Math may not be racist, but it’s hard

This column is about math, but don’t worry. It is not about math being racist, because that is a noodle invented by some harebrained academics seeking peer attention.

A confrontation with Mumidiots

Math is both an acquired, and a born, skill.

You can learn math — I somehow got through algebra and geometry — or you can be born with it. Like musical ability, art, or writing (my gift). 

My father, who never finished high school because he had to help to support the family, was a math whiz. One of his gifts, along with public speaking, and public service.

His grandson, Greg, inherited that gene+. Before kindergarten, as I remember, he could add numbers as fast as you could throw them at him. He and his older brother were both super smart kids and attended my academic elite high school — New York’s Stuyvesant. 

Their sister, my favorite niece, did not have that gene.

“Why am I the only Asian who’s not good at math?,” she used to wail. As you might guess from that, she is adopted but she is their sister in every nuance of the word. Adoption is a beautiful thing. 

Like Diana, I wondered why I was a Jew who was bad at math. Surely that would impair my non-existent medical and/or business career. The closest I got to medicine was a handwriting like a doctor’s.

Fortunately, I didn’t care about making money or sticking my hand into other people’s body parts. 

I took a shine to journalism early on, and journalism shined back. Yes, it was love at first sight.

I can’t say I never had a bad day in journalism — I have — and sometimes was placed in dangerous positions. 

Two stand out: The actor Rip Torn lunged at me with a cocked fist during an interview, and a bunch of Mumidiots confronted me on the street. (“Mumidiots” was the term I concocted for followers of cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. It really pissed them off.) 

Where was I? Oh, math.

I guess I got my first checking account when I was 20, and that was a form of math. Poor math, combined with illegible numbers, led to a register that rarely agreed with the balance furnished monthly by the Dime Savings Bank.

I always thought “Dime” was about the cheapest name a bank could have. Get rich by saving a dime at a time?

Anyway, balancing my account at the end of the month was always stressful and usually unsuccessful.

But, as some say, I persisted.

For the next 60 years, if I was off 12 cents, I would struggle to find the error — sometimes math, sometimes transposing, sometimes misreading a 5 and a 6. They are practically identical, right?

Once I balanced the checkbook, I would celebrate with a smoke and a Jack on the rocks.


For the last few months, the discrepancy has been several thousand dollars.

I think this is connected to a couple of new credit cards I got that don’t provide written statements. I get emails. Not having printed statements threw me off, now about $3,000. 

I have tried, unsuccessfully, to find the error. 

I can’t.

I could turn it over to my bank, and let them try to find the error. Or errors. That will be difficult. If I can’t read my handwriting, how can they?

And it will cost $75.

Given that my online bank statement gives me $4,000 more than my checkbook, why should I bother?

I’ve been staring at my statement for a week now. I just can’t bring myself to go through the endless checking process — which will fail.

But I just can’t abandon the checkbook and just go with online banking, which I can check every day.

What would you do?

16 thoughts on “Math may not be racist, but it’s hard”

    You must be the only Jew that I know that is bad with math . I know that you’re good with figures, but………
    I too had problems with math. In grade school, the nuns had us racing to be first – and correct. One out of two ain’t bad, is it? Whack on the back of the head for stupid. Once I learned to slow down, all of the brain cells kicked in. As it turned out, all subjects were like that. Slow down, think it through. I suppose that that is why I enjoyed construction, codes and engineering.
    A little clue. Write what you read and read what you write.

  2. I really, really hated math my entire life and avoided it like the plague in college. But it was actually stuff like algebra, geometry and calculus that drove me nuts. Turns out I’m actually pretty good at Jethro Bodine-type “cypherin'”. I can calculate my change in my head in like two seconds, which I enjoy doing as I watch some of the youngin’s working the counter try to do it (badly) with blank stares. I guess that’s why they have automated change machines at all those places. I think I’ll stick to picas and points. I find those more friendly.

  3. Do like the two bear hunters: one shoots to the right of the bear, the other to the left. On average they hit the bear.

    I’ve not had a checkbook to balance for 20 years or more. I have TD Bank do the math, and I pay everything in cash
    by my debit card. Then I go online and check to see what TD Bank shows in the debit column. There has never been
    a problem. And there is no charge for this service, so I save on the cost of checks, stamps, and envelopes. Plus I
    don’t worry about the mail any more. The service is free to me because I am an old fart.

      1. What’s encouraging ? That Vince is an old fart. Should be. I like hav’n’ him around.
        or is it that TD bank offers real service .
        Do any of you remember the founders of TD bank ? It was a husband / wife couple from Morrestown, NJ.

  4. Having begun college as a Math major, but instead moving over to the business school to get a degree in Accounting (so I’d have a job upon graduation) I have always been good at Math. Balance my checkbook to within a dime each month. Not expecting any congrats, just weighing in here.

  5. I gave up balancing my checkbook after the first few months I first got an account as a college student. Before online banking, I had a general idea about how much I was depositing and how much I was spending, and pretty much operated by the seat of my pants. Beginning in the late 70s/early 80s, only a few years after I got my first account, I could use an ATM to check my balance. I checked and still check my statements to see if anything looks wrong. For a while, I tried to be good by getting those checks that had carbon copies, so you didn’t have to record the amount, but they cost more than the regular checks. Another problem was that I didn’t record ATM withdrawals–just stuck the receipts in my wallet. This system only broke down when a check someone wrote me bounced, or worse, the bank put a “hold” on a check from a client.

    Nowadays I don’t remember the last time I wrote a check. I pay bills on line, and pay for in person purchases with plastic. Often, I literally don’t have a dime on me–and I never carry my checkbook. Last time I ordered checks printed was probably the 90s. Of course, my originally local bank has been purchased and sold three times since then, so each new mega-bank graciously sent me new checks with their name on it.

    I encourage my clients to pay me electronically, and depositing checks is a rare occasion for me. The checks my 90-year-old in-laws send us for our anniversary every year are the only ones we regularly receive. Electronic transfers don’t bounce, and some idiot bank manager or mindless algorithm can’t put a hold on them. (Soon after the second sale of the bank with my account, I went to a “convenient” branch of the new bank to deposit a $5,000 check I’d just picked up from a client’s office around the corner. The bank manager thought I looked out of place–t-shirt, jeans, no suit, never been at the branch before–and put a 10-day hold on it. I raised the roof at my regular branch, but they couldn’t do anything, or so they said. Of course the check was good.) So my attitude toward checks and check books is pretty much: good riddance. I’ll allow, however, that they should remain legal and rare.

      1. Understood. It is a matter of taste. I was what they call an “early adopter.” Got my first computer in 85–the original IBM PC–thrilled with email and the “world wide web” n/k/a the internet. On the other hand I hate cell phones, because instead of being a tool for me, they impose. Used to be, if you weren’t home or at the office, too bad–you’ll have to try later. Now everyone is expected to be available 24/7. I so miss pay phones. What’s Superman supposed to do these days? So I am less pro-tech, than pro-me, and I support your preferences.

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