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SU⋅DO⋅KU

SU⋅DO⋅KU

Sūji wa dokushin ni kagiru (数字は独身に限る), which can also be translated as “the digits must be single” or “the digits are limited to one occurrence.” —Wikipedia

As the only child of an only child; as the consequence of a divorce unusual in the 1950s (Roy got custody after Marge evaporated into a warm spring night and was never seen again), I became a feral child. Now, at seventy-one years of age — sixty-three of them in this feral state — I try to explain me to myself, without success. One thing is clear: because humans (one of them in particular) had proven unreliable, I chose instead the comforting company of numbers; indeed, as a Capricorn, that disposition was present from birth.

Numbers were a refuge from human relationships. [Duplicity was a word I learned years later.] Mother was gone and dad had about as much experience with children as I’d had with parents, next to none, so much so that our relationship became a living laboratory. The realization that numbers held a special fascination came in fifth grade in the person of Veronica Piper.

Miss Piper was a teacher in the classic sense; what I call a “secular nun.” Women of her generation “came of age” facing a stark choice: marriage and family OR career; one could simply not do both. And the career choices were severely limited: secretary/stenographer, nurse, teacher, or nun.

In her fifth-grade classroom, I answered to the name “Roy” for fifty minutes each morning because she had taught my father. I hadn’t wondered until recently about the mathematics of our trinary relationship, given that there were twenty-eight years difference between my father’s age and mine. How could she have taught us both? Genealogical records reveal that she had been born in 1913 and was, therefore, just four years older than dad, which means his class must have been one of her very first. No wonder he had made an impression.¹

The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry. — Bertrand Russell

For an hour each day, Miss Piper drilled us in what might have been the Paris Island of mathematics, though I never regarded it in terms of Marine boot camp. Rather, I saw it as an introduction to the universe of numbers, what Einstein saw as “the poetry of logical ideas.” No other subject in my primary education seemed so natural, so innate, as though an echo of something already known but half forgotten. No, let me amend that: Art was equally “familiar,” I think now because it also concerns the primacy of pattern; the recognition that universal, underlying ordering systems exist in two, three, and even four dimensions.

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Any success I have had in life, I owe to the “parenting” of many people. Most of them were unrelated to me. Veronica Piper was one of them.

¹Veronica Piper died in 2003 at the age of ninety. I have thought of her often since our time together circa 1956 and regret not having found here in retirement to express my gratitude for the discipline she had imposed on my thinking. I wonder only now if her second Ramsey had met the standard set by the first.

 


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