Saturday, February 18, 2012

Riding the bus with the Rose King

Tonight, I met the Rose King. A gregarious fellow holding a Big Gulp cup full of roses, fussing away removing petals and, like me, waiting for a bus from Marina del Rey to Santa Monica. He was fussing with them, pulling petals, stripping thorns and just as the bus was about to pull in he handed me one and said 'give this to your girl'.

"I don't have a girl" I replied.

"Use this to get one" he shot back. Seeing him standing there, I started to think of a refrain from a poem. I started to try to recite it but the Rose King turned to me and said "no, write it out". So I did.

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky:
The dew shall weep thy fall to night;
                                    For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angy and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave
                                    And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My music shows ye have your closes,
                                    And all must die.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
                                    Then chiefly lives.

- 'Virtue', George Herbert.

I scribbled it on a random sheet of paper and gave it to him, trying to recite it so that he could read over my terrible handwriting. We chatted on the bus, he let me take a picture of him. He's Iranian, with a son over here. He has political asylum, obviously concerned about the whole immigration process since that's what he mostly talked about, but he also explained what he is doing with the roses (in a roundabout kind of way). He said "Sometimes miracles happen" and told me a tale of how a young guy, with a beautiful girl on his arm, one time bought his roses for $100 and then gave them back to him. An act of magnanimity that seemed to reaffirm his faith in the world's goodness. Like everyone here, he has his thing, and his thing is roses. 

Currently, I am reading a book about the Middle East: a 1200-page tome called 'The Great War for Civilization" by Robert Fisk. It's a masterpiece about the wars, horrific persecution and disgusting hypcrocrisy that have torn through the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran (and I'm sure we'll get to Lebanon, Syria, Israel as well quite soon, I'm only up to page 200). Rather than read about the torture methods used by the Savak (the Iranian secret police, back in the day) to carve up dissidents, I got to chat to this charming fellow who must have lived through that oppression at some point in his life. 

I don't know this man. I don't know what to make of him. Riding a bus at 11pm with a whole bunch of roses, just to give away to strangers. His story sounded a little sad, a little regretful. He's probably poor and even maybe a little desperate. In the way that matters, and with a twinned Persian gregariousness and Angeleno semi-pseudo-spirituality with that simultaneous shabbiness and dignity, he conjures up the last, powerful stanza of the poem as a sweet and (somewhat) virtuous soul. 

Here he is. If you see him, say hi. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Step Outside

Let's step outside this too rich place,
Where all our thoughts are bought and sold.
Our eyes and ears bombarded with,
The catcalls of this branded world.

Let's sip creation where we can.
Drink down its strength, imbibe its scope
Let's dine on any tastes we find,
To move our hearts and seize their hope.

And then, and only then, we may
Possess the wealth we use and see
By knowing all the bargains struck
For creativity

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Yoga Practice

These field of wire, that intermeshed,
and joined to loose-limbed bones,
Pull in swathes of fibers,
To wash these limbs in force.

The tissues of this jagged form,
Discover geodesics in its grain,
To coruscate with breath like
Crops under summer's breeze.

    Thus, coiled uncoiled,
    I move unmoving.

Every final goodbye is a killing

Every final goodbye is a killing
Even when one softens the blow
The kindness you showed me at leaving
Is nothing to those in the know

Since there's nothing left for the future
Just another door closed with a slam
Soft words are all empty and heartless
A deflection, a lie and a sham

And I don't understand all this meanness
Surrounding my deeds and my acts
When all that I said was just what I felt
And all that I did was react

But that's just not enough for you, is it?
I say the wrong thing and you're gone
No discussion, no wisdom, no patience
Just anger, goodbye and we're done

Kingfisher's Wings

Bright and blue, glittering flashes,
They hide behind your smooth eyelashes

Swoop, dive and flutter in flittering dance,
They rise and they soar in your every glance.

Rare and elusive with glimmering light
You hold, in your eyes, Kingfishers in flight

Dancer Dancer

Sparks of light uncoil from you
As, moving, you unleash a grace,
That swirls and cascades through the air
Weaving poetry in space.

The cadence of your movement,
The flutter in your spine,
Are far more simply eloquent
Than these poor words of mine.

Since I can only try to please
With clever little rhymes,
But you, in flowing elegance,
Breathe life, make love, stop time.

L.A. Observatory

(first impressions of the evening view from Griffith's Observatory)

The view seizes my breath
As I glimpse this city's too vast soul.

The sky is a gauze, bathed by photons,
Washing out the distant raging stars,
With a net of rising light,
Cast by fifteen million souls.

The earthbound constellations glimmer through ozone.
They ignite and die in a clicking of switches.
The ground seethes and shimmers
And the Universe, upstaged, is devoid of stars.

Why am I not surprised?
After all,
This is L.A.

A thread of gently falling stars is strung across my eye.
A queue of Boeings,
Sparse along the border of quiescent heaven and boiling earth.
Each mote of light is three hundred lives.
Like me, they await their immersion in a sea of bright and seething light.

A stunning video of Nightfall over Los Angeles (By Colin Rich)


I had my eye of calm quiet space,
amid confusion wildly hurled,
in which I used to watch and wait
as about me whirled the world.

And looking up, out of myself,
I saw your face amid the bustle,
With calm, bright eyes, and lucid health
Your thoughtful voice devoid of hustle.

And I leapt out, into the wall
Of shifting, moving, whipping things
It caught me, threw me, made me fall
Just like a bird with broken wings.

And now when I have no defense
When I can quietly stop and see:
All the things you said make sense:
The only thing that moves is me.

I am the wind about my heart
That shreds and flays my confidence
I keep me wild and set apart
I treat the world with violence

And so, right now, I have to slow
This frenzied, whirling, crazy spin,
To search and find what I can do
With this, my strange cyclone within.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What is a life worth?

The movie 'Margin Call' is a Wall-Street thriller, almost a re-enactment drama, almost a disaster movie. It depicts the events of a single night when a brilliant financial analyst, working alone, suddenly discovers the oncoming financial tsunami of the subprime mortgage crisis. It is simply brilliant, showing the startling, horrific influence of unfettered money-making on everything. It shows the impact and impotence of almost every positive, resilient human trait when faced with the sheer unmitigated power of wealth fighting for its own survival. 

Whilst watching the film, I was struck by how inexorable, how irresistible the force of this leviathan was. There's a scene when a senior analyst, previously fired by the firm and masterfully played by Stanley Tucci, looks over his life with a sense of regret and ponders his previous career as an engineer. He had built a bridge for commuters so that they spent less time in their cars and more time doing whatever they wanted to do. Tabulating in his head the millions of hours that 'his bridge' had saved over its lifetime, he could honestly claim to have made a tangible difference in the lives of the people who used his bridge. He could make no such calculation for his exorbitantly expensive career in finance. I was left feeling a little shocked and nauseated by the message of the scene, partially because it was so well delivered, partially because it was true. At some level, in the world today, the worth of a life is mainly measured in dollars, pounds and cents (or maybe even in yuan).

I'm a scientist, with healthy annual income, so why should I care? I think it matters what we value as a society since that's where we put our energy. We are immersed in the conversations of the wealthy and powerful. Donald Trump makes headlines by making the most absurd assertions and happily basks in undeserved notoriety and influence. I always have this almost uncontrollable urge to scream obscenities at the television whenever I see him on it. One day, I swear, I'll be unable to contain myself and get myself into all sorts of trouble. 

So let's ask the question: What is a life worth? How might we measure this? 

Christians (and some cartoonists) talk about the conversation you might have with St Peter at the Pearly Gates when he takes a long, lingering look over the balance sheet of your life to decide whether you may pass into the kingdom of Heaven (or not). I think of this often (although as an atheist, not with this particular imagery). When I die, looking back over my life, what would my balance sheet look like? What might I be proud of? What might I be ashamed of? Moreover, extrapolating from this sort of internal, private conversation, would it not be valuable to society as a whole to be able to evaluate this accurately and empower the people who make the biggest difference? We might stop paying such a lot of attention to ridiculous blowhards on TV.

A recent study by Kahneman and Beaton shows a distinction between emotional well being and life evaluation as measures of 'quality of life'. They show that there is a ceiling to the effect that money has on your emotional experience of life, beyond which, making more money has little effect. Broadly speaking, they did this by asking people about their day-to-day experience of positive emotions (laughing, happiness), 'blue' feelings (sadness, worry, anger) and stress. Having a family income of less than $75,000 per year seemed to exacerbate the impact of negative life events and simply makes it hard to cope. But having more money than that doesn't necessarily make your experience of life more positive or less stressful. This is in contrast to the way in which people evaluate their life in response to a question where respondents are asked to rate their 'current life' to their 'best possible life'. That question is directly correlated to how much money you have. There's always somewhere better to get to in the land of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Another statistic mentioned in this study is that, tellingly, of the 151 countries surveyed, Americans ranked 5th for their high levels of stress. 

This is significant if we think of our emotional experience of life, our impact on others and their impact on us. Even though this would probably be impossible to do, what if we could calculate the duration and intensity that the consequences of my actions had on another person's emotions? How many days of happiness, sadness, or stress did my actions convey to other people? There's a quotation that says "people may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they'll always remember how you made them feel" which speaks directly to this. This even correlates somewhat to a financial argument. If a product makes more people happy, it will sell more units.  The financial argument doesn't necessarily run too deeply though. A financial evaluation of worth is predicted by market forces, so that the value of something is based on the presence of a market for it. If the worth of something cannot be easily perceived (or measured) then there will be a disconnection between its perceived worth and its actual worth. 

Consider the lives of two giants of the Information Technology world who died in 2011. Steve Jobs was eulogized and celebrated (justifiably so) but only a relatively small number of people lamented the passing of Dennis Richie. He was the inventor of the C programming language and the UNIX operating system. In the words of the historian Paul Ceruzzi: "… if you had a microscope and could look into a computer, you'd see his work everywhere inside." To compare these two great men is unfair, but at some level, the contribution of Richie is an order of magnitude greater than that of Jobs. But, because Richie's contribution occurred two or three steps removed from the glitzy iMacs, iPods and xBoxes that people would buy (including the machine you're now using to read this blog), his 'worth' may well have been recognized by some industry insiders and computer scientists, but would never have had any real financial reward. The challenge of understanding causality is an unsolved problem in most scientific fields. Understanding each of our parts in the grand web of interaction that makes up life with its messiness and complication is so difficult to be considered impossible. 

Another example of the tragedy implicit in our lack of knowledge of our contribution and impact to one another is the story of William Carothers. He was a brilliant chemist, well-recognized for his work during his lifetime and was the inventor of Nylon. The crowning irony was that he committed suicide at the age of 41 largely because (so the story goes) he couldn't "satisfy women" within his turbulent private life. In some way, he was the ultimate creator of every kind of lingerie elegantly and flamboyantly worn by women since the 1940s. At the end of the day, his balance sheet would have had a sizable checkmark in the 'made women happy' column. But that never translated back to him, even with recognition, even with fame, even with money. This resonates with me as a scientist, even more so since I am now the same age he was when he died and even more so since, as a bachelor, it's hard to know just how much I matter in the emotional lives of others. How do we really see or understand the contribution that we make? 

On the other hand, I sometimes think of Joesph Stalin as a man who's balance sheet was firmly skewed in the red, quite literally. He famously said "When a single person dies, it's a tragedy; when a million people die, it's a statistic". I think we have an obligation to give that measurement some teeth, some impact. A parent who raises their children well has an impact on their children's emotional life in its entirety. A musician who gives voice to a sentiment felt by people at their saddest (such a blues singer) might alleviate that sadness in millions. A medical scientist might contribute to make a great many people just a little bit happier, or even save the lives of a few. A nurse might alleviate the suffering of people in such pain so that they can die with dignity. A murderer might traumatize an entire family for life by killing a loved one. A politician might send troops to war, causing untold destruction in lives and subsequent conflict. A financier might sell mortgages to people that ultimately means that they lose their homes, bankrupting nations as they go. 

We are bound to impact others lives. At the very least, we must be aware of that impact and strive, to the best of our ability, to have that impact be a positive one. A 'man of consequence' is a weighty phrase. I would like to see us understand what that means, based on a person's actual consequences.