Death in Life

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One can have a pulse, breath in the lungs, eyes that see, ears that hear, and a mouth that mutters nonsense when required… and still be considered dead, Dead, DEAD.

As Ray Bradbury says in his poem, “Doing Is Being,” “To not do is to die…” And I have found myself reflecting over the past few months on the crux of G. K. Chesterton’s Manalive:

His principle can be quite simply stated: he refuses to die while he is still alive. He seeks to remind himself, by every electric shock to the intellect, that he is still a man alive, walking on two legs around the world.

A writer who writes not is dead. And I’ve been on the deadish side of the lively scale for quite some time.

Not that I have ceased writing completely. It has dwindled. I have a productive day and I rejoice loudly, only to be followed by another span of unproductivity. The flow was constant once, long ago, and it absolutely flourished. But life goes through various changes and stages. We grow befuddled. Still, one must prioritize. One must plan and schedule. I am well aware of my shortcomings. And I know this is a struggle for many writers.

To quote Bradbury again, “Not to write, for many of us, is to die.”

I tend to agree.

Life is a strange thing. It isn’t always lively. Sometimes life slinks off into the corner to whimper. We must be disciplined. We must do. We must live.

Sometimes that is difficult. Painfully difficult. Life flings many sharp-edged rocks at us. Sickness. Loss. Fears. All sorts of distractions and depressive monsters that leave you stunned, overwhelmed, and sometimes empty, loud demands that beg immediate attention, making our whispered loves and preferred inclinations shuffle dejectedly aside…

Once the storm is gone and you pause, realizing you’ve been inert for much too long, you must come back to life. It takes effort. But it must be done.

And to create is a big help. Be it art, photography, music, or writing, it is always good to create.

It’s time to stop thinking about it, dreaming about it, reading about it, and reminiscing about it. Pick up the pen and let it be a constant companion once again.

It’s time to stop being dead.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’m Back.

You can stare at a blank page for hours and get no ideas, no thoughts… But if you start writing one little thought and hold on tight, it will spark others, and all the little thoughts will branch out into such an overwhelming mess of creativity that you’ll wonder why you had such a difficult time writing in the first place. Once you get in the habit of writing, it will be hard to set your pen aside. Once you cease, your thoughts will dry up. Don’t ever stop.

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…so I haven’t posted anything here since 2014. It’s been a while. Does that necessarily mean this blog is dead? Absolutely not. It only went dormant for a few winks. (Much like myself, so it feels.)

Thank you to those who stopped by in my absence, and to those who have commented recently (what a pleasant surprise), thank you for reminding me of the existence of this little blog.

I might focus more on the art and craft of writing than on medicine in posts to come as my medical enthusiasm has mellowed somewhat, but who knows? Some things cannot be determined or predicted.

 

 

Of Reading Over the Writer’s Shoulder

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The following is another one of my random thoughts from one of my [many] journals, not initially intended for a public audience, but after reflection I thought some folks might be able to relate to it.

And although I do not like any one to look over my shoulder while I write — it disconcerts me somehow…”  — George MacDonald, Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood

To look over a person’s shoulder as he or she writes is the closest one can get to peering in at the working thoughts of one’s mind. This is why, even if the written words are not of a personal nature, it is felt as such an intrusion. It could even be viewed as an invasion — to say “Stop looking over my shoulder” is really no different from crying out in exasperation, “Would you please get out of my head?”

I’m sure some people wouldn’t mind having extra company in their heads and would welcome all the audience they can get. That’s very nice of them, but I also think that may be a bit of a vanity. As for me, such behavior makes me want to wash out my cranium with insect repellent. Or carbolic acid. Whichever is handier.

I understand it can be a temptation difficult to resist. Imagine being given the chance to read over your favorite writer’s shoulder. Now imagine that author spilling his or her wrath upon you. Please, just be patient and wait for the finished product.

George MacDonald says, "Back off, please."

George MacDonald says, “Back off, please.”

And to get back to the George MacDonald quotation, he goes on to say, “…yet the moment the sheet is finished and flung on the heap, it is her property, as the print, reader, is yours.” My translation is, once it is finished (and polished and revised and presentable) you may read it. But to read during the process is to induce cringes and annoyance and will cloud if not totally destroy the writer’s train of thought. The quality of writing may deteriorate if the process does not cease altogether.

Part of the pain of having greedy eyes follow your self-conscious pen may even date back to school, when teachers mercilessly march about the room, burning their eyes upon papers as students scribble feverishly away because they have the sadistic authority to do so. It scares the assignment at hand straight out of their heads and replaces scholarly musings with frantic thoughts like, “What is she thinking?” or “What I’m writing must be terrible!” or even “Would you just go away and stop breathing down my back?!” (I was a silent, sullen child, whose thoughts were most often of the latter variety when in such a situation.) I’m so thankful that my school days are now behind me.

I don’t consider writing to be a social activity. I don’t see how it could be… but I’m sure those who are phobic of independence will try to find a way to alter that. Meddlers. But don’t fret. The point of writing (one of the many points, rather) is to have a work read by others. So don’t worry. You’ll have your chance to read it. Just be patient — and wait for me to finish!

–originally written January 17, 2014

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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The following picture is part of an advertisement for a “new” medical text in the back of Calvin Cutter’s A Treatise on Anatomy, Physiology, and Hygiene: Designed for Colleges, Academies, and Families, a book from 1855 that I scooped up at a used  book sale a couple years ago, found under the mysterious heading “GENERAL” (because, curiously, the good medical books are never categorized under “medicine” at these sales):

STUDYME

I find this both amusing and interesting at the same time. “STUDY ME,” it states, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” With his finger thrust authoritatively in the air, and decently clothed (not prancing about in exposed muscles, bones, and sinews as people often appear in medical texts), this little boy’s method of calling young scholars to educate themselves about human anatomy is fittingly stern (got to love the all-caps) yet subtle… and refreshingly modest. It is also religious.

My only annoyance is that it doesn’t attribute that it is a Biblical quotation, for it comes from Psalm 139:4. In full, it is, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (NIV) However, I doubt a reference would have been necessary in the 1850s, in the days before reading Bibles in schools raised disapproving brows…

We ought to be educated about anatomy — in spite of any fear it might bring forth — because we truly are fearfully and wonderfully made. When considering how little we truly know about how we are made, how we function, and how we fall apart, we are fearfully made. Yes — we know a great deal more than we did two-hundred years ago. I feel we often need to be reminded that we still have a great deal to learn. One cannot forget how many consider anatomy fearful in the grotesque sense. I was a member of that crowd for many years. But the more one learns, the easier it is to cast the shivers and cringes aside and appreciate our admirable mechanics. And we are wonderfully made in terms of how intricate, sturdy, and complex the human form is. We are more resilient than you may think — and yet so delicate at the same time. No mortal man could conjure anything as amazing as what God has wrought.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made — and not one breath, swallow, blink, or twitch of the finger is to be taken for granted. To be educated of such matters is to better appreciate some of God’s finest work.

And I’m happy to have that little fellow from 1855 remind me of that which I should not need to be reminded… But we’re woefully forgetful creatures.

Of Nineteenth-Century Hiccup “Cures”

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When I’m in a public place, I find that I have to restrain myself when I encounter a person I’m unacquainted with who is suffering from a stubborn bout of hiccups.

I’d love to say, “Poor thing, it appears you’re suffering from a case of synchronous diaphragmatic flutter!” I’ve tried it on family members. It scares them right away (the hiccups, not my kin). But I know better than to scare unsuspecting random mothers out of their wits when their young children sporadically pop in the air making ridiculous hic! noises every few seconds. That would be very naughty of me, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s tempting.

Synchronous diaphragmatic flutter is actually nothing other than hiccups or hiccough in medical lingo. It is also known as singultus, that being the Latin terminology. I like to call it the curse of the wobbly diaphragm from time to time. However, I think I enjoy German word, Schluckauf, even more.

It’s indisputable that hiccups are nuisances. We all know the basic cures. Hold your breath. Gulp cold water at top speed or in various ridiculous positions. Startle the hiccup victim senseless. I always found sugar to be the most effective cure; however, my high school biology teacher swore that drinking water while holding your ears and nose closed was the one-and-only true method. It worked like a wonder for a little while. I still prefer sugar.

I’ve read somewhere that Hippocrates recommended sneezing as a cure for hiccups. I wonder how many people can do that on command.

But what was done for hiccups in the 1800s? I did my best finding off-the-wall treatments. Most books I found only mentioned hiccups as symptoms for ailments, but few said what to do about the hiccups themselves. I did come across the old water-guzzling, sugar-dissolving, breath-holding, scare-the-patient standbys.

In Our Home Physician (1873), George Miller Beard also suggests swallowing vinegar or lemon juice, and goes on to say, “…when it occurs after a full meal, everybody* knows that a little brandy generally puts it to a stop.” Count me out of that everybody. For hiccups accompanied by fever or inflammatory diseases, Beard recommends “opium, henbane, and similar narcotic medicines.”** Opium, needless to say, had many purposes in those days, and this suggestion did not surprise me in the least.

And then there’s good ol’ Dr. Gunn. I came across a digital edition of Gunn’s New Domestic Physician from 1861, which I thought I would compare with my tangible copy of Dr. Gunn’s Household Physician from 1901 (the two-hundred and tenth edition, revised and enlarged — oh, how I love this book, for it is a source of endless entertainment). The two books are very similar, but after so many editions, a few changes are inevitable — even in regard to hiccups.

The 1861 edition includes my favorite sugary method, the strict “‘nine swallows’ of cold water, taken without breathing”, fennel seed tea, compound spirits of lavender, anise, castor oil and spirits of turpentine, mustard drafts applied to the stomach and abdomen, sweet oil and fresh milk (if the hiccups come from poison, which happens to the best of us), warm baths, peppermint with sulphuric acid, tincture of musk and tincture of hyoscyamus (if nervousness if the culprit), and, the biggest eye-opener (or eye-shutter), “Inhaling chloroform will also be good.” That single sentence stands out to me. He does not elaborate any further. Not in the 1861 edition, that is.

...I'm sorry, but I couldn't resist this image here.

…I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist this image here.

Forty years later in the two-hundred and tenth edition, it is no longer necessary to take nine swallows of water, or any specific number at that. All of his other cures still apply. However, he has more to say about the chloroform: “It may be necessary to completely anaesthetize the patient with Chloroform or Ether.”*** In other words, just knock ’em out full-force. The fact that this is a “household guide” both amuses and frightens me.

I’ll stick with the sugar.

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*My emphasis.

**Please, please, PLEASE do not exercise these methods — they are listed for historical amusement only.

***The same applies with chloroform and ether. Please refrain from this “cure.”

Of Those Unmatchably Comical Victorians

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I was tickled by a claim I read last night that was penned in 1840 by Percival Leigh in his introduction to The Comic Latin Grammar. He says that the Victorian Age ought to be known as the “Age of Comicality,” and that:

…it is only of late years that the ludicrous capabilities of the human mind have expanded in their fullest vigour. Comicality has heretofore been evinced only, as it were, in isolated sparks and flashes, instead of that full blaze of meridian splendour which now pervades the entire mechanism of society, and illuminates all the transactions of life.

Wow. What a mighty claim to smother all the chuckles that have ever been let out in all earlier periods of history, and how delightful it must be to view the world in… such a roaring blaze of comicality? But then again, considering this noble portrait by John Leech of the author, I doubt this fellow is capable of looking at life from a serious perspective.

The one and only... Percival Leech.

The one and only… Percival Leigh, shown here as an ever-smiling victim of static electricity… or simply a benevolent magister.

It also doesn’t surprise me that Leigh left the medical profession to favor writing. And not any writing. He was drawn towards the mighty art of comic writing. Not to mention that he wrote for Punch.

So, what of this claim that the Victorians out-sillied all buffoons that preceded them? I should repeat that was made early on in the Victorian era — in 1840. I also think it was a pretty good prediction, because the Victorians, as I see them, were a very silly people. Some may stereotypically view the Victorians as stuffy or dour, but I strongly beg to differ. They amuse me to no end. I don’t think I could devote so much time to the 19th century as opposed to any other if it were to be devoid of silliness. That would be no fun at all.

For an example of their silliness, consider Obaysch the hippo. He arrived in the London Zoo in 1850, produced a total mania, a plethora of senseless merchandise, immense crowds that would send me into a state of total panic, and, most importantly, he inspired a dance:  The Hippopotamus Polka.

The cover of the Hippopotamus Polka. The unlik...

A very dapper hippo, indeed.

Such are the fruits of a comical society.

Velocipedomania was another comical occurrence, concerning various breeds of multi- or uni- wheeled, pedal-powered vehicles, which people today blandly refer to as bicycles. Ah, the rich variety of velocipedes never ceases to amuse me! Ever perused through The Velocipede: Its Past, Its Present, & Its Future by Joseph Firth Bottomley? You ought to. I’m sure you’d agree with me. Percival Leigh calls hot air balloons and railroads funny, but I say velocipedes are funnier by far… and I am particularly fond of the monocycle, the variety in which the person rides inside the wheel. Somewhat like a gerbil.

English: Drawing of various antique bicycles, ...

A flock of velocipedes.

And then there is the one aspect of Victorian life that out-comics them all: whiskers. I don’t think it requires any explanation other than this:

English: photograph of Edward Askew Sothern as...

Edward Askew Sothern as Lord Dundreary… I dare you to deny the silliness of such a face.

Percival Leigh states, “The truth is, that people are tired of crying, and find it much more agreeable to laugh. The sublime is out of fashion; the ridiculous is in vogue.” Of course, we all know the Victorian era was not an age dominated by laughter and devoid of tears. It was a difficult time. But — they did know how to lighten up and be silly now and then. Besides, an era full of nothing but comedy would be mind-numbing to me, as much as Leigh would have enjoyed it. I need a healthy helping of both the sublime and the ridiculous in order to remain sane.

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NOTE: As for The Comic Latin Grammar itself, introduction aside, I do not recommend it if you want to learn Latin. You won’t. You might be amused by some of it if you already have some Latin under your belt, but I wouldn’t call it useful, and some of it is even offensive. If your goal is to learn a language, I can guarantee confusion if this is the resource you consult. My apologies to Mr. Leigh.