Altered Minds

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
But the crowd called out for more…

-From the iconic song “Whiter Shade of Pale”

I was a sophomore in med school. My freshman year was a bit of an adjustment. There was no language
barrier, and I learned not to mind the demeaning Puerto Rican jokes that “friends” felt compelled to tell
me on frequent occasions. But the cultural divide was still wide and deep.

I adapted. I made many friends. My dorm room became the place where people went to vent. There
was one day where I had to ask the dorm supervisor to send a heating tech to my room, because my
furnace was not working. He pulled a filthy filter from the bowels of the unit.

“Do you have a lot of people coming through here?”

Yeah, I guess…

Maybe because I was the only person on the floor that did not mind cleaning up, my room was the go-to
place whenever a party was in order. You would be surprised how many people can fit into a 12X12 foot
room, one where most of the space is already taken over by a twin bed and a small closet. Many times, I
did not know half the people who showed up. One time I asked one of the attendees if he knew anyone

“I think these are dental students. I am not sure.”

The music was always loud. There were people smoking, which I hated, because I do not smoke, but I
wanted to be popular more than I resented their taking over. It was not unusual for someone to spill
whatever they were drinking, almost always on my bed. You will ask what I was getting out of this.
Looking back: I do not know. It made sense at the time.

There was this one day when a strikingly beautiful nursing student showed up at one of “my” parties. I
must reiterate that I never started any of these affairs: they just happened. I sat down on my bed, next
to her, and tried to make conversation. Someone started playing the Procol Harum album, the one that
started out with the song listed above. I was entranced by the organ music.

I love this song.

She nodded.

“Do you want to dance?”

I knew that she had come with another guy, but this was one request that I could not turn down. Even if
it meant a confrontation. I jumped up.

For the next four minutes I got to tightly hug and sway to the music with an angel. I was transfixed.
That is such a romantic song!

“I know,” she said. “Why don’t we go outside so we can talk?”

I took her to a stairwell. We sat together, shivering a bit, and cuddled more than talked.

That relationship went nowhere, but I have always had an emotional connection with “A Whiter Shade
of Pale.” Many years later I was listening to music with a close friend when this song came up.

“That song is so deep,” he said.

It is not. I love the organ and the melody, but the lyrics are senseless.

“We played this all the time when I was in college. We thought that it was deep.”

Go ahead. Explain to me about light fandangos and vestal virgins.

He began to mumble the lyrics. I could tell that this unusually bright man was struggling to come up with
a meaning. Not a deep one: any kind of sense.

“I don’t know. It made a lot of sense when we listened to it in college.”

Altered minds. Sometimes you can talk yourself into believing utter nonsense if the music is loud
enough, or you had too much to drink or smoke. Blurred memories become absolute certainties.
When I was a house officer in Miami, we admitted a young man who had sustained significant brain
damage from sniffing glue. There was nothing that could be done to restore his brain function. He was
unable to care for himself, and his speech seldom made any sense, but he looked “normal,” and he
could walk and eat without help. When we decided that there was nothing else that could be done for
him, his parents disappeared from the picture, and we could not find anyone willing to assume
responsibility for him. He remained in the hospital, while we got Social Services to try to find him room
and board.

Occasionally, this young man would abscond from the neurology ward. We did not know how he did
this, but he found a way to get to Coconut Grove. In those days it was not the exclusive upscale
community. There were hundreds of flower children who hung out in the park. It is safe to say that they
lived in permanently altered states. Whenever we realized that our ward was missing, all we had to do
was to ask the Dade County Police to go to The Grove to bring our patient back. Invariably, they found
him in the park, preaching to dozens of long-haired hippies. They welcomed his speeches: many of them
thought that he had a special spiritual connection.

“This guy is so deep,” they would say.

Right. Way, way deep. Unfathomably so.

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