Back when my first name was Coach instead of Mister at the school where I am still soldiering on toward retirement, I took my varsity tennis players on a field trip to Houston.
This was in the early 1980’s and John McEnroe was playing in an exhibition match. I figured that watching that young fellow in action, in person, might benefit my kids in at least a couple of ways. First, in those days he was the best player in the world. So maybe some of his skills and strategies would rub off. And second, his infamous behavior – temper tantrums and racquet throwing and screaming – would provide a good object lesson for me to refer to when reminding my players how not to behave.
The match was in the old Sam Houston Coliseum, which stood about where the Hobby Center is now in the downtown theatre district.
On the way up the kids wanted to know about the coliseum. It and its adjoining Music Hall were old by then and other, newer venues were much more popular.
I told them I’d attended the Houston Fat Stock Show and Rodeo there when I was a child, before the Astrodome had been built. Then I told them how enormous the coliseum was, and how far away my family’s seats had been from the roping and riding and bucking.
When we arrived, I had to eat those words.
The arena that I recalled as gigantic looked, all those years later, like a high school gymnasium. There were, in fact, exactly two sets of restrooms in the whole place.
This has happened to you, I’ll bet.
You’ve remembered something as colossal from your childhood, only to find when seeing it as an adult that it has shrunk significantly.
Memory is an amazing thing, and as a writer it is a bank account that I draw on constantly. But memory can also be a liar. My grandparents’ house up in Livingston was not, I realize on the rare occasions when I see it again, the palatial behemoth that I thought it was when I was a little boy. It’s just a house, it turns out, and hardly one of the wonders of the universe.
Oddly, this fallible concept of size works exactly opposite when it comes to the actual universe. As I get older, I am more and more amazed at the size and depth of space. Especially on clear nights when a multitude of countless stars are spread out against the heavens. It’s easy to get lost in all of that, and to feel awfully small and insignificant.
I’m no Einstein (you really don’t need to email your agreement on this point; I’m not taking a vote). But I have tried on occasion to grasp the enormity of the cosmic fishbowl we’re trapped in, and always came up short. Until recently, that is.
One day a little book that my wife Karen used to use with her third grade class caught my eye, so I opened up “The Book of Planets” by one Clint Twist. And it wasn’t until I read that children’s book – a process that took all of about ten minutes – that the sheer vastness of the universe finally clicked. It was sort of a “out of the mouths of babes” experience. Or, more correctly, “out of a book intended for babes.”
In that handsome volume this fine analogy was put forth: If the sun were the size of a basketball, the earth would be a pea about 250 feet away. And Pluto – which has been unceremoniously downgraded from planet to dwarf planet to large ice cube – would be a tiny seed about twenty miles – that’s right, twenty MILES – beyond the pea.
That little lesson in size and distance and perspective really hit home. It also, of course, made me feel even smaller when stargazing.
The perception of size has been elusive for me. When I was a child I saw some things as bigger and more impressive than they actually were, or at least bigger and more impressive than they would later be. Like my grandmother’s house. But with time, and lots of it, I’ve come to realize that the universe is infinitely larger and more complex than I ever imagined it could be.
So, why the big switch in thinking regarding size? And what does all this mean?
I have no idea. I thought we were in agreement that I’m no Einstein.