Saturday, November 07, 2015

Books(h)elf: The Illustrated "Longitude."

Many years ago, I sold off nearly all my 'real' books. Since then I have from time to time gone out to purchase a new copy of a book that I can't get out of my mind. I figured I would start telling the stories of these books, and how they relate to my life.

The Illustrated Longitude

Sometimes I get depressed that I will never invent a marine chronometer.

I came to Madison for law school in 1995. This was a year or so after I’d gotten skinny, and I hadn’t yet adapted to the idea that I could be considered good-looking, or popular.  Good-looking, popular, and, although I didn’t know it yet, being capable of designing and building a marine chronometer, were things I had always wanted to be.

There is a thing in me that will not let me read things without wanting to experience those things. This happens most often with things that I think could be done with a minimum of effort, and, usually, cost, although cost factors into these things less than the effort, and the need to do them.  The (partial) list of things that I have wanted to do after reading about them includes:
n  Grow superhot chili peppers.
n  Raise pigeons
n  Raise chickens
n  Play bagpipes

And, of course, build a marine chronometer.

Longitude is about a man who built a marine chronometer and one of the things I like about this book is that I get to be the kind of person who says things like it’s a book about the guy who built the marine chronometer and then, when people look at me as though I am the sort of person who says things like that, I have the opportunity to add that it is more interesting than one might think, or tell the story that I think opens the book about how the Royal Navy once ran aground because nobody knew how far east (or not) they were, and it turned out they were a lot more east than they’d imagined.

Longitude is also partially the story about how hard it is, period, to figure out whether we are here or there when here and there are synonyms for east and west.   I found it sitting on the shelf at the UW Bookstore down on the library mall, and something about the old-timey cover of the book, as well as the title, made me stop and pick it up.

That might have been the start of my fascination with science, and anything that sounds vaguely scientific or mathematical, or at least that fascination was in its nascenscy at the time. I had only a year earlier taken the course in astronomy which (I have liked to say for more than two decades after that) might have, had I taken it earlier in my college career, led me to be an astronomer.

The story of astronomy that I tell, and it might be the truth, is this: I tell people that throughout my undergrad years at the UW-Milwaukee, my advisor kept nagging at me to take astronomy.  This is how I remember it. I also remember that advisor tell me that I would not get into the University of Wisconsin Law School.  Both of those memories may or may not be true. I distrust memory nowadays. I am, as I sit here, 46 years old, three weeks before Hallowe’en in 2015, not sure how much I remember about my life, let alone how many of those memories are accurate, rather than invented, distorted, edited.

But they are my memories.

Memories, in that way, are like nonfiction: we can’t be sure how much of it is true.
The importance of the Astronomy Memory is that I get to say to people how for years my advisor had been saying that I should take astronomy.  Political science majors had to take a certain amount of natural science credits, and each year I would go to my advisor to ask what credits I should take to graduate on time, ‘on time’ being ‘by the time I was 25.’ She would suggest astronomy and I would say no and then we’d go about our semester.

Senior year, 1994, I took astronomy in the fall semester, and loved it. I found out, for example, why every year in the fall the UW-Milwaukee campus had little bowling balls or marbles or whatnot labeled after the planets scattered around it: it was to demonstrate the relative size and distance of the solar system. I saw the professor dump liquid nitrogen from a container right in front of me – I sat in the front row of that class – and it evaporated, or sublimated, or something, before ever hitting those students up front. I learned constellations and red shifts and really probably a lot more but that’s all I remember.

I loved that class. I found it phenomenally interesting and studied hard for it and for the next 21+ years I would tell people that if I had taken the class earlier in my college career, I might have become an astronomer.

(There are no astronomers, according to a website I read a while back. They are all astrophysicists, now.)

That might have been the transition between my blaming everyone else for all the things I didn’t know, or do, or experience, to blaming myself: the story I told about astronomy.  For most of my life, I said things like if I’d had good high school teachers who made the subjects interesting I might have studied harder or loved something more or been something different.  That is a fancy way of saying people should make me do better in life, and I don’t say that anymore.  Now, I say that if I’d been more motivated and studied harder and paid better attention I might have been an oceanographer (as I once dreamed) or perhaps astronomer or anything other than what I am at the times I am dissatisfied with what I am. I have come to realize that I am the reason I am what I am. Maybe it would have been easier to be a different version of me if I’d had more help: if I’d had, say, a trust fund or parents who didn’t spend most of my childhood fighting or if I hadn’t been fat and had a lazy eye and shy or if we’d lived in New York City or if if if if if if but also lots of people have those things and yet they invent games or become astronauts or write bestsellers or simply do what they want.

So I could have, too, and it didn’t matter if Ms. Kaiser in 11th grade or whatever hadn’t been a scintillating physics teacher. It mattered that I hadn’t bothered to understand that the teacher isn’t as important as the student. Life is what you make of it.  Maybe that was another lesson I learned from the man who invented the marine chronometer, three times.

I recall seeing the title and picking up the book. I don’t usually read nonfiction. I like to say that life is nonfiction, so why would I need to read it, but that’s not even a good thing to say. It’s not like all nonfiction is The Sims; it doesn’t just imitate or spit back the life I lead. (I recall the time one of our kids tried to teach me to play Sims on the computer. After creating my avatar, I asked her what I had to do next. She said I had to get a job and use my money to get a house and furnish it. I said I’m already doing those things and never played again.)

Nonfiction just seems less exciting to me than fiction.  Telling me that something is nonfiction makes me not like it, right off the bat, or at least like it a little less.  Which makes it sort of weird that I found Longitude in the first place, since it’s unlikely I was in the nonfiction section.

The copy of Longitude I bought 20 years ago was one of the books I sold, back when.  The copy I have now is an illustrated guide my mom gave me for Xmas one year.  I used to leave it on an endtable, with the fancy dust jacket on it, back when I left books out for people to see when they came over, which was also back when we had the occasional knickknack in the house, and pictures on the walls, and people over.  Those things have, for us, gone the way of the 1990s themselves, exiting only in the past.  I no longer have the dust jacket, either. Just the book, with its plain green cover.

I’ve never actually read the illustrated version of the book.  Longitude was one of the books I read only once, and having read it before getting the copy of the book as a gift, I never read it again. There didn’t seem to be a need to. I used to re-read books all the time, when I was younger. Back then I had more time to read, as a result of not having many friends and not being very social and never having anything else to do.  There are books I bet I’ve read 5, 6, 7 times in my life, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but a book is a pretty hefty investment of time.  A book, straight through, would probably take five or six hours. In fact, I know it would, if not longer, for a couple of reasons.  First, I listen to audiobooks a lot, now, and they all take 5 or more hours to get through.  (I listen only to the unabridged version of books. Why would I want to listen to the abridged version? Who wants to read, or listen to, part of a book? What is the point of that?)

Secondly, not very long ago I spent much of the day re-reading Spellsinger by Alan Dean Foster, another book on the shelf. I was reading it for reasons I don’t fully understand. I was in an argument with Sweetie and left the house angry that morning, taking with me my phone and laptop and the book Spellsinger, which I then read most of while sitting in the car; I got about 75-80% through it just in the morning, with the gray day around me while I sat in my tiny car on the side of the road near where we used to sometimes go walking, during her lunch, when she used to work at a firm near Lake Monona.

If a book takes so many hours to get through, to re-read a book requires that the book be one worth re-reading, and also that you have enough time to do so.  I never feel as though I have enough time to re-read books, these days: I get maybe 1 hour a day to do what I want and most of the time I am too tired to read anything more thought-provoking than Gawker, so re-reading books is not high on my list of things to do.

But even back when I could go back and revisit a book I’d read, I don’t think I’ve ever done that with nonfiction books. Certainly not Longitude.  I’m not even sure why Mom gave it to me as a gift. Probably because I’d mentioned it and/or told her how much I’d loved it. I did love it; it was a great book, very interesting, at least the 1/20th of it I remember now. 

The parts of Longitude I remember are:
-- The navy running into the coast.
-- The thing about how they used to use ‘powder of sympathy’ to try to tell their longitude, by stabbing a dog in London, or at sea, or both.
-- How George Harrison built several models of the chronometer but still didn’t win the big prize.
--  How it’s difficult to build a clock that will work at sea what with the pitching of ships as well as the different humidities and all.
-- The part about how sailors had eye patches because they had to use a sextant to gauge their position which required them to look up directly at the sun.

That’s not all that much, even for such a short book. There has to be more to the book than that, I figure..

I expect that Mom gave it to me for the same reason almost all presents in my family were picked out: because it was something they knew about me. In our family, once you learn a fact about someone, you run with it. You give gifts centered on that fact that you know. For example, before I went to law school I bought a Curious George t-shirt. I wore it around my family once. Then, during law school and after, I was gifted a series of monkey-themed presents, including a monkey Beanie Baby, a “See No Evil” lamp that I still kind of have, I think, and two ceramic statues of monkeys dressed in American Revolutionary War garb.  I really liked those last two, which used to sit on a shelf just inside the door of the first apartment Joy and I ever shared. I don’t know where they are anymore.  But that’s how gift-giving in my family worked: if you knew a fact about a person, you built a persona around it and forced the person to be that fact. It is why my dad used to give presents themed like snowmen to Joy: he noticed that she had bought some ornaments based on snowmen made out of Smores. It was why my family gave me a telescope and subscription to Astronomy magazine as a law school graduation present: because I’d mentioned that I liked astronomy class.

This began with my mom and the elephants. Everyone gave my mom elephant-themed gifts, mostly just actual elephants of various sizes. This is because of a dream she had when she was a little girl, she always said. She told her father about the dream, which featured a tiny pink elephant.  Her dad, she said, then would from time to time bring her a stuffed elephant or a toy elephant or something, and ask is this the elephant you saw? It never was, but over the years more and more people got into it, and gave her elephants of varying shapes and sizes and makes and models. I did the same; when I went to Morocco in 1994, I spent much of my souvenir-shopping time looking for a fil kbir, or big elephant. I finally found one, too, in Fez, down a long winding set of alleys in a tiny back room. I had been asking for a fil kbir at various stands in the woodcarving section of the suq, and nobody had one big enough. One shopkeeper asked me to follow him. So I did, because I was stupid.  This didn’t end badly, but it was kind of dumb nonetheless, to just wander after somebody away from your group in a strange city where you speak none of the operative languages better than simply the ability to order a coffee. Coffee, in Arabic, is quhwa. Coffee, in Morocco, is drunk in tiny cups like espresso. I grew used to that because I grew tired of trying to order quwha kbir.

I followed him, and he led me through the tents in a winding ranging walk, then down an alleyway, then down another. I was lost by then, and also wondering if I was going to be mugged or maybe killed or both, although both shouldn’t matter much: if I had been killed I probably wouldn’t care much about having been mugged, too.

The guy finally stopped at a small door, which he opened and beckoned me in. Inside it was pitch black, or so I thought. I stepped inside (again: I am stupid, and also I was too afraid to look like a coward in front of this guy). It was so dark I couldn’t see the walls. A brilliant shaft of sunlight came through a hole in the roof, and a man was kneeling in the near-dark.  The two Moroccans talked quickly, too quickly for me to catch anything other than fil kbir, but after a bit the man kneeling in the dark took some wood and began whittling and hacking at it with a knife.  In less than 15 minutes, standing in the close, stuffy, overly-hot, nearly dark room, he had carved an impressive fil kbir, nearly as big as my torso, and had started staining it. I had to wait while the stain dried enough for me to carry it.  I made what small talk I could with the men, with their limited English. Then we went back to the booth and I paid for the statue, which I would lug in my suitcase for four more weeks before bringing it home to Mom.

I don’t know where that fil kbir is now. I think it was in her house after she died, six years ago, but I didn’t take anything of hers (other than the life insurance money she left me to pay back money I’d lent her over the years). I sometimes wonder what happened to it. It was probably thrown out by my stupid siblings, who had no idea that (in my mind, at least) I had nearly died getting that statue for mom.

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