I was never very good at arithmetic or math when I was in school. This was rough because my dad was a mathematician. I struggled more, I think, than my parents knew or my teachers knew. Now I know there is a learning disability — discalcula — that makes it difficult for some students to read a number problem. When we got to algebra, I was screwed.

But in 9th grade we had one six-week unit on a different kind of math. I didn’t just love it, I got an A. It was a unit on theoretical math and it included topology. That was completely fascinating to me. Here were bottles that had no inside or outside, maps that couldn’t be drawn (but had been), and the Möbius Strip. I already knew about this wonderful thing because my dad and I had built some.

“Here’s the symbol for infinity, MAK,” said my dad. I loved infinity.

I think my dad must have been happy when I cam home excited about math rather than despairing. I wanted to talk to him about all the cool stuff I’d learned — about Pascals triangle, probability theory, Klein bottles, the whole shebang.

It was our custom to do the Saturday shopping together without my mom. Now I understand it was a way for my dad (who had MS) to enjoy a walk around the grocery store aided by a shopping cart. We had our method. We went up one aisle and down the other. It was an inside joke between us. When my mom was a teacher, she’d assigned the usual fall essay, “How I Spent my Summer Vacation.” Her school was in rural Montana, so she couldn’t have expected much, but one kid wrote. “I hoed beets. I went up one row, and down the other. Up one row and down the other.” He filled the paper with this.

And my mom told this story over and over…

One Saturday my dad and I headed to Bakers (the store). Dad had a list, but we often bought stuff off the list. At the end, it was a race between me and the checker to see if I could keep up with her or even get ahead of her. Back then, prices weren’t scanned, they were punched into the cash register key board.

My dad and I were waiting for the people ahead of us. As the groceries were carried on the conveyor belt, my dad suddenly said, “You know what that is?”

“Conveyor belt?”

“Most conveyor belts are Möbius Strips.”


I tried to fathom this by imagining a little paper Möbius strip in my mind.

“It has no sides, honey. Remember? By using a Möbius strip as a conveyor belt, no ‘side’ wears out before the other. It wears evenly.”

“Wow.” That this strange stuff was actually useful seemed miraculous to me.

“Still haven’t found a practical use for the Klein Bottle, though,” laughed my dad.



19 thoughts on “Infinitude

    • I liked conceptual math but getting the right answer was almost impossible after 2nd grade. My dad would say, “Pay attention!” and “You’re not trying!” but that wasn’t the case at all. At least I had 6 great weeks.

  1. Great story, I learned something. Interesting on the variability of math skills/concepts. For me some parts were easy and fascinating, and others amazingly elusive.

    • For me 8 3 B are all interchangeable. b, p and 6 also. 5 and S. F and 4 and I had no idea. I guess back in the day we were taught to read aloud so words were sounds, but numbers and letters cloaking numbers? It’s really unfortunate because I wanted to be a physicist. 😀

      • Interesting on a cognitive level, and yes, very unfortunate and disappointing to have this limit your choices. Interestingly, one of the reasons my father became a physicist (in addition to his dad being one) is due to a reading disability. He liked physics because he could derive everything. To this day, reading is painfully slow for him.

        • I think of things like this when someone says, “You can do anything if you just work hard enough” or some such cliché that is not actually true. It’s also why I reject the “sciences vs. humanities” dichotomy that seemed to slog along behind me throughout school and my career as a writing/English teacher. It’s totally possible to love something that you will never be good at. My dad wrote abysmal poetry, but he wrote a lot of it. 🙂

    • I don’t hate it. I just can’t do it easily. I did find out about 20 years ago that if I DON’T write the numbers down, I have a better chance of solving an equation. It’s when I start writing them that things go sideways.

  2. Just so love this one. Glad I saved it. It’s Friday and I’m cleaning out my inbox. I guess when this post arrived I was too busy to read it, glad I made the time now. Loved the beet row story and the way your dad related to you. Priceless.

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