“Without music, life would be a mistake” ― Friedrich Nietzsche.
Fridays used to be mental arithmetic day when I was in primary (elementary) school in Jamaica. It was a special day anyway, a good half of the students had to stay home to help with the chores, so there was space to spread out on the benches, and best of all on those days, school let out early. But mental arithmetic meant you had to do sums in your head and stick your hand up in the air to be recognized (‘Me, Teacher!’). We had learned to add in a rather pain-inducing way. When adding six and seven, you would first ‘call yourself’ six (and underscore the six with a thump on your chest) and then count out the additional seven on your outstretched fingers. As older students we had advanced beyond the chest-thumping and learned to work out far more complex sums in our head.
My father taught me an even better trick. When manipulating numbers, he would make one of them an easier number (like changing 19 to 20) and then subtract the extra one when finished. I still use his tricks today, to ‘ball park’ answers for a rough guesstimate. I have had to learn patience when teaching dosage calculation. All students are not created equal when it comes to recognizing patterns and relationships. Ratio and proportion is the basis for many of the computations necessary, but some students have to be retaught even the most basic of mathematical concepts (not to mention those pesky decimal points, and please don’t make me simplify a fraction!). Above and beyond all of that (and in a society with calculators ever at their fingertips), some students have PTSD, flashing back to some evil person in their childhood who made them feel like an idiot for not being able to grasp the concepts and answer the question! So my teaching style has to include the therapeutic, supportive, non-threatening approach of a psychologist coaching someone out of a very real fear.
Numbers are our friend! They can be trusted, they don’t lie, they are reliable and loyal. I give thanks for the Arabs: who wants to be multiplying LCVII by XXXIII? I often substitute money for intravenous flow rates – trying to figure out the hourly flow rate for IV fluid is no different from figuring out your hourly pay! Or equating miles per hour to milliliters per hour. So many mathophobes (it must be a word!) can relate to everyday problems even as they swear they can’t do math.
When I am in my Zumba class, and the instructor is introducing a new move, I find that if I count the steps as I go I learn much faster. And I flash back to my father again, as minister and choir leader his hands (and crooked little finger, never healed properly from a bad break) would be waving and controlling our harmony, counting out the longer notes (two, three, four). At times I still hear those counts whenever I sing along to an old hymn.
But numbers also have a rhyme and a rhythm to them, and when used to count your breathing pattern (in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four) can be used to slow down a racing mind and a rapid heart rate. A steady soothing voice can count down a woman in labor, reducing the panic and the pain. When we want to fall asleep we count sheep! (Actually, does anyone know anybody who counts sheep?). I often count backwards from a hundred, seeing myself walking down a spiral staircase (often made of stone, in an old Welsh castle) when I want to move closer to sleep.
I read the story of a boxer the other day. It was a story told over tweets, a young man responding to a call for people to tell the tale of a deep dark family secret. The tweets recounted the story of his grandfather. At his grandfather’s funeral he learned he had been a boxer, but had inexplicably retired from boxing at an early age, and never spoke of his career after that. He was an African American, and had won eleven straight fights, then a few losses (including one at Madison Square Garden). He suddenly quit after that and went to culinary school and never spoke of it again. The reason for the career change and silence was because he was threatened by the mob – they warned him (after losing money on his fights) that he had better lose the fights or his family would be harmed. So he quit, to save his family, and became a chef.
Sometimes we are counted down, but not out. I used the count as my disciplinary tool when my kids were young, they never knew what would happen when I got to three (neither did I!), but the tone and the facial expression were enough of a deterrent to coerce the response I desired. Of course when I tried to use it on my fifteen year old son (who by then was much taller than I was), I realized it had out-lived its usefulness!
This weekend I will be celebrating a love story. Love has its own way of knocking us out cold, leaving us sweaty and breathless, and making us do things we never thought we would do. One of the first love poems that I wrote was my own personalized version of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 43rd sonnet – How do I love thee? let me count the ways. There is something so wonderful to behold in the love affair of others, and to believe in the wonder of true partnerships. My parents got married 74 years ago, on either the 12th (according to my father) or the 15th (according to my mother), and somehow despite this discrepancy, they retained a hand-holding, mutually adoring love that even dementia could not diminish.
On this Friday morning, may you be able to count your blessings on more than one hand, may you have friends and family that you can count on, and when you are out for the count, I hope you can rise up and climb higher! Have a wonderful weekend, family!