Ceci N’est Pas une Post

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Love is a curious paradox; one no one can explain. Who understands the secrets of the reaping of the grain? Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain, or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?

Due respect to The Fantasticks (from which the above are lyrics), but I don’t want to “try to remember” September. This past September broke my heart. Besides, The Fantasticks is a play where two dads arrange for an old dude to attempt the rape of one dad’s daughter so the other dad’s son can save her and fall in love. That’s fucked up.

(Yet it is a truly fantastic play – how paradoxical.)

Love IS a curious paradox. We can only find it when we aren’t looking for it, we have to fail at it to in order to succeed, and it is hardest to lose when we didn’t need it in the first place.

Sartre (the original Debbie Downer) nailed it in Being and Nothingness, observing that love is so vital to us we desire to control the will of our beloved; we wish we could guarantee their love in return. Yet love is only valuable when freely given, so the moment we could secure it would be the moment it lost all meaning. (Though he said it in a far more complex and French way.)

The very thing that makes love terrifying – the fact that it can be lost or not returned – is the only thing that makes it worth seeking.

Breakups are also paradoxical. A love that matters is thusly worth fighting for, but in fighting we risk removing the value entirely. Still, the fight itself is necessary.

A long time ago, when I was young(er) and dumb(er), I got mad at my boyfriend for not doing the dishes while I was at work. He pointed out that I had not asked him to do the dishes; had he known I wanted it, he probably would have. Or, let’s be honest, he probably still wouldn’t have, but at least then I’d have had every right to be angry. As it was, I couldn’t blame him for not satisfying an expectation I had never vocalized. Grubby dishes aside, he was completely right.

Now, I speak up whenever I want something. Including – and especially – when that something is a someone.

When a love matters, it is important to tell them they matter. It is important to say out loud what we want, to give voice to all of the good that stands to be lost, and to politely point out that they are making a huge mistake.

But somewhere in the middle of the argument, in the middle of the tears, the declarations of “we’re awesome”, and the “that’s no reason to throw it all away”, there is also that little voice inside speaking the truth we don’t want to acknowledge. The one that knows the paradox cannot be resolved, asking, “What good is a love I talked someone into?”

Winning the fight means losing the value of the love. Yet to not fight would mean it never really mattered in the first place. And round and round it goes… the following statement is true; the previous statement is false… this sentence is not here.

I guess the trick is to fight for what we want and also have the nerve to never get it.

I do not know the answer; I only know it’s true. I hurt them for that reason, and myself a little bit too.

(It really is a Fantastick play. Go see it.)

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Logical Mystery Tour

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Once upon a short time ago, I spent over twenty minutes arguing with a Time Warner Cable representative about how math works.

My monthly cable bill had suddenly increased by $7 (increased again, I should say, because this was not the first time), so I had looked and found a new $7 charge listed for the modem. (The modem I had been using for no charge since…always.)

The TWC representative tried repeatedly to convince me that they had always been charging me $7 for the modem, it’s just that now they were listing the fee as its own line item on the bill. I replied that if that were true my bill total would not have increased (because, math), but it had increased, so there was clearly a new charge for something, and would she please just fess up to it already.

After twenty minutes of our own little version of Waiting for Godot (“I recognize that tree!”) she finally succumbed to the power of how numbers work and agreed there was a new fee. I agreed to no longer be a Time Warner Cable customer.

While I appreciate that this woman provided the kick I needed to finally bail on cable, our conversation makes me want to bang my head against a wall. For six years, I have spent much of my time helping adults prepare themselves for the rigors of law school, and in that time I have been repeatedly surprised and disheartened – as I was on that phone call – with the general lack of logical reasoning employed by humanity.

Logic is important, even if only to save us from Kafkaesque conversations and murderous thoughts. If we used it more, our civilization would be in a much better place.

For one thing, logic allows us to recognize when people (and cable companies) are lying. It demands reasons and facts be given to support arguments – including our own. With logic, we also recognize when a statement is technically true (“That Awkward Moment is the #1 comedy of the year!”) but essentially meaningless (“Dude, it’s still January”).

Even more relevant to our current state of debate, logic helps us stay focused on the actual point, instead of getting distracted by more convenient statements that are off topic. Sure, mental health and how we treat it is a major problem in the world, but it isn’t a relevant rebuttal to “I think there should be more gun regulation,” any more than “vegans are annoying” addresses whether we should let the pregnant pigs move around, or “I hate science” is an argument against global warming.

Most importantly, though, logic is vital because it exercises a skill that is crucial to human success: creative thinking.

It is no coincidence that Einstein was a skilled violinist while Hitler was a bad painter; creativity and reason go hand in hand. To be logical is to be able to mentally entertain as many possibilities as can be imagined and then evaluate them against whatever facts are known. It is to know that there was a mass extinction of dinosaurs, imagine the infinite reasons it could have happened, and use the evidence of meteor strikes, lack of evidence of spontaneous combustion, and miniscule likelihood of alien invasion to conclude that most likely the meteors were the culprit.

(It is also to know that the limited facts demand language like “most likely” instead of “of course it happened that way, how dare you question me?!” or “I don’t believe you so no it didn’t!”)

Logical thinking trains us to have flexible minds, which is the ultimate reason it needs to be more prevalent in our world today: because mental flexibility is the key to empathy. Yes, it also helps if we have and understand emotions, but empathy by definition requires the ability to think beyond our own personal situation.

In college, I was once asked by a boy (he was a boy in every sense) why I was pro-choice; to answer him, I started by saying, “given my own health issues, I can certainly imagine why someone might need-“ and he cut me off by rebutting, “It’s not about YOU. You’re so selfish.”

His statement was technically true – it wasn’t about me – but meaningless, because it WAS about my ability to put myself in another person’s shoes; to imagine circumstances that, while not true for me, may be true for someone in a different place or time or dimension.

A rigid “I would never” is not enough to close the book on any subject. That’s great that we would never; it is completely our right to choose to “never” – but somebody would, and shouldn’t we at least take the time to explore and understand their reasons before we judge?

Without empathy, progress can only happen once everyone personally knows a victim of sexual assault, a minority being denied rights, a dark-skinned person who has suffered harassment by those in authority, or someone forced to make a bad choice in a bad situation. Of course, the sad fact is, everyone already does.

That some people still refuse to acknowledge it defies logic.

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life Partners in the Universe

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Confession time: I write romantic comedies for a living, and I do not believe in The One.

Before anyone takes away my pen and paper, let me clarify – this is not a Nicholas Sparks situation where my cynical outlook toward humanity and borderline-misogynist opinion of women drives me to churn out one crassly formulaic story after another. I absolutely believe in love, soul mates, true partners, and all that crap; I just don’t believe each of us has only One.

Both my head and my heart reject the idea. Already, in my short time experimenting with love, I have met at least two men with whom I am sure I could have enjoyed spending the rest of my life. The fact that things didn’t work out doesn’t make them – or our relationships – any less wonderful.

As for my brain, the idea of The One is straight-up depressing on a practical level. There are 7.2 billion people on the planet, most of whom – even with the internet – we will never meet. What if someone’s One lives in North Korea? Tough?

But I like proof when possible, and astrophysics can provide: The Drake Equation is a formula developed in 1961 by astronomer Frank Drake to calculate the probability we will ever detect intelligent alien life in the universe. Since men are from Mars and women Venetian, I figure it applies.

While the actual Drake Equation is impossible to calculate (so far) because most of its variables are unknown (for now), it is pretty simple in essence. Just a straight multiplication of the probabilities of various factors necessary for finding E.T. – like that aliens exist in the first place, or have detectable technology.

Specifically (hang in there) it looks like this: N = R*Fp*Ne*Fl*Fi*Fc*L, which looks completely like gibberish until you know what all the shorthand stands for. Let’s do it!

N stands for the number of alien civilizations we can detect. In other words, it is the answer we are looking for – it is the number of The Ones.

R is the rate at which stars form in the universe, so for mate searching it is the rate at which humans form. According to P.T. Barnum, there is one born every minute, so let’s say R = 1.

Fp is the fraction of stars in the universe hosting planets. Equivalently, let’s call it the fraction of persons with the proper parts for one’s sexual orientation. Whatever your preference, that should be ½, but I (a heterosexual) will remove another ten percent because supposedly that’s how much of the population is gay. Fp = 2/5 (aka 40%).

Ne is the fraction of planets that pass the “Goldilocks” test, or in other words are suitable to sustain life. For sustaining a relationship, this would be the fraction of the population between, say, 25 and 55, which is 1/6 of humanity.

Fl is the fraction of Goldilocks planets with actual life, which I will translate as the fraction who possess the first piece of the relationship P.I.E. – Physical attraction. This is where things get harder to calculate, but I’ll base it off my own experience. Let’s say I’ve met about 10,000 people in my lifetime. (I have lived in three major cities, traveled a lot, and been a performer all my life, so this is fair.) There have probably been about 200 to whom I have been attracted enough to want to sleep with them (don’t worry, Dad, I didn’t). So that makes Fl = 1/50.

Fi is the fraction of life-bearing planets with intelligent life, and that perfectly corresponds to the second piece of the relationship P.I.E. – Intellectual stimulation. I’d say I’ve met about 25 men I felt I could keep talking to forever, and 25 out of 200 is 1/8.

Fc is the fraction of intelligent life that possesses the technology to make themselves detectable. For a life partner, that means having the last piece of P.I.E. – the Emotional support to sustain a relationship. There have really only been two men in my experience with all three pieces, so this last fraction is 2/25.

Lastly comes L, which in the Drake Equation represents the length of time any technologically advanced alien race will remain actually detectable. (For our civilization it has only been about 100 years so far.) In terms of humans, this is the serious dating window. Let’s go with 20 years, which at 365.25 days per year, 24 hours per day, and 60 minutes per hour comes to 10,519,200 minutes. If you want to check my math, ask someone from the cast of Rent.

Putting it all together, we can see that my N (number of ‘Ones’) equals: 1 sucker per minute, times 2/5 who are heterosexual men, times 1/6 at a datable age, times 1/50 who are physically appealing, times 1/8 also intellectually stimulating, times 2/25 with the trifecta of emotional support, all multiplied by 10,519,200 minutes of partner seeking.

The result: 140. There are 140 The Ones for me on Earth.

Of course, my numbers are largely anecdotal and would never pass the scrutiny of peer review, but the point remains – no way is there only One perfect partner. In fact, if we use the actual rate of human birth – 267 per minute – the number comes out to be 37,380 The Ones. Which is almost exactly the population of Bozeman, Montana. (For real; it’s off by about 100.)

37,000 ideal potential mates seems like a lot, but that’s on the whole planet. Add in that we also have to meet them, and (preferably) speak the same language, and both be available at the same time… the number whittles down quickly. If we’re lucky, we experience maybe a handful in our lifetime. And then they have to want the relationship too.

When you consider that a “forever” relationship requires three major things to happen in unison – first, we have to be ready for the responsibility ourselves; second, we have to meet one of the 37,380 potential partners; and third, that person has to also have decided they are ready for a grown-up relationship – it is no wonder it feels like there is only One magical person out there.

Patience is definitely called for. Or, perhaps, a move to Bozeman, Montana.

The Logarithm of Love (Ice Cream Headache)

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In 1960, Smokey Robinson’s mama dropped some serious truth when she insisted he better Shop Around. Given the decade, Smokey probably assumed her wisdom came from a woman’s deep understanding of bargain shopping, but I prefer to think she was simply keeping up with modern trends in mathematics.

Around that same time, numbers guys around the world were turning their attention to a decision-making dilemma they dubbed The Secretary Problem (also The Marriage Problem). Since the parameters of the problem are applicable to many real world situations, and since I choose not to indulge the sexist world of the Mad Men era, I call it the Ice Cream Headache.

Imagine yourself in an ice cream shop facing dozens of flavor options. You have to decide on just one, and ideally you want to choose the very best of all. The rules are simple: first, your choices are finite. (Even though Baskin Robbins lies and offers more than 31 flavors, they still don’t offer “infinity” flavors.) Second, you can sample flavors, but only one at a time, only once each, and you must make a decision immediately upon tasting – choose it, or pass. Finally, there are no ties. One is decidedly the best (for you).

To maximize your chances of walking away with The One, it turns out “shop around” really IS the best strategy – to a point. Mathematicians came to find that the optimal approach is to always reject the first 36.7% of flavors you try (that happens to be 1/e for all you natural logarithm fans out there), then choose the next flavor that tastes better than anything that has come before.

Say there are nine flavors total. This optimal method means we will taste the first randomly selected three and not choose them, no matter what. The odds of The One being in those first three (which means we will definitely NOT win the game) is 33%. The other 67% percent of the time, we still have a chance.

After rejecting the first three, we will choose the very first flavor that tastes better. If we happened to taste the second best flavor in the first three but not The One – the odds of which is 25% – we are guaranteed a win. Only The One will taste better, so only The One will be chosen, no matter how long it takes us to get to it. The remaining 42% of the time, victory depends on when in the subsequent tastings The One appears.

When the math is said and done, probability shows that employing this strategy to the Ice Cream Headache results in victory – choosing The One – at minimum 37% of the time, which is the best chance possible and far better than choosing at random.

Sure, in real life we are free to piss off the ice cream vendors as we test every single flavor over and over until we are either satisfied with our decision or just satisfied, but the parameters of the Ice Cream Headache are remarkably realistic when it comes to dating.

In love, we generally get one shot at evaluation – Burton and Taylor notwithstanding. Likewise, the choice is usually a now-or-never situation. (We may dream of “sampling” a person and then getting to try all the other people too before ultimately deciding, “You are the best,” but in reality that ends with a “Screw you, I’ve moved on” and a drink in the face.) Finally, even with today’s online resources, we still have a finite number of candidates.

Applying the lessons of the Ice Cream Headache to a partner search yields some interesting results.

For one, it helps redefine the idea of “success”. We usually view situations as win or lose, but mathematics has a third option: draw. Victory in the Ice Cream Headache is walking away with The One, but failure isn’t everything else; failure only happens if we walk away with a flavor that is NOT the best. Remember that 33% chance The One was in the automatically rejected first group? In that case, the player would never choose any flavor, because nothing would ever meet the requirement of outperforming everything prior. In life terms, the player stays single. I like the idea of a single life being a “draw” rather than a loss.

More significantly, the Ice Cream Headache validates the practice of living a little before settling down. The average life expectancy of an American woman is 82 years; 77 for American men. If we apply the “discard the first 36.7%” rule, no one should even consider choosing a life partner before age 30 or 28, respectively.

To apply the strategy more specifically to our dating years, let’s say no one dates seriously before 15, and we reserve the last 10 years for writing memoirs and bowling. That leaves 57 shopping years for women, and 52 for men. Again, if we automatically pass on the first 36.7% of candidates, that translates to 20 years of dating before possibly making a choice (19 for men). Starting at 15, that pushes the start of decision time to our mid-thirties.

Yes, this simplifies things with the premise that potential mates will appear at a steady rate across our dating years (now more likely with the internet), but the end result is still valid. Statistically, the optimal strategy over a lifetime for successfully ending up with your ideal flavor is to not get serious about choosing until sometime after 30. Mama was right: you better Shop Around.

Of course, this still doesn’t solve the problem of that awesome mocha chip gelato you finally go for deciding he doesn’t want you. But it helps.

I Was Told There Would Be No Math at This Debate (Statistics Part II)

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Odds are, someone at some point has quoted Einstein’s definition of insanity to you: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I love this quote for several reasons, the top two being that there is no evidence Einstein ever said it and it is not what insanity actually is. Yet somehow, by people saying it over and over in hope that it is true, it has become true in our conventional wisdom. Isn’t that the kind of paradox that is supposed to rip a hole in space-time and make the universe eat itself?

The dictionary definition of insanity is being deranged or unsound of mind enough to be divorced from reality and thus responsibility. Which nicely demonstrates the root of the problem with our current public discourse – it is Einstein Nutters versus Webster Loons.

Someone needs to impose some Nurse Ratched-level tough love on the world, so here I am, with math.

Back in January, I applied Bayesian reasoning (probabilistic thinking) to relationships, in order to get a better understanding of how illogical I often am in matters of the heart. It was fun! And I started to notice something quite interesting about the math, something that has been increasingly relevant as the clash between Science and Faith has escalated.

To recap: Bayesian reasoning is a process that involves estimating the likelihood of things, then reassessing that likelihood with each new piece of information. In short – and I know this is a dirty word – Bayesian thinkers evolve their ideas over time, getting ever closer to understanding.

If this sounds familiar, it is because probabilistic thinking is how we learn. Hey, that thing on the stove is shiny and pretty – I bet it will feel good too. Ouch. Nope. That did not feel pretty. Maybe pretty things don’t always feel good. Hey, that tiger over there is really beautiful. Maybe this time… and so on. Eventually, we get a feel for the odds (or die).

The formula representing this process – Bayes’ Theorem – is simply a mathematical expression of logic at work. It centers on three variables: our original level of certainty about something (x), the probability of this new info (Ouch) if that something is true (y), and the probability of this new info if that something is not true (z). That’s it!

When we reassess in the face of new information, we simply multiply our original level of certainly by the probability that our theory is still true (xy), then divide that by all possibilities – our original certainly (x) times the probability of true (y) PLUS our original uncertainty (1-x) times the probability of the theory being false (z). In math, that reads: (xy) / [(xy) + (1-x)z]

That’s the worst of it, I promise. What I find most interesting is how the impact of new information changes the more confident we are at the outset. Let me demonstrate with an example involving something totally uncontroversial right now: birth control.

Take two people, one who is super confident that I am a good little girl who keeps her knees closed (we’ll call him “My Dad”), and another who is willing to bet the farm that I am a total slut (“Rush Limbaugh”). They are both men, because involving a woman in a conversation about birth control would be ridiculous. Now, what happens to their respective outlooks when we introduce a new piece of information into their worlds: my use of birth control?

My Dad starts out with only 10% concern that I am a floozy (x=.1), while Rush is 90% sure I am sex crazed, since I am unmarried (x=.9). Variable y is the probability that I would use birth control if I am indeed a slut, which is clearly about 95% – who else would use birth control? Variable z is the probability that I would use it if I am not. Since women are either virgins or whores, that’s maybe 5%.

When we plug those probabilities into the formula, we see that My Dad, who is faced with contradictory information, skyrockets to a new 68% certainty that I am a daughter of questionable morals. As for Rush, he goes from 90% sure to 99% sure I am easy. Had we presented them with opposite information – like a purity ring on my finger – My Dad’s fears of parental failure would have dropped from 10% to .6%, and Rush would suddenly have to grapple with a mere 32% chance of my nymphomania.

Of course, my probabilities here are extreme, but the formula holds. The more confident we are in a theory at the outset, the more devastating contrary information becomes. As it should be! If we truly think an outcome is “inconceivable” and then it happens, we either have to admit that we were very likely wrong, or accept that the word “inconceivable” does not mean what we think it means.

But a funny thing happens when confidence becomes absolute certainty: new information loses all impact. When x=1 (we are 100% sure of something), the formula reduces to y/(y+0z), which equals 1 no matter what y and z are. When x=0 (“Inconceivable!”), the fraction becomes 0/(0+z), which is always zero.

In other words, there is no amount of evidence, experience, or new information that will change the mind of someone who has absolute certainty. Proving once and for all with math that there is no arguing with believers. (Or Beliebers – ugh.)

If you got this far, you are probably tired, because math is hard. Not in the sense that it requires a Y-chromosome (I’m looking at you, Larry Summers), but in the sense of hard work. Math is work; logic is work; being open minded requires the effort of reassessment. Faith, on the other hand, is easy. Not real faith, as defined in the dictionary (“belief in something for which there is no proof”), but the Faith demonstrated too often these days: belief despite all evidence of any kind.

You want the kicker? Thomas Bayes, from whom Bayesian reasoning gets its name, was an 18th-Century minister. I think it’s time for the universe to eat itself now.

List-Less

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There are a plethora of reasons why I love Louis C.K. He is smart and funny, a good dad, and definitely satisfies my addiction to redheads. But his biggest “pro” is that his television show is beautiful and brilliant.

To avoid getting “spoil-y”, I won’t go into detail about the episode I watched last night. Suffice it to say it involved “Louie” having and RDT (relationship defining talk) with his Eggplant of the moment. Upset because any and all sincerity is met with defensive humor, he wants her to express an honest emotion for once. She says, “I can’t do that. Can’t it be okay that there are just some things I can’t do?” And then the scene ends.

Leaving the question unanswered is beautiful because… well, because that is a big question for any potential couple, isn’t it? How each of us would choose to answer it says a lot about what we value in relationships, and ending the scene there lets each viewer answer it for herself. Louis C.K. accomplished a Sopranos-finale-type litmus test, except without being a dick to his fans.

I would have to answer that question with a sad, “no”, or at least a “probably not”, and it is all because of what my girlfriend and I defined several years ago as “The Three F’s” of a good relationship.

At the time, she was dating a guy we both adored (though not in a romantic way for me; that would have been messed up). On paper they were perfect for each other. He had everything she was looking for in a guy: he was tall, he was handsome, he was funny; he had a budding career and did well at parties; he had a good car, good friends, and made good money. Everything on her list was checked off. And yet…she was unhappy.

The thing is, in addition to having everything on her list, this guy also had an inclination to “keep it light”, meaning when shit went down, he went away. Career trouble, sick parents, his own family drama – no matter the issue, his answer was to close his eyes and plug his ears until it was over. Still, she stayed with him, because…the list.

“Forget the list,” I told her. Lists are for grocery shopping and little kids at Christmas. There is no relationship Santa, despite what Christian Mingle and the creepy eHarmony guy would have us believe. People need to lose their lists.

She countered that it is probably not a good idea to have no criteria for a mate; at the very least “no scrubs” should be a goal. So we compromised with a new list: one with the only three things that matter (and we added alliteration, because alliteration makes everything better).

Here are The Three F’s: Feed me, Fuck me, Fascinate me. If a partnership has all three, nothing else matters. Without even one of them, it will never work.

Fuck me: duh. This one is pretty self-explanatory. There must be sexual chemistry for a relationship to survive. I have been with a few men who, for various reasons (medication, Catholicism, homosexuality), were not that into being intimate, and it doesn’t take long for the dynamic to get irreparably weird.

Fascinate me: beauty fades, bodies sag, and even with sexual chemistry two people will eventually need to find each other interesting. Pretty but dumb is great in the short term, but for the long haul there needs to be a mind at work. If you don’t make me think, or laugh, or see things differently, I have no use for you. If you don’t find me interesting, ditto.

Feed me: aye, there’s the rub. For me, this has been the hardest criterion to satisfy, and to my detriment the one I have been most willing to overlook. In the literal sense, yes, it can mean “have a job” (or at least be able to feed yourself), but here it means feed each other emotionally. Be able to have a conversation about feelings, no matter how awkward. Be able to care about my life and my day. Be able to be there for me, even when I’m too stupid to know I need you (especially when I’m too stupid to know I need you).

My friend’s boyfriend was incapable of feeding her, and that is why no amount of height, handsome, or humor could make her happy. I have suffered from an unfortunate fondness for artists, narcissists, and depressives – which are three different ways of saying “emotional cripples”. And as much as I want “Louie” to be happy, I want him to say, “No, it’s not okay” to his Eggplant, because two out of three isn’t enough.

Look at it this way: the Suitable For Work version of The Three F’s is the mnemonic PIE (physical, intellectual, emotional). Without the Emotional support, all you have is PI. Any good math teacher will tell you that pi is irrational.

One Fish, Three Fish, Big Fish, Me Fish (Or, What I Learned on my College Vacation)

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One day, in my Senior year of high school, something unexpected happened to me in the middle of calculus: I didn’t get it. I have no memory of what mathematical principle we were learning that day, but I vividly remember the frustration of being confused. It had happened to me only once before (with math, I mean – I “didn’t get” the rest of life all the time), when my 5th-grade class learned “greater than” and “less than” (“>” and “<”).

Back then, I had stared at those little arrows for hours, trying to see the difference between them that everyone else could see. Was one wider than the other? A more acute angle? Was there something wrong with the printing on my paper? It simply never occurred to me that they were pointing in opposite directions.

Eventually, light dawned on marblehead, but for what felt like weeks (and was probably only days), it was as if everyone spoke a language I just couldn’t comprehend. Like how people describe the experience of having a mild stroke – or a conversation with hipsters.

In calculus class that day, those feelings of vertigo came rushing back, and it was a formative day for me because of two things that happened in response. First, unlike in 5th grade, this time I raised my hand and asked for clarification. Since I had come to define my self-worth by my academic ability, it was no small thing to ask for help. It is also why it pissed me off when, instead of answering, my teacher told me to see her after class. I felt that my years of patient listening to the answers to everyone else’s questions had earned me a little class time, so I asked again – and a third time when she politely deflected.

I have no idea why this otherwise-wonderful math teacher refused to address my question in class. Maybe I was missing something obvious again, or maybe we were behind schedule or she thought I was punking her. What I do know is that her denial made me feel that my questions didn’t have value – and the memory of that feeling hovers over me as a cautionary tale every moment that I stand in front of my own students now.

The second thing that happened that day is that, not two periods later, my friend Doug – who would not have understood calculus if Jaime Escalante himself explained it – came up to me at my locker and said, “I hear you messed up in math class today.” Apparently, word had spread around school, and there was a fair amount of Schadenfreude at the fact that Kate, Captain of the Math Team, had “messed up” in calculus.

My initial instinct was to tell Doug that if having a question constituted a mistake then he must be the biggest disaster since the Hindenburg, but instead of lashing out I decided to listen to my second thought: “F*ck this, I need a bigger pond.”

That day, my outlook toward college went from terror I would fail to remain the best to ardent desire for a place full of more-accomplished peers. When the miracle that was my Harvard acceptance letter showed up a few months later, I knew I had found the Lake Superior I was looking for.

Humility is a wonderful thing, and being humbled is even better. Those first couple of years in Cambridge, the knowledge that I was surrounded by so much talent freed me to try all kinds of new things. I figured, “if I’m not going to be the best at anything, what the heck? Let’s explore!” I took the hardest freshman math class there was and actually hung in there for a few weeks; I took Ancient Greek with a bunch of people who already spoke Latin and only freaked out a little at my F on the first midterm; I volunteered for Model Congress despite almost no awareness of current political events, and I did perhaps the scariest thing of all: left the comfort of mathematical certainty for the subjective world of the English department.

As I reached my last couple of years, the freedom of the big pond turned more into a driving force. Swimming with bigger fish had boosted my confidence, to the point where I was frustrated I wasn’t bigger myself. My desire to make a splash (or even a plop) drove me toward leadership positions I would never have considered before, and even inspired me to audition for a spot as a commencement day speaker – something I still can’t believe I actually attempted.

This weekend, the class of ‘99 returned to Cambridge for our 15th reunion, and my fellow Harvardians continue to represent for me those two pillars of a happy life: confidence, and humiliation (er, humility). The ambition, drive, and success of my classmates is inspiring, and reflects back on me the courage to earn my spot within their ranks – or at least to try. At the same time, I am acutely aware that no matter how good I get at anything, there will always be someone bigger or better. Probably someone I have seen contemplate philosophy and quantum physics while high.

Sure, knowing I will never be “the best” can be a little depressing at times, and occasionally makes me want to go drown myself in a small pond somewhere. But mostly, I find it a comforting assurance that I will never be bored. No matter how far I get, there will always be those who challenge me to swim farther; there will always be new waters to explore.

As long as those waters aren’t the Charles River – that shit is still toxic.