22 January, 2011

the anatomy lesson

This is Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp:

It pictures many of the things we expect to see in such a painting: men with beards, exquisitely dressed, huddling around a dead body in a dark room, intently listening to Dr. Tulp. The instructor is demonstrating how when he pulls on the flexor digitorum muscles it will cause the fingers to curl, and he is mimicking this action with his own hand at the same time. This is something I found myself doing repeatedly as a student of anatomy. Moving my own body that is, in order to picture how the inanimate muscles would function. Sometimes I even tried to imagine staring down at myself lying on that table,  in order to keep right and left in their appropriate places. So, are we using ourselves to understand that body and science, or are we using science to understand ourselves?

It is interesting to note that the men are not looking at the cadaver, but just beyond his feet, perhaps at an anatomical atlas. Rembrandt alone is focused on the body of the dead man and the shadow of death cast over his eyes. A little bit of research will reveal that the cadaver is a criminal that has been recently executed for multiple charges of theft. This may explain why it is his hand that has been dissected first. In those days the guts were usually removed first to get the gross part over with before it really started to decay. Today we start with the back, where amateur medical students are less likely to slice through arteries, nerves, and tendons that must be preserved and studied.

The dissected hand also appears to be quite out of proportion, larger than the right hand. And there is an anatomical mistake - the muscles in the painting originate on the lateral epicondyle, but they should originate on the medial (the side of the elbow nearest the torso). We certainly don't want to assume that this was actually a mistake. Rembrandt was a meticulous artist and he was likely in that room himself.  In his lecture "Observing Reason: Critique of Scientific Stance", J.M. Bernstein of the New School for Social Research suggests that Rembrandt purposely drew the faulty anatomical details based on the illustration of the opposite hand in the atlas these other men are looking at. He further proposes that this illustrates how science attempts to understand our world and, therefore, ourselves. I must admit that at some point I find it difficult to follow what Bernstein is saying because I am not familiar with Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Nonetheless, he raises a point that we can all think about. Perhaps the fact that we get caught up in this anatomical error further emphasizes what Rembrandt wanted to show us. The men in the painting see the atlas, the instructor sees the mechanics behind the movement, we see the dissected right arm, but nobody sees a man who has just died.

10 January, 2011

sunny substitute

We just threw out our Christmas trees, but many people are already looking forward to spring break. I keep hearing about plans for trips to warm, sunny places like Florida, Mexico, and southern Spain. But it's only January and I also hear that we won't get anywhere close to spring-like weather until April. This winter, my first northern winter, will be quite and educational experience. I imagine that when Spring finally arrives it will be glorious. Honestly, I don't mind the cold too much. Because I have a garage I have yet to scrape ice off my car - it really feels like cheating. It's the short days that get to me. We actually have had plenty of sunny days but dusk falls upon us by 4:30, and even when I look outside to see sunshine it is just like a teaser because I cannot really enjoy it without wearing pounds of clothing.

It looks like I won't be taking any exotic trips for a while, but in the meantime I've come up with a citrus salad that is bright and sunny. Last year, after reading this recipe, I was dying to get my hands on some meyer lemons but I was too late. I didn't expect to see them in the store so early this year, but they are there and I'm not taking any chances. I bought my first bag of these sweet, floral-smelling lemons and savored just knowing that they were in my kitchen. I preserved a few - simply with salt, according to this method. I haven't tried those yet.

This salad blends together sweet, sour, and savory in a way that makes it a little bit easier to imagine sun-bathing beside palm trees or strolling through jasmine-draped alleyways. The recipe is imprecise, I'm just telling you what I threw together. You can easily alter it to your taste or for more than one serving.

Citrus Salad Recipe:

1/2 meyer lemon, thinly sliced cross-wise (eat the peel and all)
3 sections large pomelo grapefruit, membranes removed
1 clementine orange, peeled and sectioned
small handful dried cranberries

Mix or layer these in a bowl, sprinkle with sugar and drizzle with avocado oil.

Happy daydreaming!

07 January, 2011

thought feeling itself

The English Surgeon is a documentary about a neurosurgeon from England and his attempts to help a neurosurgeon in Kyiv, Ukraine. The Ukrainian is running a private practice and he's doing it in a way that the government does not like very much - performing risky operations, recycling equipment from England. The film depicts a faulty medical system that is controlled by a government bent on saving money. It's focus on a few individual patients and the general conditions of this clinic paints these two neurosurgeons as heroes. I would definitely recommend watching this film, but here is an interesting article if you are uncertain about committing the necessary two hours.

I'd like to share a few lines that really caught my attention.
  • The film begins with the English surgeon saying this: "It is difficult to know when one is being reckless and when one is being wise, when one is being brave and one is being a coward." He said this in the context of the risks a surgeon chooses to take as well as the risks they were taking by battling the Ukrainian system, but it certainly applies to many areas of life.
  • Here is another thought-provoker: "Everyone is equal. Everyone will get a consultation. The crowd should decide who gets to go first." This is what the surgeon said to quiet the mob of people waiting for a second opinion after being told their tumors were inoperable. But here, in the land of the equality and freedom, I have never seen such a system in place. It seems that we do not have enough confidence in our fellows, nor in ourselves, to handle such situations in a calm and polite manner.
  • Recently I've been trying to pay more attention to subtle techniques used in film, journalism, and literature. I hope to offer you more examples in the future. These two neurosurgeons are not ones that people are inclined to criticize and the film does, appropriately I believe, show them in a very positive yet human light. But if you watch this film, look for what I am about to describe while they are in the marketplace. The two surgeons have gone to buy common drill bits, which they will be sterilizing and using to drill through a man's skull. It is crowded as many people shuffle from one booth to the next, carrying their goods and bartering. The camera pans through the crowd and stops on a ragged-looking woman picking through a few coins in the palm of her hand. A minute later, as the doctors purchase the drill bits, the camera zooms in on the Ukrainian physician's well-endowed wallet. I am slightly puzzled by this because in every other sense he is shown as a modest, self-sacrificing man. Perhaps the director's aim was to show that this man is still comparable to the doctors of Europe and America in some ways, or maybe he wanted to ensure the viewer that this is not a saint, just another man with personal interests as well as good intentions and good acts.
             How do you interpret it?
  • One last, marvelous, captivating line. The two surgeons perform brain surgery on a young man, removing a large tumor from a completely exposed brain while the man is awake. As we see the brain pulsating, slimy, like a living organism in and of itself, the English surgeon says, "That is thought feeling itself." And that, my friends, is one of the great puzzles of life!

01 January, 2011

an intention for the new year

As we begin a new year, instead of a goal or a resolution, I am setting an intention. This is an idea that comes from yoga. At the beginning of every session we set an intention for the next bit of time on the mat. Not a goal to stretch farther nor a demand not to become distracted, but a feeling or an idea that will keep one grounded throughout the practice. Perhaps that intention will carry over to the rest of the day. My friend and favorite yoga instructor used to conclude each session with the words, "may the blessings and benefits you have cultivated today be taken off of your mat and into your world." I often think of that when I practice at home.

I don't think I can really give a clear explanation of what my intention is. It's more of a feeling because if I put it into words I'm afraid it will become a goal. Over the past year I've learned that finding this feeling can really help to calm or cheer me. For example, when I feel uncertain or stressed it helps to think about the peaceful ashram where I used to do yoga in Denton, or moments when I was surrounded by friends and my spirit danced. Sometimes it helps to focus on my physical core. An anatomy professor suggested we imagine tracing our finger all around our head, even into the respiratory tract, as a technique for learning the cutaneous innervation of the cranial nerves. In a similar manner, I find that I can refocus myself by looking inside and thinking of energy flowing through each chakra. Or it's like making life a constant prayer. I know, I'm using a lot of jargon that doesn't really make sense in our western rational minds, but if you let yourself just go I think you'll know what I mean.

Okay, how about this one: my intention is my new kitten.

We just got him from a shelter downtown and named him Zenith. He lives a simple life and is always true to himself. He is playful yet peaceful and always seems to hit the right balance between high and low energy. He purrs frequently, like a yogi's mantra. Because he has a loving home and is well taken care of he is full of love and can share that with the world, even if does have a very small world.

What is your intention for the new year?

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