Month: June 2014

Calculus 1 Day 12

Today in class we learned to differentiate inverse trigonometric functions… which isn’t that difficult or interesting, really. Then we spent a long time talking about complex numbers, and how many things had been “hidden” from us throughout our lives learning mathematics.

I can’t decide if I think my professor is a really smart guy, or a bit of an ass. Probably every day he brings up some point or intricacy or method that he claims no one else will tell us, and is absent from every textbook out there — despite being totally legitimate. Probably every day he says that this or that teacher or author didn’t/doesn’t truly understand a given concept. He talks about the high failure rate of Calculus 1 all across the country, and how much lower the failure rate is in his classes. He brings up things we’ve already learned, and tells us we’ve been lied to or given half the truth. He goes on about how “some of you think there’s a worldwide shortage of parentheses,” and not only the fact that many of the students make notation errors (especially ≈ versus ≡ versus = versus another one I don’t know how to type in here), but the fact that many textbooks “get it wrong.”

I dunno. I believe what he says. I understand that being lazy about notation causes ambiguity. I appreciate application problems and in depth explanations and images of the concepts. I’ve definitely had teachers who totally mechanized math. Made it a series of boring steps. I just… I don’t know. I wish my professor would be a little more positive, I guess? I mean, maybe the guy who wrote our textbook was really a terrible mathematician. So why do we keep revisiting that point? I’d rather Prof. would say, “Oh, and so-and-so invented this stuff we’re looking at right now. What a genius, right?” I know I’m not the most positive person in the world, but I do try not to criticize people all the time.

So… complex numbers. Very cool stuff. I remember when I was a kid, wondering why during the first week or every math class, it seemed like they’d define the different sets of numbers. We never really got to understand the differences, and were never tested on what was what. I think I only knew some of the sets because I heard them repeated so many times. But today we went over that a little bit again, and I realized that it’s like I’m only starting to do math. Algebra is like the language. Geometry is like drawing (visualizing, writing). Trigonometry I can’t come up with some simile for, but is really pretty cool (largely because I find it easiest). And calculus? Calculus I don’t know, of course, but I get this feeling I’m on the brink of something. On the brink of some real, abstract, beautiful mathematics.

Perceiving truth, or When you realize someone you know is actually a racist

(unedited) I’ve had moments in my life that were like opening my eyes for the first time. Moments in which I felt I’d never before seen anything the way it really was. One of those moments, of course, was when I was reading the New Testament for the first time, and simultaneously reading Kierkegaard’s book Works of Love. It was like I’d been struggling with a maze, but the path was just suddenly illumined before me. I don’t say everything is clear during these moments. I don’t say everything is clear for a Christian either. In fact, I am careful about Christians who believe in such a black-and-white creation.

But the moments I’m talking about are when seemingly every thought and feeling is absent except this awareness of something that is true, and always has been true, even if you were oblivious. The first such moment that I mentioned just now actually happened in 2006, on a shabby old couch in the back room of my high school biology class room (with all the specimens in jars). During that moment, I just said to myself, “This is true.” It was like a light switch. A revelation. A light bulb. Really. It’s hard to describe. Maybe it is like in the movies when someone finds an incredible artifact. It seems too amazing, “the Holy Grail,” as it were… but then the archaeologist or treasure hunter or whatever verifies it’s the real deal. Wow.

But not all of these moments are happy. Sometimes you realize — or at least this was my experience — that your friend who tells racist jokes isn’t just joking. I know I’m writing on the Internet, but this is my journal, so I might as well write it all out matter-of-factly. I’ve told racist jokes. I’ve made fun of other cultures. I’ve categorized and stereotyped people. And most of what I said that was offensive… was actually totally empty. Previous generations grew up in a world where the n-word was okay (though, let me be clear, I don’t use that word; I really can’t do it). While I was growing up, of course black people could say “nigga,” and that was okay, except some other black people would argue that neither blacks nor whites should say the “-a” or “-er” variation at all. Ever seen that episode of “Girlfriends” in which the group gets a white friend, and everything’s cool until they’re all singing along with Jay-Z, and the white girl says, “nigga” with everybody else? Yeah.

Anyway, while I was growing up, and until this decade, in fact, it was pretty normal for people to say things like, “Well that’s gay,” meaning, “Well that’s stupid,” or something like that. Also “fag” and “faggot” were slung around a lot, and not even that often (in my experience) as a reference/denigration to homosexuals. Usually I’ve heard it said by one young white guy to another when he really things, “You’re making me uncomfortable by somehow ignoring a social expectation of masculinity.” Example: “You like Coldplay, bro? Does your mom know you’re a fag?” — because many men are embarrassed to like soft, emotional music.

Growing up is one thing. Fortunately I had parents who wouldn’t let me say a lot of things my friends said. Thank God I grew up in a diverse neighborhood and had friends of many races, nationalities, and income levels! Thank God my mother was always preaching pluralism, equality, etc. I’m serious. Would I believe in these things (which seem so obviously right) if I would’ve had parents who didn’t care to emphasize these points? Would I believe in these things if I hadn’t had teachers who always cautioned against prejudice?

But I joined the Navy. That’s where I heard the word, “beaner” for the first time. Two points on that: I’d never heard that epithet before, perhaps because I’m from Florida, where there are relatively few Mexican immigrants. Secondly, “beaner” is one of those words that people say all the time here in California. A socially acceptable slur, I guess, like “fag” used to be.

Back to the Navy though. For an organization that fights “for freedom and democracy for all,” and can kick you out for using hate speech, there’s a helluva lot of hate speech flying around in the military. And it wasn’t just words for Iraqis and Afghans either. Mostly, it was members razzing each other. It’d be hard to explain to a civilian. What do you do when you work/sleep/clean/eat/live in the same small space (on a ship, remember) with the same people 24/7 for months at a time? I’ll tell you. You come up with ways to cope with the various things bothering you. One of the popular methods is joking. Cruelly, mercilessly joking. Everybody gets it. You’re fat? Expect someone to say something. You’re slow? You woke up with a zit? You went back to your hotel room with a “ladyboy” because you were so drunk? You’re (fill in a race)? Your sister is a “web cam girl”? You cosplay? Expect ridicule.

It sounds terrible, I know. And for a lot of people, probably it is. Honestly, I had a great time joking on the ship. I got mine, trust me, but the worst thing, looking back, is that being ragged on made me feel justified in ragging on others. That’s how almost everyone I’ve known in the Navy feels. The attitude is that, “Look. We have to live together, so we’re going to laugh. You have to be strong. Everyone takes a joke. If you can’t take it, then don’t expect anybody to try to be sensitive to what might offend you. Get over it.”

That’s really the attitude. And some people come to the boat not wanting to or maybe not knowing how to joke like that. They might not feel really offended the first time someone makes fun of them, but they will be surprised that it happened. A lot of people are really quiet when at first, for this reason. They’re probably wondering if everybody in the Navy is so careless about giving offense. They probably don’t understand how necessary laughter is (though I don’t deny we ought to joke about better things).

The kind of sick thing is when that new, quiet person makes his or her first crack at someone else. It’s especially juicy if it’s a new airman/seaman, and he or she makes a sharp jibe at some PO3 who takes himself too seriously. We celebrate when it happens. We say, “Hey! Good one!” We’re happy the new person has entered our fold of friends-who-constantly-insult-each-other.

Isn’t that crazy? I know that it is, and I do have strong regrets about many things I said when I was in the Navy, but… God knows I did have fun, and I did enjoy incredible friendships and experiences.

I’m getting to the point though. There was this environment. Still is. Just because I’m not on a ship anymore, doesn’t mean it’s changed. My views started changing when I realized that two of my shipmates (one is a friend now, who also left active duty and now lives in San Diego) were actually racists. They weren’t just telling racist jokes. They really did think white people were superior to people of other races. Back to that whole thing about “moments.” I had this moment where I realized that what most of us thought were just jokes were, to some people, serious, humorless remarks, expressing extremely ugly feelings toward other people. It’s so funny, too, because I didn’t realize these jokes were bad because anyone ever said they’d been offended… In fact, it wasn’t just white people making jokes about blacks. It was Filipino, Vietnamese, Laos, white, Mexican, Puerto Rican, mixed, black, white, male, female… everybody made every type of inappropriate joke, and actually the only complaints I ever heard of had to do with sexism, not racism.

Sexism in the military, by the way, is a really complicate subject that I — as a female veteran, by the way — have neither time nor patience to write about right now.

So it wasn’t someone being offended or hurt that made me get it. It was not the realization (which came later) that words do hurt. It was actually the realization that some people actually say racist things seriously. There was an old joke, based on stereotype, about a black man not being able to feed a family of four. The joke itself is stupid and offensive. But I was only shocked when I realized that some people say that joke, but really do believe black men can’t feed their families! That moment I had, realizing not only that racism existed, but also that it wasn’t far away in some KKK meeting, but right there in the face of someone I know… that was just a moment of sadness and disgust and shock.

If any African Americans are reading this, they probably think I’m an idiot white person. That may be true. But having grown up with black neighbors, teachers, and friends, I guess I just… didn’t get it. I hadn’t known racists growing up. There were always people of different races around, and always a message about equality, justice, non-discrimination, etc., that I guess I didn’t realize what was really happening.

After realizing my friend was a racist, I had to think about a lot of things. This has happened over a few years, and I’ve actually had some similar thoughts and observations regarding sexism, too. As I’ve been trying to understand racism, part of it, of course is, “I’m not racist, am I?” After all, I did used to tell racist jokes, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t still laugh at one or tell one myself now and then. I try not to now, and I feel bad if I do. I try to imagine how one of my friends of whatever race/nationality/religion would feel if they heard that joke. And if they heard if from me, maybe they’d think I was just giving them shit, and it wouldn’t hurt them. But what if they heard it from someone, and they could see that person was serious? I guess it all falls into the whole “power of words” category of thought.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about it all. I felt so stupid one day when I realized that I don’t have any black friends anymore. I mean, I have black friends who live far away from me now, but none that I talk to all the time, let alone hang out with often. I don’t have a single one in San Diego, though two notes on that are: San Diego has a rather small black population, and also, I don’t have a lot of friends here period.

But I thought, Whoa, now I’m tallying the races of my friends? … and it’s like I’m paranoid of being racist. It’s tricky making race-related observations. The goal, of course, is just to make observations. To be honest. But it’s hard to determine people’s motivations, even your own, especially when it’s a human fucking fact that we often do things we object to, or say things we don’t mean.

I can’t say I’ve figured anything out about racism, except that I’m more aware than I ever was before that it’s real! I’m so sorry that it is, and I’m sorry for anything and everything I have said or done to give it life. I used to say that the only jokes I would not tell were Jew jokes. Reason being that as soon as we start making jokes about the Holocaust, that’s when we’re saying we don’t think such a thing could happen again. And as soon as we think of a second Holocaust as impossible, it will happen! How didn’t I realize what jokes about African-Americans and immigrants could mean?

I will probably be writing more about this sort of thing another time. It’s on my mind. I think a lot about how I got out of poverty, and some of the kids in my old neighborhood, black or white or Puerto Rican, you know, they didn’t even finish school. I don’t know where most of them are. Why me? Was it partly because of my race? The short answer, I think, is yes. But again, another post.

Not going to be an ornithologist

I was going to–and will still, in a minute–write about not majoring in biology. Then I logged in here, and I saw that I have 43 followers. Probably that is not many, but still… I’m pretty surprised. Seriously.

Well, I’ve adequately expressed my surprise; now back to biology.

When I went to make my first ‘academic plan’ or whatever the tentative schedule is that we GI-billers must keep on file, I said I intended to major in general biology. And I did intend to. It makes sense in many ways. Lots of fields, let alone jobs, are based in biology. Probably a lot of biology knowledge would be useful in case of some sort of apocalyptic situation. I am super interested in health, fitness, preventing illness, animals, gardening, and other stuff involving living things. I think I might even be the youngest bird watcher in the world (I’m 25).

But death makes me sad.  Not all of it, of course, but enough of it that I can’t see myself working with endangered species, giving mice cancer, or collecting specimens.

The whole specimen thing is what got me thinking of this again today (I figured out bio wasn’t for me months ago). NPR has an article up about some folks’ article saying that collecting specimens of wild animals is maybe not always the best thing to do. I’m not writing to weigh in on that debate, although, as a former Girl Scout, I don’t take anything out of its place myself… Except a pretty rock once in a while, for the bird bath. Anyway, the article had a picture with it of some birds pinned down.

Hm. How do I express myself on this? Death for scientific progress, and potentially conservation, is still just… Not my cup of tea. I dunno.  I’m really not that much of a softy or anything, and I do eat meat (though I admit I was a vegetarian for about eight years), but there is something about dead birds in particular that just stirs me terribly. I have several images in my mind of experiences with birds, but the most haunting is the goldfinch memory. Last year, for a few months, my husband and I had a goldfinch feeder hanging from our balcony. We could get about eight or nine lesser goldfinches on there at once, and they became one of my favorite animals in the world. They’re so small, so pretty, and have such a lovely call. Also, I love the way they fly; it’s like they launch themselves like little arrows, and land only wherever they catch a grip. It’s just a plus that feeding them is less messy than feeding, say, house finches.

Anyway, one day, I got home around 4 pm, and I think I was even in a good mood. I’d gotten an A on a math or Japanese exam or something. But my husband had a sad look, and he took me to the glass door to see a goldfinch that was somehow stuck at the bottom of the door. K. said it had just happened, and he was glad I was home because he didn’t know what to do. The bird had flown into the door.

Well, I carefully got outside (because I couldn’t slide the door much, the bird being stuck in the track somewhat). I released the bird from where it was stuck… I think it was just that these birds have hook like feet… and it was just frozen. But it was alive. I could see it looking around as it lay in my hand. Did it move? Was its heart beating hard and fast? I don’t know because my own heartbeat had gotten louder. At first, I put the bird down in a planter, hoping it would fly away on its own. But it was cold and very windy that day, so I picked up the tiny creature again, feeling like a dangerous, giant, unsophisticated thing myself, and I placed it instead on the soil of a potted plant I had nearby. The level of soil was low enough compared to the rim of the pot that I thought this would provide better shelter. Of course I went inside to consult Google, hoping that other people recommended the course of action I had intuitively taken. They did, but I had doubts. I felt extremely sad, and I cried much  harder over this than I had over other things that most people would consider much more significant. I guess, in my Eden, harmless little birds are immortal. I felt bad because it was my door that hurt the bird. It appeared to me one of its feet might be broken. What do I do? I felt bad picking up the creature, looking at it, putting it down, picking it up again. Maybe it was too stunned then to even have been afraid of me. How should I know? The few moments that I had held the bird are like a very long time in my memory, because the feelings were so strong. I felt powerful in a terrible way.

I think I was thinking about my next step, once I paused crying, and looked out the glass door again. I didn’t see the bird in the pot anymore though. I went out to see, and indeed, it must’ve managed to fly away. Of course my dark imagination would speculate that the bird would just starve because its foot was broken, or this or that. I don’t know what happened ultimately. I don’t even know the typical lifespan of a goldfinch anyway. But I knew that even when these sort of stories have happy endings, they are too much for me. I hate pain and death and fear in creatures like this. Of course we must all hate these things in all of creation, mustn’t we? But maybe it’s just more poignant to me with birds because of what they can symbolize. Untainted nature. Innocent existence. Beauty. Freedom. Absence of ego. The marvelous, intricacy of all that God has made: those specially shaped feet, those tiny feathers, the deep black beak, the always moving eyes — not to mention every little bone and organ and cell and organic compound…

Even to help these creatures, I couldn’t hurt one. I couldn’t look at a single dead one without feeling sad. This whatever it is isn’t the only reason, nor, I realize, is it exactly a “reason,” why I don’t want to study biology beyond what I already have.

I have more thoughts and feelings on this sort of thing, you know, involving conservation, creation, and so on. But it’s so complex. I just wanted to take a few minutes to write down what happened with the goldfinch. I think it may even be an insight into love. What is a little bird to me, that I should be so moved thinking of it, many months after I even saw it? What is man, O Lord, that you should look at him? It is something I have been thinking lately, too, about the fundamental goodness of humanity, and about Christ. It is easy enough to say, “I do not deserve this,” or “I am unworthy,” or “I have sinned,” or even, “I cannot stop sinning.” It is easy to feel inadequate, guilty, and other things. It is true that we do not gain redemption ourselves, but only by the grace of God. It is true that Christ died for our sins. But it is also true that God loved us before he saved us; he loved us — loves us — even in our most disgusting, miserable, evil-doing states. It makes no sense, but that is love, I think. And I think the fact that God loves me and provides for my eternal salvation even when I am the worst, confirms that I am “good,” like he said in Genesis. I am not only the sum of my good and bad works. We are all creatures loved by God. Why? Well, why do I love the little goldfinch? I don’t know, but I feel it.


Calculus 1 Day 8

Haven’t started class yet, but it should be intense. Yesterday was. The thing is that calculus itself doesn’t seem too bad; only the aspects of algebra that I never completely mastered are now haunting me. It’s cool though because now I am having to go back and fill in the old holes in my skill set. This class is the most challenging I’ve had in college so far… But that makes it fun… I really didn’t like my pre-calc class, for example, because it was like a giant review of a few concepts in algebra and trig. (My calculus prof also says that pre-calc courses should focus on the binomial theorem, which mine did not; so for all I know, I really missed out.)

Anyway, it would be nice to write more, but everything is in a rush lately. Have I mentioned we’re moving today? Yeah, I packed boxes in lieu of studying last night.

Calculus 1 Day 3

I haven’t begun today’s homework, but class was excellent. Even though I was thrown by today’s quiz, many concepts were reinforced after it, and I feel like I have a better grasp of everything we’ve covered so far. Today we started talking about infinite limits. It was so wonderful because that’s like half the reason I have loved math for so many years. I knew the day would come when I would be studying more conceptual things, and I’m so excited that day is here. It will only get more fascinating. It’s also wonderful because so far I get it. The material makes sense. In fact, some problems we looked at I had to “solve” in previous courses… except in those courses, you memorized rules, and though these rules would get a correct solution, the “why” and “how” were completely missing. Calculus has already taught me at least one “why/how.” I know it’s still early, but I think I’m going to really like this professor; he doesn’t ask us to press the “I believe” button.

Calculus 1 Day 2

I have only a few more problems to work on this evening. I wish I had more time, because I’d like to look at some Khan Academy videos or something as well!

For now I am just satisfied that my husband is home, I am having a beer, and something I have been praying about appears not to be a worry anymore. It’s crazy how kind God is. I don’t write much about God anymore. I did as a teen (of course, then I wrote all the time). Anyway, it’s just that there are too many things about him. What can I say? You know the line from the psalm, “What is man that you should look at him?” or something like that? (Sorry, I admit I have not read a psalm outside of Mass in a long time). Well, I feel like, “What is man that he/she/I should write about God? I’m not St. Augustine. The more I learn, the less I feel I know. I’m totally okay about that, but… I just feel arrogant if I make too many assertions about God. I feel like it’s enough to say that he loves you and me and every person that you and I can’t even imagine anyone could love!

And he answers prayers. And he pierces your soul so that you question your own prayers, asking, “What I am praying for, is it right? Is my will your will, God? I know what I want and what I am asking, but I don’t want to ask if it isn’t what you want.”

Oh, so many thoughts! So many questions. But I really am satisfied because I like wondering about things. Wouldn’t it be a concern if God didn’t seem infinitely wondrous?

So anyway, day two of calculus wasn’t terrible. So far I am back and forth between feeling I totally understand, and feeling I understand nothing. It’s so fascinating, and the abstraction my professor keeps saying will throw some people off just reminds me why I’ve been so adamant about studying math, regardless of my major. Many people see math as some wonderfully concrete, understandable “thing.” It appeals to a lot of people who just like order. But there’s more than order and balance and strict applicability. There’s a beauty to it that I actually feel ridiculous beginning to talk about, just because I know I am so early in my math education. But I felt this even when I was learning high school trigonometry.

Now that I am older, and have seen the application of some mathematics in the real world, having worked on electronics, and learned JUST A LITTLE BIT about some of the engineering problems on ships, math is just so much cooler. Some of the concepts get reinforced. It just seems like math is underneath everything, down inside it… or, no. That’s like electrons and things. Math is more like music, isn’t it? The music is represented by symbols on paper, or it can be memorized. It can be played in many ways, felt, and heard. It is perceived, but what is it? Just so many sound waves? No.

So I don’t know how this class will go. It’s going to be tiring to complete this course in the eight weeks allotted. But it’s so stimulating. Well, back to it!