“It’s my life to ruin my own way.” Morrissey
My daughter was sat over her maths homework when it struck me. She was trying to identify the larger of two numbers and had reached the (decimal) point in her machinations where she had to differentiate two numbers behind the decimal point and then write a number that came between them (something like ‘write a number between 2.65 and 2.66’) – an activity designed to force her back decimal places.
And that’s when it hit me – as it had never done so forcibly before – that numbers are not only infinite going forwards and backwards. They are also infinite in terms of the increments between them. 43 and at long last I stood there, next to my daughter sat oblivious at the kitchen table, a mind utterly blown. For some reason I buggered off to fetch my phone and showed her a picture of a fractal, then some broccoli (or is it cauliflower?), whilst blithering on about the infinitude and (for some bizarre reason) self-similarity.
My daughter looked at the broccoli and muttered something that may have sounded like ‘Romanesco’ and went on with her homework. And I just stood there for a bit, smiling vacantly.
I was thinking of the time that I stared intently at the whorls, knots and swirls in a pub garden table. I was a little worse for wear, but the closer I looked at the wood, the more I could see its patterns replicated within itself. I don’t know why (perhaps for fear of being sucked into the pattern like a Charlotte Gilman character), but I then looked up into the sky and saw the same pattern there, presumably an imprint on my retina projected into the sky. Behind that imprint I saw animate shapes padding on large feet (like the disc-shaped toes of treefrogs) moving across the stratosphere. I may have drooled.
The next day, I returned to the same pub bench to look at it and then into the sky. In an entirely different state of mind, looking at the bench’s whorls and then looking into the clouds…
I saw the same things. My mind, clarified, alert and fully recovered, processed the same: the same patterns I’d seen the night before.
Perhaps my mind was irrevocably fried. Perhaps I was doomed to disappear momentarily into the paisley shirts of passers-by. Perhaps I was already living in the yellow wallpaper…
I shot back into the present; into the body of a father in a kitchen, and was again of no obvious use to my maths-homework-doing daughter.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a breed of school began to pop up all over Germany. Based in the countryside and of a firmly progressive and democratic bent, the founders of the Landerziehungsheime schools believed in the educational benefits of country life. They also believed in youth culture. They had faith in their children.
I looked down at my child: she, looking for numbers between numbers, but not knowing that the spread of infinity lay somewhere within reach; me, a useless onlooker, brandishing broccoli. And I thought: ‘why not just drop out?’
Why not simply believe that she might – the flurry of stimuli and Now’s perpetual miasma – she might find out for herself?
Of course, I’ll be her guide. And sometimes play the sage. But the formation of concept is hers and hers alone. It is sacred to us both and will come unbidden when perhaps she is brandishing broccoli at an as yet unborn child.
The sun shone upon me today, and I removed my coat. Hares aced their maths tests years before me. But today, a tortoise looked up and an infinity of treefrogs smiled back upon him.