Word Problems

Word Problems

Let it be known that I have enormous respect for those who are good at math.  My wife is.  I am not.  No hard feelings.  No bitter, bitter pill to swallow.  Just part of the tapestry of life.

Is my life reasonably rich and full?  Sure, but tossing in the depths of a tortured, sleepless night it all comes back to me – the regret, the mistakes, the shame.  In my several years in Algebra II, there were the occasional moments of clarity, sudden sharp bursts of insight, none of which resulted in anything like competence, but most of which amused my teachers for the fleeting seconds during which I seemed to waken from math induced stupor.

Looking back on it, I can see why I seemed stubbornly resistant to instruction.  The problem was never that I didn’t like math, or didn’t like the teacher, or didn’t work at math.  Alright, it might have been true that I didn’t work at it, but the more pertinent observation is that abstraction and hypothetical constructions make the veins in my temple swell and throb.  Plonk a graph up on the board and start talking about axes and slopes and I’m fading, fading.

Sorry.  What was the question?

Sadly, Word Problems, the one area in which I did show promise, sprang a trap of their own from which I could not escape.  I understood the frustration of my math impaired brothers, and there were a few,  who asked, “When am I ever going to use this stuff in my real life?”

Not I.

Word problem are all about real life.  The situations posed in word problems were easier for me to sort out than they were for the math wizards all about me.  These were stories.  These were vignettes opening a door into the trials and tribulations of people such as I, people who could not figure out how to get the right combination of candies, had to pack and could not find the area of a suitcase, went to the track but could not figure out the odds.  I knew these people; I felt for these people.  With their safety and well-being in mind, I plunged into each problem, determined to get them to their destination before a train going in the other direction took their children away.

This wasn’t math.  This was Reality Math.

Ah, and perhaps you have already sensed where the problem might lie.  I did care, cared so much that I found myself so engaged in the “what ifs”, the “yes, buts”, and, worst of all, the “what happens next”, that I forgot about the math part and lost my self in conjecture on the state of humans tempest-tossed in an uncaring world.

I think they call that distracted.

Here’s what I mean:

In a group of 120 people, 90 have an age of more 30 years, and the others have an age of less than 20 years. If a person is selected at random from this group, what is the probability the person’s age is less than 20?

Ok, you can do the math, but consider for a moment how those under 20 year-olds feel in the company of a massive number of people over thirty.  How much over thirty?  We don’t know.  How much under twenty are in the miserable minority?  Again.  No clue.  Are we talking about toddlers and octogenarians?  What kind of  group is this?

So, let’s say this is some kind of cult.  The leader is about forty-three, his brides, all twenty of them, are under fifteen.  What kind of world is this?

Or, this could be row A through D in the Elizabethan Theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in which case, all the over-thirty adults are actually over seventy, and the under twenty not-yet-adults are under twelve, grandchildren dragged from meaningful participation in their own lives to a matinée performance of Richard III, in which case, the question ought not ask the probability of finding an under-twenty but rather is the under-twenty capable of speech after three hours of watching the House of York come to its entirely appropriate end at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Dany bought a total of 20 game cards some of which cost $0.25 each and some of which cost $0.15 each. If Dany spent $4.20 …

OK, stop right there.  Who spells Danny as Dany?  I can tell you who – Daenerys Targaryen, daughter of Aeyres Targaryen, the Mad King.  Before she was riding dragons, her brother/cousins Rhaegar and Viserys called her Dany, as you might expect.  I have no idea what her cuddle buddy, Khal Drogo, called her in close moments out of the public eye, but that consideration draws me quickly into consideration of  the development of the fictive language of the Dothraki, more than distraction enough, but a strong and strange memory pulls me even further away from the idiotic game cards in question.

On a flight from Los Angeles to Dallas, I was seated next to two Klingons.

Apparently Dallas was hosting a major Star Trek convention, and these two were performing in what had been billed as “A Klingon Fight To The Death”.  I got that much out of them before they retreated into speaking only in what I took to be Klingonese, the language used by Klingons in an episode entitled, “The Trouble With Tribbles”.  They did pause long enough to assure me that they were not speaking Klingonase, a variation of the language which had been introduced in Star Trek novels of the 1980’s.  That cleared up, I put my seat back and snoozed, comforted by the guttural bandying of insults tossed around by my seatmates.

BaQa! (Klingonese for something vile)  They were again in my row on the flight back to Los Angeles but now in human form.  Having exhausted conversation in Klingonese, they were pleased to fill me in on the weekend’s activities in what sounded to me very Californian English.  I would have considered this chance meeting entirely unlikely had I not seen the documentary, Trekkies, in which I learned that there is a Star Trek convention somewhere in the world every weekend.

Having now referred to Star Trek for the second time this week, I need to wrap up this late-in-life math apologia. Thank God my wife can work out how many game cards of each denomination Dany got for her $4.20; I’m still trying to figure out how many wives the cult guy has salted away.

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