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Essay, as a word, exists as a noun and a verb.
The noun refers to “a short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author….”1
The verb includes possibilities of challenge and adventure. The verb's definitions include “to attempt, to try, to do, effect, accomplish…(anything difficult); to practice…by way of a trial.”2
Two plastic surgeons have explored the dimensions of this bipolar word with remarkable success. Both started out as occasional authors of light topics but found ways of taking their writing into reflections of some of their most personal experiences. These authors are Drs Robert Goldwyn and Alan Muskett. Dr Muskett's most recent book was the impetus for this review, but I shall start with Dr Goldwyn.
To call Dr Goldwyn an occasional author is not to say that he was not prolific. Indeed, as editor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery for 25 years, he produced such an outstanding body of editorial writing that he probably had more readers than any plastic surgeon in history.3 His writing was occasional in the sense that his essays were based on specific topics taken from immediate professional issues or from his great, wide wealth of interests in culture, literature, and human behavior.
His last volume of collected essays, Exit Writing (thoughtfully reviewed by Dr Constantian),4 contains a virtuoso example of the scope of Dr Goldwyn's thinking. The essay entitled “Chinese Restaurants and American Jews,” begins with the simple observation of the pleasure of Chinese cuisine, even the varieties found in Americanized menus. Goldwyn then notes that there is no history of Chinese anti-Semitism, so that “Jews have a different history in mind when they enter a Chinese restaurant rather than a Polish or German…or even a French one.”5 Finally, Goldwyn has circumstances triumph: “They are always open…. We go from our Temple to the Chinese restaurant we prefer, whose name is Golden Temple…. In a fit of fantasy or gratuity, I have renamed it the Goldwyn Temple…. The word ‘temple’ is derived from the Latin templan, meaning sanctuary.” In a short space, he carries an American juxtaposition of culture through the dark shadow of a historic horror to a marvelous, multicultural punch line of harmony.
Goldwyn's writing achieved a greater density and a sharper focus, when he used it to explore his own terminal illness. He found himself struggling between the narrowing horizon of this illness and his ongoing desires to think beyond himself, to enjoy the “bigger world of his imagination, his pleasures, his ideas.” The sketch of the struggle is completed with the victory of a sustained personality: “What amazes me at age 78 in that I am still learning to live…. Only the dead are free of such challenges. I prefer to be on this side of the tombstone.”
Dr Muskett is spectacularly funny and delivers his punch lines in a series of one-liners, two-liners (where the joke is turned back on the writer), and quick sketches that can capture more absurdity than a 24-hour news network infested with sexual predators (I have here attempted a sly imitation of his style). In his first book Mostly True, he gives a rationale for his Marxist (ie, Groucho) outlook: “I am convinced that there is a deeply therapeutic effect of laughter, of indulging in silliness. It also serves to strip away the mysticism and fear that surrounds illness, and medicine.”6 Dr Muskett's practice of humor, however, exceeds any dry statement of theory. For example, Dr Muskett repairs his Badger 5 garbage disposal.
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