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Through the Looking Glass
"What do we mean when we say, 'universe?' It is, of course, only the visible
universe -- the part we know ... Professor Gottlieb looked up from his closely
spaced words. A soft spring breeze ruffled the curtains at his office window,
and he sighed deeply. " ... The words we use are inadequate to describe the true
immensity of the void ... "
"Professor, I need to mop under your desk. Could you go outside please?"
The professor, shaken out of his conceptual thesis, threw up his hands and
moaned, "Not now, Mrs. Borgia! Can't you go elsewhere? The bathroom," he
suggested enthusiastically, "the bathroom, surely -- I was noticing only this
morning. There's mold in the corner of the shower."
"I must leave at 4 pm, Professor. If I start the bathroom now I will be here
That was true. Every bit as true as Professor Gottlieb's thesis, and he had no
intention of paying Mrs. Borgia for two hours overtime. Although she was worth
it. She was the only cleaning woman he had in his three years at Bucknell who
didn't steal from him. She also cleaned well. A elderly Italian woman in a
permanent crouch - a dust rag in one hand and a dry mop in the other. Her shoes
were permanently sprung outwards and she shuffled along with her elbows extended
to the rear as though she were poling herself on skis. The professor would try
to discourage conversation, but Mrs. Borgia would frequently be so full of her
family and friends that they would spill out of her subconscious as she made the
bed or washed the breakfast dishes. At such times the professor would pay no
more attention to her than he would to the noise of the vacuum cleaner. It was a
penalty he paid willingly for living his last years alone.
Professor Gottlieb gathered up his papers and his trusty thesaurus and walked to
the hall closet for his coat. "I shall be in the park, Mrs. Borgia. I will leave
your wages on the hall table."
Although she was repeating last night's argument with her husband concerning the
cost for the replacement of her sister-in-law's upper plate, Mrs. Borgia cast a
sharp eye towards the hall table. She made plans to count the money the moment
Professor Gottlieb left the apartment.
Uppermost in Professor Gottlieb's mind was a quiet spot in the park where he
could reassemble his thoughts concerning quantum mechanics and the almost sure
probability of a parallel universe. When his paper was done and read to his
peers and finally published in scientific journals, it would certainly bring him
celebrity and the blessings of permanent tenure at the university.
He always found it difficult to concentrate in the park -- too much nature. Too
many children and parents and pigeons and grass and blue sky. Solitary
confinement in a dungeon was probably the ideal place to write a thesis on the
cosmos. He was on a roll for a moment back in his apartment -- but that Mrs.
Borgia! She had a way of interrupting his train of thought. How could her
mundane life, her petty ups and downs stand in the way of the universe? Those
feet! "Ah, that was it!" He closed his eyes to visualize the string theory and
all he could see was Mrs. Borgia's feet.
Professor Gottlieb found an unoccupied picnic bench in a wooded section of the
park. The bench top was filthy; stained from spilled food and pigeon droppings
-- he was hesitant about writing in his precious book on such a surface, so he
took his coat off and spread it out on the table, then placed his book on that.
Then he sat and stared up into the trees, waiting for the universe to make its
appearance. He unscrewed the top of his fountain pen just as a softball whistled
through the treetops and landed on the table scattering his papers.
Professor Gottlieb was a patient man, and at times he could visualize the very
moment of creation -- he could hear the big bang, (if, indeed, that's what it
was) he could trace the origins of the galaxies and hold the sun in his hand as
though it were no bigger than that particular softball lying on the picnic
table. When he was in such a mood it was very difficult to get his attention.
But the subject he chose for his life's work was so vast and multi-dimensional
he needed the luxury of concentration, and he was often distracted by trivial
A young man in a bristling beard, a dirty sweat shirt and wearing a baseball
glove that must have wholesaled for $400, burst into the clearing. He glared at
Professor Gottlieb with ill-disguised suspicion ... "Hey. You see a ball in
The professor pointed to the ball on the table. "Yes," he said. "Nearly hit me."
"We're playin' ball over here," the man said.
"I know, I can hear you."
The man walked over to Professor Gottlieb and snatched the ball from the table.
"Thought it was lost. We only got two."
"Quite a coincidence."
"Huh?" The man gave the Professor a puzzled look and shook his head. While
walking out of the clearing he could be heard to mumble, " ... the people y'meet
in the park. Oh boy!"
Today did not seem to be a good day for the quiet contemplation of the cosmos.
Professor Gottlieb gathered his papers together and tried to regain his
composure. Failing that, he sighed deeply and stared into the leafy canopy of
trees. He could hear salvos of cheers from the baseball diamond and the
occasional crack of a bat. "Who can blame them," he thought. "It's a beautiful
spring afternoon. Everybody has a right to play softball on a day like this. The
cosmos is in no hurry, it can wait."
He closed his book and tucked it under his arm, "So it goes," he thought. Then
he saw Henry Claymouth, Political Science Associate, a moon faced man on tenure
track and, for now at least, lumbering up the cinder track. He looked as though
he were at the point of exhaustion. Henry was under forty, and when a man is in
Political Science he should be in better shape. Instead, Henry's face was
lobster red, and his cheeks were puffed out like those of a blowfish. He pulled
up at Professor Gottlieb's table and sat down. He couldn't speak but he gave the
impression that if the Professor would give him a moment or two to pull himself
together, he would have something to say. For the moment, however he looked as
though someone had pulled his plug.
"Don't try to talk, Henry," the Professor warned him. "A man of your size -- you
shouldn't be running like this."
"I have ... I have to ... get in ..." he patted his belly and shook his head
"Let's walk together, Henry. We'll walk slowly. It often helps to get your
breath back if you walk a little."
They started down the cinder path together and the Professor made the mistake of
asking Claymouth a question -- "It's going well, Henry -- no? How's your
They stopped walking at that moment and Claymouth began to breathe deeply.
Professor Gottlieb was impressed with the sheer volume of air Claymouth required
-- "Like inflating an air mattress," he thought.
"The - freshman - class - is - above average," he breathed. "They seem to get
smarter every year."
"If I could say the same. Ah! How wonderful that would be." The color was fading
now from Claymouth's face. It left two cherry red blotches. One in each cheek.
"I think, sometimes Claymouth ... " he sighed deeply ... " the field I have
chosen was not meant for human understanding."
"Well, suppose you did understand it, what difference would it make? There's
nothing you could do about it anyway."
"True. I suppose that is true. But, on the other hand, isn't that the way it is
with Political Science as well?"
The two men paused to think about it. They were near the carrousel and both of
them decided to sit and watch it. On Saturday's it was always filled with
children. Their happy voices blended with the raucous hurdy-gurdy and the cheers
of their parents who stood by watching them pass by in an endless circling race
of wooden horses.
"No winners. Just players," said Professor Gottlieb. "Would you like a ride on
the merry-go-round, Claymouth?"
"I'm too tired, really Professor. I would just like to sit here and ... "
" ... and what, Claymouth?"
"I forgot what I was going to say. We're too old to ride the carrousel,
Professor - suppose someone saw us?"
"Going around in circles, you mean? We would be admitting it wouldn't we? I
tried to get some work done earlier today. Every time I made a stab at it,
something stopped me. Come Claymouth, I'll treat. You can sit there as well as
In spite of his reservations Henry Claymouth followed Professor Gottlieb to the
ticket agent in his little kiosk at the side of the carrousel. The Professor
reached in his back pocket and withdrew his wallet. "We'd like to go around
indefinitely," he told the agent. He gave the man a twenty dollar bill.
"That'll give you about forty rides. you're sure. ain'tcha? If I see y'botherin'
the kids, you're gonna be in a lotta trouble."
"We have things to discuss, we have no interest in the children. Come Claymouth
-- there are swans as well as horses -- and I see a tiger. Would you like to
ride a tiger, Claymouth?"
"I don't know why I've let you talk me into this, Professor. I should finish my
run and get home, I have to make up a test on Public Law and Human Rights."
Claymouth jiggled nervously as they stood by the entrance waiting for the
carrousel to stop.
"Make time, Claymouth." The Professor looped a garland of tickets around Henry
Claymouth's fat neck. "There is time, Claymouth. Time and space. Forget
Aristotle -- a flash in the pan. If he were alive today he would be laughed at
as an idiot."
Professor Gottlieb chose a white horse. One with its two front feet pawing the
air. It had a golden plastic mane the color of corn silk, wide frenzied eyes and
flaring nostrils. The carrousel had stopped leaving the horse in its highest
position, making it difficult for the Professor to mount up. He took two or
three preliminary hops on his right foot with his left in the stirrup without
much success. "You take the swan boat, Henry. You can hold my papers."
"Yes, by all means, something tranquil. I'll watch you up there on your horse,
that will be all the excitement I need."
Unencumbered now, Professor Gottlieb mounted the white horse and sat up straight
in the saddle. "Magnificent! What a view! I feel like General Robert E. Lee." He
looked down at Henry Claymouth and grinned at him like a schoolboy. "Are you
sure you'll be safe in the swan boat, Henry?"
"We're not going to stay here long, are we Professor? I really have to be
To the loud and raucous strains of Tales of the Vienna Woods the carrousel
jerked into action. The Professor's face lit up with a happy smile as his horse
began to move up and down -- slowly at first, then picking up the pace as the
carrousel picked up speed. He held the reins in his left hand and slapped the
horse's rump with his right. "Are you with me, Henry? Creatio ex Nihilo!!"
Claymouth stared up at the Professor with an expression of mixed wonder and
fright, then he suddenly realized he was riding backward in the swan boat. He
hastily changed seats so he could face forward. Again he looked up at the
Professor urging his wooden horse onward. The man had flipped, certainly.
Professor Gottlieb was a noted astronomer, a respected physical scientist -- had
he gone mad? He had taken off his hat and was beating it on the horse's rump,
his straggly gray hair was standing on end. "Creatio ex Nihilo. indeed!"
The hurdy-gurdy changed tunes, the locale changed from the Vienna Woods to the
land of William Tell. The carrousel slowed to a halt and the expression of bliss
on the face of Professor Gottlieb was overshadowed by expression of nausea on
that of Henry Claymouth.
"You look a little peaked, Henry. You should be up here with me or over there on
the back of that black Arab charger. That's the way to go around in circles.
Swan boats are for sissies."
Claymouth looked up at the mounted Professor "I've really had enough, Professor.
Can we leave now?"
"But we've got tickets for the whole afternoon, Claymouth -- we're just getting
"We can give the tickets to the children ..."
"Listen to that organ, Claymouth. It's enough to give a man a terminal
They went around again -- and then again. By this time Claymouth was pitched
forward in his seat with his head between his knees. Professor Gottlieb looked
down at him and shook his head. He reluctantly dismounted and put his hand on
Claymouth's shoulder. "Come old man, let's go. Maybe I can use these tickets
The two men left the carrousel, one with regret and one with relief. They found
themselves out on the cinder path again. They had some difficulty walking a
straight line -- "It comes, I think from traveling in circles," the Professor
suggested. "We are like the mice in the Life Science lab. We have been trained
to bear left. You see, Henry ... " he went on, "if we were to meet people
walking towards us in our condition, we would avoid confrontation and ... "
"It's been an illuminating afternoon, Professor."
"Hasn't it though. I seem to have forgotten all about the outer reaches of the
Henry's pace quickened a bit as they neared his apartment. "I never had much
interest in the universe to begin with," Henry said, then added, "thanks for the
ride on the merry-go-round, Professor - I haven't been on one since I was a
"I've never been on one," the Professor said. "I'm from Dresden, you know. The
carrousels were all destroyed in the war ... like much of everything else. Well
... " The Professor shook his head sadly. "So it goes. Lots of luck putting your
test together, Henry."
Professor Gottlieb walked on. His apartment was a shade more upscale than
Claymouth's and two blocks closer to the college gate. The refinement was
negligible, however, and only faculty and fourth year students were aware of
such niceties. One difference, however, that even you and I would notice was in
the cleanliness of the two apartments. Professor Gottlieb could afford a
cleaning woman twice a week from ten to four and Claymouth had to do his
As the Professor approached his apartment, he glanced up at his window on the
second floor, it was closed, and he couldn't remember closing it. That must mean
that Mrs. Borgia had left for the day. Wonderful, he thought as he gripped his
papers tightly. "I've neglected my work today. Taken time off from the
universe." He made plans. Chinese food from Lum How, "Lum How here. Yes. In
fifteen minutes. What you want?" He even decided to open a bottle of Chardonnay,
and he needed the Beethoven quartets - let me not forget Beethoven. If anyone
can show me the limits of the universe, Beethoven will.
He finished half the wine before the Chinese food made its appearance at his
door. Then he sat down at his desk surrounded by his papers, his computer, his
printer, his telephone, his recorder and the deadly aroma of monosodium
Fifteen minutes. Yes, Lum. Right on the dot. A minute for every billion light
years. That's what he wrote in his papers that afternoon. Fifteen billion light
years. On a clear Andean mountain in Chile someone photographed a faint smudge
of light at the edge of this universe. Was it far away, or are we far away? What
can they see out there that we can't see from here? Are their noses pressed
against the window of our cosmos? What can they see?
Perhaps, he thought. Perhaps like goldfish in a bowl they can stare out into the
living room of another existence and see the master sitting in an easy chair
with his son on his lap watching the Pittsburg Pirates play the Cincinnati Reds.
Could it be as simple as all that?
The Professor remembered as a child pressing his nose against the baker's window
and longing to taste the cakes and pies and cookies his mother promised to make
and never did. And here he was, today, closing the circle of his years -- riding
a merry-go-round and reaching for the stars.
He thought of the laws he lived by. The ones men make for themselves -- to make
the punishment fit the crime. Nothing more, nothing less. "Evaluation of
Governmental Policy." That's what Claymouth called it -- set up by Aristotle and
adjusted by Machiavelli. We bask in Democracy. One size fits all, although it
fits some better than it does others.
"I wonder if it works any better on the other side of the glass?"
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