Tag Archives: anatomy

Medical Microfiction: Glottis

Guardians

When the sunset is slanting, what keeps the ones who prowl at bay?

The guardians do.

There, just beyond that stand of pines, they’re waiting like a pair of hands to spring upon the spider, a noose to choke off hot breath.

Children linger in the fields. The sunset slants in, and the prowlers come running with quick little legs, their great big jaws a-gaping.

And just beyond the stand of pines, the guardians spring upon them, saying, This far you may go, and no further.

They do not relish their work. They hold the line and pray for mercy.

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Coronal section of larynx and upper part of tr...
A view of the larynx, or the voicebox. Can you spot the two “guardians”? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I always get excited when I write a blog post about something related to my happy little corner of science (namely, Speech Science). Today we’re talking about the glottis, which is found in your larynx, or voice box. It produces the buzzing sound that gives you a voice. If you place your hand on your throat and hum, you can feel it vibrating.

The glottis is made up of your two vocal folds (also called vocal cords) and the space between them. This area is the gateway to your lungs. Its responsibility is to make sure we don’t let anything liquid or solid down the wrong pipe. Think of them as the guardians in your throat, ready to snap closed and hold the line against bad things that want to enter.

Why might they be unwilling at the end of my story? This is to illustrate how they work when we’re speaking. While they can seal the throat during eating, the vocal folds don’t shut all the way when speaking. They’re in a state of flux, tensed just enough that the air pressure from your lungs can break through their seal, thus producing vibration and speech.

Of course, on another level, I think the reluctance of the guardians in today’s story is an illustration of profound goodness. Even when fighting something we all agree is evil, the best among us may feel a little sadness and regret that the evil exists to begin with. The best soldier may long for a day when war is unnecessary. The best doctor may hope to work herself out of a job by curing diseases.

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Anatomy of a Sentence: Countingducks

Anatomy of a human being
Put on your gloves and goggles: we’re going in! (Photo credit: PureBlackLove)

Anatomy: A Greek word meaning, “Cut ’em up!” In the spirit of this delightful medical word, I am happy to introduce a new feature on my blog: Anatomy of a Sentence. From time to time I will showcase beautiful writing I run across in books, podcasts, and around the blogosphere.

Why am I doing this, you ask?

Because I want to become a better writer, and I believe dissecting lovely sentences to see what makes them tick will help me become a more thoughtful wordsmith in my own right.

I also think these fine writers deserve to be noticed and appreciated. Given that, I will be using this feature as an excuse to read more of your blogs. If you’ve posted a piece of fiction on your blog that you’re particularly proud of, don’t hesitate to leave me a link so I can enjoy it and consider featuring a sentence from it in the future. (If you are shy, you can email me a link directly using the form on my “About” page).

Today we’re looking at a sentence from a favorite blogger of mine, Countingducks. It comes from a piece of flash fiction entitled, “A Flight of Fancy Beyond the Normal:”

One of those delicate messages from the stomach department, brought to my attention from some new bod in Tastbuds, informed me that a small snack involving a couple of sausages with a polite egg or two, a hint of beans, one or two mushrooms with a small supply of toast might just avert a full-blown attack of Hunger Pangs: the worst affliction known to sedentary man.

I love this sentence for many reasons. Firstly, I love the personification of the taste bud as a polite worker, the new guy who’s been tasked with the unfortunate job of informing the boss of an impending disaster. There’s a sense of hesitance to to voice. I can practically hear the polite little cough before he launches into the full catalogue of the “small” snack. It’s an example of a masterfully executed extended metaphor.

Which brings me to my second observation. This sentence makes fine use of escalation. Starting with the “small snack”, the list gets comically longer and longer until it’s clear that the snack’s anything but minuscule. And to cap off the hilarity, the “delicate” message which begins the sentence ends on a crescendo of melodrama when these Hunger Pangs are described as the “worst affliction known to man.” It’s a double-whammy of escalation that adds layers of drama to the situation.

Masterful! Hilarious! This kind of thing brings me surging to my feet in applause.

And now to the dissecting table for a closer look at the guts:

Sentence diagram. Click to embiggen me!
Sentence diagram. Click to embiggen me!

Oh boy, diagramming this one was a headache. The subordinate clauses! The detailed little prepositional phrases! Once you cut into this sentence, the organs just spill out all over the place. You can see the unsightly scribbling where I dropped my watch inside the patient and had to dig around to find it.

But take a moment to admire the complexity of this organism that Countingducks has bestowed upon us.

At its heart, the sentence says something like this: “One informed me that a snack might avert an attack of hunger pangs.” In the diagram, you can see how for Countingducks, this basic sentence serves as a skeleton on which to hang layer upon layer of detail. I think it succeeds for the reasons I pointed out before: a sense of escalation that does more to communicate the urgency of food cravings than the basic statement would do on its own.

For me, “escalation” is the big takeaway lesson. I resolve to keep this device in mind as I’m writing this week and see if I can’t bring a little of this brilliance into my own fiction. Perhaps you’ll give it a shot as well. Experiment with adding a sense of drama (or melodrama) using this technique. And hop on over to Countingducks’s blog to read this story in full – it’s delightful!

Medical Microfiction: Keratinocytes

The Little Dutch Girl

“We’ll draw straws. Long straws stay. Short fixes the hull.”

“Sounds fair.”

Olga proffered a fistful of sticks to her crewmates. Hal, Zarina, and Ken drew one apiece. There was a sharp intake of breath as they opened their palms.

Olga grimaced. “Guess it’s me. Let’s roll. We’re losing oxygen.” She stepped over the airlock threshold. She scanned the area and gasped in surprise. “Wait. Where are the tools? Where’s my space suit?”

“Sorry, Olga,” said Zarina.

The airlock whooshed shut.

Hal shut his eyes as Olga’s body, distorted by the vacuum of space, plugged the breach in the hull.

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ISS science officer and flight engineer, astro...
When you go outside the airlock, don’t forget your space suit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I were a cell in the human body, I think one of the most miserable work environments would be the epidermis, also known as your skin. Your skin’s your body’s biggest organ, and one of the most important ones. It keeps the bad stuff out and the good stuff in and represents the boundary between the body and the environment.

Given that important role, it’s still a raw deal to be a keratinocyte, the type of cell that makes up 95% of the epidermis. Keratinocytes are born deep in the basal layer (the stratum basale) of the skin. There they spend a short childhood multiplying before they’re shoved upwards toward the surface of the skin. As they rise in rank, they’re cut off from the nourishing blood supply found in the deeper layers. Eventually they die off and are packed full of keratin, which hardens them and makes them waterproof. By the time they reach the surface of your skin, their dead bodies form a tough, waterproof wall that keeps all the living cells in your body protected from the outside world.

Keratinocytes are born to die. It’s a heroic deed, yes, but still a raw deal. Much like being thrown out of the airlock to plug the breach in the hull.

In case you’re not familiar with it, the title and inspiration for this story comes from an American folk tale called The Little Dutch Boy. In this story, a young boy becomes a hero by using his finger to plug a leak in a dike. Of course, the big difference between the boy of this story and keratinocytes is that the boy got to choose his fate!

Medical Microfiction: Orbit

In Orbit

Marie hadn’t intended to cause a war between the planets. She’d just gotten something in her eye while cycling.

The more she rubbed at it, the further it worked its way into her eye socket. She rushed home, stuck her face under the faucet and pried open her eyelid. The water stung the microscopic scratches on her cornea, but eventually the particle dislodged.

Thanks to her blurred vision, Marie completely overlooked the sand-sized spacecraft swirling down the sink, and with it, the ambassadors of peace.

A few days later, the aliens declared war.

Remember, kids: when cycling, wear eye protection.

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Orbit has a double meaning. We usually use it in its astronomical sense, to mean the course of one object traveling around another. The moon orbits the Earth. In anatomy, orbit refers to the eye socket in the skull.

English: This picture, adapted from Gray's Ana...
The bones that make up the orbit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The skull’s a very strange and unique component of the human body. For one, it’s not just one bone. It’s difficult to say just how many bones are in the skull because it depends on what you mean by “bone” and how you count them.

Why the trouble with counting? You see, your skull doesn’t finish developing until after birth. Infants have four “soft spots” on their noggins called fontanels which are places where the skull bones haven’t fused together yet. The fontanels serve two purposes: to allow for easier delivery, and to allow space for the brain to finish development after birth. When these fontanels finally fuse, they’re joined together with sutural bones that can vary in number from person to person.

My anatomy textbook goes with a fairly traditional count of 22 bones forming the skull. Of these, 7 bones help make up the orbit.

I had fun writing today’s story because it captures orbit in both its meanings. A microscopic fleet of alien ships is in orbit over the Earth, attempting to make peaceful contact. One of their ships is in the orbit of Marie’s eyeball. All this orbiting adds up to be one huge headache for everyone.

For those of you in the United States, happy July 4th! I hope you enjoy the holiday with good food and good company, and hopefully better weather than we’re having in Georgia today. For those of you outside the US, hang in there. Friday’s coming soon.

And whatever you do, remember: wear eye protection. Peaceful intergalactic relations might depend on it.