This place matters

This place matters

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The time I held a human brain

Some of my friends and I periodically go to events called Oddmall: The emporium of the weird. It's like a traveling craft fair, but for freaks and geeks and weirdos. There you'll find geek-themed craft items, cosplay accessories, vintage toys and comics, and various preserved dead animals. So many preserved dead animals. 
At one of the Oddmalls there was a huge stall selling all manner of taxidermied, preserved, and mummified animals, and then, right in the middle, a booth with a preserved human brain just floating around in a giant fishbowl - and a sign inviting people to touch and hold it. This was both incredibly bizarre and incredibly... incredible. 

I wrote this just after:

Joey is balding, but a fluffy brown beard hangs around his face like an aura. It may be
my imagination, but I think he has the second kindest eyes I’ve ever seen on a stranger.
Top five at least. Which is somewhat odd considering Joey and his eyes are surrounded by
various bits of dead animals, behind a hand-lettered sign that says “Hold a human
brain.”
My two friends and I walk up to his booth halfway through his explaining how he came
to be possession of the back half of a human brain, which floats in front of him in a
fish bowl full of rubbing alcohol. “…and once the doctor is in possession of the brain,
he’s legally free to loan it out, if he wants,” is all I hear. And I’m too preoccupied to ask
him to start over, thinking about the logistics of schlepping a human brain along with
a menagerie of dead beasts from Pennsylvania, where their studio is, to Ohio, where we
are. On the back wall of the booth are hanging skulls, deer and ram, mostly"Is that an ostrich?” I ask.
“Emu,” Joey says. “I got a friend with an emu farm. They sell the meat and the leather
and stuff, but nobody wants the heads,” Joey says, seeming confounded by the fact
that others would pass on this valuable commodity.
One table holds wet specimens in bottles. There are bottles filled with every size and
color of octopus tentacle, little vials of grasshoppers and honeybees, various hearts
and eyes and limbs, and snakes, including a hypnotically arranged corn snake that I
can’t seem to take my eyes off of. “All sustainably sourced,” says a woman I take to be
Joey’s wife or girlfriend. She’s got nerdy glasses and silver studs through her dimples.
“They either died naturally or were hunted legally. We’ve got suppliers all over the
world.” My head drifts back to logistics again, this time the logistics of shipping all or
part of a dead animal carcass across continents. I wonder how they stay fresh. Or are 
they preserved already? In which case, is there a special procedure for mailing dead
animals packed in fluid? I imagine the poor postal worker who fails to heed the
“Fragile” warning on the outside of a box of dead snakes in brine. I want to ask but I’m
distracted by the bones and mummies table.
A couple of mummified piglets curl up in glass boxes behind a cardboard sign
proclaiming them “bacon seeds.” There are mummified bats shadow boxes and tiny
decorative coffins. A bat skeleton sprawls mounted to a frame. There are a few frogs
mounted on colorful backgrounds behind panes of glass, and a display of death’s head
moths in a circle around a painting of the tree of life. There are bugs and butterflies
too – a big blue one with half a wing missing catches my eye, mounted against a
background inscribed with the words “beautiful not broken.”
I wait my turn in line to hold the brain. Before a human brain is preserved, it's more or less jelly, the consistency of runny eggs. After a soak, it is firmer, a bit like gummy candy, though wetter and more jiggly. “This is the thing that makes humans human,” I say as I wonder if my eyes are as wide
as they feel.
“Kind of,” Joey says, "it's only half a brain. It's missing the frontal lobe."
The frontal lobe is the part of the brain right behind your forehead, and it controls learning and behavior and morality. It seems to be more developed in humans than other mammals, and it governs things like social skills, shame, and embarrassment.

We leave, but for days I can’t stop thinking about that brain and who it had once
belonged to. I wonder how its owner would feel if she knew (I am inexplicably certain
she is a she) that her essence, the epicenter of her mortal coil, would spend the beginning of her afterlife travelling around the Midwest in the custody of a couple of tattooed
weirdos, to be fondled by crafty geeks and costumed freaks. I’ve decided to imagine
that she’s tickled pink by it. That she was a little old lady who clucked her tongue at
kids with strange piercings but secretly always wished she’d had the guts to dye her
hair purple and wear a dog collar in public. 
Divested of her sensible, rational forebrain, absent the moral compass and social
inhibitions it forced upon her, is she freer? Or without her frontal lobe to govern the
emotional responses her amygdala sends forth, is she an explosion of emotions, too
bright and too strong and too big? Is her frontal lobe in another state, floating in its
own fishbowl, cringing and mortified with the indignities visited upon its lesser half? 

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