• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: The Big Chill

Dealing with the cold.

January 9, 2014

The concept of “inverse” is central to Algebra of all kinds. In basic algebra an inverse might be –x or 1/x, depending on whether the operation is addition or multiplication, while in linear algebra an inverse matrix helps us solve a multitude of equations at once. Further, in Modern (or “Abstract”) Algebra, the concept of “inverse” plays a central role in group theory. I found myself thinking of inverses much of this week, as I learned that the continent of Australia, in some ways directly opposite Ohio on the globe (an inverse?), was experiencing a heat wave just as we were in a deep freeze.

The week began with excitement for most school children in our town as the first two snow days of 2014 were called just as school was supposed to resume from winter break. As my classes had yet to begin, I was lucky that I could stay home to watch my daughter and, as it works out, host some of the neighborhood children for games and hot chocolate. This was a generally good time, but, as the week unfolded, the snow days accumulated, and as they did, I learned of the fate of many of my neighbors. It seems the family down the street with five children had no heat at all, while another family, who are avid campers, “camped” in their family room with the help of a space heater when their heat failed. I felt guilty complaining about the fact that the heater to the addition to my own home was not working, making the bedrooms the only warm part of the house. It made me realize that there are some who battle such issues every winter, and that having access to warm heat is not necessarily a given in our economy. With “wind chill factors” well below zero, I wondered what those without a place to stay were doing each night. I hoped and trusted that there were shelters where they could find some warmth, all the while knowing that economists like me should be spending more time making sure that this assumption is true.

In our neighborhood, children of all ages play together on a regular basis. In the summer, this often means traveling in a group from one person’s back yard to another’s front yard. However, in the winter, it usually means going to each other’s homes to watch movies and eat popcorn or drink hot chocolate. And so, with at first two, and eventually three snow days at their disposal, the neighborhood children visited each other’s homes. For us, this meant that we had a group of children in our home one day as the snow fell. As is usually the case, I was glad that they had chosen our home to congregate in, as it meant that I knew where my daughter was, and who she was with.

Of course, with a group of kids in my family room, I did not get anywhere near as much work done as I had hoped. I had planned on using the week to finish my syllabi and even work on some research. But as the week wore on, it became obvious that the most I could count on was revising old syllabi, with some changes that I had already decided upon. I played the particularly strange juggling act as I flitted between revising a Calculus syllabus and whipping up some pasta for everyone to eat for lunch, knowing full well that I was much more comfortable with teaching Calculus than with feeding other peoples’ children. When the announcement was made that a third snow day was called, I admit that I was not particularly happy.

Even as a blanket of snow covered our neighborhood, and the children congregated in our family room, life continued on in a somewhat normal pattern. The usual ebb and flow of life could be seen between the snowflakes. The boy down the street had his beloved dog die, while the teenager across the street finally allowed my daughter to visit the bunny she had received as a Christmas gift. Slowly, those without heat were re-connected with working gas lines, and school was eventually resumed. I must admit that I was happy to have the extended winter vacation end. However, I found myself thinking of the people on the opposite side of the Earth who had been sweltering even as we had been freezing. I was not sure which I would have preferred, but I was reminded of a poem by Robert Frost that I learned as a child, “Fire and Ice.”

And so, my readers, in all of the 49 states besides Hawaii that experienced freezing temperatures this past week, how did you spend the “big chill”?

Wishing all of my readers a wonderful new semester!


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