Friday, March 31, 2006

Rainy Day Reading Recommendations

During our recent rainy days I’ve had ample opportunity to catch up on my reading, and I though I’d share a few of my discoveries with you.

My favorite books are the ones that transport me to new places or different times or introduce me to new people and experiences. That's what each of these four books do.


Intuition by Allegra Goodman

In her latest book, Allegra explores the dynamics of a group of hungry post-docs, careful, plodding researchers, complacent technicians, and fame-starved scientists all working together in a biology research laboratory in the shadow (literally) of Harvard. The plot evolved rapidly and kept me in suspense, but I think the book’s main strength is its rich and intricately developed characters. Though I had no particular interest in reading about laboratory life when I began the book, by the time I finished it I felt as though I’d been immersed in today’s scientific research culture and as though I understand people who previously seemed foreign and impenetrable. Now that is the sign of a good writer, one who makes you enjoy reading about something you’re not even interested in.

Tip: Keep your dictionary handy for this one! Allegra is a vocabulary goddess.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In the opening pages the narrator, a ninety year old man explains that he will present the story of his life through the memories of his relationships women, or the lack thereof. It’s an enjoyable book, each page revealing a new facet of the story and punctuated by Gabo’s colorful language and descriptions. His fanciful words and unique turns of phrase are a delight to encounter, but in the end I feel let down by this narrator who doesn’t provide the richness I expect from Garcia Marquez. By the end of the book I’ve certainly learned something about the story teller, his long life, and his struggle for love, but I haven’t been transported to his land or time or actually met any of the people that he so vaguely introduces. And the story on its own, without the abundance of this context, is interesting but not compelling.

By contrast Garcia Marquez’s first installment of a three part memoir Living to Tell the Tale is hauntingly real. Though I read it over a year ago I still reflect in wonder at many of his adventures. My memory of them is as bright and clear as if I were actually there, and Gabo seems a person I have actually met. My advice: read the memoir not the novel.

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

This is a thought provoking book centered around the stories of love and loss of two very different families in present day Bombay. Two grandmothers separated by education, income and caste, one the other’s servant, and yet friends, struggle to make their way through life, each with her own shame and her own burdens. This book explores the complexities of relationships between servant and mistress, husband and wife, children and parents, wife and in-laws in modern Indian culture. Though parts of the story strain credibility and though the writing tends toward prosaic, the subject and the questions it inspires are intrinsically intriguing. Thrity’s book gives us a fascinating glimpse inside India and a colorful tapestry on which to view the human condition.


Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games by Edward Castronova

Excellent book. Review coming soon!

Dear Readers - please tell me some of your favorites. I desperately need a new book to read!

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Thank God for Bob

When I walked by the kiosk on our campus quad and saw that it was stacked with books that had Dick Cheney’s face and the words ‘Son of Satan’ on them, I knew I was in for a treat. I just didn't know how delicious it would be.

Bob is one of my calculus students and a person who makes me roar out loud laughing. Some might think him a strange fellow with his dry, self-deprecating humor, his imposing height, his somewhat stand-offish demeanor, not to mention his Lyle Lovett inspired hair. I know I did, but that was before I had the pleasure of getting to know him.

Bob saw the pamphlets lying on my desk. The students who ran the kiosk had tried to get me to donate to their Hate-All-Republicans-Love-Only-Lyndon-LaRouche cause. I told them I’d think about it if they gave me some of their reading material. And I could see Bob eyeing them.

“You ever heard of this guy?” I ask.

“Yeah, he’s been running for president every year since about the time Nixon was elected.”

“Humm. I must have missed him,” I said.

“Is he out of jail?”


“Yeah, he seems to spend a lot of time in jail. Gosh, I thought this was your politics.”

“No, I just picked them up for laughs,” I admitted.

“I’m a closet Republican myself. Being in California I have to be careful how loudly I say that.”

“The fact that you read the Wall Street Journal every day kinda tipped me off,” I told him.

“Really? I’ve been trying to cut back on news. My mom says I become depressing to talk to the more news I watch.”

“I know exactly what you mean, it’s so easy to get sucked in to cable news shows."

“Oh, I’m not addicted to cable news. It’s C-SPAN. I used to watch the Senate for hours on end. But now I'm forbidden."

“Don’t you hate it when your mom takes away your C-SPAN?” I teased.

This conversation, this Bob, is just too good to be true. I never know what he's going to say. But whatever it is he says it with an impassive face, drooping eyes and a somewhat nasal intonation, which somehow makes it even funnier. I stuck the LaRouche magazines in a big envelop so no one would see him with the scandalous material. “We’ll compare notes at class,” I told him.

A couple of hours later I caught up with Bob outside our classroom. “I felt like I had to read these by flashlight under my bedcovers so no one would see me. You’ve got to read the stuff on Lagrange.”

“The mathematician?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yeah and the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra. You’ve got to read about how it can be used to explain something or other about existential societal influences.”

Once I recovered from this gem I asked him about the sections that compare Republicans to Hitler.

“Oh, I always like those. It’s usually the sign of good and logical intellectual argument.”

We talked and laughed for several more minutes.

Tonight when I got home I asked John if he’d ever heard of Lyndon LaRouche.

“Yeah. He’s the perennial candidate for president from the Libertarian party. I like him. He’s the only presidential candidate I’ve ever sat in a room and had a conversation with.”

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

You Deserve It Too

Reader: So, AMP you say you deserve it. You say you’ve earned this fabulous southern California lifestyle with the great weather, the beaches, and the ocean. Not to mention the fabulous fiancĂ© and the cush job. Tell us, what exactly did you do to deserve it?

I worked 18 hour days for 2 years straight
I took calls from Japan at midnight and from Europe at 5am
I spent over half my nights alone in strange hotel rooms
I flew to England, Germany, France and back all within one week
Over and over again
I lost so much weight I dropped below 100 pounds
I aquired raccoon-like dark circles around my eyes
I lost my mind and then got it back again
I met interesting, amazing people whom I was too exhausted to appreciate
I developed a most discriminating taste in sushi
I accumulated an obscene amount of frequent flyer miles
And I made a hell of a lot of money
But most of all,
I gave up my sanity, my health and 2 years of my life for something that really didn’t matter

Readers, I hope you find something that makes your heart soar and your mind thrive. I hope that you find happiness in your life. That you set your priorities right. That you might learn from my mistakes, because you deserve it too.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

One Gardening Adventure at a Time

During our recent rainy days while I was tucked snuggly under a blanket reading a book, my garden was springing to life. Our front yard turned green under my watchful eyes, but the back yard did so in secrecy. To my surprise and horror, my vegetable garden and flower garden from last year have re-seeded. Lettuce is growing not only in the garden and but also in the path. Tomato plants are making their way up in both the vegetable garden and the flower garden, and weeds are lush and green throughout. Pink and white cosmos have shot up in the cracks in the sidewalk and my oriental poppy plants are now the size of bushes. Daisies, bachelor buttons, sages, sunflowers, California poppies and more form a soothing expanse of yellows, oranges, pinks, and blues. It’s a beautiful southern California gardening cacophony. Our problem here is not how to make something grow, but how to make what you actually want grow. But these gardening adventures would have to wait, our weekend was designated to the front yard.

Our goal is to transform the yard from an English cottage type to an open and relaxing courtyard that will complement our Spanish style home. We’ve already cleared the space and leveled the ground, planted a privacy hedge and some palm trees - you should see the way I handle a pick-axe, installed a huge three-tier fountain, and bought a half ton of flagstones for a meandering path. This weekend we created that path. We set each of the stones, we pulled the weeds caused by the rain, and we mulched.

Mulching was indeed a new gardening adventure. The city recycling center lets you take away all of the dark brown, finely decomposed treasure you can carry. We watched spellbound as a bulldozer filled John’s truck bed to the brim with the stuff. Then we shuddered at the realization that what took the bulldozer mere minutes load would take us with our shovels and buckets hours to unload. John helped pass the time with his rendition of such gardening classics as “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the comin’ of the mulch…” and “Swing low, sweet shovel o' mulch, coming for to carry you home…” Eventually, we conquered the challenge.

The result of all this hard work is both aesthetically pleasing and acutely painful. The front yard looks good, but John and I are in dire pain. Yesterday I could barely lift my arm to write on the chalk board, and John said he had trouble raising his diet coke can to his mouth.

Luckily, the forecast for this weekend calls for rain.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


My grandpa and I were born just seven days and 69 years apart, so maybe that’s what gave us our special connection. For one reason or another grandpa and I were inseparable; I thought he was the most amazing person who ever lived.

As a child I spent most school day afternoons in my grandparent’s large, dusty house filled with old papers, funny smells and potential treasures everywhere. I loved staring at the photos of them when they were younger and wondering what their lives were like back then. How did they ever manage to get so old?

My grandpa and I would work in his garden picking vegetables, planting seed, staking the green bean stalks, and collecting grub worms in an old coffee can – one of my favorite jobs. Grandma and I would bake chocolate chip cookies (I still use her recipe) and play dress up with her flamboyant jewelry and hats. Sometimes grandpa and I would teach ourselves to play a song – me on the organ and him on the violin. We must have made an awful racket, but grandma never said a thing.

As I grew older he and I were still very close. When I went away to college we exchanged letters, which are now safe in a shoe box under my bed. But a rift in the family, too complex and sordid to explain, kept us apart for several years.

By the time I was in graduate school I visited him again, this time at his apartment in an ‘independent living’ center. I remembered the previous time I’d seen him and how I’d hugged him goodbye saying, “You are my favorite grandfather.” He hugged me back, “You are my favorite granddaughter.” And then, “You are my only granddaughter. Right?” I didn’t want to correct him, though he actually had three more who each had children of their own.

My parents had warned me that he’d aged significantly since that last visit, so it was with some trepidation that I opened the door to his apartment. I found him sitting in his bedroom in his old, worn, brown recliner peering out the window. There wasn’t much to look at, just a parking lot and a few trees in the distance.

It was wonderful to see him again, to hold his hand and see his smile. We chatted for some time, and then he asked me, “Do you see that dog in the tree?”

I was stunned, afraid of what this might mean. But I leaned over and looked out the window. “No, I don’t see a dog up in a tree.”

“It’s right there,” he said pointing, surprised and disappointed that I couldn’t see it too.

“You see, it’s a momma dog with her babies. Look, now the father has come home and the mom’s asking him where’s he been, why’s he so late. Don’t you see ‘em?”

I looked again. My heart was sinking. In the years since our last visit my grandfather must have started to lose his mind.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I still don’t see it.”

“That’s too bad. It’s a terrible thing not to have a good imagination.”

I was so mad at him and happy at the same time, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Grandpa was older, but he was still my grandpa, just like I remembered him.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Cleaning Shoes

Ah… Friday. The luxury of no school. I celebrated by sleeping in. An internet addiction can take it’s toll you know, and I needed sleep. Annie tried to wake me with a pounce and a lick, but I rebuffed her like an old pro. At 10am the doorbell rang; it was the termite man. I greeted him in my pink pajamas, with messy hair and make-up smudged eyes. John had warned me that they’d want to poke around the outside of the house. No problem, I thought, I’ll hardly know they’re there. But he was wrong - they wanted to come inside the house. Uh, okay, I said, and let them pass. Then the flurry began.

Quick, grab all the dishes, I told myself, and pile them into the sink. Race past them and scoop up the dirty clothes from the floor. At that moment, with my arms overflowing with clothes I nearly said, “We’re not really slobs.” But then I realized how ridiculous that would sound with books scattered across the living room floor, mail piled on the kitchen counter and a mound of socks waiting to be folded on the dining room table. Take that image and add a layer of cat hair and the remnants of a tissue that went through the dryer floating over the floor. Now you’ve almost got the picture. There’s also the overflowing trash can and recycle bin, the partially sorted laundry on the kitchen floor and the bucket full of vegetable scraps and used coffee grinds outside the kitchen door that hasn’t magically made it’s way to the compost. It felt hopeless, but my embarrassment compelled me to try to clean.

By the time they left, an hour later, I’d managed to get the house into some semblance of decency. It was tidy, but not yet clean. It still needed a good vacuuming, mopping, and dusting. But instead, I crawled back in bed for a well earned nap.

Why not get a maid, you ask.

My mind does a funny thing when it comes to disposable income, it automatically calculates the shoe exchange rate. It goes like this: I could pay $70 dollars a week for a maid, or buy a nice pair of shoes each week (or a fabulous pair every other week.) For now I just can’t bear to throw away that shoe purchasing power, when there’s always loud music and wine to help me get through a couple of hours of cleaning. And my feet have been amply rewarded. You name the outfit, and I've got the perfect pair of shoes to match.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Cat Math

Piper can be a very active cat - when she’s not sleeping, that is. She likes to explore every conceivable nook and cranny. She'll hide in the bathtup or behind the bedroom door and then surprise me with a big leap when she thinks I don't see her. She also likes to hang out in paper grocery bags and sneak sips of other peoples’ drinks when they’re not looking. She’s a huge fan of twist ties, chasing them mercilessly across the hardwood floors, and push-pins, which she can remove from any bulletin board no matter how inconveniently located. Most of all, she’s enthralled by gravity. Her favorite game is to climb a high shelf and then one by one knock all of its items onto the ground.

However most of her time, an exorbitant amount of time, is spent sleeping on her little red beanbag cube. When I get home at night I find her in the exact same place and position she was in when I left her eight hours earlier. I don’t think she moves the entire time I’m gone, which leads me to the topic for today: cat hair.

See her beautiful fur coat? It sheds! Copiously. Here’s what that fashionable red cube looks like when Piper does finally get up for the day.

I’ve done a little measuring and calculating, and here’s what I’ve discovered:

The amount of hair that Piper leaves behind in one day could be made into a ribbon 1 mm wide that would reach from my shoulder to my finger tip. In a year that ribbon would be longer than 3 and half football fields. And in the course of her lifetime, the amount of fur Piper sheds would form a ribbon over a mile long.

I don’t even want to know how many hours of cleaning that translates to.

Monday, March 20, 2006

My Dog, the Word Snob

I’m not sure what Annie does during the day when I’m at school. But I have a suspicion that it involves lying on our bed, which isn’t allowed. And I think she taunts the cat occasionally as well. Other than that, I haven’t a clue. Does she read the paper? Does she surf the web? Does she get Word-of-the-Day emails from

Here are just a few of the things I’ve heard her say lately.

Annie to me: Mom, I’m tired of the crapulous hangers-on that I find sprawled throughout the house on the mornings after your Karaoke and Martini parties.

Annie to Piper (the cat): Mom’s thoughts seem to wander peripatetically, probably from one blog idea to another, as we perambulate through the neighborhood together each morning.

Annie to me: Mom, I think John bought you this manse because his fortitude crumbles when it meets his uxorious nature.
(To be clear, our house is a mere 3BR-2B affair, but to Piper and Annie it IS a manse compared to our old studio apartment.)

Annie to herself: I think my parents like to fancy themselves dilettantes, what with their new season tickets to the symphony and all. I wonder if they miss me when they’re there, surrounded by the city’s social elite who no doubt consider my parents mere parvenu and hardly worthy of attention. I bet these are the same kind of people who only want purebreds. Let me at their ankles!

What will that dog say next?

Friday, March 17, 2006

My St. Patrick's Day

My day started as usual: up by dawn, sipping coffee and checking email, watching the neighborhood matriarchs march by. From the spry youngster in her sixties to the more mature matron in her nineties, these ladies are perfectly coiffed, not a hair or an eyelash out of place.

An email message from Charlie caught my eye. You may remember my trickster department chairman, the one with his own dry cleaners. Apparently I included an unmentionable in the last load of clothing I gave him. I sank with embarrassment as I read. How exactly does one respond to that sort of message from your boss? Luckily I was able to avoid him all day.

After school I stopped by the neighborhood pub for a glass of Guinness with the usual crowd. Barbara Anne rolled up in her motorized scooter and wobbled inside with her cane. She ordered a whisky with ice and polished it off. After her second the sweet bartender wrapped her up in her coat and sent her rolling away. A few minutes later the bartender of a another pub called to ask if we might have Barbara Anne’s coat. It’s a mystery what she does on that scooter. We just hope she doesn’t drive drunk.

By the time I got home the postman had come, and I discovered a letter from Billie Sue. Here’s what I found inside:

Crisp green cash
St. Patty’s Day stickers
And a little green note that read

When Irish Eyes are smiling very big and the piper plays a jig, here’s a little green to eat some pig

signed Mom.

So that’s what we did: ate a yummy (not-so-Irish) meal.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you and yours!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Great Hail Storm of Aught-Six

I wore my pink shoes on Friday, but to no avail.

Until…Saturday morning at 2am. Rain crashed against our bedroom windows, thunder crackled, lightening streaked the sky. And Annie raced under our covers. By 4am we had faded back to sleep. But at 7 we awoke to a new sound hammering our windows. Hail. Pea size pieces of hail had formed a thick white layer in our courtyard. I felt as though I were heaven.

Annie, by contrast, thought she had wound up in hell. Which reminds me of another family member…

Hurricane season in Houston is a time of magnificent thunderstorms, flash floods, downed trees and power lines and unfortunately sometimes much worse. For me these storms are cathartic; they bring a sense of freshness and renewal. It’s as though the world stops for a time, giving us a chance to reflect on our priorities.

During one storm I remember lying in bed, hearing the rain batter my window and the tree branches rustle against the house, closing my eyes and imagining the cool clean water splashing my face. Suddenly I was jolted alert by, “KK! Get in the bathroom!”

Billie Sue doesn’t exactly share my love of a good thunderstorm. To her any amount precipitation, no matter how small, is cause for alarm. When this storm was first predicted Billie Sue started laying in supplies. By the time she called me into the bathroom we had over 350 cans of food and 50 bottles of juice piled across the kitchen counters, in the pantry, above the refrigerator, inside the china cabinet, and anywhere else she could squeeze them. She even bought new metal shelves just for the provisions. Not all of this food was bought for this particular weather crisis; when I perused the cans I saw that many expired years ago.

“Come on, KK. Helen’s already in there.”

“What about King Richard?” I asked.

“Hah! He’s still asleep and said not to bother him,” she utters with exasperation. “If the cancer doesn’t kill him, this storm might! Come on, let’s go.”

And so the three of us spent the next four hours together in a six foot by 3 foot bathroom, while the unflappable King Richard was snuggled warm and peaceful in his bed.

During our southern California hail storm, we did our own form of provisioning. John and I made the futon into a bed in front of our huge living room window so that we wouldn’t miss a drop. We brought out the down comforters and flannel sheets. We surrounded ourselves with books and warm coffee, and we silently prayed for it to last all day.

I think Annie wished she were in the bathroom with Billie Sue.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Beer Anyone?

It’s 12:30pm and I’m about to head in to work. I crave the taste of a beer. But there’s no time. Should I worry about this desire? Let’s see, I’ve had three – no four – beers in the space of four days. Though I can’t remember the last time I had one before then. Surely four beers does not an alcoholic make.

My mom used to worry about this too. “I’ve had one martini a night for five nights in a row. Does this mean I’m addicted?” she’d fret. “Your grandfather was an alcoholic, you know? We have to be careful. They say it runs in the family.”

“Mom, grandpa was your step-father. You couldn’t have gotten it from him,” I remind her.

“Oh. Right,” she says.

She doesn’t remember her real father. He was French, and his trucking company was seized by the Nazis during World War II. The last time he was seen alive was behind the fence of a concentration camp. I don’t think either of us ever asked grandma about his proclivity for a cocktail or two.

My mom’s step-father, my grandfather, was indeed an alcoholic. He had his very own tap installed in his make-shift bar on the back porch. I remember him wheeling in kegs on a dolly, bought just for that purpose. I remember the way he smelled, always a mixture of booze and after-shave, and when I catch that same smell on other men, it still brings back loving memories. Eventually my grandfather existed in a perpetual state of drunkenness, and when my grandmother became very ill, he took out his service revolver and shot himself. That was some time ago, while I was in college; I couldn’t sleep for weeks without all the lights on.

I saw a man outside the neighborhood bottle shop debating whether to enter. At first he stood with his back against the building chewing his nails, staring hard at the ground. Then he paced the sidewalk and made his way right up to the door. His hand almost reached the handle, and then he turned back around. He did this again and again. Eventually he walked inside. I wonder what has happened to him.

I know that both my mother and I are healthy and well, but I feel deeply for others who suffer from this disease. It hurts so many people around them. For a truly excellent book about one family’s struggle with their daughter’s alcohol addiction, please read George McGovern’s Terry.

And Who Should I See This Morning?

My friend the western blue jay.

When we first moved into this house, and I started my garden from scratch, one bright, handsome blue jay would always appear. Each day as I weeded and hoed, put down new seed and watered, he’d be there just a few feet away.

Did I know him, I wondered. Was he really a bird? Why did he follow me so?

My grandpa and I used to be avid bird watchers and gardeners and all around merry-makers. So I started to wonder… could this be him? Checking up on me; showing his constancy, love and support?

I decided to believe that it was.
A little spiritual magic never hurt anyone, now did it?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Help Me Forget

My heart doesn’t flitter any fly anymore. It used to skip and summersault and spin across the day. Now it just sits here, heavy, in my chest.

School is still in session; students keep crowding the campus; the highway is bustling with traffic; the sun still rises each morning; and every day more weeds grow in my garden. I go on about my day, while my chest aches, and my eyes burn, and I’m afraid my voice will give way and let out a deep, mournful cry.

I try to read my book, but I can’t concentrate. I wear obnoxiously happy clothes – pink and black striped tights today – but they don't even make me smile. I play my favorite CD again and again and then some more, but I find no solace in it. I’m too tired to phone my friend Jen.

The pub might help me forget, I think, so I stop by after class. Mr. Jack bought me a beer, and I sipped it slowly with lime. I listened to the stories – how to get rid of bee hives; how not to install insulation; what it was like to be an aerospace engineer during World War II. I didn’t tell my own – no one wants to hear about cancer and hospitals and pneumonia and little girls left behind. Music played on the jukebox while we ate our pretzels and smiled at the sweet bartender.

I head for the door, say goodbye to my new friends and go home to walk the dog. Maybe a few math problems will help me forget.

Friday, March 10, 2006

When in Doubt Wear Pink

I’ve had a hard week. The skies turned gray and stayed that way; I found out that a young coworker has cancer; a good friend moved across the county; and my best friend left me for a boy.

I closed the drapes, I stayed inside and when I had no choice but to venture out, I wore pink.

Pink looks good at work,

in the classroom,

and even when the day is over.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Any Given Monday

1. The Meeting
First, I spent a productive hour in a meeting with other faculty members. Then, the meeting devolved into a gripe session about the governor’s recent visit to our campus. Many faculty members feel that our president and chancellor should have sought their approval before allowing Schwarzenegger on school grounds. You should be proud – only two outbursts passed these not-yet-tenured lips.

My view may be a bit simplistic, but I figure one photo-op isn't a bad price to pay for support of massive funding increases for schools like ours. The inconvenience was minimal, and I doubt anyone inferred from his presence that our college is a bastion of political support for the governor. Anyone who watched the last state election - with Schwarzenegger’s initiatives on the ballot - knows what extensive efforts the unions took to defeat his propositions. Lest I dimish all chance for tenure, I will stop there.

2. The Office Hours
There’s nothing like working with students to lift your spirits and refocus your mind. Last night I held online office hours for my Calculus II class.

Here’s how it works: I sit on the couch in my (pink) pajamas with cookies and milk at hand and my laptop ready. At 9pm we all logon to the same website and dial into the same conference line. At this website we can draw on the electronic whiteboard – equations, graphs, doodles – and chat in the textbox. We take turns discussing difficult problems and deriving their solutions. This tool has been an invaluable for helping those students who work fulltime and can’t visit me on campus during the day. Here we are in action with an excerpt of erudite student chat:

Bob starts to write what he got for the second derivative. “This is the one that makes me swear.”

“They all make you swear,” says Rita.

The banter continues. I’m not sure how they manage it, but my students can solve math problems on the computer screen, chat through the text window and talk on the phone line all at once.

Bob was temporarily disconnected.

“Sorry, I just got kicked off.”

“For swearing.” Rita doesn’t miss a beat.

3. The Midterm

I could procrastinate no longer. I promised the midterms back on Tuesday. This is for a math class of elementary education majors. We delve into the how’s and why’s of math concepts that most people take for granted, and we explore techniques for introducing these topics to children. So, an exam in this class isn’t of the typical equation – solution variety. Instead the exams contain questions about how to explain topics or how to correct a student’s misconception. On this particular test I included a question about division by zero. “How do you explain the difference between 5 divided by 0 and 0 divided by 5?” I asked.

Oh Lord help me not to swear in front of the class or quit my job. Seventy-five percent of my students got this wrong; they didn’t understand the meaning of either. And yes, we spent copious amounts of time on this concept in class. Dear Lord, I promise not to let these people be elementary school teachers until they know that it's impossible divide a number by zero.

4. The Other Half

Meanwhile, John and Piper spent the evening holding down the beanbag and playing EA Sports (It's In The Game!) NCAA football. That evening, Texas beat Texas Tech 66 - 0.

I wonder what Tuesday will bring…

Monday, March 06, 2006

Tips & Advice from an Internet Addict

I’ve discovered some remarkable websites during my tour, and I want to share some of the best with you.

One of my all-time favorites is Epicurious. We all have to cook, right? Especially those of you with family members who aren’t quite old enough to dial for pizza. Epicurious is more than just an online collection of recipes (principally from Bon Appetite and Gourmet magazines). It also contains reader/chef reviews and a place for you to store your favorites and even your own creations. Try it. You’ll like it.

DearReader is another favorite. At this site you can read excerpts of books, exchange emails or chat with authors, and submit your reviews and comments for a chance to win prizes. In just two short weeks I've already won a set of Penguin classics. But be forewarned: this site is addictive!

Wikipedia is an online, fully editable encyclopedia made by people like you and me. It has truly restored some of my faith in humanity. How is the quality controlled, you ask? By people zooming around the website wearing little red capes with the word geek on the back. These administrators look for vandalism and misinformation and work to settle disputes among contributors. Just last week the English version of the encyclopedia topped one million articles. Check it out, you can be sure your students already are.

This whole blogging business is pretty fun isn’t it? If you’d like to start one of your own, I recommend Blogger. It free and fast and easy to get started. Plus its run by our favorite Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the guys at Google. It even has helpful articles like “How Not to Get Fired for Blogging” and “How to Make Sure Your Mom Never Reads Your Blog.”

Hey, and while you’re at, go ahead and check out Frappr. It’s a mapping tool people can use to keep up with their worldly friends. The best way to learn about it is by experiencing it. Come see the Absent Minded Professor’s Frappr Group.

Maybe you’re ready to start your own website but don’t know where to begin. You need Webmonkey. This site includes everything you need to create and run your website. Not only does it have easy to follow instructions for beginners (like an invaluable HTML cheat-sheet), but it also has a regular flow of articles on the latest web tools, including this excellent one, described below.

If you haven’t already discovered Flickr, it's a site people use to post and share photos. Several creative and industrious people have written some pretty cool applications that access these photos. It's impossible to pick a favorite, but one really fun one is this screen saver that displays a digital clock where each number is a photo from Flickr. I love it!

Too much information about technology and the internet? I’ve got the perfect antidote. His name is Tony Long, aka The Luddite, and he's a columnist for Wired Magazine. It’s an absolute joy to read his rantings about car alarms, cell phones ringers, microwave oven timers and more. You’ll always get a chuckle from his articles and perhaps even a new word or too.

To energize that vocabulary of yours try’s Word of the Day feature. You can have them email it to you, along with its meaning, pronunciation and several clever sentences using the word, OR you can set it to display on your computer’s homepage. It really works. Just the other day Annie told me that her kibble with gravy is a poor simulacrum of her toothsome doggie treats. Oh, and if you’re looking for a cool yet unobtrusive homepage, try the easily customizable one offered by google.

Finally, you are definitely not getting enough out of the internet if you are not reading these GREAT blogs. Crazy Aunt Purl is written by a hilarious, recently divorced, displaced southern knitter with four cats. WaiterRant is a chronicle of nightly adventures in the New York city restaurant world published by an extremely gifted writer. El Guapo in DC is a Guatemalan with a riotous sense of humor living in our nation's capital. This is my new favorite. Please don't miss it!

Always pair housework with wine (or beer or hard liquor.) It makes the time go by so much faster, and it works wonders at adjusting your standards of cleanliness.

Please share your favorite sites - leave a comment.

Friday, March 03, 2006

No School on Fridays

So what will I do this Friday? After our lovely early morning stroll with our septuagenarian French neighbor, Annie and I debated and then decided that we should lie on the couch, watch movies, make cookies, and make chicken enchiladas for dinner. (Piper said she didn’t care what heck we did as long as it didn’t infringe on her fourteen hour nap.)

Two hours later Annie and I decided we needed a little more girlish fun, so we went shopping! Doggie style. We picked out several very delicious looking treats, one chew toy (see picture below), gravy for the kibble, and some kitty grass for the cat. My idea, not Annie’s.

Not only did Annie shop for goodies today, she also peed right in the middle of the store. Annie can pee with the best of them; she even lifts her leg and everything. If dogs pee on things to establish territory or ownership, as some people say, then we own some pretty nice property and apparently part of PetSmart,
When I told John about our new acquisition, he retorted, "PetSmart's share price is down today, must be the cleaning supply expenses."

If this is all getting a bit too mushy (or stinky) for you, don’t worry. I have some math to make you feel better. [See the post below]

Who was the mathematician who said “When I feel down, I do math to feel better. When I’m happy, I do math to stay happy….”

Math to Wow Your Friends - Part I

Is it possible to write the number like 0.232323... as a fraction?
We call numbers like this repeating, non-terminating decimals, and the answer is Yes!

Here’s how:
Give the number a name, like n.

Since the number repeats every two digits, multiply it by 100.

Now, subtract n from both sides.

Then solve for n by dividing both sides by 99

It turns out that most types of numbers can be written as fractions. These types of numbers are called rational numbers. Numbers that cannot be written as fractions, like the square root of 2, are called irrational numbers.

John said I needed a witty ending like, Whenever someone calls you irrational, say "No I'm not. I can be written as a fraction!"
Are you happy now John?!

Part II - coming soon

Absent Mindedness Strikes Again!

My day started at 6:05am with a speedy and imperative trip to the 24-hour grocery store. I hate going to the grocery store. But since we were to the point of having our cereal with chocolate soy milk, drinking our coffee black, and not even being able to make pb&j’s, I bit the bullet and grocery shopped. One hundred forty-five dollars and twenty-two minutes later I was back at home making coffee and opening the curtains to the day.

It was while I was sitting on the couch watching the early morning walkers pass by that I realized I had left my notebook in my calculus classroom last night. On Wednesdays and Thursday s I have evening classes that don’t end until 10pm. Needless to say by the time those classes end I am ready to hit the road. I drive home thinking about how happy Annie will be to see me and dreaming that John will have dinner ready for me. Annie never disappoints.

Usually the four of us watch something on the Tivo and then head off to bed. And that’s exactly what we did last night.

So, it wasn’t until this morning that I realized my dreadful mistake. That notebook contained not only my course notes but also official school documents with the students’ ID numbers on them.

Let’s see. So far this week I have:

1. Left above mentioned super-important calculus notebook in the classroom & now can't find it
2. Failed to check my paper mailbox for 2 weeks in a row and missed a big administrative deadline
3. Forgotten to grade a homework assignment that I had promised to my students by Tuesday, so they could have it to study for their big test today - oops!
4. Discovered that my pink converse tennis shoes don't actually go with every outfit - despite my previous assertion that pink is the new black.

[But in my defense, I had a life altering week. I discovered that through a long lost girl friend and 2 other degrees of separation, I am connected to the producer of my favorite TV show Veronica Mars! You can’t beat that.]

At 7:00am I called Charlie, our trusty department chair. He usually gets in early, so I thought he might be able to search the classroom for me. He said he’d do it.

So I waited. And waited.

I waited so long I completed an entire calculus assignment, no doubt with plenty of mistakes, given how worried I was.

And finally…I emailed.


From: KK
Sent: Thursday, March 2, 2006 10:02 AM
To: Charlie
Subject: did you find it?

[message body blank]


From: Charlie
To: KK
Sent: 3/2/06 10:10 AM
Subject: RE: did you find it?

Well...... I can't say for sure...... I may have, and then again, I may not have.... :-(

You're just going to have to give me more clothes for you to find out.... *

Pretty evil, huh??? ;-)

*[Charlie also runs a dry cleaning business]


From: KK
Sent: Thursday, March 2, 2006 10:11 AM
To: Charlie
Subject: RE: did you find it?



From: Charlie
To: KK
Sent: 3/2/06 10:24 AM
Subject: RE: did you find it?

so, how did you forget your notebook???


From: KK
Sent: Thursday, March 2, 2006 10:26 AM
To: Charlie
Subject: RE: did you find it?

You are truly cruel.

I'll remember this.

You know I'm an uptight type A personality - you're KILLING ME!


From: Charlie
To: KK
Sent: 3/2/06 10:31 AM
Subject: RE: did you find it?

Of course I know the type of personality you are.... shit.... my wife is way worse. Do you know that EVERY FREAKIN' day she calls about 2to 3 times when I'm down at the store just to find out how the business side of the store is doing...... she freakin drives me NUTS!!! I'll also have you know that prior to when we started this business, when I would work hours on end here on campus, she would call literally EVERY DAY at about 5 to 5:30 to ask the same freakin question!!! which was.... "so, what time are you coming home." Now, this wasn't necessarily because she was anxious to see me, but more because, she had had it with the kids (which by the way, we only had at most three, at that time) and just wanted me to take over.

Well, I guess the only thing that I can say to you as I would normally say to her is........."why do you ask questions that you don't want the answer to???" :-)


From: KK
Sent: Thursday, March 2, 2006 10:36 AM
To: Charlie
Subject: RE: did you find it?

If you want sympathy, you've come to the wrong place.

Ok, look. I forgot the notebook because I'm an absent minded professor.

HOWEVER, though absent minded, I am still capable of forming a tag-team with your dear sweet wife - so that we may call you SIX TIMES A DAY.

Don't put it past me!

Your dear sweet assistant professor,



From: Charlie
To: KK
Sent: 3/2/0610:43 AM
Subject: RE: did you find it?

So, the real question is how important is the true answer for you??? Hm.... can I smell extortion.... And I think that I'm just going to have to turn off my cell phone from now on, huh?

Radio silence as time ticks by.


From: Charlie
To: KK
Sent: 3/2/06 2006 11:15 AM
Subject: RE: did you find it?

Hey... where are you??? I've been waiting for your reply..... ;-(


From: KK
Sent: Thursday, March 2, 2006 11:34AM
To: Charlie
Subject: RE: did you find it?

I needed a quick nap. Remember, YOU assigned me night classes?

Now I have to walk the dog and get ready for my eventual departure from the house. :(

I must say, you are a formidable email antagonist. I would have been able to break a lesser emailer by now.


From: KK
Sent: Thursday, March 2, 2006 1:24 PM [I’m at school]
To: Charlie
Subject: RE: did you find it?

YESSSS!!!! Try to imagine the clenched fist of victory that accompanies this.

thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you

Thanks for putting it on my desk.

Oh, and when I write this up for my blog do you want me to call you Aldo or Charlie?


And so this one ends happily.

But then they usually do. You know why?

Because I have a job where I can get away with wearing pink converse tennis shoes, and I can step right outside my office door and see the ocean.

Don’t hate me because I live in socal – I earned it. (But that’s another story.)

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Some of My Favorite Student Emails

dr.k hi I know is kind of late to ask you this but i dont understand this problem at all I am stuck on this i have looked at the example over and over i still cant figure it out can you help me and if i dont get a chance to finish my homework can i make it up and get some credit for it the reason i didnt start on this earlier is beacause i have had to work alot of overtime and i have had to help my boys out with their work at school and one of my boys is doing special projects at school i have had to take him here and there thank you.

Ah, she finally found the period key!

Dr. K,

I have just one question. Well, so far I have only one question. This is probably the first of many questions.

I do not believe you said whether we need to memorize the table of integrals for our test. Because I don’t recall you spent very much time on this.

It would be helpful if you respond by today.

Thank you,


Let’s see. The CRC lists 728 equations in its table of integrals. I think I’ll tell him yes.

IS HE OUT OF HIS MIND?! This is like asking if he should memorize statistical tables or logarithmic tables - okay, sorry, I can't think of any non-math examples.

Dr. K,
My name LTJG XXXXXX. I am the Education Services Officer on USS ZZZZZ. I am requesting an extension for 4 assignments and 1 exam from today, Thurs 02 MAR 06, until midnight Sunday 05 Mar 06 for your student, YYYYY. We are currently at sea and scheduled to come back into port for two days on Saturday. There have been some issues with the IT side of the house, no ability to download directly from the internet, because we are in the middle of the pacific and have no hardwire connection to shore. Because of this, there is no way for Mr. YYYYY to download the required programs and complete his assignments on time. Please consider giving him an extension under the circumstances. Feel free to contact me if you have any more questions. Thanks.

Very Respectfully,
Education Services Officer

I don't have a smart-ass comment for this. I just thought it was great getting a letter from an officer out at sea.

Dr. K,

I recently found out that I was dropped for non-payment of my courses this semester, which I found odd because I thought the matter was already taken care of. The Records Department informed me that if I wanted to stay in your course (which I do), I would have to have you sign the Late Add Petition. However, I do not know how do this since this course is through the internet. Do you have office hours or are you ever on campus? Please let me know.

Also, I know that I am behind in the work but I have taken this class before (both on campus and online) so the beginning chapters should be just a refresher to me. I hope that you will still consider adding me to your class.

I apologize for all the trouble and hope to hear from you soon.


ID# 1234567

I have never heard of this student before in my life, but s/he must really like this class if s/he’s taking it for the third time. How does one make this kind of mistake?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Rain Day

It rains so rarely in southern California that when it does, I consider it a holiday. And on a Rain Day Holiday, there is no grading, no test writing and no lesson planning. In fact there’s very little of anything except cuddling up under a big blanket in front of a window with a book.

Here’s how we spent our Rain Day 2006.