The Periscope Problem

It was time to upgrade my lab experiment on light, so a friend of mine sent me some ideas— most of which exceeded both my cognitive and competency levels. For example, she sent me this:

” You can do a diffraction demo using a rectangular glass pyrex dish. If you touch the edge of a 12″ ruler to the surface of water with regular frequency, you get a series of waves in lines. If you then add a pin hole with some kind of barrier in the middle of the dish, when the waves reach it they come out the other side in a spherically expanding pattern. It took some trial and error to get the width of the hole and the frequency of the ruler waves to work right, but you can definitely see it happen. I did it on top of an overhead projector and the class could see it on the screen.”

I read the paragraph twice, calculated the amount of time it would take for me to properly set up the experiment, and decided against it. I didn’t think I had that many years of life left.

Next on the list was making periscopes. All right! Now she was talking. I began working on the periscope prototype at lunchtime, gathering materials (cardboard, duct tape and mirrors) from the back of my car and hauling them to the kitchen. After acquiring a cutting board and a box cutter, I was ready to begin. If the youtubers could do it, so could I.

Trial #1: Subject failed to cut thick cardboard in straight lines. Tube is lopsided. Do it again.

Trial #2: Subject attempted to bend the thick cardboard in straight lines. Epic fail. Do it again.

Trial #3: Subject cut the 45° angles the wrong way. Do it again.

Trial#4: Subject throws thick cardboard in the trash and empties two half gallons of milk, modifying the cartons to make a periscope. Woohoo! It worked! Subject is euphoric on being able to view the chandelier through the periscope. She only needs 20 more containers of milk—and another plan.

Trial#5: Subject photocopies a periscope template from Google images. Mirrors don’t fit. Do it again.

Trial #6: Subject photocopies another template. Mirrors do fit. Hallelujah!

Elapsed time: 3.5 hours.

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After spending a whole afternoon cutting cardboard and snipping off duct tape, I finally “succeeded” in producing three working periscopes (four, actually, but we won’t include the Barbie- sized one made from the first tiny template). The first was sturdy but lopsided; the second was fat and waxy; and the third was flimsy, but kid-friendly. I surveyed the mess and the three rookie periscopes and not being a fan of mediocrity, was discouraged.

Some say that it’s all about the journey and not about the destination. I doubt it. I want my tomatoes to grow and my lessons to be clear. I want stitches to hold and umbrellas to keep off the rain.  In that sense, it is  just about the destination—about making it work. But if meaning only resides in successes, I shall have lived a fairly futile life. It would be foolish to ignore that there is also something powerful about the process itself.

Endeavor can create a conduit to the Creator, and failure is better at doing that than success. Imperfection makes me look beyond myself. It humbles me and reminds me of the truth: I am not “only” human; I am “merely” human, and everything I say or think or do— even constructing flimsy periscopes — should be an act of worship. And worship is about relationship not results.

Why then, should I strive for the perfect periscope? Because it’s fun. Because it’s important. Because striving is one of the things I was designed to do. I just have to remember that I was not designed to do it alone!

“Whatever you do, do your work heartily as for the Lord rather than for men. . . ” (Galatians 3:23)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Greatest of These

It was the fall of 1971, and three friends left Birmingham to attend Auburn University. Our parents drove us because we didn’t have cars. I didn’t even have a driver’s license. Two of us ended up lodging in the oldest dorm on campus— the kind with community bathrooms and cold showers. The third amiga got lucky and landed a spot in a newer dorm with larger hot water heaters and. . . air conditioning! While Jenny and I sweated in front of a box fan, Donna enjoyed refreshing “bought” air. We were envious. Donna also ended up with a stranger for a roommate. This girl hailed from  Georgia,  pronouncing pecan “pee’ kan” instead of “pe kahn'”. We were wary at first. Yet, soon we realized that out of a risky roommate crap-shoot Donna had been handed a gem.

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She had peanut butter brown hair and eyes to match, pronounced cheekbones and an enchanting cupid’s bow upper lip. Since one of her legs was a little bit longer than the other, she stood slightly akilter. The first time I met her she was wearing an orange-red polo shirt with navy blue polyester slacks, and her curly hair was pulled back on either side with tortoise shell barrettes. When she smiled, the small gap between her front teeth showed. She was friendly and funny and we caved in to her charm. Now it was four amigas.

For two years, we traveled as a pack, then Donna left to experience North Carolina, and we were three. Jenny graduated, Debbie married, and I stayed on for graduate school— we were a different three. After a time, I married a classmate, and we were back to four.

Couple friendships seldom work out, but this one did. Even after Pat and Debbie moved away to start a hog farm, we visited each other, eating hamburgers and drinking cold sweet tea. When Jon and I graduated and moved to the Midwest, we would still come to see them when we made our semi-annual treks back to Alabama. In time, there were six, and conversations became more difficult to sustain, but we just shrugged and laughed. They moved a couple more times and had more children; we moved a couple more times and had more children. Visits with them were rare, but we kept in touch. Each of my children owns a quilt she made.

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Debbie was always making things. Originally an art major, she brought color into our lives long before Pinterest existed. In the early days, she made Christmas cookies that looked like the four of us, and unique Christmas ornaments. She made me a felt figure of the Little Prince that hung on my tree for years. She painted and drew. She gardened. She listened to the operas her father had loved. And she read, sharing her literary discoveries with me. Sometimes those discoveries were picture books. In the later years, they were poems.

I was searching for something yesterday, and came across a familiar packet tied with an orange-red ribbon. It contained the correspondence between us the year before she died of a brain tumor at 45. I sat down and read every letter. Sometimes, it was hard to make out what she had written. She couldn’t retrieve words that she knew she knew, and would substitute others, trying to express deep thoughts with a dwindling vocabulary. She never failed to say she loved me. Near the end, she became more and more emphatic about it: “I do not know what to say to you. All I can say—I love you, love you, love you. I can’t say any more.  I will love you.”

Back then I considered the repetition a side-effect of her illness. But I was wrong. Time was short; words and breath were scarce. Despite terrible pain, she was pounding home a message she considered vitally important. Later, she sent me another message, a paraphrase of the words of Christ to His friends in John 16:22: “So you will have pain now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

Debbie, I’m looking forward to it. Happy Valentine’s Day! I love, love, love you!

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