Word Problems

courtesy of Laineys Repertoire
courtesy of Laineys Repertoire


I like to keep math with math, and words with words. Mix them together, for that classroom favorite known as a “word problem,” and there I am in the midst of an anxiety-ridden brainteaser.

These pesky puzzles were problematic when I was in school, lowering test grades and bringing down SAT scores. Their intent is to apply math concepts to real-life situations, making the mind think outside of rote formulas. But math has always been a challenge for me, and leaving the safety of numbered exercises can be like wandering the world of Alice in Wonderland. Try as I might, so often my mind just can’t quite make sense of where to start or how to proceed.

This is embarrassing to admit. In my 42 years, I’ve experienced plenty of problems in life, and I like to think I’ve solved many of them with relative wisdom and clear-headedness. Though, in most instances, no complex arithmetic was involved.

Rather than belittle myself, lately I’ve taken to the thinking that for those that enjoy the challenge of a good word problem, go for it (my father being one, as he was awarded the airline’s bottle of champagne by guessing the halfway point between California and Hawaii, by using numbers related to mileage, speed, and wind gusts). Fun, fun, fun- but not for me.

So for those that draw a blank with complex scenarios involving numbers, can we please just pass?

This is an odd request to settle upon, knowing that I’ve always felt the word problem ruled the upper echelon of arithmetic. The crowning jewel that proved your math mettle. I’ve not wanted to give up, I’ve wanted to figure it out. Though inevitably, I’ve felt less-than-smart as I’ve struggled through the word problem maze, rarely coming up with a correct answer.

Now as an adult, I’m reliving my student years, as Jeb embarks on sixth grade, with what seems to be quite a rigorous curriculum, compared to what I recall studying at his age.

If you follow the Archives, you may know that this year Jeb requested not to be included in anymore blog posts. As he enters the tender ‘tween years’ I can understand and respect this.

However, I am learning about this in-between age, realizing it is anything but consistent. As of last night, Jeb not only gave his okay to be included in future blog posts, but he specifically asked if I would “please just use my real name” (and no, I will not).

That said, I can rest easy in disclosing that math is Jeb’s most least loved subject. Despite my attempts to remain neutral in this area, he seems to have adopted an aversion even stronger than my own.

Homework assignments involving math at our house can devolve quickly. Jeb elicits help, I tentatively (with fake nonchalance) oblige. This often involves me flipping pages of the text-book to try to find clues as to how to do the assignment. I’m embarrassed to say that some of sixth grade math is already beyond me. Or, the method in which they are teaching the concepts, is different from how I was taught.

Because we’ve already lived through emotional meltdowns, numerous tutors, failed tests, and half-finished homework assignments covered in question marks, Jeb’s latest approach is more creative. He does his math homework with an English accent.

So last night, it was word problems. Plenty of material for perfecting that foreign tongue.

Problem number 42 presents us with the following situation:

A red light flashes every 14 minutes. A blue light flashes every 24 minutes. When will the two lights flash together again, if they last flashed together at 8 a.m.?

At first I feel the thrill of the challenge. We can figure this out. I think I should probably be using their greatest common factor, or a least common multiple, but I’m not exactly sure. I stray from the lesson and try to use what seems logical to my mind, mapping out the times in intervals, labeling each by color.

I chart it out on paper, but Jeb loses interest almost instantly. He becomes merely a spectator, engaged only in hearing the sound of his own English accent, making comical remarks.

“What does this have to do with real life anyway? I can’t stand these assignments that have nothing to do with anything I’m going to use.”

I graph quietly, with concentration…8:14 red. 8:24 blue.

“Well,” I try, “you may need to figure something like this out one day.”

His accent stays strong. “This? This nonsense. There are no blue lights. There are red, green, and yellow lights.”

“Well, ok, true.” I’m smiling to myself.

“And what’s with the fourteen minutes? No one’s waiting fourteen minutes at a light. This…this is absurd.” That’s “absuhd,” no ‘r’ pronounced.

It is all a little absurd. I’m happy that math homework has taken a turn to humor, but it’s obvious Jeb’s done with word problems for the night. They are now only a source of ridicule and entertainment. By 8:48 blue, I’m ready to quit, too. I’m pretty certain my way of attempting to solve the problem is not the path the teacher had in mind, anyway. We pencil in one more question mark next to number 42 on Jeb’s lined, binder paper.

It’s interesting to observe the feeling of vulnerability arise as I write so candidly about my difficulties with math. I do believe I’m a fairly intelligent person. But when it comes to certain aspects of arithmetic, I can feel just downright dumb. It’s painful to see my son experiencing the same frustration and lack of confidence.

Is this genetic? Learned? Is it a flaw in the way we are teaching math to students?

I have no answers. Just one more big question mark on the page.

But for now, last night’s British take on ‘maths’ was a welcome relief, even if we didn’t get the answers right.

Stirring the Pot

If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

That’s the spin-off of the Golden Rule with which I was raised. It’s a solid philosophy. Guaranteed to win friends and keep them.

And it haunts me in my writing. Not a particularly helpful adage when one is trying to offer up a post five days a week. There are many a morn when “nice” just isn’t what the Muse is offering. Not that unkind words are spewing forth, just not necessarily “nice,” as in, worthy of the Publish button.

Inside of me, alchemy is blending perfect metaphors. Exacting temperatures work to percolate nothing into something special. For now, “nice” is not yet ready. These things can take some time.

So these words? Just verbiage, I guess. My disclaimer.

That magic’s in the works. I’m simply stirring the pot and watching in wonder. Waiting for the gold.

photo courtesy of The Puzzler
photo courtesy of The Puzzler

Points of Power

We read that the albatross doesn’t fly as much as it glides. It uses wind and a massive wingspan (six to eleven feet, on average) to let the air propel it for millions of miles in its lifetime.

I think this plants some sort of seed in the mind of the Bohemian. Over the weekend, he obsesses on “free energy,” sketching diagrams from his imagination of self-propelling water pumps. He watches YouTube videos with titles like “Forbidden Knowledge,” that document sophisticated technology used in ancient civilizations. This project grabs him like a water wheel from which he can’t get off.

For days he’s staring into the distance and I say, “I know what you’re thinking about.”

And he’ll sigh, “I know.”

“It’s free energy isn’t it?”


He says he knows everything he’s mulling over is probably just the basics of what’s already been figured out. If he Googled the right term online he figures he’d find the research published.

He says he works all week on the farm, only using his body. On the weekends, “I just need something to do with my brain.”

On Sunday, I walk twice to my special lookout point. Once at sunrise, once at sunset. In the morning, I watch a lone albatross swoop above an orange-lit wave. Not far are the Ironwood trees where these birds come once a year, to find a mate, lay their eggs and take their first flight.

At sunset, the waves have gotten bigger. Large sets come in mountainous succession, crashing on the rocks below. I can gaze to a horizon line, with nothing but water in sight. Water, and the waves that move in my direction, unceasing. I realize they have been doing this all day. They will do this all night. That this has been done before I was born and will continue long after I am dead.

Our dream house is nearby this cliff top location. It’s been months of almost knowing if there was a chance for us to make it our home. Each deadline made to hear whether we were moving forward, has been met with postponement. “I’ll let you know by Wednesday,” turns into Friday’s “There’s still more paperwork. I think I can tell you next week.”

Financial institutions and the forms that come with them seem the epitome of inefficiency when you’re waiting on a dream.

And last night I dreamt of monk seals. The ‘oldest living fossil’ was with her baby. They were covered in mud, sleeping there, right on the asphalt, where a side road met the highway. The baby inched itself to rest upon its mother’s back. Vulnerable as fish out of water, resting in harm’s way, I stood sentry with my cell phone. In my hand materialized some nifty pocket card from the non-profit formed to protect these animals. I flipped it over, trying to read past the verbiage to find the phone number to call for their aid. Seems the organization was so focused on describing what they do, they forgot to include how to reach them to do it.

I wake feeling helpless, but relieved it was only a dream.

This Monday morning, I fire up the gas stove to make my coffee, pondering the threads. Winged masters that have evolved past muscling their way to flight. My husband’s hunt for harnessing power. The infinite push of waves to shore. An ancient sea mammal at the crossroads in my dream. That house – our house? – that keeps eluding us.

What is that force? That essence found in something as invisible and real as gravity? Don’t we all wish we could capture it and have it do our bidding? We want to sit in that seat of power and have every one of our wishes come true.

I’d like to be an albatross. Rather than fighting the wind, work with the forces that hold me.

That’s the dream, anyway.

photo courtesy of HarmonyPlanetEarth
photo courtesy of HarmonyPlanetEarth