Friday, October 5, 2007

Knot Gremlins

It’s the first week in October and so my thoughts naturally turn to Christmas.

I’m not the only one so afflicted. Department stores already have Christmas decorations for sale. They put them out right next to the Halloween decorations. Boo—and Merry Christmas!

I spent some time over the last couple of weeks planning my Advent sermons so I had to try to get myself in the mood. It’s not easy. When under such circumstances I always think about a story I heard years ago about a popular singer who was recording a Christmas album. It was summertime in Los Angeles and the recording sessions were not going well. Then, someone had an idea. They turned the air conditioning way down and brought a snow making machine into the studio. That changed the entire atmosphere and gave everyone the Christmas spirit. I didn’t go to such extremes. I had to just get to Christmas in my head. Of course, Advent is about getting ready for Christmas and the marketers tell us that we have to start that around Labor Day!

We made a major change in our home decorating process last year—we bought an artificial Christmas tree. Now, many of you have had artificial trees since way back when the only kind you could get were those ghastly silver ones on which you shined a rotating multicolored spotlight. My parents bought a green one from Maxwell’s Dime Store in Barnesville when I was about twelve years old. The Christmas after my mother died I came home from my first quarter in college, pulled that tree out of its box, assembled it, and decorated it—all by myself. Then I cried. That experience caused me not to want an artificial tree in my house ever again. It only took me thirty years to get over it, but practical and financial considerations finally won the day. It’s inconvenient where I live to go cut a tree, it costs too much to buy a “live” tree (are they still “live” after they’re cut?), the needles make a mess, and, even though artificial trees are rather expensive, you spend about the same amount of money buying a live one for three years. So, this will be our second Christmas with our artificial tree.

It’s nice. And the best thing about it is that it has lights wired right into it. You assemble the tree and plug it in and start singing “Jingle Bells,” preferably along with the version recorded all those years ago by Alvin and the Chipmunks.

That means—and this is what I’ve been leading up to all this time—that we don’t have to deal with those strings of Christmas lights. Because of Christmas lights I have long believed in knot gremlins. Every year the same thing would happen. We would, with extraordinary care, remove the strands of lights from the tree, coil them up very neatly, put them in boxes, and place the boxes in the attic where they would sit undisturbed until the following Christmas. When the next Christmas season arrived, we would remove them from the boxes and spend the next hour trying to get them untangled.

Knot gremlins. That was the only explanation. The same thing happens, as we all know, with extension chords, especially if they are 100 feet long and orange, and garden hoses.

Well, science excels at helping us to overcome our superstitions and science has made some progress at overcoming my belief in knot gremlins. An article at reported on the results of experiments done by two scientists that help us to understand knot formation. According to the article, Douglas Smith and Dorian Raymer of the University of California at San Diego

ran a series of homespun experiments in which they dropped a string into a box and tumbled it for 10 seconds (one revolution per second). They repeated the string-dropping more than 3,000 times varying the length and stiffness of the string, box size and tumbling speed.

Digital photos and video of the tumbling strings revealed: Strings shorter than 1.5 feet (.46 meters) didn't form knots; the likelihood of knotting sharply increased as string length went from 1.5 feet to 5 feet (.46 meters to 1.5 meters); and beyond this length, knotting probability leveled off.

The bottom line is that it takes only a little bit of movement to prompt knot formation. (Side note: this may explain why churches have so much trouble embracing the kind of change that might move us into a better future.)

So there you have it. Physics and mathematics have answered the question.

Or have they? The article also says that items confined in a small space and items that are carefully coiled should not tend to knot. We always packed our Christmas lights tightly and coiled them neatly.

So mystery remains. My knot gremlins might yet live!

But at least I don't have to deal with them anymore.

Sometimes, you see, you just have to set your gremlins (and demons) aside. As for me, it was more important to move through my grief than to understand my knotted strands of lights. Science has helped me to understand knotted lights a little but the good Lord and a good wife and family have helped to loosen the knots in my soul, and that is far better.

1 comment:

Joshua Ruffin said...

I have a feeling that Mama had a deal going for years with the knot gremlins, her aim being to finally wear you down till you conceded to purchase a fake tree.

Not that I'm REALLY complaining...I like our tree, and its convenient. Still, I have my suspicions.