Newton’s Cradle

I’m waking every morning before my alarm. If I program the coffee pot right, it makes a little sighing noise just before my alarm goes off, and by the time my phone chirps, I can smell the coffee.

At least once a week, I do something wrong. Maybe I’ve ground the beans and set the timer, but forgotten to add the water, or I’ve added the water and ground the beans but left them in the grinder. Sometimes I forget to start the coffee altogether. One night last week I did everything but put the pot under the opening where the coffee comes out.

Last night I filled the reservoir with water, ground the beans, poured them into the filter, and hit the “auto-start” button, so this morning I was confused to find a pot of lukewarm coffee at 5:00 a.m. The best I can figure out is that the power flickered and the auto-start happened at midnight. Then my coffee “kept warm” for four hours, and then it gave up and got cold.

I know what you are thinking. How does she manage to endure such hardship?

Believe it or not, that was already a lot of quantitative thinking for me at five in the morning, so you might be surprised that I’m planning to write about physics today. I never took a physics class, so I invite you to make an informed decision right now about whether or not you should continue to read on.

Despite my lack of formal study, over the years I’ve learned these two things:

  1. The faster a fluid moves the lesser is its pressure. I learned Bernoulli’s principle in eighth grade. I can still see the picture in our textbook. A big-cheeked child is blowing between two strips of paper and the papers are moving closer together. I remember this principle, though, because of the near rhyme. The feel of the words in my mouth was always what I liked about math and science. (Didn’t every kid write a poem about Pythagoras in the margins of her geometry notes?) The other reason I remember Bernoulli’s law is that I chant it and the Memorarae when I’m flying to keep the plane from dropping from the sky. So far it’s worked every time.
  1. Every action has an equal and an opposite reaction. I remember that one because of the obvious metaphorical implications. There’s a novel lurking there.

Everything else the rest of you learned in physics class is chemistry to me, even though every few years I try to read Stephen Hawkings’ Brief History of Time or Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces. I scribble poems in those margins, too.

I’m writing about physics this morning because my sisters and I tried to buy my brother a Ferris wheel for Christmas. Paul has a big picture window in his apartment that looks out over a miniature golf course where a giant dinosaur roars, and he thought the Ferris wheel would look nice sitting on a table in front of that window. The furniture store where he had seen it didn’t have it in stock anymore, but Clare found what we thought was the same thing on Amazon. The other night talking to Paul on the phone I asked if it had come in yet.

“There was a delay,” he told me. The BOJIN Company explained what happened in a very nice email.

We feel sorry to inform you that the item you purchased in our shop “name” is detained by custom and does not pass through the inspection in custom from H.K. to the U.S., so we contact related stuff immediately and they provide some reasons below:

  1. Potential risk of some metal materials of the product
  2. Huge size

Therefore, to most degree, the item cannot send to your address successfully despite we really want to make this deal and provide you our talented product.

I suppose it’s good to know that US Customs Officials are on the job, protecting us to most degree from huge Ferris wheels made of toxic metals. I know I’ll sleep better tonight. In terms of a Christmas present, though, it looks to most degree as though Paul is out of luck. I’m imagining a well-timed, sort of resigned roar from the dinosaur outside as Paul received this news.

But the BOJIN Company really was sorry for not shipping their talented product, so they arranged another product as a gift to your address.

“So, they sent me a Newton’s Cradle,” my brother told me, and for some reason this struck both of us as hilarious. You ordered a Ferris wheel, which you can’t have, so take this Newton’s Cradle!

I’m imagining the lyrics to a country song. “You broke my heart, like a cheap plastic ladle; now all I’ve got is this Newton’s Cradle.” Before you tell me to keep my day job, try this at home. It’s harder than it looks to rhyme with cradle. Here’s my second try: “I never thought that you would skedadle, but you scooped out my heart with your cold-fisted ladle…” (You have no idea how much trouble I’m having convincing auto-correct to stop putting a second d in skedadle.) 

You probably took a physics class or two, so you already know that a Newton’s Cradle looks something like the parallel bars in men’s gymnastics with a bunch of symmetric balls suspended between them on wires that hang in perfect Vs. If you imagine five or six gymnasts hanging straight down from the bars in a row, their arms and heads make roughly the same shape. To make this image work, you have to imagine the gymnasts ending at the bottom of their heads, and then those heads knocking into each other, so I guess this could get a little grisly, but there it is. Blame it on my coffee being cold this morning. If you want a less bloody visual, look it up on Amazon, and you’ll find a bunch of sophisticated items that look like things you’d buy in a museum gift shop.

Except for the one the BOJIN Company sent to Paul. His Newton’s Cradle came with seven single A batteries and blue and red flashing lights.

Before I asked about the Ferris wheel, Paul and I had been talking about his efforts to get his nitroglycerine prescription refilled and how long it was taking to get an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic. I’m sure Allegheny General Hospital does some things well, but from a distance, it doesn’t seem like taking care of my brother is one of them. After the dinosaur roared again (Ok, I’m lying about that. There really is a dinosaur and he really does roar, but this miniature golf course is in Pittsburgh and it’s February. He’s probably not roaring tonight.), we started imagining all sorts of problems that might be solved by a Newton’s Cradle.

“Well, we know you wanted those nitroglycerin pills for when your heart stops beating. We can’t give you those, but here, enjoy this Newton’s Cradle!”

“We know that you really want bypass surgery. We can’t do that, but here, take this Newton’s Cradle!” We thought we were hilarious.

Of course, after we got off the phone I had to look it up. I assumed that this nifty physics toy illustrated one of the two things I know about physics. Knock the ball on the end into the next ball and (voila!) watch the equal and opposite reaction. But that wasn’t the case. Knock the ball on the end into the next ball and it just sits there. So do the next couple of balls. Then, finally, the ball on the far end shoots out, and I’m learning physics fun fact number three: the law of the conservation of momentum.

I went to the NASA web site to see if ten or fifteen minutes of deep study could teach me anything. NASA said this:

F=ma=m (deltaU/DeltaT). (I’m pleased with myself here. Where I’ve cleverly written “delta,” NASA had little triangles that I don’t know how to enter with a keyboard. If you’re curious, the poem beginning in my mental margin has something to do with little triangles of change.)

I kept reading. “Momentum is defined to be the mass of an object multiplied by the velocity of the object.” Ok, NASA, I think I’m with you so far. I can imagine a giant snowball rolling downhill. But perhaps I’m confusing myself, because from somewhere deep in my brain I’m hearing thirty-two feet per second per second, which I remember, I’m sure, because it sounds kind of like “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward.”

A week or so later “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is still stuck in my head and I’m on the phone with my sister the science teacher. She provides perspective immediately. It’s all part of that whole “energy can neither be created or destroyed” thing, Clare tells me. The first ball has energy, it transfers it to the next one, which transfers it to the next one, until there’s no one left to transfer it to, so the last little ball yells “Yippee, I get the energy!” and pops out. You can probably tell which part of that explanation I ad-libbed.

So I’ve spent the week learning about momentum and trying to find something worthwhile that could pop out at the end of this essay. My father the engineer hated when sports analysts talked about a team having momentum. “It doesn’t mean anything,” he would say.

And that’s exactly my problem. All I’ve given you is a big jumbled mess of giant toxic Ferris wheels, lonely dinosaurs roaring in the night, and conversations with my siblings. Yesterday I almost gave up when I realized I’d done all this writing just to end up at Mick Jagger. Really? All these words for “You can’t always get what you want”? It doesn’t even make sense. Who needs a tacky Newton’s Cradle all blinged out with clacking balls and blinky lights?

At the very least, I’d like to give you one new word. Maybe we can get a jumpstart on making it one of 2016’s Words of the Year.

Newton’s Cradle. Verb, intransitive. To substitute without irony an unrelated perhaps tacky item for something a person desires or needs. As in, “Why did you give me this blow-up chicken? I ordered a bowl of borscht. Are you trying to Newton’s Cradle me?”

That’s all I’ve got. Oh, except this image that was in my head when I woke up Tuesday morning after falling asleep listening to the Iowa caucus results. I offer it to you without irony as a tacky substitute for any moment of real insight or emotion that you might have hoped to find here.

I’m picturing all of the candidates’ heads, suspended from two parallel bars. The one at the end (it might be the one with the funny hair) bonks into the next one, who doesn’t move, and so on down the line, clear into summer, until one of them pops out the other side, shouting “Yippee! I got the nomination!”

I’ll close with one final thought from the BOJIN Company: Please kindly forgive our ineffectiveness and impertinence.

Government Cheese

Remember the part of the story where Jesus says, “Take the seven loaves of bread and those few small fish, and once you have completed all the drug-testing and sorted out the people who could be working and aren’t, feed the people”?

I did not like those big wheels of cheese that for a short time took up space in my mother’s refrigerator. Nor did I like grocery shopping with my older sister, carefully scanning the cereal aisle for Kix and other foods that were on the list of things she was allowed to buy. I was actually nervous as we went through the checkout line, and I admit it, embarrassed. I wanted to tell the checker, “It’s not for me; I don’t live like this.”

The cheese came to my sister through the WIC program, and I’m guessing her refrigerator was either too small or not working at the time, and that’s why my mother was keeping it for her. My sister’s life was harder than mine. She had insulin-dependent juvenile diabetes, the hereditary kind, not the sort you can make go away by improving your diet. She gave herself shots daily and had to check her blood sugar frequently. She didn’t go to college. She had emotional problems that were built into her struggle with diabetes. She never learned to drive.

She also had an adorable son and was married to a good man who loved her. He had a mental illness that sometimes caused him to detach from reality. Their health challenges made it hard for them to get and keep jobs, but for a while at least, she worked in the laundry-mat up the street. For a good stretch, he ran his own business, painting houses. They made a living. They lived. Their son was beautiful and laughed often. She was a good mother.

After an explosion blew up their trailer, the husband’s hands were injured. His car was gone. It became hard to work, then hard to feel good about yourself. There were long trips to Texas to find jobs. I don’t remember exactly when this was, but I expect that this same time is when the government cheese moved in.

I have been remembering these things lately because the tone people use when they talk about the farm bill is making me sad, and I had to look backward to figure out why. I have also been worrying about all the kids who are growing up thinking that paying taxes is some sort of punishment imposed on good rich people to support lazy poor people.

I don’t remember everything about grade school, but I do remember learning that paying taxes was part of the privilege of living in a bountiful country. I remember specifically discussing whether an elderly couple with no children should have to pay taxes that supported the school system. The answer, given by my fifth grade teacher, Sr. Janine, was “Of course they should.” That nice old couple were going to share in the benefits as those educated children grew up and became firemen and doctors and lawyers. That’s what it meant to live as part of a thriving community.

I can imagine people thinking as they read this, “Yeah, but that’s because you grew up in the seventies, before the government started taxing everyone so heavily.” Maybe that’s it. In 1976, earnings in the top tax bracket were taxed at 70%. Today that number is 39.6%.

I was about to say that I’m not writing today in support of any particular plan or policy, but that’s not really honest. I’m writing to say I’m glad the farm bill didn’t pass. I’m writing to say those posts I see on Facebook about the poor downtrodden taxpayers make me sad. And I’m writing to say that it makes me angry that people co-opt Christianity as a plan for achieving worldly success.

My mother once told me I have the wrong opinion about everything. This was after the time when she had started watching Bill O’Reilly three times a day and before the time when the doctor suggested to my father that that habit might not be helping her.

So, if I have the wrong opinion about the farm bill, at least it’s the opinion that puts a big wheel of government cheese in the refrigerator of some potentially hungry kids. I’m willing to risk being wrong about the rest of it.




Yesterday’s Senate action to make sure we don’t expand background checks on gun sales reminded me that maintaining the (deeply flawed) status quo is grueling work. I thought I’d take it upon myself to help our hardworking Senators by drafting a form letter they can use in the future. 

Dear Grieving Parents of [insert child’s name],

The United States Senate wants you to know that we will stand beside you in this time of deep sadness. We will light candles, send cards and teddy bears, and go to our churches and pray. We will also watch a great deal more twenty-four news than usual. Some of us may even commit selfless acts of genuine kindness on TV.

However, we think it is important to let you know what we will not do. (You might want to share this information with your surviving children so that they can better understand the illusive nature of their safety.)

1. We will not pass any laws that criminals are going to break, because that would just be stupid.

2. We will not pass any laws until we are sure that they will be 100% effective at ending all crime. Incremental steps that don’t instantly solve the entire problem are also stupid.

3. We will not give up or in any way limit our right to own military assault weapons, because military assault weapons don’t kill people, people kill people.

4. We will not give up our right to shoot dozens of rounds of bullets with a single pull of the trigger. If you were a hunter, you would understand. Game animals travel in herds.

5. We will not take any action to try to keep guns away from criminals and the mentally ill, because they will just get them anyway (see #1 above).

6. We will not place any limits on who can buy a gun, sell a gun, or shoot a gun. Any step in that direction makes it more likely that the government, which is secretly planning to invade your home, will write your name down and come take your guns.  Just like they took your car and your cat and your dog when you registered them.

In short, we will not take any difficult action to enhance your child’s chances of survival. We have decided that the murder of children (and adults, for that matter), while highly unfortunate, is a cost we are willing to bear.

We hope you understand how deeply saddened we are by your loss.  The teddy bears and balloons should be arriving shortly.


Your U.S. Senate