Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ten years ago

One hurdle facing almost all graduate students is the dreaded qualifying exam. For me, there were three required qualifying exams. Two of them were six hours long, one of them was three hours long. I had to pass them all by September of my first year, or I would be thrown out. The exams were only given in June and in September. I tried to pass one when coming into the program -- I worked hard all of the summer before, and learned more material than I thought possible. But in the end, I failed. I entered my program with a failure, and three qualifying exams still to go.

By the end of April in the year 2000, I was studying nonstop, at least 12 hours each day. I had copies of all the old exams going back years. Exams were supposed to take only six hours. I spent much more time than that on the old exams, hunting down and thinking up solutions, taking careful, detailed notes, and storing them away in a binder. I labeled the problems according to topic or trick used. I memorized everything I could memorize. Unfortunately, I knew that in the end, each year's problems were invented anew, and pure memorization would be little help. It would be me and my pencils and the blue book, and whatever I could pull out of my overflowing brain.

Tim and I had been married less than a year, and he was a graduate student as well. He was studying for comprehensive exams at the same time, but in a different department. Newly wed and deeply in love, we spent evenings gazing into each others' eyes... and then back to our notes. Studying.

We were living in a 600 square foot apartment on the eighth floor of a student housing complex to the east of the main campus. We were up above the tops of the eucalyptus trees, with a great view of sunsets over the famous campus tower. Tourists paid money for a view like ours. I guess we paid money, too. Our rent was more than twice what I had been paying for a similar sized apartment in Ann Arbor the year before. And we were lucky to be in student housing, where rents were significantly less than in the yuppie neighborhoods surrounding campus. We had entered and won a lottery to win that eighth floor apartment. The floors were gray tile and the ceilings were asbestos, but with a nice rug and the windows open, blowing the eucalyptus scent in with the sunlight, we were in heaven. No better place in the world to spend 12 - 16 hours per day studying.

There were nine of us starting my program that year. Two of them were on a different track, taking a different set of qualifying exams. One of them had passed that exam I failed in September. The rest of us met regularly in basement classrooms to review problems we had tried. We put our collective brains together to try to solve the worst of them. We dug up solutions from binders of more senior grad students when all else failed.

Did I feel stressed out and anxious? Yes. But the anxiety has faded, and I remember more the sunlight and the eucalyptus, and the fact that I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing exactly where I wanted to be doing it. I might fail, and then the dream would be over. Meanwhile, I would do what I could to pack my brain as full as possible.

Would I go back to those days? The sunlight? The eucalyptus? The view of the famous campus tower?

Never. Life is much better ten years later.

Monday, April 26, 2010


We planted two more trees over the weekend: a nectarine and a peach tree. Those two both grow well in our area. In fact, many of the houses in this county were planted on land that belonged to peach orchards just 50 years ago. Tim and I decided we needed a peach or nectarine to round out our collection. The only other fruit tree missing would be a sweet cherry tree (we have the sour variety). However, thinking about our friends the maggots, Tim and I decided to go with two from the peach family instead. So they are planted. We now have two more skinny sticks reaching six feet into the sky toward heaven.

In April, we love our fruit trees. We watch them tenderly, and exclaim over every new bud and blossom. Last October, I was so sick of our yard I couldn't stand to look at it. I had been picking and processing fruit in my spare time since July. That's four months of fruit production. Eight trees (only counting those that produced last year). And just three of us. It was exhausting. We gave up and let a lot of it rot on the trees. But by January, that plum fruit leather processed in September was sooo good.... We have decided to spend every minute of free time this upcoming September making more. It's easy enough to say that in April.

I also planted rocks this weekend. That is, I'm putting together a nice path through our own little orchard. Since we have buckets of pale gray rocks dug up from some construction work 1.5 years ago, it seems reasonable to put them to decorative use. So I've been digging little holes for them, and planting them gently into the ground, where they can settle in and grow some roots. Maybe in a few months I will also plant some Pictures! here on this blog. But not now. I'm in a verbal kind of mood.

Today my shoulders ache. It could be because of all that planting yesterday. It also could be because I did 35 push ups yesterday. Did you hear that? I'd better say it again. I did 35 push ups yesterday. OK, so they were the wimpy variety where I bent my knees under me. And I rolled away crying when I was done. But I finished. And I did 135 crunches, in sets of 15. This is because a week ago, I decided I wanted my 23 year old body back. I think the 23 year old body is hiding somewhere inside this 33 year old one. My thought is to torture both bodies with push-ups and sit-ups, and especially lunges, until the younger one cries uncle and comes out from hiding. Maybe sometime mid-June. That would be good timing, as we have some family pictures scheduled then. Anyway, maybe I'll let you know how that goes, too, and whether those muscles I am planting actually grow to fruition. In case I forget, ask me about it in June.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Could this really be spring?

In the last two days, the weather has been acceptable, and the plants have exploded into life. Two days ago I was wandering around a few dead-looking sticks in the back yard, wondering if I had been a leetle too aggressive with the rosebush trimming (never done that before). This afternoon all those sticks had sprouted leaves. So I guess they're growing back in spite of my clippers.

Our fruit trees are flowering, all hundred billion of them. Well, ok, not really all of them. The apple trees apparently grow leaves first and then flower, so no blossoms there yet. The apricot tree flowered first, trying to get the honeybees' attention while they're still crazy with spring fever. So that tree is done. But it appears that the plum and pear and cherry trees can't decide whether they prefer leaves first or flowers, and so they've grown them both in the last few days.

We did something crazy, Tim and I. Remember our overwhelming apple harvest from October? We went months and months with apples. We only just threw out the last of them in March (they were molding in the garage). But yesterday, we planted another apple tree.

Yes! I told you we were crazy. The thing is, we learned to love Bramley apples after being introduced to them by a colleague in Liverpool while we lived in England. These are true baking apples. When you bake them, they stay tart and turn light and fluffy. My mother says "ah yes, like Pippin apples". NO! Pippin apples turn rubbery and don't keep their tartness under baking. There is nothing like a Bramley apple for baking. They don't need sugar. They don't need cinnamon. Of course it doesn't hurt to drizzle them with toffee sauce, but that's true of pretty much anything in this world.

So, Tim did a little research and found a nursery in New York state that sells Bramley apple trees. He mail ordered one. One for us, two for our English friend's family. The trees arrived, about 3 feet tall sticks. And so we planted ours. Maybe within a couple of years we'll get our first Bramley apples, if the thing survives being shipped in a box with its roots merely wrapped in plastic. And if the tree can survive our brutally long and cold and bitter and long winters (did I mention it is way past time for spring?), and our hot and dry summers. This climate of ours does not have much in common with that of England. Except possibly April.

I'll let you know how it goes in two years, I promise.

And then I wanted to close with one other story. Yesterday it was warm enough that today I decided to wear shorts. Or at least, I pulled an item of clothing out of my closet that is the closest thing in my wardrobe to shorts, my wardrobe having felt the influence of my employment at G.O.D. University.

I biked over to the university this morning, and it was just lovely to feel the spring wind rushing through my hair. Only I'm not referring to the hair on my head. Yes, it has been a long winter, and my leg hair has grown long. And it was lovely to wear shorts and let it blow free in the wind.

Did I just post that on the internet?

Monday, April 19, 2010


Every now and then you need a good excuse to reconnect with people you love. Today, it was my cousin leaving on a mission to Brazil. The cousin, age 19, has been living with his parents, four houses down the street. My extended family descended upon our city and we had some good catch up time.

In attendance were my aunts and uncles who don't live that far away, but far enough away in our busy lives that we don't see much of each other. In fact, time and busy-ness seems to separate my family even from the aunt who lives four houses down, and we go months without reconnecting.

My aunts and uncles are the same crazy people they were 20 years ago, only a little grayer and maybe just a bit thicker around the middles. And they don't have as many children and teenagers attached to them as they did 20 years ago. Today they all came as couples, the children having grown and moved away and disappeared into their own busy lives. The 19 year old must be the last to go, although I lost track of that when I grew and moved away and disappeared myself years ago.

Six of these relatives came to my adult Sunday school class, and offered comments and jokes and made it a happy place. And then we all moved a block west to where the cousin gave his talk, and finally finished up the afternoon with piles of food the relations brought from from their parts of the state. We sat in the shade in the spring and talked and laughed and reconnected.

We need more excuses to reconnect. I love these people.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Three random facts about me

1. I like to write short (usually 1 paragraph) reviews for all the books I add to Goodreads. Every one of them. Because for me, it's much more fun to read about why you liked/disliked a book than just the fact that you liked or disliked it. And if it's more fun for me to read the whys for you, then it's probably more fun for you to read the whys for me. And I think all of that last sentence was written with English words, but somehow on re-reading the words aren't sticking together into anything that makes sense. Unfortunately, those are the kind of reviews I typically write, too.

Oh, and I'm happy to be your friend on Goodreads, but if you become my friend, then my secret will be out. Then you will learn the sad fact that I read mostly escapist fluff and very little that is deeply edifying and enlightening. Because I like my books to be about two hours long. (There are exceptions, of course.)

2. Concentrating really hard on something usually puts me to sleep. I will close my eyes to better picture some sort of complicated problem in my head, and the next thing I know the problem has turned purple and is dancing across the sky. This is my usual indication that I am now asleep and I need to wake up and concentrate on the problem again if I'm ever going to solve it.

When I talk to my colleagues, most seem to confess to have the opposite problem (meaning in two of two conversations I have had where this has come up, my colleagues have confessed to have the opposite problem). The one guy today says that when he is really concentrating hard on a problem, his eyes open wider and wider and he can't sleep at all. And then the problem will invade his dreams.

He said he thinks my reaction (falling asleep) is probably healthier, and he may be right, but this guy also is a very good problem solver, famous in his tiny world of expertise. And I am not famous anywhere.

3. And speaking of falling asleep, over at Feminist Mormon Housewives, there has been a recent post prompting about a billion comments, many of which deal with getting kids to sit through a 75 minute church meeting. Apparently some parents can just tell their six year olds that they are expected to sit quietly with no distractions through that entire meeting and these beautiful children will do so.

But you know, I'm not one of those kids. If I try to sit quietly, I will fall asleep and start nodding into the lap of the person sitting next to me, provided I am sitting next to a person who is not in my immediate family. I sometimes start nodding into the laps of immediate family members, too, but they are much more likely to poke me back awake when this happens, whereas the random stranger is a little too creeped out to touch me.

Anyway, I have learned from experience that I will listen and absorb much more if I am doodling, drawing, coloring, doing anything with my hands. It was true in school, too. I had to take notes or I would fall asleep. No one has brought this up in the comments I have read over on that post (and I admit, I haven't made it through all 217 of them). But my physician friend has admitted to the same problem. She knitted through medical school. And now she knits in church. Some people concentrate better when their hands are busy.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

One week ago

One week ago in the morning, I rode a borrowed bike down out of the foothills above the city of Santa Barbara. First we biked through suburban neighborhoods, then turned to follow a paved trail beside a river, under the freeway, past active farmland, and directly to the beach. We biked a few yards beside the ocean, then turned slightly away from the sands onto campus.

The sky was deep blue. I could hear bird song and smell blooming flowers in the air. Trees, lawns, and the foothills to the north were bright green and lush. Sunlight dappled the path.

Breathing deeply, I asked myself, why don't I work in Santa Barbara?

This morning, back in my mountain home, the mountains were hidden under heavy clouds. Thick white snowflakes fell from the sky, covering any hints of green. Bird song was replaced by the sounds of cars sloshing over a slushy road. We pulled out coats and scarves again, bundled up, and went off to school and work.

Sighing deeply, I asked myself, why don't I work in Santa Barbara?

And both days, the answer to the question was easy.

Because, unlike my colleague with the spare bicycle, I don't actually have a job in Santa Barbara. That's why.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Things other people enjoy that give me a migraine.

Another item for my list.

Item #3: Amusement parks.

Fifty-five thousand people. Hot sun glaring down. Lines over an hour long. On the feet, shuffling forward, stopping and waiting. Shuffling some more. Squinting under the sun. Hat. Sunglasses. Squint. Shuffle. Lean on the rails. Shift from one foot to the other. Finally reach the end of the line. Get packed into a little box with a plastic seat, almost no padding. Throw you up a hill and then down screaming. Adrenaline rushes through the body, sending the blood pounding up into the brain and into the eyeballs. Jerked right, left, stop, forward, backward, whoop. Up. Down. More adrenaline. Blood coursing through the eyeballs. Bright lights. Loud noise. Jerk. Grind the spine against the seat a bit. Brace yourself. Blood pounding. Ears throbbing. Left, right. Stop. Climb out. Wobble a bit. Back on your feet. Stumble to the exit. Elbow through the crowds. Time for the next line. Stand. Shuffle. Shift feet. Sip some lukewarm water. Adjust the hat. Squint.

In retrospect, amusement parks have always been giving me migraines, at least back to when I was 16 years old. I remember distinctly spoiling all the fun of my brother and my dad at Six Flags that summer.

Now I am married to a man who can't think of anything more fun than a five day pass to his favorite park. I negotiated an extra working trip to Southern California under condition that I drop him and the boy off at said park and join them for the weekend.

And today I returned home with nine fewer migraine pills. (Though technically two of those were used up earlier in the week.)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I like my job

I really like my job. I do all sorts of different things every day. Actually, every season of the year I get to do something different. I spend a lot of time thinking about things that are really interesting to me. I travel to speak with other people who think the same sorts of things are interesting. Then I think about how to communicate the interesting things to other people, so they will agree these things are interesting. (Or even if they don't agree, the hope is at least they will do well on the common final exam.)

I work with students, and teach them some of the most impressive accomplishments of human civilization. And every time I teach the stuff it's new for them, and I can watch the thrill of discovery all over again.

And then I go sit in my office and think of things that no one has ever thought about before and feel that thrill of discovery myself, as I try to look at problems in ways that no one has ever looked at them. And I call my collaborators and we argue about results, and we look for interesting things in the stuff we know how to do, and ideas for interesting things we don't know how to do.

And I write talks in which I try to keep people awake, while explaining stuff they've probably never thought about, and making it relevant and exciting. And then I write papers and outline arguments and send them to journals, and rewrite and resubmit and eventually find the articles a home under a respectable cover.

Or sometimes, I write papers and outline arguments and send them to collaborators for feedback. And then they languish on the collaborators' desk. Boo.

Come on, N. Really. You owe me some revisions.