There’s a scene in “Night at the Opera” where Groucho checks into his little cabin on the ocean liner and then hears a knock on the door. A porter enters. Another knock. Room service. Another knock. Another. Five people, then ten-- all in the little cabin, and they keep coming.
Fall, 2007. I sat slumped on the couch, Tarana tucked lazily under one arm, Nikhil lying on the other side, the top of his head brushing against me. One window was cracked open and the air felt like leaves on the ground and smelled like pine needles in a campfire. It was a dark and rainy late afternoon, a ways to go before dinner. By now all four Marx Brothers were in the little cabin, surrounded by assorted plumbers, housekeepers, and lost travelers all repositioning themselves around suitcases, toolboxes and silver serving dishes with steam escaping from under the lids. More knocks on the cabin door, and more people: sea captains with monocles, women with bumpy blond hair parted on the side.
The scene reached a critical combination of too many people in too little space and the kids started laughing, and the laughter ratcheted up a little with each new knock on the door. The camera caught Harpo’s big eyes and nutty smile, the kids got on their knees on the floor to be closer to the screen. I forget how the movie scene ends, but I remember the black and white from the screen lighting their faces. Tarana laughed and bit her lower lip. Nikhil was catching the light in his mouth like a snowflake.
Our children fly past us, riding on a star. But every once in a while we get to ride along.
The arbitrary grouping of tens places our number system at odds with what’s real and true in the world. Suppose evolution had left us with four fingers instead of five, would we have adopted an octimal instead of decimal system? Would we count “one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight” while writing “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-10?” And would that convention be better, worse, or just different?
A couple of years ago I overheard a friend toss off the phrase “the difference between a first and second derivative” with a familiarity that made me jealous. I started reading books with titles like “Infinite Ascent” and “A Tour of the Calculus,” books about numbers. Not numbers of things, but numbers themselves: squares and square roots, series and patterns, the philosophy of zero and the inevitability of pi.
There are many truths buried in numbers, but the way we write them down obscures them. Prime numbers are real; counting on our fingers is not. Square roots are true in and of themselves, counting down from ten to liftoff is pure artifact.
I turned 49 yesterday. 49 shouldn’t matter. 49 is the last exhibition game before the start of the season, the dark theater before the movie, the vice-presidency of ages. Fifty – now there’s a momentous year. Fifty, as in half a century or a diamond anniversary or “sorry – I can’t break a bill that large.”
But the brave 50 is a fraud: five groups of ten, two groups of twenty-five, like one of those toys that changes from a truck or a plane into a robot. 49, on the other hand, is number royalty: a square of a prime number, part of the noble series 1-4-9-25-49.
The squared prime number series makes a lot of sense. Years go by too quickly now. The narrative breaks down: each year things are different but they’re not different enough. Are you better off now then you were a year ago? How can you tell what’s background noise and what will ultimately pass the “So what” test? Decades are pretty speedy too, and worse, they are inconsistent. Decade identity fizzles out over time: Teens and twenties are periods of tumult and revolution, of emerging identity, of atmospheric highs and fall and cut your forehead on broken glass in the parking lot lows. But the thirties don’t roar and the forties just…. happen.
Take the prime squared intervals, however, and it all makes sense. Sure 9 to 25 is huge but 25 to 49 is epic: we create families, make and lose fortunes, we matter. We fall, redeem, shine, disappoint, lose ourselves for months at a time in minutiae and emerge with perspective and the vaguest sense that wisdom and peace may ultimately be attainable.
Way too much for ten years to handle.
1-4-9-25-49. 49 is the last of the line, but that’s not a bad thing. None of us will make it to 121. 49 is the black belt of years: everything really starts from here.
(from March 2008)
David Sable MD
writer, teacher, fund manager and retired reproductive endocrinologist