Anatomy of a Life

After turning around for ninety seconds to load the toaster this morning, I found both Midgets on the patio naked as freshly shelled peas. Gbot was pole-dancing on the uprights on the sandbox and Mbot was holding the magnifying glass to his own pito. Pito: Spanish, our family word for outdoor plumbing. I once made the mistake of using it to refer to Husbot’s. Don’t do it. Apparently the term is only to be used in reference to very small fixtures. I am off-topic, but not too far off, since my topic is anatomy.

Specifically, this: in spite of Mbot’s anatomical investigations, I am skeptical that a fascination in the Human Body in general is what makes him powerless to resist Your Body Battles a Stomachache (see yesterday’s post, Recycle Robot vs. Sister Mary Villus).

I threw out a few theories yesterday about his love for the book, and I’ll tell you why I’m so hung up on it: because of my mother. (The mother who dreamed about boarding a plane while doing the Charleston, see Passengers in Zone Four…). When I told my mother about the stomach book, she said, “He’s just like you! Do you remember The Human Body book?

The Human Body book.

Of course I remembered. It was a book that changed my life.

I discovered it by accident in the Auke Bay School library when I was eight. Its real title was The Body, and it was part of a series of very large books by Time’s Life Science Library. The cover was an alluring undersea green, with an alluring, eerily lit photo of a sculpture of a torso. And inside: words and pictures describing things to capture the imagination. Polypeptide. Vitreous humor. Duodenum.

There was one wonderful page, page 73, that was my favorite. It read: “When a man stands, his entire weight is carried by the bones of his legs down to his feet. But when he sits, the weight is carried on the two arches of bone (opposite) extending below the flaring wings of the pelvis….”

That page, especially, transfixed me. I returned to it again and again. And I knew I was in love with the Human Body. I concluded that I was going to be a doctor when I grew up.

Based solely on that book, my friend Shannon Klowunder, whose mother was a nurse, and I formed The Human Body Club. We memorized the text on page 73. We made flashcards and quizzed each other out on the playground while the other kids swung on the monkey bars: Subclavian vein. Superior vena cava.

I was also in The Bionic Man Club, with another friend, Christina Forchemer (Goals: 10 pushups every day, run across the playground without stopping). But I sensed deep down that The Bionic Man Club didn’t have a future. The Human Body Club was different. My obsession with The Body, which I renewed again and again–and in the following years, with other such books, including Isaac Asimov‘s The Human Body–was part of a larger goal. I came to define myself by it: I was a future surgeon. I felt fortunate and relieved to have my future all figured out.

I chose a college for its pre-med program. I took bio and chem. I took English and art history, too, and that’s when I ran into trouble. Because found I loved them. For the first time since the third grade, I discovered there were other paths. For the first time since I was eight, I was unsure about my future. I majored in art history with an English minor. I didn’t fulfill my science course pre-reqs. After graduating, I worked as an editor and ad copywriter. I enjoyed it, but I struggled financially. I feared I had failed myself by not continuing on to med school.

One afternoon when I was thirty, I was wandering around Georgetown and stumbled on a used book store in a narrow brick rowhouse rising from the cobblestones of P Street. It was called The Lantern, and it’s still there, a marvelous place–old ladies, old books, old, creaking stairs. On a whim, I decided to look for that old friend, The Body.

There it was, on a shelf at floor-level. The entire series, in fact, but I pulled out just the one. Now I recognized the sculpture on the front as a Rodin bronze. I sat in the afternoon light by the tall narrow windows and flipped to the page that had first fired my imagination, the page that had set me on my path over twenty years before.

I was astonished by what I saw.

The spread was beautiful. On the left, a full-page photograph of a pelvis and lumbar vertebrae shot in black and white against a black ground. On the right, a 3/4-page photo, again in black and white, of a spare architectural structure identified in the caption only as “Model of Space Frame,” whose supporting elements echo those of the pelvis. Below it, the text that Shannon and I had memorized was broken into brief lines and centered, like a poem. That’s what gave it away. Sitting there in the old bookstore, now as a student of art history, as a professed writer, I saw that all those years ago, I had misidentified my passion. It was not anatomy I had fallen in love with, but with the art and language of it. Alveoli, phalanges. All those beautiful words. Rodin. Those beautiful images.

Alan E. Nourse, villi-describer extraordinaire. Photo from Wikipedia

The author, Alan E. Nourse, was a poet (actually a novelist, columnist, and MD–he did it all) with a wit. Subtitle on white blood cells: “A Rally of Wrigglers.” On lungs: “Two Studies in Pink.” On poisons: “Finality in a Capsule.” He paints the villi, which I described unimaginatively as “fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine” as “a vast, velvety filter.” In 1975, The Body was probably the first great nonfiction book that had crossed my path.

And so I am curious about what, exactly, draws Mbot to fall asleep every night with the stomach book. The answer may not be obvious at all. I hope it doesn’t take him until he’s thirty to figure it out. It’s okay if, like my mother said, he’s like me. But only up to a point.

John and Bill Reiff at Twinsdays, 1991 ( copyright Charles Robinson 2011

Is there a book—or a bookstore—that changed your life?

Nourse, Alan E. and the editors of Life, The Body, Life Science Library, Time Inc., New York, 1964.

Sculpture, Rodin, Auguste. . c. 1900. Musée Rodin, Paris.

1 thought on “Anatomy of a Life

  1. What a lovely discovery! I do remember The Human Body with the lovely clear overlays. ~ ~ Looking online at the book excerpts, the drawings are really wonderful. I would most certainly be drawn to it at that age–heck, I might read it the next time I’m in a bookstore.

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