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ESSAY
There's Nothing to See Here
Mike Nagel

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I want you to imagine that I am a person you suspect might have something to say. I want you to read all of this as if it were an email from someone whose name sounds familiar to you. He's writing from Texas. Texas, you think. Who do I know in Texas? 

The only kind of science I'm interested in is the kind that tells me how many Earths can fit inside of the sun. If you guess right you get a Prius. It's not always obvious what can fit inside of what. One time I fit inside a 750ml bottle of Kettle One, legs and all. It's an issue of distortion. You're not getting smaller, the universe is getting bigger. It has nothing to do with you actually. You just happen to be here. In movies, this effect is achieved via a trick of cinematography called THE DOLLY ZOOM. Aka the Push-Pull, aka the Reverse Track, or, aka, most popularly, the VERTIGO EFFECT, as it was most popularly used in Hitchcock's Vertigo in 1958. The camera moves in while the lens zooms out. The foreground stays the same while the background starts to WARP. The Dolly Zoom can be used both ways, forwards or backwards, depending on whether you want the world to contract or expand. Depending on what the director is going for. Both are equally disorienting.

"The dolly zoom is an in-camera effect that appears to undermine normal visual perception," Wikipedia tells us. 

"It is, in other words, an ACT OF VISUAL SUBVERSION," the speaker argues at the secret meeting against acts of visual subversion, the purpose of which is to limit the amount of stuff out there that can REALLY FREAK US OUT. "If we lose our normal visual perception, what do we have left?"

Her main point being something like aren't things confusing enough already, for Christ sakes, without throwing in the goddamn Dolly Zoom on top of it all?

A few days after the meeting I am directed to a new video on Facebook that starts with a digital rendering of the Earth and then zooms out and out and out until I've lost all sense of scale and I'm looking at the HERCULES-CORONA BOREALIS GREAT WALL: 10 billion light years across: the very biggest thing. In the news story, scientists report being a little WEIRDED OUT by the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall on account of its being too big to exist. It seems there was supposed to be some sort of MAXIMUM. According to the top space scientist: "This is just getting ridiculous."

It wasn't clear what we were supposed to do now that we knew something existed that was 10 billion light years across. It wasn't clear how that information was supposed to affect our day-to-day. I continued using a brand of pomade called GOT 2B PLAYFUL that gave me a look I thought of as boyishly sophisticated. I didn't see a reason to stop. Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall or no, I still wanted to look cute. I wore button-ups under my sweaters. Tight-fitting jeans. My body was a shit bag but I was dressing like a mannequin in a GAP window display. My fragile little personality was being held together by a sensible wardrobe. I was not taking feedback at this time, the time I'm telling you about, which happens to be right now: this time. The old Push-Pull. I am moving toward you at the same rate that I am moving away.

A little family medical history: For years my dad suffered bouts of disorientation, a confusion of his ups and downs. Acute vertigo. According to Wikipedia: "a medical condition where a person feels as if they are moving when they are not." When I turned 30 I realized I had been suffering from this same condition for seven and a half years without realizing it. If you zoom out far enough, everything appears to be frozen. An illusion well within the realm of normal visual perception, I hate to tell you. It can be very hard to tell if you're getting somewhere.

"Are we getting somewhere?" I ask the space scientist, while I have him.

"I'll put it this way," he says, "Just because we're moving at 514,000 miles per hour through the galaxy doesn't mean we have some place important to be."

There is some evidence to suggest that the universe is not really expanding so much as it's filling up with empty space. There's just more and more nothing out there is all. I don't think it would be inappropriate, at this point, to ask where it's all coming from. I have my suspicions.

One morning a woman at Starbucks asks me to save her seat. "I'm still here," she says, and then walks out the front door. During his vacation, the creative director at the ad agency comes into the office to retrieve something from his desk. "I'm not really here," he says as he goes through his drawers. (Trust me this all fits, you just have to shove it a little. I spent my twenties in various Starbucks's around the DFW Metroplex figuring out what could fit inside of what. A pioneer in the burgeoning field of shoveology. I studied maps of how many Texases could fit inside of Asia. Texas as a unit of measure. "How many Texases is that across, again?" "How big are we talking, in terms of Texas?" etc. Everything could fold back up again if we packed it right. A cosmic matryoshka doll. They said we could fit 1.5 million earths inside the sun. I was confident that with a little rejiggering we could get that number up to two.)

"And what do we think of this new, um, Instagram trend called, what was it, FORCED PERSPECTIVE in which people appear to LEAN AGAINST THE EIFFEL TOWER or EAT A JUMBO JET or whathaveyou..." the transcript from the February 2018 secret meeting against acts of visual subversion reads.

"Sounds like a whole buncha nonsense to me," a member says. And the other members agree that, yes, it doessound like a whole bunch of nonsense, and wasn't it hard enough already to know the size of things and the scale of things and to, more or less, GET A LAY OF THE LAND without someone forcing your perspective?

"It's agreed then," the speaker declares. "When it comes to the matter of forced perspective, the secret meeting against acts of visual subversion is hereby NOT A HUGE FAN."

In March I start commuting again, from Dallas out into the suburbs. I take 635 to the tollway. I'm not in traffic I am traffic etc. I listen to podcasts. I have ideas, don't write them down, forget them. They’re gone. I go back and forth from my apartment to my job. A break-even scenario in terms of getting anywhere. I could travel a light year inside this city. The secret is making small, concentric circles. That's one ofthe secrets. You have to pay for the other. Who needs a Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall when we have Loop 12, US635, the PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH TURNPIKE? But I'm reverse tracking now, trying to get it all into frame, zooming out and out and out until everything goes static. In the presence of large objects, some people have reported experiencing a sense of vertigo. A sudden awareness of the size of things. An awe of the inner ear. Dramamine helps. So does closing your eyes. You can come and go as you please. It’s up to you. All things considered, there is very little difference between being here and not.


Mike Nagel's writing has appeared in The Awl, Hobart, Salt Hill, DIAGRAM, and The Paris Review Daily. His essay 'Beached Whales' was a Best American Essays 2017 notable essay. Read more at michaelscottnagel.com.