by O Bod
... where Nero is fired and tries to figure what to do with himself next...
Of All Places
Sometimes it's the Journey
In the beginning, Nero had a life like most others. He'd get up in the morning, brush his teeth, do his stretching and push-ups, and then catch the train to work. He'd arrive at the office around 8:30 but wouldn't actually start working until a good half-hour later, as he liked to sip his coffee in front of his computer screen as he went over the news headlines on the Internet, his e-mail and his schedule. Usually he had only one or two meetings a day as he was fairly low on the totem pole and was expected mostly to produce things with his keyboard and mouse, as opposed to interfacing with other people, as the managers seemed to do most of their time. This suited Nero fine, as he never got that same sense of accomplishment from people as he did when he produced something. When some task was complete, concise, working, and elegant it really made his day. You know, the kind of satisfaction you get when you manage to clear out the sink and counter and put it all in the dishwasher and it exactly fits and you hit the ON button. It was a good life, or comfortable one, at any rate.
But this day appeared to start off not too well. His e-mail contained nothing but junk - nothing from his co-workers or boss, which he thought was odd. When he clicked on his home page, there was one of those "Top 10" lists, this one entitled: 'Ten signs you're about to be fired". Normally ignoring these, he clicked that link now, and sure enough, item number 1 read: 'You're not copied on mail or memos, and you're not invited to meetings.' No sooner had he read that then he noticed a commotion outside, people walking hurriedly past the door to his office. His next-door neighbor poked his head in and inquired: "Aren't you coming to the meeting?"
"I guess I'm not invited."
Throughout the day more signs showed up. Mid-morning he finally did receive a relevant e-mail, from the director bemoaning that the company is facing tough times - that was number 7 on the list. At lunch he noticed that none of his group members sat next to him, and when he returned to his office he found somebody had removed the monitor he had installed the week before - sure enough, those were mentioned, too, and he checked off items number 3 and 5 on the list of signs he was going to get sacked.
He looked around his office, maybe for the last time. It was more than the place where he worked. It was his second home. No, it was his first home, as he spent more waking hours here than at his real home, and he had set it up just like he liked it, without having to care what anyone else felt. He had 4 shelves of knick-knacks and memorabilia from his previous travels, homes and workplaces. He had posters from the 60s and from faraway places. He had a rug on top of the wall-to-wall carpeting. No interior-designer could classify this style, and nothing matched. His CD collection, which he played on the computer, included both classical music (especially Bach), and modern, but nothing past the 70s, except for African music, of which he bought whatever he could get his hands on
He had a telescope set up near the window pointing out to sea. (He fancied himself an amateur astronomer, and he could already name a couple of constellations, including The Big Dipper, and Orion, with its famous red giant star Betelgeuse on the top of the hunter. He kept the number of the Astronomical Society on his phone, on the speed-dial list, just in case he'd be the first to witness Betelgeuse going super-nova, which it was bound to do, any day now, within the next 1000 years, just when he walked the dog in the evening ...).
He had a pet of sorts, or a friend animal, in the form of a squirrel that would come knocking at his window around 4 o'clock every afternoon. Nero would feed it some cashews which he kept in a drawer just for that purpose.
Another 'pet' was one of those miniature Japanese Bonsai trees, which he kept on his desk and cared for lovingly, with an artsy Japanese poster scotch-taped to the wall behind it. He had never been to Japan - always wanted to. The world was just the right size - big enough to be constantly interesting, as nobody can visit and experience every corner of the globe in a lifetime, yet it is small enough that one could still visit most places. Now maybe he'll have time to travel a bit. All you need is a little money. And time, which he seemed to have plenty on hand now. He could see the world, and maybe even understand it a little better...
Maybe these signs were all a coincidence, but he decided he was not going to wait it out and risk the humiliation. He needed a change of scene, anyway.
He composed a terse e-mail, putting only 'Cabbages and Kings' in the subject-line and nothing else, and sent it to all. It would appear instantly on everybody's screens. Then he grabbed his backpack and headed down the corridor to the door, but Eli stepped out of his office and blocked his way.
"I had no idea," he said, and proceeded to quote Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum's Walrus and Carpenter poem (actually Lewis Carroll's poem): "The time has come ..."
"See you around," Nero interrupted, shook his hand and headed out quickly, before anyone else overheard the phrase and came out to see who and what he was referring to (which is why he didn't put it in the mail to begin with). Should know better than to underestimate Eli ...
He'd return to clear out his desk later. "Good luck!" Eli shouted after him.
The train station looked unfamiliar at this hour. None of the crowds he was accustomed to seeing at the end of the workday. He knew the evening schedule by heart, but at this hour he had to consult the wall. He walked in a daze to platform 2, boarded the train, found a seat and in an instant he was asleep.
Chapter 1: Why is it Blue, Anyway?
Land of the Freeze
It was near midnight when Floyd called me to come outside. I put on my parka, hood, mittens and boots and followed Floyd out, and a short stroll later we were at the edge of town, and also at the edge of the land: The smooth snow ended there and the broken-up shore ice began, stretching out until the horizon. I continued straight on, hopping on and over the first big chunks, but Floyd stopped me.
"I wouldn't do that", he said.
"Then why did we come out here?" I asked.
"Look", he responded, and pointed due north, beyond the ice flows, where a shiny white disk hung low in the sky, just above the horizon.
"Is that the sun?"
"But we're looking north, aren't we? Why would the sun be north? We're in the northern hemisphere. The sun is always south of here."
"Because it's midnight. The sun is south only around noon".
At 6 am it is due east, at noon it is in the south, at 6 pm the sun is in the west, and now, at midnight, the sun can be seen due north. The sun was really directly above the equatorial region on the other side of the world, like over Chad in Africa, so I was looking at it over the North Pole. So there you have it, all day and all night, the sun as a 24-hour clock. But that's only in the summer time, of course - the down side is that during winter months the sun never rises above the horizon at all...
I decided to do "The Northwest", as Americans call this region, but with all the time I have now, I started a little more north and west than usual: In Barrow, Alaska. Can't get much more north than that, in America, anyway. Land of Eskimos and floating icebergs, this region is covered with permafrost, which means the ground is always frozen, at least at some depth. In the summer months the top few centimeters melt, but as it is still frozen below the surface, the ground stays wet on top. Mosquitoes love it, humans less so. They have to build their houses on stilts above the ground. The humans, that is.
The funny thing about getting here was that I joined a package guided tour, including flights, hotel and guide, even though I'd be staying with friends and didn't need the hotel. But it was much cheaper this way, and although I usually shun away from tour-groups, here I was in this group, listening to the guide make his pitch.
"Why is it colder up here?" He was asking the small crowd, "Anybody? How 'bout you young sir?" addressing a 10-year old in the front.
"Maybe because it's icy here?" the boy ventured. His older brother snickered, but the guide seemed pleased.
"Yes, ice causes cold. Before they had refrigerators they had ice boxes. Some places they still do. The ice-man would walk down the street with his horse-drawn ice-cart. So ice cools the air near it, and also, as a good part of the ground in the Arctic is covered by ice, the sunlight reflects back, exacerbating the effect. Good answer! But what makes this area cold in the first place? Anyone else? Why is it warmer around the equator than near the poles?"
No answer. The guide went on: "I'm waiting for somebody to suggest that the equator is nearer to the sun than the poles are, but the difference is negligible. I salute you folks for not saying that. Maybe later I'll challenge you with why mountain-tops are colder than valleys. Hint: The difference in the distance to the sun is negligible there, too. Anyway, back to the poles. Well, for one thing, the sunlight hits the surface of the earth at the poles at an angle, sometimes almost 180 degrees (as opposed to straight on at the equator). This causes every square centimeter of sun rays to cover many square centimeters of ground up here, so each square centimeter of ground in the arctic area gets a fraction of sunlight compared to its counterpart near the equator. There's a name for that: Insolation," emphasizing the 'o' in 'sol.
Is that a word? I knew of insulation, of course. Maybe it's like one of those portmanteaus, a fusion of 2 words, like all those gibberish terms in The Jabberwocky, gyre and gimble and so on...
The guide continued: "Another reason is that the sunlight that reaches the ground here in the Arctic is rather diffused, having to pass through much more atmosphere, also due to the angle of attack..."
At 72 degrees latitude, Barrow is the northernmost town in the USA, some 800 kilometers north of Fairbanks, which is only at about 65 north. Still, it isn't quite the tropics: It is equivalent to Iceland, or to the edge of Antarctica in the south. I remembered learning in high school that the distance between 2 successive degrees of latitude is always 111 kilometers. Longitude degrees, in contrast, vary in distance, from zero at the poles to 111 kilometers at the equator. At the equator a square degree is really a square (or almost). I also knew that the circumference of the earth at the equator, which one can figure out by multiplying 111km by 360 degrees, results in just about 40,000 km. So a quarter of the way around, say from a point on the equator to the North Pole would be 10,000 kilometers. That's a wonderfully round number, isn't it? A suspiciously round number. My physics teacher, and later an accountant I had known, warned me never to trust round numbers. So you never charge a customer one thousand dollars. You bill him $1012.50 But the 10,000 kilometers span of a quadrant of the globe is no coincidence - it is "by definition", as they say: That's how they decided what a kilometer is.
Why did I start my journey so far from home? Maybe I just wanted to get away from it all, and the further the better. Leave behind the old job, the whole rat-race, the whole consumerism thing. Maybe get back at them, once I figure out a plan.
Am I in mourning, after being laid off? But I wasn't really fired, I quit, let's get that clear. Ok, I did go back there, but only to collect all my knick-knacks and other junk. And I did meet with the forces that be (if only to collect my last paycheck ...). Not fun, but I have to admit they were decent about it, and they made it short and sweet. Without admitting that they were sacking me (or any other wrong-doing on their part), they did fire me, which we mutual agreed to, so that I could collect the severance pay, too.
The bottom line is that formally I was fired, though informally it was my own decision. (Though, if truth be told, they were sacking me anyway...). OK, they sacked me.
What were the stages or mourning again? - shock, denial, isolation, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance... Shocked - well, who wouldn't be? Denial? I'm not in denial, or maybe a little bit (ok, I wasn't laid-off - to be honest, they outright fired me). As for Isolation: What makes you think that? (Oh, the top of Alaska? Doesn't everybody have that on their bucket-list?) Anger: No. I don't get angry. But I'll show them (wasn't there a bumper-sticker to that effect?).
I don't want to think about that anymore, just want to put it behind me, enjoy my journey - I'm off to greater things now!
In Barrow I stayed with friends who ran a home of sorts for homeless children. Like all houses, theirs too was on stilts, and they had a working snowmobile in front and a couple of non-working ones in the back. They did all their shopping at the local general store, which they called Stuakpak. You could get anything there, from a pint of milk (I couldn't believe the prices), to a shotgun. They introduced me to the kids, who all seemed to have names that went out of style a century ago: Floyd, Ira, Ronald, Harry, and also Bertha, Alice, and Daisy Mae.
Fish Eat Fish
I happened on an exciting day in Barrow. First, it was the 4th of July, though no fireworks were to be seen, as it never got dark enough to see them properly (You can't see the northern lights in Alaska during the summer, either). Second, the lead had just opened up. That means that the shore ice broke, allowing a cargo ship to visit the town, which it does about once a year, bringing with it heavy cargo, such as cars, snowmobiles, building material, etc. The lead also allowed the hunters to camp on the edge of the ice and catch their annually-allowed single whale catch. I didn't get to see that, though I did watch a video of the previous year's catch on video at the visitor center. The whole town came out to help drag the whale onto the ice, and then it was chopped into portions for each house-hold to take home. The center also showed Eskimo mukluk boots, traditional games, Eskimo dancing, and igloo building, though I felt it was mostly a show for tourists. Still, there was something nostalgic, if not romantic, about Eskimos. Maybe it was from cartoons I used to watch as a child, often featuring them with igloos and penguins. Oh, and polar-bears, too. After the visitor center I even got to munch on actual whale meat, called muktuk, at the children's home. They kept it in the freezer, but took small sections out on special occasions, served raw. The kids loved it. Me - less so. There wasn't really any meat on the piece I got, just a centimeter-thick black skin, and the rest pink blubber. Maybe if there was a salad to go with it.
"Do you have any vegetables?" I asked.
A couple of the kids smiled at the question.
"There are some in the Stuakpak, I think", my host answered, "but we don't buy them".
"So you never eat vegetables?"
"But you have to eat vegetables. Vitamins, you know".
"We're healthy enough", he answered. "We eat fish. Fish are healthy."
"What makes fish so healthy?"
"They eat fish".
In the afternoon it warmed up a bit (just a tad over freezing), and we went outside to play Eskimo baseball, me in my parka, the kids in short-sleeve shirts. In the evening (though still light) we got into a pickup truck and drove down the shore, looking for seals to shoot (thankfully, we found none).
"No seals today", Floyd said happily, and then shrugged. Floyd was always happy.
"Why don't we see any polar bears here? Or penguins?"
"The polar bears are mostly in Canada. And there aren't any penguins here, either".
I looked at my host. "Why not?"
"The nearest thing to penguins you might see in Alaska are puffins", he answered. "Penguins live south of the equator, on the southern parts of South America and Africa, and also Australia and New Zealand. And all around Antarctica, of course."
That was new to me.
On the flight to Fairbanks, I looked out the window at the tundra landscape below, and then the mountain ranges, which continue almost uninterrupted until the southern point of South America. Beside me sat a husky bearded man, who would pass for a local roughneck straight out of Northern Exposure, if not for his 3-piece suit.
"Fancy attire", I commented.
The guy looked visibly embarrassed.
"No, you see, I'm a lawyer", he apologized. "Name is Dave", and he held out his hand.
When I visited Dave at his home in Anchorage a week later, I found him in much less formal clothes, in a little house on the outskirts of the city. It was a warm and humid day, and we played croquet out in the yard. For dinner Dave took some halibut out from an ice locker in his cellar, and cut it into inch-thick slices with a chainsaw, which his wife Barbara prepared superbly.
"Tell me", I said. "Why do cars have screens on their windshields here, and electric plugs dangling out from their hoods?"
"You're in Alaska. You can't start your car in the morning in the winter without heating it up a few minutes. All cars have electric heaters under the hood. And if you drive out of town, it's a good idea to have window-protectors. The pavement is always breaking in spring thaw and pieces of gravel and stuff fly at you when other vehicles pass. Can't drive too close behind somebody, either".
That's why I saw all these electric outlets in the parking lots. "The fish is delicious".
"And how's the legal business in Alaska?" I inquired.
"Can't complain. Money's ok, too".
"He hates it", Barbara explained.
"Which part - the lawyer or the money?"
"Both. He wants to fish and go back to the barter system. One time he actually walked into an ice-cream parlor and traded a freshly-caught fish for an ice-cream cone".
I feel a plan beginning to formulate here. The world would be a better place without money, wouldn't it? But it's been done - John Lennon sang about that ... Well, money can be useful, easier for exchanging things than having a camel and a goat in tow. It's the relentless pursue of so much of it that causes pain and sorrow. You should really be happy when you have enough, and leave it at that. The constant chase of the latest gadgets, that's really the cause of the problem. Maybe the plan should be to rid the world of gadgets, show them that they are superfluous and meaningless. But where does one start, and how?
Because it is there
I headed south from Anchorage, and stopped in the town of Seward, named after some U.S. Secretary of State who was involved in buying Alaska from the Russians for peanuts, over a century ago. There I stopped to read a sign, which almost made me put on my running shoes. I was standing in front of Mt. Marathon, where legend has it that two gold-diggers bet that one couldn't climb up and back down the mountain in under an hour. I liked challenges, but not the life-threatening extreme ones. Sure, Hillary climbed Everest, but no sooner had he done that, then there were new mountain-climbing challenges: Climbing Everest without oxygen bottles, climbing the tallest mountain on each continent, etc. (I used to think that Everest was a clever name for the tallest mountain - it always rests. Only later I learned that it is named after an actual person - the British surveyor in India, Sir George Everest). Swimmers have their challenge swims, too. There's the English channel, of course, which everybody's heard about, but then you also have your Europe-to-Africa crossing, Cuba-to-Florida, crossing the dateline, and so on. And for runners there seems no end to races and records. That's what I was debating that day, standing before Mt. Marathon, while waiting for the Ferry. It was only 1.5 miles to the top, and the same distance down again - I was sure I could do it in under an hour, which was the original challenge, according to the sign there (now the record is less than 45 minutes, but I'm not a real athlete).
Yes, I told myself, I will definitely do it. Definitely. Next time I find myself in Alaska, if it is at the right time. For the Mt. Marathon race is on the 4th of July, and that was 2 weeks earlier, and I had a ferry to catch ... I could have climbed the mountain by myself, of course, with a stop-watch, but that was no fun. So having copped out of this challenge, I was feeling an urge to prove my physical worth when I boarded the ferry the following morning. But as soon as I met some of my fellow passengers, I felt better: They were mostly twice my age, and three times my weight. And that wasn't surprising - these cruises served 5 meals a day, with coffee and pastries served in between.
A Meal in Itself
It took four days to cruise to Vancouver, peeking into fjords, stopping in little gold-mining towns, and getting stuffed in between. Not a bad trip, after all, for those who spent some of the time on deck and not in the dining room. They had a Jacuzzi on the deck, which was usually crowded, but I did manage to squeeze in once between two couples from Yakima, Washington, of all places. I also saw plenty of bald eagles, and a couple of times we went into fiords with waterfalls all around and a real-to-life glacier at the end. To me it seemed that some parts of the glacier looked bluish, but I couldn't be sure, and didn't know whom to ask. We would get fairly close to the glacier, and then the captain would blow the ship's horn, trying to topple some ice from the glacier's end into the water, but usually succeeding only in startling the seals, who'd look up from their resting spots on the drift ice and slip into the water. Once or twice they'd send out a lifeboat to collect some ice, which they later carved into elaborate shapes and statues and showed them in the dining room.
In Vancouver I visited the Expo and then Stanley Park, where I watched a game of cricket for about half-an-hour, but still couldn't figure it out. The next day I boarded the ferry to Vancouver Island, and when I reached Victoria I treated myself to tea and crumpets. Butchart Gardens is one of those "must-sees" that I tended to avoid, but I went anyway, and had to admit it was both beautiful and in good taste. I caught another ferry to the US mainland, to Port Angeles, Washington state, and soon found myself in the rainforests of Olympic National Park. The beach area of the park was beautiful, and although swimming in the frigid water with those killer driftwood logs was unthinkable, I loved walking among the rocks among the tidal area, where the barnacles and sea anemones thrive. And then I found I liked the forest part of the park even more: Huge old trees that reach the sky, dense undergrowth, animal sounds ... The phrase "virgin woods" came to mind and for a while there on the path I felt I was an explorer, entering these woods for the first time, with a machete at hand.
Later, as I headed towards Seattle, I found that parts of the woods are planted by the lumber companies and farmed like wheat, as it were. "This section planted in 1992", read one sign by the roadside. That seemed to take away some of the grandeur and mystique I held for trees, one of nature's grandest achievements. Still, I loved everything and anything made of wood, be them pencils, chopsticks, toothpicks, cloth pins or toilet seats, so if this is the way to make the things I loved, so be it. (Kind of like the shock I had experienced when I learned how they make hot-dogs - took me about a whole week till I started eating them again...)
After Seattle, I headed towards Mount Rainier, where I stopped only briefly, then visited Roslyn, where they filmed the Northern Exposure series. Towards evening I found himself at a dinner table in Yakima, with the couples I had met earlier on the ferry from Alaska. "How do you like your soup?" Ann asked me, as she looked up from her own bouillabaisse. "Good", I answered, and stuffed another spoonful into my mouth, this time with a scallop. When I looked up, I saw that my hostess was still watching me, as if expecting further complements. "Almost a meal in itself!" I offered grandly. "It is the meal in itself", she corrected me, and I didn't say another word for the rest of the meal.
Almost at the border with Oregon, where my north-west journey ends. Thinking about it, I don't think that comparing my predicament to mourning is fair. Maybe Miss Rumphius is a better analogy. It is a story I read many years ago, and although I don't remember all the details, I think the main message was that it is not enough to enjoy your life; you also have to do the following: Travel the world (see, I'm doing that now), make a home by the sea (that would be nice), and do something to make the world a better place (she planted lupines, me - still working on that last one ...)
Reflections of your mind
I am now on this little boat, heading to the island in Crater Lake, not far from Eugene, Oregon. For Crater Lake is an extinct volcano, and its dome collapsed, leaving a huge empty crater, which was filled with water, and is now, some say, the deepest lake in the U.S. And then a second dome formed, and it juts above the water, so you have an island there now, called Wizard Island. And that's where we're heading, courtesy of the National Park Service. There's a young family on board, with a little girl, maybe 4 years old. She's looking at her reflection in the water, and turns to her dad. "Look, Daddy", she says, "There's another little girl there, only I'm real." "No, Halo", her Daddy teases her, "She's the real one". Halo turns serious, tries waving at her reflection, and then turns to her mother. "Mommy, I'm real, aren't I?" "Of course you are, dear", she answers. Halo smiles, and turned away from the water. And her counterpart, the watery Halo, also tires of looking at her reflection, turns away, and goes about her business.
I saw a halo around the moon the evening before. It was a perfect circle around the moon, hazy yet shimmering - a sight to behold. "Halo" I say out loud, invoking the memory.
"What?" the little girl answered.
"Oh, umm, is that your name? That's a nice name."
Her father eyes me discreetly.
I go on: "No, I saw a halo around the moon last night, and I was wondering about that."
"Cirrostratus clouds," the little girl says.
"The halo isn't really around the moon. It just looks that way. It's the clouds in between."
"Really? I never knew that. How does that work?"
"Cirrostratus are very high, so the water freezes, so it's really little vertical crystals of ice, and the ice reflects light, so you're really looking at the moonlight twice, once straight from the moon and then again from the moonlight bouncing off the ice crystals."
"Wow. But why a circle?"
"Because you can only see the reflection of the moon from a certain angle of the ice crystals, and it's always the same big. Isn't that right, Daddy?"
Her father was sitting behind her, beaming.
"That right, honey". Then to me: "It's easy if you see a drawing of it."
I kind of saw it in my mind, but didn't understand why it was always the same size. Last night it looked bigger than ever...
Why is it Blue?
We continue on for a while, the outboard motor our only sound. Finally the guide breaks the silence. "You're probably wondering why the lake is so blue?" he asks. Before anyone could respond, he blurts out his canned answer: "The water is deep and clear, so the light rays passing through there dissipate until the wave-lengths of all the colors are gone, except the longest or shortest one, as the case may be, hence it looks blue, or something to that effect". Nobody seems to understood that (least of all, it seems, the guide), but the explanation contains enough scientific-sounding words, so that no one has the courage (or daring, or interest) to ask what the hell that means. Except for me, who tends to take things literally, and I think it means that it isn't really blue at all, but the absence of all the other colors.
The boat reaches Wizard Island and everybody disembarks. The guide says that we are welcome to climb the path to the top of the cone, and then adds that the record time for this climb is 12 minutes even, set in 1982 by a marathon runner.
A couple of young 'uns glance at their watches and take off in a run, but I opt to walk up, pondering the color blue. Blue is sadness, tranquility. But blue is rare in nature - you never see blue roses, and blue eyes are considered special, at least were I hark from. But blue is not just the absence of other colors - it's a color in its own right, too. The ancients used to make the pigment from natural sources, like lapis lazuli. And there's also blue in iridescent surfaces, as in butterfly wings, parrot-fish scales, hummingbird feathers, etc.
When we see a color, what we really see is light of specific wavelengths, so the color blue might be light of, say, 450 nanometers, which is interpreted in the brain as the color blue. So objects with blue pigment aren't really blue, of course. They are objects that absorb other wavelengths and reflect only the "blue" wavelength to the eye. Kind of like a filter, only it reflects the filtered light instead of passing it through the filter. Still rather puzzling. Ok, say 2 people are standing in front of a wall and shouting, one in a high soprano, the other in a low bass voice. The wall is made of a material that absorbs the low bass, but reflects (echoes) back the high soprano. A third person, passing by, might say "hmm, that wall sounds soprano". Hmm, a 'sound wall' - has that been invented yet?
By now I have reached the top (in 32 minutes, even), and discover that this dome also had a crater in it, and was that yet another little dome coming up from the bottom? This could go on forever. Like those Russian Babushka dolls, we could have ever-diminishing volcanoes.
I notice a tall pony-tailed figure standing near me. Didn't pony-tails for guys go out of style in the 70s? Then I realize it is the park ranger, who took us over in the boat.
"I didn't see you walking up here. Do you hike up every trip to the island?"
"Nah. I try and do it once or twice a day. Only exercise I get these days."
"So, tell me, about that explanation you gave us on the boat about the color of the lake ..."
"I know, I know. But, hey, it worked, didn't it?"
"So, what, you're just a bullshit artist?"
"No. Well, sometimes I get bored. But I do know my stuff".
"Ok, see that spruce tree over there?" I asked, pointing at a tree nearby.
"That's a fir".
I look at him.
"For one, you can tell a spruce from a fir by the way the top tilts. And second, there are only firs here".
Good explanation - informative, to the point, and yet not too cocky. I decide he is okay.
"I'm Nero", I say.
"Carl", is the answer, without taking his hands out of his pocket. I already know that - it says so over his left shirt pocket.
"So, tell me, that fir over there - is it really green?" I ask.
"What is really? It looks green to us, at least in the daylight".
"And at night?"
"In the dark it is dark, colorless."
"No it isn't! It is still green. We just can't see it in the dark. But if you suddenly shine on it with a flashlight, then you see that it is green."
"Ah, but you are shining a light at it, so then it looks green again."
"So you say that the act of shining a light on it changes its color?"
I think about that. "Reminds me of something I once heard in physics".
"Probably Heisenberg's uncertainty principle".
"You know, that you can't measure both the location and speed of a particle? So one aspect of that is that the mere act of measuring a property of a particle, say its speed, influences the outcome of the measurement. So your shining a light on the tree to see its color may very well change its color."
"Is that like opening the door of the fridge to check if the light inside is on?"
Carl chuckles. "We used to collect these, back at the lab, I mean. Self-defeating tests. I'm a grad student. Physics - ABD - All But Dissertation. It's taking me forever, too, the dissertation. Anyway, these are fun questions. The most obvious one is asking the teacher if there's any homework, and we have the one with the fridge light. Then we also have: Checking on the baby to see if it's asleep, asking the garage mechanic if he thinks we should service the brakes, drug-testing. There are variations, like a 'self-fulfilling prophecy', but they all burn down to the fact that the question, or merely asking it, affects the answer, or the outcome. Take the placebo effect: You use a placebo to measure the effect of it, which is supposed to be zero, against a drug. But the measurement of the placebo itself affects the outcome of what you are trying to measure. We have a few others. The flashlight affecting the color is neat - mind if we add that to our collection?"
I think, then say "Here's one: A low-hanging sign that all it does is warn 'watch your head'".
"Bit contrived, but that's the idea".
I try to think of other ones (Here's one: a lifeguard checks if there's a lifeguard at the pool, so he goes to the poolside, and yes, now there is a lifeguard at the pool, so he goes away, but then there's no lifeguard there ... or a news event that happens only if it is observed (or the observers affect the outcome - is that Nitze?), money brings money, success brings success, the anthropic principle, etc.)
Very Much Like a Rope
"So, are you saying that that tree isn't green?"
"That's not what I said", the ranger continues. "The color depends on many factors, such as lighting, pigment, and texture, but it is also subjective. Different animals may see different colors, and even humans may see colors differently, depending on your genes. Our eyes see, or detect, electro-magnetic waves within a specific range of frequencies, that our brain translates into colors."
I must have a blank look on my face, like a student who missed the last lesson and the teacher was just plowing along with the next lesson.
"Ok, let's back up." Carl continues, "Our senses are our body's windows to the world, and really consist of sensors to detect specific things in our surroundings, which are deemed by the forces that be to be essential or advantageous to our survival. These windows are really tiny loopholes that show a small portion of what is out there. You have your chemical detectors, taste and smell, right, that do little more than tell us what is good to eat, with humans, anyway."
"I know", I interrupt, "there are 4 basic tastes: Sweet, sour, salty and bitter".
"Actually there are probably a couple more, but it's still a very small fraction of the chemicals out there. Though some people are better than others, and you can train and enhance your senses, too, like smelling different wines or a staph infection. Me - I'm practicing measuring my pulse without holding my wrist, just feeling the heart beat. Anyway, take the electromagnetic spectrum: We can detect only small samplings of the spectrum: There's the audible range, the visual range, and perhaps in other frequencies we can feel vibrations or heat. Our brain tries to make sense of these signals, and converts them into colors or words or skin feelings. But most of the electromagnetic radiation we can't detect: infra- and ultra- sound and light, x-rays, radio waves, cosmic waves, and so on. We can build machines now that can detect all that, but if we just relied on our senses, we'd be like the blind men and the elephant, groping around blindly, trying to make sense of the animal by what little they could grasp, like its ear, trunk, or tail."
We stand in silence for a bit, and then Carl says: "Gotta get back to the boat now".
I give one last look at the cloudless sky. Is that really blue? Nah, I answer myself. It ain't blue - just looks that way ...
Chapter 2: From Here to There
I am sitting in an airport terminal, biding the time, for I have many hours to kill until my connection. I've already visited many of the shops here, and bought nothing (if you don't count the occasional doughnut, of which I've already consumed 2 ...). There is a clothes store here that boasts 10% off, but even so I'd need to mortgage my non-existing pad to buy a shirt there. And a fancy watch store, where the cheapest item on display costs $1000. There is a computer / gadget store here, too, which I did not visit, as it seems too close to home (I used to work in the field). Why do I feel guilty having worked in that industry? Maybe because the pay was good and it was so much fun? I confess that I liked the technical challenges of the job, much like solving puzzles. And the people were, well, similar to me. But sometimes it didn't feel right, and I wondered where it's going, if it's really beneficial to, like, mankind. Some of it may even be detrimental ... Time to consume another doughnut.
Consumerism sounds like a worthy cause to fight - that would help the world, wouldn't it? And gadgets - why the relentless pursuit of the latest gadget, that will anyway join the heap of yesteryear before the year is over... And thousand-dollar watches. C'mon! Who needs a $1000 watch? Come to think of it, who needs a watch at all? The time is omnipresent: There, I just raised my eyes and there's a huge clock in front of me, and another one ticking away over the Departures Board. That's what I'll do - do away with watches, and clocks, and all kinds of time-pieces! Free the world of our dependency on these things, letting each second control our lives. The angle of the sun in the sky is all you need to tell if it's morning or afternoon - do we really need more than that?
What next, where to? After so many planes, connections and transfers, I've lost track of where I came from, where I am and where I am going. Glancing down at my hands I see I am holding a boarding pass to somewhere, so I'll just go with that and worry about it later.
There is a smoke-filled room not far from where I am sitting. A sign over the door reads 'Smoking Room', and I see a couple of people going in, but none coming out. I think that people who smoke are silly as they are killing themselves, and here are people willingly going into a smoke-filled chamber that is unquestionably poisonous. I wonder if there may be other rooms at the airport were people can kill themselves by other means, like 'cyanide room', 'hara-kiri room', and so on. Morbid thought. "Last call for flight 17", blares the PA system. "Please proceed to gate 45!" I check my boarding pass again. That's my flight. I get up and walk to the gate, and board the plane.
The person sitting next to me is an elderly Russian guy, and I can't understand a word he is saying. After half-an-hour of animated hand gestures, I lift my arms in despair and exclaim "Sorry, I can't speak Russian. I wish I could, but I can't, so that's it", and return to my book. I hope that my companion will also calm down, but I feel him squirming and moving in his seat. He stands up, pushes me unapologetically, and removes an old attachcase from the overhead compartment. Then he sits down noisily, places it on his lap and starts fidgeting with some books and papers inside. After maybe 10 minutes of this he pokes me in my ribs and asks "Why?"
"Why you want speak Russian?"
I really want peace and quiet now. It is a good book, and I'm just getting into it. It is non-fiction, and almost by definition not a thriller, but it is filled with new facts that are well worth knowing. For instance, most people think that the planet Jupiter orbits the sun, but the book states that the sun and Jupiter orbit a point between the two bodies, outside (albeit very near) the surface of the sun. Wait, that can't be right. I look at the book cover to check who the author was. Asimov. He should know what he's talking about. So it's probably true. Wow - now there's a fun fact for parties! Back into the book, I learn that the point around which the two bodies rotate, called 'the barycenter', is the center of mass between the two bodies. That's like if a heavy-weight person and a light-weight person sit on opposite sides of a see-saw, then you'd have to place the axis of the see-saw nearer to the heavy person, and that's where the center of mass is. I rest the book on my lap and think about that. Does that also apply to the earth and the moon? Does that mean that the moon doesn't really rotate around the earth, but they both rotate around their barycenter? And what happens when there are 3 bodies, such as the sun, Jupiter and Saturn - where is their barycenter, and how do they orbit around each other?
"I say why you want speak Russian?"
I am at wits end. About 7 rows in front of me I see an empty seat, and I yearn to sit there quietly. It is an aisle seat, and the next seat is taken by a young man who seems to be engrossed in his own book, so that should offer me some peace for a while. I turn to my companion: "I would like to know Russian, because, umm, so I could read Russian chess books and be a better chess-player. Now, if you'll excuse me, I just noticed a friend of mine is on the plane, so I am going to move and sit next to him" (quick thinking - I read that that's what Bobby Fischer did.) And with that I get up, nod to my former seat-neighbor, and walk briskly forward.
"This seat taken?" I ask.
"No, go ahead".
I sit down and open my book. The guy on my right doesn't look more than 17. He is tall and blond with a little stub beard and wearing a track suit. Maybe he is representing some country in a competition, but I can't see any insignias. Probably on the back - I'll have to wait until he goes to the bathroom or something.
I keep my head pointed at my book but strain my eyes to look right. The guy has out a pen and paper now, and is jotting something down. Or is that a drawing? 5 parallel horizontal lines, and then a curved symbol on the left. Ah, isn't that a G-clef? He's writing music! I watch as the guy quickly and elegantly draws notes, sharp-signs and rest-signs and all the kinds of other music notation that I learned in music theory as a child, now long-forgotten. How could this guy do so without a keyboard or something to try it out? Must be a musical genius. I want to ask him how he does it, but fear I might interrupt his train of thought. Once I bought for a friend a sign that read 'Shh! Genius at Work' - that would come in handy here.
Hold the Beef
Lunch is coming down the aisle, so I feel I'll finally have a chance to talk with him, but the stewardess speaks first: "Beef Wellington or Chicken schnitzel?"
She is looking directly at me, so I answer first: "Schnitzel for me."
"Ditto," my neighbor adds.
A meal is placed on the tray in front of me, and I unwrap it immediately and start forking at the golden breaded cutlet inside. She bends over and puts another meal on the next fold-out tray. "Sorry, but we're out of chicken", she says, "but they say the Beef Wellington is pretty good."
"But I don't eat beef. Maybe I can get a vegetarian meal?"
"I don't think there are any left. Did you order one in advance?"
"No - I assumed I could get chicken".
I sense a confrontation is in the making, and I don't want to be in the middle, literally. "You can have mine - I don't mind switching, really", I suggest.
"Thanks, but I can't let you do that", and he hands his meal back to the stewardess. "Maybe you have fruit or something?"
"I'll check", and off she goes in a huff.
"You don't look like you're from India" I say. "You know, they say that cows are sacred there."
"No, I'm not from India, but I just don't eat mammals anymore, out of moral reasons."
"Mammals? That's a new one for me."
"Yup, decided that we are too closely related. Truth is, I never did like steak too much, and I always hated wrestling off the fat and ligaments in all beef, pork, mutton, etc. But now it's more, like, well, I can't eat mammal meat for moral reasons, but fish and birds I'm fine with".
"Sounds rather arbitrary to me - birds and fish are living things, too."
"Every diet is arbitrary. Would you eat humans?"
"Of course not - that's cannibalism!"
"Some people would, or used to. How 'bout monkeys?"
"No, they're also human-like."
"Some people eat monkeys. How about dogs and cats - there are places in the world where they are sold at markets for food."
"So what's your point?"
"As you say, it's arbitrary - just a personal decision on how close (or far) your relationship to the organism that you're willing to eat. One can choose the cutoff point as just after fish evolved into land animals, so they would eat fish but not reptiles, birds and mammals. Others might not eat vertebrates at all, or other's still might choose to eat only plants (we call those vegetarians). But plants are also celled organisms, aren't they? I mean, they're alive, aren't they - isn't it cruel to kill them and then eat them? Maybe one should go back even before that, say, only eat protists, which are simple micro-organisms. But can one survive on that diet? I don't think so. So you just decide, arbitrarily or not, what (or who) you're willing to slaughter for your next meal, and live with it."
The stewardess is back with an apple and a banana, along with a little bag of salted peanuts, and we both eat quietly for a while, though I'm not enjoying my meal that much, feeling guilty both for eating the better meal and also for being a cannibal (of sorts). I seek a way to change the subject, break the ice again, and turn to my neighbor:
"Couldn't help notice what you were writing before. So, you're a musician?"
"Sort of. I'm writing a hymn now for the congregation back home. I also compose techno music, which is different, of course, though not as much as you may think. I might incorporate parts of this hymn into my next piece. Are you also involved in music?"
"Not really. I can read notes and play the recorder a bit, but just for recreation, you know, nothing professional."
The stewardess comes back and asks if we want red or white wine.
"I shouldn't. Nothing for me," I say.
"I'll have red, please," says my companion.
I change my mind: "Well, then, I guess I'll have white".
The wine is poured and we made a toast, and then I explain: "Once I passed out on a plane after having alcohol, but that was a long time ago, and I suppose a little wine won't hurt."
Suddenly we hear some commotion behind us, and turning around I see the old Russian guy I was sitting with before getting all excited and talking rapidly to a steward, who doesn't seem to understand him. He makes a sign 'one moment' and walks down the aisle, returning a moment later with the stewardess that has just served me the wine. She talks with him a little, then gestures towards where I am sitting, and then she walks over and addresses me. "Your friend back there, from what I understand, has a business proposal for you."
"Oh. You speak Russian?"
"No, but I can get by in German, and he was speaking Yiddish. From what I could make out, after you both get home he wants to teach you Russian and you pay him. He says he needs a job and you need to learn Russian."
"But I don't really need to learn Russian. Sorry to cause this mess - I was just trying to be nice. Please thank him for his kind offer, but maybe next time. No, he might misunderstand that, too. Just tell him I said 'no, thank you'. And thank you for helping, too."
She turns and goes back to the Russian guy.
Suddenly I have a queasy feeling. I feel light-headed and drained. I want to lie down. I am nauseous, too. I slouch and opened my pants button. I didn't eat that that much, but I feel full and queasy. Maybe I need to go to the bathroom. I excuse myself and start to walk down the aisle to the restroom. Halfway there I pause to steady myself, and then I pass out.
Mileage Will Vary
I open my eyes and see 2 faces smiling at me, one with the 'thumbs up' gesture. I am in the galley in the rear of the plane, legs prodded up. The same stewardess is there, wiping my brow with a damp cloth, and the other one introduces himself as a doctor. "You okay?" he asks.
"You had alcohol, yes?"
"Just one small glass of wine."
"Yes. It dilates the veins, lowers blood pressure. And you also have low pressure in the airplane, yes, so you pass out. Some people should not drink alcohol in airplanes. This ever happen to you before?"
"Ok. You are fine. Rest a little, legs up."
"I'm fine now. Can I go back to my seat?"
"Easy. Walk slowly".
I feel embarrassed that they are fussing over me. I get up slowly, steady myself, and walk back to my seat. I walk quickly, hoping to make it back without any more humiliating mishaps. But passengers are looking at me as I walk by. Some clap; others give me the 'thumbs up' gesture, which I return. Finally I sit down in my seat, nod at the guy next to me, and pull out my book.
"You made quite a scene there."
"Oh, yes - it was quite dramatic. You just collapsed in a heap, and the stewardess came running and they dragged you to the back. Then on the PA they asked if there's a doctor on board, and you know the rest."
"Yeah, it was the wine. Told you I shouldn't"
"Yes you did."
Don't Drink and Fly
"So, you have a problem with alcohol?"
"Only when I fly."
"If you could choose then, which would it be: flying or alcohol?"
"I'm not really much of a drinker - I can do without it. And as for flying - don't really have much of an alternative if you want to get to the other side of the ocean, unless you have like a year to spend on a boat."
"I think it takes more like a week, but you're right."
I look at the cover of my book again. Asimov was best known for his science fiction books, wasn't he? He should have a solution to this. My companion comes up with his own: "You know what I think would be useful: A highway that goes around the world."
"That sounds interesting."
"Think about it: Besides moving people, you know with cars, buses, and trains, it could be used for moving other things: water, power, communication, cargo. They have these high-speed trains now that work on magnetism, I hear, that can go almost as fast as a plane. The highway would probably be pretty expensive to build, but people would be willing to pay. And maybe they could have artificial islands every few hundred kilometers which they could sell for ocean-front property. Think about it," he says again.
And I am thinking about it. I read somewhere about physicists building huge machines called 'particle accelerators' used for studying atomic particles, collisions and the like. Some of them are built in circles that span many kilometers and cost billions of dollars, yet the physicists are always complaining that they need more. This would be the ultimate circular particle accelerator - can't get any bigger than that, on earth, anyway. It would be a boost to science, so science budgets would also help fund it. That could be my contribution to mankind! Probably would cost trillions (a tad more than I had in mind to spend (from my money, anyway) when I set out to do something for the world ...)
"How much do you think the whole thing would cost?" I ask out loud.
"What do you care - as long as you can drink wine on the way?"
We don't say anything for a while. He starts watching a movie, I nod off to sleep. I wake up to the stewardess offering me orange juice. "How you feeling now?" she asks.
"Fine, thanks. I'll take one of those."
Then, from my right: "Oh, you're awake? Thought you may have passed out again."
"No, just sleeping a bit."
"I'm Ben, by the way. 'Bout time we introduced ourselves."
"I'd have guessed Adam. You look like an Adam. That's the first man, you know".
"I'm kind of religious myself. Do you read the Bible?"
"I read it as a kid, I'm sure. I know the stories, anyway".
"But you're not religious."
"No. I don't go to church or anything, if that's what you mean."
Silence. "I hope you don't mind my asking you, but how do you live with no faith?"
"Not at all - I wanted to ask you something along the same line."
"What do you mean?", he asks.
"How do you live your life based on faith? Why would somebody choose a religion and stick to all its do's and don't's, with no hard evidence that it is the 'right' religion, or that God even exists?"
Ben smiles. He has encountered this attitude before, and was never sure how to respond to it. Each person was different. "Well, speaking for myself, it was already in the family, so I didn't really have to choose it. But I believe in it anyway. It makes sense, it feels right, and it is consistent. It has a glorious past and a promising future. It guides us every day in what we do and feel. It works."
My turn now. "Don't you ever question it, though? Me - I question everything. Recently I read a book, pure fiction, and I see a statement like 'Venus is shining in the east in the evening' and I say 'can't be! Venus can't be in the east in the evening!' And that's fiction - they don't even purport it to be true. Newspapers I read even more scrupulously."
"So what do you believe in?"
"Nature, I guess, things I can see and feel."
"What about things that are too small or too far away to see?"
"I think science is pretty robust. You can't just come up with a new outrageous theory - it is scrutinized and criticized by colleagues, and it has to be backed by empirical evidence that is reproducible by other scientists. You gotta trust the science community. If a scientist gets a Nobel Prize for some discovery, you have to assume that the prize is awarded by people who understand what it's all about."
Ben pauses, then responds: "So what if there was an entity that you held in higher respect than the Nobel Prize committee?"
"I see where you're going. But that committee is composed of humans, not some abstract being like God. I need something to grasp on, something material."
"Have you ever met those humans? Do you know what they look like? On what do you base your belief in them - on the media? We both know that the media can be misleading."
"What are you saying - that the Nobel Prize awards is a conspiracy? A hoax? To what purpose? I don't believe in world-wide conspiracies."
"Then, according to your way of thinking, you can also say that my religion, which is world-wide, can't be a conspiracy, so it has to be true."
I am silent. He has a point there - can't refute that, yet I still feel that we are missing something. "So you're saying you believe in it because many other people believe in it?"
"No, I didn't say that, but it reassures me that it's true. People I know and respect adhere to this religion. Religiously, I may add", and he smiles.
Beg to Differ
How can I get around this? "Science," I venture, "is based on a progression. You start out with your axioms, right, and then build on that. Then you develop theories that are proved rigorously, based on previous existing theories, but they all fall back on the axioms, which are irrefutable. Experiments and observations verify the theories, and if they don't then the theories have to be revised and tweaked until they do. There are still riddles and unsolved problems out there, to be sure, but the best of minds are working on them, and faith has very little to do with it. A theory would never hold up to the science community if all it was based on was somebody's belief that it is true. Religion, on the other hand, is purely based on faith, and one day somebody is going to blow the whistle."
"I don't think so. It's been holding up nicely for thousands of years, which is much more than most of your theories. No reason to think that would change. And, contrary to what you say, it has a very good basis."
"Yeah? What's that?"
"So you're saying that Faith is based on Faith."
"Faith is faith."
"I'll have to think about that one," and I doze off again, thinking to myself: 'Thank God I'm not religious'.