Sunday, December 31, 2006

Lessons Learned This Holiday Season

  1. It is not enough to bring your toothbrush and medications in your carryon; you should also bring your passport. Because even if you are not flying through, say, Denver, it may happen that of all the flights going out of your airport the Saturday before Christmas, yours could be the one that is cancelled for “maintenance.” (Now, to me, “maintenance” implies routine things like changing oil or rotating tires. Things you would never do on one of the busiest travel days of the year. Couldn’t they just admit that the flight was cancelled because the PLANE BROKE?) On such a busy day, there will be no extra seats on any of the rest of the flights that day, unless you are willing to fly via a complicated connection THROUGH ANOTHER COUNTRY. Hence the need for passports (which TrophyHusband was able to drive home and retrieve in time).
  2. You might also want to bring a few changes of clothes in your carryon. Because even if you are checked into a flight three hours early, it may happen that none of your luggage makes it on the plane with you.
  3. Don’t pack a suitcase for each person; mix it up a bit. This way, when all of the bags eventually show up except yours (which does not arrive until the night before you are leaving to go back home), you will still have something to wear.
  4. My mother really needs to update her wardrobe. Since I had no clothes to wear, I had to borrow hers. She is somewhat shorter and wider than I am, so I couldn’t comfortably wear her things the whole trip. And when I braved the mall wearing her clothes and asked the sales clerk where I might find jeans, she looked me up and down and sniffed, “Well, you wouldn’t want the Juniors department,” and took me to a rack of Mom Jeans. I couldn’t decide whether to slap her or spontaneously combust from embarrassment, so I just slunk away. (I did find an awesome outfit, in the Juniors department, so there, judgmental salesgirl.)
  5. It is truly is better to give than receive. You become acutely aware of this when your gifts are stuck in your lost suitcase and you have to unwrap others’ gifts and then say, “Thanks! I hope my gift to you isn’t being sold on a corner in another country!”
  6. My husband is a trophy and a mensch. OK, I already knew this one, but he proved it over again. My family has a tradition of giving most gifts as “stocking stuffers,” which creates an absurdly huge stack of gifts to unwrap Christmas morning, but is pretty cool because you never know who gave what; it’s quite freeing. But many of the gifts were stuck in my suitcase (see #5). Then my brother (whose awesome girlfriend recently broke up with him, probably with good reason) announced that he had bought no stocking stuffers at all. I thought it was going to be like Whoville, only without the singing. But my husband, despite being Jewish and finding this whole Christmas thing incomprehensible, had gone out on the sly and bought a heap of cute and thoughtful gifts, and the pile of loot was not appreciably smaller than usual. (HellBoy, when he saw all the presents, said, “It’s Hannukah morning!” which pleased my husband greatly.)
  7. If you are very tired and have just eaten a big Christmas dinner, do not lie down with the child while putting him to bed. Because it may happen that you wake up the next morning with fuzzy teeth, and your parents and their guests will be very perplexed as to why the hell you never came back to the table.
Happy New Year, everyone.

Monday, December 18, 2006

If You Don't Think Studying Is Hard, You're Doing It Wrong

A disclaimer: I never said I had a fun or easy way to study, or even a particularly original one. I only said that it worked (for me).

When I decided I was going to try to get into medical school, I’d had thirteen years of grade school, three years of college, and two years of grad school. But the vast majority of this time was spent in classes in the arts, and the art I perfected was that of doing just enough to get an A- in anything. (The trick to that, if you’re interested, is: read the assigned material closely enough to get the gist of the ideas, show up to most of the classes (in particular the first three and the last three), write a paper that is slightly longer than the minimum assigned length, and string together coherent sentences for the midterm and final. So few people (no matter how fancy the school) manage to do all of those things that they’ll feel guilty marking you down much for simple crappiness (and believe me, I was guilty of much crappiness). There were a few classes that I got really into, but it seemed like even when I flayed myself open for a class, the T.A. wouldn’t care for my take on the subject and would give me an A- anyway.)

So let’s say I was a tad unprepared for premed classes. I had a heavy load of them, too, since I pretty much hadn’t done anything in college that counted as a science course, with the exception of Physics for Phreaks (where all I remember doing is going on a field trip to walk through a noise-canceling room while some poor grad student babbled about waves). I crammed into a two-semester period almost every required premed course, including labs. I read the books and got the gist; I showed up for class; and when I sat down for my first test—a physics quiz—I wasn’t too worried.

My attitude was rudely adjusted when the quiz came back with a big red “59” written in the top right corner. Thanks to the curve (a lovely device not often used in liberal arts courses), it worked out to something like a C, but holy shit—a 59??? I had blown 41 percent of the questions?? This wasn’t going to get me into med school. And I’d already quit my job.

OK, so it was firmly established that I was no Feynmann. I needed to get serious. Here’s the method I followed:
  • Realize that how painful something is to study is directly proportional to how much you need to study it.
  • Go to every class—and stay awake.
  • Read all of the material, painstakingly slowly, at least three times over.
  • The “gist” is useless; memorization is what counts.
  • After you think you’ve memorized something, try writing it all down on a blank sheet of paper. Hmm, maybe not as well memorized as you thought?
  • When you quiz yourself, which should be often, make sure you get all of the answers right three times in a row.
  • Beware the mnemonic. Mnemonics only work in very specific circumstances. For instance, “NAVY” is a handy mnemonic for remembering the order in which one encounters the important structures in the groin: Nerve, Artery, Vein, Ying-Yang. Most mnemonics, no matter how clever or bawdy, just inspire one to invention. Does that I in “PILES of POOP” stand for Ischemic? Infectious? Iatrogenic? Ipsilateral? Italian? Who the hell knows? I found that making up a memorable saying works much better. For instance, if you drink enough alcohol to affect your liver, there is a tell-tale pattern to the increase in the liver enzymes: the AST, aka the SGOT, is usually twice as high as the ALT, aka the SGPT. I remember this by saying “You AST for it, you SGOT it.” (I know it’s stupid. But it works—I remember not only the pattern, but that AST=SGOT.) Corny tricks like the ones for remembering someone’s name (you know, picturing Mr. Heinz as a giant ketchup bottle, for example) work well also.
  • You will never be hip again. Obviously.
  • Get enough sleep. Cramming all night the day before a test does not work for science classes.
  • Study similar things in proximity to each other. Calculus and physics go well together, for instance.
  • If studying something is making you fall asleep, take a power nap.
  • I said power nap. Do not let yourself sleep longer than 20 minutes.
  • Colorful highlighters and tabs and note cards are festive and helpful—up to a point. Past that point, they become time-sucking OCD rituals.
Hey, like I said, it’s not fun. But it worked for me. Despite my pathetic start, I went on to get the highest grade of anyone in that physics class, and I got an A+ average in my premed courses. I realize now that if I had used these kind of techniques in my liberal arts courses, I probably would have rocked them, too. Even when I worked hard, I neglected ever really to learn the material by heart.

In a few years I’m going to have to take my recertification test, so I’ll be hauling out these methods pretty soon. For now, I confess that I’m often getting by on the gist.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Cold-Weather Running for Maggots

  • It’s not too cold. From my sitemeter stats, I know that none of you are running where you risk hypothermia from venturing outdoors, provided you are properly attired and do not have a lung disorder. (If you have exercise/cold induced asthma, as I do, your tolerance for extreme cold may be less. Using an inhaler before running helps.)
  • Go synthetic. No cotton, ever, on any part of your body, when running in the cold. When you sweat, cotton becomes soggy, and when it becomes soggy, it becomes cold. This is all right while you’re running, but if you stop and walk you’re toast. Iced toast. Ditto for goosedown. (Wool is ok, if you can stand it.)
  • Layers. In general, the more, the better; you can always pull things off and tie them around your waist. A polyester turtleneck, a fleece, and a breathable-fabric windbreaker works well. (Non-breathable windbreakers will leave you too wet.) A windbreaker that covers your butt is nice. Two layers is pretty much the max on your legs, or you’ll be waddling. None of these items needs to be running-specific, and they’re usually cheaper if they’re not. I like Campmor for good, reasonably-priced stuff.
  • Coverage. There are synthetic clothing options for covering up every bit of you, and how far you want to go depends on your cold tolerance. You will likely be sorry if you don’t use a headband or hat and a good neck gaiter (the tall, thin ones are very flexible) at the very least; a balaclava works for some, but isn’t very flexible. Goggles or glasses help keep your eyes from tearing, but wire-frame glasses will transmit the cold. (Using anti-fog spray on your glasses is a good idea.) Gloves are a must, and tucking your hands into your sleeves adds warmth. I’ve never been able to tolerate a face mask; I just use a neck gaiter and keep turning it as it gets too wet from my breath.
  • Snot. Your nose will run. Bring tissue, or make sure your gloves are soft and absorbent.
  • Reflect. It’s dark in the morning and dark in the night, and you’d be surprised how hard it is for cars and bikes to see you. Make sure you’ve got reflective stuff above and below. I have a nerdy reflective vest.
  • Know which way the wind blows. Always run with the wind on your way out and against it on the way back.
  • You can run in the snow. Running on packed snow or unshoveled sidewalks isn’t too hard, but you will need to go more slowly. Since you’re going for time, not distance, this shouldn’t matter much.
  • You cannot run on ice. You will fall and break your wrist.