s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: September 2006

Sunday, September 24, 2006

That time of year . . .

You want a prediction about the weather, you're asking the wrong Phil. I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life.

– Phil Connors, “Groundhog Day”

It’s that time of year again: the time when things get very, very cold. The outside temperature will actually be much colder come January or February, but this is actually the coldest time of the year inside my building, because they haven’t yet turned the heat on, and they won’t for another two or three or four weeks. (They don’t want to turn it on early in case we have an Indian summer and things heat up again.)

Even in Utah, I get cold easily – I usually have cold hands and feet from October to March – and the cold in Illinois is much more severe. Last year, I thought I would die. I remember days spent sitting in my room, trying to work on homework while shivering through four layers of clothing and a blanket.

I’ve learned a lot about dressing warmly in the last year. I’ve learned that wool, silk and down will keep me much warmer than cotton, acrylic and fleece. I’ve learned that wearing thick wool socks will raise my core temperature, and multiple layers will keep my fingers from going numb. Interestingly, last Christmas I wasn’t cold at all when I went to visit my parents; in learning how to survive an Illinois winter, I’m finally thriving in a Utah one. (And should I ever move to Minnesota, I’ll probably realize that Illinois winters aren’t that harsh.)

Mostly, I’m just hoping that what I’ve learned will get me through these next few weeks in a something more productive than last year’s cold-induced catatonia.

I hope.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Advice to a young man who is dating a future missionary

[With a nod to Eloise Bell]

This is an exciting time of life for you and your future missionary. Sooner than you can imagine, she will be gone to the far reaches of the globe to preach the gospel; she will leave a bright-faced girl, but return a wise woman, ready to be a leader in the Church and in the home. Don't waste these 18 months while she is gone – you can be developing many skills to enhance your masculine qualities. Learn to barbeque. Replace the hinges on all your doors with decorative brass hardware. Take a course in auto detailing so you can add artistic flair to any vehicle you own. It is these little masculine touches that make a house a home.

You can be serving her while she is serving the Lord. You may write to her, but make sure that you are not a distraction from her important work. Keep your letters bright and cheerful, and in the boyish style she has grown to love. Write to her of your little trials and successes; though her work and accomplishments may seem infinitely more important than your own, rest assured that she will still delight to hear of your modest achievements.

Remember that no young man should be the cause of a young woman's unworthiness to serve a mission! It is very difficult for young men to understand how easily tempted a young woman may be by their dress and appearance. Do not wear tight-fitting "muscle" shirts! Do not take your shirt off to mow the lawn, even if the heat index is over 100 degrees! Remember that the prophet has counseled young men to be clean-shaven! (You may think that a little facial hair is not a big deal, but to a young woman with strong desires, a beard is an ever present reminder of your masculinity!)

Et cetera

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A radical idea

Instead of spending so much time trying to make my hair do what I want it to do, I’m going to try harder to like what my hair does of its own accord (thereby saving time and improving my self-image).

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

F is for Fetish

The scene is Physics 222, a class whose lectures range from dull to incomprehensible. Dr. K. has started to talk, so most students have settled in for a nap (or pulled out the Daily Universe). Suddenly, he makes an announcement:

“I have a fetish!”

This gets everyone’s attention.

He continues, “I really hate it when people read the newspaper in class.”

Those with newspapers dutifully put them away, and Dr. K. continues with the lecture.

. . .

In retrospect, I think he probably meant “I have a pet peeve.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Books: Portuguese Irregular Verbs

This is not, as the title might suggest, a grammar book. (As someone who owns many foreign language grammar books, it’s not at all implausible that I would plow through another one, but I’m not currently interested in Portuguese.)

This is actually a book of short stories by Alexander McCall Smith (who is probably better known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series). The stories in Portuguese Irregular Verbs follow the misadventures of Herr Professor Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a German linguistics professor whose seminal published work is called Portuguese Irregular Verbs.

I’d heard McCall Smith’s work praised from a number of sources, but I confess that I was a bit disappointed by this work. The stories are clever and well executed, but I found my stomach twisting into knots as the good professor got himself into one tangle after another. I’m too empathetic, I think; I cared more about the main character than the author did. (Or than the fictitious protagonist would probably care about himself, to be honest.)

I did like one chapter, in which Professor von Igelfeld finds himself wondering which of his esteemed colleagues actually own a copy of Portuguese Irregular Verbs. It’s simple work to scan the bookshelves in the offices of most of them, but there’s one professor who keeps most of his books at home, and so von Igelfeld must think of a series of contrived excuses for visiting his friend’s apartment and inspecting the bookshelves. The ending is unexpected and quite sweet.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Three days ago . . .

There was this armadillo trying to get in the back door of my parents’ house. Only the screen door was closed, and it’s kind of flimsy, so there really wasn’t much standing in the way of the armadillo.

I was fine with the armadillo coming inside, mostly because I thought it was kind of cute – I’d never seen one before – but then I remembered that it was a gangster / criminal armadillo. In fact, there was an FBI SWAT team outside my house, complete with snipers on the front lawn and a black helicopter hovering above; if the armadillo got inside, there was a very real possibility that it would take hostages.

I watched as the armadillo tried to get through the door, somehow transfixed and unable to run away when . . . I woke up.

Weirdest. dream. ever.

[In reality, that particular door is a sliding glass door. (There isn’t a screen door anywhere in my parents’ house.) There are not, to my knowledge, any armadillos in Utah. My brother asked me what kind of helicopter it was – I’m pretty sure that it was a JetRanger or a LongRanger. At least some parts of my dreams are accurate.]

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Mysterious Mr. Q

Several years ago, I found myself in Schoenhof’s, a foreign-language bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to buying a French picture dictionary and a book on the roots of Chinese characters, I bought a couple of postcards from a display next to the register.

As fitting the character of the store, the postcards were also foreign. The two I picked were by the same German illustrator, both in sort of a surrealist style. One was a picture of a bunch of men in business suits swimming like a school of fish. I sent that one to Melyngoch. The other one was of a man using a ladder to climb out of the illustration in a giant book. I kept it for myself.

Later, I went to the artist’s website, where I saw more of his paintings. Books seemed to be a theme running through much of much of his work – he painted lighthouses with towers built of books, a man sleeping on the ground with a giant book for a blanket, and a man floating in the air while standing on a book. My favorite picture, though, had no books at all: it was a picture of five musicians in concert attire, sitting or standing on a giant wooden plank which was precariously balanced on a rock in the ocean. I always wanted to buy more postcards or prints by this painter, but the distributor was based in Germany and the shipping costs were prohibitive.

Years passed, and I forgot all about the paintings, until a recent conversation about René Magritte reminded me of the other, modern surrealist. I decided to look him up again – perhaps his prints were now more widely available in the U.S.? – but when I sat down at my laptop, I had a sudden, sickening realization: I couldn’t remember his name.

I knew he was German, and I thought that maybe his name had a “Q” in it, but I couldn’t remember if that was his first name or last name. And there was a very real possibility that his name didn’t actually include a “Q” at all. (I have an odd memory for names – in my mind, “Emily” and “Sarah” are the same name, for example. Anyone I meet with either name is liable to be called the other unless I think really hard, first.)

I could see many of his paintings in my mind’s eye, but I couldn’t think of the exact titles of any of them. (Worse, I seemed to remember that the titles had been very generic in nature, like “Flight” or “Sleep.”)

I had moved across the country since buying the postcard, and I had lost it along the way. (I even spent an hour last summer looking for it in some boxes of stuff being stored at my parents’ house.) Melyngoch couldn’t find hers, either.

His website was something.de and the “something” was the German cognate of an English word, but I couldn’t remember the word.

I tried contacting Schoenhof’s, but their website didn’t have any information about the postcards, and they didn’t return my email.

I didn’t think he was famous enough to be in Wikipedia; Googling “German” and “surrealist” returned sites about Max Ernst.

Days later, I remembered that I’d seen some of his work on an art website – I could at least browse through the names of all of the artists, hoping that one of them would ring a bell. I went to the website, only to discover that it had been taken down.

I may be a 100 Hour Board writer, a librarian, and a general researcher extraordinaire, but even I was stumped as to how to find a painting with no title by a person with no name. Having almost given up hope, I then had the smallest idea of a place to start. I didn’t know the title of any one painting, but he often painted pictures of books. What if I went to an art retailer’s website and did a keyword search on “book”? Narrowing my results down to “Art.com” hits from Amazon, I carefully scanned through the results. On the third page, I finally recognized a print by
Quint Buchholz.