Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 17

Dad was an engineer. Mom was an English major. I grew up in a household of Book-of-the-Month-Club books. From the year I was born, 1936, right through the 40s, my mother was a subscriber. Each month a book came into our home, most of them the main monthly selections of the Club. Year by year the bookshelves filled with books. The selections were always works of literary merit. I didn’t read them, but they were as much a part of my environment as my toys, the furniture, the wallpaper. In bored moments I often sat on the floor by the bookcase and flipped pages. I’m not quite sure what I was looking for, but I must have absorbed something, because years later I sought out many of those same books and read them—their look and feel still vivid in my mind after the passage of decades. Van Wyck Brooks’ two fine works on the intellectual life of New England, The Flowering of New England and New England: Indian Summer; Hendrick Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, The Story of Art, and Geography, Harriete Louisa Simpson Arnow’s wonderful books on the geography and history of central Tennessee, Flowering of the Cumberland and Seedtime on the Cumberland; Marjorie Rawlings’ Cross Creek; and Louise Dickinson Rich’s We Took to the Woods. These are just some of the books I remember. They were almost certainly chosen by my mother.

But several books on the shelves were clearly my father’s choices: Lancelot Hogben’s Mathematics for the Million and Science for the Citizen, and Donald Culross Peattie’s An Almanac for Moderns

Hogben wrote for the citizen engineer, the handyman. Again and again I poured over his books, examining the illustrations, and reading—a sentence here, a sentence there. Mathematics for the Million was published in 1937, the year after I was born, and has remained in print through dozens of printings and several editions—no small achievement for a book on mathematics. Science for the Citizen followed in 1938. The titles were not publishing ploys, contrived to make the books appear accessible to the man or woman in the street. Rather, they reflected Hogben’s passionate conviction that science and mathematics belong to the people. The author was an English socialist and pacifist who believed that science and mathematics are grounded in practical affairs and dignify themselves in the service of democracy. The history of science, he wrote, is the history of the constructive achievements of mankind and the democratization of knowledge. An example: The printing press brought knowledge to the masses; without the printing press there would have been little demand for eyeglasses; without eyeglasses neither telescope nor microscope would have been invented; without the telescope and microscope, the finite velocity of light, the parallax of the stars, and the microorganisms that cause disease would never have been known to science. This was the sort of philosophy my father thrived on. He could have cared less about Plato or Aristotle, Aquinas or Kant. Metaphysical abstractions held no interest for him. He was the practical-minded, forward-looking citizen to whom Hogben directed his books, books filled with the sort of engineering optimism I imbibed at my father’s side.

Hogben could only have been English. Youthfully handsome, outspoken, eccentric and absent-minded, son of a parson, educated at Cambridge University. His family imagined that he might become a missionary. Instead, he dedicated himself to science, as an academic biologist of wide-ranging interests. But it was as a popularizer of science and mathematics that he excelled, following in the footsteps of his heroes, John Tyndall and Thomas Huxley, brilliant 19th-century scientists with gifts for popular exposition.

As I prepared these recollections of my father, I looked again at Hogben’s books after more than six decades. I was astonished at how much I had absorbed sitting on the floor by the bookcase. In some ways, these books that my father brought into the house are like a road map of my life. They were certainly a road map to my father’s life. All of the themes and interests that were important to him are here prefigured: A passion for the practical; a suspicion of abstractions that are not grounded in concrete experience; a gape-jawed awe at the power and beauty of mathematics; and a sense of optimism. Hogben’s books expressed the view that science and technology offer the opportunity of building a utopian society in which all people live constructive lives in harmony with nature and each other. Perhaps this notion now seems sadly naive, but it was my father’s philosophy too. Both men—Dad and Hogben—came of age in the years between the two World Wars, global cataclysms in which science and technology were harnessed to the business of killing. Their utopian optimism was put to the test. We learned then by grim experience that knowledge has the power for evil as well as good, and that the elegant certainties of mathematics do not apply to human moral behavior.

Another of my father’s Book Club selections was Donald Culross Peattie’s An Almanac for Moderns, published in 1935, in that same hiatus between the wars and in the depths of the Great Depression. Peattie was not an engineer, but a naturalist. He lived in rural Illinois at the time of writing, and the devastation of the Dust Bowl was not far away. World War I was still fresh in memory, with its shattered landscapes and poisoned air. It was not a time in which it was easy to be optimistic. The lofty moralizing of earlier nature writers like John Burroughs and John Muir no longer resonated with a generation who had seen “the trees blasted by the great guns and the bird’s feeding on men’s eyes.” Peattie, like Loren Eiseley and Lewis Thomas after him, looked skeptically at nature, not expecting sermons in leaf and stone, but rather a chastening existential silence.

Still, Peattie wrested from nature the will to go on, to affirm a point to life, to get up in the morning and earn his keep. W. H. Auden said of Loren Eiseley that he was “a man unusually well trained in the habit of prayer, by which I mean the habit of listening.” Peattie, too, knew how to listen. Listening—as these writers listened—required courage and the will to change, to surrender the simple pieties of the past and embark upon an immense journey into the lonely spaces between the galaxies and the atoms. From his closely observed acre of land in Illinois, Peattie listened and watched as the year passed, and turned his “habit of prayer” into a collection of 365 elegant essays that wrestled with the meaning of it all. The meaning he found had something to do with beauty; something to do with the gorgeous, prodigious throb and thrust of life; something to do with being part of a continuity that is greater than himself. “I say that it touches a man that his blood is sea water and his tears are salt, that the seed of his loins is scarcely different from the same cells in a seaweed, and that the stuff of his bones are coral made,” he wrote. He was immersed up to his neck—to the top of his head—in the “essential and precious something that just divides the lowliest microorganism from the dust,” the inexplicable essence of life. He reveled in it, turning his experience into poetry. Peattie did not look for an incorruptible heaven beyond the stars. Nature itself is the miracle, he wrote, with all its imperfections.

You may know a man by his library. My mother’s library eventually filled the house. My father’s books were few. Hogben and Peattie were among them. Numbers and patterns as a way of life. Optimism in the face of grim calamity. All of nature concealing within her bosom whatever secrets are worth knowing, ready to be teased out with the skills and instruments of the attentive listener. That’s how he lived, and how he died.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sleeping snowman

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 16

The Lord or the Yokyoks. Let me explain.

My father was a great admirer of the American cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who is famous for his outlandish and whimsically-elaborate eponymous machines for performing simple tasks, widely published in American newspapers between 1914 and 1964. For example, an automatic back-scratcher: Flame from lamp catches curtain on fire, causing fire department to send stream of water through window, causing small man with poor vision to think it’s raining and reach for umbrella, which pulls string tipping metal ball, which falls and pulls string swinging hammer, which breaks glass, waking pup in cradle, causing mother dog to rock cradle which moves hand-shaped scratcher up and down gentleman’s back. Ahhhh! Dad loved this sort of thing and would draw his own Rube Goldberg machines for us kids.

I recall too my father talking about the Yokyoks, another Goldberg invention, an army of tiny green men with long, straight noses and red-and-yellow gloves, who carry an assortment of tools and go about fouling the works—clogging holes in saltshakers, making pens and faucets leak, blowing fuses, letting the air out of tires. Rube Goldberg loved machinery, but he also knew that technology grows unwieldy because of our insatiable desire for the very latest inventions at whatever the cost in money or frustration. He warned against the “gadget strewn path of civilization,” and this much is certainly true: The more complicated our machines become, the more opportunities the Yokyoks have to drive us crazy. Dad had a grudging admiration for the Yokyoks, and loved chasing them about the house, rooting them out wherever he found them. In this day of electronic devices, we call them bugs, but there is no longer much we can do about them. They live deep inside our computer-driven devices, as muddled streams of 1s and 0s, and there’s not much a mechanically-minded tinkerer can do to get at them. The Yokyoks have gone underground, so to speak, and twiddling a screw or slightly bending a widget has no effect. The Yokyoks and the handyman parted company at about the time my father died.

In a sense, the cancer cells that were multiplying inside his body were like a host of Yokyoks deep inside a digital device. Like computer bugs, they were beyond his reach. But he was unwilling to admit his impotency. He was determined to track them down and root them out, as if they were leaky faucets or blown fuses. He was applying the Mr. Fix-it methods he had used all his life, the analytical skills of the quality control engineer. Two pages of notes in his journals might be devoted to getting ready for sleep. His notes read like the description of a Rube Goldberg back-scratcher:

  1. Pull legs into Yoga position.
  2. “Muscle” legs to 90º.
  3. Bed at about 10º.
  4. Pull legs up to 90º. Let fall prone on bed. Both feet in center.
  5. Pull up both cover sheets.
  6. Push body (shoulders) to right, full arm’s length. 
  7. Make complete Log Roll to get on left side.
  8. Fix flash to spot light near base of #3, #2 bar of rail. Hook chain, third link from top of chain.
  9. Log Roll to left, push back to position where face will “fall” to sleeping position about 15” from left rail.
  10. Put waste basket under phone drawer.
  11. Put call & TV control in phone table drawer. 

And, of course, to accompany the notes, there is a Goldbergesque drawing of his body on the bed, labeled and dimensioned. This might seem pathetically and pathologically compulsive, and I suppose in some ways it is. But none of us dissuaded him from his note-taking—which he called “research”—or refused to assist. Anyone who has worked in a scientific laboratory knows that keeping exact notes on process and results is a requirement of the job. My father was simply applying his professional discipline to his own sad predicament. Cancer cells are as single minded as Goldberg’s Yokyoks. They have their habits, their routines. What those routines were, my father hoped to discover. His battle against cancer was engineer versus the tiny green men with long, straight noses and red-and-yellow gloves.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Final experience

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 15

He was a professional engineer, and a good one, but when it came to the business of dying, he was a rank amateur. That in itself is no bad thing. The “am-” in “amateur” derives from the Latin word for love. It has been suggested that the root of the Latin for love, am, had its origin in baby talk, like yum-yum or mmmm! an expression of delight. There can be no doubt, in reading my father’s journals, that he was in love with the engineer’s way of grappling with the world. Even in the midst of paralysis and pain he took delight in measurement, number, and graphical analysis. My dictionary of English usage says that the word “amateur” has acquired “a faint flavor of bungling and a strong flavor of enthusiasm.” That faint flavor of bungling devalues an otherwise honorable word, and certainly devalues what he was doing on his deathbed. He may not have had the professional expertise of the doctors and priests who came to his bedside, but he matched them step-by-step for enthusiasm.

I am now seventy-eight years old and have never witnessed a human death. I have been there as loved ones—my father and mother, most prominently—awaited the approaching darkness, but I was not present when the last flicker of light was extinguished. For this, I suppose, I should feel grateful, retaining a kind of innocence, a welcome lacuna in the realm of possible experience. I think of how for so many in the world death is a commonplace and sometimes grisly presence.

It is a decisive moment, that transition from life to non-life, amazingly abrupt when one thinks about the long, rich course of a life. I think of that dream of my father’s in which he was a ball of twine bouncing down the stairs, unwinding; death is the difference between string and no string. Virginia Woolf has an essay called “The Death of the Moth.” She watches a tiny moth flutter against a windowpane, from one corner to another. “Watching him,” she wrote, “it seemed as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body.” She imagined the moth’s life as a thread of vital light. And, of course, as she watched, the thread ran out. The spool of the insect’s metabolism stopped turning. “As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange.”

That last Christmas, as my father’s string ran out, all six of his children came with our families from our dispersal across the country. We stuffed ourselves into the family home and a big RV that Uncle George was kind enough to park in the backyard. While we were there, in Chattanooga, we took turns spending the night in the hospital room, giving Mom a break (she was, after all, teaching English at Notre Dame High School). The grandchildren too made their visits; they knew the end was not far away and that this would be the last times they would see Grandpa. All of these visits are recorded in his journal; they were more grist for his mill.

On Sunday, December 23, 1973, my father filled 37 pages of his journal with notes! At 12:05 AM he notes that his face is 12 inches from the side rail of the bed, he hopes for sleep, and his water pitcher is empty. Almost 24 hours later, at 11:58 PM, he records “Chet has gone to the washroom” (it was my turn to spend the night in his room), a “degas” (flatulence), and a drawing of the positions of his legs, rendered with a precision that would have pleased Thomas Ewing French. In between, 37 pages of mostly trivial details, the sorts of things that are usually the unconscious background of a life. As his foreground life recedes into a fog of pain and medication, the background moves forward. Reading these 37 pages is a reminder of how much our foreground lives are sustained by a background that runs more or less on autopilot.

3:01 AM. Can hand roll both legs to maximum position, 5 degrees from horizontal. 

Family. Work. Play. The tastes and aromas of a good meal. The mellow daze that comes with a stiff drink. News, sports, books, entertainment. A pretty woman, or handsome man. Sex. A sunset. A starry night. These are the things that fill our foreground days. The background fades. Heartbeat. Breathing. Digestion. Elimination. All utterly crucial to maintaining the foreground, but they require not a single conscious thought. Until. Until death raps on the door.

7:06 AM. Nurse came in to read temp & pulse. She said “What time do you want me to make your bed?” I told her I could not even think yet. 

“It is not easy to live in that continuous awareness of things which alone is true living,” wrote the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch, a writer I first read at my father’s suggestion. And, of course, Krutch was right. Our brains are separated from the world by the permeable membrane of our senses. Attention flows outwards. Impressions of the outer world flow inwards. Of this two-way traffic—attention, awareness—we create a soul.

At this moment, as I write, I sit at my desk on a hillside in the west of Ireland, my father’s journal open at my side. Sunlight streams across my computer keyboard. A daddy-long-legs spider spins its web under the shelf above my desk; I touch the web with a pencil point and the spider does a dervish dance. Outside the window, clouds scud in from the Atlantic; there will be rain in the afternoon. I try to be aware. Awareness is partly innate, I suppose, but awareness can be learned. My father was aware. He paid attention. Everything was of interest. I learned at his side. And now pain and immobility had scrubbed away the world out there beyond the membrane. Now everything became focused on what was previously background. Even the marrow in his bones calls out for attention.

10:20 AM. It is quite a feat to log roll whole body from middle of bed to right rail and hold for 2 or 3 minutes then roll back when you are in the UP cycle or DOWN cycle of the “ENERGY CYCLE” 

Continuous awareness: It can be exhausting. Which is why, I suppose, we sometimes wish for the mind to go blank, for the windows of the soul to close, for darkness to fall. Fortunately, the one thing we don’t have to attend to is awareness itself. The brain does its thing without the least bit of conscious control on our part.

Nothing we know about in the universe approaches the complexity of the human brain. What is it? A vast spider web of neurons, cells with a thousand octopus-like arms, called dendrites. The dendrites reach out and make contact at their tips with the dendrites of other cells, at junctions called synapses. A hundred billion neurons in the human brain, with an average of 1,000 dendrites each. A hundred trillion octopus arms touching like fingertips, and each synapse exquisitely controlled by the cells themselves, strengthening or weakening the contact, building webs of interlinked cells that are knowledge, memory, consciousness—a self. A hundred billion neurons. Each in contact with hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of others. The contacts flickering with variable strength. Continuously. Unconsciously. Never ceasing. Remembering. Forgetting. Feeling joy. Feeling pain. Thinking. Speaking. Lifting a foot, moving it forward, putting it down again. A hundred trillion flickering synapses.

4:04 PM While wait for Up cycle I was rock head side to side. Shooting “pain” in spine right behind navel. I feel sleepy but I am not. Degas.

Some people would say that bringing the scrutiny of science to bear upon the human soul is the height of presumption. Others would say that the more we learn about what makes our brains tick, the more we stand in awe of the mystery of soul. In recent years, new scanning technologies enable neuroscientists to watch live human brains at work. Active neural regions flicker on the screens of computer monitors as subjects think, speak, recite poems, do math. Continuous awareness, when displayed on the screen of a scanning monitor, can look like a grass fire exploding across a prairie. As I read my father’s journals, I know I am in the presence of continuous awareness, but it’s an awareness that is profoundly unnatural, inward turning, examining in excruciating detail what shouldn’t need examining.

8:28 PM End of energy cycle. Called Mom. Explain next energy cycle to her. Since tomorrow is Christmas Eve Chet will stay with me tonight & Mom tomorrow night.

Perhaps the most exciting brain research today is that of the scientists who study the biochemistry of neurons: How do cells regulate synaptic connections to build new neural webs? One big surprise is just how much of the “thinking” of neurons is done by the dendrites, those hundreds or thousands of spidery arms that connect neurons to one another. DNA in a neuron’s nucleus sends messenger RNA down along the dendrites to active synapses, where they are translated into proteins that regulate the strength of synaptic connections. These tiny protein factories in the dendrites are apparently key to learning, memory and consciousness—the building of a soul. It all sounds very mechanical. My father would have liked the notion of a mechanical soul—all those DNA and RNA molecules doing their own quality control. That’s what he was doing with his data keeping: Getting the background machinery again on autopilot so that “real” life could come to the fore.

On Christmas Day he filled twenty-two pages with notes. Beginning at 2:15 AM when he wakes from sleep (“Penis burns a little. I’ll check it! Looks OK!”). He worries that a wayward movement of his body might cut of the flow in his catheter, and draws a diagram illustrating the problem, this by the light of a tiny penlight suspended from above the bed. At 2:30, another diagram, this time showing a head view of his posture on the bed, his shoulders at an angle of 10 degrees to the horizontal. And so it goes. Entries at 2:35, 2:37, 2:50, 2:53, 2:55, 2:58 (“Hail Mary—deep breath. De-gas! Good one!”), 3:00, 3:10, 3:12. And then, in an almost illegible scrawl, “JUST SAID A LON [sic] PRAYER TO GOD FOR THIS CHRISTMAS AND MY IMPROVEMENT.” The note-making becomes almost as regular as his breathing. 7:32, 7:33, 7:35, 7:37 (“PKs arrive!”).

Christmas morning. Nuns come along the corridors singing carols. Doctor Henning stops by to schedule a blood test. A blessing from Father Johnson. Good people all, giving up their own Christmas mornings for those they serve. He naps. He tries out his new electric razor. Kids and grandkids arrive with presents, mostly photographs, stories, poems. And through it all, he assiduously records the ups and downs of his energy cycle, struggles to keep his head exactly four inches from the top of the bed. A faint flavor of bungling, no doubt, but a faint radiance of hope too.

An amateur with all the discipline of a professional, chasing an elusive “improvement” that has long since moved beyond the realm of the possible. Was his God listening on that Christmas morning? God the ultimate professional, the master tinkerer, who presumably had the power to mend any wayward cell, untangle any knot in the DNA. “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” he had written, which is one of those sad adages that can be interpreted theistically or atheistically. My father was determined to help himself. It was up to the Lord what came next.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Mixed emotions

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 14

It is a common experience of handymen at some point in their lives to turn their handy skills to the making of art. It may not be art that would find its way into a gallery, say, or a museum, it may not even rise to the level of “Sunday painter,” but it does spring from an authentic desire to make beauty of what had previously been craft, to lift off from the launch pad of practicality into the stratosphere of the sublime. My father felt that impulse, perhaps especially strongly when his eldest daughter went off to study art in college and then embarked upon a career as a professional artist. I imagine he must have thought there was a segment of his genome that had not yet been exploited. And so he turned part of the basement workshop into a studio, from which in subsequent years emerged a series of sculptures and paintings.

Well, no. “Emerged” is not the right word. His first production, as I recall, was a sculpture of entwined male and female forms, which he chiseled from a two-foot length of log. Upon its completion, he triumphantly brought it upstairs and put it on display on the bookcase in the living room—much to my mother’s displeasure, which she expressed in her usual deadpan way. “Well, then, where should I put it?” he asked. “How about in the fireplace,” she replied, sotto voce. It was not a pleasant moment. He grabbed up the sculpture in his arms and retreated to the basement, which now became a studio/gallery.

Being a handyman does not confer artistic talent or taste, but the creation of art, no matter how clumsy or trite, confers a certain dignity on personal craft, even if it does not embellish the wider culture. On the other hand, there are examples of mechanical craft and high art going happily together.

I am reminded of the whimsical machines of the artist Arthur Ganson, which I have encountered in galleries on several occasions—devilishly clever contraptions that have an almost organic feel about them, which possibly derives from their sense of humor. Here are a few of Ganson’s creations:

  • A machine made of pulleys and levers that spends its time scooping machine oil from a pool at its base and pouring it over itself. The oil glides sensuously down over the mechanism, back into the pool. Ahhh! 
  • A machine mounted on wheels that you push like a barrow. As it rolls, a cogged mechanism causes an artificial hand to write on a white piece of paper “Faster!” The faster you roll the cart, the more maniacally the machine scrawls its urgent message. What a hoot! 
  • A train of twelve worm gears, each gear driving the next at a fifty-times slower rate. The first motor-driven gear whirls furiously. The last gear is set in concrete. I’m not sure what made this funny, but I laughed uproariously.

It is great to be around machines that make you laugh. We spend most of our days with machines that haven’t a funny bone in their bodies, machines that turn us into dour button-pushers, machines that conceal their workings in casings that cannot be opened, machines that invalidate their warranties if you even think about repairing them on your own, machines that are more likely to evoke a groan than a smile. Ganson’s machines may be crafted on the workbench, but they hold their own on the museum floor.

In 1738, the mechanical wizard Jacques Vaucanson demonstrated his masterpiece before the court of Louis XV, a copper duck that ate, drank, quacked, flapped its wings, splashed about, and, to the astonishment of all, digested its food and excreted the remains. It was a witty beginning for the age of machines. The king’s courtiers had a good laugh. Descriptions of Victorian inventions in early editions of Scientific American also suggest a sense of whimsy. Electric jewels. Cuckoo watches. A mustache food-and-drink guard that clips into the nostrils. The Victorians seemed to have liked whacky combinations. A hammock mounted on a tricycle that allows the cyclist occasional rest. A camera hat. A rocking chair connected to a cradle and butter churn that employs “hitherto wasted female power” to soothe the baby and make butter while keeping the hands free for “darning, sewing or other light work.” Sexist, maybe, but Victorian inventors at least understood that machines are our servants rather than the other way round.

Of course, it is the artists who teach us not to take our machines too seriously. The Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp saw the humorous possibilities of a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool, or an ordinary urinal turned upside down and titled “Fountain”. His masterpiece, a glass construction called “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” although not quite a machine, is full of wires and painted mechanisms. Duchamp found it necessary to invent a new “amusing physics” to describe this last work, including terms like “oscillating density,” “uncontrollable weight,” and “emancipated metal,” terms that might have come easily to my father’s lips and certainly given him a laugh. The undisputed master of whimsical machines was the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, who contrived spindly wire devices that thumbed their noses at Swiss order and efficiency. Tinguely sculptures are said to invariably produce laughter as they click, whir and clatter unpredictably. His most famous sculpture was called “Homage to New York,” a vast white contraption of wheels, motors, pulleys and wires that was designed to destroy itself in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. The machine balked short of suicide, but caused an uproarious commotion before the fire department arrived to put it out of its misery. Tinguely was delighted with the unexpected outcome. “For me,” he said, “the machine is above all an instrument that permits me to be poetic. If you respect the machine, if you enter into a game with the machine, then perhaps you can make a truly joyous machine—by joyous I mean free. That’s a marvelous thing, don’t you think?”

Yes, I do so think, and that is something I learned from my handyman father. Some years ago, when I first encountered Arthur Ganson’s work, I asked the artist what he was up to. He replied that he is not interested in making political statements. “My machines are investigations of thoughts, dreams, and ideas,” he said. “They are about invention, about play, about a childlike way of looking at the world. They are about not taking the world too seriously.” I suspect that deep down Ganson takes the world more seriously than do those of us who take ourselves too seriously. Like Jean Tinguely before him, he seems to believe that a spirit of play lies at the heart of creation. And it is that, the spirit of play, which distinguishes the handyman from the professional. When my father was in the basement with his mallet and chisel he was hard at play, and play is its own reward.

Some years ago, Ganson had an exhibit at the galley of the college where I worked until retirement. One of his creations especially touched me. It was called “The Accumulation of Time.” Ganson set the machine going when the exhibit opened. A furiously whirring motor is geared down so that it unreels from a sort of tower a blood-red thread, slowly, ever so slowly, imperceptibly slowly, to accumulate on a white pedestal below. Day by day the tangled red heap slowly grows. Will the spool last till the end of the exhibit? Will someone be watching when the last inch of thread falls into the pile? I thought of my father’s dream, of being a ball of twine bouncing down a spiral staircase, unwinding as he goes.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 13

My father’s slide rule was a Keuffel & Esser log-log-duplex-decitrig slide rule from the 1940s, with twenty-one scales on white plastic bonded to teak and a glass hairline indicator, neatly cozied in a stiff leather case. Like all handymen and engineers of his generation, he took his slipstick seriously. Used it all day long, every day. While at work, while tinkering in his basement workshop, or while preparing a speech for the local chapter of the American Association of Mechanical Engineers. He lived in a world of three significant figures. 3.14 26.9 658 That was the best accuracy you could read off the scales. It was enough for a life of service to his profession and his community. With a slide rule, the structure of thinking is visible and tactile. He liked that. He could see and feel the numbers add, multiply, divide. Today, calculations take place invisibly in a microchip sealed away from human inspection.

With the transition from slide rule to electronic calculator—which happened just after his death— more happened than a mere advance in technology. The change from slide rules to electronic calculators was different, say, than the change from oil lamps to electric bulbs, or from horse-and-buggies to automobiles. The passing of the slide rule represented a change in how we understand the world. It was a change from analog to digital, from a world imagined as hardware to a world imagined as software. The dance of digits inside a computer’s silicon chip has not only transformed our lives; it has provided a new metaphor for understanding reality. The dance of the DNA in every cell of our bodies is more like the digital dance of 1s and 0s in a computer chip than it is like the cogs and gears of a clockwork. Today, it sometimes seems that nature is digital all the way down.

When I went off to college to study engineering in the 1950s, my father gave me his well-worn K&E slide rule. A thing of beauty. “Wear it with pride,” he might have said. And I did, as I trotted to class with the other engineering nerds, slip-sticks dangling from our belts. If someone had told us then that we would soon carry in the palm of our hand a device costing less than a good K&E slide rule that could do arithmetic and a host of higher mathematical functions instantly and accurately to ten significant figures we would have said, “Impossible.” But slide rules had one advantage over calculators: They rounded off, by necessity. They lent themselves to the kind of back-of-the-envelope calculations my father excelled at. He would have called it the art of rounding off, and of making reasonable guesses. Yes, an art. An art that may have passed away with that most lovely of mathematical devices—the slide rule. Too much precision can sometimes obscure understanding, I once heard him say. A lot of good science can be done with “let’s assume” and “to a first approximation.” (The slide rule is now in my son Tom’s possession, a treasured memento of his handyman grandfather.)

And while I’m lamenting the passing of the analog tools of my father’s generation, let me make a nod to another skill that floats through his deathbed journals in his sketches of his body on the bed. Mechanical drawing. It was one of the first courses I took as an engineering student at the University of Notre Dame in 1954.

What fun! To sit at a drafting table with the beautiful drawing instruments I inherited from my father and draw screw threads, bolt heads, and machine parts in isometric projection. Our textbook was Thomas Ewing French’s Mechanical Drawing, the very same book my father had used at the University of Tennessee a generation earlier. I still recall the lovely tactile feel of the precision compass with interchangeable tips for ink or lead, the three-sided rule, the sandpaper paddle on which to shape the pencil lead, the T-square, the clear plastic French curves. One of those curves was suited for the arcs of ellipses, another for parabolas, and another for hyperbolas. I always wondered if French curves were named after the author of our textbook, but no, it seems they were invented by the British designer Robin Ogilvie-Stewart Barrow and inspired by the shapes of croissants in the window of a Parisian bistro. They had a lovely Art Deco look that might equally have been inspired by Art Deco Paris. There was something sensual and deliberate about mechanical drawing. Nothing particularly creative. The emphasis was on technique and the consistent application of established conventions that the man in the machine shop who worked from the drawings could understand. Nevertheless, some students in the class had a special gift; their drawings were exquisite. Others students had a hard time drawing a straight line with their pencil point against a rule. I fell somewhere in between.

But I loved it, as I had loved as a boy the drawings my father made with the very same instruments. Some years ago, the art gallery at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where I spent most of my professional life, featured a display of drawings from the industrial archive of the Ames Shovel Company, whose history is so intimately bound up with the history of the town and college. These precision drawings of machine parts were accompanied by semi-abstract interpretations by the artist Heather Hobler. It was lovely to see an artist of Hobler’s talent offer homage to the engineering draftsperson, an implicit recognition of the esthetic qualities of any drawing well-drawn, even that of a machine for shaping the blades of shovels.

All that’s gone now. The compass, the T-square, the French curves, the thin graphite lines on crisp white paper. Today, it’s all done with computers—CAD, computer-aided design. No doubt CAD vastly simplifies design, in the same way spreadsheets simplify the analysis of data. Every point in the plan for a six-inch widget or a ten-storey building is defined by a vector, a set of numbers buried deep inside a computer. A twist of the mouse and you can view the object from any angle. Change one vector and the program automatically makes all the necessary adjustments. A marvelous facility. There is no going back to the days of stainless-steel drawing tools. But something has been lost, something that defined the handyman philosophy of life. Something tactile, sensual, hold-in-the-hand. That line of India ink leaking off the carefully tensioned points of the compass or drawing pen. Something deliciously analogical. A pleasure such as one might get feeling raindrops on the face, or a lover’s touch. Sense and intellect in a merry dance of flesh.

I wonder if my copy of French’s Mechanical Drawing is still up in the attic, and I wonder what became of my father’s copy, which still floated around the family house in Chattanooga when I was growing up. I would love to thumb through either one again and relive in memory those pleasurable afternoon hours on the drafting table at the University of Notre Dame, and trace again the esthetic and technical roots of the poignant drawings of his twisted body that filled my father’s journals as he died.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Beyond confusion

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 12

There was something else in that big black basement cabinet. Boxes of ceramic chips, in every size and shape, that my father brought home from work. It was like living in a money vault, except the coins were worthless. Still, I used to plunge my hands into the boxes and let the chips slip through my fingers, like a Midas reveling in his wealth. All the ceramic bits in a particular box looked exactly alike to me, but to my father each one was different. To be acceptable, the differences had to fall within certain exceedingly narrow tolerances. The tools of his trade were micrometers and calipers, lovely stainless-steel instruments that could measure things to a thousandth of an inch. He taught me how to use the vernier scale on his calipers—a way of reading those thousandths of an inch—and told me it was named for its inventor, a 17th-century French mathematician named Pierre Vernier. The simplicity of the invention, and its usefulness for exact measurement, impressed me as terribly clever.

As my father measured, he plotted. When I think of him, I think of graphs plotted in his neat hand on tissue-thin paper printed with a grid of faint green or orange lines. “Hand me a sheet of K&E,” he’d say, which stood for the manufacturer of the paper, Keuffel and Esser.

Keuffel & Esser made his slide rule, too. And maybe some of the other tools in his kit. His three-sided architect’s rule. His dividers and protractor. His triangles and French curves. His colored pencils, sharpened to a fine point. His gum eraser. With these instruments, he made his graphs. Ordinates and abscissas. Dependent and independent variables. He was a man in love with Cartesian coordinates. He told me the story of how the philosopher Rene Descartes was lying in bed watching a fly buzzing in a corner of the room. It occurred to Descartes that the position of the fly at any instant could be defined by three numbers, the perpendicular distances from the three walls. And so was born the coordinate graph. I have no idea if the story is true, but it struck me as marvelous at the time, as did all of my father’s stories. His graphs were marvelous, too. Lovely bell curves. Parabolas. Hyperbolas. Crisscrossing lines. He plotted everything. The data from his work, of course. But also stock market prices vs. sunspot numbers. Sales figures vs. inflation rates. Gross national products vs. geographic latitudes. Who knows what it all meant. Some of it may have been significant; some of it merely silly. His graphs were a way of teasing out hidden causal connections, if they existed, showing that the world was not the higgledy-piggledy it sometimes appeared to be. He was a great believer in causality. Nothing happened without a cause; the cause just might not be obvious. He had no taste for miracles.

If anything influenced me to study science, it was the cumulative effect of those hundreds of graphs my father was always plotting, each one a little work of art in his fine engineer’s hand. The thin colored lines on the green or orange-gridded paper were like circuit diagrams of the universe, a glimpse of the hidden webs of causality that make the whole thing work. He never knew much physics, but he had a physicist’s interest in the plumbing of reality. When I went off to study physics, I suppose I was looking for the plumbing, too. In my very first physics lab, we rolled a marble down an inclined plane and plotted distances vs. times. A parabola! A perfect mathematical parabola. Nature revealing her hidden plan. My lab reports were perhaps more notable for their neat, colorful graphs than for the quality of the physics. That was my father’s influence. And as he lay dying, he was still plotting, the many data of his illness, graph after graph, as if somehow the relationships would become clear and the independent variables could be properly adjusted to save him from what appeared to be an inevitable fate. There were no miracles, of course. Nor was his decline mere higgledy-piggledy. The graphs moved toward their foregone conclusion. It was cause and effect, all right. It was just a different effect than the one he’d hoped to find.

When I retired from teaching and cleaned out my office, I came upon a box of graph paper that I inherited from Dad. That wonderful tissue-thin, green and orange-printed Keuffel & Esser graph paper of various kinds. Linear. Semi-logarithmic. Log-log. One, two, three, four cycles. Polar. And suddenly I was back before the days of computers. Before the days of scientific calculators. Back to the time when a slide rule, a razor sharp pencil, and a sheet of the appropriate K&E paper was the way to analyze one’s data, discover patterns, find the law. As I thumbed through those pristine sheets of paper, I experienced a certain visual and tactile pleasure, but also a philosophical insight, something that consciously or unconsciously guided my father’s life and death. Without a mark on them, those tissuey pieces of paper with the meticulously ruled lines suggested the fabric of the universe itself, which appears to be mathematical in a way beyond our comprehension. Do we invent mathematics, or discover it in nature? We plot our data. We draw error bars on our data points. The world we experience is an approximation. An invention. Our invention is subject to ever-greater precision, an ever-closer approach to the real. The grid of that pristine K&E paper seems to me now like the armature upon which the world is hung.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 11

He liked things. Mechanical things. Things he could fix. Toasters. Wheelbarrows. Table legs. Picket fences. There was that big black cabinet in his basement workshop, with the two voluminous drawers at the base full of discarded what nots—stuff that might come in handy. Where did that cabinet come from? I do not know, but I suspect from his father. His father would have needed a big black cabinet. Every handyman needs a big black cabinet.

He worked for a company that made ceramic insulators, tiny ones mostly, the kind of things you’d wrap wire around to make an inductor or resistor. It was his job as a quality control engineer to make sure that the parts of each kind were interchangeable, to exacting tolerances. He never doubted, I think, that the world was made the same way, of precisely interchangeable parts. The atoms of creation may have been smaller than my father’s ceramic chips, but the Creator would have insisted on quality. Some of us marvel that the rich diversity of the world is put together from just a handful of different kinds of parts—protons, neutrons, electrons. My father would not have had it any other way. The Creator was the mechanical engineer par excellence. The Ultimate Handyman.

On the shelves of the big black cabinet were piles of magazines, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. These were the Holy Scriptures of handymen of his generation, the sources of my father’s prodigious inspirations, the muses that inspired his many projects. A clever way to keep the gutters from clogging up with leaves. Advice on the most efficient way to rotate the tires on the car. A new jig for cutting pickets for a fence. Popular Science and Popular Mechanics kept my father on the cutting edge of gimmickry. To his pile of well-thumbed magazines I often retired for entertainment. During long afternoons I sat huddled under the basement stairs reading about the latest innovations in high and low technology. As I recall, cover stories almost always featured some futuristic mode of transportation: electric automobiles, oceangoing hovercraft, folding-wing airplanes that would fit in the family garage. News-notes featured such things as multi-tipped screwdrivers, self-flushing toilets, and sprayed-concrete houses. It was from these magazines, also, that I first heard about computers, radio astronomy, atomic energy and space flight. That nook under the basement stairs wasn’t a bad place to get an education.

Recently, as I began writing down these memoirs of my father, I purchased copies of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics from the newsstand. I hadn’t read these magazines for more than half-a-century, not since my teens. Back then, I read them religiously. I suppose, they were part of the reason I decided to study science and engineering in college. Now, as I peruse current issues, I’m delighted to see that not much, really, has changed. They still contain the ample mix of slick technology and serious science that inspired the teenager. Here too is the same gee-whiz utopianism that fed a teenager’s sense of optimism and wonder. And here too is the same eclectic mix of gimmicks, gadgets and practical hints for the handyman. A few of the items featured in recent issues of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics:

  • A Space Pen, guaranteed to write in freezing cold or boiling heat, under water or upside down.
  • A Rogue Wallet with curved edges, that fits stylishly into a side pocket, thwarting thieves who might slip your wallet off your hip.
  • A NASA-designed personal vertical takeoff aircraft that flies horizontally, with just room enough for you.
  • Advice on how to get rid of squirrels in the attic and cat urine on linoleum flooring.
  • A Popular Mechanics book of “MANCrafts”—leather tooling, fly tying, ax whittling and other cool things for a man to do.
  • How to build a mini-workbench charging station for your cordless tools.
  • A page of projects for Saturday afternoon.
  • Ads for FrogTape, Gorilla Glue, and suspenders with “patented no-slip clips.”

Popular Mechanics was founded in 1902. Popular Science goes back to 1872. The 30th Anniversary issue of Popular Mechanics, published in the depths of the Great Depression, contained articles on “Machines to Raise Wages” and “Luxuries for Everyone.” As far as I can tell, both magazines have maintained a clear sense of their mission since issue number one: praise the practical, exalt American ingenuity, and keep an upbeat attitude about the future. Yes, there is something vaguely jingoistic, middle-class and decidedly male about the magazines, but you won’t find politics in their pages, or racism, or macho-swagger. Just contrivances, contraptions, widgets, doohickeys and a hearty celebration of practical science and state-of-the-art technology. In my father’s deathbed journals he makes a note: “Dr. Brennen visited—will bring Popular Science magazines.” He lived by the handyman’s code to the very end. Happiness is unclogged gutters and spark plugs that are perfectly gapped.