In eighth grade there was an after-school program called MathCounts in which all the future engineers and programmers got together to learn number theory concepts that went beyond algebra and geometry. Not only did it prepare young students for the kind of mathematical thinking that college would require, but it also served as a preventative measure for adolescent dangers like having fun or kissing a girl. One day, Mrs. Schultz taught us how to find the number of diagonals—lines that connect non-adjacent vertices—in any polygon, and she did so by showing us what she believed to be an efficient counting method. Ever the intellectual malcontent, I thought her process cumbersome, and a better set of instructions just came to me, as if it had been revealed in a daydream: subtract three, multiply, divide by two, done.* After ten minutes or so of verifying that my way was in fact a sound and stronger and boy geniuser alternative, she conceded and then started to gush. “How did you see that? How did you know it would work for all cases?” As much as I wanted and still want to be adored by everyone, I remember thinking, “Slow your roll, baby. It ain’t that big a deal.”
And it wasn’t that big a deal, because inspired moments like that have little to do with the people who receive them. Those flashes of inspiration come from and belong to God, or, as I like to call it, the G-word. I use “It” because the idea of a personal God like that in the narrative of the Hebrew Bible is, to say the least, outmoded. While I’ve always been a credulous person with regards to objective goodness, I can’t claim any knowledge of the divine in the epistemological sense. Maybe I’m being romantic, and maybe It is nothing more than a psychologically codified institution, nurtured by tax breaks and regalia, reinforced by guilt trips; but then, it would have been extremely implausible for me to have encountered that diagonals formula elsewhere prior to that moment in eighth grade.