AHA! MOMENTS

Serendipity is the unexpected discovery of something valuable or useful. Perhaps these events are God’s crib notes for us, His way of helping slow learners figure out some of the puzzling parts of His complex universe.

When a Stone Age man accidentally dropped a flint stone onto a rock containing pyrite and realized the resulting spark was good news, he might have thought, “Oh great! Now I won’t have to wait for the next scary lightning bolt to start a jungle fire. Goodbye to raw meat dinners!”

The apple that fell on Isaac Newton’s head was a serendipity clue that got him started working on the law of gravity. I hope Congress doesn’t try to amend it.

There are other less monumental serendipity events, like when you put on an old hoodie and find a $50 bill in the pouch. If it’s a $50 electric bill, that wouldn’t be serendipity, but at least you’d have finally found out why the power was turned off last winter.

Important serendipity discoveries were made when the persons involved weren’t searching for anything. Biologist Alexander Fleming left a messy lab table when he went on vacation. Returning, he found dead bacteria that had been exterminated by a strange mold, and penicillin was eventually born.

The Kellogg brothers, health food experts, accidentally invented corn flakes when they let a cooked batch of meal go stale. They toasted it, rolled it out, and it emerged in tiny crisp pieces. Percy Spencer, who had a sweet tooth, was doing radar research when he noticed the candy bar in his pocket had suddenly melted. He substituted corn and it popped. He got the general idea and went on to invent the microwave oven. Silly Putty was invented when James Wright gave up trying to come up with a new synthetic rubber formula.

“Eureka!” is the usual shout when a geek suddenly sees the solution to the problem he’s been wrestling with for so long. It’s different with serendipity where there was no known problem to begin with. Sometimes the discovery isn’t all that obvious to the eye witness who might say, “Hey, why did it do that? Oh, shucks, I’m putting in lead and it’s coming out gold. The boss is going to be really angry. The contract calls for lead doorstops. What’s he going to do with gold doorstops?”

TIME AND MOTION

Time and motion studies have improved manufacturing efficiency, lowered production costs and even selling prices, but have aggravated workers to distraction.

In a plant where I once worked, master machinists who’d been turning out perfect widgets with tolerances of a few thousandths of an inch for over 30 years did not appreciate getting instructions from a fuzzy-cheeked time and motion study guy on how to do it faster. For one thing, it takes time to insure accuracy. For another, why do it faster when you’re getting paid by the hour?

It sometimes helped if the recently graduated ergonomics expert with the stop watch and clipboard was taller and huskier than the machinist.

When a husband retires and starts spending more time at home, he usually feels he should be helpful and if possible, make life easier for his wife. So he becomes an unofficial time and motion study expert and gives her advice on more efficient ways to cook meals, scrub floors and do the laundry.

In rare cases this has led to increased housekeeping efficiency and more leisure time for the wife, but more typically the result is marriage counseling and minor injuries until the husband finds another job or joins the Peace Corps or the Foreign Legion.

One afternoon at the plant I noticed a hopeful sign of unity when I went out into the shop. The machinists and time study guys stood side by side chatting in front of the silent drilling and milling machines while peering toward the entrance.

Then I caught sight of Miss Zowie strolling in to fetch the day’s production report, on time as usual, bless her. Workers and experts agreed, Miss Zowie was quite pleasant to look at. Forget time. For a few moments they would just study motion.

MY GORILLA HABITAT

I had just mowed my lawn and was standing on our back porch looking down at the finished work. It reminded me of something, but I couldn’t quite figure out what. It certainly didn’t resemble the outfield at Yankee Stadium or a fairway at Pebble Beach. It was someplace else that was much less attractive. And then it hit me.

I’d taken pictures at the San Francisco Zoo years ago. They pop up on my computer screen once in a while. I suddenly realized my backyard looks a lot like the gorilla habitat pit at that zoo. Visitors, standing behind railings, look down at the great apes lounging in the vegetation outside their shelter. My yard’s terrain and flora are quite similar to that zoo’s, a very natural, untamed setting with various types of unsightly anonymous greenery, chewed, not by noshing gorillas, but by my old noisy mower which is actually far more dangerous than any gorilla.

As for fauna, there are no gorillas of course and I don’t intend to adopt any to complete the picture. Dian Fossey, the “Gorillas in the Mist” author said the huge silver-backed males are extraordinarily gentle. Maybe so, but I’m sure my neighbors and their pets would be uneasy with my new tenants.

We do have an annual meandering black bear visit, but Smokey seems to prefer our lake shore area a block or so west of here. So mostly there are our resident squirrels who live off the million acorns falling from our big oaks and whatever they can steal from my bird feeders. Once in a while a wandering deer, a cottontail rabbit or a raccoon will pass through, denuding the gardens and tipping the garbage cans looking for leftovers. Skunks will stop over now and then. I rarely see them, but they have a way of letting you know they’ve been around, just something in the air.

Then, of course, there are the pesky lions who arrive every spring. You’ve seen them, the brightly-dressed ones, the dandy lions.

PRAYER AT A POKER TABLE

Lord, I hope You’re sitting in tonight. I really need Your help. I’m down to a small pile of chips after losing a huge pot, and I had four sixes, for God’s sake! Oh, sorry about that Lord. It’s just an expression, almost a prayer, wouldn’t You say? Anyway, Pete won with a straight flush, and good for him. I’ve always liked Pete even though he’s not a churchgoer. I’m sure you’ve noticed that and his cussing, but down deep he’s really a swell guy. I don’t believe half the things his wife says about him, not half. She’s been miffed about him not working at the food bank with the rest of us twice a year.

Goodness knows, I’m not asking You to break any rules, but if You would sit behind Pete during this five-card stud game, You could help me and, if I happen to win, my church donation next Sunday would be several dollars larger. I’m showing four spade cards to a flush, a fairly good-looking hand on display out there. Everyone but Pete has folded. It’s just me against him, the fallen Methodist, who shows four cards to a straight.

Unfortunately, my hole card is the jack of clubs and doesn’t make a pair. I’m trying to look confident, but I’m not sure it’s convincing. Pete’s big smile might also be a bluff. If only I knew more about his hole card, just some little hint, nothing specific. Lord, if You could……. WOW! Wasn’t that the loudest clap of thunder you guys ever heard? Pete, you didn’t hear that thunder? My ears are still ringing! Well, I guess I’ll fold. And look at that, Pete. I see my jack-high hand would have beaten your busted straight. Well, good for you, Pete. Lord knows you deserved to win.

COMING OF AGE PROBLEMS

I was a happy-go-lucky 10-year old boy eating breakfast one morning when my mother said, “I think you[re old enough now to…….” I interrupted her at that point by choking on my oatmeal.

I’d heard that ominous phrase before. “I think you’re old enough now” was always the preamble of an announcement that wasn’t going to make my life more carefree or exciting. . Mom wasn’t going to say I could now have a BB gun or a motor scooter or that I could quit school and join the circus. No, another burdensome item was going to be added to my list of chores.

Sure enough, I was told I’d reached an age when I should be capable of making my own bed.. That might sound trivial, but it was a ten-year sentence with no possibility of parole.. From then on I had to get up 15 minutes earlier every day to begin wrestling with blankets and pillows and chasing wrinkles over uncooperative chenille bedspreads. Rats!

Just a week earlier my father had decided I’d reached another important milestone and should be responsible enough to trim the lawn with our balky boy-powered reel mower. Rats!

I would have liked working with our chainsaw or even the hacksaw, but Dad never let me handle anything sharper than that rusty old mower. I’d swapped my Tom Mix autographed holster for a neat penknife with one and a half surviving blades and a bottle opener. When I proudly showed it to Dad he said, “Oh, thanks, just what I needed., a one and a half-bladed penknife with a bottle opener. ” That was supposed to have been my hunting knife. Now I had to go on safari in the local Fairview woods with an old butter knife. Rats!

Part of my problem was my unsynchronized growth. My hands and feet were growing much faster than my other parts resulting in my reputation for clumsiness. This wasn’t all bad. I wasn’t allowed to wash dishes or handle anything breakable and expensive, like storm windows. I thought I’d grow out of it, but Dad wasn’t sure. He made me promise never to work at Picatinny Arsenal/

Anyway, I managed to enjoy a happy, normal life and I was thinking about that at breakfast the other day when my wife said, “You’re getting too old now to…..” I interrupted her by choking on my prune juice. Now I have to get rid of my BB gun. Rats!

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FINE PRINT PITFALLS

I recently brought an eyeglasses prescription to a “vision center” that was advertising a $99 spectacles special and was surprised when the sales clerk said, “Sir, that price is for a limited selection of frames and does not include bifocals or scratch-proof lenses. Didn’t you read the fine print in the ad?”

“If I could have read the fine print I wouldn’t need new glasses,” I replied. “I thought those little black marks on the bottom of the page were some sort of decoration.”

Fine print or “mouse print”is a sales gimmick relying on a consumer’s reluctance to read large paragraphs resembling fly specks that are full of disclaimers and warnings. I’ve heard this skulduggery has been ruled legal under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. It sounds more like “freewheeling” speech.

The worst examples of this gimmickry are the auto ads on TV that include a dozen lines of fine print that are on the screen for only a few seconds, a daunting challenge for the speediest of speed readers.

There’s the story, probably apocryphal, about the movie theater ad offering free admission to patrons over 65 years of age. The fine print included the provision, “If accompanied by their parents.” Even if those parents were still ambulatory, their parents would not be available and the oldsters would have to pay full price. It sounds like a clever ploy unless some wise guy shows up at the box office carrying two urns labeled “Mom” and “Dad”.