Thursday, September 29, 2005


While comparing notes on household cleaners, a friend of mine mentioned that she had tried the cleaner "Kaboom!" It's a very strong acid, which is about what it takes to get the hard water stains off of a shower in our area. I have literally chiseled the mineral deposits out of my shower with a paint scraper.

She had cleaned her glass shower door with this stuff and for once the haze was gone and the door was transparent. The next day, she reports, she awoke to the noise of her husband bouncing off the now clear, closed door.

Maybe that's why they called it "Kaboom!"

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Meeting another Wiktionarian

I can't really say how I pictured Allan before I met him tonight, but it's safe to say that wasn't it. It's impossible to tell from bits of text online how somebody looks, and it's kind of fun that way, I think. I get to peek inside heads before ever seeing people's faces look like. I have a vague notion of how some of my online friends look from various blurry photos we've exchanged, but most of us would never know each other on the street, by name or by face. It's a rare treat to get close enough to shake hands.

Before tonight, Allan was a nickname on Wiktionary, a relative newcomer to the project, but a good contributor, and a participant in the IRC channel there. I had mentioned my recent travels to Portland, and he asked for advice on what to see in that area. It turns out that he and his girlfriend were also coming through my area of California, so we arranged to meet for dinner this evening. They are visiting from London, driving a rented convertible down the coast, enjoying the weather, the scenery, and so on. I hope they have found some of my advice useful.

Suffice it to say, they are delightful people. I first heard his voice only two days ago, and his accent is different enough at times that I have to work at understanding him. His girlfriend is a bit easier for me to understand. As we talked on the phone, I learned that neither of them had ever had root beer. Apparently, it's quite unusual overseas.

They did get a chance to try my bike, pictured a couple of posts down. "Very Californian," I think, was what Allan said. When people first try the recumbent, they teeter for a few moments before they learn the balance. It's also a bit tricky to ride in a dress, but his girlfriend took a spin anyway. With the feet forward, there's nowhere for the skirt to go but up.

We ate Thai food. I remembered the wrong restaurant, but it was delicious, nonetheless. They have been to Thailand fairly lately and were comparing notes with the Thai waitress. All three of us ate too much. American portions, not surprisingly, are larger than British portions.

When we were done with dinner, we came back to my house for root beer floats. They both tasted a bit of plain root beer before I added ice cream. They both claim, at least, that they liked the results, though Allan commented that it tasted like "mouthwash". They threatened me with Marmite, but thankfully, they weren't carrying any with them.

It was, in my opinion, much too brief a visit, but I am glad we could meet for as long as we did. We all learned a little about each other, personally and culturally, one more online friend seems a little more real now.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A loathsome habit

Someone asked me yesterday why I dislike smoking so much. He had been to Las Vegas, and I remarked that I didn't think I would enjoy a place with so much cigarette smoke. I have never visited Las Vegas, but I have hated Reno, especially because of all the smoke.

I am not allergic (though I have claimed to be), but cigarette smoke makes me gag in any measure and at almost any distance. It is remarkable how much space a tiny cigarette can pollute. Smokers are often surprised at the distances at which their smoke repulses me, which can be three cars over or fifty feet away. I think their senses are deadened by the smoke.

It is not simply that I cannot stand the smoke. I also cannot stand what cigarettes do to my friends who smoke. First, it makes them addicts. I have watched as otherwise intelligent people shuffled outside at 1am, exhausted and in pajamas, simply to smoke. I have watched as they huddled under overhangs out in the cold and pouring rain, weather nobody else braves except to dash to their cars. These are not actions of reason but addiction. Otherwise bold, independent people become slaves of the drug.

Of course, smoking has its physical effects on the body, as well. Smoke has been used for centuries to dry and preserve meat. If you're making beef jerky to take backpacking, this process slows decay and adds flavor. In the lungs of a living, breathing (or trying to) human being, the same drying and hardening of flesh is a disaster.

Smoking transforms beautiful voices into grotesque, squeaky crackles. It makes the lungs clog themselves up with phlegm, in an effort to expel the contaminants. It yellows and embrittles the skin and the hair, just as it yellows the furnishings of those who smoke. I have never seen skin with quite such an unnatural cast as that of one of the heavy smokers in my office, and I can only imagine how his insides must look.

I have two more reasons, still, to abhor smoking as much as I do. First, my mother quit smoking shortly after I was born (and I am eternally grateful to her for finding the willpower). Of course, I do not remember it, but by all accounts I was an extremely fussy, loud baby. A relation, whom I may have single-handedly inspired never to have children of her own, dubbed me "Screecho" the night she tried to sleep at my parents' house. I grew into a calm quiet child in a couple of years. In the meantime, I was kicking nicotine.

Now, I realize this next item is not a scientific sample. It is, rather, a personal one. Two of my grandparents, who never smoked, are eight-five and still going strong after over sixty years of marriage. They regularly go to the gym, where they are trying rather unsuccessfully to teach a friend of theirs some Greek. They clip articles from the newspaper to save for their children and grandchildren. My grandmother still manages some rental property she owns with her sisters. In short, they are enjoying retirement, family, and friends.

My other grandmother passed away a couple of years ago. She quit smoking before I can remember. She had some trouble with asthma in her later years, but she lived into her eighties. I will always remember her as a dear lady with a sharp (if gentle) wit and a talent for crossword puzzles and knitting (among many other things).

My other grandfather smoked for most of his life and died of lung cancer before I was born. I can only wonder who he might have been. To me, the pattern seems pretty clear.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Moving a piano

Yesterday I called up my one friend who has a pickup truck. We have asked him and his truck favors before, hauling compost, moving all of our belongings into this house, and more, and we definitely owe him dinner for this one.

We all piled in his truck and headed over to the see the folks who sold us the piano. Mrs. Piano Seller was out, but Mr. Piano Seller was around and he allowed us to use his furniture dollies and tape measure. He had also been a scoutmaster and spent some time in the navy, so he had a few opinions about how to secure the piano once we hoisted it into the truck. Four engineers can come up with a few opinions about hoisting a piano into a pickup truck, too. In the end, we got it home and in place with a combination of careful ingenuity and brute force, but we did get it home safely.

They got rid of it because the kids are grown and out of the house, and because they want the space for something else now. They thought about giving it to the church, and at the price we paid, it's practically a donation to me, instead. I may never be a great pianist, but I will give it a good home, I promise. I think the piano was built in the 1950s, and the seller and the user manual that was in the piano bench both suggest the same.

I have not played piano regularly in ten years, and I don't remember everything, though it's coming back quickly. I have always read treble clef well, since I also play flute, but my ability to read bass clef, once servicable, was pretty rusty, particularly for lower notes. Oddly, I found it easier to read chords than individual notes, probably because the intervals offered more hints.

The other difficulty I have encountered already is that I have very little sheet music. When I played piano before, it was my dad's piano, and he has loads of sheet music. I will have to go borrow and copy some of my favorites and copy them, and start exploring the music repositories online. It will start to sound better when both the piano and the pianist are in tune.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

What a deal!

When we moved into our house, we bought our appliances from a scratch-and-dent place. People send brand new appliances back because they don't want a little ding in the door. For overlooking a few minor blemishes, we got an excellent bargain on some high-end appliances.

Shortly after we moved in, we got a phone call from the Rain Soft people, who wanted to come out and "test our water for free". Of course, they also hoped to sell us a Water Conditioning System, consisting of a glorified water softener and an under-sink reverse osmosis unit. Out of curiosity, we invited them to come out.

Our salesman (let's call him Kevin) showed up at the appointed hour and tested our water, which is so hard that I think it genuinely surprised even him. (I could see him preparing to act surprised, but not quite so soon.) Then he did everything in his power to sell us an overpriced, overblown Water Conditioning System. He grew indignant every time we called it a water softener, offered to finance the inflated price at a whopping 18%, threw in a year's supply of supposedly free soap, and assured us that the deal had to be done that evening.

Sensing pressure sales tactics, Scott and I abandoned Kevin in the kitchen and high-tailed it upstairs on the pretense of wanting to discuss it privately. We proceeded to do some quick online research. We found plenty of unhappy customers ranting about the Rain Soft business practices and service, and we decided not to purchase anything from them.

We headed back downstairs and set about sending Kevin on his way. After we assured him repeatedly that we definitely had no plans to buy the water conditioning system, he tried instead to sell us some comparison shopping service. He demonstrated by calling the service from his cell phone, explaining that we could do the same in a store, right in front of the salesman. He looked at the model number and asked them to quote our refrigerator. New, our refrigerator would have cost perhaps $1300 with those options. Kevin's shopping service quoted us $1100.

Kevin closed his cell phone and asked triumphantly, "So, how much did you pay for this refrigerator?"

We smiled and replied, "$550."

Deflated, Kevin finally made for the door.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Lithuanian Toasting Bread

When we have time around the holidays, my mom and I make her Lithuanian grandmother's bread from scratch, a sweetened egg bread with raisins in it. Somebody had the good sense to corner my great-grandmother, who used to make the bread by feel and in a wood stove, and stop her at each step to measure, count, and record the process for posterity (me). My recipe card still instructs "pooshem", her word for kneading.

When I was in tenth grade, we decided to make up a batch of it for my teachers. So we did all the usual stuff. We put the yeast in warm water, added enormous quantities of butter, flour, and eggs, mixed, kneaded, waited, kneaded, waited, and baked. It came out round and bread-shaped but overly dense and chewy. We guessed that the water for the yeast had been too hot, but it was too late to try again.

My mom suggested, "It always seems to taste good toasted, no matter how it turns out." We toasted a bit of it and tried it, and sure enough, it tasted pretty good. How should we encourage the recipients to toast the stuff, then?

Mom came to the rescue again. "They're selling something called Australian Toaster Biscuits. Why don't we label it Lithuanian Toasting Bread?" That is precisely what we did, and the next day, I handed around six or seven miniature, dense loaves to my teachers.

Wouldn't you know it, my English teacher liked the stuff! Naturally, she asked for the recipe. I told her it was a family secret. What was I supposed to say? "First, you boil the yeast..."

Two dreams

Yesterday, when the phone rang, Scott and I were both still asleep. As sometimes happens, consciousness and subconsciousness collided for an instant, and we both remembered our dreams. He reports dreaming that he was trying to remember whether he had administrative rights for the telephone, so that he could set it not to ring. (He works in IT, and he had a long week.)

At the same moment, I dreamed that I had reached the apex of a bicycle trip, on the recumbent that I really do ride (left). The bike is fun, but not especially fast, and it gets a lot of attention from onlookers. I had just turned around at some crossroads far from home when the rear derailleur assembly dismantled itself all over the road. As I tried to piece it back together, all the serious bicyclists on the route kept zipping past with an air of condescension. If you had a real bicycle, they were thinking, this never would have happened.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

A birthday present

Every September, the city of Cupertino, California, holds a city-wide garage sale. The city chooses the day and publishes the treasure map and anyone who wants to can sign up and hold a garage sale at home.

I knew this morning that I would spend most of my afternoon cleaning up the junk I already have, so I went out for a brief and moderate shopping expedition with my mother. Neither of us needs more junk, but it's an excuse to get together and go snooping in other people's stuff. Besides, Cupertino is an affluent city, even by Silicon Valley standards, and we have found some excellent goodies there in past years.

Out we went, and I managed in the entire day to acquire only three things: a little blank book (since I do still keep parts of my journal on paper), a bracelet with some pretty stones in it, and a small bag. I spent a grand total of $3. Then I got a piano.

We noticed a paper sign in somebody's driveway: piano, $100. I played some piano in my youth. While I will never master it with hands that can only just reach a full octave, I kind of miss playing. Keyboards just are not the same. Affordable keyboards stop far short of the 88 keys for which most music was written. While I lived in an apartment, owning a proper piano made no sense whatsoever.

We went in and saw it. It's a beautiful little Wurlitzer spinet, in excellent shape. I tried all the keys, and I plunked through some sheet music they had sitting there. I'm badly out of practice and it needs tuning, but it works well, so my mother bought it for me as an early birthday present. It's a bargain at that price, and I would have bought it myself if she hadn't.

We considered waiting to tell Scott until we could bring it home and set it up in the living room. ("What do you mean, where did it come from? It's been there all month!") I think we'll need his help getting it home, though, so I told him, eventually. ("Well, we need to go back to pick up the other thing. It was, uh, too big to fit in the car...")

Now, who do I know with a pickup truck?

Friday, September 16, 2005

Two paper airplanes

You know the kind, the basic dart-shaped paper airplane fabricated from extra scraps of paper by generations of bored students. One of my classmates in fifth grade flung one of these models during class. As it happened, it was a GATE class (gifted and talented education). I don't know whether schools still devote any time or funding for such classes, but in those days they did, and I'm very glad.

The teacher, to her credit, did not throw a fit or throw the kid out. Bright students bore easily, and when they do, they often find creative ways to express it. The teacher must have known that. She simply chuckled and inquired why he had thrown it, to which he replied that he was studying aerodynamics. For the next unit, in that GATE class, we did study the aerodynamics of paper airplanes, at an advanced elementary-school level. We folded and tested paper airplanes of many sizes, shapes, and descriptions. At the end, we held competitions to see whose plane could fly the farthest and fastest, and whose could do the best stunts. We may not have learned math or English in that class, but we did learn that it's possible to learn in many different ways, and to have fun doing it.

Cut now to college, for the second paper plane. The mechanical and aeronautical engineering shared a department and a computer lab. While visiting the lab one day, I overheard an aeronautical engineering student talking to one of his classmates, as he constructed an elaborate model airplane out of stiff paper.

"I need to look up my eighth grade teacher and send this to her," he said. "I threw a paper airplane in her class, and she got mad at me for it. She hollered, 'Do you think you're going to be doing this sort of thing in college?'

"Yes, Mrs. Peterson," he continued smugly. "Apparently I *am* going to be doing this sort of thing in college."

Teachers, please forgive the outbursts and digressions of your students, now and then. They may be the stuff of genius.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

An important meeting

I work for a small contracting firm, so I spend the vast majority of my time in customers' offices. I received email from the main office this afternoon, addressed to the CEO, the general manager, a director, a project manager, and me. It said that tomorrow's meeting had been moved from 11am to 10am. It surprised me because I had not heard of the original 11am meeting.

Naturally, I asked the sender where and why this meeting would occur. She explained that it would take place at the main office, and that an important potential customer was coming in to evaluate our facilities.

Then she explained my role in this meeting: they want to convince the customer that our firm has the resources to take work off-site for them, and they need someone to occupy a cubicle for the duration, so that it looks like we have more people working in the home office. They invited me not because they wanted my input but because they needed a warm body.

I'll go, because I'm that sort of person, because the warm body still needs to know the software, and because I plan to bill them my usual hourly rate for the service. They did, after all, specifically ask me to show up and look busy. Still, the whole incident is reminiscent of the Dilbert strip where Alice asks the intern to accompany her to an "important" meeting across the bridge. Cool! We get to use the carpool lane.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


A friend of mine told me recently that he thought I should stop being such a prude. It surprised me a bit, because I have (I thought) shed quite a few inhibitions in the past year or so. I have become less frightened of my own voice, of recording it, or of singing louder. I have explored and even begun to discuss topics I would not have touched before. In fact, this blog would probably not have happened a year ago. I read things on the Internet for a good ten years before writing much there. Writing does not intimidate me; I have kept a journal for many years now, on paper, to myself. The audience intimidates me.

The same friend tried before to tell me, "What will it break?" I realized later that engineers are thoroughly trained to be able to tell you. When lives depend on something an engineer builds, caution and pessimism serve important roles.

Still, I think he has a point. (He usually does!) He detected my phone-shyness very quickly, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the moments of boldness I have borrowed from him. Apparently, I still have work to do, though, if I am so transparently prudish.

Now, I do not have any ideological quarrels with "bad" words or "adult" topics. I am strongly opposed to censorship in its many forms. I find it insulting, for instance, that radio and television stations take it upon themselves to decide what words we should not hear and bleep them out, as though anyone over the age of eight would not know exactly what word had been eradicated. (Indeed, I take it upon myself to replace them, at times.) I loathe Wal-Mart's practice of selling only sanitized CDs, and I certainly disapprove of all the various efforts throughout history to squelch "objectionable" literature.

Rather, I think my prudishness is an outgrowth of a broader set of inhibitions, stemming from a strict and well-developed sense of propriety. I understand that certain topics bother some people, and I tend to resist bothering others. I have always been fairly timid, especially with regard to following rules and doing what I think is right.

Why, then, would I want to shed my inhibitions at all? Some years ago, I was listening to an interview between the DJs and the lead singer of the group Eagle Eye Cherry, then enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame for the since-forgotten song "Save Tonight". The remark that stuck (I'm paraphrasing from memory, here) was, "I wrote that song in one afternoon and I'm really glad I didn't do something else that day."

It is not, then, that I feel that I need to offend more people or that I feel the world needs more swearing and sex in it. It is because if I don't I will always wonder what I might have created if I hadn't done something else that afternoon, or just squelched my creativity by being too timid to try.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Fortunately, I have only mild allergies, confined to the occasional sneeze. I do not sneeze at anything in particular, with one notable exception: mid-morning.

Every day, perhaps 2 hours after I wake up, regardless of my hour or location, I sneeze. I sneeze quite reliably at home or in any of the several different offices where I have worked. I sneeze once or twice, then stop. Coworkers glean my arrival from it, and I simply keep Kleenex on my desk.

Go figure.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Not keeping up with the Nguyens

Yesterday, which was Labor Day in the US, I attended a barbecue given by my boyfriend's coworker, whom I had not yet met. I have never been terribly fond of being the only ones I know at a party, but we ended up finding people in the crowd with similar interests to talk to. What struck me most was how similar, and yet how different, their gathering was from what one of ours would have been.

Our host spent the entire afternoon barbecuing continuously. I have never seen so much meat all in one place, and I'm not sure I know what all of it was. He had a huge sack of oysters (I don't even buy potatoes or onions in bags that large) and grilled them almost nonstop throughout the afternoon.

It was also something of a housewarming party for them. They bought that house very recently, certainly within the past month, and have only just moved in and started fixing it up. We had a late summer housewarming party, too, but we moved in in March. The difference was that we did the work (at that stage, mostly heavy cleaning and painting) entirely by ourselves. They are throwing money at it, despite having just bought a huge house in Silicon Valley. The part that really gets my goat is that they are planning to rip out a fairly new, attractive granite countertop in order to replace the admittedly dated cabinets underneath. It seems to me that I would find some way to refinish or reface those cabinets, instead, but they assure me it cannot be done.

On top of that, he, unbeknownst to his wife, plans to buy her a fairly pricey new car for their first anniversary, which is approaching rapidly. Our new cars, by contrast, came three years later, after some recovery from the house purchase, and with both of us participating. We purchased each of them because the one new car we had shared no longer served its purpose.

I thought they must have fewer belongings than we had. They obviously had a back bedroom still in progress, but the furniture, while sparse, made sense in its space. Ours still doesn't, even when the house is as tidy as we can make it. I learned afterwards that they have stuff in storage.

We do have some things in common. Both households have impressive home theater systems, mostly at the behest of their respect

Sunday, September 04, 2005


On weekends, I volunteer as a tutor for the local adult literacy program. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 tutor-learner pairs in the program, teaching adults to read or helping them improve their reading. Some slipped through the cracks or moved around a lot as a child. In this area, many also need to learn more English than the basic classes offer. My learner is one of the latter, from Taiwan.

She has been taking classes at the junior college, and I think she's doing a wonderful job, so far. She chose, as her first class, to take college-level US history, which would not have been my first recommendation for somebody unfamiliar with George Washington and still a shaky reader. Even though it took her a good three hours per chapter and no small amount of extra work to figure it out, though, she passed the class.

I usually have a fairly easy job, when it comes to tutoring her. She almost always has homework I can help with, so I don't really spend much time planning the lessons. Today, for instance, I just showed up there, and asked her what she wanted to do. To my surprise, today she replied, "Othello."

Now, I haven't read Shakespeare since high school, and I never read Othello before. As the textbook noted, Othello is not frequently taught in high school because of all the sex and violence. My initial reaction bordered on panic. Then it occurred to me that if I struggle to read Shakespeare, it must be nearly impenetrable to someone just getting her bearings in English.

So I picked the book with the best footnotes, and started reading it aloud. Shakespeare should be read aloud to bring out the meter and the rhyme. I read a passage just for the sound of it, then went back and started picking it apart, a bit at a time. In two hours or so, we plodded through most of Act I, and I think we both understood it better, for taking the time to read it together. Shakespeare really did know how to write a juicy story, and we ended up having fun. Now I hope I'll have to help her read Act II next week.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Holding the scarf

Dancers (not me) performing a Greek line dance.

I spent a delightful afternoon today at the annual Greek festival staged by the Greek church in Belmont, California. I am half Greek, and mentioned the fact to another festival-goer.

I took folk dancing lessons briefly, many years ago, and a few of the dances I learned actually stuck. Luckily, those seem to be the same ones that everybody else remembers, too, and the Greek bands know it. I can do a Syrtos, among others, pretty well.

Thus, after a lovely lunch of moussaka and dolmades, I went and joined the handful of people dancing. The tradition with these Greek dances is that the person on the right end of the line often takes hold of a scarf which connects him (most often an athletic young man) to the group. The scarf affords a bit of flexibility and allows the leader to improvise, often fairly dramatically. (If you ever join a Greek line dance, watch and imitate the second person for the straight steps, and don't worry too much about getting them exactly right.)

Today, for the first time in my life, somebody handed me the scarf. When I took hold of it, it took me a few bars to get to the front, regain the beat, and adjust mentally to the idea that all eyes were now on my feet. If there is a correct set of moves that may be improvised, I never learned them. I improvise dance fairly often, but almost never in front of people. After a few moments, I got my feet under me and let the music take hold. I can't really explain it, but once I got started, all the extra turns and hops just flowed naturally, following the twists and turns of the music.

Whatever I invented during those moments, I had great fun doing it, and it must have shown. When the music ended, the other dancer told me, "I think your feet are all Greek."

Friday, September 02, 2005

A Grammar Sherriff is born

Even before my school friends caught on and dubbed me the Grammar Sherriff, I was a stickler for spelling and grammar. Missing the first couple of words ever (there and their, if I recall correctly) on a first-grade spelling test caused me conisderable alarm. I think I probably alarmed my mother, too, by coming home in tears and refusing to tell her why!

I also recall vividly my first encounter with a British spelling. In third grade or so, I tried reading Sherlock Holmes. In retrospect, I think this particular volume was printed in larger type with pictures for kids, but I don't think it was edited accordingly. At any rate, my reading came abruptly to a standstill when I spied the word "neighbourhood" sliced in half with an unaccustomed British "u". If you have ever gone on reading past a word you didn't know, but failed to absorb anything after it, then you may know the feeling of being jarred out of comprehension. Not knowing better, I was indignant that anyone would let something so blatant go to print.

I suppose I must have heard a British accent on television by then, but nobody had ever told me that the differences carried over into the written word. The extra letter cannot be the only reason, but to this day I have not read very much of Sherlock Holmes.