Hesperus and Phosphorus

Is Hesperus Phosphorus? The question enters my mind silently, through my tear ducts’ morning car-crust, and sits down in a chair to pour itself a cup of coffee while I still have none. It asks itself of me, repetitively, poetically, in the low, slow, creaky yet assertive voice of Thomas Nagel, quoting Saul Kripke, whom I did not know at the time to be his junior of three years. I assume I am in Missouri, somewhere in the east, and as the memories of dreams depart I can see the sky lightening, reddening ahead, the morning-star the only apparent source.

Last night we slept in Platte City with Andy, drinking homebrew and watching Workaholics till far too late. I recall little distinctly. “I want to write a philosophical novel,” I’d said somewhere in Kansas, with only a finite sense of the pretense in the sentence, “about how places determine the way we think about distance.” And time, someone had replied. We’re physicists, I reminded her, they are the same. A transcontinental road trip is longer by half than what we did, a mere 1700 miles each direction, but nonetheless the days and states and miles fold Bohmian together into one holographic mess of travel and rest stops and diners and waiting and morning-stars and evening-stars. As we exited 70 to bypass the city I notice Venus and I point it out. Yes, Dalimil says, it is Venus.

And now it is morning, and Dalimil has been driving for an unknown number of hours. Nothing is really known. Only my immediate world, the saliva in my beard, the lightening, reddening sky, the fading car-dreams and the crick in my neck, hold any meaning. Dalimil and Linnea are in the front seat, talking in a language that I do not recognize, even though I know it is probably English. Out the window I can see the morning-star, the brightest in the sky, the surrogate sun.

I wipe my beard with my sleeve but do not attempt to join the conversation. I contemplate the trip. I have showered twice this week, I have gone and come back and gone again. I have not slept in a bed. And somehow the evening-star and the morning-star are the same, and it is me that has come back different.

The words come slowly, erratically into focus like a child attempting a manual camera, and I realize synchronistically that those awake are also talking about the bright spot. “It’s Venus,” I mumble. “Something something Venus,” Dalimil tells me. “Something couldn’t have something in front of and something relative position in one night. Something plane something.” I think he is saying it is neither the one nor the other, neither Hesperus nor Phosphorus, neither evening nor morning. But it is morning, isn’t it? As we approach Monroe City, the sun finally shines a brilliant whipcrack, and startled, the morning-star turns into a contrail and dissipates. We go to breakfast at Hardee’s, whose emblem is a five-pointed star.


I am sitting by the window of the bistro, overlooking the emptied, snowdrifted moat, lazily sipping my coffee and listening to Morten talk about something or other. I am in no hurry to get up and Officially Begin The Day, preferring to linger here thinking about how nice it would be to have a novel to read, when unprompted Tibra walks over and wordlessly, synchronously places in front of me a seemingly new copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, turns around and walks away. These things happen sometimes.

I go to the Reflection Lounge and begin to read. The surreal story opens with two Muscovite men encountering a stranger, who begins to tell them of Pontius Pilate, and how he had a roaring headache on the morning he questioned Yeshua Ha-Notsri:

“Why did you, a vagrant, stir up the crowds in the marketplace by talking about truth, when you have no conception of what it is? What is truth?”
And here the procurator thought, “O my gods! I am questioning about something irrelevant to the case…”

I find it an interesting literary choice to use the non-standard (though possibly more historically accurate) spelling of Jesus’ name, somehow both minimizing and calling attention to itself, while leaving Pilate’s alone. Nothing in this account is supposed to be historical, of course; but Pilate’s most famous question remains, as I suppose it must if he is to be meaningfully identified with anyone we have heard of.

No one really knows, it seems, what Pilate meant. A few minutes of research suggest that some think it a sarcastic remark on what he perceived as the foolish frivolity of the trial; others believe it was an sincere philosophical musing; perhaps it may have been a desperate plea for enlightenment. What is truth? Can you tell me? Must we go on with the show? While it’s not Bulgakov’s Pilate’s intention when he says it, he is soon after converted, acquiring faith in the only true way– head-voices—

Brief, strange, disconnected thoughts sped through his brain, “He is lost!”– then, “We are lost!”

Discussions on the nature of truth– or is it reality?– never really seem to get anywhere; like the perennial philosophy, they return more or less unchanged, night after night, and each iteration at first adds to, and later on only confirms, our confusion. One thing I like about this wild social experiment of a physics institute that I live in is the ability to engage in such discussions, never making any real headway, and somehow continue to be fed.

Dylan and I sit in the living room, talking history at the end of the day. He says he is starting to understand quantum field theory. I tell him that I am happy for him, but I am afraid he is deluding himself. No one understands quantum field theory.

For my lay readers, I should explain. Feynman once said that while quite a lot of people understood general relativity, far more than the twelve genius elders that were sometimes talked about, because in fact general relativity was a beautiful theory with comprehensible concepts, no one understood quantum mechanics. I can now tell you that this is not, in my opinion, strictly true. Nobody understands quantum mechanics in a fully satisfactory way, in the sense that it does not allow for an ontologically solid picture of the universe. This is jarring; ever since we were infants and developed object permanence, we have had an intuitive picture of the universe as consisting of real objects with definite properties that we perceive more or less as they were before we looked and persist even after we turn our heads. It is this picture that is gone, and we do not have one to replace it with that is comforting, or in fact fully logically consistent. This picture is something that we who work in quantum foundations are striving to develop, though whether it is there for us to find at all, or possible for us to invent, remains unclear.

But the picture is not the theory. The theory, Dylan reminds me, is a mathematical object: it can be defined by mathematicians with no reference to the physical world at all, simply as a mathematical curiosity, the kind of thing you are set as a homework problem in undergrad, calculate ∫ f*Of dx not because it is the expectation value of an observable, but because it is the answer to the problem. This, we know how to do in quantum mechanics, and at the end, even with no picture, we can translate it back into statements about physical things, and get the right answer.

When I say that no one understands quantum field theory, I mean that even from a purely formal standpoint, it is– let us be cordial– nontrivial at best to even carry out the calculation. There are a lot of infinities that have to be dealt with carefully. We know how to work with them in some specific theories, say quantum electrodynamics, but not in quantum field theories in general. This is (more or less) what Dylan believes he has almost figured out. “And the problems all come,” he says, “when you try to say that this theory is somehow true, you know, somehow fundamental. What is truth, anyway? There’s no fundamental theory of everything, you agree with me on this, right?”

“I do,” I admit, “but I haven’t always. I think you’re right, but you can’t just dismiss the opposing view as silly. Historically, that is what people have been looking for.”

“But it doesn’t even make any sense! How are we supposed to think some math object is the ultimate truth? It’s just math.”

“It’s just math? Why do you do it then?” I realize whom I am talking to and check myself. “I mean, of course math has its own pure purposes, but why quantum field theory? Why do mathematicians want to fix this thing physicists sort of hacked together and got to kind of work?”

“Well, it turns out that you can get some nice results.”

“But why should we care? You can get results from any calculation. Why do you care if the scattering amplitude is such-and-such, unless you think you’re talking about the real world? Why should I have this complex and sort of ugly theory unless I think it’s about our complex and sort of ugly world? Shouldn’t a mathematician concern yourself with something more mathematically… interesting?”

“The results are pretty nice. Like it turns out… well, there are these topological invariants in knot theory that are pretty hard to calculate normally, that just pop out of QFT.”

I pause. “Really?” This seems useful. “They just pop out?”

“Yeah, like not from the Standard Model, but from some other QFT in some other dimension. But they just sort of appear.”

“And no one knows… why?”

“Well, Ed Witten probably does, I think. I don’t think he could have written the paper showing it unless he really did understand it. I don’t yet. But I will.”

I chew on this for a while. Here we have a theory that was assembled junkyard-tornado style, that almost magically produces something useful mathematically? I start to speak and Dylan finishes my sentence for me:

“Do you think that’s good or bad for the truth of the theory?”

I don’t have a good answer. What is truth?


My breath recirculates hot under sweaty neoprene, still unwashed from skiing (not in December but March), à la recherche du temps perdu. It is cold, and dark, and early; it is not even seven but already we are eighteen below. I pick up my pace a little bit. A little humid air leaks out, my body-warmth dissipating into the deathly still night. Yesterday Tom asked me if it was dangerous to be out in the bitter cold. You won’t die, I said, unless you’re out there in a T-shirt for an hour or something, but you do have to be careful about frostbite. You could die in an hour? Tom is shocked. I mean, I’m no doctor, but probably, I don’t know. Don’t walk around in a T-shirt, I shrug.

My breath leaks out, over my protected nose, behind my glasses and out into the park, but before it leaves me for good it deposits condensation, it returns me my water on the inside of my lenses. Normally I might wipe them, but it is just too cold to care, and instead I walk faster. I breathe harder and the cycle continues. The fog is blinding and before I have even crossed the bridge it has turned into a gradually thickening layer of ice, a flat stalactite growing horizontal with each step. The streetlights, the parklights guide me, thick, blurry rainbow rings around the white ones, nought but orange surrounding orange. They form a heavenly avenue I try to walk the center of. More than once I almost crash headlong into someone walking the opposite direction, head down.

As the crystals grow all that is visible are the lights. I am flying on instruments now. If I turn my head the rainbow-orange circles jump and break like stained glass. I trust my feet and continue. I consider if it might be time to actually wipe my glasses, but I am sort of having fun.

When I reach the road I remove my glasses, holding them through the parking lot, and paradoxically can see again. I wonder how often lenses are a hindrance. I realize I have been walking not forty feet behind Kale the entire time, but neither of us realized it, both of us walked alone.

Routes Six

What is a coincidence?

In general, I think this is a deceptive question, appearing obvious, but leading inevitably to a descending ladder of secondary and tertiary questions, each rung equally slippery; probability theory, causation, inference, all will play a role. I’d like to say that a coincidence is the conjunction of at least two events, which suggest a causal link when none in fact exists. In other words, coincidences are the kinds of thing that force you to seek an explanation, and to seek it in vain; if you sought none, it would be unremarkable and unrelated, but if you found one, you’d have shown it’s not a coincidence at all.

Now, the problems with this definition primarily rest in the phrase “causal link,” which is one of my favorite phrases because it’s one that philosophy students can argue about for hours and still disagree on what exactly they are saying. Hume would say: we know nothing about causal links except from that very conjunction we started with. A more modern perspective might be (without citation) that the boundaries of events are fuzzy at best, and it is rare for a single event (fuzzily defined, of course) to be either necessary or sufficient for anything else anyway.

This is the kind of thing I think about, here in a slightly pretentious coffee shop on King Street, with my lukewarm mason jar of pourover Kenyan/Ethiopian dual-origin, because (I let my mind begin to wander) it is safe here to take such abstract journeys, to not believe in something as common sense as causation, to deny one’s own free will and to believe that the world consists of isolated, causeless, disjoint events, that two plus two is—

You can’t always do this, not everyone can do this.

The great goal of science is to dispense with superstition, to analyze (ana-lysis, [loosening, cutting] throughout) and understand the world without the aid of made-up stories and logical contradictions and all these other barriers and enemies to reason. Isn’t it a noble goal? Of course it is– but—

Here is a story: it is dark, and it is recent, and I am driving too fast on Route 6, with music playing very loud. It is not a song you would normally play very loud, a fast punk song with drums and bass and that intangible called energy; instead, it is the original recording of “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, the one that goes Sha la la / La la la la / La la la-la la-la, his soft scatting voice dripping with infatuation, and for some reason this is OK even though I don’t understand why. I have the windows down, all four of them, even though it is cold (it is winter) and I am not smoking, the cold air whipping up my hair, badly in need of a trim, like I am on a motorcycle. I am singing along, louder than Van, shouting really, but something feels incongruous, like I don’t need to shout.

And here is a different story: it is dark, and it feels like a long time ago, and I am driving too fast on Route 6, with music playing very loud. It is a song you would normally play very loud, if you are me: it is “Darlington County” by Bruce Springsteen, a working-class story of adventure and loss and arrests, full of drums and guitar and that intangible called energy, Bruce going Sha la la, la la la la la la / Sha la la, la la la la, his rough voice scatting because it is music, and this is not OK and I don’t understand why. I have the windows down, all four of them, even though it is cold (it is night in the mountains) because I am chain-smoking, ashing out of the window with my left hand, and singing along, not possibly louder than Bruce even though I am shouting at the top of my lungs, and I am angry, I want to shout, I keep shouting even after the song ends.

Of course, these stories happened 1,600 miles and six months apart, and they don’t corroborate my original definition of a coincidence. Where’s the coincidence? It’s not that I am shouting at the radio; that’s causal, I’m doing it now because I did it then, re-creating, as it were, the scene. It’s not that the windows are down, that doesn’t demand an explanation, windows are down all the time for all sorts of reasons. The most likely place to look for coincidence is in the sha la la’s in two different songs by two different people in two different decades. But for some reason that doesn’t interest me so much– what interests me is the two different Route Sixes, US-6 and Ontario 6. It’s strictly impossible that there’s a causal link here, and it shouldn’t be particularly surprising that two roads in two countries have the same number. There’s a Broadway in San Francisco. There are three 290’s.

There is a 6 in Colorado and a 6 in Massachusetts, but those are the same 6; there is a 20 in Skaneateles, New York and a 20 in Fairfield, Idaho, but those two, too, are the same 20.

But it is the sixes, the same numbered routes, that connect these stories for me. In both cases I am leaving something or someone behind, in both cases I am taking a slightly circuitous route home because I missed my exit listening to sha la la‘s, maybe most importantly in both cases I am in my car, my Subaru, my Balto, who has inanimately remained my confidant across not two but twenty thousand miles with only rare complaints.

Maybe this is the coincidence: there seems to be a connection between these stories, even though the songs and the people and the roads are different, there seems to be something of the earlier affecting the later, making it easier, making Van Morrison OK, but I cannot articulate it, I do not know what it is. And this is what I meant at the beginning, you can’t always do this, you can’t always analyze (and although -lysis has been translated as either cutting or loosening, I think I prefer cutting) and understand because then you will miss the entire point, you will have learned nothing.

I am, more now than I used to, self-consciously categorizing most of my posts as “drafts,” but realistically I will not revisit most of them. I’m not perfectly happy with how this turned out, but why not throw it up here anyway.

The Bench

The big brown house— the one that must have four or five apartments inside, it must, it’s just too big to be anything less, but I have never been inside— it has a new porch. I can tell the porch is new because, like my parents’, it is unpainted, unstained, fresh and raw lumber still smelling of the forest, sawdust still dusting the ground out front. In the spring the sawdust, untreated, will rot and disappear, and in time the porch will not be the new porch any more.

But what else is different? Did they paint it? The windows are new, it looks like, that must have cost a fortune, and the trim. But the main exterior walls, that dark rich soil-brown, is that new? Is that brown an aged veneer of local filth and Dust and bird shit, the product of Time’s industrial darkening, or is it Pantone from Lowe’s, six years old between the Boulevard and highway?

I can’t tell, and when I linger a moment too long the dog lets me know he wants to keep walking. He no longer has the strength to strain at the leash, though he outclassed me in his younger days. Now he gives it an impatient but resigned tug, having learned, in his long life, that we will go when we go. Realizing that looking at the house longer will not be enlightening, I accede.

In the center island he crouches, stance wide, to defecate, but his back legs are like a weak flamingo’s and he cannot hold the position. He inches forward, leaving a trail of tracings several feet long, like a walking horse. I tell him he is a good boy. He does not look at me.

We pass the bench and I stop. I think they redid this a while ago, it seems that way anyway, maybe when they put in the stop sign and the new sidewalks— but I am still confused, where is my bench? As long as I can remember, as long as anyone can remember, the bench was here. It was a meeting spot, a cigarette spot, an iced-tea spot, a black-and-mild spot, a talking spot, a sitting spot, sometimes a beer spot, if you knew what you were doing, exactly the kind of spot that gets removed in urban-renewal projects— a nuisance spot, a loitering spot, a lock-your-car spot, a hold-my-hand spot. I can imagine the phone calls, yes, it’s 1:30 in the morning and these hoodlums— but we never did anything, never did anything but sit and talk, these hoodlums are out loitering, there’s a tall guy and a black guy and a short guy with a beard, what are they doing in my neighborhood, it’s too late, someone should get rid of that bench.

There is a new bench, but it has no back to lean on. It is a long, flowing artistic piece, with slates and seaglass set in moons and suns and waves along the front, where they can be occluded by your legs. It is just as good a place to sit as ever, there is nothing wrong with it except that it has changed. If I were totally open-minded then I might be able to see the new bench as an improvement, if I were even a little open-minded I would see that because it is longer you can fit more people on it, because it is wider it is more comfortable, because it is newer it has no splinters, and the suns and moons and waves are even a little pretty. But it is natural, I think, to want nothing to change in your hometown, to leave it exactly as it was when you left; to come back and hope that nothing has changed, that what was beautiful still is and that what was decrepit still is, that what was falling down is still falling down because that means it has not yet fallen; to want to freeze time in that moment you left.

The dog now looks at me, come on, he says, and it is not the come on, let’s walk, let’s go, we have places to go, things to smell, come on come on that I left a year ago. He looks at me, come on, he says, I want to go home. We have not made a full lap of the block, we are only going to walk up and back the same street, but at least because of the center island it is sort of like a lap. I look at the bench for another second and take the dog home.

Bottle Return

The bottle-return machines at Price Chopper were once state-of-the-art, but their advantage over the old way is difficult for me to see. I place a bottle in the receiver and, like a not-quite-adorable robot, the conveyor belt pulls it into the maw, spins it and scans it, and then with alarming regularity returns it to me, saying the barcode is unreadable, or the store does not accept this brand, or (most commonly) the bin is full. Call attendant. And then, insatiably, BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP….

The attendant comes, a morbidly obese youngish man with blond highlights in his pony tail. His belly hangs over the sides of his pants like a mushroom cloud. He empties the bin silently, but then tells me: “Now comes the hard part. That was the easy part. The hard part is clearing the jam.”

“Oh, the bottles are stuck up in there?” I say. This would never happen, I think, if we didn’t use these goddamn machines. In Canada it is easy. I bring bottles to the register. They count cases and multiply by twelve. The process takes about thirty seconds and when it is done they give me two toonies and a loonie and I am out of there. But it is easier for the store, and by “easier” I mean “cheaper,” to have me painstakingly scan each and every one of my bottles, have the machine accept 75-85% of them, stiff me the remaining dollar or two and (most importantly) not pay anyone to interact with me.

But the attendant is interacting with me. He clears the jam. “That one,” he says, pointing to the other GLASS machine, “ninety per cent of the time,” he slams the door of the first, “it’s a sensor problem.”

“It thinks it’s stuck, but–”

“It ain’t. Yeah.”

“I guess it’s cheaper for them to pay you to come out here and check it, than it is for them to fix it…?”

“Sure is.” He opens the door. “Well, whaddayaknow! Looks like this was one of the ten percent!” He slides the overflowing cart of shattered, brown crystal beer bottles, reflecting the fluorescent light like diamond, labels ripped and cut, out into the middle of the floor. While he is changing in the empty one, a Native American-looking man in a relatively, but not absolutely, new Army jacket, who has been patiently returning plastics one machine over, takes the cart.

“I’m gonna put this out back,” he calls to the fat man, who does not look up. “I know I ain’t supposed to and all, but you ain’t got the gloves for it.”

“You got gloves?”

“I got gloves.”

“Well, fine.”

The Native American pushes the cart into a door I had not noticed was there. He does not return. I notice this, but I do not comment on it. He did have good gloves, yellow leather (yellowleather) work gloves, like the ones Billy gave me in Idaho.

While I finish returning my bottles, the fat man clears another machine. On my last bottle, he turns to me. “Y’know,” he says, “one time, one time I spit in one of the carts, and some lady was like, ‘Oh, that’s gross.'”

“What?” I am surprised.

“It’s crazy, right? Cuz– it’s crazy.”

“Yeah, man, it’s trash, ain’t it? What’s it matter if you spit in it?”

“It’s crazy,” he says. “I tell her, you seen these bottles? I mean, they got old beer, beer that’s been sitting around for days and days and days, and you worried about the spit? Anyway, you have a good one.”

“You too,” I tell him. I go in the store. After a solid twenty minutes of returning bottles, I have slips for $6. I exchange them for some milk, brussels sprouts and mushrooms.

A Very Rough Draft of an Extended Metaphor

“It’s better than yesterday,” the man says. “Yesterday was pretty bad. Today looks better. But it’s still a little C-L-O-U-D-Y at the top.” I am amused by the way he spells “cloudy.” I cannot tell if he is spelling it for the benefit of his three school-aged children— most likely Jack, whose name I have already learned in the first three minutes of this gondola ride, who last year fell on Kandahar (on a C-L-O-U-D-Y day, no doubt) and lost his goggles— he seems to be traumatized— or if he is merely avoiding Greek hubris, if he does not want to anger the gods by naming them.

“What’s coldy?” Jack asks, genuinely, and everyone laughs. Jack is embarrassed but determined not to show it, and makes a too-nonchalant effort to ensure his liftmates that he does know how to spell “cloudy,” that he misheard, that he thought Dad sad C-O-L-D-Y and of course “cloudy” has a “u,” everyone knows that, come on guys.

But I am not to see them again. When we disembark at the top I snap in, I hear the sound that Morten calls the best in the world, and descend into the blinding white fog of the Versant Nord.

For two minutes, I am alone.

The wind thrusts against my face, my knees behave instinctively, in the long, precise downhill dance. I hit ice and keep going, faster, now slower, now faster again, around a corner. I get to the bottom and ride up with what I take to be a gay Québecois couple and their child. “Nous avons presque les même skis,” I remark to the man on the right, and it is true, “les vôtres sont bleus et oranges, et les miens sont oranges et bleus.” He asks me the model and I admit I do not know, “il est mon premier jour avec…” I search for the word “eux” and despite its brevity do not find it, “je les adore.” At the top I push my poles into the crunchy, cloudy ground and return to the same trail, finding it the same and different, finding its idioms and idiosyncrasies, exploring every inch of my lover’s body.

“I think we should split up for the morning,” I had told Morten, Kamilla and Linnea after our first run together. “I like skiing with people, I do, but…” How do I explain it? “I haven’t skied since June, and I feel like I am seeing my girlfriend for the first time in months. I’m not ready to share her yet. We need some time alone together, a little privacy, we need to reconnect.”

It does not take long. For two minutes in the clouds— there is nothing else— there is only the two of us in the world, me and the mountain, the snow, the slopes, the coldy air. There are few activities that so profoundly occupy one’s mind. There is no room for others, there is no room to wonder what about dinner, what about the spring semester, what about that girl, where is my phone— for two minutes there is nothing but us, we are the whole world, we are the lovers.

This jump is not where I would have put it. I have bled off all my speed from the downhill, have been cruising calmly, straightforwardly for a hundred meters or so, my lungs and brain and legs beginning their slow detumescence from the orgiastic thrill of speed, of the downhill, above all (and quite specifically) of the sensation of those quick shallow turns in the soft perfect virginal snow… I have been cruising, but now on the right there is a drop off, pleading with me, commanding me, come here, c’mere. And so I thrust myself forward with my poles, great big jumping motions that use my entire body, I bend at the waist and push forward with both arms, I don’t care how I look, right now there is only this.

It is not like anything else. When you have not done it for six months, if you have not done it for a year, it comes back, it more than comes back, it is better every time, on every new mountain, every new trail. Every new bend and bump in the trail has something to teach you, their similarities and differences.

I recall reading The Da Vinci Code when I was too young to understand it, the line “By communing with woman, man could achieve a climactic instant when his mind went totally blank and he could see God.” I think something similar is true of skiing. The cold air bites like a lover, the pain in your legs is integral to the experience, “one cannot take pleasure without giving pleasure,” your body does things it does not normally do yet does, with practice, wholly instinctively, one must risk to receive. And when it is over there is a long period of thinking: and now I have to return to the world, this was not of this world.

Bookended by Bites

I turn the key. It still turns. I remember the door of Cochran Place, the way I watched my mother open it, and I have the familiar and pleasant feeling that even though I have lived elsewhere, even though they have redone the porch and the kitchen and the washing machine, even though they threaten to get rid of the wallpaper in the dining room (and never do, yielding, I have to assume, to my superior powers of persuasion and interior design), even though the bedroom pillows are worn out, even though the driveway is no longer made of gravel– even still, the key still turns.

I lay my skis against the foyer wall and go to seek my dog. I do not have to seek far. He is asleep, on the couch, prone, in the usual spot. Fred is old, older than dirt, we say, older than the hills, older than 9/11, older, in point of fact, than the porch or the kitchen or the washing machine. He has been so long a part of my life, a part of my family, a part of my home. But he, too, is changing, aging, deteriorating. Coming home only once every few months, before that not coming home for a year, I have watched him age in spurts, I have sampled his progress in low resolution to find it, of course, aperiodic, asymmetric; teleological.

The dog’s legs don’t work; what had been a slight limp has become the threadbare vestige of control over the rear two legs, splaying out at his sides when he sits, the left further forward than the right. On hardwood floors they do not grip, the pressure between pad and ply is not enough to keep the angles straight, and he slides, quasi-skating backwards, a miracle on ice, the sad but inevitable march indoors. He takes glucosamine daily. While he does not seem to be in pain, he sometimes seems embarrassed, and we are careful to encourage him, never to make fun of him, to treat him as family, to give him his dignity.

He opens his eyes. The dog is deaf, now, almost stone deaf. Like Zayda, his hearing loss is highly selective, but it is still quite real. The cataracts cascading over his lenses are a little more opaque each time. Still, I think he recognizes me. I scratch his ear and lean in to Eskimo-kiss his muzzle.

It happens very fast.

I am cursing with hellfire and thunder in my voice, rumbling up from my gut, from a wellspring of baritone I was unaware I had, “BAD FUCKING DOG,” I do not even remember the Christians next door with their impressionable baby, I am sure they are displeased with my display of irreverence. Blood literally drips from my beard, I catch it in my hand as I use the other hand to grab the dog by his scruff and shake him. “SEE WHAT YOU FUCKING DID,” I growl in a voice that is scarcely half human, and I can see the recognition now, the fear, the realization of what he has done. I order him off the couch and into a corner. He slinks there like a cat, trying to make himself invisible, as I go to inspect the damage. There is a cut just below my lower lip, on skin uncovered by beard, which is nearly invisible when my jaw is relaxed, but widens into nearly an 8-gauge piercing when I stretch my lip, as if to chew with a closed mouth, or to make a silly face. I soak a gauze pad with my blood, discard it, use another. The flow is already lessening, but certainly not stopping.

I call my mom. “We’re almost home,” she says, “are you home?”

“The fucking dog bit me in the fucking face,” I tell her.

“He what?!

They arrive home ten minutes later or so. I spend the entire interim glaring furiously at Fred. He tries to make himself small, pill-like, and I occasionally tell him what a bad dog he is, causing him to curl up even tighter. My parents arrive and my mom agrees that I do indeed need stitches, and gauze still pressed to my mouth we head to Prompt Care.

In the waiting room, my mom says, truthfully, “We’ll have to forgive him– he doesn’t have that much time left.”

“It’s true,” I agree.

“Do you remember,” she asks, even though she knows I do, “when he bit you in the face last time? You were ten and now you’re 23… his life has sort of been bookended by biting you.”

“Yep,” I mumble. I don’t want to move my lower jaw much. When the nurse asks me, later, how much pain I am in, I tell her it is a four out of ten. It is probably only a three, but I know not to underestimate at Prompt Care.

“We brought in the dog psychologist then, do you remember? She told us to get rid of the rawhide and to make you and Molly be the ones to feed and walk him… so he would learn dependence. I wonder what happened this time. I guess he just didn’t recognize you. You’ve been two months… and you startled him.”

“I look like an animal,” I say, smiling and then stopping, conscious of the blood in my beard and that it is mine.

“All he saw was fur,” Mom says. “He feels so bad. Did you see him sitting on his bed? He’s so embarrassed.”

“I know,” I say, “I yelled at him pretty fucking good. I think I offended the neighbors.”

“They’ll deal.” She pauses. “We only had him for a month then, and we might not have him for another month…”

The nurse comes and gives me a tetanus shot, but there is a delay before the stitches. “He’s getting old,” I tell Mom. “He’s been going blind, deaf, arthritic, he’s been doing those for a couple years now… but now he’s really getting… old.” She nods. “I mean… I think his mind is going.” She nods more slowly. Neither of us really wants to pursue the topic so instead we play Words with Friends.

Eventually I get my stitches and we make our way back to the car. I cannot talk due to the anesthetic; I limit myself to mm-hm’s and hm-mm’s. On Concord we see Dad walking the old man. I roll down the window. “Who’s that vicious animal?” Mom calls out. “I’m not talking to him,” Dad says, “or touching him. He needs to pee so he doesn’t pee in the house but this is not a fun walk.”

I make eye contact with the dog. I do not know if he remembers what he has done, but he looks at me in the eyes. Benefitting him with doubt, I ascribe to him my own intelligence and think: Will they ever love me again? Will I die shunned? What have I done? Wordlessly, I call him to the window, and deliberately, slowly, I lower my hand. He looks at it for a moment and then, deliberately, slowly licks my fingers. I smile and scratch his ears. “He’s sorry,” Mom remarks. Mm-hm, I hum.


I need two things, a coffee and a German. I have in front of me a triptych Tractatus[1], the German plus two English translations, but I cannot break the barrier of how ironic it seems to translate Wittgenstein– wasn’t that the point?


Google Translate offers “Whereof one can not speak, one must be silent about it;” the word-by-word translation is helpful, but I still do not perfectly understand the prepositional grammar. I wish Andrew were here. He would tell me exactly in what contexts man kann and kannot use “wovon,” the relationship of “darüber” to “über,” if there is one; he would probably speak half of it in German and somehow (I think) I would understand. Most of communication, after all, is nonverbal, and most of verbal communication is nonlexical.

All I have, it feels like, is mathematics. Mathematics is translatable because it needs no translation:

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 11.20.39 AM

If “die Zahl ist der Exponent einer Operation,” then it tautologically follows that “a number is the exponent of an operation.” If you are not a mathematician, this probably seems ridiculous; if you are a mathematician, I expect it still seems moderately ridiculous. Mathematicians and non- alike are welcome to share their opinion. A lot of Wittgenstein is like this. I am reminded of another quote by Barry McCoy:

By now the difficulty in communication has become abundantly clear. According to your taste I have either 1) taken a large number of well known concepts and tried to make them mysterious by putting quotes around them, or 2) I have introduced a large number of totally undefined words and pretended that they have an unambiguous meaning. In this lecture I will adopt the second point of view and try to explain what I am talking about. If you adopt the first point of view I leave you with the warning issued by Humpty-Dumpty. Words mean what I want them to mean, no more–no less. If they do a good job they come in on Saturday evening to collect their wages.

The problem with Wittgenstein is the usual one, that the only person who knew exactly what he wanted his words (no more–no less) to mean, is long dead, and so we have only what we, what I think they mean– guess they mean– would like them to mean– and some mathematics.

What brought me round again to the Seventh Proposition? The other six are explicated in section after subsection after (in a few cases, like 2.15121 or 4.12721) sub-sub-sub-sub-subsection; only the Seventh stands alone, almost Epimenideally refuting its own explanation. It seems to reappear from time to time, sometimes invited and sometimes not. This time it was renormalization.

The image I have of physics, of the hierarchy[2], the image that has so far remained only in my waking dreams (I shudder to imagine it escaping my control, what might happen if it catches me asleep), is of a sequence of Russian dolls. The dolls do not represent physical length scale, nor “levels of description” per se in Hofstadter’s or Munroe’s sense, they represent– well, that is Ludwig’s problem, isn’t it? Nothing is clear.

I am playing pool with Dylan. “I’ve been thinking about writing about–” I say, pausing to line up my shot. The table is still open. He broke without issue; we have both missed opportunities and it is my turn again. I miss, yet again, allowing him an easy shot on the seven. (A coincidence, certainly, but if words mean what I want them to mean, why not events?)

I am surprised when he chooses stripes, sinking the eleven. “Writing about what?” he asks when I do not continue.

“Why I got into this. I don’t know. I guess I had this idea that physics was a way to make sense of the world. There’s all this data, this mess of observation and experiment” (and perception, I add to myself) “that at first seems like a big pile of junk. But then we organize it, we sort it and find these causal-seeming links and reduce what was a huge unrelated list of facts to a few simple laws.” Dylan nods and sinks another ball. I am falling behind.

“And for a long time that worked, right? Newton discovered that all these volumes and chronicles of celestial motions weren’t the wandering of gods or the caprice of God but just one law, one five-letter law, and one you could teach to high-schoolers. And then the eighteen hundreds, Faraday and Ampère and the rest, and Maxwell, you take all these strange and bizarre phenomena and you make them… you make them beautiful. The world is this simple, unified place. It’s conceptually sparse. Sure, to calculate what happens in a specific situation, you’ve got however many millions of things to account for, just like the real world, you’ve got a few laws and everyone’s breaking them… but at the bottom you know it’s all in just a few lines of code.”

It is my turn. I pocket the seven I’ve had my eye on for some time but miss the long shot on the one. I resume: “But now… I mean, we’re both studying QFT and we both think it’s fucked.” Dylan laughs in agreement and continues to pummel me, the 14 down now too. “What if we’ve gone too far?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if there are some things we’re not supposed to know? We get down to the atom and everything is beautiful, but… the metaphor I’m running with is Pandora’s box, right? We get inside the atom and there’s this flash and everything changes. It’s not a flash of insight, it’s…” It’s a very literal flash of hot white light, a second of destruction followed by decades in the wilderness. Are we being punished for what we did? Did we have the hubris to fly too close to the sun? I don’t say this out loud. “It’s not pretty anymore, you know? Renormalization’s a mess, no one understands anything…” I trail off. Wovon man nicht sprechen kann… Dylan wins.

Night Lights

The first snow of the year still manages to elicit wonder: an emotion, I think, that is far rarer in humans than is actually justified, and certainly rarer than I would like it to be. Other seasonal changes are gradual— a few buds here, a few there, and over the course of weeks spring springs; the days grow hotter and then colder degree by degree, and the leaves come first off that tree and then off this tree and so on. But winter is abrupt, immediate, yesterday it was fall and today the world is changed.

The Persephonian idea of winter as absence, a dark time when the Earth, unnurtured, fails to produce, as punishment for the uncannily Adamite forbidden pomegranate— this is foreign to me. Snow as blanket, an overused metaphor; “a big white sheet of paper to draw on,” Watterson’s bittersweet farewell; and of course after last year, the waiting, the hoping, the prayers, the seeking for “freshies.” A virginal field in Siberia Bowl, the smoothness of its untracked surface on a Tuesday or Wednesday after a weekday storm, to be a half-mile from another human being and to have it all to yourself— this, I thought on my descent, is to know God.

The association of winter with darkness is reasonable. The days are shorter and the nights are longer. But— have you noticed?— winter nights, though longer, are not as dark. The snow on the ground is a reflector, the clouds above close the mirror chamber; the light bounces from white to white. Streetlamp orange diffuses, filling the air with a soft— can I call it warmth? Across the park the fieldlights, magnesium-bright, illuminating the air, the falling flakes uncountably upon uncountably covering my tracks. I stop for a moment and breathe through my nose, the welcoming cold biting playfully at my sinuses, I missed you. In the Waterloo Park Zoo the donkey is asleep, the pony is asleep, it is ten o’clock and the park is silent, windless, timeless, any wayward vibrations muffled, blocked by the crystalline air.

The accumulation is wet, dense, good packing snow, totally unlike Colorado’s powdery fluff. I ritually consume a handful that I pull off a low-hanging branch. It tastes how it always tastes.