The Only True Things

November 04, 2021

I don’t want to lie or mislead. I want the things I say to be true. I don’t think this is a virtue, just a preoccupation.

I remember a mother’s day when I was 4 or 5 years old. I refused to tell my mom she was the best mom in the world. I had been told it was the expected thing to say, but I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t have been honest. I was confident she was a very good mom, but I didn’t want to say that she was the best out of all of them. I hadn’t met all the moms in the world. She deserved better than frivolous platitudes, so I gave her the best truth I had.

In hindsight, I was precocious but not insightful. I had only a shallow understanding of the words, a shallow version of truth.

Very often, if you try to say something which is absolutely true, you’ll find edge cases where it’s false. The exalted Golden Rule, for example, has a pretty big loophole. Treating others as you’d like to be treated opens they way for masochists to treat other people terribly. Like a Bukowski type situation.

So you try and pare down overbroad advice until it is totally and always true, and what is left is so vague as to no longer be useful. Or you’ll add so many caveats that it’s unwieldy and no longer is universal. Certainly a more totally true version of the Golden Rule is “be good to people”, but that’s not very actionable, and pretty open to interpretation. I think most bad people sincerely believe they’re being good. It’s important to the worldview of the fascist that he is actually somehow good despite the harm he knows he does.

It is hard to find truths both useful and universal. The world is just too complicated for broad statements to hold up to scrutiny. You shouldn’t steal unless you need to. Do no harm, unless someone really needs harm done to them.

So for a few years now, I’ve conscientiously tried to collect useful and universal truths. Until recently, I had found three:

  1. If you’re ever doing something in your house and you think to yourself “should I be doing this over the sink?”, you should certainly do it over the sink.
  2. If someone tries to break up with you, let them.
  3. When people shows you who they are, believe them the first time

I don’t remember where I heard the first two, but the last one is from Maya Angelou. It applies to institutions as well as people, and it’s perversely hard to follow. I often let my wishes for who a person ought to be cloud my sight from what they actually do.

The second thing is heartbreaking but I still haven’t encountered a counterexample. Maybe one day I will. But in all cases I’ve witnessed or imagined, trying to convince someone not to leave you has no possible good outcomes.

Sadly, it’s the first rule that I’ve recently had to amend, which is a shame because it’s the only lighthearted one of the three, and the most useful in the day-to-day of moving about your space. Re-potting a plant? Over the sink! Decanting a jar? Over the sink! There is no middle ground of whether or not an activity could benefit from being done over the sink, so if the thought even occurs to you, you’re better off doing it over the sink.

All three rules have served me well.

Except for this one time.

I like to fidget. I have fidget toys on my desk, but I’m happy with clicking pens or chapstick caps or bouncing my knee. Still, I’m often on the lookout for new fidget toys. I saw some videos of elemental gallium, and I thought to myself it could be pretty cool toy.

Gallium is a metal with the second lowest melting point, after mercury. Unlike mercury, it’s fairly benign and won’t kill you. It’s a solid at room temperature but can melt in the palm of your hand, which is really cool. I bought myself 100 grams of it, because I thought it would be a good fidget toy. Side note: it turns out liquids don’t make good fidgets. It’s a cool toy though, but it takes too much attention to manage.

Besides its low melting point, gallium has another interesting property: it readily amalgamates with aluminum at room temperature. In other words, it soaks into aluminum and destroys it.

Reader, you might see where this is going.

I melted some gallium in hot water, and was playing with it in the palm of my hand. A thought struck me:

It would really suck if this got into the carpet and solidified. Ah, one of the three true things in life is that I should do this over the sink!

And I immediately spilled the liquid metal down the drain. It got stuck in the u-bend under the sink and, I imagined, immediately set about destroying my apartment plumbing. This hasn’t happened to a lot of people. It is not the type of problem you can google.

It was fine, in the end. I unscrewed the pipes, fished out the grimy metal, and threw it away. I had escaped a serious ding on my security deposit.

But I was not unharmed. One of my three precious truths had been disproven. The amended version is “do it over the sink, unless you’re playing with gallium specifically.” I don’t know though, it lacks the elegance and immediacy of the original. Alas.


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I'm Vincent, a web developer who lives in San Diego, and also I eat a lot of pasta. My pronouns are he/him.
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