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September 20, 2018

Andrew Bomback's Playlist for His Book "Doctor"

Doctor

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Andrew Bomback's contribution to Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series, Doctor, is part memoir, part definition of a physician's role today, and wholly engaging.

Amy Fusselman wrote of the book:

"With intelligence and humor, Andrew Bomback shows how human beings cope with issues of power and vulnerability. Doctor is an insightful read for anyone who's been on either end of the stethoscope."


In his own words, here is Andrew Bomback's Book Notes music playlist for his book Doctor:



It’s been more than a decade since I did my first Book Notes for this site, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to compose a book-inspired song list again. Music played a big role in the fiction I wrote back then, so pulling songs from that novel was a relatively straightforward task. My new book, Doctor, is a book-length essay that combines elements of cultural criticism and memoir. As I wrote (and re-wrote and re-wrote) the book, I aimed to keep a narrative thread running through the piece, so that this work of non-fiction could still be consumed as a “story.” Songs were a big help in that process.

Caminito de la Escuela by Francisco Gabilondo Soler (“Cri-Cri”)
The first scene of the book centers on taking my 3-year-old daughter to daycare. My inability to answer her relatively simple questions about my job and doctoring in general lay the groundwork for the essay that is to follow. Some of my trouble answering her, I concede, is due to a language barrier; my wife and I are raising her to be bilingual, but only my wife is the native Spanish speaker. I answer her (in Spanish) with child-like vocabulary: I am a doctor and I help sick people. This simple answer, I realize, should be true, but I question whether it is consistently so. And thus begins the essay. During that time, one of my daughter’s favorite CDs to listen to in the car was Cri-Cri, a collection of children’s song from 1950s Mexico that have an early Disney-esque quality with their lush orchestration and playful lyrics. “Caminito de la Escuela” is the first song on one of the ¬Cri-Cri albums, a bouncy tune punctuated by animal sounds about a bunch of forest creatures walking to school (or so I think, based on my rudimentary translation skills).

We’re Computerizing and We Just Don’t Need You Anymore by American Analog Set
My father, a legendary community pediatrician who recently turned 70, is the “hero” of Doctor. In the book, I detail how he is the epitome of what patients want out of a doctor in terms of his devotion to patients and his encyclopedic knowledge of medicine. Yet he is also emblematic of how doctors have changed, as his method of doctoring now feels antiquated and clunky. One of the challenge he faces in the book (and which he faced bravely in real life) is learning how to use a computer for the first time in order to adapt to electronic medical records. The computerization nearly forces him into an earlier retirement than he would have hoped for. I often thought of this American Analog Set tune, so mournful and beautiful, when I wrote these sections about my dad.

We Are Real by Silver Jews
I use a lyric from one of my all-time favorite songs – “Repair is the dream of the broken thing” – in the book’s chapter on social media. In that chapter, I discuss how some doctors use Twitter, Facebook, and other sites in both appropriate and inappropriate ways. For example, I detail how physicians, tweeting via pseudonymous accounts, often vent their frustrations with patients, colleagues, administrators and health plans, seemingly without fear of crossing legal and ethical lines. For a time, I made a concerted effort never to tweet about medicine and limit all of my tweets to sports, music, and books. I had a recurring “joke” on Twitter (it was funny to me, at least) in which I took quotes from authors or songwriters and downgraded them via attachment to my favorite sports teams. I used this Silver Jews line as a way of analyzing how badly a Mets pitcher laid down a bunt. What often happened to these tweets, though, was that patient or doctor accounts would reply in a medical context. “Repair is the dream of the broken thing” could be considered a slogan for a patient on dialysis, awaiting a kidney transplant.

Forget It by Blood Orange
I probably listened to this song more than any other while writing this book. I loved the song itself, which reminded me of the better and more up-tempo Antony and the Johnsons tunes, but even more so, I was obsessed with the chorus and its “I am not your savior” line, sung over and over again. I am notoriously bad at knowing what songs are about. This is where sites like genius.com help, because I would listen to this song and not once think about “the tragic struggle to set the boundary between sexual play and long-term attachment and fulfillment” (the genius.com interpretation). I would hear those words – “I am not your savior” – and think about how doctors of my generation have put up boundaries against their patients, how we don’t want to be their patients’ heroes, and how we deliberately avoid the “doctor knows best” philosophies of the older physicians who trained us. A large part of the book is exploring the “hero worship” that sustained doctors like my dad and whether the shunning of this kind of worship is a good or bad thing for medicine.

Running Scared by Roy Orbison
One of the more intimate sections in the book relays the interaction I had with a patient and her adverse reaction to a medicine. The way she explains the side effect of the drug is that it made her tear up while listening to a Roy Orbison song that previously meant nothing to her. I reflexively thought she was referring to “Crying,” a song that has always stirred up something sad inside me. Later, it occurred to me that she might have been referencing “Pretty Woman,” and the despair my patient was trying to convey became so much more apparent. I stopped the medicine. A few months later, when she was back in my office and feeling great, I asked, “So no more crying from Roy Orbison songs?” It turned out the Roy Orbison song that had broken her down was “Running Scared.”

Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle by Nirvana
This song is included in the book for its unforgettable chorus: “I miss the comfort in being sad.” Towards the end of the book, I ask why I am so consumed with analyzing my profession, whether my questions about what doctoring was and is and will be in the future are spurred by more than just my daughter’s childish questions and my dad’s impending retirement. Perhaps I just like being a doctor and am uncomfortable with that level of content. Or is the job of doctoring, over time, unavoidably sad and frustrating?

Vessel in Vain by Smog
I used an E.B. White quote (which I came across in one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock) to motivate me as I wrote this book: “A person who writes of this and that stands in the same relation to his world as a drama critic to the theater. He is full of free tickets and implied obligations. He can’t watch the show just for the fun of it.” I felt a deep obligation to all the doctors and patients I’ve worked with since my first day of medical school to get the story right, to make sure that my depiction of medicine in the 21st century was accurate and honest, even if it was thorny and difficult to swallow. I love this song by Smog (I love almost every song by Smog/Bill Callahan), and the opening lines – “I can't be held responsible for the things I say, for I am just a vessel in vain” – remind me of E.B. White’s charge to writers.

X-Ray by Youth Lagoon
This is my shoutout to Spotify’s “Stress Relief” playlist. The question I get asked most about my writing is a logistic one – “How do you find time to write?” I take a commuter train to and from work each day, which gives me about 45 minutes of time away from work and home (I have three small kids) to do concentrated writing and re-writing, plus about 15-20 minutes of pre-writing in my head as I walk to and from the train station. Most days I listen to the background noise of the train while using my laptop. If I’m sitting near someone who is talking on their phone or two passengers having a conversation, I’ll put in earbuds and listen to the Spotify “Stress Relief” playlist, a mix of ambient, soft-techno music (e.g. piano-heavy Aphex Twin, Brian Eno, Stars of the Lid, etc.) that helps me block out the noise without distracting me from the page. This song by Youth Lagoon, an artist I’d never heard before using this playlist, is one of my favorites from the “Stress Relief” mix.


Andrew Bomback and Doctor links:

Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for You're Too Wonderful To Die


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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