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Perhaps the most singular thing about Tom Waits as an artist—the thing that makes him the anti-Picasso—is the way he has braided his creative life into his home life with such wit and grace. This whole idea runs contrary to our every stereotype about how geniuses need to work—about their explosive interpersonal relationships, about the lives (especially the women’s lives) they must consume in order to feed their inspiration, about all the painful destruction they leave in the wake of invention. But this is not Tom Waits. A collaborator at heart, he has never had to make the difficult choice between creativity and procreativity. At the Waits house, it’s all thrown in there together—spilling out of the kitchen, which is also the office, which is also where the dog is disciplined, where the kids are raised, where the songs are written and where the coffee is poured for the wandering preachers. All of it somehow influencing the rest.

—“Play it Like Your Hair’s on Fire,” Elizabeth Gilbert, GQ, June 2002

Here’s the thing:

So I read Crooked Timber last week, and Kieran Healy’s post on the problem of women in philosophy sticks in the corner of my mind: it seems there aren’t that many, not that many at all, and why is that? And some people say women just can’t argue in the rarified way that philosophy calls for, and others point out that’s bullshit—linguistics, say, and the cognitive sciences overlap philosophy in terms both of rarefaction and bare-knuckled barroom advocacy, and yet women aren’t nearly so underrepresented there. So why? What’s up? —Like I say, it sticks in my mind.

Then on Saturday, at our weekly gaming session, there’s a lull for my character, and I lean over and pick up a magazine. (I know I shouldn’t do this because it’s rude; when you’re not “on stage,” you’re effectively in the audience, but gaming as a medium is long on exposition and loves dialogue not wisely but too well, which is one of the reasons I do like it so, but when you’re not “on stage,” and you’re playing a rather dim or shall we say instinctual character and you don’t want to be tripped up by trying to forget stuff you learned when watching other people’s scenes your mind tends to wander and, oh, hell, all right, I picked up the magazine, okay! I just browsed. I still had an ear out for how making an open box was pretty much the same as making an open box.) —Anyway. The magazine: Discover, the September 2003 issue. (It was the one to hand.) And idly browsing the short and breathless pieces up front, my eye was caught by a title: “Girls Are Better at Math, But…” It was about some research conducted by Jacquelynne Eccles and Mina Vida at the University of Michigan, and you can read about it here, but that doesn’t have the punchline that caught my eye, so I’ll quote Mathematical Digest’s short, sharp summary, which does:

The data [based on interviews and questionnaires] indicate that girls’ math abilities outpace boys’ through high school, but the girls eschew math-oriented careers because they do not believe such careers are valuable to society.

Which bumped into Kieran’s post, still stuck in that corner of my mind. Ha! I said to myself. That’s why there’s so few women in philosophy! It isn’t valuable! It isn’t important! Y’all don’t rate, boys!

But then I started reading some of the posts that are littered about this issue, and it didn’t seem so funny, anymore. —And anyway, Michael Cholbi already made this point in the comments.

To find another life this century as intensely devoted to abstraction, one must reach back to Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), who stripped his life bare for philosophy. But whereas Wittgenstein discarded his family fortune as a form of self-torture, Mr. Erdős gave away most of the money he earned because he simply did not need it…. And where Wittgenstein was driven by near suicidal compulsions, Mr. Erdős simply constructed his life to extract the maximum amount of happiness.

—“Paul Erdős,” The Economist, 1996

Erdős (pronounced “air-dish”) structured his life to maximize the amount of time he had for mathematics. He had no wife or children, no job, no hobbies, not even a home, to tie him down. He lived out of a shabby suitcase and a drab orange plastic bag from Centrum Aruhaz (“Central Warehouse”), a large department store in Budapest. In a never-ending search for good mathematical problems and fresh mathematical talent, Erdős crisscrossed four continents at a frenzied pace, moving from one university or research center to the next. His modus operandi was to show up on the doorstep of a fellow mathematician, declare, “My brain is open,” work with his host for a day or two, until he was bored or his host was run down, and then move on to another home.

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, Paul Hoffman

His language had a special vocabulary—not just “the SF” [The SF is the Supreme Fascist, the Number-One Guy Up There, God, who is always tormenting Erdős by hiding his glasses, stealing his Hungarian passport, or worse yet, keeping to Himself the elegant solutions to all sorts of intriguing mathematical problems] and “epsilon” [children] but also “bosses” (women), “slaves” (men), “captured” (married), “liberated” (divorced), “recaptured” (re-married), “noise” (music), “poison” (alcohol), “preaching” (giving a mathematics lecture), “Sam” (the United States), and “Joe” (the Soviet Union). When he said someone had “died,” Erdős meant that the person had stopped doing mathematics. When he said someone had “left,” the person had died.


Don’t get me wrong. Paul Erdős sounds like he was a great guy, fucking brilliant, had a devastating effect on mathematics, there’s the whole deal with getting your Erdős number and what that means.

But he wasn’t just moving from one university or research center to the next in a restless quest for mathematical talent. He was on the move so much because he was holy hell as a house guest. —He “forsook all creature comforts—including a home—to pursue his lifelong study of numbers,” the blurbs will tell you. Bullshit. He forsook the bother and worry of creature comforts. Other people cooked his food. Other people washed his clothing. Other people kept him from wandering into traffic. Other people woke him in time for his “preaching” appointments. Other people filled out his paperwork. And he was an incredibly generous man, gave money away like water, was always available to poke and prod at somebody’s truculent problem till it gave up its mathematical beauty, then collaborate on a paper and on to the next, but to pretend he was somehow above the domestic fray, divorced from the daily grind, is to mistake his suitcase and his orange shopping bag for his home; to fail to note that women are underrepresented in mathematics is to miss who might well have been doing a lot of the washing and the cooking and the picking up after when he showed up suddenly on the doorsteps of married colleagues saying, “My brain is open”; and if you don’t pick up on that, you’ll miss the ugly little subtext in all that talk above about “bosses” and “slaves” and “captured” and “liberated,” for all that he did notable work with a number of female mathematicians.

That sort of domestic obliviousness is something men (as yet) find a lot easier to get away with than women. Where’s the toilet cleaner? What did you do with the light bulbs? Do I put the liquid bleach in before or after the rinse cycle? I couldn’t find the baking powder—I thought baking soda would work just as well. Don’t you like your shirts folded that way? —And this has nothing to do with hunting giraffes on the veldt and what that did to our brains, either, and it has everything to do with who does what chores when, growing up, and who’s expected to keep things clean and fill the glasses, and truth be told there’s more than a little of that trick where you break a couple of plates and they never ask you to wash dishes again in there, too. And the extent to which men (broadly) are allowed to get away with this and women (broadly) are expected to pick up the slack is the extent to which men will (broadly) have an edge in fields that call for such extended grinds of rarified, abstract thought, best left uninterrupted by more mundane concerns such as paying the electric bill on time, and women will (broadly) be more inclined to seek out fields that are more, or are at least perceived as being more connected with day-to-day life. (Like linguistics, and cognitive science? Well, keep in mind we are talking philosophy and mathematics, here. Everything’s relative, and anyway, all generalizations are wrong, etc.)

Now, I’m not here to set Waits against Erdős in some titanic battle of the shambling weird old geniuses, art versus science, specialized compartmentalization versus kitchen Zen holism. For one thing, Elizabeth Gilbert never saw the kitchen she waxes so rhapsodic over, up there at the top of this thing. She interviewed him in the dining room of an old inn “somewhat near the mysterious, secret rural location where Tom Waits lives.” And if that kitchen Zen is nonetheless something that lights up my heart when I think about it (“Come on up to the house,” he’s singing somewhere, and I smile: there’s the secret, the mystery, the answer to how to get more women into philosophy: it’s a trick question), well, Gilbert never meets Kathleen Brennan, Waits’ partner in crime, the life he doesn’t consume: “I know nothing for certain about her,” writes Gilbert, “except what her husband has told me. Which means she is a person thoroughly composed, in my mind, of Tom Waits’ words. Which means she’s the closest thing out there to a living Tom Waits song.”

And Erdős lived by all accounts a rich and happy and fulfilling life, and Hoffman’s book, a sort of oral history of everyone, mathematicians and not, who hung out with him and solved problems with him and cooked for him and cleaned up after him, is full of love and joy.

So I’m here, now, and I’m lost. I’ve gotten sidetracked. It started as a joke, and became something darker, and—where am I now? I have paperwork to do and the cat has a thyroid problem and the back stairs need mending as soon as my elbow is better and I have no idea what I’m going to make for dinner tomorrow and I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to get the tabouleh set up for Wednesday what with the day job and the luncheon date that day and I don’t want to think about the dentist because all I want to do is write and yet.

Here I am studiously ignoring that tangled mess by nattering on about—braiding.

Maybe it’s just an excuse to quote Waits some more. Well, Gilbert, but it’s mostly Waits:

I ask Tom Waits who does the bulk of the songwriting around the house—he or his wife? He says there’s no way to judge it. It’s like anything else in a good marriage. Sometimes it’s fifty-fifty; sometimes it’s ninety-ten; sometimes one person does all the work; sometimes the other. Gamely, he reaches for metaphors:
“I wash, she dries.”
“I hold the nail, she swings the hammer.”
“I’m the prospector, she’s the cook.”
“I bring home the flamingo, she beheads it…”
In the end, he concludes this way: “It’s like two people borrowing the same ten bucks back and forth for years. After a while, you don’t even write it down anymore. Just put it on the tab. Forget it.”
  1. Alas, a Blog    Apr 20, 10:00 AM    #
    She links me, she links me not...
    Long Story: short pier critiques Paul Erdős. Well, sort of. Not really. Anyway, it's a terrific post, and I've been meaning to link to it for ages now, so you should go read it. Especially if you're interested in gender...

  2. Brayden King    Apr 20, 12:34 PM    #
    Erdos and the unavoidability of domestic work (even if someone else does it for you)
    Long Story, Short Pier recently wrote an excellent post about a favorite subject of mine - work and domestic life. The author wonders why women seem to be diverted away from academic fields like math and philosophy. It’s not because women aren...

  3. Caveat Lector    Apr 20, 03:08 PM    #
    I’ve said similar things, but in no wise so elegantly as this: That sort of domestic obliviousness is something men (as yet) find a lot easier to get away with than women. Where’s the toilet cleaner? What did you do with the light bulbs? Do...

  4. Arete    Apr 20, 05:02 PM    #
    in which I contemplate housekeeping
    This was my fortune at dinner tonight. I like it of course, not least because I've been spending quite a bit of time on career issues lately. Then, I got home, went to the computer, and found this from...

  5. Arete    Jun 20, 01:50 PM    #
    in which I contemplate housekeeping
    This was my fortune at dinner tonight. I like it of course, not least because I've been spending quite a bit of time on career issues lately. Then, I got home, went to the computer, and found this from...

  6. Phan Thanh Thư    May 29, 03:53 AM    #

    không gì không thể

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