In college, at Washington and Lee University in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, I took a class called “Ringing the Changes: An Introduction to Finite Groups.” I want to assure you that I didn’t typically take math theory classes. I was an English major. Which meant I mostly steered clear of the building called Robinson Hall except to take my required Calculus I and II, which I got out of the way the fall and winter terms of my freshman year at 8 am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Incidentally, I didn’t need to take Calculus at 8 am, but I chose this time slot. I CHOSE IT. For a complicated set of psychological reasons that can generally be referred to as “masochism,” and a sense that it isn’t real work (or fun) unless it hurts. As we all know, college is not just where you learn about a variety of subjects and book things, it is also where you learn about yourself.
The other thing I learned about myself that year: I like bitter black coffee.
By the end of my freshman year, I thought my relationship with math was pretty much over. So I was surprised to find myself enrolled in this course about Finite Groups during the winter semester of my junior year. The reason I took it was because I had been invited to be a part of a group of students that were referred to as “University Scholars.” I’m hesitant to even tell you about this. I mean, I don’t want to come across as a fucking elitist. But look, the truth is, back then, I considered myself a Scholar with a capital S. Hit me up if you wanted to discuss literary theory or existential philosophy or the state of my smart professor beard and long hair.
And then afterwards maybe go back to my dorm room and smoke cigarettes and make out on my futon.
Obviously, I jumped at the opportunity to be in “University Scholars.” We were offered special cross-disciplinary classes. For instance: One entire term on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Also, the previously alluded to “Finite Groups” course. Also we went on a field trip to nearby Roanoke, Virginia to see Pulp Fiction. Then we met to discuss it afterwards over refreshments. I got to write a paper about Green Day and Generation X. This seemed appropriately “intellectual” to me at twenty years old.
But I approached this course on the maths with a large degree of skepticism. A course on the maths could only ever be boring. A course on the maths could only ever be a course on the maths.
The maths left me no room to expound on the meaning of my tortured soul. Or so I thought.
I won’t pretend that I fully grasped much of what I learned in “An Introduction to Finite Groups,” but I did find myself enjoying much of it in spite of myself, especially the stuff on symmetry and the many discussions we had about the “mathematical harmony of the universe.” I discovered that one way of looking at the world is pretty much entirely through numbers. And I found out, much to my surprise, that it’s actually a pretty compelling way to do it. I wound up getting an A in the class somehow. And I wrote some papers which I’ve looked at since and, Christ, I have very little idea what they are about now. I don’t know how I wrote intelligently about symmetry and numbers, and things like Change Ringing and group theory, but I did. I blame being an English major who was really good at stringing words together to create sentences and paragraphs that sounded a whole hell of a lot like I knew what I was talking about.
(Aside One: I almost never know what I am talking about.)
(Aside Two: If I say I know what I’m talking about, then I am drunk.)
(Aside Three: The only reason I have ever learned anything probably has to do with how likely it would be that knowledge about that subject will get me sex.)
But here’s my point: the course on Finite Groups left an impression on me. I won’t pretend to know about numbers the way my dad (a CPA) knows about numbers. I still start to sweat when I try to do my taxes. But I do think it’s interesting to look at patterns in numbers and wonder about what they mean. Numbers are the most universal language we have. Numbers are informing and they make things evident. At the same time, they are mysterious and they tend to obscure things. Numbers factor into my world view in subtle and complicated ways that I don’t fully understand and that’s okay.
So I wrote this essay called “Good with Numbers” as a sort of ode to numbers. And also an ode to life. And an ode to my childhood and my family. And, ultimately, and ode to death. Because everything I write is an ode to these things, in the end. And then Rappahannock Review put it on their site and made it look all pretty and shit.
And if you want to watch/listen to me read the essay while you read along on the Rappahannock Review (and really, who wouldn’t??) then you can do that below:
TAGS: Numbers | Rappahannock Review | Writing