I was about to give up on this little cactus. It grew well, then it got sickly. I figured it had outgrown its pot. I have little idea of what I should do with it. Toss it? Give up?


Then, I notice it is blooming.

Life is full of unexpected gifts. It is up to us to pay enough attention so that we notice them.

Yesterday is history.
Tomorrow is a mystery.
Today is a gift, which is why we call it the present.

(Attributed to many: Joan Rivers, Bil Keane, Babatunde Olatunji, Eleanor Roosevelt, and maybe others. I got it from Kung Fu Panda.)




One of my REU students made cookies and gave some to one of her research mentors. It is really nice to do something for someone because you enjoy doing it and because you want to make them smile, just for a moment.

There was a time when I made cookies; for Valentine’s Day, and other holidays. I’d put them in decorated bags, and I’d leave them for my faculty members and friends in graduate school. I loved doing it. The work itself gave me pleasure. The anticipation, because I wanted them to come in that morning and smile because someone was thinking of them. I wanted to give them that moment with a smile.

Like I smiled when one of my young friends left me some cookies this past Christmas.

There were tears in my eyes then too.

At some point I stopped making cookies. I remember the conversation. One of my faculty members told me that she knew why I needed to do that. Really? I’m not sure exactly what she said after that. It was just the smug certainty, not gratitude, but superiority, that me making her cookies represented weakness in me, not kindness toward her. That I needed to do this for her, for them, because I was … something less than the rest of them. Something she could, so easily, see through.

I was hurt. A whole lot angry. How dare anyone presume to think they know what is in my head? How dare anyone take my kindness and turn it into a weakness?

All I have to say to a world that might treat these young ladies that way is so rude that I don’t even want to type it here. Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare ever take that precious kind spirit and try to hurt them with it.

Sometimes you have to stop making cookies for people who treat your kindness with contempt. That is right and sad.

The proper response is thank you. And, to these cookie-making friends, I want to say thank you. For the kindnesses toward me and toward others. For reminding me of who I used to be and allowing me to remember this for what it was, through older eyes.


From earlier today.

I am feeling a little gobsmacked right now, but it is getting better.

A few thoughts.

If you are acting with sincerity and good will, when other people don’t (re)act nicely, it usually has more to do with them and their history than whatever you just said or did.

It is okay to not feel good all the time; that sticks and stones thing is completely wrong. We hurt each other with words all the time.

It is okay to look at things that happen and take notes about how you want to react to them differently next time.

Last, asking and not getting everything you asked for is better than not asking and getting nothing. It also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep asking. (But, dangit, asking is hard.)

Now, chin up, and on with the day.

Everyone has days like this. I was distracted in my evening Tai Chi class, thinking about what happened earlier. I’m trying to shake it off, but it was definitely time for more anxiety medication when I got home.

Things will always just throw you off balance, and you have to find a way to deal with them. I know this. Life has ups and downs. This isn’t so bad. Don’t let it get to me.

But I am feeling bad.

Sometimes you question what you are worth, and what good you are doing. That’s where I am tonight. I know I do a lot of good. And I am fully aware that I screw up sometimes. Hopefully more good than bad, but sometimes the bad just gets all stirred up. The screwy thing is, I don’t even feel like anything from earlier today was my bad!

Time for a shower. And a book. And some sleep. And the hope that tomorrow is another day, with all the things a tomorrow brings.

What do I advise my students to do? Put your chin up. Try to walk the high road. Have something kind to say to someone, every day. You have something special to contribute to this world, you just have to figure out what it is. What should you do with your life? You should follow a path that makes you happy. If you aren’t sure what to do, do the things that make you feel good, and spend more time with people that make you feel good. Give each job an honorable effort and let the results take care of themselves.

That is all I or anyone can ask of you. So, tomorrow, an honorable effort. A kind word for someone. Spend some time with people I like, and take on at least one job that makes me happy. I hope the results, in particular, my mixed-up feelings, will take care of themselves.

ε (epsilon) > 0 exercise plan

I’m working off and on at getting another post together about my students’ final portfolios but that’s going slowwwwwwly. Time for a break to write something else.

Friends mentioned enjoying hearing about my ε (epsilon) > 0 exercise plan, and that it helped them to keep going. I’ve mentioned it, but I’ve never described it.

The name is a bad math joke. Almost every calculus proof starts with “pick any ε (epsilon) greater than 0”. We let ε get infinitesimally small, but it is not zero.

In other words, “something is better than nothing,” which surely applies to exercise.

This past year I hit burnout. I didn’t want to exercise. I didn’t even want to go out for a walk. Just leave me in my recliner all day with my computer and a book to read, okay?

The rational part of my brain recognizes the necessity of exercise. I resorted to mental tricks to get me out of the house, somehow, to get something done.

I know I’m not alone in this. Everyone has unmotivated days. It’s just that in my case they can become weeks and months. When this happens, generally, one of two things is going on:

  1. I am having a motivational crisis. If I’d actually pull yourself together and get out there, I will have a fine time and be glad I did it.
  2. I am really not physically up to it today. I need an easier workout or no workout and some rest.

The problem is that it is really hard to tell these two states apart. Just unmotivated will always feel like not up to it today.

Solution? Do ε. That is to say, something. 5 minutes. 10 minutes. I don’t care, I just have to talk myself into getting dressed in the appropriate workout clothing, going out and getting started. And here’s the deal; if I do 5-10 minutes and the problem is purely lack of motivation? I’ll generally buck up and complete a workout (maybe a small one, but better than nothing). If the problem is that I am not physically up to it today, I will not buck up, and then I go in after 5-10 minutes. Which is still better than nothing! Plus, I know it wasn’t just laziness, so I can stop beating myself up for that.

The bottom line? ε (epsilon) > 0. Something is better than nothing.

Some additional advice:

  • Find something to do that is fun for you. Dance class? Team sport? Solo time? Friend time? Reading on the treadmill? Whatever it is, that is what you should do. For me, it is doing something with a group.
  • Don’t give up. ε adds up over time. Congratulate yourself, keep it up, keep trying. If you are in a funk, this will help it move on more quickly.
  • Nothings working? Then try something new. What have you thought might be cool that you haven’t tried yet? See if you can do something like that.
  • Don’t give up. Just keep trying.

I’m still struggling some with motivation, but I am trying a new activity. And of my old activities, this past weekend I did something that I know is more than ε. I hope the funk passes soon, but if not? I will persist with ε!

Pool Party

What are you doing on a Friday night? I accompanied my REU students1 to a pool and pizza party hosted at the campus Recreation center outdoor pool. Aside from the two organizers from Honors and Undergraduate Research, I think I was the only faculty member there.

Sad news was shared that an REU student collapsed and died on Wednesday evening. One of my students met him and was surprised by the news. I still remember when I heard that one of my martial arts classmates had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, the shocky sense of loss, even though I didn’t know him well. Walking around feeling weird about it for a few days. I was away at a conference; I didn’t even get to mourn with my classmates.

After carting my swimsuit and towel around all day, I was going to swim before heading home. I only got through one lap before getting tired. I did five, then I got out to dry off and watch what my “kids” were up to. To my surprise, I got picked for one of their water polo teams. It felt good to be wanted and maybe even a wee bit treasured, since I was “faculty, SCORE!” when my group outed me. How could I resist?

I didn’t know the rules, but I don’t think I was alone in that. I sure don’t throw or catch well, but a game is fun when everyone is a good sport. Mistakes were laughed off, and victories were congratulated. I had fun despite my inadequacies. They were still going strong when I left.

A friend posted from a speech about leadership on Facebook, “Take care of your people, and your people will take care of you.”

I kept thinking back to our Math Movie Night movie from last night, Stand and Deliver, about Jaime Escalante and how he got his students through the AP calculus exam. At one point, discouraged, he talks about getting a job with better pay and more respect. Jaime Escalante’s wife reminds, “But Jaime, those kids love you.”

While you can’t go into teaching wanting to be loved by your students — that will happen or not as the case may be — you have to go into teaching with a lot of love for your students. Every. Single. Day. No matter what else is going on in your life. The students might learn anyhow, even if you don’t care. They’ll learn a hell of a lot more if you do.

Another quote from the speech on leadership, “The 4 KNOWS: Know yourself; know your people; know your job; know your priorities.”

That’s what I’m thinking about tonight.

1. Research Experiences for Undergraduates, an NSF funded program to get students (especially women and minorities) primary from 4 year colleges without big research programs involved in research. In reality, a lot of the students involved are from big research institutions and few are minorities! At least more than half of our students are female.


Today is my birthday. I’m at the age where I do not not want to be another year older. My next major birthday (fortunately still a few years off) is 50. Note to self: isn’t it interesting how I feel absolutely obligated to include the information that 50 is still a few years off? Don’t want anyone thinking I am any older than I am, like that is some kind of failing!

I am not ready to be 50…. there’s a little screamy part inside me that says I am not *ever* going to be ready to be 50. I think that most people feel this way, and we are all really good at not talking about it.

We are good at joking about it. “Sure beats the alternative.” “Inside every older person is a younger person wondering what-in-the-hell happened?” “Getting old is not for sissies.”

It is completely mind-boggling to be older for reasons I can’t fully explain. Somehow when you are 20 or 25 you never think you will get to 40. Recently I discovered, that you get to 40, and you somehow think you are never going to get past 40! Just like when you are 6 you think you will never be 10. It scares me…. but sure beats the alternative, right? Sometimes I wish I could talk about it, but even here, I am afraid.

I had a self-pity party this morning, just feeling funky and out-of-sorts. One thing I am struggling with is the lack of a family and being alone. It is hard realize that these are things I am never going to get. There are compensations; I am free to do many things others are too tied down to do. I visit more friends. I spend more time with students. I can do more travel when the opportunity arises.

Before I start complaining about life not being fair, I think to myself that I don’t live in Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, or Afghanistan — even if things are unfair, I have it pretty good. The trick of it is to want the life you have, rather than to spend your energy wanting what you can’t have. But if that was easy, no one would be taking anti-depressants.

In the midst of this, I got a call from one of my REU students (just arrived yesterday). He was feeling sick and needed a trip to the doctor. I could do some complaining about having to be on call my birthday weekend, but you know what? I am actually happy to do that. I know it wasn’t a big thing, but he had someone to call and ask for help. Someone who was happy to come and help.

While he was seeing the doctor, I headed out to get some lunch. I found an electrical outlet, and I plugged in my e-reader which was low on charge. I sat down nearby, but not right next to it. My lunch didn’t arrive and didn’t arrive … I was worried my student would get done with the doctor and call. I finally asked about my food, and it was forgotten. They ended up comping it for me, so I got lunch for free my birthday. There’s one thing to be grateful for.

Turns out one of the two people who ended up sitting next to my e-reader was one of my business math students from Spring 2012 and her Mom. I taught a class of 300 that semester, and sadly I didn’t recognize her. There were too many faces in that sea of students for me to recognize them all. She recognized me, and she and Mom took time to tell me that she enjoyed my class and recommended me (as a teacher) to her friends. Even though that class was a monster with 300 people, this says I was successful at making it a human environment, rather than a dehumanizing environment. That’s something worth being proud of.

I don’t have a family, but I do have a lot of good friends. I have students to take care of. I have a lot of people in my life that look out for me.

I am not a well-respected scientist with a national reputation, but I am, perhaps, a much-loved and much-respected teacher in my corner of the world. I make a difference for many students, sometimes when I don’t even realize it. That’s something to be proud of too.

No, this is not the life I thought I wanted, but maybe I should be — and am — grateful for the one I have.


I submitted a paper om my mathematical modeling class to a special issue of PRIMUS: Problems, Resources and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies. The special issue is on writing and editing in mathematics classes, especially if it is something other than proof-writing, which is exactly what I do.

I was thinking I would write a 10 page paper. My first draft was 14 pages. I had 20 after a week worth of feedback and editing. I was cutting stuff out every place I could!

I was writing about writing, or meta-writing, and I did my best (after some feedback) to stick to writing about the writing and editing in the course. What I do, why I do it, what students should be learning from it. How the topic of mathematical modeling demands it. It is strange to realize how many considerations go in to each major assignment for the course; I didn’t capture even half of it. If I were to try to really put it all in there, I would have a book! Maybe I could write a book about mathematical modeling … or about teaching mathematical modeling.

As a teacher of writing, and one with ambitions to avoid hypocrisy, I had to follow the advice I give to my students. All-in-all, I decided that it is pretty good advice. While I put off getting started on the paper all semester long (not good), I still had about 3 weeks to work on the paper before it had to be handed in (good enough). I wrote almost every day, even just a little bit, writing at least several times a week. I had a first draft done on Monday. I needed to hand the final in on Friday. I sent it to several friends/colleagues and got feedback. Thank you, friends and colleagues who were able to find time to offer feedback. Thank you too, to those who didn’t find time — I didn’t have time to deal with any more comments! I thought about what the comments, and I worked on what I could. I think I ended with a stronger paper than I started with. I fricking hope so! I was up past midnight on Thursday working on it. Friday I read the whole thing out loud to myself in my office. I, indeed, caught a lot of spelling/grammar/sentence structure errors that way. Around noon I was at a point of fixing those last errors and handing it in. So I did.

Now I have to cross those fingers and hope that the trip through peer-review is not too bumpy.

I did it. Toward the end of the semester, I doubted I would get this done. But I did get it done. How did I eat that elephant? As advised, one bite at a time.