The Nutritional Value of Numbers

In college, I majored in math. Not any useful sort of math, but theoretical math. The last practical math I saw was the second half of my first year, when I took linear algebra (which kicked my ass; it had been a few years since I’d had to really focus and work hard in a class). During my sophomore year, I learned that famous proof that 1+1 = 2, which I found, for some reason, incredibly comforting. I finished most of the requirements for the major by the end of my junior year, and I spent my senior year taking literature classes and writing essays on massive classics I hadn’t actually finished reading.

And when I graduated, I spent two years working as an admin at a venture capital company, doing exactly nothing with my degree. Although I eventually found my way to software, I never did do anything with linear algebra again, never mind abstract number theory.

But it was fun. It bent my brain in good ways. And it does, for whatever reason, impress people at parties.

The world’s at something of a crossroads right now. There’s so much going on, so much to do, so much that needs changing. So much to fight and be angry about, so much that’s serious and consequential in ways that will last generations. We need to have energy for all that. We need focus and purpose.

The thing is, we also need fun.

REMNANTS OF TRUST came out on Election Day 2016. It’s never a good thing to have a release date coincide with a major news event, but this one was pretty bad, and it paralyzed a lot of people for a lot of time. Nobody did much promo that November, or even December. There was no way to feel right saying “Yeah, um, I know things look pretty hopeless right now, but…I wrote this little science fiction book, and maybe you want to read it?” (It was bad enough that bits of it were way too prescient. And I did go back to BREACH OF CONTAINMENT, which was in edits at the time, and up the body count at the end, because nothing I’d written seemed bleak enough.)

The thing is…recreation is important. It’s fuel. We can’t face what’s serious and difficult if we don’t, from time to time, feed our spirits. I should have promoted that book. I should have told people to read it while they were on hold with their congressperson’s office. I should have suggested they read it on the train on the way to their latest protest. Hell, I could have done a free giveaway for the first three people who sent me photographs of themselves in their RogueNASA t-shirts: Read about the future we could have if we manage to survive all this shit.

Would that have been self-serving? Yeah, maybe. It also would’ve been sincere.

I’ve been helping The Kid with her algebra homework. Wow, I forgot how much fiddly arithmetic there is with algebra–but it’s still fun. There’s something beautifully pure about math, about their being a right or a wrong answer, about equations that have no solutions and imaginary numbers and ways of calculating things that can never exist in the real world. I’ve gone through a few Khan Academy videos to refresh myself; I may sign up for an online course. I’d love to get back to that proof again.

None of it matters, really. It’s not writing, which is still supposed to be my job. It’s not protesting or voting or changing the world. Except it is, because it’s a restorative, and none of us can do anything serious in this world if we don’t look after ourselves while we’re doing it.

There’s an account I follow on Twitter that primarily tweets names and links for SFF books that are on sale. Sometimes they link to articles. On rare occasions something personal comes up, but for the most part it’s pure promo for all kinds of writers in the industry. And I love it. It reminds me that no matter what’s going on in the world or in my life, there’s still art and beauty. There are still places where we can go and take a breath and be apart from it all, if only for a few moments, if only for the time it takes us to read a paragraph.

So here’s an assignment. Not for the world, not for your loved ones, but for yourself: find a thing that feeds you. Algebra. A book. A gorgeous fountain pen. A song you can’t help but sing along to. A hike through the woods or that old jump rope routine you still remember from third grade. Find a thing that feeds you, and indulge yourself. Five minutes, ten minutes–make some time. You’re not abdicating anything. You’re in training, like any athlete, for what life is going to throw at you. Because when this chaotic period ends, it’ll be something else, because it’s always something else. And you need to be ready.

And your soul deserves some fun.


One thought on “The Nutritional Value of Numbers

  1. I liked your comment about linear algebra. When I went to grad school it had been about 25 years since my last linear algebra class, and I had never used it in real life. I asked one of the GIS profs if he could recommend a good text so I could brush up on it. He kind of waffled for a bit and then said he knew of a good one, but unfortunately it was in German. Linear algebra is hard enough without trying to learn it in German! I ended up just muddling my way through! I don’t think they taught me any of the words in that book in my two years of college German! Matrix? Transpose? Eigenvector? Nope!

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