Friday, March 30, 2012


“If you’ve got a message, send a telegram.” –Samuel Goldwyn on writing

Firstly I believe in Truth and God and Love
and that those three are synonymous
and that anyone who forgets it
is not so much sinful as lost.
I believe that honest sex is more sacred than a catechism half-believed
and that orgasm is a form of prayer.
I believe in laughing hysterically and I believe in crying hysterically and
I believe that we must love one another or die.
I believe that living sucks and I believe that living rocks and mostly I believe
it’s what happens while your mind is wandering.
I believe in pain and beauty, in birth and death
and most of all in resurrection
and I believe because all these things are inherently messy
there must be great value in mess.
I believe that there is such a thing as medicine for the brain
and that there is no Zoloft for the soul
and that tea and sympathy are the best known cures
for existential dread.
I believe that humanity is ever-redeemable
And I believe we are impossibly imperfectable
And that there is nothing comparable
To the awesome grandeur of grace.
I believe that Mary was a virgin and
I believe that Mary was a mother and
I believe her hymen wouldn’t have been such an issue
if more early theologians
had been getting laid.
I believe that if I truly believed that God was like my father
I would be an atheist, or dead.
I believe it is insulting to call virginity ‘taken’
unless it was lost as mine was
amidst clenched fists and bleeding lips and tears.
I believe being ‘taken’ destroyed something brilliant in me
and I believe it planted something dark inside me
and for all that I still believe
it helped make me what I am.
I believe that someday ‘taken’
will fade from use like a treated stain
and every woman will give herself, or keep herself, in joy.
I believe the language of conquest degrades—
both the conquered  and the conqueror.
I believe in chakras and I believe in auras
and I believe in double-blind placebo controlled
studies and PhDs.
I believe small violences beget global pains,
that being is suffering but that hopelessness is unwarranted,
and that there are no tricks in plain and simple faith.
I believed as a girl that I was meant
to be a virgin martyr
until at eleven I lost my qualifications
and learned that the world had martyrs enough.
I believe in fresh flowers and aged cheese,
in hot baths and cold showers
and licking my own wounds clean
in quiet fortitude.
I believe that the unspeakable can be spoken
but only at a cost,
and that even so it is less dear than the price of silence.
I believe that agnosticism
is the refuge of those who can afford not to be desperate
and that skepticism and faith are cousins
if not conjoined twins.
I believe in the strength of women holding hands
and I believe in the power of sisterhood and
I believe that last night I saw the moon
grin at me and so I believe in sheer sacred lunacy.
I believe.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What your drink of choice says (to me)

Perhaps for people less neurotic than myself, everyday choices like what to order at a bar are not fraught with anxiety. This may be one reason why I'm generally content to go to eateries where the most exotic item on the drinks menu is Mr. Pibb. It is an unfortunate reality that such establishments also frequently hand out crayons with their color-by-number children's menus--and now that I find myself joining (however unwillingly) the young urban professional crowd, Applebee's just doesn't cut it for business lunches.
Why the anxiety over the drink order, above all else? Because when you choose that drink, you know you are being judged--by the bartender, by the server (should he/she serve as an intermediary between you and your spirituous elixir) and by your friends. Maybe not overtly. Maybe not even consciously. But the judgement is there. So, in the interest of fairness, I decided it might be fun to expound on what various drink orders mean to me--that is, what I think of you when I hear them. Keep in mind this isn't a rating scale; it's something much less objective (though I hope not mean-spirited. Pun intended).

Cosmopolitan (almost always shortened by those who order them to the Sex-and-The-City-level-annoying 'Cosmo'): If you order a Cosmo you are, in my mind, a gay man. Perhaps I'm only saying this because it's my conviction that gay men are the only ones who SHOULD order the Cosmo. Ladies, accept that it's theirs now, just like rainbow flags, Fire Island and Ricky Martin.

Stoli Vanil and Diet Coke: They should just call this the 'Roving packs of sorority girls in six inch heels.' There's no shame in liking how this tastes, but really you should be going to Sonic and getting yourself a Route 44 Diet Vanilla Coke to spike like God intended. Bonus-- you can get a footlong Coney while you're there and have some calories to sop up the liquor. As girls-night-out drinks go, this is only a step away from:

Any 'tini' that doesn't start with 'mar': Green appletini, pomegranatini, mangotini (true fact--I once saw this misspelled on a drink menu as 'maggotini' and had to resist a very strong urge to vomit, which is generally how these overly-sweet drinks affect me anyhow). These bear no relation to martinis whatsoever; they share only that they are served in martini glasses--so calling such a drink a 'pomegranate martini' is like equating beef stew and sorbet just because both are served in bowls. And don't think I'm necessarily advocating for the original, gin-and-vermouth-and-that's-it martini, either. Tastes like a damn Christmas tree.

Jack (Daniels) and Coke: The drink of a superior human being, and I'm not just saying that because it's my personal favorite. As with most drinks, the most important thing is getting a good balance of ingredients. I'm not paying five bucks for what is basically a small glass of soda. On the other hand, I've also been served three fingers of whiskey masquerading as a Jack and Coke, which is undesirable for other reasons. Order it as a Jack and Diet and it's a drink for everyone--neither too butch nor too femme.

PBR: If you have the financial resources available to buy other beverages but choose PBR instead, we probably don't have anything to talk about. I don't want to know about your extensive vinyl collection or your MacBook Pro or your ironic mustache, and anyway why are you wearing a scarf in July? No one REALLY likes the taste of PBR, just like no one REALLY likes the taste of diet Coke. They just drink it because if they drank the same volume of Coca-Cola they would weigh 600 pounds (or, in the case of PBR, because they're cooler-than-thou hipsters who don't know the difference between genuine enjoyment and ironic deconstruction).

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Random Page from the Novel

Bartholomew (not Bart, not Barty—he really does prefer to be called by his full name) was once deeply religious, but split with any sort of God during graduate school. In fact, he was president of the Atheist Society, surely not an easy position to occupy at his Midwestern university. His argument is the same argument all atheists and agnostics put forth—that there is no objective proof of God’s existence. I have to say, I agree—but that’s precisely what distinguishes knowledge from belief, and that even within the realm of knowledge there are different kinds of knowing. A Kierkegaardian approach, you could call it—if you’re the kind of person who feels the need to name-drop nineteenth century philosophers in your everyday life (chagrined as I am by my own intellectual elitism—I do). There is also, for me, a need: for something bigger and more perfect than I, for some overarching something to give life meaning, to rescue the human condition from utter tragedy and absurdity. Yet as Anne Sexton, one of my favorite poets, wrote, “need is not quite belief.”
In moments of pragmatism (perhaps even cynicism) I tell myself that I believe because it works—just like millions of other people believe things not because they are demonstrably true, but because they function. In truth, even scientific theories and models are sometimes known to be untrue, or at least not the whole truth: still they persist. The orbital theory of electron shells, for example, is not the whole truth; it’s given way over decades to quantum theory, string theory, grand ideas that seem to require multiple degrees (if not Stephen Hawking’s glimmering brilliance) to fully understand. Yet because Niels Bohr’s original ideas allow us—the men and women on the street, the college sophomores in chemistry class-- to feel our fingers tightening around the otherwise unknowable and ungraspable, we propagate them. I’m not saying God is like orbital theory, but I’m also not saying  She isn’t.
An interlude into the past: I wasn’t raised to believe these things. It’s become popular lately for people to say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” In Ithaca, the hippie-occupied town where I was an undergrad, this more often than not translated into “I’ve participated in lots of women-only drum circles and sweat lodges, and I believe in the healing powers of crystals.” I’m not knocking hippies. Had I been born a few decades earlier, I might well have been one, and in some people’s estimation (Bartholomew’s) I still am, and I’ve taken part in a ladies-only drum circle or two, complete with bonfire and sage smudge sticks. I have a cramp-bark and cohosh herbal tea blend (called ‘MoonTime,’ I shit you not) which I drink when I’m on the rag. I draw the line, however, at the healing powers of crystals. Rocks, even pretty ones with complicated crystal lattice structures, are ultimately just rocks. Don’t get me started on people who pay to have their chakras aligned, or the upper regions of their colons cleansed.
Anyway. The best description of my upbringing would be “religious, not spiritual.” Think Old Testament rather than New, if that works for you, or imagine God not as Light and Love but rather as a temperamental despot, a celestial police officer with Bipolar Disorder.
‘Come, my children,’ He says, ‘and I will lead you out of slavery into a land of milk and honey.’ Not bad.
‘I’ll protect you, and be with you as a pillar of cloud by day, and pillar of fire by night, so you never feel abandoned.’ Sounds good, especially to someone like me with heavy abandonment issues.
And then Moses goes up a mountain, and the people have been wandering in the desert for what feels like forever, and Moses is taking his sweet time coming back to them (or so it seems). Fear gets the better of them, and so they build a golden calf, and have a little bit of a party—because, hey, you can only wander around in the wastes of the Middle East for so long before you have to blow off some steam. Finally Moses comes back, and rather than finding his people waiting prayerfully, he sees them dancing and singing to the golden calf—the ancient equivalent of having a house party while your parents are away for the weekend.  And lo, Moses and God were both severely pissed. Not go-to-your-room-and-think-about-what-you’ve-done pissed. Not you’re-grounded-until-your-grades-improve pissed. This was slaughter-three-thousand-people pissed. The point being, I guess, that if you get sent to your room (or your tent), the punishment may help prevent you from committing the same sin again, but if you get your head lopped off, you’re damn sure not going to repeat your transgression.  Well, not everyone died, right? Well…Exodus 32:35—“And the Lord struck the people with a plague for what they did with the calf Aaron made.” 

So. There's that. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Eleanor Roosevelt was wrong.

They're not just something to throw up on your Facebook status or profile (or to read on people's statuses and profiles in order to know whether to run screaming in the other direction, lest you drown in a cesspool of triteness/unoriginality/genuine, deep appreciation of Nickelback). They're not just platitudes that you get tattooed on your lower back at 19 and regret for the rest of your life--I'm looking at you, "To thine own self be true" and "Carpe Diem." PS, isn't it interesting that most people forget (or don't know) that 'To thine own self be true' is spoken by Polonius, the pompous, self-important clown in Hamlet--the character whose advice I'd personally be least likely to follow? Not that I'd bee seeking out any of the characters for a heart-to-heart--the characters are all evil, self-absorbed, or crazy. Anyway. Some quotes actually mean something. And--I'm sure this comes as a tremendous shock--there are some well-known quotations out there with which I do not agree.

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. --Eleanor Roosevelt
In some cases this is true; sometimes, if another person is making you feel like crap, the person you really need to look at is in the mirror. I had a suitemate in college whom I really, really didn't like (keep in mind that the number of people I PERSONALLY know and dislike is small enough to be counted on one hand), and part of the reason I disliked her was that being around her made me feel utterly 'less-than.' True, there were things about her that were objectively annoying--while I fretted about having enough money to go home for Christmas, she made a big show of being able to fly to Cabo for a weekend, and when arriving home at 1 am would turn on all the lights (and music!) as she got ready for bed--but she never insulted me personally.

It finally occurred to me that part of my distaste for her was because she exhibited so many personality traits that I kind of wished (in a deep, dark, Jung's-Shadowish place in my psyche) I could, if I weren't so busy being such a 'good person' all the time. Where I try to be unassuming and almost aggressively altruistic, she was a 'me-first' kind of girl. My parents hammered the virtues of humility into me, perhaps a little too well; she was not above mentioning her test scores in large public settings. I was (and still am) too damn poor to 'treat myself' to clothes/shoes/luxury lotions/whatever the hell--well, ever, and even if I woke up tomorrow with 50 grand in my bank account the idea of 'deserving' a pair of $300 boots would not occur to me.  A concrete example: Living in our co-op, my first thought before turning on my radio was, 'Is this going to bother someone else?' Hers was, 'Am I sure I really want to go with Dave Matthews Band at ear-splitting levels, or would I rather listen to some klezmer music?' So there's that. BUT.

A lot of people interpret this differently, without some of the nuances I mentioned above. I remember hearing this quote from one of my (well-intentioned, but utterly clueless) teachers when an angry little acne-bomb of a freshman shoved me against my locker and called me a [redacted 'cause this is a family-friendly blog] dyke. In that case, the problem wasn't that I was being made to feel inferior, per se--16 years of homophobia from the pulpit, friends, and family had accomplished that already--but that I was being shoved around by a wispy-mustached, oily-haired, Limp Bizkit-besotted mouthbreather, and none of the supposed adults who had seen it or been told about it were willing to stand up and call him on his bullshit.

 Not to be too crass, but some people interpret this to mean, "No one can be a dick to you without your consent," which is obviously and patently false. This also doesn't address the issue of the 'isms'--racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism--those pervasive, pernicious and systemic ways in which people are made to feel inferior. This is why this quote is the wrong answer when someone's been called one of the "letter words" (e.g., the n-word, that I think about it, I've never heard anyone refer to 'f*ggot' as the f-word, perhaps because that spot's already taken by a more aggressive contender), or when a child is being heinously bullied. Don't try to shift the blame to the victim, and don't try to pretend that the 'isms' don't exist. The problem of people exhibiting dickish behavior isn't going to be solved by telling victims not to let it bother them--something which, by the way, invalidates victims' experiences and, by minimizing the real impact, gives the hurtful idiots (I decided I was tired of phallic imagery) carte blanche. It will be solved when people stop acting like hurtful idiots.

So probably never.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


So, as a budding physician, I hear a lot about the health issues and habits of friends/family members/random people at Target who see me in scrubs. Often it's something good, and I love having the chance to commend people on their choices---positive reinforcement works better than negative, not to mention that it's much happier for all concerned when my response can be a chirpy (but sincere) "Wow, it's great you're walking two miles a day now!" or "When did you quit smoking? I'm so proud of you!" as opposed to "I'd say eating at McDonald's for breakfast AND lunch is probably overdoing it," or "No, I really don't need to see the rash..."

However. There are a number of topics on my mind lately that either come up a lot, but shouldn't (fasting, or 'cleansing', for instance)--or never come up but should be discussed, and usually discouraged (like, for the love of all that is holy, douching). I'm not angry at the people who do these things; it's a matter of education, and if they've never learned any better they can't be expected to DO any better. Consider this your warning, y'all. It's time to stop this foolishness. Behold, the "healthy" habits I'd like to see wiped from the face of the planet.

1. Fasting. By this I mean going for an extended period of time (like, days) limiting oneself to water, juices, or whatever the hell that concoction is Beyonce drinks, in order to gain some health benefit. Some people do it just to lose weight--which is galling enough,considering fasting is literally the worst. way. ever. to lose weight, but others undertake a fast in order to 'cleanse' their bodies of 'toxins.' Guess what? As your body begins to break down fat and muscle for fuel, your bloodstream suddenly has lots more genuinely toxic compounds--think acetone, other ketones, and ammonia--floating around than it did in the good ol days when you were actually eating. Does it sound particularly healthy to get 100% of your calories from sugar, like you do on a juice fast?  The bottom line is, fasting for longer than about 24 hours sends your body into starvation mode. You lose weight, sure, but most of it is water weight at the beginning. Then you start to lose muscle mass, you body lowers its basal calorie requirements (where once you needed 1800 calories per day, your body kicks into penny-pinching mode and only needs 1200), and at the end of it all, you not only gain most of the weight back, but due to your loss of muscle, you have a higher body fat percentage than when you started.

2. Taking pointless supplements. Take a multi-vitamin, and take some fish oil, possibly some calcium with vitamin D if you're a person of the lady persuasion. The data on anything else is sketchy at best. There's little point in taking specific 'amino acids'--amino acids are the building blocks that make up proteins, so they're in pretty much everything. As for specific supplements--while it's good to have adequate amounts of vitamin D in your system, it's far from a panacea. I know it's been a media darling of late, but seriously--it's not going to cure your cancer, or your PMS, or your herpes. Taking super-doses of vitamin C? If you want to, but you're just going to pee the excess out. In fact, that's what most of the supplements you take become--very expensive urine. If you're trying to get all the right nutrients in, here's a thought: get them from a varied and healthy diet. To paraphrase Michael Pollan: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Thus, don't gorge yourself on Twinkies (the 'not too much' and 'eat food' rules--because while Twinkies may be edible, they hardly qualify as food) and expect to make up the deficits by taking 20 different vitamins, minerals, and exotic berry extracts. On the other hand, LITERALLY EVERYONE should be taking fish oil (or flaxseed oil--basically, an omega-3 supplement). It's good for your heart, good for your lipid profile, good for depression, good for cognition. DO IT.

3. Douching. The less said here the better, probably, out of respect for the sensibilities of some of the more sensitive readers--but it needs to be said, since I still see douches being sold everywhere, and still see people buying them. I'm going to speak to the ladies alone for a sec. Guys, go watch some basketball or crochet an afghan or something. Ladies: please think of your vagina as an oven--hot and self-cleaning. Douching not only doesn't do anything good, it actually puts you at greater risk for infections (not STIs, necessarily, but bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections) by flushing out the beneficial bacteria and protective secretions that hang out in there. Douching after sex will NOT prevent pregnancy, will NOT prevent STDs, will NOT in fact do much of anything. As for douching before sex, on account of that 'not-so-fresh' feeling: well, I'll just some out and say it. Vaginas are not supposed to smell like a spring glade or a new car or a summer's eve (I've just thought of a premise for a comedy sketch, which I will mercifully keep to myself). They should smell like...ladyparts, and you should know more or less what your ladyparts smell like so that if things start getting unusually funky you can GO TO A DOCTOR, not spend 5 bucks on the Massengill equivalent of a little pine tree air freshener.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Death be not proud

A friend of mine is dying. We all are, if you really think about it, but she is doing it more quickly than the rest of us, and more painfully. When she was first diagnosed with cancer I got her a get-well card. Luckily (as I was at the hospital gift shop, which of necessity carries a panoply of get-well cards) there was a "support for long illness" card available: not a tweety, sunny, get-well-soon card of the type you'd give someone after gallbladder surgery or a broken leg. Now, with the extent of her illness known, I went to get another card, and found that none of them were really appropriate. There is no greeting card that covers the wide swath of terrain--the valley of the shadow of death, you might say--between "get well" and "deepest sympathies." The "deepest sympathies" cards, it hardly needs to be said, go to grieving relatives and friends after the fact. The reality, at this point, is that she will not be "getting well soon." Most likely she will not be getting well ever, at least in a physical sense.

As a medical student, I've been trained to do battle with death--to stave it off with pills and procedures, respirators and central lines. I know how to shock someone's failing heart back into a stable rhythm, how to plunge a needle into someone's chest to save them from a pneumothorax, how to (if need be) sacrifice a limb to save a life. These are part of the official curriculum. There is no official curriculum on engaging with death in other ways--on how to greet it as a welcome guest, coming to deliver a cancer patient from intractable pain; on sitting with a family and a brain-dead patient, waiting for it to come; on telling the parents of a child with cystic fibrosis or Tay-Sachs that death will be ever in the background of their tragically shortened lives. This is not taught in the classroom; it is something that is passed on, from one generation of physicians to the next, in the clinics and on the wards. As one of my neurology attendings told me, as we worked together on the pediatric consult service: "One of the most important things--and one of the things we often forget--is knowing when to have that conversation with the parents about letting a child go." This is the art, not the science, of doctoring. This, not anatomy or biochemistry, is the secret and sacred stuff of our profession.

Last night as I lay in bed, courting sleep, my mind wandered to this friend. I imagined her in her apartment, alone, and perhaps frightened. I thought about how she looked even a few months back, and shivered at the thought that the cancer had been blossoming like some malignant flower all throughout her body, and we had known nothing. I thought about her funeral, balked initially at the impossibility of it all--then wondered when it would be, wondered what the choir would sing--and I cried, for her and for all of us whose days are numbered. And then, unbidden, the beloved words of Donne's 'Holy Sonnet X' came to me, played themselves over and over in my head until I finally fell into a fitful sleep:
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,         5
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,  10
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Friday, March 02, 2012

A week of petty annoyance: thought experiment and child-naming edition

So it's that special, beautiful, womanly time of the month--when my estrogen levels start to drop and I begin fantasizing, fleetingly, about breaking windows/laws/heads as the primal rage that I normally keep suppressed beneath conscious awareness bubbles to the surface. That is to say: PMS. Not jokey, ha-ha-a-woman-expressed-something-other-than-insipid-cheerfulness PMS. Not Roseanne Barr stand-up routine PMS. Real, Cheez-It-craving, migraine-having, vivid-dreaming, obscenities-in-traffic-screaming PMS. And it got me thinking: We live in a society where the Catholic church is OK with paying for their employees' Viagra but not their birth control. We live in a society where Chris Brown can be invited to perform at the Grammys (not once but TWICE) and receive an award three years after beating the everliving hell out of his then-girlfriend. Clearly this is a still, in a lot of ways, a man's world. Women's issues are frequently overlooked, or if acknowledged, reduced to the status of laughable nuisances. But what...I wondered, peering into my crystal ball...what would the world be like if men had PMS? What if guys MENstruated?

Pads and tampons wouldn't be hidden in what is euphemistically termed the 'feminine hygiene' aisle anymore. The masculine hygiene aisle at WalMart would include cardboard cutouts of NASCAR drivers (or maybe Larry the Cable Guy?) hawking their wares. Louis Vuitton, which has of late produced high-end $38-apiece condoms (I'm actually NOT making that up), would start making couture pads. Far from something to conceal, as when they were associated with--ewwww!--girlyparts, pads and tampons would become badges of honor and prestige. Monogramming would be available at fine retailers like Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren--for a fee, of course.

 Pharmaceutical companies would invest heavily in research for new drugs to target cramps, bloating and digestive issues related to fluctuating hormone levels.

Monthly munchie allotments (say, vouchers for boxes of Cheez-Its, pints of Ben and Jerry's, or Trader Joe's Pound Plus bars of dark chocolate). The vouchers would sort of be based on the WIC food lists, in that anything healthy enough to be paid for with Women Infant Children food stamps would be disallowed.

The mind reels.

And, just to round things out, another minor annoyance (because who wants to have a positive attitude all the time? And also because I think my next post is going to be something semi-serious and heavy):

 People who give their poor, unsuspecting children 'creative' names. Don't name your child after a natural phenomenon (Rainbow, Sunshine, River--this is mostly a problem in California), a random noun (I'm looking at you, Gwyneth Paltrow, with your child Apple) or a western state/city (interesting that there are lots of Dakotas and Cheyennes but I've never heard of a kid christened Vermont or Teaneck).

Even more gauche, at least from my point of view, is a "common" name that has been creatively spelled--usually in a manner that suggests the parents had a two-for-one coupon at the vowel store and decided to make the most of it. Ashley becomes Asheleighee, Evelyn becomes Aivelinn, and Xochiles;djk is pronounced 'Sarah.' The random-interchangable-syllable names should probably be mentioned here too, though they don't provoke quite the same ire in me: Jaelyn, Brayden, Kaylee, Braylee, Kaylyn...they're modular. They are, to me, the Ikea furniture of names. Perfectly serviceable, but they will one day be dated and are considered (by some folks at least...not me, necessarily) rather cheap.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Spring Depression Poetry Hour

They say (who are 'they' anway? The same people who say broccoli is good for you, no doubt) that you should write what you know. And so, faced with concurrent cases of writer's block and spring depression, I offer the following: a sonnet about not being able to write. 

Sonnet, Against Spring

I fear that there is nothing left to write--
The well of words I drilled has now gone dry;
I've given over being to this blight,
Destroyed by that which I was nourished by.
The passions moving me I can't express:
Buds unfurling bursts of green and gold,
The sweet and silken feel of hand's caress,
So sharply felt, unable to be told.
All is vanity, there is no hope,
So let me burn my papers, break my pen;
When emptied of their meaning, shrunk in scope,
What use is word and wonder to me then?

Faced with the All, all language falters, dead;
All I can say is: nothing can be said.