Monday, July 28, 2008

An update from Chris

Hey Everyone,
I am writing to update on how my summer has gone. This letter will take you the next three weeks to read so I have tried to put thematic headings so you can skip to parts you are interested in :) .

Summer Math Program:
The first bit of news is that I have finished my summer math program, which was a terrific way to spend a summer.
As a refresher, I spent 9-4 each day of this summer learning a type of math called algebraic geometry. It is an advanced math that is frequently taught to graduate students because it requires a lot of prerequisite machinery. The first 4 weeks or so we worked with a young female professor who was a very cool person and a good teacher. Those first few weeks we learned most of the objects that we were going to deal with and did a lot of problems to work on understanding them. That was fun and I really liked her. Then, she went to a conference and our second professor came back from one to finish up the summer. He is a pretty intimidating guy (algebraic geometry is his research field and he knows way too much about it and is a very quick thinker), but he also is great to learn from. For the three weeks he led us, we dealt with more sophisticated material (bigger results) which we understood a little bit worse, and also focused on answering some research questions.
I was happy with how things turned out because in the last week I figured out how to answer a sort of non-trivial question, and I worked from 8 in the morning to midnight all that week typing up my results into a little paper. It was satisfying because every single step in the logic in the paper was my own. No one else in my group came up with anything.
I have attached a draft of the paper, which you could sort of skim just to see what sort of paper it was if you're interested (although you won't be able to understand a single word in the paper). And that was my summer job. It was a good learning opportunity and a great amount of fun. I also got along really well with my research group (we all shared an office and if you recall they all lived in the Northwest and talked about the wonders of Fred Meyer and the Tillamook Cheese Factory) and that was fun too.

A Week in Dallas:
And that was my summer job. This week, I went up to Dallas to stay with Allison's family. As a reminder, Allison is my roommate Patrick's girlfriend and my friend. But I love pretty much every member of their family, so I have plenty to keep me busy when Patrick and Allison are busy doing boyfriend-girlfriend type things.

I love being there because they have a very zany family life. Here are a few anecdotes:
-On holidays, the family always gets together and writes a puppet show or musical that kind-heartedly makes fun of people in the family or at their church. For example, one of the aunts in the family is divorced and had been approached a few years ago by a priest of some sort, whom she rejected. The priest got married last month to a very Nigerian lady, and the wedding was done in very exotic Nigerian style. Allison's family attended the wedding. So the play for 4th of July was an exaggerated reenactment of the Nigerian wedding. I opened up the play by playing the guitar and singing a song called "I have been replaced by a Nigerian Bride" which was dedicated to the aunt and was written by me and a bunch of family members. The play closed with all a rousing rendition of "In the Jungle" and everybody dancing in tribal wear that was really bathrobes. The whole thing is very crazy.
-One day this week, when we were out at dinner, the family realized they had their church roster in their car with them. For some reason, one of the family's favorite pastimes is making fun of people at their church (they have a lot of crazies at their church). So they decided they would spend the rest of the night driving around their suburb and looking at these crazy people's homes based on their addresses on the church roster.
-This Sunday, they had a big family party which they call "Corn Fest."
The origin of the third-year-running fest is that one of the aunts got in an argument with someone else about which brand of canned corn tasted best. They decided the way to settle it would be to invite a bunch of people over, buy several brands of corn, and see if the aunt could pick out which was the best (it turns out she could). That inspired an annual party, at which all of the food items are corn: roasted corn salsa, cornbread, corn dogs, corn on the cob, etc.
-Every Sunday night in the summer, the whole family gets together and watches a "summer musical". They have watched Godspell, Tommy and Chorus Line this summer.

So that's the idea; the family is very closely-knit and is very willing to have fun.

I have previously mentioned that basically their whole extended family live in a section of Dallas (six nuclear families total). They own various furniture stores, taquerias, etc. in the area. I spent the weekdays this week going to the furniture store the family runs and got to see quite a bit of the "behind-the-scenes" of the glamorous retail business. The store is right down the street from Lee Harvey Oswald's house (the one he went to after assassinating JFK). Another thing that makes their store interesting (besides the fact that basically all of the employees are related) is that they market towards hispanic-speaking or poor-credit customers. What this means is that they have to make a lot of tough decisions about whom to give credit to, and also have to spend a lot of time tracking down negligent payers via the phone. They said 22% of their sales don't make their payments, and they also have to deal with repossessing some amount of their sales. It was fun to see how they made these decisions and the dynamic of a family business is interesting.

While I was at work, I would accompany whomever was running errands, which allowed me to see quite a bit of Dallas and meet a ton of their family members. A lot of Allison's relatives have "tough" lives, or at least it seemed to me. The kids have to spend the summers sitting in the back room of the taquerias which made me feel sorry for them (there is no air conditioning which is killer in Dallas in the summer). It was pretty eye-opening seeing some of these things and made me feel thankful for what I have, and more committed to try to help people like these if I ever get money of my own.

The last really notable thing I did was go to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, which is the museum dedicated to the JFK assassination. The building is on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository where it is believed Lee Harvey Oswald was sitting when he fired the three shots. It is very cool because you can totally recognize the street and the grassy knoll from the films that you see of the assassination. It was very cool to be at a part of history that has such a strong visual image linked with it (as opposed to say, Gettysburg or something, for which we don't really have the same sort of mental images). And the museum was /very /well done and had lots of interesting historical objects--like the telegram wire at the time when JFK was shot which shows all of the telegram announcers frantically telling the others to get off in order to clear the lines for getting the news out about the president, etc. I really recommend it if anyone is ever in Dallas.

And that was my week in Dallas. For the rest of the summer, I will be driving up to Georgia with my roommate Patrick for about 3 weeks before school starts. You might be wondering why I am not coming home during the 4 week overlap, there are basically two reasons. First, I get along with Patrick very well and will probably visit his house at some point.
It is convenient to do it this summer because I will not have to pay for airfare (we are driving) and it's not easy getting a job for a 3 week period. Second, Patrick was kind beyond limits to me this year by paying for my groceries almost all year when I didn't have money. He took me to an eye doctor for my birthday and bought me a new pair of eyeglasses, which I sorely needed because I couldn't read the chalkboard in the tiniest classrooms on campus. I am doing him a small favor by driving to Georgia with him. He doesn't want to do the 15 hour, one day drive alone, and this way his parents don't have to fly to Houston to accompany him on the drive. So I feel bad about not coming to Oregon, but hopefully I made the right decision.

With that said, I am going to love seeing Georgia. It will be a great new experience. I have only been to the East Coast once (Boston for a few days, and I didn't see much else besides Harvard when I was there).
And also, Texas isn't the real south. So I will be getting both the South and the East by visitng Georgia.
From what Patrick tells me, here is what I should expect to see in
some cool hikes up mountains, the World of Coke Museum (Coke is from Atlanta), the first Chick Fil A Restaraunt (also from Atlanta), the Olympic Village (the olympics were held in Atlanta 8 years ago I think), and an ok zoo. I am not sure what else but it should be a good time regardless.

Love you all a ton and miss you,

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