When I think back to the one day that almost everyone in my generation recalls vividly, I remember that the one thing that gave me perspective on September 11, 2001 was the fact that I taught my class in College Algebra. When my students were having trouble making it to class, because of closed bridges and highways, I stood in front of a (small) class and explained the rules by which the mathematical world, if not the real world, functioned. Knowing that many polynomials could be factored into components brought a sense of calmness to a horrible day, in a way that “comfort food” helps us survive difficult times in our lives. I thought of this recently when my daughter commented on a sweater I was wearing.
My daughter seems to have acquired a sense of fashion recently, and has not been reluctant to tell me when my clothes don’t measure up to her standards. “I can’t believe you are wearing that out in public” was how she commented on one of my golf shirts that had definitely seen its better days, especially after it spent time in the dryer with a pair of her jeans that she had left a crayon in. So I expected negative comments when I wore one of my old favorite sweaters, left over from at least graduate school (maybe longer- I don’t remember), with horizontal (yes, horizontal) stripes and a softness from too many washings. Surely she would not approve!
And yet, instead, my daughter hugged me in my sweater and sighed. She said “I love that sweater, because it is the sweater that you wear when you stay home to take care of me when I am sick.” I hugged her back, and immediately thought of my own childhood and lima beans.
When I was very young, my own mother struggled to get me to eat lima beans. The truth is that she struggled to get me to eat almost everything, since I was a very fussy eater at that stage of life. I was particularly not interested in the harder outer covering of these beans, and refused to eat them. That is, until she discovered that she could (very carefully) remove the outer covering to form what I soon started to call “off skin beans.” With this minor modification, I began to eat lima beans, and they quickly became my favorite vegetable. With much fanfare, they have become my daughter’s favorite veggie, too, made all the more appreciated by the butter my mother-in-law likes to cook on them for special occasion meals.
After studying math and economics for most of my adult life, I think of these subjects as intellectual “comfort food”, similar to lima beans, but without the extra butter. I wonder if my relationship to these subjects is a result of the type of subjects they are (very logical, each step following from the previous one), or if such a feeling is universal and shared by people who teach in other disciplines. I hope so, because these subjects are able to give me an instant sense of calmness that I can’t find anywhere else. I hope that my colleagues in other departments feel the same way about their own disciplines.
Several weeks ago, my daughter asked me if her youngest cousin gets into as much trouble as she does. I answered “of course she does; you two are two peas in a pod.” I think that my daughter was thinking of my favorite vegetable and the emotional attachment I have to it when she quickly answered “I’m not a pea. I’m a lima bean.”