Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Are we civilized?

Yesterday the journalist Marie Colvin was killed in Homs, Syria, just one day after she reported on the death of an infant from shelling and the lack of medical care.  She was an American who reported for a British paper.  She has previously been in other dangerous places including recently reporting on Libya.  While she is well known, she is just one of many casualties in the civil war racking Syria. The French photographer Remi Ochlik was also killed.  Their deaths attract attention for two reasons, one is that, as reporters, they are celebrities of a sort and second that they are Western.  Unfortunately, some people's lives still seem more important than others.

In Syria, like so many other places in the world, civilians, including young children suffer and die.   The number of civilians as a percentage of war deaths has been increasing especially over the past hundred years or so.   The increased technology of killing allows armies to kill at greater distances, thus making "collateral damage" more likely.  In addition, since more conflicts are civil wars, the site of combat is more often in cities and villages.  So, it is more difficult to distinguish who is a combatant.  In some conflicts, there has been an attitude of "to kill the big rats, one must also kill the little rats" as was expressed by a Rwandan political commentator.

As I am writing up some of my family's stories from WWII and the communist era, I see many similarities to current wars.  Hearing my family's stories caused me to hate war, though a more careful review of history has taught me that it is occasionally necessary.  Nevertheless, I think that we must all do whatever we can to protect life, especially innocent life.  Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were doing their part, as journalists, making it known to the world.   Others, such as Gino Strada, of Emergency, and Medicins Sans Frontiers help by caring for the civilian victims.

It is my dream that humans can evolve to settle conflicts in other ways.  Only then can we truly call ourselves civilized.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Birthday of Copernicus

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543).  His Polish name is MikoĊ‚aj Kopernik.  His greatest work was De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.   In this he described the heliocentric, or sun centered, solar system.  At the time this was seen as revolutionary since the Catholic Church taught that the earth was the center of the universe.  Yet he observed movements of the sun and planets that could not be explained if the sun revolved around the earth.  So the earth and other planets had to revolve around the sun.  We have now come to accept this, though we know that the orbits of the planets are elliptical, rather than circular, with the sun at one of the focal points of the ellipse.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fiction as autobiography

All fiction may be autobiography, but all autobiography is of course fiction.
  • Shirley Abbott, quoted in Mickey Pearlman, Listen to Their Voices (1993), ch. 12
The past two weeks have been exciting in my journey as a writer.  First, I received notification of my first acceptance of an article other than a traditional medical journal article.  This surprised me greatly. Two other pieces I submitted elsewhere were rejected.  This is not a big surprise since most submissions are rejected, but still is disheartening.  And the most important is that through a Writer's Workshop, I learned a very important lesson--"write the pain."  This is why I think the one was accepted and the others not.  It showed the pain.  The others seem to be more interesting topics, but I think the emotion wasn't raw.  It wasn't on the surface. 

The piece that was accepted showed the pain.  It was my experience of the death of my mother.  I have long understood that the experience has helped me in relating to patients when I have had to deliver bad news.  My mother and the stories she told have been a major inspiration to my decision to write, even though I lost her just over thirty years ago this week.  Perhaps that anniversary was also important at the subconscious level in my sense of feeling the pain.

I also realized with the help of my instructor and other students in the workshop how my novel is autobiographical in an emotional way, and how when I can feel in some way what I have my characters feeling that my writing is better.  So, I need to "write the pain" in order to feel genuine.

My pain and loss is very different than that of the characters I am writing about, but my experience of my mother's death helps me to understand both the pain of my characters and the pain of my patients and their families.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


A few years ago, I began to write up some family stories.  This began when my adopted children asked about their past, where they were from.  Additionally, several friends suggested that I write up stories that I had told orally.  I decided to start with the overlap between the history of my biological family and the part of the world where my children were from.
I came to realize how much I enjoyed retelling the stories of my family, including some about relatives I had never met.  Some of the stories seem heroic to me.  Others are more ordinary.  These people are the ghosts of my title. A few of these stories are also the core of a novel I am writing, tentatively called Living with Ghosts, about relatives in Poland.
As I begin this blog, however,  I realize there are far more ghosts that surround me, and may share their stories as well.  These include the ghosts of my American relatives. I grew up in a family where both my parents and two uncles had worked on the Manhattan Project, certainly the fodder for interesting stories.  I was fortunate to hear these stories from my mother, a masterful storyteller.  She also told many other stories, both about her experiences and family.
As a young person, I was also fortunate to travel, and have continued to enjoy travel to out to the way locations, leading to more stories.  I then chose professionally to become a neurosurgeon, and to specialize in treating malignant tumors and neurotrauma.  Thus I have had to live with the ghosts of patients and have heard many more interesting stories, and seen much heartbreak.  Clearly the details of these are confidential, but often their stories have taught me much about the human condition.  I feel that this experience has helped with my writing.
Thus, this blog is to be a collection of stories of a life spent among ghosts, as well as with the living.  It also looks at lessons we can learn from those who have gone before.