Monday, January 5, 2015

The Everyday Extremes

There is something about extremes that fascinates me. Not just the extremes that wind up on Discovery channel shows or MSNBC specials, but the absolute limits present for any human endeavor. We like to think that those margins exist out there somewhere, probably very far away affecting the lives of people we will never meet. But sometimes the extreme is the difference of a few miles per hour.



Saturday, I went out into the snow storm that briefly struck Eastern Massachusetts, on the way to guide some friends to my house. Even though the snow had fallen for less than an hour, enough of it covered the roads to create a frictionless layer of slippery snow. The hill leading up to my house is not really steep, but this kind of snow caused my friend’s car to literally slide back down the hill.


So anyway, I carefully go down the hill, all the way into second gear, never letting the speedometer creep above 10 miles per hour. I’ve lived long enough in the northeast to know you don’t mess around with snow, but I hoped a back way up to my street would spread out the ascent over a few mild slopes. I headed towards my friends where they are waiting at the bottom of the hill, hiting the brakes to slow down on the last gentle grade. I don’t slow down. The car continues to slide, very slowly, towards the intersection. I stomp up and down on the pedal, but the car continues to leisurely glide into the path of an oncoming snowplow. I crank the wheel to the left, hit the gas, and somehow avoid the collision.


Do you see what I’m trying to describe here? I was less than a block from my house driving only slightly faster than I typically jog and I nearly wound up in a serious, possibly fatal accident. That is how close the life-threatening extremes can be. I guess a person could talk about fate, or perhaps my own personality flaws that lead me to drive at 10 miles per hour as opposed to nine, but the fact is, life-threatening situations can exist literally at all times.


I have a pet theory that every job, or pursuit has an extreme component or aspect to it. That even jobs as mundane as being a dancer or a librarian or a chemist have some path that leads to a situation like my evening slide. This idea probably started as a reaction to Derek Lowe’s much loved blog “In the Pipeline,” especially those posts he categorizes under the label “Things I Won’t Work With.” If you haven’t ever checked out this blog, I recommend that you do so, it’s very entertaining. And disquieting. Lowe’s takes obvious glee in describing chemicals such as azides and hexamethylenetetramine which represent almost ludicrous amounts of peril. I think what interests me about these posts is that they describe the point in any endeavor where simply creating the next chain of hydrocarbons has a good chance to blow up your lab. Take his post on peroxide peroxides for example. First describing the rapidly increasing peril of working with higher concentrations of that stuff in your medicine cabinet, Lowe then goes on to describe the chemistry maniacs who attach another oxygen bond to make H2O3, which he describes as “frisky.”


In talking with my wife, who works as a training specialist for a local pharmaceutical company, just learning how to clean certain machinery can be hazardous. When enormous bioreactors - think huge metal keys filled with genetically modified hamster ova - have to be cleaned out between batches, someone needs to go into the chamber, repelling into the slippery steel cave to perform a visual inspection. This is not something you can learn how to do from a manual. You have to gear up and go spelunking. This was a memorable example of a normal human activity, learning to how to clean something, raised to a level of complexity and risk I normally associate with sending payloads into orbit. 


I’m also reminded of a metallurgist friend who once described the dangers of high pressure cold-welding. The larger welding space is often filled with a nonreactive, noble gases like argon. Argon represents a significant danger as it is heavy enough to displace the oxygen within a person’s lungs, suffocating some one before anyone is aware the worker is in danger. Something about the idea of being killed because a gas is too heavy intrigues me, as it suggests death by pure math.


Not really in the same ball-park, but certainly interesting, is the idea of extreme cooking. Consider lava cooking which is pretty much what you think it is. You prepare a chicken or a ham, by wrapping it in palm fronds and then burying it inside lava as it flows through your Hawaiin beach front property. The heat, while intense, doesn’t simply carbonize the meat but bakes it thoroughly, keeping the juices locked inside. Of course, to eat said lava chicken, you need to wait until the lava has cooled, and break out the shovels.


What I mean by the extreme, is something that my dad once told me when I was much younger. In an effort to explain what interested him as an artist, he mentioned the idea of the frontier and the edge. What my dad was trying to point to was the idea that an artist’s role was finding the outside edge of what is commonly held as reality. There is in every moment, in every discrete component of reality an edge, the part removed from our common everyday experience. And in finding this unusual frontier, this dangerous extreme, we have a better sense of what it means to actually be alive.

It just so happens that that edge can lie halfway down a hill you’ve driven down every day for the past six years.


Update: Many corrections to style and typos.
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