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Saturday, June 28, 2014

On time

"Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity."

Albert Einstein

When I was a boy, summer vacation lasted forever.

I still remember the neighbor’s crab apple tree in Perth Amboy that Johnnie Yuro and I raided. I still can see the dappled afternoon sunlight through the branches that we climbed. It seems to me now that we were at that tree every day, and the apples – and the days -- were never-ending.

But last week’s summer solstice -- the longest day of the year -- passed in a wink.

Today is June 28, and I feel like summer is already half over

One explanation for this is that everything is new when we are young, so we pay more attention and have more detailed and lasting memories. It feels, consequently, like time expands. 

With age, new experiences are fewer and life tends to be same-old-same-old. So time seems to pass more quickly.

What about the truism that time flies when you’re having fun?

Why does an hour on the lounge chair go by so much faster than an hour in the dentist’s chair?

When I’m up until two in the morning trying to come up with a joke for a speech, why is it so much different from drinking vodka until two?

Well, in a 1992 study, researchers found that when listeners enjoyed a piece of music, time seemed to slow down for them. Perhaps when we enjoy music we listen more carefully, getting lost in it. Greater attention leads to perception of a longer interval of time.

People also say the years pass more quickly as we age. My Aunt Sally used to say that first the years start to fly by, then the decades. Life has also been likened to a roll of toilet paper -- the closer you get to the end, the faster it goes.

Psychological studies do, in fact, demonstrate that time passes more quickly as we grow older.

One study found that twenty-somethings can pretty accurately guess an interval of three minutes. 

But sixty-somethings overestimate it by enough to show that time is passing about 20% more quickly for them.

There is a bright spot in all this otherwise depressing talk: It is actually within our power to squeeze more living out of life.

The Mayo Clinic -- in a report appearing in this week’s edition of JAMA Neurology -- found among other things that higher levels (at least three times per week) of mid- and late-life reading, social activities and computer activities might delay the onset of cognitive impairment by almost nine years.

Richard A. Friedman of the Weill Cornell Medical College puts it bluntly:

“If you want time to slow down, become a student again. Learn something that requires sustained effort; do something novel. Put down the thriller when you’re sitting on the beach and break out a book on evolutionary theory or Spanish for beginners or a how-to book on something you’ve always wanted to do. Take a new route to work; vacation at an unknown spot. And take your sweet time about it.”

Me? I’m learning Italian.

In my next blog: “Food fight”

Saturday, June 21, 2014

T-shirt to T-rex

A couple of things got me thinking about T-shirts.

First was the advent of summer today. Ever-increasing numbers of tourists will descend on Cape Cod’s beaches, sidewalks and shopping malls decked out in T-shirts that express their social and political beliefs, artistic inclinations or attempts at humor.

Second was the news about “smart” T-shirts – the “T-rex” of T-shirts. These use biometric materials to connect to the Internet and provide information for and about the wearer -- vital signs, number of calories burned, almost anything.

“Dumb” T-shirts have been worn by miners and stevedores since the 19th Century. Then, during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Navy adopted them as standard issue. But it took a chesty Marlon Brando to popularize them as an outer garment in the 1951 movie, A Streetcar Named Desire.
After Brando, T-shirts were never the same.

T-shirts are so named because somebody laid one flat one day and thought he or she saw the letter “T”.

I myself have quite a collection dating back to the Seventies, when I was chesty enough to look good in a T-shirt. My oldest – size medium -- is from the 1976 Honolulu Marathon. My newest – size extra-large -- reads, Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel.

This is what makes T-shirts so valued by the masses. T-shirts appeal to our human instincts 
for a creative outlet – homo artifex. If graffiti is considered an art form, T-shirts are more so because they range from copy to graphics, from satire to sleaze.  

T-shirts, of course, say as much about the wearer as they communicate to the audience of passersby whom the wearer is trying to reach.

For example, what can we say about people who wear T-shirts that have images of dead people on them? Shakespeare, Bob Marley and Steve Jobs rank as some of the most popular.

T-shirt design, manufacture and sales comprise an unbelievably huge industry. According to Gannett, the custom T-shirt business is part of the imprinted sportswear industry, which accounts for $30 billion in annual sales in the U.S.

And growing.

IBISWorld, a publisher of business data, says this about sales of online original-design T-shirts: during the decade ending in 2019, this industry segment alone will increase its contribution to the U. S. economy at an average annual rate of 23.5 percent.

There is even an online publication you can read to keep up with goings-on in the industry -- T-Shirt Magazine.

Maybe you should think about getting in on all this.

Last year, the average annual income for a T-shirt designer was $39,000.

Or, if you’re the entrepreneurial type, you can start small by enlisting a website to help you produce your own unique shirt. For instance, You can market-test the shirt you’ve made by simply putting it on and going for a walk and noticing the reactions of people who check you out.

And when you’re ready for the big time, you can start your own company. For a measly investment of $34.99 plus $4.99 shipping, you can get your hands on a book that tells you exactly how to do it. It’s titled Launch A Kick-Ass T-Shirt Brand.

In my next blog: “On time”

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Miracle-Of-The-Month Club

When you live in places that everybody calls Paradise -- Cape Cod and Vieques in my case -- the subject of miracles is seldom far from your thoughts.

So when I saw this photo – an iconic commentary on the papacy of Pope Francis – I realized that this rock star Pope had introduced a novel concept to international relations – the prayer summit.

Presidents Peres and Abbas embrace in the Pope’s Vatican garden.

But this was more than a breakthrough meeting. This was a miracle.

Here’s why.

Way back in 1919, budding Israeli statesman David Ben-Gurion wrote:

“Everybody sees a difficulty in the question of relations between Arabs and Jews. But not everybody sees that there is no solution to this question. No solution! There is a gulf, and nothing can bridge it. We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs.”

Fast-forward to June 8, 2014 -- just weeks after U.S.-sponsored peace talks between the two parties collapsed. Pope Francis has Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, in the Vatican garden observing every nicety toward each other short of smooching.

The photo of the three leaders is eloquent in validating a more famous utterance by Ben-Gurion in a 1956 television interview:

“In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”

We tend to think of miracles in terms of jaw-dropping occurrences that defy laws of nature. After all, the word comes down to us from the Latin miraculum – an object of wonder.

But a Cambridge University mathematician named John Littlewood had a different take.

He defined a miracle as an exceptional event of special significance occurring at a frequency of one in a million. He claimed that during the hours in which a human is awake and alert, he or she will see or hear one "event" per second – an event that might be either exceptional or unexceptional. Littlewood went on to assume that a human is alert for about eight hours per day. His calculations concluded that a person will, in 35 days, experience about a million events -- at least one of them a miracle by his definition.

According to Littlewood’s math, then, miracles are commonplace. You and I can expect at least one miracle every 35 days. Sort of a Miracle-Of-The-Month Club.

Perhaps we can even improve that number in our own lives. For example, people pray and miracles result, don’t they? 

If we accept that two celebrated adversaries embracing in a garden is a miracle, we are tempted to say yes, miracles often are the result of actions we take to make them happen.

I, for one, have to come away thinking that man’s intercession can sometimes be as much responsible for miracles as God’s intervention.

In my next blog,  "T-shirt to T-rex”

Saturday, June 7, 2014


“The Starry Night” was painted by Vincent Van Gogh in June 1889.

At the height of his popularity, Astronomer Carl Sagan was a guest presenter at an IBM sales recognition event in Bermuda, where I was writing speeches and continuity for the corporation’s executives.

During a break in the program one afternoon, Carl and his wife – holding hands -- trekked up a windy bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. When they reached the top, an immense grin shone on his face as he took in the expansive view of the sea below.

That image of Carl and his wife helps me understand what he meant when he wrote: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”

Of course, Carl was referring not only to the planet’s seven seas, but to the entire immensity of the universe.

He popularized his thinking in his famous television series, Cosmos. There he proclaimed:

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Now, many years after I met Carl, I travel back and forth between my homes on Cape Cod and Vieques -- both prime places in which to enjoy striking views of the night sky.

Truro, Cape Cod’s least-populated municipality, is more than a 50-mile-drive from mainland Massachusetts and has very little ambient light to obscure the night sky. The same is true of sparsely populated Vieques, the little island off Puerto Rico. In both places, it’s hard to be outside at night and ignore the irresistible temptation to stargaze.

Although these two tiny points on the planet are separated by nearly 2,000 miles, the view of the star canopy is virtually identical in both places, leading me to feel that I am “home” – no matter in which I happen to be.

I didn’t understand this feeling until I recently came across something written by American author and longshoreman Eric Hoffer. He suggested that our preoccupation with the sky, the stars, and a God somewhere in outer space is a homing impulse. "We are drawn back to where we came from," he wrote.

As I take in the night sky, Carl’s words echo. “We are made of starstuff.”

Even Van Gogh, not one to be mistaken for a Sunday morning churchgoer, described his nighttime painting of stars as a religious experience.

God might have molded Adam from the mud of the earth. But first we were stardust.

In my next blog, "On time"