Highest Number

I’m four years old, or perhaps I have turned five—it’s a bit of a blur back there. Me and a just-as-four-or-five-years-old friend (who lived in the third-floor apartment across from ours) are having an argument about which one of us won a just finished but very fictitious bicycle race.

He had a real bicycle (his dad, I felt, was much cooler than mine for he gave my friend things like new, real bicycles, whereas my dad did not do the same for me, not even close), and he was leaning on it right now. I only had a three-wheeler at the time and I had left it at home.

Now, neither of us was very clear on the concept, for in our minds, the higher (the bigger—and bigger, obviously, being better) the number the better. So, my friend said he had finished the race at number thousand, while I, being good at math for my age and therefore knew how to be twice as good, countered with number two thousand.

Not to be out-done that easily, my friend came in at number five thousand. I countered with ten.

Number million, said my friend.

Number five hundred million, said I.

A million million, said he.

A million million million said I.

Infinity, said he.

Two infinities, said I.

Well, you see where this was going. We never quite settled who won for by now it was time to go inside and eat dinner, we could hear our respective mothers calling from their respective third-floor windows.

Not too long after that it came as quite a surprise to discover that when it came to being the fastest, the smallest number was the best. One, the very best, two the runner-up. I think it was my mom who put me straight on this.

Sometimes, when new information runs too counter to the current and well-established norm, it takes a while to digest, to understand and let it sink in. Yes, I chewed on this for some time before it made sense: more was not always better. How interesting.

This, of course, made for much shorter debates as to who won fictitious races: whoever said “number one” first was the winner, obviously.

Neither of us thought about countering with “number half.”

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