Easy or Hard. It’s complicated

Nothing annoys my half-sister, Teresa, more than someone, on hearing she majored in math at Cornell, saying, “Oh, math must be easy for you.” Math, she often points out, is hard. No matter how far you get in math, it is always work. At the time I agreed with her. Of course, math is hard work. I had, after all, nearly failed Algebra II and only passed because the school district agreed to let my mother hire a private teacher to teach me one-on-one. And that near failure, the expense of the private teacher, and my complete inability to get anywhere in math must be because I didn’t work hard enough.

But… Math is easier for Teresa than for me. Not because I’m lazy (though some of those lazy behaviors formed in direct response to a lifetime of failure) but because I have ADD (the old designation they used to give to ADHD kids who had the inattentive type). My working short-term memory is fairly shallow. Rattle a string of numbers off at me and I am lucky to remember 4 of them. I can’t retain more than two steps in driving directions, either. Doing math with a poor working short-term memory is like trying to tie shoelaces one-handed. I’m lacking a basic ability most people take for granted for doing math quickly and accurately. The other day I accidentally miscalculated and moved $1000 more into my checking account to pay a bill than was needed. I have no idea where I did the math wrong, but the cash flow prediction on my money management software made it clear I had made an error (which is why I use the cash flow prediction–all is fine if I move $1000 too much into the checking account but a disaster would have landed if I had $1000 too little).

It came as a shock to me that I scored better than average on my math portion of the SAT. Given all the Cs, Ds, and narrowly avoided Fs, I expected the math portion of the SAT to be bad. It wasn’t. I scored above average. Not good enough for a school like Cornell but comfortably high enough that I had my pick of most colleges. But, I still solidly believed myself bad at math and it remained a mystery to me why I scored so well. I avoided math as an undergraduate, opting to take “Math for the Liberal Arts Major” which was algebra again coupled with reading Flatland. I majored in English; avoiding math wasn’t hard. However, graduate school was another story. I had to take statistics for my MSM-IS degree. There, though, I lucked out. I had a professor who felt that doing equations by hand was a waste of time. We did all our homework in Excel. I went into the first test terrified about what a disaster it was going to be. The folks with undergraduate majors in engineering strutted in confidently. It turned out I didn’t need to worry. The test wasn’t doing the formulas, but instead predicting if one variable in the formula changed, and how that would affect the result. Analytic skills and just grokking a model landed right in my strongest skill set. I outscored several of the engineering students on the test because they could use the formulas and do the math, but didn’t understand the relationship of the variables. This started to change my understanding of what it meant to be bad at math. Are you bad at math if you aren’t a human calculator? Are you good at math if you understand that when the velocity of money increases, so does inflation if the amount of money in the system and the supply of goods remain constant?

In theory, barring significant medical limitations, most people are capable of training for and running a marathon. No one looks at a marathon runner and says, “26.21 miles of running must be easy for you.” But, the truth is, no matter how long or hard I train, I’m never going to run the Boston Marathon. Maybe I could, with a massive commitment of time, training, diet, and the help of a lot of professionals, get to the point of running a marathon, but I’m never ever going to make that run in under 3 hours 55 minutes (the qualifying time to apply to run the Boston marathon for women in my age group). So, yes, running is easier for a marathon runner.

So, what is my point here? I guess it’s that something can be easy AND hard at the same time. I ride an eBike. Some people say I’m cheating because my bike has pedal assist. The kind of people who make those comments always weigh a great deal less than I do. I know that if I loaded them up with weights to match my mass, those fit, strong riders would have a hard time getting started, let alone going a mile. Inertia is a bitch. The eBike is an accommodation for gravity, which affects me more profoundly than it does them. They don’t see their privilege. Yes, they work hard. I pedal hard, too. But, on a hill, where they are feeling the full force of gravity? The privilege of pedal assist is undeniable.

Is math easier for my half-sister than for me? Yes! Is majoring in math easy? No! Am I “bad” at math because I have a janky short-term working memory–well, kind of but also no. It’s complicated. I don’t have to be bad at math because we live in a world where there are all kinds of tools that make up for my shortcomings and lean into my strengths. My mother saved an entire month’s salary to buy her first calculator, which could only do addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication. These days I carry a mini computer in my pocket which can do calculations that required a fairly beefy laptop 20 years ago. It’s ok to admit your privileges (a socioeconomic advantage, private math teacher, innovative and flexible statistic professor, having an iPhone), it doesn’t invalidate where you are disadvantaged.

Pandemic Letters

In February 2020, news out of China about a novel coronavirus was making me anxious. Generally, I don’t get worked up about diseases. SARS and Monkey Pox worried me very little, but this felt different. I stocked up on shelf-stable foods and bought extra butter for the freezer. Then COVID hit New York in March followed quickly by the first Ohio cases and I almost told the husband he couldn’t go to a Blue Oyster Cult concert that he and a few friends were invited to by a member of the band (don’t get too excited, how they were invited was the nerdiest of reasons–Richie Castellano, a current band member, plays a game called Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator. Darrin and his friends, who write game/adventure scripts for the computer game, had taught Richie how to write his own scripts).

March 12th, 2020 school closed for “three weeks” (which turned out to be longer). I thought, aside from the kid being home, not much would change for us. I had been working exclusively at home for years. My husband had been working at home four days a week for nearly as long. And, truthfully, not much did change. The husband worked from home. The kid worked on bridging assignments I gave him. I wrote.. well no, I didn’t. I had friends who were getting epic amounts of writing done and I was getting almost nothing on the page. Except for, what I remembered as, a long series of posts making fun of the easy time I was having in the pandemic.

I just looked up that “long series” and found it was three Facebook posts spanning just under a month. Three of my most popular posts, but only three. Memory has a funny way of making small things big and big things small. I barely remember the endless hours of Animal Crossing I played while listening to NPR for the latest news. I vividly remember every fight my husband and I had over the two years before the vaccine. I’m still anxious about each time I found the shelves bare in the grocery store (I still keep a LOT of toilet paper and ramen noodles in the house). I knew I wasn’t finishing short stories or working on my novels, but part of my brain told me it was ok because I wrote funny posts and a few really well-thought-out blog posts (I’ve done three blog posts in three years and one of those was a copy and paste of something the husband wrote). For the most part, though, each day has burled into another, even now that we are no longer locked down.

So, here it is, collected for you, my pandemic opus:

March 16th, 2020

My Dearest Loraine,

We endure during this time of plague. Each letter you write raises our spirits. We endeavor to keep each other entertained, often reading your missives aloud to each other as there are no live sports on television to raise our spirits. Even late-night television has abandoned us.

The kind and wonderful Mrs. Miles, Mr. Miles, and their charming daughter brought supplies of Girl Scout Cookies these 5 days past, saving us from sugar withdrawal as our bad-food supplies were running low.

Oh, Loraine, I do not know how to tell you this, but that cookie supply is nearly gone. By the end of today we will be down to one box. Pray for us, my dearest.

Yours, forever,

N. Bright

March 27th, 2020

My Dearest Loraine,

‪The last of our stored chicken broth has been used. We are reduced to using Better Than Bullion and… Dare I write this? Bullion, cubed and granulated. I’m sorry to admit to having fallen so low.‬

‪Our cookie supplies were used up this past Monday but a stray box of brownie mix held us over a day or two beyond. Flour, butter and sugar stores are solid thanks to my careful planning in February. We will be reduced to basic shortbread cookies but we shall not suffer too greatly. I can only pray our forced confinement does not outlast the bread flour as I just began a jar of sourdough starter.‬

‪Your Zooms have been a great comfort to us. We wait with anticipation for your Hangout and Skype requests. ‬

‪I console myself in knowing this plague cannot last forever but until we are free to embrace again, there are cat and dog pictures on the internet to bring me joy.‬

‪Stay safe, my love. ‬

‪N. Bright‬

April 6th, 2020

Dearest Loraine,

I trust this letter finds you safe with your hands well cleansed but yet unchapped from the harsh soaps we must depend on.

The bread flour, my darling, has been running low. I have searched the mercantile sites of well-to-do stores and the lowly mass market stores and found the shelves bare. I even was lowered to beseeching Amazon with no flour to show for the degradation. The new bread makers, who have hoarded our nation’s supplies, will be the end of us. I believe I have two or three loaves left in my stores before I shall be forced to use all-purpose flour. I do not look forward to the horrors of flatter, denser loaves.

Recently I found myself in low spirits, perhaps because of the cookie shortage. The last bouquet of flowers had long since died and we were unable to visit with the Trader named Joe to buy more (assuming he had any, there is so much scarcity in this time of turmoil). In a moment of despair, I stepped out my door, ready to throw myself into the hands of our Lord, when the most amazing miracle occurred. There, exploding from the ground, in long beds around my house were flowers!

I admit to greedily picking them. In this time of uncertainty and deprivation, I find that the good Lord has provided me with an endless supply of flowers to brighten my rooms. I hope you, also, have found some hope in your days.

Your darling friend,


Yellow daphadills in a blue green glass vase on a dinning room table with school supplies and books in the background.