I grew up in a small town. One of seven kids. Raised by parents who represented the expected, traditional roles. Dad worked hard and, with his brothers, became extremely successful in the forestry industry. Heck, he even cut down the presidential Christmas tree one year. Mom kept house and raised us kids quite nicely. The family glue, she was. A sit-down, multi-course meal was enjoyed by the nine of us every night. Roast beef and potatoes, steaks with home-fries and corn, breaded pork chops with green beans and cinnamon applesauce. Who eats like this anymore?
My family was conservative and Catholic. Through and through.
To my parents' credit, expectations were placed on us. Expectations that prepared us for life's many angles and unexpected surprises. Expectations that taught us that life's blanket has many different colored threads interwoven throughout it.
For one, we had to excel in at least one sport. Mine, you ask? Easy. Tennis, which I actually played through college on scholarship. I also loved basketball and baseball. My sister Rosie, although she won tennis districts in doubles a few times, claims to have been the best cheerleader in the family. A sport now, yes, but in her day, a few stomps of the feet and claps of the hands really didn't impress the rest of us. A "stomper," I called her, instigated by the fact that my parents actually accepted this activity as her official sport.
We also had to maintain an A or high B average. My parents batted seven for seven with this expectation. We were taught that discipline and hard work reaps many benefits, especially good grades. And, as expected, we all attended college and graduated. For some of us, books became our very close friends.
We had to be kind and compassionate, to one another and to our fellow-mankind. Mom would perpetually have us kids deliver meals to many of our elderly neighbors. In the winter, we shoveled our neighbors' walks. In the summer, we cut their grass. Without pay. And, more importantly, without complaining. My dad, after hooking up his snow-plow to his pick-up, would plow any driveway in three counties.
Probably the most interesting expectation placed by my parents, though, was that each of us had to excel at playing a musical instrument. Mine? Classical piano. How's that for you. Ten years to boot. I initially loved playing the piano in elementary school. Around 10th grade, however, I was starting to enjoy it significantly less. Imagine being a teen-ager and having to leave basketball practice early for an hour piano lesson with Sister Mary Catherine, who happened to be the spitting younger version of Sophia from "The Golden Girls." She was tough, but I learned well. Besides other pianists, among us we have an accordian player, a french horn expert, and a clarinet virtuoso.
By appearances, my family looks like the typical, if blessed, American family. Some of us are conservative in our thinking, some of us liberal. Each of us is quick to admit that we had something special and lucky with the childhood cards we were dealt.
Within my siblings, I am probably the most liberal. Does that mean I am Obamafied? Hardly. I'm still a physician working hard in the American system. But I love diversity. I crave diversity. Part of my job's enticement, besides the rewards of helping a patient through an emergent illness or injury, is the social interactions I have with so many different people from so many walks of life. It's a very cool place for me to sit--an appreciation of diversity perched on my left shoulder and my traditional upbringing on my right.
Recently, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post about men being wimps. It was a spirited and laughable post, although I stand by the elemental truths that us men, with exceptions (of course), are not the stronger of the two sexes when it comes to facing illnesses. Some of the comments from that post questioned if I were stereotyping and, if so, why?
I took a few comments and let them brew in my mind, gathering wisdom with a few passing days. And you know what I realized? I learned that, if anything, I am quite far from the typical, stereotyping person. I don't judge but, rather, observe. Sometimes my observations may not sit well with someone, but that's okay. They are my observations. My experiences.
Flipping that coin, I would be a hard person to stereotype, too. And I like it that way.
I made a mental checklist to prove it. I work out at a gym four days a week while listening to acoustic Sarah McLachlan on my mp3 player. If you looked at me, you would probably think I read history or murder mysteries. Wrong. I just finished two incredibly-written "chick books"--The Help and Saving Ceecee Honeycutt (both of which I would highly recommend). By ninth grade, even, I had read all of Shakespeare's works. Not to say that I don't like a good Patterson book once in a while (all hail Alex Cross). I am both big city and small town. I am both country and a little bit rock-and-roll. Come June, my wife and I will be seeing both Ingrid Michaelson and Cyndi Lauper in concert (I'm a sucker for a strong female voice). I can cut a tree down on a peg fifty feet away and, yet, can successfully pick a perfect room paint color in an instant. I get angry at seeing healthy people my age abuse our country's fine intentions of financial assistance but will fight to have every child, every handicapped person, and every elder adult benefit from my taxes. I am compassionate most always. I will avoid flushing the toilet after one of my prouder productions (if that isn't something to beat on your chest about, what is?). I like a beer but, once in a while, I might have a glass of wine, a vodka tonic, or (gasp) a martini. I enjoy landscaping and washing and waxing cars, playing sports, and teasing the shit out of my family and friends. I can iron and press a dress shirt with the best of them (a necessary talent during the medical school years).
You get the gist. Essentially, I don't want to be pigeon-holed. Ever. Who among us does? Most of us are not a box with four sides. My interests are scattered all over.
Today, at work in the ER, I met an amazing couple. Women who were life-partners. Women whom I initially thought were best friends. After spending several of my rare down-time minutes with them, just talking, it became very evident that they were committed to one another. And they couldn't have been any more fun, this couple, laughing and finishing one another's sentences. As I walked out of their room, I smiled. Big time. I appreciated their diversity and I appreciated my privilege to meet them and learn a little more about the big picture of life from their perspective.
As I sat at my work desk afterwards, I thought about how each of us has an unexpected something about us that, if isolated, could be judged as peculiar or "not normal" by our fellow man. Me included. But what is normal and what isn't? And who made those rules? What people expect from me and what people ultimately find out about me sometimes sit on opposite ends of the spectrum. How cool is that? This very thought is the thing that drives me, inspires me even, to learn more about the people in my life, the patients and families in my ER, and a stranger I may pass in the street.
I observe people and appreciate their differences.
My parents' rules and expectations went with the norm of what I knew life to be. And yet, because of those norms and guidelines, I have interests that extend way beyond the stereotyping and norms as defined by our society. Just what, I'm sure, my parents were hoping to instill with their expectations. If so, they succeeded. And I thank them.
Do any of you have an unexpected something about yourself that goes against the norm? I'll bet each of you have an answer that is three letters, starting with "y" and ending in "s." And Pat and Vanna, I'll take a vowel--"e"--right there in the middle. Am I right? Do I win a prize?
My kids face the same expectations as I did as a child--they all play the baby grand that sits off our foyer, they get great grades, and they play two or more sports. They are good kids who love music and books and are kind to other people.
Hopefully, that's not against the norm. But if it is, I'll gladly keep things the way they are.
It worked for me.
As always, big thanks for reading. Especially this one. A change of pace in sharing some of myself. Next post will be Friday, May 14. See you then.