Every time I hear some gelatinous gentleman on the radio blathering on about the Index of Leading Economic Indicators, about Moody's Index or downturns and upswings in the NASDAQ, my mind inevitably gravitates to the indices which really matter in our lives.
The MFCI (Miles From Cappuccino Index) offers a perfect example. To those of us dreaming of bright tropical beaches while we mold away in the bone-softening, brain-fuzzing banks of fog summer regularly deposits here on the North Coast, the real estate here seems dear enough. To visitors from San Francisco and other conglomerations of concrete, however, the rents and mortgages we pay seem laughably little. An explanation for this discrepancy can be found in the MFCI, the only truly reliable guide to real estate prices in America. Put quite simply, it states that the farther you are from a latte, the less you pay for housing.
As with many other laws of nature, the algebraic expression that best measures the relationship is the inverse square. To fully understand this, we might consider how light works. Assuming that your utility company isn't too busy going bust to operate its power plants, the amount of light you receive from the bare bulb flickering from the ceiling fixture you have to remember to fix sometime decreases exponentially as you move away from the bulb. This is why it's so much easier to read Japanese car repair manuals standing in the center of the living room rather than in the corner among the cobwebs, where you've taken apart your carburetor.
It sits there like a midget metal pagoda in an impromptu tokonoma, disassembled, forlorn, inscrutable. Your patience is failing fast, oh fast. You have miles to go before you get to a cafe with a macchiato, and no way to traverse them. But at least your rent is cheap. As with the law governing light, the MFCI guarantees that it will diminish in a ratio roughly determined by the square of your distance from a shiny, steam-spritzing espresso machine. The ratio is under construction, of course. Real estate tycoons are always discovering new parameters and variables to add to the equation. If the maker of your café au lait drawls, chews gum or sports a beehive hairdo, this puts downward pressure on property values. Opera playing in the background and pierced body parts are considered by many to be inflationary elements.
Other important indices include the TPTPQ (Tin Palace Toilet Paper Quotient) and the PRI (Pinky Rise Index). The Tin Palace is my teenage daughter's affectionate appellation for the cavernous, ramshackle former garage we inhabit. Before it was a gas station, it was a blacksmith shop, and since time out of mind it has been home to generations of termites. As long as amicable relations persist among these wood gourmands, as long as they keep on holding hands while they chew, the Tin Palace won't collapse. On summer days that should be much brighter, fog will continue to condense on its wavy, galvanized roof and drip with agonizing slowness into the cistern containing our water supply.
We have neither municipal water nor a well here. Because of this factor, which adds a devilishly complicated constant to the MFCI of the Tin Palace, we collect rain off the roof. The amount we can collect at any given time is obviously limited by the capacity of the cistern, approximately three thousand gallons. This may sound like a lot, but it doesn't rain in these parts from the middle of May to the middle of September. During that four-month drought following winter storms and spring showers, the happy time when our cistern runneth over, we must depend upon fog to replenish the water supply.
This explains the "yellow's mellow, brown goes down" sign prominently displayed in our lavatory. It also explains my daughter's cheerfulness after a particularly socked-in night.
"Sounded like a four-flusher," she grins, twirling a tea bag round a spoon to squeeze out the headiest drops of the brew.
Because she sleeps in the room nearest the cistern, she is tuned into the finest nuances of hydrological calculation. No drip from the plastic gutter pipe dangling above the cistern, however desultory, escapes her attention. For a teenager obsessed with grodiness, a four-flusher fog, which means enough moisture has gathered on the wavy tin to permit us to pull the toilet chain four times, is genuine cause for celebration.
For me, four-flusher is merely a more precise measurement than eight gallons, not to mention so and so many liters, and much more poetical. Is there anything uglier than liters, meters, centimeters, millimeters, kilometers, grams? I despise the metric system and fear for the future of our verse and song. Give me rods, fathoms, acres, yards. Give me ells and quarts, cubits, inches and knots, even leagues and versts. Give me "a bushel and a peck, and a hug around the neck." What happens to that lyric in a dreary, base-ten system? Imagine the frosty reception critics would give "I have kilometers to go before I sleep" or the consternation "Full (whatever the metric equivalent of fathom might be) five thy father lies" would cause audiences at Shakespeare revivals.
House managers at theaters often gauge the worthiness of such productions by the number of tickets sold. Here at the Tin Palace, where my daughter and I host art shows, we measure the openings by the TPTPQ. She devised this convenient index shortly after the inception of the art gallery, a scheme we concocted to supplement our ability to pay the rent, already absurdly low due to the MFCI and other factors.
Most of this barn of a place where we live is taken up by the gallery. Artists, art lovers, friends and gawkers and those who come to openings simply for the free snacks and wine all share the bathroom with us. We supply the toilet paper, and calibrate the artist's success according to the number of rolls used. A six-roll opening is a smash hit. A roll-and-a-half or two-roll opening is like a poor review.
My daughter's ingenious invention is, quite naturally enough, not perfect. As she suggested to a desolate painter after his half-roll debacle one starry winter night, the art public is fickle and Philistine. Look what happened to Van Gogh at his debut, a real quarter-roller for sure. The snickering savages probably didn't even bother to wipe themselves, just to make the poor Dutchman feel bad.
She may have been amiss in her art history, but it is true that the TPTPQ is still in the process of refinement. Sometimes we speak of the xTPTPQ. The diminutive x is a mathematical constant factored in for special exhibits, such as the annual Mother's Day Show or the Ladies Who Run With The Poodles Gala, in which the vast majority of participants are likely to be women. After years of amazement at the quantities of bathroom tissue females use, my daughter and I, diligently pushing the beads on our abacus, have finally computed the value of x to be approximately one-third. To have any meaning, the toilet paper quotient for feminist expositions must be adjusted by this fraction. What at first may appear to be a really dynamite opening, with a TPTPQ of 6.5 R (for rolls) will yield a rather disappointing xTPTPQ (rounded off) of 2.17 R.
Indices may be disappointing in other ways. Though they can accurately measure a relationship, they usually fail to explain why the relationship exists. The Pinky Rise Index, for example, predicts how far the pinky will levitate when the index finger is inserted into the handle of a teacup. The prediction is based on the nasal snoot of the cup-holder's vowels and diphthongs. The flatter the vowels, the less the pinky will ascend. Though researchers in the United Kingdom do not, incidentally, currently accept the PRI, it nevertheless appears to be valid for the forty-eight contiguous states of our own union.
In any event, the PRI is woefully inadequate at suggesting why the pinky must rise as the O or the I gets rounder. I suspect that as my daughter grows older she will elucidate this mystery for me. She has already made it painfully clear why my girlfriends' towels are always so much fluffier than mine and taught me the shoe mantra women use while shopping, words so sacrosanct committing them to paper would call down upon me the eternal enmity of Aphrodite and Signor Gucci.