Like all Mel Brooks movies, LIFE STINKS is a farce. A riches to rags story about Goddard Bolt, a wealthy financier who loses everything in a bet and goes to live on the streets of Los Angeles. The whole movie is hilarious — but there’s this one scene that cracks Chris and me up every time.
Goddard is walking with his newfound homeless friend, Sailor, when “Pops” walks by.
Sailor: Pops ain’t gonna be around long; his ‘elevens’ are up.
Goddard Bolt: What?
Sailor: His elevens! Look at the back of his neck. You see them two cords, stickin’ out? They make, like, an ‘eleven’. Once they’re up that’s it. He’s a goner.
It’s a brief moment with a fantastic visual punchline.
The expression “his elevens are up” was first used in a biography of Typhoid Mary in 1902. John McNulty, a writer and humorist famous for his depictions of New York saloon life, used the expression frequently. It is an expression always associated with and reserved for the seedier side of life. Those two parallel tendons on the back of the neck pop out and look like the number eleven (11) when someone is very old…or an alcoholic…or starving…or consumed with a wasting disease. That eleven is a sign for everything that we do to ourselves and everything that happens to us. A sign of unimaginable frailty and unimaginable endurance.
We give a lot of thought to the sign we’re born under. To our beginning sign. But we don’t give much thought to our ending sign.
All things being equal, eleven isn’t such a bad way to go.
Eleven is a peculiar number. A powerful number.
Since eleven is one more than base ten, it has special mathematical properties. If you multiply any series of ones together, you get a numerical palindrome:
11 x 11 = 121
111 x 111 = 12321
1111 x 1111 = 1234321
And so forth. This holds true, no matter how high you go.
All multiples of eleven balance out to zero if you put a positive and a negative sign in front of every other number. This is obvious at the lower numbers:
33. Plus three, minus three equals zero.
44. Plus four, minus four equals zero.
But it holds true no matter how high you go.
11 x 235 = 2585. Plus two, minus five, plus eight, minus five equals zero.
Some people point to these two mathematical properties and say that eleven symbolizes perfect balance. Harmony. Equality. The tension between two opposing poles coming to rest, brought to an understanding.
But eleven is also the number of incompleteness — of almost. Of things left unfinished. Of peril and treachery. There were twelve apostles, until one defected. We have twelve months in the year, and November feels a little like the sad, unsung harmony. Eleven is a dozen with one egg cracked.
Eleven is the first repeating number. 1,1. Added together, you get two. The lowest single-digit prime born from the lowest double-digit prime. So some people say that eleven is the number of growth and courage. Of repeated cycles that add up to more than you even hoped for. An indestructible and indivisible duality. A nation of two.
But eleven is also the number of dissolution, disorganization, fear, and vulnerability. The number of not good enough. Chapter Eleven. The Eleventh Hour.
Metaphorically, eleven is the first number we can’t count on our ten fingers. It is, literally, the number that is just beyond our reach, just superhuman. In some languages, the word for eleven and the word for infinite are the same.
Einstein posited eleven dimensions — and in the eleventh, time stops.
Some people say that the number eleven is inscribed into our very DNA. That when meiosis begins and our twin-stranded DNA unwinds and condenses it lines up in a parade of elevens waiting to combine and create. Eleven is with us at our conception and at our final unwinding.
When we talk about 11:11 — things get real mystical. Astrologists and numerologists claim that instances of 11:11 demonstrate synchronicity — that is, they happen more frequently than can be explained by simple coincidence. 11:11 has the power of eleven taken up an octave.
According to legend, the number of faithful angels left after the fall of Lucifer was 1,111. According to numerologists, 11:11 shows up repeatedly in the Bible and other ancient texts.
Historically, 11/11 is Veteran’s Day, or Armistice Day. A day of peace. And on November 11, 1911, a surprise Northeastern storm brought extraordinary heat during the day and extraordinary cold during the night — making it the only time in history that record highs and record lows were broken on the same day.
According to astrologists and mystics, when you notice 11:11 on a clock, or your receipt, or a license plate, or anywhere it’s a sign from the other side, trying to get your attention. A wake up call. A clue to transformation. A doorway into another dimension. And people who see 11:11 frequently or experience significant events on 11/11 are thought to be light-bearers. Near psychic. According to people who call Coast to Coast, 100% of crop circles include an 11:11 somewhere in their design.
Of course, I don’t believe in astrology, numerology, or crop circles. But that’s not what matters here anyway. What matters is the significance that we attach to the number eleven. That we want to believe harmony, equality…bravery are inscribed into our very DNA…but we know that treachery, peril, and dissolution are there, too.
That we see ourselves as both ambitious, powerful, reaching, infinite…and hopelessly incomplete. That we recognize the tension between the pluses and the minuses of the world and know that they must be resolved. That we want a greater force to provide a doorway to a different dimension, to something beyond, where time is no longer our enemy…whether that greater force is God, or the stars, or aliens, or even math. That we are hopeful for a grand settling of accounts, for a balancing out…for a cosmic do-over.
Five years ago today, my dad’s elevens were up. Those twin towers at the back of his neck. Those parallel cords that form a delicate suspension bridge between the body and the head and cannot possibly hold.
All things being equal (and eleven shows us that they are) it’s not such a bad day to go.
Though we go to extreme lengths to hide it, our elevens are always up.
When you take an early morning run to try to outpace time they hover just over your shoulders.
And when you are your most pedestrian and domestic and when you are your most heroic. And when you mow your lawn and when you give birth and when you go to another day at work and when you say the system is broken and when you go to war and when you march for peace and when your children disappoint you and when you feel you’ve failed them and when you are your most courageous and when you are your most vulnerable and when you peer out of your capsule at 120,000-feet preparing to make a record-breaking dive from the edge of space and when you cook dinner for your family and when you try to pay your bills and when you decide to give love another chance and when your child is sick and when you hunch over your computer in an attempt to be social and post pictures of your dinner to forge meaning and beauty from a plate of food that will go the way of the whole world only a few hours later and when you make love and when you are too heavy and when you waste away to nothing, and when you win and when you lose and when you work and worry your dreams and when you bow your head to pray.
Your elevens are showing. And I love you for it.
(First published November 11, 2012 on emilyreachwhite.com)