Month: September 2016

Joan.

Joan Didion

I can’t quite remember how I came across Joan Didion. I think I saw reference to her packing list from The White Album featured in Vogue, reverently displayed as some kind of gospel of chic, because Joan has always been viewed by the critics as the pinnacle of disaffected-cool fashion.  Here’s part of it:

TO PACK AND WEAR:
2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
stockings
bra
nightgown, robe, slippers
cigarettes
bourbon

There was something so attractively minimalist, yet at the same time so subversive (the bourbon, later in the list there’s a typewriter), that I couldn’t help but look her up.  And so I read The Year of Magical Thinking, the devastating novel where she processes her husbands death in her strange, descriptive, pragmatic and stepwise style (I can’t bring myself to read Blue Nights), and was fascinated.  Her prose is perfect.  I’d never come across a style so technically perfect as hers.  And yet her constant peppering of high-end brands and name-dropping seemed to grate against something like the loss of her husband.  It irritated me, but I couldn’t stop reading.  It’s this name-dropping that has led her to be labelled a ‘perennial insider’ by critics for years.  Someone who doesn’t understand the masses, the middle classes.  And then I read The White Album just recently, and realised that it’s not that at all.

Joan and I have something in common.  In her work as a journalist, she was privvy to the worst of humanity, the most meaningless of bureaucracy, and the most narcissistic of human taste.  In my work as a doctor, I am privvy to the worst of humanity, the most meaningless of bureaucracy, and the most narcissistic of human taste.  And I understand how, when you intertwine those concepts together, they grate.  Because they are jarringly and nonsensically in opposition with each other, with our values, and our innate humanity.  And now I can’t get enough of her work.

The White Album is a collection of works that she’d previously had published in various magazines like Life and Esquire, and as a collection they are a jarring discourse on America in a transformative time.  Her critics have a lot to say about her, she seems to irritate them and I like to think that she likes that.  I highly recommend The White Album and The Year of Magical Thinking, I’ll probably follow this up with a list of her other books when I’ve read them!

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Put your thing down, flip it, and reverse it.

It’s been a long time once again since I’ve blogged, and it’s been longer still since I’ve had the time to really think about what I want to write.  The past five or so years, from day one of internship has been insane.  So many milestones crammed into such a short space of time, peppered with happiness and tragedy.  Now, finally, I’ve come screeching to a near-halt.  A slow drift.

I went part time.  We bought a house.  We moved into the house and now I find myself a regular Bunnings visitor.  I leave work on time because the daycare charges by the minute if I’m not there but more importantly, the guilt kills me.  I suppose that’s what the men at the top mean when they say things like ‘woman can’t focus on their work once they have children’.  What they mean is that ‘women can’t prioritise me 100% anymore”, but I digress.

When you’re used to insane hours, when you’re neck deep in the cult of public hospital medicine, you don’t see it for what it is.  You think there’s something wrong with the people who leave on time.  Something wrong with the people who pick the ‘softer’ specialties.  They don’t have what it takes, they have must have pissed someone off.  The whole idea of crafting your work around your life is nonsensical.  It can’t be done.

In August last year I had a phone call.  The person at the other end of the phone wanted to hire me.  They were interstate, and they wanted to hire me.  My bosses had given glowing references.  My resume was sharp, if noncommittal.  I was reserved on the phone.  I’d been burned by too many heads of departments droning on about competitive it was, how I should ‘throw my hat into the ring’ (a term you hear not infrequently, year after year), how I was competing with the best of the best, and oh my goodness, you want to, job share?!.  Then the usual backtracking over how they support job-sharing but they’ve never done it before and how would it work, how would I make it work, how would I do all the work for them.  I was tired.  I was more tired than I’d been in my life.  I couldn’t blaze any more paths.

The person at the end of the phone sensed my reticence.  They could tell I’d long lost interest in prestige, or dollars, or any of the other pots of gold that the medicine rainbow allegedly offered.  Sensing this, they said magical words I’d never heard uttered in medicine.  Their passion, they told me, was supporting parents with young children through training.  They rattled off a list of things they did and did not want horribly sleep deprived parents doing, and how they had medical workforce on board with this, and that they would arrange my shifts however I wanted.  I was shocked.  I’d never heard of this in medicine before.  Even GP training, that oasis of family-friendliness that calls us all, is suffering from corporate-owned interests impeding on that.  And there it was.  I told the person on the other end of the phone that if they were serious, then I was serious, and I’d be on a plane immediately if they wanted me to be.

Here I am.  Part time, with my roster well controlled and not overloaded.  Surrounded by supportive consultants.  In my own home that I own.  I planted daisies and pelargonium today.  My mother was horrified that I didn’t just get a cutting of the latter, that I’d paid actual money for it, but I pointed out I’d not seen that particular shade of rose-tinted fuchsia in anyones front yard, and that I could grow this one up and take cuttings of it anyway.  The daisies are my toddlers favourite.

The more I tread into that misty territory no one in medicine believes is real, the more I realise that the whole culture of medicine, the whole break-em-down-and-build-em up mentality, the whole, you-must-work-at-150%-all-of-the-time-and-families-have-to-work-around-us schtick, is nothing more than entrenched ideology at it’s finest.  At the same time, I was forged in those fires.  My references, the amazing feedback I’m getting, was built in that culture and I can’t help but respect it.  But at some point, something should give.  6 years out, I get to rest now.  Some people don’t, they push on through that fire, develop skills I could never dream to for so many reasons and they have my admiration.

And as I find my way in this new land, I find myself finally loving my work, my patients, and my colleagues.  As the burnout lifts, I emerge, finally myself in a field where your identity so often evaporates into the thousands of hours spent learning through fire.

In the words of my favourite blogger, we are through the looking glass people.