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.

What do you want?

The gift-giving holidays are wrapping up (pun!), the new year is approaching. What do you want is a common question for this season, and one that’s been on my mind.

Stuff is easy, at least the smaller every-day items. I can purchase anything I truly want for myself. It was nice to have some Barnes and Noble gift cards on my account for a while; buying ebooks took less decision making, but truly, it doesn’t matter. If I want it, I can buy it. If I’m not sure I want it that much, I can investigate the options in the library. Stuff is hard if your goal is to have less of it. Acquisition is so much easier than decluttering.

It’s the bigger questions of who I want to be and how I want to live my life that weigh more heavily. I’ve been reading the Power of Habit by Charles Duggin (I think I’ve read this before). It reminds me that when we are in major life transitions, those are the easiest times for our habits to change — for good or ill. So be mindful and pay attention to how you line yourself up.

I hope to move into a more permanent residence this next year, and that’s one subject of my musings. I have learned that I would rather be out doing things, or even in doing things, but cleaning and yard work are not very high on the list of things I enjoy doing. I would like to minimize my investments here. A place that is easier to take care of, enough money left to pay for help, are ways to accomplish this. I can hire help where I am, but I am not so sure that I can find a lower maintenance place than what I had before.

I also need to work on my habits, as mentioned above. I don’t have a good way to deal with all the paperwork that comes into my place through the mail; it stacks up. Finding a better habit and way with this would help. I am not awful with dishes (my current place does not have a dishwasher), though undoubtedly I could improve. I think my biggest problem is that there are many times when I get home, or on weekends, that I just collapse into a chair, doing nothing productive. Perhaps, as Duggin suggests, my willpower is worn out for the time being. Perhaps I need to work on my willpower muscle to grow some more. I don’t like those long unproductive stretches.

I know I want to live in a place that has clean, uncluttered lines. Places to work that are ready for work when you need them. I want a certain Zen-chic, that leads towards peaceful thoughts and a peaceful mind. I am sure I will have to fight against even my tendencies towards acquisition and clutter. I am sure I need work on the paperwork demons.

I hope I can use my transition to create better habits. As with the ε>0 exercise plan, one step at a time. I hope I am mindful and aware of what’s going so that I can actually decide what changes to make, rather than having them made for me by default.

Lessons learned geocaching and mountain biking

Lessons learned while geocaching

  1. Just because you know where it is, doesn’t mean you can find it.
  2. A good question to ask is, if I were the person hiding it, where would I put it? I.e. put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  3. A GPS (or any fancy piece of equipment) can only help you so much. After that, you are on your own.
  4. Sometimes we all get functionally fixed on something, and can’t see what else is there. If you aren’t finding what you are looking for, think differently about the situation.
  5. Persistence pays off. You may not have your out-of-the-box thought the first time you try, so don’t be afraid to go home and return. Keep at it.
  6. If you really are getting frustrated, ask a friend for a hint or help.
  7. There are a lot of interesting things around you that you’d otherwise never notice.

Lessons learned while mountain biking

  1. There’s nothing wrong with riding up and down the curb in front of your house until you are comfortable with how your bike handles obstacles. I.e. don’t worry about starting small and taking baby steps forward.
  2. Uphill is hard. Keep at it, and you will improve. But know when you need to stop and catch your breath. Or get off and walk.
  3. There’s no shame in walking something that’s beyond your ability level. Better safe than sorry.
  4. You probably won’t get hurt much when you are starting out and scared of everything. You will get hurt when you develop competence and confidence and start riding at your limit. And if you are going to continue, you do have to get back on the bike.
  5. Downhill is fun, but downhill can be scary. If you’re going to ride it and not walk it, get your butt behind the seat, go easy on the brakes, and trust your bike. I.e. you don’t have absolute control. You have to give up some of your desire to control completely in order to have any control at all. (Think: controlled fall. But it is a fall. If you let it, your bike will do its best to take care of you.)
  6. If you can’t stand getting bruised, you are in the wrong sport. But who wanted to be a swimsuit model anyhow?
  7. Listen to your body; it will tell you the difference between minor bruises and really hurt.
  8. Listen to your brain/spirit. It will tell you when you need to take a moment because your fear is taking over your ability to perform.
  9. If you listen to yourself, and take care of yourself, you will find that your fears and anxiety lessen, and that falls that don’t result in real injuries become much less frightening.
  10. Ice is nice. If you know you’re bruised, put a cold pack on it. Take care of yourself.
  11. Persistence pays. Just keep riding, and you will grow stronger and more skillful.
  12. Every fall has a lesson. Make sure you take the time to learn it.

I came off my bike twice tonight. The first time was annoying, but I knew I was fine. The second time, I know I hit the ground pretty hard. I knew I wasn’t really physically hurt; I’d have a bruise, but nothing really wrong. My brain, however, wasn’t having such an easy time of it. I had to sit for a few minutes to pull myself together, because that fall scared me pretty badly.

The one and only panic attack I have had was on a mountain bike ride. There was a rocky, cliffside trail, and eventually, I did, indeed, take a fall down the rocky downhill side. I was bruised up, but not otherwise physically damaged. I was also in a race, and I felt obligated to push forward to get the best time I could. A few minutes later, I was having problems breathing, and it had nothing to do with how hard I was riding. My brain, logically and calmly, analyzed the situation, and informed me that I was having a panic attack. A part of me was all fascination: it’s true that you can’t breathe when you are having a panic attack! The logical part was very calm and said I had to get off the bike, sit quietly, and calm down. It was like I was partially outside of myself observing what was happening. All while something in me was panicking so badly it was taking away my ability to breathe. I wonder if I scared the corner marshall I came across at that time. I took a seat in his chair while I steadied myself. I walked almost every obstacle after that. My nerves were shot, and I knew it.

The terrain, loose dirt and rock, which was skeetering my bike around, plus the dark, did my anxiety level no good for the fall tonight. Four rides in three different places do not get you used to the way mountain bikes handle on different types of trail. I had a light, and that helped, but it wasn’t enough.

Two of the guys on the ride tonight came back to check on me after that second fall. I couldn’t even speak. I realized if I tried, I was going to just start crying. I figured they would appreciate it if I resisted. I held up my index fingers in the universal sign for “give me a minute”. It was hard to breathe, and hard to choke back those tears. If I had been with friends I might have just had my cry and gotten it done with. Those two, more sensible than perhaps they realized, just restarted their conversation and left me be to take care of myself. Which was probably easier when I didn’t feel like I was the center of attention. That didn’t take long, although it felt long for a few moments there. I was lucky, we were almost to the end of the trail; after I pulled myself together, there wasn’t much more riding for me to do. It still took a solid half hour to an hour after we got back in our vehicles and drove down from the trail head until I stopped feeling shaky and scared.

Mountain biking is like that, at least for me. The places I go are peaceful and beautiful. And the trail demands all of my attention, so no worrying about this or that or the other thing while I am riding. It’s almost like meditation in that I have to have a singular focus. I ride my bike and do nothing but ride my bike. I am constantly growing, not just in strength, but in skill. I learn how to do more and more as I go on. But it’s not without its price. I do fall off sometimes, no major injuries, but plenty of ugly bruises and, in the past, I’ve had an occasional lasting sprain or strain. It’s certainly not fun to get hurt, but there’s something fundamental that I learn about who I am by getting knocked around a little. Every fall has a lesson, if I stop to observe, think, and learn it. I won’t do Gu; I don’t do sleep deprivation, or working so hard I vomit. But I will continue to do this. Sometimes I wish I could skip this part, the being scared more than the falling off, but I know I am learning a lot, and growing, and that is why I signed up for this.

Change and Anxiety

Change always comes with a heap of tasks to be accomplished. I make lists, I update lists, I mark things done, but I still don’t feel in control. I’m missing something. What is it? I won’t have time to do all of that, no matter what. So let go of the expectation and do what is most important.

Leaping into the unknown is scary too … will I be happy there? Will I make friends? How will things be? I can’t know that, and so that too, to some extent, must be let go.

Consequently anxiety creeps in around the edges. Not good, since anxiety is a productivity antidote. Manage, do what you can, take medication as needed, try not to climb walls or call someone if you are. Or medication. That’s what you have it for.

How do you eat an elephant? I know, I’ve said this before. One bite at a time. The elephant carcass is looking scavenged already, as I’ve successfully sold/gotten rid of many things from the house. Started boxing yesterday. All is good. Still need to go through and get rid of more things. Use the epsilon>0 concept — doing a little is better than doing nothing. Keep moving.

I am looking forward to being moved. I am more looking forward to feeling settled and feeling like I am making friends. I am definitely looking forward to not having this task hanging over my head anymore.

One step at a time.

What’s next?

Drowning. I feel like I’m drowning.

A decision has been made, and I’m headed for new territory next year.

Meanwhile, the work here and now stays piled up. I need to make forward progress.

If you had to move across the country, what would you keep? What would you get rid of? What would you want to do differently?

I do want to down-size. I do not want a complicated yard to take care of. I do want to be able to hire help for housekeeping. I want to simplify. But, of course, there are also many things I probably don’t want to give up. I have to, though, and I think the advice I got from a friend to leave as much of it behind as possible is good.

A new start. So start new. Start where you want to be, if you can figure out where that is. I’m not sure yet, and I know it is a long road and a lot of work in front of me to get there. Do one thing every day to make progress, and, in theory, I will get there.

First, though, I have to manage the end of the semester. I’m behind in my class, and it is time to triage what I am going to do and what I am not going to do. I just hope that whatever I do is good enough.

And second, I’ve been under an immense amount of stress for months. This might not end today. Or soon. But it would sure be nice if I could get it under some semblance of control so I was sleeping better. Better rest = better productivity, and I need it.

Third, I have gotten to doing some calisthenics: pushups, planks, crunches, arm exercises at home. In short bursts. It’s an epsilon, but an epsilon that I need to make myself stronger. I am grateful for the start.

Fourth, I weed-and-fed the lawn today. One more small chore accomplished. The stuff didn’t say it needed to be watered in, but if I’m right, we should have rain within 48 hours. Here’s to a nicer lawn while selling my house. I am grateful for another small chore accomplished.

I need sleep. Soon. Now. No better time than the present. Good night all.


Some of you may already know that I put my credentials out on the tenure-track job market. Oh, not the Tier 1 Research University market — that’s definitely not my thing. I applied at liberal arts schools and master’s granting institutions where teaching is clearly highly valued.

My ideal position would give me breathing room to do both teaching and research/scholarship. Let me do my thing teaching. Let me explore some ideas. Let me not be so overburdened that I am working every weekend and always freaking out.

I wasn’t even sure I was tenure-track material. All those positions that required research statements. S-C-A-R-Y. I’d seen one of the graduate students’ research statements, and something like that wasn’t coming out of me. So I worked on the things I knew how to do. The CV. The teaching statement. So grateful to the advice I got on those.

But the research statement. What I’ve gotten into I’ve gotten into through my teaching. Undergraduate research projects. I do undertake some collaborative projects, but that’s where they come from. There are some more papers on teaching that I’d like to write. I had one (now accepted) under review at the time. Could that possibly be good enough? I went out and searched the internet and I found Dr. Karen’s Rules of the Research Statement. One page long? That doesn’t sound so scary. I didn’t think I could get even my simple ideas in to one page. She said short. Maybe two pages. And give an overview. I can do that. The simple mathematical biology projects I work on, and my ideas for things I’d like to write got all put together. It ended up going onto a third page with the citations, but there it was. A research statement.

I am so grateful for the mentoring I got; I was surprised to hear from that senior colleague that she thought I’d be competitive at the good liberal arts schools.

Soon (days) after getting my first applications complete, I got my first request for a Skype (phone) interview. It’s been about a month and a half since I first put myself out there. I’ve done three Skype interviews. I have two more coming. Today I got invited for two site visits. Whoa.

I’m excited and scared and intimidated and eager and afraid and mind blown! What am I going to talk about at the general audience 45-minute science talk where I can’t use calculus? How am I going to find time to prepare the talks and classes I’m going to have to do while interviewing? Who will teach my classes while I am gone? How to bring this up with the departmental administration that got me mad enough to apply elsewhere in the first place? Will I be able to negotiate a good starting salary; because I am not in a fresh out of school or fresh out of a postdoc position; I’ve got more behind me than that. After my last promotion I’m doing okay salary-wise where I am (not that I couldn’t do better).

But some of that is tomorrow’s problem. Here I am. Success. Now we make the best of the next step and keep moving forward.

Happy Dance!

I just got an informal acceptance notice for my article to PRIMUS! Backstory here and here.

I’m a little embarrassed that this draft was riddled with typos. But, accepted! Happy dance around the house! This is what I’m doing tonight:

Dancing around the house
(Ally McBeal animated gif with the dancing baby is shamelessly stolen from the internet.)

The small mistakes can be fixed, and I was tired, stressed, getting to the end of my rope, and grateful for some help from a very kind colleague and mentor with the final revisions on it. That minor issues were missed shouldn’t surprise anyone.


  1. Have an idea? Write it up and submit. Just try. And try not to worry that it won’t be good enough.
  2. Stuck on revisions? Little bits of effort, epsilons, can move you forward.
  3. Still struggling? Ask friends, colleagues, mentors for help.
  4. Finally success? Celebrate!

…but first thing tomorrow, I get to work on those last revisions and resubmit.

I am grateful, grateful, grateful to see this through and for all the help and encouragement I got along the way.

Epsilons and all the Little Things that Make Me Happy

I just looked back at for 2013. I made 101 posts. There are 52 weeks per year, that is almost 2 posts per week. I a pleased with the result. I updated regularly. I think my writing improved. I know some friends, at least, read my posts here regularly. I spent time thinking about and writing about things I needed to think through. Often it helped. It always felt good to put something up. I think that is success. I won’t make a formal resolution, but a goal for 2014 is 104 post, or exactly 2 each week for the year.

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but I think I am going to make one. The most powerful lesson I learned last year was the power of the epsilon > 0 philosophy ([1] and [2]) and the 15 (or 30) minute rule. I’ve been preaching the 15 minute rule for a long time, at least when my kitchen has become an OSHA hazard and something must be done to fix it. This year I broadened its applications, and I saw good results. There are a lot of things I need to do that I am scared of. I faced them with the thought that I would just try for 15 minutes. There was a lot of work I despaired getting done, and finding time to get done, but when I decided to just get after it for 15 or 30 minutes, I made progress and I saw it done. So my resolution is to use the epsilon is greater than zero (something is better than nothing) philosophy along with the 15 minute rule this year soon after I realize that my problem is that I’m feeling stuck. And to tell students how this has worked for me when I urge them to try it.

It is both this easy and this hard. Some jobs are so big they overwhelm me. Break them into smaller pieces until you get a piece you can deal with, and then go after that. And then look for another piece. Repeat as needed.

These little pieces of progress make me happy. As do many other little things in my life. On a day to day basis, I think it is the littlest things that often make the biggest difference. Of course it would be wonderful to win the lottery. Or to be offered my dream job. Neither of those is likely to happen to day. But I can buy the ticket and embrace a little bit of unreasonable hope. I can spend 15 minutes on my job application materials, write a cover letter, send my things to someone else to look at and critique, and feel good about getting that done. I may not get started on that book I want to write some day, but I can write a blog post (200 words. Your goal is 200 words. And 100 or 150 is just fine in a pinch). I will be satisfied that I got that done.

1. My original post on the epsilon > 0 exercise plan

2. And a post about an application of the epsilon > 0 philosophy to getting things done.

It is done

I posted about stress and burnout, resolved to take some time off, and then reality started laughing in my face. I’ve squeezed out a few hours here and there, but not a 24 hour block of time. There’s some statement out there about a battle plan not lasting any longer than the first engagement with the enemy, and that’s exactly what I’m thinking about.

Back in May, I submitted an article on the writing we do in my mathematical modeling class to PRIMUS. In September, it came back from peer review. Since that time, I’ve been slammed with work, problems at work, stressors at work, moving my office at work, a major flood at work, and, well, I hope that is enough to explain why finding time for these revisions has been difficult at best. That my job has no time allocated to scholarly work or research sure didn’t help.

And the revisions weren’t easy. I realized back in May I’d picked a huge topic. That came home to roost; my biggest mandates was to cut my article down and focus. I’d work on the article for an hour or two and get stuck. Then I’d think about it for a week or more and come back to it again. Thus has been my effort all semester long.

I got a boost a week or two ago when one of the graduate students heaped some praise on my Epsilon > 0 Exercise Plan. That helped me realize I should apply the Epsilon Is Greater Than Zero Principle to my efforts on the paper. Sit down with the idea of spending 15 quality minutes on it. Just 15 minutes. You can quit after 15 minutes. Get yourself to do that much, and it is amazing how quickly progress is made.

Today’s long hours had a nice reward. The article is finished and resubmitted. I am grateful for friends and mentors who took their time to help me with the final edits. I am grateful for those who encouraged me to just keep going every step of the way. Those who reminded me: just keep trying. Just keep trying. Just keep trying. I did.

Now I suspect I have another 2 month wait to see if I need to do further revisions or if it is accepted. I doubt it will make the special issue on Writing in Mathematics, because I had too many delays. But then again, I may be just in the nick of time before the final resubmission deadline; there may be some hope. I will see.

Today, if just for a few minutes, I celebrate.

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!