|Tom, the Fibonacci pinapple, and Me|
By Tyler MacNiven
I remember whirling around the living room wearing my parents’ oversized clothes and listening to Tom Lehrer records. “I ache for the touch of your lips dear,” he would sing as I would spin, “but much more for the touch of your whips dear.” To say that Tom Lehrer’s humor was formative in my youth would be to understate the case. My father, something of a wag himself, drummed into us as that there were two comic geniuses in modern times: Tom Lehrer and Groucho Marx. My older brother was always the brain and my younger brother the sports star, but it was me who could sing The Masochism Tango.
If you’re under about forty-five you probably haven’t even heard of Tom Lehrer but in the 50’s and early 60’s he was a sensation. He made several albums and toured widely. He would play the piano and accompany himself in his distinctive nasal twang satirizing the events of the day. He predated Nixon, Vietnam and even swearing in public. He sang about “the bomb,” college life, and excessive capitalism, communism, and Catholicism. His more recognizable pieces are Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, Oedipus Rex, and The Elements, in which he furiously sings through the periodic table.
Tom can be considered sort of Mark Twain with a piano. He was hip when the word hip was hip and there is a reason why every major record store still has a Tom Lehrer section. He’s enduringly funny. Then at the height of his career he abruptly quit the life of a comic genius to teach mathematics at Harvard and later UC Santa Cruz. I was his last student.
His sudden withdrawal from a successful musical comedy career was a mystery to many. During an interview on NPR a few years ago he was asked why he stopped performing and writing at the height of his popularity. He was reluctant to answer the question because, he said, the answer always failed to please. The reason he quit was that as time went by he ceased to find things very funny.
When I first came to UCSC I asked a few people about Tom Lehrer and those I asked were not sure if he was still around. It was only by chance that I noticed his name in the course catalogue when applying for winter classes. The title of his course was Infinity, and its description said that it dealt with concepts and applications of infinity. Hummm, a big subject, not exactly in my major, but the course was being taught by Tom Lehrer, the man who wrote the songs I had memorized in my childhood. I was quick to enroll.
On the first day of class I brought Tom a shiny red apple and placed it on the desk in front of him. He chuckled slightly then looked up at me and said, “Bribery will get you nowhere.” I could not tell if he was joking. But I kept bringing in the fruit anyway. Next, a banana, then an orange. I planned to have the fruit get increasingly elaborate each class, perhaps ending the quarter with a spike-fruit or a giant watermelon.
The day I brought the orange, Tom spoke about the Fibonacci numbers. He explained how this mathematical sequence appears in nature and he demonstrated with a pineapple, which he had marked to illustrate the mathematical concept. At the end of the class he handed me the fruit. “There, now we’re even,” he said and he politely asked me not to bring him any more fruit. It was clear he was not interested in my humorous renditions.
Tom was focused on teaching math, although he did tell many jokes. He would often depart from the subject spidering through digressions within digressions the thirty-some students either laughing or left scratching their heads. He never referred to his pervious life other than to mention that he played the piano.
The class was actually quite interesting. We learned how zero point nine nine nine forever equals one and why two lines of unequal length both contain the same number of points. More importantly, though, I got a good grasp of that intimidating concept infinity.
Our final exam was on a Sunday at noon. I was not expecting it to take very long or to be very difficult. I was wrong in both cases. It took me the entire three hours, and I still could have used more time. At 3:00 I looked up and realized that everyone else had finished their final and left. I glanced over at Tom who signaled that the time was up. I slapped my pencil down and stood up. “So, I understand that this is your last class?” I said.
“Tyler, it’s been fifty years. I think I got my point across.” At that moment I realized that I was Tom Lehrer’s last student ever. I approached his desk and laid my paper on the stack. I wanted to memorialize the moment, to tell him how great he was, to bring forth some really fabulous piece of fruit. I wanted to tell him what a big impact he had on my growing up, that he is a genius, but I knew him well enough by now to realize that it wouldn’t sell. I simply shook his hand and told him that it was a pleasure being in his class.
“You’ve been a good sport Tyler,” he said. He then lifted the pile of exams under his arm, picked up his briefcase, and we both made for the door. At the door of the classroom he looked back to the empty desks and said, “So long folks.” And with that, he turned and left.