Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Under the Skin

"It looks like steak." I commented, making an expression of disgust as I stared at my computer screen yesterday morning.

"I'd say it's more ham-like." Ken offered, squinting from over one of my shoulders. He continued his discussion with a couple of collaborators - I pulled him into the project to write some code and he did an amazing job. I sighed, not really having much to do other than pulling people and work together in some reasonable way. It's basically what I do - organize and talk and plan and write. There's not a tremendous amount of science in my professional life.

So I let their voices blur into the background as I examined the human thigh on my screen, looking at all the different muscles, the bone in the center, the fatty layer surrounding all of it. I glanced down at my own leg, covered as it was by gray dress pants and frowned. When I look at a cross-sectional view on my computer, the skin is rather inconsequential. But it's all I see in person - examining how pale my legs are, even compared to the very light color on my arms, checking to see if I did an adequate job shaving, making sure none of my freckles are growing or changing. But look at all the stuff in there! All this complexity and structure that makes it possible for me to stand up, climb stairs, walk around. It's rather fascinating.

And disgusting. It continues to remind me of steak and I don't like it. But every time I look down at my legs, I have this knowledge of what's going on in there. "Hello, muscles." I think. "You look like steak. Or ham."

I rested on a massage table this afternoon and considered the experience as she worked on the muscles in my head. Over my cheekbones, into my jaw, rubbing under my hair at my scalp. She doesn't want the skin either, I thought, sighing at the release of tension in those tiny areas. My therapist is after the muscles underneath, the tension that weaves around and stubbornly clings, making me achy.

"I don't stretch as much as I should." I confessed with a wince while she worked on my shoulders and back. "I do a little, but I get focused on work or whatever and forget to take care of myself."

Therapy is likely the same way. I forget to consider my thoughts carefully and they veer into ick. Negative, depressing, self-absorbed garbage that ends up twisting around me so securely that I'm trapped inside before I even realize the problem had grown so large. Counseling forces attention to the problem spots and offers tools to untangle the mess on my own. But I really do think I'm going to take a break. Try some stretching on my own for a while.

As I dressed afterward, looking at the muscle diagrams posted on the wall, I wrinkled my nose as I examined the thigh picture. All the ropey muscles that travel up and down or diagonally around. That's what exists under my skin and protective layer of fat. Though I'm fascinated by anatomy and physiology, I also find it a bit creepy. I'm glad all that guck is covered up in a neat package. That when I see friends or colleagues, I don't think about how their bodies work. We just exchange information and converse, discuss problems or laugh over memories.

My fascination with keeping a journal online is that all of that superficial stuff is pushed aside. I continue to be awed by the fact that people can strip ego and pretty layer that makes us appear competent and normal and expose the truth behind their daily interactions. I'm often befuddled - especially of late - as to why people read what's here. What I know that you don't. What I've experienced or noticed that might be of interest. I think the draw for me is the beautiful and grotesque honesty.

I'm often scared. Confused. I'm rarely excited to go to work, but am grateful that I can muster enough motivation to get there on most days. I'm competitive enough to care about publications and grants, but I don't really see why it matters in the grand scheme of things. I've seen the research world be impossibly cruel to some and stunningly kind to others. I believe I've been in both groups, though far more frequently in the latter.

There's a tremendous amount going on underneath. That I get to peek into some lives and glimpse some of that is an honor. That some of you stop by to glance at my problems or stories or secrets means a tremendous amount to me. Because while sometimes muscle images remind me of what I see at the meat counter when buying groceries, other times I'm graced by a phone call from Brother in the afternoon.

"You had the sonogram." I recalled after he said hello. "And?"

"We're having another girl." He announced proudly. "I just can't escape houses of women."

"What did Little One think?" I asked. They took her with them to see her baby brother or sister.

"She was disappointed, I think. Not that it's a girl, but of the pictures. I think she wanted an actual picture of her baby sister. To see what color her hair was, what sorts of outfits she was wearing, if she smiled for her photo - that kind of stuff. So the blurry, black and white ultrasound wasn't what she wanted." I smiled, leaning on the railing outside the lobby of my massage therapy building so as not to disturb others with my conversation before my appointment began. What's inside can be yucky or disappointing or unexpected. But Little One is resilient and recovers a lot faster than I do.

"But now," Brother continued, "she's happy. She can point out the head and hands and is very proud of the picture."

"I'm proud of you." I told him. "Congratulations!"

"I hope I get to have one." I said sleepily as I neared the end of my massage, the muscles in my back finally allowing the tension to be smoothed from them.

"You will. At the right time." My therapist said of my desire for children. I'm coming to understand that what I expect or hope isn't necessarily what's forthcoming. The ability to continue to dream and to adapt when circumstances change is an important one.

But I'm still a bit grossed out by the meat-like stuff that lives in my legs.


The Contessa said...

What I love most about your writing is that you are honest. To a point actually. I have yet to find a way to be honest yet respectful. I start slow with that.

I'm always worried that someone I love will stumble on it and know more than I was prepared to say to them directly. Or worse not understand my perspective.

I applaud you and others who can do that.

I still spend too much time trying to please everyone. I hope to grow out of that!

Locks said...

I love love love this post...from the meat to the commentary on work and science and research.

As always, your work is well-written and extremely insightful.

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