Nein, nein, says Yiangoulis

May 4, 2009 by

*Apologies to those who’ve unsuccessfully attempted over the last two months to post a comment and thanks to Matt Weber for bringing the glitch to my attention. For someone who spends most of his time hauling, or thinking about hauling, lobsters from the seafloor, you’re not a bad tech consultant. 

Left to right: Andriani Psaras, Yiangos (aka Yiangoulis) Psaras, Georgos Psaras, Vassiliki Psaras (my grandmother), Anastassia Psaras

Left to right: Andriani Psaras, Yiangos (aka Yiangoulis) Psaras, Georgos Psaras, Vassiliki Psaras (my grandmother), Anastasia Psaras

During my childhood years in Cyprus, my parents used to occasionally take me and my sister to visit my grandmother’s brother, Yiangoulis, and his wife, Anna. Their house, with its acres of backyard citrus orchards, was off the road to Kourion, our favorite beach, and so often we would pull off the cypress-flanked road into their driveway for a coffee and ‘glyko karidaki,’ a Cypriot dessert of whole green walnuts that have been boiled and preserved in a thick sugar syrup. 

James Joyce

James Joyce

Despite living on a fruit farm, Yiangoulis was almost always buttoned up as if he’d just returned from some august country club beyond the lemon groves and droning cicadas. A tall lanky man, with round black wiry glasses, long delicate fingers and small sharp eyes, he didn’t look like a Cypriot (in fact, now that I think of it, he looked like James Joyce). He was a gambler and backyard magician who would offer us money if we solved one of his riddles, which inevitably involved numeric puzzles or matches arranged in infuriating geometric formations. 

One day, my sister, Yangoulis and I were sitting at a white plastic table in the shade of a tangerine tree. He retrieved a five-pound bill from his wallet and, after brushing some of the tiny dry tangerine leaves off the table surface, slapped the money down. He stared at us from behind those wiry rims. 

“Tell me how many 9s there are from zero to 100 and this is yours. You only get one guess.” 

It was the equivalent of $12, a tidy fortune to our eight- and six-year-old minds. Woozy with the prospect of sudden wealth and mushy-headed from an afternoon of hurling ourselves into breaking waves, we prematurely blurted out our guesses. With a faint smile, he pocketed the bill and then—breaking one of the magician’s cardinal rules (he was never much for rules)—told us the right answer. Like any veteran gambler, he knew how to coolly weigh risk against profit odds. The chance of losing the bill was clearly worth the pleasure of returning it to his wallet and revealing the answer. Yiangoulis was shrewd enough to know that the prospect of so much money would jelly our judgment. 

Over the following two-plus decades, I have posed this riddle numerous times, occasionally offering money. There’s nothing insidious or deceptive about the answer, but for whatever reason, of the dozens of people who’ve offered an answer, only a few have nailed it on the first try. 

There is a reason for bringing this up. In my first Fourth Night essay I claimed I was going to post writing on the 4th night of every month. Since 2005 I have, more or less, done that, although admittedly a few of my posts were apologies of the “sorry, not done yet, check back in a few days” variety. As of today, this mission statement—a monthly posting every 4th night—is undergoing a reinterpretation. Just as there is more than one 9 from zero to 100, there is also more than one 4 from zero to 31. There are in fact three: 4, 14, and 24. In short, by this new definition, the fourth night arrives every ten days (with exceptions depending on the month and the rare leap year): the 4th, the 14th, and the 24th

Fourth Night, in other words, has just grown two more heads. From now on I will post three nights a month. This may disappoint those of you who prefer the heartier monthly essays, for these postings will be shorter, but I’m afraid that you are, like me, a dying disemboweled minority in an era where most communication online takes place not in number of pages, nor even in number of words, but rather in number of characters. This blog is still something of a dinosaur. It’s just that it’s now a little farther along the evolutionary chain. 

As for the 9s-in-a-100 puzzle, if you have yet to guess, take 30 seconds and give it a try. Once you’ve settled on a number, CLICK HERE for the answer.

Now that the comment feature is again properly functional, feel free to comment on just how much this exercise has enriched your intellectual landscape, elevated your consciousness, and invigorated your sexual life. And, please, don’t thank me. Thank Yiangoulis.  

To his memory and to the new zeitgeist of Fourth Night, which celebrates all numerical permutations, however arbitrary they may be. 

-Constantine Markides

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12 Comments

  1. I so enjoyed reading about Yiangoulis! Nase kala yie mou pou me kamnis tzie gelo! I apantisi eine:
    119 fores!
    let us talk soon! Fthasame pses.

  2. So how many 4s are there in a year?

  3. How many 4s in a year? Based on the new Terms of Fourth Night I think it’s best I don’t dwell on that. Three per month is enough for me to digest right now…

  4. joe lewis

    great piece. i got it horribly worng. looking forward to those extra posts… you could cut your workload by a third if you were to become Baha’i!

  5. seldom seen

    “may the fourth be with you”? ohh please…
    the bigger lesson to be learned here is about being a “cool headed gambler” and one that you clearly have missed the boat on, at least as far reading bluffs, and pegging for points. but there’s time, there’s time.
    so. fourth night cubed. whats it all about?

  6. Thanks, Joe. But Baha’i worship three times a day while I blaspheme thrice a month. I think I’ve got the better arrangement.

    As for you, Seldom Seen, I’ll admit I’ve erred on my pegging a few times, but as far as poker goes, you need to put your cards where your mouth is.
    Fourth Night cubed. I like that. More details coming on subsequent fourths.
    As for May the Fourth be With You, it looks like I’m not the only one who’s thought it up: http://tinyurl.com/cn7hwk

  7. Alas, I fear that you are right…patience for anything on the net has dwindled to about the size of the average blog, i.e. 3-4 paragraphs. I’m sure that Twitter will bring that down even more so that in the future we will only communicate in 14 character strings. Gotta go, this reply is already too long!

  8. sancho

    kourion…

  9. Yes, Steve, a 14-character unbroken string lacking punctuation. And at that point we will, as someone I was talking to a party last night said, be “back to the days of Morse code.” With all of our technologies we will have regressed to a state of primitive communication.

  10. chris michael

    thank you for taking me to cyprus and challenging my ability to count with my fingers 😉 glad we’ll be getting more fourth night!

  11. Julia

    spitting image – it’s in your blood, most definatly on the cover, but methinks on the inside too

  12. Spitting image, yes. But as for being in the blood, as someone in the family, who will remain unnamed, said: “Yes, he looks like James Joyce. And that’s about it.”

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