A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.    —RAH

“What do you do?” It is a question I often hear at social gatherings. Asking about one’s occupation is a good conversation starter; it is a question that is generally easy to answer: “I’m a lawyer.” “I’m in real estate.” It is also a question that causes a lot of problems for me. I want to be reasonably honest and complete, but just blurting out “I’m a poet, though I make my living designing computer systems and writing for the computer press, and I’m currently a writing major and applying to medical school” does not seem appropriate. It sounds disjoint, and it raises too many questions. Worse, it is neither particularly honest nor acceptably complete.

To understand why I do not have a three word answer to inquiries about my job, it helps to examine a crucial moment in my life. At that time — nearly three years ago now — I could accurately describe myself as a “writer/poet.” Writer-slash-poet is a job description most people are willing to accept as a single occupation. Furthermore, most people are not surprised to learn that any given writer-slash-poet has a second, somewhat more profitable, occupation. While “computer systems engineer” is perhaps not the most likely choice for that second job, once I would explain that much of the income I receive as a computer engineer derives from writing — technical documentation, magazine articles, and the like — people would seem to be satisfied with the connection. Being a writer/poet and moonlighting as an engineer did not seem, after all, to be so unusual.

The problem was that I was not satisfied with the situation. Neither computer work nor writing involved much contact with people, and I seemed to have both the need and the ability to help people. At this crucial moment I was explaining my dissatisfaction to a friend, and she asked what it was that I would rather be doing. I replied that what I really wanted was to be a physician, but that that, of course, was impossible. I did not need to see the quizzical look on her face; I had heard my own words and immediately recognized their absurdity.

From that moment forth I could no longer honestly state my occupation in such simple terms, yet my new pursuits meshed surprisingly well with the old. As a writer I would be uniquely equipped to see the human side of medicine, while as a physician I would not only satisfy my desire to use my skills to help my fellow beings, I would participate daily in the sort of human drama which would lend substance to my writing. What I had not expected was the vastness of the new intellectual landscape that opened up for me. I discovered that future MDs need not confine themselves to undergraduate majors in premed, biology, or chemistry; for a tiny additional effort, I could improve my writing skills and gain exposure to vast new vistas of literature, all while preparing for medical school. All in all, a little awkwardness at parties seems a small price to pay.

Ron Risley – 10 Jan 1991