Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Against The Norm

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.


Andy Larrimore said...

Great post Doc. If everyone had the same upbringing our country would have less problems. My family was much the same and my kids were raised with the same values. I think my wife and I have done pretty well with them. Daughter is 3rd year medical student and my son is almost finished serving a 4 year enlistment with USMC. Both kids wanted to serve in different ways and we are proud of them. FYI - one plays trumpet and the other drums (resulted in some noise issues for neighbors!). Again thanks for sharing with us readers.

Empress Bee (of the High Sea) said...

amazing post doc, love your parents and your parenting too! sounds exactly like my daughter and her children.

i, on the other hand, did not do as well as a parent. i let them watch too much tv and do more of what they wanted. lazy. i realize that mistake now. i sure am glad my daughter did not follow suit!


smiles, bee

Tanya said...

Nice post-and yes, it's nice to be different; what a boring world this would be if we were all the same. As for myself, I'm an incredibly boring, average, middleclass woman...who can cut a playing card in half at 50 yards with my trusty target rifle...

Katie said...

I eat like that! Family meals every night and those are some of our favorites. (Well, every night I'm in the right state...)

I challenge you to a tennis match! You'll totally win, but I might even run. :-)

I just read The Help for class, what'd you think?

An excellent rebuttal to criticism and an great post about the way life should be. Well done.

<>< Katie

Kate said...

I wrote about something very similar yesterday. But I didn't have as many answers as you did. Mostly just questions.

I am not to be pigeon-holed. I can't be. One Saturday night not that long ago, I dressed up in my little black dress and heels and went to the symphony and then immediately afterward, raced to a friend's house to watch the UFC fights. I think that kind of sums it up.

Gia's Spot said...

What a wonderful peek into "You" Doc! Thanks for that!
I know that I am proud of who my two daughters grew to be, I honestly take half credit on that! Being a single Mom starting when they were 5 and 6, I gave up a lot of time with them to work to feed and clothe them, but the first 6 years, I taught them and layed the foundation that is still with them today. So the way I figure it, had I had a good husband and father for them, I would have made it a perfect 10!
Happy Wednesday, ER DOC!!

Gia's Spot said...

PS On second thought, it was and still is a perfect ten if you take away the "pigeon hole" I jumped into while writing that!doh!!!

Heather said...

Sniffle. Sniffle (blows nose).

Just when I thought I couldn't admire you any prove me wrong.

(I also think that our area of the country holds us to higher expectations...I grew up the same way)

Madison said...

I grew up under similar dynamics. If parents put pressure on their children to be better people, we would not have as many problems with society. Instead, people are always looking for the easiest way to get what they want.

Anna said...

Jim this is beautiful norm of life, I had very similar life style when I was growing up (1 of 4), and I do not regret a bit of it - however, something went wrong, and we are not as close as we used to be. But I will continue the tradition with my family now, my husband and Matthew, this is all I have left. Thanks for posting very encouraging and spiritual post Jim. There isn't that many like you out there. LOL there is nothing wrong with having good grades, playing sports and playing musical instrument - I had to play accordion. Anna :)

Pissed Off Patient said...

Anthropologists like to say that nothing is good or bad, it's just different.

I often qualify my observations that way so people know I'm not judging.

It still doesn't always go over well. You can't win for losing sometimes.

Sounds like you had a great childhood though.


Karen said...

More children should have such an upbringing. I'm sure you are (like I am) thankful for such caring parents.

terri c said...

I am very glad to hear you had a super childhood with parents focused on achievement. I do think it is somehow "wired into" us as humans to pigeonhole, or at least to think in hierarchical dualisms. For instance: the notion that the kind of parenting you received and have practiced is "The right" kind--as I know you know, there are tons of terrific folks out there who came up very differently!

Brit said...

That could've been my parents that I was reading about(swimming and piano & flute, if you care). Thank you for reminding me how wonderful they are, and how blessed I am.

NurseExec said...

Fantastic post. I loved hearing about how you grew up. My parents gave my brother and I a wonderful work ethic--my brother followed my father into the Navy, and I had a career as a technical writer before discovering that nursing was my passion (that's a whole story in itself). As a Navy family, we moved a lot, but my parents always made sure we had the support that we needed to fit in to our new home.

Amber said...

Such a great post. Love it as always!

Stephany said...

I cooked for my kids that way, required volunteer work, and had a "work before play" rule for homework, all 3 play one or more instruments, even my youngest who is now disabled once played "ode to Joy" from memory in a psych ward. For several years, when she could not function at her usual capacity, I remained as her stand in at the humane society bagging the senior citizen dog and cat food from their pet food bank.

It's a solid foundation to place for kids.

No matter what the foundation is, no one knows the future. It has been a solace to me that my daughter achieved what she did in case she can't do that again...I guess.

Childhood Memories said...

You sound like a great guy, and since you wrote:

"I enjoy... washing and waxing cars"

In the spirit that everyone could use more fun and pleasure in their life, let me know if you ever make it down my way and I would be more than happy to let you wash and wax my autos - especially the waxing part - I don't enjoy that, so much.

My parents took the opposite approach of mandates, just do what you want. So, as I child I started guitar lessons (still play to this day), got into painting and other forms of art - still doing it to this day, football, baseball, and basketball teams (football was the best - you were encouraged to hit the other players (good times!), photography, hiking, camping, volunteering down at the local cat shelter...

My only regret is that I didn't choose to learn the piano instead of the guitar as my first musical instrument - they say it's like having an entire orchestra under your hands, and it's a lot easier to pick up other instruments if you have piano in your background. So, I'm taking piano lessons, now.

StudentDoc said...

I had parents that were a bit different. They expected good grades, and for me to go to college, but they never required extracirrculars. And yet, still, I played the flute, swam all 4 years of high school, and read books like they were going out of style. It's interesting how some of us have very similar experiences growing up, but got them in completely different ways.

And that unexpected something? I'm generally regarded as a nice, quiet, shy, young woman who would never even think of arguing with someone. And my two favorite hobbies? weight lifting and martial arts! ;)

medrecgal said...

As one who has spent most of my life defying expectations and throwing labels by the wayside, I could proudly say I am quite short of what most people mean by "normal". But you know what? I've finally reached the point in my life where I've come to realize that this situation is perfectly OK. And those who can't accept that have issues I can't waste my time trying to fix.

I could relate to much of that "traditional" family story, too, even though my parents both worked. I had a grandma who more than compensated for the time they were busy providing...and she was Catholic, too! I learned more useful things from her than I did in my many years of formal education.

Smalltown RN said...

What an amazing post Doc. It's amazing the influence our parents had on us. As you know I too came from a very large Catholic family with very strong rules. But unlike you we didn't have the money for music lessons or such, but somehow, one of my eldest sisters learn't how to play the talk about pigeon holing someone. She is the last person you would think would have learnt how to play and actually enjoy playing the accordian.

I on the other hand ...also went against the norm. Being the youngest of the girls, I was always pushing the envelope. I loved sports and was a Provinical all star for basketball. I loved and still love sports. I most certainly have my quirks as well. Hair for example....I always felt hair could grow cut I would say....colour...the colours of the rainbow....then piercings...I love jewlery and some would even call me Historionic...then came the tats...and well I will leave it at that.

My parents play a huge role in my life, their volunteerism was amazing and was instilled in me. Their compassion was passed on....many of these traits I find are so necessary doing what it is we do.

That was a wonderful story Doc, thank you for sharing and for allowing us to get to know you a little bit better.


Leslie said...

Another wonderful post!

I wish every child could enjoy the loving upbringing that you did.

KK said...

I think all of us that are open-minded share bits of your background. I think it is vitally imortant to recognize that everyone is not the same - nor should they be.

The best thing about what you wrote, was how your wrote it.

Thank you for your eloquence!