Have you ever tried to think about nothing? To empty your mind completely and create a vacuum of thought? It’s hard, isn’t it? It’s just about impossible actually, because the moment you are about to think about nothing, something enters your mind and you no longer think nothing. And thus you fail. And even if you were to achieve it, you couldn’t recognize that you had, because you would have to think it, and then you would think something, and thus you fail. And the idea of nothing itself is something, and so to think about nothing is to think about the something called nothing. So you fail. You always fail. Try it right now, and I’m sure you’ll fail. You’ll hear something, feel something, and even if you close your eyes you’ll start to see those weird shapes that form in the blackness behind your eyelids, the red and blue dots, or yellow angles and other nonesuch, and you’ll undoubtedly thing about them.
Well, there was a man once who could do it. Who could think about nothing. But he was a special kind of man, the kind of man who comes along once every generation or two, a nonesuch in his own right, like Einstein or Hawking or Edison. When he was born, his mother was disappointed that he wasn’t a girl and his father was disappointed that he was so small and runt-ish. You see, his dad played college football at Penn State, was a starting linebacker for one of Joe Paterno’s national championship teams. Later, he fiddled around in the NFL for a while, jumped between teams like the Bills and Lions and Packers and Bears, but eventually gave up football and became an insurance salesman in his hometown. Nobody would have ever said that he was a smart man, nor that he was particularly kind and compassionate, but he wasn’t cruel and he went to church like every good Mississippian, and he gave to the poor and on good weeks at the company, he put a large check face-up into the offering plate. The mother was different like her son, though. Not exactly like her son, not in the way he was different but in the fact that he was different. While her husband cut the grass on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and watched football on Saturdays and Sundays, she made dinner, ironed clothes and made him lemonade. She made wonderful lemonade. She didn’t used to, but she had gotten very good at it. She also liked to read. She spent her weekends reading paperback novels she bought for 10 cents at used bookstores and at the 50% discount table at places like Borders and Barnes & Noble. After lots of reading, she started to write her own stories. She had never written before, but she took to it very suddenly about the time her son, the guy our story is all about, was born. She wrote pleasant stories of gardens and hills full of daffodils and of white clouds floating across a sky the color of the ocean.
As he grew up, like every other kid, he started doing things like his mom. His dad was usually at work or off on some business trip, and his mom taught him to read. He was fully literate by the time he was three, and he was writing short little thoughts and essays about that time. If you ignored the four-year old’s messy handwriting, you might have thought you were reading the work of a bright, intelligent, if perhaps a little immature fourth-grader. He started reading his mother’s Madeline L’Engle books when he was five, and he often talked in later years—when he was moved out and had his own wife and family—about how his favorite was A Wind in the Door because Charles-Wallace was his favorite character. I’m sure you, dear reader, can figure out why that is.
His father, when he was home, liked to do other things with his son. He took him in the backyard to play baseball, taught him how to open the glove wide enough, how to step into throws, how to play fly balls when the sun was in the way, and how to throw a curveball by the time he was ten. He played Little League during those years, and loved everything about it. He was a competitive boy, he liked to win and he liked to work hard to do so. He was the best player on the team, the kid who started most of the games a pitcher and batted third in the lineup. He was the only eleven year old to hit homerun in his league, and he was later the youngest person ever to pitch a no-hitter—which was previously impossible because they never let kids pitch more than 50 pitches in a game. But while he was so much better than all the kids on the team, he was also so much different. While all the other boys spent their free time playing video games and riding four-wheelers, he read books. He would read all kinds of books about all kinds of things. He read about science and chemistry and astronomy on one day, and the next would work through history and politics and other things like that. During reading time at school one day, while his friends were reading Harry Potter and The Phantom Tollbooth, he was reading a book he had found in his mother’s library, a book called The Catcher in the Rye. He was in sixth grade, now. His teacher walked by his desk knelt down, and smiled.
“I’m glad you’re reading such books, but are you sure you understand that? Isn’t it a little too complicated for you?”
He shook his head and said “It’s easy to read,” without looking up.
“Well, tell me what is happening.”
He still didn’t move his eyes. “This guy is walking around New York City looking for things to do.” He said that because he was afraid the teacher would take the book away if he told her what was really going on between Holden Caulfield and the blond girl named Sammie.
She smiled. “Okay,” she said doubtfully. “Maybe I’ll read that one sometime.”
. . .
Why is it that smart people are so rarely recognized in their generation as being as genius as they are? The Italians didn’t know that da Vinci was as smart as we know he was. I’m sure the Greeks didn’t know that Socrates, Aristotle and Plato would be read by philosophers thousands of years later living thousands of miles away from Greece. And I bet that the people who lived in the 1940’s didn’t know that the word “Einstein” would be hyperbole for smart people. No, geniuses are often forgotten by the people they live with. Even Jesus Christ himself was made fun of by people from his hometown.
So it was with Simon. When he got too old for Little League—the cutoff age is twelve—his dad naturally wanted him to play in Senior League, which would eventually lead to playing in high school and probably college and maybe getting a crack at the big leagues one day. And Simon played in Senior League and in high school, and he was the best player in the state his last two years. But after high school, he turned down a minor-league contract with the Toronto Blue Jays because he wanted to go to college. “What is it that you want to study?” his father asked him one day when Simon was in the kitchen drinking his mother’s lemonade.
“Art,” he said.
“I want to learn how to see the world as an artist does. And I want to learn how to tell people about the world I see.”
His father stared at him when he said that. He couldn’t believe that his son would fall to such pathetic lows. To be an abstract artist, to paint silly pictures that no one understood. “And what’s so important to say about the world that we unenlightened people don’t see?” his father asked him.
Simon looked out the window, at the bird that took the worm from the ground, at the man who beneath the heat of the sun dug holes in the ground to plant trees, at the giant oak in photosynthesis, at the garden where life bloomed in red and yellow flowers. He looked back at his father.
“There is so much you don’t see. So much that everybody doesn’t see” he said. “And if I told you what it was, you wouldn’t listen. So I have to show you. I have to show you what you’re missing.”
His dad complained to his mother for the next several months before Simon was to be enrolled at Princeton. “You’ve caused this mess,” he told her. “You did it by making him read all those stupid books that filled his mind with all this…stuff.”
She didn’t respond. After many years of living with her husband, she had learned that it was best not to.
“He could have done so much. He could have made it big. He could have…” He didn’t finish, just sighed. His wife still said nothing. She just sat at the kitchen table and drummed on the wood with her fingernails. Her husband started pacing.
“You know, I talked to scouts. I talked to them. I’ve got connections, you see, I met this guy when I was in Kansas City who knows all the scouts. All the big names. All the big names. And you know what he told me? You know what he told me?”
His wife shook her head slowly and stared at the dishwasher.
“He told me that if Simon had played well in college, and of course he would have, he could have been a first or second-round draft pick. And he would have had 2 million dollars of guaranteed money in his first contract. And he could have made it too. He could have gotten to the majors and he could have been a regular. Maybe an All-Star even. He would have made so much money. He wouldn’t have gotten tossed around. He would have been good.”
He looked at his wife, wanted her to support him, to come out and agree and call her son and tell him that they both wanted him to give up art and play baseball, to do something better with his life. But she didn’t say anything. She didn’t even look at him.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before Simon went to college, before he made his decisions about baseball, before all of this, he wanted to be a scientist. He tried all kinds of experiments when he was in junior high, he loved to take things like radios and CD players apart and put them back together, and he especially loved to build model rockets. Most kids his age just bought them already put-together, but he preferred to start from scratch—or at least get pieces at a store like Hobby Lobby and put them together meticulously in his dad’s tool shed. It was a long, tedious process, but one that he loved more than anything else at that age. It started with the aluminum pieces—which he attached to form the long cylinder body—and they were polished smooth and delicately designed. The rear fins were critical, and had to be built and placed with careful precision. Gluing them do the body of the rocket was the crucial moment, the point of no return. He would stick out his tongue and recheck all the measurements and angles to make sure they were properly placed. The dorsal fins were the same way. The coned top was the final part, and it was small and simple to place. All he had to do was fit it into the top of the rocket, to slide it into the hole at the top of the cylinder. The painting was next, and though it wasn’t as critical to the working of the rocket, it was important for the presentation. He had to make it look pretty. So he would sometimes choose subtle colors like the silvers and greys and soft blues, while other times he would go for the bolder ones, like the oranges and yellows and blacks. But once everything was ready and the engine was put into the back and the rocket was placed onto the metal wire and it was strung to the ignition box, Simon’s thumb hovered over the red button that would set everything in motion.
That moment just before he pressed the button was always the most apprehensive, and what set him apart from those around him, the ones who couldn’t think of nothing. While his parents and friends all wondered if it would work, Simon simply wondered how. What it would be like for the yellow and red flowers of fire to shoot out from the engine, for the rocket to be lifted into the air, for man’s ingenuity to rise above the limits of nature, to defy gravity and fly to the clouds, for that cone to scratch the sky and reach to the heavens. What it would be like for all the work to come together in a single moment, for it all to culminate in orange sparks and an ascension to the threshold of space. What it would be like to hold the offspring of your dedication, and then watch as it reached higher than you could see, disappearing into the wisps of the clouds. And when it parachuted to the ground, landing on the hard cement, he ran to it and saw it broken into pieces, scattered over the asphalt. His parents would applaud his success, tell him how wonderful it was that it flew so high, never mind that it broke, they said, you can always build a new one. But he would smell the burnt engine and feel the eroding hole in his spirit when he saw the cone sitting by itself far from the rocket, which was scorched black and ravaged with holes, the alien strings of the parachute sprouting from its mouth. And he would hold it in his hands and show it to his parents, who were still reminding him of all that he had accomplished.
Why did it break? he would ask. Why did it have to break?