Monday, October 24, 2011


From Ting and I: a Memoir

“Beauty is skin deep,” but “ugly goes all the way to the bone.” These are unkind generalizations, but they do reflect truth, especially about the appraisal of women.

If you are a woman, some think you can’t be too rich, too thin, or too beautiful. From early childhood, the better-looking are better treated. They may be assumed to have virtues that they in fact lack or just be seen as fortunate, lucky. Perhaps beauty suggests genetic superiority. It is nice to be around beautiful things, including beautiful people. They sense it, too. It may well improve their outlook on life, bringing optimism and thus greater success and enjoyment. They like to gather together, these Beautiful People.

A drawback is the sense of entitlement being beautiful may engender. No need to be quite as nice, considerate, warm as the less attractive. A woman may feel that she is not loved for herself but for her looks, either rebelling against that or obsessively worrying about the effects of aging.

Maintenance can be a problem, too.
Tina has been beautiful but unspoiled by it.
My mother was a particularly pretty young woman, so much so that she was a dress and furs model “on Seventh Avenue,” the New York garment center of old. She was also brilliant, the smartest person in the room, almost always. She wanted a large family and had five children. One Mother’s Day I gave her a card we both found particularly apt: a beautiful Golden Retriever mother is leading five puppies of hers on leashes she is holding in her mouth. The card reads. “Always behind us ... and always a step ahead.”

I guess some of this holds true for good-looking men. Of average looks myself, I noticed one day when out walking with one of my brothers that women’s heads were turning to follow us as we walked by. I’d never experienced that. He’s happily married to a very pretty and smart woman, with two good-looking and smart children. The handsome shall be choosers, too. We wish them well.

Tina says I’m handsome. I thank her for the compliment, then reply with the adage “Handsome is as handsome does.” After all, I don’t want to be loved just for my dashing good looks.

We know nature can be beautiful, as can music, art, even mathematics. I worked on an interesting problem with a mathematician colleague at IBM and solved it in a brute-force, computer-intensive way. I was pleased to have obtained an answer, but it fell short in his eyes, as it lacked the elegance of a correct and simple summarizing equation. The engineer in me was satisfied. The mathematician in him was not.

My handsomest technical paper was “Estimating an Instrument’s Counting Efficiency by Repeated Counts on One Sample,” an elegant application of the Poisson distribution. Yes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

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