Saturday, October 22, 2011

Chemistry week

(I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, but did not post, so now I shall post retroactively with the date it was written.)

Last night we got free tickets to a chemistry demonstration for National Chemistry Week.  The room in the science building was packed with kids, mostly under five, it seemed, and maybe a parent in every sixth chair (we, with two parents and a single child, do not come anywhere near matching the typical family demographic in this town).  You could barely hear the professor at the front of the room over the din of squirming children.  But the show was still fun, and Jonathan liked it, and has decided that when he grows up, he will do his own chemistry show.

The professor up in front mixed chemicals in large flasks, unlike anything you'll ever get to do in a real chemistry class (costs too much).  He made things change color, foam, burn, EXPLODE!  Jonathan's favorite was when the guy burned the balloon filled with methane.  It didn't explode like the hydrogen balloon, but the fireball burned longer and hotter.

And then this morning, we did morning math for kids.  If everyone in a room gives a high five to everyone else in the room, how many high fives is that total?  And there is a kids' play running, put on by university students in the drama department.  And the music and dance departments do shows for families.  And there are free museums, with animals (dead and stuffed), dinosaurs (dead and fossilized), art (nonliving), and even a planetarium, if you know where to look.

There are perks to living near a university.

Except right now, the traffic near our house is pretty horrendous as 65,000 people try to cram themselves into the nearby stadium for football.  Blah!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Nebraska October is gold and green and gray, and very lovely.  Yesterday afternoon, after I left the airport in Omaha, I drove west for over an hour.  My rental car had a Minnesota license plate and a massive blind spot on the left side.  I think, actually, all rental cars have massive blind spots, and hyper-sensitive brakes.  These are requirements for rental cars.

But anyhow, Nebraska in October is lovely.  UNL seems like a nice university, for those of you who, like me, are keeping track of nice universities.

A colleague tonight mentioned that he is trying to give a research talk in each of the 50 states.  So then I had to count.  Since 2004, I have given talks in California, Utah, Texas, Georgia, New York, Philadelphia, Michigan, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Illinois, Tennessee, and now Nebraska.  I don't think I will try for all 50:  too far to go.  And honestly, who in North Dakota would listen to my talk?

Tomorrow I will drive east for over an hour, back to the airport, and back home (late), and back to work Monday morning.

Nebraska has been lovely.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


What is the difference between da Vinci and your typical high achieving student with three majors who acts in the school play and serves as student body president?  One blog I recently read argued that da Vinci's science influenced his art, and vice versa, and so he is a Renaissance man, while the student had no purpose for their scattered interests, which makes them a dilettante.

I had to look up the word dilettante.  I didn't think it was as negative a word as the writer seemed to think it was.  ("Nobody wants to be a dilettante", they wrote.  They don't?)

So let's shine the light of my own personal experience on these ideas.  I have a lot of scattered interests.  Unlike da Vinci, my art doesn't influence my science.  So I am not a Renaissance man.  (Ignore here for a second the obvious problem with gender, and pretend I could be.)

I wouldn't say that my scattered interests therefore serve no purpose.  Instead, I would say that they balance each other.  For example, I like doing research at work, but my brain can only take so much cold hard logic.  Then I need to switch.  I can switch to do people things, like teaching.  Or, over a weekend, I can work with emotions, reading fiction or personal writing.  These are totally different compartments in my brain.  Each little bit of brain likes to be exercised, however, even if it doesn't speak to the other bits.  Balance.  Physical.  Mental.  Emotional.  Social.  Spiritual.

So what about the student with three majors acting in the school play and serving as student body president?  Well, there's something to be said about blood pressure.  But assuming the blood pressure is not a problem, what's wrong with people having different interests?  And putting in the effort to excel at different things?  Balance.  That student sounds pretty balanced to me, still ignoring the blood pressure thing.

Will my child be negatively affected if I sign him up for sports and art and cooking?  On top of his regular school day?  I don't think so.  He may learn to use his brain in more ways, and learn to enjoy more of the wonderful things that make us human.  Why not let our children see much more of the good in the world, from many different lenses?  Physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual.


As for me, the pendulum is swinging backwards.  Those of you who volunteered to read my novel draft, thank you.  I will probably take you up on that.  However, you'll have to give me a while.  I've decided I need some time away from it, thanks in part to a billion deadlines hitting me on the head at the same time.  And especially the need to do something else for a while.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


While reading something else today, I encountered someone's favorite interview question:
Describe a time you failed at something, and what you did about it.  
Here are some answers.

Failure 1:  Last month.  Two of my research papers were rejected, within a week of each other.  That was a disappointment.  Two disappointments. Adding up to several months of rejected work.  

What did I do about it?  I gave myself a week for each paper, to mourn the failure.  Then I resubmitted each to another journal.  Now that they're both under review again, I find that I don't care so much about them.

Failure 2:  Last week.  And the week before.  And the week before that.  My graduate students asked me questions on the homework problems I had assigned, and I didn't know how to answer them.

What do I do about it?  I apologized, sent them away, thought about it overnight, then reported back.  Maybe I should try to get ahead on their homework, so this doesn't happen so frequently.

But those are mild failures, both.  Let's go back further and find bigger failures, with more lasting consequences.

Failure 3:  September 1999.  I failed my qualifying exam.  I had worked all summer to prepare for it, and taken a class on similar material the year before.  This was a big deal, because my graduate program would throw me out if I didn't pass by the end of a year.

What did I do about it?  I started from scratch.  I signed up (again) for the qualifying exam prep courses.  I formed study groups with my peers.  I walked through all the old qual problems I could find, and organized them into a binder.  I spent the next nine months learning the material so that I wouldn't fail again.  And I passed, in June 2000.  But that was a painful year.

Failure 4:  April 1998.  I failed to get into graduate school at the university my True Love decided to attend.  And he didn't seem to care about that at all.  So this was a double failure.  Failure at school, failure in love.  Again.

What did I do about it?  I went to graduate school somewhere else, and opened myself up to dating others.  When True Love and I decided it was worth the work to be together, I applied to his university again, this time armed with an independent fellowship, and was accepted.

So far all of my failures have happy endings.  Let's bring in some others.

Failure 5:  High school, junior year.  Tried out for the school dance team.  Failed so badly that the judges laughed at me.  They did.  I was devastated.

What did I do about it?  Crawled in a corner with a blanket over my head.  Did not ever leave the corner.  Decided dance was not for me.  Ever.  Again.

If this question ever comes up in an interview for me, I think I'm going with answer #5.  That's the answer the future employers of America are looking for.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Biking home in the rain

I've done this before.  Northern California in the El Nino years.  Central England in ... well ... my English year.  I checked the forecast this morning, and came prepared to work, with waterproof gear and bike lights.  And actually, once past the intersection where I am likely to die, the ride is enjoyable.  Different.  Raindrops patter against my ears, muffling the traffic noises.  The gray clouds hang so low that the entire landscape has changed.  Quiet.  Gray.  Cooler.  This storm marks the breaking point of Indian summer.  Autumn, which has been hanging hesitantly high above the valley on the mountainsides, will swoop in quickly now, claiming the trees in the valley.  Not that I can see the mountains, with the clouds hanging so low.  Not that I would see them anyway, with my chin tilted as far down as is safely possible, to keep the water from washing into my eyes.  My glasses fog up, and I remember that on rainy days in California, I would wear contacts.  No matter.  Almost home now.  My feet are soaked through.  My jeans are wet where their nylon coating presses against them.  Backpack wet, but it contains just a lunchbox and some notes.  I park the bike, shake off the wet things, change into cozy pants, and sit on the sofa to listen to the water running through the rain gutters, muted by the traffic noises now, not the other way around.  And here I sit now, trying to bury my reality in words.  It will be a rough two or three days, I think.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

September summary

September is over.  This post is written for the sake of my family, who want to know how we occupied our time over the month.

On Labor day weekend, Tim and Jonathan and I traveled with Tim's mom into Idaho, to spend the weekend at Tim's grandfather's cabin, because we hadn't been there all summer. We read books, spent a day at Yellowstone hiking around Old Faithful, and basically enjoyed a quiet weekend.  We found out that my parents, three brothers, and a sister and their families were spending the weekend at Yellowstone as well, but we didn't try very hard to meet up.  We did, however, come home and call my mom crying that they didn't love us enough to invite us to go to Yellowstone with them.  It is always a useful practice to instill guilt where possible.  But it didn't seem to work.

Another highlight of September was that Jonathan got his gums lasered.  Two of his top teeth fell out about two years ago, but the replacements never grew in. At first they didn't have space to grow in.  But over the spring and summer, his entire top palate was pried apart with metal, and they still weren't growing in.  So in September, the orthodontist ran a laser over his gums, and now the teeth have popped out.  It was apparently quite painful to the little boy, in spite of assurances that it would not be.  And the result was kind of disgusting, too:  two mean-looking burn marks on the gums.  But the teeth are now out.  Free at last.

I gave a talk at the university one hour north -- put them all to sleep -- then visited my mother and sister and her family for dinner.  We ate pie, and watched two-year-old Maddy stick pears upside down into Mom's outdoor swinging chair.  Dinner and entertainment.  It doesn't get much better than that.  Except it did.  My mother let me take home an extra pie, for my birthday.

I had a birthday.  I turned 35.

Tim's parents brought me a cake and a super-powered stand mixer.  These are the people who gave me 260 tulip bulbs for my birthday last year, and I spent the next month planting.  This year, I get the gift of making cookies.  Luckily, Tim likes to make cookies.  He doesn't like planting tulip bulbs, so this year's gift is way better.  Way better.  (I am, of course, being silly.  The tulips last spring were spectacular, and the neighbors can't get over them.  But they won't get over Tim's cookies very readily, either.)

I spent an hour on a Saturday teaching about 12 boys and girls, ages six to nine, some fancy geometry.  A few of my colleagues have kids the age of Jonathan, so we've decided to take turns running a Saturday math camp for them.  So far, the first two meetings have been successful.  I'm thinking I ought to compile a book of the activities that worked.  Then you can try them at home, too.  On your 6 to 9 year olds.

That's all I've got.  What did you do with your September?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My secret

Dear People who love me, and also those of you who still follow this blog out of some sort of morbid curiosity,

Recently, I did something I have always wanted to do:  I finished.  I finished writing my novel.  Just putting that sentence down on the screen makes my heart get all swollen with pride and accomplishment.  I've wanted to write a novel, but I put it off (too busy), until I started reading the inside back covers of other novels with growing jealousy, realizing those writers who were getting their novels published were people just like me.  And then Letterpress wrote a blog post (long ago now) in which she said that sometimes, when we retire?  We don't really want to do all those things we've been waiting for retirement to do.  Like write a novel.  Only she said it much more eloquently.  And that chilled me enough that I finally sat down to get to work -- at least during Decembers and Junes, when I had a the time.  And this June, I decided I had taken enough time, and the story had been in my head long enough, and I was going to finish.  And I did.  I did!  I finished!

Reluctantly, possessively, I allowed the two people who love me the most in the whole world to read my novel:  my husband and my sister.  And because they love me most in the world, they liked it.  And even better, they both claimed they liked it in spite of the fact that they love me most in the world, and they thought it was Really Good.  And I should get it Published.  Which is exactly what they were supposed to say, and exactly why I let those two read it and not anyone else.

So then, my beloved novel tucked under my arm, I began to do some research into how to get a novel published, now that all the hard work of actually writing it was done.  And I feel like crying.

There is so much more work to do.

Apparently this hard thing that I did?  This writing of the novel?  Billions of people have done that.  And reputable literary agents get about 50 to 100 queries per day by people like me who now want to sell that novel.

But I have begun to gather my courage around me, and I have written about seven drafts of a query letter, and one draft of a synopsis, and I have even given the precious novel to the two more people who love me next best in the whole world:  my mother and my blunt sister, to see if they like it.  But in two weeks, my mother has not touched the file, and it occurred to me that, realistically, she never will read it unless it actually gets published.  (She does not understand that this is like another grandbaby, this project.  And, yes, she would be thoroughly scandalized by that last sentence, as she should be, if she bothers to read my blog.)  And the more blunt sister has not yet opened the book to read it, since I just mailed it to her last night.

But the other sister and the husband have now read drafts of my query, as well.  And the helpful sister wants to run it by her writer friend and another friend who is well-read in my genre, for additional feedback, and after reading about how hard it is to actually sell a novel, I want all the feedback I can get.


Except that these people who my sister knows, who would be very helpful, live 3000 miles away where my sister lives.  I could really use someone local to help me out.  But I don't know if my neighbors have ever written a novel before.  I've never even talked about taste in books with my neighbors.  These people who read books like mine?  I don't know where these people live.  I could use the help  of a supportive writing group.  But I don't know how to find one.  Or build one, whatever.  And I am afraid to gather my neighbors and tell them I have done this thing:  I have finished writing a novel.  Because the words that make up the novel?  Those are my words.  My ideas.  My feelings.  I put myself all the way through that novel.  And they may not like it.

And finally, just today, one of the blogs that I read had a long post about how important it is to find "mentors", which is code in my profession for "people to explain what is really going on".  And I think that is true here, in this weird world I have entered by this weird thing I have done (writing a novel).  But in my professional career, I know who to ask.  Not true here.

Oh, my readers who have already finished writing a novel (and I know there are at least three of you out there):  I now understand much more what you have been through, and I commiserate.