Monday, February 03, 2014

Seeking Stability

I played a game with Carter’s daughter where you alternated placing metal sticks that hooked together ever outwards into space. As the rounds progressed the structure grew. Any piece that fell while you were placing had to go back into your pile. Winners were determined by who got rid of their pieces first.

I think we split the games for most of my stay.

I don’t know if a 45 year old should feel proud of beating a 10 year old, but she was the kind of competitor that wanted you to play your best. She has the geometric intuition that I had at her age, the kind that senses how things tilt less by math than by feel. My insights have started to fade, but only a little.

With each move we could make the structure more or less stable depending on whether we used the sticks as cross beams or counter balances. Chloe, the daughter, loved order and symmetry. She played for aesthetics. Thinking that the mess had an equal chance on falling on either of us, I played for chaos.

I think Chloe would have always played for order - she seemed to be constantly organizing her older siblings - but I think she needed order even more now. Her father, my best friend from high school, was having problems with his treatment for stage four lung cancer.

While there are no good versions of the disease, his particular kind has a receptor that can be attacked. There are a series of drugs that are coming out that fight the disease back. But the effectiveness of any one drug seems to last for a little more than a year. He has to keep switching the drugs and hope the treatment he is on will last until the next drug becomes available for humans. He is ticking through drug number 2.

The side effects are getting to him. The cancer has metathised to his brain and, for lack of a better analogy, has started messing with the software. He has dizzy spells and cotton mouth. The day before I arrived he collapsed and during the ride to the hospital he felt paralyzed. After a few hours resting in the ER, he felt fine. No one has an idea what happened and he is being tested next week by five different doctors.

He seemed fine the first day. I worried that he was trying to hard to be with me. He asked me to come a couple of weeks earlier when things were a little darker - the word “soon” that he left on my voicemail had a certain kind of italics - but the Carter of day one was almost energetic.

He asked during the call that we not talk about cancer, and so I did my best to bring up the teetering of my own world - the instability of software startups and the challenges of taking care of a newborn. Our personal cross beams are our wives, but sometimes the pile of things to worry about in your forties can seem so much larger than what you worried at 10.

We talked about Obama Care, the Tea Party, and supply side taxation. We discussed Kobe Bryant, Barry Bonds, the Lakers, and the Niners. We traded TV show suggestions - (mine was Episodes; his was Almost Human). We chatted about parenting which segued into sending kids to public or private schools. I told bad puns. We wandered back into being the sophomores we were when we first met, the kind where philosophy on capital systems or favorite bands was meant to be an endurance test. We stayed up late for west coast time.

The next day he needed a bit more space, and I played a few games with his wife and children. His eldest son is now an atheist who plays a ton of video games. We chatted a bit about the game Civilization, but I could sense his disappointment when I went for cultural victories instead of scientific. His middle daughter was shy and spent most of the time in her room. That left Chloe and our on going battles of order versus instability.

I decided that this game needed new rules. She was a little surprised that you could just make them up. She pointed to the side of the box that had them listed with diagrams of how the yellows could go a certain way that was much different than the reds.

I told her that we could try adding a rule for one round and if that didn’t work out remove it. At first she was horrified; the only thing worse than adding rules was removing them. She then allowed it on a trial basis.

The next round she added a rule of her own.

Just before leaving Carter and his wife joined us, and Chloe explained our vast system of challenges and double rolls. That round I came in last and I was quite okay losing, because to me it meant knowing that perhaps however small we could change the rules towards something that was not going to collapse as easy if only for a February afternoon.