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Inside the temple

by Brian Clarey

It looks like a butcher shop in here, with slabs of meat splayed under glass cases, all red and raw. Of course it’s not meat anymore, strictly speaking — these cuts of flesh have been rubberized down to the cellular level through a process called “polymer preservation.” And even if it was real meat, it certainly wouldn’t have anybody thinking about firing up the backyard grill. This is human flesh, on display for educational purposes as part of the Bodies Revealed exhibit at the Natural Science Center of Greensboro, and there’s not much call for long pork in these parts.

It’s an incredible exhibit, showing virtually every aspect of human anatomy in very real terms: vascular systems, musculature, skeletons, organs… all of it, sliced and diced and vivisected for all to see.

And to be honest, it kind of grosses me out. I’ve spent a goodly portion of my life basically ignoring the vessel of tissue and energy that is my body, denying the relationship between the way I treat it and how it performs. For much of my life, my body was pretty much the way I got my head from place to place.

I also suffer from a form of queasiness that arises whenever I see blood, particularly when it’s my own, which is why I fainted in 9 th grade biology class when we were testing our blood types.

A doctor once told me that a reaction like this — a significant drop in blood pressure when the claret begins to flow — is an evolutionary boon, and would have been a blessing were I, say. a Roman soldier fighting off huns with a shield and spear.

“If you got cut by a sword on the battlefield,” he told me, “you’d pass out, probably be mistaken for dead and survive the battle.”

Good to know. I’m feeling that familiar lightheadedness as I look at all this carnage — actual human bodies, each of which, the literature assures me, died of natural causes and was donated to science. They all seem to be men: the partially muscled skeleton swinging a golf club, the bony sprinter posed as if he’s set on the starting blocks, the one chopped into twoinch-thick pieces and laid out flat in a display case.

I stop to look at a glass-encased skull broken down into its component parts. My middle child, now 8 years old, sidles up next to me.

“The skull is made of 39 bones,” he says to me. “Really?” “Yes,” he says. “We’re studying the human body in school. You see that long one?” he asks, pointing to what looks to me like a very big flank steak. “That’s your gluteus maximus. It’s your biggest muscle.”

“Really?” I say. “And where is it located?” I know the answer, I just want to hear him say it.

“It’s your butt muscle, daddy.”

“Gotcha.” And so he takes me by the hand and leads me around the exhibit, over to a complete central nervous system that looks vaguely alien-like.

“Do you know that messages from your brain go through your spine to the rest of your body?” my boy asks me.

“I think I did know that,” I say. He prattles on. “You have 206 bones, but you have 600 muscles,” he says. “Do you know more than half of your bones are in your arms and legs?” he says.

“Tendons connect muscles to bones,” he says. “Ligaments connect bones together.”

And, “I find this really interesting.” On and on he goes, informing me that kidneys help make pee, the liver cleans the blood, the knee is the biggest joint in the human body. I’m so damn impressed with this kid I’m starting to forget that this stuff grosses me out.

Then he brings me over to a section on lungs, with the interior structure laid bare, so fragile, like exotic red coral.

“Those are lungs,” he says, and there is some subtext to this statement.

Nearby is a sign saying that a pack of cigarettes takes more than three hours, on average, off your life. In another glass case is a pair of smoker’s lungs: brown, charred, diseased. And there’s a clear bin with a sign inviting all smokers to toss the rest of their cigarettes in. There’s a crumpled pack of Camel Lights in there at the bottom, like a dead orchid.

My boy looks at me with raised eyebrows, rolls his eyes towards the atrophied lung and then over to the quitters’ bin.

“You want me to quit smoking,” I say, not in the form of a question. He nods solemnly. It stings, more than a little. On the way out we pause at a table to lay hands on a rubberized lung.

On the table next to it is a piece of bone.

“This is part of your femur,” the kid tells me. “That’s your biggest bone.”

He tilts it to show me the marrow inside, and I skeev a little. “Dogs chew bones like this to get the yellow marrow,” he says.

“Fascinating.

The kid’s pretty smart. Smarter than his father, anyway.

wanna go?

Bodies Revealed the Natural Science Center of Greensboro 4301 Lawndale Drive; 336.288.3769; www.bodiesgreensboro.com; $12 members, $21 non-members; runs through March 6.

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