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Thursday
Jul202017

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: smallstones.org

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.

 

Saturday
Nov192016

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.

Thursday
Nov102016

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.

 

 

Wednesday
Nov092016

Facing the World

On a strange and distressing day, an old method for moving forward.

Work by Anna Coleman Ladd, via NPR.

Injuries aquired during WWI trench warfare frequently came from a basic miscalculation: how quickly someone could peer up and over the abyss vs. how quickly the bullets from a machine gun flew.

As one wounded soldier put it, "It sounded to me like some one had dropped a glass bottle into a porcelain bathtub."

So what then? Plaster, tin, and clay.

Masks did not hide the fact of damage, but they obscured the extent. They prevented the involuntary moment of shock and revulsion.

It was an imperfect solution for many reasons. Just one expression was possible, for starters, and sculptors, no matter how talented, were subject to the light. Balancing skin colors was a fine art, but no one could impose chamillion-like abilities onto artificial skin. Perhaps their greatest success is precisely how we see them now: in photographs, without movement. But no one, even today, can completely undo what a bullet to the face does, though the patient may well be lucky enough to continue limping along in this world.

There is probably a metaphor here. But for me it's enough, at least for today, to allow objects to be literal.  

Friday
Jan222016

On a Movable Finish Line

There was a moment when I decided that I should publish my first book at thirty. It was a nice age, I reasoned, old enough to have lived a bit, young enough to still be considered a Young Writer. That and I was holding a book in my hand written by a woman who was, according to her author bio, thirty. Reasonable goal, yes?

I certainly thought so. But then again, plenty of things seem reasonable at age twenty-three.

Coincidentally, I also had it in my mind that thirty was the ideal age at which to have my first child. I guess I thought that I'd be editing a literary baby while carrying the human variety.

And here we are. Shortly before becoming pregnant, I decided to put my first novel aside for a bit. I got a good run out of it. Got an agent right out of the gate, had a broad submission to publishing houses I'd heard of and editors who had edited writers I've read and loved, and then, got a pile of mostly-wonderful pass letters. My favorite was one of the last, written by an editor who said that she'd nearly talked herself into it multiple times. I was split between wanting to fly out to New York and talk her into it myself and wanting to send her flowers. She was the closest I got, at least on this round of submissions.

In the meantime, we aquired a dog. A puppy, really, with all that this entailed. He's now a ninety-four pound mostly-gentle giant. And fortunately, he also gets along beautiful with our nearly ten-month-old, twenty-pound baby.

So a baby. A dog. And a novel still in manuscript form while I muse about just what to do next. Did I mention that according to my twenty-three year old self, I'm on the wrong side of thirty?

There's a lot to be said for failure. I've probably said it to myself, before the failure on this project was absolute. I'm sure I've said it to my students, what with all the talk about grit and hard work and education as learning to perservere, all things I really do believe and hope to impart to them. And there's something purifying about saying Enough. That's it. I will start over.

But there are so many ways to start over. If I truly appreciate the myraid of ways to be a writer at this point in time, at this point in my life, the incredible wealth of finish lines available to me, I might just remain here, at the starting line.

I wonder whether I will fall into the easy adult routine of asking my daughter what she wants to be when she grows up. The older I get, the more my answer, at least privately, is simply to be whatever version of myself is current. 

Right now that's a newish mother, plugging away on a murder mystery set in Silicon Valley, who's also attempting to get her literal house in order. And train the dog. At least it's a touch too early to toilet train the baby.