If I could just talk to you about Cosmos for one second

Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. I hate to interrupt your commute, I know, I know, we’re all tired of being interrupted on the train. But I come bearing good news, a message worth the minor convenience of listening to a complete stranger on the subway for an entire stop or two. Please, pay attention, this concerns you, me, it’s much bigger than all of us.

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I’m talking about the infinite wonder of the cosmos. I’m talking about Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. You, sir, did you know that there are more stars in the night sky than there are grains of sand on all the world’s beaches? It’s true. You know where I learned that? Watching Cosmos. It’s on every Sunday, but you can watch it on Hulu.

And what about you over there, ma’am, did you know that there are more atoms in an individual grain of sand than there are stars in the universe? Yep. I learned that on Cosmos also. It was from the same episode that I got that first fact. You’re supposed to say both facts back-to-back.

Sir, don’t look away, please, I know this is annoying, but I feel compelled to share this message, with you, with everyone. Put down your iPad, just for a second, come on. Wait, are you watching Cosmos? Really? That’s awesome. OK, you can put your headphones back on. Seriously? You’re really watching Cosmos? Let me see. Wow. I had this other guy a few stops back say the same thing, but he was just playing Candy Crush.

What about you over there, did you watch Cosmos this past Sunday? No? Well have you watched any of the series at all? What about the original Cosmos with Carl Sagan? No? It’s a little dated, yeah, but the message is the same. The message of the cosmos, all about science, about the universe. What if I give you five bucks, will you watch Cosmos if I pay you five dollars? Ten? That’s kind of steep. Fine, but only if you start watching it right now.

Yeah, I know, there’s no WiFi underground. Hey, sir, it’s me again. Listen, can you give one of your ear buds to this guy? So he can start watching Cosmos right here? With you? Yeah? Awesome. All right. Can you break a twenty? Well, I mean if you only have a five … but you have to promise to watch another episode as soon as you get home.

Officer, please, look, I’m not panhandling, OK, I’m just trying to get people excited about Cosmos. Do you guys ever watch it down at the precinct? Do you think the captain would be receptive to maybe playing episodes of Cosmos in the cells for people that get arrested overnight? I mean, they’re not really doing anything down there, they might as well have the opportunity to enrich their minds by immersing themselves in the infinite mysteries of the universe.

All right, I’ll stop. But you can’t stop science. On the scale of the cosmos, you’re nothing but an insignificant speck. Get your hands off of me! You think you’re bigger than the Cosmos? You think you’re bigger than Neil deGrasse Tyson? Unhand me! I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just trying to enlighten people about science.

Oh yeah? Or what? Say Cosmos one more time and what? You’ll do what? Huh? Say Cosmos one more time and you’re going to, what? Huh? Cosmos. Cosmos, Cosmos, Cosmos. Yeah, that’s what I thought, a whole lot of empty threats and …

All right, I’m sorry. Come on, put down the Taser, look, I said I’m sorry, come on man, I won’t say it again, OK, I promise, don’t you think it’s remarkable that our species evolved from one-celled organisms, and now we’re capable of harnessing the power of a lighting bolt in a handheld device? Come on, I’m sorry, I’m …

Human photosynthesis

Scientists are working on all of the wrong things. Well, maybe not everything they’re doing is wrong. Like trying to cure cancer, that’s definitely something that I hope they figure out sooner rather than later. But scientists, come on, there is so much more that you could be doing, I’m talking big picture, beneficial to humanity type stuff.

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Like, what about photosynthesis? Why can’t you make photosynthesis happen for human beings? If plants can do it, I really don’t see what the problem is in making it happen for us. Just figure out how they do it, and then come up with some sort of a gene therapy or a medication or something that makes it work for us.

I’m not suggesting that we change our method of processing energy entirely, it would just be nice to have a photosynthesis option, as a supplement. Like a hybrid car, we could be hybrid people. Obviously, I don’t want to give up eating. Given the choice between eating and photosynthesis, I’m always going to go for a snack.

But what about when there aren’t any snacks readily available? Like what if I’m on a really long car trip and there’s not another Arby’s rest stop for like a hundred and twenty miles? What then? The obvious solution should be, nothing. Just sit back and let human photosynthesis take care of the rest.

And that’s just my own very limited ideas about how photosynthesis would benefit me, personally. Imagine photosynthesis on a global scale. You wouldn’t have to worry about anybody starving. “Just go outside!” we could have aid workers tell all of the poor people around the world, “Your bodies are now capable of turning sunlight directly into food!”

Problem solved. And then we wouldn’t have to feel so guilty about all of the food we waste over here. So many times I feel like I’m just shoveling food in my face because it’s better that I clean my plate than to let anything go to waste. But once the scientists finally get their priorities together and make this photosynthesis thing happen for real, I’ll eat, or I won’t eat, whatever I want.

“Give me the biggest plate of food you have,” I’ll tell the waiter when I go out to eat. And he might be like, “Sir, the biggest plate we have is a family style tasting menu. It feeds six adults.”

“Bring it,” and I’ll eat a bite, whatever, I’ll eat a little more. “You want me to wrap everything up for you?” They’ll ask me as they clear the mostly full plates from the table. And I’ll say, “No, just throw it all away, dump it straight in the trash.”

No longer will I feel like I’m being guilted into wrapping up my leftovers, making a big show of taking them home with me, looking for a trashcan a few blocks down, waiting for an opportune time where nobody’s watching me, judging me for throwing out the remnants of a perfectly good meal. “Just toss it,” I’ll repeat.

And scientists, while you’re at it, can’t you figure out some way to give human beings the ability to dig themselves into the ground and start drawing additional nutrients right from the soil? Again, I’m not saying that I’d prefer to literally start making roots into the earth, but big picture, think about all of the homeless people out there.

It costs money to house them in shelters, and most of the time, they’re out back on the streets in no time. Why not just plant them in the ground? We could use this technology at prisons also. “Just dig yourselves in, fellas,” the warden would announce as they all filed in for prison orientation. It would cut down on violence. And taxpayer money. We wouldn’t have to spend a dime, we could just make sure they get some water every now and then, direct access to sunlight.

Let’s do it. We’re at a point in human history where these types of technologies should be commonplace. If I had tons of money to spend of research, that’s what I’d be doing with it. But I don’t have any money. So all I can do is continue to urge the scientific community, let’s make it happen. Come on.

Does anybody care about Earth Day?

I feel like nobody cares about Earth Day. I went out to get some breakfast this morning, and when the barista gave me my large coffee and my bacon egg and cheese, instead of saying just, “Thanks,” I said, “Thanks. Happy Earth Day.” And he kind or just looked at me for a second, he couldn’t process what I’d just said to him, like it was clear that I was definitely the first person that had wished him a happy Earth Day, that he didn’t know how to respond. So I waited there for an awkward second, and then he took an extra one of those cardboard sleeves and put it around my coffee, even though it already had one. Now it had two.

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Was that his way of telling me that he didn’t care about Earth Day? Like, for every happy Earth Day, he’ll go ahead and waste another coffee sleeve? I thought about getting into it with him, starting a whole, “What the hell man?” back and forth, like, “Are you wasting that sleeve just because I said happy Earth Day?” Like, was he just trying to show off how little regard he had for the planet, for waste, for unnecessary trash?

But before I had a chance to open my mouth, I thought, well, maybe he was just trying to be nice, in his own way. Because aren’t those sleeves made out of mostly post-consumer recycled waste? I think they are. At least, the ones at Starbucks are. This was a much smaller coffee shop. It wasn’t even a coffee shop, not really, more like a corner deli, the kind of deli that sells everything, coffee, sandwiches, cigarettes, toilet paper. I guess calling that guy a barista was a little much.

And these sleeves, they weren’t the cool eco-friendly rustic, brown, ragged-edged sleeves you see at most of the hip coffee shops downtown. No, these were glossy, and they advertised Stride chewing gum. So I was wondering if maybe the people at Stride were just giving them away to random bodegas around the city. “Here you go! Free sleeves! Free advertising!” A real win-win.

But, even a sleeve made out of non-recycled pre-consumer material, I guess that’s still much better than the old fashioned Styrofoam coffee cups you used to see everywhere. So maybe this guy, giving me an extra sleeve, that was his own way of expressing solidarity, like, “Yeah man, happy Earth Day to you too. Look how far we’ve come, as a society, as deli workers. You don’t see nearly as many non-biodegradable cups as you used to. All thanks to small changes, like these sleeves. Here, have an extra. Happy Earth Day.”

Of course, he was just kind of staring at me blankly, and so his response was mostly up to my interpretation. Still, in the spirit of Earth Day, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, I’d take his gesture as a friendly one, as an eco-friendly one. I thanked him again and went home.

But sitting there in my kitchen, I couldn’t get the extra sleeve out of my head, regardless of the potential positive intentions. It was just such a waste. I didn’t need it. Here I was, going around to random delis, trying to spread some Earth Day cheer, and I was just contributing to the lack of respect for Mother Earth.

I went outside and I tried to make a tiny little potted plant out of the sleeve. I filled it with dirt and planted an heirloom seed I bought on the Internet. Later that day, it started raining, and the sleeve basically disintegrated after being thoroughly soaked. All of the ink from the advertisement leaked out, and I could hear the planet softly weeping, “Rob! Why would you do this to me? All of those inks, those chemicals, what did I do to deserve any of this? And on Earth Day? Really?”

So yeah, I just, I can’t, every year I try to make Earth Day something special, and every year it’s a total bust.

It’s not always a race

I went for a run in the park last week. There’s this loop around, it twists and snakes, with just the right amount of hills. It’s nice, because I can run uninterrupted, I don’t have to worry about stopping for any traffic lights or cars. It’s just pure rhythm, and after a while I can sometimes get into this trancelike state.

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It’s kind of like when I write, or when I’m reading or watching TV. One of my arms or legs will start tapping on the floor or rocking at my side. Eventually the movement takes over to the point where I’m not even thinking about it anymore. It’s just happening, it’s like a clock, precise in its beat. And whatever I get out of tapping or rocking back and forth, I get it to a much larger extent when I’m running, because I can do it for these dedicated stretches of time.

But last week anyway, I was running by myself, my speed is always pretty constant, all of the sudden I heard someone coming up on my left. That’s OK, it happens. It’s a huge park in a huge city and there are tons of people trying to do their thing. My thing is, whenever this happens, my rhythm and my pace can get thrown out of whack.

I heard someone else coming up behind me and my first reaction was to crank it up a notch. Obviously I don’t really want to do this. I’m not trying to make a race out of everybody that happens to be running faster than me at the park. But even though I didn’t see him yet, he was already in my head. My speed and my stride were calculated in relation to my position in a fixed space. Now I had another body in motion right at my side, and I got a sort of velocity vertigo.

I could no longer tell how I was supposed to be running. I wanted to just keep at it the way I was keeping at it, but I couldn’t tell if I was going slower now or faster. Eventually he broke into the field of my peripheral vision. He was running faster, and I might as well have just let him get ahead, far away from me, maybe I’d be able to get back into my groove.

But no sooner did he overtake me than he jerked to the right, so that he was now running directly in front of me. And then, I’m not sure if I was even perceiving it correctly at first, maybe my running was still a little out of whack, but it’s almost like this guy was slowing down. I kind of matched my speed a little bit, so I was running behind him, maintaining a little distance, and yeah, he definitely must have slowed down, because after a quarter mile or so, I was breathing a lot easier, almost like I was cooling down.

And so it’s like, what the hell man? You sprinted in front of me just to slow down? That’s like running rule number one. If you’re going to make that much of an effort to pass somebody, you’d better make sure that you can sustain that speed for a long time. No, it’s not an exact science. And like I said, when people start running close to each other, there’s definitely some sort of a gravity thing going on, people’s speeds get messed up, bodies are pulled toward or backward.

But then to get directly in front of me? I made my own snap judgment. I thought, OK, if I pass this guy, are we racing now? Was he going to try to steal the lead once more? This was all way more than I had anticipated dealing with when I left the house, but I didn’t have many choices. It was either risk a race, or accept my new, slower run, all to avoid a potentially awkward impromptu competition.

It shouldn’t be this difficult. It’s probably not this difficult. I’m pretty sure that I’m making something out of nothing. Not everything’s a challenge, right? Not everything has to be a race.

But as I stole ahead of him once more I had to fight the urge to look back, not all the way, definitely no eye contact, but a kind of sideways glance, a very subtle communication, like nice try man. No, that could have provoked him, maybe he would have gunned it once more, and I still had a few miles left, miles that I needed that energy for. I stared straight ahead, concentrated on my breathing. Pretty soon it was just me again, and then after that I was back in the zone, just the park, just running, until that guy wasn’t in my head anymore, until there was nothing in my head anymore, nothing but my breathing, my pace, the little pulses of pleasure shooting through my body each time my feet hit the pavement.

I taught my sister how to shave her legs on Easter

When my family was little, every Easter my grandparents would take the whole family out to dinner on Long Island. I’m the oldest of six, and growing up, going out to a restaurant with just my immediate family was pretty much a logistical impossibility. But each year it was everybody on my mom’s side, all of my aunts and uncles, all of the cousins, all of us sitting down to a ridiculously long table at the New Hyde Park Inn on Easter Sunday.

All of these annual dinners were more or less identical. It’s like, when you’re a little kid, everything feels mostly the same, you don’t feel yourself growing up, you don’t notice your brothers and sisters getting older each year. And having a holiday ritual that doesn’t change from year to year, it kind of reinforces that feeling, like you look back on all of those Easters and they all just kind of blend together into one generic Sunday memory.

But one year in particular stands out. Even though by the ninth grade I was pretty far removed from all of that Easter Bunny nonsense, my littlest sister is ten years younger than me, so I kind of had the extra several years where I had to wake up in the morning and act surprised at all of our baskets of candy.

After a traditional breakfast of Cadbury eggs and marshmallow peeps, the festive atmosphere quickly descended into chaos as my mom desperately tried to get us out the door on time for church. My grandparents’ dinner reservations were right after mass, but nobody was dressed and ready to go, so the plan was to swing by the house on the way to dinner so everybody could finish putting on their nice Easter clothes.

The car rides to and from our house were never very far away, but whenever the six of us had to pile into a single minivan, there was always enough time for everybody to get a little crazy. Depending on current alliances, my brother Brian and I might be teasing our little brother Joe, or Kevin might try to torment Joseph and Jessie. Warnings of “knock it off!” from my parents would go mostly ignored. With no way to enforce any sort of behavior behind the wheel, car trips were a free for all of yelling and laughing.

But this one year, for whatever reason, my sister Emily fell into the crosshairs of my oldest-brother mean-spirited wrath. I was actually trying to tease my younger brother Kevin, he was wearing shorts to church, and I wanted to get him crazy by commenting on how he didn’t have any hair on his legs, to make him feel like a little kid.

“Even Emily has more hair on her legs than you!” I pointed and made a face. I started my over-the-top jerk laugh and waited for Kevin to start wailing in protest, but instead Emily got really quiet and cried.

It was probably one of the first times that I actually felt bad about something that I had said. Of course the intent was to make someone else miserable, but not like this. This was beyond the normal crazy inter-sibling rivalries. My teenaged mind wasn’t really capable of processing what was appropriate and not appropriate to say in regards to your little sister, but it was obvious that I had crossed a line, and I wanted to fix it, immediately.

Usually our verbal sticks-and-stones were fairly easily remedied by a joke or an “I’m sorry” or an especially strong yelling from mom and dad, but Emily was clearly hurt here, to the point where I remember my dad giving me this look from the front seat, like, what the hell man? What did you say?

Emily wouldn’t talk to me during church, and she wouldn’t entertain my apologies on the ride home. But I had a brilliant idea. As soon as we got home, I’d help her out. “Emily,” I told her, “I can fix this. Look. I have a Mach 3 razor. Just wet your legs and shave.” And it worked. She wasn’t mad at me anymore. She took the razor and I went downstairs to see if I could get in a game of Mario Kart before my parents started corralling us back into the minivan.

Not even five minutes later, I heard a scream from upstairs. Thirty seconds after that, my mom yelled out, “Robbie! What the hell is wrong with you?” I guess my sister didn’t yet understand the whole razor thing. I don’t know. I mean, yes, looking back now I realize how stupid I was. But at the time, I really didn’t think anything would go wrong.

Not like it did. Not like the three inch gash on my sister’s shin, the one that bled all over her pastel-colored Easter dress, ten minutes before we were supposed to be sitting down at that long table with my grandparents and all of my aunts and uncles and cousins, all of us there for that Easter Sunday dinner at the New Hyde Park Inn.

I still feel bad about that one. She was fine. Like, it didn’t need stiches or anything. But yeah, it was a mess, and we were definitely late. Emily was probably a little traumatized. And my parents were pissed. Like pissed, pissed. And I totally deserved it. I couldn’t have just made anybody’s life a little easier. No, I was always finding some way to be a giant pain in the ass.