Day 116: ladies of science

The younger was mad.

We had tried and failed to find an adequate bed for her doll (shoebox? “Too small.” pillowcase? “Too soft”) a task which she had been determined to complete before bedtime.

“Well you need to help me think of something else I can do before stories, then,” she demanded, glowering at me.

I was all out of ideas. It was looking like we were headed for a full-scale tantrum when inspiration struck.

“I know.” she said. “I want to do an experiment.”

I felt my patience start to ebb away. “We can definitely do some kind of experiment tomorrow,” I said as carefully and evenly as I could, knowing as I uttered the words that this would not be an acceptable option.

“No. Now. I want to put those candies I don’t like in water and see what happens to them.”

I thought about it. It sounded pretty easy, actually.

“Oh, fine,” I said. We went to the still two thirds full bucket of Halloween candy and the younger plucked out the despised brand. The tablets looked like Tums. I filled a glass with cold water and the younger dropped the three tablets in the glass.

“We’ll see if they disappear or not by the morning,” she said.

Finally, she was willing to get into bed for story time.

“Once upon a time there was a little girl,” I began, not having the remotest idea what would happen next.

“I want all the stories to be about girls who are scientists,” the younger interrupted.

“OK!” I said, grateful for direction.

“Her name was Ada,” I said. She gave me a funny look. “No no, this isn’t what you’re thinking, this is about a real scientist called Ada!” I said.

“Wait,” she said. “Is it Ada Lovelace?” she asked, her face scrunched up skeptically.

“Yes!” I said.

“Wait, she was a scientist?”

“She was a brilliant mathematician,” I said. “And her father was a famous poet called Lord Byron.”

“What’s a poet?” asked the younger.

That’s what Ada Lovelace probably asked Baroness Byron, I thought to myself. Also: how is it my daughter knows the word “scientist” and “mathematician” and not the word “poet”? Am clearly failing in inculcating respect for the humanities.

“Oh, it’s just a person who writes poems,” I said airily. “Anyway, she worked with Charles Babbage who was another scientist and they … well they did stuff, math, that helped make it possible to …. to make computers.

“Did they make a computer?” she asked.

I hesitated, suddenly aware that my grasp of the historical facts was dim.

“No. Well. I don’t know … I don’t think so? I think maybe they made some kind of … machine? But I think they mostly did a lot of math?”

I vaguely remember that Thomasina in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia was based on Ada Lovelace, and wrack my brains trying to remember the plot; but all I can remember of Thomasina is her waltzing with Septimus (n.b. swoon) and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t important to the math part.

“Yeah, so they did a lot of math and made important discoveries that helped us have computers.”

The younger looked bored. “All right, what’s the next story?”

“OK,” I say, determined to do better, “the next story is about this woman called Rosamund, I mean Rosalind. Rosalind … something. And she was a …. a biologist. And she helped discover something called DNA that is like, that is like a kind of code, a message written in your cells.”

I don’t feel that this is the most confidence-inspiring opening.

The younger interrupts. “I know what cells look like. Cells, like red blood cells, they’re little red dots in your body. Is DNA red? What does it look like?”

“Umm ….” Yes, I do know about the double helix, but somehow the word spiral momentarily eludes me and I can’t think how to describe it.

“Do you need a microscope to see it?”

“Yeah, you need a powerful microscope.”

“What does the message say?”

“It says. OK. Well, basically it’s a message in every single cell with instructions telling you to be you. So everyone’s DNA is different and in my DNA the message tells every cell how to be duck-rabbit-cells and in your DNA the message instructs all of your cells how to be younger-flopsy-duckit cells.” I feel conscious that a) as with Babbage’s Analytical Engine, I’m pretty fuzzy on how DNA works b) I don’t really know what Rosalind whatsherface’s contribution was and c) that the story is not terribly gripping.

Clearly the younger feels the same.

“OK, the next one should be a pretend scientist,” she says emphatically. “A pretend scientist called Moomoo.”

“OK,” I say, “so Moomoo was this little girl who made a rocket to go to …… the moon. And she made a new discovery about what the moon is made of.”

“The moon is made of rock,” declares the younger, authoritatively.

“Yeah, but remember this is pretend,” I say testily. The younger gives me a long-suffering look.

“Is she going to discover the moon is made of blue cheese?” she asks wearily. I am affronted.

“Yes, I said. Yes she is.”

“Fine,” says the younger.

The final story of the night is always a “childhood” story. This night I tell the younger about the “experiments” I conducted as a child – which I also referred to, at the time, as “experiments.” I would conduct these experiments in the attic, where there was a sink because it had originally been fitted up as a separate attic flat. I would pour various colored inks in bowls of water, dip paper in them and then hang them up to dry. In my memory it is always late afternoon when I do these experiments and sun streams through the window illuminating the ink-stained papers that I have hung up to dry. I think they are the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  I definitely don’t think of them as art; I think of them as scientific experiments about color.


The next morning the younger is eager to observe the results of her experiment. The tablets have not completely dissolved but they have tinted the water. She is extremely pleased with the results.

“I need to do more experiments,” she says. That is exactly what a real scientist would say, I think to myself. Bloody scientists. So bloody dogged.

“Also I need to taste it.”

I about to protest that doesn’t seem like a standard part of the experimental method when I remember all those 17th-century dudes who ate their experiments, like Robert Boyle and his bloody phosphorescent veal.

“Also we need to make a special room for my experiments,” she says.

“All right,” I say, “let’s say that the bathroom is your experiments room.”

“Not the bathroom!” she says in a disgusted tone. “That’s already its own room. We need to make a special experiments room.”

I sigh. I feel exhausted just thinking about the idea. “Well how are we going to do that?” I ask in a defeatist tone.

She thinks. “We can use the tent.” I sigh again. I just don’t want to be arsed to put up the bloody Ikea tent in the middle of the room so it can be a holding ground for jars of fetid water.

“Seriously?” I am the world’s most unenthusiastic research assistant.

She is fixed on the idea. I put up the tent. In addition to the first experiment, there are now three additional water-filled vessels, each carrying its own despised form of candy.

Per the younger’s exact instructions, and because I don’t want her carrying the very full glasses of water into the tent herself, I carefully set up the glasses inside the tent on the shoe box, which though deemed unfit as a doll bed has proven to be an excellent workbench.

The younger is extremely pleased.

Yesterday the kids went to their dad’s house. This morning as I’m hurrying about trying to get ready to come in and teach Keats, and picking up stuff off the floor in advance of my cleaning lady coming, I remember that the glasses of candy water are still inside the tent. When I go inside I actually exclaim, “oh!”

I am struck by the prettiness of the assemblage: jars of pastel colored waters against the backdrop of the grey-stone patterned interior of the tent. I hesitate to throw them out. In the end I decide to take pictures; that way if the younger complains when she comes back and finds her experiments room shut down I will at least have photographic evidence of the results to show her.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”:



Day 108: Beetle

Having a four (very nearly five!) year-old and a psychiatrist are similar experiences in at least one (possibly only in one) respect: both of them constantly badger me to tell them stories about my childhood. The younger calls them “childhood stories.” Dr. F calls them “screen memories.” Same difference.

One particular story came up recently, and I honestly can’t remember if I told it first to the younger or to Dr. F.

I do remember, though, the context in which I told the story to the younger. The younger cannot write words other than her name, but she can make many letters fairly easily, and it pleases her to do so. Some letters, however, most notably the letter S, present a considerable challenge to her fine motor skills and cause her immense frustration. The other day she was livid at her inability to make an S, and sobbed with rage. I felt for her. I remember this particular frustration of being old enough to imagine beautiful complex things (for example: the letter S; a unicorn; a family of owls) but also being too young to make anything other than clumsy, misshapen scrawls. I remember envying older children and adults’ ability to effortlessly make letters and draw graceful lines, while all my toil yielded crooked, primitive marks on the page.

Recalling that feeling prompted me to offer help to the younger the other day, imploring her, “here, sweetheart, let me help, see, I’ll just make one and you can copy it.” But the problem was, as I should have realized, the last thing she wanted was sympathy or help from someone who knew how to makes S’s. In fact, the offer of sympathy or help from someone who already knew how to make S’s was the final indignity.

“No!’ she practically spat at me, “no, you cannot help, I don’t want to copy your S. I want to make my own S, but I can’t, all I can do is scribble scrabble,” and then she scribbled violently all over the page of attempted S’s. [1]

Later when she had calmed down I told her the story about boiling over with envy that I also recently told to Dr. F. This is the story. I was four or younger. A friend came over to play. We played the game called “Beetle,” in which you take turns rolling a die and, depending on the number you get, select a particular plastic beetle body part. The person who assembles their beetle first wins. My friend completed her beetle first. I remember looking over at her perfect, complete beetle and then looking at my unfinished headless beetle and this rage just rose with me.

Reader, I smashed and completely destroyed her beetle.

I remember both my friend and my mother being shocked and appalled at my behavior.

I described this story just now as a story about envy, but I think, upon reflection, that it’s about two more minor emotions that have nonetheless been central to my emotional life—perversely so because my life has been so very charmed in so many ways: those two emotions are resentment and indignation.

Resentment and indignation are perhaps the two emotions that I find easiest to identify with in fictional characters. I don’t know what that says about me, but vicarious indignation gives me a real buzz, so much so that I find it … really difficult to let go of. I’m going to provide two examples from two of my all time favorite entertainments: the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (published 1813) and the 1953 musical film Calamity Jane, which stars Doris Day as Calam (we’re on familiar terms, I can call her that) and Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickok.

I have enormous affection for both of these works. And part of my enjoyment, almost perversely, stems from an obstacle that I find to be built into the arc of both plots.

This is the obstacle: I simply cannot get over my resentment that both Lizzie and Calam are given the brush off by the men with whom they are originally smitten (respectively, George Wickham and Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin—who is essentially a less roguish, blander Wickham) and then, to add insult to injury, reprimanded about their liking for these men by two other frankly, much less likable men with whom they are then expected to (and in fact do) fall in love so grateful are they to have had their moral failings pointed out to them.

In both cases, the heroine comes to realize that their first love interest is shallow and they move on from their respective infatuations by maturing and recognizing the superior value of Fitzwilliam Darcy, in Lizzie’s case, and Wild Bill Hickok, in Calam’s. But in both texts, this transition, for me at least, is far too abrupt.

Essentially, I remain hung up on Wickham and the handsome lieutenant Gilmartin past the point in the narrative in which I am meant to have re-centered my narrative desire upon the more appropriate fantasy object.

I can’t help feeling that both Lizzie and Calam were slighted and this sense of injury and indignation is so strong that in both cases it prevents me from enjoying the plot’s resolution. And yet—and here’s the kicker—I enjoy feeling indignant so very much that I don’t mind it one bit! At the end I am seething and it feels fantastic. In my real life, while—believe me—I seize on every opportunity to feel indignant that comes my way, I don’t have all that much, frankly, to be resentful about.

Even at the very last scene of Calamity Jane that shows Calam getting hitched to Bill and Katie to Danny Gilmartin, I really want Lieutenant Gilmartin to come to his senses and realize that Calam is so much more kickass than Katie. And shouldn’t Lizzie at least get to kiss handsome, fickle Wickham before settling down with Fitzwilliam ugh-I-can’t-bear-that-I’m-attracted-to-this-plebeian-woman-but-we-all-have-our-cross-to-bear-Darcy? [2]

I feel that this desire, on my part, runs against the grain, as it were, of each narrative. Wickham and Gilmartin serve a clear narrative purpose, and that purpose is transitory. I guess, if I were more psychoanalytically oriented, I could even call them transitional objects: they are just dummy-love-objects, like a child’s “lovey,” and it is in the recognition of them as such and of Darcy and Bill as, by contrast, real and worthy objects of esteem that the maturing of Lizzie and Calam is supposed to inhere.

Why can’t I move beyond my indignation and resentment? I think it partly comes down to the key moment in both narratives in which the Proper Love Object proves his moral authority by shaming the heroine. Darcy shames Lizzie in the letter where he points out her family’s impropriety and Bill shames Calam in front of all of their friends by rigging a shooting contest so that Katie (who can’t shoot for shit!) appears to be a virtuoso shot.

Both the letter from Darcy and Bill’s shooting the glass are displays of their moral authority and virtuosity. This is the moment where my sympathetic identification with each heroine completely breaks down: instead of feeling ashamed—as both Lizzie and Calam feel, therefore showing their maturation, pshaw,—I feel just enraged with Darcy and Bill. Their actions of censure don’t dampen my indignation; they stoke it. It’s like someone coming over to me to offer me help making my S’s when I’m already mad.

Instead of thinking, “Oh, I am grateful for your guidance! I could not make my own S! How lucky I am to have your S to copy!” I think “fuck off I’d rather do scribble scrabble than copy your stupid S.”

My favorite moment in Calamity Jane is possibly the moment when Katie kisses Danny and Calam shoots the punch cup right out of Katie’s hand. It’s a total beetle-crushing moment.

I’m not endorsing beetle-crushing or punch-glass shooting (although I will confess a continuing fondness for scribble scrabble). Obviously, such behavior is immature and destructive. I haven’t crushed any beetles lately. I am not a sociopath. If you and I were to engage in a friendly game of Beetle these days and I lost, I would be able to refrain from crushing your beetle. I might even say, “well done!” I might even mean it!

My point is simply that one of the pleasures of fiction is not only the vicarious experience of feelings that the protagonists feel; sometimes it’s also the vicarious experience of feelings – in the case of sentimental fiction, often, more brutish feelings – that the protagonists resist. Those unrepresented feelings might be thought of as lurking in the narrative’s negative space, just waiting for bad readers to come along and give them life.



[1] Do other children use the term “scribble scrabble”? Both of my children use the phrase “scribble scrabble” as though it were an accepted general term—a technical term, even—used to denote the non-representational art made by toddlers.

[2] I guess that is part of the point of Helen Fielding’s re-writing of P&P in Bridget Jones’s Diary: at least Bridget gets to sleep with Daniel Cleaver before meeting Mark Darcy. As an aside, the other problem with the conclusion with Pride and Prejudice for me as a reader is that I am unmoved by real estate and furnishings. This is true in real life and it is true in fiction. I don’t get people who look through real estate listings for fun, or who read Better Homes and Gardens, or who want to browse in furniture stores, or tour old houses and ooh and ahh. All of those activities fill me with mental pain. As several of you know, I am the worst person to ask for advice about furniture or housing. It’s a failure of imagination, really. I can never imagine myself in the house or enjoying the furniture. So I just cannot relate to Lizzie’s property-gasm when she sees Pemberley. I’m just like, meh, it’s a big house, whatever, there isn’t even a gift shop or a café.