Sunday, February 19, 2012

An Argument for Staying Plugged In

It was several years ago, on a bus ride back in Brighton where I first learned the value of traveling without headphones. I found that when I'm "plugged in," I tend to miss anything interesting or notable that might be happening right around me. However, sometimes I have days where I wish, more than anything, that I had kept my headphones on.

On this particular Friday, work hadn't been great: deadlines were looming, and my team had spent every lunch our that week working on meaningless spreadsheets that would ultimately accomplish nothing other than to cause us all to fall behind on our real work.

Having lost my lunch (i.e. running) hour each day, I was in a rather sour mood by Friday. My irritableness was only slightly mollified by the fact that on that Friday evening, I was meeting a friend to run in Central Park. Unfortunately, I would be plodding along for two slow, sore loops (12 miles) of the park, while he would be whizzing by on his bike, so it wouldn't be as if I had actual company. Really, I was just using his being there as motivation to get to the park at all. Still, the prospect of running--of accomplishing something for myself in a week when I had seemed to accomplish nothing--was heartening.

Then, I got on the train.

To be fair, my PATH train ride was relatively unremarkable. The train was slightly more crowded than usual, and there were some young kids creating a bit of a ruckus, but I had my book, was in a seat, and was therefore able to relax and read all the way to 33rd Street. Once I arrived at that station, I transfered to the D train, and again, much to my surprise and delight, I was again able to find a free seat.

I had just pulled out my book and was trying to ignore the protruding elbows of the man seated to my left, when the token homeless person emerged and began to make her speech. This woman, I kid you not, could have played the evil queen in Snow White--after she turns into herself into an old hag. The skin on her face was separated into individual folds that surpassed the definition of wrinkles by being defined and lumped on top of one another. A gigantic round wart pressed out of the top right corner of her forehead, near her receding hairline, and her nose bent to the left in a way that made her look as if she was perpetually sneering.

When this woman started approaching individuals and making her speech, she was still far enough away in the car that I couldn't quite hear what she was saying. Only after she had ofended young black woman and moved closer to me did I look up and see that she was coming along my row of seats. Her voice was a sing-songy whine, chanting, "I'm thir-sty, I'm hun-gry," and she held out her hands to each person and moved her face closer and closer until they were forced to make eye contact.

When she reached the man sitting to my left, he rummaged through the bag at his feet and held out a banana. "Nah," she said, her face contorting in disgust. She moved to stand in front of me, and I stared unseeingly at my book until she moved on to the man standing against the doors at my right. To him, she said, "Can you give something? I'm thir-sty. I'm hun-gry." Then, almost as an afterthought, as she turned to walk farther down the train, she muttered, "Who's going to suck your cock?"

Luckily my stop was soon after that, and I hurried up from the murky station full of its musty and spoiled smells. I had fortuitously chosen the exit closest to my destination--the Time Life Building--and so I relaxed my gait and strolling along amidst the roiling sea of people, toward the front doors.

Suddenly, a man wearing a plaid brown scarf, black coat, and holding a leather saddlebag over his shoulders stepped in my path.

"Are you going running?"

I had changed into my running gear before leaving work, so this seemed obvious. However, I thought that maybe this man was looking for directions in or around Central Park. Maybe he was visiting from out of town. Who knew? Judging from his attire, he appeared to be on his way somewhere, so this conversation shouldn't laste more than a few seconds.

"Yes," I replied.

"That's awesome," he said. "Do you usually run in Central Park?"

"Yeah," I told him. "I'm meeting someone there in a few minutes."

"As a runner, you probably don't like to spend too much on haircuts, do you? How much would you say you usually spend on a cut?"

Now my guards were up, but I had stopped walking, and he was being so friendly and casual about this, I felt trapped.

"Uh . . . maybe thirty-five or forty dollars."

He knocked the heel of his hand against his head. "Right! Well I work for a salon right around the corner and they're doing a special for athletes. It's an all-inclusive package with a facial and some wine. . . . You're probably not so into the wine when you're training, huh?"

"Yeah, not really." I breathed a sigh of relief and got ready to keep walking. This was my easy out.

"Well do you think there will be a time when you won't be training in the next eight months?"

Here's where I should have lied. I should have told him anything: that I was a professional training for the New York Marathon, that I was allergic to alcohol, that my sister cut my hair . . . anything. The problem is, because I don't make a habit of lying, the first thing out of my mouth, especially when I'm flustered, is usually the truth.

"Yes, I mean, probably."

"So where'd you go to school?"

This change of topic caught me completely off-guard.

"Um, University of Rochester."

"Upstate! No kidding. Do you know Canandaigua?"

"Uh. . . ." I shook my head.

"Like the lake? My parents live up there."

"Oh yeah."

Yeah! Cold huh? Really hard on the skin."

"Yeah it's pretty windy. Lake effect."

"Yes! Well you're not going to believe it, but we're doing this deal for 80% off. I know," he said, as if I had just given him a look of "this is too-good-to-be-true" astonishment, "hard to believe, right?"

I smiled weakly, starting to seriously worry. If I didn't extricate myself soon, I'd probably wind up buying whatever he was offering. It had happened once before.

"So what do you think? I--"

That's when my phone rang. I fished it out of my pocket and saw A___'s number on the screen. Smiling with relief, I turned and began to walk away.

"Sorry," I mouthed to him.

"You have to answer your phone." He looked like a snake that had just let the mouse run down its hole. I nodded and pushed the answer button.

"Hi, A___? What's up? You won't believe it but you called just in time. . . ."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Snapshot Book Review: Cutting for Stone

Cutting for StoneCutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My experience with this book was an unfortunate case of hearing too many rave reviews before I had the chance to discover it for myself. I will say that for a doctor, Verghese has quite a way with language. He also renders the most complex medical procedures with such simplicity and vividness that any lay reader can understand what is being done, to the extent that they almost believe they are there, watching at the patient's bedside.

Unfortunately, Verghese was only able to captivate me for about half the book, two-thirds at best. Once Marion left Ethiopia, the narrative became less engaging, less vivid. I don't know if it was because less time was spent on the characters around Marion (with the exception of Thomas Stone), or because everything moved too quickly or because there was too much exposition--I will have to reread the book again sometime in the future with a more analytical eye in order to determine that. I just know that by the time I was three-fourths of the way through, I already had a sense of what would happen, and I was impatient for the characters to get everything "over with."

Bottom line: excellent book about medicine, interpersonal relations, and Ethiopia, but Cutting for Stone doesn't sustain its own level of excellence throughout the entirety of the novel.

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