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Encore Edition

Due to a weekend of non-stop (but nevertheless tasteful and restrained) partying, mere cat is presenting a special encore edition.

I unearthed this chestnut from the archives not long after our trip to the Franklin Institute two weeks ago. It was written during the first year of my final (and ultimately successful) attempt at college in 1989. At seventeen years’ distance, I can clearly detect an attempt (and only an attempt) at imitating Jean Shepherd’s style. About a year ago, Dan Rubin attended one of the blogger meetups and asked the other bloggers in so many words why they blog. I remember mumbling something about writing to “find my voice.” Haven’t found it yet, but this an example of an inauthentic one. Despite that, it doesn’t make me cringe, either. That’s how much I still like Jean Shepherd. I wonder what I’ll think of this blog in seventeen years...

 

The Foucault pendulum in the Franklin Institute makes an elegant and subtle demonstration of the daily rotation of the earth on its axis. The device, a heavy steel ball suspended from the roof by a long cable, is set in motion above a circle of upright sticks. As the earth turns slowly beneath it, the swinging pendulum knocks over each stick in turn until, at the end of twenty-four hours, all the sticks have fallen. The entire planet had been drafted by the Institute to humbly offer each little stick to the relentless pendulum. Rendering such enormous forces and obscure concepts comprehensible to the layman are the Institute’s specialty and pride.

When I was eleven I didn’t know a concept from a peanut butter sandwich, I just liked to watch the big ball swing back and forth. “Wouldn’t it be neat if the cable broke and the ball rolled all over the place and smashed up everything,” I thought, rifling my pockets for a Clark bar. I inhabited that eerie twilight zone behind childhood and adolescence, and now, poised on the brink of puberty, I would soon trade baseball cards and comic books for pimples and girls. Even though I was only dimly aware of imminent developments, adult interests gradually became more important to me and claimed my attention.

I was interested in electronics and astronomy, and I became a member of the Franklin Institute in order to take a course on Saturday mornings. The class disappointed me for some reason, and I always looked forward to browsing in the library afterward. As I walked from class through the exhibit areas of the museum I remember looking with condescension on the kids pushing and shoving each other, their high-pitched voices grating. I felt I was not one of them any more, those creatures with sticky hands and runny noses. I was a member of the Institute, and the library allowed only members through its doors.

I enjoyed the time I spent in the library reading science magazines and books and looking up interesting bits of information. I felt safe there, in my own world, away from responsibilities and the taunts of regular kids who yelled in museums and hated to read. Here I could exercise my intellectual curiosity in ways that were unappreciated in school.

But the library represented in microcosm everything that was wrong with my life at that time. The library was an escape. Because I was shy, I hid myself away in the library. The course at the Franklin Institute bored me; school bored me, too. I preferred to pursue independent study rather than conform to a rigid academic program. But instead of deepening my knowledge, this meant following detours that only led to dead ends. Later, these problems would give me trouble in school. The time I spent in the library was relaxing and fun, however, and I did learn how to use the card catalog.

At the end of the year I let my membership lapse and moved on to bigger and better libraries. The Franklin Institute grew and changed with the times, to keep pace with the mercurial nature of scientific progress. I haven’t visited the library in many years, although in some ways I never left. I still seek out islands of tranquility and reason whenever I’ve been at sea too long. I hope that there will always be someone to set up the little sticks and give the pendulum a push for the next generation of shortstops and bookworms.

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