Thursday, April 27, 2006

Skeletons in the Family Closet

D taught me how to twirl. We made up a routine to “It’s an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini.” B sewed me my very own Raggedy Ann doll. C put my hair up in the latest styles. I was the youngest of the four grandchildren, all of us girls. By the time I was five my cousins were in high school. On a few special occasions I got to spend afternoons at their house, and at Christmas they’d give me enchanting presents; I was thrilled by the fact that these beautiful, mysterious, exotic teenagers selected something just for me. Perfectly focused images hang suspended in my mind. I remember staring awe-struck at their endless drawer of barrettes, at the maze of bottles in their shower and at their long, golden, and womanly bodies as they sunbathed. One Christmas they bought me a life size crib for my favorite doll. It was beautiful, pink and had rollers on it. My baby and that crib went everywhere with me, from room to room, so that dolly was never out of sight. As a child I was aware that my family didn’t spend a lot of time with my aunt and uncle and cousins but I never questioned it.

When I was eleven or twelve my parents finally explained it to me. Uncle G had helped himself to funds from the family run business. Dad agreed never to tell Grandpa about this embezzlement if Uncle G would agree to give up his share of the business.

And so it is that my Aunt claims we robbed her children of their inheritance. I wish I could tell you that our family run business turned into an icon like Hilton Hotels or Ford Motor Company. Instead it was simply a struggling mom-and-pop that was slowly put out of business by superstores like Wal-Mart.

This past year we buried my grandmother. Grandpa passed on two years before. And once again we were all together. Huddling around the gravesite we quickly became reacquainted. My magnificent teenage cousins are now middle-aged with children in college. Uncle G is almost a splitting image of Grandpa. And Aunt J has the exact same bouffant hairdo as before but now it’s grayish white instead of black. We reminisced a little, especially about the drawer full of love letters we found in grandma’s dresser, which she refused to let us read. I’d like to read them now, but they seem to have been lost.

As we left the funeral that day I realized that a chapter in my life had closed. That was the last time all of us will ever be together.

Two days ago my mom called to say that my Aunt and Uncle are contesting the will. I guess that chapter isn’t quite closed yet.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Math to Wow Your Friends - Part II

There is a building not too far from campus that looks like this

and at closer inspection like this

which raises an almost infinite number of questions.

In addition to all of the questions you have about the artist and the owner of the building and the painted guard and the little brown squirrel, you’re probably also wondering what pi and Pythagorean’s theorem have in common (besides the fact that you were made to memorize both in school.)

You may remember from Math to Wow Your Friends - Part I that most types of numbers can be written as a fraction or ratio and hence are called rational numbers.

The number pi, however, is irrational. It is a never ending, never repeating decimal that cannot be written as a fraction. Other numbers, such as the square roots of primes, are also irrational.

The first Greek mathematicians were happily devising geometry without any notion of irrational numbers until they tried to apply Pythagorean’s theorem to a very special triangle.

Pythagorean’s theorem tells us how to calculate the hypotenuse of a right triangle given the lengths of its two legs.

Let's use it to find the hypotenuse of this triangle

So, in other words

This is exactly what the Greek mathematicians did. Then they tried to write the square root of two as a fraction. And that is where they got stuck.

They could not find a way to write the square root of two as a fraction, so they were compelled to prove that it couldn’t be done.

Here is a simple, elegant proof that the square root of two is irrational:

First, we’ll assume that it CAN be written as a fraction, and see if this assumption leads to a contraction. If it does, we will have proven our point.

Assuming that the square root of two can be written as a fraction, we can write

where a and b are whole numbers (and b isn’t zero, since it’s impossible to divide by zero.)

We can re-write this as

and by squaring both sides we can write
Now comes a bit of logic. Think about perfect squares like 4 and 9 and 16 and 25 and 36 and so on and the number of prime factors each one has. Here are several perfect squares broken down into their prime factors.

4 = 2 * 2

9 = 3 * 3

16 = 2 * 2 * 2* 2

25 = 5 * 5

36 = 2 * 3 * 2 * 3

and so on

Do you notice that each perfect square has an EVEN number of prime factors? Try some more on your own if you’re not convinced.

Back to our equation

b-squared must have an even number of prime factors and a-squared must have an even number of prime factors.

But the 2 on the left of the equal sign means that the left side of the equation has an ODD number of prime factors while the right side of the equation has an EVEN number of prime factors.

If two numbers are equal they will have the exact same prime factorization. Since the left side of the equation and the right side of the equation don’t even have the same NUMBER of prime factors the two sides of the equation cannot be equal.

This is a contraction. And that means we have proven that the square root of two cannot be written as a fraction and is therefore irrational.

Oh, and by the way, the squirrel says:

“I love you Mary!”

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Evolution is a bulldozer disguised as a stationary bike.

--Tom Robbins

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Spring Cleaning of the Mind

Don’t worry! Not another word, or even letter, about the insidious horror that is housework will these fingers type!

The taxes have all been paid, the IRAs contributed to, and the sun did come up today after all. Now that that weight and worry has left my mind it’s time to clear out the rest of the cobwebs and start exercising that lazy financial muscle.

Yesterday I gathered up all of my savings – a 401k here, a 403b there, IRAs all over the place, a money market, a savings account and even a $100 savings bond I was given in grade school. My financial advisor calls me a closet saver. I started each of these accounts with some fantastic savings intentions only to have my efforts dwindle over time. On my recent quest to corral these misplaced nuggets I discovered that some accounts had been managed aggressively, some very conservatively, and others not at all. Some laid languishing like an old car up on blocks in an overgrown southern yard. (Catch the Tom Robbins influence?) Now the light is shining on these formerly hidden treasures, and they’re all being coaxed into respectable growth. Thank goodness.

How else are John and I going to be able to afford that super deluxe RV we plan to drive across the country during our retirement?

Think I'm kidding? I guess you’ll just have to keep reading my blog to find out. Hey, what do you think we’ll have instead of blogs by the time we retire?

Monday, April 17, 2006

Easter 2006

Ah Easter, a time of renewal and rebirth; yellow chicks and white fluffy rabbits; daffodils, tulips and lilies; pastels galore; and even a little chocolate.

My Easter included three days of antibiotic by IV, taxes (refunds are an urban legend, right?), eating left-hand-made lasagna, and lying on the couch reading while keeping my chew-toy-of-a-hand elevated.

On our one foray out that didn’t involve the doctor’s office, we discovered a wee little bookstore tucked into the folds of a shopping corner. And in one dusty little cubby-hole it had novels for sale for ninety-three cents. I bought an Alice McDermott, which I realized later I had already read, and John picked out Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins. That was the perfect Easter weekend read. And by the way, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri is excellent.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

I wouldn’t say I’m a BAD driver

I’ve never caused an accident, and I’ve never received more than a parking ticket or occasional speeding ticket. But I’ve had plenty of adventures behind the wheel of a car.

One of my earliest driving memories is sneaking into my parents bedroom where they were both asleep, silently opening the cabinet where they kept the keys, tiptoeing back to my room, lifting the screen off my bedroom window and climbing out into the night. It was about midnight, I had never driven before (if you don’t count sitting on my mom’s lap as a child and steering us down an old country road), and I was wearing nothing but a blue teddy and a blue jean jacket. I slid into the station wagon, turned the ignition and as quietly as possible made my way down the driveway. I didn’t know where the lights were, so I made the first few miles driving twenty miles an hour guided by nothing but the moonlight. By the time I made it out of the neighborhood and onto the big farm to market road, I’d found them. Ten minutes later and I was outside my boyfriend’s house. I can say that all ended safely and well; two hours later I was back in bed as if nothing had ever happened. The next day, though, my Mom with a wry smile on her face said something about needing to better secure our windows.

My very first car was a 1968 Dodge Dart given to me by my great aunt. When I got the car in 1989 it had 38,000 miles on it. My great aunt drove it to the store and back and church on Sundays, literally. She kept meticulous records of each time it was serviced and every drop of gas that was added. In fact, when I got it, it still had the original factory plastic wrap on the seatbelts in the back seat. Most important to my parents, however, was that it was big and safe. Its lack of power steering and power breaks strengthened my arms and legs and it provided plenty of protection. One evening I was waiting to take a left turn, against traffic, on a busy rural highway, into the school parking lot. I was rear-ended by a car traveling 40 mph. That car was crumpled straight up into the driver’s seat; my rear bumper had a small v-shaped dent. The Dart car served me well. But the insurance company decided not to pay to repair it, and I moved into the realm of more modern machinery.

One weekend during college my girlfriend and I decided to take a road trip out of town. She drove and sang and talked and looked for music, all at the same time, and almost missed our exit. When I pointed this out she veered for the turn, just yards from the highway railing, at 60 mph on the elevated exit lane. Her little Nissan Sentra swerved straight toward the left hand railing, and then once she corrected it headed straight toward the right side railing. Time slowed to a crawl as I watched this scene play out before me. We alternately headed straight toward the left then the right railing, all the while several stories above the highway. I felt my heart stop. When my girlfriend finally got the car under control, we continued on, neither of us talking, until she said, “Wow, I handled that really well. Maybe I should go into trauma medicine.” A few hours later I got my voice (and heartbeat back.) Today my girlfriend is an excellent doctor.

When I moved to California, I promptly took my signing bonus down to the BMW dealership and bought myself the fastest, sleekest Z3 on the lot. It’s a silver convertible with black leather seats with seat warmers (once you try them you can’t go back), extra wide tires and an awesome sound system. This was to compensate myself, I reasoned, for the insanely long hours I worked at my new job. The best part of driving this car was when I left the office late at night. To get home I had to make my way around a three-lane highway onramp that circled 270 degrees. Imagine taking that curve at night, with the top down, the stereo blasting, and the road wide open for miles ahead. Each night I’d take it a little bit faster, the cool air whipping my face and hair, shouting out the lyrics to my favorite song. I never got tired of that road.

Ah, the memories.

For those of you concerned about my cat inflicted wounds, my index finger is out of commission and hurts like HE**. Call me, I could use the sympathy.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Karma's a Bitch

Various friends and relatives have made it abundantly clear that they regard my new housekeeper indulgence with a mixture of jealousy and outright contempt. I’ve gotten used to the shunned phone calls, the unreturned emails, and the shouts of “I hate you” on the other end of the receiver. But today the cosmic pay-back for my loose lips (and fingers) occurred in earnest.

The morning started as usual – coffee and breakfast outside in the courtyard, a glance at the morning paper and a doze in the shade. Later I let the kids enjoy a romp in the (mostly) enclosed courtyard while I slipped inside for a quick peek at the internet. Five minutes later I discovered Piper sitting just two feet outside the courtyard near the breach in the fence that runs along the top of the wall. Then on my way through the house to reach her new perch I heard Mini, her nemesis, attack. It was an awful sounding flurry of cat hisses, growls and screeches accompanied by flying fur. It was so loud my neighbor came outside to inquire. She chased off mean, grey Mini and I went to collect Piper. However, Piper, traumatized by this attack on her coddled and comfortable in-door-only existence, was traumatized, and she regarded me as another attacker. While hoisting her out of danger and back into the safety of our yard, she gnawed my finger to the bone. But she was safe, and that was all that mattered.

Until I saw the copious streams of bright red blood flowing down my hand and onto the path at my feet. My vision got blurry, I started seeing black and I just barely made it over to my neighbor’s house before fainting. My stoic (and extremely medically handy) neighbor picked me up off of the sidewalk, cleaned, soothed and bandaged my wounds and got me back to the house where Piper was sitting serenely on the bed as if nothing had ever happened.

Now I sit here one tetanus shot and antibiotic’s course later typing this with one hand while my other hand rests elevated and swollen behind a mass of white gauze.

I had no idea that hiring a housekeeper could be so dangerous. I will try to be more careful about any future indulgences. (Or at least more secretive.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Video of Our Times

Tonight I was lying on the couch reading The Economist (as an AMP is wont to do on a raucous spring break night) when a slight, almost hidden little article caught my attention.

First, watch this, something I am forever grateful to Mel for turning me onto.

Now, read this, from The Economist

HUANG YIXIN and Wei Wei, two students at the Guangzhou College of Fine Arts, were hanging around their dormitory last summer and decided—as one does—to turn on their webcam, put on their Houston-Rockets jerseys and lip-synch a few of their favourite songs by the Backstreet Boys. They uploaded the clips to Google Video, a free website full of such stuff. Their grimaces are over the top, self-consciously ludicrous. And they became famous almost instantly.

Astonishingly famous. Almost every Chinese internet user under a certain age has seen the “Back Dormitory Boys”, [and now, so have you! what would you do without Mel and me?] as they are now called. Web forums discuss their private lives. National radio and television shows have hosted them. Even their roommate, just visible in the background playing computer games, gets celebrity treatment.

Last month, a media company in Beijing called Taihe Rye hired Messrs Huang and Wei to continue their lip-synching, for cash. Song Ke, the boss, says that he has already placed his clients in a television commercial to be filmed next month for Pepsi Cola, one of China's largest advertisers. The plan, says Zhao Qian, another manager at Taihe, is to put the Back Dormitory Boys together with their idol, Yao Ming, a Chinese basketball prodigy who plays centre for the Houston Rockets. Messrs Huang and Wei will thus join the company of such global celebrities as David Beckham, Ronaldinho Gaucho and Janet Jackson as a public face of Pepsi in China.

To some of China's professors and cadres, all this is further confirmation, if any were needed, that the country has taken a worrisome turn. They had barely recovered from Sister Lotus, a young lady who published provocative photos of herself online in order to find love only to find fame instead, at least until the government censored her. Then came that other grassroots celebrity (also a Taihe client), Li Yuchun, a boyish-looking girl who became champion on “Super Girls”, a television show that lets viewers vote for their favourite star, who also unleashed potentially worrying amounts of enthusiasm for voting. And now the Back Dormitory Boys. The phenomenon indicates a modern social illness, says Pan Zhibiao, who is vice-president of the Guangdong Provincial Society of Aesthetics, and thus, of course, an expert in such matters.

You Go Boys!

Oh let me count the ways that I am in heaven

I am presently sitting outside (reclining actually on my oh-so-soft and comfortable chaise lounge) on the patio of my courtyard in beautiful sunny SoCal. Not a cloud in the sky, a mere 73 degrees, Annie at my feet and Piper smelling the new blooms on our tropical plants. All while typing on my laptop and sipping a delicious beverage. This is after a refreshing hour of driving around in the convertible singing "This is the best day of my life," my own personal ditty.

Why is that? you ask. Because while I am luxuriating, basking in this wonderful life, someone else is cleaning my house. I do believe the house has never been cleaner. The hardwood floors gleam, as do my windows, and the sinks, bathtub and bathroom floors. Not a spot of dust, nor even a stray hair. (Which is saying a lot living with Annie and Piper.) The wood furniture is infused with orange scented oil, and the beds are plump and inviting with sheets smelling of springtime.

Life is good. Very good indeed.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Two Delicious Recipes Even an AMP Can Make

For years I've looked for a scrumptious muffin recipe. Now I've found two. Both are from a terrific website called Epicurious, which hosts a collection of Gourmet Magazine and Bon Appetit recipes that have been rated and reviewed by hundreds of cooks. These two recipes are so good, I just had to include them here - with my own notes and suggestions of course. Enjoy!

Coconut and Macadamia Nut Banana Muffins
This recipe will make about 2 dozen muffins. I halved it using 2 eggs and 2 bananas, and it turned out great.
If your macadamia nuts come salted make sure you use unsalted butter and omit the salt.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 1/3 cups mashed ripe banana (about 3 large)
3 tablespoons sour cream
3/4 cup chopped macadamia nuts
1 cup sweetened flaked coconut, toasted lightly and cooled

Into a bowl sift together the flour, the baking powder, the baking soda, and the salt. In a large bowl with an electric mixer cream the butter with the sugars until the mixture is light and fluffy and beat in the vanilla, the eggs, 1 at at time, the zest, the banana, and the sour cream. Add the flour mixture, beat the batter until it is just combined, and stir in the macadamia nuts and the coconut. Divide the batter into well-buttered and floured muffin tins and bake in the middle of a preheated 350°F. oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Remove from the pans and let them cool, right sides up, on a rack.

Mix-It-In Muffins
This is a delicious basic muffin recipe that you can turn into any style you desire. For example you can mix in
- 1 chopped banana and 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
- 1 cup toasted almonds, 3/4 cup dried cranberries, and 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 cup chopped drained canned pineapple and 1 cup sweetened flaked coconut
- 1 cup chopped dried apricots and 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
- or anything you can thing of

The dough is rather dry, but don't be fooled. The muffins turn out moist and delicious.

If your family can't eat all the muffins the morning they're made, consider halving the recipes because their taste and texture the second day is no where near as delicious as the first.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup sour cream
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 400°F. and butter twelve 1/3-cup muffin cups.
Into a bowl sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Melt butter and in a small bowl whisk together with sour cream, egg, and vanilla. Stir butter mixture (and additional ingredients; see note, above) into flour mixture until just combined. Divide batter among muffin cups and bake in middle of oven until golden and a tester comes out clean, about 20 minutes.

Makes 12 muffins.

Enjoy. If you try these, let me know what you think!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Life is Good

I feel healthy and rejuvenated
The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming and the birds are chirping
Annie is at my side
And best of all John is home from a week abroad

I also feel fine because I

Hired a maid. You must pause here to reflect on how outrageously, gloriously happy that makes me. Only another woman with the same German-inherited and inescapable fastidiousness and cleaning compunction would understand.

Signed up for yoga classes. My septuagenarian French neighbor says those aren't a luxury but rather a requirement. She's been going every Monday morning years. I will try to catch up.

Saw Marvin Hamlisch in Concert. He's absolutely one of my favorites. And as if that weren't enough, our symphony's director announced that he will be our new principal pops conductor!

Bought a stunningly, breath-takingly beautiful wedding gown. It also, unfortunately, took away a lot of my pocketbook.

There you have it. Four things to make you happy when you’re feeling down.

The truth is I had a bit of buyer’s remorse after plunking down the hefty sum for that wedding dress and couldn’t help feeling a little disconsolate.

I think I may have to go clothes shopping to cheer myself up, she says with wink!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

What’s an anemic to do on a rainy day but sit on her couch and read, between naps, that is?

Today’s treasure is Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. This is Jhumpa’s first major work and all the more astonishing for it. (I will be buying her second book from Amazon as soon as I'm finished here.) The stories involve people in India and America across generations in different stages of life and love. They include a mix of servants, co-workers, arranged marriages, adulterers, precocious children, struggling immigrants and other lonely souls. I think I smell a curry cooking as I read! Each chronicle is captivating, thought-provoking and entirely different from the previous ones. In each I’ve gathered insight into unique and interesting people, become sympathetic to their causes and curious about their lives after the stories end. In other words, I HIGHLY recommend it.

Tired of reading about reading? New, non-literary posts coming soon. I promise!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Four-legged Kids, Anemia and a Southern California Weekend

I found out that my exhaustion was, in fact, not internet related but rather due to the iron deficiency known as anemia. (I guess those late night meals of grilled cheese sandwiches and fries just weren’t doing the trick after all.) So, apart from a trip to Einstein Bagels, this bod has been firmly planted on the living room couch for three solid days. Friday and Saturday were mostly spent sleeping, but Sunday I was awake enough to savor 4, yes FOUR, episodes of Veronica Mars and enjoy several lovely all-beef meals prepared by John. What would I do without him? Here’s a picture of me and the kids and the ronunculus John bought for us.

Okay, it’s a picture of my elbow and the kids, but trust me, after three days on the couch you wouldn’t want to see me anyway.