Sunday, December 31, 2017

Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I opined to my wife that it would be impossible to pick a favorite fiction book, because there are so many genres and so many great works. She disagreed. "I have an all-time favorite novel: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". I was surprised at her certainty and set out to read the book.

Francie Nolan is the main character of this novel that takes place in the years before the US entered  World War I. Francie is 11 years old when the book opens, and her precocious observations and sharp insights about Brooklyn and its people propel the book. She is both nostalgic and unsympathetic. As she grows older and sees more how the world works, she matures before your eyes. She is 16 at the end of the book, and you realize you've grown up with her.

The book is populated with her first-generation American family: a hard working mother, a lovable lout of a father, and a rambunctious younger brother. She has two aunts that add a lot of zest in her life. Everyone is poor in her part of Brooklyn, yet she has rich experiences because of her keen eye and imagination. So many vivid scenes from this book: her grandmother getting swindled out of her savings, her father's constant singing, getting vaccinated for school, the time she and her brother caught a large Christmas tree for the holidays.

The book brims with universal emotion and experiences. She feels loneliness as she longs for someone to understand her. She rebels against her mother as she starts to spread her wings. She takes bold steps to further herself and her family and you cheer. There is deceit and heartbreak, humor and truth, life and death.

"I'm in awe of this book," I told my wife, when I finished. It's a book about "what it means to be human", writes Anna Quindlen in the introduction of my edition. By the end, I could only wipe away my tears and agree.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Root Canal: Part 2

The endodontist performed the root canal last month.

The procedure took about an hour and a half. The hardest part was receiving the first Novocaine injection. But after that sharp pinch, the right side of my face (the side with tooth number 29) began to disappear. I settled in as the doctor and her assistant started their work.

The sounds of drilling reminded me of road construction crews. I felt occasional sprays of water on my chin. At various points the doctor wore magnifying eye-gear. A few X-rays were taken. At no point did I feel any pain. Towards the end, the odor of incense filled my nose, as she announced she would add gutta-percha into the emptied canal.

My wife said the procedure would feel miraculous. It did. After a few hours of feeling tentative, I soon realized that chewing and cold drinks didn't induce any reaction. My mouth now feels completely normal. A few days later, my regular dentist put in a permanent filling in tooth number 29 to close the hole made by the root canal.

My first root canal removed my pain and kept my tooth whole. That's a good outcome!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Root Canal: A Brief Post About Pain

Two weeks before my root canal, the pain underneath tooth number 29 ratcheted up. Big time.

I woke up at 4AM, my lower jaw throbbing with a crushing pain. It felt like my jaw was being squeezed by a vice. My big mistake was not reaching for some tylenol or ibuprofen right then and there. I decided to go back to sleep, but I was unable to get comfortable. I had a fitful few hours before I got up. I had some ibuprofen with my morning coffee.

"See if you can move your appointment up," my wife suggested. I demurred. The ibuprofen had made the pain manageable. But when I got to work, it was clear the pain wasn't going away. I see-sawed between pain levels 4 and 8, and I started a regimen of ibuprofen every four hours. I moved up my appointment by a week. (I'd later try to get an even earlier appointment, but I'd have to wait.)

The pain remained constant. Some hours it was almost forgettable, but other hours it was front and center. I inserted tylenol into my regimen, two hours after my ibuprofen dose. And in between, as needed, I swabbed tooth number 29 with Orajel. All of this dulled the pain, and allowed me to sleep better. And when I did, I dreamed about the root canal.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Root Canal: Part 1

I have to have a root canal. My first one!

For the past month or month and half I have experienced a sharp stinging sensation in one of my lower teeth whenever I have my first sip of a cold drink. The sensation fades away after a few seconds, and at first I thought I had a loose crown. But then three weeks ago it started to feel painful chewing on that side of mouth.

My wife is well experienced with root canals. When I described my pain, she said I should make an appointment with the endodontist that she used. (An endodontist is a dentist with a specialization in treating the inside of a tooth, usually with root canal therapy.)

"Don't wait until the pain becomes unbearable," she said. This was good advice, since the pain didn't go away following my typical self-prescription of "wait and see."

I made my appointment with some trepidation. My wife said that they would try to induce the symptom by testing the affected tooth with a cold liquid. I wasn't looking forward to that!

The doctor indeed performed a cold test, but she applied the cold liquid to an instrument, and touched that to my tooth. She then had me raise my hand to indicate the sensitivity rising and subsiding. She also took a small mallet and rapped a few of my teeth, with me again indicating when I felt the sting.

After looking at some x-rays, she laid it out. My problem tooth was number 29. It has 1) symptomatic irreversible pulpitis and 2) symptomatic apical periodontitis. Bottom line: pulp in my tooth has to be removed to relieve the pain. This is done by a root canal procedure. That happens in two weeks, after which I'll write Part 2 (the procedure and aftermath).

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Now Now Now

Derek Sivers is always getting asked "what are you doing now?" On October 21, 2015, he announced to his mailing list that he made a web page describing what he was focused on at the moment. A programmer, Gregory Brown, decided to make a similar web page, and a movement was started.

For the past month, here's what I have been focused on:
  1. Trying to finish I Couldn't Keep It To A Tweet.
  2. Finishing a side-gig job.
  3. Reading "4 3 2 1" by Paul Auster.
Item 1 is the big item though! What are you focused on now?

Monday, July 31, 2017

I Couldn't Keep It To A Tweet

I'm planning to self-publish a small collection of my best BLOG posts. The title of this will be "I Couldn't Keep It To A Tweet".

I've been writing in my BLOG since 2001. There are almost 800 published posts, though the bulk of the entries were written before 2012. (Also, over a 100 were just the length of a tweet.) Since 2012, I've committed to writing once a month. At some point I went through all of my posts and identified about 40 memorable entries.

The posts in this book are the ones I like reread every now and again. They're about people or moments or aspects about myself I like to share. There's stuff about work, music, movies and sports as well. Each post will also contain a short note, an afterword if you will. (You can read these posts, by accessing the "My Best" tag, but the notes are exclusive to the book.)

This is most certainly a vanity project, the kind that today's electronic publishing world allows you to do. If you haven't bought my computer book, then I hope you'll consider buying this one! Look for it on Labor Day weekend.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Panera's Strawberry Poppyseed Salad

Panera's Strawberry Poppyseed Salad is one of my favorite salads ever. If this salad was a baseball player, it would hit for the cycle on a regular basis. If this salad was a poker hand, it'd be a royal flush. If this salad were a movie, it wouldn't be a sequel, or a remake: it'd be a complete original.

The salad comes off like fireworks, but in your mouth. Fruit! Protein! Crunch! When you look at the salad through the little window of their take-out box, you'll see red, blue, green, yellow, and chicken. It's a sweet salad, which caused me to nickname it "the Candy salad." This is the only salad I have ever bestowed a nickname.

There are four kinds of fruit in this salad: pineapple, oranges, blueberries and strawberries. These are mixed in well with the Romaine lettuce and the chicken. A dressing dotted with poppyseeds adds a certain tanginess to the whole meal. A smattering of cashew nuts adds a great crunch.

For the calorie-watchers, this salad clocks in at 340 calories, with 25g of protein. It's a filling and satisfying salad that tastes great. It only appears on the Panera menu in the Summer, so give it a try.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Review: Evicted

"Evicted" (Matthew Desmond) is one of those books that I will be thinking about for a long time. The book documents the numerous evictions that eight families endured in the poorer sections of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The book describes the landlords who hold the fate of these families in their hands. The book details the toll of these evictions. The narrative was dizzying, sympathetic and exasperating but ultimately illuminating.  Matt's dispassionate third-person prose renders difficult scenes for what they are: someone's reality.

The book is liberally sprinkled with footnotes, some quite lengthy. Mr. Desmond reveals further details in these footnotes. These end pages document the meticulous research he conducted in order to cite terrible statistics. For example: 1 in 5 of all renting families in the country spends half of its income on housing. Also: Between 2009 and 2011, more than 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters experienced a forced move. The idea of a rational choices goes out the door when your rent only leaves you with $80 the rest of the month.

The book moved me by reminding me of something that I know I took for granted: a person can go far in life if their home is secure and stable. If the home is not secure or not stable, a tremendous amount of energy is wasted getting into a new home, or suffering without. Some of the people in the book find themselves moving every few months, because landlords have a low tolerance for missed rent or police activity at their properties. In between each move, renters have to find their next place, store their belongings, and maintain their jobs. Things can get desperate quickly.

Many will decry some of the renters' behavior: spending your monthly food stamp allowance on a single meal of lobster tails, falling off a hard-fought sobriety because of boredom, willfully neglecting repairs to "get back" at a landlord, stealing electricity, etc. But "humans act brutally under brutal conditions." And the conditions are brutal. "The first rule of evictions," says a sheriff charged with policing evictions: "Never open the fridge." One family managed a malfunctioning toilet by placing soiled tissues in a plastic bag to be tossed with the trash.

The book prescribes a way out: allow the housing voucher program to expand. "What we need most is a housing program for the unlucky majority-the millions of poor families struggling unassisted in the private market-that promotes the values most of us support; security, fairness, and equal opportunity." Expanding the voucher program seems straightforward, despite its cost. His case is very persuasive however, and the evidence seems to back him up.

Mr. Desmond doesn't reveal himself until the very end, in a short chapter describing his project. He describes his work as an ethnography. It's "what you do when you try to understand people by allowing their lives to mold your own as fully and genuinely as possible." His detachment allows us to see for ourselves what a sorry state the whole private housing market can get to. This is one of the great problems in the United States, and Mr. Desmond's book is a highly accessible study that will help all of us understand it better.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

My Return to Playing Chess

At my office, a vigorous chess tournament started up, and on a lark I joined in. The last time I played chess was in high school in the 1980s!

I learned chess when I still in elementary school. My two brothers and I played using a chess set with ornate pieces. I'm not sure who introduced us the game, but we easily learned the rules and played against each other somewhat regularly.

Seeking to learn more, I found chess books in the library. I replayed games from those chess books, and I thought myself proficient. As much as I geeked out on chess, I never joined a chess club or got myself ranked.

For my return to chess, I first downloaded an iPhone app. My first opponent was from India, and I quickly lost our speed-chess match. The current tournament is also timed chess, but we have three days to make our moves. I think I'm improving.

I've enjoyed relearning the nuances of the game. I especially like playing online. The tools allow me to replay any of my matches. There are even websites that analyze games. Learning and playing chess has been enhanced in this Internet age, and I'm glad to be back at it again.

For any players, I encourage you to find me. I'm on rickumali.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Some Podcasts of Note

I've been on a podcast kick of late. In the entire span of this BLOG, I've only recommended one: In Our Time (BBC). That is still a strong recommendation, but I've latched onto a few others of late that are worth giving a listen.

Joe Rogan Experience - Joe Rogan was the host of Fear Factor (a reality TV show) and an actor on Newsradio, a 1990s sitcom. His interviews are lengthy, deep, and profane. He enjoys hunting, UFC fighting, nutrition and science. Joe is also pretty curious, and I like that.

Waking Up Podcast - Host Sam Harris is a philosopher and author. He has a penetrating delivery and comes off as hyper-rational. I first heard him on Joe Rogan in a three hour show. If you're interested in what an intellectual sounds like, try Sam.

Brain Candy Podcast - Susie Meister and Sarah Rice host an upbeat and fun show. They have great banter between them, but they also bring in guests for various subjects. They talk about both light and serious topics and I love their perspectives.

Todd Barry Podcast - I first saw Todd Barry in the first season of Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I liked his dead-pan, flat-affect, dry-wit delivery. I'm starting to go through his podcast catalog, and I'm enjoying the behind-the-scenes conversations about comedy.

EconTalk - As I ponder big picture issues (immigration, taxes), I'm finding more and more that economics provide a framework for thinking about these issues. Host Russ Roberts and his guests tackle a variety of issues from an economic viewpoint, and it's very absorbing.

Let me know your recommendations!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

I'm With The Band

I managed to cross off a bucket list item: to play guitar in a live band. My office has an annual company-wide off-site meeting, and the organizers remembered that I had brought in my electric guitar for a Halloween party (I wore a large wig, which completed my costume). "Can you play that thing?" Let's find out!

Playing in the group felt like a high school after-school activity. We brought our instruments to the office, and rehearsed a few afternoons at someone's house. I was surprised at everyone's chops. I was also surprised at the mechanics of playing with a group. Tempo, a song's key, playing in tune and fast-transposing music were important. It was a fast education.

We played a diverse set of classic songs, among them "Can't Get No Satisfaction" (Rolling Stones), "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" (Creedence Clearwater Revival), and "Folsom Prison Blues" (Johnny Cash). Even though I was given sheet music I ended up using YouTube to learn the rhythm guitar parts for these songs. It's true that most rock songs are just three or four chords!

During our performance, I was only vaguely conscious of our audience, our co-workers. Instead, I was focused on playing, even if I flubbed a chord. One time at rehearsal our lead guitarist started to play a solo, and I didn't keep up my strumming. "You do your thing, while I do my thing," he told me. In other words: keep playing. At the end of each song, when we heard applause, it was a superb feeling.

Playing guitar has always been a perfect break from my life in front of the computer. It's possible to approach playing the guitar analytically, but performance is ultimately about rhythm and attitude and feelings. It's especially like that playing in a band, where it's ultimately about staying in time, and listening to each other. Can't wait for the next gig!

Monday, January 30, 2017

My 2016 Books and Movies

In 2016, I finished reading 26 books. The list is on Goodreads.

I didn't finish a book in December, which surprises me, and as I write this, I'm probably not going to finish reading a book by the end of January either (I'm currently reading Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco). I'll make it up in the Summer.

My favorite books from last year include The Big Short (Michael Lewis), The Orphan Master's Son (Adam Johnson) and The Call of the Wild (Jack London).

Of all the ones I read, I most recommend The Boys on the Boat (Daniel James Brown). The story behind the University of Washington's crew team in 1936 explored depression-era poverty, and the power of eight men pulling a boat in perfect harmony.

I watched 15 movies in 2016. The list is on IMDb. I recommend Spotlight and Arrival. I was enthralled with Rogue One. I shouldn't have been surprised by the emotion I felt in the closing minutes of that movie, but I was.