Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Letter 704: Ten More Days

There is never a good time to leave. Each step forward means one more piece of you left behind: in the sun-lit kitchenette where making that perfunctory morning coffee also means making decent conversation with your workmates; in the workstation where doctors and nurses share a floating benchtop dedicated to piles of thick folders, scattered stationery that often got lost under stacks of paperwork, and wonderfully aromatic takeaway Indian food on nights when everyone was craving for butter chicken and naan; in the stalwart sterility of theatre where sometimes, if you are good, the surgeon will let you stream your playlist on his bluetooth speaker over his own playlist.

Maybe there is a way of leaving that wouldn't break your heart. And if there is, will you let me in on this?

Foggy mornings on the way to work.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Letter 703: Damage Control

The hunger pangs are making their presence known, wave after wave, like tides crashing ashore. It’s 12am. I’m cold, wet, tired, and just realising I'm starting to get hungry. Barely 2 hours before, we were driving along a well-trodden highway, with a sense of familiarity that has always guided us safely through these roads in the dark of the night. We haven't been talking, because we were in a heated discussion 24 hours prior, which resulted in each of us slunking to opposite ends of the room to lick our wounds. So in the car, we were swathed in a thick blanket of silence, until we heard a loud bang immediately after we saw a suicidal kangaroo leaping out from the bushes. It was too late for the brakes to kick in, and we had no choice but to pull over and assess the damage. 

2 hours later, after huddling in the cold rain waiting for the tow truck, we're home, driving out to the nearest McDonald's for food in his car. The shock that rippled through our bodies when we discovered the horrifying blow sustained by my car 2 hours ago had, in a strange way, pulled us back together again. But we were still restrained with our conversation. Yet, he needed no verbal communication from me to know that a cheeseburger and some chicken McNuggets were what I needed.

12.30am, we're home for the second time after our Macca's run. He sets the brown paper bag on the coffee table while I make us hot, steaming mugs of cocoa. He rummages through the bag and presses a warm burger to my palm. Then, with exquisite precision, he carefully peels off the cover of the plastic container of barbeque sauce, dips a golden nugget into it, and offers it to me. We turn on the TV and eat in ravenous silence, not really paying attention to the Tour de France streaming live, and not really paying attention to each other either. When we lick the last bits of salt off our fingers and drown our last drops of cocoa, we lean back against the couch and I rest my head against his shoulder while he puts his arm around mine.

So, we're good, after all.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Letter 702: 48 Hours On-Call

It's crazy. I don't know how the last 39 hours went by so quickly, but it did. Just like I don't realise how much time I've spent in this place, learning the art of medicine, and building a reputation for myself. I took a 12 month hiatus and upon returning, I am surprised that patients still remember me. Whether they've been my regular patients or not, they still come up to me and tell me how glad they are, knowing I'm back-- even till now, 6 months upon returning. I found out that some of my regulars have not seen a doctor during my hiatus, and only returned to see me as soon as they heard I was consulting again. One of my patients, who's health has been deteriorating, said to me yesterday, at Hour 16, "You are the best doctor I've had-- you kept me going!", and it breaks my heart to have to say to her that I'm leaving-- again. This time, for good. Another semi-regular patient, who is 70 but has the feisty nature of a 16-year-old, held my hands in her tiny, wrinkled palms at Hour 35 and said, "If anyone can do it, it's you", when I told her of my career plans. It seems I have been saying goodbye to most people in the last 39 hours, and maybe that's how it will be for the coming weeks in July-- short, no-frills goodbyes after a consult, and then leave, swiftly, quietly, without looking back.

Posted at Hour 40 in the doctor's on-call room.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Letter 701: Gingerbread House

You know when you're little and you make a wish on your birthday candle and don't tell anyone your wish because if you do, it won't come true? We probably still hold on to a lot of wishes, unspoken, unshared, buried in a pile of contemplation that we accumulated at the back of our heads some time after blowing out 18 candles on our birthday cakes. There is still much to be contended about this superstition of saying your wishes out loud, because even if we'd kept mum, some wishes still won't come true, and some of them never will. 

Which is why I've stopped wishing a long, long time ago. I was always wishing, always searching, always wanting, but never finding, never having. Instead, I've learnt to live with what I have, and reach for opportunities that come my way. I don't regret every decision I made, and I hope I never will. Like every twenty-something carving their own reality, I have stumbled, fell, cried, picked myself up, and changed directions, sometimes in the opposite way to where I was initially heading. I have braved tumultuous circumstances by listening to my heart rather than my brain, and I am ever so thankful I did that.

I sometimes wonder if it's us who find what we seek, or is it the other way round? Is it us who find our friends, or do they seek us out? Do we choose our life partners, or do they pick us out from a slew of bad dates? Do we choose to embark on a certain career path, or is it our careers who select us? Because it sometimes seem to me that all that I've done has led me to deviate from my original life plans, and I end up at this particular place, this particular moment, with this particular decision of changing my career. 

My friends secretly think I'm crazy for giving up my current job stability and taking a massive paycut, but bless their kind souls, they are all equally supportive too. I'm not giving up medicine, but I'm taking on another specialty, an entirely different field in which I had no prior experience up until 18 months ago. Which means I'm back to being a registrar this coming August, albeit one with three titles after my name. It also means more studying, more exams, and the demise of the lunch break. The Other Half has been extremely supportive of my decision, which astounds me because he keeps lamenting about my unenthusiastic outlook on having kids. I think he is secretly proud of me, but in all honesty, I couldn't have done it without his endless support. As for my parents, they've adopted their usual "do whatever you want as long as you're happy" approach, which may or may not have anything to do with my being here at this junction in time and space, with a slew of decisions made from the heart trailing behind me like breadcrumbs.

It's a long road ahead, after all, and I never want to forget how I came to be.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Letter 700: A Few Words on John Green

If you know me, you'd know I'm never the sort to jump on a bandwagon for anything. I curled my hair when it was fashionable to wear it straight back in the early 2000s, was still wearing bootcut jeans when skinnies were all the rage, and read Eat, Pray, Love six years after it was published and made headlines. So when half of my Tumblr feeds were raving about The Fault in Our Stars last year, I turned an indifferent eye to it. So what if it debuted at Number One on The New York Times Bestseller list? It was on the Children's Chapter, and I'd like to think that although I was young-at-heart (still am, ahem!), I was a perhaps a lee-tle too old to be reading Children's fiction. Moreover, when I first saw it at the Books section of David Jones, it was classified under Young Adult, which further reinforced my conviction that this was not my kind of pick-me-up.

Nevertheless, I surprised myself by taking a copy off the shelf and flipping through it. Reading the synopsis at the back cover and finding the words "tumour", "terminal", "Cancer Kid Support Group", and a story that revolves around two teens which go by the name of "Hazel" and "Augustus", I put two and two together and decided: teen love + dying = one sad sorry sob romantic story = no way in Jose I was going to like it. I don't read Jodi Picoult, I don't read Nicholas Sparks, I just don't do romance or anything melodramatic. So I put it back on the shelf and decided I had better sections to browse at the departmental store. This was mid-2013.

Some time in early 2014, I was browsing at the Books section in Big W, and inevitably walked past the Teenagers/Young Adult section. At the top shelf, John Green's colorful and whimsically designed covers caught my eye, and I thought, okay, let's try this again. By then, through the incessant re-blogs on quotes from The Fault in Our Stars, I sensed that I should give this guy another chance. After all, when you come across beautifully written prose such as I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once and My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations, wouldn't you be curious as to what this writer is like? I would be, as I thought to myself when I was admiring those Tumblr re-blogs, because when I was a teenager, I sure as hell didn't find anything as beautifully written as John Green's passages in my genre. Wait, did bookstores even have a Young Adult/Teenager section during my time? Because I can only remember reading Anne Rice in my teenage years, and I'm pretty sure she wasn't writing for people my age then. 

Anyway, I picked up The Fault in Our Stars again earlier this year and read a couple of passages from the beginning. Nothing special, I thought to myself. So I put it back on the shelf again and walked to the Adult section. I was looking for reading material for my 7 hour flight back to Kuala Lumpur, and in Big W, nothing caught my eye in the Adult section because they were all commercialised pieces of indigestible works. Suppressing a long sigh, I wandered over to the Teenagers/Young Adult section again and lingered in front of John Green's works. I decided to pick a different book this time, An Abundance of Katherines, to see if it could sway me towards this young adult writer. This book contains quite a number of mathematical equations, and I was intrigued. A different style of writing, I thought. Okay, what about Paper Towns? So I perused that too and found the storyline interesting. And Looking for Alaska turned out to be about a girl named Alaska, not the state of Alaska. In the end, I thought, what the hell, it's only 12 bucks a book, and each seemed unique in their own way, might as well buy all of them as my in-flight entertainment.

Turns out that was one of the best $50 spent on 4 books. And I'm going to tell you why.


The Fault in Our Stars
Of the four books I bought, I read this one first. Mainly because I wanted to see if John Green lived up to his hype. Like I mentioned earlier, sob teen romance isn't my cup of tea. The storyline is somewhat predictable: Girl meets boy in cancer support group, falls in love, and one of them dies (obviously). I didn't like the predictability of the plot. What I loved was the way John Green has with words (and since reading this book I have realised he writes amazingly poetic passages):

- You gave me a forever within the numbered days.
- Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.
- It occurred to me that the voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and again.  
- Given the final futility of our struggle, is the fleeting jolt of meaning that art gives us valuable? Or is the only value in passing the time as comfortably as possible? What should a story seek to emulate? A ringing alarm? A call to arms? A morphine drip? Of course, like all interrogation of the universe, this line of inquiry inevitably reduces us to asking what it means to be human and whether there is a point to it all.
- Were she better, or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terribly crossed, but it is the nature of stars to cross, and never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves.”

Watch Hitler react to The Fault in Our Stars (spoiler warning).

An Abundance of Katherines
Colin Singleton is a child prodigy who loves anagrams and has a pudgy best friend by the name of Hassan. He has also been dumped 19 times, all by girls named Katherine. Frustrated, he sought to work on The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability while embarking on a road trip with Hassan, hoping to use the logic of mathematics to predict his future relationships. What I love about this book is the characters of Colin and Hassan, both written in such an adorable manner describing their quirky habits and their aloofness and their brotherly relationship with each other you couldn't help but go "awwww..." The book also has little footnotes with interesting facts, and, as mentioned, interesting mathematical formulas and graphs that were actually derived by John Green's mathematician friend Daniel Biss. Reading this book brings up images of my super nerdy prodigious cousin who was actually offered a PhD in Nuclear Engineering (offer probably drafted in equations and symbols which only smart people like him can decipher). So, if you're reading this, my dear soon-to-be-on-the-CIA-slash-FBI-watchlist cousin, this book would no doubt fascinate you endlessly. (Actually, I think it would fascinate a lot of people too-- or maybe I'm just easily amused.)

Paper Towns
The third book of John Green's that I read was a literal page-turner. Quentin and Margo have been childhood friends, with Margo being the more eccentric and mischievous of the two. The night before graduating from high school (it's a novel for Teenagers/Young Adults, after all), Margo disappears, and Quentin is sure she's left a trail of clues leading to her whereabouts, including the last one which stated she will be in a certain location for 24 hours only. So sets the pace for the story. As the mystery unravels itself, you get a sense that this book is about searching-- searching for Margo, searching for friendship, searching deep into your soul to figure out who you are, searching to understand others, and searching for the future. And it's a lesson to not just young adults, but to all of us, a reminder that amidst all the searching we do, we may sometimes never find the answers to everything.

- Look at all those cul-de-sacs, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too. 
- I don't know who she is any more, or who she was, but I need to find her.
- Or maybe I'd never find her. Was that the better fate?
- These kids, they're like tied-down helium balloons. They strain against the string and stain against it, and then something happens, and that string gets cut, and they just float away. And maybe you never see the balloon again. It lands in Canada or somethin', gets work at a restaurant, and before the balloon even notices, it's been pouring coffee in that same diner to the same sad bastards for thirty years. 
- We are now as I wished we could be then.
- Each of us starts out as a watertight vessel. And these things happen-- these people leave us, or don't love us, or don't get us, or we don't get them, and we lose and fail and hurt one another. And the vessels starts to crack open in places. But there is all this time between when the cracks start to open up and when we finally fall apart. And it's only in that time that we can see one another, because we see out of ourselves through our cracks and into others through theirs. Before that we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside.

Looking for Alaska
John Green's debut novel in 2005, and, ironically, the last of his four books I read, but perhaps secretly my favourite. It captures the whole boarding school/ teen angst scene in a very unusual manner, interjecting it with religion, literature and philosophy. Admittedly, I struggled a little in the beginning because it's been donkey years since my high school days, but ultimately, the way it is narrated won me over. It is arguably his saddest novel, even more of a tear-jerker than The Fault in Our Stars (which almost every one is aware of because it's just been released in its film adaptation). To my embarrassment, I shed a few tears towards the end (I know, right, over a teen novel), but it is no doubt my favourite among the four.

-  I must talk and you must listen, for we are engaged here in the most important pursuit in history: the search for meaning. What is the nature of being a person? What is the best way to go about being a person? How did we come to be, and what will become of us when we are no longer? 
- You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you'll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.
- I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was hurricane. 
- Suffering is universal. It’s the one thing Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims are all worried about. 
- People wanted security. They couldn't bear the idea of death being a big black nothing, couldn't bear the thought of their loved ones not existing and couldn't even imagine themselves not existing. People believed in an afterlife because they couldn't bear not to.
- So she became impulsive, scared by her inaction into perpetual action. 
- Everything that comes together falls apart. 
- (You have to read the protagonist's essay at the end of the book, I'm not giving the plot away.)


I read John Green's books without realising how many accolades he's collected for his works in the Young Adult genre. Looking for Alaska apparently won the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award (a seemingly prestigous accolade awarded annually by the American Library Association) for Best Young Adult Book of the Year, and An Abundance of Katherines made it to 2007's Honor's List alongside Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. He has been hailed by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in 2014, been called a "teen whisperer", and has amassed a legion of fans who are probably younger than me by a decade (or two, even). But you see, I didn't read John Green because of all the badges of honour he's accrued. I read John Green because he is painfully honest in his works, and addresses-- with exquisite penmenship-- some of the more profound questions we've always struggled to answer: What is the meaning of life and how do we lead honourable lives? How do we deal with love and loss?

So, John Green, thank you for engaging us in such magnificently crafted tales with splendidly delightful characters. The themes that are central to all your stories-- friendship, loyalty, love, loss, grief, family, and hope-- remind your readers what it means to be human. And for this, I think adults (not just teenagers) should read your works because in the course of growing up, most of us have forgotten how to live. To paraphrase one of the most re-blogged sentences of yours: I fell for your words the way you fall down a rabbit hole: slowly, and then all at once.