The Shape of My Container

In my second year of medical school, I subscribed to an odd little periodical called “Disease-a-Month,” basically a Cliff Notes for the aspiring doctor.  Each month the bright yellow pamphlet would provide a summary of the most salient facts about a particular ailment: diabetes, asthma, hypertension, etc.  One day, I was surprised to open the envelope and see the title “Diarrhea.”  This wasn’t particularly something that I wanted to get cozy with in front of a roaring fire, but I plunged in anyway.  I was immediately captivated by the first chapter that discussed the challenges of creating a universally accepted definition.  Now many probably think that diarrhea is similar to pornography – while it might be difficult to objectively define, you certainly know it when you see it.  But nothing says “science” more than a conference of bigwigs for the express purposes of reaching a consensus definition.  Typically a group of scientists gets together for several days to hash out a definition, and often in a show of unity similar to King Arthur’s round table, the definition is named not after a single person, but to the location of the meeting.  For example, the “Bethesda definition” defines an abnormal Pap smear.  Usually the location is some austere place, lest the process look like an excuse for a boondoggle.  I don’t think that there has ever been a “Maui” or “Cabo” definition. 

Anyway, there it was in italicized print, the official definition: “Diarrhea is a bowel movement that assumes the shape of its container.”  Oddly enough, I could enthusiastically endorse the brilliant simplicity of this definition.  One summer I had a job working in the enterics laboratory at Michael Reese Hospital, a stool pigeon, as it were.  Specimens were delivered in a wide variety of containers – whatever the patient had handy at home – I will attest that the definition worked like a charm.  My job was to look for parasites under the microscope and I always felt a little badly that I did not find one for the entire summer!

As I mulled over the pamphlet, I began to realize that the phrase “assume the shape of your container” had broader meanings, both literal, trivial and philosophic.  At life’s beginnings, we all quite literally assume the shape of our uterine container, that’s quite obvious, but in the post natal world, we are constantly bumping up and conforming to a variety of limits and containers.  My medical school days were before the era of ATMs, and cash was only available by going to the bank during the week, or borrowing from my friend Henry who lived around the corner and was much better organized.  Therefore, weekend activities were pretty much defined by the contents of your wallet, and somehow, I would always be content to live within these limits.  If I had little money, then I would spend little money.  If I was flush, then somehow, no matter how much cash I had, it would be gone by Monday and it was hard to know why. 

The philosophic implications of the shape of your container are quite obvious, and the limitations of society’s expectations are a constant source of frustration for educators, politicians and philosophers.  I will certainly leave that discussion to others.  All I want to say is that I have been extremely fortunate to live in a velvet-lined and very roomy container.  My mother enjoyed birdwatching, knitting, bellringing and writing doggerel and playing tennis.  I have a tennis game later this afternoon.  As I sit here, there is a ball of wool and a pair of binoculars on my desk, and the bookshelf to the right is full of field guides to birds.  Our church bell choir performance is tomorrow morning.  I have assumed the shape of a time-tested and durable container. 

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, stop, post) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  One of the missing words will rhyme with the previous or following line.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers. 

 Who would think that “Disease a Month” would ***** me to an aphorism for the ages,

 More universal and true than anything offered by the world’s most prescient sages.

 We all assume the “shapes of our containers,” that is a fact that is hard to *****,

 Whose limits are deeply etched in stone as obdurate as the Rock of Gibraltar.

 Before birth, out container is quite literally the nurturing womb,

 And then ***** it’s society’s expectations and limits that we unwittingly assume.







Answers:  alert, alter, later

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