Thursday, February 20, 2003

Demand Answers, Maybe

The other day somebody asked me what my greatest fault was. I had it coming, as I had just mentioned having one. I didn't tell her the answer, because I want to save that for the grand jury, but it got me thinking. Since I won't admit my greatest fault, what minor faults would I admit? A few minor faults might come in handy, to act as a smokescreen covering up the big one.

A lot of cool minor faults sprang to mind, and then I remembered how much I like to speculate.

Liking to speculate probably doesn't seem like any kind of fault to most of you. But then most of you probably haven't been practicing mathematicians. The following conversation actually happened once, between a colleague of sorts and myself.

Me: "You know what would be cool? If the universe was perfectly round. Yeah, I'll bet it is. I'll bet space is a 4-dimensional sphere."

Him: "What?! Why?"

Me: "Because it would be so cool. You'd know where everything was. You could set up your longitudinal and your latitudinal and your turpitudinal lines. You could spin it in three directions. Maybe it would even bounce nicely if you dropped it in 5-dimensions. Instead of bouncing like a 4-dimensional football."

Him: "What's the proof?"

Me: "I don't have a proof. I'm just guessing for the fun of it."

Him: [Backing slowly away.] "You can't do that. You have to have a proof! You can't just say anything you want…"

Woof! Can you say "conflicting values"? And my other colleagues felt the same way. Eventually I learned to keep my love of speculation in the same dark hidden place in my soul where I kept my love of toe jam art and midget-on-stuffed-animal pornography.

Now I'm old enough, poor enough, and far enough away from any math department that I can broadcast my wicked perversion of the mind. I have no career to lose.

I feel sorry for those poor engineers at NASA who can't do the same. You can see it in the faces when they get on TV. They want to say why they think Columbia blew apart. But that would be doing the S-word thing. It would violate the code. You have to be led there by the evidence. Guessing is not allowed in their profession.

The same goes for prosecuting attorneys trying to figure out what to do about Michael Jackson. Think of the bind they're all in. Even if they couldn't charge him with anything, you know they'd love to say what they think is going on. But they can't. It would violate the code.

The experts are amazingly quiet these days on the subject of Dolly's early demise and what it might portend for any human clones that may or may not be out there.

I guess it's a good thing that all these professional experts show that kind of restraint. When an authority speculates, people don't always recognize that's what's going on. Hey, it doesn't even have to be an authority. Shirley MacLaine has admitted that her speculations about past lives are just that, but that doesn't stop her from having true-believer followers. But when it's an authority it works faster. If a pope speculates about a virgin birth, it's a fact within the week.

Still I hope that the vast majority of you share my ugly little fault. I want to believe that people are prepared to jump at conclusions based on shabby evidence. After all, your government never wants you to have any more than shabby evidence. They're counting on you to be afraid to guess at the truth.

Keep it up, and demand answers.

Thursday, February 6, 2003

Birds Are Nuts

This is going to be one of those columns that isn't about anything. All the conditions point to it. For one thing, all the news is too depressing to write about here. You can only make fun of North Korea so much, and then people start to whimper. Iraq isn't at all funny anymore. The economy is only good for about ten lines and then I remember that my rent is due. Then Anitra "on whose kitchen floor I used to sleep" Freeman insists that I pick up malted milk balls for her at the store. A dollar eighty-nine. For a stinking bag of malted milk balls.

The good news: I'm back on my meds. The bad news: I'm back on my meds. No more interestingly bizarre perspectives. No more am I able to write pages and pages extolling the virtues of experiencing paper cuts and surviving.

It's times like this that being scattered is all I have. It's my anti-foundation, a non-solid core to wrap myself around. All my security emanates from my liquid centerlessness. Without it I would have to settle down and be something, which would surely result in doom. If that doesn't make sense to you, then you understand more than you know.

Mr. Stephens taught me that you could be scattered and still collect a paycheck. Mr. Stephens was my 8th grade math teacher. He was stark raving scattered. He would spend the first minute of every class going over the answers to the homework due that day. Like this: "The answers were 5, 17, 16.3, and 1." Then he would spend 50 minutes telling us about his house on Mercer Island, and about the patio he just built over his carport, and how he built part of the patio around a tree, and about how we should all respect how cool that was. Then Mr. Stephens would spend the last four minutes giving us the next day's homework.

At the same time I was taking "business principles" from Mrs. Wilson (these are not the real names.) "Business principles" was all about how to write out a check, mostly. I don't know how the schools got away with wasting kids time like that in those days. I hope they do better now. But Mrs. Wilson wasn't satisfied with just wasting our time with the syllabus. She felt it was necessary to spend at least thirty minutes of each class telling us how her daughter was a swimmer for the US Olympic team, and she won a silver medal for something. I learned that Mrs. Wilson's daughter got the silver approximately sixty times. That is roughly equal to the number of spitwads that I personally landed on Mrs. Wilson when her back was turned, during that term.

Why am I telling you this? I just want you all to know things could be worse. In addition to being scattered I could be a broken record, like my unbelievably neurotic middle-school teachers. But at least when I scatter, I scatter in a different direction every time.

Speaking of broken records, Groundhog Day just passed. No I'm not thinking about the Bill Murray movie, although that was good. Instead I'm thinking about a green singing finch I adopted on Groundhog's day 1990. I called him Zino, after the violinist Zino Francescatti, and he was a fantastic broken record. Apparently, birds are the ultimate broken records. They do not know the concept of "enough".

Zino had this trick where he would jump off his perch and attach himself up-side-down to the top of his cage. Then he would drop back to his perch, doing a back flip in the process. All this would be done to elicit a "wow" from me. Then he would do it again, to get another "wow". Then again, for another "wow". And again and again. Until finally I couldn't take it anymore. When I couldn't say "wow" anymore Zino might quit after one or two more times. But he never quit as long as the "wows" came.

I want to believe there is a lesson in all this for all humanity. From a back flip obsessed bird to a patio obsessed neurotic math teacher to a silver medal obsessed neurotic business principles teacher, I want to draw a moral for all of us to live by.

How's this? -- Everybody be careful what you say "wow" to.