Black Holes and Broken Bowls – A New Way of Thinking in the New Year

I was about forty, when my wife, her father and mother, and I were driving in Mexico during the last week of the year. Our three children farmed out just before our trip. The plan was for me to fly back on New Year’s Eve. This way, I could jump back into my busy orthopedic surgical practice. They would then arrive a few days later.

I boarded the morning plane in Mexico City, headed for San Francisco, to be followed with a bus-train ride to my Davis California home. This was in the days of “first come – first serve” boarding and choosing one’s own seat.

I noticed an attractive, slim brunette at a window seat in the middle of the plane. We smiled as I sat next to her, soon in lively conversation. She was a part-time science graduate student at the University of San Francisco, and made some extra money tutoring. She was maybe ten years younger. She was fascinated by some of my adventures around the world, and my description of a three-week drive-around honeymoon throughout Mexico, some 17 years before – a simpler and more primitive time.

She wore a single oblong, thin-cut, agate stone on a simple silver chain, resting in her upper cleavage, well set off by a blue, low-cut blouse and dark skirt. The stone had a small, black, marble-sized, round center surrounded by brownish-yellow whorls.

“Where did you get that necklace? It’s very attractive on you!”

“I picked it out because it reminded me of a black hole, sitting in the center of a galaxy. Do you know anything about black holes?”

The black hole theory had only recently been proposed, with limited understanding. “Not really”, I said, “just that it has to do with a giant star collapse causing such a dense mass that it has an extremely powerful gravity pull, sucking everything into it.”

“Very good! Black holes aren’t just empty space. The theory of general relativity shows that those gravitational forces can deform space-time – invisible because even light can’t escape. Then there’s dark matter that makes up most of the material of the universe – also invisible.”

“Whoa! I need to give my brain a rest. Let’s talk about something else. I’m a hand surgeon, and I‘ve been noticing that you have lovely hands. You must be an artist!”

Maria blushed. “I do watercolors, and I write for magazines.”

I said, “I’m a writer, too. I notice that you were reading a book in Spanish. Perhaps you can enlighten me. I’ve always been intrigued by one difference in the English language and the warmer Spanish language. When a North American drops and breaks a bowl or a glass, his immediate response is `I’m sorry. I broke your bowl. I’m such a dumb clod!’ and a wave of anxiety and guilt washes over. Your language precludes guilt, as it says, ‘the thing broke itself.’ Does that carry over in life?”

“Yes, it does. Why don’t you try it next time you break something?”

The captain came on over the loudspeaker, “We’re due to arrive in San Francisco in forty-five minutes!”

Maria turned and asked me, “Are you still married?” I responded, “Let me give you a quote by the Spanish writer Felix Marti Ibanez, this in a dialogue between his poet and a female fellow train passenger, `I have to tell you I’m married, perhaps you are too. But it doesn’t matter. The soul is free and the heart, like a wild bird flying around looking for a mate!’”

The conversation continued, and as we were leaving our seats, she asked, “Do you want to come home with me?”

A gentleman friend was waiting outside to pick her up. He was shocked when she introduced me. “This is Ed, I sat next to him on the airplane. He’s a doctor from Davis.”

“What’s up with you Maria, all these Davis doctors?” he countered.

“Shush, Jerry!”

There was almost no room in his tiny, worn, yellow, French top-down convertible. It was much too small for the three of us, as I sat in the cramped back seat, balancing my and Maria’s luggage. There was no conversation involving me, all I remember saying was, “It sure is cold out this afternoon!”

Her companion took her suitcases up a stark stairway to her third floor flat. As I was struggling up behind with my two bags, he turned to leave. “Have fun!”

Maria later told me that she had a recent off and on affair with a UC Davis professor. According to her, as the relationship ended, he left with the comment “You’re a psycho!”

The small flat was one big, cold room. There was a completely empty refrigerator, and nothing edible to be found, no pretzels, snacks. Nothing. We were both hungry.

Maria announced that she was going to take a bath, so I volunteered to go find some food at a nearby store. I followed Maria’s directions and found everything had closed at five-thirty pm, as it was New Years Eve. A passer-by confirmed that nothing would be open. I was cold and famished.

I returned to the tiny flat. The main room had very little furniture and the centerpiece was an old, large, clawfoot bathtub, adjacent to the kitchen and its so-empty refrigerator. Maria was sitting in its soapy substance, only her bare shoulders and back of her head were visible, topped with her wet, strung-out hair.

I was standing near the small, empty kitchen and noticed there was only a two level bunk bed against the wall in the main room. There was a small bookcase beside me, and I extracted a small book, The Little Prince, by Saint Exúpery. I always enjoyed his writing, so I scanned through it as she finished her bath.

“Do you want a back scrub darlin’?”

“No, but when I get out I’ll take a front rub!”

Sex and stark hunger do not go well together. Our start was slow. “If I do not please you, we do not have to continue”, she said. However, continue we did. But, there was a lot lacking. It was difficult maneuvering around her sparse, fancy, lace underwear. We weren’t in the mood for much kissing and hugging. After, we went to a close-by New Year’s Eve street gathering – still no possibility for food! We left after a short time, and the next morning I departed early without taking her phone number. I was grateful for her company, and definitely for the planting of an idea that led to my greatest-ever New Year’s resolution.

As I was riding the train home, I refined my New Year’s resolution. I would purposely and consciously change my attitude for one full year. I based it on “the thing broke itself” concept. I would not take blame, for ANYTHING! I stuck to my philosophical vow, while my wife was almost driven crazy, and my friends and family took to rolling their eyes. “I wasn’t late for dinner, dinner, was early for me.” became my mantra. For me, from all fronts, surprisingly, I felt an uplifting sense of empowerment and self-worth.

I stopped after the last day of the year to sighs of relief all around, but it showed me the difference in overall effect on Victorian-based cultures like the United States, where guilt and blame are unchallenged, and needlessly accepted. What a difference in societal interpretations.




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