Tuesday, May 5, 2009

More on the chain

Jenny asked: How did you measure this 215-ft. paper chain? Answer: I married into a family that collects erudite scientific gadgets. Specifically, my father-in-law owns things like ... a 300-FT TAPE MEASURE! Woohoo! I am just lucky that way.

Stephanie recalled a childhood attempt to earn a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, which triggers my own memory of some such undertaking; I just can't quite put my finger on what the endeavor was. But she unwittingly illustrates a point I've been musing on, which is that children seem to find the whole idea of world records -- specifically, obscure ones that involve size and scope -- to be utterly compelling. They want to make the DEEPEST hole in the world, the BIGGEST catamaran, the LARGEST Twister Game (I actually participated in one of these attempts several years ago). Why?

Here's a thought. Last week my high school alumni magazine arrived in the mail. My junior English teacher -- wife of the man who taught me sophomore English, senior Creative Writing, and senior Hamlet, and directed two plays I stage-managed -- presented, in the pages of this magazine, a very thought-provoking essay on the purpose of education. She talked about how a true education leads us to this paradox: our significance and our insignificance in the universe.

In other words, the more we learn that is truly of value, the more we both appreciate the depth and breadth of human beings and their place in the world, and get a glimpse of how much bigger it all is than our tiny individual selves. We are everything, we are nothing. For example, she cited a girl who wrote in her college essay about two defining moments in her life, one where she overcame her fears and delivered an theatrical performance in a starring role (significance) and one when she and her family were driving through the desert at night and stopped to get out of the car and look up at the stars (insignificance). (Note: I've done the latter. It is indeed the kind of moment you remember for life.)

So, back to the world record thing. I think that as children start to become aware of this paradox, of the fact that there are things out there -- numbers, objects, accomplishments, galaxies -- that dwarf the selves they've hitherto taken for granted as pretty central to the universe, they subconsciously develop some kind of drive to master, to tame, the bigness. If they can make the biggest/tallest/deepest/longest X in the world, they've done something, well, significant.

Gotta love that whole let's-grab-the-bull-by-the-horns impulse, and the fact that they follow through on it, unjaded by a sense of insignificance. Maybe the people who do truly amazing things, to great fanfare or very quietly, to impact the world in their adult years just never let go.


Eclectic Mama said...

I remember getting out of my car at the gate to my parents' house one night years ago (they live out in the middle of nowhere on a ranch), back when the lights of San Antonio weren't quite so bright. I glanced up and nearly fell over by the sheer weight of the stars above me. As you said, it's truly one of those moments you remember for the rest of your life. Too bad there aren't many places easy to get to to view them these days.

Anonymous said...

I seem to remember someone starring as an ermine a few years ago.



Bear Creek Mama said...

I'm with you, I just so love the undaunted motivation to create something - completely - that in itself is insignificant. The memory of which will undoubtedly have great significance.