Two men, Bertie and Sebastian, met as if by accident on a train journey, to where they both had to go but did not really wish to. Bertie, a doctor by training, was a man who had gone to all the right schools but with fewer years ahead than behind. He had a keen comportment that flattered his years. Bertie was a man of minute observational precision, just the sort who still wore a mechanical watch, calibrated perfectly to time. Bertie would never indulge in the casual laziness of an electronic watch although few people had greater computerized sophistication. Bertie was always 2 min late, never more, never less; the time it took to be noticed. Sebastian was about two decades younger, had sort of done the right things, almost went to all the right schools but was a great success never-the-less. He was an adopter of the “modern” age, trusting all his knowledge to what he read on line, and considered libraries to be not much different than museums. Sebastian was wealthy, accomplished, and an astute businessman, with the canny skill of being able to “read” the person in front of him.
Today was one of painful awkwardness. Sebastian had sat next to Bertie and whipped out his cellular phone…no signal. He shuffled uncomfortably to reach for his other phone in his brief case…still no signal! Sebastian looked across himself just long enough to catch Bertie’s wry smile as he muttered “welcome to our undistracted new planet”. Sebastian had met this type before, obviously, a bored middle-aged man without much to do, just looking to pick a fight with someone. Bertie was not, however, ready to give up on the encounter and tried again “going home to be with the family”? “No, just off to a meeting”, replied Sebastian. “I can never tell why the network seldom works on these trains…just frustrating”, he followed up. “Well, perhaps we can talk” said Bertie. Sebastian shrugged. Bertie continued: “my name is Bertie”. Sebastian replied: “just call me Seb”. “I’ll call you Sebastian” replied Bertie.
“Did you happen to notice how many people are sat behind you Sebastian?” Sebastian was puzzled. What kind of a quiz was this he wondered? “Six” said Bertie quickly! “How did you guess? asked “Sebastian”. “Well, I counted. Never know when such a thing might come useful. I also noticed the color of their shoes. The lady sitting at the end of the row was most noticeable with her bright red shoe with blue socks” said Bertie. “Do you do this for a living?” said Sebastian, “like some sort of gambler or card player”? “Nothing of the sort, replied Bertie, “I’m just a country doctor”. He continued – “I was born into a world that would-be science fiction to you. There were no cell phones until I was what I would presume to be your age, and even those were the size of a small suitcase. And computers were the size of a room” Bertie continued. “You must be 100 years old?” Sebastian replied. “Feels like that but in reality, I was perhaps just that much older than you are now at the turn of the millennium. Won’t see the next one though but neither will you, nor anyone else on this train” muttered Bertie.
Sebastian had now gained back some of his composure and realized that he had never quite met someone like Bertie. Bertie was not annoying but strangely fascinating by being just a little bit off-beat, at times. He was curious – “tell me more about the lady’s shoe and why that could ever be important to notice?” Sebastian asked of Bertie. Bertie replied: “because it was all most fascinating, let me explain”. “Six reminds me of a hexagon, a most perfect shape in nature, and the red shoe, in amongst all the other black ones worn by the others, introduced an asymmetry into the form. Asymmetries are important to observe because they can denote change, and since she happened to be dressed rather oddly, and sitting next to the fire extinguisher, I thought it was worth just one more glance. And as to the importance, I could not very well tell you for sure but it did cross my mind that she had the red shoe on her artificial foot and should we need that fire extinguisher, we could be in a bit of a pickle” replied Bertie. “Well, I am a financier in the City and I do not much believe in a string of coincidences let alone spend more time working every nuance of every chance encounter…just too busy…I am sure a call would have come into my phone before I even had time to notice anyone” said Sebastian. “In any case, the observation is useless, we will never need the fire extinguisher, and it would not have mattered if there were even 7 people sitting behind us. Quite irrelevant!”. Bertie smiled kindly at Sebastian and continued. “Perhaps not so irrelevant for your brain. Multiple possibilities do add up to a probability in a life-time. However, in the last 10 minutes, something marvelous occurred. Your brain was tasked with focus, recall of pictorial memory, a little math, associative analysis, risk assessment, and perhaps most of all, you met a new friend. Better than being distracted by that phone, which, I hope, our conversation prevented you from withdrawing from. If you can do something like this for just 2-min of each hour, your mind (actually brain) will always be in top condition for that next meeting. No need for coffee, just use your brain to create its own stimulation”. “Are you for real?” said Sebastian. “Quite so” replied Bertie. He continued: “Now I know the situation of the people behind us was sort of strange but I do try and notice the world around me. Saved me from many a car accident. Once I noticed that the person behind me is using their cell phone, I reduce my speed and brake slowly, allowing them to catch up in time. For them, there is the dangerous myth of multi-tasking, which does not really exist as we do not have multi-phase brains. But still, thinking about these things seems to keep me out of trouble”.
“Were you not a strange one at school – teased or bullied?” Sebastian asked of Bertie. Bertie replied – “Well, I was lucky…I did not quite go to a school like that. There is an allegorical tale to tell you. Nothing to do with me. Basically, the bottom line is – do not get distracted by the distracter. The tale goes like this – a young man walks into an interview to gain entrance into an esteemed college. The interviewer is reading a newspaper when the man comes in and asks him to sit. The young man decides not to disturb the interviewer – more polite that way, he thinks! Ten minutes later the interviewer looks up and tells the young man that he can leave. How did I do asked the young man? Well, since you never said a word, not well. The young man replied – how can you say that when you were reading a newspaper? Ah, the interviewer replied, I did that to see if I could distract you. It worked. You should have valued your time and removed the newspaper from my hand. Then, I would have known we were on the same plane of reference. By sitting there and being silent, you allowed yourself to be in an alien world without protest, and identified with an alienist. Perhaps this school is not for you.”
The train stops at the station at the end of the terminal, and everyone starts to get their luggage. “My cell batteries just died – What time is it?” asks Sebastian. “I do not really know” replies Bertie as he looks at his mechanical watch “but it looks as if we are perfectly 2 minutes late on arrival – and do tie up those shoe laces so you do not fall over”.