By a Hair

We bought a new TV, hi-def, flat screen, thin, our first foray into up-to-date entertainment equipment. When I was a kid my grandfather bought a TV for my grandmother. I knew he bought it for her because he preferred to listen to the radio. My grandmother (my mother’s mother) lived a very narrow life. I remember her mostly with an apron on, cooking and cleaning. I don’t think she ever went anywhere.. But after all the house work was done my grandmother would sit with her apron still on in front of her new TV, a console model with about an eighteen-inch black and white screen, and watch baseball. She never went to a game in her life, didn’t even listen to games on the radio which many people did then, never paid any attention to any other sport. I think the games were probably between the Pacific Coast League teams since all the major league teams were east of St. Louis, and I don’t remember any of their games coming all the way across the country. Why she took a fancy to baseball only illustrates the inscrutableness of the human mind. She also liked to watch Lawrence Welk—a-one, a-two.

My mother never bought a TV until I was out of the house, and I never had one until I started teaching. My first year we rented a house that was furnished, including a TV. Then for two years we lived in the woods with only a fireplace for entertainment. When we moved back to town we bought a TV (color) for the kids. “Sesame Street” was only a few years old.

Earlier, when I was a graduate student and getting most of my entertainment from KPFA in Berkeley, I had met Gordon, someone I knew at Occidental, in one of my classes. He also lived in Berkeley and we commuted to SF State together. He was married to Millie, and we got into the young couples thing. Millie’s parents didn’t like to see her deprived just because she was married to a struggling graduate student, so they bought Gordon and Millie a new console color TV. It was quite a novelty. Each week Linnea and I would go to their house to watch Star Trek. On the old sets you could adjust each of the three primary colors, so after getting moderately stoned we would twiddle the knobs until we got a satisfactory psychedelic effect (it was the late sixties, and light shows were bending minds at the Fillmore in San Francisco). We would then turn off the sound and put on a Lord Buckley record. Enjoy.

Back to our new TV, not too big, fifty diagonal inches of lush color. Like a window. What struck me was the clarity. Individual strands of hair can be seen—a lady’s windblown locks or small hairs standing like needles along a backlit arm (although there’s no hair there, only illuminated pixels). Well, of course, you say. It’s high definition. As if that explained anything. For a hair to appear on the screen a line of pixels must be activated, and as the hair moves different lines of pixels have to come into play. And the pixels can’t be larger than the hair. And they have to be activated quite a bit more quickly than the hair’s movement. Well, of course. But behind all that is a lot of physics, not just mechanics but the more arcane stuff all the way down to the quantum level. I know something about quantum theory, but I don’t pretend to understand it. I’m not sure anyone really understands it. But physicists and engineers know enough to use quantum mechanics to make computer chips and plasma pixels that imitate reality quite well. (The old TV sets used to scroll; now parts of the data stream sometime get lost in space).  And I should add that all this pixel activating information is brought to my house by a hair (maybe a little larger), an optical fiber. Amazing. If you want wonders, you needn’t look much further.

The science behind all this technology is weird, operates at a scale that is close to unimaginable (imagine, if you can, all the little circuits that must be doing stuff in your cell phone) and is reasonably comprehensible to relatively few people. But it’s no big deal as long as I can text. The basic theory of evolution, on the other hand, is not nearly as mysterious as quantum theory, and it sets out to explain phenomena that is readily apparent to us (why are some animals not like the others? Why do I look somewhat but not exactly like my dad? Why do certain antibiotics no longer work?). But evolution, unlike quantum theory, comes up against a counter text. What could be a simpler and more powerful explanation than God did it? Why is this true?  God says so. At which point all arguments and all reason run into the adamantine wall of faith.

Growing Your Own in the Bronx

One side of the turn-around in front of our house is bordered by a flower bed that rises up a small embankment. In the early spring, daffodils flash yellow, and after they have had their day (weeks) the day lilies rise and eventually sprout orange blooms like stars. There are more of them than the daffodils, so it seems almost solid orange on a bed of green.

          A month or so ago, before our trip to Belgrade, Rosamond called me over to the lilies and, pointing to a plant that had risen higher than the lilies, said, “Is that what I think it is?” Well, let’s see. Serrated leaves in clusters of five springing out from a sturdy stem. Yep, looks like. A volunteer, apparently, as nothing like it has graced our yard before. A few years ago Rosamond found another volunteer under a shrub in front of the house, a single morel mushroom. We ate it, and I have since looked in vain for others of its ilk to rise, if not like phoenixes, like fiddleheads or snow plants.

So, after our trip abroad, almost three weeks, one of the first things Rosamond had to do was check out the garden. Three kinds of beans were mounting their poles; green tomatoes were weighing down their vines; lettuce, radishes, and chives were waiting harvest. Alas, the peas had already dried up while we were gone. Then Rosamond went over to the day lilies. The plant was gone. “I guess the gardeners thought it was a weed,” I said.

I don’t mourn the loss too much because we have another kind of chemistry in our garden. As the light fades in the evening, dozens of fireflies rise from the ground flashing their Darwinian fitness to prospective mates, but for us offering a fleeting display of tiny magic lanterns. And finally, during dinner one evening we saw a skunk circumnavigating the lawn. He went about his business, and so did we.


We are back. (See August 12, 2013 post, Belgrade, Serbia). Instead of returning to the apartment building with the dilapidated façade, we are living in the executive suites of a nice hotel three or four blocks south of the St. Seva cathedral. Our groups’ rooms are on the sixth floor of the hotel (seventh, actually, because in Europe the ground floor is not numbered, and the first floor is above it).  We have the floor to ourselves.

From our windows and thin balcony, the cathedral dominates the skyline. And then there are the bells. The main barrage comes at noon when many bells of different pitch peal forth seemingly in competition with each other. I suspect that they are amplified as there is a tinny, clangy quality to the sound that is not as pleasant as the resonant bongs that large bells should produce. The bells are also very loud. At other times of day a single bell announces the hour—but not every hour, only some of them—and it does so by striking twenty-five times. At first we disagreed about how many times the bell tolled. Some said twenty-three, some twenty four, but this was because sometimes the bell couldn’t be heard. If, however, you counted the space where the bell should have tolled it came out to twenty-five. Why? I have no idea. There is also some multiple bell tolling at other times, presumably to get people to the church on time. There was so much ringing on Saturday that I thought that it was the Greek Orthodox holy day, but, no, there was much more clanging, pealing, tolling on Sunday.

We arrived on a Sunday, and I noticed that some construction was going on below our balcony. Behind the hotel’s patio, where we have breakfast when the weather is fine, is a one story building with a flat roof. Piles of sand and gravel and some stacks of white blocks had already been hoisted onto the roof. Eight or nine workmen arrived on Monday morning and, using a small electric hoist mounted on one corner of the building, began hauling up more supplies. Arcs of iron rod, like the handles of Easter baskets, had been welded to wheelbarrows so that when the hoist’s hook was hooked to a barrow, the load, whether more sand or more blocks or buckets of water, would remain in balance while it was being lifted up the side of the building. At one point they lifted a small cement mixer that was soon sloshing away. Workers began laying down a course of blocks over a layer of concrete around the perimeter of the building. Were they going to add a second story to the building?  It didn’t seem likely, but other purposes didn’t come readily to mind. Over three days the wall grew to about three feet high, and then they started capping it with wooden forms into which they shoveled concrete. That part of the job was finished by noon Friday, and no one showed up in the afternoon. The next morning, though, a full crew was back, some of them building a kind of wooden bridge using 2x4s that ran across the middle of the roof. Other workers ran wires perpendicular to the wooden structure about three feet apart from one side of the building to the other, nailing them to the concrete forms that were still in place. I now noticed that rolls of green plastic sheeting had been hoisted to the roof, and by the end of the day the roof was completely covered and all the tools, the cement mixer, and the hoist itself had been taken to the ground and trucked away. I should note that the building’s windows were gone and the inside contained nothing but some rubble.

Rain was forecast, and I wondered if the new structure had sufficient pitch to shed the water. A little rain on Sunday left some pools in the plastic. Then Tuesday night, while we were having dinner in one of our favorite restaurants, a huge thunder storm swept through. For a while the ground was white with hail, and the rain was diluvian. Fortunately for us, the main brunt of the storm passed while we were having coffee, so we could walk back to the hotel without getting soaked.

The next morning, however, I checked on the project. The sheets of plastic had come apart where they had been fastened together, and, worse, the weight of the water that pooled in the plastic had pulled one of the walls part way over, breaking blocks and joints. The roof below the plastic was filled with water which was, presumably, just what the project was meant to prevent. I haven’t seen anyone come by to check things out, so I suppose it is possible that whoever contracted the job doesn’t know what happened. When we return next year we may find that the whole building is gone except for the wall that borders the hotel’s patio.

Meanwhile, I frequently went running in a small park a half block from the hotel. Under a tree, another laborer, a wood carver, was working on a large log about fifteen feet long, chipping out a face at one end and then a face at the other end. He worked methodically and from time to time would stop to sit on a bench and smoke and chat with other bench sitters. Eventually he would decide that his project was finished, and it would be.