My Radiometer

I can’t say how my life would have turned out had it been cloudy the day my fourth grade class visited the Peabody Museum in New Haven Connecticut. I certainly wouldn’t be standing here looking out my kitchen window at a honey locust tree, a trampoline, and a little boy, a world away from where I started.

My mom had given me her last five dollars for pocket money, and I reckon she figured a few of those would come back. They didn’t. Instead, in the gift shop, I saw a radiometer in a beam of sunlight, paddles spinning like mad. “I should have this,” I thought. I got one off the shelf, still boxed up, sky blue background with yellow letters: “Radiometer. Powered by the sun.” This was thirty one years ago.

When I got home, my mom asked what the radiometer does. “The paddles spin around in the sun” I told her. She looked at it sideways as everyone else in my class had, wondering what’s the point of this ridiculous thing on the verge of smashing to a million little bits at the least bump or skitter. It looks like a light bulb but more fragile with a flared base and a needle-point post sticking up through the middle. Balanced on the post is a criss-cross of metal paddles, one side painted black and the other white. Inside it’s a partial vacuum. When you set it in the sun the paddles spin as if the light bouncing off the white side gives them a push, but that’s not why. It’s actually magic.

The day I got the radiometer we put it on the kitchen window sill and watched it for a little while and that’s where it stayed. Every now and again I’d take it out in the driveway in the sun and watch it spin as fast as can be, then move it into the shade under the big tree we used to climb all summer and rake up in autumn and hide behind when snowballs flew in winter. Didn’t spin as fast in the shade. Faster in the sun. Same result every time, as if I was gathering data to prove something nobody doubted. Then I’d put it back on the kitchen sill and wait until the sun came around to do the dishes and watch it spin some more.

We lived in the house another ten years and the day I saw the “For Sale” sign out front I kept on driving until I got out of town past dark and I went and punched a wall in an empty parking garage and cried out loud. It was the first place I really thought of as home. When you ask me where I grew up, I’ll tell you it was there. Half a mile from the golf course where I worked my first job as a dishwasher. Wore a pair of work boots flat walking back and forth over the years. Five hundred feet down the road lived my grandfather who rescued his daughter from a man I didn’t know much about except that he wasn’t around and I wasn’t supposed to end up like him. Lost a whole lot of years like that. It was Grampie who did most my early raising, impatient and grumpy and stubborn as a mule, doing his best if he did anything at all.

When we moved I wrapped the radiometer in newspaper and hoped it’d make it, but I had no expectation it would. Too fragile I figured. I put it in a box with the kitchen stuff because that’s what it had become, little different from a spatula or a slotted spoon.

We unpacked in Rocky Hill, a few miles up the road, now in a condo with my new step-father. I remember putting it in the kitchen, but I wasn’t home much to watch it those days. Time blurred for me, fired up by school, studying physics and dabbling in philosophy. Seems the things a kid with a radiometer would gravitate toward, when I think back.

A couple years later my mom and step-father moved to Atlanta and I stayed in Connecticut to finish school and look after the place while they put it up for sale. That’s how I left home.

When the movers came I kept the radiometer aside, wrapped it in some old Christmas paper that didn’t seem worth keeping, and put it in one of three boxes of stuff I had left in the world.

These were times of transition in other ways as well. I’d recently re-united with my dad who lived a couple exits down the highway and employed himself as a builder. On Saturdays I headed over to his workshop and he showed me the power of electric tools, a keen eye, and good old fashioned patience — something he didn’t have back when he needed it but now he knew better. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my father it’s that Forgiveness will wait until you work out how to forgive. Over a year we built a guitar and a relationship and I’m happy to report I’ve still got both.

My dad and I loaded my three boxes into his van and moved me to Waterbury Connecticut where I shared an awkward few months with a friend in a one bedroom apartment with a couple of cats I was allergic to. I can’t say exactly why it was awkward except that she was a she and I was a he, and though my only interest was a place for my stuff there was another he in her life who thought she was doing me more than a favour. Soon I realised I was her pawn and moving me in was her gambit. To win was to shade this other fella green. She won. I left. I hadn’t even unpacked the radiometer.

Not long after, my dad picked me up and we packed my three boxes back into his van and moved me to a rented room in New Britain down the street from Central Connecticut State University where I was finishing my last year. This house had a shared kitchen and I unpacked the radiometer and put it on the window sill because I knew I’d live there a while and that’s where radiometers belong.

I finished at Central and the next stop was California. Off on the adventure of my life to graduate school. My dream. I had a fellowship lined up when I got there but I had to figure out how to get there first. I worked a technical writing job all summer and saved up some money and put it toward a 1984 Chevrolet S-10 long-bed pickup, a landscaper’s truck with a lousy carburetor but easy to work on roadside and parts where cheap.

I packed up the radiometer and another eighteen months of books I hadn’t given away and my bicycle I aimed to keep forever but sold some years later for thirty dollars and loaded it all under the camper shell and locked it with a makeshift padlock system I’d rigged up. It was a hot August afternoon. Next morning was cool enough for my denim jacket and leather vest and hair tied back and down past my shoulders – I was a punk. I stopped at my uncle’s house that used to be my grandfather’s house back when I first got the radiometer. My mom and step-father were staying there because they’d moved back from Atlanta and now I was the one headed out. That simple fact didn’t keep any eyes any dryer than they’d been through the years of so-longs and goodbyes, and everyone figured I’d be back soon enough. Maybe even later that day.

We said what needed to be said and I’d surely be as safe as everyone prayed and I took a few snapshots and they took a few snapshots and I backed out and drove up the street and got gas on the way to the interstate and it wasn’t tearful for me until I saw the “New York Welcomes You” sign fading in the rearview. I convinced myself I was pulling off for breakfast but the reality of my situation was obvious to the waitress pouring endless coffee, to the couple with their kid fidgeting in the booth across the aisle, and to the trucker at the counter, his eyes gentle and unexpected and still squinting at the road. He said he’d see me out there, dropped his change in an empty coffee cup and squared his hat and climbed into a red rig with a Carolina decal on the door and took off west and I never did see him again.

I spent a week following a Triple A map and hoping for the best, too green to know what to expect and too dumb to be afraid. I was a twenty three year old kid living out of a working man’s truck with two spare tires, a canister of gas, and somewhere tucked away in a box, bouncing across America under a blistering hot and beat up camper shell, one very fragile radiometer.

The first place I lived in California was student housing at the University in Riverside. Bannockburn it was called. There’s a sub shop my age in the complex and it still tastes like home whenever I visit. First food I ever ate in California was there. Chopped chicken on a bed of lettuce. I picked off the carrots. I took it under a tree nearby on campus and watched the pretty people walk past and I wondered if they’d gotten there by acts of ambition and naïvety as I had. Now there’s an art building built on that spot and it feels like I can’t really go back every time I try. Funny how so many places used to be someplace else.

Anyway my first apartment on my own was a tiny one bedroom that cost exactly half my fellowship income, but I knew what I was in for and I lived easy. The trouble was this place didn’t have a kitchen window. Where’s a guy supposed to put his radiometer? I set it on the desk in the bedroom where the sun shone in late afternoons and sometimes I’d lay there and meditate on the spinning paddles and imagine the blank canvas of my new life and I sketched out ways I might fill it with colour and shape.

I lived there a year or so before I needed a cheaper place and settled on a dump down the road, also without a kitchen window. I moved again in my Chevy and the starter motor quit in the lot of the new place, so I always parked it on a slope out back pointing downhill, ready to take my one chance to pop the clutch and fire it up. After I found a second job, I fixed it in a parking space between an abandoned motorcycle and a dumpster.

Though the place had no kitchen window the sliding door in front opened to a balcony. These were wild times, so I put the radiometer on the railing outside and sometimes I’d sit and watch it spin as the sun drifted down behind the olive trees and bus stop and vagrants and the paddles would slow to a stop and I’d get dinner on before the nightly trouble started.

I had enough of the crime around there so I put the stuff I didn’t want anymore in my storage space behind the building and locked it. Next day it was gone. They had pried the lock off with a shovel and taken the used motor oil I’d stored in a milk jug and the canvas tent whose poles had already been stolen some months back. I borrowed some tools since mine had been stolen when they smashed out the back window of the camper shell and I took the shell off and left it between the dumpster and the motorcycle and they took that too. I kept their goddamned shovel.

The radiometer survived the earthquakes and the El Niño winter and I put it in a box with the kitchen stuff and moved it a few blocks south toward campus out of reach of such poor behaviour. Now I had a roommate and a higher style of living. My bedroom window overlooked a clean pool and a jacuzzi and I’d leave it open summer nights and never hear gunshots.

Again, no kitchen window, but we had a decorative rock garden out front where we put a bistro table and a couple chairs. I set the radiometer there, still living the wild life, and wouldn’t you know one day the wind blew it off into the rocks.

Not a scratch on it.

By the next time I moved I drew a decent living and the sun was setting on my days as a philosopher. I could afford nicer digs now – a one bedroom with its own washer and dryer and a courtyard view. Felt like I had earned this kind of life, and I saw the apartment the same way I saw the drawers of artifacts at the Peabody Museum. To be admired. Part of a catalogue. On display.

Apartment architects mustn’t be keen on kitchen windows. Here the radiometer lived at the corner of my desk next to the computer monitor where I established, scientifically, that the radiation beaming off those contraptions is utterly unlike sunlight. I guess it was in the wrong place, and I was too busy those days with work and the remnants of school and a booming social life to give it the attention it needed. The paddles sat idle for a year. By now, the radiometer was nineteen years old with no more permanent a home than a sideshow. It deserved better after all I’d put it through. Hell, I’d been through the same.

Then one day I met a girl. It was the beginning of a new and beautiful life for my radiometer. We first met in person at the botanic gardens at the university where she snuck up on me amidst the cactus and peeked to be sure I didn’t have three heads, as she later put it. We walked. We talked. We lingered at the back of my Jeep, leaning on the spare tire, picking off bits of unfinished rubber from the treads. I knew times were changing when I said “well I’m getting cold and hungry, so either I go warm up and eat or we go warm up and eat.”

We warmed up and ate.

Within a few months she’d decorated my place with herself, which really spruced up the mood in there. I can’t remember if I showed her my radiometer. Pretty soon I realised I needed a kitchen window again, so I bought a house and invited her to come along and she did.

I packed up all my stuff in bankers’ boxes — the sort with handles and lids you can buy in bulk at discount office suppliers. I wanted the move to be as tidy as my apartment had been, so I wrapped and packed everything obsessively neatly and stacked the boxes in precisely dolly-high columns by the front door. The radiometer made it in with the scatterings from my desk, though I’m not sure I wrapped it, come to think of it.

A few friends arrived and it was the easiest move anyone had ever seen. Nothing beats a dolly and a good plan. Within three hours we had packed the truck with the precisely stacked columns and the couches and the bookcases, delivered the goods to now-my 1912 Craftsman-style bungalow in an historic district downtown, and we’d drunk a pitcher each of cheap beer by the time our cheeseburgers arrived.

Life in the house on Linwood Place made California feel like home, and if anyone asks me where I’m from now, I say that’s it, because the house and my wife are the best choices I ever made.

As a structure, the house is brilliant. True-dimension framing, all redwood, and a porch across the whole front, covered by the roof, pitched out eight feet past the solid mahogany door. The kitchen window over the sink looked out on a fenced yard, perfect to contain parties, dogs, and a toddler seven years later. I set my radiometer there to catch some afternoon sun, and it did so for nine years. I looked at it a lot, but you know how it is when you look at something and you’re aware it’s there but you don’t really take strong notice, as you would if it were gone? Some people call it “taking for granted,” but I don’t see how there can be much taking when you’re not giving attention. That’s how it was those days. We were both there. But just there. Spinning.

It wasn’t until we decided to move to New Zealand that it occurred to me I still possessed the radiometer, wholly intact, despite every odd stacked against it. For the first time in twenty nine years I worried about it. I packed it so damned carefully you could have run over it with the moving truck and punctured a tire before the glass so much as smudged.

The radiometer arrived via container ship to the port of Auckland some six weeks after us, and that’s the longest we’ve been apart in thirty one years.

We have moved once in New Zealand, and when I moved the radiometer I took it in the front seat with me, wrapped in an Egyptian cotton towel and buckled in with the shoulder belt and fully protected by the passenger side airbag in case of head-on disaster. I took it slowly because now it mattered more than ever if either of us got hurt. My son is sure to love that radiometer one day the way he loves his own hand, and all I can say is this fact makes things different. So I’m doing my best if I do anything at all.

Now the radiometer sits happily on our kitchen window sill overlooking a honey locust tree and a trampoline and the little boy. The other day I noticed it had a coat of grease on it from all the fried chicken I’ve been doing lately. I ran the tap until the hot water steamed and I rinsed it and poured a pea-sized dab of Sunlight Soap on a sponge and caressed the surface gently until an oily film rainbowed across the glass and I rinsed it again and again until the water sheeted off and I dried it with a microfibre cloth I reserve for dusting vinyl records and I set the radiometer on our front porch table and sat in the rocker overlooking the honey locust tree and the trampoline and the little boy, and I watched the paddles spin like mad in our new home, precisely eight thousand eight hundred and ninety nine miles from where we started.


Last week we sold the house on Linwood Place and it felt easy at the time but I figured out this morning it hasn’t been and won’t be as easy as it seemed. I figured out why I was so insufferably cranky with the boy on Tuesday at the beach when all he wanted was to play in my chair and dig a hole and laugh as the tide rolled in across his shoes. I figured out why I’ve been quiet at night and tired all day and why I wake up first in the mornings staring at the shadows on the wall as the sun comes up and just wondering. No topic. No words or pictures in my head. Wondering quietly.

Certain people and experiences and stories and dreams stick with you in this world, make you feel grounded no matter where you find yourself, and I’ve got plenty of those. My beautiful wife. My beautiful son. All the schooling and moving and a future more focused with every sentence I write.

But sometimes it’s nice to have something to tie your memories and stories together — to remind yourself it’s not all dreaming — to hold some physical thing, some totem, some part of it all. All these years. All this time and space. I’ve still got a manual egg beater I would use to whip up mixing bowls of water when I was a little boy and my son does the same with it now. I’ve still got a Stanley Works Philips head screwdriver made in New Britain that I used at Christmas to fix the bell to his bike. And when I stand there frying chicken in my cast iron skillet on a Sunday afternoon, looking out over the trees and the trampoline and the little boy, seeing New Zealand and my future crisp as a summer day, right there on the window sill I’ll always have my radiometer.

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