Monthly Archives: January 2010

On being an ‘Auntie’

When I was a child of about 9 years old, I met the person who was the adoptive ‘Uncle’ through my formative years. He was called that to me, ‘Uncle Dave’ and he was a work friend of my father’s. I was a budding engineer, thus illustrating that I knew very early what my job in the future was going to be. He was a PhD mathematician, and I know he was put into my direct path by my father to encourage me to stay with maths and to pursue this technical stuff as a career. He and his wife were childless by choice, as am I, and we developed a special relationship that lasted well into my late 20s before circumstances drove us apart. There was a special thing when I was a kid, whereas we as a family used to go out with Uncle Dave and his wife, always for pizza. An interesting factoid that will be important later. On the back of a napkin, Uncle Dave explained to child-me the concept of a “googol” which was not a search engine, but a number–10 raised to the power of 100. A very large number. And there was a “googol plex” or 10 raised to the power of a googol. Again, a very large number. But not infinity. And we spent time discussing the concept of infinity in pizza joints across America as people moved and things changed. (And now the search engine behemoth’s headquarters is called the Googleplex, which is not an accident but a geeky play on words found amusing by those of us who find such things amusing.)

In the early days, before I called him ‘Uncle’ and before I freely acknowledged how important he was to me, I called him my mentor. When email was new in the early nineties, and I was at University, Uncle Dave and I re-connected and he continued to be my mentor, but our fondness for each other developed and we had a true friendship that continued up to about the time that I moved to the UK, or just after. It was a completely intellectual meeting of the minds and it mattered a great deal to me. Unfortunately I think the last time we communicated much was a few years ago now. By that time, I had a PhD degree of my own and an exciting new job and a physical distance from much of what I left behind in the US. For various reasons, we’ve drifted apart completely and have not been in touch in recent years; he nears (if is not already at) the retirement age, and I’ve been remarkably busy and distracted trying to forge this career of mine. I’m sad about this loss of communication with someone who was a factor in my life for literally 20 years, but also strangely philosophical. Sometimes a person appears in your life to play a key role and then drifts out again. Life is complicated, and unpredictable. But when people ask how I ended up where I am, both literally and figuratively, one of the answers is always ‘Uncle’ Dave, who I credit as a mentor and a friend, not to mention a special person who was there for me, listening to me when I was yet a child and continuing to discuss the world with me when I was struggling with adulthood and the realities of grown-up life.

I feel a strange sense of history repeating itself, but now with me potentially in the ‘Auntie’ role. I’ve become quite attached to fellow expat blogger Kat‘s kids (the kids are known as Lala and Kiki, in internet anonymity terms). When I think about it, it’s the closest attachment I’ve had to any small children since I was babysitting in junior high school, literally 20 years ago. Coincidentally, we’ve had pizza most of the times that we’ve all been together, including two outings to kid-friendly Pizza Express (although the kids don’t get why there is so much sauce and so little cheese on the pizza here compared with American pizza) and a Domino’s delivery up at Kat’s place. Although being with them does not encourage any maternal feelings in me, I connect with these kiddos in a way that I never could have imagined. My ‘Uncle Dave’ knew that I was struggling with the realization that I had no desire to bear my own children but he always told me how fun it was to be an ‘Uncle’ and to watch the development of young minds–and that I should not discount the importance of children in my life even if I did not wish to have my own kids. I don’t think I quite understood what he was saying until now. And I’m really enjoying it. And I’m really hoping that I get to be a part of Kiki’s and Lala’s lives for another 19 or so years (at least!) and in the way that my Uncle Dave was a part of 20 of my formative years.

Dear So-and-So, My American Friends edition

Dear My American Friends,

I never intended to move abroad and become very good friends with a bunch of American expats, but that’s what happened. And right now, after over three years of living in England and being a bit lonely at times, I am very happy. Tonight was Korean food with one very good friend in my town, and tomorrow I get an expat blog/twitter meet-up with @Michelloui and @3bedroom (both of whom I’ve seen in person before) and I couldn’t be more excited. Another American friend is out of town for the weekend but I plan to see her again soon. @crustacean77, you’re next.

Loving the friendships not to mention the convergence of online and real life worlds, NFAH

Dear World,

We celebrate Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, so why not Birthday Eve? I intend to start this observance tomorrow, with My American Friends. That’s right, NFAH will be adding another notch to the belt on Saturday. This will be my 4th birthday celebration in England, and the first time since I moved here that I’ve felt like I really had something to celebrate.

Excitedly yours, NFAH

Dear fans of the academic discipline of American Studies,

I seem to have accidentally offended you with my tongue-in-cheek words last week. No offense was intended, and I am deeply sorry. I have consulted with many locals, both expat and otherwise, and we were all previously unaware of the existence of as many American Studies departments in Europe as apparently there are. The wikipedia page is very informative in this regard. I just thought the mental image of an American studies professor sitting in an office in England earnestly answering questions about GLEE for the BBC was very funny. No offense was intended.

My deepest apologies, NFAH

Dear Apple,

Sorry to say that I was right, but your tablet does nothing for me. And the name, oh the name.

Sticking with my iPhone, MacBook, iMac, Linux Netbook and Kindle, NFAH

Just another ordinary day… aw who am I kidding?

It eerily echoed a recent scene. I was walking to work mid-day, after a morning teleconference on my home computer. I was wearing jeans. Not carrying a Starbucks coffee this time. I was about three blocks closer to home/further from work but along the same road, which is one of about three different roads I can take to work. I hadn’t taken this one in a while, and I don’t know why I did today. I’m on the right-hand side of the street. I’m approaching a small intersection, just a tiny one-way road branching off to the right. I look up to see if I can safely cross. Just ahead of me to the left a car is approaching me. I notice it has a front brand badge that I don’t recognize, and I think that’s odd. I’ve become quite used to the logos for Vauxhall and the like. The car quite peculiarly stops when it is directly in the middle of the small intersection, blocking traffic going into or out of the street (had there been any). The front passenger- and back driver-side doors open and men in suits get out. At this point I’m on the corner about to try and cross the small street, but slowing as I approach this unusual scene. Do I cross? Wait? Then the back passenger-side door opens. A man in a suit exits the car. No, it couldn’t be… yes, yes it was.

My British work colleagues were stunned again, that’s 3 royals for me in the space of as many months, and all while walking along the same stretch of road. Maybe I should be taking that route all the time…

Dear So-and-so, January doldrums edition

Dear BBC,

Thank you for giving me a much needed laugh with your very straight and serious piece about the TV show Glee (I watched all 13 existing episodes while in America recently). Best excerpts from the BBC piece:

“They are uniquely American,” says Peter Ling, professor of American Studies at Nottingham University.

Can I have that job? I think I’m (over) qualified. Surely giving quotes to the BBC about what makes something “American” is easier than what I actually do all day. And I’m guessing he gets paid quite a pretty sum for that job since “professor” here means something more exalted than it means in America.

The irony is that glee actually began in Britain, around the 1700s, according to historians.

Ah, the requisite “claim the original idea” line. Never like the Brits to allow any American success story to take place without trying to grab credit.

One factor that could explain why this touchstone of American culture is all but unheard of in Britain is America’s focus on competition. Glee isn’t just about the joy of singing – many show choirs compete at national level.

Right. Britain’s obsession with league tables for anything and everything and the fact that you can bet on anything and everything at one of several bookmaker shops along the high street are clear indications that Britain has no interest in competition.

I love Puck.

Glee-ful, NFAH

Dear book publisher,

I swear, absolutely swear, that I will get that editorial work done this weekend. I have no idea why it is taking so long. Well, actually that’s not true, it’s tedious as hell and I’m ornery about doing it and really tired of looking at these same 350 pages for over two years of various versions. But regardless, expect things on your desk Monday morning.

Being an editor is totally unglamorous, NFAH

Dear self,

When, oh when, are you going to learn to stop saying you’ll do things that you know are a good idea but you don’t actually want to do, such that you get to the time and date and have to cancel at the last minute because you’re completely out of bandwidth to do things that are a good idea because of the many thousands of other things you actually have to do?

Get a grip. Learn a lesson. And start saying NO more often.

I keep trying to tell you this and you’re not listening, NFAH

Dear Barclaycard,

I am completely speechless at the fact that you have just upgraded me to a platinum credit card all of two years after I had to fight so hard to get any credit card at all. WTF?

British banking is a puzzle, NFAH

Dear Apple,

It’s amazing that you are generating so much buzz with this whole “will they or won’t they” tablet thing. But I have to admit, I’m a devoted Mac-head with desktops and laptops both at home and at work plus an iPhone and two iPods and actually I have no idea what a person would do with a “Tablet” so I have no interest. Sorry.

And oh yes I love my (shockingly non-Mac) Kindle, NFAH

I Google You

I have been fairly honest, blog-style, recently in discussing the fact that I have recently discovered that my ex-husband (back in America, where I am not) just got remarried and my discovery of this information came thanks to the wonders of the internet. Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered that one of my favorite Indy Rock Star artists had recorded a song called “I Google You”:

The lyrics are here.

Said Indy Rock Star is Amanda Palmer (twitter @amandapalmer) and she is my current muscial obsession (anyone who can write lyrics like, “who needs love when there’s Southern Comfort and who needs love when the sandwiches are wicked and they know you at the Mac store” AND sing them in a catchy tune that I cannot get out of my head wins it in my book!)

The Google-y lyrics were written by her fiancee, the amazing writer Neil Gaiman (twitter @neilhimself) who happens to have a kid that works at Google. He also manages to beat out Stephen Fry in some polls of “British superstars who tweet” even though he’s spent the last few decades living near my home town of Minneapolis. It’s all so web 2.0 and so romantic. (And I’ve been sucked into it totally for the last few months but we won’t go there!)

The bottom line is as such: Amanda Palmer is awesome, and her music is worth listening to. I need to stop Google-stalking my ex-husband, although I keep writing about it because I just found out he got remarried and I even managed to score a photo of the happy couple. And Neil Gaiman is more than worth a read, although most people know that. And Amanda Palmer is awesome, and her music is worth listening to. I’ll stop now.

Dear My-Poor-Neighbors,

No, that sound you heard this evening was not actually the wail of cats being repeatedly tortured for a prolonged period of time. That was me, trying to see if I could re-discover one of my hobbies.

With my apologies, NFAH

Long-time readers of this blog will know that, aside from being a science-y type, I have long had musical aspirations on the side. This started with piano lessons, ages 5-17. There was a hiatus, ages 17-25, and then I decided to take up the violin. Half on a challenge (someone told me once that as a piano player I was not suited to do it). Half on a desire stemming from having played keys with a string orchestra in high school. Took violin lessons for four years ages 25-29, but then when I finished my PhD things slowed down again. Darned jobs and all that. I managed a year and a half of singing in a semi-pro choir when I came to England ages 31-32.5 before my job got too busy for three nights a week, and in that time recorded two “real” classical-choral CDs, which was fun. (Note to commenters who asked about my CDs on a previous post–email me and I can send you details! I believe those who asked all know my email or if not drop a comment and I’ll send you the links.) It was sort of an opportunistic thing. I sang in a choir in high school, and did musical theater, but mostly because I also played the piano for the choir and did piano accompaniment for theater stuff. I never really wanted to sing the way I wanted to play the piano, or later, the way I wanted to learn to play the violin.

But then, last week, jet-lagged and fresh off the plane from America, back all of ~20 hours, I got a mass email looking for amateurs for an orchestra. And I started drooling. Because I took up the violin in graduate school, I did not have the history with the instrument that most people, who take it up in primary school, have. I have played songs by myself and duets with my teachers. I have never played in an orchestra. And man, do I want to!

Problem number one then arose immediately. My original violin is in my parents’ basement in Minnesota. I’m here. My second (!) violin is here, but it’s electric!

There are two reasons for my having moved the electric violin to England and having left the ‘analog’ version at home. One, I live in a one-bedroom flat in a densely populated town (this is England, is there any other kind?) The “silent” violin is brilliant and much less of a guilty thing for me to play in such circumstances–what noise they hear is nothing compared to the richness of what I hear through the headphones. Two, and most peculiarly, the thing was always more comfortable for me to play compared with my “real” instrument, which I had first and for several years before I got the Yamaha. It has an integrated shoulder rest, and I even tried to buy the same brand of shoulder rest for my “real” instrument and it still did not feel as good. And my teachers hated the bow that came with my “student violin kit” and loved the bow that came with the Yamaha. (Geeky engineer in me says: Go Carbon Fibre Technology!) And let me note that mine was NOT a cheap student violin, the thing cost me a fortune and was paid for in installments when I was in grad school doing my PhD, at a time when I did not have lots of money but was still splashing out for the instrument and for lessons. ANYWAYS, I digress. I moved, I brought the electric violin with me. I played it occasionally in the first few months that I was here, but then joined the choir and got really busy. Used my digital piano a fair bit during that time to learn my alto parts, since I was a bit rusty at the singing thing, having not done much of it since high school.

(Um, yes, in addition to the violin, I also moved an 88-key digital Kawai piano to England. These things always sound reasonable in my head but when I write them on the screen they start to look funny… maybe this is not a good time to mention that in addition to the electric violin and digital piano I also brought over my Grandmother’s vintage Tenor Banjo that she played in the 1939 World’s Fair… now I really digress. There is clearly much here in the category of “a story for another day”.)

The electric violin had not been getting much use until today, when I had the chance to go to the orchestra’s first rehearsal to try and decide if there was any chance that I could join in. I got the instrument tuned up this afternoon in the most geeky manner possible (fitting, of course) using a tuning app that I have on my iPhone. (I bought the app on the recommendation of a fellow violin player at work, even though I had not been doing any violin playing. But hey, today I needed it and was so glad that I had bought it!) I played around with the violin, went to the first hour of the orchestra rehearsal, and then came back and tortured my poor neighbors with said violin for another 45 minutes. It’s really not actually “silent” although it’s much quieter than my student violin kit ever was.

The verdict: perhaps unsurprisingly, given the fact that it’s been 4.5 years since I was in lessons, my violin playing is rusty. Really rusty. Cat torture rusty. I am lacking the callouses on my fingers and the strength in my arms that I had developed when playing the thing most days. I also have to be realistic about the fact that, since I took the instrument up as an adult, I will never have the natural feel for it that a kid who started Suzuki method classes at age 3 would have. I am also realistic about the fact that I have never been the most gifted musician ever, I have been more in the mold of “hard work, practice, practice, practice” (much to the chagrin of my very gifted, plays the piano by ear, father). BUT, all of that said, I had a fun time playing the violin today, and I think I might have to do that more often. So apologies to my neighbors, the tortured cat noises are likely to continue. I may not be sufficiently gifted or practiced to join up with the orchestra now, but I’m unlikely to stop trying, and planning for next year. I may try and find a teacher here, and acquire another “real” student violin kit (and sell the one sitting in my parents’ basement gathering even more dust than my electric had been gathering in my flat here). I got a new music stand today, and it’s set up in my living room, next to the nicely tuned electric instrument in its case (until tomorrow, when I’ll have another go at the books I was playing from in my first year as a student of the instrument–that’s how far back I had to go today!) It’s just too nice to have something interesting to do at the end of a long, boring technical day spent in front of a computer, and dealing with the endless administration and paperwork associated with having a grown-up job.

The current temperature is…

When I was a child, I lived in a house that had a thermostat. You told it what temperature you wished to have in the house, and it obeyed. It was a round thing on the wall in the 3 BR-1 BA classic 1950s house that we occupied in the post-WWII inner suburbs of Minneapolis, MN. I was a tiny pipsqueak, of single-digit age, and I was a very proud girl because the thermostat said “Honeywell” on it and that’s where my dad worked. It looked something like this, only brass colored (not white).

When I was a teenager, we had a newer house in America, and it still had a Honeywell thermostat but this one was programmable. My father was no longer in the business, but we could set the thing to a temperature–different for day and night by about ten degrees F–and it would obey. It looked like this.

When I was a young married person, I had zone heating. Which means that I had a thermostat each in several different regions of the house, and I could control (program) the temperature independently in each. It was either three or four separate regions, I do not recall the exact details. But it was good, and it was energy-efficient because you did not need to heat the parts of the house in which you did not spend time.

In 2006, I moved to England. There is no thermostat. There are radiators.

(I have lived in two different flats with the same 1-BR layout and radiators, so I guess this is not a one-off.) The radiators have valves, they are on or off. In my current living room there are four, in the bedroom 2, in the bathroom 1. In order to control the temperature of the flat, I must decide how many radiator valves to open and how long to keep them open. Manually.

Being a science-y type, I have opted to enlist the help of my cooking probe thermometer:

to try and ascertain the current temperature in the flat, and how it might perchance be changed with the opening and closing of certain radiator valves.

The inertia in the system is such that I cannot change the day to night temperature the way I did in the US, I must aim for an average. The probe currently reads 67F which I guess is a pretty good moderate setting–too warm in the night and too cold in the day compared to the thermostat temperatures of my youth. I will try in the next day or so to bring the average down to 65, as that seems a reasonable compromise to me. But I am very much aware of the fact that such changes I make are but a small drop in the large bucket of the energy reforms that need to be made in the interests of the world.

Systems that input heat only when you need it: golden. Radiators that require cooking implements to incorporate: needs some work. I’d happily take a 1980s vintage thermostat and the ability to turn down the radiators at times, so as to save night-time energy if we could determine when the shut down should happen.