A few hours ago my pal Android in Sacramento sent me a link to a dating profile, of a woman about my age, with a huge facial tattoo. It was a floral pattern, stretching across her forehead and down to her jawline, covering both her cheeks, and recently created so the colors were vibrant and alien. I couldn't believe the audacity of the tattoo -- who would get something like that? -- until I read the woman's self-description: She has bone cancer, and is bound to die soon and painfully.
The rest of the description was a plea for a "wealthy man" to come along and help her fill out the items on her "bucket list". Aside from the tattoo, the pictures she posted were full-body shots of herself dressed provocatively. She gave no other personal details.
I saw that and swore to myself that I would not complain about anything for at least the next month.
It seems callous to declare such a time limit on complaining like that, after being confronted with such a sobering story - but I know myself. That reminder of mortality will slip into the background like many many others have, and only come floating to the surface when I'm not taking proper care of myself. Otherwise, I will be looking forward to the next day, as usual.
I think that's why I can honestly say I am generally a happy person.
Today I got up after about five hours of disrupted sleep and showered quickly, then drove across town and up into the Berkeley hills to the main campus of the Lawrence-Berkeley Labs. I remembered going up that winding road as a kid, riding in a car to the Lawrence Hall of Science to gaze at mechanical dinosaurs, and passing the gate to the lab, with its sharp curve into a mysterious tunnel. As a kid I wondered what secrets were kept beyond the gate, and imagined it must be a real privilege to have permission - and a reason - to enter.
And today, to keep an appointment I didn't really want to, I drove through that gate. It was amazing, hilarious, and bizarre, all at once.
I drove around in confusion for a while, passing a huge power station and a few more guardhouses, and eventually stuffed the van into a parking space near my target building. Then I wandered inside and sat down, and spent the next three hours learning about safety procedures. I learned the proper way to drag someone away from an accident, and turn someone over, and how to bandage a wounded limb, and how to make a splint and a sling for a broken arm. Some poison control stuff, some electrical safety stuff, a few rules for basic triage of a dangerous situation, et cetera. By the end of the course I was glad I'd showed up.
Then I drove down from the hills and got take-out food, and had just enough time to eat a few bites before I had to park the van and walk to my office. As soon as I arrived I began a meeting about data formats. Two scientists sat down next to me and explained the way they alter the carbon in sugar molecules to make a radioactive signature and then trace the altered carbon through the metabolic pathways of a bacteria, creating a big set of multi-dimensional measurements that can be used to reconstruct what's going on inside the organism. The scientists kept talking, and showed me bar charts and presentations, and eventually I absorbed enough to begin thinking of a sensible way to store and process that data in a database.
I had just enough time to scribble down some notes before my phone beeped, informing me it was time to head downstairs and meet with my realtor.
We met at a coffee shop a few blocks up. He brought along paper copies of the documents he'd sent me as PDFs a few days before, and we went over them line by line, and I asked all kinds of questions.
I'm preparing to make an offer on a house in south Berkeley - an enormous, solid Victorian structure with two floors, each remodeled to act as a self-contained apartment, but with an internal door at the foot of the stairs that can be opened to join them back together. The place is 106 years old, built from old-growth redwood (which you cannot get any more) with the original floors and fixtures intact in the front areas of the house, including counterweighted windows, sliding pocket doors, a retrofitted fireplace that originally burned anthracite coal, and an honest-to-goodness glass chandelier hanging in the living room. It whispers to me very sweetly and I could see myself renting out the top floor and spending the next half-dozen years happily consulting with contractors, reading manuals, and poking around hardware stores, restoring that place to glory a piece at a time.
As the smell of coffee drifted around us, the realtor and I poked at documents and discussed my housing search.
"I saw your email earlier about the other property you were interested in," he said, and pulled up the listing on his laptop.
"Oh yeah - that modern-looking one?"
"Yeah. I was walking around that yesterday with someone else, and I think it's great, but it's very, very different from the one you're looking at now."
"You know, it's true, that place looks great. And if I was willing to have a housemate instead of an upstairs tenant, it would be just as affordable. But I think I want to finish writing up the offer on this first place before I turn my attention to the second. I want to be able to write up the offer and then sort of ... let go of the place, emotionally, so that I'll be prepared if they reject it."
"It's more likely that they'll make a counteroffer, rather than rejecting it outright."
"Well, yeah, but ... I think what I'm trying to do is ... I have to acknowledge that I'm paying attention to this Victorian for emotional reasons, really. It's like a version of my grandmother's house that I can transform into my own thing. But I don't want to get so caught up in that emotion that I commit to something I can't handle -- so I have to be really willing to walk away from it."
He grinned. "It's very perceptive that you see it as an emotional thing. I can tell you, after all the houses I've showed to people, what really connects them to a particular place is the way it makes them feel. It's always something personal. If you go into it clinically, like it's a business decision, you won't be happy no matter what the deal looks like. But look at it this way ... Even if the price goes up, and you convince yourself you can still handle it, the loan officer might say otherwise. Her job is to make loans that stand a chance of being paid back."
"Good point," I said.
I'd met the loan officer two days earlier, over lunch. We got along well. She told me about how she used to hate her job. She would come home and burst into tears in front of her husband, because she'd seen an endless stream of people that day, whom she could not help. People who had accepted terrible loans, purchased terrible property that they couldn't refinance. People who were weeks or days from selling their furniture and sleeping in their cars. She'd seen the mania of the real-estate bubble building up all around her and then watched it burst, dragging her profession through the mud. Now, finally, this year, she was seeing that poisonous tide recede.
I told her my own story. After a while I noticed she was asking questions that steered me into talking about my financial outlook and spending habits. She was already trying to assess me, and we hadn't even exchanged documents yet.
I smiled at the memory. "Yeah," I said. "If she says it's a bad idea, I am definitely going to listen."
"In fact, before I give you any solid numbers about drawing up the offer, I need to talk to her again and get some numbers for myself."
The agent and I completed the paperwork dry-run, and I made my way back to the office. I had just enough time to review my notes and come up with a basic plan of attack, and write a few scraps of that down, when the phone rang. It was the loan officer. We talked long enough to establish that we needed to meet in person the next day, to go over all the numbers, loan types, and permutations before making the offer. I told her I really wanted to get it clear in my head.
"Ah yeah, see I knew you'd want that. You're an engineer-type. You like to know the details. Tomorrow we'll go over everything."
Then I tried to get back to work, and I just couldn't bend my brain around the right way. It was useless. I was done, and it was time to go home.
So I took a bath, and read about real-estate on the iPad, and tried to let my brain unwind. Buying a house is a big step. And yet ... this timing, that house ... it seems to make sense. If this offer falls through I will probably cease looking for a while, saving up for a larger downpayment, getting more of my financial ducks in a row.
But damn, I need to relax. I have a feeling that a third of everything I learned today is just going to fall back out.
Relax! Be thankful that you don't need to get a facial tattoo and think in months rather than years. Be thankful that your health has returned from the agony of 2010.