Saturday, June 11, 2016

Against Smug Seattle Hobbies, Stinky Dresser, We Need to Talk About Math

This morning, my co-worker texted me something about a potato salad recipe that I had supposedly sent her. I was completely flummoxed. I know for a fact that I have never once sent this person a potato salad recipe, nor have I ever made a potat0 salad in my life. (This is not for a lack of love of potatoes. In fact, not to brag, but my one and only cooking skill involves the ability to make truly kick-ass garlic mashed potatoes that are all the rage at Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings.) This puzzlement was quickly sorted out—it turns out it was her mother’s potato salad recipe she was thinking of, not mine, but it somehow led to a cranky text exchange about smug Seattleites and their infernal, self-contented hobbies, and the attendant peer pressure/forcing upon others of said hobbies. I’m excluding my close friends (you know who you are) from this, because they are nice and not smug, but I went on a mini-rant about how sick I am of feeling pressured into craft beer-making/tomato-growing/backyard-chickening/knitting/bike repairing/foraging/beekeeping and god-forsaken canning, for God’s sake. I work full time, and for whatever it’s worth, I write. Not always, and not always well, but that’s what I do, and that’s what I can handle in my life. I cannot add Cross Fit, artisan butchering, geocaching, and P-patching to the mix, so please leave me alone about it. By all means, enjoy what you enjoy—but leave the rest of us in peace. We don’t all have endless time and energy to indulge in retro luxury hipster hobbies. This has been a public service announcement from the Good Typist. You’re welcome.     

The dresser that Mr. Typist and I bought a few weeks ago to mark our anniversary and complete our “collection” of furniture-that-doesn’t-suck, smells. It doesn’t smell as bad as it did when it was first delivered, but it has this weird, off-gassing, indefinable, sour chemical odor that just continues to linger. I’m not sure what to do about it. I like the new dresser. It’s dark wood and handsome and elegant, and it has knobs. But it does literally stink. I’ve thought of rubbing it down with Lemon Pledge to neutralize the odor, but I’m afraid that will just serve to layer one more weird chemical scent on top of another. I think it’s just from being locked up in a warehouse under plastic for too long, but it’s really disconcerting. I feel like I invited into our bedroom a really nice-looking stranger who has never showered.

My entire life, I have carried a deep shame around my math inabilities. I am math phobic due to many a math trauma from childhood, and from just being naturally terrible at it. For years, I told myself that I was going to fix this by taking an “adult math class”—which I don’t even know exists, but is what I have in my mind as some mythical, magical cure to my math issues—but, predictably, I never pursued that. It turns out that as much as I was constantly admonished about math being central to my existence and my ability to thrive as adult, I don’t really need it. I just need to know enough formulas to get along (how to balance my bank account, how to calculate certain things for work), and the rest of it is just a matter of using a calculator and double-checking with people smarter than me. But I recently read “Lockhart’s Lament”--a most amazing, eye-opening article about math, and I feel like it has begun a healing journey for me.

I’ve never had the perspective before that math is creative—it has always seemed to me terrifyingly rigid and absolute. I know that many people find rigidity and absoluteness to be safe and assuring, but I have always been much more comfortable in realm of the misty, the ambivalent, the “there’s no one right answer”—wherein you can’t be “wrong” because there are endless possibilities. That’s probably why I was always so much more drawn to literature and art than the sciences. I prefer fluidity to solidity; the unknown to the undisputed. But this article, by mathematician Paul Lockhart, really blew me out of the water. It’s immensely joyous, soulful, and yearning. It made me want to engage with math, even though that’s still a horrifying prospect to me on many levels. I must warn you, it’s long—but it’s so worth it. I wasn’t bored for a minute reading it. It’s a true rallying cry for math education reform, and it’s a beautiful take on the realm of mathematics, especially for those of us who have always found it so daunting. Whatever relationship you have with math, I highly suggest reading “Lockhart’s Lament”. I guarantee it will give you a new perspective.

--Kristen McHenry

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