Birthday Eve!

We drove along in the old truck over the sine wave troughs and crests of a typical Vermont road that make your stomach drop. (The effect was exaggerated because my dad always sped up just before the peak). Then, our humming came to a crawl as we found ourselves behind a car with some white hair just sticking up above the driver’s seat headrest. I said something about them driving slow.

“Time is moving so fast for them they don’t even know they’re driving slow. As you get older each second becomes a smaller fraction of your life,” my dad said before passing the elderly driver.

Tomorrow I turn 28! I’ve almost lived a year for every minute in a half hour. I guess I’m not too old yet, though, because I think plenty of people ooze along with the viscosity of molasses.

I looked back at last time I wrote here about my birthday. I gave a robust list of accomplishments and goals. Don’t worry, I’m not doing that this year. These days my guiding principles are my 5 favs of Paraguayan culture—humor, gratefulness, details, relationships, curiosity— and everything else falls into place about them. For example, I smile at strangers…because smiles are contagious. But also, more importantly, it’s fun to catch passersby off-guard and watch the awkward expressions that flicker across their faces as they work to smile back.

I’m stoked about 28. This is the first birthday I’ve had (since adulthood anyway) where I don’t have any major changes I want to make. I have a lot of hard, exciting things on my radar for the year. Those wonderful things could dramatically change my life—like applying to medical school. But the only way to find out if the future is boring or exciting, is to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Time does go fast at this age. It seems like I just started the semester and already I have a few exams behind me. I can’t imagine what studying will be like in my 30s, perhaps a jet race, but I’ll find out soon.

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Happiness Comes from the Heart

Being a pre-med post-baccalaureate student, I take a lot of classes with humans that are 8-10 years younger than me. These young people are a dichotomy of vibrant energy and self-doubt. We are on same footing as we struggle to memorize microbes and how p orbitals shape molecules, yet we are not even in adjacent life chapters.

It’s nice to be a witness, rather than a participant, of the soul searching that comes with learning how to be an adult. I once was an 18-year-old too, but I’m glad that era is behind me. I know my young colleagues will come out just fine without any help. But, there’s one thing that I wish I could tell them so they wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of discovering it themselves. It’s simple but, alas, it’s something only experience can teach us: happiness comes from within.

I think many of us get lost in the weeds when it comes to happiness. We jump from shiny thing to shiny thing. We assume the next great object we possess will fill the holes in our soul. We look to family, friends, and partners thinking they can save us. We search for other’s approval of our look. We act based on strangers’ opinions, hoping that society will label us as “cool.” And as we skip and hop between all these outward forces, our emptiness expands until our core seems more like a beach ball than a rock. Hollow.

It’s not the doldrums, the pits, where the quest for meaning beyond ourselves drives us, but to stagnant waters and ships with limp sails. And, while some of my young lab partners might learn quickly that they are the only ones who can make themselves happy, many of them will take years to realize the truth. I’m not sorry for them. I know their journey will have many fun days and explosions of wonder. But, if they are like me, they won’t find peace until they understand that joy originates inside and spreads from there. I don’t wish the restlessness of the road upon anyone, but it’s a road we all must wander at some point.

While others might make our lives brighter, we’re the only ones who can decide if we’re going to let in the sunshine or draw the curtains. I hope that when the going gets tough and the days seem dark the young folks around me take the time to look inward. There are many things beyond our control, but our emotions and how we respond to the world do not fall among them.

Are you lonely?

“Are you lonely?” is America’s version of the boyfriend question. I thought the coupling obsession was a Paraguayan thing. But, now that I’m back in the US, I realize I was mistaken. It’s also an American thing. Maybe it’s a human thing. Regardless, I’ve gotten a lot of practice justifying why I’m single. So, let me tell you…

…there is no reason why I’m single. I just am.

I know it’s hard to believe that a person can be happy just being. But, try to imagine it. Consider, for example, that I can go hiking on the fly and not wait for a soul. I could move anywhere and would only need to bargain with my future landlord and maybe the visa office. I can (and do) eat when, what, and where I want and don’t feel even a hint of obligation to coordinate with anyone.

Perhaps you’re thinking something like, “Fine, Jett, you’re busy and independent…but really you’re just waiting for the right guy. You’re lonely, but you forge on propelled by the dream of the prince who will sweep you off your feet one day.”

If something like that is on your mind, I must ask: Doesn’t that argument seem archaic? By now we should all know that princes only live in fairytales. They aren’t real, but metaphors for love and good fortune. I don’t need the metaphor. I’m not looking for someone to fend off the dragons. I do that just fine on my own.

Don’t despair, you’re partly right. I’m busy and I have great friends. But that’s the whole point. If I lived my whole life as I am—doing good work, engaging in hobbies, and enjoying friends—then I would have an awesome life. You see, my life’s not on hold. I’m not working toward finding that perfect man. I’m just living…and I also happen to be single. I’m not worried about love. Why should I? It’s spontaneous and stubborn. It will do whatever the heck it wants. Just like me.

I might one day stumble upon someone to be my partner in crime. I might uncover a person who makes me happier than I already am. If I do, I’ll marry him. I also might not find such a human. Either way, the trajectory is grand. I realize that many believe that singletons need to be saved. But let’s remember that when we, you and I, were taught about the American dream it was never said that it could only be dreamt by two.

Thanks for your concern about my emotional well-being. But, the better question is “What do you do?” I assure you the answer is interesting. I have a lot to say about me and my doings. And don’t worry, I’ll let you know if me becomes we.

Raising the Boiling Point

When I tell my grandmother all the things I’m doing she usually says something like, “Just hearing about your activities makes me tired.” This comment always makes me wonder why we all have different thresholds of activity before we become overwhelmed or burnt out and disinterested.

Hypothesis

Interest is to productivity like salt is to water.

Water on its own boils at a certain temperature, but after dissolving salt in water the temperature at which it boils is higher. This is because the intermolecular forces between the molecules are stronger when salt and water are mixed than between water molecules alone. In other words, it requires more energy to boil a pot of salt water than it does a pot of fresh water because the little bits that make up salt water are more strongly pulled toward each other than the tiny bits that make up water are pulled together.

I believe interest acts like the salt when the water is productivity. If you dump some interest into your productivity pool, you’ll achieve a higher production rate than you would if you just do things without figuring out how they are interesting. I define interesting as something that is thought-provoking, relevant to my interaction with people, useful in the activities I do, and/or helpful in reaching my goals.

So what?

Productivity is not set in time nor does each person have their own unique productivity rate. We each have varying productivity depending on zillions of factors like time of day, enjoyableness of what we’re doing, and how many things we have on our mind. But, what I’ve found as I take each step on the doctorhood quest is that if I can convince myself (or already am) interested in something I can focus on it a lot longer and accomplish a lot more in less time than I can if I’m apathetic about it. I can cut the time it takes to do something sometimes by half if I can think of a way to find it interesting.

That’s what I did with first semester physics, specifically kinetics. At the time, I’d been battling squirrels. Squirrel rapscallions were decimating my garden, and though I truly hated those rascals, there was nothing I could or would do about it. I wasn’t going to kill them–I didn’t have the heart. However, kinetics equations such as those used to describe projectile motion gave me a tidy solution. Kinetics can be used to describe how far, fast, and high you throw something. I imagined (even though I’d never, ever actually throw a squirrel) that all my projectile equations related to chucking squirrels. The metaphorical “strike back” was enough to ease my anger over my garden crops being stolen by squirrel thieves and gave me the source of interest I needed to learn and excel in physics.

Side note: Once I got started, I didn’t need the squirrel metaphor…physics is actually pretty cool all on its own.

Test

I think it’s a powerful observation and a testament to the power of the mind that you can trick yourself into being interested in something and by doing so improve your ability to learn about that thing. If you can dig deep and find a fragment of something that sparks your imagination and curiosity even the hardest and most tedious of tasks goes more smoothly. Don’t be believe me? Next time you’re doing something that absolutely must be done even though you hate it, try to find something about the task that is interesting and worthwhile. Focus on that as you do the task. My guess is that you’ll find the whole process slightly more bearable and that you’ll also finish sooner than you normally would have. Challenge: Prove me wrong.

The Do-Good High

Did I tell you I’m an EMT? I’ve been running for about 5 months. Long enough to have learned a thing, maybe two. Let me tell you about the do-good high.

There’s a certain kind of person who becomes an EMT and sticks with it. Hint: It has nothing to do with your age, background, or future.

It boils down to what I call the “do-good high.”

There are EMTs who want patient experience so they can then become nurses and doctors. There are others who like sirens and driving large vehicles with lights. Many EMTs want to give back to the community. Others like the satisfaction of saving lives. Whatever the reason, the thing that makes all EMTs the same is that they get a thrill from doing good.

Whether it’s helping a little old lady after she’s fallen or bringing a person back from the dead through CPR, the folks who stay in emergency medicine are there because they’ve caught the do-good bug. When the alarms go off at 3 a.m., waking you from a dead sleep, and the dispatcher comes over the speaker: “56-year-old male, vomiting and diarrhea…”† I think a normal person would choose to go back to sleep. Not an EMT.

The EMT answers the call. Why? Partly it’s our duty to put on our uniform and leave the station as fast as we can, but there’s also something beyond obligation that makes us go. Even in the grossest of circumstances, like when we pick up that vomiting and pooping man and sit with him during the 30-minute ride to the hospital, we helped turn a bad night for him into a slightly better night.

The feeling you have sitting in the back of an ambulance as the sirens holler and you hustle to your patient is something like that of standing on the start line of a giant race. Your heart goes just a tad bit faster and your mind zips through the possible scenarios that could unfold once you arrive at the scene. Then you reach your patient and a calm descends upon you. There’s a human in distress and what’s ailing them is your puzzle to solve. You might be the one who saves their life. But even if you aren’t called upon to be a hero, you can ease their distress by helping them breathe or reassuring them as you go to the hospital. Seeing your patient’s face relax or their color return after you help elicits an adrenaline rush that starts in your center and spreads out to every corner of your body. It’s a high like that from scoring the winning goal or beating a chess genius at their own game, but it’s better because it lingers. This rush and joy that rapidly overtake you after helping a patient is the “do-good high.” All EMTs get it. It’s what keeps us coming back.

 

†Fictional dispatch that captures the essence of a typical call. HIPAA and other privacy measure prohibit sharing patient information.

On Growing Old

The best excuse for why I’ve been silent since spring is that the sun came back to Vermont and I’ve done everything I can to enjoy it. In Vermont, you spend eight months of the year waiting for summer to return.

Many Vermont summer days seem too perfect for an imperfect human like me to be part of them. They make me feel like a hideaway who, if discovered, will be kicked out. Tossed back to a land where the sun doesn’t flicker through the trees and the birds don’t chirp so musically. When I walk on these pristine days I let my mind meander.

On one such walk, I pondered growing old. I have a very vivid memory from elementary school. I was looking at the high schoolers and I thought, “I will never live to be as old as they are.” Yet, I did grow as old as they were. Not only that, I lived through college. And now I’m just a few years from 30 and I’m still living happily.

Some people fear getting old. Others complain about it. Others dye their hair and refused to tell you their age, as if time can be stopped through censorship. Recently, old people keep bursting into my thoughts. Many of my friends in Paraguay were more than twice my age. Most of the patients I transport to the hospital (I’m an EMT) were alive during WWII. My grandfather—the one who always made me laugh and was a humble, hidden source of strength—died. He’s still in my heart.

I thought about these elderly people as I walked. A slight breeze brushed away the mosquitoes and it smelled like grass and green things. I thought, “I’ll probably be 90 one day. What the heck will I be doing when I’m 90?”

I tried to envision what it would be like to be one of the white haired, wrinkly, and wise people who are always stoically at the edges of my life. For a moment, the thought made me sad. But, the melancholy passed and I grew calm. I would likely be old one day. And when that time came, I would not be busy like I am now.

It wouldn’t be that bad being old. I’d sit on a porch somewhere watching the sun shine. Perhaps I’d still be flexible enough to lie in a hammock. I’d observe the young people zooming around and they’d wonder how I wasn’t bored sitting and staring at the world all day. I would be so occupied by memories of a lifetime and all the family, friends, and acquaintances whose stories I’d shared that sitting on a porch would be like being at a movie theater watching the best movie ever. The best movie because I was its writer, producer, star, audience, and critic.

Sometimes young people would pause long enough to talk to me. They might be my grandchildren or they might be someone else’s grandchildren. I’d talk about what I’d done, seen, and learned. My words would fall on deaf ears but, sometime later, those young people would remember something I said and it would help them.

As I walked thinking about being ancient I realized that I was content with time passing. I’d make it as far as I was supposed to go. The grandest part of the whole thing, the beauty of aging, was that my weakening state would leave me no option but to reflect. My frail bones would limit the history I could make in my last few years, and that wouldn’t be so terrible. It’s meant to be that way. It’s meant to be that we have some time to enjoy what has been and is without any need to build the future.

Old Haunts

I stared at the metro station that had been my home stop for several years as the train doors binged open and closed. That day I had no reason to get off there. I tried to remember what I had thought about all those times after interning, working, volunteering, and adventuring when I got off on that platform and observed the name written in white on a brown pole, “Cleveland Park.” Too many different thoughts to remember. Feelings arose—that of being too hot or tired from a long day at the office, but those were more sensations than memories.

It had been over three years since I’d visited DC—three years, but a lifetime of learning. The trouble with my recollection wasn’t so much that I didn’t remember all the good and bad things that had happened while I was in our Nation’s capital. The marathon training runs through Rock Creek Park when the sun glistened through the trees as I padded along the winding creek dodging bikers and baby strollers. I remember the roly-poly red pandas who I visited many weekends. The tart and sweet of frozen yogurt and mango. The smell of coffee emanating from my clothes after a shift at Starbucks—you can’t escape that scent, and coffee smells different when it’s associated with work, rich and bitter at the same time. I remembered the night I drank my first energy drink, my only all-nighter of college, so I could walk down to Obama’s first inauguration. I had tickets! I remember the cherry blossoms and the autumn leaves reflecting in the pool at Jefferson’s feet. The flags on the Vietnam memorial stark against the black stone. The quiet white lines of tombs at Arlington—so many lost. The smelly humidity of the metro before a marathon. The chili fries at National’s stadium—Harper, Zimmerman, Gonzales…the presidents racing. The long night walks in the neighborhood when families strolled and the smells of different restaurants wafted across the sidewalk. The Greek deli where I got my college graduation lunch.

The trouble, though hardly that, was that the feelings of weariness and frustration that had laced my time in DC were gone. Completely gone and only the happy memories of my old haunts remained. The Kennedy Center at dusk. The strange winding of the canal through Georgetown. The roses. Roses in almost every garden. The long walks to the grocery store and the strolls past embassies. It was strange to think of embassies now. I’d been an expat. I knew what it was like to visit your country’s stronghold in a strange land. Oddly not comforting considering the comparison between American politics and the warmth of Paraguay.

I watched the people rushing out of the metro. I was sure not to esca-left—unforgiveable. I’d forgotten about all the fancy men’s shoes and checkered shirts, but seeing them I realized how unchanged cloud DC was. Suits of a cut only seen on the Hill and in old boys’ clubs abounded. I smiled. Funny to think those young men, dreaming of great titles and accomplishments, where not as unique as they imagined. As for the women, the boring shirts and sensible skirts. Even below the Mason-Dixon line so many folks lacked the flare that the south brings out if you let it. “Not far enough south,” I guessed. Of course, these folks were more complex than their clothes, but they’d lead you to believe their clothes were an expression of themselves. Hard to say, not knowing them.

Wandering the streets made me feel the freedmen of disengagement. This was not my home and could very well never be my home again. It was an easy thought. Whether the metro ran on time or late mattered little—it was no longer my metro. And besides, I’d waited hours in the hot sun for buses a fraction as nice as the dirtiest DC metro car.

Old haunts. They weren’t haunts at all, really. Just little snapshots into the past. But I no longer saw any of the scenes as I did then. No. They all had a different filter. And this time, the view was bright as the afternoon, January sun in Paraguayan. The vignette lens that had once allowed the shadows to creep in around the edges of my old stomping ground had been replace by a softening and brightening filter. I noticed the sidewalks, their cracks had been filled. The sidewalks were new just like my path. And the corners of my mouth creeped up all on their own. If my positive outlook, adopted from Paraguay, could endure the city where politicians were trying to put our country forty years behind in education, rights, and healthcare, then it was safe to say I’d come to visit just at the right time. The right time to prove that rain and sun are different sides of the same sky. I saw the sun.

Springtime Rambling

My goodness how quickly time passes. It’s hard to believe that the last time I wrote was in the dead of a cold, dark winter—the hallmark of New England. I won’t bore you with the reasons why there was no time to write for so long, except to say that I know a great deal more about equilibrium, acid-base reactions, electromagnetism, circuits, batteries, optics, quantum mechanics, and special relativity than I did in February. Science.

Spring arrived in Vermont with the timidity of a mouse crossing a barren stretch—one step forward, three steps back. But, the soft, new leaves are starting to unroll; the grass needs to be cut, the flower gardens need weeding, and the fruit trees fill the air with soft scents. It’s the lilacs more than the tulips and daffodils that make me think the warm weather will stay a while.

The winter was long and cold. I dared not count the gray days that melted into rainy days between frost and flowers. It goes without saying that spring is a time of new beginnings and the return of the sun.

How I missed the sun! When I went on a walk today rays of golden light danced on the path between the yellow-new, pink fresh leaves. The spirals of young ferns lined the walkway and the damp mix of old leaves and new growth saturated the air. I paused on a bridge over where the river meets the lake. There in the flooded marsh lands a fish swam almost lazily in circles. It was over a foot long. A fin lined its back waving back and forth like a ruffle along its spine as it waved its tail. What a bold fish to be out in the open in eagle, kingfisher, and heron territory!

I’m sure you guessed, but the sun makes me think of Paraguay. I completed my one-year anniversary of my return to the States in April. This is my first full spring in Vermont in many years. And the humming of the frogs, bugs, and birds make me think that this coming year will not only be as productive as the last, but more hopeful.

It is a new beginning because I’m taking my learning out of the classroom. Not so long ago I started running as an EMT. I’m still quite a newbie, but I’ve learned that every patient is a puzzle, and that solving each puzzle is more thrilling than anything else I’ve yet encountered. To realize what I can do to help someone by looking at a few measures—for example breathing, pulse, and blood pressure—is far more interesting than piecing together the clues of a physics exam question.

I’ve been thinking these days about how much I’ve learned since last spring. This time last year, I could not have told you what a healthy blood pressure was or if 5 was basic or acidic on the pH scale. Today I know those things and a great deal more. But, for some reason, Plato’s Socrates and his comment about what makes one wise has been on my mind as I take my spring walks, a translation of which reads:

“I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

The more I learn about the human body and illness the more I realize how much I don’t know. And what I’ve come to see, now that the frost has cleared, is that the doctorhood quest will not end when I pass my last board exam. It’s a quest for knowledge and better understanding that will only end when I stop practicing medicine. And despite the weight of learning so much for so long, the length and breadth of my journey does not seem daunting. I know that even if there are stretches like a Vermont winter as I make my way, they will always be followed by spring. After spring comes summer. And summer is full of life.

Photo Credit: my father

 

When In Doubt, It’s An Energy Problem

I have a running joke about physics: When in doubt, it’s an energy problem. Before you stop reading, let me try to enlighten you with the humor. Picture yourself in your first semester of physics. You’ve tried solving one problem, yes one silly little problem, for over an hour. You’ve combined pages worth of equations and moved around variables like a wizard. No luck. You set it aside. Try again. And again. No luck. You go to your review session. A cunning smirk lifts the corners of your professor’s mouth when you ask, exasperated, if he can please review the problem. He completes the problem in two simple steps.

There’s this nifty law about nature—it’s called the conservation of energy—and it states that energy can’t be created or destroyed, only transformed. I know. You’re thinking, “By golly she’s turned into a real science nerd in a couple short months.” Sure, I’m guilty, but let me make my non-science point…

The quality that makes the law of conservation of energy so darn handy is that it allows you to ignore all the complicated transformations that occur during a journey and just focus on the beginning and end. By boiling a process down to two points, you’re able to paint a picture of what happened without seeing what occurred. And knowing without knowing is quite a powerful thing to be able to do.

Now, let’s bring energy out of the land of physics. In my world, energy means the chutzpah to get things done. I, like you, have a lot of things I want and need to do. I’m often not exactly sure how I’m going to shoulder the load. It’s exhausting to just think about all the little straws piling up on one’s back. In thinking about all my to-dos, a list of which can and does fill pages, I realized something. Tasks are not unlike equations. And, getting to the end of a to-do list is not unlike solving a physics problem.

What I’m saying is that conservation of energy is not only a physics thing but also a life thing. It’s a way to shift your perspective from being buried in the minutia of all the little details to being able to see the whole arc of your adventure. I find it exceptionally grand to think that even though I’ll take every step on the road between here and there, I don’t have to fixate on every single one. What matters are where I am now and where I’ll be then. As I forge ahead on the doctorhood quest, simplifying life to just energy is quite motivating. I don’t know every action and transformation that will occur between now and when I’m a doctor—nobody knows the future. But, I find it easy to be optimistic when I realize that I have a lot of good mojo now, and that wherever I am later that pizazz will still be with me in one shape or another.

Pulling Up the Bootstraps

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the anxiety, anger, and sadness I’ve felt since the 45th president of the US took office. It blows my mind how quick he began attacking:

  • Women: protection against discrimination, protection against violence, access to health care, freedom of choice
  • Everyone who needs health care and isn’t floating in money (aka most people): affordable health insurance, access to health care, security for those most in need of care
  • Immigrants: melting pot
  • Native Americans: protection of their land, respect of their culture
  • Americans living abroad: ambassadors, protection of foreign service officers abroad and American expatriates
  • The media: transparency, truth
  • Science: climate change (um, like come on…must we really repeat the “Earth is round” history?)…

…the list grows with each passing hour.

I went to the Women’s March in Montpelier on January 21. It was inspiring to see so many people energized to fight for human rights. But, I wondered, “Are we too late? Where were we between August and November 2016?”

The answer came in a common phrase:

When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

America has never been perfect. We were founded by people who were fleeing oppression, who in turn stole land from the people already here. We won independence proclaiming high ideals, but enslaved millions of people, conquered others, and fought dirty wars with our southern neighbors and across the globe. We ended up a world power, but we still fell short of our ideals—all people in this country do not have equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Imperfect America has always strived to be better. We eliminated slavery, we changed legislation to give all citizens the right to vote, we’ve made net improvements in the rights of all minorities and women in this country, we’ve made progress protecting the rights of the LGBTQIA community; we’ve achieved many other wonderful things. But what we’ve done is not enough.

After much contemplation, I am certain that we are not too late. Perhaps Trump’s election was a necessary evil. It made me fall to dark places. And in the dark, I saw so clearly what had been easy to ignore in the gloom of modern America. In recent times, I and many people like me have been lethargic. We plodded along accepting what is even though it is not good enough.

The 2017 inauguration woke me. I saw the stars. And I’ve joined the struggle to improve this Nation. Regretfully, like a large mass starting from rest, I’m off to a slow start. I’m still not entirely sure what my role is and will be, but I know I have one.

On one hand, I’m already doing good work. I’m forging along on the Doctorhood Quest because my vision of delivering primary care services to underserved populations only becomes more vivid as the days pass. I will not let a man with disregard for the life and wellbeing of others allow millions of people to be cut off from the health care services they need and deserve. Also, in my current professional life, I help ensure that homeless young adults and at risk youth have the resources they need to build their own success. On the other hand, I know that I must do more than just study and work.

I have some ideas for action. Small stepping stones. I do not know where exactly I’ll end up or how my rejuvenated commitment to improving my country will unfold. All I know is that America has never chosen the easy path, but we are brave. I’m brave. It’s time to pull up those bootstraps, not just to elevate myself, but also as many as will come with me.

I’m proud that the momentum of the Women’s March has, thus far, translated into sustained action to fight for human rights. Let us stay together and be strong. Let us not leave anyone behind or push anyone who is part of us down. Let us continue to not only talk, but also do. As Margret Mead put it:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

So my question, what are you going to do?