Million Dollar Girl
Version Date: October 11, 2008
The effect of the low lighting was that waiters seemed to appear suddenly with items of food or drink and then disappear into the darkness. Instead of the normal mingle of voices one hears in a typical restaurant, there was only a quiet murmur, accompanied by a limited clinking of dishes.
The quiet expression of joy as a ring box was opened at one table, the little smooching sounds of newly affectionate lovers at another, even the somewhat angered, “Oh, that’s it, is it?” were all unheard or unattended by the others.
What those at two or three tables did share unexpectedly was the view of some flames leaping up from about table height near the warming pans. Among the scraps of mingled conversation, an attentive listener might have made out the words flambé and cherries jubilee and fajitas.
The flames, however, were more persistent than the flare-up of a cook’s creation. They continued to burn, producing smoke that now began to darken the restaurant even more as the air conditioning system circulated the smoke from the room behind the accordion wall into the main restaurant area. The smoke and flame were not products of cooking food or even of burning food. Several people began hesitantly to use the word fire. A couple wondered if they should get up and leave. Their waiter reassured them that everything was under control and told them they would have to pay their bill first. He left to get help, while the couple believed he was going to prepare their bill.
Less than a minute had passed before people began to talk in louder tones of alarm and even stir themselves as if readying to leave. Someone on the kitchen staff used the words fire extinguisher. A waiter was overheard telling another table, “Don’t worry. I’m sure they’ll take care of it.”
Two other waiters were talking about wet towels. Another could be heard to say, “It’s really burning.”
By the time several couples had given up on enjoying a quiet and romantic dinner and had stood up beside their booths to leave, a cook appeared with a fire extinguisher and readied it for use. He held it up while a waiter grabbed the end of the accordion wall with a wet towel and pulled it open.
Just as the cook released the stream of powder from the extinguisher, the flames responded to the rush of oxygen from the opened wall. The hot gasses that had been trapped along the low ceiling reached the flashover point. Fire exploded along the ceiling and out of the room, shooting into the dining area and instantly lighting the hanging paper animals and the artificial flowers. The fire ate ferociously into this eager new fuel, producing even more acrid, black smoke and streams of burning plastic.
The moment of flashover had triggered an instant riot. Screaming, choking, coughing, crashing dishes, clattering furniture, stumbling, shouting, all mingled together as everyone tried to find a way out. Some people passed out from the smoke, some tripped over the fallen chairs and upturned tables, some crashed into each other in their hysteria.
“I can’t see!” someone yelled.
“Where are the lights? It’s too dark,” another said. More bumping and crashing.
“Where’s the exit?” someone demanded, in a hysterical voice. A panicked face froze on the screen.
“Okay, review buffs,” Professor Miller said, as the lights came up in the classroom. “What’s an obvious reason these people didn’t react fast enough?”
Three hands in the room of 50 students went up.
“Yes?” Miller said, pointing.
“It was too dark to see what was going on?”
“Well, yes, that was a factor, all right. Markayla?”
“They did not have time to conceive, I mean, to conceptualize, the situation.”
“That’s right. Conceptualization time is often a hindering factor when something develops so quickly.” Miller wrote delayed conceptualization on the board. It was not a truly sophisticated term, but he wanted to get something up there. “In these situations, people just don’t know what’s going on. They are clueless. In fact, surprise is a compliance technique used by criminals. When you’re taken off guard, you are more likely to agree to something you’d otherwise reject if you had time to think—to reason—about it.” He debated with himself about adding compliance technique to the board, but decided against it. “However, we have already thoroughly explored the concept of conceptualization as a requisite precursor to decision making. The issue here is the observation of detail. My first question, then, is—.” Miller paused for effect, making eye contact with several in the classroom. “—What color was the fire when it started?”
Amy’s hand went up amid a few spoken offers of “yellow” and “orange” and one of “white.”
“Blue?” someone said in a tone of critical disbelief.
“Fire isn’t blue,” someone else said.
“Was that a blonde that said that?” David asked. He was sitting next to Jennica, who, he knew, disliked blonde stereotypes. He smirked at her. She punished him with a look of death from her eyes and a punch of pain from her fist. David considered her reaction a proof of his wit.
Miller was secretly disappointed that someone had given the correct answer without the need to review the film. He thought the point was much better made when everyone felt silly and incompetent for having such poor observational skills. He recalled semesters when he had to show the film clip several times before someone could overcome the expectation of seeing a yellow flame and see it as it actually was.
In this case, Miller believed that someone from a previous class had passed the answer along to Amy: “If he shows the clip about the restaurant fire, the answer is ‘blue.’”
But this was not the case. Amy’s upbringing had taught her to be observant. Her father would often ask her an unexpected question about her environment (“Did you notice the footprints near the drive through?”) and she had accustomed herself to look around and be ready to answer. Reading Sherlock Holmes had helped, too, as she attempted to imitate Holmes’ keen skills. She almost ran a red light one day while too keenly observing the sidewalk near an intersection. And her father had brought home a few crime-scene investigation training videos which she watched with him profitably. Therefore, it was little challenge to ask her what color the flame was in a short film of a dark restaurant catching on fire.
Professor Miller decided he would test the girl’s answer. It is one thing to have the right answer (possibly from guessing or being told) and quite another thing to know why the answer is right. He was well aware of the luck of the “superficially competent” in the younger generation and knew that often on the slightest test, the apparent expert would collapse. “Blue?” he asked, noncommittally. “Why do you say blue?”
“Because the flames were blue,” Amy said.
Titters of laughter here and there echoed through the class as many students remained skeptical and waited only for Professor Miller’s signal or critical word before they burst out with loud and derisive laughter.
“And where do blue flames come from?” Miller asked.
“The stork brings them,” someone said quietly in back. A private laughter emerged in that corner of the room.
“When alcohol burns, the flame is blue,” Amy said. “It’s easy to see in the dark.”
“What else can you see in the dark?” the back row said.
“Are you in the dark a lot?” someone else back there asked.
Miller could not understand what was being said in the back, but he could hear the talking. “You morons in the back shut up,” he said. Then returning to Amy, he continued. “Well, Amy, you are right.” A few surprised outbursts of “Huh?” sprinkled the room. “The flames were blue at first,” he conceded. “In fact, it was an alcohol flame.”
Markayla leaned over to Amy and whispered, “You are shining.”
“Now the next question,” Miller went on, “is, Where did the fire start?”
“Under the warming pans?” someone volunteered.
“Close, but no cigar,” said Miller.
“I know,” said another. “The fire started behind the flexible wall.”
“Well, that’s true, but that’s a little too broad,” said Miller. “More specifically, where did the fire start?” Amy’s hand was still up, from the moment he had asked the second question. He finally acknowledged her.
“Next to the warming table.”
Miller was still not convinced that Amy had gotten these answers on her own. Nevertheless, her answer was correct, so he said so. Markayla gave Amy a little shove of congratulation.
“Okay, last question,” Miller said. “Where were the exits?”
Amy did not raise her hand right away. She scoured her brain for a memory that would answer the question, cranking her head to one side and rolling her eyes up. Before she could come up with anything, people began guessing. Eventually, someone got lucky with the few left over possibilities. The exit had been to the right, near the kitchen. There had been no lit exit sign.
Professor Miller went on with the lecture for the day, discussing the necessity of close observation and analysis. “Merely looking at something, merely seeing something, is not enough,” he explained. “You must recognize what you are looking at, without allowing perceptual prejudices to interfere with your understanding.” He wrote perceptual prejudices on the board. “Too often,” he said, “you see what you expect to see, or what you want to see. That’s why when 13-year-old boys are asked to describe a crashing plane’s last moments, they always say they saw flames coming out of the engines, even though later investigation shows there were no flames. They have conditioned themselves to expect flames, so they see flames. You must learn not to see only what you expect.” The words, conditioned expectations, went up on the board, and were then a little too dramatically crossed out.
“Careful observation, coupled with rational analysis, is the only guide to truth.” Rational analysis went on the board in large letters and was circled and underlined. If you are to learn how to think, you must be able to take things apart, find the components, the causes, the actual small facts. Pull the wings off the flies and look at them under a microscope.”
A hand went up. “Yes, Jennica?”
“But isn’t it true that reason is only one way of looking at things? That there are other ways just as valid?”
“That’s a bunch of postmodernist bunk,” Miller said, with some edge. “Whatever cannot be reasoned about is unintelligible glop from the fuzzy edges of sanity. That’s for people who talk to the dead and hang crystals over their beds.” He wrote intelligibility on the board almost violently. His chalk broke.
“But how do you reason about stuff like love and beauty?” Jennica persisted.
“Vague abstractions with subjective and personal meanings are not the arena of reason. Those are more in the area of private feelings, not subject to analysis. Everybody defines those terms differently, so there is some question about whether they actually have any real meaning.”
Professor Miller’s tone indicated to the class that this was not a subject to be explored further, so no other questions were asked. Jennica looked down at her notes in order to hide the expression on her face.
“Blondes,” David whispered, trying to get another rise out of her.
“Jerks,” Jennica said, in the same whisper.
Miller continued his lecture by discussing the importance of analyzing the surrounding world. “Your own experience, your friends, and the media, especially advertising, condition you to pay attention only to certain things and to ignore others. When you are shown a scene, you have been pre-programmed to see either just the mud or just the just the marble. Unless you develop your own ability to think, you will pass through life as a slave. A slave to every phony snake oil salesman on the planet.” Miller was a little disappointed in himself at not finding a more dramatic expression. He had wanted this last point to wham down on the table hard, so that it might sink into the thick heads staring almost blankly in front of him.
It was, however, his final, mildly spoken comment at the end of the hour that jerked attention away from the daydreams and focused it on him. “And remember that your essay is due next Monday. This is your last reminder.” He had almost added the word children to the end of the sentence, but caught himself. “You’re all adults here. I expect that you will remember this.”
Miller gritted his teeth as he listened to the “What?” and “Huh?” and “How long is it, again?” and “What was the topic?” that indicated how many students had not even begun to think about the paper yet.
At the Cave the talk began with an animated discussion of the coming paper.
“Has anybody started yet?” asked David.
“I’ve started, a little,” said Jennica, “but now I’m not sure what to do, since Dr. Miller trashed some of the ideas I was working with, about love and stuff.”
“He really dissed love and beauty, didn’t he?”
“What’s love?” Gina asked, with a look of amusement.
“Started your paper yet?” Jennica asked Gina.
“Not yet. I’m working on another project first.”
“What about you Amy? Have you started?” David asked.
“Well, yes,” Amy began. She was hesitant to say how much she had done because she was almost finished. She knew that procrastinators never liked to hear about someone who was far ahead of them on an assignment.
“What are you writing about?”
“I’m trying to say that reason helps me understand the world. I’m using examples from my dad’s teaching me to think as a little girl, when he pointed out butterflies and cocoons and stuff.”
“Oh, good idea,” said Jennica. Personal examples. I’ll have to think up a couple of those.”
“Just make them up,” David said. “He’ll never know.”
“What are you going to write about?”
“I’m going to look at my lecture notes,” David answered, “and just parrot whatever Miller has said. I’ll put in a bunch of stuff about not wanting my mind to be controlled by the media. That kind of junk.”
“You’re just going to write a total kiss-up instead of what you really think?”
“Sure. Tell him what he wants to hear. That’s the real secret to success in the university. Most of the professors just want you to agree with them. That’s what they reward.”
“But don’t you think they want you to learn to think for yourself?”
“Naw. That’s a bunch of crap. Public relations. Otherwise they wouldn’t punish you when you disagree with their pet theories.”
“What you are saying cannot be right,” Markayla said. “Professors must have more integrity than that. They, especially Dr. Miller, must be more reasonable than that. He holds reason up very high.”
“Believe what you want,” David said. “You kind of live in your own little world anyway, don’t you?”
“I am trying to live in a world of reason and truth and love,” said Markayla.
“Good luck,” Gina said.
“Does anybody get the feeling that Dr. Miller doesn’t like our class?” Jennica asked.
“I think he likes Gina,” said Julie Carmichael, breaking a long silence by talking to the table top rather than looking up.
“Oh, I hope so,” said Gina. Then after a few moments pause, she continued, “But now that you mention it, I really have to go and do something with that paper. I’ve got a bit of other homework and a few phone calls to make before dinner.”
“I saw tonight’s menu. It’s nothing to get worked up about.”
“I don’t live in the dorm. And besides, tonight I’m going out to the Shooting Star.”
Gina just smiled.
“Isn’t that the place where they have $29 steaks and $12 appetizers?”
“I don’t care. The guy’s paying.”
“That is so cold.”
“Well, he asked me to go. I didn’t force him.”
“Do you care about this guy or are you just going for the food?” Everyone at the table knew that “this guy” meant Jeremy.
“I’m going for fun. It’s just a date.”
“The Shooting Star is not ‘just a date.’” said Jennica.
“Think you could ever get serious about this guy? I mean really interested?” Julie asked.
“Whether he has what I need to make me happy.”
“And what is the key to making you happy?” David asked, hoping for some sort of risqué response.
“Money sounds about right.”
“But they say money can’t buy happiness.”
“Yes, people without money are always saying that.”
“I don’t think wealth is enough for real happiness,” Amy said.
“Then maybe I’ll just buy imitation happiness and not look too close,” Gina concluded as she turned and walked off toward the parking lot.
Julie breathed deeply and shook her head. “That girl has everything. Looks, figure, smarts, charm, you name it.”
“Yeah,” said Jennica, “but what does it get her?”
“Yeah,” Julie continued, “only dinner with Jeremy at the Shooting Star and Dr. Miller wrapped around her little finger. Even David is drooling.” Julie mussed his hair as punishment.
“Hey,” is all he said.
“No guy has ever taken me to the Shooting Star. I heard that everything’s a la carte. A side of asparagus is $17.”
“It’s more like Hamburger Cottage or Stan’s Grill for me on a date,” Jennica said. “Seventeen dollars is food for three.”
Amy was nodding. She and Matt had gone to Half a Loaf the night before, an unpretentious and informal sandwich shop, just a slight cut above fast food. She recalled their conversation. She asked Matt whether he preferred to take her out for steak and lobster or for prime rib and truffles, only to have him mention Half a Loaf. (“I know it’s only a cheap date,” he had said, half apologetically. “But they have great sandwiches. Foot-long French rolls with four kinds of meat and two kinds of cheese and all the extras.” Amy’s response had been, “Well, let’s go indulge you, then. I’ll be your cheap date.”)
“Why does dating have to be such a con game?” Julie asked.
“The whole world is a con game,” David said. “Why should dating be any different?”
“Just like your con for Miller?”
“Sure. I mean, stop being so uptight about all this. Playing it straight gets you nowhere. You do what you have to. That’s what I call being reasonable.”
“So you’d lie to a girl to get a date?”
“Hey, I do what needs to be done. I’m not hurting anybody.”
Jennica shook her head openly. Markayla rolled her eyes. Amy thought how much she appreciated Matt.
“But if everybody lies to everybody else, how can you trust anybody?” Amy asked.
“If everybody lies to everybody else, it’s called the real world. Look around you. Corporations, politicians, lawyers, even professors are all lying and cheating all the time. Welcome to planet earth.” David knocked his knuckles on Amy’s head. “Hello. Is anyone in there?”
“Ow. David, stop it.”
“Bad examples should not be examples for us,” Markayla said. “Just because others do wrong makes no excuse for us to do wrong. That is folly.”
“You’re going to go really far,” David said.
“So then you believe in the ‘cheat to compete’ thing?” asked Julie.
“It’s not like the university is the real world,” David said.
“But in the real world, too?”
“Survival of the fittest.”
“Do you know what they call a guy who cheats his way through medical school?” Jennica asked the group.
“What?” Markayla said.
“That is so scary,” Julie said.
Go on to Chapter 7
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