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The Old Sailor

Saturday, 30 Mar 2019, 12:04 UTC

There once was an old sailor my grandfather knew
Who had so many things which he wanted to do
That, whenever he thought it was time to begin,
He couldn’t because of the state he was in.

— A.A. Milne, The Old Sailor

Time to finish that final assignment on the day after an auspicious birthday, which was one excuse not to finish. Time to finish that last assignment, having returned from lunch with Bill, which was another excuse not to finish. Time to… Ok, let us not emulate the old sailor again…

—To Lorna, who (like many others) will know the book cover and the two hidden behind it.

Musing in the Sun

Monday, 18 Mar 2019, 19:26 UTC

Sitting in the sun on a bench with Mockingbirds singing up and down the street and all around the neighborhood and Izzy semi-slumbering in the dappled shade, her eyes contagiously sleepy, I keep turning around.

I turn to look down the street at the Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) that I planted in Mary’s yard last spring. It’s a conservative tree, like the Pecan in Alex’s backyard, neither of them quite convinced that winter is finally done, both holding out for more time, unlike the Monterey Oak (Quercus polymorphs  in Carol’s yard that I started from an acorn several years ago and planted just last weekend. That young oak has decided spring has sprung.

And then there are the new Burr Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) that I collected last fall, the macrocarpal acorns bulging in both my sweater pockets as I came home from a walk. Two weeks ago, those Burr Oaks started pushing up sprouts from the mulch at the top of the milk cartons in which I planted them, and most of them now divided and transplanted into slightly bigger containers of various shapes and sizes. They have a lot of growing to do, those Burr Oaks do, and they are tough trees, so I suppose they figure there is no time to waste, no need to wait.

I turn around to look to Mary’s house, and I think these things.

The Mockingbirds and now singing Wrens and crying Bluejays and Cedar Waxwings squealing in the breeze, the dog, an intrepid butterfly, and the first yellow Texas Star are all convinced that winter is gone. The sun on my cheek makes it feel so. Perhaps the Pecan tree will relent tomorrow.

Tomorrow! I must stop this. Tomorrow I have a test. So I must leave the bench and the birds and the sun and the trees and go back inside to study. 

Who Knows

Saturday, 16 Mar 2019, 11:30 UTC

Could it be?
Yes it could!
Something’s comin’ — something good.
Oh I can’t wait.

And it just so happens that I don’t have to wait, because Spring Break is here!


Sunday, 10 Mar 2019, 10:39 UTC

I stood at the front of the class and rolled my eyes. It was second period, and it was time to show the video announcements, but another teacher had occupied my room for testing the day before, and I was now unable to connect my laptop to the projector. So I announced that we’d be skipping the announcements.

“Mister,” one of the girls across the room said. “But Mister, it’s disconnected.”

I looked at at the two VGA connectors, and sure enough one of them was hanging loose. I hooked it up, and my laptop screen instantly appeared on the screen at the front of the class.

“Ok now, we’ll watch the announcements,” I said. “Thank you, Juli.”

I stood there for a second and then turned to the class. 

“You know, I used to write software for a living,” I told them. They know this, but I had said it by way of transition to a digression, which they recognize. The class was silent. “I used to write computer software. … I was good at it.”

Someone in the back of the room said, “Well, I hope so!”

“But…” I said, “the last thing you’d ever want me to do is touch computer hardware. I’m not good at it.”

“How’s that possible?” a boy asked.

“I know. It’s sad. But it’s true. You’ve just seen proof,” I said.

And then we watched the announcements.

Draw Tell Keep Trip Confess Teach

Sunday, 10 Mar 2019, 10:19 UTC

Sometimes I draw cartoonish stick figures on the notes we write in class. Stick figures pointing up at a table and saying, “Hey, we did that last week.” Stick figures holding a figure in the air and saying, “Yes! That’s right.” Stick figures pointing at a logarithm and thinking “Yuck!” in a big red thought bubble off to the side as an explicit acknowledgement that logarithms look weird. 

Sometimes I tell stories from when I used to develop software. Stories of working in Houston on space projects. Stories about Mission Control and about programming languages. Stories about raising a son when I only got to see him every other weekend, as an explicit acknowledgement that teachers aren’t perfect and that life is hard.

I keep a notebook for each period. A notebook with a table of contents that has page numbers and dates. A notebook that has a banner at the top of each day’s work, summarizing what we’re doing that day. A notebook that students can take pictures of or get from classmates if they miss class. A notebook that shows indirectly what it means to be organized, what it means to think clearly, what it means to communicate.

Sometimes I trip over myself in class. The students giggle, and they see that I couldn’t care less. When students get up to sharpen pencils while I’m making a few announcements at the beginning of class, I smile and roll my eyes slightly and tell them to go ahead and sharpen their pencils, because heck, “They’re sharpening a tool that they’re about to use to follow my lead,” and why would that upset any teacher? To teach humility.

Once, I confessed that I like to spell the word, through, as “thru” but that I’d never do that in the classroom. And I step back and look at the word on the board and ask “What’s up with that -gh!?” and explain my pseudo-history of English when Anglo-Saxon germanic merged with Norman french and how the German word for “through” is “durch” and I walk them through a pseudo-linguistic derivation: durch → thurch → thruch → thru at which point I widen my eyes in mock shock and put my hand over my mouth. And some of them chuckle. To demonstrate the value of understanding even little things.

And every day of course, I teach them some algebra. Because that’s what I was hired to do.


Saturday, 09 Mar 2019, 22:25 UTC

Sometimes I catch glimpses from an alternate multiverse. I have a classroom of students, and I give them open ended assignments, assignments where they read a passage that their professor has strategically selected. They come back (the next day?) to the class and give a summary report and provide some answers to additional questions that I pose independently to each of them.

“Read pages 1-11. Give an overview to the class. Pay particular attention to the passage on Kepler. Do some additional research. Give the class a summary of his equal area law and how it is related to angular momentum.”

“Read pages 12-18. Give an overview of the class. Pay particular attention to the passage on Newton and Leibniz. Do some additional research. Give the class a brief summary of their two notations for derivatives.”

“Read pages 19-25. Give an overview of the class. Pay particular attention to the passage on Copernicus. Do some additional research. Give the class a brief summary of how and why he used epicycles in his model of the solar system.”

The thoughts pop into my head from time to time — usually when I am reading a book that would be an ideal assignment for the students to read from. And of course, I have no such students, none who could handle such an assignment. I never will. Mine struggle with simpler things. My contributions to their lives will very likely not involve mathematics. But there will be contributions. That is certainly something, and it’s something important. 

Still… there are those glimpses and the echoes of alternatives.

Rough Out There

Sunday, 03 Mar 2019, 21:32 UTC

I wonder what the birds do on nights like tonite. The front blew thru, and the temperatures are going to be below freezing for three nights in a row. There go the Apple blossoms, although as for that, the fruit might like those temperature for setting. And there go the Wild Onion blossoms, although as for that, they are wild, after all. The purple Verbena and Spiderwort and Texas Mountain Laurel blossoms should weather the weather ok, since they’re used to this kind of thing.

But the birds. What do they do on nights like tonite? They must be fluffed up and the shrubs in the back, down below the level of the fence, where the cold wind doesn’t blow so hard. Yet… it does blow, and it is getting cold. 

I wonder about those Herons and Egrets I saw the other morning. I was driving eastward into the rising sun and passed a place on the road where two vultures hurled themselves aloft. With big flaps of their wide wings… Wait. Those weren’t vulture wings. They reached too far. And they were jointed in ways no vulture wing is jointed — jointed in a pterodactylic kind of way. Herons, they were! Two of them hurling themselves aloft from the margin of a pond in the early morning sun, making a slow arc, first over the highway and then away somewhere to the southwest.

As I drove by that pond, I looked over and saw an Egret with its neck extended. It must have been staring at the flight of the Herons, just as I had been, although from the look on its face, I wonder if that bird was wondering if it had missed the time-to-hurl-aloft memo and was afflicted with a fear of missing out whatever the Herons had departed to do.

So now I’m wondering about them in addition to our backyard Wrens and Titmice and Sparrows. Where are those two Herons and that FOMO-afflicted Egret? And what are they doing to stay warm on a cold night like tonite?

It’s rough out there.

She Took It To School

Wednesday, 20 Feb 2019, 20:49 UTC

“Mister,” he said.

The classroom was full of students milling around in the moments remaining before the bell.

“Mister,” he said again. I looked over at him. “She took it to school!” 

He was talking about his sister. She is very sick and until recently had been getting chemo. The other day, he told me that the treatment was over — that they weren’t giving her chemo, anymore. And when he told me that, I told him I wanted to draw his sister a picture, at which point we walked over to my desk, and he watched me draw a full page “stick figure” extending an arm that grew large in cartoonish fashion similar to the Keep On Truckin’ bumper stickers from decades ago. It was a simple picture with a ballooning hand reaching out to do a high-five with the words “Good job” underneath and a big cartoonish exclamation point. 

At the time, he said, “She’ll want to draw you a picture herself, Mister” which made me smile.

But it turned out even better than that: she took the picture to school to show to her friends. Because she needs to be proud of having made it through what she made it through.

Out In It

Sunday, 10 Feb 2019, 14:40 UTC

It was in the low 40s, which to be honest almost passes for a “hard freeze” in Central Texas. Break out the winter gear! 

It was drizzling, and my glasses were speckled with raindrops. I was coming back from a 4 mile run, heading downhill. In the distance, I saw a man walking the other way.

As he got close, I could see that he had red lips and pink cheeks and was huddled in a meager (albeit unzipped) jacket. He was walking briskly. His eyes were tearing slightly, likely due to the breeze. He looked up and smiled.

“Good for you getting out in it!” he said. “Rock on, brother!”

I smiled and mumbled “Thanks” and headed home.


Saturday, 02 Feb 2019, 20:33 UTC

It was Saturday just after lunch. Tony was on the floor of our kitchen. There were ice maker parts spread about. 

When he had arrived, Tony had pulled the ice maker out of our freezer and tested the water supply, which was fine. He mumbled something about how the valve must be ok, so he went to his truck for a new ice maker, one which didn’t have a wiring harness. (Why would we replace that if we don’t need to, he explained.) He put everything back together, and … no joy. So he went for a third ice maker, one with a new wiring harness. He put this third unit into the freezer, and … no joy. Unflustered, he went around the back of the refrigerator and tested the water supply valve again. This time, it didn’t work.

He had tested it once, and it had was fine. And then he had tested the ice maker itself, and it had was fine. Then with everything reinstalled, nothing worked. Every time he was almost done, the problem moved around. 

In the end, it was the valve. 

“Do you know anything about quantum mechanics?” I asked him as he was packing up his tools.

“No,” he said.

I explained the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (which I probably mangled — sorry Dad). You know: that the exact position and momentum of a particle cannot be simultaneously measured, that the more precisely you know one, the less well you know the other. I smiled contentedly at the silly analogy for what we had just been through — that the fault moved around each time he tested something, that we had witnessed our own little uncertainty principle in action.

“Hmm,” he said. He packed his tools and rebooted the two new ice makers. Trudy wrote him a check. And Tony left 30 minutes late for his next appointment.