Once upon a time, back when I had hair and a high metabolism, I was a student of higher Mathematics. Not just a student, but a fan. Infatuated even, a boy with a crush on equations. It’s so easy to have crushes when you’re young and for me the objects of my affection had names like Differential Equations, Real Analysis, Linear Algebra, Probability Theory, Vector Calculus, Number Theory, and Differential Geometry. My textbooks and I often went on late night dates to diners where among grease and milkshakes, I would struggle through the arcane. Green’s Theorem? Eigenvalues? Groups, Rings, and Ideals? I could listen to you all night. It was puppy love.
I even made up a math joke. It goes like this:
Q> How many mathematicians does it take to change a lightbulb?
It still makes me giggle.
Today, any contact with those textbooks induces a strange eye glazing effect, a perplexed forehead wrinkle. The love is gone; the pining extinguished. I simply wonder, Who was this person so utterly taken in by something so utterly dull?
This math crush lasted for several years during which time I began working as a TA for calculus sections, and later got classes of my own. I whizzed through my undergraduate years earning the “Outstanding Senior in Mathematics” award and a full scholarship to the graduate program. But that’s when things started going south. In graduate school, everyone seemed dour and aloof. And purposefully weird. The actual epiphany came during a course in Abstract Algebra, a class where you did things like prove 1+1=0 (if the space of numbers is 0 and 1, then it has to be…). While my professor mumbled impenetrable truths through a thick German accent, I found myself honing my cartooning skills. Maybe I hate this stuff, I thought? Maybe I’d rather just play music full time?
When I finally got the Master’s degree, two and a half years later, the department and I were ready to part ways. I had confronted what it is that Mathematicians actually do, which is publish original work in their field (when not starving and/or teaching a lifetime of College Algebra sections). I realized that I was neither interested nor worthy of such pursuits. Yes, we were finished, Math and I, like a bad relationship that had run on too long.
After graduating (and not attending the ceremony) I fully committed myself to a life of hedonism and be-bop, playing jazz piano in the back of bars. $50 here, $100 there. But once again, the romance faded almost as quickly as it began. I actually missed school. Behaving like an ex-con who commits a crime to re-enter prison, I decided to take a few graduate courses in Engineering. You know, engineering, the place where mathematicians go after they fail in their field.(*)
The nice thing about having a graduate math degree, and especially after having taught it for years on end, is that you tend to lay waste to your fellow Engineering students in subjects that are heavily math-based. These classes were easy compared to Abstract Algebra! The other nice thing about my background is that I wailed on the Math portion of the GRE (780/800, thank you very much).
Feeling encouraged by all of this, I decided to apply to an engineering grad program. I aimed high, selecting Berkeley, Rice, and UT. My first letter came from Rice. It said “Sorry, Charlie.” But then UT responded offering a Presidential Scholarship, one of two given each year, full ride, stipends, etc. Then Berkeley: Yes, and here’s a scholarship too. I picked Berkeley, of course. Take that, Rice.
Once I arrived I quickly discovered that the folks who attend Cal (as they call it there) are not just bright, they’re brilliant. I was taking classes with kids from Yale and MIT and what the hell was I doing here? Another problem. The Bay Area has an amazing jazz scene and in little time, I became entrenched in it. I also started touring with a great saxophonist, and for some reason I didn’t want him to know I was in graduate school. “What do you mean you can’t play a week of gigs in December??” It was like getting slowly stretched on a rack, being torn between these two completely different worlds. By the end of the Spring semester I knew I wasn’t meant to be in a Ph.D. program, so I took a Master’s as a booby prize. Still, it’s a Master’s from Berkeley, which to this day continues to work for me.
Now, fresh out of school with two Master’s Degrees and no job, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, panic set in. I was dead broke, doing things like scraping pennies out of my trunk to pay for gas. I applied for jobs at record stores and coffee shops. It didn’t even occur to me to look for corporate work — Engineering, like Math, was now part of my history, not my future. But then I bumped into a friend who said “Job? You should come over to the energy consulting company where I work. They’ll hire anyone with a degree from Cal.” I did just that and bingo, I was gainfully employed. I soon learned the C programming language and how to write technical papers. I learned how to deal with clients in a consulting environment. I’ve been working in this world ever since.
As an aside, my boss there, a Yale grad with a Berkeley Ph.D., would later get appointed by the Governor as head of the California Public Utilities Commission. I still think about the things I learned from her — she’s without question the smartest person I’ve ever known.
The two years spent working in that little shop proved far more beneficial than the year I spent at Cal (or the years spent getting that Math degree). It was also during this time that I got engaged and married to my wife. In a sense, everything that happened during that brief period effectively shaped the life I live now. And to think I could have taken the job at Amoeba Records instead.
The question hanging over my head now is what to do with the 30+ math tomes collecting dust on my bookshelf. I’m in a purging state these days. I want less clutter, more open space, fewer distractions. It seems that getting rid of these books might be a nice symbolic gesture, a way of saying, I’m moving on now.
To be determined.
(*) My dad and brother may strangle me for that statement. 😉