Tuesday, August 12, 2014


As a writer, I appreciate perfection.  Probably because I can never attain it in my writing.  I’m lucky if I get close.  Oh, occasionally, I my hit the right word or quintessentially capture an image or an idea – and I get really excited.  It doesn’t happen that often.  This paragraph, for example, is barely adequate.  I mean, it’s informationally okay, but it is hardly “Hats Off!”  (A celebration of perfection demonstrated by your throwing your hat in the air.)  I’m going to stop here and hope I do better in Paragraph Two.

I have always coveted perfection.  There, you see?  “Coveted” is not precisely the word I am looking for.  But this being writing, and writing being a highly imperfect undertaking, I may simply have to live with it.  Maybe I’d be closer saying, “I have always reveled in perfection.”  Nah, they’re both not right.  Or maybe they are, and I am not perfect enough in my appraisal to recognize it.)

I remember studying for exams in High School – another imperfect undertaking, as I never got a hundred in anything.  (I once got a ninety-six on a biology “midterm.”  I remember there was one question I had no idea about, so I concocted a funny answer.  The teacher loved it.  But he still docked me four marks.  If it were a comedy ”midterm”, I’d have gotten those four marks.  But I’d have been docked ninety-six marks for writing a bunch of biology answers that weren’t funny.)

So there I am, lying on my bed (as was my habit), studying.  And being painfully aware that I would never get a hundred, I hungered for some distracting perfection – also not exactly the right word – a feeling similar to when I was studying and I hungered for a snack.  In those cases, I would get up and go into the kitchen.  (Or reach for the bag of Dare’s Chocolate Chip Cookies that I kept secreted under my bed specifically for that purpose.)

Hungering for perfection, I abandoned my studying, and I proceeded to do the following:

On some available scrap of paper, I wrote down two multi-digited numbers , one number directly above the other, and I multiplied them together.  I then took the answer I got, and divided it by one of those two numbers.  And every time I did that, I received as my answer…

The other number.


Because it never failed to happen.  No “remainders” – nothing.  It was precisely the other number. 

I am aware why that procedure never failed – because it’s a “Rule of Mathematics.”  When you multiply two numbers together, then divide the answer by one of those numbers, you will inevitably and without exception get the other one.  It is impossible not to.  Because that’s the way math works. 

Math is a system.  And, at least on the rudimentary level of multiplication and long division, its resolutions are perfect.

And proving that always felt good.

You know what else is like that?


Logic is always perfect, because the “Rules of Logic” inevitable-ize the outcome.  


“Everyone loves ‘cheaper’.”

“Universal Health Care is cheaper.”

“Everyone loves Universal Health Care.”

There, you s… no, wait.  They don’t.

But that’s not because of a flaw in the “Rules of Logic.”  It’s because of ideologically-driven emotion overriding the inevitable – and still perfect – logical conclusion. 

As someone I once knew said was their family’s motto:  “What are ya gonna do?”

I cling to logic, feeling comforted by its certainty.  Conversely, I am less at ease around emotion, with its “loose cannon” unpredictable, which is the opposite of logic, whose predictability is definitionally guaranteed.

Religion is perfect, if you believe in it.  The actions of the world are perfectly knowable.  Just not to us.  I can see why religion warms people.  The same way I was warmed by that long-divisional math answer.  Except with more rituals, and the possibility of Hell.

What can I contribute to the wonderland of perfection?  For the most part – nothing.  I am an imperfect specimen.  (And then some.)  Except for one thing.  One miniscule department where I can match basic math, logic and religion with my perfectionistic reliability.

I never litter.

(Unless my detritus blows into a busy street.  But that doesn’t count, does it?  You don’t have to die to keep from littering.  That’s in the Talmud.  Or should be.)

You know what?  I think I slipped past the word I was looking for:


That’s how I felt when I eschewed my exam studying to play around with numbers.  And that’s how I feel when I hold a used Kleenex in my hand till I finally encounter a trashcan.  And were I religious, I would feel comforted in that too.

Wait a minute.  Religion’s not (at least not externally) logical. 

Hm.  “Dueling Perfections.”  And logic’s a fabrication of the brain, which, if you are religious, reflects God’s handiwork.

They can’t both be perfect, can they?

I feel like a non-swimmer here.  Somebody throw me a lifesaver.  

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The thing that makes math special is that once a thing is proven it *stays* proven. Results in the other sciences can be overridden or invalidated by new information (for example, at one time plague was thought to be caused by "miasma", or "bad air"; now we know it's caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis; the people who blamed bad air were doing the best they could at the time). Math is more like an endless cathedral that is being built brick by brick and where once a brick has been put in place it stays put.

Bertrand Russell's great question was to put mathematics on a basis of formal logic. (The readable version of this is the brilliant graphic novel LOGICOMIX. Really.)

So: when you were imperfect you found comfort in the one thing in life where something can be permanently solved. I understand this, although a question does arise: have you tried chocolate?