Saturday, March 26, 2005

Hitting my two-digit stride...

With a low-two-digit number of weeks left until I take Step 1 of the Boards, I have also finally hit my two-digit stride in the 50-books challenge. And while I haven't been writing here that much, I'm excited to say that I received my first ever monetary reward for writing, in the form of a $100 prize for a piece written about my experience working at an AIDS hospice run by Buddhist monks and an overworked misanthropic Belgian doctor. So even though I haven't been writing as much here, I have been writing in general, and since no-one other than me reads this, that's just as good. The books I've been reading seem to be clustering themselves in natural dyads - I don't quite know what's driving it. The ususal driving force behind my reading selections is my local favorite punk-rock librarian at my huge (industrial-age-giant endowed) city library, but she has been AWOL for almost a month, leaving me with the decidedly unsatisfactory substitute of a librarian who insists on recommending Clive Barker thrillers with maniacal doctors on the cover and any book with 'bone' in the title (see 10. The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan). There have been some jewels among the unrewarding dross, however, including 8. The Pursuit of Alice Thrift - Elinor Lipman & 7. The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Nighttime - Mark Haddon.
The former chronicles poor, unlucky, unfriendly and unsocializable Alice Thrift, miserable in the 1st year of her surgical residency as well as in the rest of her life (what rest of her life?). I'm looking forward to finding the Alice Thrift character in tomorrow's premier of Grey's Anatomy - I'm hoping the show exceeds my expectations in the same way the book did, by both being funnier and more on target than it has any right to be. The scene where Alice sets herself up for the rest of the plot (by failing so spectacularly that she spends the remainder of the novel recovering in ways both heartening & hysterical) is true enough to life that I made a 3rd year friend of mine choke on her 11th coffee of the day just by reading it to her over the phone.

Let me begin by saying that it was my 30th hour of duty, every one of them on my feet. The sun had rise, set then risen again when I was summoned to the OR for the lowly job of holding a retractor during a gallbladder operation. Defensible or not, I dozed off - I swear, for one second - and lost my grip. My rebounding retractor hot the surgeons hand, causing damage I don't particularly want to discuss. Blood spurted everywhere. The surgeon screamed. He swore. He threw something sharp across the operating field, missing me, everyone claimed, on purpose. The patient didn't exsanguinate or die. But it was bad.

Poor Alice is not helped by the fact that she is awkward, to say the least. So much so that her mother is constantly advancing on her with well-highlighted articles on Asperger's syndrome, and her roommate is driven to wonder aloud if she is an alien anthropologist on a number of occasions. Alice's awkwardness eventually turns out to be from causes non-biochemical, and mostly the result of many years of loneliness, but not before providing more spit-take moments like this one.

"You don't have to worry. I practice diplomacy all the time with patients. A doctor can't just walk into the hospital room and say, "Looks bad. Couldn't be worse. Do you have your affairs in order?" The one time I did that, the family asked that I be taken off the case."
"I'm glad to hear that," my mother said. "At least it shows you have a feedback mechanism."

The too-neat ending (I won't spoil it for you) and the overwhelming fluffiness did somewhat diminish the pleasure of the book, but these were compensated for the other book in the Autism/Asperger's dyad, The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Nighttime. This book had all the seriousness that the other could want, but, amazingly without sacrificing any of the humor. It also has some of the best descriptions of sensory overload, lack of attentional filter and interpretive rigidity that I've ever seen - certainly better than the pathetic ones delivered by my equally pathetic Behavioral Sciences block instructor. As someone who worked in a weekly physical therapy setting with numerous profoundly Autistic children for 4 years, I can say without a doubt that calling Autistic children "distractable and hard to interact with" prepares a clinician to deal with them about as well as describing a schizophrenic as "imaginative and given to preoccupations" would. At any rate, one of my favorite scenes in the books deals with the sensory overload of a busy London train station on the main character, but is really worth picking up the book to read. My second favorite scene comes when the main character is trying to explain why new places are so tiring to him, with the help of his incredible teacher, Siobhan.

...But most people are lazy. They never look at everything. They do what is called glancing, which is the same word for bumping off of something and carrying on in almost the same direction, e.g. when a snooker ball glances off another snooker ball. And the information in their head is really simple. For example, if they are in the countryside, it might be:

  1. I am standing in a field that is full of grass.
  2. There are some cows in the fields.
  3. It is sunny with a few clouds.
  4. There are some flowers in the grass.
  5. There is a village in the distance.
  6. There is a fence at the edge of the field and it has a gate in it.

And then they would stop noticing anything because they would be thinking something else like, 'Oh it is very beautiful here,' or 'I'm worried that I might have left the gas cooker on,' or 'I wonder if Julie has given birth yet' (This is really true because I asked Siobhan what people thought about when they looked at things, and this is what she said.)
But if I am standing in a field, I notice everything. For example, I remember standing in a field on Wednesday, 15 June 1994, because Father and Mother and I were driving to Dover to get a ferry to France and we did what Father called, Taking the Scenic Route, which means going by little roads and stopping for lunch in a pub garden and I had to stop to go for a wee, and I went into a field with cows in it and after I'd had a wee I stopped and looked at the field and noticed these things

  1. There are 19 cows in the field, 15 of which are black and white and 4 of which
    are brown and white.
  2. There is a village in the distance which has 31 visible houses and a church with a square tower and not a spire.
  3. There are ridges in the field which means that in medieval times it was what is called a ridge and furrow field and people who lived in the village would have a ridge each to do farming on.
  4. There is an old plastic bag from Asda in the hedge and a squashed Coca-Cola can with a snail on it, and a long piece of orange string.
  5. The northeast corner of the field is highest and the southwest corner is lowest (I had a compass because we were going on holiday and I wanted to know where Swindon was when we were in France) and the field is folded
    downward slightly along the line between these two corners so that the northwest and southeast corners are slightly lower than they would be if the field was an inclined plane.
  6. I can see three different types of grass and two colors of flowers in the grass.
  7. The cows are mostly facing uphill.

And there were 31 more things in this list of things I noticed but Siobhan said I didn't need to write them down. And it means that it is very tiring if I am in a new place.

The book is written entirely in the main character's (autistic) voice and is an incredible piece of narrative, in addition to being a moving story of life in the world of autism. There isn't a single line that isn't note-perfect, and I would have read it several more times if there hadn't been a enormous waiting list for it at the library.

The other books I've read seem to be part of a quad or triad on aging, the mind and memory, with The Bonesetter's Daughter being much more a story of Alzheimer's than of traditional medicine, perhaps waiting for me to finally get around to reading Elegy for Iris to complete the set. The jewel-like Long for This World seems to demand reading The Confessions of Max Tivoli so that I can set Henry (Michael Byers' quiet geneticist - caring for patients whose racing genetic clocks push them such that they reach senility before their peers even reach puberty) against Max, who in Andrew Greer's novel, grows physically younger & younger in appearance even as his mind ages normally. I seem to be on a little love affair with 1st person narratives and disease themed dyads for the moment (Geek Love / Mendel's Dwarf being a dramatic one), but it is really enjoyable to 'meet' so many people through these books, especially since, thanks to impending Board Study isolation, I won't be likely to meet many real ones in the near future.


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