Statistics; or, it was my understanding there would be no math

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One of my earliest comedy memories was watching one of the first SNL debate sketches during the run-up to the 1976 Presidential election. Dan Ackroyd is Jimmy Carter, and of course Chevy Chase is Gerald Ford. Jane Curtain asks an economic question of the incumbent. The first sentence contains the words “Humphrey/Hawkins Act,” then numbers, numbers, numbers —and how all these numbers relate to each other. She might as well ask when two trains leaving Chicago and Pittsburgh and accelerating a constant rate of 2mph per mile would slam into each other. As she’s asking the question, the camera pushes slowly into Chevy Chase’s increasingly bewildered face. At the end of the question comes the reply, a line that sandblasted itself on my sense of humor ever since:

It was my understanding there would be no math.

I think of that bit a lot during this pandemic. Everything is numbers now. Never in my life have I lived thru an “unprecedented” event that involved so much math. Yes, there were numbers involved with the oil shocks of the 70’s, the LA Riots in 1992, and Hurricane Sandy. But the numbers weren’t the big thing.

The only event I remember that involved numbers to such an extent was Y2K, and that was basically just two numbers —strangely also a 1 and a 9. Beyond the numbers, Y2K also promised ‘splosions. And a specific end time, down to the second. And Y2K had answers: My fiancee Lynda said, “If I let you spend two hundred dollars on batteries and shit, will you shut up?”

Every morsel of information about the course of the pandemic comes attached with numbers that can only be understood by doing a thing with other numbers, which can only be understood by doing a thing with yet other numbers. I glaze over so quickly. A chorus of “Numbers, numbers, numbers!” sung to the tune of “You don’t win friends with salad!” echoes thru empty neural halls.

I am not a stupid person by any stretch. In fact, I was on the Math Team in high school, and my score on the math portion of the GRE was 780.
I got a C- Stats. In my entire academic career, I have never received a lower final grade than in Dr. Ron Ron Lucchese Lucchese’s Intro to Statistics my sophomore year at Wittenberg. I thought I understood the subject matter. Dr. Lucchese Luchesse had a habit of repeating one word in practically every sentence. It was more than a verbal tic. It was a verbal tic fashioned into a teaching aid. He repeated the most important word in each sentence; if you heard it repeated, it was on the test: “72 shows up the most, so 72 is the mode. Mode.” “Here we see that the distribution is skewed. We call that Poisson. Poisson.” “The midterm will be worth twenty percent of your grade. Twenty.”

I got a 52 on the midterm. Using the gift of Dr. Lucchese Lucchese’s repetition and a scholarly brain that treated tests as fun little trivia exercises meant to be finished first before anyone else, I was able to able to ace the fill-in-the-blanks parts of the tests. Still, I got a 52 on the midterm. C- for the class, and that was after I pleaded. Pleaded.

I just could not get my head around the questions that took pages and pages of blue book to answer. Stats aren’t discrete systems like geometry proofs or calculating a tip or two trains leaving Chicago at one o’clock headed in opposite directions. A stats question, especially one that you’ve been given an entire blue book to answer, spirals insanely out of control if you make just one error. Plug in a wrong value, forget to square something that should be squared, and you end up somewhere in the eight-billionth percentile.

There can’t be an eight billionth percentile, right? You took Latin. “cent” means one hundred. How do you get eight billion? Shit, I won’t be first. He’s handing it in? Him? He’s high, and an idiot!. Maybe eight billionth percentile means you’re just really really good. Or you’re a virus, and there’s a whole bunch more of you than the day before.

“Three minutes left. Three.”

Yes, eight billion must make sense. It’s just a brain teaser. Yes, brain teaser. Lucchese Lucchese’s fucking with the class, and everyone else gets the joke. Gets the joke. I should really breathe. What is breathing?

If statistics in a closed setting can induce such panic, imagine what statistics in the wild can do. Especially when you don’t really know how to do statistics properly. Yet, practically every day my Facebook feed contains folks posting their own back of the envelope statistical calculations based on the few numbers they’re getting from official sources. “I crunched the numbers from the Governor’s press conference this afternoon. Thirty-seven percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state are in ICU’s!” If 37% of people admitted ended up in the ICU, I honestly don’t think I’d be finding out about it from a Facebook post from a frightened person in sweatpants.

I know numbers offer people some blanket of certitude, and it is very comforting to believe you’re the one who has discovered the truth about coronavirus.

Yeah, there can be an eight billionth percentile, look at that curve. A curve like that means that whatever is going on is clearly in the eight billionth percentile. It’s not flat at all. Flatten it. Flatten it. If keeps going at this rate, in nineteen days over seventeen quadrillion people will have the virus!

Statistics gets crazy easy and crazy fast.

If you need a real world example as to why back of the envelope statistics can be dangerous, look no further than the Cheetoh Dotard. Dotard. He daily proclaims that his vestigial ability to do scribble long division with a blunt Sharpie makes him an expert in epidemiology. He’s gambling lives based on that tenuous assumption. People die when you think you’re better than the experts.

Even if folks aren’t calculating their own corona curves, they’re posting graphs and charts from dubious sources. The main criteria for posting a charts and graphs from dubious sources appears to be a feeling that it “seems right.” These are rarely from organizations that existed in February. Friends who only two weeks ago posted that they were sick of people slapping up graphs they found on Reddit, now post decorative Edward Tufte knock-offs from entities like like CovidTracking or maskssavelives.org. At least I’ve heard of Reddit.

Then they want you to share this information. I will say it once: I refuse to be a conduit of COVID-19 info on Facebook. No one should be getting their pandemic news from Facebook. Moreover, I’m probably more likely to pass on info based not on how accurate it is, but on whether I’ve made out with the person sharing it.

I have no idea if the colorful charts or calculations I see on Facebook are accurate. Remember, I got a C- in Stats. 

I didn’t get that C- because I was dumb or because I didn’t understand the material. I got a C- because I went through most of the course using the wrong chart in the back of the textbook. When I went to Dr. Lucchese Lucchese near the end of the course to explain to him the mistake I was making, he shook his head and said with a chuckle, “You’re kind of an idiot. Idiot. Aren’t you?”

It’s true. I was an idiot that term. I had just transferred into Wittenberg following a suicide attempt at Cornell. My brain was still processing that trauma, not to mention trying to hide that it had ever happened. You expect me to be cognizant of correct charts? I was just trying to stay alive.

And, y’know what? We’re all trying to stay alive now. Our minds are occupied, and yet people are taking on maths they don’t quite understand. What gets to me is the anguish. I know the folks posting these things aren’t foolish. I would never have been friends with them if they were. But, I can feel the stress. My chest tightens each time I log on. Going online now is akin to going to the Kroger’s during this. After about a minute, sensing the stress of others gets to me. It’s like a bad filler episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Troi clutches her head a lot, looks constipated, and has to retire to her quarters.

Stress plus math never did me any good.

Open letter to the friend who broke up with me because he thought I was too much of a suicide risk…

Dear _____________________,

First of all, I would like to point out the not-inconsequential fact that it’s two and a half years later, and I’m STILL HERE. I am not dead. I did not do myself in. Obviously, this must be a bit of a surprise for you, considering how close you must’ve thought I was to… to…

Just how did you fantasize I was going to do it? It’s still an odd feeling that someone besides me was contemplating my demise. How far along in the planning stage were you. There has to be some point where thinking about someone else’s upcoming suicide turns into plotting their murder.

Especially when you turn your back. Suddenly. After eight years of friendship.

I still remember that night you cast me out. Things weren’t going so well for me: I had just spent a week on a disastrous vacation that I thought would relax me but turned out to be basically was one long, extended panic attack, and also I just found out that I was in real danger of being evicted from the apartment I loved. I had had a therapy appointment that evening. The therapist, realizing I was in a fragile state, told me to call a friend to talk when I got home –just to stay connected.

Before I left her office, she made me write out and sign a sheet of paper stating that I would not harm myself. I know that might sound stupid to you, but making a promise to someone in writing really makes you step back and think about offing yourself. She also made me promise that I would call a friend. She asked me whom I could call. Yours was the first name I said.

That’s how much you meant to me. You meant so much that I felt I could actually call and talk to you. On the phone. With voices.

I’m not sure you remember the message I left. It was nothing special, just something along the lines of “Hey, it’s me. Had a really rough therapy session, and she said I should call someone to stay connected. Could really use to hear a friendly voice tonight.” Something like that; I can’t remember the exact words I used.

I ordered some pad thai and waited for you to call. When you can’t talk to someone, occupying your mouth with pad thai is the next best thing.

You never called. I went to bed, taking an Ambien to make the day go away.

Then, just as I was drifting off, you TEXTED back. Texting to return a phone message is always a bad sign. Right off the bat, I knew it was bad: “I don’t think I can do this any more,” you wrote. After going on a bit about how I was shiftless and lazy –“At least get a job at a grocery store! Do something!” –you got to the corpse of the matter. “I think you’re going to end up killing yourself, and I can’t be around for that.”

Well, I know you can’t be around for my suicide. That would be sick, just sitting by and watching as I… seriously, how did you imagine this would go down? I bet you were thinking pills. I’ve always have had a lot of pills hanging around because of my Bipolar II condition.

I know you thought you knew all about Bipolar because of that one friend you had who experienced the manic episodes. Not to diminish her suffering, but she has Bipolar I, a disease as different from Bipolar II as Diabetes I and II are from each other. But no matter how often I tried to remind you of this fact, you always insisted on telling me that she had it a lot worse than me.

And on a side note: Never compare one person’s mental illness to another’s, especially when they are different types. You will look like a fool, and will make at least one of the ill people feel even worse.

That’s what sucks about Bipolar II: It doesn’t have the spectacular manias of Bipolar I. Instead, it has a guy sitting on the couch in his underwear watching an Ancient Aliens marathon. I spend a good chunk of my days praying for just a sliver of mania. That what hurts so much about you wishing I would just pull myself together. You don’t get it… That’s the main symptom of Bipolar II –not being able to pull oneself together. Sorry it, and I, wasn’t exciting enough for you.

But I’m used to friends breaking up with me over it, though none have ever done it as cruelly as you. Mostly they just got sick of my whining or whatever. “You’re so passive,” said one. “You lean on me too much,” said another. I could go on and on. Yet, however horrible I feel these guys may have been at the time, I know they would’ve stuck around long enough to make sure I didn’t slit my wrists. (I have a funny feeling you think I would’ve slit my wrists. I don’t know –you just give me that vibe.)

Now, after two and a half years, I still trust people just a little bit less. I had always felt that most of my relationships were on a knife’s edge –that’s just the way it goes with mental illness –but what you did to me intensified that tenfold. I felt I had a special relationship with you, that I didn’t need to sugarcoat what was going on. It may sound weird, but it’s like we shared responsibility for the friendship. Listen, I know it’s hard being friends with the mentally ill because we don’t do normal things. But I like to think that at least 51% of those not normal things are somewhat charming and more than make up for the other 49%.

However, apparently I did need to sugarcoat. Looking back, it seems to me you were you silently judging me every time we hung out for those eight years. I still hardly trust anyone to know what’s really going on mental-wise out of fear that they will throw up their hands and say, “No màs,” the way you did. I have a very small circle of friends left, whom I cherish, but thanks to you, I’m constantly expecting THAT text. And that’s not fair to them.

That night I texted back, “Just wanted to talk to a friend.” That was the last time I’ve ever had any communication with you.

But I’m still here. I’m slowly learning to trust again. And I want to thank you. Not for the trust stuff. You can rot for that.

I wanted to thank you because each time I have a suicidal ideation –and with Bipolar II, they come fast and furious –I know that NOT killing myself would be the biggest “fuck you” to you imaginable. And that “fuck you” is a huge incentive to keep going.

 

Three affirmations arising out of 2016: Week One.

Try to type “affirmations” without sounding like a d-bag. Go ahead, try.

The first week of 2016 has been full of affirmations. I’ve been encountering the word everywhere –in print, on signs, in casual conversation. Even my friend Damian referred to his liking a photo I posted on Facebook as “affirming the photo.”

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The affirmed photo. Highbanks MetroPark.

But before I go into detail about any more of the instances, I need to acknowledge how silly I feel writing about affirmations. Yes, I’m a silly, self-centered man for foisting my New Year’s affirmation encounters upon you, but it’s deeper than that… I feel silly even typing “affirmations.” I wish there was a font that adequately conveyed the voice I feel I need to use to whenever I say the word “affirmations.” My normal voice will not suffice, mainly because it feels weird to hear “affirmations” in my own voice, in my own head, thru the bones in my face. I feel that “affirmations” is best said in a voice and timbre similar to that which I use for the outgoing message on my phone –the voice that’s acutely aware it had to go thru speech therapy in the fifth grade along with all the other boys who couldn’t throw a ball.

Affirmations: I say it deeper, but more out of the body. Like there’s a speaker playing a self-help cassette an inch in front of my face. And I’ve taken a couple Quaaludes.

Affirmations. Continue reading

Pride Thought 2015: Your Brick and Mortar Pride

Photo by Stonewall Columbus

Photo by Stonewall Columbus

The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

–Justice Clarence Thomas (Yeah, I just quoted the second biggest judicial prick on the planet, and I realize that the above was surrounded by thought turds of the highest order. Please bear with me.)

STONEWALL NYC

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Copyright: ME

Yesterday as soon as the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges came down, my Facebook feed exploded into rainbows. Friends –the gay ones, the straight ones, and the ones whose whatever they do is none of my business –were busy expressing their approval. Rainbow filters got a work out, from profile pics to some idiot who decided the American Gladiators needed gayulating. As ton of my FB friends are gay guys who live in NYC, by far the most common setting for pictures was the street and park in front of the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in the West Village.

But for all the pictures with the bar’s facade in the background, not a single one was taken on the inside.

Zero.

Earlier this week the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission declared the building that houses the Stonewall Inn an OFFICIAL LANDMARK™. Apparently, this is the first building to be designated as such for its role in the struggle for LGBT rights, even though I’m told Fraunces Tavern regularly featured men in wigs and made a killer appletini back in day. If you are reading this, and you are not aware of the significance of the Stonewall Inn, stop right now and look it up.

It is incredibly heartening that Stonewall Inn is being recognized for its importance. Civil rights never move forward in a slow, steady fashion. There are flashpoints, and these physical flashpoints need to be preserved. Tearing down the Stonewall building and putting up condos called The Lofts at Stonewall would, for me, be the equivalent of tearing down the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma and putting up Marty K’s Alabama River ZipLine Adventure in its place.

People need a physical place to rally and remember.

But don’t believe anyone who tells you that the bar called “Stonewall Inn” that has nested inside the building that held the bar involved with the Stonewall uprising has anything to do with pride. It may be a big part of PRIDE, but there is little pride inside. I do not hesitate to say that it is probably the shittiest gay bar in NYC. It’s cramped inside. Continue reading