On the day after Thanksgiving in 1977, I was alone in my apartment, writing.
Nobody called it “Black Friday” then. It was just the day after Thanksgiving. I don’t know when it became the high holy day of American consumerism. I do know that it had become that by the time my kids were little in the 90s, but in 1977 I hadn’t even met their mom.
I had quit my job that year, and returned to college,having taken a six-year study break. It would turn out to be a good decision, but I didn’t know that yet.
That day after Thanksgiving I had a paper to finish for a philosophy course. My working title was “The Limits of Reason.” I don’t recall much about the paper. It ran to 10 pages in the final draft, quoted a number of late-modern Western philosophers (starting, I believe, with Friedrich Nietzsche), and ended with a page of notes. My argument, as best I recall, is that reason did, indeed, have its limits.
In part, my argument hinged on the universe being limitless. If that is true, then how could anyone, even God, know everything? Reason could only take you so far. I somehow spun this thought out to 2,500 words, with the help of Nietzsche and other philosophers, and maybe an astronomer or two.
I hadn’t heard of the multi-verse in 1977, but the idea of an infinite number of universes would only strengthen my thesis. Not that I plan to update the paper now.
Ultimately, the paper did its job, earning an “A,” which gave me an “A” for the course. The professor asked if he could make a copy for his files. I took this as a compliment, but maybe he wanted to check around to see if I had plagiarized it. Or maybe he wanted to steal some of the good bits.
I always had good bits in my papers, even when the whole thing didn’t quite work.
But I’d like to think the professor wanted to re-read it for inspiration, that he took the copy with him into retirement, and that when he dies, someone will pause a moment before feeding the frayed, yellow pages into a shredder, flip over the title page, and start to read. . . .
I didn’t know “The Limits of Reason” would get an “A” as I was writing it. I wasn’t worried about the grade that day alone in my apartment. I was chasing down an idea, arguing for my point of view on a Great Question, enjoying the process.
I took comfort in my thesis. I wanted it to be true, and for everyone else to take comfort in it, too. You can know a lot, but you can’t know everything. There is always more to learn. Who would not want to believe that?
I banged out my argument on the electric typewriter that I would use all through college and graduate school. I was sitting at a walnut table (bought when I took out the lease on that apartment, and later to serve as the dining room table in the first house my wife and I shared), and facing the living room. The TV was on, tuned to a college football game. Probably another game of the century. Sunlight streamed through the sliding glass patio doors. The electric typewriter hummed, waiting for me to get on with it. I was happy.
I’ve read in recent years that time does not pass. Rather, we pass through it. According to this model physics, supported by higher mathematics, all the moments of our lives still exist. We have passed through the moments, but they have not gone anywhere. They remain forever, somewhere, immortal.
I find that idea comforting, too.
It means that somewhere in the infinite universe it is the day after Thanksgiving, 1977. I’m alone. My typewriter hums, waiting for my next key-stroke, and the cold light of November streams through my glass doors. The possibilities of the day remain before me, with many days still to come.
The universe is limitless.
I’m writing, and it’s going well.