Sunday, March 25, 2012

Who We Really Are. . .

In a Lenten frame of mind, I offer this extended quote from The Weight of Glory, by CS Lewis:

"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.  It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.  There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations -- these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit -- immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. . .  Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. . .


(add, March 26)

Has anyone besides me been noticing the really cool conjunction of Venus and Jupiter over the past month or so?  Last night and tonight, they've been joined by the moon in an utterly spectacular celestial show.  Heck, the dark part of the moon has even been earth-lit.  Totally awesome. . .

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Going Fast

I was talking with a group of my kids the other day, and they told me that this is their favorite of my stories - their favorite 'Tell-That-One-Again'.  So, I thought that, just perhaps, you all might enjoy it, as well. . .


Have I ever told you that I'm a bit of a Math NerdI thought so. . .  In college, I started out as a Math major ('cuz, you know, I like math just that much), but even after I switched my major to Mechanical Engineering (after I ran afoul of my first Abstract Algebra class), I still used up most of my 'elective' credits on Applied Math classes.  So yeah - I'm kinda weird like that. . .

The main pre-requisite for most of the Applied Math classes I wanted to take was the first term of a three-term sequence of Advanced Calculus (and I will nod sympathetically with anyone for whom the words 'Advanced' and 'Calculus' seem just a little over-the-top redundant).  I was the least bit leery of the class going in, since it was one of those hard-core 'math-major'-type classes, and at that point (and fresh off my dubious experience in Abstract Algebra), I wasn't sure if I was gonna be out of my league, or not.

The professor, who also happened to be the Assistant Chair of the Math Department, was straight out of Central Casting.  He walked into the classroom on the first day, wearing a tweed jacket, complete with suede patches on the elbows.  His hair was a bit unruly; his glasses slid down the bridge of his nose, and he had a pipe clenched firmly between his teeth (I don't recall if he ever lit it, or if it was just a prop, or satisfaction of an oral fixation).  As he spoke, in an odd, unidentifiable accent that reminded me of Simon Bar Sinister, the cartoon villain from Underdog, he paced slowly back-and-forth across the front of the room, always gazing off somewhere above our heads, or, when he was facing the windows, at the sky.

"I see," he drawled, as he looked over the class roster, "that we have. . ." he paused for dramatic effect, as he worked his mouth into a sneer, "engineers in the class this term."  The Math building and the Engineering building were directly across the street from each other, and the class, although taught by the Math Department, was being held in the Engineering building.  There was a fair bit of (usually) good-natured trash-talk that passed back-and-forth across the street, to the effect that engineers like to wave their hands past all the 'important parts', and just get to the punch line as simply as possible; or, conversely, that the mathematicians were all anal about proving stuff that was obvious to everybody.

Anyway, poor undergraduate that I was (both of the other engineer-types were graduate students), I was the least bit, uh, concerned by Dr. Bar-Sinister's obvious disdain for folks of my ilk, and began wondering if I'd made a mistake by taking this class.

"Don't worry, though," he assured us.  "When we get to the hard parts, I'll let you know, so you can put your heads down and take a nap.  And I promise to wake you up when we're done."  The math-types all laughed at his rapier-like wit at the expense of the rubes from across the street.  And my worry started to morph into something a little more like being pissed.  But, I needed this class, to get to the ones I really wanted to take, so I just chuckled along with the crowd, and resolved that I wasn't going to be run off so easily.

The class was duly rigorous, but before long I grasped the 'basic tricks', and I started to enjoy what I was learning.  But the mid-term exam was looming, and that would be the real 'acid test' (uh, so to speak) as to whether I was 'getting it' as much as I thought I was.  So I was appropriately apprehensive as the mid-term drew near.

I have mentioned the Christian community that I belong to, haven't I?  Anyway, I belonged to the community even back then, and we had a community Day of Fasting coming up.  I checked the calendar, and. . . oh, no. . . it was scheduled for the same day as my Advanced Calc mid-term.  Which heightened my apprehensiveness the tiniest bit - I didn't want to be groggy from the fasting on a day when I really needed to have my wits sharp.  But, you know, whatchagonnado?  I'd just do the best I could; I didn't need to kill the class, I just needed to pass it. . .

The appointed day arrived, and I had an hour between the class just before Advanced Calc, and the fateful exam.  I wasn't feeling too bad from the fasting, but I figured, just to be safe, I'd stop at the grill next-door to the Math building, and grab a cup of coffee - a large cup of coffee - which, I reasoned, wouldn't count as breaking my fast ('cuz yeah, I was just that anal about it), and would help me be alert for the exam.

I got to the classroom a few minutes early, and took my seat.  In short order, Dr. Bar-Sinister arrived, handed out the test sheets, and told us to begin.  Almost immediately, I began to quiver and tremble, from the effects of all that caffeine on an empty stomach.  I was, literally, shaking in my seat, buzzed on coffee.  Inwardly, I berated myself for unmindfully sabotaging my exam, even as I did my best to focus as I worked through the test problems, shaking all the while, sitting on the edge of my seat, making quick, darting movements with my pencil as it flew across the page.

In the fullness of time, I was on the last page, and duly finished the exam.  I checked my watch.  It was 20 minutes since the beginning of the class.  Uh-oh.  I started to panic.  This was a hard class; there was NO WAY I was going to finish that exam in 20 minutes.  I took a deep breath, and went back to make sure that I hadn't missed any pages; I hadn't.  Then I did as thorough a second pass through each problem as I could muster in my hyper-caffeinated state.  Finding no obvious, glaring errors, I sighed heavily.  I'm sure my shoulders even sagged in discouragement.  I was convinced that I had inadvertently scrambled my own brains, to the point that I couldn't even find my own mistakes.  There was nothing to do but shuffle up to the professor's desk, hand in my exam, and leave.  25 minutes into a 50-minute class period.  As I slumped toward the door, twenty slack jaws, and twenty pairs of eyes belonging to my fellow-students, followed me as I left.

I was sure that I had blown the exam, and on an epic scale, and I cursed the combination of my bad luck at having to fast on an exam day, and my own foolishness at thinking that a cup of coffee on an empty stomach would be a good idea.

Two days later, I found myself back in the same classroom.  The first order of business was the return of our exams.  Dr. B-S moved deliberately around the room, placing the exams face-down on the desk in front of their owners.  One or two of the students sighed or groaned as they turned their exams over, having gotten a worse grade than they'd hoped, and I inwardly steeled myself for a similar fate.  When the prof placed my test face-down in front of me, I paused, and took a deep breath.  Then I turned the paper over.

At the top of the page was a circled, hand-written '97'.  My first instinct was that I'd been handed the wrong test.  But, my name was written at the top, and the handwriting was undeniably mine.  I couldn't believe it.  I flipped through the pages, and found the small error that had cost me three points, then I sat back and smiled.  Ninety-seven; no kidding. . .  The student next to me noticed my score, and I heard him mutter, under his breath, ". . . and he finished in 20 minutes. . ." 

And, just to bring the story to a nice, round closure, at the end of the term, Dr. B-S posted the final grades on his office door.  I happened to be there at the same time as the other two engineers in the class.  I was pleased and elated, and just a little surprised, to see that I'd earned a grade of 4.0.  Both of the other engineers smiled, and said that they, too, had made 4.0s.  I scanned quickly up and down the list, and there were only three 4.0 grades given.  All of them to . . . (pause for sneer) engineers. . .

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Quarter Mil

The first car I ever owned was a '79 Chevette (four-door!) that I bought fresh out of college, when I'd secured my first job.  That plucky little vehicle served me (and Jen, once we were well and properly married a year-and-a-half after I bought it) for seven years and 90,000 miles of mostly worry-free transportation.  As well as serving as overnight lodgings for one night of our honeymoon (how was I supposed to know that every single motel in Munising, Michigan would be booked in mid-August of 1980?  I mean, really?  Munising - pop. 2320??)

We traded in the Chevette for a minivan in '86, when 2F was a year old, and we decided that it would be good to have space in our vehicle for an occasional guest-rider.  Or, you know, any future children as yet known only to God.  We bought the 7-passenger model, which prompted Jen to ask, "Does this mean that we're committing ourselves to only have five children?"  Heh-heh-heh; if she'd only known. . .  The minivan gave us ten years and 130,000 miles, including two (not one, but TWO) round-trips to Florida to meet sundry long-lost relatives (the fact that we met them during spring break was completely incidental).

That minivan was also the first of our family vehicles to receive a name.  It was quite accidental, really.  The poor vehicle was pretty woefully underpowered (which is more-or-less directly correlative to my fondness for high gas-mileage), and when the poor beast struggled to keep its speed on an uphill run in West Virginia, say, I would pound on the steering wheel, and urge it on, saying, "Come on, Bessie Sue!"  So my kids (and who could argue with their logic?) figured that 'Bessie Sue' was the critter's name, and took to calling it such.

In '96, I changed jobs (although, to be perfectly candid, it wasn't my idea at the time), and in '95, 6F was born, thus nominally rendering our minivan 'too small' (although we did 'make do' with one seat too few for as long as we practically could; four narrow tushies could fit into a three-butt seat in a pinch, with 'double-buckling', which, in '95 didn't yet consign parents to The Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth).  My new job was nearly an hour's drive from our house, so I thought it expedient to acquire a 'commuter car', so Jen could still make her way around town while I was at work, and also so I could pile up the commuting miles at a somewhat lower rate of fuel consumption than driving an empty minivan an hour each way.  So I got a little Geo Metro that got me 40+ mpg.  Its dark-green color and diminutive size earned it the moniker 'Little Larry', after the 'Veggie Tales' cucumber.

And alas, the minivan (which was already one seat shy of our family size) gave up the ghost that summer.  So, we swallowed hard at the prospect of carrying two car payments, and went out and bought a not-too-used 12-passenger van (by that time, Jen was well past asking if that committed us to only having ten kids) (also, note to would-be used-vehicle salespersons - telling your married-parents-of-six prospective customers that you really need this sale because your girlfriend is pregnant and your divorce isn't final yet, might not engender quite the sympathy you were hoping for. . .)  The van, because of its great size (which was pretty comical, really, when parked in the same driveway as the aforementioned Larry), was dubbed 'Willy', after the famed movie whale.

This was something like the Golden Age of our family vehicles.  Our first three kids all learned to drive in those two very disparate machines.  I almost felt bad for them - they had a choice between the giant van, which always pushed the size and maneuverability limits of wherever it needed to be parked (note to prospective drivers - when the little hanging-down bar in the parking ramp says '6 feet 8 inches', and you bump it with your roof, that's a meaningful bump; and when Dad tells you that the van is 6-9, believe him), or the cute, maneuverable little Metro - which was a stick-shift.  In retrospect, I think it generally worked in our kids' favor; they would never again drive anything of whose far-flung corners they had to be quite so aware, and they knew how to drive a stick.

The little Metro went 208,000 miles in seven years (long commutes will do that to you)  before giving up its ghost, and we replaced it with an '03 Chevy Cavalier (by that time, I was drawing a paycheck from GM, and it was nice to finally get the employee discount).  That Cavalier, weirdly enough, was the first vehicle I'd ever owned that had a trunk.  Seeing the Metro's odometer roll over 200,000 was a bit of an exotic treat.  When I was learning to drive, we never expected to see 100,000; to go beyond double that just felt like getting one over on the Universe.

By '06, gas prices were beginning their inexorable march to their present rarefied levels.  I didn't do too many $75 fills of the big van before I decided that we couldn't keep doing that.  A quick calculation showed me that two vehicles, each getting 30mpg, would use less fuel than the big van getting 12.  So, we decided to sell the big van (which had 195,000 miles on it, by then), and the few times a year when we needed to take the whole family on a long trip, say, to Chicago, we'd just take two cars, and come out ahead.  Which takes us out of the 'Whole Family In One Vehicle' dynamic, but it also creates some fun 'mix-and-match' possibilities for Who Rides With Who.

I bought a Chevy Aveo for myself, and gave Jen the Cavalier, which by that time, had somewhere over 150,000 miles on it.  She was excited to have a car of her own (rather than driving 'the family bus') for the first time in her life.  We have those two vehicles to this very day.  They're showing their age, just a bit - the gages on Jen's instrument panel have been only intermittently functional for a year or more, now (but the Low Fuel warning light still works, so we haven't gotten stranded), and the cost to replace an instrument panel is close to more than the vehicle's re-sale value.  One of her red tail-light lenses got broken a couple years back, and when we found out what it would cost to fix it, we decided that the red tail-light tape would work just fine.  (Which leads to another, somewhat bizarre story, involving getting pulled over by the Campus Cops while driving across my alma mater, and being told by the 19-year-old puke of a cop-wannabe that 'your tail-light tape is the wrong shade of red'; but that's another story for another time).

A couple months ago, the Aveo finally passed the Cavalier in total miles, and a few days ago, it rolled over 250,000.  And, barring something happening in the meantime, Jen's car will join it in a couple months.  A quarter-million miles, on two cars (neither of which, alas, has been given a name) (and sheesh, when I add up all the miles we've driven on all our cars, it's already over a million).  Amazing, ain't it?  I'm still hoping to see either or both of them roll 300k, but it's all gravy at this point.  And sooner or later, we'll be back to two car payments again. . .  It's always something, ain't it?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Godlike. . . Or Not. . .

One more piece of evidence that Bill Watterson is a cartooning genius. . .

There's just something emblematic about this, isn't there?  We never have as much control over our lives and circumstances, or those of others, as we like to think we do.  I imagine Chevy Chase saying, on behalf of the Almighty, "I'm God, and you're not."


Today is my birthday (Suldog's was yesterday, but he's a whole year younger than me; okay, a year less one day).  And just for fun (and cryptic-ness - crypticity?), for the next year, my age and my birth year will be the same (hmmmmm. . . come to think of it, the same would be true of this year's six-year-olds).  Jen will join me this summer.  But we're not even the first members of our family to reach this milestone - 8M beat us to it by eight years. . .


On March 3 in history -

in 1820, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise
in 1845, Florida was admitted as the 27th state
in 1873, Congress passed the first Comstock Law, prohibiting the sending of 'obscene, lewd and lascivious' materials through the US Mail.
in 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, ending Russia's involvement in WWI
in 1923, the first issue of Time magazine was published.
in 1924, the last Ottoman Caliph was deposed, giving way to the modern state of Turkey
in 1931, the United States adopted The Star-Spangled Banner as its national anthem
in 1969, Apollo 9 was launched
in 1991, an amateur video captured the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers

I was born the same day as -

Jim Barton, an Olympic bronze-medal yachtsman,
John F Reid, a cricket-player from New Zealand,
and Zbigniew Boniek, a Polish soccer player.

(*ahem*)  Well, now.

I was born

eight years before Mexican cyclist Raul Alcala,
six years before Herschel Walker and Jackie Joyner-Kersee,
two years before Bob Bradley, who coached the US soccer team in the last World Cup,
and nine years after American astronaut Bonnie Dunbar.

Princess Lee Radziwill (whose sister was Jackie Kennedy Onassis) was born 23 years before me;
James Doohan (Star Trek's Scotty) preceded me by 36 years;
Hall of Fame baseball player Wee Willie Keeler by 84 years;
Alexander Graham Bell by 109;
German mathematician Georg Cantor (discoverer of the transfinite numbers) by 111;
and George Pullman (inventor of the eponymous railroad sleeper car) by 125.

Please - hold your applause. . .

And I am, beyond a shadow of a doubt, not God. . .


(edit, 3Mar)

As if the previous sentence needed any empirical confirmation. . .

I also share my birthday with my (step-)sister, who was born two years after me, and came into my life when I was nine.  Happy Birthday, Barbie. . .   {{{hugs}}}