Reflecting—that’s what we all tend to do in the second half of life. As we do our routine reflecting, we find ourselves pausing at the crucial places . . . the places where we made choices with life-changing consequences. We wondered about our writers—what were their forks in the road? We turned first to Nancy Weber, our resident contrarian, for we suspected that, venturesome as she is, she might have gone down a wrong path—and that she’d relish telling us about it. We were right. —Ed.

72684909_1a72c1545f_z  Image from Flickr via Allen Amin Tabrizi 

Every morning when we sit down to breakfast, the beloved Ricardo ceremoniously divides The New York Times­—the ink-on-paper edition we must drink in with our coffee, no matter that both of us likely had read the breaking news online before we went to bed. Next to my plate Ricardo puts the arts section, precisely folded to offer up the crossword puzzle.

But on Tuesdays I get the science section atop my pile. For me, it’s where the new news is. I love politics, but it’s so often the same sad story as last week, last year, last century. And how can you understand politics (or art, or anything else) without understanding what men and women are made of, in the most elemental sense—what the universe is made of?

So once a week I lap up the latest on electrons and electrodes. No matter that I understand only about a nanosecond’s worth—whatever a nanosecond is.

My official life-altering mistake was to choose a college without a math or science requirement. There were other reasons for going to Sarah Lawrence: I was allowed, from the get-go, to focus on writing. A 50-cent train ride got me to New York City. I learned how to wear black leggings and sit on the floor, two talents I still enjoy flaunting. And I lived out a dream for my mother, whose father couldn’t afford Sadie Lou.

But it was freedom from math and science that really drew me. For a smart girl, I had some very dopey notions about my own best interests.

One can blame the zeitgeist, of course. Or the girls’ school I went to before college. Unlike the marvelous, progressive, coed Loomis Chaffee of today, my Chaffee (class of ’59) excelled in its humanities teaching but made algebra, geometry, and biology a deadly dull business. I remember the look of puzzlement and dismissal when I brought my math teacher some geometric designs I’d painstakingly constructed to show her much I loved straight lines and angles. In her book, love was beside the point.

So on to college, not by the numbers.

I adore using the Italian I learned from sublime Carla Pekelis and boasting that I was in Brian De Palma’s first filmmaking class! But I shot my big film with the lens cap on, which is pretty much to the point. I graduated a stranger in the physical world: nice grasp of Jungian synchronicity, but never knowing what time it was.

Like most folks, I’m modest about the clever choices I’ve made in life and boastful about the idiocies. Don’t know any math or science? That’s why I wake up every morning asking, “What if?” I’ve repeatedly said that ignorance, not information, inspired my two slipstream novels and the other writing that’s meant most to me.

The Playgroup posits a quasi-benevolent sexually transmitted disease that confers wondrous powers on the offspring of infected mothers. Brokenhearted is about a heart transplant that gives the recipient his donor’s golf swing (and calls out to the donor’s young blonde widow). You wouldn’t find biology majors coming up with those stories, would you?

Inspiration is one thing and the mathematics of epidemiology is quite another. To keep from making a complete ass of myself, I’ve thrown myself at the feet of various experts each time an idea has possessed me. “Don’t tell me why this is impossible,” I say. “Help me make it plausible. What if . . .”

I remember taking a pediatric kidney specialist out to lunch after landing a peachy assignment from Redbook to write a two-part novella about a child in medical jeopardy. The plot had come to me in minutes; I just needed to fill in some blanks. “Tommy’s 9, and he needs a kidney transplant, and the perfect donor is going to be the 16-year-old half-sister his mother gave up for adoption when she was 16, and her husband doesn’t know this girl exists. What’s the best disease to give Tommy?”

Poor kid got glomerulonephritis, a word I was so proud to add to my vocabulary that I would work it into conversations at cocktail parties. I might have avoided Biology 101, but I was making up for it with my ad hoc post-grad curriculum. My knowledge was stunningly incomplete, of course. The Redbook story had a weepily happy ending and got some nice fan mail, but a nurse pointed out that I had screwed up on the rudiments of blood types. Ouch.

So if I had to do it again, would I pick a college that required me to study what I didn’t know I would some day yearn to wrap my mind around? The best answer comes, I think, from a very unflattering review of my 1974 nonfiction book The Life Swap, in which I blithely tackled huge questions about consciousness.

The cranky, brainy British mystery writer Julian Symons dismissed my pondering at length in The Times Literary Supplement.  I’m still rankled by one of his lines: “If Ms. Weber knew anything, she would be dangerous.”

I turned 73 today. Oh, how I wish I were dangerous.

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  • hillsmom January 26, 2015 at 10:13 am

    In a recent discussion, I revealed that I never had to take a math class in college. However, I did love Biology, and Psych. I would have liked a minor in Psych, but knew I never could have passed statistics which, of course, was math. Eventually got a B.S. in a field I was ill suited for…and so it goes. A wasted life. (Well, I did make sure my children had what I never had…stability.)

    Love your article. Congratulations!