Monday, March 26, 2007

Alienating Autopsy

Daughter Number 2 has lately been interested in medicine in general and the forensic sciences in particular; she’d like to have “doctor” somehow attached to her name, but doesn’t want the nuisance of all those darn malpractice suits, which I think is very farsighted and quite commendable. She thinks the best route to doctorhood is to learn to perform autopsies — that way, if your knife slips, it’s no big deal, the patient’s dead anyway. Makes sense to me.

She just finished a book called Tales from the Morgue, and has started another one called Stiff: The Curious Life of Cadavers. She watches Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs religiously (because, after all, those shows do portray the medical world as it really is, and she gets valuable insight from them). The girl is firmly on track.

Last week DN2 found an actual demonstration video of an autopsy on You Tube. I won’t bother provide you with the link, but it’s easy enough to find. If you do, beware: it is unsparingly graphic. She invited me to watch it with her, which I did, and later, after having retired to bed for the night, I found myself replaying the images of it over and over in my head until about 2 AM.

The closest I had ever come to witnessing an autopsy before was the “alien autopsy” hoax several years ago, a clever bit of stagecraft where “doctors” delicately cut slices into a latex alien. Silly me, I thought all autopsies went that way, with a snip-snip here and a snip-snip there, followed by a prissy little peek inside.

It turns out autopsy doctors are butchers, and have less reverence for a human corpse than your dad did for the Thanksgiving turkey. The video shows a woman somewhere in her twenties stretched naked on her back on a table. Flimsy pieces of linen cover her crotch and face. For a corpse, she looks pretty good: she obviously worked out, has nice abs, and even shows bikini tan lines. Were it not for the fact she’s dead, I suppose you could pronounce her a healthy specimen. Doctor A deftly cuts a V shape into her chest going from shoulder to shoulder with the point between her breasts (keeping the neck in good shape for the wake), and then a straight line from the bottom of the V down to her crotch. Slashing at fat and muscle with his sharp knife, he quickly peels the woman’s torso and midsection apart like skinning an animal, exposing everything within. A mild stir occurs among the staff when it’s discovered the woman has breast implants; somehow they missed the little scars below her breasts that should have tipped them off. Doctor B extracts one and holds it up to the camera. A surprise in every pack.

I will end my description here, except to mention that as they ran roughshod through her innards and unceremoniously cut out all those vital organs which, until the day before yesterday, thousands of dollars and scores of medical personnel would have been dedicated to saving so long as life animated that poor young woman’s body, I felt like shouting, “Watch it!,” or, “Be careful with that!,” or, “That’s a heart, for Christ’s sake!,” or, “She needs those lungs to breathe! Put them back in and sew them up right!”

Call me squeamish, but the sight of a deceased human body, an empty vessel with all the lights turned out, is still disquieting to me. I made it a point not to go to Body Worlds at the Museum of Science when it came here, and would never dream of watching any of those Faces of Death videos. I don’t care much for reminders of my own mortality, even though death fascinates me just as much as the next guy. I guess I’m in a constant state of denial. I know someday I will end this earthly existence, but I refuse to allow it to sink in, and who knows what will happen afterward anyway? Shakespeare calls it the undiscovered country. Do we really have souls? Is there an afterlife? Or is it as the TIME Magazine article on consciousness suggests, that we are just tissue and chemical and nothing more, mere robots reacting to stimuli, no consciousness, no true self, and when we stop, we really and truly stop?

Those autopsy doctors know the cadaver they carve up is like a doorpost or a discarded tire or last week’s losing lottery ticket decomposing in a mud puddle. When you die, your body is a stone, a plastic fruit, an old chair, a rusting lawn mower that won’t run anymore. My delicacy of feeling is a joke. When life leaves, what remains behind is a husk, a relic, nothing more. They know all of this.

Here’s something about me I’ll share: I have always had trouble with the ephemeral nature of things. I have always wanted things to stay put where they are, and am constantly dismayed when they just won’t. When I was very small, a friend of my parents’ came to visit us one day and gave me a little toy truck. I thanked him and, for a moment, treasured the gift. Then it occurred to me how easy it was for him to give up this splendid, brightly-colored piece of molded plastic, like it was nothing at all — the answer, of course, was that he was a grown-up, and grown-ups don’t go for little toy trucks. It took no great mental leap to realize that I, too, would someday be a grown-up, and find such things as toy trucks of no importance or amusement. Sobered by the thought, the toy instantly lost all value.

Nothing can be more ephemeral than life. By its very definition, life is not lasting. We talk about shelf lives, or what is the life expectancy of this or that. We are slaves to change and entropy. You’re born, you live, you die. Da da-da da-dum. Some philosophers believe the perfect life is to never have lived at all, and, failing that, it is better to die young. After all, Schopenhauer informs us that life is nothing but struggle and ennui anyway; our only option is to make the best of it, and our only purpose is to propagate the species and not miss our cue to exit the stage when the time comes.

Mama mia.

Yes, life is short. Life is what you make of it. You only live once, you know, and when you do, you live and learn. That’s life, after all.

Someday I’ll die. Someday, maybe, I’ll be stretched out on the autopsy table, surrounded by Doctor A with his scalpel, Doctor B with his rib-cutter, and Doctor C with her electric saw. But I hope when Doctor A pulls my flesh apart, he’ll know he’s drawing aside the curtain to a great theatrical production where all the actors had toiled in unison for many years and played their parts well; the play being over, the actors are finally at rest. I hope when Doctor B extracts my heart, he’ll know it beat once, sedately in calm moments, as it did in countless hours of meditation and study and reflection, and rapidly in excitement, such as during the birth of my kids, or when events of great personal importance occurred. When Doctor C lifts my brain out of its case, I hope she realizes what epic tales of turmoil and love and revelation went on in there, the things it experienced, the dreams it dreamt, the thoughts it formed, expressed and unexpressed; lifeless now, it rests inertly in her hands like a tiny, sleeping infant.

At least, this is what I hope.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Emptying Out the Dustbin of My Mind

Howdy folks, sorry I went away for a little while, but I’ve got an excuse. Does anybody remember when President Clinton announced the internet as the “Information Superhighway?” That was back in 1990-something-or-other, not very long after his vice president invented it. Well, crazy as it sounds, it really is a superhighway, and while driving on it a few weeks back I missed my exit because I was paying more attention to the audiobook I was listening to than to where I was going. Has that ever happened to you? So anyway, I finally realize my mistake about 100 miles too late and take the next available exit, only it dumps me off in this really weird town populated by bloggers with names that kind of sound familiar but not quite right, like trinkamick, condom-squeegee, njpinta, Skott, and other blogger names you ought to know. So I stop off at this diner to grab a bite to eat and ask the locals how to get back on the internet-interstate when this one guy sitting on a stool near me yells out, “Schpreck!” and then everyone else joins in on a chorus of “Schpreck!” like they used to do with Norm on that old sitcom, Cheers. So I tell them, “I’m not Schpreck, I’m Schprock,” and they’re all, “aw, come on, Schpreck, you tried that last week,” and I’m all, “no, really, my name is Schprock, not Schpreck,” and then I start to wonder if this is some kind of weird, bizarro-world, parallel-universe thing, and then they, um . . . they . . . they . . . you aren’t buying any of this, are you?


Okay, moving right along…


Why don’t we call countries by the names their inhabitants use? Seriously. How did we ever come up with “Germany,” when everyone in Germany calls their country “Deutschland”? The two aren’t even close.


Speaking of things German, ever notice you never meet anyone named “Hitler”? Did everybody named Hitler change their name to avoid association with the guy? Good thing he wasn’t Adolph Schmidt.


Lou Gehrig is another German name — which, I might add, is not terribly common. So consider the freakish coincidence of someone famous named Lou Gehrig actually contracting Lou Gehrig’s Disease. What were the odds? That’s nearly as weird as all those legionnaires coming down with Legionnaire’s Disease.


Guys, do you get a lot of “male enhancement” and viagra spam email? Pretty frustrating, right? Now imagine they’ve all been forwarded to you from your wife. Not that that’s the case with me, of course…


I think physicists everywhere are thankful it was only an apple that fell on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, and not a 50 pound cinderblock.


If whoever said “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” is right, then I’ll take ginkgo biloba till my last dying breath just to remember the Disco Era and the brutal devastation it wrought upon this country.


If I were to choose a religion, I think I’d pick Greek or Roman mythology. Those were some interesting gods, weren’t they? Jealousy, intrigue, politics, power plays, sex, scandal, betrayal . . . Mount Olympus was like a Spanish novela. No offense to Buddha or Mohammed or Jesus or anybody, but a bible that reads like a supermarket tabloid sure beats the hell out of what Pastor Malmberg used to put me to sleep with every Sunday morning.


Wouldn’t you like to see Jimmy Carter work a little Camp David magic on Rosie O’Donnell and Donald Trump? What is it with those two? Maybe he can convince Rosie to lighten up a bit, and talk The Donald into releasing that poor chinchilla from his head.


Do Christian athletes really think God cares who wins a big play-off game?


Lately, Daughter Number 2 and I have been doing this little routine around the house where one of us will greet the other by saying, “What up, my nigga?” or “What’s happenin’, negro?” or “Are you gonna be my negro, or are you gonna be my nigga?” (all gotten from movies). Now, DN2 and I are white, and we know we can only say stuff like that (which is meant strictly in fun) around the house. Trying that on a city bus probably wouldn’t go over too well, because, technically, words like “nigga” and “negro” can only be said by black people without being offensive. So here’s the question: what “racial slurs” can’t black people say to white people? Because everything sounds funny and, therefore, inoffensive. Whitey? Vanilla-face? Honky? Cracker? For some reason, I think a good name for white people ought to be “starbucks.” White people should address each other by saying, “Hey, starbucks, that’s so Disney,” or “Yo, starbucks, slip me some Velveeta,” or “Check out starbucks over there — the brother cleared the curb in one jump.”


Speaking of sensitivity to ethnic differences, some of my best friends are Sino-Tibetan Tibeto-Burman ethno linguistic albino yak-trading mountain people, and I’ll thank you to watch your comments about them.


A brainteaser a 10-year-old I know figured out in under 15 minutes:

“On a wall are 3 standard on/off switches. One (and only one) controls a light bulb inside a light-tight, well-insulated closet. The other two switches do nothing. You can only open the closet door once, and cannot touch/change any switches after the door is open (or re-closed, for that matter). Damaging or disassembling the door, walls, or switches is against the rules.

“Within these constraints, can you determine with certainty which switch controls the light bulb?”

Can you do it? Write your answer in the comment section and tell me how long it took you to figure it out.

For those who give up, here’s the answer.