Thursday, September 29, 2005

Lumpers and Splitters (or: Tying up Loose Ends, Part II)

Whokay...It's been a doozy of a week (have you ever been abandoned by an attending doctor because there's another emergency crashing two feet away, while trying to suture up a puncture wound and put in a drain--which you have never done before--in a dog that's barely anesthetized and it turns out needs to be intubated and put on gas anesthesia and then get sewn up which you are told to do three different ways by three different people? Yup. That was my night yesterday). But I am working through these loose ends, and this brings me to the whole lumpers and splitters thing (other things I'd rather: May 4th post).

This originally comes from some anthropology class in college, and it struck me as a wonderful explanatory paradigm from which to explain how certain people think. And despite its binary nature (which I think with some justification is looked upon as questionable in these post-modern-multiple-voices-multiple-reality times) I have found that it's still a useful party trick in explaining how people learn from or misunderstand one another. It goes like this: in anthropology, specifically, you often see that the person going full ignorant blast into another culture is either so struck by the intricacies and nuances of that culture that they do their utmost to describe its uniqueness; holding up its difference ultimately as a counterpoint to our own. This is a splitter (as in of hairs). And then there are the Claude Levi-Strausses of the world, who wish to delve into the underlying likeness of humans everywhere; a starting point with many variations, but still, variations in which they point out the likeness in certain customs, similar organizing principles, etc. Lumpers. Now, it would be reductionist (I've ALWAYS wanted to use that in a sentence, ever since my liberal arts education ruined me for honest labor) to say that splitters dehumanize, or that lumpers biologize or gloss over. Like all binary organizing principles, when applied in extremes, it is ridiculous and even dangerous. And like all binaries, it tends to get flavored by that massive sticky-fingers-in-everyone's-pie dichotomy of good vs. bad (as in, if I am a _____, and you are a ----, then _____ is good, and ----- must be bad). But as a spectrum, you may find yourself consistently on one side or another. So anthropology might have meant something kind of specific by lumpers and splitters (as in how one might approach another culture), but I like to use it in the wider world.

I'm a splitter. I love finding the nuances, the little flashes of difference, of color, the stupid details. Splitters tend to talk in footnotes (sound familiar?) and pepper their explanations with little goofy examples that while relevant or illustrative, really are just happy window dressing, or ornamentation. These people can be annoying to learn from if you've never taken a subject before, or if you happen to be a lumper. Details are distractions from the big picture, they muddy the waters with parentheses until you scream GET ON WITH IT! Lumpers can of course be annoying to splitters, as they make grandiose statements that splitters just want to interrupt with "but...but..." Learning from a lumper has its ups and downs too, sometimes lacking a more textured or flexible application. Real life often doesn't read the well organized text book and all that.

That's as far as I want to go in making generalizations (because, you see, we splitters have to make them sometimes--spectrum, remember--but we're always thinking about those nagging possible exceptions who tug on our sleeves that go "but...but") about lumpers and splitters. You can make your own conclusions from here. I just forget that people have never heard of this (WARNING: ANOTHER WORD I'VE ALWAYS WANTED TO USE IN A SENTENCE AND THAT MARKS THE DEGREE TO WHICH A LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION WILL SCAR YOU FOREVER IS COMING. GUARD YOURSELF) heuristic (DID YOU WINCE? I DID. BUT THEN I GRINNED WICKEDLY) device and I devoutly feel that others should know of its use. For example, in my first year of vet school one of our professors was a tried and true splitter. I loved his classes. Others found him confusing or great as their own proclivities (ATTENTION BLOGGER! THIS IS THE VOCABULARY POLICE, ARTSY FARTSY INFRACTIONS DIVISION: CONSIDER THIS A WARNING) drove them. I was discussing this prof with a classmate one day (vet school students are way too fond of this ad naseum critique of their own education) and said, "well, he's a splitter." She looked at me in puzzlement. Clearly, not enough of you have had a good anthropology class in your past. Consider yourself forcibly enlightened.

To carry this silliness a bit further, should we start a quiz? Now that you're indoctrinated into my cult, should we create our own Meyers-Brigg lumper/splitter personality test? How often do you use the words "always" or "never" in conversation? Sometimes, Occasionally, Never? You might be a splitter if: you've ever contradicted someone you basically agree with because you feel they're ignoring a facet of an argument that interests you...etc. Hey wait! Where are you going?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Promises Promises (or: Tying up Loose Ends, Part 1)

I've noticed a certain macabre bent (or at least a bit of a downer) in the last posts. And I spent the better part of the last hour trying to figure out what to write about. I mean, it's a bit like relationships, right? You start out all excited, and there's SO much to talk about, and you feel so witty and showing off a little so that your new lover can see just how clever you really are...And then comes the day when you realize that it drives you crazy when he leaves his socks on the floor, or whatever petty thing he does that has always really driven you crazy. So I was going back through my posts and realizing that I've made a few promises here and there to continue some train of thought that needed more than a really super long parantheses. And what is it to me, you ask, oh kilobytes per second reader? You probably don't even remember (or haven't ever seen) those posts.

And then I got to thinking: is it merely an anal sort of perfectionism that nags at me to finish those thoughts? (Valid point.) Or is it related to this fundamental feeling I have always had that if you are creating a thing, be it a drawing, a story or a blog, it ought to be done to the best of your ability, tedious or not? I can't leave things I make unfinished (or at least when I do I always feel slightly ashamed). (This is the feeling I couldn't articulate well when it was necessary to raise our backyard fence to prevent our dog from climbing/jumping it. We have very little spare capital to be buying nice looking fence material. So we settled for chicken wire and stakes. And part of the reason I got so irritable and frustrated was because it was so UGLY, and I guess I equate ugly somehow with unfinished, and with slacking and laziness and not caring. Which wasn't fair, since we started out knowing we didn't have time or money to make it pretty, but there is just something inside me that balks and drags its feet and stomps and says 'that's wrong! You shouldn't do it that way!' So this is my way of explaining/apologizing to my boyfriend for my grumps that time.) Hey, this IS coming from a girl who once made a sculpture back in college in February in the woods in NY with 88 balls of twine. (I have to keep reminding him sometimes.)

Combine this with a feeling of inadequacy whenever I get my alumni magazine, which always seems to be filled with people who write, casually and breezily, things that go like this: "Well after helping build my NGO from scratch I'm moving on to the backwoods of Appalachia where I plan to teach the impoverished sustainable agriculture and how to build generators out of pine trees and rubberbands." Or: "Such-and-such has a new film showing in NYC that is making people who wear black in Manhattan applaud." Somehow "I'm sticking thermometers up animals' butts and still don't feel much like a doctor," doesn't seem very glamorous. So I'm driven to fill this inadequacy with things I can do, like keep my promises to my fractionally small readership. (This desire to keep even small promises also makes me think about the fact that I have a great deal of deeply ingrained ethics that might have me keeping company with much more conservative minded individuals, though I suspect they would never know, not being able to get past the whole nose ring, pro-gay marriage thing. Things like: if you're going to bother, you might as well do it right; hard work is good for you; saying "NO" is necessary when raising children; and a little pain and hardship in your life helps you stop being such a selfish pain in the ass. I can't understand how somehow these have been coopted as 'moral values' that only christian republicans understand, and if you're a lefty you're lefty [pun intended] with soft squishy lovey never experience anything bad or your life is scarred forever theories. Now I shall sit upon my soapbox self--we all have one--and squelch her. BACK! Back in your box!)

Now. You are, at this point, tapping your foot or looking at your watch or whatever and saying, OK, but what about those promises? (You see, I've got you all excited now.) Alright. First of all, I have made rather a lot of them, and so I think this may happen to be an installment plan thing (see how I have cleverly arranged content for my next posts so that I can draw on my original enthusiasm rather than have to come up with new topics?) The first one was made in May 3rd's Ambulatory post. I promised you a picture of an alpaca from my father's 1956 American college dictionary:

I have also included a bonus , (for a dear friend of mine who really likes them), a picture of a tarsier. I'm very impressed that this dictionary has the tarsier in it at all, much less a drawing of one. The dictionary has this to say about the tarsier:

tarsier (tar' si er), n. a small arboreal primate, genus Tarsius,
sole representative of a suborder, Tarsiodea, found in the U.S.
of Indonesia and parts of the Phillippine Islands, with enormous eyes.

I love the enormous eyes bit. So wonderfully random! And then there's the alpaca. Here's what the dictionary has to say about the alpaca:

alpaca (al pak' e) n. 1. a domesticated sheep like South American
ruminant of the genus Lama allied to the llama and the guanaco,
having long soft, silky hair or wool. 2. the hair. 3. a fabric made of it
a glossy, wiry, commonly black woolen fabric with a cotton warp.
a rayon and alpaca crepe, with a viscose and acetate rayon warp.
[t. Sp., from paco, Peruv. animal name to which the article al has
been prefixed.]

Hate to be the guy that had to write that one. Viscose and acetate? Sounds like the seventies. And they left out the vicuna! I love the vicuna, they look like they are the racing high octane version of a camelid. Here is what I know about alpacas:

  1. They are the short ones. Llamas are taller, and don't have quite so fine a fleece
  2. They are all camelids. Camelids are ruminants. Being ruminants (see sheep cow goat), they ruminate (eat their food several times by re-chewing the material in their first stomach compartment), have no top teeth (betcha didn't know that), and like living in herds. Technically, they are slightly different than your average cow, more closely related to the camel (hence the whole "camel"id thing), and they have only 3 stomach compartments vs. the cow's 4, unless you are a fractious anatomist and like to cause trouble ,(you'd be surprised at the amount of controversy there is surrounding anatomy: the dog's cecum causes brawls every year in freshman anatomy).
  3. They make a delightful short humming noise, that gets faster and louder when they are anxious and they can really scream bloody murder when you restrain them and they don't like it.
  4. They do spit, but not that often. Don't be one of those annoying people who looks at one over a fence and freaks out because it might spit. Frankly, you're not worth it unless you are actively pissing them off. Do you curse at people you've never seen before for no reason? (If you said yes, remind me not to ever meet you on the street.) Depends on how much they're handled and just how much they don't want their temperature taken. Just don't stand in front when they're really mad.
  5. They're stronger than they look.
  6. They are some weird new fad in this country and I can't really figure that out, despite their very large limpid brown eyes and big bangs cute thing.
  7. Their venous blood is as bright as their arterial blood, they have really thick skin, and they clot a lot faster than other animals (important when taking blood).
  8. They hate their feet and back touched, and really don't ever seem too impressed with people, even if handled a lot. In fact, as far as I can tell they only like having their chins scratched.
  9. They have the longest sexual act in the domestic mammal category (up to 90 minutes). If you get reincarnated as an animal, consider the alpaca or llama.
  10. When they lay down, it is called cushing. Just remember when you sit on a cushed alpaca to keep her from moving while on a wheeled cart because she won't walk down to the scale, they ARE stronger than they look.
There you are then. One promise fulfilled. I had fun getting here, even if it was a long time coming.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Talking to grief

I've had a sad day, mostly. One of my patients from yesterday died this morning. And I euthanized a case that could have lived for a another year with simple, cheap medication. The owner just couldn't face watching her get gradually worse. But OH I am sad about it. I've always been a crier. I guess watching this gets easier, and I'm glad I can keep from crying in front of clients, but I've got this time lag thing now: I'm home, I look at my own dear pets, in their health and their infirmities and I grieve for the lives we didn't or couldn't save. Now, you invisible reader, I ask you to do an even harder thing. Suspend your judgement, your condemnation of this owner who couldn't watch, and think of how hard it is to watch a loved one deteriorate. Feel her own pain. And I do think she is at home tonight, grieving as I do. Try to hold all of it at once: your anger at the waste of life, your grief over its loss, and your empathy for someone who had to make a terrible choice. Contradictory? You betcha. To this there is no good answer. Which is why I'm sitting up when I should be sleeping, crying over a pet I only just met.

Talking to Grief

Denise Levertov

Ah, grief, I should not treat you

like a homeless dog

who comes to the back door

for a crust, for a meatless bone.

I should trust you.

I should coax you

into the house and give you

your own corner,

a worn mat to lie on,

your own water dish.

You think I don’t know you’ve been living

under my porch.

You long for your real place to be readied

before winter comes. You need

your name,

your collar and tag. You need

the right to ward off intruders,

to consider

my house your own

and me your person

and yourself

my own dog.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Is this Website trying to tell me something?

Why has all the text on my previous posts suddenly turned grey? I have gone back and changed a few, but still. No editorializing from the nebulous ghost in the machine, please. Anyway, for the next three weeks my days will be obliterated by my 10am to 10pm ER shift (you WISH it was filled with EMS personnel dashing in yelling stats, handsome doctors and moral quandries created by just-complex enough patients--not to say it's boring, 'cause it really isn't, or that we don't have good looking doctors, but really, when's the last time someone peeed on the floor or tried to bite the doctor on TV?). It's amazing how coming to work in daylight and leaving at night makes you feel like a time-lapse photograph on fast forward. I get tired just thinking about it. The animals that come to us can often be at death's door, so this is a poem for all my potential patients.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.