Writer Dorothy Parker once said, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”
When I read the quote above, the first person to come to mind is Life As a Human columnist George Burden. The quote is all the more ironic for me because George is not only a writer and an explorer — he’s a physician. I’ll wager he can’t cure himself of his own curiosity and, frankly, there’s no reason why he should.
By any measure, George Burden lives a remarkable life, experiencing the world in a way few people ever have. He’s soared through the air in a CF-18 during an aerial combat exercise and he’s marvelled at the ocean depths from a deep sea submersible and a Victoria class submarine. He’s met royalty in Ghana, watched voodoo ceremonies in Haiti, written a book on amazing medical stories, and swam in all five of the world’s oceans including the Southern (or Antarctic) and the Arctic. And yes, it was cold.
Somehow George also manages to practice medicine in Nova Scotia, raise a family and write both prolifically and well.
Because so many people have asked me, “Who is this George Burden and how does he do it?” I decided to turn the tables and interview the guy who is usually on the other end of the pen. This is our interview…
1. Tell us your five W’s (who, what, when, where and why):
-Who are you? Of course, there are three ways to gauge this: how I see myself, how others see me and how I really am. I can only say from the first perspective that I am a pleasant middle-age male who enjoys life and likes to get along with everyone. I enjoy helping others which makes me well suited to my career as a GP.
-What are you? I am a father, a husband, a doctor and a writer in that order of importance.
-Where are you? Typing at my desk in my office in Elmsdale, Nova Scotia.
-When are you? I like to think of myself chronologically as blessed with a spirit of youthfulness within a mature framework. One of my friends calls it “arrested adolescence”
-Why are you? Rather than recap the history of philosophy and religion of which I take rather a Buddhist/existentialist slant tempered by a Methodist upbringing, I will simply say “because”.
No. I always wanted to be a doctor, but also really enjoyed writing. Of course Anton Chehkov, Somerset Maugham and John Keats to name a few were able to develop writing careers that eclipsed their medical ones but I don’t aspire to those kinds of heights. It’s a hobby that has become a second vocation for me.
3. How do you feel being a doctor enhances your writing and vice versa?
Practicing medicine gives me a unique and rare insight into the human condition. A good GP becomes a trusted confidant and people will convey things to me of which no one else may be aware. On the other hand, writers have to read in areas besides medicine. I’ve been able to tap into areas as diverse as comparative religion and finance to help steer my patients away from disaster. A good writer also learns to explain things clearly and concisely without using a lot of jargon, a vital skill for a physician to master. The famous Canadian medic, Sir William Osler, who founded the Johns Hopkins Medical School, felt exposure to good literature was vital for the effective practice of medicine.
4. What is the place you’ve visited that has most intrigued you … and why?
That’s a tough one. From the point of view of sheer, austere beauty and a feeling of being somewhere very special, the Antarctic is unequalled. Most humans have never experienced the degree of isolation found in this part of the world. The penguins are also the most marvelous little creatures with absolutely no fear of humans.
5. You are a member of the Explorer’s Club. Who are some of the most inspirational humans you have met through the club?
Over the years I’ve met or heard speak such luminaries as Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, and Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man on Everest. The late Sir Edmund was one of the most humble and unassuming people you could ever imagine, kindly and modest about his accomplishments. For his whole life he referred to himself as the son of a beekeeper from New Zealand. Dr. Wade Davis, a Harvard professor originally from British Columbia, instigated my curiosity about voodoo and the psycho-pharmacology of making zombies, prompting my visit to Haiti.
6. Have you ever felt yourself to be in real danger in any of your explorations?
Once when I was hiking on a glacier in Iceland I was leaning forward to get a picture of a glacial mill (a very deep hole in the glacier caused by water flow). I lost my balance momentarily and almost slid into the mill, which would have resulted in me disappearing until my remains resurfaced at the base of the glacier in a couple of hundred years time.
7. You have traveled so much and met so many fascinating people. What do you feel unites humans other than the fact that we share a planet?
No matter what the language and culture we all share a commonality in our sense of humor and our smiles.
8. Which writers most inspire you?
Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization is an amazing, insightful and ambitious collection of volumes chronicling humanity from pre-history to the beginning of the 19th century. This is very readable and informative series for those who want an overall perspective on human history. I also always enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s writing, both his nonfiction and fiction.
I would choose an eagle. Gliding on the winds holds a special appeal for me and with their incredible vision, eagles can take in the view exceptionally well.
10. What is your advice to anyone who wants to become a writer?
In short I would say read, read and read. You need to be knowledgeable about your subject to write effectively and to get the most out of your travels.
11. You’ve eaten some pretty strange food. What does a spider taste like? First of all I should state that I would never knowingly consume an endangered species. Having said that, honey-glazed tarantula tastes a lot like shrimp. The glaze keeps the hair on the tarantula clumped together so that it doesn’t get between your teeth.
12. Will you ever write a book of your experiences? Likely when I get the time. After finding out how much work was involved getting my first book completed, Amazing Medical Stories (Goose Lane Editions, 2003) I’ll likely wait until I retire.
13. What are the traits you most admire in humans?
I admire honesty, hard work and perseverance, a sense of curiosity and an open mind.
Apathy, laziness and ignorance.
15. There are medical, philosophical and psychological definitions of what it means to be human. What is your definition of a human being?
A human being is a primate of the genus and species Homo sapiens (and in the past Homo erectus and Homo habilis among others) characterized by self-awareness, curiosity and the ability to speculate on future events and to actively strive to change outcomes to those they perceive as desirable.
To read George’s articles at Life As A Human, please click here.
All photos courtesy of George Burden.