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Doing the Math

By Lex Brown

Up until 9th grade, math was one of my favorite subjects. Like most people, I loved the palpable rightness of its solutions. Then I went to a magnet science & tech high school, and suddenly I sucked at math because big brain robotoid kids with underdeveloped social skills were the majority of the student body.

I actually still have bad dreams about 12th grade math tests. I think part of the horror of those tests was realizing they really didn't matter. (Though maybe they wern't entirely pointless, as I regularly find myself applying the relationship between velocity and acceleration to all matter of things.)

I performed less than brilliantly on so many math tests. I was not the best. And math certainly wasn't the best, either. But like most everyone else, I got over those bad grades without taking them personally. I did the best I could, said "oh well. / fuck YOU Mr. Williams seriously" (AND my 9th grade tutor Tom SOMETHING, a grown-ass man who quit on me because I asked too many questions of him... him, my tutor.) and then moved on to every other thing that was more interesting and fun and that I was better at. And then another year came and another teacher and a different kind of math, until finally there were no more math classes.

When I did do well on a math test, it was a great feeling—a feeling of not just accomplishment, but of genuine comprehension. I felt good knowing that the arithmetic choices I made were the right ones for that set of problems, and that I made those choices based on my understanding of what kind of problems I was confronting.

Relationships are like math tests for me. And I think for my adolescence and the first half of my 20s, I was trying to do a kind of math where 3+3 equaled 33 and not 6. I wasn't doing real math. I was trying to do some kind of magical, visual mathematics where the numbers related to each other spatially, instead of real math with actual numerical entities; a math where the numbers made something more beautiful and harmonic and impossible than just...6. If 3 is all you know, 6 is a far less predictable and less cute result than 33. The moment you learn that as a child, you undergo a major shift in thinking between how words relate and how numbers relate. That '+' is not just a smushing of things together but an actual process that happens to the numbers.

It's pretty fitting that I had such an unreal idea of relationships and love, because when serious nerds make up the majority of your high school, being petite, white, Nice (read: boring) are the only ways to even be considered female. I never even felt feminine in high school, and I felt both despair and righteous indignation at this total scam: these scrawny, uncreative, adolescent boys were somehow calling the shots about who was attractive and desirable, when they themselves were wholly uncompelling as friends, not to mention dates. So I bided my time in high school believing in the mythology of high school movies, and holding out for college as my moment to finally get the normal dating experience that I believed every American teenager to be entitled to. That did not happen at Princeton either.

And still it hasn't happened. Is it that I'm consistently the only black girl in a room full of white people (friends and non-friends alike)? Am I too loud and tall of a woman? Is it Los Angeles? Am I too straight? Is it that artists don't date? Is it that no one dates? Has anyone ever dated? These are questions I have spent many a sleepless night over. But in the end they're like asking why does math exist. Asking answerless questions is only useful in life if you can turn it into a book deal or some kind of profitable spiritual practice. These breathless questions are fueled by the likely fraudulent belief (but I hate to be cynical), implanted in my brain by movies and books, that I deserve some love in life that I'm nearly sure only exists in fiction. I'm coming to believe love songs are pure aesthetic objects. They represent nothing but a desire, and they're the only way to experience real, unending Romance.

I recently got out of a relationship—long-distance, no less, so the romance was heavy. I used this relationship to explore myself in a way that I never had before. I felt safe to play with certain memories and character traits in the space between us. In doing so, I learned a lot of valuable lessons about my personality and about my compulsion to act my way through intimate situations. This compulsion is motivated in equal parts by fear, intellectual remove, a natural performer’s instinct for intensity, an erotic desire to be watched, and genuine confusion about the reality of emotions as a post-modern millennial. That’s all very complex.

Until I meet someone who can jam on that kind of level, I’m hoping this past relationship was my last attempt to enact a fantasy narrative of romance. Even if fantasy re-enactments begin innocuously, they are only bright and shimmery until they aren’t. Then everyone feels gross. What I learned about myself in this relationship came at the expense of not learning as much as I could have about him. I'd do some things differently if given the opportunity to do it again, yes; but at the time I didn't know how to do them differently; or I knew but I didn't trust that I knew how to do the math.

It's funny when you recall a memory from a past relationship. For some reason, I find these recollections call more attention to the mystery of memory than any other kind. They just pop up, sometimes with no trigger at all. Like a salmon swimming upstream. And if it's bittersweet it just keeps flopping around and you're like okay okay I gettttttttttt—you're a fish and you're still swimming in there. I've had other hazily defined relationships [oh no these are RELATIONS] where the memories were like rocks that I chose to overturn again and again, just to torture myself and look at how gross whatever phantom subterranean creatures were living underneath. Those are the worst. I'm glad I don't do that any more. But still, whenever I remember something from this recent relationship, I feel a little...


...contemplative, some general malaise, and slightly unamused with remembering it again. I have to tell myself in that moment to not berate myself for things I already did.

A friend from college, Matt, once said he didn't understand why people looked back on the past and worried about it. He said "It's relieving to not have to worry about the past because I already did it."

And that is really true. That stuck with me. That, and, "I don't know why girls on the swim team have to eat so much ice cream and then complain about being fat. I mean have some fucking self-control." Lol. Also true.

Not getting caught up in the past is about letting stuff go, and about having some self-control. This time around, getting over it has definitely been the #mostchill for me, and that is because I’m getting to the point where I understand what an exponential is, and that ⁵ doesn't mean you actually do something with the numerical value of 5. Before you understand that, you feel really stupid because you keep getting the wrong result (and I know it's not a perfect metaphor, but you get the picture).

And I suppose that's the art of getting older: learning that being attracted to someone, or liking a person for how s/he makes you feel is not the same as liking that person for who they are. And still, caring for a person for who they are is not same as being able to do so without feeling that your own spark is diminished in turn—a hard lesson for me, a competitive girl. In any case, relationships oughtn’t be competitions; and whereas a year ago I would have been completely distraught in the event of “losing,” I've been thinking about this relationship just like a math test.

If schools framed exams as unpredictable opportunities to gauge how well you are learning—means rather than ends to study for in themselves—I think kids would retain a lot more knowledge from school. If you're only studying for the next test, or improving yourself for the next relationship, then all that work is only for a brief moment of performance, when it ought to be for your overall development and soul-making.

I am thankful that I have the one skill essential to happiness: the ability to learn. I am thankful to finally recognize that however abnormal my pattern of relationships feels, I can always shift the focus and weight away from that area of my life. Life is so much about the in-between times when you have to reflect without stewing, and change without cultivating contempt for your old ways. To move through life with constructive energy requires one to maintain multiple notions of self with equal levels of acceptance.

I've been relating math to relationships, but it’s a metaphor that can really work with any aspect of life: jobs, career, art, existence—we're mostly just practicing, and there will always be another test, so there's not enough time to dwell on past results in school. There’s no fun and no point in beating yourself up over a test. And there's not enough time for that in life either. What you can do is try to find something compelling about what you're learning along the way, and actually try to understand it. Because there really is so much to understand in all the highs and all the lows.

Note to self: It's also important to recognize that although some people look like they're better at math than you are, they might just be doing easier problems...forever. Or working in another subject entirely....like health class or something.

From July, 2014

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