Why I dread Hanukah

Part of the Hanukah ritual includes singing a Hebrew song, Maoz Tsur. It's a beautiful song, and some of the members of my family (not I) have really lovely singing voices and the ability to make up harmonies as we go. The problem is, the last verse contains the word fart. Of course, it's Hebrew, so it doesn't mean fart. But it's unmistakeable.

I'm sure you can picture it. My sister and I, staring fixedly at the floor as the verse approaches, struggling to keep our composure, pretending to be unaware of our parents' baleful glares, trying our damnedest not to set a bad example for our kids, who by now are old enough to get it. At best, we merely fall silent when the word comes; at worst, we snicker and chortle uncontrollably.

How could this still be comical after thirty-odd years? Shouldn't we have gotten past this by now?

This year I planned in advance that I would think of something really, really, really sad. In fact -- this is so sick -- I planned in advance that I would think about the story of Sadako and the Thousand Cranes while I sang, so that I wouldn't laugh at the word fart.

It didn't work.

A perfect number

After Christmas dinner with my husband's family a year ago I wrote a post about mathematical knitting, courtesy of retired mathematician Grandma Joan. That post is the most popular one I've ever written, according to my site meter, and it continues to get Google hits on a regular basis. Therefore I am sure the blogosphere will be delighted to know that I've returned from Christmas dinner with some more math for you. This time it comes courtesy of retired mathematician Cousin Ward.

Can you picture the scene? Imagine the cozy living room, fire crackling merrily, cousins playing happily at one end, Ward and I ensconced in a fabulous leather sofa at the other. "So," I say to him conversationally, "Tell me some more about perfect numbers." Being a mathematician, conversation is not his strong point and I have to do most of the work, though being an introverted bookworm, conversation is not my strong point either. But I am thinking that perfect numbers would make a great blog post, not only because they are interesting in themselves but also because the topic is a perfect way for me to casually let slip that my birthday is tomorrow -- on the TWENTY-EIGHTH of December.

In fact, I first learned about perfect numbers at a long-ago family dinner when I confessed to Ward my life-long fascination with the number 28. He could not have made me happier than when he told me that mathematically speaking 28 is a rare bird -- a "perfect" number. Six is a perfect number too. And the next one after 28 is four-hundred-and-something.

A perfect number is one that equals the sum of its factors. Factors of 6 = 1, 2, 3. Factors of 28 = 1, 2, 4, 7, 14. Factors of four-hundred-and-something? Um. This would make a much better post if I knew four-hundred-and-what, which is why I ask Ward: "Four-hundred-and-what?" Suddenly he is staring off into space, lips moving slightly. I stare at his skull, wondering what's going on inside.

"Well," he says finally, "What's 31 x 16? Whatever is 31 x 16, that's a perfect number." By this time Uncle Brad is listening too, and the three of us attempt to multiply 31 x 16 in our heads. Of course Ward comes up with the answer first: 496. There is some joking about whether he'd get the same answer in subsequent attempts, but -- check it yourself -- he was right.

Meanwhile, I am astounded. What does 31 x 16 have to do with anything? I press Ward for details and he tells me that there's a formula for finding perfect numbers. He tells me the formula but I have trouble hearing because Daniel is busily drilling my knee with a fairly loud toy electric drill. But this is too good to let go. "Hold that thought," I say to Ward. I push Daniel away, and run off to find my dear hubby. And of course he has pen and paper on hand, because he is Steve. So I run back to Ward with pen and paper, and here it is:

A perfect number equals (2p-1)(2p-1), where p is a prime number.

So if p=3 you get 23 = 8, minus 1 is 7, and 22 = 4. And voilĂ ! 7 x 4 = 28! And when p = 5 you get 31 x 16.

I ask Ward whether perfect numbers are, you know, useful. Do they have any practical application?

Ward laughs. "None whatsoever."

Faux pas

Some years ago my dad bought a cd as a birthday gift for one of his daughters. Before wrapping and presenting the cd, he opened it, tape-recorded the music, and gave the cassette tape to his other daughter. We still tease him about this weird lapse of gift-giving judgment, though of course we appreciate the good intention. At least I do; I got the tape. Maybe Eva feels different.

Anyway, I am now guilty of a similar offense. I bought Joan Aiken's A Necklace of Raindrops for Lena and I have been unable to resist the temptation of dipping into it. Not to sound too smug or anything, but I am SO pleased with myself for thinking of this book. Most of her books are written for a middle-school or older audience, this is the only one I know of that's still in print that's written for younger elementary readers. It's a book of short stories, and they are truly marvelous and unique and beautiful and poetic.
"In that case," said the North Wind, "I will be the baby's godfather. My birthday present to her will be this necklace of raindrops."

From under his gray cloak he pulled out a fine silver chain. On the chain were three bright, shining drops.

"You must put it around the baby's neck," he said. "The raindrops will not wet her, and they will not come off. Every year, on her birthday, I will bring her another drop. When she has four drops she will stay dry, even if she goes out in the hardest rainstorm. And when she has five drops no thunder or lightning can harm her. And when she has six drops she will not be blown away, even by the strongest wind. And when she has seven raindrops she will be able to swim the deepest river. And when she has eight raindrops she will be able to swim the widest sea. And when she has nine raindrops she will be able to make the rain stop raining if she claps her hands. And when she has ten raindrops she will be able to make it start raining if she blows her nose."

"Stop, stop!" cried Mr. Jones. "That is quite enough for one little girl."

"I was going to stop anyway," said the North Wind.

I guess I'll go wrap it now before she gets home from school.

This CAN'T be true!

Via Mimilou.

Slaves of Golconda

When Quillhill asked me if I'd like to join a newly-formed on-line book group I enthusiastically agreed. Sure, I'll read whatever you choose, and post about it on December 18 along with everyone else. The book he chose was Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

And when the time came, I found I couldn't read it. I didn't even get myself a copy. After Birds Without Wings I just didn't have it in me to tackle a book with "death" in its title. And I got distracted by The Dark is Rising. And I also have to confess that I've never been able to get into that whole Latin American "magical realism" thing. I don't know why. I've attempted to read One Hundred Years of Solitude at least three times, and never managed to finish it. I really don't know why. Maybe I should give it another try. Thoughts, anyone?

That said, I strongly urge you to read the other bloggers' posts about Chronicle. Those I know of who've posted so far are Quillhill, Sylvia, and Ella. It is endlessly fascinating to me how the same words can elicit such different reactions from different people. And stay tuned for the next book. I'll post the title as soon as I learn it, and anyone who wants is welcome to read & post about it.

Eating out

My family -- family of origin, that is -- loves nothing better than to eat out at a really good restaurant. When we return from a vacation, the stories always revolve around the food and the restaurants rather than the sights. We remember details of meals eaten decades ago. Though we are frugal about some things, we do not look at the price when we order. And certain incidents involving waitstaff have become the stuff of family legend.

For example, there was the waitress at the Queen's Hotel in Stratford, Canada, who whispered "excuse me" in the tiniest little voice you could imagine, every time she set down or removed anything from the table.

Then there was the waiter in the local Chinese restaurant who offered my dad "snake" as an appetizer. After some discussion my amazed dad was led to believe he would be served cross-sectioned slices of a snake that were about 6 inches in diameter. Turned out the waiter was actually mispronouncing the word "snack."

And then there was the waitress in the upscale Italian restaurant right here in town with the exaggerated fake Italian accent. Sure, it's acceptable for a Midwestern American waitperson to roll the R and accent the Ts when saying "ricotta." But the real kicker was when she described a dessert with "Meeshigan chairr-r-r-r-ries." And another dessert: "epple pie." I know I'm not getting the orthography right, but hopefully you get the idea.

Last night we had dinner in the same upscale Italian restaurant. Just the grownups, celebrating my sister's birthday. We had a rockin' good time, with cloth napkins and all. Epple Pie Waitress doesn't work there any more, and the food and service were impeccable. Nevertheless, because it was us, the conversation eventually turned to the topic of Great Waitstaff Goofups.

Sissy regaled us with the time she was waiting on four U-M hockey players in a campus pizza joint. As she pulled her order pad out of her little apron pocket two tampons also flipped out and landed right on the table. That's right, two.

And we had to retell (for the umpteenth time, but it never pales) The Story Of The Greatest Waitstaff Goofup Of All Time. In fact, this one sounds like an urban myth, though Sis and Bro-in-law say it really happened to the brother of someone they know. As the waiter set down the bowl of French Onion soup in front of the customer it became apparent to all that there was a thin string of cheese going from the bowl to the waiter's mouth.

What's your best/worst restaurant story?

Gift ideas for the toddler on your list

1. Large plastic container filled with mixture of raw rice, popcorn kernels, dried beans, plus a few plastic cups and spoons. Be sure to lay a sheet or table cloth underneath; be prepared to vacuum afterwards.

2. "Special cards." Gather up half a dozen old credit cards, frequent buyer cards, photocopy cards, business cards, etc. Ideally, each would be a slightly different size and shape. Old wallet to put them in would be an added bonus, but not required. Emphasize the special nature of these cards.

3. A tootsie roll piggy bank. Remove the tootsie rolls and put in a few coins before giving to toddler. Demonstrate how to remove the lid, empty out the coins, replace the lid, and put the coins back in. Be prepared to provide a fresh infusion of coins or tiddly winks from time to time. Also be prepared to turn the house upside down if the lid gets lost.

4. Two hand towels, a wash cloth and a small (clean) wastebasket to put them in and take them out of. Go figure.

5. A sturdy laundry basket for the toddler to sit in, plus an older sibling to do the pushing. Hopefully your floor is carpeted.

Thus speaketh the Voice of Desperation Experience.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

which for me means just one thing: time for my annual re-read of The Dark is Rising. Yes, annual. I posted about it a year ago -- in fact my one-year bloggiversary is fast approaching (!) and what a long, strange trip it's been.

I'm not the only one who reads The Dark is Rising every midwinter. Laura's reading it too, and I daresay there are others. Instead of "reviewing" it, this time, I think I'll leave you with some quotes, all from the first few chapters. These are some of the sentences that give me thrills and chills every year, though I have no idea how they'll sound if you haven't already read the book a dozen times. Honestly, it ONLY gets better with each reread. Why don't you all read it along with Laura and me? Here goes:

The radio let out a sudden hideous crackle of static as he passed the table.

This night will be bad. And tomorrow will be beyond imagining.

He was woken by music.

And before him, standing alone and tall on the white slope, leading to nowhere, were two great carved wooden doors.

"Minds hold more than they know," the tall man said. "Particularly yours."

"Forests are not biddable places."

He felt again the small drooping of the spirits that had come in the last two days, because this year for the first time that he could remember there had been no birthday present from Stephen.

And last but not least, a chapter title: The Book of Gramarye.

Birds Without Wings

I did finish it, with a half hour to spare before my book club meeting. As I mentioned before, the book starts out as a very charming portrait of this little village in the Ottoman Empire -- what's now Turkey -- just prior to the start of World War I. Very charming. In this village live Muslims and Christians, Greeks, Turks & Armenians, living side by side, intermarrying happily and even attending each others' houses of worship on occasion. There are all kinds of "characters" like the aphorism-spouting potter, the imam who's deeply in love with his horse (not that way, shame on you!), the two young boys who play that they're birds, the beautiful young girl and her betrothed, the village drunk, the weird deformed hermit-beggar, the Armenian pharmacist: quite a cast. The first part of the book has a flavor that reminded me of The Sotweed Factor, which I never finished but loved all the same. And here's something: the author has a wonderful ability to write with different voices. Chapters are told from the point of view of many of the characters, and they are each very different in tone and style. A real treat.

Interspersed among these chapters, subtle at first so you (at least I) don't realize exactly what's going on at first, is the biography of some guy named Mustafa Kemal. His birth, childhood, schooling, etc., a little at a time. He doesn't seem to have anything to do with the village people. Eventually you realize that Mustafa Kemal is real-life historical figure Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who becomes the founder -- "liberator" -- and first president of Turkey.

And after awhile the two storylines begin to converge. World War I starts. The Ottoman Empire declares it a jihad, a holy war, and only Muslims are allowed to enlist as soldiers. Suddenly people are divided where formerly they coexisted peacefully. The Armenians are deported first, then the Christians. And the war heats up. I already mentioned the gruesome descriptions in a previous post. The casualties are . . . endless. And not just for the soldiers. No one is left unscathed. No one. It is extremely painful to read; the best I could do was skim my way through it. The book does not get better after the war ends.

To sum up: I would highly recommend the first section of the book to anyone. And I would recommend the whole tragic thing to anyone who believes in the possibility of a just war.

In which I go to a seminar, meet a fellow blogger, and debate whether or not to finish a book

So, I went to this parenting seminar that was jointly sponsored by several elementary schools, including ours. Normally I don't "do" parenting seminars. I rarely even read parenting books. First of all, none of the situations they describe ever seem to fit my kids. Second, who do they think their audience is? The handout at this seminar listed things not to say to your kids, including: "You're the reason we're getting a divorce!" Hell-LO! The people who say stuff like that are NOT the ones who come to parenting seminars. And third, I admit it: I have an arrogant streak, and I believe I know better than a total stranger what works for my children.

But you know what? This guy had some good stuff. Sure, his presentation was a little too rah-rah motivational-speaker-ish for my taste, but underneath it all, he did have some good advice. Here's one that I've already instituted: Don't call it homework time, because that just paves the way for "I don't have any" or "I forgot it." Call it study time. That way they have to do something, and it might as well be homework. And here's another that I liked: when your kids whine, "I can't dooooo it," instead of "Sure you can; just try harder," say "Ok, well, act as if you can."

The real reason I went, though, was because Nixie Knox was there! I arrived late because we had a PTO meeting right before, and when has a PTO meeting ever ended on time? So I was in the back of the room, where I had a good view of the crowd, and I spotted the chick in the pink coat and blue glasses right away. It was kind of distracting because all through the rah-rah motivation, "act as if," etc., I was staring at the back of this woman's head and thinking: "Omigod, that's Nixie, it has to be, it's Nixie!" Anyway, she was completely charming and funny and nice. I don't know why it took us this long to get together, considering we not only live in the same town, but we live on the same side of town in almost-neighboring school districts. I hope to see her again soon.

On the literary front, Birds Without Wings has turned out to be a huge doggie downer. In the last hundred pages or so it degenerated from a very entertaining portrait of peasant life in 1900's Asia Minor to a totally gruesome war story: bloated corpses, dysentery, bayonets, spilled guts. In great detail. I hate the thought of not finishing a book group selection (we're meeting on Tuesday) but I don't know how much more of this I can stomach.