The Mathematics of Dreams

James David Cohn


I have always been a sucker for the associative property, preferring it hands down over the commutative, but in my life it has always been the distributive property that has won out: in the mathematics of marriage, first there was association, then commutation, and at last the great distribution, twice now, which means my retirement fund has been twice halved and I’m therefore only half the man I used to be, or more accurately one-quarter, as these properties assure us that ½ x ½ = ¼.

That’s math for you. There’s nothing to be done about it.

I met one of my many deaths at the hands of calculus which isn’t really math. Yet it’s a powerful tool. It can change a physics major into a humanities major in less than three months. This I swear.

When my father was 93 and dying of pancreatic cancer I asked him if he had any regrets. He thought about it and said well I would have liked to reach a hundred, that’s a good number. I tried to cheer him up numerically saying well Dad if we had evolved with four fingers on each hand instead of five we would be using base eight math which means you would have become 100 at the age of 80 and your age now would therefore be 115 in base 8 and he brightened considerably and he said well that’s true isn’t it, he being a lover of the scientific arts.

I was of the generation who had been taught The New Math at a young age and this was the only time ever that I used this especial skill.

But there was another regret of his that he did not articulate, I am quite sure of this, or maybe it was a regret of mine on his behalf, which derived from his frequently expressed idea over the years that he would leave the practice of medicine with all its demands and pressures and retire to his beloved Florida Keys and bag groceries for a living imagine that I mean how unpressured can you get, am I right or am I right? And why didn’t he, well gentle reader it was because this man who had made beaucoup bucks in private practice had spent it all on us his three sons especially Bill who even as an adult required heavy subsidies for he was delusional and this got in the way of his earning an adequate income because of the black ops whisper helicopters that had chased him down the highway firing tracers at his car below and the Syrians who had caught him when he was spying for Israel and imprisoned and tortured him until he cleverly crafted his escape whereupon he killed five hundred of them, though sometimes the math changed, the number of enemy combatants he had killed being variously three hundred and six hundred, depending.

My mother was convinced Bill had suffered Traumatic Brain Injury when he was delivered from her womb, the attending physician having had to grip Bill’s head with forceps to reorient him in the womb lest he suffer a breach birth.

Or something.

She called his delusional assertions fibs, she would say Bill fibs you know, but my prevarications were never treated so lightly or described so benignly for in her view my utterances were not fibs but lies plain and simple, fake news, and there were consequences as I have described under separate cover.

You cannot blame delusionals for lying I suppose as they could pass a polygraph exam with their lies undetected because well they themselves don’t even detect them for they believe them, right? Truth is crazy and crazy is true and probably this applies to all of us when you come down to it as our senses and our minds delude us in the end, and for that matter in the beginning and in the middle too.

I have amazed and astounded my friends by telling them my family moved house a lot, twelve times in fifteen years which using Old Math means we moved an average of once every one and one-quarter years, and my friends ask were you a military family and I say no, and then they say why did you change cities so much and I say all this moving took place in only three cities, and then they say nothing more except maybe wow that’s kinda weird. Which so it seemingly seemed to me and I regarded it for decades as proof of my mother’s neurosis, there must be some number for it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual with the obligatory decimal point and maybe the phrase “with mixed features.” If the DSM had a diagnostic code for Neapolitan ice cream it would probably be described as “chocolate with mixed features” along with a note that “the mechanism of action of this ice cream is not completely understood.”

But my father had my mother’s number on all this moving and not until late in his life after she had died did he tell it to me saying if it hadn’t been for your mother’s real estate investments, all the purchases and sales and purchases, I would never have been able to afford to retire. So it seems she was not crazy after all or just crazy like a fox, Mom forgive me if you can, wherever or whoever or whatever you are now if you are now.

But notwithstanding these felicitous real estate turnovers which could have facilitated his retirement, notwithstanding these felicitous facilitations, my father worked into his eighties or his hundreds in base eight, and by the time he might have realized his plan to bag those groceries my mother had a stroke and developed dementia and had another stroke and he took care of her with a devotion that depleted him so that when she died all the strength he had marshalled and given to her care vanished and he aged many numbers of years in one year and then came the cancer.

An acquaintance not a friend told me when she heard he had pancreatic cancer oh that’s a painful painful death and I thought why thank you for that information, that’s really helpful but I was being ironical in my head which means angrily sarcastic. And anyway it wasn’t painful because when I asked my father what his greatest fear was he said pain and I said well I promise you won’t have any, we’ll get hospice in here and you don’t have to feel any pain at all and I held out my hand and he shook it and then he looked down and said I love you and I said I love you too and I kept my promise and he never did feel any pain and I thought with self-satisfaction about that pain-prognosticating acquaintance I thought fuck you you prophetess of doom fuck you anyway.

But back to his retirement dream, it was part of our family’s lore that he would retire to the Keys and bag groceries. We knew the Keys well, we rode the Key West Conch Train in the second year of its existence and years later we would sing along with the 45 RPM record “[Ride on] The Little Conch Train” recorded by Houston and Dorsey in 1969.

Most of our visits to the Keys were spent not in Key West but higher up in the Keys, in Islamorada and Plantation Key where we would stay at the Ragged Edge Resort and The Islander and Plantation Yacht Harbor even though we were yachtless. One winter we were at one or another of these venues and on Christmas eve we watched the 1938 “A Christmas Carol,” the one with Leo G. Carroll and Ann Rutherford and June Lockhart in the uncredited role of Belinda Cratchit, it was projected on a white sheet outside while mosquitoes sucked our blood and this movie scared the bejesus out of me even though I was Jewish. Santa came the next day and I sat on his lap even though I was Jewish and he handed me a watch, my first watch in my entire little life. When I told my mother that Santa gave me a watch, for free!, she laughed and said oh it wasn’t free, we paid for it which ever after made me suspicious of the duplicity of chubby men with white beards and red suits with huge black belts as well as parents.

And in the daytime of these vacations my father had uses for bags that didn’t involve groceries, he prided himself on never buying a hat to protect his exposed bald head and instead would cut off the top of a small paper bag and discard the top, turn the bottom of the bag upside down, fold up the edges into a little brim, and put it on his head, teaching me that psychiatrists are adorably nutty in an adorable kind of way, God how I adored him.

On the little pier jutting out into the glassy water that extended all the way to a perfect horizontal horizon he taught me to fish but not really. He taught me how to bait a hook with live shrimp, running the hook through the shrimp’s exoskeleton while it squirmed maybe in suffocation or maybe in pain there being no hospice for crustaceans even though the shrimp in question was terminal though it didn’t know it. Then the thing was to drop the line in the water and wait for the line to jerk and then you would reel the line in and find nothing on the hook. This was called fishing.

But it wasn’t all about the hook because one time the line went crazy and my father reeled in the line saying this is a big one and there was this huge long snake thing with the teeth of a T-rex writhing in the tangle of filament, my father saying it’s a Moray eel don’t touch it, its teeth are hooked and if it bites you its jaws hold on even after it’s dead. I stared in exquisite fear at this monster from the not so deep, a ferocious looking beast. Recently researching the Moray I found that it is part of a “cosmopolitan family of eels,” suggesting to me that it should wear a beret. For you numbers freaks the approximately 200 species of this cosmopolitan family span 15 genera and that’s a lot of berets but then that’s why God created Amazon.

I cannot now recall, if I ever even knew, which family or genus or species of fish poisoned my father on that trip. He had caught a fish on his hook, one of the few times I remember such a thing, and when he reeled it in and set it on the pier, he reached for it as it flopped wildly and suddenly he let out a cry and pulled his right hand back and held it in his left, then looked at it. Blood was oozing generously from his palm. I asked did it bite you Dad and he said it was the fin damn that smarts.

That night he was sick and feverish and lay in the darkened air conditioned room alternately shivering and sweating, my mother begging him to go to the hospital but he didn’t and he wouldn’t, he was a doctor and as I now know doctors don’t go to doctors. He said I’ll be okay in 24 hours.

So I the little mathematician counted off first the minutes in base 60 and then the hours in base 24 terrified that he would die but he didn’t die he lived another forty years but then he died.

He never did retire to the Keys and this object lesson was not lost on me, his only-begotten son except for my two brothers. Last May I started counting out the units of this year in base 12 or sometimes in smaller units in base 365 and now this dreaming archipelago is mine, honey I’m home. Math is fine but there comes a time when you have to just stop counting.

© 2018 James David Cohn