Out There: Number games

A quarter century in this country and I never really know how hot it is, nor how fast I'm traveling.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
I'm no good at numbers, never have been, which is why I chose to go into journalism, not engineering. The last math class I took was 10th grade geometry, barely getting by with a C, and that largely thanks to a tall, really smart Vietnamese immigrant (I could peek underneath his arm) who sat in front of me in class. I can't divide fractions, need to get instructions from Google about how to figure out a percentage and am unable to automatically do the whole feet-to-metric conversion thing in my head. A quarter century in this country and I never really know how hot it is (30º Celsius means nothing to me), nor how fast I'm traveling (110 kilometers an hour doesn't register, while 65 miles per hour is something I can understand). This all can be a bit embarrassing at times, like when the kids - as they were wont - used to ask about my height. "Abba, how tall are you," they would innocently query, wanting to one-up their friends who had short parents. "Six feet," I said feeling downright enormous. "No, in meters," they would say. "I have no clue," I replied, feeling suddenly puny. "Go learn about feet." This metric conversion thing also took much of the joy out of watching the Olympics. I have various track-and-field benchmarks etched in my consciousness, like Bob Beaman's 29-foot long jump, or that if you hurl the javelin 290 feet you're doing pretty good, or that a pole vault of 18 feet is very high. But when the announcer says some guy high jumped 2.2 meters, I'm lost, ruffling through the conversion charts and missing the spontaneous awe of the moment. In short, numbers are not my business. Nevertheless, I was able to live with this shortcoming for two reasons. The first was because my mother, trying to console me, actually had me convinced that it was okay to be bad at math, since I was good at social studies. In the reassuring universe she constructed for me, some things were simply either/or. Either you were good at math, or you were good in the humanities; either good in science, or good in history. You couldn't be good at both or - contrarily - bad at both. It's like Leonardo da Vinci - who was good at both science and art - never existed. I might not be able to figure out the area of a triangle but, gosh darn it, I knew the capital of North Dakota. I GREW UP with a lot of other either/or equations as well. Like how people were either rich or happy; beautiful or nice. Not from a family of enormous means, I was comforted that while we were not wealthy, at least we were happy. What really shook my foundations was when I grew up and met people who were both rich and happy. I hated that, it turned my universe inside out. Another either/or equation was the one about marrying someone nice or good looking. My sister and I would sit around for hours debating the theoretical question of whether we would want to marry somebody who was beautiful or upright. The "right" answer, or the answer we would say when the folks were listening, was that we would want to marry the upright person. "Beautiful on the inside," my dad would say, adding only years later the caveat, "Yeah, but who really wants a good looking pancreas." Again, I was thrown for a loop when I later met stunning people who were actually very decent. The other reason why my numbers handicap never bothered me was because I didn't think I would really ever need numbers. I wasn't going to be an accountant, nuclear physicist or baseball scorekeeper. And even if I did use numbers, I was lucky to be living in the calculator era. But I was wrong. In this age of ID numbers and ever-present security passwords, I'm surrounded by numbers and the constant demand that I mentally retrieve them. But I can't. That's not entirely true. Some numbers I can remember, but usually only in one language. Like my ID number. For whatever reason, it might be a rhythm thing or a mental block, when under pressure from someone on the other side of the phone, I can only recite that number in English. My mind simply won't reflexively retrieve numbers in Hebrew. Words, yes; numbers, no. I used to try to whip out my ID card and read the numbers in Hebrew, but people got a bit suspicious when they'd ask for my ID number and I'd reply, "Just a minute while I look it up." So now I just give the numbers in English. This works great - no delay, no confusion, no reversing digits - but has an unintended consequences: The person on the other end will then generally respond in English. And if there is one thing I've grown to hate over the last 25 years, it's when Israelis - either because they hear my accent or detect a grammatical error - respond to me in my native tongue. I would rather force my accented Hebrew on them, than have them "uuh" and "eeh" me in English. Actually, it's more than that. It's a blow to my pride, my ego, my sense of self. Here I am in the country for so long, and they think I don't know the language? I'll show them the language. "I know Hebrew," I snapped at one woman after her innocent ID inquiry led her to speak to me in English. "I'm not stupid; I learned the language. It's just that I can't remember numbers in Hebrew." "Uh-huh," she said, in a patronizing tone, one that - in my lingering immigrant insecurity - I interpreted as meaning, "What's that you said about not being stupid?"