When Math And Awesome Aren’t Considered Synonymous

Jane and I had a conversation recently as she struggled with her math homework and I grew frustrated with what she didn’t understand.  I finally looked at her and said, “Honey, I’m sorry.  But you are not a math person.  I mean, you may do well in math sometimes.  You are in the Pre-AP class and you are making an A, but you just aren’t a math person.  That’s ok – I still love you.”

She shot back immediately with, “Mom, I’m sorry.  But you are not an awesome person.  I mean, you sometimes do awesome things.  Like, you married him.” She motioned to her father.  “And you gave birth to this.” At that, she shimmied her hands down her figure.  “But you just aren’t an awesome person.  That’s ok – I still love you.”

“She does, however, have an exceptional command of the English language,” my husband said with a smile.

“Yes, yes, she does,” I said, laughing.

This is a fascinating reality to me.  Ask anyone who knows us – she looks just like me.  I mean, she’s bigger.  Taller, bigger frame, fuller features.  But I could never deny her as mine.

She also talks incessantly.  Just like me.  And fails to guard her tongue when it would be best not to say something.  Just like me (although I’m finally starting to learn).  She can’t help giving her opinion, taking over, dominating a conversation.  Just. Like. Me.

She loves to read.  She writes very well.  Her eyes are blue.  She angers easily and has trouble letting it go.  Just like me.

But she’s not me.  She is definitely not me.  I get that and I’m ok with that.  But sometimes, in some areas, it’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around.  And this is one of them.

I loved math.  I mean, I dearly, obsessively, insanely loved math.  When we got to story problems, I consistently worked the unassigned problems in the book because I thought they were fun.  And since I had to know if I was right, I asked the teacher to check them.

Someone gave me a math calendar in early high school.  Each day of the year had a math problem whose answer was that day’s date.  I raced through the entire calendar during the Christmas break and carried it in my backpack when school resumed.  I had been baffled by the repeated appearance of a variable without enough information to solve.  It gnawed at me.

And then one day, my Algebra II teacher said, “Remember how we’ve always told you that you can’t take the square root of a negative number?  Well, we lied.  Meet ‘i’.”  At that, she wrote on the board that i equaled the square root of -1.

That’s all I needed.  I actually exclaimed out loud, “I!” and immediately began to rummage through my backpack.  I pulled the calendar out triumphantly and began to work all those unsolved problems, oblivious to both the instruction taking place and all the incredulous stares of my classmates.

To love something so dearly and have your children not share your passion is difficult.  And, quite frankly, confusing.  When growing up, I was used to most other students not sharing my love of problem solving.  But then I went to work as an engineer and I was surrounded by other people just like me.  Life made sense.

Then I had children.  And I wasn’t prepared to hear “I really don’t like math” or “this doesn’t make sense” or “why do I need to know this”.  Or  “none of the careers I’m interested in require any of the things I’m learning in Algebra I.”  Excuse me?  What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?!

That’s what I got last night as I helped again with homework.  Maybe part of the problem is that I truly delight in trying to get her to *see* how it works.  And she’s not interested.  She just wants to plug the numbers and get an answer and put a box around it and call it good.

She’s still stubborn and overly certain that she’s right.  Which gets frustrating when she’s not.  She worked a problem and eventually got to “t=3”.

“So what’s t?” I asked.

“It’s 3,” she said.

“No, what are its units?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what is it?  3 what?”

“It’s the distance that Claire ran.”

“No it’s not.”

“Yes it is.”

“No,” I said firmly.  “It’s not.  Look at your equations up there.  Claire was running 5mph, so 5t was the distance she ran, right?”

“Right.”

“So what’s t?”

“The distance she ran.”

“No!  That’s 5t.  What does t represent?”

“Miles.  She ran 3 miles.”

“No!”

“Yes!  I know what I’m doing!  I’m right!  The problem asked for how far she ran and I got three.”

“No.  You are not right.  And just because the problem asked for distance doesn’t mean that’s what you solved for.  Listen to me.  I am an engineer.  I love math.  This is not challenging for me.  I know what I’m talking about.  So listen while I explain it.”

I still don’t get why she argues with me on these points.  I really don’t.  She eventually figured out what she was doing wrong and we moved on to another problem.  Where I promptly made a subtraction mistake as I worked the problem on the side.

She again insisted she was right.  I asked her to show me her work.  She did.  It looked right.  I checked mine, noticed my mistake, and affirmed that she was right.  She promptly and smugly mimicked my earlier comments.  I explained that the difference between the two of us was that she insisted she was right and refused to listen to me explain why she wasn’t, whereas I asked to see what she had done and saw that I was wrong.  And admitted it.

On that second problem, she had a division problem that resulted in an obviously wrong answer.  She eventually got it straightened out and came up with “x = 290.”  Again, I asked what x was.

“It’s time.”

“Ok, what units?”

“Minutes.”

“How do you know it’s in minutes?”

“Because that’s what the question asked for.  It said, ‘How many minutes?’.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.  That just means they want the answer in minutes.  It doesn’t mean the number you calculated was in minutes.  What if they gave you all the same information but asked for the time in hours?”

“She wouldn’t do that.”

“Oh?  You think so.  Why not?”

“Because she is trying to teach us.  She wouldn’t throw a trick in there like that.”

I disagreed but let it go.  Before long, we were on a problem where the rates of growth of some trees were given in inches per year and their heights in feet.  We both missed that detail even though the last statement in the problem was to pay attention to units.

She was comfortable with her answer and was prepared to move on.  I was bothered by the statement.  Why make that statement on this problem in particular when the units match up, just like all the others.  And then I realized that they didn’t match up.

“Oh! Ho!” I exclaimed in triumph.  “She did it to you!  She totally did to you what you insisted she wouldn’t do!  Look at the units!”

I know I shouldn’t take such glee in being right around my children.  But when you have really bright children who always think they are right, it’s hard not to.  It’s also hard to accept that you are alone in your love of numbers and problem solving.  Daryl is in line with Jane.  I guess I’ll have to hope that Hal, against all odds, will *get* it.

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Baking With Grandma… or… Still So Much To Learn

I baked cookies with my mom and grandma last Friday. We made some of those chocolate crackle cookies, some with peppermint candy on top and others with marachino cherries and a cherry glaze drizzled. We also made a bunch of “press cookies” in various Christmas shapes, then drizzled a clear glaze, and added sprinkles.

It was fun and I enjoyed working with them. It’s definitely easier (and more enjoyable) to be able to do stuff like that assembly line style rather than being responsible for every single step yourself.

What fascinated me, though, was how much I learned. How is there still more for me to learn about baking from the two people who essentially taught me to bake in the first place? How did I miss learning this stuff earlier? Did they always do it this way and I just never noticed?

Take as an example the cooling racks. Did they always place newspaper under them? They both thought it was natural. The newspaper would catch the crumbs and – more importantly – the glaze drippings and sprinkles.

Mom even commented that we should glaze and sprinkle on the cooling racks specifically so the glaze and sprinkles could fall through, rather than pooling on the cookie sheets.

Did she always do that and I was too clueless to pick up on it? What else have I missed? What valuable family knowledge is not getting properly transmitted through me?

TBT: Great Grandma’s House

Two weeks ago, in honor of Halloween, my Throwback Thursday post was about the spooky bedroom at the end of the hall at my Great Grandmother’s house. I spent a lot of time at her house. This week’s throwback looks at some of the brighter – or at least, not frightening – times.

Great Grandma was very adept at pinching pennies. Conservation was the name of the game. According to her, an inch and a half of water in the bottom of the tub was more than adequate for me to take a bath in. Can’t wash my hair in that little water? No problem. She’d just bend me backwards over the edge of the bathroom sink and wash it there.

She had a whole bunch of cheap costume jewelry. Never having pierced her ears, all the earrings were clip-on. This was perfect for our jewelry store that my brother and I would setup in the living room. We’d pull a dining room chair in as our display space. Hang the necklaces on the corners. Clip the earrings on the center portion of the chair back. We’d push the two facing couches away from the walls and each would claim one space as his or her home. The shop would be outside one of the homes. Business couldn’t have been swift. What, with only two people in the town.

My favorite activity, by far, was eating Saltine crackers. Now that I think about it, that was pretty much my favorite activity wherever I was. And I always had to be sneaky about it because crazy grown-ups seemed to have a problem with a kid eating an entire sleeve of crackers in one sitting.

Grandma kept her crackers in the little vertical storage space in her range (cooktop and oven – not built into any cabinetry). I’m sure the space was intended for baking sheets or something, but at her house, that’s where the crackers were. When she wasn’t looking, I’d swipe them and run to hide under the table in the living room.

For a smart kid, I wasn’t very bright though. I almost always forgot to close the door in my haste. So in would walk Grandma to the kitchen. She’d see the open compartment, and she’d start calling me. Problem was, she was 80-some years old and had quite a few grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

It took her awhile to get to my name.

“Mary Lee? Marsha? Susan? Jennifer? Lucy?” I never felt compelled to respond until she got to mine. I mean, how was I supposed to know she was calling me? In the meantime, I’d pick up the pace on stuffing crackers in my mouth.

Eventually, sometimes after cycling through some men’s names too, she’d hit mine. And I’d dutifully call out, “Yes?” The response was always muffled since it’s hard to speak with your mouth full of crackers. She’d enter the living room and snag the remaining crackers. I don’t recall getting into much trouble for it.

She had a pecan orchard too. As she got older, she became less and less able to pick the pecans on her own. In fact, sometimes she’d call my mom or my grandma yelling, “The crows are getting my pecans! The crows are getting my pecans!!” That was the siren call that would get all family members living in the area loaded up and hurried out to her house to pick pecans.

When I was in eighth grade, I remember going out there and picking pecans. That’s when I learned that there’s some sort of dye in the soft outer green shells that protect the brown speckled shells we are all accustomed to. I was trying to be helpful and peeled them all off. And all my fingers were stained orange!

Such an event is absolutely devastating to a middle schooler. How could I go to school with my hands looking like that?! I simply couldn’t. There was obviously only one thing to do… I carefully covered all my fingers with band-aids. Yep. That’s what I did.

And being an honest child, when the unforeseen question came up, “What did you do to your fingers?!”, I told the truth. Which made me look incredibly stupid since I wasn’t actually injured.

On Great Grandma’s wall, hung a poem. I thought this was one of the most insightful things I’d ever seen. And when we emptied her house, so many years later, I learned I wasn’t alone. Everyone wanted the poem. And so we all got color copies of the original. Mine is matted and hanging on my dining room wall:

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TBT: Memories of Great-Grandma

This week’s “Throwback Thursday” post was inspired by a conversation I had with Marissa Bergen, Rock and Roll Super Mom, who writes some fun and clever poetry on her blog, Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth. The conversation was on her spooky poem, The Picture. I encourage you to go check it out.  This recollection of mine seems appropriate to run the day before Halloween.

Marissa’s poem was about a (I assume) young child fearful of a painting on her grandmother’s wall and what happened when she decided to take matters in her own hands.  I don’t recall ever spending the night at my grandmother’s house.  Hers was walking distance from ours so I suppose a sleepover never made sense.  I do, however, remember spending the night at my great grandmother’s house.

The memory that I related to Marissa was of spending the night with my younger brother.  It was a very small farm house with one bathroom, a tiny kitchen, three bedrooms, two connected living rooms, and a basement.  Despite the house’s diminutive stature, the hallway going to the last bedroom was at least a mile long.  And not lit.  And I think there were cobwebs in the corners.  And rats watching us with beady little red, evil eyes.  And a witch cackling somewhere just out of sight.

Ok, so maybe the last few points are exaggerations.  Exaggerations on reality, not on how we felt.  I can remember the intense fear of being led down that (actually very short) hallway.  I hated it when my brother stayed with me because if it was just me, I got to sleep in grandma’s bed with her.  Until I got older and she claimed that I kicked her too much in my sleep.  Even then, I got to sleep in the second bedroom.  I never got banished to the end bedroom on my own.

There’s a reason for that.  I think Great Grandma knew that a child alone had no hope of survival in that bedroom.  We never wanted her to close the door.  We never wanted her to leave.  But she always did.

My brother and I would lie flat on our backs, huddled as close to each other in the dead center of the bed as possible.  We’d hold the blanket up tight under our chins.  Our fingers would begin to ache from clinching the sheets so tightly.  And we’d stare intently at the picture on the wall.

I don’t remember what the picture was.  I just remember truly thinking the person in the picture was watching us.  We’d whisper furtively to each other, wanting the reassurance of each other’s voice but fearful that the sound would draw out the demons watching us from that picture.

We were never as united as we were fighting for our lives in that dark room at the end of that long hallway.  “I want to roll over,” one of us would say.

“Ok,” the other would respond.  “I’ll keep watch.  You go ahead and turn over.”

We’d keep watch until we eventually dropped from fatigue.  The paralyzing fear I felt then is still palpable now.  I don’t know why.  It’s not like great grandma was a scary woman.  Well, barring the fact that she only had two fingers on her right hand and she was quite adept at pinching that fleshy underside of your arm with them if you were doing something wrong.  And she had false teeth that she liked to pop out of her mouth at us in a ghoulish expression that would cause us to shriek in mostly-fun fear.

Oh, and then there was the fact that she actually had those three fingers missing from her right hand in a jar in her basement.  I’m not making that up.  The fingers, and a chunk of the hand, were severed when she was two years old and was pretending to play the organ on a piece of sharp farm equipment.  She slipped and sliced her hand.

A very talented German doctor stitched up her hand.  And stored her fingers in a jar of formaldehyde that he kept on a shelf in his office.  And when she got a job working for him as a teenager, he handed the fingers back to their rightful owner.  Nothing spooky about that, right?

No, the truly terrifying thing about Great Grandma’s house was the time I realized just how old she really was.  When it dawned on me that none of my friends went to visit their great grandmas… because they didn’t have living great grandmas.  Or if they did, they were waiting out the end in nursing homes.

My great grandma lived by herself on a large farm out in the middle of nowhere.  When all of this came crashing down on me one day, I called my mom in a panic.  Had to stand at the rotary phone at the end of the kitchen.  And whisper – just in case Great Grandma was listening.

“But mom!” I pleaded.  “What if she… dies?!”

“Well,” she replied calmly and practically, “you’ll call me and I’ll come pick you up.”

“But what if I can’t reach you?!”

“Then you’ll call grandma.  One of us will come get you.”

“But what am I supposed to do until you get here?!”

“What do you mean?  Just wait for us.”

“But what about her?!”

“What do you mean, ‘what about her’?”

“I’d be in a house with a… dead body…”

“Well, it’s not like she’s going to jump up and grab you.  She’d be dead.”

Obviously, my mother had never taken the long walk to that end bedroom or she wouldn’t be so sanguine.  I resolved to sit out on the porch and wait for them there if, indeed, my great grandmother were to expire during one of my visits.  She didn’t, of course.  Like most childhood fears, that one was unfounded.

I had many wonderful experiences at Great Grandma’s house.  And I count the spooky, terrifying ones among them.  Happy Halloween, everyone.

TBT: Ride Sharing

In honor of Throwback Thursday…

My junior year of high school, I carpooled to school with a guy I had been friends with since early elementary school.  At some point, my future husband started riding with us.  In retrospect, this was a bit nonsensical since he had to drive past the high school to get to my house.  Then again, perhaps he didn’t have a parking space.  At any rate, at some point – I don’t remember when – the friend no longer rode with us.

My husband can be a bit obsessive about stuff sometimes and spending time with me was one of those things (still is).  He figured out pretty quickly that if I was ready to go when he got there, I got in the car and we went to school.  But… if I wasn’t ready yet, I’d invite him in and then he’d get to hang out with me while I finished getting ready.

He started arriving earlier.  And earlier.  And earlier.

This caused me a good deal of stress because I didn’t want him to see me before I had my makeup on.  So I started waking up earlier.  And earlier.  And earlier.

And since I was waking up earlier, that meant he could arrive earlier.  And earlier.  And earlier.

He wouldn’t come to the porch until he saw the lights were on.  So I started sneaking to the front door in the dark to see if he was there yet.  One day, he wasn’t there but there was a large dark form of a man crouched on the front porch.  How I stifled the scream before running back to my room, I have no idea.  And why I didn’t report it to my parents?  Also no idea.  I just remember it scared the living daylights out of me.

My husband later said it was the Avon man making my mom’s delivery.  Like I said, he wasn’t there yet but he saw the box.  And probably had been there early enough some other time to see the man.

Since I was in the band and we had early morning practices, I left my house long before anyone else got up.  (Side note: he was not in the band.  That’s how much he wanted to spend time with me – he got to school over an hour before he needed to.)  I never knew (or don’t recall) if my parents ever knew how much time my boyfriend was spending at the house in the morning.  Or that he was deliberately coming early to catch me before I was ready.  Or that him doing so made me at least a little bit uncomfortable.

I’m glad that it went the way it did though.  If they had known, they might have warned me that the behavior was odd.  And that I should cut him loose.  Yes, the behavior was odd.  But we’ve navigated his oddities for a long time now and I’m happy for it.

TBT: Sharing Facilities

When I was fifteen, I participated in Rayado, which is a program at Philmont Scout Ranch, a Boy Scout backpacking camp in New Mexico.  My grandparents had taken groups of Scouts, boys and girls, for decades.  I had already been twice and wanted to push myself even more.

Rayado has gone through a lot of changes over the years, but fundamentally, it’s intended to be the ultimate experience for the mind, body, and soul.  For that reason, unlike the rest of the camp, it’s not co-ed.  So I was with a small group of girls from all over the country.  We hiked 300 miles in 20 days and experienced a wide range of surprises and activities.

{Quick side note.  If you read my post about early interactions with my future husband, you’ll recall I said he had heard about me over the summer before we met and was fascinated. It was specifically this trip that intrigued him. As it happened, he was at Philmont at the same time and had hoped to run into this girl who would participate in such an activity.}

Anyway, like I said, the group was all girls. One of them had chosen to cut her hair absurdly short before the trip. She looked very much like a boy. We all knew she wasn’t and if she was with us, people might figure it out, but if she was on her own, she was going to be mistaken for a boy.

Now, Philmont has acres and acres of land to hike over. Obviously, people hiking all over the place will at some point, need to use the bathroom. Hikers were taught how to relieve themselves in the absence of a bathroom without harming the environment, but there were also bathrooms… of sorts… in the more populated areas.

There were two types of these. They were called “pilot copilot” and “pilot bombardier”. The “pilot bombardier” style was simply two seats back-to-back out in the open somewhere. There were no walls. Just seats going down into pits. You opened the lid and waited for all the flies to exit. If they didn’t, then you found a tree somewhere nearby.

The “pilot copilot” style was more common in the heavily populated areas like major camps. These were side-by-side seats into a larger pit and there was a wall around them. No door though. Just a doorway.

So one day, the girl that looked like a boy headed to a “pilot copilot.” The rest of us were sitting nearby waiting. While she was in there, a (from my recollection, tall, dark, and handsome) guy walked in. We all sat up a bit and wondered what would happen. We were surprised when he didn’t immediately come back out – that’s what normally happened if a gender mismatch occurred when someone didn’t call to make sure it was empty first.

Inside, she was sitting on one of the seats when the guy walked in. He nodded, walked over to the other seat, whipped it out of his pants, and began peeing. She turned beet red, pulled up her underwear and pants in one quick motion, and fled the building.

By the time the guy came out a few seconds later, she was safe in our group and we all burst out laughing when we saw him. I’m not sure he noticed her in our group or knew what had happened or why all those girls were laughing. Suffice it to say, we made it a habit to guard the door in the future.

TBT: The Great Stuffed Animal Migration

I had a lot of dolls and stuffed animals when I was young.  I mean, a lot.  So did my little brother.  We had our favorites.  I had Julie, the wrap-around monkey puppet.  She frequently wore earrings, which really helped me out when I forgot to wear some to the lake shortly after I got mine pierced.  She let me use hers.  She also went with me when the day care center took us to see Gremlins in the theater.  That was good because that movie scared the living you-know-what out of me and I don’t think I could have survived had she not been there to wrap her arms around my eyes.

And then there was Jennifer, the home-made doll that the wonderful woman next door made for me.  And Jane, the knock-off Cabbage Patch doll.  And… Rufus?  A really big dog that was usually wearing a T-shirt.  My brother had LeMutt and LeMutt’s girlfriend Fifi.  I think LeMutt and Fifi were available in different sizes and we had a smaller version of LeMutt than Fifi.  Didn’t seem to bother us much.

One of my fondest memories concerning our stuffed animals was a trip to the lake one year.  I’m not sure how old we were.  Old enough (by eighties standards) to be home alone but not so old that we had put the dolls away.  Maybe ten and seven?

Anyway, mom had left us with instructions.  We were supposed to load a few supplies into the pop-up trailer and make sure we were ready to go when she and my step-dad got home from work.  We were strictly limited to two stuffed animals each.  Yes, Mom.  We understand completely.

Two animals each, however, was unacceptable.  We soon developed a plan.  The pop-up was basically already packed and closed down so no one would be crawling into it or opening it up.  It was a safe haven.  We started carrying stuffed animals out by the armful to stuff behind all the boxes in the trailer.  We got caught up in the adrenaline rush of the plan implementation and took nearly every single stuffed animal, no matter how small, insignificant, or unloved out to the trailer.

Some careful planning went into which four animals were in the car with us.  They had to be believable as the four we would most want, of course.  Rufus was the biggest problem (literally).  He was too big to hide in the trailer without risking exposure if the parents should perform a quick flashlight check before departure.  But he wasn’t likely to be one of my top two.  I agonized over this for quite some time before deciding to risk suspicion.

Still, there were still more animals that didn’t fit in the trailer.  By the time our parents got home, we really wanted to pull off a complete coup.  So while they were busy, we’d quickly and quietly sneak small animals out to the car in our shirts and stuff them under the seats.  We hid even more animals in our pillowcases and laid the pillows in the backseat, carefully situating them so the lumps weren’t obvious.  And then, when it was time to go, we walked to the car, each holding two, and only two, animals.

Looking back, I laugh at how much work went into hiding things.  As a parent, I can only imagine how distracted they were with everything they needed to take care of.  No wonder we got away with it.

We sat quietly in the backseat as the car pulled out of the drive.  Occasional furtive glances were shared as my brother waited for me to give the indication.  The key to success with the in-car animals was to wait until we were too far away for them to turn the car back.  But not too far that we couldn’t enjoy them!  Besides, we were really itching to reveal our hand!

Finally, I nodded and we each darted under the front seats to extract the animals.  We pulled them gleefully from our pillowcases.  Our mother looked back in shock.  We laughed and laughed and laughed.  Mom grinned and shook her head.  Success.  And we hadn’t even gotten in trouble.

One more hurdle remained.  When we got to the lake, they began to raise the trailer.  (A pop-up trailer has a roof that winds up and two beds that slide out to leave you with a big open space in the middle.  Many have a kitchen and table in them.  Ours was a very basic model – just the two beds.  All of our towels, dishes, etc. were stored in Avon boxes in the floor.)  They let down the door.  They stepped inside.  They saw the animals.  We shrieked in delight.

Mom was not quite so forgiving this time.  Then again, it was so over-the-top ridiculous that after a brief expression of anger, she just shook her head in disbelief.  Then she said that every single last animal had to fit on our bed.  Every single one.  It was a challenge to do that and still have room for us but we pulled it off.  Mom couldn’t understand why we wanted so many stuffed animals at the lake.  It wasn’t the having them there that we wanted – it was the getting them there.  To this day, it remains one of our best cooperative acts of subterfuge.

I still have “the big three”: Jane, Jennifer, and Julie.  My kids found them in the closet one day and they came back to life (Woody and Buzz would love to know that).  Only, despite my insistence, they aren’t named Jane, Jennifer, and Julie anymore.

I’d like you to meet, from left to right, Shirley, Ginger, and… Mr. Muffets.  That last one has taken some getting used to.

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