Saturday, July 16, 2005

Friday, July 15, 2005

Of flies and fits and frustrating phenomena...

First off, I should just let you know right up front: our kitchen is currently infested with fruit flies. Nate took out the big bag of trash last night, and I hoped that would take care of them, but it didn't. The last time we suffered an Infestation, the source was discovered to be a bag of potatoes under the sink that were... well, a little past their prime, shall we say. Once that was removed and the area doused in bleach, the flies evaporated back into that Ether from which they had spontaneously generated. I have not yet discovered the Source of our current troubles, but hope that I will. Soon. Before dinner would be good.

Wednesday was a Frustrating day. First there was a communication breakdown with a tutoring student that led to about 30 minutes of needless driving on my part (that's probably $2 or $3 worth of gas?), and then when tutoring finally DID happen with that student, he became so frustrated with X (as a concept) that he [almost] cried. I don't know how to help him overcome his fears and mental blocks. I have seen him work fairly complicated problems in his financial math course, in which only Numbers (no evil variables) were involved. But algebra totally shuts him down. And he's spent... I don't know, over $200 on private tutoring with me, and gotten nowhere. I've told him he can come into the community college centers while I'm on duty and I'll help him free, which is more generous than I have to be, so I don't feel like I've done anything wrong by him; but I feel bad that I can't help him overcome his problems. I like helping people, but I'm not into people wasting their money on me and getting nowhere.

Then at Northampton, one of my co-tutors showed me a list of problems he was working on: the ARML 2005 Individual Problems. (Click on 2005 ARML contest, Individual problems pdf.) I solved the first one really quickly and spent the rest of the day stumped (and beating my head against the wall) on the other 7. These are HIGH SCHOOL problems, people! Our local team, Lehigh Valley Fire, won first place in the nation, beating out elite private schools and Math and Science Academies. They were coached by Prof. Don Davis of Lehigh, who helped me register for classes last spring. (Also check out this article lamenting the lack of coverage for mathematical achievements vs. athletic triumphs. Yes, the world IS against us!!!) I have now solved a total of 3 problems and probably won't get anymore.

At the end of the day (we're still talking Wednesday, in case you've lost track) I went to tutor Scotty, who's starting his senior year in the fall. I've been tutoring him longer than anyone else in PA- almost 3 years!! We've mostly been doing SAT tutoring in the past year. He's taken it twice now and his math scores have been a bit above average, but not stupendous or anything. And he only increased 10 points from the first try to the second. I had a little talk with his parents and said, "You know, working with me an hour at a time is good, but what he really needs is to just take a lot of practice tests on his own and go over the ones he misses." And then I mentioned, since high(er) SAT scores usually mean college scholarships, it might be worth it to offer an incentive for him to raise his scores. I don't believe much in bribes to get kids to be Good, but I don't see anything wrong with parents who might save $10,000 on college passing along $1,000 of that to their hard-working students as a form of incentive to study...? Share the wealth, you know? I said that I thought my parents had promised my brother a laptop for scoring over 1300 (that's an unconfirmed rumor, but he DID score over 1300) and that it had helped.

His dad said, "Well, he already has a computer... and a Volvo..."

Upon questioning [the young Scotty] it was revealed that there was NO MATERIAL POSSESSION that he lacked yet desired.

Amazing, isn't it?

Anyway, I feel a little frustrated in that situation because I think his parents have paid me around $1200 for SAT tutoring over the past year or two, and I don't know if his scores have reflected that. Maybe he would have been better off with Princeton Review...? He needs, not so much time spent with me working problems, but to do practice tests on his own, go over the results, and ask me about the ones he can't figure out. I've suggested this but he never seems to get around to working much on his own between my visits. What can I do? Maybe it's not that important that his scores improve; his parents can pay for him to go to college anywhere he wants, and he wants to go into Business anyway, so in the end his math SAT scores won't matter that much...? Do his parents continue to pay me just so they can pat themselves on the back and say, "We're good parents; we give him every chance to succeed?" Maybe I should just keep taking the money and not ask too many questions. But it's frustrating.

Anyway, here's a little closing anecdote. When I was in Virginia camping with my family, we took one of our long, winding drives to Nowhere. It was cool because we saw deer and three rainbows- one was a COMPLETE rainbow, stretching all the way across. And I thought about, why am I doing this thing? Why am I starting all over again to try to take advanced math? Because all I do is fall flat on my face. Over and over and over again. Why not do something I could be good at? All the self-deprecation above notwithstanding, I think I'm a good tutor. The community college kids love me. I'm patient and kind and knowledgable. I could do that job the rest of my life and be "successful." I think there's other things I could do successfully, too. I can read and write in a relatively literate and coherent fashion, which are increasingly rare skills in our society. I have enough interpersonal communication skills to do jobs that involve working with people. I feel that these are my Talents; why not use them? Why do I have to keep plunging headlong into a field where I DON'T have what it takes to be successful and competent and earn recognition?

Because, unless God has something completely unforseen in store for me, unless the Red Sea parts and the Bush burns and I get a mind transplant in the next two years, I am going to be, at best, a completely Mediocre math graduate student. After the UIC episode of my life, my goal at Lehigh is: to Survive. Nothing more. Don't get me wrong and think this means I'm planing to put forth a mediocre effort. It means I'm expecting to put forward a 100% effort (note I didn't say 110%. I am not an innumerate football coach that believes in the creation of something out of nothing.) which will result in, at the most, Mediocre results. But I think, in a way, that is the whole reason that out of all the things I could have picked, I picked Math: I want something that will completely and ultimately Conquer me.

When I was in my senior year at Wheaton, I felt good. I felt successful. In the big scheme of things it wasn't like I was that great or anything, I was many orders of magnitude below the math undergrads that become Famous, but I had good grades and I had won awards and I was having some trouble with pride. It was a good year, and I was happy, but I knew that the pride I had was standing in the way of my relationship with God. And I fought against it, but I was tired of fighting. And I actually prayed and told God, "Please take it all away, because I'm tired of struggling and fighting against my pride, fighting against myself." God answered my prayers.

It seems like you learn a lot more in life through Failure than through winning. Winning is just an adrenaline rush. Losing puts you into contact with that fundamental Fact of the universe that we all too quickly forget: from dust we have been created and to dust we shall return. And Failing as a mathematician will be completely worthwhile if it helps to make me more complete and honest and Alive as a Christian.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

"Thank goodness Milk isn't explosive..."

We babysat Nate's little brother from Thursday night through Sunday afternoon, so that his mom could get some rest after being in the hospital earlier in the week.

He is a sweet kid and very bright and all that, but I must say that babysitting proved to be... Interesting. Take, for example, Friday night, when we took him out to dinner at Chili's (financing courtesy of generous parental figures). Now, you take a couple our age- you know, mid-to-late twentiesh- and a five-year-old that looks young for his age- and voila, instant assumption of parenthood, no questions asked. As stated above, Elliot is a great kid and everything and it's not like I'm embarrassed to be mistaken as his parent, except that, well... Nate and I are really BAD parents 'cause we have absolutely no experience with it! Anyone that happened to be at Chili's Friday night saw a perfectly normal-looking and -acting kid accompanied by two adults who looked totally clueless as to how to interact with him.

For example- upon entering the restaurant, Elliot immediately approached the hostess who greeted us and kissed her hand. Cute, right? Except at the time I was so startled that I didn't know whether to laugh, apologize, or what. When it was time to be seated another hostess spoke to us and I saw Elliot winding up (puckering up?) for the Approach, and I sort of held him back. The other hostess (the first one) smiled and asked, "Where did that come from? The hand kissing thing?"

And I? I had to go and open my big mouth and blurt out, "I really have no idea!! We really aren't his parents!! We just have him for the evening!"

And everyone within earshot gave us The Look: How could we disown this adorable child for doing something as cute as hand kissing?

Sigh. Why do I try?

Of course, our waitress just happened to be my boss's daughter. So I murmered the usual, "This is not our child (I haven't been lying at work for three years in saying we don't have kids) he is my husband's little brother yes there IS a large age difference, isn't there?" and then she brought his mac and cheese.

But of course, all that was smooth sailing compared to Sunday morning, at church: I took him to the 4's and 5's class, and the puzzled teacher (a woman we don't know too well) hesitantly asked, Is this your nephew?

"No," I replied, "it's my husband's little brother."

She laughed for 45 seconds straight. I really didn't know what to say to that.

When Vivian and I were little, we dashed the hopes of aspiring gender-neutralizers everywhere: we played House a lot. In addition to the straightforward American Suburban Paradise model (or suburban heck, as Nate would call it), on particularly Creative days there were Alternative versions. There was "House: Antarctica Edition," where the bedsheet-over-chairs became our survival hut in the frozen North, and we made romantically desperate forays into the surrounding [shag carpet] to "find food." (I recall a particularly poignant episode in which big sis and I were deadlocked in heated debate: while I asserted that the value of salt was merely flavor enhancement, my elder sibling patiently (and then not so patiently) explained that we needed salt to PRESERVE THE FOOD. She has always been far more in touch with the practical side of reality than I.)

Then, in Mississippi, the Land of the Neverending Pine Forest, we made "bread" out of ever-abundant pine needles, so I guess that was like "House: Pioneer Edition." And even the plain-Jane version had its own tireless array of innovations: we could always argue over who had to suppress her burgeoning femininity to play the dad, and how many children we had, what was for supper, etc. Play time was a never-ending saga of Domestic bliss.

All of which is to preface... how do I break this to you gently? I was rather shocked to discover that Elliot didn't want to play house! We went to the playground together in the park next to our apartment complex (I think the correct phrase would be Elliot took me to the playground) and upon entering the typical bridge/castle/slide construction, he immediately deemed it to be-- get this-- a SPACE FORT. Furthermore, the quintessential roles of Mommy and Daddy were replaced by invading space aliens with guns that went- how do I describe it? Elliot had to patiently teach me how to make the noise: bZoom! bZoom! (Imagine high-pitched, emphasis on a fast Z sound. I think they were like the guns on Star Wars.)

And if I confess it, you won't be surprised: I am officially and certifiably No Good at "Invading Space Aliens Shooter Mutant Ninja Turtle Attack of Darth Vader War," or whatever it was we were playing. He pointed out The Enemy hiding behind trees and see-saws, and my aim was terrible. I had no Instinct when it came to attack, defend, retreat. I didn't even know The Secret Password, guys. Sheesh.

But I did the best I could, and at the end, to make up for my feelings of incompetence and worries that I'd quenched his masculine urges, I allowed him to Splash in the Puddles. Thoroughly. Until he was covered in mud. Then when we got home I made him take a bath, which was only finally agreed to upon the presentation of [makeshift] Bath Toys (like Legos.)

If I had asked him about the Alien Mommies and Daddies and Babies that wouldn't have helped anything, would it?

Sunday, July 10, 2005

An entry not for the hemophobic...

(NOTE THE TITLE [Peter, possibly Jordana]):

So, I tried to give blood yesterday. Note the key word, "tried." I'm a Happy Blood Donor, meaning, I have great veins, I don't mind needles at all, and I haven't been to African countries to sleep with people from jail who have Aids and Hepatitis and have had sex with a man at least once since 1977 while injecting illegal drugs and taking aspirin. (No kidding, that's what some of the questions towards the end of the screening questionaire sound like.) I have successfully donated a number of times.

THIS time, two interesting things happened:
1) when they put the needle in my arm... how do I put this delicately? Blood SPLATTERED. Onto the chair, onto my shirt, etc.

2) When the bag was about half-way full, I CLOTTED!! (*gasp*,*horrors!*, the blood-donating of you comment, realizing this is the worst thing that can happen in a blood donation!) Meaning, they played around with the needle for awhile trying to get it going, but to no avail. "Look," I told them brigtly, "You can use my other arm! Try a leg! The jugular vein in my neck!" But they said, sadly, there's no way to finish filling the bag from another vein (don't quite know how all that works), they can't use half a bag (it has a pre-measured amount of clotting agent in it, designed for a full pint), AND, they wouldn't just let me start over on a new bag! (Cause apparently they don't let people donate a pint and a half.) All very woeful.

The bright side of yesterday? I've never "accepted money for sex or drugs," as the question goes, but at the end of the day I DID take $100 from a student who needed a little over 4 hours of tutoring. We can eat again! Yay! I just wish I were more confident that he would actually pass his class....

Saturday, July 02, 2005

My husband has a way with words...

"You're not big. You just stick out every here and there..."

Hypocrisy, Live8, and the Truth about helping your neighbors

"Every single day, 30,000 children die, needlessly, of extreme poverty.

On July 6th, we finally have the opportunity to stop that shameful statistic.

8 world leaders, gathered in Scotland for the G8 summit, will be presented with a workable plan to double aid, drop the debt and make the trade laws fair. If these 8 men agree, then we will become the generation that made poverty history.

But they'll only do it if enough people tell them to.

That's why we're staging LIVE 8. 10 concerts, 100 artists, a million spectators, 2 billion viewers, and 1 message... To get those 8 men, in that 1 room, to stop 30,000 children dying every single day of extreme poverty.

We don't want your money - we want you!"


There is something I do not understand about the Live 8 concerts. Lots of great (or "great," as the case may be) musicians playing free concerts? Check. Good for them. They have lots of money and can afford to play free concerts to benefit others. The thing I don't understand? Why the tickets are all free! I mean, what ever happened to benefit concerts?!? Free concerts are all great and happy for folks who want to go see DMB and U2 performing, but, I fail to see the connection between free concerts and benefitting Africa. Doesn't it seem a bit hypocritical to suggest that the best way to end poverty in Africa is to enjoy a free concert (and thus "send a message" (?) to the leaders of the 8 countries?) Is it really so great of John to tell Peter to help Paul instead of just going to help Paul himself?

The concerts are supposedly being attended by an excess of one million people around the world. If the tickets were sold at very modest prices- say, 10 USD or something- that would likely not deter many (from 8 of the richest nations of the world) from attending, but it would raise 10 million in aid for Africa. Which might not sound like a lot, until you consider that these are the poorest countries of the world under consideration- countries where $32 a month can provide education and food and many other things for a child. Yet the Live 8 website proudly proclaims, "We don't want your money, we want your face!" (urging supporters to email in photos to form a "wall of support.") Other options include donning a trendy white bracelet with "One" imprinted on it, or, of course, the aforementioned concert attendance. All rather sacrifice-free ways to do something "noble," aren't they? Activism has never been so cushy.

And what about those 8 men in that 1 room? The message reeks of that simpleminded economic mindset that seems to characterize liberals in so many settings. To read the website, you would think these 8 men were sitting on gobs and gobs of their own money, twiddling their thumbs, and just too clueless or cruel to share with poor Africa. The promoters seem to have conveniently left out the rather obvious fact that when one of those 8 rich countries does something like increase aid for Africa, that money has a source, and that source is TAXES- not the supposedly overflowing pockets of people like George W. Bush. Changing trade rules and dropping tariffs is great- they just fail to note that such measures tend to lead to increased prices for consumer goods at home. And debt forgiveness is nice, too, but I think it's a bit of a stretch to emphasize "these issues are not about charity, but about equality and justice."

No, guys, there's no universal law of justice written in the sky that says "everyone should have the same amount of money." Debt relief is about charity; but since when is charity such a bad thing? Perhaps the organizers think that "charity" will be viewed as an optional thing where "justice" isn't, but frankly, forgiveness of debts is an optional thing. So is sending massive amounts of aid and changing trade laws to help someone else out financially. And please note: I am NOT (necessarily) against such things. I haven't researched them enough to know the depths and ins and outs of all the issues surrounding them, but they sound tentatively like good ideas. I just don't see how attending free concerts is all that helpful.

If you want to help people in Africa, get educated about the issues and the ways to help. Support kids through international development programs. Build houses and schools and hospitals or give money to organizations that do. And if and when appropriate, write content-filled letters to politicians supporting the appropriate measures- after you've done your part on your own and are ready to put your wallet where your mouth is.

And at the end of the day, after you've done some work and made some sacrifices- go to a concert, if you want to.