People just don't seem to know what's going on up there. I've told this story a thousand times, but things keep reminding me of it. Tonight a cashier at Albertsons said she told everyone at home what I told her about blue moons. "They didn't believe me," she said, "but at least now they know." On New Year's Eve she asked if I knew there was a blue moon. I did. In fact, as I started to explain, it was an unusual one, but I could tell by her look that I had said something wrong. On a guess I asked if she knew what a blue moon was. She said, "It was just something on the news," and then, "Why, do you?"

It's hard to believe, but it's almost twenty years since Clyde Keener pushed a book into my hands saying, "Read this. You'll love it." It was Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War (1990). Clyde was a Helprin enthusiast. He loved lengthy books and protracted discussions. Retirement had banished him from the Faculty Club at UC Santa Barbara, a place he was born to inhabit. By sheer coincidence, if you believe in coincidence, I had just read the Penguin edition of The Consolation of Philosophy, the early 6th century work of Boethius. I sat next to Clyde at the Pali Cafe for lunch one day and he threw something out about the trivium and the quadrivium. When I said something back, his jaw dropped. He thought I might be an angel sent to collect him, not that he believed in angels. Clyde was well into his nineties at the time. We had mediocre lunches but wonderful conversations after that. I never shared my opinion about Mark Helprin, but I shared a few things about fours and threes. I showed him how six pennies fit together around a seventh to form the basis of seven lore. That shut him up for a while. A very short while. I wondered how it was possible for an inquisitive man like Clyde to miss the seven pennies thing. Then I began to wonder what crucial things I had missed.

I didn't share my opinion about Helprin because, first of all, he'd just say it was beside the point — "You have to look at the big things," he'd say. — but also because I was afraid he might figure out that Helprin wasn't all that in touch with the big things either. He certainly did not know what was going on up there.

Alessandro, an elderly man in a cream-colored suit with a walking cane, and Nicolò, a young illiterate factory worker, find themselves on the same bus leaving Rome. By a sequence of events they end up on foot, setting the stage for what follows. They enter the small town of Acereto. "Even at ten o'clock, the town was asleep, the windows shuttered." So, with no one to ask them in, they "ate and rested at the fountain." Helprin waxes, "Not a single light burned, and the moon had not yet risen, but the piazza and the buildings surrounding it were of a pale color that amplified the starlight enough to outline shapes and give away anything that moved across fields of varying contrast." Anyway, they ate, rested, talked for nine or ten pages, and then continued on their trip. "They picked up the pace outside Acereto. Perhaps because they had eaten and rested, Alessandro found strength." Alessandro, remember, is the old man. "For the next hour or two, keeping up with Alessandro would be a task that would set the boy to breathing hard..."

So, what time is it? Two hours of walking would make it midnight even if they hadn't stopped to eat, rest and talk. Without counting dialog, it's at least early morning. Alessandro walks fast because he knows the moon is about to rise, and not just any moon, a full moon. Nicolò tries to reason with him, but the old man says, "Wait till the full moon rises." The illiterate Nicolò asks, "How do you know it's going to be full?" and the the answer is, "Among other things, it was full yesterday except for a tiny splinter. Tonight, it will be perfectly round. That's why I'm walking so fast." Poor Nicolò huffs, "You walk fast when the moon is full?"

They reach their immediate destination in time. They stargaze for a while. More pages of dialog. Suddenly, Alessandro turns to the east. His cane clatters down upon the rock they are standing on. He catches sight of a tiny orange dome, rising coolly, unlike the molten sunrise, from behind the farthest line of hills. From a high point above Acereto, east of Rome, in the month of August, after a lengthy hike in the middle of the night, a full moon rises. Nicolò, the illiterate is utterly amazed, as well he should to be, but Alessandro, as you might imagine at this point, "was drawn back in time."

True, it's just an introduction, but there's one small problem. The full moon cannot rise on or after midnight, even if it helps the plot. Nicolò was right to be amazed, he had just witnessed a miracle. The laws of celestial mechanics require that the full moon rise as the sun sets. The full moon is full because it's in line with the earth and sun, just as it was this past New Year's Eve.

I was incensed by this twenty years ago. The moon in A Soldier of the Great War got past the author, the editor or editors, the publisher, and every critic whose review I was able to read. I'm over it now. Yet, I wonder how many such atrocities and stupidities I've committed myself without getting caught. Do I really want to know? At least I have a good idea what's going on up there.