Sep 19

Back to normal

The Wake County schools are closed again today, so Ruth and Ben get a four-day weekend. It’s back to work for me and Marie, however.
Driving to work this morning, I didn’t notice any damaged structures, or even road hazards caused by fallen tree limbs. (I’m sure there were some, but they had been cleared before I tried to use those roads.) I did encounter a couple of nonfunctional traffic lights. And the parking lot of my office building is carpeted with fallen leaves. That’s not unusual this time of year, except that these are green leaves.
So Isabel seems to have been no big deal as far as Raleigh is concerned. It was hazardous, but no more so than a major thunderstorm. Was the danger exaggerated by the news media? Gregg Easterbrook thinks so. Personally, I don’t regret any of the preparations our family made; even if they weren’t necessary for this particular storm, the exercise was a useful practice run for the next Hurricane Fran or Floyd. But Easterbrook has a point. If every tropical storm is heralded by the media as the end of the world, eventually people will stop paying attention. And when the next Fran or Floyd does come along, most of us won’t heed the warnings.

Aug 15

By the numbers

Today is Jen’s birthday. I hope she won’t be annoyed if I mention her actual age, but since she announced it herself a year ago, I think the risk is minimal. She’s 31, which is cool, because it’s a prime number. Jen may not think this is a big deal, because it’s only been two years since the last time her age was a prime (29). But this will only happen once more in the next decade, when she’s 37. (As it happens, my age is also a prime at the moment: 43. Just thought I would mention that.)
This is a game that I always play on my own birthday: what’s the mathematical significance of my new age, and how rare is it? Prime-number ages are interesting, but relatively frequent; if you look at this list, you’ll see that your age will be prime twenty times if you live to 71, and thirty times if you make all the way to 113. But there are other distinctions. Next year, Jen’s age will be 32, which is a power of two. That’s really rare — now that I’ve passed 32, this will only happen to me one more time, when I’m 64. (Medical science will have to make some impressive advances if I’m going to live to be 128. I’m not betting on it.)
And then there are perfect squares. Jen’s last one was 25, but she’ll be square again in five years, when she turns 36. And the year after that, she can use her age as an excuse to quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “I’m 37! I’m not old!” Well, she can if she’s as much of geek as I was. Of course, that means that when you turn 42, you have to point out to everyone that your age is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
Actually, I suppose you have to be a geek to play this game at all, don’t you?

May 03

Creative jaywalking

My new IBM office is in a building near the intersection of Six Forks Road and Millbrook Avenue in northern Raleigh. Unlike the other IBM sites where I’ve worked, this one has no cafeteria — but that’s not really a problem, because there are plenty of restaurants and fast-food places nearby. In fact, some are within walking distance. A shopping center at this intersection includes a KFC/Taco Bell hybrid, a Subway, a Chinese place, and a restaurant called the Bull and Bear. (What kind of restaurant is it? A dismal one, apparently.)
Although it’s not far away, the shopping center is diagonally opposite the IBM site, requiring me to cross both streets in order to get there. Both crosswalks are equipped with WALK/DON’T WALK signal lights and push-to-walk buttons. After having made use of these crosswalks several times, I have learned something interesting: the signal light for crossing Six Forks Road always says DON’T WALK. I’m not exaggerating — you can stand there as long as you like, but WALK never appears. (Needless to say, pressing the P-T-W button has no effect.) The simplest explanation is that the crossing signal is broken, but I have another theory. I believe that the city’s traffic engineers studied the intersection and concluded that it is never safe to cross Six Forks on foot, so they installed a signal that won’t let you try it.
Of course I don’t let that stop me. Six Forks may be too dangerous for ordinary pedestrians, but I went to the University of South Carolina, where you either learn to dodge cars or you don’t live to graduate. USC’s main campus is located in the middle of downtown Columbia, and a major thoroughfare (Greene Street) runs right through the middle of the campus. This is by design, I’m sure — the university’s founders believed that natural selection should be a part of the curriculum. That also explains the Horseshoe, a large grassy rectangle dotted with trees and crisscrossed by brick walkways. There is no vehicular traffic on the Shoe, but on most days there are multiple impact sprinklers in operation. To traverse one of those brick walkways without getting wet, you must observe the timing of the sprinklers and then carefully choose the correct walking speed and moment of departure. It’s kind of like a live-action version of Pac-Man, and it helps you develop the skills you need to cross Greene Street.
The Horseshoe has a large squirrel population, which provides the opportunity for another entertaining pastime: Squirrel Bingo. The entire Shoe is your Bingo card, divided into triangular spaces by the walkways. The squirrels are your counters. If you can find a contiguous series of spaces, each containing at least one squirrel, that crosses the Horseshoe from side to side, you win. I lived on the Shoe for a year, and by the end of it, I could play Dodge The Sprinklers and Squirrel Bingo simultaneously. Compared to that, crossing Six Forks Road isn’t even a mild challenge.
UPDATE: Marie reminds me that Greene Street had gates that were used to close it to vehicular traffic and save students from being run over. True, but the gates were only closed during the daytime on weekdays; on evenings and weekends, it was back to Pedestrian Roulette. And in any case, the gates only protected a couple of blocks of Greene, from Sumter Street to College Street. If you wanted to walk to class from Sims (where Marie lived), or from the Presbyterian Student Center (where I lived during my senior year), you still had to dodge cars.
Marie also denies any knowledge of Squirrel Bingo, even though she worked on the Horseshoe at the South Caroliniana Library. That just proves that she was spending too much time on her job, and not enough time gazing out the window.
UPDATE: Bob reminisces about life on the Shoe.

Aug 15

Make a wish

Dear Jen:
It’s just after midnight, so perhaps if I type fast, I can be the first to wish you happy birthday. And do make it a happy one, because I think this is going to be the best year of your life so far. Take it from me: turning thirty is cause for celebration.
Believe it or not, great things are beginning to happen for you. You may think that the emotional roller coaster you’ve been experiencing is a sign that your life is slowly-yet-surely falling apart, but you’re wrong. All of the disillusionment, soul-searching, and confusion is part of a process that’s hard to recognize while you’re going through it, but becomes clear when you look back later: you’re growing up.
Wait, don’t hit me! I know that statement sounds condescending, but that’s only because our society equates growing up with adolescence, and considers the process complete at 21, when we’re legally adults. Well, the physiological and legal transition may be over at that point, but the emotional change is a lot more gradual, and continues throughout the twenties for most of us. Letting go of the remnants of childhood and adolescence is a slow process, and one that our culture is largely unaware of.
But you can almost always tell when the transition is complete. You know you’ve reached that point when you decide to consciously reject those vestiges of your past because they’re interfering with your ability to go forward. You realize that you’ve been clinging to those things because they made you happy when you were younger — but they don’t make you happy anymore. You’re a different person now. And so you put away childish things and get on with your new life.
For me, this happened in 1985 and ’86, and it took the form of deciding to stop trying to be a college student forever. After being terribly lonely and unhappy in high school, I was fortunate to end up in 1978 at the University of South Carolina (which I loved from the moment I laid eyes on it) and find a social setting at the Presbyterian Student Center where, for the first time in my life, I felt at home. I not only made friends there, but also got involved in activities that I enjoyed (dance classes, puppet shows, study groups, Dungeons & Dragons games) and even served on several committees and eventually on the PSC council, getting elected treasurer twice and being selected my senior year as one of two live-in house managers. The stresses of term papers and exams were there, of course, but I was happier than I had ever been before because I fit in. I didn’t want it to end.
But of course it had to. By 1981, most of my friends had graduated. I made new ones, but the group that had made me feel so welcome was disintegrating. After I graduated and got married in 1983, I decided to continue into graduate school at USC in part because I wasn’t ready to leave. I continued to be active at the Presbyterian Student Center, but by 1984 virtually all of my original circle of friends was gone. And something else was happening that I wouldn’t have believed possible: I was growing tired of being a college student. The routine of classes and tests and papers was getting old. I was even becoming sick of the USC campus; I felt that I could walk from dorm to class to student center with my eyes closed, and it was just no fun anymore.
In 1978 the university had seemed like paradise to me; I had thought I could be happy there forever, but now it was time to leave. Marie and I moved off campus, I dropped out of graduate school, and I started looking for a real job. We gradually quit going to PSC activities. By the time Marie got pregnant in late ’85, I was ready to let go of the student lifestyle. In June of 1986, I was a father and a full-time technical writer, but the real transition to adulthood had taken place the year before, when I stopped trying to hang onto my past and began to embrace the future.
I see the same thing happening to you now. You’ve rejected your previous habit of trying to change your life with cross-country moves. You’re questioning your previously cherished romantic notions about being a writer. You’re facing the fact that you can’t eat like a teenager anymore. And you’ve realized that living with your parents and siblings is no longer comforting; it’s stifling. You’re ready to move on.
This process may be traumatic, but trust me, it’s worth it. Letting go of the leftovers of childhood is hard to do, but it’s also liberating. Forget the over-the-hill jokes you’re hearing — the thirties are a golden age of independence, personal growth, and empowerment. You’ve been testing your wings; now you’re ready to take flight and soar. Your best days are ahead of you, and you now have the freedom to fully explore your capabilities as you never have before. You’ll be amazed at what you learn about yourself in the years to come.
Happy birthday, Jen. And welcome to adulthood. You’re going to love it.
All the best,

Apr 01

Signs of spring

What a difference a three-day weekend makes. This afternoon, I stepped out of my office and saw, framed in the window at the far end of the hallway, a riot of color that wasn’t there on Thursday. Someone has parked a couple of extra chairs in front of that window to be moved to storage, and those chairs were silhouetted against a cloud of pink flowers: a tree in full bloom.

Later, as I walked out to the parking lot at the end of the day, I encountered daffodils blooming beside the walkway, and trees laden with white flowers among the parked cars.

Did all this happen over the weekend? Or have I just not been paying attention?