Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Winter Storm: 2008 (aka My Half Snow Day)

"We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
The blue walls of the firmament.
No cloud above, no earth below, -
A universe of sky and snow!"
~John Greenleaf Whittier

The cold came first this time, as if in preparation for the snow I thought would never materialize. Then one morning, I opened my front door and did not recognize the landscape below my balcony. Quickly I closed the door behind me and hurried to my car - reliving the old routine of Grand Rapids winters (turn on car, click on the rear defroster, dig the ice-scraper out of the trunk, start on the passenger side window and move counterclockwise around the car, bang the tires to get the accumulated gunk off, etc).

Already though, I can feel that this is different. My eyes are used to looking upon the sidewalks of Calvin College as a treacherous ice-paths of bitter cold, but this is Seattle for heaven's sake. Experience here does not allow for all of this!

After many failed attempts of getting off this hill, I had to make the call - "Sorry, I can't make it in." Then I sat down in my living room and I was suddenly faced with a snow day! Well, I still had to go to the Library in the evening (when you can easily walk to work, there is no excuse) - but a half snow day is just as amazing!

Snow days were made for walking around and giving respect to that which gave you an unexpected break. So, armed with my snow boots, long-johns, massive wool scarf, and hobo gloves, I waddled (much like a toddler) to the grocery store.

It is wonderfully shocking how friendly people are when there is a snow day - is that why people in the Midwest are known for their hospitality to strangers? I suppose you never know who is going to be around to help you push your car out of a snow drift - you might as well be friendly to everyone! But I think it is more than that. Snow forces you to walk and remember how close (or how far) people, places, and things are.

Everyone took to the streets, all smiles and falls.

Later that night while I was walking back up the hill, I was startled by the silence. As if the snow was absorbing the sounds of the freeway, of the dogs barking, and of the nighttime world. Never are there more stars overhead as when the snow has already fallen. And, because of the sky's sharp clearness, I could see the Christmas tree bedecked Space Needle - over the lake and peaking between the trees. What joy I felt!

Now the snow is disgusting - brown sludge, being the better name for it. The hike up and down the hill is a chore, with so much snow! Everyone is now cranky. We've missed so much work, so much Christmas shopping time, have had too many close calls, and are sick of being cooped up. Yep, I too fall into this category!

However, there are still Christmas lights turning the snow into a festive mirror of color and the coldest nights have the most stars. Now my challenge is to keep this in mind over the next few days or, dare I say it, weeks. Sigh.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Devil and Details

My mind keeps wondering today... and to nothing in particular. I am sitting at the Cafe, trying to study "Урок но. 1" and having no luck at it. My goal is to write a summary a day for each chapter - forcing myself to read every single word.

Wow! How many details slipped through my fingers. Did I just not read that one detail about "in cases other than the nominative or the accusative, the quantifying words... decline like plural adjectives and agree" the first time around? I don't remember that at all! Now, I am convinced that is the one piece of the Russian puzzle that I have been missing.

Have I had my detail-filtering glasses on this whole term? Is that my problem?


One of the most shocking things about Istanbul, was the detail. Every wall covered in hand painted tile, and each wooden shutter carved with ornate design that seemed to be based on a Fibonacci understanding of craftsmanship. It got to the point where I was unable to focus by the end of the night. My brain was so caught up in attempting to process all of these bits of images, that I would sit up on the terrace, drink a beer, and stare out into the darkness for hours - lime green and sea turquoise, flashing in strobe before my tired eyes.

Detail, Tile

It is only now, after a few months, that my mind is truly able to appreciate and process all of those details that caused me such a headache before. And it is exactly those bits and pieces that stand in sharp relief in my memories. Time is all I needed - time and space.

Detail of Tomb Door, Suleyman Mosque

Not that that is going to help me with my final. If only I could take a photo of the particular details I need to remember, then sit and process them, drink a beer and stare into the dark, come back to the photo in two months - then it might have the chance of lodging itself somewhere between genitive plural case and Куда constructs.

Nope - I'm just going to have to focus. Humm... my coffee has gone cold.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thoughts on Carl Sagan

"I believe it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are."

This is the first thing that caught my attention in Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, and it is a question that I am still not equipped to answer. When and Where are we? If Carl Sagan does not know, how in the world am I going to figure this out? Thankfully, Sagan spends the rest of the lectures trying to put this in context. His conclusion is to exclaim: How short-sighted we are! That is the most shocking and wonderful conclusion that I could have expected from this random impulse buy - and it is something I cannot stop thinking about, though I am no closer to drawing my own conclusion.

Sagan asks us to think about three things: 1) our smallness, 2) our lack of imagination, and 3) coming to terms with our limits. It is the second and third conclusion that interested me the most. After all, the first, our smallness, is something everyone has pondered while looking at the stars. "Many religions," writes Sagan, "have attempted to make statues of their gods very large... We need only look up if we wish to feel small." (28) It is the natural human tendency to bite and claw our way to a grander importance - a type of vainglory for our species. Sagan sees this in the conservative Christian assertion that shortens the history of Earth eons to concord with the time line of the Bible: "The shorter the age of the Earth, the greater the relative role of humans in the history of the Earth." (39)

This is a solid conclusion, but it is not the reason I am returning to this idea. He focuses more on our lack of imagination, in both secular and religious understandings of our surroundings. We have locked ourselves and, more importantly, God in a terrestrial plane of existence. This is true "...whether [or not] we have any idea of the possible range of life, of what could be elsewhere." (67) After all, "[t]he universe is not responsive to our ambitious expectations." (37)

My! That is a concept! If we remove ourselves from the center of the universe, then we become incidental - much like any character in any novel by Camus. Nothing matters beyond this search for more. This existential break was not something I was expecting from Sagan; however, it was a short lived interlude.

What does this mean for human history? I believe that Carl Sagan offers some ideas, but was unable or unwilling to stand behind any of them. He writes, "Extinction is forever. Extinction undermines the human enterprise. Extinction makes pointless the activities of all of our ancestors..." (204). This calls to mind something that C.S. Lewis addresses in From the Silent Planet, in which the notion that humans want to explore other planets because they seek to preserve their species, is ridiculed for being short-sighted. The beings of Malacandra see the extinction of their species as an inevitable part of life, and that no being or species was meant to last forever. This is exactly the point Sagan is making!

So, what is his conclusion and why have I wasted your time talking about this book?

"Tradition is a precious thing, a kind of distillation of tens or hundreds of thousands of generations of humans." (191) What an interesting notion for someone who constantly pushes us to look to the future! The implications of this are not immediately apparent - at least they weren't for me. The search for answers is an exercise that naturally forces us to look upwards, says Sagan. As someone whose main efforts are political or philosophical in nature (at least that is what like to tell myself), this is a hard pill to swallow. I focus inwards, brainwards, but Sagan is telling us that the quest cannot happen without upward motion.

What if, in the above quote, the word "tradition" is replaced with "history"? History, human history, becomes something valuable and is what roots us in time, our when. Remembering that "Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception" (66), he does offer hope and validation to people like me - studying ourselves proves to be as valuable as studying the stars. As long as this is tempered with remembering our smallness and lack of comprehension (something that seems to be cured by a quick look at the stars), the study of tradition, or, as I would have it, history, places our humanity in terms of where and when. And that is the ultimate goal.

Curses! All Sagan did was pose a new question, that I never thought about before, and offer no real answers. New question - no answers - blah!

Monday, November 10, 2008

People have been pestering me for over a year now to start posting things to my blog again. I just don't think I have anything terribly interesting to talk about, but I am sick of the e-mails and think that it will be best to give in.

Part of my struggle is to define, redefine rather, what my blog is going to be. After reading many blogs and giving it a lot of thought, I have decided not to decide. I am going to use this as a forum for talking about things I enjoy and sharing bits of information.

Because this was originally created as a place for my travel stories, I am planning on doing a retroactive reflection on my trip to Istanbul. So there is that to look forward to.

Till then - STOP COMPLAINING! (I say that with love in my heart!)