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‘Because’ is not the answer

Illustration by Denis Shifrin

Sitting bored on a bench in the hallway of the Federal Courthouse in 1964, I am five years old, with swinging knobby knees, ankle socks, and black oxfords. My older brother is running in the lobby near the elevator with our cousins, killing aliens or super criminals. Eleven adult children with their spouses, about 20 grandchildren all under 18, plus a few more on the way, we are one huge tribe impatiently crowding around the heavy closed doors of justice. We are waiting for Grandpa to become a U.S. citizen. We're trying to keep it down to a dull roar so the bailiffs don't make us all move into the lobby with the aliens and super-criminals.

My Uncle Ali from Persia, with wavy hair and black horn-rimmed glasses, sits down on the bench with me. Probably he has come to rest his feet, but to be polite, he strikes up a conversation with me.

So how old are you? Kindergarten? Yes? Reading yet?

A little.

What about counting?

Counting? For babies (look of disdain).

Really? So how high do you go?

100, even more.


And by 2's and by 5's, also to 100.

Honestly? You must demonstrate.

(It's done.)

Very impressive. So what of arithmetic?

(Eyes rolled.) Easy peasy.

Demonstration? 1 + 1?


1 + 2?


1 + 3?

4. That's too easy (boring, for babies).

I see, something harder, then?


2 + 2?

(Frown, scorn even, sigh.) 4.


Why what?

Why does 2 + 2 = 4?


(Deep concentration. Fingers produced, two on the left hand, two on the right.)

Here, see? Because they are 4, not 3 or 5, 4. Look.

Yes, 4 is the answer. I want to know the reason why the answer is 4. Explain why 2 + 2 = 4, and not 3 or 5.

Because they are 4 and not something else.

But that doesn't explain why. Everything has a reason, everything can be explained - why it is what it is. Even 2 + 2 = 4.

(Frustrated, waving of fingers.)

It's never enough to say it is simply so. You have to know why. Think about it. If you find a reason, come and tell me.

With twinkling eyes, a kind smile and a slight chuckle, he got up and walked away having planted the seed of a concept that formed the rest of my life.

Michal Karni writes short fiction and blogs. 



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