I wanted to write about the feeling of rejection today, but rejection doesn’t really inspire feeling as much as I initially thought it did. In my attempts to pass the time, I started rereading papers I wrote in college. I found one I had forgotten about, and liked a lot.
At my school we would have near weekly visits from interesting mathematicians explaining some new theory they were analyzing or some new method of looking at something, or something even more vague than what I just described. Typically we were asked to go and if we went and wrote a quick summary of our understanding, we would receive extra-credit in our classes in the form of the lowest homework grade dropped. I wasn’t usually able to go because of my prior commitments to play rehearsals, but one I did go to was a talk by a supposed expert on math jokes in The Simpsons. Below is the paper I wrote for extra credit that I’m sure my professor just threw directly into the trash.
One’s Optimal Life: Is the Least Square’s Regression Line a Good Approximation?
Jimmy was a normal boy, who played sports and did homework like anyone else, but unlike his fellow fourth graders, Jimmy’s desires lied not in the fantasy world of the NBA or the NFL, he didn’t dream of having a mansion filled with beautiful women, Jimmy aspired toward a goal of mathematical recognition. This may not have been apparent to casual bystander, but after playing Basketball in his friend’s driveway, he would run home and peruse his parent’s encyclopedias for just one more morsel of information to cram into his already overstuffed head.
It wasn’t that Jimmy kept this a secret from his friends and family, he just had no reason to share. His friends thought of him as the shorter one, who had to play point guard, his parents thought of him as their straight A student who played computer games in his free time. While Jimmy thought of himself as neither, he supposed that telling everyone that he was simply an aspirant mathematician who filled the gaps of his life with lessons of square roots and Archimedes realization of volume, wouldn’t result in an interesting outcome. In order to fit in to the group of friends he had grown up with, Jimmy hid this side of him, not out of shame, but rather out of lack of interest. What good would come of Jimmy talking to his friends about the golden rectangle and how its ratio has been used by everyone from artists to mathematicians since ancient Greece? Fred wouldn’t care, Jane would be bored, and Dan, well Dan would probably beat Jimmy up… emotionally.
So Jimmy kept secretly researching the history and uses of mathematics through Junior High and into High School. In High School the divide that had formed between Jimmy and his middle-schoolmates became more apparent. While Jimmy was taking AP Calculus and leading the mathletes to another state championship, Jimmy’s old friends were regional champions of the local three-on-three league in basketball. Jimmy strayed further and further from his old friends and became more closely acquainted to his math buddies. Where he used to joke about Michael Jordan being the next Julius Erving, he now joked about Differentiation by Parts being just an extreme version of the chain rule. His friends had changed and therefore so had his humor. He understood that he had to relate to his fellow peers.
He still didn’t quite know how he fit in, instead of feeling like the nerd in a group of jocks, he felt like the jock in a group of nerds. Neither really made him feel unhappy, but neither made him feel entirely happy either. Jimmy went to Cornell after high school and found a group of friends that even better approximated his personality. He thought, just like a Taylor or Bernstein Polynomial, the further I go in life the closer I get to my truest desires. But alas, he still had to change his humor and, to some affect, his personality to fit in with this new group of students. Throughout his life he had a desire that could not be fulfilled to find some clique that would make him feel as though he fit in perfectly, to get to the proverbial function that he had been trying to approximate his whole life.
It was during this existential dilemma that Jimmy found The Simpsons, TV’s longest running sitcom and only cartoon on television written by Math majors. Within the TV show he found solace in the inside jokes that the writers would put in every episode like clockwork. He felt like he had joined their elite crowd of friends that understood their humor. The fact that he did not know the writers allowed Jimmy to imagine them as the perfect balance of athletes, mathematicians, and any other traits Jimmy could possibly wish for his friends to have. Every time Homer’s “Doh” had been preceded by a difficult math problem, Jimmy would research the history behind the question, and laugh to himself as he thought he had finally found a group that would accept him for that research – a group that understood why he thought the way he did.
You might say, “Good for him, he finally found someone with whom he can share his knowledge of the famous story of G.H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan’s creation of the taxicab problem in a humorous fashion.” Well I challenge you to think something differently, I propose that what we should give Jimmy, is not praise, but rather condemnation for needing a group of people to relate to so badly, that he ends up only befriending a group of celebrities whom he will never have a personal relationship with. Jimmy does have a wife and kids, but his wife is a teacher/author at Appalachian State University* who is twice as obsessed with the inside jokes written into “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.” She acts simply as a step closer to the fantasy life Jimmy wishes he lived.
In reality I’m glad for Jimmy’s existence, because without it I wouldn’t have had that hour to kill while at his wife’s talk on the relation between nerds, their inside jokes, and how that fulfills their desire to fit in, during which I tried to prove wrong Fermat’s Last Theorem.
Man, I miss college.