There’s no way around it. I’m a math nerd. It was the night before my first trip out of the United States, to the distant land of Egypt. I was soon to discover a realm of striking poverty, ancient architecture, and a twisted grasp of time, but since I hadn’t left Seattle, I was primarily concerned with possible airborne activities. Naturally this included a math textbook and my beloved calculator.
Just as I finished packing, my dear mother dropped into the room to demand an overview of my packing scheme. The calculator was quickly forbidden, simply because TI-83s are expensive and “easily” stolen. Argument ensued, resulting in permission to bring the calculator on one condition: I had to carry it with me at all times. And so I did.
Inside the pyramids I sang to it; on the edge of the Sahara I kept it shut away from dust; on top of Mt. Sinai I raised it to the heavens. And every once in a while a calculation was in order. Camping with Bedouin guides, we were told that it had not rained in five years, or snowed in eight. My calculator obliged, providing the probability that it would snow that night: effectively zero. What happened that night? That’s right, it snowed. We told our guides that where we lived, it rained or snowed “many, many days every year.” They were thunderstruck.
On top of a ridge on the Sinai I surveyed a field in the valley below. Filled with opium poppies, the value of the crop was incomprehensible. Numbers may have flashed across the screen of my omnipotent calculator, but just the magnitude of the figures provided the meaning.
Egyptians receive free bread from the government. No one starves. There are guards for every building, on every train, and every twenty miles at checkpoints along the roads. Tourists are safe. Humans have been civilized there for 6,000 years and world powers have come and gone, but Egyptians live much as they used to. No one is rushed. Wonders of the ancient world, gargantuan stone temples and fantastically complex burial structures reside less than a stone’s throw from their houses. Egyptians are often unimpressed. My calculator will never understand the meaning in all these statements, but if it could, I think it would be filled with wonder.
Peter Reinhardt of Seattle, Washington won Honorable Mention for this essay.
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