Sunday, December 24, 2006

Welcome to the Narrow End of the Bell-Shaped Curve

I was at dinner a few years ago with my husband, Stobex (well, that's not his real name of course; it stands for Soon To Be Ex -- our divorce is in process as I write this), and some cousins of ours. (Stobex and I are second cousins who didn't meet until I went to England at the age of 15. The cousins we dined with are D, Stobex's first cousin & my second cousin, and D's husband Jack, and someone's son, Tom. I still don't know if Tom is Jack's son -- and thus no relation to Stobex and me -- or Jack & D's son, in which case he'd be my second-cousin-once-removed, and Stobex's first-cousin-once-removed. You are taking notes, aren't you?)

Back to dinner. D and Jack are famous mathematicians. Fame, in this context, means other mathematicians may have heard of them, but you and I (I assume you're not a mathematician...) have not. Stobex isn't a mathematician either; he studied physics at Cambridge, though, which puts him closer than me (I was a biology/philosophy student a million years ago; I took calculus, but can't remember it) but he's still just smart about mathematics, not actually trained. So, imagine my surprise when Stobex trotted out some doggeral that -- I gather -- is extremely funny to mathematicians. Certainly Jack & D laughed; Tom and I just stared.

It was one of those moments when things click into place and you understand life as you previously hadn't. Stobex fit in with these professional mathematicians, and I didn't feel as though I did. But I know Stobex to be even less mainstream than me, so how come he felt at home with these people and I didn't? For that matter, now that I thought about it, Stobex behaved like he fit in at his job. At the time of this dinner, Stobex and I were both lawyers at top-tier law firms in our city. He's a patent lawyer; I was then a corporate bankruptcy lawyer. He's British and beyond geeky, so in theory he ought to feel slightly weird, but he was happy as a clam. I was older than my peers, but otherwise should have felt reasonably at home. Instead, I chafed at the job, the other women, and the dissonance between what I was supposed to be and what I felt like.

I quit a month later.

My point is, I've always felt like I'm at the narrow end of the distribution schematic known as a bell-shaped curve. You may remember them from school: if you plot all the heights of a random group of people, and if you have enough people, you'll get dots that bunch up in the middle and taper off at the ends. There are a few people under five feet, and a few people taller than 6'8", say, but most of us are somewhere in between. (At 5'11", I'm taller than most women, but not tall at all if your sample is the WNBA.) Stobex is definitely narrow-end, but he doesn't feel like he is. I'm narrow-end, and I do. I pick my friends among narrow-end people. If I qualify to belong to a group, such as quilters, I feel like I am different. I think, "Yes, but I'm a lawyer." When I'm with lawyers, I think I'm different because I'm a quilter. (I was at a quilt convention last spring -- Paducah, if you're in the know -- and taking a class with 20 other women, two of whom were lawyers-who-quilt. They were from L.A., so I still didn't feel kinship with them, but that's just me being bloody-minded.)

This blog, then, is my way to think out loud about being narrow-end. I actually think a lot of people feel the way I do, they just don't think about their feelings the way I do. I've known distinctly narrow-end people deny (quite vehemently!!) that they are statistically unusual, and I've known some really mainstream types nod their heads (quite energetically!!) to signify how much they agree with my narrow-end philosophies. I've thought about all of this a lot. It's time to write it down.

Next up: How it is I have a husband and a boyfriend (currently out together photographing signal boxes in a place called Alford and pronounced Alfred) despite looking like Roseanne Barr in a bad year. Which is another way of saying, Personality really does count in Narrow End Land!

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