## Poetry for mourners

12 Feb

I went to a party of millenials last weekend, which made me think of the last time I went to a party of people my age- a friend’s wedding.  Weddings make me think of funerals and vice-versa, as the only times in your life when everyone who loves you comes together to think of you.  I guess you can only enjoy one of them.  Anyway, this isn’t the people at the center of attention of these events, but about the attendees.

For the past eight years or so, whenever a close friend of mine loses someone dear to them, I send them some poems.  After my dad died in 2010 I joined a grief poetry group, and I saved a bunch of those poems as they were a comfort to me, and they continue to offer comfort, sometimes, to others.  So I thought I’d share them with you, in hopes that they comfort you or someone you love.

I’ll also stand on my soapbox here and say if someone you know is grieving, please send them a note or a text or a phone call. Use google and your heart and say anything.  Someone peripherally close to my husband lost her spouse a few years ago, and my husband waffled on whether to send an email, since he didn’t know the spouse.  I very passionately implored him to send something, and not expect a response.  It’s not about the person at the center of attention, it’s about the attendees and the mourners- acknowledge grief!  It sucks to feel like everything is going on without you and no one noticed the giant aching hole that appeared in the world when your person left it.  Look, I’m even giving you something to send!

I still feel so grateful and warm about the friends who appeared at my doorstep when my dad died and sat with me, and the ones who called or emailed or texted.  It’s an overstatement to say I never forgave the ones who didn’t acknowledge my grief, or hung out with me and forgot about it- that implies I still hold a grudge, but it’s more like my fondness and friendship has faded to indifference.  Because that’s how it feels when a friend doesn’t acknowledge a major life event- that they are indifferent to you.  Ouch.  Don’t be indifferent, be loving!  Send a poem or three!  The last of these is my favorite poem but doesn’t really belong on this list.

“Greatest hits”-these are great shortly after a death, but also anytime grief hits.

• The Bustle in a House – Dickinson
The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth, –

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

• PUSHING THROUGH

It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.
I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.
Rainer Maria Rilke

“Anger”- personally, I was into these after a week or so and the shock had died down.  These poems are a bit angrier and darker than the others, and not everyone resonates with them.

• Funeral Blues
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West.
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

– W. H. Auden

• Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked not lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay ,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas
1914-53

“Abstract”-this quiet poem talks about how everything must die someday.  I love it.

• When a thing is placed
A shadow of autumn
Appears there.
Kyoshi Takahama

“Acceptance”-these two really resonate with people after a few weeks or months.  I still love them and it’s been years.

• MY FATHER
I think I am letting him go.
It is not that my love is diminished
or that I miss him less.
It is only that the sun is up
and there is no milk
in the refrigerator
and the bunny got out
of the cage
and is eating my red geraniums.
I think I am letting him go.
But sometimes at night
before I go to sleep
I feel the tears
fill up my eyes
and run down my cheeks.
I do not think I will ever
let him go.
But he is gone.
• Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

– Christina Rossetti

“Love”- these are wonderful warm poems not directly about grief, but great when applied to grief.

• Love-Czeslaw Milosz
Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.
• Love Does That-Meister Eckhart

All day long a little burro labors,

sometimes with heavy loads on her back and sometimes
just with worries

about things that bother only
burros.

And worries, as we know, can be more exhausting
than physical labor.

Once in a while a kind monk comes
to her stable and brings

a pear, but more
than that,

he looks into the burro’s eyes and touches her ears

and for a few seconds the burro is free
and even seems to laugh,

because love does that.

Love frees.

Czeslaw Milos

## CALL TO ACTION + I am so tired and it’s only been a week

31 Jan

I have several very cool Facebook friends and before my woe-is-me post below I thought I’d let you know about some things that they are doing.

First, you may have heard that the ACLU filed a complaint re: Trump’s executive order banning people from certain countries.  On page 18 of that complaint you’ll see my friend My Khanh’s name (so proud of her!) as one of the law interns in the suit.  Here’s what she has to say:

Thank you so much everyone for the outpouring of support. Please, in addition to donating to ACLU, PLEASE remember to support local community-based organizations and those providing direct services like the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) which has been providing heroic efforts on the ground scene at JFK to stop deportations, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) which has been tirelessly responding to calls for help from here and abroad, the National Immigrant Law Center, Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, IRIS, Make the Road…there are SO many organizations fighting the good fight out there. And it involves so much more than typing behind a computer and filing a few papers in court (although that does seem to work sometimes too!).

Next, if you’re a mathematician or know mathematicians, you might be able to help my friend, math writer extraordinaire Evelyn Lamb help us:

Mathematicians: if you or a mathematician you know are affected by the executive order on immigration and want to talk to me about it in my role as a writer, feel free to email: rootsofunityblog at gmail. I may be writing about it and would be happy to hear your story, whether you would be willing to be named in the piece or not. This post is public. Please share, either here or over email, with people who might be interested.

Speaking of math, the American Mathematical Society put out a statement condemning the EO yesterday.  But there’s more that mathematicians can do, and another friend and professor at Tufts, Moon Duchin has this 5-day gerrymandering summer school working with lawyers:

Worried about gerrymandering? This August I’ll be running a summer school to train mathematicians as expert witnesses for redistricting cases. We’re bringing together legal experts, GIS experts, and more. If there’s enough demand, we’ll run regional trainings around the country. Please spread the word… Geometry of Redistricting Summer School

Probably/hopefully many of you my readers have already been trying to call your representatives about various issues.  As a die-hard liberal I’ve been using Daily Action for what to say each day.  Also, my representatives (Ted Cruz, John Cornyn, Roger Williams) are SUPER HARD to get in touch with (voicemails always full!  Hang-ups because all staffers are already busy!) but email is not a good way to contact your rep. Inspired by a tweet from Jordan Ellenberg:

I’m trying to do an in-between and writing a page a day and faxing it in to their offices.  I can’t tell you how desperate/triumphant/sad/happy I felt when I got this:

I felt like maybe, possibly, someone in our government is having a harder time ignoring me.

Finally, for a morale boost, here’s my friend Piper Harron telling us to adapt to the new normal:

i’ve seen people say that the point of the ban was chaos. either to distract us from something shadier trump is doing now, or to fatigue (or over-stress) us against acting when trump does something shadier later. fine. but what am i supposed to do with that? am i supposed to not protest and freak out when trump is messing with people’s lives? am i supposed to not talk about it? i don’t understand. what is the advice attached to these warnings?

we were so worried about trump being normalized, but maybe our resistance needs to be. maybe we need to accept this new normal. trump is going to keep attacking us. and we have to keep responding, but we have to be in it for the long haul. we cannot allow ourselves to get fatigued. maybe that means finding a way to make the necessary calls, to make the necessary donations, to go to protests, not because we are angry or scared or fired up and ready to go, but because that is who we are now.

and maybe most of us should stop trying to figure trump out. for me personally, all i get out of worrying about where we’re headed is stress and inefficiency. i’m not in a position to get ahead of trump, and i’m not fleeing the country because of speculation. as someone who dabbles with anxiety, i can tell you that there is no benefit to living with alarm bells blaring and no mechanism for turning them off. so, time for a manual override. a recalibration. trump is not normal, but his attacks on our rights and ideals will be the norm for as long as he is president.

in other words, keep calm and defend freedom with all your might.

Do you remember when Black Lives Matter was nascent, and police killings of unarmed black people were dominating our national conversation?  I remember running into this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpVeUVcFMAU then, and realizing that I could not relate/empathize with it but I could sympathize/feel compassion for the audience (black Americans).  And that burden of feeling unvalued by society and feeling that everyone who looks like you is unvalued by society seemed so obvious and so heavy that it takes a tremendous amount of psychological energy to just exist in such a society.

So now we’re a week into the Trump presidency, and Tết was Saturday, which is the New Year for Vietnamese culture and the time that you pay your debts (before New Year’s) and clean your house and prepare for a fresh start with new hope for the new year.  Those two events are very, very at odds with each other and I am not prepared for what a psychological burden it is to have my (ethnic) culture mismatch chronologically with my (national) culture.

Also, I am more prone to anxiety when pregnant so I’ve been having nightmares about being separated from my toddler and about losing one of my kids on a boat (my mom’s family are all boat people) and about my daughter being born in March with some life-threatening condition and not being able to afford her medicine as she grows up, and the usual anxiety-nightmare of running from some evil to find and save my family but I can’t.  Here’s a story in the LA Times about Vietnamese refugees in 1975, when the U.S. did the right thing despite lack of popular support:

A Gallup poll in May 1975 showed that only 36% of Americans were in favor of Vietnamese immigration. Many feared job losses and increased public welfare. Even then-Gov. Jerry Brown sounded alarms about the toll the Vietnamese refugees would take on the state.

And on a sad dark note and what spawned this whole anxiety trip, my cousin posted this on instagram (I do not know the original source):

The picture on the right looks just like my son when he’s sleeping.

I went to a talk on Sunday and the professor said that the day we don’t allow brave, hopeful people to pack up their things and try a life somewhere new is the day we betray her:

This Dorothea Lange print of Florence Owens Thompson was from the Great Depression; she’s 32 and has just sold the tires off her car to try to get some more food for her seven kids.  Hope is gone.  She’s seeking refuge.  But where is it?

## Orlando.

13 Jun

A major theme is that the location of the shooting matters, and that gay clubs provide a community space rather than “just” a place to go out at night:

Fifty people were killed, and as many more wounded, in their home. Maybe their only safe place in the world. By someone who didn’t think there should be any safe place in the world for them, because of who they were, because of who they loved.

Facebook note by Els Kushner about being a “middle-aged librarian” and still connecting to the community that this nightclub represents

Pulse wasn’t just about drinks and dancing—it was a place that invested in its community. Although the LGBTQ+ community in Orlando is large, the reality is that Orlando is still in the South, and the hate these individuals have to face every day requires a place like Pulse to exist.

Personal essay by Daniel Leon-Davis on Fusion, about being a member of that community

Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can’t go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression.

Ultimately hopeful article by Richard Kim on the Nation, about his own awakening as to what gay clubs mean.

Another theme is just grief, which I’ve heard described as “the purest pain.”

I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.

In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign her newborn.

Baby, drink milk.

Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.

-Excerpt from a separate short story, which is quoted over on Jezebel<–this is an article just made for comments, to create a safe space to share feelings and thoughts.  Another open thread is available at Autostraddle.

And finally, intersectionality and a call to arms.

We need our allies to step forward. Give your money and your microphones to queer and trans people, especially to the trans women of color who face the greatest risks and have been the leaders of our movements for decades. Demand accountability from your politicians, law enforcement officials and neighbors who believe no one is watching as they perpetuate discrimination and violence. Remember that LGBTQ people of color are nearly twice as likely to be victims of violence. After this attack on a space that prioritized the safety and community of black and Latinx queers, it is even more important to make sure our efforts center on people of color.

-A column by Audrey White over at the Dallas News

It should be noted that this attack to a black and Latinx-friendly gay club happened both during Ramadan and Pride Month.  So I also wanted to include a personal essay by a gay Muslim writer, but I’m having a tough time finding something (let me know if you find something!)  Instead here’s a bit of a video interview with a gay imam, which mostly focuses on media coverage:

One of the issues I think is very important, in many communities of color, there’s a stigma about mental health. And in my pastoral counseling that I provide to not only LGBT Muslims, but also young Muslims, interfaith couples, older Muslims who are now in a different culture, we find that the shaming that comes from acknowledging that one may have some issues that may relate to mental health, often people are not willing to go and seek additional help because of that shaming or that cultural stigma that’s associated with it.

I’m having troubles with my computer so I haven’t actually watched this video by a St. Louis imam, but it’s supposed to be nice.

Here are events happening in your town.  Here is where you can donate to the victims and the victims’ families, via Equality Florida.  You can also donate to the crisis counseling center, via the GLBT Community Center for central Florida.

I’m sorry that we live in this hateful society.  All of me boils with wanting to act, to change the system, to do something, and my heart breaks in the face of overwhelming loss.  The media started saying “act of terror” very quickly (which I don’t like b/c racism-Islamophobia), and it’s also got a kernel of truth to it: that terrorism is random violence meant to intimidate us from living unafraid and joyful lives.  I like the title of Richard Kim’s article cited above: Please don’t stop the music.  Living joyfully, building community, speaking up, calling people in- I really believe this is the best way for everyday people to fight against these dark forces.  Also donate blood if you can.  And, yknow, give people hugs. And call your family (biological or chosen) and tell them you love them.

## Andrew Hacker, my cartoon nemesis

8 Mar

I’ve written two times on this blog about Andrew Hacker, the Queens College political science professor who keeps getting in the NY Times and has spent his career questioning the establishment and trying to push contrarian views on lots of stuff (race, gender, politics, money inequality, high education, and now math).  I think a short summary of all his writing would be: “you think we’re making progress?  Ha!  Look at how bad things are!  Here are some ideas on how to fix the things you thought were okay but are terrible.”

Over the past few years Hacker has taken on math in America.  I don’t think anyone in the world thinks that the state of math education in America is the best it could be; that’s why we’re always doing reforms like Common Core standards (which I have written that I love).  And Hacker wants to reform it too.  But instead of coming up with new ways for students to approach problems and conceptualize content, he wants to get rid of the content and focus on numeracy.  Summary of his view: “Say no to algebra.”

I’ve been in a tizzy all week because of his latest op-ed titled “The Wrong Way to Teach Math.”  And my tizzy is because I have always held the guy to be a crazy cartoon villain in my head, and now I find that I agree with him on something (because we are both human and neither of us are cartoon heroes or villains and there is such a thing as nuance):

What citizens do need is to be comfortable reading graphs and charts and adept at calculating simple figures in their heads. Ours has become a quantitative century, and we must master its language. Decimals and ratios are now as crucial as nouns and verbs.

This is not a new concept and I hope Hacker nods to John Allen Paulos’ classic book Innumeracy and ensuing titles in his book, but I fear he won’t because Paulos is a mathematician and apparently Hacker hates us, per an article on slate:

Math professors, consumed by their esoteric, super-specialized research, simply don’t care very much about the typical undergraduate, Hacker contends. At universities with graduate programs, tenure-track faculty members teach only 10 percent of introductory math classes. At undergraduate colleges, tenure-track professors handle 42 percent of introductory classes. Graduate students and adjuncts shoulder the vast majority of the load, and they aren’t inspiring many students to continue their math education. In 2013, only 1 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded were in math.

Yep, that’s us, uninspiring teaching drones when it should be super-specialized researchers teaching undergraduates algebra.  Side note: the skills to excel at research and the skills to excel at teaching do not seem to have a correlation, yet non-academics expect researchers to focus on teaching (link to an article about 4-4 bill in North Carolina).

Keith Devlin gets to the heart of something in his reaction piece for HuffPo, which is that Hacker is, like many people, confusing “school math” with “math.”  Here “school math” is essentially a bag of math facts and tricks, like $\sin^2(x)+\cos^2(x)=1$, rather than “math” which is conceptual understanding like that old Pythagorean theorem post (update on that in another post).  NPR did an even more confusing thing in the first example of that article:

Hear that change jingling in my pocket? Good. I have two little questions for you.

1. I have a quarter, a dime and a nickel. How much money DO I have?
2. I have three coins. How much money COULD I have?

The first question is a basic arithmetic problem with one and only one right answer. You might find it on a multiple-choice test.

The second is an open-ended question with a number of different possible correct answers. It would lend itself to a wide-ranging debate over the details: Are these all American coins? Are any of them counterfeit? Do you have any bills?

Frankly, it’s a lot more interesting than the first.

So again, question 1 is “school math” and question 2 is on its way to “math.”

Keeping in line with Devlin’s notation, I think this is the issue:

1. Most people think “math” is “school math,” which is a list of tricks to win strange games that they will never encounter again, but they are forced to memorize the rules of these games.  Stuff like memorizing the quadratic formula, or algorithms for subtraction/multiplication/long division.
2. Scientists, engineers, mathematicians, other friends of math think that “math” is using logical deduction and inferences, given a list of rules, to win a game.  By which I mean, to win any game.  Even “real-life” games like “how do I get articles written by the deadline with length and interviews” or “how can I figure out how far to cut this length of wood to support this truss on a theatre set” or “how many people do I need to interview before we’re satisfied/how many people should we have on our interview committee?”
3. Hacker thinks “school math” is dumb, doesn’t really understand what “math” is, and is a proponent of numeracy.  Everyone is a proponent of numeracy, it’s like being a proponent of literacy, you aren’t really propon-ing anything controversial.  I am concerned that he may see numeracy as similar to “school math” instead of “math,” and teach people how to read pie charts and bar graphs but not give them the tools to read any infographic (histograms etc.), which is an abstraction of particular charts and graphs.

So my point 3 back there should tell you how I feel about “math” (also the name of my blog, also how I choose to spend my time, also anything that comes out of my mouth.)  Practicing math forces us to use logic, discipline, and rigor, which are things we all need in daily life.  That slate article says that “reading fiction builds empathy” as a counterpoint to math, which drives me nuts.

I was so worked up about this I sent a letter to the editor of the New York Times, which they obviously didn’t publish because… who cares? (A: me, and probably you).  So here’s the unpublished letter:

Math education isn’t an either/or proposition: people need to understand numbers as well as what algebra teaches us.  Hacker says students will never use algebra in their lives, but does not hold the rest of high school curriculum to this standard: how many of us dissect frogs, write book reports, or analyze historical documents in our everyday lives?  Most people work within a specified set of parameters and rules, whether that’s the maximum number of customers or what forms need to be filled out for whom.  We also need to use logic and convince others of our conclusions: for instance, listing the reasons why one deserves a raise, making sure to eliminate questionable arguments.  We often repeat tasks and find a fastest algorithm for them, which we then apply to related tasks: making change for a dollar, making change for a ten.  Discipline, communication, and abstraction: this is what math is for, and this is what algebra teaches us.

On a happy ending note, here’s an old article that was a response to Hacker’s first op-ed, by a woman who overcame her math anxiety to learn algebra.

## Nytimes and algebra, again

9 Feb

Back in 2012, a professor named Andrew Hacker at Queens College in New York wrote an incendiary (to the math community) op-ed called “Is Algebra Necessary?”  I didn’t have a blog back then, but I did have a blog when a snarky and hilarious tweet appeared, and I posted about it/variables and algebra.  Tweet here:

This week, the NYT ran a short interview with Prof. Hacker, seemingly like a mild promo for his next book, “The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions.”  A snarky and probably unfair summary of his previous books’ titles on sale at Amazon:  Blacks and Whites are separate and unequal in the US, Colleges suck, Politics from 1973, Women and Men are separate and unequal in the US, Rich and poor are separate and unequal in the US, Something maybe about gerrymandering?  My point is, this is an 86 year old man who likes to spin statistics about things people talk about the way Malcolm Gladwell likes to spin anecdata and make people talk about things, and he is also anti-math and pro-arithmetic.

Then I saw a video on facebook with over 4 million views of a woman explaining some “common core math” (see: old post on the wonderful thing that is common core standards) and how stupid she finds it.  But she surprisingly explains the steps carefully and it makes a lot of sense to me (though she skips why we add one of the 5s).  I actually love it: the kids can learn the concepts of why the answer is 30 rather than just a pure subtraction digit by digit shortcut algorithm that they can learn later.  Here’s the link; embedding isn’t working.

Throughout my time tutoring, teaching, and talking math, many, many students and adults have asked me “why do I need to know this?” and “how will this help me in the future?” and the conversations always seem to be two separate conversations.  “Math people” as we are sneeringly called by Hacker talk about something abstract [this is a link to an old but good blog post]: quantitative reasoning and logic skills, the ability to extract relevant information from paragraphs of data, visualization techniques, the ability to not be overwhelmed and taken in by misleading statistics and graphs.

Infamous unlabeled axes and generally “ethically wrong” graph from the Planned Parenthood hearing, from Americans United for Life website [quote from Politifact article]

Then there’s… not-math people?  Who want something more like this website which lists various jobs you use math in, and their median incomes.  Startling to me (I do not know where they get their numbers): they say biologists make medians of 44k, and mathematicians make 94k.  Anyways, mathematicians are used to abstract reasoning and use abstract terms as concrete ones (I can’t tell you how many times a week I say something like “Let’s use a concrete example like the plane” which is still a very abstract concept to many), which might explain the gap in this conversation.

I read an article this morning about the privatization of advanced math education and how rock and roll it is, but also extremely concerning in light of rising inequality.  Great article.  It gives me hope, especially this organization bringing advanced math to underserved communities.  I think that the ideal thing would be to have publicly funded school-year programs like UMTYMP available in as many places as possible, vs. having kids pay to attend summer camps like CTY, which offers some financial aid and also a gem of a paragraph on the financial aid FAQ site:

Families are also encouraged to seek funds from local agencies such as school districts, community service organizations, business associations, civic organizations and religious groups.

Note here that while I have TA’d at CTY summer camps before and had a blast, I never did them as a kid or even know about them.  I spent my summers playing as a middle school kid, and working or taking summer school as a high school kid.  (My high school summers: Health and Driver’s Ed classes, Boeing internship, working at Yoshinoya, working as a private tutor).  I really enjoyed them, but I think I also would’ve benefited from trying any of the various math/academic camps out there that neither I nor my parents knew about.  Then again, a bunch of my friends got sent to hagwon cram schools to memorize things and get great SAT scores during the summer, which sounds awful to me, so I counted myself as very privileged to be working a minimum or zero wage job instead.

I know the Common Core standards are young, but they’re also giving me hope that math is on the right track, and haters are gonna hate but kids are gonna learn and be able to do all those abstract things I said above.  I don’t have a lot to add to the conversation; this post was more to bring the Atlantic and NYTimes articles to your attention.

## Grad school angst

17 Dec

I had a draft of this post but then a woman posted a thing on her blog that blows this out of the water so please read her post.  She exploded on the math scene a few weeks ago with her incredible amazing readable Ph.D. thesis which is my new goal in life and I think this is an achievable goal.  Here’s a short post about that amazing incredible thesis.

To encourage you to read that thesis (please do read it, no matter what level of math you are especially if you are math-phobic), here is an excerpt:

I like to imagine abstraction (abstractly ha ha ha) as pulling the strings on a marionette. The marionette, being “real life,” is easily accessible. Everyone understands the marionette whether it’s walking or dancing or fighting. We can see it and it makes sense. But watch instead the hands of the puppeteers. Can you look at the hand movements of the puppeteers and know what the marionette is doing? A puppeteer walks up to you and says “I’m really excited about figuring out Fermat’s Last Thumb Bend!” You say, “huh?” The puppeteer responds, “Oh, well, it’s simply a matter of realizing that the main thumb joint has several properties that distinguish it from…” You’re already starting to fantasize about the Zombie Apocalypse.

Don’t you want to read it now?  And also be the author’s best friend?  That’s my reaction anyway.  If the thesis is too long, at least read the first post linked, here’s a quote.  This has been shared by so many of my Facebook friends and in my math communities and the post clearly struck a chord.

My experience discussing math with mathematicians is that I get dragged into a perspective that includes a hierarchy of knowledge that says some information is trivial, some ideas are “stupid”; that declares what is basic knowledge, and presents open incredulity in the face of dissent.

Anyways, here’s my original post that I drafted some time ago.  Though I might add that after I was mildly eviscerated by some professors during the question part after a talk I gave (so I’m still up at board and audience is still sitting and there were like 30 people at least there), one student came up to me and said “don’t let the haters get to you.”  It’s the best thing anyone has ever said to me after a talk, and now we’re friends, and maybe it’s a coincidence and maybe it’s not that he’s black (I can count on one hand the number of black male mathematicians I’ve interacted with, and I only know black female mathematicians from that awesome EDGE program).

I think all graduate students feel inadequate at some points, and also isolated in that feeling, which leads to imposter syndrome [this is a really good link].  A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a prominent mathematician (A) who said that all us women at UT looked happy, and in contrast she remembered grad school being extremely difficult.  Another professor remembered that when they were in grad school, A had seemed happy too.  We all look and seem fine, but we aren’t constantly happy, and that’s okay, especially if we recognize that we aren’t isolated in this sadness.

Anyways, me time!  We’ve got a paper from that awesome summer research program in the galleys, and I’ve written a zeroth, error-ridden draft of a project that I’ve been working on for just under a year.  My blog is 3 and I occasionally get compliments on it, my baby is 1 and I often get compliments on him, and I’m finally sleeping through almost every night.  My brain is back from its pregnancy/new baby/sleep-deprived state, my spouse is incredibly supportive and also supports us financially, so I have much less to worry about than many people.  I have my health.  I enjoy tremendous privilege.  And look at this bibimbap I made for dinner!

I included all that awesomeness to highlight how, even when life is going great and so Instagrammable, you can still feel crappy.  We just have one life so it’s hard to compare with others.  For instance, by the time she was my age, my mom had left her country on a boat and with it everything she’d ever had or known, and stayed in a Korean refugee camp for months, and moved to freezing Minnesota from tropical Vietnam, and worked every possible job, and had a two year old and a husband and had built a life despite having a stroke shortly after coming here.  My mom’s a tough cookie.  I hope someday my kid can say that about me, because right now I feel more like a soft but also inexplicably burnt piece of dough.

What are the anxieties plaguing me?  Oh, the usual, which I’m sure lots of grad students feel sometimes:

• I’m not good enough at math.  I’ll never be smart enough/fast enough/good enough to solve real problems.
• Nobody cares about my research; it’s trivial and stupid.  And when I do figure out things they are trivial and stupid, and I’d spent months following the stupid path and not seeing the trivial conclusion.
• I’ll never finish.  Everything will always be wrong, and when I do write things down see bullet points 1 and 2.
• I’m a bad person.  I should be contributing to society and doing good instead of sitting all day banging my head against the chalkboard.
• I don’t deserve x,y,z (fill in with your favorites, my go-tos are my supportive husband, sympathy and slack because I have a baby, a day off because I don’t get anything done on my days on)

Anyways, I’m feeling better nowadays.  When I started grad school, a professor told me “Don’t let your highs get too high or your lows get too low,” which is good advice.  My favorite grad school advice: “Swim in your own lane.”  That sort of deals with almost all the anxieties in five words.  But I’m not trying to offer solutions to those anxieties, just that they exist and I feel them sometimes and maybe so do you, and that’s okay.  Even mathematicians are mere mortals.

Here’s a hilarious picture of my sweet baby to wrap up this post!

## Protagonists are male; I didn’t wear makeup as a kid

30 Jan

Apologies for a long delay in posting; we just came back from our meet-the-family/honeymoon vacation with baby. Here’s a quick post on neither baking nor math; both should return soon.

As a kid I played with my brothers all the time.  I distinctly remember playing with those little matchbox cars and having them talk like transformers to each other.  I always picked the pink car because she was the “girl” hot wheels.  This is ridiculous to me now, since we had 20 or so cars and they didn’t have faces or anything indicating their genders besides color.  And it’s not like 19 cars were blue and one was pink; they were all different colors, designs, etc.  But I was fixated on the pink one.  Looking back, did I just have a favorite car, or did I feel like the other cars weren’t for me?  If this post was just this anecdote, I’d say that I just had a favorite car which happened to be the pink one, and my brothers didn’t share the same obsession over any single car.  But.

We also played with legos.  We had two little hair clipons that you could put on your person to make them a girl, and we also had one head with lipstick and mascara.  I didn’t use that head because I didn’t (and still don’t) like makeup.  So every time I played, I’d put a hair on a person to make them female, which meant that our default Lego population were all male (comically statistically unlikely number of bald men in the Duong Legotown at any given time).  It also meant that girls couldn’t be firefighters, policemen, or pirates, since those all had separate hats and you could only wear one at a time.  This was zero percent a big deal to me as a kid, and is some percent a deal to me now.  I would be remiss not to link to Anita Sarkeesian’s video on this here.  And here’s part 2.

I was the youngest and did and liked everything my big brother did and liked, but I never got into Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Gargoyles as much as he did.  I loved Sonic the Hedgehog and Tails (a two tailed fox sidekick, I think?), but then the cartoon came out and it turned out Tails was a boy too, and my interest waned.  We played Secret of Mana often on our Super Nintendo, which was a super fun multiplayer RPG, and my brother would be the Boy main character and I would play Girl or Sprite.  I also loved Super Mario Bros 2 more than the other installations of the series, because I could play Princess Toadstool (and she could fly which was badass!)

As a child, I wanted characters who reflected me, or who I could aspire to be, or who I could relate to.  I didn’t want to be the sidekick all the time, but I was, mostly because I was younger but partially because I was a girl, and by default girls are sidekicks or trophies and boys are heroes.  Girls are heroes in girl-oriented products/games, but protagonists are male in general audience products/games.

I wondered whether this last statement is true, so I looked at my three month old baby’s books.  Turns out animal heroes are also by default male.  For instance, the Very Hungry Caterpillar is a he.  So is the Moose and the host in If You Give A Moose a Muffin, Spot the dog, Max in both “Max Explores Chicago” and “Where the Wild Things Are”, Duck in Dooby Dooby Moo (and the two other books in the series), the baby in I Love You Through and Through, Bear in Bear in Underwear, the dinosaur in Thesaurus Rex, and of course Bruce the bear bully in Big Bad Bruce.  I’ll note that the premise of the Dooby Dooby Moo series is that Farmer Brown (male) has a bunch of cows (female) who type, but the main actor of the series is Duck, who is a he.  I counted 12 of Ian’s books with male protagonists.

Girls are heroes in girl-oriented products/games, but protagonists are male in general audience products/games.

How about both?  Where is Baby’s Belly Button, the Tickle Book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Introductory Calculus for Infants, and Head to Toe all include both male and female leads characters.  The collection of Dr. Seuss Books, Count to Sleep Chicago, Hippos Go Berserk, Noneuclidean Geometry for Babies, and Possum Come a Knockin’ all don’t have male or female leads.  So that’s nine in the both or neither category.

What about female?  Nope.  None of his books have a female main character.

To be fair, a friend did gift us The Munschworks Grand Treasury of stories, which includes multiple female protagonists.  But that’s for when Ian is a bit older (also I haven’t read any of them yet).

My husband pointed out that this is what happens when we don’t have a gender neutral pronoun in English, implying that “he” is the default pronoun.  But that’s exactly my point.  “He” is the default.  So my son will get to be the hero, and use all the matchbox cars, and be Optimus Prime or Bumblebee or Rafael or Leonardo or Sonic or Tails or Ash Ketchum or a lego pirate or firefighter or policeman.  And if I ever have a daughter, I’ll have to figure out what to tell her so that she can be all these things too, and doesn’t feel like she can only be the pink car or the lego figures with hair or Princess Toadstool/Peach.  Or buy her a whole new set of toys catered just for girls, because boys and girls are apparently so fundamentally different that this face

somehow only reflects half the population, at least when I was a little kid trying to play.

## The Apology and why it bugs me

3 Aug

I want to remark at the beginning of this post that I love math people.  We’re a little weird, very friendly, and generally quite open-minded and supportive (at least, this is true of the math people I know, a.k.a. geometric group theorists and friend fields).  There’s one thing that really, really bugs me that many (definitely not all) math people do when talking math with each other.

Also, I’m really into lists right now.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m doing an exciting research program this summer involving four faculty, five graduate students, and three undergraduates doing at least five research projects.  With so many different experiences and different personalities interacting, there are lots of times when apologies are required:

• Interrupting someone in the middle of a productive thought (actually people don’t apologize for this enough.  Reminds me of this post from the What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? blog)
• Stealing someone’s notes/pen/paper/seat
• Talking over someone (similar to the first thing here)
• Probably more things I can’t think of right now

And I’m totally down with all of those.  They make complete sense- apologies are a nice lubricant for social and professional interactions.  But there’s one apology that really bothers me, which comes up in these situations:

• Not knowing something that you’ve never been exposed to/had a reason to explore
• Not being able to read the mind of someone who isn’t communicating clearly (related: this old post on teaching)
• Having a different background than someone else, mathematical or otherwise
• Being better at processing things in a visual rather than audial way, or vice-versa

These all come down to one thing: you’re a different mathematician than whoever you’re talking to.  And this is the thing that you might say in this situation:

Sorry, I’m slow.

I dislike this so much!  I’ve heard very many mathematicians say this over the past few weeks, whom no one would call “slow.”  One reason for my distaste ties in with the whole “women apologize more” bit, explored in a Pantene ad, dissected by Time, and perhaps most effectively explained in this spoken word video.

To be clear, this is not a women-only problem (while I’ve noticed more women do so than men, men also do this).  I dislike the phrase “sorry, I’m slow” because

1. I’m apologizing for an adjective that I’m applying to myself- ->I’m apologizing for who I am.  [I am not a person who likes doing this.  I certainly apologize when I make mistakes/do bad actions, but to judge myself on my character, and invite you to pass that same judgment?  Not fun.]
2. I’m devaluing my contributions to this conversation.  If I don’t take myself seriously, how can I expect you to?
3. By saying these words aloud, whether I believe them now or not, I convince myself and you that I am, in fact, slow.  Just like if I looked in a mirror everyday and said “I’m ugly” I would eventually believe it.
4. I’m perpetuating a system of these apologies- now whenever you’re in a conversation and struggling to understand what’s going on, you’ll be tempted to say “sorry, I’m slow” and cause 1-3 to happen to you.

Maybe the worst part of “sorry, I’m slow” is that there are good reasons to say it: when faculty/those further along say it, it encourages undergrads/younger folks that they aren’t the only ones who feel this way.  Similarly, if you say it in a group of peers, it builds camaraderie (in the way that teenage girls insult themselves in order to get compliments from each other).  When younger people say it to older people, mentorship instincts kick in and older people often share personal stories of some other time they felt slow.

Really what I’m saying is that “sorry I’m slow” is bad because it makes you believe that you’re slow, and it’s good because it tells everyone else that you also think you’re slow.  I just wish people didn’t pass these value judgments on themselves.  =(  I suppose this post is why I’m a mathematician, not a psychologist or sociologist.

From here: http://cheezburger.com/5218979584.  Also, I’m the puppy and the cat.

## I can speak English

13 Jan

Also, I should’ve said this in my last post: a big thank you to Evelyn Lamb for her sweet post featuring Baking and Math on the AMS Blog on Math Blogs!  I’m sure readers from there were surprised to see my mom’s thit kho recipe as the first thing.  Also readers from The neuro blogs daily– I do not understand that website but Evelyn’s post was reposted there too!

Another edition of Yen describes an issue not really related to baking or math and has no solutions for it!

At the end of every term, we get teaching evaluations.  I also ask for feedback from my students throughout the semester.  Over the past three years, I’ve heard this comment in these exact words many times: “It’s so nice that you can speak English.”  And plenty of variations on this theme.

I get it.  Students see my name, and are relieved when I come in on day one and start talking with my clearly American accent (this is universal; I’m curious what their reactions are to my gender).  I was an undergrad once too, and the language barrier is a real thing which is somehow more insurmountable-feeling than cultural barriers and gender barriers (these also exist but are not the topic of this post).  Since English is both of my parents’ (and lots of my extended family’s) second language, I have more practice than a lot of my students at

1. Parsing grammatical/word choice errors for actual meaning
2. Understanding accented English.

I also notice this when I speak in French and Vietnamese- people who are used to talking to foreigners are better at figuring out what the heck I’m trying to say, while my fellow undergraduates during my semester abroad struggled at hearing through my accented French to my meaning.

My favorite thing to come up when I googled “language barriers.” By Rebecca Critchley’s deviantart account. Click on image for the original. http://red-wolf7.deviantart.com

That same year that I studied abroad in France, I spent the summer in Vietnam doing an ethnographic research project on women mathematicians.  I have never taken an anthropology course nor a sociology course so I find it incredible (as in not-credible, rather than awe-inspiring) that I did this.  You can read my paper here.  (I never published this; this is the first time anyone but my incredibly supportive undergraduate research advisor has seen it.)  At the end of the summer, I taught a TOEFL class at Can Tho University.

TOEFL (pronounced toe-full) stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language, and as far as I can tell, is required for international students who wish to do graduate work in the US (and probably for other people too).  My classeshad an emphasis on writing and conversation practice- the students had already had years of reading comprehension practice.  By the end of the three weeks, the daily essays had definitely improved grammatically, and I think everyone was more confident with speaking (which is half the battle) but there were still so many things that could improve.  Plus, I was just one native English speaker with however many students- they were lucky to have me, but I still wasn’t enough.

I’m saying that language is hard.  I imagine if I ever went to France or Canada and taught, my teaching reviews would say something like ELLE NE CONNAIT PAS FRANCAIS, LE PIRE ASSISTANT D’ENSEIGNEMENT.  (Case in point: I used google translate to write that).

What do we do as graduate students?  The US has so many research institutions, and if you aren’t staying in your country/region, this seems like a great bet.  It’s not like graduate students actively want to be bad TAs or hate learning languages, but our primary objective is doing research.  Mastering a language takes hundreds of hours that we feel we don’t have if we want to get our Ph.D. in whatever we’re getting it in.  There’s little incentive to do more than the bare minimum (get some particular score on the TOEFL, talk to your advisor), because every minute we spend teaching or learning a language or doing something else with our brains is a minute that we aren’t spending doing research.

So everyone loses.  My students are relieved to hear my English because they’ve had other TAs who they couldn’t understand or learn from.  Graduate students are disheartened by their students’ dislike, which disincentivizes them to get “better” at the language- plus it’s unclear how to do that anyway.  This is the system.

Capybara pictures to feel happy!

From http://gianthamster.com.  These are my favorite animal.

As featured in HuffPo! Click on image for link to story

BONUS: incredible poem linking capybaras and math by Sandra Beasley.  Thanks much to Evelyn Lamb for tweeting this!

## On not giving up

3 Dec

On my very first day of high school, my calculus teacher had me take a pre-test to make sure I belonged in the class.  I was the first freshman of that ridiculously excellent school’s history to be in calculus, which was entirely due to the INCREDIBLE program at the University of Minnesota, UMTYMP– if anyone you care about is a 10-12 year old in the greater Twin Cities area, I highly highly suggest checking out the program.  The next night my parents were extremely concerned about me, as I was in tears over my calculus homework.  I thought that I wasn’t good enough and that it was too hard for me, rather than that perhaps I was less prepared or mathematically mature than expected (see my post on whether we should do math at all for more thoughts in this direction).  I still ended up rocking both years of AP calculus, and doing okay at Cal State Fullerton, where I took a few more math courses during my remaining years of high school.

I made this picture all by myself

It’s been over a decade since my first math tears, and about three years since my last ones- I struggled so much over integrals over contours in my complex analysis course, and definitely had tears spring to my eyes when I finally lugged myself over to the math tutor (incidentally, I had some beer with him over the summer at a conference and he is awesome) to ask about one particular problem.  I was ridiculously heartened when he didn’t immediately spit out an answer, and told me that “the most important thing is to stay calm,” which kept me from nervous breakdowning at a total stranger.  When handing back exams to my calculus students, I’ve definitely noticed a few hastily wiped tears and debated on commenting and potentially embarrassing them, or letting it go and feeling like a callous ass for the rest of the day.  Now I tell them the story in the next paragraph.

A few months ago, after doing that mini-triathlon, I saw a groupon for Crossfit and thought I’d try out what I affectionately call the “cult.”  I’ve mentioned before that I’m incredibly weak, and I’ve definitely noticed this during my crossfit classes- I’m an okay runner, but in terms of strength I’m last, and definitely lag behind the pregnant woman (who is a beast).  Until yesterday I’ve been completely at peace with this, because I can tell I’m getting stronger and improving and feeling pretty good, even when the trainers have to set up separate stations for me because I can’t do a push up with good form.  At my last session we had a coach I hadn’t met before who started us all with the same strength, and gave us a few minutes to fiddle with it and add more weight as needed.  It is clear to me now that the burden was on me to speak up or simply do my thing and give myself less weight after trying out the initial condition, but I was too shy/ashamed to help myself do my best, and I ended up sabotaging myself and finishing my workout with many, many tears because I felt inadequate and incompetent.  I’m glad that I finished, but the coach had to lessen my weight partway through and I did one less round than the other women.

The moral is that we aren’t all born with the same strengths.  As my boyfriend said when comforting me that night, some of these women in this class have been playing sports since middle school, when I was doing Destination Imagination and Future Problem Solvers, or at least did athletics in high school, when I was playing clarinet in the marching band.  And that’s OK.  Those women will be lifting more than me, and I will be doing the best I can with what I have.  Not everyone in my calculus section is going to be an A student- they never learned algebra and are working two jobs to support themselves through college, so don’t have the time to master algebra and pass their other actual classes.  That’s OK.  What’s important is that they finish the workout and give it the best they have.  And tears are OK too, they happen to all of us.