Like I briefly noted on Facebook yesterday, I’m back home from my trip to Madison now. It was a pretty good family visit, though there were some family members I only saw briefly. I spent most of Friday by myself in the hotel, since I got in early, and since the rest of my family members who came into town arrived at the Milwaukee airport Friday afternoon and needed to drive very, very slowly through the snowstorm to get to Madison. I finally met them for dinner in the hotel restaurant, and finally got to meet my near-namesake cousin, S. Christopher Bennett, the paleontologist.
Yes, for some reason, a lot of the naming choices for Uncle Emmett’s children were duplicated by his younger siblings when they had kids. So in this gathering we had two Christophers, two Cynthias, and two Kathleens. Fortunately we had one each who preferred to go by the full name and one each who used a nickname, so we had Christopher (me) and Chris, Cynthia and Cyn, and Kathleen and Kathy.
The big event on Saturday was the memorial service for Emmett at the care facility where he spent the last years of his very long life. I learned a lot about my uncle and his historic career. I heard from his colleagues and students about his work as a classical scholar and teacher, the Socratic way he guided his students to answer their own questions rather than just giving them the answers. I learned from Uncle Clarence about Emmett’s work decoding Japanese transmissions during WWII; he didn’t speak Japanese, but he used his brilliant pattern-recognition skills to decipher the codes. I learned from his friends and family about his personal reserve and quiet nature. A lot of the gathering consisted of long silences as we just sat together and thought, and I think that was a very fitting tribute. I learned about qualities in Emmett that I have in myself, but that he had the dedication to take much further, like the way he made it a personal project to ride his bicycle along every single stretch of road in Madison, and kept a detailed map marking his progress. I have that same near-compulsive completism about some things, and the same desire to list and catalog things, though I wouldn’t have the energy to take it that far. He never cheated by driving out to a distant road and doing a token ride along it; he always started from home and rode out all the way, no matter how remote the road.
I also got to page through a copy of Emmett’s seminal dissertation, the analysis and detailed charts of Linear B symbols that were the key to allowing Michael Ventris to translate the script. The sheer meticulousness of it is astounding. And I got to see some family photos I hadn’t seen before, including one from the early ’40s of my grandparents, their four children of varying ages, my great-grandmother, Emmett’s wife, and one of Emmett’s children (he was considerably older than his siblings, and my father was the youngest). That was quite interesting.
So after that we went back to the hotel and had a big family dinner in the restaurant, 13 of us in all. I’d had some cookies and juice at the reception so I wasn’t too hungry, so I just ordered a salad and a bowl of turkey and rice soup that turned out to be delicious. I thought the salad would be smaller than a dinner entree, but it actually turned out to be bigger, at least in volume. I had leftovers which I took back to my room and had as an early breakfast the next morning, since it was a few hours before the remaining family members in the hotel (some had left early) got together for Sunday breakfast/brunch. Immediately after that, we went out to the Olbrich Botanical Garden. I wasn’t sure I wanted to come along, and only got talked into it because it would be more convenient for the others if I brought my car so they could split up into two groups for different events afterward. But I’m glad I went. I didn’t know in advance that it was a tropical conservatory we were visiting. There were a lot of cool and interesting tropical plants there, some of them very interesting to look at, others interesting for their important uses as food, medicine, etc. When we got to the chocolate tree (cacao), I bowed to it in obeisance.
Afterward, I drove Uncles Clarence and Harry (both retired physics professors) over to the University of Wisconsin for a tour of the physics department. We got lost, because Clarence hit the “Campus” entry on his GPS thingy and for some reason it turned out to be the campus of a tiny elementary school a couple of miles from the university. So he had to call his friend who was meeting us and relay directions over the phone while I drove, and let me tell you, I never want to do that again, because it’s not very safe. One shouldn’t drive while distracted; it splits the focus too much. (Using hands-free phones doesn’t help, contrary to popular belief. The danger isn’t having your hands occupied, it’s having your brain occupied with conversation rather than paying attention to the road.) We eventually got there in one piece, though, and it was a cool tour. They had all sorts of nifty gadgets and Mythbusters-esque devices for demonstrating physics to students, and some fancy classrooms with elaborate audiovisual systems and gas, electric, and water taps for demonstrations. I was jealous, because my physics classes in college were in an outdated, poorly lit, depressingly painted building with no display technology more advanced than overhead projectors and chalk.
The three of us ended up going back to the hotel and having to forage for lunch, and I ended up splitting some of Harry’s leftovers from previous meals with him while we talked. Uncle Harry (actually my uncle-in-law, Aunt Shirley’s husband) has had a pretty impressive career in physics himself. I was deeply impressed to discover that when he was in grad school at the University of Cincinnati, his advisor was Boris Podowlsky, one of the three physicists (the others being Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen) who first proposed the concept we now know as a wormhole. I had no idea that Podowlsky had taught at UC, even though I was a physics major there for five years. And that puts me only three degrees of separation from Albert Einstein!
Dinner on Sunday was a couple of pizzas that we had delivered to the hotel, one Mediterranean and one chicken Alfredo, which were both pretty good. I got to keep all three leftover pieces (2 of the former, 1 of the latter), since I was the only one whose travel plans made it feasible to take them with me. Luckily I kind of like cold pizza, and I had an in-room fridge. I had the chicken piece for breakfast Monday morning; since it had meat, it was better to eat it right out of the fridge rather than after several hours of driving. The other two slices became lunch.
Aside from all these family events, I luckily managed to get a lot of writing done on my spec novel’s climactic sequence. I didn’t quite get it finished before Monday morning, though. I did spend a fair amount of time writing on Monday morning, so that I ended up leaving toward the end of my preferred departure window (I had to leave fairly early if I wanted to get home before dark). But I still had the end of one scene and the entire climactic scene (well, the first of two consecutive climaxes) unwritten, and I wrote them in my head while driving — so I just had to take out the computer and write them down when I stopped for lunch at a “travel oasis” just west of Chicago. Which meant I spent an hour at lunch, which meant I was still in eastern Indiana when sunset came. However, the skies were clear, so there was plenty of twilight and it didn’t get genuinely dark until I was just minutes from home.
Oh, and it turns out that the timing of events was such that I was in my hotel room during most of the airtimes for TV shows I wanted to see, and they had all the appropriate channels, so I only missed one show — and I just found out that my damn DVR didn’t record it. (It’s gotten increasingly unreliable — I should get it replaced, but I’d probably lose the shows I have stored on it now.)