“Parenthesis are the best kind of math problems there are! Do another one!”

“OK,” I obliged. “Four times parenthesis three plus five.” (4(3+5))

“Thirty-two!” my eight-year old twins shouted in unison.

“Do another one!” Juliet begged. “These are fun!”

My three daughters love numbers. Much more so than words. Which is a fact that equally thrills and terrifies me. Because I struggle with numbers. They seem devoid of personality to me, like a group of randomly tossed brown sticks, and therefore I can’t recall how old I am, what year my car was produced, my pin codes, nor any number that is supposed to mean anything to me what-so-ever. Yet I try to feign a base-level interest when my girls want to play math games in the car or at home, because I want my daughters to succeed in our complicated, modern world. And to do so nowadays means mastering numbers. Numbers pay the bills, after all. Numbers get you ahead, set you apart, make you rich.

Here in Seattle the streets are laid out numerically, in grid fashion, so that every intersection is labeled something like 3rd Ave. NW by NW 70th St. Which is grand, really, if you can easily tap open the app ‘numbered grid’ in your mind. I seem to be missing that app, and must, like a map maker from long ago, painstakingly draw a mental grid anew, each and every time someone states their address. “115th and 80th, you say? OK, give me a minute here…South West or North West? Just let me just criss-cross the lines now…wait…are we facing North or East right now?”

Our new house lies at one of these numbered intersections, and for the life of me I can’t remember the digits that are supposed to announce it as my ‘home’. I long to rename this road I roam, ‘Tucksapawny Hill’. Because our street is indeed tucked half-way up a hill. And this is Seattle, where people peek outside to check the current weather, just like Punxsutawney Phil.

But I’ve yet to meet any takers for my ‘Seattle Streets Deserve Names, Too’ campaign. Most people like the grid system. Even my own family members roll their eyes when I ask, again, where we are. “23rd and 110th, Mom,” my twelve-year-old daughter moans. “It’s a grid, remember?” So I shush up and try to think, think, think, while I rearrange that bunch of brown sticks into an interesting array of  ‘games’ and try not to drift off when another question begins ‘…now take a stick, any stick, then double it, then cross it with that one over there…then, just to be tricky, let’s chop it into lots of tiny sticks…

This past Sunday night, as my girls played ‘parenthesis math’ in the back seat of our car and Damon transported us from Portland back to Seattle, I thought of parenthesis the word. In literature parentheses indicate a digression, an aside, a quick little explanation, like a whisper between friends. Or, I thought dreamily, the arms of a mother, swooping up her children, then pushing them along the path of life, hurried, but unharmed.

And because my mind swirled with words, not grids, I tapped the app on Damon’s iPhone for Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and typed in parenthesis right there in the front seat of the car. The flashing screen defined how to utilize the word not as a whisper, or as a mama hen clucking to her children, ‘Move forward now! Listen up!’, but as this: X regarded her husband’s brief fling with a coworker as no more than a parethesis in an otherwise solid marriage. 

Godbe Decklebaum! Right there at S. 129th Street and who knows what, I became enraged. “Did Merriam or Webster write this?” I yelled in my head.  “What year were these examples written…the Victorian Age?” I turned back and stared at my daughters, happily shouting out numbers, their eyes shiny with excitement, unaware of the turmoil in the world outside the car windows. I thought of how much they still had to learn. Hard, bleak truths about men and women, power and numbers. I turned back and stared at the sky, transected now by pale blue voids among the rolling clouds. “That sentence must have been written back in the 50’s.” I decided numbly. “When a woman was expected to stay home while the man went out and crunched numbers and had affairs.” This thought pacified me briefly, until I realized the folly of my thoughts. “No, wait…what was I thinking? This sentence could just as likely been written within the last two months, by any number of senators, governors, presidential candidates!”

As our car navigated the x and y-axis of Seattle’s street grid, I thought about x and y as woman and man. How women are considered the ‘fairer’ sex, when in reality we are the ‘unfairer’ sex, even in 2012. How parenthesis seemed to mean one thing at times – a whisper among friends…and something altogether different when numbers entered the picture.

“What does parenthesis actually mean in mathematical terms?” I asked Damon tersely. 

“In math, parenthesis set precedents. They tell you what to do first.”

I thought about this. How men supercede women, almost always. They set the precedent. How X is never equal to Y (X=Y) in our country, our workplace, our bank accounts, our churches. That math equation doesn’t make any sense. It’s a problem that can’t be solved.

What we truly must teach our daughters as they rise up in age and grapple with the facts is that many people believe the correct answer to be X<(Y). And the only way I can think of to correct that problem is to take X (women), multiply it times 157,000,000 (the number of women in the US), then link arms close enough to whisper in each other’s ear…(Move forward now! Listen up!)

After all, there is strength in numbers (and that, my friend, might be the only answer we have).

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