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Colors of Chinatown

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Digital Photography

Zach Korman

THE QUESTION

Matthew Mitchell

We are walking along the levee under the bridge, cheap foam surfboards beneath our left arms.  The idea is to practice paddle outs against the urban river current.  It’s ninety miles from here to the Pacific, but you are determined to practice where you can.


You ask me, “If a genie gave you just one wish, what would it be?”


“Just one?”


“Yes.  You can’t ask for any more.”


I am silent for a moment.  Sometimes I toy with the idea of running for office, maybe school board, so I know a good politician must always know their one favorite movie, one favorite food, one favorite book.  I hate this because asking for just one seems mean.  People should ask about the musical artist you are most embarrassed to admit loving (early Jackson Browne from his Saturate Before Using and Late for the Sky albums, because he’s such the sensitive California white guy and because I’m embarrassed about my encyclopedic knowledge of the music of the generation above me).  People should ask about where you ate the food that made you think most deeply (sushi in Anchorage, because of the dreamlike intuition it gave me of a North Pacific culture connection between Japan and Alaska and Seattle).  But people never ask these more interesting questions that I can actually answer.  It’s frustrating.


“I would need to think about it,” I hedge.  “In the stories it seems like wishes usually go badly for the wishers.”


You nod.  You’ve already thought about it, of course.  Maybe the good politician’s trick is to be the one who gets in front of framing the question in the first place.  “I’d wish for the ability to control luck.”


“So, you’d be able to control fate?”


“No!  Luck.  There is no such thing as fate.”


I try to argue that maybe there is, that there are times in life where we have no choice, times when our cleverness and resilience seem not to matter.  But this pisses you off and I drop the line of argument. In some ways I agree with you.  I’ve never bought the idea that certain things were simply meant to be.


Besides, I admire your wish.  Quantum physics says the world is probabilistic.  Anything could happen, though the probability of certain things is very, very low.  We both know this, and little else, about quantum physics.  I tell you that wishing for the ability to control luck, given your acceptance of a quantum universe, amounts to a wish for power, a clever and veiled one.  You deny this, but not as strongly as your denial of the idea of fate.


The other thing we both know about quantum physics is something a bit vague about a cat in a cruel thought experiment.  The poor cat certainly seems unlucky.  Either he gets locked in a box with a bomb and doesn’t blow up, which would be no fun, or he gets locked in a box with a bomb, and boom!  Once, I heard a nightmarish version of this experiment where he’s locked in the box for an undefined time and then, improbably, comes out alive, not blown up and not starved to death.


But I want to believe that Schrodinger did not believe in hell.  I do not want to believe in hell.  So, I prefer to think about the version with the bomb, the one that resolves matters in time that’s discrete and defined, with one fate or the other for the cat.


I am glad you are already wise enough not to wish for immortality.


If you got your wish for the ability to control luck, would you, I wonder now, rescue the cat from the bad luck of getting caught up with those cruel scientists in their smug rationalistic white coats?  God, if God exists, seems to refuse to intervene in even the meanest experiments.  She/he/they trust us, foolishly probably, to choose.  Maybe this is the grace of the human condition, the true possibility for human resilience.  We can choose to stand up for Schrodinger’s kitty before he goes in the box, and then defuse the bomb, even if it kills us.  Or we can choose to stand aside and watch.


Maybe my wish would be to be able to see when I have a choice, and to know when the world needs me to use the energy it takes to make the hard one.  But then again, that’s two wishes.

Matthew Mitchell is a math teacher and writer living in Sacramento. Over the past couple of years his poems have appeared in The Write Launch, Cathexis Northwest Press, and Kestrel. Several pieces of his creative nonfiction have aired as audio essays on KQED public radio, and he keeps a whimsically updated blog at www.prospericity.net.

Zach Korman is a photographer based in New York City.  He loves to view Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs through a different perspective with his camera.  His approach reflects the saying “live and learn,” through which he continues to discover the beauty of the world and the medium of photography each time he goes out and shoots.