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The Music

 

I don't get many things right the first time.

 

I'm now up to my hundredth - or - so try at this, and I'm still not really what you'd call a musician. But I'm learning, and tomorrow's a brand new day. 

I do, however, finally have some part of this journey to share with the world. A Rough-Around-The-Edges introductory paragraph to a story that is, as yet, unwritten. 

 

A first set of comfortably unpolished and simple songs that sit atop a stack of blank pages. A prequel.

 

A primer.  

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The Writing

 

I always knew I wanted to write a book. 

As I started out - untrained, directionless and full of hope, I found that yes, actually, I did want to write. 

And so I did - I'd get up early in the morning before work (Admittedly, only about half the time) and force myself to write at least one sentence. More often than not, that became two, or ten, or fifty. 

I would come home and chip away at the emerging chapters, aiming for Stephen King's 2000 words per day. I took courses, read how-to books, and practised the craft.  

And in time, the story began to emerge.

 

I can only hope that Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss and Dr Seuss would approve.

Old Book

The Medicine

 

I have been studying and working in healthcare most days since I was 17. I have been all over Australia, and in hospitals in a dozen different countries. I have done my best to help people on their first days, their worst days, and their last days. I have seen amazing accomplishments and unimaginable challenges. All of this has filled me with one unshakeable idea. 

We can, and we must, do better. 

So I studied. I set out to learn what makes healthcare tick, how people use it, how it is understood, or more frequently, misunderstood. I looked at the individual, the social and the environmental determinants of health. I looked at what we are doing and why, and I am beginning to see what we need to do next. 

Glass Buildings

The Journey

Early life

Every story has a beginning, and mine is no exception. I was born at an early age, west of Melbourne in the regional city of Ballarat. My mother, who was there at the time, along with my father, who I met that same day, never pushed me into anything. Smiles, laughter and grazed knees were the standard fare, whilst grades, medals and applause remained unimportant. 

Due to this, my childhood memories were largely positive, and for the most part fall into one of two categories. Some moments I remember with striking clarity - long car trips south, attacking homemade pasta with an unbridled porcine enthusiasm, my father playing the same 8 bars of 'song for guy' on piano, burning the pancakes twice in a single day - and these memories, sharp as splintered glass, are tinted with various colours of positive emotion. Happiness. Contentment. Connection.  In fact, these emotional filters are probably the reason my hippocampus has been able to keep the memories so clear after all of these years. The rest of my memories are a marble-cake amalgam of half-pictured settings, images, and sounds. When I try to inspect any memory too closely, it dissolves. The overall feelings, though, are of stability, security, and support. For this more than anything, I will always be indebted to my parents - I'm pretty sure I learned all the worthwhile parts of me by watching them. 

Wooden Hut

Growing up

High School

Perhaps an unintended, or unforeseen, consequence of this upbringing, is that it filled me to overbrimming with a resolute, and sometimes completely unwarranted, self-confidence. I hit high school full of the naive certainty of a teenage male, and had quite a good, solid experience.

 

I toured around Europe with the school choir, I learned bits and pieces of composing, piano and guitar here and there, but I was never really serious about music. I fell in love a few times, learned how to get hurt, and how to heal, but none of that is an original story. You can hear it in just about every song you know.

 

Most importantly I learned how to make mistakes, apologise to myself and others, and resolve to do better next time. To fail better. To grow. I am not sure I realised this at the time, however. Somedays - even now - I still forget. In the way of youth, I also spent a good deal of energy feeling belittled and intimidated by the kids at school who were better looking, sportier, cleverer or more all around sensible than I was. Sitting in a doctors office these days, I have learned that this is actually a pretty common way to feel, and we mostly do it to ourselves. We somehow learn, without being taught, to get good at DIY bullying. Not the kind of bullying that drives productivity, just the kind that makes you feel bad. Actual bullies were relatively rare in my life as a grew up. I occasionally see them now, scrambling around looking for a rewind button (Often after getting a mortgage with their 'I guess he's okay' spouse).

 

When I think back now, I try to do so gently - maybe the life of a high school bully is not a happy one. Perhaps their lives at home were not as supportive as mine was. Maybe they were just modelling behavior they had learned. Maybe it is all just luck. Maybe - probably, in fact - I should buy my mother some flowers, and maybe pop by to trim the hedges or something. Eventually I finished high school without any terribly scarring breakdowns, although a number of teachers were perhaps sighing and rolling their eyes at one another with equal parts exasperation, trepidation, and amusement. 

Despite being a somewhat enthusiastic and injury-prone gymnast at the time, I had never considered myself very sporty - I didn't much like the idea of post-game communal showering, sordid shoulder-slapping combined with a perfunctory jocular nod, or that rapid-fire, 200-decibel laughter which broadcasts to those listening a distinct sense that the owner of the laugh has dived head first into the shallow end of the gene pool, and is best avoided. You might say I had a stereotyped and incorrect, or at least incomplete, picture of an active and social lifestyle. I shied away from team sports, garmets with torn off sleeves and the parties where people drank out of red plastic cups. So I was never really considered by myself or others to be 'a jock'. 

 

Undergraduate Years - Physiotherapy

I was therefore a bit surprised to find myself studying physiotherapy the following year. In hindsight, I now concede that it was an amazing four years, despite beginning with a thorough determination to not enjoy myself. Initially I divided my time quite evenly between practical classes in the physio complex (a good way to get to know your classmates), having the 'we have food at home' talk with myself, and skipping lectures to snooze in a sunbeam.  As the years went on I began to teach in the anatomy labs, and was routinely (if gently) reprimanded for a variety of shenanigans (like insisting that the spleen was simply a back-up kidney, or convincing some first years that the gallbladder they had just found inside a dissected abdomen was a dessert stomach - I'm especially proud of that one). Although this was generally an enviable job, the reverse was true when it came to exam time. Anatomy demonstrators were required to spend hours standing around the lab as students misspelled "duodenojejunal flexure", confidently identified the greater trochanter of the humerus (which doesn't exist), and generally panicked as silently as possible. This was made all the more bearable when the other demonstrators and I realised we could use our time productively by playing Pac-Man in the aisles between the diaphoretic students. So if you were one such student and heard one of us murmuring 'wakawakawaka' under our breath, that's why. Apologies. Or condolences, maybe. Perhaps both. 

As I progressed, I also began teaching some physics classes; a sure sign of procedural laxity at the hiring department of the University's Maths and Physics department. As it so happened, a modest amount of good-old, fun-loving semi-immoral conduct in the classroom fostered a good deal of competitive learning among the class (Although I maintain that the betting was not my idea).

 

I remember one particularly successful class where students would pair off to compete against each other in what became known as 'circuit slap'. The goal was to get your partner to slap themselves in the face using bits and bobs to create an electric circuit that was hooked up to a TENS machine (which is kind of like a weak taser). If done just right, a TENS machine can cause the muscle underneath to contract. So if you are a budding physio, and you know which muscles do what, and you put the electrodes over just the right spot, you can get a person to involuntarily slap themselves in the face. It was a race; you got a max of five minutes each, then you swapped. Whoever got slapped the quickest was the loser. It was like an Olympic sport for dorkuses. The prizes were bragging rights, critical acclaim, and instagrammable moments.

Teacher Writing a Formula on a Blackboar

Postgraduate years - Medicine, Public Health and Beyond

Eventually I made my way into medical school after a good deal of tests, late nights of gritty-eyed study, and procrastination pancakes. My weekdays quickly became occupied with a mix of lectures, practicals and clinical coaching, while my weekends were spent earning money to buy a guitar. I found work as a physio on the wards of a hospital in South Brisbane, and stayed there for the better part of 4 years.

 

The team there was comprised of the kindest, most enviably hard working folk I have yet come across. More than that, the culture of the organisation was fostered from the top down to be supportive, empowering and welcoming to hesitant newcomers like myself. This was a lesson I would carry with me over the coming years as I moved towards a career in healthcare administration. In short, I loved it there, and I fit in like second breakfast fits into a Sunday morning.  

It was also during these early days of my medical degree that music became a significant part of my life. I began to spend the free time outside of my studies learning to song write wherever I could - you can learn anything on youtube these days.

 

Mostly though, it was a good deal of deflating trial and error that led me to where I am today. I began to involve more people as I grew more confident in my skillset, and sought feedback from people with more experience and different view points to keep my head from getting too big. It was during this period that I also realised my high-school piano and guitar playing skills had died off faster than a tamagotchi with no love. Fortunately, I had once met an excellent man who told me, in his capacity as my music teacher, that I could always find an extra two hours a day to practice something. Get up early. Eat lunch faster. Don't dither.

 

He was correct - and from that point my practice began in earnest. Initially this was a sloppy and self-indulgent concert featuring a set list of 'everything I could already play, with a brief bit of some other stuff that I'm working on'. Although this eased me into the habit of daily practice, I was not improving. It turns out that 'push ups won't improve your sewing' - if you want to get better at something, you have to practice the difficult bits. The embarrassing, frustrating, disheartening bits. You have to practice them until you become gelatinous with fatigue and your fingers ache from repetition. You have to practice the hard bits until they are no longer hard. 

These years of my life were the busiest thus far (although, I am yet to have children, and I am reliably informed that busier days lie ahead). I picked up study of two postgraduate degrees alongside my medical studies (and physio work!), and still found time to practice music. Often this was late into the night, or in lunch breaks, or during days when I should have been at the hospital but had given myself "no one will notice if I skip this afternoon" leave.

 

There was one night in particular, during my third year of medicine, when I realised how tightly packed my days were becoming. I was living in a small apartment on the south side of the city with a friend, and one night - when my roommate wasn't there - a neighbour came and knocked loudly on my door at about 2am. I remember thinking how inconsiderate that kind of behaviour was - if I hadn't already been awake and playing my banjo at full volume, she very possibly could have woken me up (she was knocking to ask for a bit of peace and quiet, obviously, and I apologised profusely). 

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You have to practice the hard bits...

 

             ...until they are no longer hard.

Arriving

 

After a time, life settled. I graduated medicine with my friends and family around me, I started work on my novels in earnest, and I began to record all of the dozens of songs I had written over the years.

Now here I am, with this project. I finally have things I have created that are worth sharing. I have things I have learned that are worth teaching. I have things I have found that are worth doing.

And so, I carry on.

To everyone who has read this far – I hope you know how much I value your support. Keep being your wonderful selves, and I’ll see you were the roads meet.

Dr. Michael Routson