In any life, there are bound to be highs, optimal experiences, things that register as “10” on our personal Richter Scales: moments of supreme joy; the triumph of accomplishment; achieving a personal best. I was with my friend Richard when he had one of those intense encouters with self. Richard’s daughter Heather married a few years ago and he had to give a father-of-the-bride toast at the reception. We all understood its intensity. I have seen him nearly that emotional on only one other occasion.
At least as often, at the other end of the spectrum, our “tens” can be negative experiences: natural disasters over which we are powerless; onerous tasks that we’d prefer to avoid at almost any cost. These are the events that test mettle and confirm character. Howard phoned last night because there is one of those tasks on his horizon; I could hear it in his voice and wished that I could be a better friend. But if these were things someone else could undertake, they wouldn’t be a 10, would they.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Personal scales of value have been on my mind a lot lately and they all seem to involve 10. Ten fingers. Ten toes. Ten Jews make a minyan (מִנְיָן ). “Just ten minutes more, Mom!”
Technically, 10 isn’t the last of the first ten numbers; it’s the first of the next ten—thanks to the invention of zero (another number that might be worthy of our attention some other day). “Powers of Ten,” a film by Charles and Ray Eames, is one of the most elegant explorations of this deceptively simple idea; rent it some time on Netflix.
Vexillology is the science of flags. Like heraldry, where every element, symbol and color bears meaning, flags, especially national flags, are rich with information. At a smaller geographic scale, I recall the municipal flag of Chicago which intrigued me when I worked there in the late 1960s.
On a rectangle of pure white (with few exceptions, flags are a 3:5 proportion), two horizontal blue bars define a row of four red stars. The bars represent the two branches of the Chicago River (and the three resulting white stripes, the north, west and south sides of the city) and each red star symbolizes a watershed event in the city’s history. That’s what Wikipedia says, but I recall a different, more satisfying explanation from my youth.
First there’s the issue of the Chicago River. It was certainly never blue; in fact, it’s purposely dyed green on St Patrick’s Day. Besides, shouldn’t the blue more accurately represent Lake Michigan. The lake was the life-giving source of drinking water; the river, of the city’s bouts with typhoid and worse.
Then there are those symbolic four stars. Who chose the events they represent? And what happens when the city encounters a new one? Will another star appear or will the original four change their affiliation? Will one event displace another? It was explained to me another way, which I offer here to make a point, rather than for its Truthiness.
It was explained to me as a contrast of defining moments—positives and negatives. Tens and minus tens, I suppose. The blue bars (I was told) represent Chicago’s crowning cultural achievements: the World’s Fairs of 1893 (the Columbian Exposition) and 1933 (the Century of Progress, celebrating Chicago’s incorporation in 1833). Between these, the four red stars—like Red Badges of Courage—are linked with tragedy, some would say odd references to be put on a public symbol of civic pride:
- 1812—the Fort Dearborn Massacre
- 1871—the Great Chicago Fire
- 1933—the assassination of Mayor Anton Cermak
- …and a fourth event that I either can’t recall or doesn’t exist because this interpretation of the flag is totally bogus.
I’m clearly drawn to a flag that represents extremes, the physical and emotional limits of our joy as well as our forebearance.
I also wonder if these scales of 10 are arithmetic or geometric. Is the line on the graph straight or curved? The Richter Scale is of the latter sort, where each number is ten times the previous value, rather than ten more. Adds new import to the difference between 1.0 and 8.5, doesn’t it!
HERE AND NOW
Today is one of those watershed days for me. Friendship that flowed between me and another is likely to take a different course. Some situations can be neither delegated nor diverted. And what transpires may well redefine what it means to be a 10.
Agincourt has been a 10 for me; the source for some of my greatest joy and contentment. Just ask Dr Bob. But it has also been—like any real place—frustrating, contentious, humbling, infuriating, and humiliating; a source for irritation, confrontation, and angst. Perhaps I should count that a measure of its success.