An Endless Wonder

Posted on August 14, 2011

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As a child, I was puzzled by life. Not to say that I was constantly puzzled. The feeling was tempered now and then by milder states of bafflement, bewilderment, and, on days of relative lucidity, simple confusion. Still, I’d imagine a time off in the distant future of adulthood, when the dust would settle, the fog would dissipate, and the smoke would clear. (I don’t remember the exact metaphor, but I know there was a lot of coughing and squinting involved.) As a grown-up, I would begin the satisfying task of gathering pieces of understanding — the way a stamp collector accumulates rare specimens — and storing them in my mind. I patiently waited for this gift of insight to arrive, right through my teenage years, into my twenties and thirties, and beyond.

I’m still waiting.

For a long time I tried to convince myself that I was just going through what my mother called “an awkward stage.” So far that awkward stage has spanned five decades, and shows no sign of relenting. Needing a back-up plan, I’ve decided to replace the stamp album of wisdom with a twenty-volume set of hardcover books, probably titled Things I Just Don’t Get. Each volume will be richly illustrated and fully footnoted, featuring a compehensive appendix and cross-referenced index. It will also be annotated. (I don’t know what annotated means, but I intend to find out.) What follows is but a tiny sample.

* * * * *

Sometimes in the winter, my feet get really cold and I wear socks to bed. Now I guess we warm up when we’re asleep, because in the morning I’m not wearing the socks anymore. I never remember taking them off, and frequently I can’t even find them. Could this mystery be related to alien abductions? It’s possible that these beings aren’t traveling here from other worlds in order to manipulate our DNA or infiltrate our civilization. Maybe they just need socks.

* * * * *

Why do people go to tanning salons? If they suddenly have this deep tan in the middle of January and someone asks, “Did you go on vacation?” they have to say no. It’s been snowing every day for the past nine weeks, so the only other explanation is that they used a tanning booth. One day I’m going to adopt a similar logic by taking a shower, then standing in the kitchen dripping wet and pretending I just returned from a tropical rain forest. (Truthfully, I’m undecided about this. I may not do it.)

* * * * *

Do we really use just ten percent of our brains? I remember learning this in a high school class, and my first thought was, “You mean we’re being taught by someone who, if he had nine-tenths of his brain removed, we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference?” In a moment of unprecedented discretion, I did not raise my hand and ask that question.

* * * * *

Why are there reserved parking spaces for expectant women? If you can take aerobics classes when you’re pregnant, why can’t you walk forty feet to get into the mall?

* * * * *

What could I accomplish with my time if I didn’t spend so much of it trying to open plastic trash bags and jars of salsa? How many weeks have I lost rinsing out almost-empty shampoo bottles? How many months have I spent watching that spinning pinwheel on my computer screen, or listening to a recorded message telling me how important my call is?

* * * * *

Once I get all my ducks in a row, what do I do then?

* * * * *

When infomercials offer me an “eighty-dollar value” for the special price of just $19.95, who’s paying the eighty dollars? The products are available only through the television ads, and they always offer the same price. So the truth is, no one has ever paid eighty dollars, and I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel less special.

* * * * *

Don’t we have enough different kinds of pasta now? I like variety as much as the next person, but the only shapes left are the nine-pointed star and famous world religious figures. And speaking of religious figures, why do people always assume that the silhouette that appears on their burnt toast is an image of Jesus? I recognize that it looks like a man with a beard, but how do they know it isn’t President Garfield, or George Bernard Shaw? Or that guy who pitches for the Giants?

* * * * *

Why are those small batteries so expensive? You can buy a watch for five dollars and it costs fifteen to replace the battery. It’s cheaper to keep buying new watches, while our landfills continue to fill up with the old ones. I haven’t worn a watch in thirty years. I’ve saved several million dollars on batteries and have done more than my share to protect the environment. The only drawback is that I have to constantly ask people what time it is.

* * * * *

When exactly does push come to shove? I’m never sure when to stop pushing and when to start shoving, but I don’t bother asking anyone because I know that it’s in their best interest to move into the shoving phase while I naively continue to push.

Where is the wazoo? Is it an actual body part? Sometimes when you go into a store and ask the salesman if they have portable DVD players, he’ll say, “Are you kidding? We have portable DVD players up the wazoo.” This may be some clever response he was taught in sales training, but it doesn’t induce me to purchase. In fact, it makes me think I don’t really need a portable DVD player. A related expression is “up the yin-yang.” As in, “You need a raincoat? We’ve got raincoats up the yin-yang.” Again, I don’t wear a raincoat, and I doubt the chance to obtain one from someone’s yin-yang would convince me to start now.

If my mind is in an especially odd place, the words “Wazoo” and “Yin-Yang” sound like the names of rivers. So I’ll imagine boxes stacked on pallets and floating down a river toward a big boat, where they’ll be loaded onboard by burly dockworkers and shipped to my local retail store. In that situation, when the salesperson says, “We have portable DVD players up the Wazoo,” or “We’ve got raincoats up the Yin-Yang,” I’m always tempted to ask, “How soon will they be here?”

* * * * *

Living in Canada, I appreciate the luxury of heated seats in the car. But why can’t I remember to turn them off at the end of spring? Sometimes I’ll go right into July with the air conditioner on full blast, sweating like a lunatic and no idea why.

* * * * *

How many is umpteen? When people say, “And so I called them again, for the umpteenth time,” I know it must be more than twelve, but it sounds much bigger, like maybe close to a hundred. I find myself fixating on the word, and the point of the story becomes lost. So just a reminder: If you’re ever trying to impress me with how many times you had to do something, use a real number, such as eighty-seven or 15,000. Umpteen will just make my mind wander.

When you turn off a lamp, why does the room immediately go dark? (I can hear you rolling your eyes, but please, hear me out.) If we look at the stars in the night sky the light we see is made up of packets of energy called photons. Because those stars are hundreds and even thousands of light years away, the photons had to travel immense distances through space. Somehow they kept going and remained visible. The lamp in my house is sending photons bouncing off the walls, the ceiling, and every object in the room. Yet when I switch off the lamp, the light vanishes instantly. Where does it go? Why doesn’t it continue to zip around for a while?

Some people have tried to explain to me that the light is absorbed by the walls and furniture. But if that were the case, why does the Moon reflect sunlight? If my coffee table absorbs photons, something as big as the Moon should absorb even more. That’s just common sense, even for me.

I don’t know why, but I can’t let this one go. I’m planning an experiment. I’m going to cover the walls, ceiling, and floor of a room with aluminum foil. Then I’ll set up a lamp and a videocamera inside the sealed room. With the lamp on, I’ll remotely begin recording, then turn the lamp off. The light should reflect off the aluminum foil and keep bouncing around the room. Be honest: shouldn’t it?

If I win the Nobel Prize for Physics, I’ll conduct a similar experiment on the disappearing socks in my bed. And if I don’t win, I may just open up a tanning salon. There’s no sense letting all that foil end up in the landfill. But here’s what I really want to know. If my mind is this boggled now, how many more things would be added to the list if I could just figure out how to use the other ninety percent of my brain?

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Posted in: Exasperating