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.”


Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.