It’s a perfect summer afternoon (mid-60’s, breezy, miles of architectural cloud formations) and I’m taking a walk after spending 4.5 hours in what my school calls an “intensive English Language Program.” That description translates like this: I spend six weeks teaching a fairly enjoyable series of summer school classes – two consecutive three-week sessions – wherein I attempt, as best I can, to tutor enthusiastic and highly motivated second-language speakers in some of the idiosyncrasies of my first and only language. (“Professor, why do you say “get in the car” but “get on the train?”) I love this gig, but by the end of every day I’m hoarse and weary and just a tad embarrassed about how many times I fall back onto the “English has many exceptions to the rules” response when they ask me yet another unanswerable grammar question.
As I pass a big green field – fifty yards, give or take – I decide to count how many seagulls are sitting or standing in a loose cluster at its center. They’re not easy to count – the local gulls have no interest in the clean lines of, say, marching-band formations – but I appreciate precision and so I gamely add them up and arrive at the number 122. I wonder if it would be alright to change that sum to 117, should I later decide to use the gulls, somehow, in a piece of writing. “ sounds better,” I think, although that’s clearly subjective. I question whether the tiny fact alteration is exactly the kind of tweak I sometimes warn my students against – the beginning of the proverbial slide down the annoyingly alliterative slippery slope – or if, rather, it falls rather obviously into the “creative” side of creative nonfiction. Losing interest in that question almost more quickly than it takes to ask it, I begin to wonder why I prefer odd numbers to even. What have even numbers ever done to me? What have odd numbers ever done for me?
The gulls have maintained a steadfast aloofness despite my wandering about, but now I must cross the field. I’m careful to stay far enough away that I don’t disturb them, but as I approach the halfway point I begin to feel mischievous. I want to wave my arms, I want to shout, I want the gulls to heave up in a great mass of gray-white cacophony and squawk in their shrewish and raucous manner. I want to report that it was like seeing oddly edgy angels arise from the meadow, but it’s not a meadow, the gulls are nothing like angels, and I remain, however foolishly, however much it limits me, enduringly devoted to what I believe, in my heart, to be the truth.
I took a walk on a beautiful day. A few common clouds rimmed the sky. The gulls pleased me. There were about 120 of them, white loaves scattered on impossibly green grass. For a while, I was happy.