Embrace Tiger, Return To Mountain

by Morgan Hite

I have been in Cincinnati for nine days now and I am definitely moving into what I call total work mode. I am beginning to dedicate all my waking hours to the project. I am beginning to live, breathe and think TIGER files.

This is computer work. A TIGER file is a map of a county reduced to ones and zeros on a reel of magnetic tape. The Bureau of the Census has produced these for the 1990 census, so theyíll know where all the streets in the country are; but anyone can get a copy. Theyíre free, except for the media charge, which means the cost of the actual tape. But the TIGER file is of no use unless one has computer software to read it and turn it back into a map. I am writing such software.

TIGER is one of those grim, government acronyms: the Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing files. I canít help but wonder if someone didnít come up with the acronym first, and the product later. But it is a very impressive and thorough product: every road, highway, street, alley, river, stream, lake, airport, railway and glacier in the United States is in there, and every county in the country has a TIGER file.

One of the sublime mysteries of computer work is that a computer goes on performing the procedures laid out for it for years, long after the programmer is gone. I figure out how to read TIGER files, I write it down as a series of simple steps that the computer can understand, I watch it follow the instructions several times to make sure it did it right and then I leave. Things arenít usually that smooth, but thatís the essence of programming. My thought process is immortalized. My ghost continues at work, every time the TIGER-reading program is run. This will be an independent child of my spirit, split off from me at the moment I knew most about reading TIGER files, before I left this winter city in a foggy and industrial Eastern state.

My clients for this project are a team of economic geographers. They are very appreciative of me: this morning they brought me coffee cake in the little, windowless room I work in. They take time out from their offices and come down to look at the multi-colored test maps that glow on my terminal screen from time to time. They like to talk about the cities Iím producing maps of, and theyíve been to every one of them. They pick sites for department stores; thatís their job.

It sounds fairly innocent. I can imagine a parallel universe where it is: people siting stores because "somebody has to do it." A government bureau with nameless heroes and heroines who make sure that no one is left too far from a shopping center. A world without corporate egos thatís just trying to get the goods to the people who need them, sort of a Socialism designed more to eliminate the "we win, you lose" aspect of business than to put the means of production in the hands of the people.

Butóback to realityónot here. This is Federated Department Stores, rising twenty-three stories out of Cincinnati in a steel and glass tower, controlling the far-flung empire which includes the kingdoms of Abraham & Strauss, Bloomindales, Bullockís, Fileneís, I. Magnin, Richís and Sanger-Harris. New store locations are not sited on the basis of where they are needed (it was a nice fantasy), but rather where they can be squeezed in. Square feet of store versus estimated spending power of the people in the neighborhood suggests we may be able to sustain another store in the area.

There are tempting metaphors in biology. At least a century ago someone tried to justify capitalism as Darwinian selection, as if stores were trees competing for sunlight, or baleen whales scooping up idle plankton dollars that get spent. Well, whoever that was hadnít done his time outdoors. Trees donít spend tens of thousands of dollars doing research to find out whether the seed will grow or not if it hits a particular patch of dirt. Whales do not estimate next yearís plankton crop and then plan on whether to get pregnant or not. Plants and animals just try; lots of times they die. Nature is rough like that. This is not rough. Iím being paid thirty dollars an hour here: TIGER files help the geographers evaluate road access to potential new malls.

To me, this cash-intensive research changes the game entirely. This bears no resemblance at all to natural selection. Competition among life forms is, with the probable exception of Man, an unselfconscious process. Whatever legitimacy may have been conferred upon capitalism by an analogy to natural selection is annulled by the fact that corporations know what theyíre doing. Survival of the fittest indeed: if companies really wanted to imitate genetic evolution theyíd go around spinning off hundreds of wacky little corporations at random, just to see what would fly. That would be pretty entertaining.

But Iím having a huge amount of fun here. Iíve been working ten, maybe twelve hours a day, just because itís hard to tear myself away. Working with computers is such a vacation from the real world. My mind leaps ahead far faster than I can write, troubleshoot, perfect and document, so my to-do list grows longer instead of shorter and I am reluctant to break off. Meals become the most unwelcome interruption: not until Iím desperately hungry will I admit that it might be wise to eat. I am filled with the zeal of creating: itís almost as good as making things with my hands. John and I get here at eight or eight-thirty in the morning and stay long after everyone else is gone, often Ďtil nine. We get our best work done at night, when there are no interruptions.

My mental energy for this seems fairly tireless, and my body just sits. I get stiff eventually, and then I have to stop and stretch. Usually just standing up or lying on the floor does the trick, but sometimes my mind gets a little stiff too. Then, if the building is empty, I do Tai Chi up and down the deserted hallways.

Tai Chi is a good antidote for computers. It is an ancient Chinese martial art that is very slow, so it shuts down the chattering, questing mind. It asks for balance, so it speaks to the lower, older parts of the brain. It reminds me that I spent fifteen of the twenty-five days preceding my arrival here on skis in the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains. I lived in snow caves and igloos.

Tai Chi is non-verbal. It has a series of positions with names, but they melt into one another, and the names are more checkpoints than instructions. Plucking Birdís Tail; Embrace the Moon; Single Whip. They remind the would-be computer mind that there is more to life than things with names. They remind me of the secrets of living in sub-zero weather, outside in the snow all day and all night. Out there, action supercedes words as the best way to fill time: Iím a little cold after dinner so I pick up a shovel and make some improvements to the snow kitchen weíve dug. Winter is a bad time to find time to write a letter, but a good time to embrace the full moon and go for an evening ski.

Tai Chi flows on, very slowly. It asks some self-discipline to withstand its excruciating slowness. White Stork Spreads Wings; Brush Knee Step. It is good to be constrained to the beat of some other drummer since all day I have been calling the shots for the poor machine. And by deciding how the program will interact with the geographers, Iíve sort of been programming them too. The real world is more like Tai Chi. Nature beats the rhythm, gives you a still noon in which to relax and eat lunch, or a stiff and icy wind that hurries you on to camp.

Pluck the Harp. Where is the music here? Where are the excited people, eagerly sharing their dreams with one another? It seems that in the world of those who are at home in the wilderness, we also find those who feel in control of their futures. They are not financially secure, but they radiate happiness and fulfillment. They have plans. They chart their own course. Perhaps that is true here too, but I donít hear the enthusiasm. The harp of downtown civilization is strung tight, too tight for the strings to move sometimes. It seems good to come in from the marginal lands and pluck the harp with stories and pictures of what lies beyond.

Parry, Punch and Thrust. The Tai Chi form brings me back into contact with the flow of time as I prefer it. I have practiced the movements of this form out in the wild and quiet places more than anywhere else and it reminds me of them. I have found that wherever I do them, they are a celebration of the integrity of that place. They restore a certain balance to these hallways. They remind me that I will only be here a few more days. They remind me of the Big Picture.

In the Tai Chi form I practice, the final movement is called Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain.

Cincinnati, Ohio, February 1989