Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Answer #8

In the last review session before our final exam, our physiology teacher took pity on us. “Look,” she said, “if you don't know the answer to a question, the answer is 'connective tissue.'”

Tendon, ligament, bone, cartilage, fat. And the syrupy “ground matter,” which I always think of as anatomy's version of the astrophysicist's “dark matter.” When schoolkids learn anatomy (if they ever learn anything so old-fashioned), they're given pictures of the body with the connective tissue tidied away, so they can see the real parts: heart, liver, kidneys, brain. The following pages will show you the circulatory system, the nervous system. Of all the varieties of connective tissue, the only one allowed a moment in the spotlight is the bones. Never, never will you see a nice plate of what the connective tissue looks like with all those messy organs and clots of epithelial tubing cleared out of the way. And so we go on: thinking of the body as a brain with its net of nerves, a heart with its net of arteries and veins, a skeleton with its net of muscles, a digestive system, some lungs – and (vaguely wave the hand) some “stuff.” Packing materials. A little sheathing, a little twine, a little lubricant.

So Dave asks me, “viii. What kind of cartilage connects us to the stars?”

What, indeed? Well, I can't tell you, but I can with fair confidence tell you some of its properties:

1) Its apparent disorganization will always cause systematic thinkers to avoid examining it (or sometimes, even seeing it.)

2) It will take an astonishing number of forms and bear extraordinary forces without losing its (difficult-to-define) integrity.

3) Throughout your life, your deepest pleasures and pains will come from the manipulations of this tissue. (To explain them you will make up stories in which suns and moons, brains and hearts, play heroic roles.)

4) Like certain other non-Newtonian fluids (such as silly putty), it is hard and brittle when cold and untouched, flexible and strong when warm and worked.

So if you don't want it to break, you had better stroke and knead and warm it regularly. Given its extraordinary variety, this is not at all difficult to do: hugging people, shaking hands, throwing pots, writing poems, painting in watercolor or oils, writing poetry, giving or receiving massage, bird-watching, playing music or listening to it intently (live is more effective, but the attention is the important thing), cooking, listening to a child describe her dream last night, making love passionately – any of these methods will do. Others will suggest themselves to the reader.

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