A Piece of Cake

An ill-advised trip to a botanical garden in the heat of a hot day leads to a new Theory of Everything based on daylilies, folk songs, art, and the abilities and disabilities of the human mind.


It is weather for which ‘sweltering’ was coined: the day itself gasps for breath. Small mammals sit out the heat of the overheated day in underground dens; birds snooze within the shelter of the trees’ canopy. Even in the ponds — surely the coolest outdoors environment on offer — fish barely flutter their fins, maintaining their positions with the minimum expenditure of energy. All sensible creatures have gone to ground, either literally or figuratively as befits their nature.

But what’s this? Footsteps crunching slowly down the crushed-rock path indicate that a less sensible creature is on the move. Mad dog? Englishman?

No, just a proposal editor out on a day pass.  

With the spring flowering extravaganza done and the humidex topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit, this late August Sunday in 2011 is perhaps not the ideal time to visit a botanical garden near Washington DC. Yet ‘ideal’ plays little part in my professional or personal life at the moment. Work days are 10- or 12-hour head-down stretches under relentless time pressure. With no time and less mental energy for preparation, I spend the weekdays’ remaining hours in things I can do without thinking: an evening meal, an hour of mindless TV, a short walk with a point-and-shoot camera around the hotel and its light industrial environs.

But what works through the week cannot be scaled up for my one day of rest in the seven, the one designed to protect the productivity of the other six. A whole day off somehow demands more ambition.  Google identifies this garden within driving distance; a nanosecond of reflection seals the deal, and here I am.

As a counter-balance to days spent sitting in an over-air-conditioned — indeed, downright cold — office, this sweltering stroll should be, well, ideal. If only there were some way to actually effect the balance — to moderate the temperature and activity level of the six days with this seventh one. Musing idly, I wander down the path, my brain working about as slowly as my feet.

Stopping at the intersection of a few footpaths, I check my mimeographed map, hoping for orientation if not for actual enlightenment. In this age of cheap laser printers the map cannot possibly be mimeographed, of course, but it is hard to imagine how else they produced this nostalgic, low-resolution fuzziness. But unlike much of the text I have been working with all week, and the map itself, the wooden sign is clear enough: I am standing in front of the daylily garden.



Yet, as so often is the case, clarity is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. This sign certainly raises troubling questions. Schooled as I am in the arcane art of government contracting, just what exactly should I infer from that dark phrase, ‘a complex award procedure’? And is it the hemerocallis or the society (or both) that is/are American?

But primarily, what is this reference to ‘the highest honor a daylily can receive’? Is there more than one, then? The mind boggles.

Back at the air-conditioned shack, Google reveals not just ‘more than one’ daylily honor, but a plethora of awards for outstanding specimens in numerous categories: spider variants, patterned, banded, lavender/purple, size of bloom (from under three inches to extra-large diameter), and ‘most unusual form’. Who knew?

Never having heard even a whisper of any of this, I would be astounded if it were not that I keep tripping over intimations of worlds unknown to me…

A friend gets into paper art and handmade books and opens a window on an artform as meticulous as it is creative. Who knew?

A casual enquiry into possible hidden meanings in an irritating Christmas carol unearths a reference to the Roud Folk Song Index, a database of more than 300,000 references to 21,600 folk songs in English. Who knew?

An email from a niece studying medicine mentions in passing what a science essay confirms: we have about one hundred trillion cells in our bodies, but only 10% of these are ‘ours’. The other 90% are various (mostly mutualistic) microbes, like bacteria and fungi. Who knew?

Noted neurologist Oliver Sacks reveals that he has ‘face-blindness’ — an extreme inability to recognize faces. He cannot recognize people he’s worked with for years, if he meets them out of context. And it’s not just Oliver — in its most severe form, this condition affects about 2% of the population. Who knew?

It is as if the world were made up of innumerable slices of layer cake, stacked all higgledy-piggledy. Viewed pointy-end on, they give no hint of their breadth and depth. But take one bite off the end of the slice, as it were, and new vistas beckon, whether it be in daylilies, art, folk songs, the human body, or the abilities and disabilities of the human mind.

Tired of waiting for physicists (who are taking an unconscionably long time), I have developed my own Theory of Everything and it is this: Everything is more complex than I would ever have guessed, and richer than I could ever have imagined.

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23 Responses to A Piece of Cake

  1. Jim Robertson says:

    Paper Art: Yes, who knew??

    Sure is neat

  2. Alison Uhrbach says:

    One of the questions I ask clients is: “what do you want to get back to doing after your surgery” the responses are fascinating, and often the highlight of my day. I’ve learned LOTS about things I had no idea existed! Last week I learned about “pickle ball” .. a bit more trivia to file away in my mind.

  3. Jim taylor says:

    I like your insight about complexity. Because it seems to me that the predictable movement of the universe — and of evolution which is part of the universe — is always from simple towards greater complexity. Which might imply that the Garden of Eden legend is, in fact, false. There was no perfect paradise to which we should return; there was a chaos from which we are still emerging, towards an ever-more-complex and organized future.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Hmm. As a middle-aged (to put it no higher!) person, I wonder whether the notion of the Garden comes in part from a curmudgeonly observer, extrapolating from a stage-of-life view that “things used to be better” to the scale of all Creation. I know that as I pick up beach bits, I sometimes have the even odder notion that this is part of my own purpose–to sort/organize the beaches of the world. If that’s so, I could be here for a while….

  4. Ralph says:

    More complex, and richer…… for those inclined to enquire.

    Nice essay, thanks!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ralph – I worked with a fellow who, when introducing me to his staff who would be taking me through their operation, said, “Isabel is very curious.” I was never quite sure what he meant by that…. But you make a good point – it behooves us to ‘wonder’ – in both senses.

  5. Marjorie M. Gibson says:

    Maybe this explains my perpetual need to breach the wall which everyone seems to build around them – a touchy sort of procedure, but if successful always seems to reveal nuggets of gold. If one oversteps, you lose a possible friend. I have had both results. MMG

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marjorie/Mummy (with apologies to HRH Prince Charles) – Interesting. There’s a break-the-ice exercise for parties or facilitated meetings where guests/participants don’t all know each other. You get a list of activities or achievements and try to find the people who represent them. It would be fun to do it with the target of finding out one unexpected thing about everyone.

  6. Morris B says:

    I think that prior to ‘Google’ we had no way of knowing the magnitude of complexity and diversity of life and ‘things’ or the actual lyrics to our favorite songs. In fact prior to the proliferation of data on the internet generally, we were as infants, knowing only what we saw and could absorb from our immediate surroundings. Even seasoned travelers could only experience and understand their immediate world. Oh yes one could read and do research in libraries but information was often dated, and intake was limited to how many books you could carry and read. There was no easy linking from a juicy detail or fact, through its footnoted source to its origin.
    The internet has changed all of that. The data that can be accessed in five minutes of ‘free-linking’ is overwhelming. Yes, it often is meaningless, without context, or incorrect, but barring that, it is still awesome.
    I am thankful that this technological revolution has occurred in my lifetime, since I am (and have always been) a glutton for facts, information and knowledge. (When I was 16, I convinced my parents to let me buy the ‘Britannica’ and I paid it off monthly over several years through various jobs. I read those 24 volumes as though they were the greatest literary classics and still have them (can’t bear to part with them)).
    However I am sad that this revolution occurred through my “middle-age” which means that (unless immortality is discovered real soon) I will never see more than the next few iterations of the information age. It has been about 30 years since the inception of personal computers and 15 since widespread internet use and I cannot help but wonder where things will be in another 30 years. I may be around, but at 90 I will likely care more about my constitution than about information and such.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Morris – On Saturday, an idle comment over brunch about Baby Bel cheese wax led to one guest getting out her smartphone and checking to see what it was made of (paraffin and ‘micro crystalline’, like that helps). That led naturally to sites showcasing people crafting wax sculptures from the wax. The comment naturally arose: What did we do before the internet? (Of course, the internet doesn’t just give us a window into all this complexity/richness/weirdness, it facilitates it, putting niche players into easy contact with each other, building a community of shared interests where none could reasonably have existed before. Sort of a positive feedback loop.) My husband, another fact junkie, shares your childhood-encyclopedia and adult-internet comparison/lament. We may not live long enough to see the internet in its maturity (even though “internet years” are an order of magnitude greater multiple compared to human years), but we are seeing “signs and wonders” even so. Here’s to appreciating them!

  7. Marion says:

    As Marjorie/Mum notes, it’s easy in this me-Me-ME world to forget that there’s a universe of fascinating complexity in every human being. I liked Alison’s post re: asking people what they were looking forward to after surgery. What a wonderful idea. The break-the-ice exercise is also a great demonstration of this, especially since people tend to write down the one thing that no one would guess about them (the version I’ve seen is where you submit your own ‘bit’ of information to the leader who compiles the list for the game). The thing to remember is that having a conversation with almost anyone will reveal something interesting that you don’t know – if you don’t do all the talking. We often are more concerned with expressing ourselves than in listening to others and what they can teach us. We should all aim to become amateur interviewers.
    p.s. if I may be so bold, I think it’s “d’oh”, not “Doh” – not that Homer would care.
    p.p.s. you have given me some homework in all the links to follow up with, thanks.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marion – I’ll bite – what’s the contraction? As for listening, it does seem a shame, somehow, that just as we get to be somewhat interesting, we are at the age/stage where we should be listening to others… Sort of like the lament of Henry Jones Sr who said (in response to a complaint from Indiana, aka Henry Jr, that he never paid any attention to him): You left home just as you were getting interesting!

      • Marion says:

        It’s not a contraction of words, per se. I quake at the thought of paraphrasing this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D'oh! (and recognize that I left out the essential exclamation point that also appears in the OED entry). Interesting that “the spoken word “D’oh” is a sound trademark of 20th Century Fox”.

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