Friday, August 24, 2007

Farm Boy

In the penprevious post I made mention of my past country life. It was the result of the coming together of a boyhood fantasy and a manhood failing. By which I mean this: I grew up in Oregon, left after high school for college, med school, surgery training, but held onto a vision of myself returning to live on acreage, milking horses and riding pigs, roping corn and being good 'ol Doc Schwab, country guy. (Other than a brief visit now and then, I'd never set foot to farm.) My wife, on the other hand, loved living in San Francisco for those years of my training; if we weren't going to stay there, her clear choice would have been the Puget Sound region, near Seattle, her folks, and her eight siblings. I was too much of an idiot to see or hear.

We did it my way. (It took me a few years to get where I am now, both in location and disposition. Which puts me in mind of one of my dad's favorite jokes: Two guys are shooting the breeze, one of them talking about women and how difficult they are to live with. The other guy says, "Well, I worked all that stuff out a long time ago, laid down the law. It's been great. I let my wife make the little decisions, and I make all the big ones." "Wow," says the first guy, "How does it work?" "Perfectly. She decides where we should live, what house to buy, whether to send the kids to private school, their religious upbringing, when it's time for a new car, which one to buy. I decide the big stuff: whether to recognize Red China, whether we're spending too much on the space program....")

It wasn't all bad. I got a nice offer from a small clinic in the Willamette Valley. The place we found had pre-existed in my dreams: seven acres, a home-made house surrounded by ancient oak trees. A hill for kite-flying in the summer and sledding in the winter. A barn. Our son was born shortly after we arrived, and as soon as he could walk he was toodling around in his Osh-Kosh b'Gosh dungarees. Sometimes with a sprig of tall grass in his mouth, exactly as imagined. Every Spring, a pond would appear just about when we thought of it again, complete with frogs and salamanders; we'd climb a fence to get to it, and bring some home for Mom.

About five minutes after moving in, I realized I had no idea what to do with all that land, and eventually worked out the perfect deal: our neighbor Les (a self-educated high school dropout, voracious reader of Oregon history, great guy) was happy to use it to pasture his horses and cows, and we could watch them kick up their heels (the horses) as they'd gallop past our house and up the hill when Les let them out every morning. We could toss them carrots, learn their names; Danny saw a horse being born.

I'd really gotten to know Les on the first freezing morning of our time there. New Year's Day, it was. No water when I turned the tap (to that point, the extent of my plumbing abilities). I knew we had a well out there, but had no idea where or how to service it. I trudged through snow to find Les in the fields, and imposed him back to my place, where he discovered, along with me, how poorly had the plumbing been done -- now thoroughly frozen in the ground and alongside the house. He jerry-rigged a bypass, and I kept the water running day and night through the winter. Embarrassed at having drug him over, revealing how little I knew about being a country boy, playing at it I guess, I apologized over and over and thanked him profusely. "Don't worry about it, Doc," said Les. "You retain it better this way."

The other neighbors weren't as welcoming. Damn city slicker doc thinkin' he's a cowboy, was what they saw, and they didn't return my waves as I drove by in my pickup. It might have been the fact that it was a Toyota mini-truck that turned them away. Probably, though, a big frickin' Ford wouldn'a done it, neither. Them's the ways.

What we did do was garden. I tilled a big patch right next to the house (got me a honkin' big roto-tiller), turned in manure from Les' barn, ferried it in my trucklet. It's a hot and fertile valley, is the Willamette. If you can't grow stuff there, you can't grow stuff. Rows of corn, berries, potatoes, tomatoes, all manner of greens. Dan would wander out and pick peas and berries, never getting them back into the house: eaten off the vines. To Les and Lorna's amusement, Judy planted a watermelon. Black plastic and lots of nurturing, and we served it to them a few months later. Grew a pumpkin big enough for Dan to crawl into while helping to clean it for Halloween.

The job wasn't right. My two surgical partners were great guys. I learned a lot from them, and our relationship in the OR -- especially with Keith -- was as close to perfection as it could be, whichever side of the table one or the other of us was on. I thought he was the best surgeon and assistant I'd ever seen: he reciprocated the feeling for me. But there wasn't enough work for three and they had first dibs. I happenstanced a reputation as a good surgical pancreatologist, but there wasn't much of that to do; work increased, but slowly. The clinic didn't get that we needed to increase our primary care base as the non-clinic docs in town tended less and less to refer there once specialists came to town outside the clinic. (The clinic had brought the first specialists of each type to town, and felt it could survive on that basis: as time passed and they weren't the only specialty providers, it didn't work. When I said my piece, they suggested I join the Rotary to get more business, and they hired a rheumatologist.) A young surgeon who's not as busy as he'd like to be is an unhappy one; and that ripples.

Having dragged my wife to a place for which she had not much initial enthusiasm, I eventually turned my eye northward, to where she'd liked to have gone in the first place. Ironically, by the time the right situation came up, she'd become happy in Oregon, and we left some good friends behind. Where we ended up, and have remained for twenty five years and counting, has been better. None of the siblings is much more than an hour away; whole-family gatherings occur as frequently as the tides on which we look. The job gave me the satisfaction I was looking for in breadth and depth of practice. If I hadn't done the country thing, even though it didn't work out, I'd have always regretted it, and wondered. Now I know.

A small glimpse of the view from our porch can be seen in the upper corner of this blog. Boats big and small chug or sail by. Somewhat ominously, our home-based aircraft carrier moves past a couple times a year, resolute on the out-going, celebrated by showering fire-boats on the return; at first we went outside to watch and listen every time. The weather changes the water's color and texture like a sorcerer; dazzling sunsets can be stupefying (for years I arose in the dark, and came home in the darker: now I luxuriate in what I'd been missing). We can't grow corn here (our rhodies bloom exuberantly, if briefly), but we can get the fresh stuff off the farms a few miles away. It's been pretty damn nice, mostly. For a farm boy.


Lynn Price said...

Prepare the spare bedroom, Sid, I'm moving in.

Anonymous said...


Justine Johnston Hemmestad said...

Beautiful! I sent your post to my mom who lives in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Greg P said...

I grew up in the country in Ohio, outside a town of 600 people, so I grew up learning many of the things Les knows.

I appreciate my background for what it was -- if there's anything I miss, it's looking up at the sky at night and seeing the Milky Way.

But there is nowhere near enough for a neurologist to do in a town of 600 people or even in the whole county for that matter. And there wasn't, no doubt still isn't, any social life -- going back to that now would drive me to distraction.

Sid Schwab said...

Greg: I was just reading an article in the New Yorker about light and air pollution as relates to observing the heavens. It said that in Gallileo's time, the Milky Way actually cast a shadow, as did Jupiter. How amazing it would be to see that!!

Anonymous said...

hey sid,
may i just say how great i think your blog is? i had JUST finished your book, i mean 24 h before, when someone (grahamazon?) mentioned your blog. i was thrilled.

would you be so kind as to drop me an email? i have questions for you :) i do not see a means to send you mail via your blog. kind regards, timbre RDMS (

Jeffrey Parks MD FACS said...

Saw that article too, Doc. I remember going out on our roof as a teen, gazing out at the limitless flickering night sky of rural ohio. One of the things I hated about chicago was the hazy, phosphorescent, phony glow of the city lights that obscured the natural wonders.

Unknown said...

Silence in the city is nothing like the country. In the country the silence makes your ears strain to hear anything. It's almost that fuzzy feeling after a concert. The sky is so clear, and the coyotes are terrifying!

mscriver said...

When I dared to leave city income to retire to this little village, I would sometimes get up in the night to see if the other houses were still there. It was so quiet, I thought they might have tip-toed off.

I can see the Milky Way, even in my backyard. If I drove out of town a ways, I think it might cast a shadow. If I had better tires, I'd try it some night.

Hard to choose between money and, well, love. I'm coming out even. Sounds as though you are, too.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

That was lovely..I was think you could write a book with that easy going discriptive writing, seems like you have. Lynne in Hillsboro,OR

Michelle said...

"milking horses" that just about made me fall out of my chair laughing. I pale to think what you were trying to milk there : P We live in a rural, mountainous area - meanung inevitably, I get chased by goats regularly...

Sid Schwab said...

michelle: thanks for noticing. I sort of liked the "roping corn," too.