The Best Way To See

In distance running circles, we talk about the “shelf life” of our legs. The hips, knees, ankles, and feet can sustain only so much wear and tear before they start to give out.

What does impending expiration look like? One day I run a solid 8-miler; the next day I can’t pull my right leg forward. I can move it backward and sideways. I can lift my knee up to my chest and kick my own butt. But the forward-motion pull is excruciating. Ten paces down the driveway and I’m done.

My orthopedist does an x-ray of my pelvis, which shows only the murky probability of…something. He suspects a labral tear in the hip. (The labrum is the ring of soft-but-stiff cartilage along the outside rim of the hip socket, where the ball at the head of the femur connects.)

How long does that kind of tear take to heal, I ask.

It’s repaired surgically, Dr. Jenks says.

So we can assume it’s not that, I say.

Dr. Jenks looks at me. I know the look: a golfer lining up his putt, calculating the right angle to sink it.

I’m ordering an MRI, he says. With an arthrogram. (Code for injection-of-dye-into-hip-joint-with-20-gauge-needle.)

I’m sorry, he says, but it’s the best way to see.

A week later I’m limping into the MRI room, my hip puffy and stiff with the saline/lidocaine/dye cocktail. The MRI unit is a “donut,” the tunnel spacious—big enough for a not-too-large person inside to hold something above her head.

The technician eyes my copy of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead.

We have headphones, he says. Most people just listen to music.

We strike a deal: if my hips are strapped down & my feet rubber-banded together to make sure my lower body won’t move when I turn pages, I can take the book in with me. I have just enough space above my head to flatten the spine against tunnel’s roof. Bless you, FSG paperback originals. (Long live the bound book: the Kindle will never see the inside of an MRI tunnel.)

I read “Mr. Lytle: An Essay.” It’s a moving piece. Poor Mr. Lytle, picking his teeth with a sharpened raccoon’s penis bone. I get to the part where Mr. Lytle is cold and asks J.J., whom he alternately calls Boy and Beloved (and, once, Breath of My Nostrils), to get into bed with him. And I start to feel like I might cry. A bad thing, crying inside an MRI tunnel; one tiny quiver and they’ll have to start over.

I close my eyes and wish I’d taken the headphones. To distract myself, I focus on the percussive reverb. Pulsing, hammering, beating. Between each sequence, a low-level buzz. Sometimes I hear a woodpecker just above my hips; sometimes the sound comes from above and below, a heartbeat and jackhammer in syncopation. I start to notice patterns, pick out melodies. A sequence in the key of D-flat major, I’m certain (I’m a classical pianist, with a decent ear for pitch); an arpeggio, top to bottom, D-flat, A-flat, F, D-flat; half-time,140 bpm…tension between drum rhythm and bassline…there’s something familiar here.

Then the bass drops.

My God—it’s Skrillex.


I did some research on how an MRI works. Here’s the way I understand it: the body is made of mostly water, and each human tissue contains its unique quantity of water. Normally, the protons in each water molecule are spinning around at random, but if you put them inside a giant magnetic field, they’ll come to attention and point in the same direction. Once you’ve got them all lined up, you fire a radio frequency at them (woodpecker, jackhammer, heartbeat), which knocks them out of alignment. Then you turn the sound off and let the protons come back into their orderly magnetized lineup. And—the crucial part—in the process of re-aligning, they send back little radio waves of their own. Those sounds are what get translated into images.

So here it is: with all our technological advances, the best way to see inside a body is music and rhythm. (Whether or not Dubstep qualifies as music is another topic.) Take an xray of the atoms and molecules in the fleshy matter of the human frame, and you’ll get a vague idea of what might be there; fire some music at those suckers and you’ll get a clear image of precisely the way things are.

In the world of technological imaging, sound is ineffably linked to sight & deeper vision.

Reminds me of the way my favorite writers talk.


Amy Hempel: “Often I’ve started a story knowing the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, but without knowing what the words are. I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. So I might be thinking, da-da-da-da-da-da-dadada, that’ll become, ‘Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,’ which is the first line of ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.’ And I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence.”

Barry Hannah: “Somebody said that the best writing was idealized conversation. Music is like that too. You just start strumming and then you find the words. The work rushes on without urging in a zone of sudden joyful combinations.”

All art aspires to the condition of music. Make music breed with language.

My mother is a concert-level pianist. Growing up, I’d fall asleep listening to her practice some of the most gorgeous and difficult music ever composed. Liszt’s La Campanella, Chopin’s Premiere Ballade. I grew to know those pieces intimately; I loved my mother and those songs sounded like her. When the piano stopped—if I was still awake—I’d keep the music going in my head by changing the notes into words. I did this unselfconsciously. I didn’t even realize I was doing it; the words seemed to originate in the piano.

The poets know this. Start with the music. Let it show you where to go. Katie Ford, in a 2008 interview, said that music is “the great need of a poet. I go hunting for it in the same way I imagine a sculptor goes digging for the right clay in some remote region where the conditions make the red stone soft.”

Last week a young friend sent me the opening paragraph of his story. He wanted to know if he’d found the “right way in.” I asked him to send the rest of what he’d drafted. What he sent was a detailed explanation of how he planned to write the piece—the turns the narrative would take, the parallels that would exist between the first and last sections, the characters he would include.

But what have you done on the page, I asked.

Oh, just that paragraph you read, he said. I’ll write the rest when I figure out what I’m going to say.

Writing back to him, I’m pretty sure I used the term fool’s game.

Flannery O’Connor, discussing the genesis of “Good Country People:” “When I started writing that story, I didn’t know there was going to be a Ph.D with a wooden leg in it…As the story progressed, I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it.”

In his essay “Not-Knowing,” Donald Barthelme says that it is not only permissible, but essential to come to the page with “a slender intuition, not much greater than an itch…The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”


I don’t remember how old I was when I became conscious of what I was doing, those nights I listened to my mother play piano. I do remember the sudden realization that the story in my head, the song of words, didn’t make sense. When I started trying to arrange the words—when I tried to shape them into narrative before letting them flow—a lid snapped shut.

Subito pianissimo.

The words stopped coming.


[Coda: the MRI showed a stress fracture in my right femoral neck. No running—or any weight-bearing activity other than walking—for three months. I loathe swimming but it looks like that’s going to be it for me this summer, if I want to heal. Trying to prolong that shelf life...]

We are always looking for great work. Have you considered submitting to Ploughshares?

About Jamie Quatro

Jamie Quatro’s first story collection, I Want To Show You More, is forthcoming in March 2013 from Grove/Atlantic. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, AGNI, American Short Fiction, McSweeney’s, Oxford American, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and lives with her husband and children in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.
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15 Responses to The Best Way To See

  1. Bert Wells says:

    Beautiful thoughts on MRI and music.

    Science and music geek check-in: an MRI doesn’t send in music, it sends in a really clean and uninteresting tone. What comes out is music, the result of that tone finding resonances within the molecules. Just like the a vibrating string of a violin generates a clean, very antiseptic tone, but when that tone is transmitted into the box of the violin by the sound post, resonances get set up and the waveform that comes out of the f holes is full of the rich tones shaped in by the luthier.

  2. Bert Wells says:

    Oh, and a thought on getting more treadlife out of the hips, back and knees:

    I coach my kid’s cross country team, and the parents were always pestering me about what kinda shoes kids should wear to run in, to which I always gave a lame “I dunno” because I never could find any research that had hard data on shoes and injury prevention. After my son’s heel pain got worse with every progressively thicker and more cushioned running shoe we got him, I finally jumped on the barefoot bandwagon. First experimenting on myself, after six months he switched to barefoot and is running faster and painfree.

    For me it has been a godsend. My 48 year old, high mileage hips, knees and back were all signaling that I was done as a runner. Now I can road run with my son every day. It took a long time at first to strengthen my foot and calf and build back up to a decent pace, and I will still wear my body out someday. But I have unquestionably gained a few more years of running from the switch.

    • Jamie Quatro says:

      I’ve been hearing this from a lot of friends, actually. If/when I get the green light to run again, I’m going to try it. Do you run in Five-toes? I’ve worn the same Asics for eight years now (Gel Nimbus, big cushioned heel). It’s obviously time for a change. I thought about giving the Newton a try; maybe a middle ground between the Asics and barefoot?

  3. Bert Wells says:

    If you are going to do it, I suggest going into it very very slowly. When the doc clears you to start walking again, go on walks barefoot. And do it on hard surfaces like paved hike and bike trails. It seems counterintuitive, but if you walk or run on a soft surface, you won’t adjust your gait, and gait adjustment is the key. Walking, then eventually running, on a hard surface will cause you to walk and run softly, absorbing impact using your calf and foot muscles. Plus on a hard surface, sharp objects that will injure you will be visible, unlike in soft surfaces like grass. Don’t wear minimalist shoes at first for the same reason. They will allow you to go fast before your foot and calf connective tissues are ready.

    As far as shoes go, don’t buy anything right away. I eventually bought some five fingers for running in the cold and on trails where I was running too fast to see sharp rocks. But it took me a long time to get back up to that kind of speed. I also use the five fingers as my casual shoes for places like the grocery store, they keep my feet strong, without the social stigma of barefootedness. More and more great minimalist shoes are coming out all the time, by the time your feet are strong from walking and running barefoot. By all means avoid any “in between” shoes that claim to be minimalist but are in any way cushioned. You will go back to gait patterns which will soften things for your feet, but kill your knees, hips and low back. In addition to vibram five fingers, there are great shoes coming from vivobarefoot, new balance, and merrill.

    Lastly, start combing your music selection for tunes that have a beat of around 180-190 beats per minute. Barefoot running requires a quick cadence, and music helps with that.

    Good luck with the surgery, and if you decide on the barefoot journey, go slow and enjoy the rediscovery of the world beneath your feet.

  4. Pingback: Popular – The Music Of An MRI

  5. erik says:

    Hi Jamie,
    Altough it reads beautifully…it is not the way the MRI works… The radio waves have nothing to do with sound. They are called ‘radio’ waves simply ’cause they are used by big antenna to broadcast radio programs. Radio waves are a manifestation of electromagnetic waves. Just like x-rays and light. The only difference between the three is the frequency or wavelengh of the EM wave.

    Sound (and hence music) arises from a comletely different phenomenon. When the air around you is disturbed, your eardrums will react to the change in pressure. This creates some movement in your inner ear, which your brain interprets as sound.

    • Jamie Quatro says:

      Great feedback. I claim no deep scientific understanding here – I’ve been playing on the Liberal Arts team pretty much since birth. I figured someone out there would correct my rudimentary attempt to translate this stuff into lay terms! (Does it mean anything, that my brain translated the disturbance in my inner ear into Skrillex?)

    • Bert Wells says:

      Gadzooks erik, you can’t be serious. Would you say that a synth isn’t a musical instrument? It functions entirely by processing an electrical signal, only converting it to sound at the very last step.

      That Jamie found a linkage between what an MRI does and music is entirely apt, resonance being at the heart of both, and my only quibble with her is that I am a bit chagrined that it never occurred to me, and I have studied music and physics all my life.

      The point is particularly salient for anyone who has to endure the great discomfort that an MRI entails, and I intend to send this article to any of my friends who have to endure one.

      • erik says:

        Bert, you give the correction yourself. My point was that radiowaves are NOT soundwaves (I reacted to this specific sentence “with all our technological advances, the best way to see inside a body is music and rhythm.”. A synthesizer transforms an electric signal into a sound, yes. The way it does that is by making a little piece of skin vibrate at a certain frequency (much like what happens when you hit a drum skin). The movement of the skin makes the air around it move as well. If the skin moves with a certain frequency the air will do so too, and the result is that a pressure wave spreads from the skin. This pressure wave makes your eardrum vibrate with the same frequency and through the inner ear this vibration is changed into an electric signal (which by the way works in a very cool way: the cochlea (in dutch we call it the snail house) is covered on the inside with little hairs. At the entrance they are long, at the end they are short. Depending on the frequency a certain length of hair will resonate producing an electric signal that is interpreted by your brain. But I digress..).

        Radio waves are electromagnetic waves. Your ear cannot hear them. There are several reasons for that but the simplest reason is the frequency of these waves. Your ears can pick up frequencies between 2 kHz and 22 kHz (kHz is a thousand beats per second). The radio-waves used in an MRI scanner have frequencies in the range of 1-100 MHz. That is at least a thousand times faster than what your ear can hear.

        Jamie, to answer your question: you probably heard something inside that MRI scanner. I have been fortunate enough never to have been inside one, so I can’t speak from experience there. I can’t tell you what could have produced that sound (I also never listened to Skrillex, maybe I should try that.). There are parts of an MRI machine that can probably make funny sounds. I am just saying this has nothing to do with the workings of an MRI scanner.

  6. erik says:

    That is awful! I had only seen them in Hollywood movies so far. That shows once more that movie producers can’t be trusted. That noise comes from the switching of the magnetic coils in the system. Around the tube in which you lie they wind a single wire several hundred meters long. When the MRI scanner is in operation they switch the magnetic field from one direction to the opposite (along the tube) and the coils shift with it. As a result every time they switch the field you hear a bang. Depending on the speed (frequency) with which they are switched you get different tones. Not sure I still want to listen to Skrillex…

    • Jamie Quatro says:

      Yeah, I’d pass on the Skrillex (though it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as the MRI!). I have teenagers at home; otherwise, I probably wouldn’t even know about the Dubstep genre. Thanks for all this info – fascinating stuff.

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