Overall, I don’t think my father was disappointed in me. He didn’t set himself up for disappointment, because he didn’t pressure me to pursue any particular career. When I said I wanted to be a priest, that was all right with him. When I became a newspaper journalist instead, that was all right, too. He was both a practicing Catholic and a newspaper reader, so he was in a good position for success.

There was, however, one thing that he might have found frustrating about the younger of his sons — Tony’s brother, as it were — and that was my inability to learn how to add several columns of figures without carrying numbers.

NACD photo

At slow moments in my family’s grocery store — where adding columns of figures was a frequent chore — Dad would try to show me how to add three or four columns at once, rather than starting with the right-hand column (the pennies column) and carrying the excess to the top of the column to the left. “Put down the two, and carry the four” — that was how I had learned arithmetic. I couldn’t understand the alternate method Dad tried to teach me, which annoyed me, because he could add columns of figures with his technique nearly twice as fast as I could do it with mine.

Many years later, the dawn broke in my clouded mind while I was reading a book on math. There, for Pete’s sake, was Dad’s method — explained just as I remembered Dad explaining it — but somehow I finally understood it and have used it ever since.

Like many people, I suppose, I regarded math at best as a necessary evil in elementary and high school. I didn’t go near the subject in college or graduate school. When I was in my 30s, however, I inexplicably chose to read a book on math written by Bertrand Russell, and was surprised to find that the subject was attractive. As I result, I have read many books about math, the most recent one being “Here’s Looking at Euclid” by the British journalist Alex Bellos.

In fewer than 300 pages, Bellos covers a remarkably wide range of topics. He explains the origins of mathematical concepts that we take for granted — the sixty-minute hour and sixty-second minute, for example — and how mathematical understanding has evolved since some Sumerian in the fourth millennium B.C. first pressed a stylus  into a clay tablet. He writes about pi and infinity and probability (including its role in gambling), and the bell curve.

MUNDURUKU MEN

Bellos begins his book with an account of the Munduruku people of Brazil, who have a number system that goes only from one to five. Moreover, the Munduruku use only the numbers one and two to count precisely, using three, four and five more as estimates. In fact, Bellos explains, the Munduruku are baffled by others’ compulsion to enumerate people or objects and either cannot or will not answer if asked how many children they have. They know who their children are; that’s enough for them. It’s healthy, I think, to be reminded from time to time that everyone doesn’t look at the world through the lens we use.

Ventura College

What I particularly like reading about is the mystery and elegance that many people find in numbers. One example is the “golden proportion” or “golden ratio,” to which Bellos devotes a chapter. The definition of this term, known to mathematicians as phi, might be off-putting at first. Here it is as Bellos explains it: “The golden mean is the number that describes the ratio when a line is cut in two sections in such a way that the proportion of the entire line to the larger section is equal to the proportion of the larger section to the smaller section.” That number begins as 1.61803 and, like pi, goes on forever. It appears in many familiar geometric figures, including the five-pointed star. The 16th century mathematician Luca Pacioli, Bellos reports, “concluded that the number was a message from God, a source of secret knowledge about the inner beauty of things.” That notion may seem remote until Bellos explains how a retired dentist discovered that the golden proportion was the key to designing dentures that give an individual patient a proper smile – now a widely accepted principle in dentistry.

I’m sorry now that I once thought of math only as a nuisance, but books like this one have helped me make up for a misspent youth.

I’m obsessed

November 6, 2010

KATE SMITH

The popular song “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” was written in 1931, and its lyricists, Ted Koehler and Billy Moll, provided a hopeful message that sounded all the more melancholy because of the reality of the times – economic depression. My favorite recording of that song was made by Kate Smith. I like the way she sings two lines — both of them in this verse:

Your castles may tumble / that’s fate, after all / Life’s really funny that way / No use to grumble / Smile as they fall / Weren’t you king for a day?

Kate Smith had a wonderful, musical laugh, which I loved to hear on her radio and television shows. And she laughs that laugh on the word “funny” in that verse without breaking the tempo of the line. I can’t hear her sing that line too often, and I’ve had the recording for about 40 years. Then, at the end of the verse, she does a little glide on the word “day,” starting on the note and then smoothly sliding down the scale. Again, I’m obsessed with that line. I play the song just to hear her treatment of that one word – “day.”

BING CROSBY

In a similar vein, for many years, whenever I learned that a TV station was going to broadcast the movie “High Society,” I would watch it so that I could hear Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra perform the duet “Well, Did You Evah,” sometimes referred to as “What a Swell Party This Is.” I even figured out about how far into the movie that song occurs, because I didn’t want to watch the whole film, which is a flawed remake of “The Philadelphia Story.”

COLE PORTER

The movie has a book by John Patrick and songs by Cole Porter. In “Well, Did You Evah” Crosby and Sinatra simultaneously sing Porter’s lyrics and exchange spoken barbs. At one point, Crosby sings, “Have you heard / about dear Blanche? / Got run down by an avalanche.” Sinatra says, “Nooooo,” and Crosby answers “Don’t you worry. She’s a game girl, you know. Got up and finished fourth.” Sinatra: “This kid’s got guts.” Crosby: “Havin’ a nice time? Grab a line.” At which point, Sinatra resumes singing.  Crosby was Mister Smooth, and the way he delivers the line, “Don’t you worry. She’s a game girl, you know . . . ” has captivated me since the first time I heard it about 50 years ago. Fortunately, I now have bookmarked that song from YouTube and I can listen to Crosby say that line as often as I like, which is often, because I’m obsessed.

AL PACINO

I don’t experience this kind of fixation only with music. It also occurs with the spoken word — for example, with Al Pacino’s speech in the climax of the movie “Scent of a Woman.” I read a review of that movie in which the critic remarked that Pacino’s dramatic choices were confined to whether to speak loud or louder. It’s fair to say that Pacino often gobbles the scenery, but the most effective line in that speech is one for which he lowers his voice and uses the words like sharp instruments. It is the last sentence of this passage: “As I came in here, I heard those words, ‘cradle of leadership.’ Well, when the bow breaks, the cradle will fall. And it has fallen here; it has fallen. Makers of men; creators of leaders; be careful what kind of leaders you’re producin’ here.” When Pacino says those last words – “Be careful what kind of leaders you’re producin’ here” – he makes them prophetic, ominous. I bookmarked the video of that scene, too – it’s at THIS LINK — and I never tire of hearing him say it. I’m obsessed.

SETH RUDETSKY

I recently learned that this behavior doesn’t constitute a private disorder of mine – and that there is a name for it: deconstruction. The dawn broke when I was at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick talking to Seth Rudetsky, who is so versatile that he defies definition. It’s something like comedian-actor-radio host-raconteur-musician-composer. I was talking to him because he is going to appear in the George Street production of the musical play “[title of show].”

Rudetsky hosts a web site which includes a series of videos he calls “Deconstruction.” In these, he plays clips from Broadway musicals — a subject he knows inside-out — and analyzes, in his supercharged manner, the techniques with which a singer such as Florence Henderson, Laurie Beechman, or Kristin Chenoweth handles a song – or a line, or a word, or a syllable. “I’m obsessed!” he often says when he has played a phrase over and over again, mouthing the words along with the singer.

I’m glad to finally know that I’m in good company. Rudetsky’s site is at THIS LINK.