elephants in rooms - Thursday November 22 2001
The plan for Thanksgiving was to take a US Airways flight to Pittsburgh and experience a traditional American feast at the residence of the sister of Jen, the woman who just married Gretchen's brother Brian. So at around noon, a car service came and picked us up and took us to La Guardia Airport in North-Central Queens. (For some reason there is no subway running to La Guardia.)
Since our Thanksgiving travels began so late in the holiday, we were treated to minimal airport hassle, despite the heightened security. The wait in front of the metal detectors was about a minute, and there was so little metal on our persons that we didn't set off any alarms, despite the fact that the detectors are now set on maximum sensitivity.
But then the guy manning the x-ray machine thought he saw something in Gretchen's backpack. "Do you have scissors in there?" he wanted to know. Gretchen didn't think she did, so homeslice started going through her stuff in minute detail, birth control pills and all. Finally he found what he was looking for, a tiny pair of cuticle scissors, which he handed to co-worker with a look of condescension. God forbid that a pair of potentially-lethal cuticle scissors get through on his watch. "They're really nice cuticle scissors," Gretchen told the co-worker. Then she turned to me and said, "Damn, those cost me $20!"
Along the East Coast, the sky was fairly clear, so I got a good view of Pennsylvania as we flew over. I'd long been familiar with the way it looked on maps, with the ridges of the Appalachians coming northward into the south-central part of the state and then bending eastward. But from the sky, everything was somehow more clear. Now I could see how this geology affected land use and hydrology. The bulk of the land was flat and lay in wide valleys between the ridges, carved up into multicolored agricultural fields. The ridges themselves were extremely narrow and appeared to be entirely forested. They served as largely-impenetrable barriers to north-south transportation, though most of the rivers ran perpendicular to them and cut through as though the ridges weren't even there. But in some places the rivers had experienced more of struggle with the ridges than in others. In one place even the mighty Susquehanna had been forced parallel to a ridge for a mile or two. In another, traces of the ridges could be seen as cataracts where the river had cut through.
To the west of the mighty bend in the ridges lay the plateau country of Western Pennsylvania. The regularity of the eastern part gave way to a more unpredictable, dendritic drainage pattern indicating flat-lying geology. Cutting through it all with an arrogance even the Susquehanna couldn't manage were the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, converging on our destination to the west, Pittsburgh. We landed at an airport considerably to the southwest of the city.
Gretchen's mother and brother were waiting at the airport to drive us to our destination, a palatial home near the center of the folksy little town of Beaver. Brian's sister-in-law and brother-in-law had only moved into the place two months before, and evidence of the histories and tastes of the house's former occupants was everywhere. For starters, every square foot of wall space was covered with floral wallpaper, indicating the former presence of a grandmotherly sentimentality. In one room there was also a stained-glass cross, a remnant of a time when the house served as rectory for a nearby church. The decor was so oppressively folksy that Gretchen couldn't even imagine her stuff in this context (had, say, she won the house in a raffle). I had to agree, rhetorically asking, "Where would you hang the African masks?"
After a tour of the house concluded, it was time for dinner, and we all sat down to eat. Food was passed around, Jen's father said a quick little Hebrew prayer, and then we all dug in. I'd been eagerly anticipating the turkey, so I got a whole bunch for my plate. But there was something not quite right with it. Perhaps it wasn't sufficiently cooked, perhaps it wasn't all that fresh, or maybe I just don't like turkey anymore, but after I took that first bite, I didn't feel like eating anymore. But, perhaps out of politeness, I kept on. Soon I was feeling a strange mix of both sleepiness and illness. Worsening my condition was the continued ringing and distortion in my left ear. Since the folksy floral wallpaper was the only thing upon the walls, they echoed viciously with the laughter of those around the table. When the household baby (technically a pre-vocal, curiously pre-bipedal two year old) suddenly shrieked for no obvious reason, my left ear received it as an especially cruel insult. But all in all, the meal came off as planned, with everyone being refined, polite, and G-rated in that artificial, folksy way people are supposed to be at traditional family gatherings.
Somewhere during the course of the meal, Gretchen's brother Brian sat down next to me and tried to interest me in proving Goldbach's Conjecture. He explained a few things about it, mentioned the million dollar prize offered for its proof, and then wrote some things on a piece of paper. It was a little flattering that Brian, who is in fact a genius, thought perhaps I could help him with such an auspicious challenge. Unfortunately, though, my head was swimming from tryptophan and jarring, distorted room echoes, and I was completely useless. But I probably wasn't any more useless than I would have been on a good day. Lots of people have been trying to solve Goldbach's conjecture and no one has had any success.
Later I talked with Brian and Brian's brother-in-law about how to be successful in the stock market. Gretchen looked on in slightly-amused disgust.
After the meal, Gretchen and I rode into Pittsburgh with Gretchen's parents. On the ride, Gretchen was in one of her punchy moods, and she got to talking about various "elephants" that had been or are "in the room." Regarding Pittsburgh, for example, the elephant in the room is the pronunciation of "Duquesne," which must, she insisted, actually be "Dookweznee," not "Dookain."
Later, at Brian and Jen's house in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, we all played several round of Boggle. In competition with so many brilliant word-wrangling minds, I was the clear lightweight.
The Bronx (I guess) from the air.
Dendritic drainages west of the great curve in the Pennsylvania Appalachians.
Downtown Pittsburgh, viewed from the south. Click for a bigger version.