Saturday, January 29, 2011

How Many Scientists Does It Take To Change a Light Bulb?

So here’s the set up. My family room has a cathedral ceiling with some recessed light fixtures using incandescent spotlights. The bulbs last forever but when they do go bad they’re a trouble to replace. I have to get our giant aluminum step ladder down from its mount on the garage wall and avoid banging up my cars. Then it’s the twists and turns through the house, being very careful not to whack the walls or the furniture. Once in the family room I need to lay down old towels or carpet pieces to avoid scratching the hardwood floors once the ladder is up. Then I’ve got to scale the heights and balance myself carefully to tackle the chore at hand.

The other day I noted that one of the recessed lights was out, but I was busy and it was several days before I resigned myself to getting a new bulb at the hardware store and then going through the ladder routine. I get the ladder in place and reach to unscrew the offending bulb and, lo and behold, it goes on. It didn’t feel particular loose in the socket when I touched it so I logically concluded it wasn’t a poor connection but more likely a filament going bad. My moving the bulb slightly must have shifted the filament a tad and achieved connectivity (you can’t really see what is going on inside this type of spotlight bulb). I have had this happen to me before with the regular light bulbs and my experience has been that the bulb will work OK for a short while and then fail permanently. So I come down from my perch on the tall ladder and resolve to wait out this bulb, leaving the step ladder in place, certain that the problem bulb will fizzle out in an evening or so of use. But this guy doesn’t oblige my carefully crafted model of how the universe behaves. It’s still working fine several days later and the ugly aluminum step ladder is still in the family room, but now snickering at me.

I need help deciding how to proceed with this home repair fork-in-the-road. Here are the choices as I see them:

1. Wait the bugger out. Leave the step ladder in place while ignoring the glares from my better half and from visiting friends. It’s gotta give out sometime and I’m going to be ready. I’m going to take great pleasure in squeezing every last kilowatt hour out of the thing. This could be a long stand-off.

2. Cockeyed optimist. Everything is right with the world and that darn bulb is good for another five years now that I’ve jiggled it. Put the ladder back in the garage and return the new bulb to the hardware store for a refund. Treat myself to a giant Dunkin Donuts coffee with the refund money. This is a tempting option.

3. Preemptive strike (the highly recommended choice of my retired engineer friend). You’ve got the ladder in place, replace the #@*&$ bulb you cheap Yankee and toss the offender in the trash – its history. Move on to more important things in life (for my dear friend, that would be ice fishing – but that’s not my cup of tea).

What should a befuddled Yankee scientist do? I’m not moving the ladder until I hear from you.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mr. Goodman

Mr. Goodman was an English teacher and sticks in my mind primarily because of his humor.  He was a great deadpan artist and had these brief witty remarks that you could miss if you weren't paying attention, especially just before the class got started.  Taking papers out of his briefcase he'd peer intensely down to the bottom and crack half out loud, "Whoa, there a Snickers bar way down there. That will come in handy later!"  You had to pay attention in life - stop talking and observe. That was Mr. Goodman's lesson to me.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Not From Around Here

The other day, AVI and I were talking and sharing experiences with some folks we had just met and one gentleman, a retired Ivy League-trained physician, related a common New England experience. He had lived in the same New Hampshire town for the past 25 years, but still wasn’t considered a “native.” So AVI puts on a heavy Maine accent and the persona of the crusty sage in the proverbial small town who spouts, “Just ‘cause a cat has her kittens in the oven, don’t make them biscuits, don’t cha know.”

Such not-made-here attitudes are not relegated only to New England – although we do often tend to live up to our Yankee stereotypes I must admit. But in the mid 1970s my wife and I spent a year and a half in an even more provincial culture, Newfoundland, Canada. You can understand why an island that sticks out into the blustery North Atlantic like a sore thumb tends to be insular, especially when largely populated by hardworking traditionalists of English and Irish decent. Heck, they were a long-ignored British protectorate until 1949 when they became Canada’s latest province (some will say reluctantly so). Affectionately called “The Rock,” Newfoundland can take a bit of getting used to before you can appreciate its culture, and understand its slang spoken through a heavy Irish-style brogue.

We lived in the city limits of St. Johns, the capital and largest city on the island. But an American friend, Dave Watt taught at the university and moved up from Maine just before we did. He located his family in a small community north of St. Johns in a typical Newfoundland home (a two story boxy structure with an almost flat roof). Dave related a story to me of meeting a neighborhood gentleman in front of his house one day and striking up a conversation. After a few minutes of talk the local gentleman, certainly discerning Dave’s American accent, remarked, “You don’t belong here, do you?” Now Dave was a big burly guy with a full beard – fairly imposing (think Grizzly Adams for those who recall that TV character of years ago). Dave was about to offer an angry retort when it dawned on him that this Newfoundlander was simply saying the obvious, “You’re not from around these parts.” So Dave calmed down and continued the discussion. He asked the local, “So, are you from around here?” “Oh, no bye” (slang for “guy” or “fellow”), the man expressed emphatically, almost as if insulted by my friend’s clear ignorance. “I’m from over there,” pointing proudly to a cluster of dwellings down the hillside, maybe a quarter of a mile in the distance, but still very much in the same town. No sir, this Newfoundlander knew exactly who he was and where he hailed from – he wasn’t from “HERE,” he was from over “THERE.” Darn foolish Americans!

Even Comedians Can Be Wise

I travel around the country, and I meet people who are worried about finding a new job. I understand how tough it is. I’ve had horrible experiences myself. When I was starting out as a comedian, I went to see an agent one time. He said, “We’ll call you if we need anything.” As he was talking to me, I looked over at his trash can and saw my picture torn in half there. He must have thrown it out before I showed up. Sure, he was going to call me. But that’s okay—those are just bad job interviews.

If you really want a job, do whatever it takes to make a good impression. Years ago I lived in Boston, and when I saw a Mercedes/Rolls-Royce dealer, I thought, “I’d like to work there.” I asked about a job, but the boss said, “We’re not hiring now.” Monday morning, I returned. I went to the car-wash bay, said “I’m the new guy,” and started washing cars. After three or four days, the boss saw me and asked, “What’s he doing here?” The car-wash guy goes, “He’s a hard worker.” I said, “I figured I’d work here until you hired me.” And I got the job. That attitude has always worked for me.

Jay Leno, Hard Work as told to Parade Magazine

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mr. Herlihy

I have three or four memorable teachers from my High School days – virtually all of them because of their sense of humor. I guess that must have left an impression on me because I find I’m constantly interjecting humor into my professional training and the undergraduate college class that I teach as an Adjunct.

Horace S. Herlihy was my high school physics teacher in my junior year. We were all crazy about him because he had a sharp sense of humor – a real quick wit and a casual teaching style. He was also the school’s track coach and would show his physics classes old black & white track films to illustrate the various laws of physics. Much more entertaining than those drab old science films created by some institutional studio (anyone remember those torturous 15 or 30 minute bits of celluloid?).

But Mr. Herlihy was one of my favorites because of his distain for authority. The Science Department chair at that time was a competent, but somewhat stuffy fellow who ruled with a bit of militaristic flair. Mr. Herlihy would refer to him as the Great White Father, or “GWF” (pronounced “gu-wiff”). “Listen you knuckeleheads, you’d better not make me look bad in front of the GWF, or else.” If I didn’t have these short French-Canadian legs I think I would have gone out for Track, just so I could have called him “Coach.”

Open Season

I admire families with musical talent oozing out of their ears. My family (parents & siblings that is) has pretty much zero musical talent, maybe negative musical talent if I’m counted as part of the equation. I recall that my brother played trumpet back in junior high, I think. But that’s probably not enough to counteract my contribution and raise the score to zero.

Loudon Wainwright III is an accomplished folk musician with over 20 albums to his credit. He is remembered by many for his 1972 novelty song Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road) (personally, one of my favorite novelty songs). Some will also remember Wainwright for playing Captain Calvin Spalding (the "singing surgeon") on the television show, M*A*S*H. His appearances spanned three episodes in its third season (1974-1975).

His musical family includes son Rufus, daughters Martha and Lucy, and brother Sloan. Lucy Wainwright Roche was a bit of a reluctant participant to performing in public until she toured with her father a few years back and now sometimes tours with the Indigo Girls. She just released her first album this Fall.

The song Open Season appears on her debut album but this YouTube clip apparently captures her performance just one week after she wrote the song and hadn’t titled it as yet. The song’s setting is the faded glory of Coney Island Amusement Park. Theme-wise, the lyrics remind me a little of Joni Mitchell’s Circle Game.

open season

open season on a broken heart
this is the year they take the summer apart
there is a magic to the carnival arts and i can hear the sound

is it the wind through the wonder wheel
is it the science of the way we feel
is it the silence of that old appeal will you be mine again?

my love, my love, are you on a winter beach tonight
waiting on a last chance rocket ride over the boardwalk
follow the noise no one but me and the neighborhood boys
will remember where we were when this went down

the ocean calls us like we've never been
one hundred games that we will never win
close your eyes and hear the teacups spin as it begins to snow

and if you're careful that's not all you'll hear
the mermaids watch us steal a souvenir
and whisper moral warnings in our ears as we are heading home

my love, my love, are you on a winter beach tonight
waiting on a last chance rocket ride over the boardwalk
follow the noise no one but me and the neighborhood boys
will remember where we were when this went down

so take a deeper breath let's hear you sing
and reach your hand out for an iron ring
you'll get another chance oh that's the thing we will be back again

cause summer comes around on any clock
a wash with bathing suits and polka dots
we'll ride the subways to their final stops to see the sea again

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What’s Your Tonic?

Soda, Pop or Tonic. Use of each of these terms in referring to a soft drink can indicate where you reside, or at least where your family roots reside. “Soda” is a term generally used throughout New England, New Jersey and eastern portions of New York and Pennsylvania. Oddly though it’s also used commonly on the other side of the country in California and Arizona as well.  A good portion of the rest of the country calls soft drinks “pop” or "soda pop."  In the South people often use the term "coke" to mean any generic soft drink; a bit puzzling because true Southerners LOVE their Coca-Cola, especially for breakfast.  My favorite soft drink term however is “tonic,” traditionally used in the greater Boston area and other parts of eastern Massachusetts.  But increasingly the term is moving out of common usage, especially among younger folks. It’s rather an old fashion term, dating back to the origins of soft drinks as medicinal elixirs and health tonics, often braced with alcohol or pain killing drugs. Moxie soft drink was originally Moxie Nerve Food and Coca-Cola openly advertised that it cured headaches. The 1906 Food and Drug Act did away with the “tonic” aspect of these beverages and was really the launch for the soft drink industry as we know it today (helped along by Prohibition!).

Of course then there is tonic water, my personal favorite for a soft drink. I consume it pretty much daily. Tonic water contains quinine, giving it medicinal qualities. The British used it to ward off malaria in India and throughout their empire. And you know it works – I’ve been malaria free my entire life!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Peter from Sudan

I don’t normally worry about New Years’ resolutions, and this year isn’t much different. Except for the one based on my friend Peter.

Peter Nhiany was born in 1980 in a small village called Tong in South Sudan. He is Dinka by tribe from the upper Nile region of Jongley. Peter fled his homeland when only nine years old, leaving parents, brothers and sisters in their province that was devastated by war and genocide.

Peter’s town was repeatedly attacked by northern insurgents over a period of years. News reports refer to the conflict as a civil war, but that doesn’t do justice to the 2 million South Sudanese killed over several decades. Many Sudanese, including children, were shot to death or captured. These prolonged attacks on the Dinka people resulted in parents and children fleeing for their lives, often dispersing separately. Fleeing in desperation and fear, Peter joined with other children to escape the unceasing attacks on Sudanese Christians.

Many of the children made their way to Ethiopia and some to other neighboring countries such as Uganda and Kenya in East Africa where they gathered in refugee camps. Life in these camps was not easy due to food scarcity and endemic disease. Many children perished in these camps in spite of the best efforts of humanitarian relief workers. Nine year old Peter would live in these refugee camps apart from family for the next 12 years. His mother, sister and two cousins in South Sudan were killed during this period when their village was bombed from the air.

In August 2001, through the now-famous Lost Boys rescue and resettlement program, Peter was one of the 3800 fortunate ones chosen to be allowed to immigrate to safety in the United States. He eventually settled in the Manchester, NH area where some 600 – 800 other Sudanese reside. Peter has worked as residential counselor at a rehabilitation center helping people with development disabilities. Currently, he is a full-time Residential Instructor with Easter Seals while also pursuing a degree in social and behavioral sciences at a local college. Peter Nhiany became a proud U.S. citizen in 2007.

In 2006 Peter and I co-founded Life for Sudan, a charitable non-profit designed to assist both Sudanese refugees in New England, and to help with the rebuilding of primary schools in South Sudan. Peter serves as our Vice President and has two over-riding passions in life: education as the pathway to achievement and the helping of others. I’ve never seen Peter down and in a pessimistic mood. Concerned, worried of course; but he never ever loses his optimistic outlook. He never wallows in self pity. Never.

Right now Peter is back in Sudan visiting family, including his wife and daughter who have not yet been able to join him in the U.S. (another hardship that is hard for me to fathom). Peter is also there to vote in the South Sudan referendum. Forged from the 2005 Peace Accord that brought an end to the active conflict, the agreement called for a referendum to be held in January 2011 to determine if South Sudan would stay linked to the government in the north, or would form an independent state. Not surprising, the sentiment expressed by most South Sudanese is for independence.

So I think I found my New Years’ resolution. In spite of any troubles that come my way in 2011, or the carry-overs from 2010 for that matter, I’m trying to learn from, and model myself after, my friend Peter.

If anyone would like to help out Life for Sudan with a donation, we will put it to good use. We have no salaried staff, it’s all volunteer. So nearly 100% of donations we take in go out as assistance for Sudanese. Contact us at or you can make a donation on-line with a credit card through the secure site of Network for Good . Just search for Life for Sudan on their site.

Peter Nhiany