Sunday, November 15, 2020

From the Archives - Thank You (Not) for the Cheesy Microscope


If a picture is worth a thousand words, and HD video captures 30 frames per second, then a ten-minute video is worth about 18 million words. That seems more efficient than reading a 1,600-word essay. With that in mind, I've made this post available as a vlog. The traditional text version, as always, is further down the page.

Note that if you are viewing this on a mobile device and don’t see a thumbnail of my vlog above with a Play button, that’s because Google “improved” (i.e., wrecked) their Blogger interface. You can either scroll way down this page and choose “View web version,” or open this post on your PC, or click here for the video.


Back in like 1982, my brothers chipped in and gave me a really nice birthday present: a microscope. This might have been a bit of a shock, as they were only like 17, and I could have thought it a really extravagant gift. But I knew better: I’d seen this microscope before, in the gift shop of Fiske Planetarium. It was significantly discounted, which makes sense … why would a microscope sell in this gift shop, after everyone’s just finished being transported to the celestial heavens? A microscope takes you in exactly the wrong direction! 

It was marked down a whole lot but not enough for me to consider buying it. For one thing, who uses a microscope at home? What would I peer at with it? I did use a microscope in biology class in high school, but that was an assignment, and besides, you had to do something during the time you’re sentenced to be in school. I remember we were tasked to try to grow something (mold, fungus, whatever) in a Petri dish, and I got the gnarliest result of the whole class. My secret? I swabbed the rim of the restroom urinal. My sample went fricking nuts. That really was impressive to see magnified 10x.

My older daughter also used a microscope in bio, during middle school, and was either assigned to draw the instrument or decided on a lark to do so. Of her actual viewing of the microscopic world she remembers little. “Yeah we used microscopes in class, they were pretty cool but most of what I recall was fighting over them with my group mates,” she reports. Here is her drawing.

So, getting back to the microscope my brothers gave me, the biggest impediment to my actually using it was that the thing was cheesy. It was almost all plastic, including (I think) the lens. It was evident that my brothers had hoped I wouldn’t know about, or remember, its having been on sale. The second price tag had been carefully removed—gone without a trace. The original price tag, reading $39.95, was still on there. Of course my brothers knew it was tacky to leave the tag on, but the ostensible price—and thus their supposed generosity—was the whole point. If they’d been cleverer, they’d have blacked out the price with a magic marker, but made sure to do it lightly enough that if I squinted, I could still read it.

I halfheartedly pretended to be excited about the microscope, but clearly I was being played for a sucker. My brothers probably got it for free, being close personal buds with the planetarium’s director. He was probably throwing it out.

Fast-forward about nine years, and I unexpectedly received a birthday gift in the mail. And guess what? It was the same microscope, still in its original packaging! I’d actually taken it out and dinked with it a bit all those years ago, just making sure it wasn’t actually totally awesome, which it wasn’t, and then I’d put it all back in the box and forgotten about it. The proud, dishonest price tag was still on there. I sat right down and—well, okay, it took me three weeks, but—I wrote them a nice thank you letter, which I post here because a) it’s a slow news day at albertnet, b) you might find this amusing, and c) it should serve as a useful example of an important form of correspondence: the utterly insincere thank-you.

(Via the miracle of the Internet, I’ve found a photo of the very microscope in question. I have no idea what became of mine.)

Thank you letter for cheesy microscope - July 17, 1991

Dear Geoff and Bryan:

Imagine my awe when I saw the gleaming plastic, shining brightly through the thick, industrial grade cellophane stretched tight over the box. Before I even read the label, its words boomed through my head, startling me out of my everyday daze and sending goose bumps over my entire body:


Fighting the impulse to tear the elegant display box to shreds like a kid on Christmas morning, I gently removed the fitted storage box, precisely cut to form in expanded polystyrene foam, from the luxurious cardboard housing, and with almost excessive eagerness, lifted out the microscope. Noticing its weight in my trembling hand, I knew quality when I felt it. We can all sense when we’re in the presence of any best-in-class creation. BMW motorcars. Ralph Lauren Polo shirts. Rollecta pasta makers. And now, the 3 Way Microscope Lab with Viewer and Projection Device.

I guess I don’t even need to explain to you how much more this is than a simple microscope. Surely you did endless painstaking research before settling on this jewel of scientific technology, with its astonishing array of features, and its flat black finish, its base and arm richly adorned with chrome-like accouterments. From the Ocular down the Body Tube to the Revolving Turret (or REVOLVER, per the alternative nomenclature in the user’s guide), all the way to the 3 Way Objective Lens, this microscope struck me as the finest of its kind. Anywhere.

Part of me wanted to stop for a moment and just pause, savoring the moment, standing as I was at the brink of limitless scientific investigation, an endless journey of the unseen world. At the same time, I was driven by an irresistible impulse to throw myself headlong into it, as a surfer is hurled toward the beach by a tremendous wave. With trembling fingers I withdrew the first of six slides from the Lab’s casing: Monocotyledonous Stem of Corn, from Japan. I was getting ready to clip this specimen to the Stage when I realized with a jolt: I hadn’t even read the Microscope Lab’s instructions!

I lifted out the brochure with a sigh of satisfaction, knowing how richly I would benefit from the Manual, drinking in every drop of wisdom it could and surely would impart. From its first heading, “INTRODUCTION TO A MICRON WORLD,” to its intriguing opening sentence, “There are innumerable living things in our world,” I poured myself into its pages—both of them. Such rich instruction! Such literary poise, unadorned by preening, erudite flourishes but rather straightforward, clear, and direct! All the literature I’d held in high esteem before—Hemingway, Nabokov, Steinbeck—suddenly seemed weak and childish compared to the confident prose of the Manual:

In the case of Zoom Microscope, turn left the nut underneath eyepiece and make it loose and dislocate the eyepiece, and insert the viewer head in the body of microscope and turn right the nut tightly.

Lost in my wonder and appreciation, I must have let my guard down, for to my utter horror I was startled out of my keen focus by movement in the room. Raising my head from the crisp pages, I observed my roommate handling the Projection Device! He’d just wandered in, and now betook my instrument as though he were qualified and welcome to do so! Granted, his care and obvious awe exemplified his respect for the integrity and opulence of the Lab, yet my immediate instinct was to grab his wrist and wrest the Device from his hand, which he obviously hadn’t even washed first. I acted upon this instinct but caught myself before going further—I’d wanted to strike him a blow across the face with the back of my hand! I did loudly admonish him for his irresponsible behavior. How could he be so impertinent? Was he even a scientist?

My roommate glowered at me sullenly, his eyes burning, red-rimmed circles of resentment and jealousy. Had this fellow always been so ugly, such a stark embodiment of envy and evil? Or was our conflict recasting him in my sight due to my heightened sensitivity? I cannot tell. Over the last three weeks I have learned far more about human greed, envy, and paranoia than I have ever wanted to know. In fact, only my newly acquired knowledge of the Micron World surpasses this perception of malevolence, the kind of bone chilling sense of wicked covetousness that haunts a man night and day.

Only in the latest hours of night can I prop a chair against the door of my chamber and, in the ominous glow of a single burning candle, remove my Lab from its secret hiding place and carefully prepare the slides and gum media for a few painfully short hours of serious learning. So great is my fascination for the Micron World, not only tiny bits of lint or nose hairs but also the old standbys provided with the Lab—Monocotyledonous Stem of Corn, Fruit Fly, and Woody Stem of Pine—that I put aside my fears and drift into total educational bliss, totally detached from the Macro World that presents such threats to me and my 3 Way Microscope Lab with Viewer & Projection Device.

But none of the threats to my Lab need concern you … rest assured I shall guard this most prized possession with my life, sending you frequent dispatches of what I learn of the teeming micron world hiding all around us, in plain sight to those equipped to see. Thank you, my brothers, thank you again and again for this masterpiece. This is a gift and a birthday I will certainly never forget.




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