January 25, 2006
An interesting little foursome of stories, I thought:
In the January 11th edition of the St Paul paper there was a short account from a retired person in Wisconsin who was sitting in a bar with his friend, Old Ed, overhearing a couple talking about their intention to get a divorce. Ed had been happily married for decades, until his wife died a few years ago, and when the couple left the person asked him for his take on the cause of so many divorces nowadays. Ed said: “Expectations. Too many women marry a man expecting him to change, and too many men marry a woman expecting her not to.”
On the same day I got my latest edition of Overdrive magazine, a great publication, and found this little pearl: “William Meringola, a retired truck driver from Geneva, N.Y., used the numbers he found inside a fortune cookie to buy a ticket for the New York Lottery’s November 9 Lotto jackpot. The ticket won $13 million.”
And I heard later that afternoon an Associated Press story about an 81 year-old man named Luciano Mares in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, who was burning leaves and snagged a mouse in his rake and tossed it onto the pile. The mouse caught fire and ran across the yard into the man’s house, burning the house to the ground.
This story was later found to be untrue, a result of what the captain of the Fort Sumner Fire Department would call “a little too much excitement” at the time of the fire. Mr. Mares said he had trapped the mouse and it was dead before he threw it on the pile. The fire started from some burning leaves blowing in that direction. He lost all he had in the fire and has no insurance, but still finds the mouse story amusing. “I started laughing, and I’ll be laughing from now on,” he said. “It’s silly.”
The fourth shining story hitting the news that day I heard on AM radio. The show’s host was reading that certain of our ancestors may have been hunted by birds: eagles wide as diesels; eight-foot wingspans. Lee Berger, a South African anthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, had found a study from Ohio State University describing the hunting techniques of modern-day African eagles. They grab monkeys by the skull and puncture their brains from behind with the rear talons, like thumbs, and they leave characteristic ragged claw cuts right behind the eye sockets. Lee went back to the Taung child’s skull, which is nearly two million years old, was discovered in 1924 and is considered to be a missing link, and bingo. The unique mark of the big eagle was upon it.
The discovery surprised a lot of people. No one had expected to find that early humanoids had been hunted by birds. Big cats and packs of dogs, other mammals, sure, and even alligators and fish; but birds – it just seemed kind of – well, rude.
Expectations seemed to be a common thread through these stories. The first one is of course so profound and so simple and so exactly right to the precise heart of the matter that it could be titled, “Ancient Truth Revealed: What Your Marriage Counselor and Your Shrink and Your Psychic Spiritual Astrologist Don’t Want You To Know About Marriage.” A widespread understanding of Old Ed’s Theory of Expectations could wipe out entire industries.
The second one is such a challenge to rational expectations that it falls into the category of “Things Less Likely to Occur Than Being Bitten by a Green Mamba, Gored by an Ox and Struck by Lightning All in the Same Instant.” First off, that the fortune cookie writer would hit on the exact numbers to win the lottery that exact week, and then that the cookie would be opened by the rare someone who would take the trouble to fill out the form with numbers from a fortune cookie, a truck driver no less, one with a craving for Oriental food (which I’ve never seen in a truck stop). And, to cap it all off, that the lottery digits would fall precisely into the exact places appointed by the cookie writer, changing the driver’s life and very likely the lives of a lot of people around him, all in ways we won’t find out. It may have also made a wreck out of the cookie writer, whoever that anonymous person is, and we hope for their sake they don’t keep track of what they write.
My son told me once that the reason wacky things like this happen is because for every bizarre occurrence that happens there are bazillions of other bizarre occurrences that could have happened but didn’t. I took his word for it for lack of a better explanation, but it could be hard to prove.
In the third story an old guy in a small town lofts a newly-inert mouse onto his leafy crematorium – that in itself surprised me because I’ve been to New Mexico many times and have never seen a leaf pile, much less anyone burning one – and the next morning he becomes famous, the subject of conversations in every office in St Paul and probably all over the country. Visions of the flaming little rodent running full speed for the guy’s house, thinking, “I’m gonna getcha for this, you mean old fart. You’re gonna be sorry you did this to me.” People laughing and saying the guy got what he deserved, and how’s that for sweet revenge? People wondering, did he get into the wall or how did he set the place on fire? Maybe there were oily rags in a corner? Did they say curtains?
And then it comes out that it didn’t happen that way, and some people are glad he didn’t mean any harm and now they feel sorry for the guy, especially because he doesn’t have insurance and he’s got no house, no clothes, no anything. Others feel like they’ve been had and that people shouldn’t put out stuff like this, and others say it’s just the media, they’ll put out any rumor and they don’t give a damn if it’s true or not. It’s all about money, and the first one to break a story gets the advertisers. Some say they knew it was bogus and they knew a mouse wouldn’t do something like that. Others say maybe they had it right the first time and the guy is lying now so people won’t think he’s a monster. Others just shrug and say, oh well, it was a kinda funny story anyways. Doesn’t matter if it was true or not, does it?
But Mr. Mares never thought his house would burn down that day, and certainly could never have foreseen his sudden dose of fame resulting from an unexpected disaster; the first not worth the second. And of course the mouse, whatever was in his mind before the trap sprung, he had no way of knowing that he would become a brief icon in a world he could not imagine. A metaphorical little shooting star in a very big sky.
In the fourth story it’s clear that the eagles haven’t changed much in all this time but the Taung have, maybe partly because of the eagles. They at least got bigger and heavier, and, we like to think, a lot smarter. Nowadays responsible mothers tell their kids to look both ways before crossing the street and don’t talk to strangers, whereas those primitive mothers worried about the kids being eaten by leopards or sabre-toothed cats or, worst of all, huge birds. The dreaded expectations of the ultimate disaster, now and two million years ago.
To me, with my rudimentary understanding of how DNA works, it made me think that the ancient mortal fear of a sharp set of killing talons appearing suddenly from a silent sky could be part of why it’s so much fun to shoot clay pigeons with a shotgun.