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Work in Progress: Required Materials

(Not actually my WIP, but thematically appropriate.)

Here's to works in progress! In the near-term, the literary-mystery with the working title Required Materials will be serialized via a weekly newsletter. Fan of campus novels, the strangeness of Silicon Valley, or whodunnits? There may well be something here for you. 

Katie is a thirty-year-old adjunct professor, chronically underpaid, and now half a beat from homeless after running out on her long-term computer engineer partner. She washes up in a crumbling Silicon Valley apartment she can’t afford with a full course load to teach at her community college, a cranky orange cat, and an impending interview for a tenure-track position. Without that position, she’s as good as bankrupt and on a greyhound back east. But it’s handled, or so her mentor Maggie says. Maggie has been in the English Department for decades, and she knows how to pull hidden strings. 

But then Maggie turns up dead in a parking garage, and before Katie can get too enveloped in grief, another body hits the ground—this time, the diversity representative on the hiring committee. Someone is targeting professors, and suddenly, chasing the once-in-a-lifetime tenure-track position means risking more than her rent, her career, and her ability to buy cat food. She may be lucky to get out of the interview alive.

Weaving through a tech-driven landscape of barely-functional scarcity and obscene plenty, “Required Materials” follows Katie’s quest to net a steady gig, a reasonable place to live, and whoever took out her mentor. Not necessarily in that order.



An Exercise While Reading the News

Half full. The glass

Globes dangle uselessly—

High and dry. The switch is submerged.

The careful negotiations

Between quality and cost, between

The trappings of your childhood

And his, between pantone swatches and

That rarely-sounded piano, such a difficult

Stain of wood to match—

Engulfed. Overwhelmed.

Relentless water laps up the lists,

The receipts, the returns, the written

Proof, leaves a skim of oil and silt and

Spores spreading fingers up

All the walls.

The glass globes swing

In the half full room. 


Where, You Might Wonder, Have I Been?

And just like that, we're over halfway through 2017. I've been a less-than-diligent blogger in the past, but it's probably safe to say that I've never managed to go an entire eight months with not a word. Honest truth, though? I've been busy, and there have been a lot of words. Just not here. The date of the post previous to this is telling: 11/16/16. 

November has become the cruelest month, at least for the time being, though it's fair to say January was a close second. And so I began a completely-unplanned foray into educational resistance blogging.

You can find this new project here:

We began curating educational resources for educators in light of the election and national climate, emphasis on anti-racism, community engagement, and student empowerment. Over the summer, we began our newest project, taking oral histories from educators of all stripes about life since the election. 

Come over and check it out if you have a moment. I have projects in the works that will return to this space, or similar (as I get to know wordpress better, I come to like it more than what I've been using), and I hope to have those launched towards the end of the calendar year. In the meantime, I'll be busy with my co-founder Eva, working to curate, narrate, and educate. We'd love to have you join us.



The Brown Dog, Part II: Swedish Women in the English Medical Establishment

Lizzy Lind af Hageby, 1913

I stumbled on this story online once, years ago, somewhere in the vicinity of eleven o'clock at night. 

It goes like this:

In 1902, two Swedish women, well born, financially independent, and eager to create substantive change, enroll in The London School of Medicine for Women. Their names were Lizzy Lind af-Hageby and Leisa Katherine Schartau. Their motive? Reveal to the public the true horrors of vivisection. Their school was anti-vivisection (hospitals and schools generally picked sides), but their status as students allowed them to attend lectures at various other medical training institutions that were not. 

They attended hundreds of lectures and over 40 vivisections, keeping detailed notes. Finally, they witnessed the incident of the brown dog. 

The brown dog himself was non-descript; a mediumish terrier. Brown. However, it was clear to both women when he made his doggy appearance in the lecture hall, muzzled and strapped down on a board, that he had been the subject of a previous surgery. The fact that the first thing the lecturers did was cut him open to check on the status of a previous procedure gave it away.

This was key: the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act made it clear that, excepting only very specific circumstances, animal subjects could be operated upon only once. 

The dog did not fulfill the purpose his vivisectioners had in mind for him that day; the demonstration was a failure, and so they had to settle for removing his pancreas.

Later on, there would be disputes about all sorts of things. Was the dog conscious? Moving around and pushing at the restraints? The Swedish women said so; other medical students said not. Was the dog killed via chloroform, as one doctor initially claimed, or was he killed with a knife by the student who removed his pancreas? (The latter, it would turn out.) 

The most fundamental question: was the entire setup--the entire operation, if you will--worthwhile?

Assessing worth is not something that should be done lightly, and yet people do it all the time. They do it so lightly they often don't even realize it's being done. This is far easier to pull off as the type of person whose worth is rarely, if ever, assessed. 

And then calculate for hindsight. It's simple now to argue that what was done to a nondescript terrier at a time of incredible medical advances was indisputably worthwhile, even if only as a small event in the larger trajectory of history. The grandmothers saved today based on what they learned then--even the nondescript twenty-first century terriers saved, based on what they learned then--aren't these lives fair to add to the sum on the side of worth?

But trajectories are retrospective, no matter how the physics texts would have it. In hindsight, fate either intervened, or it did not. The stars aligned, or they scattered. And in this case, what was done to Dogs in General at That Time led us inexoriably to the medical advances we have now. Or so we tell ourselves. But constellations are chicken scratch patterns scraped-together out of a haphazard night sky; meaning and chaos are far, far closer than we'd like to confess. Who is to say what discoveries might have resulted from a different verdict on the value of a dog? Who can know whether their breakthroughs, in that world, would really have fallen short of our own? We can suspect all we want, but knowing--there's the rub.

All this to say that in 1903, this dog became a big deal.

There were angry speeches both for and against vivisection, there was a trial for libel, there was a ruling in favor of the physicians, there were reams of writing on the subject in the press, both nationally and internationally, Mark Twain's anti-vivisection short story may or may not have been directly influenced by events, and, finally, a memorial statue to the Brown Dog was erected in Battersea.

That last part, according to many of London's medical students, would not stand. The statue was torn down; demonstrations turned to riots, and sides were chosen:

The Swedish Women, Suffragettes, and Trade Unionists vs. Medical Students and Scientists in General.

Now, of course, it's easy to reframe this particular matchup in several ways, depending on the lens you choose to use. Women vs. Men. Anti-establishment vs. Establishment. The Past vs. The Future. The Future vs. The Past. The Moderately Powerful vs. The Extremely Powerful. 

What I think it comes down to, myself, is this: The Expendable vs. The Inviolate.

Because few people (few dogs, for that matter) would volunteer for the role of Experimental Surgical Material, certainly fewer then than would now, in the age of reliable anesthetics and halfway-decent outcomes.

So they had to be recruited, and the recruitment had to be justified. And when recruitment didn't work, they had to be compelled. The body was inviolate--that is, the body of a citizen, with full rights, was inviolate. And fortunately, citizens were in short supply.

But women? Laborers? Especially those who today call themselves people of color? There were plenty of those.

And so the physical act of cutting open this dog, severing muscles, veins, and bone, only really made sense in a narrative from the perspective of the inviolate. There was meaning from this vantage point. There was sacrifice, certainly, but not the terrifying type, the type that might call for backup. There was a world, and it was orderly, and the trajectory bent towards good.

Erecting a statue, however, in memory of what should be nothing more than one data point in that trajectory, turning that data point into a fleshy, breathing creature with enough inherent value to be memorialized? That didn't just threaten the narrative; it completely undermined it. It required an entirely new calculus, one that might result in entirely different conclusions about what was moral and what was not. 

Naturally, the narrators didn't like that much. And so the statue came down.

To be continued.


The Brown Dog, Part I: Vivisection and the Body as Object

The weight of vivisection is contained neatly in its root words: vivi, "alive," and "sectio," cutting.

I only encountered dead dissection subjects in biology classes, including the cats that we hacked apart with woefully inadequate tools that more closely resembled the x-acto knives we also used in newspaper. Though I'd read about Anti-Vivisection Societies, my assumption was always that the word was an archaic holdover, nothing other than dissection as it was once more commonly described. 

But no, and it really should have been obvious: this is cutting into something that is currently alive, to see how it works.

The photographs of this process make me squeamish. I am not a vegetarian. I take full advantage of modern medicine. I find the history of science fascinating, and I see the logic of needing to make these sorts of incursions into the bodies of other beings in order to better understand us all, human and otherwise. And yet, the photographs.

"Surgical training on a live animal (pig)," via Wikimedia Commons

I eat pork. I hope, when I remember to consider it, that the pork I eat comes from pigs who live a reasonably contented piggy life. I hope that they don't know what their end will be until it arrives. Thoughts to the contrary, though, have not stopped me, nor altered my diet in much of any way.

Yet, when I see the pig in this photo, rather than an agriculturally-raised animal that I'm happy to treat as an object when it comes to my own satiation, I see a nearly-human body. 

Perhaps it's the intestines, though I am not loath to eat them as casings. I think, more accurately, it is the feet, and the restraints.

I once was a guest during a surgery, probably completely illegally, so I won't say where or how or with whom. What I remember most, to this day, was how quickly the patient became an object. As he slowly passed into unconsciousness, the nurses and doctors stood over him, smiling and speaking softly, easing him into the darkness. 

And then, as soon as he was out, the entire atmosphere of the room changed. We were no longer in a chapel; we were in a bus station, and there was work to do to keep it all moving. The patient was lifted, shifted, and intubated. The business of cutting the body open and threading things into it began. 

This was an incredibly professional team. This was an incredibly well-respected hospital, one that does a lot of good in both its own community and the world. But standing there, as a layperson, I could not get over what I knew even then was an attitude and atmosphere completely necessary for successfully completing the job at hand. The patient, when he awoke, would certainly not have thanked me for allowing my queasiness and sense of violation, both on his behalf, to interfere with what the surgical team was doing. 

I've heard it said that one of the most interesting characteristics of modern urban societies is how willing we all are to go about our business day to day, surrounded by millions of people whom we've never met and have no real social connection to, without much in the way of active fear. There are clearly many, many exceptions to this statement, but most of them don't prevent any given person from ordering a cup of coffee from another, and getting it. To some extent, even if only superficially, and even if only in specific situations, we extend each other a mutual trust.

Surgery, at least as I experienced it, completely consciously and yet not as a medical professional, is the ultimate in handing over trust to another human being. Medical care, more generally, is a category only slightly less extreme.

In so many ways, however, this trust can be misplaced. The power differential is astounding--necessarily so. But this leaves a lot of room for bodies, and objects, to become interchanged.