Keep In Touch

First day of a new mathematics seminar, a tried idea that has not had much success in my department before. We need to create a better community with our majors, and, well, no one has any other ideas. I took point on putting it together. My first idea was a meet and greet with games for faculty and students. My colleagues indulged me, and we had students and faculty continue playing well over the hour mark, and feedback was good that this was fun. I was pretty sure I could see it in the students. I think there were even some good conversations about how math could be seen in the games. Cross fingers we can carry this momentum forward to victory!

I get a little overexcited and overstimulated by things like that. I came home wanting a hug. My wish was to be granted, the following arrived in the mail today, from a former student. 20160926_194126 She’s recently completed a tour in the Peace Corps, and enclosed was a souvenir and postcards from her post-Corps trip as she returned to the USA.

I had a voicemail waiting as well from another student who took the GRE today and kicked some serious GRE booty. Somehow I got some credit for that, but I’m not the one who was butt in chair doing the studying.

I tell students that I love to hear from them in the future. If ever they want to write and wonder if they should, YES, YOU SHOULD. And it’s true; I absolutely do.

Help a little

We have a new bike skills area in one of the local parks. I helped with this, at least a little. I attended half of 3 different work parties. I contributed some money to help buy a tree for landscaping. Of the two, the monetary contribution was the easiest, and it got my name on the sign in bigger typeface (name on the sign twice!), the irony of which is not lost on me.

The work parties ran from 8 to noon; I would arrive around 10, and stay to the end. There’s the little voice in my head saying I could do more. And I could have done more; you can always do more. It occurred to me when I was out there last that I also could have done less. Because if I stayed for 4 hours and really didn’t enjoy it, it would be easy to justify not coming the next time; heck, I went to a work party, what more can anyone demand? Showing up for half the time and putting a good effort meant coming back 3 times and putting in over 6 hours. Not only more than staying home, but more than just one work party.

And I don’t mean to boast here — I’m a slacker on this stuff and I know it. There are folks who put in 3 full work parties worth and gave larger sum of money to boot. All I’m trying to say is, I can see how easy it would have been to just skip it. Stay home. Read a book. Go hiking. Do something I find more rewarding. Showing up for half is sure-as-heck not showing up for the whole thing. But it is better, tons better, than doing nothing.

Figure out where you can help a little. Then help a little. Don’t give it up for not good enough.

Harper Lee

I started this a while ago and never finished it. It’s been bugging me since. Time to get it out there, imperfect as it is a tribute to the author of one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read.

Harper Lee passed away this past week. I’ve been talking about writing her a fan letter for … probably 30 (or more) years. And now it is too late. It was one of those things that never was quite important enough to do today, but that was something I wanted to do.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 11 years old. It was the summer before the 6th grade, and I knew it would be required in school that next year. I couldn’t put it down, not that that was unusual for me with books. I remember crying when I came to the ending, not because it was sad, but because I would never have the pleasure of reading this book for the first time again.

I have read that book many times again. Perhaps 40 times or more. When it was assigned during my 6th grade year, the class seemed to make little progress on the book, with irregularly spaced discussions. My memory (perhaps faulty) says that I read the book 18 times during the period in which we were discussing the book, and then earned a D on the final reading comprehension test. My parents had nothing to say on the topic, but a friend’s mother was outraged, and felt this was a gross injustice. It might have been. I probably knew the facts of the plot reasonably well. It might not have been. I am not sure that at the time I truly understood the complexities of the rape accusation or what it said about the accuser, or many other subtleties in the novel. Those have seeped their way into my brain slowly over many years.

Adulthood and modern-day discussions of privilege, racism, and sexism have left me with mixed feelings about this favorite novel of mine. Yet another story with white person as the hero. I see this and I know that partly I am sad because I want to be that white hero, defending the oppressed. I can want this even while recognizing this robs the oppressed of their agency.

And yet. And yet. There is still much in this book to love, and much from it that I learned.

There’s Calpurnia, servant to the Finch family. She takes Scout and Jem with her to church one time when Atticus is gone. During the course of this adventure, Scout asks her,

“Cal,” I asked, “Why do you talk nigger-talk to the— to your folks when you know it’s not right?”

“Well, in the first place I’m black—”

“That doesn’t mean you hafta talk that way when you know better,” said Jem.

Calpurnia tilted her hat and scratched her head, then pressed her hat down carefully over her ears. “it’s right hard to say,” she said. “Suppose you and Scout talked colored-folks’ talk at home. It’s be out of place, wouldn’t it? Now what if I talked white-folks’ talk at church and with my neighbors? They’d think I was puttin’ on airs to beat Moses.”

“But Cal, you know better,” I said.

“It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It’s not ladylike—in the second place, folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ’em You’re not going to change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut and talk their language.”

Emphasis mine. Those words of Calpurnia are what started to teach my arrogant little know-it-all self to start pulling back and not having to show off everything I know. There’s a difference between being right and being kind. It started me thinking about meeting people where they are, instead of trying to force them to meet me where I thought they should be.

There’s the sharp-tongued neighbor, Miss Maudie Atkinson, who gave me another view of the woman I wanted to become. I want Miss Maudie’s generous spirit and incredibly sharp tongue. This is one of few portrayals of women’s efficacious and righteous anger. Miss Maudie is able to put people in their place with a single comment — a power I desperately wish I had. Her command of scripture is formidable, and she is able to use it to deflect the foot-washing Baptists who might criticize her yard. Yet she is generous to the children, taking Scout seriously unless Scout intends to be funny, honoring their experience and helping them see a world broader and more complicated than others portray it.

True enough, she had an acid tongue in her head, and she did not go about the neighborhood doing good, as did Miss Stephanie Crawford. But while no one with a grain of sense trusted Miss Stephanie, Jem and I had considerable faith in Miss Maudie. She never told on us, had never played cat-and-mouse with us, she was not at all interested in our private lives. She was our friend.

There’s also the incredible craftsmanship of the writing, where one large story is told by the intricate interweaving of a thousand small stories. I open this book again and again and marvel at the seamless complexity of its plot and subplots, down to a few sentences in a half paragraph on any page you might open the book to.

These are the reasons that I owed Harper Lee that letter I will never send. So that, perhaps, she would read this from me, and know how much her book has meant to me for the past 35 years. Rest in peace Harper Lee. Few will ever hold a candle to the mastery of craft you displayed in your writing, and I will always treasure the delight of reading what you wrote.


It was snowing when I walked to the grocery store. Little tiny powdered sugar flakes. They had accumulated about a cm deep (maybe less) when I went outside at dusk, just to see.

Snow always seems like a tiny miracle. Even when it is inconvenient. Even when I have to clean it up. Little tiny white pieces floating down from the sky.

Snow flakes on a fence (actually from December).

Snow flakes on a fence (actually from December).

Earlier in the day, I went on a hike to a frozen waterfall. It is strange to me that water freezes in the shape of its motion. Or is it that some small part freezes, and then the gradual buildup of more ice around it ends up looking like the fall itself? How does that first bit manage to cling to anything in such a swiftly moving current?

A frozen waterfall.

A frozen waterfall.

There are wonders all around us. We just have to open our eyes to see them. I see some, and I also ask how many it is that I miss?

Perhaps it is enough to see the ones I see.

Assistant Professor

First day of class. First day of class on the tenure track. First day of class doing something that, for a while, I wasn’t sure I dared dream I could do.

I don’t know for sure what will stick in memory from this day or from this quarter, but I know there will be things that will stick because of the ephemeral sweetness of a first time doing something.

I know that some things will go well and others poorly, but I will improve from here. Right now I am still acclimatizing to this place, to this culture, and trying to figure out what I need to do.

I didn’t do much math today; mostly I tried to start the foundation of a classroom culture that is warm and accepting, supportive, hardworking, where everyone can have a voice if she or he wants.

The one fun math thing I did was in the numerical methods class for the master’s students. I said epsilon > 0. True or false, 1+epsilon > 1. And we voted. Everyone voted for true. Including me. And I voted for false too. And then explained that for a mathematician the statement is obviously and trivially true. But not so on a computer. I pulled up Python and did a demo to show. And that’s to some extent what the class is about. How and why do computers make mathematical errors and what can we do to avoid them?

And onward from here. Today 3 classes taught. Tomorrow, 9 am, my 4th class taught at my new school.


I’ve been here for over a month now, and on the most part, it has been a good time. But after the business of MathFest wore off, and some of the novelty as well, I find myself struggling more with loneliness.

I’ve been doing a good job of getting out to meet people. It just takes time.

I knew before I moved that a period like this would happen. At least, with classes starting soon, I have lots to do. I don’t have a lot of time to mope.

What’s the recipe here? Keep getting out and doing things. Good books. Reach out to people. Accept that there will be unhappy days. Keep doing things; don’t let sadness cause paralysis.

Count some blessings too: it is easier to be here than it was to get packed up to leave. That was hard, and sad to leave my community behind. There is a ton of interesting stuff I want to do here. Sure it would be nicer with a friend or two, but it is still great solo. There is a ton of opportunity here for me. I just have to make the most of it. Which means getting my work done and keep making progress, even if it seems slow. It is really beautiful here. I can’t get enough of the view. I did it; I applied for the jobs and I made the change. That was more than what I thought I could do a year ago.

Solo Camping

I remember the last time I camped alone in this tent. At least, I think it was the last time.

I camped at Colorado Bend State Park in Texas, in May, with the intent of doing a bike ride the next day. Before heading out, I stopped in Austin and I had lunch with my Ph.D. advisor.

We talked about many things; my unhappiness with my job, desire to try teaching. He said something insensitive; he’s infamous for being oblivious.

I asked about a professor who was my terror when I was working on my doctorate; a man who was known for pawing his female students, with the stereotypical black leather sofa in his office, who always wanted to shut the door and sit next to you on the sofa. Hella no, I opened his door wide, and I pulled over the hard wooden chair, but when it was time for my defense, I was worried that one would make trouble for me.

My advisor said he had no idea what I could be talking about when I said I thought that professor was creepy. All he could recall was that Prof. Creepy wanted to hire some unsatisfactory job candidates. I remember a lull or change in our conversation, broken perhaps 10 minutes later, when my advisor told me about Professor Creepy’s nuclear divorce when he, indeed, ran off with one of his female students, leaving his wife and kids high and dry. Professor Creepy went on to become the department chair at another august institution; I can’t imagine they found his performance satisfactory. I also don’t think my advisor connected his story to my comments, though I am certain that my comment connected some subconscious dots, bringing forth the story.

What I remember most about the camping is the explosive tears, the incredible feeling of being lost, of being stuck, of not being good enough and having no way to ever be good enough. Deep, deep, deep shame for being who I was, with only my abilities.

With little sleep, I didn’t go to the bike ride the next day.

There was mountain biking in the park, but after getting up and getting together, I ended up on a hiking rather than a biking trail. My frustration peaked.

It was unseasonably hot, and the campground had no showers. I swam a bit to clean up, but in the end, I just packed up and went home early, running away from that moment, that vision of myself, that truth.

I didn’t interact with my advisor again for 7-9 more years.

It was quite a few years before I came back to that park, newly in love with my then-companion. I remember a magical hike we had as we got lost trying to find a geocache. I have the pictures, and that happy memory.

Today, I find myself again alone in this tent. I am not thinking about trying teaching any more; I will start a tenure track position in the fall. If I had known what success I would have as a teacher, I might have started on this path sooner.

In the ensuing years, I have had deep disappointments, and I have had moments of great joy. Part of me is very very sad for the painful moments, and also angry for this part of my past. Part of me is deeply deeply grateful to be here, now, in this moment.

Lost and Found

I lost my phone this evening. Near as I can tell, it bounced out of my pocket as I ran to cross the street.

I have been lucky with lost phones. This is the third time I’ve misplaced a phone, unknowingly, and the third time the benevolence of strangers has brought it back to me.

The guy who picked up my phone told me I should lock it. I didn’t laugh, but if I did, how would he have been able to find me to give it back?

There are more good people in this world than bad people. Yes, I risk a bad person doing bad things to me with my unlocked phone. But since I’m more worried about me losing the phone than someone stealing it, I leave it unlocked.

And trust.

My trust has been well placed, thus far at least.

I am grateful for that.

Last Week

It is the beginning of the last week before I move. Monday July 28 is moving day.

It is a bizarrely cool morning here for July, nice to sit outside with a small sweater on.

This has never been a perfect house or yard, something has always been asking for my attention. Maybe all houses are like that. But it has been a pretty house, and often a pretty yard, and I am grateful for my years here.

We had a party on Friday from my math colleagues, and a picnic Monday from my bicycling colleagues. I have been very loved by many people. In ways I have undoubtedly not appreciated. I am grateful, very grateful for that.

I am grateful to have found a missing part of myself in teaching. Grateful to the colleagues who helped me get started. Grateful to those who supported my efforts and told me I was doing a good job. It’s been a journey, and it isn’t done yet.

I am grateful for my colleague with whom I am researching. I still feel like a baby researcher, unsure of myself or my worth. Thank you for your trust and belief in me, and willingness to work with me and help me find my feet. After many situations and experiences which haven’t fit, I am grateful to be here, scared of screwing up, but using my lessons from before to try to do a better job.

I am sorry to leave this place, sorry to leave this section of my life. I know there is a new section ahead of me, and many adventures to have, but walking into the unknown is hard for me. Being lonely is hard for me. It will take time to make new friends and feel like I am secure in a new start.

I am grateful my colleagues there are planning a warm welcome — they will help me move in. That’s amazing. Thank you.

Now I need to get to some packing and sorting for today. After all, I only have about a week left.


I just had my windshield replaced. It’s had a big crack across it for about two years now. A week and a half ago, I took a weekend road trip with a friend. We drove my car, because I needed to bring a bicycle. Hers is nicer and newer, but mine is the champion for cargo capacity. I was surprised to find myself uncomfortably embarrassed by my aging vehicle and the gigantic crack.

I should have done this sooner.

Getting the windshield replaced is like getting new glasses. The world looks different, even though it is the same. You’d think you wouldn’t touch anything if you reached out toward it, and you understand how birds make those tragic mistakes flying into glass.

Everything is fresh and new and wonderful, but just for a few moments. Quickly, oh so quickly, I acclimatized to the change and what was wondrous, I ceased to notice again.