Thursday, May 22, 2014

Archimedes and His Rubber Ducky

A significant event in the life of a man who lived between 285 and about 212 Before the Common Era represents to this very day the embodiment of a life-changing, transformational experience.  The man was the mathematician, engineer, and inventor Archimedes.  The transformational event came during the course of his having taken a bath, which is to say he lowered himself into a tub, watched the water level rise against the tiled sides of the tub, muttered a cry of excitement, then sprang from the tub, presumably to dry himself, dress to some casual degree, then rush to his work area.

Used, as he was, to discovering, designing, and inventing things, Archimedes may well have taken this discovery more or less in stride.  You, who are quite a bit less familiar with discovering things, would have put quite a bit more than Archimedes in his purported yelp, "Eureka," or the more substantive "I've found it."

His task, as you understand it, was to discover the gram molar weight of an object of irregular shape, a crown, festooned with jewelry.  By using objects of various sizes, densities, and known composition, Archimedes was able to calculate the authenticity (as in its ratio of gold to binder materials) and worth of the crown.

At the time you first heard the story, you had nothing against taking baths with the possible exception that they signalled the end of the day.  After you bathed, you were expected to retire.  The story of Archimedes' discovery had in effect a transformative effect on you.  From the time of first hearing it, you were aggressive in your interest in taking a bath.  

You were able to turn your interest in bathing to your advantage in the sense of seeing the aesthetic reason for bed right after bath, changing the bath to bed ritual to the first night of new bed linens, then changing the time of the bath to earlier in the day.  This shift in routine was predicated on your performance cleaning the tub after your bath.

You could stretch all this to show how Archimedes' discovery changed your life.  Since then, few things have had as much significance in terms of immediate, transformational results.  To be sure, there have been changes, some of them at high plateaus of significance and consequence.  But most of them, even ones of such insightful awareness as Archimedes' with his bath, came as a result of repetitions.  Among those changes, some of the results also depended upon backsliding, forgetfulness, and the foolish stubbornness of one who insists on doing a thing his way long after he has seen for himself the wrongheadedness and impracticality inherent in his way.

Almost a month to the day after your thirteenth birthday, you were by ritual accorded entry into the status of emerging manhood by the culture of your birth.  You still have a gift from that ritual, itself as transformational as the ritual, perhaps more.  The gift was (and still is) a book.  To judge by its publisher and format, the book could scarcely have cost the donor more than five dollars.  You have read it through, cover to cover, hundreds of times.  You are likely to read it through any number of times yet.  Perhaps even this summer, when there are no classes to consider until September.  

The book contains all of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, all of Huckleberry Finn, portions of other fiction, including Puddin'head Wilson and A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur as well as speeches, excerpts from the longer and shorter works of nonfiction, and about everything a boy of thirteen could have wanted between the covers of one book. 

You did not know it at the time, and although you have no absolute certainty of the matter, this book could well have been the book you spent so many hours searching for in used book stores.  An various times of your life, you have had in your possession nearly everything Twain had published.  Were you inflicted upon some desert island or Pacific atoll, the more of these books with you, the better, but while still in the throes of this metaphor, the book you have and have cherished all these years would be the one single volume you would require.

Your own ah-ha moment, your equivalent of Archimedes' bath moment, was the awareness that the one transformative book you sought all through those strum und drang years of puberty and the even more fraught years of post puberty could only be a book you would have to write yourself.

You believe you've done that, written that book, which has certainly set you free in a number of ways to consider and commit to various others.  Even as you look at that book from time to time, knowing it was at once the answer to a long-time dream and a work you did not devote enough effort to, you see things you wish you were able to add.

How easy it is to realize you write your way up to the edge of each subsequent project, as though the world were flat.  Then you push yourself over the edge.  Sometimes, the recovery requires only a matter of a day or so, other times weeks, months, even years elapse before you know answers and have visions you did not have then.  That is process at work, you, in fact, at work.

So long as you set out on each new project to a point beyond where you can see landmarks of any sort, you may walk with some integrity.  But if your choice is to always keep the shoreline in view, you will have to live with the consequences of knowing the precise moment when you began playing your journeys safe.

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