The cage hangs suspended just under the water’s surface by a series of pontoons and rigging tethering it to the boat above. Inside it the dive master and I float like the nearby bait lines of tuna drifting lightly in the current.

We are miles out to sea, well beyond where the Pacific endlessly smashes itself upon the broken teeth of the California coast. From the deck a person can still see the thick sleek sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks in the distance, but under here everything is an unending gray-blue expanse, as the light only penetrates in translucent fingers that grasp at the darkness without finding purchase.

Occasionally schooling fish flicker silver at the very edge of vision, but otherwise the ocean appears empty. The only sounds are the hiss of our respirators and the bubbling escape of our breath.

When I make eye contact with the dive master he taps his wrist as though indicating a watch and draws a clockwise circle in front of my mask, a gesture I interpret as It takes a little time.

We wait.

Despite being a veteran snorkeler I am unused to the neoprene casing of the wetsuit and the weight of the breathing apparatus on my back. I don’t like the restraint of the cage much, either; I would prefer to be swimming unencumbered, the water on my skin, even though I know a thousand bad deaths might be waiting so far from shore. Inside the cage it is too easy to compare myself to a morsel in a bait box.

With nothing other to do than float and breathe, I study the depths below, hoping for some fish, or a sea lion, or even some red devils, but nothing emerges. The continental shelf is down there somewhere, hidden under layers of blue so deep as to be black.

A good friend once confessed to a deep-seated, almost instinctual fear of the open ocean; doubtless he would find this experience to be absolute hell.

Just as I’m starting to think we’re just going to deplete our oxygen reserves watching oily tuna bait dangle, the dive master taps my arm and points out into the gloom. At first, it’s difficult to see, but before too long what looks like a smooth gray blur casually reveals itself as the approaching robust snout and unclosed grin of a Great White shark.

Swimming straight for us.

This is what I’ve come here for. I’ve consumed hundreds of hours of documentary footage of sharks. I’ve gone skin diving with leopard sharks, sand tigers, hammerheads and moray eels. Once during a trip to the Sea of Cortez a curious manta came close enough for me to touch it.

None of those experiences are adequate preparation for seeing the business end of a Great White casually, implacably bearing down on you.

I am suddenly very, very grateful for the presence of the cage.

It passes around us slowly at first, cruising a wide perimeter around the boat. It’s a big animal. As it passes out of sight beyond the stern I hold my hands out to the dive master like I’m grasping a box. How big? He responds by holding up a series of fingers, 5-5-2, then rocking his flattened palm back and forth. 12 ft, more or less.

The shark circles us twice more, tightening the gyre with each pass. For such a big fish it passes through the water with little effort from the broad-bladed tail. I think of that tail, strong enough to propel the shark clear out of the water in pursuit of prey, and shiver despite my wetsuit. The last turn is close enough that I can see the absence of the male claspers; “it” is a “she,” terrifying and magnificent.

I could kick myself for failing to bring one of those disposable underwater cameras, even though I know the cheap lense would be unlikely to pick up anything in these visibility conditions.

She breaks her pattern and swims beneath the boat, passing close enough that I can the feel wake as she cuts through the water. Her senses are keen enough to have smelled the bait fish, but now she’s close enough to detect the electrical impulses given off by my quickening heart.

Holy fuck, she can feel my fucking heartbeat.

We watch her and she watches us, unblinking, one eye always fixed on the cage even as she inspects the baits. Others have described the immense black of shark’s eye as something dead, or lifeless, but what I see instead is curiosity, an eye straining to take in everything it can. Seeing her so close fills me with a sensation that is not quite fear or excitement, some kind of galvanizing adrenal fascination I have no word for. Awe is perhaps the closest.

I’m fascinated by her, by the elegant design millions of years of evolution have given her. Despite how at home I feel in the water, seeing that torpedo form in motion demonstrates how feeble my own meatsack body is for handling these elements.

I want to touch her. I want to reach out beyond the bars of the cage and let my hand run over the smooth-sharp denticle surface of her skin. But the baits are all—in retrospect, very wisely—strung at points too far away from the cage, and she remains safely out of contact range.

Finally, after one last pass, the shark turns away from us, eyes rolling back and jaws slipping forwards as she snaps at one of the baits. With a flash of serrated teeth and the audible crunch of fishbone it is gone, leaving just a blunted metal weight at the end of the thick white rope.

When she tries for the next one the crew above yank on the bait rope, causing her to chase, to seize and thrash about in the nature documentary theatrics of an attack. For one instant she rolls, and I get the clear sight of the gapping jaws and fresh pink mouth before she bites down on the chunk of tuna. Even without the teeth, the bite pressure alone could crush my bones.

A few minutes thrashing and it is done, the sea gone as calm as it was before her feed began; a few scraps of tuna hanging in the water offer the only evidence it ever happened. She cruises around us a bit more, as though expecting us to provide her with more food. Eventually she turns away, and with a few strokes of her tail vanishes back into the gloom just as casually as she emerged from it, disappearing like a gray ghost in a long endless night.

Hermann Goering, the designated successor to Adolf Hitler, was waiting to be executed for crimes against humanity when he learned about the pleasure that had been stolen from him.

At that moment, according to one observer, Goering looked “as if for the first time he ha[d] discovered there was evil in the world.” This evil was perpetrated by the Dutch painter and art collector Han van Meegeren. During World War II, Goering gave 137 paintings, with a total value of what would now be around $10 million, to van Meegeren. What he got in return was Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Johannes Vermeer. Like his boss, Goering was an obsessive art collector and had already plundered much of Europe. But he was a huge fan of Vermeer, and this was the acquisition that he was most proud of.

After the war ended, Allied forces found the painting and learned whom he had gotten it from. Van Meegeren was arrested and charged with the crime of selling this great Dutch masterpiece to a Nazi. This was treason, punishable by death. After six weeks in prison, van Meegeren confessed—but to a different crime. He had sold Goering a fake, he said. It was not a Vermeer. He had painted it himself. Van Meegeren said that he had also painted other works thought to be by Vermeer, including The Supper at Emmaus, one of the most famous paintings in Holland.

At first, nobody believed him. To prove his case, he was asked to produce another “Vermeer.” Over the span of six weeks, van Meegeren—surrounded by reporters, photographers, and television crews, and high on alcohol and morphine (the only way he could work)—did just that. As one Dutch tabloid put it: “HE PAINTS FOR HIS LIFE!” The result was a Vermeer-like creation that he called The Young Christ Teaching in the Temple, a painting that was obviously superior to the one he had sold to Goering. Van Meegeren was found guilty of the lesser crime of obtaining money by deception and sentenced to a year in prison. He died before serving his sentence and was thought of as a folk hero—the man who had swindled the Nazis.

We are going to return to van Meegeren later in the book, but think now about poor Goering and how he must have felt when he was told that his painting was a forgery. Goering was an unusual man in many ways—almost comically self-obsessed, savagely indifferent to the suffering of others; he was described by one of his interviewers as an amiable psychopath—but there was nothing odd about his shock. You would have felt the same. Part of this is the humiliation of being duped. But even if there had been no betrayal at all, but an innocent mistake, still, the discovery would strip away a certain pleasure. When you buy a painting that is thought to be a Vermeer, part of the joy that it gives is based on the belief about who painted it. If this belief turns out to be wrong, that pleasure will fade. (Conversely—and such cases have occurred—if you discover that a painting you had thought was copy or imitation is actually an original, it will give more pleasure and its value will increase.)

It is not just art. The pleasure we get from all sorts of everyday objects is related to our beliefs about their histories. Think about the following items:

  • a tape measure that was owned by John F. Kennedy (sold in auction for $48,875)
  • the shoes thrown at George W. Bush by an Iraqi journalist in 2008 (for which a Saudi millionaire reportedly offered $10 million)
  • another thrown object, the seventieth home run baseball hit by Mark McGwire (bought by Canadian entrepreneur Todd McFarlane, who owns one of the finest collections of famous baseballs, for $3 million)
  • the autograph of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon
  • swatches of Princess Diana’s wedding dress
  • your baby’s first shoes
  • your wedding ring
  • a child’s teddy bear

These all have value above and beyond their practical utility. Not everyone is a collector, but everyone I know owns at least one object that is special because of its history, either through its relation to admired people or significant events or its connection to someone of personal significance. This history is invisible and intangible, and in most cases there is no test that can ever distinguish the special object from one that looks the same. But still, it gives us pleasure and the duplicate would leave us cold. This is the sort of mystery that this book is about.

ANIMAL PLEASURES

HUMAN PLEASURES

Some pleasures are easier to explain than others. Consider the question of why we like to drink water. Why is there so much joy in quenching thirst, and why is it torture to deprive someone of water for a long period? Well, that is an easy one. Animals need water to survive, and so they are motivated to seek it out. Pleasure is the reward for getting it; pain is the punishment for doing without.

This answer is both simple and correct, but it raises another question: Why do things work out so nicely? It is awfully convenient that, to mangle the Rolling Stones lyric, we can’t always get what we want—but we want what we need. Of course, nobody thinks that it is a lucky accident. A theist would argue that this connection between pleasure and survival is established through divine intervention: God wanted His creatures to live long enough to go forth and multiply, so He instilled within them a desire for water. For a Darwinian, the match is the product of natural selection. Those creatures in the distant past who were motivated to seek water out-reproduced those who weren’t.

More generally, an evolutionary perspective—which I think has considerable advantages over theism in explaining how the mind works—sees the function of pleasure as motivating certainbehavior that is good for the genes. As the comparative psychologist George Romanes observed in 1884: “Pleasure and pain must have been evolved as the subjective accompaniment of processes which are respectively beneficial or injurious to the organism, and so evolved for the purpose or to the end that the organism should seek the one and shun the other.”

Most nonhuman pleasures make perfect sense from this perspective. When you are training your pet, you don’t reward it by reading poetry or taking it to the opera; you give it Darwinian prizes like tasty snacks. Nonhuman animals enjoy food, water, and sex; they want to rest when tired; they are soothed by affection, and so on. They like what evolutionary biology says that they should like.

What about us? Humans are animals and so we share many of the pleasures of other species. The psychologist Steven Pinker notes that people are happiest when “healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous, knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate, and loved.” There is quite a bit of pleasure packed into that quote, and I don’t doubt for a minute that this is explained through the same process that shaped the desires of animals such as chimpanzees and dogs and rats. It is adaptively beneficial to seek health, food, comfort, and so on, and to get pleasure from achieving these goals. As the anthropologist Robert Ardrey put it, “we are born of risen apes, not fallen angels.”

But this list is incomplete. It leaves out art, music, stories, sentimental objects, and religion. Perhaps these are not uniquely human. I once heard from a primate researcher that some captive primates keep security blankets, and there are reports that elephants and chimpanzees can create art (though, as I will discuss later on, I am skeptical about this). But in any case, these are not the usual activities of nonhuman animals. They are entirely typicalof our species, showing up in every normal individual. This needs to be explained. one solution is that our uniquely human pleasures do not emerge through natural selection or any other process of biological evolution. They are the product of culture, and they are uniquely human because only humans have culture (or at least enough culture to matter).

Despite the bad rap that they sometimes get from more adaptation-oriented researchers, those who endorse this sort of culture proposal are not necessarily ignorant or dismissive of evolutionary biology; they don’t doubt that humans, including human brains, have evolved. But they disagree with the notion that we have evolved innate ideas, or specialized modules and mental organs. Rather, humans are special in that we possess an enhanced capacity for flexibility, to create and learn biologically arbitrary ideas, practices, and tastes. Other animals have instincts, but humans are smart.

This theory has to be right to some extent. Nobody could deny the intellectual flexibility of our species, and nobody could deny that culture can shape and structure human pleasure. If you win a million dollars in a lottery, you might whoop with joy, but the very notion of money emerged through human history, not due to the replication and selection of genes. Indeed, even those pleasures that we share with other animals, such as food and sex, manifest themselves in different ways across societies. Nations have their own cuisines, their own sexual rituals, even their own forms of pornography, and this is surely not because the citizens of these nations are genetically different.All of this might tempt someone from a more cultural bent to say that while natural selection plays some limited role in shaping what we like—we have evolved hunger and thirst, a sex drive, curiosity, some social instincts—it has little to say about the specifics. In the words of the critic Louis Menand, “every aspect of life has a biological foundation in exactly the same sense, which is that unless it was biologically possible, it wouldn’t exist. After that, it’s up for grabs.”

I will try to show in the chapters that follow that this is not how pleasure works. Most pleasures have early developmental origins; they are not acquired through immersion into a society. And they are shared by all humans; the variety that one sees can be understood as variations on a universal theme. Painting is a cultural invention, but the love of art is not. Societies have different stories, but stories share certain plots. Taste in food and sex differ—butnot by all that much.

It is true that we can imagine cultures in which pleasure is very different, where people rub food in feces to improve taste and have no interest in salt, sugar, or chili peppers; or where they spend for- tunes on forgeries and throw originals into the trash; or line up to listen to static, cringing at the sound of a melody. But this is science fiction, not reality.

One way to sum this up is that humans start off with a fixed list of pleasures and we can’t add to that list. This might sound like an insanely strong claim, because of course one can introduce new pleasures into the world, as with the inventions of television, chocolate, video games, cocaine, dildos, saunas, crossword puzzles, reality television, novels, and so on. But I would suggest that these are enjoyable because they are not that new; they connect—in a reasonably direct way—to pleasures that humans already pos-sess. Belgian chocolate and barbecued ribs are modern inventions, but they appeal to our prior love of sugar and fat. There are novel forms of music created all the time, but a creature that is biologically unprepared for rhythm will never grow to like any of them; they will always be noise.

ESSENTIAL

Many significant human pleasures are universal. But they are not biological adaptations. They are by-products of mental systems that have evolved for other purposes. This is plainly true for some pleasures. Many people now get a kick out of coffee, for instance, but this isn’t because coffee lovers of the past had more offspring than coffee haters. It is because coffee is a stimulant, and we often enjoy being stimulated. This is an obvious case, but I think that this by-product approach can help explain some of the more difficult puzzles we are interested in. The proposal that I will explore is that these pleasures arise, at least in part, as accidental by-products of what we can call an “essentialist” cast of mind.

One illustration of essentialism comes from a novella by J. D. Salinger, which begins with one of his favorite characters, Seymour, telling a Taoist story to a baby. In the story, Duke Mu asks a friend, Po Lo, to find him someone who can identify a superlative horse. Po Lo recommends an expert, Duke Mu hires him, and soon the expert, Kao, comes back with news of a horse that fits the Duke’s requirements, and he describes it as a dun-colored mare. Duke Mu buys the recommended horse, but to his shock, he finds that it is a coal-black stallion.


Jim Berkland is known as the California Geologist Who Predicts Earthquakes — not by expensive seismic monitoring, but by checking daily tides and tallying up the number of lost cats and dogs in the classified ads. He is hardly alone. There are other people worldwide, both conventional and unconventional, who do predict and forecast earthquakes, too.

Jack Coles, for one, an earthquake predictor with his own link on the www.syzygyjob.com site, uses radio and TV waves to predict quakes. He hears static on the TV and radio and interprets it the way others interpret ear tones. He can also see the interference on TV. Berkland told me, “Some of Jack’s predictions have been uncanny, such as the first one I knew of. A geologist friend pointed out a small advertisement in the San Jose Mercury News from someone claiming to have predicted the Loma Prieta quake and offering his predictive services. I decided to check him out and phoned his number that evening in early 1990. ‘Oh, Mr. Berkland,’ he said when I identified myself. ‘I have been following you for years. It’s funny that just as the phone rang I got a warning for a local 4.0 quake from the static on my TV.’” Sure enough, the next morning a 4.2 quake shook Livermore, says Berkland, who can verify at least three more predictions from Coles that were on the money. “Hewlett Packard admired what he was doing and lent him a $50,000 Frequency Analyzer which was most helpful. Of course,” he adds, “there were also some notorious failures, but nobody said that earthquake prediction would be easy.”

But Coles doesn’t make it look hard. In early April 2005, I noted his forecast was posted on www.syzygyjob.com for a quake to strike the area from San Francisco to Los Angeles, California, effective through April 20, 2005. The percentage of probability was 57 percent that a shaker would occur between 4.4 and 5.5. The likely dates were April 6, 7, 8, 19, and 20. As a San Francisco Bay Area native, I had a special interest in this prediction. On April 16, I read on the Internet that a moderate 5.1 earthquake occurred 12 miles from Mettler, California.

Then, on July 28, 2005, Coles phoned Berkland and reported his heightened concern about the area of Japan. Evidently, he didn’t know that there had been at least seven quakes there of 5.0-plus near Honshu since the 6.1 on July 23 that he had correctly predicted two weeks in advance. “I continue to be amazed at how much Jack can do with so little,” says Berkland. Once again, I realized that earthquake prediction can and does work despite what conventional scientists and skeptics believe.



What if you could take a collection of short memories, weird and otherwise, and store them on your iPod? Then people could scroll through and play them back at their leisure. Would some play in loop mode? What would some of yours be?


Nick Belardes iPod Memory List:

Flock of fat green parakeets battle with a mockingbird over Bakersfield skies.

Tarantula walks on sweaty palm.

Rich Ferguson screams “Bones! Bones! Bones!”

Explosion behind rocket site mountain at Edwards Air Force Base.

Ghost in a chair with black eyes and screaming mouth.

Swim with a seal.

Little girl laughs on phone in conversation about hamsters biting belly hair.

Score hat trick in roller hockey game.

Train wrecks into coffee truck. Random opera singer on train holds out phone with Twitter photo of me.

Catch a shark.

Find a $20 bill.

Sergio Aragones draws a Mad Magazine cartoon of himself in a book that mentions him drawing Mad Magazine cartoons.

A dream about Bono being one of the pals.

Over the handlebars bike crash.

Stealing television.

Near swerving car collision through red light traffic.

Lightning crashes into mountain.

Desert rainbows everywhere.

*READ: Part One

In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe – Carl Sagan

It was Christmas Night and I was sitting in a girl’s apartment. The two of us were on her couch, one of her bare feet was in my hands, and we were talking about – among other things – the things we’d like to know. Languages we’d like to speak fluently, concepts we’d like to understand, disciplines we’d like to master. I listed off Spanish, photography, music – all of which remain on my mental list of ‘someday’.

I said I wished I knew more about physics, and she shook her head.

‘No,’ she said. ‘You’ve lost me there. Metaphysics, yeah. But why physics?’

What I said at the time was that physics is a field I wanted to know more about because everything that happens, large or small, seen or unseen, happens according to the laws of physics; that this invisible force, while it may not always be apparent, governs us nonetheless. It was a statement which was accurate, if hardly poetic.

And then, as conversations do, the conversation moved on to other subjects and different avenues, and the topic of my curiosity about the mechanics of the world was forgotten.

But what I should have said to her then – now that I’ve put some thought into it and found the words I think express it best – is that physics is the language of understanding and answers; it’s the how and the what of the world. It gives us the raw data of life and existence; add human perception to that and you can begin to see that what we all too often take for granted is truly amazing.

What I should have said is this.

You, sitting there, here with me – in chemical terms, you are 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen. 3% nitrogen, 1.5% calcium, 1.2% phosphorus. You are sulphur and chlorine and sodium, magnesium and cobalt, zinc and iodine and selenium and fluorine. You’re a woman, so you are, on average, 2.3 grams of iron (as a man, I’m 3.8).

Smaller than this, you are electrons, protons, and neutrons. Even those electrons, protons and neutrons can be further divided down, into leptons and quarks; the smallest building blocks of matter.  This is what you are made from, and you are gravity and electromagnetism and the strong and the weak nuclear force; the four fundamental forces that hold the universe together. And this is not always what you were.

13.73 billion years ago (give or take 0.12 billion years), all there was, everywhere, was a single point. There was nothing else. A singularity; of infinitesimal size, of infinite density and infinite heat. It’s hard to wrap the human mind around this concept; we rebel at trying to consider that everything, everywhere, and everywhen was contained in one indivisible space and time.

And then, in an instant… expansion, and the beginning of everything. Before this moment, there was nothing but this moment. After it, the Universe. And although we don’t know, because our skill doesn’t yet match our curiosity, it’s possible that in this, the moment when time started, those four fundamental forces that keep the Earth turning, that throw shadows behind us when we move through the world, that send quiet ripples across the face of lakes and deepen the sky from blue to black, were one.

This is where cosmic evolution began – the Big Bang kick-started everything that has come since then. With a staggering, omnipotent amount of energy like that released, you get particles being created; brought into existence by sheer force. When people talk about the light of creation, they don’t know just how literal they’re being. Photons, the elementary particle of light itself, flooded through the new-born Universe, a greater pyrotechnic show than any human is ever likely to see. Maybe it will end with a whimper, and maybe it will end with a bang, but it started with light.

Understanding this, how the smallest building blocks of existence inter-relate – this is particle physics, high-energy physics.

There are two laws that become important here. The Law of the Conservation of Energy, and the Law of the Conservation of Mass/Matter. In a closed, isolated system, the sum total of energy doesn’t change. The sum total of mass and matter doesn’t change. Basically speaking, nothing gets in or out – nothing can. Energy may change shape, sure – light a candle and its chemical potential becomes heat and light, clap your hands and kinetic energy becomes sound – but the sum total of energy in the Universe isn’t going anywhere, neither up nor down.

The upshot of this is that all of the matter and the energy in the Universe right now – up to and including the 6.7 x 10 to the power of 27 atoms that are you (that’s 6.7 billion billion billion atoms) were present – if in very different forms – right from the very beginning of everything.

A quick word about your brain.

The human brain is, bar nothing, the most complex and complicated object in human experience. Nothing else comes close. You have 86 billion neurons working away – and an estimated one hundred trillion synaptic connections – inside your head. That’s one hundred trillion connections that flicker on and off with electrochemical energy as you live your life from day to day, that make you who you are. While you study, while you work, while you eat, while you drink, while you sleep, while you wash the dishes or watch TV, these connections are flickering on and off, sending or blocking impulses of thought and reaction.

Now listen carefully.

What all of this means is that while your timelines are vastly different, you and the stars you see when you look up at the night sky were born out of the same instant in space and time. The pieces of you have traveled further distances than you will ever be able to imagine to be here, to be now; they have spun through blinding light and impossible darkness, through gravity and magnetism, riding out the shockwave of creation until this moment.

Your heart beats for the same reason that the ocean tides murmur in and out. You breathe for the same reason that the solar wind sweeps through the space between planets. Your dreams shared their infancy with the sky, and your thoughts are sisters to storms and the sea.

Everything that you are, everything that you’ve done, everything that you will ever be – all of this stems from the single instant in which the Universe began, in light. Whatever else may happen, there is no part of you that is untouched by the truth of this.

This is what physics teaches us, and this is something to be remembered.

Thank you to Laura Spitler at Cornell Astronomy, Sheldon Stone at Syracuse High Energy Physics, and Matthew Kirkcaldie at UTAS Neuroscience for making sure I got my facts straight.

There’s a crack in my Mac

In the casing to be exact

And I wonder what I am to do

 

 

It needs a repair

Before dust and cat hair

Fly near it and go right on through

 

 

If that should happen

I’ll feel really trapped in

For in Deutschland it’s hard to prove

 

 

That I sat not upon it

Nor smashed it nor dropped it

Nor left it outside in the dew

 

 

 

 

 

But I’m broke so I hope

They’ll believe what I spoke

And repair it and make it like new

702 W. Martin, the cute puffy red cartoon star on my Mapquest map, turns out to be a creepy, rundown cinderblock high rise. The grass is worn away in big patches and the windows are lined with garbage bags, aluminum foil or blankets. It smells like a hundred people have been cooking potent ethnic food in concert with their doors open. Mariachi music plays at hearing damage volume from a ground level unit.

But the view is breathtaking.

Step off the grimy elevator on the twelfth floor and you’re served up a panoramic cityscape that typically comes with luxury condos: Tower of the Americas surrounded by overlapping multi-tier freeways, a colorful stream of vehicles flowing by like shiny toys, the enchilada red central library flanked by punchy green trees, clusters of skyscrapers made of blue, black and bronze reflective glass glinting in the sun. An airbus glides in silently, smoothly, extra white against the giant blue Texas sky.

A black boy in his teens wordlessly answers my knock at 1224. He is morbidly obese. I introduce myself. As he lifts his arms to take the heavy box of dishes, his body odor overpowers the air. He walks across the living room, where two half-inflated air mattresses sit in the middle of the floor with three males of discrepant ages sprawled across them, and disappears into the kitchen. The air mattress guys acknowledge me with a cursory glance and then turn back to a small TV, also on the floor. Two shopping carts draped with clothes function as makeshift closets against one wall and an immaculate, beautiful baby sucking on a pacifier is standing up in a ratty playpen against the opposite wall. Cheesy Puff smithereens cover the concrete floor.

The big kid comes back with middle age woman who shuffles unevenly toward me.

Scuse the mess, she says brightly. We’re just trying to get by.

We’re all just… I let my platitude trail off. It rings hollow and the TV drowns out my voice anyway. Her apology is less to me than to the world.

I tell her I need to go back down to the car.

Oh Anthony can help you, she says.

I’d really rather he not, but I can’t think how to phrase this nicely so I just smile.

He’s big but he don’t bite, she laughs, looking up at him with adoration. Anthony scratches his massive arm.

We wait for the elevator and gaze out over the penthouse view.

What school do you go to? I ask. He mentions one I’ve never heard of.

Are you from San Antonio? I ask.

He shakes his head. He doesn’t offer anything else. There’s something wrong with him but I don’t know what.

We really appreciate all this, the woman says as I’m leaving.

It’s no problem, I reply. Take care.

****

On weekends I deliver oven mitts and such to crazy people.

Years ago this lady named Patsy started a non-profit called Home Comforts, a donation service for the chronically mentally ill when they get discharged from the state hospital. Patsy’s son lost his mind pretty young, back in the day. They gave him a little therapy, lots of drugs and turned him loose.

Home Comforts doesn’t do clothes or food. Only the other stuff – spatulas and shower curtains and alarm clocks.

Having a stable place to live, we can all agree, is a basic human right. It is also considered the cornerstone of recovery for the mentally ill.

The largely female executive board of Home Comforts refer to themselves as “the ladies with the can openers.”

****

1403, Tanya’s apartment, is a corner unit all the way around back next to two big blue dumpsters. The complex is called The Mirage, smack dab in the middle of the Medical Center on the west side of town. A big plastic banner outside the leasing office announces Move Ins Available Immediately – From $475/month.

I’m not sure The Mirage is an appropriate apartment complex name for a chronically mentally ill person.

One of my co-workers used to live here. The amenities include a small outdoor pool, clothes care center, barbeque areas and a mini gym. Any apartment complex financed by city-issued tax-exempt bonds is required to set aside 20% of the units for low-income tenants for a period of 30 years. You may know this as Section 8 housing. Sections 8s are in very limited supply and they’re always the units no one else would want: the ones by dumpsters, the ones way across the parking lot on the fifth floor overlooking a drainage ditch. The chronically mentally ill qualify for Section 8 twofold: they’re considered disabled and they’re always very low-income.

Tanya’s stuff has been in my trunk for like two weeks, which nearly drove ME crazy, because I kind of can’t stand to have stuff lying around not in its rightful spot. My car stinks powerfully of knockoff Tide powder and Compare to Pine Sol cleaner and industrial plastic packaging for things like sheet sets and ironing board covers. It smells like brain cancer.

The chronically mentally ill are not good at the phone. They have phone anxiety. Their meds make them sleep a lot. For these and other reasons, Patsy instructs without elaborating, try not to call them too much.

Finally one Saturday afternoon Tanya answers on ring six, just as I’m thinking I’m pushing it.

Oh hey, thanks for calling, she says breezily.

What would be a good time? Will she be home this afternoon?

Yeah, my mother’s just taking me to get groceries right now, then I’ll be back around 4:30. Would that work?

Tanya does not sound even marginally crazy. Her voice is clear and even, her syntax normative. This disappoints me. I am disappointed with myself for being disappointed but the truth is I wanted a small challenge in dealing with her. I don’t just want to deliver something, I want deliverance.

Tanya’s Big Lots Extra Value white with blue trim dishes rattle precariously over the speed bumps within the apartment complex. She answers the door in three phases: small crack, halfway crack, wide open. She’s got that hospital chub and a huge nest of curly hair, which has been lassoed into a hasty ponytail. The stench of cat urine forces me to mouth breathe. Small balls of what appears to be toilet paper festoon the living room floor. There’s a heavily stained recliner and a large Sanyo TV on top of a sagging Rubbermaid storage tub and small folding oak table covered in telltale orange prescription bottles. A kaleidoscope-shaped splash of Coke or coffee has dried on one of the walls.

She starts unloading the bags as soon as I set them down.

Oh wait, these are queen? I don’t know what size my mattress is. Can you hold on while I see if they fit?

I don’t mind. I can use the practice holding my breath.

This is it.

I pick up a shit ton of stuff.

Call a little.

Go to their place.

Help them unpack maybe.

Make awkward small talk for sure.

Try not to look at their sad, stinky life always. Then leave. And that’s it.

Volunteering for the Extremely Lazy and Existentially Guilty.

****

Mapping the human genome excited scientists so much because they were going to be able to find the genes that caused cancer or schizophrenia. Find those suckers and shut them off.

But in the couse of human genome mapping, it was discovered that single genes don’t cause cancer or schizophrenia.

It is the interaction between genes that fucks a person up.

Specifically, DNA methylation.

****

Construction makes finding the Henry B. Gonzalez housing projects on Ingram and Callaghan tricky. The late Henry B. was a rare Texas Democrat, a social justice pitbull. He still holds the state legislature filibuster record – in 1957 he talked for 22 hours straight against segregation.

I keep getting booted around the same intersection, which is giving ME incredible anxiety. Not because I mind going in circles, shoot, I’m always getting lost around here but because a crazy person is waiting. I must show up on time. I must not be late. I am a reliable, predictable and gift-bearing representative of the (comparatively) mentally healthy world.

Finally I veer onto a side street and after a few loops randomly and magically arrive at Henry B., which consists of about fifty 1 bedroom units in single story brick buildings, clustered much like a budget travel lodge. In a central garden area, a forlorn-looking latticed gazebo sits vacant.

I only have her initials, A.M. (Patsy explained she wants her privacy respected). 301 is easy to find. A.M. answers the door, and I’m taken aback momentarily. She is enormous in her flowered muuumuu and thick, outdated plastic frames. Her hair seems to be coated in oil. A metal cane supports her huge frame. The apartment has the persistent smell of new paint. Unopened boxes cover every floor surface.

She just moved in then?

Oh no, I’ve been here about a month, she says plainly. I’ve been so depressed though, just haven’t felt like unpacking.

I smile sympathetically, as if I might understand the effects of chemical sadness. Which of course I do not. Unpacking and putting things in their assigned spaces is, for me personally, a reliable sort of happiness. But I shouldn’t say that. Should I? I don’t know. My entire mental health training is two viewings of Girl, Interrupted. I’m just here to hand over a shower curtain and some measuring cups. So I tell A.M. I’ll be right back, there’s more stuff in the car.

With exertion, she takes the bags from me and piles them on top of her unopened boxes. She signs the delivery confirmation form, dates it incorrectly, and peers at me through her big plastic lenses.

Yeah, I don’t what it is. I guess I’m just not used to being alone.

Finally you get out of the hospital, armed with your SSRIs and behavior modification plan and a new apartment and suddenly the crushing loneliness starts making the nuthouse look pretty good.

Patsy says most of the country’s mentally ill are either locked up or in homeless shelters. The L.A. County Jail has been called “the largest mental health treatment facility in the world”, spending more than $10 million annually on antipsychotic medication.

The ones who end up in housing projects, Patsy sighs, are like shipwreck victims who make it to shore.

****

DNA methylation is a normal chemical process that occurs as your cells divide or multiply, which they’re always doing, right now even, to replace dead or damaged ones.

Sometimes DNA methylation goes awry, for reasons no one understands yet, and then your genes can’t communicate clearly. They tell each other wrong things, or even nothing.

You’re suddenly full on bipolar. You’re officially schizophrenic. It’s too late: You’re Crazy.

****

The Arriba Apartments are almost on Blanco Road, like one foot away from the street, four crumbling green and white two story buildings between a Church’s Chicken and a Kwik Wash. Fried poultry and fabric softener are not a complimentary fragrance combination. Wayne lives in 412, where a scruffy long-haired black and brown cat is shitting in the dirt two feet from his door.

This one’s a GI, Patsy said when she gave me his mops. I don’t know if it’s PTSD or something else. Probably the something else.

I have no idea what the something else is. Patsy’s not in the habit of commenting on the clients and she never assigns me to men, so the whole thing is making me sorta scared. The shitting cat, though, I take to be a literal, spiritual reassurance. This situation is just shitty, not dangerous.

Waynes answers the door visibly upset and on the phone. He has three piercings in the skin below his bottom lip. Time Warner, he explains. They were supposed to come two days ago, then yesterday. The guy never showed up! I’ve been waiting all – yes? Hello? This is Wayne —-. I’m calling about my damn cable.

He’s a husky guy in denim shorts and a Green Bay Packers jersey and big black sneakers. His head has been shaved recently. The skin is pink. Wayne’s unit is completely empty except for two cardboard boxes and a green duffel bag with a busted strap shoved into one corner. Fresh vacuum lines give the carpet two gradations of beige.

Sorry, he mouths to me.

It’s ok, I whisper. I’ll be right back.

While I make my trips to and from the car, Wayne sits cross-legged on the carpet and argues fervently with a Time Warner representative, someone who is using all the techniques they learned at How To Deal With Difficult People training, assuming they had such a thing. I give him a little wave to let him know I’m going.

Hold it! Hold on, he barks into the phone. He covers the microphone and says to me, Sorry, sorry. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

It’s ok, I reply, though he’s gone back to shouting. It’s no problem.

****

How does a person just lose it?

We almost know now.

Of course the stigma persists: bad drugs or bad parenting or bad coping skills. It’s hard to equate physical illness and mental illness. Hard to see cancer the same as depression.

Except on a chemical level, it is. Crazy is a disease you’re born with. Just like your inherited genes brew up lymphoma for years before you need chemo (and smoking/eating pork ribs every day doesn’t help matters) mania sits latently in your DNA, waiting to methylate and unleash its fury.

Researchers now believe it is some combination of hereditary and environmental factors that make people crazy, not just one or the other.

This represents a major shift. It means we’re heading in a new two-prong direction.  We’re getting closer.

It’s fucking exciting.

Filmmaker Kevin Smith jokes about the Platypus in the opening disclaimer to his film: DOGMA

Remember: Even God has a sense of humor. Just look at the Platypus. Thank you and enjoy the show.

P.S. We sincerely apologize to all Platypus enthusiasts out there who are offended by that thoughtless comment about Platypi. We at View Askew respect the noble Platypus, and it is not our intention to slight these stupid creatures in any way. Thank you again and enjoy the show.

The Platypus

Genus: Ornithorhynchus
Species: Anatinus

While categorically a mammal, the Platypus has physical characteristics of birds and reptiles as well. Studies have proven that the Platypus was the first species to diverge from reptile to mammal and therefore, evolutionarily speaking, it is sometimes thought of as The Missing Link.

It is also one of five surviving mammalian Monotremes – the other four are species of Echida, or spiny anteaters.  Monotreme meaning: “single hole”, from which, the female lays eggs.

The females have a pair of ovaries, but only the left ones work. Per annual mating season, that lone ovary produces 1 – 3 eggs which are fertilized in utero, gestate there for a month and then are laid and incubated for two more weeks until they hatch. The females have no teats.  Instead, the babies lick the fur around the mammary openings, where milk is secreted.

Their relationships are polygynous, so as soon as the male mates, he moves on to the next ‘single hole’, and the resulting Platypuppies are left to be raised by single-moms. And when they’re ready to go, they leave the nest forever. Platypus don’t live in packs or prides or schools. For the better part of their 15-year lifespan, they’re loners.

Platypus (note to the View Askew folks: the plural is the singular, like Shrimp or Sheep) have no external ears, small eyes and have bills, like a duck, hence the common moniker: Duckbill Platypus – regardless of the fact that there is no other kind: no Pelican-beak Platypus, Elephant-trunk Platypus or Rhinoceros-horn Platypus. Their bills are different than ducks’, in that Platypus’ are uniquely equipped with electroreceptors, a food-finding GPS, since they can neither see, smell nor hear their prey. However, since they are onlysemi-aquatic animals, they have to come up to the surface in order to grind what they catch into a mushy pulp. That’s right: along with everything else, they are toothless, losing their three measly baby teeth at puberty, never to return.

The Platypus have a fatty tails, like beavers. The tail serves as a paddle, working in tandem with their fully-webbed front feet. The back feet are pretty useless for swimming, what with only flimsy half-webbing, but instead, work as rudders. Males have an additional venomous claw on their hind foot, the poison in which is potent enough to kill a dog or severely injure a human. Which is pretty cool, considering that the largest max-out at around 5 lbs.

They were very nearly made extinct by European pelt-hunters, but in 1974 the Platypus became protected by Australian law and have sufficiently repopulated themselves in Eastern Australia and Tasmania, but surprisingly enough, not under human care. Very few have survived in captivity, and if they did, it was for considerably shorter lives. They do much better left alone in the wild.

All of that is to say, the Platypus is one egg-laying, venomous, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed, feral, utterly mind-boggling animal.

Truly, one of a kind.

* * * * *

I remember first learning about the Platypus from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, specifically the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Ana Platypus and her parents, Dr. Duckbill and Elsie Jean, lived there.

They were minor players in Make-believe at best, but I remember being fascinated with the oddity of the Platypus – how it could be so many things at the same time: Mammal and Bird and Reptile.

So I never questioned the possibility of growing up to become This and That and the Other. I never limited myself to being just one thing. I could be whatever I wanted and I could be them ALL AT THE SAME TIME. I mean, if the Platypus – God’s little joke – could do it, why couldn’t I?

There are a lot of us Platypus around, I think. Oddities who don’t function quite like the rest. Who swimand burrow, who gestate inside and outside, who are shy loners and who strike out with venom, who function better not only outside the box, but without a box anywhere in sight.

And we’re doing okay.

God takes care of the Platypus.

So what if He laughs a little?

This morning, when I climbed into my car and tried to start the engine, nothing happened. Why? Because I didn’t have the keyfob in my pocket.

With this car it’s possible to make odd mistakes with the keyfob because there is no key attached to it…the little egg-shaped fob uses RF signals to talk to the car, and if the keyfob isn’t physically inside the car, the ignition won’t work. Conceivably one could start the car, go back into the house and change pants, and come back outside to the already-running car and drive away. But guess what? After you turn off the ignition, it won’t start again, because you left the keyfob in the other pair of pants.

The keyfob is also smart enough to know when it’s inside the trunk…and if you accidentally leave the thing in your golf bag, the car is smart enough to pop the trunk lid open to notify you of your absent-minded mistake.

The reason I mention this is because I was thinking on the way to work how it would be nice if I could implant the keyfob technology into my body. I could implant a tiny RF transmitter/receiver in my hand, say, and then I would never need the keyfob at all. And as soon as this occurred to me, I imagined the resistance that people might have to the idea.

Because people are quite romantically attached to their bodies and the idea of being human.

We love using the Internet and DVD players and playing XBox, we love all sorts of technology, but not many of us like the idea of being a cyborg. Darth Vader was the ultimate bad guy during my youth, and only when he was unmasked and uttered the line “Let me look on you with my own eyes,” was he finally forgiven for his evil ways. At the end of Terminator 2, Schwarzenegger’s character says “I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do.” Only by melting himself, and the chip that is his brain, can humanity be saved (at least for the time being).

It seems we get nervous about the ramifications of blending man with machine. “Will I still be myself?” “Will someone be able to track my every move?” “Will I still have my soul?”

What gets lost in questions of this kind is that nature itself is, at its most basic level, a machine. Everything you see, everything you eat and touch, everything you think you destroy or create, it’s all just component materials organized a certain way. Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are the three elements that comprise glucose, fat, and ethanol. Three very different substances, same component materials. The only difference is the way the original elements are put together.

In fact, when you get down to the basic building blocks of matter and energy, at the quantum level, there are only a few types of components. And yet, combining these simple particles with a few patterns creates all the phenomena in the universe…including us.

“Wait,” you say. “I may someday return to dust, but at the moment these cells are all mine! Right?” Actually, no. The cells that comprise your body turn themselves over at different rates, but over the course of several years your body becomes completely new cells. (The exception here are neurons in the brain, though even those are altered when atoms within the neurons are recycled.)

How can YOU be YOU if all the material in your body was, a few years ago, contained in plants and animals and air scattered across the Earth?

The answer is: information. Instructions in your DNA tell your body what to do with the fuel you take in. Think about it: You eat a steak (or peanut butter, or some kind of protein) and a little later it becomes muscle fibers in your bicep. Or, you eat a steak, and another steak, and you never exercise, and instead the calories turn into fat. Your body is simply an organic machine, albeit a very, very complex one

So…if someone devised a chip that you could implant in your brain, and it would increase your mind’s processing speed and memory accuracy, would you want one?

What if, using nanotechnology, we could repair cellular damage and clean out arteries, would you want that?

Nanobots are very small machines…which sounds scary until you realize that they are not much different than regular molecules. They just have a few instructions that tell them what to do. Whereas a typical molecule is sort of “dumb,” a nanobot would be a molecule with a purpose. We already genetically engineer bacteria to do things for us (like help us make cheese).

I know it doesn’t seem very romantic to use technology to enhance or alter our bodies. But think about all the ways you intentionally alter your chemical makeup. How many of us use wine to enhance a romantic evening? How many people smoke to calm their nerves? How many of us use pharmaceutical drugs to get over an illness? Or even “natural” medicine? All those things alter your body’s chemistry.

Why would a chip be any different?

Finally, there is the issue of immortality. Would you guess that, in a way, all of us are immortal? Sure, your body eventually dies, but the DNA instructions used to create your body…those will live on if you have children. Bodies age and die primarily because replication errors cause DNA information to be lost. There may be ways in the near future to slow or halt the process that results in these errors.

If you could, would you want to live for two or three hundred years?

Of course, the longer you live the more likely it is that you will be involved in a fatal accident. What if you could use a chip to periodically upload the information in your brain to a computer? A sort of backup process?

When you think about it, the core of who we are is the information stored in our brain. All of our hopes and fears and loves and successes and failures are basically just information encoded in neurons. If you could back that up somewhere for download later, would you do it?

Would you want to “live” in a computer that was connected to the Internet?

How different would your MySpace (or Facebook, etc.) relationships be? All the friends you have online that you never see in person…would that be different? Hopefully no one prefers MySpace to real life, but would a computer existence be preferable to death?

I used to be frightened of death. The idea of “me” ceasing to exist, that the world would go on without me, that I would miss out on great discoveries (such as life on other planets), really bothered me. But in the past few years I’ve wondered if maybe eternal life would be boring.

Obviously we’re romantically attached to our bodies and the idea of being human because that’s how our DNA has programmed us to feel. We reject too much progress because it seems artificial…but what does “artificial” really mean? How do you define such a concept?

There will come a time in the not-so-distant future when we will be able to outsmart DNA. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

Do you welcome that idea? Or do you find it revolting?

Viewed from an altitude of 37,000 feet, the Earth looks a lot different than our everyday experience.

The majestic Rockies are a bumpy patch of acne. Mighty rivers look like static, crooked lines. Teeming cities become their smoggy, Google Earth counterparts.

We build our lives in these places, we take vacations to them, we photograph them in order to precisely relive their beauty at a later time. We make clear distinctions between desolate, flat farmland and the beauty of California, where mountains meet the sea.

But from high above, the differences between these places are blurred.

***

The place where I work is made up of several buildings that surround a courtyard. There is a pond in the courtyard and a small, man-made waterfall. There are trees and grass. And there is a also network of sidewalks in this courtyard that shuffles us workers between buildings.

On one particular sidewalk, there is a place where ants cross from one plot of grass to another. I often stop to watch the ants speed down their narrow highway, wondering where they are going with such single-minded conviction. Sometimes traffic increases, and their roads widen. Sometimes I find them in the process of dismantling a dead wasp, breaking it into pieces and carrying it back to their hidden home.

Occasionally misfortune befalls the highway, and the ants are forced to clean up a group of their suddenly-dead brothers.

Imagine what an ant-produced television news segment might be like:

“Yet another giant footstep kills hundreds on I-280! Field reporter Buggy Buggerson interviews surviving worker ants tonight at 10!”

To ants, an average rainstorm is like Hurricane Katrina. Thousands wash away. Hundreds drown.

Every time a kid knocks down one of their carefully constructed hills, the ants lose their homes and are forced to rebuild.

Your average drainage ditch is the Grand Canyon.

But size isn’t the only difference between humans and ants. We’re also a bit smarter than them. Right?

I mean, we can calculate the orbits of planets and the relationship between speed and time, but we still go around killing each other for money. Or turf. We strap on diapers and shit ourselves during cross-country drives to murder rival astronaut girlfriends.

Is it a blessing or a curse that our minds, powerful as they may be, are so influenced by emotion?

To a biologist, emotions are governed by mappable, electrochemical processes. They can be altered chemically or physically. I can trigger a release of dopamine by drinking alcohol. Doctors prescribe all sorts of drugs that influence (for better or worse) the brain’s delicate chemical balance.

If emotions are so easily influenced by mechanical processes, how should we define them? Are they really as special as we like to believe?

Admittedly, thinking of the world this way–from a purely mechanical point of view–is not very romantic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t accurate. Romance itself is an emotion, in fact, a filter through which we interpret the world.

And yet these are the brains we have. How would we interpret the world except through these emotionally-charged minds?

Just because we humans imagine the universe in a certain way, just because we like to impart meaning on inanimate objects and places, just because we look for patterns in events that might ultimately be random, it doesn’t mean it is necessarily the only way or even the best way.

How do we know someone or something isn’t watching us like we watch ants, observing our human struggles with a sort of amused detachment and maybe a little pity…pity that our understanding of the world is so limited?

I wonder if we would better off knowing more or knowing less? If it turns out the universe is meaningless, if it really is nothing more than a soup of matter and energy brewing in spacetime, would you like to know exactly how it works? Or would you rather be oblivious, a worker trudging back and forth on the ant highway, day after day, blindly working toward a goal that will never become clear to you?

When you die, does it matter at all?

Does it matter even now?

For the moment I leave these questions to you. I’ll be chasing a little white ball around a plot of grass for the next few days.

-R

Let’s talk about relativity.

For every observer, things seem slightly different. From a physics point of view, you do not occupy the same location in space as anyone else, and you might be moving at different velocities, and so on.

This is why using astrology for anything other than entertainment seems silly to me. Constellations don’t physically exist. A group of stars that from the Earth seem to form the shape of a bull could in reality be millions of light years apart and share no relationship with each other whatsoever. They only form the shape of a bull from where we’re looking.

If I were the citizen of a third world nation, it probably wouldn’t piss me off when someone insisted on driving slow in the left lane of the freeway. There might not be a freeway. And in any case I wouldn’t be in a hurry to get to the golf course.

I’ve written blogs in the past about people who refuse to leave a one-stall buffer when they join you in the bathroom. If I were homeless, I probably wouldn’t worry about something so insignificant.

But something that seems insignificant to me could be important to you. Something that hurts you might not faze me.

Experience is relative.

My grandparents endured the Great Depression and for most of their lives didn’t have a lot of money. I remember my grandmother would rush me off the phone when we were talking long distance…even after rates had dropped to seven cents a minute. She couldn’t get her mind around the idea that a long distance phone call could be cheap.

I don’t even think in terms of distance when I make a phone call. If it’s overseas I have to buy a calling card, sure, but the cost to me seems negligible. Six cents a minute to the UK? Whatevs.

Recently I’ve had some bigger things in my life to think about, and the minutiae that I sometimes obsess over sort of disappeared from my radar.

Comfort affords you the luxury to worry about things which in reality are pretty insignificant. And yet who can judge the significance of anything when it concerns someone else?

You look at a famous actress, an NFL star quarterback, a person born into money. You might wonder, What do these people have to worry about? They seem to have everything they could ever want.

But whatever they perceive their problems to be, to them they are difficult. The most intense emotional pain you’ve ever felt in your life is all you know. How can you compare it to someone else’s?

You can’t. Not really.

But we often think we can. We make judgments about each other, we assume we know how someone else feels, what they are thinking.

Right now I’m 37,000 feet above the earth, cruising along at a ground speed of 550 mph or so.

Did you know that time for me is passing at a different rate than it is for you? Really, it is. This is an outcome of the relationship between space and time.

Imagine you’re on a road trip. There are two primary directional types you can travel: north-south or east-west. If you’re traveling northeast, it means you are going a little bit north and a little bit east. The more north you go, the less east you can go.

Time and space are like that. When you move through space, you take away from your movement through time. So the faster you travel, the slower time passes for you.

Cool, huh?

It’s useful to remember that observations are relative.

We all see things just a little bit differently.

And would we have it any other way?

Los Angeles has caught a cold.

She sniffles, shivers and pulls her hills and canyons tighter, trying to brace herself against the chill.

“Man,” she says. “It’s, like, totally cold outside.”

She’s right.

Yesterday dawned with a blueish tinge. The air was crisp and clear under a sky of brightest blue. Even the smog had been frightened into submission, it was too cold for haze and the brown gases and sooty dust and slunk back up the tailpipes and chimneys from whence they’d emerged.

It was like a new world.

A clean one.

And so I went out.

Be-sneakered and happy I climbed the earthen trails of Griffith Park, winding under ponderous eucalyptus and umbrella fig-trees, bidding a chipper “good morning” to celebrities and stepping over piles of defecation from leashed Labradors and wild coyotes.

As I climbed I grew warmer.

My blood pulsed through my limbs and the pitiful, weakened sun climbed upon my back and bid me carry it along the paths. It was as light as a feather, but warm as a lovers embrace.

I smiled to myself, mystified. People often judge my city without knowing her, and it’s their loss, for she is truly beautiful. I looked around at this wilderness within a city and marveled that it had taken me less than a five minute walk from my Hollywood home to get here.

I climbed higher, emerging from the tree line just below the observatory.

It was open. I went inside. I opened my mind as it opened it’s doors, and suddenly I was just a speck in the cosmos.

In space everything is round.

We are surrounded by roundness.

We walk on a ball.

We breathe in round particles.

Dots.

Our tides and emotions are dictated by a globe.

I forget these things sometimes.

It was nice to be reminded.

My life, too, moves in circles.

Little orbits around big and small occurrences.

I spin around and come back to the beginning, then zip off in another cycle, on a different trajectory, but I always seem to come back to the starting point before finding another path.

This makes me happy.

I like to see circles in my life. It makes sense, somehow, to swing like the giant pendulum that hangs from the observatory…

… and to never be still.

I, on the other hand, don’t have a great machine with which to watch my life unfold.

To my knowledge there are no white-coated scientists observing me and making notes.

I do not think I am someone else’s experiment. But then again, I could be wrong.

Perhaps there are eyes trained down upon me, just as we have eyes trained skywards?

Perhaps there is a slot in our roof that slides back to reveal a giant telescope focused towards us?

Perhaps not.

In any case, here we are. Inexplicably.

Little dots on a bigger dot that looks like every other tiny dot out there….

… and it makes me feel charmingly insignificant.


The following calculations were sourced from this page in the Student Information section of Stanford’s Computer Science site. This is not my work, and is only presented as a companion to my piece on magic.


1) No known species of reindeer can fly. BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

2) There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn’t (appear) to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total – 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that’s 91.8 million homes. One presumes there’s at least one good child in each.

3) Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75-1/2 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc.

This means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man- made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second – a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

4) The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that “flying reindeer” (see point #1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal amount, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload – not even counting the weight of the sleigh – to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison – this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth.

5) 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance – this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each. In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

In conclusion – If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now.

After three hellish summers in Madrid, I decided to do something different.

I went back home.

Home is Phillipsburg; Ohio, a suburb of a suburb of Dayton, which is famous for the birthplace of aviation (the Wright brothers grew up here), the Dayton Peace Accords (Serb-Croat conflict) and Guided by Voices.