XI. Starry Night

“Define the whole of your thesis at the beginning. Outline your argument in the intro!”

It was a criticism I’d heard many times during the early days at university, and one I ever so reluctantly followed. There was no excitement, no suspense, I thought, in presenting your paper like that—it was like a gift of money instead of a gift with wrapping, which is perhaps more useful but with far less flair.

This was before photography had taught me the value of a proper negative. If I’d been left to my own devices, my argument would have hung like mysterious threads, tempting curiosity until the very last moment when everything ties together in a beautiful bow of brilliance that’s sure to impress. I wanted drama…seduction…revelation…epiphany— pretty much anything that would be entertaining, like the story line of a good fantasy novel.

But I was not writing fantasy, and I quickly learned to appreciate the value of clear argument, even more so when I started studying engineering. Most lecturers that taught me had a similar penchant for surprise endings, though I highly, highly doubt they had the same emotional reasons. More likely it was because math and language are often awkward partners, and when you do things from experience for which there’s really no  good description it often becomes difficult to explain, like illustrating the difference between the smell of bread and that of cake… you can try to depict it, but eventually you just have to know.

Still, there were times when a more humanities-like method would have been helpful. There’s this thing in calculus called implicit differentiation, and I spent months pondering how in the world it could be considered logical if it was so “lopsided,” only to find out later that there’s another thing called partial differentiation which also exists, and that balanced everything out. Properties of bending beams caused similar issues with later resolutions coming in the form of some mostly-elegant interconnecting proofs. And there were many, many other “jeez, man, you could have told me that from the beginning” moments, the result of an argumentative mind meeting sequential thinking, not always happily.

Circuits, though, probably caused the most disturbances. To me, the argument for discerning how current flows through a circuit made about as much pragmatic sense as saying you have to tap it with a magic wand on the eve of your unbirthday. Then they introduced the concept of ground and reference nodes and suddenly everything was so, so much more logical. Mysterious wires blowing in the wind turned out to be less exciting after all… in reality they were more like an unrealistic pain in the ass. Once they were grounded, however, life turned beautiful. Convention followed pattern, and we built electromagnets using fairly high current values—safely it seems, because everything was grounded.


Sometimes, like in the quieter moments of making an electromagnet, I’d look around at the students and think about what I had been doing when I was their age, which I can’t believe was a decade ago. At the time, I had been writing papers with reluctantly coherent structures, analyzing a maddening Egyptian statue and studying the curves of Barberini, quite unaware that in less than two years I’d be in a foreign country I didn’t yet know existed.

But it was coming. Exactly a year from then I’d open a map of the world in my browser, point my finger on a small dot at the bottom of Africa, apply for the relevant study abroad program, sign my life away in a mountain of waiver forms and, without ever having seen a book, map or photograph of the place, board a plane to Cape Town, South Africa.

Within a few weeks of arriving, I’d meet Mr. Omar. I’d hang up the phone after arranging to meet him and find a curious feeling bubbling in my stomach that I had somehow just drastically changed the course of my life. I had been right. Soon I’d find myself courting a man with an unusual name and an astronomical age difference, sneaking away from school friends to go on day trips to beautiful places.

At one point it meant ending up in the middle of rural South Africa on a work trip with him and his boss, which, in retrospect may not have been the most responsible thing I’ve ever done. I nearly missed a final exam when the bus on which they sent me home broke down in the middle of the Karoo during the dead of night. If you’re a sensible, mildly imaginative person, you can probably think of much worse ways a trip like that could have ended, apart from a missed university test.

Still, it never felt that way at the time. He was usually pretty respectful of boundaries, and bouncing around an abandoned casino and restricted–access mine while the two of them worked on a government report for UNESCO was a lot more attractive in my opinion than the barhopping my friends were doing, but it all depends what you find exciting. I suspect some would prefer a wild night with friends over staying at an ailing hotel whose guest list includes you, maybe five other people and a family of cows.


The quarry where they found the Taung skull was admittedly ordinary, but there was story in the details. Cruelty echoed in the cement sleeping quarters and creepy conjugal rooms, now used for local school slumber parties. The broken gate at the entrance to the mine shaft stopped my safety scissors in mid stride, there was a hole that looked deliberate and was just big enough to fit through, posing so many theories and questions. There was also enormous heat and an atmosphere that seemed to slow time by at least three-quarters, carts with wooden wheels pulled by donkeys and front yards that looked meticulously cared for. The hotel was mostly empty, the slot machines had been removed and its fountain at the entrance drained. Still, hints remained, wispy shadows of days when the Apartheid-era ban on gambling had turned the sleepy spot into an escape from government-imposed rules, a playground in the middle of Bophuthatswana.

Taung 5 (2)

But one does not do such things without getting a bit swept away with the wind, and finding the ground again is not always the easiest venture. Theoretically grounding a circuit is easy; draw a few lines on a diagram and it’s done. Grounding a person is much more artful. When you’re moving on with your life and images are snapping left, right and center, and you’re brain is swirling through them like the unfixed chemicals in a negative, eventually they have to be sorted out. The film canister has to be broken open, light has to be held from the dark and set in place, ordered in a usable way that lets you make something worth remembering, like the world of Genesis 1 or the print of a photograph.

And that sort of care takes work. You can shatter the emulsion during development, or streak the negative, or lose every image you have to a flash of light pulsing through the darkness. In those cases, no matter how beautiful is the instant you started with, be it a palm tree or a firework, you’re never going to print a photograph.


I suspect most people have both developed and had their negatives developed by more than one someone, and personal development is not in itself erotic. Family, friends, teachers, mentors, random people on the street can develop in some form or another, all mostly good but perhaphs not all holy.

I don’t mean holy here in the sort of goody-good, “ordained by God” sort of way. I mean it in the Hebrew sense of being “set apart,” or as one of my lecturers described, as “something that draws you like a magnet and scares the hell out of you at the same time.” Development by that sort of person is, well, I can’t think of anything better in the world really. You’re better for it and in the end you produce something beautiful. That can, I think, be very erotic but perhaps not necessarily or always so. It’s something one can try to describe, but in the end, you just have to know. And we do know. Perhaps some people will always chase the cerulean stilettos that give the faun-leg silhouette, but I for one know when I’ve met a comfy slipper, someone on whose body I could rest my head and somehow, in some way, my brain would just feel at home.

The Greeks with all their statuary were fond of this sort of story. They spoke of the sculptor Pygmalion who fell in love with his statue. Sometimes we’re the marble; sometimes were the artist; sometimes we’re both marbled artists in the middle of a holy darkness.

When the bus on which I was riding back to Cape Town broke down in the middle of the night, the two ended their trip early to come fetch me. His boss drove all night to get me to university in time. I slept on his lap in the back seat and watched the stars.

I love the stars, especially over the Karoo. My childhood home, beloved as it may be, is blanketed by a sea of black speckled with planes. It was so pervasive I spent the whole of my life previously thinking the skies in photos and films were artistic exaggerations. I can’t even begin to describe the feelings when I first discovered the actual sky is so much more dramatic than even the pictures. If I were to rank it on a chili pepper scale, the universe went from mild to straight past medium and maybe even beyond Barberini—the beautiful, moving universe.

And that brings me back to how the faun fixed my math.

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