Maurer/Stier 2015-16 (Bi)Annual Letter
206 Benjamin West Ave
Swarthmore PA 19081-1421
January 10, 2017
I never got a chance to send last year’s Annual, so I’m intercalating 2016 sections with 2015’s. There’s very little about Steve in this section, so he can tell his own story his own way in the next section.
Executive summary 2015: Mom overcame another bout of C diff and a fall in Sept and is back to living independently, Leon is in his 8th year of grad school and Genia is a post-Doc at North Carolina State, Aaron finished his Masters in Stat and took a job as a data scientist at Airbnb in SF, where he lives with Alex. We spent 10 days in Provence this spring, which was lovely, but since then Steve’s Parkinson’s has progressed. Work and volunteering continue for me, and I plan to retire in September of 2016.
Executive summary 2016: Mom well all year. Leon defended his dissertation in August and got a job at Sandia National Labs (in Albuquerque). Alex was accepted to a slew of law schools, and chose NYU. Aaron and Alex are engaged!!! Fran retired: continues volunteer gigs and struggling w/ Hebrew. Fran & Steve tour continuing care retirement communities (less scenic than Provence).
Mom 2015: Indomitable. She had an avulsion fracture in her foot in April, another bout of C diff. in May (but stayed out of the hospital). She fell and cut her knee open in September (Rosh Hashanah in the hospital was very cute, with multiple rabbis going from room to room to be sure that all the Jewish patients had a chance to hear the shofar). The cut got infected (which took her back to the hospital, so she and I spent Yom Kippur in the ER). She went back to rehab at The Amsterdam (this was just after the Pope’s visit) and by October she was back in her apartment.
Mom 2016: She continues attending book groups, concerts and plays, PT (now across the street), but gets tired more easily. We discovered The Comma Queen and her (the Queen’s, that is) Confessions. We saw Madame Butterfly at the Met (lovely). Mom jokes about how my sisters and I swoop in for visits, turn the apartment upside-down with our projects, and leave her exhausted. Maybe she’s not entirely joking.
Leon 2015: and Genya visited Costa Rica in January (pix here). Leon says the high point of his year was petting a squirrel monkey. From Genya
Leon and I made some friends here. Let me introduce you to coati and lizzy friends. To be honest, both of them were not very altruistic friends. Coati lost any interest in a friendship as soon as it realized we had no more bananas. But we think it's ok. Leon also got really close with a Mr. Toucan but the Internet connection here doesn't let me tell you about this wonderful relationship.
Today we hope to meet some hummingbirds and maybe a quetzal. It's a bird of the trogon order which is endangered and endemic to CR. A male quetzal has a really long pretty tail to show off. Males always like to show off, even some tall, dark, and handsome ones, but it's a different story which I will tell you next time when some tall, dark, and handsome doesn't look at my screen.
They missed their connection in Ft Lauderdale and their trip home took them flying FLL->DTW->MDW, subway MDW->OHR to get luggage, and then bus to Madison.
3/5/2015: Received the following from Genia, who went XC skiing last weekend w/ L & her lab-group, and photographed a troupe of flying squirrels that live on the UW campus (luring them in w/ PB). The only flying squirrel I ever saw before was Rocky.
Hi Fran and Steve,
Here are flying squirrels. Leon is going to claim that they don't exist. Don't trust him; he is just jealous. Indeed, only porcupines don't exist, but all other creatures do. [This week we went up north with my lab, and everybody saw a porcupine, but not Leon and me. So I think these creatures were just made up by people. Really, it's usually described as a fur ball on a tree. This is highly unrealistic because fur balls can't climb a tree. Oh, I forgot to say. This weekend I found a barred owl who was hunted by a bobcat while eating a flying squirrel. My mentor and I think it's supercool. Well, to be precise, I found only some feathers of an owl and a skull of a flying squirrels. But you can't ask too much, can't you? Leon and I had a disagreement about how to transport these precious findings home. Leon didn't want to donate me his sandwich bag. He is all about food. Did you feed him as a kid? Ok, I got distracted. What I was talking about? Oh, the next day was even better, as we found a frozen short-tailed shrew. It was after Leon left, so he is going to claim shrew don't exist. Don't trust him. He is just jealous. This shrew is one of few shrew species which have poisonous glands, that's why it's especially neat.
Genya published a paper on the impact of the USSR’s collapse on wildlife, which got her interviewed on BBC. (She also made the December issue of National Geographic)
Leon tried deer hunting
10/10/2015: Leon texted me a picture of a (very) dead looking deer. I texted back “You killed Bambi’s Mommy???” He said yes, he’d shot it, and no, her teats had no milk in them.
I texted a picture of the dead deer to Rose, who had returned from shul (synagogue) last week to find 3 deer in her yard, munching on her garden. They were unmoved by yells & honks, eventually walked off.
“When can he come to Bethesda? I have at least three that are dedicated to ruining my crops. Pooping on my lawn. Disturbing my tranquility. Forget Bambi. Lyme disease. Ticks. Pestilence. Mazel tov. Very proud of Leon. My hero. Was he upset?”
Leon continues forward on research – one paper published in March, one to be resubmitted this week; and has started job hunting. He and Genya spent last week in northern Wisconsin cross-country skiing. He did 100 km; she did 120km.
Leon 2016: Genia drove up from North Carolina for seder, arriving around 10 PM
she and L were soon deep in conversation with A2 and Beth and Sofia. I heard Aaron summarizing the Civil War and Sherman’s March to the Sea. I’m told there was a lot of conversation about bunnies, esp some that live only on volcanoes in Mexico, and look like fuzzy eggs with ears (this from Genia, of course).
Leon got the Physics Dept’s Van Vleck and TA prizes – Genia and I both got to attend the Department Banquet in May and kvell – and defended in August. He got a job at Sandia National Lab (in Albuquerque) and drove his neon-yellow Honda Fit from Madison to NM, via Sioux Falls SD, Rapid City SD, Missoula MT, Grand Teton, Moab, and Mesa Verde, with travel-log entries on Facebook. As I write, he & Genia are in Cuba, at Playa Larga because of UNESCO site Zapata Nature Reserve: in search of the smallest bird of the world, and the Cuban trogon.
Aaron 2015: slogged through two more quarters of classes at U Chicago (with semester breaks in San Francisco with Alex [pix of them at a Spinsters of SF ball here]), and wrote his Masters project (on sparse regression) over the summer.
He juggled interviews & offers with a bunch of SF and Silicon Valley companies (one bought carbon offsets for his flight from Chicago to SF), and accepted a job with Airbnb (locally famous for its over-the-top headquarters, also, per Aaron, very respectable house-cured nova). He drove his aged Hyundai out west, following the Oregon Trail, with a stop at the site of Teapot Dome (there was a small museum devoted to the scandal). He passed a place where the trail passed over a limestone deposit and you could still see the deep ruts.
They found an apartment together and adopted a dog
Aaron & Alex have a dog, a year old, brown, King Charles Spaniel mix named Agrippa (chosen because they wanted a name starting w/ A and Agrippa had more nickname possibilities than Achilles). Agrippa goes to work w/ A & enjoys AirBnB’s house-made dog treats, or spends the day home w/ Alex, when she works from home. Mom giggled some at the idea of them calling “here Agrippa, here, Agrippa”.
Aaron 2016: Aaron and Alex vacationed in Mexico at the end of 2015 – it was great to visit SF in January 2016 and hear about it.
We met Aaron & Alex at the Vega, a neighborhood restaurant for them, and they told us about their vacation in Mexico. Alex had done a lot of reading on pre-Colombian civilizations – I hadn’t realized how early the Maya Classic period ended. They knew a LOT about the sites they’d visited.
Neither had much Spanish, so they had trouble in Merida, not knowing a colonia was a neighborhood. They drove around Merida, seeing lots of ruins. They also picked up a lot of info about Benito Juarez, who of course I’d never heard of (he was 4’6” and the Mexican Abe Lincoln, per Aaron).
Unfortunately, in August Agrippa escaped from the yard of a dog-sitter.
Late Friday night, Aaron emailed that the dog-sitter (from Rover.com, an airbnb for dogs; the sitter had good reviews) had lost Agrippa and he (Aaron) would stay in SF to respond to any answers to the Craigslist post he’d put up & search for him (rather than come East for Steve’s birthday). (Alex was still in Colombia, returning late Sunday). Aaron, Alex’s sister & father spent Saturday looking for Agrippa. They found him by the side of the road; he’d been hit by a car. They were all terribly upset, of course, as were we. Agrippa was such a sweet little guy.
Alex was accepted at a bunch of law schools, chose NYU, and started in September.
In October, Aaron proposed to Alex on top of Giant Ledge & Panther Mt, in the Catskills – lovely foliage & spectacular views. We’re very excited and happy.
Steve 2015: It was a shock to see Steve after he returned from MathPath, he was so worn-out and thin – he’d prop himself up in the corners of the sofa and sleep.
8/10/2015: Steve still bent over – walks leaning heavily on his cane. I fuss at him to demand an orthopedist appt (his internist doesn’t think it will help – said to wait and see what the phys therapists think tomorrow), and find a stand-in neurologist (his Parkinson’s Dr. is on vacation). If he tries to stand up straight, he’s short of breath.
He continues doing a lot of home maintenance
10/4/2015: The camel crickets are back; S has a glue-trap by the stove, which has caught many. Steve took a brick down into the basement, to stand on (in his floppy black galoshes) and change light bulbs. He goes down and up the basement stairs on his hands and knees. He was very happy today – he’d finally found a place to use the compact florescent bulb I got as a wedding favor at Nancy London’s wedding (how many years ago?? 12??). It was longer than most bulbs; wouldn’t fit in other receptacles.
Mice are moving indoors, as they always do at the first cold weather. S headed out to get more poison and more glue traps.
Steve 2016: In February, a bald eagle (First Lady) laid two eggs in a tulip poplar at the US National Arboretum, and Steve was mesmerized by the live feed from the webcam.
The DC eagle cam has become part of Steve’s dinner table conversation. He was talking about the Mommy bird feeding the fuzzy babies tonight -- how the old fish carcasses stay in the nest and attract flies. How the Mommy bird tears off pieces of fish and the baby birds reach over for it, until the baby birds are full and collapse in a little heap of grey fuzz.
Although we thought we’d kept up with repairs, the house needs many fixes before we can sell it. Contractors have trimmed and cut down trees, put in new windows, we’ve gotten bids on basement drainage and bamboo containment, and that’s just a start. Every step entails long dinner-table discussions.
We celebrated Steve’s 70th birthday in August with a family party. After everyone had gone, we walked around the block. At the corner of Garrett and Benjamin West, Steve sat on his rollator and looked down the street, saying “It’s a pretty street. We’ve had a pretty good life in our house”. I had to agree, with a large lump in my throat.
Work 2015: We (the ex-Japan valuation team) were transferred to a new unit; our role there wasn’t always clear.
1/21/2015: Work continues v. slow. I worried aloud to Aaron who said why should I care? I should be cutting down on work effort, in order to asymptotically approach 0 by retirement.
Our company’s calculations of Embedded Value generated spurts of very mechanical work – at one point, I started making jokes about picking oakum
2/8/2015: X (in charge of calculating Embedded Value for Japan) had me and Y (in our role as auxiliary munchkins) generating worksheets – something like 120-150, in sets of 12. (so he’d create the “base” worksheet, and we’d make copy after copy, bringing in liability projections from different directories, each set corresponding to an asset portfolio). Then, Friday and Sat, he found mistakes in the base worksheets, so we had to go back twice through the copies correcting each worksheet.
All this is due tonight. X is worn to a frazzle. I spent Saturday (as did Y) going through the 120-150 (I’ve lost count) worksheets making corrections, pretending I’m a macro. But of course I’m not a macro, so prone to let my mind wander and lose track of where I am.
My only consolation was making little “summary” worksheets using the “indirect” function in Excel, that summarized where we’d brought in the liability info from, to be sure we’d gone to the right place.
Coordinating with our Japanese colleagues required 45 min “huddles” at 8 PM every weeknight. I tended to put my phone on mute & speakerphone, half-listen for my name, and half play with genealogy on Ancestry.com. (A recent NYT article detailed other conference-call-multitasking solutions)
Our office was redesigned to corporate standards, to promote AUTHENTICITY, COLLABORATION, TRANSPARENCY, CONNECTIVITY, AGILITY, HEALTH, SHARING, and INSPIRATION, with open workspaces for the many and glass-fronted interior offices for the fortunate few (I was among the fortunate). The glass fronts of our offices have a design derived from the zig zag on Charlie Brown’s t-shirt (since he’s our corporate mascot).
Work 2016: I counted down remaining workdays (thanks to the NETWORKDAYS function in Excel) to retirement on September 9th (just before my 66th birthday, 66 being normal retirement age for Social Security for my birth cohort).
Our department Admin Assistant made a slide show of actuarial department’s organization charts for the 16 years I was with the company – it was funny to realize how much those boxes and lines had mattered to me.
I loved actuarial work – staring at financials till the numbers told a story. I loved travel – I’ll never forget seeing the 13th century Daibutsu in Kamakura. Experience studies -- the driest, most technical assignment (and the one where I was most upset about the boxes and lines of the org chart) had such a wonderful team.
Travel 2015: Steve & I visited Chicago and Madison over Presidents’ weekend, Provence in April (click here for pictures & travel-log), and I also visited Leon & Aaron in Chicago to celebrate Aaron’s finishing his Masters (click here for dinosaurs from the Field Museum, here for NW Coast sculpture). In September, we trooped to Cambridge to celebrate Mimi’s 90th.
Travel 2016: SF in January with Steve, Madison in May and August, Vermont (Mimi’s) in August – so beautiful to see the hills and lake again.
Me 2015: I stepped down from being Soc Act chair at my synagogue, but continue as Chapter co-chair of Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence (HGC). I’ve gotten to know a couple of the mothers whose children were murdered. No one was ever arrested for the crimes, so the Moms carry on knowing their sons’ killers are still at large. (blog here). In the suburbs, we try to raise awareness; in Chester, we make small donations for funeral costs, try to find places families can get grief counselling. Everywhere, we put up t-shirt memorials to lives lost, in any church/synagogue that will host our memorial.
Me 2016: Before retiring, I was in a panic that I wouldn’t have anything to do.
I’m stepping back from the HGC chapter, but have gotten involved with writing violence-prevention grants for a couple of Chester organizations to make counseling more available. Chester has the highest murder rate of any city in the US. The risk that a 15 year old boy in Chester will be murdered before reaching age 35 is about 1 in 12. Aaron points out that the young men at risk aren’t likely to be helped much by being preached at by an old, white lady from the suburbs, but I’m good at writing grant-application verbiage.
Chester has few behavioral-health resources serving children – reaching the main provider in the county means taking 3 buses. We hope that making access easier will help a little.
I’m tutoring a lady in fractions, decimals, and percents at the Delaware County Literacy Council. She’s very hard-working and good to work with. (I hadn’t realized most of the arithmetic methods we use were popularized in Europe by Fibonacci in the 13th century)
I’m taking a class in reading Biblical Hebrew – trying to discern the verb form from the vowels below the consonants & the dots in the middle of them.
Like many of my ilk, I spent November in a funk. Steve worried I’d never emerge. (Did you know there’s a Chrome extension that substitutes pictures of kittens for DJT’s face?).
Steve & I tour continuing care retirement communities. The only Jewish one in our area has been taken over (and it had shortcomings); most of the others have little or no Jewish programming. There are fancy, for profit ones, plainer non-profit ones, some accredited, some not. All have websites full of pictures of happy, engaged, active old people. Steve and I look up the ratings of the skilled nursing units on medicare.gov. We argue. So far, we’ve applied to Kendal (founded by the Society of Friends 40+ years ago), about 40 min west of Swarthmore; average time on the wait list is about 2 years.
I’m so grateful to have had a job as long as I wanted one, to see Leon’s and Aaron’s lives on such good courses, to get to know Genya and Alex. I’m grateful to have Steve with me as we trundle into our sunset years. Wishing you health and peace in the coming year.
I wrote my first annual letter in December 1973. In the very first paragraph I wrote, "I am starting a tradition; how long it will last and with what interruptions remains to be seen." Upon reading this recently for the first time in years, I was surprised to see that I was thinking about interruptions, because I soon imagined there would never be an interruption. And yet there was, last year. So something big must've happened.
What happened was, my Parkinson's got much worse. It slowed me down much more so that I was scrambling just to finish things I was required to do each day. It was also hard to motivate myself to get started. It was hard to start this year too, and I've taken little pleasure in the output. After all it's not a fun story. But I do regard my annuals is a history of my life and wish to honestly describe what fills my time and thoughts these days. Trigger warning: the long-winded report below is sometimes bleak, is self-centered, and has more discussion of bodily functions than is usually considered appropriate in polite company. Please don't feel you have to read it. If you do read it, please remember that I'm not trying to make anybody feel sorry for me; I'm just trying to record the facts of my life. Also if you do read it you may wonder how Fran and I have such different takes on my situation; Fran above seems to be unaware of the difficulties I highlight below. But no, the difference in description was a deliberate decision by Fran and myself to limit discussions of my Parkinson's in her part to make it more pleasant and interesting reading. In fact Fran is more upset about my condition that I am.
In January 2015, I was beginning the second semester of three years of teaching half time before retiring. I had taught a regular load the previous semester so I had no courses to teach that spring. There was plenty of work to do preparing for a new MathPath location at Lewis and Clark College in Portland Oregon that coming summer, but not so much work that I couldn't take a vacation when I would normally be teaching. My Parkinson's was still only at the nuisance level. Typing was slowed a bit by the need to control my left-hand, and I had a bit of a limp, but except for stiffness upon waking and hip pain upon first walking, I felt okay. There were some odd things – the left pocket of my jackets kept catching on doorknobs as I walked through doorways; that had never happened before, what was causing it?
Anyway, Fran and I took two nice trips that spring semester. First, we spent Presidents' Day weekend in Chicago visiting Aaron and in Madison visiting Leon. Aaron was doing a one-year Master’s degree at the U Chicago statistics department, turning into a data scientist, a degree that has certainly served him well in terms of employability.
In mid-April we took a 10-day trip to Provence. Fran has already given you a link to her blog about it. Let me merely add a curious travel dilemma. I thought at first we would want to fly from Philadelphia to southern France, probably Marseille. But the prices and the connections were not good. Turned out the best thing to do, timewise and pricewise, was to fly to Paris and take a Train à Grande Vitess (fast train) direct from the airport to our first city in the South, Avignon, as in "Sur le pont, d'Avignon, on y dance, on y dance". (Yes, the medieval bridge is still there or at least half of it is.)
But there was still a problem: flight times to Paris, at least available to us in Philly on then US Airways, were highly variable - our experience with their European flights was that most were on time but when you were late, you were really very late. You cannot be guaranteed to make very reasonable train connections in Paris. Of course we could be safe and book a late train, which most likely would mean wasting half a day sitting in their Paris airport. Solution, suggested by somebody on Trip Advisor: since French train tickets for fast trains are very cheap for the first few hours after they go online 90 days in advance, buy two sets of tickets, one for a good connection one for a bad connection. That's what we did. We happened to make the good connection.
We got back from France on April 27, tired but happy and refreshed.
The rest of the year for me was all one bad medical surprise after another.
I think it was only one week after coming back that I suffered a kidney stone. When I got the pains I knew exactly what it was because it happened once 20 years ago and the pain is quite memorable.
Stones cause pain when they pass out of the kidney and get stuck in the ureter. One consolation was, these stones eventually passed out completely and last time I had passed it in 2 days. Well this time a week went by and the stone had not passed. I began to think it never would. Then, all of a sudden, it did.
A few medical problems later, just before leaving for MathPath, I developed a problem I had never had before – a carbuncle (deep infection) in the middle of my back. Despite the heavy dose of antibiotics prescribed for me by urgent care just before I left home, and despite visits to urgent care in Portland every few days during camp, including two incisions and drainings, the carbuncle didn't really resolve until a few weeks after I got home. Along the way at camp the antibiotics killed off the good guy bacteria in my intestines, leaving me first with extreme "looseness" and then with C-diff, for which I needed another round of other antibiotics to cure it. Somehow I fitted all my trips to the bathroom around all my required public appearances. Ironically, since then Parkinson's has taken my intestines so much in the opposite direction that I almost look back on those difficult times as the good old days.
Unfortunately, all this attention to my kishkes masked the importance of something else that was happening. At MathPath, especially at Lewis and Clark in Portland, one does a fair amount of walking between locations. Usually, I regarded this as good exercise, but that summer, the more I walked, the more it hurt, the more I was bent over, and the less I could stand up comfortably. I mentioned this on the phone to Fran, and she said, get a cane, which I did. That helped – I soon pretty much needed it. Since I couldn’t stand unaided for very long, things that used to be simple to do took much longer. Something that used to take 5 minutes now took 15. I couldn’t carry things. I taught more and more of my classes sitting down. When I tried to stand up, I was bent over – it’s called camptocormia – and bent strongly to one side – it’s called Pisa syndrome, as in “leaning tower of”. This all happened over the mere 4 weeks of MathPath – I left home self-reliant, and came home a partial invalid.
We’d always shared housework – I did the laundry and four days a week cooked dinner and cleaned up, – and I felt bad this sharing was over. Eventually, we hired someone to help me and do some of my old jobs, but not immediately.
1. My understanding was that Parkinson’s progression was generally quite slow, and this had not been slow at all. So I thought maybe this change in my posture wasn’t Parkinson’s; maybe this was something else that could be corrected. We spent a lot of time in the fall seeing my primary care physician, my neurologist, an orthopedist, neurosurgeons, physical therapists, etc., to see if any of these changes could be reversed. The answer was, they were Parkinson’s related, and they can’t be reversed. My neurologist said, yes, overall Parkinson’s progression is slow, but it can have jumps. You may have reached a tipping point. Camptocormia is not well understood, and can’t currently be treated. My neurologist had talked about jumps in the progression of Parkinson’s, but I didn’t expect the jumps to be this dramatic. Camptocormia is a fairly infrequent manifestation of Parkinson's but it turns out it can develop quickly.
Since I returned home from MathPath 2015, my Parkinson’s hasn’t progressed as fast as that July, but it has progressed faster than expected. I’m not in very good shape, currently, as I’ll describe later. Doctors make the point that with Parkinson’s every case is somewhat different. I’ve come to understand how it develops in each individual’s case this way: it finds your weak points and exacerbates them. I always used to shake when I was cold. Now I shake all the time, and even more when I’m cold. There had been many periods in my life when I had back pain – they’d gone away for a number of years, but now they’re back – I have more pain than I’d had before. Looking at old x-rays, I had a very slight scoliosis years back, but no one noticed because it didn’t have much effect on anything, except Parkinson’s has harped onto that, and given me major scoliosis. For a number of years, I’ve had problems with an enlarged prostate – no cancer yet, but problems with urine control. Parkinson’s has made that much worse this fall, including a whole month when I was on a catheter. And, finally, there were times in my earlier life when I suffered from constipation, especially when travelling as a kid, and now I’m afraid that’s gotten much worse. Treating one of these problems often gets in the way of treating another. Sigh.
Back to historical order. Starting in the fall of 2015, I made myself familiar with a line of products that previously I had scarcely been aware of - disability aids. I got a rolling backpack, which I had seen some very small students at MathPath using. I couldn’t carry my books to my office – I could roll them in the backpack. By the time I got that, however, it was almost too late. Pulling a backpack behind me was also difficult. Since then, I’ve gotten a Rollator, 2 traditional walkers, a shower chair, a shower bench, a kitchen stool, a permanent and a portable bed rail. I have canes situated all over the house.
We also moved our bedroom down from the third floor, where we had a wonderful view of the maple in front of the house, to the second floor, so I’d be near a bathroom. Although moving the bedroom has helped in many ways, it turns out we got the wrong sort of mattress: it’s a little too high, and a little too soft on top, and it’s difficult for me to get in and out of bed.
My office on campus moved too. In spring 2015, when I was still walking around, not imagining what was coming so soon, Phil Iverson, the chair, came to me and said, we hired a number of new people, but we’re out of space in our wing of the science building. You’ll be teaching half time; there are offices in Parrish (the main building, about 5 minutes away), would you be willing to take one of those offices? I said I was the right person to ask, because I needed an office in the science center less than other people, and I said yes.
I did arrange that I didn’t have to move until I got back from MathPath, and of course by that time I wasn’t walking very well, but I thought I’d manage being there all right, so long as people helped me move, which they did. Even with help, packing up my books from my office was hard psychologically – I had 30 years of materials there. Most is now in storage, some is in my new office in Parrish.
Now, what teaching did I do in the 2015-2016 academic year? In the fall, I was scheduled to teach my favorite honors linear algebra seminar, and I did, rather successfully, but differently from before. I could still stand up for short periods of time and write at the board for very short periods of time, but that was it. I couldn’t hop around giving a lecture the way I had done before, but fortunately I don’t lecture very much in that course - it is run out of a very large problem set, with students at the board, with me querying them and helping them organize what they’re doing. Also, I had already learned in past years how to use a document camera, especially for showing off work for students in that course. Where I would have gone to the board, I now had the document camera set up each day (a student set it up), and I wrote on paper, which was projected onto the screen. Each year, the students are better and better at working together. I was happy that, in spite of my physical limitations, I ran that course the best, maybe, I ever had.
That was fall 2015. For Spring 2016 I was scheduled to teach Real Analysis, a core Junior level course I hadn’t taught in some time, and I realized the document camera would not be good enough, because I’d have to comment a lot on the text and on student work. I realized the best way to do this sitting down would be to get soft copies of the works on my computer screen and then write over them on the screen. While you can do that on some PC’s, you can’t write on the screen of a traditional Mac laptop. Fortunately, you can on a Mac iPad. The people in IT had some iPads they wanted professors to experiment with, and gave me a large iPad Pro. They were also setting up AppleTV, so I could wirelessly, and with little set up, project anything that was on my screen or my students’ screens onto the board. I learned how to write with a stylus onto the laptop screen. If I got myself into the classroom in advance and propped myself up in a chair, it worked pretty well. I’d say the course went reasonably well.
A number of other good things happened during this past academic year. First, Fran and I were able to travel to San Francisco, see Aaron and Alex, and meet her parents. This was in January of 2016, the first time I’d taken a plane since needing a cane and rollator. We got around SF reasonably well with the help of Uber and the rollator, and by asking restaurants to give me a chair with arms (Rod and Laurie, Alex’s parents, brought in a chair from their home at one restaurant). At the Legion of Honor Museum, I got around with the rollator almost better than Fran did. This trip had to be planned more intricately than previous trips together, and we had to settle for accomplishing less each day, but the point was, we could still travel together.
Then, on the Internet, catching my attention around March, there were an eagle pair, Mr. President and The First Lady, the first eagles to nest in the National Arboretum in DC since 1947. A webcam watched them nonstop, so we could see the two baby chicks hatch and grow until they fledged and left the area. There were millions of viewers around the world, and I confess it was a time-waster for me. I’d never paid attention to bird behavior, except for the robins that nested outside our dining room window a few years ago, and I watched these eagles with the hope that if I watched long enough I would find answers to questions that occurred to me, like how is the nest kept clean of baby poop (the answer is quite different for Eagles than for robins), why don't I see any prey carcasses left around after the eagles finish tearing off the meat (eventually I saw a parent eagle swallow a remaining rodent carcass whole), and how the parents have sex. I later learned that most of these questions have been answered on YouTube, so you don’t have to spend as much time as I did watching the live webcam. The eagle parents have recently returned to the nest area for the 2017 brooding season and the Webcam has been turned back on; you might want to watch it, at www.dceaglecam.org Eagles are, indeed, beautiful birds when they spread their wings, and by human standards, they are often very sweet with their chicks; but they’re quite vicious in other ways, including to other Eagles, even sometimes siblings.
The biggest success for me of this school year was MathPath 2016, at Macalister College in St. Paul, MN. During winter of 2016, I’d informed my colleagues – they already knew I had Parkinson’s—that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it back that summer. My colleague Kip Sumner said “Oh yes you will. We will do everything we can to help you”. And they did. With the help of an electric cart and my rollator, I got around. I cut back on what I was doing; I delegated part of running the camp; I only taught one course, on mathematical writing, based on the qualifying tests (taught using the iPad techniques I had learned a few months earlier), but I did all my executive work, or supervised it. The camp was as big a success as ever for the students, even if I had less contact with them. I told them I would do everything I could to be back at MathPath 2017 as well, at Mount Holyoke, and that’s still the plan.
Another piece of good news is that there are several Parkinson symptoms that I don’t have, at least not yet. For instance, I don’t have slurred speech. I do have more phlegm in my throat, and my voice is not as deep and loud as it used to be, but my speech is not slurred. I don’t have trouble swallowing. I have no cognitive disability, at least that anyone has been able to detect. (By the way, that’s relatively infrequent in Parkinson’s, except for very late Parkinson’s). I don’t have impulsive behavior, which is very common in Parkinson’s. And, most important, I have had no falls, which is actually sort of surprising, given how bent over I am. Of course, I go very slowly now. But no falls is a very good sign – I still have my sense of balance. And, finally, I still drive my car: in fact, I can drive better than I can walk. I can prop myself up in and push against the contoured driver’s seat, and not bend over sideways as much as when I walk. Although Fran won’t let me drive long distances, I still do drive locally, for errands, although these days I do have someone help me do the errand, once we get there.
We’ve hired a nice lady, who comes to our house most weekdays for a few hours, and helps me with various things, and does some of the chores I used to do around the house, so Fran doesn’t have to do them all, and also helps me with errands.
OK, now let me talk about the present and going forward. The plan for this academic year, made three years ago, was I was on academic leave for the fall, then in the spring I would teach my honors linear algebra seminar one more time as a kind of victory lap, then retire. We would also stay in our house for some years after we both retired.
Well, not much of my leave project has gotten done so far, and for the spring semester I am now on medical leave (see later). As for the house, navigating it is getting harder and harder for me. We have to plan for when it won’t be possible, maybe sooner than I think. Planning to move out and deciding where to move to has not been easy for us. We are now remembering that when we bought our house, in 1983, it took us a long time to agree and some of the disagreements were quite heated. Maybe that’s why we haven’t moved in 34 years. Of course, we’ve also gotten to love the house – all our memories of children growing up are here.
Let me add that building codes and buyers’ expectations have changed a lot in 34 years, and we’re going to have to spend quite a lot of money to make the house sellable, despite its being an interesting house in a good location. If we do all the realtor has recommended, we’ll probably get a good price, but it’s a lot of hassle I hadn’t planned on, and can’t oversee as well as I used to. Just to give two examples of code changes, we have a partial flat roof over an extension to our living room, and there’s a door from our second floor bedroom out to the flat roof, which has proved (I think) very useful. But you can’t have a door to a flat roof anymore, unless you have a railing for the roof. Another thing is that when we bought the house, in the crawl space behind the small utility basement there was an old oil tank behind the one currently in use. When we bought the house, no one thought anything of it. Now you can’t have it there, and it will be expensive to remove, because it’s too big to go up the stairs. It’s got to be cut up. These are just two examples; there are many others. Some are very expensive.
It’s time for a blunt description of my current medical status. I can still dress myself, feed myself, wash myself, walk short distances without support, but I am so slow and so bent over. Standing is not very comfortable, and neither is sitting down. I have to prop myself up very carefully, in a certain way. Nor is lying down, in most positions, comfortable at all. And it takes a long time to transition from lying down to standing up, and vice versa, often 5-10 minutes. When I first try to stand up after lying down, it just hurts too much in my core muscle area; I can’t hold myself up (despite weighing much less than I used to).
These days I look back enviously to when it only took me 3 times as long to do things – now it often takes 10 times as long. The result is, I spend most of the day on dressing, eating, toileting. I try to work the rest of the time, but my tremors make it hard to type, and the medicine to stop the tremors makes me so sleepy I fall asleep at my desk. (My shaking left-hand hits random keys or must create currents over the trackpad which would explain the random "shortcuts" my laptop takes. Then as I try to undo these unintended operations, I created more of them. Arrgghhh) So I’m lucky to get 2-3 hours of real work done a day, oddly, often in the middle of the night - somehow the tremors seem more easily controlled then.
How have I typed this long annual section if I have so much trouble typing? I didn't! I spoke it all into an audio file which Fran, bless her, spent a day transcribing into Word and cleaning up. I have substantially edited it since, including adding new paragraphs, but to do such editing I use dictation software. This is not perfect either. It makes some peculiar systematic errors, which are hard to find and correct. Still, I find this software to be the best option for medium-sized documents
Now the big medical news and the reason I have a medical leave. I’m about to have deep brain stimulation (DBS) done – basically you get a pacemaker for your brain, which blocks the bad signals from Parkinson’s. For many people, DBS eliminates tremors, but it doesn’t generally help camptocormia (being bent over). It might help; it might worsen it. It can cause other symptoms to occur too – e.g., slurred speech, cognitive disability – but usually very temporarily. Wish me luck – I’m 70 years old, and this is brain surgery. They plant these electrodes deep in your brain. You’re also awake during the surgery, because they want to see how the electrode is working – they ask you to do various things, like touch your second finger to your thumb. There are no pain sensors in your brain, so you don’t feel the surgery. I hope I tolerated it well. The alternative – not having the surgery and living as I am now—has become unacceptable. If the surgery is successful (usually it is – over 110,000 people have had DBS since it was introduced in the 1990s), at least I’ll be able to work more hours a day, but I don’t expect to be able to move around much better than I do currently.
The surgery is being done at the Jefferson University Hospital for Neuroscience, in Philadelphia, on Jan 13hh
Final reflections. The saddest thing about the medical developments since 2015 is: our plans for a happy retirement were abruptly dashed. My plan was that I’d continue several years as executive director of MathPath, and our plan was that we’d have many years of happy travel. Travel is one thing we’ve learned to do together well; each of us gets about ½ of what we really like. And we’d have many years of Thanksgivings and Passover here, surrounded by family.
It’s not clear that any of this will any longer be possible. For Fran it's almost like a cruel joke, because she’s stuck taking care of me, in spite of still being able to do the things we planned to do. Her health isn’t perfect, but she’s in good condition to do all these things. I’ve urged her to travel on her own, and, indeed, she’s done a lot of visits to her mother in NYC and to kids, and so for I’ve been fine with her away that long. She’s scheduled a 10-day ElderHostel trip to China. If I need help while she’s gone, we can hire it.
It's not just travel that’s affected. Fran likes to eat out but that’s harder and harder for me to do. Even something as basic as nighttime hugs are affected. Fran has long loved to sleep snuggled against my shoulder and I like her there too. This is still a relatively comfortable position for me, but getting in and out of it is definitely not. When I'm going to have to get up every two or three hours to use the bathroom anyway, I often spend most of the night in a chair. In short, Parkinson's lets us do less and less together, and doing things together is what has held… our marriage together.
We eagerly await the results of my surgery. However it won't be for a month or two afterwards until we know with much certainty what has changed and what that means for our future together.
Sorry to tell you all this. I hope for all of you things are much better, that you have had a happy year, and that things go well in 2017.
After 2890 days of graduate school, on 8/1/16, I finally defended my PhD. The last two years of grad school were draining but objectively successful academically (including two first-author papers and two department awards).
Still, I spent much of this time being thoroughly sick of research, so the academic highlight was spending two more terms as a teaching assistant (TA) on the introductory classes aimed at future physics majors. I had TAed this class before, in 2012, and spent a lot time improving the instructional lab instructions, which were riddled with errors, and developing a new lab (detailed in the 2012 annual letter). I’m glad that I did the work, but I was slightly annoyed that I never received much recognition afterwards.
There’s a story I heard told about two grad students (Jake and Brian), who were a few years older than me. At the time, both had one term of TA experience under their belt, and they made plans for how to approach their second terms as TAs. Brian came up with lesson plans, made group worksheets, and generally poured a great deal of energy into his work. Jake would stroll into discussion section, instruct people to do a few problems from the textbook, and then roam the room answering questions and -- more often -- chatting about football and basketball. At the end, he didn’t grade the problems. He had students exchange their answers with other students for peer grading.
Based on student evaluations, Jake won a TA award that year. Brian didn’t. I think that I had several near misses with TA awards, and I was afraid that my ignorance of UW sports would prove too high a barrier. So, I was delighted to win a TA award for my last semester as a TA. I made sure to save the anonymous student evals, which I’d look at from time to time when research was getting me down. Some examples: “Leon is the most effective TA I've ever met, tirelessly helping any student that needs it. He often has to explain things ahead of the lecture due to lab scheduling, and his explanations are incredibly clear and concise. Leon has been the highlight of the course, turning it from an incredibly frustrating experience into a reasonable one.”; “I absolutely love Leon. He is the best TA I have had and probably will ever have. He is super friendly, and very knowledgeable and helpful during the labs and discussion sections. He is also funny and engaging which creates a very good learning environment. I wish I could have him for every class.”; and my personal favorite “Leon is a pretty cool dude and his t-shirts are awesome.”
As another strategy to keep from going insane, I took advantage of the flexible scheduling of grad school to do some traveling, including backpacking trips to Zion and Olympic National Parks, a trip to Costa Rica (highly recommended!), a trip to VT/NH (where I finally hiked Mt. Washington), and several trips to NC, where Genya (my girlfriend) moved for a post-doc in mid 2015. I was planning to follow her to NC after graduation, but her advisor announced that he might be moving (back) to the University of Montana (he eventually did), which left our plans in limbo. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the one open physics job in the state of Montana. Since Genya’s future location was unknown, and she’d be most of the way thru her postdoc by the time I graduated, I instead took a postdoc position at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM, where I have several friends from grad school.
I decided to take the scenic route to Albuquerque: a 3,500 mi (solo) car-camping road trip thru Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. It was easily the most enjoyable trip that I’ve ever taken. I had a rough plan in my head and had identified possible campgrounds ahead of time, but it was really wonderful to travel as the spirit moved me. If I saw a sign for an interesting place (such as the Little Bighorn Battlefield NM or Golden Spike NHS), I’d just reroute.
I visited many national parks, monuments, forests, etc.: Badlands NP, Minuteman Missile NHS, Custer NF, Little Bighorn Battlefield NM, Grand Teton NP, Teton NF, Caribou NF, Golden Spike NHS, Arches NP, Manti-La Sal NF, Mesa Verde NP, El Malpais NM, El Malpais NCA, and El Morro NM (in chronological order). My favorite was the last one, which you have probably never heard of. I only knew about its existence because it had a free campsite, but I opted to camp elsewhere. However, the next day I chatted with a fellow camper, and she highly recommended a visit to El Morro, so I turned my car around and headed there.
El Morro is located near the continental divide in New Mexico. It’s a cuesta (sloped mesa) of white sandstone, with a box canyon in the middle, a large Anasazi ruin on top (only partially excavated), and a year-round pool of water at the bottom. The pool of water made El Morro an oasis in the desert, so everyone traveling in the area stopped there to drink. Perhaps inspired by ancient petroglyphs, many visitors carved their own messages into the sandstone cliffs. The oldest non-petroglyph was carved in 1605 by Juan de Oñate, a conquistador and colonial governor of New Mexico. There are inscriptions by other conquistadors, settlers, railroad surveyors, native americans, traders, and soldiers. Some inscriptions are just names and dates, but others are poems or records of their accomplishments. In total, there are over 2000 inscriptions from before 1906 (when the national monument was created by Teddy Roosevelt). Because El Morro was along a popular route to Arizona and California, railroad surveyors considered building a railroad along the route, but they ultimately opted to build the railroad about 40 miles to the north. US-66 and I-40 then followed that route, and El Morro is now off the beaten path. I think that part of the reason I like El Morro so much is that the history is on a human scale; if I passed thru in 1850, I could imagine carving a message into the rock. There’s also something strangely intimate about reading these messages from strangers -- many of whom probably saw El Morro only once in their lives.
I also highly recommend the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which is right next door to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The site consists of a visitors center, a preserved missile launch center, and a remote missile silo. I took a tour of the launch center and was fortunate that a veteran who served there was on the tour. He was returning for the first time since he served there in the ‘80s and was able to share many interesting stories. The launch center included a building on the surface to hold the guards (and cook) and a hardened bunker below ground to control the missiles. (As the vet put it: "18 year olds with M16s above and 22 year olds with nuclear missiles below.”) The job could be pretty dull (although the air force would cover the cost of a master's degree, so many people did their homework while stuck in the bunker), so there was some cool artwork in the bunker made by bored airmen (One, in the style of a Domino's pizza ad: "Worldwide delivery in 30 minutes or less or your second one is free!").
After the tour, I drove to one of the silos. The facility was small and incredibly non-descript -- just a few concrete blocks set in the ground surrounded by a chain-link fence. You could see the facility from I-90, but you wouldn't have been able to guess the facilities' purpose even if you were staring right at it. The facility was unmanned, but with the turn of two keys 10 miles away, several compressed gas canisters would rupture and fling aside the 60 ton (iirc) steel-and-concrete silo cover, revealing a Minuteman II missile that would promptly take flight -- likely taking part in a war that would end civilization as we know it.
I eventually made it to Albuquerque, and Albuquerque is… interesting. On the one hand, much of the city looks like a sprawling, somewhat grungy strip mall. There was a literal dumpster fire in the dumpster I use for my garbage. (Thankfully it was small and I extinguished it with a bucket of water.) On the other hand the surrounding area is wonderful. The Sandia mountains are right next door; I live only a few miles not only from a great national forest, but from a designated wilderness within the forest. There is wonderful mountain biking in the city-owned open space and the non-wilderness parts of the national forest. The top of the mountain is covered with snow, but the city is generally clear of snow, and I can easily bike to work in the winter (then again, I used to do that in WI too). I’m still entranced every time I see a tumbleweed roll by. Somehow, they’ve even ended up rolling down my street, which is not near any obvious place for them to grow. For better or worse, the city is incredibly driveable. There is a big grid of wide streets that never seem to have traffic jams, and nothing seems to be more than 25 minutes away.
The job at Sandia is ok. I was pretty sick of physics after grad school, but he lab is a nice place to work, and the work is moderately interesting. Sandia is a government-owned, contractor-operated facility. So I’m an employee of Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin (a large defense contractor), which operators the lab for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is part of the Department of Energy. However, lab management will likely shift from Lockheed Martin to Honeywell (the makers of thermostats, but also a defense contractor) later this year.
I have mixed feelings about being part of the military-industrial complex. The lab’s core mission is nuclear weapon design, but my work is in nanoelectronics and quantum computing -- both of which are only tenuously connected to the lab’s core mission. (No one know what that will mean for future funding.) Still, I have to go thru the same background checks, drug tests, and complicated security clearance application as the people who actually work on nuclear weapons.
The corporate culture is interesting. I’m not sure how much bureaucracy there is here relative to other large companies, but so far, I’ve mostly found the bureaucracy amusing. For example, they rightly put a big emphasis on safety (since the core mission is blowing stuff up), but they figure that the importance of safety should be impressed on everyone -- including people who just sit in front of computers, such as myself. This has amusing consequences, such as encouraging everyone to use the slip simulator, which safely mimics the conditions of an icy parking lot to teach you how to not fall (a common workplace injury!). Your tax dollars at work…
I look back fondly at my time in Madison. I miss the excellent outing club, the top-notch farmers market, cheese curds, New Glarus beer (not sold outside the state), and the color green. I had two particularly Wisconsin-esque experiences in the past two years: the deer hunt my mom mentioned and sampling all 50-odd beers (all brewed in WI) on tap at The Old Fashioned. (This was done with the help of two friends who I’ve know from preschool and still keep in touch with.) Hopefully, someday I will return.
For the first time since 2005, I’m on facebook (altho I haven’t used it much recently). A more detailed writeup of my road trip can be found there.
I will also briefly mention that I recently took a trip to Cuba. If you have any doubts about the virtues of a free market economy, I highly suggest that you visit. The contrast between the government run anything and the privately run Casa Particulars (basically Bed and Breakfasts) was incredibly stark. The former meant long lines and unmotivated employees. The latter were incredibly well run with friendly hosts. Long lines are a hallmark of communist countries (to the point where Poland recently published a monopoly-like board game called line-up to simulate the experience). I was mostly amused at the long lines, but interestingly Genya, who had lived with the lines before, had much less patience for them.
Long ago, I somehow developed an image in my head about what a banana republic looks like, and Cuba fit my image to a tee: a lot of grungy, old infrastructure and a slow economy. Still, the infrastructure is surprisingly functional, and the country seems to be in no danger of collapse. It’s a testament to human resilience that a country can survive such a crummy government.
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