An Aesthete’s Master Class On Gratitude

crispydoc Uncategorized 4 Comments

 While working multiple shifts over Christmas, I cared for two men my age with acute life-changing intracranial bleeds that left them half-paralyzed. In between those shifts, I spent my remaining energy reading Peter Schjeldahl's personal history piece in the New Yorker, "77 Sunset Me." (It appears online as "The Art Of Dying.")

Mr. Schjeldahl has been the magazine's art critic for over 20 years, but this article differed from his prior contributions. He has metastatic lung cancer, and this was an unflinching appraisal of his life.

It is written as a series of beautiful fragments, poor decisions revisited, friends and lovers found and lost. A penultimate tallying of actions and consequences and wounds inflicted. The effect is less actuarial and more joyful than I can convey.

There are elements of mania to the writing - time and strength being in limited supply, one scribbles what one can with little regard to editing. There's an implicit assumption that there won't be time for revision.

As a memoir under extreme deadline, the result is engrossing. He does not apologize for the sex he had or excuse the substances he used. He does not experience a deathbed conversion. He does not repent from the times he acted the jerk, or ask to take back the hurt he caused. He does not gloss over his years as an addict or his absence as a father.

The fragments fit together when you appraise them as a whole - the viewer with nose pressed inches from a pointillist work stepping back to be startled by the cumulative effect.

It is an aesthete's master class on gratitude. You will not regret the hour you spend reading it.

Please save it for a moment of appropriate insomnia or a quiet morning before the household is awake.

Putting it on your radar is my gift to you for the holidays. Here.

Some of you, dear readers, might protest that a farewell piece has no place in a blog about physician finance. To which I would reply that physician finance is really a head fake. Getting your finances in order is actually about deciding what kind of life you want to lead.

Comments 4

  1. Anesthesia means to render someone “without perception”. I devoted the majority of my career to it. How much of our lives are spent under anesthesia? Even in reading these words what is your level of being without perception.

    In my view the past is at best a memory, but it is a memory which can be shared with another to create a “perception” and share an intimacy but it does not create a reality. The reality is created by the forward movement of time. All time travel is forward looking. You can spend your time thinking about the past, but you necessarily can only engage reality by attending to the future.

    I can tell you something of what it was like the day I burned down my house, but you will never understand that unless you burn down your house. The perception is “oh that must have been terrible”, the reality is, it was like a personal nuclear bomb went off in my life. You live in a world of referents, things you use to anchor yourself to reality. When the referents are destroyed the reality, at least the emotional anchor goes with it. Yesterday I had a tooth brush and a dresser with some underwear. Today? Let that sink in as you consider the thousands of referents that anchor you to reality. You are emotionally and really cast asunder.

    That knife edge understanding of reality is what makes us good Physicians. We can better than most, in times of great distress be the glue that keeps our patients anchored despite all the familiar referents being cut. We are the ones paid to not loose our minds when everyone else is loosing theirs. If we bother to understand, we can be at least a dim beacon, a signal home to someone cast asunder. Being paralyzed sucks, compared to what? Being cancer riddled sucks, but then there is yet a future to be lived. Perhaps an article to pen about the experience.

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      Interesting, in that I never thought of physicians as referents, yet having just seen my PCP last week he very much serves in that role for me.

      We lost our home in a fire when I was 17 – it was my parents, aunt and uncle in town, cousins and siblings that kept my sense of spatial normalcy from completely coming untethered.

      Something of the blind child whose parents rearrange the furniture contained in that one, and how it might be made easier if the parents occupy their usual location in the rooms despite the physical unmooring.

      Dim beacon…I’m going to chew on that one.

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          Perhaps, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that I’m a punk kid who can maybe hold his own against the adults in the park yet here I am going up against Deep Blue and IBM’s finest software engineers. Doesn’t mean I don’t relish the game and consider myself exceedingly grateful to have a seat at that table and give it my best shot.

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