national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

First Aid

Noah Pisner  • 
Harvard University

I have in my hands a textbook on post-atomic birth defects in Japan. The Effects of Ionizing Radiation From the Atomic Bomb on the Bodies of Japanese Children by R.W. Miller, M.D., University of California Press, 1968, is a volume that I cannot, in good sense, recommend. In black-and-white photographs, it portrays many variations of our species’ form. For example, here is a little girl who is perhaps three years old. She is wearing a dark, striped dress, and her hair is parted. The two sides of her face do not meet as you’d expect. Her eyes are far apart, and under each is a nostril. She has no nose, only a pale nowhere, an inch or two wide, which comes down smoothly from the forehead. You may be relieved to know that at least this child is not mentally deficient, as many of the children depicted in The Effects of Ionizing Radiation From the Atomic Bomb on the Bodies of Japanese Children are. “Intelligence: Normal,” says the caption. But then again, why should that come as a relief?


“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” The first printed mention of this saying can be found in the February 1866 issue of Notes and Queries, a still-published magazine founded by a man named William Thoms, who, you might not know, also coined the term ‘folklore.’ However, neither of these made Thoms famous. In the 1870s, the young journalist began investigating claims to ultra-centenarianism. He is credited with being the first to prove that claims of very old age are typically exaggerated. In subsequent years, Thoms had a son, Bernard, who died of tuberculosis at the age of six. It turns out a newly planted apple tree takes at least seven years before it can produce edible fruit.


Differences in Blown Air
A five-year-old once asked me why his breath was hot when he opened his mouth all the way, but cool when he blew like a whistle. I did not know so I made something up, hoping he would forget before passing it on. It turns out the root of this phenomenon is Bernoulli’s Principle: when changing the diameter of your lips, the airflow speeds up; when the air moves faster, it draws in more surrounding air which is cooler than your body temperature, thus making it feel colder. The difference between blown air, I told the boy, has to do with what the object wants: “Your fresh soup asks for cold air because it is hot. Your stiff hand asks for hot air because it is cold. Do not ever get these confused or you might get burned, or frozen, or both.”


My mother shows me how to swaddle him—this fresh boy whose genome has more in common with mine than almost anyone else in the world. I bring the corner of the blanket over his chest. I wrap the opposite side around and around until his shoulders squirm, holding it tight. “You are forty minutes old,” I tell him. His toenails are red; his eyes are unpeeking. The nurse puts the baby on his back in a bassinet crib, which confuses my mother because this is not how she placed me down. Instinctively, the nurse explains: “We place infants on their backs now—never on their stomachs, God forbid they smother in their sleep and die. Ten years ago, we placed infants on their stomachs—never on their backs, god forbid they choke in their sleep and die.”


According to the British Journal of Travel and Global Health, the desynchronization of circadian rhythms by a longitudinal translocation of thirty or more degrees (twenty, if the transplant occurs west to east), i.e., jet lag, and its associated symptoms—e.g., fatigue, hypoxitic deoxygenation of the blood, acute lordotic flexion of the thoracolumbular region, and atrophy/dystrophy of the anterior iliac tensor dorsal fasciae (including many of the same muscles employed in a stance of prayer)—can be relieved by a dermal grounding of disaccumulated electrons, which are lost, like luggage left-behind, in dislocation thousands of feet over the Atlantic, which is negatively charged. This rehabilitative state, the study explains, is best achieved by lying nude on grass.


Sandstorms disorient by generating vast quantities of static electricity—up to eighty volts per square meter. In the 1950s, a Dutch geographer discovered a cure. Walking through a sandstorm, he wired his car jack to his wrist; the jack grounded his voltage.


As we grow taller, our bodies habituate to tensing when we fall, making it more painful for us. Fighter pilots and paratroopers are trained to resist this tendency. In basic training, Air Force cadets are taught to relax their composure when landing from a jump in order to reduce the risk of damaging joints and organs. They practice again and again, sometimes attempting shorter drops with no parachutes at all. If a paratrooper drops from the air and is completely relaxed, embracing the fall as he comes downward, then he will land on the ground with a quiet thud and carry on with his mission. If, however, he was dropping from the air and suddenly decided he did not want to, he would tense and become a bag of broken bones upon landing.


Severe Congestive Heart Failure
On December 2, 1982, Dr. Kolff implanted the first artificial heart into Barney Clark, a dentist from Seattle who was suffering from severe congestive heart failure. Alone with a nurse while her husband was in surgery, Barney Clark’s wife, Una Loy, is said to have asked if her husband would still love her after his natural heart was taken out and replaced by this Jarvik heart. Clark lived with his artificial heart for 112 days, tethered to an external pneumatic compressor, a device weighing some 400 pounds. During that time he suffered prolonged periods of confusion and bleeding, and asked, several times, to be allowed to die.


A Paradox
Victims of severe hypothermia are often found naked. When you are on the verge of dying of hypothermia, you will become very hot due to your blood vessels relaxing as your body shuts down, and, as you do not know better, you will start stripping. This is known as vasodilatation. Interestingly, a similar effect can be achieved in the reverse. Stand naked in front of a lover for the first time and feel your veins tighten, your skin pale, and your lips dry, as if moisture has been sucked out of the air. But unlike hypothermia, body temperature will not change. What changes, instead, is how she looks at you—fully there, bare—how your face becomes less of the whole story.


Things The World Needs
One summer, when I worked at a publishing company, a famous poet made a useful distinction for me. I had drunk enough in the poet’s company to feel compelled to describe to him a poem I was thinking of. It would be a monologue of sorts, the inner-peregrinations of a blind boy who has regained his sight through a cataract operation. The poem itself would be a series of reencounters—with cherries, which the boy will call bumps, or with branches, which he will believe are panels shot with light, or with nighttime, which will upset the boy. Each encounter frightens him more and more until one day he re-blinds himself with his father’s shoehorn. “And that’s that,” I told the poet, who nodded his head in a steady, sympathetic way, and then said that there are, in fact, two kinds of poems. There are the kind you write and there are the kind you talk about when you are drunk. Both are things the world needs, but it’s fatal to confuse them.


H.P. Lovecraft once noted that the sum of human suffering is arrant mental correlation, the achievement of which is futile because the brain is too simple. That should be a load off your mind.