Sunday, April 19, 2009

Punctuated Equilibrium

There are incidents that make us know ourselves. And there are incidents that make others know us. Thankfully, these are not often the same incidents. 

Once, I was baking a cake, late, the night before a dinner party at my house.  The oven kept smoking a little, and I kept taking the cake out and trying again. Then, to my shock, the whole oven caught on fire. (Unfortunately, the guest list was all carnivore, but civilized carnivore, the most difficult kind, so "raw" was out.) I called my sister, the professional sacher mom, to ask if there was any way to salvage a cake that had been slightly baked three times for 5-10 minutes only, and she knew the way. And she said something that made me think about cleaning the oven, which I have to admit had not occurred to me. And I don't mean, had not occurred to me in light of the fire, but had not occurred to me since I'd moved in and started using the oven. I dug out the manual and studied the "judgment day" self-clean option that promised to turn all to ash. I was nervous because of the fire at a much lower degree, so I set my alarm for every half hour, just to be sure to catch any fire before it spread to the rest of my house. And again to my shock, it worked, and all was fine, including the cake baked four times. 

All was fine, except for what I finally understood: That it had never occurred to me to clean because at some point I just saw it as too dirty to clean. And that was an analogy that traveled far and wide and deep.

I think about this now as I get ready for visiting dignitaries, usually defined as new man, parents, or certain kinds of acquaintances. In some ways, that early epiphany is a corollary to the algorithmic life, but it is more insidious too. You need geologic time to understand what you have trained yourself not to know and not to see any more. You may never know why.    

1 comment:

  1. Oh, yes. How well I know that epiphany you had. But, of course, the scariest thing is the realization that you don't see how many dirty ovens you might have, which would be fine, except that maybe everyone else can see them.
    Perfect title, by the way, says the microbiologist.