Where the Universe Ends (and where it doesn’t!)

I. Voyager


When I was littler I used to be in surface-based love with a guy in the drama club who wore a real leather jacket. You could tell it was real because of the smell, which actually preceded him when he entered rooms. His entrances were also noticeable because I feel like he was late all the time – but my memory should be taken with heaps of salt because I also feel like this guy was the Fonz, or something. To me, he was the coolest. The magic. My school’s Daniel Desario. What he was ever doing in the drama club remains one of many mysteries I’ll never uncover.

Now I came up in a hippie town; the guy’s parents were I think converted Sikhs. He had a crazy name for a straight up Caucasian person: Mahatmas Longmiddlename somethingsomething, not so important. He also had aviator sunglasses and a goatee I would only begin to think of as gross much later. So can you see it now? See Tama leaning against a car. See Tama smoking a cigarette. See Tama shocking his freaky friends with a likably-rendered Sir Andrew Aguecheek in a high-school production of Twelfth Night.

Because he looked much older than everyone else in my world (the drama club) – and was, in fact, two years my senior…this meant Tama was a grown up when I was not. When he gave me a single red rose at a cast party, I started to know something. When I sat on his lap for the duration of the movie This is Spinal Tap in someone’s basement once, I could have sworn. But back then I was unsure of just about everything save how great it felt to speak Shakespeare into crowded rooms, so…

I moved to a big city. And largely, did not look back.

II. To Boldly Go…

Go ahead and get mad that the Mars Rover didn’t bring you back an alien pet, you huffy non-scientist disasters the world over. OBVIOUSLY space exploration is all about the immediate results. Sand producing chlorine compounds and carbon dioxide is actually pretty interesting because that means there may once have been organic matter on the red planet, but whatever. Jerks.

So I’m reading Carl Sagan’s ‘Varieties of the Scientific Experience’ this week and feeling blown away by the brainiac’s humility. Carl Sagan knows that the neatest part of being alive is in what we do not know. He sees the evolution of what I’ll call the ‘space narrative’ as a valuable mirror for modern society, a way by which we can gauge humanity’s progress towards empathy and reason. Think about the Copernican argument, which was once considered unimpeachable evidence that the earth was at the center of the universe. But of course we’ve since determined we’re not at the center. We’re kind of in the back. It took a slow and steady stream of reason to dislodge that terra ego complex. And each generation following, more has been added and subtracted from science to the point where we now have a semi-firm set of universal laws – math, chemistry, these things are tested and unchanging universal FACTS. Yet if you’re more than just a fairweather science friend you’d also know that via the recent Chandra mission scientists determined that the Milky Way is shrouded in a cloud of hot gas of indeterminate mass that goes a way towards explaining missing baryons in the fabric of our universe AND SO invites the idea that this galaxy is waaaaaay bigger than previously assumed (dork crossing; pause for breath)

The ecstatic moral here is that change is inevitable. And profound. And, if we consider every new discovery made that defies a previously held truth as evidence, no one can even begin to imagine our farthest future – even if humans are so-called ‘civilized’ these days. Three things you can be in response to this phenomenon are awake and humble and very, very patient.

III. The Known World

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

I spend a lot of time on self-improvement as a theoretical exercise — you know, as opposed to actual exercise. It’s sort of like virtual virtual shopping. At least up here in brainspace, I think I know the kind of person I want to be. I try to figure out what and where and who went wrong sometimes and other times I forget. Other times I work harder, other times I do not work at all. I try to be good. I try to be smart. I think I know when I’m wrong. Sometimes. De facto. Right? Right, guys? I think I think I think I think I think.

IV. So much for the afterglow…

On Tuesday I went to an Everclear concert by myself. It was cheesy cheese city like a bowl of nachos for dinner, and about as delicious. Everclear was a meaningful band to me twelve years ago, and frontman Art Alexakis was not young then either. Before ending a full minute under allotted time, AA quelled the pushy crowd with some good-natured self-deprecation: “I guess I’ll play the song that has bought me a few houses.” Then later, when asked for a proper encore – as opposed to the freeform classic rock instrumental jazz odyssey that was clearly just a time filler before ‘I Will Buy You a New Life’ – “Look at me, you guys! I’m old! I have to go to bed!”

And this above all, we applauded.


V. Dark Center of the Universe

One summer – or winter, I already forget – I went back in time to visit the Fonz. Tama and I had started talking online during a semester of college when I was especially homesick. He was still in the same town, hanging out with the same people, effectively Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused. True to the form of that technology which already feels long lost, AIM made Tama and I deep secret divulging friends in just a collection of months. He was having a rough time of things. I figured I was, too. I agreed to meet up with him in person when I was back for the holidays so we could ‘reconnect.’

Mind, I don’t remember too much about this. (I’m also highly wary of skewing events in a sepia light because there’s only one survivor and she’s me.)

Anyways – Tama and Brittany end up talking on the phone during one now forgotten set of holidays for many many hours. They’re both digging the same philosophy books and they both feel a little lonely. They talk on the phone like boyfriend and girlfriend for these hours and hours but there’s still the unshakable feeling from drama club where Tama is an adult and Brittany is just a dopy kid; she likes him, but he scares her. Tama alludes to addiction problems, possibly stints at places. Brittany listens. At the end of one phone call that stands fully-formed in retrospect, Tama says “Man,” and Brittany says, “What?” and Tama says, “It’s just…I’m really starting to fall for you, and I really don’t want to get hurt again.”

Tennessee Williams once said, “using people is what we think of as love.” If he’s right, I’m so ashamed. What I’ll say instead is that kids are capable of cruelty, and this is how you know – Tama and Brittany ended badly, with a cowardly duck out on the latter’s part. The last time the two ever saw one another was at the end of a highly uncomfortable first date. They hugged one another and she said, “I don’t think I want something serious,” (or similar) and cool as a cucumber he responded, “I know. I just like you. That’s all.” Being an adult, he could tell then what she could not. And years on it becomes clear that Tama was never a threat or a promise — he was a nice guy who yours truly treated poorly.

And they never spoke again. B forgot almost everything, until she realized he’d defriended her on Facebook one day. She continued to forget until a year or so ago when someone had ‘RIP Tama’ as their Facebook status, and then it was only through more internet sleuthing that she learned he committed suicide not long after turning twenty-two.

VI. Space.

We revise a lot of narratives to make ourselves look better; we deliberately obscure, we ‘forget.’ You’re wondering what Everclear has to do with anything. Well, I’ll tell you: Art Alexakis is a man who knows his limits. He is old and he has to go to bed, but he had a good run. He will happily play you the nine songs you both remember from a way back when, and at the end of this he’s also happy to sign your t-shirt. Really, I’ve never met a more amiable, obliging rock n’ roller – and I have seen a Led Zeppelin cover band. So that light there has gone out, yes, but out with dignity. A firework expiring, if you will.

Carl Sagan was a man who understood his limits but spent his whole life recalibrating where he supposed they were. He was just a man, yes, but his books remain so compelling because he stood on, owned that continent. Sagan believed that yes, we are [wo]men! We are humans with definitively flawed systems of logic and reason! But look at what we’ve built, are building, may yet build…heck, anyone who can so clearly see God in the fabric of the night sky (but isn’t it obvious? Identical, rather?) knows very well what it is to be alive. To be part of a continuum! To be a part of that quest for knowledge, which never ought to end, or be sated! No, Carl and all he represents isn’t out, not at all – he goes on and on and on and on.

And me? And Tama? Some people can’t abide, we know. And whatever kind of warped apology I’ve made here, it will always be unheard. Mistakes were made; they are non-retractable. Of course, I’m not sure had I played it differently that the two of us would have walked out beyond a bad date and a brief, urgent friendship, I’m not sure we were meant to…but I will never know. It could all of it be guilt mush in my head, anecdotal to a real and separate tragedy I ought not to claim a piece of. But cheesy cheeseball McEverclearcheese as it is, it strikes me as true that people can’t end all the way if someone alive is still learning something from their example. Someone alive, and awake, and made humble by at least some things. So this kind of light, this life, does it go out? In? What do we think?

All I think I know is, the farther we seem to be from unending glory (hey fading rock band) or the sun (hey Copernicus) or intelligent life in the Milky Way (hey Rover) or even the space inside another human being (goodbye, dear Tama), the more important the quest to know becomes. The drier the terrain, the thirstier we oughta be. Our reach should always exceed our grasp, our capabilities (A Cited Source). And you know, it’s good to hurt, to age, to not always be at the center of things. According to my guru Carl,  those things are what it is to be at all, after all, and after all…that’s a fantastic fantastic thing.

I hope never to underestimate it.

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