Lee Pitts: Do the math
I’m often asked by young students what they should study in college in order to become a professional writer. If I was one perhaps I’d know. Other than the four mandatory years of English in high school I’ve never taken a writing class in my life. Never. Not one. And I’d bet that two of my favorite writers, Mark Twain and Will Rogers, never took a class in creative writing either. A teacher these days would give Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn an “F” for not being politically correct.
Since my older brother was a brilliant mathemagician, my mother insisted that I follow in his footsteps and take every math class my high school offered. By the time I also took two hours of ag classes a day, a lecture and a shop class, I didn’t have any time left to take typing. Which is how I’ve made my living, two fingers at a time. Peck, peck, peck.
I’d probably like math, if it wasn’t for all the numbers. It’s just that when I went to school it was after a sinister creature had just created “new math” with all its fancy formulas, powers, subsets, less-thans, square roots and pi. The only thing I know now is that pie tastes better with a dollop of whipped cream and if your roots like carrots, onions, tubers and other roots are square, they’ll dock you at the packing shed.
Math was good training to become a storyteller. I learned how to round-off numbers so that a five ounce trout I caught became a five pounder, and a Longhorn leppy calf with nubs that charged me became a raving one ton maniac with 60 inch horns. In arithmetic I learned to DIVIDE the bad news so I didn’t dump it all on the reader at one time. I also learned how to MULTIPLY degrees of emotion so that a wife who was just having a bad day became “out of her raving mind.” In my mind-numbing statistics class I learned that the use of numbers should always be kept to a bare minimum. One statistic per paragraph is more than enough.
I also learned that the higher up the math, the more worthless it was for writing, and for living. I’ve forgotten all those complicated formulas I learned in order to solve problems like… “If you drive west at 80 miles per hour into a 30 mph headwind and I leave home doing 85 with a 50 mph tailwind, what time would we pass each other?”
Later in life I learned the right answer is that you drive 85 mph anywhere you’ll get to SUBTRACT $1,000 to pay a speeding ticket.
If I was to advise young people I’d suggest they learn how to SUBTRACT because that’s what they’ll spend their life doing: SUBTRACTING tariffs, tolls, tithes and taxes. The commission man is going to SUBTRACT pounds from your cattle and call it shrink, the auction market will SUBTRACT a commission, and the government is going to SUBTRACT sales tax, income tax, estate tax, property tax, excise tax, occupancy tax, and so on. Then they’ll SUBTRACT a surcharge, like a big red cherry on top a hot fudge sundae.
Have you ever noticed that as an adult you must SUBTRACT everything in your life that’s enjoyable. Doctors will tell you to SUBTRACT smoking, drinking, fatty foods, blah, blah, blah. Just once I’d like to hear my doctor say, “You need to ADD one healthy helping of berry cobbler with two scoops of homemade vanilla ice cream at least once per day.”
Besides SUBTRACTION, I’d also advise youngsters to learn how to DIVIDE. Not the fancy long division kind, just simple short division stuff. As a kid you’ll have to DIVIDE everything with your siblings, then when you get married you’ll have to DIVIDE your dessert at pricey restaurants with your spouse, and then when you get divorced you’ll have to DIVIDE everything you own. Yessirree… I’d pay attention real good on the day they teach you how to DIVIDE by two.
The most important lessons I learned in math class, and in life, is that you should SUBTRACT conceit and always ADD in a little humor. DIVIDE your sorrows, my friends, and MULTIPLY your good fortune by sharing it with people you love.
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