Sunday, April 28, 2013

Death is Nothing

If I’ve been stooping or bending over and suddenly stand up, I’ll get a sudden drop in blood pressure in my head—called “orthostatic hypotension”—and the room will suddenly spin; fireworks go off in front of my eyes; and coherent thought becomes impossible.1 I can still stand erect—that is, I don’t collapse in a heap—but that’s more a matter of prior intent and muscle tension than present determination and action. At that moment of blankness, I am simply caught up in the effect. The ever-present me, the person who has intentions, desires, needs, plans, goals, purpose, responsibilities, and will power has, for these two or three seconds, simply left the premises.

When it happened again this morning,2 it occurred to me that this is what the approach of death must be like. I did not pass through a tunnel, see a white light, or gaze on the face of God. But what struck me was this utter dissociation from the body, combined with the fleeting realization that not only could I do nothing about it, but I couldn’t even care that I could do nothing.

Upon reflection—which is the reason for this posting—I decided this attitude of care-less-ness, in the exact meaning of that word, was a comforting thought. Death comes for us all eventually. And if, in that moment, we are taken out of our bodies by another and greater force—in this case, the brief draining of blood from the braincase—so that we don’t continue in our own little squirrel-wheel round of hopes and fears and plans, with no possibility of despairing of our dreams and vanished opportunities, repenting of our sins and hurtful actions, screaming for our lost loves, worrying about the responsibilities we will be shirking, or otherwise continuing to push at the outer surface of the membrane, or the leading edge of the wave, or the next temporal probability nexus, which we collectively call “life” … isn’t that a good thing? As we hurtle into the void, wouldn’t it be a comfort not to care too much about what is passing and disappearing?

Every religion has some view about the “afterlife.”3 For Christians, it’s heaven for the faithful and hell for the unfaithful. For Muslims, it’s much the same, except with different terms, tenets, obligations, rewards, and celestial or abysmal scenery. For Hindus and many other cultures, it’s some kind of return of the spirit to the actual world, through rebirth or reincarnation, with future status to be determined by present intentions and actions. For Buddhists, whose religion grew up as a protest against Hinduism and its eternal, endless rebirth under the pendulum of karma, the goal is to climb out of the cycle and reach Nirvana. But rather than any kind of clouds, harps, and angel-choir heaven, Nirvana is more a state of blessed stillness. They say that the Buddha, who was the first to achieve this state, simply went out, like a candle.

If my little orthostatic-hypotension trance is any indication, then I think the answer to what comes next lies closer to the Buddhist interpretation than any other. We simply go out. Where do we go? Not important—place, space, and celestial coordinates do not exist outside of human reference. When do we get there? Not meaningful—time is a human construct, and we go beyond time. How long do we stay? Well, forever, but review the preceding lesson about the nature of time. The only difference between my rendition of death and the Buddhist variant is that Buddha and his followers must struggle against karma and the endless cycles of rebirth, trying to perfect their natures so that they can go to that quiet place.4 In my view, we all get there on the first try.

This is, of course, an unsentimental and mechanistic view of human life. In it, the mystery of identity resolves itself into layer upon layer of complexity—and complexity for its own sake. We are simply an overlay of sensations and memories, positive and negative responses, likes and dislikes, that buds in the womb, opens its eyes on a cold, bright world, and continues growing and learning and digesting and deciding from that point onward. Like an onion, the human mind has no secret at the center, just one last tiny green shoot, a fragile membrane around a nothingness, no more important or meaningful than the last thought or fact or understanding or epiphany or doubt that was added in the most recent ten seconds—or in that final instant when the care-less-ness descends.

In this view, death is simply the off switch, the deprivation of blood and oxygen to the brain that harbors the circuits that record these overlaid sensations, memories, responses, and choices in electro-chemical form. One minute we are pushing against the next layer of membrane, or wave of insight, or temporal probability nexus … and then we’re not. The candle has gone out. Stillness.

And where in all this is the ego, the I, the thing that learns and chooses, the soul? Well, it’s an illusion, actually. Where is the focus of a sunbeam after it passes through a glass lens and becomes a bright, white-hot spot? Does it exist apart from the light rays that come together or the lens that focuses them? Consider that the light rays are the events of everyday life, the sensations, conundrums, choices, experiences, and outcomes, spread out over time, that will be written into memory at the next sleep cycle. Consider that the lens is the accretion of past sensations, experiences, and understandings that bend our focus toward this choice, that attraction, this action, that aversion.

Why does the soul have to be one thing? Why unified? Why a single entity?

We are all collections in retrospect: having various names, titles, positions, relationships, and aims throughout our lives. The goals and desires we have at age six are not those of age twelve, twenty-four, forty-eight, or even ninety-six. If we could meet ourselves in the flesh, active and separate, from twenty or forty years ago, we would hardly feel any spark of recognition. We would certainly recognize the then-current name. We might recognize some of the then-current circumstances. We might remember the face from a memory seen in the mirror.5 But it would be a different person. We might feel some affection or affinity for that person for the sake of auld lang syne but, depending on the choices and experiences that have occurred over the intervening years, we might also feel pity or even disgust and loathing.

Why does the soul have to be a single, unified entity even at the present moment, given that we all have three brains?

The medulla oblongata, the brain stem at the top of the spinal chord, controls the autonomic functions of the body, activities of which we are hardly aware: breathing—unless we take conscious control of it—heart rate, blood pressure, and all the other little housekeeping functions. The brain stem also includes the reticular activating system, which controls the focus of our attention and its arousal in the sense of cycling from mental activity into the blankness of sleep and back again to wakefulness. So the brain stem could be said to be the center of our awareness—but it’s an undifferentiated, thoughtless, up-or-down process. Not really thinking. Any creature that has a spinal chord, from fish up through primates, has this kind of awareness.

The hind brain, or cerebellum, processes inputs from the spinal chord—that is, everything going on in the rest of the body at a sensory and motor level—and integrates them with functions in the rest of the brain. The cerebellum lets us exercise our will as concerted action: to open and close our hands, move our feet, shift our weight, all in a smoothly timed sequence. The cerebellum lets us play basketball. Any creature that grows more of a brain than a bump on the spinal chord grows a cerebellum first.

The two lobes of the cortex, or cerebrum, sit atop the rest of the brain and control our understanding and volition. Various parts of the cortex assemble sensory input from the skin, eyes, ears, taste buds, and nasal passages6 into our view of the outside world. Other parts sample this “sensorium,” as well as our reactions to and ideas about it, and determine what fraction of that awareness will go into short- or long-term memory. Other parts assemble images such as lines and branchings in the visual cortex into writing, or sounds from the aural centers into language, or interpret our ongoing stream of thoughts into written and spoken words and sentences. Other parts do the same interpretation and assembly for mathematics, music, and the visual arts. And still other parts of the cortex sense the passage of time and assemble projections about what will come next in terms of what has come before.

Any of these pieces and parts may be supremely, or indifferently, or poorly capable of interpreting the multitude of experiences in daily life and initiating the tasks required in response. Any of these parts might give results that are true and insightful or false and nonsensical. And so any creature with this much potential for truth and falsehood in interpreting and reacting to any part of the sensorium will become a unique being. Perhaps good at hearing and creating music. Perhaps good at assembling thoughts into words. Perhaps good at seeing and creating visual art. Perhaps good at assembling past experience into future patterns. … And perhaps dull or defective in any of these tasks.

Couple this vast mix of abilities with the variations of experience that probability throws at us during the course of a life, and you have a binding web of complexity. We cannot know what our first thought, our first sensation, our first act of will or desire was or where it came from—any more than we can identify the first cell of our embryo that divided to create a second, fourth, eighth, sixteenth … billionth … trillionth cell in our current body.7

Is this a mechanistic view of life, of humans, of the soul? Oh, yes! And is that a reason to despair or to despise the nature of humans? Oh, no!

We are not clockwork. We are not machines of simple cause and effect, stimulus and response, as the Skinnerian behaviorists would have you believe.8 It’s only clockwork if you can trace out all the gears and their relationships, count the cycles, and predict the next step in the operation of the machine. The human brain, in any of its three main parts, is far too complex for a human mind to do any such accounting. Even when we understand the nature of the human mind better than we do now, even when we can trace the evolution of human life and function on a molecular level down to the last protein and DNA base pair, the sum of the parts will still be far too intricate, complicated, dependent on timing and probability, and subject to random events for confident predictions—or any predictions at all. The equation will always have multiple solutions based on multiple inputs. And stepping them down, freezing them in time, and counting the possibilities will always be several orders of magnitude beyond the capability of the mind itself.

The interplay of stars within galaxies, of galaxies within the universe, the binding and release of gravity surges, light pressures, shock waves, and molecular attractions—these are child’s play, clockwork, simple equations compared to the branching complexity of the human nervous system. Start two babies, twins, from the same DNA in the same womb, raised in the same household, experiencing the same parenting and schooling, binding to each other emotionally—and you will still end up with two different beings, alike in only some ways, different in many others. And by age fifty they won’t even look much like each other.

Life is complex beyond understanding. Life may not be unique in the universe, but it is different on this planet from the life to be found anywhere else. And the most complex, eventful, randomly activated, even willful form of life is a human being. We are the highest expression of the evolutionary experience within a couple of parsecs of this place—until something better comes along.

But we are still physical beings. Our memories of experiences, sensations, decisions, goals, and responsibilities are still written in electro-chemical patterns contained within the action of proteins suspended in water inside a lipid sheath. And when blood and oxygen cease to nourish the cells connecting those neural pathways, the cycle of activity stops: the room suddenly spins; fireworks go off in front of the eyes; and coherent thought becomes impossible. The state of continuing—and caring about that continuation—goes away.

Death is not a transition, not a doorway, not an entry or an exit point. Death is not a place and has no time, because those are constructs of the human experience and imagination. Death is nothing. But that’s nothing to fear, either. We were all in that same no-place before our fathers met our mothers, and we will return to that no-place eventually. Besides, it’s not what happens there that matters—but everything we do in the meantime.

1. Before anyone tells me to rush to the emergency room, know that I’m six foot six inches tall, have relatively low blood pressure, and have been experiencing this kind of spatially induced dizziness since I was a teenager. And if these passing spells are a sign of anything serious … well, you’ve got to die of something, right?

2. Truth to tell, I had been bending over while picking up after our little white dog. She’s a dear thing, but she does sometimes choose the garden rather than the woods beyond the fence for her business.

3. Except, apparently, for the Jews. Judaism, as I understand it, does not see death as necessarily the end of personal existence, but the teaching doesn’t get dogmatic about what comes next, preferring that followers focus on their obligations and responsibilities in this life. That’s a pleasant kind of agnosticism. It also reminds me of a gentle teacher who refocuses the student on the problem at hand, rather than daydreaming about what’s going on outside the window—or in that abstract and hypothetical land called “tomorrow.”

4. It’s always struck me as curious that the Hindu vision of rebirth is supposed to be a comforting thought, as are most visions of the afterlife. “There, there, don’t worry. You’re not disappearing forever and ever. And if you have been a good person, even though this life has been harsh and degrading, your next life will be better. And if others around you have been born into wealth and pleasure but abused their privileges, they will be degraded in the next life. The universe is just and fair. … Now go to sleep.” But the Buddhists found this endless return oppressive: climb the ladder, fall off the ladder, climb the ladder again—until any thinking creature has to go just plumb, bat-guano crazy with the pointlessness of it all. And the only release is to work at stilling the pendulum, being neither excessively good nor excessively evil, until you can just disappear forever and ever. Ain’t the human mind a wonderful thing?

5. And maybe not: we only see a reverse image in the mirror, not our real face. We are usually strangers to our physical selves and our effect on others.

6. These are the classic “five senses” of touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. To these I would add monitoring the bit of fluid in our inner ears that reacts to gravity and gives us our sense of balance and inertia—which is as valid a sense as any other.

7. And no more can we know exactly which cubic centimeter of the space we define as “the universe” contained that infinitesimal spark of mass that exploded in the Big Bang. The center of it all, the first place, the original space has expanded and changed until anywhere you look and lay your hand might as well be that center—just as the green shoot at the center of an onion is no more complicated or important or worthy of notice than the outer layer that the plant added as part of its growth cycle just before the farmer uprooted it and sent it to market.

8. By the way, I hate Skinnerian behaviorists. They look at a human being and see a nematode, a fruit fly, or a mouse writ large—and then they ignore all of the differences that scale and complexity require. These people are just stupid!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

When Strength is Weakness

Classical farce had a stock character called “Miles Gloriosus,1 or the Boastful Soldier. This is the braggart, the swaggerer, the man with bulging muscles and—in the modern idiom—lots of metal piercings, chains, leather, and tattoos, who dares any man in the room to challenge him and who stares down any man he thinks is a weakling. If there’s a miles gloriosus around, you cannot help but notice him. Being noticed, and reveling in the reaction of the noticers, is his entire modus operandi, not to say his raison d’être.

Miles Gloriosus is not necessarily a good or experienced soldier. Those who have actually gone into the field, endured the hardships and privations of campaign, faced competent enemies who were fully capable of removing them from life, and in consequence may have commended their souls to the God they believe in or cast their lives at hazard with the Fates … they tend to be rather quiet. They know what they’ve seen, done, and achieved. Their worth has been proven. They want to put the trial and its uncertainty behind them. They may carry scars, or maybe a single tattoo to remind them of loyalty to a group that will never disband. They will buy you a beer with one of those tight-lipped smiles that say, “Don’t ask.”

I can’t help thinking of these contrasts in character when remembering the May Day parades of the old Soviets through Red Square, with their echelons of tanks and rocket launchers and marching soldiers. Or the military parade through Beijing on the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution, where the marchers outnumbered the permitted spectators by maybe a hundred to one. Is this strength? Or a show of desperate weakness and a desire to be thought strong?

Compare those parades with the shows of the militarily strongest nation on the planet, the United States. We may do flyovers of military aircraft and march an honor guard representing the respective service at a funeral. We may march representatives from all the services as a sign of respect at a presidential inauguration. But we leave the tanks and rocket launchers back at the base. And when we celebrate our national day, July 4, we march as citizens in the ranks of our high school band, our veterans group, our service club, our scouting organization, and other civic-minded groups. We celebrate with bunting, balloons, and fireworks—not actual weapons of destruction. We don’t have to show how strong we are, because we’ve proven that strength again and again. We will buy you a lemonade with a grin that says, “Don’t ask.”

I’m writing this post two days after the bombing of the Boston Marathon. At this time, we don’t have a declaration or a reason for the bombs that went off at the finish line. But even if some group or individual were to come forward2 with a doctrine or a demand or a claim of righteousness, I’m not sure there would be any more point to the action than, “See? I can make you bleed. I can make you grieve. I can terrify, horrify, and disgust you.”3

To some minds—whether the calculating, political operative who thinks he uses terror as a weapon or a lever to his ends, or the ingrown, isolated individual who lashes out against his tormentors, his demons, or simply against those he believes are better off than him—this act of blood may seem like strength. It might look like an undeniable and irrefutable statement. But it’s an act of desperate, hopeless weakness.

Those who cannot prove their case or invite the participation of their fellows with facts, logic, and persuasion, in the final act of bitter failure will plant a bomb and sneak off. Those who cannot defend themselves with their wit and grace, or with their fists and courage, in the last gasp of frustration will plant a bomb and sneak off. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, may have thought he was delivering a scathing indictment of technology, or capitalism, or the bourgeoisie. He was simply declaring his failure of consequence.

Strength is proven not by a single act but by a whole pattern of actions, a lifetime, a response of character to challenge. The strong accept that things will not always go their way. They prepare themselves in mind and body for the fights and struggles and tests of endurance that may be brought to them. They prepare to protect and preserve those people and principles they love and honor. They endure what cannot be changed and change what can no longer be endured. Strength is a response that goes so far and then no farther. Strength does not lash out. The truly strong do not need to draw attention to themselves. And they protect the weak, rather than making tools of them.4

I would have thought this was obvious, as well understood today as it was to the audiences of Old Rome. But apparently we need reminding in every generation about who are the heroes and who the braggarts and cowards.

1. From a play of the same name by Plautus. The character was celebrated in a song of the same name in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

2. As of posting, police have one seriously wounded teenager in custody, and his presumed accomplice—his brother—is dead. Still no reason that we know about has been given for the attack.

3. In this I’m reminded of the character Melkor in the chorus of Iluvatar, from the beginning of the universe according to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. While all the other divine beings are singing together in harmony, Melkor is dissatisfied. He cannot come up with a better song himself, nor outshine them as a soloist; so he disrupts their chorus with the angelic equivalent of squeals, belches, farts, and other rude noises. He thinks he’s making a bold, brave statement, but all he’s saying is, “I can make noise, too.”

4. For more on the obligations of the strong to the weak, see What is Strength? from November 20, 2011.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Replicator Economics

They say that in the Star Trek future there is no money. Because of unlimited supplies of energy through matter-antimatter annihilation and unlimited supplies of goods through energy-to-matter conversion—or “replicator”—technology, issues of want and scarcity disappear. People no longer need money to live. The only medium of human exchange, presumably, is service. And this is not service in the form of servants and slaves, because computers and machines will do most of the heavy lifting; this is the kind of service you train and compete for, like a place in Star Fleet or a chance to gain and share knowledge on a science team.

I was thinking about that second leg of the economic ladder this morning as I poured a cup of coffee from my drip coffee maker. The famous line from Captain Picard—“Tea, Earl Grey, hot!”—went through my mind. And then how I would order my coffee—because I like it more cold than hot, but I do like a good coffee blend from Peet’s. But what, in the memory banks of a food replicator, is a good blend? As opposed to a mediocre blend? As opposed to bad coffee, made from indifferent beans, poorly roasted, insufficiently brewed in pot laden with oily scale from previous makings, and a few coffee grounds escaping into the cup?

I’m assuming that the proposed replicator technology is truly based on conversion of energy to matter. That is, it transforms some kind of pure energy stream, perhaps captured high-energy photons, into various kinds of quarks, then assembles those into the requisite number of protons, neutrons, and electrons, then assembles those into atoms of the necessary atomic number and weight, then assembles those into the appropriate molecules and aggregates them into the desired material. So, a cup of tea is mostly porcelain cup and water, imbued with enough kinetic energy to register on the human tongue as “hot,” and suffused with the right blend of tea extracts, tannic acid, and bergamot oil to qualify as properly brewed Earl Grey.

This would be opposed to a replicator that functioned as some kind of three-dimensional printer: laying down molecules of porcelain from one storage cell, water from another, and various extracts of tea and orange oil from still others. Presumably then, if the machine were not properly maintained, the request for “Tea, Earl Gray, hot!” might one day be answered with “All out of tea extracts. Would you like some coffee?”

By starting from pure energy, the only limits on the machine would be its programming. The person who designed that cup of Earl Gray tea for the machine’s memory banks would at some point have needed access to an actual cup of tea, to break it down, analyze its molecules, and begin writing the code that called for so many quarks. Then the program would convert them into so many atoms of silicon and other minerals for the porcelain, so many hydrogen and oxygen atoms for the water, and so many carbon atoms to compound the tea components. Given that the machine is starting from a base of featureless photons, rather than any store of halfway assembled components like porcelain clay and water, the choice of materials is based purely on taste and esthetics. Why settle for porcelain when you could have a cup made of pure gold? Or cut and faceted diamond? Except that if you wanted to possess gold or diamonds, they could be made more simply, in larger quantity—and without being drenched in smelly tea—by calling for them with another program.

In such a world, what happens to intrinsic or esteemed value?

In our world based on things found in nature, grown on a hillside, or dug from beneath the Earth’s surface, things have value due to the two basic drivers of any economic exchange: the plenitude or scarcity of supply, and the needs or desires of demand. Earl Grey tea commands a slightly higher price—has more value—because it comes from plants that are marginally less easy to grow or find than the black tea blend in your basic bag of Lipton’s, and because enough people like the taste of Earl Grey to pay the premium it commands in the marketplace. Gold and diamonds are more valuable than porcelain because they are rarer on Earth than the aluminum and silicon found in clay.

But in the world of replicators that start with charged photons and proceed to quarks, the only rare thing is the skill of the product designer who writes the program that formulates the quarks into atoms and molecules. Presumably, to start with, the designers with the greatest skill and reputation are those who can capture the most qualities of taste, aroma, texture, and appearance of that originally analyzed cup of Earl Grey tea, or of a once-sampled juicy steak, freshly broiled lobster tail, or vanilla sundae with chocolate sauce, whipped cream, nuts, and a cherry.

But then two things happen. In the first instance, where issues of scarcity and need drop out of the economic equation entirely, taste takes over. If it’s all the same bunch of quarks, who would order an indifferent black tea? Or an ordinary cup of American ditchwater coffee? Or a greasy hamburger, ineptly grilled, on a stale bun dipped in day-old butter? Everyone will be drinking the rarest Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, eating Beef Wellington made with Kobe beef and liver pâté from Strasbourg, and any and all of the other richest, most exquisite foods imaginable. If you’re going to reproduce a recipe, why not copy the best chefs using the most expensive materials?

The second thing to happen revolves around that word “imaginable.” First, as the actual eating of rare foods prepared by the most talented chefs, or listening to music played on instruments made by the renowned masters, or any other rare experience becomes a treat from the past, reputations bend and deflect. Everyone’s drinking Blue Mountain coffee and eating Kobe beef … let’s try something different! In the far future, as humankind’s taste buds and other senses retreat faster and faster from actual contact with tea grown on a mountainside and cows fed on grass and grain, people will seek out new sensations. For a while, they might try to resurrect ancient flavors—a real McDonald’s Big Mac® made with American cheese and a sesame bun—but since no one has actually seen such a thing in a hundred years, the replicator designers will be working with amateur chefs trying to recreate the food from scratch, possibly using soy proteins and hydroponic grain.

Humans are restless creatures. The things that fade most quickly from the collective memory are foods, because they are so ephemeral. Art hangs around for centuries in museums, as do weapons, articles of clothing, and other artifacts of everyday life, but the taste of food disappears.1 We have some notion that the Egyptians ate geese and onions; that the Romans ate state-rationed bread from Egyptian wheat, as well as dormice and larks’ tongues; that the Renaissance Italians learned noodle making from the Chinese, because we have written records to that effect. No one remembers those tastes, and it takes a bit of research to even begin to understand how those dormice were raised, prepared, seasoned, and cooked.2

With replicator technology, some exquisite tastes from the past would survive as human favorites long after the actual species of tea or coffee, plant or animal had died out on Earth. But just as quickly, a new team of inventive programmers would begin experimenting with new tastes and textures, new categories of food. The old science fiction meme where nourishment in the far future will become something bland and mechanical—an “energy pill” or a “protein paste”—suffered from insufficient imagination and poor understanding of human nature on the author’s part. If we really do get programmable replicators, look forward to cakes and pâtés, meringues and icings with currently unimaginable flavors and inscrutable nourishment requirements.

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot!” works as a cherished line in a video from the 20th century, but the future is going to be weirder than we can imagine, compared with which “Romulan ale” will pale in comparison. We might even be eating dormice again.

1. The other comparable ephemeral I can think of is music. We can play and listen to Medieval music up through the Renaissance and into today because it has all been written down in notation we still can read. We have some idea of ancient Greek and Roman music, at least the tones if not the melodies, because we have classical analysis of their scales and harmonics. But who knows what ancient Egyptian music sounded like? Unless the instruments and melodies have been preserved by ancient tradition—as I suspect has occurred in places like the Middle East or India, although even traditions evolve—the echoes have long since faded on the wind.

2. All right, so I’ve Googled it. But I won’t provide the recipe here. Look it up yourself.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Son of a Landscape Architect

My mother was born in a small town in north-central Pennsylvania, up in the mountains, far from the big cities. She was the middle child of three and the eldest daughter of a young lawyer who had a five-acre estate in the center of town. Her father eventually became the county judge, grand master of his Masonic lodge, and ultimately secretary of state of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. So, in the small pond into which she was born, my mother was princess to a pretty important frog.

My grandfather was a horticulturist, among many other hobbies and pastimes, which included collecting books, firearms, and railroad memorabilia like switchmen’s lanterns and engine bells, as well as taking photographs, making home movies, and doing creative metalwork in copper and brass.1 But the enduring love of his life was still growing things. The estate in town always had a formal garden for display of prized and rare decorative plants, as well as working gardens for flowers to be cut and vegetables to be eaten or canned and given away. In the later years he specialized in growing gladioli, which he donated in bunches around the county for church services, weddings and funerals, hotel lobbies, and other displays. Growing up in this environment, my mother decided to study landscape architecture when she went to the university.

When I was young, she could identify every flower in her own garden with the appropriate Latin genus and species name. When we lived in Massachusetts, she took her boys to the Arnold Arboretum and the Glass Flowers collection in the Harvard Museum of Natural History. I probably leaned toward languages and then signed up to study Latin after years of hearing her roll out names like Rhododendron tulipifera.

She met my father while at the university. They married upon graduation and moved to New York City in the late 1930s, when my father started working at Bell Labs. The story is that they were walking along the streets of lower Manhattan—they had an apartment on Jane Street in Greenwich Village—on the spring evening in 1936 when the Hindenburg was circling the city waiting for clearance to land in New Jersey. They remember seeing it floating above the rooftops, not knowing what was going to happen next.

Greenwich Village must have been an eye-opener for my mother. The exposure to music and plays, museums and parks, artists and bohemians—the vast pastiche of cultures and cuisines that is more available in New York than in any of the world’s other great cities—shaped the small-town girl and made her something of a sophisticate. I don’t think she ever loved the big city the way my father did, but she certainly knew how to get around. And as a New Yorker, she knew how to use her elbows when necessary.

During the Second World War, she got a job at Bell Labs working as a draftsman. Certainly, her background as a landscape architect qualified her for it. So both my mother and father would have had U.S. Department of Defense “secret” clearances—as did many other folks at the time.

Landscape architecture and the principles of good design stayed with her for a lifetime. My mother taught me about spacing and proportion. She had an eye for design and for grouping.2 She taught me about visual logic from the way she laid out the kitchen garden and the living room furniture. She showed me how to arrange furniture and had definite ideas about letting objects have their own space and not crowding them into corners or against a wall. She also taught me how to draw—not freehand like an artist, but with ruler and triangle like a draftsman. She taught me how to measure and mark distances, how to hold a pencil against the ruler’s edge to make a line of even width, and when laying out parallel lines how to measure twice with a ruler to make two ladders of tiny dots or check marks that could then be used to align the ruler. She appreciated type and typography, good handwriting and calligraphy, and she detested hand-drawn signs where the size of the lettering trailed away, or where upper and lower case letters mixed indiscriminately. “That looks like the sign a farmer made,” she would say disdainfully, becoming once again the big city dweller.

Her sense of design and creativity extended to making her own clothes, and she was a Vogue woman in the 1950s. She always used the dining room table to lay out her fabric, pin the tissue-paper patterns to it, and then cut around them. She taught me how to cut cloth and make clean continuous strokes with the shears rather than jagged cuts. She taught me to allow a margin of cloth beyond the actual edge of the seam, and how to make darts in the margin to relieve stress around curves.3 She showed me how to cut sheer cloth and Christmas wrapping paper by making a tiny snip once at the edge and then zipping the half-opened jaws of the scissors straight toward the opposite edge. She taught me what pinking shears were for, and how the cross-cut pattern avoided raveling the edge of the material. She tried to teach me how to use the sewing machine, but I never caught the rhythm of it.

My grandmother was a fabulous cook, but her method was all by taste and feel. My mother tried to copy her recipes, but she was ultimately a scientifically trained person and never had a good conversion for my grandmother’s cooking style that relied on “a pinch of this” and “season to taste.” Still, my mother was a great cook, with an inventory flavored by a dozen years among New York restaurants before the family moved to the suburbs and she started having us boys. She insisted that her sons learn the basics of cooking. She taught me how to make spaghetti sauce, fry bacon, and knead and bake bread. With that kind of training, a man can survive anywhere. And after that, opening cans to feed yourself is easy.

Through by grandfather’s interest in firearms, my mother became a marksman and member of a competitive rifle team in high school. There’s a story in the family about my grandfather, my aunt, and my father standing on the bridge over a creek that ran behind the judge’s property. My grandfather had gotten a set of burned-out light bulbs from the high school gymnasium—big, clear-glass globes with spidery filaments inside—and was tossing them off the bridge. As they bobbed along in the current, my grandfather, my aunt, and my father would take turns shooting at them with pistols. And if any were left floating, my mother was standing by with a rifle to nail the globes before they went around the bend and out of sight.4 She never taught me to shoot—that was my grandfather’s doing, with a BB gun in the basement of the old family home—but she respected weapons and their use.

When she went home to take care of my grandmother in her last illness, working alongside a practical nurse, the three of them would spend summer days out on the back porch. My grandmother loved watching birds at the feeder, and complained when the blue jays—who are natural thieves and bullies—chased other, gentler birds away. My mother would get the BB gun but, at her age, wasn’t strong enough to cock it. So the nurse would cock the gun and hand it to my mother, who would shoot at the jays. She didn’t want to hit them, of course. Instead, she shot at the seed on the feeder around their feet to scare them away. She still had a marksman’s eye.

She taught me to drive and, in doing so, she taught a certain style of driving: direct, centered, and fearless. Look, decide, move—don’t dally. No halfway measures. No hesitation. She taught me to drive economically: to bring the car up to speed quickly; to adjust my speed with the throttle instead of the brake pedal; and in stopping to let engine braking do the work, then apply the clutch and brakes at the last possible moment. She taught me to drive with skill: to brake before going into a curve and accelerate out of it, “like a race car driver.” She was a stylish and efficient driver herself and deadly earnest in a gymkhana. But she also taught me to be courteous and to yield the right of way whenever in doubt. Through driving, she taught me to be mindful of my whereabouts and actions, to be cautious and anticipate the actions of others, and to always look around corners.

She insisted her sons do chores. Mine were vacuuming and dusting inside the house once a week, as my brother’s was mowing out in the yard. To this day, I do the vacuuming and dusting once a week. If they elected me President of the United States, I would do the vacuuming and dusting in the White House—at least the upstairs quarters—and would feel awkward if someone else was doing it for me. I will do vacuuming and dusting until my legs give out and I retreat to my death bed. My mother’s lessons stuck with you.

She taught me to be brave and not to be prissy or squeamish. In the context of having to clean up messes the dogs had made, she always said, “If you never have to put your hands in anything worse, be thankful.” In a wider context, her general attitude toward life was that a proper person had to buck up and face reality. Problems wouldn’t go away by ignoring them. And it was not fair to let others do the dirty work that was your share: other people have rights and some have queasy stomachs.

She taught me about family honor with four simple words: “We don’t do that.” She gave me a sense that, apart from any notion of God and the angels, someone was watching me and evaluating the things I said and did. In the language of Transactional Analysis, at first that watcher was my “parent,” and then it was me. My parents, both of them, were very strong.

My mother’s family was one that treasured humor, wit, poetry, puns, and clever sayings.5 They valued conversation and quick repartee. When she was growing up she might have started with the little girl’s tendency toward being prim and proper, but all around her people were telling bawdy stories and playing practical jokes. That toughened her, of course, and in self-defense she developed a wry, ironic, and wicked sense of humor. She taught me to laugh, to find the humor in even the most painful situations, and to bear up under hardship and offense and then wave them off with a joke.

Because my father was an engineer, she moved all over the Northeast, following him from job to job, and then out to California on one last great adventure. Through it all, she remained a small-town girl in most of her outlook, but she was tough enough to make the best of whatever life handed her wherever they ended up.6 She made sense of life with a draftsman’s taste for order and precision. She never complained and she never made excuses. I am the son of a landscape architect and damned proud of it.

1. I patterned the profession, interests, and hometown setting of the judge in The Judge’s Daughter on this man, although not his particular story or predicament. For those aspects, the book is pure fiction.

2. Right now, I can hear her saying, “Plant in clumps. Avoid straight lines.”

3. That sense of margins—of leaving room for error—has served me well in many contexts, from allowing extra time to meet a deadline or arrive at an appointment, to preserving leeway and operating space when driving a car or riding a motorcycle. You could say my mother’s skill at sewing has saved my life a couple of times.

4. I know—pollution with broken glass and metal oxides, not to mention endangering the fish. But it was a simpler time, and the creek did run at least partly on my grandfather’s property.

5. According to family legend, two of the authors of the Burma Shave signs were friends of my grandfather.

6. This woman who grew up in a great house among beautiful gardens was ultimately able to say, “Family and friends are what count, a place is just a place.”