Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Be Thankful, Because Before You Know it, it Will Be Over

Photo: from Twitter User Kate Kisset
Living as we do in California brings with it many advantages. It's usually pretty warm. We get many sunny days - Sunday was the 8th of October, and it was a clear day - sparkling, azure sky with a light breeze. About 78 degrees. 

We are blessed by magnificent hills, rolling valleys, crashing surf. Winter brings some of the best skiing anywhere in the world, just a couple of hours away. Farms nearby mean fresh produce most of the year of all types.

All of this comes at a price, of course, and that price is on display now. 

About this time last year, as we went through the annual "California Shake Out" (the day that we are urged to participate in prepare for the inevitable next large earthquake, I was thinking about how everything is OK until it isn't.

In the best-selling book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb made the point that the happiest, most secure day in the life of a turkey is the day before Thanksgiving. His point was that, each day a turkey lives, the farmer has invested more time and resources to raise it, and as a result, has ever more incentive to ensure that the turkey will survive for another tomorrow. The turkey will have better conditions, better treatment, better food, and better health. Each day is just a bit better than the one before.

The turkey cannot see what is coming, so he lives in a sense of increasing joy - increasing complacency.

What could possibly go wrong?

We live in San Francisco, which in 1989 was devastated by a massive earthquake. The city was more or less destroyed in 1906 by a quake and fire.

There are scars over the city, constant reminders, that at some point, Thanksgiving is coming.

I woke Monday morning to take our dog out, as I do every morning. There was an unmistakable, acrid smell of smoke in our neighbourhood, and the air shown hazily through the rising sun. At first, I thought someone had lit a fire in his chimney, or maybe there had been a fire not far away. But then, I did not hear any fire engines or alarms. 

The news revealed the awful truth.

As I write this, about 50 or so kilometres north of the city, the famous wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties are being ravaged by wild fires. An area of 100,000 acres - roughly three times size the city of  San Francisco is burning or has been burnt. My son's school has alerted us that the classes will remain indoors today for recess because the air is unhealthy for children. I can smell smoke in my office building, and the Metro tunnels today had smoke in them, slowing trains.

For the rest of the country, I am guessing that most of the coverage is about the threat to the grape harvest and wine that Napa and Sonoma are famous for. We belong to the Stag's Leap Wine Club, and the flames of the Atlas Peak fire are just a few miles away - as of right now, Stag's Leap is not affected. Some of the most famous (and expensive) producers in the area are threatened - Shafer Vineyards, Opus One, Silverado are all just a few miles away.  Names that all oenophiles recognise - St Helena, Rutherford, Oak Knoll are all, all just outside the flames.

Napa Valley is a v-shaped valley tucked between two low mountain ranges studded with Coastal Live Oak tries and tall grass that are golden brown at this time of the year. They make for excellent tinder.

1500 homes have been destroyed thus far, one of the largest counts in 50 years, and 15 people have lost their lives.

100 more people remain unaccounted for.

Everything is fine until it isn't.

Life itself comes with risks. Some are distant and abstract, whilst others are immediate and concrete.


As I said last year, John Lennon described life as what happens when you're making plans. 

My father was a planner; he liked to think of the long term. He was always imagining a day that he thought would come. 

It didn't work out that way. My father ran out of tomorrows almost 25 years ago.

For all of us, there will be a today where tomorrow simply will not come. For 15 people in Napa who went to sleep on the 9th of October, there would not be an 10th.

I, too, like to plan. But I always try to stop to remind myself that ultimately, whilst planning for tomorrow is prudent, there will be a day when, like my father, I am going to run out of tomorrows. My wife, son, and I have been most fortunate. Of course, we plan for the days that are to come, saving for schooling, for retirement, for the unforeseen leaking roof.  

But it's important - every day, if possible - to take some time and just enjoy being alive. Spend some money on a nice meal from time to time. Take a trip to a foreign land. Simply do nothing at all.

I have long thought that pain and tragedy are perhaps the greatest teachers we have; earthquakes or fires or tornadoes should be reminders to us that our lives are ephemeral.  


We should not be afraid, but we should be aware. Guard your time preciously, jealously, because it is precious.

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