Friday, March 28, 2008

I Live By the River

On March 28, 1979, 30 years ago today, the unthinkable happened: one of the two reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania started to melt down. Though the cause and consequences remain in dispute, Three Mile Island remains the most serious nuclear accident in American history. Its legacy has loomed over the debate on nuclear power for decades. But as memory fades and recognition of climate change spurs the search for energy sources that don't emit carbon, nuclear power is being seen in a new light - and many people are pushing for construction and relicensing of plants for the first time since the accident.
- Lauren Redness, in The New York Times

I was a student in Boston at the time of the TMI incident, and recall the feeling of helplessness and the perception of being unprotected. Boston might or might not have been downwind of the site (who was to be believed?), and if the air wasn't safe to breathe, what choice did we have?

1979 was a dark year. It wasn't all disco and CHiPs like the VH1 specials would have you think. On November 4, Iranian protesters captured 52 U.S. diplomats and held them hostage for 444 days. Shortly afterwards , a botched rescue attempt resulted in eight servicemen's deaths and disturbing images on television of crashed and ruined helicopters in the desert. And by May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens catastrophically erupted in the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States.

In the midst of all this dread, The Clash released their album London Calling on December 14, 1979, Britain's Christmas gift to the world. While we breathed suspect air, while we worried about the hostages and our government's impotence and apparent inability to protect us, the radio would broadcast the album's title song with it's chorus:

"The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in,
Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin,
A nuclear error but I have no fear -
London is drowning and I live by the river."

Joe Strummer later succinctly summarized the mood of the time: "We felt that we were struggling - about to slip down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails. And there was no one there to help us."

30 years later, and have things really changed? We worry about the air that we breathe. We worry about our government's actions in the Islamic world, notably in Iraq and Iran. We worry about a nuclear winter (the ice age is coming), global warming (the sun is zooming in), peak oil (engines stop running), drought and famine (the wheat is growing thin). Do we really need to add nuclear errors to our list of concerns?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Today found me in the now infamous town of Jena, Louisiana, the same locale as the notorious Jena 6.

There’s nothing particularly notable about the town, except perhaps for its pleasantness. Jena is the seat of LaSalle Parish, although there are only about 3,000 residents. Like most of small-town America, there’s a WalMart just outside of town with a now-closed local department store across the street. There’s no Starbucks, but there is Jena Java, the only coffee shop and only internet café in town (hours 6-9 am and 3-10 pm). We had lunch at the Brisket Barn, a friendly family-operated barbeque. Everybody we met were extremely open and polite to us, there was no sign of any overt red-neckery, no evidence of a corrosive racism simmering beneath the surface.

Demographically, Jena is 85% white, but the cashier at the friendly, family-operated barbeque was a very pleasant young black woman (obviously not a member of the same family as the rest of the restaurant staff). She seemed to fit right in with the others, and I saw no evidence of any racism, either subtle or overt. Occasional black customers sat side-by-side with the more numerous white customers without any signs of tension. I saw no bigotry anywhere on display.

In my discussions with townspeople, the subject of the recent current events occasionally came up. The residents of Jena seemed genuinely embarrassed by the attention they’ve received. All in all, if I hadn’t read the media coverage of recent events in the town, if I hadn’t read about the civil rights marches of last summer through Jena, if I hadn’t been told that the kind people I had met were some sort of “stealth racists,” such thoughts would never have crossed my mind.

Now, I’m not so naïve not to recognize that some of the hospitality I received, and much of my impressions of the town, hadn’t been colored by the fact that I happen to be white. Were I black, maybe my experience would have been different.

But I also know that an actual identity, be it that of a town or a person, is often very different than the symbol that it might have become. I know better than to confuse the two.

Jena is not an evil place.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Early Spring Thoughts From a Louisiana Bayou

Tonight I'm blogging from a hotel room in Alexandria, Louisiana. This afternoon, I flew into Alexandria's surprisingly pleasant new airport, built on the now-decommissioned Englund Air Force Base, and after meeting up with a client and a corporate associate, we headed out to a cajun restaurant for etouffe and blackened snapper.

Last week, I was in Houston, Texas. If you laid out every American city on a scale of either smart urban planning or sustainability, Houston would be on one end of that scale and Portland would be on the other - every other city would be somewhere in between. Houston, with its lack of zoning ordinances and petro-fueled economy, is just one big freeway, a concrete eyesore in the flat pineywoods of east Texas. All I saw were exit ramps, strip malls, parking lots and high rises. "Free enterprise" is the civic mantra, and Houston is what you get when you let it run unchecked.

Portland’s growth controls draw residents into close-in, urban neighborhoods, encouraging strong market fundamentals and tamping down overbuilding. Houston's unchecked urban sprawl allows developers to build ever more distant subdivisions and shopping malls, requiring the city to try to keep up with a clogged and increasingly dysfunctional highway system.

Atlanta is closer to Houston than to Portland on those scales, and Houston should be viewed as a warning to Atlanta as to what runaway overdevelopment and no growth controls will create.

Speaking of Portland, I see that my former Presidential pick, former candidate Gov. Bill Richardson, chose PDX to announce his endorsement of Barack Obama for President. Smart decision, Bill, and note to Sen. Obama: Bill would make an excellent choice for VP. As an acting Governor, a former Secretary of Energy and distinguished diplomat, Richardson would be a perfect counter-argument to claims of a lack of experience on the Obama ticket.

And then there's John McCain. Writing in The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg notes, "He plumped for lobbying reform but has lobbyists running his campaign. He opposed enacting Bush's tax cuts for the rich but supports extending them indefinitely. He supported a 'patients bill of rights' but refuses to treat health care as itself a right. He voted against banning same-sex marriage in the Constitution but favors banning it state by state. He once disdained the likes of Jerry Falwell (who blamed AIDS on God's alleged hatred of a 'society that tolerates homosexuals') but now embraces the likes of Pastor John Hagee (who called the Roman Catholic Church 'the great whore'). He was for starting the Iraq war but was against the way it was being fought; now he's for the way it's being fought but against discussing whether it should have been started."

Six years after calling Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance," McCain went a spoke at Falwell's Liberty University, leading Jon Stewart to ask, "Has the Straight Talk Express been rerouted through Bullshit Town?"

He used to be against overturning Roe v. Wade and for allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, but now he's for overturning Roe v. Wade and avoids talking about illegal immigrants earning citizenship.

Last year, McCain said, "When I voted to support this war, I knew it was probably going to be long and hard and tough, and those that voted for it and thought that somehow it was going to be some kind of easy task, then I'm sorry they were mistaken." However, before the war started, he told Larry King that "success will be fairly easy."

He told Wolf Blitzer, "I believe that we can win an overwhelming victory in a very short period of time."

He even said, "It's a safe assumption that Iraqis will be grateful to whoever is responsible for securing their freedom." Pat Buchanan once said of McCain, "He will make Cheney look like Ghandi."

As a toddler, if he didn't get his way he'd hold his breath until he fainted. "The thought of his being President sends a cold chill down my spine," said Senator Thad Cochran.

And so on. Tomorrow, I head north out of Alexandria to the now-infamous Jena, Louisiana.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


"I have a post-Armageddon vision.

We and all other large animals are gone.

Rodents emerge as the ultimate post-human scavengers. They gnaw their way through New York, London and Tokyo, digesting spilled larders, ghost supermarkets and human corpses and turning them into new generations or rats and mice, whose racing populations explode out into the cities and into the countryside. When all the relics of human profligacy are eaten, populations crash again, and the rodents turn on each other, and on the cockroaches scavenging with them. In a period of intense competition, short generations perhaps with radioactively enhanced mutation-rates boost rapid evolution.

With human ships and planes gone,
Islands become islands again,
With local populations isolated
Save for occasional lucky raftings:
Ideal conditions
For evolutionary divergence.

Within 5 million years, a whole range of new species replace the ones we know. Herds of giant grazing rats are stalked by sabretoothed predatory rats.

Given enough time, will a species of intelligent rats emerge? Will rodent historians and scientists eventually organize careful archaeological digs (gnaws?) through the strata of our long-compacted cities, and reconstruct the peculiar and temporarily tragic circumstances that gave ratkind its big break?"

Richard Dawkins, from "The Ancestor's Tale"

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Heads and Tails

Last time I was back in Atlanta, I was able to find some time to attend iconoclastic Zen teacher Brad Warner's introductory lecture to our monthly meditation retreat. However, I didn't find the time to attend the monthly retreat itself beyond the introductory lecture.

Too bad. The retreat sounds like it was very interesting, and Sensei Warner had some very kind comments about our center, stating,

"Just this morning I finished sitting a retreat at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center where I am right now as I write this. It was a great retreat, one of the best I've ever done. They've got an amazing group down here. I did three talks, one of which was recorded. I'll see about getting a pod cast of that up here once I get a copy."

He apparently did get a copy, and put the talk up on his website here. Check it out if you're interested or if you've always wanted to know what a "Zen talk" sounded like but were afraid to ask. The 3 minute intro at the beginning and leading the chant at the end is that of the Atlanta Center's roshi, Taiun Michael Elliston. I recognize many of the other voices during the Q&A portion, at least those that I could hear, but I won't bore you by trying to identify them all.

The gist of the talk is also summarized on Warner's blog. He discussed the concept of the ego-self, and the twin fictions both that the ego-self exists and that the purpose of Zen is to destroy the ego-self or at least to dispel the delusion of the existence of the ego-self. He nicely concludes, "Anyway, it's not that we seek to destroy the ego, so much as to realize it's just a useful fiction. Shunryu Suzuki said that we have a personal self that appears and disappears. It's not a fixed thing. It exists in order that the universe might express itself, not in order that I can express my self."

Several recent posts of mine expressed frustration and impatience with the airport experience - how I couldn't re-route my trip as easily as I would have liked, or how the time of my departure wasn't to my liking. In short, I couldn't change the universe to suit my own individual preferences, and I experienced frustration as a result, and expressed that frustration in this blog. There are those who might read this and say, "Hmmm. I thought the point of Zen practice was to learn to be more calm, to be more patient. How come you go flying off the handle when your flight gets bumped?"

Actually, there is no "point" to Zen practice at all, and if you thought all Zen practitioners should always appear calm and peaceful, you wouldn't have recognized me as one last night. After arriving at the airport and turning in my rent-a-car, I found out that my 10:55 pm flight had been rescheduled to leave at 1:40 am, not arriving in Atlanta until 9ish Sunday morning. Upon learning this, I experienced anger and frustration, and a realization that I couldn't control the situation and an associated sense of helplessness and victimization.

Of course, I also knew intellectually that the reason for the delay was due to severe tornadoes that had hit downtown Atlanta that day, and my inconvenience was minor compared to the problems and suffering of those who had lost their homes, or were injured, or lost a loved one. But that still didn't take relieve my impatience over having to hang out at the airport for three and a half hours at the end of a long day, and after most of the shops and restaurants had already closed. That frustration, that feeling of victimization, was the only emotion that I could directly experience, since it was what was happening to "me," while the suffering of those in Atlanta was only second-hand information, the suffering of "others."

And that's the gist of the paradox - only I can experience my own suffering, and while I can feel empathy and compassion for the suffering of others (and often feel it greatly), I can only experience those emotions (empathy and compassion) and not directly feel the suffering of others. And yet, I also understand that "self" and "others" are not two different things but one, just like "heads" and "tails" are not separate things but more like the two sides of one coin. But heads is also heads and tails is also tails, and when I flip a coin I get one or the other. That's how we experience the one thing, the coin - as either heads or tails, depending on the flip of the coin. So is the way we experience self-and-other - as one or the other at any given moment. Zazen gives us a method of directly realizing this unity of self and other, and how our minds experience this unity as two things, not one.

Standing at the airport, part of me felt that I should suppress my anger, but suppressing it only made it feel worse. "Damn it," I thought, "I've been inconvenienced and now I can't even allow myself to express my own frustration over it." So I gave in, walked around the airport sulking, and maintained a facial expression somewhere between abject boredom and soul-crushing fatigue.

But after a while this got tiresome and I saw the negative effect it had on those around me. So eventually I gave in, sat and read my book until my flight was called. Upon finally boarding, I was pleased to find that no one took the center seat between me and the pleasant young lady in my aisle, and I managed to use my fatigue to allow me to sleep most of the way back home. It wasn't all so bad after all.

But if I had bottled up all that earlier frustration, suppressing my natural reactions and emotions, would I have felt as equivocal about the experience as I do now?

Saturday, March 15, 2008


According to my itinerary, I should be on a Delta flight right now, heading back to Atlanta from Portland, probably about 35,000 feet somewhere over western Colorado at about this time.

According to my itinerary.

According to Delta's flight schedule, however, my flight doesn't actually leave for another 9 1/2 hours. And since Delta's flight schedule apparently enjoys a higher level of reality than my itinerary, the net result is I'm in the Portland office posting to my blog right now, rather than flying home.

I screwed up. When I booked my flight - leaving Atlanta on February 19 and returning on March 15 - I bought a return ticket for 10:55 pm, thinking it was for 10:55 am. And I didn't realize my mistake until just a couple of hours ago.

Last night, I packed up for a morning flight, cramming six weeks worth of clothes, fleece and Powell's Books purchases into one huge luggage bag, and was concerned about how I was going to get that big, heavy bag all the way out to the airport without a car. Schlep it on the train? Take a cab? I decided that I'd figure it out in the morning, got a good night's sleep, and woke up at 7:00 this morning, showered, and checked my email. There was a message from Delta, "It's Time To Check In," and when I opened it, I noticed that my flight arrived back home at 6:18 am on Sunday, March 16.

I figured that had to be a mistake, so I checked my receipt and sure enough, I had inadvertently booked myself on a 10:55 pm flight instead of a 10:55 am flight (if it helps explain my blunder, my usual weekday departure time is 11:55 am, and typically does not list its flights in chronological order but by price, so at quick glance, the 10:55 pm option looked right).

But no problem. I went online and saw that there was a flight leaving Portland at 1:21 pm - a one-stop with a brief layover in Salt Lake. It got to Atlanta at 11:10 pm - late, but a whole lot better than 6:18 am.

On my first attempt to change my ticket, I was told that I could only do so three hours before the plane departed - I needed to call back in an hour (it was only 9 am). No problem. I went out to breakfast - bacon and eggs at a friendly little counter in the Pearl District - and then called again. But now I was told that the 1:21 was completely booked, and that in fact all flights out today were full. My only option was the 10:55, unless I wanted to upgrade to First Class.

How much? $450. Forget it.

Hey, it's no one's fault but mine - I should have paid more attention, been more mindful, when I bought the ticket (you better believe I won't be making that same mistake again any time soon). So instead of catching a morning flight, I made the best of things - I reserved a car, checked out of the corporate condominium and left my big luggage bag at the condo office, took Portland's MAX light-rail train out to the airport and picked up my car, drove back to the condo office and put my big luggage bag in the trunk of the rental car, and now I've got one more day to enjoy here in Portland, with a car to get me around and the whole luggage problem solved.

I don't particularly enjoy night flights, attempting to sleep in those tiny airline seats, and enjoy even less arriving at my destination in the morning jet lagged and sleep deprived, and spending a whole day out of sync with my circadian rhythms. And as if that weren't enough to look forward to, tornadoes tore through Atlanta last night with more forecast for today, so I can anticipate arriving home in the early morning, bleary-eyed, cranky and dull, only to find that a fallen tree has taken out my house, the one I intend to sell so that I can complete my move to Portland.

But the sun has just come out, and all I can really do as I sit here bathed in the warm sunshine coming through my office window is just enjoy this extra day in Portland, enjoy this moment now, this very minute.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Facing It

I don't want to kick a man when he's down and I'm far from passing judgment on others, but is the best response to a public scandal really to engage in a funny-face contest for the press? And that's all I have to say about that.

Speaking of funny faces, this one apparently has appeared near my Atlanta home. I received an email from a neighbor forwarding this picture and deducing, "The vandal was probably aged around 15, either new to graffiti or a poor artist, not from the neighborhood, and was either walking alone or with others after dark. Such individuals are too afraid of being seen scrawling their tag during the daylight." The interloper was either alone or with others? Thanks for the brilliant police work, Sherlock.

"I say this because I am a former British police officer who has dealt with vandals in a London suburb," Sherlock's email continued. "Could you please ask our neighbors who are outside in the evening to look out for people kneeling or bending over? The sound of the spray can is a huge giveaway. Sometimes these individuals are incredibly rude, may be armed with a knife, and are not worth approaching."

I actually don't have much of a problem with graffiti. Instead of finding it threatening, I see it as evidence of disenfranchised persons trying to make some impression on their surroundings, some testament to their existence. "I stencil, therefore I am." I won't go so far as to call it "art" - although there is such a thing as "graffiti art," all graffiti isn't art (just as all art isn't graffiti).

I observed "Invaders" and "Rude" above on the sides of buildings as I walked this weekend through Portland's Pearl District. I don't think these stenciling appreciably detracted from the aesthetics of the marked buildings, and I'm sympathetic to the stencilers, who seem to be saying, "Hey! I'm here!" It's a protest against anonymity.

The weekend's walk was part of my search for a new home. There are so many neighborhoods and so many options (apartments, lofts, condos, bungalows, houses, etc.) that the search becomes a little overwhelming. Where to start? What do I really want? Bourgeois comfort in the suburbs? A bohemian in-town lifestyle? Something in between? Something else altogether? How does one choose?

Pragmatically, it makes sense to live close to the Portland office, so that I could walk to work (like I do now from the Pearl), or at least bike in. If I move further out, it makes sense to live somewhere near Portland's great public transportation system, but between light rail, the streetcar and the bus lines, that doesn't narrow the field down much. The Zen Center is located in the Southeast in an interesting neighborhood, and a case could be made that for convenience I should live somewhere in SE Portland between the Center and the office.

But I keep finding myself drawn not to the Southeast but to the Northwest and the Portland Hills, with their great views of Portland and Mount Hood, like this one from E Burnside Ave. at the base of the Hills:

Or this one from aptly-named Vista Avenue:

Or this one from some condominiums up on the Hill:

For what it's worth, my office is located next to that big, tall building, the US Bankcorp Building. But the Zen Center is located all the way out on the far side of town (but well within bicycling or even walking distance on an ambitious day).

But I'm not the only one to notice the charms of the Portland Hills. Many of the houses up there are very large and ornate, appear to be very expensive, and are probably owned by doctors, lawyers, and Portland's business elite. It was not uncommon to see plaques noting that houses were on the US Registry of Historic Places. Way out of my price range and far from my goal for a less materialistic life.

I'm down to my last week here in Portland before I return home. In theory, I will be gone until I sell my house in Atlanta, although I suspect that something not yet known may call me back here before the sale is completed. I don't expect to select a new home her in Portland before I leave, but at least I know the city and its neighborhoods a whole lot better now than I did before.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

A Mash-Up

"God, what a mess, on the ladder of success,
When you take one step and miss the whole first rung"
- The Replacements

Another week has passed in Portland.

The weather's been cooler and more typically overcast than last week, but still relatively pleasant, and a vast improvement from the constant downpours of February.

I still walk to work every day, cutting through the North Blocks Park and Duke Reginald's magical quantum basketball court of unending possibilities. I still walk home from work every day, sometimes stopping at Whole Foods as needed. One night, I attempted a walk to a Fred Meyer's supermarket and would have made it there if I had really wanted to, but gave up on the way as at some point it didn't seem that the long walk was worth the effort for peanut butter and Haagen Dazs.

The project that had brought me down to the Willamette Valley sawmills came to an abrupt and immediate end for reasons well outside of my control, which might be just as well, since I subsequently became busy on another project, one that might take me to Houston and Louisiana in the upcoming weeks. I hope that this next project doesn't interfere or distract me from my goal of a permanent re-location to here in Portland.

Some nights, though, it becomes very apparent to me just how alone I am here in Portland - how I have, to date, made no friends or social contacts here at all. In "The Boxer," Paul Simon sang that the only words his lonely character hears are "just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue. I do declare there were times when I was so lonesome, I took some comfort there."

La, la, la, la, la, la, la.

It hasn't gotten that bad for me, but I do declare there were times when I was so lonesome that for conversation I've had to rely on the company of strippers. Portland, it's been said, has more strip clubs per capita than any other city. They're everywhere. There are so many, in fact, that a dancer one told me that one-third of all women in Portland between the ages of 18 and 28 either a.) works in a strip club, b.) has worked in a strip club, c.) is considering working in a strip club, or d.) has some sort of offer or another to be somehow associated with a strip club. I'm not sure of the veracity of her statistics but it seems that at some level working the strip circuit is just a part of the local service industry, an alternative to unemployment for certain young women.

But counter-intuitively, considering they're in the entertainment business, many of the dancers are themselves bored and lonely, and not exactly thrilled with their recent vocational decisions, about missing that first rung on the ladder of success, and are appreciative and grateful for some intelligent and non-manipulative conversation, company and kindness. Many, perhaps not surprisingly, are interested in Zen, or yoga, or vegetarianism, or some other point of common interest, and I've had several interesting and extended conversations with dancers between their on-stage sets as I lean on the bar nursing a bottle of water. But as soon as I walk out the door and back onto the street - poof! - the friendship is over as soon as the conversation has ended, and I'm back where I started - a lonely middle-aged businessman in a strange city who's missed the first rung on the ladder to social success.

Lie-da-lie. . .

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Cone Artist

In those days my hold on the real world was always slight at best, but the combination of long walks, fresh air, and lack of distraction left me hopelessly vulnerable to any stray wisp of fantasy or conjecture that chose to carry me off. Generally for a start I would spend a little while thinking about Bizarro World. . . Then I might move on to imponderables. How could we be sure that we all saw the same colors? Maybe what I see as green you see as blue. Who could actually say? And when scientists say that dogs and cats are color-blind (or not - I could never remember which it was), how do they know? What dog is going to tell them? And how do migrating birds know which one to follow? What if the lead bird just wants to be alone? And when you see two ants going in opposite directions pause to check each other out, what information exactly are they exchanging? - "Hey, nice feelers!" "Don't panic, but that kid that's watching us has got matches and lighter fluid" - and how do they know to do whatever they are doing? Something is telling them to go off and bring home a leaf or a granule of sand - but who and how?"

Bill Bryson, from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
Amusing, and not a bad description of how the monkey mind works. Stray wisps of fantasy and conjecture carry us from one thought to another, and we lose sight of the real world around us as we walk around cocooned in our minds.

For the record, cats, dogs and most mammals are more or less color blind, not seeing the world in black-and-white necessarily, but color blind the way some humans who have a difficult time distinguishing red from green are.

Color vision evolved in animals a long time ago - fish can see colors, the dinosaurs could see in color. But the earliest nocturnal mammals didn't need color vision to see in the night, and seemingly gave up the ability to see colors (as we know them) in favor of better light-gathering, night-vision eyes. But the diurnal old world monkeys rediscovered color vision about 23 million years ago, and now the old world monkeys and apes (basically the tail-less primates, including humans) have three sets of cone cells in their eyes that allow them to see red, green and blue. And by combining these three primary colors, we can perceive millions of shades and tones of the spectrum.

But some animals can see color better, or differently, than us. Pit vipers can see well into the infrared spectrum, and bees can see well into the ultraviolet. Some other animals such as turtles have, instead of three sets of red, green and blue cone cells in their eyes, four sets of cone cells. We can only speculate on how color must appear to them. As Richard Dawkins writes in The Ancestor's Tale,
Some cones are slightly more sensitive towards the red end of the spectrum, others toward the blue. It is the comparison between the cones that makes colour vision possible, and the quality of our colour vision depends largely on how many different classes of cones there are to compare. Dichromatic animals have only two populations of cones interspersed with one another. Trichromats have three, tetrachromats four. Each cone has a graph of sensitivity, which peaks somewhere in the spectrum and fades away, not particularly symmetrically, on either side of the peak.
Since tetrachromatic turtles have a far more sophisticated visual palette that us trichromatic humans, they see colors more intensely than we do, and we trichromatic humans see color more richly than dichromatic cats and dogs. But if a turtle were to watch our finest plasma television, with its mere trichromatic red, green and blue pixels, it would find the picture as unrealistic and disappointing as we would find an image created by a color printer with one empty cartridge.

So we humans have three sets of cones corresponding to what we call the three primary colors, and all the colors that we perceive are based on the way our brains interpret the signals sent to it by the cones. But even the purest light always stimulates all three classes of cones to some extent since their spectra overlap with each other, so we never see "pure" red, "pure" green, or "pure" blue. There's always some bleed-through.

What would these pure colors look like? Imagine that I took a tiny probe and inserted it into a red cone in your eye and stimulated that single cell only. Would your mind then perceive a "pure" red, a red the likes of which you've never seen before? Would the same happen if I stimulated a green cone, a blue cone?

A new art form: cone art. The cone artist abandons reliance on light bouncing from the artwork to the eye, and actually creates the artwork inside of the eye itself. Utilizing neurobiological techniques, the cone artist directly stimulates first a red cone at the back of the viewer's eye, so that your view explodes into the purest of reds that you've ever seen, and then stimulates a blue cone, and your whole field of vision is nothing but the most intense, truest blue imaginable, possibly even beyond the imagination. By stimulating the cones in succession, or in tandem, the cone artist creates his or her art.

Monkey mind, monkey eyes. My hold on the real world has always been tentative at best.

Monday, March 03, 2008


My 8:30 flight to Portland this morning was supposed to be a one-stop with a 30-minute layover in L.A. I took a cab to the airport, and got there earlier than I had planned, around 7 :00 a.m. So when I checked in at the automated kiosk, I was offered the option of taking an earlier flight - either through Salt Lake or through Phoenix - for a $50 surcharge.

It was tempting (why spend more time in the airport than you need to?), but the Phoenix option actually arrived in Portland later than my original itinerary and the Salt Lake option left at 8:20, only 10 minutes earlier than my L.A. flight. Since neither option seemed worth the $50, I checked in using my original routing.

But after I got my boarding passes and was going through security, I saw that the L.A. flight was listed as now departing 10 minutes later than originally scheduled. This concerned me, as my experience is that when a flight starts on that slippery slope of postponement and delays, 10 minutes becomes 30, and 30 minutes becomes an hour and a half. Plus I only had a 30 minute turn in L.A. to start with, and every second's delay increased my chances of missing my connection. So at that point, I regretted not having selected the Salt Lake option for $50.

But not a problem - I'm resourceful. After I got through security, I proceeded to the Delta ticket counter in Concourse A, explained my situation and requested the $50 route change after all.

However, the ticket agent didn't understand me at all. At first, she thought I was asking for a class upgrade (wrong), and then thought I was trying to change my destination (also wrong). She explained to me that the L.A. flight hadn't been cancelled (yet) and that Delta didn't owe me an alternative if there was no cancellation. I told her I understood that the flight hadn't been cancelled, but was concerned about making my already-tight connection since the flight is being delayed.

But then she claimed she never heard of an option to take an earlier flight on a different route for a fee. Who told me about this? When I told her (again) that it was an option offered by the automated kiosk at check in, she seemed dubious and asked another agent, who agreed that she never heard of any such thing either.

"Look," I explained, "I'm just trying to get to my destination, and the first leg of my flight is being delayed. Is there any way I can take another flight, like the 8:20 to Salt Lake?"

She looked at her monitor, stroked a few keys, and said that the cost difference between my original flight and what I was asking for was $525. This seemed outrageous, especially considering my original ticket was already about $1,000. But if I wanted to fly to Portland via Salt Lake instead of L.A., it appeared that I would have to come up with an additional $525, not pay a mere $50 fee.

My indecision at the kiosk, it seemed, was going to cost me $475.

I told her this was outrageous and sounded like classic bait-and-switch marketing. I told her I didn't understand how an offer made 20 minutes ago was now worth almost ten times as much. She finally relented, and said that this one time she'll make an exception and go ahead and book me through Salt Lake for a $50 fee, but even though I thanked her, the look on her face suggested that I didn't fully appreciate the extent of her generosity.

The flight was completely full, but amazingly I managed to get an aisle seat, anyway. The final leg to Portland was also an aisle seat and this time at an exit row, so I had the additional leg room as well. And the 60 minute layover in Salt Lake gave me enough time to use the bathroom and get a little lunch.

With the time changes, I got to Portland by 1:30 pm, early enough to get some productive work done at the office. So all in all, not a bad day and every thing worked out as well as could be expected, but the stubbornness and the lack of communication with the ticket agent soured me for much of the day.

This wasn't my first heat-butt with bureaucracy the past few days. Last Saturday, while I was still back in Atlanta, I stopped at the Post Office to pick up the mail I was having held (since I'm scheduled to be in Portland for an extended visit, I had my mail held at the Post Office, rather than leave it in the mailbox for thieves to rifle through). But after first going to the wrong Post Office (the one only two blocks from my house - I should have known it couldn't have been that easy), and then second-guessing the instructions given to me and winding up at a second wrong Post Office (my bad), I wound up at a signless bulk postal facility on the industrial side of town, recognizable only by the presence of mail trucks behind the building.

I managed to find the customer window (actually a dutch door) but it wasn't easy (did I mention there were no signs?), and of course it was closed but there was a doorbell-type button with a sign warning "RING ONLY ONCE!" I did as instructed and waited, and it didn't take too long for the top half of the dutch door to open. I explained to the postal agent that I was there to pick up my mail, and she took my driver's licence (proof of residence), closed the door on me, and then proceeded to answer a ringing phone on the other side of the door.

She left me waiting there all alone outside the door while she tried to find the person the caller was looking for, and then I could hear a long conversation about what the caller was trying to do, her advise and instructions to the caller and so on and so forth. Finally, at one point in the conversation, the dutch door opened again and she handed me a bundle of mail, and immediately swung the door shut while still on the telephone but without a word to me.

Fine. I finally got what I came for. But the trouble was she had also handed me the "Hold Mail" instruction sheet and I was concerned that without that sheet, my mail would start being delivered again while I was back in Portland. Since I could still hear her voice talking on the phone right on the other side of the closed dutch door, I rang the "RING ONLY ONCE!" doorbell again.

She opened the door with the phone still to her ear, looking none too pleased to see me again. I handed her the "Hold Mail" instruction sheet and mouthed that I wanted to talk to her. She wrapped up the telephone conversation - "I got to go, there's someone here with some sort of problem" - and when I explained my concern to her, she confirmed it - picking up my mail ended the "Hold Mail" process, and she couldn't just put the original sheet, which stated that the mail was to be held through March 15, back where she had found it. That apparently would have been too simple. My options were to either take my mail and resume delivery, or return my mail and the instruction sheet to her, and come back for it on March 15.

"Look," she told me, "you can't just go having your mail held for no reason. Something bad's got to have happened to have your mail held." I doubt it works like bereavement leave, but knew arguing wouldn't solve my problem. I explained to her that I was on an extended business trip and wanted my mail held because my mail's been stolen before, but found myself unexpectedly home and would like to pick up the mail that I could before I completed my trip.

She wasn't sympathetic, but closed the door again saying "Wait there." Five minutes later, she returned with a new "Hold Mail" request form, and looked for a pen that I could use. I filled out the form with the borrowed pen and when I was done she accepted but first wanted me to sign where it acknowledged receipt of the held mail. I told her that I signed the acknowledgement on the old form, but this form was for the mail to be held and I couldn't acknowledge receipt of what I hadn't yet received. For a minute or two, she seemed eager to engage me in a new argument, but then relented when the telephone rang again giving her something better to do and she closed the door on me again. I left, not completely sure as to whether my mail will continued to be held or will be delivered on Monday morning.

Why have these things become so difficult? Why do routine bureaucratic tasks (holding mail, changing flights) now require us to perform the Kafkaesque task of explaining ourselves to uncaring and disinterested but dubious clerks? I'm willing to accept 50% of the blame here (these confrontations wouldn't occur if I weren't asking for something), but whatever happened to client service? To service with a smile?

Whatever happened to service?

Whatever happened to smiles?

Whatever happened to clients?