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ITHACA, N.Y. — The Patent Office: The flap of a butterfly’s wing, chaos theorists like to tell us, can ripple in and out of weeks and through a day into a tsunami. I hope they’re exaggerating. What forces may have been set in motion of late when my 3-year-old daughter lost her pink balloon, I shudder to think. Early indications aren’t encouraging.
She and her 16-month-old sister had been fighting viciously for control of it, but I was driving, and when else do you get to strap your children to chairs and ignore them? The balloon wriggled free of its tether, nuzzled past the combatants and clear of the sunroof, and rose through the amber evening sky like a champagne bubble. We watched, spellbound. Layla’s amazement gave way to grief and outrage. Little Freya offered a hug, but her moorings — unlike the damn balloon’s — remained fast, and she looked like a ladybird learning yoga. Being philosophical by temperament, as the sobs subsided in my ringing ears I resumed picking my nose and turned my thoughts to Archimedes’ screw.
The thing is simple: a screw inside a hollow, tilted cylinder. The helical surface of the former is flush against the inner surface of the latter. As you screw, whatever lies in its threading rises, but in a peculiar way, by sloping down whatever segment of the spiral it finds itself on. I’m a bit hazy on this. “In my experience, things don’t fall upward,” my friend Susan sneers. “Well, in Archimedes’ experience they did,” I shoot back, a little blindly.
Ubiquitous in civil engineering applications, Archimedes’ screw has never formed the basis of a theme-park waterslide. For over two millennia, everything from water and cereal to hot sauce and balls has been flowing, bouncing, sliding and tumbling up its slopes, but no one’s thought of throwing a child in there. As failures of the imagination go, it’s mind-boggling. For heaven’s sake, there’s even a patent for its use on fish. “The Pescalator™ is an ingenuous (sic) fish transport device that utilizes the Archimedes Screw to lift fish gently out of ponds … for the purpose of grading, vaccinating, sorting or harvesting,” says the breathless brochure. It is a sad day when we draw on the wisdom of the ancients to lift fish and sort their bodies, but not to raise children and exalt their spirits.
For what could be more thrilling than corkscrewing up a sky-blue flume powered by nothing more than your own weight? Talk about the power of an image! Parents would scarcely believe their eyes, watching their kids enter a cylindrical slide at ground level, fall up into its inner spiral and seconds later fire out like spitballs high in the air, splashing down safely in a big pool on the hill above. It could be called the Tornado, and the queue area would be Midwestern-themed, with dark papier-mache skies and a looped recording of thunderbolts, splintering barns and the cries of terrified livestock and exuberant news reporters. Depending on who’s cranking the screw, you could really get some speed. Susan would be a poor choice for this position, unless you wanted riders marooned, suspended in a state of dour disbelief halfway up the screw.
In the summer of 2001, my brother Arthur and I took our nephews to Wild Rivers water park in Southern California. It was our idea. After a half-hour’s tepid sliding they were slumped under a food-court awning waiting for the fun to end. Arthur and I, meanwhile, were indefatigable. Sporting hairy chests and receding hairlines, we ran between slides, cut lines and knocked down 12-year-olds. In hindsight I see a frenzied reprise of adolescence. In the moment, all I could see was that we should drop out of graduate school and design waterslides.
This was not about taller faster steeper wilder. We had ideas. A water park could be set within a dense urban space, discreetly, like plumbing. Riders in wet trunks would mill around in the lobby of a skyscraper, going up by elevator and down by waterslide. Slides would traverse walls and penetrate neighboring buildings, swinging out into the open air and crossing broad boulevards like 42nd Street; through transparent tubes the rider would enjoy a flickering cross-section of city life, public and private, an aquatic cinema both kinetic and voyeuristic. A rider whooshing through your living room or factory floor would soon be as ignorable as window washers, birdsong or the whir and thrum of the infrastructure.
The stages of life would be represented. Into a central uterine wave pool a pair of lazy rivers, fallopian in form, gently flow. Thrill seekers might opt for the Vas Deferens, which vigorously ejaculates hundreds of them at once into this same area. Other attractions simulate the trials and disappointments of later life. The largest ride in the park would be a pair of adjacent slides called, respectively, Hopes and Dreams, lines for which would be endless; you carry your own raft the whole way, and when you get to the top we blow a whistle and shut the water off. “That’s it, folks, time to go,” a languid lifeguard in red shorts announces, to no one in particular.
Waterslides — perhaps thrill parks in general — inevitably elicit, in sensitive persons, fresh musings on the problem of free will. “I’m convinced,” Arthur announced in the long queue for the Bazooka Bowls, “that what we call ‘mind’ is a long sequence of neural firings, each predetermined by the previous one, like the movement of billiard balls after the initial break — the Big Bang.”
“But then you call a pocket and take a shot,” I replied, pushing past a boy stooped over looking for something. “That’s free will.”
“Forget the pool metaphor.”
“It was yours.”
“The universe is expanding.” Arthur sighed, stepping inadvertently on the boy’s orthodontic retainer. “Just as what goes up must come down, one day the universe will begin to contract, and everything will re-happen, backward.”
This struck me as unlikely. I know from experience how hard it is to get a palindrome to make sense. Dogma I: Deified, I am God is one thing, but upwards of 20 characters you start free-falling into Ah, Satan delivers us reviled Natasha! and pretty soon it’s Oprah’s repaid my gym diapers, Harpo.
“God’ll need to be one hell of a palindromist,” I said, “if history after the Gib G’Nab is to be anything other than sheer gibberish.”
“It’s G’nab Gib eht, actually.”
“That’s not even sayable.”
“I just said it.”
“No, you expectorated it. It sounded repellent. So Teutonic. So final.”
“If the collapse of the universe can’t sound Teutonic and final, it’s hard to imagine what qualifies.”
“I prefer the jauntiness of the Gab G’Nib.”
“First you called it the Gib G’Nab. Does your universe now begin with the Bing Bag? Well why not, if it ends with something jaunty and fun, and is filled with free will in between.”
“Well, after all,” I trailed off lamely.
“After all, what?”
The queue here reached an observation deck. We watched young bodies lithe as otters launching into the Bazooka Bowls, a pair of giant toilet bowls in which they traced symmetrical, bass-clef figures before being flushed into a pool below.
“Do you know the old joke about what you get when you play a country song backward?” I asked.
“You get your woman back, you get your truck back, you get your dog back, and you wake up sober.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Country music is always about loss.”
“Yeah, man, I’m all over the punch line.”
“Then what’s not to get?”
“The setup. Why anyone would play it backward? Does this take place after G’nab Gib eht?” He gave it a little foreign flourish.
“No, it takes place in the 1980s,” I snapped, “when parents worried that rock music played backward contained satanic messages.”
It was our turn for the Bazooka Bowls.
They’ve built a municipal water park in my hometown, complete with waterslides. I saw it on a recent trip to visit my father, who had dementia and was — as he cheerfully put it in lucid moments — “losing my marbles, and fast.” To me it seemed he had them all; they were just shifting and rearranging, like billiard balls.
After I arrived, the phone rang and he answered my mother’s forearm, while she answered the real phone with her free arm. They spoke simultaneously, she to my wife and daughter and he, I think, to one of his doctors. The television was also on.
“Layla, the space authorities spotted your balloon coming over the Rockies,” my mom said into the phone.
“We’re losing a lot around here,” my dad said into her arm.
“Job growth for both months was revised lower by a total of 74,000 jobs,” said the TV.
“Grandpa is ready to catch it when it reaches the coast.”
“My daughter-in-law lost her mother. There are people who’ve lost jobs. This connection is going bad.”
“I will tell him to hold it and love it and not let it go like you did.”
That morning we went to see the new water park. Dad was wearing a panama hat and sunglasses and was in a wheelchair. He looked like a poet. We stared at the three slides. They were a shade less visionary than those we’d invented, and though brand-new looked strangely derelict. But there they were, so I took a cellphone picture and sent it to Arthur.
“I don’t think I’ll go on them,” my father said.
“I think, actually, they’re closed, maybe open on weekends only.”
“Is Mom going to do it?”
“They’re dry, Dad. And none of us is in a bathing suit. But let’s call Arthur and tell him.”
“Dad,” I said, hanging up a few minutes later, “Arthur wants to design a dementia-themed waterslide. What should we call it?”
“The Slippery Slope,” he said, removing his sunglasses and watching me from eyes wide as saucers. His face seemed weightless, as if lifted by the warm, weird smile spreading over it like daybreak. I wasn’t crazy about it, the Slippery Slope. Arthur wanted to set it in North Africa and call it the Sea Nile Delta. I’d begun reviving my brief for the Gib G’Nab, but with that Cheshire-cat grin falling up in the morning light, decided to let it go.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.
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