#22: Macguffins, Parabolas, and the Thing Above

Brooklyn Beta is the only conference I’ve gone to year after year. My friends Cameron and Chris run the event, and another friend, Johanna, after this year’s Beta described it as “the perfect MacGuffin” which is spot on; the conference is more or less an excuse for a group of internet people to get together in person every year. During one of the breaks Thursday afternoon, some of us joked that even if the conference were to stop happening, there’s a chance people would still find their way to Brooklyn every October.

It reminded me of something my friend Max said a few weeks ago when I asked him to describe a certain book. He said the book in question had the shape of a parabola, that the writing skated along the inside of this dish while never revealing the focal point, which rested somewhere in the space above. (Wise and beautiful people, these friends.)

In more functional cases we may want the focal point to be close to the dish, seen by others, so that it may be clearly understood, reproducible. The conference is still a necessarily visible focal point to organize activities around, and I hope – for mostly selfish reasons – that it continues to happen. In other instances, like in fiction, we may want to obscure the focal point so that it is never fully grasped, let alone seen; so it is only vaguely – and/or deeply – felt. To be good at subtlety is to know how to nudge between blind feeling and conscious understanding. Maybe.

I’m thinking now of my visit to the Very Large Array back in July. You’ve seen VLA already, if you remember the movie Contact. It’s an array (duh) of giant radio telescopes set on top of seventy-two miles of railroad track in the shape of a Y near a razor-straight, get-out-of-your-car-to-take-a-photograph stretch of US-60 in New Mexico. By moving the radio telescopes along the tracks, astronomers can simulate a much larger dish, one as big as twenty-two miles in diameter. With this, they can control the focal point of the simulated telescope, peer into swaths of the cosmos some incomprehensibly faraway distance.

When we’re writing, doing, living, etc. it’s as if we’re pushing around these 230-ton telescopes, hoping to detect something undiscovered. A sign of you know what. In those too-infrequent moments of perspective, we look at the monitors and see where the telescopes are pointing, and then we push them along the tracks again, then we check, push them around, check. This is what we do.

When it comes to situations where we ourselves aren’t the telescope pushers, like when we’re critiquing someone else’s work, managing a team, or giving a friend advice, maybe the best we can do isn’t to tell each other where to push our telescopes, but instead to help each other look at our own monitors, see the points above our heads that seem to both govern and result from our labored movements on terra cognita.

Because in a way, we’re all looking for the same thing.