Sunday, 14 June 2009

BINARY CODE-Chapter 3-Leibniz

What else did Leibniz have to say? He did have a theory for explaining the universe. I can't pretend to understand it fully, partly because I don't have his intellect or the time or the inclination. Basically though he believed that the universe is formed from small units which consist fundamentally of energy and are perpetually in motion. They are bound by mathematical and mechanical forces but are ultimately dependent on metaphysical reasons; ie. God. Each of these units, which he calls monads, act spontaneously and also react in relationship with the harmony of the universe around it. Since they are constantly in motion the mathematical principles which bind them are also constantly changing with each movement, altering not only the monad itself but the universe of monads around it. The universe is thus like a cosmic billiard table with an infinite number of balls ricocheting off each other.
The world in which we live and the matter which we perceive is made up of these cosmic balls which are combinations or compounds of being and nothingness. God is the only pure being. He is what Leibniz called Unity. There is also the Absence of Being, or Nothingness. Leibniz explained how his numbering system was immensely useful as a notation for this. Unity, or 1, and Nothingness, or 0.
God is being, being is light, the sun shining on the dark Earth below and deciding what combinations of being and nothingness appear in the form of infinite numbers of cosmic billiard balls which align themselves into humans or rocks or thoughts or actions. The complexity and potential outcomes of these collisions or bindings are also infinite and the only possible explanation for them is that they are part of God's master plan to improve the Universe. Wow. This was the sort of stuff which we discussed on the porch of the Bungalow, sipping on perfect gin and tonics and dipping the Triscuits into the rich piping hot artichoke dip fresh from the oven, watching the sun go down.
Stokely started off this conversation. He had inherited his great grandfather's inquisitive and logical mind. At the inevitable crossroads which face students with the choice of becoming humanists or scientists, he had waited until the last possible moment before veering sharply off the humanist road he was on and hightailing it down the scientist road, leaving the rest of us in the dust of English Lit, Romance languages, and the like. Whenever the topic was science, he would hold court. He once held us enthralled for about an hour while he explained the physics of spinning a raw egg, and why it would not fall over whereas a hard boiled egg would. Something about inertial force, I seem to recall.
His pontifications were kept in check by Tess, who brought him back to earth usually by pointing out some fault of his. Sometimes this was good natured, and sometimes not.
That night she cut short Stokely's explanation of Leibniz's monadism by bringing up the close call we had on the Whaler.
After cutting the engine we had sat there for a while out by the fishhawk's nest, taking in the scene and discussing the next day's dinner menu: soft-shelled crabs, oysters, cornbread, slaw, cold beer and strawberry and rhubarb pie. Time ticked away, and finally Tess suggested that we go in. Stokely, annoyed and manic, revved up the Whaler like it was a cigarette boat and headed back towards the boathouse with the throttle on full.
I could never tell if he did stupid things on purpose, but this was one of his more boneheaded moves. The channel back into the creek by the boathouse was marked on the left by the poles and on the right by stakes, small trees really, which were driven into water from three to six feet deep, depending on the tide.
Normally you wouldn't go straight into the mouth of the creek, but wend your way around the shoreline of the Valhalla peninsula, giving a fairly wide berth to the stakes on the right. This time we were singing along to a chorus of Show Me The Way To Go Home that Stokely had started up, conducting with one hand and driving with the other. We were all facing the stern looking at his antics. I don't think he ever saw the stake. He certainly never attempted to get out of the way.
We crashed into it at full speed, shearing off the three inch sapling like it was a toothpick. Clare, sitting alone in front with her back facing the bow, got whacked on the head, drawing a little blood and scaring the bejeezus out of her. She wasn't hurt badly, but the shock of his careless act never wore off, and they never really recovered as a couple. In retrospect this was probably a good thing, but there are easier ways of sending a message.
Stokely shrugged it off as a byproduct of youthful exuberance. After we tended to Clare's wound we probably would have forgotten it, had Tess not brought it up again during Stokely's Leibniz soliloquy over cocktails on the porch.
Stokely said that although he didn't mean to do it and that he was very sorry, it was, after all, fated to happen. We bounced off that sapling like one of Leibniz's monadic billiard balls. Somehow it was meant to be and part of God's master plan of the universe.
Very few people, certainly none of the women, appreciated this remark. Looking back on it though, I think he was right. That collision was the first of many happenstance occurrences which rearranged the directions of our little group that weekend and sent us on unplanned courses. I went to bed thinking about the click click of little balls on the ethereal billiard table of the universe, wondering what the next day would bring.
I was awakened the next morning by the actual rhythmic clicking of a ball in the field in front of the Bungalow. I staggered onto the porch. It was another glorious day, and the river was hugging a blanket of low fog to its chest waiting for the sun to burn it off.
The click, click, click of balls was Jonah, lofting seven iron after seven iron into the water. "Morning, Evan. Sleep well?" He kept his head down and still while the rest of his body moved like a smooth metronome. Rake a ball away from the large pile of range balls, arrange it on the lip of a divot, punch the ball in a neat parabola while sawing off a clean half inch of turf in the process. Click, one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, plop.
"The thought occurred to you you're wasting balls, Jonah? You're taking this casual bourgeois attitude a bit too far, don't you think?" I called out.
Jonah nodded and grunted.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Why don't you hit them at the cow over there in the field?"
The voice behind me was Stokely's, roused from the room at the end of the porch where he and Clare luckily had separate beds.
"Are you crazy?" I said.
"At least he'll have a target." Stokely shrugged his shoulders and wandered off towards the kitchen in the other building.
The idea clearly appealed to Jonah. He turned 180 degrees, and like a mortar crew getting range findings began going up clubs as the balls landed closer and closer to the unsuspecting cow across the marshy field. After ten minutes or so with no direct hits and only one rather feeble effort which nicked the cow on the flank after a bounce, Jonah grew bored and quit. Stokely emerged from the other building with a cup of coffee.
"What? Giving up already?" He was almost indignant. He came down off the porch, and dismissed Jonah with a wave.
"Here. I'll show you how it's done."
He shrugged off Jonah's offer of the pitching wedge and went straight to his golf bag, extracting a one iron.
"You're not going to use that, Stokely." Jonah shook his head and looked at me imploringly.
"The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, my boy. Geometry, son, geometry."
Jonah and I watched as Stokely took aim. One smooth swing, ball back in the stance, and the ball took off like a tracer bullet. It never got three feet off the ground, a worm burner in golfing parlance, and slammed into the side of the cow fifty yards away.
We gasped. Stokely turned to us and said one word: "Bingo," he said. The cow....did nothing. Nothing. It didn't flinch, it didn't move. It didn't even moo or grunt. It reacted more to the flies which it continued to swat with its tail while munching.
At that moment I learned several things. Humans are cruel and egotistical and unconcerned about the consequences or implications of their actions. They are also a whole lot smarter than cows.
I also learned a few things about Stokely. The guy wasn't even a golfer, for Chrissakes. Jonah was on the golf team, a scratch handicapper, and he couldn't do it. Stokely had this indescribable air about him. Bravado, I suppose is the word. Insouciance, even better, in the sense that he rode the thin line between not caring about what he did--about fear, about conventions, about failure-- and being uncaring, unaware about the consequences of what he was about to do. He really hadn't changed since the playground. He was a leader, and he made things happen, good and bad.
We were standing there, mouths agape at Stokely's feat, when our heads were turned by a voice. "Well, well, well. Boys will be boys. We're being very noisy this early in the morning, aren't we?" It was Lydia. She was standing with her head tilted to one side and her hand on one hip, waving her finger in admonishment. She was wearing only a long blue tee shirt which said Devil with the Blue Dress On, the Motown song adapted by the Duke band.
To this day I have never seen anyone look that good immediately after rising. She wore no makeup, and she had tossed her long hair back out of her eyes. Her voice had a deep resonance, like the difference between a cello and a violin. I don't think Jonah noticed how good she looked. He grunted a reply.
"I didn't wake you, did I?" I think he secretly was ashamed to have been party to the mortaring of a cow, and was trying to deflect the subject should it come up.
It didn't. Somehow I don't believe she actually saw what subsequently went down in our annals as Stokely's Coup de Moo. We said nothing, and she did not pursue it.
"I was only dozing until I heard the commotion and smelled the coffee," she said.
Suddenly the porch was alive with activity. Dewey emerged in his gym shorts and running shoes from the room he and I shared.
"Anyone up for a run down to the main road? How 'bout it, Evan?"
"Sure," I said.
Tess called out from her room. "Count me in."
Clare also emerged. "Count me out."
A few seconds later two distinct groups had formed and the day which had started off so bizarrely was pushed off its perch to roll down a steep path to an unknown destination. Dewey, Tess, Stokely, and I went for a run. Jonah, Clare, and Lydia stayed behind to organise breakfast.
We ran down to the Valhalla sign, and then back all the way to the boathouse. There we engaged in a time honoured tradition, a skinny dip in the brisk water, followed by an even colder shower under the water tank to wash the salt off.
When we returned to the Bungalow, feeling that tingling sense of well being--tight skinned and healthy--we found a sumptuous breakfast all laid out. We all sat down, and began planning the day's activity in earnest. With a cornucopia of things to do, this entailed assigning each activity an order, like an air controller allocating takeoff slots. While we feasted on country sausage, eggs, and toast, courtesy of Jonah's quick trip to Matthews, we arrived at a battle plan. Waterskiing, sailing, lunch, tennis, nap, drinks, and dinner. The purchase of provisions was detailed to Tess and myself. We would buy the oysters directly from the oysterman on the water--a dollar a bushel, we would go to Tyson's Landing for the crabs, and to Mrs. Evans for the rhubarb and strawberry compote for the pie.
Tess and I took off immediately after breakfast, leaving the others to clean up. We got into the Green Monster, and decided to head to Tyson's first.
There was always an awkward silence between us whenever we were alone. This was because of the length of time we had known each other and the metamorphoses we had seen each other go through. She had gone from kid sister to tomboy to star athlete to young woman. She had spent a year in Sri Lanka after high school and although scholastically was behind us had returned an adult. She was also firmly committed to everything she took part in, something none of us could admit to.
I think she looked up to me though, and I don't think she realised how I in turn looked up to her. Most of what we wanted to say was left unsaid, or only hinted at. I think the two of us both knew that perhaps there would be a day when the emotional shackles would be off us, but it was not quite the right moment yet. A safe topic was Stokely.
"You're his best friend, Evan," she said. "Why does he do such stupid things?"
"You mean the Whaler."
"Or hitting that cow."
" saw that, did you?"
She nodded.
"Well," I said, "Stokely's got an image in his mind he's got to live up to...just look at Valhalla. Not everyone has a history like this. These are big shoes to fill. I think Stoke realised a long time ago that to fill them he's going to have to go flat a little crazy or different. But don't worry, he knows when to stop. You know what the skier said who went down Mt. Everest don't you?"
"No, what?"
"It is necessary to be reasonable in one's madness."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that you have to be confident to live with the pedal down...Stokely's in control."
"I don't know," she said. "Sometimes he worries me."
"Well, life sure would be boring without him."
When I think back on that conversation I wonder if I really knew Stokely as well as I thought. Whatever he was though, he wasn't predictable.
He proved this by amending the day's plans. The morning unfolded as scheduled however. My confidence in Lydia's skiing ability was well founded. Stokely tried to get her to start on two skis, but she would have none of it. She slalomed. Off the dock. First time.
I didn't say anything to Stokely. When she sprayed us on the dock, I merely looked at him and held up my ring and index fingers on my right hand. Ten bucks. He got the message.
Despite the exhausting schedule, after tennis Stokely announced that naptime had been cancelled. He had a better idea, and he brooked no dissent.
He said that the last time he had been at Valhalla he had ventured into the Summer House and had discovered the attic, which ran the entire length of the house. He wanted to show us something. Then we would have a picture taking session on the front porch steps in the late afternoon when the light was just right.
Our curiosity was aroused as a group. Infected with his enthusiasm, we all trooped over to the Summer House with Stokely leading the way. He produced a ring of keys and we entered the house by the kitchen door. The Summer House was a long rectangular building with an annex at one end. The kitchen was in the annex. It was painted white and was very bright from light thrown by tall windows. We crept in as if entering the sanctuary of a church.
The Aunts were famous for their attention to detail and organised themselves with ruthless efficiency. Every pot and pan, a half-century old at the least, was scoured and hung neatly in order of size. Woe betide anyone who disturbed their kitchen.
The next room was an informal dining room, followed by the formal dining room, then the main entrance hall, then the living room, then the library. This greatest hits of large rooms gives an idea of the scope of the place.
What furniture remained was covered with sheets. Stokely ushered us upstairs but I detached myself to take a peek at the library. There were many leather bound volumes with odd titles. There was an entire series entitled Breeders Champion Black Angus from 1929-1938, a strange collection immortalising now-dead cows. This must have belonged to Helmut's oldest son Harold, Stokely's grandfather who died in Normandy commanding a battalion in 1944. There were also folios of Shakespeare, and first editions of many American authors. There was also a small booklet called Ghosts of Virginia which I took the liberty of filching by slipping it into my pocket. I figured it would make for good bedtime reading by flashlight to the others lying on the porch hammock. I could always return it.
My concentration was broken by the sound of Stokely's voice, echoing down from above.
Sound waves are not digital but analog. This means they are continuous. They are produced by vibrations which pass through the air in waves, alternating regions of high and low pressure known as compressions and rarefactions. These waves may reach the ear either directly or after having bounced off other surfaces, with the echoes--reflected sound waves-- taking longer to reach the ear.
"Evan!" I heard, and then a faint echo: "Evan".
"Come ome on... on. You'll miss iss the fun un."
To me now, that echoed sound was the striking of a cosmic cue stick, a break by God who had placed it in Stokely's hand. As I walked up the stairs, I had a strange feeling of timelessness. I wasn't to know it, but the particular little group of Leibniz's billiard balls which ordered my life was about to be broken apart. The emotional and physical echoes of that summons to the attic still continue to ring faintly in the corridors of my brain.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice. A little Liebniz (and narrator commentary) goes a long way with this reader, though. Chapter could well begin with the click click click of Jonah's (golf) balls.