Monday, February 1, 2016

Lions, rhinos, and... moose? Oh my!

I am excited. I get excited sometimes, like when there's a new book coming out by Margaret Atwood or Ursula Le Guin or when I learn about a new bookstore or when I order cat-themed apparel or, like today, when I get to share with you all a really cool person I've just met. This guy, let me tell you---Dr. Jerry Haigh: wildlife veterinarian and conservationist, storyteller, author, professor, photographer; I mean, really.
Dr. Jerry Haigh treating a white rhino; photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
Jerry and I spoke on the phone a few weeks ago and I'll relate our discussion in a bit. First, a bit of background is required. Dr. Haigh is a self-described "Kenya-born, Glasgow-schooled veterinarian living in Canada's providence of Saskatchewan." After graduating from Glasgow, Jerry spent his first ten years of professional life working in Kenya, then in the mid 1970s, moved to Canada where he held a post at the University of Saskatchewan's Western College of Veterinary Medicine. Jerry retired in 2009, but continues to be active in wildlife conservation, storytelling, and writing. His first collection of stories about his past, Wrestling with Rhinos, was published in 2002 and followed by The Trouble with Lions and Of Moose and Men. Jerry is currently finishing his fifth book.

Here's a fantastic summary of Jerry's work on YouTube. A must-watch on storytelling. And another sample of Jerry in action on the stage.

I immediately asked Jerry about his oral storytelling. This is an art I know little about and it holds a sort of campfire and smoke-like reverence to me. I asked which Jerry prefers, since he's a master at both: writing or storytelling?
Dr. Jerry Haigh checking a lion in Namibia; photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
"One of the nice things about oral storytelling is that is doesn't have to be the same every time," Jerry says. "You can pick a folk story or a real-life story -- I don't do it the same every time. You react to the audience; you see how the audience is responding. Preschoolers won't get the same story as adults. For example, if you have a picture of your arm up the bum of a rhino, of course everybody laughs at that, but for kids, you make damn sure you tell them it's processed grass you're getting out. And if you get a bunch of robust guys, you call it shit. That's the beauty of folklore."

Photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
In comparison to writing, Jerry laments the challenges of typing when one's mind is going one speed and the fingers go another. "Writing is fun," he says. "But of my old students told me the one thing he remembers most about my lectures was my storytelling. That's a nice compliment in a way."

At this point in our conversation, we somehow got completely sidelined talking about the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, a Canadian football team. (Did you know that in Canadian football, they only go to three downs instead of four? Did you also know that I know nothing about either American or Canadian football?) I think it's safe to say if you ever get a chance to fall into conversation with Jerry, DO SO, because you will find yourself learning things that you didn't even know you wanted to learn about.

Leaving that tangent and getting back on track, Jerry said his favorite topic to write about is rhino conversation. "The first proper wildlife patients that I had were rhino," he says. "When I was working in Kenya, there were 6000 rhino in the country and I was helping translocate them out of farmland and into national parks. Now there are less than 600. It's a horror story."
Working rhino, 1974; Photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
Other than expertise in rhinos, Jerry has also had an historic impact on the deer industry: he was the first to do artificial insemination (AI) in deer. "For many, many years I was one of the small number of people who knew anything about deer," Jerry explains. After he perfected his AI technique, off he went to New Zealand. "We took North American elk to New Zealand, the first trip of its kind since 1908 when President Roosevelt donated a small number of elk to New Zealand." Jerry's textbook, Farming Wapiti and Red Deer, was first published in 1993.

You might notice, as I did, that in Jerry's book The Trouble with Lions, there is a forward by Jane Goodall. I had to ask about that. "She's an amazing woman," Jerry says. "Fantastic storyteller. I've seen her on stage for an hour without a single note in front of her. Phenomenal. She preaches a story of hope. And I suppose we have to have hope in the face of what's going on with wildlife. And we're not just talking about African wildlife--it's a global problem."

Many of the stories that Jerry tells orally and writes about in his books, blog, and in magazines come from his expansive experience. Since I can barely recall what I had for breakfast on most days, I asked Jerry if he has volumes of journals that he relies on as his memory-keepers. Other than his medical journals containing his difficult cases back when he worked in Kenya, his answer is: no. "I've got a very good memory for that sort of stuff," he says. "And when needed, I speak to other people to see what they remember, so I have enough stuff to cobble things together." And by cobbling, I'm going to editorialize here and say that he means recounting details such that you can see the feathers on a bird, smell the rhino dung, and swear you hear the roar of the lions coming up behind you. Because if you take a look at his books and listen to his storytelling, that's the sort of experience you'll get.
Photo courtesy Jerry Haigh

Until next month, dear readers!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Not your Common Veterinarian

Last month, I had the privilege of tracking down Elliott Garber, DVM, a unique veterinarian and author. He had some great stuff to tell me about his journey to getting his first novel published, establishing a platform, his writing process, and his secrets to staying focused as a writer. I'd like to share our conversation with you in this month's VetWrite.

Firstly, I had to clarify exactly what Elliott is doing professionally at the moment. You see, Elliott's fascinating blog, The Uncommon Veterinarian, is thick with international intrigue from a vet med point of view. For example, Veterinary Capacity Building in Post-Conflict Liberia and Wildlife Medicine and Conservation Programs in Belize are enough to make anyone's search histories of kittens and tea just seem like, well, come on people. There's a world outside of your steaming cup of Earl Grey. (Rest assured, I am sitting behind a steaming cup of Earl Grey right now.) Elliott clarified currently, he is working as an Army vet based just outside San Diego, dividing his time between providing clinical vet med coverage to the working dogs of the Navy SEALS and veterinary regulatory oversight to lab animal research. In his spare time, he's working on promoting his newly published novel, The Chimera Sequence. And off we go:

In Elliott's novel, a veterinary medical thriller, we follow the main character, the ex-Special Forces veterinarian Cole McBride, chase the origin of an outbreak from central Africa to expose dangerous implications of international terrorism. Intense stuff. Complex stuff. I asked Elliott how he could possibly start something as ambitious as this.

"Writing a book has been a life-long ambition, but this particular story has taken about three years," he says. "The actual idea for this story and then sitting down and doing it just sort of came to me. I remember exactly when it happened. I was traveling for work and I was in a hotel in the Netherlands on the side of the highway. I thought, well, I've always wanted to write a book so let's see what I can do. So I wrote the first couple of paragraphs, then a few more pages, and then I realized it started getting serious."
Elliott Garber, DVM, and his lovely family

Sigh. He makes it sound so easy. Elliott describes that after his initial leap into novel writing, he had to pause the creative process to actually learn how to write a book. Through some research on the craft, he continued and then finished his very first novel.

"I jokingly say that I wish my life were as cool and exciting as my main character's, but in reality, it's not," Elliott says. Do note, however, that his novel is loosely based on Elliott's job and experiences. "I try to write the type of story that I love to read. I tried to tie in all the stuff I naturally have an interest in and have knowledge of. That made the whole writing process a lot easier because doing some of the background research was enjoyable as it was stuff I was interested in learning about."
Dr. Elliott with a small wooly friend.
Somewhat ironically, Elliott's blog came about as a platform for his novel; however, Elliott felt it started turning into something unique in and of itself -- which is good -- but was taking time away from his novel writing -- which is bad. Many writers, including myself, struggle with two key concepts that Elliott hits on here:

1. How to develop a platform
2. How to not let your platform eat away at your creative space

"A lot of people spend a lot of time talking about writing rather than actually writing."

One thing clever about Elliott's blog is its timelessness. Although he's taking a break from blogging at the moment, Elliott's timeless nature of his topics creates a self-described "immortality" in his online content. "My blog went off into its own thing for a while," he says. "And then I got kind of tired of it and stopped updating because I wanted to finish my book. Then I kind of defeated the whole thing because I didn't really use my blog too much for launching my book. It was a big failure," he laughs. Still, Elliott feels his blog has allowed him to communicate with others with similar interests and he's acquired a few speaking engagements out of it at vet schools. So, not quite the failure, after all. Elliott says he would like to get back to the blog at a later point. I think he should, too. "It's not completely dead," he reassures me. "Just hibernating." Podcasting was another branch of the blog, too - listen here.
Dr. Elliott Garber being a bad ass veterinarian.
The time suck of the online presence for writers is a delicious topic to talk about -- maybe because we all fall victim to procrastination and what more self-rewarding, prophetic way to procrastinate as a writer than to talk about procrastination with another writer. "I had to cut back on blogging," continues Elliott. "I just couldn't do everything at once. I frequently saw on writing forums that a lot of people spend a lot of time talking about writing rather than actually writing."

Truer words were never spoken.

Luckily, Elliott remained unchained by the bonds of NOT WRITING and settled into a pattern. Writing in the evenings, Elliott honed technique and took time for research and learned a little about himself along the way. "One of the things I discovered about myself after the first few months of writing was that I couldn't write fiction very well while I had access to the internet. I was always wanting to look up something -- oftentimes related to the book, so it wasn't completely worthless -- but I would just keep bouncing back and forth between writing and getting dragged down the internet wormhole. Then I discovered this app called Freedom App which lets you turn off your access to the internet universally for a certain amount of time. It's funny to think about having to force yourself to do something that you're choosing to do, but I think for a lot of writers it's a struggle to produce content. But I think there's something about getting to the end that makes it worth suffering through the process."

Elliott then hit on a topic that had recently been discussed at my very own writer's group: as a writer, are you a pantser (meaning, you write by the seat of your pants, unplanned and free flowing) or a planner? Elliott discovered he could write his actual novel more efficiently if he had planned a few chapters in advance. "I would write in the style of telling myself what's going to happen without actually writing it in story form, so once I had that settled in my mind, I could switch to the actual story," he says. "It made a big difference in efficiency. There was no more agonizing over deciding what was going to happen next and then actually writing it."

In the end, with novel finished, Elliott explored the traditional publishing routes first. After getting an agent, he ended up rejecting offers from a few publishers, as he felt he'd ultimately have more control over his own intellectual property (and how it was formatted and sold) if he published independently. "From my own research, I knew the offer the publishers were giving me didn't represent much of an investment at all from the part of the publisher so really they would get it out there without a whole lot of input from me. So I turned those offers down. It has been a lot of work for me this year getting everything ready for independent publishing, so now it's a matter of time to see if it was a good investment doing it this way," he says. "But, I've learned a lot and had a good experience." Elliott writes about his process in more detail here.
Dr. Elliott Garber in India
Prior to The Chimera Sequence, Elliott self-published a short story, called No Dog Left Behind. Also available on Amazon, this was Elliott's first experience with independent publishing and it was a positive one. "I try to tell people there are lots of different ways to do this and it's better having a few people read your work than having it sit on your computer having no one read it at all. It was good training for a bigger project."

In the end, Elliott is extremely positive and open-minded about his own future, both as a veterinarian and as a writer. He acknowledges a sequel to his novel is a possibility, but he's not sure when that might happen. He's still waiting to see how well his first novel will do. "There are also a bunch of other things I like doing and am interested in, so I'm kind of doing other things while seeing how this novel goes. I also have other ideas about other totally unrelated books I'd like to write, too. It's just about making the commitment."

Well, hurry up, Dr. Garber. I want to see what all you can do.

Until next month, dear readers!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Online Chronicles of a Vet Student

Recently on Twitter, I became a fan of a delightfully active, witty, and bright vet student, Shannon Finn. Attending Ontario Veterinary College, Shannon somehow finds time to craft insightful blog posts, interesting Tweets, and very clever Vines. All told, I'm a bit jealous of her craftiness at the whole online presence; this young woman is GOOD. She gets it. So I contacted her last month to ask her some questions. And here's what she taught me. Maybe you can learn something, too.

Currently in her sophomore year at OVC, Shannon comes from a small town in Ontario, Canada, about an hour and a half outside of Toronto. She says so far she is really enjoying vet school and 2nd year has her excited about theriogenology and how should I say it gently... a bit less enthusiastic about radiology. In Shannon's own words, "Reading abnormal radiographs is a lot tougher than it seems!" Preach it, sister.
Shannon Finn
Shannon primarily uses Twitter and Vine as her main online modalities, and she blogs as well. Her recent blog, "The value of your veterinary dollar: a vet student perspective" has gained a lot of attention and is well deserved. Shannon uses data combined with real life examples to paint a stark picture of the economics of the current veterinary profession. "I like Twitter because it's so quick and simple to connect with people," says Shannon. "You can add pictures and links and have conversations and ask questions and even Tweet right at someone you admire. It's just SO easy to interact, which is what I love. Vine is also a lot of fun - you only have six seconds for a video so you have to be creative. Six seconds involves a lot more planning than you'd think! I think it's a quick way to show something neat, like blood smearing or suturing or a time lapse of all your notes. I feel like having these quick social media snippets (six second videos and 140 character Tweets) is a good complement to the longer story telling that I get to do on my blog."

Shannon says she uses her social media platforms for education and entertainment. "I think the more the public knows about what we learn and what vet school is like, the more trust you can build in that relationship," she says. "People are always interested in animals and how you become an animal doctor, so why not make it accessible to them? I remember being an eager little pre-vet in undergrad and I would have killed for a good Twitter account or vet school blog."

"People are interested in animals and how you become an animal doctor, so why not make it accessible to them?"

Now that Shannon is providing that service for current pre-vets and others who would like to know exactly what goes on in the anatomy lab or the hospital, she also offers advice on what not to share. "I think that you always have to be careful and aware of what you put on the internet, especially with a medical setting where you have client-patient-relationships," she says. "Confidentiality and over-sharing can be a pitfall, but once you become familiar with what's acceptable and what's not, it becomes common sense to realize what's OK to post and what not to. Another thing is to use social media as a venting space. It's just so easy to throw negativity out there when you have a rough day. I really try and stay away from that and make it a more positive space. I mean, snark is so instantly gratifying but I think it just looks bad in hind sight. The internet is filled with negativity, so why add to it?"

"The internet is filled with negativity, so why add to it?"

Shannon has a history of being an avid reader (she admits to blowing away the competition in a reading contest at her childhood library) and cites other veterinarians as authors that inspire her. Dr. Sarah Boston makes Shannon's list (remember we talked to Sarah a while back?) as does Dr. Elizabeth Stone, the co-founder of the Society of Veterinary Medicine and Literature, and another VetWrite interviewee alumni. "I basically admire anyone in our field who takes the time to write and share their thoughts and passions for our wonderful career with others," Shannon says. "It's sometimes nice to have a break from being so science-oriented and appreciate the more poetic aspects of what we do."

For some folks, the concept of building an online presence, or a platform if you will, can seem overwhelming. For example, consider your choices: blogging, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, Snapchat, LinkedIn... I'm getting sweaty just thinking of all the different modalities. Shannon offers some sage advice for those who are interested in getting their foot in the internet door. "I think for most people, you start with what you're familiar with and what you enjoy," she says. "Think about if you like information sharing, picture sharing, or story telling. I don't think you can go wrong with picking a modality as long as you take the time to learn about how to use it, what appropriate use is in your job, and who your audience is. I would say the ultimate piece of advice is that you get out of it what you put into it. If you spend time formulating good Tweets, coming up with good blog ideas, and interacting with others, you will find it more rewarding for sure. It's definitely not a passive process."

Looking into the future, Shannon is interested in OneHealth. "I really like the concept of solving important problems at more of a population level," she says. She remains open to the vast opportunities that are available for today's veterinarian. But for now, there's one thing Shannon sees as a definite no-go: "Definitely not to be a radiologist!"
See you next month!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Capturing many a veterinary legacy

This fall I had the opportunity to speak with an impressive member of the veterinary community--Dr. Don Smith--and I'm very excited to share with you one of his many projects. Don, large animal surgeon, dean emeritus of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, author, and veterinary history enthusiast, is the creator of a fascinating collection of interviews of veterinarians who attended vet school during some of the most challenging times of modern US history, most notably the Great Depression. These interviews, both in written form and available as audio files, are available on Cornell's website. The collection is called Enduring Legacy. Here's what Don had to say about how this project came to be, his interview process, and what he's learned from talking to some amazing veterinarians.

Despite modest ambitions of wanting to be a dairy practitioner, Don wound up a large animal surgeon. Then, after following the winding road of professionalism, Don eventually held a deanship at Cornell from 1997 to 2007. After this, Don found himself at a crossroads.

"I was too young to retire but didn't want to continue with administration," he says. "I didn't know what to do so I packed my dog into a Jeep and I went to Alaska along the back roads. I used that time to decide what I didn't want to do as well as to some extent what I did want to do."
Beau, Don's Cocker Spaniel who accompanied him to Alaska and back.
Don had been introduced to the concept of helping record the history of individuals who were veterinarians in the early part of the 21st century. The element of time passing--these individuals were not going to be around within the next 20 years--was palpable and when Don returned from his trip in Alaska, "I decided to meet and record these life stories of as many veterinarians who were educated in the 1930s as possible," he says. "So, I traveled around the country and interviewed them. I did Cornell graduates first, and then I was encouraged to interview younger people who had graduated in the 1940s, and then interview some from other schools as well."
Dr. Andre Moul Ross, the only female member of the Cornell veterinary class of 1943.
Don has conducted hundreds of interviews, not just for the Enduring Legacy project, but also for other books and blogs. I was curious to learn about Don's interview technique and perhaps gain a few hints for myself.

Primarily, Don states an axiom that should be remembered by anyone who ever conducts any interview, for whatever reason (this can even apply to vets getting a decent case history on a patient!): "When you interview somebody, you're hearing a bias. You're hearing the way they remember, or more specifically, how they want their history to be remembered on their behalf. They will tell you things they want you to know and in the process, perhaps, they don't tell you certain things or there are certain errors. Therefore, you have to get at the facts. In order to interview someone, you have to do research."

"When you interview somebody, you're hearing a bias."

Don describes his process of triangulating a story: hearing something during an interview then corroborating those statements with interviews from other sources and facts collected elsewhere. Another concept Don used to make his Enduring Legacy interviews stand out as unique collections of veterinary history is who he talked to. "Most people, when they want to know about the history of veterinary medicine, they go to the faculty and ask them what it was like to be a faculty member," he says. "I didn't want to do that. I wanted to find out about the real people in the real world under real circumstances. I wanted to explore their history."

As far as interview techniques, Don cuts to the chase: "Don't ask the obvious questions." Don likens a good interview to allowing the interviewee to demonstrate leadership. "You have to create instability and let leadership come through. People are great leaders but they too often will not find leadership unless they are put in an unstable situation and they have to demonstrate how to move society forward. So I try to use that same context within my interview style."

"Don't ask the obvious questions. Create instability and let leadership come through."

I asked Don what his most memorable interviews were during his time putting together Enduring Legacy. Without hesitation, Don stated that the class of 1939 at Cornell was probably the most extraordinary class to have gone through veterinary college anywhere. "The reasons for this were because of the diversity in the class and the challenges of the Depression," he says. "The challenges of that era were just extraordinary but it allowed the students to become friends, not just colleagues, with people who were very different."

Don describes this class as one containing "three women, a Chinese man, a Canadian who didn't know how old he was, an African American from Memphis, some Catholics who were discriminated against back then, and some Jewish people."

The relationships and bonds formed in this vet school class have left a huge impression on Don. "A Jewish man from Brooklyn and a Catholic man from southern New York became the very best of friends," he says. "Never once during these interviews did I ever hear anyone say anything negative about anyone."

Take some time to explore the interviews captured over at Enduring Legacy--the audio files are so rich with memory and emotion you'll easily find yourself rooting for those who, at immense odds, fulfilled their professional ambitions.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Creative Cartooning

It's been a while since we talked to a cartoonist. Remember Dr. Dean Scott? What a hoot. Us veterinarians need to cartoon more. That should probably be a decree from AVMA. I'll write to them. Make a proposal.

Luckily, there is at least one relatively new vet cartoonist in the ranks and I'm thrilled to feature him and his awesome work here on VetWrite. Dear readers, meet Dr. Vishal Murthy, a recent graduate from Ontario Veterinary College. As an artist in the veterinary field, Vishal is using his knowledge and talents to create educational and entertaining media that ranges from study aids for the veterinary student to actual comics about daily life in vet med.
Courtesy Vishal Murthy, DVM
"I've been drawing cartoons ever since I could pick up a pencil," says Vishal of his beginnings in this art form. "Some of my biggest influences have been the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, the Bone series, and of course, the Disney cartoons. But it was only a couple of years ago that I really realized that I could combine my passion for cartoons with veterinary medicine and I'm still exploring all the avenues before me. I tend to draw a lot of my ideas from my own experiences in practice, or those that my colleagues share with me."
Courtesy Vishal Murthy, DVM

With an interest in small animal neurology, Vishal is currently on a rotating internship. While this leaves little time for cartooning, Vishal continues to plunge ahead and build his brand. He currently categorizes his work into three main groups:
  • "Vet Tails" are comics highlighting the lighter side of the veterinary profession (he's been invited to contribute some of these to The Scalpel, the bi-annual newsletter of the Toronto Academy of Veterinary Medicine); 
  • Cartoon Vet School: comics geared toward vet students (think illustrated fun times with infographics and scientific wordy-gurdy); and 
  • Veterinary Infographics: comics aimed at the general public, providing basic information on a range of diseases.
Courtesy Vishal Murthy, DVM. For full cartoon on heart block, see

"I've got some big plans for my website that I'm slowly working towards," says Vishal. "I'm interested in both education and entertainment."

It's interesting to me to notice how a certain artist has a certain style and Vishal's work is certainly very stylistic. "My art style is constantly evolving, so its hard to describe," he says. "I tend to stay away from realism and make things quite cartoony. I find that I often tend to adjust the style to match the content - something you'll sometimes see on my website. For most of my comics, I try to keep a focus on strong silhouettes and shapes with simple lines, expressive features, and building character. Simplicity is key these days, especially given my time constraints."

Courtesy Vishal Murthy, DVM
Contextually, Vishal's work reminds me of Pasquini's Anatomy of Domestic Animals. Almost every member of my vet school class, including myself, had a copy. The drawings and cartoons helped me learn anatomy and physiology. In fact, there is one drawing, on page 565 of the tenth edition, that made me finally understand how to locate spinal cord lesions based on upper motor neuron versus lower motor neuron signs:

from Pasquini's Anatomy of Domestic Animals, 10th ed.
Seeing this drawing was my one and only eureka moment of my life. Too bad it hadn't happened before the exam... 

Courtesy Vishal Murthy, DVM
Vishal says that since many people are visual learners, cartoons can just be an extension of that learning process. "Along with all the handwritten notes I made to get me through school, I drew out a lot of the concepts, made flowcharts and more. Cartoons can help serve the same end. Often a fun cartoon can make a dull or complex concept more relatable, memorable, and allows for better understanding," he says.

Courtesy Vishal Murthy, DVM
Drawing to educate veterinary students may be one thing, but illustrating complex biological processes for the lay public is an entirely different challenge and Vishal seems keen to build this bridge. "We have a lot of complex concepts and diseases to present to an audience that often doesn't have the background to fully understand them. I think visual aids, and comics in particular, are great in helping bridge that gap to both educate and entertain."

Vishal discusses OneHealth and collaboration with other medical professionals as being some key challenges that veterinary medicine faces over the next few years, but in his own way, he's already making an impact on that: user-friendly information for all.

"Its an exciting time to be a veterinarian - there's much to be done, and lots of us ready to meet the challenges that arise," Vishal says. His ambition and enthusiasm are contagious. Follow Vishal on Twitter: @vetcartoonist and @VishalMurthyDVM.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Healing with Poetry

I'll depart from my normal routine this month, if you'll allow. I've wanted to share some thoughts on my favorite poet Mary Oliver for some time and, although not a vet or in any way associated with the veterinary or agriculture industry, Mary writes about nature and animals in such a wonderful, thoughtful way that I think she deserves a shout out here. My introduction to Mary's work was through a delightful, small work of poems called Dog Songs. If you in any way love dogs, buy it now and cherish it. It is lovely.

It this collection, Mary celebrates many of the dogs with whom she's shared her life and offers such wisdom as:

"Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble.
A dog is a true and loving friend. A dog
is also a hedonist."

Mary Oliver


"Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world. The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, and the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him."

Mary Oliver


"And it is exceedingly short, his galloping life. Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old--or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give."

This last passage reminds me that I'm to send a copy of Dog Songs to my mom, because her yellow Lab, Phoenix, of 14 years, died this week. I think the words above speak to our gut-wrenching loss of those pups we couldn't save (in the end, isn't it all of them?) no matter what. My own black Lab, Shadow, died of heart failure two years ago and I've said if not for species differences, I would have donated my own heart.

And oh, how easy it is to slip into sentimentality when we talk about lost pets. I'm teetering on that edge right now. The Rainbow Bridge and all that. One can jump overboard. Of course, that's not the intent of this entry. Instead, this is meant as an illustration of how poetry helps and heals (and poetry about animals, especially!).

But, if your heart is heavy because you've lost a pet, here are some comforts:

Other collections by Mary are just as enchanting. In Blue Iris, for example, one poem expresses how the morning sunlight touches flowers with "buttery fingers." Yeah, that's what I'm talking about, people. The beauty of language. Whew boy. *mops brow*

As of yet, Mary doesn't have a collection about cats. I'd like to ask her about that.

Until next time.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Culture of a Monthly Column

Regular readers of the veterinary industry magazine DVM360 may recognize this name: Dr. Michael Obenski. For those of you who don't, Mike, a retired feline practitioner in Pennsylvania, was a columnist for the magazine for 37 years. 37 years. 37 years. 

Holy cow.

You understand, I just had to talk to this man. Here's what he had to say about life, vet med, and writing to a monthly deadline for over three decades.
Michael Obenski, DVM
"I was in a small animal practice in 1972," Mike says. "It was my first job out of school. A very nice job. I stayed there for six years. Around 1974, it was decided in the practice that it would be a good idea to have all the veterinarians go take the Dale Carnegie course, How to Win Friends and Influence People. This course is largely public speaking and as part of the course, you are called upon to tell the group something about your life. So, I found immediately that when I got up to tell a story, it was phenomenally received. It was fun. So having seen that I could tell stories and people loved them, that got me to try writing."

Mike wrote a few columns and sent them off. Initially, magazines weren't biting, but Mike caught the interest of a brand new veterinary publication, the now-known DVM360. "This magazine was just in its first year and trying to build itself, so I decided to give it a try," he says. "And that's it. I continued with them for 37 years."

Having retired from writing late last year, Mike has hundreds of columns to his name. Hundreds. I asked him where all his content came from and how he stayed fresh. "The thing is that when you practice veterinary medicine every day, I mean, come on," he says. "Strange stuff happens so consistently. And when it didn't, veterinarians from all over the world would occasionally send me some story or unusual thing that happened to them. You might notice that I was a cat specialist exclusively from 1978 on and yet I wrote stories about horses and cows and dogs because not every incidence necessarily happened to me."

"The thing is that when you practice veterinary medicine, strange stuff happens so consistently."

As we've read about in this blog before, both veterinarians and physicians have a tight rope to walk in memoirs when it comes to patient confidentiality. Mike had a fantastic tool in his writing when it came to tackling sticky issues. "In my columns, I have a "friend" whose name is Arnie and he practices down the road," Mike explains. "Well, Arnie of course doesn't exist. If something was a little controversial or a statement was going to be taken wrongly by somebody, I often attributed it to Arnie."


Mike continues. "Arnie's existence has been questionable over the years. I've had veterinarians from other states ask me exactly who is Arnie, really? There was a vet in Florida who wrote me a letter describing exactly who Arnie was. He quoted Pogo and said: 'We've met the Arnie and it is us.' Anyway, Arnie was supposed to be the well-established, big hospital veterinarian and he was a reflection of many of my friends but he wasn't a real person."

Another method Mike used for protecting privacy actually added to the entertainment value of his columns without belittling the character in a personal way. "One of the things my writing became known for, if you could call it known--I don't want to act like I'm a household word or anything--was the use of names. I made up hundreds of names over the years. I always used what I called medically humorous names. My cantankerous colleague was called A. Brasive, my large animal colleague was called Juan Armup. I never used names like Bill Jones or Mary Smith."

Perhaps the strongest feature of Mike's columns was his sense of humor. "Everything I've written was light," he says. And then an interesting comment on the state of people nowadays reveals itself: "People have become so much more serious. I think a lot of people have lost their sense of humor. Once in a blue moon I'd hear from someone who would be very upset and say that I was mocking my clients or I'm biting the hand that feeds me. And that was usually one person who read one column and took it the wrong way. Anyone who read my columns for years knows that I mocked my colleagues, I mocked the clients, I mocked myself, I mocked the technicians. You weren't immune."

"I mocked my colleagues, I mocked the clients, I mocked myself, I mocked the technicians."

Speaking of now versus the 1970s, Mike and I discuss the changes seen in veterinary medicine over the past few decades and the emergence of the specialty doctor. "If you come to me with a broken leg, I'll fix it," Mike says. "Does your cat have an endocrine disease? I'll fix it. But now, I have to tell every single client: well, you know, I could send you to an orthopedic surgeon or endocrinologist. When I was a kid, if you broke your leg, your family doctor set it. Now, if you tweak your pinkie, you're sent to an orthopedic surgeon. Veterinary medicine has become the same way."

"I wanted to be a veterinarian my whole freakin' life."

Mike has had two books published, both compilations of his columns in DVM360. With his extensive column experience and two books under his belt, however, he still strongly puts vet med first and foremost. "I did enjoy the writing but never ever ever did I look at myself as a writer or someone who wants to be a writer. My entire life I wanted to be a veterinarian and that's what I was. I wanted to treat animals every day and what's what I did. The book thing and the column thing were totally off to the side. I don't look at myself as a writer. I don't think: oooh, now that I'm retired I'm going to work on a screenplay. No. I wanted to be a veterinarian my whole freakin' life and I practiced every day."

"I did enjoy writing but never ever ever did I look at myself as a writer."

Admittedly, this black and white cut off of writer/non-writer struck me. How can you write regularly for 37 years and then just turn it off? Retired now also from practice, Mike says he's moved on. "I'm just living out my golden years happy as a clam," he says. "Works for me."