Sunday, December 14, 2014

Upon observation of my daughter studying for a Neuroscience final

A couple things happened this week. One was that I wrote an email to a woman named Alexandra that began, "Dear Angela ..." She wrote back, harrumphing and claiming confusion as to whether I knew to whom I was talking. Well, vaguely, I wanted to say, and that's about as good as it gets around here. I put your name in one of my 26 available baskets, you really can't expect the Julie Kendrick Brain Filing System to do any better. Besides, maybe you really look more like an Angela, anyway. I could be doing you a favor.

The second thing that happened was that my daughter Emma has been hanging around the kitchen counter, studying for finals in her classes in Gender Studies, Film Appreciation and Creative Writing. Oh, sorry, I meant to say her classes in Accounting, Statistics, Neuroscience and Economics. Watching her in action has been awe-inspiring, so I decided to rerun this blog as a celebration of her brainpower and an honest assessment of my own.


26 Baskets

One recent afternoon, Emma and I found ourselves in the kitchen, each concentrating on what we do best. Across the cluttered and sticky countertop, she was finishing her economics homework. I was rolling out dough for that night’s dinner, that gourmet standby of pigs in a blanket.

Hands busy, mind free, I asked her to tell me more about what she was doing. From across the counter, there came a long sigh and a satisfied smile: “I love derivatives,” she crooned.

“Explain, please,” I asked, reaching for another piece of dough to roll out onto my flour-covered board. My dough has never once required the use of derivatives in its preparation, and it rarely fails, but I was keeping an open mind, at least at that point.

So she explained – or, at least, I think she did. “Can you give me an example?” I finally asked, grasping at the straw of a story that would explain everything, the way people have been doing for thousands of years when they’re faced with religion and mathematics and other great unknowables.

But Emma had no parables that would lead me to pure enlightenment. Instead, she launched into a story about a fat lady, a middle-sized lady and a skinny lady, and how each of them had lost a factor and had thus, somehow, moved into a smaller dress size. Derivatives, I understand, were the reason for the weight loss. “But why?” I asked. “Do these ladies reveal some special math secret when they’re skinny, or when they’re fat?”

“I’ll make it easy for you,” she said, and I’ve spent enough time around math-y types to know that this was usually the last thing they said before I started wanting to cry. I patiently rolled yet another pig into another blanket, pulling the dough into a perfect crescent and listening to the scratch of her pencil in the economics textbook.

Finished, sure this would do the trick, she turned the page around to show me what she’d done,  revealing a long string of formulas, with parentheses and x’s and y’s and other extremely knotty stuff. “See?” she said, as if this, finally, was an explanation so clear and simple that even I could grasp it.

I covered my eyes with my flour-caked fingers. “But what are they USED for?” I finally asked. Her answer was, basically, the answer I’ve been getting since I decided to give up on math in the fourth grade – you use this math thing to help you do more math things.

“Which is why I am AWOL from the army of math,” I said. I decided to make a plea for my side of the world. “See, you don’t just use words to make other words. You use words to write a letter of complaint to the City Water Commission, or to write a knock-knock joke or to craft a sonnet that will make people cry. You use words ..”


I stopped. I was standing in the middle of the kitchen, talking with my hands and flinging flour everywhere. She clearly suspected that a few choice lines from Shakespeare were next on my agenda, and she didn’t have time for that sort of monkey business, not that she’d ever use a term as silly as “monkey business.”

“I have to finish my homework.”

So we settled back, me woolgathering in the vast, pleasant meadow of my words, a Ferdinand the Bull of South Minneapolis, and her, bestriding the globe like a colossus with her multi-sized derivatives that allowed for the completion of even more math problems, and what more did you need to know about them than that wonderful thing?

Dough rising, I turned to the dishes, and that’s when I started imagining what the inside of Emma’s brain looks like. I pictured a long, long white hallway, perfectly cooled to 75 degrees, with hundreds of doors on either side, to allow for complete compartmentalization. Emotions?  Put them behind that big door over there, and I’ll pull them out when I’m bored, or it’s Sunday night, or my mom seems a little too calm. Feminine wiles to turn any man to jello? Third door on the right, and make sure that the biometric scanner has been updated. Complete understanding of the use and meaning of derivatives? In a little file drawer over there; it doesn’t take up very much space around here.

The more I thought about it, the more I knew there was massive control room somewhere in this brain, something that made the Starship Enterprise look like the S. S. Minnow. And right in the middle of that room, there is a console with a big red “Overdrive” button. This is a girl who not only has a brain with an “Overdrive” button, but who knows how to use it – for a college essay, a Chinese oral exam or a life challenge. Bring it. She just presses the button and watches everything else fall away.

She assumes, of course, that everyone else’s brain works just like hers, and that people who aren’t living up to her standards are simply refusing to properly access their Overdrive buttons. (Example Number One: Me.)

I finished one sinkful of dough-covered dishes and started on the next one, being careful not to fall so deep into reverie that I sliced my fingers with the carving knife (it’s happened). Then I started to imagine what the inside of my own brain would look like. Well, different than the Starship Emma, that’s for sure. It is, I imagined, like a combination between the nonexistent 13 1/2 floor of ABC Carpet in Chelsea, and a long-abandoned, but at one time much-loved, off-Broadway theater, right down to the moth-eaten curtains and the discarded bits of set pieces lying around. The floors are wooden, warped and worn. There are inconveniently placed iron pillars, each holding a lifetime’s worth of flaking paint choices. Of course, there’s a constant soundtrack, alternating between snippets of the Great American Songbook and Code Red Worry Alert notices. Stagehands are moving set pieces into and out of the spotlight while actors drift across the stage, forgetting their lines with regularity. The ghost light is always on, because really, is anybody ever really at home?

To bring a derivative into a brain like this is rather like bringing a kitten into Emma’s immaculate hallway. There’s just not a need for it, and it won’t be very happy there, anyway.

I can remember, before I went AWOL, sitting attentively in math class, reading the story problems, but then the stories would enter my brain, and the nature of my attention would shift unproductively. Why did Nancy have four apples and Susan only have two? Couldn’t she just give the girl an apple and put an end to all this busywork? Why was Peter heading on a train to Buffalo that was going to make three stops? Was he running after his girlfriend, who had stormed out after finding him in a rehearsal hall in Greenwich Village with a woman she clearly took to be a stripper, but who was, in fact, just trying out for Peter’s new show? Was Peter going to revive “Gypsy?” Oh, that would be great. Those are the best opening notes in history, although, no maybe it’s “South Pacific…”

Back to work, Julie, I would tell myself, and try to settle down. “There’s Peter, on the train to Buffalo, and I wonder if he even knows that ecdysiast is the synonym for stripper, or that the girl who was auditioning is actually a Vassar grad who refuses to accept anything from her parents because she knows she’s going to make it in the big city…”

“Hand in your papers, children.”

Story of my life.  Sitting in a shabby, darkened theater, watching the sets pushing by, and never getting past the second math problem.

The only other thing I know for sure about my brain is that, in addition to all the clutter, it has 26 baskets, clearly marked, one for each letter of the alphabet. It is a filing system, just a rather embarrassing one, but I seem to be stuck with it. Let’s say, for example, that I happened to run into Peter on that train to Buffalo, and a couple weeks later I bump into him at the corner of Sullivan and Thompson Streets, arm-in-arm with his reconciled girlfriend and flush with his new production deal for that “Gypsy” revival.  “Patrick!” I will call across the street, confused as to why he doesn’t answer. “Paul!” “Poindexter!”

Sigh. I filed his name away, of course, but all I’ve got is the 26 baskets, and they get a little overfull sometimes. There goes Peter down the steps of the Christopher Street Station, and there goes my big chance to find out what happens next.

If only, I often think, I could just get an Overdrive button.