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January 30, 2013

Gravity’s angel

My lab partner and I made a homunculus for a science project. I was majoring in ventriloquism, and she was studying sculpture, but we had to get some credits in the science department in order to graduate. That’s where we met, ironically.

We both thought it was a big joke, walking down the halls lined with cabinets full of stuffed birds and dinosaur bones, posters with diagrams of the human brain designating which areas were responsible for thinking, feeling, breathing, making the heart pump, making our feet move. Somewhere amid the jokes — me giving voice to the taxidermied flying squirrel and her making sketches of things she might sculpt, a bust of me with an unnaturally long finger up my nose — we actually learned something.

We were the last two people in the class to pair up. Nobody wanted the class clown or the weird girl with the sketchbook as a partner in science lab. Sure, we might have the best-drawn display, but we weren’t going to be graded for presentation, right? This was about proving we had an appreciation for the subject matter. We had to show that we understood the class and create a model that advanced the field … or something.

My lab partner was better at acting serious in class. She would have her hands in the clay all the way up past her elbows, and when her hair fell down in her face, she’d poof it up with a quick, directed breath, while I was throwing a whisper into the backside of the student sitting in front of us. She would be crying with laughter, but nobody would ever know it, because she would bury her face in her upper arm, as if wiping sweat off her brow. Her tears got mixed into the clay.

I wasn’t taking the project seriously, at all, but I found some gears and wire that I put around the face and neck of the little figure. We installed a hinge where the jaw would have been. My partner was primarily responsible for the design. She took parts from old toys and rusted garden tools, and before long, it started to look like a living thing.

Compared to the other projects, it was a mess. The couple at the next table made a machine that could open envelopes, and the couple next to them made a whirling, spinning thing that could help a deaf person know if there was a strange noise or a phone call. These machines were clean and efficient. Ours left nasty brown smudges on anything it touched, and it didn’t “do” anything.

As the date approached for our jury presentation, we started to get discouraged. Our laughter gave way to the anxiety of having wasted the semester and facing the fact that we were going to fail the class … and not graduate. We still thought it was funny, but we decided it would be even funnier if we actually managed to get a passing grade.

This was where my partner really saved my ass. I never would have been able to do it without her. She took handfuls of herbs, sage and thyme, as I recall, and stuffed them into the empty cavity in the little thing’s chest. We added a wind-up key in the back, and it started to dance. It was the funniest thing we ever saw! It was doing “Jungle Boogie” and this funny little thing where it pumped its fists while jerking backwards. We absolutely lost it, doubled over in painful convulsions of laughter until we started to gasp for air!

When it was time to do our presentation, the class was stunned. The little guy was moonwalking and making hitchhiking gestures and shrugging its shoulders while I threw my voice into it, making jokes about the class and the professor, not that anyone was fooled into thinking it was speaking for itself; that came later. To our utter amazement, we passed the class, and we went on to present the homunculus to a variety of scientific organizations.

The real trick was in the energy system. It was all self-contained! It was autonomous and, after a while, achieved a level of self-awareness and an appreciation for logic. It got a job analyzing human behavior and commercial marketing data for a major corporation when it finished its undergraduate work a few years back.

For further consideration: Would someone please let me know when Michael Haneke’s “Amour” shows up in Louisville? I’m really getting tired of all these American movies.