Self-Forgiveness is Found, Lessons are Learned, and New Friends are Made Along the Way

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Self-Forgiveness is Found, Lessons are Learned, and New Friends are Made Along the Way

Catherine Durante

Recently one morning, I was awoken by the sound of my cell phone¡¯s ¡°dream sequence¡± alarm¡­ 9:30am again. I commenced my usual morning regiment, which includes pressing the power button on my laptop. When I returned from the bathroom, the ¡°Netscape News¡± was the opening page on the computer screen and wait a minute¡­ this headline cannot be right¡­ ¡°Study Claims Ice, Not Water, Kept Jesus Afloat.¡± Ok, be kind¡­ rewind! No, absolutely not! Scientists, what are you doing? Your evidence imposes on my beliefs and your research does not belong¡­ I¡¯m getting d¨¦j¨¤ vu. There I was, two weeks ago, writing The Scarlet Letter, a classic American novel, in algebraic terms and here I am now, almost having a heart attack when the realm of science infringes on my Catholic sphere of belief. Hawthorne must have been turning in his grave with every punch of the keyboard I made on the computer! Now, I know how it feels. The first word that came to mind was ¡°wrong.¡± It¡¯s so wrong to try to justify scientifically something so sacred as Jesus walking on water. But by saying this statement to myself, I am a hypocrite. Mark Twain must have felt the exact same way as he watched in agony, not able to communicate with me from above, as I compared his ending in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to a math problem I had difficulty solving. I¡¯m as abominable as those scientists.

But wait¡­ at least I tried it. Is it so wrong to at least attempt to cross such antithetic outlooks? Now, I¡¯m asking Hawthorne and Twain to cut me some slack. I did not give the scientists a break. Here I am changing my mind again¡­ and it¡¯s all due to literature. Literature is extremely powerful, it can change the most concrete of things, even my stubborn, Irish mind. I went from believing anything in the compass of literature could be analyzed and answered by utilizing mathematical principles, to realizing the limits of that approach in the context of a fictional world in a novel. Now, I apprehend that seeing everything, and everything as in life (yes, even the clock that reads 3:21), as a matrix has its own set of limits. What have I missed watching those numerical vertical columns modulate instead of pressing the pause button and adjusting my peripheral? Thus, I am compelled to explore.

For the last thirteen years of my life, I¡¯ve seen my fair share of math problems. I can remember the first math test I ever failed (it cost my mom a speeding ticket when she found out) and I even remember the first problem I ever calculated that did not have an answer. I was sitting in Ms. Pandya¡¯s fifth grade classroom at P.S. 131. It was sixth period and Ms. Pandya had just introduced the notion of complex exponential problems. I had no trouble understanding the concept; that tiny number to the top right of the number tells me how many times I have to multiply the big number by itself. 21=2, 22=4¡­ last problem¡­ 20. Umm, there has to be no answer. The 0 indicates that I shouldn¡¯t multiply 2 by anything so there must be no answer. Wanting to be that genius kid in the class that has the answer to the trick question, I immediately projected my hand upwards. ¡°No, Catherine. There is an answer. It¡¯s 1,¡± exclaimed Ms. Pandya as she turned her back to the class to write out the answer. ¡°Why?,¡± I asked promptly. The teacher froze, reversed to see me in my seat, cocked her eyebrow and answered, ¡°It just is.¡± If I was who I was a month ago, I probably would¡¯ve inquired further and persistently dug into proving logically that a number raised to the zero power is equal to one. I know what you¡¯re thinking, isn¡¯t that what you did Catherine when Ms. Pandya said those three words? No, I didn¡¯t have that response and that¡¯s what makes that problem so unforgettable. Directly after hearing those words, I remember feeling a sensation, a wave of tension pulsate over my body. That answer, the number one, is untouchable.

That exponential concept in math is known as a ¡°given.¡± There is absolutely no logical way to prove that that concept is true. Until recently I took those givens as givens and never questioned their validity. Now that this wave of nostalgia has washed over me, I researched as to why the givens are so. Dr. Ian, the moderator at the math forum, ¡°Ask Dr. Math,¡± at Drexel University, says that overall, we need ¡°to understand that the interpretation of n^0 isn't something that can be (or needs to be) proven. We're free to choose what we want it to be, so long as that choice is consistent with the choices we've already made¡± (2000, para. 1). This explanation seems to describe Huck. All the way back in Chapter I, Huck realizes that ¡°[Miss Watson] was going to live so as to go to the good place. Well, I couldn¡¯t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn¡¯t try for it¡­ I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said, not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together¡± (16). I was so preoccupied in my first reading of Huck Finn that I missed the indication that there will be no answer. These words of Huck tell me that he will be consistent in his decisions to go the other way, and Huck¡¯s method of reaching that place is following Tom Sawyer, the boy who sees black people as a different species to be toyed with. I drew this parallel but more importantly, I realized Dr. Ian said that math is limited within itself.

I¡¯ve been seeing math as an absolute lens, no holes in the sequence caps. If I can¡¯t even prove math problems with math, how am I to compute an answer to literary problems in The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? By doing math, I accept absolute truth and the fact that there are some domains in which math is not in the range; ¡°There are ¡®always true statements that cannot be proven¡¯... Hence it follows that some real numbers are ¡®not computable¡¯¡± (Grobstein, 2004). Going back to my ¡°paralleling¡± of the idea that Huck and n0 have much in common, I realize that I am not justified in comparing those two. By realizing the limits and flaws in my own ways, seeing everything through the columns of a matrix vector, I see Huck through a different lens; Huck telling me that he wants to do what Tom Sawyer does to go ¡°downstairs¡±, is not that negative sign in front of ¦¤G that indicates the chemical reaction is spontaneous or a mathematical clue, but rather it is the literary device known as foreshadow. Now, I must utilize literary terminology when analyzing such literary texts. Math jargon just won¡¯t fit.

I have been known to chastise Huck for not doing the reasonable thing in very dangerous situations. Yes, Huck should not listen to Tom every time a new idea pops out of his mouth and Huck should never have gotten involved with the Duke and the Dauphin in the first place. However, after closer examination, I realize that Huck does rationalize and makes decisions that have a profit for everyone. Huck figures that he should not let on that he knows the Duke and the Dauphin are fakes but rather, he ¡°kept it to [him]self; it¡¯s the best way; then you don¡¯t have no quarrels, and don¡¯t get into no trouble¡­ [he] hadn¡¯t no objection, long as it would keep peace in the family¡± (142). Yes, Huck! I¡¯m so proud. You seem to have examined every possible stratagem and chose the most propitious. You¡¯re thinking like a mathematician. However, all this rationalizing is a short term success. Huck¡¯s reasoning leads to the whole entire group being put into a dangerous situation. At the third night¡¯s performance of the Duke and Dauphin¡¯s fusion of Shakespeare¡¯s various works, Huck senses and sees that the audience intends to catapult various edible objects at the performers and possibly storm the stage and lead a riot. Huck chronicles the scene, ¡°I see that every man that went in had his pockets bulging, or something muffled up under his coat- I see it warn¡¯t no perfumer, neither¡­ I smelt sickly eggs by the barrel, and rotten cabbages, and such things¡­ but it was too various for me, I couldn¡¯t stand it¡± (166). Huck chooses to act as a minion of the two fake royals and thus, does not take the dominant leader role and listens to the duke when he commands Huck to ¡°walk fast, now, till [he] get[s] away from the houses, and then shin for the raft like the dickens was after [him]!¡± (167). At this point in the novel, I am extremely familiar with Huck¡¯s magic wit. I¡¯m sure if Twain were to divulge what Huck was thinking rather than recounting the actions of the characters, he would write Huck as saying, ¡°I could¡¯ve taken their place on that there stage and given em¡¯ a show that¡¯d a have them laughin¡¯ just as sure¡¯s you¡¯re born!¡± Huck could probably have gotten the entire family out of the situation however, his previously thought-to-be- great idea of keeping silent overruled his sharp wit. Rationality did not abet Huck when he used it. I criticize this fictional character for not rationalizing and then, when he does, he finds himself in a dangerous predicament. In my mind, Twain is telling me I am taking this story too seriously. ¡°Rationality didn¡¯t help Huck, and he¡¯s not even real! You think it will do anything more for you?!¡± Lesson learned: I can¡¯t apply reasoning to every situation I am in. Sometimes, things must run their course.

I am hearing Twain¡¯s voice in my head and I am nostalgic again. Ever since I encountered ¡°Wishbone,¡± the television program that comprised of a tiny canine acting as the protagonist of various classics (Wishbone played Huck in the episode of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), I knew Mark Twain and the Mississippi River were synonymous. There¡¯s probably enough of his blood in the waters for the river to almost be a relation. It¡¯s sounds so charming, living such a life as a steamboat pilot. Of course there are rough patches of current, it¡¯s not all basking in the sun. Before my adventures beyond the x and y axis planes, I would not have found such a career a probable one for me. Yes, it¡¯s fun but is a concrete profession? Will I be guaranteed benefits and consistent employment? I would think, no. However, after reading Mark Twain¡¯s autobiography, I have amassed respect for every worker on that majestic river. Who knew such observations such as noticing the water line up to the roots of the banks indicates that there is seven feet in the chute of 103 (Twain, ch.10, 2)? Even Twain was a mathematician. See¡­ it¡¯s a formidable task, making myself see past the math in everything. Then, I am drawn to a single passage Twain writes regarding the history of the Mississippi; ¡°To say that De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542, is a remark which states a fact without interpreting it: it is something like giving the dimensions of a sunset by astronomical measurements, and cataloguing the colors by their scientific names;-- as a result, you get the bald fact of the sunset, but you don¡¯t see the sunset. It would have been better to paint a picture of it¡± (Twain, ch.1, 2). Wow, you¡¯re right Mr. Twain. I¡¯ve worked extensively with the Cosine Curve for the past 7 years of my life but I¡¯ve never marveled at its beauty and complexity, the way it moves back and forth, always consistent and never wavering. In analyzing The Scarlet Letter, I was so concentrated on how Chillingworth fit exactly into the role of the complicated, insidious element in every logarithmic problem that I forgot to realize he is layered. He wasn¡¯t always that evil man full of malice, he used to be a man in love with Hester Prynne. That transformation is piercing. Twain made the same mistake himself. He judged his education was complete; the way he saw and utilized the river was all that was necessary. Until, Mr. Bixby changed his river outlook enough for Twain to say, ¡°Then I¡¯ve got to go to work and learn just as much more river as I already know¡± (Twain, ch. 10, 3). I also need to labor down my river of humanities and explore underneath my matrix net to see the schools of words in the water.

It seems I¡¯m having an episode of self-reflection with each letter I type. Looking back on my neoteric reading history, I see I need to renovate my readings of Uncle Tom¡¯s Cabin and Moby Dick, they too must not be ignored. I remember feeling disappointed in both Stowe and Melville. Stowe told me too much, her message too obvious and overemphasized in every sentence that I felt intellectually inferior. Melville was too dull, I knew the ending to the novel before reaching the half-way point. In those two evaluations, I treated these two notions as separate, two entirely different denunciations in each novel. Now I¡¯ve had an epiphany. Why can¡¯t I overlap those two entities and find a happy medium like the place I have now reached, where math and English meet? Just this once, maybe I can apply Hess¡¯s Law to Moby Dick and Uncle Tom¡¯s Cabin. I can take each of those two criticisms and combine them to create a positive type of novel that I can enjoy analyzing. As Anna Dalke once wrote, ¡°The best, the most precious, the most useful stories are those which BOTH 1. reveal the unexpected, are counterintuitive, have a ¡®surplus resonance¡¯ 2. AND ALSO are predictive, have what (literary theorist) Mark Turner calls ¡®parable-like correspondences¡¯¡± (Dalke, 2). I can now make a blueprint of my ideal novel; the pages must be soaked to the brim with new literary or ¡°english¡± aspects to which, when appropriate, I can apply my ¡°mathematical¡± history to reveal and uncover that which is familiar territory. I can¡¯t sacrifice the math portion for just the English portion. The two cannot be separated for me. I also cannot sacrifice the English for the math, such as with The Scarlet Letter. I saw math as having infinite limits, relevant to all entities and answered ¡°yes¡± to the question of, ¡°Is it conceivable that one could trade some decreased amount of consistency for some increased amount of ¡®completeness¡¯?¡± (Grobstein, 3). I was so desperate for answers to Hawthorne¡¯s multi-solution questions that I did not stay consistent with his theme of the unknown. Sometimes there are no answers or even more, the answers are not relevant, the journey is what is paramount.

I now return to my favorite character of all the novels previously mentioned, Huckleberry Finn. I found that Huck had an avocation in which he rationalized and that method was not beneficial in the extremity. I might have been harsh in my resenting of reasoning out a problem. Yes, I shouldn¡¯t rationalize in every instance, sometimes I should follow the ¡°blink¡± and not think. I was so disappointed that the situations in which Huck does not rationalize but acts in the heat of the moment outnumber the instances in which he thinks his decisions through. I then read over Twain¡¯s own words about his best friend, the Mississippi. Even Twain admits that something so concrete as a titanic river can change drastically. To this steamboat pilot, it was well known that for ¡°a man living in the State of Mississippi to-day, a cut-off [can] occur tonight, and to-morrow the man [will] find himself and his land over on the other side of the river, within the boundaries and subject to the laws of the State of Louisiana!¡± (Twain, ch. 1, 2). My disappointment in Huck¡¯s lack of mathematical dexterity suddenly fades. This passage gives me hope, hope that eventually, Huck will be able to cipher out the occurrences where he is in real danger and cannot rely on just childish jocularity but use dimensional reasoning. Mark Twain put the heart of the Mississippi into his novel, making Huck ambiguous on certain topics and wavering in his decisions, yet still discernible as that Huckleberry Finn. Huck is so young and like the river, I am confident Twain had in mind that in Huck¡¯s future, after page 296, he would evolve, an evolution such as I have had, finding that in some cases, two different spheres are needed to answer some questions. Of course, Huck wouldn¡¯t evolve too much, he would never let go of his overall charm. I¡¯m sure 62 year old Huck and I would be very close.

Wow! I was so rough on myself earlier. I alone was putting such weight on my shoulders for being a math intruder in an english major¡¯s house. I thought no one would forgive me. But my constant companion, Mr. Twain is right there by my side. We have more in common than you may think: I learned so much from Mark about piloting on the Mississippi. He told me a particularly striking fact once about how on the river he ¡°often hit WHITE logs, in the dark, for [he] could not see them till [he was] right on them; but a black log is a pretty distinct object at night. A white snag is an ugly customer when the daylight is gone (Twain, ch. 10, 4). Twain just outlined my mistake: it was easy for me to manipulate literary aspects to fit into the mathematical terrene, the black log I too could notice in the context of the black, math world. I couldn¡¯t see the white in the darkness, the interpretation within the drafting in novels. Twain understands me, and I am forgiven. I just hope he converses with Stowe, Melville, and Hawthorne¡­ just to put in a good word for me.

I¡¯ve surprised myself with how much my horizon has shifted since my exploration of The Scarlet Letter. I thought I was alone in my realization of the limits of a one-way vision. Twain then gave me a cup of hot chocolate, put a blanket around my shoulders and seated me in front of the fire. He gently taught me that it is not a crime to make a mistake, but rather, the real crime is missing out on everything I could¡¯ve seen. I also¡­ and this was the hardest task to undertake¡­ took mathematics off the pedestal and noticed the cracks in the cement foundation holding it up, thanks to Mr. Grobstein. Math is impaired itself, thus I dug into my mind and realized what was already there¡­ I knew math had flaws¡­ I had accepted them since fifth grade. Perhaps the greatest achievement of them all is finding the happy midway point between math and English in regards to literature, but more importantly, to life. I know the transformation will not take place overnight. I¡¯ll need more practice before I can sort out which literary situations place math as an over analysis and english as just an over-simplifier of the themes. I suppose I¡¯ll start with my favorite literary masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities. Imagine how blind I must have been!

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