No, YOU’RE upside down

Prepping for a meeting on the “History of Calculus” project, I was happy to learn that this old series of instructional physics films is available online. The “Frames of Reference” episode (below) is a classic, managing to engage its audience without pandering. If we can do something similar with “History of Calculus” I will be extremely pleased.

Frames of Reference : Richard Leacock : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive

This PSSC film utilizes a fascinating set consisting of a rotating table and furniture occupying surprisingly unpredictable spots within the viewing area. The…

Grudge Match

I asked Stacey (over at the Alumnae Relations department at St. Kate’s) if they wanted any rewrites on the Mother Antonia piece before starting to rehearse it for this year’s reunion. Stacey mentioned that after last year’s performance, someone had shared the story of how Mother Antonia gave permission for the basketball team to wear bloomers, and the Alumnae Relations folks were wondering if this could be worked into the play.

By way of background, Stacey sent me a paragraph on Modesta Reichert Gamble of the class of 1920, a basketball star known for “assuring Sister Antonia McHugh that the St. Catherine’s team could beat the University [of Minnesota] if she permitted them to change the cumbersome bloomers in which they customarily played.” So it appeared that M. Antonia actually gave permission for them not to wear bloomers!

Digging for more details, I was dismayed to find in Joel Rippel’s 75 Memorable Moments in Minnesota Sports that the University of Minnesota didn’t have a women’s basketball team in 1920. The U had abolished women’s intercollegiate sports in 1908, not to revive them till 1973. So did that write-up on Modesta Reichert get it wrong?

Continue reading Grudge Match

Lunch Theatre

I know this is short notice, but if you’re in the Twin Cities there’s an opportunity to see a one-act play of mine this Saturday at noon.

I wrote the script ten years ago because a women’s group had asked Theatre Unbound to provide entertainment at a lunch they were giving. They wanted something 20 minutes long, uplifting, and funny. TU wanted something with minimal production requirements. So it’s a two-person show, the set is a stepladder (I decided to take “uplifting” literally), and the props are a bucket of cleaning supplies of the sort that an artistic or executive director of a small theatre company might happen to have around the house. Mildly fun fact, I first drafted the script while stranded in the Cincinnati airport on a trip for my day job.

In 2007, “Back Up” was performed by then-TU company members Stacey Poirier and Delta Rae Giordano, two actors whose work I love. Saturday, it will be performed by current TU company members Charla Marie Bailey and Julie K. Phillips, two actors whose work I also love. Lucky playwright!

The History of Pre-Calculus

Sunday night I attended a workshop with company members of Green T Productions, to bring them up to speed on the discussions Kathy Welch (Green T Artistic Director) and I have been having about the “History of Calculus” project. I was afraid that the company members would find the topic dry or not see any connections to their lives, but they were very articulate about their history with math. It seemed to call up some pretty deep feelings, too. One common theme was that a move between schools could seriously disrupt math learning – either you’d be thrown in at the deep end of material you’d never seen before, or you’d be rehashing stuff you mastered two years ago in the school you came from. No two school systems seemed to agree about what a third grader, a sixth grader, an eighth grader should know.

The stories reminded me of some of my own experiences with disruptions in math learning, which I haven’t thought about in a while. Midway through second grade, I was skipped into third grade. The school year that I missed evidently included long division, which I had to try to figure out on the fly (and which I still suck at). In – I think – eleventh grade, I was skipped from the first half of (I think) Algebra II into the second half of Pre-Calculus. My very first day in Pre-Cal, there was a quiz. “Just give it a try,” said the teacher, who was a kindly man. “It won’t count toward your grade.” I still remember the near-to-tears feeling of looking at that quiz and having Absolutely. No. Idea. what the questions were even asking.

Dislocations and frustrations like this seem to be common math experiences – which tells me we are on to something, here.

The History of Calculus

I’m embarking on a new project with Green T Productions. I’ll be a consulting playwright on a work developed by the ensemble, similar to my role on Silkworms, though in this case I’m involved earlier, helping to choose and focus the subject matter. The working title is The History of Calculus, but I’ve promised we’ll change it to something less intimidating. (Though in a way that intimidation is what the play’s about. The experience of being stymied by math.)

Here’s a fun quote from the research material – Voltaire describing Newton’s achievement in inventing calculus:

It is the art of numbering and measuring exactly a thing whose existence cannot be conceived.

Reminds me of the 18th century trading company created to take advantage of the South Sea Bubble:

A Company for Carrying out an Undertaking of Great Advantage, but Nobody to Know What It Is.

Calculating vulnerability

I’m reading Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon. Was struck by a quote from an Air Force colonel responding to projections of what might happen to U.S. bases in the event of Soviet nuclear attack.

I hope none of you are taken in by all this slide-rule razzmatazz.

Remember slide rules? I bet that only a vanishingly few people younger than me know how to use them, but (reading about the Cold War encourages this kind of thinking) it might behoove us to learn, in preparation for the coming bad years when the electrical grid is largely destroyed.

Update 4/21/2017: Last night I went to see Hidden Figures, which I enjoyed thoroughly. My husband pointed out one minor lapse in period authenticity, however: in the movie’s 1960s NASA, there was scarcely a single slide rule to be seen. I count this as evidence that only a vanishingly few people younger than me even recognize them. Or at least, it’s evidence that the movie producers believed that no one would recognize them if they were there, or miss them if they weren’t.

Me and Mother Antonia, part 2

In the wake of the monologue I wrote last year about their first president, Mother Antonia McHugh, the Alumnae Relations Department at St. Catherine University asked me to write about her for their magazine. A new book has just come out about the chapel she built at St. Kate’s. No matter how many articles and books are written about this lady, there will always be more stories to tell.

Defining Women | St. Catherine University Magazine

On the other hand, there’s Mother Antonia. Mother Antonia McHugh, St. Kate’s first president, is legendary for making St. Catherine a nationally recognized institution of higher learning. When she assumed leadership in 1914, only a single building, Derham Hall, had been completed. A mere five faculty members held college degrees (none beyond a master’s).


A while ago, I mentioned getting feedback from a fellowship application panel. This winter, I worked on revising the script based on their observations. The proof copy for the revised version arrived today. (The script is available here – or download it here.)

Sometimes in the midst of a revision, I’ll realize I already have the groundwork for a change I want to make. That happened this time. In the play, pacifist suffragettes make the decision to learn hand-to-hand fighting in order to protect their leaders. By embracing violence to this limited extent, did they risk betraying their dedication to peace?

When we first meet Cicely, the office girl, she wants to make sure everyone understands the dire consequences of not getting the expense reports to the accountant in a timely fashion.

If she doesn’t get them, she can’t prepare the monthly statement. If she can’t prepare the monthly statement, she can’t prepare the quarterly statement. If she can’t prepare the quarterly statement, we may as well just close the doors.

Who better to prophesy what may happen once the women learn to fight?

If you hit someone in self-defense, why not stab someone in self-defense? If you stab someone in self-defense, why not shoot someone in self-defense? If you shoot someone in self-defense, why not just build another dozen dreadnought ships?

Me and Sylvia, part 2

Minnesota Women’s Press asked me to write a squib for their “Acting Up” issue, about “the role of the arts in creating social change.” This seemed like a good occasion to revisit Sylvia Pankhurst.

What’s the use of art? – Minnesota Women’s Press

Anne Bertram is a playwright and executive director of Theatre Unbound, “The Women’s Theatre” in the Twin Cities.

The Loud Words

In “For Worse,” beleaguered substitute teacher Michelle, called in the middle of the day to sub for a sub in a seventh-grade English class, gets out some of her frustration by asking the students to shout their vocabulary words as loud as they can. I got this idea from my ninth-grade English teacher, the late Mrs. Miriam McCluney, who regularly had her class shout the items on our weekly vocabulary list. (“Loud enough to wake Mr. Mitiguy out of his after-lunch nap next door!” she told us.)

I was incredibly lucky to have been in her class, especially given that I ended up in theater; or you can make the case that I ended up in theater because I was lucky enough to have been in her class. In addition to having us perform our vocabulary words, she had us memorize and present passages from the works we studied – not just plays (Romeo and Juliet) but fiction too (To Kill A Mockingbird). I learned later that she received grants to travel to Shakespeare festivals throughout the West. After I graduated, she invited me to go with her to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and the As You Like It we saw there – a confection in 18th-century style where the lovers had costumes color-coordinated with the person they were supposed to end up with, and a young and ever-so-ennuyé Jaques attitudinized in a green velvet frock coat – is still a highlight of my theatergoing experience.

OK…trotting out attitudinizing there brings me back to the subject of vocabulary. A number of years ago now, the Hennepin County Library brought novelist M.T. Anderson to town as part of their lecture series. He had recently published The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, whose narrator is a young African American man in 18th century Boston. Anderson does an uncanny job of creating “18th-century” prose, in both sentence structure and vocabulary. The book was advertised as Young Adult fiction. After Anderson’s talk, one of the audience members asked whether it was really wise to try to sell Octavian Nothing to young adult readers; wasn’t there a risk that the unfamiliar, difficult language would put them off?

As I remember it, Anderson answered that he had faith in the curiosity of young people and their willingness to learn new words and new ways of using language. In a democracy, he argued, it is vital to encourage curiosity in order to create an informed electorate.

It’s the strongest argument I’ve ever heard for the importance of using unusual words and forms of language, and as someone whose educational background is in literature and linguistics, I’m inclined to cheer for it. On the other hand, fancy vocabulary can make a message unclear. Sometimes speakers or writers purposefully use it to make themselves look superior. I can’t blame anyone for taking unusual words as a signal that they, as readers or hearers, are not welcome.

How do you see it? Do you take weird vocabulary items an invitation, or a “no trespassing” sign?