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A Foot of David by Michelangelo (Detail), 1501-1504
"Imagine how smuggy I felt …"

PrecisionAbstraction has proven to be a prominent bane of my existence. I can thrive on abstraction until precision steps in. Then, I feel myself smothering. Still, I try to maintain a positive attitude. Last Spring, when I ordered mulch for The Villa's odd-shaped front garden bed, Tom The Nurseryman deflected my request by insisting that I produce a PrecisionAbstraction, the landscaping equivalent of throwing down a gauntlet. I would have to produce, as a qualifying action, a statement of how many square feet of mulch I'd need. I retired to my lair to consider this challenge.

I walked the perimeter of the bed, a space without a single regular angle.
A dog-legged oval, a bulgy rectangle, I struggled for a metaphor that might characterize the space as a regular, even distantly squarish, space. I decided to treat it as two rough rectangles, measure those, then apply a formula, something I'd never ordinarily ever consider doing, for I am not a man for whom formulas figure prominently among my coping techniques. I'm more of a windage sort of estimator. I inevitably buy much more than I'll ever use because the obtuse methods of science aren't resident in my personal quiver.

In my past, I've measured carefully only to learn that whatever product I needed didn't come in that size, that I'd have to buy a side-by-side refrigerator-sized container of something of which I needed about a half pint. I might confidently stride into a store with my spiel all worked out only to learn that what I sought was measured and sold under another metric than the one I'd so carefully memorized, with no Rosetta Stone handy to translate one to the other. Guys who deal in this stuff understand when to measure in cubics and when to employ squares, but I was apparently not there when the convention was agreed upon and so I inevitably embarrass myself. (Can you believe he actually attempted to place an order for cubic furlongs of paint?)

I spent much of the following year considering and reconsidering, then re-re-considering Tom's challenge. I did not consummate that order last spring because I had not completed my considering before plants came up and by then, mulching might have damaged them. This spring, though, bored under the latest Stay At Home Order, I completed my calculations and called Tom. I confidently ordered three thousand square feet of mulch. He quoted me a price and said he'd call when he'd loaded it for delivery. He called yesterday morning and I was standing in the front yard when he and his crew pulled up with two (count 'em, two!) pick-up trucks and a trailer filled with mulch! Tom asked if I wanted that backyard bed mulched, too, and I told him definitely not, since that bed was still under my four foot backyard snow drift.

He seemed fairly certain that I'd measured incorrectly. He quickly stepped off the perimeter of the bed and, quickly calculating IN HIS HEAD, concluded that I might need three hundred square feet of mulch if the crew really piled on the product. I apologized, an act for which I carry a ready reserve. "My fault," I insisted. I've never quite found the handle on PrecisionAbstraction. This one was all on me.

I was secretly pleased to see that my life-long struggle with PrecisionAbstraction remained. Had I been less fortunate, I might have out-grown it. The Muse later explained that The Villa features about three thousand square feet of floor space, though she'd never actually measured it. She just knew. I'd carefully calculated the size of that bed using The Formula, but like with most formulas, I'd failed to carry a decimal place or something, a common enough oversight. I could imagine no way to validate my answer, other than to have someone like Tom do his magic pacing off of the perimeter, but he'd challenged me to provide the baseline measure
before he'd agree to start working on a solution. I'd just complied.

When science and engineering speak, people hear whatever they hear. Within the fraternity/sorority, everyone understands, and outsiders nod their heads as if they did, but they probably don't. Scientific proofs tend to be written in PrecisionAbstractions, perfectly meaningful for those who write proofs, but articles of faith for all those legions who do not. I don't think it curious for a second that I cannot conceive of the PrecisionAbstraction 'square foot.' It's an agreed upon common measure without actual referent. They measure houses in square feet when cubic feet might prove much more meaningful, or some ratio between square and cubic to provide some sense of living space, since nobody lives in two dimensions.

Tom recalculated the bill and insisted that he had other ready orders to fill with the remainder from my project. I survived my latest encounter with PrecisionAbstraction and returned to edging the line around the front of that bed, an indeterminate length beyond measure as far as I'm concerned. It had taken me thirteen months of dedicated calculation to come up with an answer only a single order of magnitude divergent from the correct one. Imagine how smuggy I felt as a Spring sun warmed my shoulders.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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