Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 21, 2008

I Feel Like a Number

My five-year-old Graham is already very interested in math and numbers, probably more than I ever was. His favorite book is Chicka Chicka 123 by Bill Martin, Michael Sampson & Lois Ehlert. He gets this warped numerical brain from his mother, who was a chemistry major in college before committing instead to the technical theater program. [It may seem like she did a complete 180-degree turn, but there’s a good amount of chemistry and physics involved in really knowing about paints, lighting, color temperatures, sound, and set construction.]

Me, I prefer the metaphorical and social aspects of numbers. The context. The interpretation. The poetic possibility of the words “two” and “four” at the end of a line in a song. For instance, I used to look at historical books on baseball as a kid, with lists of statistics and comparisons. Not because I was interested in the numbers, just the guys… like what about their personality made them good performers? I did baseball cards, too, though I never bought very many and unfortunately did not save any.

We here in America, the “marketing” capital of the world, have a greater appreciation for demographics and statistics than we do for pure theoretical or academic mathematics. [Statistically, the number of residents here is now around 301,139,947.] Not that we can’t be fooled by more savvy interpreters who use numbers to mislead us… like publishing an average score rather than a median score to tout the quality of their product. (If you don’t know the difference, it just means you’re typical… not normal  but typical , because norms have a specific mathematical meaning in addition to a vague social one — not to mention: nobody who reads Marking Time is normal anyway. How could they be?)

I don’t know what the current international education rankings are, and I’m too lazy to look it up now, but U.S. school children have often been ranked outside the top ten in math and science when compared to other industrialized nations. But let’s not forget context : these rankings may or may not mean the other nations have smarter children. It more likely means that our U.S. priorities have skewed toward consumption and distribution rather than production of real goods, one of the main economic areas (other than medicine and finance) where math and science knowledge are most necessary. Look around you, where you are sitting right now. Where was the furniture made? Where was your shirt made? Your desktop phone or cell phone? And we already know that most if not all of your computer was built overseas. See… the numbers don’t lie.

So even though April is national poetry month, I’m going to swim against the tide and my own natural tendencies to publish a few hard, incontrovertible numbers and stats here this week. First (tomorrow) the socially relevant ones, then after that some trivial and temporary personal ones.



  1. So much to say. Like, I CAN’T believe Graham is five now.

    And would you want normal readers? Normal is boring and overrated.

    And Amen to this statement: “It more likely means that our U.S. priorities have skewed toward consumption and distribution rather than production of real good.”


  2. Yeah, normal is not my goal, for me or my readership. That’s what I try to teach my students and my son as well… normal is overrated.

  3. Normal is just an average . . . or is it a mean? 🙂

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