Monday, January 26, 2009

OT: 25 Things

OK, so it's more than the requested 25 things, but I hope it's as interesting to read as it was to live!



People who enjoy astrology and get to know me well inevitably reveal their shock in how closely I match the typical description of my sign.

Most honest people will suspect I'm at least partially insane. I like to think I just see many things differently---including their points of view about my sanity.

I thoroughly enjoy most vices periodically and without shame, but have failed to develop an addiction to any of them. I don't think I've never finished a pack of cigarettes or a two-ounce bag of pipe tobacco; they always went stale. I have, however, polished off my share of single malts and their associates---they don't go bad as quickly. ;-)

Still though, I haven't used any illegal drugs. After oral surgery, I took one prescription codeine Tylenol tablet, had a disconcerting trippy experience floating inside my body, and threw the rest of the bottle away, preferring the pain. In spite of that, my dream retirement used to be wasting away in an opium den in Thailand, catching up with the rest of humanity. Wife and kids challenged that notion, though. ;-)

I had my first Scotch in Scotland, and had my first three-piece suit made in London, both on a high school trip. I haven't been to Europe since; I've never had the occasion.

I was amazed at my discovery in Hong Kong of some exotic stuffed animal craze called "Hello Kitty." I phoned my wife in excitement over the big headed stuffed cat toy I'd bought for my infant daughter that day. My wife has enjoyed embarrassing me with that story ever since, at least with the added disclaimer that I had no sisters growing up...

As a home schooler, Hong Kong amazed me: In the middle of a weeknight, families with their small children were teaming the streets! I was also baffled in the number of people I saw walking around talking to themselves; the cellphone bluetooth accessories were popular there well before they reached the States!

As a teen, I worked in the town bakery, supervised by a fellow named Anwar, "the mad Iranian." He was mad---in an angry way, not the fun way. He may have actually been Armenian; I didn't question. The girls worked the counters in nice uniform skirts; the boys hauled massive bags of flower and equally large trash bags behind the scene. Once per shift, we could pick a pastry from up front. Visiting the girls was as nice a part of the day as the ├ęclair I routinely brought back. We would dip frozen rolls in water and then dip them in poppy or sesame seeds, loading them up on trays and sending them to the ovens. Occasionally there would be the spontaneous "(frozen) food fight." Nothing was better than sneaking a few frozen petits fours away, though...

My father was in the seminary when he was young, and was actively studying to become a Roman Catholic priest. He hurt his back in a softball game and there was speculation whether he would ever walk again. The Church told him to find a new life since, at the time, the priest's job had a lot of kneeling, sitting, standing, kneeling, sitting, standing---wash, rinse repeat---and they figured he could not be a priest if he could not do those things. It was clear that, when the family was at church on Sundays together, this was a major concession for my father... When we were old enough to go on our own, his job there was done.

I graduated 21st out of 216 students, if I recall correctly, at an academically rigorous Catholic boys' high school, just allowing me to claim "Top 10%" on all the standard college application paperwork. [All in all, it was no small accomplishment at that school, but it's fun to put it this way!]

I went to college because it was next. I skipped classes, wandered the streets at night, and squandered my father's little money at the University of Michigan. I left in debt to the college when my dad died in my sophomore year. Not too long before he died, I had announced to him that I was in the wrong place, and that I was considering studying for the priesthood. I may have been quite a dubious priest, steeped with ambition and with certain worldly enjoyments, so I considered cloistered monkish orders, such as the Carthusians.

My father died at 49 of his second heart attack, just one year after finalizing his divorce. I was 19. As the oldest kid, I buried him. That number weighs on me as I turned 40 this past November. I've never lived with the goal of living longer, but circumstances have changed my focus to at least be somewhat more healthy.

I am convinced my father was worried I was gay. The look on his face when the girl and I looked at each other and I said, "I suppose we are boyfriend and girlfriend," was priceless! Years later, the police knocked on my bedroom door when once when I was talking with that same girl upstairs in my room; my father was having a heart attack downstairs and had called 911. She was with me at the hospital when later that night he died.

I took a job as an office administrator at a private investigation firm on returning home from U of M. After some time, I was on the streets as one of their investigators, working around New York City's five boroughs and Northern New Jersey. My primary work was worker's compensation and disability claims, documenting on paper, photo, and film, the days of people who claimed they were injured on the job and could no longer work.

With all of the photo work I was doing, I took a job at a local photo lab as well, working various stations from mixing chemicals through producing large custom negatives, slides, and prints. I learned a lot technically and in general working with the old retired military crew there... One day, the boss---chewing on an unlit corncob pipe, as always, wearing big red suspenders to hold up his baggy jeans beneath his belly---was seriously pissed that I was late. "Where the fuck have you been? The jobs are stacking up in your bin!" I replied, "Sorry, Chief,"---he was prior Navy---"I was out joining the Army." That seemed to have been an acceptable answer for the crew! ;-)

I joined the Army at 21---an old man. My scores were off the charts, allowing for choice of jobs. I chose linguist---what seemed to be the fastest path to get me where I really wanted to be, a Green Beret. They needed security clearances and a language, so this would be a start. I used to road march around the beautiful Monterey Peninsula in California---Pebble Beach, and so forth---with up to 80 pounds on my back, and swim regularly at the Fort Ord pool with uniform, boots, and a rubber M16, to prepare for the training I anticipated...

When I was young and even more arrogant, living in the regions around NYC, I swore there would be places I would never live or visit: California with its hippies, the Midwest for no particular reason, Texas, with their... well, Texas, Kentucky / Tennessee / West Virginia with the Appalachian hillbillies, the South with their slow drawls, ... The Army took me to basic in Missouri, language school in California, job school in Texas, special equipment school in Massachusetts, and then dropped me on the TN/KY border at Ft. Campbell, home of the 311th MI Battalion, 101st Airborne Division---the "Eyes of the Eagle." I met my would-be wife, a West Virginia girl, who would eventually be stationed near Savannah, Georgia, where I moved after my discharge, waiting for her to finish her enlistment.

I was Valerie's Arabic tutor at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California... We were learning Arabic in an eight hour a day, five day a week, 63 week course, when the first Gulf War broke out. The class ahead of me was rushed through; my class was on stand-by; Valerie's class, two cycles behind, was probably concerned. We did not have to go, but we did our part... While we were learning Arabic, one of my brothers joined the Army, went to basic, learned his skills in the artillery, and joined his unit already in Iraq. He died at 30 in a Veteran's Hospital, ostensibly from Gulf War Syndrome complications combined with his own vices.

I injured my back with severe compression fractures falling off an obstacle course at Ft. Campbell. I was misdiagnosed for months, prescribed ibuprofen, and finally verbally accused of being a malingerer. I, an enlisted fellow, furiously cursed out the warrant officer examining me and demanded x-rays. I marched myself about two miles to the base hospital with the x-ray request. After the technicians saw the first plates, they, with stunned looks on their faces, offered me a wheel chair---they couldn't believe I could walk. This was over three months later. Military orthopedic surgeons suggested fusing vertebrae, and I gave them a flurry of curses as well: If they couldn't figure out I was broken, I'd be damned if they were going to cut me open to fix it. After the diagnosis, I was banned from exercise and put on weight; then the unit tried to drum me out for being overweight. Working a night shift, I spent many days in the base law library... I was seeing the other side of my previous life as a private investigator... I received an honorable medical discharge from the Army two months and 15 days short of the end of my ordinary four year enlistment. That ended the want to become a Green Beret!

In my application essay, I dared WVU to reject me for undergraduate admission. They did. Old paperwork from my days at University of Michigan was not ready, so WVU considered my application fraudulent for failing to disclose all details of prior education. I was enrolled there a year later once everything was straightened out.

I named a mathematical creation, The Valerie Continuum, after my wife. If you're interested, it's a non-degenerate, selectable dendroid with the special property that it admits precisely one continuous selection map (with respect to the Hausdorff metric) from the hyperspace of its subcontinua into the continuum itself; moreover, it is a minimal universal continuum with respect to this property. Alternatively, as I explain it to Valerie, it's small, cute, unique, compact and connected, and very special, with lots of "V"-shapes in it, and others are just unwieldy imitations at best. My mentor had once named such a mathematical space, the Elsa Continuum, after his wife; I thought I would follow in the tradition! The description was published in a refereed collection of papers in honor of my mentor's 60th birthday, making the citation particularly special to all involved.

My mentor was at the forefront of the asbestos lawsuits in the mid-1990's that had the WVU Coliseum shut down for a while during the height of basketball season. My affidavits as an eyewitness---as well as a former private investigator and as a person then with a high level security clearance from NSA---was, I am told, instrumental in leading to an equitable legal settlement for employees, academic staff, and others. I went head-to-head with the administration, the deans, and others over that. A master of the pun, his words: "We do asbestos we can!"

Columbia's math department rejected my graduate school application. My mentor at WVU advised me to keep the rejection letter, as I would probably want to show it to them someday... Oxford University, years later, invited me to lecture on my independent research. Unfortunately, I couldn't swing the logistics. Still, screw you, Columbia---I am vindicated ;-)

I am ABC---All But Classes---instead of the traditional ABD---All But Dissertation---for a doctorate in mathematics. I have published, refereed papers that constitute a dissertation with original research in theoretical mathematics. I would need coursework of all things to complete the degree! But, the family needed to eat, and it wasn't clear that the PhD. would have helped me at all in what I was doing. I converted a research paper I was writing for a journal into a masters thesis instead so I could convert from summer intern to a regular employee at a higher entry salary where I was.

I was a mathematician in the Math Research Group at the National Security Agency... How cool is that?!? After a few years---which included the birth of our son, the purchase of a very modest house, and the head gasket explosion on our one car---I had to leave government employment when the added income from my second job as an adjunct professor at the local community college wasn't enough to support our home schooling in this area. I spent the next few years as a defense contractor.

As part of that adventure, I started my own defense consulting company just over a year before war became unpopular, hurricanes wiped out the Gulf Coast, democrats took congress from incumbent republicans, and so forth. Thus, I also have the experience of having a company crash and burn!

I have many papers of varying quality and rigor published outside my field of topology, but they are classified. I was once denied access to a paper that I had written myself; as a contractor instead of a government mathematician, access to it was blocked---in spite of the actual need (as opposed to vanity).

A mathematician I wanted to please with my mathematical prowess saw a letter to the editor I had written regarding the asbestos case; he told me I would be a great writer. After presenting mathematical findings to assorted NSA colleagues after intensive summer research, I was told I would be a great stand-up comic. And, yes, there are others. I have a habit of finding professionals telling me how great I would be in some other field!

At the high point of my career a few years ago, I was making probably around the same dollar figure as my father was---but his were 1980's dollars. These are different times... I did get to drive a fancy Jaguar XJR for over two years, though---that was fun, once (allegedly) hitting a personal top speed of about 135 mph!

I rarely carry pictures, decorate the house, and so forth. Too many attachments make me antsy. I never feel quite "at home," and was never more comfortable than when everything I had fit in a duffel bag. Not too long ago, I learned from my mother that my father was this way, too. I am intrinsically a hermit, a nomad, or a monk.

As part of a massive midlife crisis including my being fed-up with 15 years of work in this industry timed perfectly with my son's diagnosis with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, when I was laid off my last contract on 31 December 2007, I decided not to swing to a new vine in that jungle. I took a year to be with my family, especially my son while he can still walk. I made a very intensive study of Zen with a Zen Master / Korean Buddhist monk as a nearly full-time koan meditation endeavor to help ensure that I would be strong enough to face what's ahead. I did not watch or read the news for the entire year---Obama who? I've lost 30-40 pounds in there, primarily with exercise, in that same time. I am changing in ways I never could have anticipated.

I started studying Aikido to help strengthen my back, increase flexibility, and work on chronic pain management after the Army. I earned my black belt 12-13 years ago, continuing to study here and there without pursuing rank. Teaching Aikido to our local home schoolers, including my daughter, for the last two years, three times per week, is one of my greatest joys.

My wife is incredibly smart and strong. Both of my children amaze me. I don't know why my wife and children tolerate me. Presumably, it has something to do with at least some of the above. I'm grateful for every day they let me stay. ;-)

I don't know what's next for us, but it is time to decide...



... Addendum: A friend named Trelina would like to add that I'm awesome! Take that with a grain of salt :-)

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