Table of Contents

Illustration by Thaddeus Couldron

No Blood & Guts, No Glory

by Devon Glenn

I checked into Urgent Care for what was likely a sinus infection. I was in no condition to be touching things, but I didn’t want to think about where it hurt and what was coming out of my nose so flipped through some magazines to pass the time. That's when I found two articles about amputees that changed the way I thought about topics that are disgusting. Tucked into the magazine rack of my brain, their wisdom would stay with me for years like phantom pains in the negative space of a severed leg.

The first article was in a sports magazine. It was about a race car driver who lost his leg when he crashed his car during a race. In the picture he looked pretty happy with his replacement leg and his trophy so I read the story, or at least half the story. I couldn’t believe how violent it was.

Witnesses recalled the sounds of metal on metal and the screams that came from the driver, who was trapped inside the mangled car. There was a smell of burning rubber, synthetic fabric and flesh.

The author of the article described, in gruesome detail, how the leg had been severed, quoting the medics who had helped the driver out of the car. They described what the leg looked like – which bones were sticking out where and in what angle they had found them; and how much blood was gushing from the open wound.

The journalist followed up with questions about how much gauze, tape, old t-shirts and other found objects they had used to stop the bleeding. It was a lot.

In the hospital, the doctor used barbaric medical equipment to seal the wound and prevent infection.

This went on for pages.

I supposed the article got to the part where the driver got a prosthetic limb, completed physical therapy and went on with this life, but I never made it that far. I was already sick to my stomach.

I picked up a ladies’ fashion magazine, where a second leg story caught my eye. This one involved a dancer who had nearly lost a leg in a car accident but had bullied the doctors into saving it.

The writer figuratively covered my eyes during the crash, skipping ahead to the part where the poor dancer is neatly bandaged in her hospital bed, pleading with her doctor not to amputate. “I’m a dancer. If you take my leg I’ll know,” she warned, “and I’ll die on you.”

The doctor would be able to save her leg, but she would never dance again. The writer recounted the number of tears shed over this information.

I learned which of the dancer’s relatives was the most supportive during her time of trial (her mom) and whether or not she would continue to wear skirts (sometimes). In the end, she taught a dance class and walked with a cane.

This was a satisfying story for me. I pondered the difference in storytelling between the two writers who had covered the same subject. It was all in the details, but which ones made the cut depended on whether the writer wanted to tell a soul-affirming story of survival or if he just wanted to use blood spurting from severed limbs to make his readers vomit. I couldn’t understand why the sports writer would offend my mind’s eye with so much carnage when the clear moral of the story was that the driver had gotten a new leg and gone on to win another race.

Then my friends starting doing things of which Cosmo writers could never conceive – they started having babies.

Their body parts expanded, they told me, the skin stretched taut with red marks forking and weaving across the surface of their once-nubile skin.

They sprouted hair in unexpected places.

Their backs were aching, their gums were bleeding.

They were leaking fluids of all colors and consistencies, not to mention gas.

Even their nipples looked different. Would I like to see?

On Myspace and Facebook they posted ultrasound photos of the insides of their wombs, where tiny skeletons with tails and emerging limbs called “nubbins” waved at me like aliens celebrating la dia de los muertos.

The baby showers, though the invitations were laced with ribbons and penned in pink and baby blue, were really about setting up cribs and mobiles for Freddy Krueger-style nightmares to inflict on the hostess’ innocent, childless guests.

Mothers-to-be with whitened teeth and pastel dresses pleasantly recited the side effects and risks of childbirth like they were reading the fine print in a Viagra commercial.

While we opened presents there was talk about which tissues would tear naturally during childbirth and which would have to be cut. Over cake and ice cream we discussed different, even more disturbing bodily fluids. Controversy arose over whether to use anesthesia and the appropriate time to resume doing which seemingly normal activity once the baby was born.

The first of my peers to become a mother decided to supplement her income by hosting a CandlelightTM party, which is like a Tupperware party but not as practical. The girls and I came with our checkbooks, and she brought with her a diaper bag full of candles and a doe-eyed baby girl. We feigned interest in the candles she was selling so we could fawn over the baby.

The baby, who was oblivious to the ambiance her mother was trying to create with a set of lit candles shaped like wine glasses and filled with molten wax, made a bowel movement in her diaper with an audible splurge. I watched with fascination as my friend serenely placed her child in the middle of the carpet and pulled back the offending rag to reveal the brown mess inside. It smelled of raw sewage and spicy mustard.

“Everyone should have to experience the poopy diaper,” my friend shrugged, wiping and patting quicker than a racing crew in a pit stop. “Who wants to hold her while I throw this diaper out?”

I offered to hold the squirming baby. The second I put her in my lap she slipped through my hands. I didn’t exactly drop her, but she did slide down the couch a little. Seeing the horrified look on my face the baby’s mother just laughed. She wasn’t hurt. When I picked the baby up again it looked at me with contempt, but not surprise. For someone small enough to fit in her own diaper bag she had things pretty well figured out. She was already her own little person.

That’s when I understood the difference between the race car driver and the dancer. Losing your leg while you’re out buying a bottle of shampoo and a pack of cigarettes will definitely change your lifestyle, but coming out of an automobile race in two pieces is a measured risk of extreme sportsmanship and more of a rite of passage than a tragedy.

Whatever you lose is par to the course of what you hope to gain. The race car driver literally gave his right leg to finish first, while many of my friends have sacrificed their yoga-toned bodies to give life to another human being. They want to remember every bloody, swollen, pus-filled detail leading up to their achievement.

That day I sat in the waiting room was one of the last days I had health insurance before my parents’ COBRA policy ran out and I was on my own. As a freelance writer I would share many an undignified moment in the free clinic with the other 16% of Americans who were uninsured last year.

Risking life and limb for the freedom to work from home in my pajamas was not really a choice I made for myself. When the publishing companies moved online they effectively moved into my apartment, where they could use my office space, my electricity and my brain for free. (They weren't such great roommates, either - not once did Sam Zell replace the toilet paper roll.)

Meanwhile I sat on Ikea furniture and wrote copy about antique four-poster beds in bed and breakfasts thousands of miles away.  I interviewed authors about their novels with my own novel sitting in a file, unfinished on my laptop.  I attended plays, concerts, and dance recitals while my diploma in vocal performance gathered dust - although I did make some extra money singing in classical concerts and religious services.  If this had been enough to pay the bills, it would have been a great way to spend the work week.  But I had to put my own creative projects aside - I needed a day job to support my day job.

I left California and moved to New York City. I scrubbed toilets and folded sheets at a youth hostel in Manhattan.  The sheets were stored in a nice cupboard - I was stored in a closet in a moldy basement.  When my paychecks started bouncing, I decided to give advertising a try.  I pushed yellow page ads on companies with web sites and web sites on businesses that didn't use computers.  I finally understood the problem.

The economy had gotten in a two-car pileup with the publishing industry and I was left standing on one leg, trying to keep my balance.  Or maybe I was suffering the birthing pains of a new industry that might emerge, head first, into the waiting arms of the digital age.  It's hard to tell at this point.

If anyone wants to know how to survive in a moldy basement, or what a diet of Top Ramen does to your body, I can describe, in gruesome detail, the impact of a business model that only pays the people at the top.  Unfortunately the end of that story is separated from its exposition by several pop-up ads that my browser doesn't support, and besides, who wants to read all of that without knowing how it ends?

The story I'd like to write is about the time I moved to New York City to find work and succeeded. In the picture I'd look pretty happy with a trophy and some sort of robotic appendage - maybe even an extra pair of hands to spot me the next time I try to hold a baby.  I'd also be thanking all the people who bought me beer and plane tickets (just about everyone I know) when all I had to give was advice on where to find the most historic best bed and breakfasts in Ohio.  Maybe I'd give that novel a second try.  And I'll look back on the days when content was free as an extended internship that led to a better way of life. 

It’s been a long time coming, but hey - no blood and guts, no glory.


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