My favorite body part is the brain, that shiny mound of being, that mouse gray parliament of cells, that dream factory, that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone, that huddle of neurons calling all the plays, that little everywhere, that fickle pleasure dome, that wrinkled wardrobe of selves stuffed into the skull like too many clothes into a gym bag. The neocortex has ridges, valleys, and folds because the brain kept remodeling itself though space was tight. We take for granted the ridiculous-sounding-yet-undeniable fact that each person carries around atop her body a complete universe in which billions of sensations, thoughts, and desires stream. They mix privately, silently, while agitating on many levels, some of which we're not aware of, thank heavens. If we needed to remember how to work the bellows of the lungs or the writhing python of digestion, we'd be swamped by formed and forming memories, and there'd be no time left for buying cute socks. My brain likes cute socks. But it also likes kisses. And asparagus. And watching boat-tailed grackles. And biking. And drinking Japanese green tea in a rose garden. There's the nub of it—the brain is personality's whereabouts. It's also a stern warden and, at times, a self-tormentor. It's where catchy tunes snag and cravings keep tugging. A hand-me-down miracle is that we are living things made of nonliving parts. Our brain is a crowded chemistry lab, bustling with nonstop neural conversations. It's also an impersonal landscape where minute bolts of lightning prowl and strike. A hall of mirrors, it can contemplate existentialism, the delicate hooves of a goat, and its own birth and death in a matter of seconds. It's blunt as a skunk and a real gossip hound, but also voluptuous, clever, playful, and forgiving. For all those reasons, and because it's shaped a little like a loaf of French country bread, it's my favorite companion.
2. The Tongue
Gray's Anatomy calls the tongue "an organ of special sense." I'll say. You can taste with it, kiss with it, talk with it, flick a vexing shred of corn caught between your teeth, yodel, lick and suck, insult just by sticking it out, and if you're genetically positive, roll it up on the sides and fill it like a bathtub with spit, a favorite childhood pastime. The only bad moment my tongue ever gave me was when I was tweezing my eyebrows with a 6X mirror, megamagnification that makes a pore look like Mount Vesuvius. For reasons I don't know, I stuck my tongue out and suffered a seismic shock. Lord, it was ugly. Uglier than feet. It had cracks and bumps and wavy eminences called papillae. The ventral side exposed bulging blue veins and slick flaps. It looked rough. Toward the back it turned scuzzy. I thought about my friend Marjie, who recently tried to talk me into buying a tongue scraper.
"No way," I said.
"But you should see what comes off," she said.
"I don't want that in my house," I told her. "Whatever's on my tongue's supposed to be there."
I couldn't sing, swallow, or whistle without my tongue. But I think it's changing. I can no longer scarf a one-pound bag of candy corn. (A one-pound bag of M&M's is still no trouble.) And suddenly I find myself loving the taste of beets, spinach, and figs. Is my tongue growing up with me? Not too much, please. On a recent trip to Morocco, I learned something new to do with it. Tzeghret is the famous wild call from The Battle of Algiers. Ready? Make a high-pitched wooooooooo sound. Now stick your tongue out and whip it side to side superfast. Bravo.
We have infinite possibilities for using our hands. Thanks to our sense of touch, we are able to experience the world around us and learn that it is full of other softnesses, other tautnesses, other dampnesses, other depths. Among myriad opportunities, our hands are capable of giving and receiving cosmic energy. Giving and receiving love. Creating or destroying peace and well-being.
There are hands that love and hands that fight. Hands that pray and hands that sin. Hands that heal and hands that torture. Hands that bless and hands that corrupt. Hands that caress and hands that murder. Hands that free and hands that imprison. What makes these hands different is the intention behind each act carried out by them. The same hands we use to create works of art, build cathedrals, or clothe our children can be used to throw bombs, aim machine guns, and destroy entire civilizations. What is it that makes us choose one option or the other? It is our level of consciousness and free will. What I decide to do with my hands determines my future, that of my family and my country, and that of the planet and the universe.
There are people who like to tie the hands of others. To tell them what they should do, how they should behave, how they should hold their fork, how they should bring food to their mouth, or how they should make policy—but it is up to us to decide whether or not to give them this power. Our hands are the center of productivity, and also of free will. Hands can build a better world or they can destroy the one that already exists: The choice is up to each of us. The love and the world are in our hands.
(Translated by Stephen Lytle)
It is appropriate that I sing
The song of the feet
The weight of the body
And what the body chooses to bear
Fall on me
I trampled the American wilderness
Forged frontier trail
Out ran the mob in Tulsa
Got caught in Philadelphia
And am still unreparated
I soldiered on in Korea
Jungled through Vietnam sweated out Desert Storm
Caved my way through Afghanistan
Tunneled in the World Trade Center
And on the worst day of my life
Walked behind JFK
Stood embracing Sister Betty
I wiggle my toes
In the sands of time
Trusting the touch that controls my motion
Basking in the warmth of the embrace
Day's end offers with warm salty water
It is appropriate I sing
The praise of the feet
I am a Black woman
5. The Belly
A famous Richard Avedon poster from the early eighties still has the power to shock. It's undeniably cheesy but erotic nonetheless, a long horizontal of the actress Nastassja Kinski stretched out on her side and wearing nothing but a really big snake. The semiotics here aren't exactly subtle, but what transfixes the eye is: Kinski's forward-tilting belly, set off by the python coiling tumescently around her crotch and the curve of her back. Just about every man I know has seen that poster, and they all mention the same thing—that impudent little tummy—with wistful delight.
Chaucer would empathize. In the Middle Ages, no poet could celebrate a woman's beauty without a rapturous reference to "her small round belly." It's there in paintings of the time, pooching out suggestively on ladies high and low, including the Virgin herself. Medieval gowns made the most of it with softly fitted bodices that stroked the body like a lover's hands and ended in a decorative, Y-shaped sash slung low around the hips and pointing discreetly downward to the source of life itself.
Five hundred years later, I look at pictures of models in the latest low-slung, hip-hugging styles, and what catches my eye is the forlorn concavity where a belly used to be, sunk between hip bones sharp enough to wound. This is that holy of holies, a flat stomach. Thanks to the culture's runaway obsession with female thinness, women have simultaneously been thrown a curve and lost one. We wuz robbed: Healthy bellies are beautiful. (Ever see a skinny belly dancer? Who'd want to?) But there's nothing delicate about them. They swell and cramp and make weird noises. They're real and visceral and impossible to control, like life, which they teem with, especially for women. Touch a pregnant woman's belly and feel the power—it's as taut and unyielding as a medicine ball, protective housing for the occupied womb within.
Lately, I've become an unwilling player in the game of cholesterol roulette, and so, like most American women, I obsess about my weight. I want to lose some, my doctor wants me to lose some. But I'll never want to lose what a friend once called my magic belly: emblem of fecundity and needful desire.
True, there's a banality to blood. We've all got it—about ten pints each. And we all have basically the same stuff. It's a cliché—go poke Britney Spears, Saul Bellow, the Rock, Ja Rule, Yasir Arafat, whomever, and essentially the same suspension of red cells, white cells, and platelets will ooze out. You'd think its ubiquity and undifferentiation would make us indifferent.
But the shock of blood!
Even the finger-stick rivets us. That sudden hemispheric drop—lustrous and opaquely scarlet. That color! A royal dye brewed within our bodies, derived from the metabolism of life itself. (Centrifuging produces a pousse-café, three distinct layers—a clear golden plasma on top, a solid band of white blood cells in the middle, and a thick band of crimson red blood cells on the bottom.)
Those of us who have actually seen injured people covered in their own blood will never forget the visceral sensation of it. There's the sense that an inviolable vessel has been riven and the very spirit of that person—his or her life and lifetime—is seeping away.
Is there another aspect of our bodies with this dual nature—that signifies vitality and morbidity at once? We probably see blood, whether on a strand of dental floss or a kid's scraped knee, every single day of our lives. Yet Poe can write with indelibly chilling effect: "The 'Red Death' had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood."
I accompanied a friend of mine, an ER physician at Bellevue, on his eight-hour shift one night. I was doing research for a television show I was writing at the time. A Chinese man was brought in with a meat cleaver in his head (apparently the end result of a rather heated Chinatown restaurant kitchen dispute between cooks). It was a broad wood-handled instrument embedded in the middle of his forehead in classic splatter-flick style, with perfect bilateral symmetry. He sat upright on a gurney with imperturbable equanimity, never uttering a word or a sound, as rivulets of blood coursed down his face, his white cook's uniform now suffused with crimson.
The men all stood there for moment—hardened ER veterans among us—dumbfounded. Women immediately went about their work. Blood is more of a revelation to men, I think. Certainly when men are confronted with their own blood, their reaction is often extremely dramatic. Think of boxers realizing they've been cut in the ring, sometimes actually tasting the blood and becoming infuriated and galvanized with aggression. Talk to any man who has ever seen blood in his urine, and he'll tell you how he immediately broke out in a cold sweat, terrified by the unexpected sight of red and what it might augur.
Women bleed every month. And I have long thought the menstrual cycle enables women to accommodate flux and impermanence infinitely better than men. And perhaps this routine bleeding makes women somehow more psychologically permeable, more accustomed to exchanges between their inner and outer worlds.
As for me, I will remain unaccustomed to blood and endlessly fascinated, fetishizing vampires, bats, mosquitoes, rare meat, the strange history of hemophilia, the blood-quaffing Masai and Turkana tribesmen of Kenya, the gruesome effects of hemorrhagic viruses like Ebola and Marburg, and that color—that stunning color—at once the most mundane, numinous, sacramental tincture in the world.
When I was just a kid, I developed a fascination with skin diseases. At night, while teenage boys all over town perused skin magazines, I stared wide-eyed at the glossy color photographs of "skin conditions" in my family's huge medical guide. Eczema. Impetigo. Leprosy. Shingles. Rosacea. The names sounded to me like superheroes, but the photographs themselves revealed something sadly human: the flesh erupting in sudden ugly ways. I was horrified by what I saw, but strangely unable to tear my eyes away.
Over the years, I learned to associate skin with all that was negative. Skinflint. Skin-deep. Thin-skinned. Skin seemed the source of all that was stingy, shallow, and most of all prejudicial: I witnessed how one shade of skin could inspire fear, loathing, suspicion; the other envy, trust, adoration, depending on the neighborhood. Skin, according to my hippie teachers, was something best ignored. Look beyond it, beneath it, around it, they preached, to the content of your character.
But skin itself was always innocent. I didn't learn this until my freshman year in college, when I was studying to be a doctor. With science on my side, I saw skin finally for what it was: a magically recuperative, elastic, porous, and self-cleaning home for us to live inside. It was the barrier that kept all of our other organs safe and in place, protected from the elements of rain and wind and sleet and snow. It was also a source of much pleasure, the vast and multifarious terrain we stroked and kissed and tasted, even bit, to express love and desire.
I failed out of biology and switched my major to English, and I don't look at photographs of acne and cold sores anymore. Instead I like to study the simple beauty of our biggest and most visible organ for all that it can reveal. A pregnant woman glows with the life growing inside of her. A baby's skin is like the skin of an angel. The lines on an older woman's face give comforting evidence of a life fully lived. And a man who has grooves and weight to the skin of his face is someone who has thought and felt deeply. I am awed by skin's endless gorgeous varieties—from rosebud pink to coffee black, reddish brown to high yellow.
Sure, it's the first place on myself I look for potential problems. A rash here. A bump there. And I know I will continue to fight its susceptibility to harsh weather and hard times. There may come a day when I resort to heavy coats of foundation and layers of powder and ingenious medical procedures that will freeze my face in an expressionless mask of youth.
But I hope not. I hope I can stay true to the revealing nature of my skin, from my face to my toes, a visible sign of where I have been in this world—like faith itself, the evidence of things unseen.
As feats of design, breasts are elegant: firm enough to nuzzle, not so firm as to stab out tiny eyes. Form follows function when it comes to nursing infants. Then there's the clever elixir that breasts produce: It not only nourishes but confers immunities. This maternal act, however, is not all that breasts are called upon to do. Throughout history they have been symbolized, eroticized, commodified, and stigmatized. They have launched a thousand ships—not to mention ad campaigns. So burdened are they with cultural projections that it's not surprising they occasionally need a little underwire for support.
Breasts are not standard issue. They come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Round, oval, droopy, reticent, assertive, they are a source of awe and wonder. Breasts are also team players. They come in rights and lefts, like shoes. And they don't arrive until they're needed—at puberty, as part of the package that for better or worse seals the end of childhood for girls.
How well I know. Glancing at my sophomore yearbook, I can still feel the anguish. I was on a swim team in Southern California. We wore green-and-goldstriped Speedos, which on my teammates plunged in graceful curves from shoulder to hip. My swimsuit, however, had no contours to hug. Its stripes were ramrod straight, mocking my flatness. The following year, my fortune changed—along with, appropriately, my breasts. Which is to say: I had them. My lazy hormones had kicked in. It didn't matter that I was the slowest member of the team, an inept plodder in the water. I stood proud and tall. Meager yet defiant, these two new badges gave me confidence. I was indeed a woman. And I had the evidence to prove it.
The eyes—those twin translucent mirrors that reflect the universe upside down in our brains—refract the kaleidoscope of light in our mind's black night as sight. These orbs, like constellations speckled brown or blue or hazel, have black-hole, iris-centered pupils that contract and expand, absorbing galaxies of light, transforming the invisible into our reality. Eyes have no voice but can speak of love or grief when our hearts are dumb. The eyes can cry goodbye and ask why.
Some say sight is the great glory of our senses' wondrous mysteries, and I agree. The tragic man is not he who cannot see. The tragic man is he who can but does not. Look! How amazing it is that you are reading this. Do you see it?
10. The Heart
The record industry and the greeting card business would go bankrupt without the hundreds of metaphorical uses for the heart. Tony Bennett sang that he left his heart in San Francisco, but I notice that he somehow managed to do very well without it; and so did hard-hearted Hannah, the vamp of Savannah, who was evil enough to pour water on a drowning man. Someone must have surely told her at one time or another, "Come on, Hannah, have a heart." But perhaps Hannah was recovering from having her own heart "broken." That's what can happen if you "wear your heart on your sleeve" and then "give away your heart" to some worthless suitor.
It's amazing how many references there are to the heart in literature and in popular culture. This can probably be tied to the actual function of the heart in our bodies. It's more than just a pump that circulates blood through our bodies by contraction and dilation—it's the center of our being. The heart is one of the first organs to develop in a fetus, and it's the one organ whose expiration spells immediate death. In between the beginning of life and its end, the heart is inextricably tied to our emotions: It beats faster when we're excited or in danger, and when we see the object of our desire. The heart is also tied to our character: There are stories that people who undergo heart transplants experience personality changes and mood swings. Is there a closer relationship between the heart and the brain than we think? The verdict is still out on that one. But what we do know is that it's the rhythm of the heart that calms a fretting baby when held against its mother's chest; it's even the rhythm that calms us while we lie in bed, trying to unwind from a hectic day and fall asleep. It is, in short, the rhythm of life.
11. The Penis
Michaelangelo sculpted it. Freud analyzed it. Steinem politicized it. Mapplethorpe shot it. Bobbit detached it. Wahlberg displayed it. Stiller zipped it. Viagra energized it. Sex and the City demystified it. Behold the penis, a delightfully spontaneous, exquisitely sensitive, intermittently rigid (though not altogether inflexible) little critter both reviled and revered since time began. They say size doesn't matter, but when it's too small it has a nasty tendency to cause grown men to buy ridiculously expensive sports cars, pay close attention to the World Wrestling Federation, and start wars. And when it's too large... well, in the grand scheme of things, there are worse problems facing humanity. Do I envy the penis? Nah. While it's true that having one enables a person to earn more money and avoid long lines at the ladies' room, let's not forget that it can also get you impeached. I do, however, admire it. A marvel of technical engineering, the penis is not only an intricate network of neurotransmitters, blood vessels, and muscle tissue, it also looks fabulous in a pair of jeans. And though these days it's frequently a step or two removed from the whole baby-production process, it's certainly handy to have around the house.
Let's Get Physical