Thursday, September 27, 2012

Happy Number: Strange Signs

I turned 44 a week ago during a short trip home to Massachusetts, and a string of puzzling, seemingly disparate events happened on my birthday, involving a mysterious bible, a tiny sleeping bat, and a giant old-growth maple that split asunder during a wild storm and fell across our dead-end road, cutting us off from civilization (we lost internet) and knocking out the power while Tahra tried to bake my chocolate birthday cake. Unusual omens, considered individually -- did I mention the tornado warning -- but what if there was a connection? I made enquiries; here are my preliminary findings.

Firstly, 44. It’s a rather interesting number. In recreational mathematics, 44 is known as a “happy number’’ – meaning that if you replace it by the sum of the squares of its digits, and keep repeating the process, eventually you will arrive at a number equal to one, and can’t go any further. (I actually tried this, and it worked.) Forty-four is a palindromic number, too, meaning that the number is the same if the digits are reversed. The term is derived from the word palindrome, which refers to any word (such as rotor or racecar) whose spelling is unchanged when its letters are reversed. Strangely, I recently read a lengthy article about obsessive palindromists in a hip literary magazine called The Believer, to which our friend Jed Berry, a lecturer at UMass Amherst, introduced us about a year ago. Here’s another strange fact: the current edition of The Believer happens to contain an article about Jed’s excellent and critically-acclaimed first novel, The Manual of Detection. Happy Numbers. Palindromes. Jedediah Berry and The Believer. Interesting thread....coincidence?

Another fact about 44: it is the retired shirt number of baseball great Hank Aaron, breaker of Babe Ruth’s home run record. Before learning this piece of basic hardball lore, I had had occasion to read a bit about Hank Aaron’s amazing life, in a newspaper article I glanced over while on the way from Nairobi to the States. There was a short item about the legendary Aaron endorsing Barack Obama for President. Barack is also a 44 – the 44th President of the United States. Whilst pondering 44s, another one unburied itself from my memory banks. A chunky hardworking bruiser of a Washington Redskins running back named John Riggins, MVP of Superbowl XVII, was one of my mother’s favorite all-time football players, along with the dashing former Skins’ quarterback Joe Theisman, whom she once met. Riggins was number 44, and mom and I used to sit on our couch of a Sunday and watch him blow through 300-pound defensive linemen like they were dandelions gone to seed. Forty-four: Me. Hank. Barack. Riggo. And my mom’s first name is Victoria and there is a cough suppressant called Vicks Formula 44.

About this bible. It was bound in black and looked fresh from a Day’s Inn nightstand. Face-down in the wet with its thin white pages open to Deuteronomy 16-17.Tahra and the kids and I stumbled on it in the chill air shortly after my birthday dawned, at 7:15 a.m. as we walked the girls up our dead-end dirt lane to their bus stop. Another poser: what was a motel bible doing in the middle of our no-traffic road near our dilapidated double carport? Have we moved into a Stephen King novel?

I thought the answer might lie in Old Deuteronomy itself, so I looked, and what I found did verily induceth woe in me. It turns out that Old Deuteronomy, in addition to being the main character in T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which is the basis for the mega-hit Broadway musical Cats, contains a terrifying manifesto of do's and dont's, to say nothing of the 'ths, with many detailed instructions about when, where, and why various categories of people should get stoned. (To death.)

Up next: the little brown bat and the big sugar maple.