Many years ago, I was fortunate to receive some advice from an incredible person named Evelyn Glennie. She is a world-class percussionist, Grammy Award winner, and she is also deaf.
We met at a time in my life when I had lots of fire but little direction. What she said is an important reminder that the paths that don't yet exist will only be created by those who are naive enough to look for something different.
I asked her why she had been able to do what she loves. Dreams are hard enough when people don't believe in you, but they're even harder when people actively believe against you.
She said that when she was younger, she wrote to composers asking them to compose music for her, a deaf percussionist, to play. She didn't realize that they would ask for money for their compositions, and she didn't have money to give.
She hand-wrote hundreds of letters and a few composers agreed to write for her, free of charge.
Later, when she was a student at the Royal Academy of Music, Evelyn wanted to perform a percussion concerto. The Royal Academy refused, arguing that there wasn't music enough to merit a percussion concerto. The rest of the orchestra wouldn't benefit from it.
She managed to convince a fellow student to compose a concerto for her, and she ended up performing it. It was the first percussion concerto of its kind performed at the Royal Academy of Music in over a century.
She said that it's important to understand that challenges like these were her opportunities. Each person gets many opportunities, but few recognize them for what they are. They see only obstacles and frustration, and they don't realize that this is their opportunity.
"We are all our own instrument," she said. "We can't take anyone else's sound, so we have to find our own. Find your own sound."
It's easy to hear these stories and feel inspired, but then when we come up against an obstacle, it's difficult to recall the lesson. It is easy to romanticize challenges like Evelyn Glennie's and see her challenges as heroic or something out of legend.
We don't see ourselves as heroic or legendary, so we don't connect the lesson with our own life. But we forget that they didn't see themselves as heroic or legendary any more than we do.
We hear a theme from a romanticized fairy tale, but it's actually practical advice for a very specific problem: when things really feel hard and you feel discouraged, that is the time to remind yourself to keep pushing forward.
What you're feeling now is the same thing that they felt. It's not romantic, it's not heroic, but it is hard, and it is the only way to do something truly original.
"Inspiring" in the title of this post is meant to be a modifier, not a predicate. </grammar geek>
I've decided I'm periodically going to post very short posts of particularly interesting or inspiring stories that happen in my Social Justice/Identity class. Here's one from today.
I'm continually impressed by the kinds of things that students bring up in my class. One particular student whose comments tend to be very insightful, was quite for a while, then finally raised his hand to speak. He had a lot of trouble articulating himeslf because he was so shaken up. After a minute spent trying to formulate his thoughts, he gave up.
Shortly after, I asked him a direct question about whether or not he thought schools should be allowed to have ethnic studies programs, and he said yes, but didn't want to expand on that. He still looked distraught.
I found him during break and asked if I could talk to him for a minute. I was worried that I had pushed him too hard, or that he was too uncomfortable, or something to that effect.
I told him that I felt worried that I had made him feel bad or uncomfortable. He shook his head and looked down, up, and around the hallway.
"It's not that, I just don't understand why people don't just get along with everybody."
Another short story:
Today, we finished watching the the documentary, Precious Knowledge. I've now seen it seven times and still get a little choked up at parts...especially while watching it with my students.
By the end of class today, half of my 1st period class was crying, and a heated discussion ensued. We looked at data on both incarceration and school drop out/graduation rates (which, as you know, is massively skewed to the disadvantage of people of color).
At one point, I paused the movie after a scene where Arizonans were burning the Mexican flag and threatening to kill Latina/os who were supporting the Tuscon Mexican American Studies Program. I asked, "What does watching this make you feel or think?". After a few minutes, I followed up with, "How would you respond in this situation and why?"
"Jump them and beat them!" was the first response, and the class agreed.
"Ok, so we jump and beat them. So now what, what's next?"
"In this situation, what's the problem here? What's the real problem that's making us mad?"
The students say that the problem is the people who are burning flags, threatening, etc., so I push them again to tell me what the real problem is: "If the real problem is the people who are doing this, we can just jump those people and the problem goes away. But if we jump them, does the problem go away?"
"No, they just get even more mad."
"So what's the real problem?"
This conversation continued for a while, and we reached the conclusion that the people who were burning flags are making us mad, but they aren't the real problem. The real problem is a belief that they hold that makes them act this way.
So, if the real problem is the belief, that's what we need to fix.
I've written and read almost exclusively non-fiction for the past... eight or nine years. But as I began my post on perspective (which I mentioned in my previous surgery update post), I realized that I would have to write an academic-article length piece to really start to touch what I wanted to say.
At the end of that post, I wrote a short metaphor that expressed how my perspective changes from major surgeries and events like them. The metaphor seemed like it had a lot of potential, so after spending some time thinking about it, I wrote a fictional parable to see if I could express the nuance and complexity in shorter form.
So I've ended up with two posts on perspective, one fiction, one non-fiction, and I've decided to merge the two.
Artists, especially writers, tend to dramatically and condescendingly frown upon those who explan the intended meaning behind their creative work. But I'm not writing any sort of "high art," nor do I have any desire to be a serious fiction writer, so I'm going to mix explanation with a "creative" story.
On perspective, generally
People who experience major health-related events often say that they have a way of, "putting things in perpective." This is true in a way, but I think that others get the wrong impression when they hear someone say this.
These experiences give us clarity, but not clarity regarding anything in particular. It gives us a lense through which we can, or often must, look at the world. But this clarity doesn't make sense of anything for us, it's up to the person to make sense of things.
This clarity does the work of cutting through the residue of worry, self-consciousness, motivation, and manipulation that builds up on the masks we use to protect ourselves from the world.
It's not important to me that my readers appreciate whatever artistry may be in this writing (mostly because there is none), but it is important to me that it gets a point across. There are a ridiculous number of points I want to get across here, so hopefully this short section will help bring some of these to light.
My writing style in academic philosophy is extremely dense but deceptively conversational. After writing this fictional piece, I realized that my default style is the same whether fiction of philosophy. I wrote this fictional piece because fiction allows authors to write a single sentence that makes a very complex point, where it would take a paragraph to make the same point in non-fiction. The context of a story provides the explanation for the point the author wants to make. So fiction can be hugely more dense than non-fiction but sound like a simple story.
I guess that's why literary analysis became a thing...
There are three main characters in this story: the old man, the performer, and the narrator. People are able to metaphorically be any one of these characters, and I am writing as the narrator. Seems like kind of a stupidly obvious thing to say as the author, but it's important to point out because authors often represent themselves as characters other than the narrator in their writing.
So, I am the narrator, and the narrator's view of the world is the one through which I try to explain my thoughts on perspective.
Perspective: A Three-Character Parable
An ornate trinket of gold and diamonds sat atop the head of the performer as she spun, deep blue silken dress and all, to the floor. The flare in her eyes seemed out of a celestial storm, and the passion in her step reminded the old man of the fiery chambers deep below the City of Steel.
His job was to maintain the flames of these subterranean caverns so that the city above could prosper. The surface environment was, of course, harsh, and the city-dwellers can make anything from fire, but nothing from ice. Though charged only with maintaining the caverns, the old man had instead worked to steadily stoke the fires from a flame, to a flare, a roar, an inferno, and beyond.
But one day each week (usually), the man visited the parlor where danced the woman with the gold and diamond headpiece, the deep blue silken dress, and the fiery eyes. It wasn't just that she performed when she wanted to. She always performed, unless she was sleeping of course: she wasn't forced into it by anyone though, it was her passion.
The old man, weary from his work, began to make his way up towards the city around ten-o’clock each Saturday morning. His destination was just below the surface, so he never saw the City of Steel, but it never came to mind either. He always tried to enjoy the trek along the way. The heat from his caverns mixed with the humidity of the soil and produced the brilliant, beautiful subterranean condensation forests.
The problem wasn't that he couldn't appreciate the beauty of the hike to the parlor: he smelled the mossy earth, breathed the cool air--so fresh that it felt as if it were alive--, and his eyes could not believe the vibrant beauty that lay out before them. He could see and appreciate it all, but it was at once beautiful and distant.
As he entered the room, he sat in his usual spot, ordered his usual drink, but with a twist of lime zest, just to mix it up. It's good to change things up.
He enjoyed his time away from the caverns because it gave him respite. For decades, after awakening each day, he set to growing the fires as big as fires can grow. There's no limit to how big a fire can be.
So each Saturday (usually), the man would come to watch the performance, often stay late into the night, and walk home half-delirious and sleep deprived.
The performer thought it was odd that people, just like the old man, came from all around to visit the parlor. The performer did not, in fact, perform anything for an audience. She thought herself a performer because, she says, as everybody knows, "to perform" means "to fulfill" or "to come true" and that is what she did.
She was a brilliant writer, painter, sometimes music producer, and she did everything you might expect someone with those talents to do. When she wrote and painted, she was too far away for an audience to see, and when she produced music, she used headphones and no one could hear. Yet people from all around came to watch her from their place in the parlor. It was fine with her since she was such a "people person."
But the audience didn't just see a regular woman writing, painting, and sometimes producing music. They saw dancing, twirling of gold and diamond, and heard incredible music. They saw a world-class show of power and talent that inspired them to keep working their hardest in their own worlds. That's why they came, and that's why the old man was there tonight.
As you might imagine, it's hard work building the flame higher and higher each day, and the man needed to see himself for what he wanted himself to be, otherwise he couldn't maintain his sort of thankless work. So he came to the parlor, where he saw the woman writing, painting, and sometimes producing music.
It's not clear how it happens, but the brilliance of the woman's otherwise uneventful writing, painting, and sometimes music production somehow transforms, in sight and sound, into a spectacular show of great elegance for the parlor patrons.
It's quite a spectacular thing to witness--the magnification of the woman's normal activities into great spectacles in the eyes of onlookers--and I only know of this great, invisible transformation because I was once in both of their places. The spectacles blur and transform the sights and sounds for the audience, so they can see what they need to see.
Now, with all this talk of spectacles, you must be wondering about them. I can’t say much about how they work or where they come from, but these spectacles look ordinary enough: wire-framed, two shiny glass ellipses held together by a small wire arch. These special spectacles are worn uniformly, by everyone in the parlor but the performer.
In much the same way that no one is ever quite sure how they arrived in a dream, no one is ever quite sure when or how they began wearing these eye pieces—I only know of them because I was once in their place.
On second thought, there was one more thing to note about the spectacles: the wire frames didn’t just rest atop the ears. In fact, they spiraled around the ears and into the wearer’s skull at a singular point. But that’s only slightly odd, and the people of the City of Steel (and Below) don’t know much of their history, so things of this nature aren’t particularly extraordinary.
In any case, as the woman performs, the audience sits silently in awe. Those who take great pleasure in amusement clap and their eyes well up with emotion. The young up-and-comers mutter back and forth about how this performance reminds them of a performer of equal stature, as they send each other links to videos and articles for later. The serious business folk look up at the performer, down at their talent analyses, take notes for improvement, and repeat until they leave. It’s important to take things seriously, no matter what your place in life.
Between sets, the audience members talk with one another, milling about. The performer approached an old man at his usual table, with his usual drink, with a twist of lime zest.
So what do you do? She asked.
Some questions, we ask for ourselves, and some questions we ask for someone else.
His response was concise, comprehensive, and impressive, and she knows what important and thankless work the caverns are. He mentioned travel, hiking, and all sorts of interesting activities. He went on and on for quite some time. He gave an interesting account of history and how we’ve come to where we are. He discussed the importance of understanding one’s own self before shaping others.
It was, by most accounts, a very interesting conversation. But the performer was not taken by it. Though he was mid-sentence, the performer reached out and lifted the old man’s spectacles.
The man immediately stopped talking. He no longer wore the spectacles, and woman with fiery eyes stared straight at him. She seemed, to him, to be a different person. The performer no longer wore an ornate dress or headpiece, only jeans and a tee shirt. It was, though, unmistakably the same person: although everything about her and the room had changed, her eyes had not.
As the performer looked into the man’s eyes, she was surprised. She did not see eyes, a nose, and a mouth, as she had expected; after all, she had only removed his spectacles. Why should anything else change? But instead of eyes staring back at her, time stopped and she saw the man’s past.
Perhaps “his past” is not quite accurate: she saw a sphere of transparent impressions that the past had left behind. The sphere of impressions surrounded and slowly swirled around the old man. She observed, and noticed that these impressions were full of people, and the old man was at the center, in constant conversation with them all. These people were real, once, but now existed only as impressions.
The performer listened and realized that the old man and his impressions were discussing how he should act, now that he was in conversation with such a unique person as this performer. The impressions swayed the man this way and that, and it became clear that he had become a master of packaging his impressions into one eloquent, savvy package, to be delivered shortly.
Time resumed, and the two continued their conversation; the man’s glasses now off, and the impressions still in view of the performer. An impression of a former friend reminded him of the importance of displaying confidence, so the man leaned back, kicked one foot up, and spread an arm out across the top of his bench seat.
An impression of an old woman looked down at him disapprovingly, and an impression of his business partner celebrated a victory in a corner below—this prompted him to pontificate upon the finer points of his current, exciting work.
The performer looked about the parlor and stood suddenly. She walked to a woman in the corner, lifted her spectacles, and saw the same. The same, but a different set of impressions. She continued this for some time, yet no one seemed to notice. She returned to the old man, still expounding his experiences and accomplishments.
His voice faded away, as did the noise of the parlor, as she observed the spectacle in front of her. The performer saw that though she had conversed with the old man, he had not reciprocated. His conversation was one amongst his impressions; she only heard the results of their conversations.
Excuse me, she blurted—not to the old man in front of her, but the one surrounded by impressions—can you tell me your name?
The impressions disappeared leaving the old man looking into the fiery eyes of the performer. He couldn’t speak; he didn’t know how. Not even his name; he didn’t know his name.
The performer smiled, expressing her vague sympathies, returned to her table, and continued to write, paint, and sometimes produce music.
It's been exactly two weeks since my most recent lung surgery, a week and a half since leaving the hospital. I've been focusing on the recovery and obviously haven't been posting.
Since my surgery two weeks ago, I've walked 38 miles, most of which has taken place in the last week. Right now I'm doing about 6 miles/day and am starting strength/mobility work with weights, resistance bands, and rope.
At my post-op appointment today, after hearing how much I've been walking, my surgeon said something to the effect of, "well, that's got to be a post-surgical record," which in reality it probably is, unfortunately...
Since starting the original surgery recovery blog four years ago, I've talked to hundreds of people around the world, and thousands have used what I've put together on the blog. When you interact with this many people in any context, patterns start to emerge. Here are the major patterns I've noticed:
- No one knows the optimal way to recover from open-chest or other serious chest surgeries (this includes doctors), because there is no medical-professional position whose job it is (yes, really), and most patients don't have the skills (not to mention the overwhelming, frightening uncertaity that comes with having major surgery for the first time) to do the research and build recovery protocols.
- People generally fall into two perspectival categories after surgery. They lead to completely different outcomes, and they are expressed implicitly when others ask them about their medical condition. We answer either, (a) "I get spontaneous pneumothoraces (collapsed lungs)," or (b) "my lung has collapsed several times."
- If you're on the wrong side of both numbers 1 and 2, you're going to have a very frustrating, resentful, and painful life...unless something changes. I say this as an observation, not a prediction or warning. Almost everyone is on the wrong side of number 1, but I'd say roughly a quarter of people who go through major surgery respond with (b) from number 2.
The problem with saying "I get spontaneous pneumothoraces," instead of, "My lung has collapsed several times," is that the first means that you identify with a pathology (an illness, dysfunction, or trauma). The second merely describes an event that happened in your life. We could analyze these two phrases semiotically, but I imagine that wouldn't be much fun for anyone but me.
The point is, it is very easy to identify with a serious pathology, because these experiences have a way of forcing all other concerns completely out of your mind. Questions people like to ask patients like, "are you nervous about the surgery?", and questions people like to ask each other like, "what would you do if you thought you were going to die," become bizarrely foreign when you know you're having major surgery.
This is admittedly an odd analogy, but those sorts of questions (when you're the one having surgery) feel the same as when people ask me, "Do you think it's cool that you're half Korean?" (yes, people ask this). It's just a bizarre question about something that never comes to mind, not offensive, just a bit of a blind but honest question. From my/this perspective, questions like this and like, "are you nervous/what would you do?" aren't bad questions, they're just aren't relevant to the person who is expected to provide an answer. They're more accurately just questions for the person asking them.
So from here, I'm going to do at least two follow up posts to this one.
- First, I'll write on perspective: how perspective is everything, what it actually means to say that perspective is everything, and what we can and can't expect perspective to do for us.
- Second, I'll post a very in-depth, comprehensive preparation and recovery protocol for people to use for major surgeries. This will be the most comprehensive guide to chest surgery prep/recovery currently in existence, and both my surgeon and pulmonologist have told me that I'm more of an expert than them on these matters...of course, I can't actually provide any sort of medical treatment or conduct surgery (thankfully), but I can tell you what works and how to do it.
Thankfully, I happen to be very well-versed on both scientific methodology and technical language, as well as compiling/synthesizing/turning it into actionable protocols. I've also come to rather deeply understand nutritional biochemistry and endocrinology over the last ~4 years, and this played a huge part in my absurdly short recovery time.
For scale: my first surgery recovery lasted roughly 6 months until I was as active as I am now (2 weeks post-op). My second surgery took roughly 2 months to get to the same spot, due to some very serious research and strict protocols. I'm not 100% recovered yet, but exactly 2 week post-op, I've beat my 2-month record, which my previous surgeon said was the fastest he'd seen in his 40 years of practice.
There are certain demands that I haven't had before that I'll have to figure out (like teaching full time, i.e., talking for 9 hours/day 5 days/week, which takes some pretty fit lungs), but I'm putting together new protocols for those challenges and am looking forward to beating my deadlines.
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This will be a short post with more to come.
This past week, roughly one week after finishing my first year of full-time teaching, my right lung collapsed. For those of you who haven't known me for more than a year, I've had lung surgery twice for the same thing on my left lung.
Long story short, I'm currently in Portland and will be having surgery again for my right side on June 19 (a few days from now). The procedure is called a pleurectomy: the surgeon removes the lining of the chest wall (pleura) in order to make the lung stick to the chest wall so it doesn't collapse again.
I needed surgery twice on my left side because the first procedure was not super aggressive (at least, as far as lung surgery standards go) and has a moderate recurrance rate. The second and much more aggressive surgery I had on my left side makes it pretty much impossible to have another collapse. The surgery I'll be having shortly on my right side is pretty much the same as my second, more aggressive surgery.
I have a very, very good thoracic surgeon who is uncommonly up-to-date on the liturature, in no small part because he's producing it: he's published 6 papers in the last 5 years, and his focus is most recently on postoperative quality of life. He's also ranked by US News and World Report as in the top 1% of thoracic surgeons in the country.
Before my second surgery, I did a ridiculous amount of research on preparation and recovery, and my surgeon/specialist were shocked at how quickly I recovered. Since then, I've learned a LOT about biochemistry, particularly pertaining to nutrition/body systems and tissue repair, so if all else goes well, I'm hopeful for a Wolverine-like recovery. It is still lung surgery though, and a lot goes into recovering from something like this.
I'll be in the hospital for several days following the surgery, and at my parents' house in Portland for several weeks. I'll literally be doing nothing but sitting, sleeping, and rehab during that time, so visitors are very welcome if you're in the area.
For those of you who follow my blog for education/philosophy/innovation related things: throughout the next several weeks I'll mostly be posting on surgery updates, major surgery prep/recovery protocols, and possibly some minimal, quasi-philosophical thoughts.
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