The Arith­metic of Com­mon Ground

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Scott Ran­dall

If viewed as the over­lap be­tween two in­di­vid­ual ar­eas of ex­pe­ri­ence, com­mon ground can be seen as the dark­ened area of the Venn di­a­gram in which all sim­i­lar­i­ties are in­cluded and all dif­fer­ences are ex­cluded. A cou­ple first meets. Born within six months of one an­other, within the same medium-sized city, and of com­pa­ra­ble so­cio-eco­nomic class, they au­to­mat­i­cally over­lap some­where be­tween 33 to 35 per­cent. Make the city Cal­gary and make them both only chil­dren who — as a con­se­quence of their soli­tudes — have both grown up some­what unso­cia­ble and some­what book­ish. If both du­ti­fully at­tended mu­sic lessons in gui­tar and pi­ano to com­ple­ment their school work, their com­mon ground might go as high as 40 to 55 per­cent. The 60 to 45 points of dif­fer­ence in their na­ture or nur­ture might place them in sep­a­rate post-sec­ondary pro­grams — her ex­cess em­pa­thy and car­ing pre­dis­pos­ing her to the lib­eral arts and a ca­reer in ed­u­ca­tion and his pedan­tic ob­ses­sive na­ture pre­dis­pos­ing him to the phys­i­cal sciences and a ca­reer in me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing — but their ex­tracur­ric­u­lar in­ter­est in mu­sic per­sists. He forms a band with some other over­achiev­ing school­mates, and she shows up at one of their un­der­at­tended shows. With such com­mon ground, the two have a fair chance of fall­ing into con­ver­sa­tion at the mostly empty tav­ern per­for­mance space af­ter the show. She nurses her one-beer­limit beer, and he or­ders his al­co­hol-isa-slip­pery-slope cof­fee, and later, when they fall to­gether and be­come a cou­ple, they will likely use the money they save with a city-hall wed­ding for a de­tached home within walk­ing dis­tance of a school and with three bed­rooms: one bed­room for them, one for a child, and one for

a home of­fice. Later still, when that one child is born as tan­gi­ble, liv­ing proof of their com­mon ground and is named Ben­jamin, the par­ents will, for a short while, over­lap more than they ever have or ever will again.

For group dy­nam­ics, a di­a­gram that is com­posed of a cou­ple of paired cir­cles in­suf­fi­ciently con­veys the com­mon ground shared by each sep­a­rate in­di­vid­ual, and for com­pli­cated con­fig­u­ra­tions, such as three, four, or five mem­bers, the trippy twisted ge­om­e­try of a whirling and twirling Spiro­graph doo­dle might bet­ter il­lus­trate pock­ets of sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences. A boy seeks out new friends. Make the boy Ben­jamin. Make Ben­jamin the new kid in school be­cause his fam­ily has moved re­cently, and in his new class, he stum­bles into a pre­ex­ist­ing group of three math­letes with whom he shares lit­tle com­mon ground. Re­lo­cated from the medium-sized city of Cal­gary to the medium-sized city of Ot­tawa and en­rolled a full month late in the fall term, Ben­jamin shares only sliv­ers and thin cres­cents of com­mon ground with any one of new friends Eli, Sal, and Alexander. In Sal, the stubby fol­lower sheep of a friend, whose swears are of­ten il­log­i­cal, Ben­jamin rec­og­nizes a fawn­ing need to be liked. In Eli, the mean-streaked piece of work whose vi­o­lence is barely con­tained, Ben­jamin sees an un­pre­dictable dan­ger but also rec­og­nizes his own feel­ings of help­less rage. In Alexander, the tired philoso­pher king whose be­mused laughs are worth work­ing for, Ben­jamin sees a care­less cyn­i­cism but also rec­og­nizes his own sense of de­feat. Counted separately, per­haps the com­mon ground he shares with any one of his new friends ac­counts for no more

than 15 to 20 per­cent, but rep­re­sent­ing a full sum to­tal of sev­eral times that, he is wel­comed into their dark­ened over­lap­ping ar­eas. As a late ad­di­tion to the group, Ben­jamin does not share the rich his­tory his new friends have — a past of mis­ad­ven­tures and tri­umphs stretch­ing from ju­nior kinder­garten to grade six — and, in ad­di­tion, he does not share their gifts for arith­metic. Numer­i­cally gifted be­yond their years, all three of Ben­jamin’s new friends play for the math team, and Ben­jamin is, at best, adept. Stu­dious by na­ture and by nur­ture, Ben­jamin has al­most just about got­ten the hang of cross mul­ti­pli­ca­tion as long as it isn’t sprung on him en­tirely in an un­gen­er­ous pop quiz, but he can­not at all keep up when the three friends try to trip one an­other up with Carte­sian prac­tice-test ques­tions at re­cess, shove prop­er­ties of in­te­gers at one an­other in the play­ing field dur­ing daily phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, or mock one an­other’s lack of pre­ci­sion with a pro­trac­tor and com­pass in the gym­na­si­u­mau­di­to­rium at lunch hour. This fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence might not be the stum­bling block it first seems, though, for com­mon ground is not static. It inevitably ex­pands its bor­ders over time through shared ex­pe­ri­ence, and 45 to 60 per­cent may well beget 48 to 63 in a mat­ter of school weeks. Ben­jamin spends lunch hours with Sal and Eli and Alexander. Make their ac­tiv­ity an il­licit ac­tiv­ity as he is wel­comed into the fold, with lunch hours passed blocks and blocks off school prop­erty, be­hind the Good and Quick Gas and Sip, and the per­cent­age of com­mon ground can bal­loon with each of their shared tres­passes. Wel­comed along to their re­treat be­hind the con­ve­nience-store–snack-bar gas sta­tion for grum­ble-and-grouse-and-shoot­the-shit ses­sions far from the worka­day world, Ben­jamin shares in the respite of salted lan­guage and to­bacco cig­a­rettes, the se­cret of their pro­hib­ited en­deav­ours draw­ing them closer to­gether, and while he can­not cal­cu­late cal­cu­lus and may never be­come sec­re­tary trea­surer of the cod­ing club, Ben­jamin learns he has other skills. He learns that his at­ten­tion and mem­ory have served him well. He shares an anec­dote about his fa­ther’s univer­sity band, Sea Mon­key See, Sea Mon­key Do, the box of un­sold EP CDS that now in­hab­its a closet, and the jewel case’s hand-drawn cover art de­pict­ing an ape play­ing with its own fe­ces. He shares an anec­dote about Parc Sa­fari, the wa­ter­park– com­mu­nity-zoo– drive-through sa­fari in Que­bec that his fa­ther took him to back in Oc­to­ber when they first moved to Ot­tawa and the deer en­clo­sure they walked through called le sen­tier des cerfs where they saw an un­wise squir­rel hunt­ing and gath­er­ing deer drop­pings for the com­ing win­ter. He shares a story about

His fa­ther laugh-sneered and nod­ded at the ground-down rhi­noc­eros tusk in the Cal­gary air­port.

the En­vi­ron­ment Canada glass-case ex­hibit he ex­am­ined at the Cal­gary air­port on his way to Ot­tawa and the dis­played col­lec­tion of il­le­gal an­i­mal by-prod­ucts for­bid­den for im­port and ex­port, in­clud­ing cos­metic com­pacts made from the front paws of tigers, key chains of in­fant ele­phants carved from the ivory of adult ele­phants, and pack­ets of finely ground pow­der made from rhi­noc­eros tusk to be sold “for love or medicine.” Sal and Eli and Alexander laugh at the anec­dotes, and in­te­grat­ing through in­gra­ti­at­ing, Ben­jamin be­comes less and less an in­ter­loper and pushes him­self past the half­way mark into a 51 to 54 per­cent range. Not all com­mon ground can be di­vided equally, how­ever. While a group of four friends might rep­re­sent six sep­a­rate paired re­la­tion­ships — Sal/eli, Sal/ Alexander, Sal/ben­jamin, Eli/alexander, Eli/ben­jamin, and Alexander/ben­jamin — the to­tal will not be bro­ken down to six iden­ti­cal di­vi­sions. Over time, as the fall term pro­gresses into first snow, af­ter many ex­cur­sions to the Good and Quick Gas and Sip have passed, hid­den par­al­lels and con­nec­tions be­tween pair­ings will emerge. For ex­am­ple, Ben­jamin learns that, though out­wardly un­alike, stubby fol­lower Sal and nasty-piece Eli have both in­ter­nal­ized and in­her­ited their par­ents’ so­cially and po­lit­i­cally con­ser­va­tive world views. As well, both col­lect and trade the Scan­di­na­vian-fan­tasy-themed col­lectible trad­ing-card series the Broadswords of Gung­nir with a pas­sion that bor­ders on ma­nia, and on week­ends, the two visit each other’s homes to de­bate the com­par­a­tive strength of vile lind­worms and hon­ourable boat­men. Sim­i­larly, sim­i­lar­i­ties hereto­fore un­seen be­tween Ben­jamin and Alexander emerge. The big­gest is the bro­ken homes in which they live. Shortly af­ter mov­ing to Ot­tawa, Ben­jamin’s mother and fa­ther de­cided to try out a trial sep­a­ra­tion, di­vid­ing up their com­mon ground, and such mat­ters are not eas­ily dis­cussed with a new friend. Ben­jamin can­not say his fa­ther’s for­got­ten box of un­sold EP CDS has moved from the ex­ec­u­tive town­home closet to a closet in a low-rise apart­ment com­plex, can­not say his fa­ther took him to Parc Sa­fari as a pre­lude to the an­nounce­ment of the break in their home, can­not say that, be­fore the other two events even oc­curred, his fa­ther laugh-sneered and nod­ded at the ground-down rhi­noc­eros tusk in the Cal­gary air­port. Ben­jamin has said none of this, and yet he sus­pects that Alexander un­der­stands more than he lets on. One Thurs­day in De­cem­ber, be­fore the up­com­ing school break, af­ter the sec­ond lunch bell rings and the group of four friends is scur­ry­ing back to school prop­erty, ex­chang­ing pep­per­mint chew­ing gum to hide the to­bacco on their breath, Ben­jamin re­ceives an out-of-the-blue in­vi­ta­tion. Alexander asks him if he wants to come over dur­ing the hol­i­day break. With a nod to down­play the in­vi­ta­tion’s im­port, Ben­jamin mut­ters, “Yeah,” not at all re­veal­ing that the mo­ment is a mo­ment of mu­tual recog­ni­tion and cer­tainly not ad­mit­ting that his thoughts have turned to his mother. He thinks of his mother and how glad she will be to learn he has

made such a close friend, how glad she will be to hear of the in­vi­ta­tion, how glad she will be to drive him over to the home of a new friend. His mother will be re­as­sured that Ben­jamin is set­tling in all right in his new class in the new school in the new city and that all will grow bet­ter given time. Time — with its restora­tive na­ture and cu­ra­tive prop­er­ties — will heal the wounds in­flicted by fam­ily. There is a snag, though, be­cause in a city of un­der a mil­lion peo­ple such as Ot­tawa, small co­in­ci­dences and small con­nec­tions hide around ev­ery cor­ner, and as it turns out, Alexander the philoso­pher king re­sides in the same low-rise apart­ment com­plex of mus­tard-yel­low brick build­ings as Ben­jamin’s fa­ther — two mus­tard-yel­low build­ings down and on the other side of the emp­tied-out out­door pool that seems to have sat for some years emp­tied and in dis­use. An un­happy hap­pen­stance. Though his par­ents once shared much be­tween them, time and cir­cum­stance have un­done many of their con­nec­tions, and Ben­jamin re­flects that his par­ents’ tem­po­rary sep­a­ra­tion will likely be not at all tem­po­rary. He wor­ries that the low-rise does not bode well for the visit, and he is right to be con­cerned. In the car out­side the lowrise apart­ment, as his mother waves him off from the front seat and tells him to have a good time, she smiles to be­tray nei­ther worry nor dis­may, but Ben­jamin has learned to cal­cu­late losses well. He can sub­tract all that has been taken from both of them within a few short months — city, home, friends, ac­quain­tances, and all and sundry. He es­ti­mates their shared losses at 60 to 75 per­cent or per­haps as high as 70 to 85 per­cent. Peer­ing into the dimly lit foyer hall of the shabby low-rise, where a stack of Pen­nysaver fly­ers and an or­phaned ten­nis shoe lie on the scuffed tile floor,

Ben­jamin re­al­izes they are speak­ing of things they haven’t spo­ken of be­fore. Their dark­est of com­mon grounds.

Ben­jamin is not at all sure that this is com­mon ground he wants, but he strug­gles against his un­cer­tainty, and he walks in and up the lit­tered stair­well to the third­floor apart­ment where Alexander waits to open the door in greet­ing. In the hall­way out­side the thresh­old, Ben­jamin looks in over his friend’s shoulder and spots a makeshift room in the liv­ing-room–din­ing-room al­cove with a pas­tel-blue bed­sheet strung from one wall to an­other wall, and through a gap in the im­per­fect par­ti­tion, he sees an un­made bed tan­gled with thrown-off cloth­ing, and his un­cer­tainty grows greater to out­right re­luc­tance. Walk­ing down the low-ceilinged hall to his friend’s bed­room, Ben­jamin re­al­izes that, though he and Alexander are of the same age and they live in the same city, they may not be of com­pa­ra­ble so­cio-eco­nomic back­grounds, which he knows should not make him feel awk­ward, be­cause all peo­ple are equal in rights and dig­nity, but which makes him feel a lit­tle awk­ward any­way. For a snack, they open a box of Ritz and two pops, and as they sit on a throw rug of ques­tion­able clean­li­ness on the floor of the crowded and clut­tered bed­room, Alexander the king ex­plains that the empty top bunk of his bunkbed was once his older sis­ter’s, but now his mother said they were get­ting too old to share, so his sis­ter took the sec­ond bed­room and his mother set up her be­long­ings in the apart­ment’s liv­ing-room– din­ing-room area. His mother is out to­day be­cause she’s a so­cial-ser­vices worker who some­times has to do week­end outreach, so the sis­ter is sup­posed to be the sit­ter, but since she works week­ends at the Monsieur Pet at the mall, she is out as well. Nod­ding, Ben­jamin feels his sense of or­der of­fended by the dis­or­der around him, but he sup­presses his re­luc­tance and his urge to leave. He nods more. There’s some­thing Ben­jamin should see, Alexander says. It’s some­thing Ben­jamin will

maybe ap­pre­ci­ate, he says, and he drags a low square box out from un­der­neath the bot­tom bunk of the bunkbeds. It’s a box left for­got­ten by his fa­ther, Alexander says, and in the en­su­ing pause, Ben­jamin re­al­izes they are speak­ing of things they haven’t spo­ken of be­fore. Their dark­est of com­mon grounds. He right away thinks the box must con­tain his friend’s fa­ther’s col­lec­tion of pornog­ra­phy. Con­fus­ing pic­to­rial es­says with pro­gres­sive images that il­lus­trate ladies in in­creas­ing states of un­dress. Con­fus­ing dou­blepage spreads of soft-fo­cus photography in fancy and also schmanzy bed­room and ho­tel-room lo­cales. Con­fus­ing car­toons pun­ning on pri­vate parts. This box is not a box of such con­fu­sion, though. It’s a box of dead-an­i­mal limbs. Well, not re­ally dead-an­i­mal limbs — but a col­lec­tion of lucky rab­bit feet — so, yeah, a box of dead-an­i­mal limbs. Again, Ben­jamin sup­presses the urge to flee, and in­stead, he leans for­ward to look in­side, where there’s mostly key chains of rab­bit feet but also pen­dants with rab­bit feet. Most of the pen­dants are at­tached to what look like neck­lace chains, but one foot has been grafted to a nov­elty pocket flash­light that doesn’t light up any­more. Many of the feet are dyed un­nat­u­ral colours not found in rab­bits and hares in na­ture—greens and blues and one ma­genta — and the dark dyes not only cover the fur but also have worked their way down into the flesh of the pads un­der the an­i­mal paws and into the cracked grain of the nail frag­ments peek­ing out from the furred fin­ger dig­its. The part of Ben­jamin that wants to run also wants to scream that the box is a night­mare box. A box of night­mare hor­ror ex­per­i­ments — ex­cept for the flash­light, which is maybe more like a science-fic­tion ex­per­i­ment — but an­other part of Ben­jamin un­der­stands some­thing deeper. In open­ing the box, Alexander is open­ing up to him, and with a nod to down­play the mo­ment’s im­port, Ben­jamin mut­ters, “Yeah.” He ac­cepts what his friend wants to give him. With noth­ing much to say, they close the box and re­turn it to its safe place un­der the bot­tom bunk, from where Alexander re­trieves a tan­gle of cords and game con­trollers and Kill­craft War­ma­chine IV. Al­though elec­tronic and video games are not pas­times Ben­jamin has en­coun­tered, he rea­sons that af­ter trav­el­ling all the way from Cal­gary to Ot­tawa, af­ter en­ter­ing the mus­tard-coloured low-rise, and af­ter pass­ing down the long dark hall into this crowded and clut­tered bed­room, an al­ter­na­tive postapoc­a­lyp­tic world of un­dead hordes and in­sec­toid armies should be within his reach. Set­tling into the first-per­son shooter game, Ben­jamin lies on his stom­ach next to his new friend and de­cides not to think about the floor, and an hour later, when their backs are cramped and they bring down pil­lows from the bunkbeds to the floor, he props the cush­ion up un­der him­self and de­cides not to no­tice the tomato-sauce sweat smell com­ing from the pil­low case. An­other hour later still, he is en­tirely ab­sorbed. Ben­jamin lets him­self be drawn in as he and Alexander tear ass to­gether through the video game’s fetid trenches, past fallen com­rades cry­ing out in ter­ror. Lost limbs pile up all around him, but he runs for­ward un­fazed — un­fazed, that is, un­til his hand slips on the game con­troller and his first-per­son sol­dier slips on the mud be­low. On screen, a mam­malian mu­tant mass closes in above, every­where, and all around. Off­screen and be­side him, Alexander yells, “Oh­nonono” with a laugh. Ben­jamin’s first-per­son can­not rise up from the mud, and the crea­tures all over him grow all-con­sum­ing, but he can see up ahead where Alexander’s first-per­son comes to a halt and glances back. Pant­ing with the over­acted ex­haus­tion of an an­i­mated char­ac­ter, he turns to lum­ber back and reach out a gloved hand. This sacri­fice lasts for no more than a mo­ment, and as the split screen fills with a mir­rored image of at­tack­ing mon­grel fer­rets, weasels, and martens, and as their first-per­sons both suf­fer painful deaths, the boys jolt back, laugh­ing and let­ting loose a string of un­seemly and ap­pro­pri­ate swears. A hoot and a half, an­other 5 to 10 per­cent is gained.

p. 44

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