Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fads Are Now, Wisdom Eternal

I've seen a lot of buzz recently about the Death Clock. People apparently keep these clocks on their desktops, reminding themselves how long they have to live.

I was struck by how arbitrary and inexact such clocks are. Even the terminally ill don't know their exact day of death. The leanest, healthiest, most cautious person might be hit by a truck tomorrow. People who are old and ill often live on for years beyond medical expectations.

A death clock functions as a reminder of mortality. When human beings receive reminders of just how short life really is, they re-examine their priorities and resolve to live more meaningful lives.

We all receive reminders of mortality all the time. People die unexpectedly, and we can feel Death's breath on our own necks. Flowers bloom, soap bubbles pop, seasons change, children grow. There's no shortage of reminders that life is transitory, that we have a long long time to be gone and a short time to be here.

How long would a death day clock continue to prod us into living here and now? If I had a death clock on my desktop, it would soon fade into the background. Every once in a while, I'd glance at it and receive a faint reflection of its original impact. As time wore on, its effectiveness would diminish.

I suspect, however, that it wouldn't have much impact in the first place. I'd be far too busy thinking about how inaccurate it was and how it might be tuned to be more accurate to pay attention to it as a reminder of my own mortality.

In the 70s, popular culture was full of reminders to Be Here Now. Most of them skated on the surface of consciousness, but some went deeper, exploring the meaning of time and what it means to be human.

As I thought about this, I remembered Janis Joplin's crooning in the live version of Ball & Chain:

I don't understand how come you're gone, man. I don't understand why half the world is still crying, man, when the other half of the world is still crying too, man, I can't get it together.

I mean, if you got a cat for one day, man I mean, if you, say, say, if you want a cat for 365 days, right you ain't got him for 365 days, you got him for one day, man. Well I tell you that one day better be your life, man. Because, you know, you can say, oh man, you can cry about the other 364, man, but you're gonna lose that one day, man, and that's all you've got.

You gotta call that love, man. That's what it is, man. If you got it today, you don't want it tomorrow, man, 'cause you don't need it, 'cause, as a matter of fact, as we discovered in the train, tomorrow never happens, man. It's all the same fucking day, man.

Okay, it doesn't make total sense and the woman was drunk and pretty screwed up besides. In her voice, however, I can hear the naked pain of grief and the courage to face it. Maybe she only has one day, but she's going to live it for all it's worth.

I don't need a death clock to tick down the seconds until my scientifically-predicted-but-almost-certainly-wrong time of demise. What I need is a life clock, to remind me of the precious gift of the present day. I need a clock that is set to the eternal number 1.

This reminds me of Ehrenrang, in Ursula Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness, where it is always the Year 1. The past continues to recede and the future continues to advance, but next year never happens. It's all the same fucking year, man.

Wherever I go, there I am.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Elevator Algorithms and Progressive Parking

My parents' Manhattan apartment is on the ninth floor. To get there, you have to take an elevator and then thread your way through a labyrinthine hallway painted in several hideous shades of green. The hallway carpet is an Escherian print in gray-greens. The hallway floor is uneven, and the walls and ceiling are not quite square.

The combination of colors, floor waves, and tilted frame in the hallway never failed to make me seasick.

Perhaps this is why I paid so much attention to the movement of the elevators. The elevators displayed their current locations and direction of travel. Over the week, I was able to observe their operation many times.

Many years ago, we modeled the efficient movement of elevators in a computer class. Elevator algorithms are used for many problems in computer science (like the efficient movement of disk drive arms), and the ones used in actual elevators are often quite stupid.

The elevator algorithm in my parents' apartment building, however, was one of the smartest I've ever seen. It almost always sent the closest elevator to pick us up and it never, ever sent two elevators.

I salute those elevators.

In my parents' neighborhood, there's no parking for private automobiles. Commercial vehicles can park by purchasing time from machines along the street. The parking rates are $2 for one hour, $5 for two hours, and $9 for three hours.

I had never heard of progressive parking rates before, but it makes perfect sense in Manhattan.

Kissing New York Goodbye

I am a tree. I live in a small town with my family and seldom travel more than 10 miles from home.

Soy californio. I was born in San Francisco, raised in Berkeley, and have lived almost all of my adult life in the Santa Cruz mountains. I've never traveled to the East Coast before, never been further east than Chicago.

My parents, on the other hand, are globe-trotters. They travel much of the year, spending time in France, Italy, Britain, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific. They live in San Francisco, but they are often elsewhere.

Several years ago, they decided to become bi-coastal. They clubbed together with some friends and bought an apartment in Manhattan (27th & Madison), with the idea that they'd spend 3 months a year in New York.

My mom on approach to the Brooklyn Bridge

This is how I, a tree with roots on the West Coast, ended up spending a week in New York City.

I went there to visit my parents, who live in San Francisco.

My folks at the Brooklyn tower of the bridge

I went to build memories, to have one perfect week in New York with them while we're all healthy enough to enjoy it. My dad is battling brain cancer, and this might be his last time in New York City.

The dramatic emotional backdrop made it easier to give myself over to the city, to explore whatever it was New York had in store for me.

We had our perfect week, with moments of connection and intimacy, and a string of memories that shine like the lights on the bridges.

My dad and I on a boat tour of Manhattan

I put a crimp in my parents' gastronomic style while I was in New York. I have many food allergies, and I'm working on losing weight. We ate simply most of the time I was in NYC.

On the last night, however, my mom booked us at a fancy restaurant a couple of blocks from the apartment.

Throughout the week, we engaged in a fierce competition for the check. I can sometimes outmaneuver my mother and get to the check, but my dad's a real smoothie. He can nab the check before I realize it's there. Once he's got the check, he never lets go.

So at this fancy restaurant, I was trying to figure out how I'd get the check. The waiter would put it in front of my dad, naturally. This would greatly reduce my chances to pick it up.

As the waiter brought my tea, I got up, cupped my hand to his ear, and said, "Bring me the check. Don't let my dad get it."

My dad saw this and said, "Heather, you shouldn't have done that."

My mom looked delightfully scandalized.

"Heather kissed the waiter!" she squealed happily.

"In a manner of speaking," my dad said.

I asserted my innocence.

"I told him to bring me the check."

I wonder which version of the story my mother will remember.

My folks in Brooklyn

Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there.

Sunday in New York

Today was, oddly enough, busy. I walked down to the 15th Street Meetinghouse (built in 1860) for Meeting. The Meetinghouse is huge, with a big square Meeting room with a balcony. These folks are hard-bench Quakers, with all benches facing center. There were several messages on the intimacy (or lack thereof) of the Meeting. There were lots of messages, separated by a New York minute. These Manhattan Quakers are quick on their feet. They were also thoughtful and Quakerly, and it was quite lovely to visit with them.

After Meeting, I chatted with a few Friends, most notably a fellow who is undertaking the Ramadan fast in solidarity with Moslems.

(Earlier this week, during Rosh Hashonah and Ramadan, a young woman wished me a happy new year. I did not know whether she was Moslem or Jewish, so I wished her a happy new year in return.)

The Empire State Building, through the tower of Manhattan Bridge, from the Brooklyn Bridge

I then trotted over to Union Square where my parents were brunching. I got a cup of tea (the tea in NYC is unusually good; most restaurants can make a decent cuppa) and some fruit.

The Pedestrian Approach to the Brooklyn Bridge

We caught the subway downtown and then transferred to the Brooklyn train. I liked
Brooklyn; it has some of the feel of Berkeley. When you finish packing up, you should address the boxes to Brooklyn.

We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, which is an amazing piece of late 19th century engineering. The towers are stone, and the cables were spun in place. They first rigged a wire across the towers and sent workers over it on something like a breeches buoy. I wanted to bring the bridge home to show you, but I couldn't get it unstuck.

Manhattan from Brooklyn

The crowd of the week was at Trader Joe's today. There are two check-out lines, one for 12 items or less and one for more than 12 items. One line reached more than halfway around the outside track of the store and the other reached more than 3/4 around the inside of the store. Employees stand with signs indicating the ends of the lines. I stood in line while my mom shopped. It's the longest check-out line I've ever seen, but it moved fast.

My tootsies are tired.

Bites of the Big Apple

Snippets from email I sent home from Manhattan:

I'm here in my parents' (tiny) apartment in NYC.

The taxi drivers must think that they operate amusement park rides (or perhaps that they're racing horses). They race down the streets, run red lights, jockey for position, honk, and otherwise keep their passengers alert. I was not disappointed in my first NYC taxi ride. As we raced down 26th Street, I saw the Empire State Building in person. Very pretty, lit up at night. It gave me a thrill that I recognized it all on my own, looking much larger than it does in pictures.

It is a place of many beautiful buildings. After I got to my folks' place, I was quite ready to settle down and relax. My mother, as you might imagine, had different ideas. We went out for a walk about quarter to 11, and were out walking the city until 1am. It's true that they never roll up the sidewalks here. The streets were thronged at 1am. Since everyone lives in such tiny apartments, they spend their time out in the city.

NY Harbor from Brooklyn

As I was falling asleep, I heard a great wind. That surprised me, because I'm on an interior courtyard ("light well") and it's warm and humid (high 70s, day and night) and there was no breeze. I thought it was the sound of traffic (which is omnipresent in New York), but it turned out to be the neighbors' air conditioners.

New York seems strangely familiar to me. I realized that this is because I've seen it all before. New York is exactly like they portray it in the mooooveeees, wall-to-wall screaming taxis, park fences, fire hydrants, and picturesque buildings.

It makes me nervous to walk beneath the looming buildings. My mom is always pointing up at this or that interesting features, and I get vertigo at the sheer walls. The buildings are better from a distance. We sat in the park at 11:30 last night and looked at the Empire State Building and the Met Life tower. That was pretty. Later, we walked around the Met Life building and I couldn't look up. We also saw the Chrysler building from a distance, extremely lovely. I shall endeavor to be too busy to visit it close up.

My city girl ways have come back, but this city is on steroids compared to dear old Berkeley (or even SF). It's all like the taxis. My mom, naturally, can match speeds with the city. No wonder New Yorkers talk so fast. You'll have to wind me back down when I get home.

The Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan from Brooklyn

Today, we walked a lot. We were going to take a Gray Line bus tour of the city. Jerry said he'd rather be hit by a garbage truck (New York is full of garbage trucks; they pick up the trash that is piled on the curb outside of the buildings every night -- it stinks). When we got to Times Square (think Las Vegas on crystal meth and growth hormones) and talked to the folks pushing the tours, I decided I agreed.

So we walked home by way of Rockefeller Center (worth seeing), Saint Patrick's Cathedral, the Palace Hotel, Grand Central Station (kinda close to the Chrysler building), the Algonquin, and the New York Public Library. All quite impressive. My favorite thing was Grand Central Station. A magnificent building teeming with human beings going places. You've seen pictures. Oh, and we went by J.P Morgan's house. Quite the architectural tour. I have some notion of the geography of NYC now.

An Archer Giving Me Lessons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

My head is all gorged with New York. I'm longing for my own quiet life and my wonderful family. You guys give a person time to think and don't interrupt her every 2 minutes.

NYC is mobbed on Saturdays. Jerry and I walked through the farmer's market at Union Square. This huge city square was full of produce trucks and customers, absolutely jam packed. When we got to the movie theatre, it was also mobbed. We had to go up 4 escalators to get to our theatre, and weave our way through a lot of lobbies and the whole place was full of people. The theatre itself was also wall-to-wall people.

After the movie, we walked down to Washington Square (with a famous arch). There were lots of good musicians busking in the square, and tons of people sitting everywhere people can sit. We heard a good pianist (who somehow wheels his upright piano down to the square to play there) and a jazz band and some other groups of musicians. I could have spent more time just hanging out, but my mom was hungry.

Greenwich Village is not a village by any standards, but it is kind of like Berkeley.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Hand-Knit Poodle

Yesterday, someone celebrated being on the planet for 12 years:

In his own quiet style, he decided to commemorate his day.

By taking the dog to the park.

He graciously agreed to sit on my lap just like he used to do 12 years ago.

His siblings all enjoyed the beautiful day, too.

As did the dog.

I knitted him a poodle for his birthday, by his own special request.

Some of us spent our time just hanging around.

And some of us grinned like boolies.

Some of us raced with the dog.

And some of us preferred a bird's eye view.

And one of us climbed in his space ship and visited distant planets.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Art on the Side

After doing their math at piano lessons, the boys settled down to drawing.

Remus John drew a couple of scenes from the sea star circus:

And Malcolm drew a graphic comic about the unicorn Amilia and her disastrous experience with some potions:

Back to School

Morgayn started classes at the community college again today. Meanwhile, back at La Casa Madrona Technical Academy, the younger children are studying with Professor Sombrito:

Last week, Malcolm and Remus John did an intense read-loud of Winnie-the-Pooh in the big arm chair:

Malcolm read to Remus John for hours, both of them focused intently on the story.

Remus John finished Singapore Primary Math 1B Part II yesterday, so we celebrated his first Math Day with a succulent chocolate cake baked by Matisse:

We all sang him a very happy math day (to John McCutcheon's rollicking tune):

It makes me think of the good old days.
Happy Math Day to you!
You sure grew out of your baby problems.
Happy Math Day to you!
It's your Math Day and we wish you many more,
Fish balls and microwaves and mangoes by the score
Join Mr. Lin and we'll solve some more.
Happy Math Day to you!

Malcolm is about two weeks away from finishing Singapore Primary Math 5B and Matisse has almost finished Singapore New Elementary Mathematics 1, so we'll probably be celebrating more math days soon.