A Different Birthday

Birthday candles on a cake“Celebrating” my birthday a few days ago brought to mind the ways that we mark the passage of time are socially constructed, and thus could be constructed differently. Yet, being socially constructed does not negate having significant consequences. While the movement of the earth around the sun is a reasonable measure for marking time, it is not the only measure that people use.

I have written before about ways our system of dating and designation of each new year is arbitrary yet consequential. But, turning 49 brings such consequences (practical, social, emotional, etc.) home in a different way. n addition to being old enough to join AARP (and maybe get some senior discounts), next year should be my first colonoscopy based on health care recommendations, not to mention the emotional significance of being a half century old. But things could be different, as all of that, the statistics leading to health care recommendations and the counting of birthdays, are not automatic, even if we take them for granted.

I could already be 50, as my birthday marked the start of my 50th year (as well as the completion of my 49th). Both of those designations are based on our system of counting using base 10. If we switch to base 12, I become 41 (or starting my 42nd year). Even better, I can be 31 using base 16. Of course, it can go the other way, too. Using base 8, I am 61, or 110,001 using base 2—but maybe we should just forget that one…

But if what gives me pause at 49 is the pending shift to my 50s (and the various consequences of that), I could simply avoid that emotional trap by simply being more rational (I shouldn’t hold my breath for that) or by switching from one base to another. So for now, I declare that I am 41, and in 11 more times around the sun when I approach 50 in base 12, I will just jump to base 16. Now that sounds like the fountain of youth.


Photo credit: Selena N. B. H. “Birthday candles” via Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

We’re All Counting on You

Picture 1Did you see this recent article at slate.com? I think it’s fascinating — why? Well, not because of the proverbial tribe that’s been found in deepest, darkest wherever, but because of the manner in which the article itself so nicely brings to light the (likely inevitable) problems associated with coming to know anything about the world around us. For in a piece on a group of people who apparently have no numbers in their language system (or at least an inability to think of quantities larger than a few) we see a whole bunch of numbers used by the article’s author to itemize big facts. There’s around 700 of these people, we’re told; we first learned about them in 2007, in a magazine article that was — count ’em! — 12,000 words in length.

My point? Unless we privilege our language system as if it is in sync with reality itself — as happens so often, when we start talking about facts — one can’t help but see this story as a moment when two no less local systems bump into each other (something I’m thinking from my position within one of them, of course — how crazy is that?). For our ability to “think itemized quantity” is so self-evident to us that we’re perplexed by how they get along without it — the “it” here is taken as a fact of nature and not some quirky acquisition that we happen to have, of course. That is, why isn’t the article on how peculiar it is that other language systems even have numbers?

Of course we have no choice but to use local assumptions and concepts and curiosities in coming to know those we take to be our others but we too often make the mistake of failing to see these assumptions and concepts and curiosities as our tools. Instead, we (especially if we happen to be in dominant groups) speak loudly and slowly and say such things as “How do you say ‘religion’ in your language?” — as if the fact that we happen to divide up and name the world in this or that way necessarily has some corresponding dance partner in all human systems.

Whether hubris or laziness accounts for this, it’s worth mulling over that a change in attitude toward owning our assumptions and concepts and curiosities might be the first step in doing any sort of interesting work on this thing we’re calling identification.