Learning Can Be Fun...But the Metric System is Something Else Entirely

I remember back when I was a kid in the fourth grade and being led to believe by my teacher that us kids were on the cusp of something great. Our generation, we were told, were to be the first U.S. citizens to officially learn and ultimately adopt into our everyday lives ‘the’ universal system of measurement (drum roll please) - the metric system. Our teacher, who went on to explain that our use of the outdated English (Imperial) System left us wildly out of step with the rest of the world, made clear that it was time to correct this egregious error. It was to be - a new era for America.  

Now listen, I have to be honest that this was a lot for my fourth grade ears to absorb, the responsibility of it all was simply staggering.  And while I appreciated the magnitude of the task at hand, me being a trailblazer and all, in having finally committed to memory the fact that 1.760 yards is equal to a mile, such news was hardly met with wild applause and bags of confetti. Fourth grade, I considered with a heavy heart, was gonna be no walk in the park. 

The Metric System and the Awkward American Stand-off

Back in 1975, after a three-year federally funded study to determine the feasibility of getting Americans on board with the rest of the world when measuring stuff , Congress put into play the Metric Conversion Act of 1975. This law designated the metric system as "the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade” and to give it even more weight ( yep got it – terrible pun),  pulled together the United States Metric Board “to coordinate the voluntary conversion to the metric system.” 

That word voluntary was clearly the plan’s deathblow.

Despite the powerful PR machine behind an initiative delivered with the best of intentions, Congress apparently failed to take into account the one group this plan was likely to affect the most – our parents.  Exactly how in God’s name were our homework heroes supposed to support our efforts in understanding the relationship between a mile and kilometer when such assistance required a level of knowledge they had exactly zero interest in learning that decade?  The power of the parental collective can be a mighty one and in coming together it landed a fierce and mighty blow to the metric system, seeing it pass away rather quietly into the night.  And while my 1970’s-self rejoiced in the news of it all, it’s my very- old-adult-expat-self who sits in the middle of all things metric and left to relearn something I thought clearly easier and better forgotten.

Exactly How Many Pounds Are in a Kilo?

As a teenager, thanks to shows like Miami Vice, I came to learn that despite the fact that America failed to universally adopt the metric system, the drug cartels running wild down in Florida had. It stood to reason then, that if a drug kingpin can teach his minions to measure out a ½ kilo of cocaine, this law-abiding citizen had the wherewithal to do the same with flour. Where the challenge comes in to play however is my incessant need to use my American context to figure things out… instead of just learning that 1000 milligrams is equals to 1 gram (easy), I insist on first understanding how much that is in ounces and doing the math from there (complicated).  This point of reference might leave one to believe that I am waging war in my kitchen with the lead in to every evening’s meal. With that conclusion you would be, well, wrong.  Thankfully V is the chef in the family but every now and then he attempts to guilt me into donning my cooking cap and go hardcore Martha Stewart on him. Mistake - as this is fraught with the difficulties of an American recipe which requires the complicated conversion of weights/measures/and temperature, while a German recipe requires the complicated conversion of language. 

Neither of these things proves particularly appealing when I am hungry. 

My Thanksgiving attempt at an American pecan pie using Europe's metric system.

My Thanksgiving attempt at an American pecan pie using Europe's metric system.

So it came to be last month that V made reference to my trying my hand at cooking the evening’s meal. I in turn sighed heavily and began explaining the various measuring and language challenges if I were to engage in such a task. The verbal exchange left me simply exhausted.  

V, clearly unimpressed with the dramatic accounting of what dinner would look like if left in my hands said with a curious look,

“You know, it’s amazing how easy life can be when you pretend to be stupid.”

“Pretending? Who the hell is pretending? Now, what-are-YOU-making-us-for-dinner?”