Archive for March, 2006

julia by candlelight


Back when Jeremy and I were courting, the Australian telecommunications carrier Telstra was phasing out its analogue mobile phone network, so you could buy the service for cheap. The deal was very popular with the feckless young, such as I. There was just one drawback: my first cellphone was the size of a brick. (Ask Jeremy about it some time. And ask him about my first car, the beloved Martika.)

These days the feckless young are younger than ever. This morning, after breakfast:


J: Claire, that’s so unhip!

R: You want a LEETLE TINY PHONE, like Ben Stiller had in Zoolander!

I hold my fingers a quarter-inch apart.

R: Leetle tiny telephone!

C: No! I want a GREAT BIG telephone, like THIS!

She holds her hands three inches apart. The room explodes in laughter.

the long now and the big here

Eight days?!? That’s probably the longest I’ve gone without blogging since Yatima started. Bet I can’t even remember what we did…

Actually, I can. Sunday morning we had bagels with the Locke-Chungs while Hedwig failed her smog test. We drove up Bernal and passed Carole and Jamey coming home from the dedication of Alex and Stacey’s bathroom, so we called and arranged to meet them on top of the hill. The Yerba Buena volunteers were out in force. I chatted to one who has been working on the same piece of the park for twelve years.

“When I started, it was radishes up to here,” she said, gesturing at chest height. “Now it’s mostly native grasses.”

I spent Monday and Tuesday struggling with an unusually prickly story at work. Tuesday night Jamey picked up the kids from school and came to dinner – there’s some talk of making this a semi-regular event. I made mac and cheese, but Ro was deathly ill and the Moores had to flee. Wednesday I was in Santa Clara all day; by about 4pm it was obvious I had what Rowan had. Jeremy looked after the girls while I went to bed, but I spent half the night awake wondering if I was going to throw up anyway.

Got up early again Thursday morning and combined Hedy’s 50K service and successful smog retest with another conference for work. By about six on Friday it was obvious Jeremy had what Ro and I had had, so the girls and I went to dinner with the Moores and Shannon and her boys while Jeremy tried to sleep it off.

By midnight it was obvious that Claire had what Jeremy, Ro and I had had, and she had it worst. She threw up on and off for about three hours. There was further involvement with some dental floss she had eaten. On the bright side, her teeth are completely free of plaque!

Saturday was very sketchy, even by the standards of this sick and sleepless week. We made it to the evening without damaging one another. Jeremy insisted he didn’t want to go to Shaun and Dana’s farewell party, but as soon as he got there he turned into a social butterfly with Julia peering adorably out of her sling. I followed Claire around hand-feeding her. Except that Shaun and Dana are leaving, it was a terrific party. We saw people we hadn’t seen since before we were married!

When I got home I made the blitztorte from Joy of Cooking, doubling the quantities and baking it in a slab. This morning we woke up after enough sleep(!), mashed some roasted butternut squash and made an exquisite soup, set out bread, salad and cheese, iced the cake with vanilla cream and used blueberries to draw Wallace & Gromit’s moon rocket on it, with strawberries for the flames. Then everyone came over for soup, Uncle Ian painted the toddlers’ faces and we all sang Happy Birthday to Claire and ate the cake. It was a good cake!

The interesting thing about writing it all out like that is that while my perception at the time was of strain and illness and exhaustion, I look back and am amazed at how much I got done and how much fun I had.

Nothing in my adolescence – with the exception of owning Alfie the splendid Arabian – prepared me for the substance of my adult life. It seems to me that getting ahead in a late industrial Western democracy is partly a matter of staying on top of details (car registration, visa applications) and partly a matter of being able to improvise (asking intelligent questions in an interview coming off of two hour’s sleep.)

It’s not easy to talk about improvisation, but details are another matter. I started learning them at university, and not in the substance of what I was taught. I’m still very passionate about red-figure Greek pottery and Petrarchan sonnets but they’re not particularly relevant to my day-to-day life. (Nineteenth century novels are, but that’s a special case.) I remember when I was in Year 12 and Corinne, a year ahead of me, described turning up to a lecture and everyone talking about an essay due that day which she had forgotten about. That terrified me! My first act as a university student was to buy an appointment book and write in it all the deadlines for all my essays for all my subjects, with warnings a week before the due date. It’s a habit that has helped me ever since.

Hitting deadlines was the first practical skill I learned at university; the second was probably filling out forms, an underrated and essential activity; the third lesson I learned, however, is the subtlest and most useful of all. It is deciphering what your readers expect (even as I write this I think about Doctor Stephen Bourke, my wonderful teacher of Near Eastern Archaeology), writing to meet those expectations, paying attention to feedback (he accused me of sophistry! justly) and refining your writing in the next assignment.

That skill turned into a career. And it is, incidentally, my dream career: a sort of literary critic of the software industry. I review companies the way other people review books. (I just got a call on my cellphone from Milo!) This year I am also taking a step back, paying attention to my methods and those of my colleagues, thinking about the larger dynamic – how the software industry actually works, where the money flows and why. And I find it completely fascinating. Like fiction itself (which it resembles in many ways), software is about debt and credit and exploiting opportunities and finding provisional answers to the question, How are we going to live?

I used to talk to my Dad a lot about getting a real liberal education that would be useful outside its putative field, and finding work that combined my love of writing and science. I did both.

I’ve been listening to the Long Now seminars on my iPod. As intellectual and ethical positions, the Long Now and the Big Here fit my temperament exactly. I’m committed to historical context and interested in posterity; I feel and try to act like a citizen of the cosmopolis, whatever my visa documents say. One offhand comment in a Long Now talk: “Computing is in its infancy”. I agree, and love Vernor Vinge’s description of a programmer as an archaeologist sifting through layers and layers of abstraction back to the dawn of time. Two observations here: this is already true of programming; and now is the dawn of time.

I live in the Long Now and the Big Here. Looking into the future is my job, but I’d do it for nothing. I want to tend the same piece of ground for twelve years. I feel like a redwood tree, standing still in the middle of all this chaos as my children grow and change in front of me like time-lapse photography. Toddler vomit on my pajamas? A very small price to pay for this happy, busy life. Quinn to me the other day, with respect to the recovered camera: “You must be the luckiest person I know.”


a walk in the park

Recheng called at a quarter to eight. We let the machine pick up, rolled over and snoozed, all five of us counting the cat, until twenty to eleven.

I called Re back. “We just woke up.”

“You’re joking!” she said: then, sympathetically, “bad night with the girls?”

Both kids have bad colds. They’re coughing up, and also swallowing, gallons of pale green phlegm; the coughing and the phlegm make them vomit. It’s very pleasant. It also makes it hard for them to sleep or eat, so Claire is on a hair-trigger, and even Jules is uncharacteristically cross.

We threw everyone into the car and met the Jaffe Tsangs at Strybing Arboretum. Glorious sun, white daisies in the green grass, cherryblossom. The Anarchist Book Fair had taken over the County Fair Building and there were lots of anarchists lolling around and gesturing meaningfully with red and black balloons. They wore old-fashioned hats and frock coats and so on; it looked like the music video for Safety Dance (ETA: OMG that thing is genius, go watch it and feel TWELVE AGAIN).

“Rachel, you can tell me,” said Jonathan, “Why aren’t anarchists allowed to wear white?”


“They’re all wearing black.”

“That’s because they’re opposed to things.”

“I get that, but can’t they be opposed to things in pink?”

“She’s wearing white.”

“Yeah, and she’s carrying the gear for all the guys. She’s just a groupie.”

“She’s with the band!”

We were trying to figure out the quickest way to the carousel. There were three policemen on large horses stationed across the road from the book fair, apparently just watching the anarchists. The use of horses to impose order seemed weirdly appropriate to the general late-Victorian ambience. I wandered over and chatted to one of the policemen, then wandered back.

“What did he say?” asked Re.

“He said the horse is a Belgian Draught – Quarter Horse cross. I’d guessed some kind of warmblood, so I was sort of close.”

“Rachel! You didn’t ask where the carousel is?”


Claire, who had asked earlier this week for a ride on a carousel with Knoa, was well pleased with our ad hoc adventure. It wasn’t until we’d parked at home that Jeremy realized he had left his beautiful, expensive camera hanging on the back of a chair in the picnic area near the carousel. A tense drive back to the park ensued. Jeremy was gone so long I was sure the thing had been stolen, but at last he came back in sight, waving the camera in one hand and in the other a sign: CAMERA FOUND HANDED IN TO SNACK BAR. I folded up the sign and am keeping it in the car, for more luck.

anticipated retroactivity

R: I told Salome that I spent the weekend apologizing for being a bitch, and she said, Why don’t you just… not be a bitch?

J: Yeah!

R: So I asked if she remembered how she and Jack got along when Milo was four months old, and she said, We were perfect.

J: Uh-huh.

R: No, it’s great news! In the future, right now will be your air-brushed history!

J: The past is so bright, it hurts my eyes!

too much home and garden tv

R: I dreamed a whole bunch of us went to Nat’s house after a conference. It was huge: a manor house that had been converted into a school and then back into his house, on an acreage. Part of it was tiled to look like a reptile and the rest was covered with murals. There was a library with a flying trapeze!

J: You may have an idealized view of New Zealand.

R: Oh no, this was his house in America, that he’d kept even after they moved. I remember thinking ‘Wow, O’Reilly must pay really well.’ Oh, and then Quinn and I discovered we had superninja powers!


We weren’t celebrating anything in particular, just Saturday night and Claire at the babysitter’s and my parents’ fortysomethingth wedding anniversary. I had the seared ahi tuna; he had the asparagus. I had duck confit a l’orange, which fell off the bone, with a deliciously earthy brown lentil cake. He had rack of lamb with potato gratin and ratatouille. We argued over who would get the orange creme brulee, and in the end we both had it, and we both won: it was perfect, shallow, buttery, silky and rich but not too sweet.

Jules charmed everyone with her astonished expression and perfect manners.

Oh, and last night Jeremy called and said “Go look out the window,” so Claire and I did, and there clinging to our sill was a light dusting of snow.

charismatic megafauna

I feel much better about the snow bears after I visited Pike, Andy and Ulu at San Francisco Zoo today. I spoke to one of them and it gave me the Eye: “Who d’you think you’re talking to, Prey Animal?” Destruction of their habitat continues apace, but they recently got taken off the Endangered list, and they seem adaptable sorts.

I’m trying to teach Claire to call rhinoceroses unicorns, but Jeremy disapproves. I spent a very happy half-hour sitting in the Saturday afternoon sun with Julia, laughing my head off at the plip-plip-plip each time the Asian rhinoceros farted. I am three.

Ian says my blog sounds melancholy right now. I’m not! I told him that this is exactly why people should hang out with me and not just read my blog.

where i’m at

The peaceful idyll that was my maternity leave has come to an abrupt end. Work is intensely busy and extremely interesting, but I am for obvious reasons disinclined to write about it here. My life outside of work consists mostly of shepherding children to and from preschool, babysitters, pediatricians, pediatric dentists, painting class, birthday parties, grocery stores, furniture outlets, playgrounds, parks and the zoo. Jeremy is, for slightly different reasons, equally busy and overwhelmed with make-work. We have to check in with one another occasionally, like tag team wrestlers.

I read in a furtive way, as if I were covertly smoking. I gave up on Sherri Tepper halfway through the promisingly-titled-but-cartoonish Gibbons’ Decline and Fall; on the other hand, I’m loving Kage Baker, a recommendation from Skud. This is a breezy, chatty, tragic novel, sort-of-sci-fi, sort-of-hist-fic and wholly engrossing. It comes with an enthusiastic blurb from Ursula K. Le Guin (very high praise indeed) and it conforms to Le Guin’s observation (which I am in the very irritating habit of quoting) that fiction is a series of provisional answers to the question, “How are we going to live?”

How are we going to live? I am thinking a lot about politics and about Africa, about running for the San Francisco school board, about establishing the sort of visa situation that would allow me to run for the San Francisco school board, about being the kind of women I expect my daughters to be. I am thinking about education and equality and religion and institutionalized violence and kindness. I am horrified over Darfur and Iraq and Iran and North Korea. I am amazed to find myself grieving for Ariel Sharon. I am missing my mum and dad. I am reading Ethan Zuckerman’s blog and worrying about global warming and pre-emptively grieving for polar bears. Claire calls them “snow bears”, and for some reason this breaks my heart.


Julia’s passport looks like part of a game. In her photo, she dangles from her father’s hands, a perplexed yet optimistic toy.

state of the onion

Oh, you know, just stuff. Work is busier than the busiest imaginable bee. Marc is an amazing cook, his potato salad was out of this world, and as Jeremy added, he is also “impossibly nice”. Claire was brave and cooperative at the pediatric dentist. The dentist has two small terriers: Coconut and Tchotchke. Claire’s x-rays showed that her adult teeth look spookily like mine. It’s been raining cats and dogs here and our new roof? It does not leak, yay. Three houses across the road from us are for sale for the GNP of small nations. I bet their rooves leak. Julia is squeaking, gotta run.