I do think I’m funny (so you don’t have to)

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To hydrolyze an acid chloride

To convert acetal back to carbonyl and alcohol

To grow a flower

To rinse shampoo out of your eyes

To clean chalk from your sleeves

To clear bird poop from your windshield

To brew coffee

To soothe a fish

To quench a thirst

To make 100 students grin

(and not care whether they’re laughing at you)

(or with you)

(because laughing is the point)

And then came smartphones

and we all got dumber.

When your great-grandmother was young, the telephone was invented. There were switchboards and operators, and when the phone rang, it was always answered, even though they never knew who it would be. That was part of the thrill.

When your grandmother was a young mom, all of her friends had a telephone in their kitchens. The telephone was screwed high on the wall so the kids couldn’t get to it, and had a long cord. Grandma (called Mommy back then) would chat away the morning, drinking coffee, maybe smoking a cigarette, with the kids playing at her feet while she washed the dishes. She loved this connection to her friends, mother, sisters and other housewives, and she knew all of their phone numbers by heart.

When your mother was young she might have had a princess phone in her bedroom, and maybe even a second line that only rang in her room. But more likely the phone in her room was connected to the one in the kitchen, so when she was talking to her boyfriend, she’d have to scream at her little brother when he picked up the kitchen phone to listen in.

By the time you came along, some people had car phones. Julia Roberts carried a cellular phone as big as a brick in movies. And when your older cousin learned to drive, your aunt bought a cell phone for her to carry, just for emergencies, so she could call her mom (who sat by the house phone waiting) when she arrived safe.

Recently, it seems every adult in the world got a cell phone. Some carry them in their pocket; most require one hand to hold it wherever they go. Most started texting within the last decade. The phones got smaller and smarter, and we learned to play games on them, and check our email, and avoid answering when it rings because we always know who is calling.

You do not remember the world without today’s phones, and likely can’t imagine a flip-phone, or figure out how to dial an old rotary phone. You used to dig your mom’s phone out of her purse and looked cute swiping the pictures, accidentally calling your grandmother, and once you called Jamaica. You had your own phone when you were eight because you begged, and did the thing all kids do: convinced your parents you were the only third-grader without one. They love you, and wanted you to be quiet so they could bend their neck to their own phones, so they got you one. You became peaceful and enjoyable in the car. You no longer poked your little sister and made her cry. You no longer spoke to your family.

Now you are in college. You walk across the gorgeous campus and don’t see it because you are looking down. You don’t make eye contact or acknowledge others. You are safe in your bubble. You never feel like you are alone because you can always take out your phone and look busy and important. You pick it up and check messages, tweets, instagram, facebook, snapchat, and even email a thousand times a day. You reach for it as soon as you wake up. You even keep it on your lap in class.

It’s ok. You’re an adult and you get to  decide how to use your time. But what will you tell your parents when your grades aren’t great? You’ll say you always go to class, but can you say you listen in class? Can you promise them their hard-earned tuition money, that they scraped together for fifteen years instead of buying shoes or taking a vacation, is appreciated so much that you leave your phone on silent, zipped up in your bag, for every second of lecture? Can you promise your grandfather who gave you the “family scholarship” and his old car, and pays your car insurance, that you are not wasting his generosity?

They used to say a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Today young people squander their entire lives, neck bent, fingers tap-tap-tapping away on an electronic gadget provided by a generous adult who loves them.


100 pounds of potatoes, please

My husband has tsked and shaken his head while averting his eyes from me enough times that I sometimes step back and reconsider appropriateness of my actions, sometimes even BEFORE I act. On occasion, like yesterday in the stupidmarket, I have even managed self-control all by myself.

However, yesterday it was very hard not to do this:

Imagine little me, tired from a long Monday workday, pushing my cart through the produce department, hungry. I snort, take out my dumbphone, and take a picture, presumably of the hexagonal close packing of the apples. Next, you see me loading the cart with the equivalent of about twenty-five bags of potatoes, but I do so one potato at a time because, well, that seems to be the “deal.”

With the cart loaded down with one hundred pounds of potatoes, I forgo the rest of my shopping list, dig behind the ripped seam in the bottom of my purse for loose change, align my body parallel to the floor to push the cart, and head to the cashier. One by one, I load my one hundred pounds of potatoes on the conveyor. They roll around and try to get away, but I corral them in like a juggling sheepdog.

The cashier and bagger are intrigued but too polite to ask. So I keep my face neutral, too. Until it happens.

“That’ll be 98 dollars. Cash or credit?” cashier asks.

I smile and say, “Cash. I only have four quarters, and you can toss my two pennies of change in your jar.” I hold out the quarters and say, ” There’s something wrong with your scale. It’s about 97 dollars over.”

The bagger has, by now, caught all of the potatoes and bagged them up in dozens of plastic bags.

The cashier says, “No, ma’am, it says 98 dollars.”

“Check it for me. How much did you charge me for the potatoes per pound?”

She looks under her glasses at the stub of the printed receipt, breathes through her nose, and finally reports, “98 cents.”

So I go for it. “The sign in produce over the potatoes says they’re a penny a pound.”

“No, ma’am, you must’ve read it wrong. It’s 98 cents a pound.”

“Nope. They’re on some kind of super sale. Look. I took a picture.” And I show her this.


Like I said, I pictured doing all of this. And then I visualized Mike shaking his head, blowing his breath out his nose, and saying, “Laur” in his two-syllable way, and it shook me back to reality. It’s a sad reality. But I acknowledge quite an assorted list of things I cannot change (my brother’s mind, dog walkers who refuse to pick up poop, drivers who hang in the left lane) so I threw up my hands and bought coffee instead.

But, people, please. Be careful with decimals. They matter. Misplaced, they are as bad as fake news, alternative facts, false advertising, and not laughing at Melissa McCarthy.


Why am I here?

I told my students today that I am here because they are. They laughed, smiled, and went “Aww.”

But it’s true. Choose your profession for whatever reasons propel you when you’re young, but as you age you’ll see you can’t maintain passion for a job simply for money. It’s about the people. All of life is about the people. How can you help them? What strengths do they have? How do they relate to others?

I started my professional career as a chemical engineer, making automotive coatings, and I loved that first job, not for the paint, or the chemistry, or the challenge of research (although I enjoyed all of those things). I loved the job because of the people. They were smart and hard-working and fun(ny). Smart and funny are my favorite combination. If your brain is so well-trained and curious that you notice humor in every corner, you’re enjoyable to those around you. If you’re cranky and competitive and serious ALL-THE-TIME, your colleagues will find it a challenge to interact with you day after day.

Teaching chemistry is, of course, interesting because of the science. But without the students, it wouldn’t be fun. So, yes, I am here because they are here. The end.

Students study. Professors write. Nobody sleeps. Ah, college.

We’re traveling on parallel paths: as you study for your exam, I’m awake in the middle of the night, writing it.

We’re both headed to the same spot in the time-space continuum. We will meet in the lecture hall in one week, you with your head full of chemistry and heart full of hope, hanging on a thread of three hours sleep, and me with my arms full of paper. My heart will also hope for your success. I want you to learn the material, truly understand it, and demonstrate your accomplishment on the exam. So I’m writing it carefully, choosing questions that’ll help me assess (no spellchecker, I will NOT drop that last s) your level of comprehension.

We’ll meet a few times before the exam. I might see you at the football game tomorrow, for the quiz and lectures next week, at our review session, and in my office hours. I’ll respond to your 300 emails as soon as humanly possible.

In a non-Euclidean geometry course I took about a billion years ago, the professor proclaimed that all parallel lines meet at infinity. See you there. Don’t be late.