The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Thursday, March 31, 2011


Several years ago my mother, who is an elementary school teacher, got The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg as a book for class. She was excited about it and showed me. The concept of the book is that Harris Burdick approaches a children's book publisher with his portfolio which includes fourteen pages from various children's books he'd created. Unfortunately, Burdick disappeared before any more information was forthcoming and all that was left were this set of fourteen pictures with caption and book title. In short, it's 14 fragments of children's books. Van Allsburg wrote it in the hope that the various fragments would serve as inspiration, with kid's writing their own stories built upon the fragment, and my mother was planning on using it the same way, to inspire her kids to wrte stories. I thought the book was quite awesome, but was inspired quite differently, thinking it would be more fun to write a series of fragments myself, in my own style.

I remember in one of my classes on British Romanticism we covered the poetry fragment as an art form. The most famous poetry fragment is "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which was a poem that, according to Coleridge's account, came to him in an opium dream and was of some 200 to 300 lines in length. Upon waking, he began to write it, composing the 54 lines, but then was interrupted by the "Person from Porlock" who detained him for an hour. After that point, when he returned to the poem, he found that he couldn't reconstruct the rest of it. It's not entirely clear whether this account by Coleridge is a true story or a piece of fiction meant to add to the poem, but the poem is definitely comes across as incomplete. The intrigue of the fragmentary nature in general and of "Kubla Kahn" in particular is that it is only a part of a much grander vision, that the reader can vaguely imagine, and those vague imaginings will be much greater than anything tangible that could've been produced. Coleridge published another famous fragment "Christabel," about a victimized woman named Geraldine who Christabel helps and later discovers has some sort of dark, mysterious powers. Coleridge had some plans for how to complete it, but just didn't, perhaps because he was indecisive about how specifically to end it. But the poem was among the inspirations of Sheridan Le Fanu's lesbian vampire tale Carmilla, which could be seen as almost like an attempt to complete the story (sort of becasuse Le Fanu isn't faithful to the fragment and takes it in a much different direction than Coleridge intended). In my Romanticism class we were encouraged to write our own poetry fragments, and I dabbled in this a bit.

Inspired by the Mysteries of Harris Burdick, though, I wrote about two dozen story fragments, along with several others that I started but didn't complete (so, I guess they would be called fragmentary fragments, or something). They were divided into three kinds: dreams, conversations and fragments. The dreams, were just fragments that were loosely based on dreams that I'd had. The conversations were simply sections of dialogue. And everything else I wrote was classed as a fragment. All three types were meant to be read as pieces of a larger story, which the reader would imagine, as if they were a page torn out of a novel, which had been lost. People can't help but try to fill in the tantalizing mystery, and there's no disappointment of a resolution to a mystery that turns out to be dull and banal since the reader resolves it according to their own imagination. I'd hoped for the same thing as Van Allsburg, that people would be inspired to build around the fragments and create things that were very different than what I would've imagined. So, I uploaded the few that I considered pretty good to my site. Time will tell.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Maymont Park 2

Maymont Park by allistair
Maymont1 a photo by allistair on Flickr.

Maymont Park is a massive 100 acre estate in Richmond, Virginia along the James River. Major James Dooley and his wife Sallie gradually built and developed this estate from 18866 when they first bought this stretch of uncultivated farmland until Sallie's death in 1925, after which they left it to the city of Richmond. James Dooley fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederates, and made his fortune working as a lawyer and later as an investor in the burgeoning southern railroad. There is a stream which flows down into their Japanese Garden, and along the way the streams forms a beautiful waterfall, as seen here. The people in the picture are just a random mother with her kids that happened to be there when I took the picture.

Our special club

When I was a senior in college, a close friend of mine named Ridg, one night started to plan out what we thought would be a great idea for a special invitation-only philosophy discussion group. Ridg and I had enjoyed enjoyed discussing deep, difficult philosophical problems between the two of us for a while then, but we craved other people to add to the conversation, to bring new perspectives, to raise new problems and to spurn even deeper debate. The idea of having other intelligent, thoughtful people join us for such philosophical debates, turned towards the question of what people would be best at providing these new perspectives. We eventually started to create an actual list, and began to hatch ideas of a group of the smartest most intriguing people to discuss philosophy with us.

The people we listed weren't just be a list of our friends, but rather a list of those among our friends and acquaintances we deemed most worthy. And being worthy wasn't just a matter of being smart, but also a matter of being a reflective person who might have actually give deep thought to our brand of philosophical questions. What type of questions are we talking about? The questions that Ridg and I had in mind were sort of the biggest broadest philosophical questions we could come up, something straight out of Platonic dialogue, like: "What is Justice?" "What is Love?" "What does it mean to do good?" What makes good art?" and so on

We came up with and wrote down a list of over ten people, debating on the merits of several possible candidates, dismissing some, adding others and so on. Our list was carefully planned. We even had it divided up into a core five or six of those who were the cream of the crop (which of course included both Ridg and I), and then a periphery of several others that were worthy, but not quite in the upper echelons. Unfortunately, in our planning, we'd put the cart before the horse. You see, normally when you have an exclusive club or secret society or other selective organization, that group has an established reputation or cachet that makes people want to join it. If you're starting such a club from scratch, you need to give people a reason to want to join, either because they include certain elite or privileged members that others want to schmooze with, or because they have access to something exclusive or special. Once you've got people who want to join, then you select among them, at that point debating amongst yourself about their relative merits and worthiness. Ridg and I, on the other hand, were not elite or exclusive. We just assumed that people would want to sit in a room with us and talk philosophy. Admittedly, these were all generally philosophically-minded people who tended to enjoy that sort of thing, but that doesn't mean they didn't have better ways to spend their time than hanging out with us.

When we tried to gather some of the people from our list, they just weren't really interested. Even our friends were leery about the idea. Some of them objected to the selectiveness, and some of them were just busy or would rather do something else with their time. At the scheduled time, it was just Ridg and I. A friend of his popped by and we talked for a while, but that was it. Our special philosophy group never got off the ground.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Maymont Park

Maymont3 by allistair
Maymont3 a photo by allistair on Flickr.

My sister's husband decided to change careers a few years ago, from a career in business to a medical career. Unfortunately, since med schools don't normally let people in with undergrad degrees in finance, he pursued an MA in Public Health as a stepping stone. He was accepted to Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond, and they promptly moved there together. When I went an visited them, I got to see the city of Richmond, which I hadn't seen before. They left me to explore on my own on the day I took this picture, and I simply stumbled upon Maymont Park with no prior knowledge. It's a sprawling estate, which now belongs to the city of Richmond. As for my sister's husband, he did get into med school after completing his MA, and is now working on that degree in Vegas.

First time I learned about Plato's Forms

When I was a young Freshman in college, taking my very first philosophy class, I was introduced to Plato's idea of the forms. But, it wasn't by any professor, but instead by a drunken recent alum at a party.

Before getting to that, let explain a little bit of Plato's theory of the Forms. This theory is an example Greek "hylomorphism." Hylomorphism is a theory of matter that was common in Ancient Greece, and it basically refers to theories that posit that the matter (hyle in Greek) and the form (morphe in Greek) of something are two genuinely distinct, real things. The form refers to, say the function, design or shape of a thing, and the matter refers to the material stuff that comprises it, like say bricks (matter) being shaped into a house (form). Modern philosophy rejected hylomorphism, believing that only matter is really real, and that the form isn't something real or distinct. When we talk about bricks being fashioned to form a house, we don't think of the form of the house as something apart from the physical house. Plato, on the other hand did. In fact, he believed that not only are the forms separable, but they exist in some other realm that we can only see with our mind. The matter, such as the brick, which is sensible and touchable, can be a house because it participates in the non-sensible and non-touchable form of a house. The word "participate" is usually the word that is used to describe this rather difficult to imagine relationship between form and matter, which both exist in entirely different realms. Additionally, our soul is of this realm of the forms, and it is trapped in this material body, but when it is freed by death, it will be able to commune with an observe the Forms unadulterated. And so on.

I could go on. It's a rather elaborate theory with many pieces and many hard to entangle intricacies of interpretation. But, as one can easily imagine, when I was first introduced to this theory at a party from a drunk man, he wasn't so articulate as I am. It was more like: "You see you got this chair. And the only reason that the chair is a chair is because it participates in the form of a chair, which is somewhere out there and you can only see it with your mind's eye."

It was rather early in the semester of my Freshman year at Goucher college, and I decided to go to a party in Gretel's room, with a few other people. Gretel, interestingly had met two former Goucher students, who had only just graduated the previous year, and were just visiting the campus to check the place out. They'd gotten to talking with Gretel and she'd invited them by for the party. When I started talking to one of them, he asked me about classes I was taking, and when I mentioned I was taking a philosophy course, he was off on a long monologue. He explained to me the theory of the forms, then he talked about his biggest complaint with philosophy students: "When you ask them what they think, they're always like, 'Well, Aristotle says on that topic, and Descartes says," and then you're like, 'no, what do you think?' and then they're like, 'Well, Kant says, and Heidegger says,' and then, 'no, what do YOU think?' and they just can't answer."

After studying philosophy for some 13 or 14 years since then, I can't say I agree with him on the nature of philosophy students, many of them are very opinionated, though we may frequently use other people's ideas to articulate our thoughts. But I can say that his explanation of the Plato's Forms, crude though it was, was accurate. It's a long distance from a scholarly monograph on the Forms, but one could do worse than that to explain the theory to beginning philosophy students.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Chemistry Award

When I was in High School, I was quite good at Chemistry, being one of the top students in my AP Chemistry class Junior year. For this reason, I decided to participate in the annual high school competition of the American Chemical Society. The first level of competition was a district competition, where we had to take a test covering our knowledge of high school level Chemistry. The student scoring highest on this test would then advance to the state finals, where another, even more difficult test was administered. What happens beyond this, I can't tell, since that's as far as I got. There was less than 10 students who participated in the test in our district, a few from my AP Chemistry class, and some from other nearby schools. Surprisingly, I actually got the highest score among these students and thus was sent on to the state final.

I tried to brush up on my Chemistry knowledge before the state test, reasoning that it would be harder than the last and I'd have to do better, but when I actually got to the test, I discovered the test was much harder than I thought and I was woefully unprepared. The test was at a large inner city high school that I hadn't been to before, comprising several long straight halls of classrooms stacked on top of each other to the height of several stories. The test was divided into several sections. The written sections I breezed through, mostly because I simply skipped over the questions I didn't know and was able to answer the few that I did know pretty quickly. Between sections, as the time to complete the section ticked away and the other three students continued to work, I walked down the long hallways of the school to pass the time. There was also a section that involved a practical demonstration: we had to mix two chemicals to produce a gas, which would then fill up a balloon, something like the chemical reaction used to fill up airbags in cars. The other three students completed it, but I couldn't figure out at all what proportions to mix and how to do it and completely failed that section. When I got to the last section and finished it quickly, after having to skip many of the questions, I handed it to the proctor. She said to me, before taking it, with some pathos, "Just try to answer more of the questions," and I told her, "I just can't," and left.

Nonetheless, because I was a state finalist, I got to go to a special dinner where they gave out awards and honored those of who participated in the state final. It was at the Colorado School of Mines, which was a good half hour drive away from my school in Littleton, and I attended it with my AP Chemistry teacher. We had a nice dinner, and then at the end of it, they gave a prize to the winner of the state competition, and then they called the rest of us up one by one and handed us a certificate for our achievement, announcing our name and our intended college major. As you can imagine, this being an award ceremony for the American Chemical Society, most of the students there were planning on being Chemistry or Chemical Engineering majors. So, it was just a long list of "Mike Jones, Chemistry"; "Bob Smith, Chemical Engineering,"; "Jane White, Chemical Engineering"; and so on. My teacher asked me what my intended major was, so we could write it down on an info sheet about me and give it to the announcer. At this point in my career, though I was quite determined that I wanted to be a writer and to study English in college. I doubt that I was my teacher's star pupil, but I was one of the better students and she wasn't aware of my interest in studying English. I contemplated lying to her and saying "Chemistry," but told her the truth, and I could just feel the disappointment in her voice when she said, "Oh. English. I didn't know," and wrote it down on the paper.

When it got to the point of announcing my name, despite that they'd announced everyone else's anticipated majors, for me it was just "Joseph Kranak" and no major. I don't know if this was just a mistake due to the announcer not getting the information, or if the announcer looked at the paper and saw "English" and decided not to announce my major, thinking, "This has to be a mistake. No student who did well on one of our tests could possible go into one of those soft disciplines like English, where he'll probably have classes where they pretend the Periodic Table is a literary text and start deconstructing it according to Marxist Queer Theory and start talking about the 'Phallocentrism of the Lanthanide Elements,' or some BS like that. No, those majors are only for those soft-minded dilettantes, not hard-minded scientists like us." I prefer the latter theory, but I guess an innocent mistake is possible.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bobst Library

Bobst LIbrary by allistair
Bobst LIbrary a photo by allistair on Flickr.

This is Bobst Library, the main library of the NYU campus in Manhattan. This twelve-story, Phillip Johnson-designed building has a grand ten-story atrium in the center, and a person can be dizzied looking down the huge atrium from the top floors. Since I was attending Stony Brook, and Stony Brook's library was quite a distance away from where I lived in Queens, I would usually go here. This picture was taken one of those lonely nights of studying ancient and forgotten books of philosophy. I didn't have a tripod, so I set the camera down on a mailbox to keep the camera still for the relatively long exposure. This is the result.

Greater than Faulkner

When I was studying at St. John's College in Santa Fe I decided to take the summer session of classes in 2003, which turned out to be a very good decision. The reason it turned out so well is that our group of MA students taking classes that summer ended up really bonding and having lots of fun together. Grad students weren't allowed to stay in the dorms during regular semesters, since the undergraduates need them, but over the summers, they let graduate students move in, since many of the students are teachers coming in from out of town for a summer session while their school is out. The grad students that stayed in the dorms (I lived off campus) ended up being particularly tight and formed the core of the group.

One of the traditions for grad students at St. John's is the Thursday night gathering. After our Thursday night classes we would gather together, and alcohol and snacks would be provided (which were paid for by our Student Activity Fee). During the regular semesters, Thursday nights were a good respite from class and work to catch up with other students and socialize. But for this summer group, Thursday night ended up being seldom enough, and we frequently transferred the party to the courtyard in the middle of the dorms to go even later, and meet up on other nights for more drinking, talking and merriment.

One particularly late, late night, I was there with Gideon, Roxy and Tully sitting at the table in the courtyard with a bottle of liquor between us. Truth is that when I get drunk my veneer of quiet modesty frequently will melt away and I can turn into a bit of a loud, self-laudatory, self-aggrandizing showman who likes to be the center of attention. That night we got on the topic of writing, and one of them challenged my skill as a writer, so I, bombastically announced, "I'm a greater writer than Faulkner!" I don't know why I picked Faulkner, which was an odd choice, since I hadn't actually read Faulkner. It was just the first author that popped into my head. Gideon, who was quite familiar with Faulkner, dropped a reference to Yoknapatawpha County, assuming that I was a Faulkner fan and would recognize the reference, since it's the place where a whole bunch of Faulkner stories take place, but I totally missed it because, well, as I mentioned, I'd never read Faulkner.

I could never live down the "I'm a greater writer than Faulkner," statement and they made fun of me mercilessly for it, especially for my ignorance of Faulkner and his writings. I, of course, returning to my quiet, modest daytime persona was abashed and said, "I was drunk. I was exaggerating. I don't really think that." But secretly I was thinking, "I am a better writer than Faulkner. And I really need to get around to actually reading some Faulkner."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Gantry Plaza 2

Long Island-Gantry Plaza
PLong Island-Gantry Plaza a photo by allistair on Flickr.

I mentioned in my previous entry about coming across Gantry Plaza quite by accident. What makes it most interesting is the evident history behind it. You can see in the sitting area, around the benches, the remnants of train tracks that the Long Island Railroad used to use to ride the train cars up to the water's edge. The buildings you see are gantry cranes, which would lift the train cars onto massive barges, so they could be ferried back and forth from Manhattan. It was cumbersome work, so when it could be done more efficiently by bridge, these gantries went out of use and mostly were just left to rust. In the late 90s, the state decided to restore the area and turn it into a park. The gantries are just a part of the Gantry Plaza State Park, which extends up the East River coastline to the famous Pepsi sign.

Amanda considers

When I was a freshman, attending Goucher College, I was put with a roommate named Nate. Nate was a small, skinny redhead, who played soccer, loved to party and loved to chase women. We got along fine, but it must be admitted that he was quite different than me. On the weekends, and even on some school nights, he'd put on something that looked good, spray himself with Polo Sport, and run off to drink and party with his soccer buddies. I, on the other hand, would study, would go to bed relatively early, had (and still do have) a very low tolerance for alcohol and mostly kept to myself and to a close knit set of friends (who were mostly girls, if we must be honest).

One night, early in the first semester Nate was, as usual, out partying and I had gone to sleep early. He returned to the room late, well after I was asleep, but he brought with him a girl named Amanda and a friend of hers I didn't know. I had met Amanda before; Nate had once introduced her to me. She was a beautiful blond lacrosse player with a bold, brusque personality and a devilish sense of humor. I was overawed and amazed by her, even a little smitten. When Nate, Amanda and her friend entered the room I didn't wake up, but woke up at some point while they were already in the room talking. Even after I awoke, I pretended to be asleep, out of shyness or politeness, I don't know.

While they were talking at one point, Amanda looked at me and said, "Your roommate looks so peaceful there. Do you dare me to kiss him?" When I heard this, on the outside I remained placid, so as not to blow my cover, but on the inside, I had a rush of excitement. Nate and her friend grew silent waiting to see what she'd do. I could hear her get closer, my heart was pounding in anticipation of that cherished kiss. Then she hesitated and backed away. She said to them, "I can't He just looks too innocent!"

Soon thereafter, the three of them left the room. When they were gone, I could no longer pretend to be asleep and sat up in my bed. All I could think to myself was thoughts like "That was crazy!" and "Whoa!", which lasted for a while, until I finally was able to settle down and get back to sleep.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Gantry Plaza

Pier-Manhattan by allistair
Pier-Manhattan a photo by allistair on Flickr.

Gantry Plaza was an accidental discovery for me when I lived in New York. I was simply looking for a good view of Manhattan, and thought a picture from right across the East River would work well. I took off from my apartment in Woodside, Queens late in the day because I got caught up with other things. Then I got off at the last stop before Manhattan on the 7, Vernon-Jackson, and then walked a couple of blocks until I arrived at this place. The view of Manhattan was nice, but the park itself was really quite beautiful and so hidden. I then took a few shots of the sunset with Manhattan.

Priam's Treasure

There's a famous story in the life of Heinrich Schliemann, the famed archeologist and excavator of Troy, involving his discovery of "Priam's Treasure." Apparently, he saw a glint of gold peaking out from under the dirt. Not trusting his workers, he called them away and then extracted it himself with his wife. They had to rush to dig it up and gather it all together in her shawl since an overhanging wall was about to collapse. The ultimate result was a king's ransom of precious artifacts, which Schliemann dubbed "Priam's Treasure." What's most interesting about this story is that the wholes story is a fabrication. Schliemann's wife was not present at the time, and these artifacts were not found in one place at one time. Schliemann made up the story.

In fact, Schliemann had a had a habit of making up stories. It has even been documented that in his journal, he recorded stories (ostensibly only to himself) that were made up or significantly altered. It makes one wonder, what he was doing. Was Schliemann lying to himself? Was he rehearsing and refining his stories in his journals? Or did he just remember the stories poorly and indulge in a habit of embellishing with details, when he couldn't remember?

From personal experience, I can say that sometime there are critical details of a faded memory that you sort of have to add back in to make it into a good story. Certainly, it'd be better if you remembered exactly how it happened, but second best is to add a detail or two that's in the spirit of the original event, though maybe not quite historically accurate. Thucydides admitted in his history to simply writing the speeches he puts in his characters mouth himself, either reconstructing them from what details he could gather, or simply making them up based on what seemed appropriate for the occasion.

On the other hand, it's also true that our memory isn't so reliable as it seems. Stories are transformed in the process of telling and retelling them. Language has a way of intruding on our memory. We remember certain things non-linguistically with astonishing accuracy, such as a person's face, their voice, even their smell. But when we try to put memories in words, it can tend to distort, the original memory, especially with memories that aren't as clear. Just as reading a story elicits images in our head, the recounting of a story can elicit images just as much based on (if not more so) the description of the event as on the original event. After many retellings of a story it can move further and further away from its original content. Something to bear in mind as one tries to recount one's memory.

What we do know ultimately about Priam's Treasure, is that Schliemann smuggled it out of the Ottoman Empire to Germany. Part of it was returned to Turkey, but most of it was kept by Germany. It disappeared after World War II, but eventually resurfaced in Russia, as the Russians had stolen it during their 1945 invasion of Berlin.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Niagra falls in Winter

Niagra-Winter by allistair
Pecos Wilderness Trail a photo by allistair on Flickr.

My uncle Peter, who had worked for many years as a French literature professor at the University of Toronto, had his 65th birthday a few years ago and my parents and I went there to visit. As a side excursion, we journeyed to see the Niagra falls, which are not too far from Toronto. It was winter, giving the falls a unique look, since much of the vapor thrown up by the falling water creates various ice formations around the falls, for example on the railing around the walkways near the falls. And that vapor also creates a much more opaque cloud around the falls than can be seen in summer. Afterwards, we stopped at a few wineries on the Niagra Penninsula, since my mother'd had read that they the specialized in ice wine, which none of us had ever tried before. The whole trip was a real treat, including the falls, the wineries and time spent with my uncle.

Bad Movies

I've had somewhat of a fondness for bad movies for quite some time. I've dwelled among the imdb Bottom 100 and trudged my way through a number of them. My top choices for worst movies ever would have to be Monster a-Go Go and Zaat (aka Dr. Z), with honorable mention to Manos: Hand of Fate and The Beast of Yucca Flats, four movies I would definitely not recommend anyone watching without first consulting your doctor. Watching a genuinely bad movie is like an ordeal or a trial of courage that you must endure to prove yourself; the pleasure comes in that feeling of success at the end, like reaching the summit after a steep and difficult climb. To be sure, there's nothing quite like watching a genuinely good movie, but every once in a while I check out some of the worst so that I can say: "Yes, I saw that movie, and yes, I made it through the whole thing."

In order to ease your way along, making fun of the movies is a must, and its almost inevitable that the straightforward ridiculousness of some aspects of the movie will excite some light guffaws. This obviously is where the appeal of Mystery Science Theater 3000 comes from, and I can say that that TV show played a big part in turning me on to bad movies.

Another major factor in my learning to love bad movies was a roommate I had when I lived in Santa Fe named Adam. Adam had been a math major in college; he excelled at Chess, and was one of the top-ranked players in New Mexico; he loved to play World of Warcraft, which he would play usually for an hour or two each evening. He also loved to watch bad movies, mostly bad teen movies and comedies. For example some of his favorites were the teen drama Varsity Blues about Texas high school football, and the ridiculously bad teen movie parody Not Another Teen Movie. The pleasure he derived was entirely a result of making fun of these movies, which he was very good at. Watching movies and tv shows with him, which included some genuinely terrible ones as Son of the Beach, Dawson's Creek and, of course Varsity Blues, was lots of fun. His sarcastic wit cut into these movies and splayed them open.

I've never been able to make fun of movies as good as Adam or MST3K, and though I, for the most part seek out movies that look good, I do pull out the bad movies on occasion for a different kind of experience.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Laughing at a young girl's poem

I laugh very easily. This is usually advantageous, since it makes me agreeable to others in more lighthearted and casual situations. But it can also be quite disadvantageous for all those other situations when its not appropriate and I just can't help myself and burst out. I can say that, over my life, I’ve laughed at more than a few inopportune times.

One such time was when I was about 20. I had a friend named Melissa who knew that I wrote poetry and thought it would be great if I listened to the poem her younger sister had just written. It was the 2000 presidential election and Elizabeth Dole had just withdrawn her candidacy for the Republication nomination, due to insufficient fundraising. Apparently, Melissa's sister had had high hopes for a female president and when these hopes were dashed, she became disappointed in Dole and the American electorate in general and wrote this poem of lament.

Unfortunately, for her, when I listened to her sad poem, I laughed. I don’t remember why I laughed, perhaps because I thought it was ridiculous to use such high language to eulogize a politician; or perhaps it was because I thought the overt message was too heavy-handed; or perhaps the poem just wasn't that good. I don’t know. Laughter’s spontaneous, and always bursts out much faster than the reasons I try to come up with after the fact.

To be sure, the girl in question was a teenager and with very, very rare exceptions (e.g. Chatterton) poems by teenagers, even by teenagers who will grow up to be great poets later, are consistently bad. I myself wrote reams of bad poetry as a teenager, which I swear to never show to another living soul, for all the derisive laughter they might inspire. But that doesn't mean we should laugh at teenagers when they read us these poems (we should save it for later when they're not around). In fact, the reason I remember this event is because I felt bad about it. I may have crushed this young girls’ dreams with my taunting laughter, leading her to subsequently drop out of school a withered and defeated person, earning money by begging and streetwalking while she cried herself to sleep at night over her ruined life. On the other hand, maybe she decided right then and there, to spurn the haughty misogyny and androcentrism I symbolized and pursue a life of politics, setting herself the unwavering goal of fulfilling the mission that Elizabeth Dole had failed to achieve, to become the first woman president of the United States. More than likely, though, her life was not significantly altered by that event and its importance has merely been magnified in my mind because of the salient feelings I associate with it, but I do feel guilty nonetheless. Whatever the case may be, it wasn't the last time I would ever laugh when it wasn't appropriate, and it's a vice I will bear for many years to come.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Elevator Shaft

Pecos Wilderness Trail by allistair
Pecos Wilderness Trail a photo by allistair on Flickr.

The Pecos Wilderness is a huge swath of protected wilderness in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains which extends down pretty close to Santa Fe. Reaching some of the trails in the southern edge of it from Santa Fe is easy, and I once took a hike with a few St. John's College friends there when I was living in Santa Fe. It was a nice pleasant walk down into a beautiful meadow called "La Vega" with gorgeous scenery. After the meadow we followed the Lower Nambe Trail, which seemed like a good choice since it led us directly back to the trailhead. Unfortunately, what we didn't know is that most hikers usually don't climb out of the valley on this trail. The path we took back is referred to as the "elevator shaft," because it's just nonstop straight up (an 1800 foot ascent in 1.8 miles according to what I read elsewhere). While walking on this trail it's hard to see too far ahead because you're in the middle of woods, so you have no idea how much further it could be, and every time you see another ridge, you're thinking "this has to be the last ridge; this trail can't keep going straight up like this," and then you find out you're wrong. All of us were dead tired by the end of it, and none of us were exactly lazy slouches. This picture was taken near the beginning of the elevator shaft.

The Phibionites

I just finished read Bart Ehrman's book Peter, Paul & Mary, which I enjoyed, about the life of the three followers of Jesus - Simon Peter, Paul of Tarsus and Mary Magdalene. And in one his sections on later legends about Mary, he notes the story of the Phibionites (or Borborites as they're also called), who took Mary to be of central importance to their doctrine. And the practices attributed to the Phibionites are quite interesting.

We only have two sources for description of the beliefs of the Phibionites, Theodoret and Epiphanius of Salamis, and it's only in Epiphanius' description in The Panarion that we find the more sordid details. Before telling us about these intriguing practices, Epiphanius acknowledges that, though "It is a shame even to speak of the things that are done of [the disobedient] in secret"(25 2,5, [trans. Frank Williams], quoting Ephesians 5:12), he will tells us about these secret practices, not in order to titillate us (in his words "not to dirty the ears of the listeners or readers"), but to excite our enmity against these Phibionites (25 3,3). And what are these secret practices that it is a shame to speak of? To begin with, Epiphanius says that during communion, after feasting (communion was more commonly a potluck feast at this time in Christian history than just consuming wafers and wine) they would partner-swap. In his words, each would man tell his wife "Get up perform the Agape [Christian love] with the brother"(26 4,4), at which point, the wife would go have sex with some other man.

But Epiphanius is not done at this point, and he braces his readers for these even more sordid detail, noting again that though it may be shameless to relate these things, these Phibionites are much more shameless in doing them. He tells us that the men climax by ejaculating into each others' hands. Then they raise their hands, saying "We offer this gift, the body of Christ" and they both consume the sperm (26 4,4-7). In other words, they eat sperm instead of bread for the communion

Now, you might be wondering, "Ok, so they've got the first part of the communion, with the body of Christ. But what about the other part? Did they do something to consume the blood of Christ?" Well, I'm glad you asked. In fact they do. They used menses for this purpose. While saying "This is the blood of Christ" they, in Epiphanius' words, "likewise take the unclean menstrual blood they gather from her, and eat in common," (26 4,8).

Surprisingly, it actually gets worse. According to Epiphanius they extolled non-procreative sex and forbade procreation (at least in the context of the ritual, one presumes). For this reason, if one of the women got pregnant during the ritual, they would extract the fetus. Then they would grind it up, spice it with honey, pepper and other spices and then they eat it, communally, with their bare hands.

Epiphanius claims to have first-hand knowledge of at least some of the beliefs and practices of the Phibionites, saying that he learned about their practices from members who tried to lure him into the sect. He says that he was for a time tempted to join their sect, but backed away when he discovered some of their more nefarious practices (26 17,4-9). One imagines that he probably heard about their sex rituals, thought it sounded awesome, saw the beautiful women that were in the sect (he admits that the women that tried to entice him to join the sect were beautiful (26 27,8) and was thinking of joining. Then he heard about the sperm-, menses- and fetus-eating and though better of it. Or on the other hand, perhaps Epiphanius made the whole thing up. He's not exactly considered the most reliable historian and he's been frequently accused of profoundly distorting the beliefs and practices of the various sects he discusses. For all we know, Epiphanius was in love with one of their members, was jilted by her, and then reported the sect to the Bishop (26 17,9) and then made up scandalous tales about them as revenge. People have done pettier things.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Subletter problems

When I was living in Santa Fe, I remember when once we had some very big problems with our subletters. I shared a casita with my roommate Will, who, as I mentioned sold vintage western wear. Our casita was part of a group of casitas, clustered around a central courtyard, located a few blocks north of the central plaza. Next to Will and I was a young couple in a somewhat smaller casita, and across the courtyard were in one house two young girls both named Jessica who went to St. John's College with me, and in the other a middle-aged, reclusive gay man who could do amazing things with bonsai plants.

It was the winter of 2003-04. I had just finished up classes at St. John's and Will was leaving to take a long vacation to South America. To mitigate costs he decided to sublet his apartment for the duration of his trip, which was over a month. He knew a couple that were also in the vintage western wear business and looking for a temporary place to stay, an older couple that had owned a stall at the Santa Fe Flea Market where Will also sold. The husband of this couple was at least in his fifties, a squat man who walked slowly and awkwardly but who spoke forcefully, directly and quickly. He had a somewhat younger wife, probably in her forties, who dressed well in stylish western clothing and was pleasant, compliant and not too talkative. They operated their business primarily through ebay, finding good deals mostly on used cowboy boots and then turning them around for a small markup, first in their stall at the flea market, then subsequently out of a storefront they bought about block or so from the Plaza.

As far as married couples go, their relationship seemed to be functional but a bit rocky, being punctuated by occasional, loud and vocal fights. They would disagree over some matter and it would escalate and then husband would rise up angrily and try to shout his wife into submission, which she frequently did, retreating, cowed and timid. The fights were uncomfortable to be in the presence of, but they were always, while I was there, over pretty quickly.

While Will was away I took a short trip to visit my family for the holidays, leaving the couple alone in our apartment. I couldn't actually spend the holidays with my family since I was working at a restaurant and missing such a high traffic period as Christmas and New Years was out of the question. But I was able to take off about a week after New Years, and flew off to California for a nice little vacation with my family.

Unfortunately, I picked a bad time to leave. After being in California a few days, I got a call from my landlord concerning events that had transpired while I was away. I got the story both from the mouth of the couple who were subletting as well as from the couple that lived in the casita right next to ours and witnessed some of it. As far as I can tell from what these two sources told me, this is what happened. The couple subletting our apartment had gotten into a particularly loud and bitter argument late one night. It had escalated to the point where the wife wanted nothing more than to get away from there as soon as possible. She bolted out of the apartment into the cold threatening to leave her husband with car keys in hand. The husband rushed out behind her trying to block her and do everything he could to stop her. She got into the car and he arrived at the driveway behind her. In his incensed state, the only way he could think of stopping her was to smash out the headlights in the car so she couldn't see. To accomplish this he picked up the first object to hand useful for this, which happened to be a hatchet that Will had left there. He then began to smash away at the headlights. Discouraged, his wife got out of the car adn began to flee down the street on foot and he chased after her, axe in hand. It was at this point that the neighbor saw them.

Eventually, they calmed down and returned to normal and returned to the apartment, but for the neighbor this was too much. He'd just seen a man chasing his wife down the street with an axe and her running away from, screaming at the top of her voice. He didn't want a crazy man like that living next to him. He'd asked to have them kicked out and they were. When I saw them, maybe a week or two after the event, they were still together, quite ashamed and upset by what had happened. When the husband explained to me the whole story, it was in a dispirited and apologetic voice, and his wife sat next and quietly cried. I saw them a few more times after that, and they were still keeping up the business and still together. What happened between them after that I can't tell, but I can't imagine it's very good.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Santa Fe Self-Portrait

Trunk in water by allistair
Self-Portrait - Couch a photo by allistair on Flickr.

At the time of this photo, about 8 years ago, I shared a casita with my roommate Will, an easy-going twenty-something about my age who made a living selling vintage western wear. I took this photo one day in December, home alone on a cold day. I took it with a small point-and-shoot digital camera, sitting upon a table, which was sitting upon a chair. I didn't have a tripod, so I stacked furniture to bring the camera to the right eye-level. Then I ran back and forth taking pictures: starting the timer, sitting in the couch, trying to look relaxed nonchalant, waiting for the picture, then running back to the camera for another. I haven't done many self-portraits, since they really are a lot of work. But on the plus side, the models work for cheap.

Rebuffed by Petra

To the best of my memory, I think I've been rebuffed in the process of trying to kiss a girl three times. Two of them happened when I lived in Tallinn, Estonia, a time when I spent many a late, late night out on the town with just-met Estonian acquaintances. But the most memorable and first of the three, was at a Halloween Party in 1999, while I was attending school in Exeter, England. I spent my Junior Year abroad at Exeter in the 99-00 school year, and, though Halloween is not commonly celebrated in Europe, the significant coalition of Americans were eager to host a Halloween that year. In the dorms I lived in, we had a large kitchen/common room shared by me and 11 others and we hosted the party there. The turnout was great, not just among American, but among the various international students that also occupied those dorms, and our kitchen was packed with people.

Among them was a German girl named Petra. It was in fact quite common at the time for foreign students taking their year abroad to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, who was not able to join them. As a result there were quite a number of scandalous infidelities in the absence of these unavailable boyfriends and girlfriends. Fortunately, for Petra, her boyfriend, Felix was able to join her at Exeter, and lived in the same dorm on the same floor. Unfortunately for me, I was not aware of this.

I met her at this party and started talking to her and quickly was engrossed in quite an interesting conversation. I thought it was a mutually amicable conversation, though admittedly I was perhaps a little bit drunk; so after talking to her for a while I attempted to kiss her. Every other time I'd tried to kiss a girl, I'd been readily accepted, but this time, when I leaned in for a kiss on the lips, the girl recoiled. I didn't realize why, and imagined reasons, "Am I just not attractive to her? Does she find me dull and just talks with me out of politeness? Am i being too forward?"

After being embarrassed by this inopportune advance, though, we just continued talking, as if nothing had happened. I was too embarrassed to talk about it and perhaps she was too polite. It was never even brought up once, though I conversed with Petra many times subsequently. I only later found out about Felix, which partly assuaged my damaged ego. But I can't deny that perhaps a little bit of my confidence in taking the initiative with women was sapped.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Hidden Lake

Trunk in water by allistair
Trunk in water a photo by allistair on Flickr.

This picture was taken in Yosemite National Park when me and my parents and sister were backpacking on the shores of a lake called Hidden Lake. The name is rather appropriate, since the lake is difficult to find. It's nestled in a sharp valley hidden in the trees. it's an easy hike there, since it's only about two miles from the trailhead, but finding it is difficult. My family and I wandered through the area, bushwhacking through the undergrowth before it came upon us. And then the trees opened up and there it was. We camped for a few days and used this base camp as a launching point for hiking to viewpoints on the crest of the Yosemite valley.

Ideas are cheap

At Techdirt Mike Masniak makes a point he's made many times that Ideas without Execution are nothing. His critique concerns intellectual property, and basically it is that our system of patents and copyrights makes the ideas that are patented and copyrighted seam much more valuable than they are. But, in reality, without taking that idea and making it into something that's really valuable, it's nothing.

As someone who writes lots of stories, I can certainly sympathize with what he's saying. Ideas are not nothing, but they're certainly cheap. I've got way more ideas than I need. Just with the ideas I have for future writing projects outlined now (in greater or lesser detail), I could probably keep myself busy writing for about the next 10 years, and, of course, in those 10 years, I'd probably come up with other ideas, and so on, ad infinitum. In short, I'll always have way more ideas than time to develop them.

That doesn't mean those ideas aren't worth anything. If fact they're very valuable, relatively speaking. When we talk about an idea, say, for a novel, what we mean, basically is just a general outline. For example, if I had an idea for writing a story about the life of Moses, based on Freud's Theory that he was follower of Akhenaten, that idea is a start. But the execution requires many other smaller ideas - details as small as a choice of particular word, or as major as how to develop Moses' character or what main conflicts to include. And all these ideas need development, from simple things like playing around with the wording of a sentence to doing extensive research to try and make the setting of Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt historically accurate. And this time is very valuable.

The outline is sort of like a tent-pole idea which supports all these ideas, but one can easily take a good tent-pole idea and make a bad story, because all these other smaller ideas add up. People have this mistaken notion that it's just a matter of luck, and if they'd got this great idea first, they'd be successful; for example, if they wrote Hamlet before Shakespeare, they'd be long remembered as a literary genius. But, of course, many scholars think that someone did write Hamlet before Shakespeare, namely Thomas Kyd. This play was lost because no one bothered to copy it or preserve it, presumably because it just wasn't all that good of a play. In fact, this is a perennial problem of adaptations: good books have been frequently translated into bad films. It's because, though they have some good ideas, lifted from the original material, they don't add any new good ideas that work well in the new medium - namely, they muck up the execution. The initial idea is an important step on the way to a finished product, but it's only one of many steps, and those other steps, are in the aggregate, much more valuable.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Veuve Clicquot on the Job

In some circumstances it can be useful to have a knowledge of fine luxury goods, like expensive champagne, for example, to impress and astound other ordinary mortals like oneself. Personally, I have very limited knowledge of fine wines, but that hasn't stopped me from using that knowledge as much as possible. For example, once, when I was working as a bellman at the Eldorado hotel in Santa Fe, one of our tasks was to light fires in the rooms. Many rooms in the Eldorado had fireplaces, all of the traditional kiva design (this is common in Santa Fe), and most had fairly long flues. The long flues make it more likely that the smoke from a fire will spill into the room instead of exit through the flue. For this reason, the hotel recommended calling a bellman to light one's fire, even if the person knows (or thinks they know) how to build a fire (surprisingly many people don't). The techniques we'd use to get the smoke flowing upward were, for one, to warm up the flue with a bit of burning newspaper, or, if that didn't work, to open a window to the outside.

For this reason, I was occasionally called to light fires, and on this particular Valentine's day, when I was stuck working at the Eldorado (instead of spending time with a nonexistent girlfriend), I was called to light several fires. One of the rooms I was called to was that of a a man with his girlfriend (or wife or female acquaintance or escort; who knows). He'd ordered champagne and strawberries (just like Richard Gere in Pretty Woman) and I happened to notice that the champagne bottle had an orange label, which I recognized and said "Ah, Veuve-Clicquot. Excellent champagne." I, of course, only knew that it was an excellent champagne by reputation, since I hadn't tried it before, and only recognized the label because I'd seen it in stores and restaurants and such. This man, being quite friendly said, "Oh, you like Veuve-Clicquot? Why don't you join us for a glass?" I had to demur, since I was working, but he insisted and I relented without much of a struggle.

The champagne was good, so far as I could tell. I definitely couldn't tell you how to distinguish a good from a not so good champagne, but I praised this one to the sky: "Oh, this tastes great! Really amazing!" He offered me to have a strawberry with the champagne, noting (probably quoting directly from Pretty Woman): "It really brings out the flavor of the champagne." I can say they definitely do go well together, so if you ever have a chance, you should try. Unfortunately, I had to leave them. Assuredly, they wanted me to get out of there too, since sharing Valentine's day with the hotel bellman is probably not very romantic (at least to some people).

If you've worked in a hospitality, you know that an amiable guest can make the difference between a good day and a bad day. And that was a good day.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wishing Steps

Amy walking down the Wishing Steps at Blarney Castle by allistair
Amy-Wishing Steps a photo by allistair on Flickr.

This photo was taken a great many years when I was in high school, taking a class trip to the British Isles. Blarney Castle was one of our stops, and, as you probably know, there's a stone at the top of Blarney Castle that you kiss and it gives you the "gift of gab" making you eloquent and loquacious (two verbs one would hardly ever use to describe me, even after I kissed the Blarney Stone). But Blarney castle is also surrounded by a nice garden, and in one section are the so-called "wishing steps." It's a small tunnel cut through this really nice looking rock formation, and apparently as you walk down the steps in the tunnel, if you make a wish, it'll come true. The girl descending the steps is just another student like me, and I've always wondered what she was wishing for. I can't remember what I wished or whether it came true (I think I'd probably remember if it did), but it's still something you should walk through if you're there.

Tickling in the Dark

When I was a senior at Goucher, one day I was walking back towards my dorm with Ridg and Shari. Ridg was a good friend of mine since Freshman year, an upstanding student, a told blond who was intellectual, intellectual, leaning towards political science in his interests. Shari I'd known only since the beginning of that year, and she was fun, energetic and spritely, with wild unkempt hair, an intellectual leaning more towards abstract philosophy and art. She also had a serious crush on me, but that won't be important right now.

One of Ridg's prized skill was his ability to tickle. He had a precise knowledge of the particular tickle-points along the human anatomy and he could poke, prod or otherwise agitate them with surgical precision. We were passing through a hallway beneath the main level of the dorms and Ridg started tickling Shari and me. We moved ahead quickly and came to an empty section of hallway with doors at either end. When the two door were closed and a light switch was flicked on, we were plunged in complete darkness and the two of us started to retaliate on Ridg. In the process of poking and giggling, and trying to avoid being poked, we slowly sunk to the floor, the three of us pressed into the corner, or bodies coiled around in each other in a knot from which we couldn't be easily extricated.

Eventually someone had to call time out, and we turned on the lights, uncoiled each other from each other and stood up. And then the lights were promptly turned off and we were at it again. This time Ridg and Shari teamed up on me and I silently retreated. I hid low to the ground in the shadows trying to move away silently and not to make a sound while they called out "Joe, where are you, we've got a present for you." I eventually couldn't help but laugh, and their radar then zeroed in on me and attacked.

Eventually, we had to put the lights back on, straighten our clothes and return to the everyday business of being a college student.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Rossville - Tugboat Graveyard View

Continuing the story of my photos in Rossville fr the last post, I walked to the other side of the oil tanks to see this view. It gives you the best perspective to see what the whole tugboat graveyard looks like. A satellite shot via google maps also gives you a good perspective (Rossville). Way in the distance, just peaking over the horizon is the Manhattan skyline, which shows you how far this place, though it's still part of New York City, is from the heart of New York City. It's amazing how some areas at the edges of the city limits of New York City, can seem like there in a whole different place.

Hit on in Helsinki

When I was living in Helsinki, teaching English, one of the major barriers to getting more teaching work was trying to get the proper permits. I was teaching a few people privately, getting paid under the table and I had a couple places interested in giving me some classwork here and there, but without a work permit, my options were limited. Fortunately, one of the places I worked with, put me into contact with an American who'd gone through the same situation as me and managed to get a work permit after jumping through all the right hoops. I emailed him and he sent me a detailed response explaining the steps and what he did.

As a courtesy, he arranged to meet me, if I had any further questions. He was an older man, slim and balding, and with certain effeminate affectations that made me think that he was possibly gay. We talked about finding work and teaching and such at a bar over pints of beer. I couldn't say for sure, but I got the sense that he was attracted to me. He didn't openly hit on me, but there seemed to be a certain vibe about his interactions with me. We parted amicably and afterwards I told Tom, my British friend who was also working as an English-language teacher about it. Tom's advice was to talk about manly things to let him I'm a real guys guy. He said, in a gruff voice, "You should say, 'Oh, I love a good truck rally,' or 'Rrrr, I do love to see a good bear-bating,' or 'Do you know where I can find a good titty bar around here? I like nothing more than to look at naked women' or things like that." Sadly, I've never actually applied this advice.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Rossville - Oil Tanks

Rossville-Oil Tanks by allistair
Rossville-Oil Tanks a photo by allistair on Flickr.

Continuing to describe my exploration of Rossville from my last post I can say that the tugboat graveyard is not the only spectacle of urban decay there. Right nearby were two massive Mobile oil tanks, large cylindrical drums about 100 feet high and just as wide. I climbed a fence to enter the grounds of the oil tanks, where a few cement buildings still stood, though now the whole area was completely overgrown and mostly reclaimed by nature. The tanks were old rusted monstrosities that were undoubtedly very unsafe to climb, but seeing as it looked like there would be a nice view from the top, I climbed them anyways. On the side were a set of stairs, and I climbed the ten stories worth to the top. The floors of the stairs were metal grates, permitting a few of the retracting ground below. I won't deny that I was very nervous climbing up. When I got to the top, I snapped a picture of this old winch

Siege of Antioch

This is a story from 1098, during the first crusade in the city of Antioch. When the Christian crusaders captured and were holding Antioch after a long and difficult siege, there was a monk, named Peter Bartholomew, who saw, in a vision, St. Andrew telling him that the Holy Lance (the spear that had pierced Jesus' side during the crucifixion [John 19:34]), was buried in the grounds of the Cathedral of St Peter there. They dug for a while and found nothing, until Bartholomew himself, entered the pit, and under suspicious circumstances emerged with a hunk of metal he claimed to be the spear tip of the holy lance. Some of the leaders were skeptical, but the common soldiers looked upon it as a good omen and it lifted morale and helped them rebuff the Muslim armies trying to take back the city.

Even after successfully defeating the Muslim armies at Antioch, Bartholomew's visions continued. St. Andrew, according to Bartholomew's visions, had considerable military advice, such as where they should go and where they should attack next, and when the leadership ignored him, St. Andrew, via Bartholomew's visions, became increasingly critical of the leadership.

Finally, tired of Bartholomew's harangues, and looking for him to really prove himself, the leadership asked Bartholomew to undergo an ordeal by fire to prove the genuineness of his visions. Ordeals were a common technique of proving honesty at the time, involving taking some risk or enduring certain torture to prove that one had God's protection. Most of the time, they were more simple. For example, you'd put your hand in a fire briefly or a held a hot iron, and if your hand didn't burn or at least healed quickly, people would know you were telling the truth. In most cases, these tests were really rigged in favor of passing, since no pious person would even attempt to endure an ordeal if they were lying, since they genuinely believed ordeals involved divine intervention.

The ordeal for Bartholomew, on the other hand, seems to have been rigged against him. He had to walk through a tunnel of fire, which means they lined up two rows of upright logs, lit them on fire, and then he required him to walk between them. Amazingly, he made it through the tunnel, but he was so badly burned that he stood little chance of recovery. Bartholomew claimed that he wasn't actually burned in the process, but that when people rushed up to congratulate him, he was pushed back in and suffered all his burns then. Whatever the case may be, he died some days later, and the first crusade ultimately ended with the city of Jerusalem being captured and held by the Christians.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rossville - Tugboat Graveyard

Rossville-Tug Boats 2 by allistair
Rossville-Tug Boats 2 a photo by allistair on Flickr.

Expanding on what I said about the tugboat graveyard in Rossville from my last post, it extends along the shore with dozens of boats parked in the mud. Walking around the area means climbing over these decaying boats and the remnants of the docks. This one was more intact than most, though it also was decaying. Plants were taking root in its wood, which was turning to dust, in several places. Since light was fading I was taking many pictures in quick succession, and moved quickly over the boats looking for shots, and I took this picture quickly and moved on.

Exeter to Prague

When I was a Junior in college I took a year abroad studying at Exeter University in England. One of the nice things about going there, was they had a very long and generous spring break, lasting five weeks and falling between the end of the Lent Term (Spring term) and the finals term (which lasted four weeks and was called Trinity Term). Like many other of my American peers, I decided to use the break as an opportunity to travel Europe. Unlike them, though, I adopted a strategy of visiting only a few cities and spending relatively long periods of time in each. I ultimately visited four cities and spent about a week in each.

The first on my list was Prague, and I figured that I would circle around and come back to Paris, where I would finish. For this reason, I decided to buy roundtrip bus tickets to Paris. This was a long ride: I departed Exeter in the morning, around like 10 am, and arrived in London in the early evening, then I rode all night on the bus to Paris, crossing the channel on a ferry. When I finally arrived in Paris it was about 6 am the next day, and I tried to navigate the Paris metro to find my way to a train station where I could catch a train to Prague, the Gare du Nord. I got a ticket for the first train to Prague. What I didn't realize was that this train literally took all day and would deposit me in Prague about 16 hours later at almost midnight. I had a small breakfast at the train station, boarded the train, and then was on the train for a very long time. I assumed I would arrive some time in the arrive, but as the trip grew longer, I realized I had a sinking feeling that I wouldn't arrive until very late.

At one point, late at night, somewhere in the middle of the Czech Republic I thought I saw a sign that indicated that it was my stop and rushed to get off the train. the conductor, a large, surly Czech woman saw me and yelled at me something in Czech and I tried to explain to her what stop I was looking for. She knew it wasn't my stop, since she'd checked my ticket and literally grabbed me and pulled me back on the train as it pulled away. As I walked back to my seat, she openly complained about me in Czech and walked away, and I cried because I was tired and overwhelmed.

When I finally arrived at the last stop in downtown Prague. It was almost midnight and the station was closing. I had been expecting to be able to find info and help finding a place to stay; in fact, there were usually people from various hostels trying to lure you to stay with them. But, at this hour, everything was closed, and security was pushing everyone towards the exits so they could lock up the train station. I checked my guidebook, but my options were limited, since a number of places they listed were a bit too far to walk and required use of public transportation. I had trouble navigating with what maps I had, and asked at a hotel if they knew of any nearby hostels. They said they knew of one near the Old Town Square, but didn't know exactly where. They gave me directions to Old Town Square, down the large and lively Wenceslas Square and through a few side streets to the Square.

When I got there, I started circling around the area in search of any sign of a hostel. I came very close to one, Tyn Hostel, a few blocks east of the Old Town Square, but it was blocked by a huge film crew which had set up on one of the streets to film a movie. They had huge lights flooding the street and they were filling it with artificial fog. Though there was no filming going on at the moment, I didn't want to breach the set.

Finally, I gave up on this hostel and sought out another hostel from my guidebook called Roxy's. It was a bit further away, but within walking distance. Unfortunately, when I arrived there, now well past 1 am, they were completely filled up. I again asked them if they knew of any hostels nearby. They gave me directions to the hostel I had missed, the Tyn hostel. I followed their directions, which weren't too complex, but as I approached where it was supposed to be, I again ran into the film set. Again, I shyly slunk away and tried to find my way around the street they were filming on. After wending my way through the narrow, winding streets, I ended up at the main entrance of the Tyn church where they were filming an interview with an American woman, which I figured was in some way connected to the film crew I'd passed by. I rested there for a few minutes and watched.

Finally, after wandering around ad nauseam, I realized that the only way I could get to the hostel was by crossing the film set. I approached the film set, and timidly asked one of the crew if I could pass through to get to a hostel. He said ok, then made an announcement over some loudspeaker, and I passed through.

As I walked down the streets under the bright lights, I finally saw the sign for the hostel just around the corner. The hostel was in a little courtyard off to the side of the street. I pounded on the door to the hostel hoping they'd have a bed, but no one answered. I pounded on the door again and again, but still no response. At this point, I really didn't want to go back out across the film set, and I didn't know where else to look for a place to stay. I decided that I would just sit in a hidden corner of the courtyard and get a few hours sleep until morning when things opened up again.

But I couldn't get to sleep, despite that I was very tired. I simply couldn't relax. I was on the street, vulnerable, outside. I had my arms stretched out over my bags and everything pulled against me, but I was worried about getting robbed or discovered. I decided to try once more on the door. This time when I knocked on the door, I saw someone peak out of a window. The door was opened and I asked if they had any space. The man there first said they didn't, but then he changed his mind and let me in. I got to the room, which was shared with three other people, all soundly asleep. I could finally drop my bags, which I'd been carrying for hours now. I then practically collapsed into bed and finally slept the full sleep I hadn't had for some 40 hours by then.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Freshman Philosophy Class

I just finished reading David Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It's an incredible book, presenting some very novel and influential arguments about the problems of empirical knowledge, which continue to haunt philosophy of science and epistemology today. It's been since Freshman year in college, some 13 years ago, that I last read it. I definitely don't think I fully appreciated the book then, when first reading it, since it was my first philosophy class ever and I didn't properly understand the context or really even the radicalness of the arguments in the book. But it was an excellent class, taught by Professor Susan Stocker, an awesome teacher.

Oddly, my most vivid memory of that class is one day when class was running a little bit over time. My friend sitting next to me and I wanted to alert Prof Stoker of this fact, but decided it'd best to do it discreetly. We decided that when she looked in our direction we should look at our watches, hopefully cluing her in. My friend preferred to be much more subtle about it, only slightly tilting his eyes towards his watch as she turned to see him. I, on the other hand, preferred to be more blunt. When she turned to look in my direction, I distinctly cocked my head to look up at the wall clock above me (though I was wearing a watch). Prof Stocker could hardly miss this cue and she suddenly realized she was running over and dismissed class. My friend, of course, admonished me after class for being too obvious: "you don't want her to know you're trying to tell her that class is running over."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Rossville - Tugboat Graveyard

When I was living in New York City, I was really interested in Urban Exploration (and New York is a great place for that) and one of the places that I read about was Rossville, a dilapidated neighborhood in the northwest corner of Staten Island. Just getting there from my apartment in Queens was a trek, going into Manhattan, then down to the Staten Island Ferry, crossing over to Staten Island, taking the Staten Island train, then waling to Rossville, such that I didn't get there until late in the day. I got to the tugboat graveyard by walking through a crumbling old cemetery and out onto the remains of a harbor. This picture I got walking out a muddy spit of sand that used to be a dock, and snapping a picture of this huge old behemoth, which used to be a tugboat.

Adolescent poetry

When I was in high school, around the age of 17 I remember reading about Petrarch and how he wrote 366 poems to a woman he obsessed over. Being young and ambitious and suffering from the understandable defect of enjoying writing poetry, I thought doing something like this would be awesome. I thought that I would pour out my heart in plentitudes of poetry to my one true love. Unfortunately, I wasn't really in love with one woman, but with many woman, and in fact I wasn't really in love with them, more just physically attracted to these many women. In some cases, my attraction rose to the level of a earnest crush, but I was still inexperienced in love. Thus, I ended up writing several (about 20) mediocre poems for various (about 15) women that struck my fancy, mostly classmates who very attractive and well out of my league. Now, going back to read such early attempts at poetry is rather painful, not just because they're bad, but because they're patent evidence of what a bad writer I once was. I've entirely kept this vast collection and terribly written youthful poetry to myself and it remains at the top of my list of things to destroy before I die, lest someone see them.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Laughing silently

Being able to laugh silently is a very useful skill, and I learned this skill with I was about 11. It's not how I prefer to laugh, but it's something I can muster in the necessary circumstances. It's admittedly, not a completely silent laugh, but quietly enough that only someone fairly close by could hear the quick breaths and small convulsions of laughter. The situation in which I honed this skill was in sixth grade during a fairly pointless homeroom class. The idea of homeroom is that it's sort of an administrative class: you gather a cohort of students, take attendance, tell students about any new changes and perhaps give them a chance to study or do homework for other classes. In other words, no teaching usually goes on. Homeroom at this time was particularly boring. It did help, though, that I'd made a friend in my homeroom, also named Joe. To distinguish each other he decided to call himself "Joe One" and me "One Joe," but those nicknames never really stuck. Joe and I would sit in the back of the class and trade jokes, clever quips and whatever else is prone to make an 11 year old male laugh. And we laughed a lot. Hence the need to learn to laugh silently, so that while our homeroom teacher prattled on about, whatever, we could laugh and enjoy ourselves.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Grinding Coffee

When I returned from Europe after about nine months attempting to earn money teaching English as a second language I stayed briefly with a college friend of mine named Ridg. He was living with his girlfriend Cathy, a tall, Buxom aspiring opera singer, in Baltimore. One day, while Ridg was away at work Cathy and I were at the house, she had a hankering for coffee, but all they had were whole beans and no coffee grinder. I looked through their kitchen and came across a mortar and pestle used for crushing spices and decided that I could use that to grind coffee for Cathy. I set down with a handful of beans and then started pounding them into smaller and smaller bits. I probably spent over a half hour pounding those beans, which amounted to only about enough to make about two cups of coffee. Finally, after I could barely pound anymore, the beans were ground down as much I though they needed to be. They weren't as finely ground or as uniform as the ones one gets from a proper coffee grinder but I figured they'd work fine nonetheless. We made a cup from my hand-ground beans in her coffee machine, and I must say, though I'm not much of a coffee connoisseur, the coffee tasted awful. The problem was probably that the beans were just way too coarse. So things happen sometimes.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dressing up

I didn’t really get teased that much when I was a kid. Don’t get me wrong. I did get teased. Every male got teased. But I would sort of think that I would’ve got teased a lot more when I was kid since I definitely did some odd and/or unique things when I was a kid. For example, I was actually really into dressing-up, like with ties and suits and all, and would do so for school, especially on picture day. In one of my elementary school pictures I was wearing a tie and a suit handed down from a friend of my parents. The opportunity to dress well was actually something I looked forward to. When I was a bit older, on weekend nights when my parents would go out on their own and leave me home alone, one of the things I did was go into my dad’s closet and start trying on all his suits—he had like about six Brooks Brothers suits at the time—and I would strut in front of the mirror in a suit and tie, trying on different suits with different ties and seeing how they looked on me. It was like secret vice of mine.

One time in elementary school my parents had gotten me this clip-on tie to wear for a special occasion, and I decided to wear it to school just for the heck of it, because I thought it looked awesome. I think I was eight years old. When I was walking down the playground to class at the beginning of the day, an older kid I didn’t know saw me and was probably think: “Who is this dweeb?” And so he thinks it’d be funny to grab me by the tie and pull me towards him to intimidate me, like they do in the movies. But then when he grabs my clip-on tie and pulls it towards him, the tie comes right off and his friends laugh and he stands there with this clip-on tie in his hand. At that point, I was thinking quietly to myself: “Score one for the Joe.”

Monday, March 7, 2011

Teaching English

When I was in my early 20s living in Helsinki trying to make a living teaching English as a second language, I had a British friend named Tom. He had been working in Amsterdam and was considerably more successful than me as a language teacher. He came to visit me in Helsinki for a few weeks while he was considering relocating there. One day he told me a story about a mishap in class. He'd been teaching some beginner students some very rudimentary English. One day he asked them, "What did you do this morning?" One of the students, a woman, raised her hand and answered, "This morning I had breast-fuck." He was, undoubtedly, shocked and blurted out, "What do you mean?!" And she said, "Breast-fuck. You know: toast, cereal, juice." And then he said, relieved, "Oh, you mean breakfast. That's something very different. Try not to confuse those words" Tom would later admit to me that this story hadn't actually happened to him, but actually happened to a friend of his who was teaching English in Japan. But Tom explained, "If you tell anyone that story, you have to pretend like it happened to you. It's makes a much better story if you pretend like it was you."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Better to read and tell stories

I've often told myself some experiences make much better stories than real life experiences. In other words, sometimes it's pretty horrible to go through a series of events (like say a tragic and painful romance, a harrowing adventure, a terrifying ordeal), but it makes for a damn good story in retrospect. For example, it's really nice when things work out without much effort, but the last thing you want in a story is for one of the characters to say, without irony, "That was incredibly easy! It's a good thing we didn't do that the hard way." Equally, obsessing over an unrequited love for years on end make for a good story (eg Great Expectations) but is not a good way to live. Shakespeare had Romeo say something to this effect when he said: "all these woes shall serve for sweet discourses in our time to come"(III.v.52-3). Of course, Romeo's woes didn't serve as a good story for him since he didn't make it, but for us they do. I try to use this thought as comfort in trying times. Now, the question of why it is that we love to read stories about unfortunate events, is another question.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Hillary wipes away a tear

When I was about 24, living in Santa Fe I had started befriending, then flirting with, then falling in love with a neighbor’s friend. This girl, named Hillary, was staying with friends of mine. We were part of a small bundle of casitas around a small courtyard, and I would often spend time with these neighbors, chatting, making food, watching movies. Hillary’s feelings towards me were, at best, uncertain. She was engaged to be married to a man that she ostensibly loved (the marriage ultimately lasted only a short time), but she didn’t seem completely disinterested in my affections. One particularly salient memory is a time when Hillary and my neighbors were over at my place and we were watching a movie. There was a particular sad part of the movie and Hillary started to cry, but instead of wiping away the tear with her own hand, she grabbed my hand, which was on the armrest near hers and wiped it with my hand. At the time I thought it was a tender sign of affection, but I really never understood it.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The first time I heard the word “ignore”

I remember the first time I heard the word “ignore.” I must have been about the age of five or six. I had two friends that lived around the corner from me, that went to the same school as me named Joey and Brian. My sister never really liked Joey, and wished I wasn't friends with him. On this day Joey had said something mean to Brian (I can’t remember what). When Brian responded with some complaints and insults of his own, Joey decided to walk away and he led me away with him. We would play on our own without him. As Brian yelled at us, while we walked away, Joey said, “Just ignore him.” And though I didn’t say it out loud, I was thinking to myself “what does ignore mean?”

Thursday, March 3, 2011

New Blog

I've decided to create a new blog for gathering all the small, interesting stories I have either from personal experience or from other people's accounts or from history and biography because, well, it's a lot easier to write them down than have to remember them all. I'm still young now, but my memory will surely start to go as I get older. I'm probably already losing good stories on a daily basis as we speak. I better get writing.