Monday, November 28, 2005

Trip report...

The Friday before last, Andrea was on the phone with her mother talking about what we were doing for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sylvia said "you know, you could always just come here..." So on Sunday we were in the car, heading for Austin.

The week in Austin was nice. The new Whole Foods down the street from Andrea's parents' house is really amazing. I think that a typical english king from the 16th century, transported into the future, given a shower to make him presentable in public, and ushered into the Whole Foods, would have been reduced to tears by the sumptuousness of the feast laid out there.

It was a nice visit - nothing really remarkable, just family conviviality. We watched War of the Worlds, which was really quite good. Dunno why it got such bad reviews. We stopped in Oklahoma on the way home, which was nice - Sandra and David put us up in their new upstairs guest room, which is really nice. We had a good visit with Sandra and David on Friday night, and then visited with Grandma Carrie for a bit Saturday morning, and finished up with a visit to Flo. Everybody seems to be doing well, as well as one can say things are going when one is dealing with the vicissitudes of aging. Grandma is happy in the nursing home.

The drive from Claremore to Albuquerque took quite a while - we finally got in a little after 11:00 in the evening, Albuquerque time. It's not the most exciting drive, until you get to the Sandias. The trip over the Sandias was especially exciting this time because it started raining on the way up, and then at the summit the rain turned to snow, and stayed snow all the way in to Albuquerque. The road was never icy, except on one section close to the city. The snow was made up of compact, massive flakes - nearly hailstones. Very cool looking in the headlights. After years of mostly living in Arizona, the snowstorm was really sweet, even though we had to drive through it.

Anyway, the whole point of this was to get to the final day of the trip, which was the day that we'd set aside to do something different. We negotiated a bit about precisely what route to take, and finally settled on taking U.S. 60 from Socorro to Globe, and then Arizona 77 from Globe to Tucson. We'd never done this drive before, and had no idea what to expect.

It was a very nice drive, but long. I would suggest stopping in Show Low next time to break it in half. The first surprise of the drive was the discovery that the Very Large Array is just off of U.S. 60, about an hour west of Socorro. The VLA is one of my favorite pieces of Big Science - it's a collection of about 25 radio telescopes on train tracks in a symmetrical Y shape with a 13-mile radius. The antennae can be moved in toward the center or out toward the edge. When we were there, they were in kind of a weird pattern - I think they must have been doing some upgrades. The VLA is going digital, with fiber optic nerve fibers in place of the old waveguide system.

Anyway, it was just a treat to unexpectedly get to go there. I've known about the VLA for years, first in the context of SETI, and later in the context of mapping the deep universe. What they do at the VLA is so cool you could use it to refrigerate semiconductors. I'm not going to describe it much, but check it out if you're curious. The thing that I love about the VLA is that it uses computation and electromagnetics together to do something truly amazing - to see things that are incomprehensibly far away in space and time. They have a map of the galactic center done with the VLA, but this is peanuts compared to what else it's capable of seeing.

Anyway, that was a wonderful highlight. Then trip from there was mostly just up, up, up, down little, up again, through a town called Pie Town, above the snow line, et cetera. It got very cold. I was tempted to stop for pie in Pie Town (this is the actual name of the town, by the way, not the name of a commercial establishment in the town), but resisted. We crossed the continental divide and continued on through a very small number of small towns separated by vast gulfs of 75-80mph straightaways, saw a few cars, mostly didn't have to do much passing. Crossing the Arizona border was not much of an event. We stopped for sandwiches in a town called Springerville, which despite not being near a ski area seemed a lot like a ski town to both of us.

The drive from Springerville to Show Low was long and not very interesting, although it was certainly pretty enough. Traffic started to get heavier the closer we got to Show Low. Show Low itself reminds me of a fairly typical Sierra Nevada resort community. Not sure what drives it, but I suspect tourism is a big draw. It's a nice little town. It's entirely surrounded by hundreds of square miles of pine forest - the Show Low fire that was on the news a couple of years ago burned a large swatch to the northeast, and I fully understand why people up there were concerned about it, but from the highway it looked like it never came near the actual town, and percentagewise it didn't burn that much. But that's from the highway - I don't know what it looks like from the air.

The drive from Show Low to Globe was unexpectedly scenic. It turns out that the part of Arizona with which Andrea and I are familiar - the Sonoran desert - is characteristic only of the southern part of the state. The middle of the state is all about geography. We were driving along, innocently minding our business, and then off to the right I noticed a fairly cool looking canyon that looked rather deep. I pointed it out to Andrea. She said "yeah, looks pretty deep."

A couple of minutes later the road plunged down into the canyon. I think it might be a little like driving into the Grand Canyon. I know this canyon isn't that big, but it's bloody big. It's all part of the Apache Indian reservation. By the time we got to the bottom, the tableland from which we had come looked like a series of towering redrock cliffs, and the road was still clinging to a sheer rock face - we never made it to the bottom, but just crossed a bridge and went back up the other side, to the table land on top again. This was the equal to any of the more dramatic drives I've taken in the Sierra Nevada - it reminded me quite a bit of Tioga Pass road, only with red rock instead of grey. Completely wasted on a car - this is a place to bring a motorcycle. Surprisingly, we didn't see any.

After the canyon, the terrain was pretty mellow for a while, and then started turning to a drive alongside a riparian zone, with aspen trees and thick underbrush. Finally we were dumped in Globe, which reminds me a bit of Placerville, and we got to abandon U.S. 60 for AZ. 77. At first this looked pretty mellow, but we came over a rise after climing up out of Globe to see what the tableland must look like when giant aliens jump up and down on it - broken planes, jagged mountain ranges, mesas, valleys, all jumbled together in a pile, through which we had to drive for the next seventy miles. By this time we were just wishing the road would straighten out, but it didn't oblige us - we were in the twisty maze nearly to Oro Valley, which is the town to the north of Tucson. The stretch from Mammoth to Oro Valley wasn't bad, really, but we were so tired that it seemed bad. We stopped in Wild Oats on the way down Oracle Road, and finally drove into our garage, grumpy and tired. Andrea showered, I made salad, hijinx ensued.

We're glad to be home. But it was a nice trip.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


One of the big marquee items in Buddhism is the idea of the middle way - the path between the two extremes. It's usually said that people fall into the extreme of believing that things truly exist; when they first learn about Buddhism, it's relatively easy to fall into the extreme of believing that things do not exist at all. The middle path runs between these two extremes: things do exist, but they do not exist truly.

This all sounds really cool and mystical when you first read about it, and of course you have no idea what it means. I mean, things do exist. And they don't not exist. The source of this confusion is philosophical shorthand - what does it mean for things to exist truly, and what does it mean for things to not exist at all?

I'll talk about it in terms of my experience, and in terms of renunciation, another poorly understood term. When I was a kid I thought that the way to happiness was to meet a nice girl, fall in love, get married, get a good job, buy a house, and all of that. A pretty typical roadmap for a life. On a more granular level, I thought that, for example, owning a car would make me happier - if I had a car, I'd be able to get dates, and be able to meet the girl, and then happiness would ensue.

This is the extreme of thinking that things truly exist. It means that there's a car out there that has the quality of being able to make it easier for me to meet women. There's a woman out there who has the quality of being able to make me happy. And it all sounds pretty plausible on the face of it. We see things working this way all the time.

But the fact is that at some point you realize that things don't exist truly. When I give a bum on the street $5 to get a hamburger, he's probably going to spend it on booze, despite the fact that he assured me he just wanted a bite to eat. When Andrea is sad about something, I want her to be happy, so I comfort her, and it usually doesn't make her happy - in fact, I think sometimes it upsets her more. I am not the cause of her happiness.

When people get all the things they thought they wanted, they frequently realize that their lives are still unfulfilling. They get frustrated. Sometimes they live lives of quiet desperation. Sometimes they act out. Maybe that's why there's so much domestic violence: he/she was supposed to make me happy, but he/she didn't, and so he/she is bad, and must be punished for failing in his/her duty. Drinking is supposed to make me cheerful, the life of the party, attractive to others. One drink doesn't seem to be having that affect. Here, let me have another.

So in my life, there came a time when the fact that things don't exist truly really hit me over the head with a hammer. It was when Vicki and I first tried to buy a house together. She said something about growing old and grey together, and my reaction was "I don't want to!" We were buying a fixer-upper, and we were going to be horribly in debt, and living in a crap heap, and I decided I just couldn't deal with it and called the whole thing off, to the great disappointment of the architect we'd hired.

Then later I forgot, and we bought a house together, which was less of a fixer-upper, and wound up fixer-uppering it anyway. And I realized that the etymology of the word "mortgage" had to have something to do with death. And that I was going to be paying for this place that wasn't even remotely what I wanted for the rest of my life.

But I kept on thinking that things would make me happy. Just not that thing. This went on for quite some time, but I was starting to clue in. And at some point I finally really gave up on the gross idea that things could really make me happy. I still buy dessert, but I don't think the house in Tucson is going to be my source of happiness, and although I love Andrea very much and want her to stay around, I don't think that spending my life with her is going to be the source of my happiness. If I want to spend a happy life with her, it's going to come from somewhere else.

So here's where the extreme of thinking that things don't exist at all comes into play. If Andrea can't make me happy, and the house can't make me happy, then all the things that I've looked to for happiness have failed me. And I don't have anything with which to replace them. So now I'm in the extreme of thinking that things don't exist at all.

To be clear, on an intellectual level I know that this is not true. But now I'm in this between state, where I've given up on the conventional idea that being the perfect consumer can bring me happiness, but I haven't really, on a gut level, figured out another way to find happiness. So where before I was blipping occasionally into a freedom from the idea that things could make me happy, now I'm occasionally blipping into a freedom from the absence of any thing that could make me happy.

The way this is manifesting in my life right now is that I am hugely unmotivated. I'm doing stuff that people ask me to do, and making lousy progress on anything else. I'm in a state where I really, really need to get my shit together. There's a clue in here, I think - the ultimate source of happiness is in helping others, or so I've been taught, and so I believe, on an intellectual level. And when people ask me for help, and I help them, I'm happy to have done so. Last week I helped Albert, our VP of Marketing, with a product release, and although it was hard, because public speaking isn't really my thing, I was happy to help him, and I enjoyed the process.

So now the task before me is to get my shit together - to figure out how to ask myself for things for others, when they don't know to ask me, and to feel on a gut level that helping them is worthwhile. I've got some ideas about that, and I'm working on them. It's a process. We'll see how it goes.

Monday, November 07, 2005


Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been nearly a month and a half since my last confession. I'm in Vancouver right now. Andrea's in Tucson. This is not an ideal state of affairs, but we're managing.

Today's flight was a little strange. I got up at about seven this morning, made my usual cup of spoon-bending coffee, and tried to recover from the experience of getting up so bloody early. At 8:00 we were on our way to the airport, Andrea with bagel in hand, me driving.

By 10:00, I was at the gate for my 11:07 flight, which was at that time listed as being delayed for an hour. An hour and a half later later we were on the airplane, listening to the pilot matter-of-factly talk about how the APU on the plane wasn't working, but they had an external APU that they were going to use to start the engines. Said APU also wasn't working, so after another ten minutes or so they wheeled up a second external APU, which did work, and they finally got the engines started.

This isn't as drastic a situation as you might think, because the APU is actually non-essential equipment unless all of the engines on the plane flame out at the same time, which has only ever happened once in the history of modern aviation (and when it did happen, they weren't able to restart the engines anyway, but they managed a dead stick landing after gliding over the ocean for an impressively long time, which gives you some idea of just how much redundancy there is between you and something bad happening on your flight: a lot).

Be that as it may, there was a strange sucking, whirring noise in the tail of the plane when we started to gain altitude, which was disquieting, but it cleared up when we got above 10k feet and the flight attendants were able to get up and turn off whatever machine was making the noise. I always get really strong realizations about gross impermanence when I fly - it's very beneficial.

Anyway, the flight was largely uneventful after that. I read my book (Scott Westerfeld's Pretties, which is the sequel to Uglies. Both very good books, aimed at a teen market, but like Harry Potter quite enjoyable to read even if you're only a teen in base 21 (heck, my parents read Harry Potter, and they'd have to describe their age in base 33 to still be teenagers).

There was a nice view of Mount Hood at one point. As we made our descent into Vancouver I saw one of the most beautiful cloud formations I have ever had the pleasure to witness - a really nice cumulus cloud (through which we flew). When we emerged from the cloud, there was the usual cumulus wall, but with some really light wisps of cloud that were clearly not related to the big cloud nevertheless rammed right up into it, as if they were just blowing across a mountain pass. It was like something out of a thangka or a Chinese mountain/cloud painting, only a million times more vivid.

I was thinking of something sweet on the plane - about how parents teach their children. You know, the whole "first step" thing. How does that go? The parents help the kid to walk, over and over again. Finally, after great effort, the kid actually gets up and walks into the parents' outstretched arms. So the parents are working really hard to bootstrap the kid into being able to walk, and then as a final act in this play, the kid finally, deeply gets what the parents have been teaching, and, under his or her own power, puts what they have taught into practice. It's like a dance, which can only be performed properly in partnership.