Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dollars, dogs, and dinner doldrums

Seventeen years and almost $200,000 in and God, do I still have a lot to learn. My life thus far has been spent acquiring knowledge, yet the most valuable information I've come across in all this time doesn't cost $50,000 a year. I would say it's free, but there's almost always a suggested donation to the universe, be it frustration, permanent scars from cat claws, or little chunks of dignity I'll never reclaim (cut to me flat on my back on an icy sidewalk, Sport giving me a quizzical look of "what'cha doing down there?", and me looking around to make sure no one saw as I learn the hard way to make note of which neighbors boycott sidewalk salt). A few tidbits I've gleaned from such lessons:
As long as you have a stockpile of dried legumes in the pantry, you can survive on less than $30 of groceries a week.
On a not totally unrelated note, potatoes and Brussels sprouts do, in fact, present fewer culinary options (even with considerable creativity) than the number of nights a $30 food budget necessitates they be consumed.
Having a wallet tighter than a 90s TaeBo instructor's butt helps when you have a heart more open than Kim Kardashian's legs (... have I been drinking without realizing it? The metaphors are dirtier than the bathroom in a girls' dorm tonight). The homeless, neglected senior dog you selflessly welcomed into your life seems to think that vet bills, expensive food, and medications that cost half your weekly salary (and temper tantrums that involve biting passing joggers) demonstrate gratitude and constitute proper repayment for your kindness.
Money is not all it's cracked up to be, especially when it can be traded in for things like a pain-free dog and the rare indulgence of an enormous block of overpriced yet obscenely delicious imported sheep's milk cheese (which, incidentally, crumbled liberally over tonight's potatoes and Brussels sprouts, made them just a little bit more bearable).

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Season Premier

I’ve been sitting on this entry since December 22 (and man,  is my butt sore – ba-dum ch!), when I wrote it waiting for my plane back to New Hampshire for winter break, my first time back with my family since July. I put off posting it because once I arrived, it no longer felt right. My expectations and reality clashed like cotton tube socks and Birkenstock sandals. With every intention of presenting it to the world with a brilliant, witty, and insightful “here’s what really happened” epilogue, my meager two weeks passed without a single quip or parenthetical remark; with so little time to spend with my family, I endeavored to spend every last moment with them, neglecting my duties to my adoring public. Upon returning to the Great North and classes, spare time proved scarce, the words to express my emotions lacking, and the state of mind to commit my mental state to paper completely absent. On this snowy Saturday night, on call until 8 am and with nothing to avoid except studying, I finally re-opened the long-neglected word document sitting on my desktop and set to work. So, without further ado, here is the epic two-part season premiere of Chomp.

Frantically tearing through the piles of laundry (they’re at least clean piles now), flinging sweaters and pajamas about, I attempted to pare down my wardrobe selection to bring home (a necessity, as the zipper on my suitcase bulged ominously, about to burst open like a fat man’s pants after the all-you-can-eat buffet at the local Chinese joint). I realized that almost every article of clothing bore some very special adornment that had been absent from my life for too long until recently: dog hair. Smiling, I looked around my room and realized that everything indeed had a light covering of grey and white fur, like a dusting of snow after a flurry (even as I type this at the airport, I’m swiping errant hairs from the keyboard). All is once again right with the world.
But will all be well on the home-front upon my return? My dog Hannah stares at me from my desktop image with her characteristic pout – what will her gaze hold when I see her for the first time in over six months? Excitement? Resentment? Apathy? Knowing her, the last option is the most probable, as befits the Princesse (I write it as such to emphasize that she prefers her title be pronounced in dramatic fashion, with the accent on the second syllable). Since snottiness is what I left behind (she wouldn’t even spare me a passing glance when I said goodbye), I would be happy to return to her familiar ways. Being deep down (sometimes a little too deep down) my faithful and loving dog, I know can depend on her to be the same prissy-pants she was before and welcome me back to a familiar home. Even if Hannah will never change, so much else has. How will it feel to return to my childhood home (for it now truly must bear that modifier), the one place that remains idyllically stagnant in every human’s heart as an unsullied and secure haven, to find that it no longer resembles the version in my mind’s eye?
It’ll hurt, to be sure, to see that the Earth continued to turn without me, that the people and places I left do not, in fact, require my presence to function. My excitement at going home is tempered by my knowledge that Mom and Dad have found other endeavors, other hobbies, and other ways of living that don’t involve me (horror of horrors! Parents aren’t allowed to have lives independent of their children!).  I almost don’t want to visit the animal hospital where I worked to discover that the role I carved out for myself over four years has been usurped all too easily by someone new.  Even my physical place has been repurposed and reoccupied; a leaky water heater prompted the stripping of my bedroom and conversion into an office.
When I said that all is right with the world, I referred to the St. Paul world, the vet school world, the me-on-my-own world, where, especially since Sport’s arrival, I have truly felt at home. While this is a natural and wonderful evolution, it has split my life between two places which seem to me now completely independent of each other. But which world is home now? I know the answer without hesitation. How will my family and my dogs feel now that I have essentially found alternatives? I guess the whole “world turning without me” scenario goes both ways.
Things at home have changed. For me, home itself has changed. But I suppose it’s only fair, as one variable in this whole equation has changed more than any other: me.


So you see, the problem with the above entry is this: within moments of departing the airport in the car with my parents, they began to bicker about the senseless directives spewing from the GPS. “Just like I never left,” I thought, at once basking in a warm glow of nostalgic familiarity and wondering when my plane back took off. As the days progressed, it became apparent that nothing had changed. For six months, my world had been spinning like a whirling dervish hopped up on meth, so the normal pace of the rest of the universe created the illusion that it had stood still all that time. As a stream merges with the river from which it originally branched, I melded back into the daily (dys)functioning of the Thibodeau household. With the speed of the aforementioned dervish’s pet gerbil who uncovered his stash, my conviction that St. Paul is the greatest city in the world and that I would stay forever and ever and never look back vanished, replaced by a sense of belonging more deep and primal than the one I feel with the veterinary world and my new home.
All too soon, the GPS once again spat out robotic directions while I sat in the back seat of Dad’s car, ruminating about why my feet were lead blocks as I left the house until next summer.  The last time I left, bound for Minnesota, everything in my future was new and full of promise. Now, the novelty of independence, responsibility, a new school, and a new home had worn off. I closed my eyes against the reality that had been slowly seeping in over the past two weeks: no home can replace your first home, the one with your family. Just to torture me, my mind projected images on the insides of my eyelids: the cold, dark, wood-paneled room to which I was returning, the house empty except for an often-absent roommate with whom relations are coolly cordial and nothing more, a life empty save for work and chores. Incapacitated by the stab of loneliness and child-like longing for Mom and Dad, brother and dogs, and all the “little things” of our shared life as a family, I spent the first few days back in St. Paul with leaky eyes, hiccupping breath, and bleak thoughts. The stabbing has diminished to an ache, but its intensity has not abated. School provides a welcome distraction and escape from a solitary world populated only by myself, my dog, and my piles of laundry. The dreams, like fantastical hot air balloons, that carried me here on the winds of excitement and promise are quickly becoming reality. Unfortunately, that means the balloons have been sullied by the smog of pessimism in the atmosphere and weighted down by the ballast of monstrous debt, an enormous work load, and the prospect of a difficult professional life, lonely personal life, and little to no hope for profitable employment upon graduation.
Forgive me for the bleak picture I paint. I hope that in the days to come, my canvas will seem less gray and the colors on my palate more vibrant, that I can recapture my former enthusiasm and sketch out a more optimistic future. Perhaps if I remind myself why, ultimately, I’m currently sitting alone (save for an elderly collie) in a basement in Minnesota, hunched over a laptop, neglected neurobiology notes laid out beside me … If I close my eyes, I can summon the image of the ICU doctor from this afternoon who had a radiant look as she thanked me for coming in during a snow storm to run bloodwork on her patient. Holding a critically ill, old, mangy cat covered in its own urine and actively trying to die just to spite the doctors and technicians working their butts off to prevent this eventuality, how could she have the expression of an eight-year-old given let loose in the cereal and cookies aisle of the grocery store with his mother’s blessing to fill the cart as he pleased? I know why. I’ve felt why. That I can imagine being, and have been before, in such a situation and yet in my element, content, and fulfilled tells me that I’m exactly where I belong. Even though the sheen has been worn off my previously dream-like aspirations of a life as a veterinarian, my future holds plenty of experiences that will polish them off and let my passion and happiness shine again.

A (not so) quick note, I keep hearing (from my mother, of all people - how embarrassing) how people just love your blog!. When I hear from friends an off-hand remark about something I've said here, I'm always shocked that someone actually reads this self-centered, wordy, pretentious drivel. To tell the truth, I have no idea who reads this little chronicle, other than my female relatives for whom it was originally intended to shut them up about keeping in touch. Perhaps it's because there is a dearth of comments (again, other than my mother and aunts). Here's where I request that you all repay me for whatever modicum of amusement and passing diversion you derive from my hours of hard work by stroking my ego a bit and leaving a few remarks in the comments. In all seriousness, I would love to hear from the people who read this, what you think of my self-pity, melodramatic ramblings, and writing style. Perhaps you, like my aunts, just can't figure out the comment system on this server? Just click on the "0 comments" hyperlink and click "add a comment". You can be anonymous; it's not necessary to register with the site. Even if you remain a silent lurker, I sincerely thank you for reading and supporting me, even silently, in all my foibles and adventures.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Maybe I should have stayed in bed

With icicles clinging to my eyelashes, wind seeking out and creeping through the few tiny gaps in my five layers of clothing like some hellish winter weasel squeezing through a hole in a fence, and my hands burning worse than when I get impatient for squash fresh from the oven to cool, I questioned why I even got out of bed this morning. Why the hell would a person who sits under an electric blanket set to high and swaddles herself in sweatshirts and pj pants fuzzy enough to render baby pandas green with envy venture into the great outdoors of Minnesota on a sixteen degree December morning to walk her dog?
As I risked life and limb (well, fingertips at least) taking off a glove to tie a poop bag shut (dog ownership: it's a glamorous life), I had to remind myself that I know the exact reason I get out of bed in the morning, even if some days "getting up" looks more like "extracting my sorry, exhausted, unmotivated ass from the covers at a sloth-like pace of a few centimeters a minute." I may sometimes lose sight of life's everyday joys and my ultimate goals, but God always sneaks in little reminders. As I fumbled my glove back on, I saw a man loading his little old black lab, outfitted in a striped pink sweater, into the car after their early-morning walk in the park. He gently wiped the dirt and ice from each of her paws with a towel, taking great care not to miss a spot or to overextend her creaky, arthritic joints. Just as he would his own human child, he scooped her up in his arms like an overgrown and abnormally hairy infant (this text changed from "big black baby" after I reread it and my brain's filter sounded the "holy crap that is unintentionally but still glaringly racist" alarm) and gently placed her in the passenger's seat. Before closing the door, he lovingly adjusted her colorful little sweater.
That, my friends, is why I get out of bed in the morning.
That is why I endure the cold every day to take Sport for a walk when good sense would dictate holing up under the covers until Spring; why I left home and came 1,500 miles to Minnesota; why I have spent more hours in the anatomy lab than in my house over the past few months. Love like that is why I chose (and continue to choose, each and every day) animal ownership, veterinary medicine, and all the wonderful, challenging, heartbreaking, and heartwarming experiences that entails.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

More life lessons from vet school: genital tract removal and the true nature of strength

You do some weird and borderline occult activities in vet school (and, even more disturbing than the activities themselves, grow to consider them perfectly quotidian). Just this week, I've cut a pony in half (not in the way of "watch in amazement, ladies and gentlemen, as I saw my lovely assistant in half, wave a sheet over her with a grand flourish, and reveal her whole once again!", more like "Move the colon to the left or the saw's going to fling preserved horse shit  all over!"), spent half an hour trying to remove a set of testicles and penis in a single unit (now there's a life skill), extracted teeth (don't worry, the patients didn't feel a thing ... mostly because their heads were no longer attached to their bodies), and discussed phosphorylation and cholesterol carriers over Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps the strangest off all is that I thoroughly enjoyed every reeking, grotesque, macabre, and downright absurd moment.
Just as absurd, yet infinitely less disturbing to those not initiated into the secret joys of the anatomy laboratory, is skyping with one's dogs. I tried video chat for the first time today. I saw my parents face-to-face (well, monitor to monitor) for the first time in months; it made me smile. I saw my dogs for the first time in just as long; Jason looked right at me and wagged his tail at my voice; it made me cry, damn near broke my heart. I could see him, he could hear me, but I couldn't reach out and touch him, and he couldn't understand why.
Over the past few months, as the hole left by my family's absence has gradually widened from a crack in the sidewalk to what at times is a gaping abyss of loneliness, I resolved to stay strong, not to break down, not to take measures to relieve the emotional pangs by begging Mom to come visit or getting a dog of my own. I thought that satisfying my heart's cravings would be weak, that holding out until it became absolutely unbearable was a mark of mental fortitude and strength of character. I used to play this game with physical hunger, seeing how long I could go, feeling like I had beaten some sort of game with every hour that ticked by that I withstood my body's demands. I would say to myself, "It's only a few more hours until the next meal. You'd be weak and pathetic not to survive until then." This time, it wasn't counting down until dinner, but until December, until I would fly home and reunite with everyone, clear-headed and dry-eyed, and impress them all with how stoic I'd been. I've learned that denying one's needs and desires is not strength; it proves only how stubborn you are, not how strong. True strength is admitting when you're hurting, when you need help (help meaning Mom and Dad, more often than not), and not being afraid to let people see you cry. I'm happy to report that I am now secure and confident enough to recognize that needs are not weaknesses, that oftentimes bellies should  be filled before the clock strikes exactly noon, and that sometimes the need for a family member cannot wait until the day of a flight back home. But I couldn't bring my family to me or me to them - what now? Make a new addition to the family. Sport has been occupying my couch, bed, and kitchen floor for two weeks now; he'll be occupying my heart for quite a few years to come.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jumping the shark

All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. So what's playing at the St. Paul Theater today? A drama? Comedy? Murder mystery (more common at the Minneapolis Revue, from what I hear)? Lately, my personal storyline has stalled in the equivalent of a long-running sitcom's mid-season rut. My days and weeks are laid out in orderly fashion, each one resembling the last. The challenges of the past months (the season premiere, if you will) seem not so daunting any more. The tide of anxiety and self-doubt is making its exit. However, waiting in the wings to enter stage right lurks a new player, a member of the supporting cast beginning to break into the forefront of the action: loneliness.
Undoubtedly, St. Paul is now my home, and as Dorothy asserted, there's no place like it. However, there's no people like family and no substitute for a much-needed hug every now and again. I may not be homesick, but I am most definitely people-sick (not to mean that I'm sick of people, though that may often be the case, but for people).
As the star of this drama (or maybe director, at moments when I feel a bit more in control of my own destiny), I feel obligated to, like the real stars do, thank those people, my supporting cast, without whom my role in this adventure of a new life and vet school would never have happened. They're the ones who flesh out my story lines when I as a writer can't come up with decent material (it's amazing how entertaining one's parents become when they take up hobbies to alleviate the empty nest syndrome), who toil away behind the scenes to make sure everything is held together, who pray and call and send cards and give love from half a world away. Thank you and God bless you to everyone who helps me keep it together when my hold on my responsibilities, work load, and sanity is tenuous and I feel as if this grand production in which I star is about to "jump the shark."

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sink or swim? More like drown or doggie paddle.

Sensing that I was plagued by feelings of incompetence, inadequacy, and unprepardeness and believing myself totally unqualified and incapable of doing my job at the lab, my supervisor attempted to reassure me that everything would be fine, even after the fiasco that was my first solo shift. She said, "You know more than you think you do." Fortunately for me (and for the patients whose blood I analyzed), this actually proved true. I would go to sit at the microscope, petrified, as everything I once knew about how a lymphocyte differs from a monocyte fled my panicked brain. However, as I scanned the slides, I knew exactly what I was looking at. The clicks from the counting machine ticked off like rounds from a machine gun: seg seg mono lymph seg seg nRBC and Ooh! toxic neutrophil! Since that disastrous first night, my confidence has grown. I still question my results all the time, but in a productive way, rather than in an oh-my-God-I-inevitably-fail-at-life-in-every-manner way.
The danger in taking solace in the "knowing more than you think you do" adage comes when you start thinking you know more than you do. But how to tell into which category a situation falls? Perhaps the only way to find out is to dive in and see what happens. But what about when the water is teeming with flesh-eating piranha and infested with toxic fungi? When the stakes are high, as they almost always will be as a veterinarian, I historically err on the side of caution (not so much caution as intense self-doubt and reliance on help from others). I'm quickly discovering that this approach won't be feasible much longer; as a real live doctor, I'll essentially be pushed off a cliff into that treacherous water and will either be devoured by swarms of carnivorous little fish or doggie paddle and flounder about, keeping my head just above water, long enough to reach the shore alive. The biggest part of my mind (because it gets the most exercise) tells me that I'm not up to the challenges that await me in the latter years of vet school and in practice beyond, that I'm incapable of thinking on the fly, being solely responsible for preserving the life of living creatures, and working longer, harder, and smarter than I've ever had to before. The little portion of gray matter I reserve for optimism has to chime in and say, "Look what you did to get to this point. Look what you've done since that you've arrived. Weren't you thinking the same thing about the obstacles you've already conquered?"
In the past year, I've worked harder than I wanted to (and thought I was capable of), ventured miles outside my comfort zone (1500, from New Hampshire to Minnesota, to be precise), suffered through uncomfortable situations (some even more unpleasant than my currently 61 degree house), slept less than any human being should (I sleep so poorly and am so utterly exhausted at this point that when I wake up in the wee hours of the morning, I just start sobbing for the loss of sleep I know I'll never find again), and forced myself to exchange old habits (slovenliness, laziness, self-doubt, passiveness, and self-centeredness) for ones that will be requisite in tackling the myriad of daunting tasks that await me in the coming years.
I know more than I think I do. But is it enough? As I venture further into my chosen career path, most of what I encounter will be unknown, and I will be expected to not only face it, but understand it alone. I know more than I think I do, but can I do more than I know? I guess the only way to find out is to press on, to forge ahead, to find the strength, motivation, and sleep (the most doubtful of all) to keep swimming for the shore, even when challenges, doubts, and fears gnaw at my willpower like millions of tiny, needle-sharp piranha teeth sinking into my toes (oh wait, that's just the kittens going through a foot-biting phase).

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Scatterbrained and wanting to scatter my brains on the pavement

With anatomy and biochemistry exams looming in the not-nearly-distant-enough future, I of course was struck by an irresistable urge to divert my attention from memorizing nerve plexuses and examining embalmed canines to the more enjoyable task of providing my adoring public (all three of you) with a blog update. Unfortunately, the formalin fumes from the lab have left me with few brain cells and the many hours of studying (two counts as plural) have destroyed the capacity of those few brave survivors to piece together a coherent series of thoughts. Therefore, this entry is as disjointed as the limbs we removed from our cadavers the very first week of lab, but infinitely less icky and I hope at least slightly more enjoyable.

Days always end better when you kick them off with a smile. Things that made my mornings this week:
A man riding a unicycle, not in a "practicing for the circus" or "obscure hobby that makes his nephews giggle" way, but in a "serious cardio training, full bike-shorts and racing gear" way.
A woman jogging hard and fast with her dog ... her dachshund, that is.
An upward kitten face as I attempted a downward dog (yoga with kittens present - don't try it at home).

We made it to October 21 without getting below freezing here in St. Paul ... outside, at least. My house is another story, seeing as I have Ebeneezer Scrooge for a roommate. The following is a dramatic reenactment portrayed by trained actors:

"Sir, may we throw another log on the fire please?"
"NO! And just for asking, I'm canceling Christmas!"

As a future veterinarian, I will have to be resourceful and creative in problem-solving, so I figured I would put my ingenuity to the test. How could I keep warm without getting the cold shoulder from the miser in charge of the thermostat? I devised a few clever solutions:

After showering and blowdrying my hair, blowdry the rest of me.
Roasted vegetables every night. The bigger the veggie the better. A 10 lb squash takes an hour to bake at 400 degrees, raising the temperature of the house from the level of Satan's bedroom in the seventh circle of hell to that of the women's restroom in purgatory.
Kitten pile!!!

Seeing as I have little time remaining and even less brain power, I should probably devote both to my studies ... or to perusing pictures of lolcats online (I can at least pretend to know which ganglion is receiving nervous input that allows them to make funny faces, right? That counts as productive. I can hear you judging me through the computer, and yes, I am a horrible slacker, as indicated by the length of this final parenthetical insertion, at the end of which I will be forced to return to actual work, which is why this sentence has continued this long and may go on for quite some time; it all depends how creative I can get with punctuation, a particular specialty of mine). But alas, the clock has barked ten (why would a vet student have a clock that strikes? a barking dog clock is much more fun), and my procrastination and this entry, much like my days as a sane and functional member of society, must come to an end.