From: Mutualists, Competitors,
Hosts and Parasites
It begins simply. By chance a man and woman meet at a dinner party. The woman is momentarily, mildly curious; plays a game at the threshold of consciousness, what if this man instead of another? The man--well, the man is in the habit of masking himself.
Then it's past. The woman is distracted. Others at the table make claims on the man--his hostess wants his gratitude, his dinner partner wants his attention. No wonder. Down the table he sees her husband, the face of a fanatic, distrustful and famished.
No, it begins even more simply than that. A single-celled seed, one of millions, penetrates, is engulfed by, a single-celled egg, also one of millions, to exchange and recombine information, set up possibilities. But only possibilities. What actually happens isn't inevitable. The outcome depends on so much: it could all have turned out differently. Played a second time, it would have.
He makes his first appearance at a dinner during that festive week between Christmas and New Year's, when you need a four-wheel-drive to get through the foot of snow that's fallen on Christmas Day in Santa Fe. The guest of honor, the new man in town, Molloy sits at the table quietly, his black eyes absorbing. Very early he's trained himself to learn by watching, has cultivated an expression of polite attention that can mask anything from acute yearning to utter boredom.
He watches the Texans, new to him. He's talked to a couple of Texas women earlier, overly made-up, as southern women always are, exaggerated talk, almost caricatures, but conveying that they know this, are laughing at themselves and their own over-the-top performance as Texans. "Why, they're just big ol' darlin softies. Sweet-natured as can be. You have to shoo them out of the petunias, is all." It takes him a moment to understand they're talking about their longhorns.
His dinner partner, apparently a gallery owner, apparently placed next to him because he's known as a collector, has been speaking of a conflict between supporting authentic Indian arts and encouraging the next step in their evolution. How even serious collectors hesitate at the new. She winks. Is she flirting? Politely, Molloy offers his attention. "What do you tell them?"
"The artists themselves are torn. I've seen them be vicious to a potter who throws a pot instead of hand-coiling it, but then forgive kiln-firing instead of the traditional open pit. Or the opposite. If her spirituality is in order, they'll forgive everything."
"Order," Molloy muses. "I find order much over-rated."
He hears one of the scientists down the table. "All that geometrical foundry dreck, the twentieth century's version of national hero on horseback," she says. "Hofkunst. That's why it always ends up on the lawn in front of city hall. It won't make you nervous by taking you someplace you haven't already been."
The foreign word, Hofkunst, court art, makes him study her with particular interest. Too old for conventional prettiness, but she's radiant with self-confidence, accomplishment, experience. A blueblood. He's dealt with more than a few in his life, the real thing in Europe. With the Europeans, he had first to discover their vulnerabilities. Not so much to gain advantage but to get a better map of the territory. Hers? They'll come clear, they always do; he's a patient man. A brief image comes to mind, a woman in a full skirt on a wooden bench, her big hat, her boots, her laughter. Little cause, big results. He's not superstitious, but.
This much he knows: the individual formed by a chance meeting of two cells grows, differentiates, changes, evolves, learns (or, God help him, doesn't) from everything that life flings at him; seizes the initiative, only to be pushed down unplanned paths to learn and change again. A matter of simple survival. Yet through everything, his sense of himself has persisted stubbornly. He's not who he once was, and yet--he is. Change at every level in response to yearning, to learning. But something endures. The central paradox. He'd like to understand that; has heard they know something about it at the Institute just up the road.
His edginess is sometimes abrasive; maybe the edge of the self-made man who's raised his fortune from nothing (once? twice? more?) and fundamentally doubts its permanence. JAWS, an observer finally shrugs. Just Another Wealthy Shithead. Santa Fe crawls with them.
His loot--and Maya's blunt telephone calls--soon bring Molloy invitations to spots on half a dozen important boards: art museums, the opera, charities. In these ways, Santa Fe is no different from New York or Dallas, and he's known this intuitively. Molloy will protest that he doesn't mean to do anything in Santa Fe but tend his investments, maybe begin good works. He's more or less retired now, he'll explain diffidently, though the few gray hairs at his temples are more cosmetic than credible.
This is an early answer as to why he's here. Which is the question he puts to all the dinner party that first night: Why are you here?
. . . . . .
From: Flocking Behavior
They stand in a brilliant setting sun, warmly dressed against the wind bite, while above them, immense numbers of water fowl arrive to settle in for the night. By the thousands birds float down from the rosy gold skies in remarkably orderly fashion, each somehow finding a spot on the lagoon, though the birds scold each other crossly as twilight encroaches, and the lagoon gets more crowded. Ron thinks of World War II newsreels, parachute invasions. Judith thinks of a public swimming pool in Japan. Molloy thinks about flocking behavior.
The birds are voyagers from the Canadian Arctic, wintertime guests gracing this all but treeless stretch of the New Mexican desert, this wide marshy spot in the Rio Grande, a place cold for humans, but suiting the sand cranes, the snow and Canadian geese perfectly. In the hyperthermic summer the birds would perish within a day, but of course by summer they're long gone back to the Arctic.
"You aren't a birder, Molloy?"
Birdwatching, Molloy has thought, is something earnest vegetarians in sensible shoes do in the late afternoon of their lives. He's surprised to find himself here at all. "No. Not a birder. I'm here because Judith promised me complexity in action."
Ron nods. "Flocking behavior. Swarm systems. Yeah, you'll see that sure enough."
"Didn't somebody try to imprint whoopers with an ultralight plane and lead them down here?"
Judith makes a face. Bad science perturbs her. "A failed experiment, I'd say. Not that you can't learn from failure. My most indelible--my most poignant--learning experiences are usually failures." Molloy watches her, awaiting a revelation. "So much work to get a handful of whoopers and their sandhill pals imprinted with the plane as leader, parent. Then a whooper got tangled up in the plane somewhere over Colorado. Right after they arrived, a coyote and a bobcat got another two. A couple of adults and an immature are supposed to be hanging in, but frankly, it worked better for the geese."
"Life is so fragile."
No, she contradicts Molloy silently, life is surprisingly robust. Don't be fooled by the special cases. Thinks of Jonathan in the nursing home; the phone call she'll make to Sophie before dinner. Special cases each of them. Random events, Sophie calls them. "Of course it's my random event, which makes it more interesting," Sophie had said. "To me, I mean."
Molloy breaks the long silence. "About complexity."
Judith nods. The man's goal-driven, say that for him. "Let's get along to the north end." North to vast flooded fields, where birds large and small arrive in groups of a dozen or more. "You see the formations? So far as we know, they aren't communicating in any depth. Danger ahead, food here, look out for the kids, but not much more. They act from a small set of wired-in instructions. Keep a minimum distance from the neighbors, or from anything else. Copy what the neighbors are doing. If the guy next to me is turning right, then I'll turn right too. If he's settling down for the night, I'll settle down for the night too--probably overdetermined by another wired-in instruction for a bird that says if the light begins to fade, start settling down for the night. Finally, Keep trying to move toward the center of the flock.
"Three simple rules. Yet rich and complex behavior arises--look at that, just beautiful. Fluid adaptation to the unexpected. Flocking behavior." She catches Molloy's amused smile. You asked. "Such elaborate patterns. They delude us that some kind of central intelligence is present. Not so," she adds quietly. "A-life. Ant hills. Robots--fast, cheap and out of control. Human cultures, civilizations. Same thing. You'll see more in the morning when we watch the fly-off."
Molloy thinks of markets, electronic blips passing at the speed of light across borders, time zones, beyond understanding. The birds are like traders, watching each other warily, doing whatever their neighbors do, rising and falling in some intricate dance. "No one decides. But it happens anyway."
"A little more complicated than that. Not much. That's life."
"What's life?" He's buried the dead, grieved, is still alive. He examines her face, seeking something. Her merry blue eyes seem direct, and yet. Then he has it. A slight but perpetual sideways tilt to her head, the oblique gaze of the born skeptic.
"What--is--life? A property of carbon we used to say when I was just starting out. Then we'd say, oh life. A verb not a noun, a computation, a concentration of order, the inevitable consequence of self-organization, an emergent phenomenon--" She waves it all away. "Now we know we don't know."
He tries something simpler. "Where do the geese go when they take off?"
Gabe can't resist. "On wild goose chases, of course."
Molloy smiles; he's asked for that. The original wild goose chase, Zeus in horny pursuit of Nemesis.
Judith gazes out over the lagoon, the settling birds. "We're still groping. Life. Hell's bells, we don't even know what water is."
"H20," Ron says, puzzled.
"Steam, okay. The molecules are loosely coupled. But liquid or ice, tightly coupled molecules, it's a mystery. We can't calculate from first principles--quantum physics--the freezing or boiling points of water. Someone gets the Swedish prize for that one of these days. So if we don't know what water is, it keeps me humble about trying to tell you what life is, Molloy. Is a virus living or not? Who knows? Who cares? We talk instead about varied aspects of molecular biology. The boundary between living and non-living seems meaningless."
"The boundary between living and non-living is not meaningless," Molloy says decisively. "Not to me."
. . . . . .
From: Adaptive Equilibrium Dynamics
He's got a straightforward case of the blues. These days he can tell the difference between that and bigtime depression. It's a luxury, the blues without too much worry about a slide into something more serious. He's flat out on the couch, listening to Garcia the album (to indulge) and trying to remember the opening lines of Caesar's Gallic Wars in Latin (to snap himself out of it).
Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres. . . Everybody gets that. After all these years, no more will come to him. It had impressed him deeply that before the Helvetii, Gauls themselves, went to attack the Germans, they burned their own homes and stockades, burned all food except what they could carry, destroyed any hope of returning home, so they might not shirk from the worst perils.
Instead of making war, this Celt went off to do business with the Germans. Got along with them just fine, and sometimes he thinks he could always go back.
Father Yokkie at the old priest's home, his eczema a red, flaking curse across his face. "Can't something be done for him?" Molloy had said to the nursing sister, a sister still in a habit, too old to change, nearly as old as Yokkie himself. She shook her head. "Not now, not now." Meaning the condition was intractable? The old man was?
The conversation labored on, part in English, part in German. Molloy was now sensitive enough to peg Father Yokkie's accent, echt Berliner. Back when he was Joachim.
"Are you a faithful Christian?" the old priest had growled, as if they were about to go through the Baltimore catechism. Molloy had been amused by how time slipped away; how he almost but not quite resumed being that ever-horny kid in Father Yokkie's tenth-grade Latin and German classes, the mortification of standing up to recite a translation, convinced he was angled out like a flagpole. Which he was. Those were the days. He did not lie to the old man now. "Not really. No."
To his surprise Yokkie smiled with satisfaction. "Married?"
"You're young to bury a wife."
"Two, a boy and a girl."
Then silence, the old man scratching at his arms, where the eczema was at least covered by striped pajama sleeves. Molloy had leaned forward to him, discharging a debt, and said softly, "I wanted you to know how your classes changed my life. How grateful I am to you now, if I didn't know it at the time."
The old man didn't smile. In acknowledgment or anything else.
"I used to work in Germany. I still have interests there. It's really thanks to you."
"Where? What city?"
"Natürlich," said the old man with contempt.
He'd been all piss and vinegar in those days; unstoppable, his Mackie Messer phase. When his boss flew in from New York to oversee a deal that Molloy had worked on for months, fitting each piece into place as painstakingly as if he were tesselating a mosaic, the man showed up for the crucial meeting twenty minutes late. With the Germans, you might as well not show up at all. Molloy had let himself lose his temper: "This isn't fucking Mexico City."
"Is there anything I can do for you? Would you be more comfortable somewhere else?"
Elastic spittle tented across the corners of Father Yokkie's mouth as he tried to speak. "They came to ask about you as a candidate for the seminary, did you know that? Straight A's in Latin and German, this is a boy for the vocation. I near busted a gut laughing. Jackie Molloy? He wants exactly two things out of life, pudenda et pecunia. He wants them so bad he'll near kill himself to get them, and kill anybody gets in his way." With effort the priest leaned over and fingered the fabric of Molloy's vicuña topcoat, folded over his arm, left a ghostly trace of flakes on the sleeve. "So you got the pecunia. In Frankfurt." He might just as well have said in hell. "And you're probably getting the pudenda, widower or not."
"Is that how it looked?"
Sadness, disappointment, a deep pain, had wrenched Molloy. The man he'd thought so wise, penetrating, the one human being on earth he'd imagined had really understood him, could appreciate the distance between where he'd begun and what he'd become, could not after all; hadn't seen through the immediate needs to the great gnawing hunger in a boy's soul. We never appear as we really are. Or maybe that's how he really was then.
Seminary. Shooting hoops in the schoolyard with Tony Morabito and Bobby Innocenti, the delicious satisfaction of a ball swishing into the basket just so, clear of the rim, and Tony says out of the blue: Jag-off, could you ever be a priest? Strangely enough, it's crossed Molloy's mind, since he doesn't know anybody else who makes a living reading books. He recovers the ball, dribbles it back to the penalty line, shoots again, watches with satisfaction. Chooch, he says to Tony, I love pussy too much. At that time he has sunk his cock into exactly two pussies, because he doesn't count dry-humping, blowjobs, handjobs, or five-fingered-mary, but he knows the truth of what he says.
He dropped his voice: "Is there something I can do for you? Would you like to be somewhere else?" He had in mind anything the old man wanted, from a drive in the country to a new nursing home.
Father Yokkie told him where he'd rather be, another time, another place, a life to live over again, none of which Molloy could help him with in the slightest. A great wave of pity overwhelmed him, mainly for the old priest, but also for himself, and he took the old man's crusty hand and held it gently enough so that the old man could withdraw it, but he didn't. After a while, maybe because Molloy would sing to his kids as they were going to sleep, maybe something else, he sang softly to the old man, from Die Dreigroschenoper, a sad song about the world being poor and man being bad. Weill had intended it to be sung sardonically, a cheerful Berlin bite, but Molloy sang it straight and sad. The old man's eyes got watery, and he mouthed the words too. Molloy, knowing what he now knew, had a flash of Yokkie, then Joachim, as a young Berlin bon vivant, even a Lebensmann--a rake--having this song by heart, never once dreaming he'd end up like this.
What might have been. The conditional pluperfect. More perfect than perfect. A futile path to wander down. Molloy shifts on the couch, the music soothing, letting him wallow. Jerry's barely passable voice singing about the last fair deal.
The music takes him somewhere else. On a warm summer's night he's lying flat on his back in Central Park's Sheep Meadow, smoking a joint, staring up at the stars. You need a dip in the ground so when the police shine their lights over the meadow they can't see you. A woman beside him, he can't remember who. By then he's Jack Molloy, up and coming in every sense. He wonders if kids still do that, get high on the Sheep Meadow under the noses of the cops.
Jackie Molloy, known among the priests at St. Joseph's for wanting pudenda and pecunia so bad he'd near kill himself to get them and kill anybody who got in his way. So focused, colleagues would say with admiration. Mackie Messer, Jürgen teased, and gave him the Lotte Lenya record. Erste kommt das Fressen. Which he'd later replaced with a CD and would replace again when the next big thing came along. So goddamned, stupidly obsessive that by the time he was simply Molloy, he could leave a man on a mountainside to die. Who, luckily, only got frostbite and lost a few toes.
Okay, conjugate the irregular verb to be. Sum, I am; es, thou art; est, he, she or it is (though Father Yokkie had made them say she, he or it, so they wouldn't slur the she and it into shit); sumus, we are, and then--and then--sumus, estis, sunt. A little rusty there, Jacko, in the game of being. Why is to be always irregular? A deep linguistic commentary on life and being in the Indo-European worldview. Try the future perfect, where the future is always perfect: fuero, I will have been, fueris, thou will, thou wilt? have been, fuerrit, he, she or it will have been, fuerimus, fueritis, fuerint. A loopy daydream of cracking a great code, like some past amateurs, whatsisname, Sir William Jones, the magistrate in India, teaching himself Sanskrit at night and discovering enough similarities between it and other European languages that he can announce to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta: human languages have a primary source and let us call it Indo-European; the architect Michael Ventris cracking Minoan Linear B, which had baffled generations of experts. Daydreams. He could get back into all this, given a chance. Funny that the woman plays around with language too.
. . . . . .
From: Avalanches of Extinction
In a Friday night in mid-September, Santa Fe's summer came to an official end with the ritual burning of Zozobra, Old Man Gloom. The ceremony had originated in the 1920s with the Cinco Pintores, the Five Painters, easterners who'd discovered the brilliant clarity of the Santa Fe light, who'd invented the idea of Santa Fe, then claimed the city as their own. One had built the first Zozobra effigy, and with his friends, burned it ceremonially to rid the coming winter of troubles and sadness. It became an annual public event, Zozobra growing bigger and more elaborate. Now the effigy was fifty feet high, and the drama drew close to ten thousand people (maybe thirty thousand, depending on whether the insurance company or the police were counting) from all over northern New Mexico.
The artists had appropriated bits and pieces of ancient ceremonies, some from Native Americans, some from Europe, so that Zozobra's sacrifice seemed a ritual not decades old but millennia, which in some real sense, it was. Zozobra's long white gown recalled the martyrdom of saints and sinners alike; of slaves and philosophers, cattle thieves and monarchs, witches and heretics, all judged and condemned.
Simple, theatrical, it plunged little children into nightmares. Adolescents flung themselves into it mindlessly; adults confident of their own rationality shivered at the primitive human past, lurking just beneath a thin tissue of late second-millennium Christian civilization.
Judith felt bound to see it for exactly those reasons. They acknowledged, she and Ron and Gabe, quietly, only half-jokingly, that each of them could have been a Zozobra in the past, burned at the stake for multiple offenses: their learning, their skepticism, their sex, their sexuality. They did not need to say to each other that it could happen again. For them the ceremony was both an act of witness and a memorial.
Darkness at last. Zozobra seemed to concede that he'd perish. He stirred his hydroencephalic head, his arms, shifted in his long white tunic, and began an eerie, piteous groaning that, amplified by loudspeakers, echoed all over the city. The young Glooms fell back.
Up the stairs toward Zozobra came an adult male, clad only in a loin cloth, body oiled, bending sinuously, waving a lighted torch. A signal. Ten thousand voices cried out in unison: "Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!" This too echoed over the silent town, a counterpoint to the monster's groans.
Judith and her friends kept silent. One year they'd tried joining in, wondering how it would feel to be on the other side. What they felt, they confessed afterwards, was shame, and they never did it again.
The dancer paused, torch above his head, arms and legs spread wide, as if waiting for permission from the gods. The crowd was nearly hysterical. Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!
The high priest, the dancer, yielded to the crowd's will. He collapsed forward, touched the torch to Zozobra's hem, right, then left. Silhouetted by the bonfires, the little Glooms screamed in ecstasy. The crowd screamed back, waved, stomped on the grass in joyous approval, Yes! Yes! Burn him! Burn him!
Flames shot up Zozobra's skirts, engulfed his lower half. Reached his torso. His arms flailed, his groans rose to screams. Flames erupted from his eyesockets. The whole puppet was ablaze, a brilliant image of what had once been a solid thing, flames reaching unstoppably to the stars above. His arms waved, his burning head shook in futility, limb parted from fiery limb, a nebula of flame and dust, and was consumed. No sound now but the fire itself, its pitiless roar, the smoke reaching even to the back of the field.
The crowd went silent, dwarfed and spent by the immensity, the irrevocability of what it had willed. Flames lingered, licking at supporting structures, but Zozobra was gone, a holocaust too odious to dwell on.
. . . . . .
From: Error-Correcting Strategies
In fact they drive in silence the few moments it takes to get to the old goat path. Not until he's pulled up beside her wall does he slump back against the car door, observe her. "Go on. Love among the theorems."
"It didn't last. I see now it couldn't."
"Not because he was singing Gilbert and Sullivan, and I was singing Tom Lehrer. Though that's true." Who deserves the credit? Who deserves the blame? Jonathan, traveling from hotel room to hotel room with a portable digital room thermometer, no longer trusting his senses to tell him whether he was comfortable. He grew obsessed with weather forecasts, listened to them hourly, though about the weather he could do nothing, forecast right or wrong. They penetrated her consciousness--young men on airplanes, businessmen as tenderly barbered as choirboys, athletes who stowed backpacks in the overhead bins with their well-toned abs thrust into her face--and provoked rushes of erotic longing. Then others, closer at hand, this time not imagination but flesh. Even in the dark car, she's not prepared to confess this. She tells other truths instead.
"An inequality between us could never be--overcome. I'm not cut out for the role of junior partner. Jonathan's reputation became, well, an ambiguous issue for me. I never took his name, but still. Some people assumed he did the heavy lifting. I knew the facts, I did my own." She stops, lost in recollection. "Except it undermines you slightly. You need to know if people's perceptions have more truth than you're willing to admit. I got so touchy about all that. I was--" She searches, finds no word, torn as she is between the pain she'd felt then, and her shame for what had come after. She'd left Jonathan to leave all that. She couldn't be a real scientist until she'd left Jonathan once and for all.
"Then something else. Funny, I haven't put this into words before, but Jonathan and I had a fundamental difference about the nature of mathematics. Forgive me, Molloy, this isn't--"
"Go on." The imperative voice.
"Sounds idiotic, it didn't matter at first, but eventually. He loved mathematics for its own beauty, l'art pour l'art. Applied math was tacky, second-rate. A craft, not an art. If something he'd done had a practical application, fine, but not important. Except to convince a funding agency they should keep supporting his research." She feels disloyal, making him sound hypocritical. In that sense, he had been. It comes to her in this dark night that she's weary of apologizing to Jonathan.
"But I loved--applications to real-world problems. For me, that's where real mathematical beauty lies, the map between the mathematics in my mind and the real world, the way an equation can illuminate the world like--like a good painting. You never see the world the same way again. One of the great flowerings of mathematics began under the Arabs in the 9th century--they're the ones who saved civilization--remember that conversation?"
He looks offended. "Every word of it."
"Think of it, mathematicians in a great arc from Spain to India, all speaking Arabic, applied mathematicians every one of them, because it was a holy calling, to find out what God has to teach us about the world. Mathematics as the very language of God." She drops her head exhausted, knows she's babbling.
"Jonathan thought that any joy I took in the applied, the practical, was a female flaw. Thought he could convert me, refine my mathematical taste, but he never did." None of this in words until now. She's chilled to the bone.
"Jonathan sounds like a real asshole."
She starts automatically to defend Jonathan, realizes she's been relieved of that. Dwells in the long silence gratefully.
. . . . . .
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