My college friend Vivian O’Dell and I reconnected recently via the miracle of Facebook. We hadn’t seen each other since 1980 but she sent me a friend request, I responded, and by July 2012 we were sitting on my front porch catching up.
Viv had dropped in for a visit since she was back in the States anyway for various events connected to her work at CERN, the nuclear research facility in Switzerland. You may recall it was that month that CERN and associated facility Fermilab announced they had isolated the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle,” which allows for the existence of the universe.
I’m not kidding. I’m still not precisely (OK, not even vaguely!) sure what the hell the Higgs boson is, but my old pal Viv – Dr. O’Dell now – really was one of the physicists who tracked it down, and now she was sitting in the porch swing at my house on a dirt road in the Rising Fawn metro area, telling me all about it.
Vivian said she divided her working life between Fermilab, the American particle research laboratory near Chicago, and Geneva, where CERN had installed the Hadron Collider, the largest and most powerful particle accelerator ever built. Viv and the other physicists had used the collider to isolate the God particle, but it hadn’t all been smooth sailing: Protestors had filed a lawsuit in Hawaii to stop them before they and the Hadron destroyed the universe.
“They claimed we were going to make black holes that were going to suck up the world,” explained Vivian.
Viv & crew were doing nothing of the kind, she sniffed; the protestors were crackpots, and the only reason the scientists took any notice is they worried the negative publicity might endanger their funding. And in the end, the case had gone quietly away. The judge threw it out because he had no jurisdiction over Geneva, much less the outer edges of infinity.
Still, I was awed. I’d never known anybody before who had even been accused of tearing holes in the fabric of reality.
And really, if you had known Vivian back in the day, you wouldn’t have thought she was the type, either. We met at the University of Georgia in 1970-something, when we were teenaged hippies majoring in English. She had long blond hair, I had long brown hair, and between us we knew every song Bob Dylan ever wrote.
During those years, Viv and I took one of those epic summer trans-America road trips young people used to make routinely as a rite of passage, the way the kids now upgrade their smart phones. It involved waitress jobs in New Mexico, a lot of camping, and a beat-up VW van we named – of course we did! – Dylan. Here is (some of) a song we wrote about Dylan the van, to the tune of “A Four-Leaf Clover.”
“His horn sounds at sunset
And sometimes at dawn;
His lights work to show us
The road that we’re on.”
We also wrote a long, mournful road song to the tune of “500 Miles” when we were reading Hemingway’s Islands in the Streams:
“All the hero’s sons are dead
And he’s had three chicks in bed.
It’s got fi-ive-hundred pages, all in all.”
Once, stuck in El Paso waiting for some mechanical work to be done on Dylan, we wandered through the parking lots – El Paso was mostly parking lots – looking for something to eat. We saw what we thought was a signboard for a fast-food place and paused in front of it, reading the menu.
Back then, drive-through windows, though already rife in Texas, had not made their way to the Southeast, so when the “signboard” suddenly spoke up, asking to take our order, we were both astonished. “What manner of being are you?” we asked it. And: “Do you come in peace?”
We were just a couple of goofy liberal arts types! There was no absolutely no indication Viv was any more scientific than I was. But after I graduated, apparently, she found her true calling, changed her major to physics and basically never left academia. When she finished her undergraduate degree, she kept studying and eventually earned a Ph.D. After that, she didn’t go into teaching, just kept pursuing her research, and she must have been pretty good at it because she ended up on one of the two Higgs boson teams in Geneva.
So! That’s the story Vivian had to tell me after 30-odd years: She’d figured out how the universe worked and stuff. What I told her in return was: “I, er, write for a small weekly newspaper in Dade County, Georgia.”
Well, what else could I do? There was no point pretending to be dead; I’d already set out canapés.
Vivian (with motorcyle) and me (on porch swing) in Athens in 1976, and reunited on my porch here in summer 2012. The old pics are from my sister Laura's treasure troves.
It was all fairly humbling, but when I told the story to one of my neighbors, he said, “Well, if the two of you walked into the local Ingle’s, who’s the one everybody would recognize?”
He probably said it to make me feel less like a subatomic particle my own self but it gave me some comfort. Viv might have sussed out quantum physics while I was still puzzled by instant pudding, but I know where most of the black holes are in Dade County. As the local reporter, I know more about it than I do about any other place, more than I imagine is strictly healthy sometimes; yet I’m always discovering something new.
Anyway, this is my little acre of the universe. I like it here. It’s my place and I maintain it’s about as good as any other.
I’ve noticed people tend to think where they live is somehow less important, even less real somehow, than other places. Businesses in Chattanooga say, “Of course we’ll bring in someone from Atlanta for the work, so you know it’ll be professional”; whereas when I lived in Atlanta they would fill in the same blank with “New York” or “Los Angeles.” When lots of times, someone local would clearly make a better job of it. I see that happen in Dade all the time!
This geographical inferiority complex is probably to some extent due to simple humility: People, modest about their own place in the universe, naturally think the important events of history must be happening elsewhere – that “where it’s at” is not where they’re at.
But where people think it is, in fact, “at” is not at all clear. Someplace bigger, maybe, somewhere far away, and especially –this is weird – someplace on television.
When I was a kid, I myself had the idea that what I saw on the flickering tube was more real, more correct, than what went on at my house. The perfect families in their perfect clothes who always worked out their problems by the end of the half-hour episode were the normal ones, the ones doing reality right, while we clumsy Fords, with our smells, our noises and our squabbles, were freakish and disappointing.
In fact, just about everything on television is glaringly fake! Not just the talking horses, secret witches and extraterrestrial uncles I watched then, now called “classic” TV, and not just the preternaturally wise parents and perfect children of the old family shows that made us all feel like slobbering inbreeds; but the skylines behind newscasters, the laughter after one-liners, the food in restaurant commercials – practically everything and everybody that goes before the television camera gets replaced, revamped or slimed up with goo to make them shine. Who would think they could get lipstick on our good-ole-boy Southern pols? But it happens.
Still, I’m always reading articles about the excitement generated when some soap opera actress from 20 years ago (“Who?”) agrees to come to Chattanooga to address a women’s group, or some local guy manages to propose to his girlfriend on a televised talk show (“Ack!”). It’s the same attitude: What we see in TVland counts, what happens in our neighborhood doesn’t.
Even my brilliant physicist friend did this a little. Vivian didn’t boast about unraveling the secrets of the universe, or say a word about her team being nominated for the Nobel Prize; but she did let fall that her CERN colleague, Dr. Richard Field, was the brother of the actress Sally Field.
On NPR once there was a jokey sequence where the commentator explored the saying, “Well, it ain’t brain surgery,” by asking brain surgeons if they felt any smarter than the rest of us. They said no, that what they said among themselves was: “Well, it ain’t rocket science.” So the commentator asked a NASA scientist and he said no, rocket scientists didn’t feel all that special, they had kind of a complex about not being as bright as theoretical physicists.
If that’s the scientific hierarchy, then there Viv is at the pointy tiptop of the food chain; and what impresses her is hanging out with the Flying Nun’s brother? Go figure!
Anyway, my point here is that living in the middle of nowhere doesn’t mean we live in the middle of nowhere. This is reality! No place – not New York, not LA, not whatever the fake skyline behind the newscaster is supposed to represent – is realer or more important than here, where we live.
This is it. This is real. This is where it happens. This is where it counts. This is – because we don’t mind ending sentences with prepositions in Dade County; in fact it’s practically mandatory – where it’s at.
You could say that about anywhere you live, I expect; but I also maintain in Dade it’s a bit more true. Ever since I’ve been here myself I’ve noticed it has an odd black-holey way of sucking in people you wouldn’t expect. I have a theory if I sit here long enough, anyone I want to see will eventually turn up. If you need further proof, did I mention that the Higgs boson physicist, Vivian O’Dell, got sucked onto my porch in the Rising Fawn metro area?
All this has been in aid of explaining why anyone should read an online newspaper written from, and about, Dade County, Georgia. I’ll tell you the answer, and I think it also in its humble way says something about the fabric of reality, though I’ll tell you for free I don’t know a Higgs from a handsaw when the wind is southerly:
This is the throbbing heart of the living universe.