Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Nanowrimo: Day One

The Alarmist
By Heath Row

1. Introductions

Mr. Grimace, meet Mr. Gape. Gape, Grimace.

I’m rather surprised that you two haven’t already made each other’s acquaintance. Really, I am. You live in the same stolid section of town. You frequent many of the same safe bodegas, cafes, diners, and bookstores. And your tastes run much the same. From choice of footwear—both of you prefer thick-soled, almost therapeutic, geriatric black leather shoes—to headwear—if either of you leave your aging bachelor abodes without a pinch-brimmed hat or dusty ear-flapped cap, it’s a rare day indeed. Head, shoulders, knees, and toes.

But that is not the extent of your similarities. And therein lies my confusion—and the root of my disbelief—that you do not already know each other. Because both of you know the woman the Reader will eventually meet, and both of you love her madly. Madly! Yet she will never know, will she, Mr. Grimace? Mr. Gape?

For all you can do in her presence, Mr. Grimace, is sit slack-jawed and silent as she regales you with slightly spritely stories of her delightfully dainty day-to-day existence, hands flitting about like butterflies in the air about her pristine and porcelain face. And, you, Mr. Gape! All you can do is frown sourly, brows knit like a stocking cap and dark eyes brooding with concern. It’s a wonder she can stand spending time with either of you. I wonder what she’d do with both of you.

Truth be told, I love her, too. It’s a rare man who can’t. Or doesn’t. But this story isn’t about them, or her, or you two, really. This story is about me.

It’s a story worth the telling.

And I am the one to tell it.

So let’s begin.

2. A Real Peach of a Newborn

Zechariah Hephzibah Peachpit Sebastian—later in life, Peach to his friends, Zac to his acquaintances—was born in the earliest of mornings. The sun was just peeking sneakily past the surface of the Earth, and the birds were rousing to spout their drowsy song. Garbage trucks already filled to the gills rattled down Apollo, and the short-order cook at the Luncheonette Diner on the corner slathered the grill with grease just this side of rancid, preparing for the daybreak’s pending onslaught of orders for eggs, bacon, potatoes, and toast.

At the same time, Peach’s mother sweated and strained achingly in the master bedroom on the top floor of a four-story walkup, her legs awkwardly aloft, clamped in hastily and amateurishly yet adequately constructed stirrups made of wire hangers, yard sticks, and twine. Her husband, nervous, stood by her side. He’d called the doctor 20 minutes ago, when the breaking of his wife’s water surprised the two of them to wakefulness and wonder. At first, he’d been concerned that one of them had wet the bed. One of them, in fact, had. But that was OK. There was a birthing going on.

The man, Peach’s father, no doubt about it, wondered when the doctor would arrive. He also wondered how long his wife’s labor would last. He wondered whether his favorite baseball team would make it to the playoffs. And he wondered whether his child, the fruit of his loins and a chip off his block, would grow up to be anyone important. Would he make a name for himself? Would the name they planned to inscribe on his birth certificate—a name weighty with aspirational circumstance, history, import, and pomp—weather his son’s sure-to-come accomplishments, actions, and deeds? The man had to wait until the end of summer, scant weeks away, to learn the fate of his league favorite. But he didn’t need to wait very long to learn how important their child was going to be. Or to how many people.

The doctor arrived with a squealing of steaming tires streaking stripes in the street four flights below. The newly formed and now formal father walked to the door of the flat to await the physician’s arrival. Opening the door in antsy anticipation, the man could hear the belabored ascension of the man of medicine. While the doctor was a veritable master mechanic of the human body, he did tend to neglect his own, largely in the name of heavy sauces and port wine. But that’s neither here nor there, and soon enough, stairway be damned, the doctor arrived from there to here, much to the man—and his wife’s—relief.

So it was that Peach was born. Before bacon. Before eggs. Without toast. And in the presence of two loving parents and a wheezing MD with grimy spectacles and meat-thick fingers. As soon as Peach breached his mother’s cervix, traveled the length of mom’s vagina, and crested beyond the vulva, he took note of his new surroundings in his newborn baby way.

He deemed them unfit.

And he began to scream and screech and shriek in alarm.

3. Glass and the Effects of High-Pitched Sounds

Good morning, class. Please find your seats and get out your notebooks. Today I’m going to talk about glass and the effects of high-pitched sounds. Ready? Let’s begin.

It’s a stereotypical image: A bovine and perhaps hirsute opera singer wearing a strong, sturdy, metal helmet, adorned with horns for the sake of argument, sings a high note. You know she’s got braids. Her throat quivers. Her jowls quake. And a crystal goblet shatters. Or, a supersonic jet flies directly overhead. Faster, ever faster, until the very speed of sound itself—roughly the square root of the universal gas constant multiplied by the adiabatic index multiplied in turn by the absolute temperature of air, measured in kelvins—is broken. Windows shatter. Curio cabinets concatenate.

Is it real? Or is it Memorex? Every kind of glass has what we physicists call a resonant frequency. That is the natural frequency of vibration possessed by a particular object. Now, if a given object encounters sound waves with the same frequency as its resonant frequency, that object could indeed break. Explode. Splinter into bits. To quote the Rolling Stones—and to repeat myself—“shatter.”

How can we find the resonant frequency of glass, or any specific item, for that matter? Were we working with, say, a stereo speaker, we could use a resistor, a sine wave generator, and a true RMS meter. By finding the frequency at which the voltage across the resistor is lowest, we could identify the resonant frequency. And maybe even blow the mother out.

Hold on.

OK, class. That sounds like the fire alarm. You know the drill. Pack up your things, and exit the auditorium in single file. We’ll gather by the old oak tree for a headcount, and once we hear from the physical plant staff, you’ll be dismissed. For Thursday’s class, please read Steinberg’s paper, “Avoiding Vibration in Odd-Shaped Printed-Circuit Boards.”

Single file, now!

4. If at First You Don’t Succeed

Peach didn’t get it right the first time. He didn’t get it right the second time. But by subtly varying the pitch and length of his newborn baby cries, he eventually arrived at the proper frequency—and within seconds. That shows some amount of skill.

Every window, every glass, every bathtub, and every toilet within a radius of three miles was no more. And the world woke up.

5. The Givers of Care

Peach, then, woke up in a bed. Not the wet bed he was born in. And not the bed—the crib—his parents had intended for him to sleep in. That bed, the crib, was located in a room painted blue like the sky.

No, the bed Peach woke up in was in a lab. The walls were white. The floor tile. And the ceiling harshly lit with fluorescents. It was an operating room. A veritable theater of medical examination and exploration.

The doctors didn’t know what to do. They poked him. They prodded him. They provoked him. They placated him. They even perforated him, flying in a Japanese expert in the fine art of acupuncture from Hokkaido for that very reason. But to no avail.

No number of needles, scalpels, saline bags, or cotton swabs could reveal the mystery of this alien from the planet of sound. One moment, Peach was a baby: A pink, wrinkled, understandably angry baby. And in another moment, a moment already passed, Peach was a banshee, an Irish demon whose scream signals someone’s—or something’s—death.

6. Putting the Ire in Ireland

It is thought that the banshee’s cry can only signal the death of a member of either the O'Neill, O'Brien, O'Connor, O'Grady or Kavanagh families. Those who have held onto that thought have another think coming. Intermarriage has since extended that select list, and by some genetic twist of fate, the Sebastian family might very well be on it.

7. Roddy Doyle Ha Ha Ha

He was walking down the hall. Dr. Smuckers paused at the door and swiped at it with his cane. He missed. He swiped again. Missed again. Smuckers reached into his pocket for a soiled handkerchief and wiped his brow. Then his mouth. Then he wiped the hankie on his herringbone pants leg and swiped again with the cane.

Finally: A hit!

It was a patient’s door. Smuckers had walked two miles in sheets of slicing icy rain to reach the house. When he arrived, he learned it was a walkup. Serves him right. Buzzed in, he breached the foyer, passing piles of Chinese takeout menus; mouldering books wrapped in newspaper; and newspapers themselves, themselves sheathed in shear blue plastic bags. People were always having babies. But they were never doing anything to help him.

—Sebastian, Sebastian, Sebastian!

Mr. Sebastian opened the apartment door, eyes wide as pies.

—You called and said you had a baby.
—We’re having a baby. She’s having a baby. She’s… had the baby.
—I see. $30 copay, please.

8. On the Softness of Sheets

Clean sheets mean a lot. And the sheets on which—in which—Peach slept were awfully clean. They were cool. They were clear. They were crisp. And the crackled. An inattentive nurse’s aide had swaddled dear, dear Peach, in his frowsy, drowsy sleep, in freshly opened sheets. They weren’t starched. They hadn’t been pressed. But they also hadn’t been depressed, knee-pressed, or repressed so they had that nappy, nap-time, sleep-tight feeling. To whit: They were harsh.

Peach, being a baby, did what babies do. He cried. He clacked. He caterwauled. And, having been relocated to another position in the city, he caused another catastrophe: Every window, every glass, every bathtub, and every toilet within a radius of three miles was no more.

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