Monday, February 27, 2006

Writing Bits II

'You will of course ask me, once you know about the money, whether I knew I would receive it. I can only tell you that I have considered this question a hundred times, but have no answer. It seems most likely that I knew but did not allow myself the awareness of knowing.'

Writing Bits I

I'm having a blah day, most recent in a succession of blah days. I don't have much to say. But, this morning, I pulled out the long-dormant manila folder labelled "Writing Bits". These are ancient bits of short stories not yet written, and even smaller bits of novels not yet written. The first one turned out to be quite apropos to follow my last mountain-climb post. More to follow, unless I get inspired to write something new.


'In New Hampshire, Desolation is a real place. Found between the dappled cascades of Zealand and the dragon-spined ridges of Carrigain Mountain, blocked by wild notches on north, east, and south, Desolation lies nearly inaccessible to the civilized world. Thus isolated, the region might have remained Paradise, rather, had not men with spike and steam forced their way in, driving steel rails from the west along the Pemigeswasset River, hurtling engines on down the gullet of steel into the soft belly of the valley. Then quickly came saws, tearing at the flesh of the trees, crashing them down by the thousands and hauling the life of the land away, away, until, in a few years, nothing was left but mile on mile of smoldering scorch and stump. The trains gone, the men gone, there remained no evidence of the agents of destruction. Yet the soil seemed to cry in agony, and black tears shed from the darkened sky fell to inky blood on black granite, collected, and crept outwards in the wasted veins of once-clear rivers. “Sherman’s vengeance on Atlanta,” a Boston newspaper reported, “exceeds not the destruction wrought on this once-verdant valley.” De-souled, de-solaced—more than desolate land, this land was Desolation. And it was into Desolation that my father ventured one bright February afternoon, quite unwillingly, to retrieve a friend.'

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Question For Canadians

What is it with Gordon Lightfoot? No one wants to listen, and yet, he’s so catchy. It’s like a form of auditory crack cocaine that you people push over the border to addict and weaken us.

Winter Peakbagging, Part XLIV

Mt. Carrigan. 14 miles and a 4,000 foot climb. Oh, what a slog. Made Mt. Washington look like a stroll in the park. Left the Smallish City at 5am, on the trail at 7. No one else around. Five inches of fresh powder over solid ice. Wind blowing snow-bombs off the trees. Had to keep my jacket hood up to ward them off.

I knew it was going to be a long, lonely, view-free climb, so I took a cue from the young people (and by “young people” I mean “snowboarders”) and brought my iPod, which I set on “shuffle”. After several miles of isolation, I found myself singing along to Gordon Lightfoot.

I soon realized I should have made a “climbing playlist” for the iPod, because songs such as “Desperado” and “Desolation Row” don’t really urge you along to feats of super-athleticism. Eventually the battery ran out, and the climb steepened. As tends to happen up high, the weather got worse. It started snowing, and the wind increased, moaning in the spruce tops (“the wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound”, I reflected fearfully.) Approaching a short, exposed ridge, fatigue began to sink in. Luckily, I had a thermos bottle of patented “jet fuel” (hot tea with soymilk and maple syrup) which I downed in seconds. Pushed on. The ridge was furious; wind howling from below to the right, disappearing below to the left, hurling everything it could lift. Drifts of snow deepened to my knees. In short lulls, I could see enough to proceed; between lulls the world whited out and I stood still, back to the maelstrom. 15 minutes to go a couple hundred yards. Then back into the woods, and a final climb to the summit.

Carrigan has a claim-to-fame among the 4,000-footers: it is the summit from which you can see the greatest number of the others. But on this day, the view was closed for renovations, as the mountain gods worked on piling up snow instead (thank you, mountain gods!) So I tagged the summit marker, turned around, and started the long trek out. Barely able to shuffle my legs by the time I got back to the road.

Left to go: the evil Twins, the aptly-named Isolation, and the elusive Owl’s Head. And only three weeks to the spring equinox deadline…

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Anchoring Philosophy

Bernard Moitessier entered a non-stop round-the-world sail race, and enjoyed it so much he decided to keep going halfway around again, rather than return to England to cross the finish line. But no one, not even Moitessier, can sail forever. Eventually, they say, you must anchor, if only to bring on a fresh supply of coconuts.

Every aspect of anchoring is full of danger and compromise. It involves answering a series of questions, all of which demand woeful trade-offs. It’s tempting, for example, to drop anchor very close to shore, where you can use a short anchor line and your boat will stay within a small circle. But if the wind shifts, you’ll wind up on the beach, or the rocks. So it’s equally tempting to stay way out in reassuringly deep water—but there you’ll need vastly more line, and your boat will swing in a huge circle, and it’s hard to predict what you might hit.

Probably, other people are already anchored ahead of you. If so, they own the territory inside whatever size circle their boats are going to make. You can park your boat inside that circle—so long as you’re pretty sure you’re going to swing out of the neighbor’s way when the wind changes. But if in the middle of the night your neighbor’s boat is bashing yours into splinters, it’s your responsibility. So, it’s tempting to keep your boat on a short tether—but then you increase the likelihood of your anchor pulling out altogether, and your boat drifting into your neighbors, bashing it into splinters—which, again, would be your fault.

You can make other choices. You can decide to put out chain, instead of rope. Chain is much heavier, and a shorter piece will provide same protection as a longer piece of rope. But only up to certain amount of wind. After that, the chain will draw tight, and provide no shock absorption. As the wind gusts, the boat jerks mercilessly on the chain, the chain jerks mercilessly on the anchor, and eventually badness happens. Rope is relatively stretchy and prevents this problem, but can be shredded overnight by coral or rocks. Or neighbors.

Overall, glancing at a crowded anchorage through the binoculars, the greatest temptation is to turn seaward and subsist off ship’s crackers for another night.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Primal Scenes

Mesmerized on a beach, under a full moon, fire burning in iron spheres in the sea, flickering to faces of nameless revelers in the sand, waves lapping, warm and hot air, cool and warm water, steel drums and outboard motors, local kids on tire swings and rich white men too drunk to recognize their own dinghy at the end, and at last friends dropping out of the sky a stroll away through the brush after thirty-six hours delayed in four cities… and then the fire again, standing up to knees in salt water with fire on both sides.

In the morning, a gently rocking boat, cool quiet blueness, a gathering trade wind, and the whisping urge to hoist the sails.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Think Twice About Travelling With Me

When I was in college, flying to Philadelphia, a man across the aisle would not wake up for his in-flight snack. I helped do CPR on him as we made an emergency landing in Rhode Island—but he was, quite clearly, already deceased.

When I was a month out of med school, buddy Ike and I were driving to Long Island to sail. We got off the interstate somewhere to get gas, and passed a crowd of people on a sidewalk with two legs sticking out, like the Wicked Witch after being squashed by the house. We hesitated, looked at each other, one or the other of us said “We’re doctors now—we’re supposed to do something.” We pulled over and tentatively nudged through the onlookers to the unconscious man on the pavement. Ike started a sternal rub and I started feeling for a pulse—just then a man tore through the crowd and shoved us aside, shouting “Get out of the way, I’m a doctor!” We heard an ambulance coming down the street and decided to vacate.

The next year, flying to St. Lucia to help move a boat, the flight attendant came on the P.A. system asking if there was a physician aboard. I raised my hand, and asked what the problem was. She said someone was having sudden chest pain. She asked if I had proof that I was a doctor. I wasn’t sure. She said she couldn’t let me see the person unless I had proof. I started fumbling through my wallet. She left, said to call again if I found proof. Eventually I found a CPR card that said “MD” on it. I called her back. She said they’d found a doctor in first class. She didn’t thank me. I’ve carried a copy of my medical license with me ever since.

Two years later, Ike and I and friends were down at Tropical Paradise 2 on vacation, sailing. One night I stayed on the boat while Ike and others dinghied over to a nearby ship, a fabled floating bar, famed for body shots and a tradition of jumping naked from the rigging. Someone did the latter, missed the water, caught a deck cleat, and tore open his thigh to the bone. Ike helped out… I was glad to miss out.

Two more years, in the back seat of a car of friends-of-friends, late at night, surrounded by a press of honking traffic after a Springsteen concert, at which I had had a number of beers, we passed a wreck out on the highway. Two cars were off the road, something was on fire, the night was oily dark, and there may or may not have been the shadow of a person pinned under one of the cars, and there may or may not have been shadowy figures of the other people running in circles like wraiths. I realized, simultaneously, that there was no ambulance there, and that I was too intoxicated to provide remotely adequate medical care. I still go back and forth with myself about that night, sometimes beating myself up, questioning whether a physician ever has a right to incapacitate his faculties unless he is sure to be utterly alone until he sobers up.

This week, flying back from Tropical Paradise 2, and ten minutes short of landing at Major Metropolitan Area, the flight attendant again asked if there was a physician or nurse aboard. My party comprised a psychiatrist, two pediatricians, and a urogynecologist. (We’d also had a pathologist, but he caught an earlier flight.) All four of us got up—but there were already doctors crowding the aisle. Apparently someone in the back had fainted, then recovered. Paramedics came on the plane as soon as we landed and walked off with the patient.

Just some random stories. I’m home.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Fade To Blue

Today, I catch a puddle-jumper back to the Tropical Metropolitan Area, where (if all goes according to plan) seven friends rendezvous for another puddle-jumper to Tropical Paradise 2. There we will acquire a sailing vessel, lay in a week’s worth of provisions, and proceed to drop out of sight. Have a good time in my absence, dear reader(s). If you wish to find us, we’ll be at the second bay from the east, anchored in about 15 feet with good, sandy bottom

On Professionalism

I went last night with MommaGlacier to a concert held in the restored “island house” of an old sugar planation. The old stone building, like many here, had no clear defining line between outdoors and in. Huge, glassless windows and even larger, sill-less doors were left open to the outside. This arrangement makes good sense in the tropics, but only (in my opinion) in locations free of poisonous snakes.

A chandelier lit with a score or more candles hung from the high ceiling over the central concert room. A few insects whirred lazily through the doors and buzzed around the lights. The fairly renowned musicians—a woman on piano, and man on French horn—were elegantly dressed, in a satin gown and tuxedo. They played elegantly, too—Mozart, and Saint Saens, and others.

Partway through the program, I noticed the woman’s hands made a barely perceptible but unusual motion. It was a fast part of the piece, the horn was loud, and for just a bare moment her fingers hovered over the keys and shook side to side. Then they dove back down, rejoined the music like a leaping salmon rejoining its stream, and continued on. I couldn’t tell if she had missed a note or not. I thought maybe there was no note there, that the horn was supposed to have an instant to itself, and that the shaking hover was a pianist’s trick to mark the time of one note’s suspension.

At the end of the piece, after applause and smiling bows, the pianist whispered something to the horn player, and then said to the audience, “I just need to take a moment’s break. A bee stung me on my hand during that piece.”

I was awfully impressed. The last time I was stung by a bee, which was just a few months back, I felt there had been a small nuclear Armageddon. I hollered several obscenities, and could think of nothing but my throbbing hand for at least five minutes. Doe they teach you, at Julliard, how to keep playing through sudden, excruciating pain? Is there a class where the instructor, without warning, attacks you with a pointed stick while you’re playing? Probably not. But clearly they teach you how not to stop playing, gripe, and ask for a do-over when something goes awry.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Old Dog And The Sea

Ah... finally able to add a couple of photos from hike to the beach. Very little action down here. Poor PoppaGlacier is suffering with a terrible upper respiratory infection, which puts quite a damper on his vacation.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the recent cold days in the mountains and hot days by the sea, I found myself last night hankering for a cool afternoon in an foothill apple orchard.

Babbitt strikes a terrifying gong of loathsome self-recognition. Must give up Diet Coke and forget about buying a better watch.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

In No Particular Order

Yes, the maple syrup arrived intact, untapped, and untaxed.

A family of mongooses resides under my bathtub. The noise, at night, sounds like electronic equipment gone haywire.

I am reading Babbitt. I agree with the back-cover blurb—this book is a masterpiece of modern satire. Favorite sentence of the first 50 pages: “Babbitt’s preparations for leaving the office to its feeble self during the hour and a half of his lunch-period were somewhat less elaborate than the plans for a general European war.”

The mother of the bride (see “Waiting For Something To Happen”, op. cit.) fell and broke her clavicle yesterday. It is unclear whether the wedding will go ahead or not. Regardless, the bride and groom will take over my hut tonight. I’m not sure they will enjoy the mongoose concert.

It must be difficult to write polysyllabic lyrics for songs in 2/4 time. I had a good example of this task well done, something I listened to on the iPod before drifting off to sleep, but now I can’t recall it.

I just discovered that a pair of shorts I bought last summer has the phrase “NEVER STOP EXPLORING” stitched inside the fly. Everyone should own a pair of these, and I should wear mine more often.

The hot water ended yesterday. Not sure the bride and groom will enjoy that, either. I suspect the mongooses may have been chewing on the wires to the water heater.

MommaGlacier and I hiked yesterday to an almost-deserted beach at the easternmost end of Tropical Paradise 1. I say almost deserted because, in addition to us, a very tan man was sitting on the sand in the lotus position. He was well-camouflaged and startled me with a loud “Om” before I saw him. It is unusual to be startled by meditation. Also, this pooch followed us all the way to the beach and back. Turboglacier is not much of a “dog person”, but, ironically virtually all dogs are “Turboglacier dogs”.

[Sorry, there were supposed to be photos-- but that feature does not seem to be working today.]

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Waiting For Something to Happen

Sneaked out at 2:45 a.m., feeling like a runaway as I tried not to awaken the housemates. Drove through cold, deserted streets to the Smallish City bus terminal, boarded a Trailways bound for the Major Metropolitan Area. Dawn flight to the Tropical Hub, transfer to island time and inexplicably delayed puddle-jumper to Tropical Paradise 1. Met by Mommaglacier in the hot sun and now sitting under a palm contemplating what’s next.

Gossip abounds at the Not Quite Retirement Area. Someone-or-other is getting married tomorrow; the bride and groom apparently forgot to book a room for themselves. As I had neglected to book a wedding for myself, which would’ve trumped their urgent claim, my room was given away to them for a night. Will sleep on MommaG’s sofa. Someone else went to the casino, did not win big. Card tricks are big this year. The promised granite countertops still have not arrived; they allegedly “cracked in transit.” Prompted discussion about two refrigerators which allegedly “fell overboard” in transit before a third finally arrived. Management still has not provided a deed; there is a “sort of deed” they typed up on the office typewriter. One of the Sunfish disappeared; no one knows where to. It’s “two-for-one” entrée night at the restaurant, AND there are coupons for two free well drinks with dinner, maximum one per person, but beer cannot count as a well drink. In elaborate scheme worked out long before my arrival, MommaG and PoppaG share one entrée, TurboG gets his own for free. Explanation to MommaG and PoppaG, who are teetotalers, about the difference between “well” and “top shelf”. Discussion about A., the cab driver, and whether his sudden ever-presence in the parking lot means he is dating H., the reception clerk. And so forth. Off to look for adventure.

Found an excellent steep stretch of road for Tropical Mountaineering fitness regimen.

MommaG, PoppaG, and friends on walk.

Sunday, February 05, 2006


New England, weather-wise, is currently an unacceptable, unholy mess.

Turboglacier exhausted himself yesterday with a 15-mile backcountry slog, seeking but not attaining the summit of Owl’s Head mountain. I try to pretend that I love them equally, the 48 mountains I’m obsessed with, but it’s a lie. This unworthy little mountain has repelled me twice, and I’m starting to hate it.

Though nothing specifically bad happened, I feel vaguely traumatized by the expedition. The entire day seemed steeped in preternatural creepiness. The air, far too warm for February, had a witchcrafty texture. The abandoned logging railroad bed I skied in on had glare ice that intermittently reflected my body in a mangled and warped quasi-likeness. Then a mile of climbing to Black Pond, which I had to either cross or work around. A path of footprints led across the slushy ice to the far shore, but how old were they, and how much had the ice melted since those travelers passed safely? I put skis back on to spread my weight and sped across as fast as I could. Some bubbling, gurgling sounds below made the hair on my neck stand up.

Next came an hour of bushwhacking through swampy sapling thickets, where the very trees attacked me. With skis on the pack, tips protruding overhead, the twisting tentacled branches grabbed hold from behind, wrenching me backwards or spinning me in circles. Dozens of switches whipped me in the face, leaving red welts. In some places the snow was deep and I sank to my knees. In others, the ground was bare and mucky, seemingly heated from below. In these, bright green ferns grew, as if in a hothouse. My boots sank in muck. I cursed the trees. I passed a bog pool skimmed in black ice, with rotten stumps protruding at odd angles. I thought of the Witch of the Westmoreland. I thought of the Blair Witch Project. I thought of the Molasses Swamp in Candyland.

Finally, I emerged at another trail along a granite bedrock river. Here I had hoped to ski again, but no luck—the trail’s snow was washed out every hundred yards by muddy seeps. On foot I plodded upwards. Suddenly, a violent noise stopped my heart—a noise of cracking demolition, a noise that should not be in the woods—I spun round to face the sound and saw a boulder the size of a washing machine crashing down a rockslide across the river. It landed with a deep boom, out of sight. Nothing moved. The river gurgled. I moved on.

At the height of land where the river peters and the next step is to climb a rockslide to the summit of Owl’s Head, I hesitated. My legs ached. The shadows had grown long, then disappeared as dark clouds had gathered over the sky. I thought about the boulder. I shivered and looked around for the presence I felt behind me. “This,” I decided, “is not the day.” I turned around. Back at the trailhead, the VW wouldn’t start. Rain splattered the windshield. I waited and waited for someone to come by and help me with a jumpstart.

This morning the church bell in the Very Small Village is tolling ominously. The river behind 777’s house is rushing grey and swollen. The whole world is washing away to a slushy, icy hell. It’s time to fade to a better climate.


It was a hectic and exhausting week at Green Acres, and one with several firsts. My first serious Tarasoff situation. The first patient to successfully grab me by the necktie. My first patient with neurosyphilis (or so I thought, and so she’d been told by doctors at another hospital—although the next day we learned there had been a “clerical error”, and her test results were not positive after all. So, another first: Telling a patient, “Remember how you have syphilis? Well, good news…”)

Thursday night I spent in the bowels of Medical Records dictating discharge summaries on a stack of charts that reached from the floor to my chin. The ladies in Medical Records kindly left me a box of chocolate to lure me in.

By Friday so many patients had come, gone, or been transferred that I couldn’t even figure out how many I had under my care. I think it’s about time to fade again.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Shrinks and Lawyers III

It was a hectic day at Green Acres. The day began with a three-hour court hearing, to determine if we could extend an involuntary commitment for one of my patients. The patient insisted on appearing pro se, and the judge allowed it, which was novel. In the courtroom, the patient sat where his attorney would usually sit; he allowed his rejected court-appointed attorney to sit in the back row, but would not permit her to speak. After my testimony, and that of two psychologists, the judge asked the patient if he wished to testify himself.

“Yes”, he said.
Judge: “Go ahead.”
Patient: “Ask me some questions.”
Judge: “That’s really not my role. Would you like your attorney to ask you some questions?”
Patient: “What’s the point of her asking me questions?”
Attorney: “It might be good if you could tell the court how—“
Patient (to Judge): “I didn’t say she could ask questions. I said YOU could ask questions.”
Judge (to Attorney): “Why don’t you write down two questions, pass them to me, and I’ll ask your client the questions.”
Patient (to Judge): “Are you going to make up your own questions, or just read hers?”
Judge: “I’m going to read them to you.”
Patient: “Well then they aren’t your questions, so I’m not allowing it.”

It went on like that. Later, a psychologist who had already testified needed to leave for another hearing—but because the patient was also the “defense attorney”, the judge made the psychologist ask the patient for permission to leave the proceedings—which the patient denied.

In the end, the judge found that the patient had a mental illness and presented a danger to himself and others—but also found that we did not have right to keep him in the hospital. This made little sense to me, and was the worst trouncing I’ve ever had in court when there wasn’t even a lawyer on the other side. Plus, although I was mandated to discharge him, I still felt strongly that the patient represented an immediate threat to a person in the community. So, for the first time in my shrinking career, I felt obligated to follow the duties laid out under Tarasoff—contacting the threatened individual and warning him of the danger, and contacting the sheriff’s department to notify them of my concerns. The patient walked out the front doors of Green Acres into the icy slushscape. I’ve been sitting up tonight worrying if everyone’s okay.

The Smallish State is a very strange place to practice shrinking. The laws are highly protective of individual rights, but seem endlessly designed to thwart success in treatment.