Daniel Menaker

Long division was bad enough, right? As you approached it in grade school, you knew it was a pedagogical accident waiting to happen. When the number on the left, outside the little house, waiting to get in, was a single digit, no problemo. But if you were eschatologically minded, or simply obsessed with death, you couldn’t help looking at the second half of your arithmetic book–dwelling on it, maybe even–and there, waiting to start its procession through your desperate brain like some endless numerological funeral cortege, were row upon row of problems in which two and three and maybe even four digits outside the house were waiting to get in. And–oh my God, how was this possible?–as the pages went on (and on and on) those two or three digits outside the two dimensional bus shelter began to grow bigger than the first two or three corresponding digits inside the shelter. The idea of the outsiders’ admission to the inside defied logic. And–wait just a minute!--here are some problems where all the numbers outside the cantilever make an overall number bigger than the number hiding out within. Surely this was a joke! Then, because if you were like me you just couldn’t get enough of math anxiety, you snuck a look at your older brother’s math book, and there you found, to your horror, what seemed to be division problems whose architecture was even more troublingly asymmetrical than the normal terrifying problems in long division that you were going to have to start weeping over round about the start of baseball season; these problems had little V-shaped hooks or barbs on the end. St. Sebastian math problems. You asked your brother what they were. “Square roots, you blivet,” you were told (back in the ‘50s). And you knew you might as well throw in the towel right then. Even the name of this new circle of fresh arithmetic hell defied logic.

I was reminded of this seemingly eon-long part of childhood last night, when I sat with my wife and daughter in the dining room after dinner and caught a glimpse on my daughter’s wrist of the watch I’d given her a few weeks earlier as a reward for handling some dental travail of her own (cf Dr. Ha-ha, This Guy Thinks He’s Finished, in yesterday’s diary entry) with so much composure. She has, installed across the roof of her mouth, an expandable metal plate, for God’s sake, which for a while my wife and I would have to ratchet open another notch every night with a little wrench, for God’s sake, and she has been amazingly calm about the whole thing. The watch is called a Baby G watch, it’s made by Casio, and it has across its face a little metal tube, almost as thin as a pin, in a square-root shape. First memories of the arithmetic fantods and then of grade school in general washed over me. “Who sets the style in sixth grade these days?” I asked my daughter. “Different people,” she said. “Like I influenced Becky with my messenger backpack. Becky and then about 20 other people,” she added with satisfaction. “Becky influenced everyone with her Baby G watch,” she went on. “Before, I influenced people with my Skechers shoes, until they got crusty.” “Is that your messenger backpack?” I asked, pointing toward a handsome blue item sitting next to her on the couch. “Of course it is,” my wife said. “How about your pony tail?” I asked. “The way you sort of half tuck it in.” My daughter said, “Oh, everyone has pony tails.” My wife added, “Lizi’s lucky–she has a good-shaped head for pony tails. I wish I did.” “But you do,” I said. “No,” my wife said, gathering some of her hair back in a nod toward a pony tail. “My forehead is too narrow. It doesn’t look right.”

My son was sick, with a mild version of the virulent flu that’s going around, and he had been grouchy at dinner. We were having stew that my wife had cooked on Sunday–“A one dish meal” she said proudly, knowing that this would please whoever cleaned up afterward. “Is this meat from a cow?” my son asked. “Listen, you’d be lucky to get stew this good in a restaurant,” I said. “Do they even serve stew in restaurants?” he asked. “Yes, but sometimes they call it a ragout.” “Whatever,” Will said. “Not where I have lunch,” my wife said. “Where I have lunch they call it plain old beef stew and it costs $12.95.”

We wallowed in our newfound electronic mud hole HBO for a while, sampling the Spice Girls movie, until it was time for me and Will to check out the yakking heads about Clinton. We’ve now bonded over this. “Good point,” we say to each other whenever someone says anything even remotely new in this charade parade.

It seems unfair when I am so truly blessed at home that I must think about the dentistry of my own to come, the adult oral equivalents of square roots. I am putting off calling Dr. Ha-ha. Perhaps to compensate for this quotidian dread, I dreamed last night that a book I’m publishing, a superb first novel called Amy and Isabelle, by Elizabeth Strout, had hit the New York Times best-seller list. It came in, in my dream, at No. 15, the last slot on the list, and somehow it seemed clear that it might not rise much higher. But–in the dream–it was good enough for me.