Wednesday, May 17, 2017

a pro at imperfections, and best friends with her doubt

It's a Friday in May, maybe half past noon. I'm sitting in a lecture hall that holds about sixty students at full capacity, but this is an upper-division mathematics course, and only roughly a third of those seats are taken. As I watch my Advanced Calculus professor lecture on the Cauchy Condensation Test and try to follow the multiple concepts with my red pen, my thoughts are half with the lecture, a fourth with the midterm I'm about to turn in, and another fourth with the linear algebra midterm I have to turn in my 2 p.m. that has a proof on it that I just can't figure out. Oh, what a joy it is at 10:30 in the morning to find out that one of your proofs has a major flaw, and you doubt you'll be able to fix it with two classes in between the 10:30 a.m. and the 2 p.m. deadline. Maybe it doesn't help that I can't get the phrase “infimum of a set” out of my mind, and it's not because I need to figure out what the infimum of any given set actually is. I even had a dream on Wednesday night that Jesus was talking about the infimum of a set in the Gospel of Matthew.
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As I'm sitting here, I start wondering at the fact that I'm sitting here at all. This is an upper-division mathematics course. I hated math in middle school, tolerated it in high school, and randomly decided to pursue it as my major when I took trigonometry. At this point, I had never had any logic, I had never seen a fully developed proof except for the ones in my calculus textbook that I didn't understand more than 1% of. Why am I sitting in a lecture hall with a score of other students -- one or two of whom I might classify as genius -- in front of a similarly genius professor, listening to a lecture I don't understand much of and probably won't understand much of for the rest of my undergraduate career? I should be sitting in an English class, because that's obviously where my real talent lies. My coworkers at the tutoring center used to tell me that I'd make a great proof-writer; I am the only person in Learning Support Services who's taken both upper-division mathematics and upper-division English courses. My grades on the recent homework assignments and the fact that I can't keep up with the homework revisions most of the time tell a different story about my proof-writing skills, and having to admit to various people that I'm really struggling in all my classes this quarter doesn't help my self-esteem. For the first 130 credits of my college career, I never got anything other than an A. That included a graduate-level biotechnology course and five college-level mathematics classes. And then the minute I came to Central, my perfect 4.0 GPA was slashed down to a 3.99 by my sophomore-level linear algebra instructor.

After I leave class, I ruminate that day, and the next, on how I should quit this thing they call the math major, how I should drop out of university. I know with a sickening certainty that I failed my junior-level linear algebra midterm, and I don't understand why linear algebra just isn't my thing. I don't understand why I had no trouble getting straight As until I came to Central, and suddenly I'll be lucky if I pull out of Linear Algebra II with a B.

I have trouble sleeping over the weekend because I'm afraid to get my midterm scores back. When my professor hands me my linear algebra midterm, my awful premonition is realized, and I don't know what bothers me more: the fact that my score doesn't even meet C level or the fact that I have trouble feeling anything about it. I don't really have the energy to cry, and all I feel is a weight tugging down all the hopes I had for my career in math.

But I go talk to my professor, even though I don't want to, and leave his office feeling relieved that I finally let someone know the struggle I've been having with every one of my classes all quarter. A couple days after, my instructor is proving that the countable infinity of every irrational number in the set S := [0,1] exceeds the countable infinity of the natural numbers (that is, the counting numbers). Finally, I can see why some infinities are considered larger than others! But then my instructor talks about Cantor -- or maybe it was Hilbert; he can't remember -- and how one of these mathematicians was committed to the insane asylum for the concept behind this proof about countable infinities, because mathematicians didn't want to accept the proof as fact. My instructor inserts into the story, “At one point Hilbert proved something existed by contradiction; that is, he said something could not exist and came upon a contradiction, thereby showing that it must exist. And mathematicians were angry, and said 'That's not math! That's theology.'” And the sheer beauty of logic, of mathematics, of God so overwhelmed me that I wanted to cry, and days like this show me how privileged I was to have stumbled upon the math major to begin with.

The mathematics major is a lonely business, and often an unforgiving one. Mathematics is inexorably precise. Mathematics means sometimes spending ten hours a day working on proofs, three or four days in a row. Mathematics means being wrong, a lot, and sometimes it means looking really stupid. There aren't a lot of people who understand what you're going through or the insecurities and anxieties you face. There aren't many people who understand your sense of humor or your math puns or why you're socially awkward. (I guess the good thing is that I've found a place where being socially awkward is considered socially acceptable.)


But there do exist some people who do understand, because they also have fought and tried to overcome the insecurities and anxieties that curse you. There are some who laugh at your silly math jokes and think your social awkwardness -- that is, the fact that you laugh uncontrollably about absolutely everything -- is charming. They've spent hours writing and refining proofs; they've probably spent a couple of those hours crying over those proofs, too. They're socially awkward. They don't shut up, they never speak, they make weirder noises than you've ever heard, they tell more jokes in sixty seconds than most people hear in a month, they freak out about anime and a cappella and theology and philosophy, they jabber in Elmo's voice, they tease so seriously you'd believe anything they say.

Yeah, the mathematics major is a lonely business, and often an unforgiving one, and no, my linear algebra midterm score probably isn't going to make it past C level (it's a shame my score can't hike). But there are days like today, and there are people like my classmates, and there are gifts God created like laughter and smiles and spring, . . . and when morning rolls around, it is, indeed, another day of sun.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

courtyard photoshoot + quarter goals and life update

Hallie came for the weekend after finals to see my cute one-bedroom apartment for the first time, check out Grocery Outlet (which I gush about all the time) and Winegar's, stroll about campus, and watch Beauty and the Beast. On Thursday, Hallie was nice and helped straighten up my house (studying > cleaning during the last few weeks of school . . . or always), made cottage cheese pancakes, and we walked to one Winegar's and then the other and were disappointed both times by the crowd of people for Free Pastry Day. So while Hallie complained about all the walking (even though her Fitbit cheered her excessively for making 10,000+ steps), we went to the SURC to use the Internet so I could answer a professor's e-mail about a scholarship.

On Friday, we went shopping at Maurice's, checked out Grocery Outlet, and visited Stephen at Ace. For dinner, we went to The Palace and had burgers and sweet potato fries.
On Saturday, we went out to the Barge Hall courtyard, where Hallie took these photos. We also had some taken together with the D7000's self-timer, and one of them was so hilarious that I screeched in laughter and had tears running down my face (see below haha). After the photoshoot, we went to Beauty and the Beast at the Grand Meridian and were pleasantly surprised at the fact that it was almost or on par with Cinderella (2015). (I wasn't impressed by the trailers/sneak peeks/even the soundtrack I'd seen and heard before I saw the movie.)
Then on Sunday we drove home to Goldendale, where I spent the past week trying to do scholarship prep, taking care of my horse (who is nineteen and still as feisty as ever . . . maybe even more so), writing thank-you notes, doing yoga, and discovering Poldark.
I am ready to go back to school, though, I think. I know it's going to be a tough quarter, but the nicer weather should certainly help me maintain a more positive outlook (January in Ellensburg meant a foot and a half and more of snow, snowfall nearly every day, freezing rain, icy sidewalks, subzero temperatures, and eight o' clock classes in the freezing cold). Gaining other tools to help me stay more positive (such as taking time for myself and setting aside specific time to do homework) has and will also help.

goals for spring quarter - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -  

  • stop being intimidated by people and needing their affirmation for my happiness

  • keep up with my improving time management skills by maintaining a clean apartment and keeping up with daily activities -- especially prep for the exciting announcement below

  • spend more time at legitimate social activities, like concerts at the music building, movies at the SURC, and other campus stuff (90% of my present social activity is sitting in the library study lounge with my coworkers)

  • hang out with more women (I spend a lot of time with men because of my department)

  • be a better friend
  • be as active as possible; do yoga daily and go for walks in addition to walking for transportation

big news - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

On Friday, March 17th, while I was showing Hallie a dress I had tried on in Maurice's, Dr. Vadim Ponomarenko from San Diego State University called me and offered me a job on San Diego State's summer research experience for undergraduates (REU)! Two days later, I officially accepted the offer, which means I will be spending this summer in San Diego, California! I am so supremely excited. 
On the REU, I will be researching vorticity in hydrodynamics alongside applied mathematician Dr. Curtis and a few other students from all over the nation (there's one from Marquette University in Michigan, one from Baylor University in Texas, a few from University of California [Davis and Santa Barbara campuses], and one from University of Oregon -- and others I haven't even mentioned). The subject matter deals with fluid flows; calculations of fluid flows consist of a lot of vectors, since fluid flow has both magnitude and direction. I legit just learned the math I need for this REU winter quarter, in Multivariable Calculus II. God has impeccable timing. 
This was one of eight REUs I applied for from about February 10-March 3. REUs are a little different from internships in that we're not going to a company and learning about what they do and figuring out how to do it ourselves; we're actually being given the opportunity to research new mathematics, which is a pretty big deal as an undergraduate. After we finish our research, we'll be encouraged to present at various conferences and at our home institution. Another goal of the REU is to be published in a mathematical journal, which is also a big deal. REUs are a fantastic experience to have on your CV/resume when applying for graduate schools, since they mean you have already researched math in a competitive academic setting.
Before I leave for San Diego, I have to get through this quarter, of course; I also have to get a plane ticket, figure out housing, correspond more with my fellow REU peeps, and possibly get someone to sublet my Ellensburg apartment while I'm gone. I also get to go shopping for San Diego summer clothes -- yay! -- like shorts and capris and sundresses. 

That's about all for this blog post, so I'll sign off -- and mentally prepare myself for stepping into my advanced calculus classroom on Tuesday!