It’s time for a frame-shift

There has been a lot of talk lately about the fact that we seem to be in a post-fact society. I think we also could look at through the lens that we’re in a post-critical thought society. Facts are only facts to the extent that they hold up to critical thought, and this kind of thought appears to be completely absent from the current GOP ideology. I’ll just use the latest decision by the Trump administration supported by the majority of the GOP (politicians and voters) to illustrate this point.

Trump just lifted a federal mandate allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms best suited to their gender. Their argument is that allowing transgender women to access to the bathroom of their choice endangers cis-gender women and girls. This is not backed up by facts. Not one study. Nothing. Not to mention that it makes little intuitive sense, as trans people are far more often the victims than the perpetrators of sexual violence. This mandate and its support is  based simply on the fact that the GOP is now solidifying itself as the party of intolerance. They want to marginalize trans children and promote a culture that is homogeneously white, heterosexual, patriarchal, and Christian. I believe that it’s important to call it out for what it is, trans people make them uncomfortable and they don’t see a place for them in their world. If the GOP truly wanted to reduce sexual violence against women, there are plenty of evidence based steps they could take. They could start by changing their language regarding reproductive rights, investing in sexual education programs in schools and universities, and supporting the many organizations that fight against this abomination. If they really gave a shit, they would end NCAA sports until each university put as much money towards fighting sexual violence as they do propping up their good-ol-boy bullshit glorification of gladiators, or cancel the Super Bowl until it stopped being a Mecca for sex-trafficking.

I’ve been working over these ideas of what it means to be a civically engaged American while trying to live in the moment up here in Ely. It might seem ridiculous, but being recognized as the local med student by the guy who stamps my card at the dump was affirmation enough to get through an entire day of CNN updates. My mom has these moments where she throws her arms up in the air and screams “I’m having a moment!” My moments are usually a little more reserved, but I experienced something close last weekend. The black and freezing cold water rolled off me as I pulled myself out of a hole in the ice. I quickly stood up on the wooden dock and felt the warm winter air as it brushed my skin. I was alone on the dock and the sky had cleared above me revealing a patchwork of stars. There was no moon, so the stars glittered down like diamonds on velvet. I stood alone as steam slowly faded from my skin, and the only sound I could hear was my heart beating in my chest. My whole body buzzed with each beat as my eyes traced the stars. I felt solid and at peace in space and time.

I didn’t think that I’d have to run so much while dog sledding. A couple weeks ago I suited up to go mushing in my Kazakh parka, cross country ski pants, and beat-up Timberlands. My friend picked me up in her little red car with a dogsled strapped on top and we drove out into the woods. It was a cold night with light snow falling and obscuring the full moon. I sat in the sled for the outbound trip. The snow crunched underneath the runners and the dogs plowed through the thick snow that was falling faster by the minute. After six miles of hard running, we swung the sleds around and pointed them back toward where we’d come from. We were in the middle of a massive lake. The real musher then gave me the reins of the smaller sled and a second later I was jerked to attention by a team of dogs ready to head home. Hovering over the wooden handles of the sled, I had to squint my eyes to try to make out the team in front of me. The lake shore was beginning to fade as the snow fell faster and faster. I spent most of the trip running next to the sled as the dogs struggled through the thick snow. Once we hit a plowed section of the road though, I sat back on the runners and felt the tips rise underneath the sled as the dogs flew across the snow in front of me.

Most days I cannot believe how lucky I am to be up here working in the clinic and hospital. I wake up every morning and get to spend the rest of my day thinking about what it means to be human, talking intimately with strangers about their lives, and using my whole brain in complex problem solving. Almost all of the patients I see struggle with one or more of the following: weight, back pain, diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and dysthymia. These are challenging illnesses that are caused by a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. We have medications to treat each of these illnesses, and usually in clinic visits we mention that it’s important to make lifestyle changes to diet and exercise as well. However, since I have a little more flexibility with my time, I’ve been spending more and more time discussing the importance of exercise. Evidence based medicine has demonstrated through study after study that exercise is a magic bullet that improves every one of these health conditions as well has a separate beneficial effect on all-cause mortality. That being said, I completely understand why it would be difficult for doctors to keep prescribing and advocating for behavior change that they rarely see patients make. I also see the problematic nature of a young, healthy, privileged medical student telling people how they should live their lives.

I am far from perfecting this conversation, or even from being effective at it. However, I’ve also spent the past 4 months trying to learn how to have these conversations with people who humble me daily with their frankness. I try as hard as I can to listen to what patients tell me while affirming that their struggles and success are normal and human. I don’t mean this in the bullshit way that it’s important to affirm someone. I mean that it’s logical to remind people that the struggles they have daily (exercise, diet, smoking, stress) are universal. At some point it’s more helpful and logical as a society to look at the structural problems setting people up for failure instead of solely ascribing agency to their behavior. Every good conversation has give and take so I’ve found that in certain contexts it can be helpful to admit to my own failures as a human. I love nicotine, I’m insanely lazy when I get home from work, and I eat like a stoned pregnant woman.

  • I got up at 7:10 Thursday morning and was out the door by 7:45. However, in the 35 minutes that I had between rolling and of bed and walking out my door, I actually made time to bake and eat 6 chocolate chip cookies from dough that I’d made the night before.

I get why people have a hard time dieting. Normalizing destructive behavior while accompanying it with spare facts and a prescription for how to move forward is a tricky dance. We all do things that we wish we didn’t, but for some of us, the stories of these decisions are written on our bodies and in our laboratory reports.

It was almost 50 degrees out last weekend in Ely…. in February. Because I have no shame I went skiing shirtless and in spandex bottoms I won at a race this year in Duluth. I decided to embrace the hot sun because no matter how foreboding the weather felt, there was nothing that I could do that day to change it. The sun beat hot on my skin and water dripped down from branches thick with old snow. I slipped through the woods on wet snow that was just barely able to stay formed and icy. I try to use these long Saturday skis as a time to reflect on different problems or ideas that bounce around my head during the week. Usually this is the perfect time to do so as my body stays in cruise control and my mind floats along on its own. It didn’t work on Saturday. I was cruising down a shaded and icy hill that opened up to the hot sun baking a sticky bog. When I hit the bog, my body shot forward off the trail as my skis stayed firmly rooted in the wet snow. It was painful lesson in living in the present moment that tore me from the question I was working on.

The question in question was how to bridge the gap between small town values and small town politics. I work and hang out with good people, actually some of the best people I’ve ever met. Part of the charm of living in a small town is that it is harder for people to retreat into their own private lives due to the fact that you’re forced to interact with the same limited number of people for all of your mundane daily interactions. This closeness builds a sense of responsibility and brotherhood different than what we have in metro areas. For example, when I asked my friend, a full-time dad and RN at the clinic, why he goes out on every single odd-hour EMT call that brings in a minimum wage salary, the answer was simple: “This is my town.” There are problems here, some startling in their viciousness, but there are problems everywhere that people gather and live. However, the average interaction that I personally have in the street is much warmer than I’m used to while living in the city. People constantly open themselves up to me, invite me into their homes, and go out of their way to make sure that I feel welcome. That’s why I’m still having trouble understanding why the good and decent people I know here are so quick to malign our culture of political correctness.

The conversation eventually veered towards politics at our Valentine’s Day taco party the other week. After hearing yet another complaint about our “current state of censorship,” I shared my thoughts through a mouthful of guacamole and ground beef. To me it’s simple, I see political correctness as an extension of common decency. If I have to limit my vocabulary in order to make sure that those around me feel safe, accepted, welcomed and non-threatened, then that’s an easy way to make the world a little bit better. It’s no skin off my nose to be a little more careful in how I speak in order to create an accepting and loving space around me. When people here talk about small town values, they talk about helping your neighbors, investing in your community, and caring for your children. That’s why it’s so confusing to hear political comments that are so contrary to these values. I think I’m beginning to understand it a little though. Change is hard and no one likes being told what to think or how to behave. Besides the underlying current of white fear that has been fomenting in our country for generations, people have a legitimate desire not to be told how to be.

To this point however, I want to propose a mental frame shift, similar to the way in which I mansplained my concept of feminism to my friend’s girlfriend who asked me about my bumper stickers. She told me she didn’t see herself as a feminist because she enjoyed conventional gender norms, and I responded that I saw feminism as her right to choose to live however she wants, be it conventional or not. I see feminism, trans-acceptance, religious tolerance, and racial equity as deeply American ideals consistent with small town values. America is a community that has come together around the idea that people should be free to live their own lives in the way they see fit. That oppositional dynamic of a community built on individualism is precisely what makes this country so unique. This is a complicated foundation for a democracy and requires that its citizens strive continuously to maintain these values while fending off attempts by fear mongers and bullies who wish to warp America into their own neo-fascist autocracy. The very nature of America demands that its citizens use moral fiber and critical thought to defend it. The Trump administration and those who support it actively and passively should be afraid. They should be afraid because they have given the citizens of this country a worthy cause to fight for.

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2 Responses to It’s time for a frame-shift

  1. Richard Cousins says:

    As much as I appreciate all the thought that went in to this essay, the final paragraph is a home run, especially the final two sentences. Well done, son. Good thinking communicated through effective writing!

  2. Mary says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Collin. I really enjoy reading your blog!

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