Going for the doctor.

As every reader sufficiently familiar with English or Australian vernacular idiom or slang will know, the above expression means not, as it might literally appear, seeking the services of a medical practitioner, but figuratively going flat-out in terms of speed or full-on in terms of effort, or both.

And anybody who’s familiar with my wife will be additionally aware that it aptly describes the passionate way she goes about living her life.

Figuratively or metaphorically going for the doctor in everything she does, from mothering our darling daughter and performing domestic tasks like shopping, cooking and sewing through pursuing such leisures and pleasures as reading, yoga, swimming and sex, to slaving away at tutoring university students or studying, researching and writing towards her goal of a doctorate.

Which she finally achieved just the other day, I’m delighted to say, when her thesis finally received its official academic approval and thus she became a PhD or Doctor of Philosophy in Government and International Relations.

Typically, however, she spent very little time indeed enjoying family’s and friends’ congratulations before starting to go for the doctor all over again on a set of new projects.

So I thought I’d spend a little time and effort in contemplating and celebrating her achievement on her behalf, in the only way in which I’m most accustomed if not qualified to, which is by doing  it in writing.

Starting with making the point that, by becoming a PhD by dint of arduous academic effort, my wife is now more highly qualified than one of my most inspirational idols or icons, Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).

Too poor to attend Oxford university long enough to achieve a degree, let alone two undergraduate and a master’s degree as my wife did at various Australian tertiary institutions before embarking on her PhD, Johnson was eventually awarded an honorary doctorate in recognition of his astonishing range of literary achievements, the most abidingly famous of which has been his monumental Dictionary of the English Language.

I so admire Johnson for achieving such eminence despite lifelong afflictions including a decidedly odd appearance and manner, bouts of black depression and despair, and what may have been either Tourette Syndrome or obsessive-compulsive disorder, that whenever I visit London I make a pilgrimage to one of the houses he inhabited, in Gough Square, just off Fleet, and to the endearing statue of him typically engrossed in a book outside the church of St clement Danes in The Strand.

My wife, however, doesn’t aspire to fame. In fact she even shrinks from the very thought of being referred to as ‘doctor’. And not only, I suspect, by virtue of her horror of the kind of self-pride and pomposity that spurs some PhDs, most notably to my mind the notorious US war criminal and former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, to flaunt the title, but also to avoid being caught up in the confusion surrounding it.

Confusion arising from the fact that, in common parlance, the title ‘doctor’ means a practitioner of medicine, be it of the human or veterinary variety, and also, increasingly, of dentistry.

Whereas in academic circles, a doctorate in any branch of medicine, science, the arts or whatever else is a far higher qualification than the bachelor degree that the vast majority of doctors, vets or dentists actually have.

A further dimension of confusion is added to this when one considers that the term doctor can be decidedly ambiguous. For example, while on the one hand it can signify benevolent healer, as in ‘family doctor’, or ‘doctors without borders’ or even, if you like, ‘Dr Who’, on the other it can signal sinister malevolence, as in the case of Dr. Frankenstein or the Nazi ‘Dr. Death’, Josef Mengele.

And especially ambiguous in the Malaysian context is Dr Mahathir Mohamad, born-again prime Minister of the nation at the age of 90+, and as such revered by some as responsible for the alleged health and wealth of the modern-day version of his nation; and equally if not more reviled by others as an evil doctator who personifies the nepotism, corruption, racism, religionism and other political and social diseases that are forever sapping the country’s strength, if not threatening its very survival.

Another pertinent point to make about not just the title but the very word doctor, is that it often has a negative connotation, as in, for example, the derogatory term ‘spin-doctor’ for a professional manipulator of the truth, if not purveyor of lies.

And similarly, it is deemed undesirable, at the very least, to doctor anything from some unsuspecting person’s drink to the evidence of an alleged criminal’s innocence or guilt.

Small wonder, then, that in light of all the potential confusion and even controversy surrounding the title or term ‘doctor’ that my wife, having gone for the doctor for years to earn it, prefers to be known by her plain, existing name.

Just as, come to think of it, qualified medical doctor W. Somerset Maugham preferred to practice writing and achieve wealth and fame as an author, and specialist ophthalmologist Arthur Conan Doyle turned from treating patients whose eyes were somehow defective to creating the great detective, Sherlock Holmes.

All of the aforesaid notwithstanding, however, I find I can’t cure myself of the urge to go for the doctor as hard as I can in the cause of giving due credit to my wife for going for the doctor with so much determination and for so many years as to receive her richly-deserved doctorate.

And also expressing my gratitude to her, for the honour she conferred on me along the way by granting me the privilege of serving as copy-doctor, or, in other words, proof-reader and editor, of her now completed, accepted and soon-to-be published doctoral thesis.

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