Yesterday was the first day of the rest of Brian’s life. That is to say, it was the first Monday of his life as a member of the retired. What will he do with this endless expanse of possibility? Right now, his intention is to keep it open. He hasn’t spent the last whatever years of his life teaching Asian literature for nothing. The beautiful spareness of Chinese poetry pulls at his heart. So does the Japanese concept of Ma, or negative space. Although, in the Japanese thought Ma has a much more dynamic and interactive meaning than not being. It is part of the fabric of the whole, a part of the dance of possibilities. Oh dear, I am getting very abstract here. What I mean is, my husband is bravely trying to let himself be open and to find out what calls to him. And I am very interested to see what this human being to whom I’ve been married for the past 30 years is going to discover.
His first no-longer-employed Monday was not entirely filled with Ma. I had an appointment with a famousy-famous hip surgeon to see if I needed hip surgery at the famousy-famous Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. I didn’t think I needed hip surgery, but another one of my doctors thought, well, maybe, I don’t know, just check it out, so grumblingly, I did. I reorganized my gigantic binder of tests and visits and brought it in. And this time, I brought Mr. HH with me. Despite my relative certainty that I wouldn’t need surgery (maybe some kind of injection though because of osteoarthritis?) I did feel afraid. I’ve gone to many scary doctor appointments by myself, and most of the time I’ve managed okay, but sometimes I come out of them with this jumble of notes that don’t make any sense because I’ve felt a rushing of panic clogging my ears when the doctor was giving me information. So the dear husband and I agreed that he would come to scary appointment and be a second set of ears for me. Anyway, I had some X-rays, talked to perfectly nice doctor, don’t need surgery, then husband and I had a pleasant walk around the Upper East Side.
“Look at that building,” Brian said, pointing to an old brick building. “A Czech gymnasium. I see a lot of Czech names around here” (near 70th and York).
“I think a lot of Czechs and Germans settled this neighborhood,” I said. “Every part of Manhattan is so different.”
“It’s so different when you walk it,” he said.
“I know what we should do!” I said. “We should get a big map of Manhattan and get a yellow marker and color in every street we walk after your retirement. And we should walk every street in Manhattan!”
“Where does anybody even get a map nowadays?” he said. “Everybody has GPS.”
“Huh.” I was stumped, too. Maybe off the internet? Barnes and Noble? I don’t know.
He looks at his phone. “There’s a gourmet shop ten blocks away. We can get cheese.” Cheese is part of his holy trinity of consumables, along with coffee and bread. So we wandered uptown past more stores. We people watched. I saw lots of people walking dogs. I saw a woman carrying a dog. I saw lots of doggy day care businesses. There is no shortage of dogs in New York. And I almost never, ever see dog poop. So, good work, New Yorkers. The Upper East Side is full of uniformed private school kids who burst out into the streets at 3:30 or so, along with moms and dads and nannies with strollers. I see a schlumpy looking guy in a Gilligan hat and pink socks lumping across the street. People wearing neon-bright sneakers–that’s a thing now, I guess. Lots of women with pretty legs and short skirts and little sandals. Workers with hard hats ignoring interested onlookers. Street sellers hawking fruit, scarves, books, watches.
At the gourmet shop we buy two small pieces of ridiculously expensive cheese and linger over other delicious but outlandishly expensive items–gluten free lemon bars, figs, bright red $5.99 a pound tomatoes. As we leave we see the pasta hanging on the line. They had gluten free ravioli for $12.99 a pound. We passed. We’ve made homemade pasta before, but it is a pain. Still, I liked watching it hanging there.
We two flaneurs amble back to our car, driving home through rush hour, but the traffic still isn’t TOO bad. We listen to a podcast. “The drive was only one This American Life long,” Brian says. He makes chicken and salad and pasta for dinner and I fold clothes. I run off to my book group and when I get home, he is sitting on the back deck in the semi-darkness, looking at the trees and the sky above. His hands are folded behind his head. He smiles at me, and in that smile I see a happiness formed of the possibility of a joyful anything to come.
Writing prompt: What possibilities do you see?
I actually don’t know why this diagram has naked people, butterflies and needle points in it, but hey, it’s science! Thank you, Wikimedia Commons.
No discussion of atoms would be complete without getting back to the idea of WHY our tiny friends, the negatively-charged electrons, would choose to jump from the safe inner shells of their universe, close to the nucleus (made of positively charged protons and plain old chargeless neutrons) to shells that are further out. Electrons are deeply engaged in an electromagnetic relationship with the nucleus—why change a beautiful thing?
Oh wait, did I just say “electromagnetic”? As if I had already explained it? Why, how RUDE of me. Do sit down and have some sweet tea and I’ll tell you just a bit about the electromagnetic field. As I mentioned before, it’s one of the four major forces in the universe. That is, along with the strong force (binding protons to neutrons), the weak force (lets radioactive material decay), and gravity. No, don’t worry about that piece of pecan pie you just dropped. That’s just the force of gravity. It just wants to pull on every piece of matter and drag it to the center of the earth. Of course, it’s not going to go through the bottom of the porch. That smooshed piece of pie is exerting force on the porch floor, but the porch floor is exerting force right back, pushing it up. Anyway, I’ll just clean that up and get you some more. There, a nice new piece of pie, filled with pecans and the constant drama of atoms doing their magical little electromagnetic dance.
Oh yes, electromagnetism. Ever had an X-ray? Listened to a song on the radio? Eaten a Lean Cuisine fresh from the microwave oven? Seen the color red? These things are all available because of the field of electromagnetism that underlies out universe. Imagine that all throughout the universe, electricity is moving in millions of endless straight vertical lines. And magnetism is moving endlessly in straight horizontal lines. Electricity and magnetism are constantly pushing against each other in a neverending battle for dominance. Neither party ever wins. But their endless pushing (are they siblings, perchance?) means that the universe is filled with waves of energy from the conflict. Some of these waves are very fast and very close together, like gamma waves and X-rays. Others are much slower. Among the slowest are radio waves. A little higher on the electromagnetic spectrum are colors. From ultraviolet (the highest) to infrared (the lowest), every color you see in your box of 64 Crayolas is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Okay, maybe you won’t see ultraviolet or infrared in your box of crayolas because they are colors we don’t normally see. You probably have to get your badge in Science to see them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t affect you. Remember that time you went to the beach and you THOUGHT you slathered yourself in sunscreen but you forgot to put any on your feet and the next day they felt like burning fire because of the sunburn you got? That is the result, in part, of harmful ultraviolet (UV) waves on your delicate skin. Most UV rays don’t penetrate Earth’s protective atmosphere, but some do. So remember, wear your sunscreen. And do let me get you more sweet tea. It’s filled with electromagnetic energy, too. And in the meantime, I’ll just give you one word I’ll be using to answer the question I posed in the first paragraph for my next post. That word is “photons.”
And in the meantime, here’s an easy, fun Web site about the electromagnetic spectrum: http://www.darvill.clara.net/emag/index.htm
Writing prompts: 1. Did you ever get a major sunburn? When? 2. What are some of your favorite memories of listening to the radio?
One of the ways I try to understand science is by using a technique I learned in high school, from my high school chemistry teacher. “If you don’t understand it, read it again.” So, in my senior year, when I was just about to fail chemistry, I would read that damned Chemistry book over and over. And slowly, my eyes would conquer one strange word (electrons? Molecules? Osmosis?) and then another. As it did, a kind of excitement began to grow. When the concepts began to come together, I started not just to know the words, but have the ideas start to sing their magic in my head. In the darkness of the universe, I began to see the ways molecules were shaped, the attraction and repulsion of various tiny particles, and to feel a sense of intense wonder that a chair is not just a chair, but a collection of tiny moving parts in tension with each other.
There is a kind of singing in my head I can only get with that same kind of stubbornness when I read history or philosophy or other science as well. I was editing a book on the brain a few years ago and it made me crazy that all the different parts were described in words that I found highly inscrutable and hard to remember—rostral, ventral, contralateral, ipselateral, parietal, axial, caudal, . It made me crazy that “rostral” meant “toward the nose” What has THAT got to do with a brain, and especially a spinal column? But then, I slowly recalled that scientists don’t just study human brains, they study brains of all different creatures. If, for existence, you are describing a feature in a dog’s brain, thinking about a part toward the nose—which is so far in front of the brain, as opposed to something that is caudal—or toward the tail—makes perfect sense. (The word cauda means tail in Latin, and rostra is beak). Something that is caudal is closer to the end of the spine or the bottom of the feet. But I still feel confused by “rostral” in terms of humans. Does it mean more toward the front of the brain or more toward the top of the brain? Is it the opposite of caudal or more descriptively close to the actual nasal cavity of our relatively flat faces? In some kinds of fish, the part of the brain that would be at the top in humans is at the side in their heads. Another pair it took me a long time to learn was Dorsal/Ventral. Ventral means (more or less), toward the belly, or front, while dorsal means from the back, or spinal cord. But since, for example, in a dog, the spinal cord is at the top and the belly is at the bottom, ventral and dorsal are in a different place than they are in a walking human being. (by the way, Real Scientists, feel free to correct me if I am wrong!)
When I was editing this book on brains, I left in these terms, but defined them as well as I could. I was swearing plenty as I did it. But again, at some point, I started again to hear the beginnings of that magical song of learning, of beginning on a journey to start to understand the neighborhood of the brain—a journey that I continue to find magical today.
Writing Spark: What do you know about your brain?