Saturday, November 28, 2015

If They Had Stayed One More Day...

I got up at 6 AM and walked over to the hotel where my folks, littlest sister and two nephews were staying.  I watched them pack up their things and load up their van.  I gave them each a hug, told them I loved them, asked them to drive safely or take care, where appropriate.  Then I walked back toward my apartment as they drove off toward the freeway to head back to Oklahoma and Arkansas.  
Thanksgiving is now officially over.  
I am not, by nature, a thankful person.  I'm fairly polite.  I will say thank you when someone gives me directions, holds the door open for me, passes me a plate of food at the dinner table.  I'm pretty good at that.
That's not the same as being a "thankful" person, though.  I'm talking about those people who wake up, grateful to be alive, who believe every moment is a gift, who have the light of everlasting JOY shining out their eyes, casting back the darkness of despair and loneliness. 
Not me.  
On Thursday, when I saw people on Facebook posting their lists of the things they are thankful for, I thought I should do something like that.  I tried writing out something, but stopped because of all the caveats that I wrote along with each item.  
"I'm thankful that I have a job, because if I didn't (and it may very well be taken away from me at the next economic downturn or recognition by the powers that be that they don't need me the way they thought they did), I'd be standing at the corner of some off-ramp with a sheet of cardboard in hand being ignored by just about everyone."  
Not a very inspiring list.  Very little uplift in there.  
It might seem ironic to some to learn that Thanksgiving is now my favorite holiday.  It was Christmas when I was a kid, but Thanksgiving supplanted Christmas shortly after I was fully into adulthood.  
For one thing, it's the easiest holiday to turn into a week's vacation.  I get the day, plus the following Friday off as a holiday.  Add three days of PTO and BOOM!  I'm not going tot he office for ten full days, counting the weekend.  
For another, it's focused on food.  I like food.  Eating is good.  And there's usually so much of it that you get leftovers to take home and use for lunch for days afterward.  
And then, there's my family.  That's probably the best reason for the holiday.  More than Christmas, Thanksgiving is about spending time with the family.  
We're not a cutout from a Norman Rockwell print, my family.  Not the Brady Bunch forty years later.  We argue.  Quite a bit.  And we'll sit in silence, watching TV or something, for long stretches.  The boys will be playing some game on their phones.  At a commercial break, Dad might open up the refrigerator in the hotel room and ask me, "Wanna Beer?"  I'll say, "sure," then, "thank you," as he reaches it over to me.  Then we'll go back to sitting quietly again.  
But it's a different sort of silence, this.  It's not the silence in my apartment when I come home from work each night, which I destroy with turning on the TV.  It's not an empty silence.  It's a restful one.  It's the quiet I used to hear as a kid, in my bedroom, when it was time to go to sleep and I'd hear Mom and Dad puttering about in the kitchen or heading off to their room.  One that would be broken with the door opening...
"Good night, Dad."  
"Good night."
"'Night, Mom."  
Then darkness and quiet and deep, deep sleep.  
Yeah.  Silence like that. 
And it comes with its own caveats, Thanksgiving does.  Because going into it, I know what day I have to catch my flight back home.  Or I'll know, like this time, when Dad will have to start driving back to get the boys home in time for school.  It's there.  Up front.  You know it going in.  
And that was today.  Early.  I got up at six because Dad always wants to get an early start.  I sat in a chair in a corner of the hotel room as they got themselves together.
"Where's the charger?" 
"Shouldn't you get a cart?"
"On the table."  
"The charger is on the table."
"I'm going to get the car"  
"It's on the table."  
"My charger.  Where's my charger?"  
"Is Dad going to get the cart?"  
"Isn't that your charger on the table?"  
"He's getting the van."  
It's like the ending credits to a movie.  One you've seen a number of times.  It may not be a hit or a classic.  More like a cult classic, one that you know the words to even if it's different each time.  
Then, the room is empty.  A guy from the front desk brings the cart and loads our bags...  Their bags, for them.  
"Did you guys check the room?" I ask, hanging back.  I look under the beds.  I pull out the drawers.  No sign that anyone I know has ever been here.  
I follow them out.  I hold the trunk door up while Dad loads the van.  He fills the back higher and tighter than Santa's sleigh starting out on Christmas Eve.  
Then the hugs.  Everyone gets one.  Some get two.  "Love you."  "Love you, too."  "Drive safe," to Dad and my nephew, who has his license now.  "Take care," to everyone else.  
As I start to walk away, Dad opens his window...
"You want a ride?"  
"No."  Then, "I'm fine.  I'll walk.  It's not far."  But it's more because I don't want to go through the good-byes again.  It would be more bitter than sweet if I did.  
As I walk home, I remember that I'd told my youngest nephew I'd see about taking him to the zoo while he was here.  We never got the chance to do that.  They went to Magic Mountain with their cousin instead.  
"If they had stayed until tomorrow, I would have taken them to the zoo today," I think to myself.  Then I wonder what that means when I knew all along they were leaving today.  
Thank you, Family, for coming to visit.  Happy Thanksgiving!  I look forward to the next time I get to be with you.  

Monday, November 23, 2015

In the Bowels of Future Cities

I’m working on a story focusing on the theme of how cities will be in the future.  I have a story idea.  I have about 80% of a plot.  
What’s holding me up from actually start to write the story is this feeling that I’m not quite getting the point.  What I mean is, when I think about “The City of the Future” and what it might be like, I find myself asking myself the question...  Why?  
Not “Why” as in, “Why will it be this way.”  It’s “Why” as it, “Why will cities even be?”  
I’m looking at the history of cities in a historical sense, and every thing tells me that cities exist to concentrate something for a purpose.  
Going way, way back, when cities were first formed sometime after the beginning of agriculture, cities came together to concentrate the output of this new endeavor to efficiently trade the produce and services being created.  If I grew wheat, and you raised sheep, then the city nearest to both of us would be where you and I would get together to swap what we produced.  This way, I could have some mutton go to with my bread and you’d get bread with your lamb.  I would have to try to raise sheep myself, which might be difficult in my region due to climate and terrain, and you wouldn’t have to turn part of your pastures, perfect for feeding sheep, into more mediocre farmland.  
The city would also be a place where specialists could live to help us both.  The butcher, or the weaver to turn your sheep and their wool into other useful products.  Or the brewer, who figured out how to turn my grain into beer (whom I’m sure we’d both vote to become the city’s mayor, seeing how so damn smart such a guy would be regarded).  
This concentration of goods and services would accelerate during the industrial age.  This is when human populations begin pouring into the cities at faster and faster rates.  The need for a steady and local supply of workers to run the machines and work the assembly lines, as well as to purchase the products being processed and made, drives this concentration.  
But now, I’m wondering if this dynamic has changed.  
In the new age we find ourselves in, the Information Age, I am wondering what is there that needs to be concentrated.  
I’ve been reading more about the increased automation that our future will encompass.  Robotics and smart systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated.  They’ve already taken over numerous industries, such as automotive manufacturing and textiles.  An example cited in Martin Ford’s, “Rise of the Robots” (page 8) is that of a textile factory in South Carolina.  It employs 140 people, in a plant which has a level of production that would have required over 2,000 people in the 1980’s.  The workers in the plant today move half-finished  yarn from one machine to the next, “interfering” with the machine functioning as little as possible.  Even the task of packing and preparing the finished yarn for shipment is handled by computerized machines hanging from the ceiling of the factory.
I think this trend toward automation will continue.  I also think that the tools of the Information age, the computer, the Internet and similar networks, are decreasing the necessity of concentrating employees as needed in previous eras.  
It took until the year 2008 for the majority of people on the planet to be city dwellers.  There seems to be a belief that this trend toward increased urbanization will continue, with cities, which still only take up about 2% of the available surface area of the Earth, to get bigger and sprawl farther and farther out from their centers.  I’m wondering, though, if this trend is being driven by the momentum of a previous era’s need. 
When I look up information about how cities will be in the future, I get a lot of information, or speculation, about how cities will or should solve specific problems.  Cities should, or ought to be greener, with people proposing buildings that resemble the hanging gardens of Babylon, with walls that sprout planets to help reduce the city’s carbon footprint and maybe even grow more food locally, to reduce the level of carbon emissions to transport them. There’ll be solar panels on top of buildings, or weaved into the material used to pave our roads and sidewalks, as well as piezoelectric actuators in the hallways, to turn even the force of our footsteps into clean energy.  We’ll have a more diverse transportation system, where people will borrow vehicles to take them places, leaving them at their destination for someone else to use, along with with more robust, more efficient and more dispersed modes of public transportation.  
But none of these things focus on the question I have gnawing at me in the back of my mind.  What purpose will future cities serve, given that their previous functions of concentrating exchange of products and services, or of concentrating the necessary labor to make the economic engines of society work, are no longer needed?
There is only one possible answer that I can come up with.  Data.  
It is data that drives the Information Age.  And it is people that generate the data that is useful.  What they buy, what they sell, what they want, what they do in the aggregate.  So, if cities were the repositories of grain, meat, wool and leather, and the specialists that worked, traded and processed them, and then later the dormitories for the people that manned the machines and factories that processed the metals, coal and materials that built our vehicles, our homes and utensils and tools that formed the fabric of our daily lives, will they become the centers were the information that our computer driven society needs to function.  Places where our interactions generate billions of terabytes a  day that systems will sift through to find correlations of value.  
It sounds a bit like something from the Matrix.  Except, instead of our body heat to power them, it is our interactions that feed them.  
The only problem with this point of speculation, though, is that data isn’t like wheat or a lamb.  It can be concentrated anywhere at any time.  And people can interact with each other today even if separated half a world away.  A case can be made that direct interaction, face to face encounters, which I think people still need on a visceral level, can produce data that is somehow “better” or “more true” than online interactions.  But that may be my own philosophical leanings on the topic coloring my perceptions.  
There is another possible reason for the continued existence of cities in the future.  It could be that cities continue to exist because they want to.  
Going back to my point of view on the continuing and accelerating automation that will be overtaking us.  It is not difficult for me to imagine a day when any job you can think of today, no matter the profession, will be done by a computer or a robot.  Just as bank tellers had part of their jobs taken away by ATMs, and companies are building similar interfaces for fast-food restaurants today, just about any service job being done by a person today can, and very likely will, be performed by an expert system run on a computer running twenty-four hours a day somewhere else.  Most stock trades today are done automatically, by computer.  There are already websites where you can input your symptoms to get something of a diagnosis.  Crude and with inherent inaccuracies, but they show how, with increased sophistication, even the medical field can be impacted.  
So, what about the task of running the city itself?  A city remade with “smarter” materials, asphalt that can tell a city planning program that a pothole has developed for instance, or a surveillance system that dispatches police units (again, not necessarily human) to the scene of a crime, one with an information and energy grid that becomes not unlike the human nervous system, checking on and responding to inputs from all over the area that defines it.  
Such a city would become something that is more like a single, living entity instead of a collection of individuals working and living together.  Just as the first multi-cellular creature came together from a group of single-celled organisms working in concert for survival, a new sort of city, a living city, might be born.  
And if that city somehow became aware of itself...?  It might just decide to do what it needed to do to sustain its existence.  
And us, living inside such an entity?  The closest analogy I can think of would be the relationship we as living entities have with the bacteria living in our guts.  Colonies of organisms, in number greater than the cells of our bodies, living inside us and on our surfaces.  Organism that help us digest our food, prevent other more malignant organisms from infecting us and are so closely tied to who we are that the can be used to identify us.  A symbiotic relationship, where, from the city’s point of view, when it has one of its own, we exist to help make the city healthier.  
Or maybe something completely different.  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Yesterday Really was Friday the 13th

I had a difficult day at work yesterday.  Trouble with an employee.  Discovering errors in what we were processing.  Trying to get stuff on a project I need to have done by the end of the year.  While dating an entry in our system, I realized it was Friday the 13th.  I came up with an idea for a funny little tweet.  Something like...
"I'd say the day I'm having is because it's Friday the 13th, but then I'd have to explain why every other date at work is like this."
A little, "Work is Hell" sort of quip.  I went to my phone to open my Twitter app and saw there was an alert about, "Attacks in Paris."  I opened my browser to see what was going on.  
I decided I wasn't going to complain about how my day was going after reading the news. 
I've followed the coverage about the Paris attacks since then.  I know about what everyone else knows at this point.  About 128 people killed at five or six places throughout the city.  Most at a concert venue where a heavy metal band from California was playing.  The first state of National Emergency called for in France since the end of World War Two.  Borders closed.  All the attackers have been killed.  
I also heard the speeches of support and solidarity and read the tweets of compassion toward the French people.  It was pretty much what I would expect people to express.  I've not participating in the "outpouring," though.  That's because my reaction to the events has been more like...  Well...
This is the world we live in.  This is something that happens.
It's like hearing about a tornado in the midwest in June, or a big rig accident on the freeway in Los Angeles.  You feel bad for the people involved.  You're glad it didn't happen to you.  You pull yourself out of the storm shelter or accelerate past the scene on your way to work.  It happens. 
Realizing I'm feeling this way disturbs me.
Since the towers fell back on September 11th, 2001, we have had a series of incidents like this.  Some places, such as in the Middle East, get more than other places.  They live in the "Tornado Alley" of terrorism.  Other, "safer" places have been hit, too.  But the list is a long one.  Tel Aviv, Bali, Moscow.  Those were in 2002.  Istanbul, Madrid.  The Charlie Hebdo shootings, also in Paris, were at the beginning of this same year.   
I didn't used to feel like this.  I remember how disturbed I was the day the towers fell.  How eerie it felt being at work, trying to concentrate on getting things done, trying to get the employees in my unit to stop talking about it and get stuff done.  One of our sales reps revealed that his brother was a New York fireman.  He had been dispatched to the towers after they were struck.  He was declared missing after the towers collapsed.  They found him, still alive, in the basement of one of the towers two days later, pinned beneath a pile of rubble.  He was one of the last survivors pulled from the scene.  
Driving home that day, I stopped at a red light.  While waiting for the light to change, I tried imagining what it might have been like for someone in the first tower.  I saw my pretend self self arriving at cubicle, putting my stuff in a drawer of my desk.  I turned on the computer in my dream.  While it was booting up, I look out across to take in the view of Manhattan my window afforded me, one I'd looked out countless times before.
Only this time, there's a jumbo jet, filling my vision, heading straight toward me.  
The next thing I new I was racing down the street.  I had run the red light I'd been sitting at.  I was speeding down the road toward another.  I hit the brakes.  I pulled over.  I sat there, heart trying to knock a hole through my chest to escape.  That's what I wanted to do.  That's what I was feeling.  The desire to escape.  To Get Outa There!  I leaned my head against the steering wheel, taking deep breathes to calm down enough to drive home.  
I imagined myself being at the concert hall in Paris while driving home last night.  But it was different.  In this day-dream, I imagined ripping the AK-47 from the hands of one of the attackers.  I shot him and his partners, then ran down the street, shooting the others.  Very Die Hard-esque.  Very much like a video game.  I didn't entertain this day dream for very long.  It was crass.  A reactionary, knee-jerk desire to have what happened not have happened.  
I remember a term I heard, years and years ago, in reference to the troubles going on in Northern Ireland when the IRA was still active.  It was called "an acceptable level of violence."  It refers to a state in a situation such as what was happening in places like Northern Ireland, where people are killed in bombings or shootings, but where the rate of such incidents are such that things carry on despite them.  Businesses run, people take precautions, no one likes it, but it doesn't stop society from functioning.  
It's where incidents like this become like accidents on the freeway in Los Angeles.  Or tornadoes in Arkansas where my parents live.  Things that happen.  
The events in Paris are a tragedy.  A terrible one.  A horrific one.  People shouldn't have to fear being shot when going to a concert, or blown up at a soccer game.  But the situation that precipitated this reaction (I purposely do not want to use the term "inspired," since there is nothing inspirational in the reaction of the perpetrators) has been festering for years and will continue to fester on into the future.  Unfortunately.  
There is one last news item that I heard on the radio this morning.  They were interviewing a reporter that lives in Paris, on the same block where the concert hall is located.  He described to the interviewer his effort to get home.  People running the opposite way on the street.  Talking his way past police blockades.  People being ushered into shops and stores for their safety.  The surreal nature of it all.  When asked if he knew anyone "involved" in the incident, the reporter told the interviewer that his neighbor was shot.  A 55 year old man who lived next door to him.  He'd been at home when it happened.  But when he looked out his window, hearing the shots and the screams of the victims, he had rushed out of his apartment and down the street to help them get to safety.  He was shot in the arm while trying to help people. 
"Your neighbor is crazy," I thought as I listened to the report.  But it's a good sort of crazy.  The type of crazy that says such things shouldn't be like tornadoes or traffic accidents and that no level of violence is ever acceptable.  

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Mental Self-Sedation

The recent hospitalization of a colleague of mine prompted a recollection of the first time I ever spent the night in a hospital, and the realization of where that event stands in my life.  
It was in the summer before my last year in college.  I was in a summer Shakespeare festival, cast in Moliére’s Tartuffe and Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, playing physically comedic roles in both.  Early during rehearsal, while moving a table on stage, I felt a gentle pop in my groin, and a small bulge there when I reached down to feel it.  
I had developed a hernia.  
A trip to the doctor confirmed my suspicions as to what had happened.  I was assured that with surgery, I would be able to still perform in the festival.  I’d have to have the procedure done while I was awake, though, to allow me to walk shortly after the surgery.  This would allow the internal stitches to “set,” the doctor told me, cutting my recovery time significantly over being put under for the process.
This was the first time, and so far only time, in my life to have surgery.  I was nervous.  Especially when they gave me paperwork to sign that basically said if I died on the operating table I wasn’t going to hold them responsible. 
My dad took me to the hospital Thursday night.  I was going to spend the night there, without eating, and have the operation Friday morning.  If all went well, they were going to let me go Friday night.  
Around 4:30 AM or so, they came to wake me up.  I was already awake, having slept only fitfully throughout the night.  I kept worrying about all the things that could go wrong.  The nurse that arrived to prep me for the surgery didn’t ease my concerns.
“Morning.”  She was short, stout, with the manner of someone who’d been doing the same job for way too long.  I think she deliberately dropped the “Good” from her greeting.  “I’ve got your shots.  Roll over and pull down your shorts.”  
“Shots?”  As I started to turn away from her, I noticed her laying two syringes with tags on the movable table by my bed.  I got on my stomach.  Pushed my underwear down.  Felt the cold dab of a pad rubbing against my cheeks.  The smell of alcohol stung my nose.  
“Uh, what type of shots--?”  My question was sliced off short by the harpoon that she drove into my butt.  I arched up, my body curling backwards to encircle the point of impact.  
“It hurts more if you clench like that.”  She ripped her first weapon my my body.  The second one plunged in a moment later.  I felt like the white whale, finally cornered, with Ahab taking his revenge.  “You can roll back over now.” 
With my butt feeling like it’d been turned into a motionless lump of clay, I pulled up my shorts and pushed my body over on to its back.  She was looking at the tags on the syringes and entering the information into my chart.  
“It was a local anesthetic for your procedure and a sedative.”  
“To help you relax during surgery.  Someone will be here to shave you.  I’ll be back with a stretcher.”  She tapped the chart with her pen, folded it closed and marched out the door.  She didn’t look at me once, except to stab me with her syringes I presume, during the entire exchange.
If this was their bedside manner in administering anesthesia, what could I expect during the operation itself?  Where they going to hang me by a rack and use cleavers on me like I was a side of beef?  Thoughts like that kept racing through my mind as I waited.  I clutched the covers to me, like a child that believes his blankets could shield him from the dangers in the dark.  I kept trying to swallow, but they’d taken my water from me last night.  
And then, something...  Changed.  I remember feeling it, like I was being slipped into warm water to float gently above the bed.  One moment, I was scared, nervous and everything seemed dark and dangerous.  The next...
The next moment, everything was...  Beautiful.  And fascinating.  And, and...  Beautifully fascinating.  I started to sing.  Just like that.  At first the lyrics to my favorite songs, then made up songs about how really, really nice it was just to be there and be able to sing. 
A guy in a nurse's garb came into my room.
“Hey!”  I sat up in my bed.  Here was someone I could talk with.  I wanted to find out everything about him and what he was doing in my room.  “Who are you?”  
“I’m Joe.”  He lifted a plastic tray in his hands.  “I’m here to shave you.”  
“To make me look good during surgery?”  That sounded like such a wonderful idea!  I rubbed my chin and cheeks, feeling the day’s worth of stubble.  
“Down there...”  He nodded toward my crotch.
“Ah...  Oh-Kay!”  That sounded like an even BETTER idea!  
I talked to Joe the entire time he shaved me.  Did he only shave guys?  Who shaved the female patients?  How many patients did he shave in a day?  They they have special classes in nursing school for shaving people?  He answered all my questions dutifully and completely while removing every strand of hair on the front of my body, from just below my belly button to just above my knees. 
Just as Joe was gathering his things, the nurse with an assistant pushing a stretcher.  
“Time for surgery?”  I was excited now.  Looking forward to it.  “Joe’s got me ready for it.  See?”  I lifted my hospital gown to show them the marvelous job he’d done shaving me.
“Good job, Joe.  Put that down.  We’ll slide you over.  DON’T Help!”  I clasped my hands to my chest, resisting the urge to do so.  
As they wheeled me down the hall, I continued to ask questions.  When I didn’t have questions, I sang.  Sometimes just wordless tunes, the way birds might sing at the sight of the rising sun, happy to be alive.  
We reached the operating room.  There were four or five people there, all wearing green  gowns and masks.  The two nurses helped move me to the table.  The nurse and the assistant left.  
The operating room was COOL!  It was just like in the hospital dramas on TV.  I was trying to look at everything when one of the people wearing a mask came up to me.
"Hello, Erick?  How are you doing?"  
It was my doctor.  I told him, “I’m doing superb!”  He chuckled and patted me on the shoulder.  The nurse moved in and pulled my left arm out, laying it on a platform that extended from the table.  She had dark almond eyes that smiled at me over her mask as she strapped my arm to the platform.
“Who are you?”  
“My name is Song.”  
“That’s so cool!  Do your parents love music?”  
“I’m Korean.  It’s a Korean name.”  
“Do Koreans love music?”  
She laughed and moved around the table to strap down my other arm.  
“Why are you strapping my arms down.”
“So you don’t try to help.”  
I then noticed another person, sitting near the foot of the table.  His head barely visible over the toes of my feet.  His eyes were crinkled up, I could see his cheeks bunching up from smiling.  
“Hi.  Who are you?”  
“I’m Steve.”  His eyes crinkled up some more.  “I’m your anesthesiologist.”  
“Oh, Wow!  Are you the guy that proscribed the sedative they gave me?” 
He nodded.  “Yep!”  
“I like you, Steve.  Can we be friends?  Can I get more of the sedative from you when we’re done.”  
His eyes crinkled up to the point they disappeared.  “Nope.”  He shook his head.  
It went on like that.  Me asking questions.  Me loving the answers I got.  Me singing whenever I ran out of things to ask and learn about, until I could think of something else to ask.  
Eventually, the surgery was over.  They wheeled me back to my room.  They let me eat something.  They made me walk.  They joyful, wonderful feeling remained, but it increasingly found itself in competition with a growing exhaustion.  
My dad came into the room. “I came to get you,” he said. 
That mad me so happy.  “Thanks, Dad.  I love you.” 
Dad smiled.  “I love you too, son.”  
I was telling the employees in my department about this experience, going over the funnier details, when out of my mouth came, “It was the happiest day of my life.”
“Really?” one of them asked.  “The happiest day of your life?”
“Yeah.”  There was a pang of something going through me as I answered.  “It was.”  
And that pang was caused by more than just a grain of truth.  I tried, years later, to find out what sedative they’d given me.  To figure out what had made me so...  Blissful.  
The thing about it was, the sedative didn’t make me feel happy, I don’t believe.  It turned off the fear.  It turned off the anxiety.  It turned off any feelings of embarrassment.  And what was left was me.  Me as I am, deep down inside.  As I was as a child.  Curious.  Wanting to know.  Wanting to sing.  Wanting to play and not caring if anyone thought I was silly or stupid while doing so.  
I should proscribe myself permission to let him out again.