If it seems like I’ve been commenting on fewer short stories recently, it’s because math takes a lot of my time.

I missed out on math in school. Not that I didn’t take math classes – and lots of them. But at some point things like completing the square started going by me, and I took it hard. Like when I wrote a suicide note as the answer to the freebie extra-credit question on my Advanced Algebra II midterm: “Why is math fun?” It was the 60s, teachers still laughed at stuff like that back then, especially when my score on the test was a B (I, a caucasian of mixed northern-European heritage, understood the Asian F decades before Glee picked up on it). No one even bothered to ask why I, a freshman, was taking this class, typically in that era populated by juniors.

I gave up at that point and never took another high school math course, though I still struggled in chemistry and physics with the same issues: I don’t know my multiplication tables, and I don’t have a sense of things like inverses and halving a fraction by doubling the denominator. I can do that stuff, but I have to muscle it. You know how some people can’t figure out complete sentences or commas or quotation marks or spelling? That’s me with math. I like to think it gives me a sense of empathy for those who aren’t as strong in some areas as I am. But the truth is, it’s a pain in the ass.

In college (I was a non-traditional student, doing part-time night school then finally, in my 30s, a couple of full-time years to finish up, and even a little grad school) I tried again. Twice. Algebra killed me. Factoring was a nightmare. Trigonometry baffled me. I had to wrestle every problem to the ground. I got through a condensed calculus class with a final score of 105 by spending two to four hours a day working problems, then working them again until I found a way to do them. I have no idea how calculus works, or what it is, though I vaguely remember something about speed at a single point in time.

See, that’s the problem. Concepts like that interest me. If speed is meters per second, you can’t have a speed without two points in time – except you can, with calculus. How cool is that? Don’t ask me to understand it, but it’s amazing. Like infinity. Hey, even Italo Calvino likes infinity.

(Did Italo Calvino add on his fingers? Could he balance his checkbook – did he know whether you add or subtract the 42 cents you forgot to record when you wrote that check for $37.42? Or did he have to go back and recalculate the whole month, the way I do?)

When that wretched imp Zin discovered Khan Academy a few months ago, I tried again: I still want to prove I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like me. All my friends in high school understood algebra; most went on to Trig, Analytical Geometry, and Calculus without me. When I worked as a computer programmer and then systems analyst (an era I try to repress), my friends played with ideas for random number generators and fractal calculators and I sat quietly with my hands folded and my eyes downcast. I’m a little less distressed now that I hang out online with writers and artists, but I still come across the occasional writer who can calc, and it reminds me of my failings.

I’m also hoping by exercising different parts of my brain, I’ll develop complementary smart muscles. I told my Zoetrope buddy Marko about a voice teacher who encouraged me to work out the lower regions of my voice as a way of adding tone and support to the high registers. Maybe the same thing works with words and numbers.

So I started the (free) Khan course. Slowly. With arithmetic. 273 times 13. One half divided by one fourth. Numbers on the screen the size of my thumb. I finally got a calculator. I had to. The 8s and 6s still elude me, forty+ years later. Nine times six might be 32 or 34 or 36. Four times eight might be 48 or 46 unless I think about it, in which case it might be 32 or 36 or 24. Something about those two numbers, it’s like there’s a broken wire in my brain. I’m ok with the nines and sevens threes and most of the fours, and of course the fives, but if there’s a six or an eight in a problem, I’ll get it wrong. I have lots of “Persistence” badges. You get those when you do 20 problems without getting 5 in a row right.

I’ve progressed – slowly. I’m an Artisan Algebraist, in fact, a Journeyman Statistician and now an Apprentice Trigonometer, bless my aching cosecant and Princess SohCahToa. And if you think that didn’t cost some blood, toil, tears, and sweat, think again. Not to mention a sheaf of notes and my calculator.

It’s no easier now than it was back when I was 13, or 22, or 30. But I think I finally understand how to Complete the Square. (addendum: nope; I forgot again)

Pingback: What I learned from MOOCulus | A Just Recompense