Friday, January 25, 2013

String Theory Unraveled

Oh, I wish I’d written it—had the ability to put the thoughts into words and string them together so brilliantly. But I didn’t. I read them in a young Irishman’s novel, copied them out, and then savored them. The author is Paul Murray, a Dublin resident. The book Skippy Dies, page 654.

 “Maybe instead of strings it’s stories things are made of, an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories: once upon a time they all were part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken up into a jillion different pieces, that’s why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a life is try and weave it back together, my story into your story, our stories into all the other people’s we know, until you’ve got something that to God or whoever might look like a letter or even a whole word…”

And in an almost magical kind of way, on the same day I came across Murray’s quote, I found a proposal I’d put together for a course at Antioch College. I called it “The Power of Language.” I know it’s a big segue, to go from superstory string theory to language, but I think language is the bridge between us, the “string” that connects us. In language we create our stories and then put them together. My course wasn’t about grammar, semantics, or the proper use of language. It was about examining language in a new context, that of creating a consensual domain of behavior. The word communicate means “to make common.” And isn’t that what we really want, to understand and be understood? Words in and of themselves have no meaning. They are merely triggers, much like the PLAY button on a tape recorder. Your finger does not start the recorder. If it did, when the recorder broke, you’d take your finger in for repair. It’s the button that triggers the player. It’s the same with words. The word triggers us into coming up with a meaning. Words are merely the symbols we use to carry on our social and business interactions. And we bring our unique interpretations to them.

Our ability to language—to speak, think, and make our thoughts known to others distinguishes us as human beings. We language. Amazing! Think a thought. How did you do that? No one really knows. Even the neurologists are in awe of our minds. Language is a function of being human. Babies do not imitate the sounds of the refrigerator. They take human sounds and forge language for themselves. Even children who are unable to hear will find ways to language. We all know the thrill that comes when the baby begins to speak. But something more profound than just speaking is occurring. A personality is being born. We reveal ourselves in language. We think in language, and organize our thoughts in ways that have been determined by our culture and personal history. Within that culture, that personal history, we each bring our backgrounds and experiences to every situation we find ourselves in. We are an amalgam made up of all of our experiences. We are like libraries of rare and wonderful manuscripts presenting ourselves to the world. We are a collection of stories and events, of opinions and ideas, being expressed in the world all of the time. That’s what makes the idea of the superstory so exciting. We are each of us truly unique—the only one of us in the universe—and that makes our story important. If you didn’t exist, that part of the story would be missing and I would suffer as a result.
Sounds to me like a good reason to look forward to each day. What today is going to come alive, will give me something to weave back into that superstory we are all a part of? So give yourself permission to be who you are, where you are, doing what you are doing. I need you. You’re a vital part of my story.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Factory Town

Early on in our marriage, my husband changed jobs. This meant a move from a lovely suburb to a small factory town. Dick was not going to work for the factory, but the location of the town was in the center of his territory. So we visited the town to find a house to rent for our small family, Dick, our 2+ year old son John, baby daughter Mary, and me.

The only realtor in town took us immediately to a large house. There was a porch with a swing and a glassed-in side porch. A lovely garden/lawn in back went down a long way to the river’s edge. In the summer sunlight it was perfect. The rent was shockingly low and so we agreed to take it. We should have wondered about that low rent.

The first floor consisted of a large living room, bigger dining room, huge kitchen with breakfast room that over-looked the river, and a room we turned into a playroom. Four good-sized bedrooms and a large bathroom were on the second floor. There was an attic and a basement, which we never even peeked into. It was perfect.

One interesting feature was a large grate in the floor between the living and dining rooms. There were also small grates in the corners of the ceilings, openings to all the rooms upstairs. I called the realtor and asked about them. “It’s a pipeless furnace,” he said. I thanked him and hung up. I had no idea what he was talking about, but it was July and there was no need of a furnace of any kind.

The milkman came to the door and introduced himself. We set up a schedule. “Oh,” he said, “The herd got into some wild onion the other day. Just in case you notice.” Wow. Personal knowledge about the cows that produced our milk. The following day the “Egg & Chicken Lady” came by. Fresh eggs weekly and dressed chickens available by order. I could tell by her accent she wasn’t local. “Nope. New Jersey.” She and her husband had “pulled up stakes and left the town of their birth.” The first day I served our son eggs, he noticed the taste was different. “Yes,” I said. “These are really fresh.” I decided I was going to like living in this little town.

Two blocks away was a small grocery store. The owner was cheerful and already knew who I was. News traveled fast in this town. He even knew about my husband’s job. Wow. Friendly people. I asked where the lettuce was. “You’ll have to go to Beaver Dam for that,” he said, “to the super market. I only carry staples plus the canned things and some steaks. I can order for you. I do for your neighbor all the time.” Ah yes, my neighbor. I think she was the leader of the grapevine news system they had going locally. She knew everybody and everything. When we first met, she’d let me know that this was a factory town and we were new comers—outsiders.

We decided to go to church, always a good way to meet people. The third week, an elderly woman approached me. “Are you the young Mrs. Maxwell?” I said I was. “Well, if you’d wear the same hat two weeks in a row, maybe a body’d recognize you.”

It didn’t take long to figure out this was a factory town, a ONE factory town and if you didn’t work for the factory you didn’t belong. We had to find friends among the other outcasts, and we did. We were six couples and we were social. Our little weekly newspaper made a point of writing up our small bi-weekly dinner parties. The reporter was particularly impressed that we played charades.

And then the winter came. Many degrees below zero and three feet of snow. It didn’t take too long to figure out how a pipeless furnace works. It’s based on heat rising. The oil-burning furnace in the basement efficiently spewed out heat, which then worked its way up through the house. But it was a BIG house. Sleeping in a cold bedroom may be healthy, but I put my baby daughter to bed wearing a cap and mittens. I was training my son, and I remember placing him on the toilet seat. He immediately jumped off, “Done!” I finally put a little “nursery chair” in a closet off the kitchen. I loved hot baths, but as I got out of the tub, my body steamed in the cold air. This was elegant, but primitive living as far as I was concerned. (And yet no one got sick that cold winter.) I ran the oven with the door open, closed all four doors to the rest of the house, and heated the kitchen. And that’s where we spent most of our time, in this large friendly, warm room. But back to the evening when we played charades. We had only one bathroom in the house and it was upstairs. One of the guests excused himself from the game and went upstairs. We could hear him going up. Step…step…step. After a few minutes we heard steps racing down. Stepstepstepstep. He entered the living room. “Well,” he said, “here comes old icy fingers.”

The snow that winter was so deep and piled so high it hid the children as they walked to school. Baby Mary napped, wrapped up warmly on the glassed-in porch. John played in the snow. No matter how fierce the weather, we managed to get together with our friends. After all, the town was so small you could walk to everything. And in the spring, the birds came to the wetlands. We got a call at 2:00 in the morning from our friend who was in charge of the wetlands. “Trumpeter swans,” was all he said. We got out of bed, bundled up, and drove out. Breathtaking. One night, Canada geese were lost in a heavy river fog over our house. I stood on the lawn and watched. They were so low I felt I could reach up and touch them.

And then the call my husband had been waiting for came. Another job, better, and back to the suburb we had loved. I had mixed feelings as I packed. Part of me had loved this little town and our “outsider” friends. But I had not liked the feelings of being shunned. There was never anything overt, anything you could deal with directly. It was subtle, polite, shadowy. I shiver as I think of it. What drove them into their protective forts? What had they feared?

It’s in our DNA. Saved our hides, that fear back then. When Joe Caveman stepped outside and saw that big yellow and black creature, if he didn’t fight or flee, he got eaten. But just as Joe Caveman evolved into a more hairless creature who uses a cellphone and laptop, I am trusting/hoping that we can evolve into creatures who operate more on empathy than fear. And I think there’s some hope. I went to the web to check out the little town where we’d lived with the pipeless furnace. The factory is gone, no longer manufacturing those plows, but the little town has not just survived; it has flourished, nicely evolved and opened its doors and its heart to others. There is hope.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Reading Heidegger

“It’s required,” my dissertation chairperson said. And so I bought the book. Being and Time. Interesting title, I thought as I climbed into bed. I’ll read a chapter a night. Be done in no time.

I was in the middle of page two when I stopped. I hadn’t a clue about what I’d just read. Okay. I won’t leave a paragraph until I understand. After several hours, I fell asleep in the middle of paragraph one.

I did get through it. Even wrote an interpretation of part one for my committee. They accepted it. Truth is I don’t think they understood any more than I. You see there aren’t enough words, enough appropriate phrases to try to present what Heidegger was trying to say. We should all be standing around, mouth open, in awe of life, of being. But the world would be too quiet and so we talk and write about it, endlessly.

I’ve been having that conversation as long as I can remember and I’m still having it. No answers, just lots of questions. And I’ve made wonderful friends along the way, people curious about life and living. It’s a bottomless pit—the study of that. Thank God (literally). Life would be so dull otherwise.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Mighty Dot

It’s probably the smallest thing on the page. Something you pass by without even noticing. In the world of digital, it’s called the dot. In the domain of sentences and paragraphs it’s the period. In the realm of finance it’s a decimal. Such a tiny thing, and yet at the end of a sentence it says “full stop.” Without that tiny dot, your web address goes wandering, lost in space. And in finance and statistics it can be deadly.

In 1876, Melvin Dewey saw the value of that little dot when he invented the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system. He found that the dot, or period, helped make it possible to design a sophisticated classification system. That system is now used in over 200,000 libraries in 135 countries. And they take it seriously. In 1988, The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC)  of Dublin, Ohio acquired the trademark and copyrights associated with the DDC when it bought Forest Press (which owned the original copyrights). OCLC maintains the classification system and publishes new editions of the system. The editorial staff responsible for updates is based partly at the Library of Congress and partly at OCLC. Their work is reviewed by the Decimal Classification Editorial Policy Committee (EPC), which is a ten-member international board that meets twice each year. The four-volume unabridged edition is published approximately every six years, the most recent edition (DDC 23) in mid 2011. The web edition is updated on an ongoing basis, with changes announced each month. These are serious people.

Fortunately, those individuals who created the world wide web chose that little dot. Allows for all kinds of possibilities.

In the realm of finance, the dot makes a huge difference. I know. I had received my statement for my TV cable costs from Comcast. $24.85. I use a program called Billpay, so I brought up my online checking account. Got into Billpay and entered the information, pressed the last button and closed the account. The following week, I received an email from Comcast informing me that my check for $2485 had been rejected due to insufficient funds. Wow. The mighty dot!

I was mulling these ideas over in my head, making notes, while I watched a documentary about Erma Bombeck. She was a writer during the 50s and 60s, a suburban housewife who wrote about her family and her life. Her columns were in over 900 newspapers, she wrote six books, and she made people laugh. An amazing woman.

Immediately, my “comparison gene” kicked in. Oh no! I had been a suburban wife in the 60s and what had I accomplished? I crumpled up the paper I’d been making notes on for this blog piece in order to throw it away. There was no way I could ever compete with her, can’t even come close. Why do I even try? And then I remembered something Harry Belefonte once said to me. It was during the 60s and he was coming to town. Dick, my husband, had arranged a number of parties and meetings for him and so we drove to the airport to pick him up. On the way to his hotel, Harry suggested we stop and have dinner, just the three of us. Give him a few hours of quiet before all the hullabaloo started. So Dick found a nice restaurant. Harry told us what he was up to and then asked about us. When it was my turn, I told him about the few civil rights things I was doing. I was apologetic and embarrassed. It seemed like nothing compared to all that he was doing.

Harry interrupted me. He took a pen from his pocket and told me about the power of an arrowhead. He made a mark on the tablecloth and explained it was the point of the arrowhead. But it couldn’t work alone. He continued making his marks:
He pointed to one of the marks along the bottom row and said he was there and I was too. Without us, he said, the arrow is faulty and won’t accomplish its mission. Every person is important, every single one. Ah, like the might dot. If the dot decides it wants to be fancier (,) or add some flash (;) or mass (:), it can’t do the job it was intended to do. It has to be just what it is. I uncrumpled my paper and continued making my notes.