Monday, January 26, 2015

Millions and billions and me

So there I was, sitting in the dentist's chair wishing I were somewhere else. I decided to focus on my breath, an exercise some say brings tranquility. And, being an incurable geek, I started to wonder how many breaths I have left between now and the last one.

I mean, for each of us, there is a first breath, stereotypically held upside down by the obstetrician and whapped on the behind to inspire that first inhalation. And for each of us there will be a last breath, probably not quite so easily characterized.

And,being a geek, I wondered how many come between. So I started with a song from the Broadway musical "Rent", which asserts that there are 525,600 minutes in a year and goes on to wonder how many cups of coffee that comprises. OK, say 500,000 minutes in a year (can't very well break out the calculator on my phone as the doctor pokes and prods at where my broken tooth will soon have a new crown). To make life simple, let's say a breath takes six seconds -- 10 to the minute. Good grief, every year I breathe 5 million times.

And I'm 71, say 70 to make the multiplication easier. That means I have breathed a minimum of 350 million times. That's the kind of number I can more easily associate with government defense allocations than with me.

And heartbeats. What about heartbeats? At a minimum, my heart beats 6 times for every one of those six-second breaths.  Six times 350,000,000 gets us into billions! Already, my heart has gone thwup-whump over two billion times. And I've got an arhythmia that sometimes has my heart beating three times a second, so two billion is a conservative estimate.

Two thoughts. First, I am finding it impossible to associate the number 2,000,000,000 with anything having to do with me.. I am just not a billion-type person in any dimension I can come up with after several minutes of trying.  And second, most of us have an amazing engine behind our ribs -- imagine someone handing in specs for an mission-critical part that has to work actively without maintenance for 60 years.

And at that point, the dentist levered the chair back to sitting position and turned to her calendar to schedule when I could come back and get my permanent crown. She had done a good, almost painless job, and even the temporary fits so well I'm hardly conscious of it.

If you see an error in my calculations, please let me know. That billion is freaking me out a little.

Friday, January 9, 2015


My hillside extends between the asphalt five or six stories down and a street four or five stories up. At the moment it is a subtle but complex composition in brown and gray made up of the stone face of the West Hills, the almost-bare branches of my maples, and dead vines of climbing entities including blackberries, English ivy, and a four- or five-leaflet green climber whose name I have yet to track down. Looking out at this wintery collection, occasionally I catch a glimpse of a small bird or two flitting from branch to vine to stone. They are very difficult to see either before or after the flit. The only way I know they're there is their* swift, straight, semi-horizontal motion -- all the other shapes on the hillside are twisty vines or straight, upward trunks.

At the top of my hillside are tangly branches which seem too big to be bushes and too gnarly to be trees. They grow up from the base of the concrete that supports the street and are what I thought should have kept the infamous orange box from falling to where it polluted my outlook.

And just now in those tangly branches, I saw a family of squirrels, at least three of them, exploring the territory, whipping their furry tails expressively about. I have never seen squirrels here before, and I'm curious how (and why) three of them ran across the street to visit my hillside. It was a life-threatening excursion. The street doesn't have a lot of traffic, but cars and delivery trucks hum by often enough that one would think squirrels would have the sense to stay in the maples and pines I can see on the far side. Maybe the gnarly branches hold some very late season berries or cones or seeds that are a welcome addition to a squirrel's January cuisine.

I can't see any of them now. But it's fairly dense up there. They could be hunkered down in the underbrush gnawing on whatever made the trek across the street seem worthwhile. Three of them! I'll have to keep an eye out.

*By golly, I do believe that is the most dense constellation of variations on words pronounced like "thair"  I've ever written.