Living by the Numbers

Even though people claim to have a poor relationship with math, we sure do live in a wriggly snake pit of numbers. For example: I have two children, one cat, one husband, one mom, and two siblings. I have a numeric value for how quickly I solve certain types of arbitrary problems (an IQ), another numeric value for a measure of my mass (my weight), and all manner of numeric values for my eyesight, my hair length, my ring size, my pants size, my bra size and even the size of my feet.

I don’t generally mind all my numbers because put them all together and they add up to one of me, but I mind a whole lot when my numbers are used as a comparison for myself vs. someone else’s numbers. I can accept – begrudgingly – the need to standardize sizes some kind of way so that I can buy a clothing item with a reasonable expectation that, given a certain number, it means something relative to my ability to wear it without it either cutting off my circulation or falling off of me. Got it. But then we have to get all immature about it and use our numbers to shame and/or brag. Oh my goodness, she wears a size 00, she’s so lucky. Ummmm, why? Or, she needs to stop eating so many deserts – she wears a size 14. So? Stop it. Just stop. No. Take a time out or a nap until you can make better judgments.

This is not to say that I am completely unaware of my numbers. Nope, I am aware that my number is bigger than some numbers and smaller than others. I don’t blame commercials for this, nor do I blame some plastic doll. Does anyone really think they ought to look like Barbie? Scratch that; I know the answer and I am not smiling. If I am going to be silly and compare myself to others, I will most definitely compare myself to a living person who represents a quality I admire – and when I do that I am not thinking about whether I can borrow their clothes. I have to remind myself that clothing sizes are not a measure of human worth and awesomeness.

I would like it if my brain wouldn’t get stuck on the sizing loop, but after a particularly fruitless shopping expedition of looking for blue jeans that involved the sales clerk recommending a store with jeans better suited to my age bracket (oh yes she did), I have concluded that the blue jeans of my dreams are somewhere sitting beside my sewing machine waiting for me to make them. My body didn’t do anything wrong; it was minding its own business of respiration, digestion, and locomotion, so it’s my brain’s fault for overthinking the numbers. My best way to rid myself of this numeric nonsense is to create a story problem: if a woman goes jean shopping on a Monday and the relative humidity is 80% while a train is coming down from Chicago to Tampa at 60 mph with a stop in Kentucky because it’s pretty, how much does the size of the blue jeans matter? Not a bit.

I am now heading out to the movies with a friend wearing my favorite blue jeans because they are the exact comfort level I want. Also, I cut the tag out of those a long time ago.

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A Scientific Quest

Questing is great fun. Whether you quest for love, dinner, adventure, sales or memorabilia – even the word is awesome. Take, for example, a conversation that recently happened in the house of AlwaysLiz:

Husband: “How was your day?”

Me: “Really great. I quested for science courses today.”

Husband: “Very good.”

While I’m aware the conversation sounds mundane, it is greater than the sum of its parts. My husband is perpetually considerate enough to ask about my day, and I usually have some snippet to share. His response is “Very good” if he can tell that the information I’ve shared is positive. In this particular case, it was “Very good,” followed by “Are you taking a class this summer?”

The quick answer is no, I am not. The longer answer is yes, yes I am. I am undertaking the most lovely of scientific quests: a review and continuation of the science I learned over 30 years ago when I was in high school and knew everything. Now that I’m on the other side of 50 and cruising along, perfectly secure in the conviction that I don’t know everything, I realize that anything worth knowing is worth relearning if I’ve forgotten a thing or a plenty along the way.

This brings me to my strange, sometimes antagonistic, relationship with science. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, I have brains in my head and feet in my shoes, but I didn’t go to Science-land when I went to college. I went to hang out in Humanities town, with some business classes and French tossed in because why not? I took a math class for fun, and a physics class to get the science credit – and it was in that physics class that I realized I hadn’t paid much attention in high school. Not that I disregarded the whole notion that the universe is an amazing place made up of incrementally smaller parts, little Matryoshka dolls of atomic and subatomic particle-ness stacking within each other with ever-expanding and no-edge type limitlessness.

No, I found the universe to be compelling and quite harmonious but freaky as crap. I do not apologize for this. I am at heart a dreamer, and there’s nothing quite like the notion of an asteroid hurtling toward Earth at a skamillion miles per hour (that really needs to be a word) to give me the heeby-jeebies. Further, in a less universal (ahem) notion, there’s diseases on Earth to obsess about. Ebola, dengue fever, malaria, and so forth are absolutely fascinating, and under a microscope quite lovely, but again there’s that whole nightmare-inducing component. It’s kind of like when a student gets lice, we all get itchy. Just saying.

Enter my daughter, who has impressed me time and again how awesome science and math are when one approaches it with a sense of humor and a certain method. Those of you who are science-y call this scientific inquiry, but I am still not invited to the science-people party even though I window shop occasionally, listening to my daughter tell me stories of experiments gone awry and other experiments gone well and ruminations on nature and global warming and things that People Should Really Care About. Because I do care, I am now embarking on my science quest. I started today, with Biology Crash Course. I have been a fan of John and Hank Green via Vlogbrothers and the Crash Courses of History and Literature but I have stayed away from the science courses because, again, I have felt uninvited to the party, an intelligent layperson who is content to listen rather than participate.

As Hank Green was talking about covalent bonds and the octet rule, I started laughing. Leave it to the brothers Green to write and present information in a way that would resonate with me: gossip, happiness, and the fundamentals of life. The whole episode started off with a presentation of how carbon is a tramp. Brilliance. I am no closer to being able to participate in a science-y conversation of science than I was 15 minutes ago, but I am on a quest and my adventure is a productive one.

When my husband comes home from work tonight, he will ask me about my day and I will be able to tell him that I started my science quest. He will respond, “Very good,” — and it will have been.