Call Me Woo Woo

Dear Will:

By any objective measure, I think you could say that throughout my life I have been an above-average athlete—assuming, that is, that you include all of the certifiable non-athletes in the worldwide population. On the playground, I was never picked first, but also never last. As I grew, I was good enough to make the team, but never a star.

Ninth grade at Goddard Junior High was suitably representative of my athletic prowess. In my only year of tackle football, I was a backup tight-end—140 pounds of grit, squeezing into the huddle and whispering: “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do on this play.” To give you a sense of the intimidating figure I cut on the gridiron, the coaches nicknamed me Woo Woo.

Perhaps more impressive was the fact that I was one of only a dozen or so guys who made the Goddard basketball team. Less impressive was the fact that I began the year as a starter (!) but ended it as a third-stringer at the end of the bench. On the track team I was a high-jumper with neither technique nor natural ability, also pressed into service as our last guy in the 440-yard dash. In that race I never finished better than fourth.

In spite of that manifest mediocrity, as a kid I was full of aspiration. Jerry West was my guy, and I dreamed of one day playing in the NBA like him. I once I even wrote him a letter asking what I could do to become a better dribbler.

But I never mailed the letter. I knew without posting it what my idol’s answer would be: “Practice.” Even at that young age, I knew he would urge me to spend hours doing drills with both hands, honing and then mastering skills that could eventually find their way into a real game. It would take work and focus and determination—none of which I had. Rather than mail the letter, I turned it into a paper airplane. (True story.)

That airplane does not fully explain why I never made it to the NBA (or onto the varsity at Glendora High, for that matter). But it is emblematic of my athletic career. Perhaps because I had so many other interests as well, I never chose to dedicate the time and effort necessary to be really good. To this day I am more enthusiastic about playing the game than working at it. You want to have fun? Hang out with me. You want to get good? Find a different training partner.

My true talents (and lack thereof) emerge in just about any sport I try. For instance, around the time I was not mailing letters to Jerry West, I remember golfing with a friend who was a ranked junior golfer. During one backswing, I had him laughing so hard that he hit his ball about two feet . . . straight out of bounds. It’s not as if I don’t have skills, is what I’m saying. But as you can plainly see, they’re not the sort of skills that help you (or your playing partner) shoot a better score.

However—and this is key—there was one critical time in my life when my athletic inclinations aligned with my actual skills in a beautiful way:

I was in graduate school. My friend Chris told me that they were offering free aerobics classes in the church nearby. The price was right, the time was convenient, and there was this added bonus: the teacher was a total babe. So Chris and I went to her class a couple of times a week, presumably to try to stay in shape. We weren’t the most determined aerobicizers in the Southland, to be sure, but we did keep the class laughing. They could have gotten a better workout without us, but with us making cracks from the back of the room, they definitely had more fun.

Plus, I ended up marrying the teacher. They didn’t call me Woo Woo for nothing.


Solving for X

Dear Will:

We’re doing geometry. Or I should say, Seth is doing geometry. His old man, meanwhile, is staring at a page full of triangles and barely familiar symbols (AB||CD, anybody?) and thinking to himself: “Did I really know this stuff once?”

Probably not. I do remember enough about the ninth grade at Goddard Junior High School to recall my teacher’s name, and I may even have received a reasonably good grade. But I also remember that even before I left high school it was clear to me that I hadn’t really managed to catch the geometry wave. So it is with no small amount of trepidation that I respond to Seth’s desperate request for help with his homework.

I stare dumbly at the page. Nothing clicks. I resort to the standard parent fallback ploy of reading through the textbook in a vain attempt to relearn what once I must have known, but I’m missing the foundation necessary to make the examples comprehensible. So I take to asking Seth questions of my own, and suddenly it is as if Seth were helping me with my homework. His patience wanes.

Then, a breakthrough: I review Question 22 and it occurs to me that it can be solved using algebra. Algebra! I remember algebra! I think I can even DO a little algebra! Clearly more excited than Seth, I set to work, cross-multiplying happily and even deploying something I think we used to call the FOIL method. I proceed a little awkwardly, with uneven jabs and starts, but before long it’s clear that I have calculated my way to the right answer. And I can prove it! Alas, Seth has long since given up on me and headed off to get ready for bed. I consider high-fiving myself but think better of it.

Still, I’m amazed. I learned my algebra from Mr. Burgess almost 40 years ago. Nevertheless, there was the FOIL method (or whatever it was called), tucked somewhere in the folds of my brain, waiting to be teased out of hiding during an hour of father-son bonding over homework. And the rules that applied when I was learning algebra in 1973 or 1974 still apply today. If I had been given that same problem by Mr. Burgess, x would have equaled 14.5, just as it does tonight.

That’s the singular beauty of math—or, at any rate, the kind of math that an English major like me can understand. There is always a right answer. In just about every other discipline there is an element of subjectivity, so that personal preference or judgment or opinion play an important role in determining what’s right or what’s true. And that truth might change as new theories are tested and new facts established. But with math, 2+2 will always equal 4, today and tomorrow and for generations to come.

There are other absolute truths much more important than those that govern algebra, of course. The existence of God, for instance, and our divine relationship to Him. The eternal purpose of life and the Plan that governs all human existence. The divine Sonship of Jesus Christ. These things are absolute, unchanging and unaffected by one’s personal opinion or belief. And just as the laws of mathematics can be proven, so can the eternal truths I’ve mentioned.

Years ago, Spencer W. Kimball gave a discourse (highly recommended) in which he said the following:

We learn about these absolute truths by being taught by the Spirit. These truths are “independent” in their spiritual sphere and are to be discovered spiritually, though they may be confirmed by experience and intellect (see D&C 93:30). The great prophet Jacob said that “the Spirit speaketh the truth. . . . Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13).

The prophet Moroni put it even more simply: “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). All things. Absolutely.

Except for maybe geometry. I’m still not so sure about that stuff.