Tag Archives: life

Sideband #38: The Next Hill Over

Imagine standing on a very tall hill in middle of a thick forest. Your hill is tall enough to take you above the trees; when you look out over the trees, you can see for miles around you. Ahead you can see another hill sticking above the trees; this is your goal.

You want to reach that hill.

A question arises; you are asked, “How long will it take to reach yon hill? What will you need along the way?”

If you stood in a flat, empty field and looked across at your goal, it would be easy to answer the question. You have some idea how long it takes to walk a distance across a flat, open ground. The time it takes is just a function of distance to cover.

You can see any potential obstacles, so you can plan to avoid them if possible or bring along resources (boots, ropes, ladders, cleats, whatever). And you can calculate the time either choice is likely to add to the trip.

It’s just common sense: It’s easy to plan a journey when you can see the territory ahead.

The problem is that the forest conceals your path. It might be as easy as just walking down your hill and making a bee-line for the next hill; no problem, there might even be a beaten path. Or there might be rivers or ravines to cross. There might even be dragons. You can estimate the best case, problem-free, straight path. But any unknowns you encounter are most likely to increase the travel time.

After you’ve conquered a few forest paths you begin to get an eye for the lay of the land. You begin to get a feel for the kinds of obstacles you’re most likely to encounter. That makes you better at using rules of experienced thumbs to calculate better travel estimates.

But you still never know when there be dragons there.

I’ve used this metaphor to explain why estimating the time for any project can be tricky if it involves exploring new territory. And the thing is, software development is likely to explore new territory. Invention is often a project requirement, and experience does make you better at guessing what lies ahead.

It’s not a bad metaphor about life: Invention is often a requirement; experience makes you better at guessing what lies ahead.

What’s the ancient saying about experience? “Experience is a comb life gives you after you lose your hair!”

Sideband #13: The Number 42

Nearly all science fiction fans share a meme about the number 42. This meme comes from the Douglas Adams book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of the great “modern classics” (an apparent oxymoron, but it is just shorthand for ‘a recent work that is so good that someday it will be counted among the classics’). The book is the first in the “increasingly misnamed” trilogy that shares its name.

The trilogy is “increasingly misnamed” in that it now has five books. The joke is that, in science fiction, trilogies are as common as aliens, spaceships and time travel. In fact, depending on the context, there are a two trilogies that have earned the sobriquet, “The Trilogy.” (Issac Asimov‘s Foundation series in the context of pure SF; and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings books in the context of SF + fantasy.)

In any event, the number, 42, is the answer to the question.

Barrel of Wine; Barrel of Sewage

Last time, I wrote about irony and the perverse universe. This time I want to write about something just as fundamental. It has the technical name, entropy, and there is a very technical definition that goes along with that name.

I’ll return to that later, but for now consider this simple truth: If you have a barrel of fine wine, and you add a teaspoon of sewage, now you have a barrel of sewage. On the other hand, if you have a barrel of sewage, and you add a teaspoon of wine, you do not have a barrel of wine.

You still have a barrel of sewage!

Death: The Sandbar

Last week a friend of mine experienced one of the worst things that can happen to a parent: outliving your very young child. The past 16 months of her thread in life’s tapestry is particularly tragic and heart-breaking. It started a year ago March when her son, seven years old then, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given 12 months to live. Then, last November, her husband died at age 35 in an unexpected asthma attack. At that time, she was pregnant with their third child, a girl born this past May.

Last week this part of the thread finally ended having taken both men from her young life and leaving her to raise her new born and five-year-old daughter. If there is anything that leavens this heavy loaf, it is that she has the strong support of family and many friends. She is well-loved, which doesn’t balance the scales or make it easier to bear, but provides some solace. Her journey also should serve to remind us all just how rich and blessed our lives are and how we must cherish and appreciate each day.

This was not the only death that touched me this past week. In Arlington, Texas, a 39-year-old baseball fan reached out to catch a ball tossed to him by Texas Ranger Josh Hamilton and fell 20 feet to his death.  His six-year-old son was with him at the time. (In May, another baseball fan died in a fall at a Colorado Rockies game.)

If you live long enough, people you know die. The math is inexorable.

The first close one I knew to slip off the sandbar was my uncle, who died back in 1992. There was also a distant relative I’d never met (or to be honest, heard of) who was at the Pentagon on 9/11 (not funny how 2001 didn’t turn out like the movie said it would). He died later as a result of trauma suffered then. (He was deaf and didn’t know what was happening. I confess I’m not clear on the details as to the extent of the trauma; how much was physical, how much was psychological. On some level, it hardly matters; he was another of many lost that day.)

In the past decade, two friends slipped off the sandbar and were washed away. One was a co-worker and friend; someone I’d camped with, partied with and hung out with. He died of a brain tumor. Another was the wife of a couple of friends from our “Circle of Friends.” She died suddenly, unexpectedly, from a brain aneurysm. These were the first two of my peers to vanish downstream.

The sandbar is a metaphor that comes from author John D. MacDonald who wrote, among many other things, the Travis McGee novels. In one of those novels, Pale Gray for Guilt, he writes:

Picture a very swift torrent, a river rushing down between rocky walls. There is a long, shallow bar of sand and gravel that runs right down the middle of the river. It is under water. You are born and you have to stand on that narrow, submerged bar, where everyone stands. The ones born before you, the ones older than you, are upriver from you. The younger ones stand braced on the bar downriver. And the whole long bar is slowly moving down that river of time, washing away at the upstream end and building up downstream.

Your time, the time of all your contemporaries, schoolmates, your loves and your adversaries, is that part of the shifting bar on which you stand. And it is crowded at first. You can see the way it thins out, upstream from you. The old ones are washed away and their bodies go swiftly by, like logs in the current. Downstream where the younger ones stand thick, you can see them flounder, lose footing, wash away. Always there is more room where you stand, but always the swift water grows deeper, and you feel the shift of the sand and the gravel under your feet as the river wears it away. Someone looking for a safer place can nudge you off balance, and you are gone. Someone who has stood beside you for a long time gives a forlorn cry and you reach to catch their hand, but the fingertips slide away and they are gone.

There are the sounds in the rocky gorge, the roar of the water, the shifting, gritty sound of sand and gravel underfoot, the forlorn cries of despair as the nearby ones, and the ones upstream, are taken by the current. Some old ones who stand on a good place, well braced, understanding currents and balance, last a long time. A Churchill, fat cigar atilt, sourly amused at his own endurance and, in the end, indifferent to rivers and the rage of waters. Far downstream from you are the thin, startled cries of the ones who never got planted, never got set, never quite understood the message of the torrent.

I think that is the best image of life and death that I know. The river of time ultimately washes us all away. Time takes us all; some sooner, some later.

In closing, in honor of an eight-year-old boy who slipped from the sandbar far too early, a bit of the Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) song, Teach Your Children. It’s a beautiful song, and it keeps running through my mind:

Teach your parents well, their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they picked, the one you’re known by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.