off-duty


Now for some non-concrete thoughts.

I dislike Halloween. I especially hate yard decorations. For one thing, do you know how eerie a fluttering ghost or witch can be when you’re driving by in the dark, early in the morning, barely awake, trying to get to the hospital?

For another, I think covering your house in Halloween images is downright foolish. Witches, for instance, are not benign jokes. Sure, many self-titled witches today probably can’t accomplish much of anything. However, that doesn’t mean the concept isn’t real. In the Bible, for example, the witch of Endor summoned the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel, who accurately foretold King Saul’s death in battle. In general, the idea of trafficking with Satan should not produce warm fuzzy holiday thoughts. (And even if you want to talk about different kinds of magic, in the end any real magic, in this world, comes down to the same thing: rebelling against God’s providence and trying to control Nature and events through your own power.)

Ghosts? Only in modern American cotton-candy thinking are ghosts friendly. I don’t believe they actually exist (as opposed to witches, who are at least a theoretical/historical possibility); “it is given unto men once to die, and after that the Judgment.” But if they did, they have been portrayed from time memorial as unhappy spirits, either trying to escape from an unpleasant afterlife, or with some vengeful business to accomplish. There’s a reason haunted houses have been viewed with terror. Why would you try to bring that atmosphere to the house you live in?

Jack’o’lanterns: designed to scare evil spirits away from the house. Also not originally funny.

Spider-webs: yes, personally there’s nothing I detest more than a real live spider, no matter how small. So my view may be skewed. But are any of you really fans of spiders in the house? So why drape giant ones over the outside of the house?

In short, people who celebrate Halloween, and especially who decorate enthusiastically for it, are demonstrating a breathtaking lack of imagination. For a Christian perspective on the reality of evil and the supernatural, and its potential for devastating intrusions into the everyday, try Charles Williams’ Descent Into Hell or All Hallows’ Eve, which could be described (by extreme oversimplification) as a ghost story and a zombie story, respectively. For a (slightly) more upbeat approach, still involving a powerful and evil wizard, read War in Heaven, which is my favorite of his seven supernatural novels. (For those of you now questioning my literary taste, these are nothing like the current pulp vampire toxins flooding the market. Charles Williams was once a dabbler in black magic, who then converted to Christianity, and was a member of the Inklings, along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. So he knew what he was talking about, and he wrote as only an Englishman trained to write Latin verse from childhood can write English.)

Let me spare any of you who were contemplating it the waste of time that would be involved in watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine. For a movie involving Hugh Jackman, one of the biggest current stars, and Wolverine, one of the most popular X-Men, and the one with the biggest dramatic potential, this was a resounding flop. The plot was absolutely inane, indeed so non-existent that I couldn’t even begin to summarize it. The villains were not particularly villainous, largely because they couldn’t seem to make up their minds whether they wanted to kill Wolverine, capture him and experiment on him, or capture him and turn him into a dangerous weapon. Again and again, Wolverine was confronted with overwhelming force, and instead of either being killed or captured (as the odds would suggest), or decisively crushing his enemies (at least a definite plot maneuver, though contrary to the laws of probability), the fight seemed to fizzle out, and he walked away, only to start the whole thing over five minutes later in a new locale.

The actors also were uniformly disappointing. Jackman is nice to look at, and did a respectable job of growling at the right times, and waving his claws around as expected, but since the script didn’t give him anything meaningful to say, he was pretty much handicapped. The only other semi-interesting mutant, Wade, a sword-swinger who deflects bullets while rattling off snappy insults, was killed far too soon. (I did like the introduction of the young Scott Summers, and the way he started to demonstrate leadership and protectiveness immediately.)

Essentially, Wolverine’s story is the most mysterious and tragic plot-line in the entire Marvel universe, and its potential was completely wasted in this movie, which, for all the dead bodies strewn around, failed to elicit any sincere emotion, or to make good use of any of the super-hero duels stuck randomly into the plot (I need to stop calling it a plot, because it wasn’t). Also the visual effects could not have been any worse if they had simply not used CGI; I’m tired of the fakeness of all recent movies, where the actors seem to be the only real objects in view, and scarcely real at that.

I have to admit to having gone to see the Star Trek movie, because it was nearly perfect.

I was not a big fan of the TV series; I always thought they were too corny, with bad lines, silly plots, and ugly costumes.

This movie, on the other hand, takes the best of Star Trek, and puts a more modern turn on the production. The battles were the usual meld of metal flying and crashing, and parts of the plot were incomprehensible (characters who acted on information known to the audience, although it’s not clear how the character knew). But the acting and the portrayal of the characters and their interactions were perfect, and after all that’s what a movie about the origin of Captain Kirk and Spock needs to be about. Kirk had exactly the right mixture of responsibility and humor. The new Spock caught the exact look of puzzlement at human jokes or inconsistencies (although the fact that the actor previously played the arch-villain on Heroes was slightly difficult to ignore). Scotty’s introduction was a great way to add a deus ex machina (a brilliant engineer) to solve all remaining plot lines (although, again, I don’t understand how he knew what he apparently knew). The supporting characters were fun: Sulu was the perfect gallant lieutenant; Chekov’s accent was exactly right for breaking up the tension (how serious can a battle station call in incomprehensible Russian be?)

I hope they make several more like this one. J J Abrams is a genius; all of his shows have been unique and intriguing.

Next week, Wolverine.

***********

After I wrote that, I went to read some real reviewers’ opinions of the movie. Now the plot seems even stupider: a badly worked out time-travel ruse to move the new actors into a parallel universe. No wonder I could never understand why anyone was doing what they were doing. . . Still, the actors were good, and if you ignore the “real” Star Trek, it was a fun movie.

Yes, I know Lost is almost concluded; and here I am starting the first season. My only excuse is that I was waiting to make sure it would have a conclusion, before I got involved.

My favorite part of the show is Jack, one of the main characters, who is a surgeon. The writers seem a little confused about what kind of surgeon he is; in the first episode, he refers to having learned not to fear when dealing with a potentially catastrophic bleed during an operation on the cervical spine of a young woman. Characters who don’t like him refer to him as “the spine surgeon.” However, halfway through the season, his most serious conflict with his father, previously the chief of surgery at the same hospital Jack worked at, is revealed to be related to an incident in which his father operated while drunk on a young woman with abdominal trauma from a car accident, and Jack was forced to scrub in to help, but ultimately was unable to save the patient, due to an error his father had made. So I’m not completely sure what a spinal surgeon is doing as the pinch hitter in a trauma laparotomy; but he’s certainly very talented. Maybe he’s double boarded in general and neurosurgery. Or maybe he specializes in young female patients. . .

Apart from that, and the typical cluelessness about medical protocol (horribly incorrect CPR on multiple occasions; the OR is pitch dark; etc), this is only the second realistic TV portrayal of a doctor I’ve ever seen (the first was the murdered fiance, a cardiothoracic surgery resident,  in the first season of Damages, and he was killed off, which I didn’t appreciate). And boy is it realistic. I can completely picture a doctor, and especially a surgeon, behaving exactly the way Jack does, with a hero complex obliging him to attempt to rescue every one, no matter what kind of disaster has occurred, and with a penchant for leadership which really holds the community together, although it also antagonizes some people. Also, most of his medical activities are fairly possible; supposing a plane to actually contain all the useful implement and drugs which he finds, the wilderness medicine he practices doesn’t seem too outlandish.

But the truest part is Jack’s perpetual flashbacks to medical tragedies which haunt him, and drive him on a perpetual mission not to lose another person for whom he feels responsible. I can’t believe the writers had any idea of how true this is, since even the medical dramas, with medical advisers, don’t capture it; but without being lost an a magical island, all doctors are haunted in this way, and this is the most vivid portrayal I have ever seen.

In addition to the unrealistic portrayal of doctors (the only halfway realistic one I’ve seen ends up being murdered), there’s another thing the entertainment media does that really bugs me. Having seen a certain number of victims of serious automobile accidents, I have no stomach at all for the big chase/crash scenes which seem to be a staple of any movie these days. No matter what it’s about, it’s got to have at least one chase scene; one if it’s a romantic/comedy, two or three if it has any pretenses to the action category. Sure, it’s a lot of adrenalin: speed, fast changes in angle, and then crash and cars and trucks go flying overhead, flipping, smashing into each other and every object nearby, with a shower of sparks and explosions.

Everyone knows it’s ok, because the hero always makes it through with only a few picturesque scratches, and the assumption is made that the civilian vehicles somehow had no drivers; there’s never a screen shot of the truck driver whom the hero dodges around so that the truck spins across the highway and causes a pileup. But the police cars, at least, are acknowledged to have drivers; and those cars, like the others, end up smashed into pancakes.

Every single chase scene, realistically, would result in at least 50 persons injured, and I would have to guess a good 50% mortality rate, with a high incidence of serious injuries – broken limbs, head injuries, spinal injuries – in the survivors. But the hero careens merrily through, and though he may experience some moral angst about other portions of his adventure, these chases are regarded as harmless good fun for all involved, except insofar as the police chief is frustrated and yells at his subordinates.

All I can see are my own images of the drivers and passengers, and I hate the chase sequences.

This post could either be a humorous mention of a pet peeve, or perhaps there’s a deeper reflection on how the imperviousness of all the main characters in these settings (and the action games) may promote reckless driving by young people, and generally promotes callousness towards violence of all kinds. You pick.

Things are a little hectic in my house at the moment, as I am engaged in one of the less-publicized but still quintessential activities of residency: packing three days in advance. I’m going to work in the morning, where I’ll be on call overnight. After rounding in the morning, and staying till the stroke of noon (having been advised in advance not to dream of skipping out a moment early), I’ll race traffic to the airport, park my car, and take off for a few days. (Most residency programs arrange an exchange: one half of the workforce will pull double duty for Christmas, while the rest have a few days off; then switch for New Year’s.)

This closely-choreographed maneuver entails: emptying everything out of my car that I don’t want to sit at zero degrees for four days while I’m gone, or that might tempt thieves while it sits in an abandoned parking lot; packing the usual supplies for a night on call (food, because the hospital cafeteria is so depressing and unhealthy at night; by the time I have a moment to eat around 9pm, the only food still being sold is deep-fried, no matter what hospital I’m at; toothbrush; if I’m feeling ambitious, some supplies to try to make my hair presentable the morning after; a book, because if there’s ever a lull, I hate sitting around with nothing to do); plus packing for a trip which is still three days away; and of course doing laundry to support the whole enterprise.

Sometime around 2am on call, I’ll realize which essential object I left at home; but there’s no time in the schedule for coming back to pick up loose ends. So I’m left to make obsessive trips around the house today, trying to remember what I’m going to forget. Probably it’s going to be a book. I’ve been stocking up (from the library) for a week in preparation, so obviously I have more books than clothes to pack, and still have to triage out a couple of books to stay home. No doubt at 2am I’ll remember that I picked the wrong book to leave behind. Or maybe a coat; the coat looks like it’s planning to stay on the hook in the morning. . .

Note to self: just because the recipe in the New York Times food section only has three ingredients and a cooking time of fifteen minutes does not mean that you will be able to make it come out looking like the picture.

This arrangement for cooking potatoes in a frying pan looked simple, but clearly they were working with a much more expensive frying pan than I have. It might still taste good, if I can get all the charred bits off. . . after all only half the total amount of potato is burned. . .

Two conclusions for the night:

1) Obama is a smooth talker, but what he’s selling is nothing more than pure old-fashioned socialism, just barely warmed over. It’s unfair for CEOs to make more than schoolteachers? It’s unfair for Fortune 500 companies to make billions of dollars a year? That sounds good to middle and lower class Americans – if only we could get our hands on some of that money – but it’s economically wrong. Those CEOs and companies create jobs. Their wealth is not harming the rest of us. Economics is not a zero-sum game: one person making more money doesn’t necessarily take anything away from me.

Two places to look for more facts about McCain: an NRO piece about Obama’s ties to communists and terrorists, and another piece documenting Obama’s radical support for abortion through the end of the third trimester, and his opposition even to protecting babies who survive an abortion (for a survivor’s story, and her take on Obama, check out this WSJ article).

2) McCain’s catering to the global warming crowd is ridiculous; but at least he manages to act as though increasing drilling and nuclear energy is green. I like his solution, even though I think he’s got the problem a bit mislabeled.

Oh, and Obama just said something along the lines of, electronic medical records would decrease medical errors. For one, I bet this is going to be an unfunded mandate. For another, all electronic records do is perpetuate errors: if it once gets into that computer that a patient is allergic to penicillin, or carries MRSA, even when it’s completely false, it would take an act of Parliament to get that unfounded statement out. . .

But there, McCain wants medical records online – open to hackers and identity thieves. Thanks guys, try thinking before talking! . . .

That’s better: McCain opted away from calling healthcare a right. One thing he’s got right. . .

Good job, McCain, pushing Obama on his mistaken opposition to the surge in Iraq, which turned out so successfully. . . “No time for on-the-job training.” Good line.

That’s all the talking heads I can stand for one night.

Driving home from the hospital, I got stuck in traffic around a recent accident. Sitting and waiting, I calculated that from the amount of debris on the road and the number of flashing lights involved, it must have been a fairly serious accident, which would mean a good likelihood that at least one person involved would show up as a trauma alert somewhere. And only five minutes from my hospital. . .

Two minutes later the trauma pager started going off, describing that accident.

Not sure what the moral of that is; maybe not to carry a trauma pager when I’m not on trauma call. But it was fun to know more than anyone else in the traffic jam about what was going on.

Another magnificent piece of music: Haydn’s Te Deum, which was performed for a visit of Admiral Nelson to the Austrian court in 1800. It can be sampled (and even better, acquired) here.

This ancient hymn is glorious in itself, and Haydn’s triumphal score sets it beautifully. Some great lines:

Te Deum laudamus,
te Dominum confitemur.
We praise thee, O Lord; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.

Te aeternum Patrem omnis terra veneratur. . .
Thee, the Father everlasting, all the earth doth worship. . .

Te gloriosus apostolorum chorus,
te prophetarum laudabilis numerus,
te martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus. . .

Thee, the glorious choir of the apostles,
Thee, the admirable company of the prophets,
Thee, the white-robed army of martyrs doth praise. . .

Tu rex gloriae, Christe.
Thou, O Christ, art the King of glory.

Tu Patris sempiternus es Filius.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.

Tu, ad liberandum suscepturus hominem,
non horruisti Virginis uterum.
Thou, having taken upon thee to deliver man,
didst not disdain the Virgin’s womb.

Tu, devicto mortis aculeo,
aperuisti credentibus regna caelorum. . .

Thou, having overcome the sting of death,
hast opened to believers the kingdom of heaven. . .

Salvum fac populum tuum, Domine,
et benedic hereditati tuae
. . .
O Lord, save thy people, and bless thine inheritance. . .

Fiat misericordia tua, Domine, super nos,
quemadmodum speravimus in te.

Let thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have trusted in thee.

In te, Domine, speravi;
non confundar in aeternum.

In thee, O Lord, have I trusted;
let me not be confounded for ever.

That last line is absolutely magnificent, as Haydn plays it out into a minute-long meditation of confidence and faith.

I don’t know why, but somehow prayers and psalms mean more to me in Latin. Maybe because the language forces me to think about them slowly, rather than racing glibly through the phrases.

In te Domine speravi; non confundar in aeternum.

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