A Self Portrait of Sorts

Dear Hope Nation,

Regular readers of these letters know I’m but half educated. The half I know is the humanities—literature, art, history, sociology, etc. Of the other half–hard science, math, engineering—I am blissfully ignorant. This overwhelming focus on human beings and how they communicate/coexist/live would have come as a surprise to my elementary-school teachers, because back then I was a math whiz. Up through college boards, which I took as kind of a last-hurrah at academic success, my math scores were higher than my verbal ones.

“Last hurrah” in that last sentence is apropos because I finished third from the bottom of my high school class, despite being a National Merit Semifinalist—based solely on high test scores. Once they looked at my grades, I had zero chance of ever becoming a finalist, much less getting a scholarship. It’s kind of like a broken-armed kid winning the field goal portion of the Punt, Pass and Kick competition. Instead, at age 17, two weeks after graduation, I went off to basic training at Fort Knox. I believe my motto at that time was, “I prefer to commit my felonies in a different time zone.”

So . . . I started  by writing about my off-kilter education and ended up with a smart-aleck remark about crime. I will genuinely try to stay on task, as focused as a laser. Did you know lasers are in a sense the opposite of focused light? Making a laser isn’t a matter of distilling light into a pinprick of destruction. Instead, one shines a light (your photon source) into a tube with mirrors on each end, with a teeny-tiny hole drilled in one of the mirrors. After the photons have bounced around getting to know each other and gotten absorbed into the tube, only the photons travelling in phase escape through the pinprick, forming a death ray. Or the tool behind Lasik surgery. But that’s not really the point.

I’m trying to write about my educational imbalance and keep getting sidetracked. I started off good at math, but lost interest in it by and by. Interestingly, though, in early recovery I fell in with some former drunks who had found a way to treat their alcoholism.  Unfortunately, part of their system involved having a higher power (or Higher Power) or, honestly, God.  People in the rooms I was sitting in told me I could have the group be my higher power—their lives were certainly more manageable than mine—or a light bulb—it was brighter than I was—or a door knob.  You get the picture. 

Having been a Baptist minister, with a belief in a transcendent God whose biggest concern in the universe was whether I was lusting or coveting, I couldn’t really worship any of these things.  Instead, for no earthly (but perhaps heavenly) reason, I thought back on my junior high algebra class, with its introduction to quadratic equations.  Without going into a review of quadratics (says the man who is incapable of such a review without sitting down for an afternoon and rediscovering them), let me just say the solution to the quadratic

X2 + 1 = 0

Requires the use of an imaginary number, represented as i, which stands for the square root of -1.  It’s imaginary—for negative numbers can’t have square roots—but once we’ve imagined it, it turns out i is indispensable in solving that problem.  From that insight on, my higher power became an imaginary number, represented by a lower case i, and referred to as the square root of negative one.  My higher power didn’t exist, couldn’t exist, yet once it was imagined, it became indispensable in solving my problem:  how to live without alcohol and how to live a semi-manageable life.

I know I’m running out of space, and you’re likely long past empty on patience, so let me close by saying I wish I’d balanced my education better, wish I’d focused more on biology, chemistry and engineering, and less on forging passports to Clever-Clever Land out of letters and words and sentences. But if I had, I wouldn’t be me.

Keith’s self portrait

Please, as you look back on ways you could or should have lived your life differently, please also take a look at the man or woman you are now. If the person looking back at you from the mirror is honest, decent and kind, there’s no room for regret. You are you, and that’s good enough. After all,

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith