Friday, May 25, 2012


Judy and I collaborate by e-mail. The raw material for the book "Working Stiff" is her ten year-old journal, chock full of medical and law enforcement shorthand and jargon. We can never work on the writing face-to-face, because whenever we are together with each other we are also with our three children. They are not especially demanding children, but that's like saying salmon is not an especially fishy fish. Leave it out on the counter long enough, and you'll smell it. Leave our kids together in the house long enough, and you'll hear some demands.

So my working day consists of the child-free hours between my dropping the last one off at school, and picking the first one up. During those same hours Judy is at work herself, so I email my questions to her, and she answers them from her laptop during lunch break. I crafted one such email while I was putting together the chapters on what an autopsy consists of, and how exactly she performs one. My questions about the science tend to be interrupted by more mundane musings. Here is the email I sent my wife, verbatim:

1.) What's the most money you've ever pulled off a corpse?  How about jewelry, electronics?  Is it your responsibility to take charge of loaded guns that might be on the body but were not used?

2.) Review for me briefly what you do when you find a huge wad of cash on a body.

3.)  Don't mention the fleas to your mother any more.  She's driving me crazy.  She refuses to believe her dog could have fleas, so she contends that Dina's picking them up in the sand at the playground.  I don't know much about fleas, but I do know they like warm, furry animals.  I doubt very much they hang around in cold, damp sand waiting for furless little girls to come along.  Even if they did, they wouldn't last long on Dina's skin.  Your mom's now insisting we get an exterminator to examine the kids' rooms while we're away next month.  Would you please keep an eye on the flea bites, examine Dina nightly, and don't talk to your mom about it.  There's nothing we can do about it anyway -- the dog is on flea medication and its owner is in denial.  We don't even know if these bites are from fleas.  This note has nothing to do with the book, but your mom just interrupted me in order to raise the subject, again, so I want you to know.  Back to business.

4.)  I just now had a flashback to my days as a secretary at Carolco Pictures, trying in vain to spell RESERVOIR DOGS correctly.  Day after day I'd type it RESEVOIR DOGS.  It would seem that thanks to my native Boston accent, that interior 'r' is not only silent but also invisible.  Now I'm working off your journal, and couldn't for the life of me figure out why the computer kept telling me I was mis-spelling "paraphenalia."  I swear it has never occurred to me that this word is spelled - or pronounced - "paraphernalia," with two r's.  OK, now back to business, I promise.

5.)  I think I got the description of removing the kidneys the way I like it.  You can check it tonight.  Do you remove the adrenal glands from the kidney or leave them on?  Please describe the physical appearance of the adrenals.

6.)  You wrote that you reach way down into the retroperitoneal cavity and pull out the bladder, uterus and rectum all at once.  Don't you have to sever the rectum from the anus first?  How do you do that?

7.)  I conclude the section on organ removal with the following; is it accurate?: 

          We're now finished eviscerating the patient.  Everything I've described, from Y-cut to testicular replacement, only takes about half an hour and is the easiest part of an autopsy.

8.)  Did you know that "raspberry" has a silent 'p' in the middle?  I didn't, not until the spell-check caught it.  Fascinating.

9.)  Make sure you buy two or even three of those cleaned Dungeness crabs again tonight when you go to the Cal-Mart, and have them put 'em on ice.  We'll have them for dinner after you get home with Leah.  Don't forget to buy milk, too.  Do you find me highly distractible?  Did you know "distractible" is not technically a word according to this e-mail program's spell check?  Maybe I misspelled it and it's supposed to be "distracterble" or "distractspible."  Again, fascinating.

10.)  When you take a nerve tissue sample from the stock jar, which nerve do you cut?  Does the tech put the sample in formalin immediately, or does it just sit there in the jar until you're done with the autopsy?

11.)  You have in your notes:

Breastplate goes back in abdomen, or back in place in chest.
What does this mean, "back in abdomen?"  Do you try to cram it into its proper place, and if it doesn't fit you just plop it on top of the bag of organs and sew the whole mess up?

That's all for now.  Love, TJ

Monday, May 21, 2012


            “Dad, what’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?” Danny asked.
            I replied reflexively.  “ALIEN.”
            “What’s it about?”
            “Um, well... it’s about this group of... well, sailors really.  On a spaceship, sometime in the future.  They’re on like a high-tech space tugboat, towing a gigantic space barge of minerals or something.  The ship’s computer picks up some kind of alien signal they think is a distress call, and the company orders them to go check it out...”
            We were on our tandem bike, hauling down to his choir rehearsal.  Twice a week we have this invaluable father-son bonding time for half an hour.  I pick him up from school and we bike together, me the captain and Dan the stoker, that five or six miles.  It’s our only chance to have manly talks, and this particular week Danny had decided he wanted to know about scary movies.  He was in fifth grade, and if memory serves, this is exactly when scary movies became an obsession for me and my buddies, too.
            I spent the next several minutes reciting, over my shoulder, my recollection of ALIEN’s plot to my son.  ALIEN without an S, mind you: the Ridley Scott one.  Turns out when you try to summarize ALIEN without the thrum of the engines, the spooky music, the perfectly calibrated lighting, the underplayed and overplayed acting, and the hissing cat, it’s not frightening in the least.
            “That sounds great!  I want to watch it.”
            “No!” I barked, again reflexively.  “Your mother will kill me!”  And then another thought came to me.  “Besides, ALIEN may not really be the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.  It depends on how you ask the question.  It’s subjective, right?  Opinion, not fact.”  He’d been learning a lot about fact vs. opinion in class.  “The movie that probably scared me most in my life was WAR OF THE WORLDS, because I saw it when I was a little kid.”
            “What’s that about?”
            “Well, there’s this mysterious meteor lands in a field...” 
            So after I told him the plot of WAR OF THE WORLDS we came to an arrangement.  He would work his way up to ALIEN.  We would have our very own home science fiction film festival.  We proceeded to do exactly that, with his sisters joining us for some of the tamer offerings.  E.T., CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, MEN IN BLACK, PLANET OF THE APES, and a favorite of both me and my wife’s, GALAXY QUEST.  We two adults kept laughing at all kinds of things in that last one that the kids didn’t get at all.  “What’s so funny?” Leah asked.
            “It’s a Star Trek joke.”
            “What’s a Star Trek?”
            So that, of course, took us down a whole new path, one that led to Danny’s instant conversion to Trekkie, Trekker, whatever.  His sisters can take or leave Kirk, but have turned into huge fans of Mr. Spock.
            Eventually, after about a year of these occasional viewings, we worked our way up to ALIEN.  I gave Danny and his buddy Niko stern warnings about how scary the movie would be, how I would not be held responsible for the nightmares that were sure to plague them for months, nor for the imagined stomach aches they might suffer.  Then we watched.  Big screen.  Subwoofer on.  Curtains drawn.  Sisters absent.  And...
            “Yeah, that was good, but it wasn’t scary.”
            When the baby alien came bursting out of John Hurt’s chest, they had laughed uproariously, and made me repeat the scene a couple more times.  “That’s the stupidest looking thing I’ve ever seen,” was Niko’s verdict.  “It looks like a bloody sock puppet!
            I decided to up the ante.  The next week we watched JAWS.  Again, they liked it.  Again, no nightmares.
            My inability to make a scary movie impression on two people who should be at their most impressionable led me to search my cinematic soul.  I also learned that Niko’s dad is a big fan of zombie movies.  That, finally, jogged my memory:
            TWENTY-EIGHT DAYS LATER just arrived from Netflix.  Let’s see if those smug little twirps can sit thorough this one without tears!

            I will keep you updated of the result.  In the meantime, send suggestions.  Keep in mind that these are twelve year-old boys of the current generation.  They’re hard to scare, but they’re still pre-pubescent.  SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is out of the running, for instance.  So is the movie that is really, truly, the scariest one I’ve ever seen, that I dared not even try to describe to my son, or any child.  It is the Dutch film SPOORLOOS.  Trust me.