Notes from a Hot Tub

A bird, in perfect silence, alights on the railing just across from me. He appears instantaneously, as if suddenly punched from the night sky, with only a half-memory of a flash of wing. One moment I was alone with my thoughts; the next, a fellow Earthling sits a meter away, his head cocked quizzically to the side as he observes me. He is large, at least as large as a jay, and just a barely visible shadow against the violet fog beyond. We stare at one another for a few moments, then I move and he is gone as he came. A few moments later, a sharp ďchick chick chickĒ comes from behind the house. The call is repeated several more times, though the more I listen, the more I am convinced it cannot be the winged thing - for it is surely a mammalís voice. But which? Not dog, or cat, or deer, or raccoon, or squirrel, or bat, or possum - these I know. How pleasant - two nice mysteries in less than a minute.

* * *

When I first step into the tub, my feet burn painfully, as if the water were a scalding 60 degrees, instead of the warm bath of 39 degrees I know it to be. As I settle slowly into the water, the rest of my body quickly adjusts, but my feet continue to tingle and sting for several more minutes. I had not realized how cold my feet had been. I ponder on the cause of this effect. Clearly the hot water stimulates the circulation, bringing blood rushing to the surface. My feet had been so cold that the blood had withdrawn to warmer climes. Now it rushed back, setting off all the sensors for extreme temperature changes, which I sense as discomfort. The tingling is the same effect as when reviving a limb that has fallen asleep - I suppose it may be the sensation of tens of thousands of tiny capillaries suddenly swelling as blood gushes through them.

How marvelously our bodies function without our control! I had not even been aware how cold my feet had been, but various sensors and relays, switches and conduits, had been busily at work down there, closing valves to drain blood away from the cold air, then re-opening them to the warmth of the water. In the same way, of course, my heart valves have been conscientiously opening and closing as I thought all this. And a thousand, a million, other tiny functionings, down to the atoms. All this goes on without my volition or even knowledge. This thought itself is no doubt but a spray of neurotransmitters into a synapse, a scattering of twisting proteins like a blown dandelion, a launching of a thousand helmless ships into inter-neuronic space, truly a Mare Nostrum.

* * *

As the water takes my weary weight, a deep sigh escapes me, the sound slipping out into the night. I listen to it go a bit reluctantly. It is a curiously personal, intimate sound, a sigh; redolent of the insides of me. It is shaped by my shape, by the caverns and adits of my lungs. Musing on the sound of a sigh, I take another deep breath and let it out as slowly as I can. It is remarkable how long one can exhale. I wonder what the volume of a breath is? It must be a common medical fact. I wonder then how much air I have breathed in my life. I have no idea, but it strikes me that it must be an enormous, but calculable volume. Have I ever breathed this same air before? I would have to know the volume of the atmosphere as well. Some poor graduate student must have had to work that one out long ago. From these figures I should be able to calculate with reasonable accuracy what portion of the Earthís atmosphere has passed through me. A very small fraction, no doubt. But what about everyone else? How much air does the whole human race breathe? This too, should be knowable. Have we breathed all the air a few times, or many? How many people have breathed this breath before me? Did my sigh contain some of Cleopatraís sighs, or those of Lucy, that strange skull that stares across the thousands of millennia at us?

Or have we not breathed it all even once yet? Is the last wild, untamed, primeval breath yet to be breathed? When will we finish the job? When we do, will the world stop, its appointed task completed - as it surely shall when those Tibetan monks smile with weary satisfaction at each other, and pronounce the nine billionth name of God?

* * *

The full moon is rising behind the slats of the railing. It is so round and bright that it hurts my eyes to look directly at it. I shift slightly to the side to hide it behind the vertical slat, but discover to my surprise that it cannot be done. No matter how I move from side to side, there is the moon shining into my eyes. The problem, I soon realize, is that I am binocular. The distance to the railing and the spacing of the slats is such that I can eclipse the moon for only one eye at a time. The dark image in that eye is completely overwhelmed by the glare in the other eye.

Experimenting, blinking my eyes alternately, I find that I must bring my face only inches from the redwood slats before the moon is hidden from my view. The position is uncomfortable, and I settle back into the tub. Still, the glare is annoying, and I hold up two fingers at armís length to block the light. Again, it is not as easy as I had assumed. I must place one eye carefully into the shadow of a slat, and hold my fingers up before the other. Any motion at all, and thereís old Luna again.

The moon soon climbs above the railing. It looks immense, but I know that most people overestimate the apparent size of the moon. Except for some distortion just at the horizon, it is really no larger soon after rising than when it is at the zenith - one half a degree. It takes 360 full moons to span the visible sky. I wonder how big a half degree is at armís length; is it wider than my thumb, for instance? I hold up my thumb like a painter to block the moon, and find that it is considerably wider, over twice as wide, as that swollen full moon. But again I find that I cannot obscure it unless I close one eye. It would make an interesting question to win a drink in a bar - can you hide the moon from sight behind your thumb at armís length? The answer is no, not even with three fingers. There are two catches, though: you could of course close one eye; and the whole effect is lost if you hold your thumb horizontally - then it is relatively easy.

This all put me thinking about binocular vision in general. Even when we think weíre seeing clearly, with 20-20 vision in good light on a clear day, we of course are actually looking at a double exposure, with two images superimposed. We are so used to compensating for it that we normally are completely unaware of it. You must consciously force yourself to see both images, and itís surprisingly hard to maintain it for more than a few seconds. More distant objects, of course, are shifted so slightly as to be congruent. But anything within a few meters yields two distinct images. I hold up one finger at armís length and study it objectively (for an optics pun). When I focus on my finger, it is a single digit, with no trace of double image. When I focus on the trees and clouds beyond, the finger fades to transparency, becoming nearly invisible. To see the double image I must force my eyes to focus somewhere between the two. Only with considerable effort and some blinking to verify the positions can I force my eyes to see both images simultaneously, but there it is: two distinct fingers. Talk about your double-digit inflation.

The effect is greatly compounded if I hold up two fingers in a peace sign. Now the right fingerís image in my right eye is superimposed on the left fingerís image in my left eye. I can verify this by alternate blinking and checking the fingers against a background object. If I merge the two images now, I can clearly see three fingers. If I touch the tips of my fingers with my other hand, it is nearly impossible to maintain the double image. When I do, I find I can only touch the outer two of the three images. Whichever one I touch becomes the one on the end (which it of course is), and the other becomes the one in the middle (which it isnít).

Itís all rather confusing. But also surprising that Iíve never heard the phenomenon described in quite this way before - after all, it is what we see every time we look out of our eyes. And yet it is still hard to see. It would be an interesting experiment to photograph it. Two pictures could be taken of the same scene without advancing the film, moving the camera two inches between shots. Or a device could be built to optically combine the images from two objective lenses - like an upside-down binocular microscope. Then we could at last see in a photograph what we see every day with our eyes: a clear background, with the foreground objects more distorted and doubled the closer they are. Unless we specifically focus on them (and throw the background into a blur), they are transparent ghost images in front of everything else we see.

Itís a wonder we can see anything at all.

* * *

ďThe bushmen of the Kalahari,Ē I said knowledgeably, are unable to understand maps. If you show a bushman a map of his homeland and explain all the symbols and point out and name all the places he knows, still he is unable to grasp how a mere map can be used to represent the land. They understand and know the land with such a visceral knowledge that they cannot understand how lines on a small piece of paper can represent a full-sized place.

ďWe think of rivers and mountains and villages as objects that occupy a particular place; to the bushman, they are the places - they could not exist anywhere else. The river is a place and a smell and an experience and a source of certain foods, and the village is another.

If a bushman is forced to draw a map, the best he can do is to make marks on a paper and name each as a place he knows, but the marks are placed at random, with no regard for the distances and relationships between them. Another bushman could recognize nothing on this map, nor could the artist draw the same map again. Even the ones that learn to read and write and travel outside their homeland remain befuddled by maps and find them of no assistance when travelling. They must have specific narrative instructions to find a place they do not know.Ē

ďReally? How fascinating. How different from the way we think, eh? Isnít it funny how we always assume that, just because we see things in one way, that everyone else probably sees it the same way? We always think our way is the only way, or at least the best way.Ē She smiled, then shook her head in wonder. ďWhat tribe did you say that was?Ē

ďI canít remember. I made the whole thing up out of whole cloth.Ē

ďWhat? You shit!Ē

ďSo what - who cares if itís true? Itís still a good anecdote. And if it isnít true, it should be.Ē

* * *

There are times I donít want to know what time it is. Once youíre aware of the time, you start to plan ahead, you wonder if itís time to go, you wonder if thereís time to continue whatever it is youíre doing; in short, you stop enjoying it. When I was a boy my greatest joy was going on hikes, on foot or by bike, with a good friend or two. When out on one of these adventures, miles from home, seeing no one I knew, the rest of my life would be forgotten. No worries about school, chores, money, or sex, no fears about whether I was cool or popular or nerdy. I was just a boy enjoying myself, exploring the world, and sharpening my abilities, my skills, and my self-confidence, at one with the world.

Then someone would mention the time. Suddenly it was no longer an endless summer boyhood day. Suddenly it was 2:30 in the afternoon. Dad would be home from work in a few hours. We were, letís see, three hours out, so if Iím going to get home by supper time weíll have to turn back now; thatís it guys, weíve gotta stop. Itís still the middle of a summer day, but itís no longer endless.

Back in my hippie days my greatest joy was exploring the universe within and without through LSD. Iíd be off in realms of beauty and mystery untouched, I was sure, by any mind before mine, inches away from the Ultimate Cosmic Truth. Then Iíd see a clock or hear someone say the time. Oh, wow, man, itís late. Iíve been tripping for eight hours already; Iíll be coming down any time now. Kiss off those Kosmic Trooths, baby; Iíve got a date with everyday reality.

Have you ever been walking in the woods, or standing on top of a mountain, or making love, and you discovered itís still much earlier than you thought and youíve got plenty more time? No, itís always, oh shit, is it that late already? The experience is diminished by an inanimate ticking device.

How do parties usually end? Oh, look at the time, Fred has to get up for work in four hours. Everyone looks at their wrists and, sure enough, sheís right, the funís over. Letís go get the coats.

There should be a law that watches become illegal, illegible, or at least invisible when weíre having a good time. Come to think of it, even when weíre having a bad time they donít help. They seem to slow down and be an additional source of frustration and annoyance. Just why do we strap these things on our bodies anyway?

* * *

A dark winged shape just occulted some stars I was gazing meditatively upon. An evil omen, I thought, ominously and redundantly. But I am not superstitious and it is not Halloween anyway. A large bird then - quite large. It could have been a turkey vulture, but I didnít think they flew at night - I often see them at sunset, circling in one by one to settle in a huge eucalyptus, folding their wings around themselves like movie vampires. Or perhaps a very large gull. Could it have been a sea bird? A nice mystery.

A strange line floats into my head: A wet bird never flies at night. It is the sorry punchline of an even sorrier shaggy dog joke that I have mercifully forgotten, but I think it was meaningless even then. But it brings to mind another sentence I have carried around in my head for many years, and of which I know I never knew the meaning.

Many years ago, when my older brother Gary was a boy, he received an anonymous telegram from a distant city I have since forgotten. It said only: ďAre the props still turning?Ē Nothing else - no clue as to who had sent it or why. We lived in a small rural community in Ohio, even more provincial back then in the fifties. If a native traveled even to the bright lights of Cincinnati it was reported in the papers. It was inconceivable that some acquaintance of ours should be in this distant city without our knowledge, playing some practical joke we couldnít understand. It was a source of mystery and wonder then, and it has remained so ever since. Gary and I could be the only two people in the world who even know of the telegram. Even I havenít thought of it in years.

Perhaps the next time Iím away from home, stuck in some strange airport in the middle of the night, perhaps Iíll send him an identical telegram. I can imagine him tearing open the envelope with that knot of concern at the heart that we all experience when we get an unexpected telegram. Then he opens the sheet and there are those incomprehensible words again. What would he think? Is there a madman loose, who has tracked him around the world for over thirty years, waiting to strike again? Some person went into a telegraph office in such-and-such a place, wrote down those words, and paid money to have them sent to him. Why to him? And to what end? What could it possibly mean?

I could give my brother this delicious mystery for five minutes trouble and a few dollars. He wouldnít suspect me, I donít think, not at first. He might not even know that I have remembered the telegram all these years. He would probably think to ask me, after he has given up on any other wild theory. What would I say? I donít remember ever having lied to my brother and I suppose I wouldnít do it now, but it does seem a pity to make ordinary such a wonderful enigma.

* * *

I sang a song with my two-year-old son today, for the first time ever. He is not given to performing, so I was surprised when he asked me if I would sing ďTwinkle... liíl starĒ with him as I drove him to school this morning. He got only a few of the words and we both wandered widely from the pitch, but we finished each line right together and grinned at each other when we finished. It was a good moment for us both.

It reminded me, as his accomplishments so often do, of my childhood with my own father, now long dead. Dad was one of the least musical people I have ever met, showing no interest at all in any style of music, though he lived in a family full of musicians. Mom was an excellent pianist and both of their sons were always interested in music. He was dragged along to countless abominable recitals and junior high orchestra concerts.

Though he had almost no interest in music, my father had a tolerable singing voice. In church he would join in the hymns with his resonant baritone. In those days group singing was often a part of any party, and I clearly remember him, standing by the piano as Mom played, singing hits of the thirties and forties with their friends. I used to love standing near him and joining my small squeaky voice to his booming one.

Listening to my son singing with me this morning, I had an image of our family someday gathered around the piano (for my wife is also a keyboardist), singing together. I suppose itís an outdated dream, and the teenagers of the twenty-first century will find family singing impossibly uncool and boring, but it would give me great pleasure to make music as a family. A musical ensemble is the perfect example of synergy, for a duet makes more than twice as much music as two soloists. As I thought this, it seemed as if another voice had joined our little duet there in the car - a deep baritone that had been silent far too long.

copyright 1990 by Brian K. Crawford