- Conversations with My Father
He said the sky is not blue or white or gray. It is the color of one septillion snowflakes falling to the ground. He said a septillion is one followed by twenty-four zeros. More zeros than you could ever write down in one sitting because you are an impatient child. An only child. A singularity, as he would call me when he did not feel like saying my full name.
He said things like how many corners does a table have if you cut one off? I said three, but the answer was five. How stupid of me. And he said this too, how stupid of you to say a number like three. Three rhymes with trees, I said. And he shook his head. Three is for the triangle, he said, which is the most stable shape you will ever know. And what comes after three? Well, there’s four and five and six, I said. And then? And then I didn’t know. I guessed infinity and he shook his head again. How stupid of you, he said, infinity is not a number; it’s a direction, like an arrow that never ends. He said, count things in your free time so that you will never forget the sequence of more things to come. Pens were things. Books were things. How many things? he asked me. And I held up two, five, six fingers, meaning two hundred fifty-six things I had just counted on my way home from pre k. And what is two hundred fifty-six cut in half and chopped to quarters and taken to the nth power? Nth? I asked. Meaning limit, this is a limit problem, don’t you understand?
He said on my birthday, you are now four thousand fifteen days old. He said, and on this birthday, you can have the natural log of that in balloons. And if you can’t figure out what I mean, then you can’t have balloons at all. He said at the dinner table, chew with periodicity or just swallow it whole. He said in the mornings, pour me zero point six-six cubic deciliters of 1 percent milk.
He said, multiply, divide, add, and then subtract, in that order because that is the order of operations and the way anything gets done. He said, sit down, be quiet, and let me show you how to do math. Here is a square root, a rational root, a rational root with a square root, a reciprocal, a conjugate, a complex conjugate that is a pain to solve. [End Page 137] He said, here is an imaginary answer that does not exist until I write down the letter i and then it does, right there on the page. He said, pay attention because you’re not paying attention, you’re drifting. And he was right, I wasn’t paying attention. I was drifting.
He said, if you learned math as fast as you read books, then you might be a genius, but you’re not a genius, you’re a hole where knowledge goes to sleep. He said, play with your dolls for no more than half an hour, no more than fifteen minutes, no more than a second, a millisecond, actually just put those dolls down and come here and let me show you how to do math. Here is a formula, another formula, a quadratic formula that you must memorize and know as well as you know the national anthem of this country that is not my country because your mother and I are immigrants, but you, you are not, so put down those dolls and watch me do math. He said, here is a theorem. Here is another theorem. And here is the simplest of all theorems that has never been proven, unless you are a genius, which you are not. He said, come here, my singularity, and let me show you how to do math. And I said yes one thousand four hundred seventy times until I said no, I hate math. I can’t stand it. And he said, quite calmly, you are no...