Appreciating Life’s Annoying Minutiae

IMG_6140The other day, I was showing my freshman Physics students how to calculate the instantaneous velocity of an accelerating object  . . .  an object that is speeding up, or slowing down.  In this case, the object we were discussing was speeding up.  The object was the NYC L train leaving the station at 3rd Ave and 14th street.  We had gone down to the subway station as a class (there’s an adrenaline inducer) and collected distance-time data using stopwatches and a measuring wheel.  We received odd looks from commuters, and collected some fairly useful data.

Back in the classroom, the students first calculated the average velocity of the train for each time interval.  Then, using the concept that the average velocity is the sum of velocities at the beginning and end of the time interval divided by two, they began to calculating the instantaneous velocities.  So, they had to do a lot of multiplying the average velocities by two, as the subway train started from rest.

And the following conversation ensued:

Student: “I did it.  I multiplied the average velocity by two.”

Me: “Great.  Now keep doing it.”

Student, with alarm in his eyes: “Until when?”

Me: “Until you’ve done it for the whole data set.  For both trains.” (We did two trials!)

Student, with more alarm: “You mean ALL the data points?”

Me: “Yes.”

Student, after a long sigh: “That’s annoying.”

Me: “I know.  Welcome to life.”

A few students gasped.  I continued.  I told them I was completely serious.  And that life has some magical, fantastic, beautiful parts, and some incredibly annoying, mind-numbing, tedious parts.  And they are all important.  And the mind-numbing tedious parts typically lead to some kind of reward.

I like how becoming a parent has drastically increased my tolerance for the annoying mind-numbing parts of life, and has enhanced my appreciation of the magical parts.  And of course, given me more of each kind of moment.

But I feel like it’s essential to truly be able to sink into and appreciate the annoying parts.  Just get’em done, with minimal drama.  Multiply that column of numbers by two.  Scrub a surface until it’s clean.  Edit 100 pages for typos.  Make 5,893 sawing motions into a pumpkin.  To embark on a task that is repetitive and annoying and just do it.  And then reap the fruits of your labor.

I like that we had that conversation that day in class.  When I think about what they will take away from freshman Physics, it’s hard to imagine more than a few of them will remember the details of analyzing the acceleration and velocity of a moving object.  But I’m hoping the class will help them appreciate the ubiquity of annoying minutiae in life, the importance of doing them, and the rewards you reap when are you through.

Post-Script:  This is the same class in which a few weeks prior, I paced around the room, hands cupped over my mouth, repeating “MAKING A GRAPH IS NOT A HARDSHIP”.  No one complains about making graphs anymore.  Progress.

On Comedy

I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of comedy, of humor.  Last week, a math teacher and I sat with our freshmen advisees, and we drew up a list of community norms we’d like to adhere to in our advisory sessions.  Things like, “help others” and “don’t interrupt” were added one by one to the list.  And then the math teacher suggested we add, “have a sense of humor”, which I found completely brilliant and frankly so damn easy to forget in the midst of regular daily life stresses and the uh, bigger ones, like, hurricanes and nuclear bombs.

The next night Eric and I went out to see stand-up comedy — truly a gem of a date activity.  We saw 6 or 7 comedians, and 3 were legitimately funny.  But it was so worth it to sit through the awkward, inappropriate, way-too-raunchy ones for the side-splitting perfection delivered by the truly funny people.  One of my favorite moments was when someone let out a gasp of shock at what the comedian said.  The comedian looked at the person and said, “seriously? this is comedy, not a TED talk! Not everything I’m saying actually happened!”  In other words, lighten up!

I had a moment to re-appreciate the art of lightening up during a walk to school two weeks ago.  It was the first day back after the summer and behind me I pulled a “granny cart”, as another teacher later affectionately called it, stuffed with papers and files and all of the things I worked on this summer.  Ahead of me on the sidewalk was a hunched-over elderly man pushing a walker, and a few feet behind him, a hunched over elderly woman also pushing a walker.  They made slow but steady progress up the sidewalk.  I was closing in.  As I approached, I said, cheerfully, “Excuse me!” and maneuvered around the woman, and then the man.

The scene of the “Ya flippin’ moron!” incident.

Once I successfully passed them, I heard the man call out, “Excuse ME!”.  I figured he was being polite and hadn’t heard my initial “Excuse me”.  So then I turned around to give him a smile, and he shouted back at me, loudly, “YA FLIPPIN’ MORON!”.  Except it wasn’t “flippin’ “, it was the real thing.

It was SUCH a quintessential NYC moment.  This frail little old elderly person’s got enough spite to flatten the neighborhood.  I kind of chuckled to myself.  I mean, the guy had to be 90, curled up like the letter C, with the stride length of an inch.  I had to admire his spunk.  But then, actually, more profanity and insults came my way.  “Screw you!” he yelled.  And there was more.  And I began to lose sight of the humor in it.  I was almost ready to turn around and get into it with him.  Like, really dude? Who’s the moron?  You are assaulting me with profanity for oh, politely saying excuse me and walking around you.

But I stopped myself.  “Don’t do it,” I thought.  “He’s 90 and parts of his life probably suck and be thankful you can walk at a quick clip and there are a lot of good things in your life,” I told myself, or something along those lines.  But in order to stay in that place of calm, I needed to appreciate the humor of the whole interaction.

I’m reading a book called Younger Next Year, inspired partly by my impending 40th birthday.  The authors recommend lots of things to do to be “younger next year”, namely exercise everyday and quit eating garbage.  But they also point out the importance of a calm, open, happy mindset.  In Chapter 12, the authors say one of the worst things about getting old is “getting grumpy”.  One author shares how about 5 years prior to the book’s publication, he began to just get grumpy — snapping at his wife, giving the finger to cab drivers, etc.  And he wondered if the world was actually becoming more irritating or if he was “getting weird”.  And he decided it was the latter, and that he needed to put a stop to it.  He writes that sure, every now and then we all need to vent, but that “endless anger, terminal petulance, is not so hot.  It doesn’t do any good, and it can do a lot of harm.”  I think the antidote to this anger may just be humor.  By the third comment by my 90-year-old friend, I felt the anger and the irritation bubbling up.  Thinking about how hard my friend would laugh once I arrived at school and recounted the story squashed those hostile feelings.

I challenge you to do something this weekend that makes you laugh.  Really laugh, like out loud, possibly causing your stomach to hurt.  Find a 5-minute video of a comedian you love.  Watch a few minutes of Odd Mom Out or Broad City (note: these are not just chick shows, as my husband can attest).  Or pick up some David Sedaris.  Watch how the  laughter can be a game-changer.