In high school, I worked at a local restaurant on Long Island. I remember one day I was taking this table, two older couples, one of the men called me over and said something like, “Son,” because all old people do stuff like that, call any young person son, he was like, “Son, are you a good student? Do you take any science classes?”
And I’m so full of it, and I know that I’m full of it, it’s something that I’m constantly trying to work on, not acting like I know everything. But this was something like fifteen years ago, I wasn’t working on anything back then, so I shot back an immediate, “Of course I take science classes, and yes, I’m a great student.”
So this guy said, “Great, maybe you could help settle an argument we’re having. How come you can’t see the moon during the day?” And I don’t know, I couldn’t think of anything, nothing close to an answer anyway, but I wanted my response to be instantaneous, like not only am I a good student, but I’m hyper-intelligent, like I don’t even need to fully listen to your question before I start rattling off some ridiculous scientific-sounding explanation.
And that’s exactly what I did, I made up some nonsense about particles in the air being refracted by sunlight, like that’s why we can’t see the stars either, because everything’s blue, and I just kept going on and on, talking and talking for what had to have been two solid minutes. I stopped, I looked around at these four adults making eye contact with me, I took a breath and thought, OK, that sounded like a knowledgeable answer, maybe they bought it.
“Great, thanks,” the man said and went back to his chef salad or whatever it was he was eating. And I walked away, sort of confused by my own rambling answer, but weirdly self-satisfied, like, OK, even if I didn’t exactly know what I was talking about there, at least I played the role of the smart kid, at least I looked like I knew what I was talking about.
But then like a week later this sudden realization flooded my brain: of course you can see the moon during the day. It’s there all the time, you’ll be staring at the blue sky and you’ll notice the moon, right there. Jesus, what the hell was all of that baloney about particles and refraction? Why couldn’t this thought have been available when I needed it, at the table? I could have casually answered, “What are you talking about? You can see the moon during the day. More iced tea?”
And this weird interaction, it’s haunted me ever since. Not a month goes by where I don’t picture myself as this wannabe know-it-all, a guy who, when presented with a problem, with a question that I’m not prepared to answer, instead of being humble, instead of looking upon this as an opportunity to be teachable, to learn something new, I’d rather just throw a string of words together to keep alive the illusion that I’m smarter than everybody else.
A few years ago I was reading this book about space, about astrophysics dumbed down for the average non-scientist. And this point came up, the author actually stated that the moon is visible during the day just as much as it is visible at night. Instantly I was transported back to that day at the restaurant, me, a pimply-faced fifteen-year-old giving a fake science lecture to a group of four adults.
What was that guy’s angle? I always think about this too. Why get me involved? Was he having a similar moment of confusion, suddenly unable to visualize the white moon in the blue sky? I don’t think so, because even if he was blanking out, surely someone else at the table could’ve corrected him, no, you actually can see the moon during the day.
What I’ve put together in the years since is this group of four, sitting around a table lamenting the poor state of modern education. Maybe he was a scientist, or a science teacher, and in between bites of ham and hardboiled egg, he’s railing at the youth of America, “They don’t know anything, not about math, not about science,” and maybe one of the women tried to mount a defense on our behalf, “Oh Roger,” I’m imagining his name is Roger now, “Kids aren’t as bad as you’re making them out to be.”
And he was like, “Oh yeah?” before sticking his hand in the air to call me over. “Hey son, let me ask you a question about science,” and then I stood there and went, “Blah, blah, blah,” over and over again, a steady stream of absolute garbage pouring out of my mouth, and then he sends me on my way, “Great, thanks a lot.”
And as soon as I’m out of earshot, he says to the rest of the group, “You see? That kid was an idiot, a total moron!” and everyone else would have had no choice but to shrug in agreement, because yeah, that was a pretty dumb answer on my part.
So whenever I get presented with a question in life, something that I’m not sure of, I try really hard to keep that experience on hand, ready to play back in my head before I turn the old chatterbox on. Because man, I still cringe, what a dumb answer. Of course you see the moon during the day. Just stop for a second and think.