Friday, April 13, 2018

Admirable (Part Three)

(image modified from here)
I love numbers, and have been a math nerd since ... forever, I guess. I remember in first grade, we had an exercise where we had to write the numbers from 1 - 100 in columns on a page of paper. This happened daily over a period of several days. By about the third day, bored with the exercise, instead of writing ... 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 etc down the column in order like I "should," I inverted it and wrote  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 ...., and then went back and filled in 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 2 2 2 2 ... in front of the digits. I had independently, at age 6, figured out the basic pattern behind how counting with place value works. (The alternative is something like Roman numerals, where 10, 100, 1000 each has a different symbol, X, C, M, etc). I went home that day and excitedly told my engineer father about my discovery. Luckily, he figured out what I was trying to say and what it meant about his (literally!) certified genius child, because I didn't have the vocabulary to really explain my discovery.

And math was always there, no matter what else was happening in my life. Among my favourite toys when I was a kid were math-related games and puzzles. Danish mathematician, writer, and WWII resistance figure Piet Hein was one of my heroes.  Because it was the 1960's, I was one of only 2 girls in my advanced math class of 28 in high school, and made the math honor society in college; then, on to a math-heavy science career where I was seriously the young hot shot in my 20's.

In the 1970's I remember offering to help my then-boyfriend with a math class he was taking. This, apparently, was a dreadful threat to his masculinity. Not only did he not want my help, he actually broke up with me and told me it was because he couldn't handle me being better at math than he was!!! (We'll call him IPB, "Insecure Previous Boyfriend.") was devastated at the time, and confused, but ultimately it was all for the good, because a few years later I was in grad school in Colorado where I met Dan.

And then just a year or so later, Dan and I found ourselves taking an engineering course together. You know where this is going, don't you? Because, yep, I was doing better in the class than he was. Previous experience warned me that if I offered to help him, the relationship would be over. But I did, and it wasn't, and unlike the competitive reaction that IPB had, Dan's response was basically, "Well, it's good that someone on Team Us has a solid grasp of this stuff!" (It's not like he was a slacker, either; he ended the semester with a good solid B.)

I vacillated for a long time about even writing this post, because, well, to find it admirable, to praise someone for simply acting like a decent human when confronted with not being "the best" at something (gender expectations notwithstanding!) seems to be setting the bar distressingly low. But people I admire, ordinary heroes, don't have to be the ones doing monumental things admired the world over. They just have to be doing things that I consider admirable. And gracefully accepting reality while trying to improve, is one of those things I admire.

Just because this seems to be a great place to park it, here's a picture of Dan from about that time in our lives. We're in the Four Corners area of the southwest, and if you look closely, he's pointing at his wedding ring.

= = = =

There are follow-ons to the stories of both Dan and IPB with regards to math. In Dan's case, after the brain surgery and recovery, it turned out that he had pretty much lost the ability to do simple mathematical operations without a calculator. Dan used to be able to balance the checkbook in his head; post-surgery, that was frustratingly out of reach. "But," friend Cathy pointed out, "neither can 95% of the population! You started out with excess capacity." Higher math now would be just physically almost impossible given the location of the scar tissue, according to a neurologist we spoke with a couple of years later. He wasn't unsympathetic, but he pointed out that realistically, Dan was well within the realm of being able to function well in everyday life, which was no small thing considering that death is one of the more common outcomes of this type of cancer.  Still, for an engineer to lose the ability to do math is similar to a surgeon developing a tremor in his hands; the door to that particular career is pretty well shut. Admirable was acknowledging this without bitterness, re-learning as much as he could, and moving on to have a fun life anyway. Just, a different life than the one he'd envisioned before.

Oh, and IPB? He caught up with me about 10 years after we split, and we had a totally non-creepy lunch meeting. He told me that in many ways he realized too late that I was the one that got away.
He had finally married -- someone who looked like me, and was a math whiz and engineer like me. I think that meeting was his way of apology for having been a jerk, back when we were both so young.

(Note: In a weird coincidence, another blog I follow posted encouraging you to think about the heroes in your life, on exactly the same day that I first drafted the  post about Kristine, the first of three planned posts about people I consider admirable.)

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