Math has always been a struggle for me. If you could glimpse into my childhood, you would observe that, in some ways at least, I was being groomed for math success. Thatâs because my father and his brothers, my uncles, were fond of stumping one another with various mathematical brainteasers such as: *If it takes a man-and-a-half to build a house-and-a-half in a day-and-a-half, how many men does it take to build nine-and-a-half houses in six-and-a-half days?* Pencils and calculators would come out of pockets and drawers, guesses would be proffered, arguments would ensue. I loved the drama of it all, but not the math. The questionsâand the answersârarely made sense to me, nor did the fact that my dad and his brothers found this more entertaining than, say, going bowling. (The answer to the word problem above? Beats me.)

As a student, I had to study particularly hard just to earn so-so math grades. Come test time, some fearless and fortunate guessing didnât hurt, and neither did eyes that had the uncanny knack of finding themselves at just the perfect angle to gain a helpful glimpse of another studentâs answers.

Still, in high school I never advanced beyond rudimentary geometry and statistics, which was more than copacetic as far as I was concerned. I deployed two survival techniques. The first was to ask lots of questions. The aim here wasnât so much clarity as it was pacing. The less ground we covered, the better my odds of keeping upânot that I could actually calculate the odds, mind you. The second survival technique was a bit of theater. Any time I was asked to step to the blackboard to complete a problem and then explain to the class how I arrived at my inevitably incorrect answer, I would create a totally bogus and surreal explanation. Usually it sounded something like this:

*The answer to this problem is, of course, blatantly obvious: 12x. We find our way to this conclusion by remembering that today is Tuesday, which creates a near virtual certainty that the answer itself will begin with the letter âT,â as in âtwelve.â Also near certain is that the answer will include the number â2,â since this is the second day of the school week. As with most math problems there is only one right answer, hence the addition of the numeral â1,â placed before the â2.â Jesus had twelve disciples, which means that the number 12 is rarely misused or misplaced, which does not hold true for half that amount, the number 6âa.k.a. Satanâs integer. Of course, if you halved that number yet again, youâd get â3,â which is symbolic of the Holy Trinity. But I digress. Back to our problem and its solution. So, why the âxâ? Again, itâs self-evident. Note how I asked ââWhyâ the âxâ?â not ââXâ the âwhy.ââ So âxâ it is. And there you have it: 12x. Couldnât be easier.*

The teacher would then step in to provide the correct answer and the proper path to it. My silly explanations did nothing to advance the state of mathematics or help any other student who was struggling. But as with the first technique, this storytelling slowed our pace through a textbook in which each chapter got progressively harder and more inchoate. More to the point, I scored brownie points with the teacher, who seemed to appreciate the fact that, despite all the evidence to the contrary and his own dry demeanor, math

*could*be entertaining, even if you had to mock it to make it so. My classmates enjoyed these little diversions, too, if for no other reason than it diverted the teacherâs attention away from the candy bars that they were surreptitiously eating. One teacher let me âteachâ an entire class on a couple of occasions. So I guess I am partly responsible for our nationâs pathetic ranking in math skills when compared to other countries, including some we canât imagine beating us in

*anything*, such as Norway, and others we didnât even know existed, like Fredonia.

I USED TO think that I would joyfully leave math behind when I left school behind. No such luck. Like everyone else, I swim in numbers every day: from the more behind-the-scenes numbers, like those 1s and 0s that make our computers do what they do, to the more in-our-face numbers, like those on our bank statements. Thereâs just no hiding from numbers and from math. But as I did in school, I have found ways to manage my digit disability.

I have never been any good at balancing my checkbook, but thanks to online banking, I can now easily keep tabs on my account balance and see how half of my disposable income goes toward those pesky ATM fees. I stopped doing my own taxes years ago when I bought my first home and graduated from the 1040-EZ form to the straight 1040. For that I needed professional help. âI canât add real wellâ didnât seem like the kind of explanation for underpayment of taxes that would go over well with the IRS.

At restaurants, I almost always tip 20 percent. Thatâs not because Iâm generous, itâs just a lot easier than calculating 15 percent. And I absolutely refuse to pull out a calculator, even though I have one on my cell phone. Thatâs because I donât want to look like a nerd, and because I always get confused when figuring out percentages. Do I divide the total by .20? Or do I multiply by .05? Or is it multiply by .20 and divide by 5? Itâs one thing to find a trigonometry problem frustrating, and something altogether different when an elementary problem blows your mindâespecially when you have a calculator in your hand.

Since I co-own and help manage an ad agency, youâd think I could wrap my mind around basic business calculations like accrual and depreciation. But, no they elude me. Iâll ask the CFO or our founder, a former finance guy, for clarification, but that usually only serves to make matters more fuzzy. Itâs not because they arenât clear, itâs because I seem to be missing the entire left hemisphere of my brain. To recast a philosophic observation made famous by Chief Seattle (âAll things are connectedâŚâ), itâs like whenever you pick out one number, every other number is ultimately attached, including some that have no bearing on the matter at hand. *Argh*. It makes my brainâwell, whatâs left of itâhurt.

THERE IS, ODDLY enough, one side of math that I do find intriguing. I call them âgee whizâ facts. For example, take the idea of umpteen possible variations in a particular set. (There is such a figure as âumpteen,â isnât there?) Now take that once popular brain-teasing toy: the Rubikâs Cube. Youâll recall that the Rubikâs Cube is a six-sided box with nine colored squares on each side that you twist and turn in an attempt to make each side the same color. I never came close to cracking the code, even after one multi-hour attempt on a rainy Saturday afternoon when I was just a lad. On more than one occasion I hurled the psychedelic block across the room and picked up a yo-yoâa more genteel brainteaser. Years later I had an interesting gee-whiz moment that made me feel better about being outsmarted by a piece of plastic. It speaks to a mathematical principle that I canât name, of course, but that has to deal with variations, as in: If Busken Bakery has 25 different kinds of donuts and pastries, how many different 12-count variations would there be? The Rubikâs Cube gee-whiz factoid is that there are more possible color configurations of the cube than there are *inches* in the distance light travelsâat some 186,000 miles per *second*âin 100 years. Mind-boggling, no?

Hereâs another gee-whiz factoid having to do with exponential power that will blow your mind. Take a sheet a paper and fold it half, and then in half again. Keep doing it. The most youâll be able to fold a piece of paper over on itself is seven times. Donât ask me why, thatâs physics, which I wasnât any good at either, largely because itâs just math in disguise. But if you could actually fold a piece of paper over on itself 100 times, do you know how big that theoretical mass would be? Believe it or not, it would be bigger than the known universe. That sounds like one of the math tales I made up in high school, but apparently itâs true.

I suppose math has a good side. Itâs the side where the numbers amaze but do not confound. But letâs not get carried away. Math is still no close friend of mine. And neither, I suspect, is my credit cardâs 18.9 percent annual interest rate. Whatever that means.

*Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki**Originally published in the October 2008 issue.*

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