Saturday, September 23, 2006

Yield Point

Warning, upsetting sentence ahead, somewhere near the middle.

I do not speak mathematics.

This is not an uncommon failing. It is an obscure language, in terms of fluent speakers maybe rarer than Farsi or Urdu, and the capacity to learn it seems to be something some people are born with, and most are born without. My wife's father speaks it. My son does, a friend of mine from a few years back was almost supernaturally fluent, a kind of 'Dante of the numbers', showed me a pun once made up entirely of funny looking symbols, read scalar transforms like other people read limericks.

But me? Even when it was drummed into me as a child I spoke it haltingly, and what I gained over the years I lost in weeks. I've always been better with verbs than surds, and I know more about pentameter than primes. The ability to speak mathematics seems to skip generations and reappear in odd, non-Mendelian ways.

For example, my eldest son knows that

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is true. I tend to take people's word for it.

Which is a pity. Because sometimes I feel a bit of grasp of mathematics, particularly that branch of engineering maths that looks at stresses and strains and how materials fracture, would be useful in describing people's behaviour. Particularly their behaviour near the edge.

Take the case of Samantha and Simon, two of our closest friends.

They were (and still are) more Sarah's friends than mine, she met them through cat-breeding circles. Samantha is tiny, petite, blonde, fascinatingly foul-mouthed on occasion and ferociously protective of her friends.

Simon is intelligent, articulate, one of the most charismatic people I have known, a man impossible to dislike. He is a fascinating conversationalist - he has scars on his back where he was beaten up by Gypsy Jokers, he once bowled out Steve Waugh in a practice match, and the wedding photographs around their show him with his hip-length black hair, from the days when he was the lead singer of a heavy metal band.

They seem like the perfect couple, and you would naturally expect two such perfect people to have a perfect life. They breed oriental cats - long limbed, amazingly graceful things, and the house is full of aquariums, Siamese fighting fish and angelfish, gliding in underwater grottoes.

And it's not that it has been easy - Sam's previous relationship revolved around domestic violence, and she has had multiple episodes of surgery for an unpleasant and life-long illness, and children have always been impossible - but you always got the feeling that they were two people who were somehow blessed, and deservingly so.

Until Samantha's sister came to stay.

Sam's sister Ellen is the youngest of the family, a mere twenty seven. She and her five children (nine to three) turned up one day on Sam and Simon's doorstep and said they had nowhere to live. Their previous accomodation had become unavailable due to a complex legal dispute, wherein Ellen's landlord had said that they had to pay for rent, and Ellen had said they weren't going to. In the interim, could they please stay with Sam?

So they moved in. For the first few weeks it was okay. Catching up on old times, the surprising amount of joy that two childless people got from having a house full of children, doubtless the feeling that they were doing a Good Thing. Simon and Sam's house is small, one bedroom and a spare, and what with Ellen sleeping in the spare room and four of the children in the lounge and Damien (the second oldest, an unusal child) sleeping in a portable bed in Simon and Sam's room, things were cramped.

And it was understandable, what with everything Ellen had been through, that she want a little time to herself, and go off occasionally. They loved looking after the kids. And if sometimes she wanted to have the occasional drink in the afternoon, well, who was to judge her? Just till she gets back on her feet.

Three months have passed.

No end is in sight.

Ellen still sits around drinking rum and coke from a can, easy a six-pack a day. She goes out a lot of nights, her most recent relationship with a sixty eight year old owner of a pub, stays out three or four nights in a row. The five kids are enrolled in the local school (and from that point of view are settled in), but are chafing at the bit at home. For four of them this takes the form of screaming fights, the "he breathed my air - she looked at me" kind of thing.

For Damien, the eight year old, it takes other forms.

He pours varnish on the floor.

He carves obscenities into the old wooden table.

He takes the angelfish out of their aquariums and leaves them on the floor.

A few months ago he drowned some kittens, hid the bodies in the water, which poisoned all Samantha's fish.

Simon, a large man whom I have never seen pushed too far, eyes like thunder, has been growing steadily in anger, and has been restrained only by his wife's saint-like intercession.

Damien has, I suspect, some kind of disorder. Conduct disorder, from what I have seen (and working in the fields I have I have seen some) is an unusual disorder: you will notice that the linked article does not go on to describe a list of successful treatments. There are few, and working with kids with conduct disorder tends to be very hard on all of those concerned. Kids with conduct disorder tend to hurt other people and the hurt comes back to them.

Or, as in this case, it goes elsewhere.

Yesterday, one of the prize-winning cats, a fluid, cinnamon coloured creature with an eight-barreled name and a number of medals and titles, was let out of his enclosure (the vet had asked he be kept caged for a few days), and wandered out onto the road, where he was run over. Sam found him when she went to feed the cats their weekly treats of fresh chicken hearts**.

There was, I imagine, a few seconds of unbelieving silence.

And then apparently Sam attacked. She ran through the house like a fury, or a small lioness tracking a bleeding animal. She found Ellen, drinking, startlingly, rum and coke, under a tree in the back yard, and reading the Da Vinci Code while Damien uprooted the vegetable garden.

With a howl Sam hurtled towards her, her hand scooping into the bucket and coming out full of chicken hearts. She hurled them.

The first handful struck Ellen full in the chest.

"What the fnurgh -?" asked the parasite, the last word being mercifully blotted out by chook ventricles. Sam shrieked something that coloured the air, scooped up two more and let fly with both handfuls.

Damien fled. A scattering of giblets rained down upon his back as he did so.

This went on for a minute or so, the younger woman trying to hide behind the tree, her upturned can of rum and coca cola draining out into the soil, while Sam punctuated every shrieking sentence by splattering her with viscera. Ellen tried to stand her ground, emerging once or twice from behind the boughs to collect some viscera of her own and launch feeble and unsuccessful counterattacks, until at last she ventured too far. Sam leapt towards her like Grendel on a Dane and jammed the entire bucket, upside down on her sister's head. She gave it a good right hook for good measure - felling the woman to the ground, Sam boxes clever for a woman of only fifty kilos - and stormed off into the house, hands bloody, hair awry and eyes bright.

Anyway. It appears some resolution may have been reached. The police came, to find Ellen looking like a first draft of a Frankenstein's monster, and Sam nefariously feeding the kittens tinned cat food. It was apparently like a scene from Macbeth. By this time everyone had calmed down, and Ellen had presumably realised that a frank and open discussion with the forces of the law was not in her best interests, and the police spoke soothingly to them and went away.

And it emerged that alternative accomodation could be found, not far from where the kids went to school, and the first steps have been taken towards the parting of the ways. And there may be some hope that this can be achieved without further violence.

Anyhow. I don't know if a better knowledge of what you could call cognitive materials science, or psychic stress moduli, could have predicted this. Brittle materials like concrete, even if they are strong, do not deal with stress the same way as other materials. Brittle materials like concrete deform under stress until they rupture. Ductile materials like steel stretch slowly until they reach a certain point, the yield strength. After this, if subject to further stress, they become thinner, more strained, perhaps even more brittle, so that even a cursory examination should show that catastrophic mechanical failure is close.

Of course, you don't see this if you are more interested in geriatric publicans, conspiracy theorists and sugary alcopop.

But even if you don't see them, if these warning signs are missed, things will fall apart. Bridges collapse, girders buckle, chicken hearts are thrown across the back yard.

Well, I wish I'd been there to see it. In fact, I have yet to tell this to anyone who does not wish that they were there. But at least we should see Sam and Simon, hopefully alone in their house, soon.

Thanks for listening.

**Don't know, never tried them.


Anonymous The Regional Support Clerk said...

BJ, you should send them to use for advice. We can get them into their own private rental easily enough, and on what I've just read it'd be no problem at all.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Niamh Sage said...

Words fail me. Blood pressure is through the roof, nearly leapt screaming out of my chair at one point. Good gods.

If it had been me, there'd have been one less statistic on conduct disorder.

I hope your friends are ok. They must be pretty cut up about the loss of their cat :(

5:47 PM  
Blogger Foilwoman said...

Good use of chicken hearts, though. Sam has my respect and admiration.

7:42 AM  
Blogger lauritajuanitasanchez said...

LOVE IT! Sometimes people snap. And if anyone deserved to snap, it was Sam. In a perfect world, her sister will sober up, her nephew will mature or be incarcerated...and they'll be able to speak again someday. For now, isn't lookin good, is it?

Great story. Thanks.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Prom said...

In my opinion this is exactly what is wrong with saintliness. When you attempt it, you delude yourself that you can handle anything and ignore the fact that you are indeed getting near an edge.

I'm happier with people who warn me of the edge so I can take steps to avoid it and vice a versa. Of course that presupposes you are associating with someone who cares and has a little bit of self-knowledge.

11:47 PM  
Blogger Juanita J. Sanchez said...

I second Prom's excellent analysis of the perils of saintliness. And thanks for the warning, that was indeed an upsetting math sentence.

3:45 AM  
Blogger TOBY said...

'Like Grendel on a Dane'; now that's a simile. I shall have to steal that and credit it as my own. I'm sorry, but I shall.

12:48 PM  

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