Sunday, April 27, 2008

We Don't Serve Poison in this House

Because my father Bill could barely cook an egg, it fell to Lynda to cook for our family as I grew up, even though she was not exactly enamored of the job. She never anticipated being a domestic, so her cooking and cleaning skills were minimal at best.

Nonetheless, she was more than up to the challenge and managed, over the course of the twenty or so years that I spent in her house, to not only prepare almost every meal every night, even when she was working, but most of those meals were very good, if not particularly inventive.

We had no need of 'cuisine', of course, not the least because this was a time in America' history when we simply didn't know what good food was, but also because as a modest middle American family, we had no ambitions to eat more than American standbys, such as spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese and pot roast, just to name the top three that were served at our table.

As I look back on it, it is amazing to me that Lynda knew how to cook at all, let alone how to prepare more than the simplest of recipes, for her mother was anything but a competent cook, according to Lynda, who said that she knew how to open a can, but little else. So, this meant that her culinary skills were all self-taught, which is perfectly in keeping with her character -- if you don't know how to do something, just learn it!

This also meant that the science, if you will, behind the cuisine was pretty much nonexistent, for she never used a recipe nor actually measured anything. My father often said that she cooked by color. Let's see, what color goes well with red? Spaghetti, being red, requires the color of green peas to balance out the plate, or so the theory went, and consequently we had green peas with spaghetti every time. Even though it was also green, broccoli was assigned to accompany macaroni, which was golden yellow of course, while pot roast was meant to be served with root vegetables, or, from Lynda's perspective, orange (carrots), brown (potatoes) and yellow (onions) were the designated, 'appropriate' sides. While the absence of variation may seem to have rendered our meals rather boring, in fact we relished the predictablity of the fare, and though we often complained, it was more about the portion size, especially of the dreaded vegetables, than the taste of the food itself.

Of course, David and I were not inclined to enjoy vegetables, so even had they been more esoteric than peas,broccoli and potatoes, we would doubtless have railed against them anyway. In fact, we were lucky to have been subjected to only the 'normal' fruits and vegetables growing up in Texas, for if she had discovered, say for example kolrahbi root or fennel, we would have surely had something to really complain about. In fact, the most exotic vegetable that she prepared and served to us back then would have been the dreaded rutabagas or turnips.

Dreaded, I say, because I could not have hated these two root vegetables more, but Lynda insisted on serving them in spite of knowing how very much I detested them. She even attempted to disguise them by mixing them in with potatoes, but I was never fooled, in spite of her denials. It was not her custom to practice deception like this, even if we complained about the way it tasted, we always knew that the food was a fresh and well-prepared as it could be. After all, she did indeed love her family more than she disliked cooking, and I do believe that the love won out every day.

So, just to be clear and entirely fair, remember that Lynda was a very good cook.

When we did complain, therefore, the injustice of our wails was most annoying to Lynda, who justifiably felt that were were being unfair to be critical of one who knew only how to prepare food with the best of intent. Her retort to our misery was a simple and direct rebuttal to our false claims of being fed substandard food:

"We don't serve poison in this house!"

She was right, of course, but sometimes we were unable to contain our complaints, even knowing that it would upset Mom and exact the classic phrase. Still, there was the one time...

Lynda had a tradition, actually, for many years, of serving pot roast on Sundays. Now, whether this was for convenience or not isn't up to debate, as it is clear that the time element involved meant that it could only be done on that day. We had no set meal schedule that I can recall, but I do remember that Sunday was pot roast day. Well, it was, until the fateful day.

You must understand that we looked forward to this meal, and I recall it being served many times to my delight. For one thing, it was meat. We didn't have meat every night of the week, not for health reasons at first --that came later, after Bill had a heart attack -- but for economic ones. Quite simply the same is still true today, meat is the most expensive part of our food budget.

Now I use the word budget in the rhetorical sense, but my Mother literally budgeted her money, and it was, for the most part, her money because my father never held a steady job after his heart attack in 1970. And meat was served in one of three ways: steak, which was served rarely, and I mean that not in pun but literally, for that was my father's preference in cooking temperature; ground meat, as in hamburgers or chili or spaghetti; and the subject of this tale, pot roast.

Though it took a long time to cook, the dish didn't actually require much time to prepare, which, of course, was an important prerequisite for any dish she made. This took less than half an hour, from start to oven. She would rinse and dry everything, including the meat, which she would flour lightly and sear in a hot pan, filling the room with the aroma of burning fat and setting up the anticipation of eating the slow-cooked, falling-apart tender beef, mixed with fatty meat juice and crumbled potatoes till I could stand no more.

That was the good part about food in our house. If you wanted it and would eat it, you could have as much as you wanted. This rule was suspended, or amended, I should say, on steak night, because we always had to balance out the meat with vegetables and you were always required to eat everything on your plate. But on pot roast night, it was easy to get as much of the beloved meat as I liked, and so I did. I liked the taters pretty good too.

The potatoes went in skin and all, while the onions and the carrots had to be peeled. This was my job, along with the task of collecting the peelings in a bag and delivering them to our never-never-used-for-anything-but-peelings 'compost' pile back behind the garage. We had the compost ritual in all of our dwellings, and the use was always the same. My mother never had a garden, and my father could kill, as I can, a houseplant by simply being assigned to care for it.

Once the meat was seared, in was placed, along with a small amount of water and the onions and carrots, into the oven. The potatoes she added later, along with a bit more water to create the much desired 'juice' that went so well with the potatoes and carrots. When it emerged from the oven to 'rest' while we set the table and washed our hands, the aroma was killer, making me rush through the pre-dinner chores with delightful anticipation.

My father always served the meal. The plates were always stacked in front of him, and it was his task to portion and serve each person, beginning, as was the custom, with the youngest. Naturally, this was most often my brother, David, but also most often I was next. We were required to wait till everyone at the table was served before we could take a bite, but we often sneaked a bit while Mom wasn't looking. She was the enforcer of this rule, since my father always served himself last, and it was considered respectful, if not actually bearable, to wait till he was served and seated before we could begin.

My first bite, as always, was of the meat. Lynda, on the other hand, preferred vegetables, and would begin with the potatoes and carrots, so when the flavor of the meat first hit my mouth, it wasn't something she was experiencing simultaneously, so the expressions on our faces, and our impressions of the food were also quite naturally far apart in that first moment. My father and brother, however, shared my preference for things carnal, and were indeed sharing my confusion, if not the actual pain I was so immediately shrieking about.

The worst offense one could commit at table, at least as far as the food was concerned, was to indiscretely spit it out. It was allowed to spit out some 'gristle' or 'bone' which often led to my brother discovering bones in food that had none (a long running family joke), but one was required to use one's napkin to conceal the actual act, and place it on the side of one's plate for the duration. It was never allowed to simply spit out something, obviously and directly into the center of one's plate for godsake, but that is exactly what I did. I have no recollection of what I actually said, but it was enough to get Lynda to try the meat, and that in turn, was enough to render the old saw irrelevant for a brief moment.

Although it did indeed taste, to me, like we were finally being poisoned, what in fact had happened was that, on that particular Sunday morning, she had accidentally 'floured' the meat with baking powder. It's not clear whether she accidentally mixed it in with the flour or simply did the whole thing in baking powder, but the flavor, if one can call it that, was unmistakably, shall we say, chemical?

How to describe the experience of 'eating' baking powder? Dry? Have you ever just had a bit placed on your tongue? Try it, but be sure to have a glass or two of water on hand. You'll need it as you mouth dries out, then puckers, then slowly collapses in on itself. Never, ever 'eat' it, and never, ever 'flour' a post roast (or anything else, for that matter) with it.

Needless to say, it only took one taste for Lynda to concede that the meal was ruined, and my recollection fades after that. Though I am sure we didn't go hungry, I am equally positive that we didn't eat that pot roast that night. Now, I also have a memory of going to eat at a McDonalds one night long ago. The rareness of that event is equal to the rareness of the poisoned pot roast, so there may be a connection...

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Tyranny of 'Free' Verse

This is bound to be an incomplete entry but I've been thinking about it so much I can't help myself. David sent me a link to a "Frequently asked questions about the business of verse" page for Slate magazine. At long last, critic Robert Pinsky explained:

"Why Don't Modern Poems Rhyme, Etc."

Whew! I am so relieved. I was really beginning to wonder why my verses seem so trivial and unimportant. All it took was a great critic like Pinsky to open my eyes to the truth. And, while I don't think I am quite up to being a 'jerk' (read the last part of the page) I do think I understand why, if it's the critics like Pinsky to whom I'd like to pander, I shouldn't even bother writing poetry unless it's in the modern canonical form of free verse.

But is the emperor actually wearing any clothes? I don't think so.

I don't think that the practice of taking (what may be) perfectly good prose and cutting it up with line breaks and odd punctuation in the interest of rendering it recondite ought to be considered a superior poetic form or even a particularly important development of the art itself. Instead, like so many other self-referential critical artistic 'successes', free verse is an illusion, or worse, a sham that has become,in just a few short years, a tyranny.

Because the constraints of meter and rhyme do, of course, necessarily limit the range of the poet's use of words, they are now perceived by critics like Pinsky as limiting factors to the expressive power of words. Somehow, it is thought that words, when arranged in a metrical structure that also happen to rhyme are trivialized and the result is 'light' verse, worthy of consideration only by 'jerks'. I disagree with this position because it seems counter-intuitive at best and downright elitist at worst.

It is counter-intuitive because it seems logical (to me anyway) that when structured carefully, words can create and strengthen the sense of resonance that a reader is perforce required to experience in the linear process that is reading. Attempts to potentiate the meaning of written or read words by breaking the bonds that connect them and allowing them to collide randomly are mere folly.

After all, reading is in itself a tyranny, so it seems silly to suggest the true meaning of words can be unleashed by the breaking of a few rules and by spattering them around like mere vessels for consonants and vowels. Perhaps certain words rhyme for a reason? Might there be connections between them that point to underlying resonances that defy time and place? Well, I know that's what I like in a good poem: "a sword upstairs".

As for the elitist position that the modern critic feels he must take up in defense of 'art', it is easy enough to beat up on someone for merely fitting into that category, since I too am an elitist. However, it is nonetheless only fair to say that critics like Pinsky are giving elitism a bad name. They'll ruin it for the rest of us unless we speak up and repudiate them as the corrupt and self-serving individuals that they are.

Yo Pinsky, I can see your ass.

Lynda: Biographical Memoir II

Yesterday I posted the result of a morning's work writing the first draft of my biographical memoir of Lynda. My intent is to refine this memoir and combine it with images of her, her family and her art though the years in a book that I will give to interested friends and family members.

Today, I took it down because, looking back, I see that this particular post was:

a) far too long and thus seemed to 'clog' the journal. I am trying to keep it readable, and pieces of this length are not in keeping with that philosophy, so I've taken it down. it has a place in the book I'm working on, but not here. Readers who are intrigued are welcome to write me and I'll send you a link to the full text.

b) far too raw and not the type of writing I want to 'publish' here. Though I use this space to express thoughts and feelings without constraint, in fact there are some conditions that must be met in order for the words to be readable, so to speak, and without these conditions, it would be too undisciplined. It's a fine line between writing without constraints and spewing stream-of-consciousness garbage.

This memoir is not meant to be a comprehensive biography of Lynda, nor is it intended as a complete catalog of her many works. It is a personal account of my relationship with a most remarkable woman who also happened to be my mother: Lynda Dubov.

This book and this text, illustrated with her own works, on canvas, paper and ink, is meant as a tribute to a woman of great strength, intelligence and compassion who taught me how to learn and how to conduct myself in this world.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Nano Ideas

These are some ideas I had several months back, but now that I am beginning to see the implementation of my idea, it is time to write it down, lest no one ever believe that I thought of this long before it came to pass. Well, ok, I guess three months isn't so long, but you get the idea. You read it here first.

The thought I had came from speculation about what the ideal cell phone would look like and how it might work. For one thing, I have always loved the idea of a cell phone, but have never been completely satisfied with the devices I have so far used. This is because they've been too big, or not big enough or mostly, simply too fragile to withstand the kind of everyday use I intend for them. I saw on the television yesterday that the average life of a cellphone is 18 months. That sounds about right.

Well, in the 'future' they will not even have to last more than a day. Or, say the length of time you might wear a shirt, or any other common piece of clothing. This is because the phone will actually be a part of your clothing.

I see it as being in the collar, but of course it might be anywhere in the garment. In the garment? yes, it will be woven in to the fabric, right at the factory, even before it gets made into a shirt or a pair of pants or hat or whatever. The 'phone' will actually be a nanoprocessor (ie much smaller than a microprocessor, those behemoths of the past), in the form of a very fine thread or nonofiber.

This thread will actually be composed of several nanofibers, twisted together. This combination is not only so we can manipulate the tiny fibers in the manufacturing process, but by combining several fibers into a thread, we can 'build' custom nanoprocessors that will be both specific to certain tasks (like a phone) and programmable to a certain extent so we can 'activate' it and 'tune' it to our specific frequency for secure private use, for example.

If we imagine that in a conventional microprocessor and the accompanying circuit board onto which they are mounted to allow for multiple functionalities (like audio and video), each process that is carried out is a single thread or path through the processor. Using information in the form of electricity moving at the speed of light, the device carries out hundreds of thousands of these process or threads in milliseconds, and the combination of processes is what we then perceive to be the function of the computer, like video display or audio. This much is familiar territory. Imagine though, that each process, instead of being 'pushed' through the 'general' pathways of the microprocessor, is 'extracted' in the form of a single nanofiber that performs only that process, no matter how individualized.

This seems like an extraordinary waste of material, when the microprocessor, big though it is, handles the information in a sort of generic way, like the way a calculator allows you to add up any series of numbers. But nanofibers are so small, that even if all the combinations for the calculator were extracted into individual fibers and the fibers were woven into a thread, the resulting mass would be an order of magnitude smaller than the calculator. The same thing is going to be true of micro vs nanoprocesors. The small size allows for the extraction and recombination of an almost infinite variety of processes, so that ultimately, processors could be grown to specification.

I say 'grown' to specification because I think the manufacturing process will more resemble an organic hothouse than a mechanical factory. I think that the model for how these fibers will be built and espcially recombined to form processors is DNA. Now this is the part that prompts me to write, because I had this thought, as I said, several months ago, and just last month I read that researchers at Texas A&M (of course) had performed an experiment that sounded just like what I had imagined on my own.

So, if we can call to mind the DNA helical model, we can identify a few key elements, not as specific chemical compounds, but as the 'building blocks' that interlock to form the structure of the molecule. Imagine that the nanofibers are in fact the outer 'rails' of the DNA molecule, with 'ports' formed at regular intervals. The ports are designed with specific shapes, or openings, into which the 'building blocks' or functional elements of the processor will fit.

These 'functional elements' are in fact analogs to the transistors, capacitors and diodes that are fixed in or onto a microprocessor and which are used, over and over, in different orders, as various processes are carried out. In the nanoprocessor, though, each process has it's own thread (two nanofibers plus the functional elements) that is specific to that process and no other.

The functional elements are 'custom-built' into the helical fiber in the manufacturing process. Imagine that all of the nanoelements are manufactured (for the 'how' of this, we will come back:) and dumped into a pan full of liquid. To this mixture, we add the nanofibers and stir. The liquid is electrically charged and voila, the functional elements are all 'attracted' to their 'appropriate' ports, and they interconnect because the elements themselves have ports that allow them to connect with and lock into other elements. In other words, it's like cultivating bacteria in a petri dish. With the appropriate chemistry and electrical stimulation, we will be able to manufacture devices that function in much the same way life does at the molecular level.

Now, once they are made, these threads would be collected and woven, individually or in series, into fabric that could, in turn, be worn as an article of clothing or carried as an accessory (purse, umbrella). These threads could be so inexpensive that they could be integrated into these objects even if they were never actually used. That is, they would be there should you have the need for their function but if not, well, you'd never even see them. A key ability for the user will be to 'program' or activate the processor and, more importantly, to 'tune' the device to be used exclusively by the owner/wearer.

It would work like this. The thread will be woven, let's say, into the collar of my shirt when I buy it. When I get home, if I want to make use of the cell phone function, I would, even after I put it on, if I wish, use a handheld device to connect with and activate the processor, 'program' it as a phone (ie, give it my number), then 'tune' it to the exact frequency of my aural nerve, so that only I can here the incoming sound.

Now, since every shirt will have several 'generic' or programmable threads woven into it at the manufacturing step, it is likely that most of them will never get used, or at least not for long, as they will wear out, it will be necessary to have another 'controlling' device that stores the personal data we will use to program and tune the thread as needed. This can be a very small object, 'woven' from a large enough number of threads to be not only visible, but large enough to allow them to be integrated into objects we already carry with us or have near us most of the time.

For example, the controlling device could be a part of my wedding ring, or built into my money clip. The device could go in my glasses, except I'd likely lose it way too often! Having the personal data stored thus in a small object that we have on or near or person would make it possible then to connect to the phone, or audio player in my shirt. Or, if you want to watch a video, or use the internet, you can use it in conjunction with a video display, at home, or in a cafe. Just sit down next to the display and 'tune' your device to connect with it.

Now, to be clear, my prescient observation not that nanofibers will be used to make the next generation of electronic devices, because that is obvious. No, I think the real innovation is the idea that DNA will be the model for these devices. The A&M scientists clearly concur, as their recent experiment demonstrated that DNA molecules can be used as 'molds' into which nanomaterials can be placed in order to form structures. At this point, as I understand it, the researchers have not yet made a device, but have shown that the manufacturing process will make use of the molecular structure of the helix in the formation of such devices.

Ok, it's the first step. And maybe, just maybe, they thought of the idea first. But it is proof to me, anyway, of the power of the mind to think of solutions to problems independent of the ability to test those hypotheses. In other words, I can't prove any of this now, but someday, you'll say you read it here first!

Edit 5.4.08: Nokia has some of the right ideas!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Gladys Lynda Dubov

As we prepare to honor Lynda with a memorial this May, I have gotten in touch with members of the artistic community of which she was such an active member for the past twenty years. Many of them have not yet heard of her death. Unless one reads the Statesman (we don't) it would have been easy to miss the notice. Of course, Pierre's death threw a wrench into the planning process so I never properly informed that most important group, alas.

Well, the time has come to correct that oversight, so as part of my renewed effort to plan this memorial, I've emailed the Austin Visual Arts Association (AVAA), to which Lynda belonged--off and on-- for as long as she lived in Austin. Many people knew her in only this context, so it seems fitting that we honor her in a setting that as closely resembles an art exhibit as possible, and I've asked Kelli at the AVAA if they or anyone they know has a suitable space. I envision putting up two or three of her paintings and bringing out books of her drawings and even her plays for us to recall what a wonderfully diverse intellect and artistic temperament she possessed.

My initial exchange with Kelli made me realize that I haven't posted the Lynda's obituary here in this journal yet, and, though it seems out of place in the natural order of things, not much has seemed in sync, if you will, for the past several months anyway. What follows is a copy of what was published in the Austin American-Statesman on 11/29/2007.


Gladys Lynda Dubov passed away quietly on Thursday at the age of 90 in peace and comfort. The eldest daughter of Oglesby K. Allen, Jr. and Rosalyn Allen, Lynda was born in Chicago, Illinois on August 1, 1917.

At an early age the family moved to Biloxi, Mississippi to take over the family store. Lynda graduated high school and went almost immediately to work, first in Wheatland, Wyoming and then in Shreveport, Louisiana. In 1941 she married Jack H.L. Smith of Shreveport. Their first child, Stephen, was born in 1944. Tragically, Lt. Smith died in a Jeep accident in 1945, shortly before the birth of Lynda's second child, Anne. Though grief stricken, Lynda's resolve to make a better life spurred her to take herself, her infant children and her mother to New York City where she worked hard to support them and take advantage of all the city had to offer.

In 1954 she met Wilbur Earl ("Bill") Dubov and they were married the next year on Thanksgiving Day. A short stint in Utica, New York followed where Lynda and Bill's first child, Phillip was born. In 1955 they purchased a bookstore in Abilene, Texas and through hard work turned it into an intellectual pillar of the community. Their second child, David, was born in 1961.

Another opportunity in 1967 took them to San Antonio, Texas and then to Austin a short time later. Lynda began to pursue a long career in the insurance business as one of the first woman agents in the Southwest and gradually became very successful.

That success enabled Lynda to fulfill a lifelong dream and move her family to England where she worked to build a thriving insurance practice selling to American troops. In every spare moment she and Bill traveled extensively, visiting virtually every country in Europe as well as Egypt, Russia and China. After Bill's death in 1981, Lynda moved back to suburban New York to be near Anne, her husband Eric Shapiro, and their two children, Jennifer and Daniel.

In 1985 she packed up once again and came back to Austin where she celebrated the marriage of Phillip to Valery Caselli and witnessed the births of her grandchildren Pierre and Madeleine.

The freedom of retirement allowed Lynda to continue the great passion of her life - art. Though she had always painted and drawn, she now was able to have a studio outside her home where she could create without constraint. The studio was the source of her life energy here in Austin for more than twenty-five years. She was a member of the Art-Plex community until a fire forced her to close her studio in 2006. She was the creator of many works on canvas and paper, including the well-traveled series of pen-and-ink drawings about European Jews before the War entitled "Voices of the Ghetto". She enjoyed numerous showings of her work in New York, San Francisco, London, Dallas, Houston as well as Austin, culminating in a well-attended retrospective of twenty-five years of her work in 2005.

Lynda is survived by her children, grandchildren, her sister Anita Alden of St. Louis, Missouri and a cousin, Bernice Heller, of New York City.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Scholarship for Pierre

Yesterday I called Garza High School to see about setting up a scholarship in Pierre's name. The idea was Anne's and I am grateful to her for thinking of this wonderful way to honor him. I thought it such a good one that when Leonard asked me what they could do to honor Pierre, I suggested that they contribute to the fund. I asked him to contact Anne, which he did, but of course she needs my help in setting it up from this end. I am delighted to do this, since it is such a positive step toward healing our hurt by creating what may be a lasting legacy for our son.

So, after a phone call yesterday, I received a very nice email from the guidance counselor at Garza. Yolanda's memory of Pierre was a good one, and it reminded me that he was always a good person in the company of others. It is nice to know that he touched so many lives in his short time here with us. Knowing that others are grateful to have shared some of that time with him makes me all the more thankful for the bond I have had the privilege of sharing.

It is in this spirit that I hope to establish the scholarship in Pierre's name. Garza has a special place in my heart because now not just one, but three of my 'boys' have been there, and hopefully the third, Dean, will soon be making his 'star walk'! Years ago, I also saw Shawn M. (now known as Trevor G.- he changed his name officially) through the halls of Garza. Though Trevor and I lost touch as I devoted my energies to Pierre, Trevor wrote me a note recently, just to let me know how much he'd appreciated my support and concern through those years. He's now a student at ACC, studying Geology!

So, I do know that Pierre was the exception, not the rule. If we can just get them out of school and onto the road of life, these students will, more often than not, find their way. I have hope for the many other good young people who are struggling to get their lives together, and will create this scholarship, with the help of family and friends, to support at least a few high school students in their endeavors to achieve their goals.