Dial D for Despair

For a skinny, maladjusted kid growing up itinerant amid the stifling fens of American public school systems, portable refuges of stability were rare, cherished things. I had my dog-eared copy of The Hobbit. I had my pocket knife, favored by the alpine fighting forces of the Republic of Switzerland. And most reliable of all, I had the periodic table of elements. Books can be left out in the rain, or accidentally dropped into a campfire. Pocket knives can be lost or stolen. But the very elements of nature themselves? I never worried about losing a copy of the table once I had taught myself to recreate it from memory. Wherever I might wander, the halogens were and shall always be fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, and (theoretically) astatine. The alkali metals are lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium, now and evermore. No matter how many friends I had to say goodbye to for the last time, no matter how many piles of boxes I would have to pack and unpack, no matter how many miles of lonesome highway I rumbled over entombed in heavy Detroit steel, molybdenum boasted an atomic number of 42, then and in all the days to come. Some kids have a security blanket or a favorite stuffed animal. I had the periodic table of elements. Continue reading “Dial D for Despair”

Virtue in the Epoch of the Hypocrite

Keep your cotton, ladies and gentlemen. For my money, Linum usitatissimum is the finest gift Mother Nature has offered humanity, narrowly edging out hemp for the most useful non-cereal angiosperm ever cultivated. While hemp gives us seed oil, plastics, paper, and textiles, its traditional use is cordage. Nothing on earth surpasses the cost performance of a length of sturdy hemp rope when your business is stretching a neck. Continue reading “Virtue in the Epoch of the Hypocrite”

Asymmetrical Morality

Most people already know a few basic facts about radiation. They know, for example, that radiation can be passed through a human body to produce a photographic print that allows physicians to observe the presence of internal injury. They know that nuclear devices, for war or for peace, produce dangerous quantities of radiation. They know that our planet’s own sun emits radiation and that the earth shields us from the worst of it with its natural magnetic field. They know that a sufficient dose of radiation can be harmful, producing burns in the short term, cancer or other genetic mutations over time. Sunburns are your skin’s way of telling you to reduce your exposure to harmful solar radiation. Fewer people know that entire electromagnetic spectrum, from soup to nuts, is radiation. My suspicion is that sometime during the atomic era of the 1950s, American media figures muttered conflations around the stem of a tightly-clenched pipe. Perhaps adding “ionizing” to modify “radiation” for the sort found in the heart of Eisenhower-era nuclear devices was too much of a mouthful for prime-time television. Perhaps the distinction was unimportant when weighed against the urgency of the blossoming arms race. Whatever the case, the notion of high-energy radiation was sufficiently impenetrable that by the time it became a plot device for dimestore fiction, it ended up transforming mild-mannered research physicists into raging emerald smash-monsters. For those rare few who know the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation, fewer still know that the line dividing them is neither bright nor clear. To understand why, please bear with me as I digress a bit into a little introductory nuclear physics. Continue reading “Asymmetrical Morality”

Lies, of the Sweet Little Variety

“Tell us a story, Clay.” Brigit forced a smile, but we could all feel the incessant chitter of invisible insect feet dancing the Charleston inside our skulls. It wasn’t as bad on the Puget Sound, but the nearer we drew to the Straits of San Juan de Fuca, the more we felt the dreadful onset of unavoidable madness. The stories helped. Helped to quell the insistence of the alien noises. Helped still the turmoil.

“It’s my turn, eh? What story would you like to hear? I think I remember some old Twain. Who wants to hear me recount the Incredible Tale of the Celebrated… um… Frog of Some Sort of Calevaras County?” Continue reading “Lies, of the Sweet Little Variety”

The Charming Bullshit of Romance

Like many of you, when I read Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, I take it as a merciless farce attacking courtly pomp and the institutions of Medieval romance. All that unrequited longing and hopeless, doomed, one-sided love simply reeks of a well-penned “would you look at this shit, already?” He’s right, too. It’s ludicrous, isn’t it? Pining on like a twonk like that. Some manky git fritters his life away for a bird he knows damn well he’ll never so much as catch a whiff of her dirty knickers. Preposterous. And it took this blobby Teutcher to point it out.

Sir Blobby Teutcher

Amusingly, most English language readers appear to have gotten the exact opposite message from it. I’m not sure if it’s still taught in middle schools anymore, but I have a dim memory of reading it sans irony when I was maybe 12 or 13 and thinking it a proper swashbuckler. I was, forgive my trespasses, still enamored of romance. Only upon re-reading it in my 20s with a more cynical eye did I appreciate Scott’s scathing, scornful wit. These days, with the ire of youth dulled, I find a bit more melancholy in there. And not just in this one particular instance, but true of romance in general. Continue reading “The Charming Bullshit of Romance”