Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Exact Time of Day Is Precisely Wrong

Nowadays people are so precise when it comes to time. We say things like, “Let’s have a meeting to go over the Fernwald account, tomorrow at 3:45 p.m. I’ll schedule it with the Calendar app on my iPhone.”

This is silly for many reasons. First, even if tomorrow is, say, Thursday, the screens on smartphones are small, while most adult thumbs are large, so it’s just as likely the meeting gets scheduled for exactly 3:45 p.m. — on Sunday. So, the time of day is correct, but it’s off by a mere 72 hours.

Secondly, roads and highways are so jammed these days, and with the state D.O.C. out in full force (Department of Orange Cones), to be on time for the meeting you’d have to leave your office before you even made the appointment. (“Margie, is the Time Machine broken again? Darn! That thing goes on the fritz more often than the copy machine!”)

And finally, being so precise about time is silly because not everyone thinks the same way. When you say “3:45 p.m.”, you probably mean 3:45 p.m. But to another person, “3:45 p.m.” might mean, “Hmm, that’s sometime after lunch, but before the end of the day — unless I go home early with a headache.”

(Oh, another reason why it’s silly to schedule a precise 3:45 p.m. meeting to go over the Fernwald account is because there is no Fernwald account. Mr. Fernwald took his business elsewhere three weeks ago — probably because someone screwed up the time of a meeting.)

In the “olden days,” that primitive era when there was only black and white TV, people did not worry about being so precise about time. If someone said, “Let’s meet at 3:45 p.m.”, the immediate reply was, “What are you talking about? No one says ‘3:45’ since they haven’t invented digital watches yet. You mean to say, ‘Let’s meet at quarter to four,’ in which case, what are you talking about? We’re never that precise because this is the ‘olden days.’ You should say, ‘Let’s meet in the late afternoon, around 4-ish.’”

And of course, by the time this was all straightened out it was early evening, and they had missed the meeting, which was fine because Mr. Fernwald took his business elsewhere three weeks ago anyway. But nobody got an ulcer about it since it was the stress-free “olden days.”

In the really old “olden days,” the era so primitive the only thing to watch was black and white radio, there pretty much were only two times: “day” and “night.” If someone said, “Let’s meet tomorrow at ‘daytime:45’ to go over the Fernwald account,” the immediate reply was, “What are you talking about? They haven’t invented digital sundials yet.” Then everyone would drag the guy to the village square and burn him at the stake for being a sorcerer — or at least a nonconformist — which was fine because Mr. Fernwald took his business elsewhere 21 moons ago anyway.

I’d like to be less precise about time. Doing so probably would reduce my stress level and prevent an ulcer (which right now is scheduled to appear in my stomach at exactly 3:45 p.m. next Tuesday). I think I’ll use no more than four different designations for time: morning, noonish, afternoon, and evening.

That’s about as accurate as I ever am anyway, what with tiny handheld screens, the state D.O.C., and Time Machines on the fritz. If someone calls me and says, “Let’s meet tomorrow at 3:45 p.m.”, I’ll confirm the appointment by saying, “Yeah, afternoonish sounds good.” (Unless it’s Mr. Fernwald giving us another chance. For him I’ll be at his office at EXACTLY 3:45 p.m., even if I have to leave yesterday to do it.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Making of a Young Atheist

Recently, some friends were surprised to learn that I used to be an atheist. “How can you NOT believe in God?!” one friend exclaimed.

“Easy,” I replied. “Especially nowadays, when skepticism is so trendy. It’s cool to look down your nose at religious people. And back in the day, I was convinced there was no God and I was convinced I was cool.” (Turns out I was wrong on both counts. Although in my defense, I’m pretty sure I was cool for a full 20 minutes one time back in 1975.)

Thinking back to those days, there was one moment that really convinced me that atheism was true. It was during biology class when I was a freshman in high school. While teaching the Theory of Evolution (although I don’t remember ever hearing the word “theory”; it was taught as a definite fact), my teacher made this statement: “If you could somehow go back in time to the very beginning and let everything play out again, you would never get human beings. The odds of life forming on this planet are so remote, it would never happen a second time.”

In that biology class, I was taught that everything in the universe is nothing more than matter plus energy, shaped by blind, random chance. After billions and billions of years, biological life just happened to form on planet Earth, and for millions of years, living organisms have been mutating and adapting and changing—all randomly, of course—to the point where we now have this vast diversity of life.

The key concept is randomness. Imagine taking a pair of dice and rolling them a thousand times and keeping track of what numbers appear. If you then roll the dice a second thousand times, you will never get the exact same pattern of numbers. It’s random.

My most favorite class in school was “Probability and Statistics.” (Which is why I never play the Lottery. I understand that state-run lotteries and scratch-off tickets are nothing more than an extra tax on people who did poorly in math class.)

Back in high school I totally grasped the concept of randomness, so I knew exactly what my biology teacher was saying. The existence of life on earth was the result of a cosmic crap shoot. It occurred randomly, against very high odds, and if we somehow could “play the game” a second time, biological life would never, ever occur again.

As a smart-aleck 14-year-old, I was already pretty skeptical of the stories I had been taught in Catechism classes at church. But after my biology teacher’s proclamation, I joyfully dismissed my remaining religious notions. I’m pretty sure I did not use the term atheist, but that’s what I had become.

The things I was taught in those Catechism classes—that a supernatural Being called God had designed and created life on earth, and that life had a purpose—were now complete foolishness in my mind. The words “design,” “create,” and “purpose” are not compatible with the concept of randomness. So, I became convinced religious stories were nothing but mythology, invented by scientifically illiterate people who did not know the truth about the origins of life. It would be another 14 years before I revisited this topic and discovered some gaping holes in my logic.

Ironically, my high school biology teacher was a parishioner in the neighboring town who went to Mass every Sunday. I have no idea if he’s still alive all these years later, but I’d love to ask him how he was able to reconcile what he taught in the classroom with what was proclaimed at Mass.

Next week I’ll tell you the story of how I lost my faith in atheism. Again, probability and statistics are key. Except this time, I ran the numbers correctly.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Blinded by the Night

I was driving home with my wife recently, and since it’s getting dark noticeably earlier these days, dusk settled in when we were still about 30 minutes away. Suddenly, I said to my wife, “Hey where did the road go? I can’t see anything!”

That’s when it hit me — a thought, I mean, not another car — that I finally had turned into my parents. For decades I would shake my head in disbelief whenever my parents announced they had to leave a party because, and I quote, “We have to get home before it gets dark!”

Whenever they said that, my brothers and I would make smart-aleck comments, such as, “What? Will your car turn into a pumpkin?” “Are your headlights broken, or something?”, and, “Oh, you’re just saying that cuz this party is boring!”

My parents’ “We have to leave” proclamation was especially awkward during Christmas gatherings. Because it gets dark so early in late December, occasionally they would make their “gotta go” announcement before we even sat down for lunch. My dad would say, “Sorry, but sunset is at 4:30 today, which means we really should be home by 4. And it takes 45 minutes to drive home from here, so factoring in some unexpected delays, we should get going no later than, um, 1:30.” (Hey, what can I say? He was a cautious fella.)

Anyway, after all this time, I’m now doing the exact same thing. After noticing earlier this year that the road indeed becomes invisible after sunset, I now make travel plans only after consulting a daily sunrise/sunset chart.

Last month we were visiting one of our daughters in Massachusetts, and when it got to be mid-afternoon, I said to my wife, “OK, sunset is at 7:45 today, which means we really should be home by 7:15. And it takes an hour and a half to drive home from here, so factoring in some unexpected delays, we should get going no later than, um, noon.” (Hey, what can I say? I inherited the cautious gene.)

When my wife pointed out that it was already after 3 p.m., I threw up my hands in despair and said, “Oh no, that means we’re gonna hafta spend the night here!”

(By the way, my son-in-law is from Italy, and it’s rather interesting trying to explain to him that the phrase “gonna hafta” actually contains four words. It’s almost as challenging as trying to explain “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”)

I did an online search about elderly night vision, and one article said: “The aging corneas and lens in the eyes become less clear as we age, causing light to scatter inside the eyes, which increases glare. These changes also reduce contrast sensitivity — the ability to discern subtle differences in brightness — making it harder to see objects on the roadway at night.”

Well, that explains why I’ve recently noticed that when I’m driving at night, the headlights of an oncoming car affect me just like that moment during an eye exam when the doctor shines a flashlight directly into my eyeball from about 1 inch away, which occasionally causes beams of light to shoot out of my ears.

So, when I’m driving at night, I get blinded by oncoming traffic, as the bright light scatters and glares through my rapidly disintegrating corneas and lenses (and occasionally shoots out of my ears). And then when the car passes and there is no oncoming traffic, it seems like I’m suddenly driving through a coal mine with two pairs of sunglasses on. But other than that, driving at night is no problem.

Just to be safe, however, I’m still leaving at noon, no matter how many smart-aleck comments my kids make.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Why Aren’t We More Grateful?

I have a big complaint, and here it is: people complain way too much nowadays. You must know a person who complains incessantly—probably more than one person. You may even be an incessant complainer yourself. I’m pretty certain I am, but I’m not quite sure what incessant means. And I have a complaint about people who use big words like that just to show off. Who do they think they are, anyway?!

Oh wait, sorry. I can slip into complaint mode very easily these days.

I think the problem is that we’ve lost our sense of gratitude. We seem to ignore all the wonderful God-given blessings in our lives and instead we focus on the negative things, which are usually quite minor.

Our modern culture really needs an attitude adjustment. What we need to do is imagine that instead of living in the year 2019, it is actually the year 1819.

Exactly 200 years ago, James Monroe was the president, there were 21 states in the Union, and most people lived an agrarian life. (Again, Mr. Big Shot with the fancy words! Agrarian means “of the land,” that is, they were farmers who grew their own crops, and rarely drove their SUVs to the local Stop & Shop supermarket to buy exotic food from all over the world and pay with their debit cards.)

Back in 1819, people routinely died in their 30s and 40s, often from infection, cholera, farm accidents, etc. If someone lived into their 50s or 60s, they were considered very elderly. Most families had at least one or two children who died before age five. And a significant number of women died during childbirth.

Two centuries ago, the following items did not exist: flush toilets, running water, dental care, antibiotics, electric lights, automobiles, refrigeration, air conditioning, and Kellogg’s Pop Tarts. Also, the wifi service was pretty weak.

So, what we need to do today is imagine what a typical day would be like if it were the year 1819. First, we rise at sun-up from our comfy mattress, which is stuffed with things like straw and corn stalks. Then we decide which shoes to put on—a fairly simple decision since we only own one pair of shoes—and go outside to use the outhouse. Then we draw some water from the well with a bucket, and bring it inside to the kitchen.

A little while later we get dressed for the day, another simple decision because we only own two sets of clothing: a Sunday outfit and a “rest of the week” outfit. After a delightful breakfast of possum sausage and corn meal fried in a pan of lard, it’s time to do our chores. The chores are grueling and pretty much non-stop from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m.

Finally, sundown arrives, and we light a flickering candle or oil lamp so we can (barely) see inside the house. We spend the evening doing one of three things: sit by the flickering light and read the Bible, sharpen the tip of a goose feather and write a letter, or go to bed. Watching Netflix on an iPad is not an option.

Speaking of writing a letter, communication in 1819 was rather interesting. After scratching down our thoughts on parchment with the aforementioned quill pen, we wait a few days until we can give the letter to a postal worker, and then confidently know that the letter will be delivered to the correct recipient within no more than seven weeks.

Of course, if the letter is being sent from, say, Connecticut to Ohio, and if the message in the letter is something like, “Grandpa is very sick. Hurry home before it’s too late,” then most likely it is, in fact, too late.

Please try this exercise. Every time you do something during a typical day that was not possible in 1819, offer up a quick prayer of thanksgiving to God. Am I saying that every time we, for example, flush the toilet, we should thank God? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

When we become more grateful and less complaining, we’ll be amazed at how much more we enjoy life. Now if I can just get my wife to whip up a batch of possum sausage and corn meal. Mmm, boy, that sound good!