Size vs Severity

“You’re confusing size with severity. Those are two very different things.”

(An excerpt from the book, EnDvironment)

Dante nudged the thermometer downward to restore the line of sight between them, his dark eyes hard and fixed.

“John had a hunch about weight transfer. Moving a lot of weight around might affect earthquakes. So he studied all kinds of technology––mining, oil production, construction––and the massive amounts of weight each industry moves. Maybe moving lots of weight from here to there could reach a certain ‘degree’ of balance.” Dante borrowed the thermometer from Jonathan’s hand, tapping his finger at the end of its red line. “Like this thirty-two degree mark that no one used to know about. Could there be a ‘degree’ to balance…a natural line of departure? One that could change the entire Earth?”

Jonathan felt a smirk tug his face. “Really? Like what, the mother-of-all earthquakes?”

Dante nodded and placed the thermometer on the table between them.

Jonathan shook his head and flung his arms to his sides. “But Dante, the earth is huge!” He lowered his arms and clenched the edge of the table. Crazy stuff. “Sure. We have new high-tech gadgets––but nothing we can do would change the whole Earth!” He grabbed up the thermometer turning it over and over shaking his head.  “Too bad Grandpa isn’t around now. He could have seen that NASA photo of Earth. It’s big.” He tapped the thermometer against his palm and looked at Dante. “Big!”

Dante sighed. “Yes, Jonathan, you said the Earth is big.” Dante’s hand moved up to his shirt, his searching fingers exploring through its right pocket. “In a way you’re big. Probably 220 pounds. Your bottle of beer there holds 12 ounces of liquid.” His fingers switched to the other pocket and pulled out a tiny vial of fluid. “And this vial is a lot bigger than just one drop of what’s inside it.”

Dante handed him the vial, about the size of Andrea’s tiny finger. The fluid looked clear, maybe a bit amber in color. “So, what’s this?”

“Liquid arsenic.” Dante nudged Jonathan’s beer bottle closer. “Put just one tiny drop in your beer. Swish it a little to dilute the arsenic. Then take just one tiny sip. Swallow it. Let your little sip of diluted arsenic wander around inside your 200 pound body. Let’s just see what happens.” A dagger gleamed through his voice, cutting narrow slits through his eyelids.

Jonathan set the vial down in the middle of the table. “Dante, you’re either nuts, or it’s some kind of trick!” No way would he do what Dante said. More crazy stuff. “Hey, wait a minute, Dante. It’s not really arsenic, is it?” More illusions. “So, what is it, really?”

“It’s arsenic. To control the mice around here, I put out rabbit pellets and sprinkle some of that on them. The mice eat the rabbit food.” Dante picked up the vial and rolled it between his fingers, gazing through the vial. “Fewer mice.”

“I don’t believe you. Put some in your own beer. Let’s see you do that!”

“All right.” Dante opened the vial, nursed a single drop from its rim and watched it drip into his own beer bottle. He closed the vial,  swished the concoction and raised the bottle. “Cheers, Jonathan.” He took a long drink and with a small burp, set his bottle back on the table. Holding his arms out to his sides, he gave a slight shrug as if nothing had happened.

“If that’s real arsenic, you wouldn’t have done that.” Another trick. Another lie.

“Well,” Dante burped again, followed by a half smile, “it is real arsenic, Jonathan. But I know the difference between a little poison and a lot of poison. Since you refused my little challenge I’d say you don’t really know what’s ‘big.’ Or what’s ‘small.’ You don’t know which actions have a consequence and which ones don’t.” Dante shook his head. “You’re confusing size with severity. Those are two very different things.”

Jonathan’s hand pressed across his lips to release the right words. “Look, Dante. There’s smart and dumb, too. I did the smart thing by not doing it. If it’s really arsenic, and it didn’t kill me, it could make me sick, or—”

“Sick?” Dante interupted. “Oh, that’s right. Sickness. That disruption to our health caused by some tiny virus or bacteria in these big huge bodies.” Dante pointed to himself and then to Jonathan. “Sick, from all those teeny tiny microscopic aliens we didn’t know we shared Earth with, until just a hundred years ago. Tiny things, huh? Too small to see with the naked eye but strong enough to kill you. And me. And a million others. That kind of sick?”

Dante slowed. “Think about it, Jonathan. It is possible for something very small to affect something very big. How about a mosquito? Just this big.” He pinched a bit of air between thumb and forefinger. “One little bite and big guys like you or me get malaria and die. How can that be? Mosquitoes aren’t poisonous. No venom. Mosquitoes are small compared to us but they’re huge compared to those tiny parasites they deliver. Those microscopic single-cell parasites that make a home in your liver for starters.” He leaned back. “Size doesn’t always relate to severity.”

Jonathan could feel his jaw tighten. Size, severity. Okay, but this was still––

Dante started to rub his hands together as if washing them. “How about plain old germs? In the 1930’s, surgeons argued about whether or not they should wash their hands between surgeries. These were smart people. College educated. Well trained. But ignorant of truth yet to be learned. There was this one surgeon, who did wash his hands, he noticed how well his patients did as a result. So he tells other surgeons. Did it change their minds? Nope. The other surgeons, intelligent, who passed tough medical exams of their day, they said washing hands is a big waste of time. They even smoked during surgery.” Dante took a puff on a make-believe cigarette. “Here nurse, hold my cigarette and pass me that scalpel.”

Jonathan chuckled. “Yeah, seems pretty dumb these days.”

Dante nodded. “Later on, with enough facts, surgeons stopped arguing about whether or not to wash hands.” He leaned forward. “Did they get smarter? No. They finally learned that size doesn’t always relate to severity. They learned that tiny unseen life forms can damage the health of a big, huge patient.” He leaned back again and rested one hand over the other on the table. “Doctors had practiced healing for thousands of years completely ignorant of one of the most important ways to help their patients heal––until just 50 years ago. Today it’s in the books. Everyone agrees. So now do they know it all? Or do you think there’s more they could learn?”

Jonathan shrugged. “I was married to a nurse and heard medical people say there’s more to learn. Always more to learn, I guess.” Strange. Linda always seemed to know it all. “Dante, I’m not going swallow arsenic.”

Dante’s eyes roamed across his, looking for something. “Do a majority of people have to agree for a thing to be true? Or is a thing true, regardless of how many people agree about it?”

Jonathan took his time to answer. Don’t get sucker punched. “Well, if something’s true, it’s true. What people think about it … doesn’t really matter.”

“Hmm,” Dante gave a slight nod, picked up the vial and rolled it between his fingers. “Scientists have studied this natural poison. Arsenic. Odorless. Tasteless. There’s a tiny dose that won’t hurt most people. But combine enough tiny drops and it reaches a degree where it’s lethal. So you see, Jonathan, something small can affect something big.

Dante again offered the vial to him. “Go ahead.”

Jonathan leaned backward, away from the poison in Dante’s hand. “Okay, Dante, okay. You made your point.”

Dante hesitated. “Something else to think about, Jonathan. You went out to your car, earlier. Well, you don’t really know…whether or not I already put a drop in your beer, do you?”

A hammer-like thud echoed in Jonathan’s head. The room spun. Dante was a lunatic. Why had he stayed? Get out now. He sprang from his chair but sudden dizziness weakened him, forcing him to grab the back of his chair to steady himself, stealing deep breaths through  thumping heart beats in his chest. Was this just fear? Or was it the arsenic? Would he see his kids again? The room stopped spinning. It was easier to breathe. Dizziness passed.

Dante started to chuckle and was soon laughing out loud. “Son, sit down.” Laughter sprouted between his words. “Please, sit … I’d never poison John’s grandson … I wouldn’t … poison you …” His fingertips fluttered downward, motioning for Jonathan to sit.

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