Michael D Brown was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when Hurricane Katrina hit. At least 1,836 people lost their lives in the actual hurricane and in the subsequent floods. The storm is estimated to have been responsible for $81.2 billion in damage, making it the costliest tropical cyclone in U.S. history.
This is a story about a bird feeder and a squirrel. There was a bird feeder in the backyard of Nurn’s new house. It hung from a bent pole that was once used to hold up a plant. At the base of the pole was a square of Plexiglas, held in place by duct tape. The Plexiglas was there to keep the squirrel from running up the pole and getting to the feeder. The bird feeder hung from a hook at the end of the pole. Around the hook was a large clear plastic cup, about two feet in diameter, also held in place by a large quantity of duct tape. Apparently the squirrel would run up the side of the house and jump from the house onto the bird feeder.
I came to the house last month. Nurn was good at overlooking the effects of the cancer and the drugs. “There is something I need from you, John,” he said to me. “The bird feeder. I’ve noticed that the squirrel has found another angle from which he can jump from the wall of the house to the feeder, bypassing the plastic shield. In your bedroom, you’ll find a new pole from the hardware store. It has the correct thread count and it’s about six feet long. What I need you to do, is to take the pole and put two bends in it. You need to put a bend around ten or fifteen degrees, and the second bend will be at oh, let’s say twenty degrees, and then go onto the patio, I guess you’ll need to shovel it off to get on there, and you need to pull down the current pole — you can loosen the hose clamp with pliers — and you need to take down the pole, replace the pole with the longer pole, and reinstall the feeder. The extra length will make the feeder far enough away from the house that the squirrel won’t be able to jump to it.”
I said, “I’m sorry, what?”
He said, “The bird feeder. I’ve noticed that the squirrel has found another angle from which he can jump from the wall of the house to the feeder, bypassing the plastic shield. In your bedroom, you’ll find a new pole from the hardware store. It has the correct thread count and it’s about six feet long. What I need you to do is to take the pole and put two bends in it. You need to put a bend around ten or fifteen degrees, and the second bend will be at oh, let’s say twenty degrees, and then go onto the patio, I guess you’ll need to shovel it off to get on there, and you need to pull down the current pole — you can loosen the hose clamp with pliers — and you need to take down the pole, replace the pole with the longer pole, and reinstall the feeder. The extra length will make the feeder far enough away from the house that the squirrel won’t be able to jump to it.”
I said, “Oh. Okay.”
Nurn knew things and people. He could see how they ought to be assembled. He was all about connectivity and fitting. He was a big, friendly, sunny, lovable man who made friends easily and quickly.
Marcus Aurelius said: “Think continually how many physicians are dead after often fretting over the sick; and how many astrologers after predicting with great pretensions the deaths of others; and how many philosophers after endless discourses on death or immortality.”
This is a story about a bird feeder and a squirrel. I shoveled off the patio, disassembled the contraption of metal, plastic and duct tape and brought it into the basement. As I pulled off the clear plastic hood from the bird feeder, it cracked in my hands. Wind and cold had made the Plexiglas sheet brittle, and it splintered. I gripped the metal pole in a vise and bathed the Plexiglas and the clear plastic hood in several rolls of duct tape. They cracked again, so I applied more duct tape. I bent the new pole here at fifteen degrees and there at twenty, and as I wedged the contraption together by with the claw of a hammer, I said to myself… “There’s no damned way this is going to hold together for more than a few minutes out in that wind.”
Marcus Aurelius said: “Think how many heroes after killing thousands; and how many tyrants who have used their power over men’s lives with terrible insolence as if they were immortal; and how many cities are entirely dead, so to speak, Helice and Pompeii and Herculaneum, and others innumerable. Add to the reckoning all whom thou hast known, one after another. One man after burying another has been laid out dead, and another buries him: and all this in a short time.”
I took the bird feeder upstairs to Nurn. He gave it a once-over and said, “Try installing it out there.” I shoveled off the porch, posted the new pole on the patio, clamped it, and came back inside. We all watched the bird feeder from the window. The breeze picked up the plastic hood and whipsawed the feeder in the wind. “Perhaps we need some guy wires,” said Nurn. “You can attach two guy wires from the side of that mountain. And you can put a screw in the side of the patio there, and that should be able to hold the feeder in place. Wait, the neighbors own that property. Maybe one guy wire there on the patio. There’s a screwdriver in the toolbox.” Nurn paused and thought. “Well, I tell you what. Let’s just wait and see how it works as it is. It might destroy itself in the wind, and after I’m dead you can do whatever you want with it, but I think this is going to work as it is, so let’s just see how it holds together.”
Marcus Aurelius said: “Since it is possible that thou mayest depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly.”
Nurn did not spend his life preparing for today?s service. Nurn built things and people by seeing the implicit connections between them. He was always the first to connect things, like word processors and the Internet. The only things I ever witnessed Nurn destroying were a few corrupt presidents. Marcus Aurelius was a theoretician who obsessed over his own death, and Nurn was a philosopher who never gave up on life. He made connections at every moment in his life, even from his own death bed. Nurn cared about things and he cared about people. He didn’t live behind Plexiglas. He engaged. He enjoyed. He loved. Nurn was a man who made connections, and I am still trying to learn from him. Marcus Aurelius never outwitted a squirrel.
Today, Marcus Aurelius is dead, and there is a bird feeder on the patio, and it still holds together somehow, and the wind catches the plastic hood like a sail, and feeder waves in long, slow arcs in the breeze. And the feeder is never completely still in the wind, so it’s a moving target, and the squirrel hasn’t figured out how to jump to it. We enjoy the birds: cardinals and sparrows and mourning doves. Maybe this winter, a really big storm will come and tear the feeder apart. Maybe the squirrel will die of scurvy. Nothing is assured; life is unpredictable.
From Nurn I learned that men should make connections. Nurn made connections. Nurn built things.
Snowed in here in Boston. The place is quiet. Mudd and Mandy busy themselves with reception planning and responses to the flowers and cards. It’s lovely watching them play with Xander. I do dishes. I can do dishes.
We got a foot of snow day before yesterday. It lovingly blanketed and paralyzed the town like the embrace of a spider. I spend most days writing code and Skyping friends. Finally, the audio engine is turning into something really game-changing. Damn the economy; my businesses are finally starting to pay off.
Apparently, I’m in Theatre Bay Area magazine for March. There is apparently a favorable article about The Hermit Bird there, and they gave me an Editor’s Pick and a sidebar. If you happen to have a copy of the magazine, I’d love to see it.
I’m speaking at GDC in San Francisco, on March 24, in the Tools and Middleware Panel. I’ll be in town all that week, hobnobbing with fellow wizards on Monday evening, if you’d like to hang out and have a something with me.