Memoirs and Philosophy of a Contemporary American Physician
Copyright © 6/28/2009
Minor revisions through 1/14
Cover illustration: The Mayan Goddess Ix Chel
A talking god with many responsibilities: The patroness of medicine, healing, health, magic, weaving, creativity, sexuality, childbirth and water
Para- (prefix): A prefix with many meanings, including: alongside of, beside, near, resembling, beyond, apart from, or abnormal.
This memoir is dedicated:
To every person whose influence has made a significant difference in my life and in doing so has subsequently changed it either for better or for worse.
I also stand in awe of the great poets, authors and songwriters whose lines or lyrics so succinctly summarize the tragic-comical human condition.
Finally then, I admire anyone else who advocates for: world peace, the brotherhood of man, the right of plants and animals to co-exist with humans. If nothing else I hold great esteem for individuals who are dedicated to preserving the beauty of nature for our children to enjoy in such a way that it may also permanently exist in every succeeding child’s future.
As I travel down life’s pathway
Know not what the years may hold
As I ponder, hopes grow fonder
Precious memories flood my soul
How they linger
How they ever flood my soul
In the stillness, of the midnight
Precious memories sacred scenes unfold
Precious father, loving mother
Glide across the lonely years
And old home scenes from my childhood
In fond memories appears
How they linger
How they ever flood my soul
In the stillness, of the midnight
Precious memories sacred scenes unfold
I decided to write a book.
It has been stated that one should only write about subjects of firsthand personal knowledge. Because I am a physician, at one point I struggled with an attempt to write a medical forensics mystery, or perhaps a brilliant Michael Crichton style science fiction story.
However, like visual slapstick comedy, most of it has already been done before and cannot be improved upon, other than to add modern graphics or special effects. After all, how many spy novels or forensics tales can one’s intellect really absorb before a completely stultifying ennui sets in and turns rational thought or imagination into solid concrete?
Because I had a good income, I became lazy about writing anything at all. Then at the age of 78, my mother developed Alzheimer’s disease. This unfortunate illness is one that takes away the mind while leaving muscle function intact. I also happened to have an uncle who died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a disease that ironically leaves the mind intact while it insidiously destroys skeletal muscle function.
At the end, when he was virtually unable to move his arms, his legs, his lungs or his tongue, and not against his will to live, but certainly because of his better judgment, he no longer believed the effort to be worth it, refused to be artificially ventilated, and then finally suffocated. I do not know if either method of death may be more or less desirable than the other, except to say that each is very slow, painfully lingering and very sad. But at least in the case of Alzheimer’s, the saving grace is that the victim has no conscious appreciation of his or her impending mortality.
Because of these scenarios and many others that played themselves out in one form or another during my professional career, the thought suddenly occurred that perhaps I could one day die in such condition, or any other incapacitating condition for that matter. As such before I took my final breath I might either be without any intact memories, or even worse, without the ability to even write them down or verbalize them if they were still embedded in my mind.
This venture then became a simple endeavor to remember. To remember anything I could about myself, but especially in the context of the universally tragic-comical and often extremely frail human condition.
It became a labor not necessarily of love, and was certainly not intended to be a literary work of art; but was intended only to be an attempt at putting a single human life on paper.
I call it a Para-biography because I use my own life only as an anchoring point of reference to the more general perspectives of learning, growing, living, and embracing life for all those sometimes beautiful, comical, or tragic things that it is or can become.
It is also a story purposefully intended to criticize parochial dogma or tautology and to ask people who read it to think a bit alternatively yet not completely “out of the box.” Equally important is a hope that people may rethink their ingrained social, political or religious opinions or bias. As such it is both realistic while at the same time inductively reasoned, intentionally irreverent, and purposefully iconoclastic. On that note, I also employ an unconventional system of utilizing quotes.
Hopefully, if nothing else, it might persuade some individuals to realize that there is nothing wrong or really painful about the cultivating an ability to laugh at oneself.
One day, when I went to the nursing home for a visit with my mother, only to realize that she had finally lost her mind, I became inspired to write this journal, then to highlight its vignettes with any one of the numerous illustrative lyrics or poetic lines that always seem to somehow crowd my thoughts, help me tune out stress, and as a result always seem to get me through the most difficult days.
In seeing my mother slowly gravitate to a progressively idiotic, irrevocably vegetative state, I suddenly realized that my own worst possible fate would be an inability to remember anything at all; or in my uncle’s case that the second worst possibility would be an inability to assist my own suicide.
Being a physician, it is certainly easy enough to hide enough Valium or Vicodin in a small death stash; but that kind of proactive planning fails if one cannot remember where the pills are, or is not facile enough to actually put them in your mouth and swallow them down all at once.
If nothing else, whether anyone who reads this work may happen to like it or not, perhaps my brother, my sister, my wife or my closer personal friends may at least find it to be somehow perversely amusing and hopefully at least, somewhat entertaining.
Here are my memories. That is to say, they are to the best of my recollection.
If you lose your money,
Pray god you don’t lose your mind.
If you lose your money,
Pray god you don’t lose your mind.
And if you lose your woman,
Please don’t mess with mine
(Outside Woman Blues: Cream)
Youth is a blunder; Manhood a struggle; Old Age a regret
Part One: Youth
I was born in 1947, on a Wednesday at 8 a.m., the first of two siblings to follow. It was three days before the shortest day of the year, and eight days before Christmas. One of the worst blizzards of the year and possibly the worst blizzard of then recent memory occurred nine days after I was born; on Boxing Day.
For some reason, just after the storm, my mother took me outside for a photo shoot swaddled in blankets. Hopefully it was because the sun had finally come out to shed both light and warmth on the rotogravure.
I am convinced that these quasi-horoscope factors had an immediate as well as an indelible effect on shaping my persona; somewhat like a bad tattoo; or one that looks good when it goes on, but passively fades, wrinkles or becomes completely passé as time goes by.
For example: I have first child syndrome; the one expected to be the best, to seek perfection to bear the burden of both parent’s vicarious goals and expectations; all of which becomes an oxymoron at best. This also includes being the one to bear the burden of testing the parent’s boundaries, then softening up their rigid standards for those siblings who come behind.
I hate the Northern hemisphere’s frigid winter weather, yet paradoxically love cold fresh air. Being stuck in the Northern latitudes after summer forces me to flee, hide or sometimes to even hibernate, both emotionally as well as physically. It makes me wish I could spend every wintry day in the balmy South, or perhaps the Caribbean.
It is because of this incurable addiction to fresh air that I crack a bedroom window open on winter nights, then poke my head out of the covers to sniff the air like a long eared dog with its head hanging out the window of a speeding car. Squinting and happily drooling into the face of an artificial wind.
Conversely, because even on the hottest days of the year I seem to need the security of sleeping under heavy quilted blankets, I will turn a floor fan toward my face to generate a constant breeze, a habit that has the secondary benefit of preventing being parboiled in an artificially manufactured swaddling bed.
Then in order to maximize the time spent outside, I will tend to wake up with the sunrise only to then crumple into bed with the waning light of a setting sun.
Thus, I deplore the fact of the Earth being tilted 23 degrees on its axis, which produces the tiny wobble that dooms the planet to seasonal changes and is the root cause that makes those winter days consist of only dawn and dusk.
Enjoying excessive sleep during those winter months, I sometimes feel as though I should just nod off in November, then wake up in March like a fat salmon gorged grizzly bear who crawls into a cave somewhere; then blissfully skips over the entire miserably dark, cold season. Sleeping; dreaming; snoring and shedding weight.
When THEY, whoever they are, set the clocks back an hour on October 31, I begin a countdown calendar that slurries its way to December 21, at which point I celebrate the winter solstice with numerous shots of Vodka, rejoicing in the fact that each new day will subsequently be a minute longer than the last. I call this period the D-Days: “50 Days of Desolate Doom.”
This frigid gloom leaves little to do but drink enough alcohol to quash the misery of waiting for the sun to re-ascend its summer arc, and often makes me imagine how an angst ridden elder Stonehenge Druid might feel as year after year he harbors a seasonal pathetic fallacy steeped in the dread that perhaps during the very next dreary winter the sun may arbitrarily or capriciously decide not to return at all. Not like me, however, this ancient soul probably said prayers or offered sacrifices to that effect; unless he might have only punted on the pleas to his gods and defaulted instead to the spirits in a handy bottle of mead to ward off his bone chilled fears.
This is but one reason I have come to believe that Daylight Savings Time should be permanent; a bias based on a paranoid conviction that Eastern Standard Time may be a political conspiracy intended to foster public apathy by imposing planetary darkness on both ends of the day.
Is tinkering with time a calculated plan designed to promote large scale SAD; Seasonal Affect Disorder? Who knows, except for the fact that mob psychology, having been anesthetized by perpetual darkness and an excessive reliance on the counterbalancing effects of booze or Prozac, is not likely to inspire any activist to summon the energy needed to rail against a King, a Dictator, the Congress or a President.
Some pundits postulate the rationale behind rearranging time is more simplistic, only being done so that school age children will not have to go to classes in the dark; or that farmers will have more daylight in the morning. For farming it doesn’t really matter, because time is only relative. The sun comes up and the farmer goes to work. When the sun goes down, he goes inside to eat. The farmer doesn’t have a clue as to what time it might be.
As for children; either start school an hour later or simply outfit the kids with little spot-light Coal Miner’s helmets to guide them on their daily scholastic treks to their big yellow buses. After all, they are not the ones required to go to real jobs or to invariably end up needing anti-depressant medications to get them through the SAD season. Or better yet; simply shift the worlds’ time zones one notch to the left.
Another way to look at it is the paradox of “saving” extra daylight in the summer evening, when days are already at their longest only to take it back and make it worse in the winter when days are significantly shorter. At the Equator, day and night are equal; no matter the time; while at the poles days or night are 24 hours long; depending on the season. December in Nome Alaska is “daylight nothing time.” The point is that the sun doesn’t have a clue as to what time it is, either. The rest of us however, are slaves to sundials.
Although I have often been accused of having a cold affect, or worse cold blooded, aloof sang-froid, partially related to being a winter baby; this is only in reality a hardened well-practiced defensive shell that protects an otherwise warm and somewhat residually optimistic heart. Despite this, even though I tell myself to try harder, I somehow cannot help being introspective, cautiously realistic, and at times morose or decidedly sarcastic.
This is not equivalent to being misanthropic as rather I simply do not believe that any one person can universally be everyone else’s best friend; an ambition that would require far too much emotional output with predictably far too little return on the investment. Politicians skirt this issue with their usual disingenuous promises; making their constituents believe they really care; when in fact they only care about themselves. The worst kind of friend: the hypocrite who loves everyone.
Most people in fact tend to put themselves first, being interested only in how much they can get, while at the same time furtively planning or deviously calculating how little they then have to give back in return.
To put it another way, the world is divided into two camps: the Givers and the Takers, with the ratio clearly favoring the Takers. This is why there are so few anointed Saints, why the proof of Sainthood remains so elusively difficult, and becomes a conundrum of bedrock conniptions for pundits in the Vatican when they discuss a potential nominee’s relative merits on the living balance sheet of “naughty and nice.”
- Well you know he really was a Saint in every way.
- Yes, except for his hypocrisies, philandering, and occasional crass deceptions; along with the fact that as yet we have no definitive proof of his actual existence.
- True. But even if he never lived, the very idea of him is completely divine.
When I enrolled in grammar school I was the runt of the litter. Anyone who was born in January was already a year older than I was, biologically making the other boys bigger and stronger. I am also a Sagittarian born on the cusp of Capricorn, which I suspect has literally and intrinsically made me half-man, half-assed, perpetually somewhat confused, and incurably inquisitive.
At some ill-defined point in time I became a “Minimalist.” This philosophy suggests that during his lifetime a person should undertake just enough in the way of tasks, jobs, activities, projects or relationships that will permit devoting enough time to doing all of them reasonably well. Minimalism does not imply nor does it condone the seventh deadly sin of Sloth. It also does not apply to the likes of professional athletes or Astrophysicists, who usually do only one thing to a maximally perfect degree; with gifts probably bestowed in their DNA.
In not holding any unrealistic expectations of any body or of any thing I therefore never risk much in the way of being disappointed. This was learned the hard way early in life as I became accustomed to having my “Birthday-Christmas” present combined into one gift and given at some arbitrary elusively defined point during that December week.
Even that does not bother me now as much as it did in my youth because I finally corrected the problem by celebrating my very-merry-half-un-birthday on June 17th, which has left me owning or possessing just about everything I need and sometimes even two or three of each. Drawers, closets and shelves full of reduplicated nonessential crap.
In fact, the best “Birthday-Christmas” present I ever received from my parents was a monolithic bottle of Vodka, which served me well in getting through the dreary mandatory personal responsibilities and social obligations attached to the so called “season to be jolly.”
After all, Jesus too, received his birthday presents on Christmas; yet always managed to somehow find a way to turn the other cheek in the face of any potential personal insult or slight. And, as everyone knows, except possibly for holy rolling Baptists, he never turned down a good glass of vintage Roman wine.
In finally paying for that state of grace however he was tortured and killed, a fate I eschew for obvious reasons, and therefore reminding me to always maintain the small remnant of a mean streak that will ensure my continued survival.
Sometimes this can result in the desired outcome, if after having been tested to the limit by some niggling personality, the pestilent adversary can be put off not by turning away but instead by facing him squarely and then revealing the contralateral “mean-streak-cheek;” otherwise known as, “Please just get the fuck away from me.”
Unfortunately for the Catholic Church, whose tautology was shoved down my youthful throat, I was born a natural scientist and as such never became very religious. In never being able to buy into nor to comprehend the mystiques, veils, rituals, and hocus-pocus of organized religion, I eventually came to believe that everything we know, as well as that everything we do not know, is explainable by the physical and scientific laws of the Universe.
Perhaps I choose to call this my God. Also perhaps, as a trained scientist, I do not entirely discount the possibilities of miracles; but rather choose to look at that concept in the viewpoint of many so-called miracles simply being one of nature’s accidental and occasionally benevolent events. What some people fail to realize, however is that most of nature’s malevolent and destructive events are also miracles, too.
This does not mean there is no role for religion in our society. However, empirical observation has led me to the conclusion that most religions have so distanced themselves from, or have so obscured their original tenets, that they consistently seem to cause more harm than good when it comes to promoting world peace and brotherly love. Instead, they consistently leave in their wake; veils of tears, trails of death, torture, witch hunts, wars, destruction, misery, poverty, contention, bias, despair, greed, egotistical power mongering and at least a recent two thousand year legacy of failing to deliver on their promises.
In general, I believe that people waste a great portion of their lives pursuing both the wrong tangible as well as the intangible goals. These can include work, wealth, materialism, power or getting ahead, all usually occurring at the expense of pursuing good interpersonal relationships, friendships, healthy habits, and emotionally satisfying, fulfilling leisure time or recreational activity.
Most people also expend a great deal of emotional energy and anxiety over things that have not yet happened or what in fact may never happen, often trying too much to control what simply cannot ever be controlled. This is otherwise known as the personally incapacitating syndrome of ‘Nonspecific Angst.’ One inspirational speaker succinctly posited this in a different way by suggesting that; “Worry is interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.”
It is also my belief that mankind is hopelessly out of balance, harmony and synchrony with nature; that the world is uncontrollably overpopulated, and that as mankind in unrelenting zeal destroys the natural resources and habitats of the planet he lives upon; he also slowly and irrevocably destroys himself. The spread of humankind on this planet is like the scourge of marauding army ants in the jungle or locusts blighting a cornfield.
Everything occurs in cycles and everything is relative.
In some distant future, mankind will be little more than a pencil point footnote to the great saga that the Universe continuously, irrevocably and randomly writes for itself every single day as it chaotically and unpredictably expands itself into yet an even larger, even greater uncharted unknowable void.
Our Universe is a system we have only just begun to comprehend, but is also a system with an agenda entirely of its own; an agenda that is racing itself to an end-game that we shall never even remotely witness nor shall we ever remotely be able to control.
The universe is between 11 and 20 billion years old.
The earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old.
Man has been on earth for a few hundred thousand years
The life of a single man is about 7 decades.
This life is a fractional blink of an eye on the scale of cosmic time.
This life is a uniquely precious gift.
In fact, all life is unique, precious and miraculous although “life” itself may only be a natural phenomenon resulting from nothing more than a quirky cosmic experiment of colliding, massed up molecules consolidated, clumped, and hiding inside a semi-permeable membrane; that for some unknown reason; decided at some point in time to begin reproducing itself.
John Lennon once said that:
- Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
A man who is lying on his deathbed should never have to look back and come to the sad realization that his own life was merely what happened to him while he was preoccupied with making plans for the future, worrying about everything that was beyond his control, desperately trying to get ahead of everybody else; or worst of all in that process only destroying his physical, family, emotional or occupational environments.
Outside Grandma’s house after the Blizzard of December, 1947
Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace
Wednesday’s child is full of woe
Thursday’s child has far to go
Friday’s child is loving and giving
Saturday’s child works hard for a living
But Sunday’s child is fair and wise, and good and gay.
Perpetual woe may be a dicey karma at best, but compared to the one assigned to Sunday’s child; at least for now I think I’ll just stand pat.
||© Rich Bichfield: Divine Astrology@ home.online.no/~stebi/startpag.htm