Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why Peggy Can't Do Math

In many ways, I’m a typical English major. I wear glasses. I am nerdy and bookish, and I hang out with equally bookish folks. We can talk about books, authors, and even grammar for hours. I am always in the middle of at least one book, and I get nervous if I’m stuck somewhere without a book to read. Heaven forbid I have an overlong stoplight and nothing to occupy my time. I attended college and even graduate school. I can express myself verbally or in writing with relative ease. I am not unintelligent. And yet, when faced with the prospect of doing any math other than simple addition or subtraction, my heart races and my palms get sweaty.

Math has always been my personal bugaboo. I’ve never been good at it, despite my best efforts. Algebra? Geometry? Calculus? I might just as well have been studying Old Testament Greek. In fact, I did study Old Testament Greek in college, and it was much less frustrating than math. I studied the word problems. I did my homework. I tried, dammit, and yet I’ve never caught on. But I think I finally figured out why. All of the available space in my brain that was set aside for math has been taken up with essentially useless trivia I got from books.

For example, I know that “cavy” is what folks in South America call a guinea pig, and that some folk think they’re good eatin’. Why do I know this? Because I read about it in one of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels. Was it a major plot point? Nope. Does it have any relevance to my own life? Nope. And yet, there that information sits, taking up valuable calculating space in my brain.

Who ran MGM studios when Louis B. Mayer was gone? Readers of Gore Vidal’s inimitable duo of Myra Breckenridge and Myron would know the name Dore Schare. (They’d also have the name of Byron “Whizzer” White embedded in the “sine, cosine, tangent” area of their brain, albeit with connotations that cannot be discussed in a family web column.)

Do you ever get the feeling that “they” are watching you? That someone is out to get you? That the Government just might not be your friend? You must have been reading Robert Anton Wilson. If not for works like The Illuminatus Trilogy, I might never be able to distinguish between the Illuminati and the Bavarian Illuminati (or the Freemasons, the Bilderbergers, and so on). The question of whether or not I ever have been or will be called upon to make that distinction is left as an exercise for the reader.

Does the name Oscar “Zeta” Acosta mean anything to you? If not, I’ll bet you don’t have any trouble with fractions. However, we math-impaired folks recognize that name as the legendary “Brown Buffalo,” the attorney flying across the desert higher than Mount Everest in the company of gonzo madman Dr. Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Did you know that the giant squid has the largest eye in the animal kingdom? Yep, even bigger than a whale’s. Their eyes are the size of dinner plates, at least according to The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis. Is there ever a chance that I will need to know that? Barring an unexpected appearance on Jeopardy, I think not.

Granted, it’s not just book facts overloading my receptors. I’m pretty sure my lack of any ability to figure out percentages can be traced directly to my ability to recognize and in most cases sing along to a staggering variety of TV theme songs and show tunes. Various rude and inappropriate lines to be shouted at a movie screen playing Rocky Horror are, in fact, so deeply hardwired in that solving for x can’t even find an open spot to attach to. Instead that information comes in, scrabbles madly for a purchase, then slips off screaming, to land in a heap with all of the other algebraic equations I’ve attempted to learn through the years. Perhaps my friends have a point: if you're stalking a wild game of Trivial Pursuit, I'm your gal. Just don't come a-knockin' at tax time.


Lisa said...

Have you read this New Scientist article on dyscalculia?

Peggy Hailey said...

It's an interesting article, & given the number of smart people I know who have math problems, it makes a lot of sense.

Do you think that if I take this article up the street to my high school, I can get my old math scores raised? ;-)

Peggy said...
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