From the Only Person in Town Without a Master’s Degree

While I am on the career track of the ragtag writer, everyone else is becoming the next generation of doctors, scholars and professors. In another year or two, most people with whom I drink beer will be lawyers, PhDs or microbiologists (if they aren’t already).  I excelled at school, but somewhere between the academic scholarship and the dining hall salad bar, I lost my on-campus zest. I think my euphoria at receiving my undergraduate diploma was actually left over from walking out of the last math class I will ever take in my life. But I still want everyone to know that I have continued to learn. In fact, I would like to share a few things I have learned so far this year, without the benefit of academia.

Hardening of the blood vessels will make your doctor frown. But it will protect you on the way to outer space.

We think of astronauts as extremely fit, superbly trained professionals. But soon, commercial spaceflights will blast off full of paying customers, and some ticket holders are in their eighties. All civilian astronauts will face the dangers of high G-forces on their trip, but the elderly have an advantage over the young when it comes to spaceflight. High G-force drains blood from your brain – think of liquid forced down and out in a spinning centrifuge – and cause you to pass out. G-force compresses your blood vessels and organs. But the harder your blood vessels are, the higher your tolerance for the G-forces.

When you buy a gift card, you’re not just doing the recipient a favor.

Isn’t it nice to give a gift card to a friend? The retailer loves it too. I already understood one benefit of gift cards for the stores: they often lead a customer to buy something a little more expensive than the amount on the card. There are complicated accounting issues for retailers when it comes to gift card profits, but basically, once you buy a gift card, the retailer has your cash.  The recipient of the card will probably pick up the goods later.  In the meantime, you have made an interest-free loan to the retailer. If the real surprise here for you is that I took till now to figure this out, please refer to my hatred of math.

Birds can see a lot more than you can.

Some of our least favorite birds are grackles, crows and starlings – perhaps in part because these black, feisty, greedy specimens lack the beautiful markings of other birds. For a long time, we wondered how birds who look so alike could tell each other apart – especially males and females. But now ornithologists know what birds are seeing – the ultraviolet light that human eyes can’t.  A little blackbird looks drab to us, but to its fellow birds, it has patterns and colors as beautiful as a peacock, revealed with UV rays. One interesting application of this knowledge could save countless bird lives: UV markings on windows. They would be invisible to human residents, but birds would see and avoid them.

General Electric owes less in US federal taxes than you do.

General Electric, that proud American company, raked in over fourteen billion dollars last year. But because those profits, they say, were made overseas, and because they have more tax lawyers than my goldfish have fry, they didn’t pay a cent to the federal government – in fact, they claimed a loss in the States. Columnists can argue over whether losing tax dollars from one major American corporation is a bigger problem than the US corporate tax rate itself, which is among the highest in the world and so practically demands such chicanery from huge, internationally operating companies. GE’s slogan is “Imagination at Work”. They’ve certainly dreamed up a way to avoid paying their share.

In my day, we all got Chicken Pox.

I know I missed this one because I don’t have any children. I remember my own bout around the age of five. I don’t remember who caught it first, my brother or I, but my grandmother came to stay for a week to help my mother take care of us. I thought Chicken Pox was a rite of passage. I’ve even heard of mothers deliberately exposing their kids, so they get it out of the way at a young age. But the latest generation of US children may grow up without it – now they’re getting vaccinated before they start school. I’m reconciled to being the last generation who will remember what it was like to use books, a typewriter and an answering machine. But it would be strange to be the last to get Chicken Pox. The vaccine is promoted not necessarily because of a significant risk of death or serious illness for the children, but because parents lose time at work caring for Pox-stricken kids. Similarly, corporate and government promotion of the flu vaccine has less to do with mortality rates and more to do with preventing the lost productivity of sick days.

Money has absolutely nothing to do with actual achievement.

Incidents like Snooki of “Jersey Shore” raking in $32,000 to speak at Rutgers University imply that common sense and decent pay parted ways a long time ago. But Transocean proves it once and for all. Owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in the Gulf one year ago, Transocean has awarded a bonus to its executives for an excellent safety record in 2010. The company admits that yes, such “safety” bonuses might seem “insensitive” in light of the disaster in the Gulf (I can picture their PR staff churning their hair).  According to a Transocean release, several top executives receiving the bonuses are donating them to a fund for surviving families of the explosion’s victims. These non-tax deductible donations will exceed $250,000. This is the best possible use for such funds. But are these executives blind to the irony of donating their “safety” reward to the families of killed workers?

There is a word for it in English.

To be fair, this is not exactly big news, at least to me. Partly because of its habit of swallowing terms from other languages whole wherever it finds them, English is the blue whale of languages. To the chagrin of the grammar police and prescriptive professors, English bulges more every year. I feel like a child on a year-long Easter egg hunt – new words are hiding everywhere. So far this year, the word I was most taken by is “snarge”. Birds are not only subject to the deceptions of window panes: they often collide with aircraft. Most of the time, unfortunately, nothing is left of the bird but a smear on the plane. This is called snarge. I don’t enjoy avian death. I just like it that no matter what happens, there is a word to describe it.

There is someone other than Camilla in Charles’s bedroom suite.

In yet another fawning media account on the upcoming nuptials of Prince Will and Kate Middleton, the royal couple gets major props from a Newsweek writer for living without any household staff (imagine that!). This is in stunning contrast to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who, according to the same article, relies on a staff member to squeeze his toothpaste onto his toothbrush.  If the apex of fame and wealth can mean an employee accompanying you to the bathroom while you get ready for bed, I do not envy kings and princes.

Have you learned something interesting outside of a classroom this year? Please share.


Add yours →

  1. “…walking out of the last math class I will ever take in my life”: For this alone, you have my most fervent admiration and respect. I left my last math class more years ago than I’m willing to admit. Never looked back. Whatever else you may have accomplished, or may yet accomplish, this stands as one of your finest moments. Bravo.

  2. Thank you for your kind words on my admirable accomplishment. I am available as a commencement speaker to recount the ways that leaving math class forever has enriched my life socially, mentally and spiritually.

  3. Thank you for a great post.

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