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Compartmentalized

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One thing I learned at a very young age was not to talk about church stuff at school. Mention God or Jesus in elementary school and you immediately got pegged as a goody-two-shoes. But it wasn’t just church stuff. You also didn’t dare talk about your family. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers were off limits. If you talked about your mother, you were a Mama’s boy. If you mentioned a sister, you had to endure crass comments about them—or fight, which was forbidden. Even a father could set off a competition as you and an opponent—a politically correct term for your worst enemy—one-upped each other in an effort to prove that the father in question was better, bigger, faster, stronger.

As I matured, these simplistic rules gave way to more nuanced guidelines, but the fundamental lesson seemed to be the same: don’t talk about your life in one sphere while you’re in another sphere. So except for the most mundane banalities, we don’t talk about work in church; we don’t talk about family relationships at work; we don’t talk about our private lives anywhere. We become compartmentalized.

At church we think church thoughts and say church-y things: “God bless you.” “I’ll be praying for you.”

At work we think work thoughts and say work-y things: “I need it done ASAP.” “Call or shoot me an email if you need anything.” The unspoken part is “anything work-related.”

At home we think home thoughts and say home-y things: “What’s for dinner?” “Where’s the remote?” “Why can’t you learn to pick up after yourself?”

And in our private, innermost being we think private thoughts that no one—thank goodness—ever hears: CENSORED.

We live lives divided neatly into compartments. At least we hope to. Sometimes things go awry. Maybe it’s your eleventh grader who just told you she’s pregnant. Maybe your wife discovered your online pornography habit. Maybe your boss is hinting that your position is being considered for termination. Maybe your prayers aren’t being answered, and you aren’t sure you trust God.

When such things happen, there is spillover. Your private life suddenly affects your work. Your home life suddenly affects your religion. Your loss of faith affects everything. It’s quite natural to suppose that becoming healthy again means getting everything back into its compartment. But what if it’s not?

What if we were never meant to live so divided from ourselves? What if we were meant to live just one life, whole, integrated, and pure? What if we dismantled the compartments? What if we used God talk everywhere? What if we let others know about our pain and failure—not in a self-absorbed way, but transparently and naturally, as if we were talking with real friends who could share our burdens instead of talking to contacts we were trying to leverage or impress?

I’m not suggesting that we banish small talk or only engage with one another at some deeply personal level. I’m merely suggesting that each of us should be the same person in every context. It’s not easy. It requires integrity. It requires intentional effort. It requires being your own leader. Back in grade school, if I had had integrity—a certain knowledge of my identity coupled with a steadfast resolve to be myself—I would not have been intimidated by those who teased or threatened. I would have stood my ground, for courage arises from integrity. I am calling for integrity instead of compartmentalization.

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Cabin Fever Cure

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The ancients knew what they were about making February shorter than other months. Short as it is, it still seems the longest. Since Christmas with its reds and greens, all we’ve seen are somber browns and grays and blacks and blinding whites. The snow has lost its charm, and all of us, cooped up together for the past two months, have too often lost our tempers. We needed to get out. We needed to renew our faith in the coming of spring with its lush growth and wanton colors.

Saint Paul mercifully provides a place where those weary of winter’s doldrums can refresh their souls. The Como Park Conservatory operates year around, but in February, it’s like water in a desert. We all went yesterday to marinate ourselves in the tropical weather under its glass dome. We breathed the drenched air of the fern room. We saw the stately Christmas palms and the not-so-stately bottle palms. We saw oranges on an orange tree and cacao pods on a chocolate tree and coffee berries on a coffee tree. We saw allspice and red ginger and black pepper. We saw a Panama hat tree, so called because its young leaves are used to make Panama hats.

We always save the best for last, of course, and the best is the Sunken Garden with all the flowers. I like flowers, but I’m not very good with their names. I do fine with marigolds, daffodils, and tulips, but I can never seem to remember cyclamens, rhododendrons, or bromeliads. So, to my chagrin, I can’t remember most of what we saw. All I know is that they were beautiful. There were crimson blossoms sprung from drooping heads that twisted their petals upward as they unfurled. There were star lilies as big as my hand. There were blossoms shaped like tiny vases.

And there were carp in the pond. When the children were young, they would race past the flowers to see the fish, to touch the fish. Certainly, the carp are fascinating: their glittering scales, whiskered faces, and round toothless mouths. Lithe and slippery, they glide over and under one another looking shamelessly for a handout.

After walking through the garden, I sat down on a bench where the winter sun dazzled me. I relaxed. For, lo, the winter is past. The rains are over and gone. Flowers appear in the earth, and the time of singing has come.

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Math Is Fun

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In grade school I hated arithmetic. More accurately, I hated repetitive drills in arithmetic. I never had trouble remembering facts, and by second grade, I had discovered that if I remembered what my teachers said and what I read, I could do well in school. I had no trouble learning the basic facts of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It wasn’t enough to know the facts, however, I had to demonstrate that knowledge over and over again with mind-numbing pages of arithmetic problems. I remember doing timed tests of long division problems where we were supposed to complete 50 problems in 15 minutes. I was so busy silently fuming at the injustice of it all that I would finish only 8 or 9 problems. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do them; it was that they presented no challenge.

One day, my older sister came home and showed me what she was learning about. She showed me how 3 could be written as 11 in binary. It was like switching on a light. Suddenly, math was fun. I started tinkering with different bases on my own, writing familiar numbers in unfamiliar ways:

1, 2, 3, 4, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 30, … 44, 100, …

I made multiplication tables for different number systems:

× 0 1 2 3 4
0 0 0 0 0 0
1 0 1 2 3 4
2 0 2 4 11 13
3 0 3 11 14 22
4 0 4 13 22 31

I created new arithmetics using the new bases. I even found ways to convert familiar constants such as π to different bases.

π(10) = 3.14159265…

π(5) = 3.03232214303343…

What I liked best about math, though, was the comfort it gave me. Mathematics gave me access to an abstract world, a world where the rules were absolute, where absolute certainty was not only possible but necessary. I could divide the 21 abstract cookies in my math problems among 7 abstract friends because the cookies were all the same, and the friends all wanted an equal number. I didn’t have to deal with the odd, misshapen cookie or with Paul, who wanted an extra cookie for being my best friend.

Measurements were always exact. Squares and circles and prisms and spheres were always perfect, and cylindrical tanks could always be filled exactly full. You never had to worry about cutting a 20-foot board into five 4-foot lengths only to find that the last length was actually only 477/8” because the saw took out 1/32” with every cut. The mathematical world was pristine and pure, beautiful and symmetrical. Every operation had its inverse. Every number had its own unique qualities. Every theorem had its own peculiar applicability.

While other boys were discovering girls, I was discovering the five platonic solids. While they tinkered with their cars, I taught myself how to use a slide rule and how to solve problems involving logarithms. I fell in love with the ideal and had neither time nor concern for the real. The ideal world was consistent, logical, and true. The interior angles of an n-sided polygon always summed to n−2 straight lines. I could trust the ideal world.

Math is still fun. The ideal world turned out to be less ideal than I had thought. Kurt Gödel saw to that. But the real world turned out to have in it more beauty than I had at first noticed: fractal beauty.

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