Monday, February 11, 2013

Excerpt from THE GINKGO, prologue

Once upon a time a young woman walked into my office. Although young women walk into my office regularly, this time something seemed different. She carried with her a mental electricity and left some of it hanging in the air. Four years after that day, she sent me a thank you note. “Thanks,” it read, in handwriting I recognized instantly, although I’d seen very little of it, namely just a few words on post-it notes stuck to Times New Roman 12-point, 1-inch margin, manuscripts. “Thanks.” That’s all it said. Plus her initials.
Thanks for what? you might wonder, although you may not want to hear the answer. Thanks for disrupting her mother’s plans? Thanks for opening doors I knew could be opened, although I had no idea what might lie beyond them? Thanks for disconnecting her from the culture that spawned her? Yes, to all those questions. In other words, thanks for doing my job. What is my job? Let’s see, how best to describe this work. I am an entomologist at heart; I study dragonflies, animals that have been on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. I spend an inordinate amount of time with dragonflies. You must know there is a refuge for people like me, a tax-supported refuge, called a university. I exist in this refuge. I am also a teacher. My job is to screen the human resources that will eventually be turned into health care professionals; your pediatrician’s name is probably somewhere in my files, and the kid probably got an A in General Biology. And I am a student of humanity; I study your children, primarily, animals that have been on Earth for such a short time they merge Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Abraham Lincoln into a category called “dead Presidents,” Vietnam and the Civil War into a category called “history.” But my real job is that of idealist.
It is exceedingly difficult work, that of the idealist. Not everyone understands this work, certainly not in the same way they understand accounting, medicine, law. The attorney gets up every morning and reviews his cases, legal principles, conflicts and contracts. The physician gets up and reviews her surgical procedures, her prescriptions, her terminal cases that must be told the truth. But the idealist gets up every morning and asks: what must I do today in order to make this world a better place in which to live? On that day this young woman walked into my office, charging my stale, chemical-infested, office air with her curiosity, I must have answered the question correctly because four years afterwards I got a simple one-word note: “Thanks.” Plus the initials. The idealist’s consummate reward.
With thank-you note in hand, I sat in this office, surrounded by the tools of my trade, staring at the chair where she’d spent so much time, and thought: her story must be told. So I wrote this book. My literary agent called the manuscript “an evocative book about ideas, exactly the kind of thing the American book-buying public is getting increasingly impatient with.” Then she declined to handle it. I understood her feelings, although at the time I thought: what happens to nations that get increasingly impatient with evocative books about ideas? Is this a healthy evolutionary trend for America? Probably not. So I persist in my own sense of what must be said in print, regardless of what others believe. Yes, indeed; the story of this student writing papers about a tree needs to be told, and especially to a nation becoming increasingly impatient with evocative books about ideas.
What kind of a conversation about her writing did we have? A deep, serious, life-changing, mutually respectful, unique, fulfilling, rich, fun, conversation, one that went on for the better part of a year, then faded into an occasional hour at the local coffee house, then came to some kind of closure with a one-word thank-you note. In other words, an interaction quite unlike that imagined by a public increasingly impatient with evocative books about ideas. Why can’t I get that phrase out of my mind? I walk downtown. The sidewalks are filled with normal, everyday, people—lawyers, housewives, businessmen and businesswomen, panhandlers, college kids, and non-descripts. Are they all impatient with evocative books about ideas? What are they not impatient with? Murder, narcotics, war? Or are they not impatient with money, politics, agriculture, health, the military, sex, sports, or religion, i.e. the very subjects she was prohibited from writing about all throughout the year she went exploring a tree, a museum, a sculpture garden, a gallery? Is it indeed possible that this society has degenerated into one so impatient with ideas that it will neither read nor buy an evocative book about them? I don’t believe this is the case. I believe my fellow citizens are vitally interested in ideas. Why else would they flock, in droves, to churches? Why else would they gravitate to certain politicians? Why else would they be so quick to categorize, then dehumanize, their fellow humans? Believe me, we are very interested in ideas; they are the hands that guide our acts, all of them, both good and evil.

THE GINKGO is available as a trade paperback from, and on, kindle, and nook.

1 comment:

  1. Stumbled across this excerpt from your FB post, and it is spurring many thoughts that I wish we could discuss over a Friday coffee big talk. Particularly, I connect with the mention of the many pre-meds that have come through since I, of course, was one of them. There are many opportunities to discuss big, evocative ideas in college, especially through honors seminars, etc, which I enjoyed and took for granted.

    Now in year 2 of 4 of residency, memorizing treatment algorithms, churning out patient discharges, and studying for the next inevitable 1- to 2-day multiple choice exam largely discourages flickers of curiosity and discussion of the broader world that shapes the patients we treat. Too impatient for evocative books of ideas? Heck, my peers probably don't even know tomorrow is the state of the union or that the pope retired today! Bringing up current events is usually met with comments like, "I'm too busy to read the news," almost like it was shameful to spend potential study time hearing or reading the news. Granted, this is not to say everyone is like this. And I'll be the first to admit my guilt in how few non-medical books I've read in the last couple years. In most (I hope), there is a hint of idealism left, and it takes the right circumstances to bring it out.

    For now, I'll rely on NPR, re-runs of the West Wing, and my upcoming copy of Ginkgo for the next set evocative ideas to ponder.