The year 2020 is certainly an interesting numeric configuration. If you subtract 1776 from 2020 you get the 244 years of the existence of the United States of America. If you think of the last time a year’s numbers lined up like 2020 (repeating) that would be 1919, which was 101 years ago. Twenty twenty in Roman numerals looks like MMXX, which is cool. The Mayan system counts with 20s, and 2020 looks pretty elegant in this culture, too. Mayan numbers read vertically, and so the shell at the bottom is 0. The dot in the middle is 20, and the line at the top
is 5 (400s) or 2,000.
|Twenty is ten twins. The Mayans had twin gods Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who as kids were challenged to play a game of pok-ta-pok after angering the rulers of the land of the dead. Pok-ta-pok is like a mix of basketball and soccer, played by shooting the ball, literally, from the hip into a small hoop. The twins won the game and were welcomed back home as heroes. They later became rulers of the Earth after one was turned into the Moon and the other the Sun. Our sun has an outer shell called a corona that is 2 million degrees. In literature shells are typically perceived as feminine symbols representing birth, good fortune, resurrection. A conch shell in William Golding’s 1954 novel “Lord of the Flies” governs the boys’ meetings. Whoever holds it holds the right to speak. Freedom of speech has infinite value.|
The year two thousand twenty seems like an opportunity to stop and think about numbers. Numbers lead us in many directions conceptually, and one attractive focal point is time. We measure time by counting numbers of events, some related to physical phenomena and others more arbitrary. I like to talk with children about their age, their birthdays, and how many orbits around the sun (years) they have traveled. To my mind, this helps ground them in realities they may not have considered. Thinking about numbers can provide context, and context can help us know the world or the self.
|One can be an interesting number. One Euro is what you can buy a house for in the Italian village of Gangi in Sicily. Or 1.12 dollars. Gangi has a population of 189 people and a bunch of empty homes from the 1800s. The emptiness is sad for the citizens because it represents a progression of sons and daughters going somewhere else. The village sits on a hill and looks from a distance like a turtle shell. The Maya associated turtles with water and the earth, and also with thunder and drumming. The father of the Hero Twins, the Maize God, is sometimes shown emerging from a turtle shell or holding one as a drum. Another Mayan deity, Pauahtun, wears a turtle shell on his head as he supports the world all by himself, like the Roman god Atlas.|
As inhabitants in the 21st century, we are clearly immersed via our screens in a sea of information that challenges us to wade through its depth and complexity in order to understand a simple sense of what’s going on in the present. For many, the ever-growing, exponentially increasing current of information and our access to it renders the “knowing and connecting to the past or future” even more troublesome. If we can’t see in the London fog-like sea of present information, how are we to know where we have been or are going. Numbers, I say, numbers are a useful tool for this wading.
|Birds that wade include herons, cranes and snipes. Snipes are real, but a snipe hunt is a practical joke started in the 1800s. It is a quest in the dark for a squirrel-like bird that doesn’t exist. The Byrds were a Los Angeles band, not a joke, and their 1965 hit “Turn! Turn! Turn!” gave comfort to people during a complex time by explaining the seasons of life in a simple way. Joni Mitchell was nine years old at the time of the London Smog of 1952, four poisonous days in December when people died and birds smacked into buildings due to air that was 66 times more toxic than normal. Some 18 years later she sang “I have come here to lose the smog and I feel to be a cog in something turning,” but she was talking about Woodstock, New York, not London. She also said we are stardust.|
When I think of 2020 and the 244 years of the USA, I think of dividing the difference (244) of the minuend (2020) and the subtrahend (1776) by a conservative 20th century average American life-span, say 70 years. In dividing 224 by this 70-year life span, we get 3.2. This makes me think that just 3 life spans and some change takes us from today’s America to the moment of its inception in 1776. It seems so long ago, 1776, so distant, and yet just three life spans stacked upon themselves reaches back to the days of our Founding Fathers — yes fathers — in just three life spans somehow the singularity of “Fathers” seems repugnant in our enlightening to gender issues in 2020 America.
|Split 3.2 in half, and you find a pair of 1.6 twins, which is pretty close to the Golden Ratio (1.618033), related to the Fibonacci Sequence, a pattern where each number is the sum of the two before. Seen in flower petals, pine cones, tree branches, conch shells, DNA double helixes and spiral galaxies, the Golden Ratio is not, however, found in black holes, which are examples of singularity. In mathematics, singularity is the point where a function takes an infinite value, especially in space-time, where matter is infinitely dense, as at the center of a black hole. It is at this point that math ceases to be “well-behaved” (a person entering a black hole would undergo unequal stretching or spaghettification, a term coined by the late physicist Stephen Hawking). Not well-behaved was Virginia Woolf, a 20th century English writer who places characters in situations where they feel, interiorly, time-space boundaries stretch and collapse. Rhoda in Woolf’s 1931 novel “The Waves” stands at the edge of a cliff in Spain one day to watch the ocean and feels that she is being dissolved by the passage of time. “Beneath us lie the lights of the herring fleet. The cliffs vanish. Rippling small, rippling grey, innumerable waves spread beneath us. I touch nothing. I see nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears.”|
Still, in my numerical and arithmetical wonderings, I chose to sidestep the more multi-step mathematical calculations that might drag both me and you into the potentially confusing and perplexing world of statistics. I could have easily researched the average lifespans of the various centuries and averaged those numbers. And I could have considered the average age that people have had children. If I used that calculation, say between 20 and 40, I could have infused my musings with these calculations to more accurately depict the idea of generations of a single family reaching back to the birth of our nation. With these numbers, I might have talked about how many grandmothers, how many great grandmothers it takes to reach back to that national birthday. I didn’t use those numbers and calculations though, because I was trying to make a simple point: that 1776 really isn’t that long ago—just three 70-year old people in a row gets us there.
|Oliver Jeffers paints and writes children’s books. He also investigates the intersection of art and science in a series of paintings called “Measuring Land and Sea.” In these, he places statistics across beautiful landscapes — waves, prairies, mountain ranges — trying to dissolve an impasse between feeling and reasoning. However, this doesn’t work, he admits: “Rather than increase our understanding of the work, this combination makes things less clear by providing superfluous distraction…” In pok-ta-pok, no doubt, any distraction at all may result in defeat.|
Yes, 2020 is calling out to us in all its morphemic and phonemic splendor. It beckons us to ponder numbers and their impact on our lives. And 2020 is there for at least 365 and ¼ days, till we discard it for another fascinating series of values, 2021… ah, a progression.
|“The Progression” is a 2010 poem about absurd numbers and putting up houses for absurd money. It was written by Omar Pérez, a Cuban poet who earned an English degree in Havana and studied Italian in Tuscany. Pérez believes poetry is a natural function, like drumming rain and the twin spirals of DNA. “The fact that we can give notice of it does not mean that we make it.” Pérez found out at age 25 that he is one of three sons of the late revolutionary Che Guevarra, but this news did not distract him from his purpose. He told PBS: “When I was 25 years old, I was already a human being….I didn’t want to become anything different. I was…what I wanted to be, a poet.” |
20/20 vision is rare after a certain age.
In honor of 2020, poetry, math, and creative collaboration, I offer this poem for 2020;
A repeating year
The non – numeric
Left to the heart
I will start