Here’s an odd little ditty.
Robbye and I were riding in the car someplace the other day. I can’t remember what we were talking about, but somehow this nugget wriggled its way out of memory. I turned to her and said, “I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count.”
All of a sudden I had this epiphany. All of a sudden I got it.
So, yeah…I know. I feel like an idiot.
I have lived with this statement for as long as I can remember. It’s one of my mom’s little gems–one of her greatest hits. She says it all the time. I’ve certainly caught the gist of it–at least the spirit in which the statement is evoked: the answer is so apparent, you only need one guess to get it. But the logic behind it has always eluded me.
Because that’s not what the statement is really saying. When you take the statement at face value, it seems to be saying that if I give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count, that means you ostensibly have an infinite number of guesses. Right? On the surface, it’s pretty much an invitation to keep guessing until you land on the correct answer. That’s cool, huh?
I mean, it’s not like I’ve spent the last 40 years pouring over the thing, but… Alright, I admit it. I have spent my fair share of time puzzling through it.
It’s like a sliver imbedded under the skin. Or better…recently, I read an article about this 59-year-old German lady who had a pencil removed from her her head. Apparently, she’d fallen on the thing 55 years earlier, when she was four. It went through her skin and right into her brain. She didn’t die, but she did have chronic nosebleeds and headaches all of her life because medical science wasn’t at a point where doctors could safely extract it.
The “three guesses” thing is like that. Lodged in my brain. A lot of headaches. No way to excise it.
And I feel stupid for not getting it all these years. For not figuring out its painfully simplistic logical framework.
I mean, what’s that all about?
One reason I may have stuggled with it is because the logic is inherently flawed. It breaks down and renders the statement utterly useless.
The machinery behind the statement–the inherent assumption–is, in effect, saying that I am attempting to provide you the correct guess, based on a question you’ve posed to me. Presumably, if my first two guesses “don’t count”, that means you leave me infinite leeway to arrive at the correct answer someday without restriction. In this case, presumably on the assumed third guess. You’ll wait there patiently with me, for the rest of eternity, if necessary, until I say the right thing. Stumble all you want, pal. No problem. We’re doin’ just fine. You take all the time you need. You’ll get it one of these tries. The old “put an infinite number of monkeys in a room with typewriters” routine.
And yet, I make a guess, and it’s discounted. I make another guess, and that one’s discounted. I continue making guesses, and they are continually cast aside. Unaccounted for. No tick mark. Nada.
It turns out I never reach my third (and final) guess. If each answer, i.e., guess, that leaves my lips, doesn’t count, I’m snared in some sort of feedback loop. It goes on forever. I’m always stuck at the beginning. I never make it to square two, much less square three.
Because what if I get the right answer the first time around? The statement doesn’t acount for that. If I nail the thing right outta the shoot? Forget it. That guess didn’t count. I can, in fact, say the same thing again, be bang on with the right answer. Nope. Doesn’t count. What about a third time? Umm…you don’t seem to get it. This isn’t the “third time”. Those other two guesses (What other two guesses?) didn’t count. This is still your first guess. And by the way..? It won’t count either.
Here’s the deal: it never counts. You can have the right answer at the get-go, and it makes no difference whatsoever. Because your answer never goes on record. You’re left screaming at the wall.
Go back to Philosophy 101. The statement isn’t just illogical, it’s non-logic.
Fuck. Maybe that’s why I’ve wrestled with it all these years.
It’s a built-in Catch-22. But it’s more insidious than that. It masquarades as a pleasant invitation to take all the time you need to get it right. The pressure’s off. No worries. Except for one small snag. You accept the invitation, all the while thinking, this is great! And then…
BAM! You’re knocked to the ground by a sucker punch of Sisyphusian propoortions. And to add insult to injury, you’re sucked in FOREVER! You can never pass the test! You can never win.
Yup… That’s what it feels like. Warm smell of colitas rising up in the air, indeed.
No wonder I couldn’t make heads or tails of the thing. It’s a metaphor for my life growing up.
What does that mean?
I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count.