Saturday, July 01, 2006


When I was a child, my favorite magazine was the now defunct Omni. As a repository of science fact, science fiction, and the occasional foray deep into questionable scientific ventures like ufology and cryptozoology, it, along with Scientific American and 3-2-1 Contact, served as the template for my dreams.


On the way to buy coffee, I started thinking about the barista at the store we frequent. He's slightly older than myself and scheduled for exploratory surgery over the weekend. Quickly, he is learning how heavy a word like malignant might feel or how light the word benign can be. I hope he isn't forced to twist his tongue around words like "cyclophosphamide" or "doxorubicin."


I never read fiction as a child, even though I remember countless hours at the local library under my father’s watch. I always wandered to the non-fiction section of children's books and perused the wildlife sections—focusing inevitably on the section reserved for snakes. Freudians might have you believe this had something to do with sex. Personally, I wonder how Freud could have failed to notice the endless fascination most young boys have with those creatures that make their parents squirm. Perhaps, my obsession had more to do with learning to face fear.


After a fairly long conversation with the barista, where I offered the best platitudes I could manage and did my best, simply, to listen, the conversation followed a trail of cigarette smoke back to his days in college. Cigarettes were sold in the cafeteria. He'd studied International Relations, but money ran dry a semester short of graduating. I told him he should finish—take a year of evening classes at one of the schools around here, then look for a sales job.


One day, when there were still swings on the set behind the brick apartment complex where I grew up, I sat on one of those blue plastic swings talking to my friend. We were, I assured him, going to be scientists. We could work in the same lab. But we both needed to study hard. I was, I think, 11.

He's an electrician now. I'm a writer.


On the way home, I thought about the barista again, stung a bit by his absence—even though I expected it today. He was having surgery. The lump on his shoulder was biopsied. The spot on his chest will be the subject of a CT scan in a few days.

I drove the usual route home, singing along to a pop song, and smoking another cigarette. I'm not certain when I decided to become a doctor, but I know when I changed my mind. I dropped chemistry my first semester of college. I just couldn't understand basic solution chemistry.


In fleeting moments, I wonder how much longer it would be even vaguely feasible to take the MCAT and apply to medical school. I wonder what life was like for William Carlos Williams, and if he thought, even for a moment, that the aims of his two professions are sometimes the same: to help us with our fears and to comfort us when no help can be had.


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