Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What Happened to You Over the Summer?

I ran into a former student in the hallway today. She was the kind of student who made me want to tear my hear out in big clumps. She didn't have basic skills, but she had a strong desire to do well, rivaled only by her desire to have a good time. The two desires didn't coexist well, and she wound up failing my class with some miserable percent I try not to remember. Along the way, there were tears and calls home to her mother and screaming fits at other students. In short, she was the kind of student I loved, but also the kind of student I sometimes wanted to be absent so that the class would get a day-long vacation from her drama. When she was absent (or suspended) the class always ran much more smoothly. It also had much less "personality", as Youngster calls it.

Anyway, now that she's not my student, but just a kid in the hallway, it's all love between us. She asks me where I teach, because she wants to visit my class. She always greets me by name, loudly, and with great affection, even when she's standing in the middle of her crowd of cool kids. And I see her personality as the wonderful asset it is, rather than the reason I can't get my class to shut up after lunch.

Today when she saw me, she yelled my name across an empty hallway to stop me, and then said, "I barely recognized you."
"Yeah," I said, shrugging, "'cause I'm getting old."
"No," she said, seriously. "You look younger and happier. What happened to you over the summer? Did you get married? Did you get a boyfriend?"

I just laughed. I'm not a hugger, but some kids make me wish I were. And the truth is, it's not a husband or a boyfriend that makes me look younger: I just finally bought some pants that fit.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The New Going Steady

On the second date, he said, "Do you think we should change our status to 'Seeing Someone'?" This is the new "going steady" for Internet daters I guess, and it sounded exceeding dorky and flattering at the same time. My mom asked if it was like getting an ID bracelet and then instantly claimed that she never got to "go steady". Of course, as near as I can tell, her entire dating career involved getting engaged twice before she was 25, so how much more steady can you get, really?

On the same note, I kind of wish that I could date someone who was a little bit more aloof. I mean, I'm pretty sure I'm great and gorgeous and all that, but he should be able to pretend that I'm no greater or more gorgeous than he is, so that I don't start wondering whether I can do better. We all saw Swingers. Whatever happened to waiting 48 hours before you call the beautiful babies?

I mean, it's still fun, but I'm just saying...

Thursday, October 25, 2007


I met a guy. He has good pheromones. He likes me. I like him. I'm extremely tired from staying up late talking and stuff, so I don't feel capable of the words I need to describe what this feeling is like. It's been such a long time since I've been able to talk about a date without using every non-committal adjective I know. "It was fine." "He was nice." "We had an OK time." Now I need new words, like "smitten" and "giddy" and "don't tell my mother."

Monday, October 22, 2007


My college roommate was a psych major. Actually, by the time I was a senior, I had two psych majors sharing my sextet. Naturally, they'd get home from class and diagnose us all. Somehow my math major was never quite as handy as all of those psych classes. I just couldn't find a way to work "Functions of a Complex Variable" or "Set Theory" into everyday conversation. And I must say, heat differentials really don't count as everyday conversation.

So, I was a senior, up to my ears in my thesis, preparing to give the longest talk of my life about "Quadratic Reciprocity in Number Theory", and my dad (the librarian) was going to come to my talk, so I had to make at least the first fifteen minutes interesting and somewhat comprehensible (to an intelligent but non-mathematical man), so I was spending nearly every waking moment at the library. I was, in fact, that girl standing outside the library on a Saturday morning, waiting for 9:00 to roll around so the student worker would finally show up and unlock the door for me. So, I was pathetic. OK, but I was determined not to stutter though my whole hour-long talk.

On one of my study breaks from my little private room on the quietest floor in the libe, I found myself sitting around our kitchen table with the roommates. Fern and Skinny were talking about their latest psychology class, and one of them turned her gaze to me.
"You, Alex," she said with the authority of a senior psychology major, "Are a low self-monitor."
"Oh, yes," agreed the other. "The lowest."
"OK," I said, having ignored the conversation until it turned toward name-calling, "What does that mean?"
"It means you can't fake it. You don't know how to be something you're not."
"Oh, yes, I can," I said (thinking I probably couldn't).
"OK, then," said Fern. "Frown."

Well, I frown all the time. I'm one of the moodiest people I know. One of my earliest memories is of how my elementary principal used to stop me the hallway to tell me to smile - which always made me want to smack him. So, I turned the corners of my mouth down, and I looked up, triumphant, not the lowest self-monitor after all. Except. Except they were laughing.

"She can't do it," said Fern, between giggles. "She doesn't know how to frown."
"It's OK," said Skinny, ever the peace-maker. "It's a good thing, really. It means you can't wear a disguise around other people. It means that the way you act is the way you are. You don't know how to put on a face for the crowd. It's good. It means you're genuine."
"I don't get it," I said, "I'm frowning. This is a frown." I turned my lips down again, to their great amusement.
"Your lips are like a creepy, weird line, and your eyes don't match," explained Fern. "That's not a frown. And stop doing that thing with your mouth. It freaks me out."
"OK, fine," I said, "but can other people do it? Can you just frown on command?"

Instantly, their faces went grim. They looked like they'd each lost a favorite kitten. They were right. They could do it. And for a second by the light of their frowns, I caught a glimpse of how other people did it. Other people didn't have to wait outside the library for it to open. They didn't have to spend every waking moment memorizing the patter for their hour long talks, so they wouldn't have to stammer through the real thing. Other people could fake it a little bit, disguise themselves as someone who knew their shit, and put on a smile to cover up for any nervousness they felt inside. Me? I just had to be genuine. Damn.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Virtual Crushes

So it happens when I'm Internet dating that I begin to receive emails from some dude somewhere who looks pretty good in his photos. He might even mention Jane Austen or costume dramas or Buffy or Say Anything in his emails. He spells tricky words like "it's" and "there" correctly. Maybe he'll say that being mathematical is hot. And, so, without meeting him, I develop a crush. I look forward to his emails. I imagine that we'll meet and immediately hit it off. I forget all of the other Internet men I've met before, and instead I imagine the happy times of actually being in a relationship with someone I respect and admire.

I don't really know how I do it, because when I'm not in that email-crush-stage of one of these things, I know intellectually just how deceptive it can be. I realize that the percent of the male population I can actually stand in real life is ridiculously small, and I know that the chances that one of them will like me back approaches zero. Yet, I hope when I get these promising emails. I get a little bit devastated when they don't write me back. I flirt ridiculously when they do, revealing way more about myself than I ever would if I weren't suffering from the effects of email-crush hormones.

Sometimes when we meet, the disappointment is so great that there is no hope of a second date. Sometimes it's there, but I ignore it so I can feel my initial high a little bit longer. And maybe someday, there won't be disappointment at all, and we can live happily ever after.

But I doubt it. I think the man for me is in the real world somewhere, and not hiding behind the Internet, which probably means I have to close this post now, and get myself out into the real world.

Friday, October 19, 2007

You Can Never Go Back

Fern and I drove to Carleton today to get new sweatshirts, eat Hogan Brothers' Sandwiches and breathe the Malt-o-Meal laden Northfield air. According to the radio, this is the last weekend for peak fall color viewing, although, for me, there's no point in viewing bright orange, yellow, and red leaves unless they are splashed across a clear, blue sky, and clear, blue skies have been in very short supply this gloomy October.

It wasn't until we arrived on campus and saw all of the prospective students milling about with their parents that I remembered that MEA weekend 17 years ago was the very weekend I decided to attend Carleton. I remembered walking across campus with my mother who spent that year riding a Sine curve of my annoyance with her and so treated me with gentle standoffishness that weekend in order not to jinx my Carleton weekend. We were near what later became my favorite spreading elm tree on campus when some current students saw a crowd of prospies walking across campus and chose to fuck with us by announcing loudly that they were on the way to the library to write their 30-page papers due the next morning. I liked that these existing students noticed us and created some humor for us. It was very different from Northwestern, where, if anyone noticed that I was walking across campus with 20 other high school students, he didn't find it worthy of remark. I remember turning to my mother to see if she got the joke and finding her at close to -1 on the annoying scale, which was how I knew that the Carleton campus was already having an effect on my mood.

It still does. A quick walk across the bald spot, staring at the little kids who currently pose as Carleton students is almost sure to bring a smile to my face. It was Friday today, so the student mailboxes overflowed with Friday Flowers and my heart joined them. Of course, we only get to visit now and bemoan our slacker senior year, when we had the chance to take such fascinating classes and we blew it by only taking the bare minimum load. We only get to see the outside of the windows of our old rooms in Nourse, and we can't head on over to Goodhue for a round of hall 'bee before dinner.

Still, we left refreshed with that feeling that we always get, that we were lucky for those four years, happier than we knew, surrounded for the only time in our lives by people at least as smart as we were. It's good to see that it still exists, even though we know that it's not really there for us anymore.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


I'm teaching the dread chapter 9 again. In this book chapter 9 is polynomials. Naked, unadorned polynomials without an equals sign. I struggle to make polynomials relevant more than any other math, because really (and don't tell my students this) it sort of isn't relevant. All of the polynomials in chapter 9 are really just a test of your dexterity at symbol manipulation.

Watch me distribute across these flaming parentheses! Oooh and aaah as I undo it with a little greatest common factoring. See me divide a polynomial by a monomial. Shiver as I disobey the very laws of physics and conservation of matter by adding two trinomials together to get a binomial!

Sometimes our book in an attempt to make polynomials "real" for the kids will throw in a story problem. Unfortunately the story problems are total bunk and go something like this: "Mt. Kilimanjaro is (5x2 + 4x + 9) meters tall. Mt. Everest is (11x2 + 8x - 15) meters tall. How much taller than Mt. Kilimanjaro is Mt. Everest? How tall are the two mountains stacked on top of each other?" Anyway, I skip these pathetic attempts at relevance, and I'm left with nothing. Nothing but a bunch of rigid rules about symbol manipulation and a feeble attempt at enthusiasm...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Secret to Getting the Grading Done

I refuse to turn on the heat. I might break down in November. My (somewhat whack) theory about heat is that if the pipes don't need it, then neither do I. So far, my pipes haven't frozen, but I, on the other hand, have discovered that it's really not such a bad deal to pay $6 for a bowl of soup in a coffee shop, since then I get to sit in the coffee shop soaking up the heat, and I can take off my jacket for a brief while. At home, the jacket stays on until I get to crawl under the 20 pounds of blankets I have set up on my bed.

Anyway, I was sitting in the coffee shop with the bowl of soup, and I got out my tests, and I was really on a roll, grading like a machine, when a cute guy with a little girl squatted down beside me to talk about teaching the math. He teaches math at a small Montessori charter school. Asked me my name twice. Made intense eye contact. Then, oops, mentioned his wife. Oh, well, my coffee-shop romance was nice while it lasted.

I could feel that the grading was practically going to do itself as I basked in the free coffee-shop heat, when suddenly I got an uncomfortable feeling that everyone else was leaving. Damn. Was this one of those crazy Minneapolis places that closes at 6:00? Yes, alas, it was. Sometimes I miss Portland. Besides, in Portland, Mr. Montessori Blue Eyes wouldn't have a wife at his age.

And so I was left with a class and a half of tests to grade and a cold, uninviting home to grade them in. Where in my neighborhood would be open late enough in the evening for me to take in the warmth while I got my work done? Where, oh where? And then it hit me. There are places open late into the night. Warm places, places with a lot of people and music and beverages. I found such a place (an old favorite: The Chatterbox), and I sat alone in a corner with my tall glass of cold beverage and my stack of tests, and before too long I had just a half a class left. My lips weren't even blue, and by the time I got home to finish the last class I barely even minded the cold.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Greener Day

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day
I used to think that we'd blow up the Earth. I was so convinced of it that I deluded myself into believing that the Soviet sense of fair-play would not allow them to nuke us while we slept. It was my secret way to trick myself into sleeping at night. Before I made up the fair-play rule, it was during the darkest hours of the night that my fears of planetary destruction would pound in my ears and keep me from thinking about anything else. During the daytime I could put Nuclear winter out of my mind unless I happened to see photographs of mushroom clouds or the hear the engine of a low-flying propeller plane (which I must have associated with the Enola Gay, because I always thought the bombs would be traveling by plane, even though I swear I had heard of missiles).

Nowadays superpowers blowing up the Earth occurs to me less and less. I spend that familiar nervous energy worrying about what we're collectively doing to it instead. The Earth will survive our game of chicken with the enormous bombs. It won't go out with a bang (or a series of back-and-forth bangs between ticked off superpowers). Instead it will go out with an almost too quiet whimper.

It will complain of the heat, like a menopausal coworker. "Is it hot in here or is it just me? Do you mind if I open a window?" Only the window won't help, and the Earth will continue whimpering. "It didn't used to bother me, but now, well I guess, I just never expected to be able to wear shorts Trick-or-Treating in Minnesota. I'm hot. Are you hot? I used to could go North to cool down, but there's hardly any ice up there anymore. When was the last time we cross-country skied, anyway?"

We'll hear stories about how the roofs in Poland collapsed last winter under the weight of the snow, and we'll pause for a minute, "Hmm. Doesn't it usually snow in Poland? How much snow did they get to collapse roofs that were built for snow?" And then we'll hear about mudslides in California and hurricanes in Louisiana and torrential rains all over China, and we'll stop each time, listening to the faint sound of the Earth whimpering, but caught up in our own lives as usual, grading papers, getting home to the baby, trying to figure out a route home that doesn't involve that 35W bridge. And the Earth will groan a little bit more. A drought here, a flood there. A late-season tornado that wipes out a small town. "We weren't expecting it. The sirens didn't sound." And the weather-person tries to come up with new non-threatening ways of telling us that we've broken heat records. "Record-high temperatures today. Lots of sun. Hope you got a chance to get outside and enjoy it." Nothing ominous there, except that I just don't remember setting so many records back when I was a kid.

And so I'm glad that we haven't blown up the Earth, don't get me wrong. I just wish I could remember to focus my anxiousness about this climate thing the way I used to when I was a child. I also sort of wish I could think up a good lie to tell myself so I don't have to lie awake at night. The Right does it all the time. Why can't I?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Going Public

I was going to post regularly for a while, and then when I felt like I had a pattern going, I was going to announce my little blog to the world (or, more accurately, I was going to quietly make it a public searchable blog). However, I am not posting regularly because I get caught up in my regular life, and it has occurred to me that if I had regular readers, like Lemon Gloria does, then maybe I'd write regularly. Yeah, except that the reason I read Lisa's blog regularly is that she posts regularly. So, I guess I'm the egg trying to convince myself that the chicken came first (even though I really know that dinosaurs laid eggs long before chickens walked the earth).

Also, I'm trying to use the word "regular" as many times as I can in one paragraph. My student interrupted me one day while I was teaching and using the word "garbage" to stand for the stuff next to the x, to say, "Have you ever noticed how a word can sound weird if you say it enough times? And besides I don't like the word 'garbage'. I like 'trash'." Excellent point. Also, exactly the reason why I really like teaching kids with "attention deficit". They say much more interesting things than their on-task classmates.