At some point, you just have to let go of what you thought should happen and live in what is happening.

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For me, “some point” was last night, and what was happening last night was precisely this: a rogue dingleberry hitchhiked on Cheddar’s back paw, making a daring escape from the confines of its one true destiny, the litter box. It left its mark on multiple rugs, Cheddar’s bed, my sofa, and ultimately my clothes when he needed an emergency bath. Even better, I discovered the marks on my duvet cover this morning, only after sleeping in it last night.

I had the exasperated mommy with poo-on-her-face moment last night, while my apartment looked like I was losing a game of Jumanji.

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Sometimes, you just have to let go, and hold the shitty kitty because that’s love.

He’s sleeping peacefully in the sunshine as I write this, oblivious to the emotional drain the last 24 hours have been. He’s lucky he’s adorable and I had the day off today to recuperate. I’ve managed to do all three loads of laundry he created, and showered the filth off as much as I could.

I wasn’t sure if I was ready to adopt a pet. As my best friend says, cleanliness is next to Diana-ness. Whatever I thought should happen once I adopted Cheddar went out the window last night. And I’m living in what it is to have him in my life. I don’t understand what he’s trying to communicate when he cries, but I do know the sound of his yowl makes me want to give him anything he wants.

I had a horrible dream last night that I held him, soaking wet, in my arms, as he died, still just a kitten. I want so many more good moments with him, even if it means poo-on-my-face moments that come along with them, like last night.

What the hell am I saying? I want that? That’s it; I’m officially insane. I will be fully inconsolable the next time it happens too. I still maintain: boys are gross.

One of my favorite comics, the Oatmeal, posted this The Oatmeal: Baby vs. Cat recently about how having a cat is infinitely better than having a baby. I fervently disagree – having a kitten, as proven last night, is at least equal to having a baby.



Yes, I am pleased with myself. As a bit of a part two to my prior post, I have found a way to defeat my Goliath of a property management company, legally. I’m surprised I didn’t think of it sooner. I was most infuriated about asking my property manager about getting a pet, and having them come back at me with an additional pet deposit and pet rent of $50 per month. I’ll show them.

As it turns out, if one registers their pet as either a service animal, an emotional support animal, or a therapy animal, providing the documentation of this registration and the doctor’s note who approved/prescribed it will allow one to bypass the lease clauses. Service, emotional support, and therapy animals supersede the law and are allowed to be on the premises, without an additional deposit or pet rent. To qualify under the Fair Housing Act, you must have a qualifying disability, the landlord, managing agent or condo board must know that you have a disability, and that based on your disability, waiving a “no pets” policy is necessary to allow you an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling.

Once I confirmed this with the idiot employee with no soul of the property management company on Friday, I knew my mission. Step 1: obtain cat. Step 2: obtain disability. FYI if you’re interested in pursuing a similar route, check out Register my Service Animal, LLC.

It just so happened that Thursday night, I decided to check out the craigslist ads for kittens and cats, to see who might be a good fit, should I pursue this plan of sticking it to the man. I found two ads – a 2 year old female, and a 7 month old male, both short hair orange tabbies, my preferred breed. The poster for the 2 year old female never responded to me, and fate was decided when the male’s owner responded the same night I inquired after him.

As it turns out, his original owner, like me a little over 3 years ago, is moving to a new home, and cannot take him with them. It struck my heart how similar it was to my situation of finding a Toby a new home when I moved to Australia (refer to the sad story in the post here), because I couldn’t bear to put her through 180 days of quarantine on either side of the journey. Once I heard the original owner’s story, I knew karma had come full circle and this little guy was my destiny. My issues of being a loving cat mother who had to put her kitty “up for adoption” because it was the best thing for the kitty but not because I didn’t love her, have plagued me since I brought Toby to her new daddies’ home. Now, I get to do right, not by Toby, but by the new love of my life, Cheddar. Paying it forward never felt so good.

He’s perfectly imperfect. He’s small for being born March 16, 2015; I can’t believe he’s 7 months. I don’t think he’ll get to be very big. He has a curl/kink in his tail at the very tip that curls under when he walks. It’s a bit like my deformed left pinky, with a permanent kink in the knuckle joint. The original owner described him as a cuddler and lap kitty, and she was not wrong. But beyond that, this guy fervently butt his head into my hands to get me to pet him and to scent me up. He’s not quite ready to be picked up, for any length of time, but we’re working on it.

I picked him up from a filthy and tiny mobile home park in south San Jose this past Sunday, with the aid of my best friend and sidekick. I’d made previous plans with some friends in Sacramento this weekend, and on our drive home, we took a detour and rescued him. His previous owner was kind, and helped me transition the contact info on his microchip while I was there. She gave me some food he eats, his favorite toy, and medical records, and we were headed back home to San Francisco.

He was skittish in the new environment at first, as anyone would be. After hiding under the couch and in the litter box, he figured out there were no small children or other cats/animals here, and he was set. Once I fed him a sufficient number of treats (approximately 20), he started head butting me for pets, and acclimating to the new house. He then wanted to play, explore, and come back and check in with me for more pets. I managed to get him to eat some wet food last night too. He watched TV with me and found out who the good boy was.

This morning, he stomped all over my pillow, perched on my chest while I was still half asleep, and did as cats do: seek early morning love sessions, one after another.

I couldn’t be happier that fate finally decided to throw me a bone and work in its mysterious way. I love having this little guy around already. I heard something go crash in the middle of the night, but I still can’t figure out what it was. We’ll deal with that when it presents itself.

I find myself comparing him to Toby in many ways, and he’s proving very different. Besides not liking being picked up yet, he doesn’t like to sit and look out the window to watch the happenings of the world. He is learning quickly how loud it is here, and he’s still a little afraid. He hasn’t yet figured out the 2nd story of his cat scratching post/bed. He’s sure found my lap though.

I can’t bring myself to give him a bath yet, though he will get one, because I saw the conditions in which he was living. He needs one. Plus, there was a 2nd cat in that home, which adds to the dander. I want to give him a fresh start. We both needed one.

I wouldn’t say I was 100% ready for this. It just sort of happened when his owner responded to me and told me his story. My apartment has not been cat-proofed since moving back from Australia. I’m sure things will get broken, messes will be made, and the navy blue paisley rug I really like will get covered in orange fur. But those are just things. I’m much happier having him here.

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Leases, addendums, and all that is wrong with San Francisco housing

I’m so furious, I’m shaking. I’ve already screamed. I’ve already cried. I want to punch something, but I don’t see the point in only hurting myself. I’m going to warn you now, this blog post contains excessive swearing, because I fucking feel like it.

Everything that is wrong with San Francisco, can be found in my property management company, and in my lease agreement.

First off: rent. That’s a given. My rent is too damn high. I’ve complained about it before, most notably so in a blog post about venture capital’s impact on San Francisco. When I signed my lease, my rent was $2,495/month for a 419 square foot apartment. If you do the math, that’s $5.95/square foot of space/month. I didn’t have a choice; I relocated back to San Francisco from Sydney, Australia. Despite living in San Francisco for 7 years before going down under, I was reintroduced to 2014 market rates for rent with a slap in the face welcome back to my city. This isn’t my first rodeo in San Francisco, but I was unfortunately funneled through the same channels as others who come to this city for work.

Then, it’s not good enough for the blood-sucking property management company to receive a monthly check on the first of the month. Like a leech, they attach themselves electronically to my checking account (I don’t have a choice, this is just how they operate) to initiate the draws on my account themselves each month. It even says in my lease that if I pay by check, 1) I’m responsible for any delay due to mailing, and 2) they will take the information on my check to then initiate the electronic debit themselves, thus nullifying the purpose of the check in the first place.

Next, you get to the occupancy clause. Only the person whose name is on the lease can inhabit the apartment (I’ll get to the clause on guests later.) I cannot sublet, or get a roommate (not that I have room for one anyway), utilize AirBnB if I’m going to be gone on vacation, or otherwise have people on my premises. I wasted $5,000 on rent for my two-month sabbatical when I wasn’t even home, because I couldn’t supplement my income to offset the cost. Thanks, lease.

Technically, I’m allowed to work from home, provided I don’t invite the public into my apartment, or have employees on site. Except, let’s just be perfectly clear that I’m writing this in the office because I can’t stand to be in my apartment during the day anymore with the construction. That’s right, I can’t work from home, thanks to the conditions they’ve allowed. I’m only here because I can’t stand to be home right now. How about reimbursing me the muni fare because I had to leave? *crickets* I didn’t think so.

I can’t get a girlfriend and have her move in with me to share in the bliss of your exorbitant rent, lack of insulation, and shitty mold- and mouse-ridden apartment? Shame, really. Why, oh why doesn’t Facebook have a relationship status “in an abusive relationship with a suffocating lease???” Perhaps my personals ad should read “doormat seeks muddy boots.”

“Well, maybe if you just added her to the lease?” you say. But who’s to say it’ll even last that long? But it should be my fucking choice. What the actual fuck? Is this property manager my mommy now?

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The guest clause is in the Occupancy section of the lease, too. I cannot have guests for over 7 consecutive days or fifteen days in any calendar year. I have to, once again, obtain express written permission to have a guest on site for more than 15 consecutive days in the calendar year.

A situation actually arose not too long ago, when I had a friend from Sydney come visit, using my air miles and I personally bore the cost to bring him here for a month. When I asked the property manager ahead of time, in the interest of attempting to comply with this absurd clause of my lease, they let me know their policy was not to provide any written consent for guests over 15 days, period. There was nothing I could do. No deposit to pay, no signed agreement that he would not become a squatter. He was leaving and had a ticket back to Australia. But no, they would not budge. The property manager is so concerned with not getting sued, they are not allowing reasonable use of their property. And their behavior is such that if I ever have a guest again, I’m not incentivized to let them know at all next time. They won’t provide approval, so why should I ask permission? Two can play this “go fuck yourself” game.

I’ve already contacted the San Francisco Tenants Union (SFTU for short – might as well be STFU, or shut-the-fuck-up cause they couldn’t help me.)

Other great clauses? No free weights are allowed to be used on the premises. I agree, someone shouldn’t have a gym sized collection of every weight available in dumbbells, or go throwing them or dropping them on the hardwood.  The lease is basically telling me that if I want to work out, I need to join a gym and pay the gym fees, which are also inflation and city adjusted and too damn high.

Then, the building has security cameras on site, which I feel is an invasion of privacy, though they claim to use them for security. All it leads to is the nasty old people complaining about someone stealing their newspaper and they ask to view the footage so they can write a nastygram to the culprit, who was probably just a starving artist in the building using it beneath canvases to paint to make some money. Or someone loses a sock in the laundry and is convinced a neighbor stole it, since those useful cameras are all over the laundry facilities in the basement.

None of the tenants are allowed on the roof either. There is a locking mechanism that will open, but an alarm will sound. There are also cameras mounted to see who is violating this clause of the lease, too. If someone gets caught accessing the roof, this is grounds for eviction. This is a building in the city with no outdoor space. There is a billboard on the roof, and people need to be able to walk around and change the ads on the billboard. So you can’t fool me that it’s not safe or structurally sound… they just don’t want to spend the money to bring the building up to code, to put a fence around the ledge, and make it safe for tenant use. They don’t want to have to bring HVAC vents up to code either.

There is no additional storage available in my building, or parking. There is no bathtub in my apartment. For that matter, there is no dishwasher or washing machine and dryer either. The kitchen sink is really the size of a wet bar sink, no wider than 12 inches. With that came 6 inches of counter space. That is all that came with my kitchen – 6 inches of counter space. A narrow mini-sized oven range was provided, as was an undersized fridge. There is no garbage disposal. There are no window screens.

There’s mold in my closet. Yes, I did notify the landlord upon discovering it. There’s even an addendum to the lease about mold. When I let the property manager know and put in a maintenance request, they sent out a contractor who simply painted the mold with primer, because the primer has a label saying it was anti-mold. Let’s not discuss how the contractor had to come back multiple times, and I had to provide access to the apartment. Which meant I had to be there. Brilliant. In the mold addendum, I’m supposed to use the bathroom exhaust fans, the fans over the stove too, to reduce the likelihood of mold. Well, I would if I had any of those to use!

I’ve had mice in my apartment, because they fled from the construction site next door, which had laid in disrepair and undisturbed for years, until last year. There is a pest addendum to my lease too – basically pest removal is at the tenant cost and they take no responsibility for pests in the unit. I’m provided with an outdated list of approved vendors to take care of the pests. Gee, so long, and thanks for all the fish.

The utilities in my building are handled in a special way. The building was built in 1931, and has only 1 electric meter. So the utilities for the whole building are measured, then water, garbage, and electricity are allocated out to the various apartments based on the headcount of tenants. Two people who share an apartment use approximately 60% more of the water than just one person uses, instead of 100% more, according to their allocation methodology, instead of charging the apartment with two tenants double for their water. According to their allocation methodology, 3 people use 90% more than 1 person. That makes absolutely NO sense. So I can’t even get a clear bill for my actual personal usage of utilities, and I’m subsidizing the tenants who are doubled up in apartments in my building, though they still flush the toilet twice as much, do the dishes in the sink twice as much, and take double the showers. Hello, single-tax. Single people are penalized in this city, I swear.

Having been built prior to 1979, my building is grandfathered in to rent control in the city of San Francisco, and rent can only be increased by an amount indexed to inflation. The landlords can raise the rent no more than 3% annually, since that is the current inflation rate, so guess how much they raised my rent when my lease expired after 1 year? 3%. The maximum they possibly could. Meanwhile, my next door neighbor, guilty of those nastygrams, and who isn’t exactly quiet herself, has been living in the building for 20 years and probably only pays about $500/month in rent. Shall I remind you how much I pay for a similar sized apartment just because I signed my lease within the last year, when the market has gone insane? $2542, after my 3% increase this year. For fuck’s sake. Seriously? Are you fucking kidding me?

I can’t even paint the walls. Even if I wanted to pay out of pocket for the paint, and return it back to the exact condition the apartment was in when I got it. It even says it my lease I can’t put a plant on the floor. Would you also like to add a clause controlling my religion or that I can only vote for politicians who line your pockets with lobbying cash, or better yet, campaign promises that will earn you more money? Why don’t you tell me what I can and can’t have for breakfast? Brilliant idea.

The addendums to my lease are also ridiculous, on top of the aforementioned pest and mold addendums. House rules include special care must be given to noise levels before 8am and after 10pm. Why don’t you tell that to the construction workers next door who begin work prior to 7am?

Or how about this – if I’m locked out of my apartment, they can charge me $75 to simply have the on-site, live-in property manager employee, use their key on site to let me back in it. I get something reasonable like $20, or buy the guy a drink. He’s an on-site property manager, he already has the keys, just open the damn door. But $75? For something that takes 10 seconds to do? If I extrapolate that, that’s $75 for 10 seconds of work, or $450/minute. I wish that was my charge-out rate. Criminals.

The house rules also have strict guidelines about using the dumpster/garbage bins and how to recycle. Because I haven’t been recycling my whole life, and I don’t know how it works.

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Then I had to actually initial pages that acknowledge that there may be lead paint on the walls. I also had to acknowledge that the building may contain asbestos. How about getting rid of the asbestos and making your building safe for tenants? How about getting rid of the lead paint? Then I won’t have to initial that stupid page. If someone does something stupid in the building, and releases the asbestos into the air, I have no recourse because I initialed that page? I can’t. I can’t even. The stupidity. *keels over because she can’t*

There’s also an addendum for bedbugs. My friend and neighbor in a nearby building is currently suffering through this. She recently paid $1400 to fumigate her apartment because she found a bed bug, and now other tenants in her building are finding them, too. 4 more units in her 7 unit building have them. When it comes to my lease, bedbugs are my problem. That’s right, the wording used is, “the tenant shall hold harmless the owner/agent from any actions, claims, losses, damages, and expenses” when it comes to bedbugs.

It’s my own damn fault for signing the lease, any lawyer and rational person would say. I know because I say it to myself. But honestly, if I wanted to live in San Francisco, I don’t have a choice. Any apartment I find, any property manager, will have the same clauses in their leases, charge similar fees, and be just as useless when it comes to problems and maintenance.

The raisin at the end of the hot dog (see great phrases in yesterday’s post, Found in Translation) came today, when I had to forward my email to the property management company AGAIN, because there was no response the first time, about possibly getting a pet. My lease says that NO pets are allowed on the premises, not even temporarily or with a visiting guest, without the landlord’s prior written consent. I cannot obtain said written consent without completing and signing a Landlord’s Pet Agreement. So my email inquired about sending along the Pet Agreement so I could have a read of it, and see what (idiocy) I was dealing with.

The idiot employee with no soul at the property management company, who is just doing her job, bless her stupid little heart, reminds me they only accept cats in this building. Oh, have you not seen the two whippets owned by the guy down the hall from me? Have you not seen the mangy, hideous ankle-biting mut belonging to the nice transgender person who lives on the 2nd floor? Cats only??? My ass. Maybe I should just start knitting clothes for my mice like Cinderella, and then I can avoid the Landlord’s Pet Agreement.

Then, here’s the best part. In addition to the massive security deposit equal to one month of rent ($2,495) I’ve already put in over a year ago when I moved in, I now need to put an additional deposit down of $500, even though any cleaning whether or not I have a pet would be more than covered by the $2,495 I’ve already put down. So that would leave nearly $3,000 earning minimal interest on deposit with the horrible property management I’ve come to loathe with each interaction. THEN, the idiot property management employee with no soul informs me that in addition to the usurious deposit, I have to add $50 additional rent EACH MONTH for said pet. UN-FUCKING-BELIEVEABLE!

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From the full-on assault of this city, from the construction noises on the property next door, to the cigarette smoke that wafts into my apartment from the chain-smoking tenants in the apartment below every day, to the homeless people who congregate outside the building yelling obscenities, sometimes at 5am, these people have the nerve to charge me more to have a pet that is supposed to calm all of that? I want to get a pet to help with depression and the wears of living in this city, and now I have to pay rent for a cat?! Unreal! At least maybe then I can get that 40% discount on utilities by having a second tenant! I don’t even have a cat yet, and I’m already resentful it doesn’t have a job to help pay the rent! At least let them live rent free, and maybe instead you could impose a mouse-catching quota, to earn their keep?

Today, I want to quit my job. I want to put my notice in on my apartment, and I want to get the hell out of here.

Why hasn’t the San Francisco housing bubble popped sooner? Just fucking pop already! Twitter just laid people off… can we just fast forward to a time when it’ll be normal again? Tenants in this city are oppressed. There, I said it. I now know oppression, thanks to the my property management company, who’s goal, according to their website, is to, “enhance the communities we work in by creating high-quality, sustainable environments for people to live, work, shop and relax.” My ass. I don’t live in a high-quality, sustainable building. I don’t feel like I can relax or live there any longer. People like me are unhappy with their current situation, but they feel powerless to stop it or change it. Our only recourse is to move. Someone else will pay the high rent, will initial on the ridiculous ass-covering addendums.

There is no customer service function, despite supposedly having a dedicated customer service rep on staff. They’ll selectively respond to emails, avoid phone calls and let it go to voicemail. I generally have no place but the garbage bin to use as an inbox for complaints. I suppose I should reference the garbage and recycling addendum for trying to file a complaint with them. If I want handling of my complaint expedited, does it go in the recycle bin or the garbage can?

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I’m not a happy tenant. They don’t care, though. They just don’t want to get sued. And they just want my money. They’ll nickel and dime me to death, without any regard to me as a tenant and as a person. I feel there is no recourse. I’m just supposed to put up with it, roll over, and drool.

The storm is building. The clouds are circling. And I’m not just referring to the ominous El Niño season predicted this winter. My time in San Francisco is coming to an end. I can feel it. Thanks in part to the my property management company. They represent all that is wrong with this city. At the end of the day, all the clauses are superseded by the bottom line. If I’m paying this much rent, my money should not only speak, but be heard.

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Found in translation

I remember it like it was yesterday, the feeling of being outside my home country for far too long. After living in Australia for 3 years, and then traipsing around Europe for 2 months straight on sabbatical this past summer, I’m no stranger to wandering. I was surrounded by accents, signs, and audible conversations in foreign languages that are nowhere near English or Spanish (the two languages I can sort of understand if I really try.)

Languages like Arabic and Thai even have indiscernible characters that don’t even look like English letters. Those are the best, if you ask me. When the characters aren’t even close to something you recognize, you tend not to worry or think about what it is it’s trying to say. It’s lost on you, anyway.

In Italy, “Prego” has approximately 18 different uses and meanings, depending in what context it’s being used. It can mean, “you’re welcome”, “I pray”, or I can be used as a greeting or a request. It can be an adjective; it can also be a noun. It’s the crossdresser of the Italian language; it can be anything you want it to be. For 5 euros.

In Spanish, te quiero could mean “I want you,” or “I love you,” but it’s not love love. If you really want to say, “I love you,” in a noncasual, more than a friend way, you say “te amo”. Many a misunderstanding arise from that one.

I don’t know about you, but I use colloquialisms and slang pretty frequently. I speak in euphemisms, assuming people know what I mean and why the euphemism is funny. It makes sense in my head, so… keep up.

Here are some words and phrases I have found which don’t have an exact translation into an equivalent English word, but they still speak to me. Some of these words have been mentioned in other untranslatable words articles or collections, but some are from my own experiences.

saudade (Portuguese) – This word refers to “the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.” I can relate to this one all too well. *tear*

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torschlusspanik (German) – Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to “the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.” Have you ever felt that gate-closing panic? We’re not getting any younger… I certainly feel this more than I care to admit.

gigil (Filipino) – The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute. In Tagalog, sometimes this infers trembling or gritting one’s teeth, in a situation that overwhelms your self-control. I mean, this is basically every time I see a corgi. Or anything else of the fuzzy/fluffy variety that makes me squee with unfettered delight.

cafune (Brazilian Portuguese) – To “tenderly run your fingers through your lover’s hair.” Purrrrrrrrrrr

fernweh (German) – This is one of my favorites. It means a craving for travel, or to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to. I love leaving familiar surroundings to discover new places. I need distance, sometimes. This word carries with it a certain something that you just can’t get at home.

mångata (Swedish) – The road-like reflection of the moonlight on water. It’s like the road that leads home. It beckons. It is only a reflection, but what a sight it is to see.

gluggaveður (Icelandic) – This means “window-weather’, as in weather that is nice to look at through a window, in your pajamas, safe from the elements, but not nice to be out in. I’d say this is really similar to the turn of phrase, “good on paper.” Being good on paper doesn’t translate to being good in real life. But it sounds good. It’s pretty to look at. As long as you don’t have to be out in it. Leave it to Iceland to have a word for that.

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mokita (Kivilan) – Spoken in the islands surrounding Papua New Guinea, this word translates loosely as “the truth we all know but agree not to talk about,” better known as, “the elephant in the room.” What culture would need a word for that? Does it happen so frequently there that there needs to be a word? Do people withhold or not speak about things? *concerned face * I can understand having a phrase, but a word? Hmmm…

verschlimmbessern (German) – OK now I’m double dipping and going back to German, because there really are a lot of great words in German that we just don’t have in English. It helps when Germans scream them at you. All the more terrifying. Even if the word is harmless. This verb means “to make something worse when trying to improve it.” Story. Of. My. Life. I also like to call this “living,” as in striking a balance between getting my shit together, and fucking things up more.

oenophilia (Greek) – A love of wine. It’s a word after my own heart. Not to be confused with an “alcoholic.” *slurp*

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zugzwang (German) – Usually relating to chess, this word means a feeling of a “compulsion to move.” When it’s your move, but there is no move you can make which won’t make your situation worse. Also known as “well, shit,” in my world. I’ve been there a time or five, when any move you make will ultimately cause more trouble, but you don’t feel like you can stand idly by and do nothing.

Finally, there is one peculiar Icelandic phrase which makes me giggle to this day. “That is the raisin at the end of the hot dog!” (Það er rúsínan í pylsuendanum!) I equate this to my friend’s “black bean story” (trust me, you don’t want to hear it, and I don’t want to tell it over the internet. But that euphemism made sense in my head. And if you already know the black bean story.) It’s something that comes as a surprise at the end of something, something extra that wasn’t expected. Usually, this is something positive. A similar English phrase may be “the icing on the cake.”

Many things get lost in translation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But sometimes we forget about the great words we can find in translation. It’s like not losing a daughter, but gaining a son, or so the old adage goes. A son that you didn’t necessarily need. Or want. Oh hell, who invited him?

The nature of nature

I watched a 3-episode show recently that’s been in my Netflix queue for a while: The Code. A mathematics professor postulates the existence of a code, a mathematical code, that is the key to life and the universe. He finds mathematics everywhere – from the circles and shapes of the building blocks of life, to bees, to birds, to insects, all over.

The second episode is when my tail started wagging. The professor was standing at the Giants Causeway in northern Ireland. Giants Causeway is an area characterized by hexagonal basalt columns, very similar to the ones I spotted on the Reynishverfi black sand beach near Vik while in Iceland, back in June.

Giants Causeway, Ireland
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Vik, Iceland
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Bees have been brought in en masse to the almond orchards of northern California, near where I went to university at Chico State. Bees make hexagonal structures too, in their honeycombs. It’s not just instinct though, that all bees know to make hexagonal honeycomb structures.

If a series of circles were lined up next to each other, there would be gaps/negative space between the circles, which would lead to inefficiency. If triangles were used side by side, that would be more stable and without gaps, but bees use wax to outline the structure, and triangles use more wax for the walls than hexagons. Cubes could also be used, as they are stable, but they too use too much wax. Bees use hexagons because less wax is used to make the walls a stable structure. They share faces and minimize surface structure and tension. Bees naturally know to use hexagons because it is the most efficient storage solution for them. To me, it sounds like it’s becoming IKEA vs. nature when it comes to efficient (and cheap) storage solutions… but I digress.

The hexagonal structure used by honeybees, and seen in the basalt columns which cooled quickly from very hot lava flows, are both stable and striking. The geometric laws of hexagons include that 3 walls meet at 120°. Cobwebs often are hexagonal, or even have 7 or 8 sides, and they are fleeting structures comprised of super fine material (spider silk).

More understanding of the hexagonal columns and structures can be gained by looking at other structures which are fragile or only last a few seconds. Bubbles seek the most efficient structure too, and they’re always a sphere. There is only 1 surface, and no corners. This shape has the smallest surface area mathematically, and truly is the most efficient shape.

I find that absolutely beautiful, stepping back for a moment to reflect on what nature is showing us. Nature is always seeking out the most efficient shape or structure or solution. The most economically feasible solution is to be lazy, to take up as little space as possible. Nature wants symmetry, balance, and regularity. This hexagonal shape recurs in nature as one of the most efficient structure solutions.

Why, Zodiac Seats France, an airline supplier, recently filed for a patent after studying what could be the most efficient airplane seating configuration. Check out the article here. Its new shape? Hexagonal. The new configuration aims to increase cabin density, allowing more passengers to buy tickets to be on the plane, generate revenue, and gives passengers added shoulder and arm area, where our bodies like to stretch out.

When I was eight, I was introduced to the game Dungeons and Dragons by my cousins in upstate New York. My mother and I flew out to visit her family, and I hung out with the boys in a shed/garage while they played the game and I watched. Despite being one of the most boring and difficult to understand experiences of my life, I really liked the multifaceted dice they used. They didn’t use just plain cubical dice. They had different dice, some with 12 sides, and even some 20-sided dice. Dice mimic the structural formation in nature with the multiple facets seeking out equality. Unless a dice has markings on each face, we can’t tell one face or side from another. And the dice is equally likely to land on any of those sides. It’s the simplest example I can muster of symmetrical solids and their use in our leisure activities.

At some point, some brilliant scientist decided to use x-rays, which we commonly know show us what our bones look like inside our bodies, on crystals. When natural forming crystals are x-rayed, we truly see the chemical bonds and non-covalent interactions. I know, such a science nerd. I can’t help it. Stop it, tail.

What we see when we shoot x-rays through, say, a salt crystal, like those found in Merkers Crystal Grotto at Erlebnisbergwerk Merkers Salt Mine in Germany, are the diffraction patterns caused by the chemical bonds within the salt crystals, of sodium (Na) and chlorine (Cl). Salt crystals arrange themselves in cubic patterns, while other crystals may have hexagonal, or other shapes, depending on how the underlying molecules are bonded with each other.

At the core of our very being, at the molecular level, humans are living proof of efficiency and structure in nature’s simplest form. But how complex we truly are… Geometry gives us the best, most efficient shapes. Our bodies are truly temples, in that regard. Be you religious or not, it’s a wonderful thought to think how beautiful and worthy of love we all are. However, we are all not precise. We’re not all symmetrical. In fact, most people are asymmetrical.

Randomness and disorder does come into play in nature, so not everything is or can stay perfect. Take for example, snowflakes. Not all snowflakes are the same. But, sometimes, depending on outside forces, where the hot air meets the cold, snowflakes are not always hexagonal and symmetrical. Sometimes, they only have 3 sides, or 5. Getting those perfect 6-sided snowflakes is actually not as common as you think. They’re all unique, each and every one of them, but not all of them are perfect. Stars too, growing from the center, grow at different rates, encounter friction or obstacles.

Humans are beautifully asymmetrical, and more irregular and unpredictable with each day when it comes to growing. Think of a tree. It may start with growth, then divide into some branches, then more growing, then more dividing. But some branches may encounter power lines and get tangled. Some may be pruned or cut down. Some may be burned. The wind blows the same direction on a repetitive basis, so the wind makes one side of the tree denser with foliage than the other. How we end up like trees, with some areas growing without obstruction, while others encounter obstacles and slow down, is a beautiful metaphor for us as people. That is another way we are unique. We grow in different environments, and we all have a complex growth history.

But when artists speak of form in their work, it is these basic building blocks of structure of which they speak. Look at human-made architecture too. Take the pyramid shape of the Louvre museum in Paris, which I visited this past May. Or the semi-circle of St. Peter’s Basilica. Or every cubic high rise building. Or the ribbons of crystal formed over thousands of years in Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains of eastern Australia.

There is order; there are patterns. There are laws by which nature is governed. However, the order falls apart amid competing forces of this chaotic, complex world in which we live.

Look at Jackson Pollack, as an artist. He’s known as an arrogant, self-destructive drunk, who made visionary art, outbursts of abstract expressions of deep emotion, layer upon layer, color after color, splattered everywhere. It was seemingly random, and when viewers look at his work, there is a sense of zooming out and having the same consistency as when you zoom in and look closely. There is still uniformity in the madness. It was not seemingly random. It looked messy, but it still has structure and organization. Chaos and the laws of entropy say that his paintings should look the same up close as they do far away. And it is because of Jackson Pollack, that I finally understood fractals.

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Fractal systems, like leaves, trees, branches, with the growing and dividing, are mathematical and nerdy and I love them. When we account for wind, occasional breakage, seemingly random shapes become a work of art. That is nature’s medium. Math. Fractals are a complex, non-linear, interactive system, with the ability to adapt to a changing environment. Fractals govern river deltas, mountain ranges, wind patterns in Sahara sands, blood vessels in our bodies (a massive aorta splitting to tiny capillaries in our fingers and toes), and so much more.

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In my job, part of what we have to do is test journal entries made by our clients into their accounting systems for fraud. We extract a massive amount of data from our client’s accounting systems, and run various tests on it. I found a test when I was teaching a course not too long ago called our Benford’s Law test. It looks at the frequency of distribution of numbers in large samples of numerical data, and says that the number 1 will occur 30% of the time, not 10% of the time. I would think 1 has just as much probability of occurring as 0 or 5 or 9. But it turns out, this physicist Frank Benford found that small digits like 1, 2, and 3 occur disproportionately more frequently than later numbers in the sequence like 7, 8, and 9. This law applies to everything from home addresses, utility bills, stock prices, everything. Super nerdy and awesome.

Pixar animators actually revolutionized the film industry by using fractals to construct mountains and backgrounds in all its films. All the balloons in Up that carry the elderly man’s home to the falls in South America were governed by the laws of fractals. Fractals, with their infinite complexity, gave us the possibility of virtual worlds. Math has given us the power to document nature, to recreate it.

So after totally nerding out on this show, I reflected upon what mathematics does for me. I thought how lazy the universe is, how it seeks efficiency, symmetry, and is structured, even at atomic levels, by laws humans are still discovering.

We live within the complexity of geometry, battling competing forces of the natural world. From studying our world, we derived rules that explain powers of everything, and allow us to imagine with so much realism, virtual worlds that might exist.

Even as an auditor, completing testing templates and choosing samples, I cannot say the samples I choose are truly random. Even if I start listing random numbers in my head, they’re not truly random. They’re haphazard. The numbers coming from me have one fatal flaw – human error. The numbers I choose, whether I realize it or not, are subject to biases I have, whatever color tinted lenses I may be wearing, what I’m thinking about next, the number I chose just before it.

If something is not random, then it could be said there is a chance it can be predicted. Mathematics helps us to explain why things happen, but it’s sometimes useless for predicting. When we make estimations, we know they’re wrong. But they’re our best guess. When I look at a client’s growth rate assumptions when it values investments, those predictors get less and less reliable the further out we try to predict.

Like fractals, we are all intervening on this earth, with each other’s growth. It’s not random; it’s haphazard. We are all engaged in a series of insignificant moments, which then escalate, and shifts occur in our future course. We follow currents; we ebb and flow. It all appears random… but it isn’t.

THAT is beautiful.

Learnings from the little prince

In the last 24 hours, I reread Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. I haven’t read it since I was a very little girl, and I admit I could not recall the story at all. I’m glad I reread it – reminders come at the most useful of times… The story is about what’s really important in life, but as the reader learns, what’s important in life is going to be different to everyone one meets.

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The story starts with the narrator being discouraged from drawing at the tender age of 6, because grown-ups didn’t understand his art. He’d drawn a boa constrictor, from the outside and from the inside, with an elephant inside it. But all grown-ups could see was a hat. They didn’t see the elephant inside the snake. The narrator learns early on who the people are like him, who see something other than a hat, and then he learns who the people are who only see hats. He speaks of adjusting what he shares and how for the rest of his life, based on what it is people see. If people see hats, he speaks numbers with them. Makes more sense than it should, I’m afraid.

He also observes that grown-ups like numbers. I do admit, my career is based on numbers, yes. But my very nature is like that of the Little Prince. I do not speak numbers when I’m with friends or thinking for myself. If I’m being paid to think for a client, then I will think in numbers. It’s what the grown-ups want, so that is what they will get.

The Little Prince had quite a different perspective on grown-ups, and the planet Earth. His planet was so tiny, he could see the sunset 44 times in one day if he wanted to, just by moving his chair to keep up with the twilight! I should like to do that… That isn’t quite how we do things on Earth, though – it is much to big and we cannot move fast enough to keep our chair going to keep pace with the sunsets for a perpetual twilight. It’s a beautiful thought, though.

On his planet, he has a flower, two active volcanoes, and a dormant volcano, “but you never know.” His point of view on the volcano that used to go up to his knees but is no longer active, is that is still has potential. It’s not done yet. He’s right – you never know something is truly done… it can always reawaken.

He speaks of his flower often to the traveler who crash-landed in the Sahara and came upon the Little Prince as he was trying to fix his aircraft. He confides to the traveler, “You must never listen to flowers. You must look at them and smell them. Mine perfumed my planet, but I didn’t know how to enjoy that… In those days, I didn’t understand anything. I should have judged her according to her actions, not her words. She perfumed my planet and lit up my life… I was too young to know how to love her.”

Then, the Little Prince leaves his planet and ventures to others, where he meets characters who help him understand life and different perspectives. On the first planet, was a king, desperate for subjects, since he was the only inhabitant of his planet. He could not rule without subjects. The second planet was inhabited by a very vain man, who needed admirers, but alas, he was also the sole inhabitant of his planet.

Both the king and the vain man address the Little Prince as a subject, or as an admirer. I took this to mean that people see others in relation to themselves. The king is nothing without subjects, and the vain man is nothing without admirers. You don’t have to know your subjects or admirers to know that is their role in your life. But the Little Prince knows he is more than a subject and more than an admirer. Yes, there is more to him than meets the eye.

The third planet is inhabited by a drunkard, who claims to be drinking to forget that he’s ashamed of drinking. Vicious cycle, indeed. That planet made the Little Prince very depressed. Been there, done that, had that hangover.

The fourth planet is inhabited by a businessman, who loves numbers, and wants to own the stars. The Little Prince thinks the businessman argues like the drunkard, which is amusing to no end for me. The Little Prince tries to understand what owning is, and comes to the conclusion he owns the flower and the 3 volcanoes, and takes care of them every week. He thinks he is useful to his flower and his volcanoes. But the businessman is not useful to the stars.

On a fifth planet, the Little Prince meets a lamplighter. The Little Prince speaks with the lamplighter, and comes to the conclusion, “that man would be despised by all the others, by the king, by the very vain man, by the drunkard, by the businessman. Yet, he’s the only one who doesn’t strike me as ridiculous,” because he had a useful occupation, no matter how small or seemingly simple. He was following orders, regardless of whether the orders made sense, but they were being useful, lighting lamps and then putting the light out again once every minute.

On a sixth planet, the Little Prince meets a geographer. The geographer defends his usefulness because he records eternal things. But maps and records and books don’t record ephemeral or fleeting things, or the subjective. The Little Prince learns what ephemeral things are, and realizes his flower is ephemeral, threatened by imminent disappearance. The flower could be eaten by a sheep in a single morning, for example, the very sheep the Little Prince asked the pilot to draw for him upon first meeting in the middle of the Sahara. That flower will not last forever.

Then, it is on the seventh planet the Little Prince visits is Earth, and where he finally meets the traveler/narrator in the Sahara. Earth is a planet of 111 kings, 7,000 geographers, 900,000 businessmen, 7.5 million drunkards, 311 million vain men, and in total, about 2 billion grown-ups, with an army of 462,511 lamplighters. But, the grown-ups won’t believe you if you tell them that Earth is so big and they are so few, that they all could fit on one Pacific island, because, “Grown-ups, of course…. They’re convinced they take up much more room.”

When he gets to Earth, the Little Prince comes upon a blossoming rose garden, and is surprised to find the flowers that look like his flower back home. He felt a little betrayed, because his flower told him she was the only one of her kind. He thought he was rich, because he had a flower and 3 volcanoes, but after seeing all the roses, he hardly felt rich at all.

After the rose garden, he comes upon a fox, which won’t play with him, because the fox isn’t tamed. The Little Prince doesn’t know what that means. The fox explains that the Little Prince must teach the fox how to play, how to behave and not hurt the Little Prince while playing. Taming means creating ties, and after the fox is tamed, they’ll need each other. Creating ties is a time investment, after all. There are rites and appropriate protocols that come with being tamed. There is routine and familiarity and comfort and trust. The fox wants to be tamed by the Little Prince, but the Little Prince is not sure he should tame the fox. You risk tears, if you are tamed. But you can only learn that which you tame, what you put time and effort into. The Little Prince knows he has a lot to see and learn in his little life, so he’s not sure he should tie himself down and tame the fox, but he does. The fox tells the Little Prince to go back to the roses and then before the Little Prince departs, the fox will tell him a secret.

So he goes back to the rose garden and talks to the roses. He realizes that he loves his flower back home, and that she’s more important than all of these roses in the garden. She’s the one he watered, he made time for, tamed, and with which he had rites. She’s his rose. That makes her infinitely more special than all of those other roses in the garden on Earth.

The Little Prince returns to the fox one last time for the secret, which is: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

It is then in his travels that the Little Prince meets the stranded pilot in the desert, and makes some startling revelations to the pilot. Firstly, what makes the desert beautiful is that it hides a well somewhere. What is beautiful is invisible. The narrator has a moment of realization that what makes the Little Prince beautiful to him is his loyalty to a flower, which is also, invisible.

The Little Prince also comments how, “People where you live grow 5,000 roses in one garden… yet they don’t find what they’re looking for… And yet, what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water… But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”

For the Little Prince, he knows, “People have stars, but they aren’t the same. For travelers, the stars are guides. For other people, they’re nothing but tiny lights. And still for others, for scholars, they’re problems. For my businessman, they were gold. But all those stars are silent stars.” But the Little Prince says that when the pilot looks up at the stars, the pilot will remember the Little Prince, and know he is out there living on one of them, laughing. So for him, the stars will laugh. The stars laugh for no one else but the pilot.

So now, whenever the pilot looks up at the stars, he recalls the Little Prince, and he wonders whether the sheep has eaten the flower. Grown-ups will never understand how important that is.

It’s such a beautiful story.

To see what is beautiful, you must look with your heart, not your eyes. Your eyes are blind.

Be careful what you agree to tame, because creating ties makes you responsible for what you’ve tamed and creates tears, but it truly makes that with which you make ties infinitely more special. You’re bound forever, and need each other.

You can be rich, even if you only have a flower and 2 volcanoes (and third dormant one, but you never know!)

What I see when I look at the stars is different from what anybody else sees. And what I see, regardless of whether anybody else can see, holds importance to me. Maybe it’s not a blonde little prince laughing and not answering questions, but it’s mine nonetheless.