July 07, 2014
Perhaps Harvey—the man who, in 1874, was about to become the first-ever photographer of the giant squid—saw it as his duty to restore power to it, body and myth, myth and the body.
“It proved to be…gigantic,” Harvey continued.
July 07, 2014
Perhaps Harvey—the man who, in 1874, was about to become the first-ever photographer of the giant squid—saw it as his duty to restore power to it, body and myth, myth and the body.
“It proved to be…gigantic,” Harvey continued.
October 26, 2013
Last Halloween, I’d asked a few Nervous Breakdown contributors to share their favorite terrifying movie scenes, and D. R. Haney was among them with his contribution from Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I, on the other hand, had picked the tunnel scene from Willy Wonka, which I explain so you understand why I like collaborating with Duke. My brain grows three sizes bigger by association. He’s like a cinematic moral compass for which true north is James Dean. And this year for Halloween, Duke and I decided to discuss the classic tale that produced another old-school Hollywood icon.
Even in the frozen center of Massachusetts winter, my college campus was ripe for the blood harvest. Red Cross banners were everywhere, always. I felt compelled to volunteer myself in part because it seemed such a blameless cause that I could think of no reason not to, and easy charity is de rigeuer for the college kid. But the first time I tried to sign up for an appointment, I was turned away. Somebody I vaguely knew — a student liaison for the Red Cross — looked up at me from behind a table in our echoing humid dining hall and told me, without asking my weight, that I wasn’t heavy enough to give blood. My winter coat dwarfed me, but she was still right: The Red Cross asks that donors be 110lbs, and I weighed only 100.
December 01, 2012
Dear Mr. Brown,
First of all, congratulations. Your discovery of Eris in 2005 led directly to the reclassification of Pluto, profoundly altering our conception of the solar system. More importantly, in the process, you simultaneously broke the hearts of sentimental saps and/or third graders everywhere.
I should know: I used to be one of those saps. I have to admit, when Pluto was demoted in 2006, I was pretty depressed. Let me explain: I’ve always felt a certain kinship with Pluto. Like Pluto, I live in a far-flung, cold area that doesn’t get a lot of sunlight. It is called Minnesota. At 5’6” and one-hundred-and-something pounds, I am also pretty small. You could say that I was the Pluto of my high school football team. Everyone publicly admired me for my pluck, but in private, my teammates rolled their eyes at my feeble attempts to fit in where I so obviously did not belong.
September 24, 2012
Q: Is there a zombie Adam and Eve?
A: Yes. At least an Adam. And that, of course, would be Jesus. He is the first revenant. The first to rise from the dead and walk among us. Presumably he did not begin eating acolytes and chowing saints and lepers, but you never know. Yes, Jesus was the first zombie. If you believe in him, you believe in Z.
Q: How come Zombies don’t eat every part of a body before they move on to the next one?
A: Do you eat all the toppings on your pizza, or do you pick some off? Do you always wipe your plate clean, or do you get tired of the pheasant compote in balsamic reduction after a few bites? Zombies are an amalgam of teeth, hands, gristle, and vague memories. Sometimes those memories take precedence over the logic of calorie intake.
June 17, 2012
On St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday significant to engineers in the USA, I wrote about the prominence of that profession within my family. It so happens that I’ve had occasion to expand upon that on another holiday. I’ve never really been big on Father’s Day, despite having four children of my own, but on the usual phone call to my father we got to talking about his background in electron microscopy. He was not only a pioneer applying it to materials engineering, but also involved in education, looking to produce the next generation in his field, particularly from Nigeria.
In kindergarten, I accessorized my “Save The Planet” t-shirt collection and kelly green stirrup leggings with a Fisher Price doctor’s bag. I was going to be a doctor, probably a heart surgeon. My delighted parents added kindling to the dream by providing me with doctor stuff to play with – a subscription to the Time-Life Science Library, a chem set, and best of all, in fourth grade, a projection microscope.
Not every game that I played with my parents required so large and so mathematically sophisticated an apparatus as our beanbag tic-tac-toe set: with its ever shifting planes of experience—Xs and Os—victory and loss—all poised on invisible pins and ready to pivot from pleasure to pain to panic—that nightmare land of indecision—at the slightest provocation.
We also enjoyed simpler pastimes, such as hide-and-seek.
Thomas Thwaites is an interesting fellow. He describes himself as a “designer (of the more speculative sort), interested in technology, sciences, and futures research,” and his work as “communicating complex subjects in engaging ways.” Armed with an MA from the Royal College of Art Design Interactions, Thwaites has written a book called The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011).
It was selected as one of NPR’s Best Books of 2011.
December 03, 2011
Most scientists I asked about whether art had truly influenced science said in general, no, because they recognize the fundamental difference between the enterprises more than most artists, and the rest of us, do. We are entranced by parallel images from subatomic particles and Zen brush painting, but we don’t think through the fundamental oppositions of such activities. Science is a cumulative quest for the objective description of the way the world really is, with each stab towards the truth subject to rigorous scrutiny, logic, and possible repeatability. Art is a stab in the dark, a quest to make a strong statement, to feel ‘true’ in the gut by doing something polished and complete enough to cause an instant stir in the heart. You can analyze, you can test it, you can try to explain it, but the greatness will be more than the sum of its parts. It may be an easy gesture, or a labored effort, be done in minutes with the turn of the hand or a sudden glance. As much as one may speak of similar gestures in science, they represent an aesthetic part of the scientific work, not the main gist of it.
Science and art have different criteria for truth. They present their conclusions with a different sort of stance, a different weight. An artist can convince by the splendor of his work, or just the conviction of this presentation. Even the image of a whole that doesn’t quite make sense, and cannot exist apart from its presentation. Like a fine bird song, which has no message or meaning outside its performance. It is what it is, and if it touches enough who experience it, it will endure. But not science. Every conclusion is subject to the intense scrutiny of the whole field, and will most likely be superseded by new discoveries over time. In science there is most definitely progress. In art, we recognize changes in taste over time, but not aesthetic advancement.
Most of us would not say today’s art is better than that made in the Renaissance or Enlightenment periods. It is certainly different, and we may or may not prefer different things today. Art is primarily expressive and evocative, not needing to be useful and informative. But I would like it to help us, to improve our lot, in a way to progress. I want to imagine it can change the way we see the world, and improve our understanding. So should it then at least sometimes positively influence science? Taylor and his colleagues believe Pollock anticipated the discoveries of fractal mathematics, though maybe he is instead saying that what is great in Pollock’s wild imagery is the fractal naturalness of it, which is more like an accidental secret code than a real insight. In the end he too is showing how mathematics might explain art, giving science the upper hand, a kind of solid exact power that comes with science’s ability to do things, to make things, to physically improve the world. Compared to the changes in our world that science has wrought, art can seen downright frivolous, but it does make us laugh and cry.
One scientist who has thought quite deeply on this is the Nobel prize winning chemist Roald Hoffman, who has also published several books of poetry and is famous for organizing the monthly “Entertaining Science” events at New York’s Cornelia Street Café, one of the longest-running series of informal gatherings to present science and downtown culture together, the forerunner of the great “Science Festivals” now popping up in major cities all over the world. Chemistry, he says, surprisingly, is often all about drawing. The vocabulary of chemistry can get so technical that even its practicitioners cannot understand all the words in a typical journal article in the field! But when they see molecules drawn, with their elements and their interconnections, in the standard and universally understood way, then it all makes sense. Chemists are trained connoisseurs of a particular kind of illustration, which, in its universality, has more currency in explaining its concepts than the confusing gobbledegook of words, which outsiders like to call jargon. Even within the field it is jargon, and there are too many terms to ever know. The image is the key, the drawing tells all.
“The communication of molecules’ architectonic essence by little iconic drawings (rather than photographs or etchings), and by ball and stick models, is of proven value – remember it’s been more than half a century since the Watson and Crick paper. They didn’t synthesize DNA, they reasoned out its structure, almost willing a model into being,” writes Hoffman in a special issue of the journal Hyle on aesthetics in chemistry. “It never ceases to amaze me how a community of people who are not talented at drawing, nor trained to do so, manages to communicate faultlessly so much three-dimensional information.”
He is amazed, but also shocked by his colleagues’ resistance to a more aesthetic approach to the world. Why is it, he wonders, “that people who have learned to communicate visually in such a variety of artistic styles—chemists—are not more tolerant of expressionist and abstract artistic ways of communicating knowledge and emotion?” I would say it is the classic sense that in science the march of knowledge is rigorous and cumulative, while an artist can just get up there and say something, make a gesture, do something different or out of whack, and demand to be taken seriously and his culture will sometimes take him seriously, without needing to ask all these questions that situate the work in its context. Art does not work the same way as science, so if you talk about their relationship or how to combine them, you will want to tell your audience if what you present is to be taken as science, or as art, and in each case it will need to be enjoyed or assessed differently. This is not to favor one or the other ways of knowing, just to recognize that they will always be different, and if something is to be both art and science then it will have to allow these two different ways of interpretation.
So as a musician, I can sail off the coast of Hawaii and try to play music live with humpback whales, and sometimes I get those whales to sing along with me and the interspecies results might once in a while be interesting to listen to as a kind of music that crosses many aesthetic lines. All I have to do is get one beautiful recording, show that it really is a live interaction between human and whale, and present the work as such. It might be successful. Is the whale really responding to my clarinet? How is he adjusting his song in response to mine? To say something scientific about this, I’m going to have to go out on hundreds of trips and collect a lot of data of whale/human interactions that can be statistically analyzed. To turn this into a scientific experiment, such data is essential. Only then could I make more objective conclusions about what I hear as beautiful. As an art experiment, one beautiful human/whale duet is enough. It is easier in that it takes less time, but you have to be musically prepared to take such a thing seriously. That’s the harder part.
Hoffman has thought much more deeply on this. He has considered how science might learn far more subtlety from art. After being amazed by how much chemists can express to each other using drawing, a fundamentally artistic techniques, he thinks more daringly on how art might inform science. What of abstraction? We have spoken of abstract art for more than a century—can there also be something called abstract science? For one, we cannot really be sure any art is really abstract; if it doesn’t represent the appearance of nature, does it not idealize nature by seeking to exalt pure form one way or another?
Abstraction, when it was introduced, seemed to be put forth as in opposition to something, a more naïve notion that art could basically represent the world. So, let’s try for an abstract science. Is there any sense in which chemistry could be seen as in opposition to something? It too is sometimes opposed to nature. Hoffman says: “Chemists in the laboratory are torn between emulating nature and doing things their own way. A protein, through its own curling and its tool kit of sidechain options, shapes a pocket where, say, a molecule with only right-handed symmetry fits. But it not only fits, it has something done to it—a specific bond in that molecule is cleaved, or an atom is delivered to it. The chemist’s fun, much like abstract art, is in achieving the same (why not better?) degree of shape control that nature does, but doing it differently, perchance better, in the laboratory.” With greater abstraction may come greater fun.
And greater attention to form and simplification, the basis of science’s tendency to break things down into their simplest parts. Yet it is not the elegance of the rules that most impresses Hoffman, but the sense that the playing of the game can trump the results, like Hermann Hesse’s vision of the mysterious spiritual/technical activity he introduced in The Glass Bead Game, an activity never quite defined but consuming its players like a whole sci/art culture, always a vision that impressed me for years as a college student, especially the fact that it could never quite be described because its totality was so immense. So it’s either a metaphor for life itself, or a call to generate the great games of today, intricate structures in cyberspace or playing themselves upon total digital machines. But that’s still probably not it, it’s still more likely that great sense you feel when, against all odds, all the processes one thinks through at any given moment suddenly seem to make sense, and all fit together like some great “aha” moment that finally really works.
Hoffman gazes at the cool geometrical forms of Rothko, amazed by their exactness and fuzziness at once. Art has evolved to depict tendencies, hazy eminences like the unclear parts of the brain that may light up when one or another thought process happens. Science of the mind not like a device, with gears and cogs churning the machinations of thought, no, hazy areas on the screen light up, we have a glimmer of idea we might begin to chart. Data? A diagram? Proof, some clear result? Not really, but a century where art can be blurry and with this blurriness offer a new kind of precise meaning inspires many disciplines of science where inexactness does not stop us.
Roald Hoffman, “Thoughts on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry,” Hyle, vol. 9, no. 1, 2003, p. 7.
Roald Hoffman, “Abstract Science,” American Scientist, vol. 97, no. x, 2009, p. 450.
Ch. 6, Survival of the Beautiful, by David Rothenberg, © 2011. Used with permission by Bloomsbury Press
What made you want to write a book on beauty?
This world is a beautiful place. Sometimes that is easy to forget. I have always wanted to be able to explain this beauty as something objective, a fact, a quality about the way the world evolved, not just some subjective human opinion. It turned out that realization of beauty was one of the motivating factors behind Darwin’s discovery of evolution, a fact that science seems to have forgotten. I wanted to bring this history back into today’s discussion about what life is and how it got here.
You’re a musician. What are you doing writing about visual art?
Right, I have no idea what I’m talking about. But everyone around me is a visual artist—my mother is a painter, my father was an architect, my wife is an artist, I grew up with discussions of modernism and postmodernism and surrealism and impressionism all around the house. Over the years I became fascinated with the idea that paying attention to abstract twentieth century art has led us to see nature in a new way, and I was surprised no one had written about this. I really wanted to see in what ways art has specifically influenced science, and how it might have more influence in the future.
Isn’t the ‘beautiful’ a kind of old-fashioned concept when it comes to talking about art today?
So they say, but I believe that the most enduring conceptual/situationist artworks will be those that leave a direct aesthetic impression on the viewer. They still have to be beautiful if these works expect to survive.
How does it feel to criticize scientists when you yourself are not a scientist?
Yes, sometimes scientists have gotten angry with me when I make outlandish claims like “you people are not asking the most interesting questions.” Who do I think I am? In my earlier book Why Birds Sing I was more critical of science when it comes to what it wasn’t asking about bird song, but now, six years later, I find myself collaborating with bird song neuroscientists trying to develop new approaches to analyze the deeper, musical structure of this beautiful natural phenomena, the kind of structure scientists previously refused to recognize. So maybe my prodding is having a little bit of influence.
It has long been my belief that among the many human forms of knowledge—art, music, poetry, science, philosophy, religion—no one approach will encompass the others. Often the practitioners of each seem to think theirs is the best or most total way. That sense of primacy or entitlement can never be completely correct. Our minds and senses are too diverse for that.
I want to explore how art might best influence science. Too often when these disparate approaches are combined the blending is either too easy: “art and science both value elegance and creativity” or else too condescending: “artists dare to dream and play Reality is far more nuanced and interesting than that.
There are a lot of pictures in your book, how do those connect with the words?
If you put all the pictures together and gaze at each of them for a while before moving onto the next, you may be able to get the same ideas as the words describe in greater detail.
What should science really learn from art?
The beauty in a moment’s creative expression may be unique and unrepeatable, but in that moment’s greatness can exist an important truth which must be accepted, even though it may never happen again.
Art can sometimes accomplish the impossible, and then science should not deny it but can try to explain it, as long as the method of explanation does not serve to remove the magic from the aesthetic moment.
What should art learn from science?
Art can learn diligence, perception of details, asking of questions, and perhaps above all the subjecting of any wild idea against the test of rationality or data. Don’t just trust your instincts! Don’t get stuck on your own ideas! Look, listen, wait, think, scrutinize. Your goal of expressing an essential insight that can be expressed no other way can easily take itself too seriously and not pay enough attention to the real world. Science should teach you to question your own assumptions and really learn from careful attention to the way nature works, not just the way it appears.
What do you want the reader to get from your book?
To look up from the pages and see the world in a whole new way, where beauty is a fact, and science and art both conspire to reveal different aspects of this same, genuine fabric all around us.
What are you working on next?
Something much easier than a whole theory of art, science, and evolution! Back to something I know more about… how to make music with bugs…. should be out in time for the return of the seventeen years cicadas to New York in 2013. You can watch a preview here:
I went to a high school that was pretty lax about class requirements. Students were strongly encouraged to take at least three years’ worth of every major subject: English, Social Studies, Math, Science. But the word “encouraged” is key.
My guidance counselor was just too sweet for her own good. Or I guess for my good, really, because once I realized that the requirements were flexible, it was goodbye to Math and Science. Anything with numbers or facts? Peace out, see ya later.
What I loved was English. I was always reading. You know that phrase people (it seems like only old ladies, actually) always say, like: “That Billy always has his nose in a book! Such a bookworm!” I was that bookworm. Literally, though; at almost all times, I walked around with my big nose in a little book. I would read on the bus, step down, and keep reading as I walked across the parking lot to class. I looked like Belle in The Beauty and the Beast, walking through the halls like I was strolling around Paris with a book in front of my face and a croissant in the other hand. If mentioning a non-Pixar animated movie is too archaic, by the way, and the reference has been lost on you, go to 1:45 in this vid. The chick ecstatically sliding across the bookshelf, that’s me.
I also loved languages. Beginning in seventh grade, we had to take a language and our choices were Latin, Spanish, or French. The hot girls took French, the apathetic masses took Spanish, and the parent-pleasing “intellectuals” took Latin. Which one do you think I chose?
After three years of Latin, I liked learning a language so much that I added Spanish, too. I dropped Math in order to do so. Then, junior year, I dropped Science, too, in order to double up in English. Our choices that year were Classical Lit—in which we read Homer, Aeschylus, and other dead Greeks, or AP (Advanced Placement) Lit, which involved Joyce, Dickens, Dostoevsky and blablabla, you know those dudes. The literary giants.
I couldn’t just choose one. I elected to take no Science, no Math, and to make up for the void by adding something called an “independent study.” For my independent study, I sat in a small storage closet with my favorite English teacher (poor, kind man) and we would discuss short stories from the 1800s.
So, to reiterate the list here: I was taking two sections of foreign languages, two sections of English, and a special private study of Hawthorne and Poe. I was a huge fucking nerd.
Senior year, I wanted to do it again—no Math or Science. But my guidance counselor insisted that colleges might not like the discrepancy, and that I should really choose at least a Science class. Of all things, we went with AP Biology, based on the logic that I had taken regular Bio freshman year and scraped by with a B, and hey, it was just memorization, after all. Kingdom, Phallus, Order, Genius, right? Lots of lists and stuff.
On the first day, the teacher announced to us, “This is AP-level Biology, I expect AP-level work and commitment.” Fuuuuck. Then she passed out a huge book and said we would cover a chapter a week and have a big multiple choice exam every Friday.
For the first test, I studied for a little while, memorized the bullshit, and felt pretty good after taking it. She handed them back Monday, and I got an 85. I was pretty happy with that. 85 was a B, and hey, if I could get a straight B in the class, that was okay.
I felt really good after taking the second test. I felt like I maybe even brought up my score from the first one, maybe got into the 90s range. But on Monday, she handed them back and I got a 74. “Hmm,” I thought, “That’s a bit of a drop. But it’s not so bad, and I’ll pull it up next time.”
For the third test, I studied harder than before. I made flashcards, and had my parents quiz me. I felt good. After actually taking the test, though, I didn’t feel so good. I just wasn’t gettin’ this science stuff! We got the test back Monday, and sure enough, I got a 65. Uh-oh. That’s like a D, right? I was upset, to say the least. I wanted to burn my Bio textbook. A year later, in college, I would get the chance to burn a book, but it would be Eccoci, my text from first-year Italian. As I held the flame to its angry pages, I closed my eyes and thought about AP Bio. Note: No books were harmed in the making of this TNB post (nor even in the photo below; after holding the lighter there long enough for a picture, I wussed out).
Meanwhile, we were nearing the deadline to drop a class. Soon, I’d be in too deep. But I also knew I couldn’t really drop the class, because I needed a science corurse.
So, for the fourth week’s test, I really kicked into high gear. I started studying a week in advance, read through each chapter twice, and tried to think of any surprise, trick questions. This time, I wasn’t fucking around.
At this point, you know where the story is headed, don’t you?
I took the test, and boy, it went great. I knew all of the questions with confidence, and walking out of class Friday, I thought that if anything, I had been overprepared!
After completing the test, I felt so good about it that after school that very afternoon, I actually went to the Science office to approach the teacher. I wanted to find out my grade, and I knew that even though we didn’t get tests returned until Monday, they were all graded with the Scantron machine (“Use #2 pencils only! Darken each rectangle fully! No errant pencil marks!”) and therefore took a teacher thirty seconds and zero effort to score each one. She had probably already graded them.
The teacher’s name was Miss Tyson. “Hi Miss Tyson!” I said when I walked into the Science office. “Hello, Daniel,” she said quietly. She looked grim.
“Hey, so, I know we won’t get back them til Monday, but I thought maybe if you had already scored them, I could find out my grade from today’s test now? I just feel really good about it and wanted to see mine early!“
She looked at me, and said, “Are… are you serious?”
“Yeah!” I said with genuine, doe-eyed enthusiasm.
She looked around the office at the other science teachers like she was embarrassed, and she said, “I’m going to write your score down for you on a piece of paper.”
“Gee golly, okay!” I said, excited to see my A+ grade.
Then she took a little corner of scrap paper and brought out her pen. I still remember it today; it was a purple Le Pen. Felt tip, gorgeous ink. A really nice pen! She wrote something on the scrap of paper and then slid it over to me with her hand covering it. Then she slowly lifted her hand.
On the piece of paper, she had written the number 47.
I gave her a puzzled look and asked, “Oh, was it graded out of 50 this time?”
“No, that’s your score out of a hundred,” she said.
I smiled, and thought for a second. I probably thought about what I would eat for my after-school snack. Then I looked up at her and said, “Okay, will you sign this drop sheet?”
I have a long history of becoming far too invested in my prime time TV shows. For a period, I went around telling friends and associates in various states of legal trouble that “a writ of mandamus must be issued” or that “these things usually sort themselves out in voir dire,” along with other bits of unsolicited, erroneous legal advice mined from “Law & Order” episodes. I employed, usually to little effect, modern forensic techniques learned on “CSI: Las Vegas” to create a time-line for those moments spurred on by my late-night roistering. I know I went to Taco Bell late-night because there are beans on my face this morning. But wait. Perhaps I am confusing correlation with causation. I’ll need more grant money to close the book on that case. But this is different. I’ve got a big problem now. The folks over at FOX have really done it to me this time.
“House, M.D.,” which usually airs at 8/7c, is a show that features the brilliant and ornery infectious disease specialist Dr. Gregory House, his three minions, Drs. Chase, Foreman and Cameron, along with Dr. Cuddy, the Dean of Medicine at Princeton Plainsboro and oncology specialist extraordinaire, Dr. Wilson. The show follows Dr. House and his colleagues through the Byzantine world of medicine, “where the villain is a medical malady and the hero is an irreverent, controversial doctor who trusts no one, least of all his patients,” at least according to a FOX network statement.
For me and my girlfriend Allison, this show has become an overwhelming presence, not just in our quotidian routine, but in the bedroom. Initially, my reaction to House, M.D. was a predictable one. I am a failed pre-med student, and even before the advent of Dr. House and his crew, I often resorted to offering ill-advised medical advice to those in need, falling back on my elementary training in medicine along with reruns of “ER.”
“Where does it hurt?”
“It’s my stomach. I think it might have been the fajitas.”
“Hmm, it sounds like your liver is shutting down. We need to start lactulose, 30 cc’s per NG and a get a stool and urine sample to see if there’s any blood in there.”
“It’s just a stomach ache.”
“Tyler, we’re at a Chili’s. What’s the matter with you?”
“Fine. It’s your life. Do you want the Mudslide Pie to go?”
But “House, M.D.” is a completely different kind of monster. Instead of breakneck emergency room procedures, House and his team are consistently faced with medical mysteries and procedures that would throw the common ER doctor for a loop. Just the other day House had to treat a man with electro-shock therapy for male menopause to wipe out his memory because the man was also sick with love for his brother’s fiancée and the only way to get him better was to fry his brain and erase the memories to keep heart attacks brought on by his brother’s fiancée’s presence away. Not the run of the mill motorcycle vs. pedestrian so common on other medical dramas.
After Allison and I decided this was a worthwhile show and one worth purchasing on DVD, things took a turn for the worse. Innocuous medical issues became intense projects, as I would eschew the common diagnosis for a more bewildering prognosis.
“You wouldn’t believe it, Tyler. Everybody at work is sick. I think the flu is going around. Maybe I’ll take tomorrow off.”
“I see. Has anybody in your office been to Africa in the last six months to a year?”
“Why? I think Amy might have gone to Miami last summer with her husband, but I don’t think anybody went to Africa.”
“So you’re not sure?”
“Well no, not totally.”
“Look, after we put your office in quarentine, I’m going to need to check Beta 2 protein levels and do a lumbar puncture on all the employees. I’m leaning toward cowpox, but it could be amyloidosis or lymphoma. However, if the biopsy and abdominal CT scan are negative for cancers, I’m going to need to check for scurvy and African horse sickness along with hypergonadism. You all may also have a mild case of Addison’s disease.”
“Did you say ‘hypergonadism?’”
“Yes, of course. Why?”
“How do you explain a case of hypergonadism in an office full of women?”
And unlike her distaste for my other forays into pseudo, prime-time science, Allison was oddly tolerant and even encouraged my maverick House M.D.-induced diagnostic career. In fact, it now occurs to me that her long string of coughs, sneezes, yawns, ticks and alleged night sweats over the past year was a ruse to get closer to Dr. House and his colleagues.
“Babe, my head hurts. Do you think it’s anything,” she’ll say, prompting me to list a litany of ailments. Dr. House is never one to rule out any scenario and neither was I. Of course, my database of disease increased with every “House, M.D.” episode: Bwamba fever, Potato leaf roll virus, Mafucci syndrome, adrenal hypoplasia, Touraine-Solente-Golé syndrome, cat-scratch fever, oral-facial-digital syndrome types I-IV, you name it.
“Maybe it’s nothing. Why don’t you come in to the bedroom with me?” In the bedroom, Allison was nice to me and these niceties continued for quite a while. I hadn’t noticed the correlation, however, between our horizontal antics and their proximity in time to our viewing of “House, M.D.” I don’t believe men have the capability to reflect accurately on why or how they are treated nicely; we accept the situation with an awe and wonderment reserved for the contemplation of Machu Picchuor the Edelbrock intake or Buffalo wings. Once again, I confused correlation with causation, assuming my vast knowledge of pathology was the catalyst behind our new and improved love life. Alas, it was not my knowledge of medicinal arcana that provoked Allison’s amorous behavior; it was Gregory House, M.D.
As season one moved to season two, Allison’s and my fanaticism for the show grew. After the first season, you have a good sense of the characters—their motivations, a look into their skeleton-packed closets—and you begin to relate to them. Gregory House M.D. suffers from some kind of untreatable condition that led to necrosis in his quadricep, causing the brilliant doctor significant discomfort. I have a few ideas about what could be ailing House, but my humility prevents me from divulging these notions to strangers. Ok, I don’t really have a concrete idea about what could be wrong with Dr. House, but neither does he, which is why we both flirt with a Vicodin addiction. Dr. House needs a few handfuls a day to cope with the agonizing pain brought on by his condition and the stupidity of the hospital administration and his patients, while I, on the other hand, require a few handfuls to offer “moral support” to House and because my friend Brent has some left over from when he had his wisdom teeth removed. As for what’s ailing Dr. House, I’ll put it this way: Fulminating osteomyelitis is still on the list. But then again, so are a thyroid hormone plasma membrane transport defect and scabies. As you see, my enthusiasm for the show increased with every episode. Allison, however, began to “present” symptoms of a similar, yet more corporeal fanaticism.
Around the middle of season two, Allison, who is not much for idol worship, proposed we buy a poster of House, M.D. and his team on E-bay. During college and far too long after, I inflicted upon my roommates posters featuring green space aliens that glowed eerily under a black light, that Bob Marley poster that everybody has where he is smoking a joint the size of the Hindenburg, and the requisite poster of Anna Nicole Smith before she ballooned and fell into a quaalude/chicken fried steak-induced torpor. I thought I could manage another juvenile poster; time and maturity relegating them all (aside from the alien poster) to a dumpster at the behest of some style-conscious former love. We looked online and saw a House, M.D. poster signed by all the doctors, so for Christmas, I endeavored to purchase on eBay this one-of-a-kind item for Allison.
A 24 x 36 poster signed by Dr. Gregory House, M.D. and his staff (including Dr. Cuddy and Dr. Wilson) hovering over what looks like an exam table, the eminent doctors backlit by a surgical lamp, was available on eBay for $100. I went to work and during a lull, logged on to the site to put in my bid on the poster. I bid $150 and went back to work, confident that in two days, nine hours, and seventeen minutes the item would be mine. I checked on my offer a day later only to find I had been outbid by house_lover22. This devotee had pushed the bid up to $200. Fazed, but still possessing a little of the fight that has kept my alien poster up all these years (although I was told I’d have to lose the black light as it was, according to a former girlfriend, “the drippiest, crispy, weed-smoking patchouli bong resin relic I’ve ever seen”) I went whole hog in for $220. Only the best for my gal! But the next day, as I went to check my bid, house_lover22 dropped a $260 bomb on me. War. Without flinching, I offered $275 for the poster, certain that this would scare off the little House, M.D. tourist. Then, 45 minutes later, I had been outbid again, sure enough, by house_lover22. Three-hundred god damned dollars. I was done. He wins. I left the bidding arena feeling like a victim of acute cadmium poisoning.
I arrived home from my office and found Allison all worked up into a tizzy.
“I got it! I got it! That House poster we were looking at. Some fucker tried to snatch it up, but I hung around and got it.”
“Do we even have three-hundred dollars?”
“How’d you know it was…oh shit. Gift of the Magi. Sort of.”
The poster arrived and Allison hung it above our bed, where a mirror used to be. This is when I first came to suspect that Allison’s love of House, M.D. had taken a distinctly different shape than my own. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have a massive crush on Drs. Cuddy and Cameron and a bit of a man-crush on Dr. Chase. Obviously, Gregory House M.D., is included in this list, but my attraction to him is less physical—I’d like him to stay and chat over scotch and then maybe something happens. . . . But Allison, it now became clear, had only a selfish interest in my prognosticating. My diagnoses were mere vehicles on which she could ride away from the “real world” and into the arms of the wildly attractive knot of doctors at Princeton-Plainsboro.
I caught Allison engaged in House M.D. chat rooms, vigorously smashing away at the keyboard to harass other members of the otherwise innocuous chat room and reinforce the notion that these brilliant doctors were misunderstood by the cretinoid masses here at the Forum: http://forums.fox.com/foxhouse/.
“You dumb sons of bitches. Dr. Chase is merely trying to live up to his father’s wild, unattainable expectations. Of course he’s going to be wound tight, you sanctimonious fucks.”
Eventually these rants found Allison banned from a number of “House, M.D.” chat rooms and left to stew in the thought that there existed people out in the world who would disparage perhaps the finest team of doctors ever to be assembled. Speaking of the real world, I began to feel my first pang of jealousy, as our love life, at least in the bedroom, had become a decidedly canine diversion. Now, I love to watch House, M.D. on Tuesdays at 8/7c, but I don’t need to see the staff above my bed, examining my every move, judging me, diagnosing me.
“Hey, Dr. Foreman. The patient looks odd and manic. Do you think it could be Japanese encephalitis?”
“Well, Chase. I don’t know. Certainly neurological. Maybe metachromatic leukodystrophy. Dr. Cameron, any thoughts?”
“Yeah. Is that all he’s got? Jesus. Poor bastard.”
I remained tolerant of our signed House, M.D. poster because I am no fool and I know a good thing when I’ve got it. But, I really felt I had to establish myself as a plausible substitute for Dr. House and his colleagues. I met with my friend Ben at a sushi restaurant over Camparis to try and orchestrate a plan. We spent the afternoon sipping our Italian aperitifs and pinching at spider rolls, my confidence rising with the alcohol and Ben’s completely misguided advice.
“You should fucking apply to medical school, man.”
“What do you mean? I already tanked in pre-med and any relevant medical knowledge I’ve ever had is shaky at best, Ben.”
“Why are you so hard on yourself?”
“I’m not trying to be hard on myself, I’m trying to be honest with myself, Ben.”
“Oh, sorry. I guess I couldn’t tell the difference. I’m also on mushrooms.”
Everyone needs the friend who will actually ingest all the ridiculous psychedelic chemicals used for the occupational vision quest. I would never have conceived of applying to medical school in my current state—fragile, insecure and possibly suffering from delusions of grandeur or angina pectoris. But Ben planted this seed, and after tracking him down in the bathroom where he was organizing a bowl of edamame to resemble Che Guevara, I patted him on the back, stuck him with the bar tab and went to the half-price book store to purchase a guide to taking the MCAT.
Allison supported my decision to apply to medical school, but her behavior turned from one of trepidation toward to outright disgust. After delaying my attack on the MCAT a half dozen times for various reasons (“Who’s to say I don’t have cadmium poisoning?) I discovered medical school and even the medical profession at large, involved more than the rote memorization of obscure diseases and dosage amounts. There’s also quite a bit of mathematics and chemistry, two subjects which I would characterize as my weak suits. I sat on the couch going through MCAT flashcards featuring calculus and covalent bonds most evenings except for Tuesdays 8/7c, when House, M.D. would take me to a loftier position, in particular, the head of diagnostic medicine at Princeton Plainsboro hospital. Allison would sit transfixed, her tongue probing the air as if to catch some renegade particle escaped from the sweet breath of Dr. House through the phosphorous and the ray tubes of the television and onto her pursed and eager lips. The only time she ever strayed from her seat was when she would have to throw the cat against the wall for stepping on the remote control. Wednesday through Monday, however, I worked like mad toward being accepted to, “you know what? Fuck it,” I said, “Princeton Medical School.” Alas, Allison’s feelings of disgust at my obvious lack of aptitude for the sciences came to head one afternoon when she barked,
“How can you not know the difference between aromatic and alicyclic compounds or even less an atom and a god damned molecule? Baboons know that shit! I’m going on-line. You’re a mess.” I was, though. I was terrible. I began to copy test answers from the previous owner of this study guide’s practice tests. No doubt this whiz was already chief of cardiac medicine somewhere fancy. I allowed myself to be swept up in the idea that I had, like Allison and Dr. House’s molecules (atoms?), somehow become intertwined with this book’s previous owner. Another practice test. Another near-perfect performance. Allison came to trust in my capabilities, noting, “Maybe it’s just weird. Maybe you just sound like an idiot when you’re talking.” But I knew better and as the date of my MCAT came upon me, I was seized with fear. I was a fraud. All that legal jargon, all that ridiculous recitation of House’s diagnoses, not mine…puerile, stupid, show-offy, greasy kid stuff. What was I thinking? “Law & Order” never had me applying to law school; I saw “A Brief History of Time” and I didn’t go rushing off for a doctorate in space physics; “The Karate Kid” did see me enroll in karate lessons, but only for one day, as I wore my gi out in public sporting the never-menacing beginner’s white belt, and was quickly set upon by local hoods who locked me in a Port-o-Potty for 45 minutes. What the hell was this? Who did I think I was? I’m not a doctor, I’m a guy who makes a watermelon helmet at the end of a barbecue when I’m half-crocked on Carlo Rossi burgundy. I aimed to come clean to Allison and to myself, but I just couldn’t bear it. Not to mention, season three of House was coming to a close and a general malaise took over the apartment. Allison lost all interest in my imminent medical career and sex, I became overrun with guilt, monotonously going over practice MCATs executed to near-perfection by their previous taker, and even the cat seemed downtrodden, occasionally throwing herself against the wall in a touching display of nostalgia and abject boredom.
The day of the MCAT came and I lumbered off to take the exam in a nearby high school at eight in the morning as Allison dozed away.
“Good luck, doctor,” she italicized hopefully, unconvincingly.
When I arrived at the high school, I had to negotiate my way from the parking lot, through a gang fight (Why do gangs get up so early? Seems counter-intuitive.) and past a number of methamphetamine dealers to arrive at the auditorium, a trek that caused me a fair amount of unease. But unlike other major tests in my life, I wasn’t nervous for this one. I didn’t have those paralyzing butterflies or nausea present during my SAT or those other tests that determine whether you’ll be in the class that’s learning long math or the one where there are two kids locked in a cage and another kid rubbing his own feces all over the sack lunches. I was calm. There was a kind of Bach fugue/walking through honey-and-gauze calm that came over me. I was going to get through this. I was going to go in there and try my best and maybe, just maybe I’d pull it out this one time. The onetime cosmic forces all line up in your favor and there is no man, no superstructure, no howling stampede in this blasted world who can stop you! I thought this for a few more moments then decided that that kind of shit only happens on ESPN Classic and went to a bar instead.
I felt awful, not so much for skipping my MCAT as for deceiving myself and Allison the whole time I was allegedly “studying” for this test. Delusional parisitosis, or “Morgellon’s disease” could be a possible cause of my delusional medical aspirations. But then, so could leprosy.
The bar was an old Irish place called “The Blarney Stone.” The Blarney Stone, like the fourteen other Irish bars I’ve been to called The Blarney Stone, opened early—some loophole they must take advantage of by offering an Irish “breakfast” (in most cases a lukewarm hot dog, lukewarmer beans and $2 wells). I sat at the bar and lit a cigarette, taking in the faint smell of excelsior for just long enough to consider that jejune notion you talk about in college after too much marijuana where we are all cosmic guinea pigs, just spinning around that proverbial wheel in the proverbial unknown with credit card debt, acne vulgaris, goiters, elephantitis, jaundice, rush hour traffic and the like in some silly celestial aquarium filled with…
“Yeah, I’ll have a Guinness and one of those weenies.”And after a few Guinness, a quantity of scotch and plenty of lukewarm weenies, I was thrown out of the bar for telling the bartender he looked like he might have thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura and to maybe hurry up with another one of those weenies.
I arrived home around noon to find Allison sitting on the couch with the MCAT book in her hand. I kissed her awkwardly and then paced around the apartment like I often do when I am drunk and hiding something.
“Look,” I said. “I’m going to have to come clean here. I didn’t take the MCAT. I just want…”
“I know, babe. I know you didn’t—unless they started serving scotch for breakfast over at the high school.”
“I think the PTA is considering it.”
“You got a letter from Princeton. It doesn’t look like an application.” I opened the letter, my clumsy, drunken hands fumbling over the envelope. I strained to read the letter, holding it closer, then further away from my face. I was finally able to make it out:
Dear Mr. Smith,
We appreciate your interest in Princeton University. Unfortunately, we offer no graduate program in medicine, nor do we have a medical school.
The Graduate School
Clio Hall, Princeton, NJ, 08544
And so it goes…
I gave the letter to Allison who, naturally, roared with laughter. I sank onto the couch, drunk and embarrassed, intermittently hiccuping blasts of fetid weenie about the living room.
“So why didn’t you take it?” she asked. “You paid good money.”
“It would have been a disaster. They would have had to check the machine to verify a score could dip so low.”
“Well, I’m proud of you, Tyler.”
“Thanks. See anything interesting in the study guide?
“No,” she smiled. “I’m just going over my old practice tests.”
“My MCAT practice tests. I should get my scores in a week or two.”
“What the fuck do you mean your scores? I think I’m on mushrooms. I have to lie down.”
With my dipsomania subsided and a solid nap under my belt, I went to Allison to clarify what I thought she’d been babbling about earlier.
“Yeah, you just let it sit there for weeks. I thought I’d take a crack at it.
“So you took the MCAT?”
“Yeah. I think I nailed it.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“That’s so ninja.”
“House, M.D. style!
Now that season five of House, M.D. is nigh, our lives have become decidedly different. Allison pores over medical school applications while I go about my routine, making sandwiches and catching smidgens of “Boston Legal,” something to pass the time until “House, M.D.” arrives. We still have the “House, M.D.” poster up in the bedroom, but it doesn’t seem like such the centerpiece anymore. Allison still manages a few tirades on rogue internet chat rooms about “House, M.D.,” but she’s focusing on a big life move. Soon, Allison will be telling me I’ve got gonadal dysgenesis and I’m actually going to have to do something about it. She’ll be surrounded by people who speak this language, people who actually understand it. And where does that leave me? I don’t know. I’m nervous. But, as I’ve always firmly believed, these things do usually sort themselves out in voir dire.