Retouching the Big Picture

Posted on May 31, 2011


As a young boy attending Catholic school, I was taught that God made the universe and everything in it. His design was all part of a grand plan, which we mortals of limited wisdom could barely begin to comprehend. If the furnace blew up or Uncle Dominick drowned in a lake, we were supposed to accept it, rather than try to infer some meaning.

Okay. I get that, the barely comprehending part. I find most things baffling, so it doesn’t take much to mystify me. For example, if I stand between a wireless laptop and a laser printer across the room, I don’t understand why the printed pages don’t have images of my rib cage and spleen on them. Actually, it gets much more basic than that. I’m puzzled by ballpoint pens. (I would think the ink would get used up after two or three sentences.) And automatic coin sorters. (Why don’t the dimes get mixed in with the pennies?)

Just last week I was in a drugstore and picked up a pack of gum that had the word Professional in big, bold letters on the wrapper. It was one of those moments when I realize I have no control over my own mind. I know it isn’t really important, and that I have better things to worry about, but there’s a small part of my brain that craves idiocy. It’s the part that not only seeks out nonsense, but savors it. The part that wants to know what it means to say that gum is professional, and worse, insists on asking the cashier.

“Do I have to go through special training before I can chew this?”

“I’m sorry?” she said.

“Do I need some certification in order to buy this gum?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

She had a familiar expression on her face, as though she were pretending to carry on a conversation with me, but had no idea what I was talking about. It didn’t seem like a good day for high-risk activity, so I replaced the professional pack and selected an amateur-level grape bubblegum.

A few months ago I found myself shopping for a hand-held shower head. Again, one of the models was called Professional. Were there professionals in this field, too? I had no idea showering was even a field. I have years of experience, and although I don’t recall the exact circumstances, on several occasions I’ve taken three showers on the same day. Where do I apply for such a job?

This nearly-total lack of a mental filter can cause increased stress. Things find their way to my brain, things that don’t belong there, just as things don’t belong in my lungs, like dust and the powdered stuff at the bottom of the cereal box. Sometimes I go to bed with a song stuck in my head, and when I wake up in the morning, it’s still there. I feel a sense of panic: was the song playing all night, like a scratched vinyl record? What might the long-term effects be of hearing a single line from “Kung Fu Fighting” repeated hundreds of times during REM sleep? Maybe the words imprinted themselves into my mind, the way an image gets burned onto a computer monitor, or the way my mother warned me that if I kept making a certain face it would get stuck like that forever.

If there really is a grand plan, I worry that I may have strayed off the page. Is it possible that I’ve even wandered too close to the edge of insanity, like an unwary object that crosses the boundary of a black hole?

And speaking of black holes, why is everything in the universe so far apart? Was there a reason for creating billions of galaxies that no one will ever visit? Galaxies are quite large. Why not just two or three, and within commuting distance?

I’ve read that the planet Jupiter protects the Earth by acting a like a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking up stray asteroids and smaller chunks of rock that could find their way to us — with catastrophic results. God, then, put Jupiter right where it is to save us from getting conked out of existence by one of these boulders that He himself created. This reminds me of those signs that warn you that you’re approaching a bump ahead in the road. Instead of putting up a sign, why not just get rid of the bump?

In a few billion years, according to astronomers, the sun will expand, turning into a red giant whose diameter will be so enormous that it will include Earth’s orbit. In other words, in case you missed the implications of that, we will be inside the sun. Needless to say, that’s liable to get a little uncomfortable. But where can we go? It’s a really long trip to the nearest star, and there may not be any planets there that are inhabitable. If I were designing the universe, I’d have the stars on some kind of rotating schedule. When one was about to burn out or blow up, it would be sent on its way and a new one would move into place. There might be a slight delay in service, say a day or two with no heat or light while I was getting things into proper alignment. But then everything would be all set for another couple of billion years. Nobody would get burned to a crisp or be forced to spend their lives traveling to a distant solar system just to keep the species going.

As far as the natural world we’re familiar with, there’d be some changes there, as well. Giant tortoises have been known to live for nearly two centuries. A carp named Hanako died in 1977 at the age of 226. I had pet turtles when I was a boy. We kept them in a plastic pond with a fake palm tree sticking out of the middle of it. The turtles always died within a few months, and then we would run them over with our bicycles, just to see what would happen. I’ve never been able to keep goldfish alive for more than a week. So why are these animals living so long in the wild? They show no discernible ambition, no desire to make constructive use of their time. They have nothing to do. Meanwhile, people — the only ones worrying about asteroids and giant suns — are lucky if they get fifty productive years. This has to be some kind of clerical error.

What about frogs? They can breathe on land and in the water. This would have been a nice little feature for humans, wouldn’t it? Uncle Dominick might still be around, plus we would have never had to watch The Poseidon Adventure. I don’t care if you believe in creation or evolution — somebody blew it. Then there are those tropical fish. Why put so much beauty under the ocean, where most of it is hidden? Fish should be gray, or some shade of beige. Dogs and cats and horses should be bright colors. And maybe cows.

I can now see that taking over the world will not be enough. The entire universe is in disarray, and something will have to be done about it. This is going to take a colossal effort, and someone with an unsurpassed ability to focus, concentrate, and block out all extraneous thoughts and distractions. By the way, did you know there’s a professional-style cream of chicken soup?

Posted in: In Over My Head