Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 21

I have now lived fourteen years longer than my father, and well past the age when his own father died. A century ago, the average male lifetime in the United States was 45 years. Today it’s in the late-70s—and rising. Never before in history have so many of us had the expectation of a ripe old age. The average lifetime won’t rise forever, of course, at least not without some genetic jiggering. There are biological clocks ticking in every cell of our bodies. Our cells are fated one-by-one to die, each at its appointed time, until finally the entire colony expires.

For multicelled creatures like ourselves, death is not the opposite of life; death is part of life. Single-celled organisms are potentially immortal. With an appropriate environment and nutrients, bacteria can live forever. Genetically-programmed, inevitable death appeared rather late in the history of life, just 600 million years ago, at about the same time as sex and multicellularity. In recent decades scientists have begun to understand that if you want to have creatures with eyes and ears, brains and backbones, gonads and gods, then you must have death, too. Death is the driving engine of evolution.

An individual cell in a multicellular organism can do one of three things—divide, specialize, or commit suicide. It has been estimated that if division and specialization occurred without cell suicide, an 80-year-old person would have two tons of bone marrow and a gut ten miles long. The whole business of building and maintaining a multicelled organism is a genetically orchestrated dance of cell division and cell death. For example, as a human embryo develops, the extremities of the limbs first look like stumpy ping-pong paddles. Then cells start to selectively die in a way that turns the paddles into hands and feet with digits. We have fingers and toes because certain cells are programmed for suicide. The Grim Reaper has an alternate role as a Michelangelo who releases the statue’s form from within the block of marble.

Sooner or later, however, in multicelled creatures such as ourselves, the reaping runs ahead of the shaping and we experience senescence, the physical decline of old age. Scientists are not sure how or why senescence evolved, but humans are the only creatures for which it makes much difference. For other animals and plants (and including humans until recently), death by accident or violence or disease was a more likely fate than doddering old age. If evolution never selected against senescence, it may be because it never had much opportunity to do so.

My father’s mind was sharp until the last few days of his life, when disease cut short his “three score years and ten,” the carefully orchestrated balance of cell division and death having gone wildly astray. His experience was typical of most humans throughout history; my two grandfathers died in their forties, one of a tragic accident, the other of pneumonia. We live today in a civilization that has invented antibiotics and childproof caps, vaccinations and seat belts, sterile parturition and the ABM Treaty. It is possible that I will collect my Social Security check for another 10 or 20 years. This is a huge new thing in the history of life: Not nature red in tooth and claw, but Centrum Silver and senior aerobics. For most of the history of our race, death came as a bolt from the blue—a snake bite, an impacted tooth, a bash on the head by the warrior next door, starvation. Now, with the benefit of medical science and the orderly assistance of civilized society, many of us live long enough to see that mortality is a necessary part of the plan, a corollary of life that is built into every cell of our bodies. Death is life’s necessary partner, the ultimate tinkerer, endlessly creative.

Of my father’s death I have five volumes of his handwritten notes. I know his every thought for ten terrible weeks, every blast of radiation, every pill. What is strangely absent is any recognition that death is inevitable. The slightest uptick from his well of pain is invariably recorded as a harbinger of recovery. Where are the Big Questions, the ones that are supposed to occupy a dying man? Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What does it all mean? My father seems to have been more interested in the Little Questions. How many inches is my head from the top of the bed? How many minutes since the last Percodan pill? Will the next cobalt treatment correct the double vision in my right eye? These questions were not as trivial to him as they might seem to us. It was by the accumulation and analysis of apparently trivial data that engineers and scientists have answered other no-so-little Little Questions. How are atoms of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen forged in the cores of stars? How do enzymes in every cell of our bodies build proteins, carbohydrates and lipids? How does a hummingbird hover? How does one increase the average span of life from 40 years to 80 years? What my father was doing may seem trivial and fruitless in his dire circumstances, but he was celebrating at the end what he celebrated all his life—things that can be told and named. The army of rampaging cells that escaped from his prostate at age 64 and infiltrated his entire body were part of what is, just as the moving mechanical belt that grasped his father’s glove and ripped off his arm was part of what is. He fought the spreading cancerous cells in his body with the instruments of is. He was an engineer, a handyman, to the very end, but no match for the explosive power of life run sadly amok.

In the final days, his journals descend into a bit of chaos as his faculties become muddled. The doctors and priests come and go. Family and friends attend. And still the current of optimism flows through the pages, the handyman’s faith that with a little ingenuity anything can be fixed. The doses and times. The ups and downs of the energy cycle. Nausea. Morphine. Mylanta. Milk. Bleeding. Oxygen. IV. Antibiotics. A hodgepodge of hopeful notes, as if he were rooting around in the junk drawers of the big black cabinet in the basement, looking for just the right gizmo to set the mechanism aright. At last, other hands take over the journal, recording what he no longer has the strength or clarity of mind to record himself. His last words: 6:45 “Let the light come in.” 7:00 “Purple people eaters.” 7:10 “I hear a bell.” And then, a joke, as he is given an injection to control his spasms. 7:12 “Shot was hot. Hot shot!”

In the year he died, senior students at Notre Dame High School dedicated their yearbook to him. They reproduced his photograph from the yearbook of 1928, with the description that had accompanied the photo then: “The sterling qualities of honor and integrity are possessed in an unusual degree by Chester Raymo. His ability to plan and to execute has caused him to be chosen leader in almost every school activity which calls for a cool head and quick brain. Beneath his rather serious exterior there runs a thread of humor and fun which rises to the surface on frequent occasions.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

As if


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

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 20

He taught me to use a drawknife, and a brace and bit. He taught me how to include a spring suspension in a soapbox racer, and how to take it out again. He taught me how to cut and splice celluloid film. He had a headful of handy skills and was happy to share them. He was, in fact, a born teacher, and found the time in the margins of his full-time employment as a quality control engineer to teach night courses at the local technical schools on everything from welding to blueprint reading, from metallurgy to foremanship. It was probably inevitable that when he retired from the American Lava Corporation at age sixty he would look for a teaching position. And he found it, at his old high school, Notre Dame Academy in Chattanooga, now moved to a bright new campus in a rather smarter part of town. He taught mathematics and physics, and served as plant manager and assistant principal. His favorite course was geometry, and he had in mind writing a high school geometry text. Even in the final weeks of his life, confined to his hospital bed, he wrote in his journal: “I should also use this time at a table of some sort and begin my long overdue geometry book.” He got no further than the first sentence: “Begin with a point.” His cancer had a point to make, and it was final.

As John Updike points out in a poem, death exists nowhere in nature except in our forebodings. As far as we know, no other creature, animal or plant, has an awareness of its own mortality. Only in human consciousness is death anticipated, as a dark foreboding or promise of release. And so much else is carried along in that baggage of anticipation. Courage. Fear. Virtue. Guilt. All of this comes out in my father’s journals—the ambivalent foreboding rising now and then to the surface through that carefully contrived overlay of data and analysis. “Begin with a point.” The imagined geometry book was another instrument for holding death at bay, not so much a practical project as a palliative, a placebo.

In the Roman Catholic theology of my youth only humans had immortal souls. In the heaven of our imaginations there were no animals or plants, no victory gardens or picket fences or starry nights. No dawns or dusks. No seasons. I suppose I pictured heaven as rather like the hospital my father died in, all stainless steel and white paint and pale green gowns and angels with pushcarts and mops going around swabbing up the invisible microbes that had managed to slip in on our resurrected feet, and some little device down the hall going ping-ping-ping counting off the seconds of eternity. Not a terribly attractive prospect, but I have never come up with anything more plausible. I search my father’s journals for his anticipation of the afterlife. His attention is on the present. In the noontime of his handyman days he had used to say, “With a little ingenuity, anything can be fixed.” Until the moment when he is no longer able to scrawl his notes he is searching for an escape clause, the triumph of conscious will over the out-of-whack cells that were rampaging his body. He records a dream of “waking up in a formless container—a cocoon!”

Occasionally in the journals I find a puzzled “Why me?” He has so much left to do, courses to teach, a geometry book to write. Where is the justice? But nature is arbitrary and violent, and cares not a whit for human conceptions of what is fair and not fair. Massive black holes at the centers of galaxies gobble up gas and stars. In the arms of galaxies suns explode with a force that shatters surrounding worlds. Comets and asteroids smash into the Earth causing mass extinctions. In the midst of such arbitrary violence, what is the importance of an individual human life? As Loren Eiseley wrote: “Instability lies at the heart of he world.” Order and disorder, life and death, cooperation and competition are the paired principles of nature’s creative force.

There is a line by the Irish poet Pat Boran: “The spirit loves the flesh, as the hand the glove.” That fit, of spirit to flesh, comes across in the journals, in all those drawings of his body splayed on the bed, the angles, the dimensions. The material world of nuts and bolts, ceramic widgets, flesh and bones was his bailiwick, his heaven on earth. The spirit is flesh, yes, but more than flesh. This I learned from my father, as long ago as those starry nights on the badminton court when he taught me the names of the constellations, or those hours in the garage with drawknife and plane: The spirit is flesh in interaction with a universe of infinite complexity. The windows of the flesh are thrown open to the world. The spirit is a wind of awareness, a pool stirred by angels. And, yes, some part of the spirit will linger when the flesh is gone, as memories in other flesh, as words and stories—a fleshless hand that retains the shape of the glove. He was not a philosopher or a saint. His very ordinariness was his crown. He was a handyman, a teacher. And this is what he taught: Let us love the world, this world, the world outside the windows of the flesh, for in truth there is no other world, no other world for us except the world we inhale like a deep, deep breath and seal into the soul.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 19

And he was there with his movie camera, as I plummeted down Ninth Street, in my Soapbox racer, helmeted head tucked low, as he was always there for any of his children’s special occasions. Any handyman in the 1930s and 40s with an artsy-techno streak would inevitably be drawn to home movies. Kodak introduced black-and-white 8mm film in 1932, and Kodachrome film came along in 1936. I don’t recall my father ever being particularly interested in still photography—he left that to his mother and sister—but he took to home movies like a duck to water.

The first films in his oeuvre were black-and-white. I recall footage of a big steam shovel (yes, real steam!) working on Ninth Street outside my mother’s and father’s family homes (yes, the same street that at the other end hosted the Soapbox Derby), and my sister Anne’s first birthday party in 1939. Surely, I saw these later on, probably several times, for I would have been too young to remember firsthand Dad’s earliest dabbles in the Hollywood art. These were the standard four-minute Kodak flicks on metal reels; when the war started the reels became plastic.

Reliable memories kick in from about the time the war began. His camera was a keywound Cine-Kodak. He was seldom without it. Reel by reel his collection grew—each yellow box returned from Kodak processing neatly labeled—eventually filling a cabinet in the upstairs hall. It seems I spent my entire childhood either self-consciously acting for the camera or sitting on the living room floor with my sibs—Mom enthroned in her wing-back chair—as Dad projected his films onto a roll-up screen with his Keystone projector. Shooting movies indoors required floodlights, with big tin reflectors, mounted on tripods. We ripped into our Christmas presents or licked birthday-cake frosting off our fingers in blazing illumination. I wonder if always being “on set” turned us into little prima donnas, showoffs for life. Conspicuously under-represented in Dad’s movies was my mother, who was adverse to the marrow of her bones to show-offery of any sort. She generally absented herself from the “set,” retiring to some other corner of the house, leaving the wannabe Hollywood director and his pint-sized actors to their glitzy business.

On at least one occasion, Dad’s home-movie making veered towards the professional. He made a promotional film for the American Lava Corporation which must have been one of the first such enterprises. I remember how it began. First the title, spelled out on a black background with the white plastic alphabets you could buy for such purposes. Then, a cascade of the company’s ceramic insulators spilled out over the title. I thought it was as good as anything I had seen in a Hollywood movie. Making his longer films required splicing, and his splicing equipment was a handyman’s dream: two reels mounted at opposite ends of a wood board, a magnifying viewer, and a wonderful stainless-steel precision cutter and clamp with pins to hold the film’s sprocket holes exactly in place. He taught me the art of cutting and splicing, which subsumed the greater art of editing. It was a skill I would later put to advantage in my writing.

Home movies in the 1940s and 50s were the cutting edge of the creative handyman’s gee-whizery, the place where art and technology met. The Cine-Kodak camera with its big flat wind-up key, the clickety-clack Keystone projector, the blazing hot floodlights, the stink of splicing fluid. The arty gimmicks—titles, zooms, segues—and the little actors performing their tricks on cue. These days anyone with a mobile phone can make a movie, and watch it wherever you want, even send it across the world through e-mail. For me, the idea of personal filmmaking will always be associated with that magic moment when the family gathered in the living room, Dad threaded the Keystone, the room lights were turned off, and—clickety, clickety, clickety—the powerful tungsten bulb in its cooling-finned housing projected images of the silent Shirley Temple wannabes onto the silver screen.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Doing the math


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

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 18

The bookshelves may have belonged to Mom, but the basement belonged to Dad. And the garage. There was a freestanding, single-car garage next to the house, with slightly sagging doors that didn’t close properly. I don’t recall that my father ever parked the car in the garage. Rather, it was a place for him to store the detritus of the handyman’s life, the stuff too big or unwieldy to fit in the basement workshop—planks of wood, half-empty paint cans, the rusty lawnmower whose blades needed sharpening, the wheelbarrow with the limp left leg. It was in the garage that I participated with my father on the most intense of our common handyman projects: my two downhill “soapbox” racers.

The All-American Soapbox Derby was established in 1934, and reached its heyday in the 1950s, about the time I decided to compete. Soapbox Derby racers were built by kids and powered only by gravity on a downhill track. Standardized steel axles, wheels, and helmets were supplied by the national organization. There was an entrance fee, generally paid by a local business sponsor who got to paint its logo on the car. Local competitions were held in dozens of cities and the winners competed in the nationals in Akron, Ohio.

Chet and his 1948 car.
I was almost 12 years old. I had picked up lots of practical skills from my father, and he certainly encouraged my participation. More than encouraged. He got out his drafting tools and designed me a car, then taught me how to build it. Cars were supposed to be entirely the creation of the boys (no girls in those days)—the proverbial soapboxes on wheels—but by 1948 it was generally conceded that the derby was a family affair. In fact, the cars that won sometimes had the look of being designed by Ferrari engineers and built by teams of expert mechanics in professional machine shops—and probably were. While my father was certainly designer-in-chief of my first racer, he insisted that I do the construction, all with hand tools he showed me how to use. I mastered the usual tools—handsaw, plane, chisels, brace and bit—and became something of an expert with the drawknife. The skin of the car was made from the thin slat sides of orange crates, scrounged from local markets, wrapped around a skeleton of wood salvaged from who-knows-where. The surface was hand-sanded to a fine sheen and given several coats of enamel.

All of that was well and good, but my father’s passion for mechanical tinkering got the better of him. The official steel axles that came with the wheels were three-quarters of an inch square. We embedded them in wood casings, with independently suspended tops and bottoms and drilled-out cylindrical cavities near the wheels in which we embedded coil springs. A coil-spring suspension of my father’s design! The axle casings were four-inches thick, sticking out from each side of the body of the car. I didn’t grasp—at least not yet—that a spring suspension on a smooth track was of little use, and presumably was only there for the comfort of the driver, who hardly needed comfort on a ride that lasted about a minute. Those ridiculously thick axles with embedded springs surely added enough air resistance to slow me down by the fraction of a second that would cost the race. We raced in heats of three. I came in second in my inaugural plunge down Ninth Street.

Chet at the wheel of his 1949 car.
I was a quick learner, however. After the 1948 race it dawned on me that coil-spring suspensions and the ingenious steering and braking mechanisms designed by my father were irrelevant to winning, and might even be detrimental. Wheel lubrication and air resistance: That’s what I would concentrate on. My 1949 car was not the engineering marvel of its predecessor, but it was slimmer and sleeker. The axles were only as thick as the three-quarter-inch steel they encased in a slender airfoil. My father watched these modifications with approval. He grasped the concept of “simple is better,” once he got his gizmo-ization in check. He went out of his way to figure out what might be the very best oil for the wheels. In that second competition, I won my heat, which meant I got to run the hill a second time.

The skills and concepts I learned from my father out there in the family garage have served me well all my life, especially the lesson that the most beautiful contrivances are those that are most perfectly suited to their task. I can’t remember why I didn’t compete again in 1950, probably because I had become more interested in girls than in building racers, or maybe because my father had other projects on his mind. Still, I had learned a lot about what it means to be an handyman, and no doubt soapbox version 3.0 would have been even slimmer and sleeker—and painted and buffed to a fare-thee-well.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Training


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.