Death in the Office

This last weekend, we watched Akiro Kurosawa’s masterpiece: Ikuru — “To Live”

This is a study of a dying salaryman, a man who has worked all his life for a mindless bureaucracy, Its protagonist, on deducing he has terminal cancer (he is told it’s an ulcer, but knows better) must face his own mortality with the realization that he has had no influence or meaning in the world. While the movie is powerful out of a personal context, it cannot be fully appreciated unless you have either worked in a soul-killing environment, know someone who has, or have seen people die at the office and found yourself contemplating their lives. In Ikuru, the protagonist is dying of stomach cancer, an interesting metaphor since it links into the Japanese concept of “hara,” where the stomach is the seat of the soul in ways more analogous to the Western concept of “having heart.” Our salaryman has had his hara eaten away over the years, until he is a shell. He first looks to see what “pleasure” he can find, and finds it meaningless. He next seeks company of a woman who seems truly alive to him, in an effort to determine what makes her different. Finally, he returns to his bureaucracy, determined to make a difference by whatever means he can. And there, he finds his hara again.

My husband worked for one of those bureaucracies, and came home complaining about the nature of the work where people were only interested in retaining their jobs and covering their behinds, and the system was designed not to promote excellence or even adequacy, but merely a perpetuation of itself. Needless to say, it was a position in government. While he was there, he resolved problems that had been outstanding for years, and got letters of commendation from members of the public his bureau was supposed to serve, but hadn’t. But he refused to do things the way he was “supposed to,” following the old ways that had been established by a long lack of caring. And ultimately, it doomed his future there. He was laid off before his first year was out, because he didn’t fit in. And it was only then he realized it was a blessing, as he might have been caught in a system that hammers down any individual who strives to rise above the herd, and become just like them as his final fate. Or maybe not. Even Kurosawa’s salaryman ultimately bucks the system and finds redemption, before his death.

I firmly believe that fate intervenes with those who are destined for greater things. My husband’s ideals burn as a bright flame, and he sees his place as one that makes a difference in the world. The shape that will take is still unknown, but he already has made a difference in small ways, in the lives of those he touched from inside a lumbering dysfunctional bureaucracy. One of the things that has bound the two of us and inspired us both is a desire to make a positive difference in the world, one that will carry on long after we as individuals are forgotten.

Recently, a coworker died. Few people in the office even knew that he had terminal cancer. He came to the office as much as he could, and delivered amazing and brilliant pieces of code, by all accounts. Apparently, some knew he had had cancer for four years, but acted as if there was nothing in the background influencing his actions. I found myself wondering what was his motivation. Was this simply a need to carry on with a semblance of normal life, or was there something more? Did he see this work as something that made a difference? Was it something he loved, that gave him a reason to get up in the morning?

Most people work as the means to an end. They put in their hours, and go home to their “real life.” I’m marginally one of those. I really enjoy writing, as well as problem solving. It’s why I can go to a job in the tech industry, even though it’s not my passion. But I write in other fields and environments, and I am also motivated by a thousand other interests and beliefs. The people who are going through the motions to make a living, and have outside lives, those are people I respect, because they do have lives. They simply do not live them at work. I could wish, however, they might find a little of their passion in what they do.

My father, on the other hand, lived his life flat out to the wire. He loved designing sets. He loved travel. He loved food, and socializing. He loved designing things, inventing things. As he got older, he managed to find a balance between them all. At the time of his death, at age 91, he had a girlfriend half his age, was working on the sets for a major TV show, was traveling all over in his “down time” months, designing engines for a racecar driver, and living life to the max. One night, he simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up. It was as he would have wanted it, flat out until he crossed the final finish line.

I’ve seen people drop dead, still waiting to do something with their lives. That’s sad. Because NOW is all we have. There is no dress rehearsal. We make every moment count, or we don’t. That’s why I can’t stand on things I did fifteen or twenty years ago. That’s why I need to move on things in the present, and not wait for some opportunity that might never come. We make our presence felt constantly—or we can simply step back and vanish. People do it all the time. But if there is a price for heaven and a price for hell, a price for influence and a price for standing aside and letting the world pass, I will pay for heaven and influence. It’s a far better bargain overall.

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On Being a Geek Girl

I’m old enough that I can find it amusing that geek girls are something that the mainstream seems to find creepy. I am, and always have been a geek girl. I grew up watching Star Trek and making Emma Peel my role model, was an honors student and president of the Science Club. When I got to college, I found My People. The Electronics Club was full of folks who could quote episodes, chapter and verse, and everyone loved Monty Python (which I then discovered, thanks to my electronics geek boyfriend). I sat at simulators and crashed the Lunar Entry Module more times than I want to contemplate. I wirewrapped for my boyfriend. I tutored Computer Science students in correct English by diagramming sentences using computer flow chart methodology. Though a biology student, I learned about computers by hanging out with the best and brightest, some of whom were boy wonders who went on to help found companies. My then-boyfriend ended up working for NASA. And I went on to a career in tech, not in biology as I had once expected.

Along the way, I met programmers by day who were medievalists by night, weekend warriors who reenacted history in a variety of time periods, and who sung, played instruments, and punned unrepentantly. We recognized each other as kindred, and talked for endless hours/days/months about everything interesting in the world. We dressed up in what other people thought were odd costumes, and read lots of science fiction. We fought and drank and made passionate love with people with amazing smarts, and led amazing lives.

And mine continues to be amazing. But I have recently discovered that there are still people out there with nothing better to do with their lives than make fun of people who are interesting and creative and having infinitely more fun with life than they could ever dream of. Poor fools. Their entertainment seems to consist of watching tv and adopting a superior tone on the internet, in groups like Reddit, mocking geeks/nerds/dorks and their activities. Wow, I thought all this went out with Usenet and alt.flamewars. I am learning new slang, too, words like “neckbeard” and strange references to someone named Tobias.

And I’m chuckling, because they’ve never stood under a filled sail, watching dolphins escort their Tall Ship out the Golden Gate. They’ve never fired on a 50-gun Civil War cannon line at a recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg. They’ve never drunk a toast of atholbrose to a departed comrad in the darkness of the night at Renaissance Faire. They’ve never carressed naked flesh by firelight, while drums pounded in the distance. They’ve never had to pull a vintage airplane out of an induced stall, and felt the G-forces of a loop-the-loop. They’ve never danced a Castle Waltz with their partner almost painted onto their body. They’ve never partied like it’s 1925 at the Valhalla and Tallack mansions at South Lake Tahoe, complete with vintage cars. They’ve never felt the smack of live steel against live steel, or used a sabre to behead hapless vegetables from horseback. They’ve never felt the gratifying mule-kick of firing a Martini-Henry, legendary gun of the Zulu Wars. Poor sods. I’ve gotten together with fellow geeks and done all this and more.

And I’ve dated some amazing men along the way, from a city planner to an Air Force crew chief, from a costume designer who could pass for Oscar Wilde to a private investigator,  from a former State Assemblyman to an expert on nanotechnology. I’ve been on TV, just because I do what I do. I was a cougar long before anyone coined the term. And I ended up marrying an amazing geek soulmate, who loves to dress in top hats, and kilts, and waxes his moustache. Who will discuss John Stewart Mill with me, and could spend weeks in the Smithsonian, or get into the philosophical basis behind government economics, and supports me in all my efforts to make the world a better place for every element of humanity, even those who do not understand us.

It must be rough, being one of the mainstream masses, with little to do except hang out online and make snide cracks about those of us who live life to the fullest. I just thank god that their lives aren’t mine

“No memories I’ll sell/’Til I feast with a drunken angel/On the merry side of Hell.” –Michael Longcor, “Drunken Angel”



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Equinox Thoughts

I must have something in my Finnish/Irish bloodlines that makes me sensitive to the balance points of the year. It’s the light? 

When it’s approaching winter Solstice, I find myself counting down, somehow aware that the light is shifting, that soon Sunreturn will be with us. I feel the longest day coming in much the same manner. I don’t need a calendar, I just somehow Know. 

And now I am finding I react to the equinox as well. I hadn’t really thought about it, but this year it suddenly struck me that I was waiting for the tipping point into spring, and that I do this every year. Somehow, I just sense that we have passed that point, and days will now be longer than nights. Mmm, growth. Green things. 

Autumn is similar, but I anticipate harvest, turning leaves. Am I just more in touch with the crucial points of the year that mattered to my ancestors, when these were the crucial demarcation points that bounded a year lived by hearth fires and agriculture? 

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The Problem of Roosters

Back when people grew their own chickens, roosters weren’t a problem.

Yes, every now and then, you’d get a 4 am rooster, but those tended to end up in someone’s stew pot very quickly. In my home town, we actually had a 4 PM rooster. He was somewhere back of the post office, and he’d crow at around 4 pm every day. We all thought it was charming.

But that was a small town. Sometime in the 20th century, America moved away from farms and chickens became a novelty. And myths started to arise about chickens. Chickens were smelly, nasty, noisy birds. Bad, bad, bad. Chickens became illegal, a symbol of lower class living.

Poor chickens. They got a bad rap. I always felt deprived that my father and my brother got the bantam chickens, and I missed out. My brother told tales of the pomeranian chasing the banty roo across the yard, then getting to the fence and being chased the other way by the little rooster. It sounded charmingly fun. But my time was after the chickens.

Now, finally, I have chickens. Little by little, backyard chickens are becoming legal again, though there is still a long way to go. Chickens, btw, are no more smelly or noisy than dogs, actually probably less so. But then we come to the problem of roosters.

Chickens might be legal, but roosters usually aren’t. It might go back to that problematic 4 am rooster, but I think it’s a holdover of the “nasty, dirty chickens” problem. Oh, and cockfighting. Mustn’t forget cockfighting. So, what happens when you raise chickens from eggs? You get roosters. At least, you get roosters unless you’ve somehow made a deal with Other Powers that those eggs hatched all hens. Yeah, right.

And that’s when you find out that some roosters, particularily the ones who are hand-raised, can be sweet and charming. And illegal. And no one wants them, because most people live where you can’t have roosters. And that’s why I have a rooster whose name is “Dinner.”

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Illegal to Grow Your Food? SB 510 is Worth Pondering

In the movie “Blade Runner,” there is the statement that if you’re not a Blade Runner, you’re “little people.” And little people keep getting squeezed more and more under our current system. Small business, individuals, all those.

I read with interest about a rumor I heard this weekend, that there was a movement afoot to make it illegal for the “little people” to grow food. The instrument in question is SB 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010. I went out, and I read and read, and read everything from the “it’s fine and we need it” side to ravening conspiracy theorists. And my final conclusion is…


That’s just it. I haven’t slogged through the whole bill, but I’ve read the summary and some highlights of the actual text, and it’s enough to convince me that this bill is a Bad Idea. Why? Because, like so many things poorly crafted by our government in obscure legalese, it’s vague enough to be wildly subject to interpretation. And those kinds of flaws can lead to abuse, serious abuse.

Maybe you don’t like the local organic farmer, because he uses pig manure and it smells. Or you’re afraid of bees and know that someone who sells honey takes it to the Farmer’s Market in the next county over…which is in another state. There are loopholes and interpretations in the bill that could be used to target individuals or actions, totally outside the intention of its drafters.

Think someone won’t use it? I don’t have that kind of faith in my fellow man, I’m afraid. I just watched surveillance footage of LAPD staging a raid on a co-op market over organic milk. With guns drawn, and all the power and might of the police. Because, hey, it’s LAPD, and overreaction is their watchword. We aren’t a moderate people, at the moment.

Interestingly, how Mao controlled the Chinese people was through food. It was carefully controlled, and buying it or cooking it was either regulated or outlawed. People had to report to “feeding stations.” Of course nothing like that could ever happen in America. Particularily if the wrong person got their hands on a law that they could manipulate to suit their own intentions, right? I certainly hope so, because the alternative is grimmer than I want to consider. Where the law is concerned, it is better to err on the side of caution. But then, this is Washington. Anything can happen there.

Just food for thought, if I might use that phrase.

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County Fair Misses Its Mark

For years, the Santa Clara County Fair has been struggling, trying to redefine itself in an era where agriculture has given way to high tech. But maybe that’s the problem: it’s trying too hard to be “relevant” to the new urban lifestyle.

That’s not what county fairs are about. County fairs give us a chance to connect with our roots, even though we no longer live a rural lifestyle. You don’t go to the fair to connect with technology and the shopping mall mentality. You go to see animals, and watch demonstrations of kitchen gadgets, to find connection with groups like the local Master Gardeners or the Embroiderers Guild. The best parts of the county fair are the things that put you in touch with another world.

This time, it billed itself as a “Youth Fair,” and the kids from the 4H clubs exhibited rabbits and chickens, the local weaving group showed how to work with fiber, and leatherworkers let the kids try their hand at tooling leather. I understand the need to keep the kids involved, but the whole enterprise struck me as too little, too late.

Rather like the way that the Las Vegas Treasure Island Hotel and Casino decided pirates were a kid thing, and reworked itself into “TI” and the show “The Sirens of TI,” only to miss the boat that adults were finding pirates totally cool again, the Santa Clara County Fair doesn’t get that gardens and backyard livestock is fashionable again. People are canning. A whole new generation is learning to knit and crochet. People are hungry to reconnect with the lifestyles of an America not part of the consumer culture.

I see that at Highland Games. The Scottish livestock areas are always packed with people, and they inquire about Highland cattle, and check out the herding dogs. Maybe that’s part of the appeal of Renaissance Fairs, seeing people showing off lifestyles that are no longer our own, finding out the rich traditions formerly ours. Accessibility is what the County Fair should be about. You can find out that you, too, can be a part of modern America and still do some of the hands-on activities that our grandparents and great-grandparents engaged in.

And it’s one thing to connect through Farmville, but another to actually connect to the farm.

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The Old Rules Don’t Apply

It’s time to do what I have wanted to do for a while, observe the world of the 21st Century, where the old rules just don’t seem to apply any more. The assumptions of the 21st century are no longer valid, and we are reinventing ourselves and the world.

Why is this Jilara’s Wanderings? Because, in a place called the Usenet, back in the 1990’s, I sometimes called myself Jilara the Wanderer, as I observed and commented on the world. Who is Jilara? She’s a writer, a history buff, an urban agriculturalist, a traveler, and an active participant in the world. These are her thoughts on what happens around us.

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