Flying Carpet
Photo credit: emsquared / Pixabay

I believe in scientific explanations. And yet I didn’t want one.

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I moved from Massachusetts to California in that fateful year, 2016, to join my partner after eight long years of Jet Blue bicoastiality. Priced out of Palo Alto, where she had rented, we bought a house in the redwoods of the Santa Cruz mountains. It’s a funky house, built into a hillside; our bedroom is reached directly by a flight of stairs and shaped like an L.

That bedroom happened to be carpeted wall to wall, unlike most of the house, and the carpet happened to be beige. If we had given it any thought, I’m sure we would have ripped it out and dealt with whatever was underneath. Because, as I said, it was beige.

But it was a crazy few months and we had plenty of other things on our mind. All sorts of life-change logistics, not to mention the shellshock of middle-age cohabitation. And by the time we realized we both were equally nauseated by that color, there was a ton (literally) of furniture, bed included, sitting on it and it was too late.

So we went with Plan B and bought ourselves a nice big rug. It’s 6 x 9, thick, dense pile, vaguely oriental, mercifully covers about half of our tufted Sahara, and weighs about 50 pounds.

I include that last detail because it is germane to a mystery that went unsolved until just a few days ago. The rug serves its purpose, is easy to vacuum, and has never given us a speck of trouble. The only behavior that makes it in any way worthy of deep-dive investigation is that it — creeps.

I first noticed this eight years ago when we set up a little exercise device called a “Rodeo” — you ride it as you might a horse or a very mellow bull — about 6 inches off the north end of our rug. 

A few days, or maybe it was weeks, later I saw that the rug had lapped itself against the back leg of the Rodeo. My first thought was that my partner had moved the Rodeo for some reason, but I saw it was still sitting in the little indentations it had made in the carpet where we first placed it. So then I thought maybe she had moved the rug.

Carpet and Rodeo

Rodeo, meet Rug. Photo credit: Jonathan Simon / WhoWhatWhy

In any event, I lifted up the south end and hauled it back the 6 inches or so — a feat that took both hands and a fair amount of strength. I forgot all about it. But when I looked again, some time after, there it was again, up against the Rodeo. This time I asked my partner, but she said the equivalent of “huh?” so once again I moved it back.

For eight years now I’ve watched that rug make its way across the floor. Of course, I’ve never seen it move. But move it must. Always the same direction, north and a little west (like the movie). 

And each time, I grab it by the south end and haul it back, feeling for all the world like an Old World navigator making a periodic mid-Atlantic course correction for the curvature of the Earth. Feeling, indeed, like a priest involved in a sacred rite, cloaked in mystery. An initiation without understanding. A tiny bit of awe.

“Look it up!”

I believe in explanations, scientific explanations. And yet I didn’t want one. 

Carpet creep, I thought, must be some kind of magic. After all, the damned rug not only weighs 50 pounds, but it’s perfectly flat. That means friction everywhere — 54 square feet of it, to be exact. Plus all that weight. The floor is level. For every step in, we take a step out, no net traffic effect. No magnets. Our furniture doesn’t creep; even empty cardboard boxes stay put. I observed very carefully.

Finally, one night last week — I think the cumulative political stress of 2024 must have gotten to me — I lost it. 

“C.H.,” I yelled (my partner’s initials), “what the hell is going on here?! Look at this thing, look at it! I just fixed it!” There it was, lapped up against the Rodeo, curled up 6 inches into the air! “I mean birds aren’t real, Trump’s ahead in the polls, and our carpet keeps creeping! There’s no explanation! It weighs 50 pounds! It’s flat! The floor is flat! I just can’t deal!” I was, I’ll be the first to admit, borderline hysterical.

Birds Aren’t Real, Sign

The original billboard sponsored by the Birds Aren’t Real movement, Memphis, TN, July 17, 2019. Photo credit: Andrewj0131 / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

C.H., a picture of calm in the midst of this storm, gave it a moment’s thought and came up with “Well, it’s probably got something to do with the direction of the nap.”

This was so patently ridiculous that it set me off on a whole new jag. 

“How can it be the direction of the effing nap?!” I caterwauled. I lifted up a corner of the demonic rug, exposing a backing with hardly any texture; the beige carpet below, as far as I could tell in the evening gloom, had no “direction” at all. 

“You know, I grew up with wall-to-wall and all kinds of throw rugs; I lived with carpets very nicely my whole life. I never saw one creep — never! Not until we got here. Is it a California thing? Does it only happen in the mountains? Wait, it started in 2016! That’s evidence. I’ll bet it’s some kind of MAGA plot! I’ll bet it only happens to liberal carpets — to drive us round the bend!”

“Look it up,” I pleaded (C.H. is the family research department), “before their plot succeeds. I’m on the verge.”

It took her about 15 seconds and she read me the results (I could hear her working hard to keep the smug out of her voice):

Rugs move on a carpet because they follow the carpet’s pile movement with foot impact. The weight of the footstep moves the carpet pile, which then transfers to the rug.

Most carpets are installed with the carpet pile facing the entryway because doing so makes their colors look richer. Because of that, the rug will tend to move in that direction when you walk on it.

(No, your rugs aren’t bee-lining for the door because they don’t like you — blame the carpet!)

Furthermore, the longer and plushier your carpet’s fibers, the more your rug will tend to move because the longer fibers will have less grip on your rug.

And there we have it — a perfectly sensible, adequate, and boring explanation. The creep is in fact in the direction of the entryway; the carpet pile, on really close inspection, inclines ever so slightly in that direction. She had nailed it. Mystery solved. No California triangle, no mountain range magnetism, no MAGA plot.

And no awe. 

I took to writing this because I felt a sudden, strange emptiness inside — barely noticeable, maybe the absence of a certain shimmer — to which I just could not relate. It was the night of the aurora, that great cosmic shimmer that captivates millions. And this was a tiny shimmer, a bedroom shimmer. And now it was gone. Forever. 

What was left behind was perfectly innocuous, like the shade flapping in the breeze, like the paint on the wall. Perfectly flat.

What Is Really Going On?

My mind turned at that moment to an email I received from my oldest friend in the fall of the first COVID-19 year, also an election year. I had sent him an email recounting some of my efforts on then-Twitter to call Donald Trump to account for various sins, taking for granted that my friend was more or less in the same foxhole. 

His reply began with words that are permanently engraved in my memory, words that marked an abrupt sea change in my epistemological relation to the world around me:

“I’m surprised you haven’t yet realized what is really going on.”

What followed was a long, slow, shocking tour of a world I didn’t recognize. A world run by an evil global cabal, manipulated by sinister plots ranging from weather control to bioweapon viruses like COVID-19, explaining natural disasters and vaccines as population-suppression schemes, global warming as a hoax, etc., etc. Pretty much the whole package. From my oldest friend, a medical doctor who had always seemed to me something of a rock.

It was not to stop. Nor was he alone. Other friends — Ph.D.s, professors — echoed this magically sinister view of the world. Books arrived, unsolicited, in my mailbox — from RFK Jr.’s The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health, to Thomas S. Harrington’s The Treason of the Experts, to Mark Keenan’s Globalism Unmasked, and some even further “out there.” 

The Maui Fires? Arson. The mRNA vaccines? Bioweapons. The “truth?” Ruthlessly censored at every turn by government and media. Freedom? A thing of the past. Trump? Less dangerous than the “deep state.” And always, always, “just asking questions.”

As far as my consciousness of all this goes, it all seemed to spring from that first Big Bang revelation: “You haven’t yet realized what is really going on.”

And I guess I still haven’t. But my carpet creep epiphany shed some light at last. Why did the simple, ordinary explanation my partner found in 15 seconds of Googling feel so deflating? Why was the mystery of carpet creep so like a companion I felt an actual pang at having to let go of?

Perhaps it is because there is something about the world “as it is” that leaves me cold — that leaves my old friend and the Ph.D.s and professors cold — that is somehow not enough. Without magic, without awe, without shimmer… we shiver.

True, if you look deep enough, there are genuine mysteries to behold — the tiny and the vast; the mind-bending revelations (and hanging questions) of relativity, space-time, and quantum field theory. Not to mention consciousness itself. But those are lifelong, labor-intensive studies whose inner sanctums are — pace Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson — reserved for the most gifted and devoted among us. The glories and wonders of the Schrodinger Equation, Planck’s Constant, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle have never made their presence known to us in our bedroom.

We want easier magic. We want a magic — carpet.

Religions can fill that void. And so can the geyser of baseless conspiracy theories, especially grand ones — the ones that say the world, the whole world, is not as it seems.

I’ll leave it there. And I hope, if you’ve ever puzzled over carpet creep in your bedroom or living room, I haven’t ruined it for you with the freaking facts.

I’ll just add this brief footnote. We have one other room in our house with a carpet and a rug — 5 x 7, 40 pounds, dense pile, vaguely oriental. That room, whose door faces west, is hardly ever used, gets virtually no foot traffic, in or out.

And that rug creeps too. I find it, on my rare visits, curled up against the closet door. I pick up the east end and haul it back.

Just sayin’.


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