Death and Logarithms
One of my more difficult kids today, champion eye-roller, adenoidal whiner, one who feels the indignity of being sixteen more acutely than most and takes it out on me. Probably doesn’t even need a tutor, seems to pick up a decent understanding of the material from class, but highly unmotivated, vulnerable to that oldest of parental ruminations, not working up to her potential. Just getting by.
Once I showed up early and a truly beautiful boy came swaggering down the stairs, sized me up, slowly said, “You the math tutor?” and I think I may have blushed. He slipped out the door and she glared at me and I didn’t blame her. “Sorry,” I whispered. “You don’t have to work up to your potential. Working up to your potential is what people who don’t have sex in high school do to distract themselves.”
Today, anyway, she had some homework, difficult stuff, exponential equations. You need to use logarithms to solve them, something I never quite understood and actually learn anew every time I try to teach them. Then I get overly excited, telling the kids, “It’s not the opposite of an exponential function, it’s the inverse! That’s it! Yes!” Telling the kids, “MIND YOUR LOG RULES,” and they stare blankly, and I sigh and ask for paper, and they sigh and rip it out, and I sigh and ask them how they’re going to keep it in their notebooks if it’s ripped, and they sigh and open the rings on their binders, and then I write LOG RULES at the top of the paper, I write log MN = log M + log N, I write log M/N = log m – log N, I write log a^b = b log a, I point at the paper, I bang on the paper with my fist, I say, “THESE ARE THE RULES OF LOGS,” and they say, “Okay, okay,” and I say, “WHAT ARE THE RULES OF LOGS?” and they point at the paper and say, “These are!” I say, “Isn’t that thrilling? Aren’t you glad to be alive?” And they roll their eyes, and I say, “Okay, it’s not thrilling, it’s horrible, and the truth is you should drop out and run away from home. Take to the road! Take to the streets! Be bold! Be brave! Live freely!” And they say, “I don’t want to,” and I say, “Then LEARN the RULES OF LOGS like the coward you are!”
“What’s this even FOR?” whined Tuesday 6:30 adenoidally.
“These are exponential equations,” I said. “They’re actually kind of useful. You can use them to calculate population growth, or the decay of radioactive elements or drugs. Like medications, caffeine, and, ah, illegal drugs as well, they all degrade in the body according to these equations. So if you wanted to keep a constant supply of a substance in your body you’d use these equations to figure out how much should be in the pill and how frequently you should take it.”
“EW,” she said.
“Also, like, animal populations. If you figure out how fast the population is growing, you can figure out when a species was introduced, in a controlled environment, like an island.”
“So WHAT,” she said.
“And the other ones,” I continued, undeterred, “are for calculating interest. And actually, if you think about them a little you can see why rich people get so rich. Because interest increases exponentially, and what happens when big numbers get raised to higher powers?”
I like this kid because whenever she calls forth knowledge it always appears to be against her will. Her eyes rolled so far back in her head they went uniformly white.
“They increase FASTER,” she sighed with great effort.
“Yes, they do. That’s why they say ‘it takes money to make money.’ So these equations actually help us account mathematically for the gross inequities in our current society, and the increasing rate at which the gap between rich and poor is widening.”
This kid is suspicious of my propaganda.
“This is my homework,” she said pointedly.
“But I DID that part.”
“Okay, so let’s–”
“THIS is the hard part.”
“But I DID it. But Monica got a different answer.”
“Well, is Monica good at math?”
“Let me see.”
Monumental sigh, vicious shove of homework paper in my direction.
“Okay, this is right, good, okay, good, that’s the right equation, good, you remembered that growth rate is one plus the percentage, good, oh, well, this is wrong, you forgot to multiply the power by n, in this equation the exponent is actually t times n–“
The sigh turned into a snarl. She snatched the paper back, began erasing viciously.
I thought of money. Money, money, money. Forty minutes to money. I do this for money. I am not sixteen. I am not sixteen. I am free. School is over. I put in my time. All seven hundred days of high school, adjusted for exam days, sick days, the day I totaled the car. I got my degrees, and for this I am rewarded at higher hourly rates than those who did not, I am remunerated, I am paid for my trouble.
It wasn’t worth it. I’d rather have been upstairs with the beautiful boy, instead of never, ever forgetting to multiply t times n. Maybe once, but I made it up with an arcane extra credit project on credit cards, a graph in three different shades of colored pencil.
“Is THIS right?”
“Yes. Good. Good!”
Snarl, sigh, eye roll, adenoidal snuffle.
“What’s the POINT?”
“There is no point. This is the eleventh grade.”
“I HATE THIS.”
“That’s because it sucks.”
It always throws them off when I agree with them.
I brightened. “These equations are used by insurance companies. Insurance people use it to figure out–uh, risk, I think.” I’m cheering myself up! There are worse jobs in which equations can be used!
“That’s SO DEPRESSING.”
“Yes, it is.”
“How can those people LIVE?”
“I ask myself that all the time.”
“I mean, seriously. They couldn’t pay me enough.”
“Actually, I had a roommate once who was an actuary. He was weird. Calculated the likelihoods of various kinds of death all day.”
“Oh my GOD.”
“Yeah, he was totally weird. And it was a horrible apartment. I think there was an actual crack den on the first floor. There was a chop shop in the back. You know what a chop shop is?”
“Like with cars?”
“Yeah, when they steal cars, break them down real quick, sell the parts. Very noisy. There were feral cats in the alleyway. I never slept. My room was a closet. The whole apartment was titled. I rolled out of bed if I didn’t tense one side of my body all night. Except it wasn’t a bed. It was two foam-rubber mattresses from my parents’ attic. But then when Rebecca moved into the windowless closet we each had only one. It sucked. AND he never cleaned the bathroom. But yeah, it was weird, how he calculated death all day.”
“My friend says that when you die they empty your whole body of blood and fill it with GAS.”
“Not gas. Formaldehyde, I think. Very bad for the environment.”
“I want to be burned.”
“That’s a popular option,” I say, realizing as I hear the words that this is dialogue from Six Feet Under. “I want green burial.”
“It’s when they don’t use formaldehyde and instead they wrap you in a biodegradeable sheet.”
“I would give my organs. But not my eyes.”
“I would, too. Even my eyes. You’re not using them anymore, that’s the thing. They don’t see unless someone else gets them. But it’s not your eyes, it’s just your corneas anyway.”
“Maybe I don’t want green burial. I want to be shot out of a canon. But Hunter S. Thompson already did it, and Johnny Depp had to pay for it. Very expensive.”
“That’d be cool.”
“Or I would have a vast progeny and they could each have my ashes. And if anyone was mad at me they could flush me down the toilet.”
“Once you think about it it’s so scary.”
“It is, you can’t think about it too much. It’s so scary. Unless you go somewhere else, that’d be cool.”
“D’you think you do, though?”
“I want to. I don’t know. Sometimes. Most of the time I can’t make myself believe it but sometimes, I’ve had–experiences, there’ve been times I felt, I really felt it, that there was more, so much more that we can’t see, all around us, in us, that we are only a small part, of something so vast and not empty, not only empty, but infinite, filled with other realms and times, that maybe it’s beyond time, since time is what makes us die, maybe death is the passing beyond time, to a place where we move freely past all limiting forces of earthly life, and there is no pain, and no fear, and no time, and no ego. But then other times I think, this is it, this is the best place, or it’s not the best, it’s just the only, it’s all there is, that’s the secret, that’s the joke, that this life is Heaven, that our suffering is in vain, and takes away from an elusive and beautiful truth we’re denying to ourselves.”
It is strange to speak these words, at a dining room table in Park Slope, in the early evening, sober, not, say, babbling on a mountaintop or barstool, pupils dilated with with ancient dessicated plants or technologically advanced powders or tiny bits of paper impregnated with microscopic amounts of barely pronounceable substances originally designed for the interrogation of prisoners.
“I just don’t believe it.”
“Well, there’s no proof it’s there, but there’s no proof it’s not.”
“If it is, it will go against science.”
“Science is just another religion, made up by other people.”
“I don’t want to fly that much.”
“Maybe it’s floating.”
“Maybe it’s better than that, something we can’t imagine. But the worst thing is that it could be nothing.”
“That’s the worst thing.”
“How could it be nothing?”
“How could it not?”
I tell her about this song I know, about God and time. I tell her about the end of Six Feet Under Season 4, when the dead dad tells his son, “You can do anything, you lucky bastard – you’re alive! What’s a little pain compared to that?” I’m not sure what I’m saying. I’m glad I’m not on drugs.
“You can’t think about this too much,” I warn.
“It’s too crazy.”
There is quiet. I check the time.
“Well, that’s all the time we have for today. Why don’t you just do one problem so we can make sure you understand.”
The equations are incredibly complicated. The problem is tricky. But now there’s no time to teach her everything, because we spent the whole session talking about death, life after death, what happens to our bodies when we die. I ask for another sheet of looseleaf. I write down all the equations. I label them, “INTEREST,” and “POPULATION, RADIATION, DRUGS.” I spin the paper around so it’s in front of her.
I say, “There.”