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An Open Application

By Billy | September 14, 2011

“It’s gota be math or science…” I can hear the words bounce around my skull with the same inflection as clearly as if I were hearing them from my father’s lips. Some things were always certain about my life; more than just taxes and death. Not only will I be going to college, because I’ve heard from before I could understand the words that I’ll be paying for it myself, but I will be studying math or science. I remember the day I verbally consented to this fact of life. My father and I were driving home from Carnegie Mellon University. You see, we had just dropped my brother off at his first year of college; he was to study engineering at the second best engineering school in the country.

“I enjoy physics class,” I said, “because I think it’s cool to see the applications of the math. But really, I just like doing the math.” I was about to speak a sentence that would define my life for the next couple of years, and those years would form the springboard for exactly what I would run away from for the following couple of years. “I think I want to study math when I go to college.” I said it with no understanding of what the world would be like in 3 years when I went to college. I said it with an image of simplicity, and a vague notion of spending my weekends locked in a dungeon like room surrounded by chalkboards and complex equations that have more Greek characters in it than The Odyssey. That was not only a sustainable life according to my naïve understanding of “life,” but it was also a happy existence.

I said it to make him happy. I said it to make me happy. I said it because I couldn’t be happy without his support. I said it because I genuinely believed that I needed to study math or science in order to reliably make enough money to life a comfortable and happy life. I said it because I grew up in a house where we believed in two types of artists; the ones that are deities and the ones who are hungry. I said it because I thought I wanted to study math.

Maybe I did.

For my father or for myself, for better or worse, I declared an intention to study mathematics. Not physics, not engineering, not computer science, not any of the other stuff that mathematics is the basic building block for, but just mathematics. Soon enough I was learning the calculus, statistics, how to prove things, how to tell which person is from the village that only lies and which guy’s from the village that only tells the truth, I even learned the answer to Neo’s question, “What is the Matrix?” I lived and breathed numbers and equations, and not in the mystical everything-is-math sense, but because I was living a life I hadn’t chosen. The only way to live a life you haven’t chosen is to do it with your eyes closed and your head down. When you know what you’re doing, everything changes.

The day I printed out the German language Wikipedia article about Goethe and snuck it underneath my calculus book to practice my German during a math class was the day I decided to change my major. I was a sophomore at a school I’d chosen to go to in order to stay with my high-school “sweetheart.” This school wasn’t challenging, wasn’t far from my home, and wasn’t the right fit at all for me. Thankfully, by this point I had already put this sweetheart and the physical and emotional abuse incorporated into our relationship far behind me. About this time, half way through my 3rd semester of college, I decided to find a new school, find a new major, and find a new life, or at least make sense enough of my old life that it feels new and good.
I started taking classes about culture and politics. I always had a soft spot for “poor people” collectively, and had always dreamed about the Peace Corps or something of that nature. Now that I was actually starting to realize that I was in charge of my life and my decisions, the dreams I’d always thought belonged in a parallel universe started peeking into my consciousness and announcing themselves as well within my reach for this universe and this life time. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed money and a surefire way to get a job, above almost everything else, so I declared a Political Science major when I started at James Madison University. The Peace and Conflict Resolution class I took at American University thrilled me, and I thought it quite possible to find a job for someone holding a Poly-sci degree to find a job in my home town of the blob of city just outside Washington, DC.

By this time in my life, I was a passionate pacifist, a veracious vegan practitioner, and recognized in my college community as “that barefoot Buddhist.” I ached for justice across the globe, and between humanity and the rest of the planet, and in my own heart and mind. My political science classes stimulated these passions, but always left me feeling very uneasy. Every class made me feel like I’d been watching a movie that got cut off right at the climax. The only things that helped me reconcile all the craziness I uncovered in politics classes were the Meaning and origins of conflict that I learned about in the religion classes that crept into my schedule every semester. Classes like Religious Approaches to Death and Dying and Gandhi and Global Nonviolence seemed much more relevant to me as a growing, living, breathing human being than Critical Issues in Recent Global History. In that class, we had to read a book called World on Fire, which made me cry so much that I ultimately chucked the book and I don’t know if I ever saw it again. I am more interested in why people are afraid, why people horde their food and don’t share it, why capitalism feels safe and cozy to so many people, why we throw grenades in the name of peace. I know it happens, and I don’t feel much like getting overwhelmed by it is going to help me contribute any solutions.

Thus my major changed again. I had almost already finished the coursework for a Religious Studies degree, minus the thesis paper (and also a Religion 101 course) before I had changed my major in my senior year. Everything I had been learning in my religion classes made me more and more sure that there were many other important things than money. The surety of a job that Mathematics provides is nothing to the freedom and happiness that an oversized dose of Buddhist Metaphysics, Ontology, and Epistemology can pack.

My universe was expanding at the same moment as my world was getting smaller. I began to have a smaller and manageable focus, while noticing that the bigness of the world was not so overwhelming. I started seeing the connection between a well formed and sustainable community and the end of terrible industrial agriculture practices or the sacrifice of an entire mountain(ous region) for a quick fix of dirty coal.

So hurrah. I finished school with a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion with an emphasis on Cross Cultural Religious Studies and also managed to get a minor in Asian Studies. According to my first university, I earned a mathematics minor, but virtually none of that transferred to JMU. As I write this I am sitting in the attic of a 200 year old Catholic School building turned into a residence in rural Austria. It makes me smile to think I left the Calculus to find Goethe, and when I came to Austria, I have the feelings I have tonight.

Since I’ve moved to Austria, I’ve had time to think about where I go from here. How do I make myself effective, happy, and balanced? I live in a town of 3,000 people, where I don’t speak the language fluently, and I came knowing absolutely nobody. Here, I am allowed a lot of time to think about what I am lacking. While my official job is to teach English, I think I much prefer the odd moment when I get to teach math. In college I studied French, Hebrew, and German and it is an understatement to say that I’m passionate about language, but that passion dims in comparison to the passion I have lurking in the background about algorithms and relationships of numbers and formulas.

I’ve started programming again! I’ve dug deep to find the old knowledge I had from the days in high school when I was an award winning roboticist. I am working on re-learning the relationships between the various trigonometric identities, and trying to actually understand why they function that way. During my banjo building extravaganza, when I tried to use the Law of Cosines and I couldn’t remember it, I was heartbroken. Whatever it was when I said to my father, “I want to study mathematics,” was a piece of something. Whether that was a voice of truth ringing out amidst a lot of other confusion about should and could, or whether laying that shoddy foundation down also left a hardy roots that grew like mushrooms in Hegelkulture underneath the top growth of philosophy and politics, I don’t know.

In any case, I am stuck with this ridiculous passion of thinking algorithmically. I am stuck with this technical, and often Robot-tending thinking pattern amidst feelings of a call to the wild and a desire to spend my life living without electricity in the woods. This time, however, I don’t think it’s pure mathematics that I’m getting reeled in by, I think it’s an application of that math. I think it’s computer science this time, and I think the difference is that now I’m not afraid to be content doing exactly what my father has as his profession.
And all this is to say, in a very silent, very confused whisper, “grad school?”

Topics: This is my life | Comments Off on An Open Application

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