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common denominator by LydiaJayne

1 Mar

“Not  everyone is as intellectually gifted as you are, Sweetie,” Her older sister managed to sound patient rather than patronizing, for which Samantha was grateful.

“It’s not that.  She’s very bright: she read the entire encyclopaedia, the one we bought her when she started middle school.  She read it for fun last month.  Then she corrected a number of entries with updated information she found online.  She just hates math.”

“It’s not a crime, Sam,” Joyce, having an artist temperament herself, replied defensively.

“I know!  But…. I was so jealous when she and Marty would go off on their father/daughter adventures.  It’s mean, and it’s petty, but after the divorce, when I was granted custody, I was grateful for the chance to spend time with her without competing for her attention with the cool parent.  Only now, I don’t know what to do.  We have nothing in common.

“I’m a mathematician, Joyce. PhDs in two separate branches of math.  In my spare time, I enjoy suduko, kakuro,  and the occasional poker tournament.  The only card game she likes, the cards have letters on them.  It’s like portable Scabble.” Joyce winced, knowing full well how much Sam hated games that required she attempt to spell.

“Once we’ve covered what happened at school and the weather, there’s nothing left.” Sam was losing her battle with tears and got up for a tissue.

Quiet footsteps in the hall carpet were masked by the sound of a chair scraping on the kitchen floor.   Joyce crossed over to her younger sister, holding her as she fell apart.

“You’ll figure it out.  You always do, Sammy. After all, you’ve managed to talk to me for years, and I don’t know anything about math.”

Sam coughed to keep from choking as her sob became a half laugh.


The next morning, Sam dropped her sister off at the airport, detoured past the grocery store, and returned home resolved to find some way to connect with her daughter.  She had nothing resembling a plan, but Joyce had been confident that she could manage, and Sam was determined.

She carried her bags to the kitchen but stopped short at the sight of Cassie sitting at the kitchen table shuffling cards.  The regular ones, with numbers.

“Hey, Mom.” Her greeting was deliberately casual, but Sam could tell she was trying to hide nervous tension. “Want to teach me to play poker?”

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stolen saturdays by parenthesized

1 Mar

His daughter, Annie, sits on the dew-dampened grass of her grandmother’s backyard.  Green stains streak across her white sundress, but her mother is not there to scold her, and Sam could not convince himself to ruin her fun.   No one in the family, or, at least, his family, could.  Annie always rushed into his arms whenever he had visitation.  She would bound forward and take a running leap, clinging to him as if her life depended on it.  She was too young to know how much his life depended on her.

His ex-wife was raising Annie to be a demure little doll, someone she could dress up and parade before her new husband’s society friends.  She never cared that Annie hated the performances and the brunches where she had to recite insipid poetry her mother made her memorize.  Sam wanted to give his daughter grass stains, mud pies, bruises gained by great adventures chasing butterflies.  That was the childhood he had wanted for her, but the courts had disagreed, so here he was, her father, stealing hours on every other Saturday to be with her.

He watches Annie as she laughs and lies down, spreading her skinny arms as wide as they can go.  Her fingers pull at the blades because they are smooth and wet and cool she tells him.  She calls for him to join her, and he does package in hand.  “I promised you a present,” he says, holding the package just out of her reach.

“Thank you, Daddy!  What is it?”

“Well, I know how much you love math…”  He holds back a laugh at her look of disgust.  “But I think you might like this more.”

Soon enough the bright green paper lies in strips on the lawn.  On top of the paper sits her gift, leather-bound sketchbook with a simple metal clasp.  He included colored pencils, markers, and crayons.  (A small part of him hopes her mother will be annoyed by the bright color that deviates from the endless shades of beige that populate her house.)  She hugs the journal to herself and runs to the porch.  “Grandma Margaret!  Look what Daddy got me.  It’s so pretty!”

Inside the journal he wrote:

Annie,

Don’t color outside the lines.  You can put the lines where you want them.

Love,

Dad

He hopes that she will always have a piece of childhood with her, that she can create her own joy beyond their too short Saturday afternoons.

fractions by juleshg

1 Mar

Sam closed his eyes tightly, took a deep breathe and ran his hand through his curly hair one more time.

“No Sarah, look at it again… “

Sarah sighed and rolled her eyes.

“I am never going to get this.  It is useless.  Just face it: I am never going to be good at math.”

As much as Sam loved spending time with his daughter he dreaded the homework hour.    It was the one time of day when he felt that he was failing her.

Since the divorce he saw Sarah only every second week as he and Sharon shuttled the girl back and forth from one home to the other.  When they first separated they told the teary-eyed girl that she would have two homes now, but the transition had been difficult and there were times when Sam wondered if she felt that she had a home at all.

The split had been amicable and now he and Sharon were able to sit down and discuss issues calmly.  They had made a decision to try keep similar routines during their ‘Sarah weeks’:  waking up at the same time each morning, eating meals at the same time and sitting at the table for an hour each night after dinner to work on homework.  He wondered if Sharon was better being a tutor and he immediately felt insecure.

“Sarah, you are a smart girl and math is in your blood.” As the words came out of his mouth he wondered if they were true or if was Sarah more like her mother and gifted in other areas.

For Sam math was almost sacred.  It was his favourite subject throughout school and when he graduated there was no doubt in his mind that he wanted to continue studying it, researching new theories and sharing his passion with the next generation.  Today he stood in front of a lecture hall of graduate students and spoke for two solid hours about John Forbes Nash and his work in differential geometry.  You could have heard a pin drop as he discussed the intricacies of each theory and how they were still used and admired today.

Now, only four hours later, he was pulling his hair out trying to explain simple fractions to an 8-year old.

“Listen, maybe it will help if we use an example you can relate to.”  He wrapped an arm around his daughter’s small, humped shoulders and gave her a little hug hoping to turn her mood around.  “What is your favourite thing to do?”

“Shop.”

“Really?”

“Yes, and I don’t think fractions are going to help there unless you want to buy me half a CD or one third of a t-shirt.”

As she spoke Sam was taken aback by the tone of her voice which sounded more like a rebellious teenager than the beautiful little girl sitting in front of him now.  Where had she learned that tone?  How had she grown so quickly without him even noticing?

“No but don’t you prefer to get one-third or one quarter off the regular price?”

Sarah sighed again and sat up reluctantly to look at the page in front of her.  “I guess…”

It was a small victory but he relished it nonetheless and knew that he would replay this moment in his head next week when the table was empty and he was feeling like only half a parent.

the uses of math by phoenix.writing

28 Feb

Julia wondered if her dad realized how predictable he was.  He’d started the conversation when they were three and half minutes away from Mom’s house—exactly where he always started the conversation if it was something he didn’t really want to talk about.

“You’ve been having trouble with math again at school.”

“I hate math,” Julia responded with the appropriate amount of passion even though it wasn’t as though this was news.  Apparently, it needed to be checked periodically in case she’d suddenly been abducted by aliens and her opinion had been altered.

“Julia.”  There was a warning in his voice now.  “You know that’s not an appropriate statement.”

Julia pouted, but her dad gave her that stern glare, and since it was more important that he watch the road than continue to give her the evil eye, she gave in.

“I strongly dislike math.”

She got a reproving look for this.

“What?” she asked.  “How is this my fault?  What use is long division?  Just in this car, we have two phones that can get the answer ten times faster than we could by hand.”

“You might not always have your phone with you, Jules.”

“Actually, I think you and Mom were the ones to tell me that I’m supposed to have it on me at all times,” Julia pointed out sweetly.  “So if I didn’t have my phone, long division would definitely not be my top priority—’cause it’s only in stupid math games that you escape or win or whatever if you solve the math problem.  My phone isn’t less likely to be stolen or broken if I know math.”

“What if you’re stuck on a desert island?”

Julia snorted.  “Then math wouldn’t be nearly as important as survival skills.”

“Now you’re just being stubborn.”

“How is that being stubborn?”

“Okay, never mind about the desert island, but you’re not supposed to be using the calculator on the phone.”

She made a face.  “How much sense does that make?  I’m allowed to play DoodleJump and Bejeweled, but I’m not allowed to use the calculator?”

“Julia—”

She crossed her arms over her chest.  “You can’t make me like math.  It’s stupid and pointless, and I am always going to hate it.”

They went the rest of the way in silence, and she grabbed her bag and jumped out of the car as quickly as possible to ensure that he didn’t have any last-minute comments to make.

She used her key on the door, yelling a hello for her mom as she headed straight for the den, doubling back only once she heard her mother’s response and knew that she was going to meet Dad in the hall.  Julia positioned herself in the kitchen and listened carefully.

They exchanged greetings, addressing one another uneasily, as though they hadn’t been married for twelve years.

Her dad spoke.  “You’re going to have your hands full again, Sam; I tried to talk to her, but all she said was that she’s going to hate math forever.”

Her mom sighed.  “I don’t see why she had to get your genes on that one.”

“Hey, I don’t hate math, I’m just not a damn math genius like you are.  Just … don’t be too hard on her, all right?  I mean, I use the calculator on my phone, it’s hard to explain why she shouldn’t.”

Julia knew her mother was rolling her eyes.  “You drive, drink alcohol, and vote, just off the top of my head.  You don’t think you could have come up with something?”

“Clearly, it’s better if I leave everything math-related to you.”

“And common sense-related?” her mother muttered.

Julia crossed her fingers and let out a sigh of relief when all her dad said was, “I’ll be back on Friday.”

“Have a nice week.”

Her mother’s version of an apology, and was it any reason that they were divorced?

Julia heard the door close and grinned to herself in triumph.  Her mom’s new boyfriend and her dad’s new car had not come up once, and there hadn’t been a single screaming match in the hall for four weeks in a row.

One day, if they ever decided to actually behave like mature adults, maybe she’d tell them just how useful her hatred of math was.  For now, it would keep her mom distracted and secretly amuse her dad, and world war three would be averted.

“Julia,” her mom called.  “Dining room table.  All the math you’ve been avoiding this weekend.  Right now.”

This, of course, was the downside to immediately reminding her mom about Julia’s relationship with math.  But at least there weren’t that many hours of the weekend left now.

And she just wouldn’t think about the fact that her mother would point out that she’d used math to work that out.

three oranges by mpeonies

28 Feb

“Dad, pass me three oranges!” my daughter shouted with a look of fury. She returned to glaring at a worksheet—it had to be math. With English and history, she always wore a calm face, a conqueror’s face.

I tossed three oranges at her, one by one, which she seated slowly on the table. “One… two… three…” she began whispering to herself. I dropped my pen from grading exams now. “Two… two-thirds…hm.” She grabbed one orange and hid it behind her back. I watched it slip out of her hand and wobble on the floor. “Hurray! TWO-THIRDS! OF AN ORANGE! OH, FRACTIONS. IN YOUR FACE!” She began dancing, clumsily juggling two oranges.

I looked at her, dumbfounded. I wasn’t sure, then, whether to watch her bask in her false glory, or to ruin it all with the truth.

“H…honey… Elisa…” I purposely lowered my voice, muting it almost because I never knew how to translate my teaching mannerisms into interactions with my daughter when she needed help with math. I was afraid I’d call her stupid, reducing her to tears, and then she’d hate math more than she already did. And that was a lot. It took up more than two-thirds of her hating capacity, maybe.

A week ago, when I had tried to explain the commutative property, she grew frustrated, dribbling her fingers against the table, a bad habit of hers. “Why do people change the order of these numbers?! So they’re more fun? FUN?! MATH?! FUN?!” You can’t add those two together!” she grabbed the paper and dashed for the phone. Within a minute, her mother’s voice would sound through the phone.

Elisa winded down now, the exhilaration slightly left in her walk as she left the kitchen, until she popped her head back in. “Oh, dad, did you say something before?”

“Oh, no no.” I cringed.

I returned soon to grading the exams for the Analysis course. Red marks, slashes, and failing grades. I picked up the orange on the floor, the voice coming loudly through the phone again.

irrational by ingridfnl

28 Feb

“She’s failing? What happened? You should be sitting next to her when she does her homework,” Sam says to his ex-wife as they leave the parent-teacher interview.

I should be? How is this my responsibility? You’re the math teacher.” she replies her voice strained, angry and sad. “Four years. Four years we’ve hardly seen you and you think that you are in a position to lay blame?”

“Professor,” he counters, “I’m a professor not a teacher. I teach advanced probability theory not multiplication and division. I can hardly be expected to teach her basic math. You’re a book-keeper. That’s right up your alley. I make regular payments. In fact, I send you more money than the agreement.” He hears bitterness try to slap away his guilt.

Marie snorts. “Advanced probability theory,” she mimics. “Whatever. You’re right. It’s all me. Everything in the world is my fault. If I did things differently I would stop war too. And as if money is the issue here. She wanted you. She asked for you. I ran out of promises to her a long time ago.”

He says nothing in reply. He can’t deal with Marie when she is this irrational. They continue walking towards the door at the end of the long hallway towards the school exit, their heel strikes echoing. Sam feels her hurt silence and the thunder of an ultimatum building in the distance.

In his head, he chastises himself for his idiocy and needless superiority–for his own irrationality. He doesn’t know where it comes from, why he can’t just shut up and why he never seems to edit himself. He covers his guilt with accusations. He knows this about himself. He hates this about himself.

He knows she is a good mother–a great mother. He is the one who was absent. Himself. The last time he saw their daughter he was surprised by how much she had grown, like some distant uncle, and felt ashamed. He felt unfamiliar with her and he was disoriented by the fact that the tiny baby who had once filled him with wonder had turned into a beautiful eight-year old who he hardly knew. He came to this parent-teacher interview to make things better but through the appointment, felt like he’d faked it through the interview, talking about a little girl he hardly knew, pretending he’d been there.

He finds himself saying, “I’m sorry. You’re right. I wasn’t paying attention to how Grace was doing in school. I’ve been all wrapped up in myself. I lost my way… I know I need to be a better father. I know it has been a long time since I’ve been a father.” It was the apology he’d never made pouring out of his mouth. His pride wants him to stop but he keeps going, “I let you carry too much of the burden for too long. I hardly know her. I’m sorry. I know I’m an ass.” It was everything he’d thought but never said.

Sam keeps walking, head down, when he realizes Marie isn’t walking with him. He looks back at her where she stands dead in her tracks about 50 feet behind him, her mouth ajar, tears in her eyes.

And Sam, for the first time, is glad his mouth speaks for him, “I want to do better. I want to be better.”

number talk by jmforceton

28 Feb

“Driving this Mini on this side of the road is unnatural. I’m sure that ‘statistically’ we would have been safer taking the train from London and just using the Metro in Paris.”

Sam’s wife Mary smiles, “Maybe, but don’t you think ‘aesthetically’ the view through the open windows makes up for it? Besides we’ll be able to see some of the country too, before we go back.”

Moments later Sam is listening to Barbara Streisand’s “Memories”, but his mind drifts back to Boston, where he had gotten the phone call 23 years ago. He is alone in his dorm studying and his Aunt Margaret is telling him that his mother and father had been in a car crash on their way home from New York City. He is unconscious that the Mini Cooper is slowing down.

His 8 year old daughter, Sarah, is in the back seat with Billy, Mary’s 10 year old son.

Mary looks back at Sarah, “Sarah, please turn that down a little, I can hear it here in the front seat.” They are sharing ear buds from her Ipod Nano.

“But Daddy’s old music is too loud!” Sam does not hear her. Mary turns the radio down.

Sam had rented the car at chaotic Heathrow earlier in the week and they had toured the London countryside. Today he put the car on the Chunnel auto train and arriving in Calais, they had just had a long lunch stop at an oceanside park. It is a humid, warm, blue sky day with a steady salt air breeze coming off the channel.

After the relaxing break they throw their books and Sarah’s soccer ball into the back seat. Mary’s book, “Obelisque”, the author’s portrait showing on the back cover, is on top of Sam’s book. His book, “The Age of Entanglement”, deals with quantum physics, a diversion for a mathematician?

On the road, in open country, Mary stares out the window, head down, “I still can’t get over the ending, a “Bourne” style chase scene and the mother of 6 kids, recently totally recovered from breast cancer, dies in a horrific crash with the wrong way driver at the Place de la Concorde? I lost a best friend! How could the author do that?”

“I agree; it’s a highly improbable ending.”

Sarah hears improbable, turns the volume up on her Nano.

Now in light traffic and rolling hills, Sam says little the next hour, pondering issues in the last chapter of the book; fascinating issues Einstein and physicist Niels Bohr had debated years ago, here in Europe.

Approaching Paris, his trance is broken. The pace of life quickens. There are many pedestrians and bicycles and traffic becomes louder, more unpredictable. He turns a corner and looking ahead he smiles. The omniscient father, he says, “There’s the Arc de Triumph, almost to the minute of what I expected”

Mary is excited; “It’s perfect, let’s go down the Champs Elysees and around the Obelisk before we go to the hotel.”

Minutes later, in the circular traffic flow, Sam’s mind is momentarily possessed by concerns; the lecture on triple integrations in polar coordinates in the first class, only two weeks away. “What can I do in the first two minutes of the class to make an impression?”

Mary screams, “Sam look out!”, as she reaches back to push Sarah into her seat. The taxi does not expect the Mini to change lanes in the heavy traffic circling the Place de la Concorde. Before Sam can hit the brakes the cars collide.

Airbags explode, Sam’s head hits the side doorframe. When he looks up he sees a man opening Mary’s door, her nose bleeding. Looking back, the kids are wide-eyed but appear unhurt.

“Are you all right?” the taller of two 20-something girls, out of breath, is talking rapidly to him, in English, through the open window.

“Yes I’m fine,” Sam and the kids open doors, the girls direct traffic around the Mini.

Traffic noise and exhaust fumes add to the confusion as Sarah gets out and looks around. She focuses on a face she has been looking at for two hours, an older gentleman at the curb looking in their direction, “Mary, that’s the man on your book.”

The old man is turning away as Mary, over the cacophony of blowing horns and French drivers yelling at each other, answers, “You’re right that looks like the author.”

Quickly they all make their way to the curb.

Sam’s world has been shaken. In the instant after Mary screamed, he had seen the cab about to hit them. He had felt fear. Unconsciously, he is now pushing those thoughts out of his consciousness. In a lifting fog, he thanks Jimmy, the American serviceman, Amy, the tall girl, and Jill, Amy’s friend. Sam turns and, speaking English, tries to deal with the angry cabby and a stuffy, bureaucratic, police officer. Jimmy is trying to help and not appreciated by either Frenchman.

Amy had seen books on the floor and the soccer ball and asks, “Can we get your things out of the car for you?”

Glancing over at Sam and Mary says, “Amy thanks, but I think we’ll leave everything in the car for now.”

Amy hesitates then smiles and replies, “Hey, I have an idea. If Sarah and Billy would like to, why don’t you meet us tomorrow in the park at the base of the Eiffel Tower. We’re going to kick a soccer ball around with some guys we met yesterday.”

“Mary I want to do that, I want to do that. Mary, will Daddy let us?”

“I don’t know Sarah. Amy thanks, if we get sorted out we may see you there tomorrow.”

Later in the cab to their hotel, Sam, trying to appear calm, is saying, “I just can’t believe we crashed, feet from the obelisk and you think the author of the book was walking by?”    

Sam doesn’t respond to Sarah’s questions about tomorrow, “How unlikely is that, there’s got to be less than a one in a million probability. The crash paralleling the book’s ending, although only the car died, the author at the scene, and Sarah being invited to knock soccer balls around with her new BFF Amy.”

Mary obviously had played this game before, “Ok so maybe he lives around here, not so unlikely. Soccer in America is huge for girls, so really not that unlikely they both play, and you in a foreign country, driving from the curb this week and on the wrong side of the road last week.”

“Yes, I see your point. I guess those facts could mitigate for a skewed distribution of outcomes. I mean yes, you are probably right.”

Listening, Sarah, as usual, blocks out her father and his “number talk”. Her head starts rocking side to side as she loses herself in the mesmerizing music of Taylor Swift.

The next day they do go to the park to meet Amy. It is a beautifully treed and landscaped area with benches and several playing fields, the Tower rising up behind it. After about 15 minutes playing with Amy, Billy whispers something to Sarah, she giggles and walks across the field to Sam, “Daddy will you kick the ball with me, I mean the sphere?”

Behind Sarah, Mary opens her eyes wide, cocks her head to the side and stares directly into Sam’s eyes. Sam for once takes his cue, puts down “Entanglement” and hugs Sarah. “Well it’s not a perfect sphere but let’s see if we can kick it into shape.” Sarah reaches into her pocket, takes the Nano and ear buds out, and puts them on Sam’s book. They run onto the field as Mary is reaching for a Kleenex.

Links to “Committed?” and “Monolithic”
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