Saturday, March 26, 2011

It's Only A Vapor Moon

My friend Dale, who slings English like nobody's business over at mole, recently lamented that so many people were baffled by the movements of the moon and planets. The dynamics underlying the phases of the moon are so evident to him that he believes people are being, if not deliberately obtuse, unobservant in the extreme. He makes a good point. Whatever the moon is doing, it has been doing it in a regular and predictable manner for the span of our lives, and we've all had plenty of time to absorb the rhythm of it. I think highly enough of Dale that I hate to mention I am one of those clueless people.

I asked my Daddy about it all more than once, and more than once he dragged out the flashlight and tennis ball and ping pong ball and paper and pencil and WD-40 and plunger and whatever else he thought it might take to transfer some clarity into my noggin. He succeeded every time, too. I always got it. Then I'd look up suddenly and all of it would tumble out my downhill ear. Daddy was a mathematician and amateur astronomer and there really wasn't anything in the natural world he didn't understand. His mind was a huge repository of information. Mine is more like a culvert. An awful lot of stuff has gone in, and shot right back out again.

When I was a little girl, I was pegged in the academic system early on as "gifted," mostly because I drew people with shoelaces. That could have been because I was nearsighted and short and that's where my attention was, but there you go--if you're going to be tagged with a label, it might as well be a hopeful one. Because math was a big deal in my family, I assumed that being gifted meant I was good in math. Relieved of math phobia, I took lots and lots of math and always understood it and thought it was really cool. I loved it. I loved it for the entire duration of every class, and then after that I remembered having loved it, as opposed to remembering the math.

The big science light went on for me the day, in tenth grade, I read about stomatal pores. These are paired cells on a plant's surface responsible for regulating water. They're shaped like buttocks, complete with the hole in the middle. When they swell up with water, the hole gets larger and the water can run out. When they lose water and go slack, the hole shuts down. Feel free to abandon this particular analogy if it doesn't work for you, but I thought the whole scheme was elegant. Those tiny botanical fannies got me on the road to a science degree. I loved all that too. Don't ask me about it now. My head is packed to the rafters with correctly-spelled words, jostling and forming cliques and swapping around promiscuously, and all the other stuff just passes through; it can't get a purchase with all the commotion.

I'm especially challenged by visualizing things in three dimensions, which comes up surprisingly often in life. If you hand me one of those wooden 3-D puzzles, I'll give it five minutes and end up solving it with a hammer.

Dave can't figure out where I'm going wrong with my spatial reasoning, but he gets all upset at how English is spelled. It's easy for me to spell: I hold my brain up to the light and read the words right off the roof of my cranium. But when Dave tries to explain to me how something goes together mechanically or what pieces to cut out of fabric to achieve a particular shape, he can look into my eyes and see right through them. Not to my soul, but to a little musty area where lint balls of bewilderment tumble around in a lonely, whistling wind; and he knows he's not getting through to me, so he explains it louder. My situation is tragic, really. "Gifted," my botanical fanny.

But oh, those words: words with shine and juice and rambunction. Plump ones, like "gibbous." I look up at the moon and wonder why it has that shape. I imagine rustling up my dad, maybe poking a stick in  his ashes--he wouldn't mind--and I hear him saying, "not the flashlight and the tennis ball and the ping pong ball again? Okay, one more time." And one more time, I'd understand. Almost everything strikes me as new information, a condition so close to dementia that the transition should prove seamless.

So a week ago I went out at sunset and peered into the east for the big orange moon that was supposed to show up--the biggest in eighteen years. Naturally, it wasn't there. We've had cloud cover for eighteen hundred consecutive days, and that's just since Thanksgiving. Nevertheless I squinted into the fog, right where I knew that moon was, felt it trying to press through. I like to hear unseen geese hootling through the clouds too. The list of grand things I can't see is enormous. Pretty much the whole universe.

Yesterday we had a half moon, I'm told. Was it half full, or half empty? If the moon, or the fanny cells on a nasturtium, or anything else is out there glorying away and we can't see it, or won't see it, or learned it once and forgot it, is it still magnificent? I'm going with yes.

55 comments:

  1. There is a wonderful Far Side cartoon with the usual dorky kid holding up his hand in class and saying 'may I be excused, my brain is full'. And unfortunately where maths/science are concerned my brain is always full. It goes in. It comes out. And like you I come from a maths/science oriented family. As a result I was in my thirties before I realised that I wasn't stupid. And still sometimes wonder. Which is a very longwinded way of saying - wonderful post, thank you.

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  2. Don't give up on your crepuscular journeys to check on the moon--it's out there somewhere.

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  3. I had a math genius for a father also. He taught me marvelous ways to solve problems that baffled my teachers and would earn me a stern, "you will solve the problems the way I teach you". The "or else" was implied but I'm pretty sure contained a failing grade. Somewhere between the two wars, I lost my love. Sigh.
    Loved this post. " a condition so close to dementia that the transition should prove seamless," caused the coffee spray.

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  4. Long ago I used enjoy Isaac Asimov's books of science and mathematics for the masses. They were clear and easy to read and understand. Then I would rush to my kids to explain some math marvel only to rush back to the book to re-read what I thought I learned..while the kids sat there and rolled their eyes.

    I suspect your condition is not rare. I mean, it was clear as a bell when I read it...

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  5. Ah, yes, the "lint balls of bewilderment." Thank you, again, for the perfect accompaniment to my morning coffee.

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  6. I forgot... :) Those pics of you with your daddy are soooo sweet.

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  7. My favorite line among of the many gems of this post:

    "Not to my soul, but to a little musty area where lint balls of bewilderment tumble around in a lonely, whistling wind;"

    I have that place, too!

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  8. One of the reasons I have been revisiting your blog since I recently found it is that you are one of the brainiac writers I have found online. So it doesn't come as a surprise to hear you were designated "gifted" as a child. When I re-read a book it doesn't seem like I have never read it, but I see different things, more things than the previous time. Same with a movie.

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  9. Et tu, Murr? Just a sec while I fetch the ping pong balls and the WD-40!

    It's fascinating, all the capacities and incapacities of our brains. I'm like you about 3 dimensions. Martha designed a remodel of our house and drew me pictures and explained it and talked me through it. A dormer here, the stairway moved there, uh-huh, wow, it sounds great!

    As it turns out it was great, and I was very enthusiastic about it, which sort of clued her in to the fact that I had actually had no idea what was going to happen when she set the carpenters in motion.

    But she responds to math like you do: it's a sort of free love, love-the-equation-you're-with thing. No commitment. Sure, quadratic equations were great for a fling, but that was then, this is now.

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  10. Yikes, do I ever relate to this post! Because of it, I have always been interested in the educational investigation of learning styles and the "science of cognition" (I know there's correct terminology that I'm just missing). Years ago, when I started blogging, I found this website. Not sure if the link still works, but it's in this post: http://didrooglie.blogspot.com/search?q=brain+sex

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  11. Add me to the list. Love what you do to the English language. 3D and math are not my things either. You should write for the movies so your expressions become part of the lexicon. the are too good to lie hidden away on a (public) blog read only by a few hundreds or even thousands of people. Millions is what you deserve.

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  12. Not only is your post scintillating, your commenters are too! Humbly I thank you for your wonderful post, the best of the best!!! I have the same problem of all that knowledge draining out of my downhill ear! :-)

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  13. "I loved it for the entire duration of every class, and then after that I remembered having loved it, as opposed to remembering the math." Doesn't that say it all. It's ok to re-learn it though - even better with more mature perspectives.
    Everybody's writing about the moon these days (myself included), but your take is certainly the most unique. Just loved every little English word in this post, Murr. You done did it again.
    Now I have to go look up gibbous. ;)

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  14. I love love loved this post... I had a near-coffee spray incident at the same line as Arkansas Patti. I can't tell you how much stuff I've learned that I found truly fascinating- and have immediately forgot... Seriously awesome post.

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  15. "Almost everything strikes me as new information, a condition so close to dementia that the transition should prove seamless." I fell asleep in math classes and had no interest in science, but boy do I relate to this.

    Beautifully written piece. They were right. You are gifted, my friend. Loved this.

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  16. Maybe you're just zeroing in on the stuff that's of the most practical value? The Moon will keep on going just fine whether or not any of us understand why, but getting people there (and getting them back) took a lot of math and probably a lot of correctly-spelled words, too.

    Great writing as always. I'll never forget "botanical fannies".

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  17. Oh, no, practical value is no motivator for me. I do not defend my constantly-renewed ignorance. Understanding how things work just dials up the splendor. Way more filling than that sort of diffuse airy-fairy appreciation! Dale, at least I do know which swath of the sky I can expect to see the moon in if it ever clears up. And Tom, way to get with the program, flinging out "crepuscular" like that! Perfect for an old bat like me.

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  18. Brilliant post! I am SO glad I found you.....or did you find me first? No matter....I love your writing.

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  19. Such a beautifully written post, Murr, and the reason you are Murr.

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  20. It was a magnificent moon. I'd love to send you a few of our hootling geese. And I'm married to one of those math and astronomy types. We agree that we make one whole brain together, since I provide the language part, and that we'll therefore have to check out at the same time. A sweet tribute to your father here. Great pictures!

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  21. I feel your pain, Murr...I too was labelled "gifted" as a child (although I was better at English than math). I have virtually no spatial skills. I really don't care how things work, as long as they work (I think of it as "magic")...this irks my Computer Science grad fiancé to no end!

    It sounds like you and your dad had a wonderful relationship...I remember being frustrated with mine when I'd ask him a question that only required a sentence to answer, and he'd give me a paragraph (or two!).

    Wendy

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  23. Whenever I see "gibbous", I remember the Pogo comic strip where Churchy LaFemme (the turkle) was talking with Albert (the Alligator), wondering why the moon was called that, and Albert said, "It means she's swoll." It is amazing how much I can remember from Pogo, but not textbooks. To think that I used to know how to prove that the square root of 2 was an irrational number. . . .

    But I do remember that "lethologica" means: the inability to remember a word or put your finger on the right word. This comes in SO much handier than proving an irrational number.
    (typo in previous comment, so I will just say: My comments are a natural hand made product. The slight variations in spelling and grammar enhance its individual character and beauty and in no way are to be considered flaws or defects.)

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  24. I do numbers and the words are in the top of my cranium too, but give me a three-D thing and my eyes roll into the back of my head. Good to know I'm not alone.

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  25. I think I drove my grade 11 physics teacher to drinking formaldehyde after class because I was (and remain) firmly convinced that the world works by magic. I envy you your love and understanding of mathematics. Biology, words and spatial things I get. Math is {waving hand vaguely} just out there somewhere where the lint balls dance.

    Isn't gibbous a great word?

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  26. Everyone seems to be saying that this is one of your best posts ever, and I would never de-Murr...

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  27. You probably missed it (of course you did) that Bill O'Reilly used the "mysteries" of the tides" to invoke proof of God. "The tides come in, the tides go out, you can't explain that!"

    When it was explained to him that the Moon caused the tides he went into a tirade demanding to know "...how'd the moon get here, explain THAT, Pinheads. Venus doesn't have a moon nor does Mars..." (well, Mars actually has two)

    I don't think that flashlights or tennis balls will be of any enlightenment to Bill O'Reilly - best take the flashlight and whack him upside the head with it.

    Check out: You can't explain that.

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  28. Sweet fancy Moses. Well, there you go. If ignorance is bliss, knowledge is ecstasy. But deliberate, proud ignorance is just whackable.

    "It means she's swoll." Pogo, and the King James Bible, are my very underpinnings. They're both music, and music we remember. When I fall over, someone has done pull out the Pogo on me.

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  29. This is not only a brilliantly funny post, as usual, Murr, but it also has moments of deep poignancy. A wonderful read. I also identify completely with your loss of input through your downhill ear. I seem to have my head permanently cocked to one side when trying to fathom such explanations, though they dazzle me. It's like I am blown away by the beauty of physics but have no idea how it all works at any practical level.
    Loved Robert's O'Reilly quote. Even I understand more than O'Reilly does...about everything (well, except how to get paid 9 million dollars a year for being a deadhead)...and I'm sure every one of your other readers does too.

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  30. Murr, you are the Pied Piper of Words. I'd happily follow you anywhere.

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  31. @Dan, you said it perfectly. I struggled for uncountable hours trying to make sense of it all, to remember it, to the point of bitter tears and awful defeat over some of it. Math, physics and chemistry were compulsory subjects back in my school days. For those of us with not only downhill ears but brains which could make no sense of any of it, it would remain magic. But not for lack of trying.

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  32. I hated math as a kid..it never added up for me.

    Love your blog!

    spread the humor: charlywalker.wordpress.com

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  33. This is a great post, Murr, made me smile and think. Reminded me of a vertiginous moment some years back when I witnessed a lunar eclipse. I watched the shadow inching across the face of the moon and it suddenly occurred to me "I am standing on the ball that is right now floating between the sun and the moon and therefore casting that shadow up there" I very nearly passed out.

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  34. I'm an English teacher who, in high school, was far better at Math and Science than English. The result now? Students who are strong in Math and Science do well in my class. Those poor Artsy suckers, though.

    This sentence made me laugh: "When I was a little girl, I was pegged in the academic system early on as "gifted," mostly because I drew people with shoelaces." Love the humour.

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  35. Math, science. . . and poop. You're a wonderment, Murr!

    I love that picture of you and your dad. That is very, very special.

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  36. That "gifted" stuff can turn you into a truly lazy scholar, too. What a shock college was!

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  37. In reference to the post: Robert the Skeptic said...

    "You probably missed it (of course you did) that Bill O'Reilly used the "mysteries" of the tides" to invoke proof of God. "The tides come in, the tides go out, you can't explain that!

    I'd love to see O'Reilley explain Murr. You REALLY cannot explain that!

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  38. My dad is a retired mathematics professor- he showed me how to make moebius strips when I was five. I love them but I still don't understand why they work.

    Love this post, Murr. I'm pretty sure your brain works just fine.

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  39. Brilliant once again, Murr. My competency in mathematics is about equivalent to my capacity to levitate, but Nature somehow inexplicably loaded my brain with 3D capabilities. So...if you do the math, I'll take care of the dimensional minutiae. Deal?

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  40. You obviously remember more of school than me! Only things I am interested in stay in my head. When my husband tries to tell me about how the cell phone works, he gets the usual glazed over look and says, "You really don't care, do you?". And, I don't.

    Just make it work, please.

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  41. I have a little innate antagonism toward the science gurus. Something about their unscientific assumption that all the history teachers were jocks. :)

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  42. I'm an English teacher who, in high school, was far better at Math and Science than English. The result now? Students who are strong in Math and Science do well in my class. Those poor Artsy suckers, though.

    This sentence made me laugh: "When I was a little girl, I was pegged in the academic system early on as "gifted," mostly because I drew people with shoelaces." Love the humour.

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  43. This is a great post, Murr, made me smile and think. Reminded me of a vertiginous moment some years back when I witnessed a lunar eclipse. I watched the shadow inching across the face of the moon and it suddenly occurred to me "I am standing on the ball that is right now floating between the sun and the moon and therefore casting that shadow up there" I very nearly passed out.

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  44. Murr, you are the Pied Piper of Words. I'd happily follow you anywhere.

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  45. Whenever I see "gibbous", I remember the Pogo comic strip where Churchy LaFemme (the turkle) was talking with Albert (the Alligator), wondering why the moon was called that, and Albert said, "It means she's swoll." It is amazing how much I can remember from Pogo, but not textbooks. To think that I used to know how to prove that the square root of 2 was an irrational number. . . .

    But I do remember that "lethologica" means: the inability to remember a word or put your finger on the right word. This comes in SO much handier than proving an irrational number.
    (typo in previous comment, so I will just say: My comments are a natural hand made product. The slight variations in spelling and grammar enhance its individual character and beauty and in no way are to be considered flaws or defects.)

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  46. Such a beautifully written post, Murr, and the reason you are Murr.

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  47. Maybe you're just zeroing in on the stuff that's of the most practical value? The Moon will keep on going just fine whether or not any of us understand why, but getting people there (and getting them back) took a lot of math and probably a lot of correctly-spelled words, too.

    Great writing as always. I'll never forget "botanical fannies".

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  48. "I loved it for the entire duration of every class, and then after that I remembered having loved it, as opposed to remembering the math." Doesn't that say it all. It's ok to re-learn it though - even better with more mature perspectives.
    Everybody's writing about the moon these days (myself included), but your take is certainly the most unique. Just loved every little English word in this post, Murr. You done did it again.
    Now I have to go look up gibbous. ;)

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  49. Yikes, do I ever relate to this post! Because of it, I have always been interested in the educational investigation of learning styles and the "science of cognition" (I know there's correct terminology that I'm just missing). Years ago, when I started blogging, I found this website. Not sure if the link still works, but it's in this post: http://didrooglie.blogspot.com/search?q=brain+sex

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  50. One of the reasons I have been revisiting your blog since I recently found it is that you are one of the brainiac writers I have found online. So it doesn't come as a surprise to hear you were designated "gifted" as a child. When I re-read a book it doesn't seem like I have never read it, but I see different things, more things than the previous time. Same with a movie.

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  51. Don't give up on your crepuscular journeys to check on the moon--it's out there somewhere.

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