October 31, 2003

First Impressions & Too Many Degrees Of Freedom

I drove to Heathrow on Wednesday to pick up some friends who stopped to see us on their way from San Francisco to Kampala, Uganda.

Rachel and Jaco are AIDS researchers who have lived on and off in Uganda for the past 13 years. They arrived with their two children, Noah, eighteen months old, and Maya, who is four years old and has been friends with our four year old Nathaniel since they were nine months old.

It took them about an hour and a half to make their way through customs and immigration. They’d arrived at the same time as several other flights, and the immigration queues were long and tedious. But appear they finally did, and as they pushed two large trolleys full of bags, each topped with a child, I was reminded of a story I’ve been meaning to write about first impressions.

My first impression upon arriving in England in September did not concern the language, or the weather, or the immigration queues. No, my first impression was of the luggage trolleys (that’s luggage carts to you Yanks).

As you walk off the plane and into the terminal you pass lines of luggage trolleys, free for the using. You can pull one out and put your bags or your children on them, making the long trek to immigration and customs that much easier.

Not long after you put your bags onto the trolley you come to the first of several short downhill ramps, followed by an immediate left hand turn. But it isn’t until half way down the ramp that the trouble begins. Because as you try to turn the trolley to the left you quickly realize you’re no longer in control of the trolley, it’s in control of you.

Next time you’re at Heathrow, see if what I’m saying isn’t true. Watch as people try to negotiate their trolleys around a corner, any corner. You’ll see them squince their eyes, tense their necks, grip the handle harder, and perform funny crab-like steps as they simultaneously push and pull their trolley around the corner.

What’s funny is that the same thing happens in the supermarket. Try and turn an English supermarket trolley around the end of the aisle without hitting anyone. I can tell you from first hand experience that it’s particularly difficult, especially when you’ve got a four year old hanging onto the end of the basket telling you you’ve just passed something he wants.

But what is it that makes these British trolleys so much trickier to use than their U.S. counterparts? In the States luggage and supermarket trolleys have rear wheels which always point forwards, i.e. only the front wheels can rotate for steering left and right. But the Brits have decided that all four wheels should be able to rotate independently. And having all four wheels able to rotate means that it’s difficult to keep the trolley moving in the direction you’re intending, as opposed to the direction that physics would rather it go. The problem in mathematics is called having too many degrees of freedom. In the real world it’s called a design flaw.

As I was driving from Heathrow back down to Cornwall, Rachel and Jaco asked what we were planning to do next. I talked about all the decisions we were wrestling with. Which country did we want to live in? Did we want to rent or buy? Where did we want the boys to go to school? Did we want to open a retreat center? And did I want to go back to Silicon Valley at some point in the future?

And as I described these choices it dawned on me that our lives are a little bit like a British luggage trolley. All wheels rotating. All decisions up in the air. Too many degrees of freedom.

After talking it over with Rachel we’ve decided to try and settle on a country first, and so we’ve decided to take a trip to south west France to see if that’s somewhere we might want to be.

In the meantime we’ll be walking crab-like, pushing and pulling our lives around the next corner.

Posted by: Frank @ 3:54 pm — Filed under: Comments (0)

October 28, 2003

Food As A Motor Control Incentive

I have been watching Sebastian, our seven month old, closely for the past six weeks or so, and have been amazed by how fast he is changing.

It was only six weeks ago that he could hardly lift his head off the ground when we placed him on his stomach; and yet last night he pulled himself upright on the side of the bath. When and how did that happen?

The crawling stages will be familiar to any of you with children. First there’s the pulling the knees sideways, followed by pulling them underneath. Then there’s the rocking back and forth on the knees, followed by reaching for things while on the knees and face-planting in the process. Next there’s the crawling backwards, which is particularly frustrating. Then it’s sitting upright, down to crawling position, then back to sitting upright. Then crawling forward for one or two crawls, and back to sitting upright. And finally, six weeks later, nowhere in the house is safe, because not only can he crawl anywhere, but he can pull himself up on most things as well.

This all started about four months ago when we borrowed Elana’s bouncey-chair. The bouncey-chair is a contraption that hangs over the doorsill, with a seat attached to a spring, in which he stands and bounces up and down. He loved it right away, particularly the ability to be upright rather than on his back. He loved it so much in fact that when you’d take him out and stand him on your lap he’d bounce up and down as though he were still attached to the spring.

At the same time that he’s been learning to crawl, he’s been learning to feed himself. Apparently the body learns to control its muscles inwards out, which means that first his shoulders learn to move, then his arms, his hands, and finally his fingers. This has interesting repercussions for self-feeding. At the early stages we would place some food in his fist, and laugh helplessly as we watched him try to get the food anywhere near his mouth. Needless to say, once we’d gotten to this stage the amount of laundry we had to do shot up astronomically.

But the best part of watching him learn to feed himself with things like Cheerios and cheese and apples, is seeing his coordination improve. You can almost see the neural impulses making their way down his arm, as first his shoulder moves, then his elbow bends, his hand turns, and finally each little finger makes its way towards the Cheerio. Complete concentration. And complete joy when the food makes its way in, or at least near, his mouth.

As I write this I am reminded that what we are trying to do, i.e. to make a new life, requires much the same stages that Sebastian is going through, and unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a way to shortcut them. Because unlike Sebastian who has his older brother to learn from, we are here on our own, forging these new pathways by ourselves.

And just as Sebastian whines and gets frustrated when he can’t do something, I’m afraid I’ve been doing a little of that too. Which makes it that much less fun for all of us, but mostly for Rachel. Sorry Rach, I’ll try and do better.

Now if only I knew what to do next.

Posted by: Frank @ 9:43 am — Filed under: Comments (0)

October 25, 2003

Remembering My Father, 1930 - 1999

Four years ago today, on my forty-third birthday, my father passed away.

His passing wasn’t unexpected. He’d had Alzheimers and Parkinsons, and had been slowly slipping from our grasp over the prior seven or eight years.

My mother, bless her, cared for him the whole time, refusing to send him to a nursing home, and giving him the best care she was capable of. She refused to take a break or vacation, in part I think because she was so overwhelmed by the whole thing. Overwhelmed by the doctors and the hospitals and the drugs and Medicare and the times when he didn’t know who she was.

It took three years to convince her that someone else could take over for even a little while, and so the year before he died I went home to take care of him for that little while.

The two weeks I spent with him are incredibly precious to me. He was there, and he wasn’t there. In the lucid moments I wanted to ask him what he thought about the non-lucid moments, and I knew I couldn’t because it might have hurt him. But it didn’t really matter what we talked about, because I got a chance to be with him in a way I hadn’t since I was a child; but now he was the child, and I was the grownup, and it was tender and hard and strange all at the same time.

We would walk up and down the street, and sometimes around the block. And one night I ordered pizza. And several nights old friends of his from college who lived nearby came over for dinner. But mostly we sat quietly, or watched tv, and I would run, and he would pretend to do his exercises, and I would look at him and wonder what had happened to my father. I wondered where he’d gone, and why it had to be so.

In the epilogue to Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig explores this very question after the death of his son. What he finds is that through the birth of a daughter he is able to repair the hole in the fabric of his life that had been caused by Chris’ death. And while this new daughter is not the physical reincarnation of Chris, she is imbued with his spirit, and this makes it possible to stop wondering where Chris has gone to.

Not long after returning home from caring for my father, Rachel got pregnant. And just two and a half months after Nathaniel was born my father passed away. And in much the same way that Pirsig found Chris’ spirit in his new daughter, Rachel and I have found the spirits of our fathers, first in Nathaniel, and now in Sebastian. And through them we have been able to repair the holes left by our father’s deaths, and with them we have started to weave new patterns into the tapestry called our lives.

Before I leave, I’d like to share the eulogy I wrote for my father, with help from my siblings and our spouses, in front of the fire at Cayo’s house. You can find it in the extended portion of this entry.

Eulogy for Frank J. Leahy, Jr.
October 29, 1999, Osterville, Massachusetts

Welcome to this most glorious fall day here on Cape Cod. Thank you all for coming to help us celebrate the life of my father Frank Leahy.

I stood this morning on the beach at Cayo’s house and watched the waves lap softly against the sand. As I looked out across the bay I could see Dead Neck where my father spent some of the happiest moments of his life. I could see him sailing out to Dead Neck in his Cat Boat. I could see him tossing us off his shoulders into the water. And I could see him leaning back and letting out one of his great belly laughs as he enjoyed someone tell a funny story.

The night Dad died Jean, Chris and I met at my brother’s house. We laughed and we cried and we reminisced about a man who was happiest when surrounded by his family and friends. Jeannie remembered sitting on his knee at the dinner table, stirring his coffee and catching the sugar bubbles in his spoon. “Catch the money sweetheart” he’d always say. Chris remembered him at his hockey games shouting “Hey ref, what about that elbow ref,” his voice carrying far above the crowd. And I remembered him collecting me at the hospital in a police car after I had broken my arm at age 5, and his letting me flash the lights and turn on the siren.

Each of us sitting here today knows a slightly different Frank Leahy. His brother and sister Paul and Anne knew him growing up as a part of their family. His school chums Billy Glover, Gerry Curtis, Webby Durant and Alice Haley Kelly knew him in high school and then later at college. His and Mom’s college buddies, Tommie and Mickey, Mary Jane, Sara Lee, Gus and Jane, Clare, Ambi and Marilyn, Polly and Mike, all knew him at Harvard and remained good friends with him all the way through his life. And there were many others who knew him - at the Chicago Police Department, at the FBI, and at the Commission on the Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. All of these people, and all of these memories, that’s what makes up the Frank Leahy we know and love.

But my mother Louise probably knew him best. Married in a hurricane, they were together for 45 years. Dad began to decline some 8 years ago, and for the past 4 years my mother provided 24 hour care - a testament to her love and devotion. A year ago I offered to come home and spell her, and so I spent two weeks with Dad as Mom took her first vacation in over 3 years. It was an amazing lesson in patience and humility. And whilst it has been difficult for us all to see Dad fade away, in my conversations with him I came to feel that he wasn’t unhappy or distressed, but that he was merely somewhere close by, in another world that was just beyond my reach.

Frank Jr. was a kind and gentle man all through his life, right up and to the end. And he had many other qualities that we will remember him for. He was charming and gracious. He valued education. He valued work. But most of all I believe he valued family and friends. Rachel, Nathaniel and I were planning on coming to the Cape for Thanksgiving and I was so looking forward to having Dad meet my new son for the first time. But it wasn’t meant to be. Because on October 25, 1999, Dad died on my 43rd birthday. Exactly 43 years before, on October 25th 1956 he had begun a circle that included me, then Jeannie, then Chris, and now our families. He has now completed that circle, and all of us here are now free to include him in our circles, in the ways that we remember him best.

Then Almitra spoke, saying, We would ask now of Death.
And he said:
You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and see God unencumbered?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Posted by: Frank @ 10:31 pm — Filed under: Comments (0)

October 22, 2003

Italy Wrapup

I am sitting here in Pisa, after what has seemed like a very long time away from Cornwall. It has only been five days, but because of all the driving I’ve been doing, over 750 miles worth, it has been particularly long and tiring.

As I think back on all the places I’ve been this trip, several of them stand out. In no particular order, they include Sienna, Perugia, Orvieto, Todi, Poppi and Lucca. I didn’t have a chance to spend any time in Todi, Poppi or Orvieto, I only had time to drive through each of them, but they seem worth a return visit. Sienna was more beautiful than I’d imagined, and Perugia more lively and interesting than the tour books would have you believe. And Lucca, which I have visited four times now, seems like it might be the most livable of all.

Which leads me back to the issue of why I’m here in Italy. After our year is up in Cornwall we would like to live somewhere on the European continent. We want to learn a new language, or brush up on one we know (I speak some Spanish, and Rachel speaks passable French); we want to expose the boys to new places and languages; and we want to have some new adventures as well as make new friends. Our choices of countries are currently Italy, France and Spain – and this trip was to take a longer look at Italy.

We were here in June, spending time along the Italian Riviera, which extends from the French border, east past Genova, to La Spezia. We decided after that trip that the Italian Riviera wasn’t a place we wanted to live, so I’ve come back to take a look at Tuscany and Umbria.

One of the places we’ve been concentrating on is around Lake Trasimeno, which is quite close to Perugia. During our June trip we contacted the folks running the See You In Italy web site, and spent two days visiting houses near Pozzuolo with Giancarlo. We found the perfect house, but it was a little out of our budget, so we’ve been concentrating instead on buying a fixer-upper (my specialty), possibly taking a year or so to fix it up, and then turning it into a retreat center (something Rachel’s keen to do as a way to create our own built-in community while we’re away from our family and friends).

But something happened this trip that has made me less positive about living in Italy. I don’t know if it was the traveling alone, or driving so far, or the fact that I speak hardly a word of Italian and didn’t talk with anyone for five days. But I’m wondering whether it makes sense to move the four of us, along with a dog and cat, to some place we don’t even speak the language. And fix up a house at the same time? Some of our friends have wondered whether we’re a little bit crazy, and I might be beginning to see that they mean.

I’m flying back to London tomorrow morning, then taking the train back to down to Cornwall. I can’t wait to get back and see them all – Rachel, Nathaniel and Sebastian. And run along the coast. And have some time to stop and feel, rather than just think all the time.


Posted by: Frank @ 9:30 pm — Filed under: Comments (2)

Some Things Right And Wrong With Italy

There are three things wrong with Italy – traffic, concrete, and zoning. Let’s start with concrete. The Italians seem to be having a love affair with concrete. It’s hard to find anything new that isn’t being built with concrete. Not only is most of it ugly, but there seems to be a general inability to finish anything. All I could think yesterday while driving through the outskirts of Florence was thank God for the Renaissance, because without it Italy would be a concrete wasteland.

Which brings up the zoning issue. There are some places, like Lucca, that seem to have their zoning act together. But I tried to drive from Florence to Lucca yesterday, without using the Autostrada, and it was essentially impossible. I literally couldn’t get through the sprawl of Florence to find Pistoia. This was primarily because many signs are missing because of all the construction going on (need I mention that it’s mostly ugly concrete construction?). I can be an incredibly tenacious driver, but after 30 minutes of going round and round I gave up and took the Autostrada to Montecatini Terme.

The other big problem with zoning is that the Italians seem to think that industrial zones should be attached to most every town, even towns that are far from any major city, and where the roads are narrow and winding. The road from Lucca to Bagna de Lucca for example, is narrow, winding, and passes in several places through long rows of narrowly planted trees. It travels through dozens of small towns, several of which are so narrow that they require a traffic light so the traffic can move through town one direction at a time. All the way up, and all the way down I was passed by hundreds of huge trucks full of things like cement, concrete and steel, being delivered to and from one of the many industrial parks along this road. No doubt local employment is important, but it’s hard to imagine what it must be like living in any of these towns, where all the houses are right on the road, and these huge trucks are thundering by day and night.

But enough about what’s wrong, let’s talk about what’s right. And at the top of the list is food. Every lunch and dinner I have made a point of stopping for a meal. Last night I was in Florence, and had the most amazing funghi (mushrooms). Two of them, cooked quickly in hot oil, served hot and tender, so tender in fact that they literally melted in my mouth. And the other night in Perugia I had spaghetti tartufo (with truffles), which was earthy and subtle. If you’ve never had truffles, try them, I promise they will taste like nothing you’ve ever had before.

But the best meal I’ve had so far was this afternoon, on the outskirts of Lucca. I was driving the vino strada (wine route), and stopped at a tratorria in the middle of nowhere. It was full of locals, not another tourist in sight, which as any traveler will tell you is the equivalent of a hole in one. I had minestra fagioli (bean soup), spaghetti alla oilo e perperocini, followed by a tarte miele (apple tart) and a capuccino. Fantastico!

Aside from food, the other thing the Italians do right is use their cities both day and night. Every city I’ve been in has people out in force until at least 11pm. They promenade. They eat gelato. They talk. They ride scooters. They hang out in bars. They live life in a way that neither Americans nor British seem to know how to do (even in San Francisco).

Maybe it has to do with the fact that the cities are made for walking – the narrow alleys, the twists and turns, and never knowing when you’re going to come across another incredible shop, or gallery, or trattoria, or gelatoria, or church, or museum. Or maybe it has to do with the Italian lifestyle – centered around family, and affected by living in such close quarters.

Whatever it is, it’s been lovely to be around, if only for a little while.

Posted by: Frank @ 8:32 pm — Filed under: Comments (1)