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The Day I Went to Med School

By Chris Erskine

In April, California combs out her long, wet hair, and the hillsides turn silky and gold. I love April the way Wordsworth loved daffodils. I love L.A. the way Hemingway loved vermouth. What a place, what a country. The United States invented the nuclear bomb and Chinese chicken salad and some of the most-awful TV you could ever imagine. As a nation, we have more heart than soul. What we lack in taste, we make up for with a cantankerous cowboy spirit. Americans change too fast. We work too hard — at least those who work. Quite a work-optional system we’re building here. Envy of the world. It’s a challenge sometimes not to give up. You eventually discover that the goal is never a goal. It is to keep on truckin’, as they used to say. My buddy Roswell loves this one quote: “Knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster. Wisdom is knowing Frankenstein is really the monster.” Oh, that Roswell. He punctuates everything with a slight chuckle. Suzanne says I punctuate most sentences with some term of endearment. Morning, sunshine. What’s up, buttercup? Nice work, kiddo. Where does that fall between knowledge and wisdom? What does that say about my neediness and affinity to please? Thanks, dude. Like you don’t have issues? Meanwhile, I remain a simple man. I have barbecue sauce on my ankle and summer on my mind. I continue to be a sucker for barflies with little wisdoms, for teachers and librarians, nurses, office workers, tradesmen and architects —all the people who keep on truckin’ when they’re not even sure what the end game is. “It may be that kindness is our best audition for a worthier world,” explains writer Michael Blumenthal. Doubtful. But OK. Kindness is its own reward and all that, though it never got you a new BMW, did it? As a society, we continue to celebrate hubris and triumph far more than we celebrate basic human decency. The Los Angeles Times ran a playful (and very clever) obit the other day honoring a vile (and fictional) TV mogul, a media Frankenstein, who once told his son: “I will use your bones to make my bread.” Why do we celebrate that? Then I got my Speed-O in a bundle when media types defended the lack of sportsmanship shown by a women’s The Day I Went to Med School It’s not just pills and scans. It’s long pauses, as patients ponder their fates. basketball player. “If female athletes want to succeed like men, then they have to behave like men,” was the gist of it. Yikes. I see no future in pursuing all the worst qualities of men. I also see very little celebration of basic human decency. But glam onto this a second. Put this in your coffee and stir, stir, stir … Years ago, Keanu Reeves first came to us as an under nuanced actor who couldn’t seem to locate his own mouth. Yet, he persevered. Over time, he has made a good career in one of the toughest professions of all. By all accounts, he is a mensch, despite being dyslexic, despite being abandoned by his father at age 3 and growing up with three different stepfathers. He’s a mensch despite losing a former girlfriend in a car wreck and his best friend to a drug overdose. Paparazzi in Los Angeles once spotted him walking with a homeless man, sharing his life for hours. There’s more … about how he will wait in line in the rain for his own premieres or chat up strangers on subway trains.
Bottom line: Reeves’ life is more interesting than his movies. Despite the fame and privilege, the actor remains a very decent person, auditioning each day for a worthier world. The other day, I appeared on a panel before 200 USC med school grads. The topic: What qualities do patients appreciate most in a doctor? The two other panelists — one a successful doctor herself, the other a very articulate artist — both had serious cancer scares. I’d lost my wife. For 90 minutes, we talked about kindness, trust, capability, vulnerability and devotion. As with big movie stars, we decided that you can’t have everything till you tap into your humanity. My modest contribution was suggesting that all doctors are storytellers. They shape their patients’ lives. I also praised my late wife’s oncologist for not filling every silence in the exam room — for allowing pauses in the conversation, as we absorbed and pondered the latest results. Little silences that lingered. In those silences — in those long quiet courtesies — a poignancy ensued. The doctor had quit treating my wife’s cancer. In that moment, the doctor was treating her soul.
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First published in the Apr. 20 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.

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