umtata] “In the seven months of my stay, I never heard a single African mother groan aloud in labor!” (67).
[On nun fun] “Patients in need of hospitalization were brought to a private hospital in Sea Point called the Monastery, staffed by Catholic nuns who were excellent nurses giving dedicated care. Friendly women, they were acquainted with the partners of the medical firm which Harry assisted. Every year a wealthy Catholic businessman lent the nuns his large seaside house, with its private swimming pool, as a holiday retreat. Once we happened to be spending a weekend at this small resort village, during one of these holiday periods, and the nuns invited us to tea. We came upon them frolicking in the pool, unabashedly having a lot of noisy fun, swimming in their modest bathing suits with unveiled heads revealing their very close cropped hair. At tea they behaved like a bunch of jolly, giggling, almost flirtatious, schoolgirls, a side we did not see when, clothed in their ample habits, they carried out their serious work at the hospital” (75).
[On scheming] “South Africa being South Africa I was fascinated, as well as deeply troubled, in working with different ethnic groups, and my interest in comparative research was aroused. The Institute [of Family and Community Health, headed by Sidney Kark] had four health centres—Indian, coloured, black, and white. But when we began only an Indian centre was in place, treating the residents of a municipal, subsidised housing project. In the language of the day these projects were called housing schemes, but Indians referred to their project—no cynicism intended—as the Scheming House!” (85).
I now ruin the linearity of chronology by introducing a minuscule suspicion of cohesion. I found something that I wrote shortly after graduation; it seems to have been a stunted attempt to reflect upon the experience of researching and writing history.
In history you get this idea that you know the people you are writing about. You really do not. You do not know them at all, not even the basic parts of their identity. This is the result of peering at them from the outside in rather than from the inside out. You create a vision of them based on how they looked, what they did, who they knew, what they wrote, their letters, their words, their writing . . . all of those things are manifestations and permutations of what was going on inside, but none are sufficient, even in a bundle, to give you a vision of what truly lay beneath, what made all those things come out as a natural response to something—something in the environment, some person or event, perhaps.
There is at the root of historical enquiry a vast uncertainty. You can take the events as they happened externally, in terms of numbers, or you can try to look at people one by one. It is a mistake, though, to apply the former strategy to the latter goal and thereby fall into the characterisation of people based on their external events. There is a sacred complexity.
It appears, upon reflection, that this was a reasoned attempt to distance myself from an commandeering and exhausting project that, luckily, did not lead to additional bondage. Remember, if you see someone in graduate school, be sure to call animal control and find a way to rescue the poor soul.
8 February 2015 § 6 Comments
The emptiness of a long string of days can rise, envelop one, carry one far from the shore, and compress time such that with a sudden gaze backwards, land seems only an imaginary line. So much more is this true if those days have had little to distinguish them from each other, if nothing in them has been recorded, if no particular goal or point in time has proven a culmination of labour.
I finally found my journal—it was hidden in the bookshelf; the urge to hide my journal sometimes seizes me, which is odd since I usually keep it anywhere and trust that others will have the respect not to read it—and discovered that the last time I wrote in it was the day before I started work in August. Rather than expounding upon grand intellectual aims, I seemed more concerned with my ability to find the lab and whether it was a faux pas to bring my lunch in a brown bag, rather than in my lunch box, which I had apparently left at home (in Tennessee, not in my apartment) under the assumption that I would not be given a lunch break. These details have in fact come to reflect more than grand intellectual aims would have the logistical and practical details that consume my daily work.
Dispensing with dullness, I turn to the things that envelop me in a more welcome way than does a long string of monotonous days: stories. A jumble of recently read books, including a few from last year, should provide a suitable entremet (or plat principal, if you have been lazy about reading) for your own literary pursuits.
Dracula has blood, sharp teeth, tears, transfusions (with no regard to blood type), layers upon layers of Victorian morality and sexual ethics (see also: transfusions), dread, fear, despair, old books, maps, European professors, really pale white girls, scheming, ships, séances (sort of), coffins (with dead, alive, and not quite either people in them), high collar points, garlic flowers, roses, crucifixes, and obviously a castle. I did not know the any of the story of Dracula before reading the book, which probably made it even more riveting. I read this book over several plane flights during interviews, and I am certain that a discussion of this book with the dean of admissions is the sole reason I was accepted to medical school. When I finished reading it, I closed my eyes for a few minutes and then dove into some Poe.
The Magic Mountain should be more popular in the current culture than it is, given its abundance of irony, metadiscourse, and athletic thinness. Its most exciting parts involve frequent nervous dread regarding the passage, fluidity, and mystery of time, patients dying (as they are wont to do when afflicted with tuberculosis and made to “take the cure” in the icy air of the Alps), and a few séances, which I promise are not becoming a trend for me. That is all I shall say about it, since I am feeling rather ashamed of reading it in English rather than in German.
In Search of Lost Time. Read it.
Antifragile (Taleb) offers an edifying compendium of my worldview, complete with Eastern Orthodoxy, good stories, lampooning of academics, and my favourite wines. He includes several fancy graphs, though his arguments are easily understood regardless of the reader’s mathematical abilities. It is always enjoyable to read something that you already agreed with; it is even better when the writer has actual reasons for his arguments and explains them with clarity and humour.
Genius on the Edge: The Bizarre Double Life of William Stewart Halsted (Imber) offers a factual overview of the life of the father of modern surgery. Although amusing and never dull, the book seems to have a particular audience in mind, as it is written on a second-grade level by a plastic surgeon (hence the epithet of “factual”), notwithstanding the copious cocaine/morphine abuse. I will resume my reading of the longer, more nuanced Michael Bliss biography of Harvey Cushing, whom I prefer anyway.
Internal Medicine (Holt) is a collection of short stories based on Terrence Holt’s residency training at UNC. Before entering medical school around the age of forty, he was an English professor, and he still teaches creative writing in addition to geriatrics. I attended a lecture given by him this week, and all he did was read one of the stories. It was the best medical lecture I have ever attended. No slides. No flowcharts of gene control. No deluge of acronyms. There was, however, compassion, humour, curiosity, and honesty, all of which should probably be given stat in an IV drip to any academic hospital.