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Fail better

Last week I took the dreaded Probability midterm, which was (without even .01% of doubt) the most difficult exam I have taken in my whole life. Anyone who is old enough to remember the Five Boys chocolate bar will remember the five stages of anticipation on the boy’s face until he gets his darned chocolate.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

During that two-hour exam I went through a similar process, but in reverse, from delusional optimism at  3.01 p.m that I might be able to scrape through, to sullen resignation as I submitted my paper that this stuff was way, way, way out of my league. The next lesson we got our results, people getting knocked out of the running like a grotesque academic reality show. I did spectacularly badly, so bad that Nancy and I laughed at the absurdly low mark I got. The funny thing is, I quite enjoy the conceptual part of the course – I used to work in a betting shop as a university student- but the more advanced theorems are impenetrable.

I’m doing the resit next week, and remembering the Beckett quote:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Prob

Epilogue: I failed again, even better. However, I still learned quite a bit in that class,  which is making me think about assessment. The tester tested.

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I think you would agree

Prob 2

People who have any kind of social contact with me know that I am currently grappling with a Probability and Statistics class that would not have been on my bucket list of academic courses to take before I die. It has been thrust upon me  as a requirement of my academic program, and I am ( sportily I think) doing my best to understand concepts way out of  my  intellectual comfort zone. So, as well as attending  class twice a week with my regular professor, I do some cramming with some online tutoring  classes, and have accumulated a bunch of text books to help me crack impenetrable codes of Conditional Probability and Binomial distribution.

Prob 3

Being a word rather than number person, I  have noticed is how both real life and online professors use a particular kind of discourse when giving their lectures at world speed . Phrases which preclude any discussion like  ‘and I hope you understand that …’ or I think you would agree ..’ and I want you to understand …. have us all in locked into effortful and anguished attention, trying to do just that. Sometimes our face-to-face prof tries to rock it up a little with interjections  Gee! boom! and so thats kinda cool . But he doesn’t fool anyone.

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Trader Joe’s

Trader Joes

Everyone told me to avoid Trader Joe’s at weekends because it was too crowded, but I didn’t listen to them, just like I ignored people who advised me to take warm clothing to Britain in August because it would feel chilly after Italy. I don’t know if this is down to my delusional optimism or lack of imagination (though that never seems to desert me in a stalled underground train). The fact is, I see such people as naysayers, the sort who always think the the glass might be half empty.

So, a couple of Sundays ago, against everyone’s better judgement, I popped down to pick up a few groceries. It’s fifty blocks down from me, but worth the bus fare for its good, affordable produce in this eye-poppingly expensive city. When I first arrived in New York I was so alarmed by the price of  fresh fruit that I bought one pear at a time.

Joe’s is situated just in front of 72nd street subway station with an entrance so small and unassuming you might miss it. Inside an escalator takes you two floors down to the subterranean shopping area. It’s a bit shabby, as a lot of stores outside the main tourist drag can be, but, unlike other retail outlets, it seems to have  concentrated all the available bonhomie in the city into its cramped  premises.  This impressive recruitment policy is for a very good reason:  the supermarket is so popular, and space so limited,  that almost as they step off the elevator, shoppers have to be ushered into a never-ending line, Disney-style, around the aisles and towards the checkout, choosing their purchases on the way. The movement of people is accomplished by enthusiastic assistants, holding signs saying ‘The end of the line is HERE’ or ‘Not long now!’ or “You are 5 minutes from the checkout’. Assertively, they urge you to ‘move right on down’ or ‘close it up a little folks’ so that the line proceeds in a timely manner. In order for this  system to work there is a unspoken agreement that shoppers will cooperate, and apart from the odd abandoned trolley, most people are philosophical.

So,  could Sundays be any worse than other days?  Reader, it was gridlock.  As well as the samples of warm lasagne strategically offered half way along the line, extra lollipops were handed out to reward us on the home run.  I exited  double-bagged,  in the nick of time,  just as an orderly line was forming outside the entrance in 72nd street.

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 Numbers

I am number blind. I can still remember my mother’s coop number (7321) which I had to chant to the cashier every time I bought groceries. She would then note it down and tear off a perforated strip from our dividend book to claim our “divi” at the end of the year;  it was the 1960s precursor to today’s loyalty cards. Otherwise though, numbers are invisible to me. Despite obtaining a GCE in Maths a year early – admittedly a grade 5, which says it all -I found later that I had peaked at the age of fifteen. I managed to avoid any further contact by focusing on languages – a puzzle involving words

It was with some consternation that I found that people in the U.S. have a bit of a love affair with numbers. Schools are named with them and university courses and are referred to by digits. For example, everyone knows that One-Oh-One means an introductory course to Something, As a newbie grad student, I was bewildered by my peers’ familiarity with these random digits. In my own program we have the Fifty Five Hundred, a mega literature review,  the Sixty Five A, another lit review written under timed conditions, and the Sixty Five B, the pilot study for the final dissertation. These so-called hurdles precede the dissertation proper,  and each number detonates different types of anxiety depending on your particular assessment  phobia: high stakes (as in the one-shot-only Fifty Five) or typing against the clock (the Sixty five A – a personal nightmare with my mediocre keyboard skills)

The grid system and numbered streets of Manhattan, of course, have a wonderful logic to them them and help the newcomer find their way around. The more well-known streets have developed an iconic status,and despite initiatives to rename them, I have never heard anyone call Sixth Avenue ‘Avenue of the Americas’, or 125th Street  ‘Martin Luther King Boulevard’. Sometimes numbers become words.

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New York’s five best-kept secrets

1. The cartoon blue sky

2. The breeze from the Hudson which cools 120th street on muggy days.

3. Most people hold doors open for you.

4. Max Cafe

5, The MetroNorth Hudson Valley line

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White Knuckle Ride

 Just when you thought you had conquered your fear of flying, you get a bumpy Atlantic crossing to get the adrenalin flowing again. I have always been an intermittently nervous flyer, but five transatlantic flights in a short period had desensitized me to being up in the air, and I was beginning to fancy myself as a born again jet setter. So when I boarded the Kuwait airways flight 101 to New York JFK, my mood was not one of anxiety, but mild frustration at the delayed departure, and curiosity about what the service would be like on this new airline company (for me). The crew seemed to be numerous, predominantly male, but pleasant and dapperly turned out. And the voice from the cockpit wasn’t Kenneth More’s, but the tone was urbane and reassuring as one would want in one’s captain, so I settled down in my flight socks to enjoy my refreshments.

For all my new bravery, though, a crumb of residual anxiety lurks when flying over the Atlantic because the ” ‘unlikely’ event of landing on water” suddenly becomes less unlikely, and that’s a road I try not to even go down. However, we were tootling along smoothly and I was in my serene flying self when things started to get rather bumpy, and the warning came to buckle up. Thereby followed almost an hour of severe turbulence, the kind that rocks you from side to side, up and down, and makes the plane rattle. It was very unpleasant, so I took a large slug of the rescue remedy that I keep in my bag for such occasions (it’s the brandy not the Bach flowers that help), and quietly repeated to myself the mantra ‘ it’s the safest form of travel’, and after one particular swoop, I admit it, The Lord’s prayer. But despite these props,  I could not unclasp my white knuckles from around the arm rests,and I sat rigid, my eyes closed, holding on for dear life. At one point, the older beveiled lady sitting across the aisle from me reached across and stroked my hand, which was a lovely gesture. But there was an eloquent silence in the plane apart from the man behind moaning softly and I thought of that line from the Woody Allen film : “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. Eventually I got used to the turbulence, as you do, but it was the shakiest flight I have ever experienced. It was very good to get to JFK, however late and bedraggled, and be triple-checked by immigration.

      I am now settling into my new room which is freshly painted and spacious. Unfortunately it has what they call euphemistically ‘ a courtyard view’, but with some mood lighting I think I can make something of it.

 

 

 

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The Deli (2)

The combination of cold weather and looming finals is proving to be a business opportunity for my local deli. The number of students needing fast comfort food seems to have tripled and extra staff have  been called in. The guys behind the counter show no sign of pressure though and move quickly and competently around each other to load up the sandwiches and fry the sweet potatoes .

I’m impressed by how they remember complex orders. Yesterday a bloke rushed in and said urgently something like this “Can I get a hero with turkey, ham, corned beef, chipotle, onions, American cheese, Bacon, mozzarella, avocado, onion and tomato? And another one the same but with swiss cheese not American and aubergine not tomato?”  I waited to see how the deli guy reacted to this but his impassive reply was “what kind of bread?” I felt as if I was in a fast talking film of the 40s.

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The Big Chill

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Nate the security officer warned me it was coming but we have had such a balmy autumn I was lulled into a false sense of security. Over the past two days the temperatures have dropped,  and the Simon and Garfunkel line ” going home/ where the New York City winters aren’t bleeding me” has taken on a new resonance. I just can’t get that song out of my head – it’s become an ear worm. 

It’s easy to remain unaware of the changing season when you’re hermetically sealed in the overheated college building. And then you come out and your nostrils stick together with the cold. The woollen caps and snoods are out and I’m seriously considering finding some kind of headwear that will keep me warm. But you have to be careful about that kind of thing at a certain age. One particular breed of New Yorker are the elderly ladies with the quaint hats, and as much as I admire their style I’m not ready to become one of those just yet. There was one yesterday in the supermarket dressed like Charlie Chaplin, complete with bowler hat and bright red lipstick. This being New York, nobody batted an eyelid. My eyes swivelled at first, because basically I’m a just a small town girl (♫ ♫) and still getting used to the wonderful freedom here. But despite her unusual appearance she chatted away aimiably and helped me choose my soup as if she had been my Aunty Gwen. Anyway the hunt is on for a hat with chutzpah. 

Last assignments are being finished, including a beast of a project renowned among students as a rite of passage that will make you or break you. It consists of designing a test, and making explicit the test construct, specs, design, and other procedures.   Then you administer it to some hapless evening class. After scoring you do a statistical analysis of the findings,  demonstrate how crappy your test was, and say how you would improve it the next time. All this stretches over 13 weeks and is written up in a paper about EIGHTY PAGES LONG. The saving grace is that you work on it with a partner so that you share the anguish. Kevin and I are on page 75  and are putting this large baby to bed by Sunday.

Next week when classes finish, the holiday celebrations begin. And then its homeward bound for Christmas. 

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Work

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I often write about my favourite places to eat and drink, but I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression. The main purpose for my being here is to work and study, and there’s been plenty of that going on too. Term started on September 3rd and is still in progress, and so, a fairly long haul. Work consists of reading a lot of articles or chapters, and then, either discussing these ideas in class, or writing them up into term papers. I usually enjoy writing, but I grappled for a while with the American academic style, which is much more scientific than the British one. The latter is more discursive, as if you’re having a thoughtful chat with a colleague and musing about different ideas. American academic discourse goes more like this: ” something something conceptual framework dum di dum tease apart blah blah conceptualization something something this is an important piece blah blah empirical question dum de dum negative skewness blah blah blah kurtosis  etc etc.” I was initially overwhelmed (that word again) by this impenetrable language, and even more so by the flow charts used to illustrate conceptual models or frameworks. When my turn comes round to describe these in seminars I am like a rabbit stuck in the headlights and stumble through as best as I can. The pressure really cranks up, however, when working on two different papers at once, as we are doing now, while at the same time attending and reading up for seminars. When this happens there’s absolutely no wiggle room. Someone once called the fuzziness this induces in the brain “an overcrowding of the cognitive workbench”, and at times mine feels jam-packed. But I’m explaining, not complaining. This is the deal around here, and I’m not certainly not alone. The dining room, library, park benches, Starbucks and any free perches are occupied by students with their brown bags, drinking iced coffee and staring intently at their Macs. It’s a product placer’s dream.

This week I have had a couple of moments of human bonding. The other evening a security officer was at his desk clearly unwell. He’s one of the more seasoned staff and you take nothing for granted after 50 these days, so I asked a student to hurry and get another officer for help. I was feeling quite concerned. Fortunately, It was nothing serious, but the officer now greets me loudly as his hero when I swipe in; we have become a pair of old timers bonded by this brief moment of physical vulnerability. The other incident was when a young international student struck up conversation in a queue. He  confided his anxiety about his teacher training placement, which he felt had finished badly due to different cultural communication styles. I tried to offer constructive advice but it made me realise that, however culturally aware we aim to be, we often default to our own cultural expectations when dealing with others.

And now I must stop procrastinating and finish that bibliography.

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The Heights Bar and Grill

the heights 1My university friend Sarah was in town, passing through on her way to Key West, so we arranged a brief encounter before she went off to meet a work colleague. She and I misspent our youth in Birmingham and Florence in the 70s,  and the joke goes that we have to stay friends as we both know where the bodies are buried. I also have very fond memories of visits to her parents ‘ home on the South coast where we would kick off the evening with a trip to the local pub. Happy times. Sarah is a literary agent now and our habitual rendezvous for the last 25 years has been at the Ristorante Diana in Bologna on her annual trip to the book fair. This year we met in front of the Columbia campus, Coffee, or something stronger? I asked. She was working valiantly through her jet lag, so we made our way up to the Heights bar, where they make a mean Margarita.

I discovered the Heights when my sister visited a month ago. Tucked away at the top of an unprepossessing staircase on Broadway, it is the perfect antidote to the urban chic-erie that can dominate the city. Unreconstructed, un-themed, and with a mixed clientele of students, good ole boys and suited business folk, it’s an unthreatening watering hole for a pair of Thelma and Louise wannabes in their mid years. The Margaritas, with plenty of salt, came with chips and salsa, and were so good that we had another. It is always good to catch up with people who knew you when you were young, so we reverted to our 21-year old selves for a while, and exchanged news and photos until it was time for her to go. We hailed a cab, raising an arm assertively, New York style,  and said goodbye until the next time. The Heights is becoming the place I want to take people to when they visit.

Oh, and this evening, guess who’s coming to dinner? Noam Chomsky is doing a three-evening gig at Columbia, so I’m going to try and get along to that.