Musing of a Contemporary Pathologist

Three long steps to Montpelier

Montpelier, the capital of Vermont, is a small, surprisingly vibrant city in the middle of the state, between Burlington and Woodstock. The north branch of the Winooski River runs right under State Street and

also under some of the buildings lining the north side of that thoroughfare.

There are three warm and inviting, well-stocked bookstores in town – my favorite is Bear Pond, partly because it is the first one I pass when I walk to town, but the others are equally welcoming. The usual variety of quaint small town names decorate many of the storefronts: Delish, The Quirky Pet, Splash, Chill, and many others. Chill is the purveyor of delicious gelato, of which I allow myself to partake each summer semester. There’s even a traditional stationary story where you can still buy a pen, or a pencil, a single tube of glue or just one pad.

I imagine most people live quite comfortably in Montpelier and only now and then feel the need for a big city. Bear Pond sells the New York Times and the Boston Globe and I believe the other bookstores do also. As nice as Montpelier is, I am sure I would miss New York if I lived here—in New York I know I have a blood pressure and a pulse—although Senator Bernie Sanders, who grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood I did at about the same time, has become a Vermonter, a citizen of Montpelier.

South of town and a little more than a half-mile up E. State Street, a fairly taxing hill if you are out of condition, is the Vermont College of Fine Arts, one of the best of the low-residence programs offering a Master of Fine Arts degree (MFA).

I am completing my fourth and last semester at VCFA and expect to graduate in January.

In a low-residence MFA program you are on campus for approximately two weeks in the summer and two weeks in the winter. In the interim you work closely with an advisor who oversees your monthly writing assignments and reading activities. To say that many of my classmates periodically groan because of the workload would be an under-exaggeration. I just plug along as best I can. I don’t have any complaints, although the winter semester can be challenging with the temperature below freezing on many days. The on-campus weeks might well be labeled ‘strenuous’ since the days start at eight-thirty in the morning and end at nine-thirty in the evening, sometimes later. There are three genres for which you can earn an MFA: creative non-fiction, poetry, and fiction. I write fiction. My first novel, A Little Piece of Me, was published in 2014, before I even thought of applying to a school for a degree in writing. It’s been praised and I’m proud of it but it might be even better if I were starting it now after spending time with writers passionate about writing. They have led me to many wonderful books about the craft of writing that I would never have found by myself.

The faculty, all of them accomplished and successful writers, is outstanding. I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from them. From the first day I was treated as a full-fledged writer and a member of this challenging and stimulating artistic community.

When I was applying to programs a few people suggested that I didn’t need to get an MFA since a career in academia was not my ultimate goal. They were incorrect, at least for me. Although I do not need more letters after my name or a new diploma on my wall, this program has been invaluable for my writing and made me a better writer.

To be A Writer is my ultimate goal.

A few months ago, at the most recent residency, one of the faculty members, Connie May Fowler, a marvelous writer and a delightful person, asked the class to consider why and how they became writers.

I realized that three long and complicated steps led me to Montpelier.

Step 1: 16th Street, Brooklyn:

When I was born my parents lived with my mother’s parents in a spacious three-bedroom walk-up apartment building at 88 16th Street in what was then a decidedly blue-collar neighborhood of South Brooklyn. From the building’s front step (“stoop” in New York parlance) or from our front-of-the-building fire escape (where we would seek refuge on a muggy summer night) we could see the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. When I was quite young my mother told be about the poet Emma Lazarus and I knew some of the words of her thrilling sonnet: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …

My mother’s father graduated from the then renowned University of Vilnius. His parents managed one of the Czar’s game reserves and were more comfortable than most of the Jews who lived in their region, but neither the family’s economic status nor the fact that he was a scholar prevented his being conscripted into the Russian cavalry. Before he left for service his mother had a fine pair of riding boots made especially for him. But boots were not enough and, after a short time, he deserted and made his way to America. My grandfather always wore a shirt and tie, even on torrid August New York days. A slightly built, prematurely bald man, he loved reading and music; the Saturday broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera was an immutable necessity. He also loved the radio shows each evening when he came home from a long day at the ‘candy store’ he and my grandmother owned. His favorites included the Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Fibber McGee and Molly, Fred Allen and Fanny Brice, all of which I also enjoyed and still remember. My favorites were The Lone Ranger, Superman, The Green Hornet, Captain Midnight, Sky King and Terry and the Pirates.

In those times a candy store was not a place that principally sold candy. Instead it was a neighborhood shop in which you would buy newspapers, magazines, comic books or get some ice cream in a cone, in a dish at the counter or fresh packed in a pint or a quart container to take home. You could buy toys there. They also sold cigarettes and cigars, which you could enjoy seated at the counter drinking a cup of fresh percolated coffee. You could sit at the fountain – there were four stools – and have fresh-made sodas, especially delicious egg creams (chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer, but no eggs) which I became quite adept at making. You could buy bottles of soda, including what are now exotica such as Hoffman’s Ginger Ale, Cel-Ray, Mission Orange, White Mountain or Dr. Brown’s Vanilla.

Both grandparents stressed the importance of education. My mother graduated from New Utrecht High School in 1930, at the age of 15, after the first full year of the great depression. Her goal was to be a teacher but circumstances—she had to work—prevented her from going to college. Even when I was a child I understood that she was determined that I go to college. When I was almost six years old, already reading for two years, she took me to the local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library for my first library card, something I thought quite special, in part because none of my friends had one. By the time I was seven I was walking the mile to the library by myself, crossing two avenues, and taking out the maximum allowed six books (I think) each time—almost too much to carry—and returning them in three or four days. In those glorious days before television I devoured books. Before too long I was given special permission to take eight each time and I recall taking the time to carefully balance the additional load in my arms. Quite a few of the many books I read are still easily recalled: Black Beauty, all of the Hardy Boys books, The Black Stallion and the Son of the Black Stallion, Riders of the Purple Sage, Call of the Wild, and more. Dumas’ The Three Musketeers was the first ‘big’ book I read. There were stickball games in the street, when cars weren’t going by (and there weren’t that many cars in those days), and small games chalked onto the sidewalk, including tic-tac-toe, but my major childhood activity was reading, perhaps, in part, because my grandmother, who cared for me while my mother was working, was quite protective and didn’t like me to play in the streets and also partly because there weren’t that many other children close by—the baby boom effects were yet to be felt.

Step 2: East 17th Street, Brooklyn

My maternal grandmother died in 1948. We moved about a year after, now with baby brother, Dennis, to Miami where my father, with a supposed friend, started a business selling and servicing Bendix washing machines. The friend ran off with all the money and, after less than a year there, almost penniless, we returned to Brooklyn.

I was fortunate to be in the first class at Walt Whitman Junior High School #246, one of approximately 120 other ‘S.P.’ (Special Progress) students, selected to complete the three years—7th, 8th and 9th grades—in two. Besides being a part of a group of particularly bright and ambitious boys and girls, and in addition to the benefits of having excellent teachers chosen for the new school, we were required to learn to type, something for which I have always been grateful; forty years later when the home computer became a reality I was more than prepared.

Mrs. Doherty, my English teacher, encouraged us to write stories. We also were exposed to what I would guess was more than the usual dose of Walt Whitman poetry. Whitman’s poems remain among my favorites and I often turn to them. I used a section of Leaves of Grass in my first novel.

At Stuyvesant High School I joined the literary magazine, the Caliper, and eventually became co-editor. More importantly, I was again encouraged to write stories, this time by Irving Astrachan, a supportive, but demanding, English teacher who served as the magazine’s adviser. He liked my stories one of which earned Honorable Mention recognition from Scholastic Magazine.

I entered Brooklyn College in 1955 as a 16-year old liberal arts major planning to write novels. I quickly learned that Irwin Shaw (1913-1984) was a graduate. Shaw, along with Norman Mailer (1923-2007), James Jones (1921-1977) and Herman Wouk (1915-present), was one of the group of exciting, young, post-World War II novelists. Shaw had already established his career before the war as a playwright and, especially, a short story writer. After reading everything he had written up to that time, I wanted to be the second great writer to graduate from that school.

In the Spring of my junior year, getting off the subway at my station on a bright sunny day, I had a startling revelation: I would never write the great American novel, or great short stories, or great plays, or anything else; I needed to do something that didn’t require talent. That moment, incredulous as it sounds, was when I decided to go to medical school.

Looking back I see a remarkably naïve (a novelist friend of mine, Leslie Lehr, says “naïve is pig-latin for stupid,” a phrase with which I have come to mostly agree), young (I had just had my 19th birthday), undirected young man.

In my senior year at Stuyvesant a friend convinced me to volunteer at Lenox Hill Hospital, so medicine was not out of my mind; it just was out of my conscious mind as a goal. I was then offered a paying job for the summer as an orderly on the neuro-psychiatry ward. For many summers after I worked in the operating rooms before going to medical school. I met my wife at Lenox Hill when she was a nursing student, the year before I started medical school. For me to forego pursuing a writing career was the right decision at the right time since I have had a wonderful, satisfying, and successful career in medicine. I became a pathologist, a member of one of the smallest and most important specialties of medicine. My efforts and contributions (more than 200 articles, chapters and editorials as well as 2 textbooks) have been favorably recognized by my peers. Some of my teachers and colleagues have been, and are, warm, trusted and inspirational friends. Most importantly I was privileged to work with and teach young pathologists for more than forty-five years. I delight in seeing  the great success some of those former students have obtained.

Despite relishing being a pathologist, proud to call myself a pathologist, the elusive parasite, Mustus writus, remained deep inside me and, in my sixties, I realized I wanted to write. 

 

Step 3: Stanley Drive, Beverly Hills

Paul Auster, the great New York author, has written that he writes because he has no choice. I understand that.

Blanche Glover is a fictional writer, one of the characters in Possession, the marvelous novel by A.S. Byatt. When asked why she writes, Glover replies: “I have wanted to be understood by those yet unborn.” I understand that also.

When I was 45 I moved to Los Angeles to become chairman of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. I served in this role for twenty-two years. As I approached my 65th birthday I decided to take a writing course in the extension school at UCLA. There I was privileged to learn from  some wonderful novelists; Leslie Lehr, Susan Taylor Chehak and Les Plesko.

My first novel, A Little Piece of Me, started in those evening classes. At the age of 75 I thought about pursuing an MFA.

I started calling institutions of note. When I spoke to Louise Crowley, then director of the program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and told her about my concerns and, particularly, my age, she said: “I’m sitting in my office talking to a recent graduate who is eighty-two. We’ll be happy to look at your application.” I discarded the other applications and, happily, was accepted at VCFA.

A Little Piece of Me was published a year before I started at VCFA. Although it received some highly flattering reviews and has 5 stars on amazon.com, and although I am proud of it, I now can see that it would have been a much better book if I started it now. I have learned so much about writing and the novel I am now finishing, Wrong Building, Wrong Apartment, Wrong Me, will hopefully reflect at least some of the skills and knowledge I have accrued at VCFA.

Fourth step and beyond:

In January, 2018, I will graduate. Then my next steps begin. I have not completely cut my pathology umbilical cord, since I occasionally look at liver biopsy slides in consultation and still give a few lectures to pathology residents at Weill Cornell Medical College and Mount Sinai. There is a sign I made for myself when I started the MFA program: no more pathology articles, chapters, reviews, etc – do what you really want to do! But I have one last pathology chapter to finish for a new autopsy textbook developed by two former students (how could I turn that down?) and then I will shed my old skin.

I have begun novels #3 and #4, with ideas for others. Thoughts about acquiring an agent and selling novel #2 are beginning to creep into my head. I believe I am a writer now but, in a few months, diploma in hand, it will be official. Often I think of the hapless, insecure scarecrow who seeks a brain from The Wizard of Oz (the film released the year I was born) and, after receiving a piece of paper, a diploma, now knows everything. I am very much looking forward to holding my diploma but am quite sure I will not immediately sit down and write the next Moby Dick.

In January 2018, even if it is again nine degrees below, I will also visit Bear Pond bookstore and trudge up that long hill to reassure myself that I am still in condition for that finite trek to campus and that I am also ready for a potentially infinite journey in the great world of literature. I never expected to have as much fun as I am now having.

5 Responses to “Three long steps to Montpelier”

  1. Candy Newberry says:

    Even though it’s my busiest time of year, and I have no time, I was drawn in and held captive until I finished your blog. Do what you really want to do! Can’t wait for your next novel,

  2. suha mishalani says:

    What an enjoyable piece of historical background! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Gil Simon says:

    Are you now living in NYC? If so, I’d like to visit the next time I go East to see my children.

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