An Observation: Not-So-Standard Units of Measurement

One mile is comprised of 5,280 feet. One foot is comprised of twelve inches. Inches are divided into halves, quarters, eighths, and so forth. As Americans–who have proudly shunned the metric system since the first wheels took shape–we commonly accept these as our standard units of measurement.

Science tells us this. We cannot argue with it because, after all, science is an exact science. Now, to be fair, it’s exact in the right hands; sayings such as “measure twice, cut once” exist because someone, at some time, was being careless with their exact scientific measurements.

Somewhere along the way, human beings begin to eschew standard units of measurement in favor of convenience (or laziness). For example, asking a hairdresser to trim “about” one inch of hair is usually measured with a thumbnail or on the bottom of a comb. “About,” in the aforementioned case, renders exact measurements null and void by virtue of the Principle of Exact Estimates. (Plus, not all thumbnails or combs are created equal. Thumbnails chip. The comb could have been a little too close to the hair dryer one day, for all you know. Plastic has been known to melt.)

This eventually progresses to “just a little off the top” at barber shops, further eroding the exactness of the standard unit of measurement and leaving your hairstyle in the hands of potentially catastrophic variations of interpretation.

In the areas of life in which standard units of measurement begin to erode, interpretation takes over, and this is where my thought process goes into overdrive.

Let’s explore this idea, shall we?

Let’s begin with music. My livelihood.

The expression “close enough for jazz” really angers a lot of jazz musicians. How close is close enough for jazz? From personal experience, I can tell you that most of the improv solos I’ve ever attempted haven’t been close enough for ANYTHING. Jazz is a non-standard unit of measurement, I suppose…depending on who you ask. The expression is meant to imply that jazz has no real standard unit of measurement, angering the purists among us who try desperately to perform in the correct style for any given jazz situation. Clearly, whoever came up with this expression never had to sit through a six-hour rehearsal and listen to a lead trumpet player repeatedly fuss over the exact length of a staccato eighth note.

Moving on…

Pros and cons.

People are always weighing pros and cons.

Well, okay. How much does one unit of pro or con weigh, exactly? Do you begin with a starting weight for each one? After all, not every point in an issue that warrants the weighing of pros and cons carries the same level of gravity.

Hmmm. I’d like to take my friends out for seafood. I really want to invite Timmy. But…Timmy is deathly allergic to shellfish.

Let’s weigh the pros and cons here.

Pro: Get to hang out with Timmy for the evening.

Con: He might get to ride in an ambulance if we pass him the shrimp cocktail. He might even spend a little time in a coma. The starting weight for this con is about sixty units of…something…to the five units of…something…for the pro. Maybe I should even this out by seeing if everyone wants steak.

Sheesh. When are they gonna set up some standard units for the weight of pro versus con?

However, aren’t pros and cons fairly fluid concepts, anyway? Say a con becomes a pro while you’re thinking about them as they go onto the scales. Does that con truly become a pro? Or would you refer to it as an ex-con? Captivating thought.

Next up…a boatload.

Technically, this is a boatload.
Technically, this could be a boatload.

I suppose this one is simply a relative term, seeing as how my first paddle boat uncomfortably seated two. Hence, its maximum boatload capacity was a grand total of two. The rich and famous have access to yachts, and a boatload to them might be a staff of six with four passengers (you know, to maintain enough personal space to ensure the luxury of the experience). A boatload could also refer to cargo, which might be packed in like sardines, which opens a whole other can of worms in this whole “standard unit of measurement” discussion.

However, seeing as how most people don’t use “boatload” in the nautical sense (it actually does have a nautical definition…I think…), its degree of relativity is open to all kinds of interpretation…although most would generally agree that a boatload is supposed to be “a lot.” (Another non-standard unit of measurement.) We’ll just leave it at “a lot.”

Finally–for now, anyway–one last phrase.

A lifetime.

As far as units of measurement go, this one irritates me the most.

I thought about it after I watched a documentary about a child prodigy. A well-established expert in the child’s area of talent claimed that it would take most people a lifetime to achieve the level of accomplishment that the young boy had reached in his mere twelve years of life.

Umm…yeah. Thus far, in this boy’s life, it has taken all twelve years of it to reach this particular point. Therefore, it has taken him a lifetime. His lifetime. Another more standard unit of measurement really needs to be used in this case, because everyone has taken a lifetime to get where they are today, no matter where they are.

I suppose the expression could be taken to mean “a lot” of years, which then defers back to “boatload,” depending on the size of the boat…which is making my head spin enough to call it a day…or night.

Or perhaps I could call it an evening.

It’s all a relative, non-standard unit of measurement anyway.