Thursday, October 30, 2008


So when I was 29, I was married and had a kid. I started freaking out about the Big Three-Oh. I was getting OLD! I hadn't GOTTEN anywhere in life! I hadn't finished my DEGREE! And that was a Big Hairy DEAL! I'd managed to finish one year of college right of high school, dropped out before the end of my third semester, and had been hacking away at it piecemeal ever since, one community college course at a time. I had more schools on my transcript than Sarah Palin, fer chrissakes.

Fuck it. I decided I was going back to school full-time to get those last two years out of the way and get my DEGREE. Because then I would have ACCOMPLISHED something.

Hey, at the time it seemed like a big deal.

So I did. I applied and FAFSA-ed and transcripted and I went back to school full-time the next Fall. I started out in computer science, since I liked computers and already did computer-y things for a living, but it didn't take me long to realize that what I really liked was math. Gloriously-abstract-deliciously-above-anything-practical math. And apparently math liked me back. I did well and felt like I was finally doing GREAT THINGS with my life.

I did well enough that I was encouraged to apply for grad school. And of course, if you're going to grad school in math, you want to go into pure math; not the mundane, ordinary, common applied math. (Even if you really liked applied math.)

So I applied and interviewed and GRE-ed and FAFSA-ed and was, miracle of miracles, accepted in the pure math program -- with an assistantship! -- at a Good Private University. Wasn't I the shit?

The term started. I met my classmates and was a little dismayed. I think I was the oldest one (at the ripe age of 31). I wasn't the only married one but I was the only one with a child. I definitely was the only one married to a currently deploying active duty military member, and the only one commuting 45 minutes each way. Hmmm... one of these things is not like the others...

Doubts about my abilities aside, the immediate problem was that I already had a life. One that I couldn't give up for a math-centric lifestyle, no matter how shiny.

The professors, bless their hearts, went about the business of making sure that the STUDENTS paid their DUES, as had the generations of TAs before. But I didn't have a lot of patience for dues-paying. I had shit to do. The tension between the married-with-family life I had and the grad-student lifestyle I was supposed to have escalated. I wanted this so bad, why wasn't it WORKING?

Finally, my MOMENT OF CLARITY came in my first class in Measure Theory*. I had no notion of what in the holy hell Measure Theory was. I opened the deceptively slim, yet somehow outrageously expensive red volume in front of me, frantically seeking some context. I flipped past the title page, searching for the introductory material; you know, the part where the author explains what branch of mathematics this area of study sprang from, major discoveries in the field, blah, blah,blah. Nope. Nothing. The very first words in that book are forever burned into my brain:

Let S be a space.

OK, ok, I know. Anyone who's sat through any sort of abstract math class knows this is just your standard 'define your terms' kind of thing. No big, right? Unfortunately, at that moment, it was big. That one bald, 'keep up, you poser, or go home' declaration somehow severed the last tenuous connection between the math I knew and understood and the huge, scary, wasteland of math OUT THERE that was beyond any hope of comprehension. By me, at least.

I knew I was well and truly fucked.

It took awhile for me to come to grips with the fact that I had failed. I couldn't do this. I had to drop out. Total elapsed time = One month.

As weird as it sounds, I had never failed at anything before. Up to that point in my young life, I had either quit or conquered everything I had put my mind to. I had never failed.

At that moment I became a mere mortal, with limits. I guess that's called growing up, huh?

* Ah, Wikipedia, where were you in 1991??

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