From Streets to Stars


“We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” — Oscar Wilde. Prostitutes viewing the rings of Saturn. Photo by Chris Arnade. Read the story here.

It was a crisp fall night, medical school had reconvened just a few weeks ago, and we were out on the town. “Should we stop at a bar first, and grab a few beers?” someone asked. “Or just go straight to the club and do some dancin’?” If there were worries that night, they were hard to come by.

Then, my friend tapped me on the shoulder. “Can I have some money?” he asked. “Please?” He wanted to give it to a homeless woman. I was a bit taken aback, and, honestly, I was frustrated. “Fine,” I groaned, and handed him $5.

We approached a woman slumped against a doorframe, taking shelter under the entryway awning, and under tattered blankets. My friend handed her the bill. Then we stood there for a moment, the two of us, and the one of her, face to face. I didn’t know what to say, and the silenced stretched on, for one second, and then for two. So I said, “I believe that God has a plan for all of us, and he’s going to make sure we achieve it.” She nodded. And we walked away.

At the time, it had felt like the right thing to say. But as we walked onward, I started to question my words. “Who was to tell her things would be okay?” I asked. I had received everything on a platter. I was a in medical school, training to become a member of an esteemed profession. I was wearing nice clothes. I was engaging in leisure. I was surrounded by friends. I had everything. What gave me the right to offer hope to someone who had nothing? As the night went on, I couldn’t help but wonder: can religion cross the class barrier?

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Conway’s Game of Coinage

It was a long time before I talked to Professor Emeritus John Boardman. I’d seen him walking in the halls before, sure. Wisps of white hair ran across the top of his high forehead, and he walked with a stoop. Sometimes his eyes appeared pried too far open, as if he were struggling to look ahead despite the downward incline of his head. He had a habit of incessantly clearing his throat, even as he walked, and even as he sat in his office; his office was adjacent to the math help room and I often looked up from an undergrad’s work only to notice the familiar sound again. I’d never seen anyone else talk to him, either.

This changed one evening as we all sat down for dinner in a sparsely patronzied restaurant after an invited speaker’s seminar talk. There were about six or seven of us at the table, and the others quickly became distracted in conversation. Professor Boardman, alone at the end of the table, sat to my left.

The first thing I noticed was his sharp, almost Russell-esque British accent. Continue reading

I Have a Unique Coffee Mug

I’ll attempt to explore a few of the subtleties surrounding the word unique in English.


I’ve drunk too many of these, and this post is how you can tell.

I’ll begin with an exploration of words like the same and different. Sentences containing these words will prove a fertile initial testing ground.

First, an observation. Consider the sentences:

  1. Every coffee mug in my department is brittle.
  2. Every coffee mug in my department is the same.

Though these sentences appear structurally similar, their predicates are deceptively different. Continue reading