Stuff I’m Bad At
I am fairly smart. I have held jobs that required a wide array of knowledge and skills, as well as the ability to think quickly and respond appropriately. But, like most everyone else, there are areas in which I just don’t do so well. These would be my weakest categories on “Jeopardy!”
I was eating lunch in a cafeteria at work some years ago and had the daily newspaper with me. Single at the time, I always ditched the sports section when I got the paper. An attractive man asked me if he could have the paper when I was finished with it, and I said sure, but, I warned, “I don’t have the sports section.” He seemed a little disappointed but took the sections I was finished with. Single, as I mentioned, and interested in meeting attractive men, I wondered if it was a missed opportunity.
I sometimes say I actually cultivate a disinterest in sports. The only time I pick up any sports news is from brief items on National Public Radio. When I met my husband, who is a big sports fan, I decided I would really try to learn about football, and tried to watch a game with him.
It’s ironic that both my ex and current husband are avid sports fans. I think first hubby loved all sports, especially Penn State football and Pirates baseball. Gary watches mostly golf, football and baseball, but he’s been known to surf onto hockey, soccer or basketball when there’s nothing else on TV.
There is a phenomenon that happens in my brain when I try to watch sporting events. When my first husband and I lived in the Cleveland area my parents were big Indians fans (yes, my English parents, so I can’t blame this on being English), and he and I went to a game with them. My mind wandered, as nothing seemed to be happening. Then when something did happen my attention was elsewhere and I missed it.
That was pretty much what happened when I tried to watch the Cowboys when Gary and I were dating. My eyes, my brain, everything sort of glazes over. The biggest snoozer is tennis. I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would watch it.* Golf and soccer are not far behind. My father once tried to teach me tennis and soon gave up.
I blame some of this on how much I hated PE in school. There were the girl jocks and then the rest of us, the ones picked last for any team. There was wiffle ball, when I would swing for the ball and get hit in the face with it. Wearing glasses since I was 13, I am paranoid about getting hit in the face. There was idiotic girls’ basketball, which, back in the 1950s, was structured so that only the offensive team crossed the center line; the defense stayed in its own half-court (it’s true, stupid as it sounds). Miss Bell, my junior high PE teacher, was born with only a stump for a right arm, and insisted that if she could do it—play volleyball or whatever—anybody could do it. She was not a nice person. And let’s not get into the hideous gymsuits, and the shoulder-sprinkling showers.
God, I hated junior high gym class, and my report cards reflected it: my only Cs. It’s funny that in my thirties I discovered fitness, beginning with running and now walking, weights, elliptical machine, and I’ve always loved swimming. I just don’t like team sports or having to hit a ball.
This is actually a myth I try to perpetuate. I’m not as bad at math as I lead people to believe.
My favorite moment during the Enron hearings was when a financial officer was asked a question that involved doing some quick calculation, and he replied (remember, this was a financial professional!), “I’m sorry, your honor, but I try never to do math in my head in public.”
I have since embraced that practice because it can save considerable embarrassment. But I can do certain math-related things quite well. I’m very good at estimating and can check out of a store with a reasonable estimate of the total bill. If I were asked one of those hypothetical job interview questions like how many ping-pong balls would fill a room or how long it would take a bowling ball to reach the bottom of the ocean, I could come up with a plausible estimate.
I took bookkeeping in high school, and Ohio had statewide testing in various subjects (for what purpose other than bragging rights I don’t recall). I placed first in the region and 17th in the state in bookkeeping, and this was without a calculator! Regardless, I have never put this on a resume. I worked as a bookkeeper in a lumberyard my last couple of years in high school, and really enjoyed it, but I think it was the nice boss and the whole guy-thing atmosphere. Plus it paid better than my previous high-school job, soda-jerking in an old-fashioned drug store. The same teacher who helped me get the lumber yard job advised me to pursue my real aptitudes—language and arts.
But I disagree with kids when they say math they learn in school is useless. I use math all the time: in cooking, art projects, gardening, shopping, and especially graphics, where I think in points and picas—modular math.
I blame my math anxiety on terrible math teachers. The most advanced high school math I took was Algebra I, and the teacher was a drunk. I avoided college math through my year at Bowling Green and several semesters at Northern Virginia Community College, but when I went to finish my degree at St. Edward’s in the late 1980s I could put it off no longer. I figured a programming class for math credit might serve me well, and I was right—understanding programming is a good background skill for anyone who uses computers. This class was Basic and the teacher was a Holy Cross brother. Once I had to write a program to do quadratic equations, having no idea what a quadratic equation was. Somehow I aced the class, but I think it was because on the last day my car broke down, it was pouring rain and I took a taxi to class, arriving late. When I told the teacher why I was late, he was so impressed I think he upped my grade a few points.
For my second and final math credit I signed up for a summer semester “Math for non-math majors” class. A few weeks before it was to start I saw in the paper an obituary for the man who had been scheduled to teach it. I called the school and learned the class might be canceled, but they found a grad student, and I had a blast. We did logic and Venn diagrams and modular math, and problems like getting a fox and a rabbit across a river or a frog out of a pot or matching socks in drawers. The teacher was so much fun that she threw a party (complete with pot smoking—don’t tell St. Ed’s) at the end before returning to Berkeley. She gave me a hand-drawn certificate that said “Star Student,” and of course an A.
I balance our checkbook every month, even though most transactions are electronic and we write few checks. Most months it balances but now and then I end up with cross-outs, white-outs, and an entry called “CE” (correct error) to make it balance.
So I will sustain the myth and not do math in my head in public.
Other Stuff I’m Bad At
I am incompetent in myriad other areas: car repair or anything to do with cars; rock music (even though I’ve lived through the entire rock era, I can identify music from the 18th century far more easily than from the 20th, and oddly, I do better with the 1980s than my own era, because that’s when I was trapped in the car listening to the music my kids wanted). For an art major, I’m embarrassed to say I am terrible at (a) cake decorating; (b) flower arranging and (c) gift wrapping, and I’m an earnest but mostly unsuccessful gardener. I’m pathetic at cards, or any games requiring strategy (with the exception of kids’ games like Old Maid and tic-tac-toe—I can still beat my granddaughter (5), but probably not my grandson (nearly 9).
On the plus side, I have some obscure and probably antiquated skills: shorthand, which I found useful during many meetings and interviews throughout my career; darning socks—in fact many needlecrafts, including knitting, crocheting, embroidery and sewing. How many people own a thimble and know how to use it, or even what it’s for?
If I ever do appear on “Jeopardy!” I just hope sports, math and rock music don’t come up as categories. Maybe there’ll be a final Jeopardy question on thimbles.
* Having just seen a 60 Minutes profile of Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, who is not only adorable but also seems to be really sweet, I might make an exception regarding tennis if he’s involved.