Zeno's Arrow, The Paradox of Motion, and a Decent Cup of Coffee

Open the cabinet, take out the Folgers. Pull off the lid, there sits the tiny metal scoop, glistening against the dark grounds as the sun pokes through the window.

The rim of the scoop crunches against the coffee grounds, shoveling up its tiny payload. The smell hits you just as the last few specks tumble off the side of the measuring spoon, silently disappearing back into the canister.

Pull out a filter. Dump in the coffee and reach for the cup to measure the water. The faucet roars quietly into the cup, which gets heavier in your hand until -- there -- it's full.

In goes the water, down goes the lid and push goes the button. In a few minutes it will be ready.


If you really think about it, the intricacies of making yourself coffee are kind of mind-boggling -- especially at six in the morning.

So many chances for error... one scoop or two? Are those heaping scoops? And how much water? Then you have to consider the coffeemaker itself. Surely some boil off more water than others, and the attrition should ideally be accounted for in the initial pour.

There is the age of the machine to consider, how clogged its tubing, whether the voltage coming from the outlet has any influence on the speed of percolation. Relative humidity. Temperature variance. Creamer density.

There's a lot to bear in mind.


An ancient Greek paradox sought to prove the impossibility of motion. An arrow, for instance, flying across a field, must first traverse half the distance. This is accomplished easily enough; anyone standing along the edge of the field could watch it happen: the arrow sailing through the air, its tip rising skyward until it reaches the zenith of its arc, just before it begins its downturn and coasts the rest of the way there, carried by momentum. There is that one instant when it sits at the precise midpoint of its path.

Then, though, what happens? Now the arrow must traverse half the distance between there, where it sits, and the other edge of the field. It cannot reach the other side without first covering half the way there. It does this. Now it's three fourths of the way there. Fly across half the remaining distance. Seven eighths. Almost there.

But ultimately, you see, the arrow can never cross the field. To do that it would have to cover an endless recession of halfway points, an unfurling list of ever-shrinking distances that goes on and on and on, forever. Impossible.


Do you call Bullshit yet? I mean, obviously motion is possible; it happens all the time. My fingers don't run out of energy journeying across the infinite chasms between the keys here ... your eyes don't spiral into eternity trying to jump from one clump of words on the screen to another.

Something is here, then it's there, and that's that, despite what any dead Greeks may have to say on the matter.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately, as there are times when a lot of the tasks before me seem to do this -- grow into towering fortresses of forbiddingness. Something as simple as finding some shoes or redecorating a room suddenly becomes amazingly, horribly, ridiculously difficult.

I don't really understand why.

I think we fall into these patterns, sometimes, when uncertainties kind of multiply like rabbits and gang up on us. They chirp and jeer, in their jumbled bunny voices, all the many reasons there are why we're doomed -- doomed! -- to fail. Eventually you can't hear anything over the din.

This may be where the arrows come in handy. I think if we can step back for a moment and look at the tasks before us, the real tasks and not the insurmountable inevitable disasters we've created from them, we might see something. A plan, perhaps. Or at least a list of items to cross off.

It might not be that hard. Just remember -- the Greeks talked themselves into doubting motion altogether. It's not so unusual to wonder how you're ever going to make it through your daily life.

I think what you have to do is sit down, make a list, begin -- that's important -- and start to realize that, with a little persistence (which just means not getting bored and losing interest, which isn't all that tragic either), you can be kind of infinite yourself. That's a nice thought.

I mean, if it's something you really want, and you keep moving toward it ... keep moving toward it ... get sidetracked a little but then point yourself back toward it ... well, if you do that it starts to seem almost impossible for you not to get there.

Which is exciting.

Besides, whenever you start wearing down a little, you can always pour yourself some coffee.


Anonymous said...

well, first let me just say that that greek arrow hit home for me. I have been far too busy growing towering fortresses of forbidingness myself, only to watch them teeter dangerously and collapse on my chest, rendering me fully incapable of breathing or doing much other than emit pitiful little mews of helplessness. So, I completely get you there.

But what I really loved about this post, what really captured me is it achingly lovely construction. What I love about your writing is how wonderfully writerly it is. You don't just sort of open that valve atop your brain and vomit it all out the keyboard way I do in one ugly arc of tumbling words and ideas. No. Yours is a carefully crafted yet easy and elegant method, everything measured out in scoops, scoops which are neither too full, nor too meagre. Always strong, always full bodied and flavourful, but never overpowering or bitter. It's a fine brew you make at Chez Colin. You're always a welcome cuppa.

xo Wee

Thomas said...

I was always a good archer, so this message was right on the money. Lately, though, I've felt like the other side of the field was out of range. Even small fields. But Dad helped paint last week, and took my failing arrow to the otherside. Now I'm back shooting.

And it was nice imagery.

meg said...

Excellent post. And man, did it hit home, for me, today.

MadFlyTom said...

Beautiful. That's all that needs to be said.