Aug 6, 2015

Rainbow Time

This isn't one of my usual grumpy stories. This morning I had rainbow time. It was wonderful.

When my children were young Mother's Day became a really problem for me. My two kids always made some kind of craft, usually at school, for Mom. But, they also wanted to get her something special. They wanted to get her something beautiful, and artistic, something Mom would love and remember forever. On the other hand, taking two active inquisitive children into stores that sell beautiful artistic things usually means taking two active inquisitive children into stores that have many fragile things that little hands should not touch. One parent, two kids, the math just doesn't work. You can't watch them both at the same time.

But I found a solution. My wife loves Swarovski style cut lead glass crystals.  And, every child I have ever met loves rainbows. Those prismatic crystals are wonderful rainbow makers.

There is a swarovski store near where we live and one of its nicest features is that everything in the store is either out of the reach of small children or in locked cases. These stores are actually child proof. I could take my kids in there and know that even if I got distracted my children could do no damage. They were good kids. Well behaved. But, they were children.

The trouble with giving someone a beautiful prismatic lead glass crystal is that the crystals usually wind up in a box in a drawer where they may be looked at only once every few years, if they are looked at at all. Or, they wind up in a curio cabinet where they become part of the wall paper and are never looked at at all.

I found a solution to that too. When I was a little kid, almost eight years old, I saw the move Pollyanna. That movie had a surprisingly large effect on my life.

Back then, in the late '50s and early '60s, my parents would dress the three of us, me and my two sisters, in our PJs and load us in the back of the car with our pillows and some blankets. Mom always made sure to tuck in a blanket over the whole back seat so that we wouldn't sweat and stick to it. Then we would head out to the drive in movie theater. The idea was that my parents would watch the double feature and that we would fall asleep sometime during the first film of the night. It usually worked very well, but sometimes I would manage to stay awake and watch the whole first film. But I always fell asleep in the back seat of the car curled up with my sisters like a pile of sleeping kittens. I have a few memories of awaking in my father's arms as he carried me from the car to my bed and tucked me in.

In the movie, Pollyanna notices that the prismatic decorations hanging on a huge chandelier cast "rainbows" on the wall when sunlight hits them just right. She and her guardian then take all the rainbow makers and hangs them in a window. As the sun sets the light streams through the window and casts what seen like hundreds of rainbows on the walls of the room. I saw the same effect in the old Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake City. It had beveled glass windows and just as the sun set over the Great Salt Lake the second floor gallery would light up with dozens of rainbows.

Those Mother's Day crystals are wonderful rainbow makers. We put cup hooks at the tops of our living room and kitchen windows and hung the crystals where, once in a while, the light through the window casts dozens of dancing rainbows across the whole first floor of my home.

Rainbow time is the time when sunlight manages to come through the windows at just the right angle to get past the trees and clouds and be diffracted by the crystals into dancing rainbows. It doesn't happen every day. It only happens when the sun rises in the right position and there are no clouds or mist to block the direct rays of sunshine. But when it happens it is a amazing and wonderful.

When my children were small we would play a game where we tried to catch a rainbow. We would put our hands in just the right place to catch a rainbow in our palms. Then we would follow the rainbow as far as we could toward the crystals and toward the walls.

Over the decades many of the crystals have wound up in a display case. But there are two left in the arch of the living room window. This morning I had rainbow time and I caught a rainbow in the palm of my hand and on my big toe. My children are grown now and I'm a grandfather. But, I still get to play catch the rainbow and remember when I was the father of two young children. I tried my best to fill their world with wonder.

I believe that my fascination with prisms, inspire by that movie, is part of what drove me to become so curious and so fascinated by science. I saw light going in one side. I saw the rainbow coming out the other side. I was desperate to understand how and why that could happen. I now know the standard explanation, and I also know that at the bottommost level we do not know why the Universe works that way. There are so many unanswered questions. I hope we never run out of questions and people who are willing to spend their lives answering one more level of "Why?"