In the Blink of an Einstein

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TEN… By the time I was ten, I was madly in love with Albert Einstein. I have no idea how I even learned about him in the first place, but the source of my love was obvious. He was mischievous yet deeply profound, musical, passionate, curious, kind, odd looking, and more than a little alien; that is a vibe I could dig. My taste in men hasn’t changed much since.

NINE… In 9th grade, I decided to finally understand the Theory of Relativity. (Enough to do a report for school, at least.) My favorite illustration of how time is relative involves a flashlight and a train:

Imagine a light shining up from the floor of a moving boxcar, to a mirror on the ceiling. Turn the light on and it hits the mirror, bounces, and returns to the source. To an observer on the train with the light, the beam travels a distance equal to twice the height of the boxcar (up, then down).

But to an observer on a hill watching the train go by, the light travels further. Its journey isn’t just up and down, but also the horizontal distance the train travels in that time. To the observer on the hill, the light’s path is two diagonals of a triangle whose base is the distance traveled by the train and height is the height of the boxcar.

Since Rate (speed) is equal to distance divided by time, and since the speed of light is always the same, the fact that the light travels different distances means it also does so over different times. To the observer on the hill, the light’s journey took longer. More time passed than did for the observer on the train, even though they were both watching the same light.

EIGHT… This principle of relative time was demonstrated for a much wider audience in the 80’s, when a different Einstein – Doc Brown’s dog – spent a few seconds in a speeding DeLorean that simultaneously lasted a full minute for Marty McFly.

SEVEN… Any tween who was ever forced to play Seven Minutes in Heaven already understands the relativity of time with excruciating clarity. How slowly those seven minutes pass when we are awkward and self-conscious. Yet when I met Hodor earlier this year and we set a kitchen timer to 20 minutes on our second date (an attempt to wield some grown-up control over our teenage attraction) we were suddenly on a speeding train. Those minutes passed in seconds, and we had to reset the timer at least three more times to test its functionality (for the sake of science, of course).

SIX… I once even experienced the entire life-cycle of a relationship over the course of a six-hour conversation. Via text. It started as a chat about a basketball game, during which we acknowledged our usually moderate flirting had escalated to blatant, and then both admitted we were very interested in the person but not currently ready for the relationship. The raw honesty on display made me far more interested than at the start of the conversation, and our subsequent discussion about how to conduct ourselves in the future felt like passing through a break up and coming out the other side. In the course of one night, I gained an amicable divorce.

FIVE… Time is relative everywhere, not just in love (though especially in love). When I teach a five-hour logic class, I am most definitely on the train. Passage from start to end seems to take no time at all – though I know we traveled because I finish exhausted. My poor students experience the full expanse of the time, however, watching from the figurative hillside.

FOUR… Soon, we wave goodbye to the year 2014, a year full of time quirks. Looking at the bulk of events, we seem to have both traveled far and stood still. A lot of ugliness we thought was behind us turned out to be very present. But at the same time, the fact that we are now talking openly about things like religion, drugs, law enforcement, homophobia, sexism, racism, principles and so on is a huge step forward for our community.

THREE… For the first three months of 2014, I was an observer on the hill, living more life than my counterparts on the train. On January 1st I was a single girl between projects; by the end of March I had hundreds of regular readers and had both met and fallen completely for Hodor. For the last three months, I’ve been back on the train; Hodor left in September, but it feels like only days ago to me.

TWO… Career-wise, I ticked off a second full year of waiting for the biggest deal of my professional life to finalize. It is my own personal Groundhog Day – stuck reliving February 2nd when February 3rd is the day life starts. I fully understand why Bill Murray’s character experiments with violence in that movie.

ONE… December 31st is only one night, but somehow we imbue it with the weight of an entire year. With so much time passing in an instant, it is easy to feel bruised by the impact. But it is important to remember that the real significance of New Year’s Eve is…

ZERO. In almost every sense. It is nothing, a place-holder, just another day; it is also something, a baseline foundation from which to build another year. Zero can add nothing, nor can it take anything away. Yet it has the power to multiply things exponentially, or to negate them entirely.

It’s all in how we choose to use it. So, I say we use December 31st for a little bit of reflection, a whole lot of appreciation, and a healthy amount of celebration. Travel on the train or off, but remember it is still only one night, much as zero is only one number among many.

As long as zero isn’t also the amount of champagne left for drinking, everyone will be just fine.

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Ceci N’est Pas une Post

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Love is a curious paradox; one no one can explain. Who understands the secrets of the reaping of the grain? Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain, or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?

Due respect to The Fantasticks (from which the above are lyrics), but I don’t want to “try to remember” September. This past September broke my heart. Besides, The Fantasticks is a play where two dads arrange for an old dude to attempt the rape of one dad’s daughter so the other dad’s son can save her and fall in love. That’s fucked up.

(Yet it is a truly fantastic play – how paradoxical.)

Love IS a curious paradox. We can only find it when we aren’t looking for it, we have to fail at it to in order to succeed, and it is hardest to lose when we didn’t need it in the first place.

Sartre (the original Debbie Downer) nailed it in Being and Nothingness, observing that love is so vital to us we desire to control the will of our beloved; we wish we could guarantee their love in return. Yet love is only valuable when freely given, so the moment we could secure it would be the moment it lost all meaning. (Though he said it in a far more complex and French way.)

The very thing that makes love terrifying – the fact that it can be lost or not returned – is the only thing that makes it worth seeking.

Breakups are also paradoxical. A love that matters is thusly worth fighting for, but in fighting we risk removing the value entirely. Still, the fight itself is necessary.

A long time ago, when I was young(er) and dumb(er), I got mad at my boyfriend for not doing the dishes while I was at work. He pointed out that I had not asked him to do the dishes; had he known I wanted it, he probably would have. Or, let’s be honest, he probably still wouldn’t have, but at least then I’d have had every right to be angry. As it was, I couldn’t blame him for not satisfying an expectation I had never vocalized. Grubby dishes aside, he was completely right.

Now, I speak up whenever I want something. Including – and especially – when that something is a someone.

When a love matters, it is important to tell them they matter. It is important to say out loud what we want, to give voice to all of the good that stands to be lost, and to politely point out that they are making a huge mistake.

But somewhere in the middle of the argument, in the middle of the tears, the declarations of “we’re awesome”, and the “that’s no reason to throw it all away”, there is also that little voice inside speaking the truth we don’t want to acknowledge. The one that knows the paradox cannot be resolved, asking, “What good is a love I talked someone into?”

Winning the fight means losing the value of the love. Yet to not fight would mean it never really mattered in the first place. And round and round it goes… the following statement is true; the previous statement is false… this sentence is not here.

I guess the trick is to fight for what we want and also have the nerve to never get it.

I do not know the answer; I only know it’s true. I hurt them for that reason, and myself a little bit too.

(It really is a Fantastick play. Go see it.)

Logical Mystery Tour

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Once upon a short time ago, I spent over twenty minutes arguing with a Time Warner Cable representative about how math works.

My monthly cable bill had suddenly increased by $7 (increased again, I should say, because this was not the first time), so I had looked and found a new $7 charge listed for the modem. (The modem I had been using for no charge since…always.)

The TWC representative tried repeatedly to convince me that they had always been charging me $7 for the modem, it’s just that now they were listing the fee as its own line item on the bill. I replied that if that were true my bill total would not have increased (because, math), but it had increased, so there was clearly a new charge for something, and would she please just fess up to it already.

After twenty minutes of our own little version of Waiting for Godot (“I recognize that tree!”) she finally succumbed to the power of how numbers work and agreed there was a new fee. I agreed to no longer be a Time Warner Cable customer.

While I appreciate that this woman provided the kick I needed to finally bail on cable, our conversation makes me want to bang my head against a wall. For six years, I have spent much of my time helping adults prepare themselves for the rigors of law school, and in that time I have been repeatedly surprised and disheartened – as I was on that phone call – with the general lack of logical reasoning employed by humanity.

Logic is important, even if only to save us from Kafkaesque conversations and murderous thoughts. If we used it more, our civilization would be in a much better place.

For one thing, logic allows us to recognize when people (and cable companies) are lying. It demands reasons and facts be given to support arguments – including our own. With logic, we also recognize when a statement is technically true (“That Awkward Moment is the #1 comedy of the year!”) but essentially meaningless (“Dude, it’s still January”).

Even more relevant to our current state of debate, logic helps us stay focused on the actual point, instead of getting distracted by more convenient statements that are off topic. Sure, mental health and how we treat it is a major problem in the world, but it isn’t a relevant rebuttal to “I think there should be more gun regulation,” any more than “vegans are annoying” addresses whether we should let the pregnant pigs move around, or “I hate science” is an argument against global warming.

Most importantly, though, logic is vital because it exercises a skill that is crucial to human success: creative thinking.

It is no coincidence that Einstein was a skilled violinist while Hitler was a bad painter; creativity and reason go hand in hand. To be logical is to be able to mentally entertain as many possibilities as can be imagined and then evaluate them against whatever facts are known. It is to know that there was a mass extinction of dinosaurs, imagine the infinite reasons it could have happened, and use the evidence of meteor strikes, lack of evidence of spontaneous combustion, and miniscule likelihood of alien invasion to conclude that most likely the meteors were the culprit.

(It is also to know that the limited facts demand language like “most likely” instead of “of course it happened that way, how dare you question me?!” or “I don’t believe you so no it didn’t!”)

Logical thinking trains us to have flexible minds, which is the ultimate reason it needs to be more prevalent in our world today: because mental flexibility is the key to empathy. Yes, it also helps if we have and understand emotions, but empathy by definition requires the ability to think beyond our own personal situation.

In college, I was once asked by a boy (he was a boy in every sense) why I was pro-choice; to answer him, I started by saying, “given my own health issues, I can certainly imagine why someone might need-“ and he cut me off by rebutting, “It’s not about YOU. You’re so selfish.”

His statement was technically true – it wasn’t about me – but meaningless, because it WAS about my ability to put myself in another person’s shoes; to imagine circumstances that, while not true for me, may be true for someone in a different place or time or dimension.

A rigid “I would never” is not enough to close the book on any subject. That’s great that we would never; it is completely our right to choose to “never” – but somebody would, and shouldn’t we at least take the time to explore and understand their reasons before we judge?

Without empathy, progress can only happen once everyone personally knows a victim of sexual assault, a minority being denied rights, a dark-skinned person who has suffered harassment by those in authority, or someone forced to make a bad choice in a bad situation. Of course, the sad fact is, everyone already does.

That some people still refuse to acknowledge it defies logic.

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life Partners in the Universe

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Confession time: I write romantic comedies for a living, and I do not believe in The One.

Before anyone takes away my pen and paper, let me clarify – this is not a Nicholas Sparks situation where my cynical outlook toward humanity and borderline-misogynist opinion of women drives me to churn out one crassly formulaic story after another. I absolutely believe in love, soul mates, true partners, and all that crap; I just don’t believe each of us has only One.

Both my head and my heart reject the idea. Already, in my short time experimenting with love, I have met at least two men with whom I am sure I could have enjoyed spending the rest of my life. The fact that things didn’t work out doesn’t make them – or our relationships – any less wonderful.

As for my brain, the idea of The One is straight-up depressing on a practical level. There are 7.2 billion people on the planet, most of whom – even with the internet – we will never meet. What if someone’s One lives in North Korea? Tough?

But I like proof when possible, and astrophysics can provide: The Drake Equation is a formula developed in 1961 by astronomer Frank Drake to calculate the probability we will ever detect intelligent alien life in the universe. Since men are from Mars and women Venetian, I figure it applies.

While the actual Drake Equation is impossible to calculate (so far) because most of its variables are unknown (for now), it is pretty simple in essence. Just a straight multiplication of the probabilities of various factors necessary for finding E.T. – like that aliens exist in the first place, or have detectable technology.

Specifically (hang in there) it looks like this: N = R*Fp*Ne*Fl*Fi*Fc*L, which looks completely like gibberish until you know what all the shorthand stands for. Let’s do it!

N stands for the number of alien civilizations we can detect. In other words, it is the answer we are looking for – it is the number of The Ones.

R is the rate at which stars form in the universe, so for mate searching it is the rate at which humans form. According to P.T. Barnum, there is one born every minute, so let’s say R = 1.

Fp is the fraction of stars in the universe hosting planets. Equivalently, let’s call it the fraction of persons with the proper parts for one’s sexual orientation. Whatever your preference, that should be ½, but I (a heterosexual) will remove another ten percent because supposedly that’s how much of the population is gay. Fp = 2/5 (aka 40%).

Ne is the fraction of planets that pass the “Goldilocks” test, or in other words are suitable to sustain life. For sustaining a relationship, this would be the fraction of the population between, say, 25 and 55, which is 1/6 of humanity.

Fl is the fraction of Goldilocks planets with actual life, which I will translate as the fraction who possess the first piece of the relationship P.I.E. – Physical attraction. This is where things get harder to calculate, but I’ll base it off my own experience. Let’s say I’ve met about 10,000 people in my lifetime. (I have lived in three major cities, traveled a lot, and been a performer all my life, so this is fair.) There have probably been about 200 to whom I have been attracted enough to want to sleep with them (don’t worry, Dad, I didn’t). So that makes Fl = 1/50.

Fi is the fraction of life-bearing planets with intelligent life, and that perfectly corresponds to the second piece of the relationship P.I.E. – Intellectual stimulation. I’d say I’ve met about 25 men I felt I could keep talking to forever, and 25 out of 200 is 1/8.

Fc is the fraction of intelligent life that possesses the technology to make themselves detectable. For a life partner, that means having the last piece of P.I.E. – the Emotional support to sustain a relationship. There have really only been two men in my experience with all three pieces, so this last fraction is 2/25.

Lastly comes L, which in the Drake Equation represents the length of time any technologically advanced alien race will remain actually detectable. (For our civilization it has only been about 100 years so far.) In terms of humans, this is the serious dating window. Let’s go with 20 years, which at 365.25 days per year, 24 hours per day, and 60 minutes per hour comes to 10,519,200 minutes. If you want to check my math, ask someone from the cast of Rent.

Putting it all together, we can see that my N (number of ‘Ones’) equals: 1 sucker per minute, times 2/5 who are heterosexual men, times 1/6 at a datable age, times 1/50 who are physically appealing, times 1/8 also intellectually stimulating, times 2/25 with the trifecta of emotional support, all multiplied by 10,519,200 minutes of partner seeking.

The result: 140. There are 140 The Ones for me on Earth.

Of course, my numbers are largely anecdotal and would never pass the scrutiny of peer review, but the point remains – no way is there only One perfect partner. In fact, if we use the actual rate of human birth – 267 per minute – the number comes out to be 37,380 The Ones. Which is almost exactly the population of Bozeman, Montana. (For real; it’s off by about 100.)

37,000 ideal potential mates seems like a lot, but that’s on the whole planet. Add in that we also have to meet them, and (preferably) speak the same language, and both be available at the same time… the number whittles down quickly. If we’re lucky, we experience maybe a handful in our lifetime. And then they have to want the relationship too.

When you consider that a “forever” relationship requires three major things to happen in unison – first, we have to be ready for the responsibility ourselves; second, we have to meet one of the 37,380 potential partners; and third, that person has to also have decided they are ready for a grown-up relationship – it is no wonder it feels like there is only One magical person out there.

Patience is definitely called for. Or, perhaps, a move to Bozeman, Montana.