Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Remembering Socks

If you talk to any recent med school graduate they will often have all kinds of advice regarding how to approach the dreaded residency interview circuit.  When it comes time to sell yourself to future employers in order to shore up a job upon graduation, the advice varies and is often contradictory, just as personalities vary and often contradict.  Interviews can be fun and terrible at the same time.  You meet dozens of applicants from around the country, listen to program directors sell their individual programs, and smile.  Always smile.  And for those who knew me, they seemed to always add that I should try staying awake while smiling.  I guess because smiling with your eyes closed is sort of creepy.  But these ended up being my first two pillars of good interviewing which I feel necessary to pass on to future generations.  It seems simple enough, but there exists a fundamental principle of attending multiple interviews.  The first interview is exciting.  Then the next four—or twenty-four—interviews after that are all exponentially more exhausting.  You begin digging deep within the sacred reserves of your soul to keep both mouth corners and eyelids peeled in upward fashion.  Interviewing for residency is like the smiling Olympics.  You feel confident going in, but then quickly realize you are up against a lot of world-class gunners…uh,  I mean grinners.  But smiling and staying awake aren’t enough.  It was actually on my fourteenth interview, when I was fast losing hope that I would even be counted among the finishers, that I discovered a third pillar of success.  Do not forget your socks.
Yes, everyone should learn early on to make a list of things to pack on every interview.  This keeps you from forgetting things like cellphone chargers and toiletries.  But in my case, it didn’t save me from showing up in Portland without socks.  So my name is Jay, I am now a physician and surgeon in training, and earlier this year, I showed up to an interview having forgotten to pack my socks.  This is my story.
Just to be clear, I did not actually show up in a new city without any socks.  I had white tube socks, because I was forward-thinking enough to pack athletic gear since I was training for a triathlon at the time.  I ran five miles on a treadmill the night before my interview, and the socks I wore for that run were both fantastic and fully present in my suitcase.  The footwear problem did not surface until the morning of my interview when I woke up, quickly showered, and donned my gray suit and tie.  After checking my smile in the mirror, I discovered that my dress socks were incredibly absent from my suit case.  It was an hour before I was scheduled to be at my interview site, but being the cool character that I was, I did not panic.  I knew I had the tube socks, so I tried those on first.  A quick glance in the mirror immediately revealed that wearing white tube socks with a gray suit makes your ankles look like they are glowing in the dark whenever you sit down.  I recall this realization coincided with the onset of my panic.  I tore off my socks and evaluated myself without any socks at all.  Though naked ankles were marginally better than glow-in-the-dark ankles, I determined that showing off your ankles is not a pillar of good interviewing.  I began to panic some more.  So I hurried downstairs to my hotel front desk.
The next few discoveries I made were perhaps just as novel.  When you ask the front desk worker if they carry extra socks, this is equivalent to asking for a ride to your interview in a kangaroo.  Their eyebrows are at first too askew to give you a straight answer.  Only after explaining that I had a job interview in an hour and had forgotten my dress socks did I get a straight answer.  The answer was no.  It was a very polite no, and the lady was even kind enough to call a few drug stores just to confirm that nobody was awake at five in the morning to sell me socks.  This is when I began running scenarios in my head.  If I went to my interview sockless, should I take a proactive approach and mention to my interviewers that I was not bearing my ankles on purpose?  Or do I just play it cool and hope that nobody notices the flesh between the end of my pant leg and the lip of my shoe?  Is being a guy who forgets socks better than being a guy who goes au naturel in his nice shoes?  These were terribly complex questions that my brain was not prepared to answer at five in the morning.  Maybe I could try pulling my suit pants down so low as to minimize my ankle exposure?  But then is sagging your suit pants better than flashing your naked ankles?  I felt like I was trapped in this awful game of non-hypothetical would-you-rather.
I’ve often heard artists talk about inspiration striking when they least expect it.  And while I have never considered myself any sort of an artist, my muse must have been close by that morning.  Amidst the tightening grip of my panic, I suddenly had a desperate thought.  I turned back to the lady at the front desk and this time asked for (or perhaps demanded) a pair of scissors.  She gave me a curious look, but handed me a pair without question.  I grabbed my suitcase and darted to a corner of the lobby.  I pulled out a gray long sleeve t-shirt—the exact one I had worn during my previous night’s run.  I glance quickly at the shirt sleeves and knew they were my only hope.  With a few imprecise snips, I was able to detach the sleeves from my t-shirt, quickly fashioning a pair of poor man’s leg warmers.  I slipped my heel into these and pulled the end halfway up my calf.  They were ill-fit and baggy, but when I stepped into my shoes, they gave the impression of socks.  I tied a knot in the upper end of these cloth tubes to better fit my calves and returned the scissors with a triumphant thank you.  The lady was nice enough to not ask questions, although I was quite sure she had unknowingly witnessed what was perhaps the most inspired moment of my medical school career.
I made it through the entire interview day without incident, though I did have to adjust my makeshift ankle coverings a few times because they kept coming lose and drooping.  Honestly, after interviewing at over a dozen locations, all the flights, the faces, and the formalities tend to become somewhat of a giant blur.  But of all the cool experiences I do remember, slicing the sleeves off a t-shirt to make leg warmers is definitely one of my favorites.  Thus my three pillars of having a successful interview season are this: smile, stay awake, and socks.  Super easy to remember and guaranteed to improve your performance.  You know how they say when life gives you lemons, you should try making lemonade?  I think the truth is that in life, we are often the ones gifting ourselves with lemons.  The whole adage is just an elegant way of saying that we all have a stupid version of ourselves whose sole purpose is to collect lemons and dump them on us at the most inopportune times.  Our only hope is that when our brains are working at some measurable capacity, we can come up with a passable recipe for lemonade.  But of course, it makes much more sense bring socks to an interview than to make t-shirt-sleeve-dress-sock lemonade.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Letter in Darkness

I haven’t posted in many, many months.  For those I have spoken to in person, you may know that this past year has been simultaneously one of the best and worst of my life.  All rolled into one joyfully aching mess.  I matched into University of Washington’s surgery program, I graduated from med school, and I even completed an ironman distance triathlon up in Napa Valley.  Truly, it has been an amazing journey, but one where celebration seems constantly juxtaposed against personal loss and mind-numbing grief.  I am learning to ride the highs and the lows and if nothing else, learning to put one foot in front of the other.  There is so much to say but there is also nowhere to begin.
I think when things are going well, it is hard to grasp how imperfect life can be.  That is the beauty of healing—that a collection of good and pure moments can wipe away past darkness, no matter how immersive that darkness may have once been.  In happiness, we all tend to forget what pain is.  In celebration, in tender moments, in joy, we are allowed to forget.  So the past four years of med school have in many ways been the happiest of my life.  And in many ways, without getting into details, I was totally unprepared for my personal life to fall apart.
I think sometimes I am under the false impression that with talent, hard work, and with commitment to character, we can eliminate misfortune.  True joy seems invincible, and that is why it is called joy.  But no journey is without stormy stretches.  Life is humbling, and at times it will bring you to your knees.  It is unfair and incomprehensible, and during such times, if nothing else, you learn to crawl.  Because that is all you can do.  And as your knees scrape the ground, for periods you might even wonder if you will walk again.  Because pain can also seem invincible.  The kind of pain that seems to drown out hope and beckons forth shadows from every corner.  Real pain.
I am learning that when life brings you to your knees, you just have to learn to crawl.  I guess the paradox has always been that without pain, there can be no empathy.  Hope, and comfort, and healing only matter to those who have been taken to their knees.  For those who know what it is to crawl.  Life is humbling, and it is unfair, and there are people who crawl for an entire lifetime.  So I’m learning. Because it is not only in war that we must find it in us to crawl.  But also in love.

Thank you to all my friends, to all my family, and to all who have walked (and perhaps crawled) beside me, no matter how briefly. To you I owe the world.

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