A Lot of Big Issues. One Tiny Mind.

Posted on August 11, 2010


There are major problems in the world. I don’t have to tell you, because you watch the news, or at least hear snatches of it even while you’re trying not to listen. War, famine, disease, oil spills. Like you, I often wish I could do something to alleviate the suffering. There was a time when I imagined myself effecting some huge change for the benefit of mankind. I literally wanted to save the entire planet, or at least one whole hemisphere. As I matured, though, I tempered these aspirations with heavy doses of pragmatism: there’s just so much anyone can do. Now that I’m almost old, I have come to realize that I’m never going to make any meaningful difference in the world. It isn’t that I’ve lost interest or motivation; it’s that I now recognize my own limitations. Specifically, I’m a small thinker. If I were to ever be included in a history book, and if history book authors weren’t so constrained by political correctness, I would be referred to as a pinhead. I notice and get caught up in details, to a point way beyond anything that could be considered useful. (No one has ever come out and said this to me, but I see the looks.)

Here are a few examples:

•  Do you ever notice one old shoe lying in the road? What happened there? I always wish I could go back in time and see how that shoe arrived, by itself, on the side of the road. Where’s the other one? Could it have been some bizarre accident? It would have to be bizarre, because I have trouble imagining how one shoe could land in the road accidentally. Was someone driving and decided he didn’t want his shoes anymore, didn’t want them so much that he couldn’t wait until he got where he was going? Did he reach down while sitting at a red light and grab one of the shoes from his feet and fling it out the window? Maybe. But then what happened? Did the light change? Did he have second thoughts and realize it wasn’t such a good idea after all? Or did he fling the other shoe at the next red light? I never go looking for the other shoe, so this is a possibility. But then what does he tell his wife when he comes home barefoot?

•  When I see a sign at a restaurant that says, “Breakfast served all day!” I always think, who has that kind of time? I’ll give it three or four hours, but after that, bring me the check. And what about that bottomless cup of coffee? It sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen. Another problem I have with going out for breakfast is the final decision. Do I want eggs or pancakes? If I order eggs, I’ll wish I’d gotten the pancakes. But if I order the pancakes, I’ll wonder how the French toast would have been. (Does this make me a waffler?) By the way, in France do they call it French toast, or just toast? What about in the former French colonies? In Cambodia, do they call it Filthy Land-Ravaging Imperialist Pig Toast? And if so, can you still get it with home fries?

•  Symphony orchestras consist of dozens of highly skilled musicians who practice their craft to the point of obsession, yet they remain largely anonymous. Are the audiences familiar with the names of any of the people who play the music? I don’t think so. But they always know the conductor’s name, this guy who stands up front and waves around a little stick. Whenever I see an orchestra playing, I always imagine the conductor suddenly vanishing. Poof, gone. What would happen? The musicians seem to be focused on their sheet music and not the guy with the stick. I think they’d all finish playing the piece perfectly, look up, and then notice that the famous person wasn’t there. And the audience wouldn’t know whether to applaud or organize a search party.

•  Animal migration. What is the point of this? I watch these documentaries about penguins, butterflies, wildebeest, and at some point in the year they all start walking or flying this incredible distance so they can get to where the food is. Why don’t they just stay there? What could possibly cause them to travel all that way and then think to themselves, well, it’s been fun but now it’s time to head back to that other place really far away where there’s nothing to eat, and where, along the route, I have a reasonably good chance of being eaten myself?

•  More about animals. Why do people always use the word cute when they see a baby animal? It doesn’t matter what it is — snake, alligator, hyena — the little offspring are described as cute. Here’s my question. Say there’s a baby alligator living in your neighbor’s fenced-in backyard. You go out to see it every day. It’s a week old and you say, “Look at the baby alligator! How cute!” And you go out the next day and do the same thing. And you keep doing this. Eventually, that alligator is going to be enormous and will use much of its limited brain power trying to figure out how to get over the fence. Do you still think it’s cute? Was there a day when it was cute and then the next day it wasn’t?

•  When I buy a picture frame, I think about the people in the photo that comes with the frame. Sometimes it’s a family in there, but not a real family. It’s a group of models, photographed to look like a family. But they are real people. Does the man in the fake photo have a family of his own? If so, when his wife buys a picture frame, she most likely chooses the one with her husband in it, as a way of supporting his career. But when she gets home with the frame that shows her husband with some other wife and kids, how does she explain it to her own children? Does the modeling fee include compensation for family therapy?

•  Puffer Fish. These things are poisonous to the point of being fatal, and can be sold or cooked only by licensed professionals. Who was the second person to ever eat a puffer fish? The first person, I have little doubt, died from the experience, because probably there were no licensed professionals around then. And so the second person said what? “Yes, it’s a poisonous fish. That first guy took three bites, fell on the floor, and remained fully conscious as his muscles all went into paralysis and he asphyxiated, his face frozen in an expression of sheer agony. Still, I had the chicken yesterday and it was a little dry.”

•  And finally, the one I’ve spent way too much time on. My birthday exactly matches that of one of our good friends — same month, date, and year. This was fun to discover. But then I learned that she was born in Guam, which is on the other side of the International Date Line. In other words, when it was the 28th in Guam, it was the 27th where I lived. And by the time I showed up on the 28th, it was the 29th in Guam. So were we born on the same day, or not? If someone could please let me know, it would allow me to get back to my extremely important work. Well, right after I find my other shoe.