Numbers vs words

words and numbers

I’m always dubious when I hear somebody proclaim that there are just two kinds of people in the world.

Tom Robbins, the author of “Still Life with Woodpecker” might have said it best: “There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world and those who are smart enough to know better.”

                Still, there’s something in the human psyche that makes us want to boil everything down to the simplest terms.  And the limitation of only one pair of options – be it those who think and those who do, those who save and those who spend, those who are good and those who are bad, or any number of other pairings – provides a convenient way to do it.  But the problem with such simplistic equations is that life is seldom simple.  On any given day most people actually think and do, and save and spend.  And there are very few, if any, folks who are saints or devils.  Most lives are spent wandering around in the vast middle ground between those extremes, depending on specific situations.

            Having said all that, I can tell you this. In one regard, there truly are two kinds of people in the world: those who are most comfortable with numbers and those who are most at home with words.

My wife Karen and I constitute living proof. Every morning when we read the paper and have our coffee she does a Sudoku number puzzle and I tackle the crossword and the word jumble.  She can rattle off phone numbers and birthdays from memory and I can spout quotes, snippets of poetry, and even complete poems and song lyrics on demand.  Of course it’s hardly ever demanded, but that rarely keeps me from doing it.  Karen liked teaching math and science; I teach English and creative writing.  No surprise there.

I’ve never had anywhere near the close relationship with numbers that I have with words.

When somebody tells me to remember a number they might as well request that I pull a rabbit out of a hat.  I can never remember Karen’s cell phone number since there is a magic button on my phone that knows it. When somebody asks how many people live in my town I’m at a complete loss, and when asked directions I can’t provide the numerical designations of roads and highways. I can do freeways, but even then I think of them, and speak of them, in terms of words if given the option.  So Highway 59 is the Southwest Freeway or the East Tex and 45 is either the North or the Gulf, defendant on which side of Houston we’re talking about.

            Math was always a great mystery to me, and nobody was unhappier about that than my father, who in addition to being the superintendent of schools up in Oakwood he also taught two classes, math and typing.  I did fine in typing, except for the numbers (which I never learned; I still have to look at those keys) but math bewildered me from my earliest days, when I spent much of my time sitting in the corner of Miss Erwin’s third grade class room because I didn’t find the multiplication tables interesting enough to memorize.

            In college I somehow managed to pass the two math courses I had to take, and even learned, in an education course, how to determine the mean, median, and mode in a set of student scores.  I’m pretty sure I’ve never, in 40 years of teaching, actually done it, but I apparently convinced a professor that I could.

            During all those years I’ve watched my math teaching colleagues huddle together during breaks in faculty meetings and work their way through complex arithmetic problems. You see, making numbers do tricks and figuring out their little mysteries is fun for them.  Just like moving phrases and sentences around and seasoning them with adjectives and other manipulations is for those of us who love words.

            So, the world might actually be made up of two groups after all: those who see things in terms of numbers and those that find solace and truth in words.

            So, what group do you fall into?    I hope our time together has helped you determine your unique talent, or lack thereof.

3 thoughts on “Numbers vs words

  1. Just to prove your point about there not being only two kinds of people in the world, I have a group of chemical engineering friends who all pursue writing as a hobby, with an eye to possibly writing a book in retirement, even if it never gets published.


  2. I most definitely am a word nerd, as are my husband and daughter. However, our daughter has proven in the last year that opposites can and do attract. Her boyfriend is a numbers guy, working his way through school with the ultimate goal an engineering degree. They are different as night and day, but go together like peas and carrots. 🙂


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