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Ralph’s: More Than Pretty Good

Posted: The End

Posted: The End

Bernie Sanders is in town. A week before, he filled Key Arena and thousands are left outside by the Seattle Center fountain to watch the stump speech on a portable Jumbotron. A week later he returns, this time to the five-times larger Safeco Field, where the line creeps down Fourth Avenue. I wait two hours. At the end, I watch a tiny wild-haired blur speak from a distant home plate. A group of young drunks makes tasteless jokes and talk on their phones in front of me. I can only surmise they have mistaken a political rally for a baseball game. When the crowd cheers, one of the girls falls over, laughing.

Sanders at Safeco

Sanders at Safeco

Five dollar Polish dogs have not filled me up. Bars and sports kitch do not appeal to me, so I ride the subway up a few streets to Belltown. Upscale food commingles with dive bars and cupcake places. The cupcakes here are not so good, so a candy bar is plenty. North of the soulless Bartell drugstore, the monorail snakes through Belltown. There’s a little grocery store there across the street from a park popular with the homeless, which irony puts diagonally across from The Warwick, a tony hotel. Ralph’s always makes me happy.

Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery was a fixture of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon. Back in the distant past when I listened to Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and read his books, I didn’t realize how unusual it was for an adolescent to find New Yorker style humor understandable, much less at all funny. The joke for Ralph’s was: “If you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it.” It wasn’t fall-down funny, and I didn’t know any Minnesotans or Norwegians yet, but I understood that self-denial-as-virtue that comes from poverty and provincialism. Stores like Ralph’s–the tiny, overpriced selection dwarfed by shelves of mostly empty space, all inventory in counts of two, as if the ketchup and tissue boxes had emerged from a low-rent Ark–are everywhere, on county road intersections and grey cinderblock neighborhoods, in America and everywhere else. It’s always been there and always will be, never getting worse and never getting better. It’s the place you go when your car uses too much gas to go anywhere else. We are respectable people, say the lines in the hard faces that patronize these wheezing outposts. We work hard and hold our heads high, all right with the Lord. We do not walk. 

Growing up in suburban-rural Texas, I knew of Karyn’s at one end of one county road, and Bennett’s where a larger, more-potholed county road intersected another at a bowed Y. Both had gasoline pumps and an air hose for pumping up bicycle tires; neither was safe to approach via bicycle, but there was no other way. By bicycle, my two friends and I could trace elaborate circuits through suburban cul de sacs, thin tar-and-chip county tracks, private driveways and holes in fences, coming around back ways that were survivable. At the end of a sixth- or seventh-grade day, Karyn’s offered whatever candy or sugary drink that could be had with leftover lunch money. Jason turned me on to YooHoos. He, Paul and I leaned on our bikes underneath a sprawling oak tree, sampling the chocolate cold, divining the label’s secrets. Karyn’s was dark with worn-out paneling, shiny with drink coolers, and musty like mud gone dry. It was work to get to, but its run-down escape paid off. Bennett’s was a bigger prize attempted only during summers. It required planning, perseverance, and a willingness to take one’s life in one’s hands.

Keillor’s fictional Ralph’s had more dignity than these two hovels. Its churchy decay bespoke the reverence of people’s hardship. But the two hovels were real places my friends and I could go to. To go anywhere from nowhere was a privilege.

The end is made apparent

The end is made apparent

From the wrong way–crossing over from Third on Bell, and heading south–the Ralph’s marquee looms in unfamiliar shadow. What should be illuminated in green and purple–the green logo and purple bunch of grapes–is dark against the Cinerama’s powerful glow. I stand on the corner of Lenora and Fourth, noting people walking past what looks to be an oddly lit store interior. Signs are in the windows.

At the locked door, I read the papers taped to the glass and feel the smallest punch in my gut. For a moment, there is a little less air in the world. Some other ocean of time freezes while everyone walks past, the city giggling. I’m hardly weeping, not even sad, if “sad” is to have meaning. I’ve learned something personal that everyone else knew months ago.

Ralph's, a shell

Ralph’s, a shell

The guy playing the guitar sings a Dylan song and nods at me without interrupting himself. He doesn’t ask for money, but he smiles. Maybe I look pained. I wanted a candy bar but I got bad news. Ralph’s closed in December.

Ralph's interior

Ralph’s interior

December 1997 brings a lucky break. An agency calls with a video editor job: a game studio is shorthanded and deadlines loom. It’s my first real Seattle job, having struck out in Seattle dot-com frenzy since summer. Weird hours and a revolving door of people complicate things, but it’s a real job, with Hollywood types, and it pays. X-Files is the game.

The studio was located two blocks up from Ralph’s. I first went to Ralph’s with some of the main studio players–Paul, who remains a good friend, and Cassandra. Cassandra, the head artist, was an is a stunning beauty. The first afternoon there I buy a Snickers. She eyes me and it down her long aquiline nose. “That’s healthy.” She doesn’t speak to me for months. (She much later comes out as a punk rocker type, and we get along fine.) Despite my disorientation, my bad marriage, my dismissal by yet another attractive woman, Ralph’s shines out. I have Arrived.

Where the tables were

Where the tables were

Every workday until October 13, 1999–when, the game complete, we last four are laid off–I walk past Ralph’s. I get sandwiches there, made fresh on a grill. You can buy fifty dollar wine and fancy mushrooms and Theo chocolate. There is the plain stuff too, and Ben & Jerry’s. I didn’t spend much at Ralph’s, but it was always there, and I took great solace in its dependable green glow, warm lights, rich smells. Taking a break from screens, a 2 a.m. two-block walk to check in with other night owls cemented me to the wonder of the real.

The new millennium put me on the other side of Lake Washington, at Microsoft, the belly of the beast itself. I missed the camaraderie and the sense of working a job in line with who I felt I was. I missed the city and I missed Ralph’s. I wasn’t in New York yet, but Belltown and Ralph’s made it seem possible to get there. Things were looking up.

Storied history on the door

Storied history on the door

Since then, every travel through Belltown had Ralph’s as a signpost: I was there. I am here. I know this place. I met friends there, stopped there after interviewing for jobs, had a date there. When Cinerama reopened, it was a great place to get a good meal and buy candy to sneak in. It was beautiful the way a bolt is, or a pencil. The perfected needs no more work. Pencils and bolts persist with us, their utility too strong to go without. Ralph’s has succumbed to market instability, says the Seattle Times story taped to the door glass. Another way to say this: some things can be too good.

Transmission shop no more

Transmission shop no more

Other things are going too, succumbing to a wave of Chinese investment. Above, an old transmission shop, part of Seattle’s dumpy gritty past, is now a hole that will become condominiums. I walked past this for years too, wondering how a transmission shop could survive downtown. Why isn’t there a real building here? Soon, there will be.

Spitfire spits fire

Spitfire spits fire

The Spitfire has taken over from The Sit & Spin. A bar-laundromat was an idea whose time had been coming, and had come by 1997. I loved watching hipsters stare at their tumbling undies, old-style giant TVs with tubes in them hanging from massive ceiling-bolted cranes. Its change machines were lifesavers for me: every day exchanging a few dollars for quarters to feed the meter. (My hours were too squirrely to assure a bus ride home.) I don’t remember the food, and I don’t drink, but I remember resting there one Friday afternoon with workmates, floating in blue glow and the scent of soap. The Sit and Spin was demolished in the mid-2000s, replaced with a condo tower. The Spitfire is a forgettable sports bar, its great screens no compensation for terrible food.

Consistent glow

Consistent glow

Yuki’s Diffusion is unchanged from 1997, as is the Security House building where I worked. I imagine the salon as some mobster’s tax dodge, its chairs always empty, attractive Asian women reading magazines on their high high heels. The sign blinks in rhythm, like a 1980s movie about the dark future. This is comforting in a small safe way, like a bento box that protects not food but era.

I am not one to bemoan things passing. I roll my eyes at the typical Seattle greybeard, his ponytail wrenched in a violated bunch as his favorite falling-down single-story asbestos-clogged faulty-wired dump that was a bar-restaurant-dive-library-dive-apartment-bookstore-dive-honkytonk-dive-disco-dive-artspace-theatre-dive-dive-dive has failed in its drive to be recognized as “historic” and will soon feed bulldozers. Great! I say. Can’t happen fast enough. To all the hipsters that complain about soullessness, I counter with ratless, bugless, energy-efficient and earthquake-compliant straight lines and windows that close. Amazingly, the once and future rents are comparable. Those Chinese make a good building.

I don’t mourn Ralph’s going. It is not 1997, 1999, 2001, or any of those former years. They belong to the past now, and that is as right as you and be being in the present, facing forward, moving ahead. Nothing lasts forever and there is no arguing, even as we may be confused as to what or who has changed. Perspective takes a while in coming, and once attained, is one more thing to let go.



Seattle Times: Saying Goodbye to Beloved Ralph’s Grocery


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You Are Not Alone, Again



Why be uncertain? Someone has gone before you. Even imagined time is real enough.

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Tropics and the Surreal

The Sun is near

Fury near and far

Time flows in syrup, passing through reed walls on bug legs. Humidity grounds the air to the ocean. Greens glow with the calls of strange birds who speak a sense only they know. Human things merge into the natural world, all the flowers and rocks ignorant of the tiny blip of time in which our things exist before there’s just the ocean again.

This is winter

This is winter

Hawaii 1.0 was the summer of 2011, which I spent in Hilo, on the Big Island. This blog was created to document that, and give Monkey something to do. Hawaii 2.0 is four years later, a month on urban Oahu. Things are different: I have a companion, a healthier journey, a finished rough draft of a novel that’s taken 25 years to write. I have more drafts to go, but first there is a break in the tropics. We both need to get away from things for a while, even if my things are just wondering what to do next and a cat.



Another travelogue is of no value. Tales of talking to God on mountaintops bore people. I want to write a few things, but not like Hawaii 1.0: I don’t have guilt and terror to vomit out, then wonder at the mess and what can be made of it. Hawaii 2.0 has no burden; at least, that is the intention. Disappearing into the most urban island’s rural reaches for a month is the sort of disconnection that is certain of reconnection. There is no terror of disconnecting and not knowing what comes next.

Not washed away

Not washed away

We stay at a dump. It is expensive, but cheap as these things go. This is Hawaii: a hundred bucks a night for sewery smells and a worn-out mattress, but right on the beach. We adjust. Surf rolls in thirty yards beyond the front door. Down the beach, superior-air white guys launch SeaDoos into the roaring North Shore. People come and go, always different. There is a neighborhood dog that always wants to splash in the waves. The water runs every scale of green to blue.

We hike, we lie on the beach, we swim. We check out Honolulu, which seems more urbane than frumpy, reluctant-to-modernize Seattle. Near Waikiki Beach, a Japanese woman rushes up to me, her stubby finger jabbing a brochure. Meeyah meeyah, I think she says. She grabs my hand. Meyeah meeyah! We are walking around the part of town with old palaces and government buildings, leftovers from Hawaii’s Republic days. A shrunken old Japanese man sidles up to the woman, looking tired and satisfied. Meeyah meyeah! This is strange behavior for a Japanese tourist, their usual ambit to huddle in silent groups and gawk from a safe distance. “Oh!” We realize together she likely means Kamehameha, Hawaii’s first king and uniter of the islands. “Kamehameha. There. There!” I point down the block to the great man’s garish statue. Oh! Yah yah yah! A rapid exchange between the two, with laughter. Domo, domo! They move on. Light is everywhere.

Weekend tailor

Weekend tailor is glad to see you

So goes travel’s mundane adventures: small moments where exceptions rise up, even more visible when you are somewhere new.

More important are the things I cannot see.



A Draft Out of Time

Costco is in Hawaii, a boon to the state’s traditionally high cost of living. We make a stop in the first few days, loading up on groceries hard to get on Oahu’s north end. Inside the dim warehouse, I fall through years to a different place and time: August of 1978, 1979, 1980, the last days before elementary school. Whether it is the tanned skin shades, the temperature, the bright light, the humidity and heat, I can’t say, but walking with purpose through the 2016 aisles I have an overpowering sense of being with my mother in the Mott’s 5-and-10 store, confused by the need to buy lined notebook paper and pencils. They’re at the front of class. You just walk up and get what you need. My mother, driven by her teacher nature to satisfy the school supply list for her own child, is dismissive. Texas isn’t Ontario. I remember the fusty store’s moldy air conditioning and crammed shelves: erasers, glowing pastel bottles of bubble-blowing soap, dolls, balls of twine, toys in cellophane boxes. Light lost its power through the plate glass windows. My mom buys in bulk as she compares ads, going from grocery store to discount store such as is available in Burleson, Texas, when the only places to eat are fast food and Blue Laws shut things up on Sunday.

Back to school transmits up the Costco steel racks, the air broadcasting excitement and dread. 2016 has no hold on this message from the wrong time. I look at giant bags of rice or a pallet of toilet paper and feel, in my shorts and threadbare shirt, that even the most certain world is transient. Past and future merge and coil in and out of one another in ways we can sometimes see.

Color of the sea

Color of the sea

World of Inner Night

Hawaii 2.0 is exhausting. We are asleep before eight and have trouble rousing before ten. Is it the heat, the sea’s roar, the powerful light that disappears every evening at six? A week on and we’re just beginning to adjust to HST, where we are two hours behind home.

Maybe it’s the bed. Age and use have rendered the mattress a hammock: the center a deep valley, the edges providing the only support. A cheap frame rolls around in the narrow slot given to the bed. We climb over the foot to go to sleep, watching the white surf tumble beyond the screen door.

Sleep is exhausting: tough to enter, harder to maintain. The first nights are dead black punctuated by abrupt waking, disorientation and a sense of falling, stumbling to the odd trapezoid bathroom, and dead black again.

Dead black is only a membrane over a roiling foam of terrors. Intense to the point of physical discomfort, the dreams are the kind beyond nightmare, indistinguishable from waking reality. Forgetting, or some other protective mechanism, lets me only recall vague outlines now: looming stone forests, hospitals with golem staff, men with guns and smiles. I wake up in the dead black and do not know where I am. Sometimes, not who I am. Sometimes, not what.

Night has broken loose and wandered back to the stark fear of early childhood, no light bright enough, no comfort soothing enough, nothing to be done but freeze the scream inside. Roars–of machines, of thunder, of flame–deafen all sense. There is nothing to write about because thought is not possible.

Not since I was four or five years old have I had such terrors. I still remember those kindergarten nights of dark shapes, paralysis, hot liquid in my chest, every shadow a claw.

Nobody has a name in this place.

Morning comes too early and bright for January, but takes an age to filter in. Walls are not straight, the floor not solid. Everything swoons. Stiff steps and I remember: I am human. Humans have legs and walk. I am forty-five years old and away from home, on vacation. Vacations are fun. Open the shade, look at the clock, and the logical world drips in like rain.

Walking a golden beach with water surging from azure to emerald and jade, the waking world is solid, but I am not sure why. By afternoon, it is summer again–summer in January. I am never afraid to go back to sleep.

Our common problem

Our common problem

Doubt Grows Up

Weeks go on. The night terrors stop. Not that I miss them, but their absence leaves a strange loss. It’s like missing a lifelong injury that’s finally healed, pain’s absence a hollow. We go on hikes through jungle out of 1980s Vietnam War movies, signs illegible when there are signs. Beaches we like are on the opposite side of Oahu from our rented place, so we take country drives over, marveling at the cliffs. We get up to a half-mile swim a day, out to a moored and floating ball and back. Voices of duty and purpose are confused: what appointment is next? do I need to pay something? how is the cat? Nothing like Monkey, their energy drains away. Oahu isn’t as desolate as the Big Island was, and the thoughts just go quiet instead of leave a desolate ring.

For the first weeks I make notes on the novel rough draft I’ve finished. They’re good flashes of insight on how to make characters more complex, giving them deeper roots to stand on when they reappear later. Personalities grow richer with idiosyncrasies: a military man always has paperwork he carries around and never finishes; a non-human character always sleeps curled in a tight ball, legs caging his face. Is he insecure, his inner child showing? Ooh, that’s a fun riddle to not spell out. Things click.

I had planned to read and make notes on my rough draft, as I hadn’t finished before departure. The condo does not have WiFi as promised, and I don’t want to spend my time in a Starbucks or library, so I let this go. I brought books I don’t read.

By the second week, the ideas stop. Questions begin nibbling. Should I be writing now? Will it get stale? I’m forgetting. At night, at stoplights, staring at clouds, the questions penetrate. Is this any good? How much longer will this take? How many more drafts? Should I get a job? I’m tired. I don’t care. Nobody else will either. 

I don’t feel sullen; I don’t lash out or sulk. I enjoy swimming and hiking and checking out the hick burger places. Being off is letting go of all this, but I know it is still there when I go back.

Is it worth doing? Will anybody care? Yes, the answer comes, some days. Other days, there’s no answer, and I feel tired. Is this rejuvenation?

By the third week, sleep comes like a two-by-four.

Look dead center

Look dead center

Back to the Main Land

Our condo features a TV so old it has a tube, crammed in a high shelf. HD video is letterboxed with the left and right cut off; blocky green numerals glow out when we change the channel. After an exhausting day, part of the retreat relief is making dinner on the hot plate and flipping through channels we hear about but never watch.

TLC, now decades past any meaningful relationship to The Learning Channel, features hours of carnival freak show. People whose untreated psychiatric problems have allowed their eating themselves into landbound whales whine and struggle as they try to lose enough weight to be candidates for weight loss surgeries. Other hour-long voyeurisms follow former whales who have lost hundreds of pounds and are now plagued by deflated sails of skin hanging from their limbs and torsos, a constant reminder they once inflated this dead mass. The same plastic surgeons are featured in both shows, inflating guts with nitrogen to sew up stomachs or excising twenty or thirty pounds of distended skin. We watch these shows with the kind of entranced revulsion the media companies bank on. The shows are gross enough to almost repulse, but fascinating enough to endure 25 minutes of repeated commercials per hour. Sameness defines both show and ads. The shows are a redemption story, the hapless victims of their own maladaptive thoughts saved by doctors operating out of posh clinics or strip-mall storefronts. Half the commercials are for junk food.

I have never been overweight, but my girlfriend has. We talk as the shows go on, and before and after: the emotional landscape that creates the weight gain, the struggle to lose it, the incessant negative body messaging that starts early and is especially vicious for girls and women. Slights and backhanded compliments permeate school, work, family, friends. It’s easy to believe them as the truth, so easy we build the foundations to make them true. “You eat your feelings.” It’s easy to do: as much ice cream and pizza as you want, twenty-four hours a day.

Movies cut-for-TV are our other evening fare. Watching them makes me realize how bad TV is, and how peeping in on trashy super-fat people is doing something to me. I don’t know what, exactly, but it can’t be good for me. Unspoken, we cut back on the morbidly obese. On the last week, we watch very little. I read aloud from her book about recovering from narcissistic parents, and we talk about that.

Cool breeze comes down the cliffs, through a rusted window, and out the screen door, down the beach, to the waves, carrying things away.

Summer now

Summer now

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016, rewinds. Everything unpacked is packed away again, the food we ate replaced with coffee and chocolate. The condo is checked and rechecked, the door locked, the beach walked one last walk. New blindingly white people tromp the sand. Our neighborhood dog friend is not out. There will be no goodbyes. We exit the gate, turn down the narrow lane, and head south, the parade of beaches and turnouts familiar now.



Return hung in the future in a way it did not as a child. Now I understand there is a going back, that things end, and that ends and beginnings are defined by which way you face the same event. Four years ago–the length of time it takes to get a college degree–I had a different purpose here. I’m still not sure what it was, but the work was hard, and the reward is solid. Today the reward I cannot know, but it feels better. Exciting things lie ahead, assembled bit by bit.

We land in cold and dark, the February we know, dark freeways busy. That night, in my own bed, I have another terror. All is void, nothing to push against. Waking has no distinction: just as black, temperature nonsense, up meaningless. For long minutes, I have no identity. I’m not exaggerating. I don’t know what I am.

I don’t know how I get myself back. A sliver of streetlight under the blind? The garbage truck flotilla always early up the street? I remember a triangle of blue-grey light outlining the door, which makes one black void a wall, another the wall by the bed. There is a strange warm lump: the cat, who never sleeps with us, is sleeping with us. Instead of sulking or peeing on our shoes, he is happy we are back. I get up and go to the bathroom: my bathroom in my house. I have lived here four years, but it is strange again now, like the first year I moved in when the thousand square feet enough to get lost in. I wash my face. For the first time in a month, it rinses clean.

The first full day back is strange, as if seen from inside a ghost. The repacked things go to their permanent homes, many placed in different piles for washing. For the first time, I use my laundry’s Sanitize settings, and Hawaii’s fungal stink is driven from our clothes. I go through a pile of mail, put back the dishes the housesitter put in the wrong place. Bit by bit, I relearn what it is to be me.

No calendars are on the walls. I didn’t have time to get some before I left, and was hoping the mail would bring free ones. On errands I note how things have changed–progress on a building here, a part of town that seems cleaner there–and feel not so much lost as suspended in possibilities. Restocking my refrigerator is satisfying; mailing gifts is too. These quotidian things would have infuriated me as an adolescent and early adult–there are important things to do! Now it’s fine. First enlightenment, then laundry.

As the days shift between grey and sun, I reply to job prospects, or don’t. The book feels like a scary burden or feels like something I want to do. Everything seems open to a breath of possibility I haven’t known since I was a kid, when everything was magic.

Every night since that first night back, I have slept well.




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Reality’s Shadow

All that we learn comes in from the outside. Innate behavior shouldn’t count as knowledge. We don’t know why we hunger, and we respond out of the body’s deepest wordless place. The flesh hungers and our sense only returns when it is sated, the fire leaving our eyes.

Some–mystic types, mostly–insist we have learned in previous lives, or are given knowledge by powerful forces we awake to. I don’t dismiss this. The world is as old as it is profound, and who knows what we know before we are ourselves? Life’s thread has been through many needles over billions of years, and it must have some great stories.

Particle Fever is a documentary movie that follows the physicists hunting the elusive Higgs boson with the Large Hadron Collider. (If you don’t understand this sentence, the movie is an excellent introduction.) We are treated to a high-definition tour of the massive complexity that is this machine, and, perhaps more importantly, the long emotional arc of the physicists as they drive headlong into work that may not pay off. It is a movie about standing atop the shoulders of your scientific ancestors, and leaping.

The movie does a good job of capturing what working on such a gargantuan project is like, imparting the endeavor’s essence without dumbing it down too much. It knows focusing on the human emotion and struggle is what keeps a movie alive. The nuts and bolts of the actual work is summarized, and there’s nothing wrong with this. For too long, science has been presented as sterile when it is more often a breakneck plunge down intellectual stairs. Confirming a model of how the universe works is tremendous, a revelation on par with writing, agriculture, or walking upright.

Large Hadron Collider

Large Hadron Collider

Alluded to but never spelled out, the movie leaves the greatest truth unspoken. The prime assumption of all science–the most amazing thing–is that the universe has order. It is full of patterns, symmetries, and relationships between them. This is why science is possible: if everything was random, or magic, we wouldn’t be able to figure it out. More exceptional still is that these patterns, symmetries, and relationships can be described in mathematics. At least some of us understand the math well enough to make windup universes. Supercomputers can turn these windup models backwards and forwards, tilting them so light shines into inaccessible recesses. Via these proxies, we can go inside stars, back in time, and down black holes. Each journey reveals more.

Whether we look down or up or inward, we can now choose a different kind of knowing.

A tesseract distorted for us.

A tesseract distorted for us.

Three dimensions define our physical world. Semantics and how slavish one is to mathematical purity govern how one talks about anything beyond this, but the explanation I most often see (or the one I remember because it’s the closest I come to understanding) is that the fourth dimension is no different than the other three. It’s just another right angle away from the third.

A line is one dimension. Draw another line at a right angle from the end of the line: that’s the second dimension, a flat plane. Make a square, then draw a line at a right angle to it: you must go up, out of the square’s plane. That’s the third dimension: height, in addition to width and length. To get to the fourth dimension, just draw another line at a right angle to the first three. Limited to three dimensions, we can’t draw another line at a right angle that is straight. The best we can do is something that looks like a cube inside another cube with the vertexes connected, as is rotating in blue grace above.

Some people claim they can imagine this shape as it truly is, if we too were in a space with four dimensions: every angle a right angle. Like the “magic eye” posters from twenty years ago, I can’t see that way. I can only see the cube inside the other cube and understand, as I understand things like “infinity” or “a billion”, that it works out.

Brute-force literal seeing isn’t the point. Being blind to a four-dimensional cube reveals other things.

Atoms and electrons exist. We’re sure of it, even though we will never see or touch them. We can experience them only as abstractions. For example, everybody knows what this is:

Your friendly childhood atom.

Your friendly childhood atom.

This diagram is wrong, and has been for over a century. The people who drew it know it is, just as the producers of the latest Cosmos television series know their whirling fuzzy atoms of a jiggling nucleus with points of electrons circling outside is wrong. Electrons around a nucleus could be imagined to “look” something like this:

Electron shells.

Electron shells.

Electrons exist within these shells, but not in the black spaces. An electron isn’t “traveling” inside the shells: they exist as probabilities, more likely to be in the white areas, less so the darker you go. They coalesce into a given wavefunction (this is not a discrete point, like a marble; due to wave-particle duality, electrons–like waves–do not appear in exactly one place) when they interact with another atom, or something else at a larger scale. (This is partly codified by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.) In other words, they do not really exist “inside the bright areas”: they are the bright areas. I am certain I have some of this wrong.

Why do we not tell kids this? Maybe some well-meaning people assume kids don’t care, and they’ll find out if they take high school science. Maybe adults have taken to heart the complaints of when are we gonna use this? This is rather esoteric, after all.

When does anyone “use” their understanding of the universe’s fundamental truth? You can’t put nature in the bank. It’s only good for exposing the way things really are, and, even greater than that, the truth that “the way things really are” is something we cannot experience.

We have no innate means to handle this information. As the great Richard Feynman himself is claimed to have said: anyone who says they understand quantum mechanics is lying or crazy. Thought can only do so much in understanding something too big to be immense.

Seeing, infinitely removed

Seeing, infinitely removed

The Large Hadron Collider works far below the lowest subbasement of the atom. It uses energies far beyond anything any human has ever experienced, in spaces so small our ideas of size have no meaningful application, to look at things that cannot be said to “look like” anything. We, the taxpaying public, see the same computer-generated diagrams the physicists use. We are told an exciting new understanding of how matter, energy, time, and the universe relate has been made. We celebrate, even if we don’t really understand. At least the physicists understand their machine speaks to them in ciphers.

But the greatest lesson is one not even physicists allude to.

When Newton formulated his laws of motion and developed calculus to describe them, the work was complete. In one stroke it allowed its practitioners godlike point of view. If you knew the starting states of everything with enough precision, you could figure out where everything would be far into the future. Everything could be known. Newton gave birth to the clockwork universe.

Universe-as-clock was fine for a time when a clock was a marvel. Go faster and smaller than any clock and Newton’s laws give wrong answers.

At the turn of the 20th Century, physicists found great speeds or tiny scales opened up new worlds. Newton didn’t work at all there. Quantum mechanics describes those places in ways that have nothing to do with clocks, or even cause and effect. Everything is probability, uncertainty, ambiguous, and subjective.

So, is Newton wrong? No. Newton works fine at the scales we live in. Quantum mechanics works fine too, if you want to do the math. It’s only outside our experience that quantum mechanics becomes a necessity.

Newton was one step, quantum mechanics another. Two steps is almost a path. It opens up the possibility of a third, and one as different and impossible to anticipate as the second was from the first. That’s the lesson I see, and, man, what a lesson!

Vision makes reality

Vision makes reality

Like all instruments, the Large Hadron Collider can only find what it was designed to find. That design comes from the predilections and assumptions of its physicist designers. Aggressive and driven, these people stand on the shoulders of Newton, Leibniz, Pauli, Planck, Heisenberg and others who took those first two steps. I suspect, without knowing so, they imbue their work with the white and European ideas of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution: Progress, Reason, the possibility of Perfection–Heaven on Earth. Most important: the unconscious assumption that new things to discover will be like the ones we already found.

Is that a smart assumption, given how different quantum mechanics is from Newton?

Physics, astronomy, and cosmology are already blurring into metaphysics. What does it mean that time stops at the speed of light? Or that electrons and smaller particles aren’t “particles” at all, too small to have anything like our idea of “size”? What if, after crunching the numbers and years of reflection, it turns out the Large Hadron Collider didn’t find the Higgs boson after all, but found something very different?

Mystics have long held that this reality is only a shadow of something else: the previous and next life, other worlds, “the Truth”. Modern physics agrees, with its assertion of a multiverse, at least by some practitioners. More staid minds insist this isn’t a scientific pursuit: how can the premise of a multiverse be falsified?

Knowledge has limits. When not used as a cop-out for superstition, this fact is profound truth. Accepting it means that even science has limits. Science must have a point where it stops working. At the very big, very small, very fast, or very hot–beyond even the insides of the Large Hadron Collider–can hypotheses be made and tested? In such places, can science exist?

We are animals. We are finely tuned to walk the savanna of a hundred-thousand to a few millions of years ago, on the lookout for berries and snakes. Driving cars and doing algebra strain our capacities. We see more and farther with our tools and abstract thinking, but we don’t hold things in our palms, smell them, taste them. The truth of the very large and very small is true, but a shadow to us. We will never, ever touch it.

Science, in its exacting reduction, has rightly taken the mantle of The Best Tool We Have. We must now face the most interesting and terrifying question: What happens when science ends? Will there be a difference between it and mysticism? Having come full circle, will the two be joined?

Einstein himself said God has a sense of humor: “When God created the ass he gave him a thick skin.” Maybe that old man on the beach was right: it’s turtles all the way down.

“Turtles All The Way Down” by Danc

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Ultimate Heat

All futures are possible

All futures are possible

What was the weirdest piece of information you came across in your research for the play?

I don’t think any of it seemed weird or strange, unfortunately. I was surprised to find out how many nuclear power plants we have in the United States. I was startled to discover that all of our policies on nuclear regulation are being enforced in the absence of emergency plans or crisis management. People proceed as though they’re always going to have an unbroken chain of civic control for thousands of years, and it’s not like that’s ever happened or is even possible.

— Anne Washburn, playwright of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, as told to Nirmala Nataraj

Whether the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were intended to bring a quick Japanese surrender and spare the estimated millions of Allied casualties, or whether Truman’s darker purpose was to threaten Stalin, is a question of history that no amount of graduate theses will settle. So much power was unleashed with those two detonations that trying to comprehend what happened will be our species’ unending task. We will never finish.

Out of fear, dread, and–I hope–shame, the Eisenhower administration launched the Atoms for Peace program with a speech before the UN General Assembly on December 8, 1953. The United States would share its nuclear research with other countries, publicly to bring its benefits to all, privately to head off the Soviets sharing theirs. (Those history grad students have since revealed that “Atoms for Peace” was partly a Cold War propaganda ploy, named “Operation Candor”.)

Still, Eisenhower was no armchair intellectual. He knew what old-fashioned war could do, and understood the gravity of what nuclear war would be. Perhaps the last Lincoln Republican, he dismissed those that would have undone FDR’s New Deal as “stupid” and sent in troops to defend black students against Southern racists. Prescient for his “military-industrial complex” warning, he must have known, back on that December day in 1953, that putting the genie back in the bottle was impossible. The only hope humanity had would be to be good, and hope the genie would go along.

The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military buildup can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future.


Nuclear power seems like a noble goal, even a no-brainer. As a kid, it was obvious. How else would we power starships and bases on the Moon? Space: 1999 showed some downsides–nuclear waste blowing the Moon out of its orbit was something I hadn’t considered, but found exciting, and then sad–but we couldn’t continue burning fossil fuels. That was so primitive.

In the fourth grade, my talented-and-gifted class went on a tour of the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant. It had begun construction in 1974; our visit was in 1979 or 1980, after the Three Mile Island emergency. What would turn out to be a partial meltdown of a Pennsylvania reactor spurred our visit. I remember sitting in a very large, very lush auditorium where plant engineers smiled in anticipation of softball questions. I have a very clear memory of asking exactly what had gone wrong with the Three Mile Island reactor, and how it was the engineers could insist that problem couldn’t happen at Comanche Peak. The woman gagged at me. I’m sure she wasn’t expecting that from an eleven-year-old, but I had been reading Ranger Rick since I was five. I was worried about the animals.

Removed to rural-suburban Texas, I had no knowledge of the anti-nuclear movement, which included massive marches in Washington and all over Europe. I loved the space program and, despite doubts the Comanche Peak visit planted in my subconscious, believed that nuclear power was fine. All the science fiction stories featured it. It was an advance and a wave of the future. I was just figuring out what facts were.

Back at school, we had a ‘debate’ over nuclear power, overseen by our teacher: is nuclear power good or bad? My memory is nerd boys said good and all the girls said bad. Somebody caught a glance of our teacher’s notes, and since she had written down more points the boys had raised, we declared we had “won”. Girls and their worries over pollution and accidents and what happens to the waste were all overblown, solvable problems, or non-problems, though I don’t think I thought that way. My rock-solid belief was that the adults would never do anything so dangerous as the worst case, never mind Three Mile Island. Adults would never do anything as wanton and stupid as the girls were suggesting.

Comanche Peak became operational in 1990, four years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident. There is still no place to store high-test nuclear waste, and whether a vault of the kind required can even be made is a question still unasked.

Fukushima Unit 4 spent fuel pool

Fukushima Unit 4 spent fuel pool

Since Chernobyl, high school, ongoing oil wars, and lately the revelation that Exxon sunk its own climate change research, nuclear power has fizzled. Outrageous design costs made worse by construction delays and mistakes, plus the realization that nuclear waste has to go somewhere, took the shine off Atoms for Peace. Nuclear plants aren’t protested the way they were in the Eighties because there is no need. The moneymen have worked their spreadsheets and found that nuclear power doesn’t pencil out.

Fukushima taught a new lesson.

Faulty design, a lack of what should be obvious foresight, panicked response and opaque communication of what was really happening: nothing new here. The mainstream media fanned the panic but did little to tease out information, as in solid facts, but they have devolved to retyping press releases for some time now. (Radioactive water releases were given in “tons”. Metric tons? Who measures water in tons? Why is it not given in gallons? That measuring in mass gives a smaller number than volume is my guess, but who knows.) Video shows explosions that were probably “prompt moderated criticality” events–brief moments when nuclear reactions occurred inside the tsunami-damaged reactors, blowing them up. Uranium fuel rods, both inside the reactor and spent fuel contained in nearby holding pools, were released into the environment. Cleaning up the wreckage, if it is possible at all, has no known endpoint. All old hat, just variations on what happened back at Chernobyl, where the temporary “sarcophagus” that entombed the reactor in the late Eighties has disintegrated, and a “New Safe Confinement” structure is being built to replace it. Estimated to cost about $3 billion, the new structure is designed to last 100 years. What happens at year 101, with only 99,899 years to go until the wreck loses the worst of its radioactivity (or 999,899, depending on how you measure), is another unasked question. Maybe we will spend more to build a “New New Safe Confinement”, and on and on, concrete shells encasing one another, like a pearl.

But none of this is new, or even interesting. Without explosions and flames, attention is elsewhere. But in that brief window when Fukushima had the world rapt, someone not on the approved list got on TV and said something so profound, it was missed: any nuclear power plant can suffer a catastrophic failure of the kind that destroyed Fukushima.

All power plants are cooled by water. Loss of cooling isn’t catastrophic to a coal- or gas-fired power plant: in event of cooling failure, the fuel can be turned off. Once filled with uranium fuel rods and the reaction is started, nuclear reactors cannot be shut off in this way, and require constant cooling. While the chain reaction can turned down to a low level, the reactor still produced tremendous heat, which must be removed. Failure to remove this heat will destroy the reactor, one way or another.

Fukushima suffered two losses that doomed it. One was the tsunami disabling or destroying some of its cooling water pumps. The second was the failure of the emergency diesel generators that powered the remaining pumps, either through destruction of the generators, their connections, and their control systems, or their running out of fuel. Loss of cooling not only led to the reactors overheating, but also the overheating of spent fuel, cooled by the same system. Depending on what story you read, Fukushima was blown up from a buildup of hydrogen gas produced when the spent fuel got hot enough to turn its cooling water into hydrogen and oxygen, or when the fuel in the reactor did the same thing, or when the spent fuel boiled all its cooling water away and exposed itself to air. Or, maybe, when the reactor fuel or spent fuel melted together and went critical. We may never know for sure.

Loss of the ultimate heat sink” is this failure’s name.

Man becomes his vision

Man becomes his vision

Buckminster Fuller is a genius to some, an eccentric to others; to the unkind, a nut. He thought big–not in size, but the number of connections, and how you could connect connections together. His geodesic domes are sprinkled here and there.

Don’t fight forces–use them. This was his mantra. Why build a big machine that needs power and maintenance and will eventually break when you can get nature to do the work for free? By accident, he built a house that cooled itself. He made exacting study of how to do only the work required, and letting gravity, sunlight, and design do it.

A nuclear power plant is the antithesis of Bucky Fuller’s ethic. All pipes and wires and concrete, they bristle with valves, ducts, switches, controls, and every other thing that aches to break. It’s an unwieldy, delicate and fussy contraption, poised with ungainly artifice above a tireless entropic sea.  The only way to go from there is down.

But, they are here. The United States alone has 100 reactors (99 operating, 5 under construction–the long drought is over) and boosters have new vigor in pushing for more. Ones built in the Sixties and Seventies have had their performances extended to the 2030s, or later.

I appreciate how Bucky saw the world. To him, I like to think, a hundred nuclear plants lugging their possible failure into the future is not something to dread, but an opportunity. The forces contained in them are natural, after all. Now that they are here, how can we use them?

Hot water.

I’m not an engineer; my degree is in English and history. But, I’ve taken science and math classes and long appreciated the mindset. I can perform automotive repairs by following the Haynes manual, and for money I do some light computer programming. I do it well enough to keep getting jobs. I know better than to channel Bucky at work, which would only baffle the MBAs. But Bucky’s Dymaxion mindset is great for blue sky thinking that is connected to the ground.

Spent fuel rods are hot. After powering a reactor, they sit in a spent fuel cooling pool. Years pass before the rods are cool enough to consider being moved to temporary or permanent storage. Given a lack of a permanent grave, most spent fuel languishes in the spent fuel pool, though some has found a semi-permanent (or long-term temporary, given your point of view) home in “dry cask storage“.

A temporary solution to a permanent problem

A temporary solution to a permanent problem

Sealed off, the rods continue to cool and decline in radioactivity for thousands and thousands (and thousands) of years.

Bucky would see this as a gold mine. I do too. Free heat! We’ve already spent enormous treasure to dig up uranium, concentrate and purify it, and form it into rods. We built big machines to make it even hotter, transmuting some of it into elements that will be even hotter for even longer than the uranium we put in. And we’re just going to throw it away?

But it’s radioactive! Glowing green, like out of the movies!

Yes, but what’s done is done. Apparently it’s safe enough to leave these casks out in the open, for birds to perch on.

But steel and concrete casks won’t last forever! No, they won’t, and that’s part of the solution.

WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, is the only long-term high-level nuclear waste storage facility in the United States. (The Yucca Mountain repository, almost completed but mired in perpetual controversy, was defunded in 2011.) WIPP is a specialized mine, with tunnels and rooms carved out of a 250 million year old salt layer 600 meters beneath the surface. Barrels and casks of waste are hauled down, sealed in the salt, and fingers crossed for 24,000 years.

In 1992, Sandia National Laboratories published the study Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, principal authors Kathleen M. Trauth, Stephen C. Hera and Robert V. Guzowsti. The report is a fascinating read despite its length and is an exhaustive answer to the government’s question: how do we warn future societies about the dangers of what is buried here? The question’s enormity is summed up by the frontispiece, which quotes the Pirkei Avot and Shelley’s Ozymandias: how do you communicate a complex message to people you know nothing about, and who know nothing about you?

It’s an interesting question, a corollary to people sending messages out into space, hoping ET will understand them, or listening for needle messages in a universe haystack. Some very smart people dig deep into what meaning is and how people make it. They don’t shy from the complications.

Their conclusions assume, if do not state outright, that the future is a simpler, ignorant, and fallen time. Assuming languages we now use will be forgotten, they propose massive, threatening earthworks to warn people away, like this:

“Spike field”

Look at the report’s page 149 for sketches. Even though they concede a written message may be useless, the authors suggest one, at their highest level of complexity, on page 103:

This place is a burial place for radioactive wastes. We believe this place is not dangerous IF IT IS LEFT ALONE! We are going to tell you what lies underground, why you should not disturb this place, and what may happen if you do. By giving you this information, we want you to protect yourselves and future generations from the dangers of this waste….

People who drink the water will drink the poison. If the water is used for animals or crops, those too will be poisoned and the people who eat them will be poisoned. It may take many years for the sickness and death to show. Radioactivity poisons people because it can cause cancer….

[The message continues at length with detailed descriptions of the nuclear and non-nuclear poisons buried, how radioactive they are and for how long, the year on our current calendars (including the Chinese) when it was buried, and how to measure the passage of time based on a diagram of Sirius, Canopus, Arcturus, and Vega.]

Do not destroy these markers. If the message is difficult to read, rewrite the message in your language in the blank area on this wall. If the markers are worn or missing, add new ones in longer-lasting materials in languages that you speak. This site, built in … by the United States of America government, represents a first attempt to responsibly dispose of wastes for an extended period of time. Other sites exist that contain radioactive wastes, and they are marked in a similar manner. We have shown these sites on a map in this room. Do not disturb any of these sites.

Some message to the future! How many people today, out scrounging for rocks or scrap metal, would understand it? Would understand the spiky earthworks? The authors spend some time wondering how to build an impressive artifact that will both inspire dread and fear but not be destroyed, or plundered for building materials.

Loss of culture is another kind of loss of the ultimate heat sink.

What would Bucky think of this enterprise, and–more importantly–of its assumptions? The key assumption I see is: the most certain safe future for this waste is hiding it away and hoping ignorance doesn’t unearth it. Thus, there’s a trust in a ‘positive ignorance’: not knowing will keep you safe. I don’t know if Bucky would go for this. I wouldn’t. Very few things humans find of any value go unpilfered. Long after our technological society is gone, who of those who come after would not see this great earthwork as a locked door with something juicy behind it?

Here is my suggestion. It solves the problem of time, of the confusing message that something hidden away with great effort isn’t valuable, of entropy wearing away all our works and intentions, and of trusting ignorance for safety:

Put it in the town square, and make hot water with it.

“Are you crazy?” No. (Thank you for asking.) I understand your reaction, but let the panic pass and think. (Remember: panic never solves anything.) You have a powerful thing you can’t really get rid of. Yes, it’s dangerous, but so are fire and moldy cheese. We’ve found ways to control both and use them to our advantage. Sure, at times things go wrong, but for 99.99+% of the time, it doesn’t. Yes, with something like nuclear waste 99.99+% may not be sufficient, but this is countered the same way we control fire and moldy food: with education and training. In other words, culture.

I imagine, in the center of towns large and small, a modest but solid civic structure. It’s staid, probably stone, like banks or libraries we built during the Depression and before. This is the center of a district heating system, where all the underground pumps and equipment hum and breathe, and where all the pipes converge. Behind multiple walls of thick stone, in a sub-basement beneath street level, is the small stainless steel vessel that contains a fuel rod or two. A bigger vessel holds the rod or rods. Smaller vessels connect two heat exchangers that transfer the decay heat to the outside, but provide isolation from the innermost water or other heat transfer fluid, which contacts the rods. It could look a little like this (noting this is a diagram for a reactor, not the simpler system I propose):

A typical nuclear reactor. Image: cnx.org

A typical nuclear reactor. Image: cnx.org

My idea has important differences:

  • No “reactor core”. The orange vessel doesn’t need control rods; the decay isn’t fast or strong enough to need controlling.
  • This vessel lies horizontal. The rod(s) would lie on some durable material that wouldn’t corrode or weaken under centuries of contact with the decaying fuel. Maybe ceramic, or carbon fiber? I’d make it in a waffle pattern, with pits and high spots, so if the fuel rod disintegrates over time, the chunks would fall into separate valleys and stay isolated. They couldn’t come together and cause a “prompt moderated criticality“.
  • The first heat exchanger has no gap for steam, because no steam is produced. The system operates without an air gap, or a small one with a valve to release any gas or bubbles. (Another thing that can break, but a necessity that is easy to repair or make. A water heater pressure relief valve could be enough.) Only enough fuel is sealed away to produce hot fluid (say 90° C), which cools over millenia. Water with some kind of antifreeze, or another liquid that wouldn’t boil or react (Freon?), serves as the working fluid.
  • Place the primary vessel (the “reactor” and the primary heat exchanger) lower than the secondary exchangers/generators. Hot water rises, is cooled when it’s drawn off, and falls again, eliminating one pump (something that needs power and breaks.)

The “primary vessel” would be much simpler and need fewer intrusions–cut-outs for pipes or manholes–thus making it safer and less prone to leaks. Leaks would be less likely to form as there is no great pressure or heat to be contained. Overengineering enables the original materials to last many centuries, if not millenia. (Could the vessel holding the rods be made of thick, new-tech glass? It would never corrode.) Yes, pipes made to last that long would be expensive, but spread out over a thousand years, it’s cheap, and the hot water is free. Modest electricity could be produced from thermal conversion devices, like the kind that power space probes and fancy campstoves.

What materials and fluids would be used? How would this be engineered? Is it really safe? I don’t know. I haven’t even drawn this on the back of an envelope. But it certainly seems possible to create a safe and very long-lived system if the scale is small, where “safe” is seen in context with things like chemical waste or automotive travel.

Caretaking is the advantage here. There is enough spent fuel for thousands of district hot water and power setups like this. Each city or town that gets one makes it a civic centerpiece. Every town will have hundreds of tinkerers and mechanics with more than enough skill to monitor and maintain such a system, especially if it is built out of simple, durable, and repairable pieces. Adults bond to young people as they pass on maintenance skills, or expand the system, or improve on the design. Everyone is taught about the system, where it came from, how it works, and its dangers. Schoolkids grow up with field trips; back in school, they make collages and write plays about their long-gone ancestors who bequeathed these strange gifts.

Nuclear waste needs watching, so give it watchers. Everybody knows it’s dangerous, but everybody knows how to keep it safe. It’s worth the effort because of free hot water makes it a good deal: it’s a little golden goose that doesn’t bite your hand so long as you respect it.

Humility is the greatest lesson. Long ago, I hope children will learn on a field trip, people tried to stop a terrible war with a terrible weapon. It worked, but the weapon was cursed: our ancestors were hypnotized by the weapon’s terrible power and could not stop making it. (Maybe some metaphysical discussion here, about transference, and projection, and seductive nature of fear.) At last aware of their mistake but still gripped by the curse, our ancestors tried to remake the terrible weapons into something that would do good. Somehow–we don’t really know how–our ancestors broke the curse. It worked, in a way, but they didn’t think it through. Unintended consequences caught up with them, and these consequences are so big they are still going, even now. The monster was made small enough to fit inside this metal shell, and it gets smaller as he sleeps, giving off the heat of his dreams. Long ago, your ancestors built these works to draw off the monster’s dreams, like we draw off honey from bees. You, children, reap the benefits when you turn on the tap, but you also pay with vigilance and respect. Like the bees, the power inside this vessel doesn’t care about you. It will sting hard enough you may die. You must be careful in your care.

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is a post-apocalyptic drama without the pornography of violence. There is violence, sure: the play opens with our world ending, but the characters don’t fall into the exposition trap of groaner “science fiction”. One character whines about confusing information about how far away one must be from a destroyed nuclear power plant to be safe, and for how many decades, or centuries, or millenia. The power is in character: human frailty is on display. A noise makes everyone jump and pull out firearms; when a haggard traveler appears, he suffers some brutalization before the survivor group recognizes him as one of their own. Everyone then takes turns reading from their lists of names, long lists where everyone has bitter reverence drawn out. The traveler knows no name, but he misidentifies one; the woman with the list snarls at him to stop trying to make the person he met fit the person she wants to find.

I saw it a week ago, on November 10, 2015. Tickets were thin, but I selected “best available”. The system gave me standing room only. The house manager explains there are always no-shows, and as we’re at the top of the list, we’ll make out better than we think. He’s right: we are front and center, first row. I could touch the actors.

At intermission, the people next to us don’t return. The house manager replaces them with a pair of women. They say the play is weird, but are staying for the last act. From chatter, I sense weird is the common assessment: this is awfully grim for the Simpsons.

I think about our seats. Did someone else’s misfortune become our luck? Are parents home with a sick child, or worried in an emergency room? Did someone fail to come home? Am I am unknowing ghoul, fortune smiling on me by frowning on someone else?

Bad things happen all the time, and always to someone else, or people in the past. Our narrator will always tell our story.

The Ise Jingu grand shrine, a Shinto shrine in Japan’s Mie Prefecture, is rebuilt every twenty years. This has been done for between 1,300 and 2,000 years. Elders pass on skills to youth, and on and on. Like Theseus’s Ship, the shrine from twenty-one years ago is not the shrine you see today, but it is the same shrine as 2,000 years ago.

Shielded within a district heating system or buried in salt 2/3 of a kilometer down, a spent fuel rod will be the same spent fuel rod today or ten thousand years hence. The people who tend it, or who are ignorant of it, will rise and fall in generational waves, but they will always be its tenders.

Will our ostensibly sophisticated society consider putting its worst excess on display in its homely town squares? I don’t know. I think it is at least as good an idea as nuclear power, but with the benefit of acknowledging that we don’t think ahead very well, and always in retrospect.

Nobody knows the future. This is solace for me, and exciting too. There is always a choice to do good, even if we don’t know what that is. I take the fact that a good choice is not always apparent as a feature of my human limits.

Everything ends. Everything. Accepting this is freedom. It’s a corollary to accepting there is no afterlife. Imagine how different our world would be if everyone accepted this as true. How much more kindly would we treat each other? How reluctant would we be to rise in anger? How much more deliberate would we be, and how eager to see how precious is even the smallest thing?

In a far future where all titanic struggles and aspirations are forgotten, how amazing we would be to leave behind a warm bath and a community to care for it.



Why I Miss Graham Chapman

Chapman as Brian, Revealing His Truth

Chapman as Brian, Revealing His Truth

Graham Chapman (1941-1989) is the best member of Monty Python, because he is dead.

Consider all the projections, revisions, distractions, protestations, enumerations, iterations, pauses, disappearances and re-emergences we have been spared due to Chapman’s being dead. No defending writings that annoy the uptight and religious; no half-realized and forgotten films, like Terry Jones’ “Erik the Viking”; no contrite reintroductions to respectable society after a bout (or bouts) in the Betty Ford clinic. Chapman had the last laugh first, and saved himself all that embarrassment.

We can all hope for his resurrection, a la Christ cum Brian, which would be most suitable, and enjoyed by all.

Chapman is described by those who worked with him as a shy intellectual, his humor of the baroque and cerebral bent peculiar to Britain. Meeting John Cleese at Cambridge, the two became writing partners, and after graduation both had the great fortune to begin writing and performing for David Frost and Marty Feldman at the BBC. Chapman landed his first significant role as writer and performer for At Last The 1948 Show, aired in 1967. David Attenborough commissioned Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969.

Monty Python’s success did not faze Chapman. He came out in 1968 and was a lifelong champion of gay rights. He began drinking in college, favoring gin, but gave it up in 1977. (After missing cues in stage shows, he was concerned he would not be able to perform well in the second Python movie Life of Brian, and thus ditched it.) I recall a Python documentary with Michael Palin describing picking up Chapman for the morning’s writing meeting, and the reek of gin and toothpaste filling the car. I like to think Chapman returned to his center.

Considered by the Pythons to have the best straight acting skills, Life of Brian gave Chapman the lead of hapless founder of an accidental religion. The movie’s memorable scene, beyond all the other memorable sacrilege, is featured in the image above, where naked Brian opens shutters never expecting an admiring throng to admire his…majesty.

Wikipedia states that “Chapman did not mind being filmed fully nude in front of a crowd in Life of Brian[.]” But I have seen an interview where Chapman states this scene rattled him badly. Opening the shutters on the first take elicited shrieks from the extras below, and Chapman slammed the shutters. Being nude, in the light, in front of a crowd of strangers horrified at him, Chapman recalls in a quiet, softly lit room, froze and terrified him. He had not anticipated the risk of being so open.

1979 is a world under glass now. Public nudity and gay marriage in 2015 are tolerated, more or less, or at least far less dangerous to practitioners. Teen to post-teen pop stars regularly do things on stage that would have got them drowned as witches in 1979. Sexualization of everything has made us numb to how pervasive pornography is, if not of the human body, then of the social compact whereby we agree some things are sacred. The outrage Life of Brian elicited in 1979 is 2015 quaint.

Seeing Chapman’s visible discomfort recalling his nude scene resonated with me. It resonates still. He seems like, and comes across as, such a kind and dignified man. He plays to type by being scarred. After all, he invented The Colonel, the Monty Python character that ends scenes by declaring them “too silly”. The Colonel is the kind of mask that shows the face beneath the skin.

I missed Chapman even before he was gone. He seemed like the least visible Python, the others having found well-lit places as writers, actors, and directors. I didn’t know about his wild college shows, and was still discovering all the Python films when he passed away. It was a strange loss to learn of, as if an historical figure had been reanimated ten years before I knew about it, only to die again before I learned how well he or she meshed with me.

When Brian opens the shutters, he is surrounded by people, but alone. Nobody sees him, just his nakedness. Without clothes, he doesn’t even have himself.

In the right circumstances, I can be an exhibitionist. These are limited and I’m sure preclude opening a shutter on a village square. But, if that happened, I like to think I’d have a dignity that would keep away shame. That stuff is poison, and all I did was open a shutter.

We overcome adversity, more or less. Big things we can shrug off with alarming ease, while lesser things dig in and persist. I have been lucky to have suffered little loss, but I have had enough to make for some grey years. But more vivid is my memory of a girl yelling Gawd! Fuck you, faggot! when I asked to get to my high school locker. The light in that hall, the look on her face, and the sound of her voice persist in a way more real than bigger, more recent things.

Did opening that shutter stick in Graham Chapman’s memory in the same disproportionate way? There’s only so much to read out of videotaped body language. But the possibility that this did was a revelation for me. Even someone like Chapman–educated, worldly, a trained doctor–can be wounded.

Thanks for the lesson, Colonel.

The Colonel covers all!

The Colonel covers all!

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Planets of Gold

You are here. Credit: NASA.

You are here. Credit: NASA.

1990 is in the past, but its artifacts remain. The first car that was wholly mine was a 1990 Honda Civic, a blue sedan with air conditioning and power everything. The I-35-to-I-20 interchange in Fort Worth, Texas was completed in 1990, the continent’s north-south traffic now funneled through a city-bisecting concrete trough. A year later, there would be an optional war that would shape the wars we have today. Even obvious things are hard to see.

Relenting to Carl Sagan’s years of prodding, in February 1990 NASA directed the creaky Voyager 1 spacecraft to turn its camera back the way it had come. The risk of the Sun burning out the camera no longer of concern–the way ahead held nothing to photograph–tiny heaters warmed the old-style vidicon TV tube. Unused for years, no one knew for certain if the camera would work after a deep soak in gelid cold and brutal radiation, or the motorized platform that moved it. From six billion kilometers away, the old 1970s-era tube would need long and steady exposures to gather enough light to make images.

Everything worked. 60 images were captured and returned to Earth. Two planets didn’t make an appearance: Mercury was too close to the Sun, and, due to a trick of the light, Mars was lost to reflections. Another trick of light places Earth in a sunbeam. I don’t know if any pulpits made any pronouncements based on this ostensible sign, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

“Pale Blue Dot”, as our single-pixel portrait has come to be known, is now something out of time. A cultural undercurrent, it was not photographed by anyone. It is an artifact made by an artifact. Both may last forever.

Time stretches on in little drops. If you go faster, the drops merge; if you go slower, they separate. There is no up or down, more or less: you can only move relative to something else, which is also moving. There is no solid place to stand, unless you go very fast, in which case you can become almost still. At almost the speed of light, time slows to a near stop. Only light holds the privileged place. Light is the only still thing, because light, the fastest thing there is, does not experience time at all.

Light from 1990 flows outward. Diffusing over distance, it becomes harder to pick out, but that blue glint of 1990 Earth courses outward, forever. Bits here and there will be absorbed by planets and meteors, more likely dust and gas, if anything. But the universe is almost all nothing. Most of the light will go on, always free. No time will pass for it. It will always be new.

The radio transmission Voyager 1 sent back to us is also light, just at an energy we can’t see. A very tiny portion of it landed on a parabolic dish, was washed and concentrated by equipment cooled to a hairsbreadth of absolute zero, and recorded as ons and offs. Almost all of it passed us by and flew on into the dark. Data no one will ever read still retains the sensibility of that long-ago day, and always will.

Old Kodachrome memories of grandparents’ houses and elementary schools sit in albums and redden with time. The light that exposed the film is long gone, turned to tiny heat that drifted away. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, only its temporary condensation held in something we can appreciate. Photographs won’t last forever, but the light that made them will.

We know just enough about the world to begin to ask questions as profound as they are unanswerable. Logic is our friend here. In a big enough place with endless time, the possible is certain.

I read a planetary science article that described a new conclusion about how Earth got its gold. Previous to this new work, it was thought that all the gold humans have ever panned from streams or dug out of mines came from our planet’s formation billions of years ago. Staring at apple trees and fiddling with calculators, the authors had a hypothesis this couldn’t be right. What we know of geology and planetary formation, applied to a computer model of the early Earth, prove that all the Earth’s original gold is too dense to have stayed anywhere near the surface for humans to find. Due to its density, all that primordial gold must have fallen down to the core, back when the planet glowed red hot. So, the Earth should have no gold. (Whether this applies to lead, or uranium, or any heavy elements is not explored.) But, there is gold. Studying meteorites and comets suggest that all the gold available to us was deposited in countless impacts, over millions of years, as comets and meteors pelted the early Earth.

On its own, this is one of those interesting observations that can make for bar chatter that proves you’re a square. But this stuck with me.

Well, I thought waiting for the bus one work day, if all the gold fell to the Earth’s core, it must still be there. In among the liquid iron that churns and makes the magnetic field, there must also be gold. Giant globs of it, mountains of it. So much gold that we’d make wires out of it instead of copper. 

The bus comes.

Oh. If that’s true for Earth, that must be true for other planets like Earth, like we are finding these days. And the universe is 15 billion years old, give or take, so there must be countless dead Earths. If they were closer to their star, and their star blew up, those other Earths would disintegrate, blown out into the galaxy, the debris cooling down. 

This is what meteors and asteroids are: bits of junk that never got big enough or to the right place to become a planet, or a planet ground up by their neighbor’s gravity. I’m guessing Jupiter smashing up a proto-planet is what made our asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. (If Mars had been a little closer to Jupiter, or managed to grow a little bigger in the Solar System’s first millions of years, it might have been ground up too.)

Through tunnels and over bridges the bus goes. Steel girders carry streets and make columns. Some meteors are solid iron and nickel. You can turn them on a lathe. Those rocks must be the frozen hunks of planetary cores. They were broken up and frozen, and they rain down from time to time. 

Do you see what I see?

Throughout the galaxy, there must be asteroids of gold. Smashed apart in impacts or blown up by dying stars, a rocky planet’s core cracks like an egg and the glowing contents spill out and freeze. All that stuff trapped inside for billions of years is released again: the gold, the lead, every scarce oddball on the periodic table in rocks as big as cities, as mountains, as continents.

Planets of gold surround us.

Mars is hot again. There’s a movie made from a novel about a stranded astronaut, and a semi-autonomous robot of the kind Carl Sagan dreamed of is wheeling around the surface, tasting rocks and sending pictures. Fools who should know better think a one-way trip to Mars is a good use of precious resources instead of cause for a serious talk about watching too much television. A few people are kind-of interested in these sorts of adventures. Most feel more like Gil Scott-Heron, back when we were only talking about cities on the Moon.

We will never go. Such an undertaking is too expensive, and that is how we really measure things. That going would kill most people before they arrived, and contaminate Mars with Earth microorganisms, are secondary reasons.

Still. Wonder costs nothing. We have plenty already, right here, that we don’t know about. I understand running away from problems, but that only gets you so far. Better to sort out what’s a problem and what’s something you can act on.

It’s certain there are others out there, if not looking through telescopes then just looking up and wondering. It’s enough to imagine, out there in the dark and never to be found, whole worlds of silver and gold, time and distance making it so they will never be valuable, only beautiful. That is a worthy faith.

Golden. Credit: ESA; Hubble, M. Kornmesser; and ESO, L. Calçada and L. L. Christensen

Golden. Credit: ESA; Hubble, M. Kornmesser; and ESO, L. Calçada and L. L. Christensen