My parents taught me the importance of being able to entertain myself. In theory, so long as I have my brain with me, I shouldn’t have a reason to be bored. This is perhaps particularly true with a brain like mine; it’s notoriously adept at being interested in things. It’s slightly less adept at pesky minutia like social graces or paying attention to the obvious.
This is why my wife has mostly learned not to show me off in public. Before that realization though, we went shopping. Or rather, she went shopping and left me standing in a fairly large, conspicuously dreary, women’s clothing store. There was nothing for me to do there, not even a lonely chair left as a peace offering for those poor souls stranded by their coupon-wielding wives. If I wanted to pass the time–which seemed to be the only option that involved continuing living–my brain would have to rescue me.
Interestingly, my wife remembers the store as being full of delightful and interesting prizes, like a rainbow colored treasure chest full of fancy baubles. It was in fact almost entirely gray. The clothes were gray. The displays were gray. The walls were gray. The saleswomen weren’t gray, but they wore gray. The floor was black and white. Naturally the floor drew my attention.
As an aside here, I need to tell a story about my daughter. On one of our regular father-daughter field trips, we went to a large electronics store, the sort of place where she could run around but every place she ran to would be exciting for me. We had only been there a minute when she found a new game. An uncarpeted aisle circumnavigated the store. It mostly consisted of light colored tiling, but it had a solid black stripe. With all of the enthusiasm native to toddlers, she started running along that black stripe. She followed it around the store five times.
Discounting the few (but five times repeated) awkward moments when her determination to follow the stripe ran afoul of the pedestrians who were occupying it, I was as thoroughly proud as a father could be. Patterned flooring is one of the simplest but most magical of human inventions; I think all children understand this. I was happy that my daughter had joined the merry throng, and without my prompting even. I was also happy that she gave me an excuse to join it too.
The pedestrians she overran were surprised and slightly upset, but they were willing to forgive a giggling little girl. They were willing to accept a fellow who was clearly playing along with such a little girl, too. The drab and dour shopkeepers at the women’s clothing store were less forgiving of a grown man trying to play this marvelous game by himself.
It started out simply enough: I noticed that the floor around me had white tiles and black tiles, with the white being preponderant. Clearly I was supposed to try to step only on the black ones; that’s how floors work. As I took a few steps though, I made an amazing discovery: when I passed an obstructing display, I saw that the narrow smattering of black tiles continued. Clearly I was supposed to follow them; that’s how floors work. Soon I passed another display, then another, and always with the delightful surprise of more black tiles. It started to occur to me that the path might actually continue all of the way around the store. My fate was sealed; it’s how floors work!
It wasn’t my fault that the store decorators hadn’t planned well enough to keep all of the displays from blocking the rousing tile path. I suppose it is my fault that I didn’t let the displays stop me.
Oddly though, this still wasn’t what got me into trouble, at least not with my wife. In all the time I spent navigating the store, she still hadn’t finished shopping. I had finished a great and majestic exploration, but she still hadn’t found trousers. There was only one thing left for me to do, one consistently reliable diversion good in all situations.
I needed to do math.
What I didn’t realize was that math would doom me.