• Joia

Today's rhaps is on ... Life and Math

Updated: Jun 26, 2021

Sylvia Fein, Reliez Valley Walnut Orchard, 1955, Berkeley Art Museum

“What is the point of learning any of this if we’re all going to die?”

That was my daughter with hand raised, blurting this out in Mrs. Adcock's 5th grade math class at Malcom X Magnet for the Arts Elementary School.

She was kept after class that day for a “serious talk.” I guess growing up with a mother pondering Russian literature over dinner does have its consequences. In any case I'm just hearing about this now after nearly three decades!

Sorry, kid. Though I guess it's foreseeable you'd say things like that. Your tiny shiny self so brilliantly outshone the rest of the mortals around this human mother! I must have talked nonstop about everything I was reading, absorbing, watching, thinking—from the moment you were born. Teenage rebellion must have been a welcome relief, to have me finally silenced behind that veil of adolescent omniscience!

Around the time of the math class incident, I do remember losing a friend when she objected to my kid's honesty with her own daughter. When this mother broke up with a lying lover, a man both girls had disliked, I'd told my daughter that her gut instinct was absolutely correct. He was indeed a creep! Good job, honey, I'd said, you can trust yourself when you know something's off. However, this friend had told her daughter the opposite, to save face in her choice of men. Such a nice man, he’d broken up with her.

Uh...no! What is the point if you don't tell the truth?

Yes, what is the point, and yes, I know, we are all going to die...but before that, there's still so much to do, and to learn, and to see, and to understand!


"Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe," wrote Galileo Galilei. That the numbers work is the most astonishing of all discoveries, that we can plot the parabolic curve of a projectile and the languid orbit of an asteroid with the exact same laws of motion, the equations eager to whisk any moving part into their variable slots.

You, and you, and you! X and Y and Z! You will each fit elegantly into our mathematical structure, you will ride the spherical beams effortlessly into faraway space....

I've never gotten over the awesome nature of this, that the numbers give us the shape and scaffolding of truth, the rising and falling structure of reality, without ever providing its substance. Those who want more, who insist God spell out all the cultural dos and don'ts, they miss the point! That kind of messy detail leads straight to the Inquisitions, because I am never going to get all your questions right. You will judge my mistakes and send me witchlike directly into the lake, to the gallows, to the burning stake...

...because we were not meant to magically "see" what another person imagines. We were meant to talk to each other, to teach, and to learn. To communicate. Not to decide a priori if the other is worthy or not.

What is it you see, and how, and when? Are your colors same as mine? Do we fall when hit, and how fast? Do the numbers tell you what they tell me?

Yes. The numbers do not lie.

And no translation needed—no Tower of Babel, no Google Babble. We all speak this language, and this language will save us.

The glacier melts, the polar bear dies, a tree grows in Brooklyn, a ship sails on to a new horizon. Time knows no borders, sliding forward with the tragic and wondrous precision of pure light, cresting sorrows and joys in equal measure, like odd and even integers in an endless and irrational radius, at once approaching and recoiling from the Sun.

We await further Enlightenment.

As we await the enlightenment of those who stare blindly at the Sun without the shielding instruments of a kinder God.


There was a graph paper journal I kept during our years in Berkeley, full of little Cartesian coordinate systems plotting X against Y. I remember that my own variables in this journal had to do with perception of anxiety on some scale from none to a lot, versus some measurable account of physical agitation, like blood pressure or heart beat. I wanted each quadrant to carry specific positive or negative data. My purpose was to demonstrate to a favorite Oakland psychiatrist that moods did not exist and that the entire array of affective disorders in the DSM was therefore misconstrued. No need to label me with this or that, since moods were as much in "the eye of the beholder" as any stupid culturally-bound artifact! Moods went far beyond the mad-sad-glad basics of universal human expressions, and thus did not deserve this high perch in the scientific terminology tree.

So went my argument. In other words, your blue might be me having a good day, thank you very much.

I don't think I convinced my psychiatrist...at any rate, he soon left California's Kaiser healthcare and went to work for the Nevada prison system in Reno. (Inmates, you are fortunate indeed to have such an advocate.)

This graph journal for some reason fascinated my daughter and I often had to go looking for it in her room in our Berkeley townhouse. It would be open to some page where I'd been scribbling my data points. I'd take it back upstairs and plot out another day in my mood-less, agitated life, thinking that some day I would organize all this information into a decent paper! Some day.

The other day on WhatsApp my daughter told me she'd just bought a graph-paper journal for herself...

...maybe having me for a mother wasn't so bad after all?

8 JUNE 2021

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