We Are Our Own Average
by Jerry DeNuccio
For Henry David Thoreau, social conformity created a dull and deadening averaging tendency. He ends Walden with a parable about a “beautiful bug” that, having been deposited as an egg some sixty years previous in an apple tree, gnaws its way out of the kitchen table built from the wood of that tree. “Who knows,” Thoreau asks, “what beautiful and winged life . . . may unexpectedly come forth . . . to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!” For Thoreau, we capitulate to being average; it is not our destiny. As a young man, I wanted to zig-zag, to tack, to feint and juke, rather than straighten to the average tendency. I wanted to be one of those fireworks that spins wildly, shooting off sparks and bursting into a mad profusion of clamor and color. I was determined to be one of the chosen, one of the elect, an outlier, off the chart, gauge-breaking, one of a kind.
The word “average” is taken to mean normal, ordinary, in the middle, what most things are. As an arithmetic mean, it denotes the sum of items divided by the number of items. It is not to be confused with “median,” the middle number in an ordered sequence, nor with “mode,” the most frequently occurring number. In its common usage, “average” means all three; it means being meaned, medianed, and moded. Some interesting averages: The average weight for U.S. males is 191 pounds; for women, 140 pounds. Both men and women use 16,000 words per day; their vocabulary averages 5 to 6 thousand words. They repeat themselves a lot. On average, Americans laugh 13 times per day, eat 35,000 cookies in a lifetime, have 1,460 dreams per year, eat 18 acres of pizza per day, and consume 3.1 cups of coffee per day. On average, a full moon occurs every 29.5 days; a blue moon, two full moons in one month, occurs once every 2.5 years. Once in a blue moon I dream of laughingly eating a cookie-topped pizza and washing it down with Starbuck’s Venetian Robusto and, as a chaser, a Hersheys Milk Chocolate Bar with Almonds, averages 6 whole almonds per 52 gram (1.8 ounce) bar.
The average age for getting bifocals is 40. I got bifocals at 40. On average, men’s hair begins to thin and gray at 35, their skin begins to dry and wrinkle at 40, and, around 50, taste and smell diminish and joints turn troublesome. I was right on schedule.
The average measures a tendency toward centralization, but not everything has a central tendency. What is the central tendency of dogs? Of a dewed, sun-dappled meadow? Of ice cream? Of home and poetry and courage and mirth and dignity and the little shard of mystery we are?
No one wants to be average. No one wants to appear ordinary to themselves, or to others. We almost always overestimate our knowledge, our common sense, our practicality. We almost always consider ourselves more original, more distinctive, than we are. We set our lives to the meter of I-am-ic. We like to think of our lives as a bit of guerilla theater. What we fear is invisibility, a life unacknowledged, unheralded, a cursive stroke written in disappearing ink. We fear cloaking conformity. To be average is a shackling littleness we desperately seek to leave behind. Average is tyrannous. The mean is mean.
At my last wellness screening, everything—blood pressure, BMI, HDL and LDL cholesterol, triglycerides—checked out average, within the normal range. Here, average is good. My weight is below, well below, the 190 pound average for males. Below average is considered bad, but in this case it is probably good. I drink more, much more, coffee than the 3.1 cups per day average. Above average is good, but in this case it is probably bad. “Average” is a slippery word, never definitive, always contingent on circumstance. There is always a slippage between public and private meaning, what the world knows and what we know. Too often we take the world’s word for it. To be average means to have been measured against something else. Average is a relational concept. It has the seductive, come-hither appeal of metrics. I’d like to think individual subjectivities are unaverageable, but even personally chosen measures of self-assessment are based on criteria we have internalized from the cultural milieu. Yet, I wonder who is the “I” that measures? That is being measured? Are we available to ourselves as ourselves?
A new genetic paradigm, called epigenetics, is currently taking shape in biology. It revises the idea that DNA is deterministic, that it acts as a foreordained blueprint, that our genome shapes who we will be. DNA is itself shaped by the cells that contain it. Our cells, it turns out, are affected by a variety of environmental factors, even by our social networks, and these factors cause chemicals to attach to the gene which control its expression. Life is creative, not foreordained; ongoing, not given; a sculpture in process, in transit, mustering itself. We are, beyond measure, beyond average. We are our own average.