The Myth of Quality Time

_MG_0169About a year ago, I wrote an essay called Living the Hyperopic Life.   It was a dissertation on the ideas of balance, living for now, living on purpose and making sure, when you looked back at the end, you are certain in your heart that it was a life well-lived.  One part dealt with taking time and making it worth something.   Blocks of time, snippets of time, anything you could carve out between the important things and responsibilities you had.   These little bits of time, strung together, would weave the tapestry of your life.  The more meaningful the time spent, the tighter the weave.

If you could paint a picture of this tapestry, it would not be pretty.  It isn’t one of those neatly woven, ornate fabrics you see in stores.  The resemblance is more like a rag but with different kinds of thread and materials all woven together in a tangle of structure.  It has every color you could imagine (if you do it right) and all manner of materials; smooth velvets,  tough, yet solid and comforting denims, whimsical tassels, maybe even a few bits of aluminum foil here and there or splinters of wood stuck in the folds; whatever you fancy in your imagination could represent  whatever it is you did to create it.  This is your life and you add to that tapestry each time you took hold of and lived your life on purpose.

That’s what it should look like.   But take a moment to consider what all these bits and pieces of time mean?  Where are they and by what measure do you define them?

Every so often you’ll hear the phrase Quality Time.   The basic premise of this idea, as I understand it, is that if you do something really splendid with someone you care about, the time spent can be labeled Quality Time and that particular block of time will be worth more time than it actually took.  Bank enough Quality Time and you’ve got a whole lifetime in no time at all.   It seems that Quality Time evolved as people worked longer hours, both parents had to work or someone decided to work a whole lot now, so they could enjoy themselves later.  Quality Time gave permission to spend less time with  those people you really should be spending time with so you had more time to do the things you really wanted to do.   More me time, maybe?    Suddenly, there’s more time to chase the money, work late hours, disregard the children, take a vacation  and leave the kids at home (don’t get me started with that last one.)

I do not presume to know how people work out their lives.   Everyone has their own way of doing things and their own interpretation of what makes good time spent.  Who am I to tell them what to do and never would I presume to do that.   Each of us is different and if it’s really working for you, don’t stop.   Because it’s rare that we find that butter zone of being able to make it all work out right and it’s always good policy to ride that mellow when you find it.

A person has to be honest with themselves, though, in assessing whether it’s working or not.  You have to say it’s fat when it’s fat and don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s muscle.   Without that naked honesty, you won’t see if there’s something wrong or if you’re making excuses by using Quality Time as permission to neglect those people who should be occupying important moments in your life.

All the time you spend with someone has the same length and you can’t compress it like calories are compressed into high fructose corn syrup, sweetening the time you do with the hope of making it better somehow.  Time does not distill.  What matters is what you fill it with and how.  Whether you’re winging off to London to do the Europe thing or sitting at the kitchen bar telling them it’s OK to draw outside the lines if they want, the minutes are 60 seconds long and the days have 1440 minutes.  All day long.  You’re there, present either way, and that’s where the value is.

It seems to me, more often than not, Quality Time is what people use as an excuse not to do the little things.  “Oh, I spent some quality time earlier with Bill watching a movie so I’m going golfing with my buddies now.”  Quality Time is  a myth.  It’s cheating.

I truly believe it’s not Quality Time you want to shoot for, but time.  Just time.  If a particular moment  only lasts 20 minutes doesn’t mean it isn’t a good thing or even a great thing. Maybe it lasts an hour and during that hour you only did a few things that didn’t amount to much.  Where was the focus?   On just the two of you?  Sounds to me like that’s all the quality you might need.  The world moves pretty fast these days.   Two minutes or two hours can really be just the same in terms of value as long as the focus has the purity of you wanting to be there and joy in just paying attention to each other.

Have you seen that movie, City of Angels, with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan?  Earlier in the movie Meg Ryan’s character had been frustrated by the fact that she and her doctor-boyfriend didn’t spend any real time together.  In one later scene, he comes into the locker room at the hospital and sits down opposite Ryan on a bench.   He stares meaningfully into her eyes and is silent.   She looks at him suspiciously and then asks “what are you doing?” and he replies, “I’m spending time with you.”   It’s a joke really.  Here he was trying to manufacture Quality Time.  Is the time you spend with people you care about like that?   An exercise out of a book or something you do out of obligation?   Pardon me for saying so, but if that’s the case, you’re doing it wrong.

Did you turn away from the tourist attraction and taste the light breeze that brings the scent of the ocean off Sydney Harbor?  Do you fully appreciate the serendipitous turn you took down a narrow alley that brought you to the tavern with the best bangers and mash you’d ever had (once you figured out what the hell bangers and mash were?)  Did you take a breath and recognize the fantastically special moment you just shared together whatever it may have been?

It’s this nuanced kind of existence that fills in all the little chinks and cracks that may otherwise undermine a good well-lived life.  And if you’ll forgive me the mixed metaphor, it’s this kind of living which creates the many-textured, multi-colored tapestry that is only best when it’s one of the ugliest things we’ve ever seen.  Pausing to hear the humming in the other room of a known or made up tune;  Listening to your son when he says, “I finally got the definition I wanted.”  Even if you ask, “In your life?” and he responds “No, in my arm muscles,” you get it and smile right at him.  He may not show it, but he’s paying attention and will always remember that.

We went to Hawaii this year on a very rare and special family vacation (the best kind.  It would not be the same if we went all the time.)  We tasted tropical delights, saw sunsets that made our hearts ache, swam with dolphins, giant sea turtles and the vast Pacific Ocean seeing tropical fish of any color you could imagine … It was fantastic.   A few months later, I asked my eldest son what the best part of the summer was.  I fully expected that rare kind of family vacation to be the answer.   But to my surprise and delight, he proclaimed it to be the building of a wooden airplane with grandpa.  Time.

The folks who are relying on the Myth of Quality Time as a measure of their parenting, brotherhood,           sisterhood, whatever-hood are missing it.   If we leave out the fun and the completeness of participating to the fullest in the lives of the people we care about, we’re straining and stretching the connections we as humans thrive on.  Those connections become more  gossamer and fragile; more vulnerable to any slight or misunderstanding.

It takes practice to get better at anything.   They say to master something you have to spend 10,000 hours doing it.  So, start with 10,000 minutes (about a week) of practice and maybe get in a really good minute.  Then go for two.  And suddenly, as you spend your lives together you may build such great emotional muscles and such a strong bond that the practice required starts to fall away and you have the well-trained, fine-tuned relationship you know you should.

Talking or being quiet.  Riding in the car to music lessons, celebrating an essay well-written, an song well-played, a joke that went over well with new friends in school.  All of it matters as much as – or perhaps more than – those big trips and expensive gifts.

Finally, consider music.  If you think about it, there is no music without the space between the notes.   Some would say music is the space between the notes.  So, too, is time.  Quality Time is not the big stuff.  It is the silence between the notes, the nuance of the phrasing in the music that is our lives.  Because although the notes themselves are great (trips and adventures), when the music stops, silence is all you have and then you need to be able to fill that silence (or not) with your thoughts and dreams and desires and hopes or whatever comes to mind.

What does your tapestry look like so far and how does the music it makes sound?

Santa Physics

A note about this essay: It’s not mine. And it’s been around for quite some time. If I recall correctly, I’ve known about this from the early 90s when email kinda first became main stream. But I haven’t seen it around lately, always liked it for its mix of serious physical principles and dry humor and so I thought I’d dredge it up and post it for anyone who might not have read it before (although that might not be possible with all the chain mail that has gone around over the last 15 odd years.) We’ll see. If you’ve read it…enjoy it again, if not, have fun.

No known species of reindeer can fly. BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.
There are two billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn’t appear to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and

Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total – 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that’s 91.8 million homes. One presumes there’s at least one good child in each.
Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second.
This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about

.78 miles per household, a total trip of 75^12 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc.
This means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man-made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second – a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.
If every one of the 91.8 million homes with good children were to put out a single chocolate chip cookie and an 8 ounce glass of 2% milk, the total calories (needless to say other vitamins and minerals) would be approximately 225 calories (100 for the cookie, give or take, and 125 for the milk, give or take). Multiplying the number of calories per house by the number of homes (225 x 91.8 x 1000000), we get the total number of calories Santa consumes that night, which is 20,655,000,000 calories. To break it down further, 1 pound is equal to 3500 calories. Dividing our total number of calories by the number of calories in a pound (20655000000/3500) and we get the number of pounds Santa gains, 5901428.6, which is 2950.7 tons.

The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (two pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that “flying reindeer” (see above) could pull TEN TIMES the normal amount, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload (not even counting the weight of the sleigh) to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison, this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth II . 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance – this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each.

In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

In conclusion: If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now.

Santa Physics – A Rebuttal

Originally posited by Jim Mantle, Waterloo Maple Software

Come on, ya gotta believe! I mean, if you can handle flying furry animals, then it’s only a small step to the rest. For example:

  1. As admitted, it is possible that a flying reindeer can be found. I would agree that it would be quite an unusual find, but they might exist.
  2. You’ve relied on cascading assumptions. For example, you have assumed a uniform distribution of children across homes. Toronto/Yorkville, or Toronto/Cabbagetown, or other yuppie neighbourhoods, have probably less than the average (and don’t forget the DINK and SINK homes (Double Income No Kids, Single Income No Kids)), while the families with 748 starving children that they keep showing on Vision TV while trying to pick my pocket would skew that 15% of homes down a few percent.
  3. You’ve also assumed that each home that has kids would have at least one good kid. What if anti-selection applies, and homes with good kids tend to have more than their share of good kids, and other homes have nothing except terrorists in diapers? Let’s drop that number of homes down a few more percent.
  4. Santa would have to Fedex a number of packages ahead of time, since he would not be able to fly into Air Force Bases, or into tower-controlled areas near airports. He’s get shot at over certain sections of the Middle East, and the no-fly zones in Iraq, so he’d probably use DHL there. Subtract some more homes.
  5. I just barely passed Physics and only read Stephen Hawking’s book once, but I recall that there is some Einsteinian Theory that says time does strange things as you move faster. In fact, when you go faster than the speed of light time runs backward, if you do a straight line projection, connect the dots and just ignore any singularity you might find right at the speed of light. And don’t say you can’t go faster than the speed of light because I’ve seen it done on TV. Jean-Luc doesn’t have reindeer but he does have matter-antimatter warp engines and a holodeck and that’s good enough for me.So Santa could go faster than light, visit all the good children which are not uniformly distributed by either concentration in each home or by number of children per household, and get home before he left so he can digest all those stale cookies and warm milk yech.
  6. Aha, you say, Jean-Luc has matter-antimatter warp engines, Santa only has reindeer, where does he get the power to move that fast!

You calculated the answer! The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy. Per second. Each. This is an ample supply of energy for the maneuvering, acceleration, etc, that would be required of the loaded sleigh. The reindeer don’t evaporate or incinerate because of this energy, they accelerate. What do you think they have antlers for, fighting over females? Think of antlers as furry solar array panels.

  1. If that’s not enough, watch the news on the 24th at 11 o’clock. NORAD (which may be one of the few government agencies with more than 3 initials in it’s name and therefore it must be more trustworthy than the rest) tracks Santa every year and I’ve seen the radar shots of him approaching my house from the direction of the North Pole. They haven’t bombarded him yet, so they must believe too, right?

Additional considerations to the original Santa Physics theory

Author unknown

Several key points are overlooked by this callous, amateurish “study.”

  1. Flying reindeer: As is widely known (due to the excellent historical documentary “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the flying reindeer are not a previously unknown species of reindeer, but were in fact given the power of flight due to eating magic acorns. As is conclusively proven in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (a no punches pulled look at life in Santa’s village), this ability has bred true in subsequent generations of reindeer, obviously the magic acorns imprinted their power on a dominant gene sequence within the reindeer DNA strand.
  2. Number of households: This figure overlooks two key facts. First of all, the first major schism in the Church split the Eastern Churches, centered in Byzantium, from the Western, which remained centered in Rome. This occurred prior to the Gregorian correction to the Julian calendar. The Eastern churches (currently called Orthodox Churches) do not recognize the Gregorian correction for liturgical events, and their Christmas is as a result several days after the Western Churches’. Santa gets two shots at delivering toys.Secondly, the figure of 3.5 children per household is based on the gross demographic average, which includes households with no children at all. The number of children per household, when figured as an average for households with children, would therefore have to be adjusted upward. Also, the largest single Christian denomination is Roman Catholic, who, as we all know, breed like rabbits. If you don’t believe me, ask my four brothers and two sisters, they’ll back me up. Due to the predominance of Catholics within Christian households, the total number of households containing Christian children would have to be adjusted downward to reflect the overloading of Catholics beyond a standard deviation from the median.Also, the assertion that each home would contain at least one good child would be reasonable enough if there were in fact an even 3.5 children per household. However, since the number of children per household is distributed integrally, there are a significant number (on the order of several million) of one child Christian households. Even though only children are notoriously spoiled and therefore disproportionately inclined towards being naughty, since it’s the holidays we’ll be generous and give them a fifty-fifty chance of being nice. This removes one half of the single child households from Santa’s delivery schedule, which has already been reduced by the removal of the Orthodox households from the first delivery run.
  3. Santa’s delivery run (speed, payload, etc.): These all suffer from the dubious supposition that there is only one Santa Claus. The name “Santa” is obviously either Spanish or Italian, two ethnic groups which are both overwhelmingly Catholic. The last name Claus suggests a joint German/Italian background. His beginnings, battling the Burgermeister Meisterburger, suggest he grew up in Bavaria (also predominantly Catholic). The Kaiser style helmets of the Burgermeister’s guards, coupled with the relative isolation of the village, suggest that his youth was at the very beginning of Prussian influence in Germany. Thus, Santa and Mrs. Claus have been together for well over one hundred years. If you think that after a hundred years of living at the North Pole with nights six months long that they remain childless, you either don’t know Catholics or are unaware of the failure rate of the rhythm method. There have therefore been over five generations of Clauses, breeding like Catholics for over one hundred years. Since they are Catholic, their exponential population increase would obviously have a gain higher than the world population as a whole. There have therefore been more than enough new Santas to overcome the population increase of the world. So in fact, Santa has an easier time of it now than he did when he first started out.

Santa dead, indeed; some people will twist any statistic to “prove” their cynical theory.

The Lottery

There is the old saw that says the lottery is a tax on people who don’t understand math.  And, to be honest, that is the absolute truth, albeit a bit harsh.   Sure, people win.  But considering that most of the time it’s a single person and there are millions who play, those are pretty long odds.  Besides, it’s not about how many people play.   You knew that right?  I’ll get to that in a minute.

But there has been a recent uptick in the revenues that lotteries across the country are seeing.   It’s really no surprise with the economy in the tank like it is.   People just want a little of that magic to take away the sting of the headlines or that mortgage bill or the feeling that their retirement savings are just not going to cut it in the end.

But what about that math?

Wait, time out!  I know what you’re saying.  Here he goes off on some math thing again, but bare with me here.  And all you pro-lottery, “hey, I like playing and maybe I WILL win” people, read it all.  It’s not ALL math.

First, let’s consider the odds of winning the lottery.  And let’s use the big numbers because a) I like big numbers (especially the ones with dollar signs in front…ba dum dump) and b) it makes my point seem more important than some random essay on some blog somewhere.

In the big one, Powerball, the number of ways the 5 numbers on a given ticket can match the numbers drawn is figured out using the pre-calculus study of combinations and permutations., If the order of the numbers matters, it’s permutation we care about, if the order doesn’t matter, as in the lottery, it’s a combination.   The formula for this is:



A pretty innocuous looking thing isn’t it.   Two letters and a few exclamation points, a few horizontal lines … meh, what’s so taxing about that?  Well, it’s actually pretty powerful and the answer for increasing values of n and r gets pretty big, pretty fast.   What’s it mean?  Well, let’s say n is 4, the answer to 4! is 1x2x3x4=24.  Simple right? So whenever you see that ! notation, that means take all the numbers up to n and multiply them together.   n is the number of items in the group of things from which we’re choosing, which in the case of Powerball is 59 little white balls with numbers on them and r is the number of those balls we choose from those 59 (without duplicates, since once a ball is taken out of the blowing air it is not put back in).



In a spreadsheet, you could put that in as =FACT(59)/(FACT(5)*(FACT(59-5))).   Microsoft Excel has a nice function COMBIN() which you can use to figure the above as COMBIN(59,5).  You get the same results.  If you tried it you likely got 5,006,386.   So in lottery speak, that ‘s a 1 in 5,006,386 chance of winning.  This doesn’t quite match what the lottery says, but there’s a little more to the odds and that’s more math than you want and, hell, you may be beyond your limit already as it is.   So let’s just go with a little over 5 million.

People look at that and don’t really comprehend that that’s 1 divided by 5,006,386 which is 0.000000199745.  Try putting 1/5,006,386 into a spreadsheet it gives you 1.99745E-07 which is scientific notation telling you to move the decimal seven places left.   Seven!  But say you format the cell to a number with two decimal places, it changes to 0.00.   Sure, you could click the little decimal place icon so that it added zeros to the right of the decimal but you’d have to click it 5 times to get a number other than zero and that number is just a 2.   So let’s face it, 0.000000199745 might as well be 0.00 which kinda means the chances of matching those five balls is zero.

Moreover, to get the jackpot, the really big money, Powerball throws in that red ball, which adds color to all that white but maybe also makes you think that it’s got some kind of magic (it is powerball, after all) or that it improves your odds of winning.   That red ball is selected from 39 red balls, another combination multiplied by the five million number above.   If you do that math, you’re looking at 1 in 195,249,054 (COMBIN(59,5)*COMBIN(39,1) ) which makes your odds of winning even more zero than before.

The bottom line is to win the big jackpot in Powerball, your chances are zero, to win the next big one (matching just the 5 white balls for about $200k) your chances are zero and the next one are pretty much the same.  It gets a little better after that but not much.

But that’s only statistically speaking, isn’t it?  It doesn’t address the individual.  Statistics are funny things.   When I was studying math in college my statistics professor said, “you can make statistics mean anything you want.” And in most cases, that’s true.  Numbers have weight that has been ingrained in our psyche since we first learned to count…numbers are magic and if Harry Potter taught us anything, you can make magic do some serious stuff that shouldn’t be possible.  This manipulation of statistics is one of the very reasons people play the lottery.  We tend to talk ourselves into the idea that we’re going to win.  And then some wise guy comes along and tells you that you have a better chance of dying in an airplane (1 in 354,319),  getting struck by lightning (1 in 225,107) or even dying in a legal execution (1 in 3,441,325).

And yet…

It’s all just numbers and statistics and statistics can say anything you want.   Right?  Like, maybe they can also say “What if?”  What if I am the “1”.  And everyone else is the “in 195,249,053.”

Is it just about the numbers?  Is it just about plunking down your one dollar of hard earned cash (no credit cards excepted for purchase of lottery tickets, please) and then checking to see if you won?  I don’t think so.

For just a dollar, you can buy a dream.  It might last a day or a few days, but it’s there, tooling around the landscape of your mind tapping on things like that motorcycle you’ve been eyeing and the words “debt free” and the emotional satisfaction of helping out Mom or Dad; brother or sister.   Exploring the alleys where you don’t go where there are complete strangers that suddenly have smiles on their faces because you helped them out in just a small but significant way.  All because you pulled a dollar out of your wallet on a whim.  Following that dream around the byways of your head as you think about that little slip of paper in your wallet is kind of fun.   It’s a great way to take a little Dandelion Break.  You play the lottery and you get a little of that magic that numbers have.  Magic that can make you smile.

But there’s the reality of what that dollar goes to, also.   The money the state makes from the lottery (did you know they’ve been holding lotteries since the 1700s?) goes to things like open space, parks and recreation, state parks,  school health and safety programs and probably a bunch of other stuff I was too lazy to look up.  It’s kinda like giving a buck to a favorite charity.  A really big church auction only the church is right outside your door; a few blocks down and up the trail where that deer, elk or coyote happens to cross your path.

You think about the things you would by, the places you would go, the payoffs you want to make.  There’s also that fantasy of telling the boss to kiss off and making a really stellar exit.  Since I am my boss, that won’t work for me, but plenty of people have thought it.  I’ve told myself to go pound sand plenty of times already and I’m still here.

And then sometimes the philanthropy kicks in.  For me it’s wanting to satisfy my Superman complex and swoop in to save someone’s day.   At random.  On a whim.  Just like the act that got me to this point in the first place.  Settling some stranger’s debt, just to see them smile and then walking away without telling them who I am because it’s not about me.  It’s always about them and making someone’s life just a little (or a lot, if you can) better.

And finally, because dreaming is never a bad thing.  Whether it’s about the riches of the lottery or just the general run-of-the-mill fantasy of being able to stop and clear the decks to prepare for the next adventure.  Or perhaps, it’s that thought of making the hell out of someone’s day.  It’s just a break.   And we all need a break sometimes.

A Hard Lesson Learned

There is that saying that if it doesn’t kill you it only makes you stronger.   That’s what people say, anyway, right?  And if you learned from a bad experience, at least you got something out of it…yeah, that’s cool, but when you’re in the midst of that hard lesson and you DO nearly get killed, I’m not sure that’s in the forefront of your mind.

So, as experiences go, getting punched in the face is one of the more unpleasant ones and one of those times where you’re not thinking, “ah, can’t wait to find out what I learn from this.”

A punch in any general proximity to your head is fairly crappy and multiple hits takes it beyond horrible.   Your head’s hard and for a reason.  The brain is an important organ and needs a lot of protection.   Thus the up-armored nature of the skull bone.  I guess, too, that’s why it hurts a lot when you’re hit there.  A not so subtle message that you’re doing something wrong on the quest for survival.  Pain tends to be our body’s way of teaching us lessons, but it is up to the individual whether they learn from those lessons or not.

In my early twenties, I was feeling the invincibility that was left over from my late teens.   It had started to wear off as I contemplated being the responsible adult and making a living for myself.  But there was still that glow of power, the feeling of mastery of the world and the testosterone induced need to show people what’s under the hood.   It seems the norm in sports, business or really any opportunity that calls for demonstration of “maleness”;   Out of college, on one’s own and ready to take on the world.

And so it was that I found myself in one of those darker corners of human experience.  During a transitional period when I was finishing up a graduate level statistics course (yes, it was the boring hell the subject indicates it would be) at Villanova University for my degree in math and actually deciding what I was going to do with the newly minted sheep skin I would receive, I had a job renovating two floors of a Hilton Hotel in King of Prussia, PA.   I was part of a crew of guys who would gut a room, strip it to the bare walls and then remake it in a more appropriate late eighties decor.   On the other side, we’d put in new carpets, lamps, beds, and fixtures.  My job was the bathrooms (probably fitting for one who’d spent the last six months and would spend the following three being a complete tool.)

One particular week, a new team had come in to paint the walls and texture the ceilings and with them came the drugs.  One of the other summer employees, we’ll call him Harold, took to these folks.  He was fat and pasty and had coke bottle glasses.   A big guy with self-esteem issues he began hanging out with these guys regularly during the day.

I didn’t much take to drugs and laziness (I wasn’t that much of a tool) and got a little frustrated when I realized these guys weren’t pulling their weight.  Harold was happy not to do the labor, and would disappear into one of the rooms for stretches at a time.  The work was hard enough without all this going on.  The problem was, I was a cocky bastard.   So I wasn’t all that nice to Harold, looking upon him and treating him with disdain as if I had nothing more to learn.

One day, when finishing up putting fixture handles on sinks and tubs and ensuring the water feeds were turned on in a recently finished bathroom, Harold appeared in the doorway.   I say he appeared, but it was more like he filled it.  He asked me point blank,

“Do you have a problem with me?”  He had obviously caught my negative vibe.

“No,” I said, “I just don’t like the drugs on the work site.”

“You don’t know how badly I want to hit you right now,” was his reply.  I could see he was roiling just beneath the surface but unfortunately my flight or fight response had gone to lunch early and I didn’t really consider what that meant.

This was the point at which the road forked.   Here he was extremely agitated and I was certain that he had already partaken in some kind of illicit activity earlier in the morning.  Looking back, I could honestly say he seemed crazed in a controlled sort of way.  And there we stood with two paths from which to choose.

I could have taken the path of reason.  The proverbial high road.   I could have put up my hands , palms out, in a gesture of acquiescence, telling him I was sorry, I didn’t mean to offend him and that regardless of what I felt, what he did was none of my business.  But I didn’t do that.

I was twenty-three, arrogant and apparently not as bright as I’d believed.  Looking back now, I realize how very non-bright I was and it brings shudders.

So I said, “but you won’t.  Because you’ll be fired.”  And I didn’t say it matter-of-factly, no.   I said it with a slight air of arrogance, repeating myself a few times in response to one or two other threats he made.  An air like I knew what was going on and how things worked.  The air of a fool.

The rest is a little fuzzy because at that point a freight train named Haymaker slammed into the left side of my mouth.  It must have started in Detroit because the pain was exquisite and exploded through my  head with incredible volume.  I involuntarily spun away to my right but the sheer locomotive-like speed behind that meaty fist may also have had something to do with it.

It must have been only a split second but suddenly my left side was against the wall, I was bent over the commode and this psycho with the coke bottle glasses was hammering the back of my head.  Not the nice round part that’s hard and protective, but the soft muscles at the base of my skull.  It was all I could do to stay conscious or even say something.   But I was able to get out four words and I believe those four words are what might have saved my life.

“I’m down, I’m down!” I said, and the rain stopped.

He must have landed four of five solid hits.   The fact that I was still conscious, albeit barely, was a bit amazing and I am not exactly sure how that could have been, based on the lightning bolts and thunderous throbbing currently going on inside my head.  But I think those few words stopped him.  It took the life out of his fury as quickly as it has come, letting him know he’d “won” and he didn’t need to  prove anything more.

At that point, focus was limited to the immediate.  I no longer knew he was there but simply checked my face in the mirror, verified my teeth were all there (they were but my gums on the left side were slightly cut), and walked out of the room.

Looking back, I am really not sure how I found the others on the crew nor that the room I walked in to happen to have everyone in it.  But I simply turned the corner, poked my thumb over my shoulder and said “he just attacked me.”

At this point, I was barely hanging on.  I had just been severely beaten and that’s never really sat well with me.  It seemed (and still seems) so surreal since I had neither put myself into nor been a part of that kind of situation before or since (except when the cops drew down on me and a few others in Ocean City, NJ but that was a misunderstanding and mistaken identity…for another time).

Being that close to unconsciousness and still trying to function cognitively takes monumental effort.  As I stood there trying to relate what happened to the foreman and  the others standing around a little stunned, it became too much and the blackness began to close over me like a wet, sweet cloud full of corruption bubbling up from deep in my head.  That was the most terrifying because I was convinced that if I checked out, I might not come back.

I nearly fell backward, but, luckily a folded carpet roll was wedged in the doorway of the bathroom and I landed on that.  Putting my head down, the blood returned and my head cleared a little.   They asked if I was all right and I assured them I was not.  I never went to the hospital but knowing what I know now, I realize I probably had a grade three concussion and at the moment was doing pretty poorly so just sat there dazed and confused with my head hanging to my knees. We were told to head down to the maintenance shop and wait there and another co-worker was told to help me because of the challenge I was having standing up.

Then I did something that was strange under the circumstances but didn’t really surprise me.  I stood up slowly, got my bearings and stepped over to Harold.  I put out my hand and we shook.   It was a simple gesture, but I meant it.   I meant that there were no hard feelings, I was embarrassed by my own behavior, disappointed in his and somewhere in my scrambled brain I knew I’d pushed too far and we’d both been wrong.  I needed to at least try to be the adult I thought I was.  I didn’t care if the others in the room didn’t understand, nor if they thought it was a crazy thing to do.  I believed  it was the right thing to do.

The next day, Harold came in with an enormous bandage on his hand.   Aside from a monster headache that lasted about a week (yeah, a pretty bad concussion and I, to this day, kick myself for being and an idiot and not having a physician check me out) I was pretty well unscathed.   Apparently, you can get sepsis from hitting someone in the mouth if you cut your hand.  The human mouth is full of bad organisms that, once in the blood, can really ruin your day.   So I feel like he made out worse than I and have to admit that a small part of me hoped that he would at least get an infection that hung on a little longer than he liked.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t totally cured of my ignorance and hubris.

I probably could have tried to press charges but I didn’t and there were no witnesses, anyway.  I had egged the guy on so I clearly had to bear at part of the blame for what happened.   Unfortunately, the manager of the engineering department was such a milquetoast and so afraid of upper management (someone else with self-esteem issues) he couldn’t figure out what to do, nor act on it appropriately if he could, so he decided to take the easy way out and get rid of the problem by asking us both to resign.

I had no problem with that, really.   Summer was winding down, my class was ending, I wasn’t really digging on working there anymore and a friend of mine worked at a Steak & Ale down the street which seemed more fun anyway.   So I wrote my resignation letter, went upstairs to say goodbye to the guys I’d gotten to know.

One of the senior workers was a big guy named Mike.   He was a street wise, strong, tough single father and pretty much didn’t take any B.S. from anyone; couldn’t afford to.   But we had a mutual respect because he could see I cared about the work I did and wasn’t some panty-waste just passing through after college on the way to bigger things.  At that point I at least had an ethic that said if there is a job to be done, no matter what it is, it should be done right.  So I went up and said goodbye, but also told him I wanted to make sure he hadn’t lost any respect for me.  For some reason, this was important to me.

“No, man, I haven’t lost any respect for you.   But you shook my boy’s hand and I don’t think I’ll ever understand that.”

Well, I am not completely certain I understand it fully either, but I was brought up to believe that you policed up your own stuff and sometimes you have to own the consequences of your thoughts and actions.   When you come to a fork in the road like that it’s always best to take the one that goes up.   If it takes eating a plateful of crow or downing a huge tanker of pride, fine.   Do it and get on with it, because without that choice and the knowledge of which is right, we aren’t much.

I have never been hit in the face since and I haven’t really had to choke down any feathers or drink that bitter, decaying glass of pride, either.   I like to think I was able to stay off the paths that even led to those forks.  Maybe, maybe not, but I will always remember that particular lesson I had to learn the hard way.