I love a good story

The best stories not only tell a cracking good yarn, but also make you insatiably curious about the stories hinted at within the tale that aren’t told. The Makers of Things is such a story (plus, lovely pictures).

Some of things I wondered about…

Wanting to watch the men at work. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a city, especially the big ones, and not marveled that we built this. Even more amazing to look at enormous, essential structures that were constructed long before drywall and Caterpillars. Hell, we’re still trying to figure out just how the Egyptians and Mayans did it.

In the late 1800s, we were capable of designing and building a bridge that still stands and ferries umpteen tonnes of vehicle traffic daily (despite being built before most of these vehicles were invented), and yet we didn’t have the antibiotics that could well have saved Roebling’s life. I wonder what else he would have achieved had he lived? I wonder what else any number of great and visionary people would have achieved had they had a chance (thanks to modern medicine, etc.) to live up to their potential.

I wonder how Roebling’s son, Washington, felt about taking over the project after his father’s death. Was he intimidated? Excited? Simply accepting duty? And how frustrating must it have been to end up bedridden, feebly watching the progress and wondering about the on-site details, some of which, one imagines, his wife Emily didn’t necessarily tell him.

Emily Roebling pretty much project managed almost the entire building process — over a decade. What a remarkable woman she must have been. Not only possessed of an advanced education in mathematics and engineering, but with a personality and will that made all the various parties (often, presumably, at odds with each other) listen to her. And this was in the 1870s when ladies simply didn’t do… well, much, a lot of the time. (Happy Ada Lovelace Day, Emily.)

Could you ever get used to working inside a caisson? How many men went to work and spent their days terrified with claustrophobia or of drowning or contracting “caisson disease”, but had little choice because they had families to support? Mentally comparing a job physically working in a giant, pitch-dark, wooden box, under a river, to sitting on my ass in front of a computer all day is… a bit mind-boggling.

Many of these men would have been Union soldiers a few years prior. There wasn’t really any post-combat reintegration or therapy back then. How did these men manage life? Did they just get on with it, trying to hide the difficult times as best they could? Was there some group therapy inherent in being involved in a project so massive, of such grandeur and scale, with so many other people, that might have helped them forget and manage a little?

How would it have felt to be the one man to make the decision to stop digging on the New York side of the bridge? To decide to build on sand, despite engineering and, hell, biblical misgivings. I wonder if Roebling knows that, still today, he was right.

How did it feel to the people who worked on the bridge to finish it, to see the traffic start to cross it, linking the cities? How many of them — those who survived and those who didn’t — made their mark on the bridge or in its foundations somewhere, intentionally, with carved initials, or unintentionally, with spilled blood?

How much confidence would it have given the engineers and construction crews who began work scant years later on the Williamsburg and then Manhattan bridges. Doing something that had never been done to that scale before. Changing the face of a city. Surely they knew what Yes we can truly feels like.

The genius

I thought this was wonderful. Talk is about creativity and historical and modern philosophies around being a creative.

Assorted interestingness

2007 Tokyo International Quilt Festival — truly stunning art, and Mennonites don’t have the market cornered on gorgeous quilts. (Though it was cool to see a couple patterns I recognize from the family collections.) (Courtesy of HΓ©lΓ¨ne.)

Quinoa is pronounced “KEEN-wah” or “KEE-no-ah”. Why it took me so long to finally look that up, I’ve no idea. Because over-pronouncing words amuses me, however, (German thing?) it will probably still be “kwin-OH-ah” in my head. πŸ™‚

How to Be a Woman — solid advice. (Courtesy of Violet.)

Hatsuyume — I love when other languages have words for stuff that English doesn’t (which is often). The first one I remember from this year is that I was shopping and trying on jeans (which I did recently). And was surprised to notice I was rawkin’ a kickass six-pack. Why it was buried under a sweater I have no idea, cuz if I had such abs they’d be out all the time. πŸ™‚ (Courtesy of Violet.)

As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God — This led to an excellent discussion between Sherry and myself, through which our personal experiences shone through very clearly, I’m sure. (Courtesy of Sherry.)

Sockmonkeys taken to another level — makes me wish I could really sew.

Emily Oster: What do we really know about the spread of AIDS? — Fascinating holistic view of how part of the world and people tick.

Nicholas Negroponte: Bringing One Laptop per Child to Colombia: TED in the Field — Maybe cuz I’m a web geek, maybe cuz I’m a reading and learning junkie, but this inspired the hell out of me. I will help.

born not belonging

Yesterday I read The Daily Coyote book, which I highly recommend, both for the amazing photography and the equally fantastic story.

Early in the book, Shreve, the author, mentions a quote from a Salman Rushdie book that grabbed me, though I’ve read little of Rushdie’s work, so I looked it up. The longer excerpt I found is even more fascinating, telling, and poignant. When I was younger, this is the type of quote that would have me dropping the book and jumping up to go grab my notebook or a scrap of paper and pen to record it.

I’ve posted the quote below, without comment, since it seems that whenever I express my thoughts and feelings on this particular topic, I get told I’m wrong and am subjected to expressions of my value to others, etc., which, while sweet, misses the point. πŸ™‚

“For a long while I have believed…that in every generation there are a few souls, call them lucky or cursed, who are simply born not belonging, who come into the world semi-detached, if you like, without strong affiliation to family or location or nation or race; that there may even be millions, billions of such souls, as many non-belongers as belongers, perhaps; that, in sum, the phenomenon may be as “natural” a manifestation of human nature as its opposite, but one that has been mostly frustrated, throughout human history, by lack of opportunity. And not only by that: for those who value stability, who fear transience, uncertainty, change, have erected powerful system of stigmas and taboos against rootlessness, that disruptive, anti-social force, so that we mostly conform, we pretend to be motivated by loyalties and solidarities we do not really feel, we hide our secret identities beneath the false skins of those identities which bear the belongers’ seal of approval. But the truth leaks out in our dreams…: alone in our beds (because we are alone at night, even if we do not sleep by ourselves), we soar, we fly, we flee. And in the waking dreams our societies permit, in our myths, our arts, our songs, we celebrate the non-belongers, the different ones, the outlaws, the freaks. What we forbid ourselves, we pay good money to watch, in a playhouse or movie theatre, or to read about between the secret covers of a book. Our libraries, our palaces of entertainment tell the truth. The tramp, the assassin, the rebel, the thief, the mutant, the outcast, the delinquent, the devil, the sinner, the traveller, the gangster, the runner, the mask: if we did not recognize in them our least-fulfilled needs, we would not invent them over and over again, in every place, in every language, in every time.” — Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet


A decade ago today I got on a plane. It started with a quick hop from Pearson in Toronto to JFK in New York. I remember when I arrived it was dark and pouring rain. On the shuttle between terminals, I had a hilarious and surreal conversation with the porter about bulldozers.

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