Our large farmhouse had an oak staircase that descended eight or nine feet to the landing, then offered five steps to the right and left, to the dining room and to the parlor, respectively. At age four or five, I would stare down to the landing and imagine a perfect leap to the precise center of the landing, absorbing the fall with no harm to body or to the parquet oak landing. Since the basement stairs were directly beneath this stairwell, I just knew any imperfection in the act would send one through the landing to the basement and to my demise. That last detail was of no interest, simply the consequence of imperfection. This fantasy felt more like a message built into the stairway and landing itself.
Evidence of my never attempting the jump is the fact that I sit, seventy-some years later, now writing these words. I was neither gifted with any useful athletic abilities, nor plagued with innate daring to attempt such a stunt. I didn’t take the fantasy literally, even years before I knew of such a word as literal. The image of the stairs, leap, and perfect landing did not abandon me. The image did now and then vanish, drifting below conscious recall.
A decade or so later, talking to an older friend, James, who for whatever reason went by James, not Jimmy, and was well ahead of me in math, having already taken trig, I told him about my staircase fantasy.
“You must have really wanted to do it,” he replied.
“No, I didn’t think of that at all.”
“Well, it’s just as well you didn’t, at that age, but I bet you wanted to,” he insisted.
“No, it was something else.”
“You know how high the ceiling is?”
“Yeah, and does it slope down with the stairs?” James asked.
“It’s level, the upstairs ceiling continues over the steps,” I replied, knowing by now where he was going.
“How far down to the landing from the top?” he continued.
“Eight, nine feet.” Yep, he was going there.
“When I get home, I’ll calculate the arc, just a rough calculation,” he said.
“James, it isn’t to be calculated, just appreciated,” I said.
“What’s to appreciate if you’re at the top just looking down?”
“Standing at the top is where it all happens,” I replied
“Where it all…?” James began, and we both paused, silent.
I was nearly as puzzled as James, though I only guess he was puzzled too. James liked to get things done, to face a problem and learn how to reason an answer. I envied his approach to challenges, of focusing down to where a calculation pushed out an answer. I was very poor at that, finding neat, measured answers.
“Did I tell you I found where to order a copy of Tropic of Cancer? They send it all wrapped up, and Mom doesn’t open my mail,” James said.
“The most northerly point where the sun is straight up, I read that in the World Book. You’re getting a whole book on it?” I said.
“This is a different sort of tropic,” James replied.
This discussion went no farther until several years later on campus. James was soon to graduate, I assumed a physics major, and I was a semi-coherent sophomore.
“You still at the top of the stairs looking down?” he asked.
“I haven’t been up there in years.”
Continuing, as only James would after four years, “You know, I went home and roughed out the arc needed to land anywhere near the landing and set the scrap of paper aside. There was something about your idea of perfection, or what I call quality. When I started work on my degree I assumed I’d find that idea of quality in physics—I looked and looked but didn’t find it. I wondered what major might; so I took a couple of psychology classes and all I found were teachers looking at rats while dreaming of being physicists.”
“James, I’m having a similar problem in the philosophy department, among hardcore professors who wish they were physicists and mathematicians.”
James, in a poetic gesture, said he ‘walked down the steps’ to the landing and looked out the window.
“Out the window?” I said.
“Yes, and with a rush of energy, I said to myself, ‘Nothing is perfect, has the highest quality through the agency of conscious effort, showing any trace of intentionality.’”
This was a new James, a big leap from physics and Skinner boxes.
“So is anything human a case of perfection, or quality, you call it?”
“Where I found perfection was in what I saw down those stairs and looking out. Every plant and tree and blade of grass and bit of bare ground was perfection,” he said.
“And nothing human reaches that quality of existence?” I asked.
“Maybe only sadness, joy, and sexual drive,” he replied.
“So we’re back to Tropic of Cancer,” I said, bringing a smile to his face.
“I never loaned you my copy, did I?” James said.
* * *
If you enjoyed this story from Don Moss, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include an analysis of the 1972 classic, “The Limits To Growth”, with climate activist Arnold Schroder, an in-depth look at Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science” with Irish poet Laura Woods, and a discussion with Ivan Katchanovski on Maidan and Ukrainian history in light of the Russia-Ukraine War.