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Why I Failed Math Story Problems

Writers can weave stories out of the smallest details, but we're very bad at sciencey-mathy things. We can't solve algebraic equations or balance our checkbooks, but we're great at making up new words like "sciencey-mathy."

You would think writers would be good at story problems, but we tend to focus on the story more than the math. An example:

"Jeanette and Stephen are each going to visit their mother in Croton-On-Hudson, New York for Thanksgiving. Jeanette and her family will drive from Stamford, Connecticut, taking highway 9A, which takes 54 minutes. Stephen will take the number 5 subway to Penn Station, and then the train, which will take 1 hour and 54 minutes. If dinner starts at 3:00, what time will Jeanette and Stephen each need to leave to arrive in time for dinner?"

The more important question is why can't Jeanette and Tim, her husband, just give Stephen a ride? If he took the train out to Stamford, he could ride with Jeanette, Tim, and their two kids, Reese and Aubrey, spending quality time with them.

Answer: Because Stephen can't stand the frosty tension between Jeanette and Tim. They constantly snipe at each other, sleep in separate rooms, and haven't been intimate for years. They bicker in front of the kids, who don't notice, because they spend all their time texting with friends.

Tim suspects Jeanette of having an affair with their neighbor, and she's been drowning her feelings of neglect and rage in a bottle of pinot grigio each night. Rather than confront her — Tim hates confrontation — he's been spending more time at the accounting firm he runs with his brother, paying more attention to their marketing coordinator, Allison, than he maybe should.

Their nanny — manny, actually, since Jeanette wouldn't hear of hiring a college girl to flaunt herself in front of Tim — takes the kids to soccer practice, dance recitals, and so on. Jeanette has also been paying a little more attention to Jason the manny than she maybe should.

The kids are busy and disinterested, Tim is always working, and Jeanette is busy with her "interior design business," the go-to business choice for rich stay-at-home moms who received a couple compliments on their kitchen and living room remodel. She's had three clients in two years, including the neighbor she's been sleeping with.

Today's argument was about whether to take I-287 versus NY 9-A to her mother's. GPS says 287 will only take 37 minutes without traffic, but Tim is worried about holiday traffic, which can add 90 minutes. He says that while 9-A is curvier and a longer distance, they can avoid any "potential problems." Jeanette senses he really means "I don't have to spend as much time with you," and her fragile insecurity causes her to polish off the other half bottle of pinot from last night's dinner, which she ate and then purged, while Tim and Allison "discussed a new marketing campaign."

"Cripes, it's barely 12:00," whines Tim, looking at her glass. Jeanette hurls it into the sink, shattering it. The kids barely look up from their iPhones. "Ah, the holidays," they think.

Meanwhile, Stephen lives in Brooklyn, where he is a novelist and creative writing instructor at the New School in Manhattan. He's bringing his girlfriend, Rachel, home to meet the family, knowing she'll raise a few eyebrows. Rachel is African-American, and Stephen's mother is a bit of a racist. So is Tim, a die-hard conservative who doesn't actually know any black people.

Rachel's experiences are more urban, and Stephen knows his mother and Tim will make snide remarks and ignorant statements all day. But he loves Rachel, a professional dancer and actress, and has prepared her for all this. He knows the less time she's around his family, the better. Which rules out riding with Jeanette and Tim in their ostentatious SUV.

Stephen also can't stand his niece and nephew. They're spoiled brats who spend more time texting their friends than actually engaging in human communication. Stephen suspects Reese may be using prescription medication, something he'd had his own experience with, having completed rehab two years ago. He mentioned it to Jeanette once, who screamed at him for 20 minutes.

Stephen will need to leave at 12:00 in order to arrive at 2:00, otherwise the next train would get him to his mother's at 3:15. While he's not looking forward to the extra hour there, it's certainly better than hearing his mother gripe for the rest of the day about his being 15 minutes late.

"Erik, the correct answer was 2:00 and 1:00. Please take this worksheet home to your parents, have them sign it, and tell them I want to meet with them at their earliest convenience."


Photo credit: Clay Shonkwiler (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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