08 June 2011

fixing what's broken

Part II of a piece that began in the cadaver lab.


We have this idea that we can fix what's broken.

A broken watch.

A broken record.

A broken mug.

A broken heart: well, now, that's harder to fix.

But we do have this idea that most of the time, we can figure out what's wrong and then we can fix it, or we can get someone to fix it for us.

My grandpa could fix almost anything, including everything I just named, although his tactics for fixing a broken heart were more based on the "laugh and you'll forget your troubles" idea: the quick-fix method that smoothes over, for just a heartbeat, the brokenness.

A jack-of-all-trades—that's what my dad called my grandpa. Back in the years after World War II, my grandpa realized he needed to make some extra money to support his baby booming family {3 kids in 3 years is a boom, that's for sure}.

He went to the watch shop around the corner on Thul Street and told the watchmaker, "Look, I know people have been bringing you a lot of clocks they want fixed, and I know that you'd rather work on watches. Teach me what you know about fixing clocks, and I'll figure out the rest."

And so my grandpa became the clock man of Burlington, Iowa.

By day, he wore a suit and tie and carried a briefcase to his job at the National Research Bureau. At night, he wore loupes—magnifying glasses that brought into sharp focus the cogs and wheels—and he'd open clocks.

Cuckoo clocks and grandfather clocks and mantel clocks: he would figure out what was broken, what had stopped time.

In an era of can-do gumption—post-World War II—and in a country that sometimes misguidedly thinks it can fix the world, my grandpa sat, hunched over his work table in the basement, fixing anything and everything, including time.

The example of my grandpa only perpetuates the idea that we can completely fix what's broken. We think that if we can fix time, as my grandpa did, then we can fix anything, and this belief—this hubris, really—extends to our bodies.

They break down, whether slowly or quickly, and it came to me that first time in a cadaver lab that all the spine surgeons were there to learn how to fix what was broken.

On the bodies, they were supposed to insert screws and rods, these internal supports, in an effort to fix the broken body, the body causing pain, the body that wasn't working right.

And that's admirable. And it usually works.

But the first time I looked into a body, the spine exposed from neck down, muscles pulled back and ligaments stripped, I thought: 'Who are we, we who were made just a little lower than the heavenly beings, that we should think we can fix this?'


And I'll stop there for now. You may still be thinking, 'Good Lord, Kamiah, just where do you think you're going with this?'

But that's okay. I have an idea, and I'll give you a hint: it involves the spinal cord and me cutting into it.


  1. Not at all disappointed. In fact, quite pleased with the little grandpa story :) We still have the cuckoo clock that he had fixed.

    Thanks for keeping me hanging though.. How many 'parts' will this story have? Just where are you heading Kamiah Anne?!? ;)

    Kay Ann

  2. You are such a good writer. Thank you for sharing this. :)

  3. Glad you liked the grandpa story, Kay -- we'll see if he shows up in the rest of this, although I have a sneaking suspicion he will!

    And thanks much for the encouragement, Beth!

  4. Part two is great - I like the grandpa story intervention.

  5. what a great story my grandpa was a bit like that he would be able to fix anything. When my older watch died on me he replaced all the fixtures and fittings in it and it still works now. Nice blog btw



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