My middle son and I attend college together. I kind of forced him to take Intermediate Algebra this term as I wanted to make use of the textbook that I had purchased for myself in the fall. It nearly cost as much as the class. Possibly I love the idea of this more than he does, except as I have recently taken the class, I turn out to be an excellent private tutor for him. We have class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We go early to work on homework in the library and then at noon we head to the cafeteria to have lunch together. I am aware that this is a unique and (for me) wonderful way to spend two days a week. I regal him with all of my “don’t do that” moments of math stupidity, but there is always some mental deficiency to rail against on our drive home.
I have to admit to liking Algebra, an arabic word meaning restoration or, my favorite: reunion of broken parts. A method of reduction and balance is one description I read that appeals to my sense of beauty. I derive a childish pleasure out of reducing, eliminating and balancing the equations. My pencil swiftly crossing out and rewriting with abandon.
Although my son and I are a lot alike, I can see that he “gets” the math more than I do. Sometimes when it gets complicated he wants to, and can, understand the why. I’m interested, but am satisfied in being able to simply apply the rules or formula. This is more revealing of my own limitations than anything else. I try to explain to him my feeling for math: It’s like cooking, I expound, anyone can follow a recipe and if they are literate, get a good result. That is my level of math. But I know that there is a higher level- like when you can simulate a recipe in your mouth before you even cook it, when you know that omitting x and adding y will improve the end result. The improvisational aspects that I can grasp in cooking: I am not there mathematically. I am not saying, if I was so inclined, that I could not get there. I’m sure I could, but these things take time. It took me years to learn to cook at the level of letting the ingredients rather than the recipes lead. I’ll probably never be Emilie du Chatelet, but then again, although I make a mean cassata, I’m not Jacques Torres either. I’m just trying to press up against the edges of my own mediocrity.