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Thursday, June 29, 2006

When I'm Warren Buffett... (If I were Rothschild) by Sholom Aleichem, my translation...

So here is my first attempt at translating a Yiddish story. It's by Sholem Aleichem, creator of Tevye and the fictional world of Kasrilevke (i.e. Fiddler on the Roof land). The main character is a poor melamed, a teacher of children. Well, I think actually all the teachers were poor.

Here's more about the Rothschilds. I like thinking about this story in view of Warren Buffet's recent move.

"When I'm Rothschild," the Kasrilevke melamed let loose on a Thursday -- when the rebbetzin demanded money to make Shabbos, and he didn't have it - Oy, when I'm Rothschild! ... Guess what I'll do! In the first place, it'll be guaranteed that a wife always has a three-ruble note with her so she doesn't have to bother a man when Thursday rolls around ... secondly, I'll get my Sabbath kaftan out of hock - or, no, I'll buy back the wife's catskin burnoose - she'll stop poking her head in here and telling me she's cold!

And I'll buy this house, entirely, all three rooms, with the larder, the cellar, the attic, and this that and the other thing - let her not say she's feeling crowded. She can take two of the rooms, boil, bake, wash, and shred away, and leave me alone. I'll be able to teach my students with a clear head. No worries about livelihood. One won't have to worry about where to find money to make Shabbos - what a delight to the soul that will be!

As for my daughters, they'll all be married off, that's a load off my shoulders... So that covers my needs - so then what? I'll get started...

First, I'll pledge a new roof for the old study house - let it stop dripping on the heads of praying Jews. On a different subject entirely, I'll rebuild the old bathhouse, good as new. One of these days - maybe even this morning - there's going to be a disaster - maybe it will fall apart exactly when the women are washing themselves... Along these lines, I'll tear down the poorhouse [the word also means filthy place!] and establish a hospital - and what a hospital! With little beds, with a doctor, with medicine, with chicken soup every day for the sick people. As it's done in decent towns. And I'll establish an old folks' home, so ancient learned Jews won't lie all alone near the stove in the house of prayer.

And a chavurah (an organization) called "Clothing the Poor," so poor children won't walk around with, I beg your pardon, their belly-buttons hanging out. And a chavurah "Charitable Loans" - so any Jew, whether a melamed or an artisan, or even an ordinary tradesman, can borrow money and not have to pay a percent and pawn the shirt off his body...

And a chavurah "Portioning the Poor Bride" - it's where an indigent girl, poor thing, one who's growing older, shall be fitted out properly for getting married.

And afterwards I'll create similar societies in Kasrilevke, one after another. But what makes us here in Kasrilevke so special?! I'll set up similar societies everywhere the Children of Israel are found, everywhere in the whole world!

And to ensure everything is done correctly, guess what I'll do? I'll establish one big chavurah, an Oversight Board, to take care of all the societies, to take care of all the Jews that is to say, all of Israel, and Jews everywhere will have a livelihood, and live in unity and sit in yeshiva and study: chumash and rashi and the gemara, and from all those schools I'll create one big academy, in Vilna of course.

And all the sages and scholars will go out from that academy into the world, and everything will be free of charge, paid for out of my pocket, and everything will be carried out in an organized manner, and everybody will have "the good of the public" first, there won't be all this "gimme-gimme" stuff.

In order to ensure the common good, we'll have to take care of the details. And how? By providing a living wage, that's the gist of it. Without a living wage, there can't be any kind of unity. Struggling for a piece of bread, sad to say, poor men ruin each other... capable of slaughter, of poisoning, of hanging ... Even the anti-semites, our Hamans all over the world, what have they really got against us? Nothing. It's all for the sake of a livelihood, they need a livelihood. If that weren't a problem, things wouldn't be so bad. It's all for the sake of a living. Making money leads to jealousy, jealousy to loathing, and so on. Therefore, with money I can rid the world of all its troubles and persecution, all the murder and war...

Oh, war, the war - that's, listen, that's the world's massacre! When I'm Rothschild, I'll get rid of war completely, it will be absolutely gone!

So you ask: "How're you going to do that?" Simple - with money! Try to understand. Here's an example: two kingdoms quarrel over some stupidity there, a piece of ground, it's worth a pinch of tobacco: "territory" they call it. One king says the territory is his and the other says: "No, it's mine." You'd think God created that little piece of ground especially for them. A third comes along and says: "You're both idiots, the territory belongs to everyone." In summary - territory here, territory there, eventually the cannons and guns shout out, and men slaughter each other like sheep, and the blood, the blood pours out like water...

But if I come to them from the outset and say: "Quiet down, little brothers, what are you gaining by this? From this whole dispute? What's your goal here? You think I don't understand your intention? Of course I do - but this isn't what God intends.

"It's all about the dumplings. Territory is, for you, no more than a pretext. The essence for you is that old story, the 'Contribution'!"

Well, and since we're talking about 'contribution,' to whom do folks come for a loan? To me, to Rothschild that is. Here, take it, Englishman with the long legs and checkered pants, a million! Here, take it, you foolish Turk with the red yarmulke, a million! Here, take it, auntie Reyzl [Russia], also a million! In any case, God will help you. And when you pay me back, there won't be a lot of interest to pay, because we shouldn't become rich off others...

Now do you understand? I make a little business deal - and men stop shooting each like oxen! And without war, why would men need weapons, an army, all that noise? And so without weapons, without an army, without all that ruckus, there's no hatred. Without fury, without "Turk," without "Englishman," without "Frenchman," without "Gypsy," it'll be so different. The whole world will have an entirely different face, as it is written: "And there will be deliverance" ... when the Messiah comes...

And it's possible that when I'm Rothschild, I'll disdain money entirely. Let's do away with money! Let's not be stupid - what's it good for? Money, friends, is only an agreement, a ludicrous thing. You get a piece of paper, draw up a little picture, write on it: "Three Silver Rubles." Money, I tell you, is nothing more than an Evil Inclination, a passion, a lust from the material world. It's what everybody wants and nobody has. If there were absolutely no money in the world, the Evil Inclination would have nothing to do, and lust would not have to be lust. You understand, right?

And what? So the original question was: where will Jews find money to make Shabbos? (he thinks for a while) So the answer is: what's the difference? Where do you find it now?"

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I have the answer

So as we all know, New York is tough because you'll never be the prettiest, the smartest, the best, the weirdest. It's very easy to feel invisible.

I've just found the answer - the cure for invisibility. It is a five dollar accessory that will get you whistles from men, friendly and envious looks from women. It is the perfect conversation starter (even better than a dog), and it will make you feel invincible.

It is a tiara.

You may never be the most beautiful or know the coolest party tricks. But as long as you're wearing a tiara, you're the princess and everybody knows it.

New York respects a tiara.


UPDATE (via Melina's mom): and they can be surprisingly affordable!
This model is from - and at you can find loads of them for less than $20 each - you can buy a whole box , in fact, so you and your friends can all get respect! See also the Sweet Potato Queens. Though their look is not particularly New York.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Autism linked to power plants emissions

From North Carolina Conservation Network:

Autism linked to power plants emissions

Mercury pollution - which is emitted from coal burning power plants - is known to cause brain damage in a developing fetus. The LA Times points out in an article titled Study Links Air Pollutants with Autism that resesarchers have linked cases of autism to children living in areas that have high amounts of mercury. Note: you must register to read the LA Times online.
Children with autism disorders in the San Francisco Bay Area were 50% more likely to be born in neighborhoods with high amounts of several toxic air contaminants, particularly mercury, according to a first-of-its-kind study by the California Department of Health Services.

The new findings, which surprised the researchers, suggest that a mother's exposure to industrial air pollutants while pregnant might increase her child's risk of autism, a neurological condition increasingly diagnosed in the last 10 years.
North Carolina is one of the top 12 states in mercury emissions - and 22 species of fish are so heavily contaminated with mercury that women and children are being advised not to eat them.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A man likes to leave his options open.

Excerpts from David Apatoff's post,
ARTISTS IN LOVE, part one,
from Illustration Art Blog (go see the pictures on his site):

Maxfield Parrish was 33, a successful illustrator living on a grand country estate, when he first met Sue Lewin. She was a 16 year old girl from a nearby farm town hired to help Parrish and his wife care for their two young children. Because Parrish's wife would no longer pose for him, he drafted their young nanny to pose in fairy tale costumes.

Lewin soon became his muse, modeling for his most famous illustrations. Eventually Parrish moved out of the mansion where his wife and children stayed and set up residence in his art studio so that he and Lewin could work closely together.

Lewin was Parrish's constant companion for 55 years.

When Parrish was 90 years old and Lewin was 71, Parrish's wife finally died, leaving him free to marry Lewin. However, he declined so she packed her bags, left the estate and went back to her village where she married someone else. ... He died alone a few years later.

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Another party in the country.

My bandmate Bob had a party last weekend at the house he built, way out in the country. It's so far out that several people armed with maps from Yahoo, Google, and Mapquest - including at least one experienced road musician accustomed to navigating our nation's road system - actually drove more than an hour north, got into the general vicinity, and then gave up and went home.

Since I'm not so good at staying up late (which pretty much rules out all musician parties), I was happy Bob had this one in broad daylight. I got there early so I could see the house. He built it back in the 80s when we were still playing together (thanks to a brittle and downhearted truce), but this was the first time I'd ever seen it. He was quick to say, "Pratie Head money put the roof on this house."

There were a lot of people there I'd known decades ago; they look much older and much more relaxed. We were happy to see each other, still "above ground," still able to play some fine tunes!

I thought about saving this picture for Friday Cat Blogging, but since it's not my cat, I didn't feel entitled.

There was a contingent of eager, energetic whippersnappers at the party, all singer-songwriters armed with guitars, who had been sent by their guitar teacher to sit at the feet of the master (guess that was Bob). They brought their cds and talked about their "careers" and sang their long, angsty ballads of self-revelation and generally displayed a kind of anxious, driving ambition I haven't been exposed to for a long time.

This one revealed the staggering level of good luck he's evidently wallowed in across his scant score of years when he said, "The first two months of constructing my dreads (dreadlocks) were the hardest two months of my life."

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Bloggers yearning for comments should consider Warnock's Dilemma

I got hooked on getting comments when I was blogging Alborada. I had a stampede of new readers, and they were grateful to have my recaps, and they wrote to each other, voluminously, in the comment section. I was up to 2500 hits a day for a while. I don't miss the hits but I do miss the comments and I think that's why it's been hard for me to keep blogging - since Pratie Place sans the telenovela is a very quiet place.

Here, for others who might mope similarly, are comforting words from Wikipedia (via Cynical-C):

Warnock's Dilemma, named for its originator Bryan Warnock, points out that a lack of response to a posting on a mailing list, Usenet newsgroup, or Web forum does not necessarily imply that no one is interested in the topic. Quoting Warnock:

The problem with no response is that there are five possible interpretations:
  1. The post is correct, well-written information that needs no follow-up commentary. There's nothing more to say except "Yeah, what he said."

  2. The post is complete and utter nonsense, and no one wants to waste the energy or bandwidth to even point this out.

  3. No one read the post, for whatever reason.

  4. No one understood the post, but won't ask for clarification, for whatever reason.

  5. No one cares about the post, for whatever reason.

The expression ... has also been used by webloggers to describe the feeling one gets when no one comments on something they've posted.

There are other reasons one might not comment besides the ones Warnock enumerated. For example, perhaps writing a good reply would require doing research that the reader lacks the time to undertake. Perhaps one has a mild interest in the topic raised but doesn't feel qualified to comment. Or perhaps an overly insightful reply would commit one to additional work (common on software development lists, where the people who display the most knowledge about a feature often find themselves volunteered to implement it) but the reader doesn't want to get involved.

In popular use, "Warnock's Dilemma" has come to refer to all the reasons besides disinterest one might not respond to a posting, not just the five originally proposed.

Usages seen:

"He got Warnocked." He posted a question but nobody replied.

"Warnock applies." Warns one not to draw conclusions based on the lack of response.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Other Wedding

Dear friends,

Ma has brought to my attention that I promised to write about two weddings, and only wrote about one. Here's the other one.

This is a wedding of a girl I knew first from our college Marching Band (which is where she met her beloved, though she'll try her best to muddy that point as we all soon decided we were too cool for said Marching Band). She was a props person, and her beloved played the flute (I played the electric guitar). When I lived in the Lutheran community house my senior year (don't ask -- it was cheap rent) she, a Lutheran, would frequently come over for prayer and for the Women's Bible Study group run by the Lutherans, which I eventually joined. Her beloved, being another woman, was also invited to Study Group, and would frequently stop by as a guest participant.

One evening, the beloved arrived first, and let us know that she was going to propose to my friend that night. Our eyes widened in amazement, because my friend had told us that very day that *SHE* was planning to propose, because the engagement rings had come early in the mail and it was going to be a surprise. The topic of the study group that night, coincidentally, was marriage.

So they got engaged, and they got shacked up, and they were happy. And in due course, in Washington DC, there was a wedding. This was no big budget affair mind you. We're all 23 years old, so our careers are not exactly conducive to putting on a big production at this point. Plus, the happy couple had adopted three cats rescued from Hurricane Katrina, and one of the cats had fallen off the balcony a month before and had to have its leg amputated (don't worry, it's fine now, perfectly healthy) but this also put a big dent in the wedding savings.

Regardless, it was lovely. It was held in a Lutheran church a little bit outside downtown DC, with a standard-unassuming-70s-institutional structure, just like my old synagogue, on the outside, and then a very impressive stone gingerbread-house-looking sanctuary on the inside.

As my friend was in the Slavic Chorus with me senior year, and her beloved was in the Glee Club, both groups were featured prominently in the service. The Glee Club's music, being more appropriate to a Christian wedding ceremony, was featured throughout. Ours was featured during the recessional - we sang wedding songs as, well, as everyone recessed.

The ceremony was very Christian and also very progressive. (My friend is Canadian, and the brides had flown to Canada to get their marriage license the week before, and they changed their mutual names to a last name that is a combination of both their last names). In what I guess was the traditional part, the ceremony spelled out explicitly what in a lot of weddings is not addressed directly - WHY YOU ARE HERE. It said something to the effect of, we're calling on you, congregation, to witness this union, and to help them when they need help, and to support them when they need support, and God will help you help them. And it was basically a legal statement - the whole congregation responded something to the effect of, "we agree to do this." I of course, snuffled and teared up the whole time.

They held the party in the Church basement, with a reception catered by whole foods. Instead of wedding cake, they had a friend who was very good at making brownies make brownies for 150. They had a DJ play music and everybody danced. It turned out that, given the youth of the crowd (my friend works as a nanny and several of her charges were there), the biggest song hit of the night was THE HOKEY POKEY. Kids, 23 year olds, parents and grandparents all stood in a big circle and did the hokey pokey together. My friend did the hokey pokey in her wedding dress, with somebody or other's child, sitting on her hip. It was so cute you could basically die.

They had another reception that night (after the grandparents and children had been shooed off) on somebody's back lawn on the Maryland border. I got there in a car with seven people, a car meant for five. We spent a long time going around round abouts too many times by accident, and shrieking in fear and amusement each time we went around AGAIN.

And -- oh my goodness -- a LAWN! I remember those! Back when I lived somewhere there were houses, people had lawns, and it wasn't SCARY to sit on the ground, you could do it without any fear of what you were sitting on. It was a beautiful summer night, and the lawn blazed with tiki torches, and we ate leftover brownies and drank beers on the lawn (except the designated drivers of course) until we were too sleepy to do it anymore, and then we went home.

And the brides packed up, and now they are in Spain walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail for their honeymoon, pious pilgrims. Of course, that'd be the end of the story, but they stopped at an internet cafe a few days ago so I know they are doing JUST GREAT.


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Hanan's Jewish Joke

It was mealtime during a flight on El-Al.

"Would you like dinner?" the flight attendant asked Moshe, seated in front.

"What are my choices?" Moshe asked.

"Yes or no," she replied.

See Grow-a-brain.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Descartes goes into a bar.

Zed told me this one.

Descartes walks into a bar and sits down. The bartender asks if he'd like to see the late-night menu. Descartes says, "Uh, I don't think..." and disappears.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Shanghai's Marriage Fair

The article was mostly about the Chinese frenzy to book weddings for this year, which is not only an auspicious year but which is surrounded by unlucky years.

However, it was the sub-plot about the People's Park 'Parents of Unmarried Children Bazaar' which interested me.

What do you think? This has got to be at least as good as Speed Dating. And I've thought for a long time that, considering what a bad job many of us do choosing our own spouses, arranged marriages don't look that bad.

Marry This Year: In China, All Signs Point to Wedded Bliss
Zodiac and Lunar Calendar Smile on Happy Couples

by Gordon Fairclough and Loretta Chao, June 19, 2006

A rare quirk of the lunar calendar -- and its alignment with the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac -- has set off a wedding frenzy in China, as brides and grooms try to harness the forces of cosmic fortune to strengthen their marriages.

Yan Guiying is intent on finding a husband for her 27-year-old daughter. For more than two months, she has turned up every Saturday at People's Park in Shanghai for what is essentially a bustling market of parents trying to find mates for their children.

Clutching a hand-lettered sign with her daughter's vital statistics -- she's five-feet-three-inches tall, weighs 105 pounds, has white skin and earns $560 a month as a fashion designer for an Italian company -- Ms. Yan joined hundreds of other mothers and fathers trading their children's pictures and statistics.

"I'm very anxious," said Ms. Yan, a retired bank clerk. "Everyone wants their kids to get married this year."

"I want my son to get married this year," says Zhang Yongfang, who started coming to the People's Park matchmaking gatherings in February.

But, she says, she's worried. It's already June and she hasn't found any takers so far. She holds out photos of her 27-year-old son in a green vinyl portfolio. "We are running out of time," says Ms. Zhang. "He can't get married next year. That would be horrible. He'll have to wait until the year after that."

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Joel Achenbach on blogging

From Achenblog.

The Internet is not a medium well suited to those who like to polish their prose and contemplate at leisure the nuances of political discourse. It's a medium for spewing.

This is its worst attribute, and, simultaneously, its great virtue. Much of what runs on the Internet is just chatter. Facts are outnumbed by assertions -- it's almost talk radio. But there's also some charm in that. The writing on the Net tends to be conversational, honest, direct. Like food, journalism is fresher when it's not heavily processed. There's no time for journalism-by-committee.

When online writing is effective, it creates the sense of being at a dinner party with a lot of smart, loud, opinionated people who are still several drinks away from being completely soused.

I have a system: Start writing in my attic around 7:00 A.M., pause to make breakfast and school lunches, write some more, and then, around 9:00 A.M., abandon the column and call Tracy at the office, telling her that I have no ideas and nothing to say and should probably quit writing 'Rough Draft" and return to real journalism.

Tracy invariably will respond by saying that I can have an extra fifteen minutes to file but no more.

I drive to the office, enter my pod, and ask David Von Drehle, the reporter next to me, what I should write. He tells me. I type real fast for two hours and file at noon.

Tracy and Mary [Hadar] edit the column, taking out the stuff that will get us sued and destroy the reputation of one of the greatest news organizations on the planet. The column then zooms electronically across the river to the editors at With astonishing speed they review, copy-edit, and format the piece and somehow, through a digital miracle, publish it on the Web site at 1:00 P.M.

By about 1:15 P.M. I get the first e-mail saying that I am scum, the lowliest slime on the planet, a detestable putrescence.

The process has a beautiful, natural rhythm, culminating at about 6:00 P.M. when suddenly I can't remember what I wrote that morning.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Two Modern Day Weddings

I've been to two weddings of good friends in the last two weekends. Of both, I wholeheartedly approve.

The first wedding was truly the most multicultural affair I have ever attended. The bride, an old singing buddy of mine, is Jewish, and from Pennsylvania. Her beloved is ethnically Chinese, from California. They moved in together right after graduation; she went to grad school, he worked. Then they got bored. She quit her program, he quit his job. The next thing I knew, I get this happy mass email, describing both of these happy quittings, and...

"Remember this guy? That I live with? Well, I'm marrying him."

The wedding was held in the big Episcopal chapel at our university. Big elaborate cross on the ceiling and various Jesus decorations in it. Right in the middle, where the priest would generally stand, they set up the huppah. It was a lucky red huppah, festooned with red ribbons and banners decorated with Chinese good-luck slogans. A relative of the bride conducted the ceremony and another relative of the bride told a Chinese love story as part of it.

Many of the groom's family did not barely speak any English at all, and were maybe a little shy, but they were good sports. There was a bride, their son was happy. What's not to love?

The Slavic chorus played a prominent part in the ceremony. As the bride processed in, we sang one of my favorite Bulgarian love songs, which was to the effect of,

Nedelya is the most beautiful of the beautiful girls, the most gaudy/all dressed up of all the dressed up girls (the word is gizdava, and I always think of European girls in their discoteque ensembles when I hear it...).

So they make her a big wedding and people come from far and wide to see it.

But, in the middle of the big wedding, a stag appears at the edge of the clearing (hmm - how closely do we want to analyze this?) All the wedding party go off to admire the stag (hmm again) leaving the young couple alone. (uh oh!)

LUCKILY, just at that moment, a wind blew, and it blew the veil off Nedelya's face, allowing the groom to kiss the bride.

At the end of the wedding, the groom stomped on the glass, the Jewish family members all said Mazel Tov, and the Slavic chorus burst into another Russian wedding song as everyone processed out.

My friend was so serene and happy. Her mother was a little bit white-knuckled, but there was just nothing for her to get crazy about because the bride was absolutely calm.

After the ceremony some Chinese dragon dancers came and frolicked around on the lawn for us. Then we went to a reception, had dinner. Musical accompaniment was a Balkan brass band, and all of the Chinese and Jewish family members gamely learned the Balkan circle dances that the bride enjoyed so much. At this point she had changed from her seventies style floor-length wedding dress, borrowed from her aunt, into a super-sexy red lucky Chinese wedding dress. Everyone approved.

The Balkan brass band played Hava Negila, and every family member had to take their turn going up on the chair. Some in-laws, again, were a bit white knuckled, but everybody ended up happy and exhausted. Eventually the band left, they put a DJ on, and he played 90s classics that are those crappy songs that everyone my age danced to in middle school and thus will never forget (I myself heard them most often at the roller skating rink in Durham, NC that I would occasionally attend as a wee lass), such as:

Blackstreet, No Diggety.
Salt and Pepa, Shoop
Outkast, Sorry Ms Jackson

See, don't you just want to dance? If so, your adolescence was in the 1990s. Or you are the father of the bride, who totally got down to these grooving tunes.

The bride announced at the reception that they had sent wedding invitations to 15 different countries, and that 25 different languages were spoken by the 150-odd wedding guests assembled in the room. After the wedding, she and her new husband now meandering west to visit relatives on the West Coast, in Thailand, and in various parts of China, and then they're going to spend the next two years in China, he in a venture capital firm, she teaching social studies at an international school.

I joyously wept and sniffled my way through the night, because I am a big sap. I wished them all the traditional blessings that occurred to me, such as good health and happiness, which still seemed perfectly appropriate for this very modern affair - 'cause it's a big wide world these days, but love just don't change that much.

"Those Winter Sundays"

This was posted by Miss Snark, the Literary Agent:

Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden

Sundays too
my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the
cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently
to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Happy Father's Day

My dad was not much of a talker, and he didn't care for emotion very much, any kind of emotion. The only way I knew he cared about me was that he made me things sometimes. When I was young he helped me build a mutascope; later, when the Pratie Heads were new, he built me a stand to put my violin, dulcimer, and concertina on; and later still, he built me a bathouse and sent me the plans.

When my daughter Melina was in high school, my dad, an engineer who graduated from MIT after coming from a Pennsylvania Dutch farming family, brainstormed with her about the building of a "mousetrap car" for physics class, and later sent her a box with his own mousetrap car design, all in pieces, for her to construct for fun. She never did, though. The box of parts is still in the attic and my throat catches whenever I see it.

Almost the last time I saw my dad, in 1999, when he was soon to die of leukemia, he said in a rare moment: "I'm not afraid to die, I'm just sorry I'm not going to see what happens next." As my kids and I were getting into the car to drive home from his place in Alabama, he gave me a little slip of a tree in a pot. It was a cutting he had started from his beloved Japanese maple. It was the last thing he made for me. It's planted outside my front door, where I see it every day. Isn't it lovely?

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Weedwhackers, banana plants, kyphosis, and palm pilots in the dark.

I've been lost in a weedwhacking fog for days. I had one that worked perfectly for years. Then it smoked and died. I tried to revive it, unsuccessfully.

So I went to Home Depot and bought another one. I bought the one there were the most of, what a bad idea. It was a Toro Piece of Junk. I got it home, put it together, got more gas, put the gas additive and the 2-cycle oil in the gas, put the gas in the trimmer, and fired it up. Second time I tried to start it, the starter cord got tangled inside the housing. Fury, rage! End of weedwhacking for the day.

The next day it rained all day. So yesterday, Zed and I took the string trimmer back to Home Depot. I had lured him there (he hates Home Depot) with the prospect of selecting more vegetation for his Manly Zone of Agriculture. Of COURSE it is too late in the year to be planting stuff, but the garden centers are full of unsold merchandise.

His eyes widened with delight when he saw a display of - banana plants! Bananas? Don't they grow in Costa Rica? He said: "Home Depot wouldn't be selling them in North Carolina if they didn't grow here!" I said: "Home Depot wouldn't be selling string trimmers if they were going to stop working the second time you fire them up."

Rationality did not prevail. I told him I'd buy the banana plant (or at least half of it - he'd have to cough up the other $5.00 from his birthday loot) if he'd agree to see the banana as a summer fling - if we each get our $5 worth of fun from the banana plant before he goes back to college, we'll let it perish without qualm when the winter hits - that is, if winter does actually hit. Global warming may yet save this plant.

While he was digging a hole approximately ten feet in diameter and three feet deep (this is a hole for a real banana tree which gives real bananas, not for a summer fling, which worries me), I examined the new Troy-Bilt with grave misgivings. It turned out to be a four-cycle engine, for one thing, which meant that the brand-new mixed gas I'd made the previous day was no good. I steamed and sighed about this so much, Zed offered to go down to the gas station for me. So I decanted the mixed gas into two milk bottles and off he went.

I won't give you the blow-by-blow, but in case somebody comes here some day looking for information on this trimmer.

The Troy-Bilt TB415CS
  1. To save themselves money, the Troy-Bilt folks have done away with the bump-feed reel. Instead of a cartridge with 8-10 feet of cord which feeds itself out as you work, this new machine has a plain steel hub with two holes in it. One takes a pre-cut length of cord and feeds it through the holes. There is a catch to hold the cord, my hands were not strong enough to put the cord behind it. I had to hammer on it with the butt of a screwdriver.

    The old cartridge of cord would last several hours without needing attention. The pre-cut pieces get melted away (every time the string encounters a tough piece of vegetation, some of it gets worn off) at a rapid rate and I had to stop the trimmer and replace the cord four times in two hours.

    Worse, though, is the mental aggravation caused by this trade-off: though the machine advertises a 17" cutting diameter, this is true only when the cord is brand-new. Within a few minutes of use, the cord is shorter, right? So now the cutting diameter is 14" - and a few minutes later, the cutting diameter is 11" - and the user must decide: would I rather

    • Continue cutting with this reduced diameter (which wastes gas and is inefficient);

    • Stop AGAIN and replace the cord, which is difficult, time consuming, and expensive?

    I hated weighing that decision over and over again. I also hated wasting half the cord (the half which feeds through the hub, and the first couple inches of stub on each side, removed and thrown away when the cord is replaced). Troy-Bilt probably anticipates selling huge amounts of expensive, pre-cut cord for this machine. But I have returned mine, so the plan backfired at least this time.

  2. The 4-cycle engine has a slower RPM than the previous 2-cycle model. At the slower speed, instead of slicing through many of my weeds, it wraps them around itself. Then it stalls.

  3. My previous weedwhacker worked for years with no attention at all. In comparison, the new one is a diva. The manual specifies that after just 10 hours of use:

    • The oil must be drained (disposed of in an approved manner, which is a pain in itself) and replaced;

    • The oil filter must be removed, washed, and oiled;

    • The carburetor idling speed must be adjusted (but if you adjust it wrong, the manual warns, you can ruin the machine;

    • Worst of all, the "rockers" have to be adjusted. The manual says to adjust the "rockers" I must take the engine apart, and if I'm not comfortable with that, I must take it to a mechanic.

    Can they be serious? 10 hours is only two days of weedwhacking!! They really expect me to put this thing in the car after two days and take it to a mechanic? That is NOT a reasonable request to make of an end-user!

  4. (Problem common to all weedwhackers these days, no doubt saving the company money: The shaft is too short, giving me a backache - and I'm only 5'6" - how do guys tolerate it?

I finished (for now) with the weedwhacking, and Zed finished with the banana, but I wasn't finished, because on the way home he'd broken one of the banana leaves, and I had jokingly said I'd sew a splint to it, and he seized upon that idea and insisted that I do it. So, weary and sore from all the weedwhacking, I took a piece of wire, a needle, and thread, and I sewed that broken leaf into the upright position. It was a process eerily reminiscent of the operation Zed had last summer for kyphosis - Dr. Hey opened up his back, put in two titanium rods, and screwed the rods to his vertebrae. Now Zed's back is very, very straight, and he sets off all the alarms at the airport.

I put some homemade chicken soup in the microwave for dinner, and the power went out. We lit the Sabbath candles, heated the soup on the (gas) stove, wrote in our journals, and then happily read ebooks side by side in the dark on our twin Palm Pilots, with the eery LED light, which is kind of purplish, reflecting off our faces.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

From Stephen Colbert's Commencement address at Knox College

Last year I shared part of Doug Marlette's commencement address to my son Zed's high school graduating class. Here's part of a good one given this year at Knox College. The whole text is here.

Extracts from
2006 Commencement Address
Stephen Colbert, June 3, 2006

Today is about you—you who have worked so hard to pack your heads with learning until your skulls are all plump like—sausage of knowledge. It's an apt metaphor, don't question it. But now your time at college is at an end. Now you are leaving here. And this leads me to a question that just isn't asked enough at commencements. Why are you leaving here?

This seems like a very nice place. They have a lovely Web site. Besides, have you seen the world outside lately? They are playing for KEEPS out there, folks. My God, I couldn't wait to get here today just so I could take a breather from the real world. I don't know if they told you what's happened while you've matriculated here for the past four years. The world is waiting for you people with a club.

... globalization, e-mail, cell phones interconnect our nations like never before. It is possible for even the most insulated American to have friends from all over the world. For instance, I recently received an e-mail asking me to help a deposed Nigerian prince who is looking for a business partner to recuperate his fortune. Thanks to the flexibility of global banking, a Swiss bank account is ready and waiting for my share of his money. I know, because I just e-mailed him my Social Security number.

There are so many challenges facing this next generation, and as they said earlier, you are up for these challenges. And I agree, except that I don't think you are. I don't know if you're tough enough to handle this. You are the most cuddled generation in history. I belong to the last generation that did not have to be in a car seat. You had to be in car seats. I did not have to wear a helmet when I rode my bike. You do. You have to wear helmets when you go swimming, right? In case you bump your head against the side of the pool. Oh, by the way, I should have said, my speech today may contain some peanut products.

My mother had 11 children: Jimmy, Eddie, Mary, Billy, Morgan, Tommy, Jay, Lou, Paul, Peter, Stephen. ... She could never protect us the way you all have been protected. She couldn't fit 11 car seats. She would just open the back of her Town & Country—stack us like cord wood: four this way, four that way. And she put crushed glass in the empty spaces to keep it steady. Then she would roll up all the windows in the winter time and light up a cigarette. When I die I will not need to be embalmed, because as a child my mother hickory-smoked me.

I mean even these ceremonies are too safe. I mean this mortarboard ... look, it's padded. When I graduated from college, we had the edges sharpened. When we threw ours up in the air, we knew some of us weren't coming home.

But you seem nice enough, so I'll try to give you some advice. First of all, when you go to apply for your first job, don't wear these robes. Medieval garb does not instill confidence in future employers—unless you're applying to be a scrivener. And if someone does offer you a job, say yes. You can always quit later. Then at least you'll be one of the unemployed as opposed to one of the never-employed. Nothing looks worse on a resume than nothing.

So, say "yes." In fact, say "yes" as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, "yes-and." In this case, "yes-and" is a verb. To "yes-and." I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what's going to happen, maybe with someone you've never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you're doctors—you're doctors. And then, you add to that: We're doctors and we're trapped in an ice cave. That's the "-and." And then hopefully they "yes-and" you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other's lead, neither of you are really in control. It's more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.

Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what's going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say "yes." And if you're lucky, you'll find people who will say "yes" back.

Now will saying "yes" get you in trouble at times? Will saying "yes" lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don't be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying "yes" begins things. Saying "yes" is how things grow. Saying "yes" leads to knowledge. "Yes" is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say "yes."

I have two last pieces of advice. First, being pre-approved for a credit card does not mean you have to apply for it. And lastly, the best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.

Congratulations to the class of 2006.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Melinama pays the Stupidity Tax - Twice

Here are two simultaneous sorry tales concerning my careless relationship with engines and gasoline.

1. After a long winter I went out and gave the old, old weedwhacker a gingerly inspection. If you've been reading Pratie Place since last summer you know I whack my whole place with this weedwhacker: "Mowing a plane with a point" is my daughter Melina's contemptuous description of the process.

I went to the gas station, filled my one-gallon gas tank, added the magic gas additive which for years has solved starting difficulties, and then groaned when I looked at the 2-cycle engine oil dispenser.

It's one of these. You squeeze the bottle till the loft area fills to the correct line for your particular 2-cycle gizmo.

And here was the problem: somehow, over the winter, the loft area had become completely full of oil. Way past my gizmo's line.

These bottles are made for one-way use. The oil goes up, it doesn't come down. I tried and tried to convince the excess, unwanted oil to trickle on back down to the ground floor. No luck.

I could have drained some out, but that seemed wasteful. So I thought-bubbled: "I'll just eyeball it, how far off could I be?" So that's what I did.

I started weedwhacking. My sessions are usually a couple hours long, but this one lasted only a few short minutes before the engine started smoking and slowing down and then - silence.

So, too rich an oil mixture? Leading to a carbonized spark plug? It was too much for me. This is the procedure I did not want to face:
  1. Getting rid of almost a gallon of corrupted gasoline.
  2. Draining the fuel tank of the weedwhacker;
  3. Finding my spark plug wrench or my socket set;
  4. Getting the spark plug out and cleaning it or replacing it;
  5. Getting new gas and starting all over again.
Luckily, an extremely rainy week followed during which I did not deal with this. The grass and weeds, however, kept growing, vigorously.

2. As things on my 1994 Plymouth Voyager break down (or break off) I decide on a case-by-case basis whether they're worth replacing. The gas gauge gave out about a year (or two) (or three) ago and I've been using the odometer ever since to decide when it's time to fill the tank.

I knew I was getting low as I pulled into my carport the other night, but the next morning, when the car wouldn't start, I wondered: "Could it have been my luck to use up the last 1/4 teaspoon of gas just as I pulled into the carport?" The odometer reading was not in the dreadful range, so I was perplexed.

Now step one of the previous problem had to be solved, as the only gas tank I have is the one-gallon tank I use for the weedwhacker!

I took the kids' car (in the pouring rain) down to the gas station, disposed of the corrupted gas, and brought back a gallon of fresh stuff and put it in my van. Tried starting it. No luck.

I called my handy friend (and fellow Pratie Head) Bob and asked him what to do. He said: "You probably have moisture in your line. Dump half a bottle of rubbing alcohol in the tank and then jump up and down on the car to mix it all up and try again."

Zed and I shook that car vigorously, but this did not solve my problem. So I had the car towed to my favorite mechanic, who is far away in Mebane (or maybe it's Efland). He called later and said, "Miss Melinama, you gotta put gas in your car." It had started for him.

He proposed (and I share this information with you in case it might come in handy some day):
  • My carport is on a slant and, on this slant, the pitiful one-gallon of gas I had put in the tank slanted clean away from the business end; and/or:

  • The tow-truck did a better job of agitating the alcohol into the gas than Zed and I could; and, further:

  • When I drive with the airconditioner on, OR with the windows open, this reduces my gas mileage and hence the number of miles (by the odometer) that I can ride without disaster.
Tow: $30; handy advice from my mechanic: $30. Total stupidity tax on item #2: $60

3. I confidently (now that I had an empty gas-can) refilled the can, put in new 2-cycle oil, drained the weedwhacker gas tank, refilled it, found the socket wrench, replaced the spark plug. The weedwhacker roared to life and I was happy. Two minutes later - bogged down again and dead. Did I kill it with my stupidity, or was it due to die anyway? Total stupidity tax: unknown.

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Pied Piper for roaches

Zed and I were talking about this last night. What's with the obsession with robot cockroaches? He says some other researchers were putting wires into the brains of real "kissing cockroaches" (is that really what he said?) to turn them into borgs.

Extracts from
Tiny Robots Control Cockroaches
Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

Scientists have created miniature, insect-like robots that can change the behavior of cockroaches.

The devices work by at first fooling the bugs into believing the devices are fellow roaches and then leading the insects away from darkness into light, according to a recent announcement made by the European Union Information Society Technologies Program.

The thumbnail-sized devices, called "insbots," are among the first to manipulate insect and animal behavior.

"Robots have already been used to interact with some animals (and insects) such as bees, but they cannot react to the animals’ response," said the study’s coordinator.

[The roaches were fooled by] not only the deceptive size and shape of the robots, but also by information-conveying smelly chemicals called pheromones, which were slathered on the insbots.

The insbots are also outfitted with two motors, wheels, a rechargeable battery, several computer processors, a light-sensing camera and an array of infrared proximity sensors. All allow the miniature devices to navigate safely and freely while adapting their own behavior to match that of the roaches.

Through behavioral mimicry and interactions, the insbots managed to lead several roaches out of darkness and towards bright beams of light, according to the researchers. The process took a few hours, but it holds promise for future pesticide-free methods of pest control.

The scientists suggest that with some additional tinkering, the robots could also manipulate ants and other common insects.

Heydon said the insbots could assist researchers in analyzing mating behaviors, since the devices might help scientists to better match movements, such as dances and wing beating, to their precise meanings in mating rituals.

Like secret agents in disguise, the robots might also infiltrate animal groups to obtain information, Heydon indicated.

He said, "In the future, similar robots may be accepted as members of fish schools or as birds in a migrating flock."

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Illustration Friday - "Jungle"

This is my second tarot card. I am just a beginner, so if anybody would like to tell me why the lion on the right looks more like a baboon, feel free!

It's strange, in real life the lion on the left does not look so blotchy. The camera picked up color (or lack of it) in an unexpected way.

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Mike does Illustration Friday - "Jungle"

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Zed's Manly Zone of Agriculture

When Zed brought his little (half-)brother over from his dad's house - Zed was on babysitting duty - I considered the little brother's energy level and said: "I think you two need an outdoor project. Would you like to move rocks?"

I sent them to my neglected blueberry patch, which needed some terracing done, and they spent a happy afternoon getting filthy and exhausted.

Zed became so enthused he enlarged the area and wanted some plants for it. "Nothing sissy," he warned, "I want produce."

It's a little late in the year (!) to start a garden, but we went to Southern States and got some tomatoes, some basil, some peppers, and then Zed relented and we got a galliardia.

The next thing, of course, was to mark his territory.

Here are some of Zed's own initial musings on the subject...

"Let's tackle war. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, huh! Now if only everybody would take up a peaceful hobby like, say, gardening?

Or as I like to call it in an extension of my running joke about making growing stuff seem more manly, cultivating flora.

Can you imagine how many peas you could grow if every soldier in the world was assigned a patch of ground? That would be totally sweet. And I mean it.

Maybe we could even settle conflicts between nations with country-fair style agricultural showdowns, and the side with the hugest pumpkin would win! Or a showdown where both sides race to produce the most tomatoes (although the media coverage might get a little dull – watching it would closely approximate watching grass grow, I'm sure).

Of course, this wouldn't sit too well with the arms manufacturers, but we can't forget big agribusiness also has a bunch of senators in its pockets! They'd probably wheel and deal and before we knew it they'd have pushed the arms manufacturers out of the running for taxpayer's dollars and moved on to shady business of their own!

What if the next huge government scandal was when everybody found out that their tax money went to buy the United States Agricultural Forces golden trowels? Heh. . . Multibillion dollar berry-picking contracts, what about that?

My grandmother always told me that instead of fighting enemy tanks with reciprocal fire, the army should take up really big planes and drop enormous flowerpots, upside down, onto the enemy tanks, thereby immobilizing them for the duration of combat.

Would spies be tried for treason for selling seeds to the enemy? The department of homeland defense would have strike teams at the ready in helicopters all the time, ready to leap in and start a garden wherever there is danger. I like this idea. Then the aggressive "I want you" Uncle Sam would probably instead be thrusting a green thumb at the potential recruit

Zed ended up liking the galliardia best - so he dug a deep hole for it in our impermeable clay, put nice soft dirt in the hole, and lovingly watered, thereby creating a mini-bog for this desert-loving plant. Next day it was wilted and suffocating so he pulled it out, moved it somewhere dry, and we have high hopes...

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

In which Melina takes care of business

Earlier this week, Melina went to get her systems examined. In Connecticut, she was only required to do this once a year, but in New York, which seems to have more stringent standards, Melina must get her systems examined every six months, and unfortunately, they have not set up a method for her to do this by calling 311 (the otherwise all-purpose city helpline).

Melina picked her doctor because he was on her health plan and he was in her neighborhood. His disadvantages were that he was (a) male, (b) old, and (c) was German and peculiar. However, on her previous visit he had been satisfactory in that (a) he didn't cause Melina any pain, and (b) he didn't drag the whole event out for too long. (Melina is healthy as a horse, and is not picky about doctors). So she went again.

This time, though, he sent Melina into a rage. She asked him some questions about her systems, to which he more or less responded by saying "Don't worry about these things." Melina objected to this statement! They are her systems! They are finely tuned, complex and vulnerable! She is obligated to worry about them!

The last straw was when Mr. Old Doctor Guy told Melina, "Don't worry about anything. Really, I'm very pleased with you." He practically patted her on the head.

Now, Mr. Doctor Guy is probably used to working with nervous Upper East Side pregnant types who have read too much post-feminist pregnancy literature, and who need to be told that even though they had half a glass of wine and some tuna last week, their baby is not going to die, and they can go back to shopping for $900 strollers.

But Melina is neither Upper East Side, nor pregnant, nor nervous by temperament. When Mr. Doctor Guy told her he was "very pleased" with her, she burst into a fury and told him "That's great that you're pleased with me, but I am the one who needs to be pleased with me."

Mr. Doctor Guy did not seem to understand the significance of the statement, but rest assured, six months from now Melina will be taking her business -- and her admirably functioning systems -- elsewhere.


Friday, June 09, 2006

This might be my favorite Jewish joke.

Yeshiva University decided to field a rowing team. Unfortunately, they lost race after race.

They practiced and practiced for hours every day, but never managed to come in any better than dead last.

Finally, the Rosh Yeshiva decided to send Yankel to spy on the championship Harvard team.

So Yankel shlepped to Cambridge, hid in the bushes by the Charles River, and watched the Harvard team as they practiced.

After two weeks Yankel returned to Yeshiva.

"I have figured out their secret," he announced.

"What? Tell us what," they all wanted to know.

"We've been doing it all exactly backwards! On their team, one guy shouts and the other eight guys row!"

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A good joke.

A rabbi and a priest are traveling together. The priest says to the rabbi, "I have a question to ask you. Why is it that everybody thinks Jews are smarter than Gentiles?"

The rabbi, who is not up for an argument, says, "I'm sorry, but I am just a simple rabbi and I'm not really able to participate in such a discussion."

But the priest insists. "Look, no harm meant rabbi, but I have a theory and I need to test it out in the form of a bet. I'll pay you $100 if you can ask me a question that I can't answer. But if I can ask you a question that you can't answer, you must pay me $100."

The rabbi replies, "But I'm a poor rabbi - I only have $10 on me."

The priest hesitates then says, "OK, rabbi, it's my $100 against your $10."

The rabbi realizes he can't get out of this so he agrees, but on condition that he asks the first question. The priest agrees.

"OK," says the rabbi, "what animal has scaly skin, the body of a cat, the face of a squirrel, the ears of a mouse, webbed toes and swims under water?"

Surprised, the priest admits that he doesn't know and asks the rabbi for a few more minutes to think about it. The rabbi agrees.

Two minutes later, the priest takes $100 from his wallet and gives it to the rabbi.

The priest then asks the rabbi, "So what animal was it?"

The rabbi replies, "How should I know?" and gives the priest $10.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Palm Pilot Nerds, part two

Yesterday's episode ended with a non-negotiable intermission of three whole hours while the Palm Pilot charged up.

Zed and I went off to have lunch as we waited. It was kind of like the three bears going off to take a walk while their porridge cooled, only maybe the opposite, and only two of us, except we went to Carrburritos with a friend, so then there WERE three of us, and it was an excellent diversion.

When we came back the Palm was ready and I immediately downloaded "Bartleby the Scrivener" from

And then, since it was free and legal, I greedily downloaded "Tristram Shandy" too, and the Palm Pilot didn't weigh even a tiny bit more than it had before. So then I got Volume VII of "The Works of Samuel Johnson" too. Again, not a bit heavier. Isn't that amazing?

For a nanosecond I was content.

But then I cooked up a desire so over-ambitious that Zed and I spent an entire 24-hour period trying to satisfy it, and it was unbelievably nerdy, and we didn't even succeed, so if that sounds tiresome stop reading right now and come back tomorrow when I will tell of Zed's Manly Agriculture Project.

It's like this: I've been making Yiddish vocabulary flashcards on my laptop.

First I had to download the wonderful and free virtual keyboard known as Ziggy's Yiddish Keyboard Layout - the technology, and the site (which has a lot more information), brainchild of Noyekh Miller, Shoshke-Rayzl Yuni, & Gyula "Ziggy" Zsigri.

Then I downloaded the wonderful program VTrain. (Zed's recommendation.) I've trained VTrain to input the "fronts" in English and the "backs" right-to-left using the virtual Yiddish keyboard. I don't even have to do any special right- or left-clicking or sprinkling of special herbs. It just works.

So I have almost a thousand Yiddish flashcards which I've input into this program, and I decided I wanted to export them, as a list, onto my Palm Pilot so I'd have them with me in Paris.

Problem: we can't find a way to put the exported file into a format which the Palm Pilot Z22 (a stripped down model which Zed tells me was designed for stupid women, such as myself, and therefore doesn't have brainy features which might make this project easier) can read correctly.

Zed and I spent hours googling the matter and trying to recode my vocabulary list in various programs, checking and unchecking various boxes, emailing each other the results and also trying (unsuccessfully) to beam things to each other by pointing the Palm Pilots at each other and letting them commune.

I'm going to leave out all the entirely failed experiments and just share the two that almost worked:
  • PalmFiction is a Palm reader which in a previous build supported Hebrew characters, and in the current build doesn't crash the Palm, so by combining parts of the old and the new version, we got a reader which sees Yiddish! However, it reads it left-to-right instead of right-to-left and also puts the vowels next to the letters instead of under them. It also refuses to see line feeds no matter what I tell it. Its documentation is entirely in Russian, which I've forgotten, and I don't have the time to bone up on it right now.

  • has a freeware reader and a shareware Hebrew support program called LionHeb. This probably works great for "real" Hebrew and my document looked just right - except that all the vowels were translated randomly as C CEDILLA etc. making the file unreadable.

    I emailed them and they contemptuously said they don't support Yiddish vowels. Sadly, an awful lot of Israelis despise Yiddish altogether.

Zed and I both spent an entire day working on this and started up again the following morning. It wasn't until I found myself trying to find a Unicode Conversion program for the Palm that I realized I was in way too deep and it was time to give up.

Zed's comment: "Merely escaping from the palm/Internet Yiddish project was quite a challenge. Especially when they're almost working, computer travails can be really hard to stop. You keep getting that "just one more" mindset where you convince yourself each time that this website will be the last one you try, but when that option proves ineffective your belief that you're on the verge of a huge breakthrough is renewed and you start another website before you realize that you'd broken your promise to yourself."

Zed pointed out that I could print my flashcards out on (gasp) paper in multiple columns so it would be only a few sheets.

So then to cheer myself up after all this failure, I decided to go low-tech and make a case for my new toy.

I had an old, free, eyeglass case. I cut the top off and fixed a little hole in it with my current favorite substance, SuperGlue (watch out, don't breath that stuff). Then I painted it so I'd be able to find it again amid the black electronics tangle which has taken over my house since Zed's been home.

Then, since that had been so much fun, I painted my initials on the gizmo itself and then painted both ends of its special communications cable.

This way, Zed and I will be able to tell his and mine apart.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Palm Pilot Nerds, part one

My grandfather was an early adopter of new technologies. I have happy memories from the early 1970s of going with him into his favorite electronics store in downtown Boston (no, they didn't call them electronics stores then, and no, I can't remember what such stores WERE called, but they sold stereos and radios). I loved watching the salesmen shimmy towards him like fingerlings at a trout farm when you show up with the fish chow. (They worked on commission.)

"CHAAHHLIE! HOW AHH YAH!" Their smiles were broad and my grandfather got that dreamy face like Toad in "Wind and the Willows" when something new and truly desirable was just around the corner.

I still have a radio he bought me there, thirty years ago:

It still works. Look around your house and ask yourself - how many of THESE things are still going to be working thirty years from now?

My son Zed's grandfather is also an early adopter and Zed has often been beneficiary of his Zeydeh's obsession with having the newest and best - the second-newest often ends up in Zed's hands. That's how Zed got his digital camera.

I, however, am too much of a pessimist to be an early adopter. I always assume the new thing, whatever it is, is going to be worse - and is going to break sooner - than the old thing.

(Have you noticed how, these days, when your software insists you "update" or "upgrade" it, the new build is usually worse than the old one? And that useful features have been removed? And that the new software version has simultaneously become slower to run, bloated with pointless "improvements," and festooned with advertisements?)

This is all to say, though, that after Zed had been enthusing about his Palm Pilot Z22 for months, I got the idea that I wanted one too.

This is why: I'm going on a trip and want to travel light. I noticed that Zed downloaded, legally and for free, from, the entire book "Bartleby the Scrivener" onto his Palm Pilot! This book alone would weigh pounds in my backpack, while the Palm Pilot weighs just ounces! I decided *I* wanted to read "Bartleby" in five-point type on my OWN Palm Pilot!

A plug for the amazing Project Gutenberg. 18,000 free books. Somebody typed up all those books for us. All free. Two million downloads a month. All free. Give them a donation.

The tiny, tiny Palm Pilot came in a huge box. (See left.) It was full of peanuts so I was groaning cause my back hurt and then I whined so much Zed came over with a big bag to put the peanuts in.

Is it possible to get all the packing peanuts out of a box without spilling them on the floor?

Then I saw the gadget was protected by a horrendous blister pack (see right). I knew from experience: no scissors are strong enough to get through this stuff. It was created to stymie and harm customers - if possible, to draw blood.

Zed attacked it for me with our huge Ginsu knife:

I've had this amazing Ginsu knife for at least a quarter century. It is still sharp. I have indeed cut through corrugated cardboard and bricks with it, often. Those ads weren't lying. If you ever see this exact model advertised anywhere let me know immediately, OK?

Then we both cut ourselves on the sharp jagged edges, and reminisced ruefully about times we've bled over blister packs and harmed the contents in the process.

The next thing you have to do, once you have penetrated the evil blister pack, is plug the Palm Pilot in and wait for three hours. Sigh. To be continued.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Melina's Intensive Dating Experiment of May 2006

Dear friends,

I have been on dates with nine different men in the past three weeks. Four on Memorial Day Weekend alone.

And I'm ready to slow it down.

Overall, this has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, which can be summarized by the following fact: I sincerely liked eight out of nine of these men.

Out of my sample set,

El Borracho
El Compositor
El Viejo
El Enfermo
El Gallo
El Amigo
El General
El Agotado
El Cineasta

I can give you a few more statistics.

Eight out of nine I met online (and no, the one dud wasn't the one I met in person).

Seven were in their 20s; two were in their 30s.

The younger ones were more serious; the older ones were funnier and more relaxed.

I would have gone on second dates with three out of nine of them, but they weren't interested.

Two out of nine of them would have gone on second dates with me, but I wasn't interested.

Two of them weren't interested enough to go on a second date with me AND I wasn't interested enough to go on a second date with them.

I did go on second dates with two out of nine of them.

But I learned more than statistics. One thing I learned (at first, I was sorry that I learned this, but now I don't mind): A lot of what you think is a rare and serendipitous connection with someone, is actually something you could have with a lot of people. For example, I had numerous "That' such a weird coincidence" conversations, some of which were even the same. For example, I would say I was from North Carolina, and my date would say (he was about to visit NOrth Carolina with his family, or his best friend was also from North Carolina). Or, I would say that my favorite subway line was the E, and my date would say that that was also his subway line. Or, I would talk about one of my favorite books, and my date would also have liked that book. Or, my date would talk about his anxiousness about e-dating, and I would admit that I too felt anxious about e-dating.

Lesson 1: People are not so different from each other. My gloomy date, El Enfermo, would see this as depressing, but in the end I think I find it heartening.

My ex used to live in my apartment, and my roommate just told me that my favorite takeout food from my favorite restaurant (out of the ten thousand in our neighborhood) was the exact same as my ex's favorite takeout order from that same restaurant. And I really don't mind!

Lesson 2: Nine first dates in three weeks is too many. An earnest young date would ask me to explain what I did for a living, and I'd feel a visceral stab of resentment that I had to talk about it again. My amusing anecdotes began to sound more and more rehearsed; I'd steer conversations down familiar paths just because it was the easier thing to do. Maybe my later dates didn't register this consciously, but I'm sure it wasn't the most charming demeanor I could have had.

Lesson 3: You really can't tell what it is, exactly, that someone wants, or why they do what they do. They call, they don't call. They click with you, then they go home and fall back in love with an ex, or have emergency surgery, or a work crisis, and then they think it's too late to call. You remind them too much of someone. They think you don't like them. There are a million reasons. Odds are, you're going to be okay.

Lesson 4: Serendipity may be a false construct, but it's important anyway. My first few e-dates were infused by my spirit of astonishment that Hey This Actually Worked. Once it becomes a lifestyle choice for the three weeks, the excitement drained out of the situation for me, and I'm sure that made me a lot less fun to be around. For some people, drinking makes everything seem more serendipitous, but that's only gonna put off your issues til the second or third date.

Lesson 5: You think it's okay to check your text messages during a date, dudes, if you do it real quick, but it's really not. Unless you're going to show me the message, wait until I go to the bathroom.

Lesson 6 (this one's from Ma): You can't really know someone until you've seen them in a variety of situations. Were you in a fancy restaurant the first date? Go to a scuzzy bar. Were you out at night? Meet him during the day. Are you delaying allowing him to meet your friends? Why is that? Make him meet your friends.

Lesson 7 (this one's also from Ma): No matter how charming somebody may seem to be, it takes time to figure out if he

likes you back
is faithful
is a mentsh
is dependable in the clutch

Lesson 8: You're so lucky to be spending time with other humans. Praise the Creator, who created men, in their infinite variety!

Lesson 9: The story's not over. But it's going to take a while.



Monday, June 05, 2006

Two More Dates

I am a little weary from dating. The timing's all off. The nights you're in the mood for a gentle one, you've scheduled a troublesome one, and vice versa. In this way, e-dating presents more difficulties than ordering takeout.

Last week brought me El Amigo, an earnest young guy who turned out to be a college roommate of one of my high school friends. He made perfectly good conversation, listened well, etc, but in person I just didn't think he was so cute. Not that the picture was wrong - but pictures are never completely accurate. THey dont' describe how somebody moves, what kind of energy they put out. El Amigo, though well-versed in history, didn't do it.

Last week also arrived El Gallo. He didn't seem so good online, which just goes to show you that you don't know anything when you try to judge people (a theme of Melina's experiences this month). El Gallo's website handle was not so clever and involved the word "rooster." Har har, buddy. But in person, he was excellent. He had a highly developed sense of chaotic play. He could dish it out and also could take it. He was very quick and he knew a lot about art. We laughed and laughed. We spent five hours talking (dating is time consuming!)

I made this complaint to my father, who responded, "Yeah, it's so time consuming, only single people have the time for it."

Yet, curiously enough, as soon as I walked into the subway I had the immediate and overwhelming intuition I would never see El Gallo again. This was a terrifying and strange feeling to have had - people should not just appear and disappear in one's life. It's just wrong. (Melina is a little extreme this way. She tends to get upset if she doesn't get regular gossip about people she crushed on when she was 13).

I puzzled over this intuition (which turned out to be true) for quite some time with a girl friend, who eventually told me some wise words.

melina: does that mean that I'm not attractive and he was only pretending to laugh at my jokes??
wise girl friend: no
wise girl friend: it just means that he wants something different

This is so simple, yet wise. There's a lot of things that a person might want, and that another person might want something different, a lot of reasons, both serious and frivolous, good or bad, simple or complicated. And only one out of these thousand possible reasons is that EL GALLO CATEGORICALLY REJECTS MELINA AS AN INTERESTING OR WORTHWHILE HUMAN. In fact, that one seems less than overwhelmingly likely.

Tomorrow: the overall results of the Intensive Dating Experiment of May 2006.


Sunday, June 04, 2006

Mike does Illustration Friday - "Portrait"

Mike's had this one sitting on the cabinet for a few weeks now. It has about 1,000 layers of paint on it.

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Illustration Friday - "Portrait"

This one's mine. I haven't had the time to do Illustration Friday in a while so it was great to get back to it. So far it seems my favorite support is card stock covered with modeling paste, and I do better when I use retarder with the acrylic paints.

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Melinama resumes the vertical position

Our gig last night was fun, and one of the best things about it was being upright for more hours, total, than I'd had in the previous several days. We took stools so I could stand up and sit down as needed and though there were a few hairy moments, it went well.

So I woke up early, in a lather to start doing all the things I haven't been able to do this week. Hmm, change dead light bulbs in the dark at 5:30 am? Lightbulbs I can only access by standing on the kitchen counter? Maybe not.

Take the sparkplug out of my weedwhacker and see if I can clean the contacts? It's still dark outside.

The cardinals are already making their beautiful liquid calls outside the window - they'll be first at the bird feeder this morning.

When Bob got me home from the gig in Winston-Salem last night, we saw a baby red finch batting away on the window sill of my front porch, flying up and down the glass. It had obviously launched itself from the nest (which is tucked into the porch rafters) and was now fluttering stupidly, trying to get into the house where Zed had left all the lights on prior to leaving for the evening. I turned out the lights and hope the little bird figured out how to go to sleep.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Doing what you say you're going to do.

This week has been almost entirely occupied with lying in bed. I sat down to do my Yiddish homework last Sunday morning, and when I stood up again I was crooked, and after a very busy day (Yiddish class, rehearsal, singing student, painting practice, a nice shmues with Rudy) I could no longer sustain the upright position.

(I discovered, though, that I can write Yiddish homework lying down, as long as I use a mechanical pencil. I'm trying to cram as much as I can, so I will truly be an "Intermediate" student when I get to the Medem Immersion program in July.)

All this resting must end at 4:30 today, when I leave with Bob to do a gig in Winston-Salem.

In the mean time, I type in a reclining position...

Here is the fundamental tenet of my life. To be a good person, do what you say you're going to do.

It sounds so easy and yet so few people care enough to come up to the mark.

Some people barely notice when they make commitments. For them, a commitment is a casual expression indicating that, at that particular moment, the person who makes the vow (1) would LIKE to do the promised thing, or (2) is acknowledging that it SHOULD be done.

Or (3) perhaps the promiser simply wants to make the promisee happy. Make the promise - then, well, when the time comes, maybe, maybe not, whatever.

Promises made idly only postpone pain. Yes, you disappoint the promisee now if you say "I can't do this" - but you disappoint the promisee later if you say you you'll do it and then don't. How is that better?

I know a guy who's spent decades hiding behind telephone poles as he walks down the street to avoid the people he passes - he lives in a small town where he's failed to deliver on a promise to almost everyone he knows.

If you make casual promises, you weaken your "vow muscle." It's like going on a diet every other week. How can you be taken seriously?

I writhe in discomfort when a movie character solemnly swears: "I'll never let anything happen to you." How can a person keep a promise like that?

This is what I told Zed yesterday, when he was feeling overwhelmed by the gap between what he plans for each day and what actually takes place: promise yourself less, but deliver.

I got an astrological reading once from Stephen Forrest, whom I had never met previously. He said: "you have a medieval attitude toward vows." Is that bad?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Very funny, except I live in this state.

Melina found this one for me.

Extracted from The Raleigh News & Observer May 30, 2006
Contest for 13th already strident

In the 13th district, Republican Vernon Robinson is trying to unseat Miller, a two-term incumbent from Raleigh.

Robinson thinks he has a powerful issue which he can ride to Congress -- growing concern about the wave of illegal immigration coming into the state. He has already run a radio ad that features mariachi band music playing in the background.

"If Miller had his way," says the announcer, "America would be nothing but one big fiesta for illegal aliens and homosexuals."

"My wife was interviewed on three television stations last week about why we had not had children and what was my sexual orientation," Miller recently told delegates to the 13th District Democratic convention at Alamance Community College.

Miller said his wife of nearly 25 years, Esther Hall, could not bear children because she had endometriosis and then a hysterectomy at age 27 before the couple were married.

Robinson said he brought up the Millers' childlessness in the broader context of showing that Miller was outside the mainstream. He said being childless might influence Miller's votes, citing Miller's opposition to providing vouchers to allow children in Washington, D.C., to attend private schools.

Miller said Robinson was clearly using code words to suggest that Miller is gay [and that] Robinson has a history of implying that his opponents are gay, noting that in 2004, he described GOP opponent Ed Broyhill as "limp wristed." Robinson said he was not questioning Miller's sexuality.

"I did not say the guy is a homosexual ...," Robinson said. "We were talking about the left-wing wacko friends he runs around with."