I had terrible eyesight as a kid. When I was in 3rd grade, before I was home schooled, I had trouble copying the numbers from the blackboard. The teacher didn’t like me, so she kept putting me in the back of the class for some reason. Anyway, after it was discovered I needed glasses, I was in for yearly checkups. For a while, I felt like I was constantly getting new glasses (which I probably was). I remember one doctor I went to, who insisted my prescription hadn’t changed after I took the eye test.

Me: But it’s all still kind of blurry.

His face got red, and he was clearly pissed.

Doctor: Doesn’t matter. Your prescription hasn’t changed.

Me: …but why is it so blurry?

He puffed his cheeks out and glared at me.

Doctor: You don’t need things to look crisp and sharp all the time.

By this point, I was getting kind of agitated – of course I wanted things to look crisp and sharp. What the hell, dude.

He called Mom in, and explained it all to her. He got more and more irritated as the conversation went on.

Doctor: He’s eating minus.

Mom: Eating minus?

Doctor: He’s addicted to seeing crisper and clearer. He doesn’t actually need new glasses. He can see fine.

I was kind of steamed. Mom was pissed, too. I don’t remember if there was a blowup or not (knowing Mom, there probably was…they all kind of run together, honestly) but if there was I wouldn’t have minded it. There was actually a reason for her to be mad this time.

Anyway, as a kid I always had “trouble” with math, which Mom always attributed to my eyesight. That’s what Mom and Grandma always called it – “trouble”. But it was “trouble” like the Cuban Missile Crisis was a minor disagreement. I could understand stuff like addition and subtraction – usually. But when it came to multiplication and division I was lost. I can’t tell you how many hours Grandma sat with me and the math flash cards.

Grandma: What’s 5×5?

Me: 15?

Grandma: No, try again. Think about it. What are five fives?

Me: 10?

Grandma: Add it up.

It took me a long time, and I used my fingers.

Me: 25?

Grandma: Right. Do you know why it’s 25?

Me: No.

Grandma: Because it’s five added up five times.

I just looked at her blankly. This was gibberish to me.

She tried to explain it to me, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t get that multiplication was a “faster” way to add – it just seemed to be a harsher form of Chinese water torture. We would do the flash cards until I wept – literally wept – in frustration. I eventually figured out that I didn’t need to understand it, just memorize it. I was able – with a great amount of effort – to memorize the times tables up to about 5. After that, I couldn’t keep the numbers in my head. I would cry and yell and throw things. Absolutely nothing in this world made me feel worse than math. Nothing made me feel more like a complete idiot. What’s worse, is because I was “smart” (according to Mom and many, a “genius”), it was an impossibility that I couldn’t understand math. I was just not applying myself. I busted my ass with math, all with meager returns on my investment. I had to use a calculator, or my fingers. I usually eventually gave up on my home schooling tests and cheated my way through them – reading the answers in the teacher’s key. I got A’s and B’s in math, but I knew I didn’t earn them – I didn’t deserve them, because I was too stupid to “get” the math. It made me feel miserable and dirty.

To further add to the irony, musicians are supposed to be great with math (at least, that’s the myth). I remember being in the studio with Russ while he puzzled out how to end a song. He and Paul (the engineer) were going back and forth on what would be the best ending. I piped up.

Me: What about da da daaaaaaa da. That makes sense, right?

Russ was impressed.

Russ: Yeah…that’s it exactly. You must be really good at math.

I opened my mouth to tell him that I wasn’t – that I was actually pretty terrible – but I closed it again. How could I possibly explain it to someone?

It has haunted me throughout my life. I’d panic when I had to make change, or when I gave someone cash – sometimes it wouldn’t be enough, or sometimes it would be way too much. I could never be sure I was doing it right.

When I took my SATs, I got perfect or near perfect scores in English and below average scores in math – and at that, I had to work my ass off with a tutor several times a week. I wept in frustration over my SAT books, just like I would weep in frustration over my college math textbooks. In retrospect, I don’t think I’ve ever cried – literally cried – over anything as much as I have math.

In college, I realized I’d have to take math. The professor was Russian or something, and had a  thick, hard to understand accent. If you had any questions, he’d say “Red Ze Buk” (I assume this meant “Read the book”). If you were a girl, he’d answer all your questions while ogling your breasts and practically drooling. Anyway, I worked hard on the homework – for the first half of the semester. I’d try something, I’d get a tutor, and I’d feel like I totally got it. Then I’d realize it didn’t stick at all. Not only was what I did for homework wrong (almost invariably, I got D’s and F’s on it), but when I went back to it I couldn’t even remember what I thought I had understood in the first place.

You’re supposed to be a genius? I’d tell myself. Some fucking genius.

By the middle of the semester, I had stopped going to the class altogether – it made me too anxious and depressed. Even though it was in the middle of the day – I think it was at 1 PM – I’d just stay in bed the whole day instead of going to class. I didn’t realize until much later that depression had started to get its hooks in me by this point, which probably didn’t make learning math any easier.

I ended up with a D in the class, by the way, which meant I had to retake it. The professor was nice enough to give me a 2nd crack at the final – he said if I got an A he’d bring it up to a C which meant I’d pass. I studied hard and finally took the final. I felt confident and prepared – my roommate who was a math major helped me, as did several other people who gave generously of their time. I even got to use a calculator, which I sort of felt was my ace in the hole. I got an F. I wasn’t angry though…I was just resigned. I looked at the transcript.

Me: Of course. I guess I’m D material.

It wasn’t until about a decade later that i would get tested. I would come to find out I had a legitimate learning disability, at least in regards to math – it had nothing to do with my eyesight after all. I could see the numbers just fine. It explained a lot – why I could never read maps, why I got lost all the time, and why I had difficulty telling time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t tell time – I could – it just took me about 400x longer than normal people. If someone asked me for the time, I’d look at my watch for a long time and they’d think I was being rude and get fed up. But I would actually be looking at the hands and counting in my head (five…ten…fifteen…twenty). I’d come up with the right answer…eventually, but by the time I did they had gotten their answer elsewhere. I could have gotten a digital watch, I suppose, but the irony of it is I really like analog timepieces. Plus I just thought I was stupid when it came to math.

When they tested me, they also did an IQ score, which was humbling. The verbal side of my IQ was really high – I think it was almost “very superior”. But the math side was awful, and brought my combined score down so low that it was “average”. After spending my life believing I was a genius, I stared at the paper. I had answers, sure, and they explained a lot. But now I had hard numbers to go with them. In looking at my score, I don’t think I ever hated numbers more than I did that day. Having the air sucked out of a long held belief is a real kick in the balls. The doctor testing me assured me that I wasn’t “average” just because my total score was. I nodded like I agreed, but I really didn’t. She explained that it was just an aggregated score, and that if you looked at the English side it was really quite high…but I kind of tuned her out at that point. I was well into my own head, beating myself with a cudgel. I had spent a lifetime believing I was smart…and staring me right in the face was proof that I wasn’t. It took me a long time to see past the numbers. Perhaps that’s not surprising. I had so much of my identity wrapped up in the idea that I was different, a genius, or whatever, that it really was a crushing blow to get at the age of 28. I had to come to terms with it eventually, though, and I decided that – numbers aside, I am what I am. Whatever that is.


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