Statistically Improbable Phrases

on invention: two suns on the horizon

Last night I did a reading with my colleagues David Franke and Vicki Boynton at the Homer Center for the Arts. It's been a while since we read together. Here's what I read, a little piece on the task of invention.

Two Suns on the Horizon

Saturday April 1st  1994 was one of two days that year that Trinity Site was open to the public. It's not an easy place to find. As you might imagine, the site for the first atomic bomb test is a fairly remote location. We were headed to Trinity Site for inspiration, to bear witness to the atomic age that had shaped our childhood. Lying awake in bed in third grade, it struck me as some inevitable logic that a button, once built, must eventually be pushed. In 1994 though, Trinity more represented a past era, the techno-optimism of syndicated afternoon sitcoms that charmed us with their naïve murderous glee. 

Four of us headed out from Las Cruces that morning.  Rhonda, my girlfriend of about two weeks and I were in the backseat. Daniel and Eduardo sat up front.  A year later, Ed would be in jail for raping and attempting to murder one of his students in the midst of a bipolar schizophrenic episode. To this day he remains in prison, now with a pacemaker, on drugs that keep him purportedly sane at the cost of slowly killing him and causing his hands to shake so badly he can't manage to write: the one thing he truly loved to do. Earlier that morning, he'd been holding Rhonda's thin wrists, remarking on her veins, and discussing their appeal to vampires like himself. You would have thought we might have recognized a warning sign like that.

But sometimes creativity is like that. It drives you a little mad. It asks you to take on an identity that is not quite human, that is not part of the ready-made culture of consumable personae. It leaves you with two minds about your work, scratching at your chin, pawing through your hair, mumbling to yourself.

In some ways, we were looking for the same thing as those modest witnesses of an explosion nearly fifty years earlier. In the morning of July 16 1945, Ralph Smith, a lawyer from Los Alamos, came South toward Trinity Site in a convoy of military and civilian personnel. At 5:20, the radio sounded the 10-minute warning. 1st Lt. Schaeffer and Smith stretched out on a blanket facing south to the spot where several searchlights scoured the ground. The eastern mountains stood out in relief against the early morning glow, shedding light on the small crowd. The lieutenant fired a rocket at minus six minutes and again at minus three. A warning siren rang from the bivouac, and Smith covered his left eye with a welders glass. Suddenly, his right eye was blinded by a silent light. However his left eye saw the ball of fire start up like a tremendous bubble. He dropped the glass from his left eye almost immediately and watched the light climb upward.  It turned yellow, then red, and then beautiful purple. At first it had a translucent character but shortly turned to smoke. The column proceeded ponderous and silent. There was a spontaneous cheer from the observers. Dr. von Neumann said "that was at least 5,000 tons and probably a lot more." Smith heard a yell: “Keep your mouth open.”  And just then,  a sharp loud crack swept over them, reverberating through the mountains.

Sometimes invention is like that. You waiting, staring at the horizon, and then, suddenly a blinding flash of light, followed by a wall of sound. You watch an idea bubble up from a distance. While, at ground zero, thoughts melt into slag. Creativity as pure annihilation.

But it doesn't usually work that way.

The southern edge of the missile range is bounded by the White Sands National Monument. There one can find 275 square miles of gypsum sand dunes. 250 million years ago, the gypsum was part of a shallow lake that dried up. 180 million years later, the gypsum stone was lifted into a giant dome as the Rocky Mountains formed. However 10 million years ago, that dome began to collapse, forming the Tularosa basin between the San Andreas and Sacramento mountains. On a full moon, White Sands shines bright. The moon, shining like a second distant sun, casts the dunes into a glow. Standing in that alien landscape you find yourself unrecognizable. Is this also me?

Invention is sometimes like this as well. Geologic, moving with a turbulence across eons. Celestial, following a galactic clockwork in which the human species opens and closes too quickly to be noticeable.

It's about 170 miles from Las Cruces to Trinity Site, mostly along I-25, which follows the meandering Rio Grande and the thin green strip it draws through the high desert. We pass through a military gate, and we are instructed to follow the narrow road that stretches into the distance. 17 miles through the desert and we find ourselves at the Trinity Site monument.

Visitors to Trinity Site come looking for trinitite. At the moment of detonation, sand was taken up into the fireball. Burning at over 14,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the sand liquefied. Then much like water in a  cloud, the droplets formed together until they rained back down onto the ground. The result was a smooth glassy surface that covered the crater until 1952 when the government bulldozed the site. Though one can still find tiny fragments of trinitite in sand, the pieces remain radioactive.

Indeed the entire ground zero site remains “mildly radioactive” at about ten times the level of background radiation in the area. Spending an hour at ground zero exposes you to one-half a millirem of radiation. In comparison, the average American is exposed to 26-96 millirems of radiation from the sun every year, depending on the altitude at which one lives. A flight across the country exposes you to two milirems of radiation. We consume 40 milirems of radiation in our food, and so on.

Invention can be like this. Invisible, unnoticed, slowly accumulating in the body, forming into ever larger droplets, waiting for the moment of precipitation.

Rhonda and I stand on the now filled-in crater, staring up at the monument. Soon she'll be sleeping on my shoulder. Behind us, dozens of other visitors wander around the fence line, searching the ground or looking at old photos. They gather and point, shake their heads. They nod. Daniel chats with a young woman, likely dragged out there by her grandparents. His hair falls in tight ringlets below his shoulders: an effective lure for women for reasons I never fully understood. Eduardo comes up to him saying something in a jovial tone I can't make out, and I'm picturing the girl slowly backing away while Daniel looks at him perplexed.

Invention is built from strange attractors. Particles and waves joined and repulsed. Collisions splitting and reforming. Every thought departing from the virtually unthought. Two suns. One living, the other lurking with the horrible impossibility of its arrival.