This is a bit of a departure from my usual somewhat snarky posts, or at least I hope it turns out to be such. Almost anytime I begin a post, I don't always know where it's headed, and this particular blog is no exception in that regard. Writing has always been that way for me. (Perhaps it shows in each final product, though I hope not.) Even when I was in high school and in college, I never followed the recommended format of creating an outline for what I planned to write about, and then more or less using that outline as a blueprint for my composition. I created the outline if it was required, but not until after I finished my composition. No teacher or professor ever complained, so my method must have worked out acceptably -- either that, or what the teacher or professor had to read and evaluate from my peers was so dismal that my failure to stick to an outline was the least of his or her concerns. Writing in general, and the mechanics of writing in specific, are not the strength of my generation, albeit with some very notable exceptions.
My ninth-grade English teacher, Mr. Guest, taught a poem by writer and editor Douglas Malloch. I still recall the work verbatim, though I won't anesthetize you by quoting all four stanzas here. The poem is not one of my favorites -- it's a bit trite for my tastes (which perhaps sounds odd coming from someone who admits to being a fan of the work of Dr. Suess) but still, I there's something within its content that, despite its stale overtones, has allowed it to remain lodged in some unconscious recess of my brain for the past nine years.
It starts with these lines:
If you can't be a pine at the top of the hill
Be a scrub in the valley . . . but be
The best little scrub by the side of the rill;
Be a bush if you can't be a tree.
Mr. Guest had a captivating lesson to go with these verses. He was a nature boy and a hiker, a respectable amateur photographer and videographer, and an adept user of technology before were most teachers of his time. He used his talents to create photo montages and videos captured in the wild or in not-so-wild settings in attempt to create interest in the literature he was compelled to teach us. (Why could he not imparted his skills in some of these areas with me in place of sharing this poem?) Kids of nine years ago (was it really nine years ago when I sat in the metal-and-plastic combo desk-chairs in Mr. Guest's classroom? It seems more as though it was last week.) like kids of today, were far more visual than auditory. When my parents went through school, simply telling a kid something, or maybe writing it on the board as well, sufficed as teaching. Today (and probably nine years ago as well) a literal picture at the very least is needed. A video is better than a still photograph. The real thing is better than either a still or moving picture, but such isn't always feasible.
The final stanza of the poem was:
If you can't be a highway, than just be a trail.
If you can't be a sun, be a star;
It isn't by size that you win or you fail . . .
Be the best of whatever you are!
Most of us would agree that the poem is hackneyed -- perfect for the twelve-to-seventeen-year olds (my brother and I were the twelve-year-olds in the class; the other students were sixteen or seventeen). Mr. Guest was given a somewhat fixed curriculum and was charged with exposing us to it (and with all the exposing that is reported in the media to be going on between teachers and their students i today's schools, I suppose I should consider myself most fortunate that literature and related ideas were all Mr. Guest exposed us to), so I cannot entirely place the blame upon him. We paid attention for the most part, though not on a sit-on-the-edge-of-one's-chair sort of way. Then, for most of us anyway, we promptly forgot all about Douglas Malloch's work. I allowed it drift from my conscious memory just as my classmates did, but the OCD part of my brain leaves me stuck with lines upon lines of verbatim poetry that will probably never be erased from my memory unless I develop some major form of dementia, and possibly not even then. I'll be sitting in an old-folk's home sixty-eight years from now reciting Ozymandius or something meaningless by T.. S. Eliot to an audience of a blank wall.
Something -- I think it might have been footage of a beaver building a dam I saw while channel-surfing last night -- made me think of a footage shot by Mr. Guest, and then of the poem associated with the footage. It all came back, but not in the positive "the world is yours; you just have to reach out and grab it" sort of way that Mr. Guest probably intended, but in a much darker and more burdensome sense.
Will I ever be the best I can be at anything? Right now I don't know what it is at which I might want to be the very best. I don't mean I must be better than everyone else in the world at any given thing. I wonder if I will or even can be merely the best I could ever be at any given thing. Is it possible? Do I have inside me what it takes? And how important is it, anyway? For me, is it so much more important to be the best at any single thing thatn it is to do many things appreciably well?
I play the piano very proficiently. I play the violin well. I'm learning to play the viola well. As much as I love the sound of the cello and will always play it because I love the sound so much, I'll never be the best I can be at it because the bowing action hurts my right hand. It would have been nice, perhaps, for the cello to have been that thing at which I excelled to my capacity, but it isn't going to happen. I'll have to be satisfied with getting out my cello and producing very nice sound for few minutes until it hurts my hand to play it any longer. As far as the other musical pursuits are concerned, am I taking unnecessary time away from my future profession by using them in any way other than as a casual diversion -- as perhaps a release from the stresses incurred fro practicing medicine?
Or is it medicine getting in the way of what should have been a formidable musical career? Almost no one in my musical genre (and by that, I mean percentage-wise among proficient musicians leaning toward skills in the classics; obviously someone supports himself or herself playing for late-night TV shows, working as professional accompanists, or at similar gigs) earns a decent living playing piano professionally. By this I'm referring primarily to the ubiquitous yet ill-defined concert pianists of the world. (I believe I've previously expressed my disdain for the term concert pianist. What precisely defines the term concert pianist? If a person were to hold a concert in his living room -- perhaps even charge admission and serve popcorn -- then play his or her rendition of "Chopsticks" for the audience, would that person not, technically at the very least, be a concert pianist? Few skilled pianists of the classical variety tour the world and solo at enough venues to pull in sufficient earnings to live in high-rent districts. The vast majority, however, must supplement their earnings by teaching -- usually in conjunction with a university if they're sufficiently talented as to be considered world-class artists.
And what about medicine? I haven't firmly decided upon a specialty. Should I choose something that goes along with what my dad is doing and the foundation he has built up, or should I blaze my own trail in an entirely different field of medicine, knowing just enough about what it is that he does that I can effectively supervise the employees we hire once my dad is out of the picture if my brother and cousin and I all decide on branches of medicine that have nothing to do with oncology or hematology, assuming we don't sell his business. I hate to refer to my dad's foundation as a business, but with the money it brings in, that's what it really is -- an altruistic one, but a business just the same.
And where does family comes in, if I even have one? I picture myself as someday being a mother, but is bringing children into this world the best thing to do if they're going to live in a world in which nations are at war with one another over something so basic as water? And, presuming I even find a suitable father for any children I might attempt to produce, am I a suitable vehicle for bringing children in this world? While many people struggle with more far physical and mental drawbacks than those with which I have been cursed, I have a midsection the size of the average girl of twelve years, six months. (My height is in my legs and neck.) I am aware that Warren Jeffs and his Band of Merry Pedophiles have been conceiving babies with girls approximately twelve years, six months of age, give or take a month or two, since long before I contemplated the prospect, but that, in and of itself, does not make the practice optimal.The midsection is where a baby grows. Is it fair to a baby (or babies; I'm genetically predisposed to twinning) to have to survive in such cramped quarters until birth? After the child is born, a sane person wouldn't place the child in a shoe box created to hold ballet slippers made for a five-year old. That's essentially what I would be doing to the poor baby (or babies) before it (they) was (were) born. Am I predisposing any children I might bear to inferiority?
Then, once the child is born, presuming it survives and thrives, what does a parent do? Continue to practice medicine full-time, letting hired help raise my child or children? Hope for a man who is willing to be a house-husband and is capable of doing a decent job of it? Compromise, as in practice part time. Quit practicing medicine except for the required number of hours per year to maintain licensure, hoping that my little family can live off the spouse's salary plus what I have put away until the child or children is or are old enough for me to work part-time?
How do I even survive and keep my head above water, much less pursue excellence in any way, shape, or form? The big idea of having it all is a myth.Thanks, Mr. Guest. You may have thought you were doing us a favor in teaching that little blurb that hardly qualifies as a literary work, but you've opened a can of worms where I'm concerned. Now can you please tell me how to shove the worms back inside the can and slam the lid shut before I come up with any more bleak thoughts about my future?
P.S. I can already guess Judge Alex's response: read the Desiderata. (It, too, I have committed to memory. I cannot even remember if it was intentional.)