By day, Khashayar Tonekaboni is a clinical assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Optometry. At night, he is a writer of fiction under the pen name Terry Pinaud. “I sometimes feel like a storyteller when I am lecturing to 80 young, eager students—eager until the subject matter becomes so dry that 80 pairs of eyes glaze over, at which point, I tend to become more like a stand-up comedian, grasping at anything to regain the focus of my audience.” Reflections on the writer’s life by Khashayar Tonekaboni.
Dr. Zhivago Was a Doctor Too
by Khashayar Tonekaboni
I was watching Dr. Zhivago, David Lean’s 1966 Academy Award winning movie based on Pasternak’s masterpiece, a story about a doctor and a poet during the Russian Revolution. Interestingly, I had been asked to write an article about the duality of professions. More accurately and case-specific, the assignment was on contrasting a life of teaching, healing, and making a living, and a life dedicated to fulfilling a passion.
I must confess I don’t know much about Pasternak’s personal life, but I cannot ignore the parallel between Yuri Zhivago and myself—a boastful statement, but for the fact that, for all intents and purposes, Zhivago is fictitious. He became a famous poet even before he was a doctor. He helped many by his craft and medical know-how, one by one. He reached countless hearts, ears, and eyes through his art.
Seeing patients is an uplifting thing. It has served to bring me out of my shell, into which I have been prone to crawling since childhood. But the most important contrast I can delineate between the two halves of my life is 1) immediate feedback and 2) being recognized as an expert.
The face-to-face experience cannot always be duplicated between the writer and her/his reader. As a doctor, a caregiver, and service provider, it is impossible not to have some feedback almost immediately, be it body language, tone, or a look. Even more importantly, a patient sitting in the chair is there because s/he readily admits that the doctor knows more about certain aspects of her/his health. Otherwise why go?
Such is not the case when a reader picks up a book to read. The reader, or more generally, the consumer, may know far more about the subject matter than the writer/provider. As an example, I cringe when I see any type of medical equipment used in a movie or on the television to examine eyes, but then, that is not why I’m watching the film or the program.
On the other hand and speaking specifically, as different as clinical teaching and patient care can be from writing, I have found they have important commonalities as well, among them, creativity and discipline.
I sometimes feel like a storyteller when I am lecturing to 80 young, eager students—eager until the subject matter becomes so dry that 80 pairs of eyes glaze over, at which point, I tend to become more like a stand-up comedian, grasping at anything to regain the focus of my audience.
Attempting to regain the focus of an audience through repetition or simplification of delivery is what I have to do when I write. Finding creative ways to convey the relationship between intra- and extra-ocular muscles to my students or patients is not unlike trying to describe to a reader how my character feels when he suddenly wakes up in a dark room, alone and with no memory of his past.
In spite of the commonality, there still remains the obvious and practical difference: I have been trained to perform one, while the other is a passion I feel compelled to pursue. Having lived the life of a clinician and a teacher, I flatter myself to think that I have helped a few patients see better, even saved a few from serious maladies; and in the process, hopefully, I have given my students the tools to become better, to the point of reversing roles so that I can learn from them. Mission accomplished.
Pursuing the passion and the dream—to reach countless hearts and eyes and ears—on the other hand, remains just a far-fetched promise. I digress to ask just whose promise?
The ‘mission’ vs. ‘the passion’ has an interesting history in my case. My father, a medical doctor, was against my wasting time on reading novels, which I engaged in incessantly. We didn’t have television during my first ten years, you see. We were advanced that way! So, I read a great deal, a habit that stayed with me through high school and beyond to a lesser degree.
I remember during the summer between my tenth and eleventh grades, I was reading Oliver Twist, the unabridged version (in Persian,
of course.) My father scoffed that I should at least read something serious, like War and Peace. I think he was under the impression that Dickens had written Oliver for kids—having seen Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of the novel. So, the following summer, I boasted to him that I was reading Tolstoy. “You should be studying your twelfth grade math,” he said heavily.
When I cornered him once to explain why he was against my reading stories, he said he was afraid that I would be influenced too much by fantasy. That would make reality harder to live with. In a way, and more often than not, he was right.
When I came to the U.S., watching movies substituted reading to some degree. Movies take less time and effort. And when you’re going to school, struggling with the subject matter and a foreign language, you don’t have the time to “waste” on fantasy.
Time passed and I got a respectable degree—a doctorate—which would have been impossible without my parents’ enormous sacrifices. And I landed a career at Indiana University School of Optometry. With that came self-confidence, prestige, a comfortable material life, and more.
However the appetite lingers. The dream gnaws. I had stopped writing completely until, as it often happens, the heart ached and forced me back toward the pen. I found writing was a solace, more than a childhood dream. To boot, the old appetite persisted while the heartbreak was forgotten.
Twenty years have passed since I got my Visiting Lecturer position at IU. I am established, respected, in charge. I find perhaps now is the time to vent the passion, to obey the whim so that, just maybe, I can impact minds and hearts just sitting at my laptop. No tools, no drops, no prescriptions, just imagination poured onto monitor and onto paper.
So, the difference, and not the commonality, becomes the defining notion in a life such as mine and Zhivago’s.
Just like him, who, fictitious or not, lived during a very real and significant period of human history, struggling with the death of the person in favor of the community, the demise of the private life in favor of totalitarianism, but on a far smaller scale, I struggle with the mission vs. the dream; balancing practicality and the appetite—silly me—for immortality. Is that the promise? Oh, what a wonder to be remembered like Hugo, Dickens, Lee, Dumas, Tolstoy… In the movie, thousands came to Zhivago’s funeral. They were not his patients. They were his readers. Is that the fascination, to have touched lives without really having touched—in my case—eyes?
Perhaps the fascination immortality holds does have a hand in a writer’s desire to write, a painter to paint, and on so on. However, I wonder how many would continue, never expecting the result of their labor to ever be published, hang in a museum or be heard in an auditorium.
For me, spending a few hours with the characters I create, the words that I put down, the world I craft is an unadulterated joy, a joy that is interrupted and intruded upon by the need for practicality. Although I freely admit that, if not for the day-to-day necessities and concern for the future, I’d probably be holed up somewhere surrounded by my imaginary world, as my father had predicted. Still, there resides this need, which is as sacred and as real as everything I do during the 40 to even 80-hour workweeks. And it demands to be fulfilled.
But I suppose that’s what weekends are for.
Khashayar Tonekaboni graduated with a B.A. degree in biological sciences from Indiana University in 1981, continued in the field at California State University, and finally was admitted in and obtained a doctorate in optometry from Southern College of Optometry in Memphis in 1987. He is also a writer of fiction under the pen name of Terry Pinaud. He is currently a clinical assistant professor at Indiana University School of Optometry and holds the directorship position at the Atwater Eye Care Center.