Doesn't add up

Like many people who write for a living, I'm not much good at mathematics. If I could do math well, if I enjoyed it, then I might've gone into some other career, something that pays better.

This lack of math skills hasn't been much of a problem in my everyday life. I can do the basics, enough to get by. My wife handles all the household paperwork, including paying the bills and balancing the checkbook, which keeps us out of bankruptcy court. For the other times math is necessary, well, that's what calculators are for, right?

As my children get older, though, homework has become your basic math nightmare. The other day, my third-grader asked me to define "addend." I guessed that it was something you added to the end of something else. I guessed wrong. Fortunately, my older son was nearby and set the record straight. They had a good laugh at my expense.

I fooled them for a while, through the basic arithmetic of early elementary school, but now my sixth-grader is doing "pre-algebra," and I recognize that I'm in trouble. Algebra was where they lost me in school. I was doing fine, making numbers fit together, but then the teacher introduced "A plus B equals C," and I was a goner. Letters form words in my brain, not equations and proofs. "A plus B" can add up to a blood type, maybe, but not a numeral.
When I see a page full of numbers, I know they'll add up to one thing -- a headache.

Even the story problems, the ones where two trains leave the station at different times, going different speeds, leave me cold. You'd think I could master a problem that has a narrative (narrative being my line of work), but I'm forced to just sit back and wait for the train wreck.

The boys have figured out this weakness of mine. They regularly try to snooker me when it comes to math. We play a lot of basketball together -- two on one, since I'm bigger than both of them put together -- and their scorekeeping is, at best, creative. Sometimes it seems they get two points for every basket I hit. I'm pretty sure that's not the way it's supposed to work.

Then there's the weekly allowance. We don't dole out the bucks every week, usually because we forget, sometimes because we don't have the correct denominations handy. My sons keep a running total in their heads, and it suffers from enough inflation to make Alan Greenspan spin on his head. Two dollars a week for five weeks adds up to 16 bucks? I don't think so.

My wife encourages math education here at home. She recently offered the boys this plan: If they would be diligent about turning off the lights, the electric bill would go down. For every dollar we saved on the utility bill, she would boost their allowance by a few cents. This led to furious calculations on the boys' part, trying to see how much electricity they'd have to save to rack up the money for new Game Boy cartridges. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm was short-lived. They still leave every light in the house ablaze. But they probably learned some new math skills, which puts them ahead of me.

It's only going to get worse. Both sons show an aptitude for math (their mother's genes, I'm guessing), which means they're headed toward advanced classes. Poor old Dad will be left further behind. I've decided I won't even try to catch up. I'm a word-herder, stringing sentences together, and there just isn't room in my brain for all those numbers, too.

The boys already have learned that you can be creative with numbers as well as with words. Math, they've found, can be put to good use, particularly when it comes time to inflate one's wallet or to put the proper spin on a situation.

Perhaps they've got futures as political pollsters.

(Editor's note: Two dollars a week? Those were the days!)

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