This is Water (the lost wallet) - 12/16/15

"I thought they might be stains from the barbecue you're coming from."

"Huh?"

"Because you were licking your fingers."

 

That was when I became angry.

 

I had been stopped for "additional screening" by the TSA agents at the gate. It had been 14 years since 9/11, and I had been on numerous international and domestic flights all over the world since then. Despite my middle name being "Ali", I had never once been hassled by airport security until now.

 

I had a flight for an interview which I had intentionally slated for later in the day so that I could run the Santa speedo run before immediately heading to the airport. I had spent the morning making my costume for the race. I stuffed my wallet, phone and keys into the pockets of my white coat. After finishing the run, I ran a victory lap. Just as I was about to head home, I felt my pockets for my belongings. My keys were exactly where I'd left them. My wallet was not. Upon this realization, my mood switched like a light in the dark. My heart sank as my my mind scrambled with both the sense of emotional loss and rationality of next steps. The feelings were compounded by the sense of urgency created by the fact that I had a critical flight to catch. Despite how unlikely it was that I would ever see my wallet again, it was even less likely that I would be able to retrieve it before I needed to be at the airport. I've never been much for gambling. I put out some quick feelers by asking the organizers of the run and the management of the bar if they had heard anything. As I was the first person around the course, if I had dropped it while racing, some other runners might have picked it up. I figured this was my best chance. Those leads offered nothing. Instead, I systematically ran through current losses and potential problems. 

 

The inventory of my wallet that I could recall was:

2 credit cards

2 debit cards

~$50 cash

$350 Money order

Driver's license

A few random business cards

Hospital ID

Medical school faculty ID

ACLS certification card

Public transit card

 

Of these things, the only time-sensitive and important things were my credit/debit cards and my driver's license. In fact, losing my wallet allowed me to quantify exactly how much excess I was lugging around everyday (this was obviously a liberating point I would only appreciate after the dust had settled days later). I was planning on renting a car to get around to various sites for my interview, but thus would now be impossible since I had no license to drive. If I had no electronic funds accessible because I had no credit cards, I wouldn't be able to get around very easily at all since Uber or Lyft wouldn't function without them. I was in dire straits. It was about 1:30pm, and my flight was at 5pm... The clock was ticking.

 

I used my lifeline and phoned a friend. Tick. Thankfully, she was available, so I asked her to meet me at my place. Tock. Then I ran the 2 miles home while attempting to call the Bank of America helplines to cancel my credit cards. Tick. All the while through my distress, people kept stopping me for photos, and I couldn't decline. Tock. The run home took about 15 minutes, and I was still painted blue upon my arrival. Tick. I needed to shower, but my roommate was in the bathroom. Tock. So, I confirmed that I had my passport readily available to board my flight. Tick. My roommate finished in the bathroom, and I rushed in. Tock. I rubbed the blue paint off of my body as quickly as I could and put on clean clothes. Tick. I still hadn't been able to get through to Bank of America. Tock. It was a Saturday, so their branches would have reduced hours and most of them would be closed by now anyways. Tick. It was 2:15pm. Tock. I had no credit cards/debit cards, no money and hardly any time. Tick. I had some cash sitting around waiting to be deposited from my last charity busk, and despite my significant reservations, I could see no alternative in the moment, so I grabbed the ziplock and grabbed some cash. Tock. I counted it immediately, so that I could refill it when I had sorted everything out. Tick. My friend arrived just in time to nearly collide with me as I bolted out the door. Tock. My breathing was heavy, and I was aggressively biting my nails from anxiety. Tick. I looked up a Bank of America physical location that was open. Tock. There was only one nearby that was open until 3 pm. Tick. It was already 2:30 pm as we weaved through Saturday traffic. Tock. I finally reached the credit card helpline to have them freeze my credit cards and inquired about emergency replacements. Tick. They said I could only get emergency debit cards, and it would have to be from a physical location. Tock. "Ok, that's fine, I'm right outside one and about to walk in. Thanks." Click. I walked in and asked for an emergency debit card. It was 2:40 pm. The attendant said I needed my ID. I had forgotten my passport in the car, so I had to run out and grab it. Tock...

 

Finally, some progress was made toward calming my nerves as the Bank of America people were able to replace my debit cards very efficiently. I could survive now. I went to the ATM to activate my cards. I deposited the money that I had comandeered from my busking funds into my DBD account, and withdrew cash from my personal account instead. My friend dropped me off at the airport, but my troubles weren't finished yet.

 

I still had to figure out what I would do without my driver's license. To get around during my trip, I could spend some money on Uber or Lyft, but when I returned, I would still have no license and hence no way to get to work (I had to commute to Providence daily for my current rotation). I had already had to request several days off to attend the interview, so to request another day just to visit the RMV after I returned felt like it would be too much even though this felt like an emergency. As I continued to drown in my conundrum, I checked in at the airport kiosk and stood in line at the TSA checkpoint. My thoughts were entirely focused on my driver's license and the events of the morning as I exhibited the empty tic of nail biting.

 

I went through the scanning machine thoughtlessly. I was patted down by the guy on the other side which happened all the time because I always wore either suspenders or cargo pants which triggered 'hotspots'. Then, I was notified that I had been selected for additional screening. I couldn't have cared less. I was early to the airport, and my mind was spazzing out on a distant worry. What difference did it make whether my physical being was being frisked and my things unraveled or my body was sitting in an uncomfortable airport bench beside my bag? Either way, I would be doing the same thing: running various scenarios through my head and how to troubleshoot the driver's license dilemma.

 

So it began. First, I was quite thoroughly instructed on how the frisking was to proceed, then a quite thorough frisking proceeded. The single detail on the frisking that I will mention to summarize the experience was that I was impressed how his hand managed to palpate the narrow spaces between my scrotum and each inner thigh. "Uh huh, whatever", I thought. Then, two other TSA agents began rummaging through my neatly packaged things. All the while, they asked me questions. 

 

"So, how are you doing today?"

"Terrible, actually."

"Terrible? Why's that?"

"Well, I lost my wallet literally a couple hours ago, and now I have no driver's license,  and I spent the last hour or so trying to replace my debit cards so that I have access to my money while traveling. Now I can't rent a car when I get there and I'm on my way to an interview and I don't know how I'm going to get around."

"Oh no. How'd you lose your wallet?"

"I was running the Santa speedo run which I 'win' every year, and I must have dropped it."

"Oh man, did you win at least?"

"Yeah. I mean, it's not really a race; that's why I go every year to 'win' because I think it's hilarious. I can show you a photo on my phone, if you want."

"No, that's ok. You're on your way to an interview? What for?"

"I'm an anesthesiologist."

"Oh man, what's starting on that if you don't mind my asking?"

"What do you mean, like, starting pay?"

"Yeah."

"Iunno, probably a quarter million or something."

"Wow, that's a lot of money!"

"I guess, I mean, not really. How much do those tech guys make in California? Plus, I'm in tons of debt."

"I guess, it's just a matter of perspective."

"Yup."

 

One of the charms of my life has been how new people react to my multifaceted nature. I like to believe there is a moment when they realize they are encountering someone completely unique. Whether it's because of my ultramarathon running, proclivity for costumes, street performance, physician-hood, some combination of the above or the personality of nonchalance that accompanies each aspect of my life, something about Adnan will stand out with novelty which hopefully inspires growth. Not everything is as it seems on the surface.

 

In this case, we had already established that "it was just a matter of perspective". Unfortunately, the TSA agents were unable to make the last step on taking that idea and applying it to life more broadly. So, one continued.

 

"What's that on your shirt?"

"Hm? These are blotches from a party I was at." (I was wearing a white undershirt with multiple pink colored sprays on it from a graffiti party I had gone to months ago."

"I thought they might be stains from the barbecue you're coming from."

"Huh?" I was legitimately confused.

"Because you were licking your fingers."

 

Despite the protracted conversation of meaningless drivel from my life, I was still quite numb to external stimuli due to my internal strife. Even still, these guys had managed to hit a sore spot. I was flabbergasted. I had been curious why I was selected for screening this time. Suddenly, it was clear: it was because I was biting my nails nervously which had seemed suspicious to them.

 

"I have a nail biting problem which is worsened because I just lost my wallet," I began to explain defensively before quickly realizing this line of conversation would be beyond their comprehension. I quit and receded into my numb rage. Nail biting was a bad habit of mine which I had failed to give up due to its chronic reemergence in times of stress. I was already embarassed about it. Suddenly, it was being used as justification to subject me to additional obstacles in a time already mired in insult. It was humiliating and enraging. Eventually, I boarded my plane still sour from the encounter.

 

In a commencement address entitled "This is Water," David Foster Wallace delved into various perceptions that each of us could utilize to introduce wonder into any mundane part of life. Through awareness, he proposed, we could remove ourselves from the egocentric bubbles in which many of us so often exist. The proverbial "I" am the victim of the circumstances around me and the center of my own world. We can exist as the victims of our perceived environment, or we could control our perceptions realize that there might be more to the world around us.

 

That skinny brown kid is biting his nails suspiciously. Maybe he is nervous because he's trying to smuggle something onto a plane. Or maybe he is nervous because he just lost his wallet hours before traveling for an interview while running a race painted blue and now doesn't know how he'll get around while traveling because he doesn't have his driver's license anymore.

 

"Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you wanna consider... The only thing that's capital-T true is that you get to decide how you see it... That is true freedom."

-David Foster Wallace

Vinh's Diesel - 10/26/15

I had been following Vinh's work via Facebook for couple of months. He contacted me briefly via an email through my website after the Boston magazine article very early on with the idea to start his own busking project as a medical student. "I guess what I'm trying to say, is that I want to be Student Doctorbedancing." He was studying at Howard in Washington DC. His vision was much more communal than mine in some ways. From the outset, he sounded more like he'd wanted to get other students at his school involved. I offered him some advice and gave him my blessing. I was thrilled that I could inspire someone into such a concrete action, but I ultimately didn't have much hope for his rendition of the project for several reasons.

Initially, I didn't even think he would actually execute on the idea. He had no need to. For me, it was personal. Years had passed, and I had continued to get into mild troubles along my career trajectory. As I spoke to my friend Aki about this, we jointly convinced me that I was exceptionally talented (it wouldn't take much to convince me of such flattering ideas) but fighting in the wrong arena, like Michael Jordan playing baseball. I prescribed to this hypothesis, but had never really tested it. Perhaps the only reason I believed it was because I wanted to believe it. It offered me an excuse for my purported shortcomings at my workplace. By starting DoctorBeDancing, however, I was testing the hypothesis. I was well aware of this, and it was terrifying. I had deposited everything that made Adnan himself into a single entity and offered it to the world. DoctorBeDancing was a symbol combining everything that I was supposed to be good at. His endurance and spirit drew from my ultra-running. His exaggerated motif of a physician drew from my costuming capabilities. His dancing was an extension of my own greatest power to grab attention, communicate with people and influence my surroundings. He even used the fact that I was a doctor as a red herring style exclamation point (Although I was a doctor, there was no reason that the most common question asked should be "Are you really a doctor??" -- it was frankly irrelevant to the fact that I was pouring sweat into the concrete to raise money for charity while making people smile and dance. Anyone who would do this should be applauded, not just a doctor.). DoctorBeDancing was all that was best in me. If he failed, it would mean that my greatest strengths weren't good enough. It would mean that my excuses for regularly facing difficulty at my job were baseless. If DoctorBeDancing failed, it was going to alter my perceptions of myself, and it was going to hurt.

Furthermore, the project had been taxing on me physically, mentality and emotionally. I had come from a background of ultra-endurance athletics and endured the purported gruel of residency unscathed, but I felt exhausted day after day from DoctorBeDancing. The only reason I could continue was because I was striving for something big -- something extraordinary. I wasn't even 100% sure what that was at the time, but DoctorBeDancing was my attempt to achieve it. DoctorBeDancing was my child, so I had to nurture it until it could stand on its own. Vinh, or any other person, wouldn't feel this drive -- this survival instinct pressing them through the difficulties. He probably didn't feel the need for redemption through his dancing, and he probably wouldn't feel the pressure for success when he faced the inevitable hardships of street performance. Would he be willing to go out even when it hurt? Would he be willing to give up days off to perform? Would he be able to stand up to the police or aggressive homeless people if they molested him? I doubted it.

Vinh also mentioned "[wanting] to help mobilize [his] very multi-talented classmates to exhibit their creative passion on the streets". I wasn't entirely certain what he meant by this, but I imagined it meant he planned to get a series of co-dancers from his medical school cohort. Personally, I felt that relying on other people was a folly. I'm sure that part of it stemmed from my own protracted battle with omnipresent feelings of isolation. But mostly, it was a logistical and motivational problem. Busking alone represented intrinsic motivation on the part of the individual. Relying on a group transformed it from the sacrifice of an individual to a social activity. If the motivation was derived from the social aspects, the idea risked dying in the absence of social support. For example, if a person only runs with a running club, then that person is more likely to stop running in their absence. The person may enjoy the club more than they enjoy running -- it presents a confounding variable which risks drop-out. Another logistical reason was that the fewer people who danced, the more attention and donations that were collected. I had noticed this quite early in my busking career and had chalked it up the idea that one person dancing was a performance while many people dancing was just a dance party. People will stop and watch a performance and pay, but they would rarely stop and watch a dance party. Early on, attention (read: memorable moments) and donations were the one of the only motivating factors which would come into play. If they were cut down by the diluting effect of having too many other people, then the idea risked collapsing on itself before it could gain a foothold. Beyond the rational reasons, my skepticism was also fueled by a certain ideological paradox. The idea that DoctorBeDancing tried to spread expression of individuality. In my mind, a group of people expressing their identical individuality jointly wasn't an expression of individuality -- it was mob mentality. This was the same reason I was reluctant to participate in flash mobs when invited on multiple occasions (plus, I was really bad at choreographed dance routines -- it didn't feel natural). I believed that any lasting endeavor would be the result of a personal war we waged and regularly involving other people was contrary to this thesis.

I didn't express any of these notions because as I mentioned, I didn't expect Vinh to act on the idea anyways. So, instead I told him, "The biggest recommendation I would make is to just get out there and do it. It's so incredibly rewarding to see so many people smile. The details will work themselves out as you go!" And with that, all the other thoughts evaporated.

He e-mailed me 24 hours later telling me he ordered a boombox. I was impressed. We became Facebook friends. Then I didn't hear from him again for a while. I hardly took notice; I was very busy anyways. I shot the CBS story that Monday which went viral and caused chain reaction of media requests that would go on to consume my energy for the next several weeks. As my project grew, I was forced to use more social media than usual. On my news feed, I noticed a few pictures and short clips that Vinh had posted. I got an e-mail a few days later:

Hey Doc!

I got out and danced for about half an hour. It was an extremely hot day (and I wish I was in your peak cardio condition), but I was able to raise a few dollars. I plan on doing this weekly and my classmates are getting involved too.

Thank you for the inspiration,

Vinh

Good for him, I thought. He had already exceeded my expectations. Months passed, and I would continue to see Vinh's videos and pictures pop up on my Facebook feed. He had a small posse of dancers, and it seemed to be going well. I got excited when I saw an update because this was the most tangible example of what DoctorBeDancing could spawn independent of my own work -- a consequence of the project which could outlast me.

At the outset, I had settled upon the end of October as my deadline for DoctorBeDancing. This was in the interest of sustainability: $10,000 by the end of October. With this concrete goal, it would be easier to make the unquestioning sacrifices I would have to make. After this, I would evaluate the progress of what I had accomplished and where to go from there -- like beta testing. Towards the end of the 'beta' phase of DoctorBeDancing, Vinh messaged me:

Vinh

hey man! i got nominated by my peers for a community service award

I just wanted to thank you for giving me the idea and for the advice. This is really all thanks to you.

this project has changed my life

Adnan

Dude, that's great to hear! Hell, I've never even gotten any accolades during my medical training.

Haha

I think you're setting a great example for other people.

The key to getting any idea going is to have other people start to act on it. Until then, you're just an eccentric weirdo.

So, your work is one of the best things to come out of my work.

Vinh

i'm honored

what's crazy for me

is that when I started I couldn't get any of my classmates to come out

and i only raised $5 on my first attempt alone

haha but then I learned how to come out of my shell so to speak, and it really just grew from there

so really, i thank you for giving me this experience

i feel like a different person

Adnan

brb, gotta intubate someone

It was true. Despite being catapulted to international spotlight and demolishing my financial goals with DoctorBeDancing, I had never received any sort of official commendation for my work. It wasn't something I had even considered. Frankly, I had given up on winning praise from within my profession -- that didn't happen for people like me. It was also true that his project was one of the best things to come out of DoctorBeDancing. (And it was also true that I had to go intubate somebody emergently in one of the ICU's).

His nomination made me happy, and it was enough that I could inspire such an uplifting change in another person who I had never even met. I didn't know much about Vinh or what kept him going when most would consider raising $5 in the sweltering July heat a disheartening failure. Clearly, I had underestimated him. I found his GoFundMe page:

How did I get into this project?

Before entering medical school, I loved to dance. I was an amateur choreographer and really enjoyed expressing myself through music and performance. I also served a service year with AmeriCorps' Community HealthCorps program after college and fell in love with community engagement during that time.

While ecstatic to be learning medicine and excelling in med school, I found a part of myself feeling unfulfilled during my first year. I yearned to make a bigger difference in my community.

"I found part of myself feeling unfulfilled." The words could have been taken directly from my mind. With that I realized what fueled this stranger who I had never met. The feeling of loss of humanity that often accompanied medical training -- we faced the same battle. The same flame that burned within me was alight in Vinh. I had been selling him short because I had neglected to see it until this moment. He had his own battle to face and created an analogous movement with his own flavor. This was exactly the point of my work -- to inspire the world to make a positive impact in their own way. By involving more people, he was able to make the movement even more accessible and arguably better in some ways for it. His rendition added his own strengths where mine fell short, and I could potentially learn from it.


A brand new value of DoctorBeDancing was revealed. That the tinder of passion and goodness was harbored within people simply waiting to be set ablaze by a silly idea like dancing on the streets for charity; and a medical student that I had never met who lived hundreds of miles away proved it to me.

 

Isolation from the Group - 10/11/15

http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/the-white-man-in-that-photo/

This article moved me. Human rights issues transcend race (or more broadly, in-groups vs. out-groups). What isn't quite emphasized enough in the article is just how much isolation Peter Norman probably faced as a result of his actions. Whereas Carlos and Smith stood up for what they believed in, they stood for a certain group and would be welcomed as heroes back into that group. For Norman, his actions stood AGAINST his in-group (white Australians) and thus would lead his outcast from his own group. There was probably no group which would accept him.

One of the most striking stories my father ever told me was about when he lived in Mississippi in the 70s. It was a racially volatile time in the south. It was a simply story lacking in detail. He said, "I would go to the white people bar, and they kicked me out for not being white. Then I went to where the black people were, and they kicked me out for not being black." Needless to say, he didn't stay in Mississippi for very long. But what happens to those people caught in the middle? What happens to those who do not have a group -- who don't belong anywhere? I imagine Peter Norman knew.

One last point worth emphasizing is that Peter Norman was an ordinary man who did an ordinary thing to stand against evil. This is critical because it reminds us that heroes often aren't moving worlds, they are ordinary people awaiting an opportunity where the path between good and evil diverges and a choice must be made. He had every reason to mind his own business. But as Philip Zimbardo would say, "You've gotta say: Mama, humanity is my business."