So I’m back in the USA again, prostituting myself again for the brand-new, gorgeous, shiny, highly-affordable paperback version of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (please buy it, please buy it! –there, required shameless subliminal plug done) and what do I find myself doing all day? Math.
To my great horror, I have been living abroad long enough now that my brain is starting to slide into some distinctly alarming European numerical marshiness. For example, when I’m paying the bill in restaurants here, I’m forgetting to tip! I am a former waitress who used to run her tushie off in a cocktail bar, yet I’ve gotten so accustomed to service being included in the bill in Europe (where, perhaps not coincidently, the service is generally – how do I put this diplomatically? – I don’t – it sucks) that I tend to forget it’s not included here. Friends glare at me after I’ve ponied up for the check: Aren’t you going to leave a tip? “Oh my god, yes,” I say with embarrassment.
Then I realize, I need to calculate it. And I’ve forgotten how. What’s seventeen percent – is that what we leave? What’s twenty? Do we still double the tax?
And then there’s the exchange rate, and the shoe sizes here, which aren’t “36’s” and “39”’s but simply sixes and nines – and the fact that liquids are no longer measured in deciliters but good, old-fashioned, nonsensical ounces. In the supermarkets, I find myself converting pounds into kilos – the exact reverse of what I do back in Switzerland.
But the biggest challenge, strangely, is the weather. Suddenly, I’m no longer in a world that’s measured in centigrade. It’s disconcerting. I only just got used to it back in Switzerland – I’ve mastered the conversion formula in my head — F= C x 9/5 + 32 — yet now I’ve returned to Fahrenheit and don’t have to do the calculations?
Well, all I can say to this is Hallelujah. Yes, Fahrenheit makes no sense. Yes, the USA should get with the program and join the rest of the world in using the metric system. Culturally, geopolitically, and mathematically, I get this. And while we’re at it: Enough with calling baseball “The World Series” too, when so little of the rest of world plays it and only American teams participate. And enough with abbreviating dates by writing MONTH/day/year when everybody else does it DAY/Month/year, which is infinitely less confusing. Would it kill us to conform just a little?
But Fahrenheit? That’s where I say we hold the line.
You see, I’m a writer. And for a writer, there is no more beautiful system of temperature measurement than Fahrenheit. Kelvin — which I learned all about in science class in high school then promptly forgot –is based on absolute zero. Absolutes are no good for a writer. There’s no vagueness, no poetry with Kelvin. Boo Kelvin.
And Celsius? Yes, it’s functional, it’s logical, it’s nearly universal. Surely, it seems like the way to go. But c’mon. It’s pretentious. Celsius t prides itself on being a decile system of measurement – oh, you should hear the Europeans go on about it. And yet, it’s actually oblique and un-evocative. I mean, the difference between 20 and 23 degrees Celsius is the difference between whether you should wear a jacket or leave it at home. But who really gets this? And how can one of the hottest days on record somewhere be, say, 46? Forty-six? That’s the best you can do to inspire shock and awe? Please.
Fahrenheit, on the other hand – sweet, ridiculous Fahrenheit — is messy. Some German guy invented it by sticking a thermometer in salty ice water, then just frozen water, then under his armpit — thus imposing what’s at best a quasi-rational measurement system on the entire physical world. How typically human: arrogant, confusing, and slightly misguided. This is the stuff of real literature. What’s more, with Fahrenheit, if it’s broiling outside, you’re in the triple-digits, and if it suddenly turns freezing, the mercury will drop a whopping 70 degrees. It’s gradated and extreme, with a vast capacity for both nuance and hyperbole. With uptight, snooty little Celsius, you simply sweat at 35 degrees, shiver at five. How unexpressive. Give me Fahrenheit any day. There’s so much more to work with.
And so, here on book tour, I’m going to take a break, turn on the Weather Channel, and watch the local weather forecast in rapture. Then I’ll call (not ring up) my friends on my cell phone (not my mobile), drink a pint (not a liter) of water, and make sure to tip my waitress. It’s 29 degrees F here in Providence, Rhode Island this morning – and I couldn’t be happier.