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Thursday, April 16, 2015


Michael O'Brien wrote the only book I have read more than twice. Toward the end of his life Josip, the main character, meditates on the odd things we remember while seemingly important things fade from memory altogether. I've thought on this a lot lately. Especially in regard to this little episode:

My high school chemistry teacher stands at the front of the lab wearing a collared shirt and a long khaki skirt that buttons up the front. I'm restless, my legs swinging a from my perch on a lab stool near the back of the room as I try to ignore the ever-present odor of formaldehyde that lingers no matter how well classes clean up after dissections. 

The teacher has been gesticulating about the difference between a suspension and a solution. Though a few of the students have already given up the fight, their foreheads having discovered the solace of the black, slate tables in front of them, I am proving their taunts of my nerdiness to be true with sustained effort to pay attention. Scientific words and categories fly through a complicated thought maze in my head seeking a landing pad. 

Liquid, solid, gas, solution, suspension, colloid, dispersion... 

I am frustrated with the labels. I didn't want everything to have a category.The world is too big. Science too small. Some things are in between. Some things are mysterious. 
A few moments more of fuming until my hand can't be restrained. It shoots up through the fusty air like a tower rising from the fog. 

"You have a question?"

"Yes. I want to know...what about things that don't fit any of these categories? What are they?"

"Um....what do you mean? Do you have an example?"

"Well. What about things like...well...things like...mayonnaise?"

The fragile skin around her eyes squeezes tightly under the weight of her furrowed brow. I'm fascinated by her face. The lines on it scrawl patterns of math and chemistry that look to me like trails to worlds with inhabitants that speak an unknowable language of numbers and data. Though it terrifies me, I respect her as one who has lived among those aliens and learned their ways.
"Well...that's called an emulsion." She tosses the word in my direction. It lands sloppily on the table in front of me, oozing and gelatinous, staining my textbook. I grimace. She smiles and continues the lesson, her face cleared having neatly translated one more phrase from the alien tongue for her students. 

I test it on my tongue. I hate how it drops thick blobs of mush at the back of my throat before squishing forward through my teeth. Emulsion.  Gross. Scientists are probably not linguists. They are certainly not hedonists.  

That was nearly a decade ago. But I am still thinking about mayonnaise. I am still spreading it on the bread of my sandwiches with some measure of contempt. The words "emulsion, suspension, emulsion, suspension..." repeating in my mind, searching endlessly for resolution and waiting for a day when everything is given its proper name. 

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