April 2008 minutiae

  • Elizabeth and I play a lot of geography games — I load a few hundred cities into a randomizer and as they pop out we decide how much we'd like to live there. Recently, as Elizabeth has neared the halfway point in her PhD program, we've switched to universities. Even after we threw out the religious schools, most of what has come up has been pretty unappealing — we're talking University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, Ohio State Lima, that sort of thing. But recently Swarthmore came up, and I was astonished to discover that the townhouse I lived in from ages three to five was within walking distance!

  • I was also amused to look at the aerial views of the area and see just how much the real place differs from my childhood perceptions of it. I thought of us as living nestled in a deep in the woods... turns out that once you get past that fourth row of trees, less than a hundred yards from my old front door, bang! Interstate freeway. I also remember many an evening that my fellow four-year-olds and I were allowed to run around in the streets unaccompanied, exploring the neighborhood until the last wisp of dusk had turned to night and it was time to come in. I have often thought of this as a key data point in contrasting the freedom kids had in the 70s to the hysterical parental paranoia of today. Turns out these "streets" were all part of the same apartment complex — we were just rambling from one parking lot to the next!

  • I have mentioned in the past that when I first moved to my current apartment I was horrified to find that trains blared their horns at all hours of the night... and then horrified to find that after a week or so I ceased to hear them unless I paid conscious attention to them. Recently I was up at 3:30 am when I heard a particularly loud and long blast of a train whistle, and it occurred to me — why are trains making such a racket in the wee hours of the morning? Are they afraid of running over unconscious drunks on the tracks or something?

  • I went to an Asian grocery to get some noodles for a soup and found a package labeled ALIMENTARY PASTE. Ew. I assumed that this was just an unfortunate but not uncommon piece of Engrish, but then I did a bit of research and discovered that apparently this was the official FDA classification of Asian noodles until relatively recently!

  • After fourteen years visiting teenagers' homes as a tutor I've seen a fair amount of intrafamily conflict, and I've found that the thing most likely to make teenagers fly into a rage — jumping out of their chairs, storming across the room, eyes flashing, fists clenched, shouting — is when their parents weigh in with their pet theories on things about which they are not as well-informed as their kids (in my presence, this is usually standardized tests). I have seen these arguments reach the "SHUT UP! SHUT UP! YOU DON'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT IT! YOU'RE SO IGNORANT!" phase. Why so sensitive?

    My guess is that since little kids turn to their parents as the ultimate authority on just about everything — and that, compared to a little kid, any adult is an authority on just about everything — those parents get used to thinking of themselves as authorities on just about everything, at least in the presence of their kids... even after those kids get to be old enough to know more about some things than their parents do. Now, it's bad enough to have to listen to people go on about a topic when you know for a fact they're wrong. It's even worse when they're smug about it. But when they're wrong, smug, and in a position of power over you? White - hot - fury.

  • If you have never eaten sunchokes (also known as "Jerusalem artichokes") before, then you're in luck, because this message has found you in time. That message: do not. Sunchokes are evil. Run fast, run far.

    If this message is too late, I'm so sorry.

  • Alex "Phoenixy" Hoffer brought my attention to the following gem in the New York Times: While noise is never cited as a reason for the spasms of violence, it is a silent enemy that makes the pressures of life that much harder to cope with, people on the streets here said. Now I feel lucky to have grown up in a place where the biggest problem was smog, the invisible enemy.

  • I came across an online poll that asked:
    I have participated in competitive sport:
    high school only
    high school/college
    high school/college/pro
    high school/pro
    college only
    pro only
    Best reply: "I voted 'pro only.' I walked onto the Dallas Cowboys with no football experience at all. Played middle linebacker, 1988-93."

  • forachange.net: When the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev died in 1971, he asked for his tombstone to be carved by Ernst Neizvestny. Uh, I think there might be a bit of a flaw in the chronology here.

  • At the Berkeley Bowl I overheard a mother tell her little daughter that she could get a seaweed snack. The daughter asked, "Can I get two?" and the mother said, no, just one. The little girl replied, sadly, "But I love dem." I don't think a day has gone by since that I have not ended up using that phrase in one context or another. It's all in the delivery.

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