It was either Johann Sebastian Bach, composer, or Fred Kueffer, geometry teacher, that taught me all of life is about mathematics. Thus I probably shouldn't have felt as bad as I did last week when I had the temerity of reducing Lou Gehrig to another mere number, killing him in this publication from a disease he did not have (MS vs. ALS) years after he died. There probably is a reason the man has his own disease named after him after all.
I read recently if we could shrink the earth's population to a village of 100 people, with all the human ratios remaining the same, it would look something like the following: there would be 57 Asians, 21 Europeans, 14 from the Western Hemisphere both north and south, and 8 Africans. 52 would be female, 48 would be male, 70 would be non-white, and 30 would be white. 70 would be non-Christian, 30 would be Christian, 89 would be heterosexual, and 11 would be homosexual. Six people would possess 59% of the entire world's wealth and all 6 would be from the United States. 80 would live in substandard housing, 70 would be unable to read, 50 would suffer from malnutrition, 1 would be near death, and 1 would be near birth. One would have a college education, 1 would own a computer and 1 would be a short little neurotic Japanese-American who forgot to read his map and stumbled into the scene apart from the rest, more than a little perplexed, the perpetual outsider looking in.
We've become good at measuring our lives by the numbers: through time- whether chronologically or by a more pastoral method (the arc between dreams and memories for example); by money earned or not earned; by the distance traveled geographically as well as professionally and personally; and by the people known and left behind. There are a fortunate few who can step outside statistical constraints and see life in a more cosmic sense, but to do that is a difficult challenge indeed.
Last Wednesday, a day after I turned 35, I was in Rochester on a work assignment revisiting the Mayo Clinic eleven years after I went there on a more personal assignment. Back in 1988 I went on what I now refer to as my "secret government mission" two years before I actually started working for the government. The purpose for that visit had something to do with poetry and the meaning of life. The irony of this most recent visit was bringing with me a business card uncomfortably labeling me the very thing that was at the root of my last visit- a place I couldn't possibly imagine or believe I'd ever get to or return back. By any numeric standard it was a large step nearly impossible to measure.
As I was walking through the halls of St. Mary's Hospital, I passed an ATM machine. I remembered withdrawing cash from that machine during my first visit on my second to the last day there. I needed the cash to get a haircut from the hospital barber. The haircut was more symbolic than cosmetic- as if cutting my hair would give me a fresh start.
After surviving a tenacious downpour complete with being pelted by small chunks of hail, I found myself at the Mayo Clinic this second time around early in the morning, a witness to open heart surgery. Again there was something ethereal about the moment, about my last visit also being about an open heart that needed mending. The sight of the purple blood leaving the body and returning in its more recognizable red form didn't bother me as I expected it might, but rather was a reminder of how we shouldn't take for granted our next heart beat. To see the essence of life in the palm of somebody's hand was rather humbling.
On the morning of my birthday I opened my refrigerator and in the upper right hand corner, as it has for the past couple of years, sat a circular thermometer that my Mom loaned to me. She had read an article about how health officials were concerned that many refrigerators weren't storing food at safe temperatures. After I determined mine was fine I meant to give the thermometer back to Mom. I never got around to it, one of the simple life tasks that just never got done. The little metallic device made me feel sad inside. It was one of the many numerous things my Mom had given to me over the years- with love and concern. Now somehow it was a monument of all the scars my 35th year left behind. It was a difficult birthday. Even my friend with a song and dance got the number wrong and gave me a stroke instead of a stork. My father cooked my favorite meal, shrimp (I remain what I eat), and I went out to the cemetery to spend a moment with Mom. I made it through the day by reading some sacred books a friend loaned to me that were originally meant for her own children.
The days (daze?) surrounding the birthday were a little brighter. Sister number three, who was born nine years to the very day before we took our first steps on the moon, took my Dad and I out the night before for a sushi dinner. Three days later my favorite mother of two and I went out to lunch and shopping. I actually ended up getting my first Christmas gift of the season, with a mere 44 days before that particular holiday.
More numbers: About three months ago when I got the oil changed in my car I noticed on the reminder sticker that my car would turn over 100,000 miles before my next visit. Despite better made cars, turning from five to six digits on the odometer remains a milestone for any automobile. Now I've never been one to be too impressed by the cars people drive. I think the only one that ever really impressed me, impressed me for as an accomplishment, not as a status symbol. Back before she became the urban planning superstar, my friend Alex once was a tried and true Minnesotan. Though she passed on through much too quickly I forever and greatly will admire her for many a thing. One is working and paying her entire way diligently to a Masters Degree. Another is being perhaps the most determined person I've ever had the luck to know. When she was here it was always clear to me bigger and brighter moments were awaiting her. Perhaps an early clue that she wasn't long for this state was her first car, one of those fancy little Toyota MR-5 sports cars. I remember Mr. Max and I looking out the window of my tiny efficiency off Grand Avenue impatiently awaiting for her to pull up. Alex and I spent a few nights under the downtown stars, on our library nights that inevitably ended up at a coffee shop. That MR-5, one of her first tangible possessions of success, was stolen and later found wrapped around a tree. And still she took that all in stride.
My current Honda is the first car I bought all by myself. Last winter the front fender received a rather nasty looking dent due to its owner suffering a careless lapse. I thought about getting it fixed immediately because it was rather disheartening to look at but this all happened in the midst of my Mom's illness. Somehow I didn't have the heart, or it didn't seem that important to worry about the outward appearance of my car. Then as the old saving's account took a hit, there wasn't enough money to justify fixing something that didn't need immediate repair rather than for more pressing needs.
Still dented with the milestone closing in, I kept one eye peeled on the road and the other on the odometer in anticipation of letting out a holler, and short toot on the horn when the big moment arrived. On the evening I was to make a rare visit to my new wardrobe manager, the one who taught me how to blouse a shirt, turning a pumpkin into a jack o lantern- proceeded by a dozen roses because she knows the value of a nickel back, I patiently made my way through the madness of 35E during rush hour. As I arrived at the restaurant I glanced down and my mileage read 100,019. There was a palatable disappointment in the air- both from the car itself ("you ruin my fender, now you miss MY moment you lunkhead!") and from myself. We've traveled many roads together, always gotten safely to our destinations when that seriously seemed to be in doubt. I took a little comfort knowing the milestone was reached while going to see the person who is so effective in reminding me about the necessity of taking small steps to reach a more distant goal, and not writing a future that is not mine to write.
Recently a man shared with me a saying he used to help him through the difficult time of the death of his wife. "I keep what I have by giving it away," he said. As he relayed the saying I nodded although I had no idea what it meant. But it stuck inside and I now think I get the gist. At the end of the road when it's time to count up all the beans you've accumulated, the ones that carry the most weight aren't the ones in your possession but the ones you have shared with others. And if you've done your math right that number hopefully ends up to be too large to count.