A friend of mine left last week to spend the year in South America. I’m going to miss her. She started out being the intense, shy and awkward daughter of my neighbor-friends. Somehow I’ve grown attached to her as a friend.

She’s the same age as my oldest son, which puts her in a category much like hummingbirds or other wild animals. When you run across one by itself and it deigns to stay in your company it’s a rare and wondrous thing. You know at any moment they may figure out you’re not one of them, and bolt. The first time she came berry picking with me, alone without her mom, it felt like a gift. When she reminded me in the following years that it was time for us to go picking, it was a different kind of gift. She seemed to enjoy my company.

It’s one thing for a hummingbird to accidentally alight on your shoulder, as wonderful as that is. It’s quite another for that little hummer to seek you out the following day and follow you around the yard while you garden. That’s the feeling I get every time Annie calls or shows up on my doorstep. It fades as we get into the back and forth of being friends, but I haven’t stopped being honored to have her show up in the first place.
I’m not saying I’m in awe of Annie every time we make contact. I’m not. I’m just aware what a great privilege it is to have a young person for a friend when you’re not a young person anymore yourself.

She’s not perfect, but overall she’s a remarkable young woman. She prepared and left for this trip to the bottom of the world while her parents were half-way across the country, something I never would have been able to do. She’s staying with a family in Chile and going to school. Impressive. While she’s in Chile I hope she remembers me and makes contact regularly.

Lost and Found

Little Canada is as far away as it sounds.  It’s around a thousand miles from St. Paul.  Zach makes the trip almost every day on his bike, because he works there.  As you can imagine, he’s in pretty good shape.

He came home from work the other day, sweaty and tired, but excited.  “Mom, I found something really cool by the railroad tracks on my way home.  It’s really good, but I feel kinda bad about finding it. ”  He went out to the garage and returned with two instrument cases.

I like musical instruments.  I can’t really play any of them, but I take in abandoned and orphaned ones on a somewhat regular basis.  They are hung on my wall, sitting on my mantle, hanging from the ceiling.  I think they’re at least as pretty as any wall art I’ve seen.

The two cases Zach had rescued were black standard music cases. One was lined in green velvet and cream satin and contained a violin.  It also had a ticket stub with a name written on the back, chapstick, a lighter, an electronic tuner, mints, a bow, and a long glass vial with extra strings in it.  The other case had an autographed mandolin with an electronic pick-up, gum, a promo card for a local illustrator with two phone numbers written on it, and a backstage pass for a local music venue, First Avenue 7th Street Entry, dated October 2004.

Neither instrument had any identifying information on it other than the autograph on the mandolin.  I looked. Zach looked. We googled the First Ave, to see if they listed who played in 2004.  They did not.  We googled the band name on the backstage pass, got not much.  We looked up the illustrator whose card was in the case with the mandolin.  Nothing.   We checked Craigslist to see if someone had reported the instruments missing in the last day or two.  Found nada.

We tried to decipher the autograph on the mandolin and came up with the unusual name “Wizzary Swoot”.  Musicians are weird.  We googled Wizzary Swoot, Wizzary Sweet, Marcy Sweet, Maury Sweet…  The M or W could possibly pass for an H, so we looked up Harry Sweet as well.  Whole lotta nothin.

After googling local mandolin players, I decided the autograph was probably from Marty Stuart, a local guy, and that it probably wasn’t his mandolin, because people usually don’t autograph their own instrument.  I sent a couple emails to local musicians we knew, and one to First Avenue and waited.  We’d find the person who lost these instruments and lip balm.  We would.

Andy came home and looked over the find.  He was impressed.  He picked up the things in the case and looked them over.  When he came upon the ticket stub with the name on the back he said, “I bet this is will-call and this is your guy”.  Smarty pants.  He did a google search on Jacob Hyer and came up with a myspace page for a local blue-grass band called “Pocahontas County”.  Jacob plays fiddle and mandolin. Bingo.

We sent him and one of his band-mates an email before we went to bed.

We heard nothing the next morning, nothing by lunch.  I went out shopping for a couple hours and when I returned there was an email waiting for me.

Unbelievable. Indeed, two instruments of mine are missing. One is a Kalamzoo Mandolin with an autograph on it. The other is a violin in a black case with green velvet inside. The mandolin case would have a bunch of stickers on it.
How did you figure out they might belong to Pocahontas County? You’re brilliant.
My phone number is 651 XXX XXXX and I can pick them up anytime, or immediately if my description matches up.

It did indeed match up, except for the stickers, which we could see evidence of, but no actual remaining stickers.  I called Jacob.  He happened to be within a mile from us and he came right over.  He looked young, and was oddly fresh-faced for the full beard he sported.  He had little black round glasses framing wide, shell-shocked blue eyes.

When he saw the instrument cases he recognized them immediately.  He squatted and opened them and gave them a quick once-over.  He looked up at us, “This was my childhood fiddle.  I’ve played it since I was a kid. I thought they were gone. This is like unbelievable.”  He stood up, took off his glasses and rubbed his face.  “How did you get them home on your bike? How did you carry them?”  They had straps, Zach explained he had ridden his bike a few times with a guitar case slung over his shoulder, this was sort of the same thing.  “Unreal.  Thanks so much for bringing them back and finding me.  I can’t believe you did it.  My mom told me not to set them down, and to put my name on them…. I’ve just been kicking myself.”  I asked if he’d like a glass of water, which is where people usually say, no thanks, and gracefully exit.  “That would be really great. Thanks.”

He seemed like he didn’t want to leave. He had a check which he had been holding awkwardly since he arrived,   “I’m sorry. I’m a musician, I don’t really have a lot of money. I’ll send you a CD, and you’re all always on the guest list, wherever we’re playing.  This is like a dream, I can’t believe it.”

He stepped in and looked at the collection of instruments on display in the front half of the house, which included 4 guitars, 2 violins, a trumpet, a saxophone, a zither, a clarinet, a drum, a set of chimes, two recorders, a mandolin and an accordion. He shook his head. I guess it could have seemed like retrieving a lost child from a well intentioned, but quirky orphanage.

Andy showed up, shook his hand, and the thank-yous were repeated.  Jacob never put his glasses back on, he kept covering his face with both hands.  He was very relieved, and a little weirded out.  We chatted until we actually needed to leave to get Zach where he was going.  I made him promise to put his name and number inside the instruments.  He agreed he would do so right away.

He had finished up a gig late at night two days before Zach found the cases.  He set them down while he was loading up his car, and driven away without them.  By the time he realized he didn’t have them, they had gone missing.  Whoever found them had peeled off the stickers and stashed the instruments near the railroad tracks, under a bridge.  I bet they’re mad.  But it made for a good story for us.

Math Complex

I’m taking a math class.  It’s to help me brush up for the GRE (a test graduate programs like to see before they decide whether or not to admit you).  Math was never my strong suit.  More than one teacher passed me because they knew I was working my butt off and they felt sorry for me.

My new math teacher is impossibly young.  He says people always say he looks younger than his age, which is reassuring since he looks about 20.  He’s Asian, stocky, clean-cut and full of himself.  Full of himself because he knows he’s right.  He’s on the side of truth and justice, self sufficiency and hard work.  Math.  He’s on the side of math. Unfairly maligned, too often blamed and made the whipping boy of the undisciplined and the lazy mind.

On the first day of class, as he’s handing out course materials he begins to try to indoctrinate us.  It’s subtle.  “You guys should think about something while you’re here.  Every day I hear people say they’re not good at math, or that they can’t do math, that they hate math.  It’s socially acceptable.  People admit it all the time.  But do you ever hear people say they’re not good at reading, or they hate reading?  People would never admit that.  Why?  It’s something to think about.”

Something to think about indeed.  Let me process for a minute, here…. Ok, done.  I hate my new math teacher.

We get to the part of class where we’re talking about percents.  He decides to tell us a cautionary tale.  Once, while walking through the mall, he saw a big sale at Bed, Bath and Beyond.  40 percent off everything.  He spied a beautiful trash can, one he’d been wanting for a long time.  Stainless, with a pneumatic closer so it won’t slam shut.  It started off around a hundred and fifty bucks.  He grabbed his find and took it to the counter.

He figured the girl behind the counter was about 16 years old.  She rang him up and told him his total was 60 bucks.  Being an upstanding citizen, he told the girl that couldn’t be right.  She said, nope, that’s the right price.  He started to try to explain the difference between forty percent of something and forty percent off something.  He said he finally gave up and took his generous discount… Because (and here we see the weak-minded get their just desserts despite the benevolent attempts of the math-ters), “I decided, look, if they’re dumb enough to hire someone like that, they deserve what they get.”

In case you’re the type of person for whom math comes easily, but writing or parsing out language does not, let me walk you through what I heard on my first day of math class after 20 years off.

Underlying implications:

  • It is socially acceptable to be bad at math, and to admit it
  • It is socially unacceptable to be bad at reading and to admit it.  Reading being the favorite son of the society.
  • If we are bad at math, it is probably due to our willingness to accept that as our fate, due to the prejudice our culture has against math.  If we are good at it, it is due at least in part to our ability to surmount the social pressures trying to dumb us down.  Our moral superiority shines through the dark cloud of anti-intellectualism.
  • No one is dumb enough to admit they aren’t a good reader, this is because our culture provides support and encouragement, making the inability to read a non-option
  • People who are bad at math shouldn’t be hired, and it’s ok to take advantage of them without feeling bad
  • Not only is it OK to take advantage of them, but also anyone who deigns to employ them or otherwise give them legitimacy.
  • It is acceptable to spend ninety dollars on a container for your trash.

Setting aside the fact that we’ve spent thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars trying to get our son to be able to read, I was a little insulted.

The more hours I invest into trying to learn math, the more angry I get.  I sort of believed what people said to me for a long time which was this:  “You’re a smart girl, you have a high IQ, there is no reason you can’t do math.  You’ve bought into the societal expectation that girls aren’t good at math, and you’re not really trying.”

Now I remember glazing over in math class in high school, so maybe I was lazy.  But in college, I remember trying really hard.  I couldn’t make things stick in my head.  Even that I had chalked up to being distracted, unmotivated or poorly taught.  This time, I was going to (am still going to) really try hard.  Focus and do my homework, pay attention in class, ask for help when I don’t understand.

Every time I do math homework, I come close to tears.  Every.  Time.  I think of myself as a competent person who can do anything she sets her mind to.  This is the decade of my life where I learn to accept my limits.  I’m still going to work hard (hours every day) to improve my math score (which was in the 33rd percentile).  But I’m going to know that when I have trouble, it’s because the math part of my brain was accidentally coated in Teflon during production.  It makes things harder for me.

The numbers and chunks of problems seem like they move around on the page when I do homework.  I can’t seem to accurately transcribe a problem from one part of the page to the other.  I can get a problem right, but when it comes to to the next problem of the same type, I suddenly cannot remember how I did the last one. Sometimes when I narrate out loud, I say one number, but write a different one (which I only notice when someone who’s working with me, stops me).   It’s like trying to watch a pixellated TV screen, or one where the horizontal control is out of whack.

I’m not asking for disability payments,or anything.  I’m just asking for a little nonjudgmental understanding, and an admission of what a crap-shoot intelligences are.  Math people, I’m just asking for you to help me as best you can, without being so overtly disdainful.  That’s all.  There’s something awry with my wiring and I can’t fix it.

Those of you who can do math, please consider letting go of the idea that I’m lazy, or the product of a broken society.   I realize this means I’ll have to tolerate your inability to differentiate between ‘women’ and ‘woman’, Mr. Hmong speaking math professor, without feeling like you’re just careless.  I’ll have to let go of my little twinge of superiority when you misspell  words like there, their and they’re, you’re, your, were, where, we’re, etc. I’ll miss feeling superior, but I’ll really understand what you mean when you say you’re just a bad speller.

First Initiation to 40

I had my first mammogram recently.  It wasn’t as bad as everyone said it would be.  I was kind of relieved.  Yeah they squished my breasts mechanically, but the technician was nice, and although it was a little uncomfortable, it wasn’t painful.  She warmed the equipment up with a heating pad while I got gowned.  She handled my body as if I were livestock she really hated to send to the slaughter, but that’s what the 4H program dictated.  She was gentle and firm.

A week or so later, I got notice that they wanted me to come in for a second mammogram, but not at their clinic.  They wanted me to go to the University Breast Center and have digital mammography.  Now the only digital exam I have had done (that I recall) is one they like to call the “digital rectal exam”, which is one they like to spring on a person who is already in the stirrups, and at no particularly discernible interval.  It’s like playing nasty Russian Roulette every time.  This had to be better than that.

Anyway… Who wouldn’t want to go to somewhere called the Breast Center?  It sounds round and soft and pleasant, doesn’t it?  Warm and homey.  Peaches and Creamy, friendly and nice.  Aside from the slightly unnerving fact that they didn’t like my first mammogram, I wasn’t dreading this visit too much.   I should have been.  It was way worse than the first, except that they gave me a clean bill of breastly health when it was all over.

The Breast Center was not warm, it was freezing cold.  They take you back, get you gowned in a semi-private waiting/changing area and have you sit in that area until they’re ready for you.  Now I was cold and half-naked.  That sucked.  They have hot-chocolate packages and hot water to make yourself cocoa, but you can’t bring it back with you under any circumstances.  I know.  I tried.  The nurse hissed at me and said she could get me another gown, if I was cold.  And hell yeah, I was cold.  Remember, people I keep my house at 65 in the winter. I can handle a chill.  This was COLD.  My goosebump and nipple erector muscles were getting tired.

The machinery they used to do the mammogram is similar, but different in three ways.  First and most importantly, it was not warmed by a heating pad by a nice nurse/technician.  Secondly, it is digital and therefore the nurse/tech person can see immediately if the pictures are good.  Thirdly, whereas the first set of mammograms I had done merely squished my breasts to the thickness of a decent pancake, this place seemed to have the machine set on ‘crepe’.

It wasn’t even the squishing that hurt the most.  It was her driving my ribcage into the corner of the machine so as to get a better shot.   The feeling was a lot like what I get when they give me an exray at the dentist.  That’s usually the worst part of the exam.  Seems like I must have a very small jaw, because the corners of that little cardboard thing always dig into the tender area under my tongue even after the hygienist does that worthless little bending-of-the-corners maneuver.

It hurt, it was cold, and the nurse had none of the nice 4H attitude.  She was all business, angry even.   The nerve of me,  having breasts and bringing them into her cold and sterile breast center.