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Telescope

Seeing with prose, and letting the cat out of the box.

Photo of radio telescope, Greenbank observatory, West Virginia.

He pursed his lips. “Do you smoke?”

“Cigars, sometimes. But not really.”

“I don't want you to worry about it, but I want you to go to an oral surgeon. Don't wait.”

“All right,” I said.

“He may give you a biopsy.”

“Sure,” I said.

“And your bite. You're going to need braces.”

“Huh.”

“There's a jaw syndrome that develops in people like you.”

“I need the braces right away?”

“Not for a while. And—” he raised his eyebrows. “Your wisdom teeth need to come out, too.”

“Well,” I mumbled. His finger was against my tongue.

.  .  .  .  .  

I made some phone calls about insurance. Then I called my brother.

Greg,” I said, “I am the fattest I have ever been. I creaked in the dentist's chair. I can barely write. Writing is like minor surgery. Every night I battle a huge asphalt ghost that comes in through the window, and my love affairs fail.”

My brother said, “When I see you on Sunday, I'll kick you right in the balls.”

I laughed hard, for the first time that day. That night I went for a walk and found a friend on the street. “Can I come back to your apartment?” I asked.

We sat at her kitchen table. “How are you?” I asked.

“I have a medical problem,” she said. “An aneurysm.“ She showed me the bandage on her wrist. It had just been removed, but there was a risk of others.

“Hey! I might have to get a biopsy,” I said.

“Do you want a drink of water?” she asked.

Later, I went home. The next afternoon I took the B75 bus to the doctor's. It is easy to get an appointment when you have a lump on your gum. After the X-ray from a scratched and rusty robin's-egg blue machine (if I don't have it now, I'll have it soon), I was led to a chair with a view of the Statue of Liberty. I watched the Staten Island ferries crawl back and forth across the harbor, trailing robes of foam. An orderly put the X-rays on a lightbox, and gave me a surgery consent form to sign. I looked at the white spot on my X-ray, then out to the harbor, waiting an hour for the doctor.

I thought, This moment is interesting in that it allows me to think about my life without feeling self-indulgent and self pitying. With no jaw, I will be a poor kisser at best. How will my nascent radio career progress without a tongue? Perhaps I could get a bionic robot jaw. But it might go out of control and take over my brain. I could find myself hiding in Prospect Park late at night, leaping out from the bushes and chomping strangers to death, trying in vain to control this mechanical evil that has consumed my face, my body, my mind.

I thought, I enjoy taking the train, and the look on a dog's face when it's confused. I can still enjoy those things with no jaw. I enjoy it when my friends do well in their lives and succeed. If they'll still be friends with a jawless man, I could work it out, at least before the jaw takes over and turns me into a bionic superkiller, and maybe I'll have enough time to warn them before that happens.

The oral surgeon was in his 50s, with a belly that poked against the side of the chair. He looked as if he had seen every mouth in Brooklyn. After peering at the X-ray, at the white dot, he felt inside my mouth for 4 extremely long minutes. The bionic jaw would just take that finger right off, I thought. Finally, he said “Huh.” The “huh” of lingering death, half my face amputated from my chemo-ravaged head? The “huh” of redemption, of keeping my chin? He asked about my gums, and if I smoked. He thought for a moment, and, finally, he said, “you know, I'm just not worried. Maybe—nah. Just keep an eye on it. Come back in October and we'll talk about those wisdom teeth, and take another look to be sure.”

I didn't want to say anything. I wanted the oral surgeon to put his hand on my shoulder, and, in silence, to look out the window with me, at downtown Brooklyn and the Statue of Liberty.

I said, “That is good to hear.”

He wished me well and sent me out to complete my paperwork. I looked down at my shirt. When I entered the building for my appointment security gave me a sticker to wear, and I'd adhered it above my breast pocket. It said, “PAUL EDMUND FORD: PATIENT.” Which is a good suggestion for how to be, and I'll follow it.

In quantum physicist Schrödinger's famous thought experiment, a boxed cat is either alive or dead, and thus both. Schrödinger was describing not the possibility of life or death, but the state in which both are real. As a consequence of this paradox, one can imagine an infinitude of parallel universes, cats in boxes branching eternally.

Perhaps grace is accepting your time at the crest of the quantum wave. Research has uncovered the quality of grace in hospital rooms, church sanctuaries, lovemaking, and cold drinks. Also in editing. When someone edits me, it is a duet, and they edit my eyes, polishing the lens, cutting out distortion. Good editors build the telescope that lets the reader see an author's dim, small, distant glow.

Perhaps the lump on a gum is cancer, perhaps it is nothing. Most likely it is nothing, but then, something is in there, some lurking constellation of twisting cells and sclerotic accretion, or out in the world, some nuclear suitcase under construction and bound via private boat for Manhattan. One day you're in your box, buying some bottled water, singing a song as you walk down the block, and the next, the atoms decay, and—

Like the cat, before finding an audience the prose is both alive and dead. When the reader opens the box they find it breathing and vital, or limp and lost, but until the box is open we never know.

Lenses arranged in an array can be telescopes, microscopes, or, if they cancel each other out, they can simply pass light through unchanged. The stars will not guide you, but telescopes of text can see the sky, and microscopes of prose can see the cells. By seeing them and describing them we can give them motives, cull the randomness of stars and cells and explain them as if they made decisions: decisions to move through the sky, decisions to split unevenly and grip our lungs, our gums, our colons. Even indifference is better than chance; it is better to think of cancer as a angry thing with a life of its own than a random thing without motive or reason. Writers on science tells us that the world is strange, beautiful, and often cruel, but they rarely dwell on its indifference-beyond-indifference. It's hard to think of the stars never knowing they are stars, the cancer never knowing its own cruel nature. The miracle is not that we are conscious, but that so little of the universe is aware it exists. Gravity, which moves the planets around the stars, is not agency, and neither is mutation, which turns one cell, with a rung or two of its DNA ladder struck out by a spare ray from a cloud of radon, into a billion thriving strangers patching themselves through the muscles, the bone, the blood vessels.

In contemplation it's that indifference, that lack of agency, which brings us the miracle—the quality of grace at 0 Kelvin: to find yourself, like Schödinger's cat, in the box with the counter ticking, and then to go ahead and build the telescope or the microscope anyway, using music, faith, words, or glass.

Links Related To Telescope

2003 Aug 18 The Straight Dope: The story of Schroedinger's cat (an epic poem)
Shine light on electrons—you'll cause them to swerve.
The act of observing disturbs the observed—
Which ruins your test. But then if there's no testing
To see if a particle's moving or resting
Why try to conjecture? Pure useless endeavor!
We know probability—certainty, never.'
The Well-Intended, But Not Quite Interactive Schrödinger's Cat: A Rather Silly Experiment in Quantum Mechanics.
“Note to PETA: This is only a theoretical experiment...and it's okay, anyhow, because I ate the cat when I was done.”


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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