A Serious Man

The Coen brothers’ darkly comic A Serious Man uses the uncertainty of quantum mechanics — and especially the unresolvable uncertainty of Schrödinger’s paradox — as a metaphor for the unpredictability of life, and the pains we nonetheless take in futile attempts to impose predictability on the inherently uncertain future.

Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is suddenly a man beleaguered — by fate, by coincidence, by a vengeful God? Who knows?

His marriage is in trouble, his job is in danger, his brother is ill, both mentally and physically (and sleeping, and seeping, on Larry’s couch), his children are sullen and misbehaved. Buffeted by uncertainty, Larry turns to his community, to his rabbis. He’s looking not for advice, but for something more concrete: for answers. [SPOILERS ahead.] Larry assures these studied, somber men that he can grapple with the greatness of God — that he too is a serious man capable of understanding, if only they will tell him why these hardships are befalling him.

If you believe in an omniscient, all-powerful god, surely it’s plain hubris for a layperson to think that he can, through a mere few days of application and inquiry, grasp the unknowable purpose of that deity’s actions. Job finally wailed his way into an audience with God and still didn’t get an answer, but Larry Gopnik thinks he can wrest one out of a few conversations with rabbis. The impossibility, the futility, of his task is emphasized by the very name the rabbis use to refer to the God whom Larry find so approachable: not Adonai, not Yahweh, not any of the names that can be spoken in worship, but HaShem, literally “the name.” Larry Gopnik cannot grasp the ineffable plans of the almighty; he must not even speak His name.

Larry’s field of study has perhaps emboldened him to such audacity. Physicists are able to fathom some of the great secrets of the universe and even represent them through equations, but Larry of all people should know that the ineffable doesn’t yield to cold hard logic and that not everything is knowable: his specialty is quantum mechanics, and the only physics we ever see Larry teach revolve around uncertainty.

In a dream, Larry presents his class with a breathlessly rapid and precise presentation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, concluding as he writes, “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” The bell rings; class dismissed. As the students bustle out, Prof. Gopnik yells out “But even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the mid-term!”

[Larry’s dream; audio NSFW]

Compare this with Larry’s comically inept real-life lectures: he tap-taps at the blackboard with his chalk, writing a complex formula and narrating his progress with vague, uninstructive mutters: “You following this?… okay?.. so… this part is exciting…. so, okay. So. So if that’s that, then we can do this, right? Is that right? Isn’t that right? And that’s Schrödinger’s paradox, right? Is the cat dead or is the cat not dead? Okay!”

A failing student comes to Larry’s office to complain about his grade, and especially to complain that Prof. Gopnik’s standards are unjust. He can’t do the mathematics, the student explains, but “I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat.” Larry gently but firmly informs him, “But you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing. The stories I give you in class are just illustrative. They’re like… fables, say, to help give you the picture. I mean… even I don’t understand the dead cat.”

And it’s true, he doesn’t understand the dead cat or the fables. And neither do we. The Coens have already reminded us of this in the opening scene: a period piece, a haunting little story about a dybbuk (or is it?) performed in Yiddish. The first 7 minutes of the film are spent with characters we never see again, speaking a language most of the audience doesn’t understand, grappling with a mystery that will never be solved.

Larry Gopnik is in search of a certainty that doesn’t exist. He wants some tangible proof, a measure by which to decipher the future. He’s a serious man who expects his intelligence and diligence to render the confusing, unpredictable world into something logical, legible, verifiable. Larry is not so different from his poor lost brother, the unstable wanderer with a dog-eared notebook scrawled through with an elaborate “probability map of the universe.” Though the larger secrets of the universe can be revealed by study and science, the smaller mysteries — the ones that matter most to us, our lives and our loves — are not susceptible to our tiny writings and equations, however hard we try. Our futures cannot be predicted with mathematical accuracy, and often they cannot even be understood as they unfold.

So, if the meaningful, fateful events of our little lives cannot be predicted or controlled or even fully understood, how are we to extract any meaning from this existence? I think A Serious Man answers that question in its 20th-century opening: from the 19th century shtetl, the camera hurtles us down a dark passage outlined in blushing light and thrumming with intense music… which turns out to be the ear canal of Danny, Larry’s adolescent son, who sits in class with a transistor earpiece illicitly jammed into his ear so he can listen to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” instead of his Hebrew lesson.

The song recurs as a chorus throughout the film. When Larry is at his most distraught — after his fruitless meetings with rabbis and lawyers, as he is crushed under the weight of accumulating troubles, when he despairs of ever finding the answer he sought — the song blasts out as the soundtrack to an erotic dream. And again, after Danny’s bar mitzvah (where he becomes, like his father, “a serious man”), the elusive Rabbi Marshak finally appears, intoning these heavily-accented words of wisdom to the stuporously stoned boy-become-man: “When the truth turns out to be lies and all the joy within you dies. Then what?”

As trite as it may sound, Jefferson Airplane delivers the answer: “You better find somebody to love.” This is the last message of A Serious Man: in the film’s very last moments, as the literal whirlwind (echoing the whirlwind from which God spoke to Job) bears down on a crowd of children milling around a parking lot, we hear it again through Danny’s earpiece: “You better find somebody to love.” And if that person leaves you or betrays you or dies or vanishes, you must find another, and another, and another: a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child, a neighbor, a student, a rival, a friend. No matter what befalls you in this unpredictable, sometimes cruel world, you better find somebody to love, because love — giving love, creating kindness and passion and selflessness where there was nothing — is a powerful act of affirmation against uncertainty, an act of creation in a void. Maybe even a divine act: to find somebody to love.

little things, late arrivals

Things I learned to appreciate later in life:

– avocado
– sour cream
– Mexican food of all kinds. Now consider that I spent my formative years in Texas and only discovered Mexican food after I moved away from it. Awwwww, so sad.
– a sponge to wash the dishes. I still prefer a brush for most things, but The Fella introduced me to dishwashing with sponges and I have to admit, they’re better for some items.
– beer
– moisturizer
– flip flops. I was a Dr. Scholl’s kid all the way.
– Matt Damon. I only started reeeeeally appreciating him during the first act of The Informant!.
Barkeepers Friend. Boy howdy, everyone who told me this stuff was miraculously perfect? They were understating it.

little things

I like:

– the gust of wind that sometimes blows, puffing out the curtains and stirring the air, in the seconds before the rainfall starts.

– making a balanced, delicious dinner seemingly out of nothing when the cupboard seems bare.

– when the season changes from sandals to boots, or vice versa. (But honestly, mostly sandals-to-boots.)

– cocktail glasses.

– wooden matches, the bigger the better.

– the heel off a loaf of homemade bread, still warm from the oven.

– the mute button.

– ginger jam.

little things

I love:

-clementines. I love how easy they are to peel, how tiny they are, how each segment is just the right size to pop into my mouth.

– spinning kids around: grabbing a child by the wrists and twirl twirl twirl, that little face beaming and giggling up at you, until you both get wobbly-legged and dizzy. Yesterday I spun the smallest child at a family picnic; by the time I set him down, all the rest had lined up for a turn. When you spin more than a few children in a row, you can feel it the next day in your shoulders, arms, and back. It occurs to me that I would get more than enough exercise every day if I could just spin children for 30 minutes or so, including the breaks so I don’t whoops.

– clear wine bottles. I soak the bottle in cold water so the glue softens, the label peels off, and I can easily scrub the glass clean with a sponge. Wash well inside and out. I use clear bottles to store grains, to fill with fruit-infused liqueurs, or to serve chilled water.

resolving

I’m not a big fan of traditional New Year’s resolutions. Too often, I see friends commit to punishing life changes and ascetic regimes. This kind of self-denial is designed to fail, which only erodes morale.

I’m especially resistant to weight-loss resolutions. I’m frankly tired of hearing people deplore their bodies, and I’m sick and tired of them assuming that I feel the same way about mine. As I’ve mentioned before, my own relationship with my body is complicated, but it’s mostly a mixture of appreciation and tender protectiveness. I try not to deride my body despite the messages of inadequacy that bombard us all, and I try to take positive steps, not negative ones. When I exercise, I focus on getting stronger and feeling good, not on losing weight or looking different.

When it comes to resolutions, I focus on pleasure and self-care, not punishment and self-abnegation. Some of my oft-repeated resolutions from previous years: drink more champagne*; sing more; eat more eclairs.

I think I will make a resolution this New Year, and it’s one of celebration, not denial: dance more.

* I’m doing verrrrrrry well with this one.

little things

A few small pleasures on this gray rainy day:
– new boots, bought in the last days of spring and packed away for a rainy day;
– sugar cubes, bought for champagne cocktails but distinctly pleasant to watch them melting in a cup of tea;
– a whole basket of fresh tomatoes, bursting with juice and scent, too gorgeous to cook or gussy up;
– a brand new sketchpad and an excellent pen;
– a few minutes stolen with The Fella, bundled up in bed with blankets and books.

For the moment, I’m directing my writing energy elsewhere, but I’ll continue to check in with little things — and little things can be good.

little things

At not-quite-the-end of a long week of work and deadlines, The Fella came home from work around midnight and sat down with a blank look on his face, getting ready to write the weekly newsletter.

“You look a little beat, hon,” I said. “Did you have dinner?”

“Not really.”

It took me all of three minutes to whip up something simple for him to eat. As I gave him the plate and a beer, The Fella took my hand and quietly, earnestly said, “Thank you. Thank you for marrying me.”

Today is our second anniversary, and The Fella’s hatched some secret plans. (Nothing big, he assures me. Just secret.) The first item on the agenda: he got me an enormous coffee. Number two on the agenda: he’s doing laundry.

This guy gets me.

* [The Fella, don’t hover over the links!] update Now that I’ve given The Fella his gift, I can describe it here. We’re going to have a mid-year variation on our Valentine’s day tradition of staying in with cheesy horror movies and pizza.

For the cotton anniversary, I gave The Fella the abominable-looking Lady Frankenstein, starring Joseph Cotten. Yeah.

Because it’s too hot to heat the oven, I’ll be picking up fantastic take-out pizza from Otto.

Wait for it… cotton.

I toyed with plenty of other gift ideas. For example, I thought about getting a really luxurious set of sheets, which we kinda need. Or towels, ditto. But I dismissed those as gifts for me, not for The Fella.

What did The Fella give me? A really luxurious set of sheets. And a really luxurious towel. Did I mention: this guy gets me.

gratitude

Things, little and big, to be grateful for this week:

One Step Beyond! I’d never even heard of this Twilight Zone carbon copy, and now I have four DVDs of it, with its original Alcoa promos intact. Thanks to The Fella!

– Pajamas and pearls! (I ordered new pajamas, then made myself a new double-length string of pearls. Obviously, I’m going to wear them both right away.)

– Surprise bacon!

– Graduating from mooshy food to semi-soft food!

– Passover Coca-Cola!

small good things, big good things

Good things make life good. Some of the good things are small, some of the good things are big, and all of the good things are good.

– fresh-baked anadama bread, fragrant with molasses, chewy with oats and whole wheat, and hot from the oven. I love the way it fills the whole apartment with its rich, wholesome scent.

– wrapping Christmas presents, which gives me a marvelous calm feeling of accomplishment. And the penguin wrapping paper I picked up at Local Surplus & Salvage Shop is pretty darned cheery.

– snow! Granted, by the time I got outside in it, it was just lashings of cold and wet, but still: SNOW!

– hot tea with milk and the faintest lacing of sugar.

– anadama bread again, because it’s just that good. Also, because I’m making a second batch already.

– bright red coarse-weave fabric (also from Local Surplus & Salvage Shop) for reupholstering the Danish modern chairs Gaoo gave me. (She rescued them from the junk pile at our parents’ old house, so they’re endearingly familiar, too.)

– Nick Hornby’s About A Boy.

– The sweetest husband in the world, who knows me inside out and upside-down and who loves me with all my flaws.

toast

I’ve been chiming in pretty regularly on Maggie’s Champagne and Chocolate Wednesdays lately, and I’m going to start keeping track of the toasts here — just as a reminder that there’s plenty to toast, in good times and bad. Breaking away from my recent streak of bubbly-drinking, tonight I’m toasting with fizzy lemonade with a dash of homemade strawberry liqueur.

So here’s to homemade strawberry liqueur, rich fuschia, fragrant, and sweet.

Here’s to almost empty matinee theaters, and walking out into the bright light all swimmy and disoriented.

Here’s to bright days and cool evenings.

Here’s to nieces and nephews who spend an afternoon making pretty platters of snacks in anticipation of your visit, and who crow and crowd around for hugs when you get there.

Here’s to a farmstand tomato on toast for breakfast, and a farmstand tomato on toast for lunch. (If we hadn’t run out, I’d be toasting a farmstand tomato for dinner.)

Here’s to a quiet Wednesday night date with the guy who knows you better than anyone ever has, and who makes you happier than anything ever did, and who wants to keep on doing that forever.