Tag Archives: Alimentary Canal

Brief and Fragile

Food makes its way through the 30-foot alimentary canal at an average rate of 0.00023 miles per hour. Kind of slow. That’s about one-third the speed of a standard garden snail, if it could crawl for 24 hours without stopping, which is about the duration of an average trip down the canal. But snails usually don’t do that (they are ambitiously lazy), so – one assumes – food moves through you at about a snail’s pace.

After chewing, the first part of the digestive process along the canal is the protein enzymes carried by one’s saliva. In addition to the enzymes that begin breaking down carbohydrates, the mucus they produce helps facilitate swallowing. Although we each have thousands of salivary glands, there are six major glands that produce most of our saliva, and they come in three pairs:

  1. The Parotid Glands, which are wrapped around the mid- to aft part of the mandible (lower jaw)
  2. The Submandibular Glands, located just above the Adams Apple, each about one inch off center, to the side, sort of astride the chin area.
  3. The Sublingual Glands, which – as you might suspect – are under the tongue. They are toward the front.

These glands produce some 90-95% of our saliva. The submandibular glands produce about two-thirds of that; most of its juice is enzymes for digestion, not watery mucus for swallowing.


My wife and I just returned from a long out-and-back road trip to the Pacific Northwest. The primary reason was to pick up some of her mother’s furniture. Over a few days, we were able to visit with several dear friends and all her family who still live in the area. The weather was spectacular: we were able to really enjoy some typically Seattle touristy things: Lake Union boat tour, Pike Place Market, Elliot Bay and Snoqualmie Falls.

We also made a wide swing on the return leg to see Crater Lake. A place we’d never been to – but always wanted to – despite several previous vacation trips through Oregon. Simply stunning. Gorgeous. We had fantastic weather … again.

When a couple who are dear friends of ours (she arranged for Audrey and me to meet in 1982) found out where we were (thanks Facebook!), they made the three-hour trip from northern California to visit with us in Oregon. Hadn’t seen them since April, 1984.


I was reminded on this trip, yet again, how brief and fragile an individual’s life is here on our home planet. And not just because we made another trip to Tahoma National Cemetery, where we visited Audrey’s parents’ final resting place, and again walked the beautifully maintained grounds to look at various tombstones and enjoy quiet “alone time”, meditating and rolling thoughts around while on the sacred tracts.

Even considering that many of those buried there died in military service, or shortly thereafter, the average lifespan shown was only about 70 years. That’s only about 1% of the length of recorded history. Yet only about 0.1% of the duration of the Homo Sapiens Sapiens sub-species. And only about 0.000001% the age of the earth.

Life is brief.

Yet on a beautiful Sunday evening I was also reminded that life is fragile.

I’m in pretty good shape. Good diet. Extraordinary exercise discipline. Good BMI. Good BP. Solid core. Probably should drink a little less.

Yet on that Sunday evening I felt unusually tired and lay down for a short power nap. Short? I was down over an hour.

Upon awaking, my tongue felt thick and uncoordinated. Aside my tongue felt sore. I did the stroke test: smiled in the mirror. All good and symmetric. I went outside the house for a social gathering, greeted everyone, and took a piece of cheese from what remained on the snack plate. They had been waiting on me to commence with the meal. I felt awkward.

But I felt more awkward when the cheese would not go down my gullet. And some got stuck under my tongue. I suddenly felt difficulty breathing and talking, as well as swallowing.

I put my hand up to my throat – why? – to find that underneath the left side of my jaw was enormously swollen. Pushing painfully into the swelling I could discern a substantial hard mass. Lymph nodes?

When I showed Audrey – she who could see how large it was – she decided immediately: we are going to an Emergency Room. So off we immediately go to Overlake Hospital, Bellevue Washington.

As the swelling continued growing, the gentle yet attentive Doctor Chang told me that these things often get worse before they get better. As that would be life threatening, he gently suggested that I should spend the night in hospital.

I responded: Gee Doc, I don’t know. This is our first date.

He smiled, briefly. Then shot me a serious look.

“OK, if I need to.”

At first, he thought it was an immune reaction to a medication I have been taking for many years. Apparently common. But, as a precaution against a possible infection, he ordered a CT scan.

Over two hours later the results came in. Yes, I did have an infection (even though I had no fever). Right near the infection that nearly killed me after a dental procedure some four and a half years ago. I still bear the scar on my jaw, under tooth #18.

So … here’s what happened. The enzymes and such carried by salivary glands can crystallize into tiny, tiny stones. Which can block the duct. Which backs up. And then gets infected. That dang left submandibular salivary gland! Of course, I should have known (actually, I had no freaking idea; I had to look all of this up).

What causes this? Apparently, age is a big indicator: I’m no spring chicken. Also, dehydration. Well, it had been very hot and dry in Colorado recently, and I’d been working out … a lot. So, it all fits.

I had a very positive reaction to the IV anti-biotic and steroids. In a few hours I was released – well after midnight – to the care of my loving wife.

Now, suppose we had been driving through the middle of nowhere (as we often were on this trip) or on a long hike or backpack trip – without cell service.

That would have been very serious indeed.

On oral anti-biotics the swelling reduced to nil over a few days. A week of pills and it’s all gone. So, don’t worry about me.

I get my annual physical next week. Can’t wait to tell them about this one.

Life is fragile. Life is short. Hug, call, or write someone special in your life. I’m writing to you.

Wishing y’all get all your days, which are numbered at only about 29,000, on average. That’s not a large number.

Joe Girard © 2018


To contact Joe just email him at joe@girardmeister.com

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Old Faithful

Old Faithful

A normal placid trip through the canal takes, oh, about 24 hours most of the time. Passage requires transport through various locks; gates have to open and close.  It’s all pretty closely monitored with a computer and a closed-loop control system. Traffic jams are to be avoided; smooth flow for all cargo is highly desirable. Smooth, slow and steady wins the race.

Leisurely Canal Travel

Leisurely Canal Travel

Powered movement is usually quite slow and leisurely. That’s ok, because we really don’t want these things to move in a hurry along the old canal.  That can put stress on the system. It was designed for slow, almost casual, progress.

There actually are some interesting, um, sights along the way.  And some noteworthy stops as well.

The particulars of your genetic makeup, your lifestyle and diet can affect the time for passage through the canal.

For instance I — as an aerospace engineer who works on a secured campus where access to every building requires a computer controlled scan of an RFID security badge — well, my lifestyle includes a few cups of coffee every morning.  Also, lots of water and eight to ten servings of uncooked vegetables and fruit every day.

Consequently, a trip through my canal is usually only about 12 to 18 hours.  Of course, I’m speaking here about the alimentary canal. Yes, the old digestive tract, the canal that begins at one’s mouth, proceeds through several locks and gates, hits a couple lay-bys, and ends at … how do I put this nicely? Well, I can’t … it ends at one’s anus.

Thanks to the hydration, the fruits and the vegetables, the locks and gates for me are usually wide open.  To spice it up a bit: Beverages with caffeine in them are often nicknamed “Morning Thunder”, and for good reason. This means that sometimes the 12 hour delivery catches up with the 18 hour delivery, so it can be rather a significant cargo.

My office is in a building with two men’s restrooms.  When Morning Thunder happens – usually around 8 to 9AM – it’s simply astounding how often the first restroom I go to is closed for its daily cleaning.  I mean, what are the odds? I love the cleaning staff, but, wouldn’t 6AM or Noon be more appropriate?

Also – I know this is weird – why does this often happen to several people at the same time?  I mean, sometimes both restrooms are occupied.  As luck would have it, that’s usually when the gates and locks are wide open; the freight train is coming downhill, with a full load of coal, and the brakes are getting weak.

Runaway Steam Locomotive -- full load of coal freight

Runaway Steam Locomotive — full load of coal freight

I do have a recourse. The adjacent building has a restroom that has never, ever, ever, failed me.  I call it “Old Faithful.” There is a dark hallway in that building, just past the closest door to my building – it of course has a security badge reader — and for some reason no one is ever in it.  And I’ve never found the restroom in that hallway occupied.

I’ve only told one other person about this restroom, and if he ever tells anyone else about it, I swear I’ll kill him.

Often as I make my way to Old Faithful a remarkable phenomenon occurs: “Gophering.”  Or sometimes it’s “Prairie dogging.”  Just knowing that Old Faithful is waiting for me and my keister to rest on her wonderful seat in my moment of great need – in all my desperation and anticipation of relief – my brain and control system allow a slight, premature involuntary opening of the final gate.  Thankfully, Old Faithful has never let me down. Has always provided a safe port for that dramatic, last moment, splashdown.

A few weeks ago I had that Morning Thunder feeling.  Restroom #1: closed for cleaning.  Restroom #2: Occupied.  I always have a choice: I can cycle back to restroom #1, hoping it’s ready soon, then back to #2 (ha, ha, #2) if need be. Or I could go into a Ladies’ room.  I’ve never chosen that latter.

If I shuffle back to #1 and it’s still being cleaned, then shuffle back to #2 (ha, ha again) and it’s still occupied, I’ve wasted a full minute, and the freight is even farther down the chute, piling up against the shutter valve.

That day I needed Old Faithful. I could not risk the extra minute. The locks were flooded and the gates of final protection were losing their commitment to their sworn duty.

I commenced to do the penguin waddle to the exit door, so that I could then amble across the small parking lot to the adjacent building.  There would be good Old Faithful.

I left the building. As the door closed behind me I had a sort of vague uncomfortable feeling.  Something wasn’t quite right.  And it wasn’t just the onset of gophering or the shifting of my balast.  It was like the feeling you get when you leave the house and halfway to where you’re driving you get the feeling you’ve left something simmering on the stove, or the windows open, or the bathtub water running.

Focus Joe, focus.  You can do it. Penguin waddle. Only 20 yards across the parking lot to the next building and then a few more yards to Old Faithful.

Then that feeling agian.  And I realized! I realized that my security badge was not where it was supposed to be: on the lanyard around my neck.  No lanyard equals no badge.  Without the badge I could not get past the security badge reader into the building where Old Faithful awaited my dramatic buzzer beating appearance. In fact, I could not even return to my own building. I was stranded.  Stranded in the parking lot.  And I was absurdly desperate.



I experienced genuine panic accompanied with acute awareness of my case of steadily progressing Gophering. Prarie dogging.  Please, God, someone show up and hold the door for me. Are there bushes near here?

Ten seconds. Twenty seconds.  Concentrate.  Squeeze. You can do it buddy.

Thirty seconds.  I’m pretty sure I’ll need to drive home for … um … a wardrobe adjustment.

That’s when I put my hand into my sports coat and found … ah ha! … my security badge with the RFID strip.

Why did I put it there?  No time for that thought.

Waddle.  Waddle.  Waddle.  Open the door.

Penguin squeezes his buns and waddles to Old Faithful. Oh, Old Faithful.  OH please!, Please Old Faithful, don’t let me down.  Please!

The freight train is now at the station.  There’s Old Faithful and her door is … ajar.  She is available for me.  Again.

Oh thank you! Shipment safely delivered.

That was one very special delivery.

Every single day is special, in its own way.

Wishing you peace and tidy, timely deliveries.


Joe Girard © 2015

Vowel Movement

Vowel Movement