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The Essay
Show #275
The Canal of Schlemm
David Gunn

Midway between the titanium-rich fumarole fields of middle Nebraska and the Philistine Snorkeling Club's dinghy permanently moored above the Marianas Trench in the North Pacific lies ... well, nothing, really -- just a big, multi-hued dune in the northern Libyan Desert whose shifting grains of sand have arranged themselves -- and I'm sure this is mere coincidence -- into the same Fibonacci sequence that describes the apogee of the Great Humming Asteroid®, which has been on a collision course with Earth for at least 6,600 years, but each time it closes in on its target, some astronomical anomaly occurs that skews the planetoid's trajectory and saves Ma Earth from devastation. Anyway, there's nothing else there of note. But, travel 165 kilomiles due north and there, on the Gulf of Sidra coast, lurks the city of Bengasi, population 401,282. While no relation to the storied musical shaman of the New Hampshire desert, the locale nonetheless shares several similarities with him: the distilled aroma from all of the city’s unlicensed street vendors, ground up into a blancmangelike paste, rewards the sniffer with a bouquet of cedar, rust and a Möbius No-Pest strip; when asleep, the city emits a high-pitched whistle that sends fogdogs from the adjacent Algonquin Hole into paroxysms of ecstasy; and neither it nor Beano had any inkling that its 401,283rd inhabitant would be Carl O. Schlemm, inventor and sole wholesaler of the cell telex.

But Carl Schlemm's reason for moving to Bengasi was not driven by a Third World hunger for wireless teletypewriter systems, and it would be a cheap laugh to speculate that it was driven by Emerson Fittipaldi in a Renault Twingo. Rather, he had an idea how to improve the massive artificial river project that Muammar al-Qaddafi started in 1991. Now, as most Libyantologists know, the river was designed to transport water from beneath the Libyan Desert -- coincidentally, from an aquifer directly under the multi-hued Fibonacci-flavored sand dune -- to the thirsty coastal cities of Bengasi and Tripoli. But the hostile climate was simply too much for the crudely engineered agglomeration of aqueducts, dikes and convoluted conduits, and the water had yet to successfully reach its destinations. Frustrated, Qaddafi had offered a prize of one million camels -- the ruminants, presumably, not the figure skating spin -- to anyone who could make the beleaguered system work. Enter Carl.

The Canal of Schlemm

Months earlier, while poring over minuscule fractal notations on the blueprints for his telecommunications contraption, Carl fell ill with an aneurysm in his left eye. His HMO assigned him an orthodontist, who gave him some conjunctivitis ointment, a dognosed copy of "Gray's Anatomy," and told him that, while he might find the chapter on the eye that began on page 824 instructive, the section on teeth, pages 871-881, was not to be missed. Fortunately, the medicine did the trick. But still Carl read all sorts of interesting facts about the eye. For example, did you know that eyelashes are made of the same substance found in kazoo membranes? All right, so maybe he was having trouble focusing that day. But on page 826 he did learn of a curved cavity between the eye's cornea and iris called the Canal of Schlemm. And when Carl learned of the waterway dilemma in the Libyan Desert, the solution came instantly to mind: build a Canal of Schlemm.

Carl no-relation Schlemm caught a ferry from Athens to Bengasi, where he soon secured an audience with the one-time rogue state despot. Qaddafi was so impressed with the proposal that he advanced Schlemm a camel (it was an ice skating spin!), then immediately set his engineers to work on the project. Le canal de Schlemm would be a series of interconnecting subsurface ducts made from the stems of bamboo trees that lined the banks of wadis in the southern part of the country. It would have been a surefire design, except that the engineers mistranslated the chemical composition of the bonding material and concocted a substance that had no more adhesive qualities than table wine left in the freezer for a week can intoxicate a goat. Ergo, the project failed, Qaddafi forthwith took back his camel, Carl forthwith took the next boat eastnortheast, and the Canal of Schlemm never headlined anywhere except in ophthalmologic humor magazines, Gray's Anatomy, and this 275th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, whose own camel is about to pass through the blearily needled eye of Kalvos.