The restaurant has 175 normal chairs and 20 chairs for babies. 2 families come in for dinner. 1 family has 3 babies and the other family has 0 babies. The childless family are technically not a family, just 2 people at peace with their infertility. How many chairs does the restaurant have in total?


The restaurant is owned by a 75 year old Vietnam veteran. Vietnam ended 47 years ago. Not a day goes by that the restaurant owner doesn’t think about those 2 dead girls in the mud, at least 7 phoenix flowers scattered nearby. How old was the restaurant owner when his world ended? 


The family with 3 babies are exhausted. The babies are exhausted, the mother is exhausted, the father is exhausted. If you times paternal, maternal, and infantal exhaustion with the decibel level of the restaurant (69), how exasperated, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being dangerously high, is the mother? 


The family with 0 babies are happy. Everything is perfect for them. Their lives are perfect. Their hair is perfect. They are not technically a family, but their relationship is extremely healthy and the way they treat each other is with love and respect. What is happy²?


The restaurant owner stops by each of the families’ tables. The restaurant owner has killed 27 strangers in a wet forest. He asks how their meals were, the quality of the service, the elegance of the garnish. Both families nod in agreement. They are pleased to oblige. They don’t technically acknowledge it in words. They don’t say, “Yes, we enjoyed the whole show.” What is 27 times everything?


As the 2 families funnel towards the exit at the same time, they nod at each other. Even the babies nod. 


Answer: 26. 


  1. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Jonathan— Great revenge writing– didn’t we all hate word problems in math? I love these, laughed all the way through them, loved even the sadly serious aspects of the Vietnamese Restaurant owner, and then read them aloud to my husband and he laughed all the way through. Perfect. But I missed the answer. I thought happy squared was 29.

  2. Chelsea Stickle

    Yes! I love that you kept your word problems in one room and how they all connected to each other. The restaurant owner details bring the outside world into the restaurant, which I appreciated because we always carry the outside in with us.

    Does a couple really take 3 babies out to dinner by themselves? I want to know more about them. Because that seems like a terrible idea on the face of it.

    I don’t understand the answer, but that doesn’t really bother me.

  3. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Jonathan– Second take. Under the humor of it, this piece does exactly what Freesia suggested the hermit crab form is can be particularly adapted for– to allow exploration of serious issues under the guise of something lighter. Here, the way the immediacy of our own concerns– going out to eat, going out to eat with children– a restaurant owner who serves as, well, restaurant owner– but under all that, how little we think more deeply about those in our daily lives. Here, the restaurant owner has his haunting ghosts of a ghastly war. OK we might think. But then, how did he come here. On the wings of US airplanes? Out of refugee camps, boats. I love the way humor in this piece points to these issues, and I love the irony of the impossible sums, and the impossible “answer” — enumerate these these joys, these tribulations. This work resonates.

  4. Dennis Holmes

    Jonathan, the first time I read this, the numbers threw me (I have always struggled with them). But on the second, third reads through I love their reverence and irreverence (not adding up to, necessarily anything… or counting chairs?) The undercurrent of war, imagery, death, babies, family, infertility is mystifying and troubling (happy/SAD) and your word problems (as hermit crab shell) are perfect to explore this topic- both diners, and the Vietnamese owner. A complex and intriguing piece; a terrific first draft.

  5. Meg Tuite

    Hi Jonathan,
    Another great piece! OMG! This is pathos within humor which is as good as it gets in my mind!! This is ready to send out! absolutely LOVE!

  6. Sara Comito

    It’s beautiful, Jonathan! Big sigh: How old was the restaurant owner when his world ended? I love how the second family loses the “not technically” label as we progress.

  7. Freesia McKee


    You have used this shell skillfully to draw out a whole world within a word problem! There’s a tension between the word problem shell (which has a right answer, ostensibly) and these social matters which really cannot be quantified or easily resolved. This tension keeps readers on their toes throughout the story.

    This was another piece where I felt like, if you wanted to, it could be expanded even more. I was so curious about these characters and their worlds!


    • Jonathan Cardew


      Thanks so much for your comments and encouragement! I really enjoyed reading all the examples you brought to the table—definitely pushing me to do different.


  8. Trent

    Hey Jonathan~

    Very innovative. Makes me think of how our data obsessed culture doesn’t always “work out” certain things.
    Like looking past our labels or “formulas”.

    Oh, and thanks for your kind words about my items this weekend, as well~ There’s currently no text to go w/ the photo from Day 1, but that’s a thing I’ll have to suss out. Lots of variations for it – isolation, nostalgia.

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