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Column: The cosmic, the grotesque and the perfect

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Tuesday, May 28, 2019

An old man stands at the sink in his kitchen, mixing a batch of pudding to be poured over some banana slices in a graham cracker crust and stuck into the refrigerator for an hour. His little dog, ever alert for a bit of good fortune, sits attentively at his left knee. For these five minutes or so, the whole world, the dog’s and his, is wrapped up in this mundane — for her, promising — bit of domestic exercise.

He takes a cup of coffee with him into his office, turns on the computer, and on a whim, types in a request to see a graphic of the place of the Earth in its galaxy. Uncounted suns crowd the screen, and in the foreground, courtesy of the artist, sits a tiny dot. It’s not only the Earth he requested, but its entire solar system, rushing in concert with all the others toward an inevitable and predictable destiny. His sun, its wide-circling planets, and comets look no bigger than a deer tick in a parking lot.

He switches off the cosmos and clicks the icon for GoogleEarth. He likes this one, because he can type in his own address, watch the image of the globe rotate, stop, and zoom down to a red dot that becomes his yard. He can tell from the photo what season it was taken, which vehicle is by the garage, and how high the water is in the beaver dam out back. Satisfied, he types in “Kugluktuk” and, as if by magic, is looking down on a small Inuit hamlet thousands of miles away at the mouth of the Coppermine River. This photo is older — a summer shot — and shows his friend Larry’s house with its outbuildings, greenhouse, and two large wooden boats, long since retired, sitting in the yard. It doesn’t show the currently still-frozen river mouth. He checks the weather in Kugluktuk. It’s partly cloudy and minus 8 degrees Celsius — about 19 degrees Fahrenheit.

He’s leaving in about 24 hours for a week in Arkansas with family, so he checks the weather there, too. Uh-oh; in the 80s most days. His plans for packing change, to short sleeves and a pair of shorts.

It’s time to get to work for the day — or what he can at least still call work: answering mail, paying a couple of bills, stopping the newspaper and mail deliveries — but first he checks the news. Instantly the image of the Earth’s solar system, that infinitesimal speck in the immense blackness of space, comes again to mind. For on that speck, its physical significance immeasurably small, its tenants are roiling in hate, anger and controversy. Iran, North Korea, Brexit, Venezuela, Yemen, abortion, impeachment, immigration, populism, jingoism and religion chase each other through the daily dispatches, as if there were no more important issues to address.

He recalls an old Kingston Trio song: “The whole world is festering with unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles. Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch, and I don’t like anybody very much!” Meanwhile, the oceans covering most of the cosmic speck nibble away at the Jersey shore, push the fresh water aquifers farther into the Florida swamps, spawn tornadoes, herd cold-water species farther north, and quietly submerge small island nations in the Pacific. The 1965 film Ship of Fools, which impressed him greatly at the time, stirs in the background of his reflections.

But there before him is the list of to-dos. If he gets through enough of them by 9, he and the dog may go downtown for coffee and conversation on the sunny State Street sidewalk. He rehearses again the groceries in the fridge that won’t keep in his absence. Milk, for example. He made the pie to use it up. But now he has to use up the pie. The seas will have to rise today without his attention.

In the afternoon he and the dog will take their usual walk in the wooded park. He thinks, as he walks, of the photos he’s seen of the starving Yemeni children, their emergency rations stolen by the authorities before they reached them. He almost weeps as he recalls the photo of a young trophy hunter proudly posing with the giraffe she’s shot: the beautiful animal’s eyes still open, its lips twisted grotesquely by their impact with the earth.

He wonders if, were he the Old Testament patriarch Abraham, he would plead the case of Earth, like Sodom’s, in the face of its imminent destruction. He thinks he might; life is, after all, about second, third and even more chances sometimes.

Meanwhile, the little long-legged, ginger-colored terrier dashes madly, happily through the woods, almost invisible against last year’s “leaves no step had trodden black,” chasing prey only she can sense. He stops often to watch, utterly delighted at her perfection.

In a star system speeding toward the unknown, on a planet spinning at a thousand miles an hour, in a human society both riven by conflict and apparently unaware of consequences, he pauses by a little patch of yellow trout lilies roughly treated by a brutal spring and touches gently the tiny browning blossoms.

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.