While I was imagining a battered
and bloody Mother Earth that had been raped of all of her blessings
by yours truly, Daniel began to scroll some mathematical symbols on
the board. He talked about the significance of the symbols,
and how they are used to help bring abstract ideas into
reality. I thought about my own favorite abstraction - TV -
which I try and bring into my real life all the time. However,
most of the time this abstraction takes me out of the
"present" and into Mr. Roger's land of "make
believe". For instance, watching TV makes me believe
(subconsciously or not) things like...
- 99.7% of the population SHOULD
BE really good looking, and the remaining 0.3% is made up of
chubby, funny, weathermen
- Eating obscure "foods"
like buffalo intestines and risking your life in various stunts
is a viable career option for those looking to earn a fair
- A $3000/month apartment in New
York City is well within the means of a coffee shop waitress and
her part-time-chef best friend.
Anyway, back to the math. Daniel started talking about what all of the symbols
represented in terms of modern day values... and discussed what he
thought the Maya take on math symbols might be. It was
incredibly interesting and insightful, and it got me thinking about what I learned in math class
in grade school. I followed Daniel's pattern of logic and used
my Surrey Hills Elementary experience to bring these ideas to light
in my own life. Try to follow it if you dare.
we were in grade school, the first thing we learned in math was good
'ol addition. The examples were simple enough, and we enjoyed
learning how to make numbers bigger. For instance, 2+2 = 4 3+3 = 6,
and so on. But... let's not forget the mutant animal that our
teachers liked to call the "story problem."
If Jonnie has 4 apples, and
then takes 5 more from the bushel, and picks up 3 more from Sally,
how many apples does he have?
Answer: Enough to start
a small corner market, which will soon be mowed under by a large
7-million square-foot mega mall.
Now that I look back, that little
"plus" sign taught me that more is
better. Heck, even symbols used to compare numbers have an
interesting translation in our language.
and < aren't
even called "more than" an "less than".
Instead, we call the "more than" symbol "GREATER
THAN." Makes me feel a bit sorry for the number on the
other side of the equation. I guess it's just "NOT SO
GREAT." Still, I feel that it's human nature to like bigger and better.
We all do. In my current situation, I would LOVE a room bigger
than 8' x 7', and a warm shower. Some days, when I've eaten
yet ANOTHER piece of unidentified meat and my 7,000th corn tortilla,
I would LOVE to add a plane ticket home to the contents of my
wallet. It's just the way our minds work.
Subtraction is a different animal. We learn that one
next. In fact, I learned the symbol's name as something else...
its called the "take away" sign. So, let me practice
my skills again... 4-2 = 2 6-3 =
3 WOW! Nice work, eh? How's about another story
If Ernie is on the playground
with 9 apples, and Butch comes by and takes away 7 of them, and
Sally comes by later and sweet talks him out of 2 and then goes to
hang out with Butch, What is Ernie left with?
Answer: A bruised ego
and, at age 34, five years of therapy at $250/hour.
Here's what I learned - subtraction is bad. Loss
isn't good. We should protect what we have so that it won't
get "taken away." Guard it or lose it. Having
less is not a desired outcome.
Moving on, we learned all about the beauty of multiplication.
It had all of the benefits of addition, but in Reader's Digest
condensed form. It required some memorization, but once you
figured it out, it was a cool tool. 2 x 2 = 4 3 x 3 =
9. And... another story problem...
Bill starts a company by
building one software program. If he sells said program for
$99.95 to 200 squillion people across the world, what is the
One really, really rich nerd who STILL can't get anyone to sit
with him at his lunch table.
Though I learned that
multiplication can be used to show the power of compounding wealth
and goods, it does have its drawbacks. This kind of massive
growth and acquisition can simply distort reality. To give you
an example, I will paraphrase a "story problem" I read in
the paper on the anniversary of Elvis' death in 2001.
When Elvis Presley died in
1977, there were only 12 Elvis impersonators. Today, in
2001, there are over 30,000 impersonators. Multiply this
rate of growth by 20 or 25. What is the result?
(and though I'm paraphrasing, I'm not lying): By the year
2025, 1 out of every 4 people on the globe will be an Elvis
So, believe it or not, but you
gotta' admit, when it comes to numbers, one can EASILY be
deceived. The real "gold nugget" of the math
abstractions lies in perhaps our least favorite symbol.
Division is a nasty animal. It's hard to do. Especially
LONG division when you have a big ol' number and you have to split
it into a BUNCH of different chunks. However, after hearing
Daniel talk about his world view and the view of his people, it got
me to thinking.
actually a very cool concept. It's not about adding, or
multiplying. It's not about taking away. Instead, it's
about sharing. In school, we were all taught to share.
Still, our competitive lives make it difficult to learn this
virtue. Heck, in grade school, I can remember the dreaded
"reading groups." There was the RED reading group
for the high flyers, and the BLUE reading group for those who were
somewhere in between "Run, Spot, Run" and "Call Me
Ishmael." Finally, there was the BROWN reading group,
whose members were expected to achieve the same status as their
as we would all like to believe the old saying that "the
squeaky wheel gets the grease," in truth, those who are at the
front of the pack (the RED reading group) are typically the ones
lavished with attention and praise. It's the same problem
faced by the Mayans in Guatemala. Their simple lives were a
threat to progress, so they have been pushed to the fringes of
civilization. In the nearly 30 years preceding 1996, their
towns were burned and their men "disappeared."
Today, they are largely ignored. In the upcoming Presidential
election, they are being used solely as pawns, with one candidate
actually paying the poor to riot and yell out his name in the
streets last July. Many think he will also pay for their votes
come November. The newspaper called out his party for
embezzling nearly $1 billion from the country's coffers. It's
sad... really sad.
Many people have asked
me why I'm here for 12 months. I think it is so I can re-learn
division. First, I am here to totally absorb this way of
life. It is foreign, but it is good. Still, once I
really understand the lives of these people, I fully believe that I
can divide myself up. Divide my talents... divide my
blessings... divide my time... and share my life with others as they
share theirs with me.
we change the world while we're in Guatemala? No. Will
we make a difference? Who knows. Still, I would like to
believe that there is something inherently beneficial about simply
being here. We're not adding. We're not taking away or worrying
about losses. We're simply becoming a part of something
larger and sharing in the experience. So, as I dismount my soapbox,
I only make a few suggestions. Find a way to add some more
"division" in your life. Take the mass quantities of
value inside you and spread it around. Share a story.
Lend an ear. Offer compassion... and be present for friend and
stranger. Don't worry, you're not being graded. I like
to think that every new day we're given is extra credit.