Math is Hard

Teen Talk Barbie; all talk, no substance. Photo borrowed from Ebay.

That’s a misquote of the elusive “Teen Talk Barbie,” which was recalled by Mattel in 1991 after public outcry deemed her shallow drivel (which included “Party dresses are fun! Do you have a crush on anybody?”) antifeminist and damaging to children. What Barbie actually said was not “Math is hard” but “Math class is tough!” (See the doll in action here)

But journalism is tough, too! And the people repeating the quote couldn’t get it right and summarized it into the easier, breezier, “math is hard!” And that struck a chord with me, and, given the rampant misquoting, all of America. Maybe because, guess what, math is hard! That’s a position that Barbie and Harold Camping, the 89-year-old doomsday preacher agree on–which is saying a lot, because they don’t seem to have too much else in common.

Harold Camping, AP photo taken from abcnews.go.comCamping had predicted that the world would start to come to an end last Saturday, May 21, at 6 pm. That afternoon I attended a wedding at which the priest jokingly congratulated the couple getting married on their optimism, for planning their wedding on the day the end of the world was scheduled. But the date came and went, they’re on their honeymoon, I had a lovely brunch with my aunts the next day, and Camping now attributes the lack of End Times to a miscalculation. See, he had used a complicated formula to figure out 722,500 days after Jesus was crucified, got the date May 21, 2011, and asserted that this was it, The Rapture, when true believers would be assumed to heaven and everyone else would slowly wither and die along with the world itself. I kind of imagined it like in the Wizard of Oz when the Wicked Witch of the West gets splashed with fatal water and screeches, “I’m melting. Melting!”

She's melting. Melting!

Anywho, now Camping, after further prayer and study, has decided that the decision as to who will be saved and who won’t be did take place on May 21, but the end of the world won’t happen until October 21. Which is the day before my friend Betsy’s birthday.

See, that’s what’s hard about end of days predictions–the business of life keeps going on and on, and we can all think of things we plan to do after October 21, should the world would not end. If I were Camping, who is 89, I wouldn’t start talking End of Days unless I were predicting a date 20 years hence, when I wouldn’t be around to be disappointed if my predictions proved false.

Of course, most mainstream Christian leaders say one can’t possibly calculate the End of Days, not just because math is hard, but because the Bible says the time and date of the Rapture can’t be figured out. Also, it seems to me we don’t have accurate reporting as to the time and date of the Crucifixion (again, journalism is hard!), so there’s no end point and no start point, making equations tricky.

There are, however, a few factors that keep me from laughing in Camping’s Frank Perdue-ish face. One, there have been a lot of endings lately (Oprah’s last show was yesterday, and if anyone has inside information on the end of the world, it’s Oprah). Two, there have been a multitude of natural disasters, from the Missouri tornadoes to the earthquake in Japan, that leave us feeling helpless and bereft. And three, as someone about to give birth in less than three months, I do worry about the future of the planet more than over. Nothing makes long-term planning seem more personal than bringing a new person into an uncertain world.

Eugene Dellacroix's Conquest of Constantinople.

Scrolling Facebook feeds today, I saw from a link on my blogging friend Peter Minaki’s page that Sunday, May 29th, is the 558th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople (read all about it at Now, I don’t think that this anniversary signals the End Times. But I do happen to know that Constantinople fell on a Tuesday, because when I was born via C-section, the operation was scheduled for Tuesday, October 8th, 1974, and all my aunts were disturbed because Tuesdays are bad luck days in Greece, as Constantinople fell on a Tuesday. My mother, not being Greek, and sick of dieting throughout her pregnancy (back then gestating ladies were only allowed to gain 15 pounds), refused to reschedule, so born I was, and so far, so good. Phtou (that’s me spitting to avoid bringing the Evil Eye down on my head). And my aunts got over it and are still partying, bouffants teased high, despite have seen the end of several civilizations they lived in along the way.

Me and the thitsas; we keep on keeping on.

In a way, given my low-grade anxiety about End Times, the anniversary of Constantinople’s fall seems reassuring; that event must have seemed like the end of the world to many involved, but here we all are, 558 years later.

Life and birth and end times are uncertain. And I think that that’s the moral of Barbie and Harold Camping, what the plastic princess and the doomsday preacher want us to learn: that many things are beyond our control, but we have to try not to let that frustrate us too much, or be too hard on ourselves and each other. Both Barbie and Camping believe in their own personal truths, and while I may not agree with them on those, I think it’s clear to all three of us that there’s only one certainty in this world, and it’s that math is hard.



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