From the PaperGirl Archives: “Mary Fons, Freshman,” January 30, 2012

Dutch magazine illustration. I love those dresses so much!
Dutch magazine illustration circa 1880; artist unknown. Lord, I love those dresses!

Yuri is tending to a bit of business while he’s in town. This means I have an hour to spend with you. You look lovely this morning.

Trying to write anything right now that is not a frothy, gooey paean to the strapping young man in my life/house is useless: he’s all I can think about and our reunion has been most happy, but because I refuse to be gross, I’ve rifled through the big red binder and have a little something for you today from the PaperGirl Archive. I promise you’ll be entertained, and there’s no risk of me TMI’ing about Yuri’s perfect, uh, everything.

The entry, titled “Mary Fons, Freshman,” is dated January 30, 2012, and I chose it because it makes this post a post-within-a-post that also digs into the past for old writing. It’s so meta, I’m practically metallic. Bon-apetit!

PaperGirl, January 30, 2012 — “Mary Fons, Freshman”

And now, a report I found amongst my the boxes of things my mother delivered to me in her quest to rid the house in Iowa of questionably saved childhood artifacts.

This essay (?) was written my freshman year of high school, which means I was writing at the tender age of fourteen. I am more than a little scandalized by my flip, bratty attitude — and more than a little proud, friends. As I type this up for you, I remain indignant over the indelicate circumstances that compelled my math teacher to give the assignment. I’ve copied and formatted exactly, word-for-word, from the document itself.

Let’s do this.

“Under normal circumstances, I couldn’t give a damn about the history of mathematics, but since the students in my math class can’t seem to control their gastrol [sic] intestines, I am forced to write this report. Having encyclopedias from 1962, it makes it difficult to find an abundance of information on anything other than Lincoln, so my one and only source will be my math textbook, Transition Mathematics, (Scott, Foresman, 1992, All rights reserved.)


Do you recognize these numbers? 

0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9

You ought to, you’re a math teacher. We use numbers every day. But have you ever wondered how they came about? Well, I haven’t either, but I’ll tell you anyway. 

Long ago, the Greeks and Romans had a number system. It’s wasn’t like ours — they used the letters of their alphabet to represent numbers. The Greeks used more letters than the Romans, which is a totally pointless bit of info but is has to be a page report and I have absolutely no material at all. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I am one of the only ones in my class who actually completes this assignment! Anyhow, the Romans used L for fifty, C for one-hundred, D for five-hundred, and T for two. Europeans used this system from 100 B.C. to 1400 A.D.

During this time, the Hindus were hard at work on their own number system, which is the system we use today. It was called the DECIMAL SYSTEM! This system is the one that has made my life a living hell ever since preschool. I have never been good at math. If I was, I wouldn’t be having to deal with high schoolers who can’t stop farting. (Excuse the term, it’s so blue-collar.) But I digress.

The Europeans didn’t figure out the decimal system until 1202 A.D. A guy named Leonardo of Pisa, an Italian mathematician also known as Fibonacci, translated the Arabic manuscript into Latin, and that was the only reason the Europeans ever began using this system. Thus ends my report on THE DEVELOPMENT OF OUR NUMBER SYSTEM. Thank you.

Now, because I still have a half a page left, I will express my opinion on this situation. It saddens to me know that my fellow classmates cannot grasp the fact that they are in high school. Maybe farting was funny in second grade, but not anymore; at least not to me, or anyone else with an I.Q. over ten. Frankly, I’m scared. Are these the leaders of tomorrow? If so, for God’s sake, kill me now.”

[end of post]

My teacher put a red X through the words damn and “living hell” and docked me 10 points. It may not surprise you that I was considered fairly nerdy in high school, though socially-speaking, I was a floater: I had nerd friends, chorus friends, partying friends, and my older sister’s supercool friends, so I wasn’t terminally nerdy. But the general consensus was that I was a good at English, nice enough, and in no way serious girlfriend material.

Today, I absolutely think farts are funny and I am one happy girlfriend. Things do change.


Subway Light Switch.

It's easy.
It’s so simple now.

There was a tiny shift in my brain a couple weeks ago that changed the way I see New York City. The shift will probably change the way I see a lot of things because it was so simple. The simplest concepts are the stickiest: work hard, take a jacket, crack is wack, etc. It’s slightly embarrassing to admit, but since it might help someone else, here goes:

You don’t have to learn the subway system in New York. You just need to figure out how to get where you need to go.

Let’s have that again:

You don’t have to learn the subway system in New York. You just need to figure out how to get where you need to go.

I’ve been coming to Manhattan with fair frequency since I was sixteen. Until three weeks ago, on every trip here, I operated under two subtle, negative assumptions: 1) to get around New York City properly (?) you need to know the subways and 2) figuring that out would mean seriously studying the system at length and doing the MTA equivalent of times tables or vocabulary drills. That was how I thought, and you can marvel at the weirdness of it, but I ask you to marvel with attendant compassion. I look at those assumptions and I think, “My goodness, who was in charge of this girl? Why on earth did she think she had to take graduate-level course work in the New York subway system? Poor thing, someone wrap her in a quilt and get her a piece of chocolate. No, the whole bar. The Ritter Sport. She likes the dark chocolate with hazelnu — yes, that’s it. Here you are, dear.”

(MARY eats chocolate, nods pathetically.)

All that business about being perpetually in the dark about the subway system ended the other day in a flash, don’t ask me why. You don’t have to know the trains. You don’t have to know where the A, C, E trains terminate. You don’t have to memorize the stops on the 6 from Fulton to 110th St. Not only do you not have to do that as a new New York person, you don’t ever have to do that. By osmosis and routine, you will naturally learn subway route details and shortcuts. But the vast majority of veteran New Yorkers don’t know when the 7 runs express to Queens and when it runs local and if you asked them about it, they’d say, “I don’t know, ask the ticket agent,” or “There’s a map over there, I don’t know, sorry.”

If you want to go somewhere, find your somewhere on the map, and then figure out which train will take you close to it. Thought I’ve done just that for years, I always came at it cock-eyed, as though the train system was my destination, not the Natural History Museum. There was this little, niggling voice that said, “You should know this by now,” and that voice distracted me from noticing what I was doing: getting around New York just fine.

Did any of that make a lick of sense?

It’s just a subway system, it’s just a map. It’s just a city, it’s just a person. But the shift in my head from “you’ll never get this” to “you already have this” has given me that singular feeling of “Oh, right. I’m not broken, I’m not wrong, I never was wrong, I was making it too hard, everything I need, I already have.”

Pretty good at $2.25/fare.