“I’ve had it with your father. All he does is bake bread, buy computer monitors, and dismantle the house!”
I’m in Boston. My father is home in New York. I’m on the phone with my mother. I chuckle. She’s referring to my father’s obsession with his brand-new breadmaker, his newfound quest for the perfect computer monitor, and his home improvement project that has lasted for almost a year.
Surely, I’ve heard this all before. Today, it’s flour engulfing our kitchen and monitors spilling all over the living room floor. Yesterday, it was a series of lectures regarding the “proper” way to align the couch cushions and an obsession with writing algorithms for solving n-dimensional Rubik’s cubes.
Before I get a word in, her tone changes completely. “Oh guess what,” she exclaims, suddenly forgetting her frustration. “Your father wants to make a company. I don’t understand anything it does. Maybe you will. Talk to him!” I agree and immediately, my imagination gets the best of me. I see a bold vision of my father in a t-shirt and shorts, completely underdressed. He sits behind a giant mahogany desk in the C-suite of an office building in midtown, filled with light and vaulted ceilings. I then imagine a blurry representation of myself, somewhere by his side, not yet sure where exactly I fit in.
Before any self-doubts begin to surface, my mother changes pace again. “Actually, hold on. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s just going to be the Four Color Theorem all over again.” Translated from Pelts-speak, she means, “Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.”
As our conversation continues, I am reminded of a small newspaper clipping that lies in the confines of my desk. It’s an article published in The New York Times, May 21, 1992: “Capitalism for Emigres, in 12 Steps.”I wasn’t alive in 1992. I was born in the United States. This article has nothing to do with me, but it has everything to do with my father.
A paragraph in the article states, “Dr. Gregory Pelts has secured a research position in the high-energy physics department at the Rockefeller University.” A description of my father’s appearance follows: “Notice that Gregory does not wear a tie and a jacket and has long hair.” His excuse: “Einstein never wore a tie.” Typical. However, my father’s appearance doesn’t seem to matter. “Dr. Pelts, however unkempt, is an exemplary networker,” the article claims, quoting his story of how he found his first job in America: “I just called up Rockefeller University, and said, ‘Good day, may I speak with someone working in string theory?’” (Sontag)
My father is a smart man. He discovered complex numbers by himself at the age of nine. In 1981, he was the only Jew accepted into the University of Saint Petersburg. By 32, he had completed two Ph.D. dissertations – one in Russian, one in English, both on string theory. Eventually, my father’s dream of physics passed, and instead, he followed the scent of mathematics to the world of Wall Street. He found himself a job as a quantitative analyst – “Quant” for short. Picture a small group of unkempt Russian theoretical physicists, now slightly better dressed in a shirt and dress pants, their lab space now the top floor of a New York City investment bank, and their love for string theory replaced with a passion for stochastic calculus.
My father is possibly the smartest man I know. However, my father also repeatedly gets lost in the one square mile that is my town. He makes horribly inappropriate jokes and never remembers the names of my friends. He takes a tennis lesson once a week with my younger brother, and each week, forgets both rackets at home. My father has also baked a dozen loaves of bread in the past two weeks. My father also thought he proved the Four Color Theorem by hand all in a two-hour span on a rainy Thursday night in October 2014.
I remember that day vividly. I remember his smile when he entered my room. “I did it.” “I proved it.” “Do you want to see?” His eyes were gleaming. His grin stretched across his stubbly face. His hair looked more unkempt than ever. At first, I didn’t even know what he was talking about.
In that moment, my father resembled a nine-year-old boy who had just learned how to ride a bike. Our roles became reversed. I was the adult. He was the child. He was awaiting my praise and adulation. I was more than happy to give it to him.
My father explained that he had proved the Four Color Theorem — a theorem that states that any two-dimensional map can be colored with just four colors without any edge having the same color on both sides. Technically, the theorem had already been proved by a computer, but no one had yet been able to do it by hand.
He led me into his office and began walking me through his proof. The loud scribbling of his pencil and the faint buzz of his computer accompanied my father’s thick baritone voice as it spoke of groups and fields and other concepts I barely understood at the time. The math became music, a beautiful melody in a foreign tongue. Meanwhile, the flutter of yellow legal paper created a light breeze. The warm yellow light of his office danced on my skin. I completely melted into this eccentric paradise.
I focused on his drawings of little circles and edges. Who knew math could look like Connect-the-Dots? I smiled. Greek symbols in an untidy handwriting decorated his shapes. Those little symbols were my father’s friends. I remember my first time meeting them, ten years ago, atop the brown paper tablecloth of Dee’s Pizzeria in Forest Hills. My father had taken up half the table, scribbling his Greek friends in the red and blue Crayola that was intended for me. I asked him what those squiggles were. “Math,” he answered. I remember feeling the sudden weight of my ignorance. I thought math was numbers. For a moment, the world seemed full of lies and only my father bore the truth.
As my father walked me through his proof, it wasn’t necessarily the math that captivated me. It was his blissful grin, his wide eyes. It was his passion for math. His obsession with this complex, abstract beast was pure and unwavering. He was the happiest man I had ever seen. Suddenly, his strange antics began to make sense. People do crazy things when they’re in love. Suddenly, I wanted to be obsessed with something like my father. I wanted to be crazy like him too.
Eventually, his scribbling of Greeks subsided. My father finished speaking. The proof was complete and I had understood absolutely nothing. However, the music left a faint melody ringing in my ears and goosebumps on my arms. I kept picturing my father’s picture in math textbooks, gold medals accumulating throughout our home. I couldn’t stop imagining my crazy genius father finally getting the recognition he deserved and winning over his love. However, my excitement was short lived.
The next day, I returned from school to an eerily silent home. I remember pushing the door to his office slightly and peeking in, and discovering a mathematical crime scene. Yellow legal papers adorned with indecipherable handwriting were scattered on his desk. Old books on group theory were stacked on his chair. A pile of clothes lay dumped in the middle of floor. My father was nowhere to be found.
“It didn’t work out,” my mother explained that evening. “He got stuck.” My father failed to prove one of his conjectures. He put up a good fight, but the Four Color Theorem had won.
For days, my father sulked. The house moped with him. It was as if a candle had been blown out. The yellow light in my father’s office grew cold and grey. The buzzing of the computers fizzled out. Everything became still.
Meanwhile, the rest of the family tiptoed throughout the house, mourning his loss in a silent understanding. My father was zooming at 100 miles per hour the day before and had banged headfirst into a wall. He needed some time to recover.
Eventually, he did. Within a week, he moved on to new math and the Four Color Theorem saga had come to a close. My father would continue to do many genius things – write papers, present his work at conferences all over the world. However, our family still reminisces about that frenzied Thursday night. It has become a bit of a joke for us now. Whenever any of us get too ambitious, we tease – “Dear God. It’s the Four Color Theorem all over again!”
The Four Color Theorem isn’t a story of failure to me, however. I reminisce about that night the same way I reminisce about dinner at Dee’s pizzeria and my father’s mad-scientist equations scribbled all over the table. That Thursday night is about how a 50-year-old financial analyst came across an interesting problem, and for the sake of pure curiosity, decided to work on it for two hours before becoming certain that he had proved a theorem that had remained unsolved for 150 years. That Thursday night is about how my father lives his life with the certainty that he can do whatever he wants and that anything is possible. He lives life as he pleases, baking bread, writing algorithms for fun, and comparing himself to Einstein for the heck of it. By no means is my father a normal man, but “normal” is overrated. My father is the type of person I want to be, but I also know I cannot become him by copying him.
I finish my phone call with my mother, my father’s scribbles of circles and edges still floating around in my memory, etched in red and blue Crayola. I think about last summer. I am 19 years old. I am moving back to college soon and my father drives me into the city so I can pack up my summer sublet. The dry air of August whooshes in through the open top of his car and combs my hair. He stomps the gas pedal of his car and the beautiful glistening skyscrapers of our favorite city fly by. Usually, in this moment, I would yell at him for threatening my life with his driving. However, in this moment, there is a rare tranquility in our relationship. Despite the honking of passing cars and the stench of burning gasoline, there is peace.
My internship is over and I have just signed my offer to return next summer. My office will be ten blocks away from my father’s building. Our jobs will be slightly different but essentially the same. “My daughter’s going to be a trader,” he says, still stomping on the pedal. He smiles and his grin occupies his stubbly face. He looks like a (very hairy) nine-year-old boy. I think he’s going 100 miles per hour. It’s as if he’s proved the Four Color Theorem all over again, except this time, he thinks I have. Have I?
I am my father’s daughter. We have the same crooked nose. Our laughs are wheezy and according to my mother, utterly horrendous. But I know I’m not him. At least not yet. I do my best to tread lightly and to believe in myself the way he does, but I haven’t found my Four Color Theorem yet. I know I will, however, and when I do, I’ll chase after it exactly like my father would – pushing the boundaries of what is possible without even knowing they were there in the first place.
Sontag, Deborah. “Capitalism for Emigres, in 12 Steps; Scientists from the Former Soviet Union Study an Unusual Subject: How to Get a Job.” The New York Times, 21 May 1992.