The sky is all over a deep, empty blue, except over the South Mountain ridge to the west of the lower Telegraph Pass trail, where a bright, white puff of cloud has arrived on a westerly current from an origin obscured by the ridge. The cloud is one of a procession that have appeared throughout our ascent to the summit of Telegraph Pass. Like the others that have preceded it, this cloud will dissipate soon after showing itself, politely exiting the stage above the ridge for the next cloud’s arrival.
Why single clouds appear in succession from a very thin slice of the sky, rather than all at once and from the entire western horizon is curious to me, a thing worth puzzling over. But on this hike, like every other hike I bring Darwin along to, I will have no time to puzzle over it or anything else. With him, there is no peace, no chance to contemplate the goal, which is the summit, and the effort that will be required to attain it. With him, every step is fraught with some new distraction foisted upon him by Nature that he cannot help but pause to investigate.
It’s really very aggravating to have him along.
At the summit, I had hoisted Darwin to a perch on my shoulders to reward him for his having struggled more or less without my assistance up the trail that thrusts deeply into South Mountain’s midsection. To call our adventure a “climb,” or even a “hike” is a bit generous where I’m concerned, but justified in his case because to him, being just over 3 years old and just over 3 feet tall, the trail is forbiddingly steep, surrounded by hostile flora, and obstructed by sheer walls of rock he resorts to clamboring over on all fours, walls I’m accustomed to calling, “steps.” His reward for reaching the summit is to be galloped by me down those same steps at exhilarating speed.
To carry him aboard my shoulders is a reward for me, too. The summit trek is not physically strenuous for me but is emotionally exasperating when I bring the boy along. He takes many breaks along the trail to exploit the natural beauty and wonder of it by tossing rocks at cacti, or pillaging anthills, or inspecting mounds of dog poop, or updating me on the condition of his imaginary dogs, Lunky and Freshel, accompanying us. With him on my shoulders, I can move at my own pace for the second half, the restorative half, of the trek.
We’re nearly at level ground on the lower trail when Darwin spies the cloud currently occupying the stage above the ridge. From just behind my left ear he asks, “Daddy, what’s the cloud look like?”
Now this moment, the moment my son and I engage in a form of play new to both of us, play between our imaginations rather than play between our physical selves, like the roughhouse wrestling we do on the living room floor, is going to be a sacred moment. I’ve been anticipating it for all of his 3 years, my chance to display evidence of his good fortune in having been born to me, possessor of the best imagination that 12 years of public education followed by an embarrassingly long career in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics can collude to produce.
Without breaking step, I look to the cloud. I consider its shape. I compare it to a vast catalog of objects. In short order I conclude that the cloud bears not the slightest resemblance to any object I’ve ever seen, or can recall seeing, in my 47 years of observing objects on this planet. The cloud’s shape has no practical or impractical application that I can conceive of. Consequently I simply cannot name it.
Inwardly I curse this Arizona desert for having produced such a miserable, contemptible exhibit of a cloud for the first-ever test of my imagination to be administered by my adoring son.
Time is slipping by and with its disappearance, Darwin’s estimation of my creative capacity diminishes. I stammer to beg more of each. “It’s a, well it looks sorta like a – hm … “ I decide after all the stammering that an argument could be defended that the cloud pretty nearly resembles a horse, in that the cloud’s shape, freely interpreted, might be the balloonish ear of a horse, the ear of a horse made of cotton balls. I seize on it.
“It’s a horse,” I pronounce.
His bright interjection, “Oh!” suggests satisfaction with, if not comprehension of, this result.
There! I have won his respect. But as is typical of any victory where Darwin’s upbringing is concerned, my celebration is short-lived. Just as the horse’s ear has dissipated into cottony filaments, another cloud breaks the ridge.
“Daddy, what’s that cloud?”
Synapses in the creative center of my brain, coated with deposits accreted over 12 years of public education and atrophied from disuse throughout adulthood, fire weak yellow sparks that barely cross the synaptic gaps.
“Um, well, it could be a table lamp,” I venture, hardly believing it myself.
Poof! Away goes the table lamp. Enter a third, shabby excuse for a cloud. “Daddy, what’s that cloud?”
This exercise, much anticipated by me these past three years, has quickly turned to fresh torment of the sort I suppose I’m going to have to get used to, unless I can crush the boy’s curiosity and sense of wonder before it takes flight. Can I get Ritalin for the boy even before I sentence him to public school? Maybe. I’ll look into it.
Meantime however, I have to address the chagrin I feel on learning that my imagination is not what I had supposed – hoped, really – it was: An eagle, or a stallion, or something majestic like that.
I hear myself blurt an involuntary answer to my son’s latest test: “A mule.”
Okay, that’s three. Three opportunities for my imagination to produce objects that bear a plausible resemblance to the clouds appearing above the ridge. After just those three, my creative ability is on one knee, sucking wind, imploring me to show mercy. I do, by resorting to lying, producing objects I’m reasonably certain Darwin’s never heard of so he cannot possibly know I’m lying to him.
“That looks one hell of a lot like the harmonic balancer on the ’79 Ford Pinto wagon I had in college.”
However, even this lying has taken more creative energy than I can sustain over the distance that remains between us and the trailhead, where the car is waiting. If I’m to impress Darwin with my wit, intelligence, and creativity, I’m going to have to find some other way to do it. But how?
College! Of course! I am college-educated. I have a degree that I keep … somewhere. Decades ago, Dad and I wisely invested big sums of money in exchange for an education I could “fall back on,” then I pursued that education with a totally irrational, reckless perseverance despite mounds of evidence that I should just give up and try something else, like garbage collection. After graduation, I made a career of falling back, applying rapidly vanishing knowledge wherever my imagination failed me.
Among the many courses I took was a high-level appreciation sort of course for non-linear dynamics: “Chaos,” in layman’s terms. A Dr. Michael Colvin administered the course. I found it mildly interesting, might’ve found it more so if it hadn’t required so much work to comprehend the abstract principles on which it all rested.
There’s no arguing with the visual appeal of the discipline, however. Another professor meant to be derisive, I think, in referring to Chaos as, “The Mathematics of Pretty Pictures.” But given that the pictures in my Chaos text were about the only part I could appreciate and that they certainly were prettier than the pictures of any other college mathematics text I looked at, the study of Chaos had lots of appeal.
My Chaos text had pictures of clouds in it. Because, I suppose, clouds make for very pretty pictures. And because clouds are natural examples of fractals.
I have fallen back, and by doing so, have again been saved.
When Darwin wants to know what the next amorphous, purposeless shape that rears over the ridge resembles, I, without pause or equivocation, confidently assert, “Now that, son, that is a fractal.”
And at the appearance of the next, I say without waiting for him to ask, “That cloud is another fractal.”
Then I don’t even bother to look at the sky when I say next, “Well, I’ll be darned if that cloud isn’t another fractal.”
By now we are approaching the car. I observe, astutely in my estimation, that as we approach the car, his interest in the clouds, as evidenced by the brightness of his interjections, is asymptotically approaching zero. When he is at last confined to his car seat, I note with satisfaction that the headliner blocks his view of the stage above the ridge, effectively putting an end to this cloud formation identification business.
Finally, at home in the living room, I let him know it’s time to play on my terms. “Now, let’s wrestle!”