The Rhetoric of -est

As Mother’s Day whizzed by and we race toward Father’s Day I am reminded of one of my favorite Mother’s Day Facebook posts (posted by a fellow Peace Corps volunteer on one of the Mother’s Days we were in Paraguay). She wished her mother a happy day and stated that she didn’t believe she needed to call her mother “best” to tell her how much she loved her.

The post made me think. It is tempting and common to say “the best mom or dad” or the “coolest” or the “kindest” or add “est” to the end of any description we’d like to use for those we love. But, if there is a “best” it implies that there is a worst and that there are many almost bests or not bests.

Ever since my colleague’s post, I’ve actively avoided the description “best” for anyone, even though it is tempting. I don’t think we need to rank humans or suggest a hierarchy as a means of showing someone we love them. I also don’t think there is such a thing as the “best” mom because no two moms are the same.

I believe language shapes our thinking and if we focused more on describing individual’s good traits without comparing them to others we might create a society with fewer divisions based on arbitrary markers and we might be more likely to recognize the good in humans. Is it a stretch to say how we talk about people will change how we view them? Maybe, but I will argue that framing theory supports my hypothesis that the words we use to describe someone shape how we view them. You can test it though. I dare you to change your rhetoric about people in your life and see if it changes how you view them over time. Try a longitudinal study over 3 years. Report back in 2022, I’ll be here.

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Q-tips and Time

The road between my father’s house and school had a stretch with small, rolling hills. My father would always speed up the ups so that our stomachs would drop on the downs of the hills. One day, halfway through the hills, we got stuck behind a Q-tip (that’s what we called elderly drivers because all you can see over their car headrest is a white tuft of hair). The elderly driver was going so slowly we didn’t get to enjoy the hills. My sister and I groaned.

My father said, “Do you know why old people drive so slowly?”

“No,” I said, rolling my eyes.

“Because time is moving so fast for them that they feel like they’re moving quickly. Think about it. Each second is a smaller fraction of their life than yours or mine,” he said. “Time seems to go faster as you get older.”

I shrugged then. But, a decade and a half later, I find myself wondering why time runs away from me. I sometimes drive slowly because I feel like I’m rushing even when I have nowhere I need to be. I’ve come to understand what he meant—each second that passes makes every subsequent second a smaller fraction of my life. Funny that time, that constant meter we trust to measure and organize our lives, feels so inconsistent.

On Flowers

I love flowers. They are beautiful. They are transitory. You usually can’t eat them and they really have no practical purpose. They brighten a room.

The moment flowers are given to you is always special. The moment you buy your own flowers is a personal reward—a reminder that sometimes it’s okay to just enjoy some color without reason. Giving flowers is like giving someone food…expressing caring without giving them another material burden they’re expected to make room for in their home. Some complain that flowers, because of their short lives and lack of function, are pointless. I disagree.

I’ve found that the best things in life—passing time with family and friends, a hug, a kiss, solving an annoying problem that’s been nagging you, uncovering what is ailing a patient, baking the perfect cake, enjoying a mountaintop view, for example—are all short-lived. There’s something in the requirement to be present or you’ll miss it, to live the moment and know you’ll never get it back, that makes these things special. Flowers make you pause and be there with them for a short time. They require that you make time, even only moments, to see, smell, and feel them. They let you feel appreciation, love, and gratitude for just a fleeting moment. A fleeting moment is better than no moment. In fact, life is made up of fleeting moments. Why not let them include flowers?

What You Look for Is What You Find: Look for Strengths

Not so long ago a friend and I were discussing our workplace culture, the individuals in it, and how the people scheduled to work on a particular day determined how hard the day will be (because some people work more than others). It was a discussion after too many hard hours; we were tired and burnt out. We started spiraling down the path of complaining about everything. Halfway down the trail, I paused to remember that all things are a matter of perspective.

It is easy to complain about coworkers. To gripe how so-and-so doesn’t do or know enough or how they make our work lives harder. Sometimes all we need to do before we can move on is vent, which is productive, while other times we get caught fixating on what makes a particular person terrible, which solves nothing.

I believe anyone can change, and everyone does, but only when they want to change and only when they’re ready. As such, we each can defend ourselves and what we believe in, but expecting others to bend to our will is futile for enacting change in my view. I have NEVER seen anyone work harder after I wished they did. On the flip side, I have seen people work harder when complimented on what they do well and asked to join in the fray when they were surrounded by good examples. This is where perspective comes in. Before you can complement a peer or ask them to do something you know they’ll do well, you must know their strengths. The only way to notice strengths is to look for them, which requires quite the opposite type of astuteness used to identify weaknesses. 

We can’t avoid noticing when others seem to be slacking while we are working too hard. But, as we muddle along, we can also strive to notice if those same slackers do a particular thing well. Once you notice a strength in a peer, you can look to and rely on that person to step up in situations where their strength is vital. This is particularly helpful if their strength is a weakness of yours or if they like tasks you dislike because it transforms a colleague that you found difficult into a resource. We are stronger when we play off each other’s strengths, rather than focus on each other’s weaknesses. Of course, noticing strengths doesn’t negate the wearisomeness of having to pick up another person’s slack or negate a personality clash, but it does lighten the burden and give us an avenue to find common ground. You will see what you look for, so I strive to look for the good. When I get derailed, I vent and, then, try again. Usually, I can find something wonderful within any human. I bet we all can if we try.  

Closing 2018, Opening 2019

If I had to pick one word for 2018 it would be “success.” I finally got a job taking care of patients, this officially marked my transition from a communications career to a health care one. With each passing day, I grow more certain that I’m headed in the right career direction. I finished my pre-med requirements, took the MCAT, applied to medical school, and got into several medical schools. I made some awesome new friends and visited some of the best long-term ones. The farthest friend visit was to my beloved Paraguay (I also visited friends in DC and Atlanta).   

This New Year’s finds me at a crossroads. In the coming months, I will decide where I will go to medical school. I feel incredibly lucky to have options, especially because I only applied to schools about which I am excited. The cost of school and if I should move to a new state weigh heavily on me. Starting the next chapter in the doctorhood quests is simultaneously overwhelmingly exciting and completely petrifying. But, change and moving are nothing unusual for me.

Earlier this year, I wrote about “name the fear and conquer it” as my general approach to life. A huge part of that is identifying when I’ve fallen into a mindless routine and, then, breaking that routine. I’m the type who as soon as they learn something new looks for how to become better and how to expand my knowledge. I think this trait will serve me well in medical school. It’s served me well in everything else I’ve tackled. But, as I think about these traits and the exciting goals that are coming to fruition this year, I find myself thinking that my biggest New Year’s resolutions have little to do with my career ambitions and a lot to do with the rest of my life.

I have high expectations and hopes for myself as I begin medical school, but I know I will put my best self forward in pursuing those regardless of my New Year’s reflection. Therefore, as we slide out of 2018, my New Year’s resolutions are to focus more on relationships and adventure. In that vein, here are my top 5 resolutions:

  1. Do a better job of staying in touch with old friends, family, and contacts even in the midst of school mayhem. This may include taking more time to visit friends who live far away, writing letters, texting, emailing, or social media-ing.
  2. Focus on developing new friendships. The challenge for me is always ensuring I leave enough time to spend with friends even when school work crescendos.
  3. Travel outside of the country, to a new place, at least once in 2019.
  4. Travel or visit somewhere new (even if it’s a day/partial day trip) at least once a month.
  5. Join some initiatives/groups that don’t directly relate to my budding career in medicine. Ideas I’ve pondered before or relate to interests I have include: joining a gym (I currently workout at home), ballroom dance classes/club, hiking club, book club (currently in one), or writers’ group; taking a yoga or martial arts class; becoming a youth mentor; and/or joining a choir.

Besides the New Year’s resolutions, I plan to continue my daily struggle to smile more, see the best in people, and be the kindest person I can be. I wish you the best of luck in 2019—I’ll be taking it one day, one week, and one month at a time. Happy New Year!

Friends Forever

I’m an introvert and a dreamer. As an introvert, I have a few close friends rather than a large circle of lukewarm friends. I think of my friends often, like to know them well, and consider them family. Being an introvert also means that I like to have a large dose of time alone. When I’m alone I daydream about the escapades I’ll go on throughout my life. As a dreamer, I think of solo quests and I hash out perfect adventures to go on which each of my friends, knowing every friend’s unique virtues and nature.

Each period of my life has given me one or several wonderful people to add to my friend family. These days, I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship–largely because I’ve stumbled upon some outstanding new friends. But, also, it’s been a long time since I’ve visit some of my friends who live far away; I’m thinking I might move in the next year; and I’m visiting Paraguay soon. Friends of my past, present, and future geographic locations are always on my mind.

Whenever I think about friendship, I remember a conversation I overheard 3 years ago. I’ve decided to repost (again, it’s not the first time) because it’s my favorite description of what true friendship is. While not everyone believes in Heaven, I think the lesson this scene teaches is universally applicable.  

Overheard in Paraguay: Friendship
Repost from October 19, 2015

We sat in a half circle around the grill. The men were cooking large slabs of meat (ribs and some unidentifiable cut) for the mother of the family’s birthday dinner. The husband of one of the birthday mother’s daughters sat by the grill passing one can of beer among the men there. A nephew walked up to the daughter’s husband. The husband was around 30 and the nephew was about 11.

The husband hugged his nephew first with one arm and then the other, squeezing him. The nephew squirmed, and they both smiled. The husband held the nephew at arm’s length and put on an almost serious expression. “Will we always be friends?” the husband asked.

“Yes,” the nephew said.

“Even when I am old and you are my age?” the husband asked.

“Yes, even when you are old and I have kids,” the nephew said.

The husband smiled and pulled the nephew into another hug. The nephew pulled away again and they looked at each other, the husband still squeezed the nephew’s shoulder with one hand.

“Even when you are in Heaven and I am old we will still be friends,” the nephew said earnestly.

The husband laughed. “And I will look after you from Heaven.” They hugged again. “And, when you come to Heaven, we will be friends in Heaven. We will be friends forever.”

The boy nodded and ran off to find his playmates.

5 Things I’m Grateful for this Holiday Season

This was a big year for me. I finished my pre-medical classes, took the MCAT, applied to medical school, and then I got into medical school. My youngest brother graduated college. My grandfather was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. I got a new job in the emergency department where I get to spend most of my day caring for patients. One of my dear friends had her first baby, and I’ll get to meet him this December (because I’m visiting my beloved Paraguay!!).

The laundry list above is just a sampling of the year. I’ve also made some great new friends, met some amazing people, done a tiny bit of national travel, and spent good hours learning new things. I could fill pages about the year, but I won’t just now. Instead, as the holidays approach, here are 5 things for which I am grateful:

1) My family who made it possible for me to get into medical school. They’ve listen to me gripe. Told me to stop whining and act. Shared my excitement for small victories. They’ve cooked, visited, hosted, taken me out to dinner, pitched in when I was in a pinch, made me laugh, talked me off the edge of tears, and helped me keep going when I wasn’t sure if going was an option.

2) The friends who stay in touch even though we live lightyears apart in separate, though equally chaotic, universes. The new friends who have joined me in sweating over biochemistry, hiking through Vermont’s woods, undertaking food adventures, and soaking in the quiet moments of life. The hardest part about moving as much as I have is that many of my favorite humans live far away. It’s a testament to their greatness that despite our distance they remain a positive force in my life.

3) The folks at my new job who reminded me what being part of a good team feels like. Who taught me the tricks of a new trade. Who show up every shift ready to do what needs to be done and between saving lives have energy for a smile or laugh.

4) The mentors and teachers who taught me all I know about medicine and science. But, also, my life mentors—the ones who have been there since undergrad (or before), the ones who’ve shown me the ropes of being an EMT, and the ones who set an example of what kind of old person I aspire to be.

5) Vermont. Sometimes my little home state is cold (actually, it’s usually cold). Sometimes Vermont is too homogenous and too isolated to quench my love of the new. But, this year, I’ve basked in perfect summer days where the sun is just right. I’ve soaked in the smells and silence of the forest and absorbed the wind that makes waves on Lake Champlain. I’ve reflected on the mountains that guard the horizon. I’ve enjoyed creemees, apple orchards, and maple syrup. I’ve watched the rain fall with mate in hand. I’m from Vermont. And while I don’t often call Vermont my home, it is the place where my roots have always been and always will be.

I’m grateful for the moments I’ve had to enjoy all the people and places that make life worth the sweat. I’m thinking about those moments as the holidays approach.

Go Vote on November 6

Elections are November 6. That’s a few days from now. If you haven’t registered, there’s still time. There’s also time to figure out where to go to vote. There’s time to review the candidates and pick which ones you want to lead us. Now’s the time.

Recently, a friend shrugged when I encouraged her to register to vote and fit a trip to the polls into her busy Tuesday. Elections are this Tuesday, November 6, 2018. “I haven’t been affected by the current president,” she said.

“Are you sure?” I asked. I wondered how she hadn’t noticed the ways in which our leaders’ decisions were posed to shape American lives for generations. I wondered when we thought the only person we voted for was the president. I wondered about the apathy of the masses. I wondered when we had forgotten how much politics matter.

We don’t only vote for the president. We vote for the school budget and those who decide how our towns and cities and states should be run. We vote for congress men and women every 2 years and we vote for senators every 6 years…and those two groups make up the Legislative Branch. The Legislative Branch is important because it’s a counterweight, a check and a balance, to the Executive Branch (the president) and the Judicial Branch (the judges, picked by the president on the national level).

US democracy only works if you care about all 3 governmental branches because the 3 keep each other in check. US democracy only works if you care about federal, state, and local politics because they work with and against each other in a constant tug-of-war between different beliefs. When one fraction of the government is ignored by most voters, the voices of a few predominate, and those vocal individuals then make decisions for other people whose lives they don’t understand.

But, let me stop ranting. I have a few points that are more concise. A few issues to keep in mind. A few things I remember when elections come.

  • What’s the price of gas these days? Did you know tariffs and trade agreements made by our politicians can lower the price of gas for the period leading up to elections?
  • What is your voting district? Did you know district borders are drawn by politicians? The lines are often drawn to ensure the current party always wins.
  • How do you feel about access to health care? For the elderly? For the poor? For those who have pre-existing conditions (those who are already sick)? Access to and education about birth control? Your politicians decide how hard it is to see a doctor and get the medications you need to feel well.
  • What is love? Who are you allowed to marry? Who gets legal rights to visit a loved one as they lie dying in a hospital? Who can adopt children? Your politicians decide.
  • Who’s protected by civil rights laws? Your politicians get to set legal definitions of things like gender, sex, and race. Did you know children used to not have protection under the law? They had fewer rights than animals. Politicians changed that—with pressure from lobbyists and people who thought it was wrong to beat children or make children work.
  • Where and when do we go to war? How to we care for veterans? Who do we allow to join the armed forces? Your politicians set those guidelines. What are we doing in Iraq and Afghanistan now? What are American soldiers doing in Syria? Are we going to attack Russia or China? It’s your government that makes those decisions.
  • Are billboards allowed? Billboards are illegal in Vermont, thanks to local politics. Vermont depends on tourism…so were billboards banned for economic reasons or was it because some politicians thought billboards were ugly?

The above are just the beginning. There are so many other things that depend on politics. The price of food, for example. The minimum wage. Life is a complex web. Claim: our immigration policies influence the price of oranges…can you puzzle out why?

The thing about politics is that it permeates life in subtle ways. In the US, we are lucky because political decisions don’t often lead to obvious shortages of essentials or the disappearance of dissenters (we don’t have camps where we hold people prisoner, or do we?). It’s naïve to believe that everything from our wallets to privacy or marriage to jail terms are not shaped by the decisions our legislators, judges, and political leaders make.

My point is simply that your opinion matters. Make yourself heard and go vote. Take part in democracy. Be a citizen of the US and go vote. Go vote because it’s what you should do. Go vote because it’s what others are doing. Go vote because you can. Go vote because your country needs you to vote. Go vote.

Golden Leaves and Golden Sun

Autumn in Vermont is like a pendulum; it swings between cold rainy days and bright sun that reflects off the yellow, orange, red, and brown leaves soon to fall off the trees. The damp days and frost-laced evenings are a prelude to the winter soon to come. The strong sun on the loveliest days of October is not only a reflection of the summer just past, but also particularly appealing because it contrasts with the brisk wind and cool damp air inherit of autumn.

Earlier this October when the sun looked like a flood of gold as it reflected off the hills, I set out with a friend on an easy, wandering hike through the woods, past beaver dams, and up the tame slopes of a hill with an outstanding view. The shade and wind carried the hint of frost, but the sunlight danced so joyfully through the birch, beech, and maple leaves that I didn’t feel cold while wearing only a light jacket. The pleasantness of the day penetrated through my slight haze. The previous weeks had been a whirlwind of adventure, topped off by working the night shift the night before our hike and running a half marathon with my sister two days earlier. But, as we parked the car and started walking I didn’t feel tired. My mate had kicked in and the day was too charming to pass inside. There’s something about the woods in Vermont…they recharge me more than anywhere else. [Text continues after image.]

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I grew up in Vermont, but moved to the city for college and work and then moved abroad. I’ve been back a few years, enjoying the time until more schooling picks my next home. I imagine, just as I did as a new adult, I have more city turns and many places to live before I sleep for good. I imagine many of those places will be about as different and as far from Vermont as possible on our small planet. While I never really miss the Green Mountain State in its entirety, when I live elsewhere I periodically find myself aching for the quiet woods that always awaits me here.

The woods in the fall are my favorite. Fall is my favorite season in Vermont for its smells—piles of leaves, apple cider, wood smoke, and pumpkin baked goods—and perfect temperatures. The leaves already fallen rustle underfoot and the tangy, earthy smell of the soil and crisp foliage tingles your nose in an only pleasant way. The natural world is getting ready for sleep and a long stretch of harsh weather. The chipmunks and squirrels are in overdrive, jumping about like bunnies with cheeks full of nuts. Wild apples, acorns, cherries, and berries adorn the trees, weighing the branches down and feeding the deer and other woods dwellers. There’s an influx of geese and other migrating birds—their flocks fill the ponds and trees and raise a chorus of excited chatter about their long journey south.

The forests of Vermont aren’t epic like those of California and Washington state. They aren’t misty, exotic, and lavish like the Amazon or the jungles of Central America and Africa. Nor are they tangled and concealing large snakes, jaguars, and anteaters like the forests in Paraguay. In contrast, it’s their humble scale and unassuming beauty that brings thoughts of the Vermont woods, my childhood haunts, to me when I’ve spent too long away. I always know when those thoughts percolate it’s time to visit.

My friend and I paused on the hilltop to enjoy the view and take in a few golden rays before our descent back into the forest. I sat, knees pulled up against my chest, and gazed out over the rolling patchwork of gold, green, and bronze. The stone face on which I sat was slightly warm thanks to the sun. We were shielded from the breeze. No one else was around. There was a quiet that’s forgotten even in the smallest of towns. The calm was a relief after the rush of work in a hospital and traveling for medical school interviews—places full of complicated thoughts and human interaction. In those moments on the hill, I was thankful for the forest. I also felt a pang of bitterness about the cold winter soon to come, but I know (as I’ve said before) that the cold is one thing that keeps people from flooding Vermont. And, anything that keeps the autumn woods here quiet so I can sneak away and meditate on life’s challenges is welcome.

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English Social Vocabulary Cramps My Style

While I can bore you with a VERY long laundry list of why I love speaking Spanish more than English—especially the Guaraní-Spanish mix (called “jopara”) spoken in Paraguay—I won’t. There’s one term, however, above all the other turns of phrase that I still (years after returning to the US) struggle without. The term is “guapa” (“guapo” for males).

In the Paraguayan context, “guapa” means hardworking. It’s a compliment that’s dished out like gravy at Thanksgiving—in copious amounts and without restraint. If you show up at a friend’s house, you’re “guapa.” If you do the dishes, clear the dishes, or help in any minor way, you’re guapa. If you study like crazy, you’re guapa. If you work long hours, you’re guapa. If you remember someone’s birthday, you’re guapa. If you take two seconds do to anything for anyone else, you’re guapa.

Despite its prevalence and low-barrier for use, I think “guapa” is the most wonderful term. Why? Because it promotes a spirit of teamwork. The word builds into social culture an easy way to constantly appreciate others for their contributions to the wellbeing of the whole. Anyone can be guapa and multiple people can be guapa at once because the more guapa-ness there is the better off everyone ends up.

In my workplace and social spaces, I’ve tried to substitute in English words for “guapa.” “Rocks star,” “champion,” and “genius” are among my favorites, but none of these words hold the shared meaning that “guapa” does in Paraguay. In Paraguay, when you call someone “guapa” it as if you’re saying, “Not only do I notice that thing you’re doing, but also I appreciate both the outcome of your action and you for making it happen.”

In the US, we are busy. In the US, we have high standards. Why the heck don’t we have a word whose sole purpose is to cheer on our colleagues, friends, and family as they undertake their daily adventures? Sometimes I wonder if it comes down to our emphasis on individualism. But, in my mind, even the strongest individual required a village to reach their full potential. I believe we (American English speakers) do more harm than good not having a term to thank folks for all their small acts that make our lives a tad bit brighter each day. “Guapa” makes appreciation a natural part of interaction, not something done out of obligation or because it improves outcomes. I miss being able to use “guapa.” I miss the community feeling words like “guapa” create.