Martian Magic

In Humor, Technology on August 22, 2015 at 5:42 pm

martian dollWhen I was in elementary school, my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Sheinen, held up a clear, plastic, Bic ballpoint pen and asked the class to explain to a Martian, in writing, what it was, and what it was used for. He told us that we had to consider that the Martian had just landed on Earth and everything on our planet was foreign to him (of course it was a him; it was 1970, and times weren’t yet a-changin’* in Northeast Philadelphia).

Mr. Sheinen wanted us to describe every aspect of the pen: what it was made of, what filled the clear tube inside the pen, what the pointed tip of the pen did, how the caps were used and why, etc.

At the time, I remember thinking that, to a Martian, a ballpoint pen would appear to be magical. While we knew that they had cool stuff, like spaceships, antennas, bulging eyes, and green skin, they certainly didn’t have ballpoint pens. After all, who would want to write in Martian?

Looking back, I’m sure that Mr. Sheinen gave us this complicated project just to get some quiet time. Or, maybe he actually wanted to learn about Bic pens, his being a Martian and all.

This got me to thinking about what we perceive as magic. If I happened to time-travel from the 1700s into today’s world, I would be ready to burn everyone as witches. How could I, as an 18th-century person, not think that computers, cell phones, GPS, television, radio, streaming video and audio, Skype, and on and on, weren’t magic, and probably black magic? So much of what we use and create is invisible.

Centuries from now, when our civilization is excavated by archaeologists, what will they make of all the flat black boxes of varying sizes that they find in every house, and next to every skeleton? They won’t know about the satellites we relied on to make them work, or the electricity we used to power them. It would be fun to hear them speculate about their use.

Every thousand years or so, civiizations and their secrets disappear. That’s why I don’t understand why we marvel at the building of pyramids and the other wonders of our world. Everyone has seen drawings of the building of the pyramids, and they always include ropes hoisting slaves up each level to continue the job of building. Why? If we’ve harnessed the invisible powers of magnetism, electricity, sound, space, etc., for our needs, why do we not consider that Egyptians might have used the power of the mind, the body, or something else?

It does seem that once certain secrets of the universe have been discovered and utilized by a civilization, that society’s days are numbered. And once it’s gone, most of its knowledge is erased. The next group starts from scratch, just like poor Sisyphus, the Corinthian king who was doomed to rolling a huge boulder up a hill, watching it roll down again, and beginning again, forever.

This reminds me of Mr. Sheinen’s essay. Every time we handed our composition in to him, he said that it wouldn’t make sense to a Martian, so we started over. I hope that he finally learned how to use his Bic pen.

Bic pen

*The Times They Are a-Changin’, a song by Bob Dylan, 1964

Monk(ey) Business

In Humor, Manhattan, New York City on August 13, 2015 at 2:18 am

When I woke up today at 7:25 a.m., I figured I’d get dressed, go to the train station, where I’d buy an iced coffee, and then take the 8:36 train to Grand Central Station, which would get me to my office by 10 o’clock. That’s how my mornings usually go. However, the coffee place was closed when I got to the station, which meant I wouldn’t have any caffeine in my system until I got to work. It was a long ride.

It was an even longer walk to my job. The street I work on, West 38th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, has a very narrow sidewalk due to the scaffolding on both sides of it. There’s only room for two people at a time: one walking east and one walking west. As I walked westward, a small, bald, Asian man in a gray robe came toward me. He didn’t pass me, though; he walked directly up to me, crashing into my personal space.

He faced me, nose-to-nose, and handed me a shiny gold card on which was printed, “Work Smoothly, Lifetime Peace” on one side. The other side featured a Buddhist goddess. Then he flipped open a book, handed me a pen, and said, “Sign.” Not having the sense to do otherwise, I signed my first name under the list of names that were already there. I handed him his pen back and he said, “Write ‘Peace.'”

“What?” I asked.

“Write ‘Peace,'” he said, stabbing a finger at a column to the right of where I had written my name. I saw that earlier inscribers had all written “Peace,” so I took the pen and wrote “Peace.”

I started to walk past him and he blocked my way. “Donation,” he said. “Write donation.” Again he handed me the book. Next to the “Peace” column was a space for writing the amount of your contribution.

I gave the book back to him. “You want a donation?” I asked. He hadn’t even told me what he was collecting for.

“Donation,” he said. “Donation. Donation. Donation.”

I vaguely remember thinking, “Oh for God’s sake. How did I fall for this?” I wasn’t a tourist, after all. I’ve worked and lived in Manhattan on and off during twenty years. I knew enough to skirt the scammers. But due to my coffee-free blood, he had managed to ensnare me. I was very annoyed … both at him, and at myself.

But, because he wasn’t going to let me pass until I gave him money, I resignedly dug in my wallet, intending to give him a few dollars. The smallest bill I had was a $5 bill, so I held it up. He snatched it from me and said, “No. Twenny dollahs. Twenny dollahs. Twenny dollahs.”

“What?” I said. “I’m not giving you twenty dollars.”

He blocked my passage. Then he slid a wooden beaded bracelet on my wrist. “Twenny dollahs. Twenny dollahs. Twenny dollahs,” he repeated.

“Are you out of your mind?” I asked. “I am not giving you twenty dollars.”

“Ten dollahs,” he said. “Ten dollahs. Ten dollahs.” Then he reconsidered. “No, twenny dollahs. Twenny dollahs.”

“You know what?” I asked. “I’m not giving you anything. Give me back my five dollars.” I reached out and tried to grab the five-dollar bill from his hand. He held on tight. He pulled the bill one way. I pulled it the other way. “Give it to me,” I yelled. I didn’t look around to see if we were attracting attention. Probably not. New Yorkers tend to look away when they see middle-aged women wrestling with monks.

“Twenny dollahs,” he yelled as he tried to get me to release the five dollars.

“Give me my money!” I yelled as I pulled on the bill.

He ripped the money from my grasp. “Fine,” he shouted. Then he hustled down the street, away from me.

Heart pounding and blood pressure peaking, I continued down the street to work. By the time I got there, I no longer needed coffee.


Saturation Point

In Humor on August 7, 2015 at 1:38 am

This past week, the entire world mourned the death of Cecil the lion, who was killed in Zimbabwe by a dentist from Minnesota. The dentist had to close his practice and go into seclusion as “the hunter became the hunted.” I didn’t make that clever phrase up. Every media outlet is using it, or ones like it, including “the hunter has become the prey.”

I understand the outrage; the glory days of the great white hunters, like Hemingway, are long gone. On Facebook, one guy went so far as to say “Well, at least Hemingway shot himself.” That was a little cold.

The ramifications of the dentist’s action are far from over. He’s in hiding, his home was defaced, his address has been publicized, he’s being vilified in the press, he’s facing possible extradition to Zimbabwe to face trial, and he probably won’t practice dentistry for a long while, if ever.

This whole uproar annoyed my brother, Gus. When I asked him what he thought about it, he got a little riled and said, “I don’t have time to worry about this nonsense. I’ve got plenty of my own to worry about.”

To lighten the mood, we watched a comedy, the Republican Presidential Debate. Thankfully nobody mentioned Cecil.


A Zimbabwean’s opinion on the matter:

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