Eleanor and “French Math”

My mother’s side of the family is French and when I was young, we used to spend my birthday weekend/Memorial Day visiting with them. And while there were many aspects of these trips that I enjoyed, the visits were never very kid-friendly. I usually felt underfoot and like one of the adults was doing me a favor by watching me*. Then, when you factor in all of the adults speaking French and/or (though usually and) about France, relatives I didn’t know, and art/music, it was like being in a constant state of confusion.

And every year, things really came to a head when we went out to dinner on my birthday. It was a big affair that involved fancy clothing (often my arch-nemesis, the pale blue frilly blouse that had a habit of unbuttoning itself every few minutes and the flowered skirt that “I-was-absolutely-under-no-circumstances-to-spill-anything-on”), my very best table manners, and sitting across the table from my 100-year-old great-grandmother who terrified me.

My mother insists that she has never met anyone who has ever lived up to my grandmémé’s standards, and while I understood that it was probably true, I still was determined to be the anomaly. Of course, things never went as planned, and I somehow always managed to mess up and be swatted at within five minutes of sitting down. The swatting would be accompanied by some remark in French that I did not understand, and some adult would whisper in my ear what I supposed to say in response. I would manage to bungle the sentence, the adult would have to apologize for me, and the cycle would continue until I finally gave up on trying to be perfect and got incredibly antsy.

It was on my eighth birthday that my dad introduced me to what he called “French math.”

“Okay, Eleanor, so you know how you have to kiss everyone hello and goodbye? Now, I want you to add up how many kisses that is going to be. Remember Mémé, Grandmémé, and your great aunts each get four, and everyone else gets two.”

I’d work out the sum in my head, and then my dad would change it up so that I had to come up with the number of kisses for the people with blue eyes or everyone wearing black. Eventually, this turned into me making up my own rules for calculating kisses, and I’ve done it during every long family dinner since.

So the next time you find yourself stuck in a room full of French people you are going to have to kiss, you can pull out this trick and go wild.

Note: You can adopt it for hugs when you’re not with the French, but the level of difficulty and fun vastly decreases, so I’d suggest that you instead spend your time changing the lyrics of Yankee Doodle or plotting escape routes in case of an attack.

*Or often not watching, with the case in point being the time I nearly drowned in the pool when I was five because all of the adults thought someone else had an eye on me.

The Limits of Ella’s Abilities

Today was another day of nose to the grindstone writing. My eyes are blurry from staring at a computer screen for too long, and I would do anything to escape from the tyranny of Scrivner. And while I am pleased with myself for having met my daily word count, I can’t help but feel frustrated.

I wrote about this last year, but one of the things that frustrates me the most is the limits of my abilities. I can feel like I’m doing everything I possibly can, and yet I’m still not living up to the right level. With upper level math in high school, I could spend hours trying to understand a concept and still have no idea what I was supposed to be doing.

When it comes to writing, I feel like I am forever living on the brink, that I just need one more shove to topple over into quality prose, but I can’t figure out how to make it there on my own. I’m quite literally doing everything I can. I read voraciously; I write upwards of 2,000 words a day; I study the industry; and I absorb all of the advice and instruction I can find. And yet it is never enough. I often worry that despite my constant efforts and my decision to devote this entire year to writing, I will never be able to create anything of value.

But it’s foolish to be consumed with frustration over my limitations. The only way I’ll ever expand them is if I continue ramming into them with as much persistence and force as I do now. Practice is the only way to ever improve. As hard as it is to banish these insecurities, I need to find a way to persevere without allowing them to consume me. I need to remain excited and in love with my work and create without thinking about the possibility of failure.

Let’s do this thing, Ella, and get back to work.

Right now, I’m writing the book I have always wanted to read, and the project is wonderful. I find myself wising that it could be over already so that I could enjoy the story in its entirety rather than only being able to reread what I’ve poorly drafted over the course of the last month.

Yesterday’s post seems to have created a lot of buzz down in the comments section, something that I’ve found very interesting to read. I’ve run out of words for the day, so I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to respond.

In Which Ella Is Worn Out

I would love to gripe about math to you, to tell you just how hard I’m trying and just how much I continue to fail, but I won’t. Because I’ve done that a lot already and no one needs to hear it again.

Instead, maybe I’ll tell you about how bothersome it is to have run out of shelf space and room for new bookshelves, about how I’ve got stacks of books inside the cubbies of my desk, in piles next to the closet, and balanced on top of the books already in my three, large bookcases. But I’d bet that would be annoying, too. No one likes to listen to storage complaints.

I think something upbeat, amusing, fun would be a good choice. I probably ought to recount yesterday’s adventure before some of the details slide from my memory, before the images of the parks and signing become a bit more pixilated.

Ah, but you’ve forgotten that I’m worn out today. There was the calming down from yesterday’s overwhelming amount of stimuli and today’s surprise three-hour-long babysitting job. There was even a huge sleep-deficit to make up. All I can bare to do is study for the SAT, watch videos on Khan Academy, and read.

But I didn’t lie in bed and stare at the wall all day. That’s an activity only for my “dark days” when I’m too depressed to travel further than the bathroom. I was busy until mid-afternoon, and I spent a long time talking to Pippa and Cecelia*, though not at the same time and not about the same things.

In other news, Pippa and I have finally gotten into Pottermore, so there was sorting and wand-getting to be done. Pippa’s a Ravenclaw with a 14-inch unicorn hair rowan wand, and I’m a Gryffindor with a 10 3/4 inch unicorn hair rowan wand. And, you know, that is pretty darn exciting.

There are numerous “extras” to read where Rowling finally explains McGonagall’s past and the history of the Hogwarts Express, and there are all sorts of flash games to “brew” potions and “duel” other students. I like the reading, but Pippa likes the playing, so I’ll probably end up giving her access to my account to get me more points. Such is the beauty of younger sisters**. You can always persuade (force) them to do the things you don’t want to***.

*Cecelia is the greatest.

**I’m kidding, of course. I do not recommend mistreating your younger sister. She will grow up to be taller, bigger, and scarier than you, and you will regret every single dollar you conned her out of when you were ten. Also, I hear being nice is considered a “good” quality.

***From the time I was six until I was twelve, I forced Pippa to drink my milk at dinner. Surprisingly, my mother never had a clue until we told her earlier this year.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if you’re into that kind of thing.

In Which Ella Uses Her Head As A Battering Ram

I spent a good portion of today studying math for the SAT.

As I’ve said before, here and here and here, I am not exceptionally good at math, though it has never been for lack of interest or trying. (I’m that kid that does really well in the honors level class because she studies her butt off and memorizes things for the test, only to promptly forget them a day later.) It’s not that I struggle spatially, I’m quite good with navigation, I just get distracted incredibly easily and frequently end up working too quickly for my own good.

I have to admit that I am rarely able to read something entirely in order; I usually read the first sentence of a paragraph, skip to the middle, read the last sentence or two, and then go back and fill in the remaining details unless I’ve become incredibly immersed in the subject. This is not, of course, to say that I am incapable of reading–I read constantly and with a lot of ease, and I do very well in English class–I just do it very strangely.

The same sort of thing happens when I’m trying to accomplish most other tasks. I try to do it all at once. It works fine if I’m doing something simple like putting on socks or buttoning something–I’ve long since mastered the art of doing the buttoning one handed with one hand starting at the top of the garment and the other starting at the bottom and the two of them meeting in the middle, and I can put on both of my socks at the exact same time (one of my childhood “parlor tricks”)–but it does not bode well for math.

Unless I’m doing some sort of math that requires racing and thinking quickly, I begin to get really, really fidgety and my mind begins to wander as I do the problem. I usually begin to become so obsessively focussed on focussing that I’m suddenly not paying full attention to the problem I’m trying to solve. This usually leads to me doing things like declaring that one and one sum to eleven or just forgetting about some part of the equation in its entirety. And it’s mortifying.

I also really struggle to pay attention during math class. I love taking notes, but the moment I decide to look back over what I’ve written, it’s just a neat set of numbers and equations without words connecting any of it, and I can’t make heads or tails of what just happened. I’ve tried everything: I write on special paper, I have a color-coded system, and I’ve done tutoring. Nothing has helped except banging my head against the wall and dramatically moaning “WHY ME? WHY ME?”

And it makes me so incredibly anxious not be good at something the moment I try it. I’m competitive; I have this insatiable urge to be the best (which is a problem for another day). I’m used to being in the upper tier and that just doesn’t happen when it comes to math. I get A’s, but I don’t really deserve them. I just always do my homework and classwork and memorize. I very rarely understand what I’m actually doing.

But back to this afternoon’s studying. I am a HUGE fan of prep books. I’ve taken tests for classes that I haven’t taken before and done well because I studied the book. So when I opened up one of my SAT prep books to the math section, I thought that it would be pretty smooth sailing. It, however, was not. I quickly discovered that I knew next to nothing, and that the detailed descriptions in the book of how to solve the problems just didn’t make any sense.

So here I am, nine hours later, switching between problem sets in the book and videos on Khan Academy still trying to figure it out, feeling as though I am trying to ram through a castle’s walls using my head as the battering ram. I’ll let y’all know if I ever even make a dent in the stone without causing permanent damage to my brain.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if you’re into that kind of thing.

In Which Ella Declares Her Love for the Idea of Math and Gets Defeated by Trig Identities

I am absolutely fascinated by math. I love the way that it explains the world around me and makes sure that the buildings I am in don’t collapse. I love the way that circles are actually just bloated triangles and that rhombuses aren’t the same shape as squares. I love how it can help me figure out the likelihood that something will happen, and how close I am to finishing tasks. Unfortunately, this appreciation has not transfered into prowess.

Now, I know that I am not an exceptional math student and will never be able to become an actuary or engineer, but I like to fancy myself somewhat capable. If you teach me a concept, I can quickly grasp it and repeat it with high accuracy, and this has been the case ever since I was introduced to the concept that when you put two groups of things together, you get more stuff. (Interestingly, most babies can do addition and subtraction at a few months. And by addition and subtraction, I mean they look surprised when you show them one object, put up a screen, and then drop the screen and show them two or more of the same object.)

So I’m stuck doing the entire Trig/Calc curriculum before the end of the school year. It’s actually been quite easy so far and kinda fun. I follow the directions and boom! I get the answer. Of course, I don’t know when I’ll ever use this stuff again, but it’s nice having something to do that’s methodical. No one is asking me to analyze anything, and perfect answers are both possible and easy to obtain. The security of knowing that you are entirely right and that no one will ever challenge your answer is so reassuring. (I only feel this way about simple mathematics, though. The fact there are no entirely right answers or perfect solutions is one of things I love most about the world.)

Today, I gamely headed off to the library to enjoy the air-conditioning and work on my Chapter Seven packet. I did the last few problems on the first page easily, and flipped it over to discover that 7-2 was all about Verifying Trig Identities, and for me, that is a really funny joke. I have been taught how to verify trig identities four times. Once by my old math teacher, who besides being senile, was not very good, and three times by the teacher I have now. It’s rather embarrassing.

I settled into my chair, tucking one leg between my chest and the table and sitting on my other ankle, and spent a good forty-five minutes staring at the worksheet. I answered the one my teacher helped me start correctly, and finished another that may or may not be right. (It probably isn’t since I changed the sign of a number to make the verification true, which you’re apparently not allowed to do. So much for being creative.) I felt like an idiot. It wouldn’t make sense no matter how hard I tried. I know that the problems are doable, and they make sense when other people solve them, I’m just clueless when I do them on my own.

But I am going to figure them out. There has got to be some secret that will make this all make sense, and I am going to find it. I’ve watched all the Khan Academy videos, and I’m going to go in to get help tomorrow. We’ll see how it goes, but I refused to be defeated by something as simple as trigonometry.

In Which Ella Gleefully Shares Math With You

Today’s post comes to you today by numbers!

As a rule, I am generally not fond of math, and I dislike it for two reasons. One, I am not particularly good at it, and two, I dislike problems with only one solution. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to discover a few things. The purpose of math is not to make me cry, and it can actually be more than a little fascinating. It’s less about the certainty that two and two make four, and more about how circles are actually bloated triangles. It’s an abstract system that explains the world around us, and not a torture mechanism designed to cause me distress.

I’ve been thinking about math a lot lately, especially the way that my body automatically does it to figure out when I can cross the street without being hit by cars, so you can imagine my surprise and happiness at discovering that John’s Vlogbrother’s video today was all about “the education continuum and why math and literature both help us understand the universe in surprisingly similar ways.” This was exactly what I had been stewing over for weeks! Yessss! Validation! I thought and immediately scurried off to share the video with the masses.

I’ve posted the video below, and I hope you’ll watch it.

Kidnapping the Magical Math Elves

Today, I trudged up the street through the snow and drizzle to Tal’s house so that she could help me with math. As I walked, I wanted to throw my notebook into the air, watch it become soaked on the ground, and stomp on it. But I didn’t, because I am a Big Girl now. So I took several deep breaths, kept moving, and braced myself for the anxiety and panic associated with not understanding math.

I sat down at Tal’s family room table and proudly showed off the seven problems that I completed by myself. Then, we got to the hard stuff. The stuff I missed. The stuff that might as well be Ancient Greek. But Tal was my Rosetta Stone. Patiently, she explained each problem, writing explanations on the back of an email from the Guidance Department. And it all made sense. Of course, arcsin x was the same thing as sin-1 x! Who doesn’t know that arcsines and sines cancel each other out?

My heart rate didn’t elevate, my breathing wasn’t ragged, and I didn’t feel any waves of electric anxiety. Doing this math was easy. No more Magical Math Elves. And it’s all thanks to Tal. I don’t think she’ll ever know just how grateful I am.

I’ve got those magical math elves bound with zip ties and in a tarp filled with rocks. Anyone want to drive to river with me to dump them in?

The Magical Math Elves

Last year, I missed six months of school (fun times) due to mental illness. While I was able to keep with English HH, AP US History, and Government Studies all on my lonesome, AP Biology, Trig/Calc HH and AP French went into the garbage pail. Teaching yourself those subjects is incredibly difficult. I managed to learn enough biology to do well on the SAT II, but I can’t exactly look at the plant cells required for AP labs when I’m in an outpatient facility all day. And me successfully figuring out derivations on my own is a joke. A really hilarious makes-your-sides-hurt joke.

Despite all that, I like math, I really do. I love figuring out angles, percentages, and prices, playing with triangles, circles, and squares, and figuring out the heights and areas of things. I did incredibly well in Geometry and Algebra One, but I just managed to squeak by in Algebra II.

This year, I’m stuck in Pre-Calculus Honors because Trig/Calc HH wouldn’t fit in my schedule, and man, do I feel like an idiot. I managed to miss almost every class in January and February, so I not only have no idea what’s going on right now, but I also have no idea what led up to it. Apparently, knowing that cos^2 α + sin^2 α = 1 is essential to figuring out equations that use cos 2α = cos2 α − sin2 α, and wouldn’t it be great if I knew what the heck cos^2 α + sin^2 α = 1 meant so that I could just attempt cos 2α = cos^2 α − sin^2 α?

Everyday last week I sat in class willing the numbers and letters to somehow make sense. I was just dying for that Eureka! moment to happen so that I could leap out of the bathtub and run through the streets naked, just like Archimedes did when he stepped into a bath and noticed that the water level rose. Only, I wasn’t on planning on discovering that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of object submerged, I just want an A on Wednesday’s quiz, preferably a high one.

But I’m just completely mystified. I’ve spent several hours in the library with my math textbook, trying all the verifications on my own before looking them up in the back. So far, I haven’t been able to complete a single one. When I’m in class, staring at the board and furiously scribbling notes, I sit there wondering how on earth the teacher knew to input that formula or knew to flip those numbers. It all just seems to happen arbitrarily.

This has led me to the conclusion that I am not the stupid one here. Instead, there are these magical math elves that are creating these crazy answers just to mess with me. But let me warn you, elves, I’m on to you and ready to take you down.