The Rise and Fall of My Math Mojo

In elementary school I did well in math. By the time I hit Junior high, I was a year ahead of the curve. When I started 8th grade at a new school, I noticed that the textbook was the same one I had used in my math class the previous year. I could have shut my mouth right then—coasted through with an easy A, but pride didn’t let me. I approached Mr. Weiss after class one day and said “I think I’ve done some of this stuff already.”
“You mean you can calculate area?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “and volume, too.”
His gasp was nearly audible. “Volume!” he exclaimed, “you know how to calculate volume?”
I nodded with the confidence of someone who had just solved a complex previously thought to be unsolvable equation.

That landed me in a classroom taking a placement exam. I did better than pre-algebra. I was in algebra, baby!

I did pretty well. The following year I had Geometry and did pretty well there, too. Then came Algebra II. I did okay, but some of it was guesswork. Then came Trigonometry. I did a little less okay, but I passed. I wanted to quit then. With one last year of high school, I only wanted to take what was required and the line was drawn at Trigonometry. I was signed up to take Art until my mother turned me around and insisted I change it back to math. That is how I was introduced to the dreaded thing known as calculus.

Calculus! Say it! That’s a grown up math. The big leagues.  It even sounds serious. Calcu-LATE-Calcu-LUS. It’s a B.F.D.

I sucked at it. My teacher had been the one who ushered me through all of the high school math courses aside from Geometry. He was also my Physics teacher. We weren’t friends, but I wasn’t some random kid either. He had mercy on me and I passed.

Then came West Point. The first summer included all you ever wanted to know about drilling with rifles, getting fitted for uniforms and working out so hard that you’re still sweating after the shower, but it also had a placement test. If I remember right, it was taken in an auditorium on a summer afternoon. My head was spinning and I was going through the questions and guessing the answers. It was like taking an exam in hieroglyphics. I turned it in, still feeling strangely confident that I had done okay. When offered the chance to take “Rock Math” I declined. Ha! Rock Math? Phooey! Didn’t they read my transcript? I had knocked out that Calculus business in high school! I was already a year ahead, I aint no dumby! I would be starting out my college career on par with the rest of my peers, at the very least, thankyouverymuch.

Humility, thy name is James T. Sandefur. Mr. Sandefur’s name is etched in my brain because this was the man who authored the text used in my first math class at West Point (and the second, but we’ll get to that in a bit). The name of the text (and the course) was “Discrete Dynamical Systems,” AKA “D.D.S.” or “MA103” (what happened to MA101 & MA102?)

If you’ve ever ignored a problem and later realized that ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, it just makes the problem become exponentially worse, then I don’t have to explain why I failed. I could blame exhaustion from having a first hour Phys. Ed. Course, or staying up late shining shoes, but the simple fact was, from lesson 1 and everything thereafter, I Didn’t Get It. Not only that, but despite the course being the only one with lesson plans that went every single day instead of every other day, I continued to Not Get It. I also had an $85 graphing calculator which could have been more helpful, I suppose, but it also had a 100+ page instruction manual. What good was a calculator when you needed the entire semester to learn how to use it?

Failing the course meant getting a second helping of D.D.S. This class was pared down to eight students, all of whom had also failed the course. We had a teddy bear of an instructor, a goofball major who had graduated from West Point in the ‘80’s. His name was still up on the record boards in the intramural pool. He had once been one of us, and when you were a cadet, you sometimes preferred the officers who went to West Point because they knew what our lives entailed. No matter how many years had passed or what changes had taken place in that time frame, they knew.

The second time around was better. I actually understood it and I scored a decent grade. Then it was on to Calculus. Ha! Calculus. Haven’t we seen that before? Turns out, no, because if we had, we would have scored better than a D (See also, Physics). In fact, my best math course was also the one most widely hated by other cadets. Probability and Statistics, AKA "Prob & Stats," AKA "MA206."  Years later, I still maintain my fondness of Venn diagrams. This was where I redeemed myself and closed out my math course history with a respectable B (okay, B-). Do I use any of this stuff in day to day life (just like “they” said I was going to?) I don’t know, maybe abstract thinking is so subconscious that maybe I have used it. Maybe the trick is that you can’t prove you don’t use algebra every day. All I know is that I’m humbled. If I never take another math class I think I’d be just fine.  Sometimes I long for the story problems of yore. If a train leaves Philadelphia at 5 p.m., traveling at 55 miles per hour, I could easily predict when it would pass the one that departed Washington at 4:30 moving at 45 miles per hour. Better yet, ask me to calculate the volume of a cube! I was good at that. Once.


A Series of Unfortunate (and fortunate) Events

Unfortunate event #1: Waking up to get ready for work. I don’t understand people who claim they will continue to work after they retire. If you don’t have to, then why? Even crazier than these are the ones who win goo gobs of money in the lottery (enough to support them for the rest of their lives if they don’t buy 10 McMansions and a fleet of silver plated cars) and they still work. Why would you if you didn’t have to? See the world! Become a hard body at the gym. Read every book and watch every movie you ever wanted to but couldn’t because you didn’t have the time. Cruise on a freighter!

Unfortunate event #2: A couple of my car’s tires have slow leaks. The cold weather has made it worse (I think). The blinka-blinka light is coming on every couple of weeks and I decided it’s better to pay attention and fill the tires than to go “la la la” and close my ears (or rather, cover my eyes, but that doesn’t work so well when you’re driving). I got my air compressor out, plugged it into the lighter, connected it to the tire valve and turned it on. I checked the other tires and went upstairs to fill my Thermos with coffee (and chemically altered creamer, and sugar)

Unfortunate event #3: I went back downstairs, disconnected the compressor, screwed the cap back onto the valve, put on my coat, got into the car, shut the door, stuck the key into the ignition and turned it—

*click*click* came the response. Crap.

Taking care of #2, had inadvertently caused #3, a battery with enough life to power the lights but also too dead to start the car.

Which led to

Fortunate event #1: I went back upstairs to tell my husband he had to take me to the train station. He asked me to get our daughter ready.

Fortunate event #2: She complied, mostly with getting dressed. The only argument came when we got to the shoes.

“Go get your black shoes.” I said.
“But I wanna wear the brown” she replied.
“But the black shoes go with your black pants.”
“But the brown shoes go with my brown face.”
(you can’t really argue with that, so I didn’t try)

Fortunate event #3: I went to my bedroom and laughed. Hard.

Fortunate event #4: She put on the black shoes anyway.

Fortunate event #5: Instead of driving me to the train station, my husband drove me all the way to work.



I don't really want to be 3 again, but I'd like the happiness that a 3 year old has.

Sometimes I ask my daughter if she's happy, just to hear the answer--

without hesitation it is always an enthusiastic: YES!

What is it that happens between then and when we grow up? When exactly does the balance of life shift so we find ourselves more UNhappy than happy? When do we start harboring and holding onto things that drag us down? When do you go from living the dream to living a dream deferred? At what point do we become jaded and closed off? Why does it have to be this way?

I know the answer isn't in things, but having enough to not worry and live comfortably helps.

Going on a path that you enjoy helps

Being with someone you love helps, but sometimes all of these things are not enough. Sometimes you just want to be at the point where you don't have to weigh the pros and cons or think about it--because if anyone ever asks if you're happy, you will already know that the answer is, undoubtedly, unhesitatingly, enthusiastically--


A Brief History of City Destroying Monsters

Before Cloverfield and after Godzilla there was...




Since August I have had an iPhone. In some ways I like having it because it means anywhere I pick up a signal, I am connected. In other ways I hate it because--I'm connected.

--If your phone vibrates (or chimes) and you immediately check your computer for the new email message, you're too connected

--If you're putting off real things that need to be done so you can catch a few more minutes on the computer, you're too connected

--If you're sending text messages to your husband and he's within hearing/throwing something and hitting him range, you're too connected

--If you thought of a new status update and you just can't wait to post it on Facebook, you're too connected

--If something happened and you can't wait to post the photos, or describe it to someone online, you're too connected

--If you see that your Facebook friend count dropped and you take a moment to figure out who dropped you, you're too connected!!!

I'm guilty of all of these to some degree.

Tell you what, I'm going to sign off of Blogger and get back to living.

(just give me 5 minutes)

Killing Time

Some days I need to step away from Facebook. It can get compulsive--you're too wired into everyone else and instead of living a real life, you've gone virtual, posting every little event like people are going to care. On one hand I am glad that I've found so many people from so many times and places in my life and on the other, I could spend all day there, "catching up" and accomplishing absolutely nothing.

I become really unproductive when I get caught up in an argument. I try not to do it. My insides boil pretty easily if I get stuck in a back and forth thing. One person posted something to the effect that Obama is going to screw up the entire military by repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell. Why does Obama hate the troops?

I don't mind so much if someone holds that opinion, but when they consciously post that to hundreds of others, why do they do it? Is it because they assume they'll get a bunch of "Amens?" I made the error of replying and I closed with "We'll agree to disagree."

He came back with "You baited and cut."

What the hell? Oh yes, of course, I'm a cut and run Democrat. So I went against my rational self and continued to post, knowing that his thinking was not going to change and knowing that we would continue to disagree.

Here's my issue--since leaving the military, I know of several people who are now out of the military and out of the closet. One even said she would have stayed in if she could have lived openly. There is one other person I know of who's living a very low profile life. This is someone that the person who posted the argument would know because the three of us were in the same company as cadets. I know through a friend that he's gay. I emailed him awhile back and wanted so badly to tell him, "I know! And it's OKAY! I don't care, I just hope you're happy!" People just want to live their lives. Straight guys, no one is ogling you and if they are, you report them, JUST LIKE FEMALE SERVICE MEMBERS DO WHEN THEY GET HARRASSED. Besides living with men has taught me that you all can be pretty damned disgusting, especially when there are a bunch of you in close quarters. It's a wonder I'm still straight. Get over yourselves.

His argument was that openly gay people would ruin morale.

My argument was that we have a two front war. If the military can stand that, surely it can survive openly gay members.

I'm coming at this as a person who would have until recent times been prevented from joining the military and serving my country simply because of my sex and race. Looking back, those old rules made no sense and to me, the rules against gay people mirror this thinking and also, MAKE NO SENSE. If someone is willing and able to serve his or her country, let them do it, but don't put some restriction on it telling them they need to hide a huge part of their lives (which is LYING, though our military is very big on integrity), or else be celibate. how is that fair?

I realize he viewed it as a straight, white, male, Godfearing Christian and here's the thing: it's easy to impose restrictions on others when those rules will never apply to you.


Attention Sports Nuts

You're going to hell!

Don't believe me? Just take a look--

What happened here--did someone draw a blank at the signmaker's shop?

"Oh, hm, let's see...Baby Killing Women, Drunks, Porno Freaks...what was that other one Jim wanted me to put on here? I could have sworn I wrote it down someplace. It's coming back to me now... Sports nuts! Of course! Awful people those sports nuts."

Other things--
I love how "Porno Freaks" gets the B grade horror flick font and "HOMOS" is the only word glammed up in hot pink. And besides, isn't "HOMOS" kind of an 80's term? I mean, really? HOMOS?

Aside from that, hell might be a fun place with that kind of company. Well, except for the Mormons.


Charmed Life

One of my co-workers mentioned that other people in our office have approached him and stated that our team comes off as antisocial. To me, this is not a surprise, in fact, it’s more of a “no, duh” type revelation. My last office included going out to eat lunch when it wasn’t someone’s birthday and occasionally taking breaks from work to talk about our lives. That kind of thing is unheard of here. And that’s fine--but also--I don’t take it as an insult.

“I’m not the outgoing type” I admitted as we discussed this. “Yes, you are!” insisted the newest member of our team. I wanted to laugh. Why is it that you’re never supposed to admit that you’re not outgoing, or more specifically, that it’s a bad thing to not be outgoing. I will talk to someone else, sure, but I am unlikely to strike up the conversation and if I do, I assure you, it’s not coming to me naturally. It’s an effort.

I feel drained if I am around too many people for too long. I really, really have to consider whether I want to go to a social outing if there are a lot of people I won’t know. I have never been the type to work a crowd and I don’t like being the center of attention. While I find all of these things to be fun in their own right, I also find them terribly exhausting.

The problem with being this way is that there’s no reward for being an introvert. There’s nothing for you if you’re not outgoing. You don’t attract anyone if you don’t turn on the smile and engage in conversation. Like those gifted with the snappy comeback, I envy people who can charm with ease. These people can network, schmooze and rub elbows with anyone from the homeless guy on the street to the CEO of a major corporation. Barack Obama has charm. McCain (like me) struggled with it. What is it about them that draws our attention?

Here’s what I think—

1) They make you feel special. It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? They bother to learn a little about your life and the next time they see you, they ask. They compliment. They even flirt—hell with some of them, if they’re talking, they’re flirting. There’s one person I run into on the elevator from time to time. We have conversations, but every time we talk it’s as if there is more going on than just two people sharing the elevator. “I hope to see you again” he said the first time around. “Oh, hey” the second time around. “Your hair is so cute.” And so on. The last time I witnessed another woman step on and he switched channels to focus on her. I smiled. “Of course,” I thought, “He’s that way with everyone. I’m not actually special.” Not special! Oh well. The key is that they seem to want to be around you which makes you look forward to being around them. People in sales are experts on this. How much is genuine? Who knows. How much feels genuine? If the person is really good at this, all of it does.

2) They are funny. This goes without saying. Humor and charm seem to be linked. Humor is disarming if used the right way and who doesn’t enjoy a good laugh? You can be funny without charm, but I’m willing to bet that most charming people are also funny.

3) They know things—I’m willing to bet these people have just enough knowledge about most things that they can pick up on a conversation about a song, or a book, or a news article and run with it. They can insert themselves into a conversation and it seems as if they were always there. They can use what they already know to their advantage, and what they don’t know, they’ll pull from you by using skill #1 in this list.

I’m willing to accept that none of this charm stuff comes to me naturally. The harder thing to accept is that if you don’t got it, getting what you want from this world becomes much, much harder.


The Bad Soldier

I'm not a religious person but there have been times I've prayed. One of those times was during a battery run in Korea. Our commander was a runner. She looooved to run. While I can see getting a charge off of leading one hundred (or about sixty once you account for those on duty or on profile) soldiers on a run, it is a different feeling when you are in formation with a restricted stride, and even worse if you're boxed in. All you see are heads and shoulders. You don't have a clear view of the road ahead. The commander does, though. I'm going off on a tangent here I know. Bear with me. Running ability feeds into the first impression some officers get from their soldiers. If the soldier hangs in there and finishes, he or she is deemed strong. That person has stamina and strength; they won't desert you in battle. They can tough it out. Then there's the other kind.

I was the other kind.

I was not and am not a runner. There is a bit of relief in me knowing that I will not have to run a two mile timed test EVER AGAIN IN MY LIFE if I don't choose to. I have said this is one of the list of things from being in the Army that I don't miss. In fact it is at the top of the list. One of the things I DO miss is being in great shape, but there's the rub. I will take a softer, rounder body in exchange for never having to run again. It's a fair trade.

I know my hate for running showed and I know my commander judged me on that. It doesn't matter how good I was at my actual job, the fact still remained that I sucked at running. Fine. But one day we started off on a long run and while I usually sucked at hanging in there, this time I quit for a legitimate reason.

I had to go.

You know exactly what I mean, I hope. I don't want to get into the sordid details. I HAD TO GO.

We hit the two mile point and there was a sudden twinge in my gastrointestinal tract. It's awful when it happens that way. Life is great, you feel perfectly fine and then--

--you don't. Suddenly you're in panic mode. If you're around a bathroom you consider a safe haven, then it's a minor diversion. If you've ventured to an unknown territory, it's an emergency.

Oddly enough, I remember looking over and seeing a weathered red porta potty just off of the road. But this was Korea. They didn't use the blue stuff in Korea. There was no telling how often that thing got emptied. It probably didn't even have toilet paper! My site had no plumbing and I was used to porta potties, but this was a unique case and I wasn't willing to take the risk on an unfamiliar latrine on the edge of a runway. This situation required a brick and mortar potty. I stopped, let the battery go on without me, made an about face and started off on my walk to the battalion headquarters. There was a gym there, and somewhere inside of that building was a flushing toilet.

I must have prayed the entire way back, in my head, mostly, though I may have said them under my breath in case God couldn't hear my thoughts.
Please God don't let me crap my pants.

Hey. Stop that laughing. Yeah I know, I know, you've got jokes. I was running when I got, well, the runs. Har har. You'd better hope you never find yourself in a similar situation.

It was two miles back and I picked up the pace as time ticked down and distance grew short. I was a clenching, praying time bomb. And what do you know, I made it to the gym.

I thanked God.

When I later explained (she asked) I had to GO, her answer was "Well why didn't you just use the porta potty?"

God forgives, but commanders are merciless.



I’ve been fascinated with dystopian stories ever since I read 1984 and “Brave New World.” No one wants to hear about the perfect future, they want to hear about the worst case scenario. That’s why the Matrix and Terminator were so popular. Even Pixar covered the subject. We like our darkness.

If it's a particularly slow day, you could even stitch some of these stories together, since many of them seem to have similar threads (for example, after Skynet took over and the machines evolved enough, you've gone from Terminator to Matrix). Some of them are older movies. Some are so old that you can find them. Online. For free! FREE! The future is NOW, people!

I googled “Soylent Green” and through I read the wikipedia entry that gave away the big secret, I decided to sit down and watch it. Sure, the quality sucked, but let me remind you that it was FREE. Free! And we all know you get what you pay for.

The movie starts with a montage of all of the innovations that humans brought to the earth. Then it descends into displaying the bad—you know, the smog, the overpopulation—well, you know, pretty much what we see every day.

The plot of the movie is actually pretty good. The execution? Wellll…not so much. There are futuristic movies that can sometimes stay pretty timeless, but many of them end up being betrayed by dated looking sets, clothing, and yes, soundtracks. This one was chock full of dated-ness. Clunky TV’s with tiny monitors (even “Brazil” got it right with the flat panel concept). Kitchens with late 60’s era appliances. First of all, if we don’t have Jetson-like cooking capabilities in the future, then forget it. I want no parts of that. Funky music and women who just hang around because they’re pretty and play no real part in the story (again, I want no parts of that). And Charlton Heston! With guns(!) No, no, not laser guns, just guns, period. With plain old bullets. What is this, the old west? Snoooze. This is also a future without real food. In fact that is the entire point of the story (let me repeat, I want no parts of that). The “food” was in the form of “Soylent Green”, which was explained to be some kind of wafer made from plankton. Sounds harmless, right?


The big twist is that those little green felt like snack wafers were recycled dead people (this was also done in the Matrix, except it was a lot wetter, redder and it involved less processing). Our hero stows away in a dump truck that takes the bodies away, which leads to a sequence of conveyor belts transporting human shaped objects, covered in sheets, and ends in those lovely little green square wafers. (EPIPHANY ALERT!) The oceans are dying! These wafers aint made from sea creatures! Overpopulation and hunger are solved in one neat little process (!)

If this movie is remade, you know that factory sequence will be a lot more explicit. We have the special effects technology that can effectively burn an image into your head in just seconds. It’s the same horror you felt when the alien popped out of that dude’s abdomen. It’s the shock factor from the bathroom scene in “Dreamcatcher.” We have been too desensitized to be stunned by a concept. In the updated “Soylent Green” we would be treated to no less than a half hour of the hero watching every single step of the manufacturing process.

In the remake:

The dead people would not be covered in sheets.

I believe there would be a few tenderizers involved.

We would see some kind of vat o' chemicals at some point.

There might be some kind of heavy rolling device, kind of like the thing that presses dough into lasagna noodles.

Finally, the giant sheet of corpse rollups would have to be dried and cut.

The line "I eat dead people!" may or may not make it into the movie, it depending on how whimsical the director feels the day the scene is edited.

Anyway, you get it. Most newer movies don’t let you fill in the blanks. They give you every single step in the process so there’s nothing left to the imagination, so while the old movie needs updating, the newer version may not necessarily be an improvement.

(and what do you know, I guess someone really is working on it.)


Bigmouth Strikes Again

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

Flying? Please. Invisibility? No thank you. If I could have any superpower, it would be the ability to come up with an instant comeback. I'm good with words only when they’re written. That’s because the written word is more forgiving; if I don’t get it right the first time, I can go back and edit. There’s a built in think time when you’re writing the words, but for the person reading, the words are instantaneous.

I’ve always envied those who are quick enough to process what they’ve heard and reply with something equally (or even more) sharp. I admire that in others because it’s a gift I just don’t have. Most of the time I stand there, thinking, and if five seconds go by, the moment is lost. Five minutes—forget it, everyone’s moved on. And the reality is more like five hours, well past anyone else’s recollection, but if it’s something that zinged you pretty hard, you’re the one burdened with carrying it around. You’re the one whose day has been ruined (okay, sometimes it’s not *that* bad but for the purpose of this entry, let’s assume it is). You’re the one who didn’t get to hit back.

I have a co-worker who loves to run his mouth. If he finds a target, he seems to gain momentum. For the past few months the target has been Barack Obama. Now he may or may not know that I voted for the guy, but he makes it plain that he had no part in getting the man elected. His comments border on contempt. This is something I can not understand at all. If you voted for someone who has repeatedly been called “the worst president ever” you’re going to have the cajones to knock the guy who isn’t even in office yet? Am I the one on crazy pills here?

Bigmouth's comments come up unprovoked. Any time there’s an opening for a zinger, he slips it in with the grace of a bulldozer. For example:

“Oh we’re going to have a problem integrating the database, but we should find the solution.”

Bigmouth: “That’s okay, Barack Obama’s gonna fix all of that!”

That didn’t actually happen, but “Barack Obama’s gonna fix all that!” gets plugged into conversation wherever he believes it fits. Sometimes it’s akin to forcing in a puzzle piece that isn’t cut to fit. Then what inevitably follows the “joke” is the sweet, sweet sound of silence and me sitting there, seething inside. Once one of my co-workers tried to reason that voters needed something to look forward too, but that was as useful as a BB gun aimed at Godzilla.

Eventually he came up with another approach.

My boss brought up a threat briefing in a meeting. “This covers any kind of enemy or criminal that might break into our system.” He explained.

“Like Barack Obama and his administration!” chimed in you-know-who. This solicited a few chuckles and a few looks of “WTF” around the room, which is, I suppose, success when compared to the previous un-reaction. This also marked the closest I got to standing up and saying “Shut the Fuck Up,” which really, I’m glad I didn’t. That would mean he got the upper hand. Besides, it’s not very original and it just shows a loss of temper paired with a lack of creativity in coming up with something truly clever. Standing up and shouting “Shut the Fuck Up” would mean I’m channeling Dick Cheney, and that’s never good (even if he is Obama’s 8th cousin).

As often as this happens, it always catches me off guard because the joke has little to do with the topic that triggers it. Today someone was reimbursing Bigmouth from a lunch back in November. So he jokes:

"Oh, I need to add compound interest to this. I need to add cost of living increase. Oh and we need to account for the Obama-sizing; spreading the wealth."

See? Blam. Out of nowhere. I didn’t even see it coming. Seething on the inside, I muttered “you’re an ass” more to myself than anyone else and quickly made my exit. But if I had the gift of the comeback, it would have gone like this.

(TAKE 2)
Bigmouth: “…Oh and we need to account for the Obama-sizing; spreading the wealth."

Me: “Hey, B.M., do like this.” (brushes off shoulder)

B.M. (looks down at shoulder, looks back at me) Huh?

Me: You need to get rid of that ENORMOUS chip on your shoulder. *

B.M. (frowns, is totally speechless).

That’s it. That's all I ask. I don’t need an orchestrated diatribe, just a well-timed one liner that pops into my head while simultaneously Shutting the other person the Fuck Up without actually telling them to “Shut the Fuck Up.”

*It took me 1 ½ hours to think this up.

P.S. The up side is that I know this "joke" will be repeated by him sometime in the future. One of my ongoing resolutions is to be more assertive. Too often I back down from speaking my mind (don't tell my husband that). So not only do I need my handy comeback, I need to have enough courage to say it out loud.

P.P.S. I try to avoid posting political things here, and I can understand why someone wouldn't vote for Obama. What I don't understand is how some of those people seem to WANT him to do badly. While I never voted for "dubya" I didn't badmouth him before an audience of unsuspecting coworkers and I never got a charge off of his mistakes, either.