Friday, April 23, 2010

The Power of Numbers

I had intended originally to write this post a few days ago but in the process of setting it up I found myself lost in thought about the relationship between mathematics and the universe. I meant for this post then to follow that one but, as so often happens, other experiences and ideas got in the way and thus this post has been postponed (couldn't resist) until now.

Touching back upon a point I raised in my previous post about numbers, I have always wondered whether or not there exist certain occult relationships between specific numbers and particular individuals. Some cultures believe in the theory of "Threes," meaning that all things, both good and bad, occur three at a time. The number thirteen has been feared for thousand of years, with Triskaidekaphobia being one of the most popular phobias in American culture. Many office buildings omit the thirteenth floor, going from twelve to fourteen (though, as the late comic Mitch Hedberg points out, "If you jump out of the fourteenth floor window hoping to kill yourself, you will die earlier.”)

Fear and reverence of particular numbers has existed both in religion and cultural beliefs for thousands of years. The number "666" has been associated with evil and is either feared or revered depending upon which side of the fence you find yourself. Culturally, numbers often dictate how and when different things occur. These numbers are viewed as good and evil, lucky and unlucky, especially in Chinese culture:

My interest, though, is not necessarily in lucky numbers or digits with widespread beliefs and associations. Instead, I am curious about specific numbers that follow particular people, much like some songs seem to do (my brother appears to be haunted by the song "Sympathy for the Devil," as it seems to be played at nearly every bar at which he finds himself). My brother-in-law is obsessed with and fascinated by the apparent importance of the number 29 in his life. His birthday is January 29th (1/29). His neighbor's birthday is May 29th (5/29) and his mother's birthday is November 29th (11/29). My birthday is March 29th and fit perfectly into his belief. Between the four of us we had nearly all of the odd-numbered months covered in terms of birthdays: 1/29, 3/29, 5/29, and 11/29. Though there is no quantifiable importance that he can ascribe to the number, he feels an intangible connection to it nonetheless.

Until recently, I had never had such a number. My two favorite numbers (if indeed I would even call them that) growing up were 1 and 10. Ten was the number my favorite basketball player wore during his career and one always represented what I strived for. In academics and sports I sought always to achieve the number one spot. I graduated first in my class in elementary school at the age of eleven but I suppose that if the number one truly has an importance for me it would be that I have always been considered a leader by my peers, my parents, and my friends--the first to do certain things or the leader at the head of the pack. I was the first of my friends to publish a novel, to get married, to earn a graduate degree, to have a child, and to visit nearly every state in our union. I suppose I associate it with my drive to succeed and my inborn desire to lead.

My competitive fire is always stoked by my drive to finish first. I remember picking up "The Bible Game" for the Playstation 2 after seeing it in Best Buy for five dollars. I was curious as to what a Bible video game would entail and set about playing it one night at Heather's house with the neighbor mentioned earlier. Things began to get heated as he and I attempted to cross the parted Red Sea before it collapsed back upon itself. Our characters jostled one another, jockeying for position, shoving one another both into the water and into as many obstacles as we could...for the express purpose of finishing the Bible Game. I remember laughing at the irony and recognizing that the lesson likely intended to be inscribed on us was lost amid our thirst for dominance (I won the race, for what it's worth. We also took undue pleasure in unleashing various plagues and "The Wrath of God" upon one another in a different mini-game).

Cover of The Bible Game                      Racing through the parted Red Sea

I have always found it ironic that, for all of the importance that the numbers 1 and 10 have had for me, the numbers 2 and 20 have borne an equal significance for one of my best friends growing up, with surprising accuracy. His favorite basketball player wore the number 20, demonstrating the relationship and comparison to mine, and his personality has always been that of the follower. I mean that with no disrespect to him whatsoever--he is his own man and is a respectable one at that. Being shy during his adolescent years, though, and perhaps given my arguably strong personality, he was more inclined to let Bobby and I blaze the path upon which he would tread without hesitation; his following was as much about his trust and respect for us as it was his own disinclination to lead. I must note that now, in the latter half of his twenties, he has grown into a fine leader in his own right. I attribute this both to his inborn qualities and to the time that we spent apart from our friendship during his first year in college. I believe that he needed to breathe and to be free of what can be the overpowering grip of my friendship and, in so doing, he forged his own friendships and served as the leader or catalyst for his own group.

Ultimately, though, I find myself with an eerie connection to the number 27. This connection began a generation earlier and, as it would seem, has trickled down from my father to me. For him, the bond began with a John Denver song penned in 1972. The song, "Rocky Mountain High," begins with the verse:

He was born in the summer of his 27th year,
coming home to a place he'd never been before.
He left yesterday behind him;
you might say he was born again--
might say he found a key for every door.
When he first came to the mountains
his life was far away
on the road and hanging by a song.
But the strings already broken
and he doesn't really care,
it keeps changin' fast, and it don't last for long.
It's a Colorado Rocky Mountain High,

In my Dad's twenty-seventh year he took a life-altering journey westward, moving his family for the first time away from New York and out, indeed, to Colorado. The Rocky Mountain State offered him fresh opportunity--a sense of starting over, beginning his life anew in a place he had never been before but which now represented his home. The life he had lived to that point did seem far away and the happiness and peace that he would ultimately find upon returning to the East Coast seemed even further away, remaining unseen by the young family man and traveler.

I had always had a fascination with both the state of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. It goes without saying that both attained a mystical quality in my mind as a direct result of my father's experiences; this was a place that he had traveled to during a time of great change in his life. To me, it represented an epic journey, one that I would look forward to undertaking for the next fifteen or sixteen years: the cross-country road trip. I will explore the esoteric importance of such a trek for a young man in a future post but suffice to say I knew in my early childhood that I would one day undertake this journey and, in my heart of hearts, I knew that I would do so at the age of twenty-seven, much like my Dad.

I wound up being fifty-percent correct. I did indeed take that trip to Colorado but at the tender age of twenty-two, not twenty-seven. The experience of journeying to Colorado, as well as my time spent there, was every bit as exhilarating, magical, and life-altering as I had anticipated it to be. In fact, the totality of the experience far exceeded my already high expectations. The only thing that fell short was that connection that I thought I would have with being twenty-seven. That, I would not find out until January 2010 and would not begin to understand until much more recently.

Sometime during February or perhaps even early March, I reflected on my upcoming change in age. I realized that I would be turning twenty-seven and, as if a light bulb turned on above me, I understood that I shared a connection to the protagonist of "Rocky Mountain High" as my father did. Though I had already taken my westward journey years earlier, I did feel like I had been reborn during my twenty-seventh year (though, admittedly, I was still twenty-six at the time). Going through both the experience of Timmy's birth and the adjustment to my life upon bringing him home from the hospital, I found that I truly did feel like a new man...perhaps even like a man for the very first time.

I suddenly found myself accountable not only to myself but to another tiny person--a little life that had turned my world upside down and helped me to feel what it was like truly to be living. Though I had obviously been accountable to my wife as well, this was a different feeling of responsibility; she is an incredibly competent woman and an adult, who did not then and does not now need me to take care of her. Everything that I did had a new level of consideration added to it, from the most mundane of activities such as food shopping (i.e. how would I transport Timmy through the store with me? Would he stay asleep and comfortable for the duration of the time I spent shopping?) to my most enjoyed recreational activities (i.e. basketball and hiking--what if I got hurt? How would that impact my ability to take care of him?) I truly felt as if I had, "...left yesterday behind [me]" as Timmy's birth helped me to feel as if I were born again.

My parents had noticed some things about the numbers surrounding Timmy's birth that could have some degree of mystical meaning. His birth date was January 26th (1/26), which would be identical to his due date (2/16) if one transposed the first and middle numbers. One of the readings in church that Tuesday was from Timothy in the Bible. It was certainly a coincidence, at least on some level.

The connection, though, between Timmy's birthday, due date, and the number twenty-seven made itself apparent to me the other day. I was thinking of the number and Timmy's birth date came to mind. I realized that if you add the month and the date (1 + 26) that you would get 27. Coincidentally, if you do the same with his due date, with a slight modification (adding 21 + 6 instead of 2 + 16) you also get 27. Even the time that Timmy was born (2:34 p.m.) can be made to equal 27 (23 + 4). I also recalled that my due date was March 27th.

The danger in ascribing importance to numbers is the same as believing in statistics (which, one could argue, is exactly that--meaningless numbers imbued with subjective relevance and importance): both can be manipulated, to some degree, in whatever way we choose. Though the purpose of the latter is to provide information, the actual application is often marred by our innate and unconscious ability and effort to slant things in ways that are favorable to and for us. As far as manipulating numbers, I think the danger is when you get really complicated with it. I'm performing one mathematical operation for my purposes--addition. When you begin doing the whole, "...well if you add this number to it, and then multiply by that one, and subtract this number and get the EXACT date that J.F.K. was assassinated!" type of thing, it necessarily diminishes the power of those numbers. The fact that I am simply combining the existing numbers in a straightforward way preserves some of their mystical meaning for me. More simply, I want them to mean something. Just why that is I cannot explain.

I suppose that, at its core, our fascination with numbers is simply a mystery and nothing more. Perhaps its part of our communion with the universe (see previous post for more on that). It is both inexplicable and intriguing. It motivates people to do or not to do things (see "The Ides of March" for Caesar's take or lack thereof on the issue. I'll never forget Esther Deutsch lobbying Mr. Lowenstein for our AP European History examination to be moved one day back because it was on the Ides of March and she was afraid that she (or perhaps all of us) would perform poorly on the test. He didn't move it; we all did fine).

Stephen King provides some excellent examples of understanding and utilizing the importance of numbers. One of his more recent popular stories (and film adaptations) was called "1408." It was about a haunted room in a creepy hotel where previously unexplainable murders and suicides had occurred. The relationship between the title and my discussion? 1408 adds up to the number thirteen (1+4+0+8). More importantly though is King's connection to the number nineteen. It appears in nearly every book of the Dark Tower saga, as well as numerous other works (both related and unrelated to his magnum opus). He speaks of the importance of the number in the essay "On Being Nineeteen," found in the foreword of the re-releases of the first four novels of the Dark Tower heptalogy. To say that it is an important number to him is an understatement--he rewrote three novels, including one he had first published twenty-five years earlier, to incorporate the number nineteen as a mystical symbol (as well as to make other changes that would help to provide stronger coherence between the novels, thus tying them more directly to their future brother and sister novels).

King has nineteen, my brother-in-law has twenty-nine, John Denver, my Dad, and I all have where does that leave Timmy? My guess is that his special number will be twenty-six. He was born on the twenty-sixth and his due date was simply a rearrangement of his birthday digits. When I came home the second and final night that we would be staying at the hospital to prepare the house for Timmy and Heather's homecoming, my landlord had asked me to come downstairs to their apartment. She presented me with a bag filled with gifts for Timmy. She was particularly fond of and especially excited by a hat that she had gotten for him; it had the number twenty-six emblazoned on its front.

"What are the odds?" she said.

If the magical connection between people and numbers holds any actual weight, I would say that they are pretty damn good.