Sunday, June 29, 2014

“Stop reading and start writing!”

“Stop reading and start writing!” said my senior dissertation adviser on, I think, two occasions. So I did. He was trying to snap me out of the graduate-student dilemma of being a few years (or sometimes decades) behind in knowledge of the literature in one’s academic field. Why won’t other scholars stop publishing, at least until we catch up? One of the hardest lessons of graduate school is that you cannot read everything—even everything that you “should” read. When it comes to writing the dissertation, it is better to stop procrastinating by reading “just one more” book or article that contains someone else’s position on the subject and articulate your own position. The only time I relapsed into reading secondary sources was when I needed to know something factual (e.g. how working-class European families organized meals) or when I wanted to remind myself about a particular historian’s position, so that I could argue against it (e.g. that communal kitchens were unpopular and unsuccessful). Three years later, I had completed, defended, and deposited more than 300 pages of prose on the merging of science and politics in the rationing systems of World War I-era Germany. And I had stopped reading.

The weekend before graduation, I attended the annual conference of my professional organization, the American Association of the History of Medicine. During one of the keynote talks, which involved “shout-outs” to numerous well-known historians of medicine, I realized that I had managed to get through a decade of graduate education without having read some key texts in medical history. Granted, many of these cover American topics and so are not directly relevant to my own work, but being a medical humanist in the US, it is easier to talk to one’s clinical colleagues about our shared national medical history. So I promised myself that I would read one book in the history of medicine every month until I graduate from medical school. So far that has meant a few pages here and there at night before falling asleep, and many pages in airports and on planes while traveling one weekend. Although, now that Dear Husband and I have started preparing for the 32-week-long Disciple I Bible study together at bedtime, I may have to block off another time when I am not in clinic or studying for exams to recover this crucial bit of my identity and intellectual life.

In June I read Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris, by Asti Hustvedt. Written for the general reading public, Medical Muses describes in detail the lives and medical cases of three women made famous at Jean-Martin Charcot’s psychiatric hospital in Paris: Blanche, Augustine, and Geneviève. In the 1870s and 1880s, Charcot developed a theory of hysteria involving epileptic “fits,” catatonic poses, hypnotism, promiscuity, confabulation, and insensitivity to pain. Hustvedt attempts to recover these women’s lives before and after their incarcerations at the Salpêtrière and to show how they still had some autonomy over their symptoms and representations, despite the fact that Charcot literally displayed his favorite patients like circus animals, opening the lecture hall on Tuesday afternoons for demonstrations of their symptoms. Hysteria was a leading medical theory until Charcot’s death in 1892, when it was quickly swept under the rug of medical misadventures. He is still remembered for Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease and other neurological and medical phenomena. For someone who is not trained as a medical historian, Husvedt does an admirable job explaining the social and medical contexts as well as the various images of the three beautiful, afflicted women.

Friday, June 20, 2014

What Medical School Looks Like

Sometimes medical school looks like studying cardiology with rhubarb pie and a raspberry French soda.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

What My Parents Taught Me

This is a combined Mother's and Father's Day post, because Mother's Day weekend I was in Chicago for a conference and my Father's Day card will go in the mail on Monday...

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived
first in your grandmother, Lois and your mother 
and now, I am sure lives in you. ~2 Timothy 1:5
At the beginning of May, the United Methodist Women (UMW) of my church got together for dinner and an evening program. We were each invited to bring a photograph or object that reminded us of a woman who had impacted our faith. Most brought a picture of their mothers. When it was my turn, I held up a checkbook and a pen. As a girl, I was always impressed by my mother's ability to hold a short but pleasant conversation with the check-out person at the grocery store on Saturday mornings. Perhaps it seems odd that someone who gives papers at academic conferences and writes a semi-public blog can't talk to store clerks, but I have had to consciously work at small talk with the people I run into in my daily life. I have long wondered whether that is because I have a poor theory of mind, but regardless, my mother has consistently demonstrated that all persons are worthy of kindness and attention. And for that, I honor her.

I think it was a Berenstein Bears book, but I don't
seem to have any of those. Here are some of my
other childhood books: Island Boy, Where the Wild
Things Are
, and What the Sea Left Behind.
Speaking of giving papers at academic conferences, I credit my father with teaching me how to read aloud. This skill is not intuitive, as you may have guessed from listening to a reader at a wedding speed-reading through a passage, or maybe from your own public reading/speaking experience. When I was 8 or 9 years old, my father sat me in a chair while he cooked dinner, and had me read aloud to him. "Short pause for a comma, long pause for a period. Don't go too fast!" This advice and practice came in good stead through years of school reading aloud in both English and German, during church services, and later professional presentations. (I've also remembered what my maternal grandfather recommended, who was an English professor: Read more slowly than you think you need to, and it will probably still be too fast!) I am touched that my father cared to teach me this skill, and for that I honor him.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Hop on Over to the Beef House

A group of us went out for dinner at an "Illiana" (Illinois + Indiana) institution: the Beef House. While their name is all about the meat, their URL reveals what else they are famous for: large, yeasty rolls. The restaurant also has distinctive decorations: stained-glass cows at the entrance, and Delft porcelain around the walls. There's even a large, random, fiberglass giraffe painted in a "southwest" theme outside (left).

Dinner comes with a basket of rolls, soup, the salad bar, and a choice of potato. Among the five of us, we tried the black bean soup (delicious), broccoli and cheese (not too salty), and corn chowder (perhaps a little more pepper than if I were making it). Clam chowder was yet another option.

The salad bar includes a satisfactory array of mixed salads (potato, bean, peas, etc), jellos, and of course veggies. Dear Husband has truly been converted: he pointed out that the lettuce was all iceberg with a little Romaine; some spinach would have been nice. One person in our group encountered Catalina dressing for the first time.

As for the rolls, they were impressively large--and, I thought, underdone. Mine was a bit damp inside. Each basket comes with strawberry jam (very sweet) and apple butter (just right). The rolls, jam, and apple butter can all be purchased at select stores.

As for dinner, the others sampled a variety of steaks and filets, while I decided to try the frog legs. In a steak house, I know. But I'd never had them before, and I'm a believer in adventurousness when eating out. The appetizer plate was more than enough, with eight breaded and fried legs in butter sauce. The batter was good, the leg meat white and thin, and it all tasted of the lemon juice I had squeezed over it. I ate half the batch and took the rest home for lunch. DH, meanwhile, serenaded me with lines from "The Rainbow Connection." "It's tough being green!" he accused.

We were too full for dessert, so we can't say anything about that part of the menu. But we agreed the Beef House is worth the drive for a special occasion, whether that is a birthday, an anniversary, or just hanging out with some of your favorite fellow stargazers.