The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Not Being There

We were driving back from the Sri Lankan mountains to the orphanage were I was volunteering. The minivan was filled with overexcited kids who could not stop talking about the marvels of the Royal Botanic Gardens. A pretty young teacher was seated by me; she was especially kind to me the whole day. The hull labelled by name was there, but I was not. Eyes directed to the passing scenery, my mind was detached from the circumstances and it was contemplating some utterly irrelevant issue.

Giant palm tree in Sri Lanka

The wonders of the Royal Botanic Gardens, and a volunteer in red who wasn’t there.

I switch off way too often. It happens while close friends are having an excited conversation. It happens when a bunch of new Brazilian acquaintances discuss how cocaine is cut on kitchen tables in the next favella. If it was science I was thinking about, I could forgive myself, but the topic never is science, just some parenthetical nonsense with no bearing on anything. For that matter, I also switch off while fellow scientists are having a colloquy on a subject close to my own interests.

Most of my regrets in life stem from not being there. Inaction is a consequence: as I do not follow the proceedings, I block myself out of participating. I become a passive observer of events unfolding around me.

I blame my failures on the faulty sensors that attach me to a shared reality. I am blind as a dead mole, and I refuse to get glasses or contact lens. My hearing is unusually impaired: a part of the processing system that separates voice from the background noise is missing. I can’t hear a thing in a pub, and having a chitchat on a noisy street is one of my numerous nightmares. Lip reading comes automatically when I see the person’s face, which also explains why I hate talking on the phone so much. The quality of my vision and hearing fluctuates in inexplicable ways: one day the world is sharp and the sounds are crisp, the next day I can’t see or hear a thing.

Add to that my narrow range of operating temperature. My joints become rigid with cold below twenty-five degrees centigrade, and the mental department follows suit in rigidity. I also need an optimal level of humidity, preferably close to a hundred per cent. I would make an excellent dinosaur — too bad I was born sixty-five million years late. If I have to come up with excuses why I cannot be in the moment, I am exceptionally creative.

Too many people in the company will also guarantee that my thoughts will stray; I am not a gregarious species. Having one-on-one meetings does not ensure the opposite: I make a terrible conversation partner.

Cluster of monarch butterflies in Mexico

Monarch butterflies are infinitely more gregarious than I will ever get.

The best moments of my life are the ones when I managed to immerse myself in the present location and time. Not being there is a luxury I allowed myself for too long. The only alternative to change is to continue living like the protagonist in Johnny Got His Gun.

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