Death and Spreadsheets

It has been too long since my last entry in this blog. This is not a result of ill health or other problems (in spite of the title of this posting), but comes from the very happy fact that I have finally started work on a long-planned novel. After finishing six chapters, I find myself wrestling with some structural issues in the plot, and thought it might be helpful to step back from the project for a Sunday afternoon, and share some other thoughts that have been on my mind.

I am retired, and fortunate enough to enjoy a pension from my former employer as well as Social Security (which I have paid for and expect my government to honor, Mr. Boehner). Still, I do depend upon my investment portfolio for a significant portion of my income. Being a computer scientist, I have constructed a number of spreadsheets using risk analysis, Monte Carlo Modeling, and other techniques to determine if I will outlive my money (certainly a blessing, but like many blessings, it is one that would create some degree of inconvenience).

Death and the Miser, Jan Provoost (1465-1529)


I have done this for a few years now, and was happy to see that each year, the probability of my money lasting seemed to improve. At least I was happy until I realized the reason this was so. Each year I live means I have fewer years to pay for. Death, it would seem, has become a major factor in my financial planning. Continue reading

Posted in Cognitive Science, Personal Reflections, Religion, Science | Comments Off

What are the stages of a man’s life, and what the hell am I doing in this one?

This morning, as my wife and I were relaxing after our Sunday morning breakfast and enjoying a last taste of coffee and orange juice before starting a busy day of not watching the Super Bowl, she decided to play one of the Twilight Zone episodes she recorded from the New Years SyFy Channel Twilight Zone Marathon (NYSFCTZM). It was the episode with Andy Devine as Frisby, the doyen of a group of old coots whose lives centered on telling tall tales around the stove at the local gas station. I won’t go into details about the episode other than to say that Frisby’s tall tales result in his being abducted by space aliens, and his atrocious harmonica playing leads to his release. The story ends with all the other old coots throwing Frisby a surprise party on his sixty third birthday, and refusing to accept his sworn account of the abduction as anything other than another tall tale.

Rembrandt: One old coot regarding the bust of another old coot

Unfortunately, watching this episode, and its implication that men of my age can legitimately be relegated to old coothood made me wonder about the current stage of my life. I am a few years older than Frisby, but hardly consider myself to be an old coot. I asked my wife for some reassurance on this note, and received an affectionate, witty, but disturbingly ambiguous response. As a result, I began thinking about this stage of my life, and what it all means. This is something I do from time to time, probably because I am at this stage of my life.

Part of the problem is that I don’t know of a clear alternative to old coot that I can use to describe myself. I don’t really feel comfortable imagining myself in the demographic group assigned to me by popular television news and entertainment shows and their commercials, which characterize men of my age as reinventing themselves with great vigor and creativity, in spite of being obsessed with golf, unable to make love to their sexy but age-appropriate wives without pharmaceutical assistance, and possessing an overwhelming urge to vote Republican.

So, I have decided to spend this Super Bowl Sunday in a pursuit even less productive than watching football. I have decided to develop an improved model of the stages of a man’s life, in the hope that it will help other men my age escape the stigma of premature old-coot-hood. I will limit it to the lives of males – actually retired, white, American, former professional, middle class males – since that is the only sort of life I have experienced. Continue reading

Posted in Gender and Sexuality, Personal Reflections, Politics | Comments Off

Lou Reed Died Yesterday

On the day his obituary appeared in the Albuquerque Journal, an article appeared on the front page describing how a Republican State Representative challenged a physical education instructor for having her students stretch before exercising. Although the teacher referred to the exercises as “stretching or mat work,” and did not mention yoga to her students, the representative, Alonzo Baldonado, objected because he did not want his daughters exposed to non-Christian religious practices.

“You can’t depend on no miracle
you can’t depend on the air
You can’t depend on a wise man
you can’t find ‘em because they’re not there

“You can depend on cruelty
crudity of thought and sound
You can depend on the worst always happening
you need a busload of faith to get by.”

Lou Reed, Busload of Faith

Goodbye, Lou. You will be missed.

Posted in Media, Music, Personal Reflections, Politics | Comments Off

The Tugendhat House vs. the Brutality of Abstraction

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the great modernist architect, designed Villa Tugendhat in 1930 as a home for Fritz and Greta Tugendhat in the city of Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic. It has since been recognized as one of the treasures of world architecture, and an elegant example of modernist design. I recently learned of this house through my informal study of architecture, but what moved me – as much as its beauty and the many innovations in its design and construction – is the history of its journey through World War II and the years that followed. The story of how the Jewish Tugendhat family lost their home when they fled the Nazi occupation, of the house’s abuse by German and later Russian occupiers, as well as the story of its restoration by the people of Brno have led me to reconsider old, possibly unanswerable questions about the recurring insanities that punctuate human history.

Villa Tugendhat, front view. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Villa Tugendhat – view from the street. Photo by David Židlický. © Vila Tugendhat.

From one perspective, it is superficial to worry about the damage done to a single house by the twin horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, when those horrors killed tens of millions of innocent people. Indeed, I have tried and failed to understand how people with an embodiment, culture, and education not unlike my own could have participated in such brutality. The scale of that cruelty is so great as to confound both reason and the emotional intelligence we normally rely upon to understand the tragedies of life. It is precisely because the story of Villa Tugendhat shifts our focus from the full scope of global tragedy to something more accessible to ordinary empathy that it may help us to find the understanding we need.

I also believe that this story may provide a deeper appreciation of the ways that great architecture and the simple, universal experience of creating a home can enlighten our minds and heal our souls.

Continue reading

Posted in Design, Literature, Personal Reflections, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off

“Elegy for Isis” was just published!

In 1993, when I was living in Vermont and working as a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, Isis, died of old age. Although she was my wife’s cat, Isis and I had become friends, and she was a great companion through the long New England winters I spent planning lessons, grading papers, and finishing my own doctoral dissertation. Shortly after Isis passed, I wrote an Elegy for Isis, shared it with friends, submitted it to a few poetry magazines (without success), and then left it on my computer hard drive where it sat for many years. I did add it to this web site when I began blogging, but for the most part it had, like much poetry, been forgotten. Happily, I can say that sweet Isis’ elegy has finally been published!

BosqueBeastA few months ago, I was contacted by Keiko Ohnuma, the editor of the Bosque Beast, a beautifully conceived and realized newspaper for people who love animals and wish to see them protected and cared for. Keiko was writing an article on men who have worked for the welfare of animals, and she chose to include me in the piece by virtue of my work with Fabulous Felines. I met Keiko for the interview at the Flying Star Café, and immediately liked her, not only because of her fondness for animals, but also because we were both writers and shared the struggles and joys of people who are driven to place the world of sights, sounds, and sensations into the enduring magic of printed language. In the course of the interview, I asked if she would be interested in the poem. She said yes, and I sent it to her.

Elegy as published in the Bosque Beast

Unfortunately, space did not allow her to publish the poem with the interview, and once again, I forgot about it. So, I was both surprised and delighted to receive an email from Keiko telling me that Elegy for Isis was being published, both in the online and the print versions of the paper. I rushed out and grabbed three copies of the Bosque Beast, one to save, one to share, and one to frame. Although I have blogged for several years, and published technical papers and books, I still feel something strange, wonderful, and totally fresh on seeing my writing in print. I think this has something to do with knowing that other people have invested their creative energies in selecting fonts, laying the poem out on the page, adding illustrations, and seeing it through the difficult process of publication and distribution necessary to bring a work to life. It is as if their efforts had transformed my petty scribblings into something magical, something that has found its own place among all the words that have ever been spoken or written and still resonate through our little, blue planet – and that has returned to me as if newly discovered, but bearing a deepened, revelatory intimacy.

So, I thank Keiko and everyone at the Bosque Beast who made this experience possible, and urge you to visit the Bosque Beast to read an Elegy for Isis!

(This entry has been cross-posted to Fabulous Felines)

Posted in Design, Literature, Media, Personal Reflections | Comments Off