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Innumeracy (my latest manuscript for The Craft of Creative Nonfiction) (#1058)

Topics/tags: Autobiographical

Those who have been keeping up with my musings know that I recently turned in my third manuscript for The Craft of Creative Nonfiction. This manuscript will be the last completely original one I turn in. All that’s left are the rewrites [1].

I should warn you that the subject matters of this piece are a bit more troublesome than most of my musings. I discuss death, Cancer (big C and all), things like that. Writing it made me cry. Reading it made Michelle cry. You may learn things about me you didn’t want to know. I should also warn you that I use profanity in this essay [2]. Oh, this is also supposed to be in the genre of Lyric, Reflective, and/or Experimental Memoir. Among other things, that means that the work contains huge jumps and less connective tissue than a typical musing. If you’d like to skip over this musing, I’ll understand [3].

Content warning: Parents, Nursing Homes, Cancer, Death, Math, Profanity, Self-Pity


One is the loneliest number. … Two can be as bad as one.
One by Three Dog Night

Three is a magic number.
Three is a magic number by Bob Dorough from Schoolhouse Rock

I am not a number, I am a free man.
Patrick McGoohan (Number Six) on The Prisoner

Twenty twenty twenty four hours to go.
I wanna be sedated by The Ramones

Tell me about numbers. Didn’t I just do that? I’ll try again. Where should I (re-)start?

One. A single thing. One person. One cow, or goat, or lamb. One loaf of bread. One sheaf of wheat. One die. I will trade you one duck for one goose.

Two. One plus one. Twice as much as one, but that’s it. Two mutates some words, but not others. Two people. Two cows, or goats, or lambs (two animals or two livestock, perhaps). Two ducks, or geese. Two loaves. Two sheaves. Two dice. I will trade you two goats for one cow.

Three. One plus one plus one. Even more than two. Our numbers are getting large now. Large enough that in some societies the next number is just many. I will trade you three sheaves of wheat for one goat. Oh lord, I will sacrifice to you my many livestock, just don’t let me die.

Who are your people? In the beginning was Newton. No, not that Newton. Not even Newton, Mass., although I am from there. H.A. Newton, to be precise. Newton was a bachelor, in the academic sense. Not a master. Definitely not a doctor. Newton heeded the dictum. Went West. From Yale. But not to Iowa. To Chicago. There, Newton begat Moore. More precisely, Newton served as E.H. Moore’s Ph.D. advisor. Nonetheless, begat applies; advised is woefully incomplete. Buy low, sell high is advice. Don’t lick the toilet is advice. Advice does not capture the mythic connection, the ways in which the ideas and approaches of the Ph.D. student spring and evolve from that of the advisor nor the way Ph.D.’s emerge, formed, but not fully, from their advisors. We may not speak of an advisor’s children but do describe descendants. Moore was prolific. 31 students. Many. 25,818 descendants, at least of this writing. Many many.

Of the 31, I know most about Oswald Veblen. Veblen, now there was a Mathematician. Or so Saunders Mac Lane, one of the most influential Mathematicians of the 20th century, tells me and Michael J. O’Donnell, my intellectual begetter. Veblen inverted the advice. Went East. Iowa to Chicago. Then Princeton, not Yale. Founded The Institute for Advanced Study. You know the place. Or you should know, at least if you do Mathematics or Real Science.

Veblen begat Alonzo Church, and many more. Even another Moore, R.L. this time. Church invented (discovered?) the Lambda Calculus. Collaborated on the Church-Turing Theorem, the foundation of computer science. Church, Turing, and Gödel were the fathers of my field. Church. ‘eh. But Veblen, there was a Mathematician, Saunders tells Mike. Chicago’s department of computer science was but a toddler then. Six years old, more or less. The Department of Mathematics was an elder, a hundred or more years old.

The remainder of the lineage seems simpler. Church begat Kleene. A star. Kleene begat Constable. Constable begat O’Donnell. O’Donnell begat Rebelsky. O’Donnell also begat seven others. Only two have recorded descendants. Rebelsky has none.

Tell me about numbers. Here we go again.

Zero. A circle, of sorts. Encompassing everything. Representing nothing. Initiating the numbers. One of two binary digits. The beginning, at least in computer science. Not here.

One. A straight line. Or line segment. Almost as simple as zero. Perhaps simpler. The other binary digit. Another beginning, perhaps a more common one.

Two. A pair. Doesn’t look like one. Doesn’t look like a pear, either. Craps, in the game of the same name; a starting hand in blackjack (Mom’s games). Does it look like those?

Three. It’s a magic number. Odd. Prime. Triangular. Just enough legs to balance a stool.

Four. Two times two. A square. Or is it two by two, which makes me think of arks?

Five. Also odd and prime. Fingers on a hand. Some people’s hands. A hand in poker (Dad’s game). Some games of poker. Points on a star. Some stars. Not all.

Six. Composite. The first non-square composite, to be precise. A prisoner. Points on David’s star. Visually, a zero and a one composed in a new way. Am I the only one who sees it?

Seven. Lucky. Why? A common value when you roll one die and then another die. An odd prime, the last with only one digit, or at least one decimal digit. Basic plots, says Booker.

Eight. Two times two times two. A cube, like a die. Bits in a byte. Two zeroes, one on top of another. Horizontally symmetric. Vertically symmetric.

Nine. Another square, although perhaps less square than four. Why? Squares have four sides, not nine. But still three times three.

Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.       Zero.

What have you learned? My writing instructor tells me that there are three kinds of pathographies or at least individual pathographies. Pathography is a new word to me, a story of an illness, an ill person. The Wiktionary says A biography that explores the effects of a disease on a subject’s life. The three pathographic plots? Story one: They die. Story two: They get better. Story three: They are forever changed by the illness. At least that’s what my notes say.

Who are your people? Numbers, right? Let’s count again. Up or down. Maybe both. Does it matter?

Three. My father and his two siblings. Billy and Rose-Mariam and Ben-Hirsch.

Two. My mother and her one sibling. Freda and Helen, who went by Leni. Freda married Billy (William, Bill). Begat Sam. Samuel. Samuel Alexander. Samuel Alexander Rebelsky. S.A. Essay.

One. Me and my zero siblings.

Two. Michelle and I. Michelle and me. Husband and wife. Wife and husband. A pair.

Three. Sons, just like the TV show. I call them Eldest, Middle, Youngest. They have other names, too. There are limits to what I will share.

Four. The previous generation. Two parents, two in-laws.

Five. My immediate family. Two (Michelle and I) plus Three (The Sons).

What do you remember? When my mother gave monetary gifts, she gave amounts that others might have found odd, even though they were even. Thirty-six dollars (six squared, if you care). Maybe one-hundred and eighty, if she was feeling especially generous. Multiples of eighteen. Eighteen is Chai. No, not the tea. Alive. A gift. Don’t understand? Learn your Hebrew. Study the gematria.

Who came first? Bill, my father.

One. Our address. That may not be relevant.

Two. The packs he smoked daily. Luckies, unfiltered. Did they even make filtered Luckies? LSMFT. Lucky Strike Means Found Tumors. Lucky Strike Means Fractured Thoughts. Lucky Strike Means Fed Terror. Luck Strike Means … Fuck That.

Three. How many months most people lived after the diagnosis. At least at the time. Michelle says it’s treatable these days.

Four. Creatures in the house: Dad and Mom and me and Sax, our dog. Or letters in Dad’s name, Bill.

Five. Letters in his nickname, Rebel. No one’s given me that nickname. Letters in his name on the birth certificate, Billy. What was his mother thinking?

Six. Letters in the diagnosis. Also another Bill, Bill Russell. Same goatee. Similar politics.

Seven. Whisps of hair left after the radiation. Reminiscent of Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha. Or is it Richard Harris?

Eight. Or forty-eight. His age. His final age. Letters in Richard. Letters in Rebelsky.

Nine. Three squared. Survival post diagnosis. Many more than expected. Not enough.

What is that? It’s just a lump.

Five. Years the lump sat at the back of my neck, not changing, not growing. Just there.

Zero. Concerns my doctors had. Just a lipoma, a bunch of fat. Something that seems a part of me, who I am. Zero is also the number of cigarettes I have smoked. Tobacco cigarettes.

Twelve. Or more. Length of my hair, in inches. Why I didn’t want to remove the lump. Vain. I was also suspicious of hospitals and operations.

One or two. Hours to remove the lump. A normal lipoma.

Infinite. Michelle’s relief. Mine too.

Forty-two. Millimeters. The approximate size of the lump. A golf ball, more or less. Now the size of another hole in my head. Don’t worry, it will fill in. Eventually.

Who are your people? When I was young, maybe five or six, I said something like I can make nickles equal dimes. When prompted further, I said Infinity nickles equals infinity dimes, a more accurate statement than Many nickles equals many dimes. Overhearing, Salva Luria, my godfather of sorts, relayed something complimentary about my abilities, my understanding. What is my connection to Luria, the Italian Jew (a rarity), the Nobel Laureate, the friend of Chomsky and nudger of Wiesel? Zella, Salva’s wife, and mom collaborated on projects in Psychology.

At my wedding reception, when my father-in-law, the truck driver, met Salva, Salva said that he was an Italian shoemaker. They had a long, lovely, chat in the back yard.

Who came next? Salva, just a few years after the wedding. My maternal grandmother (my last grandparent). My maternal aunt. My uncle. More. Then Lloyd, my father-in-law.

Two. Ls, in Lloyd. Syllables in Camels, which Lloyd smoked. Also unfiltered.

Three. Packs he smoked daily. At home. In the car. In the truck. Three places.

Two. Days after his brother-in-law’s funeral he was diagnosed. The third day. Funeral Thursday. Travel Friday. Diagnosis Saturday. The worst part? Michelle diagnosed.

Nine. Weeks he lived after the diagnosis. Or nine weeks and one day, to be precise. Nine weeks starting Sunday. Palm Sunday.

One. Youngest’s age at the time. Just barely. He’s eighteen now. Nearly nineteen.

Sixty. Lloyd’s final age. An upper bound on ages in his family. Hopefully not in ours.

Tell me about numbers. Growing up, I had two favorite numbers, seventeen and thirty-two. Seventeen was my birthday, our exit on the Mass Turnpike (Newton Corner), Havlicek (stole the ball). Important things to remember. Thirty-two was the start of my SSN, my final class rank, two to the fifth. Thirty-two is also ten less than the answer, although I’m not sure why I make that association. Or maybe I do know. As I said, there are limits to what I share. Thirty-two is also the number of cards you get with four suits and eight cards per suit. I don’t recall what game, if any, uses such a deck. I’m not sure why my brain makes these connections.

What is that? The lump, prodded, opened, sliced, slided, microscoped, examined, studied.

Thirteen. A lucky number. Days after the surgery that an email popped up on my screen: You have new test results. Strange. Especially for a Sunday. I don’t recall any tests.

Five. Words in the diagnosis. Moderately differentiated squamous cell carcinoma. Scary. It turns out that there was a small, hard, white nodule in the midst of all that fat. A strange place.

Six. Words in the extended diagnosis. Rule out metastatic squamous cell carcinoma. Terrifying. How does cancer metasticize to inside a bunch of fat? Is that metaphor for my body?

Zero. Doctors traditionally available at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night to discuss such a diagnosis. Not the best time. The wonders of automated software.

Five. Minutes it took to reach my surgeon on the phone. It’s good to have a network. Zero. Expectation he had for that diagnosis. Two. Days until we could meet in person. Already scheduled, fortunately! My surgeon removes the stitches, examines me, calls the pathologists.

Infinite. The pathologists’ confidence in their diagnosis. Less confidence in the metastatic part, but close. Infinity minus a little still seems like infinity.

Tell me about numbers. I’ve long been intrigued by the concept of infinity. It looks like an eight, on its side, but represents so much more. Infinity is not just a new version of many; it’s so many that you could never count all of them, no matter how hard you tried nor how many monkeys pounding on their typewriters could aided you. Yet it can be countable. And there’s not just one infinity, but many. It turns out that infinity nickles does not always equal infinity dimes.

Who are your people? My mother was Freda Rebelsky, Ph.D. Professor of Psychology. A poet, too.

Two. Pathographies in this story. One and two, at least as I count. Or two and one.

Three. Letters in Mom, the first non-smoker in the bunch. Letters in Ph.D., her degree. The rank of that degree as she told me: Bullshit, more shit, piled higher & deeper.

Three is also the number of major teaching awards she won, often the first woman to win such awards. BU’s Metcalf award. The Danforth Foundation’s E. Harris Harbison Award. The first APA Distinguished Teaching of Psychology award.

Forty-six. Years mom lived in the house with an address of one in Newton before deciding to move to Grinnell to live near our family. She was healthy, we thought. Or at least as healthy as she ever was. Some lung problems. Some heart problems. Some diabetes, caused by the steroids she took for the lung problems. But active.

Seven, Ten, Thirteen. Our three son’s ages when mom moved. A chance to watch them grow, to attend their many events. Near enough that Youngest could walk there after school.

Four, more or less. Months she lived here before getting really sick. Months she spent walking around the Mayflower, around town. Months she spent making friends, learning things, meeting people, planning projects, having fun, talking with me.

Eight. Or maybe ten. How many thousand dollars she spent for the patio in the back of her new house. A place to sit in the spring. A place to socialize. A place to watch the trains go by.

Four, again. Months she spent unconscious at the hospital in Des Moines. No one knew quite why. I was on sabbatical and could sit by her side or in the waiting room. I remember having to answer a call from her sister. Leni’s dead, I thought, but answered anyway. It turned out it was Zella, who could only get through if she was a family member.

Zero. Explanations I could give to Zella.

Three. Months after the sudden recovery that mom lived back at the Mayflower, in the care wing, rather than in her house. Some things didn’t change. She read. She talked to friends. Learned. Planned. Threw wine parties in the garden (not hers). McNally’s delivers.

One. Wheelchair that ran over her leg. Did damage. Combined with the diabetes, it had an expected effect. Soon the number of legs she would now have after necessary surgery.

Infinity, or infinite. Her post-operation plans. Visiting friends, including her old boyfriend. (Comments about sex with one leg are TMI, mom!) Watching the kids grow. What she might study next. What she might write next. Maybe a guide for others?

Five p.m. July 19. She wakes after surgery. It went well. She’s tired, but happy. We say goodbye, share our love, plan to talk the next day.

Three a.m. July 20. The phone rings. Michelle answers. Mom’s body gave out.

Nine a.m. We visit. Say goodbye. They turn off the machines.

How do you feel? Infinity still represents many things to me. My anger at the Mayflower feels infinite. Why was no one watching? Why did they take so long to call? Why would they not take any responsibility for their actions, their inactions? Infinity also represents the number of Kleenex I needed to write the prior section, my regrets at things I never told her. So many infinities!

What is that? I’m not sure.

Ten. Percent. Maybe more. Typical brain function lost for six or so months after radiation therapy. Possibly forever. Michelle says most people don’t notice, but faculty always do.

Three. Weeks until I could get a PET/CT Scan, at least if I wanted one in Grinnell. One. Large concern about the PET/CT Scan: My size. Would it hold me? Also One. Week before the PET/CT Scan if I did it in Des Moines. Five hundred. The Des Moines limit, in pounds.

Three. Or many. Friends and colleagues who told me their own stories, not always knowing my situation. I have skin cancer but it’s under control; I just need to check in every year or two. The lump on the back of my neck was serious, but I have excellent doctors at the U of I. I’m doing okay. When I was getting chemotherapy, I moved my class earlier in the morning so that it matched my body’s cycles. All seem to be coping with that big C (not the Maroons).

One. Hour after ingesting radiation that I had to sit still. Could I read a book? No, that would cause my brain to be active and cause uptake of the radiation. Try not to think about it.

Two. Times I was told to flush.

Zero. Spots that lit up. A good sign, I think.

Infinite. The pathologists’ continued confidence in their diagnoses. Shouldn’t tests change things? Should negative results change things? My surgeon refers me to the U of I.

Who is left? Kathy, my mother-in-law.

One. The pathography, our fourth. A bit more compressed. Not even a short story. Perhaps a short-short.

Two. Packs of Winstons she smoked daily. Syllables in Winston. At least they have filters.

Seven. Days each week she would clean her house. Cigarettes have effects, after all.

Eight. Days from diagnosis to death, including

Three. Days on hospice.

What did you learn? I entered the University of Chicago intending to be a math major. Salva’s assessment stuck with me. I began about as high as you could place, beyond Calculus—beyond, even, the legendary Calculus for demigods—into Analysis in R^n, with Paul Sally, as one of only three first-years in that class. I got an 82 on my first test. It sounds good, until you learn that the test was out of 150. Still, I passed. I took the Putnam, scored in the 50th percentile. That also sounds acceptable, except that a zero puts you in the 50th percentile and one of the other first-years scored in the top ten in the country. There must be more to life than math.

Tell me about numbers. Again? Okay, one last time.

Five. Weeks I wait for the U of I appointment. Maybe six. It’s a blur.

Zero. Samples the pathologists shipped to the U of I before my appointment. Not useful.

One. Additional CT-Scan they decided I needed.

Two. Hours before I can get it. Much better than two or three weeks.

Five or six. Additional days before the samples finally reach the U of I.

Nine. Days before I get the follow-up reading. No cancer. Just a crazy hair cell. It figures.

Two. Or three. Months of my life (my sabbatical) living in terror. Months wasted.

What number is the plot for There was never anything wrong?

[1] I also have to turn in my set of one-hundred-word reflections. But those aren’t manuscripts and they aren’t new writing.

[2] As many of you know, I do my best to avoid profanity.

[3] I won’t even know.

Version 1.0 released 2020-04-29.

Version 1.0.1 of 2020-04-29.