Monday, June 14, 2021

Reading | Mission To Mars

Mission To Mars | Michael Collins

The year was 1990, and America's space program was set on snooze. Apollo's glory days had long since passed, space station dreams were fizzling away, and the post-Challenger explosion shuttle program was gasping for breath. In the midst of these doldrums, the voice of this former astronaut rings clear and true: "Cut the crap and let's put a man on Mars." 

In this book, Collins organizes the obstacles to be overcome into two categories: scientific, though the technicalities of how to safely send humans to Mars and get them back again have been mostly solved, and political, which boil down to a pair of overlapping concerns about how to build international collaboration and where to get the money. After sorting through the imposing list of challenges, Collins does an about face and with a surprising deft touch, lays out a delightful and detailed what-if narrative of an imaginary first voyage to the red planet. His vision is clear and his enthusiasm is contagious, and for the record, he's very much in favor of women in space. So, let's cut the crap and put a man - or a woman - on Mars!

* * * * *

I'm interested in science but I am not a science-y person. 

Which is to say that while I love reading about space exploration, I do not enjoy technical dissertations on rocket propulsion, fuel technologies, or optimal trajectories through the solar system. Dear Michael Collins, my very most favorite astronaut and Command Module Pilot of historic Apollo 11 - he was the dude who drove around the moon 30 times while the other two landed and bounced around on the surface - truly gets me. 

First and foremost, he writes with passion and humor, and just enough detail to make me feel like I'm wrapping my brain around the issues without triggering a systems overload. Secondly, he deploys the traditional three-act structure of classic literature to skillfully draw me into his cleverly blended fiction/nonfiction construction. And finally, Collins' joyfully imaginative story of eight humans traveling together for the first Mars landing charms me beyond words. 

Though I've been ambivalent about it for decades, after reading this book, I'm now a true believer and passionate proponent of manned flight to the red planet.

 Let's go to Mars!

Saturday Afternoon

"Always the journey, never the destination." -Simon Rattle

Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

We've all heard it a hundred times before: life is about the process of becoming, and every day is another step in that all-important journey. We never truly 'arrive' anywhere at all; we simply keep walking and learning and growing.

I really, truly do believe that is true. 

Sometimes, however, I believe it is also okay to lie back on your lounge chair, as a gentle sun warms your bones and honeybees buzz over the peonies, and say to yourself, "All things considered, this journey I'm on is going pretty darn well."

And that is exactly what I did on Saturday afternoon. 

Friday, June 11, 2021

Life Of A Math Teacher: Math Awards!

It doesn't matter how many times you win an award; it's always very special. 
-Zinedine Zidane

I don't know if you've heard the news, but most teenagers consider studying math to be...boring.

I know. That's a shocker, isn't it.

Despite my utter fascination and boundless enthusiasm for solving for x, graphing nonlinear functions, and figuring out exactly what happened to those two trains - northbound and southbound, no doubt - which left the station at the very same time, my students do not always love to do math.

More precisely, I should probably say that they they don't always love to wade through the heaps of homework, and I certainly understand that.

Because the simple truth of the matter is that studying math is not always fun. 

I try my best - and Gracie helps - to inject some levity into the endless hours of droning lectures, but by the end of the school year, I feel I've built up a considerable deficit of amusement in my students' lives, and this year, as I often have in the past, I've attempted to remedy the situation with math awards.

What are math awards, you ask?

A perfectly reasonable question, considering that I made them up.

A math award is a light-hearted acknowledgement of what makes each student special. It takes shape as a collage-y bit of paper scraps, at the heart of which is a sentence or two that explains the specifics of this student's unique and spectacular mathiness. Hopefully, words and images come together to bestow honor and prestige upon my young Newtons and Einsteins, and they bask in the glory of this celebratory token. 

In past years, I've chosen themes and dovetailed each student's particular award to suit the overall motif. I've done fairy tales, Star Wars, Harry Potter, nursery rhymes, and Lord of the Rings, just to name a few. This year, which was particularly challenging because of our online format and limited interactions, I went with a series of random objects - flowers, cookies, Stealth bombers, topiary labyrinths - to coordinate the prizes.

Here, see for yourself:

Considering the hundreds of hours my amazing and deeply dedicated students pour into their studies, my little tokens barely scratch the surface of their commitment.

But in celebrating their hard work and accomplishments with my math awards, I can only hope my students feel just a tiny hint of how proud I am of them, one and all.
Ready for delivery!

* * * * *

Read more stories about my life as a math teacher lately:

Tuesday, June 8, 2021


 "No man knows the value of innocence and integrity but he who has lost them."

-William Godwin

Oh my gosh, look.

It's a photo of the Brighton Area High School Tennis Team, circa 1974. Pretty sure we were celebrating the end of the season with a swim party at a family home, and capped the event with this group portrait.

For the past couple days - ever since my friend and fellow former member of this exclusive racket club forwarded me this gem from her archives - I've been staring at it in utter fascination.

Because there's something about us that just feels odd. 

Or maybe more precisely, something about us that reads different - very, very different - than photos of high school athletes taken in more recent times. 

Two things catch my eye:

1. We don't look very athletic. Where are the bulging biceps, the toned quads, the tight, lean faces of today's student athletes? The matching team warm-ups and the overpriced trainers? For crying out loud, where's the spandex? Yeah, we weren't much into intense physical conditioning. And we certainly didn't work on year-round tennis conditioning. Shoot, we just showed up in April, once the Michigan snow had finally melted, with whatever second-hand rackets we could beg, borrow, or steal, and a fresh can of fluorescent bouncy balls, and set to work. We loved tennis for its wacky scoring system (Love, 15, 30, 40, Game, Set, Match!), the sunny afternoons spent practicing in the fresh air, and the wholesome competition. But budding little Martinas and Bjorns we were not. 

2. We have no idea how to pose for a photo. I mean, look at us. Slouching and slumped, arms crossed, vacant expressions drifting across most of our faces. Sure, there's that one boy who's cracking up as the wise guy in the back row pulls a white swim cap down over the head of the gold aviators dude, but otherwise, we are remarkably lifeless. We exist in a time light years before the MySpace generation taught us how to smile, smirk, and sexify ourselves for the camera, and our innocence leaps out at me across the years. 

That's it. 


That's the precise quality that defines our funny little group, all awkward expressions and lanky limbs.

We were innocent.

And as I stare at myself in this photo, unassumingly swallowed up by a blue beach towel and inexplicably smiling at the ground, I am thankful beyond words that I grew up in a time when teenagers were allowed their innocence. 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Reading | The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff | Tom Wolfe

Care to read a take on the early days of the space race as written by a literary aristocrat? Let's talk about the author first. Mr. Tom Wolfe was one of a kind, a bit of a midcentury-modern Oscar Wilde, famous for his trademark white suits and hyperventilating style of prose, self-described as New Journalism. Norman Mailer once compared Wolfe's writing style to having sex with a 300 pound woman - "Fall in love or be asphyxiated" - though Wolfe himself explained, "It's a tantrum. It's a wonderful tantrum." Examples of Wolfe's handiwork include exclamation points - used often and frequently in pairs!! - and the phrase, "Screw the pooch," which perhaps he did not dream up but certainly employs to colorful and attention-grabbing success. 

Now let's consider his treatment of the dawning days of America's manned space flight. In this non-fiction classic, Wolfe lays bare the unique character of the original seven Mercury astronauts, and weaves a beautiful tapestry of their common history with the cowboys of the 1950s experimental flight test programs, but even more fascinating is his thesis of how and why the two groups parted ways. Based on thorough and exacting research,
The Right Stuff stares straight into the eyes of the Mercury Seven and dares to describe their certain je ne sais quoi, which ordinary words like courage and discipline fail to capture. 

* * * * *

In the past few months, I've been completely obsessed with the space race. Fascinated though I am, and voraciously searching for new and interesting insights on the saga of U.S. manned space flight, I am not, as the saying goes, reading everything I can get my hands on. Quite the opposite. Well aware that there are always plenty of clunkers in the literary canon of any particular topic, especially one as heady and distinctive as the cold war space race, I only want to read the best of the best. So I'm carefully picking my way through the recommended reading lists, devouring every delicious detail of the cream of the crop (I'm currently on my fifth, yes, FIFTH reading in a row of my favorite find, Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins), and hoping that each new book I read will not duplicate but complement the others, filling in new pieces of the space race puzzle. 

In that respect, The Right Stuff hits it clear out of the park. Wolfe is a bit of a whack job, but his research is sound, his theories are interesting, and his well-chosen and witty words laser in on exactly what it was that made those astronauts tick, and why the world loved them so. He writes with an understanding of how ordinary Americans perceived the Mercury Seven, and that hits home for me. 

The space race was a really big deal at my house, and informed my childhood in some wonderful ways. Not only was it a fabulous feat of great minds coming together to solve extraordinary challenges - from which I gathered that nerds are cool and Anything really is Possible - but the space race also uniquely united my otherwise unhappy science-loving parents, and gave little-me some rare glimpses of their enthusiastic, most optimistic selves. The space race infused my childhood with some much-needed happy vibes, and in learning more about the program, the missions, and the men who shot themselves out into space, I come full circle and learn new things about myself. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Change At The Beach

"There is nothing permanent except change." -Heraclitus

Last week, I went to the Mukilteo Beach.

Oh, I know. You've heard it all before.

Because I've been there a hundred different times. 

And each time, I breathlessly report in about my beach-going activities, as if they were fascinatingly novel and mind-blowing different from the umpteen gazillion other times I've gone to the beach.

As you well know, it always goes pretty much exactly like this:

First, my dog marches straight into the Puget Sound waters and wanders around a bit until she remembers that 

a) this water tastes strangely awful,
b) submerging oneself in ice water is really not that much fun,

and then she quickly hops back out again and shakes it all off like a bad dream.
Forget it. I'm freezing. 

Of course, I take at least forty-five pictures of this fifteen-second adventure. Always.

* * * * *

Next, I turn my eye to the greater surroundings.

Rippling waves.
Golden sunshine.

Rocky beach.
Drift logs. 

 And of course, a floating dock or a fishing pier, to add a dash of man-made geometry to this delicious dish of nature.
On the right, the tree-covered southern tip of Whidbey Island.
Hidden in the cloud bank straight ahead, the Olympic Peninsula and lots of pretty mountains.
To the left, visible only on the clearest days, the Seattle skyline. 

I dutifully snap away, as if noticing the scenery for the very first time.

Click click clickclickclickclickclick. 

As if there aren't a million shots of the very same vistas already sitting in my camera roll.

Trust me. There are. 

* * * * *

As I often do, I march over to the fish bar down the block, and treat myself. Permanently ensconced at the top of my preference list is the kid size (trust me, it's plenty big) chocolate and vanilla swirl soft serve ice cream cone. 

Predictably, I'm halfway back to the beach and ten licks in before I remember that I forgot - once again - to take a photo of my unsullied cone. 


* * * * *
Always cute. 

I wander back to the grassy lawn near the lighthouse where Gracie has hunted down hundreds of rabbits, licking my cone and reflecting on the comforting familiarity of this entire beachy ritual, when it finally hits me.

Tonight, there is something radically, entirely, fundamentally different about the beach.

The ferry dock is gone!

I mean, I knew this change was coming. It's been many long years of negotiation with state agencies to move this traffic-generating beast off the main drag in town, and give the entire ferry complex - docks, ramps, holding lots, ticket booths, overflow waiting lanes - all the space it needs to operate without completely clogging the arteries of the rest of town. 

I've even had the lovely opportunity to ride the ferry home and arrive at the new dock. 

But this is the very first time I've been to the beach since the move, and watching the big boats chug across the waters and land about a half mile up the shoreline instead of right on top of the beach boundary, well, this was a new and utterly novel experience.

And as I polish off my cone and watch yet another predictably glorious sunset unfold, I reflect on what a surprise it is to find that something has indeed changed at the beach. 

* * * * * 

Here are a few recent stories about Mukilteo Beach with photos that show the ferry parked at its old dock. For your Before and After pleasure.