15 March 2012

Measuring Up

Every so often I'm asked for my height or my weight here in Brazil. Might be at a doctor's office, might be at the motor vehicle bureau to renew my driver's license, might just be in casual conversation. Now, I know my height and weight the way I know the back of my hand. The answers pop into my head immediately, jump into my mouth and . . . stay there. I gulp. Impatient people look at me funny. I want to say, "I'm not an idiot, I know the answer. It's just that I know it in a different measuring system." I look at them, they look at me. I'm thinking they're thinking, "What is this woman's problem?"

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and math was never a strength of mine. I was, quite simply, rather bad at it. One summer during high school I applied for a job at Woolworth's and was turned down because I didn't pass their math test. (I couldn't figure out the correct change back in the days before the cash register figured it out for you.) Well, Woolworth's is long gone now, and I no longer need a summer job. I'm admitting to this personal failing basically because I no longer care, and because I find it particularly ironic that here I am now, living in a world where I have to add, subtract, multiply and divide on a daily basis to convert dollars and reais, Fahrenheit and Celsius, pounds and kilograms, feet and meters — basically, imperial to metric and back again.

I have repeatedly converted my height and weight into their metric equivalents, but the numbers simply don't stay in my head. So when I'm off to a doctor's office and I know I'll probably need them, I've learned to write them down and take my crib sheet with me. That's easy enough. But the problem isn't the medical questionnaires. The problem is social. I'm simply not reacting properly during conversations. Someone tells me a friend of theirs is nearly two meters tall and I just sit there. But six feet, six inches? Now, that's tall! Someone else announces their newborn nephew weighed in at 6½ kilos, and I yawn. But over 13 pounds? Now, that's a baby!

I keep formulas and memory aids all over the house, particularly in the kitchen where I'm forever converting recipe measurements. This being the Internet age, I also have lots of conversion charts and tables under my computer's "favorites." And I'm grateful to have found a little ditty that I can chant under my breath while watching the Brazilian television weather reports: "0 is freezing, 10 is not, 20 is perfect, and 30 is hot." At least with that crutch I know what to wear.

Who knows but that these daily math tests — as well as the late-in-life language learning challenges I spoke of in an earlier blogpost — aren't a great way to fend off Alzheimer's, as good as doing Sudoku or The New York Times crossword puzzles. I sure hope so. But God bless America and its tenacious clinging to the imperial measurement systems. Ladies and gentlemen, we are alone in a very large metric world.

In red, the countries that do NOT use the metric system

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