April 24, 2009

In Memoriam—Evan Allan Larsen, 1934-2009

My father-in-law, Evan Allan Larsen, passed away yesterday after a short battle with cancer. I miss him terribly.

My first contact with Evan was a phone conversation we had the winter of 1980, when I called him to announce my intention to marry his daughter. That conversation remains clear in my mind, mostly for the disconcerting quiet that followed my announcement. I let a few seconds tick away, hoping he would offer me his blessing, but he said nothing. Meanwhile, a dozen thoughts tumbled in my head, among them:

Maybe he doesn’t even know who I am.

Maybe he does know me and thinks I’m an idiot.

Desperate to make a good impression, I commenced to prattle about my plans for the future—how I intended to go to business school and work diligently to provide a good life for his daughter. I waxed on and on. Still he said nothing and the silence was like a fart in an elevator: suffocating and uncomfortable. Expecting the worst, I finally asked him outright: “How do you feel about all this?”

That’s when I heard the sniffles and jagged breathing that must have been there all along. With a pinched voice that couldn’t hide the emotion behind it, he answered: “I always hoped my girls would marry good guys.” Hallelujah, I thought, but in the next instant Evan gathered his composure and drew a line in the sand in a way we would laugh about in the years to come: “But if you ever hurt my girl,” he said, “I will hunt you down and beat the hell out of you.”

Despite that inauspicious start, I would learn to think of Evan as the second-best reason I married Lori. In fact, on more than one occasion I was so moved by his fierce loyalty to family and everything decent that I would tell him: I married your daughter so I could be your son-in-law. There were so many reasons to feel that way.

Evan was once asked to be a regional representative for his church, a role that made him responsible for the spiritual welfare of many thousands of people. In that role he was asked to speak on the topic of leadership at BYU Hawaii. Standing before a roomful of students, he began his address by asking a question: “What’s the most important prerequisite to being a leader?”

Immediately hands went up and several young people offered opinions. One of them said humility was the most important attribute for a leader. Another said it was spirituality. Someone else said it was wisdom. After each reply Evan nodded, but he said there was another—more obvious—answer. In the end, he responded to his own question by saying the following: “The most important prerequisite to being a leader is BEING IN THE LEAD!”

And that’s Evan in a nutshell: He was first to begin a group task and the last to put a broom away once the work was done. Yet, it’s what put in the lead that makes his life so compelling. After Lori and I were married, we received numerous congratulatory cards from friends in Hawaii. Evan sat with us as we opened the envelopes and offered details about the life of each sender. He spoke of people’s aspirations and achievements and it surprised me how much he knew about them. So much pride was in his voice, a casual listener might have assumed he was talking about his own accomplishments. Suddenly, from one of the cards, a five dollar bill slipped out and Dad got misty-eyed. The money, he said, had come from a widow who lived on a fixed income and couldn’t afford the gift without cutting something important out of her budget. He wiped away a tear and said in a resolute way, “I’ll make it up to her.” Now, I don’t know what he did—whether it was to buy her a sack of groceries, or perform some chore she would have to pay a handyman for—but I have no doubt that in some quiet way he did make it up to her.

I also have little doubt that we will see him again. Noble men like Evan are bigger than death. In a way, he’s only graduated to something far grander. I look forward to walking good dogs along oak-lined trails with him once more. I look forward to hearing more of his stories and laughing with him again. I look forward to speaking the words of thanks I didn’t express in time: Thank you, Evan, for the example of love and loyalty you exemplified with your every deed and spoken thought.

And I love you tons.

April 19, 2009

Examining Our Assumptions

When I was just a kid, my mom drove me nuts with a sort of inquisition she conducted on a near-daily basis. As soon as I would walk through the door—before I could even think about getting a snack or turning on the television—she would say: “Did you ask any good questions at school today?”

That would mark the start of a drawn-out conversation. If my answer was no, she would want to know why (and if I intended to do anything with my life). On the other hand, if I answered yes, she would want to hear the question and understand its context. She would ask how the teacher and the other students had reacted, all of which subjected the event to considerable scrutiny. There was an upside, however, because on the occasions when I could report an especially clever question, it was enough to make my mom’s day. I could count on a favorite entrée at dinner that evening. I might even be allowed to stay up a little past my bedtime.

Back then I figured all mothers were like that, so it didn’t seem peculiar to me. Today, however, I find it interesting that she never once asked if I’d answered any questions. To her, the best indication of an active mind was the ability to probe and prod. Knowing a bunch of answers didn’t impress her, at all.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I met someone else who loved good questions the way my mom did. His name was John Meriweather and he was, at the time, the president of Salomon Brothers. I received a call from him one day not long after joining the firm’s Tokyo office. He’d heard that I was working on a new deal and he wanted to know more about it. When I started to summarize the transaction, he stopped me and said it was best to have the conversation face-to-face. The following week, I traveled to New York to meet him.

Little did I know that two other people—Larry Hilibrand, who’d earned a $15 million bonus for his trading performance the year before, and Myron Scholes, who would later earn a Nobel Prize for his work in developing an option pricing model—would be in the meeting with us. We sat down and John promptly asked me to explain the structure of the deal I’d developed. It was, quite simply, based upon a quirk in the Japanese tax code, which could be used to minimize the tax liability of certain investors. It took me five minutes to offer a summary, after which I soon lost track of the conversation. Scholes, Hilibrand and especially Meriweather took the implications of the deal to a place I’d not foreseen and put it in a bigger picture that included its affect on other capital flows. For me, it was a fascinating glimpse into the way extraordinary minds worked. In particular, I noticed two things: one, their interaction was effective, in part, because they were willing to challenge each other’s assumptions and two, they were far more concerned with articulating the right questions than in reaching correct conclusions. As I heard Meriweather say: “Ask the right questions and the answers follow.”

To say Meriweather is a smart man is like saying Richard Petty can drive a car. To this day, I’ve never met anyone who compares with him in intellectual terms. I didn’t get to know him well—after all, I was just a grunt back then—but I knew enough about him to understand the source of his mental prowess: He had a boundless curiosity and a deep love for the question, “Why?” In fact, it soon became apparent to me that before asking him a favor, it was best to prepare answers to two questions: Why does it matter? Why should I believe it?

And therein is a powerful code for life that both my mom and John Meriweather would doubtless appreciate: Be curious and never stop asking questions. This, unfortunately, is the antithesis of what many Christian organizations teach. Their notions of faith often require unquestioning reliance upon church decrees and literal interpretations of scripture. Ask, “Why?” and brows furrow. It’s because God says so, is one inevitable reply. It’s a mystery not to be tinkered with, is another. Then to side with logic and evidence against any faith-based assertion is deemed sinful.

Isn’t it apparent that accusations of faithlessness are bludgeons no less harmful than the racks of the inquisition? After all, as I’ve said on multiple occasions in past blogs: Faith has far more to do with uncertainty than perfected knowledge. There is nothing inappropriate with accepting certain premises on faith—in fact, we must do so since logic takes us only so far—but we should also acknowledge the possibility of being wrong and be willing to change our views should evidence dictate the need. In short, we should from time to time, question our assumptions, because that will lead us to better places.

In this context, we must see certain Old Testament stories for what they are: morality tales meant for another time and place. Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac is a good case in point and a story I’ve written about in other blogs. But consider also the account of Job, in which God and Satan go into cahoots to tempt and test a good man. We are meant to take from the narrative the value of unquestioning faith and we’re encouraged to follow Job’s example by never questioning why. Mindless doing, it seems to imply, trumps understanding. Yet, should we also accept God’s apparently capricious behavior? I think it's best to question the account altogether.

April 18, 2009

The Wait for the Higher Law

In reply to my last blog regarding Christ and the Ten Commandments, Joe Huster said the following:
The law served its purpose, and this was not to provide moral guidance. The law showed us that we couldn't live up to even the most minimal moral standards. It, thus, convicted us as subjects in need of redemption.

Those who see the Ten Commandments as the complete expression of God's moral concern miss the boat entirely. Sam Harris pointed out that he, a devout atheist, could think of obvious improvements to the set of rules. "Do not allow children to be abused or exploited" is a perfect example of a rule that would have to be included in any comprehensive list of God's commandments.

That such a rule is lacking in the Ten Commandments is not an indictment of God’s failure to provide moral guidance. It is an indication that the Ten Commandments are simply lowball standards that reveal our fallen natures. The Sermon on the Mount makes that clear.
I like what he has to say, but the notion begs the very question I used to end the blog: Why didn’t God communicate the requirements of the gospel to Moses? Why, in other words, did He wait until Christ’s ministry to disclose the higher law?

I’ve touched upon a possible answer in an earlier blog, but let me reiterate it here. Recall the history of the Jews before the time Moses received the Ten Commandments. Prior to being led through the wilderness as vagabonds, they were slaves to the Egyptians and considered chattel. They lived what I can only assume to be a brutal hand-to-mouth existence. Their only laws were based upon the vicious and capricious whips of bondage. Under such circumstances, few (if any) rise above the law of the jungle—a law that rewards the fittest rather than the moral.

It might be said then that, for the children of Israel, their long trek through the wilderness was God’s way of exacting a new discipline that required His people to live in cooperation and faith. What’s more, it prepared them for what came next, because near the end of that long sojourn—prior to leading His people into the Promised Land—God granted the Ten Commandments to Moses. Yet, as Joe says above, it was not a complete rendering of God’s morality. The people weren’t ready for that. They had only recently learned to consider the needs of the greater community.

Here, an interesting point can be made: If God waited before bestowing the Mosaic Law and waited again before offering Christ’s gospel, what does that say about the standards by which we measure ourselves? To me, it suggests that as we rise to new standards, the standards are likely to rise again. Unfortunately, if Christ were here today, He would have to re-teach His entire gospel, since it never really supplanted the law it was meant to fulfill and remains a revolutionary ideal today. Do we insist upon forgiveness in all circumstances? No, our culture loves vengeance, as is evident in every cop show and legal thriller on television. Do we insist upon bridling all lust and anger? Not at all, rather unmitigated appetite and ambition are considered marks of a charmed life. Do we insist upon honesty? Every business I know possesses file cabinets full of legal opinions that serve as evidence against the notion and yet are considered smart thinking.

Assuming, however, that we could live Christ’s gospel more fully, I’m sure we would discover even higher laws. We might, for example, learn that God wants us to take better care of the earth and live with the kind of restraint that conserves it. Of course, it’s just a suggestion today.

April 11, 2009

Christ and the Ten Commandments

I friend of mine recently acknowledged that he’d read parts of my blog and considered some of the content objectionable. Specifically, he thought my assertion that there were higher and lesser laws to be incorrect, because in his words, “Christ didn’t do away with the Ten Commandments.”

We agreed that he was referring to Christ’s statement found in Matthew 5:17.

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
As I’ve stated in a previous blog, Christ made the declaration just before introducing His gospel as a requirement of higher standing than the prevailing Mosaic Law. That should be obvious from reading the remainder of the chapter, but what’s not as clear is that Jesus established the Ten Commandments as a necessary, but insufficient, standard of moral behavior. I say that, because obedience to the gospel—as the higher standard—results in obedience to the Ten Commandments, too. (In case the rationale isn’t obvious: If my personal standard of safety is to never drive over 45 MPH, then I will naturally obey the highway speed limit of 65 MPH, as well). In this way the Law of Moses was never destroyed, but that’s not to say it represents a sufficient standard in defining Christian living.

So what does Christ’s declaration that he’d come to fulfill the law and prophets mean? To my way of thinking, He was: 1) pointing to Himself as the culmination of Old Testament prophecy and 2) establishing His gospel as the logical progression for those who'd mastered the Mosaic Law. The latter I can say with confidence based upon another instance in which Jesus uses the same words “law” and “prophets” in the same sentence. The statement I’m thinking of is found in Matthew 22:37-40, which is Christ’s reply to the question: Which is the great commandment?

His answer, as you will likely recall, is:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

The implication of this statement is that the Mosaic Law (the law and the prophets) was always designed to point people toward the gospel—a gospel that is (and this is going to sound schmaltzy, but I’ll say it anyway) all about love. Conversely, by adhering to the requirements of loving God and neighbor, we fulfill what the lesser law could only aspire to achieve. For this reason, we should be more preoccupied with how we practice the two great laws, rather than the ten.

This, however, raises a question: Why didn’t God just give the requirements of the gospel to Moses? Anyone care to answer?

Gifts to Be Appreciated

I don't like the word diversity, at least not the way we typically use it, because it has become a bit hackneyed. I do admire, however, that people are blessed with a wide range of what I can only call spiritual gifts. One of the gifts I appreciate most is the ability to see the world for its elegant mathematical symmetry and beauty. For example, my father-in-law, who worked most of his life as a carpenter, can look at a blueprint of a house and walk through it in his mind. To him, not only are the walls there to touch and see, but so are all the endless possibilities.

My son, Matthew, the physics PhD candidate, has a similar gift that causes me no small amount of envy. He was once invited to represent San Francisco in a math bowl. The invitation was based primarily upon his performance in a written test. After he'd taken it, I asked about the test and he recalled a few of the problems. One apparently gave the various dimensions to a cone and a cylinder and asked what the volume of their intersection would be at a certain location. I asked Matt if he'd been able to answer the question. His reply: That's one I did in my head. I wanted to cry--why wasn't I given that ability?

Another way in which some people see geometry where others don't is music. My youngest boy, Aaron, is studying at the Berklee College of music, where he is the most recent Jimmy Lyon scholar. I hate going to concerts with him, because he will invariably turn to me when I'm thinking the performance is most interesting or inspiring and he'll say something like: "Did you notice the use of the tri-tone substitution over the dominant seventh?" I shake my head, because I don't even understand the question. My point here is that he sees the music in a very computational way that enhances, rather than diminishes, its artistic value. As a jazz trumpet player, he can look at a sheet of chord changes--no notes, just the chords--and understand the endless possibilities that can be drawn out of them. And what he and I appreciate most about jazz is that the best improvisers don't always follow prescribed rules (e.g., only the set of X notes are to be played over Y chord) but will violate them occasionally in ways that are ingenious and add color and character to the music.

Select the following link to hear a performance of Toshiko Akiyoshi's Long Yellow Road. My son solos three minutes into the piece--he's the trumpet player second from the left in back. The performance occurred a year ago when Aaron was still in high school, but I think it holds up.

Happy listening. Try to pick out all the tri-tone substitutions.

April 10, 2009

William James

In an earlier blog, I wrote of my sincere desire that members of religious persuasions—mine included—refrain from using a phrase I find arrogant and damning: I know the church is true. (Let’s call this "The Phrase"). In response, a good friend of mine, a man whom I respect and admire, made the following comment.

Regarding your wish—it has already been granted! We testify of Christ's impact on our life. I think what the kids are saying is—somehow, I like church, it makes me feel good.

I take as the meaning of my friend’s comment that what people are really saying by The Phrase is: The church makes me “feel good” and this serves as proof that I’m being led along a path of righteousness that will make me happy.

I don't disagree with him. In fact, his response reminds me of ideas formulated by one of my personal heroes, William James. In his collection of essays, The Will to Believe, James crafted eloquent arguments on the intellectual and emotional risks of religious belief that form the underpinnings of his philosophy of pragmatism. To me, the most compelling piece in the collection is his title essay, which serves as a defense of faith. I understand that at one point James considered calling the essay, “The Duty to Believe,” but rejected the title, realizing it implied an obligation he hadn’t intended. Next, he thought to call it, “The Right to Believe,” but noted that such a heading called for a grantor of the right, which wasn’t consistent with his view.

In the end, he selected the eventual title, because it best described an attendant assumption that all human beings want to believe in a universe where goodness exists and truth can be apprehended. Without that possibility, he claimed, moral decisions are futile exercises. However, such a universe can't be defended by reason or logic alone. It exists for us only if we have faith—only if we show, in James’ words, “a passionate affirmation of desire” for both truth and goodness. To that extent, we will to believe that those qualities exist.

This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, James tried to temper the empiricism of his time by investing individuals with the authority to determine what is and isn’t true. He did so by arguing that ideas must be functional and, in his own words, that: “Truth happens to an idea (when) we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify (it).” At the root of his pragmatism, he asks practitioners to consider the value of an idea in terms of its personal utility:

Grant an idea or belief to be true,…what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would be obtained if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?

I admire this idea, which I find to be in complete harmony with my friend’s comment. Where I part ways with him, however, is how the idea is put into practice in most religious settings. Let me explain my point.

  • James, as I’ve indicated in other blogs, defined truth in roughly the following way: If it works for you, it’s true. Implicit in this statement is that truth is highly individualized, since what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you. In practice, however, the faithful generally believe all people come to the same conclusion about spiritual matters, if only they follow an established protocol, usually requiring study and prayer. There’s a Book of Mormon scripture, commonly referred to as Moroni’s Promise, that people of my faith point to as a kind of guarantee of this. Similar passages, I’m sure, are found in other sacred texts. The upshot is that most followers of religious tradition assume that anyone who comes to a conclusion contrary to their beliefs has either: 1) sinned beyond spiritual repair, or 2) not tried hard enough to receive enlightenment. However, if by uttering the phrase, “I know the church is true,” people are actually only saying, “The church has been good to me,” we have to concur that an individual can reach a different opinion and still be correct. Not all people, after all, will think the church makes them “feel good.”
  • I have an acquaintance, who was once a high-ranking official of an organization that attracted members with promises of spiritual and financial remuneration in exchange for physical property and other assets. He tells fascinating stories of how this was accomplished and apparently no device was more effective than the repeating of affirmations at group assemblies. Shouting in unison, “God loves me. He wants to bless me. He will give me love and riches,” would put potential members in a euphoric and highly-receptive state. (The FBI, by the way, shut the organization down when my acquaintance became disillusioned and turned State’s witness). The point here is that, in a subtle way, the repeating of aphorisms can be used as a control mechanism and The Phrase, which is often supported by an emotional response, is a case in point. For example, when missionaries teach people who feel an obvious connection to the message, they will often say something like the following: “You’re feeling the spirit and it’s telling you that the church is true.” But is that what’s really happening and is it honest to say so? Instead, could the emotional response really mean: I like these clean-cut young men and their unbridled enthusiasm?
  • I don’t think members process The Phrase as, “I like the church. It makes me feel good.” Rather, they are made to believe that the church is infallible and, by extension, that all debate ends in the scriptures or authoritative pronouncements. I have, in other blogs, spoke of the danger of apologetic thinking. Once a person decides that the church is “true” in every respect, all experience and new learning must conform to the notion or be rejected, no matter the supporting evidence. Otherwise, the alternative is to experience a kind of cognitive dissonance that must be ignored or conflicts of conscience and faith will result.
Like William James, I’m a great believer in the value (even the necessity) of faith. After all, logic only takes us so far until we must take occasional leaps into canyons of wonder. What I hope for, however, is that the faithful acknowledge their beliefs to have more to do with uncertainty than an unambiguous knowledge of the truth. If we could admit that, there would be far fewer roadblocks to learning and less sanctimony.

April 6, 2009


If you've read many of these blogs, you'll know that I have a fascination with physics, especially as it pertains to Einstein's theories and quantum mechanics. As a result of that fascination, I sat down a few years ago and wrote this short story, which was subsequently published in The Banyan Review. It's a bit longer than most of my postings. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it.
Shortly before his eleventh birthday, Mitch learned that his parents didn’t love each other anymore. Sixteen months later he was living in a tiny apartment, the only good change in his life a beagle puppy given to him as compensation for all the upheaval. Then on a rare evening when his mother and stepfather were both at home, he was on the kitchen linoleum playing tug-of-war with the dog. Suddenly Dill released the dishrag stretched taut between them and fell to her side.

“Get up, little girl,” Mitch said.

He stroked the puppy’s muzzle and looked at his mother. Candace was still dressed in one of the tight skirts and revealing blouses she wore selling mutual funds to old geezers. She set out plates and cartons of Chinese food, letting the dishes clatter as they hit the table.

“Stop playing with that dog and come eat,” she said.

“But Mom, look.”

Her gaze fell upon the trembling puppy and she whispered, “Oh, my.”

Mitch saw the alarm in his mother’s face and sprinted across the kitchen. He grabbed his stepfather’s shoulder and turned him from the pile of medical journals that seemed always to reside on their dinner table. In view of Dill’s torment, Mitch would do anything to help her, even speak to the new man in his mom’s life.

“You got to do something,” he said.

Frank didn’t rise or even push himself away from the table. He rubbed his overworked eyes and said, “She’s having a seizure.”

“What should we do?”

The man yawned. “She hasn’t eaten anything unusual, has she?”

“No, I make sure of that.”

“Has she been off her food?”

“She eats everything I set out.”

Frank dismissed the problem with a shrug. “As seizures go, it’s not a bad one. Let her ride it out. We’ll take her back to the breeder next chance we get.”

“Take her back?”

Mitch felt dizzy with the prospect of losing Dill. He adored everything about the dog, from her floppy ears to her happy feet. Now that they’d moved to Oregon, she was his constant and only companion.

“I think what Frank means,” his mother said, “is we might exchange her for another puppy—one that’s healthy. Isn’t that right?”

Frank raised his shoulders again.

“No,” Mitch said, wondering if his mom was voicing the adult solution to all problems. “We’re not trading her in. That’s what you do to an old truck—not to things you love.”

During the silence that followed, the puppy rolled to her chest and her eyes gained awareness. Mitch gathered Dill into his arms, saying she was fine—that maybe she’d only been joking—but his stepfather countered with cold logic and medical talk. A seizure, Frank told him, might be caused by a dozen different ailments, including liver disease and meningitis, brain tumors and encephalitis.

“The treatment will cost money and you have to ask yourself if the dog is worth it.”

Mitch clenched his fists. “I’ll call my dad, then,” he said. “He’ll pay for a doctor—a good one, too.”
“There’s no need for that.” Candace turned to Frank and her voice quieted. “We just dragged Mitch from the only home he’s ever known. Don’t make him give up the dog, too.”


Several days and another seizure later, Mitch and his mother visited an animal clinic where a lady veterinarian examined the dog. She said Dill’s spells were likely caused by epilepsy, then she drew blood to rule out other illnesses. While the doctor poked and prodded, looking for an enlarged liver or other symptom of disease, she told Mitch he could help the dog.

“Does she need one of my kidneys?” he asked.

The woman laughed. “Nothing that dramatic. Just keep track of her episodes and write down what you see.”

“Like how much she shakes—that kind of stuff?”

“Exactly. Include the time each spell occurs and any special circumstances. That’ll help me decide what medicine to give her.”

“Medicine? You can make her better?”

“I’ll have to check today’s test results, but there’s a good chance you two can be friends for a long time to come.”

Candace agreed to return early the following month and Mitch left the clinic as if on wings. He wanted to soar home and tell Frank about the visit, in part to say, “I told you so,” but also to hear the man’s reply. His stepfather was, after all, an intern at a Portland hospital and his opinion meant something.

But Frank offered no medical advice or support of the vet’s diagnosis. All he said was: “I don’t understand why you’d want a sick dog.”
There was no point in replying. For all his stepfather’s intelligence, the man didn’t see what it meant to be a boy—that once in a while you loved something weak, something that really needed your help.


Mitch felt a kinship to the weak things of the world, which explained his fondness for the comic book Quantum Master. The evening after his visit to the veterinarian’s office he retired to bed early, his nose in the newest issue. Before his gaze fell upon the final scene he was yearning to discuss the story’s hidden message and to speculate about its connection to the larger world, but that seemed impossible. All his buddies were back in Arizona.

He turned to Dill, who was lying beside him, and let her sniff the pages. “See this?” he asked, pointing to a drawing of Tommy Trifle, the comic’s young hero.

Mitch summarized the story’s genesis: Tommy Trifle, a research assistant at a secret NASA laboratory, was peering through a telescope one day, when he received a blast of radiation from a dwarf star. As a result he began to shrink, even as the star collapsed. After a few days no one could see him anymore. A week later even the lab equipment couldn’t detect his presence.
Mitch pointed to another Quantum Master panel that was full of strange objects floating in a dark void. “And just like that,” he said, “Tommy was in a world with extra dimensions—a world where time flowed back and forth. It was a strange place and a dangerous one, too.”

Dill sneezed, causing her whole body to shudder. She looked at Mitch and put a paw on his arm as if to ask for clarification.

“It was dangerous for a reason,” he said, and pointing to a caption, he read: “If chaos went by another name, it would be Dr. Discord.”

The doctor, Mitch explained, was once the world’s foremost particle physicist, but disillusioned with the military’s use of his work, he tried to end his life through exposure to the same cosmic radiation that had miniaturized Tommy Trifle. Failing in the attempt—but now small enough to influence the world on a subatomic level—Dr. Discord sought to end all existence.

Mitch closed the comic book and patted Dill on the head. “Do you see what’s going on?” he asked. “These two guys are battling it out and the world’s survival is at stake. Tommy’s doing his best to keep us safe, but no one even notices. He’s a hero, but his greatest wish is just to get back home.”


Frank was working a double shift at the hospital and Candace was entertaining a new client, when Dill had another spell. Mitch held the dog and sat on the living room couch. He buried his nose in her fur and took her scent into his lungs.

“You’re okay, little girl,” he said.

Suddenly the inexplicable happened. Mitch wasn’t in the room anymore, but in a strange world, like out of a Quantum Master comic. It was a dark place without distance in any direction. He couldn’t see, much less use, his arms or legs. In fact he didn’t seem to have a body at all. Frightened, he willed himself to move, but only managed to spin.

Mitch picked up speed trying to escape the blackness and lack of dimension, when he heard Dill bark. He couldn’t see her but knew she was with him, maybe even a part of him. Her presence gave him confidence and he sought new angles of rotation, looking for a passageway out of the world. Together they did summersaults and Dill howled as if chasing a squirrel.

Suddenly the dog barked a warning and Mitch sensed the presence of others. He stopped spinning and felt a new sensation, like hot breath on his skin. Though he still couldn’t hear or see, Mitch perceived the intruders’ thoughts.

“What are you doing here?” they asked.

Mitch didn’t have lips to speak, but he concentrated on the words: I don’t know.

“There is no redemption here,” they said, as if in reply.

In the next moment the world grew brilliant with orange light and Mitch woke with a chorus of voices still echoing among his thoughts. Dill licked his face and, as sensibility returned to him, he considered the last curious words he’d heard: “Behold, the worlds meet.”


A week later there was a knock at the door and Mitch’s father stood in the open courtyard. Randall was tall and tanned, all smiling eyes and swagger. He wore khaki pants and a button-down shirt that looked neatly pressed despite his long flight from Phoenix.

“I thought it would be pouring rain here,” he said.

Mitch wrapped his arms around his dad and said, “It usually is. But not now.”

Randall pointed to a cherry-red convertible parked in the street and suggested they take a ride. Mitch didn’t need a second invitation. He leaped into the rented Mustang and lifted Dill into his lap. They left with the top down and the dog raised her nose to the passing draft.

An hour later they were heading south along the coast, when a stretch of seashore beckoned to them. Randall pulled into a rest stop and grabbed a football out of the back seat. From the parking lot they walked down a steep trail to where curtains of sand raced and whirled at the foot of the bluff. Only a few people were on the beach and Mitch rejoiced at having his dad all to himself.

Randall kicked off his loafers and slapped the football twice. “Go long, Champ,” he said.

Mitch ran toward the water with Dill following. Where the sand grew damp and packed, he curled back and said, “Throw it, Dad.”

Randall waved him on. “Keep going.”

The boy turned again and Dill barked and nipped at his heels, her floppy ears trailing. Mitch was still running at an easy lope, when he looked over his shoulder and saw his father reach back and throw. The football came in a perfect spiral with hardly an arc in its path. Mitch accelerated forward, but the ball landed a dozen feet beyond him. It bounced several times before coming to rest and Dill leaped ahead to paw at it.

“I told you to go long,” Randall said, laughing.

The football was too big for Mitch to palm. He wrestled it away from Dill and tried to throw it back to his father, but it wobbled like an injured bird and landed less than half the distance between them. His dad laughed again and Mitch tried to smile. He retrieved the ball and ran it back, wondering if he would ever be as tall or strong as the man who’d given him life.

“This time run a post pattern,” Randall said.

Mitch nodded and ran all-out. Every wish of his life seemed small beside his desire to catch the ball. He counted ten steps forward, faked right and veered left. The ball was already in the air when he first glanced over his shoulder. He pleaded silently: Don’t let me drop it. Let me dance with my arms in the air and celebrate with my dad. But the ball came too fast. It stung his outstretched hands and careened away.

Mitch ran the ball back a second time and said he wasn’t feeling well. They found a place to sit and rested their backs against a driftwood log. Near the water a pair of gulls landed and Dill growled at them.

“I’ve got something to tell you,” Randall said. “It’s good news.”

The words felt as warm as a favorite blanket and Mitch wondered if he would be going back to Arizona. Sometimes he dreamed of a perfect world, one with both parents under his roof, but if that wasn’t possible, he would choose to live in his hometown, not sharing an apartment with a stepfather.

“What news?” he asked.

“Do you remember Patti Ann from church? Well, we’re thinking about tying the knot—even talking about going to Vegas in a couple of weeks to seal the deal. I would take you, too, but you wouldn’t be much fun on the honeymoon.” Randall elbowed his son playfully.

“Patti Ann? Isn’t she the one with the boy?”

“That’s right. Landon plays shortstop on his little league team. He’s quite a fielder. Anyway, I thought you ought to know. You’re okay with that, right Champ?”

Mitch swallowed away a lump in his throat. “I guess.”

“Good.” He patted his boy on the leg and pointed to the parking lot. “I’m going to visit that restroom up there. We can play catch again when I get back.”

Mitch watched his father disappear up the slope and Dill began to shake in a way that was familiar to him now. He gathered the dog into his lap and kissed her head. In that instant he was in another world, one that was tunnel-like, but without height or width. Except for a dim glow at one end of the passageway, darkness surrounded him.

This time he wasn’t frightened. He quickly located Dill, who resembled a tiny spark of light. Together they advanced through the tunnel, gaining speed and rotation as they moved. He was like Tommy Trifle, ready to combat the forces of chaos. Mitch laughed from the thrill of it, until he sensed the presence of others and heard his dog growl.

“Why are you here?” said a chorus of beings. “There’s no redemption in this place.”
I don’t understand, Mitch thought. Suddenly he felt himself being whisked out of the world, but before he awoke, orange light filled one end of the tunnel and he heard the phrase: “Behold, the worlds meet.”


The morning his father was getting remarried, Mitch and his mother returned to the animal clinic with a record of Dill’s seizures. In a side room that smelled of cat fur and disinfectant, the veterinarian studied the handwritten notes and counted aloud the number of episodes that had occurred since their last visit.

“They seem to come every three or four days,” she said, looking at Mitch.

He nodded.

“And they usually happen when you two are alone.”

Candace put a hand on her boy’s shoulder. “Mitch is home by himself a lot. But he takes good care of the dog. There’s no doubt about that.”

“Oh, I know. I can tell from his notes. But look at this. Here’s a strange entry—and there’s another one just like it.”

The boy knew without looking what the doctor was talking about. He’d kept two of the entries sketchy, doubting anyone would believe his recollection of events: Me and Dill was just sitting there and it happened. It didn’t hurt us though.

“What did you mean by that?” the doctor asked.

“I don’t remember. Is that a problem?”

“No, we’ve got enough information here.” She jotted down a few notes on a clipboard and added, “I’m going to dispense phenobarbitone. It might make Dill sleepy, but I’ve had good success with it in cases like this.”

Mitch winced at the mention of side effects. “Does she really need it?”

“I think it’s best. You don’t want her to get sick again, do you?”

“But the spells don’t hurt her.”

“We don’t know that for sure. Besides, she has a bigger problem than discomfort or pain. Dill loses control when her episodes occur and that makes her vulnerable. Do you understand that?”
Mitch nodded, but his mind was far away. He was remembering the strange places he’d visited while Dill was having her seizures. Hadn’t they enjoyed their travels? Hadn’t they kept each other safe?


The phenobarbitone did make Dill sleepy and it saddened Mitch to see her listless. So after four days of counting pills, wrapping them in scraps of lunch meat and slipping them to his dog, he began to flush each morning’s dose of medicine down the toilet. He felt bad about the deception, but excited for reasons still unfolding in his head. Mitch wasn’t sure what he looked forward to more: Dill’s return to activity, or the seizures that would likely occur again.

Two spells came in as many days. The first took Mitch to a world with length and width, one he likened to the space between tightly rolled sheets of plastic wrap. Dill was there, too, looking like a glowing piece of thread. Together they traveled a zigzag course, spinning and shouting as they went. Prior to regaining consciousness, Mitch noticed sparks of orange light in the distance. The light spread across the horizon and a host of beings spoke the same words he’d heard before.

The next episode took them to a world similar to Mitch’s own. He saw Dill as she was, a small beagle pup. They came across a flowered meadow and ran through it, leaping and twirling. From the summit of a small hill Mitch cuddled his dog and rolled down the slope. Dill licked his face, then she looked up and barked. An orange sphere rose from a distant place. It was surrounded by glowing angels, who lifted their voices, saying, “There is no redemption here,” and, “Behold, the worlds meet.”


While Mitch read from the newest Quantum Master comic, he wondered if it would be the last issue he would ever share with Dill. Dr. Discord, according to the story, was seeding the world with tiny black holes that threatened to collapse the entire universe. The idea made Mitch shiver and he snuggled further into his bed. Surely, nothing could prevent disaster.

But Tommy Trifle didn’t accept defeat so lightly. He was like the little Dutch boy working frantically to plug a leaky dike. No sooner did he repair one corner of spacetime, when another black hole threatened to swallow everything in its reach. He was on the verge of losing hope, when he discovered a reservoir of anti-gravitons and unleashed them to neutralize gravity’s imbalance. Once more the world was safe, but Tommy felt no desire to celebrate. He’d only won another battle in what promised to be a long war.

Mitch put the comic book away and sighed, believing he knew how his hero longed for home.

“Dill,” he said. “If Tommy could return to normal size, do you think he would?”

The dog yawned in a way that ended with a soft whine.

“I think you’re right. He’s stuck, isn’t he? Tommy has to stay in the quantum world to uphold the laws of physics. If you think about it, he’s a hero and a prisoner at the same time.”
Dill wagged her tail and it beat a steady rhythm on the bed.


The phone rang late one evening, just as Mitch finished his homework and stood to get ready for bed. Candace picked up the receiver, saying it was probably Frank calling, but the chill in her voice suggested otherwise.

“Oh, hi,” she said.

Mitch could tell she wasn’t talking to Frank, or a client either. He guessed it was his father on the line and he hung around to listen.

“Business?” his mother said. “What business? Here in Portland?”

Mitch tugged on her sleeve. “Is it Dad?”

She nodded and put a finger to her lips. “No, I guess dinner would be okay, but what do you mean by everybody?”

There was so much Mitch wanted to tell his father. School had started a week ago and he still hadn’t made any friends. He would sit alone during lunch, wishing he was home with Dill or in Arizona with his buddies. Mitch had never felt so lonely. He needed to hear his father say that the world was good and events would work out for the best.

“Can I talk to him?” he asked.

Candace frowned and shook her head. “I don’t know, Randall. I’ll have to check with Frank, first.”

She hung up the phone and Mitch pouted. “Why didn’t you let me talk to him?”

“Your father had to go. Anyway, he’ll be in town on business and wants to meet us for dinner Friday.” She smiled and added, “He’s bringing his new bride—like any of us need that.”

“Patti Ann’s coming?”

Mitch wished he could spend the time alone with his dad. With the others tagging along, the conversation would turn to grownup topics and he knew what that meant. They would smile through clenched teeth and talk about the weather, but their real feelings wouldn’t emerge until later.

When did your mom start wearing that? Why can’t your dad just grow up?


On Friday the same thoughts were taking a lap in his head as Mitch opened the restaurant’s double doors. He spotted his father sitting at a table near the bar and yelled, “Dad!” but three pairs of eyes turned to him in reply. Not only was Patti Ann there, but Landon was, too. They were sipping drinks and swapping stories like characters in a Brady Bunch rerun. Mitch looked away and hoped his legs wouldn’t collapse.

His father came to him with open arms and Mitch allowed himself to be hugged. He stared at his new stepbrother and whispered, “You brought him?”

“Didn’t your mom tell you? I’m trying to mix business with a little pleasure here. You understand, right?”

Mitch didn’t have time to answer. Patti Ann was leaning toward him, planting a moist kiss on his forehead. Her eyes were the color of smoke and her breasts were pushed up to expose the deep hollow in between. “You’ve become a handsome young man,” she said. “How are you getting along here in Portland?”

Like a load of crap, he wanted to say. I’m hundreds of miles from home. My parents are divorced. I don’t have any friends. And you’ve taken my dad from me. But Mitch had been taught better than that. He wouldn’t raise his voice, or speak of the ugly feelings in his chest. Look at the bright side, he told himself. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

“I’ve got a dog named Dill,” he said. “She’s my best friend.”

“That’s sweet.”

Mitch might have cried then, but for the distracting events that followed. He tried to make sense of them, but each scene progressed to the next, like a cartoon played at high speed. Randall waved to the maitre d’, who ushered them to a window-side table overlooking the ocean. Waves pounded the rocks on shore. The sun bled into the sky. Mitch looked outside and thought: Behold, the worlds meet.

“I’m glad you could make it,” Randall said.

Candace waited as Frank drew a chair for her. “Wouldn’t have missed it,” she said.

No sooner had everyone been seated, when the waiter appeared with menus. Mitch asked for ginger ale and Landon grinned, saying he would prefer scotch on the rocks. Randall reached around his new wife and tousled the boy’s hair.

“Little chance of that, Champ,” he said.

Patti Ann giggled and turned to her son. “Behave yourself. Be more like Mitch over there.”
Everyone laughed—everyone except Mitch. He was too busy thinking: I’m Champ. That’s what my dad calls me.

“Well,” Patti Ann said. “Isn’t this nice?”

“Uh huh.” Frank studied the menu as if it were a body prepared for surgery. “They’ve got quite a wine list here.”

“That’s not what I meant, Silly. I was talking about us. Look at how we’re all getting along. Aren’t we just one big happy family?”


That night Mitch was lying in bed, trying to forget dinner, when he felt Dill shaking near his feet. He pulled her to his chin, and waited for the seizure to take them away. A moment later he was on the bank of a sparkling river, Dill by his side. The world was like his own, but it had a depth he couldn’t explain. His surroundings seemed to shimmer like the reflection on a lake.

They found shade under a cottonwood tree and Mitch lay back to be dazzled by its branches. The shimmering increased, until the whole tree seemed to flap like a tarp in the wind. Mitch wanted to see what was behind it and suddenly the surface peeled away as if it were an onion’s skin.

The tree continued to stand over him, but it had changed somehow. He willed more layers to be stripped away and realized that he was looking—no, traveling—into the past. The further he went, the smaller the tree became. It was a sapling, then a seedling, a fluffy seed, then it was nothing at all. He reversed the process and saw the tree’s future. It grew in size, until a great wind toppled it.

Mitch leaped up, eager to explore further. With Dill bounding ahead, he ran along the river, up hills, and across valleys. Everywhere they went the view twitched and shimmied and welcomed them into both past and future. After a while they came upon a large field, where winged angels hovered in the air.

“What are you doing here?” the beings asked.

“Please,” Mitch said. “Don’t send us home. We want to stay.”

The angels gestured toward the sky. “Behold, the worlds meet.”

A variety of orange objects descended. There were long strands of light and figures like out of a geometry book. As the objects touched down, people emerged. “There is redemption here,” the angels said.

The world had become a giant mural, and the visitors were peeling back its surface to step into the past. Where a man had once walked out of a bar and stumbled into his van, he remained sober and relived the scene. From there a chain of events glowed as if on fire and was suddenly transformed. A traffic accident was avoided. Lives were saved. Before long the world was throbbing with strings of light, adjustments to the tangled web of time.

Mitch was beginning to wonder if he could change his own past, when the living room of his boyhood home appeared. It was night and his parents were talking softly. Their voices seemed sad and empty.

“So, is this it?” his father asked. “Is being a wife so awful that you’ll give up on our dreams?”
Candace sighed. “They were your dreams, not mine. And no, being a wife wasn’t awful. It just never was enough.”

Mitch shut out their voices and thought of ways to end their talk of divorce. That’s when an idea occurred to him. He would walk into the past, pretending to be sick and in terrible pain. A week of that, he concluded, and his parents would forget their other problems. If that didn’t work, some other trick would. Here, it seemed, he had all the time in the world to put things right.

“I need to go with them, Dill,” he said. “You stay here, okay? Dill?”

Mitch turned and saw that his dog was a new-born puppy again, wet and blind, small enough to fit in his palm. He picked her up, knowing she was delicate and that he might injure her without proper care. The power to alter Dill’s future, he saw, was in his hands. Time moved forward and he watched her grow. She was wrestling with her littermates one second and playing tug-of-war with Mitch the next. They romped on the beach with Randall, and visited the animal clinic with Candace.

The next scene was unfamiliar to him. Morning had come and he let Dill outside. She bounded into the parking lot, sniffing oil spots and car tires in search of a place to relieve herself. Two boys stood at the open door with Mitch. They were sleepy eyed as if they’d spent the night there. A truck pulled into the parking lot, but Mitch wasn’t alarmed. Dill always came when called. “Come back, little girl,” he said.

But she didn’t hear. The dog had fallen to her side, quivering, and the boys’ screams came too late.


Sunlight trickled through Mitch’s window and he woke with Dill in his arms. He pulled the dog to him and said, “Are you okay?”

She stretched and yawned, before wriggling out of his grip and springing out of the room. Mitch wrapped himself in a bathrobe and followed. At the mouth of the hallway he saw Dill sitting in front of the door, wagging her tail as he drew near. He stopped and recalled the words he’d heard earlier: There is redemption here.

“No, Dill, not without me,” he said.

In the coat closet he found a leash and clipped it to Dill’s collar. They stepped outside and the dog tugged against the restraint. Mitch led her across the courtyard, thinking of the bad turns in his life, when he remembered Dill’s most recent seizure. It suggested he would make new friends and raised the possibility of mending his broken family, but what of its startling end? Was there a way to avoid that? He let various plans form in his head, but each scenario led him to an unsettling conclusion. After several minutes of reflection he thought: I would give up almost anything to have my family back, but not that.

Mitch cleaned up after his dog and led her back inside. He went to the kitchen, got the container of phenobarbitone and extracted two pills. From the refrigerator he found an old slice of bologna and wrapped it around the medicine. He called Dill to him and she came. The house was quiet. No one else was up.

“You got to eat this,” Mitch said, holding out the meat.

She sniffed it and sat. Her eyes were full of questions.

“Listen,” Mitch said. “Even if we could go back and put things right, you need to keep in mind what we saw—especially the last part. We don’t know when that’ll happen, do we?”

Dill barked.

“And if I lost you, how would I ever get to where we were last night? How would I ever bring you back? That’s why you got to take the medicine. You got to.”

He offered the pills again and Dill wagged her tail. As she took the medicine, these words sounded in Mitch’s head once more: Behold, the worlds meet.

Dimensions, Time and Separate Universes

After his longtime confidante, Michele Besso, passed away, Albert Einstein sent a letter of condolence to his friend’s family, in which he wrote:

He (Besso) has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.
Einstein’s point was rooted in his own scientific theories, an implication of which is that time is a façade disguising a deeper reality. He likened our understanding of that reality to the limitations a child experiences upon entering a library. The library is filled with books written in various languages, and though the volumes have their authors and appear to have been placed in some order, the nature of that arrangement is beyond the child’s grasp.

Our world, according to Einstein’s letter, is strange in that it hides the true nature of time as a physical property inextricably linked to space. If we could perceive the past, present and future as they truly are, we would see them as differing locations, rather than events that occurred or will occur. Time, in this way, is an illusion that humans comprehend imperfectly, because we’re three-dimensional beings who are incapable of perceiving that illusive fourth dimension of space time.

The idea of life in a world of limited dimension is not new with Einstein. In the book Flatland, which first appeared in 1884, Edwin A. Abbott tells a story set in a two-dimensional world without height. In this world any object—a circle on its side, for instance—is perceived by its inhabitants as a straight line across the horizon. The book is an interesting treatise on the conditions of such a universe and describes the difficulty one would have in perceiving other dimensions beyond it. After reading the book as a young man, I became fascinated with the idea of worlds with dimensional constraints and began to see physical corollaries all around me.

For example, let’s say you notice a wasp in your car as you travel 65 MPH down the freeway. Afraid of getting stung, you crack open your window and shoo the insect outside. That’s good for you, but think of what has happened to the wasp. Suddenly it has been whisked away from a world of limited space into one that seems upwardly and outwardly unbounded. The temperature, too, is probably different and because of the speed of the car, the wasp feels the effects of friction that quickly slows it down. The turbulence is so great, the poor insect offers up some wasp puke. For an instant, it must believe it has been sucked through a vortex into a very different universe.

I could go on and on with such examples, but here is my favorite. I took a bush flight into the Bristol Bay watershed one day, when we happened over a section of the Nushugak River. The Nushugak is known for many things, but it’s especially famous for large runs of king salmon and the bears that come to feed on them. As we flew over, the river didn’t disappoint. We spotted salmon—as numerous as maggots on a carcass—and a brown bear sow with two cubs.

What happened next, I will never forget. The sow leaped into the water in a manner that seemed without stealth or forethought and raised a commotion that scattered the salmon upstream toward an oxbow bend in the river. At first I thought the bear had clumsily missed her chance for a meal, but by her next actions it was apparent she’d been employing a stratagem, all along. The sow simply crossed to the opposite bank, ran up an incline through scrub willows, then back down to an upstream section of water, where she waited until the fish came to her. When they did—believe me—her reaction was swift and effective. She came out of the water with a salmon in her mouth and immediately fed it to her cubs.

The scene made me think about the separate worlds all around us. The fish—if they’re capable of such thoughts—may have believed due to the river’s undeviating flow that they were in a universe that stretched in a single unwavering direction. Moreover, unaware of the wormhole that crossed a fold in their universe, the fish may have assumed they’d encountered two different bears. The sow, on the other hand, had a different perspective of the salmons’ world and understood the twists and turns of it. That knowledge she used to great advantage.

This is my hope: If there’s really a future part of the universe and if a wiser and better me resides there, it would be nice if he could send a kind thought or two through the twists and turns of my universe in this direction. After all, there has to be a few wormholes he can use along life’s way.