I’m beginning to think that the lab for the course won’t offer as much fun as I hoped with, I’m realizing, few opportunities to blow shit up (despite the fact that I’ll have to wear retro-groovy protective glasses). Before I get to see if my worst fears will be realized, however, I have to read the “Math Review” section of the course’s Lab Manual in preparation for the first lab Monday. But first, a review of my own math seems in order.

As a child, I worked behind the counter of my parent’s store. It was what’s called a “newsagent” in Ireland: we sold newspapers and magazines, cigarettes, candy, toys, little brass ornaments, and greeting cards (in New York terms, a large beer-less bodega). I was pretty tall as a boy, so I started working there at about eight-years-old, and as we didn’t have a cash register until I was about fifteen, I became great at what used to be called (is it still?) ‘mental arithmetic.’ At school, I was okay at maths (in Ireland we say “maths” not “math.” “Math” used to sound weird to me, now “maths” does as my American enculturation becomes more or less complete). My lack of success was due, if memory serves, to my habit of not presenting the steps along the way to a solution to a problem and that, in turn, was perhaps because I was infected by my cash register-free childhood.

At University College, Dublin, as an undergrad, I did nothing mathematical whatsoever for the very good reason that I didn’t have to given that I was a politics and philosophy double major (This system of absolute concentration on one’s major has since been changed, and my nephew Mark, a sophomore in biochemistry at U.C.D., took a course in Greek philosophy last fall.). It was only when I got to NYU to do my Ph.D. in politics that math reared its ugly head again in the shape of a required course in statistics.

It would have been my third semester at NYU when I enrolled for statistics and in one of the perhaps stupidest move I ever made in 24 years in university, I also enrolled for a course in German translation and the required second course in American politics. Of course, I ended up at NYU’s “Wellness Center” and only got through the stats course through the good offices of Youssef Cohen, the professor, the T.A. a Russian fellow whom I’m sure was robbed of a few years of his life by my efforts, and Rudy, the bartender at Acme Bar and Grill. Still I eventually escaped with a B and went back to reading political theory. (I tell the story of that semester to students during freshman orientation to illustrate two points: never put all the courses you don’t want to do in one semester and don’t give up hope if a course is not going well.)

I, of course, realize that mental arithmetic is going to prove as useful as skill at stagecoach repair would be when confronted with a malfunctioning Boeing 747, but I’m going to hold onto that thin reed…at least until I read the math review.