November 19, 2005


I was studying away at pathology this afternoon when I came across this sentence: “Diarrheal diseases of the bowel make up a veritable Augean stable of entities.”

This is the sort of moment that makes me quietly believe in magic. Being a human means being a thinking animal. Why do we think? It’s hard to say, but I believe we think as an accidental byproduct of language. Someone smarter than me described consciousness as the warmth and hum given off by the turning of our mental gears. Now, while this might seem decidedly un-magical to most people, the idea that my ancestors accidentally evolved language, found that it helped them survive and therefore had it stick, were driven by the positive feedback between more and more complex language and more and more complex neural hookups to begin actually thinking, and that an end product of that evolutionary moment is Vinay Kumar, MD in the 7th edition of Robbins Basic Pathology, (and here you must imagine my speech spilling out with heightened speed and excitement) comparing the diversity of disease that causes diarrhea to a stable out of Greek myth that was so filthy that Hercules had to divert a river to clean it up, and that the singular weirdness but simultaneous perfection of this metaphor will cause me to feel real love for learning about human disease for almost an entire afternoon, for me, for a moment, proves the fitness of human civilization.

No matter that I had to go and look up the Augean stables, or that Kumar undoubtedly threw the allusion in to make himself look smart. In fact, that’s one of the points, that language is so beguiling and delightful that its display is essentially joyful, whether giving or receiving. Kumar labored to please himself with a cultural allusion, and I labored to please myself in uncovering his meaning. If there is magic, for me it comes like this: words (and, I suppose, pictures and objects formed with the intent of creating meaning) open doors in our heads and somewhere happiness strolls in.

And then there’s winter. Monday was a beautiful autumn day, with the usual crisp multi-hued leaves swirling about while children in sweaters quickly worked up a sweat sprinting around for the helluvit. Then, with an almost audible “wham”, winter arrived. The temperature dropped from 60 to 10 degrees overnight. Snow billowed in on the back of 30 mph winds. Trees became encrusted in ice, birds froze in mid-air and dropped to the ground in mid-chirp, fire hydrants cracked from the sudden contraction of their metallic tissues and emitted geysers of water that within minutes described hideous alien sculptures of ice. Lovecraftian phrases like “an icy gale of otherworldly doom” and “very cold” came out of people’s mouths as they struggled to grasp the enormity of what had befallen them: It is now necessary to wear a coat to the bar.

Now in places like Portland or, I dunno, Shangri-La, wearing a coat to the bar is no big deal. In fact, if you’ve got a snazzy coat you like, maybe you look forward to it. But in South Dakota, if you don’t smoke like a fiend you might as well take up the habit come the cold weather because your outerwear, and soon, it seems, all of your worldly possessions will become redolent with the stale reek of Marbs. Of course, this isn’t an issue for Aimee and I, as our pregnancy and penury have kept us out of the local taverns since August, but part of my medical training is Full Contact Empathy, and so I shake my head sadly when I see shivering Co-Eds doff their coats, leave them in their cars, and scuttle into the Pressbox. It’ll be a lot colder come closing time, ladies.