A few months before reading The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson, a chapter-by-chapter guide to the workings of the human body, I sat in the emergency room at the hospital down the street. The doctor told me the source of my abdominal pain was either diverticulitis — an inflamed pouch in the lining of the lower intestine — or appendicitis. The first option meant I’d be sent home with antibiotics. The second meant an emergency appendectomy. She wouldn’t be sure until she saw the results of the CT scan.
What struck me was not the extreme variation in potential outcomes, it was how wrong I was about the location of my appendix. She was pushing on my abdomen, about two inches below my umbilicus (or belly button for those of you who have not read The Body).
“Isn’t my appendix over here?” I said.
“No,” she said. “That’s nothing. But if the pain were there, we’d rule out the appendix.” She was nice for someone whose medical knowledge had been questioned by a patient who couldn’t even point to the vital and non-vital (in the case of the appendix) parts that keep him alive.
I wondered how could I not know where my appendix is.
I have been feeding and watering my body for more than 50 years without thinking much about how it works and the consequences of my decisions about its care. While I waited to be called for my CT scan, I asked Siri, “Where is my appendix?” If she had a sense of humour, she would have said, “I don’t know. Where was the last place you saw it?”
I learned that my appendix is a useless but sometimes homicidal worm-shaped body part parked near the entrance to my large intestine about two inches below the funnel-shaped lint trap I now call my umbilicus. The appendix may be a reservoir for some kind of bacteria but its purpose is not clear. What we do know is that it can and does kill thousands of host-humans every year when it ruptures.
Fortunately, I had diverticulitis. By midnight, I was buying antibiotics at a pharmacy on Danforth Avenue in Toronto. The pain subsided within a week as the doctor said it would. I felt better, but still uncomfortable with how little I knew about this body my brain calls home. So, when I received a copy of The Body – A Guide for Occupants for Christmas, I dived in with a commitment to at least learn where my major parts are stored and what they do.
The Body is classic Bryson. He makes complex ideas appear simple. He makes the unthought-of worthy of thought. Such is Bill. The Body is a chapter-by-chapter owner’s manual. There are chapters devoted to our skin, brain, bones, and all of the wet stuff tucked into our rib cages such as our heart, lungs, liver, and the fan-favourite, visceral fat. Much like Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything, each chapter is self-contained. No prior knowledge of biology or science is needed.
Here is a book for men and women my age who dropped science in Grade 9 and math shortly after that. What I took away from the book is the sheer amount of work being done by my body with no consent or direction from me, its de facto chief executive officer and head of planning. So much of the organism that I pilot is on auto-pilot that I began to wonder what my role is.
I can decide where to go, what to eat, what to read, and who to spend time with. Besides that, I can’t force any body part not to do its job. Try this experiment: Still your mind, breathe deeply, and command your liver to stop doing its job. Or hold your breath and ask your lungs not to fight back. Ask your spleen to stop spleening. Try holding your pee after four pints of Guinness. You can’t because your body knows best. It knows how to keep you alive despite your best efforts to shut it down with fatty foods, booze and heading to the pub instead of the gym.
So here I am in the “best years of my life” wondering how to stretch the lifespan of the human form I’ve already stretched in so many ways. What can I learn from a book like Bryson’s latest? It might be as simple as this: Left to its own devices, the human body will do an amazing job of keeping itself alive. You can sentence it to hours in an office chair, under-hydrate it, overfeed it, deny it essential nutrients and it will tick on. But for how long?
Life is a good accountant and will send you a bill one day. The price of being fat is diabetes and bad knees. Of too much imbibing? A fatty liver. Avoiding exercise? Weak bones and a tired heart. The bill always shows up and when it does, it seems about right. The more we know about all the systems that combine forces to keep us upright and breathing, the better our chances of commanding the few things we can control. Such as where to go. What to eat. What to read. What to watch and what to watch out for. These are the tasks the mind must pay attention to in order to let the body do its job.
I need to pay attention to my need for vitamins, minerals, useful calories, exercise, and water if I’m going to give all the moving parts in my body a fighting chance to keep moving as they should. I’m grateful to Bill Bryson for providing me with a better understanding of this place I call home in his trademark simple and understandable voice. As the title promised, I have become a more informed occupant of me.