By Curt Collier
I am not literate in math. That doesn’t mean I can’t DO math. I can, but for some reason that baffles me, math was never a language I became fluent in. When I make that statement to others, I often hear the common refrain that they aren’t good at math either and I’m not alone. However, one difference perhaps is that I don’t hate math as some love to blurt out, I adore it. I’m a math groupie. I buy books on mathematics, read news articles about math, get drawn to math exhibits at science museums, and do math problems on paper and in my head quite a bit. And yet…I often get the answers wrong.
‘Can fake it with the best of them’
Now, simple math I can certainly do. I can compute my Wordle average, have written hundreds of grant budgets, teach construction math on a frequent basis to young adults, and usually walk away from a craps table at least even. I’m a technician and can fake it with the best of them. But I’ve never mastered the ability to think as mathematicians do, with that rare ability to perceive the nature of reality through the recognition of patterns that correspond to the mathematical framework that undergirds existence. That is, in my mind, to perceive reality as it is, not as I wish it to be.
You can’t imagine how frustrating that is. But there are other things in my life that I’m not good at, either, despite my devotion. I had formal music training from first grade all the way through my sophomore year of college. During that time, I learned to play the tuba, baritone, cornet, oboe, bassoon, piccolo, and flute, and on my own learned the bass clarinet, to play the drums, and took a couple of years of piano lessons and have wrestled with the guitar for 50 years. I am a technician, and can play an instrument, but I am not a musician…those god-like creatures who can pick up that same instrument and spin gold out of thin air.
Face it, the muses hate me
Oh, and I’m a lousy artist. I can’t draw a straight line with a pencil and a ruler. Heaven knows I’ve tried again and again. My notebooks are filled with mangled flowers, frightening seascapes, and deranged, unimaginative, and impenetrable objects. Yet, I adore art, have taken art classes, and have worshipped at all its temples. Face it, the muses hate me, and I’m no longer on speaking terms with them, either. I storm off from them after every encounter, but just before I pass through the gates, I look back forlornly, hoping that they, too, are looking back. They never do. Sigh.
I have become content with simply making do. I could easily give up and sit eating my lopsided cake on my painted table that’s a shade off from what it should have been, but I’ve found that activity unsatisfying, as well. I’m a worker, a grunt, forever condemned to be, green with jealousy, the one who hands the scissors to Martha Stewart rather than she who wields the tool.
To my credit, I have taken imperfection and pushed it to its artful, creative, and analytical limits. Always falling short, yet even in the moment I realize after being shot out of the cannon that the net is fully a meter further, I’m still planning my next hurrah. Imperfection has its beauty, too. Oh, my machinations will never end up in some immaculate wing at MOMA, nor grace the cover of “Popular Mechanics,” but still I persevere.
“Perfection is the enemy of the good enough” they tell me, and that platitude will probably grace my tombstone. Sometimes I ponder whether imperfection, approximations, blemishes, and limits are the true nature of existence and whether Michelangelo’s “David” is the aberration. While eating sour grapes, I mumble that that the world would be better off without the scourge of Chopin, Frida, Kepler, and Starbucks’ venti caffè latte, and yell “Imperfectionists Untie!” Well…you get the point.
But beauty exists. That’s why it haunts me. I sit leaning against a craggy oak, an unevenly knitted scarf flapping in the wind, while reading Mary Oliver’s prose and pondering human existence between the sacred and the profane. That’s the space where so many of us exist, and truth be told, it’s not so bad.
Curt Collier is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.